Fast cars, minimalist design and en suite bathrooms: the real Rachmaninoff

The train from Zurich to Lucerne tips you out right by the lakeside, practically on the steamboat piers. A white paddle-steamer takes you out of the city, past leafy slopes and expensive-looking mansions. Tribschen, where Wagner wrote the ‘Siegfried Idyll’, slides away to the right as you head out across the main arm of the lake. At the foot of Mount Rigi, shortly before the steamer makes its whistle-stop at the lakeside village of Hertenstein, is a promontory where – if the sun is coming from the west – a yellow-coloured cube shines among the trees. This is the house that Sergei Rachmaninoff built between 1931 and 1934: Villa Senar,

In the footsteps of the Romantic poets

Shelley, walking as a boy through his ‘starlight wood’, looking for ghosts and filled with ‘hopes of high talk with the departed dead’, found nothing in reply. Nothing reverberated. The ghosts were silent. But he felt something else non-human: the springtime breezes bringing a sense of the marvellousness of life itself. And so in that instant (or so he says) his mind changed. No more seeking after gothic horrors or pining for the worst; no more listening to the dead. Instead, ‘the spirit of beauty’ descended on him, illuminated him, shaping his life, becoming his goddess, the only force he could imagine that ‘could free/ This world from its dark

Hearing Percy Bysshe Shelley read aloud was a revelation

Last week I heard the actor Julian Sands give a virtuoso performance of work by Percy Bysshe Shelley to mark the bicentenary of the radical poet’s death this month. A couple of days later, I listened to a bit more Shelley, this time on the radio, and this time in the voice of Benjamin Zephaniah. Hearing his verses read aloud is so much more intimate than reading them silently. You may be sitting in a crowd, but as Shelley’s words fall into your ears, it’s possible to feel that you’re having a private audience with him. Reading the same poems in an empty room can be comparatively distancing. Zephaniah said

Musical conservatives ought to love identity politics

It’s 2022 and classical music is, again, dead. It’d be surprising if it wasn’t. In 2014 the New Yorker published a timeline by the industry analyst Andy Doe showing the precise chronology of the decline and fall. Ageing audiences in the 21st century, the gramophone in the 20th, the dangerous new technology of the pianoforte in the 1840s: all, in their time, were considered proof that the rot was terminal. Doe traced the root of the problem back to a papal bull in 1324, giving new potency to Charles Rosen’s remark that ‘the death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition’. Anyway, the fatal blow this time is

The art of the pillbox

When Oscar Wilde famously claimed: ‘All art is quite useless’, he may not have had artistic subjects in mind. But it’s certainly true that since the Romantic era, artists have had a special affection for the superannuated. An image of an abandoned building with some sort of past, not necessarily glorious, appeals to our emotions, be it Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’ or Constable’s ‘Hadleigh Castle’. Even ephemera pre-loved by strangers evoke nostalgia when incorporated in the shadow boxes of Joseph Cornell or the assemblages of Peter Blake. But what about things that are not just obsolete but have never had any use at all? That’s the curious question prompted by a

From bad joke to 21st-century classic: the best recordings of Korngold’s Violin Concerto

Erich Korngold was what you might call an early adopter. As a child prodigy in Habsburg Vienna, he’d astonished the world: a schoolboy composing orchestral scores that made Elektra sound tame. Jump ahead three decades, and Korngold, in his fashion, was still ahead of the curve. He was one of the first residents of Toluca Lake, North Hollywood, to buy a television. There wasn’t much to watch in 1947, but (according to Korngold’s biographer Brendan Carroll) Jascha Heifetz would drive over anyway from Beverly Hills, and the two exiles — the former protégé of Gustav Mahler, and the greatest violinist on earth — would sit there glued to the live

How we became a nation of choirs and carollers

Between the ages of 15 and 17 I had a secret. Every Monday night I’d gulp down dinner before rushing out to the scrubby patch of ground just past the playing fields, where a car would be waiting. Hours later — long after the ceremonial nightly locking of the boarding house — I’d sneak back, knocking softly on a window to be let in. I’d love to say that it was alcohol or drugs that lured me out. It wasn’t even boys — or, at least, not like that. My weekly assignation was with Joseph and Johann, Henry, Ben and Ralph. My addiction? Choral music. Better than some and worse