Category Archives: Notes on Music

The philosophy of music: or the music of philosophy ?

The nation’s favourite aria: the results

Radio 3 has just concluded a poll to try and find the Nation’s Favourite Aria, and the results are in.

Puccini’s Nessun dorma doesn’t appear, although he is present through E lucevan le stelle from Tosca.  There are no arias by Rossini or Verdi. Mozart appears three times, and there’s even an aria from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt.

All but one of the arias (if you count Che faro senza Eurydice as a trouser-role) are for soprano or mezzo-soprano. There’s no beseeching tenors singing Che gelida manina or lamenting over flowers in La fleur que tu m’avais jetée, no baritones exhorting us to join the army in Non più andrai.

As Rupert Christiansen remarked in The Telegraph, the prevailing mood is one of doom and gloom among the choices: ‘everyone is either dying, praying or hopelessly in love.’

The winner ? When I am laid in earth, from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.

The question remains: is a poll conducted amongst Radio 3 listeners truly representative of the nation’s choices ?  Radio 3’s site does have a caveat: “this is not a representative poll and the figures do not purport to represent public opinion as a whole on this issue.” What results would the same poll have yielded if it had been done by Classic FM ?

What’s your favourite: did it make the list ?

Gareth Malone: for the people or for television ?

I can’t help it: Gareth Malone’s series of ‘music for the masses by numbers’ programmes drives me nuts.

What do you think: is it still driven by the desire to educate and widen people’s musical experiences, or by the desire to make good televsion ?

My article about it has been published to Bachtrack this morning: read it here, and join the debate!

BBC opera season: review published on-line

Mightier than the sword...

I’m delighted to say that a review of the BBC’s current opera season, penned by your humble servant, has just been published on Bachtrack, a classical music listings website.

Bachtrack draws information about concerts and performances from all over the world together, to be the definitive site that brings together every aspect of classical music into a single place.

Click here to read the review.

The Dame on SuBo, Boccelli and singing without microphones

Opera prima donna Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has reacted rather dismissively to the SuBo phenomenon in an interview in the Radio Times.

Dame Kiri Te KanawaAs an article in The Daily Mail reveals, the Dame believes Susan Boyle’s achievements are not worth talking about, saying she is ‘not interested’ in talking about Boyle’s success.

‘I’m doing something classical, not whizz-bang. Whizz-bang disappears. It goes ‘whizz’ and then ‘bang’.

”You insult me by even wanting to bring it into this conversation. I’m not interested.’

It’s refreshing to find someone who is unafraid to meet the topic of cross-over classical artists and television song-contest winners achieving success in the same sphere as international classical performers, such as Dame Kiri or Luciano Pavarotti, head-on. Then again, when your career and your vocal instrument are as stratospherically brilliant as Dame Kiri’s, you probably have the right to discourse with such frankness on an industry in which you’ve been a international star since 1968.

She’s not afraid to distinguish between artists such as herself, Renee Fleming and Angela Gherorgiu, and those such as Katherine Jenkins and Andrea Bocelli – the former being performers who sing “glorious, serious, grand opera without microphones. There aren’t many of us.”

Ouch. But true, though.

Emotion on tap: the appeal of film music.

Whilst listening to the University Concert Band performing a suite from the score to the film Gladiator at a recent concert, I was struck anew by the allure that film music has for me. On browsing through my array of CDs later on, I realised that a large part of my listening library is devoted to film scores, from the spooky Classicism of Hannibal to the robust menace of Gladiator and Jurassic Park, the ethereal mystery of Solaris or the innocent jollity of Amelie.

What is it about film music that appeals ? On reflection, I suspect it might be the immediacy of the emotion it conjures, the instant creation of a mood or effect. Unlike traditional classical music, film scores don’t rely on musical form and architecture in the same way as, say, a symphony or a piano sonata. Film music, at least non-diagetic film music, is used because a director wants to enhance the emotion of a particular scene, and the music has to respond immediately. There is no room for traditional forms such as sonata form – exposition, development, recapitulation – which is all about presenting ideas, developing them, setting up tonal or harmonic relationships, and then providing a resolution in a coda. Think of the menace of the creeping semi-tone in Jaws, or the shrieking strings in Bernard Hermann’s music to Psycho: the effect is immediate.

Of course, diagetic music can do this as well: I’m thinking of that scene in Riidley Scott’s beautiful Hannibal, where the sound of the theme from Bach’s glorious Goldberg Variations seeps into the soundtrack, and the camera tracks across the room to reveal Lecter himself playing the piece as he muses on the letter he has just written to Starling. The piece is a favourite of Lecter’s, as we know from The Silence of the Lambs when he plays it on a tape-recorder in the prison-cage. The beauty of Bach’s melody stands in stark contrast to the environment in which it appears: Lecter’s private residence, or the cage-prison, and the figure of Lecter himself. (This video of Gould performing the Aria uncannily mirrors something of the tracking effect Scott uses in the film: I wonder if he’d seen it ?).

So what film music looms large in your library, and why ?

(Audio excerpts from preview tracks at LastFM).

Opera: season with fear

I read the news that the BBC is launching a new series across its major networks devoted to opera with some trepidation. Not because opera is not perhaps my favourite art-form, hem hem. I welcome any cultural exploration on the television – I’m currently watching Francesco’s Venice with great enthusiasm, as well as Owen Sheers’ Art of the Sea – and classical music, for my money, is often poorly over-looked by television outside of the BBC  Prom season.

But as I read the article in Gramophone, my heart sank.  As part of the season exploring opera, Rick Stein will be offering a “look at the parallels between food and cooking, with a gastronomic look at Italian opera,” I learn. And the titanic, sprawling controversy that is the music of Richard Wagner will be investigated by – Stephen Fry.

Now don’t get me wrong: I love Stephen Fry. But if I want an analysis of Wagner’s music, an examination of his mammoth operas and an insight into the innovations he wrought in harmony and tonality, I might not look to Stephen Fry straight away. Nor do I expect profound insights into the Italian opera tradition to be revealed by focusing on cooking with Rick Stein.

I like the idea that classical music, even opera, is the subject of a season of programmes: hell, I might even learn to like opera myself. But if ‘twere done, then ‘twere best done properly, by specialists who really know their stuff. The promised programmes by Antonio Pappano, investigating the role of opera in the musical life of the country, sounds excellent. But the nation-wide search by Radio 3 for the nation’s favourite operatic aria fills me with dread: presenter Rob Cowan talking of ”an exciting battle for the top spot” when the top ten are announced in June.

I’ll be watching, and listening, with interest. But a little trepidation too. Will you ?