In 1915, Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra, wrote: “It seems impossible for woman to create a beauty that must come from the soul and encompass a comprehension of the supernatural beauty that is given to us through the master artist. True, America has Mrs Beach and France Cécile Chaminade… But we have not opera, concerto, symphony, oratorio, or string quartet from womankind. Their work is light and frothy… they have not produced anything that could even be called near great.” Clearly, Damrosch was not a writer of felicitous style or penetrating insight but, despite the outburst, he was actually a prominent contemporary interpreter of Mrs H. H. A. Beach’s music, and we may at least appreciate the candour with which he recorded a sentiment that tacitly persists in some quarters to this day, and for sparking a debate at the time that ignited a wider interest in art by women.
Amy Marcy Cheney was, by all accounts, a precocious child. Able to sing forty songs by her first birthday, she was composing waltzes by the age of four and made her first concert appearance at seven, upon which she was immediately approached by managers and agents offering representation to an American prodigy. Once she had relocated with her parents from rural New Hampshire to Boston, her entrée into the wider world of America’s second capital of culture was made smoother, so that by the time of her official debut at sixteen she had already attracted a group of influential admirers (such as the poets Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes) who followed and supported the growth of her talent. Her gifts were such that, had she been a boy, she would certainly have travelled to Europe for further studies in piano and composition, but this was not condoned by her father, with the result that she was partly self-taught in the former and almost entirely in the latter. At eighteen, she married the illustrious surgeon Henry Beach, a widower 24 years her senior, who required of his young wife that she must not pursue a professional career, and that her appearances should be limited to one or two benefit concerts per year, with the proceeds donated to charity, thereby preserving the decorum Henry wished to maintain. The marriage seemed to have been happy, nevertheless, and the couple lived luxuriously in Henry’s mansion on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. A year after becoming widowed, however, she sailed for Europe on her forty-fourth birthday and embarked on a three-year international tour that quickly established her as one of the leading American musicians of the day. Ironically, she was thus earning the money she discovered she needed to pay off the substantial debts accrued by Henry without her knowledge.
Returning to Boston in 1913, she became involved with the MacDowell Colony, a venture devoted to supporting the development of fellow American artists, established by the most famous local composer of the time, Edward MacDowell (1860—1908). It had been his ‘Indian’ Suite op.48 for orchestra (1892), which Amy admired, which seems to have sparked her interest in adapting native American musical materials in her works twenty years earlier, at a time when nationalist movements in music were prompting exploration and preservation of folk songs and folklore. Following her visit to the World Colombian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, her attention began to turn to questions of musical provenance, and she began expressing, in her writings as well as her music, concern for answers to the question: what is American music? It was also in 1893 that Dvorak, then living in the United States, premiered his ninth symphony ‘From the New World’, publicly declaring that the future of American music lay in its folk heritage. Beach responded with the first of her ‘Indianist’ works, ‘An Indian Lullaby’, a four-part song for women’s chorus, written in 1895. The anonymous author of the text
Sleep in thy forest bed
Where silent falls the tread
On the needles soft and deep
Of the pine
may well have been Amy herself. Although there are no folk or indigenous melodies included in the song, the intention to evoke an impression of native life is beautifully rendered in a gently wistful, romanticised way. Soon, she was acquiring a knowledge of authentic native musics and incorporating themes and stylistic traits in her own works. Probably the best known of these remains her suite ‘Eskimos’ op.64, which borrows Eskimo tunes collected in Labrador.
So it was that, when she received a commission from the San Francisco Quintet Club in 1915, she turned to ‘An Indian Lullaby’ for a theme. Following on from her most famous work, the impressively sumptuous piano quintet of 1907, she employed skills honed in her grand piano concerto (1899) and ‘Gaelic’ Symphony (1894) in gracefully idiomatic string writing that at once effectively provides an evocative setting for the solo flute and richly expands and decorates the original song. In a series of six variations, she gifted the original interpreter, flautist Elias Hecht, with an elegantly virtuosic vehicle laden with brilliant passage work and fine cantilena melodies, with plenty of characteristic late nineteenth century vignettes, so favoured in the salons of Europe.
From the elegiac opening address by the strings to the haunting coda, a panorama of descriptive character sketches leads us from quicksilver Mendelssohnian scherzi to a heartfelt Wagnerian largo, with a languorous fin de siècle waltz and an intriguing, nostalgic glance backwards by way of recapitulation. “The theme, haunting and beautiful, had seven (sic) variations, each one exquisite in form. Technically, they were worthy the mettle (sic) of these star men,”wrote the Musical Leader after the premiere, and the piece has remained a favourite with American flute players ever since. Nevertheless, it took until 1942 for it to receive its East Coast premiere, during celebrations for her 75th birthday in Washington DC.
For the rest of her life, Mrs H. H. A. Beach, as she continued to be known professionally, became a fixture of the Boston and New York musical scenes, widely respected as a pianist and always popular as a composer, surviving the gentle and gradual eclipse of all artists born of her era, as the ructions and modernities of the post World War I period proceeded apace. Unlike Mr Damrosch, however, her music has never left the American canon, and only gains greater international recognition as the years have passed since her death in 1944. The Theme and Variations for flute and string quartet is one of her finest chamber works, rarely heard in Australia, and will be given its first performance in the Australia Ensemble lunch hour series on Tuesday 11 August in the Leighton Hall, Scientia Building, University of NSW, 1.10pm.
This is a blog post from 18 December last year, while I was touring with Keith Crellin for Chamber Music Australia, auditioning groups for the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition that has just finished. One or two of the thoughts are repeated in the previous post about repertoire (so shoot me).
Music is not a language: music is like a language. It’s my opinion, and not what I’m going to write about here, but it serves to show that (again, in my opinion) there’s a big difference between an analogy and a declaration of equivalence. The trouble with using analogies, which are addictively useful, is that it’s often difficult to know how far to stretch them, to what they apply and to what they don’t, and when to stop. I feel like indulging, so please bear with.
Keith and I are about to embark on the final leg of this fascinating and very enjoyable audition tour. We have heard thirty groups in four cities, and been delighted and privileged to be treated to private performances of great music played by many fine young colleagues. I have spent most of the tour so far making copious notes, and re-reading them, pondering what I have heard and discussing at length with my very pleasant travelling companion. Because most of my previous experience in adjudicating has been either alone or on juries, in which discussion is usually strictly forbidden, for good reasons, the opportunity to exchange views freely has been refreshing and liberating. I have been learning a lot from Keith, and he seems to have relished the reciprocation. Without wishing to speak for another, I believe that we are pretty much on the same page regarding the art and craft of playing, although, when it comes to inner feelings, we are all undoubtedly and aptly different.
Among the groups, there have been those who have spent years together; there are those who have formed this year, last year, and one which replaced a pianist last week; there are those who play with near immaculate technical precision; there are those who are relatively rough, and show a myriad technical shortcomings; there are those who seem formal in approach, who might or might not be what is quaintly called ‘historically informed’; there are those comprising members who seem very well suited to playing with their confrères, those who seem more motley; there was at least one player who was crying as she played; there was one who seemed angry; and there have been a few ensembles who have brought a frisson, for reasons that don’t really need much analysis. And so on. And yet, with so many, many factors in play, and so many ways to listen to them, consider them, sort them, there is one aspect that remains at the core of all good playing: enjoyment, and the ability to impart it so that it becomes shared.
My analogy, which I will now proceed to stretch, ridiculously, is that ‘playing’ an instrument is just that, in a sense. Beyond and inclusive of all the discipline and learned skills, without play, the activity of music is forlorn and perfunctory. The particular beauty of chamber music is often said to relate to an intimate conversation, and I’d agree with that, except that I’d insist that it be a playful conversation in some way. I like to hear a small group playing as if they were sharing a game, and that that game delighted and surprised them as they went along. Listening to a solo performance, I want the same thing, but the nature of the game might be quite different: it’s like the difference between watching mixed doubles, perhaps (string quartet) and someone playing solitaire. I told you about analogies, didn’t I? Duets: chess? Trios: Monopoly? I don’t know.
Listening to young players is often fascinating, and this tour has been nothing if not fascinating. We will welcome some ensembles to Melbourne next year who will delight, charm and probably touch and win hearts. I hope and believe that we will hear the best that is on offer from the world’s young professionals, and that their youth will not be camouflaged or subdued by the maturity and respect due to music that is also necessary for the true interpretation of the classics that we love. It occurs to me, though, that some of the most playful people I have known, paradoxically, are also some of the oldest, which goes to show that playfulness, or its lack, is not necessarily proportionate to age and experience. And I’m very glad about that.
So, if anything, I would like our young groups to revel in their youth and their growing maturity, both, and never be ashamed or inhibited from playing the great game of music, with a child-like quality, nourished and protected. Mozart did, and if it was good enough for him, it’s good enough for us, nicht Wahr?
A few people asked me to put up the text of a talk I gave recently at the Australasian Piano Pedagogy Conference in Melbourne. A busy conference it was, full to the brim with varied and interesting presentations. One of the highlights was Piers Lane’s recreation of a wartime recital by Myra Hess.
These are a few thoughts I’d like to share with you concerning the nature of repertoire, what it means to me, and why I have found the pursuit of it so engrossing, since I began collecting it with my pocket money when I was about 12 years old, and why it feels now that I know even less than I did before. I doubt whether any of the following observations will strike you as original or comprehensive, but they stem from a life-long appreciation of areas of repertoire that are often dismissed as unimportant or worse, as well as the notion that demarcating and subdividing areas of repertoire is useful but also partly arbitrary — everything we do in music, and everything that our musical forebears have done, much of which they have left us to enjoy and from which to learn — is a contribution to an inheritance: a whole, living thing that forms a unique collective human utterance.
These are a couple of definitions of ‘repertoire’ that come readily to hand:
– a stock of plays, dances, or items that a company or a performer knows or is prepared to perform
– the whole body of items which are regularly performed; a stock of skills or types of behaviour that a person habitually uses.
Any definitions of ‘repertoire’ I can find immediately imply inclusion and, by extension, exclusion — what one can play, chooses to do, opts not to. In fact, is there even a satisfactory word for the whole of what has been written, including that which has been written and lost? The best I can come up with is ‘extant musical literature,’ although ‘extant’ would suggest what has survived to the present, rather than everything that existed at all. In any case, it is this concept to which I refer when I talk about repertoire.
When I was a student here at the College of the Arts in the 1980s, the opportunity to ransack the music library and get my hands on more piano music than I had ever seen before was a source of great pleasure. And where there is now a vacant lot on the corner of City Rd and Sturt St there used to be an old flat-iron building, formerly the YMCA, where the VCA rented rooms installed with pianos so that we had extra space in which to practise. In the corridors were boxes of old music donated by kindly folk who would rather we had it than throw it out, I guess, and that provided an additional supply of often peculiar scores reflecting the tastes of an earlier era. Fossicking among the dusty sheets I recall finding pieces by Norman O’Neill, Rudolf Friml and those ubiquitous Ketèlbys and Gabriel Morels, Bendels and Raffs, along with Schubert, Bach and Mozart and all the other granddaddies. It was all grist to the mill in those days, and there was little that I would find to reject. There were others similarly obsessed. The pianist Tony Gray, who was then completing his Graduate Diploma, told me that his ambition was to play, or at least play through, every piece that had ever been written for the piano. Given that he was not one to waste much time practising — he freely admitted — he reckoned that he would have the time to accomplish the feat within a lifetime, with a bit to spare. I sometimes wonder how he’s going with that — it was hard to tell whether Tony was being absolutely serious. When I met Leslie Howard in London a few years later, we had a similar conversation, and Leslie was the first person I knew who could fairly be described as having an ‘encyclopaedic knowledge’, to employ that overused expression.
There are those, then, who have a fascination for the breadth of repertoire and who enjoy the hunt for the more obscure items, which was always part of the fun when it involved junk shops, antiquarian dealers and ringing up fellow piano nerds to swap photocopies. Now, there is IMSLP.org, which has made the ten or so years Leslie and I slowly pieced together a worklist for Moritz Moszkowski redundant, if not quite a waste of time. Without those expeditions into London to Cecil Court and Bell Street, or the now defunct Atiquariat at Doblingers in Vienna, or the Westminster Library, or the bargain bins at Francis Music Supply in Gerrard St Soho (between the Chinese grocery and the sex shop) I would not have met the appealingly odd repertoire of David Wendell Fentress Guion, Nathaniel Dett, Serge Lancen, Gustav Jensen or Halfdan Kjerulf, and my life would be the less interesting for it.
But not everyone is bitten by the repertoire bug. I have had conversations with a number of colleagues who roll their eyes or simply smile in bemusement when I get all enthused about Carlos Guastavino, Sigismond Stojowski or Iris de Cairos Rego. “If they had been worth playing, we would have heard of them by now,” they say, or “There’s probably a good reason why they were forgotten,” or words to those effects — no doubt I’m being a bit unfair in my paraphrasing — and in a sense, they’re right. I have no argument with the fact that there is great music —sometimes embodying the sublime and crossing over into another territory in ways that could be rightly called ineffable. And yet, the people who created that aural art were echte Menschen, flesh and blood humans who lived and live among us; they belong to the societies that host them, sometimes sustaining them and sometimes not so much. How else to appreciate the magic than to gain the perspective afforded only by knowing above which landscapes they stood aloft, to adopt a rather Nineteenth Century turn of phrase. Just because you know and love the Flute Quartets of Mozart is no reason not to know the actually rather lovely but unloved quartets by Leopold Kozeluh, the man Beethoven referred to as a ‘miserabilis’. The one doesn’t occlude the other, or have to.
Within the more or less undisputed canon, too, are plenty of examples of music that one might regard as essential desert island hand luggage, and another might disregard as muck. A good friend and colleague of mine was once forced by circumstance to play the G minor string quartet by Grieg. It’s a beautiful but not frequently-played work, with an evocative, tartly sweet Nordic romance at its heart, and the audience loved it. My friend loathed it, as he declared he loathed all Grieg’s music. He went on about how much he loathed it for several years afterwards, quoting a gnomic remark of John Painter’s: “I haven’t ever heard Grieg’s string quartet, and I don’t want to hear it again!” Now, not so long ago, the Sydney Symphony performed a concert version of the entire Peer Gynt, and my friend, I happened to know, was rostered to play in it. I was curious to know how he got on, so when I saw him next, I asked him. With tears welling up in his eyes, he replied, “It was some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard in my life.” To his enormous credit. Preconceptions are often just another word for not knowing stuff, and sometimes they can be destroyed in the pleasantest of ways.
One of Grieg’s greatest admirers was Percy Grainger, a composer with whom my friend has even more of a problem. For him, and others, it’s evidently the Morris dancing and twee, tweedy, Englishness of the folk music settings, although it’s worth remembering that Grainger was adamant that Country Gardens was a piece full of anger and grit, so at least some of it is a misunderstanding of Grainger’s intentions. I believe that there is a special element that contributes to the feelings of unease and aversion, and it has to do with bad taste: the cringe that we feel when emotionalism just veers over that boundary into bad taste, like most pop music has since about 1970. Percy was well aware of this, and told plenty of self-depreciating stories, including the one involving Sir Thomas Beecham when he conducted Colonial Song at the Proms. “My dear Grainger,” boomed the rotund knight, “you have achieved the near impossible: you have written the worst piece of modern times!” In a general observation about his life’s work and where he stood in relation to the mainstream, he once remarked, “My life has been one of kicking out into space, while the world around us is dying of good taste.” He believed that bad taste was not a barrier to good music, a notion to which CPE Bach stood diametrically opposed, as many do. I’m probably more with Grainger on this one, for a whole bunch of reasons, and we have some surprising allies (Mozart, for instance. One only ahs to think of the canons…). Just as there is nothing more superficial than the veneer of a person who scrupulously hides all his defects, a composer who is concerned only with surface decorum, and the disguise of all revealing foibles, is usually a composer who leaves us cold. Ally that with a desire to impress, rather than move or delight, and you have an altogether irritating musical irrelevance. Anyway, whatever good taste is, it’s really best judged personally, but tends to be subject to societal norms, and societal norms are all very well in some ways, but usually not a great prompter of good art, except in critique, I suppose. Additionally, good taste is inherently prescriptive and, worse, proscriptive, with the inevitable effect of limitation: limitation of that which is deemed worthy, and therefore choking off utterance before it gets a chance to be heard. All sorts of effects follow, but I don’t want to dwell on them, because it’s not the focus of this talk.
Grieg might be regarded as a great composer by some — Grainger did — but let’s take an unarguable example. Who with a passion for Beethoven would possibly not want to hear and know everything he wrote? And yet, we are prepared to hear certain works again and again before we listen to some others even for the first time. Why is that? Is it in fact true that Wellington’s Victory is a lousy piece? Does it really matter? Many of Beethoven’s key ideas were worked out in those little factories of invention: the sets of variations, some of which turned out to be, like the Diabelli Variations, among his most inspired works; many others are almost forgotten. There are around thirty sets of variations dating from his teens to his last years and numbering over 250 individual movements. They were clearly important to Beethoven, and a key element in his musical thinking, and to the process by which his ideas grew and made sense. When I toured for the ABC in the 1990s, I was interviewed on radio in Hobart by a fellow about Tchaikowsky’s second piano concerto, which I was playing with the TSO. “Critics agree that it’s a weak piece in comparison with the first, poorly constructed and lacking melodic inventiveness,” he stated, and I spent most of the interview defending the composer, who really needed none, and trying to convince people to turn up and hear for themselves a concerto that is not played all that often. When we went off air, I asked him whether he really disliked the piece as much as he seemed to. “Oh, I haven’t heard it,” he said, “but I’ve read about it.” I’m always grateful when people are candid on such matters. At least you know what you’re dealing with. But again, we have the twin problems: repertoire that has been prejudged, before hearing, and the attendant lack of — loss of — perspective that follows. How much better for a lover and admirer of Tchaikowsky to know the concerti; to know not just the Seasons and Dumka and, perhaps, the Variations op.19 no.6, but also the exceptionally fine op.72 collection, which contains — yes — a few gnarly Tchaikowsky nuggets but rewards with a lullaby of painfully sweet beauty. When I was going through a Schubert fad in the 1980s, it was the sonatas that kept challenging and intriguing me, and from the moment I discovered the Reliquie Sonata D840, one of the great enigmas of Schubert, the unfinished sonatas became something of an obsession for a few years, and I collected various editorial completions and started trying to write my own. Among the writings addressing this repertoire, I soon came across an essay by Dennis Matthews, the English pianist and scholar, a fine musician who made a valuable contribution to English piano pedagogy. His view was that the ten works usually identified as incomplete sonatas — to say nothing of the dozen or so miscellaneous pieces also left incomplete — were of not much more than theoretical value, with the exception of the Reliquie. It was the way he summed it up that bothered me, more than the preceding discussion. “There’s plenty of finished Schubert yet to be discovered.”
It’s not an invalid point! There is. But, why must we choose one or the other? It’s a false dichotomy.
From time to time, the Melbourne pianist Stephen McIntyre tells the story of a day with his then teacher, Arturo Benedetti Michelangli, one of the finest pianists of the twentieth century. Michelangeli was renowned for his legendary finesse and perfection, but not for having a large repertoire. Stephen asked if he might learn a Schubert sonata — I don’t recall which one, but it’s likely to have been the one Michelangeli recorded, in A minor D537. But il docente countered with, “What about this one?” and played a different one… followed by another. I can’t find any record of his having played any other Schubert sonatas, and he certainly only recorded one, but there it is: his ‘playing repertoire’ was informed by a wider pool of music which he kept for himself; his public music was fed and sustained by a much more comprehensive private repertoire.
We can get caught in the ‘masterpiece’ trap: constructing canons that ‘privilege’ (to use a dreadful post-modern term) the perfect work over the imperfect. In many cases, this might be quite apt, but even for some major musical minds, it doesn’t work so well. Think of Schumann — was there ever a more perfect ‘flawed’ composer? — a man who had a tendency to pack musical content of the most sublime quality into faultily-engineered vessels, apparently not knowing how to orchestrate, or when to stop — or so it has seemed to many critics from his time right up until ours. True, a long cycle like the Novellettes op.21 — eight untitled character pieces of awkwardly difficult technique, insufficiently contrasting tempi and dynamics, and with a rather perfunctory ending — contain some of Schumann’s most sublime moments. Schubert’s waltz chains (he wrote in the order of 500 waltzes for the piano alone), are hard to programme because they are long, harmonically disjointed, organisationally arbitrary and rhythmically unvariegated, and yet it is inconceivable to know Schubert’s music, to love it but not come to terms with the waltzes, Ecossaises, Galops, Polonaises, Cotillons and other various dances that formed one of the main bases of his compositional practice, or, like Beethoven and his variations, an essential factory of ideas. Not to mention, many of the best waltzes are sublime in their miniature perfection of melody and harmony.
From a composer’s perspective, perhaps, the concept of the oeuvre is more of a lived, daily, experience than a theoretical nicety. Beethoven might have been working on the Missa Solemnis at the same time as he was writing the thirtieth piano sonata op.110, and the material from one might have leeched into the other. Across the expanse of his complete works, the stylistic and creative variation is breathtaking, but there is an unmistakable ‘Beethovenness’ to it all that binds it to the mind that dreamt it and fashioned it.
One composer from hereabouts demonstrates the phenomenon much more clearly. In 1981, when a few in this room today were junior members of the Musical Society of Victoria, the Society decided to commission a new solo piano work in celebration of MSV’s 120th anniversary. Peter Sculthorpe wrote Nocturnal, a ten minute piece that opened with a brooding, granite-like chordal introduction, closely related to his Sydney International Piano Competition commission, Mountains, which was the set piece that year. Interspersed with that chordal theme were long toccata-like episodes with a brief cadenza. When I first contacted Peter in about 1985, he told me that he had forgotten all about Nocturnal, but he was happy for me to play it. I didn’t ask him how he felt about all the copies floating round, because he declared that he had withdrawn it. When I heard marvellous Piano Concerto from 1983, I realised why. Peter had transformed the earlier, smaller, work into the later, larger, one. Not only that but he also wrote an entirely unrelated piece the same year, which he also called Nocturnal, which bears the work number W161. Our Nocturnal does not appear at all in Peter’s official worklist. There is no mystery here. Peter’s life’s work was a body of composition that is highly interrelated, and he was famous for revisiting earlier pieces, particularly the string quartets, and restyling them with added didgeridoo after he met the charismatic didge virtuoso and composer William Barton. If you go to the Sculthorpe website at petersculthorpe.com.au you will find lists of discrete pieces with Wnumbers, but if you listen to enough of his music, the Wnumbers will fade away, and you will start to hear that Peter’s music, in a very real sense, comes together as a sort of collective great musical statement: a panorama of the essence of Peter Sculthorpe. All the borrowings, insertions, repetitions, foibles, aural symbols and even deletions are an expression of the man himself, of his wholeness. You may or may not like a particular work of Sculthorpe, but if you care about the value and contribution of Australian music in a world of music, then you will probably be interested enough to reach this point of understanding of what this one man was able to contribute, by a sheer force of will and imagination, and love of music, by listening to him.
It seems that I am in disagreement with many, if not most, of my colleagues on a core question: is music a language? I don’t believe that it is. I don’t know what music is, apart from itself, but I don’t think it is anything more than like a language, when we want it to be. I’m frequently told, when I ask the question (as I enjoy doing, because the answers interest me), that yes, music is a language: a language of the emotions. Rather than argue the point, which might be a logical thing to do, instead I’d like to read you something by the British poet Craig Raine, whose literary criticism is exceptionally penetrating. This from an essay he wrote in 1997 titled A Criticism of Life.
“In my naïve, untheoretical, writerly way, I believe in language.
“Edmund White’s autofiction, The Farewell Symphony, tells us that ‘the tragedy of sex is that one can never know what this most intimate and moving form of communication has actually said to the other person and whether the message, if received, was welcome’. I have annotated this sentence with one tart word: talk?
“Steven Pinker is a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. He specialises in the psychology of language. In 1994, he wrote a brilliant book, The Language Instinct. His initial proposition is that human beings can shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision. ‘I am not referring to telepathy or mind control or the other obsessions of fringe science,’ he writes. ‘These are blunt instruments compared to an ability that is uncontroversially present in every one of us. This ability is language. Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds.’ We are, says Pinker, liable to forget what a miracle this is.”
Raine makes the case that we routinely treat language with the contempt bred of the familiar, not just taking for granted but overlooking the unique gift that it is and the miraculous properties that it has. I would say, as a sort of extension of that concept, that we musicians are capable of doing the same with music. There is debate in linguistic circles as to what came first, the large modern brain or the invention of language, and it would be interesting to ask a similar question about music, which may have developed even earlier. Whether one regards music as a type of language, or a relative, close or distant, which I guess I’d be prepared to accept, the fact remains that it has so many aspects that are unique to itself, while also being quite incapable of fulfilling many of the basic functions of language. How does one order a cup of coffee in Music?
It also seems to me that to perceive music and the other arts as branches of the tree of languages is to diminish, as Raine points out, the immense power and uniqueness of both language and music. Why can’t we simply say: language is language; music is music, and they are both unique and wonderful? Just as Pinker insists on the miraculous quality of language to go beyond what ESP is supposed to do in the movies, so does music alter perceptions, communicate beyond words and cause to arise changes in the brains of those who hear it, at the urging of those who create it. I am frequently and repeatedly amazed, as a composer, when people come up to me and tell me what they thought when they hear a piece I have written. I don’t mean, they say, “I liked it,” or otherwise; I mean, they tell me about the thoughts that arose, and it is a much greater joy to hear and marvel at these things than to get a good review, I can honestly tell you.
The way we experience music is often a complex and unlikely process. Some individuals with a yen to share their musical imaginations dream of a web of expressions, inherently personal, innately descriptive of their minds. They spend many hours contemplating, developing and refining those ideas, each according to their fashion. From that, a ‘work’ emerges. Most often, that work is given to others to learn, comprehend, re-imagine, re-express according to their fashion, and for us to hear. Or, we might read and play that work for ourselves. Or, we might read and silently imagine that music. I’m sure there are other ways. The fact remains, unless one is a composer, and one imagines one’s own music, there is this matter of interpretation, which is often a fancy way of saying: making the music sound — not exist — sound. But in essence, we take someone’s ‘work’, a deeply and keenly felt expression of mind, re-experience that and pass it on. It’s a marvellous thing.
Then, there is the question of interpretation. We are, as players, ‘interpretive’ artists; teh art of performance is a recreation rather than a creation, but beyond a certain point, obviously, the creativity in re-creation is a creation in itself. We are in relation to the music we play something akin to what an actor is to a script: we take the musical words of someone else and relive them, in us and through us — it begins to sound religious, doesn’t it? — and the music is recombined inside us, in a way. Beethoven becomes Beethoven plus Brendel; Chopin becomes Chopin plus Rubinstein, and the amount to which we ‘inject’ ourselves, if you like, not only is up to us but also expresses how we think and what we think is important, which in itself is a kind of interpretation. For a composer, this expression of self, and finding self, is probably more in the dreaming and writing of the notes; for a composer-player, it is in both; for a performer who does not compose, it may be in the declamation of the notes; and for someone who believes in the sanctity of the Urtext, that serious respect for the scholarship of the edition is also an expression of self. For teachers, it must embrace all these aspects and more, in order to pass on what one has learned, what technical means is needed to gain traction But, in all of this, we are all different; we really are. In what way can we serve Music best? Well, we can find what it is that we do best, which music resonates with us, and devote ourselves to that. How do we know, though? There’s the rub. In order to find out, we go on a journey, and it’s a lifelong one, and we often don’t know what it is we’re looking for, or know when we’ve found it. Looking for repertoire that suits us, and to which we can give the best of ourselves and the best service, goes hand-in-hand with looking for ourselves.
From this viewpoint, the repertoire we choose to experience becomes more than a collection of chosen ‘works’: it becomes an enactment of minds, communicating with ours, in the mysterious medium of music. We are able, through the repertoire bequeathed to us by people we never knew, able to imagine thinking the musical thoughts of others if we choose, being inside some of the greatest minds who ever lived. This communication and imagination is what music is about, and E. M. Forster in his epigrammatic title page to Howard’s End was indicating, perhaps, what all music — all good music — is about: “Only connect,” he wrote. Meaning: if life is meant for anything, it is meant for reaching out and being part of a greater thing; reaching out and making contact.
Perhaps all this is beginning to sound a bit cosmic, but these are hardly original thoughts or observations. When I have a piece to write, I often agonise until I have an idea or ideas I’m happy with, interested enough to take further, and can then go on. It’s a bit like catching the end of a thread and holding onto it, and I think that the thought processes prompted by the music we play can be like that too. There might be a piece you love by Chopin; say, the extraordinary Barcarolle op.60, with its astonishing coda, a slow harmonic explosion of genius, preceded by a lilting Venetian evocation of such sweet invention that you can imagine gondoliers themselves becoming enraptured and blowing hand-kisses. Gabriel Fauré evidently thought so, and so wrote thirteen of his own over a period of more than thirty years. But Chopin himself, at the time of writing his Barcarolle forty years before Fauré began his series, was a friend of Franz Liszt, who wrote his first version of Venezia e Napoli, with its Venetian gondola song as its third movement in about 1838, seven or eight years before Chopin. Liszt, in his turn, had borrowed from the earlier Italian composer Giovanni Battista Perucchini, who wrote a good many barcarolle-songs over a long period. The conversations between Chopin and Liszt were actual, at times, as the men knew and admired each other in their different ways. The exchange of ideas between Perucchini and Liszt, and Chopin and Fauré, was more remote physically, but still part of a coming together of minds, in music, and these are only a few of the much more numerous connections that branch out in all directions from such minds, active and fascinated as they were and are by the musical ideas around them. Perhaps thsi is what Stravinsky meant when he famously, or perhaps apocryphally, said that “all good composers borrow; great ones steal.” But it seems that he may even have been borrowing or stealing that thought, from T. S. Eliot, or Picasso, or someone else. Even the comment itself is revealing about how our minds can intermingle.
One man wrote along these lines, in 1623, on the seventeenth day of a 23-day illness that brought him close to death:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
from Meditation 17
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and Several Steps in my Sickness
Closely related to that thought, it’s perhaps this that E. M. Forster is talking about. “Only connect,” he urges in the epigraph to the class-ridden Edwardian tragedy. But how? Certainly, in his chosen world of words, and his thematic focus, the qualities of societal norms that obstruct what we seek, which is, according to, Forster, closeness between people, and minds, and souls, the word is a powerful tool; but Forster was also a music lover, and acknowledged the other powerful tools that enable closeness of mind, like music.
I would venture to bet that many of you have had the experience with students I have, when choosing repertoire for them. You’re at the start of semester, looking ahead thirteen weeks or so to assessments and recitals. Student X asks: “What will I play?” Or sometimes, Student Y will say, “I heard this cool song I want to learn,” which is modified rapture to your ears, usually, because it means there’s an enthusiasm that could translate to sustained work over enough of a period to get them there, even if you might see the benefit of not playing Rachmaninov’s third concerto at this stage. It also means that they are of their own volition listening to and thinking about music themselves, and building a knowledge of repertoire that is not just a small database but a living understanding of what exists and how they feel about it. More often, though, it happens that you choose the pieces, and you give a good deal of thought to what the individual student, with their unique traits, what they might enjoy and what would be beneficial for them at that stage of their growth. Then along comes Week 4, or 6, or 8. “I don’t like it,” they timidly complain. What we are seeking to do in our teaching is to impart enough knowledge and skill to set them free to complete their training on their own. We want for them what we should desire for ourselves: to become the most complete musicians we can.
I believe that that process stems from a hunger, only ever momentarily satisfied, for knowledge, a wider knowledge and understanding, of music, and for the refinement of the skills we need to communicate what we know to the utmost. “Only connect” is, for us in music, so important as musicians, on stage as performers; at the desk or piano or laptop or wherever it is that we write down the music we dream as composers; in the studio as we seek as teachers to impart all that to our young colleagues in the early stages of musical growth; and as we consider the attempts by colleagues from previous eras who sought to do all that before us, leaving repertoire behind to continue the conversation after they were long dead.
The idea that the formation of the canon is over and done with is nonsense, too. Without making a to-do of it, we particpate in the re-formation of the Canon all the time. In the late 1980s, I toured Northern Ireland for the Arts Council of Great Britain. In the town of Enniskillen, the scene of a deadly IRA bomb attack two years earlier, I met the remarkable Joan Trimble, one half of the Trimble Sisters, who were a famous piano duo in Britain from the 1940s until the 1960s, when she took control of the family newspaper The Impartial Reporter. Joan wanted to tell me about Arthur Benjamin, the Australian composer who taught the Trimbles at the Royal College of Music and who wrote the world famous Jamaican Rumba for them, which became their signature tune. From that point, I became fascinated with Benjamin, whose music went way beyond that charming ditty, and began to research and play everything I could find, hampered only by the fact that most of it was out of print, but encouraged by the opportunity that undeserved neglect offers for the joy of rediscovery and advocacy. Since then, although through no great effect of mine, Benjamin’s music has undergone a bit of a revival, I’m pleased to say, and Wendy Hiscocks, also speaking at this conference, has done some great work in assembling a detailed biography of him. Last year, a project to unearth and perform for the first time Benjamin’s clarinet quintet, the last piece he wrote as a student in 1914 before heading off for service in World War I, came to fruition. As part of the Australia Ensemble series in Sydney, this major piece of missing Australian repertoire was heard for the first time in 101 years, and it was glorious, a great Brahmsian rhapsody with touches of the Australian vernacular.
Even closer to my heart is the story of Katharine “Kitty” Parker. Kitty Parker was a Tasmanian, from the north in the region of Lake River near Longford. The property ‘Parknook’, established by her forebears in the 1820s, was one of two pioneering farms in the area, and she grew up among the sheep, in the foothils of the magnificent Western Tiers. By the time she reached London, Percy Grainger, her teacher, declared her “the most gifted student I ever had.” Her marriage to English tenor Hubert Eisdell helped to prompt a modestly successful career as accompanist and composer of nostalgic Edwardian songs but also led, in its eventual crumbling, to her losing faith in her musical abilities, and her last published work were the Six Songs from the Chinese, miniature gems of piquant mastery. This was about 1930. Over the next forty years, and after her return to Tasmania until her final years in Sydney, she appears to have attempted to write but had little success. It’s a sad story, made beautiful by the music itself. But the music itself, when I first encountered it, was largely forgotten and gathering dust, literally. The powerfully moving, grand miniature piano solo ‘Down Longford Way’ may still be found occasionally at second-hand music shops, if any of those exist any more, and I found a copy in a shop in Sydney Road. It bewitched me, and I started on a journey to know more about this lady and her music. Various people helped along the way, some donating music, others relating their memories, the current owners of ‘Parknook’ showing me around the remains of the shearing-shed. I’m indebted to my friend Jodie Heald, through whose endeavours ‘Down Longford Way’ is now on the AMEB syllabus. In 2004, after over ten years of collecting music and stories, Belinda Webster and I published a CD of the piano music and songs, almost all of them, with Soprano Jane Edwards. I can’t tell you how much personal satisfaction this brought me, and there are further projects in the pipeline. Applying the defibrillating paddles to undeservedly forgotten repertoire brings a special kind of joy, which comes, essentially, from a feeling of taking part in a greater conversation, to which we are all open and welcome to contribute.
In some ways, these are very minor stories, and I don’t expect anyone else to get quite the same frisson from them as I have, but that’s all right. I know that there are plenty of people who have been touched and surprised by Kitty Parker’s music and her story, partly because they have told me, and partly because I know that the music itself has within it that elusive, magical, miraculous quality to connect and to touch, and that is exactly what I’m talking about. There are pieces, and concerts, and recordings, which dazzle, which impress, or which promote this or that cause or message, or which mesmerise with minimalist repetitive rhythm, or which seek to bring forward and amaze with avant-garde sounds never heard before. But, at the core of what we really want to experience and pass on as musicians — actually, as people — is as simple as it is mystical and inexplicable — we want to connect. Only connect. And this, I think, is what repertoire does, and why it’s so important, and beautiful.
I have a final quotation from Grainger, a man who, despite his zany reputation, was a brilliant and serious thinker, passionate about music and life. He once wrote, “If you love music with disinterested devotion, not for what it can do for you … then it will repay you with fourfold interest.” Looking at his personal library of music by other composers, the collecting of folk songs from the British Isles and Faeroes he did himself in his younger years, the quest for music from popular to experimental, the involvement in wind and brass bands as writer, player and conductor, writer on music, concert artist, you have to say that there was a man who sought to become the deepest musician he had it in himself to become, and his expansive perception of what repertoire was, and what was valuable (which was almost everything!) provides a model for an ambitious and inclusive view of repertoire that has great application for all musicians. It appeals to me, anyway, and I hope that it does to you, too.
I have long regarded Andy Ford as one of the most deeply intelligent human beings I know, and one of the best. My admiration only grows when I read a transcript of his recent contribution to the Senate Select Committee. Andy is one of those rare individuals who is able to help you to think more clearly. In these times, advocacy of this quality is gold dust.
Thanks, Andy, and bless you.
“I’d like to say something about how the ABC – specifically ABC radio, but also ABC online – helps to create and sustain and support musical communities around Australia. I’m talking about audiences, obviously, but also communities of musicians – and that’s at every level. I think that we’re about to lose some very important planks in that support with the removal of some specialist music programs from RN and Classic FM.
You always hear the expression ‘the music industry’, and I never really know what that is. I think if you were to ask most musicians, they wouldn’t feel they were part of an industry. As a composer, I feel more like a cottage gardener. My work is mostly pretty solitary. And even when musicians form up into bands or orchestras, they’re still making individual contributions – you know: they study alone, they practise alone. The same goes for listeners. We might be sitting in the middle of an audience with 2000 other people, but our experience of a song or a symphony is essentially a private matter.
As individual musician and listeners, then, we depend on institutions for information and commentary and a sense of community. Institutions such as libraries and newspapers; universities and conservatoria; and above all, I think, public broadcasting. And ABC radio is especially important in this regard –Triple J and Classic FM, ABC Jazz . . . and Radio National, which offers the broadest range of musical experiences I can imagine. Often you’re hearing music you can’t easily hear anywhere else, especially on RN; and significantly, you’re hearing it presented knowledgably. ABC Radio – whether it’s coming live out of the transistor in your kitchen or you’re listening online or to a podcast – isn’t just a purveyor of music; it’s also a guide to that music.
You’re also hearing Australian music – not enough of it on Classic FM, not in my opinion – but more than you’ll hear anywhere else. And you’re hearing Australian performances by Australian performers.
Now among the hundreds of thousands of listeners around the country are the musicians of tomorrow. It’s more than forty years ago, but I can still recall the eagerness with which I listened to the radio as a child. I remember hearing certain pieces of music and finding out about them. And I remember my excitement at hearing new pieces – music so new that it was being played for the first time. This is the kind of excitement that’s felt by young listeners to New Music Up Late on Classic FM. And it’s an example of what we’re about to lose. Well, I don’t think we can afford to lose it.
I also want to say something that tends to get overlooked. The ABC has traditionally been not just a curator of our musical culture, but also an entrepreneur. Once upon a time it had orchestras, choirs, even a dance band. But even with those gone, on a small scale and at a local level it’s continued to be a partner, recording concerts and making studio recording. These have diminished over the past twenty years, and the result isn’t just a loss for radio listeners. A lot of small concerts that were once possible because of a modest recording fee from the ABC, no longer happen at all. The fee might have been only $200 or $300, but it provided a safety net for, say, a young string quartet. Audiences miss out, and musicians lose a meagre supplement to their mostly meagre incomes. And by putting new music online only – as is proposed with New Music Up Late – instead of on air, you reduce composers’ royalties to a fraction of what they were. And they were never that much.
By cutting funding from the ABC, you also cut funding from musicians and from music itself.”
A good night’s sleep on a long-haul flight is still a novelty for me, and as we start the descent into Zürich I’m grateful to the ingenious flat-bed seats provided by Swiss Air. I can’t say I dreamt of chamber music but there was pleasant, if vapid, in-flight music, and memories of past journeys to Europe, each one having the sense, like this one, of being a point of transition. When I was twenty, I left Australia for the first time, also from Melbourne, also headed for Vienna. Then, it was to study at the Konservatorium der Stadt Wien with Professor Zettl; now, Keith and I are the elders, listening out for what the youngsters have to say to us in music. It strikes me now, as always, as as much a privilege as a responsibility. Prompted by conversations recently had at CMA and among playing colleagues, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is we might be ‘listening for’. It’s a question I’ve often been asked, and one to which I never feel I’ve given an adequate answer, perhaps because my thinking has never been fixed, as it still is not. More on this anon.
Continuing this, a few days later in our snug hotel, with the magnificence of the Rathaus between us and the city centre, we have been mulling over our second audition session, which was held yesterday at the Haydn Institute, only three streets over from the Johannesgasse, where I reacquainted myself with the aforementioned Konservatorium. Now that we have heard eight groups — two piano trios and a string quartet played in Melbourne; two quartets and three trios in Vienna — there are indications of what will be on offer in Melbourne next year during the international competition. There is also a strong sense of privilege and responsibility, and an even greater feeling of deeply affecting emotional connection. These are, after all, so very much like the people we were, twenty or thirty years ago — eager, hopeful, nervous, in love with music and wanting more than anything to be a part of it for life. Except that, when I was their age, I was all in for a solo career. There is something specially moving about hearing young people who, already in their early twenties, are devoted to the beauty of musical sharing, which is at the core of chamber music.
At this stage, then, Keith and I are keenly listening, and I am making copious notes in my (I like to think) fashionable little Moleskine notebook, pending more leisurely late-night discussions over a handy Glühwein or two. It’s a hard life.
Three days later:
It’s Sunday afternoon and Keith and I are waiting in the lounge at Vienna airport for our flights to Hannover and the German leg of the tour. Vienna has been utterly delightful, despite the weather gradually closing in, and today’s hint of snow to come is a little tantalising. This is a city that really sparkles under a fresh fall of snow.
However, it’s time to turn to thoughts of what we are to hear ahead, and return to considerations of how most effectively to listen to the young musicians we are meeting. I wrote a blog post that drew a thoughtful and heartfelt response from an old friend, John Garran. Particular mention was made of the question of what happens when a musician is rejected by such as we. This is probably something we all know about, whether we’re musicians or not, and I could expand on my own experiences in that area, but I won’t. There is rejection and rejection, and one’s response can be altogether different, depending on external and, for want of a better phrase, internal circumstances. Our job, in its essence, involves culling, choosing and rejecting, and we should not only be able to justify our decisions, but respond to all of our young colleagues in a way that is at least intended to help their development. Then, what is experienced as rejection at one point can lead on to growth and artistic strength.
Competitions have probably always come in for a lot of stick, from well-meaning people with informed and intelligent points of view, and I have heard mention recently of Bartòk’s famous, and critical, observation, likening music competitions to horse races. Very well, the point is valid, as far as it goes. On the other hand, what are the alternatives? Competitive processes are everywhere, and provide opportunity for many, and rewards for a few, at any given time. I prefer to focus on the opportunity rather than the evils and stresses that sometimes, or often, come hand in hand, but hold to the view that many people who ardently support and follow competitions such as MICMC do so for the best reasons, all to do with their love and admiration of young musicians and for the music they play.
You might think I’m avoiding the issue of criteria; perhaps I am. It’s not that I don’t believe in them, and I do make notes that refer to some, which I find useful as a guide. However, it has always seemed to me that to be too prescriptive about what aspects one hopes to hear, and to be prepared beforehand to reject other aspects of performances that have not yet happened, by people we have not yet met, of music we not yet have heard before, is all a bit premature. The first and overwhelming obligation of the musician is to open one’s ears and listen, and listen again and to continue to listen. Without the discipline of real listening, we can (and I frequently do) fall into the trap of seeking short-cuts, looking for reasons for rejection rather than for inclusion. There is also the truth that all good artists know: technique is not the master of art, but its servant, although it’s much easier to assess technique than art. And, the artist is always greater than the sum of the parts. More on this anon.
I was thirteen years old when I first heard the name Peter Sculthorpe. The school orchestra was introduced to his Sun Music II, still one of Peter’s most modern-sounding works and an almost incomprehensible aural and technical challenge for us, and a bit of a stretch for me as a novice cellist. It already struck me at the time as inhabiting the same imaginative world as the sere and eerie reddish brown outback scenes of Russell Drysdale, rather than the more hedonistic Streetons and Conders I was infatuated with then, and it had a haunting aura that has stayed with me ever since.
I love his music, but coming to love it was a gradual process. In 1981 I was selected to premiere his Nocturnal, an austere and enigmatic piece (which Peter soon withdrew) that revealed its secrets only when it was recast as the beautiful piano concerto the following year. But it didn’t matter. I was already hooked, and started to collect and learn everything I could find, including Mountains, a test piece for the Sydney Piano Competition. We began to correspond, and I had the temerity to ask Peter to write a piece for me, emboldened by his evident and genuine interest in younger colleagues, and what I sensed to be, correctly as it turned out, a rare generosity to share his time and ideas. It took a while, and I had to be patient, because Simori didn’t emerge until 1995. It was worth the wait, of course.
I wish I had known him better. Over the years, we met at festivals, concerts, recording sessions, parties, exhibitions, film screenings. My favourite times, though, were just going to Woollahra for lunch and a play of the piano, especially when we looked at the folders of juvenilia which Peter had kept unpublished but which held tender and affectionate memories for him. The other times I would say I treasure are the idyllic yet strenuous days and nights at Dartington Hall in Devon, where Peter was guest composer during the summer school and festival, valued both for his music and for his entertainment value, particularly after midnight, when charades might or might not have taken some very imaginitive turns.
I’m still getting my head around what it means that he is gone, but am very proud to have known him a little, and very happy to have discovered his music so early and to have had it in my life and fingers. It’s a unique and magical body of work and Peter was an extraordinary artist of genius to have given it to us.
A brief piece written for Limelight Magazine, May edition. I’m publishing it here as I can’t seem to locate it anywhere in that journal.
My second piano trio A Book of Lullabies began life as a song for mother and child, a setting of a well-known folk tune from Tokyo, known as ‘Lullaby in Edo’ (Edo eventually grew into modern Tokyo), for a young Japanese friend, Tomoe Kawabata-Ito, who had recently been blessed with a lovely little boy, Ryutaro. Contemplating its haunting simplicity gave me great pleasure, so I kept writing, selecting six further lullaby-like melodies from around the world. Soon, I had a virtual ‘lullaby odyssey’ that began in Australia with the indigenous ‘Maranoa Lullaby’, made famous by the extraordinary aboriginal tenor Harold Blair, followed by ‘Nina Bobo’ from Indonesia, ‘Kun Mun Kultani Tulisi’ from the epic Finnish poetic collection, the Kanteletar, ‘The Skye Boat Song’ from the Scottish Highlands (the ancestral home of clan Munro), ‘Iesus Ahatonnia’, otherwise known as ‘The Huron Carol’ from North America and the Zulu lullaby ‘Thula Mama’. Each of the songs tells a fascinating story, and more than one involves an expression of great sorrow and pain. The author of the ‘Huron Carol’, for example, was a Jesuit missionary, Jean de Brébeuf, who wrote the hymn for the Hurons amongst whom he lived and worked, in their native language. He earthly fate was finally to be tortured and more or less boiled alive during the Iroquois invasion and annihilation of the Huron nation in 1649.
I came to realise that I had stumbled into writing what would become a piano trio for my friends, the delightful Jo and John Strutt, who had commissioned such a work as way of celebrating their sixtieth wedding anniversary. All three of us love a good tune, so seven of them seemed about enough. The only one that didn’t make it into the final piece was the delightful ‘Flower Drum Song’ from China, written for pianist Andrea Lam (who was initially bemused by the subject matter: a wife at the end of her tether because of a husband with the irritating pastime of banging on a flower drum). That certain folk melodies endure and are loved and passed on by whole communities is well documented, although the reasons why are subtle, mysterious and fascinating. Over the years, I have often wondered what it is about great music that needn’t be complex to be profound, or difficult to be challenging, or obscure to be thought-provoking. So, in this work, I aimed to keep all of the materials simple, so as to reflect and stay true to the nature of the songs themselves, while suggesting the haunting aura of the eras and situations which gave rise to them. In the final version, the trio begins with an introductory passage based on a figure from ‘Nina Bobo’ (which replaces ‘Maranoa Lullaby’ as the opening movement) and ends with a similar, complementary return, during which the pentatonic Maranoa melody transforms into the similarly diatonic Indonesian one, suggestive of the wishful notion that in music it might be more possible than not to understand each other and find a natural and common humanity in song.
The trio receives its Sydney premiere at the Independent Theatre, North Sydney on May 20 at 11am. It’s a Musica Viva Coffee Concert and will be recorded for broadcast by ABC Classic FM.