Has your mind ever wandered when you were listening to very serious music about death and transfiguration and, without meaning to, found yourself wishing you were in a French revue club drinking a glass or two of absinthe?
I have been listening to music recently which was all written in the late 1850s and that moment has occured more than once.
This probably sounds dangerously obsessive I know but I have been gradually working my way through the whole history of Western Classical music…starting some time ago now in the Eleventh Century.
I feel so much better now that I have told you both my guilty secrets.
Actually it has been an inspiring self-inflicted project where I have tried to keep my ears focused historically on each period as I work my way through.
Listening and concentrating got a bit tough after my brain haemorrhage but I am well established back in my musical saddle as 1858 draws to an end with some revelations and more than a few old favourites long postponed.
There have been some punishments too. Moments when I sat listening to works which required the administration of masochistic flesh pinches to keep myself awake.
And then there’s Franz Liszt. He was obviously great in his early flashy and revolutionary days when he turned the piano into a new sound world and, so they say, great in bed too, but once you start getting to mid century, hmmm, I for one miss the vulgarity and brilliant extravagance.
Early Brahms too! Well, he had to learn I know but it is not a journey I want to follow step by step. I think he knew that too sitting by that wood burner shredding his notes when he knew that he was dying. Would you forgive me if I said I wouldn’t mind if he had dropped his German Requiem into the fire but you listen to it if you must. I love the symphonies and concertos so don’t get me wrong about Brahms but I start with him once he has got well into his stride.
By the time you get into the 1850s most of the Romantic heroes have died young or have been mostly silenced either permanently or intermittently by mostly non-musical events. I am thinking of two still under-rated geniuses and personal favourites:
Of his operas, by now, we have had Rienzi (what a bore apart from the overture), The Flying Dutchman (sensational), Lohengrin (sensational in parts and two great overtures) and Tannhauser ( sensational in fewer parts but with one of the best overtures) and more recently Rheingold (now we’re talking).
At this stage in his career, I think my opinion of Wagner is quite closely aligned to the judgement of my musical hero, Rossini: “Mr. Wagner has beautiful moments but bad quarters of an hour.”
Rossini had it right, I think, when he added: “Every kind of music is good, except the boring kind.”
I found a new quote from the great Italian the other day regarding Lohengrin too:
“One can’t judge Wagner’s opera Lohengrin after a first hearing, and I certainly don’t intend to hear it a second time.”
Sorry Wagner but I know what he means even if I love all that lyrical but slightly dotty stuff with the swan.
I know that we have most of the great music to come and I am not knocking Tristan or the Ring but then don’t forget we have yet to get to all those terrible books and the crazy anti-Semitic rubbish too.
Maybe we would love Wagner more if we tried to think of him less as a Teutonic giant and more as he really was: a man embarrassed by being very short, happier to hang loose in chiffon frocks and desperate to find ways of hiding from his wife,Liszt’s daughter, the appalling Cosima who seems to have dreamt of Adolf long before he was a twinkle in Mr and Mrs. Hitler’s eyes.
So I have been dragging my feet a little, I have to confess.
I thought that I might put the 1850s on to fast forward until I remembered Verdi, Offenbach and Saint-Saens!
Call me superficial if you want but give me these three gentlemen any day.
It might have been a slog, I admit, to spend time with the three Verdi operas of this period – The Sicilian Vespers, Simon Boccanegra and Aroldo. They were written between the sensational middle period works, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata and the early later ones, Un Ballo In Maschera (A Masked Ball), La Forza del Destino (The Force Of Destiny) and Don Carlos. Whatever their faults, and there are many, there is one thing about Verdi which Rossini would agree, he is never boring.
Try them for yourself. The Vespers is his first go at French Grand Opera and, if nothing else, it will show you how he prepared himself for that supreme Grand Opera where he told the French how to do it, Don Carlos.
Aroldo, which is a reworking of the earlier opera Stiffelio, the opera about a vicar and his adulterous wife. It might be a silly censor-dodging re-write of the original plot but it is where Verdi started to write for the dramatic soprano voice a type of singing that he virtually invented with its need for power throughout the range and a strong bottom register. The blueprint for those great and vocally demanding heroine roles, Amelia in A Masked Ball, Leonora in Force of Destiny, Elizabetta in Don Carlos and Aida herself.
Simon Boccanegra is, well, bloody marvellous! A lot of it was re-written over twenty years later than our period of 1858 when Verdi was back working at white hot inspiration. It is a unique example in his whole output. A mix of middle period Verdi’s more traditional but exciting musical language with late Verdi’s supreme mastery of the orchestra and his now refined sense of theatrical concision.
It is a dark piece, mostly for low voices, baritones and basses, with thrilling writing for brass and a gloomy but dramatic plot coloured by Verdi’s twin obsessions – parental relationships and the limits of political power.
If you like Verdi but don’t know Simone Boccanegra then it is time you put that to rights.
And before I go, let me just say two names: Offenbach and Saint-Saens.
1858 saw the premiere of Offenbach’s Orpheus In The Underworld which is to opera what The Importance of Being Earnest is to the straight theatre. It laughs at conventions, ridicules cliches, and boots mediocrity into the long grass of oblivion and is, best of all, and unlike the work of almost any other classical composer, Rossini apart, very very funny. Oh and it’s where the can-can comes from too.
This year also saw the composition of two concertos by a 23 year old genius who might have been the greatest composer of his day. His trouble, maybe was that, in Berlioz’s words, “He knows everything but lacks inexperience.”
Camille Saint-Saens, who will, of course always be remembered for The Carnival of the Animals, was in that select band of natural musical geniuses who understood music before they were potty-trained. Saint-Saens, Mendelssohn and Mozart if the talent they showed in their mother and toddler groups didn’t peak, should have been the three names at the top of the musical edifice.
Only Mozart, of course, made the ultimate grade. He sits there with those relatively late developers on the list of supreme musical talent:Bach, Handel, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert.
Mendelssohn and Saint-Saens though should never be under-estimated even if they were both maybe too successful for their own good and too comfortable in a musical language which stopped them from scaling the heights.
I came across these two Saint-Saens concertos for the first time last week. The First Piano Concerto and the Second Violin Concerto. OK, they are not the greatest ever written but they are substantial works. Unpretentious, though unconventional and with a distinct musical personality, they inject life and wit into the concerto form just when it looked like it was going to disappear exclusively and permanently up the long dark orifice of mid-century German music.
I plan to listen to a lot more music by Saint-Saens who, amazingly lived to hear Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and who shared the young Russian upstart’s dislike for music that made too many claims for itself.
Go on then, see what you think. It is possible to write serious music with humour and irony.
Let’s leave the last word to Verdi’s darkly serious Simone Boccanegra though in a performance from La Scala Milan which was to be recorded and which is still the definitive cd set of this wonderful opera. Perfect casting in a scene where the Doge of Genoa tries to tell warring Italian states to unite and live together in peace. Verdi’s great manifesto for peace and unity which is still a lesson for us all.
I can’t wait for 1859.