Halloween: An Epic Journey to The Isle of the Dead

“A dream picture: it must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door.” ~ Arnold Böcklin

As our collective fascination with death prevails at this time of year, my thoughts drifted to Rachmaninoff’s evocative symphonic poem, The Isle of the Dead, completed in early 1909.

This haunting music was composed after Rachmaninoff had seen a black and white reproduction of the painting Isle of the Dead, exhibited in Paris two years earlier.

Black and White Photograph of Version 4

Black and White Photograph of Version 4

The original and subsequent versions of the Isle of the Dead paintings were created in colour by the romantic Swiss artist, Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901).

Between 1880 and 1886 he painted a total of five versions of his iconic Isle of the Dead. The original painting was commissioned by his patron, Alexander Günther which was spotted half-finished, sitting on an easel in his Florence studio by German widow Maria Berna. This is often referred to as the Basel version.

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Basel Version)

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Basel Version)

She persuaded him to add the female figure and the draped coffin to the solitary rowing boat in memory of her deceased husband. Maria’s painting (version two) was a smaller painting (29 x 48 inches) of oil on wood, which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Böcklin must have admired Maria’s idea as he then also added the figure and coffin to his original painting. These first two paintings were titled Die Gräberinsel (Tomb Island) by Böcklin. The enduring ‘Isle of the Dead’ name that all the versions now go by was suggested by art dealer Fritz Gurlitt in 1883.

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Metropolitan Museum New York)

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Metropolitan Museum New York)

Painting number three was done in 1883 for Böcklin’s dealer Fritz Gurlitt. Beginning with this version, one of the burial chambers in the rocks on the right bears Böcklin’s own initials: A.B. The painting was sold in 1933 when it was acquired by Adolf Hitler, where it hung in the Berghof in Obersalzberg. After 1940 it was moved to the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Its less contentious home these days is in the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

Version 3 c. 1883 (Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin)

Version 3 c. 1883 (Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin)

Version number four, (upon which Rachmaninoff’s music is based), was created in 1884 due to financial pressures, and was bought by art collector Baron Heinrich Thyssen. Luckily a black and white photograph was taken of the painting before it was destroyed by fire during World War II.

Rachmaninoff eventually got to see the fifth and final colour version (painted in 1886) at the museum of fine Arts in Leipzig. He commented that he much preferred the earlier black and white version and that he would not have been inspired to compose his opus 29 had he seen the colour version first instead.

Version 5 c. 1886 (Leipzig)

Version 5 c. 1886 (Leipzig)

“When it came, how it began—how can I say? It came up within me, was entertained, written down.” ~ Sergei Rachmaninoff referring to his orchestral opus 29 in A minor, Isle of the Dead.

Possible inspiration

halloween-pondikonissi_islandIt has been proposed that the Greek islet of Pontikonisi near Corfu, with its Byzantine chapel and Cypress trees was the main inspiration for the painting, along with the high volcanic walls of Strombolicchio. Also the English Cemetery in Florence, where Böcklin’s infant daughter was buried served as the location for the painting of the first three versions. Another suggestion is St. George’s Island in the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro.

Overview of the music by Phillip Huscher for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra :

Rachmaninov begins with the irregular movement of oars in the water. (Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, completed just four years earlier, also begins with the stroke of oars on a lake.) The opening is dark—just low strings, with timpani and harp at first—and mysterious. For a very long time, we move forward with little sense of destination, but with a growing urgency. (Tantalizing melodic fragments appear from time to time, like glimpses through the mist, and a haunting high violin theme takes wing at one point.)

Finally, the island comes into sight, the music gathers force and direction, and at last we hear the Dies Irae, the Gregorian chant from the Mass for the Dead—a motto of mortality that recurs often in Rachmaninov’s music. Then suddenly the music is suffused with life—urgent, passionate, and joyous. (Here Rachmaninov departs from the painting, although Böcklin did in fact paint a complementary Isle of Life two years after his last Isle of the Dead canvas.) But the Dies Irae rings out, and the music is again clouded in shadows. The ending is mostly still, and we are left where we began, with the sound of ceaseless rowing.

Two spine tingling versions:

Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:

An arrangement for 2 pianos sourced from my favourite treasure trove of classical music, with Zdeňka Kolářová and Martin Hrše of the Prague Piano Duo:

In honour of  Böcklin  and Rachmaninoff, as well as the historical origins of our modern interpretation of Halloween, I’ve written a few verses of my own:

Journey to The Isle of the Dead

Deep, melancholy chords escort me to the Isle of the Dead,

Remote, alabaster tombs protrude, rising from darkness and dread.

Monotonous oars glide through glassy, unfathomable depths…

No wind to rustle the sombre shroud of Cypress leaves,

Oil on canvas for widow Maria; a window to her dreams.

🎨🎼🎧💀

Reverent brush strokes paint entry to immortal sleep,

The fatal shore beckons: come, come, your soul to reap.

Cross the silent, still surface, to peace or purgatory…

Within the high, pale rock, lies the secret of eternity,

Destiny concealed from searching, inquisitive fervency.

🎨🎼🎧💀

Five versions, against muted backdrop of foreboding firmament

Greys and blues, softened by nebulous cloud; omnipotent.

Navigate lofty cemetery through the watery gates…

Sea and sky blend and merge, in subtle, never-ending horizon,

Arrival assured: but no departure possible, from Death’s Island.

🎨🎼🎧💀

Rhythmic notes on the stave narrate a deathly story,

Atmospheric melody; oppressive, mythical and eerie.

A final journey to the sea-bound realm beyond the living…

Corpses lay buried, side by side, forever to abide,

Within the endless cavern of souls; life doth hide.

🎨🎼🎧💀

Hallowed art and music, death’s mystery shall convey,

Sacred and ancient celebration – All Saints’ Day.

‘Samhain’ bids Gaelic farewell to light; to summer’s passing…

Hallow –e’en, from 18th century Scottish: ‘All-Hallows-Even’

Holy Eve before the rising; for death is conquered in heaven…

By Virginia Burges

Happy Halloween!

Dancing to Death’s Tune: The ‘Danse Macabre’

“Venite ad me, qui onerati estis.” (Come to me, all ye who labour and are heavy laden.)

Death lingers in the air at this time of year. Ghastly ghouls, wicked witches and spooky skeletons decorate shops, costumes and cakes, as everything occult fascinates society at Halloween. Perhaps it’s our way of confronting the inevitable, the journey of life towards the grave that no one particularly wants to talk about.

Frans Francken the Younger - Detail of Danse Macabre

Frans Francken the Younger – Detail of Danse Macabre

Halloween decorates death with a mostly comical slant; ergo it becomes more acceptable, slicing and dicing the edges from the fear and disgust of the decomposed, emaciated body, the dissolution of earthly life. We are reminded in a joking atmosphere that Death has become light hearted, transforming some people into what I would describe as necromaniacs!

Necromancy, dancing spirits and ghostly stories abound at this time of year, but underneath this creepy consumerism and fun there’s a deeper message lurking for anyone who dares to look harder.  Could it be modern society’s memento mori minus the seriousness of Christian theology?

Totentanz - Danse Macabre at St. Nicholas Church Tallin

Totentanz – Danse Macabre at St. Nicholas Church Tallin

It’s a subject people are loath to ponder, why would one meditate on one’s own demise? Yet the transience of life, the fragility of physical existence is all around us, we have all been touched by death’s tendrils in one form or another. Our ongoing mortality is grounds for practising gratitude, for no matter how bad things get, we are at least still breathing! It’s a stark reminder not to take our existence for granted.

Origins

Musically, culturally and artistically, the dance of death has its origins in medieval France. Dancing and death went hand in hand – the allegory of the longest sleep.

Hans Holbein - Nuremburg Chronicle c. 1493

Hans Holbein – Nuremburg Chronicle c. 1493

The Danse Macabre was designed to show us that no matter our station in life, whether lowly or exalted, death is the harbinger of equality; it eventually comes for us all, and one should consider one’s earthly activities in order to earn a spiritual meritocracy – aka eternal salvation, entrance into heaven/immortality.

Throughout medieval France and Europe the Danse Macabre/Totentanz was a serious message about the inevitability of death, packaged as entertainment (life was pretty grim for the ordinary folks), and was expressed in poetry, church murals, paintings, Hans Holbein’s woodcuttings and in religious hymns.

The Hundred Years War

The poor souls that inhabited Paris throughout the cruel and bitter civil war between the Armagnacs (those loyal to the French Royal Family and the Orléanist Lords) and the Burgundians (those loyal to the English Royal Family and Anglo-allied Burgundian Lords), experienced the intense suffering of a late Middle Ages power struggle, namely: famine, sieges, plagues, disease and extreme weather conditions, thus life expectancy was short. Very short.

The English Regent, John Duke of Bedford, ruled a stricken Paris in the years that followed the deaths of his ambitious brother, King Henry V of England and the mentally unstable Armagnac King Charles VI of France, (only seven weeks apart), when the Anglo-Burgundian alliance sought to rule over all of France.

Danse Macabre on the Charnier at Holy Innocent's Cemetery

Danse Macabre on the Charnier at Holy Innocent’s Cemetery

In the spring of 1425 the weary citizens of Paris witnessed the unveiling of a painting of the ‘Danse Macabre’ along the cloister walls of the city’s massive cemetery of the Holy Innocent’s, which depicted the grotesque figure of death leading a carnival of king, beggar, pope and peasant, mocking the pomp and power of earthly life in the face of certain death. It showed the people that the vanity of earthly riches and a sybaritic lifestyle was no protector from death’s grasp. They all marched towards the inevitable one-way door as equals, united in death’s all encompassing dark cloak…

That very first Danse Macabre mural was destroyed in 1669 when the wall was demolished. The copious corpses of medieval Paris were eventually relocated in a mass exhumation to the city’s catacombs due to the unsanitary conditions of the Holy Innocent’s in the late 18th century, and the church was also destroyed around this time.

The Holy Innocent's in Paris c. 1550 by Hoffbauer

The Holy Innocent’s in Paris c. 1550 by Hoffbauer

All that remains today is the original Fountain of Innocents, moved and rebuilt in the centre of the new market, now known as the Place Joachim-du-Bellay.

The music of La Danse Macabre

As music is the universal language; transcending time, religion and race, it has power over words alone in conveying a feeling, thought or message, hence ‘La Danse Macabre’ prises its fiendish way into the imagination…

The most famous of all is Camille Saint-Saëns’ richly evocative eponymous tone poem, Opus 40. First performed in 1875, the composition is based on the text of French poet Henri Cazalis:

Henri Cazalis - Danse Macabre

The opening chords of the solo violin are meant to put you on edge, and so it’s hardly surprising the work wasn’t as popular in the 19th century as it is today. I personally think those first startling, dissonant and jarring notes are pure genius when taken in the context of the subject matter. It also has a surprisingly jaunty and devilishly good melody that makes you want to dance death’s jig… I love to play it at home on my violin.

From Wikipedia:

According to legend, “Death” appears at midnight every year on Halloween. Death calls forth the dead from their graves to dance for him while he plays his fiddle (here represented by a solo violin). His skeletons dance for him until the rooster crows at dawn, when they must return to their graves until the next year. The piece opens with a harp playing a single note, D, twelve times (the twelve strokes of midnight) which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section. The solo violin enters playing the tritone consisting of an A and an E-flat—in an example of scordatura tuning, the violinist’s E string has actually been tuned down to an E-flat to create the dissonant tritone.

The first theme is heard on a solo flute, followed by the second theme, a descending scale on the solo violin which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section. The first and second themes, or fragments of them, are then heard throughout the various sections of the orchestra. The piece becomes more energetic and at its midpoint, right after a contrapuntal section based on the second theme, there is a direct quote played by the woodwinds of the Dies Irae, a Gregorian chant from the Requiem that is melodically related to the work’s second theme. The Dies Irae is presented unusually in a major key. After this section the piece returns to the first and second themes and climaxes with the full orchestra playing very strong dynamics. Then there is an abrupt break in the texture and the coda represents the dawn breaking (a cockerel’s crow, played by the oboe) and the skeletons returning to their graves.

Clara Cernat and Thierry Huillet give a fantastic performance on Violin and Piano:

I also love this orchestral version by Leopold Stokowski and the National Philharmonic Orchestra:

The Gromoglasova sisters do a chilling job on two pianos!

An inventive and lively arrangement for four violas by members of the Taiwan Viola Chamber Orchestra:

The Dance of Death is also portrayed in the 4th movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio in E minor, Opus 67.  A fine performance from Richter, Kagan and Gutman:

Dance of Death based on Mussorgsky:

Totentanz

Composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt had something of an obsession with death, it featured in quite a few of his compositions, but Totentanz is the most well-known.

Valentina Lisitsa gives a spine tingling rendition of Franz List’s Totentanz for Piano and Orchestra, Paraphrase on Dies irae:

Liszt’s arrangement for two pianos:

Sylvia Plath’s Poem Danse Macabre:

Down among the strict roots and rocks,

Eclipsed beneath blind lid of land

Goes the grass-embroidered box.

 

Arranged in sheets of ice, the fond

Skeleton still craves to have

Fever from the world behind.

 

Hands reach back to relics of

Nippled moons, extinct and cold,

Frozen in designs of love.

 

At twelve each skull is aureoled

With recollection’s tickling thorns

Winding up the ravelled mold.

 

Needles nag like unicorns,

Assault a sleeping virgin’s shroud

Till her stubborn body burns.

 

Lured by brigands in the blood,

Shanks of bone now resurrect,

Inveigled to forsake the sod.

 

Eloping from their slabs, abstract

Couples court by milk of moon:

Sheer silver blurs their phantom act.

 

Luminous, the town of stone

Anticipates the warning sound

Of cockcrow crying up the dawn.

 

With kiss of cinders, ghosts descend,

Compelled to deadlock underground.

I’d like to thank you for visiting my blog and wish you a happy Halloween!

Diatribe in D Major!

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” ~ Plato.

I can feel a rant coming on. I’ll try not to go overboard, but I’m already on top of my soapbox and it’s a subject very close to my heart – music.

I don’t think I could live without music and the arts, life would be so…lacklustre. Yet a narrow education policy and lack of funding is depriving thousands of youngsters the opportunity to benefit from learning music and thereby develop their innate creativity; which can only improve their lives.

john-lennon-happy quote

My eldest daughter is now showing a great interest in singing and learning to play the violin, and we are so lucky that the High Wycombe Music Centre is just down the road. They do great work. It’s a major centre for brass and woodwinds, but they also do guitar and strings tuition. Emily plays the violin in their ‘sizzler’ group, which gives the children a chance to try all sorts of different instruments before deciding what, if any, they want to take further.

Emily has an hour of this, then a short break and an hour of singing in the junior choir on a Saturday morning. They are such a friendly, welcoming group, and Emily really loves going. It’s a pleasure to hear her singing their latest songs around the house, and it’s done wonders for her confidence. Although the music centre doesn’t charge exorbitant fees, every activity that is extra-curricular soon adds up, at a time when many families are struggling financially.

On Saturday 27th June Emily and her fellow students at the High Wycombe Music Centre will have the chance to perform at the Royal Albert Hall in the BLTM (Bucks Learning Trust Music) Gala. They do this every four years, and as Emily has been attending for only six months or so she’s fortunate to have the chance to take part.

blmt_gala_rah

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.” ~ Victor Hugo

Earlier this year when Sir Simon Rattle returned to the UK after 12 years as the principle conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, he promptly suggested that London was in dire need of a brand new state-of-the-art music performance venue. Whilst I agree with him, as a leading city in the world, London should have a modern arts facility. The media really got behind it, even the chancellor and the Mayor of London are on-side. But not everyone agrees.

“Great art and music is created by people, not buildings.” ~ Ivan Hewett

Of course, London already has some fantastic historical and iconic venues: the Royal Albert Hall, the Wigmore Hall, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the Southbank Centre, the Barbican and Cadogan Hall to name but a few.

It’s all wonderful that so much investment will be made in the possible construction of a new hall above the Barbican (current home of the London Symphony Orchestra), but there is one major point everyone is missing…

Where will the future British musicians, soloists, conductors and vocal artists come from to perform in this shiny new hall, if we don’t invest now in grassroots music education for all children, regardless of their socio-economic status?

And it’s not just the future of our nation’s artistic community that’s at stake; the very future of our society is in question. Ahem! Sorry about that, I just had a drama queen moment. Government ministers should be thinking outside the box when it comes to reducing poverty and its associated behavioural manifestations.

I firmly believe that music and the arts (along with education and a loving family environment) will help to protect against emotional, mental and physical vulnerability.

It’s that old computer analogy: garbage in = garbage out.

It starts with prevention. Prevention is easier than cure.  With overwhelming scientific evidence of how learning music affects brain development and impacts on a child’s life in so many positive ways, it defies belief to read about yet more cuts in the arts sector and in education.

Classical Music Magazine outlines cuts by several local authorities earlier this year.

A great visual presentation about how playing an instrument benefits your brain by Anita Collins:

I mentioned the #DontStopTheMusic campaign in a previous blog (The Importance of a Musical Education), and James Rhodes has done a great job galvanising the arts sector and government in improving this dire situation.

However, as someone who signed this petition on change.org last time, I recently had a message from them that made my heart sink: the government are still not giving music the same priority as other academic subjects.

A brilliant discussion about music and the mind that all parents, health and teaching professionals should study:

As the effects of our ‘age of austerity’ seep into our everyday lives there’s even more reason to protect music and the arts, by making sure that all children have access to the very thing that can stimulate a deep emotional response in their brains, that impacts their neurological health on many fundamental levels: memory, learning and plasticity, attention, motor control, language, pattern perception, imagery and other areas. Those early years are so important.

These 11 month old twin sisters demonstrate this point perfectly when they have a delightful reaction to daddy’s guitar playing:

My mother played Beethoven piano sonatas when she was pregnant with me, and I’m sure that’s why I love his music so much, and why music has played an integral part in my life. I grew up with it. We all have stories of how music has influenced us like that.

There would be no such thing as movie soundtracks if music didn’t play such a vital role in our emotional perception. Filmmakers understand how it can add that defining emotional hook in our minds. I wonder if Star Wars would have been such a hit without the majestic interplanetary sound track written by film composer John Williams. The two are inseparable.

Tufts University neuroscientist, Aniruddh Patel, explains how scientists study your brain’s response to music and what parts of your brain are activated by different attributes of music:

Music and the arts are not just some fluffy dispensable activity that stimulates creativity; they are scientifically proven to be beneficial to the human family across the world, no matter the culture. Human beings inherently respond to rhythm and music, it’s a natural and fun way to produce dopamine, the so called ‘feel good’ hormone.

And that concludes my diatribe. If I wasn’t sneezing, coughing and streaming with a summer cold I’d go and pick up my violin for a practice. I’ll just have to listen to this jazz/baroque fusion instead!

Music for a while.

Shall all your cares beguile.

Wond’ring how your pains were eas’d

And disdaining to be pleas’d.

~ Lyrics by John Dryden set to music by Henry Purcell

My call to action this week is to please sign the #DontStopTheMusic petition. The children will thank you.

The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 18th Century: Viotti

“…the violin — that most human of all instruments…” ~ Louisa May Alcott

Giovanni Battista Viotti: (12 May 1755 – 3 March 1824)

I have to admit, I didn’t know that much about Viotti before I began writing this post.

Giovanni_Battista_Viotti_afterTrofsarelliHe was 27 years older than his more famous and infamous compatriot, Paganini; but in my view he deserves just as many plaudits. Viotti was a key influence in the lives of many violinists and composers, such as Rodolphe Kreutzer, Pierre Rode, Pierre Baillot, Louis Spohr and Paganini indirectly, (via his pupil August Duranowski).

Beethoven himself drew inspiration from Viotti’s violin concertos.

Many modern violin greats can trace their pedadogical legacy back to Viotti. He is the founding father of the style of violin tuition from the early days of the Paris Conservatoire.

It’s probably fair to say that his skill as a violinist outshone his skill as a composer.

However, I had no idea he wrote such a substantial body of work: 29 violin concertos, 2 symphonie concertantes, many violin duos, violin and cello sonatas, string quartets and trios, a cello concerto, around 17 piano concertos (arrangements of his violin concertos), as well as 2 flute concertos, (also based on his violin concertos), plus other chamber works.

Uto Ughi and Guido Rimonda perform the duetto per due violini (music commences at 44 seconds):

Viotti’s musical education was under the patronage of Alfonso dal Pozzo della Cisterna in Turin and later by violinist Gaetano Pugnani. He served at the Savoia Court in Turin for eight years before touring as a soloist, initially with Pugnani throughout Germany, Poland and Russia, before he found favour in Paris; making his debut as a violinist in 1782 where he became the court musician to Marie Antoinette at Versailles.

He remained in France as a teacher and opera impresario, founding a new opera house in Paris under the patronage of the king’s brother (Louis-Stanislas-Xavier, comte de Provence), in 1788. He worked closely with his friend and opera composer, Luigi Cherubini whom, incidentally, Beethoven regarded as the greatest contemporary composer.

Despite his affiliation with the French monarchs Viotti was philosophically aligned with the Enlightenment movement and the teachings of Jean-Jaqcues Rousseau. After the French Revolution took a turn for the worse Viotti’s opera house was renamed Théâtre Feydeau in order to distance himself from the unpopular French Royalty.

Viotti kept his head and moved to London in 1792 where he became popular both as a violinist and musical director of opera concerts. He met Joseph Haydn in London in 1794, whose musical influence can be heard in Viotti’s later concertos.

Viotti - Violin Concerto no. 22 sheet music cover

Tension between Britain and France led to him being expelled from Britain because of the Alien Bill in 1798, under the false charge of being a Jacobin; only to return two years later from Germany to live in secret with his English friends and supporters, William and Margaret Chinnery.

Around 1801 Viotti set up a wine merchant business, stating, “I find that the English prefer wine to music.” Unlike Paganini, who adored the limelight, Viotti was happier performing at smaller, more intimate gatherings. During this time he continued to compose and put on private concerts.

His friend (and younger brother to the Prince of Wales), the Duke of Cambridge, made it possible for Viotti to become a naturalised British Citizen in 1811, and Viotti became a key figure in the creation of the Philharmonic Society in London in 1813. At this stage of his career he played mostly as a chamber musician and orchestra leader.

When his wine business failed he returned to Paris to become the director of the Italian Opera between 1819 and 1822.  He returned to London in 1823 with Mrs Chinnery and died a year later.

Here is my favourite of his violin concertos, No. 19 in G minor, written in the 1790’s which has a contemporary sounding lyrical drama and a gorgeous melody, performed by Rainer Kussmaul:

The first movement of the same concerto arranged for piano:

Viotti’s Violin Concerto No. 22 in A minor was composed in 1803, and was revived by the virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim in the 1870’s, elevating it to the most popular of his violin concerti. Brahms was also an admirer of this work, using artistic license from it in his own violin concerto. Here is one of the greatest violin virtuoso’s of the 20th Century, Itzhak Perlman, playing the third movement:

Origins of the French National Anthem

In 1781 during his time at Versailles, Viotti composed his Theme & Variations in C Major, which was copied in 1792 by Rouget de Lisle and dubbed ‘Song of War’. The ‘song’ was later adopted by volunteers from Marseille, and thus the “Marseillaise” was established, first becoming France’s national anthem in 1795. It seems rather unfair that de Lisle took all the glory!

Franz Liszt also wrote a piano transcription of the Marseillaise:

Viotti’s Violin

Viotti’s violin was made by Antonio Stradivari in 1709, and was given to him by Catherine the Great.

Viotti’s Strad also features in the opening chapter of my novel, The Virtuoso. My protagonist, the concert violinist Isabelle Bryant, is giving a Masterclass at the Royal Academy of Music, where the violin is now on display. Here’s the excerpt from Chapter 1:

Her violin represented another limb to her, it was that precious. It felt so natural, like an extension of her body. She gently rubbed her neck which was feeling a little sore. The rough, red patch of skin on her neck just below her jaw was often mistaken for a love bite, when in fact it was she affectionately referred to as a violinist’s hickey. Many hours of gruelling practice had left their marks.

Her mind drifted to her earlier private viewing of the Academy’s museum, where she had been shown round by the curator in person. She had spent a blissful afternoon paying particular awe and reverence to their recent acquisition of Italian virtuoso Giovanni Battista Viotti’s 1709 Stradivarius, renamed as the Viotti ex-Bruce to honour its British donor, which the Academy extolled as one of the most important and well preserved Stradivarius violins in the world.

She had studied the the sheen of the dark, pinky brown maple; picturing the old master craftsman huddled in his workshop in northern Italy; surrounded by the distinctive wooden shapes that would become so valuable over three hundred years later. Sadly there were so few of them remaining.

Her own violin, a modern Nagyvary, was crafted by the eminent Hungarian professor Joseph Nagyvary, who had spent his life studying the craftsmanship of Cremonese violin makers; namely Stradivarius and Guarnerius.

Nagyvary violins were made as closely to those of the ancient genius as possible, and there had been many debates about whether or not they sounded as good as those of the master. Isabelle adored it sonorous tonal qualities and projection power. If a Nagyvary violin had been good enough for Yehudi Menuhin to play for fifteen years, then it was good enough for her.

I found a great vintage recording of Raff’s Cavatina by violinist Pauline Hall, playing on Viotti’s Stad in 1912:

In the late 1600s the finest instruments originated from three rural families whose workshops were side by side in the Italian village of Cremona. First were the Amatis, and outside their shop hung a sign ‘The best violins in all Italy.’ Not to be outdone, their next-door neighbours, the family Guarnerius, hung a bolder sign proclaiming ‘The Best Violins In All The World’ At the end of the street was the workshop of Anton Stradivarius, and on its front door was a simple notice which read ‘The best violins on the block.’ ~ Freda Bright

Mozart – The Miraculous and the Mundane

“The passions, whether violent or not, should never be so expressed as to reach the point of causing disgust; and music, even in situations of the greatest horror, should never be painful to the ear but should flatter and charm it, and thereby always remain music.” ~ Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart from The Journal of Eugene Delacroix.

Mozart_Portrait_EdlingerThe name ‘Mozart’ conjures up an image of a divine genius, a demigod of music, unsurpassed child prodigy, composing savant with steam coming off his quill, operatic icon, inquisitive about the world and the mysteries of life, with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and creative output. Not to mention an ardent admirer of women (especially ones who could sing), and who possessed a desire for fun and the simple pleasures of drinking and social discourse. An individual who was little in stature but large in intellect, who loved life and seemed to live it Allegro Con Brio.

At least, it does for me…

His fame has spanned centuries and his name is known by just about every human being on the planet. Whatever your impressions of this giant of classical music are, one thing’s for sure; his miraculous outweighed his mundane. By the time of his death in 1791 at the age of 35, he had written over a staggering six hundred compositions, in the form of sonatas, symphonies, concertos, chamber pieces, operas and choral music.

Revered by composers that followed, and most likely envied by his contemporaries (cue Salieri), Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart has probably touched more souls than any other composer in the history of music. And I think he was able to do that because of the mundane.

His mind was in another sphere, but his physical body was ordinary, and shared the same mundane functions as the rest of us mortals.  He experienced the everyday emotions of life that we all do: happiness, sadness, love, hate, desire, jealousy, pride, excitement, ambition, despair, longing, and well, the list goes on.

Because the miraculous isn’t possible without the mundane…

mozart_requiemTherein lay the very substance for transmutation into the sublime, his inspiration of what it means to be human in musical form: collections of notes and pitches, silence and resonance, arranged for different instruments in different styles, something for everyone, and that anyone can relate to today, 224 years after his death.

His star shone bright (I’m talking supernova), and burned rapidly, but luckily for us Mozart was a prodigious and prolific composer, and despite his often challenging circumstances he created a stunning legacy of music for the world to enjoy.

Einstein on MozartHis father Leopold would have been proud. His early tuition for Wolferl and Nannerl on the violin, clavichord and in classical composition (Mozart wrote his first sonata at the age of 5), along with their childhood travels across Europe, their family performances in front of royalty and the aristocracy, would eventually pay dividends far beyond his fatherly comprehension! Now his music is in space, courtesy of NASA.

He even has his own scientific phenomena: The Mozart Effect.  Play Mozart to your children, and even better, if they can learn to play him.

A list of Mozart’s musical compositions; which were numbered and classified in chronological order by Ludwig von Köchel as either ‘K’ or ‘KV’ in the Köchel catalogue.

A Few Mozart Facts:

  • His favourite string instrument was the viola, and he wrote the Sinfonia Concertante as a beautiful conversation between the violin and the viola. The andante from that music is one of the most moving pieces of music I’ve ever heard.
  • In the spring of 1770 whilst in Italy with his father, the Pope conferred on Mozart the Order of the Golden Spur. It was in Italy that he met and became friends with the violinist and British prodigy Thomas Linley (who also died tragically young).
  • Baron Gottfried van Swieten, who was head of the Imperial Library of some 300,000 volumes in Vienna, granted Mozart access to works by JS and CPE Bach and Handel. Thus Mozart learnt to graft ‘counterpoint’ onto sonata form and find his own unique style which wasn’t popular at the time.
  • Wolferl and Constanze had six babies, but only two of them survived into adulthood: Karl Thomas, born in 1784, and Franz Xaver Wolfgang in 1791, just before Mozart died.
  • Beethoven thought that Mozart had an affair with one of his (Mozart’s) pupils and had also borrowed money from her husband.  Even more bizarrely they were neighbours to the Mozarts, and the day after Mozart’s death the husband committed suicide after attacking his wife, who was five months pregnant, slashing her across the face, neck, shoulders and arms with a knife. It is thought the woman and baby survived the attack.
  • Mozart became a Freemason in 1783, at the time there were around thirteen ‘lodges’ in Vienna with 700 members, around half of which were nobles.
  • His opera Don Giovanni was popular in Prague, but the performance in Vienna was a flop.
  • In the year of his death it’s estimated that Mozart’s income was between 5,000 and 6,000 florins.
  • At the time of Mozart’s death only one fifth of his compositions were in print, whereas by the 1820’s nearly two thirds were.
  • Constanze claimed that Mozart thought he had been poisoned with Acqua Toffana, and that he was writing the Requiem for himself.

There’s a lot of information and myth about Mozart, and I could go on all day, but instead, I recommend watching the fascinating and fabulous BBC documentary: The Genius of Mozart.

Part 1 – Miracle of Nature:

Part 2 – A Passion for the Stage:

Part 3 – The First Romantic:

If you are on Twitter and you enjoy Mozart’s music why not join the celebration of his birth in the 6th annual #MozartChat on Tuesday 27th January, conceived and run by pianist and writer @waynemcevilly. Check out his website and piano masterworks for children.

You’ll be most welcome!