More people should listen to…

I haven’t been posting much, I know, even by my standards. My reading has hit a brick wall, and while I’ve watched a lot of TV*, I don’t seem able to write about TV much. I think it’s because it takes so long to watch something that I’ve lost hold of my original thoughts by the time I’ve finished. Also, the fact I might conceivably write a book one day – conceivably, I said, albeit perhaps not plausibly! – gives me an angle to examine my thinking about books; the fact I’m never going to be involved in writing a TV show makes it hard to engage in the same way, intellectually.

But anyway, I thought I’d just drop in to say: more people should listen to George Onslow.

That’s a sentence I imagine few people have heard recently.

Onslow, for those (i.e. all normal people) who don’t know, was a French aristocrat-composer of the early 19th century. At first untrained, a life of leisure and wealth allowed him to become self-taught, and to acquire some education from Anton Reicha, the great teacher and theorist (whose other pupils included Liszt, Berlioz and Franck, among many others). In a France dominated by grand opéra, the gigantic and the fashionable, Onslow’s work, cultured and predominately for chamber ensemble, perhaps more German in style, was overlooked in his lifetime, though his publishers ardently promoted him as “our French Beethoven” – and was entirely neglected for a century. Allegdly there is now an Onslow revival, but that just means that the amount of Onslow being played is now slightly greater than zero. [for his own part, Onslow was fairly sanguine about his lack of popularity – his immense family wealth meant that he could vanity-publish all his works, and didn’t much have to care about critical opinion]

I came across Onslow a couple of years ago when I happened to buy a CD of some of his cello sonatas, and was immediately impressed. More recently, I came upon a CD of some quintets, and it’s this that I alluded to when I mentioned Onslow in my recap of 2018. I’ve been listening again recently, and just get more impressed each time…

Comparisons are hard; Onslow in his day was compared, by respected writers and composers (Berlioz, Schumann and Mendelssohn all sang his praises), to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The comparison is valid, but unfortunately needs the caveat “not as good as”. I’d actually say he’s less the French Beethoven and more the French Schubert – though still not as good as the latter.

The thing is, though, you can be not as good as Schubert and yet still really good, and I think classical music is only just slowly beginning to realise its own vast richness, the depth of its back catalogue – the existence of composers like Onslow, previously dismissed as second-rate and unfashionable, who are nonetheless worthy of happy attention. As Grammophone put it in one review, Onslow “may not be a great composer, but he is certainly an extremely interesting one”.

It may not seem that way at first hearing. Onslow was an experimentalist, but was not a radical: he clearly admired the middle Beethoven, but detested the ‘chaos’ of late Beethoven. His hallmark appears to be, somewhat like Schubert, responding to Beethoven in a way that emulates the master’s passion and ingenuity, while holding on with one hand to the reins of classical restraint. He is considerably more passionate than, say, a Hummel, but more elegant than, say, Schumann. He has a quality I like, not exactly of ‘darkness’, but of a sort of warm, oaky richness, of  a sort many of his contemporaries, while talented, lacked – if Hummel is a sparkling white, and Mendelssohn tends toward, we might say, a bright, drinkable merlot, Onslow (like Schubert) is closer to a rich shiraz. In my limited lexicon, the closest composer I can think of is, oddly, Dvorak – if we imagine Dvorak pulled half a century back in time, and drained of his distinctive Central European character. A semi-classical French Dvorak, as it were. Grammophone rather insightfully speaks of fundamentally Classical works, bathed in a Romantic glow. When he is inspired, particularly with some beautiful tune in a slow movement, his music would not be out of place alongside great works by Schubert or Beethoven, though nothing I’ve heard so far reaches their heights; when he’s less inspired, he’s still perfectly capable.

Last week, I went to a chamber concert at the Proms, with quartets by Schubert, Sirmen, and Haydn. The Schubert was his first quartet, published when he was 15 and written a year or two before that – it’s a remarkable work for a teenage boy in its sophistication. Sirmen was a female composer (and violinist, and singer) who wrote quartets before Haydn invented them – the one played here was her fifth, the only one in four movements, and it’s an appealing, short work that punctured my accreted “oh, a token ‘rediscovered’ woman composer” cynicism, and that provided an interesting look at what, for better and for worse, the quartet was before Haydn took it over. But I’d rank Onslow’s quintets as better than either. And while the Haydn (the Sunrise) may have been just as interesting, if not more so, than the Onslow, I’d certainly pick the Onslow for listenability (late Haydn, I find, while perfectly pleasant, is often a little cold and hard).

Onslow wrote 34 quintets, to go along with his 36 quartets. Unlike almost all his contemporaries and predecessors (other than Boccherini), Onslow wrote most of his quintets for two cellos, although he also provided adaptations for the more common two-viola ensemble. At a performance of his 10th quintet, however, that he happened to be attending himself, one cellist was missing, and the great Domenico Dragonetti (the man who did more than anyone to popularise the double bass) stepped in to play the part on the double bass; Onslow was so impressed that all his subsequent quintets were published with alternative parts for double bass.

It’s this version that I’ve heard. A group called the Elan Quintet were hired by Naxos to release a complete, 16-CD cycle of the Onslow Quintets, most of which have never before been recorded. At, so far, 1 CD a year (though their own website hasn’t been updated since the 3rd (and latest) came out), it would seem they’ve their career made…

Including the double bass seems like a stroke of genius. The music would be perfectly nice, and indeed perhaps rather more polished, with a second cello instead, but the wonderful timbre of the bass, and the addition it makes to the ensemble’s range, perfectly complements that rich warmth, and also helps to give the five voices room to stand apart, without merging into a block of sound. Compared to the harsher sound of the quartet and the viola quintet, it’s remarkable that more composers haven’t explored the cello, or better yet double bass, quintet.

It helps that Onslow’s music must be a joy to play. In addition to his lush, appealing style, there’s a constant curiosity – rather than settling back into a style or a format, he always seems to be trying something different. The parts cross frequently, and the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic material is well-shared between the players – rather than, as in some (particularly early) chamber music, ending up as a solo violinist with her accompanists – and if I were a second violin or a violist, I’d be overjoyed to get to play this compared to the meagre roles some composers give them.  His movements are less wild than Beethoven sometimes gets, but they are reliably characterful – now tender, now agitated, now aggressive, now playful – and for the most part very busy (without sounding like notes for note’s sake) and often unexpected, so both listener and performers always have something to entice their attention.

Onslow is not one of the great composers – he’s a solid, capable composer with moments of being very good. But he’s a little more interesting than that makes him sound – he’s willing to take some risks. As a result, although his style is immediately and unambiguously of his age, it’s also very individual – you can instantly pinpoint his rough location in time, but if you don’t know him yet you may struggle to think which specific composer he might be. He’s not just an imitator. That quality, of having an individual voice, is surprisingly rare, and combined with his delightful style for listeners, and engaging style for performers, should make him much better known than he currently is. While his reputation may not be strong enough to anchor major chamber recitals, this is music that would merit its place as a fine supporting act alongside almost any great quartet or quintet.

It’s unlikely that picking up some George Onslow chamber music is going to change anybody’s life. But if you like characterful, accessible, but interesting chamber music of the late classical or early romantic period, then you may be pleasantly surprised!

 


 

*Continuing this post’s themes of classical music and delightfulness, I’ve now seen all of Mozart in the Jungle. Like Onslow, it’s not one of the true greats, but I found it a reliable pleasure, both funny and moving, despite some tonal missteps in the first season. It also didn’t rest on its laurels, and did some admirable work introducing new and modern music and the music of forgotten female composers in its later season.

The main thing I’ve been watching, however, is a complete binge-watch of all five series of Alias, which I’ve almost finished…

Actually listening to some of these CDs…

Not so much a project as an ambition: listen to some music.

Background: I used to listen to music a lot. Classical music, that is. Used to be that I couldn’t go on holiday for a week without taking about 50 CDs with me. Now… not so much.

There are some good reasons for this. Changes in technology and lifestyle have encouraged me to only listen to things I happen to remember and then find on online sites, or occasionally to the small number of things I’ve actually put on my ancient MP3 player (a selection I’m bored of but can’t be whatevered to actually update). And in the last couple of years, I’ve actively (though not very thoroughly) tried to listen to some pop music, what with that being, you know, what normal people do.

But! I miss not listening to more good music. If nothing else, my mind is always more creative when I’ve got music around me – and while I’m far less snobbish about pop music than I used to be, the one huge problem I still find with it is the emotional monotone. Pop songs are almost all too short to really explore many thoughts: they’re moments, single images, like paintings. Whereas a good symphony or the like can take you to every corner of human existence. They’re films, rather than photographs. What’s more, in practice 90% of pop music – or at least the pop music I hear about – is basically an exploration of only two emotional states: petulant/depressed and asskicking. And as I say, I’m much less snobbish now, and I recognise that some pop music is really good at hitting those two moods. Not necessarily the best*, but good. But in terms of using music for my own thinking, it’s good I think to live in a more varied aural world.

*if I am ever made Mikado, singers of overly-bombastic rap songs about how wonderful the singer is will be made to stand in front of a 1000-piece orchestra playing Verdi’s Dies Irae/Tuba Mirum. On the whole, I prefer the Mozart/Süssmayer version (he really nails the ‘mors stupebit et natura’ bit), but Verdi’s is one of those pieces of music that could reduce a grown man to his knees with its power – if God’s Last Trumpet sounds anything like Verdi’s, we’re all in serious trouble.

Anyway, more music. You see, I’ve got a lot of it. I mean, almost literally tons! Some of it mine originally, much of it derived from other people who felt they were even less likely to listen to any of it anymore than I was. So as I was moving some of it the other day, a thought occurred: some of this I’ve never listened to. Why don’t I listen to it?

But! ‘But!’, I thought… there’s so much of it. Even if spend an hour listening to it, then…

…well why don’t I? I mean sure, there are constraints on my time. I can’t spend all day listening to music. But I easily spend more than an hour a day on my computer, or reading, not watching or listening to anything in particular, and there’s no reason I can’t do some of that with the hi-fi on.

If nothing else, it might encourage me to read more.

Now, some of you may be sighing and saying: but isn’t this another of those projects that you always have that you never really go through with? [Did I ever tell you about my plan to compile all F1 results ever to calculate the best driver in history through pairwise comparisons? Turns out that although I’d like to know the answer, I really don’t care enough to work it out. Plus, I need better maths to do it properly]. Well yes. Yes it is. But that’s sort of inherent in the idea. Obviously I’m not going to listen to all this music. I actually find the certaintly of failure rather reassuring here. That’s why I say, up above, that this is more an ambition than a project. One CD at a time!

 

 

And what am I starting with? Well, the obvious starting place, naturally: Wind Quintets nos. 1-3 and Sextet, by Franz Danzi (Naxos disc).

OK, that’s not really obvious in any way whatsoever. But it was the first on that row for some reason, so that’s what I’ve got.

For anyone (is there anyone!?) not familiar with Danzi, he was a late-Classical product of a musical family of the highest pedigree, but his career trajectory was unfortunate: from a cellist in Mannheim he moved to a vicekapellmeistership in Munich, which he left after personal clashes and the death of his mother, and then to a full kapellmeistership in Stuttgart, which he left on account of that orchestra’s legendary intrigue and debauchery, before finally spending his mature career stuck as kapellmeister to the court of Baden in Karlsruhe, where the orchestra was apparently atrocious. Nonetheless, he maintained a good-natured disposition to the end, the sort of bespectacled, plump, quietly despairing but always pleasant man that so often fills the background of the biographies of more famous figures, and he was well-spoken of by those in the industry. In particular, he maintained a long epistolary friendship with the younger Carl Maria von Weber. Apparently he was succesful in transforming the Karlsruhe orchestra, over the course of many years, into… well, into something vaguely competant and respectable, at least.

The wind quintets are… well, wind quintets. There are basically only two modes open to the wind quintet as a medium: pleasant light background music, and terrifying, ear-bleeding screeching. The time period ensures that these are the first. They’re apparently a response to the more-or-less creation of the genre by Anton Reicha a few years earlier, and were popular in their day as a simpler alternative to Reicha’s work: as the liner notes indicate, Danzi’s approach was stylistically conventional and unchallenging for the players, but illuminated by a gift for enjoyable melody. The sort of music you might expect from a serious musician stuck herding far less talented performers… but also the sort of music you can imagine being extremely attractive to amateur performers and the less notable orchestras, something easy enough to play but sophisticated in sound.

I must concede it’s hard to get excited by wind quintets – or indeed to tolerate them for an entire CD. But in small doses, this music is pleasant enough: Danzi does indeed write enjoyable tunes, though nothing particularly memorable.

The sextet is more my sort of thing: it’s amazing what adding a horn can do for the overall timbre, and this is a much richer and less irritating sound, but a very similar style. It could quite easily, to my uncultured ear, be mistaken for uninspired Mozart, or for any of Danzi’s other more famous contemporaries.

 

 

Piano Trios by Smetana, Suk and Novak, and Elegy (under the impression of Zayer’s Vyšehrad) by Suk

Smetana’s piano trio was written in a rough time for him. It’s dedicated to his eldest daughter, who died earlier in the year at the age of four. His second daughter had died the previous year. His fourth daughter had just been born, but she was going to die a few months after the music was written. His wife had been diagnosed with tuberculosis that year, and would die a few years later. The after this music was written, he chucked his old life in and moved to Sweden. He was probably in a bad mood overall, and it shows.

The beginning of the trio is not all that melodious: clumping, thumping bleakness. But Smetana mixes that brooding quality with moments of soft, even over-soft lushness and with periods of rapidity. The result – particularly in the first movement, but throughout – is a desparate, angry effect, a portrait of a man struggling with life, despair and panic and attempts at finding peace all jumbled together. It’s fairly melodious – he’s writing this in the 1850s, and it has the same neo-classical melodiousness that I think a lot of the Czech revival era had – but it’s not happy comfortable listening.

It is interesting, though, from a musical point of view. Grief often seems to drive composers to novelty, and this is a strange blend of the old and new. In his lusher, gentler passages, he seems to prefigure Rachmaninov – for a moment there I even had a glimpse of some sort of slow jazz – and there is something modern or at least late romantic about his hammering melancholy, not exactly discordant but not wholly interested in sounding nice either. But there are also patches where you can really see an old-fashioned restraint behind the notes. And of course there is plenty of Czech revivalism here in both the harmony and the rhythms. Overall, it’s a confused but compelling piece.

Smetana, incidentally, after returning to Prague, went deaf and developed tinnitus, and it was in this condition that he composed his masterpiece, Ma Vlast, and achieved his greatest fame. After the onset of hallucinations, insomnia and depression, his mental state rapidly declined, and he was confined to an asylum, where he died. Officially the cause was senile dementia, but the Naxos notes side with doctors of his time in attributing it to “illness, occasioned, it may be assumed, by the effects of youthful excess”. Translation note: in classical music, “illness occasioned by the effects of youthful excess” means neurosyphillis. Youthful excess was a dangerous thing back then.

Suk’s trio feels like an overt attempt to imitate Smetana’s. The imitativeness shouldn’t be a great surprise: the man was only 15 when he first wrote it. The main difference is even more influence of Dvorak… again, hardly surprising, as Suk heavily revised the piece while studying under Dvorak. It’s an eminently unobjectionable piece of music, more coherent and polished than Smetana’s effort. It’s also, unfortunately, rather less memorable, for precisely the same reason: there is none of the suffering here. This is largely the difference between the angst of a middle-aged man whose wife is dying and whose babies are dead and the angst of a teenage boy who thinks that he knows the sorrows of life but in truth does not. Suk’s passion is, like a lot of teenage passion, expressed according to the proper forms; Smetana’s is slightly strange, now too wild, now too restrained – he’s not trying to look passionate, he actually is. Suk’s is therefore the more readily amenable of the two in the moment, but Smetana’s is the more memorable.

The Elegy (inspired by a novel of lost Czech glories, and likewise arranged, in this later arrangement by the composer, for trio) was composed much later in Suk’s career, and there is more maturity about it and less polish. It remains, however, a very stylistically restrained piece: it feels studiously modern enough to please the critics in 1901, but never too modern to seem radical. It’s a soft, wandering Late Romantic piece that to be honest I’ve already forgotten.

Novak’s trio is from 1902, but I find it much more appealing. He makes the trio seem a richer sound, and is full of distinctively Czech melodies, in the manner of Dvorak at his most demotic (like Suk, Novak was taught by Dvorak, although Novak, previously condemned by other teachers at the Academy for his ‘innovations’, apparently was much more ready to argue with his teacher). His style is continually restless, which I think may be his reflection of modernity – many moments are old-fashioned, but he never lets himself settle in one place for more than ten seconds. A simple reflection of this is that although the short trio is given four sections, these are played continuously as a single movement with no breaks. The combination of modern energy, Late Romantic lushness and traditional Czech melody make parts of this the closest thing on the CD to a modern film score. It helps that Novak seems to really appreciate the forces he is commanding: the piano is allowed to be thundering and violent, the cello is allowed to sing. It’s hard to explain the precise difference between this and the Suk, or even the Smetana, but I felt that Novak’s piece felt more specifically written with these instruments in mind.

From an aesthetic point of view, Novak’s work is fairly disposable, and less interesting than Smetana’s – its power, which the liner notes aptly name its ‘histrionic force’, not an easy effect to achieve when you’re working with a piano trio, is unsubtle and easy. But it is also effective, and I found this the most enjoyable piece on the CD.

Index of Other Reviews

Along with giving my impressions of some books, I also occasionally talk about other things. These tend to be more rambling and less structured, because I don’t feel sufficiently competent when it comes to other media to even express my evaluations cogently.

Nonetheless, I’ve waffled on a bit about some films:

This is the most coherent: a comparison of the film version of The Prestige to the book.

This ramble give a controversial ranking of some superhero films, and then gives comments on some of them to justify that ranking.

This, extremely meta, rumination begins as my immediate reaction to watching the first half of Synecdoche, N.Y., takes in some abstract and ill-formed thoughts about the perspectival nature of evaluation itself, and also includes some comparisons between the film and Six Feet Under.

I also was moved at one point to post this, a brief “review” of a lesser-known work of classical music.


 

Isle of the Dead

No relation to anything: one of my favourite pieces of music is The Isle of the Dead, by Rachmaninov. It seems a sadly-neglected little piece, which I never used to hear played or mentioned often back when I listened to the radio regularly. I hope that that’s changed, but I doubt it. There’s an impression, not entirely ill-founded, that Rachmaninov was only a piano composer – solo piano or piano and orchestra; but Isle confutes this utterly.

The Isle of the Dead is a symphonic tone poem, about twenty minutes long, dealing with the journey over the Styx to the Elysian fields (or a Romantic equivalent). For those who don’t know, a tone poem is a romantic form of music in which the notes attempt to paint an image, or describe an event – often inspired by poems, or, as in this case, by paintings. Accordingly, we hear what can be interpreted as numerous mimicries – oars in the water, the swell, the waves crashing against the shore, the gentler lapping of the water in the streams on the island, the violins and flutes of spirits of the dead, and so on.

In its larger form, too, there is the image of the water – the music is essentially a series of slow crescendos and decrescendos, like a series of waves washing over us. Througout, there is a battle between the primary theme of the water and the oars and the secondary themes, which we may associate with the life of the spirits of the dead – the one dark, brooding, relentless, the others straining, struggling, complicated, with glimpses of beauty, but always bittersweet and unsuccessful.

The poem is a masterpiece of Romantic craft – the orchestration lush and soft for the recurring water theme, but not afraid of brass and discord for the dramatic moments. It is perhaps an early glimpse of minimalism – the water theme is an incredibly simple 5/8 rhythm churning relentlessly throughout at least half of the music, and even when it is not present, there is always (with the exception of a few agonisingly tense lulls to silence) the threat, or promise of its return, as it interacts organically with the chaotic themes of life. At several points it seems to be less waves or oars and more heavy, laboured, agonised breathing, as though the piece were really a rather dark poem about life itself – death ever-present, beating in every breath, always struggled against, always inevitable. The music, though it grabs a few moments of serenity along the way, is always driven by the oars, and sinks down again and again into the darkness of the water, until finally the boatman rows out of sight of the island.

Technically, there’s really nothing to complain about. The orchestration is sophisticated, the melodies are affecting (the main theme memorable), the composition is impeccable in its balance and symmetry, the development is always logical and never jarring. The 5/8 rhythm, and it’s driving, inescapable insistence, are powerfully modern. It’s really the high point of late Romantic ability. If it has a flaw it’s that, as with most tone poems, it is a little light, a little showy, a little two balanced in form and a little too little developed – as we might expect from a form of such brevity, and where the music is forced to make sacrifices to the image it is to convey. It is one of the best tone poems, in my opinion, because for once there seems no conflict between the form and the music – the music genuinely does suggest the mental image that is intended, and the structure the image produces is conducive to a symmetrical piece.

It is also one of my favourite pieces because of its unusual tone. It is extremely dark, and not afraid of the lower octaves – but it is a sort of darkness that is rare. Many dark pieces, particularly modern ones, try to sear the soul; others aim at a sorrowful but resilient beauty, such as one finds in the great slow movements. Others drive forward relentlessly, chasing you on to the next movement. Because this is a tone poem, there is nowhere to go, and yet the music is not passive – this is not ‘slow movement’ music. So it simply rises and falls, atmospherically. The darkness is not painful, it is at worst brooding, perhaps a little menacing, occassionally a little chilling. It’s not something I find often.

It is, yes, a little melodramatically gothic. It’s the sort of music teenagers could listen to repeatedly to persuade themselves they’re depressed – but it’s a little too light to let them succede. It isn’t great art – but for what it is, it’s wonderfully done.

Anyway, my main conclusion from revisiting it (I used to listen to it frequently as a teenager, and then lost track of the CD for several years), is that I really need to go and give his symphonies another go. I seem to recall them being quite dull, but perhaps I just wasn’t ready for them.