Love songs without words
Fri 27th May 2016
Announcing a new album of love songs for piano and a competition for composers
The modern piano is sometimes considered something of a beast, or at least a vehicle for virtuosity and thundering pyrotechnics. But as the dynamic and expressive range of the piano developed over the course of the nineteenth century, composers also turned to the instrument for some of their most personal and intimate outpouring of feeling. Take, for instance, Zdeněk Fibich’s Moods, Impressions and Souvenirs, an extraordinary collection of nearly four hundred piano pieces that he wrote as a kind of diary of his affair in the 1890s with Anežka Schulzová, a talented and beautiful pupil. In these heartfelt and touching pieces the composer records his own feelings for Anežka, reminisces about events they shared together, and offers tributes to every part of her body. The piano seems to me the perfect instrument for this kind of soul-baring, given its expressive potential combined with its self-sufficiency. Fibich’s model for these pieces, three of which appear on my album, was of course Schumann, who also excelled in writing mood-painting miniatures for the piano.
I have always loved piano repertoire that challenges the performer to search for subtle shades of colour and to draw a beautiful and lyrical sound from what is essentially a percussion instrument. Putting together a whole album of songs has therefore been pure pleasure; I would say that this has been the most satisfying and enjoyable of the 45 or so recordings that I have made over the course of my professional life, and the most indulgent. The pieces I have chosen for the album are, of course, songs without words, but they are also all expressions of love in its various aspects and in this way have much in common with music across the ages and from across the world. Some are arrangements of love songs (e.g. those by Liszt of Schubert’s Ständchen and Schumann’s Widmung) but most are original piano pieces, composed mostly in the nineteenth century. They are all exquisitely written and all, in my opinion, have something memorable about them. You could say that they are as close as classical piano pieces get to pop music, and it is no coincidence that several of the pieces on the album have had interesting afterlives. Fibich’s Poème, for example, always seemed familiar to audiences of a certain age when I performed it in the 1980s, even though Fibich himself was very little known in the UK then. It was only after some years that I discovered that it had been a smash hit in 1933, sung by John McCormack with the title ‘My Moonlight Madonna’. Liszt’s Liebestraum No.3 was taken up by Elvis Presley (Today, Tomorrow and Forever) and Schubert’s Ständchen by Nana Mouskouri. Many other pieces on the album have appeared in film or TV scores, but not all of them; I don’t think many seasoned classical lovers would know Vítěslav Novák’s haunting Serenade Op 9 No 3 or Smetana’s delightful waltz-like Láska (Love).
It goes without saying that all the pieces on the album are favourites of mine, but I am hoping that they will also appeal to a wide audience. I would defy anyone, whatever their music tastes, not to fall in love with one or more of them! But there is also a more serious purpose to this project, for the next stage of which I will commission 16 contemporary love songs and launch a competition, open to all ages and nationalities, for the composition of love songs for piano. Just as I hope my album can help to blur some of the real or imagined boundaries between ‘classical’ and other kinds of music, so I hope the next phase of the project will kindle a wider interest in the fascinating range of music being written by living composers. I will be very interested to see how composers of today respond to a genre that has such romantic connotations, but I am confident that some memorable piano pieces will appear over the coming months and am hoping that the universality and intimacy of the love song genre will win friends for this new repertoire.
William Howard’s album ‘Sixteen Love Songs’ (Orchid Classics ORC100056) is released on May 27, 2016.
Howard will perform ‘A Love Song’ by David Matthews and give the world premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s contribution to the new love song collection at the Forge, Camden Town, at 7.00pm on June 6. Tickets are available here.
Details of the piano love song competition will be available from June 1 on William Howard’s website: www.williamhoward.co.uk
On the 29 May 1913, Igor Stravinsky exchanged darling buds for inflammatory cataclysm during an evening that has gone down in the classical music annals – namely, the anarchic reception which greeted the premiere of The Rite of Spring. As the orchestra tuned up in Paris's Théâtre des Champs-Élysées that night, so too did the atmosphere, which was tightly drawn between two polarised factions within the audience. The introductory bassoon strains provided the requisite spark to ignite the tension between the two sides: the wealthy, fashionable set in the boxes and the insurgent ‘Bohemians' below. The ensuing riot drowned out the voice of Vaslav Nijinsky who led the dance onstage, yet could not stop the orchestra who dutifully continued to play until the last.
This reaction, doubtless embellished and contorted to its mythical status, has arguably become more famous than the ballet itself. But which other works have experienced similarly tumultuous early performances? Here are six of the better known ones…
Berg: Five Orchestral Songs on Picture-Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg
Vienna, 31 March 1913
A similar uproar had been raised two months before that famous night in Paris, as revolution raged in the nostrils of a Europe teetering on the brink of war. And thanks to Alban Berg and his colleagues in the Second Viennese School, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, its ears were similarly incensed. Audience tempers had simmered at the expressionism and experimentalism colouring the performances of Webern and Schoenberg’s work, and eventually boiled over after two of Berg’s Five Orchestral Songs on Picture- Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg. The resultant fracas saw concert organiser Erhard Buschbeck administer a volley of punches, the thuds of which were described by composer Oscar Straus as the ‘most harmonious sound of the evening’, and the evening subsequently branded ‘Skandalkonzert’.
Richard Strauss: Salome
New York, 22 January 1907
Richard Strauss’s operatic reimagining of an Oscar Wilde play, Salome represents a checklist of taboo, with execution, incest and necrophilia all featuring in the sordid tale. It is perhaps unsurprising that audiences did not take too kindly to the sight of a woman passionately kissing the severed head of John the Baptist, or that the opera had been censured variously before its New York debut in January 1907; or that this caused something of a ruckus in the Big Apple, with violent pressure from wealthy patrons ensuring that all further performances were cancelled. Despite considerable pressure for him to lead objections to the work, Edward Elgar refused to yield his position of admiration for Strauss, calling him ‘the greatest genius of the age’.
Paris, 15 June, 1924
Seven years after the first collaboration between Erik Satie and Pablo Picasso, the ballet Parade, had all but caused a riot at the Théâtre du Châtelet, its successor, Mercure, went the distance when it premiered across town at La Cigale. The mood in the stalls, consisting largely of the rival cliques who were then perpetuating Paris’s cultural infighting, was poisonous from the off, with chants of 'Bravo Picasso! Down with Satie!' emanating from the back of the auditorium before the curtain had been fully raised. Indeed, said curtain had to be lowered again during Tableau II as a result of the resultant carnage, with the police eventually called to restore order and eject the rowdy demonstrators.
Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin
Cologne, 27 November 1926
The first production of Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin provoked both a scathing reaction on the night and a lasting legacy which saw the pantomime ballet banned on moral grounds, with the piece only ever existing in concert suite form for the rest of the composer’s life. The action of the ballet’s scandalous one act centres around three thugs and a young girl, who they force to stand by the window and saucily coax men into their lair, in order to rob them. It closes with the death of the eponymous Mandarin, who, having miraculously survived three mortal wounds inflicted by the thugs’ rusty sword, eventually succumbs to them in the arms of the girl, his longing fulfilled. The lewd subject matter engendered a furore within the crowd, who walked out in frenzied protest.
Steve Reich: Four Organs
New York, 18 January
Nearly three years after Four Organs had been well received at its premiere at the Guggenheim Museum, Steve Reich did not receive quite as warm a reception when he brought his organ quartet back to New York in the first month of 1973. Whether it was the certain harmonies expounded by his’s revolutionary ‘deconstruction’ of the chord or the constant rhythm provided by an unassuming maraca, for one reason or another the audience at the Carnegie Hall that night did not take kindly to the piece. Nor were they reticent in their disapproval: mingled with yells for the music to stop was applause to expedite its conclusion. Condcutor Michael Tilson Thomas, one of the performers that night, recalls how one woman walked down the aisle before repeatedly banging her head on the stage, shouting, 'Stop, stop, I confess!'
Harrison Birtwistle: Panic
London, 16 September 1995
Though the well-worked formula of mixed programming – which allies crowd-pleasing favourites with more avant-garde, experimental pieces – has underscored the Proms since their inception in 1895, a century later Harrison Birtwistle induced a public outcry that noone could have foreseen. The aptly named Panic premiered on the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall: a devastating vortex of unremitting energy, the work was critically panned, referred to both as ‘a horrible cacophony’ and ‘unmitigated rubbish’. More notable, though, was the response of the British public, millions of whom were listening to the BBC’s broadcast of the concert. The Beeb’s audience line quickly buckled under the proliferating diatribes that subsequently swamped it, with angry viewers voicing their discontent at what they called 'a disgrace and an insult to the British public'. It was turmoil that Stravinsky himself would have relished; a very modern manifestation of a centuries-old riotous intent.