Showing posts with label Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Show all posts

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Roar of the cannon

Long read ahead. Get a cuppa.



The other day I went to Pembrokeshire to do a Ghost Variations concert with Viv and Dave, and came back to discover that an intriguing Twitter discussion had been taking place about what's now known as 'the canon': aka standard concert repertoire. I'd missed the chat, so have been mulling over some of the points involving the music we hear in our concert halls, the notion of greatness, the value judgments on what is worth hearing and what is not, the judgments people pass on one another over having the "wrong" personal taste in music, and how we can change these matters effectively to make the concert world more inclusive.

One of the nicer things about reaching middle age is that one can develop a healthy perspective on change. It may look as if "we" worship great composers as deities (I'm not convinced we do, actually), that great music that is performed a lot is an immovable mountain range. As if nothing can invade those mountains if it is not perceived to be as good as the 'Hammerklavier' et al, and as if it's got that way because people in charge are determined to keep out anyone who is not a dead white male. But it ain't necessarily so. It's not immovable. It's not impossible to change things. It's quite doable, actually - we just have to wake up and do it.

If I look back on the musical world of my teens and student days, the "canon" has changed - sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse - and it is all to do with changing attitudes, outlooks that morph into different states according to the world around us. Here are a few things that were definitely going on in the early 1980s when I was a teenage piano student and heading for Cambridge.

At the piano we faced paradoxes. Anything that was not "pure" was out. Transcriptions? Heaven help us! The only person I remember getting away with a Liszt transcription at the Royal Festival Hall was Daniel Barenboim, who played the 'Liebestod' as an encore sometime in the late 1970s. I tried to be suitably aghast that a great artist had devoted time to practising such a horror, until my piano teacher, who knew him, gently told me that probably he hadn't: being Barenboim, he could just look at it and know it. The point here was that I was about 13 and what the heck did I know? Nothing. I was just parroting attitudes I'd been absorbing by osmosis from people around me and, probably, Radio 3, which was on in the house from morning til night. Yet remove transcriptions, remove Liszt except the B minor Sonata which was a Serious Work In Sonata Form, and you lose a great biteful of the 19th century.

Meanwhile, learning Bach was vital. Bach holds the core of the technique a pianist needs - physical and mental - to play anything. But back then you weren't allowed to perform it. If you did, you were playing it on the Wrong Instrument. The "authenticists" would string you up by your guts if you weren't careful.

As for contemporary music - a few doughty souls played some, but thereby hung a whole sackful of problems. You could tackle Boulez, but it might take you ten years to learn the Second Sonata, or there was Stockhausen and Cage, but they were a little bit scary too, and chances were that your teachers wouldn't know what to do with them, let alone put stones and stuff inside the piano to "prepare" it, so they probably wouldn't set them; or you could play the Messiaen Vingt Regards or the bird pieces, but they just weren't enormously trendy. I learned one of the Vingt Regards, as it happens, for my BMus recital - we had to prepare a full-length programme and the examiners would ask for half of it about a week before. From my list they chose Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy. Leaving behind Bach (of course), Schumann, Fauré and the most challenging thing I'd ever learned in my life, the Messiaen 'Premier communion de la Vierge'. Ligeti hadn't yet written his Etudes, not Philip Glass his, and I had a friend who wanted to do her thesis on Steve Reich and had to fight the faculty for the right to do so. It's so long ago that I can't remember whether or not she won.



Those were the days in which the arrogant public-schoolboy first-years would stride around the faculty declaring "Prokofiev's rubbish" before photocopying their nether equipment (this was before mobile phones), and if you dared to think Rachmaninoff was any good you'd be laughed out of town (another problem back in the piano studio in London). You'd also be laughed out of town if you preferred Pablo Casals to Nikolaus Harnoncourt, or if you were a woman and you wanted to compose music. Oh yes indeed.

And historical inevitability determined that if you did want to compose music, you could only write serialism - or, once again, you'd be laughed out of town. Historical inevitability had a lot to answer for.

What everyone forgot about historical inevitability was that time moves forward. It only ever moves forward. It does not and cannot move backwards, however much certain groups would like it to, and neither does it stand still. The historical inevitability of historical inevitability is that historical inevitability as a concept was bound to become obsolete.

Things change. But they only change when we change them.

One thing that changed because people changed it was the nature of orchestral programming - and not always for the better. A large swathe of music that used to appear regularly in concert programmes has vanished. When did you last hear Mozart's Symphony No.29 in an orchestral concert? Haydn's No.102? Schumann's Second, Beethoven's First, Schubert's Third, a Bach Suite? There is a vast wealth of repertoire that is assumed to be in the "canon" - being by dead white men - that is of sterling quality but is hardly ever played because thinking has changed. Somehow the notion has got a grip on us that this music has to be played by only period-instrument specialists. It's one way to hear them, sure. But how did it ever become the only way?

It's become a problem, because it's pushed that repertoire into a ghetto, where it's in danger of gradually disappearing from view altogether. Now it needs to be brought out and given a good scrub-down for the 21st century. It may take Simon Rattle himself to change this and bring these fabulous pieces back into the concert hall where they belong. I once asked for a piano score of The Magic Flute for my birthday so that I could play it myself - I'd given up hope of ever hearing a performance of it again that was listenable. But I recently watched on the Digital Concert Hall Rattle's concert of the last three Mozart symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic and it was heaven. Now hope springs eternal.



There's nothing wrong with playing Mozart, Haydn, Schubert etc on original instruments, of course. It's an admirable thing to do, fascinating and educational at best. But it should never have happened at the expense of playing them on anything else. Why not? Because the audience misses out. Because the larger audiences plod dutifully to yet more Mahler, yet more Shostakovich, another anniversary of X, Y or Z, and they no longer know Schubert 3. Authenticity, as I recently commented in my 'Hammerklavier' piece, is in the soul. No amount of original instruments will help you if that isn't the case. And if it is, then the instrument doesn't really matter.

Today playing Bach's Goldberg Variations is a badge of honour for any pianist. Rachmaninoff is adored the world over, as he always was, but he is also appreciated as a composer of splendid technique. Liszt transcriptions pop up regularly. And nobody I run into these days could possibly consider Prokofiev rubbish, because it patently isn't. How had people ended up thinking that way? They'd been taught to. They're trying to please parents, teachers, peer groups, etc, often by trotting out opinion that they don't even realise is "received".



Change happens because people make it happen. Musicians make it happen, by having the courage of their convictions. In the case of the period-instrument movement, and the Women Can't Compose people, this did, I'm afraid, involve in the 1980s a certain amount of bullying, which is what I consider was done to me and my friends in the Cambridge music faculty in one way or another. But out in the wider world, it wasn't necessarily so. A small handful of pianists went right on playing Bach on the piano and simply ignored the critics and the handwringing. They have won. The beneficiaries are the audience and the next generation. If you've missed Beatrice Rana playing the Goldberg Variations, don't miss it any longer - you're denying yourself a whopper of a treat.

More changes. When I did my dissertation in 1987 almost nobody had heard of Korngold except my supervisor, Dr Puffett, who had a brain the size of both the Americas, and the person who introduced me to Korngold's music, Eric Wen, who did too. Today Die tote Stadt is becoming standard opera repertoire almost everywhere except Britain. And the Violin Concerto is much played because violinists hear it, love it and want to play it.

Likewise, nobody had heard of Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Hans Gál, Miklos Rozsa, Mieczyslaw Weinberg and many more. A whole generation of composers that was murdered or driven into exile by the Nazis. Devoted musicians and researchers have thrown their energy and resources into resuscitating this music and those voices are now starting to be heard in earnest. Recognising that some who turned to film music did so not out of choice but necessity, to save their own and their families' lives, has been an important part of this, because having escaped racial persecution, those exiles soon found their work buried alive because they were writing The Wrong Things. Film music? Gasp! Insupportable!! Oh please. Otherwise they'd be dead. Did anybody bother to notice?




The current wave of composers-buried-alive to emerge are women. Not only those writing today, but those appearing out of history. Francesca Caccini. Fanny Mendelssohn. Pauline Viardot. Lili Boulanger. Rebecca Clarke. Louise Farrenc - and these are the better-known names. Indeed, just the other day, I heard someone talking about Farrenc with the remark "Of course, she's known...", which was a startling but fantastic piece of news to me. But how many of us have heard the music of Grace Williams? How much do you know by Elizabeth Maconchy? Get out and hear some - it is simply wonderful. Just think about it: why should we have to go to Mahler 2 yet again, listening through the angst for new nuances, when we could be discovering all of this? People are making change happen - people like the Southbank Centre, like Radio 3, like Bangor University (the conference in September was terrific and full of all-but-unknown musical marvels). And the music will win through because it is good. And it will stay with us, with people wondering "Where has this been all my life?"



What about the issue of racial diversity? There is nothing, but nothing, to stop great violinists from learning the concerto by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the African-British composer who worked himself into an early grave in Croydon in 1912. It's an absolute beauty. Philippe Graffin recorded it ten years ago, in Johannesburg. Tasmin Little has recorded it. Others have too. It needn't be a rarity. If you don't think it's as good as the Bruch, fine, but so what? That doesn't mean we wouldn't enjoy it. And you might get a surprise. You might find that actually it is as good as the Bruch. You just didn't expect it to be.




Meanwhile, heard anything by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges? Tremendous stuff. Influenced Mozart. Today Errollyn Wallen is one of the finest composers in Britain and her music should be totally mainstream. These are just the three most obvious names - imagine the amount of music out there waiting to be played, heard and enjoyed. And this, too, is starting to change - but only because people woke up and did something about it. Chi-chi Nwanoku has created the Chineke! orchestra and Chineke for Change foundation. The Kanneh-Mason family has captured the hearts of British music-lovers - don't miss cellist Sheku's debut album, which is coming out this month.

And perhaps the thing to question is not the "greatness" of the music of "dead white men" - nobody is going to take Beethoven away from me, thanks very much - but to remember to look at things in context, with healthy perspective, with curiosity and an open mind, without blinkers. And not to remove that music, but to add to it. Not to say "No, but..." but "Yes, and...". Not to regard long-established "greatness" as a prerequisite for exploring music - I mean, Beethoven's early piano sonatas are great music, but they're almost never played in concert because people assume the late ones are greater (when did you last hear Op.31 No.3? It's amazing!).

The whole issue of expectation, of music competitions, of ambitious teachers, of commercial power, all these things have a big role to play in what becomes standard repertoire, what promoters think they can sell. That needs a piece to itself. Everything is connected, though - every level of what makes the musical world turn has a profound effect on every other level...

So the "canon" is not an immovable feast. But it does take some effort to shift it. Things can and do change, when there's the will for it. What happens now will be change for our own time. In 20 years things may look very different, and they'll be changing again, assuming humanity still exists.

Thanks very much and have a nice weekend.


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Friday, December 06, 2013

In memoriam Mandela: a recording that couldn't have been made without him

We were fortunate to have such a figure as Nelson Mandela in the world at all. Today everyone on social media seems to have found a pertinent quote from him - each one chosen in a way that is extremely personal to the chooser. Each one is an inspiration in itself. (Tomorrow the Indy will publish a special souvenir edition in his memory, btw.)

Instead of a quote, here's an incident.

Ten years ago the violinist Philippe Graffin went to Johannesburg to record the gorgeous violin concerto by Samuel Coleridge Taylor with the Johannesburg Philharmonic. It was an event that could never have existed without Nelson Mandela: a mixed-race South African organisation, performing a work by a composer half British, half African. This is the end of the first movement and the whole of the second movement. (Get the whole recording.) And here - from the first month of JDCMB - is why this means such a lot to me, then and now. http://jessicamusic.blogspot.co.uk/2004/03/coleridge-taylor-and-south-africa.html




Saturday, September 01, 2012

SAMUEL COLERIDGE-TAYLOR died on 1 September 1912, aged 37

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's short life ended exactly a century ago today. Half British, half African (his father was a doctor from Sierra Leone), he grew up in Croydon - and died there too, of pneumonia exacerbated by overwork and exhaustion. Having had no notion of how popular his oratorio Hiawatha would become, he'd accepted a small flat fee for its publication and saw no financial benefit from its hundreds of performances. His story helped to inspire the creation of the PRS - but for him it was too late.

Had he lived, and emigrated to America, he might have become the international star he deserved to be - though there he was celebrated enough to be dubbed 'the black Mahler'. As things are, his fans still struggle to keep his memory alive.

Long-time JDCMB readers may remember this: http://jessicamusic.blogspot.co.uk/2004/03/coleridge-taylor-and-south-africa.html

But slowly, bit by bit, the recognition is arriving. The British Library has an online gallery devoted to him, which you can view here. Charles Elford has written a touching, fictionalised account of SCT's life, entitled Black Mahler and aficionados may also be interested to track down the volume, available at various libraries, by the composer's daughter, Avril. Apart from this, there isn't a great deal of literature about him. He had a short life and spent most of it struggling for survival, fighting the prejudice that dogged his every move, and ultimately working himself to death. His story came to its tragic conclusion almost before it had a chance to begin.

NB [UPDATE]: I fear some readers have been confusing Samuel Coleridge-Taylor with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. While his parents may have named the British-African composer in honour of his eminent forerunner, this has nevertheless been a problem for a long time. So, just to clarify:

SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE: 1772-1834. English poet, critic and philosopher, author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, amongst much else. (Fact: he attended, uh, Jesus College Cambridge, where he appears to have had a nervous breakdown.)

SAMUEL COLERIDGE-TAYLOR: 1875-1912. British-African composer, counting the cantata Hiawatha among his greatest achievements...see above... This one is our anniversary man today.

Now, ANOTHER UPDATE, Sunday 2 Sept, lunchtime: Hilary Burrage has more about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in The Huffington Post (thanks for alerting us to this in the Comments, Hilary!). Read it here.

Last but by no means least, here's an extract from a US documentary in the making, apparently due out next March.





Monday, March 19, 2007

Good morning

Woke up to find my name and Elgar's splashed all over the business section of today's Indy. Stephen King argues that poor old Edu should never have been on the £20 note at all and represents 'a peculiar celebration of mediocrity'. I got very excited for a second, thinking a world-famous thriller writer was reading my work; but no, this Stephen King is head of economics for HSBC. He says that Elgar would never have got onto a banknote at all if Mozart, Beethoven or Bach had been British. He accuses all British composers of being second-rate, with the exception of Lennon & McCartney.

He's right in that we've had a handful of worthwhile composers, but never anybody to touch the top-notch greats (I still think Elgar's concertos are top-notch, but I take his point). The question is: if Elgar's mediocre but the best we have (King doesn't appear to mention Britten, let alone Orlando Gibbons), why should that be? I've been thinking this over for the last three hours and have a number of ideas on the subject, but after drafting a lengthy post at least five times I reckon they require a book, not a blog, and would upset an awful lot of probably blameless people. Come on, folks: your ideas, please!

By the way, I wouldn't dream of trying to write about economics, though I deeply regret having missed director Adam Curtis's new series The Trap so far.

UPDATE, 5pm: Blimey, guv'nor, my Elgar story has made it to Italy - Operachic found it in Milan's Corriere della Sera... Mille grazie, amica! [sorry, my Italian is hopeless...]

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

well done

DJ Mills is right: it's Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, in an article written in 1911, the year before his untimely death.

I liked Steve's suggestion of Prince Charles, though! I find it intriguing that, apart from the gently archaic language, the sentiments SCT expresses here are seen as something that could still be said today, nearly a century later (albeit just by one relatively isolated part of the audience).

Must dash - am having an Indy Panic, results in paper (I hope) on Friday.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Who said this?

Who said this? Answer tomorrow. Suggestions welcome in the interim (no prize offered).

"...few recent compositions really move one - though many of them astonish. It seems as if the composers would wish to be classed with the flying man in his endeavours to 'go one better' than the last...much of the music of the period reminds one of the automobile and the airship. It is daring, clever, complex and utterly mechanical.

The question is - Should an imaginative Art follow such lines? Should it not rather come from the heart as well as the brain?

Of course, a fine technical equipment is a very desirable thing, and nothing of worth can be accomplished without it; but should 'What do you think of my cleverness?' be stamped so aggressively over nearly every score that we hear?

The lack of human passion in English music may be (personally I think is) merely transitory. It is being pushed aside only while the big technical Dreadnought is in its most engrossing stage of development. Soon the builders will have the time to love again - when the turmoil is hushed somewhat - to give the world a few tender and personal touches amidst the strife, which will 'make us feel again also'."

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

William Wilberforce lives on



Oh, sod it, I've got a new mousemat & keyboard ridge thing, both with a gel support for sore wrists, and if I don't write this up now, I never will. So, let's hear it for Errollyn Wallen (above centre), whose new piece 'Mighty River' nearly brought down William Wilberforce's church on Clapham Common on Saturday night.

The work was commissioned for this very special concert (mentioned on JDCMB last week) commemorating the 200th anniversary of the act of parliament that resulted in the abolition of the slave trade. It opens with a horn solo based on 'Amazing Grace'; as the music progresses, it really is as if you're travelling down a wide, glowing river with a pulse of life entirely its own, observing flashes of detail and beauty and drama that pass by on the rich tapestry all around. The orchestration is luminous, the mood at once expansive and intimate, the influences perhaps more John Adamsy than we'd have expected so far from Errollyn; and the impact was huge. The Philharmonia seems thrilled with it and in a speech later on, their inimitable chief exec David Whelton promised that it'll have plenty more airings, which it should.

And so should the Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto, which Philippe played with immense beauty and conviction. The slow movement was applauded in its own right; as it progressed, I could just feel the buzz in the church while everyone asked each other 'Ever heard this thing before? No, nor me, but why not? It's incredible!'

Last but not least, conductor Martyn Brabbins led the whole audience in a new arrangement of 'Amazing Grace' by supertalented Philharmonia fiddler Julian Milone - and as it went down a treat at the end of the first half, we did it again at the end of the second. I was horrified when I saw it on the programme ('what, they want us to sing, are you kidding?!?!?') but soon found myself swept up in the atmosphere of fervour, celebration and sheer humanity. A marvellous, unforgettable evening.

Holy Trinity is a wonderful venue, without a doubt, and the collaboration of church and art is something that even a confirmed atheist/agnostic like me can applaud and encourage. But this programme should take place next somewhere three times the size - ideally the Royal Festival Hall - and as part of the mainstream season. Coleridge-Taylor (above left), having been half African and an idealistic black activist in his day, was a perfect choice for the evening, but the concerto is so wonderful that it should be part of the mainstream repertoire. Go hear it.

It's appalling to reflect that slavery still affects millions of people all over the world. Join the fight for freedom 1807-2007 here.


UPDATE, 1 MARCH, 10.20pm: Bob Morris writes to alert us to this article in the New Yorker about 'Amazing Grace', a new film about William Wilberforce starring Ioan Gruffud. A thought-provoking piece, recommended reading. Thanks, Bob!

Friday, March 19, 2004

Coleridge-Taylor and South Africa: a personal testament...

Written through a growing pile of tissues...My work doesn't often induce tears, but this is an exception.

Philippe Graffin's new CD landed on the doormat yesterday, fresh from Avie. As I mentioned before, it's the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto's world premiere recording plus its perfect companion piece, the Dvorak. Philippe is accompanied by the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Michael Hankinson.

Accompanied by WHAT, you ask?

The JPO was founded in 2000 after the disbanding of the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra. It represents a desperate struggle to keep classical music alive in South Africa at a time when the country is beset by vast and terrifying problems. Sheer determination on the part of the musicians seems to be behind this phoenix rising from the ashes of a cultural relativism from the state that is understandable but depressing. This is the JPO's first commercial recording. The booklet photos prove that the orchestra is racially mixed; their playing proves that they pull together towards one goal; and Coleridge-Taylor - racially mixed himself and with 'more talent in his little finger' than the rest of his composition class had in their entire bodies, according to his teacher, Stanford - is the perfect figure for this debut.

I got involved with this CD through a set of extraordinary coincidences. Back in August 2002, I was doing some freelance sub-editing for The Strad and on my desk landed an article about the history of the Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto, by the American president of the Maud Powell Society, Karen A. Shaffer. It was fascinating, but the editor felt it needed a little tweaking and some extra background. This was entrusted to me and I ended up taking it home to edit and research there. It was published in the November 2002 edition.

A year later, Philippe told me that he was about to record the concerto. That's funny, I said, I've still got an article about it by someone else on my computer, here it is by e-mail.... After another six months, I was thrilled to get a surprise call from Simon Foster asking me to write the booklet notes.

But it's only now that I've seen and heard the finished CD that the significance of this project has really hit me - and its significance for me personally.

My parents were both born in Johannesburg and left in the 1950s. They were both music-lovers, brought together by their passion for music and the lack of such enthusiasm in those around them. My mother once told me that she'd had the opportunity to come to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music and her father refused to let her go. They hated apartheid and also longed for the music, opera and ballet that was available to them in London. Later, when I was growing up, all my parents' friends in London were South African emigres too, many of them exiled for political affiliations, involvement with anti-apartheid campaigns or educational activities and consciousness-raising in the townships. My father, a neuropathologist, later told me he was an outside consultant in the Steve Biko inquest.

My father had studied at the University of the Witwatersrand - which happens to be where Philippe and the JPO made this recording. Dad refused to go back to South Africa for several decades; in his last years, however, after the fall of apartheid, he took to spending the winters in Cape Town. I spent two weeks there with him in 1996 when he was already terminally ill - a time that now provides treasured memories.

That visit was my first since childhood. I've always shied away from South Africa and all it represents for me and my family. A massive sense of guilt at my family background; a revulsion at the country that could invent and keep in place such a horrific system for so long; a hatred of the philistine outlook and lack of cultural appreciation; the introversion of so much of the Jewish community (even before I was 18 my grandfather was on at me about marrying a nice Jewish boy); the rift between my own interests and those of so many of my cousins, who no doubt think I'm barking mad. South Africa is a loaded issue.

So, when Philippe said to me last December, 'Don't you want to go to South Africa?' I could only say that I didn't. Yet any journalist with half a brain would have looked at this project and headed straight for Heathrow. As Philippe says in his introductory note, vast numbers of black children in South Africa are now learning the violin - he's seen this for himself - and he compares it to the ghettoes of Vilna and Warsaw where so many great violinists of the past originated. Many Jewish emigres from Lithuania went to South Africa; did they in some way bring passion for the violin with them and take it into the townships? Among those Lithuanian emigres were my father's grandparents...

This could have been a massive story: the concerto, the orchestra, the kids...and I didn't do it. Now I'm wondering whether anyone else will either. If not, it's tragic.

And yet, I find that I've ended up being a small part of a production that would have represented the fulfilment of my parents' dreams, had they lived to see it. In Johannesburg, where this CD will probably sell well, there are many people who remember them and will recognise our name. Can one dedicate booklet notes in a CD? If so - these are dedicated to the memory of my parents: Myra (1932-1994) and Leo (1928-1996).

That's why I've been having a good howl today.

Philippe - if you read this - thank you.