Mozart’s Letters to his Dad

I read a few of Mozart’s letters to his Dad. I had no idea he was so religious. He’s in Paris for this concert. He’s not sure how it’s going to go. “I was really very afraid,” he says. “I would have liked to rehearse it again.” But there wasn’t time, so he goes to bed pissed off about it and fantasizing that if it starts to go badly he’ll dive into the orchestra, rip the fiddle from the hands of the first violin and conduct it himself.

It goes great. The audience laps it up, “especially the final allegro”. So what does he do afterwards? He heads down to the Palais Royal and buys himself a big ice-cream and says the rosary. He doesn’t even wait till he gets home to say the rosary. He lashes it out there and then, having his ice-cream.

When he hears of Voltaire’s death he says to his Dad – “You probably know that that godless arch-rogue Voltaire has died like a dog, like a beast – that’s his reward!”

I don’t know about you, I found it pretty funny.

But come here to me – one other thing – he’s talking about this great piano he’s been playing and he says there’s no “reverberation” off it. Does that mean he played his pieces choppily, without a sustain pedal? Could that be true? Did Mozart play his own adagios in a way that we would find – jerky?

Musical health warning

You know the sleeve notes they give you with classical CDs? Some of them, Jesus. I open up this one about Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony. Tells me that the Finale of the piece is “one of the crowning glories of symphonic literature, but the road to it is fraught with pitfalls for the weak of heart.”

Kind of starts you wondering if you’re in the right place. Would anyone say that before they showed you a painting? Or gave you a poem to read?

I’d listened to the first two movements before I read the sleeve-note warning. A lot of the time I don’t read the notes till later, and now I don’t know if I should listen to the Finale. What if I don’t like it? I’ll have to upbraid my heart. I’ll have to climb out of a pitfall.

Anyway, there’s this one bit in the second movement I think you’ll like. The piece tip toes around for nearly three minutes, and then out of nowhere – at 2”47 in this recording – there’s the warmest blast you can imagine, and it’s like Ennio Morricone took everything from these forty seconds. I’m telling you. Listen to that bit and you’ll see Sean Connery in The Untouchables, crawling the floor trying to get to the train timetable that’ll lead Ness to the book-keeper.

Desperate Man Blues

Desperate Man Blues. You’ve got to see it. This guy, Joe Bussard. He lives in Maryland, a place called Frederick. Goes to the same diner every day, three times a day since his wife died, because it’s the only place he can find outside his own home where they don’t play contemporary music. He’s been collecting 78s his whole life. Blues, bluegrass, hillbilly, gospel, jazz. Anything from the Twenties and Thirties. Willie McTell, Charley Patton, guys like that.

I think at one point Bussard says that music was in really top flight from around 1925 to 1933 and then things started to go downhill – and you’re so into the stuff by then that you agree with him.

How do you crown a night of French songs?

So we went to Juan Diego Flórez last night. “He’s no Bruce Springsteen,” my wife said to me as we realised the pattern for the first half: he’d sing a song, and then go off-stage for a rest while the orchestra played some filler. Every time they played a filler, you looked through the programme, reading the names of the people in the orchestra. He managed to sing only four songs for the first half of the show.

And they were all French. Turned out he was doing a Tour L’amour.

I said to someone at half time that I hadn’t heard any of these songs before. We’re talking tunes from La jolie fille de Perth, Lakmé, Werther, Les Troyens. Well, that was a faux pas.

What you’re supposed to say, I learned from a man who has the right word for everything, is that you didn’t realise the whole programme was going to be French, but that somehow “adds to the subtlety”.

Juan Diego didn’t say a word until almost the end of the show (“He has great charisma,” someone said to me afterwards). When he did start speaking, he proved to be an amiable ham, with something of Charlie Chaplin in his movements.

And a funny thing happens in this late stage of the evening. The majority of the audience is fifty-five and upwards. A sea of grey and white hair. But faced with a superstar, they act like children. They lap up the ham. They laugh like they’ve just seen the funniest thing in the world. One man holds up nine fingers – yes, he wants nine high Cs! When Juan Diego says no, a third of the audience moan theatrically. Awww. You could be at a Christmas pantomime.

For his finale, Juan Diego sings two songs in a row. At this point, that’s something special. He milks Au Mont Ida Trois Déesses. He gets his laughs. He’s presented with flowers and he gives them to women sitting in the front row.

And then, for his last song, he makes the definitive statement about French opera. I mean, how do you crown a night of French songs?

You sing an Italian one. La Donna è Mobile. We all go wild.

Green velvet Pärt

Last Saturday I finally got around to listening to this Arvo Pärt CD I bought. I bought it months ago but you know with music, it doesn’t become a part of you until you really listen to it. You can flick on a track here and there but that’s not going to do it.

So there I was sitting in this green velvet chair we bought, probably around the same time as the CD. You know when you go into town for lunch and you say, I’m not going to spend much today, and then you see something.

Well, we saw this chair. Green velvet. 1960s. Wooden armrests. And you look at each other and say, Let’s get it. You know you “don’t have the money to buy it”. But you spent your teenage years and your early twenties in a culture where it didn’t matter if you had the money or not; and you always thought you would be able to afford whimsical chairs when you were in your thirties. And it makes you feel like you’re not in crisis.

So we bought the chair.

And last Saturday I was sitting in it, you know, really sitting in it. I was working on my laptop, the window was hot with the sun outside, and I had the Pärt music on. And this time I really heard it. And the music became a part of me.

So here’s one of the pieces, Festina Lente. Turn up the volume.

You’re probably too comfortable where you are

Rachman rferl.orgPhoto:

I came across this box set of Rachmaninoff. Vladimir Ashkenazy playing every single thing he wrote for piano. I bought it. Christ, it was so expensive I didn’t want to tell my wife how much it cost. I’d just been paid, so I had that feeling, you know, that it was alright. And then, you bring it home – you need to shut yourself off for a week and play every CD over and over again to get the stuff you don’t know into your bloodstream, the way the 2nd and 3rd piano concertos are. Otherwise. Well, otherwise you might as well have just bought one CD.

And then I picked up a biography of him. By Michael Scott (The History Press, 2008). It zips along. And I learnt this: old Rachmaninoff hated recording. He felt that when he recorded a piece, he had to get every note right, and invariably there’d be something he didn’t like about the recording.

So what he started telling everyone was that recording was bullshit and the only way to listen to music was to go to a concert hall. Here he is in 1927 (2 December): “Radio is not perfect enough to do good music justice, but my chief objection to it is…[it] makes listening too comfortable.”

Isn’t that class? He goes on to say:

People often ask why they should have to pay for an uncomfortable seat at a concert when they could stay at home, smoke a pipe, put up their feet and listen comfortably. But I believe that one should not be too comfortable. To appreciate good music, one must be mentally alert and emotionally responsive.

You tap your foot



The notional Silicon Valley, in the sense of the place where technological development happens, peters out around Los Gatos California, but the geographical valley, the Santa Clara Valley, continues to the south.

As you drive south you see fewer and fewer Porsche sports cars and more houses with porches, a front porch seemingly the hallmark of country person in the USA.  A large section of the world’s garlic and artichokes comes from this part of California and you can sometimes catch glimpses of John Steinbeck’s world as you drive south past endless fields, rows of Mexican migrant workers in the distance, bent to their tasks and barely distinguishable in a heat haze like ghosts from Steinbeck’s imagination.

My friend and I work in Silicon Valley and one Memorial Day weekend we decided to take a drive to Monterey.

As soon as we got on the highway we fell in with a slow moving herd of minivans full of families bent on recreation.  We got off 101 at the next exit and rambled in a general southerly direction, making sure the coast was more or less on our right, confident that since Monterey is a sea-side town we could not miss it.

Somewhere near Salinas (it is a plain fact) we passed a roadside BBQ stand, a big panel van with a hatch in the side pulled over in a lay-by, a couple of half-barrel type BBQ pits off to one side and two or three picnic tables in back.  A handful of working pick-up trucks were parked up in no particular order.  The bill of fare was neatly but manually painted on the side of the big white van.

By the time we processed all this as a potential source of food we were 100 meters down the road and our little Volkswagen Golf had a long, dusty, backward journey along the shoulder to the parking area. No doubt we were already a curiosity to the BBQ loving locals by the time we rolled out of the car. Next to the pick-up trucks our little VW looked like the dingy that a large boat pulls along behind on a bit of blue nylon rope.

I play traditional Irish tunes on the banjo and my friend Niamh plays the fiddle.  We ordered our ribs, sausage and coke.  For a laugh and because I have developed a fondness for playing music in odd locations we got out our instruments and struck up a few tunes.  Before the kielbasa arrived we played Banish Misfortune and The Cook in the Kitchen, two jigs.  The children were quick to come over to see what this was all about.  The adults were more circumspect but they nodded in time with the music and smiled through their BBQ sauce.  We kept playing between bites of sausage and ribs and slugs of coke – The Mountain Road and Drowsy Maggie’s.  A couple of men who arrived after us sat at our table and nodded their appreciation.  The ladies who sold the food out of the hatch in the side of the van came out to listen and they were soon improvising Irish dancing and laughing happily.  After a set of reels one of the men slapped the table and said: “man I love that bluegrass music” and everyone laughed.  I asked him for directions to Monterey that did not involve sitting and perspiring in traffic and told him we were not in a hurry.  He explained how to get there over the mountain, down to the coast and along the storied California, Route 1.   We were all friends by the time we packed up and hit the road again.

Half the time I dread taking out my banjo in the USA.  Silicon Valley and Santa Clara Valley are the same place.  But when I play in Silicon Valley people are quite forward, demanding even, with questions about what it is that I am doing, what is that instrument called and what type of music is it? I was even informed once by a man with an air of authority that the music I was playing is heavily influenced by Irish music.  In contrast the people of the Santa Clara Valley were not informationally acquisitive in the least.  The artichoke farmers took it in their stride. They had no need to classify what was happening and they seemed to connect with the bouncy happiness of Irish traditional dance music readily without the need for analysis and classification or even discussion.  To them it was music and what to you do when you hear music? – You tap your foot.

Steinbeck’s characters are poor migrant workers of the depression era and I didn’t find any of them but it was refreshing and for me while in America not to have to explain or contextualize the music I play.  For me it is not a patriotic act or an exercise in historical preservation – for me it really is a bunch of notes that when played in a certain sequence sound good and I was delighted to find folk who are folksy enough to simply enjoy it.


ImagePhoto: The Lighthouse Cinema

“Runtime: 205 minutes.” It’s La Bohème. It’s The Met, beamed in live to cinemas around the world. You booked it and now you’re dreading it. How can they get it to 205 minutes? The music doesn’t last more than two hours. Backstage interviews. Maybe Renée Fleming doing the filler. A break in between every Act. You always forget, in the enthusiasm for a live show, that maybe the only place you can watch opera anymore is in bed, with a drink of your choice. Can we call someone up, pay them to take our places? Like the patricians of the American civil war? No. You booked the tickets and now you have to pay the price.

“Can you feel it, Joe?”


Opera and Hollywood. Philadelphia and The Shawshank Redemption. In both we’re given opera. In both we’re invited to consider whether this might just be the most beautiful form of music – the one that has the most feeling to it.

In Shawshank Red says he has no idea what the two Italian ladies are singing about and he doesn’t want to know. It’s more beautiful for him just to listen to the sounds.

“Some things are better left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was as if some beautiful bird had flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

In Philadelphia Andy Beckett can’t do what Andy Dufresne did: just let it play. He has to tutor the other listener. He has to give him a running commentary: “This is Madeleine. She’s saying how during the French Revolution, a mob set fire to her house, and her mother died… saving her. ‘Look, the place that cradled me is burning.’ Can you hear the heartache in her voice? Can you feel it, Joe?”

When Vivian Ward is brought to La Traviata in Pretty Woman she feels it in a way that Edward Lewis can’t – another cliché: the salt-of-the earth, more in touch with their own emotions than the well-to-do, connect with this music automatically, while the well-to-do are there merely as a social convention.

Why is opera presented as something that can make us feel more?

Deutsche Grammophon covers


I took a Martha Argerich collection out of the library last week. Solo recordings for Deutsche Grammophon. There are eight CDs, too much to digest. For a while I’m happy just to look at the covers.

Does anything apart from those Deutsche Grammophon covers convey more powerfully the sense that the 1970s and 1980s were a very different time? This sense might be a fiction, but the fact stands: in these decades classical music and chess had some clout.

Television stations still screened concerts and even the occasional opera (I remember seeing opera on television for a moment when I was a little boy. I was with my uncle and he was flicking stations. It baffled him, and he said it was “bullshit”).

It feels like chess and some aspect of classical music – maybe a vague sense that it was still, to some extent, a living tradition – vanished when the Iron Curtain fell.