Music and Composers: an introduction to John Danyel

John Danyel is one of those personalities from the English Renaissance that we deserve to know more about. Biologically very little survives: we know that he was born in Wellow, Somerset, in 1564, and died in London in 1626. John was a lute player, and in 1607 he published a book of 21 lute songs. Besides this, only a few fragments and isolated pieces of his survive. Despite this, he deserves to be known as one of the finest composers of the age.

John was the younger brother of a very famous playwright and man of letters, Samuel Daniel. Daniel’s histories and poems were household texts, which influenced Shakespeare: he was welcomed in the highest academic and social circles of his time. Unsurprisingly, the brothers collaborated: John set several of Sam’s poems, and later they founded a children’s theatre company together. Moreover, the brothers believed in working for the good of society: they discussed vital ideas about ethical behaviour, time, moral virtue, weeping, femininity, aesthetics and catharsis, drawn from Classical examples.

Like his brother, John was an incredibly gifted artist: a virtuoso lutenist who developed his own unique style. His music is dextrous, complex, quirky, and brilliant, and great fun to play. It never quite goes where you would expect, it’s notoriously difficult to sing, and especially to know where to come in: the parts unwind like an elaborate watch, seemingly going on their own routines, yet ticking along together. It’s part of the fun – John would have loved cryptic crosswords.

In 1607, John published his Songs, for the Lute, Viol and Voice, and dedicated it to his then student, Anne Greene. Anne was 13 years old, from a gentry family: the songs John wrote for her are extremely complicated, musically and intellectually, so she must have been very intelligent. Smart, cultured, aristocratic, young and attractive, it must have felt – to 40-year-old John Danyel – like tutoring Emma Watson.

This explains the content of the songbook: in essence, the 21 songs tell a story about a musician’s advances and his rejection by a younger girl. Eventually, the girl wins, and the musician must be content with his misfortune. The whole story is told with good humour, pathos and wisdom, and its message is one of dignified acceptance. How unlike love songs as a genre!

Danyel offers us very humane advice, wrapped up in quirky, charming music. He would have been a wonderful friend to have at the coffee table. Fortunately, we still have his music, with its wit and wisdom, to keep us in good company.

30.3.17

 

CD review: Ich Ruf Zu Dir

It is a pleasure to listen to Ich ruf zu dir, a 2015 recording of JS Bach, Weiss and David Kellner by Austrian lutenist Bernhard Hofstotter. This intense, special music is explored with honesty and rhetorical finesse, from the solemn pathos of the chorale Ich ruf zu dir, to the most robust Bouree from Weiss. Hofstotter is a considered, careful player, and although this sometimes leads his pulse towards relentlessness, his playing is compelling and his silvery tone is seldom compromised. His sincere approach lends itself magically to Bach’s Second suite for cello – his own, convincing arrangement – with its impassioned Sarabande being, for me, the highlight of the disc. Although marred by some erratic tuning, the luminous Chaconne by David Kellner that concludes the recording is a delight, and the CD overall promises a very rewarding hour’s listening.

Ich ruf zu dir is available at http://www.challengerecords.com/products/14610730249513/

Sam Brown, 2016. Review originally written for Lute News, the journal of the UK Lute Society 

Nathaniel Mander: London Festival of Baroque Music

London Festival of Baroque Music 2017
“Baroque at the Edge”

Nathaniel Mander, Harpsichord

St John’s, Smith Square
29.05.2017

Programme 

William Byrd, c.1540-1623
a Fancy
Fantasia, “The Woods so Wild”

Thomas Tomkins, 1572-1656
Barrefostus’ Dream
a Ground  

John Blow, 1649-1708
Morlake Ground

Johan Christian Bach, 1735-1782
Sonata in C minor, op.17 no.2

Franz Joseph Haydn, 1732-1809
Fantasia in C, Hob.XVII:4

***

Today’s recital is bookended by two fantasias, on either side of the High Baroque. In their earliest form, fantasies or fancies were just that, improvised flights of fancy. This first gem blooms almost from nothing, unfurling with elegant flourishes of polyphony.

 Shall I go walk the wood so wild,
Wandering, wandering, here and there?

This fragment is all that survives of The Woods so Wild, but though the lyrics are lost to us, the melody sings on in this setting by William Byrd. These 14 variations are pastoral and rustic, not so elaborate as others, but a small masterpiece. The harmony of the song oscillates between F and G major, which is striking to modern ears, but gives a rich, lilting quality.
Byrd died an influential man and England’s most famous composer, though he drew political fire as a Catholic: despite his constant employment by Queen Elizabeth, he fell under such suspicion that his house was raided twice.
Byrd’s keyboard style, with its sophisticated polyphony, laid the groundwork for the instrument. What better place to begin today’s recital?

*

A student of William Byrd, Tomkins was devoted to the great English virginal school, carrying it well past its heyday until his death (and its). His ornate, brilliant style is uniquely virtuosic – like Bach, Tomkins adhered to an archaic tradition, which he pushed into some of its finest expressions. His eight variations on Barrefostus’ Dream, a ballad tune possibly connected to Dr Faustus, are characteristically grand, rich and rhetorical; growing from its repeated, hymn-like ground bass, the Ground stands in more meditative contrast.

*

Blow’s ground, heard next to Tomkins’, shows us quite how much music was to change. The Restoration in 1660 brought continental tastes into vogue, emphasising simplicity and elegance. Lyrical, charming and straightforward, Morlake Ground has everything to do with this new style.
Like his contemporary Henry Purcell, John Blow was a key musical figure of the early English baroque. After a distinguished career he died Composer to the Chapel Royal, like William Byrd almost a century before.

*

 The youngest son of the great J.S. Bach, Johann Christian Bach truly hails from the edge of the Baroque. The “English” Bach, he made considerable fame writing music for the elegant tastes of Regency London; for the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and elite venues in Soho and St James’.
This Sonata, despite its dark key, is eloquent, poised and beautifully structured: Mozart, who visited London at the age of 8, was a huge admirer of Bach’s refined, effortless music. Some accounts report that Bach would improvise a phrase of music at the keyboard, and the young Mozart, sitting on his lap, would play back.

*

Far from his isolated role at Esterhazy Palace, where he was “forced to become original”, Joseph Haydn met with instant celebrity in London. It’s easy to hear why: “Papa” Haydn’s was a boyish, charming sense of humour. As a choirboy, he’d been royally whipped for climbing on Palace scaffolding – he was later expelled for cutting off another boy’s pigtail.
Capricious, tuneful, and ticklish, this Fantasia delights in twists and turns: full of jokes and mood swings, sudden fortes, accelerating into sudden pauses, veering off into new ideas, this music slips the rug from under our feet.

This wit belongs to a different age, an age of satire and caricature, far from the earthiness of the past. Haydn, and his pupil Beethoven, would take this sort of music still further away from the edge of the Baroque.

 

Biography 

A performer with “style and panache”, Nathaniel Mander trained under Carole Cerasi at the Royal Academy of Music, graduating with first class honours in 2011. Winner of the 10th Broadwood Harpsichord competition, he gave his debut London recital for the British Harpsichord Society at Handel House in 2011 and his Wigmore Hall concerto debut in 2012.

Nat is hugely in demand as a recitalist, chamber musician and continuo player, and has held the Linda Hill Junior Fellowship at the Royal College of Music for two years running. He has performed in prestigious venues and festivals worldwide, and recent performances include for the London Festival of Baroque Music, in Katowice, Poland with London Baroque, and a two-week concert tour in Bolivia with the Royal College of Music. He has a deep affinity for the music of the French Baroque, and his debut CD of this genre has earned great acclaim.
Sam Brown, 15.3.17

discipline and music

It’s almost a slogan that, to get anywhere in music, you have to discipline yourself. Of course it’s true, but I think we tend to confuse it with that quasi-military, “I WILL overcome, I WILL succeed” type of discipline, the one that pushes you past 20 or so pushups.

When we’re flirting with somebody we like, it’s incredible how positive we become. We’re positively anxious to say nothing offensive, scanning sentences to scrub the callouses from our talking. In fact, we’re disciplining our conversation, which makes us more attractive.

I think it’s this type of discipline that we’re closest to as musicians. We regiment our fingers not because we’re conquering the strings, not because we’re bodybuilding, but because we’re madly eager to please, to make a beautiful sound. It’s as though we’re flirting with life, through our instrument.

The caption for this snippet is from Baekdamsa monastery in South Korea. Balancing stones in this way is a marvellous practice of deliberate action, a similar kind of positive self-restraint.  

February 2017

co-ordinates for the soul

Mostly we live by trails that wend their way along the ground. Often they’re the beaten track. But for whatever reasons we look up, and make our way upwards, orthogonal to the road… then, we steer by the stars.

The danger for anyone who makes their journey skywards, is losing anchor. Norms are the grooves entrenched by sheer belief and repetition: living by these we might never turn our head skywards, they are so sure. Small wonder those changes imposed by a turning world, globalisation and technology, bite so – they ask us to abandon our familiar road.

Steering by the stars is only the first choice for those stung by the earth. Often they’re castaways. Sometimes they leave us co-ordinates – art, philosophy and mythology, libraries: these delineate another’s journey through inner space, map references for the soul. They let us know that it’s okay to think and feel outside of norms. And they might also give us the courage to wander heavenwards.

The caption for this snippet is a bollard from the Temple of the Ancestors in Beijing. The cloud design gives us the illusion that, as we take the staircase into the temple, we are ascending into the sky. 

Alfred Schnittke

The caption for this article is a photo of Schnittke’s gravestone. The musical symbols are (top to bottom) a fermata (sustained or prolonged), a bar’s rest (silence, no playing) and triple forte (very, very loud)

Alfred Schnittke’s (1934-1998) music is definitely a creature of the later 20th century: often dark, vitriolic and strangely seductive. A pupil of Dmitri Shostakovich, he pushed harder against the Soviet establishment, writing music full of dissonance, m170px-Alfred_schnittkeordant sarcasm and absurdity. His mature pieces are often “polystylistic”, stitching together disparate styles (playing catch-me-if-you-can through musical history). Good examples are his first Concerti Grosso and the ballet score Labyrinths.

Latterly, after a series of strokes that left him gradually paralysed, Schnittke resorted to a more tonal, and somehow more bleak, style, such as in his Requiem. His music is a great companion when we’re dealing with the absurd side of life, living with idiot political systems or bureaucracy, or wondering where the point is in it all…


Tango from Life with an Idiot, beautifully interpreted on ice by Peter Tchernyshev and Xenia Alferov. Listen out, the moment at 2.13 where the music “dissolves” is classic Schnittke  

I talk about Schnittke in a previous article (The Rest is Noise: Behind the Iron Curtain). The portrait above was painted by Reginald Grey in 1972  

March 2017

Rafael Aguirre at the London Guitar Festival

At the closing night of the London International Guitar Festival, I found myself mulling over what the great Segovia once claimed: that “if people have a little understanding, it is better to move them than to amaze them”.

Flamboyant temperament and mercurial technique define Rafael Aguirre, a Spanish guitarist who gave his UK debut that night at the Bolivar Hall. The venue is perfect for the guitar: a stylish, bijou concert hall downstairs at the Venezuelan Embassy.

Aguirre’s recital began with Bach’s D minor Chaconne. Immediately his rich tone and dynamic playing are compelling: adhering very firmly to a tempo a touch breathless, it was a powerful yet polite rendition. This was followed by William Walton’s Five Bagatelles. He lingered lovingly on these charming pieces, full of gently dissonant bite and very English character.

Villa-Lobos’ suite of 12 studies is one of the landmarks of the guitar repertoire, fusing a typically Brazilian character into a machine-like musical process. Rafael selected two etudes, no. 7 and 11, to close the first half of his recital. Out of context, we miss the crystallisation and dissolution of the suite, but enjoyed the cyborg charm of the etudes.

The second half had a Latin-Iberian bent, beginning with Un Sueno en la Floresta, a languorous dream related in scintillating tremolo, composed by the great guitarist Agustin Barrios. (Paraguay’s national composer, Barrios was a remarkable character, and posed as an Amazon Indian called Nitsuga for part of his career.) Antonio Lauro’s feisty Seis por derecho swung us towards Venezuela, and then across the Atlantic with an incandescent Guiajiras by Paco de Lucia. This was a less heady Flamenco than most, freckled with machine-gun scales: Aguirre pulled this off with virtuosic aplomb.

Francisco Tarrega’s slinky variations on the Carnival of Venice ended the concert. The father of the modern classical guitar, Tarrega was a legendary teacher and composer for the guitar, writing for salon audiences at the close of the 19th century. These variations can’t fail to charm: the guitar conjures bouts of laughter with petulant glissandi, a playful masquerade, full of winks.

All in all, I hesitate to say that it was a great recital – I was left with the impression that Rafael’s character could obstruct the music, rather than be its medium. But both music and musician had flair and an obvious head-over-heels love that, certainly, won me.

October 2013

The Rest is Noise: Behind the Iron Curtain

Music underwent some drastic shifts in the last century, with its cultural earthquakes, wars and revolutions. Social systems broke down, and with them cultural institutions splintered: 20th century music is a history of shards, and this is what Alex Ross traced in his best selling narrative, The Rest is Noise. This book is the inspiration behind the festival running at the Southbank Centre, which certainly deserves our attention.

Shedding light on our recent history, Mikhail Jurowski and the London Philharmonic presented three works from composers who had lived and written under the Soviet regime: Gyorgy Ligeti, Witold Lutoslawski, and Alfred Schnittke.

ligeti

Ligeti’s (aboveLontano came as a glance into the abyss: almost a wordless chorale. Its opalescent harmony submerged us in a pensive, spectral soundworld.

The orchestra were joined by German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser for a bitter rendition of Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto, commissioned by Rostropovich. The cello battles the orchestra, with its sinuous stealing of themes and oppressive dynamic. Sections of the concerto have no bars or beats: then the players must take their orders from the conductor. Moser’s performance was wonderfully vibrant, mordant, acerb and bitterly tragic.

A pupil of Shostakovich, Alfred Schnittke became a figure of the anti-establishment culture that grew at the downfall of the USSR. Attending concerts of his music was seen as dissident: Soviet strictures on music were ruthless. Jazz was decadent and bourgeoisie, atonality seen as an offense to solidarity: by comparison, Schnittke’s mighty First symphony is punk, and flouts it.

alfred-schnittke_2-t

The orchestra files onstage like factotum to shrieks from the tubular bells (special mention goes to a tuba player who literally danced on). Schnittke’s (left) was a “polystylistic” style, gleaned from his composing for film: he steals from disparate genres like a magpie. Chorales, classical symphonies, Mahlerian recitatives and funereal serialism rub shoulders with a Jazz band, waltzes, tangos and military marches, all mashed together. There are titters of laughter; the wind section “dies”, walks offstage, is resurrected, and dies again; only one violinist, playing from Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, is left on stage. Schnittke claimed that he’d set down a chord and watch it dissolve under his fingers: disintegrating, disjointed lines of music contribute to mounting insanity, a real symphony of the absurd. It was performed with panache that drew bouts of laughter.

If we reply with a raised eyebrow or a despairing grin, this music surely deserves our attention, and the concert was a performance to remember, played with sincerity and humou. These pieces, a secret diary from behind the Iron Curtain, left me exhausted but enlivened: sometimes we need a certain vitriol to freshen our vision.

30.08.13

the photo caption for this article is the Soviet War Memorial, Budapest 

music and words

We get a bit put off by classical music, because it seems daunting and full of codes and facades, perhaps a little illegible. I don’t know the first thing about football, I haven’t kicked a ball for years: where would I begin, with all the teams, players and chants, home stadiums, famous games? Where would I begin with orchestras, great performers, composers, and famous symphonies?

Despite the facade, music brings so much good, when we get to know what we’re looking for. Then it feels like an old friend, a great mine of solace and fun and wise advice. It can help us feel understood in our problems, whatever they are – and help us feel bright through it all, and find hope. All we need is an introduction.