March 29, 2016

I feel them behind me, beside me: the girl I only dated once and who died young; the cousin I promised to marry when we were still in third grade; the older brother who could play by ear. Like those Homeric shades crowding round the blood sacrifice. So close.

It’s certainly not my skills at the keyboard that draws them. It’s the music, come alive from its long sleep on cold paper. Chopin and Tchaikovsky, Field and Brahms, it lives again through me and though me in these dead.

Is it a portal for them, a way back to this world where music is even more intense life than life itself? I don’t believe in ghosts or shades, and yet here they come gathering round me, gathering into me, memories as real as my own self and the sweet wrenching sounds my fingers call forth: the girl I only knew for a few hours, the brother of seven decades, the cousin I would some day marry after getting the necessary ecclesiastical dispensation.

When I stop playing they leave. I can only bear their presence for a few minutes in any case. Our worlds are too alien to risk encroaching on each other’s very long. But they will be back, insistent, not to be denied. And I must share with them again. I dare not do so, or question their right to be there.

Where are the others? I wonder. So many dead, and only one of these three was to my knowledge a music lover. But that’s none of my business. They have their reasons. I would deny them not only to my peril but to my great shame. If I can ease their pain for just these few moments, I have no choice.

February 4, 2015

Blackberry Tart and De Pachmann

This is a companion piece to the wonderful account I published in this blog of a Caruso performance, by the early 20th-century journalist and author Thomas Burke. This time it’s a performance by the pianist Vladimir de Pachmann, taken from the same essay, “A Musical Night: The Opera, the Promenades,” a delightful piece of writing for anyone who loves music (as Burke certainly did). In it you’ll make the acquaintance not only of Caruso but get to glimpse a young Thomas Beecham and Misha Elman, among others. The rest of the essays in Burke’s book, Nights in London, available for free at the Gutenberg Project (, are accounts of different neighborhoods of the author’s beloved city, London, and are just as delightful as what you’ll find in this piece.



We had dined solidly, with old English ale, at “The Cock,” in Fleet Street. Perhaps tomato soup, mutton cutlets, quarts of bitter, apple and blackberry tart and cream, macaroni cheese, coffee, and kümmel are hardly in the right key for an evening with Chopin. But I am not one of those who take their pleasures Vladimir_Pachmann_1848_-_1933sadly. If I am to appreciate delicate art, I must be physically well prepared. It may be picturesque to sit through a Bayreuth Festival on three dates and a nut, but monkey-tricks of that kind are really a slight on one’s host. However, I felt very fat, physically, and very Maeterlinckian, spiritually, as we clambered into a cab and swung up the great bleak space of Kingsway.

At the entrance to the Steinway we ran against a bunch of critics, and adjourned to the little place at the opposite corner, so that one of the critics might learn from us what he ought to say about the concert. We had just time to slip into our seats, and then Pachmann, sleek and bullet-headed, minced on to the platform. I said that I felt fat, physically, and Maeterlinckian or Burne-Jonesy, or anything else that suggests the twilight mood, spiritually. But the moment Pachmann came on he drove the mood clean out of us. Obviously, he wasn’t feeling Maeterlinckian or Chopinesque. He was feeling very full of Pachmann, one could see. Nothing die-away or poetic about him. He was fat physically, and he looked fat spiritually. One conceived him much more readily nodding over the fire with the old port, than playing Chopin in a bleak concert-hall, laden with solemn purples and drabs, stark and ungarnished save for a few cold flowers and ferns.

However, there he was; and after he had played games and cracked jokes, of which nobody knew the secrets but himself, with the piano-stool, his hair, and his handkerchief, he set to work. He flourished a few scales; looked up; giggled; said something to the front row; looked off and nodded; rubbed his fingers; gently patted his ashen cheek; then stretched both hands to the keys.

He played first a group of Preludes. What is there to say about him? Nothing. Surely never, since Chopin went from us, has Chopin been so played. The memory of my Fleet Street dinner vanished. The hall vanished. All surroundings vanished. Vladimir, the antic, took us by the hand and led us forth into a new country: a country like nothing that we have seen or dreamed of, and therefore a country of which not the vaguest image can be created. It was a country, or, perhaps, a street of pale shadows … and that is all I know. Its name is Pachmann-land.

Before he was through the first short prelude, he had us in his snare. One by one the details of the room faded, and nothing was left but a cloud of lilac in which were Pachmann and the sleek, gleaming piano. As he played, change succeeded change. The piano was labelled Chappell, but it might just as well have been labelled Bill Bailey. Under Pachmann, the wooden structure took life, as it were, and became a living thing, breathing, murmuring, clamouring, shrieking. Soon there was neither Chappell, nor Pachmann, nor Chopin; only a black creature—Piano. One shivered, and felt curiously afraid.

Then, suddenly, there was a crash of chords—and silence. That crash had shattered everything, and, looking up, we saw nothing but the grinning Pachmann. One half-remembered that he had been grinning and gesturing and grimacing with ape-like imbecility all the time, yet, somehow, one had not noticed it. He bobbed up and down, and grinned, and applauded himself. But there was something uncanny, mysterious. We looked at one another uneasily, afraid to exchange glances. Nobody spoke. Nobody wanted to speak. A few smiled shy, secret smiles, half-afraid of themselves. For some moments nobody even applauded. Something had been with us. Something strange and sad and exquisitely fragile had gone from us.

Pachmann looked at us, noted our dumb wonder, and—giggled like an idiot.

November 4, 2014

Vive la Jacquinot!

I would like to draw the world’s attention (are you listening, world?) to a neglected pianist — a virtually unknown pianist if my own, admittedly limited experience is any indication.

Fabienne Jacquinot was a superb musician, and it’s a shame upon the musical world that more of her performances were not recorded. The recordings she did make were done mainly in the 1950s, extraordinary renderings of JacquinotSchumann’s Études Symphoniques, L’Oiseau Prophète, Papillion, Davidsbündler, Carnival and Kinderszenen (Escenes d’Enfants). She also recorded  Dohnanyi’s Variations on a Nursery Theme and Strauss’s Burleske and the Saint-Saëns Concerto in F No. 5 with the Philharmonia orchestra under Anatole Fistoulari, as well as a few other pieces. But there is nothing extant of the Schumann concerto in A minor, the piano sonatas or any of the other works by Schumann and other composers I would dearly like, and would probably pay dearly, to hear. In fact, there is nothing but these few recordings available on CD, mp3 or on the second-hand vinyl market. There is not even a Wikipedia entry devoted to her!

Schumann, like Chopin, was not a composer I looked to when I turned to my stereo for all the different reasons I listen to music and now even attempt to play it. Chopin had seemed to me precious, a kind of high-falutin elevator music (I’m waiting for the lightning bolt to strike me). Schumann, apart from the concerto, I seemed to have no emotional access to.

Yulianna Avdeeva turned Chopin into a necessity of life for me. As one of the first writers on her Facebook page I wrote that her playing had made Chopin come alive for me — a trite, totally inadequate attempt in my boyish-like awe of her to describe what seemed almost to have literally happened. Chopin still gets on my nerves sometimes with his adolescent angst, and I would just as soon not have read anything about his life (always a mistake for me when it comes to artists of any kind). But the man’s music is now in my bloodstream and issues from the tips of my fingers, however ineptly, with the most exquisite pleasure I have ever known.

It was Yulianna who also gave me access to Schumann when I discovered her performance on YouTube of his first piano sonata, recorded in Switzerland in May of 2010, several months before her winning the Chopin competition in Warsaw which put her name securely on the musical map as a major artist. I was as gob-smacked by her performance of the Schumann sonata as I was by her Chopin, assuming wrongly that what I was watching and hearing occurred after, not before, the big boost the Chopin competition gave to her career and, I assumed, her confidence. But such was not the case, and to this day I have not heard her play better than she did at that Schumann or, for that matter, the Chopin pieces she also played that day to a half-filled auditorium, mostly women, not all of whom seemed to be paying attention.

And then I found Jacquinot, serendipitously, on YouTube. I don’t recall the circumstances. I may have been sampling other performances of Schumann by the big-name performers we mostly all assume are the best interpreters of this kind of music. And, to this day, many months later, I am astounded, intrigued and enraptured by her playing, not to mention being severely pissed-off that nothing more of her exists on recording than what I have already indicated. Even my searches on yield nothing further about her recordings or even biographical data. Such, I can only conclude, was the fate of women of talent fifty years ago.

I not only want more of her performances, I want to know what instrument she played. To my ear, it could have been a Steinway or any of a number of instruments I am not familiar enough with to recognize. But there is a special sound to it in some registers and passages, a kind of player-piano timbre. That may just have been the way a Steinway sounded fifty years ago, or she may have preferred an older instrument, but I’d like to know nonetheless. It’s the sort of biographical detail I do like to know, just as it was important to me to know it was a Yamaha that Yulianna played when she won that competition and that she tends to favor Steinways since.

I can’t characterize the qualities of Jacquinot’s playing the way more adept writers on this subject could (for an example of this, I recommend Rolf Kyburz’s music blog). I can only attest to the reaction it elicits from the deepest part of me. And that reaction is rich and satisfying and at times downright sublime. You may be lucky enough to feel the same way when you listen yourself, though I realize our brains are all configured uniquely with different tastes and needs as a consequence. But it your gray and red and white matter is configured anything like my own and you are not already familiar with Fabienne Jacquinot, you are in for not just a treat but a deeply moving experience.

And, please, if anyone can tell me where I can find out more about Mlle. Jacquinot’s career, discrography, etc.,  leave a comment. Thanks.



July 14, 2014

And then There’s Brahms

What is it about some music that holds our attention and continues to move us, while other music charms us for a while but then loses its allure? I’m speaking not just of heard music but of music we play ourselves, or try to.

I’ve taken up dozens of compositions with the full intention of doing justice to each before moving on to anything else. In all but a handful of cases I’ve put them aside. I play for my own pleasure, not to make a living or because music is my profession. If I begin a novel I generally finish it. There are good reasons for not finishing a novel. Lack of discipline is not one. I’ve completed more than a dozen novels plus scores of short stories and all manner of non-fiction. When it comes to music, I feel I can afford to be choosy, fickle, even undisciplined.

But I’m becoming convinced there’s something besides self-indulgence that determines whether I stay with a new piece or put it aside after a couple weeks. Whatever that something is, it has nothing to do with an individual composition’s difficulty. I’ve labored over a simple menuet by Krebs or Pachelbel and breezed through a technically more difficult waltz of Chopin. There’s a Beethoven sonatina I’ve been hammering away at forever. I’ve invested too much time and effort to set it aside entirely, but I’m not motivated enough to put in the time required to make it my own.

Why? Because, I think, it doesn’t speak to me as other music does. It doesn’t resonate in a way that makes it infinitely repeatable. To put things simply, I just don’t care about that sonatina enough. A few years back I did care a great deal about almost anything by Chopin I could manhandle. I intended to learn all his music I could. After a while, though, his moods began to cloy: too much adolescent angst, too much of the same tale of death and unrequited love. I continue to play the bit I did learn of him, and I still listen to Yulianna Avdeeva’s Chopin with great pleasure. But all I do at the keyboard is maintain a familiarity with the waltz in A minor and the first part of a polonaise I learned by heart when that composer still absorbed most of my attention.

And then there’s Brahms.

Brahms and I have had an on-again off-again relationship over the years. I mean before I ever attempted to play anything he wrote. I loved his symphonies and concertos but never ventured much beyond them, certainly not into his solo piano music. As time passed, I listened less and less to Brahms and more and more to later composers like Poulenc, Elgar, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev. But then I would hear a rendition of the slow movement from one of his concertos and be drawn back into his orbit. I also admired him for sticking to what I saw as his traditional tack despite the gales of Wagner blowing in the opposite direction. I applauded him for having the guts to be old-fashioned.

Brahms in 1853

Brahms in 1853

I no longer think of him as old-fashioned. His music is certainly melodic, but it’s troubled by the same sensibility I recognize as the modern world’s, the one I live in, which seems to have begun sometime in the late 19th century. You see that world in a novel like Perez-Galdos’s Fortunata and Jacinta, in the irreverence of Samuel Butler as well as in the “primitivism” of Le Sacre du Printemps. Brahms is no throw-back to the heyday of long-hair Romanticism. His music is complicated, not like Beethoven’s deeply complex but ultimately resolvable music but complicated with the unresolvable tensions of our modern age: a longing for harmony and order without religious faith, without a confidence in reason or a belief in unrelenting progress that sustained Western civilization before the debacle of 1914.

Brahms was a contemporary of Nietzsche, who coined the phrase “God is dead.” Nietzsche also declared philosophy dead, at least philosophy as it had been practised before him. He said it was just a form of autobiography. His own prescription for the way to move forward, the development of a new, superior kind of human being, may be as naif in its way as the contributions of Kant or Hegel, but his writings have struck a keynote for modern thought that has been re-articulated in each generation that followed.

There is something of the same zeitgeist in Brahms’s music, a despair partially redeemed by beauty and personal love and other simple human virtues. Brahms spent his Sundays conducting small groups of amateur singers, usually women, sometimes from the limb of a tree branch. Music was a way of life for him, not a religion or a soapbox from which to declare a new world order.

His devotion to the Schumanns is well known. But I think its significance for his art is not always understood. Brahms grew up poor, played in whorehouses to make a living in his youth, not unlike some of

the early jazz musicians. He came to know Robert and then Clara Wieck Schumann later. And the Schumanns were loving, generous people. Robert championed the young Chopin, writing reviews that declared the young Pole’s unique genius before the rest of Europe had discovered it. Chopin never returned the favor or, as far as I know, ever acknowledged it. But Schumann did not offer praise in the hope of reciprocation.

Clara Schumann in 1878

Clara Schumann in 1878

Unlike the general run of artists, he was not jealous of every other composer’s success. Music was the thing and, perhaps, like Jorge Luis Borges, he believed all musicians like all writers are really the same musician or the same writer.

Brahms’s love for Clara Schumann is as legendary as the theory, perhaps true, that they both still loved Robert so much after his early death following years of what today we call mental illness that they were unable to become lovers themselves, choosing instead to remain devoted friends. That kind of deep loyalty and personal devotion is rare in the great, though not so among the ordinary run of humans. We almost expect our famous artists and politicians to be self-serving bastards. When we find magnanimity in a Schumann or a Chekhov, another contemporary of Brahms, we treasure it.

I also like Brahms’s music because it’s the work of a grown-up. I find it hard to define what I mean by “grown-up,” but, like the man who didn’t know much about art but knew what he liked, I think I can recognize it. If nothing else, maturity means seeing the complexity of human existence and accepting it. Fanatics never grow up. They always see things one way. So do some artists. They sound a theme early on and work it unchanged for their entire career, sometimes to great success. Or, if they’re lucky, they die young and never reveal their stunted sensibility.

I spoke earlier of the adolescent quality of Chopin’s music. But his obsession with the violent and exaggerated emotions of youth yielded such great music there’s no point to caviling that he didn’t write anything of a different nature. It would be like denying Mozart his place in the musical pantheon because he didn’t produce in his thirties the music he would have written in his fifties had he lived.

Brahms did have that advantage — longevity. The piece I’ve been learning, the Sarabande in A Minor, is one of his last compositions. But I hear a maturing Brahms throughout his career. He incorporates what came before (listen to the fugal elements in the second sarabande in that two-composition set) but does so in a modern way that makes it seem natural to the music rather than just an homage, as is the case so often with “modern” composers who like to show off their knowledge of earlier musical forms without giving them any new meaning.

The Sarabande in A Minor is an elusive piece. Technically it’s not difficult. It’s the musical notation, especially the staccato markings in the first theme, that have had me lying awake at night (and first thing in the morning too) trying to make sense of them as I “played” the piece over and over in my head. Why staccato? Why staccato and forte at the end of that first theme? It seemed a hell of a way to write a “stately 3/4 time,” as one definition of sarabande has it.

Brahms in midcareer

Brahms in midcareer

But, that’s what I mean about Brahms using old musical forms in a modern way with a modern sensibility. This is a sarabande of a different sort, just as Beethoven’s 8th symphony is a kind of musical joke, as the conductor Lukas Foss once told an audience I was part of, but a very different kind of “joke” indeed. And Foss’s performance that night, one I’ve never heard duplicated, proved it true.

There is a temptation to violate the musical notation of the sarabande and play some of those staccato notes as eighth or even quarter notes. One of the videos by a professional on YouTube actually does so, and more, drawing out the final staccato note as if it were a whole note and then for good measure playing it piano even though the bar is marked forte. Another professional plays the staccato notes as written but without any musical feeling as if it were just a finger exercise or he had no clue to what the piece is about.

My point is that even in an apparently unambitious piece like this Brahms has created a work of art that is anything but uninteresting. He seems to be challenging the musical form as well as the performer to a kind of musical game of hide-and-seek. What am I up to? the music seems to say. Can you find out? Ready or not.

I decided after weeks of playing this sarabande that the “stately dance in 3/4 time” is essential information to understanding it. Without that underlying rhythm, however subtle, there is no sustaining infrastructure and hence no satisfying performance of the piece. As well, one must take the notation as it is written, not change it willy-nilly as that pianist on YouTube did. The proper way to perform Ravel’s La Valse is neither to deny its schmaltzy Straussian figures nor its sarcastic but tragic use of them. Both the Brahms sarabande and Ravel’s tone poem are of their time and retrospective. The older motifs are there for a purpose, not as mere regurgitations of an earlier musical form.

The rendering I’ve made available here at the risk of being pitied for my pianistic ineptness hopefully expresses something of the richness that is in this short piece. Please keep in mind I’m still very much a novice and self-taught. An alternative rendering I also recorded is less flawed but less expressive. This one is played on a 1922 Erard piano — actually a digital recreation of that Erard, recreated not by sampling but on the fly with remarkable software developed by a French company called Pianoteq. It was the sound of the Erard, more astringent than the Steinway on which I played the more correct version, that seemed to lead me into a deeper understanding of the music. The Erard seemed to blend so naturally with the content of the music, I seemed to be able to play the piece for the first time the way I had heard it previously only in my head. Tell me if you think I’ve managed to capture any of that richness in this recording.


January 7, 2014

Great Mahler, Great Tennstedt

Klaus Tennstedt’s is the best Mahler I’ve heard (and great Brahms too), but this live recording of the first symphony in Boston’s Symphony Hall in 1976 Imageexceeds even his studio work. Listen to that cheer at the end! It sounds like a Red Sock just hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Why aren’t more live performances available on CD? I would prefer a live performance even with all the coughs and re-tunings between movements. Performers do their best work in front of live audiences. I heard an unforgettable performance of the Brahms concerto by Mutter and Karajan (on radio) that has never been available for sale on CD as best I have been able to determine. It was stupendous, the best I’ve ever heard her and a brilliant revelation of that concerto as well.

Some people will say you can’t engineer a live recording the way you can a studio performance, but that’s exactly what seems to make them sound better. Tell me if this Tennstedt performance doesn’t sound more like a real orchestra does in a hall and if the instruments don’t sound more like real horns and tympani than do studio recordings. The engineering is better, not worse!Image

If I were in charge of these things, I’d scour the archives for great live performances, and not just by the world-renowned ones, and issue them on CD or, better, Audio DVD or vinyl. What a waste of great artistry, and all in the name of technical perfection.




November 8, 2013

The Composer Kaija Saariaho on Sexism in Classical Music

saariahoKaija Saariaho’s speech at the McGill University

July 3, 2013

Yes, I/You/We Will, Yes Yes We Will YES!*

Am I the only person who sees a similarity between musical climax and human orgasm?

I doubt it. But why have I never heard anyone speak of it, and why has it not come up in the Science Times and other popular venues devoted to the edification of college graduates?

In any case, I’ve given a good deal of notice to what seems more and more an obvious similarity — with some embarrassment in my younger years, I admit, as if it were prurient to think of such things in the realm of art.  Isn’t music supposed to be the purest of the arts, the least related to the nitty-gritty grubby reality of the flesh and other material matters which are so much with us in baser forms like the novel or film (not to be confused with the even baser “movie”).  Music may be romantic, and certainly is sometimes Romantic. But, orgasmic, clearly sexual — and sexual in the most blatant way?

Tchaikovsky’s was the first music that struck me this way, though it seems now not so much orgasm as eternal foreplay, usually of a very intense kind (how very emblematic of Tchaikovsky’s frustrated love life). But all composers engage in the representation of human emotion in musical form. Bach’s climaxes are different from Mahler’s, but they are climaxes nonetheless (my own favorites being in the third and fifth Brandenburg Concertos). Musical climax, like orgasm, like fear and release, like anger and expression, is all about building up tension and then releasing it. There is nothing inherently sexual about it.

Except when there is. And I more than suspect there’s intent at work in some cases, the quintessential example being of course Wagner’s Liebestod, the “love-death” scene from Tristan und Isolde. No great revelation here for me to claim credit for.

But in more recent years I’ve decided there are as well two kinds of orgasmic climaxes in musical composition: male and female. And the Liebestod is clearly an example of the female, which is to say it is attenuated and multiple, as opposed to the slam-bam, thank-you-ma’am climaxes of most other composers who, from their music, I suspect have never been party to a female orgasm, for whatever the reason, or who chose not to appreciate it for what it is (orgasm was not the sort of thing a “lady” experienced in the 19th century).

There is no mistaking Wagner’s long, drawn-out climax in the Liebestod for anything other than an analogue of female orgasm, even though we are to assume, I presume, it’s a climax built for two. I suspect Richard not only appreciated but envied his wife’s ability to experience sexual release in such a …. dare we say “artistic” way, by comparison with the limitations embedded in his own male physiology. If he couldn’t experience that physical experience personally, he could at least duplicate it musically and thus make it accessible to all the rest of us members of the other sex  — of both sexes, actually.

All good music, even the simplest sonatina has a climax or at least a moment of heightened emotional content to which it builds and recedes from or concludes. But sometimes the climax is very subtle and all-but-invisible, if not inaudible. I’m thinking of the few bars in the first movement of Sibelius’s first symphony which, though located toward the end, are the only statement of the theme in the movement, as I listen to it. I have, purely by chance, five versions of that symphony, and it’s remarkable how much difference there is in the way those bars are interpreted — different but subtly so, and yet with as much effect as if the entire symphony were condensed into those few musical phrases (Okko Kamu’s being the stand-alone for me).

Another variation on the short, all-but-missable climax or summing-up of a musical  composition is the two or three phrases toward the end of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto and a similar “statement” toward the end of the second movement of his second piano concerto. It’s as if all of what precedes those bars are an elaborate preparation for the profound resolution contained in them.

These, I suppose, are of the more-is-less school of musical love-making — the brief, gentle touching of lips that can mean more, resonate more deeply and transform more thoroughly than any amount of more substantial but less intense erotic activity, as anyone who remembers their first kiss can attest.

Human experience is of a piece, of course. Everything is like everything else in some way. That music should mimic love-making should be no surprise, anymore than that love-making should mimic art. Creating an appetite and then satisfying it, in all the different ways that can be done, is what we do when we add salt to our food or when we sit down to soak in a hot tub, or open an interesting book after a long day of denying ourselves that pleasure so as to earn our livings — or when we sneeze. Recognizing that the same phenomenon is at work in music helps this very amateur musician not only appreciate a particular piece of music better but also gives insight into what a composer is about, the depths of his or her particular inner life and, in however limited a way, some clues to how I can attempt to express it.

(*An approximation of Molly Bloom’s final words at the conclusion of James Joyce’s Ulysses.)

January 15, 2013

Caruso and Puccini: Tonight, Live!

(If you are looking for my general, non-music blog, go to

The following is an excerpt from “A Musical Night” by Thomas Burke from his book Nights in London (1915). That collection of essays is available at

Burke was a journalist and native Londoner with a fierce affection for the city and everything in it, from the Chinese and Jewish ghettos to the music halls and suburban family life. His collection of essays is a love letter to the town that gives us a sense of being there with him. I find the excerpt below an incomparable depiction of both Caruso and the art of Puccini, told from the perspective of someone without any great formal understanding of music but with a great passion and insight that only its true lovers can know. I hope you agree.

Personally I prefer the sugar and spice of Italian Opera. I know it is an execrable taste, but as I am a most commonplace person I cannot help myself. I have loved it since childhood, when the dull pages of my Violin Tutor were lit by crystalline fragments of Cherubini and Donizetti, and when the house in which I lived was chattering day and night Italianate melody. One of my earliest recollections is of hearing,as a tiny thing in petticoats, the tedious noises of the professional musician, and the E A D G of the fiddle was the accompaniment to all my games. From noon until seven in the evening I played amid the squeak of the fiddle, the chant of the ‘cello, the solemn throb of the double bass, and the querulous wail of flute and piccolo; and always the music was the music of Italy, for these elders worked in operatic orchestras.

So I learned to love it, and especially do I still love the moderns–Leoncavallo, Wolf-Ferrari, Mascagni, Puccini–for it was in “LaBohème” that I heard both Caruso and grand opera for the first time; and whenever I now hear “Che gelida manina,” even badly sung, I always want to sit down and have a good cry. It reminds me of a pale office-boy of fifteen, who had to hoard his pence for a fortnight and wait weary hours at the gallery door of Covent Garden to hear Caruso, Scotti, Melba, and Journet as the Bohemians. What nights! I remember very clearly that first visit. I had heard other singers, English singers, the best of whom are seldom better than the third-rate Italians, but Caruso…. What is he? He is not a singer. He is not a voice. He is a miracle. There will not be another Caruso for two or three hundred Enrico_Caruso_XVyears; perhaps not then. We had been so accustomed to the spurious, manufactured voices of people like de Reszke and Tamagno and Maurel, that when the genuine article was placed before us we hardly recognized it. Here was something lovelier than anything that had yet been heard; yet we must needs stop to carp because it was not quite proper. All traditions were smashed, all laws violated, all rules ignored. Jean de Reszke would strain and strain, until his audience suffered with him, in order to produce an effect which this new singer of the South achieved with his hands in his pockets, as he strolled round the stage.

The Opera in London is really more of a pageant than a musical function. The front of the house frequently claims more attention than the stage. On Caruso and Melba nights it blazes. Tiers and tiers of boxes race round in a semicircle. If you are early, you see them as black gaping mouths. But very soon they are filled. The stalls begin to leap with light, for everybody who is not anybody, but would like to be somebody,drags out everything she possesses in the way of personal adornment,and sticks it on her person, so that all the world may wonder. At each box is a bunch of lights, and, with the arrival of the silks and jewellery, they are whipped to a thousand scintillations.

The blaze of dancing light becomes painful; the house, especially upstairs, is spitefully hot. Then the orchestra begin to tumble in;their gracefully gleaming lights are adjusted, and the monotonous A surges over the house–the fiddles whine it, the golden horns softly blare it, and the wood-wind plays with it.

But now there is a stir, a sudden outburst of clapping. Campanini is up. Slowly the lights dissolve into themselves. There is a subdued rustle as we settle ourselves. A few peremptory _Sh-sh-sh!_ from the ardent galleryites.

Campanini taps. His baton rises … and suddenly the band mumbles those few swift bars that send the curtain rushing up on the garret scene. Only a few bars … yet so marvellous is Puccini’s feeling for atmosphere that with them he has given us all the bleak squalor of his story. You feel a chill at your heart as you hear them, and before the curtain rises you know that it must rise on something miserable and outcast. The stage is in semi-darkness. The garret is low-pitched, with a sloping roof ending abruptly in a window looking over Paris. There is a stove, a table, two chairs, and a bed. Nothing more. Two people are on. One stands at the window, looking, with a light air of challenge, at Paris. Down stage, almost on the footlights, is an easel, at which an artist sits. The artist is Scotti, the baritone, as Marcello. The orchestra shudders with a few chords. The man at the window turns. He is a dumpy little man in black wearing a golden wig. What a figure it is! What a make-up! What a tousled-haired, down-at-heel, out-at-elbows Clerkenwell exile! The yellow wig, the white-out moustache, the broken collar…. But a few more brusque bars are tossed from Campanini’s baton, and the funny little man throws off, cursorily, over his shoulder, a short passage explaining how cold he is. The house thrills. That short passage, throbbing with tears and laughter, has rushed, like a stream of molten gold, to the utmost reaches of the auditorium, and not an ear that has not jumped for joy of it. For he is Rudolfo, the poet; in private life, Enrico Caruso, Knight of the Order of San Giovanni, Member of the Victorian Order, Cavalier of the Order of Santa Maria, and many other things.

As the opera proceeds, so does the marvel grow. You think he can have nothing more to give than he has just given; the next moment he deceives you. Towards the end of the first Act, Melba enters. You hear her voice,fragile and firm as fluted china, before she enters. Then comes the wonderful love-duet–“Che gelida manina” for Caruso and “Mi chiamano Mimi” for Melba. Gold swathed in velvet is his voice. Like all true geniuses, he is prodigal of his powers; he flings his lyrical fury over the house. He gives all, yet somehow conveys that GiacomoPuccinithrilling suggestion of great things in reserve. Again and again he recaptures his first fine careless rapture. His voice dances forth like a little girl on a sunlit road, wayward, captivating, never fatigued, leaping where others stumble, tripping many miles, with fresh laughter and bright quick blood. There never were such warmth and profusion and display. Not only is it a voice of incomparable magnificence: it has that intangible quality that smites you with its own mood: just the something that marks the difference between an artist and a genius. There are those who sniff at him. “No artist,” they say; “look what he sings.” They would like him better if he were not popular; if he concerned himself, not with Puccini and Leoncavallo, but with those pretentiously subtle triflers, Debussy and his followers. Some people can never accept beauty unless it be remote. But true beauty is never remote. The art which demands transcendentalism for its appreciation stamps itself at once as inferior. True art, like love, asks nothing, and gives everything. The simplest people can understand and enjoy Puccini and Caruso and Melba,because the simplest people are artists. And clearly, if beauty cannot speak to us in our own language, and still retain its dignity, it is not beauty at all.

Caruso speaks to us of the little things we know, but he speaks with a lyric ecstasy. Ecstasy is a horrible word; it sounds like something to do with algebra; but it is the one word for this voice. The passion of him has at times almost frightened me. I remember hearing him at the first performance of “Madame Butterfly,” and he hurt us. He worked up the love-duet with Butterfly at the close of the first act in such fashion that our hands were wrung, we were perspiring, and I at least was near to fainting. Such fury, such volume of liquid sound could not go on, we felt. But it did. He carried a terrific crescendo passage as lightly as a school-girl singing a lullaby, and ended on a tremendous note which he sustained for sixty seconds. As the curtain fell we dropped back in our seats, limp, dishevelled, and pale. It was we who were exhausted. Caruso trotted on, bright, alert, smiling, and not the slightest trace of fatigue did he show.

It seems to have been a superb stroke of fortune for us that Caruso should have come along contemporaneously with Puccini. Puccini has never definitely written an opera for his friend; yet, to hear him sing them,you might think that every one had been specially made for him alone. Their temperaments are marvellously matched. Each is Italian and Southern to the bone. Whatever Caruso may be singing, whether it be Mozart or Gounod or Massenet or Weber, he is really singing Italy. Whatever setting Puccini may take for his operas, be it Japan, or Paris,or the American West, his music is never anything but Italian.

And I would not have it otherwise. It may offend some artistic consciences that Butterfly, the Japanese courtesan, should sob out her lament in music which is purely Italian in character and colour; but what a piece of melody it is!

Puccini’s is a still small voice; very pleading, very conscious of itself and of the pathos of our little span of living; but the wistfulness of its appeal is almost heartbreaking. He can never, I suppose, stand among the great composers; dwarfed he must always be against Mozart or Weber, or even Verdi. But he has done what all wise men must do: he has discovered the one thing he can perform well, and he is performing it very well indeed. His genius is slim and miniature, but he handles it as an artist. There is no man living who can achieve such effects with so slender material. There is no man living who can so give you, in a few bars, the soul of the little street-girl; no man living who can so give you flavour of a mood, or make you smell so sharply the atmosphere of a public street, a garret, a ballroom, or a prairie. And he always succeeds because he is always sincere. A bigger man might put his tongue in his cheek and sit down to produce something like “La Bohème,” and fail miserably, simply because he didn’t mean it.

When Puccini has something to say, though it may be nothing profound or illuminating, he says it; and he can say the trite thing more freshly,with more delicacy, and in more haunting tones, than any other musician.His vocabulary is as marvellous as his facility in orchestration and in the development of a theme. He gets himself into tangles from which there seems no possible escape, only to extricate himself with the airiest of touches. Never does his fertility of melodic invention fail him. He is as prodigal in this respect as Caruso in his moments. Where others achieve a beautiful phrase, and rest on it, Puccini never idles; he has others and others, and he crowds them upon you until the ear is surfeited with sweetness, and you can but sit and marvel.

There it is. Sniff at it as you will, it is a great art that captures you against your reason, and when Puccini and Caruso join forces, they can shake the soul out of the most rabid of musical purists. What they do to commonplace people like myself is untellable. I have tried to hint at it in these few remarks, but really I have told you nothing …nothing.

October 16, 2012

Sexism with strings attached

Interesting article in the Independent.

August 13, 2012

(If you are looking for my general, non-music blog, go to

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