Brahms – Symphony No 3

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Seriously, I love Brahms. I went to music college and realised I had played all the solo clarinet works by Brahms after six months and decided that that would do (yes I am boiling down what was actually quite a difficult time into a vaguely amusing anecdote). At university I got pretty obsessed with reading all the letters between Brahms and Clara Schumann. I have seen his glasses in a museum. I have very much enjoyed listening to these recordings of him (potentially) speaking and playing the piano.

It is also worth noting that I don’t just love Brahms musically, but I am not the only one….

brahmsIt’s acceptable to have a crush on a man that is 150 years older than you, right?! I mean, look at these eyes! Anyway, I’ve now played all of his Symphonies and they are an absolute joy, even if they also rip your heart out. I’ve played a mixture of first and second parts when I’ve played these symphonies and both parts are completely gorgeous and engrossing to play. I’m hoping at some point I’ll get to play the alternative parts in future. Anyway, here are the notes I wrote about his Third Symphony for this time around.


Brahms is often referred to as one of “the three Bs” of classical music, alongside Bach and Beethoven. But for Brahms the power of Beethoven’s musical legacy was too much to bear and the weight of the Beethovenian standards he set for himself meant it took Brahms 20 years to write his first symphony. Fortunately, his three other symphonies each took only about a year. Music critic and Brahms enthusiast Eduard Hanslick described his Third Symphony as ‘artistically the most perfect’, and it was immediately successful after its premiere in 1883.

When Brahms was writing his Third Symphony, he was a confirmed bachelor who had just reached the age of 50. He had taken for himself the motto ‘Frei aber froh’ (Free but happy). Translated into music, this motto becomes the motif F-A-F, and this opens the symphony in a powerful statement. However this soon gives way to flowing passages in the winds, though the motif appears again as this opening section repeats. The layers of yearning in the music build up, until the movement ends with a more settled repetition of this opening motif.

The second movement, something of a melancholy intermezzo, opens with solos in the woodwinds supported by the strings. There is stillness that blossoms into beautiful but churning passages, a glimpse back to some of the drama of the first movement, but the stillness wins out. The yearning continues in the third movement which is full of mournful beauty. The melody introduced by the cellos has a singing quality that is taken and developed around the orchestra to eke out every possible emotion from it.

The final movement returns to high drama, at first suppressing the tension and excitement until it has to burst out across the orchestra. The drama plays itself out until the it dissipates, and the symphony draws to a peaceful and restful conclusion.

 

 

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Ethel Smyth – Serenade in D

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I really enjoyed learning more about Ethel Smyth to write these programme notes, whether it was listening to her talk about knowing Brahms, reading about her favourite dog Marco, or scanning the delightful letters between her and Tchaikovsky. Continue reading

Wilton’s Music Hall

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For most of my London life, I’ve lived to the east. Not trendy-Shoreditch-Hoxton-Dalston east, but sometimes-grimy-sometimes-shiny docklands-east. We aren’t exactly overflowing with cultural venues in this part of London (unless you count the O2 and given that the only thing I’ve ever seen there was ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’, it doesn’t quite fit in to this blog) but there is one little gem that deserves to be shouted about.

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I’ll be completely honest, to begin with I thought of Wilton’s as a nice bar because that’s all I’d really used it for (in fairness it wasn’t fully open the first time I visited). It was only last summer that I visited it for music purposes and got a full taste of what this little wonder had to offer.

Wilton’s is one of the only surviving original music halls, which it became in 1859. Before that, the building started life as terraced houses and a pub, before having a concert hall

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Wilton’s as it used to be (the Mahogany bar)

added. John Wilton bought it in the 1850s and enlarged the space, opening a ‘Magnificent New Music Hall’, though it only lasted until the 1880s. In 1888 it was bought and turned into a Methodist Mission – which had a sadly important role in this impoverished part of east London. The Mission lasted until the 1850s and then was left empty and was threatened with demolition. Campaigners, well, campaigned and the building became Grade I listed in the 1970s. Even in its unrepaired state, artists began to be drawn to it, and some performances began to be put on (and it was even used in a few music videos). The building began to be restored in 2012 and opened fully in 2015.

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So last summer, my friend suggested it as a nice place to go for a drink and listen to some music, and it really is! The spaces are wonderful – full of interesting historical features, with a great selection of drinks and also DELICIOUS pizzas. We went for Monday Night Music – a series of free performances in the bar, and it was lovely to sit, listen and soak up the atmosphere. We went in July and it was a warm night – it’s lovely because all the windows were open, and there was space to be outside at the front of the building. Quite different from most ‘London beer gardens’ i.e. standing on the pavement next to rush hour traffic.

eno paul bunyan - eno chorus (c) genevieve girling (2)-x2In September I then went to see English National Opera perform Britten’s Paul Bunyan in the auditorium. And it’s gorgeous! So atmospheric, and the production really made fantastic use of the space. (I wasn’t so sure about the opera itself, but the performance and the venue were brilliant). There’s something so beautiful about the way the whole place has been restored: it’s not been glossed over, there are rough edges and it’s basically all open brickwork. Wilton’s sells itself as a wedding venue too and it’s easy to see why – it’s a gorgeous, historical and cultural spot with just the right amount of hipster charm.

Wilton’s is definitely somewhere I’d recommend (and somewhere I’ll be visiting again), whether you’re looking for a performance, or just somewhere a bit different to have a drink and take in a bit of London’s cultural history.

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Wilton’s is on Grace’s alley, just off Cable Street. The nearest stations are Tower Gateway or Shadwell (DLR), or Tower Hill (underground). You can read more about Wilton’s history on their website, and find out about performances too.

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What are we saying about ourselves when we go to see Handel’s Messiah?

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In December, you can barely move for Messiahs. I suspect several singer’s careers are heavily subsidised by belting out ‘Hallelujah‘ or ‘we like sheep!’ a few times during the festive season. It’s (more than) a bit of a Christmas staple, and I do like to have a listen to a recording during December to help me feel festive – though usually whilst I’d working or doing something else as I find it does go on a little bit. But this year I went a long with some friends to see a performance at the Barbican. It was real luxury casting: the Britten Sinfonia with Sophie Bevan, Iestyn Davies, Allan Clayton and Roderick Williams. No surprise to learn that it was sold out. But it occurred to me during the performance – what does it say about us that we all went along for 2.5 hours of Handel?

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I’m not just being obtuse – my thought process was partly sparked off by an essay I’d written during my Masters studies, with the utterly tantalising title of ‘What can we learn from a dossier de presse documenting the Handel Commemoration Festival of 1859?’ In particular, I focused on a Handel centenary celebration where a performance of Messiah at the Crystal Palace featured a choir of nearly 3000, which an audience of 19680 according to the press report. Once upon a time, Handel was considered a saviour of British music in a country that was nicknamed ‘the land without music.’ Some of Handel’s belongings were on display to the public and given the loaded description of “relics”. In George Bernard Shaw’s words “Handel is not a mere composer in England: he is an institution.”

The event is surrounded in Imperialist imagery – the organ built for the festival was adorned with Egyptian cartouches, and another Handel work was described as a ‘Thanksgiving for victory.’ Let’s not forget, we’re approaching the height of Empire in the mid 19th cenutry. In newspaper reports, the organisation of the event is compared to military success, the stage is a ship loaded with freight, and there is even a comment on how unsuccessful the French would have been if they’d tried to organise a similar event of their own.  The British people’s love of Handel was used to demonstrate that they were quite musical, thank you very much.

We are accused by some of our neighbours of a want of musical feeling, and this may be true with regard to the flimsy productions of many composers, but the grand and sublime works of the great masters, particularly when combined with religious sentiments, are better appreciated in this country than in any other part of the world.

Which brings me to the slightly strange feeling I had during the performance. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with going to see Messiah. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with bobbing along as a choir sings ‘Unto us a child is boooo-ooooooo-ooooo-oooorn.’ But I couldn’t help but think, during this bizarre and worrying political climate and with Brexit a mere 3 months away, what will people say in 200 years time about the sheer number of Messiahs taking place? Obviously this is not a scholarly article (if only I had the time and resources) but I think it’s interesting to ponder – are we being sentimental and christmassy and cultural, or are we holding up old-fashioned ideals?

PARTICULARLY the bizarre moment when everyone stands up during the Hallelujah chorus! This was my first Messiah and I’m not ashamed to say that I mouthed ‘WTF’ to my friend. Is this a weird British tradition?

All I know is that the Spanish friend I went with said afterwards ‘Now I feel so British!’ but the British friend I went with just said ‘It just sounds like Christmas to me’. Either way, 2.5 hours is too much live Handel for me. I think I’ll stick to the recording next year and go to the sing-a-long Muppet Christmas Carol instead….