From Handel and Hendrix to Joseph Bologne, the power of context in appreciating music
Martin Cullingford, Gramophone Editor
Saturday, June 17, 2023
Understanding history can add much to the impact of composers and their works
There’s a risk that music can become too separated from its context. It’s perfectly fine, of course, for music to be enjoyed as abstract art – surely a successful work needs to be able to stand up in its own right, due to its beauty or power alone. But that doesn’t mean we can’t seek to gain much from understanding its history. Sometimes that’s more obvious than others: Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony is all the more impactful for our understanding of the horrific conflict that lay behind it. A Bach cantata conveys a universal truth, but also gains from understanding the liturgical season and Lutheran society for which it was written.
I spoke this month to countertenor Reginald Mobley for a podcast about Spirituals, songs so full of hope despite the suffering they’re rooted in, as to be almost unbearably moving. The Marriage of Figaro is all the more fascinating when seen in the shifting social fabric of its era. But a Mozart concerto? A Haydn quartet? A Chopin prelude? While it’s less clear cut exactly what is added by knowing the history, the context can still inform the way we hear them.
Which is why from time to time we place our focus exactly there. The cover story of this month’s Gramophone really encourages us to focus on key milestones in Handel’s life – six crucial years which distil the events, era and ambition that shaped what he wrote and why. We hope the approach helps – more than a comprehensive biography in such space available could even start to – to illuminate how the man and music relate.
Museums like that of Handel’s house (you can read my report here) can add a further rewarding dimension. Recreating a home that was lived in for 36 years during an intensely, richly evolving era of London life presents a challenge, but it’s one this brilliantly restored venue solves by setting rooms at specific moments (including in one of Richard Wigmore’s chosen years, 1741, when Handel was about to board the boat to Dublin for the premiere of Messiah). A visit would make a perfect accompaniment to our cover story (and while Jimi Hendrix isn’t a regular to these pages, the neighbouring flat is a no less evocative recreation of a musical moment, this time at the tail end of the swinging sixties).
There are many ways to bring musical history to life: this month has seen the UK cinema release of a film about Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, one of the most extraordinary – and remarkably little-known – figures of 18th-century European musical life (music being only one facet of his remarkable story). I recently talked the film’s director Stephen Williams about how he depicted a historical character and made him resonant for our times.
Finally, speaking of making music for our own time, we’re inviting you to once again vote for our Orchestra of the Year. This is not about naming the ‘best’, as extraordinary as each of these ensembles is, but about celebrating the remarkable entity that is the modern orchestra and, as is increasingly recognised, one that makes a very real impact on audiences, in person and through recordings. We’ve enjoyed compiling the shortlist, and we can’t wait to find out which you choose.
This article appeared in the July 2023 edition of Gramophone