The End of Early Music?


I was recently asked what I thought about the History and the Future of Early Music. But what does “Early Music” mean?

Do we mean using a particular version of an instrument – like a “Baroque cello” (with the vast spectrum of what that can mean!) ?

Or a particular type of repertoire – like Baroque music, but not Bach, who belongs to everyone?

Or a particular way of approaching music, a stance in relation to any kind of music, played on any kind of instrument?

I like to think of the latter becoming increasingly significant, and that it could be a way to reach more performers and listeners. In the last two years many institutions have become aware that there is a repertoire of music by BAME composers which is not only important and worthwhile in itself, but could be a key way to reach broader audiences. But asking Black students to perform music by Black composers during Black History Month is not the point, like occasionally inviting female conductors to conduct music by female composers. The broader “institution” of Western Classical Music needs to find meaningful ways to include a wider range of people and make mainstream a wider range of repertoire if it is to survive. Taking inspiration from this idea of “mainstreaming”, it can usefully be applied to Historically Informed Performance. Although almost no modern orchestras play Baroque music anymore, rather than becoming mainstream, HIP has been in danger of becoming ghettoised or even “othered”- a separate department “over there” where “people who like that sort of thing” can get on with it, while we all carry on as normal “over here”, unaffected by it. Perhaps we can all learn something from these ideas – they can more meaningfully connect any musician and any listener with any kind of music.  


Thoughts on Ukraine…


I, Culture Orchestra ( http://The Brand-New I, CULTURE Orchestra | Article | ) was a project initiated by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute (the Polish version of the British Council) in 2011 as part of the Polish Presidency of the EU. It brought together young musicians from the Eastern Partnership countries – former Soviet satellites, many of them now looking Westwards towards Europe. Since then, hundreds of young musicians from Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have met, worked and played together. I was fortunate to be their cello and strings coach for some of these projects, travelling to many of these places.

As my TV now shows Russian missiles slamming into apartment blocks in Kiev, while people huddle underground, and a tank swerving almost as an afterthought to run over a passing civilian car, I think back to this wonderful project, the people I met from across the region, and the profound meeting of spirits I witnessed there.

At my first course one desk of cellists consisted of two young musicians from Armenia and Azerbaijan. As we prepared for the course, hostilities between those two countries in Nagorno-Karabakh were renewing. Both had brothers who were in their armies, perhaps watching each other through their rifle sights. But the project went ahead. The Baku concert had to be cancelled I remember, but these two cellists played on together. This was an incredible example of the huge long-term value of cultural exchange projects. I, Culture Orchestra was started as a sort of Eastern version of the European Union Youth Orchestra, or a European version of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – partly about musical excellence but equally about bringing people together to experience their commonality.  After 1945 it was to become impossible to imagine countries like Britain, Germany and France going to war with each other again, despite centuries of conflict, because of newly forged economic, cultural and personal interconnections. As the UN’s Kenyan ambassador puts it, ( Ukraine: Kenyan ambassador’s incredible speech to UN – YouTube ) even though geopolitical borders often do not respect linguistic, cultural, or religious groupings, we can still get on with each other. (One small example of this – Aram Khachaturian, the most quintessential Armenian composer, was in fact born in Tbilisi, Georgia.) Friendships and partnerships between individuals that transcend borders make wars impossible to imagine. That is, if those individuals have the agency to elect their leaders. In a chilling echo of Tsar Nicholas II and Stalin before him, Putin is showing that he does not need to listen to his people.

Urtext – you get what you pay for…


Today on BBC Radio 4, a discussion on how The Great Gatsby has come out of copyright after 95 years. Will it be a good thing that more people can read this great classic? Yes, they agreed but already there are cheap editions circulating which leave out the rather crucial last three pages. Others have some parts which seem to have been translated out of English and back into it again: “her lips fluttered” becomes “her lips fizzed”. So, a mixed blessing. You get what you pay for.

What a perfect analogy for musicians choosing the text they use. Yes, it is wonderful that musicians today can work anywhere they have internet access, rather than needing to visit a specialist library. For the less scrupulous, almost any music in any edition can be had for the price of a sheet of A4 paper and a print cartridge. But in the long run, the potential loss of specialist publishing houses, the wealth of expert knowledge of serious editors, and shops like Blackwell’s Music Shop in Oxford, is bad for everyone and bad for music. It’s a loss of valuable human resources. Bärenreiter’s editions of Bach and Mozart are mostly available online free for study purposes. But even so, it seems some people can’t be bothered to scroll down the imslp page that far and will play from anything. I regularly ask students “Who is your editor?” when discussing articulation. They look at me as if I’d asked what kind of pants the composer wore. Luther’s Reformation is surely an even better analogy here: why let some unscrupulous priest be an interlocutor between you and God?     

But buying an “urtext” edition does not mean we have all the answers. This chord (in bass clef) near the end of Bach’s 5th Cello Suite Prelude makes a good case study:

It’s awkward to play – with the 3rd and 4th fingers bunched up and a stretch to the 1st finger – but such challenges appear quite often in the Suites (like b 2 of the d minor Menuet). All of the earliest copies and editions give this same version: Kellner, sources “C and D”, Norblin, Probst, both of Dotzauer’s and the 1879 Bach Gesellschaft. At some point, however, the idea appears of making the chord easier to play by transposing the C in the middle of the chord up an octave, giving a simpler open stretch 1 – 2 – 4.

 Becker’s 1911 edition, gives both scordatura on top and plain versions below, making a lot of page turns but illustrating the alternatives for us nicely:

Grützmacher’s edition of 1866 (Peters 4546) seems to be the first to change the C to the higher octave. I say “edition”, it is really a very free reimagining of the Suites – more an arrangement, so this kind of detail goes almost unnoticed:

This version has normal 5ths tuning rather than scordatura (so sounds as written). It has frequent added chords, sometimes with surprising harmonies, and here the closing sequence is altered to always rising appoggiaturas.

However the high C chord also finds its way into Grützmacher’s more “recognisably Bach” later edition, Peters 4962 notated in scordatura, so (most but not all!) notes above the top line sound a tone lower:

At first sight, presented side by side, Becker’s change of the C octave might be to do with the scordatura issue. In fact the top string is not involved in the chord, so it is irrelevant. Transposing the C up seems to be a musical preference. The soprano voice leads upwards over these 4 bars through a scale, Bflat, C, D rather than to dipping down to E flat in the middle as Bach has it. Or more to the point, the “original” version (low C) rather than dipping down, has a local voice leading connection from D to Eflat. Godowsky’s fabulous, highly fanciful paraphrase for piano of the Suite (“To Pablo Casals” 1924) follows the same upward trajectory in the right hand.  

Perhaps the longer line comes from JS Bach’s own g minor arrangement for Lute? Here Bach opens out the position of the chord and adds the 4th note of the Dim 7th:

Ferdinand David’s 1866 arrangement for violin, also in g minor uses the same chord disposition, cleverly adding the open E under the 4th finger G on the 2nd string:

I can’t find examples of cellists doing this but it would be possible. With the high C, rather than a rising scale to D, it could be heard as Bach’s musical monogram in German notation B-A-C-H:

bar 217 B(flat), bar 218 A, bar 219 (with high) C, bar 220 H (B natural) arriving as the 3rd of chord V:

Later cellists Hausmann, and Klengel return to the “original” low C in their editions. Perhaps under more restrained werktreu influence of Joachim?  

Back to the idea of text. Like the sale of indulgences which Luther objected to, does “buying a good text” absolve you of the need to enquire? Cellists buying the very reasonably priced “Bärenreiter edition” of Bach expect it to be “correct”. The NBA (Barenreiter) edition BA320 from 1950 has bowings, fingerings and some note alterations by cellist August Wenzinger (1905–1996). In 1950 it was a huge improvement on the heavily edited versions previously available. But Bärenreiter have since produced new “Urtext” and “Scholarly Critical” editions in 1988 and 2000, now describing Wenzinger’s as a “Study edition… for those approaching these works for the first time”. (They explain the various editions of the Suites they sell here ) When we return to our “low C/high C” case study, Wenzinger gives the high C version of the chord without explanation.

In the same spirit of technical convenience, Wenzinger changes Bach’s pattern in bar 56 and 58

and substitutes the 6th and 8th notes for a G to avoid the octave stretch.  We can see this easier version in Grützmacher’s later “clean” edition where he gives it as an ossiai:

The problem here is not that cellists with different sized hands might feel the need to make this alteration, it’s that the notes are presented as Bach when they are not. Grützmacher may make modern editors cringe, but at least here we know which is Bach and which is editorial.

My 2013 Bach Diary


I just dug out this – from my 2013 Bach Diary

From first hearing the Toccata and Fugue in d minor as a child, to taking part in the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000 and sitting on the Jury at the Leipzig Bach Competition in 2012, Bach has always had a special place in my life. But 2013 is turning out to be a ‘Bach year’ for me. A few weeks ago I took part in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s TV programme (which will be broadcast at Easter by the BBC). I recorded the G major Prelude and gave some interviews, but more importantly it was a great chance to catch up with some of the other participants from the incredible Bach Cantata Pilgrimage 2000. Also in Cantata 68, there was a chance to try out the Royal Academy of Music’s beautiful 5 string Amati cello which belonged to one of my teachers, Amarylis Fleming. It’s an astonishing instrument, and I’m very excited to be using it for the 6th Suite later this year.

Earlier this year I conducted the 3rd and 4th Orchestral Suites at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, with their Baroque Orchestra – every one of them ready to risk everything for the music! Then it was Webern’s arrangement of the Ricercar in 6 parts from the Musical Offering with SCO and Robin Ticciati. In the Summer there is a late night Prom with EBS/Gardiner, and in the run up to Christmas I’m performing the 6th Suite at Queen’s Hall and then conducting Cantata 110 Unser Mund sei Voll Lachens in a concert with Manchester Consort.

But my main focus in 2013 will be a recording for Resonus Classics of all 6 Suites, which will happen in two chunks, Spring and Winter. In preparation, I will be putting on as many performances of the Suites as possible, as well as introducing and exploring them at various events.
Having performed the Suites at very special places in Bach’s life – sitting by the font in which he was baptised in Eisenach and at Frederick the Great’s Palace in Potsdam – it was a pleasure to play the First Suite recently at Leighton House in London. Alfredo Piatti was a regular performer at ‘Musics’ there, including perhaps some of the first performances of the Suites after Bach’s lifetime.

St Matthew Passion


This Easter at St Endellion Festival 2022, I am conducting Bach’s St Matthew Passion, in a new English translation by Jeremy Sams.

Over 40 years ago I sang the part of Judas in the St Matthew Passion in Wells Cathedral. At the same time I was learning the 5th Cello Suite in c minor. It struck me that both works despite being dramatic and turbulent were beautifully balanced in their structure. Since then I have carried with me an awestruck wonder at Bach’s music, and its message for all, of whatever creed.

One highlight of that journey came in 2000 in Eisenach, during Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. In between the cantatas for the three days of Easter, I performed three of the cello suites, sitting next to the font in which Bach had been baptised. In that context, this purely instrumental music -‘Soli Deo Gloria’  just as any of his other works – demonstrated how the power of Bach’s music transcends idioms such as ‘instrumental’ and ‘vocal’ or even ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’.  Bach uses voices in an instrumental way – which is what makes it so difficult to sing – and vice versa. But he isn’t simply painting the images of the text in sound. As John Butt puts it, the instrumental parts carry the music’s meaning – the singers lines are almost like subtitles. Side by side with the most profoundly held faith (indeed in order to express that faith) Bach contentiously used not just the dramatic devices of Italian opera and instrumental music, but elements of dance. Ezra Pound may be an unlikely choice of commentator, but he sums it up well: ‘Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from dance. Poetry begins to atrophy when it departs too far from music. But this must not be taken as implying that all good music is dance music or all good poetry lyric. Bach and Mozart are never far from physical movement.’ The St Matthew Passion has famously been described as man’s greatest achievement. Written for performance on Good Friday, there is none of the invigorating Resurrection music that Bach writes elsewhere with such brilliance. It is a work instead of profound meditation, with the power to uplift anybody.

Thoughts on the 25th Anniversary of Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique


from 2014

Nowadays most mainstream symphony orchestras routinely offer calf-skin timps, natural brass, and strings who can switch off their vibrato. ‘Early Music’ directors regularly appear with them. Most conservatoires have a ‘Historically Informed Performance’ department, or even integrate it into all of their student’s programs. In this climate of tolerance and friendly cross influences it’s worth remembering just what the landscape was like in the late 1980’s when Orchestre Revolutionnarie et Romantique was founded.

For a start, only a decade before ORR’s first recording, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, had asserted that assembling a whole orchestra of instruments from Beethoven’s day was considered an impossibility to be dreamt of, never to be heard. Also, this way of approaching music was separated from the mainstream by an impenetrable Berlin Wall of almost paranoid prejudice. ORR has played a very significant part in bringing that wall crashing down. At the heart of John Eliot and ORR’s performances are expertise, technical skill, and passionate commitment – three circles which, in those days at least, had not often intersected. ORR quickly won over not only audiences but players. In fact, when confronted with compelling evidence and equally compelling performances, all but the most cynical ‘old-school’ players began to realise that their ‘school’ was really only a couple of generations old. ORR’s currency amongst the wider world of performing musicians grew exponentially. In a virtuous cycle, that meant more players wanted to play in ORR and were taking those experiences out into the wider world afterwards – it became hip to be HIP.

John Eliot had started out by questioning the performing habits of the English Choral tradition (“…and with thy spee-reet”). In his sights now were the assumptions of the great symphonic institutions: the emperor’s new clothes of clinically clean, constantly fluttering strings, even more fluttery flutes and the polished, equalized and homogenized sounds that players had striven for over the last century. Even the seating plan was up for grabs: in EBS/Monteverdi concerts singers ended up in pulpits and trumpeters in galleries, now the triangle player was standing at the front in Brahms 4! Even the use of chairs was questioned. The equipment we brought with us – temperamental gut strings and calf skins, even more temperamental wind and brass instruments, the contrabassoon, the opheclide! – he embraced warts and all. Indeed we embraced them because of those warts which gave them back their own characteristic sounds. Yet the instruments were never allowed to become an end in themselves, nor to be an excuse for less than perfection. Rather than any spurious claims to ‘Authenticity’, he gave us French peasants singing Revolutionary songs and feral saxhorns on stage in Les Troyens. Some groups, both modern and ‘baroque’, have been a victim of their own success, falling back on a house style formula applied to successive composers. For ORR, on the road less travelled, each project has been an exploration, a journey, something special – a big deal. While some critics complained of a cynical sales-led “march of Authenticity into the nineteenth century”, each project in ORR’s core repertoire organically followed the influence of Beethoven’s symphonies through the nineteenth century – the twin strands from Berlioz to Debussy, and from Mendelssohn to Brahms.

Small wonder then that these compelling performances, both visceral and underpinned with such collective integrity had a big impact in the wider musical world. Aware of it or not, a generation of conductors, singers, players and listeners have fallen under their spell. But despite this widespread dissemination of equipment and ideas, something unique remains among the ORR players themselves – their pride in the group, their dedication, fascination and curiosity. While in some orchestral sessions the floor is littered with newspapers (at least it was in the bad old days), in ORR it is littered with copies of the full score and libretti. Rather like fast food, the “improvements” to modern instruments and their materials have, generally had these aims: increased volume, equality across the range, ease and reliability. Stepping back 200 years requires enormous dedication: in a world of processed cheese slices they have been slaving away in the cellar, controlling humidity and temperature, patiently bringing on different varieties of cheeses.

David Watkin

Sounds Good in Theory


I wrote this piece for The Strad in 2013, thinking – I can kiss goodbye to any teaching at UK conservatoires. A few months later, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland offered me the job of Head of Strings…

In the last few pages of his final book, Structural Functions of Harmony, composer Arnold Schoenberg draws attention to the passing of a significant watershed in performance history: ‘Listening to a concert, I often find myself unexpectedly in a “foreign country”, not knowing how I got there; a modulation has occurred which has escaped my comprehension. I am sure that this would not have happened to me in former times, when a performer’s education did not differ from a composer’s.’

The division between theory and practice has only grown wider since then. Stravinsky’s dictum that the performer should be a ‘slave’ to the composer seemed to release players from the need to understand what they were playing. When applied to the tonal music of previous ages, playing come scritto has produced not only incomprehensible modulations, but also serious anachronisms. At conservatoires, music theory has been pushed to the margins in the minds of many young performers (and often their teachers), whose goal is to build formidable technique. After all, technical prowess is easier to measure than musicianship, and it’s generally the prime currency at conservatoires, auditions and competitions. But during the 60 years since Schoenberg’s observation, audiences have voted with their feet, seeking more authentic musical experiences in popular music, world music and ‘early’ music.

Those anachronisms seldom strike you more strongly than in the world of accompaniment. Most instrumental teaching is done through solo repertoire, and the overwhelming majority of players qualify as soloists – only to go on to spend most of their time in accompanying roles. Disappointed soloists don’t make the best accompanists: ‘Oh no! Two weeks of Mozart bass-lines!’ as a friend overheard on a tour bus.

Books about great cellists finish each chapter with sentences such as these: ‘This player helped push forward the boundaries of technique,’ ‘He used his thumb further up the fingerboard than before,’ and ‘He did his bit to liberate the cello from the bass-line.’ No other subject would accept the two metanarratives at work here. The presumption of technical progress can only conclude that there was an impoverished technique in Bach’s day (why, then, write those great unaccompanied violin and cello works at all?). And there’s an obsession with soloists, solo repertoire and the aspiration to solo-instrument status – which leaves unasked the question of how the majority accompanied. Conservatoires have done much in recent years to move away from purely solo studies to incorporate teaching skills, chamber and orchestral music, and especially audition preparation. But how can we teach students to accompany? The key lies in forging stronger connections between theory and practice. At conservatoires, Schoenberg would say, theory and harmony should have pride of place, but both disciplines are often relegated to airless basements with little connection to the rest of the institution. When I ask a group of intelligent, talented students a question about a chord, it is met with the sound of rolling tumbleweeds, or, ‘We did that stuff in the first year.’

Learning to accompany well requires and also builds a strong connection between head and heart – one that, ironically, can pay off in solo repertoire. It requires us to be, if not composers, at least de-composers – musicians who can see how the music was put together. The student who couldn’t recognise a V7 chord in their Bach sarabande (‘I’m a more instinctive player’) begins to perceive the harmonic structure, and to shape its contours, exploring new possibilities each time. Because of its different relationship between performer, composer and text, jazz has to be taught in a way that has theory-based understanding at its core.

For many in classical music, the drive for technical perfection excludes even the most dimly remembered theory or harmony lessons, as if they were vying for the same place in the brain. How can we find real meaning in a piece if we do not understand how it works? How can we be eloquent without grammar? How can groups discuss interpretation without a common language? How can we really serve the music as an accompanist if we don’t understand the challenges of inflecting those Mozart bass-lines, providing both resistance and support?

First published in The Strad, September 2013

‘Living after Beethoven…’- Imitation or Assimilation?


This was originally a programme note for a series of concerts by the Eroica Quartet given at the East Neuk Festival

Beethoven’s Influence on Mendelssohn’s Quartets

When Mendelssohn’s carriage took him from Birmingham New Street station to the Town Hall to conduct the first performance of Elijah in 1846, New Street was lined five deep with people and every window was crammed with those hoping to catch a glimpse of the composer. For some in the twentieth century Mendelssohn’s music never recovered from this association with ‘sentimental’ Victorian establishment. Its reception was probably not helped by the new performing habits of twentieth-century musicians, where the glow of constant vibrato lent the music, some would say, a saccharine quality. Although Mendelssohn was to become something of an establishment figure, the strongest single influence on his early development was undoubtedly that greatest of radicals: Beethoven. In these concerts three works spanning Mendelssohn’s life are heard alongside their models by Beethoven. The Eroica Quartet aim to present Mendelssohn as he was thought of in his own time – a self-conscious carrier of Beethoven’s promethean torch, a champion of the Nine Symphonies and Fidelio, and an almost single-handed defender of his late works.

Schumann first pointed to the link in 1835 writing about Mendelssohn’s Op 6 Piano Sonata: “the 1st movement reminds one of the thoughtful melancholy of Beethoven’s last A major Sonata [Op 101] – though the last movement recalls Weber’s manner – yet this is not caused by weak unoriginality, but rather by intellectual relationship.”

Some nineteenth-century composers were more self-aware than others of Beethoven’s enormous influence. Brahms, for instance imagined Beethoven as a ‘great giant striding along behind’ him. Mendelssohn was equally aware of the influence of Beethoven’s music and the challenge of living in his shadow, writing “Haydn and Mozart would have been different people if they had lived after Beethoven.”

As a young man Mendelssohn had a famously thorough grounding in counterpoint under Zelter. But he also had an encyclopaedic knowledge and understanding of a wide range of music. This included contemporary music, especially the extraordinary works of Beethoven’s last decade. These he voraciously devoured – hot off the press – and passionately defended against his father’s condemnation of ‘Beethoven and fantasists’. Larry Todd sees the early influence of Beethoven on Mendelssohn stemming from 1823/4. But as early as 1822 the Trio of the 8th String Symphony shows obvious awareness of Beethoven’s new type of Scherzo. All works by composers who “…lived after Beethoven” owe some debt to him of course, and none of Mendelssohn’s Quartets is an exception. In fact they are all peppered with connections on various levels to various works by Beethoven – thematic homages, familiar chord progressions, as well as more obvious formal influences. But there are especially close familiarities between certain pairs of works: Mendelssohn’s Op 13 with Beethoven’s Op132; his Op44 set with the ‘Razumovsky’ Quartets, and his last work, Op 80 with Beethoven’s Op95.

Beethoven Op132

Mendelssohn Op13

Mendelssohn proudly recalled an overheard conversation at a Paris performance of Op13, where the audience thought the work was by Beethoven. The very specific elements that Op 13 has in common with Beethoven’s Op 132, are closely explored in an article by Joscelyn Godwin. Most significantly, Mendelssohn seized the concept of writing four separate movements cast in their traditional patterns, but being able to unite them into a whole work by means of cyclic form. This involved revisiting sections from earlier movements at the end, to create a sense of closure. In the Octet, for instance, he used Beethoven’s idea from the 5th Symphony of recycling material from the 3rd movement in the Finale. More subtely, it also involved the cross fertilisation of material between movements. In Op13 for instance, Mendelssohn’s own song ‘Frage’ is used as book ends for the work, but provides a mine of motivic material. Another influential device was Beethoven’s idea of writing recitative for instruments. This played a prominent role in the 9th Symphony and was used to link the March to the finale of Op 132. Mendelssohn borrowed it in Op 13 to great effect both to introduce his finale and again at the end to reintroduce the opening song idea.

Beethoven’s Op 132 has extraordinary central movements. First a breathtakingly profound and original ‘Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanks to the Deity’. To describe it – a chorale in the Lydian mode and a Dmajor Andante alternatively repeated with increasing variations – cannot begin to do it justice. Then instead of a Scherzo this is balanced with a simple March of only 24 bars.

By contrast Mendelssohn perhaps wisely chose to cast his central movements in more traditional form – such an original slow movement as Beethoven’s is inimitable. Nevertheless, his Adagio non Lento is in F, the keynote of the Lydian mode, and the theme of its central fugal section is laden with references to Beethoven. Its breathless episodes echo those of the Heiliger Dankgesang’s Andante sections and this music eventually bursts into Beethovenian recitative before recapitulation. Both slow movements close with a wonderful halo effect – a very high F major chord with slowly pulsating bows. The Intermezzo of Op13, with its minstrel’s song and elfin trio, could be seen as an interlude not just from the Op 132 model but from Beethoven’s influence altogether. 1826 had been the year of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture and seen the 1st performance of Weber’s Oberon. These works seem more obvious companions to the Intermezzo than anything by Beethoven. But in 1824 Mendelssohn’s friend AB Marx (the inventor of now commonplace terms like ‘Sonata Form’ and ‘Second Subject’) had looked beyond abstract form and begun writing perceptively about Beethoven as a composer of ‘program’ and ‘character’ music, with psychological truth as its goal. In a way then even Mendelssohn’s strongly characterised ‘fairy’ music such as the Op13 Intermezzo flows from a Beethovenian idea.

Mendelssohn’s finale follows its torrid model closely. The themes are strikingly similar and both are accompanied by a surging accordion effect. But Mendelssohn goes one step further by revisiting themes from the first two movements, threaded in amongst the recitative – most notably, the slow movement’s fugue subject.

Beethoven Op59/1

Mendelssohn Op44/1

For both composers the intimate genre of the string quartet was a place where they could try out their most radical ideas, away from the public domain of the symphony, and works for Quartet span the length of both careers. The three substantial works of Beethoven’s ‘Razumovsky’ Quartets Op59 occupy a central place in what was to become his celebrated ‘middle’ period. It is surely no coincidence that Mendelssohn set about writing such a set of his own in the happiest period of his life, soon after his wedding. Although Mendelssohn’s Op44 set does not follow Beethoven’s Russian theme, all three works bear many obvious similarities, not least in the adoption of elements of the ‘noble’ style of Beethoven’s ‘Middle period’. These include technical elements such as Beethoven’s repeated use of unprepared dissonance (as in 4th Symphony); and harmonic effects, eg the reiteration of two chords as if in imitation of a military horseback timpanist in the ‘Harp’ Quartet. More difficult to define is the sense of grandeur and heroism – in both composers’ opening movements, there is the sense that you also get in such works as Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto and Violin Concerto of keys and material perfectly balanced in a substantial structure.

Rather than follow the mood of Beethoven’s slow movement, marked mesto (sad) Mendelssohn’s is more like an intermezzo. Again, some light relief from Beethoven. But both movements have a 1st violin cadenza near the end. Philip Radcliffe draws attention to Op44/2 (also in E minor) as a prototype for Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto which was begun at this time but only finished in 1844, but the whole set has elements that remind one of it. He points to Op44/1 as being Mendelssohn’s own favourite of the set, “full of gusto and high spirits, with very individual themes” but claims “it needs a full orchestra to do it justice”. However, this blurring of distinctions between chamber and orchestral music is one with which Mendelssohn had long been happily coexisting, not only in the String Symphonies but in the Octet itself. Most ‘orchestral’ and most unlike its model is the finale of Op44/1. Heard alongside the rustic exuberance of Beethoven’s Russian folk theme, however it still has its own exuberance, more like that of the ‘Italian’ Symphony.

Beethoven Op95

Mendelssohn Op 80

Grief stricken at the death of his sister Fanny, Mendelssohn himself died a few months later. But not before pouring his grief into one more Quartet. It is closely modelled on Beethoven’s f minor Quartet Op 95, a work that stands on the brink of the ‘late’ period. Motivic economy of the sort best demonstrated in the fragmented, halting Scherzo of Op 95 is the overriding feature of both works: they are not so much brief works as substantial ones boiled down to their very essence. Intense Dominant minor 9th harmony (which adds a note a minor 3rd above the 7th) infuses both works, but Mendelssohn also uses the Chopin-esque calling card of his own generation, the Dominant 13th (which adds a note a half step below the 7th). Where Beethoven uses sharp juxtapositions of key (f minor and Gflat) dramatically spurning the nicety of modulation, Mendelssohn prefers equally bold enharmonic shifts. He alludes to another dramatic device borrowed from Beethoven – the Scherzo is interrupted with a dramatic pause on a diminished chord before turning to the Trio each time. In his first movement transition to the 2nd subject (with all four instruments at full tilt in f minor), Mendelssohn directly borrows from Beethoven’s 2nd subject (in Dflat major on the viola). Changing the model to suit his own purposes, Mendelssohn reverses the order of the two central movements and can therefore dispense with a slow introduction to the Finale. The extraordinary broken theme of Beethoven’s finale provides not the theme but the motor for Mendelssohn’s own extraordinary shuddering effect. As one might expect there are fewer obvious references to a Beethovenian model in this mature work. Yet the influence of the overall shape and pace is unmistakable. As Todd puts it, these “tantalising allusions” should be seen as “evidence of Mendelssohn’s general assimilation of Beethoven’s style, not necessarily as evidence of planned borrowings.” As Mendelssohn himself put it, “I cannot remember any occasion when I ever thought to myself, ‘You want to write a trio like this one or that one by Beethoven, or by Mozart, or by any master.’ I wrote them according to my taste.” Assimilation then, rather than imitation: the ultimate homage.

© David Watkin

Mendelssohn and Enescu: Two Colossal Octets


Mendelssohn and Enescu: Octets

These two great works, although separated by 75 years, have a surprising amount in common. Both were written by teenage prodigies obsessed with Bach; both were written at pivotal moments in music history. Mendelssohn was keenly aware of the influence of Beethoven. He snapped up the late works as they were published. “Haydn and Mozart would have been different people if they had lived after Beethoven” as he put it. He wrote his Octet at precisely the time when that influence began to bifurcate music making, culminating in the Brahms/Wagner schism.

Enescu straddled that schism, claiming the equal influence of both. His Octet stands at the dawn of modernism.

Mendelssohn conceived the idea of a string octet together with his friend Spohr. There was no precedent. Spohr’s Double Quartet Op 65 came first. Spohr used two quartets very effectively, sitting in mirror image, the cellists back to back, like cori spezzati, only coming together for great effect. But Mendelssohn used different sub-groups – a quartet of 3 violins and a viola for example – much more subtly, allowing himself a huge palette of possible textures. (Tovey counted 255 possible combinations!)

He wrote the Octet in 1825 for his violin teacher Eduard Reitz’s 23rd birthday, when it was first performed at one of the family’s Sunday concerts: Berlin’s finest players and 300 guests. The 16 year old’s very neat autograph score (now in the Library of Congress) seems to be a fair copy rather than a working draft. In fact, like Mozart, he simply wrote the piece out fully formed. Today the work is usually heard in his polished 1832 revision. The original version, however has some charming passages deleted by his older more sensible self. It is only being recorded for the first time later this year by the Eroica Quartet. Like Enescu, who suggested that his Octet could easily be orchestrated, Mendelssohn conceived his as a quasi-orchestral rather than purely chamber work, stipulating that it ‘must be played in the style of a symphony’.

With its heroic opening movement, lyrical slow movement and massive fugal finale,

Mendelssohn’s Octet is perhaps best known for its Scherzo. It was said by his sister Fanny to be inspired by the Walpurgisnacht scene in Goethe’s Faust – witches rather than fairies:

Floating cloud and trailing mist

Are illuminated from above.

Breeze in the foliage and wind in the reeds –

And all is turned to dust.

The Scherzo returns briefly in the final movement, which highlights another factor common to the two Octets: the desire to achieve a unified ‘whole work’. In his Op 13 Quartet Mendelssohn had taken on Beethoven’s technique of cyclic unity, not only revisiting previous movements at the end, but striving to unify multi-movement works more subtly. Themes and motives, key relationships, even textures – all are pressed into serving the unity of the whole work, and this is no less so in the Octet.

Mendelssohn’s credentials as a child prodigy are well known. Enescu’s however are worth mentioning: he graduated ‘a mature musician’ in Vienna aged 13. He went straight to the Paris Conservatoire where he graduated again in 1899 (just as Bartok, also born in 1881 was starting at the Academy in Budapest). Like Mendelssohn, a celebrated performer and conductor as well as a composer, he was able from memory to conduct and play at the piano Wagner’s entire canon, as well as (according to his pupil Menhuin) the 58 volumes of the Bach Gesellschaft. (When the Amadeus Quartet approached him on a Summer course for some help with their Beethoven, he immedeately sat down at the nearest piano and spontaneously played and talked in detail through all 17 quartets from memory.) One of his composition teachers Gédalge, wrote of his students ‘Enescu was the only one to have real ideas and inspriation’. The others had included Honegger, Milhaud, Ibert and Ravel. (As friends, Ravel and Enescu attended the general rehearsal of Debussy’s opera Pelleas in 1902.)

Enescu was standing on the shoulders of two composers who had further developed this goal: Wagner with his leitmotiv and Brahms with his technique of thematic transformation. But Enescu was also steeped in the traditional folk music of his homeland. Looking into the improvising habits of Romanian folk musicians, with their increasingly intricate ornamentation, it is tempting to ask whether this provided him with still more unifying impulse. The final movement of the Octet seems to slowly reveal just how closely related his thematic material is.

As well as reuniting Brahms and Wagner in his music, Enescu embodied various seemingly contradictory influences: his Octet was written at the dawn of the century of modernism, when most cultural figures were either under the influence of Paris or Vienna. Enescu trained in both places, and his music draws together strands from both worlds. Alongside the cosmopolitan high-romantic chromaticism associated with early Schoenberg, he was able to incorporate folk idioms effortlessly. Debussy had famously been inspired by Javanese modes – exotic music, used as a way out of 300 years of ‘Common Practice’ diatonic music. But the folk idiom of Romania, also with exotic modes and rhythms, was Enescu’s birthright.

The haunting 2nd subject, for example, first heard in the viola, with its gypsy band bass, is generated from the 4 notes of the tetrachord, one of the most simple folk modes. Like the Lydian mode slow movement in Beethoven’s Quartet Op 132, or most Flamenco music, it avoids a sharpened leading note, and the home chord can feel like an unresolved Dominant. All of this results in a truly unique musical language. The simple chords that accompany the haunting Lentement violin melody near the end, seem to imitate folk instruments (rather like the ‘added’ notes from alternately blowing and sucking on a mouth organ) 10 years before the Yuletide Fair in Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

Both composers were feted in their lifetimes but have since been neglected. Mendelssohn’s music suffered at the hands of Wagner, the modernists and then the Nazis, and only quite recently have more than a few of his works been regularly performed. Despite finding cultural inspiration in Paris, Enescu never turned away from his homeland but rather dedicated himself to organising and founding cultural institutions there. His loyalty was poorly rewarded by the Communists and only since 1989 has his music begun to receive the audience worthy of someone Pablo Casals called ‘the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart’.

©David Watkin

Schumann Cello Concerto My teacher’s teacher: Julius Klengel

Photo Fine Arts Museums San Francisco – Gift of Alexander Heyman in memory of Sir Henry Heyman

A Personal Note

In 1880 the Musical Times reported a performance by the cellist of the Joachim Quartet, Robert Hausmann “of Schumann’s neglected concerto in a minor”. Since its earliest days this enigmatic concerto encountered difficulties. Nevertheless, it was taken on by most of the great cellists of the late-nineteenth century: Piatti, Grützmacher, Davidoff, Cossmann, Popper and Klengel. Although some of these cellists published editions of the concerto, they are now all out of print. Today’s trend is away from editions coloured by big performing personalities, towards the often elusive ‘urtext’. But old editions remain a fascinating testament to the performance styles of artists from the pre-gramophone era.

Since first learning Schumann’s Cello Concerto my concept of much nineteenth-century music had been both inspired and challenged by nineteenth-century editions of music from Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas to the great Quartet repertoire. Searching second-hand shops and libraries for early versions of this concerto, I found that editions made by two generations of cellists after Schumann’s death had many things in common. From Robert Emil Bockmühl’s fingerings in the first edition (1854), to one published some 70 years later by William Pleeth’s teacher Julius Klengel (1859-1933), they demonstrate certain profound differences from today’s performing styles. They all include frequent use of portamento (sliding betwen notes) indicated by the instruction to use the same finger for successive slurred notes. Also, fingerings for even the most melodic phrases often include open strings or harmonics, showing little concern for continuous vibrato. Generally speaking, this is in contrast to today’s prevailing aesthetic. Continuous vibrato is now the norm for string players and portamento is only used reticently. At some stage aesthetic priorities became reversed, rendering nineteenth-century editions obsolete. Furthermore, without understanding nineteenth-century bowing habits, old editions can leave modern players stranded at the wrong end of the bow.

It is widely assumed that, during the nineteenth century the modern style of playing evolved steadily and ‘progressively’. However, scholars such as Clive Brown have pointed to evidence from editions, methods and early recordings. This shows, on the contrary, that the influence of the early-nineteenth century approach to vibrato, portamento and bowing style remained largely intact until the First World War and Kreisler’s generation. Rather than evolution, there was a stylistic watershed – a single event which occurred much later than many have assumed. In 1921 Heifetz’s teacher Leopold Auer made a plea for the selective use of vibrato which would not seem out of place in the Paris Conservatoire Methode of 1803. In matters of taste string players have always been encouraged to emulate singers. A short recording of Klengel (The Recorded Cello vol II, Pearl) demonstrates an approach to portamento which, on first hearing, sounds astonishingly foreign. Yet, as Manuel Garcia had recommended in his 1847 Treatise on singing, Adelina Patti (1843-1919) and other great singers of her day can be heard on CD making exquisite, varied and, most importantly, uninhibited use of portamento. Heard in this context Klengel’s playing is truly vocal.

The demand for new editions of nineteenth-century repertoire, tacitly acknowledges that nineteenth-century editions illustrate a sea-change in taste. The words of LP Hartley, much beloved by historians -“the past is another country, they do things differently there” – are as relevant to the music of the nineteenth century as to earlier eras. Yet some resent ‘the march of authenticity’ into the nineteenth century. But more people are beginning to discover the surprising joys of early recordings and piano rolls of long-dead artists. Pupils of Liszt, friends of Brahms – they were totally unencumbered by the modern fear of straying away from the smallest details of the composer’s intentions. In this distant crackly world the ‘spirit’ rules, not the ‘letter’. No phrase appears twice in the same guise. No aspect of rhythm, from the smallest motif to the longest movement, is forced into metric conformity. The same search for lost performing traditions that has brought Baroque music alive again, can inform our approach to the music of the Romantics. Editions made by performers of the composer’s era, as much as methods and early recordings, have profoundly effected my approach to nineteenth-century music, but they are only a starting point. Performers are beginning to turn back to musty old editions not to follow them slavishly, but for fresh insight.

© David Watkin