Music To Die For Programme Notes
27 January 2012
Music To Die For
Friday 27 January 2012, 7.30pmKeith Lockhart conductor
Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall
David Temple chorus master
Ilona Domnich soprano
Jennifer Johnston mezzo-soprano
BBC Concert Orchestra
John Hannah presenter
Saint-Saëns Danse macabre
Mozart ‘Confutatis' and ‘Lacrimosa' from Requiem
Mahler ‘Der Abschied' from Das Lied von der Erde
Purcell March in C minor (for the funeral of Queen Mary)
Sibelius ‘The Swan of Tuonela' from Four Lemminkäinen Legends
Sir John Tavener Song for Athene
Barber Adagio for Strings
Fauré ‘In paradisum' from Requiem
Verdi ‘Libera me' from Requiem (1874)
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) began as a progressive, developing musical form in his grandiose ‘Organ' Symphony (No. 3) and advancing the cause of French programme (descriptive) music in a series of symphonic poems as well as creating the opera Samson and Delilah (premiered in 1877). He ended his long life as a conservative, sitting horrified through the premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in 1913 (‘He's mad!') and retreating to a neo-Classical style in his late works (ironically trendy at the time). He had a taste for the exotic and for far-off climes – he privately danced a ballet, in drag, with Tchaikovsky on the stage of the Moscow Conservatory in 1876 – and spent his later life in Algeria , where the climate (and perhaps the boys) suited him. A lifelong animal lover (as evinced by his popular The Carnival of the Animals , 1887), he also dabbled with novels, poetry and plays.
The foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed protagonist of Milos Forman's film of Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus has some basis in reality – the letters of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91) are full of fart-jokes and arse references. As much as Handel or Beethoven, Mozart was an entrepreneur, marking the transition from full-time employment by church or court to a more modern portfolio career. In Mozart's case, this was symbolised by his leaving the secure employment of the controlling Archbishop of Salzburg for a freelance career in Vienna. A child prodigy, the sociable Mozart was long used to keeping busy and being charming. At first he was successful, managing to appeal across 18th-century class boundaries. However, the endless round of work and partying took its toll on his health, the bills mounted up and Mozart's last years were shadowed by the irony of his operatic triumphs – The Marriage of Figaro (1786) in Vienna and Don Giovanni (1786) in Prague – being counterpointed against the tragedy of his illness and early death.
The life of Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) is the stuff of Romantic myth: the unique genius, born into a humble background, yet fighting to the top of his profession, combating anti-Semitism, ill-health, dead children and an unfaithful wife to pour his musical heart out to an indifferent world. No surprise his story attracted Ken Russell's extravagant attentions in a 1974 biopic. The myths aren't necessarily untrue – Mahler converted to Catholicism to become director of the Vienna Court Opera (he later decamped to the New York Met), composing only in the holidays; his wife Alma had an affair with handsome young architect Walter Gropius in 1910. But Mahler was no victim: artist Alfred Roller described him as ‘very muscular, short by South German standards, like a racehorse in top form'. Best known in his short lifespan as a conductor, Mahler's all-encompassing symphonic epics have been permanent fixtures in the orchestral repertoire since the 1960s.
Henry Purcell (1659–95) put England squarely at the centre of European musical life – a place the country wouldn't occupy again for 200 years. Son of one of King Charles II's musicians and himself a chorister at the Chapel Royal, he began his career as organ tuner at Westminster Abbey. Later he was promoted to organist. The trinity of church, court and theatre were the mainstay of his career, crowned with his opera Dido and Aeneas (1689) – one of the first and best in English. His mashing of sophisticated Italian style into English church and popular influences proved perfect for the Restoration monarchy, featuring at the coronations of James II and William II as well as Queen Mary's funeral. His funeral music was given added poignancy when used at his own memorial service the same year.
Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) is inextricably bound up with the cause of Finnish nationalism and independence from Russia – the Finnish Government even awarded him a personal pension for services to the state. Partly self-taught, he also studied violin and composition in Helsinki , Berlin and Vienna . His style crystallised in the 1890s, via programmatic pieces on nationalistic themes, from Kullervo (1891–2) to the popular Finlandia (1899). A cycle of seven symphonies written between 1899 and 1924 traverses the vast ravine between lush Tchaikovskyan late-Romanticism and terse, sinewy melodic utterance – taking in great soundscapes of forests, lakes and tundras inspired by the Finnish landscape. He completed nothing in his last three decades of life, but wrestled with alcoholic despair to complete an eighth symphony, whose manuscript seemingly ended up in flames.
Sir John Tavener (born 1944) has written more unaccompanied choral music than any composer since the Renaissance. The reason for this is also accounts for his worldwide popular success: ultimately, his conversion to the Orthodox Church in 1977. Tavener started out as a wild-child of British music, hanging out with the Beatles (who released his experimental oratorio The Whale on their Apple label) and known for sharp clothes and fast cars. Spirituality crept into his modernist style in the 1970s, and after his conversion it became overwhelming: along with Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt, Tavener is part of Holy Trinity of so-called spiritual minimalism. The 1989 BBC Proms premiere of The Protecting Veil for cello and orchestra really put him on the map, and his ethereal sound-world has been heard on the soundtracks to Gormenghast and The Children of Men as well as during London 's Millennium Eve celebrations.
A conservative composer living in radical times, Samuel Barber (1910–81) is something of a one-hit wonder. Aside from the stellar Adagio, he's best-known for his vocal music (he had a fine baritone voice). Studying at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, he teamed up with Gian Carlo Menotti, an equally conservative spirit who, as well as being Baber's lover, provided texts for his operas – including that for Pulitzer-prizewinning Vanessa (1957). His operas may not have troubled the repertoire in the way Mozart's or Verdi's have, but his Matthew Arnold setting Dover Beach (whose broadcast in 1935 first attracted Toscanini to the composer's elegant musical voice) still finds a home on concert platforms.
A quiet revolutionary, Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924) links Romanticism with early modernism, taking in French Impressionism and plainsong revivalism along the way. A student encounter with Saint-Saëns led him to the most up-to-date piano music and also a job – he took over as organist of Paris 's Madeleine church in 1896, after decades of deputising. A later bloomer, he became head of composition at the Paris Conservatoire the same year; nine years later he became Director. Immediately Fauré set about reforming the staid institution (soon being dubbed ‘Robespierre' for his surprising ruthlessness). His keen sense of status meant getting off the Metro a stop before the Conservatoire then calling a cab to arrive in style. By all accounts Fauré was extremely handsome; he is said to be the model for the composer Vinteuil in Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu.
Known as the ‘Bear of Busseto' for his irascible temperament, Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) was born near said Italian town in 1813. Following private studies at the Milan Conservatory, a burgeoning career bolstered by Milan's La Scala opera house faltered in 1840 with the failure of the comic opera Un giorno di regno and the death of Verdi's first wife. On the verge of giving up, he was offered the chance to set Nabucco (1842) ... and the rest is history. The cracking melody of Nabucco's ‘Chorus of Hebrew Slaves' – and the nationalistic implications it suggested to Italian audiences yearning for their country's unification – kick-started a career of sustained operatic success, with La Traviata, Aida and Rigoletto its best-known highlights. After Italy's independence from Austria in 1860, Verdi became an MP, his stature only slightly ruffled by living with his second partner for a decade on and off before marrying her. Despite international success, Verdi returned when he could to the farm he bought near his home town, before his death in Milan in 1897.
Profiles © Brian Inglis