Posts Tagged ‘music’
Your voice like strings plucked, and words
You intone give new meaning to the bards;
By your loveliness surround we may yet
Transported anywhere, a-winging like birds.
There is an exhibition going on at the British Museum, London. Anyone who cares to look at it objectively it is going to change the preconceived views one may had about our ancestors. There is a female form more than a wart-and all study of a particular woman, which predates Modigliani. She is carved from a mammoth’s tusk may probably the oldest portrait in the world. Dug from the earth of Moravia in the Czech Republic, she is 26,000 years old. To think this was worked with no more sophisticated than a chip of flint we may even believe art was free indeed when it was vital to our ancestors as their daily meat and spiritual solace. From the same immense campsite, comes another female figure, the celebrated clay woman of Brno.
With her rounded navel and wide hips she is (just as obviously) less of an individual than a form. Indeed she has no face, only a curious, visor-like mask, although her back is attentively described in all its plump folds. To see these two creations at the British Museum is not just a marvel – the oldest portrait, and the oldest ceramic figure ever found – but a revelation about the dawn of culture. For the first clay objects to be fired in those ancient kilns were not pots, as one might imagine, but sculptures.
Music for our ancestors must have meant more than just making sounds. A flute made from solid vulture’s bone (apparently high-toned) probably part of shamanic rites.
Art of animation is presupposed in the same animal depicted in sequential movements, as it rushes along. There were surely toys: miniature figures of baby bison and buffalo, perfectly scaled to an infant’s palm, were carved to stand up on their own tiny feet. If art is so bound up with life and our hunter-gatherer in expressing their life unabashedly used art as a vehicle we may expect some humor thrown in as well. for the exhibition has it: when you spun the ivory disc etched with a small mammoth on one side and a larger version on the other, the baby grew up; an optical illusion still cherished today.
One of the few male figures in this show is a puppet, head and arms connected to the torso by pegs so that they could be manipulated. The face has the something of the Turin Shroud about its eerie eye sockets and skeletal cheeks; twisting in the shadow and firelight of an ice age cave, it must have been a real frightener.
What comes across so clearly is the immense difficulty of making such objects at that time. There are etchings on ivory specially selected for its slight variations in colour, indicative of landscape, where the needle-sharp burin has had to be fashioned from rock. There are carvings in mammoth tusk that took months to make. They know this, at the British Museum, for they have had the Lion Man of Hohlenstein copied: it took the craftsman 420 hours, and he wasn’t retiring to a freezing cave every night.
The lion-man – or man-lion – depicts the king of the beasts standing upright and steady as a man. Talisman, deity, fetish, toy: its function is unclear. But there is no mystery about its origin: it comes straight from the imagination.
It’s often suggested that these works are merely depictions, yet even in the respect of realism this art is superb. Look at the bison cow loping towards you, mouth open as if calling to her calves; look at the reindeer struggling in the rapids, body strong but burled about by the water; or the woman about to give birth, arms simultaneously cradling and shielding her belly in a tender gesture that brings the coming child to mind.
These works are so inflected with character and moment that verisimilitude is by no means their only ambition. The lively bison at the entrance to this show – the male frisky, the female wary – were made more than 20,000 years ago. It’s not just that one cannot think of a single Renaissance sculptor to surpass them, it’s that the men or women who made them had no training, no knowledge of classical sculptures, no modern tools, and were working twice over in the dark.
For these bison were shaped out of clay deep inside a French cave. There was no daylight, and the potential scope and lumens of ice age torches was so limited that these artists are unlikely ever to have seen the whole of their sculptures at once.
Anyone who has seen the cave paintings of Lascaux, Altamira or Chauvet in reproduction or on film will have some sense of the astonishing power and beauty of this art. What the British Museum offers is a unique chance to see it in reality, gathered from all over Europe and in three dimensions. And not the least truth of this great exhibition is that art arrives in the world fully formed. Potent, subtle, imaginative, brilliantly skilled: ice age art stands equal with what follows, proving anew the old adage that there is no progress in art only change.
Just to see this earliest art from another Europe, between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago, would be sufficient in itself, but what is so remarkable is just how deeply it deserves that name of art.
Some scholars refuse to regard these objects as any kind of art because their social purpose cannot be established. Go if you can, and see for yourself. You may wonder if caution has turned these specialists blind.
On one level the show is pure knowledge condensed in the most beautiful forms. It opens a door into the ice age: how the world looked, how human beings looked, how they saw that world. A bison runs at you, hair rippling. A lion leaps, ready to overwhelm its prey from behind. Ivory swans fly through the air, tapering like elegant arrows as they mysteriously disappear overhead.( Laura Cumming ,The Observer)
Ice Age art is a stupendous show.
Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
When Verdi was seven, he was sent to the local parish priest to learn reading, writing and arithmetic. He was a shy boy quick to take offence and subject to anger. But music made him forget everything. Once as an altar boy he was enraptured by the organ music he failed to hear the priest’s repeated calls for water and the wine. At last the priest enraged by the boy’s lack of attention gave a sharp kick on his behind sending down the altar steps.
“God blast you!” shouted the boy as he left the church still smarting from his embarrassment. Some years later in 1828, the church was struck by lightening. Two priests were killed, one of them was the one who had booted Guiseppe down the altar steps.
In his youth operatic impresario Guilio Gatti-Casazza worshipped the musical genius of Verdi. Once he followed the great composer through the streets, not daring to speak to him. Many years later he told Verdi about this.
“What a waste of energy!” exclaimed the master, “at that age with a good pair of legs under you, you should have been following a pretty girl.”
Today morning I had a treat. I heard the intermezzo from cavalleria rusticana and remembered an anecdote that I had written down in my scrapbook. Here it is:
An organ grinder one morning turned up in front of the house of Mascagni. Standing below the window he began to play his famous intermezzo. He played at such fast tempo the composer could not stand it. He rushed to the street telling the organ grinder how his music ought to be played. He adjusted the tempo till it was as he intended it.
Next morning the organ grinder appeared once again and there was a placard in front of his organ. The placard read,’Pupil of Mascagni’
The first time I visited the British Museum in 89 one item that captivated me was the autograph of Beethoven. Alongside was that of Mozart. The tidiness of the latter was totally missing in the work of Beethoven. Comparing these is easier than analyzing why one is distinct from the other.
Yet both have been essential to me. Though I have no musical training to appreciate the merits of a composer from his style, in the manner one uses melodic, rhythmic or textural elements, my responses to both composers have been varied. Whereas one has smoothed my troubled spirit by life’s inconsequential hammerings, as an infant satiated by it mother’s milk, Beethoven has supplied more than ample muscle to keep me going through day’s chore. I require both. Even as I get on with tasks on hand, snatches of his themes are ever in my mind. I can smooth day to my liking.
Is there anything that I may pick out from works of Beethoven as infinitely of high order than others? Given the temperament and cast of my mind second movement in symphonies, the slow movements touch me deeper than others. Whatever I may be doing while the music goes on the background I pause in order to take the delicious passages: Seventh symphony, the third piano concerto are cases in point.
After becoming acquainted with his music for years my ear can note development of a theme, tonic major and minor relationships how bits and pieces of it are scattered throughout the work. Such juxtapositions of key and dynamics give the piece its variety; themes when restated are like memory playing tricks, a sunny brisk passage when restated is in minor key nevertheless balance is achieved. His music almost mirrors life in that that sunny outlook of a child derived from its influences may be transformed by tragic aspects of life. But such major minor relationships do not make life seen separately; overall unity of a Beethoven symphony is in its variety despite the motive force of life merely lets each of us to touch highs and lows of joy and sorrow. If the music has its structure and unity is neither of joy nor of sorrow of life can be isolated. They are part of a design. As long man is subject to such tempests of life music of Beethoven must be relevant to him.
As long as my ears can note the difference between a violin and drum I shall listen to Beethoven. If totally deaf with age I hope my memory shall continue to give my ruined state some semblance of sparkle. I shall end with a quotation of Lenin, ‘I know nothing which is greater than the Appassionato…It is marvelous, superhuman music. I always think with pride –perhaps it is naïve of me-what marvelous things human beings can do. (Maxim Gorky-Days with Lenin)’
As a conductor he was a martinet and his total dedication to the composer was as distinct as William Furtwängler, for example, was not. He began his musical career as a cellist. When he was 19 he found himself as cellist and assistant chorus master, part of an Italian troupe performing in Brazil at São Paulo and Rio. The chorus and orchestra were to be filled out by locally hired talent. The Brazilian conductor Miguez was severely criticized in the Press after a performance of Faust. He sent an open letter to the newspaper accusing ‘the foreign singers’ for the bad performance.
In the next performance the locals booed Miguez down. Toscanini who was late in coming found total confusion in and front of the curtain. One from the audience pointing to young Toscanini shouted,’Let him try! He knows the opera by heart.’ The impresario and the Italian troup turned to the cellist to save day and he did. His debut on the night of June 25, 1886 was a triumph.
When the WWI broke out there were pressures on him to leave out Beethoven and other German composers from the programmes, as concession to prevailing patriotic sentiments. He refused to let politics interfere with music.
In the matter of Fascism he resisted it. When Mussolini became dictator there was directive to display his portrait in all public buildings and play Giovenzza, the Fascist hymn before all concerts. Whole of Italy it was enforced except at La Scala, Milan.
In the end Toscanini had to choose self-exile than give in. In 1943 when Il Duce fell the day after, two big banners appeared in front of La Scala asking Toscanini to come back and he did.
He fell foul with Hitler also. In the summer of 1933 he was invited to Bayreuth to conduct Wagner on his 50th Death Anniversary. Personally it was to be realization of a dream long cherished. But on April 1, 1933 Hitler proclaimed a national boycott of all Jewish shops. Next day Toscanini decided to refuse to conduct Wagner in Bayreuth. Not even Hitler’s conciliatory letter could change his decision.
Later the maestro was in the USA and he was the conductor of N.B.C and scheduled for a rehearsal. The news reached him that Hitler’s troops overran Salzburg, the city of Mozart.
The same day during rehearsal he exploded over a trifle. Having stopped the rehearsal he went to his dressing room, locked himself and wept.
His memory was as keen visually as well as aurally. His photographic memory absorbed a page at one glance in its entirety. One day when he was rehearsing the orchestra at the end of Act I of Tristan and Isolde he suddenly stopped and asked,’where is the cymbal?’
There was no cymbal crash marked in the score. They showed that there was no cymbal marked and he was not convinced. Finally Wagner’s manuscript was fetched and there was the cymbal crash. Over the years it had somehow dropped out.
His rehearsals were quite intense that he once remarked,’every rehearsal is like a concert to me; and every concert like a debut.’
Mozart had unusual power of detachment. From his pupil Attwood’s account we know it in his creative activity as observed.
‘Mozart was observed at the end of a meal to begin folding and unfolding his napkin; with polite excuses he left the room and returned to the company in good spirits. Often when this happened he had completely scored a lengthy work that would never be altered by so much as an accent, bow mark, or staccato dot’.
From Abbé Stadler’s account (incidentally he was the one who put Mozart’s musical affairs in order after his death)’ Beethoven began before he knew his own mind, and altered passages backwards and forwards as fancy directed; but Mozart never began to write until he had arranged the whole design in his mind just as he had wished it; it then stood without change.
Let me finally quote Mozart’s way of working from his widow.
‘Mozart seldom went to the instrument when he composed…He walked about the room and knew not what was passing around him. When all was arranged in his mind he took inkstand and paper and said, “Now, dear wife, let us hear what people are talking about”. He could as well have been writing a casual letter! (ack: Arthur Hutchings)-benny