I have been fortunate enough to have been at very close quarters with some wonderful music over the past few days. In terms of historical importance it would be tricky to top Beethoven’s monumental Hammerklavier Sonata, a piece of rugged and granite-hewn greatness which throws out more and more correspondences the closer you get to it. I just about managed to cram a brief overview of the whole piece into a two-hour lecture on Monday morning, but it was close, and I keep discovering more and more hidden within the notes. It is one of those pieces that, for a composer, is depressingly good.
However, it is a smaller work by a far less known writer that has been wheeling around my head since the beginning of the week and, no, it is not one of mine. O Lord My God, a verse anthem by the short-lived, insufferably vain but extraordinarily talented Pelham Humfrey, has been the music to rush around my brain, its solo passages in particular of dazzling expressive brilliance in a period of experimentation with the new sounds of the Italian Baroque. Humfrey, according to Samuel Pepys in one of my favourite passages from his diaries, is “an absolute monsieur” and so sniffy about other musicians as to “make a man piss”. Pepys does, however, mention that “every body says he is very able”, and that ability was spectacular. He was dead at twenty seven, though, and one wonders what he might have gone on to achieve, especially alongside the contrastingly happy and easy-going Purcell. The music is sheer joy.
I have been engaged in a new project since the beginning of the week, writing on non-musical topics for a website. As you might have guessed from this blog, I do enjoy the art of creating something from nothing, and have always secretly aspired to do so in words as well as music. I find the former much easier to put together than the latter, and, in fact, often use it as a displacement activity (as now), but am hoping that I can stick to some kind of routine of writing a certain number of words a day and then transferring that discipline to my composing. After all, editing a blank page is tricky, and, like many other composers, I have various sketches lying around in different stages of completeness, from organ pieces to about half a viola concerto. It is not as if there is nothing for me to be working on, after all.
For the immediate future, though, it is arranging that needs to come to the top of the list, some gentle recasting of orchestrations for a couple of concerts, one of my specialities. It may not sound like “proper” composition, but it certain does tune the compositional ear to hear in colour, as it were, and any opportunity a composer gets to work with an orchestra in whatever capacity is, in my opinion, too good to turn down.
Following the onward-rolling saga of English National Opera is depressing stuff as it attempts to come to terms with significant cuts in its Arts Council grant. Times are tough and money is tight and all that, but they do seem rather to be the brunt of some rather spectacular cuts, and one does genuinely wonder how and if the company will survive. Many commentators appear to be holding a rather downbeat view about the whole thing, opining (and I agree) that quality is eventually going to become diluted to the extent that the whole operation might just keel over in the chase for bums on seats. Personally, I have never had a duff evening at ENO, as I have had at a couple of more esteemed opera houses, and, in Mark Wigglesworth, they have a top-notch music director, just as they did before in Edward Gardner. Insiders, though, have told me that those concerned more with artistic than financial matters feel as though they are constantly attempting to push water uphill, and that cannot make for a wonderful esprit de corps.
The chorus recently voted to go on strike, protesting at the announcement that jobs would be shed and the remaining members would have to take a pay cut, so it must be rather embarrassing for the bean counters that said singers have just been nominated in the Best Chorus category of the 2016 International Opera Awards…oh, and for the Outstanding Achievement in Opera Award at the Oliviers, together with the ENO orchestra. The only other British chorus nominated for the former award is Glyndebourne, and to have two nominees (of six) in that category from this country is testament to the quality of music making we have. Despite this, and very sadly, it does not look good either for ENO or their chorus.