Some of us, suffering no doubt from illusions of grandeur, imagine ourselves appearing on Desert Island Discs and introducing eight favourite and wonderful pieces of music. It is a tricky task reducing many cherished pieces to a handful, but it is fun to attempt and interesting to calculate why the final eight are so special. It is something I have done occasionally with friends, or amongst pupils at school, always insisting that each choice is justified with a reason: sentimental, historical or musical. It was an end of term gambit with my music classes and it surprised me how difficult many of the pupils found articulating their response to the music they were so keen to share with us.
I’ve taken the exercise a stage further, in trying to pinpoint the exact moment in a wonderful piece of music that really gets you-the final top note in “Nessun dorma” perhaps, or the ringing cries of the three Rhinemaidens:- “Rhinegold, Rhinegold!” – in the opening scene of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle.
Choruses and solo movements from Handel’s Messiah are a favourite choice, covering such a wide range of moods and feelings. The aria “He shall feed his flock” is a wonderful illustration of Handel’s melodic genius: the principal melody takes 19 bars to unwind and follows the Baroque convention of casting pastoral music in compound time, with note patterns arranged in lilting groups of three quaver beats. We are lulled and beguiled by the Alto’s beautiful melody but then comes the special moment: Handel shifts the key up from F Major to B flat major and the Soprano soloist lifts us into a brighter stratosphere, always with the promise of discreet embellishments as the melody runs its course again.
Handel’s contemporary Bach wasn’t given to sensational musical brushstrokes, but there are moments in his vast oeuvre which never fail to knock me over. Most choral enthusiasts agree that his St Matthew Passion is the greatest religious choral work in the History of Western Music. It’s a three-hour marathon, but the famous passage “Truly this was the son of God” is barely 3 bars long. Some of us fondly remember singing it under the baton of Sir David Willcocks: he took it slowly, and followed it with a reverential silence. Nowadays it is the fashion to sing it as part of the ongoing action described by the Evangelist and it passes by with less ceremony…but with its arching rise and fall it remains a passage of extraordinary spiritual intensity within the context of the whole work.
It is almost impossible to appreciate how one man could compose such a vast oeuvre in a lifetime, but even Bach came to a point when he could compose no more. On his last day, we are told, he was still working on the Art of Fugue, an esoteric work which he had begun writing in his final decade. In the last incomplete movement a four-voiced fugue is based on a figure made from Bach’s name, B-A-C-H: in German terminology the notes are B flat, A, C and B natural, a funny little figure. It is as if Bach is signing off as a composer by basing his final utterance on a monogram of his name. As one listens to the confident flow and inevitable logic of Bach’s music it is shocking when it suddenly stops, mid-flow. And it is then that one realises that even the great God Bach was limited by human existence.
Mozart was another unearthly genius, reeling off a string of masterpieces in his Vienna years, despite his often chaotic and strained personal circumstances. He, like Bach, left a work unfinished in the final days of his brief life-a Requiem, written for a mysterious patron. The first twelve bars of the Lacrymosa rise to a climax and abruptly stop. Others have sought to complete the movement satisfactorily, but contemporary accounts tell us that was the moment at which the maestro was too weak to carry on.
Some believe “Cosi fan Tutte” is his most perfect Opera and the Trio from Act One “Soave sia il vento” is a Desert Island favourite. The Old Philosopher Don Alfonso sings alongside the bereft sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella as they watch their suitors depart by sea to take up active service in the army, part of a ruse he has hatched to test the girls’ fidelity. The muted string accompaniment over a plucked bass line prepares the way for their plea “Lie calmly, thou ocean, blow softly, ye breezes!” It is, incidentally, remarkably similar to Vivaldi’s passage in Spring from “The Four Seasons” accompanying the words “the streams flow with sweet murmurings at the breath of zephyrs. ”
The Trio proceeds in sweet harmonies, but now to the special moment. Near the end the two girls come to rest on a delicious pair of high notes while Alfonso sings an angular, chromatic figure which ascends and descends as he expresses his feigned sympathy. Then the high voices descend in thirds and the Baritone climbs up in contrary motion, concluding a passage of great beauty, heard once and never again.
My brother encouraged me to listen to serious music in my teenage years but with Bach Concertos and Beethoven String Quartets I didn’t really know how to engage. But then, when I heard Rimsky Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” for the first time, I realised that music can tell a story, and that really got me going.
Somewhere on my D. I. list would be Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique”, a highly descriptive, ground-breaking work from the early years of the Romantic era. It is a confession of obsessive love for “the beloved”, who is given her own musical leitmotif: every movement has a story-line and the score is full of graphic “word-painting. ” The fourth movement is the March to the Scaffold, a movement that became so popular it was frequently performed on its own. As set out in Berlioz’s programme notes, the artist dreams he has killed the object of his love, is condemned to death and marched to the scaffold. The build-up of sound and excitement during the fateful procession is achieved with some masterful orchestral writing. The crowd are clearly baying for blood and towards the end one half (Winds and Brass) are shouting across to the other (Strings and Drums). After a furious explosion of sound from the whole orchestra a lone clarinet suddenly plays the beloved’s melody “pianissimo”, reviving a last thought of love. This is cut short by the death-blow, fortissimo, and immediately after that the head rolls into the basket (two plucked notes descending in the strings) The movement comes to an end with sixteen exultant, blaring chords played fortissimo-the crowd are ecstatic at the gory spectacle. It’s a stunning, visceral musical passage.
I have conducted a few Requiems in my time and though I am not a conventional Christian the great settings often make me painfully aware of our brief and perilous span on this earth. In the second section of the Brahms German Requiem the orchestral introduction proceeds with a heavy tread and sombre harmonies: the scoring is rich and full of dark colours. Man’s fateful destiny is evoked by a narrow-gauge unison melody in the minor mode-“Behold all flesh is as the grass, and all the glory of man is as the flower of the field. ” At the mention of grass and flowers the music slips into the major mode and warms a little, only to decay and sadden again quite quickly.
With the repeat of the introductory music the impression of a dead march is intensified by the Timpani’s menacing beats and the increased prominence of the brass and winds, including contra-bassoon. When the voices repeat the grim melody it is an octave higher and very loud: we sense the inexorable march of time and suffer the overwhelming effect of fate crushing us poor human beings: it makes me shudder, every time.
When it comes to the great composers I seem to be attracted to those with a gift for fine melodies: Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Puccini, and not forgetting Tchaikovsky, whose Fantasy Overture “Romeo and Juliet” always went down well in classroom listening sessions. It condenses the story-line of Shakespeare’s play into a compelling twenty-minute musical narrative. There are themes for Friar Laurence, the star-crossed lovers and an agitated motif representing the bitter quarrel between the two families and these, combined with the vivid orchestration and dynamic harmonies and rhythms, brilliantly convey the essence of the plot.
Several significant musical moments occur in the closing bars, something that the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, who must have performed the piece many times, clearly appreciated. After muffled drums suggest a funeral procession the love theme is heard in tragic form. The woodwinds approximate the sound of an organ playing a solemn hymn before the love theme, now high in the upper strings, combines with a bass-line which bears a passing resemblance to “There’s a place for us” from West Side Story!. The battle theme (again with a rhythmic motif similar to that of the Jets Song) is reduced to a few fortissimo stabbing chords, before every instrument lands on a unison note, which I have always taken as a symbol of unity as the two families are invited to bury their differences and come together. What a stunning conclusion!
Our family holidays in North Norfolk took us away from the hectic and sometimes stressful pattern of life at Marlborough College. I may have conducted the Verdi Requiem a couple of nights before but standing on the shingle beach at Cley-next-the-Sea in late March and looking out to sea always brought me down to size.
The coast of East Anglia-a shingle beach-a grey sky-the cold North Sea-is there a passage of music that conjures up this scene better than “Dawn”, the first orchestral interlude from Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes”?
Alex Ross in his book on 20th C. music wrote: “The first orchestral interlude brings the coast to life. High grace notes mimic the cries of birds; rainbow-like arpeggios imitate the play of light on the water; booming brass chords approximate the thudding of the waves. Britten made his inner landscape as vivid as the rumble of the sea, the cries of gulls, and the scuttling of the crabs”.
When I contemplate the music of Richard Strauss I hear opulent operatic voices-Sopranos and Mezzo-Sopranos-and in the background the sweet sound of a French Horn or two, little surprising since Strauss had a horn-playing father and married a Soprano.
The 84-year-old Strauss wrote The Four Last Songs the year before he died, a last tryst in his lifelong affair with the Soprano voice. The third song, “Going to sleep”, is a veiled reference to death: “Now all my senses want to sink themselves in slumber…. . ”
The soprano’s first phrase has a world-weary quality as it slips in quietly over the orchestral background. In due course an arching violin melody appears, which the singer finally takes over to the words: “and the soul, unwatched, will soar in free flight, till in the magic circle of night it lives deeply and a thousand-fold. ” Up it stretches with six little rises and falls and there, finally, is the solo French Horn with a sweet valedictory phrase.
Such music has a quality that is difficult to put into words- poignant, spiritual, soul-searching, deeply touching-making it, of all the Great Musical Moments, so very special. For this is what music can do that is so unique, transporting us into a world which words cannot quite reach. We close our eyes and let it fill our ears with sound.
Robin Nelson January 2021…to be continued