Why we love requiems

At some point during the 20th century death disappeared. The dying were discreetly removed from our communities and homes, taken to hospitals with short memories and wipe-clean walls. Mourning blacks faded before vanishing altogether; the elaborate funeral monuments of the 19th century shrugged off curlicues and cherubs and arranged themselves into unobtrusive, apologetic sobriety. Coffins — gauchely literal — gave way to the more tasteful euphemism of the ash-filled urn. Only concert halls bucked the trend. Suppressed from everyday life and language, death found a different outlet. How many choral societies or symphony choruses today go a year without performing a requiem mass? How often do Classic FM or Radio

Bigamists, lunatics and adventurers: the raucous world of 19th century British music

For a patriotic German in the decades before Bismarck, Britain’s power was an object of envy. But there was one thing, at least, that you could always hold over the Anglo-Saxons on their foggy little island. On 1 January 1837, Robert Schumann sat down in Leipzig to hear a new piano concerto by the 20-year-old William Sterndale Bennett. ‘An English composer; no composer,’ commented his neighbour, smugly, before the music started. Few 19th-century German music-lovers failed to point out that the land of Shakespeare had somehow failed to produce a single really significant composer since the late 17th century. We know how that story ended; and if you want to

The rude, ripe tastelessness of John Eliot Gardiner’s Berlioz is the perfect antidote to Haitink’s Instagram Bruckner

Conducting is one of those professions — being monarch is perhaps another — where the less you do, the more everyone loves you. Orchestral players, for example, tend not to complain about being let off early from rehearsals. I prefer my maestros to have their head under the bonnet: loosening, tightening, fixing, replacing. Much of the classical music world, however, fetishises the idea of ‘letting the music speak for itself’. As if ‘the music’ were an objective thing. As if the score were a rendering that could be printed out in 3D, rather than a map to be deciphered and interpreted. This goes some way, I think, to explain the

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside

It was bucketing it down in Venice, yet the beach was heaving. Families, lovebirds, warring kids, a yappy mutt, all strewn across a sandy expanse, basking on beach towels. Balls were bounced, crosswords filled, timelines scrolled. Out of this idleness, songs would bubble up, light billowy airs — speaking now to suncream mundanities, now to geological anxieties — whisked up to our ears as if on a cooling breeze. We were in the Lithuanian Pavilion inside a dilapidated former military storehouse in a corner of north Venice, being given a god’s-eye view on an extraordinary new opera, Sun & Sea (Marina), by a Lithuanian trio: composer Lina Lapelyte, director Rugile

‘They’re finally going to play my music’

According to his friend and fellow-composer Ernest Reyer, the last words Berlioz spoke on his deathbed were: ‘They are finally going to play my music’. It has taken time, but he was right. A century and a half later, Berlioz 150 is the watchword of the hour. That is as it should be. Berlioz was a devotee of the ancient world (‘I have spent my life with that race of demi-gods’), where it was believed that at the moment of death one might be granted foreknowledge of the future. Why has it taken so long? In his native France there were plenty of reasons. As a forceful, witty but sardonic

Friendly fire | 21 February 2019

With the upsurge of listeners to Classic FM (now boasted to be 5.6 million listeners each week) and the imminent launch of a new commercial station, Scala Radio, dedicated to classical music and fronted by the former Radio 2 DJ Simon Mayo (who has said about his new home: ‘Some of it will be familiar, some new and exciting but all timeless, beautiful and all absolutely relevant to today’), Radio 3 badly needs to regain our attention. Last weekend’s focus on Berlioz, ‘The Ultimate Romantic’, could have been such an opportunity, but either because of funding cuts or a confusion about its purpose (to find new audiences, to teach or

The Berlioz problem

Hector Berlioz was born on 11 December 1803 in rural Isère. ‘During the months which preceded my birth my mother never dreamed, as Virgil’s did, that she was about to bring forth a laurel branch,’ he writes in his Memoirs. ‘This is extraordinary, I agree, but it is true… Can it be that our age is lacking in poetry?’ And so on, for nearly 600 candid, facetious, outspoken pages. Berlioz’s Memoirs are the inner voice of the Romantic generation as you’ve always imagined it, and everyone who’s interested in music in the 19th century — no, scrub that, everyone who’s interested in European culture — should read them. As a

France’s cultural excess is immoral (but I still love it)

For a committed, if unsuccessful, capitalist, I enjoy French culture an embarrassing amount – every last state-funded drop of it. Give me five-act operas with cast lists the size of a small Chinese city, give me obscenely expensive works of public art, give me inhumane concrete estates, give me unintelligible modernist music and I’ll be drooling with pleasure all night. In fact, I’m seeing a five-act French opera with a cast list the size of a small Chinese city tonight in Bordeaux. That’s the kind of disgusting thing I like to do. In my defence, I am aware that what I am doing is immoral and what is being created should be

Pearls and swine

The best booers, in my experience, are the Germans. There’s real purpose and thickness to their vocals. Italians hiss. The English grumble. The French? A bit of this, a bit of that. I approve of booing — or feedback, as I like to think of it. It’s galvanising and exhilarating, even when infuriating. Are you with them or not? One caveat: save it till after the performance, please. The French do not hold to such niceties. One piggy old Parisian thought it appropriate to shout at the stage during Sunday’s performance of Opéra Bastille’s new Troyens. And not once. But three times. On that third cry, he got on to

Les Troyens

Grade: A-   Berlioz’s Les Troyens, one of the greatest operatic masterpieces, manages to be neglected even if it is quite often performed. The vast reputations of the most popular operatic composers seem to grow ever larger with the years, but Berlioz somehow always needs defending. Listening to this latest CD set, ‘live’ from Strasbourg, I was struck as always by the magnificence of much of the music, and the characteristic lurches into banality or irrelevance that account, I suspect, for the work being so often underrated. But when you get to the last half-hour, Aeneas’s departure for Rome, and Dido’s rage, misery, curses, sudden accesses of calm, fresh outbursts,

Irish ayes | 26 October 2017

Luigi Cherubini is the pantomime villain of French romantic music. As head of the Paris Conservatoire in the 1820s he was the embodiment of obsolescence: Berlioz’s Memoirs recount an occasion when some state functionary told the ageing master that he should really write an opera. ‘One can dimly imagine the indignant consternation of the author of Medea, Les deux journées, Lodoïska, Mont Saint-Bernard…’ writes Berlioz with twinkling malice, though most modern operagoers, if they’re honest, won’t be any wiser. The one exception is Medea, which has never quite dropped into obscurity. Fiona Shaw’s new production at the Wexford Festival shakes it brusquely back to life. We’re at a hen party

French connection | 28 July 2016

It takes a particularly wilful wit to alight on Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict as the perfect operatic nod to a Shakespeare anniversary. To walk past Verdi’s Otello, Falstaff and Macbeth, to pass over Purcell’s Fairy Queen, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi and instead opt for this curiously and idiomatically French piece of musical flummery, in which Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing finds itself stripped of any sour notes and whipped up into a sugary dramatic froth, is bold indeed. If it weren’t for the revival of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opening at Glyndebourne later this season, it might even look a bit like

…Long live ENO!

The three most moving, transporting death scenes in 19th-century opera all involve the respective heroines mounting a funeral pyre — partly, no doubt, a matter of operatic convention and fashion, but also recalling opera to its duty as a rite of purification. Berlioz’s Didon in Les Troyens, like her creator, is so relentless in her grasp of the truth that she fails to achieve anything but a vision of Carthage overcome by Rome, and ends in despair and execration. Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung rides into Siegfried’s pyre in a state of ecstasy, imparted to the audience with all Wagner’s unlimited capacity for exaltation. In Bellini’s Norma things are more complicated: Norma’s

Mariinsky’s Les Troyens — a bad night for Berlioz and Edinburgh

I wonder whether grand opéra really takes war as seriously as this year’s Edinburgh Festival wanted it to. These vast works, written to exploit and reflect the power, resources and tastes of mid-19th-century Paris, tended to favour history and its battles for the scenic opportunities they afforded rather than for the lessons they taught. It was the cross-cultural love stories in the foreground that were the dramatic focus; whatever the context, the obligatory ballet always had to be shoehorned in. Berlioz provided a work that ostensibly fitted the formula with his Troyens, fashioned from Virgil’s Aeneid during the 1850s, painstakingly, obsessively and with minimal reward. It was rejected by the

Terry Gilliam turns to eye-watering excess for his staging of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini

Operas about artists are not rare. However — perhaps for obvious reasons — those artists tend to be musicians, singers, or at least performers, able to persuade and cajole both us in the audience and the other characters on stage through their eloquence. Berlioz, in his first opera, presents the renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, in an episode loosely adapted from his autobiography. But the final casting and unveiling of his new statue of Perseus, against all the odds, provides a climax that music (let alone stagecraft) seems fundamentally ill equipped to portray. The road to that climax is also paved with numerous distractions for both us and Cellini, the most