Anton Bruckner, Cantores Salicium, Levavi Oculos, Locatelli, Mahler, Missa Romana, Mozart, Murray Walker, Pergolesi, Te Deum
A tricky week, a fair bit of journeying up to London and back, and one particular project looking as though it has fallen through. Without wanting to go into too many details, this has been a little frustrating and stressful, but what does one do but learn from these things and take those lessons forwards?
I have been continuing with details on the Cantores Salicium commission, a setting of Levavi Oculos, which is running significantly ahead of schedule, and, because of that, leaving me with a little leeway to get on with other things as well. The Te Deum needs to be orchestrated, and that is the next project on the table, and then what? We shall see.
Of course, as I have remarked before, this is the time of year when I go a-lecturing, and I had an enjoyable session on Tuesday with a new class of non-musicians who seemed to be both interested and interesting. I am also into this term’s run of my Monday morning class, and it is about this that I would like to write, as I am listening to two pieces, each of which has me at one particular end of the pleasure spectrum.
Firstly, the Missa Romana by Pergolesi, a remarkable composition for a composer of only twenty-two years (he died at twenty-six, of course). This is effervescent and bold writing, fizzing over with imaginative touches and moments of genuine pleasure. There are reports that the composition tutors of Naples were somewhat put out by the quality of this piece at its first performance, and I can well believe it. I will have to see whether this piece has the depth to match its immediacy, but I suspect that the answer to that is a resounding yes.
Emboldened, one suspects, by a rather successful first performance, Pergolesi revised this work substantially until it was for no fewer than four choirs, and the sonorities in the work are the kinds of things in which I could happily wallow for hours on end. All pretty impressive by any standards, by especially so for one so young, but tuberculosis got to him only a few years later. File another composer under “what might have been”.
In the red corner, Anton Bruckner, and perhaps I should apologise for offending any Bruckner fans, but, frankly, I just do not understand it at all, and, from a cursory search of the interweb, it seems I am not the only one. Monolithic, obsessively repetitive, repetitively obsessive, devoid of meaningful development apart from literal repetition (there it is again!) and sequence, I have yet to sit through a single movement of the 9th, supposedly transcendental, Symphony without having to take a break, normally of a day or so.
The thing that really gets me about Bruckner, though, is that there is so much potential in his ideas and that, at his best, he sounds like Mahler. In fact, when I dropped in on a broadcast recently I happened upon a bit that I thought was Mahler, but then the hammering began, my mood darkened, and I came to the inescapable conclusion that, no, this was the other massive symphonist of that age, the one I cannot abide rather than the one I cannot live without.
Whereas Gustav takes those ideas and flies free with them, twisting and turning in the musical currents to take us in surprising and inspiring directions, Anton merely marches along in blocks of four and eight, his obsession with counting transmitted to the proportions in his works, the rigidity of that thought being the enemy of flexibility and poise. The proportions of Mozart’s music are also renowned for their balance, but never do you feel that he is simply hammering away or writing numbers under blank bars in his score and simply repeating ideas until those bars are filled.
People say that Bruckner’s symphonies are like cathedrals in sound, great pieces of musical architecture, to which I say that they are probably then best appreciated from the outside, and that they are dark and gloomy on the inside, and often dispiritingly cold. I have also tried the motets, know them well and, yes, they have the virtue of being short, but they still feel earthbound.
I listened to the opening movement of the 9th this morning, and managed nine minutes before the repetitions finally drove me to press “stop”. It certainly succeeds in getting into the head of Bruckner, I suppose, because obsessive that music certainly is. I then switched to the Pergolesi and was reminded of what music could and should be, light, airy, joyous and wonderful, and I shall enjoy exploring it even more.
As for Bruckner, well, I think I have heard enough, and doubtless similar accusations could be levelled at my music, but to that I reply that at least I am in a decent position to see the faults in both of our writing. In his favour, of course, he revised his symphonies substantially and often, and usually based on very bad advice indeed, but we’re clutching at straws here. He goes onto my little list along with Locatelli and several moderns of the Radox bath school (as a friend of mine refers to it).
Lastly, although I am sure he will never read this, deep and fulsome birthday wishes to Murray Walker OBE (wot, no knighthood?), the voice of my childhood sporting obsession and a lovely man too. I have met him twice, did my usual silent thing when I meet my heroes, but nevertheless walked away with a dedicated copy of his autobiography. 92 years young and still and-it’s-go-go-going.