Anghiari, awhile awandering, Brahms, Come Holy Ghost, I Love The Lord, Jean Sibelius, Jonathan Harvey, Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Lutoslawski, Mortuos Plango Vivos Voco, Occam Singers, Osmo Vanska, Parliament Choir, Rene Leibowitz, Richard Rodney Bennett, Schoenberg, St Mary Abbots, Sweet Was the Song, Winchester Cathedral
I have clearly been a very good boy indeed over the course of the year, for Father Christmas managed to squeeze all sorts of wonderful goodies down the chimney, and I have been the recipient of significant largesse from many, many people. I also received a broadcast of two of my pieces on Christmas Eve, while Sweet Was The Song was performed at Midnight Mass in Anghiari in a new duet version. It was then given an outing on Christmas Day at St Mary Abbots, giving one member of the congregation “the tingle factor”, and I trotted through the organ version of awhile awandering as the organ voluntary, which was “amazing”, apparently. If it is going to be included in next year’s Parliament Choir Christmas concert I think a significant rebalancing of organ and brass will be in order, but not quite yet.
I was also sad to hear of the death of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett on Christmas Eve. The obituaries focus mainly on his jazz and film work, but he was no slouch in the Classical field either, and I have one of his symphonies on my shelf which I shall now have to listen to again. I am quite proud to say that I performed one of his carols only two weeks ago with the Occam Singers, and it seems now to have been particularly fitting.
I have also been intending for some time to write about Jonathan Harvey, who died a few weeks ago. Although his music is far less well known than Bennett’s, he was a superb composer, and I am genuinely saddened that he will write no more. As a chorister I sang his I Love The Lord (known nearly universally as I Love This Chord, for its insistence on the home sound of G major), and only later realised what a fine piece it was. At college I got to know his Come, Holy Ghost, whose aleatoric central section was the direct inspiration for a similar passage in my own Ave Verum. Given that my piece went on to win a prize and be recorded onto CD, it is clear that I am in Harvey’s creative debt.
The piece of his I find most deeply moving, however, is Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, a profound electronic work which manipulates the sounds of his son’s voice and the bells of Winchester Cathedral. It is by no means everybody’s cup of char, but it would be hard to argue against its artistic intent and quality, and, as such, it is a fitting reflecting of an intellectually rigorous and technically secure writer who is also able to tell us something about being human.
Among the gifts under the tree was the box set of Osmo Vänskä’s recordings of the Sibelius symphonies with the Lahti SO. I have lusted after this box set for some time, even though I have various versions of these symphonies already. This box set is on BIS, however, whose recorded sound is almost absurdly vivid, and, as if that were not already enough, it comes with a performance of the original version of Symphony No.5. Most people might shrug at the mention of this piece, but, trust me, you would recognise the theme which appears at the climax.
I spent a good couple of hours yesterday wallowing – yes, wallowing! – in these recordings and this wonderful music. I have written before of my admiration for these works and know already that it is to Sibelius and Lutosławski that I will turn if I ever get around to writing a symphony of my own. There is an inexorable logic to the large scale works of both of these writers, what Sibelius called “the profound logic”, fragments of themes gradually coalescing into some huge definitive state which seems elusive and yet inevitable. In Sibelius’s hands the process can be quite overwhelming, and the plethora of performances of Lutosławski’s 3rd and 4th Symphonies next year, his centenary, is something which has me in a state of pleasurable anticipation.
And yet, and yet… Every time I listen to those Sibelius symphonies my mind wanders to two things. Firstly, to Leibowitz’s statement that Sibelius was “the worst composer in the world” (the composer took the attitude that “no statue has ever been put up to a critic”); secondly to that 8th Symphony, a work which even appeared on concert posters and on advertisements, but which was never born. Instead it ended up on that conflagration in which Sibelius destroyed all the aspects of his life and work he was unwilling to leave behind. I imagine him there, cigar in hand, glass of red wine at his side, as always, his face illuminated by the flames as that probably magnificent symphony was destroyed. I imagine as well that, once done, he never gave it another thought.
It is the nature of being human, however, to live in hope. A strange organ work from Sibelius’s almost entirely silent last years may well bear the remnants of fragments of the Eighth, and, every so often, something spectacular happens, such as this.
In the meantime, though, I intend to continue my exploration of the symphonies we do have. Critics are so often just self-important ninnies, eunuchs in the brothel, and Leibowitz was wrong, wrong, wrong about Sibelius, just as the late nineteenth century writers were wrong about Brahms. It took Schoenberg, of all people, to put Brahms into perspective, and many composers today are drawn to the gravity of Sibelius’s strange symphonies. More still will be pulled in, listeners too, in 2015, the 150th anniversary of his birth, and maybe by then we might have some better idea of what late Sibelius might have sounded like, perhaps even a little more of the Eighth.