Oh, Mr Copper, can you sing me a love song?

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Bob Copper, his uncle John, his cousin Ron and his father, taken in the 1950s

In 1898 in the small town of Rottingdean in Sussex in South England, the landlord of the Black Horse Inn, a man by the name of Thomas Copper, and his brother James, were summoned to Northgate House, one of the grandest houses in the area, and one which was owned by Edward Carson QC, MP.

Carson was a brilliant Irish lawyer who had known Oscar Wilde when they were both students at Trinity College Dublin. Several years before the events of the evening that I am about to describe, Carson and Wilde met again when the former was engaged by the Marquess of Queensbury to fight the libel action that Wilde had brought against him. On hearing that Carson was to oppose him in the courts, Wilde remarked “No doubt he will pursue his case with all the added bitterness of an old friend”. This rueful joke proved to be prescient. Carson’s defence activity not only destroyed Wilde’s case, but led to the criminal prosecution that was to see Wilde imprisoned for two years and then exiled.

In subsequent years, Carson was to become the leading light of the Unionist cause in Northern Ireland and to hold a number of offices of state. He would become Sir Edward and then Lord Carson. In 1935 he was one of the very few non-royal personages ever to be given a state funeral.

Notwithstanding Carson’s significant influence on the cultural and political events of his time, he is merely a tangential figure in the story that I want to tell. The Copper brothers had been invited to Northgate House not by Carson himself, but by one of his house guests, a lady by the name of Mrs Kate Lee.

Mrs Lee, at the time aged 40, was from a respectable middle class Nottinghamshire family. She however became fascinated by music and even began to train to be a singer at the Royal College of Music. A stage career, however, eluded her. She married and had two children. But music would not let her go, and it was her interest in traditional music that prompted her to invite the Copper brothers up to Edward Carson’s house. James and Thomas Copper were known locally as fine singers with a repertoire of songs that they learned from their father, and grandfather. When they arrived at Northgate House, Mrs Lee invited them to sit at a table, on which was set a bottle of whisky, a jug of water and two glasses. Mrs Lee sat opposite, with pencil and paper and bade them drink and sing. She later described the experience:

They were so proud of their Sussex songs and sang them with an enthusiasm grand to hear, and when I questioned them as to how many they thought they could sing, they said they thought about “half a hundred.” You had only to start either of them on the subject of the song and they commenced at once.

“Oh, Mr Copper, can you sing me a love song, a sea song, or a plough song?” It did not matter what it was they looked at each other significantly, and with perfectly grave faces off they would go. Mr Thomas Copper’s voice was as flexible as a bird’s. He always sang the under part of the song like a sort of obbligato, impossible at first hearing to put down…

It’s hardly surprising that Kate Lee was unable to set down words and music with her busy pencil on first hearing. Indeed the Copper brothers were invited back to the house on a few more occasions so that she could get the songs down properly. The Copper brothers’ songs were often metrically irregular, and were sung in harmony. So fascinated was Mrs Lee with the “Copper-full of old Sussex songs” that she’d taken down that she annotated them and published them in volume 1, no 1 of the journal of the Folk Song Society that she was setting up with some friends. These friends included the likes of Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Lucy Broadwood (who was a member of the famous piano-manufacturing family). In recognition of their contribution the Copper brothers were invited to join this illustrious group as honorary members.

We can readily imagine how impressed, even awestruck, the Copper family would have been by their association with these rich and influential personages. How proud they must have been that the quality of their musicianship was being recognised in this way.

Not a bit of it. In fact the incident was hardly spoken of in Rottingdean and was soon forgotten. The Coppers continued, however, to value their songs and the tradition they represented. James Copper wrote down some of the family songs in later life, and his sons John and James continued the family singing tradition, and noted down even more of the canon. With the rapid social changes taking place at the turn of the 20th century and then the trauma of the Great War, they recognised that they were custodians of something precious and increasingly rare (though I doubt they themselves would have put it in those terms!)

After the Second World War, there was another wave of interest in traditional music and the Copper family were discovered anew. By this time, the next generation of singers included not only John and James but a further generation – John’s son Ron and, most significantly, James’s son Bob.

Bob Copper, who died just ten years ago, was a singer, poet, painter and historian. He collated and recorded much of the detail that we now know about the remarkable Copper family. By the 1950s the Copper family were seen as a kind of living Rosetta Stone by the folk song revivalists, and they were to feature in broadcasts and concerts all over the world, even appearing at the Royal Albert Hall.

At first, though, Bob, despite having become the family historian was completely unaware of the role played by Kate Lee. It was his father, James – or Jim – who made the connection. Bob recounted:

I didn’t know anything about this until after we done our first broadcast in 1950. Then Frank Collinson [a song collector, who became musical director of the BBC’s Country Magazine programme] came down and noted down all the other songs Dad knew […W]e’re sitting in the cottage and [Frank] said “By the way, Jim,” he said, “Do you think you are any relation of the two Mr Coppers … who were noted down – gave songs to a Mrs Lee?” And the old man says, “Yeh, well, that’ll be my old dad and my uncle Tom” […] But what I like to point out is that Dad, Uncle John, Ron and I kept the songs alive ‘cause we loved them, not because our grandfather had been noted down for the Folk Song Society – we didn’t know it existed until 1951.

To a music lover and closet romantic like me, this story is poignant, even magical. I’d love to know more about the friendship between the obviously sensitive and artistic Kate Lee and the august and forbidding Edward Carson. Was Carson interested in her folk song researches, or was he merely indulging her, out of a sense of the duties of hospitality? And what did the Copper brothers make of the whole thing? That they were largely unimpressed by their brush with the great and the good is perhaps not all that surprising when we consider the kind of  men they were, and the nature of the society in Rottingdean at the time. Bob Copper has remarked that there is something in the Copper family make-up which drives its members to “better themselves”. In the case of James and Tom, they both found time to attend classes in the village, despite having to go to work even before they were teenagers, and having to pay a penny for each class they attended. So they both learned to read and write at a time when literacy among farming people was still fairly unusual. They clearly had a sense of self-worth. And this might well have been redoubled by the knowledge they had of their place in their rural community. In 1898, Rottingdean and the surrounding areas had become popular as a place for “second homes”, particularly for artistic and literary types. Rudyard Kipling moved in, as did Sir Edward Burne-Jones and Alfred Noyes. In 1906 Hilaire Belloc grumbled about how fine Rottingdean had been “before the aesthetes turned it pure Cockney twenty years ago”. Leaving aside Belloc’s snooty (if amusing) remark, it seems worth pointing out that, while the likes of Edward Carson were “blow ins”, the Copper family had been a respected presence in the area since at least the 16th century. Forelock tugging was clearly not deemed necessary.

I was fortunate in being able to see, and hear, the great Bob Copper a year or so before he died in 2004. At Cecil Sharp House in London (the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, which has now subsumed Kate Lee’s Folk Song Society) I listened to him on stage with Peggy Seeger. The two old stagers swapped reminiscences and, for every song that Bob remembered from his Sussex youth, Peggy had an Appalachian variant that she remembered. I couldn’t believe my luck in being in their presence. And the Copper Family sang. With his children and grandchildren joining in, Bob told us proudly that his family had now been singing the same songs for at least seven generations. Little wonder that these Coppers are un-cowed in the presence of the likes of Sir Edward Carson.

Kate Lee did not make audio recordings of the Coppers that she met, but this, from 1955, with Bob and his brother Ron singing could well approximate the sounds that Mrs Lee heard. The ninth verse, with its reference to a “boy with a tractor” was written and added by Bob’s father, Jim.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQ9-uWXU4oU

You can hear in this the kind of idiosyncrasies of rhythm that must have been difficult for an academic musician like Mrs Lee to note down.

I wonder whether Kate Lee knew about the Copper family before heading down to Rottingdean. Perhaps she got herself invited down to stay with Edward Carson in order to meet them. Or maybe it was pure coincidence that she was staying with her friend and then heard about these remarkable local singers. Either way, those whisky-lubricated meetings at the end of the 19th century are the stuff of legend.

As for Kate Lee, she died far too young, alas, in 1904. Her maiden name, by the way, was Spooner. It seems that she was the first cousin of the Reverend Spooner who gave his name to the spoonerism. I love these odd connections. The oddest connections, though, are with Carson, Kate and the Coppers. Fate throws up these moments. As the musicologist Vic Gammon points out, their meeting was unlikely to happen: “There is a myth … that late Victorian and Edwardian England was swarming with folk song collectors. Nothing could be further from the truth. The significant collectors were very few in number and they made contact with a tiny percentage of the rural population, and an even tinier number of the urban population … When Kate Lee ‘discovered’ the Coppers she knew she found something special”.

I leave the last word to the special Bob Copper, who sums up perfectly why we love music so much:

I love poetry, but I think music is the most violent reaction. It physically buggers me up, or lifts me up and gets a light frothy mood … But I can still be sent by Beethoven’s Piano Concertos and things. I can turn myself inside out. Silly old bugger really.

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Posted in Popular music

A very peculiar carol

Since it is still – just – Christmas, I’d like to say something about a traditional Yuletide carol.

Many hymns and carols as sung in the mainstream Christian churches tend to be fairly predictable rhythmically and melodically. This is unsurprising since they’re intended for community singing. Every now and again, though, one comes across something a bit peculiar.

I’m sure that I must have heard the Sussex Carol dozens of times over the years, but it was only this Christmas Eve, accompanying my mother (who sings in the choir) to the Christmas service at her local church, that I realised how delightfully odd this song is.

In case you need reminding of the tune, here is a lovely arrangement by Philip Ledger performed by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZm2NsZnJHE

The first part of the tune is fairly unremarkable, but then it becomes beguilingly unpredictable. As so often with the more eccentric hymn tunes, this one has its roots in folk music. My copy of the Oxford Book of Carols includes as part of a short note: “Melody and text from Mrs Verrall, Monks Gate, Sussex”. Ralph Vaughan Williams noted down the song as performed by Harriet Verrall and liked it so much that he included an arrangement of it in his Eight Traditional English Carols published in 1919. Alas, Harriet Verrall died in 1918 and so didn’t see her song in print.

Vaughan Williams notates the tune in 6/4, which begins, as I mentioned above, fairly unremarkably with two four-bar phrases (identical phrases, in fact). These are followed by two three-bar phrases, which make for a kind of musical change-of-gear. The second of the two three-bar phrases, however, is extended, making the second strain of the tune asymmetrical. Vaughan Williams annotates this by making the first bar 9/4, so adding three beats to the phrase. The first bar of each of these three bar phrases introduces a more declamatory feel contrasting with the sprightly one-two-three rhythm of the first part of the tune. The first – setting the words “News of great…” is echoed in the first bar of the second phrase (“News of our…”), but the repeat is elongated (two minims and a crotchet becoming three minims). The effect is delightful.

The overall structure therefore is made up of eight bars followed by six bars giving 14 bars. But since the final phrase of the tune includes a bar of 9/4, giving three extra beats, we have to say that the melody is 14-and-a-third bars long.

I’m sure there are more tunes that are 14-and-a-third bars long, but off-hand I can’t think of any…

Incidentally, as we’re on the twelfth night of Christmas, and keeping with the topic of songs with unusual bar structures, we might just think for a moment about the peculiar structure of that old favourite The Twelve Days of Christmas. Here is a song that gives the lie to the notion that sing-a-long songs need to be rhythmically simple. It slips effortlessly between four-to-the-bar and three-to-the-bar throughout. And it makes for lusty singing.

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Posted in Classical music

Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Missing Composer

Sherlock

In the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, Dr John Watson spends some time trying to crack the enigma that is his new friend, Mr Holmes. He decides to adopt the deductive approach that his subject has already described for him, beginning by making a list of Sherlock’s qualities. Number 10 on this list is “Plays the violin well”.

Holmes, then, was an accomplished musician, at least by Watson’s estimation. On this point, Watson later elaborates.

I see that I have alluded above to his powers upon the violin. These were very remarkable, but as eccentric as all his other accomplishments. That he could play pieces, and difficult pieces, I knew well, because at my request he has played me some of Mendelssohn’s Lieder, and other favourites. When left to himself, however, he would seldom produce any music or attempt any recognized air. Leaning back in his armchair of an evening, he would close his eyes and scrape carelessly at the fiddle which was thrown across his knee. Sometimes the chords were sonorous and melancholy. Occasionally they were fantastic and cheerful. Clearly they reflected the thoughts which possessed him, but whether the music aided those thoughts, or whether the playing was simply the result of a whim or fancy, was more than I could determine. I might have rebelled against these exasperating solos had it not been that he usually terminated them by playing in quick succession a whole series of my favourite airs as a slight compensation for the trial upon my patience.

Music lovers would, of course, expect that Holmes, with his sharp, analytical mind would favour Bach as a composer. I am no Holmes scholar, but, as far as I know, there is no moment in any of the Conan Doyle stories where he attempts to play Bach. A plot twist in The Mazarin Stone hinges on his playing not J.S., but Offen Bach [joke (c) Victor Borge] but other than that, the only named composer that Holmes is heard performing in the stories is Mendelssohn*.

This would make sense. The divine Felix was hugely popular in late Victorian England, so it is unremarkable that Watson would request from Holmes (as an antidote to the great detective’s distracted noodling which the old soldier found trying) “some of Mendelssohn’s Lieder”. I can’t help wondering what particular Mendelssohn tunes were in Holmes’s repertoire. It’s not impossible that he included, in his informal recitals, melodies drawn from Mendelssohn’s many songs. And, if this were the case, it is pleasing to speculate that the tunes heard might have included some composed by Felix’s sister, Fanny. Amongst the songs published under Felix’s name were included numerous, unattributed, compositions by the talented but neglected Fanny.

It is more likely, however, that the Lieder referred to by Watson were the Lieder ohne Worte that Mendelssohn wrote and published throughout his lifetime. These Songs without Words were short piano pieces published in sets of six and much prized by amateurs for home music-making as well as being popular in professional recitals. These much loved pieces, however, have perhaps done the composer’s reputation a disservice. In the preface to his indispensable book Mendelssohn: a Life in Music, R. Larry Todd writes:

[…] the piano miniatures that became celebrated in middle-class parlours … the vast majority of which Mendelssohn published without specific titles, acquired from their publishers in the second half of the nineteenth century all manner of insipid titles – “Consolation”, “May Breezes,” and the like – titles that Mendelssohn never would have authorized but that ultimately reinforced the view of him as a purveyor of maudlin piano music.

Todd, rightly, takes issue with the “persistent idea of Mendelssohn as a genteel lightweight”. I do, too, but refer you, as a corrective, to Todd’s book, where the battle against Felix’s detractors is fought with far greater scholarship, and crisper prose that I can muster. I shall merely present myself as grunting enthusiastic canon-fodder in the campaign he is waging; a campaign that is gaining ground, I’m pleased to report.

As we’re on the subject of war, and to get back to Baker Street, I want to mention the series of Hollywood films that appeared from 1939 onwards in which Basil Rathbone impersonated Sherlock Holmes in great style. His sidekick on these cinematic excursions was Nigel Bruce; not an ideal Watson, but a cherishable one. These low-budget B-movies shifted the World’s Greatest Detective from Victorian London to the present day, and had him apply his mighty intellect to problems of international espionage, and the sinister goings-on in Europe that were more likely to preoccupy audiences of the time. In short, these films pitted Sherlock Holmes against the Nazis.

I’ve only seen a couple of these film over the years, but they have great charm, and can certainly be recommended.

Sherlock Holmes as Britain’s secret weapon during World War II is an appealing notion, and, to an extent receives sanction from the detective’s creator. Conan Doyle went on writing Sherlock Holmes stories right up to the First World War and, in His Final Bow, has Holmes foil the plans of a German agent. For all his individuality and lack of deference to authority, Holmes had a patriotic streak and was pleased to set his piercing gaze upon his country’s enemies. Had he been alive in the 1940s, and still hale and hearty in his ninth decade, it would be natural for him again to place his talents at the disposal of a beleaguered nation.

Since we’re given licence, let’s imagine, then, what might have happened had Holmes been in Germany in the run-up to the War, where he might have found himself engaged by a mysterious occurrence involving the composer whose melodies he played so well on his fiddle.

R Larry Todd refers to this incident in his book. In 1936 the London Philharmonic Orchestra was touring in Germany. The Orchestra’s conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, paid a visit one afternoon to the Leipzig Gewandhaus and saw there the statue of Felix Mendelssohn that had stood outside the Hall since 1892, proudly commemorating the great composer’s association with the city. But when Beecham returned the following day, with a delegation of musicians, intending to lay a floral tribute at the statue’s feet, they discovered to their astonishment that the monument had vanished.

There are delicious possibilities here for fiction: the music loving Holmes, and England’s most famous conductor – noted as much for his tart wit as for his skills with the baton – paired up in Leipzig to solve the Mystery of the Vanishing Composer.

Alas, though, it hardly needs a Sherlock to explain the disappearance of Mendelssohn’s statue from that Leipzig square. Already in 1936, Mendelssohn’s music had pretty much disappeared from German concert halls, and it would be many years before it was heard again.

In 1947 a bust of Mendelssohn was placed pro tempore on the site of the destroyed statue. But it wasn’t until 1993 that a new statue was unveiled. Mendelssohn is taking his place in the pantheon of the great composers, overcoming the prejudice that has been clinging to him since the days when his sweet, frank melodies were used to assuage the disgruntlement of an Afghan-hand in a Marylebone sitting room.

Note: the image that I have used above was found here. It is an illustration for The Sign of Four by Ugo Matania and appeared in a 1948 Italian edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

* As I said, I am no Holmes scholar so would be pleased to receive a correction on this point.

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Posted in Classical music

A Happy Halloween with Ko-Ko the Clown, Cab Calloway and Fatha’s Faustian Fingers

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Here is something a little bit creepy for Halloween. In 1933, when Fleischer Studios decided to base one of their animated shorts on the Snow White story, they of course cast their most famous creation – Betty Boop – in the lead role, and backed her up with their other stock characters, Ko-ko the Clown and Bimbo the Dog. The whole film is excellent, but for me, it reaches its greatest mastery just after four minutes in when Ko-Ko the Clown performs St James Infirmary Blues. If Ko-Ko seems to be channelling Cab Calloway during his performance this is hardly surprising. It is indeed Mr Calloway’s voice that you are hearing. As for the idiosyncratic dance moves: here, director Dave Fleischer has made use of the rotoscope, a device invented and patented by his brother Max. The rotoscope projected frames from live-action film footage onto a transparent screen, and this enabled animators to trace real animal and human figures and, frame-by-frame, build up a sequence in which those figures move smoothly and naturally. This technique, originally devised in order to improve on the jerky motion in early cartoons, here enables the animated Ko-Ko to impersonate Cab Calloway with eerie precision.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTzyL80IfYQ

But that’s the least of the pleasures. From the grotesque faces in the backdrop, to the weird manipulation of the central figure, this sequence is wonderfully inventive and imbued with a gleeful, macabre humour.

The choice of St James Infirmary Blues, was a smart one. There is something chilling about this minor key blues melody and its peculiar morbid lyrics. A great deal has been written about this song which was, it seems, derived from an 18th Century English folk ballad called, among other things, The Unfortunate Rake. In its blues form the song has been recorded countless times. A particular favourite of mine is a performance by Earl “Fatha” Hines with his trio. Fatha’s Faustian fingers raise a grotesque skeletal dance and, as a bonus, there is a rare chance to hear Hines sing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7uflUVGptU

Happy Halloween.

(By the way, there’s a history of the Fleischer Brothers and their pioneering animation studios here – http://www.fleischerstudios.com/history.php )

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When to clap at classical music concerts: the final word on the matter

There’s a great deal of talk going on about the accessibility of classical music and how this relates to the future of the art form. Music needs an audience, and balancing the need to keep those concert halls filled with the equally important need to provide more challenging, experimental – and therefore, perhaps, less accessible – programming, is a tough job, and an extremely important one. I’ve been sticking in an oar or two to this debate myself.

There is one particular strand to this ongoing discussion, however, that we can dismiss easily. I’ve decided to do that here, partly so that we can get on with the more complex arguments, and partly as a service to a troubled, but rather noisy, section of society.

I refer, of course, to the Inveterate Clappers – the IVs, if you will. Now, whenever the conversation turns to the problems facing classical music – what is its place in the modern world, how can we make it more appealing to people who wouldn’t normally care for it etc. – someone will invariably chime in with that choice chestnut: “I find classical music concerts difficult because I don’t know when to applaud”. Just today, I encountered a piece on the Huffington Post, entitled, if you please, The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained, in which the writer complains about the “great many ‘clap here, not there’ cloak-and-dagger protocols to abide by”. The article is well worth reading, and is more nuanced and sensible than might be suggested by its (intentionally) provocative title and the brief quotation I’ve provided. But since its author has raised this concern – when to clap? – and since this thorny question seems to haunt the fears of many would-be concert-goers, I thought I’d provide a simple print-out-and-keep guide that will settle the matter definitively. One you’ve read this you can attend any classical music concert, secure in the knowledge that you won’t commit a solecism, and will leave refreshed and nourished by the music and feeling at one with us regular concert-goers.

The IV’s Guide To Concert Attendance

1. Don’t applaud during the music.

As an IV you have expressed your discontent at the constraints placed on your hand-clapping propensities. You cannot grasp why it is necessary for you to suppress your natural desire to express loudly your delight and wonderment at precisely the moments that those emotions arise. You will find, though, that most audience members will find such behaviour distracting and detrimental to their own enjoyment of the music; they might, for example, be having a quite different emotional experience from you (this dissonance in common response happens regularly in classical music, particularly that written from around 1810 to 1880 and again from the 1920s until the end of the 20th Century but it is not unknown in the music of other eras). While this no doubt is indicative of their inherent snootiness and emotional sterility in contrast to your own unaffected, all-embracing nature, you ought nonetheless to be tolerant of their shortcomings. This is a simple matter of courtesy: after all, they’ve paid for tickets as well, and they’d like to hear the music rather than whatever noises you choose to make. This rule holds fairly fast, though there are some noted exceptions. At the Last Night of the Proms you can clap at any time you damn well please. And during performances of Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss or Shostakovitch’s 15th String Quartet, audience participation is not only permissible, but considered desirable by the performers.

2. Only applaud between movements when you absolutely have to

As an IV, you are in touch with your emotions. And, when a vigorous scherzo or divine slow movement comes to its close and it has been played very well, you feel it almost rude not to let the musicians know how much you’ve appreciated their efforts. Even us starchy, hide-bound old classical hands sometimes experience stirrings at moments like this – knobbly spider-like twitchings in the cobwebby recesses of our souls – and so would not think ill of you were you to venture a little patter of applause. There is a caveat here, though. If you applaud, others will most likely join in (you’re never alone, even in the Albert Hall) but it is important to keep this tween-movements applause brief. Otherwise the performance could take all night and punters have homes to go to. You should also remember that, while the performers will be gratified at your acknowledgement that they are playing especially well that night, orchestral players in particular like to make last orders at the bar and should your indulgence jeopardise their chances of a pint of best (the brass) or brandy-and-soda (the strings), they will pay you back. Researchers have noted a correlation between the number of bum-notes during symphonic finales and the occurrence of inter-movement applause. Most of those wrong notes, it seems, come from horn players which is hardly surprising given the bibulous tendencies of that breed. I should say that I have never met an oboist who was not teetotal, and I’ve never once heard one play a wrong note. There’s a lesson in that, I am sure.

3. When has the piece finished?

This, clearly, is the greatest bugbear. The turning-up-to-work-with-no-trousers-on nightmare moment. The potential to expose yourself as a neophyte, or dilettante. The piece seems to be ended, but the composer can’t resist starting up again, wringing out every last possibility for a particular theme. And in that half-bar’s rest between the false and actual ending, you’ve started clapping wildly … and alone, because you alone didn’t know. And now you feel a right Charlie. First, let me say this. Should this ever happen to you, you’ll get over it soon enough. Most of your fellow audience members don’t know you, and will forget you presently. This minor aberration, should you make it, will not adversely affect your professional career, nor will it turn your loved ones against you. It will only have a deadening affect on your libido if you allow it to.

The crucial thing, though, is that this devastating humiliation need never happen, if you follow my simple instruction. Now, if your chief objection to attending concerts of classical music is this whole clap-here-not-there cloak-and-dagger protocol stuff, I am precisely the answer to your prayer. I am an insider and I am about to blow apart the whole insidious, whispering, masonic conspiracy that excludes you IVs from the gilded, privileged world of classical music that we have guarded so assiduously and so jealously for so long. I do not do this lightly. The last person who attempted this was found dangling beneath a bridge over the Danube, his left eye pierced by a conductor’s baton and his gullet stuffed with the full-score of a symphony. And it was a Mahler symphony (I forget which; one of the long ones).

Wait until everybody else start clapping. That’s it. That’s the answer. Now that you know it, don’t you feel silly? It’s that simple. If you’re concerned about making an arse of yourself by clapping at the wrong moment, just pause and wait to see what everyone else is doing. Perhaps you will consider this approach to be inimical to your innate spontaneity. I suspect, though, that there have been other junctures in your life when you’ve had to behave with restraint, and that the trauma engendered at such times has not been insupportable. And given the treasures that await, those very riches that we classical-music initiates have been guarding as we flit becloaked between the great centres of Vienna and Bonn, London and Paris, opus numbers held unspoken on our secretive lips; and now that the code has been revealed to you, surely it is meet that you should whisper that code in the hidden doorways and so assume your rightful place among us.

So, to recapitulate, just remember: (1) don’t applaud while the musicians are still playing, (2) if moved by an especially good performance, it’s acceptable to applaud between movements (but if in doubt, sit on your hands: it won’t hurt you to do so) and (3) at the end, wait for others to applaud and then join in. If you follow my three simple rules you need not fear any social embarrassment whatsoever.

I provide this information as a kind of public service, but I’d like just one small thing in return. The next time you’re upbraiding the classical music “establishment” for its toffee-nosed attitudes, pray keep a lid on the whole I-don’t-know-when-to-clap nonsense. 

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Dinah Shore and Frank Zappa

Those lists of tips for writing a good blog invariably stress the importance of provocative titles. I had half a mind to entitle this post “If you’re not bisexual now, you will be once you’ve seen this video clip” but that would have been silly. The clip in question, though, does feature two breathtakingly attractive creatures. Frank Sinatra here shows that insouciance, that devilish masculinity with just a hint of vulnerability that blew the socks off the bobbysoxers. His duet partner is the beautiful Dinah Shore, all grace and feminine dignity but relaxed enough to laugh delightedly at her partner’s impromptu gags. Forgive my gender stereotyping: this clip was of its time. I offer it here because it is, quite simple, joyous. It makes me happy, not least because both singers are technically unimpeachable. Sinatra, in particular, in between his clowning, is in marvellous voice. He and Shore rattle through a medley of standards and the only criticism I can offer is that one could wish that it went on longer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJ2aEqXyCz0

They round off the medley with Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer’s You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, which is a wonderfully catchy number. One of my favourite renditions of this song is from 1961. Bobby Darin’s is an appealingly louche performance.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPRmy7zfjYo

The arrangement is a delight: those grunting horns and the twangy electric guitar. Darin’s producers on this occasion were Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun, who worked closely with Darin for a number of years.

To many people these days, Frank Zappa is remembered primarily for giving strenuously peculiar names to his children. This is a shame, for Zappa was one of the most challenging musicians of the latter part of the twentieth century. One of Zappa’s sons was given the name Ahmet (which at the time might well have been thought peculiar, though these days the name is far more common in the West) after the very Ahmet Ertegun who produced Darin, and, indeed, championed Zappa.

In some of Zappa’s early records there are reminiscences of that Ertegun-produced sound world that can be heard in some of Darin’s records, and others of the period: the twangy guitar in particular. The similarities are fairly superficial, to be sure: Zappa was too much his own man for it to be otherwise. But it is there, nonetheless, particularly in the first album Freak Out and the later Ruben and the Jets.

I’ve picked this track as an example. It’s not the best illustration for the point I’ve been making (away to youtube with you) but this song makes me laugh. All together now: I wanna hear Caravan with a drum solo.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Q1xRZERXlM

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An artist to be valued

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The jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman “threw in a little Bach” – as he mischievously put it – to his opening number at the Wigmore Hall in London last night. Bach more than any of the other great classical composers holds an especial fascination for jazz musicians, it seems. I confess that I didn’t spot the precise reference to Bach, though the whole of that opening improvisation had a Bachian feel, performed as it was – as indeed was the whole of his set – on unaccompanied tenor sax. The manner in which Redman interspersed bass notes, and short arpeggios amongst his eloquent, searching melodic flights brought readily to mind Bach’s great music for solo violin or ‘cello.

Joshua’s nod to J S felt like a playful, yet respectful, acknowledgement of the century of great music-making that has taken place at the Wigmore. The great works of the classical repertoire remain central to the Wigmore Hall, though innovation has also been key as the impressive list of commissions and premieres associated with the Hall will show. And in recent decades, jazz has become a small but significant component in the Wigmore’s annual programming.

Redman’s beautifully judged and emotionally involving opening number, with its Bach infusion, was in fact a chaconne-like fantasia on the Richard Rodgers tune, My Funny Valentine. Redman began by tracing out a succession of arresting (yet somehow familiar) musical intervals: a kind of statement of the musical possibilities. He then set about exploring those possibilities. For this listener, at least, several minutes passed before recognition of the tune appeared and then came the realisation of why those opening intervals seemed so familiar. Redman had chosen to open his improvisation by outlining the B section of the tune (rather than starting at the beginning!)* Think of the notes that fall on Lorenz Hart’s (wonderful) words at “Is your FIGure less than Greek? Is your MOUTH a little weak? When you OPen it to speak. Are you SMART?” Redman had cunningly provided his audience with the opportunity to sense retrospectively the logic of his extemporised structure. Then gradually – though interrupted occasionally by contrasting sections including one short exotically modal excursion – the lovely melody was allowed to bloom.

Redman played two more pieces in his set. Sonny Rollins’s St Thomas is a deliciously cussed melody that won’t yield to the kind of veiled, teasing treatment that Valentine was subjected to. Instead Redman allowed himself a display of virtuosity, finding delightful rhythmic pratfalls in an already syncopation-heavy tune, and embarking on heady ground-shifting modulations sometimes even within the musical phrases.  At the end I couldn’t help remarking to my friend who was with me that “Sonny would approve”. My friend replied: “Exactly. Son of Sonny!”

Finally Redman gave us John Coltrane’s Alabama. His approach here seemed more reverential and measured, perhaps appropriately so, but it was nonetheless moving.

Redman was appearing that evening at the Wigmore as part of a short season of concerts that he is directing. The second half of this opening concert he gave to the Norwegian saxophonist, Håkon Kornstad. Kornstad also played an unaccompanied set but made use of digital delay to set up layers of musical patterns against which he improvised. His technique was impressive, and his set enjoyable, but, for me at least, he couldn’t match the sophistication and profound musicianship of Redman. Apart from being an excellent saxophonist, Kornstad is no slouch as an operatic tenor. As a novel touch, he used the digital delay to set up a harmonic backdrop against which he sang in a fluid and unstrained manner. This was remarkable and, indeed, fun, but once the novelty had worn off, the effect seemed somewhat gimmicky. Kornstad’s technique is breathtaking, and his stage presence charming, but compared to Redman,with his mastery of form, he fell short. But then, it’s clear from what Joshua Redman said when introducing him, that he at least rates Kornstad’s musicianship very highly indeed, so my response on this one occasion should probably be taken with caution.

Two things are clear to me, however. One is that us Londoners need to thank our lucky stars that the treasure that is the Wigmore Hall continues to gleam and offer succour in a drab undeserving world. The second is that Joshua Redman’s career needs to be followed more closely for truly he is an artist to be valued.

*My friend who was with me that evening said that this reminded him of the way in which Indian classical musicians introduce the intervals of the raga they are playing. In recent years, the good people at the Wigmore Hall have also presented some excellent concerts of Indian music, for which I give thanks.

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