Ann Kearney 3rd February 2016
I’M NOT ONE TO GOSSIP AS YOU KNOW, BUT….
As Norman said when opening the evening, Ann is not a guest presenter, but an old friend. She had been our secretary for a while and we were most grateful that she had taken time out of her busy schedule and commitments with Felixstowe Radio to entertain us. And what a delicious title.
She opened with one piece of contemporary music – so that, as she put it, we can tell our grandchildren we had heard of them – in this case Morrisey and the Smiths. And: We hate it when Our Friends become Successful.
Ann explained that her programme would be along the lines of something she used to do on her classical music radio slot. Nothing, she had read, was as entertaining as one composer’s opinion of another and she had collected some of these gems. Usually they told us more about the perpetrator than the subject of them. She was expanding that to look at what some musicians and people in the music world had said or written about each other – allegedly – and then listen to their music.
Ann started with Bach. Pablo Casals said “I need Bach at the beginning of the day almost more than food and water”. Sir Thomas Beecham was apparently not over keen on the Brandenburg Concertos and this appeared in the 1884 in the Musical Herald:
Though full of great musical lore
Old Bach is a terrible bore
A fugue without a tune,
He thought was a boon,
So he wrote seventeen thousand or more.
Although Ann was sure she had played this piece before it was her favourite Brandenburg Concerto. No. 2 in F, the first movement. It was played by the Mainz Chamber Orchestra conducted by Gunter Kehr.
As many of us would know, Ann continued, she loved Vaughan Williams. Aaron Copland was perhaps less than enamoured. He said or wrote: “Listening to the Fifth Symphony of Vaughan Williams is like staring at a cow for 45 minutes. Vaughan Williams’ music is the music of a gentleman farmer, noble in inspiration but dull.” Vaughan Williams was 70 when he finished it and he dedicated it to Sibelius. We heard the Scherzo, the second movement of the Fifth Symphony. It was played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.
Incidentally, going back to Sir Thomas Beecham, he was once conducting a Vaughan Williams symphony during a rehearsal and he looked as if he were miles away. Suddenly he was aware that the orchestra had stopped. He asked the leader “Why aren’t you playing?” The leader replied that it had finished. Beecham looked down at the score, turned the page, and finding it finished said: “So it is……….Thank God!”
Ann thought we might be pleased that she wasn’t going to play the Sixth Symphony. RVW himself once said to the London Symphony Orchestra: “It must be hell to play it for three hours. I know it’s been hell to listen to!”
Richard Wagner: Love him or loathe him. Bizet had something to say about Wagner: “Wagner is no friend of mine and I am totally indifferent to him, yet I cannot forget the immense enjoyment which I owe to that original genius. The charm of his music is inexpressible. Here are voluptuousness, tenderness and love.” But also: “He is endowed with a temper so insolent that criticism cannot touch his heart – even admitting he has a heart, which I doubt”.
We heard the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Alfred Scholz play Bizet’s Symphony in C, the final movement. (Incidentally, Scholz was probably the most prolific conductor of budget recordings – some under his own name and some under pseudonyms, such as Alberto Lizzio.)
So Bizet wasn’t all that keen on Wagner but liked his music. Brahms also had something to say about Wagner: “I once told Wagner himself that I was the best Wagnerian of our time”. We heard the final Rondo from his Serenade in D. The BRT (Belgian Radio and Television) Orchestra conducted by Alexander Rahbari.
Ann said she was starting to feel a bit sorry for Wagner. Debussy described him as a “poisoner” and Schumann said “Wagner is impossible: he talks all the time without stopping – one can’t just talk all the time!”
Schumann’s Spring Symphony (which coincidentally, Rosalie had also played at the previous meeting, although she played the second movement, Larghetto) and Ann played the third movement, Scherzo. After playing this, Ann said that Schumann had commented that “The music is not intended to describe or paint anything definite but I believe the season did much to shape the particular form it took”.
Let’s turn the tables slightly: Schumann criticised Wagner for talking too much; well, Wagner said of Schumann that it was impossible to communicate with him: “The man is hopeless, he doesn’t talk at all”.
So, about time for some Wagner. Oscar Wilde apparently said: “I like Wagner’s music better than anybody’s – it is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says”. Ann said that surprisingly she had never really listened to the next piece before preparing for tonight – it was the Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin played by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra.
Reverting to teacher mode briefly, Ann gave us something to ponder and discuss with our tea or coffee and biscuits. If you were a dictator, which composer would you make compulsory listening? Sir Thomas Beecham famously said it would be Mozart between the ages of four and 80 for at least a quarter of an hour daily for the coming five years. Ann’s own choice would probably be Purcell. (Ann may share the same birthday – not the year!) Holst said that “In one way Purcell is a finer stage composer than Wagner. His music is full of movement, of dance. His is the easiest music in all the world to act.” We heard a little from Act Four of the Fairy Queen.
Whom had we nominated? Chopin and Mozart had been mentioned. “Wagner!” cried Norman, pointing out the bad press he was getting. What had Debussy called Wagner earlier? (Shuffling of feet and downward gazes.) A poisoner! Ann had mentioned Debussy earlier without playing him. Now we would hear something by Debussy. Apparently, he was quite irritable and quarrelsome. Really? You would not think so listening to his music. Debussy once met Bartok. Allegedly (Ann not being one to gossip), Bartok who was young at the time particularly wanted to meet Debussy, but his friends said would he not rather meet with Saint-Saens or Widor. “No”, Bartok said, “I want to meet Debussy”. He’s a dreadful man, said his friends, he’ll be rude and insult you, surely you don’t want that? But Bartok insisted. Quite what happened when they met Ann has not been able to find out. Anybody know?
However, before playing any Debussy, Ann played some Bartok: the Bear Dance and Swineherd’s Dance from the Hungarian Sketches.
Rimsky-Korsakov said better not listen to Debussy’s music – you risk getting used to it. And then you might end up liking it. Ann also unearthed a quote from the Musical Courier of 27th October 1897: “Rimsky-Korsakov – what a name! It suggests fierce whiskers stained with vodka.” Ann played the First Movement, allegro moderato, from his Fantasy on Russian Themes. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra was conducted by Neeme Jarvi.
Incidentally, Debussy said of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scherezade – “It reminds me more of a bazaar than the orient”.
Next we (finally) had a piece of Debussy – the reflective Claire de Lune. Chosen by a colleague of Ann’s who liked listening to his sister play it when they were growing up. (It is also something that Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel would take to a Desert Island.) It was played by Philippe Entremot.
No presentation by Ann is complete without some Shostakovich. Ann wanted to play a particular piece but strangely enough she had problems tracking it down. Perhaps someone was trying to tell her something. However daughter number two came to the rescue almost at the 11th hour. Shostakovich once wrote that “A great piece of music is beautiful regardless of how it is performed. Any prelude or fugue of Bach can be played at any tempo with or without rhythmic nuances and will still be great music. That is how music should be written so that no one, no matter how philistine can ruin it.” He also said “Play it so that flies drop dead in mid-air and the audience starts leaving the hall from sheer boredom”. It is not certain whether he said that of his Violin Sonata or the 15th String Quartet. Ann was going to play both but only the first three minutes of the String Quartet and the Allegretto from the Sonata (with the Brodsky Quartet and Shlomo Mintz violin and Viktoria Postnikova piano).
Finally, Ann ended the evening as she had started – with Bach. The Prelude from his Suite in C minor, BWV 997. But unusually it was played on the lute by Andreas Martin.
One final quote: Debussy on Bach (not that Ann is one to gossip, as you know), “When that old Saxon Cantor has no ideas he sets off on anything and is truly merciless – in short, he is unbearable, except when he is admirable. However, had he a friend, an editor perhaps, who would have gently advised him not to write on one day a week, for example, we might have been spared several hundred pages in which we must wander through a thicket of joyless measures which unwind pitilessly with ever the same little rascals of subject, counter subject etc.” In this year of mercy of the Catholic Church, said Ann, I hope you will be kind and merciful regarding my presentation.
Thanking Ann for such an ingenious theme and entertaining evening, Norman commented what a hateful lot these composers are! He had to admit that despite trying very hard – there had been a series of Shostakovich’s music on TV which he had persevered with – he had not been able to find anything he really liked. But we all have different tastes.
Script by Mike Fowle
Production: Trevor Lockwood