Here is an informative exploration of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, which is surely one of his greatest songs:
(Hat-tip: The Music Salon)
All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
Here is an informative exploration of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, which is surely one of his greatest songs:
(Hat-tip: The Music Salon)
My favourite pastime on YouTube is to watch news anchors making mistakes, but my second favourite is to listen to lectures. There are many excellent lectures posted from all manner of venues. I could listen to something interesting nearly every night, if I had the leisure. It occurs to me that I might post some of the more interesting of these lectures here.
For today, here is a lecture by Fr Andrew Cuneo, an Orthodox priest, broadly on the topic of education, and broadly based on C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. Fr Cuneo is the first Oxford graduate to have done his doctoral degree on C.S. Lewis, so he knows his subject, but he wears his learning lightly. It’s a very thoughtful lecture.
Incidentally, I rarely sit and actually watch these lectures; I listen to them while I commute to and from work. (I usually use a simple tool to reduce the videos to audio only.)
Closer to Truth is a long-running PBS series in which Robert Lawrence Kuhn travels the world discussing “the big questions” — about science, the cosmos, philosophy, and religion — with thoughtful and interesting people who, by and large, know what they are talking about. I’ve watched a smattering of episodes, enough to notice that Kuhn’s usual line with religious figures and theologians is that while he would very much like to believe in God, he is still searching for good reasons. Watch enough episodes and you notice that he searches and searches but doesn’t seem to get anywhere.
I don’t know which episode this clip comes from, but it’s a particularly good one because his interlocutor, the Anglican priest-theologian Sarah Coakley, does something I’ve not heard anyone do with him before, which is interrogate his definition of “good reasons”. She’s quite wonderful.
I know I’ve heard of Sarah Coakley before, but I can’t think of the context.
The Tallis Scholars, in a rare foray outside of their usual Renaissance repertoire, have just issued a disc of Arvo Pärt’s music. Here is the group’s long-time leader, Peter Phillips, describing some of it. The video has a nice way of visualizing the music by showing which singers are singing at any one time. It’s entrancing.
A few months ago I gave brief notice to an essay by Fr. Ian Ker about Chesterton’s views on the importance — even the seriousness — of humour and comedy. Here he gives a good lecture on the same topic:
In the wake of yesterday’s “classical crossover” mishap, allow me to offer something to cleanse the palate: here is Mary Schneider, in a more innocent time.
Dvorak’s “New World” symphony gets the MTV treatment. I can’t actually recommend that anyone watch this.
Hat-tip: Booty shake: The Music Salon)
I am not sure whether this opera is properly called Don Carlo or Don Carlos. It exists in both Italian and French versions, which I think is the origin of the confusion. Verdi’s much-revised piece — there are both five- and four-act versions — is an example of the grandest of grand opera: about four hours long, and plump with international politics, ecclesiastical spectacle, and personal tragedy. As with so many of Verdi’s operas, it was unfamiliar to me until recently; I have both listened to and watched it now as a belated part of my Verdi anniversary observance.
The story is set in sixteenth-century Spain, in the troubled court of Philip II. Philip has recently married Elisabetta, a much younger woman who, unhappily for all concerned, had prior to the marriage been entangled in a romance with the king’s son, Don Carlo. Thus we have a love triangle of the most awkward sort at the heart of the royal family. Sixteenth-century Spain also means the Inquisition, of course, and there is a power-hungry and corrupt Grand Inquisitor to put a lurid face on things. Meanwhile there is political unrest in Spain’s Netherlandish provinces. These three elements — usurped love, Inquisition, and power politics — are the ingredients with which Verdi cooks his stew.
The brightest musical highlight of the opera comes early in the first Act: Don Carlo is reunited with his friend, Rodrigo, who has recently returned from a diplomatic mission to the Netherlands. They sing a rousing duet, Dio, che nell’alma infondere, in which they swear enduring friendship to one another. Here are Placido Domingo and Louis Quilco, with English subtitles:
Later in the first act is a lovely aria sung by Eboli, a third-wheel who is secretly in love with Don Carlo. Her song, Nel giardin del bello (In the garden of war), tells the story of a Moorish king who tries to woo an alluring, veiled beauty who turns out, much to his surprise, to be his wife. It’s a soprano showpiece, sung in this clip by Tatiana Troyanos at the Met, with English subtitles:
This motif of mistaken identity in romance anticipates the opening scene of Act II. Don Carlo has arranged to meet Elisabetta in the palace garden at night, and upon meeting her (as he supposes) he cannot resist professing his love for her. Yet he is mistaken: he has met Eboli, and she wrongly takes his profession of love as intended for her. The mistake realized, Don Carlo rejects her, and she, calling herself “a tigress with a wounded heart”, vows to revenge herself on him. At this point Rodrigo enters the garden and intervenes. What follows is a marvellous trio, sung here by Luciano Pavarotti (Don Carlo), Luciana d’Intino (Eboli), and Paolo Coni (Rodrigo) in Milan. This clip begins with Rodrigo’s entrance; the trio really starts to gather steam about one minute in.
Later in this act we get one of Verdi’s splendid choruses: the scene depicts the preparations for an auto-da-fé, and the unruliness of the crowd is well captured in the music. Probably you’ll recognize the tune. This is a concert performance, and a pretty good one:
I’ll select just one highlight from Act III: King Philip sings Ella giammai m’amò (She never loved me), in which he meditates on the inevitability of death and laments his loveless marriage. This is one of the great arias for bass voice, sung here by Ildar Abdrazakov. I cannot find a version with English subtitles, but the text and translation can be seen here.
Likewise, one highlight from the fourth and final act: Don Carlo must leave Spain to avoid his father’s wrath, and Elisabetta prays for strength to be parted from him forever. As her thoughts turn to France and the early days of their romance, she sings Tu che le vanita conoscesti (You who have known the vanity). Here is a treat: rare footage of Maria Callas singing live!
This is from 1962, so quite late in her career, when she was past her prime, but what a voice! Mesmerizing. (To hear her sing the same aria in 1958, go here. This is a calibre of singing from which one never quite recovers.)
Don Carlo has a dramatic finale which, however, I shall not showcase here. Suffice to say that all the main elements I stressed at the beginning — politics, religion, and tragedy — come together for a conclusion that is ne’er to be forgotten. If you think it ends well, you’ve not seen enough operas.
If pressed, I would name Otello as my favourite of Verdi’s operas. It has magnificent music, well-developed characters, and, of course, a great story. Verdi was tempted out of semi-retirement to write it — it followed his previous opera, Aida, by a full sixteen years — and it is amazing to consider that not only had he lost none of his dramatic sense and musical inspiration in the interim but, if anything, both were keener than they had ever been.
The music of Otello is especially impressive. The orchestration is richer and more textured than is typical with Verdi, and the seams between the arias and and the dramatic recitative have been concealed to a greater extent than in his earlier work. There is an expansiveness, a calm breadth in the music that is very seductive. The tragic sensibility which I admired in Simon Boccanegra is present in this opera too, but here it is wedded to a dramatic arc that is without superfluous elements or overly complex machinations, and it is all the more powerful as a result.
This matter of adapting the play for the opera is worth commenting on. It is rare to find a drama that plays well both in the theatre and the opera house: there is no great operatic Hamlet or The Tempest, and few theatre-goers are lining up to see Beaumarchais’s Le Barbier de Séville or Sardou’s La Tosca. Opera is an art that works with big gestures, and is most successful when the stories are relatively clear and the characters relatively simple. This general observation highlights the skill with which Verdi’s librettist, Arrigo Boito, adapted Shakespeare’s play. I read that the libretto is just 1/7 the length of the play, yet it contains the essential action, and the central characters — Otello, Desdemona, and Iago — have faithfully inherited their personalities from Shakespeare’s originals. (Perhaps Iago in the opera is not quite so complicated as Iago in the play.) It is one of the best libretti in the repertoire.
Otello has been described as “one long diminuendo“. It begins with a tremendous bang: Otello arrives in Cyprus in the midst of a great storm. The crowd sings a tumultuous chorus, and Otello makes a resounding entrance with a shout of “Esultate!”, celebrating his naval victory over the Turks. It is a wonderful beginning. This clip is from Milan in the late 1970s, with Placido Domingo singing Otello. The lighting is dreadful, and the subtitles are in Italian, but hopefully the rousing start comes through anyway. Otello’s appearance is at about 4:00 in this clip:
Later that evening, Otello and Desdemona are finally left alone to share a gorgeous love duet, Gia nella notte densa (Now in the dark night). It is sung in this clip by Placido Domingo (again) and Anna Netrebko in a concert performance with English subtitles.
In Act II Iago has a very famous aria, Credo in un Dio crudel (I believe in a cruel God), a kind of malicious manifesto in which he gives full vent to his nihilism and self-hatred. Iago in this opera is truly a monster — exaggerated for effect beyond what one could attribute even to Shakespeare’s Iago. In this clip we hear Piero Cappuccilli in an old, fuzzy film, with subtitles. This looks a bit corny; try to squint.
The remainder of Act II is devoted to Iago’s poisoning Otello’s mind with doubts of Desdemona’s fidelity, and early in Act III Otello confronts her. This pivotal dramatic scene is sung here by Placido Domingo and Renee Fleming, with English subtitles:
The fourth and final Act, set in Desdemona’s bedchamber, is as good as opera gets. Desdemona sings a long, unbelievably beautiful section: first the “Willow Song”, and then, as she prepares for bed, Ave Maria. These are among the most celebrated soprano arias in the repertoire. Here is Marina Poplavskaya singing the “Willow Song”; the subtitles are unfortunately in German, but the text with English translation can be seen here.
And here is the same singer with the Ave Maria section; German subtitles again. The text is not the traditional prayer, so you may wish to consult the English translation here.
Soon enough Otello enters the bedchamber and accuses Desdemona of unfaithfulness. The ensuing scene, in all its tragic glory, is quite long but superb; it is the tail-end of the “long diminuendo“. I have had to split it into two parts: in the first, Otello is sung by Placido Domingo and Desdemona by Renee Fleming; there are English subtitles. The second excerpt picks up where the previous one left off, except that Renee Fleming has been replaced by Barbara Frittoli and the English subtitles have disappeared. It is the best I can do. It was also, I dare say, just about the best Verdi could do.
Tomorrow will be the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, and to mark the occasion I thought it would be enjoyable to highlight a few of my favourite recordings of his music. The selection criteria for this list are vague, but basically I am thinking of a combination of great music wedded to superior performances and recording technique.
It so happens that all of the recordings I have chosen are of choral or vocal music. Britten did write music for instruments alone, and some of that music — his cello suites, for instance, or his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra — is excellent, but it is fair to say that music for voices is at the center of his art, so the lopsidedness of my favourites is not too misleading. I suppose I should have included some opera.
Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
London Symphony Orchestra, Benjamin Britten
[Decca] (Recorded 1963)
The War Requiem is one of Britten’s undoubted masterpieces. It was written to celebrate the re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral following its reconstruction after the Second World War. The piece interleaves the Latin texts of the Requiem Mass with the wartime poetry of Wilfrid Owen, a young English poet who had been killed in the trenches of World War I. The result is a powerful work that honours the memory of those who died while also making a strong pacifist statement. (Britten was himself a conscientious objector who spent most of World War II in America.) It is interesting that the three principal solo parts, for soprano, tenor, and baritone, were written for Galina Vishnevskaya (a Russian), Peter Pears (an Englishman), and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (a German); although that trio was not actually able to give the premiere performance, they are the three soloists on this splendid recording, in which Britten himself conducts the London Symphony Orchestra. This recording is not perfect — the sound is sometimes a bit wooly, and the balances are sometimes inconsistent — but it has a palpable sense of occasion about it and an intensity of purpose that subsequent recordings have not been able to match. [Listen to excerpts]
The Red Cockatoo, and other songs
Ian Bostridge, Graham Johnson
[Hyperion] (Recorded 1995)
Britten wrote most of his music for tenor voice specifically for his partner Peter Pears, and Pears made many recordings which, by the very nature of the case, enjoy a rare authority, and, for some listeners, put other singers at a disadvantage in this repertoire. But I am one of those who have never warmed to Pears’ distinctive timbre, and to my mind it is Ian Bostridge, the young English tenor, who is the greatest interpreter of Britten’s songs. Bostridge is that rarest of creatures: a singer with brains. Almost without exception, his way with Britten’s music is outstanding; in fact, there is a sense in which my admiration of Britten himself is bound up with my admiration of Bostridge, so ideally matched do they seem to be. His voice is light and agile, and he delivers these wonderful songs with clear articulation and attention to detail. At the center of the programme of this disc are the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, which are rarely heard but rank with Britten’s finest work. They are supplemented by a variety of shorter pieces, setting poetry of Auden and Blake, among others, and it is all superbly done, with ideal accompaniment from Graham Johnson at the piano.
St. Nicolas, and other works
Philip Langridge, Tallis Chamber Choir
English Chamber Orchestra, Steuart Bedford
[Naxos] (Recorded 1996)
Britten wrote a great deal of music for Christmas, and although his church cantata St. Nicolas is probably a fairly minor work in his canon, this recording of the piece is so wonderful that it earns a place on my list. The piece was written in 1948, and was one of many which Britten wrote for amateur performers (although the tenor part in St. Nicolas is for a professional). The St. Nicolas whose life is rehearsed over the course of the cantata is not the jolly “St. Nick” who now dominates the Christmas season, but the historical figure, Bishop of Myra, filtered through the conventions of early Christian hagiography. Nicolas springs from his mother’s womb early in the piece with a triumphant shout of “God be glorified!”, and the music continues from there, portraying his life of charity, his journey to Palestine, his appointment as bishop, his miracles, and his death (“I bless Thy name, who lived and died for me, and, dying, yield my soul to Thee.”). The piece is a rare union of substantive piety and good humour, with a score that crackles with lively energy. In this recording, which is very atmospheric and brings the listener right into the performance space, the part of the narrator is superbly sung by Philip Langridge, and Steuart Bedford, who knew and worked with Britten, leads the polished (but not too polished) forces in what makes for a treasurable recording.
Listen to ‘The Birth of Nicolas’:
A Ceremony of Carols, and other works
Westminster Cathedral Choir, David Hill
[Hyperion] (Recorded 1993)
A Ceremony of Carols may be Britten’s most popular collection of Christmas music, and this is a great recording of it. Britten wrote it in 1942 as he was crossing the Atlantic, returning home from America. I don’t know what time of year he made the crossing, but the music gives every impression of having been written in the soft glow of candles, at the foot of a Christmas tree, beside a creche, with a wreath of mistletoe and a glass of hot cider on the table. It has that special Christmas quality: both hushed and joyous at once. The piece is written for treble choir and harp, which gives an idea of its intimate scale. It consists of ten or so short carols to Middle English texts, framed by a processional and recessional based on the Gregorian proper “Hodie, Christus natus est”. This recording, made at Westminster Cathedral with the boys’ choir, nicely captures the spatial aspect of the performance, as the choir enters at the beginning and departs at the end, but it is the singing in the meantime that really stands out. There is an excitement and enthusiasm in the sound, as though this choir of angels is bursting at the seams for sheer joyous exuberance, and there is an unusually vivid immediacy in the recorded sound. I come back to this recording every Christmas, and my admiration for it never fails. Also on the programme are a number of shorter works, including a very fine rendition of Britten’s early masterpiece A Hymn to the Virgin, which I occasionally try to sing to my children at bedtime (though I am invariably interrupted by earnest petitions that I stop).
Listen to the first few minutes:
Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings
Ian Bostridge, Radek Baborak
Berliner Philharmoniker, Simon Rattle
[EMI] (Recorded 2005)
The Serenade is another of Britten’s chief masterpieces. It is a song-cycle, about 25 minutes in duration, setting a variety of texts on nocturnal themes by the likes of Jonson, Keats, Blake, and Tennyson, though the most harrowing section is based on an anonymous medieval lyric (“Fire and fleet and candle‑lighte, And Christe receive thy saule.”) As indicated by the title, there are two soloists: a tenor and a horn, and the combination, though unusual, very effectively evokes the intimate, reflective, and somewhat forlorn quality of the poetry. I have a half-dozen recordings of the piece in my collection, and this one with Ian Bostridge (who has himself recorded it several times) as soloist and Simon Rattle leading the Berlin Philharmonic is my favourite: the recorded sound is muscular and detailed, and the singing is terrific. The disc is filled out by two other of Britten’s major song-cycles in Les Illuminations and Nocturne. [Listen to excerpts]
Anyone else care to recommend a favourite recording of Britten’s music? Or just a favourite piece?