Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

20 posts categorized "Edison Fellowships"

27 October 2023

Listening to Clara Schumann through her pupils: A pianistic orchestration of tones and rhythms

Franz_Hanfstaengl_-_Clara_Schumann_(1857)Photograph of Clara Schumann by Franz Hanfstaengl 1857

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Yanran Li

            I was fortunate to obtain a fellowship at the British Library last fall. As a pianist, given my interest in Robert Schumann, I was delighted to be able to take advantage of the many unusual recordings of Clara Schumann’s students., a number of them becoming famous in their own right. Mr. Jonathan Summers afforded me access to the rich collection of these audio recordings. He also made available contemporary interviews with musicians, as well as the archive of newspaper reviews of both Clara’s and her students’ concerts in the possession of the British Library.

            As one of the most prominent pianists and educators of the 19th century, Clara Schumann (1819-1896) has made immense contributions to the evolution of modern and contemporary piano performance. Her musical sphere is familiar to a broad range of music practitioners and enthusiasts, creating an entire generation of remarkable pianists. By analysing the surviving musical recordings, one can discern the multifaceted interpretations that these pianists have gained from her teachings. This, in turn, broadens our understanding of how Schumann's piano music can be performed.

            Within a single pedagogical framework, students of the revered educator naturally develop unique styles. Examining diverse interpretations by musicians connected to Schumann’s musical world offers a rich tapestry of insights. This analytical approach aids contemporary musicians in understanding Schumann's piano music by identifying commonalities and differences among Clara Schumann's students, providing profound insights into his compositions.

            Before delving into my in-depth study of performances by several of Clara's students, like many pianists, I was already familiar with some of Clara's teaching principles, particularly her emphasis on touch. Indeed, among numerous concert reviews of her solo and chamber performances that I found in the Newspaper Archive, the most prominent praise often centered on the kaleidoscopic tonal qualities she elicited by her touch on the keys. Additionally, in Nancy Reich's renowned biography of Clara, there are multiple references to the influence of her father, Friedrich Wieck, demanding absolute uniformity in touch, cultivating a fine touch. Clara would use this touch to construct incredibly smooth and nuanced musical phrases.

            As Robert Schumann entered the creative realm of the 1830s, deepening his relationship with Clara, he nearly exclusively envisioned and styled his compositions based on Clara's performance manner. One of the most conspicuous resultant stylistic traits was Schumann's pursuit of orchestral expression on the piano, a direct and passionate tribute to Clara's rich tonal palette. It is the intricate inner voice-leading and counterpoints, which are the most distinctive compositional characteristics in Schumann's piano works, that are closely related to Clara's keeping of her fingers close to the keyboard. From a technical standpoint, this was a consistent feature in both Clara's and her father's techniques. Even when playing demanding passages or powerful chords requiring substantial force, they employed the method to produce sound. According to Clara’s pupils, she often explained the method as playing the instrument through "pressure rather than percussion”, which is a rather unusual concept for a modern pianist like myself.  With access to the Library's resources, I have been able to systematically compile Clara's piano-playing principles, refining them through comparisons of Schumann's piano solo recordings by pianists directly connected to her, resulting in the following insights.

            Edith Heymann (1872–1960), an English pianist who visited Clara Schumann's home in Frankfurt in 1894, provided valuable insights into Clara's approach to piano touch. According to Heymann, Clara was known for her soft, warm touch, particularly in her mastery of intertwining melodies, exhibiting a super legato touch without exaggerating tone or tempo, and she rarely used the pedals except for chords. Clara's technique emphasized sensitive fingers, resulting in a fine tone, and phrasing through subtle tone gradations. Many biographies of Clara highlight her dedication to achieving an even touch and cultivating a refined sense of the use of soft pedal and tone quality in her teaching.

            However, as I explored reminiscences of Clara by pianists like Fanny Davies, Adelina de Lara, and Carl Friedberg, it became evident that Clara Schumann's emphasis on touch had a deeper purpose – transforming the piano into a fully symphonic instrument. Adelina de Lara (1872-1961), in her Farewell Lecture and concert at Wigmore Hall in 1956, recalled Clara Schumann's insistence on treating piano solo works as if they were orchestral compositions. Clara believed that, just like in an orchestra, every minute phrase in piano music could be seen as a separate instrument. Clara encouraged her students to develop "visions" of the music, granting individual life to each musical element within a piece and imagining orchestral effects to enhance the piano's timbre.

            In this context, Clara's requirements for pressing the keys (rather than striking them), which resulted in consistent touch and flawless legato, align with the requirements for flexible and relaxed arm and wrist movements. This approach facilitated seamless coordination between the pianist's key touch and their sensitivity to sound nuances. Such training undoubtedly laid the foundation for executing and distinguishing more intricate and nuanced tonal qualities with pianists’ fingers.

            Not only a solid foundation for the execution of a diverse tone quality is essential, but the idea of timing in piano playing is also crucial to ensure the accomplishment of an orchestral-sounding piano which was mutually desired and pursued by Clara and Robert Schumann. Clara, as documented in the Pearl Collection of her pupils and in Adelina's interviews, emphasized the rejection of mechanical or rushed playing.  Whenever the student was rushing through transitional segments, Madame Schumann would point out agitatedly, ‘No Passages!’, from the other side of the room. Viewing musical elements as individual instruments, each with an irreplaceable role, Clara expected her students to master timing – both the overall tempo selection and the precise timing of each musical element's entrance. Upon examining recordings by Clara Schumann's students, I observed distinct timing styles that breathe vitality and a full orchestral dynamic quality into the piano. Subsequent passages will elaborate on these observations.

            One of the most influential pupils of Clara Schumann, Fanny Davies (1861-1934), has demonstrated a most notable rhythmic interpretation through the way she handled the pronounced independence of the middle voices and her creative phrasings. An exemplary instance can be found in her 1930 recording of Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze. Davies's interpretation resonates with the distinctive style of Robert Schumann and aligns with the principles emphasized in Clara Schumann's teaching. In this recording, during the first ritardando, where the melodic line leans on an E flat major chord borrowed from the parallel minor key, G minor, Davies pays special attention to the concluding note, F sharp. She sustains it with a string-instrument-like quality while complementing the fermata effect with a series of arpeggio chords in the left hand. Subsequently, she continues the sustained left-hand note, F natural, from the preceding F sharp, thus weaving a melodic line that traversed F sharp – F natural – E – D – C – E – D – B. This intricate approach intertwined the upper-voice melodic line with the middle voice, infusing it with vibrant tonal colours, especially as it progressed into the "Im Tempo" section.

Fig.1_Davies no.1

Fig.1 Davidsbündlertänze: Movt. 01 Lebhaft: Lively (Vivace), G major, Florestan and Eusebius, mm. 16-21

Davidsbundlertanze 01 Lebhaft

            Another instance can be found in the second piece, “Innig”, from the same work. Schumann's notation suggests a rhythmic pattern ambiguously involving a parallel existence of three and two groupings per measure. Davies enhances the audibility of the middle voice, G, by slurring the second and third eighth notes, E - G, in each measure. Consequently, not only does the small slur of E - G become an independent musical unit, adding another viola-like tonal layer to the sonority, but it also serves as a complement to the high-register melodic line, C sharp - G.

Fig.2_Davies no.2

Fig.2 Davidsbündlertänze: Movt. 02 Innig: Intimately (Con intimo sentimento), B minor, Eusebius, mm.1-6

Davidsbundlertanze 02 Innig

            In the final movement of the first section of Davidsbündlertänze, No. 9, “Lebhaft," Davies demonstrates another unexpected phrasing technique. This section comprises two groups of four measures forming an eight-measure long phrase. When the low bass melody, outlined by octave intervals in the left hand, first appears in measures five to eight, Davies not only allows the low B flat to slightly precede the right-hand melody, disrupting the straightforward 3/4 rhythm established in the first four measures but also elongates the rhythmic gap between G – D – B in measure six. This guides the listener's ear to the left-hand melody and makes them momentarily forget that it's a repetition. As the music enters a new phrase, she similarly hastens the left-hand F sharp in measure twelve, ensuring a seamless transition of the melodic line to the left hand. The combined effect of tonal variation and the timing of different layers' appearances illustrates one of the key technical approaches in revealing the tonal structural complexity in Schumann's piano compositions.

Fig.3_Davies no.9-1

Fig.3 Davidsbündlertänze: Movt. 09 Lebhaft: Lively (Vivace) (2nd edition), C major, Florestan, mm.1-8

Fig.4_Davies no.9-2

Fig.4 Davidsbündlertänze: Movt. 09 Lebhaft: Lively (Vivace) (2nd edition), C major, Florestan, mm.12-14

Download Davidsbundlertanze 09 Lebhaft

            Fanny Davies' unexpected phrasing in her performances often integrates precise timing of the lower bass notes, creating an independent yet cohesive effect in the low registers, which Clara Schumann highly valued. What is notable in her performance is her interpretation of Schumann’s rhythmic notation, which incorporates characteristic variations within an unchanging rhythmic pattern.

            The nuances of voice layering and timing intricacies shine through in Adelina de Lara's performances, particularly in her rendition of Schumann's polyrhythm. These instances are abundant in her playing, with the most representative example being her 1951 recording of the second movement, "Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch," from Kreisleriana. In this passage, measures cease to adhere to a rhythmically uniform structure; instead, they suggest opportunities for breath and expression. De Lara's interpretation allows for a freer, more flowing sense of rhythm. Both the left and right-hand melodies maintain relatively independent rhythms, and the appearance of triplets and sixteenth notes in the bass melody after the double bar carries an improvisational quality, unburdened by rigid rhythmic divisions. De Lara's approach to ornaments is equally intriguing. These inherently rhythmically complex elements offer a broader canvas for Schumann's polyrhythm. De Lara's fingertips evoke a sensation akin to playing the cello, with the resonance produced by the bow's friction on the strings and subtle rhythmic delays contributing to the overall experience.

Jacob_Hilsdorf_-_Carl_FriedbergCarl Friedburg

            The flexibility of tempo serves as a potent expressive tool in Carl Friedberg's musical interpretations. Friedberg (1872–1955), who met Clara Schumann and maintained a close connection with Brahms, has left a limited body of recorded material. However, Mr. Allan Evans compiled and published a set of two CDs about Brahms in 2015, which includes precious recordings of Friedberg's performances. This album even features a remarkable performance segment of Brahms' Piano Trio in C minor by the Trio of New York in 1939. Among others, one of the most impressive recordings is a brief excerpt on Disc 2, less than two minutes long, featuring Friedberg's rendition of Schumann's Arabeske.

            In Minore 1, in e minor, of Arabeske, Friedberg demonstrates a flexible sense of rhythm. This enables him to delineate layers within what initially appears to be a straightforward eighth-note melody. First, there's the slightly impulsive melodic line of B – C – B – F sharp – G. Then, he lingers briefly on the highest note of the melody, transforming the descending scale in the second measure of every two measures into an inner voice that enriches the upper-register melody’s colour. His musical consideration also makes the arrangement of every three harmonies in a small phrase more musically sensible and natural to the listener's ear.

Fig.5_ArabeskeFig.5 Arabeske op.18, mm.40-48

Arabeske Friedberg

            Having written above, a significant moment during the entire fellowship experience was the discovery of recordings by Australian pianist Elsie Hall (1877-1976). Her farewell concert at the age of 90 not only showcased the highly infectious musical expression and extraordinary technical prowess of a mature and eminent pianist but also embodied the soul of the Schumann era and a unique personal touch. Originally from Australia, Elsie Hall relocated to Germany at the age of 11 to pursue her piano studies. Following a performance by the young Elsie in England, Fanny Davies encouraged her to play for Clara Schumann. In 1896, Elsie had the opportunity to perform for Clara Schumann. This encounter did not directly propel Elsie's performing career, and they did not show much mutual interest - Clara's remark, as later recalled by Hall in interviews, was that she “…is much too delicate ever to be a concert player…hasn’t got the particular stamina for it.” Though the meeting with Madame Schumann was not entirely harmonious, the Classical musical world of the late 19th century definitely left an indelible mark on Elsie Hall's musical journey. Not only did she receive patronage from Marie Benecke, Felix Mendelssohn's eldest daughter, Elsie Hall also once mentioned that she gained the most musical inspiration and advice from Joseph Joachim, the Hungarian violinist, an intimate friend, and collaborator of Clara and Brahms. Hall's ability to seamlessly combine the nuances of phrasing, timing, and an extensive palette of tonal colours resulted in a continuous and captivating musical narrative. Her musical style perfectly aligned with Clara Schumann's emphasis on orchestral quality and her insistence on “no passages.”

            Even though Elsie publicly stated (multiple times on various occasions) that she “did not like the Schumann coterie at all”, during her farewell concert, she gave Schumann's Fantasie, op. 17 a prominent place. She performed the first and third movements of the piece. The performance was grand and impactful, exuding orchestral tonal qualities and volume. The separate treatment of the left-hand bass and right-hand melody, both in terms of tone and rhythm, maintains their independence while interweaving with each other, a characteristic performance style emblematic of the 19th-century era. Furthermore, Elsie Hall's meticulous handling of internal layers ensures that not a single note goes unnoticed. For instance, in the first movement, when “Adagio” transitions back to “Im Tempo”, falling into a C major chord, she carefully leads dynamics from piano to fortissimo over six measures, assigning each note of every chord a distinct position. Her attention to detail is equally evident in the opening passage of the third movement with chromatic signs. Hall’s interpretation does not overly indulge in any of the chromatic signs, neither rhythmically nor sonorously, yet she thoughtfully incorporates every harmonic colour outside of C major, capturing the audience's attention. The most sublime musical treatment is in the ritardando of the third movement. Her ritardando is executed with an absolute legato while preserving the individuality of inner and outer voices. The rhythmic complexities, such as two against three, presented her with an excellent opportunity to demonstrate her mastery of polyrhythm.

Fig.6_Fantasie

Fig.6 Fantasie op.17, mm. 272-278

Elsie Hall Schumann Fantasie extract

            Concluding this discussion with admiration for Elsie Hall is a deliberate decision. My immense gratitude to Mr. Summers and the British Library for providing this enlightening and educational opportunity. This research journey, initiated with profound respect and curiosity for Clara Schumann, has illuminated diverse facets of the 19th-century classical music universe. The Geist, or spirit, embedded in this music continues to inspire generations, a testament to Clara Schumann's steadfast training methods, the harmonious collaboration of musicians from varied backgrounds, and the relentless pursuit of artistic excellence worldwide. And all these precious spiritual experiences and artistic insights are transmitted vividly and directly to our ears through precious historical recordings, through the medium of sound, almost two hundred years later, continuing to fascinate musicians, inspiring us to explore tradition and the progressive evolution of musical expression.

24 February 2023

Jelly d’Arányi - The recorded legacy and career of a virtuoso violinist in the roaring twenties

Portrait of d'Aranyi in 1926Jelly d'Aranyi in 1926 (The Strad 37: no.437, 1926 supplement. BL collections)

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Victoria Bernath, PhD, professional violist, composer, and researcher

Overture

Jelly d’Arányi (1893-1966) was a British-Hungarian violinist, celebrated as a leading artist in 1920s Britain. This was a decade in which British violin playing underwent profound development, bolstered by crucial technological advancements in the recording industry. With a recording legacy of 36 sides (78rpm) for British record label Aeolian-Vocalion (18 sides as a soloist, and 18 sides as a duettist with her sister, Adila Fachiri), and a further 14 sides with prestigious label U.S. Columbia, d’Arányi was a key contributor to the expressive developments of her time, and hailed as ‘one of the greatest living violinists…here and on the Continent’.1  However, her recordings and career during this decade (her most prolific period as a performer) have been largely overlooked by academia, presenting a fertile legacy to re-evaluate.2  This is the first critical evaluation which encompasses her musical life, published writings and recorded catalogue during the twenties, and seeks to restore Jelly d’Arányi to her rightful position amongst the greatest violinists of her day.

Early Years: musical foundations and first years in Britain

Born on 30 May 1893 in Budapest (Hungary), Jelly Eva Arányi de Hunyadvár was the youngest daughter of Budapest’s Chief of Police Taksony Hunyadvár Arányi (1858-1930), and homemaker Adrienne Nievarovich de Ligenza (1864-1923). Her father’s family belonged to nobility and her paternal grandaunt was married to violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), one of the 19th century’s most celebrated artists. However, the family fortune had long disappeared and d’Arányi grew up in a strict household with few amenities.3 Furnished with an entrance scholarship, d'Arányi began her formative music education at the Royal National Hungarian Academy of Music in 1901. She first studied preparatory violin lessons with Wilhelm Grünfeld (concert master of the Budapest Opera, 1855-1921) and then graduated to the advanced class of violinist Jenő Hubay (1858-1937), with whom she studied for 5 years.4 Hubay’s pedagogical method fused the principles of two prominent schools of violin playing – the stylistic refinement of the German school and the virtuosic brilliance of the Franco-Belgian school – equipping d’Arányi with both the tools of a thinking musician and the technical abilities of a virtuoso.5

Following her music studies, d’Arányi, her mother and two older sisters made their first visit to Britain in 1908. It was a hostile time for foreigners, hopeful asylum-seekers, and migrants, alike.6 Luckily, d’Arányi and her family had letters of introduction from a family friend, the musicologist and pianist Donald Tovey (1875-1940), and their cousin Gertrude Joachim Russell (1865-1942). This was further bolstered by their respected family connections to violinist Joachim, recently deceased but whose legacy was still very much alive and respected by the British concert-going public. In d’Arányi’s own words, ‘being Joachim’s great-nieces drew the attention of interested people and made our first success more easily won than in the case of equally gifted but less fortunately placed musicians’.7 Three initial concert engagements were scheduled in Haslemere for the end of February 1909.8 A very successful reception saw the von Arányis (as they were first known in Britain) extend their initial visit from one to four months, and they embarked on a hectic performance itinerary across the country, performing programmes which showcased their abilities as soloists, and as sister duettists. The d’Arányi sisters were loved by British society, a crucial endorsement in launching and sustaining an artist’s career (regardless of nationality). Appreciated for their talent and wit, the sisters were, ‘in love with everyone and everyone with them’.9

Solo works performed by Jelly d’Arányi in her first visit to Britain included selections from Joachim’s arrangements of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. Her great uncle’s arrangements had, by then, assumed canonical status in the recital repertoires of violinists, and these popular virtuosic recital pieces featured in many early 78rpm recordings, including those made by the first generation of recorded violinists (e.g., Joachim and Ysaÿe). At her debut in Haslemere, ‘Miss Jelly von Arányi’s interpretations…were remarkable for verve and emotional warmth, especially for such a youthful player’.  She recorded selections from this set of Hungarian dances throughout her professional career,10 and the works became synonymous with her expressive style of performing, often erroneously associated with Romani performing traditions. Hungarian-born d’Arányi never studied Romani violin performance methods: however, for her entire performance career d’Arányi was frequently associated with prejudiced notions of Romani playing, due to her physical appearance and musical interpretations. She felt strongly about national stereotypes, and the resultant bias:

 I remember having been offered much for playing nothing but Hungarian music through whole recitals […]. The point I want to make here is it does not follow that because a Spaniard, for example, plays Spanish music better than a Frenchman, he therefore plays Spanish music better than, say, Bach11

In the following excerpt from Hungarian Dance No.8, d’Arányi is not afraid to let heightened musical expression shine in her performance. D’Arányi’s fingerings are carefully chosen to enable her interpretation: she balances her choice of glissandi (inaudible slides used for technical facility) with portamenti (deliberate and audible slides for expressive or tonal effect). She further enhances her expressive interpretation (and the distinctive tempi changes of the dance’s verbunkos form) by exaggerating respective rhythmic values, a rubato technique achieved by rhythmic adjustment (as heard between 1’25”-1’38”). Through this moderate rhythmic distortion, the listener experiences the mercurial aspects of Hungarian Roma music.

01 Brahms Joachim Hungarian Dance No. 8 extract

Portrait of Aranyi and Fachiri in 1912Adila and Jelly d'Aranyi in 1912 (The Strad 23, no. 268 (1912) supplement. BL collections)

The Enemy Alien: Formative years in Britain

Immediately prior to the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914, the von Arányis permanently relocated to England, a spur-of-the-moment decision.12 Britain declared war upon Germany on 4 August 1914, and this marked the beginning of a difficult period of discrimination for the von Arányis. Due to the political alliance of Germany with the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, Germanophobia affected not only the German community in Britain but any other perceived enemies of state, including Hungarian nationals.13 The livelihoods of many Hungarian and Austrian musicians living in Britain were affected, including the von Arányis.  Labelled as enemy aliens, the von Arányis were required to report regularly to the police. 14 With few performance opportunities (due to work restrictions facing alien enemies), the family experienced severe financial difficulties. To make ends meet, Adila taught any willing pupil privately, and the family permanently Gallicised their surname to d’Arányi, in the hope of being associated with their mother’s partial French heritage. The family relied on the support of pacifist or sympathetic friends for living arrangements (e.g., Lady Ottoline Morrell) and the occasional drawing room concert for income. A turn of events saw both of d’Arányi’s older sisters marry in 191515 which provided the newly espoused a degree of stability. However, d’Arányi and her mother were still somewhat adrift: having no fixed address, they vacillated between accommodation with friends in Garsington and a rented flat in Beaufort Gardens, Chelsea. 

Despite prejudice and poverty, d’Arányi continued to secure occasional chamber concert engagements and school recitals with sympathetic hosts.  In November 1914, she formed a duo partnership with pianist Fanny Davies (1861-1934), and shortly thereafter a piano trio with Davies (piano) and Portuguese cellist, Guillermina Suggia (1885-1950). She also performed in rare, one-off, violin-piano recitals with family friends such as Donald Tovey or Frederick S. Kelly (whom she first met in 1909). One such example includes a concert given by Kelly at Wigmore Hall (then known as the Bechstein Hall) on 11 March 1914.16 Along with solo piano repertoire by Mendelssohn, the programme featured d’Arányi (violin) and Kelly (piano) performing Brahms’ Violin Sonata No.1 in G Major Op. 78.17 It was through her friendship with Kelly that d’Arányi received one of her first dedicated works: Kelly’s Sonata in G Major for violin and piano. She never forgot Kelly’s kindness during those lean years and recorded her own arrangement of an earlier Kelly composition, Jig, for Vocalion in 1924. These vital chamber music relationships helped d’Arányi make ends meet during the war and she began to build her profile as a notable solo talent, ready to take to Britain’s great concert halls.

The following sound clip is from d’Arányi’s 1924 recording of Kelly’s Jig. Originally the fifth movement from Kelly’s Serenade in E minor for chamber ensemble: d’Aranyi arranged the jig for violin and piano in 1914, with Kelly’s blessing.18 In this simple ‘ear tickler’19 we hear d’Arányi playing in a similarly uncomplicated manner. It is d’Arányi’s choice of bowing and bow stroke which truly evoke the dance’s jovial character: she edited the original legato writing for flute by removing slurred notes and playing short spiccato strokes on most separate quavers (0’09”-0’16”). The overall effect is a light-hearted and characterful dance movement.

02 Kelly Serenade extract

Double Act: Rising soloist and sister duettist

D’Arányi’s career took off after the Great War with an explosion of high-profile, solo concerted work in London, throughout Britain and continental Europe.  In 1919 she made her first recordings, three test pressings for the Gramophone Company (now thought to be lost), which included one of the Brahms-Joachim Hungarian Dances (unnamed).20 For unknown reasons, her tests never materialised into a contract with Gramophone, and it wasn’t until d’Arányi signed with Vocalion in 1923 that she began recording in earnest. Subsequent to her recording tests, d’Arányi premiered many new works for the violin, including the first British performance of Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello (in 1922, at Ravel’s request),21 Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat and two new sonatas written for her by family friend, Béla Bartók (in 1922 & 1923).22 As her ‘reputation among musical folk advance[ed] by leaps and bounds’,23 evidence from concert programmes and reviews (c.1919-1923) suggests that d’Arányi’s budding career featured mostly solo work, and only a few duet performances in partnership with her sister Fachiri (a stark contrast to their early years on the British concert circuit). With her first major recording on the horizon, it seemed as if nothing could diminish d’Arányi’s meteoric rise. Then tragedy struck on 10 June 1923: d’Arányi’s beloved mother died from cancer.

In the face of adversity, d’Arányi’s relationship with her eldest sister Fachiri proved to be a lifeline, both professionally and personally. Following her mother’s death, d’Arányi ceased performing in public. Three months later, d’Arányi resumed some professional commitments in September 1923, which included her first release for Vocalion: two sides (12-inch, 78rpm records) containing Paganini’s Caprice No.24 and the Minuet from Mozart’s Divertimento in D Major K. 334, as accompanied by Ethel Hobday (piano). However, it wasn’t until 17 October 1923 that d’Arányi resumed performing in public. She and her sister mutually chose to appear together as duettists for a Proms concert performing Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor BWV 1043. From this point onwards, the frequency of their duet performances together increased, and in 1926 d’Arányi officially moved in with her sister, Fachiri, and her husband, lawyer and amateur cellist, Alexandre Fachiri. The sisters’ closeness was no surprise to the British public: the sisters’ first steps into the upper echelons of British concert life had been as sister duettists, both in live concert and in the press.24 Their close bond, domestic rehearsing space, and living arrangements were captured in a photo essay by The Sketch in 1926.25 Their subsequent concert appearances as duettists were hugely popular, and critically acclaimed: ‘no two violinists in the world could be more perfect when playing together’;27 they ‘accomplis[h] the art of playing duets with complete sympathy and understanding;’28 their ensemble ‘seems to us to be one of the most perfect things in contemporary music’.29  Their calling card became Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor BWV 1043, and together these ‘Valkyries of the violin’26 recorded extensively as duettists for Vocalion, releasing 18 sides (78rpm) of violin duet repertoire, between 1923-1926. Their dedication as a duet ensemble, and recorded output for Vocalion, was a rarity not matched by any other pairing of violinists in 1920s London.

Violin duets, particularly featuring two female performers, were not commonly performed in concert when the d’Arányi sisters made their debut in 1909, nor in the 1920s when they recorded as duettists for Vocalion. In Britain ‘there [had] never been a large number of violinists who devoted themselves to playing duets for two violins in public’30 although we do have evidence of female violin duettists in Britain prior to the d’Arányi sisters.31 Violin duets were primarily used as teaching aids for the instruction of violin technique. As such, there was limited repertoire available: however, the d’Arányi sisters were not dissuaded. Initially, they performed a limited set of works from the Baroque and Classical periods, including Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor BWV 1043, an arrangement of Bach’s Concerto for Two Harpsichords BWV 1060R, and Spohr’s Duo for Two Violins in D Major Op. 67. As their popularity grew, the d'Arányi sisters began to programme less well-known examples from the repertoire (incl. the British premiere of Darius Milhaud’s Sonata for Two Violins and Piano Op. 15). Furthermore, they inspired new violin duets from British composers including Arthur Somervell’s 2 Conversations about Bach, Norman Fraser’s Chilean dance, Cueca for Two Violins and Piano, and Gustav Holst’s Concerto for Two Violins Op. 49. Their dedication to the genre was unsurpassable in the 1920s, and their efforts popularised violin duets (most notably Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor BWV 1043) into the mainstream repertoire of other well-respected soloists, including their contemporaries David Oistrakh and Jascha Heifetz, and rising stars Yehudi Menuhin, Nathan Milstein, and Erica Morini, who all made violin duet recordings in subsequent years.

In this recorded excerpt, a lesser-known example from the sisters’ recorded duet catalogue,32 we hear d’Arányi and Fachiri performing together as a cohesive unit. Rhythmically, their opening note (the anacrusis) is not quite together: however, they subsequently play almost as one. Their intonation is perfectly in tune (especially noted in the unison passages: e.g., 0’00”-0’11”), and their use of articulation is almost uniform (e.g., 0’11”-0’20”).

03 Bach Concerto for two keyboards 3rd movement extract

Aranyi sisters at home 1928The Sketch, July 1928, page 162. BL collections

The greatest woman violinist: Promoting new music

Jelly d’Arányi’s rise to fame as a soloist after the Great War is a testament to the strength and sensitivity of her musical personality, and her dedication to promoting new music. Prior research only serves to account for nine new works written for d’Arányi (two of which were co-dedicated to other artists). This includes Bartok’s Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2, Ravel’s Tzigane, and Vaughan Williams’ Concerto Accademico, each written and dedicated to d’Arányi, in response to her expressive and virtuosic musicianship. From my own research, I concluded that during a sixteen-year period (1915-1931), twenty-four new compositions were dedicated to, and premiered by, d’Aranyi.33  The diversity of repertoire written for d’Arányi reflects a general trend in her performed repertory, which was greatly varied (a relatively uncommon feature for solo violinists in the 1920s, who typically performed a limited set of concertos and virtuosic ‘ear-ticklers’, as d’Arányi called the latter).34 She not only performed the established ‘classics’, but firmly championed new music which tested the limits of violin-playing, both in terms of extended techniques and interpretive musicianship.35 As a testament to her ability and standing amongst the male-dominated field of violin virtuosi, d’Arányi was the only female violinist included in a 1928 article published by the authoritative voice on string playing in Britain, The Strad, debating and defining the greatest celebrity violinists of the day: ‘Who are these Violinists?’.36 The author describes d’Arányi’s playing as follows:

A golden volubility of tone, considerable fire, and an eloquence almost didactic; a genius at making clear the structure of the music she is playing, at least as she (a very high authority) conceives it to be. Much of the grave, clear breadth of [Joachim] mixed with moments of pure Paganinistry. A great musician occasionally great self-effacement. Insolent or cavalierly ease of movement in the bow arm. Finest Brahms player (a personal view), finest player of Ravel. A bridge between [Sauret] and [Elman].37

Barring one exception, d’Arányi’s recorded catalogue reflects none of the contemporary works she premiered, championed, or inspired during the same period (i.e., 1919-1929). In live performance, her recital repertoire included an astonishing scope of music: ground-breaking world premières, concerti from Bach through Tchaikovsky and Szymanowski to Ethel Smythe, solo Paganini caprices, virtuosic character pieces, classical sonatas, and salon pieces by contemporary British composers. By contrast, her solo recorded catalogue offers a restrictive spectrum including only one concerto38 and a selection of shorter character pieces (often arranged) for violin and piano. These popular works were guaranteed to sell: the financial ramifications of making records meant violinists had to record works that appealed to a broad audience base. According to the autobiographical accounts of her contemporary and fellow Hungarian violinist, Joseph Szigeti (1892-1973), he suggests that prior to the 1930s record companies were loath to the financial risk of recording new works by unknown composers (a financial risk), and had to be convinced to issue challenging, contemporary repertoire.39 As such, the recorded catalogue of d’Arányi reflects only a small fraction of her performance practices and performed repertoire.

The following musical excerpt is the only recorded example we have of d’Aranyi performing an entire concerto (albeit there are no cadenzas) and it is a wonderful example of her expressive playing with ensemble. In this clip, we hear d’Arányi’s use of tempo adjustment (i.e., tempo rubato) to heighten expression. Her opening line (starting at 1’20”) begins brightly in tempo. However, she rhythmically elongates an ornament, the accent fallend (or, descending appoggiatura) at 1’20” which begins a rallentando carried through to the end of the phrase at 01’28”. The overall effect is not gratuitous, or heavy, but rather that of a musician carried away by expression, sympathetically mirrored by the orchestra. After demonstrating such elasticity with time, a degree of compensation in tempo is needed: d’Arányi, with the orchestra, begins the subsequent phrase back in tempo.

04 Mozart Violin Concerto in G major 1st movement extract

Aranyi with Bartok 1922Bela Bartok and Jelly d'Aranyi in 1922 Illustrated London News, April 1, 1922: 478

Violin playing: In her own words

Following the First World War, a new ideal of beauty emerged in violin playing.40 Violinists trained during the 19th century faced a decision: to develop alongside new trends or remain connected to the past. New trends included a faster oscillating vibrato, a continuous vibrato (versus its application as a selective, emotive device for long notes), changing attitudes to tempo modification, and an increasingly chaste approach to musical expression (i.e., the application of fewer expressive devices, such as portamenti). Although never verbally expressed, d’Arányi’s recordings illustrate her decision to bridge the gap between tradition and innovation. She did, however, write two articles (a privilege not readily extended to female violinists), which both directly, and indirectly, reveal her opinions on the contemporary state of violin-playing in the 1920s, and early 1930s.41

D’Arányi described herself an artist-executant not afraid to take risks: it was her duty to become the unselfish medium of expression on behalf of the composer. As previously evidenced, she relished performing new music as well as standard repertoire, and she sensitively approached each work as its own entity. D’Arányi believed that a great artist showed their talent by demonstrating ‘a technique sufficient to master the difficulties of the moderns …[and] subtlety and precision demanded by the classics’.42 If she was able to perform in such a capacity, she did not take umbrage with new trends in performance. For example, she remembered her beloved great-uncle telling her ‘Never too much vibrato! That’s circus music’.43 However, d’Arányi was not afraid to experiment with newer notions of vibrato usage (e.g., continuous vibrato, as heard most clearly in the final excerpt of this study, Vitali’s Chaconne). By contrast, she believed ‘there is altogether too much importance given both to smoothness and volume of tone as such…no amount of gesticulating and shouting will make simple truths more convincing’.44 In her opinion, the burgeoning trend towards tame playing was predominantly found in the bow arm:

It’s safety first in violin playing today, especially in bowing. In the Brahms and the Schubert Trios for instance, there are passages of repeated notes which Joachim and the older violinists like Hubay and Ysaÿe took as a ‘flying staccato’ – the notes detached but in a single movement of the bow. Today, even the celebrated violinists take them spiccato. Easier, but much less thrilling. The older way was perilous and for that is avoided. Nobody dares throw their bow about. They play on the string for the fine safe clarity.45

D’Arányi did not favour ‘safe’ playing and blindly following the tastes of others: ‘I have heard a certain type of person say with rather offensive conceit that they believe in the opinion and taste of the Great Majority…were we to see the pictures on their walls, read their books, hear the kind of music they habitually favour we could not accept their verdict as decisive as to the merits of an executant’.46 For d’Arányi, ‘force, tenderness, masterly power; colour, in fact’,47 were the enviable qualities of a violinist, qualities she always aimed for, as an artist-executant. Despite efforts to evolve, by the 1940s tastes changed faster than d’Aranyi: coupled with increasing health complications, it ultimately came to the cost of her career.

In this recording, gone are the various forms of expressive sliding and tempo manipulations: this is d’Arányi performing with an awareness of contemporary attitudes to expression. From the still, quiet atmosphere of the Sarabande’s ‘Largo’ to the vivacious ‘Presto’ of the Tambourin, d’Arányi demonstrates consummate attention to musical detail and character. At the beginning of the clip (the closing phrase of the Sarabande), d’Arányi is judicious in her use of expressive devices: she employs minimal vibrato and delivers a clear, articulated trill (1’48”-1’51”) to convey notions of an earlier musical style. Analysis reveals that it is a distortion in the recording equipment which affects the quality of her final note. Her transition into the Tambourin (a lively duple-meter Provençal dance) is instantaneous: she lets the music speak for itself, and the wonderful variability of her bowing arm is on full display, with special mention going to her flying staccato technique (1’58”-2’00”).

05 Leclair-Sarasate Sonata Op. 9 No. 3 extract of Sarabande & Tambourin

Swansong: Health complications and professional decline

Despite a prolific set of performances, premieres, and recordings through the 1920s, from 1935 onwards (the year she naturalised as a British citizen) d’Arányi was less often seen on the elite concert circuit or heard on the BBC’s airwaves. This continued until a virtual disappearance by 1944. A private letter from literary reviewer and drama critic, Sir Desmond MacCarthy, to poet, Robert C. Trevelyan, offers a crucial glimpse of the situation:

There is a movement to do something for Jelly d’Arányi, who is never employed, supposedly due to a quarrel with [pianist and duo partner] Myra Hess…[my] plan is to persuade Sir Henry Wood or someone who organises concerts to use her talents48

Unknown to d’Arányi, a group of her friends and supporters (including Sir Ralph Vaughan Williams and Lady Violet Bonham Carter) rallied together in a letter writing campaign to get to the bottom of an important issue: why was Jelly no longer performing in the upper echelons of musical Britain, and why was she no longer broadcasting with the BBC? Writing individually to the celebrated conductor, Sir Henry J. Wood (1869-1944), friends asked for Wood’s help in securing performance work for d’Arányi. Vaughan Williams asked if d’Arányi could have a Promenade Concert appearance (which would reinstate her as a leading, solo artist), and another co-authored letter asked if the great artist, neglected for unknown reasons, may be given any opportunity to perform with Wood himself (Wood was a family friend of the d’Arányis). Lady Bonham Carter decided to get straight to the heart of the matter and wrote directly to the Music Director of the BBC, Sir Adrian Boult, to clarify the reason for d’Arányi’s musical disappearance. Although the rumour of a quarrel between d’Arányi and her duo partner Hess was true, it is unlikely to have derailed her career to the point of complete isolation. My research indicates the cause behind d’Arányi’s lack of employment was more nuanced. Three dates signalled the early end to Jelly d’Arányi’s illustrious career as a professional violinist: 14 January 1934; 11 July 1941; and 16 July 1941. The first signalled a decline in physical ability, the latter two pertain to changes in taste and expulsion from the BBC.

In the winter of 1934, a 41-year-old d’Arányi was thrown from a vehicle during a road accident in Amsterdam. Caught broadside by an unexpected and erratic car, d’Arányi was ejected from her seat and thrown head-first into the road.49 She arrived home to England with a black eye and severe bruising to her forehead,50 but the catastrophic accident received little press coverage in Britain.51 The event was shrouded in secrecy, and there is no medical evidence to suggest how badly d’Arányi was injured. However, given the physical description of her external injuries, it is likely that d’Arányi also suffered from mild trauma, too (possible side effects range from dizziness, sensory problems, and headaches to sensitivity to light and sound).52 Although d’Arányi resumed her performance commitments by the end of that same week,53 sporadic mentions of poor intonation began to appear in subsequent concert reviews. Coupled with the onset of arthritis a year earlier, it was clear d’Arányi’s health and hearing would never be the same. Despite occasional reports of uncertain intonation, d’Arányi continued to perform and she recorded a wonderful Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major Op.87 with Gaspard Cassadó (cello) and Myra Hess (piano) in October 1935, for Columbia Records.

A live broadcast performance on 3 July 1941 acted as a further catalyst in calling time on d’Arányi’s performance career. The event was a live, transmitted orchestral concert from BBC’s Broadcasting House in Bristol. It featured d’Arányi playing Beethoven’s Romance and Ravel’s Tzigane, with Sir Adrian Boult conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It was a particularly difficult period for the BBC Symphony. At the outbreak of the war in 1939, 34% of the orchestra left for military service, and the ensemble was evacuated from London to Bristol (to minimise disruption to their broadcasting commitments). However, the bombing of Britain began in earnest in June 1940 and Bristol was one of the prime targets. The orchestra relocated again for safety around 1 August 1941 (to Bedford), which situates d’Arányi’s concert on 3 July as one of the final wartime broadcasts from the BBC SO in Bristol. D’Aranyi, herself, was mourning the death of a life-long mentor54  but agreed to the performance opportunity. Live radio broadcasts were not reviewed, and consequently the dearth of press coverage does not offer any insight regarding the quality of performance. However, a small collection of listening reports and internal circulating memoranda from the BBC do. Written by six members of the BBC’s Music Department, including Sir Reginald Thatcher (Deputy Director of Music) and pianist Clifton Helliwell, these internal memos culminated in a private and confidential memo authored by Thatcher and subsequently sent to Sir Adrian Boult (Director of Music) on 11 July 1941. Initial feedback in the listening reports was varied, and the most negative and damning accounts came from Thatcher and Herbert Murrill. Disregarding the breadth of opinion expressed, Thatcher adopted a wholly negative tone in his letter to Boult. The document stipulates that, due to the clutch of adverse reports regarding d’Arányi’s performance, she clearly no longer met broadcasting standards and should not be engaged for any future important broadcasts (i.e., solo concerted work), and she was not likely to be fit for secondary work (including chamber performances and feature programmes). With this letter, Thatcher downgraded Jelly d’Arányi from concert soloist to ‘has-been’. It would be d’Arányi’s penultimate broadcast as a soloist. 55

Boult took responsibility for informing d’Arányi of the decision by committee, which he did in a letter dated 16 July 1941.  As evidenced in the collection of memos, Boult did not wholly agree with Thatcher: he did not believe d’Arányi was washed up and unfit to broadcast. He believed she was still capable of good performances (a view supported by Helliwell). This is reflected in his letter to d’Arányi. He writes in an apologetic tone and mentions that while the Tzigane was given a wonderful interpretation, the Beethoven Romance fell short of her usual standards in three ways: out-of-tune double-stopping in a difficult passage, scoops and slides between notes (i.e., portamento), and liberty taken with time (i.e., rubato). While poor intonation is a commonly agreed ‘flaw’, the other two perceived shortcomings concern taste. To use expressive devices like portamento and rubato is at the discretion of the performing artist. Clearly, aesthetic change at the BBC no longer tolerated methods of expression from the 19th or early 20th century, and it was reason enough to expel an artist from the BBC’s books. Jelly d’Arányi never discussed the BBC’s cancellation of her as an artist, nor its seismic effect on her career at large. Apart from one additional BBC Latin America broadcast on 26 July 1944, Jelly d’Aranyi never again graced the airwaves, or the major concert halls of Britain.

Having listened to more than fifteen different recordings (c.1920s-2020s) of Tomaso Vitali’s Chaconne in G minor, Jelly d’Arányi’s interpretation stands the test of time as one of the most musical and sensitive versions I have had the pleasure to listen to. Contrary to prior research, Jelly d’Arányi did not play with a ‘slightly nagging, wide, and slow vibrato’,56 and this excerpt effortlessly dispels myths of a cumbersome vibrato and lack of sensitivity. A beautiful, shimmering vibrato paired with a near-seamless legato bow stroke perfectly complements the violin’s cantilena line. Further sensitivity is illustrated through melodic rubato (just enough to bring to the listener’s mind a singing approach to violin playing), and wonderful, graded dynamic contrasts. The latter are not as evident in the opening minute of playing, but transpire throughout the recording.

06 Vitali-Charlier Chaconne extract

Aranyi's hands 1933Jelly d'Aranyi (The Sketch, June 7, 1933: 411

Finale

The transformation of Jelly d’Arányi from young, immigrant ingénue of great talent to one of Britain’s most recognisable solo violinists in the 1920s was meteoric and remarkable: she transformed from enemy alien in 1914, to a nationally renowned soloist with her first Vocalion record in 1923. Hers was a brave and distinctive musical voice in Britain’s musical landscape: not only did she promote contemporary music, she performed at the most prestigious concert halls and concert series in Britain with other leading music luminaries, and she also devoted herself on an annual basis to giving charity concerts on behalf of the British peoples (often taking no fee at all). By 1930, she was one of the most recorded female instrumentalists for the Vocalion record label. Together with her recordings for U.S. Columbia, this great artist leaves behind a testimony of her sensitive musicianship and virtuosity. Her playing clearly illustrates hallmarks of both her initial training in Hungary (at the academy and following the advice of her great uncle Joachim) and the influences of her formative years in Britain, revealing a style of performance that reflected an awareness of contemporary aesthetics. Jelly d’Arányi’s recorded legacy from the 1920s not only shares with us her musical talents, but greatly enhances our understanding of an important chapter in the history of British violin performance.

I would like to thank the following people, without whom this publication would not have been possible: Jonathan Summers and the British Library for the opportunity of being an Edison Research Fellow, and for their support and expertise throughout the fellowship programme; Raymond Glaspole for providing copies of some rare discs not held by the British Library; Robin Bernath, Hannah French, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, Tully Potter, and Nikos Zarb for their expertise, words of wisdom and encouragement; Peter Mallinson, Chris O’Shea and Travis Winstanley for their invaluable proof-reading, and support.

Footnotes:

1 Frank Thistleton, “Jelly d’Aranyi,” The Strad 17, no.437 (September 1926): 270.

2 There is no stand-alone, comprehensive biography of Jelly d’Arányi. Author and journalist Joseph Macleod wrote an invaluable group biography of Jelly d’Arányi and her sisters, The Sisters d’Arányi (1969), which is replete with wonderful anecdotes (some of which were shared by d’Arányi in interview with Macleod). However, the book is not without shortcomings. For example, d’Aranyi’s performance practice is not discussed in any great depth nor are her recordings. Many important details concerning her artistic development and decline are also missing, while the narrative of the book tends to veer frequently towards purple prose. Where my research has been informed by Macleod’s work, it is acknowledged with a footnote. Otherwise, it is my own original research.

3 Joseph Macleod, “Childhood in Budapest.” In The Sisters d’Aranyi, 13-25. Boston: Crescendo Publishing Company, 1969.

4 Jelly d’Aranyi’s music education in greater detail: in 1901, after learning the violin for six weeks with her older sister Adila, d’Aranyi was given an entrance scholarship to the Budapest Academy of Music (since renamed the Franz Liszt Academy of Music), aged only 8 years ol She began preparatory violin lessons with Wilhelm Grünfeld (concert master of the Budapest Opera), and then graduated to the advanced class of Jenő Hubay for 5 years, from 1902-1907.

5 How Hubay’s pedagogical style translates into the repertoire studied by his students was succinctly observed by one of d’Aranyi’s classmates, the violinist Joseph Szigeti (1892-1973). Szigeti studied with Hubay for two years (1903-1905), and an autobiographical account gives us a detailed view into Hubay’s teaching curriculum, which increasingly favoured developing virtuosic prowess. Joseph Szigeti, Szigeti on the Violin (New York: Dover Publications, 1979), 4.

6 A vocal, anti-alien backlash towards recent waves of migrants from Eastern Europe resulted in Parliament passing the Aliens Act in 1905, which limited the number of eligible immigrants to Britain, as described in Robert Winder, Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain (London: Little Brown, 2004), 194-200.

7 Joseph Macleod, The Sisters d’Aranyi (Boston: Crescendo Publishing Co., 1969), 85.

8 Ibid., 60.

9 Ibid., 65.

10 These include: a test pressing for the Gramophone Company in 1919 (the dance is not named/numbered); Hungarian Dance No.5 for Vocalion in 1925; Hungarian Dance No.8 for U.S. Columbia in 1928.

11 Jelly d’Arányi, “Some Thoughts on Violin Playing,” Farrago 1, no. 2 (1930): 109.

12 Jelly had injured her ankle badly during a trip to London (n.) and was convalescing with her mother and sisters at the sea-side town of Knokke-Zout, Belgium. The clouds of war, however, were roiling. The Arányis had hoped to travel home to Hungary to be with their father, but there were no trains running from Frankfurt onwards and the Arányis decided instead to make for the safety of England (as recounted in Macleod, The Sisters d’Arányi, 89-90). According to my research, d’Arányi’s final pre-war performance happened on 31 January 1914 ([n.a.] “Mrs Alexander Maitland’s Concert.” The Scotsman. February 02, 1914: 9). D’Arányi reappears in the press in November 1914.

13 Restrictive government measures and vitriolic press coverage culminated in a hostile and thoroughly Germanophobic environment for German families. Germanophobia took many different guises during WWI. Firstly, the Aliens Restriction Act (passed on 5 August 1914), along with the Trading with the Enemy Act (18 September 1914), meant that all German-owned business were confiscated, and by the end of the month non-naturalised German men of military age were rounded up and interne In London alone, more than 1,500 German businesses were vandalised, and numerous anti-German riots took place across the country.  Even the performance of music by German composers faced censorship: concert series (including Henry Wood’s Promenade Concerts) adapted concert programmes to prominently feature music composed by citizens of the Allied powers.

14 Macleod, The Sisters d’Aranyi, 91-94.

15 Adila d’Arányi married American-born barrister, Alexandre Fachiri (1887-1939), and Hortense d’Arányi (1887-1953) married British economist, Sir Ralph Hawtrey (1879-1975).

16 Due to the amended Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act (1916) and anti-German sentiment at large, Bechstein Hall was forced to cease trading and closed its doors in June 1916. The hall reopened in 1917 under the new name, Wigmore Hall.

17 Frederick Kelly and Thérèse Radic, Race Against Time: The Diaries of F.S. Kelly (Australia: National Library Australia, 2004), 28.

18 Ibid, 328.

19 Jelly d’Arányi, “Some Thoughts on Violin Playing”, 108-9.

20 Jelly d’Arányi (1919), 1. Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music Discography 1500 to 1950, accessed 6 June 2022. https://charm.kcl.ac.uk/discography/search/search_advanced?operatorSel_0=and

&parameterSel_0=performer&parameterKey_0=artist_020634&parameterKeyTxt_0=JELLY%20D%E2%80%99ARANYI%20(violin%20solo)%20(piano%20Miss%20ELLA%20IVIMEY).

21 Musicus, “World of Music,’ The Daily Telegraph, July 01, 1922: 4.

22 Written for d’Arányi in 1921 and 1922 (respectively), Bartok’s two violin sonatas were premiered in London in 1922 and 1923 as noted in: Malcom Gillies. “A Conversation with Bartok: 1929,” Musical Times 128, no. 1736 (October 1987): 557.

23 As noted in a concert review following a successful recital at Wigmore Hall: [n.a.] “A d’Arányi Triumph,” The Pall Mall Gazette April 28, 1923: 5.

24 Henderson, “Adila and Jelly von Arányi,” The Strad 23, no.268 (August 1912): 139-140.

25 [n.a.] “Famous Sister Violinists at Home: Studies of Mme. Fachiri and Mlle. Jelly d'Aranyi” The Sketch. July 28, 1926: 20-21.

26 [n.a.] “Valkyries of the Violin.” The Irish Times. November 08, 1926: 232.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid., 140.

29 [n.a.] “Music in Rochdale: Chamber Concert Society.’ Rochdale Observer. November 24, 1926: 5.

30 Henderson, “Adila and Jelly von Arányi”, 139.

31 Sisters Teresa (1827-1904) and Maria Milanollo (1832-1848) toured Europe and England as a duet act in the 1840s; sisters Isabel and Eldrede Watts supplemented a thriving teaching practice with an intensive burst of public performances exclusively as duettists (c.1902-6) with prestigious concert appearances including the Bechstein Hall in 1903 and the Promenade concerts in 1906 (as described in Henderson, “Adila and Jelly von Arányi,” 139-140).

32 Vocalion Record Catalogue, [n.a.] (London: Vocalion Gramophone Co., November 1925). Records catalogue accessed 01 May 2022, https://archive.org/details/vocalionrecords1925/mode/2up.

33 My research concludes: a) she is to be credited with premiering an additional six new works in concert (from concerti to short character pieces); b) four dedicated works were only recently acquired by the British Library, in manuscript form. A complete list of titles will be shortly released via publication.

34 “Some Thoughts on Violin Playing,” 108.

35 Selected works include Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat, Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 1 and Tzigane, as well as Bartok’s two violin sonatas.

36 H. P. Morgan-Browne, “Who are these Violinists?” The Strad 39, no.462 (October 1928): 324.

37 Ibid., 324.

38 Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.3 in G Major K.216, our fourth audio example in this blog post.

39 Szigeti’s relationship with gramophone companies as outlined in: Boris Schwartz, Great Masters of the Violin (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983), 387; Joseph Szigeti, Szigeti on the Violin (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1979), 18-20.

40 Parsons, “Stylistic change in violin performance 1900-1960” (2015), 68.

41 Jelly d’Arányi, “Some Thoughts on Violin Playing,” 107-11; Jelly d’Arányi, “The Violin Sonatas,” Music & Letters 8, no.2 (April 1927): 191-197.

42 “Some Thoughts on Violin Playing,” 110.

43 Macleod, Sisters d’Arányi, 48.

44 “Some Thoughts on Violin Playing,” 108.

45 Macleod, Sisters d’Arányi, 278.

46 “Some Thoughts on Violin Playing,” 109-110.

47 Ibid., 107.

48 Desmond McCarthy, letter to Robert C. Trevelyan, March 15, 1944.

49 [n.a.]. “Violinist in Car Smash,” Daily Telegraph, January 17, 1934: 11.

50 Ibid.

51 Apart from limited press coverage, there is no further mention elsewhere, not even in Macleod, Sisters d’Aranyi, (1969). 

52 As discussed in conversation with a private GP (with the author).

53 Ibid.

54 At the time of the broadcast, d’Arányi was still mourning the loss of two close friends, and champions of her playing: Alexander Fachiri on 27 March 1939 (her sister’s husband), and Sir Donald Tovey on 10 July 1940 (her former guarantor, mentor and first duo partner in Britain).

55 D’Aranyi’s final broadcast as a soloist took place on 26 July 1944, with Sir Henry J. Wood conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Together, they performed Bach’s Violin Concerto No.1 in A- BWV 1041. Less than a month later, her dear friend Sir Wood died on 19 August 1944.

56 David Milsom, “Jelly d’Arányi (Jelly Eva Arányi de Hunyadvár) Violin,” liner notes for Jelly d’Arányi, A-Z of String Players, Jelly d’Arányi et al., Naxos 8.558081-84, 2014, CD, 107.

06 October 2022

Brahms, Vienna and early Hungarian national bands

Image of ZigeunerconcertA scene from Viennese life; a Gypsy-concert in the Wurstelprater park’, Illustrirte Zeitung, 4 October 1873

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Dr Jon Banks former Senior Lecturer in Music at Anglia Ruskin University

This project, generously supported by a British Library Edison Fellowship, brings together traditional accounts of one of the great Viennese composers with the parallel story of the Hungarian national bands who worked in the same city, told by newspaper advertisements and also, crucially, by the earliest recordings of Hungarian traditional music. These were made in the decade or so after Brahms died in 1897, but cross-referencing the artists with the ephemera of performance publicity from the last years of his life confirms that they were either the same as the ones he heard, or dynastically related to them. The recordings, mostly commercial 78rpm discs, survive in archives and libraries and I am grateful to the Edison Fellowship for access to the material held in the British Library and the opportunity to explore it.

The connections between Brahms and Hungarian traditional music, or ‘Gypsy music’ as it was often referred to in Vienna, run deep. Though not Hungarian or Roma himself, he encountered it playing as a teenager with Ede Reményi, a revolutionary exile passing through his home town of Hamburg. It has often been cited as a possible influence on his compositions, and is the explicit root of his famous Hungarian dances. Just before beginning the Fellowship, I had written an article for Music & Letters - ‘Brahms Hungarian Dances and the early Csárdás recordings’ - based on material available online from Hungarian collections. I received invaluable help in that from the curators of these collections, especially Ferenc Szabó (formerly an Edison Fellow), Martón Kurutz and Illyés Boglárka of the National Széchényi Library, and in the course of our communications it became clear that there was still much to be discovered and so one of the first objectives of my Fellowship was to establish what might be held at the British Library.

London may not seem the obvious place to search for old Hungarian recordings but the Library is of course an international institution and many of the artists I was interested in had visited Great Britain, either as part of touring schedules or in certain cases in the express employment of the Royal Family here. Locating possible recordings involved considerable catalogue research, something that was new to me; I am again grateful for the help and expertise provided by library staff. Some of the results that turned up could be identified as duplicates of material from Hungary, but there were several that were completely unknown to me. The Fellowship gave me the opportunity not only to view and handle them but also to have some of them digitised in order to listen to what was on them, as in this one:

Repülj fecksém

The first side is listed in the catalogue under the title on the label, ‘Repülj fecksém’. Listening to it reveals that in fact it comprises a medley of two tunes, of which only the first is ‘Repülj fecksém’, an old song melody identifiable from several other recordings in a similar slow hallgató style; in notated form it can be traced back to Színi Károly’s A magyar nép dalai és Dallamai. Hangjegyekre tette és kiadta Színi Károly. 200 dal (1865), no.51. The second tune is similarly identifiable as ‘Lenn a falu végén’, but this is not mentioned on side one though it curiously forms part of the title on the side two, apparently in error. This begs the question of what actually does appear on side two.

Csak egy kislány van a világon lent a faluvégén nem füstöl a kémény

On listening, it transpires that this is another medley of two pieces, given the single title of ‘Csak egy kislány van a világon lent a faluvégén nem füstöl a kémény’. The opening melody is indeed ‘Csak egy kislány van a világon’, again unmistakable from earlier recordings and notations, whereas ‘lent a faluvégén nem füstöl a kémény’ is the part that refers to the music on the first side. The second tune on side two is therefore unnamed; it is in a lively dance rhythm and appears nowhere else, making it a valuable new discovery, since one of the foundations of my project was to compile a concordance of all melodies in the csárdás genre recorded in this early period. Therefore, as well as making it possible to clear up the confusion embodied in the original label, actually hearing this music has unearthed a previously unknown csárdás recording by the violinist Berkes Béla, whose band had previously visited Vienna in Brahms’s time and were favourites of the press there, as in this portrait in the city’s Welt Blatt newspaper shows.

Image of Béla Berkes

‘The newly-appointed Hungarian court dance music director, Gypsy virtuoso Béla Berkes’ - Welt Blatt, 7 June 1907

In addition, actually hearing the music to ‘Lenn a falu végén’ on this particular recording is invaluable in terms of understanding the interpermeability of melody styles and genres. Side one is unique in presenting the ‘Lenn a falu végén’ tune in a rhythmic guise as a foil to the slow ‘Repülj fecksém’, since other ‘Gypsy-band’ recordings have it as a slow opening hallgató in its own right; it also appears recast in a very different style in a number of military band recordings, with an unrelated title, ‘Csebogár March’. Side two, on the other hand, begins with some distinctively Romanian violin figurations, reminiscent of contemporaries like Grigoraș Dinicu from Bucharest, before launching into an equally distinctive Hungarian csárdás, demonstrating how conventions of national style were always blurred by musicians imitating and learning from each other.

Another objective of the project was to trace the survival of this repertory after the First World War, and I had the opportunity to hear otherwise unobtainable recordings by Hungarian bands from the Library’s collections. These are especially important because this style of music fell out of favour after 1918, when the focus of Hungarian nationalists like Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály was on collecting rural peasant songs, compared to which the music of what they called ‘Gypsy bands’ came to be dismissed as little more than an urban light music, or in Bartók’s words a ‘mass product for the half-educated multitudes.’

Even more catastrophic for the society that supported this music were the Second World War, the Holocaust and the suppression of minority identities under communism; and although ‘Gypsy music’ is a favourite genre among record companies now, it is often based on a different Balkan tradition that was called ‘Romanian’ on the pre-1914 recordings and premised on a more modern identity politics.

 The final aim of this project is to tell the forgotten story of the many Hungarian musicians working in the classical ‘eternal city’ of nineteenth-century Vienna, and so re-evaluate their considerable contribution to its cultural life and their interaction with composers who lived there such as Brahms. Studying the early recordings is a vital part of this, because many of them were made by artists who worked regularly in Vienna and so confirm the repertories that they played, which can then be directly related to, for example, Brahms’s Hungarian Dances. They also provide an authentic insight into the performing style of the music, which can only be guessed at from the tantalising descriptions of the time, such as this one from Liszt:

…it seemed as if every possible sound or tone was crashing down together like mountain crests which fall with a frightful uproar on sheets of sand mixed with blocks of rock and stone. We felt uncertain whether the ceiling, which seemed to rock with these sudden displacements of sonorous currents and vibrations, would not really fall upon our heads; such was the crushing nature of the music which all the conservatories of the world would certainly have condemned and even we found to be just a trifle risky.

The recordings are thus essential in establishing the reality behind this kind of hyperbole and also in understanding how ‘classical’ composers such as Liszt came to view this music in such extreme terms. They also feed directly into performance, especially in my professional work with the ensemble ZRI, reimagining some of the great Viennese classics using the soundworld and instrumentation of Hungarian national bands. The recordings lie at the heart of both these projects and I look forward to studying them further in the future.

05 July 2021

‘Violence, shock, life’: the sounds of Pierre Boulez’s formative years

Pierre Boulez (1968)Pierre Boulez (1968)

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Dr Caroline Potter

Pierre Boulez was one of the most important musicians of the 20th and early 21st centuries. His own music is often considered forbiddingly cerebral, not least because musicologists have tended to focus on its construction, but I contend that the French literary and broader intellectual context was at least as important to the composer as musical techniques such as serialism. My research project, generously supported in 2020-21 by a British Library Edison Fellowship, uncovers the crucial impact of this context on Boulez, enhancing our understanding of his work and leading towards a more visceral, emotional response to his work.

Boulez’s reputation as the ‘angry young man’ of European modern music followed him for the rest of his long life. He was angry because music mattered hugely to him. Of course, this anger sprang from his rejection of the conservative French musical culture of his youth, from a desire to wipe the slate clean after the horrors of World War II, and surely also from his rejection of senior male role models, including his father who wanted him to train as an engineer. But, more profoundly, this violence and anger has striking parallels in Parisian artistic culture of the 1930s and 40s, and specifically from artists broadly connected with surrealism.

Antonin Artaud 1926Antonin Artaud (1926)

 One of the most important figures in Boulez’s artistic evolution was Antonin Artaud (1897-1948). He is best known today for writings including The Theatre and its Double, but for Boulez, Artaud was not primarily a cultural theoretician, but a performing artist whose work only truly existed live. It was Paule Thévenin, Artaud’s friend and later his literary executor, who introduced Artaud’s work to Boulez (she later also edited a collection of Boulez’s writings). Artaud’s final public performance took place at the Galerie Loeb in Paris in July 1947, where he read some of his texts surrounded by an exhibition of his drawings. This was an intimate space; ‘Boulez and his friends had to sit in front of the first row of chairs, and they found themselves almost ‘under’ the voice of Artaud when he was reading.’[1] Being within spitting distance of Artaud, still a charismatic performer despite his much reduced physical condition, was an experience that Boulez never forgot. Towards the end of his life, he recalled that Artaud’s performance ‘made an impression on me because what initially seemed to make no sense suddenly made sense very strongly.’[2]

Few Artaud recordings survive: there are copies of Aliénation et la magie noire (1946) and Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu (1947) in the British Library. In Pour en finir… Artaud pushes his voice to its very limits;

Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu (1947) extract

through the extremes of expression, register and dynamics, he sought to transcend the limitations of human utterances. Listening to Artaud’s vocal performance alongside the final movement of Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata played by Maurizio Pollini, with its aggressive performance directions such as ‘pulvériser le son’, shows that they both inhabit a sound world where no holds are barred.

Boulez Piano Sonata No.2 extract

In the 1920s, Artaud was briefly associated with André Breton, the self-appointed leader of the surrealist movement. The French surrealist circle was a pluridisciplinary environment whose members had wide-ranging artistic and intellectual interests. Often these coexisted in one publication, as in the reviews Documents and Minotaure, whose pages provide a complete portrait of contemporary surrealism, from psychoanalytical studies of delirium to images provoking new ideas through incongruous juxtapositions. And Breton himself frequently combined photography, autobiography and fiction in a single publication; he also had a strong interest in ethnography and amassed an impressive collection of non-Western and esoteric objects.

One obvious connection between Breton’s stories – one that was particularly resonant for Boulez – is the recycling of the last phrase of his novella Nadja (1928), ‘La beauté sera CONVULSIVE ou ne sera pas’ (Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be). At the end of ‘La beauté sera convulsive’, a short story published in Minotaure in 1934, we read this extension: ‘La beauté convulsive sera érotique-voilée, explosante-fixe, magique-circonstancielle ou ne sera pas’ (Convulsive beauty will be erotic-veiled, exploding-fixed, magic-circumstantial or it will not be).[3] Convulsive beauty is a physical shock, an instant unmediated reaction which has the power to reunite supposed opposites. It provokes profound sensations instantaneously which according to Breton, ‘could not come to us via ordinary logical paths.’

‘La beauté sera convulsive’ is illustrated by a photo by Man Ray captioned ‘explosante-fixe’: a female dancer wearing a full skirt and sleeves, perhaps a flamenco dancer in a trance, captured in a freeze frame with her arms, sleeves and skirt suspended in mid-whirling motion. This fleeting instant captured on film exemplifies ‘convulsive beauty.’ Images, it is suggested, are superior to words as conduits of convulsive beauty, provoking as they do an instant, unmediated reaction. And moving beyond Breton, I contend that music has an even stronger power to convey convulsive beauty. Music can only exist in time and in sound; its action on our senses is literally ‘moving.’ Unlike Breton, the Belgian composer André Souris, a friend and early supporter of Boulez, understood the unique power of music; he believed that ‘the language of music was more apt than any other to faithfully relay the deepest feelings’ and that music was ‘perhaps the medium most suited to surrealist expression.’[4]

The impact of surrealism on Boulez has been underplayed: most obviously, he used a Breton fragment, …explosante-fixe…, as the title of several related works in the 1970s-90s, and this fusion of apparent opposites – explosion and stasis – is a highly apt metaphor for his music. A recording of an early version conducted by Boulez at the Proms on 17 August 1973, when compared with later versions, shows that its musical identity remained remarkably stable. This extract was recycled in later iterations of …explosante-fixe…, including the offshoot Mémoriale (1985).

Explosante Fixe (1973) extract

In a letter to Souris written in 1947, Boulez wrote that his music was about ‘violence, shock, life’ and he believed ‘this is what is most lacking, it seems to me, in every work by the serial “school”.’[5] In the work of Artaud and Breton, Boulez discovered the ‘violence, shock, life’ which is the defining characteristic of his first compositions.

[1] Sarah Barbedette, ‘Différentes façons d’être voyant’ in Barbedette (ed.) Pierre Boulez [exhibition catalogue]. Paris: Actes Sud, 2015: pp. 23-37, at p. 25: ‘Boulez et ses amis doivent s’asseoir devant le premier rang de chaises, et c’est presque « sous » la voix d’Antonin Artaud qu’ils se trouvent lorsque celui-ci profère ses poèmes.’

[2] François Meïmoun, Pierre Boulez: La Naissance d’un compositeur. Paris: Aedam musicae, 2010, p. 59: ‘[…] ce qui n’avait initialement aucun sens prenait d’un coup un sens, et un sens très fort.’

[3] André Breton, ‘La beauté sera convulsive’, in Minotaure, 5 (May 1934): pp. 8-16, at p. 16.

[4] Cited in Robert Wangermée, André Souris et le complexe d’Orphée. Entre surréalisme et musique sérielle, Liège, Mardaga (1995), p. 6; ‘la matière musicale était plus propre qu’aucune autre à épouser fidèlement les mouvements intérieurs […] [la musique constituait ‘peut-être le moyen le plus conforme aux démonstrations surréalistes.’

[5] Wangermée (1995), p. 272; ‘Boulez disait ensuite ce qu’apportait sa propre musique: la violence, le choc, la vie. “C’est ce qui manque le plus, me semble-t-il, à toutes les œuvres de ‘l’école’ atonale”, ajoutait-il.’

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

 

 

25 September 2019

Sounds from Bohemia: exploring the Bohemian Quartet’s recordings of Dvorak and Smetana

Bohemian Quartet drawingBohemian Quartet (Tully Potter collection)

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Rosalind Ventris, a concert violist and teacher of viola and chamber music at the Royal Irish Academy of Music

Listen to these two examples of the opening of Smetana’s String Quartet No.1 in E minor ‘From my life’. First, the Bohemian Quartet recorded in 1928

01 Smetana mvt 1 opening

and now the Pavel Haas Quartet

Here we have two interpretations by Czech quartets separated by almost ninety years, each passionate and invigorating, but how different they sound!

I first became aware of the Bohemian Quartet (or Ceské Kvarteto) in a fascinating talk Robert Philip gave at the IMS Prussia Cove Open Chamber Music in 2013, in which he played their recording of Dvořák’s American Quartet. This initial encounter made a strong impression on me and I have since spent time at the British Library as an Edison Fellow delving into the Sound Archive's collection of early recordings of Czech quartets playing Czech repertoire. The Bohemian Quartet’s recordings are especially revealing, and exemplify an approach to expressivity and ensemble that differs markedly to some performance styles today. In particular, their use of variation in bow technique, portamento, vibrato, tempo and rhythm all stand out as noteworthy. Perhaps surprisingly, performance practice of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Czech music has received less scholarly attention than other national schools, and the work that has been done in this field is not often reflected in performance today.

A particular interest in Dvořák led to my proposing his lesser-known quartets for a recording cycle with my former string quartet (the Albion) for Signum Classics. One of the CDs also features Josef Suk’s short Meditation on the Old Czech Hymn 'St Wenceslas' for String Quartet, Op. 35a. Two discs coincided with initial visits to the British Library. The Edison Fellowship has since provided a valuable opportunity to dig deeper into questions that arose when listening to the Bohemian Quartet and recording Czech string quartets.

Experts in historical recording are united in their praise of the Bohemian Quartet, and particular for their achievement of a genuine equality across the four players. Chamber music specialist Tully Potter describes them as ‘by common consent, the first great modern chamber ensemble’ (liner notes to The Czech Quartet Tradition, Biddulph), and Robert Philip calls them ‘the string quartet acknowledged as the first modern “ensemble of equals”’ (Robert Philip Performing Music in the Age of Recording, 21). Celebrated violin pedagogue Carl Flesch first encountered the Bohemians in 1894, writing in his Memoirs:

Hitherto, one had been accustomed to see in quartet ensembles chiefly a foil for the dominating leader, as was the case above all in the Joachim Quartet... here for the first time one heard ensemble playing by four congenial individualities who were on the same technical level. (Philip Performing Music in the Age of Recording, 122-123)

Their career spanned forty years of chamber music making from the early 1890s to the 1930s, with few changes of membership in that time. By the time the ensemble reached its tenth birthday they had already performed a thousand concerts, and they kept up this pace for most of the quartet’s existence. They toured extensively throughout Europe and collaborated with the likes of clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld (1906), violist Lionel Tertis (1906 and 1929) and many other illustrious musicians. Great composers such as Elgar and Janáček were among their many admirers. On hearing them rehearse his String Quartet Elgar exclaimed, ‘The reason I have lived so long is so as to experience your performance’ (Tully Potter, unpublished chapter). Czech composer Janáček was similarly enthralled by their playing, writing to his muse Kamila Stösslová, ‘I’ve not yet heard anything so magnificent as the way the Bohemian Quartet played my work’ (Tully Potter unpublished chapter). When Czechoslovakia came in to being in 1918 the group changed their name to the ‘Czech Quartet’, although in practice the name ‘Bohemian’ stuck.

Bohemian Quartet 1895The Bohemian Quartet in 1895  Karel Hoffmann, Hanuš Wihan, Oskar Nedbal, Josef Suk

The quartet’s members knew Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) personally and were closely associated with the music of Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884). When the violinist Antonín Bennewitz (1833-1926) became Director of the Prague Conservatory in 1882 he, alongside the cello professor Hanuš Wihan (1855-1920), began encouraging more chamber music at the institution. In 1891, at Wihan’s suggestion, the Bohemian Quartet was formed. The original membership consisted of violinists Karel Hoffmann (1872-1936), Josef Suk (1874-1935), violist Oskar Nedbal (1875-1930) and cellist Otakar Berger (1873-1897). The upper three were pupils of Bennewitz, and Berger studied with Wihan. After Berger’s illness and early death he was subsequently replaced by Wihan, who then became the group’s cellist for the bulk of their career.

The quartet’s teachers were also closely connected to Dvořák and Smetana. Both professors worked alongside Dvořák at the Prague Conservatory (Dvořák later succeeded Bennewitz as Director). Bennewitz gave the public premiere of Quartet No.7 Op.16 in A minor (29th December 1878, Prague). Wihan premiered the ‘Dumky’ Trio with the composer himself at the piano, and was the dedicatee of Dvořák’s B minor Cello Concerto, the arrangement of Silent Woods for cello and piano, and the Rondo in G minor. The Bohemian Quartet’s original members also all had close personal relationships with Dvořák. Three of the group’s founders: Suk, Nedbal and Berger were also Dvořák’s composition students, and Suk was also his son-in-law. The quartet gave the world premiere of Dvořák’s G major quartet Op.106 (9th October 1896), having given the first Prague performance of the A flat Quartet Op.105 earlier in that year on 21st January.

Bennewitz premiered Smetana’s Trio in G minor, and was a founder of the Kammermusikverein in 1876, a chamber music society whose nationalist principles spurred Smetana to write his first string quartet later that year. In the British Library Archive there is a very interesting radio programme from 1995 (H5456/2) by Duncan Druce on ‘From my life’, in which he talks of the initial resistance to this piece in some quarters. The Bohemians, however, made it their own: they first performed it in 1892, and so it was part of their repertoire from the beginning. Nedbal’s delivery of the opening viola solo— turning round to face the audience and playing it from memory— was much commented on by many illustrious witnesses, such as Sir Arnold Bax and Eric Coates.

By the time the Bohemians made their recordings in the 1920s, Hoffmann and Suk were still in the group, but in rather acrimonious circumstances in 1913 Wihan had been replaced by the younger Ladislav Zelenka (1881-1957) and Nedbal by Jiří Herold (1875-1934). (Happily, though, the British Library also has a couple of short recordings of Oskar Nedbal. Nedbal’s departure caused a scandal as he ran off ran off with first violinist Karel Hoffmann's wife in 1906!)

Given its members’ personal connections to Dvořák, the Bohemian Quartet’s recordings should clearly be a starting point for anyone interested in performance practices for this repertoire. With their pedigree it is perhaps particularly striking that the expressive devices that this group used—with one foot still firmly rooted in the nineteenth century—have largely been overlooked, especially when we think of the interest in period performance and the rise of this with regard to the music of nineteenth-century composers. Dvořák seems to have been particularly neglected. As Martin Jemelka has commented in a recent article (‘Antonin Dvořák’s Music made on period instruments’ Czech Music, 2012), only a small handful of chamber music discs of this repertoire touch on historically informed stylistic awareness.

Although the Bohemian Quartet’s recordings date from the 1920s, they clearly embody a fundamentally nineteenth-century performance style. They played on gut strings throughout their careers, there is considerable flexibility in their approach to tempo and use of rubato (they are far from metronomic), ensemble is less tight, rhythms are more gestural than exact, and obviously portamento is much more audibly prevalent than vibrato. There are some lapses of intonation in these recordings, which perhaps should be put down to the players’ advancing years. Since vibrato and portamento have been discussed in studies of historical recordings elsewhere, albeit not greatly in relation to this repertoire, I would like to draw attention here to some different features—those involving the players’ use of the bow.

In a sense it is surprising that the bow has received so little attention, since any string player would agree with Louis Spohr’s proclamation that the bow is the ‘soul of playing’ (Milsom Theory and Practice in late 19th-century violin performance, 34). Robert Philip provides some clarity as to the Bohemian Quartet’s general style, and comments that the

old ‘German’ way of playing extended far beyond Joachim’s direct influence. Different versions of it can be heard in recordings of the Rosé, Bohemian, Capet and the original Budapest Quartet. . . . The so-called German school was therefore not just a narrow group associated with Joachim, but a wider culture of violin playing, which, for a time, resisted the trend towards more powerful and assertive styles. Its preference for a broad style of bowing, and little vibrato, was a continuation of early nineteenth century practice. (Philip Performing Music in the Age of Recording 192-3)

Earlier Philip describes the old German grip 'with the low elbow, the fingers are close together, and roughly at right-angles to the bow.' 

Articulation markings seem to carry implications for bowing that are not exemplified in performances of this repertoire today. Where staccato dots are marked, the stroke is much more varied and often on the string (which is to say that the bow is not lifted off the string at the end of the note, as would be more common in modern performance). Moreover, any figure marked with a dot at the end is sometimes stopped rather than lifted. There are many examples of this in the Bohemian recordings, such as in the second movement Polka from Smetana’s Quartet No.1.

02 Smetana Polka BQ opening

In the score all the un-slurred notes are marked staccato. In this clip these are definitely more on the string before loosening up at the very end of the recording in bar 11.

We can compare the Bohemians with another contemporaneous version available in the British Library, which is similar in its approach to articulation.

03 Smetana Polka Sevcik Lhotsky opening

This recording is by a slightly younger Czech group—the Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet—which was made just a year after the Bohemian Quartet’s own. Again we hear the more on-the-string style that we encountered with the Bohemians. In the Ševčík-Lhotský’s rendition occasionally the bow will be thrown as an effect (e.g. violin 1 second movement bar 11), whereas the Bohemians were a little more controlled here.

Similarly, in the opening of the ‘American’ quartet of Dvořák both Hoffmann and Herold from the Bohemians prefer a more ‘on-the-string’ approach.

04 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ opening

This prevalence for more on-the-string strokes might in part be a result of the old ‘German’ style of bow-hold described above, lending itself more to these kinds of on the string strokes. Clive Brown (in Classical and Romantic Performing Practice 1750-1900) and David Milsom (in Theory and practice in late nineteenth-century violin performance) have also both commented that in the nineteenth-century German school the upper-half of the bow was used more frequently for off-the-string strokes.

It is also noticeable that the Bohemians are not always consistent with their strokes: they sometimes vary articulation on a repeated passage on a second hearing. Often this is clearly for musical variety, but there are also examples where differences in articulation could be down to age. This is illustrated in the accompaniment in the first movement in this passage in the Dvořák ‘American' Quartet.

05 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ acc fig

Clearly Hoffman’s bow control is not the same—or perhaps this could also be put down to different priorities. If you listen again to the very start of the movement in the previous extract you can audibly hear Hoffmann put the bow to the string and the sound is slightly shaky.

It is worth pointing out that the Bohemian’s articulation and right-hand choices often link to emphasising rhythmic shapes and gestures. For instance, double-dotting is apparent in the extracts above in the first movement of the Dvořák ‘American’ and the Smetana ‘From my life’ opening. In the Smetana Polka we heard earlier the ‘quasi Tromba’ theme is double-dotted in the viola and violin, and is particularly striking when it reaches the first violin in terms of rhythmic gesture: the first two quavers of the bar are marked slurred with a dot under the second, and Hoffmann and Herold play with the beat-placement here to make the rhythm particularly dance-like.

06 Smetana Polka BQ rhythm

Hear the opening of third movement of the Dvořák ‘American’ for the same effect

07 Dvorak mvt 3 BQ rhythm

In fact, wherever there are a couple of repeated rhythmic values together they are often played with a lengthening of the first of the group. One good example is the evocative harmonic turning point in the first movement of the Dvořák ‘American’

08 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ flex (2)

Often this rhythmic flexibility will be led by the first violinist, and there are many examples of this throughout the recordings. For me, the Bohemian Quartet’s rendition of the second movement of the Dvořák ‘American’ offers a masterclass in rhythmic flexibility.

In line with nineteenth-century practice the group significantly slows down into more restful passages of music and then rushes through more excited bits: listen again to the opening of the polka extract from the Smetana ‘From my life’ second movement above, and here again is a fuller version of the last extract to show how the group first pushes through, followed by an extreme winding down into the second theme.

09 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ winddown

Portamento is used by the players to emphasise the dissipating of energy in this passage—a device which is used with similarly effective results elsewhere.

The Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet also use rubato and portamenti in the manner of the Bohemians. As a final example, listen to this beautiful, swooping rendition of Osakar Nedbal’s Valse Triste played by the Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet recorded on 28th May 1929.

Disc label Valse TristeDisc label (1CL0074346 BL collections)

10 Nedbal Valse Triste 1CL0074346

Although the Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet clearly had their own very different interpretations of Czech masterpieces, the fact that they also used similar expressive devices as the Bohemians bolsters the argument that these were fundamental to the character of this repertoire and not just the product of an unusual idiosyncratic ensemble.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many ways in which the time spent with these recordings during this Fellowship has influenced my approach to this repertoire in my playing. I am looking forward to building on the work undertaken during my Fellowship with a Research trip next month to Prague, as a recipient of the Royal Irish Academy of Music’s Amplify Grant. This visit will then feed back into my chamber music teaching at the RIAM, to help the students develop a performer-oriented understanding of stylistic traits and broaden their expressive palettes.

I am very grateful to the British Library and to Jonathan Summers for his guidance throughout this Fellowship, and to Tully Potter for sharing his fascinating materials and insights into the world of the Bohemian Quartet with me.

During my fellowship I also wrote an article on Ševčík’s teaching for The Strad magazine.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

09 August 2019

The nightingale sings again - the life, career, and recordings of Beatrice Harrison

Beatrice Harrison with celloBeatrice Harrison with cello (BL Collections)

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Chas Helge who is currently writing his dissertation on Beatrice Harrison

Suddenly, the door opened and the King came in. He was quite alone. He came up to me… saying, 'Nightingale, nightingale,' he said, 'you have done what I have not yet been able to do. You have encircled the empire with the song of the nightingale with your cello.'

These are the words spoken by the cello virtuoso Beatrice Harrison (1892-1965) in 1955 for the BBC Home Service programme Scrapbook for 1924. Harrison, who was once a household name at the height of Great Britain’s colonial empire, lent her first-hand account to help create an historical snapshot of 1924. The monarch she is referencing is King George V. This interview is just one of the rare resources found in the Sound and Moving Image collection at the British Library. My Edison Fellowship facilitated travel to London to access this and many more primary sources for my dissertation exploring the career, life, and recordings of this outstanding early 20th century performer.

Beatrice Harrison’s development was meteoric. She was second of four prodigiously talented sisters: May, Beatrice, Margaret, and Monica. Their early musical studies were supervised by their firebrand of a mother, Annie Harrison. Annie was a talented amateur singer and pianist, and perhaps because she was not able to pursue a musical career herself, mobilized all of her family’s resources to the careers of her children as professional musicians. One of the most fascinating windows into the Harrison family’s lives are their practice journals. The girls were expected to keep meticulous records to document every hour of every day’s productivity. Annie’s devotion and tenacity paid off. Beatrice received exceptional training at the Royal College of Music, the Frankfurt Hoch Conservatory, and the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. While studying with the famous German cello pedagogue Hugo Becker (1863-1941), she won the Mendelssohn Prize at age seventeen.

In their early 20s, Beatrice and her elder sister May Harrison toured Europe and Russia performing the Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello some fifty-nine times. During their travels, they met Gabriel Fauré, Sergei Rachmaninov, Alexander Glazunov, Gustav Holst, and David Popper. The Harrison sisters also brushed shoulders with the world’s political elite including European royalty, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and in England, King George V and his sister Princess Victoria. 

Beatrice and May HarrisonBeatrice and May Harrison (BL Collections)

Beatrice became close friends with Princess Victoria, so close, that it was Princess Victoria who paid for Harrison’s beloved cello, the great ‘Pietro Guarnieri’.  In August 1928 HMV made some private recordings for the Princess.  Here is one of the third movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor featuring Beatrice on the cello and Princess Victoria accompanying her on the piano.

Elgar Adagio with Princess Victoria

Another recording, which can be heard at the British Library, is an interview conducted in 1986 with Margaret Harrison (1899-1995), Beatrice’s younger sister. Margaret herself was a prodigy as the youngest pupil of the Royal College of Music (age 4) and her piano skills were extensive enough that she toured with Beatrice in the United States (they even made it to Texas). Here, we can listen to Margaret create a portal, not only into the life of the Harrison family, but also into the private life of Princess Victoria.

Margaret Harrison interview

Harrison’s greatest claims to fame straddle two different sides of the music world during the 1920s. Today, Harrison’s legacy endures for her recordings of the Elgar Cello Concerto recorded under the baton of Sir Edward Elgar himself. She was his preferred cellist for the concerto and he credited her for popularizing it after its disastrous premiere.  They first recorded it together in 1919 and 1920 by the old acoustic process.

Elgar and Beatrice Harrison recording for HMV in 1920Elgar and Beatrice Harrison recording for HMV in 1920

A new recording was made by the electric process on 23rd March 1928 where two turntables were recording simultaneously.  Using modern digital technology, these two recordings made at the same session have been combined to create a new stereo version.  It also stands as the most accurate representation of what Elgar intended his famous concerto to express.

Elgar Cello Concerto 1928

The second contribution Harrison made was as an international radio superstar.  In 1924, she had a 'hard tussle' (her words) to convince managing director of the BBC Sir John Reith to have sound engineers go to her garden near Oxted in Surrey.  Her vision was to recreate on live radio what she had successfully accomplished herself many times: marry the rich sound of her cello with the song of the nightingale.  In the dark, positioned under an oak tree, surrounded by rabbits, microphones, and wires, Harrison performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s Chant Hindu accompanied by the sound of nightingales to a radio audience of a million people.  Four years later she recreated this for the HMV microphone.

Chant Hindu

HMV label of B2470Label of HMV B 2470 (BL Collections)

Meanwhile, the live broadcast was a hit. It was the first time the BBC had broadcast the sound of birds in their natural habitat. Harrison received more than fifty thousand fan letters and welcomed hundreds of visitors to her estate from every corner of the British Empire. They all hoped to meet ‘The Lady of the Nightingales.’ Harrison and the BBC recreated their broadcast every springtime for twelve consecutive years and later, in the 1955 Scrapbook programme mentioned above.  Here is an excerpt from that broadcast describing what happened in 1924 and ending with her recollection of the King's comments mentioned above.

Scrapbook for 1924 excerpt

Harrison’s success even led to her appearing as herself in the 1943 British propaganda film The Demi-Paradise, and extraordinary scene where she plays in a garden with nightingales during an air raid for a radio broadcast.

Harrison embraced her status as an international British cultural icon and thus named her memoir The Cello and the Nightingales

As an American, the Edison Fellowship was my ticket to accessing not only the British Library’s resources, but many institutions and individuals in London. The Harrison Sisters’ scores at the Royal College of Music and Harrison’s correspondence (contracts, internal memos, and letters) with the BBC at their archives in Caversham. Both the RCM and the BBC Archives were so very kind and helpful, especially the RCM librarians who made dozens of trips into the basement to pull up heavy boxes of music, I thank you for helping this helpless American. 

While in London, I was privileged to meet the two leading Beatrice Harrison historians, David Candlin, Chairman of the Harrison Sisters Trust and Patricia Cleveland-Peck, author of many beloved children’s books and the annotator/editor of Beatrice’s autobiography, The Cello and the Nightingales. David was kind enough to invite me into his home and show me the Harrisons' church and graves and the Music House in Surrey. He also provided access to documents and countless photos I had never seen before. 

Special thanks to Jonathan Summers at the British Library Sound Archive who manages the Edison Fellowships for help and guidance during my stay in London, and for accompanying me in Anton Rubinstein’s Cello Sonata and a Beatrice Harrison manuscript!  Finally, thanks to Cheryl Tipp, curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds, for the use of a recording studio to finish the transcriptions of the recorded interviews. 

Thanks to Somm Recordings for permission to use the Elgar recordings

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

19 July 2019

‘My Other Piano’ – the classical side of Winifred Atwell

Winifred Atwell in the late 1950s

Winifred Atwell in the late 1950s  (1LP0248992 BL collections)

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Uchenna Ngwe who is studying Black classical musicians in Britain before 1960

Little is known about the early years of Winifred Atwell but she is thought to have been born in either 1910 or 1914. By the 1950s the Trinidad-born pianist had become a household name in Britain and Australia but has become a forgotten figure today.

Although various sources claim that Atwell arrived in London in 1946, BBC documents show that she actually appeared on at least two episodes of the radio programme Calling The West Indies in 1945, and was already living in London by this time. Her first appearance was as piano accompanist to a fellow Trinidadian, renowned singer and actor Edric Connor. In 1993, his widow, Pearl Connor, spoke to Stephen Bourne in this unedited interview about Atwell for the BBC Radio 2 programme Salutations.

Pearl Connor C1019/16

Following the 1945 broadcasts, Atwell was asked to perform on the radio on a number of occasions over the next year before her inaugural TV appearance on the BBC’s Stars in Your Eyes on the afternoon of 21st October 1946.

Radio Times 21st October 1946

Winifred Atwell made her name mainly from popular music but, as she continued to show in her stage act, she was also well-versed in standard classical repertoire. Soon after her arrival in Britain, she began taking piano lessons with Harold Craxton (1885 – 1971), a well-respected teacher at the Royal Academy of Music and sought-after accompanist. In another unedited interview for Salutations, Michael Craxton, Harold’s son, described Atwell’s visits to the family home to study with his father.

Michael Craxton C1019/16

After working with a variety of agents from early on in her career, Atwell was represented by Bernard Delfont Ltd from July 1948. Delfont was a former music-hall dancer and theatrical agent before embarking on a career as a successful theatre and leisure impresario – his brothers Lew and Leslie Grade were also theatrical agents before both becoming television executives. This collaboration proved to be very successful and Atwell was in huge demand for her TV, radio and live theatre performances. By the late 1950s she was earning the equivalent of around £4,000 per TV appearance.

Michael Craxton also refers to Atwell's work with his father on Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. On the 28th November 1954, Atwell made her classical debut at the Royal Albert Hall performing this piece with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Stanford Robinson (1904 – 1984). A few days later on the 1st and 2nd of December, Atwell recorded the work for the Decca label with the same ensemble and conductor. These sessions were Decca’s first ever UK stereo recordings but sadly this experiment remains unpublished and the concerto was only issued in mono.

Grieg Piano Concerto

Despite her abilities and considerable public draw, assumptions made due to her race and success outside of the classical genre meant that Atwell was not taken seriously as a classical musician. However, her work mainly with pop and jazz-influenced music led to the achievement of a remarkable amount of success during her career, including two British no. 1 singles – Let’s Have Another Party (1954) and Poor People of Paris (1956). Her highest-ranking classical recording was of the 18th variation from Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsodie on a theme of Paganini, which was performed on the soundtrack of the film The Story of Three Loves by Jakob Gimpel. Atwell’s version, with Wally Stott and his Orchestra, peaked at no. 9 in the UK charts in 1954.

Atwell Rachmaninoff

Winifred Atwell LP

1LP0239366 (BL collections)

I was pleased to correct details of Atwell’s early career through my Edison Fellowship research at the BBC archives at Caversham and to be able to put this into context with the rest of my work on Black music in Britain before 1960.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

26 September 2018

What's that? Surely music - The Gerald Cavanagh Collection

Magid El-Bushra with the Gerald Cavanagh CollectionMagid El-Bushra with the Gerald Cavanagh Collection

By Edison Fellow Magid El-Bushra,

counter-tenor and Assistant Content Producer at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Sudanese boys growing up in Willesden Green tend not to fall in love with opera. But an encounter with Miloš Forman’s classic film Amadeus was to awaken a passion which has, in many ways, guided my life. I searched out scraps of information for myself about the art form until eventually, in my early teens, I arrived at two cultural waterfalls – the Royal Opera House, and BBC Radio 3. So, when I recently discovered that there was a collection of recordings in the British Library of Covent Garden broadcast performances on Radio 3 from the Golden Age of opera, the 1960s-70s, I knew that I had to get my hands on it, and I am eternally grateful to Jonathan Summers and the British Library Edison Fellowship scheme for allowing me to do so.

Gerald (‘Gerry’) Cavanagh, the owner of this collection of recordings, was, like me, an opera fanatic. He died in 2016 at the age of 87, leaving behind a house, two bedsits and a storage unit crammed full of opera-related paraphernalia, which attested to a lifetime dedicated to music and concert-going. Stephen Conrad, a family friend who was charged with the unenviable task of clearing out these properties, told me that in disposing of Gerry’s collection, he had managed to sell 45 feet of LPs! He was an avid collector – what we might now call a hoarder – but we have to remember that Cavanagh was part of a generation starved of culture during the war; music was a vital means of relaxation – something to be held onto.

The Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1961) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1961 by Donald SouthernThe Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1961) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1961. Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House. Used with permission.  Cavanagh was present at the first London performance on 2 February 1961

As a young man in the 1950s, Cavanagh would spend his evenings in his favourite seats in the Upper Slips, (high at the top of the Royal Opera House, but with the best acoustic), with a BOAC shoulder bag hiding a clunky reel-to-reel tape recorder at his feet. (I was desperate to get my hands on those recordings, but unfortunately they seem not to have survived the house clearance!) He loved the core German and Italian 19th century repertoire most of all, but was a child of his time, and took a great interest in the musical developments in opera which occurred during his era. After retiring from a career in scientific research at Imperial College, Cavanagh and his wife Flo increased their cultural excursions from East Croydon, seeing more operas and concerts in a month than most people probably see in a lifetime. If a performance they were attending was being broadcast, they would set their recorder to tape it from the radio.

The Cavanagh Collection (C1734) that has made its way to the British Library consists of 302 reels of such recordings, mainly of broadcasts of live opera performances. There are also a few broadcasts of song recitals and orchestral concerts. In any case, the majority are of performances given at the Royal Opera House, but there are also many from ENO, Sadler’s Wells, the Proms, and from much further afield.

I set about beginning to catalogue the collection over the winter, but with my fellowship coinciding with a busy new day job at none other than the Royal Opera House, I always knew I wouldn’t have time to log every reel. Therefore, I decided to set particular emphasis on the recordings of operas from the ROH itself, as well as the recordings of contemporary operas, and to see where and to what extent there was an overlap between the two. My aim was to get a picture of what the collection can tell us about the context in which Gerald Cavanagh was consuming this operatic content.

As the majority of the recordings are taken from BBC broadcasts, I knew that the possibility that some would already exist in the British Library archive would be quite high. There are duplicates, but this does not mean the exercise has been a waste of energy. For example, the ROH broadcast of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten conducted by Georg Solti from 17 June 1967, which already exists in the archive under the shelf mark 1CDR0028477, notes that ‘[the] recording has heavy distortion’, so it’s gratifying to know that backup now exists in Cavanagh C1734/044-045 for anyone who, like me, loves this opera. 

Donald McIntyre as Barak and Inge Borkh as Barak’s Wife in The Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'Die Frau ohne Schatten' (1967) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1967Donald McIntyre as Barak and Inge Borkh as Barak’s Wife in The Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'Die Frau ohne Schatten' (1967) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1967.  Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House. Used with permission.

With few exceptions, each reel is accompanied by a clipping from the Radio Times with details of the performance, and the date helpfully written in Cavanagh’s neat hand. I say helpfully, but sometimes one has to account for human error; for example, he dates the first broadcast performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Taverner (C1734/210) as 15 July 1962, when the opera wasn’t premiered for another 10 years.

To demonstrate the breadth of the collection, I have included some entries from further afield, such as Szymanowski’s Hagith (C1734/128), which appears rather exotically in a live performance in Italian with the RAI Symphony Orchestra. Finnish composer Aarre Merikanto’s modernist masterpiece Juha (C1734/252, previously unknown to me) is also in the collection. The latter sounds a bit like Schoenberg orchestrating an opera written by Bartók to a libretto that Janáček would have been drawn to (young woman in small town is married to lame old man but gets seduced by dishy merchant. Tragedy ensues).

There are also opportunities to hear broadcasts which one would expect either to already be in the archive, or to already have been released commercially, such as Turandot, starring Birgit Nilsson and James King, broadcast on 15 January 1971, (C1734/282), and the world premiere of Tippett’s King Priam from 29 May 1962 (C1734/018). This performance was given by The Covent Garden Opera Company at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, ahead of its subsequent premiere at Covent Garden, and I am delighted to have been able to identify these and add them to the Sound and Moving Image (SAMI) catalogue.  Indeed, the works of Michael Tippett feature prominently in the Gerald Cavanagh Collection.  Here is an extract from Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage from 22 April 1968 with the following cast - Alberto Remedios, Joan Carlyle, Raimund Herincz, Elazabeth Harwood, Stuart Burrows, Helen Watts, Stafford Dean and Elizabeth Bainbridge with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

Whats that? Surely music

Equally prominent are the key works of the 19th century Italian operatic repertory.  This excerpt, from Bellini's La Sonambula, broadcast on 20 March 1971, has the cast of Renata Scotto, Stuart Burrows, Forbes Robinson, David Lennox, Heather Begg, George Macpherson and Jill Gomez with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden conducted by Carlo Felice Cillario.

La Sonnambula

But what was always most interesting to me in this venture was not so much the process of cataloguing the collection. What really captured my imagination was more what the collection itself says to us as a piece of historical evidence. Because C1734 is more than just a collection of old tapes – it’s actually a snapshot of a cultural attitude which speaks volumes about how the process of listening to opera is shaped by our cultural institutions, not only in the 1960s and 70s, but also today. Who gets to decide what we listen to?

Despite the many transformations BBC Radio has undergone since the BBC’s foundation in 1922, the guiding principle of Inform, Educate, Entertain is one which can still be perceived today. The decisions and cultural objectives of a handful of men during those early days (from BBC founder John Reith, to BBC Music Directors Percy Pitt and Adrian Boult) would go on to shape public attitudes towards music and culture for decades to come. The Third Programme (forerunner to BBC Radio 3) ran from 1946 – 1970, and quickly established itself as one of the major channels for the dissemination of culture in Britain, with its commitment to the erudite exploration of the fine arts for six hours every evening.

The period covered by Cavanagh’s collection of tapes broadly corresponds to that of William Glock’s tenure as BBC Controller of Music (1959 – 1972). Under Glock, the Third Programme sought to define the BBC as an internationally recognised central point, from which the very newest music at the cutting edge of compositional trends would be broadcast into the living rooms of ‘ordinary’ people just like Gerry. During Glock’s tenure, those six hours every evening were expanded by 100 hours a week to a full daily schedule, which provided fertile ground for Glock (avoiding what he referred to as “the danger of musical wallpaper”) to support and nurture new music and new artists. This fit in squarely with the BBC’s lofty educational goal of forming and edifying the cultural taste of the nation.

The Royal Opera House, on the other hand, was then, and is now a completely different kind of cultural institution to the BBC, and with a completely different set of objectives and values. While there had been a recognised need to establish an opera company of international calibre at Covent Garden after the Second World War, music publishers Boosey and Hawkes (who acquired the lease for the building in 1944) and new Chairman and economist John Maynard Keynes all agreed that the fledgling permanent ensemble had to be run above all by a businessman. That businessman was David Webster, who had started his career in retail. Although the utopian dream was to create “a national style of operatic presentation which would attract composers and librettists to write for it” (according to John Tooley, Webster’s successor), “there were factors at work which would inevitably take Covent Garden down other paths”. In other words – the business objective of selling tickets took over from the cultural objective of nurturing new, indigenous work.

“In the fifty years since reopening after the war”, wrote Tooley in 1999, “less opera has been composed for Covent Garden than was originally hoped for”. Indeed, although contemporary opera is given space in The Royal Opera’s annual programming, the list of operas given their premiere at the theatre reads like a roll call of works which either met with critical disapproval, or simply sank without trace. Britten’s Gloriana (C1734/010, the Coronation gala premiere of which Gerry attended in 1953) was played to a “largely uncomprehending and unsympathetic audience”. Henze’s The Bassarids (C1734/192) was touted as an option for The Royal Opera but never made it (instead being recorded by Cavanagh from a concert performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra), as Webster was unenthusiastic. Richard Rodney Bennett’s Victory (C1734/136) and Tippett’s The Knot Garden (C1734/227) were both premiered by The Royal Opera “and ideally should have been repeated, but unfortunately our limited resources made that impossible”. The commitment to contemporary opera during this period seems half-hearted, more like a secondary consideration.

Anne Howells as Lena and Donald McIntyre as Axel Heyst in The Royal Opera production of 'Victory' (1970) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1970Anne Howells as Lena and Donald McIntyre as Axel Heyst in The Royal Opera production of 'Victory' (1970) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1970. Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House.  Used with permission.

Although there is a great deal of traditional operatic fare in C1734, what is fascinating to me is the sheer breadth and range of new opera that leaps out from the collection, most of which we simply do not hear any more. In the selection I have catalogued, there are four versions of Tippett’s King Priam alone, not to mention the four separate recordings of Britten’s Billy Budd. Among many other examples, Robin Orr’s Hermiston (C1734/238), Henze’s beautiful and witty Elegy for Young Lovers (C1734/280), and Thomas Wilson’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (C1734/213 – another new addition to the SAMI catalogue, I’m pleased to add) all rub shoulders with classics such as La Fille du Régiment, Otello and La Clemenza di Tito, painting a picture of a wonderfully eclectic and richly informed musical taste.

The irony is that Glock’s key policy of programming challenging, contemporary opera – the policy which seems to have done so much to shape Cavanagh’s musical interests – seems to have dwindled in recent decades. Conversely, since the refurbishment of Covent Garden, and the resulting addition of the Linbury Theatre nearly 20 years ago, The Royal Opera now has more space to devote to experimental work than it ever did. Glock’s idea that at the independent BBC, change should be preferable to stability, and that novelty guarantees value, has arguably been replaced by a ratings war with Classic FM, diluting the station’s content with what the Daily Mail calls “phone-ins and presenter chatter”.

The relationship between the two institutions, although necessarily symbiotic, has often been fraught by financial contretemps, usually, according to Tooley, when BBC budget constraints have forced the ROH to seek relationships with other broadcasters. But there still remain strong ties, with the BBC’s current chief Tony Hall having arrived direct from the equivalent position at Covent Garden being a prime example of this. These ties hint at my original question about who gets to decide what we listen to. It was a network of men from a certain background who assumed responsibility for curating the content which shaped Cavanagh’s musical horizons. Perhaps today we find something slightly distasteful in the idea of an Oxbridge-educated elite deciding what the cultural diet of an ‘ordinary’ listener should consist of, and yet it is possible to perceive that this is changing, and that people from more diverse backgrounds are now contributing, bit by bit, to the landscaping of the operatic ecology.

Nowadays, our musical resources exist digitally, to the extent that C1734 seems like an anachronism. I imagine most people under the age of 30 would regard one of Cavanagh’s reel tapes as an artefact from another planet. But there’s something hugely pleasurable about the process of setting up a reel-to-reel player, sitting back, and entering into Gerry’s analogue sound world. Maybe one day someone will catalogue the boxes of millennial minidisc recordings in my attic of the broadcast performances I used to record before the advent of online streaming. It’s comforting to know that there might be a place for them, in the same way that it’s comforting to know that Gerald Cavanagh’s collection – forged over a lifetime of discovery, shaped by a cultural landscape which valued investment both in operatic tradition and in operatic innovation – is now safe in the archives of the British Library, not surviving precariously in a damp storage unit in south London. The collection is a real treasure trove for anyone interested in opera, but more than that, it’s a window into another life, glimpsed through the prism of opera.

Gerald and Florence CavanaghGerald and Florence Cavangh at Glyndebourne.  Photo by Stephen Conrad

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