Some music sounds as if it was never meant to be listened to. In other words, there are pieces which are uninteresting, and others that are just plain awful. But of all the insults to the ear, the worst is when a sublime composition is ruined by a performance so bad it becomes intolerable. I’ve suffered a few of this sort over the Christmas and New Year festivities. I’ve also been enchanted by sheer loveliness.
The radio announcer said she was there to introduce a Schubertiad: this was the sort of concert put on originally by Schubert and a few of his talented friends who would perform mainly Schubert’s music for the whole evening. This tradition has been kept up. So when I heard we were about to listen to one of these concerts, I was in heaven. My delighted anticipation was intensified when she told us the first item would be Schubert’s heartrendingly delicate aria Ave Maria. But it was instantly turned to sludge when Pavarotti came to the microphone. Let me say before I go any further that Pavarotti can sing – after a fashion. His strangulated hernia articulation is perfect for the sorts of stuff so popularly acclaimed: the hysterical melodrama of Verdi’s grand operas and the sentimental goo of Puccini’s Tosca and La Boheme. But Schubert’s Ave Maria – no less than his An die music – is in a tradition of singular purity, restraint and understatement that goes back to Tallis, Byrd and Purcell. Pavarotti doesn’t do understatement: the effect was as of one taking a ten pounds hammer to the Christmas fairy lights.
I looked for better things and regarded myself as blessed indeed when I found them. There is an exquisite recording of Myra Hess playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G K.453 at one of the famous wartime recitals in the National Gallery. From the rippling – but measured rippling – intensity of the opening bars, you could relax, knowing you were in safe hands. It was like a well-behaved little waterfall. I can’t finish my recollection of this miracle without repeating an anecdote…
Mozart was a devoted lover of animals, and especially birds. On 4th June 1784, he bought a starling and taught it to sing the opening bars of his newly-composed K.453. Mozart loved this musical little creature and, when it died, three years after its debut performance, he presided at the bird’s funeral in his garden with full ceremony and a choir. Mozart wrote music so delectable it might have been composed by a divine spirit brought up on the music of the celestial spheres. He also wrote doggerel – but doggerel that expressed the same innocence as his limpid musical sublimities. Here’s the funeral ode he composed – recited with appropriate gravity – at Starling’s graveside:
“Here rests a bird called Starling,
A foolish little Darling.
He was still in his prime
When he ran out of time,
And my sweet little friend
Came to a bitter end,
Creating a terrible smart
Deep in my heart.”
It should be called Mozart’s Other Requiem.
It couldn’t last. The next piece I endured was Wagner’s garish, heavy-handed overture to Tannhauser. This work takes reckless and tasteless extravagance so far it falls off the edge of the cliff. But don’t underrate Wagner who is a subtle composer: he is a genius when treading that fine line between vulgarity and obscenity. You feel ill after that overture – as from Ngaio Marsh’s surfeit of lampreys.
Let’s move on. Paganini next, an egoist on pep-pills who makes the violin sound like an elastic band that’s gone out of tune. This was an example of the sort of music I described as not for listening to. In fact, it wasn’t music at all, but only an advertisement for the original rock star Paganini himself and his gymnastic emphysema. And it was an insult to that noble instrument, the violin. Paganini’s performances are not what the fiddle was made for. To change the instrumentation slightly, it was as if you thought the best use for a Steinway grand piano was to chop it up for firewood.
After that and the Pavarotti, I was in need of redemption. Thank God – and Joseph Haydn – my redemption was just around the corner, delivered by the sounds of his oratorio The Creation. This is part of the great and mighty wonder which turned Haydn from his lowly start in life to develop into the master of both the symphony and the string quartet. His The Creation reveals him as the master of the sacred drama too.
It opens in a miasma of chordal progression which is going nowhere. But this is deliberate, for we are back to the opening words of the Bible, and Haydn is here creating the representation of the primeval chaos: And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. When we think we can endure the dissonances no longer, we come to And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be LIGHT, and there was LIGHT. A sudden fortissimo light. Never did the simple chord of C-major sound with such divine authority.
Creation, as God would tell you, requires a great deal of guile. But with God, as with Joseph Haydn, this guile produces a transcendental simplicity. The Bible tells us that God saw the light and it was good. So is Haydn’s Creation: it is very good. And it resounds with Papa Haydn’s relentless cheerfulness. Next comes the creation of the various animals. They all enter light-heartedly, thankful for their creation and, above all, with Haydn’s ebullient joyousness that makes Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals sound like a procession of carthorses.
In this work, Haydn orchestrates the whole cosmic drama of our origins. The ineffable wonder is that he makes the mystery of existence sound homely.
When it comes to broadcast music, you turn on the wireless and sit down ready to take pot luck.