Sunday, 19 June 2016

Play out classical, I've never felt better in my life (Oh, Vienna).

Classical music has never affected me on the same gut level as pop, rock, reggae, hip-hop, soul, funk, and many other 'popular' genres. I've never been offended by it. I've enjoyed it often. But, on the whole, it's been on a more academic level than, say, New Order or Eek-A-Mouse.

So I was interested to watch Revolution and Romance:Musical Masters of the 19th Century on BBC4 recently. I expected to learn stuff from it. For it to be an 'improving' experience. I didn't expect it to be quite so much fun as it was.

A lot of that is down to presenter Suzy Klein. She clearly knows her stuff and can play a bit too. She doesn't bombard the viewer with technical information but focuses on telling the story. Always ready with a humorous or telling anecdote and a game girl too. Witness her pulling faces, barking like a dog, getting the crisps in, and getting excited over making her first recording. She's got nice hair too. I think, as the series progressed I fell a little bit in love with her!

We begin in Vienna, then capital of the Habsburg empire, at Beethoven's funeral in 1827. Less than 40 years earlier Mozart had died unlamented in the same city but by the time Ludwig Van passed on he was a 'celebrity'. Suzy's bought enough tat from Viennese shops to prove it.


Whilst Mozart had been buried in a common grave the obsession with Beethoven was such that the day of his funeral was declared a national holiday and a gravedigger was offered money to cut his head off so someone could have it for keeps. As an ornament I guess! What had happened between 1791 and 1827?

The French Revolution had unleashed a spirit of democracy across Europe. Aristocractic privilege was waning (although it's still bloody here even now) and it was becoming possible to succeed on the basis of merit and talent. How novel!

In 1803 Beethoven had written Eroica celebrating the heroic Napoleon. It opened with a thunderclap as if to say "Shut up. Listen" before going to celebrate ol' Boney's achievements. Beethoven was later disgusted when Napoleon declared himself emperor and took on the trappings of those the revolution had removed. So much so that he withdrew his dedication. Suzy claims this as a turning point in the history of music. It now had a meaning beyond pure entertainment, beyond serving wealthy patrons.

Middle class audiences (not the poor, not yet) could attend Theater an der Wien enabling Beethoven further freedom from the elite. Liberty to make musical, rather than commercial, decisions. On a freezing December night in 1808 he staged FOUR hours of music which included his monumental fifth symphony. He was full of confidence. His music was bold. We're used to it now but placing yourself two centuries back you can imagine 'the shock of the new'.

The new bourgeois class (it hadn't become an insult at this point) of Vienna wanted more. Schubert , who died aged just 31, gave them it. He'd grown up in a building with 16 other families. He was nicknamed The Little Mushroom and wore his glasses in bed. A great musical eccentric who, in his short life, wrote more than 600 songs.


While Beethoven dealt with grand ideals Schubert looked at the messy business of what it is to be alive, to live, to love. His salon recitals became places of subversion and debate. They were like pop up gigs. Most of his songs even lasted about three minutes.

After the fall of Napoleon there'd been a clampdown on political expression in Vienna. Schubert was targeted by the cops. Music had become powerful. Composers were being compared to the likes of Goethe and Byron.

Berlioz, over in Paris, was the the wildest romantic musician of this wild romantic age. When on holiday in Italy he heard a girlfriend of his was being unfaithful. He boarded a carriage with a gun and some strychnine with the intention of killing her, her lover, and finally himself. On the way, however, he got distracted and went to Nice to write an overture. As you do.

He had more luck with a later love. So smitten was he by British Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson that he went on a four year long stalking campaign. She eventually formed the basis of his Symphonie Fantastique. A story that included the murder of Harriet and Berlioz's execution. All of which took place entirely in Berlioz's head. In real life, instead of notifying the authorities, she married him. Well played, Hector, with your silly Donald Trump hair.


Composer's currency was on the rise. Performers too. None more so than Niccolo Paganini, the Keith Richards of his day, whacking out the South Bank Show theme tune on his violin at breakneck pace. The speed metal of the romantic era. People thought he was in league with, or even that he actually was, the devil. He was happy to play up to this. Refusing to remove his shoes in public to encourage the belief that he had cloven hooves. Another rumour circulated that he'd murdered his wife and used her intestines to string his fiddle. He wasn't just mad, bad, and dangerous to know. He could play a bit too. Ricochet bowing. Fast bowing. He had an armoury of tics and moves. People fainted at his gigs. It all made him a very rich man indeed.

Giaochino Rossini was richer still. The Croesus of the Adriatic was more famous than any of the others too. At the age of 36 he retired and lived the life of a glutton for forty years. He had the body to prove it. He was one of those lucky bastards who can knock things out in a trice. It took him only three weeks to write The Barber of Seville and he wrote 39 operas in his short working life. He boasted he could set a laundry bill to music.

Music had become such big business by the mid-nineteenth century that theatres would pay audience members to laugh (that smug knowing NFT laugh), weep, or blow kisses.

A backlash to this commercialisation came in the form of Robert Schumann who, hypocritically, used the gains of his more famous wife Clara's celebrity piano recitals to fund his broadsides against celebrity culture. He was also a music journo and attacked both banality and virtuosity. He hated Rossini. Imagine if he met Simon Cowell?

He doesn't sound a lot of fun to be around and, indeed, his marriage was described as 'tricky'. Nevertheless the Schumanns knocked out 7 kids. Secretly he wanted to be a star like his wife. So desperate was he he'd plunge his hands into the abdomens of freshly slaughtered animals which he believed would improve his playing. Not sure why. It didn't work and, worse still, the mercury he was taking for his syphilis was killing him.

For the first time ever, though certainly not the last, musicians agonised as to whether they could be both successful and critically acclaimed. Liszt succeeded on both counts. In fact the 1840s saw Lisztomania. It was a real thing. Girls went crazy. Ripping his hankies and stashing his used cigar butts in their cleavages. No doubt fantasising about giving Franz a titwank.


He was to piano what Paganini was to violin. He'd have two pianos on stage and, most nights, one of them would end up smashed up. This afforded a positive symbiotic relationship between Liszt and the piano manufacturers. Steinway wanted him as much as he needed a constant supply of joannas. An early example of product placement.

Liszt went on a European tour where he played more than 1,000 gigs. Like a rock star he had groupies and he took full advantage of them too. In 1857, in Weimar, at the inauguration of a monument to Goethe and Schiller, he set Goethe's Faust to music. It was audacious. Like Radiohead releasing Kid A or something.

Back in France La Marseillaise had become the national anthem of the new French republic. The song had started in Strasbourg, been popularised in Marseille, and had, in Paris, become a rabble rousing revolutionary anthem. It still has power to this day as evinced by it's singing at Wembley when France visited for a kick about after last year's Paris attacks.

It seems odd that a national anthem can be seen as a precursor to the protest music of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan but even opera flirted with sedition in those heady days. Grand Opera dealt with this by, ostensibly, focusing on historical themes. Daniel Auber's La muette de portici, based on an uprising against Spanish rule that happened in 17th century Naples, inspired the Belgian revolution of 1830 which overthrew Dutch rule.

In the same year the Poles rose against Russian occupation. It was brutally crushed. Frederic Chopin, a sympathiser but a non-revolutionary himself, fled the repressive Russian regime, moved to Paris, and never saw Poland again. He kept with him a small jar of Polish earth. Using mazurkas and polonaises, traditional Polish forms, he gave a Polish kick, swagger, snap, and pulse to the expatriate Polish community. Galvanising and embodying feelings of loneliness, displacement, and (yes) patriotism.

Chopin was buried in Paris but his heart was removed and taken to Warsaw where it was pickled in cognac and buried in an urn. Schumann, as we've established a difficult critic to please, once said Chopin's musical pieces were 'cannons buried in flowers'.

Elsewhere in Europe Germany and Italy were marching towards unification. Carl von Weber wrote a German, pointedly not French or Italian, opera Der Freischutz inspired by Hansel and Gretel and Rumpelstiltskin. This use of folk tales to tell supernatural stories came in the wake of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. His use of a diminished 7th invented the classic spooky horror chord.

He was an inspiration to the retrospectively problematic genius Richard Wagner who, in 1848, gave up a prestigious job in Dresden to help spearhead an anti-royalist uprising. So far, so good. He manned the barricades. He even made hand grenades. Unsurprisingly this attracted the attention of the authorities so he fled to Switzerland.


He spent 12 years in exile. Nietzsche, Kant, and Hegel fuelled his desire for a socialist utopia but he chose to put down the sword and pick up his composer's pen. He would redeem humanity in Bayreuth. A small town in Upper Bavaria. Specifically in the Festspielhaus. You had to be made of pretty stern stuff to attend. Performances lasted six hours. You sat on hard seats in hot summers and popping out for a pee was frowned upon. People even died there.

But Wagner turned it round. The once wanted exile was, by 1876, shaking the hand of Wilhelm I, the first German emperor. Wagner had lived to see Germany 'born'. On the plus side he was a veggie. On the downside, and it's a very big downside, he was a virulent anti-semite who, after his death, inspired Hitler.

Verdi did similar for Italy. Minus the protofascism, thankfully. Verdi's music was more mournful, less rousing, than Wagner's. Perhaps because his breakthrough opera Nabucco came from a place of deep personal tragedy. Strange then that it should be transformed into an anthem for Italian unification.

The revolution it helped inspire failed, for now, but Verdi's career flourished. La Traviata and Rigoletto dealt with a form of social realism where Wagner had spoken of Gods and monsters. Verdi got minted on the back of it. It also helped that Viva Verdi could be read both as a wish for long life for Giuseppe and as a ringing endorsement of Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of united Italy.

In the 3rd episode Suzy guides us through the technological developments of the age. The Paris World Fair of 1889 had 35,000,000 visitors from around the globe. All that remains of it now is the Eiffel Tower but at the time you could hear music from France itself, Russia, America, Finland, and Norway. But also Javanese gamelan and Vietnamese traditional music.

The gamelan transfixed spectators so that, according to contemporary reports, their ice creams would melt. Once Debussy had wiped vanilla off his shirt he set about changing his entire style so inspired was he by the gamelan. He incorported arabesques and melodies to create musical 'pagodas'. His piano approximated the interlocking of the Javanese gongs. His music broke free from Richard Wagner's overbearing power. They represented softer subjects. For example a deer walking in the forest. There was no melody whatsoever yet it was beautiful. A sort of early form of ambient music?


Music was awakening to the world of modernity. The industrial revolution had provided the transport infrastructure that enabled much larger audiences to attend concerts. Venues, like the Royal Albert Hall, were built to cater for these huge crowds. So awestruck was Queen Victoria on the opening night of the Albert Hall that she couldn't deliver a word of her introductory speech. That night the audience were treated to On Shore And Sea by Arthur Sullivan. Friend and partner of Gilbert.

What Eiffel was to towers and Brunel was to bridges Adolphe Sax was to instrumentation. The Belgian moved to Paris in 1841 and when he arrived in the French capital he was so poor he had to sleep in a shed. He'd already cheated death several times after swallowing a pin, getting burnt in a bonfire, and drinking sulphuric acid.

His saxophone (I guess you saw that coming?) combined elements of brass and wind, flute and trombone, and was seen as an orchestra in one instrument. A very complicated instrument too. It was made, very precisely, of over 800 components. The instrument makers of Paris hated it. They stole his workers, burnt down his factory, and tried to have him assassinated - twice!

Still he prevailed and in 1846 he validated his genius by winning, of all things, a battle of the bands contest which, remarkably, 20,000 people turned up to watch.

The most futurist invention however was Thomas Edison's phonograph. It must've been mindblowing to hear recorded sound for the first time ever. People at the time thought it was a trick. Perhaps involving a ventriloquist. Opera singers were worried they'd be put out of work.

Wider concerns were that society, modern society, was sliding into moral decline. Exacerbated by the opening of the Moulin Rouge. Seedy and glitzy, though tame looking these days, it was said that the Can Can could lead to lunacy and moral degeneracy. Eyebrows were even raised by the waltz. Couples getting that close together was bad enough but the fact it occasionally aroused amorous passions was simply too much for some.

Music and dancing came to be seen as corrupting practices. Particularly, of course, for women. The poor little petals were seen to have nerves too fragile to deal with the maelstrom of emotions that music could stir up. It was even said to have a dangerously adverse effect on the menstrual cycle. Women spent years in asylums, were tortured even, because it was said they'd been driven insane by exposure to too much music.

Despite all this nonsense music gained in popularity. Mass produced and affordable pianos helped this. More and more homes had one. Bad news for the 17,000 elephants slaughtered each year to make the ivory keys.

In 1878 Gustav Mahler moved to Vienna to create music reflecting this modern age. The now. Not the then. Vienna had changed from Mozart to Beethoven and had changed again. There was radical architecture, electric trams, Freudian analysis, cinemas even. These were the things reflected in Mahler's music. Whereas a Beethoven symphony was a journey, often from darkness into light, Mahler's were finely layered collages. Ethereal and dreamlike.

A world away from Richard Strauss who, in 1896, wrote his philosophical and monumental Also Sprach Zarathustra. It was epic in scale and it pushed the orchestra to it's very limits. It used about 100 musicians.

Ten years later no musicians at all were required when 10,000 people turned up to the Albert Hall in London to hear a phonograph. Things were to change again. We'd entered the 20th century and never again would composers have such fame or power. Their legacy though, as this wonderful programme shows, lives on.

So, yes, I did learn something after all. Thankyou.

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