Felixstowe Recorded Music Society: Janet Donn

Janet Dann 20th April 2016

TALL TALES AND SWEET SOUNDS

Janet was playing a welcome return visit to us. She went straight into her first selection: Duo Seraphim by Francisco Guerrero sung by The Sixteen with Harry Christophers. It is 1547, late summer in Alcala de Herares, a city dating back to Roman times, some two dozen miles north east of Madrid. A group of people are making their way back home for a family fiesta, following the christening of their son, in the church of Santa Maria.

The little boy has been named Miguel, and 400 years after his death we recognise him as a writer of novels and poetry, a primary influence on the writing of fiction and author of the world’s first ever best-seller, “Don Quixote”.

Composer Francisco Guerrero was in his early 20s, in the employ of Seville cathedral as an assistant director of music.

Our lives run on stories, said Janet. We watch them played out on film, in the theatre and on television. We read them, we tell them to each other when at the simplest level we recount the events of our week to our friends or family. And this year we celebrate the lives of two of the world’s greatest story-tellers, Cervantes and Shakespeare. Born 17 years apart they died on the same day, April 23rd 1616. (There is debate about this as with many things to do with these two giants, but in the absence of concrete evidence….)

Back to 1547 – the same year in which Henry VIII dies plunging England into instability between the rival Protestant and Catholic faiths. In both Spain and England books and pamphlets were subject by law to strict review before they could be published. Books dealing with geography and astronomy would be destroyed for fear of corruption by magic. Theatre censorship would shortly follow.

But in the Cervantes household: it’s party time and in Spain, party time means music and dancing. The seguidilla has its origins in Andalusia and perhaps the most famous seguidilla is the seductive song from Bizet’s Carmen. Incidentally, said Janet, it was quite a shock to round a corner in Seville and see a grand, imposing building with the engraved legend “Royal Tobacco Factory”! However, the seguidilla we were going to hear came from the ballet Don Quixote by Ludwig Minkus. Born in 1826 in Vienna, Minkus learned the violin and at the age of 27, with his career going nowhere, he emigrated to Russia, where he became principal violin with the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre. By degrees further success came as a composer and he was appointed composer of ballet music to the St Petersburg Imperial Theatres.

Don Quixote was the result of a collaboration with the great choreographer, Marius Petipa. We heard the Seguidilla, Street Dancer and Toreador, performed by the Sofia National Opera Orchestra, conducted by Nayden Todorov.

When Miguel was six years old it was time for a new start, and so the family travelled south, to the city of Cordoba. Cordoba was an ancient Roman city built on a river; under the Moors it became a centre for education with extensive libraries, medical schools and universities, and here young Cervantes began his education and acquired a love of the magic of the theatre, learning for its own sake and a lifelong fascination with folk stories.

But the family was poor and constantly seeking work, so the next move was some 140 km west to Seville. It too had grown up on the same river, the Guadalquivir. It was a city that was expanding rapidly and the teenaged Miguel watched the galleons leaving for Mexico and Peru, and returning laden with looted precious metals, especially silver.

Guadalquivir – the great wash in Arabic – was the route to the Spanish interior from the Americas via the Gulf of Cadiz. Seville was the economic centre of the Spanish empire.

The Spanish composer Joaquin Turina was born in Seville late in the 19th century. Despite spending nine years living and studying in Paris with Vincent D’Indy, his work which included operas, chamber music, songs and suites for solo piano and guitar, was always influenced by Seville and Andalusia. His Sinfonia Sevillana won the Gran Casino de San Sebastian Prize in 1920. Here is his impression of the Guadalquivir, played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of the Mexican conductor, Enrique Batiz.

By the age of 20 Cervantes was in Madrid where he had some poems published but soon he was on the run following a duel, for which if he had been caught he would be punished by having his right hand cut off and being exiled for ten years. He decided to lose himself by enlisting in the army and soon found himself in the heat of the battle. Turkish rule in the Barbary states of North Africa was a constant threat to Spain and Portugal; Calvinists, Catholics and Lutherans fostered rebellion in Flanders and elsewhere, the Ottoman empire was expanding. Philip II had need of soldiers.

The King’s half-brother, Don John of Austria, would emerge as the great soldier of the age, immortalised in G K Chesterton’s poem “Lepanto”. Perhaps we had had to memorise this at school.

“White founts falling in the courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest of darkness, the darkness of his beard…”

And ends:

Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!

Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade…
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)

Cervantes distinguished himself by taking his place in the prow of a skiff and then boarding a Turkish warship. He received three deep bullet wounds and ironically suffered permanent loss of the use of his left arm. Further distinguished action in Sicily and Naples led to an appointment as an official to the court of Philip II where one of his subsequent tasks entailed fitting out the Armada. All this time he continued to write and in 1605 the first part of Don Quixote was published.

Richard Strauss was a master of the musical genre the tone poem and in 1897 he wrote Don Quixote: Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character. From the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, conducted by Gerhard Markson, we heard the opening theme in which the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance is represented by the cello and Sancho Panza by the viola.

The novel is a warning to us all that books can turn your head! The old man has so immersed himself in the world of chivalry that he comes to truly believe he is an heroic knight on a quest to prove his worth and the sincerity of his love for his imagined mistress, Dulcinea.

The success of the book was immediate and a second edition was ordered. The licence only covered Castile so now official permission was sought for distribution through Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia and Portugal. Copies even found their way to Peru and Mexico, and yet not one of those first editions has ever been found.

Why is it so important? It’s weighty, long and at times almost unintelligible. How many of us have actually read it?

But this book was a new concept. Fiction. Poetry was an extension of thought and reasoning, history supposedly a record of fact, but vernacular prose, used as a vehicle for imaginative literature swept aside convention and provoked unprecedented consequences. Where did truth lie now? Cervantes wanted to show that in literature, truth is what an audience can be persuaded to believe.

From Don Quixote:

“Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain, and no sooner did Don Quixote see them than he said to his quire: “Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich, for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the earth is a service God will bless.”
“What giants?” asked Sancho Panza.
“Those you see over there,” replied his master, “with their long arms; some of them well-nigh two leagues in length.”
“Take care, sir,” cried Sancho. “Those over there are not giants but windmills, and those things that seem to be arms are their sails, which when they are whirled around by the wind turn the millstone.”
“It is clear,” replied Don Quixote, “that you are not experienced in adventures. Those are giants, and if you are afraid, turn aside and pray whilst I enter into fierce and unequal battle with them.””

The Don Quixote Suite by Georg Philip Telemann is one of the earliest, if not the first, musical tribute to Cervantes’ genius. It’s a great example of partly serious, partly entertaining secular music of the early 18th century. It is subtitled “A Burlesque” and falls into the category of “Tafelmusik” – music intended to accompany dining. We heard the movement which represents the incident with the windmills, played by the Leningrad Chamber Orchestra.

Cervantes, married and with a daughter, moved to Madrid where the court was now established. His writing continued and he published several other works as Don Quixote became ever more popular, including plays and dramatic interludes. Finally in 1614 the second part of his great novel was published and he lived long enough to see its popularity spreading across Europe. In April 1616 he died, probably of diabetes – an untreatable disease at that time. There is no account of his funeral and no stone or cross was set to mark his grave. Indeed it was only last year that his remains were finally discovered and identified in Madrid, in the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians.

Janet’s final Spanish selection took us back to Andalusia where Cervantes grew up and where the composer, Manuel de Falla, was born. For his pantomime – ballet, The Three Corned Hat, he went to one of those old stories, rather like the Canterbury Tales.

It is a story of jealousy, possessiveness, deception and mistaken identity. It takes place in a small town and tells of a miller and the local magistrate who has an eye for the miller’s wife. It had a famous first production by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, choreographed and danced by Leonid Massine and Tamara Karsavina with design by Pablo Picasso. The Grand Finale is a celebratory dance when all rivalries are set aside and because in Spain, any excuse will do for fiesta.

Manuel de Falla – The Three Cornered Hat, final movement. BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena.

We leave the warmth and sunshine of Spain and come back to our own shores. Janet knows that some of us are going to be sick to death of hearing about Shakespeare in the next few weeks – so she thought she’d get in early!

We begin the second half in 2013. There is a buzz of more than the usual anticipation in the new auditorium at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon. It is the opening night of the first play in Artistic Director Greg Doran’s project to present all Shakespeare’s plays over a six year period that includes the 450th anniversary of his birth and the 400th anniversary of his death.

We are here to see Richard II. Not just that we are here to see David Tennant (lately Dr Who) as Richard II. We know how it opens – a confrontational scene in the court between two dukes who accuse each other of treason, one of whom will have deposed Richard by the end of the play.
The lights go down, really to nothing, total blackout, only the exit lights showing. We are waiting for the opening fanfare but instead we hear Lacrimosa – Richard II by Paul Englishby. (It’s not really possible to get the full effect of this, said Janet – you have to imagine total darkness.) Light slowly reveals the stage, empty but for a black coffin, with a woman collapsed and weeping across it, confounding all our expectations.

Such is the nature of the work of William Shakespeare, constantly re-invented (sometimes brilliantly, sometimes incomprehensibly) but always with something relevant to say about our own times.

Before going further, we were reminded of the complete works by the witty and amusing The Compleat Works by John Dankworth and Cleo Laine.

The life of an actor/playwright is precarious, often itinerant and concerned with the ephemeral – now as then in 1564 when Shakespeare was born. He is famous as much for how little we know about him as he is for the work he left behind him. And let’s get the identity question out of the way: whoever he was, rich or poor, titled or peasant, he goes by the name of Shakespeare and the plays he wrote are extraordinary.

Every little scrap of new information – they’ve just x-rayed his will and surveyed his tomb with ground penetrating radar (which suggested his skull may have been taken!) – is seized on by academics as the basis for new theories and speculations. It is the work, the plays that matter and they are there to be seen, rather than read. Good – that’s that out of the way!

For every opinion expressed in the plays you can find the counter argument so it’s no good trying to draw conclusions about the man from the work. However, in the plays, as in Elizabethan life, music was everywhere – more than 100 songs are included to say nothing of indications for “background” music, and over the last 400 years a whole industry has evolved around music inspired by the plays.

Janet played an overture intended for Measure for Measure. It was an early work by the composer, not typical, although the orchestration probably gave the identity away. It was the overture Liebesverbot (Forbidden Love) by Richard Wagner. Played by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Wolfgang Sawallisch.

Janet remarked that it is a rather lively response to Measure for Measure which is actually a pretty dark, late play, albeit frequently categorised as a comedy. It deals with deception, lust and corruption. An everyday story of Viennese folk: “Some rise by sin and some by virtue fall”. Something to discuss over a cup of tea!

Interval
There are over 200 operas based on the plays, many of which are unperformably dreadful and have passed from memory. There are innumerable songs and song cycles, suites and ballet scores, to say nothing of the vast wealth of incidental music expressly written for productions. Rather than rehearse the story of Shakespeare’s life, with which most of us are fairly familiar, Janet had included as many varieties as she could.

The first is a bargain: two for one – a ballet inside an opera. Macbeth would seem an unlikely subject for a ballet, but within his opera Verdi saw fit to place the emphasis on the witches. It is they who rule the drama in his eyes, and for the scene where Macbeth revisits the weird sisters for more predictions, he constructed a ballet. He was fascinated by the supernatural, the power of curses and prophecies and he saw several productions of the play from which he took precise notes of staging and positioning of the players, transferring all this to his revised version of the opera in 1865. He wanted to be vulgar, bizarre and original.

Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth ballet – the Witches. Berlin Philharmonic with Claudio Abbado. (Macbeth was written for King James. We think of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan but this was for James, a very superstitious monarch.)

Macbeth was Verdi’s 10th opera and of course along with it, Otello and Falstaff are three of the great operatic works.

In the same year – 1865 – a young man who had just completed his musical studies in Leipzig came to London for a performance of his prize-winning work, The Tempest, a suite of incidental music. It was his first orchestral work. In Paris, Arthur Sullivan had met and become friends with Charles Dickens, who, having heard the work at a concert, used his contacts and influence to organise a performance in London. Its favourable reception launched Sullivan’s career as a serious composer, a career which was hijacked by Gilbert and D’Oyley Carte.

This suite was written when Sullivan was 19 years old. We heard the Dance of Nymphs and Reapers, the Prelude to Act V, and the Epilogue. The BBC Philharmonic with Richard Hickox.

There are over 500 references to music in the plays; one of the best is found in the Merchant of Venice. In a harsh and difficult play there is a beautiful scene in a garden, between two young lovers which is accompanied by distant melody within the house before the musicians are summoned forth to play for the arrival of their mistress. The words at this point include these lines:

The man that hath no music in himself
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted.
At the time Shakespeare began writing, musicians were to be found in every theatre and tavern, at markets and fairs and for dancing at every opportunity. The use of song and dance in the theatre was greatly increased under his influence. Caliban the ugliest and most misshapen creation in The Tempest and perhaps in all the plays has some of the most beautiful lines:

Be not afear’d. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices
That, if I then had waked after a long sleep,
Will make me sleep again.

Bob Chilcott sang for 12 years with the Kings Singers and brings a wealth of understanding to his original choral writing and vocal arrangements. We heard his setting for four part choir of those lines from The Tempest. Bob Chilcott: Be not Afear’d

If that was a setting for a play which stands alone, our next piece was written for a specific production. Howard Blake, another contemporary composer, worked closely with Adrian Noble during his time as Artistic Director of the RSC. He wrote the music for the original stage version of Henry V which launched Kenneth Branagh’s career and of course he is forever shackled (as is Aled Jones) to The Snowman and “Walking in the Air”. Janet played his setting of It was a Lover and His Lass from “As You Like It”.

When Kenneth Branagh began to direct films and stage plays, he formed a partnership with the composer Patrick Doyle and between them they devised a fresh context for the opening of “Much Ado about Nothing”, adding to the enormous and expanding repertoire of incidental music. Taking the text of “Sigh no more ladies”, instead of singing it, we were to hear Emma Thompson reading the words to the accompaniment of a sweeping melody on cello and guitar which is then taken up by romantic strings.

Patrick Doyle: Much Ado about Nothing – The Picnic

By now, Janet said, we would have realised her enthusiasm for William Shakespeare. He infiltrates his way into our everyday lives and language. About three years ago there was a TV promotion for a summer of high drama in the soaps. Actors from Eastenders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale shared out the lines of the great sonnet: “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day” and millions of people heard and saw it, completely unaware that they were listening to Shakespeare. Without him what would our mongrel language have become? He wrote his poetry in the rhythm of everyday speech. Try it if you don’t believe it:
“How now you black and midnight hags”
“I bought a paper on my way to work”
It’s what we do each time we start to speak.

Many expressions and phrases that we use today were first recorded as used or invented by Shakespeare. Such as:
Dead as a doornail
Neither here nor there
What’s done is done
Foregone conclusion
Good riddance
Knock, knock who’s there?
What the dickens

As for the music which has flowed from generations of composers inspired by his work, they and he are immortalised by such as this (and we heard the Montagues and Capulets from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, played by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky.

We knew where we were with that, didn’t we? All those hopeful apprentices marching over the Millenium Bridge to meet Lord Sugar.

That one play, Romeo and Juliet, is the archetypal narrative for every story of star-crossed love. Shakespeare’s influence is so far-reaching it finds its way into every corner of our lives, from the words and phrases we use to the entertainment we enjoy, whether it’s West Side Story or The Lion King (which is a version of Hamlet in case you were wondering).

Well,

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

But before we do, added Janet, after those lines from The Tempest, let us in this celebratory year take the advice given in Kiss me Kate (from The Taming of the Shrew) and Brush up your Shakespeare, as written by Cole Porter and sung by Jonathan Freeman, Harry Groener and Guy Haines. Bringing her supremely well-crafted and thoroughly engrossing programme to a close.

What a brilliant evening, said Norman, and he could only admire the effort that must have gone into it.

Mike Fowle

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