Archive for the ‘Classical music’ Category

The place of art

Maureen practicing violin, c. 1952

What is art, and what place has it had in my life? This was the assigned topic for the first set of high school student essays I graded in my first paying job in California. In those days, the late 1960s, California schools had enough money to hire readers to relieve teachers of the time-consuming task of grading papers. I worked primarily with Millicent Rutherford, the Humanities teacher at Lynbrook High School, in the Cupertino Union School District. Over time, we developed a warm friendship.

I was saddened to learn that Millicent died last October, at the age of 91. Her obituary notes: “She will be remembered for her glittering sense of style, her sharp wit, and her boundless energy.” A 1991 Los Angeles Times article on remembering teachers who made a difference  includes an anecdote by Stephen Bennett, CEO of AIDS Project Los Angeles:

“We’d study Italian art and [Ms Rutherford] would get . . . photographs from some of the Pompeian paintings that are not typically looked at—the parts of Pompeii they won’t show you because the graphics on the wall are what Americans would consider lewd. And she’d show up in a Pompeian red dress to start the day.”

To honor Millicent’s memory, I’ve been thinking about how I might respond to her essay topic.

When I was the age of Millicent’s students, music was my passion. I played second violin in my town’s municipal orchestra. At my first concert, the orchestra tackled Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. It must have sounded decidedly amateurish. But the experience of being a part of that magnificent work, of sharing the language of music with my fellow musicians and with an audience, is a thrill that has always stayed with me.

orchestra at researsal

Tauranga Municipal Orchestra at rehearsal in the high school assembly hall, c. 1952. I am in the front row, just to the left of the podium.

“The Old King” by Georges Rouault

Painting too speaks a language without words. On the wall of my office is a reproduction of Georges Rouault’s “The Old King.” I saw the original fifty years ago, at the National Gallery in London. Friends I had come with moved to another room without me as I sat on a gallery bench, weeping. I still weep inside when I look at it.

Concerts, theatre, dance performances and visits to art galleries have always been a major part of my life. The written word has been my personal art form. To struggle with the lines of a poem, to convey emotional meaning through images, leads me to a personal answer to the question: “What is art?” For me, it is a way of sharing what is meaningful in our lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

All a poet can do is warn

All a poet can do today is warn.
–Wilfred Owen

Cream plastic transistor radio close to my ear, I sat by the window of our London bedsitter, hearing familiar words set to brand new music: the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem”. The May 30, 1962 performance was part of a festival to mark the consecration of St Michaels Cathedral in Coventry, a new modern building set alongside the bombed-out ruins of the old.

 I had a personal interest in the cathedral, since one of my assignments for my New Zealand newspaper had been to interview the glass engraver John Hutton, one of the many eminent artists whose work graced the new building.

 I was also caught up in the prevailing excitement about the completion of this significant architectural and spiritual project. Contained within the walls of the new cathedral was the idea of reconciliation, that it would be a place that would, in the words of the cathedral website, play a part in

Healing the Wounds of History
Learning to Live with Difference and to Celebrate Diversity
Building a Culture of Peace

But mostly my interest was in the poetry of this new musical work. I had been introduced to the poems of Wilfred Owen in high school. A soldier who died on the battlefield in the last week of the first World War, he wrote searing indictments of that war’s ravages. To me as a student, it was a revelation that poetry could be used to express such pain and anger.

 I already had some familiarity with Britten’s music, but I was blown away by the “War Requiem”, which interweaves Owen’s poems with the traditional Latin of the requiem mass. I was brought to tears by Britten’s handling of Owen’s poem of reconciliation, “Strange Meeting,” in the concluding section of the work. In the poem, Owen imagines two dead soldiers, one English, one German, who meet each other

Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined

 They share life stories:

                        Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world

I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

 The poem ends with the line Let us sleep now … which Britten repeats and extends in a hypnotically murmuring lullaby.

 I have listen to the “War Requiem” many times since that memorable evening in London. It still brings me to tears.

 

cd coverA 1963 audio CD of the War Requiem, featuring the soloists for whom it was written, Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Galina Vishnevskaya, is available on Amazon.

 The Poetry Foundation website has a good selection of Wilfred Owen’s poems.

Great music stays in the mind

cello scoreI fell in love with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau when as a college student I heard his glorious baritone caress Schubert lieder in Christchurch’s boxy old Town Hall. I fell in love again when Mstislav Rostropovitch strode onto the same stage and plunged immediately into a Brahms cello sonata.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Mstislav Rostropovich

Mstislav Rostropovich

From an early age, music has been an important part of my life. At the age of thirteen I was playing second violin in my home town’s municipal orchestra. We weren’t very good, but we were ambitious; the major work of my first concert was Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

In Christchurch I played in the Canterbury University orchestra, and discovered the joys of playing Bach as an ensemble, of listening for the counterpoint of continuo and chorus in one of his great chorales.

I never seriously considered a career in music, but have continued to be an enthusiastic listener, going to as many concerts at budget allows. So it was with great excitement that my husband Tony and I explored London’s musical offerings when we arrived in 1962. Re-reading the letters to parents saved in my old black filing cabinet, I see that nearly every one contains mention of some musical event.

April 9
[At Westminster Abbey] While we were there a choir and orchestra were having a final rehearsal of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”

April 28
On Good Friday we attended a performance in the Royal Festival Hall of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion by the London Choral Society. … We went there again on Wednesday evening for an all-Mozart concert, and we were sitting in the choir seats behind the orchestra – a favourite place for music students, as you get a wonderful view of the conductor, and feel right in the orchestra.

May 9
Last night we went to the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden – doesn’t that make your mouth water? It started off with a few divertimenti – rather pretty and fluffy, and the a very fine performance of “Les Sylphides” with the Russian dancer Nureyev stealing the show – you remember he defected from Russia some time ago. But the reason we went was for Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” – tremendously exciting, jagged and violent. In spite of the narrow benches in the gods, where you knees dug into your neighbour’s back, it was a great thrill to be there. Covent Garden seems to be a place for the dedicated ballet enthusiast – you rarely hear an audience go quite so crazy at other forms of entertainment. Outside the opera house is fruit market – it was quiet at night, but the smell of fruit was everywhere, and we walked down through the trucks and piles of cases back to the Strand.

May 25
Went to Bertrand Russells’ birthday party last Saturday, in the Festival Hall. Concert by the London Symphony Orchestra – one of the finest performances of Mozart’s 39th Symphony that I have ever heard. Also Lili Kraus in a very impressive performance of a Mozart piano concerto. Lots of speeches etc. too – made us realise what an outstanding leader Russell is.

The music comes back to me as I re-read my letters, and I recall what a wealth of culture London had to offer.

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