11 December, 2017

"All Life is Here"

The sub heading to the now mercifully defunct and rightly shamed British newspaper the
News of the World  was, for its entire existence of over 150 years, “All human life is here” and I suppose the newspaper was true to its motto – all human life was indeed present in its pages – sadly, in all its unpleasant, voyeuristic, gory detail. Nothing was too scandalous, sordid or shaming to be printed to titillate the fantasies and lowest aspirations of its readers. Fortunately, the newspaper was brought to its knees in 2011 because of its shameful behaviour and operating procedures in relation to phone hacking; it was shown to all the world that not only did the paper and its owner – Rupert Murdoch - print unpleasant items it was in itself, and Murdoch himself was, sordid, unpleasant and thoroughly shameless.   

It might seem monumentally perverse but I thought of that News of the World motto, “All human life is here”  on Saturday night as I stood at the back of St Peter’s Church here in Ruddington enjoying Ruddington & District Choral Society perform JS Bach’s Magnificat and his cantata Sleepers, Wake,  plus other wonderful musical items performed by the Ruddington Chamber Ensemble: the  much loved and well known Pastoral from Handel’s Messiah, the sublime Sinfonia from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and the achingly beautiful Pastorale from Correlli’s Concerto Grosso often called the Christmas Concerto. This was an Advent night to remember and there was absolutely no doubt at the end of the concert that every member of the large audience filling St Peter’s went away knowing that they had not only got value for money but enjoyed something very, very special.

As my last blog ( http://arbeale.blogspot.co.uk/2017/11/all-right-notesbut-in-right-order.html ) suggested the choir, orchestra and soloists had to be on top of their game if they were to pull off two of Bach’s most well known and complex works  – and on top of their game they were. As I stood listening to Bach’s glorious music – so well and richly mastered by the players and singers – I thought, as I often think when listening to Bach, that to hear a few bars of his glorious music is to hear and be made privy to all the joy, pathos, exuberance, weaknesses, glory, baseness, humanity and spirituality that makes up man and womankind; to coin the News of the World, all life – human and spiritual - is indeed here. The opening movement of his monumental St Matthew Passion  - "Come, you daughters help me lament"  - has a dreadful bleakness that could easily drive you to the edge of despair as it prefaces the terrible tale of the Crucifixion and at the other end of this massive work the final chorus, "We sit down in tears" has an awful sorrowfulness and sense of abandon that it seems to take onto its shoulders all the grief and distress of the whole of mankind; in between those two desolate but perversely beautiful movements is some of the most intimate and soul searching music ever made by man. But, equally, listen to the Agnus dei and the Donna Nobis Pacem from his B Minor Mass and your spirits  will be raised to the edge of heaven so charged are they both with the essence of mankind’s ability to glorify and celebrate. On Saturday night the Ruddington singers and players captured this essence to perfection and in doing so, as Bach intended, the music reflected and reminded us of our human frailty whilst at the same time encouraged our spiritual aspirations and showed us what we are and what we might be.  All the hard work on fugue and counterpoint that I mentioned in my last blog had paid off and these hugely difficult pieces had been mastered - and the result was a glorious and uplifting performance. The young soloists, Grace Bale, Rebecca Sarginson and James Farmer, all students at Nottingham University, wove their solos perfectly into the complex web of Bach’s orchestral and choral accompaniment whilst Musical Director Paul Hayward brought the whole together skilfully and sympathetically ensuring that the finished result was not only memorable but a true and sincere rendering of Bach’s great works.

From what we know of Bach it might be argued that he was a bit of a curmudgeon – certainly he was diligent and hard working and expected others to be so. He was not a freewheeling musical impresario like  Handel who courted Kings and made the London opera stage his home. Nor was Bach a musical genius of the Mozartian mould – a man who could churn out some of the world’s greatest and most divine melodies at the drop of a hat. No, Bach was a Lutheran, a stoical Saxon, perhaps somewhat dour, a man for whom the term "Protestant work ethic" might have been invented. In 1705 Bach, as a young man and anxious to learn his trade walked almost three hundred miles from his home in Arnstadt to Lubeck in northern Germany to visit Dietetrich Buxtehude then regarded as one of the premier church organists of his time. Almost four months later he walked back again and when one considers that this journey was taken over the winter of 1705/06 when weather and roads would have been at their worst this was no mean feat, even for a stern, hard working and committed Lutheran! - it suggests a man who was hugely driven and prepared to put up with any hardship to further his skills and improve himself. He was too, it seems, similarly driven when it came to others: there are many records of his chastisement of the pupils at the Thomaskirche for their musical failings or lack of commitment  and endeavour, and of his disagreements with his employers about his terms and conditions of work. Bach famously said of himself:  “I have been obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well “ and of his music “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”. Wonderful quotes and anyone who has enjoyed Bach’s work will recognise the truth of the latter comment in whatever he composed – music for "the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul". But, I fear Bach undersells himself! - one needs to be a little more than simply “industrious” to produce the sort of stunning work that he composed. It was once said the "genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration"  and whilst Bach may agree with that I fear that most of us would believe that maybe talent too has some part in the equation! As a confessed Bach addict I would go along with the great Bach interpreter and pianist, the late Glenn Gould who said of Bach's work: “I were required to spend the rest of my life alone on a desert island, and to listen to or play the music of only one composer during all that time, that composer would be Bach. I  can think of no other music which is so all-encompassing, which moves me so deeply and so consistently, and which, to use a rather imprecise word, has a value beyond all of its skill and brilliance for something more meaningful than that – its humanity”. When I sit in a quiet room and listen to Gould play the Goldberg Variations – a work that has been called “a high point of western civilisation” - or I sit spellbound as Gould plays the 48 Preludes and Fugues -  a work that perhaps more than any other has influenced the development of western music - or I sit quietly in awe listening to and admiring the complexities of the Two and Three Part Inventions or the Art of the Fugue, or I am humbled as the B Minor Mass or the Christmas Oratorio or the Matthew Passion fill my office or lounge, then it is at these times that deep down I know that I am not just listening to great music, rather, I am listening to and peering into the  very soul of mankind and into his most intense human and spiritual dimensions. As I said at the top of this blog “All human [and spiritual] life is here".
Paul Hayward

So, as I stood and listened on Saturday night, wondering to myself how could it be that this self confessed, hard working, driven but self disciplined and industrious curmudgeon – in his later years, a confirmed “grumpy old man” – could produce work of such uplifting brilliance? Bach had a large family, a busy family life, and a work schedule which forced him to work the longest of hours just to keep on top of the basic demands of his job; he was also a man who largely cut himself off from unnecessary social interaction and was obsessive about his work and the spiritual nature of his labours - how could this man find it within himself to produce music that has spoken to and inspired the very hearts, minds and souls of men and women for three centuries?  The answer, of course, is beyond knowing but as I stood in St Peter’s listening to the performers it occurred to me that Bach’s profound commitment to the human and spiritual aspects of music – the ability of a work to speak to the inner mind and heart - is something that all good music must have. Put simply, whether it is a religious work like the Magnificat or Sleepers, Wake  or a secular work such as the Brandenburg Concertos or the Goldberg Variations Bach was composing music with the clear intent to speak to people as individuals and to lift their very souls.  He did not simply write good tunes - he wrote musical conversations that addressed the  innermost mind, emotions, spirituality and soul of both performers and the listeners. We see this, occasionally, in works by other composers: when I listen to Beethoven’s gloriously mighty 9th Symphony, Mahler’s gut wrenching 1st Symphony, Purcell’s Funeral Sentences, Mozart’s Piano Concert No 23 or Kathleen Ferrier singing  Blow the Wind Southerly or a thousand more I can be similarly uplifted and made to feel humble in the great scheme of things. And it isn’t just classical music – any music can have this capacity to reach our innermost feelings and make us examine who and what we are: when I listen to Dire Straits perform Telegraph Road or Romeo and Juliet, or the Everley Brothers (remember them!?) sing Cryin’ in the Rain, or Eric Clapton sing “My father’s eyes”, or Kirsty MacCall & Shane MacGowan perform Fairytale of New York  these might not be great artistic works in the way that Mahler or Mozart might be but they are works that poke at the very essence of the human condition, they are about what makes us “tick” and in a small way encourage us to think about our humanity, and by association, our mortality and spirituality. The difference is that most composers or artists do this, if they are lucky, only a few times in their lives; Bach does it each and every time – all of his music, be it spiritual or secular, has the capacity to make us examine ourselves and our condition – and more importantly addresses our humanity and asks us to be better. 
Glenn Gould

And as I listened on Saturday I saw and heard the singers, soloists and players bring out this essential message and quality. In every note and in every bar what shone through was the disciplined Lutheran that wrote the work; each note important in the great scheme of things, measured, calculated to inspire and magnify mankind and to glorify God. There was no flippancy, no concession to trivialise, this was "strictly Bach"; as Glenn Gould said: “all-encompassing music..... valuable beyond all of its skill and brilliance for something more meaningful ”.  What we saw and heard was a rich tapestry of contrasts – haunting spirituality interspersed with glorious humanity. The threads of fugue and counterpoint were woven into a multilayered tapestry by choir, orchestra and soloists; the great choruses beautifully counterbalanced the quieter solo sections whilst the sublime serenity and joy of the sopranos and altos contrasted with and complemented the power and strength of the tenors and basses. And through it all, the lyrical and disciplined playing by the Ruddington Chamber Ensemble wove a sensitive but at the same time glorious musical framework underpinning, supporting and enhancing while the gentle musicality of the three soloists was both precise and evocative, producing a sincere and heartfelt sound that prodded the very soul.
Michael Overbury

At  the end of the performance, as Director Paul Hayward turned to receive the applause of the audience he had every right to smile – he, and his associate Michael Overbury (Organ Continuo), have moved this Choir and Ensemble once again significantly further up the musical ladder. In May when I blogged on the last concert by the Choir (http://arbeale.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/music-to-hear-indeed-it-was.html ) I commented that these two leaders had significantly widened the choir’s (and audience) repertoire when they performed George Shearing’s beautifully lyrical but difficult Music to Hear with its jazz undertones and sophisticated syncopations followed by the daunting but hauntingly  atmospheric Five Mystical Songs by Vaughan Williams; the concert on Saturday was further evidence of that widening and deepening  repertoire. The programmes sung by the Choir this past year have been amongst the most taxing of the choral repertoire and the response of the members of  the Choir has been first class; they have raised their game and it was both understandable and absolutely right when on Saturday night, as the last notes died away and the applause rang round the church, that the smiling, relieved faces of the singers showed their elation and pride in their performance.  Both Paul Hayward and Michael Overbury clearly have the knack and the musicality to get the best out of their charges and to ensure that everyone responds to the demands and joys of the music. But there is more; making and listening to music is not a passive activity, it is, at its best and most profound, an activity of engagement and involvement where performer and listener are moved by what the music conveys – be it in the disco or the concert hall. And as I watched and listened on Saturday the engagement, involvement and yes, joy, of those taking part was self evident and that in its turn gave the sound that emanated from the front of the church a joyousness, a depth, an integrity and an enthusiasm – and I wondered if, perhaps, these are the qualities of which Paul Hayward and Michael Overbury should be most proud to have instilled. Such joy, enthusiasm and willingness to improve are precious commodities, they are the building blocks of improvement and success - Hayward and Overbury should be delighted to have ensured these qualities in their charges.  Perhaps it is the aspect of the night that the old curmudgeon Bach, had he sat in the St Peter's roof beams, would have approved of most of all: to see and hear his music being performed with such industry, enthusiasm and joy for the greater glorification of God.  

And if Bach was sitting under the eaves of the Church on Saturday night I have absolutely no doubt that he would have nodded his head in approval at what he saw and heard, for like me he would have known that both performers and listeners left the Church feeling a little more human, a little more humble in the great scheme of things, a little more understanding of our fellow man and a little more aware of the glory and the magnitude of God’s universe.  In a modern world torn by strife, dissent and discord, where rampant consumerism - especially at this Christmastide – stalks our streets and the wider world, where obscene wealth rubs shoulders with abject poverty and need, where it seems man's inhumanity to man increasingly seems to know no bounds and where the strident and false voices of leaders like Donald Trump seek to marginalise and pervert our very humanity and our ideals it is perhaps the music of Bach and the message that it brings that can sustain and inspire us to do better and to be better.
Paul Tortlellier

The great French cellist and Bach lover Paul Tortellier once said "Bach is my great hope for the future of mankind ..... a fugue by Bach is the perfect image of how the human society should be; it is the most beautiful thing you can hear". He was not wrong  and whenever I listen to Bach and as I stood entranced in St Peter’s on Saturday night I reflected that perhaps the world and our society  has never needed this message and this image so much - for within Bach there is indeed all human and spiritual life to uplift and remind us of higher thoughts, better things and more worthy actions - music, as Bach said "for the refreshment of the soul". 

Thank you to all for a wonderful and uplifting performance.

30 November, 2017

All the right notes......but in the right order?: The brilliance of Bach & the complexities of counterpoint!

My love of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach dates back to my early teens and maybe even before that. I can certainly vividly remember as a ten or eleven year old sitting at the old piano that we had in our front room and playing Bach – well, maybe playing is a bit of an exaggeration, but I was trying to play his great work Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. Rather like Eric Morecambe in the famous TV comedy sketch with Andre Previn, I was “playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order!” In those far off days of the mid 1950’s I had often heard on the radio, in programmes like Housewife's Choice and Two Way family Favourites, the famous wartime recording made by Dame Myra Hess of her playing the work and I had fallen in love with it. I had a weekly piano lesson  - which I hated - and was, to my shame, a reluctant practiser  but inside the piano stool that had come with our second hand piano there was a pile of old sheet music and amongst that pile was the music for Bach’s beautiful work. So, rather than work on the pieces supplied by my piano teacher, I was far more interested in perfecting my rendering of Jesu Joy. I rarely touch a piano these days but whenever I do it is always Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring  that trips off my fingers and on to the keys. The old sheet music of the work is long lost but this is unimportant. Deep in my brain the notes are etched from sixty years ago and to my amazement each time I play my fingers, without any thought from me, dance, of their own accord, to the correct places on the keyboard! How powerful is the brain......and, indeed, how powerful is music and how essential to the human condition?  Sadly,  however, and despite my dancing fingers, my  performance  is not the perfect rendering of Myra Hess or, indeed, the work that Bach wrote (I'm back to Eric Morecambe again - my fingers play all the right notes but, sadly, they are occasionally in the wrong order!). I’m sure that if either Hess or Bach is on high and listens to my stumbling efforts they must cover their ears and shake their heads in despair – but, I believe, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.........and, anyway, I enjoy it!

I mention this by way of introduction because at the moment our house is filled with the music of Bach. There isn’t anything particularly unusual about that, I have by far more CDs of Bach’s music than any other composer, but for the past few weeks and increasingly so in recent days Bach’s glorious sound has drifted through our lounge, kitchen, dining room and office at every opportunity. Indeed, each time I climb into the car and turn  the ignition key the CD player automatically leaps into life and there is Johann Sebastian yet again! 

The reason for this  Bachfest is, for once, nothing to do with me – but rather with my wife, Pat. The clock is ticking and the next concert for the Ruddington Choral Society is looming; and for the past few months Pat and the choir have been getting to grips with the works they are singing: Bach’s  famous and much loved Sleepers, Wake and the glorious Magnificat – two of the greatest works of Bach and of all choral music. Each time Pat goes out for a walk her i-pod is on and her ear plugs in as she learns her second soprano part; each time she goes out in the car the pieces  accompany her as she drives; as she cooks dinner or bakes a cake it’s the same story; and as I sit writing this in my office I can hear her practising in the dining room as the great man’s music comes from her lap top!
Dame Myra Hess - one of the people who 
inspired my love of Bach

The major reason for this mighty endeavour is that, of course, the choir want to perform well  but that hides the real thing. You see, Bach’s music is not easy to play or sing; it is music to test any musician and because of that it is glorious to perform and equally glorious to listen to – the sheer complexities and detail in the work give so much to challenge and so much to enjoy. And as the concert date (Saturday, December 9th) has crept closer so the need to achieve perfection, to overcome the complexities and details inherent in these great works has become increasingly fraught! Bach will challenge any choir – especially an amateur choir with perhaps less time to practice – and it is not unusual for choirs to prefer other, perhaps “easier” composers. So for the Ruddington choir to elect to sing two of Bach’s choral works is both brave and worthy of praise.

Johann Sebastian Bach was not only a great composer but a master of particular musical techniques  and styles. Much of his music – both instrumental and vocal – is composed using both counterpoint and fugue. Counterpoint is ubiquitous in Bach, so much so that on the rare occasions when he isn't writing multiple voices, he's implying them.  It is at the heart of Bach's music, and his mastery of it is unparalleled.

Without going into too much detail, what this means is that each instrument or each voice can, at any one time, be playing or singing in a different note, tune or rhythm  but magically they all work together so that the whole makes not a noisy discordant cacophony but a gloriously rich and complex  sound. These simultaneous melodies aren't just different in character, but seem (though only seem) to go about their business without the slightest regard for one another, so counterpoint is a sophisticated business; it is abstruse, complex, and mathematical. It has been said that Bach himself could hold several melodies in his head at the same time and these melodies are not just arrived at indiscriminately – they have strict “rules” or patterns – indeed it is through Bach’s exploration of counterpoint that most of the “rules” have come about. Because the melodies are not indiscriminate but follow patterns and “rules” then listening to (or singing/playing)  the music can be not only pleasurable but an exercise in mathematics as well as an appreciation of an art form. There is much research to strongly suggest that listening to Bach can significantly improve the mathematical awareness – and hence ability – of the brain since our brains all the time subconsciously and continuously  look for “patterns” in order to make sense of the world that we inhabit. So, listening to or performing a Bach work rich in counterpoint is an admirable training exercise for our brain matter as it  “soaks up”, assimilates, interprets and processes  all these patterns that Bach presents to us.

Counterpoint in the hands of JS Bach ensures a glorious sound, some have called it the music of the spheres, the music of heaven and I would not argue with that. The whole is very much greater than the sum of its parts, but, as I say, it does present huge problems for singers and players. This fact caused the famous conductor Sir Thomas Beecham to once famously confessthat he didn’t much care for Bach, and in his usual caustic manner, dismissed the great composer as “too much counterpoint  - and especially Protestant counterpoint at that!”
Eric Morecambe (centre) his partner Ernie Wise (left) and conductor 
Andre Previn (right) in the classic comedy sketch. It still makes me
laugh after all these years and is perfectly applicable to my piano
rendering of the complexities of Bach
On Saturday Dec 9th at St Peter’s Church in Ruddington you can test Beecham’s wry comment for yourself and enjoy the glory of Bach’s music when The Ruddington & District Choral Society, together with the Ruddington Chamber Ensemble, see if all their hard work has paid off and they perform two of the greatest and best loved works by JS Bach: the cantata Sleepers, Wake (Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme: BWV 140) and secondly, his gloriously joyous and inspired Magnificat (BWV 243). These two famous works are just right for Advent and starting the Christmas season; and are amongst the greatest choral works ever written.

When, in 1723 Bach took up the position of Kantor (Musical Director) at the Thomaskirche, he became responsible for the provision of music in the principal churches of Leipzig until his death twenty-seven years later. A cantata was required for the church services on Sundays and on additional church holidays during the year, and during his time in the town Bach probably composed some 275 church cantatas and 30 secular ones, although a number of these have not survived.

The cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, or Sleepers, Wake! as it is better known in English was first performed in the Nikolaikirche on the 27th Sunday after Trinity - the 25th November 1731 and was based on the three stanzas of the Lutheran hymn Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme  by the pastor, poet, and composer Philipp Nicolai in 1599.The cantata reworked the parable of the ten virgins from St Matthew’s Gospel which was one of the prescribed readings for the day. Records suggest that Bach performed the cantata only once, since the 27th Sunday after Trinity, for which it was written, occurs only in years when Easter falls very early, between 22nd and 26th March, and that happened only twice between 1723 and Bach’s death in 1750.
The famous few words between Previn
and Morecambe as Morecambe 
"played" Grieg's Piano Concerto.

The Parable of the ten virgins or bridesmaids was told by Jesus and relates the story of the bridesmaids who were chosen to participate, by being torch bearers, in a wedding. Each carries a lamp and they await the coming of the bridegroom (who represents Christ) and who they expect at some time during the night. Five of the virgins are wise and have brought oil for their lamps. Five are foolish and have only brought their lamps. At midnight, the bridesmaids hear the call to come out to greet the bridegroom. Realising their lamps have gone out, the foolish bridesmaids ask the wise ones for oil, but they refuse. While the foolish bridesmaids are away trying to get more oil, the bridegroom arrives. The wise bridesmaids then accompany him to the wedding celebration. The others arrive too late and are excluded.

Since the date of the 27th Sunday after Trinity falls close to the beginning of Advent both this and the underlying message of the parable ensured that Sleepers, Wake became intertwined with both Advent and Christmas. Advent is regarded as not only a time of waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus but as a time when Christians acknowledge and prepare for the second coming. The parable was one of the most popular and powerful in the Middle Ages, with enormous influence on art, sculpture and the architecture of mediaeval cathedrals. Bach, and the congregations in Leipzig, would have known the parable and understood its message well: be prepared to be judged at the second coming, make sure that you have the oil of righteousness in your lamp to light the way out of the darkness or you will be excluded from Heaven. It was a reminder to the congregation in Leipzig – and all congregations – of the final events of history, the ultimate destiny of humanity, the end of the world and the last judgement – be like the wise virgins it reminds worshippers, be prepared, be penitent and ensure that you have stored up enough righteousness to give you access to Heaven.
The Thomaskirche in Leipzig where Bach's great choral works were
first heard 

Bach scored the work for soloists (soprano, tenor, bass), a four-part choir and a Baroque  ensemble including horn, oboes, taille, violino piccolo, strings and  bassoon. The cantata represents counterpoint at its best and highest form and is a stern test of musical ability for singers and players. It remains one of the best known and most loved of Bach’s works and musicologist William Whittaker said of it: "It’s a cantata without weakness, without a dull bar, technically, emotionally and spiritually of the highest order." It was published in English under the title Sleepers, Wake  by Georgina Troutbeck in 1901. Georgina was the daughter of John Troutbeck, a canon of Westminster Abbey and Chaplain to Queen Victoria. He translated many sacred and secular works, including those by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart and Wagner. Georgina continued his work and made a modest name for herself in London and dying there a wealthy spinster in 1947.

The other work that the choir will perform on December 9th is the glorious Magnificat , a musical setting of the biblical canticle Magnificat and is scored for vocal parts (choir, two sopranos, alto, tenor and bass), and a Baroque orchestra. It is the first major composition on a Latin text composed by Bach and was written only months after he assumed his post as Kantor in Leipzig. When Bach arrived in Leipzig with his five children and his second wife Anna Magdalena, to take up his new post at the Thomaskirche he came to a city in its prime as Germany’s intellectual capital. Its prosperity and appreciation of art earned it the nickname “Little Paris.” The post of Kantor there was undoubtedly one of the premier musical posts of Germany and Bach knew that had been hired to make changes. He was determined to do this, to write music that would not only assure his future in this much sought after position but completely reshape Leipzig’s church music. The Magnificat  to be sung on Christmas Day 1723 gave him the perfect opportunity to show off his talents and to set out his “musical stall” for the approval of all; this was his first real  opportunity to impress and he wasn’t going to miss it!  
In the Thomaskirche – and throughout Germany - the Magnificat was traditionally sung at every Sunday Vespers service as plainchant, but on major feast days such as Christmas or Easter it was sung in Latin and took the polyphonic form. Since Bach’s Magnificat was to be sung on Christmas Day it used the Latin text, was polyphonic and, for good measure, Bach inserted four Christmas anthems which made a total of sixteen movements in the complete work. Later, for the Feast of Visitation in 1733, Bach produced a new version but this time without the Christmas anthems and he changed some of the instrumentation in the movements as well as the key (from E flat to D Major). The D major version is given the catalogue number BWV 243 and is the version that the choir will perform on December 9th.

The Vespers service at the Thomaskirche would have lasted several hours and whatever music was included had to fit into an already full service so this major work had to be written with that in mind. Apart from the Mass it was Vespers above all that allowed baroque composers the opportunity to write large scale sacred works and it was not unknown for entrance fees being charged to the congregation to enjoy these musical “concerts”. Since his installation as Kantor, Bach had written one new piece every week until the middle of November so he had only a few weeks to write and bring to fruition this major work – Magnificat - in time for Christmas. Despite this constraint the Magnificat, that he produced is twice as long as most of his cantatas and he took every opportunity  to write in the most inventive  style, to use the largest orchestration that he had so far used and to include far more elaborate choruses than his usual weekly cantatas. The result, according to one musicologist is, “a work that is an exhilarating and innovative ride through swift contrasts, alive with freshness and vitality”.

The Magnificat , also known as the Song of Mary or the Canticle of Mary,  is one of the  most ancient Christian hymns. The text is taken directly from the Gospel of Luke where it is spoken by Mary upon the occasion of her Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth. In the narrative, after Mary greets Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist, the latter moves within Elizabeth's womb. Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith (using words partially reflected in the Hail Mary), and Mary responds with what is now known as the Magnificat.
The man himself - JS Bach, the "sublime genius" as he appears
in the picture that hangs above my desk as I write this blog

Bach’s Magnificat  is intimate, immediate, dense with musical imagery, achingly tender, startlingly powerful - and unique among his many works. He never wrote another work quite like it. Bach wanted to introduce himself to the city with a work that showed off all his brilliant potential and grab the attention of his audience and his employers with something that was short, sharp and stunning. The result is a work not only displaying majestic, brilliant and complex counterpoint but one that is packed with intensity, in a way that his larger choral works are not. Each part is short, each verse is set as a separate musical movement, but there are no great da capo  arias (where the singer demonstrates their virtuosity by improvising and ornamenting their aria - the da capo aria fell out of fashion at the end of the baroque era as the focus shifted from the virtuosity of the performer to the beauty of the music), no recitatives, and no "big" choruses of the sort that Bach would later use to open a cantata or to include in his great Passions such as the St Matthew. Each of the twelve short movements is a musical gem whose only purpose is to exhibit, with the utmost conviction, clarity, and vividness, the text. Bach knew that he had to pack a lot into the space available and he was desperate to impress his new employers; the result was a dazzling work; a cheerful, bright, rich and brilliant sound, reminding the Leipzig congregation on that far off Christmas day of the Bible story that they knew so well and with every note designed to embellish the words of that tale. It was a show-off piece in which all – the players and singers - are challenged (and as the Ruddington Choir members know) to dazzle the audience with their technical mastery of Bach’s composing, and in particular his complex  but brilliant use of counterpoint.

It has been  famously said that  “[Bach’s] sublime genius . . . dwarfs all others from the height of his superiority” – now if that isn’t a good enough reason for a visit to St Peter’s in Ruddington at 7.30 pm on December 9th,  to begin the Christmas season and to enjoy, celebrate and admire the music of this “sublime genius” – I don’t know what is!  And, one further thing, I know that by then all the right notes will, indeed, be in the right order, just as the sublime genius intended so if you come along you will enjoy a real feast of Christmas music and the glorious sound of Bach.

23 September, 2017

"Choice is the privilege of power....."

“Choice is the privilege of power – and moderation is its obligation. Donald Trump understands neither”. So wrote journalist Simon Jenkins in the Guardian (Sept 21st 2017). Jenkins was writing about the latest crazed outburst from the American president threatening to “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” From where I sit Jenkins is exactly right in his commentary on Trump and his offensive shambles of an administration. I fear that I can add little useful to the debate on Trump’s mindset or motives; Trump is what he is and it seems we are stuck with him. There are, however, a few thoughts on Trump's use of the phrase “no choice” that have been running through my mind and, in any case, since this is the most powerful man in the world it maybe behoves all of us to look closely at what he says - no matter how crazed or concerning  - for it impacts upon all of us whether we like it or not. Trump is undoubtedly "unfit for purpose" as President of the USA and it is for precisely that reason that everything that he utters must be picked apart, dissected, analysed and, if necessary, shown up for what it is. Not to do this is not only dangerous for mankind but demeaning democracy in the same way that Trump is, each and every day, demeaning his position, his nation and the whole notion of democracy across the world.

Many years ago when my daughter was about 10 years old I went one day to get a couple of new tyres fitted on the family car and she asked if she could come with me. As we stood in the tyre fitting bay watching the guys take off the old tyres and replace them with new Kate (she was at that time a bit of a tom-boy) turned to me and said “That looks a great job, I’d like to be a tyre fitter when I grow up”. Ever the teacher (and, I suppose, keen to show my parental wisdom) my reply went something along the lines of “Well,  that’s great, but if you pass all your exams on your way through school you will be able to choose if you want to be a tyre fitter. Pass the exams and you can choose whatever job you want. If you don’t pass your exams you’ll have no choice, you may have to take any job that you can get”.  At the time I can remember feeling a little proud of what I saw as a bit of positive parenting and a few months ago I was quite pleased to hear from Kate that she still remembered that conversation; I suspect that she will be repeating it to her own teenage girls in the not too distant future! Of course, and on reflection,  my words were not very prophetic – today with the economic uncertainties of the world even passing all one’s exams and more guarantees nothing; we don’t always get the choices that we want in life.

We hear the word “choice” frequently from government ministers and politicians of all persuasions but especially those of the Tory party and other right wing groups. It seems in the modern world to be the ultimate justification for  any action: “Privatisation of the railway network will bring greater competition and choice” we read years ago; “Turning schools into self governing academies will allow parents greater choice” has been hammered home in recent years. It’s been the same story with our energy – competition was introduced to give consumers greater “choice” and thus make it easier and cheaper for the man in the street. Or, “Deregulating financial institutions such as banks will ensure that people have greater choice in their financial dealings” we were told by Margaret Thatcher’s administration. Well, we all know where that got us – the financial crash of 2007/2008 from which we are still suffering and leading to many in our 2017 UK society still being crushed from the fall-out from that misguided and immoral policy. The results of that ill conceived policy of financial deregulation has been years of austerity, government cut backs on welfare, health and education, and a struggling economy. It  has thrown thousands or even millions into the poverty trap. No, “choice” sounds a worthy cause and a good battle cry but it is not quite all that it seems.

This obsession with “choice” as a necessarily good thing is based largely upon libertarian philosophical beliefs – the right of the individual to make his or her own choices unencumbered by what are seen as the dictats of the state. It is the philosophy that allowed Margaret Thatcher to famously comment: “You will always spend the pound in your pocket better than the state will.” It was the same philosophy and same line of thought that encouraged Thatcher’s awful Chancellor of the Exchequer (perhaps partner in crime would be a better title) Nigel Lawson to argue: “High taxes rob people of the opportunity to make the moral choice to assist them.” This last quote is, in my view, one of the most outrageous and unforgivable ever uttered by an English politician of any persuasion. In Lawson’s view, governments should  discourage high taxes in order that those with money can keep more of it and thus decide if they should act morally and exercise their moral choice of whether or not to offer those less fortunate than themselves benevolent support. Charles Dickens would have recognised this philosophy well as would many of Dickens’ characters who were at the sharp end of the wealthy proffering (or not!) benevolent support via the workhouse. Could there be a more facile and at the same time outrageous justification for low taxes – that it gives those with money the opportunity to decide whether or not they should act morally?

 “Choice”  is one of those words that have a positive ring about it – everybody should be in favour of choice.......shouldn’t they? To say that one is not in favour of choice is, in today’s world, like admitting you are only half human; it increasingly justifies all action and belief in today’s pluralistic, consumerist and market driven society.  But we should beware. Even Thatcher admitted very late in life that giving people the choice on how they spent their money hadn’t quite worked out how she had hoped or planned: saying that “we hoped allowing people to keep more of their earnings would allow wealth to trickle down to those less fortunate but it didn’t, they simply kept the money”. Well, bang goes Nigel Lawson’s warped reasoning.

Choice, as I suggested to my daughter as we stood in the tyre fitting bay, and as Simon Jenkins in his Guardian article argues is very much related to power. If I have the right qualifications then I am in a powerful position to exercise various choices in relation to the job I might desire; if I am, like Donald Trump the leader of a powerful nation I have more weight to throw round to back up my choices. On the other hand if I have no qualifications or am at the bottom of society’s heap then my choices are severely limited. I am fortunate, I have savings and money in my pocket, a house of some value and these things give me enormous power to choose – what shall I eat tonight, where shall I eat, should I buy this item or that one, where shall I choose to go on my holiday.....and so the list goes on. But if I did not have the power that money and security gives me few of these choices would  be available to me; instead, we read more and more today of an increasing number of people in contemporary Britain are having to make very different and much harder choices such as shall I heat my house or buy food, shall I pay the rent or buy a new pair of shoes for my child? 

Jenkins is also correct in the second half of his comment – if people in power have the benefit of being able to make choices then it is incumbent upon them to use that power wisely – or as Jenkins says with “moderation”. When powerful people who make choices that impact upon the rest of us do not act or choose wisely or with moderation then we have the situation that we have today in many western societies – not least our own - great inequality. The powerful are imposing their will upon the weak, and a consequent rise in extremism is the usual outcome. At its most glaring and worrying we have the rise of despots and tyrants - Nazi Germany was a case in point; Hitler did not use his power with “moderation”. As I look at the USA today and at our own UK society I see two societies almost at that tipping point as their leaders – most obviously Donald Trump, but we in the UK are not far behind - consistently make inappropriate and immoderate policy choices.

Choice is, in real terms, relative to the position in which one finds oneself. To take the simplistic view that choice is by definition a good thing is to ignore that fact – it only becomes universally desirable when everyone has the same opportunity in their choices; in the hugely unequal societies of the UK and the USA or between the vastly wealthy western societies and poorer third world societies it is a meaningless quality. That we in the west desire to be able to choose a vast range of foodstuffs from around the world, or to be able to buy clothes cheaply on our High Street, or to be able to buy items from Amazon and other on-line retailers at ridiculously cheap prices means that millions in far off countries or in great internet warehouses labour on zero hours contracts or in sweat shops for little remuneration which in turn gives them little choice in their lives.  In this morning’s Guardian (September 22nd  2017) journalist Anne Perkins writes when discussing the budget airline Ryanair: “We moan about stagnant pay and then go online to buy cheap flights to the sun subsidised by other people’s stagnant pay. We are eagerly complicit in conduct we deplore. We sustain a system that only works to our benefit in the immediate present. We have sold our soul, or at least other people’s secure jobs and decent wages, for serial holidays abroad........This is the monstrous offspring in the marriage between deregulation and consumerism....... It has become a perfect reflection of our greedy refusal to look an implausibly cheap horse in the mouth, let alone examine its back teeth. It is a parable of our times”. She is not wrong. My desire to be able to choose any of the things that we take for granted in today’s society often means that I am actively discouraging the choice that others, either in my own society or further afield, have. 

American poet Archibald MacLeish famously said that “Freedom is the right to choose” – well yes, maybe it is. Certainly that belief might figure highly in the mindset of many Americans whose belief in “freedom” (whatever it means) is part of their very being – they treat it with almost evangelical reverence. It is the American dream, it is at the core of their constitution, it is the belief that drives the philosophy of the libertarian and the extreme right.

But it is not the whole story; it is also the philosophy that underpins the hateful doctrine of Ayn Rand.When I read that freedom and choice go together I am reminded of poet John Milton’s cautionary comment  "None can love freedom heartily but good men. The rest love not freedom but licence". So, when Trump tells us that America will have no choice but to “totally destroy North Korea” I am of the view that just as Tony Blair and George W Bush did almost two decades ago what he is really saying is that “I am big and powerful and so I can refute other options or choices and have the licence to do as I please”. It is the exact philosophy espoused by Ayn Rand in her dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged – a book beloved of many right wing politicians, believers and, worryingly, many like Sajid Javid, a senior minister in our own Tory Government who, it is said, keeps a copy of the book in his office desk.  Blair and Bush chose that same path giving them licence to carry out their campaign against Sadam Hussein’s Iraq.  It ultimately reduced much of the middle east and further afield to both rubble and a powder keg  from  we are still suffering, and will continue to suffer,  as terrorist seek to destroy our society and streets.

When Donald Trump tells us that he has “no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” he illustrates precisely why he is unfit to hold the position that he does. Read any basic text on government or politics and one of the first lessons that will be taught is that government in a democracy is all about making choices. Trump, it would seem, does not understand this – either because he is intellectually incapable of understanding the logical and linguistic stupidity of his statement or because he has no grasp of the nature of government. I suspect it is a combination of both of these failings. There is, of course, a third option in the case of Donald Trump – namely that he is very aware of the seeds that he is sowing when he makes pronouncements like this – and that is a truly horrifying prospect. If it is the case, and it may well be, then he is indeed a very dangerous man. For the sake of argument, therefore, I will restrict my verdict to his ineptitude and simple fitness for office – that third option is too worrying to contemplate.

In any decisions about government or political policy those responsible have to make choices and thence decisions – which policy should they adopt, which approach will make it work, how best can we deal with its implications........and a thousand more such questions of choice. There are, for a government, always choices – indeed, that is what any government of any persuasion is for – to make choices on behalf of the electorate. One of my favourite comments on this was put forward by the Labour politician Tony Benn – in fact it was the prime reason for him coming into politics. Benn said: If we can find the money to kill people in war then we can find the money to help people in peace.”  Quite – as Benn implies, it is the role of governments to choose what to spend money on and what to promote as policy; there are always choices. The secret of good government is making the right choices and using the power given by the electorate with, as Simon Jenkins says, “moderation”. I might not like the choices that my government makes – for example the choices that Margaret Thatcher made on my behalf – but it is against those criteria that people then vote at the next election – namely, did the government make the choices that I approved of? So, for Trump to tell the world that there is “no choice” is simply and manifestly not the case; in short he has chosen this route out of the many on offer. Equally, when a government tells the electorate that there are no choices and that a particular course of action must be followed come what may then the electorate is being denied the basic premise of democracy – namely choice.

In doing this Trump, and others who claim “there is no other choice” as a motive for a particular course of action, by doing so gain a clever advantage. It is a kind of get out clause which justifies their action by claiming that it absolves them of all responsibility for its results. If I claim that there is no other  possible course of action than that which I propose  then I am saying “I have no control over this, I am forced into carrying out this action” – I am simply a victim of circumstance. It is the defence made by many throughout history – serial killers who allegedly “heard voices” telling them to carry out their awful deeds, dictators and rogue military leaders who claimed that the atrocities committed in their name were the result of the situation in which they found themselves. Nazi war criminals claimed this defence when put on trial in Nuremburg at the end of the Second World War. It is a powerful get out card and one that we should beware of – especially when the person claiming it as a motive for their action is armed with the most powerful weapons known to mankind.
All nuance removed - if you are not with us then you are against us.

But Trump’s stance has another, and even more worrying, dimension. When someone justifies their actions by saying “there is no other choice”, that there is no alternative to the course of action that they are proposing, then something else kicks in. It is something that we have seen most glaringly in our own Brexit debacle – namely that all nuance and difference of opinion is lost. There are now no shades of grey we are told by those proposing and supporting the action. It is the only thing to be done and if you are not supportive of it then you are, by definition, against it; this is the language and mindset of the tyrant or the mob. If one doesn’t support this, the only option, then one is unpatriotic, a trouble maker, weak, in need of re-education; it is the theme of dystopian novels like 1984 or The Handmaids Tale. It is what we increasingly see screaming from the headlines of our Brexit supporting  tabloid press  in the UK – most notably the Daily Mail . It is the doctrine that sweeps dictators and extreme regimes to power. All discussion and debate become irrelevant, for there can be no debate – it gives a pretext to the mob or those in power to incarcerate dissenters without trial or hang them  from lamp-posts or to put them on trains bound for concentration camps.  Truth and facts becomes confused and hard to distinguish as propaganda and fake news become the only currency. It is, in short, what we increasingly see on the other side of the Atlantic in Trump’s USA.

We should be very afraid; the most powerful man on earth claims to have “no choice” in what he might do and at the same time appears unable to comprehend the logic and the implications of what he is saying. We live in very dangerous times.

04 September, 2017

Walking With Giants (3) Papa Haydn

The Esterházy Palace
The bus drew to a stop and the driver stood, turned and looked down the bus at us and, with a smile, pointed and called out to us Schloss  Esterházy, Schloss  Esterházy!" For just over an hour we had journeyed  through the lovely Austrian countryside, passing through picturesque villages  and watching lightning flash across the horizon as a thunderstorm crashed above and torrential rain fell from the sky – then, as the storm cleared and the sun came out, we at last passed the sign “Eisenstadt” on the edge of the town. Unsure where we should leave the bus we looked anxiously for some guidance. We need not have worried, the driver had remembered our enquiry an hour before as we had climbed onto his bus: “Is this the bus to the Esterházy Palace at Eisenstadt?” Pat had asked in halting German?  We grabbed our bags and thanking the driver, who was still smiling and pointing across the road at a large entrance gate, we got off his bus, and stood in the now brilliant mid morning sunshine, our destination reached.
Coffee & a small slice of Sachertorte to keep us going!

Early that morning we had navigated the Viennese underground and found our way to the Sud Tyrol Bus Bahnhof to take the local bus from Vienna to visit this place. In a way, to visit Eisenstadt  was the principal object of our musical pilgrimage down the Danube taking in the musical towns – Salzburg, Vienna and the rest  (see previous two blogs). Our holiday had been planned around taking the opportunity of going to places that are linked with composers and music that we love and this was our last day before returning to the UK. I had spent much time prior to our trip researching how we could get to Eisenstadt and what there was to see when we got there. Fortunately it all came in useful; the marvels of Google and the internet serving us well and with the help of that friendly bus driver we had arrived at our destination. Little did we know as we stood by the bus stop that we had come to such a wonderful place - this was a place and a day trip that would always stay with us, a real highlight of not only this holiday but of all holidays.

For those not of a musical inclination Eisenstadt may be an unknown. Indeed it is not as famous as Mozart’s Salzburg or the Strauss family’s Vienna, it doesn’t have the name of JS Bach or Beethoven associated with it; nor is it a great city with a world famous concert hall or opera house home to one of the great orchestras of the world (although, as I will explain later, its concert hall is indeed renowned in musical circles). No, Eisenstadt is a quieter, less well known venue; a country town, a retiring place with perhaps a more gentle history – but what a history! This small town, deep in the Austrian countryside, is in truth one of the great musical venues of the world, forever associated with one of the “fathers” of western music and more than that: the town’s musical history also made it a key player in the history and the great and good of European history. This was the home of Joseph Haydn a composer who is very special to us both and this place was the main reason for our whole holiday and our trip that day.
Papa Haydn

For most of his working life Joseph Haydn worked here at Eisenstadt; a product of his age and the high culture of 18th century Europe, he rubbed shoulders with the great musical, political, social and royal names of that time. Immersed in music from an early age Haydn composed  and built up a repertoire and reputation that few have matched both in his time and since as he worked both within and for the aristocratic “establishment” of the Hapsburg Empire and witnessed the great events and people of the late 18th and early 19th century.

He was an innovative musical ground breaker taking the symphony, the sonata and the string quartet to new heights; he created the basis of much of what we musically accept and enjoy today and it is doubtful that his young contemporary Mozart or the great Beethoven or indeed any of the other wonderful musical names who followed him would have achieved their successes quite so readily had it not been for Haydn. He spent most of his working life concentrating on the music of the palace and the concert hall – opera, symphony, chamber music - and then in the last part of his life produced some of his (and the world’s) greatest religious masterpieces: the Creation, the Nelson Mass, the Seasons  and the Te Deum – all of which are now part of the staple diet of choirs great and small throughout the world. He spent the majority of his life at the magnificent but remote Esterházy Palace at Eisenstadt  – but later in his life found huge recognition, fame and fortune on his visits to other European capitals but especially to his beloved London where he became a much loved and musically respected visitor in the late 18th century.
All the other composers owe much of their fame to Haydn

The music of Haydn has always been amongst our favourites but of all his works it is the great choral music that Pat and I love: especially the Creation, the Te Deum, the Seasons and, my own favourite, the Nelson Mass. These are works to not only to enjoy musically but to be moved by: their grandness, their mighty choruses, their sheer musicality, and their wonderful celebration of mankind and of heaven and earth are among the pinnacles of western music's achievement. Haydn’s choral music enriches the very soul – not only making us feel better but it makes us dream of better things. I once remember listening to a radio programme and as the introduction to playing the Credo from the Nelson Mass  the radio presenter said “Quick, go outside, switch on your car radio at maximum volume and with the car doors open, let the whole street hear this and I guarantee that everyone will come out smiling”. Well, I didn’t take his advice, I wasn’t quite as sure as he that my neighbours would so appreciative,  but I knew what he meant – the music of Haydn is music to make you feel better and to uplift you on the greyest of days.  Our love of Haydn’s music was the reason for our bus trip, but there was more. Because his music is such a staple of choral music we knew the stories associated with it and with Eisenstadt and Esterházy; we had heard them so many times – indeed I have written of them so often when writing the Ruddington & District Choral Society’s programme notes – so we wanted to see these places that we had heard and read so much of but never actually visited.
In the Haydn Haus

And so, we crossed the road, the bus disappearing into the town centre and walked through the entrance gate to be confronted by one of the most glorious buildings that I have seen: Schloss Esterházy. An exquisite gem of a place – not a mighty palace such as Versailles or the Schönbrunn – but absolutely beautiful, standing on a slight rise with the brilliant blue sky behind it. This was the home of the Princes of  Esterházy – a family of what we might today call “power brokers”, “wheelers and dealers”, “prime movers” in the mighty Austrian Hapsburg Empire of the 18th century. The  Esterházy family knew everyone who was anyone in the aristocratic, political and high society life of Europe at that time and it was working for this family that Haydn spent the majority of his life.

With Papa Haydn at the Haydn Haus
Haydn was humbly born in the tiny Austrian town of Rohrau, where his father made carts. His mother was a cook. When he was 8, the young Joseph went to Vienna to sing in the choir at St. Stephen's Cathedral (see previous blog). His younger brother Michael joined him and a tale tells that the young Joseph’s voice began to break. The Kapellmeister, Herr Reutter, gave Joseph’s part in the ‘Salve Regina’ to brother Michael, who sang it so beautifully that he reportedly received twenty-four ducats in gold from the Empress Maria Theresa. Reutter, anxious to retain the musically gifted Joseph suggested that Joseph’s voice might be preserved, and even improved by sending him to the court chapel, which contained at least a dozen castrati. Haydn’s father, however, having heard of the proposal rushed to Vienna to save his son!

After the young Haydn left the choir, he supported himself by teaching and playing violin, while studying counterpoint and harmony and in 1761 as his skills and talents became more widely praised he was named Kapellmeister at the palace of the Esterházy family in Eisenstadt. Away from Vienna and to a degree isolated from other composers and musical trends in the relatively remote town he was, as he put it, "forced to become original."
Prince Nikolaus Esterházy - 
one of Haydn's employers. What a great service
his family did for the cause of music!
It was his job to write music for the Esterházy princes, and to conduct their orchestra. He composed a vast number symphonies, operas, religious works, string quartets, and other kinds of other music for performance at the Esterházy court. While he rose in the family's esteem, his popularity outside the palace walls also increased, and he eventually wrote as much music for publication as for the family. Several important works of this period were commissions from abroad which, later in life,  encouraged Haydn to travel. He was a good businessman and music publishing made him and his music famous all over Europe. After he retired from working for the Esterházy family, Haydn made two very successful trips to England, where audiences treated him like a superstar flocking to his concerts, and it was during his time in England that he generated some of his best-known and most loved work, including the Surprise, Military, Drumroll and London symphonies. In the final years of his life his old employers, the Esterházy family invited him back and he stayed there until his death.

In his own life time and still today Haydn is often referred to as “Papa” Haydn. This originated as a term of affection bestowed on him by the musicians at the Esterházy court where he was seen as a father figure, somebody who willingly gave advice and who was highly respected as a musician. His benevolent authority and willingness to intercede on behalf of any players who might find themselves in trouble became well known and thus the practice of calling Haydn "Papa" became increasingly popular. As time passed  this term of affection spread beyond  Esterházy to Vienna and  then to wider Europe as his role in the development of classical music became obvious. Consequently and increasingly, therefore, fellow composers, musicians and the music loving public referred to him as the "Father of the Symphony" and "Father of the String Quartet"  - “Papa” Haydn. 
We gasped as the guide opened the doors and we saw this: the Great Hall
With all this in mind we walked up the grassy slope to the front of the Esterhazy, checked the opening times and then decided that a morning coffee and a slice of the famous Austrian Sachertorte would be a good way of celebrating our arrival! Sitting in the morning sun, enjoying our coffee and cake, the Eszterházy just a few yards away across the lawn, it seemed quite unbelievable that we were sitting where Papa Haydn might well have sat or walked – and certainly seen what we were seeing; this beautiful palace that was so much part of his life and so much a part of the history and development of western music is still today vey much as he knew it.
The Great Hall ready for a concert - what must Nelson have thought as he sat here

One could listen to nearly every one of Haydn’s works and be overwhelmed by his sheer musicality and composing skills; and whilst each one has its place in the history and development of western music there is more. Because of the position that Haydn enjoyed in working at Eszterházy his works have greater resonance and significance – they reflect the feelings, the personalities and the great events of his age. Haydn was writing for the Esterhazy court, a place although removed from Vienna still of great European importance where the great and the good, the “movers and the shakers” of the continent were regular guests. Haydn’s music was written for these people and the events that shaped the Europe of his time – and indeed still resonates in our world today - and of all his works his Missa in Angustiis, my own favourite, written just as the 19th century was dawning, illustrates well Haydn’s place in the music and the history of Europe.
Part of the wonderful ceiling 

In early 1798 Napoleon, in the wake of the French Revolution, assembled a substantial invasion force and sailed east into the Mediterranean. The news soon reached British naval intelligence but by the time that Nelson, in command of the British fleet, located the force off Egypt, Napoleon had captured Malta and most of Egypt. Nelson, catching the French fleet at anchor in Aboukir Bay, immediately attacked and annihilated it, and his victory, popularly known as the Battle of the Nile, reverberated around Europe and beyond. Nelson, following his dramatic victory sailed his fleet into the harbor at Naples and was immediately and ecstatically heralded as the 'saviour of Europe'. Napoleon, in a desperate situation, dodging British frigates, returned alone with just his general staff to France to plan his next move.

It was at this stage that, so far as Nelson - and ultimately Haydn - was concerned, fate appeared in the form of Lady Hamilton. Sir William and Lady Hamilton were well regarded in Naples; Sir William a diplomat -  'our man in Naples' - and she a woman regarded as one of the beauties of the age. Nelson fell for her and a ménage-a-trois was soon established. The Admiralty in London, upon learning of this, ordered Nelson to return forthwith to England but Nelson was unwilling to comply with alacrity – he was, after all, the toast of Europe and enjoying the adulation of both the continent and Lady Hamilton; he was, and he knew it, “untouchable” so he dragged his heels. At last, after several months sojourn enjoying the sun of Italy and the undoubted charms of Lady Hamilton the great Admiral reluctantly arranged to travel back to London overland on a slow  and circuitous route with the Hamiltons. The route included Vienna, and from there Nelson and his companions visited Prince Esterházy at Eisenstadt in 1800 where, records tell, he was greeted as a hero and spent several weeks enjoying Hapsburg and Esterházy hospitality.
The Small Hall - you can get married here today!

Amongst his other court duties Haydn was required to produce a new Mass each year for the name-day of the Princess Esterházy and in the summer of 1798, he had composed a Mass for the Princess  which he catalogued as Missa in Angustiis ('Mass for Times of Distress' – as they undoubtedly were in Europe as Napoleon threatened before Nelson’s great victory).  It is Haydn's largest Mass, and one of his most well-known and best loved choral works – many regard it as his greatest work. He could not have known of the Battle of the Nile until weeks after the Mass was finished, so the work was certainly not written to celebrate Nelson’s victory. 
However, Missa in Angustiis was performed for the name day of the Princess Esterházy and to honour Nelson on the great man’s arrival at Eisenstadt, and to celebrate his service to Europe. Nelson was, apparently, both moved and overjoyed and he and  Haydn became friends;  some accounts suggest that Nelson gave Haydn a gold watch which the Admiral had capture at the Battle of the Nile, and in return received from the composer the pen that Haydn had used to compose a cantata in honour and praise of Lady Hamilton.

The conquering hero: Admiral Nelson
Eventually and reluctantly, the Admiral and his entourage had to depart and make their way back to London. Nelson, however, did not suffer the ire of the Admiralty for his wayward behaviour with Lady Hamilton; the liaison was soon forgotten by Nelson’s masters because within months of his arrival home he was once again at sea confronting Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805). This was, of course, when Nelson perished but his death and his great victory guaranteed him immortality and the grateful hero worship of the nation and the whole of Europe; it was also at that point that Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis quickly gained a new and increasingly popular title in recognition of the great man who had again saved the continent from Napoleon's designs. It was a name that it still keeps today: the Nelson Mass.

At the time that the Nelson Mass was written Haydn was in his sixty sixth year and at the height of his fame, the most celebrated musician of the late eighteenth century and the first of the great triumvirate – Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven . It is not insignificant that the Nelson Mass was written in the same year as his popular choral work, The Creation – both  are works  reflecting Haydn’s joyous idyllic celebration of an ordered enlightened universe, an ideal vision that contrasting with the turbulence of the Napoleonic wars and both reflecting Haydn’s perfect attunement to the spirit of the age.
A contemporary bust of Haydn

So, we paid our few Euros to take a guided tour of the Palace; what a bargain! Of all the places that we have visited and all the entry fees that we have paid out over the years this was, for me, one of (if not the) most worthwhile. It was an absolute joy. The Palace is a gem, beautifully maintained, it is large enough to be impressive but small enough to take in and feel lived in. With the help of the excellent guide we toured the rooms and it was easy to imagine Haydn walking there and knowing well the spaces in which we walked. The intimate family rooms, the servants’ (and musicians’) quarters the art treasures, the narrow passage ways and hidden stairs so that servants and ladies in waiting could enter their master’s and lady’s chambers unobtrusively all seemed so lived in and fresh – one could almost touch the past. This place was no dusty antiquity but a living breathing home, where, it seemed to me, Haydn, his musicians, the servants and the great Esterházy princes and princesses had just stepped outside for a few moments!  As I gazed at the art work on the walls depicting Emperors and Empresses , Princes and Princesses and as I moved from one room to another I fully expected Horatio Nelson or his Lady Hamilton or Papa Haydn to suddenly confront me as they made their way to dinner or to the Chapel or to their own apartments. The whole place was living history.  But there was one room which for me (and I think every other member of the small group that comprised our tour) which was very special and when the guide opened the door for us to enter there was an audible gasp from us all.
The Lady Di of her day? - Emma Hamilton,
Nelson's mistress and muse

The Great Hall which in Haydn’s day was used for the great gatherings – splendid dinners, balls and concerts - was where Joseph Haydn would have conducted his newly written works. It was here where Nelson and his entourage sat with the other dignitaries as they listened to Haydn's string quartets or the Creation or, most importantly, the Missa in Angustiis: the Nelson Mass. Compared with many of the world’s great concert halls this is a small place, but what a place; a riot of glorious colour and high baroque design, a place to overwhelm and to impress! Even today and despite its relative smallness it is acknowledged as one of the great concert halls of the world and acoustically one of the finest and as we stood there listening to the guide it was easy to picture Haydn walking in to take his place at the front of his orchestra and choir and of hearing one of his symphonies, or string quartets filling the room. As I stood there I wondered what Nelson must have thought as he sat there and the first notes of the Nelson Mass struck up and the soaring voices of the choir and then the soprano began the glorious and uplifting Kyrie Eleison . Did he look up to the wonderful ceiling above his head or to the richly decorated walls of the room? If he did – and he must have done – then seeing the glorious room in which he sat, surrounded by the great and powerful of Europe, Lady Hamilton by his side, he the centre of the world’s adulation and Haydn’s wonderful and uplifting music in his ear, it all must have confirmed to him his own invincibility; in modern terms he must have thought “ I've made it! It doesn’t get better than this!”
Original scores

The tour over too soon, we left the Palace and made our way down the side street to find Haydn’s House. It sits in the shadow of the Palace just a few hundred yards away and like the Esterházy is quite magical. We wandered its floors, almost feeling the presence of the great man who had lived here for so many years. We looked at his belongings and the musical heritage that he had left. We gazed at a contemporary mask  of Nelson’s face and felt very close to Papa Haydn as our eyes took in his original scores for the Nelson Mass, the Creation and the Seasons.  We put on headphones and listened to sections of the Nelson Mass, his string quartets, and extracts from his symphonies; in short we were once again entranced by this man and this little town and all that it contained and which, has over the years, has become so much part of our own lives.

Eisenstadt is small but it is, as the town’s signpost told us, the capital of the state of Burgenland – the least populous of Austria’s states. Although designated a city, Eisenstadt has only some 14000 inhabitants - only about twice the number of people who live in my own small village on the outskirts of Nottingham. It lies on the edge of the country close to the Hungarian border, indeed the Esterházy family were Hungarian nobles by descent. As we wandered down the pedestrianised main street with the Palace standing at one end we took in the lovely buildings and atmosphere of this delightful and gentle place. We enjoyed a very pleasant lunch sitting in the sun and later in the afternoon an ice cream as we watched the world go by. Half way down the main street stands the Rathaus – the town hall; can there be a more beautiful town hall in the whole of the world – I seriously doubt it. And just off the main street lies the church – newly renovated but exquisite with some of the most glorious stained glass we have ever seen.  Again, like everything else we had seen that day a real jewel, worth a visit in itself; we both agreed, Eisenstadt is worth another, longer visit in the near future.
Eisenstadt Rathaus - beats most other town halls I've seen!

And as we sat enjoying our ice cream, our musical pilgrimage was almost at an end. On the following  day we would fly back to Heathrow and I thought, as I had often done  that day, how strange it seems that this small and easily missable place should become such an important spot in the history of music and Europe. At the time of Haydn, Nelson, Mozart, the Empress  Maria Theresa, Napoleon, the Esterházy princes  and all the other grand, powerful and great figures from history, this small place was one of the centres of European – indeed world - politics, life, culture and power. It was a place  where in the Esterházy’s quiet drawing rooms and salons, over its dinner tables, in its bedrooms and in its wonderful concert hall not only the wonderful music of Haydn would have been enjoyed but great decisions taken, alliances made, and the European order decided by those “movers and shakers” of the 18th and 19th century world.
Down the delightful main street of Eisenstadt

And as I thought on this I reflected that in Haydn and Nelson’s day when travel was so much more difficult how amazing was it at how these people travelled the vast distances that they did without our modern means of transport and communication to get to places like Eisenstadt. I wonder what Nelson and Lady Hamilton and the rest of their entourage thought and felt after their long journey across Europe from Naples  as their carriages at rolled up to the gates of Palace. I marvelled at how it must all have been planned, the stops along the way, the unmade roads, the changes of the horses and all the other “stuff” that we today never have to think about.  I wondered, too, how Joseph Haydn made his journey to far off London where he became something of a superstar for a few years and then returned to this little place for the remaining years of his life. Tomorrow, I reflected, we would fly back to London in about two hours, for him it was  a journey of many weeks if not months  Today we complain if our bus is a minute or two late, or if we are stuck in a traffic jam for any period of time; Pat and I had travelled for an hour or so on our short journey from Vienna – in Haydn’s day that would have been a significant and probably uncomfortable journey of several hours – and yet in those far off days, Haydn and his peers could undertake these great trials and difficulties but then return home and write and perform such glorious music.

Today, the Princes and Princesses Esterházy are no more resident at the palace - the modern world has changed them and their lifestyle. The descendants of those  Esterházy aristocrats, like their patrons the Hapsburgs, now live in world capitals - New York, London, Paris, Berlin and the rest - but the historical,  cultural and political impact of  those far off years at their magnificent Eisenstadt home is still huge. They were people who shaped not only their own world but helped in no small way to make the world that we know and inhabit today.  When Nelson visited and  enjoyed  Esterházy hospitality and Haydn's music he was the toast of Europe having stopped Napoleon's advance. At that same time Mare Antoinette, daughter of the recently deceased Hapsburg Empress Marie Theresa, had been executed in the French Revolution from whence Napoleon's power grew - no wonder Europe was afraid and grateful to Nelson; revolution and  fear threatened to overcome the continent. Against this backdrop the  Esterházy court provided not only a cultural bolt hole for these powerful men and women but a  place where alliances could be forged, policies discussed and plans made. It helped in ensuring the stability of Europe both at the time and for future generations. The music of Joseph Haydn was integral to this - it provided an atmosphere which reminded these powerful people  who they were and what they were about.  Haydn, ever a man of his times, ever with his finger on the pulse not only wrote great music to entertain and to enjoy but great and inspiring  music for great events, to strengthen resolve and to celebrate the great, the good, and the hopes and fears of the age  - the "Nelson Mass", the "Missa in Angustiis" -  a "Mass for Times of Distress " - was such a work. This wonderful work, and others by Haydn, provided some form of higher framework, a kind of moral compass to inspire, reflect and celebrate great decisions and great actions and it is still doing that today - inspiring and opening the eyes of those who sing it, play it or listen to it to see something better and more worthy.

For a brief, and glittering, few years this little provincial town in Austria and this family of largely well meaning nobles together with this gentle and humble maestro provided a cultural oasis but in doing so they unknowingly gave huge amounts of pleasure and inspiration not only to their own age but to coming generations. And perhaps more importantly played a  pivotal role not only in shaping their world but in  making our world what it is today; I found that not only wonderful but awesome and humbling. We had, indeed, been treading in the footprints of giants.