The worst conducting advice in the history of the universe

Several months ago I was sipping a flat white in a café with a friend and former student who was describing the teaching methods of one of America’s more eminent conducting pedagogues- a gentleman I’ve never met nor observed.

Apparently one of his favorite aphorisms these days is that, when conducting, “the camera is always on.”

Now, I need to include a whole bunch of disclaimers here- I don’t know the context or spirit in which this advice was/is given. It’s possible I completely misunderstood what I was hearing when my friend told me this (we stayed on this subject for maybe five minutes). Perhaps they meant that “the Camerata is always on.” The Manchester Camerata are a very good orchestra. So is the Salzburg Camerata. Maybe he just meant that one of these fine groups is always “on”?

Still, in the six months or so since that conversation, I’ve found myself thinking over and over again about this notion, about the possibility that a generation of young conductors is being trained to think of their conducting in terms of how they look, on camera or off. It’s become a bit like wondering if you’ve left the iron on when you left on vacation- once the idea is planted in your head, it eats away at you until you have to do something about it.

So, here I am, doing something about it.

I suppose I always needed to take on this topic. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve found it hard to believe that any teacher would actually tell a young conductor to approach conducting as if “the camera is always on.” I’m sure his point of view was more nuanced than my friend was able to describe in a few fleeting moments of a wide ranging conversation. Nevertheless, I have seen a growing obsession with the visual aspect of conducting among people who should know better, including other teachers, managers, administrators and critics. “The camera is always on,” regardless of its original context, seems like  extremely handy shorthand for a mindset about conducting I see very often these days, so that is how I propose to use it for the rest of this essay.

Having thought about it now for some months, I think that “the camera is always on” may be the worst and most potentially destructive piece of advice I’ve ever heard given to young conductors. It’s certainly right up there with “be a complete dick to everyone and wear a cape to work,” “be a real maestro and make the effing soloist follow you” and “never look a score outside rehearsal until the day of a concert.” It’s probably even worse that “you can leave out the exposition repeat if you want to.”

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KW Messiah thoughts, 2013

It’s that time of year again, when musicians all around the world are taking another stab at Handel’s Messiah. For me, it means coming back to a piece I’ve done many times after a long-ish break.


Handel, lookin' suave- Extensive research has shown Vftp blog posts with pictures get more hits

Handel, lookin’ suave- Extensive research has shown Vftp blog posts with pictures get more hits

I didn’t always love Messiah. In fact, when I first encountered it, I really disliked it.  In my small-minded way, I couldn’t help but compare it damningly with Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, a piece I’d always loved and knew more intimately.  (For all the complexity of his music, I think Bach is one of the easiest composers to “get.” I can’t think of any Bach piece I couldn’t tell was a work of genius the first time I heard it, no matter how awful the performance or how discombobulated my thinking. I can’t think of another composer I can say that about). There are still moments in the libretto of Messiah that really bother, even upset me.

Of course, recognizing that a piece of music is not as great a work as the Saint Matthew Passion is no great act of critical discernment- the same could be said of every other piece of music ever written with the possible exception of the Schubert Cello Quintet and Bohemian Rhapsody.

Eventually, however, if one has ears to listen , one realizes that a piece you might not have loved on first sight is good- maybe even great.

Then, you start figuring out why it is great, and the more you figure out, the greater you realize it is. For a conductor, this is about the time that you seriously start itching to “do” the piece, and through study and performance, you hope to find a sort of beneficial cycle of practical experience and genuine insight.

Long time readers of this blog will recognize that I’m a big believer that as musicians, we owe the composer the benefit of the doubt. As often discussed on these pages, any idiot can see that the “invasion theme” in Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony is pretty repetitious, and rather obviously “un-symphonic.” After all, he’s replaced the development section of a symphony with something two or three times as long as a “normal” development section in which essentially no development takes place. I’m amazed that many good musicians still can’t seem to get past this- it seems obvious that Shostakovich knew he was breaking the rules. Don’t we owe him the benefit of the doubt to find out why? When a great composer frustrates us, when the music disappoints our expectations, there’s usually a very good reason.


Shostakovich after the publication of "Muddle instead of Music" by Joseph Stalin

Dmitri Shostakovich- you’d be amazed how many people come to this blog just looking for a picture of Mr.DSCH

Back when I didn’t care for Messiah, one of my gripes was that so many movements seem to cover awfully similar musical territory.  As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to understand that what at first seems like torturously pointless repetition is really an extremely sophisticated large-scale structural plan that is actually, in a way, quite symphonic (I’m talking about Messiah, not Shostakovich 7). This time around, I’ve been particularly struck by the way that the big ideas of the piece emerge from the fabric of what comes before. There’s possibly no more galvanizing-ly powerful moment in choral music than the bit in the Hallelujah chorus with the sequence “And He shall reign.” How interesting that the musical substance of that passage has long been coming into being, evolving gradually from near the very beginning of the work, with the similar descending sequence in “Let all the angels of God worship Him” and the rising fourths to the word “goodwill” in “Glory to God” marking major landmarks on the road to this moment.

Of course, 99% of the people who hear this music at all hear “Hallelujah” long before they hear any other part of Messiah (if they ever get beyond “Hallelujah” at all), and yet, to me the sort of super-charged joyful intensity that particular passage has in “Hallelujah” seems to be somehow informed by the journey that precedes it. A listener hearing the chorus for the first time won’t know this, but just about everyone seems to sense that there’s something about this music that is suffused with energy.

The opening of “Hallelujah” used to kind of mystify me, too. The first three bars seem so ordinary (and so many performances of them sound so WOODEN)- they just sort of trot along with a kind of inside-out, non-descript wordless version of what will become the “Hallelujah” theme. Why didn’t Handel come up with a more dramatic opening? And why only three bars?  Surely a four-bar intro would have been more powerful- was he just being fancy? Lazy? And why not let the violins play the real theme? I always think it’s funny that audiences traditionally stand as soon as the movement starts- surely it’s the music in the fourth bar, when the choir sings the first “Hallelujah” that should make you want to jump out of your seat. Conductors so often seem wrong footed by these three bars, as if we don’t really know what to do with them. Many go for the “just try something” approach- we might try the “amp up the pomposity” approach or the “show ‘em your Birkenstock’s” extra-HIP version. Handel doesn’t help- there’s no dynamic in the intro, nor is there one for the entrance of the chorus. There are lots of possibilities, but I’ve also heard a lot of unsuccessful stabs at “the REALLLLLLY soft opening” or “the conspicuous crescendo.” Let’s face it, whether you bulk it up with Brucknerian steroids or make it extra mincy, it’s just three bars of medium tempo trotting with the tune turned inside out.

Yet Handel, who knew a thing or two about drama having written who-knows-how-many operas (forty-two or forty-six depending on what you count) by this point in life, knew exactly what he was doing, which is obvious if we give him the benefit of the doubt.  This sort of seemingly non-descript “trotting” music has actually permeated the work up to this point. That was always one of my problems with the piece when I was young and taking in the work one movement at a time. When you’ve just heard “And he shall purify,” doesn’t “For unto us a Child is born” sound eerily similar? Medium temp, jolly, trotting eighth-note groove, a melody in moderate note values and a bit of sixteenth-notey coloratura. Then there’s “His yoke is easy.” Similar tempo, similar tune, just a slightly jazzier flourish to those sixteenth-notey runs. Fast forward a few tracks, and you’ve got “All we like sheep.” Sure it’s funnier than the others, in ways both intentional and unintentional (sheep jokes just get funnier and funnier the longer I live in Wales), but it’s still that same trotting bass line, the same mid-tempo grove, with thematic gestures similar in length and shape to those in “For unto us.”

I’ve certainly heard MANY performances that left me thinking that Handel was probably just trying to cover all this theological bases with some thinly spread recycled stock musical ideas, but experience teaches that the failing in these cases was in the performance, not the piece. Over the years, I became convinced that a lot of this was to do with tempo and put a lot of thought into making sure that I wouldn’t fall into the “universal tempo” trap, trying to highlight the differences between these admittedly similar movements, and actively seeking out the textual motivations for those differences. This time, however, I’m realizing that for all it’s important to do that (like most music lovers, I have come close to chewing my own arm off to relieve the boredom during an ill-conceived Messiah), it’s also important for me to realize that Handel, the dramatist, knew what he was doing, and that the similarities are very much part of the point. Those similarities are obvious, so it’s likely they’re both intentional and important. Why?

All of these choruses seem to be on one level about expectation, about the promise of divinity. They all sing about what humanity hopes or expects or believes divine intervention will bring to the world.

If you’ve had this idea of expectation in mind every time you’ve heard those seemingly banal trotting eighth notes over the previous 90 minutes, then surely those first three bars of “Hallelujah” can be seen as literally bursting with anticipation, with tension, with barely contained joy. After all the waiting, after all the hoping, the endless expectation, in these three bars we’re literally standing on the threshold of the vision the piece has been seeking throughout. Of course, I can now see why the choir comes in after just three bars- this close to the moment in which the biggest of all promises is fulfilled, nobody could expect them to wait one moment longer, let alone a fourth bar.

Essay- Rosbaud conducts Mahler

I’ve just turned in program notes for an upcoming CD in ICA Classics commemorating the 50th anniversary of the passing of Hans Rosbaud, one of the most interesting of 20th C conductors. That disc of works by Sibelius and Debussy is due out in the early Fall, and is rather special.

The first installment in the series was Rosbaud’s recording of Mahler 5 with the Cologne Radio Symphony. I thought Vftp readers might enjoy reading my essay here, and hopefully some of you will be inspired to check out the disc. It’s quite a document. Reviews available from ClassicalSource, Audiophile Audition and MusicWeb.



‘Music buffs believe that the greatest living conductor is Toscanini; musicians know that it is Hans Rosbaud.’ 

Francis Poulenc, 1954


A native of Graz, Hans Rosbaud (1895–1962) emerged from early studies with his mother and training at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt to become one of the most influential conductors of his generation. Rosbaud’s imprint on the music world may seem to have contracted since his death fifty years ago, but only until one considers the huge body of music he brought into the repertoire, his advocacy of Mahler’s works after the Second World War, and his importance as a role model for a younger generation of interpreters such as Pierre Boulez, Michael Gielen and Bruno Maderna. Boulez himself described Rosbaud as a ‘model’ of what a conductor should be: a ‘very great conductor’ who was ‘not specialised’, but was ‘very involved in contemporary music’.

It was in the emerging world of the radio orchestra that Rosbaud would spend the bulk of his career and have the greatest impact. In 1929, he was appointed as chief conductor at Radio Frankfurt. Rosbaud was one of the first conductors to fully appreciate the opportunity the new medium offered for introducing unfamiliar music to a broad audience under near-ideal rehearsal conditions, and the list of first performances from his Frankfurt years includes several works that have since become staples of the repertoire: Bartók’s Piano Concerto No.2, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Hindemith’s Concert Music for Brass and Strings and Schoenberg’s Variations op.31.

Rosbaud was one of the few Austro-German conductors of his generation to remain untainted by affiliation with the Nazis, and tensions with them led to his departure from Frankfurt in 1937 and a period out of the spotlight in Münster and Strassburg. In the aftermath of the War, Rosbaud returned to the world of the radio orchestra in which he felt most at home, first in Munich, and then from 1948 until his death at the South West German Radio Orchestra, Baden-Baden, which Rosbaud built into one of the finest orchestras in Germany (and which was, as this disc went to press, being shut down by the German government). Other highlights of his post-War career included his affiliation with the Donaueschingen Festival, where he became a champion of the post-War modernist school of composers led by Boulez and Stockhausen, and long partnerships with the Tonhalle Orchestra and the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Perhaps his most legendary achievement was conducting the premiere of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron on just eight days’ notice in 1954.

Like Boulez, Rosbaud seems to have seen Gustav Mahler as perhaps the key figure in the birth of twentieth-century music, rather than as the last of the Romantics. While the extent of the neglect of Mahler’s works in the years after his death in 1911 has often been overstated, his music did fall into obscurity in Germany after the Nazis banned performances of his ‘Entartete Musik’ (degenerate music) in the 1930s. Rosbaud understood that the more generous rehearsal conditions of the radio orchestras were ideal for restoring Mahler’s complex and demanding scores to the repertoire.

Rosbaud’s extremely undemonstrative podium presence (even as famously low-key a conductor as Bernard Haitink said of Rosbaud that ‘as he approached the podium you thought, surely that can’t be the conductor’) might have seemed an unlikely fit with Mahler’s volatile musical language, especially in a work like the Fifth Symphony, which ranges from the extremes of violent histrionics to moments of great intimacy and tenderness. But on this occasion in 1952, working with one of his favourite orchestras, the KRSO (Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, now the WDR Symphony Orchestra), Rosbaud manages to elicit a performance of great stylistic sensitivity from an orchestra which could not have had a very strong Mahlerian tradition at the time. Long before Mahlerians began arguing over the correctness of extremely fleet or languorous tempi in the Adagietto, Rosbaud’s reading here seems the very epitome of an innately musical balance of emotional engagement and common sense, with an effortless ebb and flow of tempi and a welcome lack of point-making. On the other extreme, in the outer movements, this most soft-spoken of maestri (in Chicago, where he became a regular guest conductor from 1959 until his death, the musicians were known to have had to pass his comments to the back of the section as his speaking voice was only audible to the front desks) unleashes brass-playing of striking stentorian power.

Rosbaud’s beloved radio orchestras may have been the perfect medium for bringing Mahler’s music, and that of so many essential twentieth-century masters, back into the repertoire after the War, but it is a pity that his devotion to the live broadcast seems to have left us with a small and sometimes uneven recorded legacy, where in many cases modern listeners find frustration with less-than ideal radio sound, or occasional slips in orchestral accuracy. And yet a document like this Mahler 5 reveals, far more meaningfully than any meticulously edited studio recording could, a great conductor at the height of his powers bringing important and hugely challenging music to life solely through a profound knowledge of and engagement with the musical text, without the safety net of an orchestra who know the work through other recordings or past performances. Surely Boulez was right to hail Rosbaud, in this respect as in others, as a ‘model’.

Session Diaries- Bobby and Hans vol. 3 with Orchestra of the Swan, Monday morning…

Monday, 3 December, 2012

Session 1- 10:00 AM

Scheduled: Schumann- Symphony no. 4, mvts 1 and 2

Recording is like nothing else- getting great material on disc requires a rather unforgiving balance of precision and passion. To get the kind of passion and energy that makes a recorded performance leap out of the speakers, the musicians need to play every take with the kind of intensity and energy that one would hope to achieve in a very inspired concert. To get the kind of precision and attention to detail, one is constantly having to stop and work on all sorts of technical details, fine points of interpretation and questions of style. In a concert you don’t have to repeat things or remember what went wrong to fix it the next time. In a recording you do. Going back and forth between sorting out the detail and playing at maximum intensity in real performance mode takes great skill and vast reserves of energy.

Sir George Solti- one man who knew how to give everything on every take

I’m not sure any composer needs a more exacting balance of detail and passion than Robert Schumann. This morning the Orchestra of the Swan and I are starting to record our third Schumann symphony together. When we recorded our first Schumann in 2010 (the last symphony in E-flat major sometimes erroneously called the “Rhenish”), I think it took some time for the musicians to actually believe that they really had to give as much energy as I was asking them for on every take. Smart orchestral musicians know that a recording session is absolutely useless if your chops give out, so wind and brass players in particular are very careful to pace themselves whenever they can, and later composers are more shrewd at spreading out the workload than Beethoven and Schumann were. The problem with Schumann is that there are very few times when one can back off without the music suffering.  I think we’ve all heard enough tepid Schumann symphonies in our lives- listless, sprawling heatlamp-warmed buffets of mezzo forte overcooked musical vegetables. Blech.

We started the two days with the first movement of the Schumann because it needs the most  raw energy.  In some ways, it needs even more intensity than anything in the E-flat and C major symphonies we’ve already recorded because of the stormy nature of the music.

And of course, even with all our shared experience in Schumann, and a complete lack of skepticism from the musicians, it’s taken the first hour or so to start to get the intensity, the depth of sound, the huge and immediate dynamic contrasts and the rhythmic vitality we need. By this point, I’m  already a sweaty, panting mess. It’s going to be a tiring couple of days. Conducting is not always a dignified business (note how many times you can see Solti’s underwear in the clip above- how much do I love that he doesn’t seem to give a flying f*ck about this?) I’m all for recording in long takes in theory, but with 3 sessions to keep in mind, I decide early on to record and patch in short-to-medium length bursts of maximum intensity. There’s no point in playing on for one bar if the energy level drops. That way, everyone can rest their chops for a moment between takes while we sort out details. Also, we’ll be recording the concert, which will give us the ultimate, high-energy long take. Some whole movements on previous discs have been taken almost complete from the concert, while others are all from the sessions- I challenge anyone to guess which is which. After the break, things start to click in earnest, and the coda, in many ways the most difficult part of the movement, comes together very quickly.

With just fifteen minutes left, it’s not realistic to record the entire second movement even though it is short, but it’s important to make a start on it.  We read it and the solos sound lovely, but the whole thing is a little too Romantic and lugubrious. Schumann modelled this Romanze on a courtly Renaissance dance- he even considered using lute or guitar to accompany the cello/oboe duo. As soon as I ask the orchestra to lighten the second beat of each bar and treat it as dance, the whole thing is transformed. As Simon, our producer, remarked at the break it “instantly changed the architecture of the whole thing.” I’m not sure I’d consider any part of the movement to be “in the can,” but it’s not technically hard and everyone now knows how it goes.

For each of these discs, we have five rehearse/record sessions and a concert. I write the schedule to try to record the outline of everything in the first four sessions, which leaves the last session to rehearse the overture, fix anything that has been giving us problems and tie up loose ends. It’s actually not realistic to get everything done in those first four sessions- I know when I do the schedule that we’ll always run a bit behind, but I do this because you never quite know what might need a night to settle, or what might give me or the players extra trouble. So, it’s fine to run behind schedule as long as you don’t build up more than two and a half hours of work to do in the final session. By the end of this morning, we’ve got the first movement in the can and know what needs doing with the second. Getting it recorded will probably take another thirty minutes, at least, which leaves us two hours of flexible time in the final session tomorrow. That’s pretty good- first sessions are notoriously slow with all orchestras and producers because it takes time for the engineer to find the sound and for the orchestra to get in the grove.  For one project, I think we ended up about an hour and forty-five minutes behind at the end of the first session. That’s when you start to feel tiny shards of glass grinding against the lining of your stomach whenever you look at the clock.

As I leave for lunch, I run into Phil, our wonderful first bassoonist. I thank him for some great work, and he says he’s “just relieved to have the slow introduction behind me. It’s the most strenuous thing in either piece.” I mention this because I think audiences sometimes think it is the fast and loud music that is most difficult or the most exhausting- quite the opposite, and this is one reason this Schumann is so hard. By the time the main part of the movement starts, the winds have already played the most tiring music in the whole symphony.

Concert Review- Birmingham Post, Orchestra of the Swan at Civic Hall, “Spring Sounds 2012 Finale- The Trumpet Shall Sound”

A review from senior critic Christopher Morley at the Birmingham Post of last week’s Orchestra of the Swan performance in Stratford-upon-Avon featuring trumpet virtuoso, Simon Desbruslais. For space reasons, the original review was slightly cut for the print edition, omitting some key detail, so, with the author’s permission, we reproduce his complete, original text here.

Trumpet virtuoso, Simon Desbruslais

Review: Orchestra Of The Swan at Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon

**** *

By Christopher Morley

Last week I reviewed a bread-and-butter, standard repertoire concert from the Orchestra of the Swan; on Friday this polished, adept ensemble turned its attention to music that could not be more up-to-the-minute, with two world premieres and another major work from the end of the 20th century. And these offerings gripped a well-filled Civic Hall, the audience — and all three composers concerned — marveling at the skill, commitment and sheer tenacity of the steel-lipped Simon Desbrulais, trumpet soloist in these three works.

First up was ‘Skyspace’ by Deborah Pritchard, inspired by the installations of artist James Turrell, shiftingly luminous as unisons between trumpet and strings expand outwards into aural perspectives, its colours and textures well-imagined from this restricted palette. The ending came too soon.

Composer Deborah Pritchard

The other premiere was John McCabe’s ‘Trumpet Concerto, La Primavera’, jazzily lyrical (the slow movement has the soloist adopting Miles Davis’s flugelhorn), crystally-clear brittle, and featuring extensive duetting between soloist and bongo-rich percussion (Jan Bradley, un-named in the programme, but what a star he is). There is a powerful unison between soloist and orchestra as the fabulous ending to this memorable, life-enhancing piece approaches.

Composer John McCabe

Between the premieres came the elder statesman, all of 20 years old. Robert Saxton’s ‘Psalm — A Song of Ascents’ draws its inspiration from biblical references to the trumpet in its various guises, so we certainly get clear-cut fanfaring landmarks amid the work’s tricksy metres. The piece is both gestural and contemplative, often drivingly energetic with coruscating outbursts, but often suffused with bell-coloured magic.

Composer Robert Saxton

Kenneth Woods was the authoritative conductor, communicating warmly with the audience.

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Which would you rather conduct? Or: Joining the Mozart Protection Society

Eighteen months ago in a program planning session, this sentence filled me with dread:

“How about a clarinet concerto?”

Don’t get me wrong- I love the clarinet as much as the next guy, but, in my experience, nobody ever really means “how about a clarinet concerto?”

They almost always mean “how about the clarinet concerto?”

And which, you may ask, is “the” clarinet concerto?

Well, although the first piece I conducted with a good orchestra was the Copland Clarinet Concerto, for most music lovers, and certainly, and more worryingly, most program committees, the Mozart  Clarinet  Concerto is the only one worth thinking about.

Let me be perfectly clear- the Mozart Clarinet Concerto is everything people say it is. Sublime. Moving. Magical.

At least on the page.

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Explore the Score- Bobby Schumann busts out the Klangfarbenmelodie

Klangfarbenmelodie, or “tone colour melody” is one of those 2 dollar words we all learned in undergraduate music history class. Simply described, in Klangfarbenmelodie, a single melodic line jumps from instrument to instrument, creating a more-or-less constantly varied coloration of the melodic line. It’s a word we normally associate with the composers of the New Vienna School, and fair enough, Schoenberg himself coined the word in his treatise Harmoniliere.

Wikipedia offers a simple example of the technique in which this line of Bach


Is orchestrated by Webern as seen below-


However, there’s nothing new under the sun, and the actual technique of Klangfarbenmelodie was in use long before Schoenberg coined the term. Robert Schumann’s Second Symphony offers one of the earliest, most extended and most interesting examples I know of (although, like everything good in music other than the fugue, the technique was probably invented by Haydn).

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A spring cleaning for the Goldberg Variations

Last month, my colleagues in Ensemble Epomeo and I had a chance to dust off our scores to Dmitri Sitkovetsky’s wonderful string trio arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Coming back to this most special of pieces was as inspiring, rewarding and humbling as ever, and I’ve been meaning to share a few thoughts about it since then.

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Whatever happened to good old C major, anyway?

In the comments for my previous blog post on the Real Top 20 C Major Symphonies of All Time“, I assembled a list of the greatest “C minor symphonies that end in C major.” The first four pieces I thought of were


Beethoven 5

Brahms 1

Bruckner 8


Shostakovich 8

When I saw the two great Beethoven and Brahms works alongside the Shostakovich, I was hugely struck by the contrast in affect.

For Beethoven and Brahms, the move from C minor to C major was probably the ultimate musical embodiment of affirmation, of triumph. C major to them was the key of Earthly celebration, defined by the rumbustious trumpet-and-drums music Mozart and Haydn loved to write. The move from tragic C minor to the joyful purity of C major symbolized the most unambiguous possible resolution to struggle and uncertainty.

This paradigm is not unique to these two works. Mendelssohn and Schubert both wrote extraordinary C minor symphonies early in their careers which end joyfully in C major (albeit without the element of weight and drama present in Beethoven 5 and Brahms 1).  Bruckner used the transformation from C minor to C major as the lynchpin of no less than three of his symphonies, including the epic Eighth, a work which seems to take this kind of affirmative journey from darkness to light about as far as it can possibly go.

Mahler seemed to sense that after Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner, a new solution to the “problem” of C minor had to be found. Perhaps for him, the darkness of C minor was so powerful (it’s hard to think of a darker, bleaker movement than the opening funeral march of the Resurrection) that his C minor symphony (the 2nd) needed to travel further- not just to C major, but to E-flat major. (Interestingly, the only minor key Mahler seemed to think could be answered with its parallel major was D minor- both his First and Third symphonies make much of the movement from D minor to D major. Other minor keys always seem to need more solving, usually a shift not only of mode but of tonic- such as the move from C-sharp minor in the Fifth Symphony to its concluding D major). Mahler was a modern enough man to see that C major was far to simplistic a solution to the problems of a C minor world. He believed there was a more nuanced answer to be found- that we could escape and transcend suffering and despair, but that the solution would always be complex and messy- the solution to C minor might be E-flat, or the solution to C-sharp minor might be D major. Life doesn’t neatly tie up all loose ends like a Victorian novel.

If Brahms 1 and Beethoven 5 are as certain in their affirmation of triumph over adversity as their troubled creators could make them, Shostakovich 8 makes a quite shocking contrast, in which Shostakovich re-imagines this most historically unambiguous move from C minor to C major as the lynchpin of a work that is anything but triumphant and life affirming. Although it ends with a long stretch of C major, it is a deeply troubling and troubled work. If Mahler came to see that C major wasn’t quite an adequate solution to C minor, Shostakovich sometimes seems to hint at something far darker- that C major may actually be, if not the opposite of heavenly resolution of life’s C minor problems, at least a kind of musical Purgatory. A static world without hope, where battles have stalled but no peace has been made nor victory won. It’s as if Shostakovich tells us “be careful what you wish for- a simple solution to a complex problem is no solution at all. Ask for C major, and you may be trapped there forever.” The last five minutes of Shostakovich 8 are an unsettling mixture of cold, aimless wanderings and moments of heart-wrenching lyrical vulnerability. By the end of the piece you don’t know if that 2 minute long C major chord in the violins is the happiest or the saddest thing you’ve ever heard. Which is more troubling- the C minor ending of the Fourth or the C major ending of the Eighth? It’s the Eighth that makes me cry every time.

How the sheen of innocence has fallen from what was once the most pristine of keys.

Whatever happened to C major? How could it come to express such existential  twilight and despair?

I think the process began with Schubert. To me, the C major of the Cello Quintet exists in a different spiritual realm than the pomp and earthiness of Mozart’s version of the key (or Beethoven’s). To me, the C major of the Cello Quintet is very much of the next world- the sound of the next chapter of existence beyond this life, but the next world as imagined by someone who was, at best, an agnostic. No easy certainties are to found in late Schubert. Brahms, ever conservative, needed C major to be the same point of reference it was in Beethoven 5 and Mozart’s Jupiter. He needed it to be a solid rock, from which he could build. Schumann, the radical, unearthed new complexities and ambiguities for C major in his Second Symphony. Where Beethoven used C major to celebrate the end of struggle, Schumann uses it to embody struggle, writing of the first movement of his C major 2nd Symphony that “I sketched it at a time when I was ailing, and I may well state that it was, as it were, the power of resistance of spirit that has influenced my work, and by which I have tried to prevail against my physical condition”.

If Schubert’s use of C major opens a fearful window into the next dimension, Sibelius’s take on the key seems even more complex. His Third Symphony seems to be a relatively innocent work- at least it begins and ends innocently enough. However, the Finale is strangely ambivalent. It starts with seeming naivety, but quickly dissolves into some of the strangest and most harmonically wayward music he ever wrote, and the triumphalism of the very end seems designed to ring just a little hollow. It’s as if he is saying “things may be absolutely terrible, but if we celebrate long enough and loudly enough, we may get to the end in one piece.” Heard in context, the triumphant C major ending almost sounds like a critique of triumphant C major endings.

But it is in his Seventh Symphony that Sibelius’s vision of C major is most troubling and haunting. I once explained his use of C major in this piece to a student when he wondered why I found the piece so tragic when C major was, after all, such a sunny key? I argued it is “still a key of light, of sunshine, but the whole symphony is the last 20 minutes of twilight at the Arctic Circle before the endless night of winter sets in. When that last C major chord finally resolves it is like looking into the sun, as it boils in the horizon, never to return.” In Sibelius 7, C major is light, and light is music, and the piece is kind of a farewell to music, at least to the symphony- the sun was very literally setting on his symphonic career.  If Beethoven 5 and Brahms 1 use the key of C major to portray the ultimate in certainty, Sibelius uses the same key to evoke the ultimate mix of joy and despair.

And what of Mahler? Two of his symphonies end in C major. Is his C major the same worldly celebration as Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, or something more complex and ambivalent, as in the work of Schubert and Sibelius?

The Finale of his Seventh is very much C major trumpet and drums music- obviously harking back to the symbolism of the key as understood by Mozart in the Jupiter and Wagner in Die Meistersinger (which he quotes).  In its hyper-complex virtuoso writing and dense counterpoint, it could almost be a parody of those two works. Wagner used C major to symbolize communal celebration- I think Mahler does the same thing in the 7th, but his community is more realistic. The Finale of Mahler 7 is no perfect, noble German town grounded in tradition and led by wise elders, but a village party full of real, noisy, smelly complicated people.  It’s not so much that he doesn’t believe in the joyful, Mozartian side of C major, it’s that he wants to show the complexities, and flaws of a C major world. It’s C major without the Disney treatment. C major with ugly people, with dog crap on the streets, with farts and out of tune village bands, seedy street vendors and bullying cops. It’s like musical Mardi Gras- a great time is had by all, but you wouldn’t want to come back the next morning to clean up the vomit.

Mahler’s other great C major Finale is Der Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde. In this great movement, Mahler makes explicit what Schubert implies- that you’re never going to have the pure radiance of C major transcendence in a C minor world. Real C major, real freedom from suffering comes not from victory in earthly struggle, but in acceptance that life is struggle, acceptance of the finality of life, and the embrace of need to discover what, if anything, comes next. I’m sure that Shostakovich had the ending of Das Lied in mind when he wrote the final pages of his Eighth Symphony. Was he daring to hope for Mahlerian transcendence? And is the end of the work a fulfilment of that hope, or does the beautiful image of  C major simply die away when he can no longer sustain its dying light? Does it meld into eternity, or simply die away into silence. A pessimist might point out that the last word in the score is morendo.

As another great 20th. C. composer once said- there is still a lot of great music to be written in C major.

And so there is.

But what will C major mean 100 years after Shostakovich 8?


Explore the score- Gal Symphony no. 4 “Sinfonia Concertante”

(First time using “Explore the score?” Just click on the hyperlinks within the text to hear the musical excerpts.)


“Up to the present, however, Brahms has maintained his place as the “last classical composer,” for no one has yet come to replace him.”

Hans Gál- writing in  his biographical study, “Johannes Brahms”


Hans Gál (1890-1987) was, according to those who knew him, somewhat reticent in talking about his own music and career. Most say that his writings about Schubert, Schumann and Brahms probably say more about him and his music than anything he ever said explicitly about his life and work. Whether Gál could ever have admitted an aspiration to fill the void left by Brahms of a true “classical” composer is hard to know, but this comment and many others makes clear that he did feel the world needed a classical composer. (One gets the sense that for Gál, the phrase “neo-classical” was something of an oxymoron.)

Gál had an exceptionally long creative life- his First Symphony (written 18 years into his career as a composer) was completed in 1927, and his Fourth was completed in 1974. If there is one direction of development in his music over those many decades, it is towards ever greater economy of means, transparency, simplicity and directness of gesture. He was evolving toward a Classical ideal.

By the time Gál had entered his ninth decade, he was conscious that he was writing his “last works,” summing up his thoughts in the genres that mattered  most to him, such as the string quartet, the symphony and, like Mozart and Brahms, the string quintet and clarinet quintet. In 1970 he composed Triptych (a symphony in all but name) in a blaze of inspiration over less than six weeks, and in the same year his 4thstring quartet.

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Beethoven 9 Pontifications, part II. Decoding those pesky metronome markings

The metronome mark  problem.

If you’ve been reading the classical music press over the last month or so, you would swear up and down that the great Riccardo Chailly had personally discovered the metronome markings  in the Beethoven symphonies.

Not so! It turns out those markings have been in the music for years, that a few other conductors have actually noticed and considered them over the years.

I’m generally a “fast” Beethoven guy. A “do the metronome marks” guy….

Last year, a critic actually accused me of conducting the 2nd Symphony so fast that I must have had a train to catch (I didn’t).

Still, it is a cause for concern when people become so myopic about adhering to a number written by a composer who never had the chance to compare the impression of listening to his music live to what he had heard in his mind’s ear that they don’t listen critically to the musical results that come from adhering to or ignoring those marks. Almost everyone I know (including me) tends to hear music faster in their head than they want to hear it performed live.  My rule of thumb is the Mister Rogers method of metronome use- you’ve got to be “somewhere in the neighborhood” of the metronome marking. How big that neighborhood is varies from piece to piece, and performance to performance. I’ve done performances of the first movement of the Eroica (one of the notoriously fast metronome markings in the Beethoven symphonies) that felt perfectly poised and spacious right at Beethoven’s suggested tempo, but with other, equally skilled orchestras, getting close to the metronome mark always brought a sense of frenzy that didn’t serve the music at all. With time, an orchestra can find more space in faster tempos, but it takes rehearsal, it takes trust, it takes shared experience.

For me, the neighborhood in the 9th is probably a little bigger than in the previous 8 symphonies because the language of the work is more dramatic, dare I say “Romantic,” and seems to call for a more “in the moment” approach, and perhaps because he was another decade or so removed from being able to compare the perception of the outer ear to the imagination of the inner ear. All things considered, I’m likely to be a little freer in realizing the metronome marks in Beethoven 9 than in his previous 8 symphonies.

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LvB 9- Concert done, pontifications begin. About those famous sextuplets

Apologies to Vftp fans who have been virtuously checking their Google Reader for new posts, only be to repeatedly disappointed. It has been a very busy few weeks, to say the least. Of course, during busy periods like this there always ends up being a tragic imbalance between a wealth of things to talk about and a lack of time and energy to talk about them.

I’d hoped to write more about Beethoven 9 in advance of my performance of it last Saturday in Guildford with the Surrey Mozart Players, but it wasn’t meant to be. I was curious whether coming back to a piece I’ve been mulling for ten years since I last conducted it would lead to any major rethinks. As I most often find, rather than many changes of heart, I feel like the changes are in the degree of understanding of detail you bring to the piece. It is still very much the same KW take on Beethoven 9 as in 2001, just, hopefully, deeper and better. I just hope it’s not another 10 years before I can do it again.

Since the schedule is not letting up any time soon, I thought I would just take the shotgun approach, and try to get a few ideas about the piece written down while they’re still buzzing around in my head.

Pontifications about Beethoven 9:

1- The opening sextuplets in the 2nd violins and cellos.

Mysterious, full of portent and atmospheric or rhythmically precise and articulate?

David Levy, in his excellent book on the piece,  is convinced we have to make a choice: for him, either it can be clear or it can be poetic.

“The murmuring sextuplets  of the second violins and cellos and open fifth (A-E) of the horns of the first measure are couched in a soft dynamic that obscures any clear sense of time, space or tonality. The sextuplet figure, however, articulates a precisely-measured subdivision of each beat, and one could argue that the listener ought to be able to hear those subdivisions distinctly. Others have maintained that the sextuplet murmur is meant to suggest an unmeasured tremolo, and that it ought to be performed without the slightest hint of accentuation…The issue of how to play the sextuplets is neither unimportant nor purely academic. A performance of the Ninth Symphony cannot have it both ways. The sextuplets must be played either distinctly or indistinctly.”



I’m not convinced.

The modern fashion for playing the opening like a spiccato excercies is, in my opinion, gross. It’s also unnecessary. It’s also not supported by the text- they’re not marked with dots, Beethoven’s often used “stac” or any other kind of indication that would lead us to think he wanted them off the string. We did them on-the-string at the point this week. If the players actually change their bows at the same time and don’t use too much bow, it’s both mysterious and clear, even in a reverberant church. The rhythm has to be perceptible and even- a train wreckish tremolo will not do. Beethoven develops this opening rhythm in all kinds of ways.  Check out the violas in bar 120, and parallel places (which is irritatingly inaudible on 90% of recordings), and the way those sextuplets break through into 32nd notes as the crescendo boils over. Check out the amazing return of the sextuplets in the 2nd violins in bar 240, right at the frenzied climax of the development. And of course, just as Beethoven uses the shift from sextuplets to 32nds to create a ferocious sense of intensification in the viola passage mentioned above, he does the same thing on a much larger scale by writing the recapitulation (letter K) over 32nds instead of sextuplets. Everyone mentions the way Beethoven starts the recap not in D minor but in a very scary incarnation of D major (in first inversion), but the rhythmic transformation from 6 to 8 notes per beat is another important reason the recap feels so frighteningly intense. At least when you can tell what the rhythm is at the beginning and the recap…

Nope, a tremolo won’t do.

Finally, ask yourself why in the last four full bars of the entire symphony the rhythm shifts from 8 notes per-beat to 6? Beethoven is bringing this metric game full circle.

You can’t start a symphony like this by only doing half your job- it’s got to present the musical material in an intelligible way AND create a sense of mood.


Post script- My other pet peeve in the opening is when the 32nd note pickups in the melody line up exactly with the sextuplets. I find this tripletization of the rhythm to be a lazy rendering of what’s on the page, and it sounds French in all the wrong ways….



Nuts and bolts of Beethoven 9- Finding the Fantastic Four

I’m in the midst of doing the bowings for a performance I’m conducting of Beethoven 9 in November. It’s been just over ten years since I last conducted the work- during that time I’ve conducted all of his other symphonies several times, and it feels long overdue for me to get another crack at the piece.

Of course, Beethoven 9 is not just any piece. I thought it would be fun to try to write  a few blog posts exploring my ideas and opinions about the work now, well before the first rehearsal, then to come back after the November concert and see if I’ve made any major discoveries or experienced any changes of heart.

Beethoven 9 should be a piece that inspires powerful responses and strongly conflicting opinions among listeners and performers. I happen to love it and think it is an ultra-masterpiece. Casual music lovers may be surprised to find that a lot of professional musicians and composers disagree and find the piece flawed or even cheap.

It’s a piece I’ve known since long before I picked up a baton professionally, and it’s probably no surprise that I have some pretty strong ideas about how it is best performed. Of all the Beethoven symphonies, it seems to be the one that most often goes wrong in performance for a whole variety of reasons. I think that, in general, Beethoven performance has improved a great deal in the last 30 years, but the 9th might be the exception that proves the rule. I hear a lot of LvB 9s on the radio that have me rubbing my forehead in anguish after a few bars. More on that, I’m sure.

First, a bit of personal history.

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What’s in a name? Depends on whether it’s the right name.

Reformist musicologists with a politically-correct worldview might find themselves raising an eyebrow at this week’s Surrey Mozart Players concert, where, with blatant disregard for all the latest scholarship, the orchestra and I will be playing Johannes Brahms’ “Variations on a theme of Josef Haydn.”

We will not be playing the now-ubiquitous “Variations on the Saint Anthony Chorale.”

Mind you, I’m not arguing against the wealth of research that raises serious questions about whether or not Haydn wrote the Saint Anthony Chorale. (or, for that matter, the Divertimento in which it appeared). Although scholars continue to debate the point, the question of who wrote the theme is not important to me in this case. What is important is who Brahms thought wrote the theme.

Johannes Brahms, not pondering who wrote the St Anthony Chorale

Johannes Brahms, not pondering who wrote the St Anthony Chorale


I’m not comfortable with renaming a major work by Brahms simply because he was unaware of or misinformed about the actual provenance of the theme he was working with. (Perhaps, just to be completely upfront, we should put it in the program as “Variationen uber ein Theme von Jos. Haydn”). Why? Well, it seems clear that Brahms was not just looking for a theme, but for a theme by Haydn. Brahms was a great classicist, who revered Mozart and Haydn above almost all other composers. In his opus 56, Brahms set out to write an affectionate homage to Haydn, and chose the Chorale because he thought it struck a useful balance between offering material that was well suited to the variation form and embodying certain qualities typical of Haydn’s genius.

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A view from a different podium- Christopher Zimmerman on Brahms 1

Conductor Christopher Zimmerman is Music Director of the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra. In 1993, he and I were both newly arrived on the campus of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music: Chris as the conductor of the Concert Orchestra, me as a new Doctoral student in Cello. Keen to move forward with my interest in conducting, I approached Chris for lessons. He told me to bugger off.  Finally, he admitted me to his conducting seminar class, where the featured work we studied was none other than Brahms 1. Fortunately, the seminar was brilliant, I had a bit of ability and destiny was served. Chris and I became good friends and when I set up the Rose City International Conductor’s Workshop several years ago, I invited Chris to join me on the faculty.

Conductor Christopher Zimmerman thinking deep thoughts about Brahms 1


As part of Brahms 1 week, I thought it would be fun to pick the brain of the man who first guided me through the piece. His teaching method at the time was simplicity itself- I was ordered to make a thorough analysis of it, then to memorize it and conduct it, after which, he just asked me question after question about the orchestration and form which I had to answer with the score closed. I felt pretty proud of myself after conducting it from memory for the first time in my exam- after 30 minutes of the Spanish Inquisition from Chris, I felt  quite thoroughly humbled. Lesson learned. Good stuff.

Brahms 1 is a special piece for CZ as well- he conducts it often, and has continued to teach it to a generation of conductors, first at CCM then at the Hartt School, where he was director of Orchestral Conducting for many years, and at the RCICW.



KW: It’s well known that Brahms 1 and Shostakovich 10 are your party pieces. I’ve even heard you describe Brahms 1 (admittedly usually after at least one beer) as “my piece.” Why Brahms 1?

CW: I guess I call it jokingly “my piece” because I have conducted it more than any other symphony (apart from perhaps Shost 10 and Beethoven 3) by design and by default.  Also I studied it quite assiduously for many years before my first outing with it–because I was so scared of it, particularly the incredibly opaque and tightly-knit first movement–and so when my first performance of it was not a complete disaster, I somehow felt very close to it.  Also I think the opening 8 measures are a miracle.

What was your first experience of the piece as a listener? A player? A conductor?

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