This blog is basically about providing a short introduction to classical music through major composers. They way I’m doing this is by writing what I call “introductory articles” – will that make a catchy hashtag? #introductoryarticle. In short, brief biographies followed by about 5 recordings.
Every article will follow the same basic outline:
Name of the composer
A lovely picture (if such a thing is possible, they didn’t really pose in the same way we do today)
A couple of paragraphs, probably about 3, on a brief biography and why they’re important.
Album/name of the work
A paragraph about the work in question
Link to a performance (there won’t always be one, but I’ll try my best to make sure there is one)
The above process is repeated
The above process is repeated
I think you get the picture
Sometimes the list will be longer, there might be a supplementary list or the article will come in two bits because 5 is quite a small number for some composers.
And that’s it really. If you have any questions/reservations, then feel free to email me and let me know through the “Contact” page.
There is no orchestra like the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. I remember how surprised I was when I first experienced one of the WEDO’s specialities: someone in the winds just played a solo, it was beautifully phrased and shaped… and the entire orchestra, more than 100 Arab, Israeli and Spanish musicians, answered with a flood of kisses. Yes – they all kissed the air passionately, loud and frequent – greeting the beloved soloist. In other orchestras such gratitude is expressed by a gesture of rubbing the feet back and forth on the floor – not too loud, as not to disturb the conductor. Our conductor, Maestro Daniel Barenboim, has to live with the horrific noise of 100 loud Middle-Easterners kissing the air every few minutes. Because we do it not only when there is a nice solo, but also when someone jokes, plays a wrong note during a GP (General Pause)…
This year was my first at the BBC Proms, though not my first Proms concert, that accolade goes to Prom number 2; the Royal Opera’s production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, conducted by its musical director, Sir Antonio Pappano. The Proms is the biggest classical music event of the year, and, arguably, also the most accessible of the lot. So who better to break convention that an 82 year old man who champions HIP (historically informed performances)? The above statement may sound a bit ironic, if not contradictory, but that’s a problem I might get to another time. In short, we all tend to become a bit too reserved at concerts, keeping an ear out for every mistake, be it a note played/sung badly, or wrongly, ready to mentally point it out, or in some cases jeer at it. Performances should be well polished, but are never perfect, they can’t be. It’s more or less impossible for such a thing to exist. Expecting it to be so inevitable leads to disappointment, taking all the fun out of them.
The world of classical music and opera is full of conventions, some of which can seem very barring to newcomers. Enter 82 year old Sir Roger Norrington. He has the violins facing each other, as opposed to sitting next to one another, uses no vibrato (also called “pure tone”), encourages clapping in between movements, has comical interactions with the audience, and even turns to them mid performance. Normally, this stuff never happens in a concert. Concerts should be fun, joyous and uplifting experiences, and this is what Norrington does, he puts the fun back into concerts. And where better to do this than at the Proms?
First on the programme was the overture to Berlioz’ opera, Beatrice and Benedict. With it being 400 years since Shakespeare’s death this year, the Proms features the Bard regularly this year. Though I had never heard this overture before, I thought it was played with great pace – a hallmark of Norrington – which really brought out the overture’s comedy and made it great fun to listen to.
Next was Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. A few surprises were in store as the stage was reset for this. The orchestra was greatly scaled down from the Berlioz with at least half the orchestra gone. The piano was surrounded by the orchestra, positioned as a conductor/player would do it, so pianist Robert Levin’s back faced the audience. Norrington, meanwhile, sat on the opposite side of the piano facing audience, with his own back towards the woodwinds and brass. Once in position he gestured to Levin to start, as you would when you say “please, after you”, generating laughs from the audience. After the first movement Norrington himself started to applaud with the rest of the audience soon joining in. An unusual set up to be sure, not that the performance suffered.
The main course was Brahms’ First Symphony, which the composer laboured over for 21 years before giving its first performance. The SWR was back in full force, and what a great sight it was. I’ve always found seeing a massive orchestra on stage quite awesome and impressive. After the first movement there was a small ripple of applause, but it didn’t catch on. After the second, however, Norrington was encouraging everyone to applaud, and so they did, for good reason. The evening was shaping up to be quite spectacular, but dessert was still to be served. The usual hallmarks of a Norrington performance could be seen here also; pace and varied dynamics thrusting the symphony along. Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the symphony performed like this, which was not a bad thing by any means. Brahms’ First is a staple of the repertoire, it’s a very familiar piece of music. Norrington made it sound fresh, vibrant and alive, like the young composer who wrote it. It wasn’t a very grand and almost statesmen like presentation, which is how it’s often heard. The result? The ending was edge of the seat stuff, uplifting and jubilant, throwing the audience into rapturous, and well deserved, applause. Norrington showed his appreciation with an encore: Brahms’s Hungarian Dance number five.
This was turning out to be a fabulous evening. But all was not over, not yet.
The leader of the orchestra stood up to say a few words. Sadly, the SWR Stuttgart is merging with SWR Baden-Baden Freiburg Symphony Orchestra – yes, both are called SWR – due to budget cuts. This was their final performance together before the merger. The talk was followed by Elgar’s “Nimrod” variation. The orchestra members then rose to their feet, gave a bow and hugged each other. As this happened, they left the stage to a standing ovation until only Sir Roger was left, who acknowledged the crowd one last time before leaving the stage himself.
I can honestly say this specific prom included many firsts for me, from seeing Norrington conduct, to listening to a Berlioz piece, to the unusual layout for Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto. I’m going to remember this concert fondly for many years to come.
This was one of the hottest tickets in the entire Proms season. I applied for it the same as everyone else; adding a host of Proms into my “basket” and then eagerly waiting for the release date laptop at hand. Nonetheless, I still reckon I’m one of the lucky ones who managed to bag a ticket. The hall was completely packed out.
The performers themselves, Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich, are names enough to fill concert halls twice over without even mentioning the programme. They are two of the greatest and most celebrated classical musicians alive today, who have packed halls and delighted audiences for over half a century. I’d been looking forward to this concert for months, years even, because of Barenboim. It’s his recording of Beethoven symphony cycle, piano concertos and sonatas that I listen to; his recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle that I constantly go back to (second only to Solti’s Ring); and his fearsome advocacy for Palestinian rights – to the extent he’s been labelled a “traitor” by certain Israeli’s – that I admire so much. Barenboim I have followed since more or less when I started on my classical music journey. I have tried to get tickets to his concerts before, on several occasions, but always failed because I hadn’t booked them a year in advance. I was completely psyched when I booked this ticket in particular and told myself “I’m finally going to see Barenboim AND Argerich in concert!” I counted down the days to this one.
First on menu was Jorg Widmann’s Con Brio, a “concert overture” for orchestra. It takes ideas from Beethoven’s 7th and 8th Symphonies and blends them together in what Andrew Clements calls “an indulgent, postmodern smoothie”. I’m not one for atonal and postmodern music, so, naturally, I didn’t really like the piece. That said, there were some interesting moments which tickled my fancy and gave me a window into understanding why Widmann is one of today’s more famous composers. Even so, chances are I won’t be writing an introductory guide on him.
Next was Liszt’s Piano Concerto 1 in E flat major, one of the shorter ones in the repertoire and demonstrates well the virtuosity of its soloist. Argerich can excite audiences with her virtuosity and calm them with incredible lyricism, both of which were seen in her performance. This concerto is not the greatest or most virtuosic in the repertoire, but it is great fun to listen to, and this is what Argerich and Barenboim together really brought out, its playful and joyful nature.
Then came a real treat; the duo took to the piano and played Schubert’s Rondo in A D951, his final work for piano four hands written a few months before his untimely death. I was mesmerised.
Then came what I was really looking forward to. As I’ve said, Barenboim’s recording of the Ring Cycle is one of my favourites. So when I found out that half the concert are Wagner pieces, who also happens to be my second favourite composer, I had to contain my excitement to stop my head exploding from the insane news. The performances lacked the big, expansive Romantic sound filling the entire hall that I’m so used to hearing. The power of the upper strings, and might of the orchestra weren’t felt very often. That is not to say, however, that the performances were bad or lacked emotional appeal; they didn’t. Siegfried’s Funeral March smothering the audience in sound and was brilliantly played. The brass were exceptional throughout the entire concert, but came into their own in the March and Act 1 prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg. With a further two encores, from Die Meistersinger (Act 3 prelude) and Lohengrin (Act 3 prelude), I left the hall with a grin stretching from one earlobe to the next. I suspect many others did too.
This concert was televised and will be broadcast on the BBC, so I’ll be reliving it again.
Classical music. Isn’t that world dead? Who listens to that kind of stuff anymore? It’s for old posh white people, not for me. It’s too expensive and you have to dress up like in Downton Abbey.
These are a few statements that are thrown about when it comes to classical music. The problem becomes even more acute when it comes to opera, seen as “high” entertainment for the rich, snobby and well to do. All that was partly true, once upon a time, but the world has moved on since then. Despite the fact everyone who has an internet connection today can listen to more or less any type of music they want, the mental barriers to classical music and opera are still very much there. And I stress mental barriers because that’s exactly what they are: mental barriers. Music may be written by Germans, African Americans, Indians, the Chinese or the British, but no one has the right to claim exclusivity over it. For me, that fundamentally goes against the spirit of music. Music is in many ways a manifestation of humanity, and should be celebrated as such and not artificially monopolized by one group. So when it comes to classical music and opera, and the class barriers that come with it, they need to be torn down for good. Class is not, and should never be, a barrier to music. The idea that only the rich listen to, and are allowed to listen to classical music is just stupid. It seriously is. And the great irony is, when you look into classical music and opera it’s all embracing inclusivity becomes quite apparent very quickly.
Everyone has had some exposure to classical music and opera at some point. It could’ve been from a record your parents played you as a kid, to cartoons or video games through to television and film. Often we don’t really know we listen to it, but then comes the moment of “hmm, I know that tune”, or “this reminds me of something, but I don’t know what”. Chances are that thing you half remember will come from an orchestral piece of music or an opera, which is probably quite famous in the world of classical music. Take the famous helicopter scene from the film Apocalypse Now which is set to Ride of the Valkyries. That music is taken from the third act of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), an opera written by Richard Wagner, and is one of the most famous in the entire repertoire. The grand opening to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey comes from a tone poem written by Richard Strauss called Also Sparch Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra).
My primary aim with this series is to provide an introduction to composers by proving a brief biography and a list of around five key recordings of selected works. There’ll be other stuff as well like reviews of concerts and CD’s. Where I can, I’ll try to provide YouTube recordings for easy access. These recordings will be a combination of “go to” recordings and ones that I really like. Where I can I’ll make it clear which is which. Details will be brief and not all that extensive. The aim is, after all, to introduce the music rather than provide extensive reviews or write biographies.
I hope these introductions go a way in breaking down mental barriers to the music and stop this nonsense that only the rich and posh have the right to listen to classical music and opera. That’s the underlying aim in the long run, but for now, let’s enjoy the music! Happy listening to all!
From the incredibly catchy title penned by yours truly, I think you can gather what this blog is about.
When I first got into classical music, information about composers and their music wasn’t very hard to find, from Wikipedia and Classic FM, to YouTube videos and documentaries. But it was all scattered, with stuff like Wikipedia being overkill as well as sometimes unreliable; *cough* Wolfgang Amadeus Beethoven *cough*. Working out where to start and what to listen to, or read, was difficult. How was I supposed to know whether such a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth was “authentic” or, more importantly, any good? The answer to that, largely, was that I didn’t. So that’s the first reason I’ve started this blog, to literally provide an introduction to the world of classical music and opera, aimed at anyone that wants to venture into it. And believe me when I say, if you have watched television or films, then you’ve listened to classical music and opera.
There’s also another reason for doing this, and that is the mental barriers towards this music. It’s seen as elitist, exclusive, and the reserve of the rich. Whilst these labels did carry some truth at one point, it isn’t the case anymore. I’ll go into a little more detail about all this in a sort of “mission statement”.
The basic format for this “Introduction to” series as a set of articles on certain composers. I won’t be writing one for every composer who ever lived, not sure there’s time in the world for that. Each article will contain brief biographical details and a few key works to get stuck into. Aside from that, I’ll upload the odd concert/cd review and some op-ed’s on my journey into classical music and opera.
I hope you find this series interesting, informative and hopefully even a broadening experience, listening to music that you might not have otherwise given much thought to. That goes for veteran classical music fans as well as newbies; music did not “end” with Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde! (you’ll see what I mean soon enough).