What is it about the string quartet? Why is a form that is so intimately linked to the history of music, so tied to the greats of the past, still so popular with composers today? The symphony is now a rare beast, even the concerto is often written almost apologetically, and yet the string quartet – which for the general public may represent almost the quintessence of classical form – seems to go from strength to strength.
I’ve wondered about this before, but the question came back to me the other night after hearing a performance of Jörg Widmann’s Fourth Quartet (out of five), but also having seen that James Dillon’s Eighth had just been premiered, as had Rebecca Saunders’ “Unbreathed” to great acclaim. Nor do you have to look far to find other examples: the ten quartets of Peter Maxwell Davies, Wolfgang Rihm’s thirteen and counting (I’m writing this listening to his Third Quartet), and it doesn’t make much difference what particular style or aesthetic the composer comes from, Philip Glass and Brian Ferneyhough don’t have much in common except for fine string quartets.
Part of the answer must lie in practicalities, in cost and economy. A string quartet is more likely to be played than something written for a hundred-strong symphony orchestra; it’s more easily transportable, more easily fitted in to a regular concert programme (the Widmann I heard was sandwiched between Haydn and Tchaikovsky). Another reason surely is the commitment to new music by many quartets, especially younger quartets who have followed the example set by the indefatigable Ardittis (the Kronos having in my view taken the wrong path with their move into world music): Quatour Diotima, Minguet Quartett, and the Heath Quartet are just the first names to come to mind.
But there must be more to it than that. Perhaps it’s linked to another question: Why the string quartet and not the string trio? The trio is too simple and the difference that the second violin makes is remarkable, leading to the perfect combination and balance allowing for complexity and clarity, add a second viola or cello and the balance is lost again.
Unless of course your name is Mozart or Schubert.
It is such a cliché: If at first you don’t succeed… We’ve all been given the same advice – don’t give up, keep trying, persevere, and so on. Easy to say when you’re the one giving the advice, not so easy when you’re on the receiving end of repeated rejections.
Twice I entered the Ilkley Literature Festival Short Story Competition and was excited to be short-listed only to have my hopes dashed with not so much as a Highly Commended. How could the judge be so blind to my obvious talents? So, come 2017 and I am in two minds – do I either give it one last go or abandon my efforts completely? Well, you can guess the answer, I don’t just give it a go, I decide to go in all guns blazing and enter three stories, taking the view that the more tickets you buy the better your chances of winning the lottery. And I did, sort of anyway. Two of the three were short-listed, and one of those two pieces (though not the one that I liked the most!) ended up with third prize.
So I was thrilled right? Perhaps. A bit. But then the nagging doubts crept in again. Third-place? After all that effort is that the best I can do? And if it is, then what’s the point of continuing? Another rejection came in for a project I’d worked very hard on. Perhaps I’ve reached the summit of my ability, I’m not going to go any further and I’d be better off spending my time watching daytime TV. I don’t know, I’m still in the same two minds. I can hear my father’s voice telling me not to be so stupid and to keep trying, but taking the hint from multiple rejections is very tempting.
We all know how unreliable childhood memories can be. Those remembered long hot summers when in fact it rained all the time; those happy family holidays when we have wiped from our memory the arguments and bickering. And the books, music and TV programmes of our youth? How often do they live up to our recollection of them? Hardly ever.
Starting to grow my record collection as a schoolboy in the 1970s, I was constrained by the limitations of pocket money that over a few years ranged from £1 per month to £3 – partly depending on a highly complex algorithm designed by my father that linked financial rewards to school grades. I used to get the money on a Friday evening, and then by Saturday lunchtime it had been spent in the local record shop (remember those?). This meant one LP a month that had to be chosen carefully to get the most out of my limited resources; make a bad choice and I was stuck with a lemon and a whole month to wait before I could buy anything else. And they weren’t cheap, not in real terms compared with today. With a new full-price LP costing around £2.99 – going up to £3.25 for a Deutsche Grammophon release (you had to pay extra for that smart yellow label with the tulip crown) – I needed really kind teachers to afford anything other than the budget labels such as EMI’s Classics for Pleasure, which is where I discovered André Cluytens’ Beethoven. Not that I knew or cared who André Cluytens was, I just wanted to buy some Beethoven symphonies.
With the original LPs long lost, I can’t say with certainty which I bought, but they definitely included the Eroica, Pastoral and the Seventh – all from his Berlin Philharmonic cycle recorded in the late 50s right at the beginning of the stereo era (and interestingly that means it’s the Berlin Phil pre-Karajan). A warm memory of those recordings has stayed with me over the last 40 years, recordings that first enabled me to really get to know Beethoven. So it was with a little trepidation that I recently bought the symphonies again on CD (about £10 for the set – how times have changed), and with no little joy to discover that in this case my memory was correct. They still give enormous pleasure all these years later, even with a CD collection that includes complete cycles by the likes of Furtwängler, Brüggen, Rattle, Gardiner, Abbado, and Böhm, as well as countless individual recordings. They are immensely civilised performances, no suggestion of a Cluytens style or sound, he simply lets the music be itself, and even the recorded sound is better than many later recordings.
André Cluytens died fifty years ago this month. The teenage me didn’t know him from Adam, and he’s still not really remembered in the same way as someone like, say, Fritz Reiner, but he should be.
Discovering a new writer or artist, or at least someone new to you, can be a wonderful experience. This is particularly enjoyable when they are starting out on their career. For me this happened with the music of John Adams. This led to a period of discovery, travelling whenever I could to wherever a piece of his was being played. What made it more special still was that at that time John Adams was known to only a few of us; a secret pleasure shared only by a few initiates.
The other side of the coin is when you “discover” someone who is already famous. Recently I’ve been asking myself: How on earth have I never before read anything by Penelope Lively? Even then my discovery came by accident, I intended to read something by Penelope Fitzgerald. Instead, getting my Penelopes confused, I took out from the library Penelope Lively’s How it All Began. But what joy did I find. What wonderful, unforced eloquence. What deep sympathy, empathy with her characters; even for those who on the face it don’t deserve it. How can a hand on a knee be imbued with such an emotional charge? If you’ve read the book, you’ll know whose hand and whose knee I mean. If you haven’t read it, then go and get a copy.
I really am embarrassed. I consider myself reasonably well-read, and yet here is someone who was scarcely a name to me before, writing with such humanity. The only consolation I have is that instead of having to wait two years for another book to come out, I can straight away start to read all her earlier work.
Looking at the West Yorkshire Playhouse programme for the first part of 2017, I am struck by the fact that three of the Big Shows are not properly plays at all, but adaptations for the stage of famous films and novels: La Strada, The Graduate and The Grapes of Wrath. This seems to be a trend, and WYP is certainly not unique in going this way, even The Shawshank Redemption (one of the most loved films of all time) is now a play, but it worries me.
Of course, adaptations of existing source material have been a feature of the stage since Shakepeare’s day and probably long before. Sometimes they are incredibly successful (Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black for example), but are these adaptations really justified artistically or are they – as I fear – a cynical way of getting an audience by trading on the reputation of something that is already successful, well-known and popular? I struggle to imagine what a stage version of The Graduate will bring to the table to replace the magical chemistry between Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft.
There are so many great plays out there. The greats of the canon; forgotten works that should be revived; young new talent. Wouldn’t it be better to concentrate on these?
A first post in my new blog. Sometimes I will be talking about music, sometimes writing, sometimes…who knows? This one though is definitely music.
This year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival has just come to an end. The 39th Festival no less. I first went to HCMF back in the mid-1980s when it was run by Richard Steinitz. One year there was a memorable visit by John Cage, another time a young John Adams. The likes of Xenakis, Berio and Birtwistle featured prominently, and I remember showing Arne Nordheim the way to the Town Hall one night when he was lost. Composers who I think of as being absolute masters of the late twentieth century. Then in 1993 I moved abroad not to return until 2010 and when I started going back to Huddersfield I found that it had changed. Or at least so it seemed.
Instead of the Big Names of contemporary music, composers likely to be featured by the BBC at the Proms for example, there was more of an emphasis on the extreme fringes of the avant-garde. Composers I had never even heard of such as Rebecca Saunders and Georg Friedrich Haas. Music that often lived in the space where contemporary classical music (for want of a better term) met experimental jazz and improvisation. And I have to admit that at first I was disappointed: Where were the heroes of my youth? And then, even more alarmingly, I started to worry that as I was growing older my tastes were starting to ossify. Although my wife thinks that I listen to “strange music”, it seemed to me that too many of the concerts were too strange even for me.
So, realising that perhaps the fault lay with me and not the music, I went to a lunchtime concert featuring the Australian group Elision and composers I didn’t know, and where I was (almost literally – it was very loud) blown away by Aaron Cassidy’s The wreck of former boundaries for 2 trumpets with clarinet, saxophone, trombone, contrabass, lap-steel guitar and multi-channel electronics. A composer who I had never heard of writing music of visceral power, played with stunning virtuosity by the two solo trumpets. Highly dissonant, and yet the spirit of free jazz (Ornette Coleman an influence on the music) never seemed too far away.
In short it was wonderful (as was Rebecca Saunders’ Skin in another concert) and it reminded me of the importance of taking a chance on things, and keeping open ears and an open mind. No matter how old you are.