Saturday, March 08, 2014

C.P.E. Bach - Ambassador of the Enlightenment and Sensitive Music

Centenary anniversaries invite not only celebrations of an artist’s work but also re-assessments of their creativity. There are few 18th century composers more in need of a radical re-assessment than Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788). Although often defined as a transitional or bridge figure in classical music, CPE Bach was in fact a composer of unique talents, and an equal to two of the most famous composers of the 18th century, Haydn and Mozart, both of whom were in no small measure indebted to his ground-breaking achievements in music.

There are however several factors which have not helped CPE Bach’s cause, simply having a triple initial forename has not assisted first encounters, while a much-needed re-cataloguing of his works has in some ways added to the confusion when referencing his music. But above all else its the enormous shadow cast over him as the second eldest son of the much venerated, ‘father of western classical music’ J.S.Bach (1685-1750) which has hindered an objective appreciation of CPE Bach’s music in its own right.

The basic facts of CPE Bach’s biography consist of his graduating in Law from Leipzig University in 1731. He subsequently served as a musician at the Court of  Frederick the Great of Prussia  at Berlin. Following his godfather George Telemann’s death in 1767 he became Director of Music in Hamburg, a position he held for twenty years until his death in 1788.

CPE Bach’s life-time witnessed the dawn of the modern, secular age including the Independence of America in 1776. He himself was in the vanguard of the philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment, a cultural movement of intellectuals who emphasized reason, secularism and individualism rather than tradition. He engaged in correspondence with one one of the leading figures of the Enlightenment, the French encyclopedist Denis Diderot (1713–1784) who felt compelled to stop in Hamburg on his way back to France from St. Petersburg to visit the composer. CPE Bach's music with its aesthetic emphasis upon Empfindsamkeit or 'Sensitivity’, epitomizes the aspirations of the Enlightenment, and he lived in an era of social and political upheaval to witness the goals of the Enlightenment realized in the events of the French Revolution of 1788-89.

In 1753 CPE Bach placed himself centre-stage in European music with his treatise, Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments) which was swiftly recognised as a definitive work on keyboard technique. In this treatise he declares - ‘’A musician cannot move others if he himself is not moved,'’ and “let the fingers speak from the soul or sentience to transfer that passion onto the audience that the composer intended to stir.” In his advocacy of Empfindsamkeit or 'Sensitive style’ as expressed in his treatise and in his music, CPE Bach represents a fundamental shift in musical consciousness - departing from polite, background social music composed in service of the aristocrat and his Court or sacred music for the church, music which occasionally expresses a ‘cosmic awe’ at the Creation, as in the baroque polyphony of his father J.S.Bach’s music - in favour of the secular, reflecting the artist’s own subjective, inner world involving feeling and emotion.

C.P.E. Bach's music was first catalogued by Alfred Wotquenne in 1906 using "WQ" numbers, however in recent times his music has also been referenced by "H" numbers from a catalogue compiled by Eugene Helm (1989) which arranges the composer’s music not in chronological order, but according to genre. The advantage of the new catalogue is that immediately one gains an idea of the sheer volume of music  CPE Bach composed, and also how much in each specific genre. Helm’s catalogue which is numbered from H1-H845 reveals that compositions for solo keyboard comprise almost half of CPE Bach's entire oeuvre, works for either harpsichord or fortepiano are listed from H1 -H420. The "H" catalogue also lists over 50 concertos composed for various instruments and 19 symphonies. It is in his works for solo keyboard, symphonies, concertos for various instruments that CPE Bach’s greatest legacy survives.

Dating from the year of Mozart's birth 1756, CPE Bach’s E minor symphony (Wq. 178 or H. 653) ) is in all probability, the first ever Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) symphony composed. Perhaps inspired from frustration serving in the music-loving, but conservative-minded Court of Frederick the Great, the E minor symphony is wild and unpredictable,  its whole intent seems to be to disorientate and surprise the listener. It as suddenly turns calm in its middle movement before concluding in a lopsided and asymmetrical melody.

Joseph Haydn studied in depth the work of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and he later acknowledged him as an important influence upon his own music. It’s extremely interesting to compare this CPE Bach E minor symphony with Haydn’s own E minor Trauermusicke symphony (No. 44) dating from 1768. If Haydn can be said to be 'the father of the symphony’, then C.P.E.Bach is surely the grandfather of the symphony. Although only nineteen in number, each of CPE Bach’s symphonies holds a special place in musical history, in particular the set of six for string orchestra, which includes no. 5 in B minor (H 661) with characteristic abruptness and complex emotions, and the set of four symphonies scored for full orchestra (WQ 183) written during CPE Bach’s Hamburg years, of which the musicologist Adelaide de Place writes-

’The continuous flow of striking ideas, harmonic coups, wide dynamic range and sudden pauses to engineer distant key changes, create the impression of orchestral fantasias, yet there is an underlying unity within these symphonies that make them both challenging and satisfying.

The development of the symphony was considerably advanced in 1788, the year of CPE Bach's death with Mozart's highly-original triptych of symphonies  in E flat major, g minor and C major (nos. 39-41) but its debatable whether these symphonies were ever performed, even less likely, known of  by CPE Bach.  A closer affinity can be discerned between CPE Bach’s Fantasia in C major (Wq 61.6 or H. 291) for fortepiano dating from 1786 to that of Mozart’s own fantasias for piano ( K. 396 in c minor, K. 397 in d minor and K. 475 in c minor).  A casual hearing and juxtaposition between CPE Bach's fantasias and those of Mozart's swiftly reveals that there's little difference in either sophistication or improvisation skills between the two composers. Mozart’s high opinion of CPE Bach is reflected in his declaration, ‘He’s the father, we’re the boys. Everybody who has accomplished something has learned from him.’.

CPE Bach’s influence upon Mozart can most clearly be discerned in his concertos. In the set of six Hamburg concerto’s (WQ 43 ) for harpsichord there’s one which has been favoured in performance upon the piano. The pianist Helen Schnabel first recorded the D major (H. 472) concerto as early as 1952.  In its fluid lyricism and dynamic interplay between soloist and orchestral forces, a clear anticipation of the full range of emotional expression as achieved by Mozart in his piano concertos can clearly be heard. More recently this Concerto has also been recorded by Anastasia Injushina and the Hamburger Camerata (2013) to great effect.

In 1772 the English music historian Charles Burney (1726 –1814) visited C.P.E. Bach in Hamburg, publishing his The Present State of Music in Germany, the Netherlands, and United Provinces in the following year. Burney observed, "Hamburg is not, at present, possessed of any musical professor of great eminence, except M. Carl Philip Emanuel Bach; but he is a legion!" Charles Burney cautioned that the works of CPE Bach were ‘so uncommon, that a little habit is necessary for the enjoyment of [them]’. Burney also noted that many critics faulted CPE Bach for writing works that were ‘fantastical’ and ‘far-fetched’.

CPE Bach's genius was for Burney most evident in - "his productions for his own instruments, the clavichord, and piano forte, in which he stands unrivalled". Visiting Bach at his home, Burney noted,

 “The instant I entered [his house], M. Bach conducted me up stairs, into a large and elegant music room, furnished with pictures, drawings, and prints of more than a hundred and fifty eminent musicians: among whom, there are many Englishmen, and original portraits, in oil, of his father and grandfather".

C.P.E. Bach's collection was the first of its kind in Germany and included almost 400 portraits.  It included images of the Bach family and contemporary composers and singers, as well as scientists, poets, historical musicians, mythological figures and philosophers, including a portrait of Sir Thomas Browne.

Burney continues - “After I had looked at these, M. Bach was so obliging as to sit down to his Silbermann clavichord, and favourite instrument, upon which he played three or four of his choicest and most difficult compositions, with the delicacy, precision, and spirit, for which he is so justly celebrated among his countrymen.......Bach played, with little intermission, till near eleven o'clock at night. During this time, he grew so animated and possessed, that he not only played, but looked like one inspired, His eyes were fixed, his under lip fell, and drops of effervescence distilled from his countenance. He said, if he were to be set to work frequently, in this manner, he should grow young again."

"In the pathetic and slow movements, whenever he had a long note to express, he absolutely contrived to produce, from his instrument, a cry of sorrow and complaint, such as can only be effected upon the clavichord, and perhaps by himself". The experience for Burney - confirmed that Bach was, "one of the greatest composers that ever existed, for keyed instruments".

Today it is repeatedly asked - How did we, in the 20th century, lose CPE Bach as the link between the Baroque and the Romantic musical mind ?  Charles Burney was among the earliest music critics to recognise CPE Bach's genius declaring-

‘His flights are not the wild ravings of ignorance or madness, but the effusions of cultivated genius. His pieces … will be found, upon a close examination, to be so rich in invention, taste, and learning, that … each line of them, if wire-drawn, would furnish more new ideas than can be discovered in a whole page of many other compositions.

It was not however until the 1980's that serious attention, performance and recording of CPE Bach's music occurred. With a revival of interest in authentic music-making on instruments of the period, CPE Bach's music has gathered a growing interest and in the best of his music, often in a minor key, there is a turbulence and joy, a veritas true to life itself with its fusion of some uncertainty but also with some structure. According to the musicologist Leta Miler writing in 2010-

‘CPE Bach’s approach to musical expressiveness found voice in frequent mood changes, wide melodic leaps, abundant rests and ‘sighing’ motifs, irregular phrase structures, the juxtaposition of contrasting rhythmic figures, deceptive cadences, and dramatic, rhetorical harmonic interjections. Bach became particularly renowned for his ability to improvise fantasias—seemingly free-form, stream-of-consciousness flights of fancy characterized by unmeasured rhythm and distant harmonic excursions.... His compositions mark one of the first—and among the most inspired—repudiations of the Baroque aesthetic, in which a single unified mood dominates each movement’.

Far more than a mere transitional of bridge figure in the history of music, CPE Bach was a gifted and highly original composer in his own right. Without his pioneering aesthetic, in particular in the genres of the symphony and the concerto, neither Haydn’s development of the symphony, nor the fluid lyricism and passion of Mozart’s piano concertos would have been achievable. Hopefully in 2014, the tercentenary of CPE Bach’s birth, a greater awareness and appreciation of this much neglected composer's music will grow and blossom.


* C.P.E. Bach Edition - Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (10 Disc Box-set) (Jan 27 2014)
* C.P.E. Bach - String Symphonies Wq.182 - English Consort/Pinnock -Archive 1980
* 4 Symphonies Wq.183 + 3 Cello concertos (2 Discs)  Age of Enlightenment/Leonhardt-Virgin 1990
* Symphonies & Concertos -Akademie for Alte Musik Berlin -Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 2001
* Bach family Piano concertos Anastasia Injushina/ Hamburger Camerata - Virgin 2013
* Piano concerto D minor Wq.22  Michael Rische Rainer Maria Klass  Leipzig Chamber Orchestra 2011
* C. P. E. Bach: The Keyboard Concertos (2 discs) Andreas Staier, Freiburger Barockorchester / Müllejans  Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 2011
* C.P.E. Bach - Harpsichord Concertos  (2 Discs)  Asperen/Melante Amsterdam - EMI 1983
* C.P.E. Bach -Keyboard sonatas Francois Chaplin Pf. Naxos 1996
* C.P.E.Bach - Orgel Konzert - Kammerorchester CPE Bach Roland Munch -Capriccio 1987
* C.P.E.Bach - Die Orgel Sonaten -Roland Munch - Christophorus 1983
* C.P.E. Bach Cantatas -Rheinische Kantorei/Max   Brilliant (Jan 27 2014)

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Merivel: A Man of his Time

Returning some twenty plus years from  Restoration (1989) novelist Rose Tremain continues her tale of Sir Robert Merivel's life with an equally spellbinding sequel,  Merivel: A Man of his Time (2013).

Set primarily in 17th century Norfolk, with excursions to the glamour of the Court of Versailles and the French Alps,  the cares of the world now crowd around both King Charles II and his friend, the courtier and reluctant physician, Sir Robert Merivel, who is once more resident at the Norfolk manor of Bidnold.  Merivel's daughter Margaret, is now a young woman and securing her future is a primary concern of her at turns, frivolous and pleasure-seeking, self-analytical and serious-minded father. When King Charles leaves London and unexpectedly visits the Norfolk manor of Bidnold, consequences develop for both Sir Robert and his daughter Margaret.

Robert Merivel is at times a kind of 17th century Bertie Wooster figure whose primary preoccupations are fine food and wine and pleasure in general. Through the discovery under his mattress of  'the wedge' a long forgotten and crumbling autobiography, Merivel recounts past events in which he lived a life of pleasure before falling from grace with King Charles II. Eventually Merivel restores himself in the eyes of his royal friend through application of his medical skills in service to humanity in the crucible of horrors, the Plague and Great Fire of London.

There's almost an element of Fawlty Towers farce in some of the antics engaged upon by the two longest serving servants of Sir Robert's Bignold Manor, the temperamental and wall-eyed cook, Cattlebury and the doddery but loyal and devoted butler Will Gates, However, the dominant tone throughout Merivel is one of a muted valedictory farewell to life and its pleasures. Prone to melancholy and inexplicable weeping at the beauty of life, Sir Robert now in his maturity, muses upon life’s sadness, not only discovering he enjoys pleasures such as wine, food and sex less, but also reconciling himself to life’s inevitabilities, growing older, illness, and reconciling oneself to seeing those one loves departing from life. Loving life, often directionless, and paying heavily for the consequences of his follies, Robert Merivel is not without a serious and self-analytical side to his complex nature.

'And then I thought how Life itself is the greatest Theft of Time, and how all we can do is to watch as the days and months and years slip away from us and make off into the Darkness'.

Not wanting to post spoilers, suffice to say events in Merivel include Sir Robert's acquiring of a bear named Clarendon who has an influence upon him when later writing a philosophical treatise on whether or not animals possess souls, and Merivel's finding true love for the first time in the unhappily married Frenchwoman Louise, a serious student of the new science of chemistry.

With its medical theme (Merivel possesses a set of surgical instruments, a gift from King Charles II with the words, Merivel, Do not Sleep inscribed upon them) its location of Norfolk, and seventeenth century setting, Rose Tremain, in my humble view, may have let slip an opportunity to join literary figures such as Virginia Woolf, E.M.Forster, Jorge Luis Borges and W.G. Sebald, to express admiration, albeit through a casual nod, to one of the foremost literary figures of seventeenth century England, the Norwich-based physician Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82).

Several other leading figures of seventeenth century intellectual history are however alluded to in Merivel. Sir Robert fondly recalls his attending lectures by the famous anatomist Fabrius with rowdy German students and his close friend, the austere Quaker John Pearce cherishs a book by William Harvey. Self-analysis, not unlike that of the popular essayist Montaigne runs through Merivel's narrative. Although its regrettable that Sir Robert doesn't allude to either Browne's best-selling Religio Medici or his vanguard promotion of the English scientific revolution, Pseudodoxia Epidemica one likes to imagine these titles were once in the library of Merivel's Norfolk manor.

It has been said that "the single best adjective to describe Western Civilization at the opening of the seventeenth century was the word “Christian.” By the century’s end the single word that rightly characterized the West was “scientific.” Merivel attributes his own loss of religious Faith from the death of his parents through house-fire. Increasingly, as his life progresses, he places greater faith in his surgical instruments than in prayer when facing matters of life and death. The one and only time Merivel does speak with any semblance of religious conviction occurs in Restoration when addressing his Quaker fellow-workers at an asylum for the insane, when he advocates on the healing properties of music upon the minds of its inmates.

Digressing slightly, no small mention of Opium occurs in Merivel. First introduced into western medicine by Paracelsus as a pain-killer and anaesthetic, by the seventeenth century Thomas Sydenham (1624-89) the ‘father of English medicine' declared, "Among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium". Throughout the seventeenth century opium became increasingly used in medicine. Sir Robert when performing a surgical operation on a cancer patient resorts to using the drug. In despondent mood, he also attempts to escape his miseries by repeatedly sending his servant to a Norwich apothecary for its purchase.

Opium is invariably associated with Oblivion in the densely-packed symbolism of Browne's Urn-Burial. A succinct and perceptive observation of its psychological effects in a typical fusion of philosophical stoicism, medical imagery and empirical observation can be found in the Discourse -

'There is no antidote against the Opium of Time, which temporally considereth all things'.

Browne’s commonplace notebooks includes observations upon dosage and effects of opium, while a fuller knowledge of the drug and even its recreational usage with sex can be found in Pseudodoxia Epidemica -

 '.....since Poppy hath obtained the Epithet of fruitful, and that fertility was Hieroglyphically described by Venus with an head of Poppy in her hand; the reason hereof was the multitude of seed within it self, and no such multiplying in human generation. And lastly, whereas they may seem to have this quality, since Opium it self is conceived to extimulate unto venery, and for that intent is sometimes used by Turks, Persians, and most oriental Nations; although Winclerus doth seem to favour the conceit, yet Amatus Lustanus, and Rodericus a Castro are against it; Garcias ab Horto refutes it from experiment; and they speak probably who affirm the intent and effect of eating Opium, is not so much to invigorate themselves in coition, as to prolong the Act, and spin out the motions of carnality'.

Its even been proposed that one reason why Browne’s prose reads unlike any other may have been due to an empirical familiarity with opium. During the decade of the Protectorate of Cromwell and the highly uncertain days which engendered an Endzeit Psychosis upon much of English society, it may have been tempting for Royalist supporters such as Browne to reach into the medicine cabinet.  Its also a curious coincidence that two of the leading figures of English Romanticism, the essayist De Quincey and the poet Coleridge, both of whom were great admirers of Browne’s baroque and labyrinthine literary style were also notorious for their recreational usage of opium.

Sir Thomas Browne’s literary diptych Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus - each of which consists of five chapters, are respectively- a philosophical meditation upon a descending into darkness and death and a coming into light and life. They are intriguingly echoed in theme to the opening chapter of Restoration in which Merivel considers five differing ways his story can be said to begin, while the opening of Merivel-A Man of his Time has Sir Robert meditating upon five differing possibilities of how his life may leave the world.

Like Restoration, the first-person narrative throughout Merivel is fluid and utterly engaging. Rose Tremain has created a character who will be well-loved with a familiarity of his life and times. I won't be alone in discovering myself to identify with Sir Robert's all-too-human faults or having an empathy with him, reinforced in my case by Merivel's birthday falling on the 27th of January, mine also. Merivel muses upon the Zodiac sign of Aquarius thus -

'I was born under the constellation of Aquarius, the eleventh sign of the Zodiac, the sign of the water-butler, that humble but indispensable slave who fetches from wells and rivers the elements so vital to the human tissue. I imagine this Aquarius as an old, stooped man, his spine warped by the weight of a wooden yoke from which hang a pair of briming pails. On he staggers, day after day, year after year, with his precious burden, but as his strength is waning, he totters and stumbles and, as he moves through time, more and more water is spilled, thereby engendering in the bellies of the ancient gods an irritation stronger than thirst'.

I cannot recommend this novel enough, but to get the most out of Merivel its best to read the early life of Sir Robert Merivel in Rose Tremain’s Restoration first.

The novel Restoration was made into a film in 1995 with the one-time Hollywood bad-boy Robert Downey Jr. acting to the Manor born the role of Sir Robert Merivel (top and bottom photo). Rose Tremain however said of the film that while it had a beautiful texture to it she was disappointed with the film's storytelling. She also said that the film had no logic and so fails to move the audience. Her disappointment led her to take up scriptwriting. One can’t help thinking a more sensitive filming of the novel could have been made by a British direction and production, perhaps of the calibre of Merchant and Ivory. Rose Tremain herself has recently been appointed Chancellor of the University of East Anglia. She was among the University's earliest students in the 60's, reading English literature.

Finally, and I may be among the first to notice this - Sir Robert Merivel resides at the fictitiously named Bidnold Manor, he occasionally romps in the bed of a Lady Bathurst and has a bear named Clarendon. Those familiar with the geography of the so-called ‘golden Triangle' area of Norwich will know that near to Bignold school and adjacent to each other there is a Clarendon and a Bathurst road.

See Also

Rose Tremain

Restoration (novel)

Restoration (1995 film)

Monday, February 17, 2014

Ice Dance Winter Olympics Sochi 2014

Neatly linking with one of my earliest blog-posts, way back in March 2010 this picture of Meryl Davis and Charlie White ice-skating in the Free Dance at the Winter Olympics 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

All three medallist pairs in the Final of the Free Dance at Sochi Winter Olympics are world-class ice-skaters, brilliantly uniting athleticism, technique and artistry in near flawless performances.

Going one better than in the Winter Olympics in 2010, today Davis and White (pictured above) won the gold Medal in the Free Dance, skating to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov's exotic symphonic tone-poem, 'Scheherazade'.

Link to Guardian report

Monday, January 13, 2014

Mercurius and Saturnus (2)

The city of Norwich is the home to over thirty medieval churches, more than other city north of the Alps. Norwich was once a thriving centre of European trade and commerce, as well as a place of significant religious and cultural importance in European history throughout the Medieval and Renaissance era; it's not too remarkable therefore to discover in art-work such as funerary sculpture housed within one of the city's thirty-odd surviving medieval churches, evidence of esoteric symbolism.

Located at Saint Andrew's, in the south-east corner of the second largest of Norwich's medieval churches, there's a superb example of how symbolism which originated from pre-Christian and esoteric sources, occasionally infiltrated Christian iconography. Not unlike the monumental funerary sculpture in the adjacent parish, the church of Saint John the Baptist, the Suckling monument, also from the early 17th century, the decorative motives of child and old man (puer et senex) can be discerned.

During the Renaissance the Greek god Kronos, who later became identified with the Roman god of Saturn, was frequently depicted wielding a harvesting scythe as symbolic of "Father Time". With his attributes of hour-glass, scythe and skull, the right-hand decorative figurine on the Suckling monument clearly alludes to Time and mortality. Just like the Layer monument where an aged, grey-bearded Saturnus figure is also accompanied by a putto figure who is playing with cup and bubble, his mythological counterpart and polar opposite, the elusive 'deity' of alchemy, the trickster figure, Mercurius. The remnants of the double symbol of  puer et senex survive in modern-day cartoon depictions of the Old Year greeting the New Year in.

The juxtaposition of youth and age in religious symbolism far pre-dates Christianity. The seminal scholar of comparative religion and alchemy C.G.Jung (1875-1961) confirms the close relationship of the double symbol Mercurius and Saturnus in esoteric symbolism. On more than one occasion he succinctly asserts in his collected writings-

 'Graybeard and boy belong together. Together they play a considerable role in alchemy as symbols of Mercurius'. - CW 9 i :396

Monument of Sir Robert Suckling (1520-89) at the church of Saint Andrew's, Norwich.

Click on images to enlarge
See also - Mercurius and Saturnus
More on the Suckling Monument

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas 2013

Wishing all visitors and readers of the Aquarium of Vulcan blog a very merry Xmas and a peaceful New Year.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Martinu Anniversary 2013

Celebrating the 123rd birthday of the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (born December 8th 1890 -1959)  today.

The two words the seminal French music-teacher Nadia Boulanger used to describe Martinu's music were "brilliance" and "purity". Also in her letter to Michael Henderson, Boulanger said of Martinu’s music: "It can win the most sophisticated and the most simple listener". For myself the exciting rhythms, unique orchestral colouring, experimental harmonies, along with its optimism and sheer joie de vivre, are each attractive elements of Martinu's music.

Bohuslav Martinu was a prolific composer who wrote original music in every genre and who varied his style several times in his life-time. Its useful to divide Martinu's creativity into three eras; the first, his musical apprenticeship to early maturity from 1923 - 1940 while resident in Paris, saw the composer experiment with a number of styles to settle into what may be termed Neo-Classicism, with the music of Stravinsky as its exemplar.

The second phase of Martinu's life, from 1941-1952 while resident in America, coincides with his maturity, in which much of his finest chamber music as well as five of his six symphonies were composed. Martinu's symphonies are all impressive pieces which will surely be better known and loved in the near future for their expressive depth and beauty of invention, each of the last three has an important place in 20th century music.

In his last years, from 1953 until his death in 1959 while resident in Europe, Martinu wrote his fourth and fifth piano concerto's and developed a style loosely termed Neo-Impressionist, exemplified by the large-scale orchestral triptychs of The Frescoes of Piero Francesco (1955) The Parables and Estampes (1958).

Dating from 1935, Martinu's Harpsichord concerto is one of the great works of his Neo-Classical phase.

New York 1941 -1953

In November 1941, Serge Koussevitsky conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Martinů’s Concerto Grosso (1937). Its success transformed Martinů into a star overnight and paved the way in January 1942 for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra  to perform a programme entitled, "The Czechoslovak Immortals of Symphonic Music", which included the masterpieces of Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček and Martinů. 

During his residence in America Martinů wrote some of his finest chamber music including Five Madrigal Stanzas for violin and piano (H. 297 New York 1943) which he dedicated to Albert Einstein, professor - and later Martinů’s colleague - at Princeton University. There’s the lovely anecdote which there is no way of now verifying, which tells how Martinů, when asking his amateur musician friend how the rehearsing of his composition had went, Einstein hesitated before replying, "Relatively well".

The two major personal events which coloured Martinu's artistic sensibility and which are strongly antithetical to each other, are firstly, his childhood in Policka, where, living in accommodation in the tower of the church of Saint Jacob's, he enjoyed hearing the sounds of the bells, choir and organ of the church, having a 'God's Eye' view of Nature in the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands from the heights of the church tower. The second biographical event, of crucial significance in understanding Martinu's later creativity, is his headlong fall from a balcony, mistaking a poorly-lit mezzanine floor for a staircase. Martinu fractured his skull and suffered dizziness, headaches, tinnitus and hearing loss for many months after this accident in 1946. Its not improbable that symptoms from this accident which Martinu experienced included what is now known as 'Alice in Wonderland' syndrome, in which the sufferer experiences distorted perspective, odd sensations and even hallucinations. An 'Alice in Wonderland' perspective features strongly in Martinu's 6th symphony.

Martinů began composing his sixth symphony known as Fantasies symphonique in 1951 in New York but did not complete it until 1953 in Paris. Of his sixth symphony Martinu himself described it as a, "departure from symmetry in the direction of fantasy" music takes on its form freely and flows without restraint, following its own motion. An almost undetectable slowing or hastening suddenly gives life to the melody'. There's a strong allusion to Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique not only in its title, but in its fantastic element also.

The  music-critic Robert Layton stated of the sixth symphony -

'the detail in the musical landscape (of) this work unfolds is richer in colouring and immediate in impact. At times the Fantasies symphoniques has the visionary quality, the enhanced awareness of colour, the vivid contrasts and more brilliant hues that are said to come from taking mescaline : certainly there is a proliferation of textures, exotic foliage and vibrant pulsating sounds that have no parallel in the earlier symphonies. ...the opening of the second movement unleashes an extraordinarily imaginative, insect-like teeming activity'.[2]

Europe 1953 - 1959

From leaving America in 1953 and settling in Europe, Martinu developed a rich, detailed orchestral palette which may be described as Neo-Impressionist in style. In his correspondence Martinu stated of his large-scale orchestral triptych The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca H.376 (1955) - "It is far from descriptive, naturally, but it expresses impressions  Les Fresques had arisen in me in the Arezzo church. The first movement depicts this well known group of women with the Queen of Sheba; the second is Constantine's Dream; while the third is the overall impression Les Fresques gave me. The composition is rather impressionistic in its character".

Sadly, due to International politics Martinu was unable to return home and wrote to his patron Paul Sacher -  "But I don't see my future in rosy colours; I'm beginning to fear that I will never find peace and will not be able to return to Prague, which would be the best solution for me." [3]  In another letter to his friend Frank Rybka, he wrote - "Explain to them at home that if I appeared there, great propaganda would be made from it--that I approve of the regime and so forth."  [4]

Martinu wrote several concertante works with different combinations of instruments. His sharp ear for instrumental timbre resulted in some fine chamber music, notably his late work of 1959 for nine instruments originally entitled Le Fetes Nocturnes.

Michael Beckermann defined the characteristics of Martinu's musical language well when stating -  'There is no single Martinu sound, but a collection of sub-dialects. Martinu’s key sound is the presence of lyrical moments syncopated in a rather special way, usually surrounded by passages meant to suggest an opposing state. He employs several “fake” twentieth-century styles (Neo-Poulenc, Neo-Stravinsky, Neo-Ravel) and some all-purpose dissonance, but his core style is the syncopated folk stylization. That’s what he believes in, if you will. He doesn't believe in most of the dissonance - its there to set off the jewels......His “uniqueness” lies in two areas: first, a sonic one. Martinu discovered/created a particular sound world which is his alone. It itself seems bipartite. There is a Martinu “sound” of the syncopated folk stylization, and a “process” whereby this sound is contrasted with other, usually dissonant, sound worlds. The second area of Martinu’s uniqueness involves his creation of a pastoral world, which is the protected space of nation, memory, childhood. This appears in almost every work of his'. [1]

In Michael Beckermann's view, ' Martinu is one of the great cartographers, mapping a certain aspect of the human imagination. In my view, the experience in question is that place in the imagination that causes time to stand still and allows us to imagine paradise. This is, of course, elusive, and in Martinu’s compositions it is always being lost and found. ......He’s quite simply plugged into one of the great tendencies of human consciousness: the search for an unattainable point of rest in our travails, our suffering, our journey. In order to do this, he first had to cultivate and master the process of forward motion in music, and he is  almost unique in the many ways he can create a sense of flow. Then he had to figure out how to get from one state to another, and I think that alone is worth serious study. The symphony no. 6 is filled with such moments. No composer, not even Beethoven, explored this world of idyllic space more fully.........He is exploring a realm of the human spirit which most composers are afraid to look at....Martinu rarely stays in these idyllic spaces he creates. Much of the real drama of a piece consists of approaches to a “state of grace” and then departing from it, often suddenly. Sometimes there is only a fragment of it, other times it is almost the entire piece, but its never alone.

The Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek assessed Martinu's music thus -  "I think the richness of styles in Martinů's work is due to his inextinguishable thirst for novelty and inspiration, and his ability to extract from many sources the right amount of elements into his own musical language. Martinů is also probably the most prolific Czech composer and, of course, you can find different levels of genius among them. But at his best, he is irresistibly original, cosmopolitan and Czech in one stroke."

*   *   *

[1] Martinu's Mysterious Accident - 14 Essays in honour of Michael Henderson
[2] The Symphony 2: Elgar to the Present Day editor Robert Simpson pub. Penguin 1967 chapter 30 - Martinů  and the Czech tradition by Robert Layton.
[3] Correspondence dated 4th July 1957
[4] Correspondence dated 27th July 1957

Essay in memory of Paul Grenville (1956 - 2013)

Asked for his opinion of Martinu's music Paul simply said, "its too busy". When questioned, "Did you say, dizzy ?" he swiftly replied, "that as well !"  He continued to say he liked Bruckner, to which I offered to lend him a recording of Bruckner's 8th symphony, the last ever conducted by Karajan, but tragic events intervened. 

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party

Last night I re-read in one sitting Graham Greene's novella Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party (1980). One of the greatest of 20th century English novelists, Greene's novels contain acute and sometimes controversial observations upon the human condition. In his last ever novel, Graham Greene (1904 -1991) explores the nature of greed, in particular the greed of the rich. 

The novella (140 pp) is narrated from the perspective of the endearing character of Alfred Jones, a translator for a chocolate factory in Geneva. When Alfred meets Anna-Luise, the estranged daughter of the fabulously wealthy Doctor Fischer, he becomes her lover. Anne's father has acquired his enormous wealth through the invention of Dentophil Bouquet, a toothpaste which ironically Alfred notes, is antithetical to the effects of eating too much chocolate. Alfred is invited to attend one of Dr Fischer's notorious parties at which extraordinarily valuable presents are given to guests on sufferance of humiliation. At the first party which Alfred attends cold porridge is served to his sycophantic guests. The sadistic nature of Dr Fischer ensures his guests are well aware of his rules, one must endure considerable humiliation from him in order to receive an expensive gift. Without wanting to post spoilers to what is a short story which packs a punch, the denouement of the novel involves a variant of Russian roulette, in which the ultimate test of human greed is made. 

Throughout his novella Greene makes several noteworthy statements upon the human condition, he suggests, through the voice-piece of Alfred, that the human soul is like an embryo which develops from suffering. Because children and animals do not suffer except for themselves, Alfred proposes they do not have souls. A soul, states Alfred, requires a private life. 'If you have a soul you cannot be satisfied', he asserts. When asked by Anna-Luise whether her father, Dr. Fischer has a soul, Alfred replies, 'He has a soul alright, but I think it may be a damned one'. Alfred also notes that silence can only be enjoyed by those not experiencing unhappiness. 

But its the subject of greed, and by extension, its poisonous relationship to the soul, which is central to Greene's novella, especially the rapacious greed of the rich. Published at the onset of decades of sanctioned greed (1980) Doctor Fischer, not unlike certain members of the present-day British government, justifies his greed and contempt for humanity in general, as a healthy and natural instinct. Having little or no empathy or understanding of the suffering of others, once more not unlike the legislative policies of the present-day British government, Doctor Fischer is quite happy to feed his greed at the expense of others.

Often closely allied to cruelty, greed inevitably knows no morality and often quite mercilessly exploits the vulnerability of others. Its estimated that the wealth of the very richest in society has actually increased since the world recession of 2008 began.  Present-day economic policies in the USA and GB continues to increase the wealth of the very richest 1% of society at the expense of the poor, quite literally robbing from the poor in order to make the rich even wealthier. The madness of greed, as Greene masterly depicts in his novella, has neither shame or social conscience.  

Although it is purely advertising blurb, on this occasion I'm inclined to agree with The Times literary critic who's quoted stating on the back-cover of the Penguin edition of Greene's novella - 'Manages to say more about love, hate, happiness, grief, immortality, greed and the disgusting rich than most contemporary  English novels three times the length'.

Incidentally, and somewhat surprisingly, although Graham Greene's novella its set in Geneva, there's no mention of the famous landmark of the Swiss city, namely the Jet d' eau, the fountain which spouts water some 140 metres into the air (photo above). The setting of Geneva is however highly appropriate for the novella's theme of greed. Well-known as a city of great wealth, Geneva is listed as one of the most expensive cities in the world, as I personally discovered when visiting the Swiss city one summer and winter last century. I also vaguely remember watching a 1985 TV adaptation of Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party with James Mason in his last ever acting role as Doctor Fischer, Alan Bates as Alfred and Greta Scacchi as Anna-Luise.