My Pop Life #134 : ‘The Emporer’ – Haydn

String Quartet #62 in C op 76 ‘The Emporer’  –   Joseph Haydn

I reckon Haydn is a bit under-rated.  You never hear much about Haydn do you?  Not like you hear about Mozart or Beethoven, his contemporaries and friends.  Or Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky.  Bach.  Elgar, Prokofiev and Ravel.  Haydn is like – well I was going to say obscure but that would be absurd.   He feels less celebrated.   Probably my hallucination.  He wrote 106 symphonies, yes that is correct, 106  symphonies between 1759 and 1795 which works out to about 3 per year : one of his nicknames is “the father of the symphony“.   He also wrote 68 string quartets over this period, giving him a 2nd nickname “the father of the string quartet“.   The mother of these things is not revealed.   His work tends towards the optimistic and positive, and the pieces develop their themes quickly : his symphonies are short (each movement between 4 and 9 minutes) and easy to listen to.   Largely written for royalty and for dancing, he was in many ways the pop lord of his day.

Pop Lord Haydn c 1770

He was tremendously popular in England and lived in London on two separate and happy occasions between 1791-95 while still working on the continent, sometimes with a certain Ludwig Van Beethoven as his pupil.   Towards the end of his prolific life he sat down and composed three longer and more serious works – all oratorios, called The Creation, The Seasons and The Seven Last Words Of Christ.  These influenced Beethoven to levels of genius.

I love Haydn.  They are works that make you feel happy.  There is a level of complexity in the music that your brain can grasp immediately.  Very pleasing.   They are also “Tunes”, as my friend Luke Cresswell once described a Bach piece.   I think the first Haydn CD I bought was on the Naxos label and had the 85th, the 92nd and the 103rd Symphonies on there.   I had no idea what I was buying, but that’s often how I buy music, as a kind of lucky dip.  It was around 1996, I’d just moved to Brighton, and perhaps I’d just finished A Respectable Trade which was set in Haydn’s era and had come across the name there.   I wrote a little about that TV show, which was about British slavery and in which I played a doctor opposite my wife who played a slave, in My Pop Life #122.  Life is long indeed.  I liked my Haydn CD very much and for a while listened to nothing but.

As I recall I quickly went out and bought another one which had the 45th, 94th and 101st Symphonies on it.  I can report that it was also most excellent.   If you are reading this and have never knowingly listened to Josef Haydn then I would advise you first not to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount available.  There’s a lot of Billie Holiday out there too, and Duke Ellington.  But just dive in.  It’s refreshing and wonderful stuff.

In September 2005 I was cast in a Hollywood film adaptation of Christopher Paolini‘s book Eragon, written when he was 15 years old.   Dragon with an E.  It starred Ed Speleers as the dragon-tamer, Jeremy Irons, Djimon Hounsou, John Malkovitch, Sienna Guillory and Chris Egan and others and we were all flown out to Budapest in Hungary in early October.    I’d been there before of course, first in 1975 (see My Pop Life #70), then again in 2000 on Last Run, a film with Ornella MutiJurgen Prochnow and Armand Assante.  Once again, Budapest had changed quite a lot.  Mafia types hung around the centre after dark.  There were no more cimbalom players gracing the quaint restaurants. Now in 2005, things seemed a little harsher.  Still the beautiful Blue Danube (copyright Johann Strauss) flowed through the centre.  One of the oldest subway systems in the world.  We were fitted for our costumes and my head was shaved, then we shot for a couple of days at the studio where I met scottish actor Gary Lewis for the first time and an old friend from Benin Djimon Hounsou again.  We had worked together on Spielberg’s film Amistad in 1996 in Newport, Rhode Island, where he’d played the slave leader Cinque and I was a Lieutenant in the US Navy.

Me with Djimon Hounsou in the Budapest studio

Lots of imaginary dragons to act with, one giant one.  Shortly thereafter I am driven for a few hours down the road to a small settlement called Celldömölk in the west of the Hungarian countryside.  This will be where the rest of the film is shot, in an amazing extinct volcanic crater.

The design of the set in this green calderon is stunning.  I am playing bald twins, one of whom is evil.  It is quite good fun.  But I have made no close buddy here, and on days off I have to amuse myself.  I decide to hire a car and drive around.  They don’t let me, but give me a driver and a car instead.  One day we drive north to Sopron a beautiful town near the Austrian/Slovakian border.  Indeed it is only a few miles from both Vienna and Bratislava.

Sopron, western Hungary

My driver and I took lunch together and drove into the countryside toward the huge lake.  We spotted a sign for Esterháza and something clicked in my mind.  We went to find it.  It was a beautiful clear autumn day, blue sky, warm.

Esterháza, Hungary

There it was, a stunning golden palace set in formal gardens.  We walked around the grounds, went inside and found a little information.  Yes, this was the home of the Austro-Hungarian, (formerly Habsburg) Esterházy family, principal patrons of Josef Haydn who was their Kapellmeister from 1761 until his death.  He was permitted to travel to England for the 1790s when Prince Anton’s reign did without the service of musicians, trying to save money.  But this was where he worked and lived and produced all of his key works, almost in total isolation from the rest of Europe and the other composers.  It was a good find.

After his reportedly joyous time in London and Oxford where Haydn was feted and adored, he returned to Esterháza and composed his final works including the late String Quartets and the hymn Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser which was inspired by the British national anthem God Save The King – an anonymously composed tune which is frankly a dirge.  Nevertheless Haydn wanted Austria/Hungary (as it was then) to have its own patriotic anthem so he composed it as a birthday gift for the Emporer Francis II.   It premiered in 1797 and also appeared in String Quartet #62 – the 2nd Movement, ever since known as ‘The Emporer’.    It will be immediately apparent to listeners that the entirely memorable and beautiful tune lives on to this day as the Deutschlandlied or the German national anthem.   Haydn didn’t write the words but I’ll note in passing that “Deutchsland Deutschsland über alles“, the opening line, is often misrepresented as a nazi slogan when it actually refers to national unity.  Germany didn’t exist in 1797 and the small states and principalities the lyrics appealed to were only unified in 1871.   

I was brought up hating Germans.  My parents were evacuated during World War Two and Paul and I played on bomb debris sites in Portsmouth in the early 60s.  As a child playing bang bang war games ‘The Germans’ were always the enemy.  Six months after completing Eragon I was on my way to Germany with my wife Jenny in a Citroen draped in the St George’s Cross.  Oh the clashing ironies.  I believe St George was Macedonian.  Popular in Bulgaria too.  Haha.  Nationalism is of course the last refuge of a scoundrel, but football will do that.   I’m not a fan of National Anthems either but some of them are just great tunes, just like some flags are great designs….

The 2006 World Cup that summer was one of the best we have been to – brilliantly organised yes, but also charming, funny, gentle, relaxed, modern and fun.  Germany had left the past behind long before the rest of us.

Shortly after our drive from Hamburg to Nürnberg, Bad Kreuznach to Dortmund I received a phone call from Hollywood from the producer of Eragon.  “I’m sorry Ralph” he said, “But we’ve cut the Twins from the film, they came in too late for any more new characters and we needed to get to the fighting.  Nothing personal – you were great, and thanks, but apologies”.

“Thanks for letting me know,”  I said.  “You didn’t have to do that”.

When the film was released in December 2006 it was one of the worst-reviewed films of that year.  I wasn’t in it at all.

I still got paid, and I still get royalties.

Mozart and Beethoven both loved Josef Haydn.

So do I.

*

the performance below is by The Lindsay Quartet who tend to be the people we look for when purchasing string quartets, particularly by Haydn or Beethoven.   This is the 2nd movement only – seek out the rest.

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My Pop Life #94 : Overture to Tannhäuser – Richard Wagner

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 Overture to Tannhäuser    –   Richard Wagner

Perhaps it was January 1974.    This was when Major Horst Mohn of the German SS, memorably played by Anthony Valentine, arrived in Colditz Castle at the beginning of series 2 of the BBCtv WW2 drama Colditz, and had a showdown scene with the Kommandant, the more sympathetic German officer in charge of the POW camp, played brilliantly by Bernard Hepton.

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Bernard Hepton – the Kommandant – listens to Wagner

Mohn was sent down from Hitler’s inner circle, wounded in action, to Colditz.  Things were going to get a little tougher for those plucky POWs, and for The Kommandant himself !

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Anthony Valentine and Hans Meyer in spooky moving picture from Coldtiz

But to be honest, I can’t really remember the trigger scene.  What I can remember is that my Mum wrote to the BBC and asked them – what was the music playing behind that scene ?  If indeed that was the scene.  And bless them – they replied :  it was the Overture to Wagner’s Opera Tannhäuser.   She went out to Eastbourne on the next shopping Saturday (record-buying day) and found an LP with the music.  “Here’s that music” she triumphantly announced, “from Colditz.  It’s Tannhowzer!”

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Those plucky POWS included Robert Wagner (a relation?) and David MacCullum

Had we even heard of Richard Wagner?   Well we had now.   The LP became an institution in our house.   We lived in Hailsham East Sussex in 1974 , and we had very few LPs.  Loads of singles – on labels like Deram, RAK, Tamla Motown, A&M, Parlaphone, Island, RCA, Track, Regal Zonophone, UA, Decca, Pye, MAM, Capitol, Chrysalis and others, but LPs – let me think – we had the soundtracks to Oliver! and The Sound Of Music, The Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats, a Seekers LP called Morningtown Ride, Andy Williams,  I had a bunch of stuff upstairs by then : Imagine, Roxy Music, Aladdin Sane, Band On The Run, These Foolish Things and Abbey Road.   Mum must’ve had some others, but not many.   So the arrival of a new LP  was a moment.   We played it a lot.   I know this music backwards, I know all the violin parts, all the horn parts, I know when it trembles, when it swells, when it swoons, when it thunders, when the percussion come in, when it fades – it is undoubtedly the piece of classical music I know best.

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The legendary Tannhäuser LP cover

I knew nothing about Wagner in 1974, I was 16 and didn’t know much about anything.  We all loved Colditz though and watched it together, and Mum writing to the BBC didn’t seem weird at all.  Looking back, I’ve got to say that she had a very good ear, picking up on the background music to a scene in a BBC drama.  Impressive.   And suddenly we had this LP in the house.  It’s a massively powerful piece of music, rich and dark and beautiful.  We none of us knew that it was the Overture to an opera.  I’ve still never heard the opera.  Not sure I want to really.  Since 1974 I’ve collected a fair bit of Wagner as he is one of my favourite composers – up to a point.

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 The Ring Cycle – four operas all telling a long story about Wotan, Seigfried, The Rhine Maidens and some ring or other – is one of the pinnacles of human artistic endeavour, but the problem is, I can’t really take the singing.  I’ve seen one of the Ring operas – Götterdämmerung at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden with Bernard Haitink conducting – one of the great interpreters of Wagner.   I recognised much of the music because I have had a double LP (and CD) of Ring music for years – but there’s no singing at all on that LP, just the overtures and preludes.   Just the music !!!  Fantastic.  The singing is so dull and tedious.   My brother Andrew has been to see the entire Ring Cycle three times already, I couldn’t sit through it.  Or could I?  It’s almost worth it for the music which is outstanding.  But No, give me the overtures anytime : Lohengrin, Parsifal, The Flying Dutchman, Tristan & Isolde, The Master-Singers of Nuremburg and the Ring – Rheingold, The Valkries, Seigfried and Götterdammerung.  It’s 20 pieces of music in all.  About two from each.  And that’s all you need from Wagner.  Sorry purists.  But having said that – each piece is a magical journey into sound, music that opens you up and tears you down, music that rolls and rides and lifts and inspires.  Fantastic stuff.

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On the B-side of Tannhäuser were two shorter pieces : Seigfried’s Rhine Journey and The Magic Fire Music, both from The Ring Cycle.  They hardly got played at, but now and again they got an airing.  No, Tannhäuser was the one.  The umlaut (two dots) above the ‘a’ changes the pronunciation in a very efficient and clear German way – Tann Howzer becomes Tann Hoyzer  (see My Pop Life 78).   Pointless for me to describe the music.   I know little about the opera only that it is a struggle between sacred and profane love and there is a Venusberg section which involved the goddess herself – in fact Botticelli’s representation of Venus (on the half shell as Kurt Vonnegut would say) was on the cover of our LP.   It’s very pop classical, big obvious shapes, repeated phrases, completely dramatic and very melodic indeed – this is music with Tunes in.   It also ripples in a particular way that appealed to later composers such as Claude Debussy (see My Pop Life 87).   The rippling is fantastically effective in the Rhine music of The Ring operas, and in particular the opening of Das Rheingeld – a single Eb (E flat) chord which is slowly developed and teased out in a brilliantly simple yet effective musical impression of water.  This piece of music is used by director Terrence Malick for the start of his film The New Age when the europeans ships first drop anchor off the Virginia shore in 1504.

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But here’s one interesting thing about classical music, pop fans.  It is written down, with a few guidelines about tempo written above the dots.  In Italian.  All music instructions are written in Italian, because it was during the Renaissance when written music began to be reproduced and thus instructions were key to how it would be performed.  In fact many musical terms are Italian : opera, concerto, oratorio, soprano, alto, contralto, allegro, andante, adagio etc etc.    Classical scholars reading – please advise me if I’m wrong here – but Richard Wagner wrote andante maestoso above the opening of Tannhäuser – a stately walk.  Now – one woman’s stately walk is another man’s wandering stroll – or in other words it is hugely open to interpretation.  This is what conductors are paid for, to read the Italian words on the top of the dots.  So skimming though all the versions of this Overture on Youtube one finds ‘long versions’ – slower tempo, very stately – and shorter versions – pick up your feet a bit, violins.   Conductor Daniel Barenboim gets through it in 14 minutes 37 seconds while John Barbirolli conducting the Hallé stretches it out to 25 minutes.  I find this fascinating, this huge difference in style on one piece of music.  It’s the same number of notes after all.    In my experience, the piece you hear first and get to love – with any classical music – is the tempo that you prefer.  I wonder if Wagner is harder to play at a slow tempo, harder to get it right?   At any rate – the Charles Munch Boston Symphony Orchestra LP we owned clocked in at 21.12 and I just listened to it again, it’s perfect.   If you’re just starting on Wagner though, I’d recommend two conductors who get the stately walk thing brilliantly – Herbert Von Karajan and Bernard Haitink.  There is a lot of emotion in their approach, which I think is right.

Wagner completed the writing of Tannhäuser in 1845.   The Paris opening was infamously interrupted by The Jockey Club for 15 minutes at a time amid chaotic scenes and Wagner withdrew the opera after three performances and never really established himself in France as a result.  By all accounts he was an anti-semite, a misogynist and a bully, but as with our dear Kanye West and Michael Jackson I do believe that we have to listen to the music rather than read the tabloids.  The music is magnificent, the man less so.    It’s an age-old argument, but my position is simple :  I don’t need to approve of Wagner to like his music.   Another faux-objection to Wagner is the well-known fact that he was one of Hitler’s favourite composers which the BBC clearly played on when including his music in Colditz.  But as someone said on Twitter the other day, Hitler liked dogs too.  What of it?

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So I am once again grateful to my mother Heather for opening my ears to music.  Her ears are always open to tunes in the air, on the radio, behind the scenes.    I’ve definitely inherited this from her.   I could have gone on to study music if my teachers at Lewes Priory weren’t so incredibly dead.   But I am where I am.   Music is freely available to us all whatever our profession, and it remains the delight of my life.  This particular piece of music just makes me feel good.  I don’t really need any further recommendation than that.

My Pop Life #87 : Prélude a l’àprés-midi d’un faune – Claude Debussy

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Prélude a l’àprès-midi d’un faune   –   Claude Debussy

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There used to be two working piers in Brighton.  The Palace Pier, which still stands and contains the Victorian helter skelter and a pub ‘Horatios’, and the West Pier where I saw my first gig (The Barron Knights – see My Pop Life #63) and which was closed in 1975 due to high maintenance costs.  Built and designed by Eugenius Birch in 1866 it was Grade 2 listed despite slowly rotting away, and in the late 1990s a little momentum gathered to apply for English Heritage and Lottery money for a full restoration.  The owners of the Palace Pier, the Ignoble Organisation (sic) were not happy at all, scenting competition.  In 2003 not one but TWO fires occurred on the West Pier’s rotten structure, home only to bird’s roosts and the odd pop video, and it burnt to a shell.

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It felt like the entire population of the town was on the beach that morning to watch it burn away.  Earlier, a speedboat was spotted leaving the scene of the crime, and in my view the Latin phrase ‘cui bono‘ is the appropriate pointer to who was ultimately responsible.  After the fires English Heritage deemed it unfit for restoration, and it was partly demolished to make way for the i360 which may also be a cause of competition for The Palace Pier, (unnecessarily re-named Brighton Pier for similar ugly reasons).

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But before the fires, Andy Baybutt and I used to enjoy sitting on the stones and watching the starlings wheel and spin at sunset every night in a glorious and mysterious ballet before roosting in their thousands beneath the structure.  We decided – in a moment of stoned genius naturally – to film this local safari and so for twelve almost consecutive evenings in 2000 we shot the birds wheeling and falling through the air on their singular and collective missions with two mini-DV cams.  The lighting was hugely different each night.  We asked and received permission to film the spectacular event on the pier itself from Rachel at the West Pier Trust, and walked down the rickety iron walkway through the derelict ballroom to the theatre at the end, shooting through broken glass at the starlings flying in their thousands past the decay.

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We’d already shot a pop video for The Crocketts on the West Pier with local mate and actor Mark Williams for a song called “Host” which you can find on YouTube – we also shot on the Palace Pier for that video…so the pier filming wasn’t unique, but the idea of filming nature was.   There’s a mini-murmuration in the “Host” video, but now we were after the full thing.  {Murmuration is the collective noun for a group of starlings}.  They gather just before dusk and start flying in random but stunning formations over and around the pier, splitting, soaring, swooping, changing direction and shape like a shoal of fish or a galaxy exploding, atomic particles under a microscope;  it really is quite mesmerising (whether you’re stoned or not).

One day before shooting we sat there watching it with various songs in the headphones wondering what would work.  As soon as Claude Debussy‘s flute line came lilting through my ears I knew it was right – and once the orchestra starts to play, in the same tempo as the birds are flying, the music really found its purpose.

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Claude Debussy

Written in 1894 and inspired by a poem by Mallarmé, this impressionistic piece of music – Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun in English – is often cited as the start of modern music in that it never concludes or resolves itself.   The poet was unhappy about someone writing music to his poem – until he heard it.  Claude Debussy himself spent time in East Sussex and wrote another impressionistic masterpiece “La Mer” (the sea) in Eastbourne in 1905.

Featured imageDebussy was a hugely influential composer, particularly on Ravel, Gershwin, Delius, and Stravinsky among the classical composers, and Ellington, Miles Davis, Monk and John Williams among the jazz and film composers.    Prélude a l’àprès-midi d’un faune was danced as a ballet in fact in 1924 by the great Nijinsky and caused much furore when he appeared to masturbate as part of the production – despite this being one of the themes of the piece.  In the original poem a satyr or puck-like figure follows some nymphs one summer’s afternoon, becoming aroused, but cannot catch them and have his wicked way so instead falls asleep in the afternoon sun.  It is a beautiful piece of music and immediately accessible, even with its key changes and tempo adjustments, the flute keeps reappearing and serenading us into bliss.  When matched with the starling’s ballet some serendipitous magic appears to be at work – surely they can hear it?

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As to why the starlings fly in this way – we do not know.   I have researched it a great deal – they are my favourite birds – and theories abound.  They’re making a defensive formation against peregrine falcons.  They’re enjoying themselves before they go to bed.  Fish do it as a defensive collective measure.  So perhaps.  Best theory I know is this :  they’re trying to get a roosting position next to the strongest flyers, the ones who can turn speed and direction fastest, because they’ve eaten best that day, and in the morning they’ll wake together and follow them out to the feeding ground.  Who knows ?

Andy Baybutt and I met as mutual friends of Mark Williams, an actor I’d met at the RSC in 1990 (my last time on stage until 2009) and who’d moved to Brighton just before Jenny and I.  Mark had surrounded himself with young people in Brighton – still friends of ours many of them : Josh, Keith & Yarra, Andy & Jo (then together), Patrick, Kirsty, Sorya, Louise.    Andy and Jo got married shortly thereafter.   For some inexplicable reason I always treated Andy B like a long-lost younger brother, possibly because I have two younger brothers.   When he and Jo split up later on it felt like all of our mutual friends sided with Jo.   I always want to stay friends with both parties, but this naive approach has got me in trouble in the past.   Somehow I managed to do it in this case, and Jo Thornhill and Andy Baybutt are still two of my close friends to this day.   Andy is a camera expert and and a very good director in his own right (see Something For Nothing : The Art Of Rap) and we made three short films together in those Brighton years –  “The Murmuration” is the best of them and quite probably the best thing I have ever done.  No words, no people, just starlings and music, a perfect match.   When we edited the footage on my computer in 2001 the music gave us a finite timeline – just over eleven minutes – and the differing skylines and colours of those 12 sunsets had to appear to be the same day – and so we had our work cut out.   The wind was also a factor, any gust of wind would cause a tremble in the picture (no tripods!) – so the edit was a major challenge in retrospect.   The finished product isn’t perfect but it does work as a piece of art – ‘ambient film‘ perhaps.   I always wondered if it could be a pre-flight soother, or play in dentist’s waiting rooms.   There is untapped commercial potential but my hustle isn’t really built for that.   For a while Andy and I sold DVDs of the film at The West Pier Trust office but that fizzled out – there must be a few hundred out there somewhere.   I don’t actually have a copy of the film myself anymore.   Andy and I talk often about putting it on youtube, but we never do.  Extra footage was shot by Amanda Ooms‘ sister Sara Kander while Andy and I were on the Pier itself, she was on the beach when tens of thousands of birds were wheeling around the crumbling structure, that was an amazing day, and some of our most spectacular footage.   Help with production was generously offered by Jo Thornhill, Jenny Jules, Steve McNicholas & Luke Cresswell.

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The last day of filming was a little overcast.  Andy thought it wouldn’t match for light, but I was a little addicted to the process and went out in drizzly weather and staked out a position at 90 degrees to the pier, looking directly out to sea.  After shooting for some 35 minutes, the battery light started to flash red.  At that exact moment the birds appeared to fly together in a series of mesmerising turns just to the west of the pier, with a section landing at each turn, the mass murmuration becoming gradually smaller and smaller.  I watched in alarm as this beauty unfolded in front of me – the camera was balanced on a 10p piece on the railing – the light flashed, the starlings dwindled, the light faded and finally the last few birds settled beneath the pier and all that remained were the grey waves and the derelict structure.  And then the battery ran out and the camera went dark.  Luck, magic, faith, love…   But there’s more.   When Andy and I realised that the footage from that day had to be the final shot of the film, as the music gently relaxes and fades, we lined up the last bird landing with the last note of the music, and then watched it back.  On at least three occasions the birds turn precisely in time with the music.  Quite extraordinary…

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There are many many versions of this online, ranging from 7 minutes (Paganini – ridiculously fast!) to over 11 minutes, which is my personal preference, and the preference of the starlings themselves I believe…

If anyone reading this has a copy of The Murmuration perhaps you could let me know…

POST-SCRIPT !  In the final moments of 2015 Andy made a digital copy from the master beta tape, and uploaded the whole damn thing onto YouTube.  So here it is pop-lovers, starlings, the West Pier, and Debussy…

My Pop Life #76 : St Matthew Passion – Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott – J.S. Bach

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Kommt, Ihr Töchter, Helft Mir Klagen   (St Matthew Passion)   –   J.S. Bach

Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott  (St Matthew Passion)   –   J.S. Bach

Erbarme dich, mein Gott,
Um meiner Zähren Willen!
Schaue hier, Herz und Auge
Weint vor dir bitterlich.
Erbarme dich, erbarme dich!

Have mercy, my God,
for the sake of my tears!
Look here, heart and eyes
weep bitterly before You.
Have mercy, have mercy!

I cannot remember where and when I first heard this piece of music.   Or why.   It wasn’t the first piece of Bach I bought – that was the Brandenburg Concertos, which I saw live in The Hollywood Bowl when I was 19 years old (along with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – clearly it was pop classic night).    Then I think the Orchestral Suites were next (include Air On A G String) which a gang of us went to see in Brighton Festival around 1999, sat in the front row of the balcony of St George’s Church, the first few notes of that famous section float up to us from the ensemble at which point Luke Cresswell turns to us and whispers “Tune!”.    But anyway, at some point in my late 20s/early 30s I bought John Eliot Gardiner‘s version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion on CD.   It is my favourite piece of classical music, along with Chopin’s Ballade #1 and Debussy’s Prelude A L’Aprés-Midi d’un Faun.

Bach is the daddy of classical music – his output, between 1708 and 1750 is immense, including organ works (Toccata & Fugue), violin concertos, over 200 sacred cantatas, 2 passions, a Great Mass, the Goldberg Variations, Brandenburg Concertos, Cello Suites,  and Orchestral suites among many other pieces.  He is considered to be a baroque composer.  Everything I’ve heard (about 10% of his output at a guess) is extraordinarily beautiful, rich and contains great depth of feeling.  It is not complex music (to my ears) but it is endlessly rewarding.  Don’t worry I’m not going to post the entire two and a half hours of the Passion here – but you should hear it once before you die.  You’ll hear it plenty of times after you die I’m quite certain of that, but the experience of listening to it whilst alive is quite excellent, and highly recommended.   But I will post the opening Kommt Ihr Tochter which is going to blow your head off, and also Erbarme Dich… which is transcendent.

Being a Passion, this means the libretto, or oratorio is taken from the New Testament of the Bible.  I’ve never actually followed the story, and I’ve heard the music many many times, I always get lost in the music and forget completely about the story it is telling – the life and particularly I suspect, the death of Christ.   It really sounds like church music though, perhaps one of the reasons I like it – the hymnal qualities, the shapes of the chords.  The layered choral effect of the opening Kommt Ihr Tochter Helft Mir Klagencome you daughters, help me lament – played by two orchestras and three choirs is probably the most fantastic and exciting piece of music ever written.  Thus it starts at the end of the story with the daughters of Zion weeping over the dead body of the lamb, our saviour.

I always heard this piece of music in my head when I was writing New Year’s Day (NYD).   Not for any intellectual reason, but because it has an immense feeling of something about to happen, something huge and undefinable.  In NYD, our two boys have survived a terrible tragedy at the beginning of the film, Christmas comes and goes with funerals, memorial services, counselling and piles of wreaths outside the school gates.  When the final death happens on New Year’s Eve, the two boys arrange to meet on the clifftop the following day.  In the first draft of the film (set in Lewes, East Sussex) they cycled from Lewes to Eastbourne, (Beachy Head more specifically a 600 foot cliff) – perhaps we’d have used Seaford Head and the Seven Sisters – but a decent 15-20 miles cycle ride by two teenage boys with this massive dramatic music of Bach supporting them.  It is a matter of life and death for them.

The second piece – Erbarme Dich Mein Gotthave pity on me my god – is just pure emotion.  Sung by a counter-tenor usually – a man with a high voice – this short piece of music really transcends intellect and debate, description and enthusiasm.  I would like it to be played at my funeral as the most beautiful piece of music I had the pleasure to hear in  my life.  It makes me weep every time I hear it, unless I’m washing up at the time.   Joke.    Now, I’m not religious as you know (see My Pop Life 24 : Faure’s Requiem) but I like to play classical music on a Sunday morning, whether it be religious or not, an LP of Chopin’s Etudes, a Mozart or Brahms symphony, Erik Satie, or some Bach.  Whatever my newest discovery is – currently Corelli a contemporary of Johan Sebastian.   It makes the day seem without stress.   Often on Sunday mornings I’m off to work – the film industry isn’t christian – but one always notices.  Sundays – or Saturdays – or Fridays – doesn’t really matter – but one day should be for resting.   St Matthew Passion is played more than any other piece of music in our house on a Sunday.

I’ve never seen SMP live.  I will though.  One day.   In the meantime, I have these….

John Eliot Gardiner conducts The Monteverdi Choir, The London Oratory Junior Choir, and The English Baroque Soloists :  

Kommt, Ihr Töchter, Helft Mir Klagen

Erbarme Dich sung by Michael Chance, John Eliot Gardiner conducting :

Erbarme Dich with Karl Richter conducting, Julia Hamari singing:

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 #27 : Concerto in F (allegro) – Gershwin

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Concerto In F  (Allegro)   –   Gershwin

Music has given me many perfect moments in my life.   At concerts, on trains, in cars, in rehearsal, even on stage.  Often through headphones.   I just had a perfect moment on my front door stoop in Brooklyn on ipod shuffle.   A positive rush of joy where the music – Gershwin’s Concerto in F – matched my thoughts and feelings precisely in a rush of connection.

We all know Rhapsody In Blue.   Manhattan.   Used as the soundtrack to Woody Allen’s film.   But had been the soundtrack of the city since 1924.   The brilliant use of jazz in a classical score has not been bettered, except perhaps by Miles Davis’ Sketches Of Spain.   It has an amazing section two thirds of the way through which Brian Wilson transposed into a vocal opening for his “Gershwin” LP a few years ago.  I’ve toyed with getting those four bars of music tattooed onto my left arm, below the butterfly, the Jenny symbol and Chester’s pawprint.   It’s an iconic piece of music.   I’ve seen it live in concert, at the Dome in Brighton, and seen that great musician Leonard Bernstein conduct it in New York, on youtube of course.   But this piece is less well-known, certainly by me.   Due diligence reveals that it was written a year after Rhapsody In Blue premiered, in 1925.   It’s more classical in form than the more famous piece, but has echoes of it nonetheless.   My “well-trained ear” (this is a joke) immediately finds astonishing beauty in it.

Today was a bit nothing.   Cold and rainy, I went out at five to try and make something happen – maybe buy a chest of drawers, get the dry cleaning delivered because it’s too heavy to carry down the road, buy some of Jenny’s favourite beer Negro Modela.   All failures.  I did manage to buy cheese eggs and milk at Trader Joe’s.   Jenny was on a long Facetime.   When she came off it she cooked us both an amazing stew.   We don’t cook much, so it was a treat.   I helped a couple of young people make a connection in “this business we call show”, and was rewarded by a Twitter follower explaining to me how I could embed videos onto this blog.   What goes around comes around said Leonard Kravitz.   I had some puff, went downstairs onto the stoop for a Benson & Hedges with my ipod on, and this slice of unknown New York music came on random shuffle.   It was beautiful.   Life is good suddenly.

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It wouldn’t be my pop life without random shuffle now would it?   As serenity flowed through me (mingling with the pleasant effects of marijuana) I felt lucky, satisfied and happy with myself.   It’s been a bad day but it can end well even so.   Fleeting moments of joy that I welcome and hold close for a second.   Then decide to write it down.  My Pop Life.   It’s almost live.

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