DSQ blog

My First and Last Love

Music was my first love

And it will be my last.

Music of the future

And music of the past.

 

To live without my music

Would be impossible to do.

In this world of troubles,

My music pulls me through.

 

John Miles ‘Music’

Songwriters: Breyon Jamar Prescott, Michael C. Flowers

© Universal Music Publishing Group, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.

I was rather keen on this song when it came out and still retain a curious fondness for it.   I related to its obsessive, repeated message and found it musically and structurally interesting – well, more interesting than some.   Apart from its obvious message, the lyrics also summarise the lives of many composers and artists who have produced extraordinary and elevating works of art, often in the midst of suffering and difficulty.  Beethoven, Schubert, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Proust, Joyce – the list goes on and on.

The lyrics also convey something of the compulsion musicians have to make music, and touch on the reason why people act on their wish to experience live music and go as far as venturing out to attend concerts – when it is safe to do so!

Since this quartet’s live public music making was terminated, albeit temporarily, along with music making the world over as a result of lockdown, we have enjoyed putting together some videos to connect with those who have been drawn to our music making, and to show that we are still up for it.   Obviously we are aware that the videos may reach an audience but it is a very different sort of chemistry from playing live, interacting with each other on the spur of the moment, and with an audience nearby very much involved in the experience and responding very personally to what the music conveys.

It means a huge amount to us as musicians that you the audience are there, and not just for financial reasons!  ‘This gift (of music) will not be like the alms passed on to the beggar; it will be the sharing of a man’s every possession with his friend.’ (Hindemith)  To share our music making live is an act of sharing which goes both ways.  The way an audience perceives the music and the music making is incredibly important.  In a way, music only properly exists and comes into being in this context.

There is no doubting, too, that music can affect us and change us deeply, and that music, like writing and the visual arts too, also has a way of shedding light on our contemporary situation, politically, socially, emotionally, even if some of the music may have been written a couple of centuries ago.

For these reasons it is a huge loss not to be able to make live music and have this communal experience of reflection and inspiration.   In fact it seems to present a huge question: without the interaction of performer and audience, what is the meaning of music?  It would be interesting to hear your thoughts…

Those who attended Schubert’s small chamber concerts  (‘Schubertiades’) obviously had no concerns at all about social distancing:

Schubertiade.  Drawing by Moritz von Schwind (www.bezirksmuseum.at)

This drawing shows how many people there actually were crowded together at these performances. (Maybe there is a little artistic license. Von Schwind was a close friend of Schubert and would have wanted to show him in the very best light.) The scene reminds me ever so slightly of the concerts that we have done in the round, where the communal experience and role of music feels particularly heightened.

It is a fallacy that the artist invents for himself alone. No man lives or moves or could do so, even if he wanted to, for himself alone. The actual process of artistic invention, whether it be by voice, verse, or brush, presupposes an audience.’ Vaughan Williams

DSQ Prokofiev + Andrew intro

Divertimento String Quartet. Prokofiev String Quartet no 2 – part of the final movement, with an introduction by Andrew Gillett.

Bach Prelude for two

Social distancing scatters our quartet but brings on a little violin and viola duet. And if that’s not enough there’s a very cute puppy at the end.

Prelude No 17 from 48 Preludes and Fugues by JS Bach. Arranged by Friedrich Hermann.

Lindsay Braga-violin Andrew Gillett- viola

Lace Space

In the current situation that we find ourselves in, where life has largely been put on hold, apart from the valiant key workers who are tirelessly and admirably going about their work, it seems apt to consider the significance of rests and pauses, using music as a starting point.  I have touched on the subject of rests in music briefly before in a previous post but I have found myself recently reflecting more extensively on the subject in the light of our enforced break.

Firstly: isn’t lace wonderful! Here’s an example of Honiton lace that has a decidedly spring-like burst of life about it:

Sample of Honiton Lace circa 1870 from the Allhallows Museum Collection (www.honitonmuseum.co.uk) Photo copyright The Allhallows Museum.

Lace provides a perfect illustration of the importance of rests in music.  The needlework represents the notes and the spaces between imply the rests.  They co-exist; without the spaces there would be no meaning. (I find that many of my pupils are rather baffled by this concept – that rests are so important and meaningful.  In their minds, music is about making sound.)

It’s often not clear to the listener what a profusion of rests exists in the music they are hearing.  Often, a player will have a rest when someone else is playing, so the rest is not so noticeable.  A good example of the importance of rests in music is the end of Haydn’s string quartet Op 33 No 2 (‘The Joke’), where his use of rests sets up the ‘punchline’ at the very end of the last movement.  We played this quartet in a concert series last year.  Hopefully some of you might remember the hilarity we all had.  You can listen to, and watch, the whole movement here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TiGVNpe_BhY

A very different use of rests is evident in the first movement of Schubert’s G major piano sonata D. 894.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lj0J0LpeVGQ  The gap in the music created by the rests is a moment of thoughtfulness and calm.

I can’t resist directing you towards Schumann’s fabulous/surreal setting of Heine’s ‘Mein Wagen rollet langsam’.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQ42sPsFBuY  The rests here colour the text so aptly and get the imagination going in the listener’s mind.  And just listen to the piano coda!  Here is the text:

Mein Wagen rollet langsamDurch lustiges Waldesgrün,
Durch blumige Täler, die zaubrisch
Im Sonnenglanze blühn.

Ich sitze und sinne und träume,
Und denk’ an die Liebste mein;
Da huschen drei Schattengestalten
Kopfnickend zum Wagen herein.

Sie hüpfen und schneiden Gesichter,
So spöttisch und doch so scheu,
Und quirlen wie Nebel zusammen,
Und kichern und huschen vorbei.

Translation:

My carriage rolls slowly
Through cheerful green woodlands,
Through flowery valleys
Magically blooming in the sun.

I sit and muse and dream,
And think of my dear love;
Three shadowy forms nod at me
Through the carriage window.

They hop and pull faces,
So mocking yet so shy,
And whirl together like mist
And flit chuckling by.

(Translations by Richard Stokes, author of The Book of Lieder (Faber, 2005))

There are many other such examples of the use of rests in classical music.  Please do mention your own favourite examples, by commenting or emailing.

Pauses are a slightly different case but equally relevant to our musing at this time.  Again, please do post your own favourite pauses in music (of any sort).  One of the most powerful pauses I know is after the monumental build-up and cataclysmic crisis point in the last movement of Bruckner’s 9th symphony. You can find it in the section between 57:15 to 59:30 in this recording:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MIJET6NO4-k&t=3565s  The pause (a silent pause in this case – some pauses are a note played extra long) gives time to reflect on the crisis point, rest, and move on to a calmer resolution as the work comes to its conclusion.

The four of us wish all our followers good health now and beyond this crisis.  We are very frustrated not to be able to perform our next programme to you but are looking forward to a resumption of play as soon as the covers come off, so to speak.  We hope to include the occasional musical offering via the Divertimento website, just so you are reassured that we still have a rough idea how to play our instruments and that there is hope on the horizon.

Let’s take up an idea suggested by one audience member and post or email anecdotes of unusual things that have happened in concerts/performances.  Do send them in and we will make sure they appear for all to see.  I’ll start the ball rolling:

I went to a Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra concert in Plymouth in the early 1970s at which Alan Loveday was supposed to be the violin soloist. When it came to that part of the programme somebody announced that he actually wasn’t going to be there because he had gone to Portsmouth instead of Plymouth. I think the orchestra had been on tenterhooks right up to that point.  I can’t remember what they actually played in the end!

Hesitation, Repetition, Deviation

It was sad to hear of the recent death of Nicholas Parsons, the genial presenter of Radio 4’s popular comedy programme Just a Minute.  

“Without hesitation, repetition or deviation” has become a catchphrase used in common parlance.  It is something that any musician who presumes to stand up and talk about the music about to be played would be wise to bear in mind.  As audiences may have noted, I am still very much a learner in this respect. I’d only last a few seconds on that programme.

Turning the rules upside down to make hesitation, repetition and deviation permissible in a musical context, some thoughts have struck me in relation to the works that we are playing in our current concert series.

Hesitation

I suppose the most obvious musical manifestation of hesitation is the pause, indicated by the composer in the printed music by what could be described as a dot with a sideways bracket above it, looking a bit like an all-knowing eye and eyebrow.  There isn’t a single pause in Mozart K 421. There are several in the Webern Bagatelles – momentary lulls in the intense abundance of textures and expressions. There are a few more in Beethoven’s Op 59 No 1. He was an inveterate pause man, even more than your most avid dog or cat lover.  His most famous work (arguably), his 5th symphony, has two pauses in close succession at the beginning of the piece.  Sometimes the pause is used like this for dramatic effect. At other times it marks an important place in the structure of the music where it is time to stop and gather or to stop and allow thought for… possibilities. 

Repetition

“What do you call that?” asked a rather bemused and slightly indignant lady who came up to me in the interval of one of our recent concerts.  Perhaps I was rather quick in assuming that she was referring to the Webern which we had just played, when it could easily have been that she was reacting to the sight of me in front of her. 

The question as to whether the Webern is music at all is a good one.  It is such a different sound world to Mozart’s or Beethoven’s.  

One of the huge differences between the Webern and both the Mozart and Beethoven is that there is very little clear repetition to hang on to in the Webern.  Repetition reassures the listener as well as providing key moments in the narrative structure of the music.  Paradoxically, Webern attended to structural aspects of composition with immaculate detail and he was obsessively fascinated by the natural world. 

I came across this little group of daffodils in a hedgerow the other day.  I was struck by the courage of their blossoming at such a time of stormy assault by the elements.  They seem to contain a sense of spring just around the corner, confirming the repetitive cycle of the seasons.  Even the identical appearance of the flower heads demonstrates a repetitiveness that exists despite the seemingly random forces in the natural world.  A couple of days later I noticed that all the flowerheads were facing a different direction. Repetition can withstand quite considerable reinterpretation and variation.  Mozart demonstrates this superbly in the last movement of K. 421 where the main theme is repeated (often hidden in the texture of the music) and each repetition/variation is given its own character and life.

Deviation

I refer to the honourable lady quoted above (to misquote a parliamentary statement), who clearly thought that Webern deviated completely away from an established understanding of what music was.  It is clear from contemporary reports that exactly the same was said of certain works by Beethoven when they first appeared.  

I have spoken in a previous blog about the benefits of deviation of the musical kind.  The way composers deviate sparks interest and debate, for sure, to say the very least, which is the way it has to be as I’ve already taken up well over a minute of your time, if indeed you are still with me!

We do love chatting with our audiences in the interval and after the concert about the music and how people have reacted to what they have heard (and seen!).  If you can be there too, do come and chat to us. Do comment too on our blog posts, if you can make the system work… You may even get a reply.     

Minor Mozart

Minor Mozart

There is an indication at the beginning of Mozart’s K. 421 for the performers to play ‘sotto voce’ – under the voice or hushed.  I like to think of Mozart hunched over his clavichord – the softest and most subtle of keyboard instruments – composing such music.

D minor is the key of K. 421; the same key as his Requiem.  This quartet is a beautifully balanced work.  Despite the D minor basis, there is as much lightness as melancholy because of Mozart’s use of different keys.

Why do composers choose particular keys for the pieces they are composing? Sometimes it is for practical reasons based on the combinations of instruments in the ensemble.  Generally it seems a more intuitive choice.  It is possible that for some composers it is linked to synaesthesia – the way sounds evince certain colours in the mind of the listener, the colours relating to feelings and moods.

For performers, all keys have a particular physical sensation in the hand so the sensation of playing in a certain key is decidedly visceral.  The choice of key by the composer becomes a physical experience for the performer and in live performance this is arguably partly transmitted to listeners.  We all feel the key, its colour and character.

We love playing this piece.  It always feeds the soul.

Let’s play Bagatelle

Let’s play Bagatelle

I was approached in the interval of our first concert of our current concert series by a delegation of three rather ernest ladies who wanted to know what Webern is trying to say in the Six Bagatelles Op. 9 – what the music might mean.  I am not sure why they thought that I might have actually had an answer to that question.

It was an understandable question, because it is music so utterly unlike the Mozart quartet that we play at the start of our programme.  One might ask then: what is Mozart trying to say?  Who knows?!  Yes, there is a narrative, of ideas, crises and resolution but what he is actually saying is elusive because it inhabits moods and feelings without the use of words, and therein lies its particular effectiveness.

The Bagatelles are extremely short.  In all they last about four minutes.  Their brevity is quite startling, and a significant aspect of the experience of hearing them.  I think that it is partly because what takes place in that short time is so eventful and detailed – they are particularly tricky pieces to play – and there is hardly time to assimilate what you’re hearing because they are over in a flash.  In a way they are like small pictures, or displays of dried flowers or rocks, that require huge concentration to take in every minute detail of their character.

I don’t know what this music means but it is possible to say that Webern is expressing two things at least. Firstly, he is exploring the wonder of sound, which for him includes dissonance as being organically inherent in the music just as it is in nature. As Webern said in a lecture in 1932: ‘Anyone who assumes that there’s an essential difference between consonance and dissonance is wrong, because the entire realm of possible sounds is contained within the notes that nature provides and that’s how things have happened. But the way one looks at it is most important.’  That last sentence makes a very pertinent point, if challenging.

Secondly, I have a strong impression of this music as being indicative of the zeitgeist of the time that it was written (in the lead-up to the First World War).  It brings to mind the art of Edvard Munch in particular

and somehow reflects the intellectual ruminations of significant figures such as Freud and the playwright Strindberg.  Much was being questioned and the old order was felt to be inadequate in many areas of life.  This manifested itself in the dissolution of traditional harmony in the ‘new music’ of Schonberg, Webern and Berg.  Such a work as the Six Bagatelles certainly challenges preconceptions and without doubt makes us think about the way we look at things, which surely is a salutary state of mind to be in.

To follow – minor Mozart