The ‘Men Behind the Music’

What do you think of when you think about classical composers? Maybe you think of them as old guys who wrote great music and know very little about their lives, or perhaps you know a little more about their history and the context of their works. By giving the composers a bit more personality or by giving the work a bit more context, classical music in general becomes that little bit less elitist and more accessible and relatable for the modern-day listener.

But when we listen to classical music now on BBC Radio 3, Classic FM or on Spotify, no one tells us much about the piece being performed, what we’re listening to, or what made this composer the way he was. The composer becomes glorified for his works, a compositional God among men, as it were. And often, through this glorification of the composer and their music in the modern world, we often forget to tell the endearing, unexpected and humorous stories that make up each composer’s unique personality. They were wacky, wonderful and (in most cases) downright weird! So here I thought I’d share some of our favourite facts and stories about the best loved musical masters.

1. Mozart’s Don G procrastination:

Beethoven
Image source

On the 29th October 1787, Mozart’s infamous opera, Don Giovanni, premiered in Prague, but on the day before the premiere, Mozart had still not composed the overture. Facts vary on the story of when he actually completed it; some say that he finished it the night before the premiere, while others say that he wrote it on the morning of the 29th, while suffering from a massive hangover. Either way, you’ve got no need to feel bad about procrastinating again. If Mozart wrote some of his best work with a hangover – we can too! *sips wine*

 

2. Wagner’s ‘fiery’ Ring Cycle: 

Richard Wagner, the pioneer of German Romantic opera, had grand ideas for the presentation of his operas. When laying out ideas for the staging of his infamous Ring cycle (1876), he decided that he wanted to build a wooden stage on the edge of the river Rhine (the river that features in the beginning and end of the opera with his glorious Rhinemaidens who emerge out of the water at the opening, and drag the ring to its depths at the end). He theorised that after the last performance, after the full cycle had been performed two or three times, that the entire theatre, stage and set, along with the score of the opera, should be burnt to the ground. Unsurprisingly, this idea was quickly rejected. (No! really?! You mean setting opera houses on fire after just two performances is not a realistic goal?! Who knew?)

 

3. Eric Satie and the 100 umbrellas thing:
The popular French composer, Eric Satie, had numerous quirks that made him a very ‘memorable’ character in the musical world. He would only eat white foods and would never talk while eating for fear of strangling himself. He would carry a small hammer with him at all times for protection, and when walking home at night he would walk with his arms plastered to his side, moving forward but with his head always looking behind him. Equally, after he died his friends found his apartment filled to the brim with over 100 different umbrellas….

4. Mendelssohn’s amazing memory skills:
Mendelssohn left the overture score of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in a cab, and when he got home and realised, he was able to rewrite every single note of the entire score from memory.

5. If you’ve ever wanted to punch someone while listening to Schoenberg, you’re not alone:
On 31 March 1913 Schoenberg conducted a concert with works from Zemlinsky, Mahler, Webern, and Berg along with his own Chamber Symphony. The audience were very rowdy and confrontational that evening, and were very much opposed to the music they were hearing. After Berg’s Orchestral Song Op. 4, No.2 was played, the audience were so appalled by it that they started whistling, shouting and laughing, and eventually full on fist fights broke out in the hall. The police had to be called to the venue and the concert had to be shut down. It was apparently the most scandalous outbreak in the concert halls ever recorded, until the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris in May of the same year.

6. Here comes the Bride?

The famous ‘Here comes the Bride’ Wedding March theme originally comes from Richard Wagner’s early opera Lohengrin (1848), an opera about murder. You might want to give any of your engaged friends a little heads up on that one before they decide to march down the aisle to that chirpy number!

 

7. Mahler making girls cry:
The composer Gustav Mahler was very strict in rehearsals, and apparently in a rehearsal for his Second Symphony (1888-1894) he made one of the female flute players cry by insulting her performance of his work. After, the two bouncers had to escort him back to his hotel because the brass section had threatened to follow him home beat him up for making her cry.

8. New ‘Instruments’ in Symphonies:

Composers sometimes got very creative with the ‘instruments’ they could use in their symphonies. In Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture, composed in 1880 to commemorate Russia’s defence of their motherland from Napoleon’s advances, he composed in a set of cannons that go off a total 16 times during the performance. Also, in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, he created a ‘Mahler hammer’, which was a large wooden box that was hit with a sledgehammer during the performance.

9. Rossini, the gourmet chef:
The Italian composer Gioachino Rossini was known for being a big fan of three things: opera, food and money. He was a quick operatic writer and so he managed to churn out 39 significant operas in the space of nineteen years, and earned his fortune through composing. However, he had always had a passion for cooking. After he retired in 1829 he decided to dedicate himself to becoming a gourmet chef, and created recipes to go alongside his music. Not to mention, he used truffle oil in absolutely everything!

10. Beethoven’s obliviousness to his standing ovation:
By the time Beethoven composed his Ninth Symphony he was almost entirely deaf. Apparently, after the first performance in Vienna in May 1824, he was unable to hear the raucous applause from the audience and had to be signalled from the performers to turn around so he could see how much the audience enjoyed it.

So, here’s to our composers, the weird, the creative and wonderfully mad. What I hope these funny little anecdotes convey is that behind the music there is a composer and a composition with a story that needs telling. So, next time you pop on the radio or a playlist on Spotify, I encourage you to take to the internet or to your local library and have a read up on your favourite musical maestro; there is always something new to learn, and it can have a monumental impact on the way that we listen to music when we know a bit more about the person who composed it.

And keep an eye out for our ‘sister-post’ that will shine a light on the exceptional women of classical music and the monumental impact they have had on the world of classical music that we know and love today.

By Genevieve Arkle
PhD Researcher at University of Surrey

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Highlights from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience

Timothy Burke, conductor of Patience, talks what to listen out for in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comedic masterpiece.

On Such Eyes As Maidens Cherish

Sullivan writes such beautiful and lyrical music to depict the world of the ‘Lovesick Maidens’ who lounge around feeling heartbroken and thinking of faint lilies. The surprising harmonies at the beginning of this number open the second act with expansive melancholy before introducing the quintessentially Victorian melody on the cornets.

The Soldiers Of Our Queen/If You Want A Receipt

The melancholy and poetic world of the Maidens finds its polar opposite in the thigh-slapping brassy ‘oom-pahs’ of the Dragoon Guards. After their brief introductory chorus, the Colonel sings his iconic ‘patter’ song – a hilariously preposterous catalogue of all the remarkable people of history whose wonderful deeds and qualities have been boiled down to create the essence of a Dragoon Guard.

Love Is A Plaintive Song

Patience, the titular heroine, spends the piece trying to discover what love is. By half way through Act 2, she thinks she has the answer, but it is quite a dark answer, with feelings of melancholy and misery mixed in with ideas of true, pure love. Sullivan’s song starts simply, with a beautiful melody in the minor key. Listen to the lovely interplay between Patience and the clarinet at ‘Tuned to each changing note’, and to the gear-change into the brightness of the major key at ‘Love that no wrong can cure’.

If you want to hear these songs live, book your tickets here.

Music for the Masses

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Our part of the score, with my annotations above the score line on how it should be performed on the day.

My head is still stuffed with the most wonderful music today, so it’s time to take a break from my usual bloggage.

On Sunday I sang the chorales in Bach’s St John Passion at the Wiltshire Music Centre in Bradford on Avon, as part of a project put together by English Touring Opera (ETO). Our performance was reviewed in The Guardian yesterday, which has kept the music in my head and the good feelings going well into today.

I must admit I was a bit daunted at first. I can’t read music, it’s a challenging piece, and it’s not the kind of thing I usually perform or listen to. However, the WMC Choir component was a scratch choir, so there would be plenty of people like me there. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

Can a scratch choir perform to the standards expected by ETO with just four rehearsals? It seems we can, as long as you do your homework. There were practice tracks to sing along to courtesy of Cyberbass and the whole thing is available on YouTube. The latter looks like a classical music version of karaoke, with the various components of the score moving along to the music, and a translation line running underneath.

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Scrolling version of St John Passion on YouTube – this is the opening chorus, Herr, unsere Herr. The left shows the sung parts, the middle is the strings and organ, and the right is the other instruments.

The first three rehearsals with Mike were fun and full of laughter, especially when he demonstrated correct breathing with the aid of a squeezy tomato sauce and lemonade bottles. They were a stretch for me, particularly when some of the pauses in the score were crossed out, but doable. Our role in the chorales was to be the ordinary people commenting on proceedings, and so ETO had our pieces translated into English by the likes of John McCarthy, Rowan Williams, John Sentamu and Marina Warner.

The fourth rehearsal on Sunday was with ETO and my first experience of performing with classically trained musicians. Jonathan Peter Kenny, the conductor, gave us no quarter despite having an imperfect piece but with a huge chunk of soul in mind. This would take the performance back to Bach’s original intention, when it was sung in church as a community witness of faith with the congregation singing the chorales. It truly is a piece for the masses rather than the hoi polloi, but that didn’t mean a sloppy performance was expected of us.

“You sang beautifully, but it might have been in Zulu, which I can’t understand”, was a typical remark from him. I giggled at this point as I have sung in Zulu. “Remember, text, text, text. I want the audience to hear what you’re saying and be involved with the performance, yes? Look at them and draw them into the piece.”

He was also a very dramatic and energetic conductor, roaming amongst us during the rehearsal and we took bets on whether he might fall off the stage later that evening. Sadly, he was a little more restrained in the performance.

The opera singers were a revelation. As a soprano I was drawn to Susanna Fairbairn’s technique. I noticed she relaxed and bent her knees slightly for the trickier parts of the score, and when she stood next to me, I could hear her emphasis on the consonants like ‘b’ and ‘p’. It sounded like she was spitting them out. As for mezzo-soprano Katie Bray, I never knew so much sound could be expelled from so tiny a frame.

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Part of the running order, with our instructions for when to sit and stand without making a noise.

As for the performance, for me it was extraordinary, even though we weren’t dressed up for the occasion. The opening chorus was so loud, I thought it was going to raise the roof. The orchestra – the Old Street Band – played period instruments and had quite a different sound, which to my ears added grandeur to the piece.

I was particularly struck by the lute with an enormous neck, which is called a theorbo. I also spoke to one of the flute players during the interval. Hers was a wooden, less complicated instrument compared to today’s, like a cross between a flute and a recorder. She told me it’s her favourite instrument to play and the silver rings are purely for decoration. It seems even musical instruments can have a bit of bling.

At the end everyone was in tears – choirs, audience, orchestra, and our conductor. As I left the building to come home, I overheard a couple of the audience say “That was amazing!” That’s a good enough review for me.

A lot is written about the inaccessibility of opera. The cost of tickets is high, you need to dress for the occasion, and it’s usually sung in a foreign language. I’m glad those criticisms – and my preconceptions – were blown apart by this amazing project. Around 30 local choirs will be involved in the tour around the country, including a gospel choir. I’d love to hear that.

Originally posted by Michelle Chapman
Member of the Wiltshire Music Centre Chorus and author of Veg Plotting
Twitter @Malvernmeet

ETO Podcast, Episode 1: Help us choose a new name

Ulysses first day of rehearsal

ETO’s staff director Will Edelsten and marketing manager Andrea Perseu introduce our first podcast for this season. Featuring contributions from all the ETO team on what Venice means to them, and a conversation with ETO’s general director James Conway on the operas in the season. Plus, help us find a new name for the podcast and listen to Oliver John Ruthven play Ombra mai fu from Handel’s Xerxes. Listen to the first episode here.

Behind the scenes #LoveTheatre Day

#LOVETHEATREDAY IS A CELEBRATION OF ALL THINGS STAGE. FOR A PRODUCTION TO TAKE PLACE, MANY BEES ARE WORKING BEHIND THE SCENES TO ENSURE WE REACH AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE, WITH THE BEST POSSIBLE WORK. HERE ARE SOME OF THE ENGLISH TOURING OPERA BEES…

CÉCILE BEAUVILLARD, PRESS & MARKETING OFFICER

What is your role at English Touring Opera, what does it mean?
I am Press and Marketing Officer. I am one of the links between our cast and creative teams, journalists, photographers and marketing teams in partner organisations around the country, and I make sure we have innovative campaigns in place to get as many people as possible to see our work.

What’s the most exciting thing you do there?
The exciting thing about this role is its diversity, not one day is similar to the previous one. I can be writing copy, going to the BBC for interviews, discussing pricing policy with a venue… The most exciting thing is probably going to rehearsals, at a stage when it’s just a repetiteur, a director and a singer discovering a piece of music, and then seeing it on stage only a few weeks later. It always feels like a magic trick, even if it is really hundreds of hours of work.

What’s the biggest challenge faced by the performing arts today?
As far as opera is concerned, one of the challenges is probably that we are constantly working against the idea that it is an art form for the old, the white and the rich. So it’s a collective work to renovate the art form in a way that makes it accessible to a diverse audience. There’s no education needed to enjoy opera, and keeping tricket prices low is something we thrive to achieve. I grew up in a jazz family that wasn’t particularly interested in opera, I am not a musician, I first attended opera with no knowledge of it and I was literally stuck on my seat. I think music moves human beings in a very intimate way, and I think operatic voices can go incredibly deep in that intimacy.

Do you recall a particular #LoveTheatre moment?
My first-ever time at the Comédie Francaise in Paris to see Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme aged about 6 was a big eye-opening moment. More recently, Ghosts at the Almeida with Leslie Manville really moved me, I loved Francesca Hayward’s debut at ROH in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I have to admit that the Olympia Act in ETO’s production of The Tales of Hoffmann with Ilona Domnich and Sam Furness was a BIG #LoveTheatre moment!

A tough one: favourite opera/play of. all. times?
Oh this is difficult. Written on Skin by Benjamin is incredible. Matthew Bourne’s take on Swan Lake is a ballet I could see every week.
But the aria that is most likely to get on my neighbour’s nerves is this one:

Behind the scenes #LoveTheatre Day

#LOVETHEATREDAY IS A CELEBRATION OF ALL THINGS STAGE. FOR A PRODUCTION TO TAKE PLACE, MANY BEES ARE WORKING BEHIND THE SCENES TO ENSURE WE REACH AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE, WITH THE BEST POSSIBLE WORK. HERE ARE SOME OF THE ENGLISH TOURING OPERA BEES…

JOHN HOLMES, HEAD OF MARKETING

What is your role at English Touring Opera, what does it mean?
I’m Head of Marketing. That means a looking after a lot of things, all coming under the banner of making sure as many people as possible attend ETO’s performances at theatres across the country.

What’s the most exciting thing you do there?
Attend performances and getting to meet audiences at venues on the tour. Otherwise, why do we do it?

What’s the biggest challenge faced by the performing arts today? How is ETO doing its bit?
Short-term thinking and lack of creativity. There’s a risk that by trying to screw as much money as possible out of the audiences of today, the arts as a whole alienates the audiences of the future. An example is the increasing insistence of many theatres to charge booking and transaction fees when buying a ticket. This creates a further barrier to attendance and, importantly, reduces the amount of money going back to the artists who create and perform the work. At ETO, we do our best to lobby our venues to keep ticket prices low, particularly for children and young people. We also provide exciting, different programmes of opera for adults and children that don’t just rely on a few well-known old titles.

Do you recall a particular #LoveTheatre moment? 
Al Seed’s The Factory at the Leeds Metropolitan University Studio Theatre in 2006. Until then, I’d largely assumed theatre was a polite, uncontroversial business lacking the counter-cultural spirit of great literature or punk music. An hour of comic noise terror later my mind had changed for ever – never had I simultaneously wanted to escape a theatre and been so engrossed in my whole life.

A tough one: favourite opera of. all time?
Easy. The first full length opera I ever saw – Handel’s Flavio staged by ETO at Exeter Northcott Theatre back in 2009. I was working for the Northcott at the time, and met James Conway (ETO’s General Director) and Jim Follett (then ETO press officer) before the show, who persuaded me to give Handel a try. I don’t know if musicologically this makes any sense, but there’s a gentleness to this aria (from 2.20 in the video) that makes me think as much about folk music as it does opera.

Behind the scenes #LoveTheatre Day

#LOVETHEATREDAY IS A CELEBRATION OF ALL THINGS STAGE. FOR A PRODUCTION TO TAKE PLACE, MANY BEES ARE WORKING BEHIND THE SCENES TO ENSURE WE REACH AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE, WITH THE BEST POSSIBLE WORK. HERE ARE SOME OF THE ENGLISH TOURING OPERA BEES…

KATE EBERWEIN, HEAD OF DEVELOPEMENT

What is your role at English Touring Opera, what does it mean?
I’m Head of Development at ETO which means I raise money from many different sources, including individuals, trusts and foundations and companies, in order to help keep the show on the road!

What’s the most exciting thing you do there?
Well it’s incredibly satisfying when a new person signs up to be a Friend of ETO or a trust decides to support us, perhaps by helping stage a new work like Pia de’ Tolomei or by making a gift that allows to us commission and stage a new opera for children with special needs like Dust Child.   New donations to ETO make me feel that we’re communicating our mission in a way that resonates with our audiences and since I’m truly passionate about what ETO does, I feel so pleased that other people are too!

What’s the biggest challenge faced by the performing arts today? How is ETO doing its bit?
I’m not sure there’s a one-size fits all challenge, especially as I notice big regional differences when considering this question.  However, from an opera perspective, I think it’s clear that everyone is concerned about attracting more young people to an art form unfairly tagged as ‘elitist’.  One of the principle reasons which drew me to this role at ETO is the company’s belief that opera is for everyone- this is an ethos that’s at the core of everything we do.  With this in mind, I think we’re helping challenge opera stereotypes by introducing children to opera in schools, providing discounted tickets for young people, and programming a really fabulous mixture of titles to encourage audiences to either try something new (for instance, every theatre outside London in which we performed Pelléas et Melisande had never received this gorgeous opera before) or come to opera for the first time via a ‘classic’ work (We had a fair few new opera-goers at La boheme who described it as ‘the original Rent’!).  I’m really proud of the fact that we cover more of the UK than any other opera company and that James Conway, our General Director, is known for choosing really interesting repertoire (as opposed to playing it safe with a short list of well-known titles).

Do you recall a particular #LoveTheatre moment?
But there are so many!  A real highlight for me was a 2010 trip to ENO to see L’elisir d’amore (translated for their production as The Elixir of Love which I have to say sounds rather prosaic in comparison). I’d previously seen a production with gorgeous singing (I’d cheerfully listen to Aleksandra Kurzak in anything!) but a staging which to me dulled the sparkle of the cast and dramatically lessened the impact of Donizetti’s gorgeous music.  As I recall, it centered around a single giant haystack (!) and left me feeling puzzled, and grumbling about production budgets.   I’m not even sure why I was convinced to see it again… I’d dragged my husband along under duress, so when John Berry came out to announce that the tenor who was meant to star in the role of Nemorino was ill, as was his understudy, I felt an elbow in my ribs and a hissed, “we could still make a run for it and have a lovely dinner instead”.  The audience was told that a suitable tenor who knew the role in English could not be found at such short notice and a Lithuanian tenor named Edgaras Montvidas would perform the role in Italian instead.  Our patience was requested, amidst audible groans from some audience members and laughter from others– we decided that the performance would, if nothing else, certainly be memorable!

In the end it was excellent– Jonathan Miller’s production used a very free translation in which the setting transfered from Italy to the 1950s American Midwest and having a Nemorino singing in Italian with the rest of the cast in English made him seem even more like a lonely outsider in a society not always welcoming of foreigners.  What’s more, Andrew Shore (as a delightfully sleazy Dr Dulcamara) pulled off a phenomenal feat of singing to the rest of the cast in English while singing to Montvidas in Italian– a clear example of a serious professional but also totally believable.  After all, wouldn’t a snake-oil salesman be able to communicate with every potential customer?

I still gush about this production (clearly!)!  It was a really amazing example of turning a potential disaster into a triumph.

A tough one: favourite opera of. all. times?
That’s easy:  Bizet’s Les pecheurs de perles.  A seriously vacuous plot but oh, the music!  The libretto was composed by Eugene Cormon and Michel Carre, with Cormon commenting after the premiere  that they would have written something better if they’d known Bizet was so talented!

Behind the scenes #LoveTheatre Day

#LOVETHEATREDAY IS A CELEBRATION OF ALL THINGS STAGE. FOR A PRODUCTION TO TAKE PLACE, MANY BEES ARE WORKING BEHIND THE SCENES TO ENSURE WE REACH AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE, WITH THE BEST POSSIBLE WORK. HERE ARE SOME OF THE ENGLISH TOURING OPERA BEES…

LUCY BEECH, EDUCATION & COMMUNITY COORDINATOR

What is your role at English Touring Opera, what does it mean?
I am the Education and Community Coordinator. My role is organising and assisting on Education projects which makes it really varied as no two projects are the same. It can include working with schools, community groups, musicians, directors, conductors on projects that could be community operas or children performing in our evening performance or workshops breaking down opera. I am also music librarian for the company which involves planning years in advance and sourcing and preparing music for the cast, creatives and orchestra.

What’s the most exciting thing you do there?
Everything I do is exciting. The great thing about my job is no two projects are the same. You can spend one day watching a community opera in Hampton Court and then a few days later be preparing for a performance at the Royal Albert Hall.

What’s the biggest challenge faced by the performing arts today? How is ETO doing its bit?
The biggest challenge is the lack of funding and support for performing arts at a youth level. The lack of support for arts education makes it a constant challenge for us to increase audience engagement, but with a varied programme of outreach work, aimed at both those who already enjoy opera and those who have no experience of opera, we are rising to the challenge!

Do you recall a particular #LoveTheatre moment?
I was lucky enough to go to a very active performing arts primary school where we were given opportunities to see shows and give performances on a regular basis from a young age. However, the first time I came to see a show in London (the Lion King), the whole atmosphere was like nothing else. Being in the middle of the west end, in what seemed like an enormous theatre, with all the amazing costumes and singing, was exhilarating.

A tough one: favourite opera of. all. times?
Turn of the Screw, Benjamin Britten. When I saw it a few years ago, I jumped out my seat and almost had a heart attack!

Behind the scenes #LoveTheatre Day

#LoveTheatreDay is a celebration of all things stage. For a production to take place, many bees are working behind the scenes to ensure we reach as many people as possible, with the best possible work. Here are some of the English Touring Opera bees…

Alice Wright, Artistic Assistant

What is your role at English Touring Opera, what does it mean?
My role is an Artistic Assistant. This job involves being an office adminstrator, audition organiser, surtitle preparer and general helpful person during our busiest periods, when we are in rehearsals, production, and the lead up to the tour opening. It is incredibly varied and busy – but I love it!

What’s the most exciting thing you do there?
The most exciting thing for me is being involved with the opening of productions. I love nothing more than being in a theatre, and find it incredibly rewarding to see parts of a creative rehearsal process develop as we hurtle towards an opening of a show. Being in such close proximity to our productions is so exciting, and knowing that I am helping (in a small way!) create something so special is fantastic.

What’s the biggest challenge faced by the performing arts today? How is ETO doing its bit?
I think the biggest challenge is encouraging and nurturing people’s love of the arts when they are children. The performing arts give you such a wide range of intellectual and emotional experiences, it is a life education like no other and has to be encouraged and funded for if we want to see our passion and industry staying alive. ETO is doing it’s bit with a HUGELY wide range of education projects, ranging from taking children’s operas into schools (we reach over 10,000 people country-wide a year), running workshops specifically linked to the tours, performing with children in our ‘main stage’ productions, travelling with operas for children with special education needs, and so much more.

Do you recall a particular #LoveTheatre moment?
There are lots to choose from… but seeing Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2012 was amazing. The show was simply perfect.

A tough one: favourite opera of. all. times?
This is a tough one! I tend to go through phases of being competely obsessed with different operas. The top (rather eclectic) two at the moment are Puccini’s La bohème and Britten’s Noyes Fludde. La bohème has the most amazing, heartbreaking and perfectly formed score, I hear something different every time I see it, and Noyes Fludde is the first opera I really got to know well, and I love it because it invites everyone to be involved (performers and audience!). There is nothing exclusive about it, it is Britten telling a story that anyone can be part of, and he does it very well!