Playlists – November 2015

Gramophone Sun 15th November 2015

Story-telling in music

Tamsin Waley-Cohen chooses 10 works that tell their own stories

All music is story-telling. And what is more primal, more powerful, more essential to us than the art of story-telling, our universal way of trying to understand the world we live in?

Most instrumental music conveys an abstract, emotional and psychological narrative that we, the interpreters, spend our time deciphering, delving ever deeper into understanding, and then living on stage. Each composer’s language can become like a favourite author’s writing, so that opening a score of, say, Schumann quartets is like reading a much-loved book. But here, I have chosen 10 recordings of works I love in which the story is more defined. We have four categories: fairy stories, autobiography, religion and politics.

For the fairy stories I have chosen the hauntingly enchanting Märchenerzählungen by Schumann, and Prokofiev’s First Violin Sonata, which to me summons up all the figures of Russian folk mythology. For autobiography, Janá∂ek’s Intimate Letters and Berg’s Lyric Suite, both telling stories of intense and pained love, the great composers pouring their most intimate passions into their quartets, this most subtle and complex of mediums. Charles Ives’s Holidays Symphony provides a bridge between autobiographical – his childhood memories of New England – and political works, with its black humour and criticism of the senseless violence of war. For political works, I have chosen Strauss’s Metamorphosen, written after the bombing of Munich Opera House in mourning for the end of civilisation as he saw it. I also include Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht in this category, because the poem on which it is based would have been socially revolutionary at the time: a woman, pregnant with another man’s child, accepted completely by her lover. Crumb’s visionary Black Angels, about the Vietnam War, brings us to the religious works, as good is pitted against evil, seven against 13, ‘God’ music against ‘Devil’ music. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, pious and fervent, is a musical representation of words from the book of Revelation. And finally, Bach’s A minor Sonata for violin solo, the Easter Sonata.

Roll over, Beethoven

Pwyll ap Siôn browses the various classical influences on The Beatles

Many factors contributed to The Beatles’ enormous success, and one of them was their willingness to push the boundaries of pop. Beatles producer George Martin was himself classically trained and encouraged the band to move out of their musical comfort zones. They did this by exploring musical styles from both within and outside the Western musical tradition.

Early on, Leonard Bernstein and Wilfrid Mellers compared Lennon and McCartney to Schubert and Schumann, but in fact their songs resonated more with music of the early 18th century. Joshua Rifkin’s The Baroque Beatles Book highlighted such rock/Baroque associations almost before the Beatles had started to explore them. Others, such as Peter Breiner, followed with their own imaginative recreations. Lennon’s ‘In my life’ was the group’s first real foray into classical territory. The song’s quasi-Baroque keyboard is not a quote; likewise, the string textures in McCartney’s ‘Eleanor Rigby’ evoke Vivaldi without directly referencing his music, although some figurations are reminiscent of the composer’s Concerto No 2 in E minor from La stravaganza. These influences become more explicit in later songs. It is well known that McCartney modelled the piccolo trumpet solo in ‘Penny Lane’ on the third movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 2 in F, while the composer’s Two-Part Invention (also in F) is quoted at the end of Lennon’s ‘All you need is love’. Lennon later turned to Beethoven for inspiration in ‘Because’, which reworks the opening figure from the composer’s Moonlight Sonata.

The Beatles’ most experimental songs came from their willingness to appropriate 1960s avant-garde traits, however. It’s possible that McCartney’s famous string glissandos linking the two parts of ‘A day in the life’ came from the opening of Xenakis’s Metastaséis rather than the more obvious Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima by Penderecki. Alex Ross certainly thought so. The other two major influences were Stockhausen – whose image appears on the cover of the ‘Sgt Pepper’ album – and Cage, whose chance methods inspired Lennon’s ‘Revolution 9’. The influence worked both ways, of course. Cage later returned the favour by basing one of his pieces entirely on Beatles songs. It is therefore rather apt that McCartney ended up becoming a classical composer.

Music that made me

Boris Giltburg picks 10 pieces for which it was ‘love at first hearing’

Love at first hearing can be just as wonderful and intoxicating as love at first sight. Falling in love with a new work, feeling bewilderment at the thought of not having known it until just now, is for me one of the greatest pleasures of music. These first encounters, sadly, become rarer with time, but I can remember many from my childhood, when everything was fresh and new, and music was directly perceived with the heart and imagination. There were no preconceptions then, no analysis – a piece of music either got you or it didn’t, and if it did, it forever became part of you.

The works on the playlist are some of my biggest childhood loves, CDs or cassettes worn out with endless playback (or at least the cassettes were!). Bach’s Magnificat and organ works, Horowitz’s recording of Scarlatti, Mozart’s Concerto No 23 and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto were among the very first discoveries, around the age of nine. That was also when I heard Evgeny Kissin perform Schubert’s Sonata D575 in recital (surreptitiously taped!), and started working on Bartók’s Third Concerto. Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Bernstein shortly followed – and listening to these works now brings not only nostalgia, but the same thrill I felt as a kid.

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