Archives for July 2009

Blogging on ...

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Denis McCaldin Denis McCaldin | 18:04 UK time, Thursday, 30 July 2009

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Hello everyone!

This is just to say that the Composers of the Year blogs are moving to the main Radio 3/Proms blogs page. This has been prompted by the fact that Radio 3's main COTY broadcasts take place in the context of the Proms for the next few weeks - and we want to share the discussions with the wider Proms audience.

Please stay in touch by coming to find me at www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/radio3/.

See you there!

Blogging on ...

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Jessica Duchen Jessica Duchen | 18:01 UK time, Thursday, 30 July 2009

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Hello everyone!

This is just to say that the Composers of the Year blogs are moving to the main Radio 3/Proms blogs page. This has been prompted by the fact that Radio 3's main COTY broadcasts take place in the context of the Proms for the next few weeks - and we want to share the discussions with the wider Proms audience.

Please stay in touch by coming to find me at www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/radio3/.

See you there!

Blogging on ...

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 17:58 UK time, Thursday, 30 July 2009

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Hello everyone!

This is just to say that the Composers of the Year blogs are moving to the main Radio 3/Proms blogs page. This has been prompted by the fact that Radio 3's main COTY broadcasts take place in the context of the Proms for the next few weeks - and we want to share the discussions with the wider Proms audience.

Please stay in touch by coming to find me at www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/radio3/.

See you there!

Blogging on ...

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Suzanne Aspden Suzanne Aspden | 17:51 UK time, Thursday, 30 July 2009

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Hello everyone!

This is just to say that the Composers of the Year blogs are moving to the main Radio 3/Proms blogs page. This has been prompted by the fact that Radio 3's main COTY broadcasts take place in the context of the Proms for the next few weeks - and we want to share the discussions with the wider Proms audience.

Please stay in touch by coming to find me at www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/radio3/.

See you there!

Big Bang Creation

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Denis McCaldin Denis McCaldin | 10:11 UK time, Wednesday, 22 July 2009

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proms_plus_creation.jpgThe Haydn Creation (Proms 2) concert turned out wonderfully well last Saturday. We started in the newly refurbished Amaryllis Fleming Hall at the Royal College of Music with a 'Proms Plus' session. It was good to have about 120 people sharing ideas about this great work with Louise Fryer, David Wyn Jones and myself before the performance.
Two of the many ideas we discussed together were about the English text and the suitability of the Royal Albert Hall for such events.

At the concert itself, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I hardly noticed conductor Paul McCreesh's modest changes to the English. So many of us have grown up with the quaint ''translation of a translation' text used by most choral societies - (ie English to German and back to English) - that we would probably regret any changes to such hallowed phrases as 'With verdure clad' or 'In native worth'. Happily, both of these were retained in this performance.

Some people asked why Paul McCreesh chose to use such big forces. The truth is that Haydn himself conducted large-scale concerts in Vienna for charity concerts, just as he had witnessed in England at the 1791 Handel Commemoration performances in Westminster Abbey, where the musicians numbered more than 1,000. Haydn's Viennese orchestral parts show that in some numbers he doubled, and even trebled the wind parts. For a big space like the Albert Hall these reinforcements were entirely convincing. More provocatively, Paul McCreesh was also prepared to cut the orchestra to a string octet and solo winds in the magical 'bird' aria 'On mighty pens'. As it turned out, this gave us one of the highlights of the evening.

I know there have been countless performances of The Creation already this year, and there are many more to come. But this Prom concert was one of the best. The clarity of the choral singing and the winning instrumental solos were stunning. I can strongly commend a visit the BBCiPlayer before the end of the week to sample this performance.

Proms Plus!

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Suzanne Aspden Suzanne Aspden | 16:11 UK time, Tuesday, 21 July 2009

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Mortensen-Lars-Ulrik.jpgDoing the Proms Plus for Handel's Partenope on Sunday was a most enjoyable experience. Sharing ideas about the opera not just with the ever-knowledgeable Catherine Bott, but also with the evening's conductor, Lars Ulrik Mortensen, and with a lively and engaged audience was a terrific privilege. I was particularly interested to note Lars Ulrik's take on characterisation in the opera, because while Handel's contemporaries viewed it as a bit of fun, and the recent ENO production treated it as so nonsensical that they gave it a Dada-ist theme, Lars Ulrik thought the characters each underwent subtle and serious transformation during the opera, learning something new about themselves. This, to me, sounded like classic descriptions of more 'serious' Handel operas - Rodelinda, say, or Tamerlano - or indeed of nineteenth-century opera. (And also descriptions I have a bit of a beef with for Handel - but I'll come back to that.)

I was intrigued to see how Lars Ulrik's view might be reflected in the performance. Sure enough, it was there in spades. Tuva Semmingsen as Rosmira, in particular, showed considerable subtlety in her portrayal of the conflicted former lover of Arsace, constantly wrestling with her desire to punish her beloved (her singing was just beautiful too - full of light and shade, and the most sophisticated ornamentation of da capos and cadenzas I've heard in a long time). Andreas Scholl's Arsace was also well characterised (though he really struggled to fill the Albert Hall's vast space, and consequently didn't always sound as well as he might have done).

But what really struck me was how Lars Ulrik (or the theatrical director) had manipulated the opera in order to make it into the semi-tragic, developmental drama he had described in the Proms Plus talk. Cuts, of course, are just about inevitable with Handel opera, but what one chooses to cut can be telling. It was particularly noticeable in the third act that what had been cut was the emotional flippancy: a recitative scene in which Rosmira plays with Arsace, pretending she no longer loves him and describing herself as a 'farfalletta' (a butterfly) went, and so too (more strangely) did Partenope's final aria, 'Sì, scherza, sì' in which she describes love as 'two-faced'. In its place was a duet for Partenope and Armindo, 'Per le porte del tormento', which was borrowed from Sosarme without (to my knowledge) any historical authority for doing so. Clearly, the aim was to heighten the emotional believability of Partenope's and Armindo's union at the end of the opera, after Partenope had abruptly returned the two-timing Arsace to Rosmira. All in all, through careful cuts and clever characterisation, Lars Ulrik and his company had turned Partenope into something that was (by our standards) emotionally 'believable', but at some cost to the original drama.

Although I found this approach a surprise, it was certainly an enjoyable one. Aside from anything else, the singing was generally excellent (only Andreas Scholl was really under par, I felt), and the orchestral playing wonderfully imaginative. But I did wonder whether this 'psychological' approach to the opera didn't rather misrepresent the eighteenth-century understanding of the story, and of dramatic characterisation in general. Lars Ulrik's belief in the psychological development of characters wasn't one that became an important part of characterisation until the late eighteenth century. I don't think we should have a problem with (effectively) modernising an operatic plot so it makes sense on our terms, just provided we're clear that that's what we're doing...

Mendelssohn, the Nazis and Sheila

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Jessica Duchen Jessica Duchen | 14:59 UK time, Monday, 20 July 2009

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whisky.jpgI took a little break to get over my dose of rather plural pleurisy, while Rick was tramping the highways and byways as only he could. I'd have looked pretty ridiculous in that get-up meself anyway, and Solti didn't fancy being carried in his box all the way to Fingal's Cave, so it was much better to stay home and watch! Rick, I'm glad you had a good time and you have earned yourself an extra-large helping of haggis, to say nothing of the single malt.

Meanwhile, if anyone missed the superb and very unusual documentary the other night on BBC4 entitled Mendelssohn, The Nazis and Me, I can't recommend it highly enough! You can still access it by the BBC iplayer at this link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00l7rg2/Mendelssohn_the_Nazis_and_Me/

Sheila Hayman, Mendelssohn's four-times great-niece (she's a direct descendent of Fanny), set off on a personal exploration of what Mendelssohn's Jewish background meant to the family then, since and now. For her, a sense of 'not belonging' appeared to be the result of the intermingling of races that so confused the Nazis. The issue of mixed-race Germans hasn't often been explored in WWII TV documentaries so it was fascinating and very disturbing to see the precision with which the regime decided to impose its own figuring-out of who was technically Jewish and who wasn't. Sheila interviews her own family about their experiences during the war, arriving in Britain as refugee children; and the story of the fate of Mendelssohn's music is all the more poignant for this.

She outlines the way in which Felix, himself a fervent Lutheran, tried to distance himself from his roots in his first oratorio, Paulus; then the rapprochement in Elijah which seems to seek the reconciliation of one religion with the other. And it was Elijah itself that helped to sustain hope and faith amid the Jewish Kulturbund and, tragically, even in Terezin.

It is touching, moving, illuminating and well worth a watch. And a reminder that even now Wagner's disgusting platitudes are echoed and re-echoed by those who declare Mendelssohn shallow or over-hyped (I kid you not - I read this somewhere just the other day) even when he's still struggling for adequate recognition! This was beautifully expressed in the programme by Steven Isserlis, Felix's No.1 friend and advocate, who said that when one critic decided Mendelssohn was a "baa-aa-aad" composer, all the others started bleating too....

The Mendelssohn family experience is very close to home over here, since my own in-laws shared much of it, having arrived in Britain as Jewish teenagers from Berlin in the nick of time - my mother-in-law on the Kindertransport and my father-in-law to well-timed boarding school. He was later interned on the Isle of Man - along with three-quarters of the Amadeus String Quartet - and when that came to an end, he joined the British army, where he changed his name to Evans and was posted to India. He was short and dark, so everyone thought he was Welsh and called him Taffy. This despite the fact that to this day (he is 88) - he has a strong German accent!

Last of the great spy-poets ...

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 22:24 UK time, Friday, 17 July 2009

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abraham_cowley.jpgPurcell's misfortune was to set second-rate lyrics to music. This week's concert at the Wigmore Hall was disappointing for this reason. Four of the poets set were anonymous as if no one wanted to own up to 'Oh what a scene does entertain my sight!' with its repeated use of 'all' as a filler for rhythmic purposes - senses all are courted, quarter all around, with all delight etc. Indeed the only lyricist named was Abraham Cowley, the last of the great spy-poets. His verse was good, amusing, but often not really appropriate for anyone's music, not even Purcell's, as jokes never work when you sing them. In 'See where she sits', the hilarious possibility of spoonerising which must also have occurred to Cowley, the lover is likened to a piece of distilling equipment sweating in a gin factory.

The problem is the sentiment. Purcell's music longs for sadness, bitterness, grief, remorse, but the general mood in Restoration London was to be positive, optimistic at least in public, and to make up for the lost time of the Commonwealth when everything, it seemed, was banned - hence all that second rate verse in print. Drydens and Cowleys were a rarity. Indeed, the most prolonged applause of the evening was for a non-verbal item, Concordia's performance of the Sonata in Four Parts No 6, which, alone in the set, is one long ten-minute chaconne building to a peak with the twin violins fizzing sextuplets like laboratory test tubes. Here was Purcell the master of a form he made his own.

The hall was full. Tenor James Gilchrist did his best to impassion the lines with organic ornaments tugged from the harmony like coloured threads, Soprano Sophie Daneman tended to swallow her words a little but came good in the Cowley and bass Roderick Williams provided a solid, resonant bass. He should sing Wondrous Machine.

Purcell shares with Mendelssohn the tendency to set poor poetry to music. Too much of the latter's music accompanies mawkish, sentimental, Victorian words. They both should have been more choosy perhaps. My affair with him is now over although we have agreed to remain frends. Thanks for all comments. Marzipancat is right, Makhabane. Top hats were quite popular in the 1820s. Schubert is wearing one in his picture in the Oxford Companion to Music. Personally I think I look more like Isambard Kingdom Brunel than Mendelssohn. He was, after all, only 20, where I am 53 and slightly overweight.

Now for the Proms...

Sosarme en travesti

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Suzanne Aspden Suzanne Aspden | 15:46 UK time, Wednesday, 15 July 2009

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senesino.jpgThis is an opera-fest week for me with the BBC: tomorrow I'll be introducing Sosarme (1732, here in its earlier incarnation as Fernando) as part of the Radio 3 Handel opera cycle; then on Sunday it's Partenope (1730) at the Proms. As luck would have it, they were written around the same time, so I'm thinking about several of the same issues as I prepare for each.

The first, aristocratically 'directed' Royal Academy of Music had collapsed in 1728, and Handel branched out (more or less) on his own thereafter, leasing the King's Theatre with the impresario John Jacob Heidegger for the next five years. How did this move away from aristocratic control affect his artistic decisions? And what about financial considerations, given that he was no longer being bankrolled by the nobility? As so many artists since Handel's time have discovered (Mozart, for one), greater independence didn't necessarily mean greater artistic freedom: for a demanding single patron one simply substituted a more amorphous (but often equally demanding) 'general public'.

Still, Handel did stretch his wings: the story of Partenope had been rejected by the Academy directors in 1726; if it was Handel who proposed it then, he lost no opportunity in reasserting its worth after he set up business on his own, as it was the second opera in his first season. The directors probably rejected it because of its less-than-heroic plot, revolving around the love intrigues of queen Partenope: contemporaries did not think its wry take on male valour was the kind of thing Londoners would warm to, Owen Swiney suggesting it would be met with 'contempt in England'. And indeed Handel's gamble didn't really pay off, as Partenope had only seven performances in its first season.

Sosarme demonstrated a different sort of challenge, with a plot which represented rivalry between a king and his heir just as relations between George II and the Prince of Wales, Frederick, were becoming particularly strained. It may be for this reason that the original setting in medieval Portugal (when the opera was called Fernando) was changed for one in the ancient Middle East (Sosarme), with fictional characters. The audience nonetheless liked it: Viscount Percival said that it 'takes with the town, and that justly, for it is one of the best I ever heard', and it had a respectable eleven performances in its initial run.

Given that the first audience liked it so much, I am looking forward to introducing it tomorrow - albeit with its original title and character names, in Alan Curtis's 2006 recording with Il Complesso Barocco. But I think this recording is going to prove the point that the reception of Handel's operas (today as in their own day) is strongly dependent on the quality of singing and musicianship. Handel's cast featured the famous castrato Senesino in the title role, and other highly respected singers in other leading parts. And Handel wrote music that catered to those singers' talents: for example, the bass Antonio Montagnana, with an agile and powerful voice, had demanding, wide-ranging music written for him. While there is certainly some good singing on this recording (from Lawrence Zazzo, Veronica Cangemi, Max Cencic and Marianna Pizzolato), there are also times that singers (and, for that matter, instrumentalists) can't cope with the demands placed upon them. So, while it's terrific that we are able to hear a (more or less) complete cycle of Handel's operas on Radio 3 this year, I for one will be hoping that no-one treats this list of recordings as definitive...

Prom 2 fever - The Creation

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Denis McCaldin Denis McCaldin | 12:31 UK time, Tuesday, 14 July 2009

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Johann_Peter_Salomon.jpgSuzanne Aspden, my fellow blogger rooting for Handel, says that she went to the BBC TV launch for the Proms recently, and that she didn't meet any of her fellow bloggers there. I was sorry to miss her, and the launch, especially as Suzanne has written some very interesting things about the Handel/Haydn connection on her site.

All four BBC 'Composers of the Year' feature prominently in the Proms programme, and in a more modest way, so I believe will their blogmasters. I shall certainly be taking part in the Proms Plus session on The Creation at the Royal College of Music with Louise Fryer and David Wyn Jones on Saturday 18th July (Prom 2). The format, as many readers will know, is that a couple of us stand up and share some thoughts about the music, and then invite questions and comments from the floor. For instance, did Haydn really like the English, or were his visits to England based on the belief that there was serious money to be made here? And would The Creation have turned out differently if Haydn had not heard Messiah and Israel in Egypt in Westminster Cathedral?

Perhaps the biggest problem of all concerns the words. Salomon gave Haydn an English libretto - possibly written by the same man who wrote the text for Messiah - when he finally left London in 1795. Back in Vienna, Haydn gave it to his friend Baron van Swieten, and asked him to translate it into German. Haydn then set the German translation to music. But the composer had a hunch that the oratorio could be a big success in England, and so asked van Swieten to re-translate it back again, so that it could be published in both languages. The results were bizarre. For example, who in the UK today would know that 'On mighty pens' means 'On mighty wings'?! And there are many more mangled phrases which make nonsense of the original. Paul McCreesh, the conductor of the 2009 Prom performance, is just the latest in a long line of musicians who have tried to produce a good, singable English text. It will be very interesting to hear what people feel about his version when it is performed next Saturday.

Proms fever

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Suzanne Aspden Suzanne Aspden | 09:00 UK time, Friday, 10 July 2009

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Last Monday I went to the BBC TV launch for the Proms, held in the upstairs room of a pub, which allowed producers, presenters, and the hard-working programme researchers to get together and share ideas, prior to the start of the season itself. We were a diverse bunch, just as the Proms itself is a diverse programme: I didn't meet any of my fellow bloggers there, and instead of chatting about our Big Four, discussed 'light' vs. 'serious' classical music, John Cage, Eric Satie, Arvo Pärt and so on.

Of course, our four 'Composers of the Year' do feature prominently in the Proms programme, three of them in the first week: Haydn's Creation is on the Saturday the 18th (I wrote about Handelians' reaction to The Creation a couple of blogs ago) with his Seven Last Words on Monday the 20th; Handel's Partenope is between them on Sunday the 19th, and Purcell's Fairy Queen on Tuesday the 21st. So, something of a dramatic theme in that first week as well. But, as always, there are so many thematic strands one can enjoy: I'm particularly looking forward to hearing all eleven of Stravinsky's ballets, for instance.

I'll be participating in the Proms Intro on Radio 3 for Partenope, at 4.15 on Sunday the 19th - a fascinating opera which, in contrast to its rather lacklustre reception at its first performance, is enjoying quite a revival at present. Then Prom 36 on August 12th (broadcast live on Radio 3 and on the evening of Saturday 15th on BBC2) with Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, with an all-Handel programme, featuring the four coronation anthems, interspersed with other works from throughout the composer's career. I'll certainly have more to say about each on these pages...

Mendelssohn and Purcell in Scotland

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 14:35 UK time, Monday, 6 July 2009

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rick and mendelssohn_on_mull_musicians.jpgPurcell has been quiet here with Mendelssohn in Scotland. The Baroque composer's feelings for the wildness of nature are not those of the Romantic. The former wants to tame the mountains, turn them into the Garden of Eden, make them part of God's ordered plan. The latter sees the very untamability of the awesome landscape, the latent power of waterfalls, the mighty rivers, and the sometimes tense but mostly happy symbiotic relationship of the inhabitants with their surroundings as ideal.

The idea of coming to the northern wilderness and walking across for adventure is unthinkable to the Baroque artist who fears the elements and yearns for the protecting patronage of the court. For the last two weeks I have been recreating Mendelssohn's epic gap-year journey across Scotland in 1829 when he was a romantic 20-year-old flushed with the success of the revival of Bach's St Matthew Passion earlier that year but not entirely sure what his future direction might be. He had a hankering to be an artist and took his sketch book. His father thought banking. I have grown his whiskers and worn his clothes, not as a costume to be donned only 'in character', but as my only wardrobe. I have followed in his wake as if it were historical reconstruction 180 years on.

I have stayed in youth hostels or bed-and-breakfast hotels. The cheaper establishments tend to have thin walls through which the guests can hear each other. While they are making the sound of their ablutions, I am sending a voice blog to a radio station every morning, speaking quite loudly into my tape recorder in a German accent. The other residents must think I am a spy on the top floor transmitting messages to Berlin.

I have done everything Mendelssohn did. In Edinburgh I climbed Arthur's Seat, visited Holyrood Palace, travelled to Abbotsford House, home once of Sir Walter Scott, and swam in the Firth of Forth at 9am on a Monday morning while a BBC reporter recorded the splash for Good Morning Scotland. I told her it was Goethe who told Mendelssohn to come to Scotland and that Scottish literature, particularly that of Scott and the mythical pre-Christian Celtic poet Ossian, influenced the European Romantic movement in all its forms, as I dived in.

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Giving Haydn his head ...

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Denis McCaldin Denis McCaldin | 10:57 UK time, Monday, 6 July 2009

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haydn_death_mask.jpgMonday to Friday the 6th - 11th July must be the best week so far for Haydn on Radio 3. Although I don't quite follow the logic of scheduling it just over a month after his anniversary, I'm delighted that there's so much on offer. Because the dates fall between the end of Wimbledon and the beginning of the Proms, it fits nicely into my timetable, and hopefully in many other listeners' diaries too. Daily programmes start with Breakfast and conclude with The Essay at 11 pm.

A recent Radio 3 blog was about 'visual radio', and the advances in digital techniques that went into making the recent BBC Phil video of their Bridgewater Hall concert available on the iPlayer. For me, the chance to catch some of this week's rarities is even more of a bonus. Ever since my schoolboy days of wolfing down my tea to listen to various radio serials, I've wanted to be able to catch up with missed programmes, and this week the iPlayer should be a great boon.

The first programme I want to be sure to catch is The Return of Tobias, scheduled for Monday 6 July at 6.45 pm. Performances of this score are rare because although there is some fine music, the libretto it is in the old Italian oratorio style and is woefully undramatic. It was premiered in 1775 for the Viennese equivalent of our Musicians' Benevolent Fund and was a big success. There were only three choruses, the remainder being recitatives and gargantuan arias in the opera seria style. When Haydn revived it for the same charity in 1784, he pruned many of the arias and added two new choruses. The second 'Svanisce in un momento', is a tempestuous D minor piece which anticipates The Storm featured in the BBC Philharmonic concert currently on the iPLayer. Haydn was too shrewd a businessman not to see the value of this chorus, and later issued it separately with sacred words as 'Insanae et vanae curae'.

I'm particularly glad to see The Essay series scheduled for each weekday at 11 pm. This is kind of project that radio does exceptionally well. Monday has the Bishop of Salisbury on the late masses, where I hope he will underline the influence of the Handel oratorios that Haydn heard in London. Haydn and Cosmology (Wednesday) will hopefully expand on the ideas Charles Hazlewood introduced into his recent TV documentary. As a medical expert, Robert Winston should bring something special to the Haydn's Head programme on Friday. After his burial, some well-wishers arranged for Haydn's head to be cut off and sent to Vienna University for phrenological examination. They had the misguided idea that they might find out something about giftedness from his cranial bumps! Much skullduggery [sic] followed, and incredibly, it was not until 1954 that the composer's head and body were finally reunited!

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