Death be not proud Wednesday, Oct 19 2005 

Mozart’s Requiem

At the round earth’s imagined corners blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall, overthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance, hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God, and never taste death’s woe.

– John Donne

If there is a single reason to believe in God, it is Mozart. It’s not just that it’s hard to imagine that even an infinity of evolution could produce a single being so wondrous; it’s that Mozart’s music is so overpowering, so unimaginably beautiful that it demands an audience greater than the merely mortal. The human soul is too small and weak a container for the great flood of Mozart’s genius, to even attempt to hold on to the essence of his music is to try to contain the sea in a transparent flask. Humankind was not made to bear so much beauty.

The Requiem in D minor (K.626) is Mozart’s swan song, and one of the most glorious and heartbreaking pieces of music ever written. There are a few pieces, very few, that move me to tears each time I hear them – Mozart’s Requiem does more, it reduces me to a blubbering, bawling mass of pure emotion (if you don’t believe me, just read the rest of this post). If there is truly a music of the spheres, this is what it must sound like.

The Requiem opens quietly, drawing you slowly into a world of dark foreboding, the voices of the choir lingering like dark clouds on the horizon of the music. Then a soprano breaks through, pure as a sunbeam, and as the music soars you realise that this is no earthly endeavour, that the music you are about to hear belongs in some higher, more ethereal plane. There is a dark sense of peace here, a sort of fragile and restless stillness.

Into this calm the Kyrie arrives like a sudden quickening of the wind. This is an urgent and dramatic plea for God’s mercy, (so different, for instance, from the Kyrie in the C minor mass, K 427) but it is also a proud one. Mozart marries desperation to power here, laying open the beating heart of the life force, as if to say: Here is all our strength. Here is all our pride, all our youth, all that we are capable of. Take it, but grant us your mercy.

And then, just as you are beginning to feel the blood pounding in your veins, just as your body is beginning to throb with the music and you are starting to feel the exhileration pulsing through you, the gauntlet Mozart has thrown down is accepted and the Dies Irae comes crashing through the world. Here is an unleashing of all the savage power that Mozart can muster, an explosion of pure wrath (uncharacteristic for Mozart) that puts Beethoven to shame. As the great drums of Mozart’s anger blaze forth, you can literally feel the walls shattering around you, the chains breaking, the great engines of doom erupting in all their horrifying majesty. Forget Handel’s trumpets, forget odes to joy, if the day of judgement ever arrives, this is what it will sound like.

Who shall stand beside on this day? Who shall plead for us, and with what voice? In the resounding silence that the Dies Irae leaves in its wake, a lone trumpet swells in aching, lonely cadence, joined slowly by the frail, anxious voices of those who have survived the cataclysm. The Requiem is so beautiful that it is difficult to pick a favourite part of it, but if I had to pick one it would be this – the Tuba Mirum. This is the saddest, most lovely thing that Mozart ever wrote (well, okay, that’s an exaggeration, but not too much of one), a trembling paean, pregnant with memory and sorrow, that speaks forever for all our dead, all our injured, all our dispossessed and violated. All the world’s suffering is in those notes, all the helplessness of man faced with the indifference of nature and the cruelty of his fellow beings. The Tuba Mirum is the voice of eternal mourning, the immutable memory of those we have lost.

Safe in the knowledge of such prayer, the Rex Tremendae rises in glory again, but it is a softer, warmer glory, a sound made mellow by the absence of pride, a more humble rejoicing. That it should gently fade into a series of solo voices soaring in prayer seems natural – all is yearning and sweetness here, all is pleading and beautiful.

But mercy is not so easily gained. As the Confutatis arrives, the darker note of wrath returns, the strings are stern again, and the voices of the choir tumble into the darkness. But from the ashes of this sound a new note arises – cleaner, purer, paler – a quivering flame searching for the light. For a moment the confusion of the opening notes threatens to engulf it, but it gutters through, and as the music grows still again, begins to burn brighter.

It is now that we arrive, finally, at despair. As the Lachrimosa swells, I am reminded of Shakespeare – “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now”. Here is pain made liquid, here is a desolation that would make the heavens weep. Listening to the choir sing, I can feel something screaming inside me, and I have to hold on to the music, to the purity of its sound, to keep from giving in.

“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”. As the Offertorium opens, you can feel the music, having been humbled and reduced to its lowest point, beginning to gather strength again. This builds slowly, lingering lovingly over the voices of the soloists bathed in sudden hope, climaxing in a mighty prayer, a Hostias of sublime power.

From here on, everything is praise. The Sanctus fills the room with new promise, the sweetly singing Benedictus celebrates this frail sense of hope and the Agnus Dei is a final, almost triumphant prayer for peace, made in the virtual surety of deliverance, of gentleness.

In the end, the thin sunbeam of the contralto’s voice returns, its quavering song still bathed in sorrow; only the choir is no longer a cloudbank, but a wall of shining mirrors, reflecting and celebrating the human soul.

It is here, in this triumphant finale, that Mozart finally pours out his heart’s blood, finally gives us the true fire that he and he alone is capable of. Here is Mozart’s own plea for immortality, the sound of genius standing up to be counted. This is who I am, Mozart seems to say, this is what I can do. Here I come towards you, riding on wings of angels. How could you deny me a place in heaven? How can you deny me a place in your heart?

Let me put it another way. When I die, I don’t want any elaborate rituals, any fancy prayers, any mournful eulogies. I don’t want ceremonies or speeches. All I ask is that someone play Mozart’s Requiem over my dead body. It will be enough. It will be more than I deserve.

Notes:

1. Post inspired by performance of Mozart’s Requiem I attended tonight. Not a very great performance, but with the Requiem even ordinary performances are immeasurably moving. It’s quite embarassing, sitting in the third row and trying not to let anyone know that you’re crying. My only consolation is that the soloists were crying too – it’s the first time I’ve seen someone cry through their own performance.

2. It’s interesting how Mozart’s incredible talent as an Opera composer serves him so well in the Requiem. The intertwining of the voices is flawless and fascinating here – the sheer unobtrusive richness of the multiple voices all joining into a single overwhelming sound. Brilliant.

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Where the rainbow shone Friday, Sep 30 2005 

Kusangala in concert

"Where the years have gone where the years have flown
Where the rainbow shone
We vanish, and we make no moan."

– Allen Ginsberg

Attended a concert by this local jazz ensemble called Kusangala (which means 'rejoice' I'm told) – which turned out to be way more brilliant than I'd expected.

The great thing about the ensemble is that it brings together a range of very disparate talents. For starters there's Tyrone Brown – a hypnotic bass player and the composer of much of the group's music. His bass solo was easily the highlight of the concert for me – a dark, driven piece, magically overlaying the most delicate of melodies on a full-throated and proud rhythm beat, the sheer throb of the music in the small auditorium making the cymbals rattle as if the ghosts of the ancients were keeping time on the drums.

The other highlight for me was Gloria Galante who plays (hold your breath) the harp. I must confess I've never thought of the harp as a jazz instrument (though apparently it's not that uncommon), even though it's an instrument I really love (remember Mozart's incredible flute and harp concerto). Now that I come to think of it though, it's a really good sound for jazz – part piano, part guitar – a marvellously clean, glistening sound, and a beautiful instrument to meditate and improvise on. The combination of Brown's bass rhythm and Galante's crystal clear melodies was perfection itself. Galante also played a couple of pieces with tenor saxophonist Odean Pope and again the combination was impressive, if only for being such an unusual sound – elegaic, almost classical (one of the pieces they were doing was originally scored for piano and cello). Pope (who I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard before – I really must get more into the Philly jazz scene) has a nice throaty sound and his slow movements have that dreamy midnight quality that one (or at least I) associates with classic jazz.

The rest of the ensemble brought their own talents to bear on the music as well. Duke Wilson's percussion had this earthy, almost tribal feel, and some of the effects he pulled off were truly mind-blowing. You could just shut your eyes and swing along to the music. And Rosella Washington sang very movingly. Overall, I thought the combination worked very nicely, producing a sound that was refreshing and authentic, if not excessively brilliant. One of my favourite pieces – this thing called the Somewhere over the Rainbow Samba – exemplifies this perfectly. It's a rendition of Somewhere over the rainbow played with superb delicacy on the harp, accompanied by a rich bass line and a catchy samba beat.

Not all was sweetness and light at the concert. There was also this annoying woman (I didn't get her name) who was brought onto stage to read her 'poetry' along with the music. This would have been an interesting improvisation if the woman could write, but as it was her clunky uninspired verses left me cringing in my chair and wishing she would shut up so I could listen to the music (she was the sort of poet who believes the fact that 'soaring' rhymes with 'roaring' is so important a discovery that she simply must include it in her poem at least four times. Aarrghh!).

Trashy doggerel aside, this was a really beautiful concert.

P.S. Plus, with my usual look, I ended up sitting next to this really dumb woman whose idea of enjoying the music was to take photographs of it. So every time one of the artists would branch off into an intense solo or improvisation, she would eagerly pull out her camera, spend two minutes squirming about in her chair trying to find the perfect angle and then take a picture (which meant that there would be a bright flash exploding in your face and blinding you). Someone should have explained to her that you can't actually hear the music in the photographs. And this was inspite of clear announcements at the start of the program informing us that photography was not permitted. How annoying can people be? Sometimes you wonder whether it wouldn't be a better world if you could go around slapping people.

All these albums that you mention Saturday, Sep 24 2005 

My Top Ten Dylan Albums

A link from Jabberwock to an article by Roger Ebert (kind of) talking about Bob Dylan’s life and work prompted an evening of obsessive listening to Dylan songs, so figured I might as well top it off by posting a list of my ten favourite Dylan albums. This proved to be a harder task than I’d imagined, but here goes:

1. Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

I know, I know, pretty much every Dylan fan out there is going to scream blue murder about this one – but Highway 61 Revisited is, without doubt, my favourite Dylan album. Admittedly, it’s far from being the most musical of his albums, but for my money it’s the one that best showcases his talents as a songwriter. There’s more genuine poetry in this one than there is in pretty much anything else that Dylan put together. Starting with the incredible Like a Rolling Stone, the album goes on to include such classics as the Ballad of a Thin Man (” You’ve been with the professors / And they’ve all liked your looks / With great lawyers you have / discussed lepers and crooks / You’ve been through all of / F Scott Fitzgerald’s books / You’re very well read / It’s well known // But something is happening here / And you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mr Jones?”), Tombstone Blues, Highway 61 Revisited and that greatest of all epic Dylan songs – Desolation Row. Just the names of the songs on this album are magic: It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry, Queen Jane Approximately, Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues. A truly amazing album.

2. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)

In the beginning, there was The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. In many ways, this is Dylan’s first real album – the 1962 Bob Dylan album is mostly covers of other people’s songs. This is Dylan in full acoustic / folk mode, and the album includes some of his finest songs within that genre. The result is a collection of songs from a young new artist that would put to shame the ‘Best of” collections of most musicians. The album starts with my favourite Dylan song of all time – Blowin’ in the wind – and then goes through such wonders as Girl of the North Country, A Hard Rain’s a-gonna fall and Don’t think twice it’s all right; as well as the delightfully whimsical Talking World War III blues and Dylan’s rendition of Corrina, Corrina. Free-wheeling is the word.

3. The Times they are a-changin’ (1964)

You knew this was coming, didn’t you? If I had to pick one album that said why Dylan was so important to 60’s music, this would be it. But the songs I really love here are not the overtly political ones (with the exception of With God on our side which has to be the most stunning, most whimsical and most ironic history lesson ever sung) – Only a pawn in their game, The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll – these are songs I like well enough. But the songs I really love here are the incredibly gentle One too many mornings, the sparkling When the ship comes in and the achingly sad Restless Farewell. Plus, of course, there’s the title track, which is too magical a song for me to even start to speak of. The Times they are a-changin’ may well be Dylan’s most important album, and the one he’ll be the most remembered for.

4. Blood on the tracks (1975)

The early 1970’s were not the best time for Dylan. While he continued to release an album every year, his output from this period is, frankly, better measured out in songs than in albums. So we have New Morning (If Not for you), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Knockin’ on heaven’s door) and Planet Waves (Forever Young). With the exception of these songs, though, it feels like Dylan has slipped into auto pilot, either feeding off himself (as in the 1971 Greatest Hits or the 1974 Before the Flood) or just going through the motions.

Blood on the Tracks represents an incredible return to form. Some of my favourite songs from the 70’s are here, including Tangled up in Blue, Simple Twist of Fate, Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, Shelter from the Storm and (the highly underrated) You’re going to make me lonesome when you go. Blood on the Tracks is easily Dylan’s finest album from the 70’s (though some parts of the Basement Tapes are spectacular, and the live performance At Budokan has to be heard to be believed) and marked an upsurge of talent that saw him through Desire (1976), Street Legal (1978) and Slow Train Coming (1979) before he petered out into the idiocy that was Dylan in the 80’s.

5. Blonde on Blonde (1966)

If Blood on the Tracks was a start of a new era for Dylan, Blonde on Blonde was the end of one. Blonde on Blonde is, in many ways, the culmination of the Dylan’s best years; it is the last of his great albums. There are those who would argue that as such it deserves to be ranked higher in this list, and I don’t necessarily disagree – it’s just that for me Blonde on Blonde is an unbelievable album with no (or few) outstanding songs. My favourite songs here are Rainy Day Woman, Visions of Johannah and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, but the real point of this album, I think, is that every song on it is memorable (the list includes Stuck inside of Mobile, I want you, Most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine, Temporary like Achilles, Absolutely Sweet Marie and One of must know) – if anything, I suspect it’s the fact that every song is so wonderful that keeps the brilliance of any one song from shining out.

There’s a scene in the movie version of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, where Barry, the music store attendant (played by Jack Black) discovers that a customer has never heard Blonde on Blonde. In a sudden panic, Barry rushes over to a stack of records, pulls out the album and hands it over to the customer saying “Don’t worry, it’ll be okay now.” I know exactly how he feels.

6. Bringing it all back home (1965)

Another of the great albums from the early to mid 60’s. Dylan breaks away from the politics of his earlier songs here, recording three of my all time Dylan favourites: Tambourine Man, Love minus Zero and It’s all over now, Baby Blue. The album also includes one of the few Dylan songs I can’t stand – Maggie’s farm – plus the wonderful It’s all right, Ma, I’m only bleeding and the glorious She belongs to me. The reason it’s not higher up in this list is only that the other songs are far less impressive than in the earlier albums. In Blood on the Tracks, in Blonde on Blonde, in Highway 61 Revisited it’s hard to pick a song that you don’t care for, but all the other songs here (with the possible exception of Subterranean Homesick Blues) are, frankly, eminently forgettable.

7. Another side of Bob Dylan (1964)

It’s pure whim that Another Side of Bob Dylan turns out to be the last of Dylan’s great albums on this list. This is a gentle, poetic and startlingly quiet album – including such often overlooked beauties as Ramona, I don’t believe you and All I really want to do. There’s also My Back Pages (which isn’t that great a song, frankly, it’s just that that one line – “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” is inescapable) and what must be my favourite Dylan love song – It ain’t me, babe. Oh, and then there’s the hilarious Motorpsycho Nightmare and I shall be free No. 10. This is a wonderful album, and has a quaint, simple quality to it that is hard to find in much of Dylan (at least in so concentrated a form).

8. Desire (1976)

Desire is a difficult Dylan album to pin down. In many ways it represents a very different sound for Dylan – songs like Mozambique, Joey and Oh, Sister, with the chorus backing up Dylan’s voice seem strangely un-Dylanesque (if there’s such a word). The echo of the chorus is irritating, and it obscures that flat, matter-of-fact voice that is so quintessentially Dylan.

Despite that, Desire is a marvellous album. Dylan returns to politics for a moment, giving us Hurricane, then branches off through Isis and Mozambique to the glorious One more cup of coffee, before making his way through Oh, Sister and Romance in Durango to the soaring sentimentality of Sara. This is not a great album for Dylan qua Dylan – it’s place in his overall canon is problematic, I think – but if you manage to keep the Dylan of the 60’s out of your head for a little while, this is a glorious album.

9. John Wesley Harding

No listing of Dylan’s best albums would be complete without this gem. There is a lot in John Wesley Harding that is mediocre, but hold it at the right angle and you can see the full lustre of Dylan’s music shining through. By far the best song here is All along the Watchtower (one of my all time favourites), but there’s also the Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest and I’ll be your baby tonight, and all the other songs are eminently worth a listen (Dear Landlord, John Wesley Harding, Drifter’s Escape) even if they do fall short of being outstanding.

10. Slow Train Coming

This was a tough one. Because putting Slow Train Coming at number 10 means I had to leave out Nashville Skyline (Lay Lady Lay, Tonight I’ll be staying here with you), Time out of Mind (Not dark yet, Standing in the doorway) and Street Legal (Changing of the Guards, Is your love in vain). But Slow Train Coming deserves it. Starting with Gotta Serve Somebody and making its way through Precious Angel, Slow Train and When you gonna wake up? this is a kinder, more inward looking album than much of Dylan’s other work. But what makes it special for me is I believe in you – a song that highlights, more than anything else I can think of, the haunting, vulnerable quality of Dylan’s voice.

Note: I should mention that I’m not including some of the live performances here – notable among them being Dylan at Budokan (an absolute miracle of an album, all your favourite Dylan songs as you’ve never heard them sung before), The Rolling Thunder Revue tapes and the Live 1966 album (which features, as a friend once pointed out to me – a wonderful exchange between Dylan and irate fans denouncing him for switching to his more big band avatar – if you listen very carefully you can make out the f word).

The Power and the Glory Thursday, Sep 22 2005 

Beethoven’s Fifth

“Batter my heart, three-personed God; for, you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.”

– John Donne

“Energy is Eternal Delight”

– William Blake

What is Genius? It is the ability to bring an audience of two thousand people leaping to their feet in spontaneous applause, their hearts aflame with your music, two hundred years after it was written.

Yes, the conductor and the orchestra will take the bows (and deservedly so) but in their heart of hearts who are the people really applauding? For whom will they cheer till their palms ache and their voices go hoarse? Only for the one, the glorious, Ludwig van.

There has never been, and never will be, another piece of music like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In writing the Fifth, Beethoven has written a song of Miltonian defiance, has gathered demons from every corner of the human soul into a maelstrom of rebellion, a whirlwind of furious energy joined to exquisite control. He has taken a sledgehammer to the world, smashing everything in sight. No force on earth could hope to withstand such an onslaught, the gods themselves would shatter like mirrors. The Fifth is the anthem of the Titans, the battlecry of Prometheus, the marching song of the Apocalypse. Beethoven has punched a hole through the ceiling of our silence and shown us, for one instant, the terrible blue of the sky that waits beyond.

No. Words are not enough to describe it. You could use every hyperbole that you could think of, and it would still be an understatement. From the cage-rattling manifesto of the opening to that unbelievable quickening of tempo right at the end, this symphony is a celebration of everything manic and triumphant. The Sixth may be a beautiful meditation on the purity of nature, the Ninth may be the most joyous celebration ever set to music, but the Fifth is the battle that must be fought before that victory and that peace can be enjoyed.

The eventual victory, of course, will be Beethoven’s. There is too much muscle here – the sheer sound of that fourth movement as it breaks through the scattered ranks of the third is an army that brooks no indifference. But all is not anarchy. Lurking in the pounding heart of Beethoven’s mutiny is the vision of a true poet, his sense of trembling wonder. It is easy to overlook, in the rapture of those bold allegros, the sweeter, more exalted sound of the slow movement, or the lilting moments where Beethoven shuts down the fury of his orchestra to allow a single instrument to sing like a timid bird in the heart of battle. The fact that they are not as grand or as insistent as the rest of Beethoven’s artillery does not make these parts of the symphony less heroic – it makes them more so.

The truth is that the Fifth is a baptism by fire. Beethoven’s great insight is the same as Blake’s – that to be free to create is to be on the side of the demons, that it is our indignation, not our forgiveness, that makes us human. In turning rage into a form of transcendence, Beethoven has given us the right to be proud of our anguish, even as we struggle against it. Written some seven years after Beethoven first publicly admitted to his deafness, the Fifth is a statement of pure opposition, setting the adverse power of music against the utmost power of Destiny.

Most of us, if we are lucky, will cheat Fate for a while. Beethoven was the only one who dared challenge her to a fair fight. And won.

Note: Post inspired by a performance of the Fifth I saw today – Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra – the first subscription performance of the new season. Not a notably brilliant performance, just the usual high quality one expects from the Philadelphia Orchestra, but this is the first time I’ve heard the Fifth performed live (I’ve heard it a million times on recordings of course). I’m not ashamed to say there was a point in that first movement where I was almost in tears.

A sublime abduction Thursday, Aug 11 2005 

Inversion of Stereotypes in Mozart’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail

In addition to all the other things he means to me, Mozart is also, hands down, my favourite opera composer. His best operas – Le Nozze di Figaro, Die Zauberflote, Don Giovanni – are among the most inspired and moving pieces of music I’ve ever heard, and I have a considerable fondness for Cosi Fan Tutte. I even enjoyed Idomeneo, even though I can’t help feeling that it’s not really Mozart.

Which is why it’s fairly surprising that I’ve never listened to Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail more. I’ve heard it a couple of times before, of course, and thoroughly enjoyed it, but somehow it never made my list of essential pieces.

Until now. Listening to it again last week, I suddenly realised how much I’d been missing out on. Die Entfuhrung is the first of Mozart’s great operas – a work that is a stunning departure from the plainness of Idomeneo, written just one year earlier*. This is the first time you hear the glorious complexity of Mozart’s music in all its exhilarating richness – that inimitable talent that Mozart has for setting dialogue to music, so that a series of clear, individual voices come together in a dizzying harmony; the cut and thrust of notes fencing with each other, that exquisite sense of balance coupled with a powerful, driving force – what Ted Hughes calls “the bullet and automatic purpose” of Mozart’s music. The orchestration is richer here, the pace more hectic, the individual voices more clearly delineated. Die Entfuhrung is not quite as brilliant as Figaro or Zauberflote** but you can clearly hear that shades of those operas to come in the music here.

What last week’s listening (and paying close attention to the libretto for a change) really brought home to me though, was how deeply seditious the opera really is – how much it makes fun of the heroic stereotypes, turning them entirely on their head.

The story, in a nutshell, is this. A young noblewoman called Konstanza, along with her maid Blondchen and her maid’s lover Pedrillo have fallen into the hands of the Pasha Salim. While Blondchen has been given as a slave to one Osmin, a vassal of the Pasha’s, Salim continues to try to woo Konstanza for himself. From this predicament, Konstanza’s fiance, a spanish nobleman named Belmonte comes to rescue them. Obtaining entrance into the Pasha’s palace by pretending to be an architect, Belmonte plans a daring escape, but the four lovers are caught and taken prisoner. It is discovered that Belmonte is the son of the Pasha’s sworn enemy, and it seems certain that the lovers will be put to death. At the last minute, though, the Pasha decides to release the prisoners rather than torture them, and the opera ends with the lovers sailing away while singing the Pasha’s praises and thanking him for his mercy.

Two things are important to note here – first, that the real ‘hero’ of this story is undoubtedly Pasha Salim. Like Sarastro in Die Zauberflote Salim is the person with the real power here, Belmonte is nothing but a dilettante – a blithering idiot who blunders into a situation, sings a bunch of wonderful arias about love and longing and then ends up getting caught (even Pedrillo, his servant – a sidekick closely related to Papageno – is shrewder). It is Salim who shows admirable restraint (for a Pasha) in not taking Konstanza by force; it is Salim whose compassion and mercy eventually bring about the happy ending (ironically, it’s not a particularly happy ending for Salim, in fact, with a little bit of imagination you can almost imagine the bitterness he feels, having forgiven the foolish lovers and listening to them sing their hypocritical and overblown songs of gratitude – swearing never to forget him – which he knows to be false). Yet, in a move worthy of Becket, Salim is the one character in the opera who never sings at all – his role is entirely dialogue.

Why does Salim do it? The argument that Salim makes to Belmonte in the opera is that he (Salim) hates Belmonte’s father so much that he refuses to do what Belmonte’s father would almost certainly do in such a case – he chooses to be kind precisely because his enemy would be cruel. Yet Salim adds, “tell your father that there is greater satisfaction in answering an evil deed with a good than an evil deed with an evil one”. And later, speaking to Osmin, who is indignant at being robbed of Blondchen, Salim says, “If you cannot win someone with kindness, then there is no point in trying force”. It’s in these actions / statements of Salim that the fine irony of the opera lies – the fact that Salim, a Muslim ruler, is the only true Christian in the play. None of the other ‘christian’ characters have any real compassion for either Salim or Osmin.

This is an amazingly bold message (remember, the opera was first performed in 1781), even for one hidden away in what is essentially a comic opera. And what makes it interesting is that it would seem to be atleast partly Mozart’s doing. The original libretto for the opera had Salim discover that Belmonte was his own long lost son, with Salim’s subsequent actions being explained that way. When Mozart set the opera to music, however, the plot was changed to accomodate this darker, more ironic storyline.

The other interesting thing about Die Entfuhrung is the way in which, for its time, it’s an interestingly feminist work. Women in Die Entfuhrung are not helpless victims of the lusts of men, rather they are courageous lusty individuals who do more to maintain their own honour than the men who supposedly ‘protect’ them. In a pivotal moment at the beginning of Act Two, for instance, Osmin confronts Blondchen, insisting that she, as his woman, conform to his every wish. Blondchen immeadiately informs him where he can go, actually threatening to gouge his eyes out, and informing him that it takes kindness and consideration to win a woman’s heart, not rough, brutal behaviour. At another point (in the middle of what must be the most beautiful episode in the whole opera -a glorious quartet at the end of Act 2), Pedrillo, fearing that Blondchen is no longer ‘pure’ questions her about her relationship with Osmin and gets slapped for his pains and told that he can go to hell because she has no intention of being with a man who doesn’t trust her. The point is that there’s no fear in Blondchen, nothing servile or cringing, she comports herself throughout with a confidence that few Hindi film heroines of today could manage – and remember this is 1781! Nor is Konstanza far behind. While her role is more docile and submissive, one of the highlights of the opera is this massive aria in the middle of Act 2 (an aria that compares in power to the arias of the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflote) where Konstanza threatened with physical torture by Salim, informs him in a voice filled with rage that he can do his worst and nothing will phase her. Once again, this is an aria added by Mozart for the opera, the original libretto has nothing quite so enraged.

In some sense, of course, dark humour of this sort is not unfamiliar in Mozart’s operas. There is certainly a sense in which Figaro is both a tremendously dark comedy as well as a powerful social critique, and it is certainly true that the text of Cosi fan tutte makes fun of the idea of lyrical romance as much as the music itself seems to praise it. But I think of all the operas this is the one where the ironies are most evident – it’s almost as if there were two operas here – the comic opera on the surface and a darker, more emotionally complex plot underneath that Mozart’s gloriously happy music serves only to mock. The bitterness of Die Entfuhrung comes precisely from its sweetness – to think about the feelings of Salim throughout the opera is to experience the callousness of the other characters played out through the music. Like children in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan the singers in Mozart’s opera are gay and innocent and heartless.

Notes:

* The fact that Mozart has just left the service of the Arch-bishop of Salzburg and moved to Vienna at this point may have something to do with this.

** The major problem with the opera is that Mozart, desperate for a commercial success and blessed with the finest singing talent of his day, spends too much time on the arias. They’re beautiful arias, of course, soaring and grand – arias that Verdi, for instance, would have been proud of. But they detract from the energy of the opera, they are a drag on the rapid pace with which the rest of the opera progresses

*** It’s interesting that the opera should be called the ‘Abduction’ from the Seraglio – technically, there’s no real abduction here – partly because it’s not as though the women are being taken against their wishes, but more because in the end it’s Salim who allows his prisoners to go. One more of Mozart’s clever little jokes?

Better Together Wednesday, Jul 13 2005 

The Ten Greatest Jazz collaborations of all Time

One of the things that’s always fascinated me in music is the coming together of great solo musicians to make a joint recording. This is a common theme across many different genres of music, from the jugalbandis of Indian Classical to the All-Star Bands of Rock (remember the Traveling Wilburys? Or the Rolling Thunder Revue?) to Western Classical collaborations (Du Pre and Barenboim performing Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman playing Beethoven together) and even the occassional cross-genre collaboration (the Menuhin and Shankar recordings, for instance).

But it’s jazz, perhaps, where these collaborations are most common. The reason for this, I think, is that jazz is at once a group effort and also extremely improvisational, so that there’s a natural incentive to play with other talented people. As a consequence, jazz also lends itself more readily to an apprenticeship model – with established greats playing the role of mentor to young talent (of course, this is true of Indian classical music, but Indian classical is more about a solo voice accompanied by other instruments – it isn’t quite as participatory as jazz). Whatever the reason, the history of Jazz is the history of great collaborations, with some of the most sublime artists in the business coming together to play some incredible music.

Here, then are ten of my favourite examples of such collaborations. Note that I’m only including collaborations that encompass all / part of an entire album / recording; one off songs, no matter how beautiful, are not included (though no one should go through life without hearing Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock collaborate to perform Gershwin’s Summertime; or Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgeral get together to sing How High the Moon):

1. Bird and Diz

When I first stumbled across this 1950 recording of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie playing together, I couldn’t believe my luck – I figured it just couldn’t get better than this. Until, that is, I read carefully through the fine print and discovered that the pianist accompanying the two legends was an up and coming artist named Thelonious Monk!! This is the only recording of Parker playing with Monk, and one of a handful of him playing with Gillespie and the result is sheer exuberance from the word go. The music soars and leaps as only the Bird can make it, and Gillespie matches him note for note, trick for trick. Check out Bloomdido and Leapfrog and Relaxing with Lee and…hell, check out every single breathless second of this recording – jazz has never, ever been this incredibly hot and this immaculately cool again.

2. The Davis-Shorter-Hancock-Williams-Carter Quintet

More than any other artist in the history of Jazz, Miles Davis stands out as one of the greatest collaborators of all time (see the rest of this list). But of all of his many, many collaborations, none, IMHO matches the incredible quintet comprising Miles, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Ron Carter (you can stop holding your breath now)

This quintet has a number of recordings to their credit – including the amazing Nefertiti and the visionary E.S.P. (there’s also an earlier Lincoln centre performance, dating back to 1964 which has George Coleman in Shorter’s place and showcases Miles at the pinnacle of his song-writing ability) and each one is a miracle of achingly beautiful melody combined with some of the most brilliantly complex jazz work ever. By the time these recordings were made Miles was already pretty much in full form (if not a little past it) but it’s a real treat to hear the others (Shorter, Hancock, Williams) coming into their own*.

3. The Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington Sessions

Recorded in 1961, this sublime recording showcases Jazz’s two greatest legends at the height of their powers. Consisting entirely of Duke Ellington numbers, this set includes such treasures as the sound of Armstrong playing Mood Indigo (the slow, deep moan of that trumpet to beautiful to believe) or swinging to It Don’t Mean a Thing; as well as one of the most heartbreaking performances of Solitude ever given. In some ways, this is not so great a collaboration: Ellington’s role as a performer is fairly understated here; it’s his genius as a songwriter that shines through most clearly in old Satchmo’s inimitable playing.

4. Birdsong

What do you get when you combine Jazz’s most energetic, wildly improvisational saxophone player with one of it’s sweetest, most melancholy trumpet players? You get Birdsong – an incredible recording featuring the talents of the great Charlie Parker and a young Miles Davis struggling to keep up with him. In some ways Birdsong is a hilarious recording – you can feel the tension between the two artists, the way that each tries to force his own pace (with Parker, clearly the more experienced performer at this stage, more or less winning) but the resulting music is exciting and alive and touched with a slow, solemn sweetness mixed with a sense of great hollow power. This is an incredible recording, and one that is a must for any serious Jazz enthusiast.

5. Louis and Ella

If there was ever a duo that represented jazz at its most joyful, it would be Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. In many ways, the two have very similar styles – a combination of high-octane improvisation with some of the sweetest, most swinging tunes in the genre (Ella even does some incredible imitations of Louis – check out her versions of Basin Street Blues and Mack the Knife). So it’s no real surprise that the two of them work incredibly well together, their two voices (or Ella’s voice and Louis’ trumpet) joining in perfect jubilant counterpoint as they literally sing their hearts out. To the best of my knowledge there’s no one full recording that the two ever made together (though recording companies have subsequently put together a number of such compilations), but there are a number of tracks that have just never been the same again after they sung them. My personal favourite is Let’s call the whole thing off with its wonderful sense of dialogue (check out Ella improvising of the line that ends in Vanilla, going “Chocolate! Strawberry!”). But there are other great numbers – a breathtaking version of Cheek to Cheek (with Ella’s soaring, radiant voice in marvellous contrast to Louis’s deep, muttered singing) and that quintessential recording of Dream a little dream of me the like of which we shall never hear again.

6. Miles Davis and John Coltrane

I did warn you, didn’t I? Miles is back, this time in a collaboration that predates the Shorter-Hancock quintet; a collaboration with another up and coming sax player called John Coltrane. So stunning (and more or less well deserved) is Coltrane’s reputation as a jazz artist today that it seems strange to think of him as a sort of understudy to anyone, even Miles. But the collaboration between these two works well, largely because they too have fairly similar musical ambitions. In some sense, Miles and Coltrane are the opposite end of the spectrum from Ella and Louis – they share a vision of Jazz as something slow and aching and melancholy (this is not to say that they can’t speed it up when they want to, anymore than it is to imply that either Armstrong or Ella couldn’t be as blue and sentimental as the next great performer). The Davis-Coltrane sessions are truly beautiful recordings, helped in large part by the fact that these are also the golden years of Davis’s collaboration with Gil Evans, so that the recordings here include such masterpieces as ‘Round about Midnight, Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess

All in all, though I’m less impressed by these recordings than I am by Davis’ later collaboration with Shorter. In part this is because I’ve always preferred Shorter to Coltrane – I think he’s a more exciting sax player overall; plus the Miles-Shorter-Hancock recordings give you the feeling that Miles is being pushed in new directions by the younger players in a way that Coltrane never quite manages to. That said, the Davis-Coltrane recordings are not to be missed.

7. Shakti

It took me a while to decide whether Shakti belonged in this set or not – you could argue that it isn’t really jazz (specially, if like me, you think the presiding genius of the band is not so much John McLaughlin as L Shankar), but on the whole I’m inclined to include it in here, partly because it’s hard to know how else to classify it, and partly because as collaborations go, this one is a whopper.

Listening to Shakti is an experience like no other. There’s a point (usually somewhere around the 3rd or 4th minute of the track) when words simply give out and you’re left with the sensation of being completely overwhelmed, of an entire world of music turned effortlessly on its head, of having escaped the gravity of everthing you knew (or thought you knew) about music. Pick any album you like – it doesn’t really matter – all you can do in the face of such genius is to shut your eyes and listen. And listen. And then listen some more.

8. Django Reinhardt and Stefan Grappelli

When you think of Jazz, the combination of a guitar and a violin is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Not, that is, unless the guitarist is the inimitable Django Reinhardt and the violinist is the searing Stefan Grappelli. The collaboration between these two musicians (combined with a couple of other players and going by the name of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France) has to be one of the most unique sounds in the history of jazz. Django is, of course, an incredible musician – his smooth, insightful guitar work is one of the most electrifying sounds in Jazz – and Grappelli adds an energy and a sense of poignancy with this violin work.

9. Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane

Playing at the Five Spot in New York in 1957, the Thelonious Monk Quartet was joined by an exciting young saxophonist called John Coltrane. The result is some of the sweetest, most incredible Jazz music ever performed. This album would be way higher on my listing, except that there are (to the best of my knowledge) only three completed tracks still available from these sessions, so that there really isn’t enough her to justify a higher rating. The three songs that do exist, though, are essential listening.

10. Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins

To be honest, I’ve never been a big Sonny Rollins fan. I see what there is to admire in his playing – I just don’t FEEL it. One of my biggest disappointments, for instance, was listening to Miles Davis’ Dig – the album has Sonny, Miles and Art Blakey and it still doesn’t, IMHO, really work.

The one exception though, is the recordings Rollins made with Thelonious Monk (with Art Blakey joining in for good measure and Tommy Potter on bass). This includes primarily the 1953 Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, but also their collaboration on Rollins’ Movin’ Out album. Monk, I think, is good for Rollins – he brings out a calmness and a depth in Rollins that, when combined with Sonny’s more innovative talents, makes for some truly great jazz.

* Shorter and Hancock, of course, continue to collaborate almost to this day – they’re a good team, and the number of records they play on together is probably too numerous to even mention.

Unfinished, but perfect Wednesday, Jun 29 2005 

Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony (Symphony no. 8 in B Minor)

What can you say about a 31 year old composer who died? That he was beautiful and sensitive and a genius the like of whom we shall never see again? That he worshipped Mozart and Beethoven and spent his entire life living in their shadow and probably never realised that his music was as wonderful as theirs? That centuries after his death his best music still has the power to reduce me to tears?

Of the four composers who I consider ‘great’ (Bach, Mozart and Beethoven being the others) Schubert is perhaps the one who’s most often overlooked. Relatively unappreciated in his own time (it was 35 years after his death that the ‘Unfinished’ symphony received its first public performance!), Schubert has somehow resisted becoming a true legend – sure, most serious classical music fans worship him – but he’s rarely the first composer that comes to mind.

And yet Schubert in his own right is more than the equal of the other great composers. What sets Schubert apart, I think, is his vulnerability – his ability to channel his anguish and loneliness and doubt into his music. Bach is too precise, too mathematical to do this and Mozart is too near perfection. Beethoven has an ability to give in to passion, but his flights of emotion are more conquest than surrender. It is Schubert who is the true poet among the composers – he may, in fact, be the most authentic poetic voice that humankind has ever known. You can see this most clearly in his lieder: in Winterreise, in Schwanengesang, music becomes not so much a performance as a search for expression, a struggle to become. Schubert is also the composer who best spans (IMHO) the divide between the classical and the romantic. His early work could easily be mistaken for Mozart, his later work carries the shadow of Beethoven, but extends and enhances Beethoven’s passionate sensibility, anticipating Brahms and, eventually, Mahler.

The other impressive thing about Schubert, is, of course, the sheer scale and scope of his work. Like the other great composers, Schubert spans a variety of forms, writing quartets, quintets, sonatas, lied, choral music, concertos; producing literally thousands of sublime masterpieces in the course of his short life. Only Mozart can truly be said to rival such richness.

And then, of course, there are the symphonies. These are masterworks – taken as a body together they are surpassed only by Beethoven’s nine symphonies, and even there it’s a close contest. The Fifth is a marvel of melodic drive, the Fourth is moving and dramatic, the Seventh is exquisite in itself and the Ninth, of course, is one of the grandest pieces of orchestral music ever written.

For my money though, the greatest of all his symphonies is the 8th. The ‘Unfinished’ (as the name suggests) is not really a complete symphony – Schubert wrote only two movements before abandoning it – but I would gladly trade that breathtaking first movement alone for all of, say, Haydn’s symphonies (or Brahms’). One reason for this is that the 8th is, I think, the truest expression of Schubert’s unique genius – it’s a symphony no one else could have written.

The first movement is unforgettable – that dark, menacing opening; the restless rhythm of the strings rising above it; and then the entrance of the woodwinds, calling out to the world, trying to reach out, reach beyond. There’s a constant sense of struggle here, the music rises and falls, swells and is dashed back, the notes gathering courage slowly then breaking out suddenly, proud, triumphant, only to return broken and start again. There’s an incredible amount of power here, a force, an almost unmatched drive. But there’s also longing (listen to that one solitary oboe rising plainitively above the music) and an impending sense of defeat, of tragedy (the key is B minor, remember). But perhaps the most incredible part of the movement is the development that follows the repetition of the opening sequence – here Schubert lets the darkness from the bass line overwhelm the entire orchestra, rising in an absolute crescendo that goes on and on beyond all breathing, all endurance, crushing you under its weight. There is enough anguish in that one moment of music to tear apart the world. Here is the eternal battle between strength and compassion, between God and man – Schubert sets up a dialogue here between all that is dramatic and powerful and all that is fragile and simple and plainitive. These are the passions of a young man (Schubert was 25 when he wrote the movement) turned into a music for the spheres. Even more touching, perhaps is the way Schubert resolves the conflict – those last few minutes of the movement with all their ecstatic poetry, the notes so tremblingly perfect that you’re almost afraid to listen for fear that you may do them harm.

If the first movement is all emotion and upheaval, the second movement is an ethereal miracle – a movement so sublime, so rich, filled with light and air and longing. There is a great sense of peace, of contentment. This is not a happy piece – there is no triumph here – there is only a sense of slightly melancholy satisfaction of having come to terms with the world.

All in all, Schubert’s 8th Symphony is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written – a masterpiece of immense perfection; a sound you can never quite get out of your soul.

(N.B. I attended a performance of Schubert’s 8th by the Philadelphia Orchestra yesterday – hence the post. It was part of their ongoing Mozart festival; go figure! Conducted by Peter Oundjian, the performance took a relatively gradual approach to the 8th, drawing the music out a little. This made it easier to appreciate the richness of the symphony, and made the solo pieces seem more sweeping and majestic, but it robbed the symphony of some of its drive: that vital, immediate pulse that runs through the first movement. It was interesting, therefore, but on the whole I’d have preferred a marginally faster tempo)

Beethoven Agonistes Wednesday, Jun 22 2005 

(Beethoven Piano Sonatas No. 30, 31 and 32)

What would it be like if we could hear Shakespeare talking to himself?

Imagine if we went back in time and found him, at the height of his powers, sitting alone in a darkened room, thinking out aloud. What would the bard sound like when he had no one to impress, no need for the fire and passion that are so essential a part of what we love about his writing, no richness of metaphor, no fervid ornamentation of speech? This was a man who polished language to its finest, most glorious lustre; how would that language change when he had only himself for an audience, when the power of that mighty tongue was turned inward? What would the writer of the greatest soliloquies in literature have to say to the silence of his own room?

That, unfortunately, is a question we will probably never know the answer to. But it’s the same impression of solitary genius, of a great master coming to terms with his solitude, that fills Beethoven’s final piano sonatas (30, 31 and 32). Gone are the fireworks of the early sonatas, the grand flourishes, the sound structured yet majestic – the sound of a great pianist who is miraculously, ostentatiously in control of his music. Instead we have an older, quieter, wiser Beethoven; a Beethoven who no longer feels the need to make his music defined and rigid and powerful, a Beethoven who is more willing to trust his instincts now, feeling his way quietly out to a terrible beauty of notes that even he can only begin to imagine. It’s almost as though Beethoven had finally got over his desperate need to impress, to show off, realising that peace is internal and true satisfaction can only come from within. Which is why he is now content to sit in front of his piano playing note after note to himself, trying to capture the calmness of beauty, the incredible joy of contentment which is also its greatest sorrow.

As such, these last sonatas are a stunning testament to the distance Beethoven had travelled, to his inimitable genius. The faster movements here still have all the force, all the drive of his earlier work (the first movement of Sonata 32 is particularly brilliant), though the power seems less controlled, more flexible; Beethoven is more willing to let the passions have full rein. But the real beauty of these sonatas are in their slow movements, which brim with feeling and transcendence like nothing else Beethoven ever wrote. These are perfection, or as close to perfection as Man can hope to get – one note follows another and each note is exactly right, and the overall tune is invisible, inaudible to the ear but true to the heart. It’s like listening to a combination of Chopin, Tatum and early Beethoven himself – a sound unmatched by any other work for piano I have ever heard.

Understand that I’m not knocking Beethoven’s earlier piano sonatas. I would still pick Moonlight (No. 14) or Pathetique (No 8) over pretty much any other piece of music, and I will always be in awe of Waldstein and Appassionata. What impresses me about the last sonatas is that they sound nothing like these earlier works, so that listening to the two together you could be forgiven for thinking they were by entirely different composers*. There is a sense of ease in these last sonatas, a seeming lack of anxiety, which means that while the early Sonatas take your breath away by force, these latter works leave you afraid to breathe for fear of spoiling their intricate and fragile perfection. It almost makes you wonder how things would have turned out if Beethoven had lived for another five, maybe ten years. Would music have stayed the same then, or would it have altered forever achieving a serenity we can only dream of now? Yet another question that we will never know the answer to.

What we do know is that those last years of Beethoven’s life were also his finest, that he achieved in those last days a maturity and a vision perhaps unmatched in Western Classical music. What we do know is that it was this Beethoven, a far greater composer in his dotage than he could ever be in his youth, who wrote the weary yet joyful sonatas that were to be his last. What we do know is that these sonatas still exist, are easily accessible to anyone who seeks them out, and cry out to be listened to for the sake of all that is beautiful in music.

* There are signs of the coming change, of course. Listen, for instance, to the slow movement from Hammerklavier (Sonata 28).