Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Creating a buzz: the ‘three Bs’

In 1895, a festival was mounted in Meiningen, the tiny Thuringian dukedom with a cultural influence way beyond its size, devoted to the music of the ‘Three Great Bs’ – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. It was perhaps the ultimate recognition of the coincidence of initial letters that brought three of the undisputed giants of classical music together. The German composer Peter Cornelius had earlier coined a ‘three Bs’ comprising Bach, Beethoven and Berlioz, but by the 1880s, the Frenchman had been deposed in favour of Brahms, whose great conductor friend Hans von Bülow designated them the ‘Holy Trinity’ of music: ‘I believe in Bach, the Father, Beethoven, the Son, and Brahms, the Holy Ghost of music,’ he wrote.

More by chance than by design, those same three composers feature in the first volumes of my Masterpieces of Music series of eBooks – perhaps inevitable when tackling the ‘greats’ first. (Anyone who has ever shelved a record or CD collection alphabetically will be familiar with the undeniable fact that Bs and Ss dominate among classical composers’ names – or maybe it’s just my taste in music.) But Bach, Beethoven and Brahms share more than just a capital letter – there’s a line of influence from the earliest to the latest, and not purely in the sense that Brahms was influenced by Beethoven, who was influenced by Bach.

Until Mendelssohn came along and returned it to the public consciousness in the 1830s and 40s, Bach’s music – apart from his major keyboard works – had lain almost forgotten since the composer’s death in 1750. Even Johann Sebastian’s masterpiece, the Mass in B minor, had to wait until as late as the 1860s for its first complete performance, despite his son Carl Philipp Emanuel’s best efforts 80 years earlier. The late 18th century was a time when old music was shunned in favour of the new (how times change...). And in many senses, Bach’s music was ‘old’ even as it was being written, since his doggedly Baroque inspirations overlapped with the dawn of a new age of galant Classicism (it’s pertinent to remember that Haydn was already 18 by the time of Bach’s death, and would be writing his first symphonies and string quartets within a decade). As a result, it soon fell out of fashion in concert halls and churches and very little of it appeared in print in the 18th century. Bach’s music, instead, had something of a connoisseur’s following among musicians, if not their audiences.

One of these devotees was a court organist in Bonn, Christian Gottlieb Neefe, who had studied in Leipzig under Bach’s successor at the Thomaskirche and just happened to be Beethoven’s teacher and who used the 48 preludes and fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier as the basis of his instruction in harmony and counterpoint as well as keyboard-playing. Later, after he had moved to Vienna in 1792, Beethoven frequented the musical soirées organised by Baron Gottfried van Swieten (the Handel obsessive who persuaded Mozart to ‘update’ Messiah and who collaborated with Haydn on the German texts of his oratorios The Creation and The Seasons). Beethoven’s admittedly often unreliable biographer Anton Schindler wrote of these occasions:

The evening gatherings at Swieten’s home had a marked effect on Beethoven, for it was here that he first became acquainted with the music of Handel and Bach. He generally had to stay long after the other guests had departed, for his elderly host was musically insatiable and would not let the young pianist go until he had ‘blessed the evening’ with several Bach fugues.

Schindler was obviously unaware of Neefe’s earlier input, but it’s fair to surmise that Beethoven’s early years were saturated in the music of Bach, which leads us to consider the effect it had on his own compositional development. Scholars have explored how the exposure to Bach’s ‘48’ coloured the younger composer’s attitude to key, but it is perhaps his use of counterpoint that reveals the most. Contrapuntal episodes feature in music from his earliest days, such as short passages of fughetta and imitation in the ‘Eroica’Symphony, but strangely, the most concerted use of fugue as a formal and developmental tool came in his last years. Most obviously, there’s the Grosse Fuge, the ‘Great Fugue’ originally designed as a finale to his B flat major String Quartet op.130, but which was replaced there by a more Haydnesque rondo. More than one commentator has talked of this single, extended movement as Beethoven’s ‘Art of Fugue’. There are also several instances in the late piano sonatas of full-blown fugues, including the finales of the ‘Hammerklavier’ and of the penultimate, A flat major Sonata op.110. There’s perhaps something in seeing the poor composer, shut off from the world by his loss of hearing, engaging in a musical challenge that is as much intellectual as sonic, as much a work of the mind as of the heart.

By the time Brahms emerged on the scene as a composer in the 1850s, Beethoven had already been immortalised as a musical god and Bach was beginning to be rehabilitated. These two figures were to loom over much of Brahms’s musical thinking and with Beethoven it was with almost a sense of fear as admiration. Most famously, the example of Ludwig hovering over his shoulder made writing his first symphony a fraught, drawn-out affair – ‘You don’t know what it is like,’ he wrote to the conductor Hermann Levi, ‘always to hear that giant marching along behind me.’ And when the symphony finally emerged in 1876 the broad, ‘Ode to Joy’-inspired theme of its finale led to the work being dubbed ‘Beethoven’s Tenth’. But it wasn’t just symphonies: Brahms claimed to have destroyed 20 string quartets before he wrote one that he felt worthy of following on from his predecessor’s monumental oeuvre; and much the same could be said of his writing of piano sonatas, though these emerged much earlier in his career – his C major Sonata op.1 has unmistakable lineage to the ‘Hammerklavier’ (Brahms later owned the composer’s own notebooks for this monumental work). Brahms certainly learned much of his developmental technique from Beethoven, and the benefit of using of elemental material such as scales and arpeggios to shape his themes – archetypes that mark out the imposing first movement of the First Piano Concerto, for instance.

The influence of Bach was just as formidable. Like Beethoven, Brahms played Bach’s keyboard works from an early age, and slipped short pieces into his recitals at a time when they were still little known beyond the cognoscenti. If he drew his motivic thinking from Beethoven, he gained contrapuntal command from studying the Leipzig master. Through all this runs the idea that no one who followed Bach could write a fugue except under his influence – it’s a form so bound up with his legacy that it’s difficult to imagine from whom else composers might ultimately have learned the skill. As early as Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, then, there’s obvious Bachian homage in the semiquaver running motion that underpins the main themes of the rondo finale, and in its use of a fugal exposition. Among his solo piano works are Baroque dance forms, preludes and fugues, for organ a collection of chorale preludes and for chorus various canons and motets – all indicative of an obsession with the legacy of Bach. Perhaps the most famous instance of this, though, is the passacaglia finale of the Fourth Symphony, which adapts the bass line from a chaconne in one of Bach’s cantatas, no.150 Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich, as the basis for a set of variations – a masterpiece in which all of the ‘three Bs’ seem to coexist.

For a special bundle offer on Masterpieces of Music eBooks – three titles for the price of two – visit the Erudition website.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Tristan und Isolde - Theater Lübeck - 27 April 2014

Review from the November 2014 issue of The Wagner Journal:

Jeffrey Dowd (Tristan) and Edith Heller (the run's original Isolde)

Photo: Jochen Quast

Tristan - Jeffrey Dowd
Isolde - Rebecca Team
Kurwenal - Michael Vier
Brangäne - Wioletta Hebrowska
King Mark - Martin Blasius
Melot - Mark McConnell
Young Sailor/Shepherd - Daniel Jenz
Steersman - Kong-Seok Choi

Men’s Chorus & Extra Chorus of Theater Lübeck
Philharmonic Orchestra of Hansestadt Lübeck

Conductor - Roman Brogli-Sacher
Director - Anthony Pilavachi
Set and costume designer - Tatjana Ivschina
Lighting - Falk Hampel

After its groundbreaking Ring cycle and perceptive Parsifal, Theater Lübeck has now added a fascinating take on Tristan to its Wagnerian portfolio. The defining feature of Anthony Pilavachi’s direction of all three works has been his ability to make compelling human dramas of these oft-reinterpreted masterpieces. His broad remit has been to set them in the context of the theatre’s ongoing celebration of the city’s most famous literary son in its ‘Wagner meets Mann’ strand. In this case, Thomas Mann had a particular obsession with Wagner’s drama, and wrote a novella, Tristan, that obliquely references the operatic version. Moreover, his epic novel Buddenbrooks was written, like Wagner’s ‘Handlung’, heavily under the influence of Schopenhauer. 

There is a hint of Buddenbrooks’s bourgeois milieu in Tatjana Ivschina’s set, which serves all three acts in progressive decrepitude and seems to mirror the declining fortunes of Mann’s eponymous family. (A visit to Lübeck’s Buddenbrooks House, the former home of Mann’s grandparents a couple of minutes from the theatre, and now a museum to the master and his literary relations that includes a mock-up of the fictional interiors as described in the novel, proved to be an apt Vorspiel to the performance.) There is a further Mannian reference in Act III, as we shall see, but Pilavachi’s broader conceit takes a different line. He uses the characters of Tristan and Isolde instead to allude to the affair between Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck that inspired the work. This director has an obvious penchant for telling a story onstage that isn’t necessarily that prescribed by the composer but which always follow its own internal logic and on the whole enhances rather than detracts from the line of the original. In so doing, he also has the ability to get around some, if not all, of the inconsistencies between text and new setting in ingenious ways.

Act I takes place not on a ship taking Tristan and his captive Irish princess to Cornwall but in a 19th-century salon, perhaps the Wesendonck villa, laid out ready for a wedding feast and where Tristan has already brought Isolde to await her reluctant marriage to King Mark – in other words, the king is the one arriving by boat at the end of the act. There are telling moments from the first, with the Young Sailor as a member of the house retinue taunting Isolde to her face (he, the Steersman, Kurwenal and Melot are all effectively house staff and come and go through all three acts), and Tristan, rather than being consigned to the usual aft deck is very much in the foreground from the beginning, with Isolde addressing her ‘Mir erkoren’ to his face. And with Melot already on the scene before the arrival of Mark, he is able to witness the growing erotic intoxication of the illicit lovers and in his jealousy concoct his plan of betrayal. Pilavachi’s Personenregie in this final scene of Act I is particularly perceptive – we see the transformative effect on Isolde as Tristan snatches a kiss, seemingly their first and what they are expecting to be their last, before taking the potion. Oblivious to the world around they begin to abandon decorum and layers of clothing, which Brangäne and Kurwenal (maid and valet, respectively) desperately try to retrieve as Mark arrives, and Isolde, dragged reluctantly to meet him, falls with a faint at his feet.

For Act II we’ve moved to the king’s garden house. Here we see what is perhaps Pilavachi’s theme coming to fruition: that Tristan is not only Wagner’s self-proclaimed ‘monument to love’ but also a monument to artistic creativity inspired by love. The Wagner–Mathilde parallel is openly drawn: at ‘O sink hernieder’ Isolde repeats Tristan’s words and writes them on to his manuscript paper as if capturing the moment of inspiration. The end of the act reveals Mark’s tragedy more than in any other staging I’ve seen. After the recoil at being shown the truth of Melot’s accusation, he seems to crumple. Sitting together on the sofa with his wife, he makes one last attempt to win her over, but she has eyes only for Tristan, carefully rebuffs Mark’s proffered hand and the king appears to have a seizure, sitting stock still staring into the distance for the remainder of the act.

The prelude to Act III plays out to a front gauze depicting the Venetian Grand Canal: we are now obviously in Death in Venice territory (and in fairness, Wagner’s own death in Venice is a gift for a director drawing parallels between Wagner and Mann, between the opera and its creator). The action is initially confusing, though: each time the ‘alte Weise’ plays out, a ‘young Tristan’ (presumably the result of the offstage quicky his parents grabbed during Brangäne’s first warning in Act II) walks on with a wreath and a coffin is carried across the back of the set – on its third appearance Isolde herself is revealed as mourner. The main action is therefore presumed to be in flashback, and for the Liebestod, Tristan rises from his death to sit at the piano and write down Isolde’s words as she sings them. In the final moments, Isolde is back in widow’s weeds grasping the manuscript as if to demonstrate that love is the fount of creativity. 

The production opened in the early autumn of 2013 and reappeared, with subtly varying casts, more or less monthly for the rest of the season, until I caught this penultimate performance in April. Jeffrey Dowd, who had been a fine Parsifal but disappointing Siegfried during my Wagner bicentenary travels last year (see TWJ, November 2013), was in fine voice as Tristan, combining impetuousness with obsession. Rebecca Team, previously Lübeck’s triumphant Brünnhilde, made a very human Isolde, with firm singing and a crisp projection of the words – given Pilavachi’s detailed direction, both leads presented their roles as far from the statuesque Wagnerian cliché as could be imagined. 

All the subsidiary roles were well taken by members of the company, though Michael Vier’s Kurwenal didn’t have quite the vocal sheen of Wioletta Hebrowska’s Brangäne or Martin Blasius’s sympathetic Mark. Roman Brogli-Sacher conducted with his customary combination of forward impetus and textural detail, and the theatre orchestra surpassed itself in warmth and passion. By the time you read this, Lübeck’s Wagnerian odyssey will have moved on to Tannhäuser, and a post-Pilavachi/Brogli-Sacher era will have replaced one that has so enriched this city’s cultural life in recent years.