My Pop Life #62 : 4th Symphony (#3 : Ruhevoll) – Gustav Mahler played by Chicago Symphony conducted by Sir Georg Solti with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa

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4th Symphony (#3 : Ruhevoll)  –   Gustav Mahler

I know next to nothing about classical music, but I’ve been steadily educating myself for the last 30 or so years in a hit-and-miss fashion.   I treat it like any other form of music – in other words, I either like it, or I don’t.   I’ll always give it a chance though.   This piece was a very early discovery for me, at some point in my mid-twenties I bought a cassette of Mahler’s 4th symphony – it has a 4th movement song and the singer was Dame Kiri Te Kanawa whom I found both attractive and recognisable.  Call me shallow, but decisions are formed from such primal simplicities.

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Furthermore, the conductor was Georg Solti whom I had also heard of, and have since discovered to be one of the great dependable elements, especially when purchasing Wagner.   I’m sure he’ll forgive me if I don’t call him Sir Georg.    In fact there are better versions, but it’s all taste so go and hunt down your own.   There are three different conductors below this piece.   So there I was aged twenty-something, with a small handful of classical LPs and an even tinier selection of cassettes – useful for car journeys of course in those days.   I’m particularly fond of long car journeys – if I’m driving especially.   And this cassette got plenty of plays because it is a very sweet-sounding and romantic piece of work.  My favourite part is the 3rd movement – so yearning and pleading and tragic that I used it on my first ever showreel – an actor’s ‘greatest hits’ – shouldn’t be too long, in and impress them and out.  If you can.

I had only played one lead part by then (I have permanent supportyitis) which was a Channel 4 drama called Say Hello To The Real Dr Snide.  I played an alcoholic who thought he turned into a black cat when he was drunk.  My wife was the incomparable Celia Imrie and my therapist the equally brilliant Linda Bassett.  Lucky me.  Directing was the young Peter Cattaneo who would go on to direct The Full Monty, go to Hollywood, come back and the last time I met him he was directing Rev, a BBC series about a vicar.  Such is showbiz.   Ups and downs, swings and roundabouts, ripples, waves and all that.  And there we were in London 1990 filming this drama, and I enjoyed most of it and did all right I thought.   Mostly.   Celia Imrie was a total delight.   Linda Bassett was wonderful.   Not sure how great I was though, in retrospect.    I distinctly remember one scene where I was lying against a wall in some derelict area, drinking from a whisky bottle and talking to myself, in denial, in crisis.   Looking back, I really didn’t do the scene that well.   I didn’t melt – I couldn’t melt – as Paul Schrader would say years later about de Niro (he’s wrong by the way {Awakenings?} but it was interesting that he would say that about such a great actor in front of other actors).   I was too tightly wound to be able to collapse my personality on camera and the scene ends up being too tight and forced.   I watched it while making the showreel.   I may have even included it, I can’t actually remember, but if I did I would have plastered Mahler 4 all over it to try and make it more acceptable hahaha.  The music alone makes me melt these days.   Music can do this to me without warning, tears in the eyes.   When I was young – no, I liked it, but no tears.  I have no trouble melting now that I’m older and more vulnerable than I ever was when I was a young man : “the survivor”.   Now that I’ve apparently survived, I am unpeeling gently, unwinding, slowly, and letting the world in.   I was screwed up tight because I’ve always been terrified of having a nervous breakdown – due to my Mum’s particular affliction, whatever label is currently in vogue for her vulnerability.   So I compacted myself inside when I was young, and kept it there.  No ambush could unlock it.  Weird now I think about it that I could even have a career as an actor.  My own feelings were hardly available to me.  I was forced to ACT.   And sometimes I just didn’t get there.  I can say that now, looking back.  I have got better since then, but I still have limitations.  (Everyone does).

And sometimes if you put great music under a limitation, people don’t notice.

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Gustav Mahler was a jewish Bohemian by birth who converted to Catholicism to secure the directorship of the Vienna Hofoper (now State Opera) due to the anti-semitism of the era.   I don’t believe he was religious at all in fact, but spent his life having to deal with anti-semitism.   He conducted for the early part of his life, famously Wagner, and wrote in the summer holidays.   The 4th Symphony was completed in 1900, thus Mahler’s work bestrides both the Romantic era and the modern.  I’m not going to discuss Der Knaben Wunderhorn, a series of German folk poems which inspired the first 4 symphonies because I’m well out of my depth there.   Don’t panic.   I like all of his symphonies now that I’ve heard them all.   I’ve watched my father singing with Huddersfield Choral in the 8th Symphony, performed with up to one thousand voices (Symphony of a Thousand);  the 2nd Symphony (Resurrection) is powerful and exciting;  the 5th is famous for its use in the film Death In Venice, and a vocal symphony (8 and a half?) called Das Lied Von Der Erde (Song Of The Earth) is probably my favourite work.  This – the 4th – was my first, and is the most familiar to me.  The yearning, tragic 3rd movement is utterly fantastic and is below this piece of writing if you have a spare twenty minutes.  It is astoundingly beautiful.

Kiri Te Kanawa sings the 4th movement of the 4th Symphony

the entire 4th symphony conducted by Claudio Abbado

the romantic doomed magnificent 3rd movement of the 4th symphony (George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra) 

My Pop Life #43 : Finlandia – Jean Sibelius

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Finlandia   –   Jean Sibelius

1964.   We are in our new house.   Perched above the village road behind a thick privet hedge, but we can see the farm opposite, the farmhouse, the barns, the fields beyond.   We can smell the farm opposite.   There’s a sloping narrow path up from the road to our gate.   A large garden.   Two trees.  A large vegetable garden which my dad dug and dug, and where we buried Caesar the large tabby cat I’d owned since I was 1 year old.  He was wrapped in a pillowcase.   My dad dug his grave too.    A back lawn, with another privet hedge, and a gate leading out onto an endless sheep field.  Beyond that, the Manor House.   Sherrington Manor.  They owned our house.    They owned most of the village.   Selmeston.   East Sussex.   The Lewes-Eastbourne A27 at one end, the Lewes-Eastbourne train level-crossing at the other.  One mile long.  About 200 people I calculated one day, including the vicar, the farmer, the Catchloves, the Whitakers, the Criddles, the Bristows, the Colemans, Miss Lamb at the village schoolhouse, Gilda who looked after Paul when things went wrong, Geraldine next door who was Italian and mentioned shopping in “Marks Expensive”, the Spillers at the top of the road on the other side of the A27 and whose daughter Valerie Spiller was my first crush aged about nine.  They were brown-coloured maybe Indian but nobody ever mentioned it.  I hugged my pillow imagining it was her.  Funny feeling in my tummy.  At least I thought it was my tummy.

I would walk to school every day – the village school up near the main road, the pub the Barley Mow, the only shop, the mini-petrol station.   Across the road from the school was the cricket pitch, an acre they said, so you could see what an acre looked like.  It was big.   Sometimes we’d have our breaktime in the cricket field and Midge Millward whose mum was the school cook would tell dirty jokes to us younger ones.  Probably Rastus & Liza.  “I’m fucking dis custard” etc.   I laughed dutifully because of the word “fuck”without knowing what was going on.  Steve ‘Eggy’ Burton and his younger brother Chrissy Burton, Stephen Criddle, David Bristow, Graham Sutton the postman’s son, Mick Spiller and me and my brother Paul.  There were 30 kids in the village school, aged between 5 and 11.   Some of them came from Berwick, or Firle, Chalvington or Alciston.

At home we had a black and white TV which my dad didn’t really approve of, but the kids (Paul and I) were growing and presumably becoming a handful.   Andrew arrived in May after a long labour and a fight with the nurse over gas and air.   Mum would later claim that she had too much.    I remember fights over the TV between Mum and Dad.   I remember him coming into ‘the front room’ where the TV was put (so that it wasn’t in the family room ?!), and switching it off, and Paul, Mum and I skulking out in disgruntlement.   But he never switched off the record player.   Or should I say “the gramaphone”.

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We had a wind-up turntable on a box with a speaker which would fold up and down inside the lid, a corner compartment for needles – about 1/2 inch long – big buggers.   It was my first experience with handling music – or possibly my second because I cannot discount picking up a recorder at the village school and being taught the simple fingering, following the dots on ‘Men Of Harlech’.   But there is a huge difference between playing music and being a disc jockey as any fule kno.   The records were in the lid, which I think means that it was a portable gramaphone, but I may have misremembered that.   They were heavy shellac 78rpm discs and there were three of them.   Three.   One was Chicken Licken.  One I cannot remember.  And one was Finlandia.

I always connect Finlandia with my father.  I’m sure it was his record.  I don’t know where he bought it, or how long he’d had it, or whether it came with the gramaphone, or phonograph.  Maybe there were other 78s in the house, but I don’t remember them.  I remember three.   The unknown one may come back via my dad or my brothers or my mother, all still happily alive and one day perhaps to read this account.   But for now we’ll focus on Finlandia.  Oh – but first, of course, Chicken Licken.

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The story is of a chicken who has an acorn fall on his head.  He thinks the sky is falling in and runs through the village yelling at everyone that the sky is falling.   Henny Penny ?  Is that a character?  I can’t remember the rest but we played this story – on a 78rpm record – over and over again, winding the turntable, changing the needle for no good reason, playing it fast in squeaky voices, playing it slow in underwater voices.

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Finlandia was a different matter altogether.  It was a short classical tone poem, though aged six, seven it was just noise to me, music, horns, violins.  No words.  It was written in 1899 by Jean Sibelius and was part of the Finnish nationalist resistance surge against Russia during that period.  The opening is very energised and expressive with full horn stabs and sudden silences.  Then the timpanis start to thunder and roll.  It is hugely dramatic, then the violins start to swirl and sweep and we get another surge of excitement and a part of a melody.  Again all is excitement and energy, passion and pride.   After about 4 minutes there’s a moment of pause and we are hearing a different tempo, a different hopeful moment, this is how the piece resolves, known as the Finlandia Hymn.  It’s not quite the Finnish National Anthem, but it’s one of their main tunes.  It will always remind me of my father, whom I have to acknowledge as a profound influence on my life, both musical and otherwise.   When I think of him now in 1964 I see him as a young man with glasses and a receding hairline, fresh from Cambridge and moving his young family from Portsmouth, where he grew up, to East Sussex, where I grew up.   He was the only boy in a family of five, all sisters older than him.  His dad was a batman in the Royal Navy, the lowest rank, and they lived in a small terraced house in Fratton quite near the football ground.  My dad – John – was bright and passed the eleven plus, winning a scholarship to Portsmouth Grammar.  Again, although a working-class kid, he took the Cambridge entrance exam and passed, becoming one of the tiny intake of worker’s kids in Downing College 1955.   I understand that he hated his first year, or maybe just missed my mum, whom he’d started walking out with as a teenager (after briefly dating her sister Valerie).   At any rate that summer he was married to Heather my mum and they went back to Cambridge together for his 2nd year.   I think my Mum hated it there even more than he ever could.  My dad and his friends talked of D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot and didn’t really include her in the conversation.  I was born in Cambridge in June 1957.

When I think of my parents now I think of them as young people and marvel.   I don’t judge them, I just see them in their lives, making decisions, trying to do the best they can.  I’ve spent so much of my lifetime in recrimination, trying to understand what went wrong, why my family was dysfunctional, who, in particular, was to blame, to unload all the pain onto.  Well it turns out that every family is dysfunctional, and some far far more so than mine.   I’ve put down my cross, the one I carried all those years, Lay Down Burden.   Now I’m just trying to remember everything and write it down before it’s my turn to lay down.    Not to say that there hasn’t been pain, upset, wrenching sadness and loneliness.   But just to say that I’m just another human being in the end.

This is a wonderful recording of Finlandia conducted by Leonard Bernstein appropriately enough in 1965.

My Pop Life #24 : Requiem (Sanctus) – Gabriel Fauré

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Requiem  (Sanctus)  –   Gabriel Fauré

I stopped going to Sunday school when I was 11, after I’d passed the eleven-plus and was readying myself for the bus journey to Lewes Grammar from my tiny Selmeston village home.   Now I had the perfect excuse to cut that out of my schedule.   “Homework”.  The stories were all over-familiar and draped in languid irreproachable moral conclusions, I was tired of their parables and lessons, my brain knew there was something else out there.   I was already an atheist at 11 years old.   No offence to any religious readers of course – my wife is a practicing Catholic.   But I’m still an atheist.   I remember my dad describing himself around this time as an agnostic.   Sounded cool.   But it meant “don’t know”.   Not sure.   I wasn’t an agnostic.   I was sure that God, as taught me in Sunday school and other places, Didn’t Exist.   And I’m still sure about that, which is why I define myself as an atheist.   My wife, in contrast, has faith.   Fair enough.

I was brought up as a Christian.   Bible stories.   Moses.   Adam and Eve.   Abraham.  Those three in particular I find frankly laughable now.   Less than worthless.   Dangerous nonsense.   The New Testament was always different.   It had revolutionary zeal, disobedience, miracles, betrayal, a hero who died and was reborn.  I treat this is a true story which has been shaped by men.   Since growing up I’ve discovered the Gnostic Gospels with more lines for Mary Magdalene and other women, and come to see St Paul as a problematic figure who rewrote sections of the Bible and divided men by nationality.

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I’ve studied all the main religions over time with the help of Joseph Campbell and his books Hero With A Thousand Faces, The Power Of Myth  and other examinations of comparative religion – they are brilliant works of scholarship and imagination, showing how each culture creates a religious story out of the same basic elements, a tale with choices, wonderful happenings, a hero’s journey, a chosen people and death.  Most religious books also have an “end times” climax right at the end = the Christian one is called Revelations.   It describes the the end of the world   “…people will be gambling, selling and buying each other, cheating, lying and stealing, killing and despoiling the earth.  Then the end will come.”   This is clever because of course it describes the earth exactly as we know it, thus leading to the inevitable conclusion – we’re doomed, we may as well pray for our souls.   It has worked for centuries.   Interesting to note that since the rise of science and in particular Darwin over 150 years ago, other myths have taken over the “end times” scenario – notably ourselves – homosapiens – in the form of war, climaxing in the atom bomb which loomed over my childhood rather like Revelations must have loomed over my ancestors.   Since 1989 and the dismantling of the Soviet Union we have grown to fear first ‘the greenhouse effect’ and now ‘climate change’.   The “We’re Doomed” lobby will always have a scenario, and an audience.

All of which is to say that Sunday for me, as an atheist, is still special.   It used to be a vacant empty day – no shops, no work, a day for “family” and so on & so forth.  But since capitalism needs to survive and we all need to keep buying more shit to keep the charade going, Sunday became just another shopping day, and large temples to spending grew up on our ring roads where people flocked on Sunday to worship their Stuff, to buy it and hoard it.   But for me Sunday morning is for classical music.

I can’t remember when this started but as far away as university I’ve put on a classical record first thing on a Sunday morning.     The record won’t necessarily be religious, although many of my favourite classical pieces are.   Well the church was the main source of income for hundreds of years, so most of Bach, Vivaldi,  Haydn and lots of early music emanate from God and his works.  I’ve never had a problem with this.  Why would I ??   I think the finest piece of music ever written is probably the St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach.   If you don’t know it, you’re in for a treat, it’s immense, pure, and beautiful.  If you know it, you know exactly what I mean.

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I’ve been listening to Fauré’s Requiem since the 80s – I couldn’t put a date on it, or a reason why I bought it, or who introduced me to it, or any interesting biographical moments or details.   But if I had a magic counter on my musical choices (which I used to fantasise about as a teenager – my own pop charts!) then this piece of music would be in the top 3 Sunday morning selections, I’m very sure about that.    It’s really short, and absolutely stunning, especially, for me,  the Sanctus.   I have been known to chop it back, rewind selector, the same short piece which is just so mysterious and perfect that I can scarcely believe it.   Like that moment in “If…” the Lindsay Anderson film where Malcolm McDowell is listening to Peter Kamau’s African Sanctus and continually lifts the needle back to the haunting infinite opening chords.

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Gabriel Fauré was a 19th century French impressionist composer (my definition) – the Requiem dates from 1890, was revised and finished in 1900 and is composed of seven short pieces (the Sanctus is 3 minutes long).   It’s largely a vocal piece and most of the great singers have tackled it’s refined and subtle beauty.   I don’t have a particular favourite version, but I’m listening to it soothe me (baby) right now.     Long live Sunday mornings.