Tag Archive | Gustav Mahler

Aimez Vous Brahms?…or Bach?…or Beethoven?

Susan Tomes

I don’t do rock and pop.  If that sounds snobbish, it’s not meant to.  It’s just that I was thoroughly bitten by the classical music bug long before my teenage hormones started to kick in.  Mind you, up till I was 10, our gramophone could only play 78s.  My favourite slabs of shellac were the Grasshopper’s Dance, Ghost Riders in the Sky, and the last five minutes of the ‘1812’ Overture (we didn’t have the rest).  Then, one glorious day, a second-hand ‘radiogram’ was purchased and we could finally play LPs–which had, after all, been around for the last 18 years or so. My parents were not ‘early adopters’.

So, at last, I could listen to entire symphonies and concertos: Beethoven’s 5th, Dvorak’s New World, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. I was in rapture.  Up till then I’d listened to pretty well anything that was going on the radio.  I loved Alan (Fluff) Freeman’s’ ‘Pick of the Pops’, and especially Jack Jackson’s wonderfully surreal ‘Radio Roundup’. Once we’d got our radiogram I even bought a Beatles single.  But, gradually, I became driven mad by the boring, incessant rhythmic repetitions of the drums in most pop singles.  It was a kind of torture.

Two further factors then conspired to push me further towards classical music.  The BBC Light Programme (which also included all my favourite comedies), the Home Service, and the Third Programme (a wonderful intellectual challenge to a precocious kid) were replaced in 1967 by Radios 1 to 4. And, not long afterwards, my father bought me my first open-reel tape recorder.  Now I could augment my pathetically small collection of LPs with anything I cared to record from the rich and varied output of the new Radio 3.

The result was that, from roughly 1967 to 1973, I stopped listening to pop and rock music altogether. Later, I would come to realise that I had missed out on probably the richest and most exciting period in the history of popular music, but at the time I didn’t care. Once at University, friends would introduce me to jazz/funk crossover, and prog rock, both of which I loved. But pop music remained, and has remained, almost entirely alien.  So, for me, one of the supposedly fundamental reasons why we care about music just doesn’t apply: nostalgia.  When I listen to my favourite piece of music, Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, the only nostalgic memory it conjures for me is my excitement at first getting to know the work itself, in performances by Boulez and Barbirolli, not anything else about my life at the time (which was probably very boring, anyway).

So I have always had a fierce interest in how and why music affects us so powerfully, and over the years I’ve read many books and articles on the subject. But only recently I’ve come to realise that most of these studies and explorations relate to the effect of music as a whole, and most of that is therefore irrelevant to me as someone, so to speak, deaf to popular music.  What fascinates and obsesses me is, what is so special and powerful about classical music?  This was brought home to me forcefully earlier this month, when we attended six concerts in three days at the superb Lammermuir Festival. The music-making was outstanding, but why was it affecting me so powerfully?

In the last few weeks I’ve read four books which have brought me about as close as, at this time, I think we can come to answering that question. They’re by, respectively, a composer, a performer, a music educator, and finally a listener who, like me, has minimal experience of actually playing music.

The first is ‘Experiencing Music’ by the Danish composer Vagn Holmboe, who is of the generation that links Carl Nielsen to Paul Ruders.  I’ve long thought him as one of the greatest composers of the 20thCentury, his cycles symphonies and string quartets easily the equal of those of his near-contemporary Shostakovich. I was very excited, therefore, to find out that some of his writings about music had been published in English, back in the early 1970s.  A few minutes on the wonderful Abe Books website, and a copy was on its way to me. Holmboe, just like his music, is wonderfully clear, unfussy and honest about what it’s like to be a composer, and his is the best account I’ve ever read of the mental processes involved in imagining and creating something like a symphony.

Next, the educator.  Back in the 60s and 70s, ‘Talking About Music’ was a staple of the BBC Radio airwaves, and a wonderful introduction, for me, to many aspects of classical music. It was presented by composer, pianist and conductor Antony Hopkins, who had one of the great radio voices, and a marvellously lucid way of explaining even music as challenging as that of Michael Tippett.  So I was delighted to come across a copy of his 1979 book ‘Understanding Music’, which is probably the best ever introduction to classical music for the music lover, but non-performer.  Even after more than 50 years of loving classical music, I learned a lot from it.

The ‘listener’ in this group of writers is none other than Armando Iannucci, whose ‘Hear me out—all my music’ was published just last year. I’ve been a huge fan of his since we saw his two-man show with David Schneider on the Fringe many years ago, and his ‘The Death of Stalin’ was my film of 2017. Iannucci is a few years younger than me, but nonetheless he went to some of the same SNO concerts as me in the 70s, and borrowed records from the same Glasgow Library. And we even love some of the same pieces—especially Mahler’s Sixth (as Berg said: ‘despite Beethoven’s Pastoral, the only Sixth’). Iannucci may not have brought me closer to understanding whyclassical music affects us both so strongly, but it was reassuring to find someone so ‘cool’ who shared so many of my feelings about the subject!

But the best of all these books was the last, that by the performer. Susan Tomes is an Edinburgh pianist who has spent the bulk of her career playing chamber music with two very successful groups, Domus, and the Florestan Trio.  She’s written a number of books, but I’ve so far only read the most recent: ‘Sleeping in Temples’, and I’ve never read anything so wise, so humane and so insightful about the life and mental states of a classical musician. Really, anyone setting out on a career in classical music should read this book. It will be a vade mecum for them for years to come.

Ultimately, Tomes doesn’t answer the question of why classical music can affect us so powerfully, but she is very eloquent on its importance, and she comes up with two definitions that I find really helpful. First, she talks about the enormous value and importance of what she calls ‘long form’ music—music that takes half an hour or more to perform, and listen to–as opposed to a three minute pop song.  She believes, and I wholeheartedly agree, that the effort involved in appreciating ‘long form’ music is of vital importance in our wider life experiences. And then she proposes moving away from the traditional opposition between ‘light’ and ‘serious’ (or, as she writes, ‘heavy’) music, and instead proposes taking an analogy from Gaelic music, where the Piobaireachd is known as the ‘big music’ and everything else is the ‘small music’.

For Susan Tomes, classical music is the ‘big music’, and pop music is the ‘small music’, and for all the current global domination of the latter, she believes that, with movements like ‘slow food’ and ‘slow towns’, the ‘big music’ may be set for a resurgence. I hope she’s right.

So, do I have my own ideas about why classical music can be so powerful? Of course I do, though they have (as yet) little or no scientific basis. I believe that classical music—and other forms of complex, ‘long form’ music such as jazz, or Indian classical music—meshes with our brains at a deep, subconscious level. I believe that this happens even for those many music-lovers (like my late mother) who think they love classical music just for the big tunes and the emotional sweep, and can’t listen to anything more challenging than Shostakovich.  I believe that this effect works on us even when (as I’ve often been guilty of doing) listening to classical music while reading. For me, it’s the only drug I’m truly, irrevocably, addicted to.


© Robert Livingston October 2018



To Tweet or not to Tweet


We’ve been slow to catch up with the wave of live satellite relays now being offered by Eden Court. Last week, however, we made it to Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie from the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, and we found it an utterly engaging experience. In fact, I suspect that, for a very long and wholly unfamiliar Baroque Opera like this, the cinema experience might actually be the best way to see it for the first time, better even than being in the opera house itself. In the auditorium I could imagine my attention wandering during some of the long passages of declamation, but in the cinema, sensitive camerawork, and judicious use of close-ups, really drew us into the personal tragedies at the heart of the work. We did miss the champagne, though.

So, we’d give the whole experience a gold star, except for one really surprising element. As we in Inverness waited for the curtain to go up in Sussex, Glyndebourne regaled us with advertisements for future live relays (fair enough), and also with repeated injunctions to ‘get involved’ by tweeting during the screening! As avid fans of Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review on BBC Radio 5 Live, we were horrified at such a flagrant incitement to break the Wittertainment Code of Conduct. Needless to say no-one in the small but select Inverness audience did anything so crass.

The Code of Conduct started out, as many things do on this rather anarchic programme, as a joke between Mayo and Kermode, but it has been taken up by many cinemas around the world who see its ten rules, jokes aside, as simply good common sense for ensuring a pleasurable movie-going experience. For Glyndebourne to encourage its relay audiences to have their phones on at all, with all the light pollution that implies, and with the risk that not all of them will be set to ‘silent’, was really astonishing. I have written to complain!

But I think there’s a deeper philosophical issue here. ‘Get involved!’ exhorted the Glyndebourne advert, but surely, any audience member who is taking the time to compose and send a tweet is absolutely not involved in the gripping tragedy and the surreal spectacle unfolding on the screen. Certainly, over three hours and 45 minutes (including interval) I didn’t find my own involvement weakening for a moment, whereas during the film of Les Miserables a few weeks ago I was so bored I could have composed an entire novel in 140-character tweets.

The ‘involvement’ which Glyndebourne meant is social, not personal, and the two are not necessarily compatible. As someone who retains enough naivety to want to be made to laugh, cry, gasp and even hide behind the sofa while watching any drama, I do worry that there is a culture of objectivity and irony that is becoming all-pervasive. Why else do movie trailers now reveal almost the entire plot of a film, including the most exciting action sequences? Why does the Radio Times introduce each week’s new Dr Who monster before the new episode is screened? How else can perfectly normal people sit through such torture-porn movies as the Saw franchise? (I write as someone who nearly had to leave Pan’s Labyrinth at three different points in the movie, because of the violence.)

Mark Kermode even argues that it would be wrong to tweet or text during a film screening, even if you were the only person in the cinema, because it shows disrespect for the film-makers. While that rather Zen concept may be taking things a little far, I sympathise with his position. But we have to recognise that history is on the side of the tweeters. Gustav Mahler is credited with the practice of dimming the house lights during the overture of an opera, and then keeping them dim throughout the performance, and that was only at the start of the last century, when electric lighting made such an approach feasible, and it was initially resented by the audience. Prior to that, of course, the opera house was a place to go to see and be seen. French Grand Opera always had a ballet scene in the third or fourth act because that was when the members of the Jockey Club would turn up and expect to be able to see their favourite dancers. Hence, for example, the very rarely performed ballet scene in Verdi’s Otello. One doesn’t imagine the chaps from the Jockey arrived and left in sensitive silence.

It’s often said that it is unwritten codes of conduct that discourage many people from attending concerts, plays, opera and ballet: they’re worried about being made to look stupid because they might do the wrong thing—like applauding between movements. Yet the performers themselves can often be those who are most resistant to change. At the BBC Proms last week musicians were suffering from the heatwave, especially those involved in performing Wagner’s mammoth Ring cycle. In the liberal informality of the Proms, the audience could be in t-shirts and shorts, and several of them encouraged the musicians to discard their white ties and tails and do the same, but it’s the musicians themselves who defend their formal garb, saying it helps to create a sense of occasion.

And of course it is actors who are doing most to fight the menace of the mobile phone, often making up for the pusillanimity of theatre managements, as regular news reports testify Even more difficult is the situation of music venues that keep their bars open during the performance. A few years ago the great Steve Earle famously lost his temper at an Ironworks gig in Inverness, with a group of drinkers who would not shut up during his solo set.

So, am I making a Canute-like gesture in complaining to Glyndebourne? Should I accept that my wish to be profoundly moved, to be taken out of myself, to forget my surroundings, is the product of a relatively short period in cultural history, and that the tweeters, the chatterers and the drinkers are just the modern equivalent of the audiences that bought oranges from Nell Gwyn in 17th century London, or formed the notorious claque in 19th century Paris, or cheered on loquacious music hall MCs less than a century ago? Does the social trump the personal? Perhaps not. We’ve just been discussing how it no longer seems quite so cool to be ‘cool’, or an airhead, and that geeks and nerds are becoming more fashionable. So perhaps in future I may not need to long for the power of Ludwig II of Bavaria, who could command entire productions of Wagner’s operas for which he was the sole member of the audience. In the meantime, Glyndebourne really should think about adopting the Code.

© Robert Livingston

The Fragmented Self – in miniature

What music is in your bones?  If you’re my age, it might be Dylan, or Pink Floyd, or Tamla Motown.  If you’re a bit younger, maybe the Clash or Morrissey.  But, as a nerdish teenager, I turned my back on rock and pop, and so the music that’s not just in my bones, but in my very DNA, or so it feels, is that of Gustav Mahler.


It’s not that I’d call Mahler my ‘favourite’ composer—I go back more often to the bottomless wells of Bach and Beethoven.  But he may be the most ‘necessary’ composer, so embedded is his music in my psyché.  So every now and then, I just have to hear some of his music.  Needless to say I have dozens of recordings of the symphonies, but, living in the Highlands, there aren’t that many opportunities to hear them live.  In fact, in twenty years, I can remember only three, all at Eden Court: two from the RSNO–a lyrical, poetic Fourth under Stephane Denève, and a rip-roaring Fifth from the great Marin Alsop—and one, a couple of years ago, from the Netherlands Youth Orchestra.  Sadly, thanks to truly abysmal publicity, the players on that occasion outnumbered the audience, but when the fabulous young musicians raised the roof in the finale, we happy few did our best to match them with a standing ovation.

Strictly speaking, there was a fourth performance, though in an unusual form: back in the 90s the SCO brought Schoenberg’s reduction of the song-symphony ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ to Eden Court, and remarkably effective it proved to be. So when I saw a concert promoted as ‘Mahler in Miniature’ I was both intrigued, and grateful for any chance to hear one of the symphonies played in concert.

The three concerts under this title, in Dornoch, Strathpeffer and Nairn, were the initiative of a young Inverness-born conductor, Tomas Leakey, who has put together a group of local musicians—a mix of professional and amateur—as the Inverness Mahler Players.  That’s quite a combination—a fledgling conductor, with a newly formed ensemble, attempting to convince us of the viability of performing Mahler’s hour-long Fourth Symphony with just 14 instrumentalists (two of them percussionists!).  I headed for Strathpeffer Pavilion with an uneasy mix of anticipation and nervousness.

Tomas is nothing if not bold, and had put together a taxingly ambitious programme, kicking off with Martinu’s delightful Nonet, a cheery piece, that in its rhythmic trickery probably presents almost as many challenges as the Mahler.  A few uncertain moments apart, this was a charming experience, and was followed by a genuinely lovely account of Debussy’s ‘Faun’ in the reduced version by Schoenberg pupil Erwin Stein.  So far so good.  But these were only the foothills…

What unfolded after the interval was quite magical.  By the beginning of the slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony I’d pretty well forgotten that this was a reduced version, and when we reached the climax, when the gates of Heaven are thrown open, I’d tears in my eyes.  Best of all, Tomas had engaged a wonderful young soprano, Emily Mitchell, for the all important solo part in the last movement.  If I say that she reminded me of a young Lucia Popp, I can give no higher praise.

Mahler is all about transitions.  These huge movements, often lasting 15 minutes and more, are a mosaic of tempo, rhythmic, and harmonic changes, often within a very few bars of each other.  Underplay these, and the music can sound bland and strait-jacketed.  Make too much of them and…well, only Leonard Bernstein could get away with that.  I’m no conductor, but I don’t imagine these challenges are much diminished by performing with a reduced chamber ensemble, and then you have to add the new difficulty of balancing such an odd mix, with single strings, one horn, one each of woodwind, a piano and a harmonium, and not forgetting those two crucial percussionists.  Tomas Leakey, for all his youth and inexperience, is clearly a highly capable musician, and a talent to watch.  He managed those transitions, and balance problems, to the manner born, and shaped the whole arc of the symphony with a quiet and unassertive assurance.  He also drew from his players, many familiar from other local ensembles, playing of huge concentration and commitment.  It’s invidious to single out an individual musician, but that one horn player, given the prominence of her instrument in both the full and reduced scores, was truly heroic.

The arrangement used is a recent one, and is part of a series of such Mahler reductions by the German conductor Klaus Simon .  Other performances, around the world, of this version have been highly praised and I can understand why: it’s been carried out with enormous imagination and insight and reveals (as one writer put it) an X-ray of the symphony, making it easier to hear how it has been put together.  I was amazed at how great an emotional impact it made, and started to think of comparisons in other art forms: Mahler with fourteen players would be like, say, ‘Hamlet’ with three actors—Oh, hang on, I’ve seen that, back in the late 70s on the Edinburgh Fringe, with Pocket Theatre of Cumbria.  Fun, but a fragment only of the original.  Mahler in Miniature is much more like the real thing.

So did this experience help me to understand why Mahler’s music has penetrated me so deeply?  It certainly proved that it’s not just about the sheer aural and visual spectacle of the huge forces that the symphonies are originally scored for.  Perhaps the key lies in those all-important transitions.  Within the immense architectural framework of each symphony, Mahler shifts mood and expression with the speed of thought. And those moods and expressions, as many commentators have pointed out, run the full gamut from schmaltz to transcendence.

Mahler was not only a contemporary of Freud in Vienna (something played on brilliantly in Frank Tallis’s series of novels), but he actually consulted Freud on one occasion, near the end of his life.  Mahler was therefore one of the first artists to portray the fragmented self, capable simultaneously of the highest ideals and the most mundane physical reactions. Listening to Mahler’s music, for me, is like listening to a depiction of what it means to be me—or any other human being, in all our confused imperfections. He holds,  as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, (‘Hamlet’ again), whether in full strength or ‘lite’ versions.