“Music has the power to unite us. It proves that by working together, we can create something truly beautiful.” ~ Pinchas Zuckerman
This time last week I felt a conflagration spreading through my veins. It wasn’t just me that was on fire, it emanated from the orchestra (the Royal Philharmonic) and their illustrious Principal Guest Conductor and virtuoso violinist, Pinchas Zuckerman. I’m sure most of the audience felt it too.
Whatever the range of opinions this large gathering of people may have held politically, it certainly felt like we were brought together by our love of music. Even though the seemingly endless turbulence, turmoil and uncertainty caused by Brexit continues to ricochet around our island, infecting and inflaming every corner, I was able to banish my anguish and be present with the creative genius of the composers, thanks to a group of amazing musicians.
The music they made floated, soared, and at times, boomed into the cavernous auditorium of the Royal Festival Hall, setting alight the air and delighting all who heard it. I could only make out the odd spare seat – the concert hall was pretty much packed to the rafters.
It was one of the best concerts I have ever been to; a combination of great seats, a buzzing atmosphere and fabulous music with a programme theme of Symphonic Masters.
When musicians come together with a love for music, combined with confidence, experience and solid techniques it creates a magic between them that you cannot replicate in a recording. Live music has that ‘ je ne sais quoi’, an evanescent blessing of unique energy and vibration that moves us.
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
The first piece in the evening’s repertoire was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. I absolutely love the dreamy, folk song nature of this composition, and this was the first time I had heard it performed live.
In fact, seeing the performance at the same time as hearing it added another dimension to my experience, elevating my understanding and appreciation of it. The layers of sound the violins, cellos, violas and double basses produced was quite exquisite.
Keeping true to the composer’s directions, they placed nine of the orchestra’s musicians (four violinists, two cellos, two violas and a double bass) up on the choir bench, behind the main string orchestra. This physical separation meant their parts added a wonderful texture to the piece. They played in a conversation with the main orchestra, as well as the tutti sections where all the musicians performed together.
The sound seemed to linger in the firmament, it really enhanced the music and created a ravishing effect.
I captured a few photos, but out of respect for the musicians I didn’t take them during the performances.
RPO – applause after Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams
They gave us a wonderful, warm opening, and built up to the crescendos in a subtle and nuanced performance, it was just heavenly. I thought the leader of the orchestra, Duncan Riddell, was superb; his solo sections were sweet and melodic with a pure tone. He demonstrated skillful leadership of the orchestra with considerable panache.
Those blissful fifteen minutes of music filled me with a sense of sangfroid, surrounding us all in a kind of mellifluous and ephemeral protective sound barrier, forcing out the stresses of life.
From the programme:
Vaughan Williams was fascinated by the music of the Tudor period, and particularly liked Tallis’ Third Mode Melody, which he included as Hymn No. 92 in his edition of the English Hymnal and which formed the basis for his string Fantasia . The theme appears almost at once played pizzicato by the double basses, and is then heard in all the lush resonance of the full string orchestra. By way of contrast, the composer makes use of a smaller orchestra (nine players) within the piece, suggesting that this ensemble be placed somewhere somewhere at a distance from the main orchestra. In addition, there are passages for a string quartet, and at times the orchestration is pared down to a solo viola.
Just so you have an idea of the kind of pleasure that was infiltrating my cells, here is a recording of a live performance (sadly with a coughing accompaniment), that vaguely comes close:
Mozart – Violin Concerto No. 5
The orchestra expanded slightly for the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219, nicknamed The Turkish, adding two oboes and two French horns, and the small group that had been placed in the choir section returned to their normal positions.
It’s thought that Mozart’s first violin concerto was written in 1773 when Wolfgang was just 17 years old, and there is generally consensus among musicologists that concertos 2, 3, 4 and 5 were all completed in 1775 – when he was still only age 19! The speed at which they were written does not in any way detract from their brilliance. A phenomenal achievement among many from the Austrian wunderkind.
The charm, joy and profundity in these last three concertos transcends age. Mozart’s legacy of music proves that divine inspiration flowed in abundance throughout his short but incredible life.
Pinchas Zuckerman with his violin ready to play Mozart.
I relaxed into the elegant opening movement; the uplifting and lilting melody was expressed perfectly by maestro Zuckerman’s light and playful touch, infused with spectacular virtuosity.
His flourishes and stunning cadenza appeared effortless. But as an amateur violinist I know they weren’t half as easy as he made it look! I was astounded by his bow control. His technique, intonation and artistry were jaw dropping, but what impressed me the most was the heart and soul Zuckerman demonstrated throughout his performance; a deep understanding, respect and love for the music that was communicated into our hearts.
I could imagine the teenage Mozart engrossed in the autograph score, feverishly scribbling the black inky notes with his quill, humming the tune maybe, as the candle light flickered on his immortal creation. I feel blessed to have heard such a master play this beautiful, lyrical piece.
The third movement made me want to leap out of my seat and participate in some vigorous air conducting… However, that would have been too distracting for the orchestra and embarrassing for me! The dynamics between the soloist and strings in this rhythmic, ebullient and dance-like tune was magical.
Seeing Pinchas Zuckerman conduct in between his solo passages was fun, using his bow instead of a baton, and even when playing he was able to turn or nod and give subtle clues to the orchestra. It speaks to their professionalism that they need such minimal guidance.
Zukerman’s 1742 Guarneri ‘del Gesu’ violin had a powerful, colourful tone, it really sang into the air, and seemed more deeply resonant than the leader’s instrument, which also sounded gorgeous. The acoustics were great from our seats in the front of the side stalls.
Aside from the performance the Royal Philharmonic and Pinchas Zukerman gave, here is a vintage recording with a similar vibe, from Isaac Stern, Orchestre de Chambre de Radio France conducted by Alexander Schneider:
Pinchas Zuckerman gives a masterclass in New York on Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with Rebecca Reale:
The next best thing to hearing Zuckerman play live with the orchestra is to buy his recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, alongside some of his Elgar favourites, including the World Premiere Recording of In Moonlight from In the South, with the RPO on the Decca label.
A snippet of an interview with Pinchas Zuckerman from a documentary, talking about music, Beethoven, Mozart and Wagner:
Beethoven – Symphony No. 5 in C Minor
The orchestra significantly swelled its ranks for the final symphonic master – Beethoven. His fifth symphony barely needs any introduction, even to those not normally ‘into’ classical music.
I wrote a detailed blog a while back (The Secrets of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony), about the political and social influences on Beethoven that shaped the writing of his universally loved, iconic symphony.
Getting ready to play Beethoven’s Fifth as the Conductor, Pinchas Zuckerman steps onto the stage.
The Royal Philharmonic under the baton of Principal Guest Conductor Pinchas Zuckerman gave an electrifying performance. I was astounded by their stamina, (both physical and mental), especially from the strings and conductor/soloist, who had been playing since the start of the concert, whereas the percussion, brass and woodwind section were fresh as daisies.
Their performance was powerful from the outset, with those infamous opening bars unsettling any ‘absent’ listeners. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I had goose bumps through the entire symphony!
The whole symphony took me on a momentous inner journey. How many of us can relate to Beethoven’s passion? Especially when our backs are against the wall and our outer journey is feeling like the music. No matter how many times I hear it, I’m always filled with awe at Beethoven’s innovation, unbridled talent, courage and originality in drawing on the fathoms of his own emotional well. He broke boundaries and defined new ones. He wore his heart on the staves as much as on his sleeve.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the young oboist who was superb in the Mozart and Beethoven performances, his solo parts were particularly worthy of praise. The conductor seemed to single him out in the applause, and rightly so.
Pinchas Zuckerman appreciateing the brass and woodwind sections of the RPO
I also admired Zuckerman’s relaxed and expansive conducting style, the way he opened and closed his arms horizontally as they were building towards the finale, to indicate where he wanted more power or a sustained note. He was equally adept at reigning them in for those more intimate sections.
The thing that struck me about their performance of Beethoven’s fifth was their mastery of its startling dynamics: the difference between the soft and quiet passages (Pianissimo, Piano) and the very strong and loud ones (Forte and Fortissimo) and everything in between. The shimmering crescendos played by the strings in the third movement, known as scrubbing, (achieved by moving the bow very fast up and down on the same note, whilst maintaining the intonation and timing) was stunning.
I felt they truly embodied the spirit of all three composers – the Symphonic Masters – to provide an unforgettable evening.
For future concerts with the RPO and maestro Zuckerman, plus other conductors at British and International venues, here is the what’s on guide.
“Music is the reaching out towards the utmost realities by means of ordered sound.” ~ Ralph Vaughan Williams
“Behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain.” ~ Bob Dylan
Pain – either physical or emotional, is something most of us seek to avoid. Yet our pain is just as valuable as our joy.
Such perceived undesirable feelings are at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from joy and ecstasy, but are essentially all part of the same energetic material. Pain is one of those things that we strive to remove and resolve once we’re feeling it, yet it has immense value to our lives if we can use it constructively. As a form of feedback it is invaluable.
It can lead us to an expanded awareness and an equanimity that would not otherwise have been possible, but for our moments of pain.
Pain that has been transcended can be compared to the physical pain of childbirth: it hurts like hell at the time, you have no idea how long the labour will last, how long you can bear the intensity, but when it’s finally over you have a priceless gift – a new life. After a few months it’s not possible to recall the acute pain of childbirth, it is consigned to a murky memory; all you know is that it was worth it, because you brought a human being into the world.
What recondite depths have inspired composers, writers, poets, artists, social entrepreneurs and people from all walks of life, wanting to make the world a better place for others?
Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo In 1939 Frida and Diego divorced. She was devastated and her emotions were reflected in this painting. She drew two identical Fridas, but with different personalities. One is the “Mexican Frida;” the one Diego Rivera fell in love with. The other is “European Frida” – the new and independent artist that’s recognized worldwide, but also, the woman her husband abandoned. Their hearts are exposed over their clothing, and there is a thin vein passing through them both, uniting them. Victorian Frida holds surgical scissors that cut the vein in her lap, and the blood spills on her white dress. Frida was experiencing real sorrow, the kind of sorrow that made her feel she could bleed from the pain. Both women are holding hands as if the artist accepted she was the only person who understood her, loved her, and could help her to move on. ~ Matador Network
Such motivations do not normally emanate from pain free lives. When we have experienced profound pain we genuinely develop more compassion and empathy, and are probably more willing to help alleviate suffering if we come across someone going through a similar situation.
Pain is a powerful motivator: it can spur us into action, prompt us to change course, widen our perception, and in many cases, make us more accepting and less judgmental and align us to a meaningful purpose.
“Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you finally feel it.” ~ J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
For me, intense pain formed the bedrock of my determination to follow my dreams and made me a stronger, more resilient person. I learned to listen to the inner longing that wasn’t based in my head.
Through pain I liken myself to a carbon atom that has been pressured, pulverised and heated inside the earth’s mantle; a violent process that forms a striking crystalline structure which is dense yet clear, still rough around the edges, yet with further cutting and refining will one day gleam with the best of them.
I have taken the gems (no pun intended!) of my own suffering, and used them in a coalescence of knowledge, experience and imagination in the form of my novel, The Virtuoso.
There was a time in my life when I considered making an early exit from existence, but fortunately I decided against that idea. My love for my family spurred me to turn my life around. One day at a time.
It has been said that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Most people don’t want to consciously end their life, they want to end their pain. Sadly, not every one can get past their pain.
The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis
Tarquin and Lucretia by Titian c. 1571
The other day I was reading an email from Vishen Lakhiani, the founder of Mindvalley, telling a very personal story about how a painful experience became the catalyst for the values he lives by.
In Vishen’s words:
Your values became the healing you want to give to the world because of past pain.
My first core value was sparked from a horrible incident in 2003.
Just imagine, for a minute, being forced to leave the country you love because you were put on a watchlist based on a bullsh*t idea that, because of your place of birth, you were somehow a potentially dangerous immigrant.
But that was the situation I was placed in 2003 while living in America. I don’t blame anyone…it was the years following September 11th. And this was part of global politics. But boy was it painful…
I had lived in America for a decade and it was a place I had called home. My wife from Estonia and I lived in New York. We were newly married and I’d been living in the United States for 9 straight years. This was our home and I wanted my son born as an American.
But then – one day in 2003 arriving at JFK airport I was taken into a special room and told that I could no longer travel as freely. I had been added to an early version of the same Muslim-watchlist that Trump has been recently pushing for.
See, because I happened to be an immigrant from a Muslim-dominant country (Malaysia), I, alongside 80,000 other men, weren’t afforded the same freedom of movement as everyone else. I could no longer board flights or get off a plane without enduring 2 to 3 hrs in interviews in tiny rooms at the limited airports I was allowed to fly from.
Worse, I was expected to report to the government every 28 days. Interrogated for hours, get my picture taken, and have my credit card purchases scrutinized. Sometimes after waiting in line for up to 4 hours. And I had to repeat this. Every. Four. Weeks.
The funny thing was that I was not even a Muslim. Nor should that even matter.
Waiting 4 hours in the cold New York weather every 28 days just to be subjected to a really degrading process was something I could only tolerate for so long.
That was it.
And I had enough.
I was deeply saddened that I had to leave America this way, but I felt I didn’t really have a choice but to relocate Mindvalley to Malaysia.
In the end, in 2008 the then-new President Obama ruled the whole dumb process unconstitutional and this Bush-era regulation was tossed into the garbage bin.
I was finally free to travel.
But this pain served me. It set me up for the value of UNITY.
Unity is the idea that we align not with our country, our flag, our religion, or our ethnicity first — but that we align first and foremost with humanity as a whole.
My kids are half-Indian and half-white. You know what that means? It means they look middle-eastern. I don’t want MY children ever ending up on some stupid “watchlist” because fact-challenge old men with racist tendencies think something like a Muslim-ban is somehow a good idea.
So, I made it my mission to bring humanity together.
And the result was the value of Unity in everything we do at Mindvalley.
For example, our events typically welcome people from 40 different countries. Our team of 300 people now come from 49 countries.
And we make effort to represent the under-represented. Mindvalley University for example had 55% women speakers. Our courses feature people of all ethnicities and sexual orientations.
And we actively stand up for pro-Unity politics.
Unity was a value that made me who I am.
I was once on the popular talk show “Impact Theory” and the host Tom Bilyeu asked me.
“Are you an entrepreneur or a philosopher?”
I replied that I think the label ‘entrepreneur’ is pointless. Anyone can be an entrepreneur.
“What defines a person”, I said, “is not the label – but what they stand for.”
I could lost my business. I guess that happens to many people. But it won’t make me lose my identity.
But if I lost my stand. And my stand is Unity. I would not be Vishen Lakhiani. Everything I do, including Mindvalley, is designed to bring unity to the human race.
That’s how deeply entrenched unity is in my DNA.
And you can see how PAIN – can lead to the strongest values.
The healing, transforming power of music
Nowhere is the transformative quality of pain more evident, accessible and immediate than in the experience of listening to, performing and writing music. Like all the creative arts, music can be a miraculous medium for ameliorating pain – leaving a legacy of great benefit to many people, no matter if they are alive at the same time in history.
The Violinist by Joseph Rodefer DeCamp
All types of music fulfill this role for people. Some prefer rock, pop, country, jazz, tango, rap, heavy metal, dance anthems, not forgetting the more established and earlier types such as romantic, classical and baroque. I find my mood and activity selects the music, but the kind that reaches the parts others cannot is – surprise, surprise – classical music.
I have included a few examples of pieces that continue to resonate with audiences centuries later, due to the emotion that was fundamental to their creation. It seems many of the most loved and enduring musical works were hammered out on the anvil of pain…
As you can imagine, keeping this list short is quite impossible for me, so forgive my alacrity if we’re not on the same musical page.
The andante con moto of Schubert’s chamber masterpiece ‘Death and the Maiden’ speaks to me deeply of pain. When I hear it, any unresolved pain I feel comes through and tells me it’s there…
It connects me to the composer, to myself and to humanity. It has even inspired the title of a trilogy of psychological thrillers, quietly brewing in my psyche.
Schubertcomposed the String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D. 810 in 1824, after he had been seriously ill and realised that he was dying. It is Schubert’s testament to death. The quartet takes its name from the lied ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’, a setting of a poem of the same name by Matthias Claudius which Schubert wrote in 1817.
Only one who suffered such as Schubert could have written it. Much of Schubert’s music reflects the deep chasm of human emotion. It some of the most heart-felt music I think I will ever hear.
“My compositions spring from my sorrows. Those that give the world the greatest delight were born of my deepest griefs.”
~ Franz Schubert
An incredibly moving performance of Schubert’s Piano Fantasie in F minor, D. 940 for four hands, by Dutch brothers Lucas and Arthur Jussen:
The bittersweet quality of the melody and their sensitive, nuanced interpretation makes me well up.
The touch of a master makes the Impromptu No. 3 Op. 90 sound like it’s coming straight from Schubert’s heart…
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” ~ Rumi
Variations on this sentiment:
“There is a crack in everything God has made.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Antelope Canyon – by Madhu Shesharam on Unsplash
“The crack is where the light gets in.” ~ Leonard Cohen
“Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light.” ~ Groucho Marx
Beethoven similarly expressed profound depths through his music, in way too many pieces to share here. Works that could only have come about because of his physical and emotional wretchedness. He was the epitome of the tortured genius!
The Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 (Apassionata), was written at a time of great political and personal turmoil, and it seems that Beethoven has bared his soul within the notes. The famous triadic motif from his fifth symphony can be heard in the opening movement, indeed, it pervades much of his musical output.
You can hear the violent rage, anguish, torment, passion and determination expressed either consciously or unconsciously by Beethoven, as if he is unashamedly showing us his inner core, which was clearly on a stormy setting at the time.
He was reeling from a broken heart, just when his brother Karl announced his marriage to Johanna, a woman Beethoven despised. He could not bring himself to dismount from his moral high horse and be happy for them.
Oh my, it was quite the maelstrom… I think Richter played it like the mercurial maestro would have:
Prior to publication of the Apassionata, Beethoven erupted with fury in a disagreement with a great patron of the arts, his aristocratic benefactor, Prince Lichnowsky. The altercation supposedly took place one stormy night at the prince’s country estate near Graz.
Lichnowsky asked Beethoven if he would perform for him and some of Napoleon’s officers he was playing host to. Beethoven refused in his combustible, irascible manner, and strode off into the rainy night with his Appassionata score under his arm; but not before telling Lichnowsky that there were many princes, but only one Beethoven!
The blotches caused by the contact of rain and ink from that fated evening are still visible on the original autograph manuscript.
Even though Beethoven never quite forgave Lichnowsky for his transgression, he still wrote to his estranged patron sometime later to complain of his “thoroughly lacerated heart.”
The pain of parting is so beautifully transferred to the ivories by Alfred Brendel in this recording of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major, Op. 81a, ‘Les Adieux’:
In his brilliant analysis of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Charles Hazlewood highlights that the piano and orchestra are in a conversation; a dialogue that becomes increasingly tense through the first and second movements.
He enthuses that Beethoven created a new era for the role of the piano by not starting the concerto with a grand orchestral opening, as was the custom, but instead with a tentative phrase on the piano, which seeks to dictate terms to the orchestra.
Discord permeates each phrase of the conversation as the tension becomes more pronounced in the andante con moto. When the piano finally breaks out it seems that the gulf between the piano and the orchestra is unbridgeable, until the third movement brings about resolution and reconciliation. The piano mollifies the orchestra and they unite musically.
I could not leave out the incomparable second movement of his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major minor, Op. 73 (Emperor), which seems to encompass the entire history of mankind at the molecular level within its sublime, poignant melody.
The whispered opening makes me hold my breath for eight unbearably beautiful minutes, floating in suspended animation, soaking up the apotheosis of all that is…
James Rhodes blends notes and emotion perfectly in the third movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109:
Backed by Stanford University’s Ensemble in Residence, the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Robert Kapilow, (composer and radio commentator), explores the notion of illness as a potent source of creativity, (e.g. appreciation for existence) through Beethoven’s ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’, which Beethoven wrote in thanksgiving after recovering from a life-threatening illness.
Tchaikovksy could also pack in the pathos, as expressed in his Serenade Melancolique Op. 26, via Itzhak Perlman on his violin:
The sobriquet ‘Suffocation’ is a fitting description for Chopin’s Prelude No. 4 in E minor, Op. 28:
I think the addition of the cello brings out a lyrical, lugubrious quality to the melody:
The original lyrics to ‘So Deep is the Night’ by André Viaud and Jean Marietti were set to Chopin’s Etude No. 3 in E Major, Op. 10 ‘Tristesse’, perfect on its own:
In the medium of opera and vocal works suffering finds an outlet through the voice. I find Camille Saint-Saëns’s ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ from Samson et Dalila one of the most moving arias ever written. Maria Callas was no stranger to emotional pain, and you can hear it as she pours out her heart:
Callas is also unmatched as Norma in Bellini’s eponymous opera singing the aria Casta Diva:
Puccini and Pavarotti are a match made in heaven…
I love the strong sentiment in this interpretation by Marita Solberg of Edvard Grieg’s ‘Solveig’s song’ from his Peer Gynt Suite:
Bach’s eternal, prayerful and beseeching ‘Erbarme dich mein Gott‘ (Have mercy Lord, My God) from his epic St. Matthew Passion:
Get the tissues ready for Handel’s signature aria ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from his Opera Rinaldo.
Let me weep
over my cruel fate,
and sigh for freedom.
Let my sorrow break the chains
of my suffering, out of pity.
Dimitry Shostakovich takes us to the abyss as he performs the andante from his Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102 in this vintage recording:
Albinoni finds a sorrowful voice for the oboe in the adagio of his concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 9:
I couldn’t leave out maestro Mozart, who proved he was equally at home with a deep and meaningful as well as a galloping allegro.
Vladimir Horowitz always takes me to another dimension with this recording of the adagio of Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488. The heartache is palpable…
In my humble opinion this is no ‘feeble adagio’ as Brahms had labelled the slow movement of his Violin Concerto in D Major. The oboe, bassoon, brass and violin share the profound melody.
To me it is poetic and purifies the soul.
Franz Liszt wasn’t always a showman, as he proves in his nostalgic and tender Consolation No. 3:
Love hurts and pleasures at the same time when Wagner gets involved! The immortal Tristan und Isolde, Prelude & Liebestod:
The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is a symphony in three movements, composed by Henryk Górecki in Katowice, Poland, between October and December 1976.
In the second movement a solo soprano sings the Polish message written on the wall of a Gestapo cell during World War II, from the perspective of a child separated from a parent. The dominant themes of each of the three movements of the symphony are motherhood and separation through war.
The symphony is constructed around simple harmonies, set in a neo-modal style which makes use of the medieval musical modes. The nine-minute second movement is for soprano, her words are supported by the orchestra and the movement culminates when the strings hold a chord without diminuendo for nearly one and a half minutes.
The final words of the movement are the first two lines of the Polish Ave Maria, sung twice on a repeated pitch by the soprano.
Maternal Affection by Adolphe Jourdan c. 1860
Górecki dedicated the work to his wife, Jadwiga Rurańska. He never sought to explain the symphony as a response to a political or historical event. Instead, he maintained that the work is an evocation of the ties between mother and child.
You can certainly feel the fathomless pain of parental separation, as well as the music’s roots in the Holocaust, and indeed every war:
Honestly, I could go on forever, but I think you get the idea!
In his book, The Joy of Music, Leonard Bernstein makes a point about the futility of trying to extract the meaning of music, contending that it stands in a special lonely region, unlit…
The composer and musical artist bring their own ‘wounds’ and life experience to their work. In the process there is catharsis, release, healing, beauty and meaning. For them, and for us.
For violinist Ji-Hae Park, music was part of the pain and the resolution:
One could go as far as to say that a completely happy life provides no substance for a creative individual.
Hirzel, Switzerland by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash
I have had my fair share of pain, but also incredible joy, and it makes you appreciate the good times. I’m reminded every day to extract every drop of life from each precious, present moment…
Letting go of pain takes patience and practice. At least for me.
When I finally decided I was sick of the perverse way my ego was getting off on my pain, I decided to let it go. I could stand in the fire and not be burnt by it. But that took time and awareness.
In hindsight we can understand how our painful experiences have made us who we are, and how they may have served us, but rarely is this possible when we are in the thick of it.
I find this profound teaching by Dr. David R Hawkins (in terms of the paradigm of Content and Context) really helpful in managing and transcending pain. The best course of action is to focus on the totality of the experience, (context) and not the specifics, (content). He was a wise and wonderful real-life Yoda!
I recently had a candid chat with a good friend of mine, who happens to be a spiritual coach, and I was relaying what a horrendous first six months of the year I’d had, and how I’d struggled to maintain my usual positive outlook and get back on track with my plans. I put on a humorous slant, relieved that I’d got through it. She listened and smiled, and gave me the most amazing advice.
She said, “Ginny, be the bowl!”
I must have looked a bit dim and confused, because she went on to explain that in Japan, they have a custom of not throwing out damaged or broken things. So a precious vase that may have been knocked over and smashed is glued back together using a special gold lacquer.
Rather than cover up the imperfection of the object or throw it away, they appreciate and celebrate it.
I really love that ethos. The practice is known as Kintsugi.
I thought #BeTheBowl would make a great hashtag to embrace life in all its manifestations.
We all go through rough patches, but rather than bury the hurt, or wallow in it, we can always bring it into the light to mend it with our personal application of liquid gold.
Our life experience comes moment by moment through our thoughts, emotions, words and deeds, and to expect that it will always be perfect is setting us up for unnecessary suffering. We have to just roll with the punches, knowing that they are coming, but not necessarily how hard, how many, where or when…
It seems a much more reasonable proposition to love and accept each other despite our random gold seams.
#BeTheBowl is my new mantra whenever I’m feeling low or the proverbial hits the fan.
#BeTheBowl helps me see myself and humanity as a work in progress.
Khalil Gibran’s poem On Pain, from his timeless book, The Prophet, is a great reminder that pain is the divine taking us to a different dimension of life. It’s futile to oppose and resist the inevitable.
The only reason we suffer with our pain is that we don’t want to accept its existence and don’t recognize its value. We think that pain is not fair, that we didn’t deserve to experience it, that perhaps we are being punished for something we have or haven’t done.
My biggest question to God during the depths of my despair was always, ‘why me?’ In truth, pain chooses us when it sees that we are ready for transformation.
“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.” ~ C.S. Lewis (The Problem of Pain)
I can’t think of anyone who transformed his pain into such beauty and an enduring legacy more than Beethoven…except Jesus!
As I tell the W.I. ladies whenever I do a fiction talk, there is no greater fodder for your fiction than that of your life, or the lives of loved ones.
Grampians National Park, Australia by Manuel Meurisse on Unsplash
The soul has to be breached to be opened, and wounds do the breaching. The deeper the wound, the richer your story will be, the greater the journey, and the more satisfying the transformation.
This is just as true for real life as it is for fiction.
“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
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)
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)
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 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)
“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.
It 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…
“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
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
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.
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
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
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
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:
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.
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:
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!
“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.
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.
“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.
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
“…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.
He 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 Cherubiniwhom, 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.
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 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
“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.
The 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…
Therein 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.
His 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.