Stravinsky was, of course, a chameleon who changed his styles as often as Picasso. Six years after the premiere of his Rite of Spring had caused a riot in Paris, he embarked on his neo-classical period with the one-act ballet “Pulcinella”. It qualifies for tonight’s list because it sounds as much like Pergolesi as Stravinsky. And until recently that was thought to be its derivation. But recent researchers have debunked even this happy bluff: it is now thought that the original music may not have been by Pergolesi at all but by such luminaries as Domenico Gallo, Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer, Carlo Ignazio Monza andAlessandro Parisotti. So it is a double bluff, I suppose.
Stravinsky made a delicious suite from the ballet music. It cannot fail to raise a smile: here it is, fabulously played by the Academy of St Martins in the Fields on YouTube. If you become enthused, Abbado and the LSO recorded the complete ballet, which is here on YouTube. For my money, I would probably stick with the suite.
Reynaldo Hahn’s “A Chloris” is here because it is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. But why is it almost sung by a soprano, when it is clearly a man who utters the words?
S'il est vrai, Chloris, que tu m'aimes,
Mais j'entends, que tu m'aimes bien,
Je ne crois point que les rois mêmes
Aient un bonheur pareil au mien.
Que la mort serait importune
De venir changer ma fortune
A la félicité des cieux!
Tout ce qu'on dit de l'ambroisie
Ne touche point ma fantaisie
Au prix des grâces de tes yeux.
If it be true, Chloris, that you love me,
(And I'm told you love me dearly),
I do not believe that even kings
Can match the happiness I know.
Even death would be powerless
To alter my fortune
With the promise of heavenly bliss!
All that they say of ambrosia
Does not stir my imagination
Like the favour of your eyes!
The secret may lie in the hidden depths of poet and composer. Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) had many intimate friendships with women; but, though frequently critical of homosexuals and homosexuality, was in the closet himself. Whether that is why Proust is recorded as having said “Everything I have ever done has always been thanks to Reynaldo,” I have no idea. Equally fascinating is the poet Théophile de Viau (1590-1626): born a Protestant, a ferocious soldier after his conversion to Catholicism, wrote a play telling the story of Pyramus and Thysbe and who died in the prison at Chatelet while awaiting trial on “morals charges” (at a time when homosexuality carried the death penalty) and writing licentious verses.
Here are five versions (no apologies) from the very many that are available, each wonderful in its way: and together they should ensure that this song stays with you all week. Worth playing through a good system. Susan Graham, lusciously generous with her affection for the piece; Ailyn Pérez, who cracks the first note, but listen to the way she moulds the word “Chloris”; Pumeza Matshikiza (of whom I had never heard before) whose French accent is not great but whose voice has the same effect on me as Kiri’s; then “Das ist Kein Frau” and lastly two Millsteins who play with very great tenderness (particularly the pianist). Watch the following performances by Susan Graham, Ailyn Pérez, Pumeza Matshikiza, Das ist keine Frau!!! , two Millsteins.
Finally, for something quite different. Here is a programme note I wrote when we played Arnold Bax’s “Tintagel” in 2004. It is a sensational piece, particularly once one knows what is really going on.
Dermot O’Byrne (1883-1953) was a radical Irish poet whose output was so extreme that some was censored by the English Government. He was also Master of the King’s Music from 1941 until his death in 1953, in which he was rather better known as Arnold Bax. Such were the extraordinary contradictions and contrasts in the life of an intensely romantic and duplicitous life.
The Easter rising of 1917 caused considerable turmoil for Bax, who lost many friends in the reprisals. However, he soon met a young pianist called Harriet Cohen whom old editions of Groves’ Dictionaryrather coyly described as his “intimate friend”. Bax was already married to a Spanish wife. Although, not without provocation, she left him some time later, Bax always maintained to Harriet that his wife’s Catholic sensibilities precluded divorce. It therefore came as rather a shock to Harriet, when the wife finally died in 1948, to discover not merely that she had never been a Catholic but also that Bax had been maintaining yet another woman, by the name of Mary Gleaves, for many years.
But in 1917 Bax’s duplicity was more limited and his passion for Harriet was intensely productive. Sheltering from a storm led to November Woods, which portrays his struggle between (domestic) duty and desire. And the same year saw the composition of his acknowledged masterpiece, Tintagel. In his preface to an early edition, Bax wrote:
“The music opens, after a few introductory bars, with a theme given out on the brass which may be taken as representing the ruined castle, now so ancient and weather-worn almost to seem an emanation of the rock upon which it was built. This subject is worked to a broad diatonic climax and is followed by a long melody for strings which may suggest the serene and almost limitless spaces of ocean. After a while a more restless mood begins to assert itself as though the sea were rising, bringing with it a new sense of stress thoughts of many passionate and tragic incidents in the tales of King Arthur and King Mark and others among the men and women of their time. [He then refers to a passage reminiscent of Tristan and Isolde before continuing] … Soon after there is a great climax suddenly subsiding, followed by a passage which will perhaps convey the impression of immense waves slowly gathering force until they smash upon the impregnable rocks. The theme of the sea is heard again, and the piece ends as it began with a picture of the castle still proudly fronting the sun and wind of centuries.”
True it is that anyone who has been to Tintagel will be able to evoke memories of that magical place on hearing the music. But you do not have to read his programme note very carefully to recognise that Bax had been to Tintagel with Harriet shortly before writing the piece; and that he had been entirely happy to be there. You can, if you choose, hear the rolling waves, the birds and the bees; or, if you prefer, you may hear the encapsulation of an altogether different passion. Either way, the effect is stunning.
by Jeremy Stuart-Smith