Classical Music Buzz > Kenneth Woods- conductor
Kenneth Woods- conductor
cellist, chamber musician, guitarist, composer and author
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Government officials are considering a move to permanently do away with alto clef from 2018, sources have revealed.

It has been known for some time that the widely reviled clef, recently voted “worst clef” for a record-shattering 27th year in a row, has long been considered by many in the cabinet as “unfit for purpose.” A recent government white paper on clefs and transpositions cited many shortcomings with alto clef, including insufficient distinctiveness from other so-called “c clefs,” notably the far more popular tenor clef.

Minister for Transposition, Jacob Wayst-Moog, said of the underperforming clef: “For many years now, the government have been aware that alto clef is saddled with a number of intrinsic shortcomings. Almost nobody can actually read it- even violists, who use it everyday, are often as confused about what pitch they are playing as are those listening to them. Most decent violists are actually violinists anyway, and they’d be far better off under the government’s new plan for viola parts to be written in treble clef transposed in F.”

Alto clef has long raised the ire of leading music critics as well as musicians. “The real problem with alto clef,” said one leading London critic, “is that it’s only useable for a register that nobody particularly wants to hear,” while another noted that “it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for alto clef- all it seems to be good for is the wooly region of the viola and missed notes on the trombone. Where tenor clef tends to create a sense of expectation of the bright heldentenor colorings of the cello and stentorian trombone chorals, alto clef is really only used for fuzzy inner voices and passages requiring the use of a toy trombone.”


Some in government expect the “alto trombone” (bottom)  to be renamed as the “toy trombone” once alto clef is scrapped in 2018. Photo credit- Edward Solomon

It is understood that a final announcement on the future of the troubled clef has been postponed due to a lack of consensus among ministers as to what to replace it with. While some have advocated for an expansion of the role of tenor clef, others have called for the widespread introduction of transposition among violists, a plan recently derided by the Leader of the Opposition as “the worst musical idea since techno-dodecaphony.”

Users of alto clef often resort to desperate measures to figure out what notes to play

Side effects of exposure to alto clef include writing bizarre sentences backwards. Photo credit North Muskegon Elementary Strings

Government ministers were quick to discount rumors that the move to replace alto clef was intended to save conductors from public embarrassment. “Let’s face it, if we did away with all musical notation that conductors struggle with, it wouldn’t mean just doing away with alto clef, bass clarinet in A and Glockenspiel,  we’d have to rely on conducting Mahler symphonies using guitar tablature,” said one source.

Meanwhile Mervyn Purvue of the British Society for the Preservation of Historic Clefs called for caution: “Alto clef may have its obvious shortcomings, but sometimes it’s important to protect the appropriate place of aspects of our heritage, however grotesque and disgusting we may find them. Like Morris dancing, the music of Percy Grainger and TV talent shows, alto clef reminds us that life often has a dark and distasteful side. Just as we must face up to the brutal atrocities committed over the centuries in the name of the British Empire, we must accept that alto clef, awful as it is, is a part of our musical history we can’t just sweep under the carpet.”

2 months ago | |
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I spent my May Day on a flight from London to Philadelphia this year, which isn’t much fun, but is certainly better than spending a flight from London to Philadelphia calling out “May Day!” I left home with a knot in my stomach and an ache in my heart- since our kids were born, I’ve tried very hard to keep business trips to about a week at the most. There have been exceptions, but this was to be one of the longer trips away from my family in many years.

Looking at my schedule for the month, one might wonder why I was flying to Philadelphia at all, as I didn’t have a single concert or rehearsal in the “City of Brotherly Love.” My mission there was simple, and took only about an hour. From the airport, I made my way to the home of my colleague David Yang, where my second-string cello has been living for the last few years. David was already in New York, where our trio would be working for the next week, so I picked up a key from a neighbour, let myself in and found my cello laying on the floor of his living room, grabbed it, and went back to the waiting cab and on to 30th St Station.

The “second-string cello” is a sad sign of the times. My first-string cello is pretty wonderful, and after twenty-five years together, it feels like its sound and my identity are pretty well fused. It’s also ancient and fragile. Yes, I do often buy a seat for it and travel with it, but the costs of doing so are obscene in an age when presenters are under ever more budgetary pressure. A huge chunk of what Ensemble Epomeo does is on the East Coast, and we tend to rehearse in Philly, so leaving my spare cello there has significantly lowered the threshold of financial viability for trio projects, and it does save me a lot of stress.

After a short and pleasant train ride and a shockingly expensive cab, I finally made it to Brooklyn, where I would be spending most of the next week. Our main project was to be a concert on the Kyo-Shin-An Arts series at the Tenri Cultural Center. The series is run by shakuhachi virtuoso James Schlefer and his wife Meg. James is an incredible musician and a dear friend, Meg is one of the most likable and dynamic people in the industry. We met when performing his Shakuhachi Concerto in Texas about seven years ago, and later recorded the piece with Orchestra of the Swan (it was a 2012 MusicWeb Record of the Year, I might add). Kyo-Shin-An is all about commissioning new works for traditional Japanese instruments and Western ensembles, and they’ve had works from some major figures, including Daron Hagen, Paul Moravec, Victoria Bond and James Matheson. This week, Ensemble Epomeo are performing a new work for shakuhachi and string trio by Matthew Harris, a composer completely new to me, and one by Jay Reise, a wonderful composer we’ve worked a lot with the last few years (and who’s touching work “The Warrior Violinist” was one of the highlights of our Auricolae CD).

Matthew’s piece is a sequence of very short, somewhat enigmatic movements, which on first encounter seem to have a strong Webern influence. It turns out that he was a student of Elliott Carter, but has gained worldwide fame as a choral composer of quite lushly tonal music, so perhaps this piece represents something of a stylistic homecoming? Interestingly, however, alongside all the Webern-esque concision and rigor, there seems to be the ghost of George Gershwin lurking in the background.

We’ve all put the work in on our own parts, but when we meet on Monday, it’s the first time we will have played this piece together. At this stage of the process, there is always an element of guess work- we don’t yet know Matthew or how he wants the piece played. In the end, we decide to start with the Webern thing- seeking austere, cool, smooth textures, and using extreme care with handling of silences, thinking gesturally. It may be the wrong approach, but at least it’s an approach.

(Jay’s “Warrior Violinist”. Have your hankie handy- it’s a tear jerker!)

Jay’s language, on the other hand, is pretty familiar to us by now. In addition to recording “The Warrior Violinist” (which we’ve since performed many times), we’ve played his String Trio and his Piano Quartet and worked with him in some detail on all three works. Jay’s stylistic range is pretty broad, but the new work, “The Gift to Urashima Taro,” actually seems to be very much cut from the same cloth as “The Warrior Violinist- it’s intensely lyrical and full of yearning and longing.

This will be the work’s second performance. James and David (our violist) played it together at the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival (where David is Artistic Director). The work was written as a ballet, and in Newburyport, they staged it with a wonderful local dance company and fantastic production values. As often with ballets (the same question comes up with pieces ranging from Appalachian Spring to The Firebird) there is some concern about how to handle the music that is really clearly choreographic or plot driven in nature. It’s why we know most ballet music from suites. “Urashima” is through-composed, and not that long (just over 20 minutes), and nobody is suggesting cutting anything, but in the rehearsals there are quite a few times we find ourselves saying “given that there’s no dance steps to fit in here, perhaps it would be more musically effective if we didn’t take the metronome marking too literally- it seems more like a dance marking than a music marking.” The overall tone of the work is tender and often subdued, but we did find a few places where melodies could be more extrovert without disturbing the character. In such a subtle work, it’s important to keep a strong connection with the listener.

There’s more on the program, of course, David and James will be playing a duo for shakuhachi and viola (a very cool piece). We’re doing one traditional string trio, too- Leo Weiner’s very Romantic trio written in 1908. It poses a few problems for us this week- it clearly stands apart from the rest of the repertoire we’re playing. Where do we put it on the concert? It was originally suggested to end the concert with it. The finale is certainly a barn-burner, but I thought putting the Romantic work at the end would somehow negate or diminish the other pieces we’re playing, as if we were rewarding the audience for enduring all the new pieces with something rather Tchaikovsky-an. Better to start with it. It’s a fairly new piece for us- we just added it to our repertoire this season and it was the “big” piece on our last tour in February. In spite of a lot of really intense work on it, and a few good moments in the concerts, I don’t think any of us were happy with those performances- it just never gelled. These kinds of setbacks are normal for chamber groups, but they need to be handled carefully. Even the most experienced musicians (maybe “especially” the most experienced musicians) live or die by their own confidence in what they’re doing. Even though we all knew we weren’t happy, we’ve not discussed it as a group. Starting a new rehearsal sequence with a post-mortem isn’t going to help anyone to find their mojo.

Guitar Quartet score

The score of my quartet

Finally, there’s my piece. This is not something that happens to me very often. As I’ve written about before, I composed quite a lot when I was young- mostly for piano, but hit a wall in my 20’s. A few years ago, with much effort, the wall finally crumbled. This week we’re playing my Quartet for Electric Guitar and String Trio. As with Jay’s piece, the work had been played once before at the Newburyport Festival, who commissioned it for their 10th Anniversary concert. I came away from that performance thinking there was quite a bit in the piece that needed re-thinking, and it sat on my shelf for nearly two years as I struggled to find time to re-examine and revise. With this project, I finally had a deadline, and rather reluctantly got to work on it. It was probably good I waited. Hearing your music played for the first time (especially when you’re playing the cello part) can turn even the most seasoned of composers into a neurotic basket case. With sufficient emotional distance from the premiere, I could look at the piece dispassionately and decided major surgery was not required. There was, of course, a lot I could do clarify my expressive wishes- accents, bowings, dynamics and a few character marks were added. Mistakes (most, but not all!) were corrected. However, structurally, I mostly left it alone, other than shortening a few rests. Of course, there are examples of great composers needing several tries to get the form of a piece “right.” Sibelius’ 5th Symphony is a perfect example- it went through several revisions over a decade before it finally found its perfect form. More often than not, however, you’re never more aware of the mix of motivic and structural issues in your piece than when you’re writing it. Chances are, when you finished it the first time, you knew it was finished because you’d reached a point at which the structure and content seemed to come into balance. Even if there are things about the piece you don’t love, it’s hard, and potentially destructive, to mess with that fragile equilibrium.

As our week in New York continued, our work on each piece of the programme took on its own dynamic. Matthew Harris was to join us for most of our rehearsals on his piece. Matthew proved to be immensely likeable, and like so many composers, he was incredibly sure of what he wanted much of the time, and full of questions at other times. He definitely felt our austere/modernist take on the piece was too severe. Vibrato was turned up, phrasing made more lyrical, some of the rests and silences were adjusted or shortened. Mutes were added in a few places. Unusually, we spent a lot of time, right up to the day of the concert, discussing the ending of the piece. Matthew, James and David all had ideas about what, if anything, to repeat, and exactly how to end. And, as always, it seems, there were some discussions about harmonics- everyone composer’s favorite special effect, but one that often frustrates the musicians. In any case, after working with Matthew, our interpretation of the piece had definitely taken on a more human quality, although when one spends hours micro-studying tiny details in a ten minute piece, it’s easy to get brain lock.

If having Matthew present proved to be an invaluable aid to understanding his language, we were very lucky to already know Jay’s music as he had to miss all of our rehearsals that week due to eye surgery (which went well). Jay had revised the piece after the Newburyport premiere (I’m glad it isn’t just me who has to do these things), and the new version showed up fairly close to our first rehearsals. I managed to re-print and remark my part before leaving home. David and James had a lot of work invested in their parts from last time, so chose to try to mark changes in the old parts rather than starting fresh. On the one hand, this kind of situation can be frustrating when one encounters changes that have been overlooked during one’s personal preparation, but it also helps to understand the composer’s thinking. Where work on Matthew’s piece was dominated by his presence, working on Jay’s piece felt like a happy maturation of the collaboration between James and Epomeo. We’ve done enough together now that working with James feels more like playing in a quartet than like having a guest join the trio.

My wonderful amp, burned to a crisp. RIP

My wonderful amp, burned to a crisp. RIP

If the sheer logistics of getting a cello to New York were at the forefront of my mind at the beginning of the week, that was nothing compared with the logistics of rehearsing my Electric Guitar Quartet. The first challenge: the building where were rehearsing everything else during the week does not allow electronic instruments of any kind, no matter how softly played. This meant schlepping over to Manhattan to rehearse at the (NY-sized, i.e. very cozy) apartment of our guitarist, Daniel Lippel (who also played the first performance in Newburyport). Such a change of scene is time consuming and rather tiring, so we decided to split our rehearsals between string sectionals without Dan in Brooklyn and full rehearsals with him in Manhattan. The other performance of the piece was just before Diane Pascal joined Epomeo, so it’s her first time playing it. Diane, who lives in Vienna, has about the most impeccable Austro-German/Central European musical pedigree of any American musician I know, but she’s also quite a rocker, and she couldn’t be more in her element in this piece, which switches between the odd hat tip to late Beethoven and bi-tonal heavy metal thrashing. I feel almost embarrassed to have such incredible musicians playing my work.

There’s one more, admittedly absurd, challenge in my piece. While writing it, I found myself thinking that what the work really needed was some Iron Maiden-esque duelling lead guitars. I figured I could switch from cello to electric guitar for this passage, which climaxes in a sequence of traded improvised guitar solos. In order to make this work, I had to overcome a few obstacles. First- I haven’t played guitar in public with any regularity since the early 1990’s, and Dan is one of the best guitarists in the world. In order for any sort of two-guitar shtick to be credible, I’d need to work really hard to get in shape and be careful to play within my current abilities. Of course, my guitars are all in Wales, and my beloved amp was scored in a fire in Pendleton in 2007, which meant borrowing a guitar and amp. In Newburyport, I’d used a beautiful sunburst Les Paul belonging to a friend of the festival. I hope I managed to clean all of the “envy drool” off it before I gave it back. This time, I borrowed a guitar and amp from Dan, who, in addition to being an amazing musician is one of the nicest guys in the business. For the first rehearsal, I borrowed his custom made instrument with an unusual neck- it was built to mimic a classical guitar’s feel, so the neck was thick and wide with big frets and fairly high strings. We were a little worried that I’d struggle (even more!) with the metal-ish writing on such an instrument, but it was okay. For the second rehearsal and the concert, I borrowed Dan’s tobacco sunburst Strat, which was doubly appropriate as it looked just like my guitar at home which I wrote the piece on. By the way, writing for guitar is an interesting challenge, and one most composers smartly avoid. One really needs a very intimate knowledge of the instrument to be sure that what you write is playable. When I was a student at IU, I wrote a song cycle for soprano and electric guitar, so this was actually my second time writing classical music for it.

Getting back and forth between Brooklyn and Manhattan while carrying a cello is really no fun at all. Doing so with a cello, amp and guitar is actually impossible, unless you take a cab. That meant however much I wanted to be in shape on the guitar, I wouldn’t be able to use the electric between rehearsals. Fortunately, James Schlefer had an acoustic at his place, so I could review my part daily on that. Far better to practice on an acoustic and perform on an electric than the other way round. At the climax of the piece, after all the guitar solos, there’s a wild, very fast, unison passage for all four of us. I was determined to get that right, and must have driven the neighbors mad (even unamplified), playing that sequence over and over again.

And what of the Weiner Trio? Well, in a week chock-a-block with composers, guest colleagues and extra instruments, doing a string trio felt like a moment of calm, which is just what we needed after last time. In fact, we rehearsed it very little during the week. I think this was clearly the right call- whatever our frustrations with last time, it was not down to lack of hard work on the piece. We beat that musical horse long after he was dead. This time, we ran it, discussed a few small tempo changes, then ran it again. It was enough.

As we neared the end of the week, we did a house concert in a very special venue we’ve played at many times. Not all house concerts are created equal. At home in Penarth, Suzanne and I have a music room in which we have concerts- it’s got a decent acoustic and feels like a performing space, which is good for everyone’s confidence. This is not that kind of house concert- here we play in a carpeted living room. The audience is only inches away and there is no acoustic at all. If you can make something sound good there, you’ll sound amazing anywhere else, but it can be bruising to the old ego. On the other hand, the vibe there is really special- one can hardly imagine a more engaged and knowledgeable audience. The concert went well, and we feel somehow less frustrated by the acoustic than usual.

That was Friday night. Our “main” concert is on Sunday (Mother’s Day- why, oh why did we schedule something on Mother’s Day!?!?!). The original plan for Saturday was to rehearse my piece for 3 hours- it had the least rehearsal during the week because of the logistical issues, and we hadn’t originally planned on playing it on Friday, although in the end, we did. As Saturday morning got going, the texts started going round- “do you mind if,” “how would you feel if we didn’t,” “I just think we’d be better off if we got some rest.” As successful as Friday’s performance was, making sound in that room took everything we had and we were all completely drained the next day. As the composer, I felt secure in our ability to play the piece the next day, but there were a few timing and articulation things I wanted to go over. Balancing my roles as cellist and composer is not something I’m used to- in Newburyport, I had slightly regretted not having the nerve to ask for certain things, but it’s not normal (or generally acceptable) to tell your chamber music colleagues how to play. Anyway, I felt that we could cover all that in 45 minutes before the concert the next day, so I put us all out of our misery. It was a good thing for me too- after 10 months without so much as a sneeze, I’d been fighting off some kind of bug all week, and after the exertions of Friday night, I had a bad feeling it was getting worse.

2 months ago | |
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A fantastic new 5-star review for the new recording of the Krenek Piano Concertos no.’s 1-3 with pianist Mikhail Korzhev on Toccata Classics/Toccata Press from International Piano Magazine critic Guy Rickards. Benjamin Michael Haas was producing, Ben Connellan was the engineer.

Five stars: “On the evidence of the first three, magisterially delivered by Korzhev, they should rank at least with Prokofiev and Hindemith. The accompanying English Symphony Orchestra are somewhat out of their usual area, but seem to relish their role under the firm direction of Kenneth Woods, doing for Krenek here what he did previously for Gál”

International Piano Krenek

3 months ago | |
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MahlerFest musicians come through for new director Kenneth Woods

Review from Boulder Daily Camera critic Kelly Dean Hansen. Read the whole thing here

“…Woods showed why he is revered as a Mahler interpreter.”

“For Colorado MahlerFest, whose essence has been synonymous with founder Robert Olson for 28 years, this was potentially even more daunting. But Kenneth Woods, who conducted his first MahlerFest concert Saturday at Macky Auditorium, not only signaled the festival’s future direction, but also showed that he was willing to demand and achieve even more from the festival’s volunteer musicians.

Olson, who announced his departure from the festival two years ago and conducted his last concerts in 2015, did pair the annual Mahler symphony with a piece by another composer from time to time. The last time this year’s work, the Seventh Symphony, was presented was in 2004, and he introduced it with Wagner’s “Meistersinger” Prelude, a spiritual ancestor to the symphony’s finale.

Woods opened the concert with another work in the spirit of the Seventh, but this time it was a U.S. premiere by a living composer. Viennese composer Kurt Schwertsik composed his “Nachtmusiken,” or “Night Music Pieces,” in 2009. The kinship with the symphony here is in its three middle movements, two of which are titled “Nachtmusik.”

The five-movement, 25-minute suite is a sparkling, pleasant affair pervaded with an air of elegiac nostalgia. The use of an accordion to add flavor to the second piece, a waltz, is delightful. The fourth piece, a march, and the finale, a fugue, are technically brilliant, while the first and third movements are more introspective. The third, a beautiful memorial to music critic David Drew, is exquisite, with ringing glockenspiel notes, while the first invokes the spirit of Czech composer Leoš Janá ek.

Schwertsik ends his final fugue with an almost whispered quotation from Mahler’s First Symphony, with which it was originally played.

The MahlerFest musicians are not typically asked to play a new work of such length, but they came through with aplomb. The genial Schwertsik was present, and gave a grateful acknowledgement.

Aesthetically, this was a bold and appropriate choice for Woods, but it was also risky. The 80-minute, five-minute Seventh Symphony is complex and difficult, and it’s certainly possible that Woods was asking for a bit too much from the orchestra.

The musicians, however, love their Mahler, and they provided a robust, committed rendition of the symphony, and Woods showed why he is revered as a Mahler interpreter. He navigated the vast, often thorny first movement with a strong sense of direction, and the “heavenly vision” toward the end was sublime. The opening tenor horn solo was also bold and confident.

The “night pieces” were appropriately atmospheric. Woods took a rather fast tempo for both the march-like second movement and the archetypal serenade (complete with guitar and mandolin) in the fourth. Between them, the ghostly central scherzo movement was played with a daring edginess.

The symphony’s overly exuberant, strangely disjunctive finale has divided Mahler experts and fans for much of its existence, and it takes a conductor of great understanding to pull it off. Woods certainly does force a sense of direction on a movement resistant to this, and the jubilant ending drew a huge ovation from the audience.”


‘Mahler at the top of the mountain’

Feature article from the Boulder Weekly by Peter Alexander

Composed in 1904 and ’05, the Seventh is one of the least familiar of Mahler’s symphonies. It comprises five fairly diverse movements, two of which — the second and fourth — are titled Nachtmusik (Night music). The diversity of the movements is sometimes seen as a weakness, but Woods sees the diversity as strength.

“I think so much of what happens in the piece is motivated by his love of music, and what you can do with different kinds of music” he says. “[There is] musical humor, musical drama, marches and devil’s dances and love songs.

“It seems like he wanted to take one symphony and just say, ‘Isn’t life rich and interesting, and isn’t music fantastic?’”

And then Woods ties the symphony to Colorado’s 14ers: “The Seventh Symphony comes from this moment when Mahler’s at the top of his game,” he says. “Anyone who has climbed a 14er knows that when you get to the top you want to savor it. You want to stop and look at the view, but you can’t stay up there all that long. Mahler’s Seventh is that moment when he’s reached the summit.”

Woods believes the Seventh also represents a change of focus for Mahler. His earlier symphonies had featured narratives about a hero who struggles against the world. In the Sixth Symphony, the hero is felled by three cruel blows of fate.

“The Seventh Symphony seems to be pulling back the camera a little bit,” Woods says. “You start to realize how much bigger the world is, and your experiences and the experience of nature, than just what happens to a single man. It’s a much bigger canvas.”

The Nachtmusik movements color parts of the Seventh Symphony, but not all. “You start in a nocturnal landscape, and you end in daylight,” Woods says. “In the last movement we open the door and walk out into downtown Manhattan on a Monday morning — noise and people everywhere, and isn’t this great? Life goes on!”


Kenneth Woods takes MahlerFest reins from longtime leader Robert Olson

Feature article from the Boulder Daily Camera by Kelly Dean Hansen

Woods has chosen Mahler’s enigmatic Seventh Symphony, which was last programmed in 2004. Olson had skipped the piece in favor of the Ninth — the composer’s last completed — for his final appearance last year.

Woods said that the 80-minute Seventh is a “virtuosic, compelling piece with amazing orchestration.” Long one of his most neglected symphonies, it has enjoyed resurgence along with increased interest in Mahler himself. Woods said that in many ways, it defies expectations of what a Mahler symphony should be.

“It’s really the one where the autobiographical aspect seen in all of the first six symphonies is really downplayed,” Woods said. “At the end of the Sixth, the heroic protagonist, for the first time, was destroyed at the end rather than being victorious or redeemed. In the Seventh, Mahler pulls back the camera and is more observational, with broader awareness of nature and life.”

The symphony, composed in 1904-05, was admired by Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, the later spiritual fathers of modern atonal music. But today, the “modern” aspects seem rather tame. A passage frequently cited from the first movement as forward-looking for its time now sounds similar to the “Star Trek” theme. The movement itself is vast and complex. The middle three of the five movements are all “night pieces,” including the central ghostly scherzo, which is framed by a nocturnal march and a beautiful serenade (in which Mahler asks for the participation of mandolin and guitar). This emerges into an extremely radiant finale whose relentless positivity puzzled many of Mahler’s early admirers and critics.

Woods says that the piece “represents an absolute master at the peak of his craft,” adding that “Mahler was setting aside the metaphysics to focus on the music.”


Conductor Kenneth Woods Fills Big Shoes At Colorado MahlerFest – 

Interview/podcast with Nathan Heffel from Colorado Public radio

For the first time, someone new will be on the podium at MahlerFest: conductor Kenneth Woods.

Composer Gustav Mahler in 1909

(Library of Congress)

Woods will conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 for his MahlerFest debut on May 21 and 22. He calls it one of Mahler’s most worldly pieces, mixing scenes of nature with sonic cityscapes.

And on his blog, A View From The Podium, Woods posts satirical essays about the classical world alongside thoughtful analysis of music he performs in concert.

The funny essays — like a recent post in which an imaginary orchestra stops performing and recording to spend more time on social media —  often get the biggest reaction, he says.

But sometimes the less popular ones resonate more deeply, especially with other musicians. Woods says aspiring conductors sometimes thank him for his more scholarly posts years after he publishes them. (Here’s one he wrote about Mahler’s Seventh Symphony and its connections to the composer’s other music.)

Woods spoke with Colorado Matters host Nathan Heffel about his love of Mahler’s music, his plans for the festival and his digital presence.

Hear Woods conduct music from Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” — the first Mahler piece Woods remembers hearing as a child:


KGNU Interview with Chris Mohr

3 months ago | |
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Hi Mahler fans.

Following on from last week’s post on Mahler 7, I’ve had a number of questions, challenges and queries which have led to some very illuminating discussions. I thought I’d share a few highlights of those here.

A couple of readers asked what the connection (“to be continued”) is between M7 and M8. Well, it’s a very direct, very blatant one. Remember the final appearance of the main theme of M7:

M7 Hauptthema

M7 Hauptthema

Then jump ahead to the very beginning of M8

M8 Hauptthema

M8 Hauptthema

The similarities of the two themes, both rhythmically and melodically, are pretty obvious. the most telling difference is that in M7 the 3rd note is a leap upward of a 6th to the 3rd scale degree, but in M8 it is a leap of a 7th to the 4th scale degree (I know this is all a little geeky/technical). I think Mahler is telling us that there is a clear kinship between the two works, but that wider interval somehow hints at the underlying sense of ecstasy and aspiration which is the essence of the 8th. Think then about how the 8th ends. The last time the theme returns, Mahler changes the top note:

M8 Hauptthema Final transformation

M8 Hauptthema Final transformation

In this final statement, the leap is further expanded to a 9th- really reaching to the heavens! Or at least to the 6th scale degree. You can see it’s an incredible moment when we finally reach this huge interval after the long journey we’ve been on.

And that journey is even bigger than just the 7th and 8th symphonies. I wrote the other day about some of the thematic relationships between M6 and M7, particularly the use of the “hero” theme from the Finale of M6 in the first mvt of M7.

Henri-Louis de La Grange points out the similarities between the first themes of the opening mvts of M7:

M7 Theme for M6

(Main theme of first mvt of M7)

And M6:

Main theme of 1st mvt of M6

(Main theme of 1st mvt of M6)

The similarities are obvious. So- that final statement of the haptthema in M8 actually has it’s origins in the first mvt of M6

One criticism of the work I often hear is that there isn’t enough of a link between the outer and inner mvts of the 7th, that it’s almost like two symphonies. That’s not true. I won’t bore you with all the motivic links that unify the WHOLE symphony, but here is a fun example. See how Mahler takes what musicologists call the “Star Trek” section of the first mvt and changes all those fourths to thirds in the 2nd mvt. The two passages share an almost identical structural function, too- Mahler is using the same material in the same way. How much more of a link could you want?

(Star Trek theme and the next generation)

Also- just as we’ve seen how many connections there are between first mvt of M7 and M6, there are also some very interesting references in the 2nd mvt of the 7th to the parallel mvt of the 6th*. I mentioned the other day how the minor-major progression of the first mvt of M7 acts as a kind of rebuttal to the major-minor shifts which permeate the 6th. However, at the end of the first Nachtmusik, there is a wonderful recycling of the major-minor gesture from the 6th exactly as it appears throughout that work (expect for being in a different key here). Note the similarity of mood, too….

(Ending of 2nd mvt of M7 with reference to M6 and parallel moment in the 2nd mvt of M6)

One could go on and on. Of course, it’s impossible to know how many of these connections had real symbolic significance for Mahler, and how many were simply part of his language. I tend to think the linking between works is an important part of his musical personality.

4 months ago | |
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5490277-no-music-signA leading professional orchestra has announced they are giving up rehearsing, teaching and performing music to focus on their “core mission,” it has been announced.

The board and management of the Southlands Sinfonia in Weicester have decided to cancel all future plans for concerts, recordings and music courses to “focus on what makes this orchestra great- our relationship with the community, our sense of partnership and engagement, and the role we play in developing the local economy. We are going to focus all our energies on changing perceptions of the orchestra, reimaging the orchestra as a post-musical organization for the 21st Century.”

“These are difficult times and we have to make hard choices,” said Sinfonia CEO Mortimer Platitüde . “Putting on concerts takes time and money. Sometimes, the cost of rehearsals has been so great that some of the musicians have actually had to take their own time to practice their parts at home instead of learning them where they should- in the safety of the workplace.”

“What’s really important for the future of the SS is the way in which we are perceived in the community. By giving up music, we can focus on developing the community’s perception of what we do for the community we serve with the partners we work in partnership with.”

Platitüde cited a string of new strategic goals for the orchestra as they move bravely into a post- music world. “We want everyone to know how accessible we are. And how friendly. It’s vitally important for everyone in the community who we engage with collaboratively in partnership to know how friendly and accessible we are in the community.”

These are exciting times for orchestras like the SS says Platitüde because orchestras today have so many more tools for spreading the word about how unthreatening and likeable they are. “We’ve found brightly coloured t-shirts are a great tool for changing perceptions of the orchestra from being a group of people who wear dark colours and long sleeves to being a group of people who were jeans, trainers and brightly coloured t-shirts. Our research shows us that for every concert we cancel, we can buy a whole new set of brightly coloured t-shirts. One for everyone in the orchestra! By the end of what would have been our season, we will have t-shirts in yellow, red, green, light green, forest green, funky green, blue, bright blue, navy blue (although we try to avoid using these as they are too close to black and may negatively affect people’s perceptions of us), light navy blue, sky blue, teal, dark teal, pink, lavender, salmon and terra cotta. Of course, there’s only so much we can do in one year- enhancing our reputation for being accessible in the community will take many years and a shed load of t-shirts!” Platitüde was non-committal when pressed about whether the orchestra would be investing in matching jeans for the musicians. “There’s a lot we still have to learn about the shape of the 21st Century Orchestra. We know that trainers are perceived as being more accessible than dress shoes, but are they really the most accessible? Perhaps we’ll be the first UK orchestra to wear crocs in our concerts! Oops, did I say “concerts?” Can you correct that to “family friendly events”?”

The SS will also be changing the focus of its vaunted youth programmes. “The SS Youth will no longer be a youth orchestra- instead they will be a project. We’ve found that trying to teach 60 teenagers to play the last movement of Sibelius 2 in a few days makes it very hard to innovate and deliver social impacts.”

Social media will also be a major focus for the SS as they look to the future. “We all know that there is nothing more important for a modern orchestra than our social media presence. However, our research shows that of our current 1578 Facebook friends, over twelve hundred of them all seem to work on the same click farm in Egypt. The rest seem to be freelance musicians scrounging for work, the orchestra’s librarian and the volunteer who used to run the parents’ group for what was our youth orchestra. We can do better without music.”

No music

The Southlands Sinfonia:  Better Without Music!

“By focusing on our key mission, we can use all of our contact time with our musicians to focus on proving to the community how friendly we are. Our musicians are our most powerful advocates for the organization, but many of them are deeply troubled and depressed people. Several are clearly anti-social. It sometimes takes up to 500 exposures to get a picture of one of them smiling with a cute child at a children’s concert. By doing away with music at those events, we can spend the entire event time making sure we’re capturing the wonderful relationship that exists between our musicians and local young people for our social media channels.”

Platitüde says the future of the SS is the future of orchestras everywhere. “I’m just so excited about what this orchestra can do without music!”

4 months ago | |
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Ken’s first summer at Colorado MahlerFest is just around the corner, and so it seems time to add to the Mahler- A Performer’s Perspective library here at Vftp.

This year’s festival centers on Mahler’s 7th Symphony with performances on the 21st and 22nd of May. Festival details and booking information are here.

gustav_mahlerGustav Mahler may well have been the first composer to end each of his symphonies with the postscript “to be continued…”

He himself said the funeral march which opens his Second Symphony was a memorial service for the hero of his First Symphony. His Third Symphony is full of hints of the gentle song, Das himmlische Leben, which would later conclude his Fourth. Almost all of the thematic material in his Fifth is drawn from the famous opening trumpet fanfare- a fanfare heard for the first time in the opening movement of this Fourth Symphony. And his Sixth Symphony seems clearly to have emerged from the rubble left behind in the wake of the cataclysm which is the second movement of the Fifth Symphony. Of all the Mahler symphonies, I think the Sixth is the one that ends in the most definitive way. After all, how can you have a story that is “to be continued…” when all of the major characters have been brutally killed off?

I’ve written before about the parallels between the Second and Sixth Mahler symphonies. In both cases, there is a pretty clear narrative of heroic striving against seemingly insurmountable obstacles. In the case of the Second, just when all seems lost (and the world literally comes to an end), there is a moment of divine intervention and everything turns out great. In the Sixth, instead of the benevolent hand of a merciful God delivering mercy in humanity’s hour of need, we have the cold hand (or hammer) Fate, unsentimentally beating our hero into oblivion.

Where then in the narrative of the Sixth Symphony is there room for Mahler’s trademark “to be continued…”?

Well, one doesn’t have to look too hard at the first movement of Mahler 7 to see that it is, very much, a musical continuation of the Sixth. The key alone tells us this. It was no accident that Mahler 6 was in A minor- that was the key of the second movement of the Fifth Symphony from which it grew. The first movement of the Seventh is in E (originally E minor, ending in E major). E is the dominant of A, the key of the Sixth. One would have expected E to have been the second most important key in the Sixth Symphony- after all, it is the dominant which we expect to take us home to the tonic. However, in the Sixth, Mahler undermines the role of the dominant. Rather than arriving in the home key of A minor via the dominant E, he almost always approaches it from what we call the parallel major, A major. Even in a minor key, the dominant-tonic cadence is one of the most galvanizing and cathartic gestures in music. In the Sixth, we don’t cadence into the tonic key from the dominant and exhale a sigh of relief, we collapse into it from the parallel major with a scream of despair. The upshot of this is that the key of E never gets its due in the Sixth Symphony.

And so, in the Seventh, it is if Mahler says to us- “ever wondered what happened to the key of E while the key of A was getting his a$$ kicked in the last episode? Well…..”

On the biggest structural level, the opening movement of Mahler 7 also offers something of a rebuttal to the narrative of Mahler 6. If Mahler was the composer of “to be continued…”, Brahms was the composer of “on the other hand….” Brahms almost always composed in opposing pairs. His Tragic Overture is like a dark mirror image of the jolly Academic Festival Overture- the two pieces were written one after the other. The more definitive the statement he made in one piece, the more urgently he seemed to need to present a counter argument. After his taught, dramatic and Beethovenian First Symphony (which took him seventeen years to write), Brahms answered with his pastoral Second Symphony (written in just months). Perhaps the Seventh is Mahler’s “on the other hand…” work?

The collapse from A major to A minor (or, more generally, from major to minor) is the main generative idea of the Sixth Symphony. In the Seventh, Mahler opens with a movement which, after an introduction which starts in B minor and works its way through a few keys (not unlike the slow introduction with opens the last movement of the Sixth), journeys from E minor to E major.

For most composers, such a journey would not be so unusual- all of Beethoven’s minor key symphonies and concerti end in the parallel major, as does Brahms’ First, Schumann’s Fourth, Dvorak’s Seventh and Schubert’s Fourth. For Mahler, this journey is not unheard of (for instance, the Third Symphony outlines a huge journey from D minor to D major). It is, however, not to be taken for granted. The Second Symphony, in C minor, finds salvation not in C major but in E-flat Major. The Sixth taught us that minor doesn’t have to progress to major. After that harrowing work, Mahler’s listeners could never again take a happy ending for granted. “On the other hand,” in the opening movement of the Seventh, Mahler reminds us that minor can lead to major.

There are other stylistic and thematic similarities between the opening movement of the Seventh and the dark world of the Sixth. The march rhythms which underpin the main material of the movement emerge of the same sort of primordial ooze which opens the Finale of the Sixth, and carry us into a strikingly similar sound world. The second theme of the first movement of the Seventh is cut very much from the same cloth as the second theme of the first movement of the Sixth (the so-called “Alma Theme”). Both have the same temporal “tugs” on the weak beats, and similar flowing quavers carrying the line forward.


The “Alma” theme from Mahler’s Sixth Symphony

M7 2nd Theme

The 2nd Theme of the first mvt of M7. So much like the Alma theme, but without Alma.

In the dark middle section of the first movement of the Seventh, Mahler brings back one of the main themes of the Finale of the Sixth. In the Sixth, it was the hero’s theme, the theme which reaches ecstatically for the stars just before Fate’s hammer crashes down.

In the Seventh, it becomes a funeral dirge.

This movement is one of Mahler’s most astounding musical creations, and yet for all its structural clarity, its power and originality, I find it is neither as dramatic as the Sixth nor as cathartic as the Second. I believe that this is not due to any compositional shortcomings, but is the result of a profound change in narrative perspective from almost all of Mahler’s earlier music. The first movement of the Seventh is a journey where his previous symphonies have been dramas, it is observational rather than participatory. In fact, this change of emphasis is true of the whole Seventh. In each of his earlier symphonies, Mahler makes us keenly aware of the voice of a heroic narrator. In the First, he describes a Romantic hero who must accept death in order to triumph, and that journey is amplified to apocalyptic proportions in the Second. Mahler’s original program for the Third Symphony was as personal as it was poetic- he describes “What Nature Tells Me” rather than “What Nature Tells us.” In the Fourth, our hero is a child, and in the Fifth, Mahler brings us into his inner world by including his declaration of love to Alma, the Adagietto. In the Sixth, the most dramatic, the most personal, the most participatory of them all, the “hero suffers three blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree.” To borrow a literary parallel, after writing six symphonies in the first person, for the first time in the Seventh, Mahler is writing in the third person.

Let’s go back to the Adagietto of the Fifth for a moment- it is about Mahler’s love for Alma (although that is by no means the only level of meaning). The fourth movement of the Seventh Symphony is a different kind of love song- the second Nachtmusik is a serenade, complete with guitar and mandolin, but in this movement we sense Mahler describing an archetypical young lover, not barring his own soul nor revealing his love for his soulmate. He is observing the wider human experience, not drawing us into his inner world, except indirectly- sharing his reactions to the experiences of others.

There are even some subtle thematic recollections of the Adagietto in this movement toward the end, freed from all the longing and rendered wistful, affectionate and breezy.

So it is that in the first movement of the Seventh, when we revisit the hero’s music from the Finale of the Sixth, the voice of the hero is tellingly absent. Instead, the sound world, replete with trombone solo, is that of the first movement of the Third Symphony. In the Seventh, Mahler tells us “here nature roars,” just as it does in the first movement of the Third.

I’ve said many times that one can read each of Beethoven’s symphonies as offering a different answer to the question of whether life is worth living or, for that matter, whether it’s worth getting out of bed tomorrow morning. In his first five symphonies, Mahler seems to me to be asking “will everything be alright in the end?” In each of those works, he is able to arrive at a convincing “yes,” but in the Sixth, the answer, for the first time, is an emphatic and unambiguous “no.” That it was his most perfect and powerful work made moving on from this “no” all the more difficult. Perhaps in the Seventh, Mahler is asking us “how do we live with the certainty of uncertainty, how do we live without the promise of salvation or triumph.”

The answer in the Seventh, it seems to me, is that life has a will of its own, a power and a force of its own. So it is that when we remember the hero of the Sixth, it is only the wild, untamed voice of nature that we hear. If one were to make a criticism of the philosophical underpinnings of Mahler’s early symphonies, it would simply be that there might be something a little naïve and simplistic in the Romantic notion that some mixture of heroic striving and divine intervention could guarantee triumph and happiness. The Sixth powerfully illustrates the naivety of trusting in a higher power to intervene on your behalf, and cruelly demonstrates the limits of human agency. It even makes the heroic imagery of the earlier works look just the slightest bit narcissistic. In the Seventh, it seems to me he’s been forced, for the moment, to accept the smallness of the individual, and to recognize the grandeur and the power of nature, and the messiness of life.

4 months ago | |
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Mahler in Manchester

Originally published in 2010:

I finally managed to make it to one of the Mahler in Manchester concerts this past weekend (in spite of my blog project, I’ve had concerts of my own every previous concert night). Happily, this time I had a rehearsal in Manchester, so I was able to catch Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic giving a quite stunning performance of Mahler 7.

Almost as interesting as the performance were the conversations before and after. There was a small army of rather distinguished composers about, as well as critics, Mahler nuts, broadcasters and other serious listeners. While everyone seemed unanimous in their praise for the performances, the work still sparked some rather pointed conversations- particularly the famous Finale, which still seems to shock and baffle.

For me, however, the experience of sitting back and listening after a week with the score on my desk helped to put the piece in clearer perspective. I really came away thinking that it marks one of the most important and decisive moments in Mahler’s music, and perhaps even in the development of Western music.

It is certainly a culmination. Mahler made clear that he thought of the three middle symphonies as a triptych, a point Gianandrea made back stage after the performance. Still reeling from his workout, he suggested that next time the orchestra perform 5, 6, and 7 all in one day. “Mahler said the 5th was all about horizontal lines, the 6th about vertical lines and the 7th about spirals” was G.N.’s take “It is one gigantic symphony in 3 parts.” I realize that this is some people’s idea of Hell, but I wouldn’t miss such a marathon, although I’m not sure one conductor would be advised to do it all. Maybe we can share.

But I think it marks an even grander culmination. Part of what sets the 5th and 6th apart from their predecessors is a shift to slightly different subject matter. The narrative voice of the first four symphonies essentially disappears. Instead of linear drama, Mahler gives us studies in mood and experience. In the 5th, he creates a vast triptych of Death, Ambivilance and Love. The 6th more or less reverses that trajectory. Gone are the fairy tales and the Wunderhorn imagery- nature remains a powerful force, but a more realistic and less idealized one. The natural world becomes less picturesque and more potent.

Although it is often faulted for being a re-working of the ideas of the 5th, the 7th begins with something of step back to territory of the Wunderhorn symphonies. Although the musical language of the first four movements is quite advanced (it’s no wonder it was Schoenberg’s favourite Mahler symphony), the imagery is much more rooted in the mythology of German Romanticism than anything in the prior 2 works. The imagery of night, the forest, the presence of marches, love songs and even a witches Sabbath are just the tiniest hint of the extent to which so much of the symphony is indebted to, and plays off of, the inherited images and symbols of Romantic poetry and drama. On one level, this symphony is a culmination of the Romantic movement.

In this sense, the piece finds connections Mahler’s earlier works, but, as so often in Mahler, a powerful paradox is at work. On the one hand, we are returning to comfortable and familiar territory- re-telling old stories, re-visiting old haunts, re-haunting old forests. On the other hand, we can’t escape the fact that Mahler’s musical language has moved on. He is showing us familiar territory from a fresh perspective. By placing the first four movements in a nocturnal context, it is almost as if he is making the point that this whole world of Romanticism isn’t real- it is a dreamscape, nothing more or less. All these potent archetypes rightly belong in the subconscious world, not the world of daylight. All those stories- all those symphonies. They are powerful dreams, but only dreams. This re-examining of familiar landscapes with new tools makes us doubt their solidity- their dream nature is strongly hinted at for a long time, then in the Finale, Mahler makes explicit the point that has been lurking throughout. We awaken.

In the Finale, Mahler opens with an obvious shout-out to Wagner. Not just any Wagner, but Die Meistersinger. Why this piece and not Tristan or The Ring? Perhaps it is worth noting what sets this opera aside from the rest of Wagner’s output. It’s largely a question of what it doesn’t contain and isn’t about. There are no gods, no ghosts, no miracles and no magic. It is an opera about real life, stripped of mythology and magic.

One very great musician said to me after the concert on Saturday that he found the material in Mahler’s Finale a little “embarrassing.” I don’t agree, but I understand the reaction. For the first time in Mahler’s output, he is in the world of Meistersinger- in a real human community.

By suddenly shifting from the world of Romantic convention and archetype to a realist perspective, Mahler is all but parodying the artifice of what came before. It is as if he is saying that dreams and myths are all well and good, but this is the real world we must live in, and somehow learn to love. Mahler’s portrait of real life is both generous and affectionate on the one hand and bemused and ironic on the other. It is certainly the most consistently funny Finale of any symphony since Beethoven’s 8th, which it self stood on a similar threshold to its composer’s late style. I find another parallel (be patient with me here) in Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles, where near the end of the film, the warring actors spill out of their films set across the MGM lot, wreaking havoc on countless other film sets in the process. Mahler’s Finale is possibly (certainly) more dignified, but it does open up similar questions about this conflict between the world of myth (the Western or the Romantic forest) and reality (the set-the town of Nurnburg).

But the parallel with Wagner and Die Meistersinger has one more thing to tell us. If Mahler simply ended with a joke, I think it would be unworthy of what comes before it. Fortunately, like all great composers, Mahler takes humorous music seriously and always has a deeper point to make. Die Meistersinger is not simply a comedy about town life, it is also a declaration of Wagner’s Schoepenhaurian philosophy-

Although Die Meistersinger is a comedy, it also elucidates Wagner’s ideas on the place of music in society, on renunciation of the Will, and of the solace that music brings in a world full of Wahn (which may be translated into English as “illusion”“madness”“folly” or “self-deception”). It is Wahn which causes the riot in Act 2 – a sequence of events arising from a case of mistaken identity, which can be seen as a form of self-delusion. Many commentators have pointed out that Sachs in his famous Act 3 monologue Wahn, wahn, überall Wahnis paraphrasing Schopenhauer when he describes the way that Wahn, or self-delusion, drives men to behave in ways which are actually destroying them.[7]

In the Finale of the 7th, Mahler creates a vivid depiction of a world rich in “madness” and “folly” but also seems to be underlining the presence of so much “illusion” and “self-deception” in the dreamscapes of the previous movements. It is music that brings solace in Wagner’s philosophy and Mahler’s. On the one hand, this Finale is about Life, not legendary, heroic, Romantic fairy-tale life, but real, simple, smelly, noisy life.  On the other hand, this Finale is about Music. When you are confonted with the madness of life, it is in music that you find solace.

And here we find that Mahler’s choice of material, some of it banal, some of it borrowed, some of it even embarrassing is no accident. His obvious model here is Haydn, who always seemed to treat the most ridiculous themes in the most sophsisticated ways. Think of the Finale of Haydn 92- has such an absurd melody ever been put through such paces? Yes, but only in other Haydn pieces. This process always feels cathartic and humanizing, and so it is in Mahler. He takes this hodgepodge of ideas and makes from them the single most complex and virtuosic movement in all the symphonies, deconstructing almost his whole life’s work in the process. When we think of the symbolic power of the brass chorale at the end of the 3rd Symphony and compare it to the brass chorale which forms the refrain of this movement it’s almost like a mirror image. One is transcendent, the other is just party music, and yet, by the end, the party has become a transcendent experience. This movement marks the birth of late Mahler, the end of Romanticism and the beginning of the musical 20th c. with a movement that invents modernity by re-engineering Haydn using a tune by Wagner.

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Mahler in Manchester

Guest blogger Peter Davison will be a symposium speaker at the 29th annual Colorado MahlerFest on Saturday the 21st of May. The MahlerFest Orchestra will be performing Mahler’s 7th Symphony under their newly-appointed Artistic Director Kenneth woods on the 21st and 22nd of May. Details available here.

How Wagner leads us to Mahler’s Seventh Symphony

In 1909, Mahler was invited by Willem Mengelberg to perform several of his symphonies at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.  A performance of the Seventh Symphony, premiered in Prague a year earlier, was scheduled for 8 October, and Mahler pondered what to perform alongside his vast five-movement work. He proposed to Mengelberg a first-half devoted entirely to Wagner; his early Faust Overture, his Siegfried Idyll and the Overture to Die Meistersinger. Mahler’s symphony would follow after the interval. In the end Mahler simply preceded the symphony with just the Meistersinger Overture – due to limitations of available rehearsal time and presumably also the audience’s stamina. But Mahler’s original proposal remains interesting to us, because of what it tells us about the symphony. Whenever he conducted his own works, Mahler always designed programmes to illuminate his music in some way. So what was he thinking of on this occasion?

The Seventh Symphony picks up on many of the issues confronted in the Fifth and Sixth. Mahler was exploring the Viennese symphonic tradition, especially Beethoven’s symphonies, as models for expressing idealistic aspiration. The Fifth had asked the question – can the idealised musical logic of the Beethoven symphony relate to the fundamental existential questions which confront us through our experience? He left the answer open. In the Sixth, the question found a brutal “no” for an answer. Beethoven’s visionary optimism and transcendence were found wanting, and without compromise Mahler presented the tragic circumstances of the human condition. But this was not the end of everything for Mahler. In fact, it proved a platform for a new burst of creative originality, for the Seventh Symphony is among the most innovative and complex music which Mahler ever wrote. If it appears to mimic aspects of the Fifth, its musical idiom and orchestral technique mark a huge stride in his creative and technical development.

But let us return to Mahler’s Wagner programme and speculate upon what in these three pieces can throw light upon the meaning of the Seventh Symphony. Wagner was, of course, a towering figure in musical life at that time and someone whose music Mahler adored. However, the Faust Overture is not well-known today. It was a relatively early work based on Goethe’s famous story. Faust makes a cynical pact with the devil to ensure his success in the world. For Romantic artists, this story showed that Man was alienated from the forces of life because of his lust for dominion over Nature. In another sense, the Romantic artist also bargains with the devil to pursue his creative vision against the claim of ordinary life. Interestingly, Faust makes his pact with Mephistopheles when he is at his lowest ebb and contemplating suicide, and it is this mood which characterises Wagner’s overture. At the head of the score, he quotes Goethe’s play: “So is my whole being a burden, and hateful life makes

You may know that Byron’s Manfred partly inspired Mahler’s Sixth, and Byron had been inspired by Goethe’s Faust to create the character. Manfred has grown disillusioned with life and his fellow man. He has committed some fearful crime against Nature for which he deserves to die. Mahler’s Sixth belongs in this psychological territory and, if the end of the work is not quite suicidal, it marks a loss of hope and surrender to fate. We know that Mahler felt empty and unable to compose for a while after the composition of the Sixth, as if it had exhausted him creatively. But one day rowing across a lake, he got an idea for the opening of the Seventh. The first movement of the Seventh is profoundly engaged with the dark side of Nature; its wildness, its unwillingness to be contained and the way in which it disrupts human life and conventions. There is (appropriately enough) a volcano of energy in this movement which threatens destruction. Mahler struggles to contain it, and we sense a creative birth full of labour pains. The movement seems to ask – how does man live in harmony with Nature, indeed with the Nature that is in himself? How does he find forms that make Nature civilised and bearable? The alternative, which is apparent at the movement’s end, is a Dionysian power that threatens to become aggressive and militaristic.

So we can now understand why Mahler wanted to allude to Faust in his suggested first-half. But there is another reason. The Faust Overture opens with a slow introduction which is recapitulated in the course of the movement, much as Mahler’s first movement does. In the Mahler, the struggle to contain his material yields a brief visionary glimpse of paradise, but the funereal mood of the movement’s opening returns. The effect in the Wagner and the Mahler is a collapse of momentum; a falling back into the murky gloom of depression with the mind haunted by demonic powers. We can even hear in Wagner’s stormy textures some connection to themes in Sixth and Seventh symphonies.

The relationship between the Siegfried Idyll and the Nachtmusik: Andante Amoroso, (the fourth movement of the Mahler) is much more obvious. Wagner composed his work as a love-gift for Cosima after the birth of their son Siegfried, and its subtle expansion of the serenade into a work of symphonic wholeness is remarkable. It also has a dream-like narrative which influenced Mahler’s whole conception of musical form. In fact, I should add that the Siegfried Idyll was the epitome for Mahler of inner contentment and redemptive love. The “Resurrection theme” in Mahler’s Second Symphony is even based on the main theme of the Siegfried Idyll. The Andante Amoroso of the Seventh takes up the idea of the serenade and views it with a fairy-tale nostalgia verging on irony. (The sound of guitar and mandolin are curious anachronisms which place the music in the past and also in the ordinary world). Mahler asks, can we speak any longer with Wagner’s idealized and elevated feeling or with the instinctive trust of coventions that we imagine was the case in the past? For Mahler such eloquence and sincerity were always hard-won, and he reminds us that Nature is always ready to disrupt human love with forces beyond our control.

In the Seventh’s Finale, we can hear the most audible link to Wagner. There are festive trumpets and drums in C major that could have come straight out of  Meistersinger; a work which explores the relationship between the artist and the society around him. Wagner uses the opera’s hero, Walther and his Prize Song as symbols of the artist who expresses true Nature in defiance of social convention, represented by the pedantic Beckmesser. The artist is compelled to follow his muse and that means living by different rules. Yet it is by this expression of individuality that the divine spirit enters the world to renew human society. This leads to the celebrations in last scene of Meistersinger, surely one of the most euphoric moments in all music. There is a reconnection with true Nature, because Walther’s creative talent has been inspired by his musse, Eva and guided to fruition by the wisdom of Hans Sachs. It is an idealised paradigm for the artist’s contribution to the society around him.

Mahler wanted to express something similiar in his Finale, but uses humour to do so, because he is less confident that this reconciliation of  natural talent with the mundane world is really going to happen. In his Finale, we are never quite sure whether he is celebrating his talent entering the world or poking fun at the outside world for standing in his way. The movement is titled, Allegro Ordinario. In what sense is this music ordinary? The title suggests that we are listening to the stuff of everyday life, not something deeply personal and transcendent. It is the hustle and bustle of daily business, social chatter and laughter. These are the modest pleasures and difficulties of the ordinary world, in contrast to the profundities of a night filled with dreams, intimacy and the dark forces of the unconscious. Mahler hovers between the joy of his creative exuberance and the feeling that if he told the whole truth, it would bring him into conflict with his audience and critics. The night-time music of the Seventh doesn’t really find resolution, rather it contrasts with the Finale – and when the main theme from the first movement emerges at the end of the work, its presence is for a time simply disruptive.

But Mahler isn’t taking all this too seriously. It implies more the comic atmosphere of Die Meistersinger than the despair of the Faust Overture. At the end of the work, Mahler is celebrating the paradox, viewing the duality of night and day with emotional distance and acceptance. The scientist and philosopher, G.T. Fechner, a thinker who influenced Mahler deeply, observed that night and day only appear to be in opposition. If we were to view the world from outer space, he suggests (and we can, even if Fecnher could not) we would see that night and day occur at the same time, that they are part of an indivisible unity. Perhaps the message of this symphony is that the meaning of our human experience is subjective and always a matter of perspective. In that sense, what was tragic and hopeless in the Sixth can easily be reconciled with the visionary optimism of the Eighth. The Seventh is the bridge between them that shows us how this is possible. Mahler seems to say, it is not  Creation that is flawed and split down the middle, but our limited perception of it which makes it seem so, and it is our unwillingness to accept this limitation which leads us into Faustian bargains and rigid Beckmesser-like ways of thinking.

Peter Davison

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Unquiet Earth will be performed at The Bridgewater Hall on Saturday the 23rd of April, 2016 at 3 PM as part of the BWH’s Echoes of  a Mountain Song series. Tickets and additional information available via The Bridgewater Hall website here. 

Clare Hammond (piano) Jane Wilkinson (soprano)
Suzanne Casey (violin) Kenneth Woods (cello)
Peter Davison (narrator)

Despite her short life, Emily Brontë produced one of the most original novels of the 19th century, Wuthering Heights. In a sequence of words and music, we discover more about this enigmatic freespirit who loved the Yorkshire moors.

Todmorden-based composer Robin Walker has set four of her poems, exploring lost love and resignation. Extracts from the novel and other writings appear alongside a stormy piano sonata by Beethoven, whose cantata about unobtainable love,Adelaide, was among the Brontës’ music collection in Haworth.

Finally, Lancashire-based Andrew Keeling’s piano trio Unquiet Earth responds to Wuthering Heights’ ambivalent last paragraphs in music of rare pathos.

Beethoven Pathétique Sonata
Robin Walker Four Songs of Emily Brontë
Beethoven Cantata: Adelaide
Mendelssohn Adagio from Cello Sonata No.2
Andrew Keeling Piano Trio “Unquiet Earth”

Emily Bronte

From Peter Davison- artistic director

The emotional heart of this concert will be a new work commissioned from composer Robin Walker who has set four of Emily Brontë’s poems for voice, violin and piano, exploring lost love and resignation. Extracts from the novel and other writings will appear alongside a stormy piano sonata by Beethoven, whose cantata of unobtainable love, Adelaide, is among the Brontës’ music collection in Haworth. Finally, the British première of Andrew Keeling’s Unquiet Earth offers a lyrical response to Wuthering Heights in music of rare pathos

Composer Robin Walker

Composer Robin Walker

Emily Jane Brontë was born on 30 July 1818 in the West Riding of Yorkshire. She was a younger sister to Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte, and she had also an older brother, Branwell. Shortly after the birth of yet another girl, Anne, in 1820, the family moved to Haworth, where her father Patrick Brontë became perpetual curate – taking up residence in the now famous parsonage. When only a year had passed in their new home, Mrs. Brontë died, and the three oldest sisters, Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte were consequently sent away to school. Emily eventually joined them, but there was a typhus outbreak, so the children were withdrawn. However, it proved too late for Maria and Elizabeth, who both died at that time.The four remaining siblings were thereafter educated at home by their father and Aunt Elizabeth Branwell, their mother’s sister. Patrick Brontë was a strict and rather puritanical father, although he did not deny his children ordinary pleasures such as toys and books. But, during the day, while he worked in his study, the children would have to remain silent in an adjacent room. The siblings had access to a wide range of literature, including works by Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron and Shelley, and it was this combination of intense reading, spiritual high-mindedness and domestic confinement which probably encouraged the rich imaginative fantasies that would be the basis of their mature writings.

At seventeen, Emily attended Roe Head girls’ school, where her elder sister Charlotte was a teacher but, after only a few months, she was overwhelmed by homesickness. Returning to Haworth, her younger sister Anne took her place.The aim of the sisters at this time was to acquire sufficient education to allow them to open a small school of their own. Indeed, Emily became a teacher at Law Hill School in Halifax in September 1838, but her once again her health deteriorated under the strain of the long and stressful hours. She found herself compelled to return to Haworth parsonage, where she took on many of the domestic chores, while also teaching at the local Sunday school.During this period, Emily was able to teach herself German, and she also became a proficient pianist. The children had always been encouraged to attend concerts, to play music and to sing. The family even acquired a cabinet piano in 1833, which Emily and Anne both were able to play. Emily was particularly gifted as a pianist and reached a high standard. The family possessed a range of sheet music, including William Ayrton’sfamous Musical Library; an anthology in four large double volumes which contained many instrumental pieces and songs by composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, but also works by Handel, Arne, Boyce, Gluck, Spohr and Mendelssohn. Among the most notable contents of these volumes were simplified arrangements of Beethoven’s symphonies, as well as songs by him such as Adelaide. It is easy to imagine the whole family gathered around the piano on a winter’s evening, the hail clattering on the window panes as a wild wind blows across the moors. Emily Bronte is crouched at the piano, before throwing herself into a performance of music by Beethoven.

In 1842, Emily accompanied Charlotte to the Héger Pensionnat in Brussels where they attended the girls’ academy run by Constantin Héger. They planned to perfect their French and German before opening their own school. However, the death of their aunt meant that they were forced to return to Haworth. They tried in vain to open a school, but were unable to attract any students. The attempts of the sisters to achieve financial independence seemed to be consistently frustrated, but this perhaps served to turn their attention all the more to writing and creativity. In 1844, Emily began going through all the poems she had ever written, copying them into two notebooks. In the autumn of 1845, Charlotte discovered them and insisted that the poems should be published. Emily at first declined and was also angry that her secret life as a poet had been exposed, but she relented when her sister Anne revealed that she too had been writing poems. In 1846, the three sisters together published a single volume – Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Each adopted a male pseudonym for the purpose of publication, but preserving their initials. They feared that their work would not otherwise be taken seriously. The collection was well received, and Emily’s poems were singled out for their seriousness and musical qualities.

But this literary triumph was short-lived. Emily knew that her health had been damaged by the harsh climate at Haworth. There were also unsanitary conditions in the parsonage, where the water-supply was probably contaminated by the many diseased and rotting corpses in the neighbouring graveyard. Emily caught a severe cold during the funeral of her hapless brother Branwell, who had died in September 1848. She soon afterwards diagnosed with tuberculosis, her condition rapidly worsening. She died aged just thirty on 19 December 1848, having never experienced the success of her sole novel, Wuthering Heights, which had been published in the previous year.

We know very little about Emily Brontë as a person. Her sister Charlotte recorded that she needed to be free in order to thrive. Emily was certainly a free spirit, emotionally sensitive and physically vulnerable, yet also stubbornly individualistic, possessing a wild imagination which was stimulated by long country walks. She was a day-dreamer, often self-preoccupied, her head full of literary ideas and elaborate fantasies. It was said that she preferred the company of her faithful dog Keeper to any human companionship. Such misanthropic characteristics may well have made her less than appealing to potential suitors, and it is doubtful that she ever experienced romantic love. Perhaps at some time in her life, she had loved from afar, or perhaps she had been cruelly rebuffed but, whatever the truth, she felt a deep wound of separation formed by a childhood filled by painful grief and loss.

Robin Walker, who lives and works close to Haworth, in sight of the same Yorkshire moors which so inspired Emily Brontë’s writing has set four of her poems, which explore feelings of grief and separation against the backdrop of Nature. The absent lover is a blissful presence, but only in memory. There is a pervasive longing to restore the lost flow of life and to recover innocence. Death offers an escape; a way finally to unite with the unattainable beloved. Deep sadness suffuses these poems. There is resignation to a tragic destiny. It is true that Emily found some consolation in her Christian faith, also in the beauty of Nature and in her prodigious imagination, but throughout we feel the cold hand of mortality is beckoning her ever closer. By the end of this song-cycle, her faith in redemption seems as fragile her physical well-being.

The second half of the concert begins with Beethoven’s setting of Adelaide; a song which can be found in the Brontë’s Musical collection at Haworth Parsonage. The poem is by Friedrich von Matthisson, and it expresses unrequited love for an idealised other, who is mirrored ultimately in the beauty of Nature. Once again, we sense that broken love may only be healed by death. Beethoven’s obsessive dedication to music led him to a life at times of extreme self-denial. At all cost, he needed to preserve his creative freedom. Rather like Emily Brontë, this made his human relationships fraught with difficulty. He was at the whim of his muse, which possessed him with grand visions and impossible lofty ideals. His ordinary human needs often collided uncomfortably with his will to greatness and high achievement. It was a tension which also haunted all the Brontë siblings in their different ways and especially Emily. One author, R.K Wallace, has gone so far as to suggest that Heathcliff, the wicked anti-hero of Wuthering Heights, was even modelled on Beethoven, whose appearance, like that of Heathcliff, was wild, dark and unkempt. Beethoven was also prone to violent outbursts of temper. Emily would have known about Beethoven‘s passionate nature from playing his music. She may also possibly have read accounts of him as an uncompromising character in published biographies. But we should not exaggerate this connection. Beethoven was, after all, no ill-educated rustic, just as Heathcliff was no musical genius. By the 1830’s, not long after Beethoven’s death in 1827, the composer was already a towering mythic figure in European culture; an archetype for the heroic Romantic artist living in defiance of convention and who harboured for humanity a vision of universal brotherhood. In this new order, social convention and true nature would no longer be at odds. Emily Brontë must have found such ideas inspiring and attractive, although they must also have increased her frustration at the state of the world around her; so full of iniquities, suppressed feelings and dashed hopes.

We find these conflicts at the heart of Emily Brontë’s novel, Wuthering Heights, where the central theme is the conflict between social convention and the wildness of Nature. The privileged world of the Linton family, restricted by the mores of polite society, is contrasted with Heathcliff’s feral world on the moors, where passions rage uncontrolled and where vengeful mischief is aimed at those who have put him down. Heathcliff had been a mysterious swarthy child plucked from the streets of Liverpool. As he grew up, he was physically abused and mocked, eventually seeking revenge upon his tormentors; those who conspired to steal his beloved Cathy away from him. The intense feelings between Cathy and Heathcliff threaten diabolical consequence for the civilised world, for their desires cannot be repressed, yet nor can they find a form that would not transgress established moral laws. Tragedy must inevitably follow, for Cathy knows that the price of a virtuous and privileged life as Mrs. Edgar Linton entails an unbearable loss of soul. With pagan intensity and reckless longing, Cathy laments her predicament to her servant Nelly:

‘I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy. …. I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven…It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.’

We can only speculate on the inner frustrations which may have motivated Emily Bronte to pen Wuthering Heights, as she languished at home, devoted to her clergyman father and plagued by ill-health. Creative fantasy and long walks offered some consolation, but her life in many ways embodied the collective conflict of those times which women in particular endured through prejudice and prohibition. Desire and ambition were walled in by domestic duty and the call to obedience. Nature was thus pitted against the human world. Individuality was often trapped in conformity to rigid social conventions. The artist was often cast in the role of the outsider attempting to redefine moral laws and boundaries. These struggles were common themes in 19C art, music and literature, and we can hear such an opposition in the slow movement of Mendelssohn’s Second Cello Sonata. A traditional Lutheran chorale, in the style of Bach, is played by the piano. It symbolises conventional faith, enduring value and moral steadfastness, but the cello plays a plangent ‘song without words’, which disrupts the purity of the chorale. Mendelssohn resolves this tension when the piano finally acknowledges the cello’s sorrow, re-integrating what had previously been excluded from the community of faith.

If Wuthering Heights expresses something of the deep psychological conflicts at the heart of Victorian society, it does not mean that Emily Brontë was always pessimistic about the human condition. At the end of her novel, there are glimmers of hope that differences in society can be overcome by patience, understanding and universal education. But, it is far from an idealistic outcome in the context of the novel’s preceding pages. In truth, Emily Brontë vacillated between peering into the abyss and a visionary sensibility that looked to the stars. Her volatile moods and profound perceptiveness are explored in her essay, The Butterfly, written in 1842, while she was living in Belgium. In a state of deep melancholy, her experience of Nature is meaningless, for one creature must devour another in order to live. Nature’s beauty, she feels, is a deception. She observes a caterpillar eating the petals of a flower and is disgusted by it, filling her with existential doubt and rage:

All creation is equally mad. Behold those flies playing above the brook; the swallows and fish diminish their number every minute. These will become, in their turn, the prey of some tyrant of the air or water; and man for his amusement or his needs will kill their murderers. Nature is an inexplicable problem; it exists on a principle of destruction…This worm lives only to injure the plant that protects it. Why was it created, and why was man created?”

But then a butterfly draws itself to her attention, reminding her to look more generously upon the transformative potential of Creation:

…like a censoring angel sent from heaven, there came fluttering through the trees a butterfly with large wings of lustrous gold and purple. It shone but a moment before my eyes; then, rising among the leaves, it vanished into the height of the azure vault…

In the metamorphosis of the caterpillar in to a butterfly, Emily Brontë could sense the symbolic promise of a release from earthly woes and the cruelties of Nature. Perhaps, she believed, there could yet be some resolution of the conflict between the high spiritual ideals of Beethoven and the low earthly passions which she would later portray driving Cathy and Heathcliff to mutual destruction.

Andrew Keeling’s piano trio Unquiet Earth (2006) was inspired by the final paragraph of Wuthering Heights. The novel ends with tantalising ambiguity. The main characters all lie dead, but the novel’s narrator returns to the scene of the tempestuous events and perverse relationships which made the story. We are compelled to reflect in these last pages upon what may follow. Where Nature has been so rigorously denied, must there always be ghostly echoes of those thwarted desires? Must cries of anger and despair resound through successive generations? Will the souls of the dead continue to haunt the living, as victim and victimiser entangle in an eternally destructive embrace? Or – do the dead rest in peace, finally free of their unhappiness and their need to strive to fulfil themselves?

….the country folks, if you ask them, would swear on the Bible that he walks: there are those who speak to having met him near the church, and on the moor, and even within this house. Idle tales, you’ll say, and so say I. Yet that old man by the kitchen fire affirms he has seen the two of them looking out of his chamber window on every rainy night since Heathcliff’s death:—

…. I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor: the middle one grey, and half buried in the heath; Edgar Linton’s only harmonized by the turf and moss creeping up its foot; Heathcliff’s still bare.

I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

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