Monday 14th October 2013 In the Chapel of Unrest

In the end, Hoping It Might be So put up less of a fight than I expected.  The one serious obstacle to finishing it was solved by a more than usually savage piece of darling-murder.  The first section that I composed was a setting of Edward Thomas's humane meditation The Owl; it popped almost complete into my head and composing it felt like the work of an amanuensis.  After some time spent wrestling with the structure of the overall piece I realised that this setting was the problem, partly because it was too big a chunk for the musical structure and arrested the flow between movements - nearly all of which are very short - and partly because it caused too big a diversion the narrative flow of the texts.  I took a deep breath and out it went; from that moment the music came easily.  The best solutions are always simple and sometimes draconian.

One of the texts is one I have never seen written down, a song remembered from childhood.  Misremembered probably:

Ah Mary
Sit thou on I knee
Kiss I under the mistletoe
And I shall find a fine fat goose for thee.
Ah Mary
Give I to eat of thy fine red apples
And thou shall see
What thou shall see.

Of course it is sung by the men!  This time the solution to fitting it into the overall shape was addition not subtraction.  I had a sudden vision of happy drunks tottering through the St Albans Abbey orchard (perhaps I was one of them) while all the bells rang out for Christmas and decided to make the female voices into  bells, with a nice obvious text:

Hodie Christus natus est 
hodie Salvator apparuit: 
hodie in terra canunt Angeli, 
laetantur Archangeli: 

First the drunks, then the bells, then both together and I am quite pleased with the cumulative effect of it.  I hope the god I don't believe in will forgive me for the juxtaposition of words; I did at least change "Mary" to "Sally", mostly for reasons of choral texture but there may have been a touch of concern for the performances that take place in churches next month!

Anyways, the score and programme note are delivered, the translator is beavering away at  the middle English verses and all I have to do is write a short pronunciation guide for the singers.  The first performance is on December 1st in Baden Baden, after which it goes on tour.  Here's the link to the premiere:


No specific mention of my piece in the listing.  I don't blame the Festspielhaus for that one little bit; they have tickets to sell and know that a phrase like neues Chorwerk can be the kiss of death on a programme.  It's a tuneful piece, edgy in its thought not its language but even so audiences are wary; and that is the single biggest issue confronting we composers who are not yet safely dead.

Friday 6th September 2013, Hamburg
The day of the UA dawns hot and sultry: up betimes to swing my clubs on the banks of the Alster; as ever, an hour slinging the skittles engenders a nice empty mind with no thought for the stresses ahead.  Public speaking doesn't, in the main, bother me even though today contains a radio interview, two spots talking to the audience in the Laeiszhalle and a brief shouted announcement from the gallery.  Talking rot is probably the thing I do best but German has taken up residence in the wrong bit of my brain; I can put on the Italian language like an old cardigan but Deutsch always feels like a stiff new pair of trousers, maybe a pair a little too small for me.  Hellish hard to dance in them - or in it for that matter.  Still, I stick to the habits of a lifetime and refuse to prepare beyond adding a couple of words to my already eccentric vocabulary.  How wonderful to discover from K that there is a verb, mästen, meaning to overfeed an animal.  I suppose it comes from the same root as beech mast which, after all, is fed to pigs during the pannage season.  Whatever the origin, it'll do for my explanation of Empress.  Hoist with me own petard I am: should have checked on Amazon.de to see if PG Wodehouse is popular here.
Thursday 5th September 2013, Hamburg

Tottering back to the hotel after this morning's rehearsal, I spot a shop selling novelty solar-powered models of the Queen at €19 a pop, which in my book is a bit steep for an impulse buy.  She has a powder-pink coat, a regrettable hat and a corgi, and the solar panel is there to provide the energy for a restrained wave of the white-gloved hand.  NDR has one hell of a publicity machine at its disposal; has its reach extended to influencing the sort of kitsch on sale in novelty shops?  No more of that; that way madness lies.  Smile and wave, Dear, it's what you're paid for.  Bit like being a composer sometimes...

I find I am looking forward to the concert.  This is unusual but welcome.

Wednesday 4th September 2013,  Hamburg

I knew the piece would work at a technical level but it's never certain whether something will hit the spot emotionally until it's out in the open air - and humour has no defences; it either works or it doesn't.  Customary knot in stomach, customary sense of privacy violated every time someone tries out a solo (I have never understood why hearing people noodling with bits of one's piece should provoke that reaction in me, but it always does), customary O Shit as the oboe gives the A.  

A relief to be sitting upstairs in the gallery for my first hearing; not so much for the clarity of sound but for the time it takes to get from there to the platform.  An unplayed piece is an internal, private thing.  Hearing it inflated and filling a hall is exhilarating but disturbing as well.  It makes me wobbly and inarticulate and the walk downstairs is just long enough for me to get my breath and recover the power of speech.  Not that there is much to say, they play the thing so magnificently: a thank you, a miscopied note spotted, a question about tasto  or ponticello.   I decide not to mention the fact that in Summer Lightning  Wodehouse asserts that oboes are always savage in captivity because the oboes in this orchestra seem to be not at all savage and also are unfazed by some writing for their instrument that is not wholly benign.  I do ask the brass to play louder, because a little of what you fancy does you good and this morning I fancy some punch: as I do so, one has a sense of the strings limbering up in response.  Second time through, the Empress most definitely had the requisite avoirdupois.

Rem actiu tegitisti, Jeeves.

Tuesday 6th August 2013, Ferrara

These days, lack of religious belief is frequently an aggressive business.  Not in my case: I don't believe in God but I do miss Him, and find the spectacle of minor scientists ridiculing believers as emetic as their pious pratings about the beauties of Nature.  Little men on the make: Darwin may have been right but that is no cause for triumphalism and you can't blame people for running into the arms of the nearest deity when the evolutionary creed has recruited such a shower for a priesthood.

It feels strange in this flattening heat to be considering Christmas texts but now that Empress of Blandings is finished and delivered, the Yuletide cantata is the next project on the bench.  I have spent days walking the streets wondering how  to celebrate the son of a God I don't believe in.  I do celebrate Christmas and though the Pagan midwinter feast is certainly a part of what we do, it is not the whole.  The story is compelling by itself but my engagement with the festival isn't narrative; the meaning of the Christmas story exerts a hold even on the mind of a calm unbeliever like me.

A key to choosing my texts came from Emily Dickinson's Poem 248:

Why—do they shut Me out of Heaven?
Did I sing—too loud?
But—I can say a little "Minor"
Timid as a Bird!

Wouldn't the Angels try me—
Just—see—if I troubled them—
But don't—shut the door!

Oh, if I—were the Gentleman
In the "White Robe"—
And they—were the little Hand—that knocked—

It reads like a madrigal text and will probably get that sort of setting once I sit down to work.  A childlike demand; why do I need a saviour?  Are you really going to give me over to those comic demons on the front of the cathedral?  That for me is a pivot: I shall start with conventional celebratory verses then seek something more secular on the theme of redemption.  Not a solution, but the start of a journey towards one.
Saturday 3rd August 2013, Ferrara

They would not guess how early in 
Their supine stationary voyage 
The air would change to soundless damage, 
Turn the old tenantry away; 
How soon succeeding eyes begin 
To look, not read.

Philip Larkin An Arundel Tomb

I rise each day at dawn and make my way to the Baluardo Borso d'Este.  This massive fortification, now tumbledown and overgrown, is a place of peculiar quiet; even the cicadas seem subdued early in the day.  It is a perfect place to swing my Indian clubs for an hour before the heat becomes too intense for athletics.  I return at sunset for another session in the baked, exhausted air and spin the sticks in contratempo to an arhythmic church carillon calling the faithful to Vespers.  It feels a kindly, gentle place and yet it was created by fear, a defence against the armies of Venice who were the eternal enemies of the Este.  Well, time and chance happeneth to everything under the sun and I find myself brooding on notions of authenticity.

The west door of the duomo is supported by two Telamons, one old and one young.  No heroic atlantes these: the weight they bear crushes them and they sit with eyes bulging as columns drive deep into their shoulders.  Their burdens seem to say "from the cradle to the grave we will grind you down" and for the people who first saw them, that must have seemed about right.  The Este, who married into the Borgia were, for all their enlightened patronage of the arts, a brutal bunch.

These striving peasants aren't the 12th century originals that Copernicus looked down on from his lodgings above the square and who had to listen to the rantings of that old mountebank Savonarola, but copies made in the 1750s.  The earlier figures are preserved in the narthex of the cathedral, worn and friable but still vigorous in outline and stance.  Comparing the two, the later copies seem to me to be softer for all their fidelities of detail.  The originals express a Dantean despair, as if they know there will be no end to their misery whereas the in the later versions, the old man looks as if he is overdue for a break and a bit puffed out, but one can believe his shift will end and he can go home. The younger fellow just seems bored - or stupid.  Has time transformed them into untruth, like Philip Larkin's couple in Arundel?  We can't know, and it doesn't matter that we can't.  If anything we make in this distracted age manages to be durable, the endless altered people will in succeeding generations wash at its identity and make from it something of their own.  The trick for an artist now as in every age is to be truly of his time.

Friday 2nd August 2013, Ferrara

Mahler said a symphony should be like the world.  Well, maybe it should though I tend toward seeing a world in a grain of sand rather than trying to cram the planet into a procrustean score.  I will never draw any useful conclusion about the relationship of form to content but this town has plenty of lessons to enrich my perplexity.

Take the Basilica of St George.  The front is a tumultuous Last Judgement carved by French masons 900 years ago and is in its way as rich in characterisation as Chartres or Wells - though without their serenity: the demons ministering to the Ferrara damned have something of the Bash Street Kids about them and every crevice is crammed with pop-eyed gargoylery.  One should never forget that the past is another country, yet when contemplating these ancient stones, I cannot help feeling that the saved on the right hand of the Father are wringing their hands with self-satisfaction as they make their way to Paradise.  Why shouldn't they?  We hear a lot about survivor guilt but rather less about survivor smirking, which has always struck me as a more credible trait in the black little soul of mankind.

The rest of the building is a muddle of patched earthquake damage, Catholic kitsch and incoherently assembled bricks.  It is the nearest thing I have seen in Europe to a shack, albeit a magnificent one: Moruga comes to Emilia Romagna and brings ramshackle glory in its wake. My favourite caprice of all is on the south side.  The long galleries sport a forest of different columns, as if the master builder - who was called Nicholaus though we know little else about him -  had said OK lads, we've done the hard graft now get out the chisels and the rum and have a some fun with they pillars.  What fun they had!  Here is a pair of columns with knock knees, another like zigzags of parallel lightning, two are loosely bound together with a wonky stone vine.  There is no pattern to them; I gave up searching for one years ago and now I am content to sit in the square and delight in the stone games played high up under the roof.  

A wise man, a stonemason in Cirencester, once made my jaw drop by taking a chisel bought in Robert Dyas that morning and fitting it onto the grooves on a Saxon font: their tools and ours are the same, only the minds are different.  He explained the concentration of mediaeval stone carving thus: they had bigger spaces than we do in their heads between the things they knew.  We are pygmies beside them.  And so we are, but maybe some of this joy comes from the simple fact that the tidy administrative minds that run our captive world hadn't yet evolved (if evolution can run backwards) and there was nobody to tell those men Thou Shalt Not.  

The Greek Orthodox explain the gorgeous interior decoration of their churches as a foretaste of Paradise: it seems to me that the men who put up Ferrara cathedral wanted the exterior of theirs to reflect the exuberance and muddle of earthly life.  Fanciful?  Maybe so - but it could be that not just symphonies can be like the whole world.
Thursday 1st August 2013, Ferrara

FERRARA! in thy wide and grass-grown streets,
Whose symmetry was not for solitude,
There seems as ’t were a curse upon the seats
Of former sovereigns, and the antique brood
Of Este, which for many an age made good
Its strength within thy walls, and was of yore
Patron or tyrant, as the changing mood
Of petty power impelled, of those who wore
The wreath which Dante’s brow alone had worn before.

George Gordon Noel, Lord Byron Childe Harolde's Pilgrimage

If I have a spiritual home it is here and though it is not yet time to uproot myself, I retain the conviction that I shall lay my bones in the cemetery inside the north east walls when the time comes. The streets are no longer grass-grown and the ones I particularly love, such as the via delle Volte, are anything but broad. (I sometimes imagine Byron walking with me down that vaulted alley but he is not congenial company and in my mind I send him packing with a boot up the backside).  Nevertheless, this is a city as unchanged as Venice and every return to its familiar sights is a homecoming. 

It was love at first sight: my first visit was a runout concert from Bologna in December 1985, a programme of Paganini violin concertos with Salvatore Accardo.  It had been a congenial enough trip but I was tired and I might have contented myself with doing the gig and getting back on the bus had I not run out of toothpaste that morning.  A quick foray out of the Teatro Communale in search of a Standa brought me into the main square: one look at the magnificent, dotty cathedral and my heart was stolen away.  Banishing all thoughts of dental hygiene, I stood and stared and was very nearly late for the concert.  I do not know how many times I've been back here since; scores, not yet a hundred but I could imagine reaching that total if I don't take the plunge soon and emigrate.  

Biagio Rossetti's town plan, still intact after 500 years, is harmonious without sacrificing the variety of the buildings.  If I have an intractable think to get through, walking these streets often helps me to a conclusion.  We cannot escape the assumptions and confinements of our own time, but even in these chaotic days we can borrow the order of another age and use it to heal ourselves.

Sunday 14th July 2013, St Albans

I don't remember when I started swinging Indian clubs. It was a long time ago, though my magpie obsession with them and their uses took some time to develop. At first I just hoped that rotating and stretching my ruined hands and wrists might slow their deterioration. Certainly it's done that - in fact much of the damage seems to have gone into reverse. But softly softly the complex, beautiful moves that make up this curious art form have taken over my spare time. It is as much a meditation as an exercise; the swings need a lot of concentration and the desire to do it well keeps the body working far longer than it would with a mere workout. A long session leaves you with loose limbs, a clean brain and a back like something from Stonehenge. The practice is so addictive that nowadays a pair of clubs goes with me everywhere.

Though I enjoy the heft of an Iranian meel (like a giant lopsided rolling pin) and the whippy spin of a slender "teardrop", most of the time I am content to play my obsessive games with a pair of elegant three-pound clubs turned for me by an enthusiast in Sheffield. They are known as the Sim D Kehoe pattern: they are beautifully balanced and dance in the hands. Of course, synaesthesia is never far away and when back at the desk after a session I detect a change in my melodic style: regular surges of energy as though the tug of a spinning club has found its way into the music. That's no surprise: composing is a very physical process with me and if I can't feel the piece in my limbs as well as hear it in my head, I don't feel ready to mark the page. Frustrations find expression in broken pencils and growling and sometimes the only way to get rid of them and return to an artistic frame of mind is to sling a mace around my head a couple of hundred times. Music as combat: the neighbours long ago christened my studio the Chapel of Unrest.

I'm not alone in finding inspiration from my gada, meels and teardrops. It turns out that Sir John Harnsworth, the entrepreneur who bought Source Perrier in 1903 and created the famous brand, was an Indian club enthusiast too. Anxious to create a distinctively shaped bottle, he modelled it on one of his own clubs. I don't know if his were Kehoe pattern but I like to think they were: the similarity is striking. It is comforting to think that if BA ever lose my battered suitcase and leave me stranded in some distant land without my beloved pieces of wood, I can pop round to the supermarket, invest in a couple of Sir John's tubby green bottles and keep myself twirling that way.

Funny old thing, creativity.

Wednesday 29th May 2013 St Albans

In February 1995 I was involved in a trivial accident in a bar on Alt-Moabit in Berlin which has just had consequences of a physiological and artistic nature.  I had  drifted into working at the Staatsoper unter den Linden; players of historical instruments were rarer then than they are nowadays, and getting on a plane to plug a sackbut-shaped hole in a continental orchestra was almost a weekly occurrence.  We were playing Alceste in the Pariser Fassung: the orchestra was glorious and the second bassoon performed in stockings festooned with appliqué silver treble clefs (treble not bass or tenor, which I found eccentric), a circumstance that pleased me more than it had any business to. Every other evening for what felt like weeks  I grappled with a beastly high obbligato in an aria for Hercules and joined in with the customary chorus of furies or whatever they were.  For some reason I felt as if I was in a Fellini film.  At one performance, a deus ex machina floating above the stage lost his plaster wig, which narrowly missed a dancer and shattered on impact, and the call to doom Charon t'appelle; attend sa voix was sung from within a papier-mâché skull the size of a small cottage which put me in mind of the ghost train in Margate's Dreamland, where I worked after leaving school and which took me in after my dismissal from a bingo hall on the sea front (I couldn't remember the caller's rubric and kept saying things like two fat ladies number twelve or Kelly's Eye number three: this upset the serious-minded customers more than somewhat).  As far as opera went, I was happy in my work, there was no bingo to worry about (do they play bingo in Germany?) and there was plenty of time to potter round the city.

DDR had been swept away less than five years before (I occasionally wondered if all my colleagues were aware of this fact) and Berlin was still recognisable as its Cold War self, riven by relics of the Wall and home to all manner of itinerants and crazies including, I suppose, me.  The infrastructure didn't work, it was cold and wet and falling down; it was a dump, and I loved it.  (Now it isn't a dump at all and though I regularly return for the art and theatre, it has become a difficult city to love.  It has lost its figure but if I could feel that, having forsaken glamour, it had reverted to gin-soaked, fag-smoking disreputability complete with fluffy slippers and hair in curlers, I would be content.  But as the Germans say, it is ganz nett and if its kindly, sharp-eyed recorder of street life, Heinrich Zille, were to be brought back from whichever stygian Stube is receiving his patronage these days, I very much doubt if he'd even trouble to get out his easel: he'd take one look at the place in all its tidiness, hare off  to the shiny new Hauptbahnhof near the Reichstag and get the hell out of town in search of less blander pastures.)

It is a curious fact that musicians working at what JC Squire called The highest pinnacle of human civilisation often feel the need to counterbalance it with a bit of rough, particularly in the shape of vile bars.  Indeed, some of us pride ourselves on being able to find noisome dives even in hygienic countries like Switzerland and Singapore.  My hellhole of choice that month was an Eck-Kniepe, long since demolished, which in those days had clearly not been cleaned since Kennedy's jam doughnut speech and whose regulars appeared not to have seen soap and water for some time before that.  The quality of shopfitting in there was on a level with the rest of the place and I felt at home, subsisting on a diet of Berliner Weiss, Boulette and a collected works of Kafka purchased for a couple of marks from a barrow next to the Zoobahnhof.

It was the shopfitting what done it.  A modest fight broke out near where I was sitting, as happened most evenings.  These were slow-motion affairs: I do not know if the combatants could punch their way out of a paper bag or not, but the Kessel of alcohol and cigarette smoke that surrounded them certainly slowed the footwork.  Being big and ugly and relatively sober, I wasn't bothered by the bout and ploughed on with In The Penal Colony, oblivious of the pugilists until one of them lost his balance and crashed into my table, demolishing it and me.  The wood splintered: I didn't but I was quite cross.  As always on these occasions, my fearsome command of foreign tongues found voice: I say do look where you're going, there's a good chap.  I found another seat and resumed reading until I noticed that my foot felt wet, looked down and saw that quite a generous bit of wood was stuck in my leg: the bruising of the fall had made it numb and I hadn't noticed that my shoe was filling with blood.  Perhaps I wasn't as sober as I thought I was.

A 17-stone nurse of decidedly Demokratische Republik provenance dug out the bigger bits of chipboard, trying not to smile when I howled (unlike the English, the Germans do not find my physical cowardice endearing) and smiling grimly when the tetanus injection struck a bone.  I was alive, she seemed to say, what was my problem?

I'd forgotten about the incident until this morning at five, when an incipient caffeine headache was doing battle with my desire for ten more minutes in bed.  Feeling a sharp pain in my thigh, I located what felt like a hard, sharp blister and after a little exploration extracted a splint of wood; an inch long, as hard as iron, as sharp as a scalpel and as clean as clean could be.  Why my body had decided on today to expel it, I couldn't say but I have since learned that soldiers wounded in battle sometimes excrete old bullets forty years after they went in.  I shall keep the splinter: we've been through a lot together, it and I.

I often say that the mind is a muscle, and this struck me as having a neat parallel with the way the imagination works: and given my fondness for likening musical ideas to pieces of timber I was thoroughly pleased with the metaphor.  I sought out my diary for February 1995 to see what I'd written about it at the time.  Nothing: it didn't merit so much as a sentence but what I did find was a very strange story indeed, about an undertaker's daughter that, if the beer and ketchup stains on the paper are any guide, I must have written in the  Eck-Kniepe around that time.  I shall give it a good old going over and see where it takes me.  And if something can be made of it, I shall call it The Splinter.

Monday 20th May 2013.  St Albans

Some sense can be made of the cancelled Tannhäuser at Düsseldorf. Let's put to one side the searing originality of a mind that says Ooh look, a Wagner opera let's put Nazis in it and then, on learning that this has been done before, sticks a concentration camp on stage just to sex up the shock value.  It's an adolescent response to the piece but let's accept that artistic freedom is absolute and therefore has to include the freedom to be a twerp, on the understanding that this brings in its wake the liberty to take enough rope to hang yourself with.  Forget about it.  We've all seen worse.

Unpleasantness is common enough in theatre and there's nothing wrong with it.  Can you imagine a movie with the storyline of Rigoletto?  Pasolini himself would have balked at the idea. Is there a nastier moment anywhere than the blinding of Gloucester?  Yes, Aeschylus and Sophocles are way out in front of Shaky when it comes to horror.  Can you listen to The Lighthouse all the way through with the lights out?  I can't.  Even we little guys do it: in The Secret Agent, at the end of the peroration the narrator opened a suicide waistcoat, walked into the audience and pressed the detonator.  It caused a deal of offence but I felt that having spent three hours exploring the spiritual emptiness that makes terrorism possible, it was logical to end by looking at the reality. 

And there's the nub of the matter: logic.  If your piece genuinely needs Auschwitz on the stage, do it - and to hell with what people say.  Don't leave out the gas chambers or any of the other obscenities because it's not a subject you should sanitise; I thought the opera of Sophie's Choice suffered because the staging wasn't vile enough.  But the connection has to be  mature and organic, not shallow like this: the association of Wagner with the NSDAP was a feat achieved by empty souls like Dr Goebbels and says as much about the creator of Tristan as the fact that Pope Gregory ordered the Cesena Massacre tells us about the Mozart Requiem.  It isn't worth revisiting and only a bankrupt imagination does so. 

Instead, let's consider what it tells us about the balances in opera production.  Gesamtkunstwerk is not a fusion of equals: compare the effort that Wagner himself expended on words and music compared with staging.  Read the Strauss/Hofmansthal correspondence and the rather more interesting letters between Verdi and Boito.  All understood and accepted Gluck's precept that everything must be subordinate to the telling of the story and didn't waste time on critical theory or commentary or any of the other distractions that beset us today.  Their art is rich enough not to need these things and their own productions were simple and relevant.  It is starting to look as if we are getting things badly out of balance.

I don't know how musically capable the director in Düsseldorf is.  For all I know he can read a score as well as I can.  I do know that there are plenty of people in his line of work who can't and who don't see why they should, whose grasp of music is that of an amateur and whose careers depend not on depth of understanding but on the next gaudy fashion statement.  Why take a complex many-layered work and stage it in a crass, two-dimensional way?  My guess is that it often happens because the director in question isn't equipped to see the layers.  If you are involved in music drama and cannot read a score with the same precision as a theatre director can read a script, you are a functional illiterate.  If you haven't bothered to invest the necessary time in acquiring this basic skill (time is all it takes) then you aren't interested enough in the music and every decision you make about opera is going to be poorly informed at the very best - because you cannot see how much of your job has been done by the composer.  And you shouldn't be doing the job.  Knowing your theatre history and putting glosses and subtext on a piece is just graffiti and (sorry Banksy) deserves to be treated as such.

The deeper concern is that we have become too interested in interpretation as opposed to realisation.  Every time some blockhead of a conductor decides to help a composer out by taking his work at double speed (or, God help us, re-orchestrates a tricky bit), every time a stage director puts the cast of Ballo in Maschera on the toilet or sets Don Giovanni on the moon, they may well elicit gasps from their home claque but they diminish the culture they are supposed to be serving; not because those things are wrong in themselves but because they spring from the cardinal artistic sin of striving for effect.  Guys, it's not about you: on the worst days of their lives Wagner, Mozart, Verdi, Boito, Da Ponte and von Hofmansthal were better at the job than you or I will be on the best days of ours.  They don't need your help, so keep it simple already.  Lay off the commentary; we don't need it and you aren't up to it.  And yet in many places I notice that the stage director is receiving more and more attention, to the point where the composer is relegated to second place.  It's a power grab by people whose job isn't quite unnecessary but which matters a great deal less than they would wish.

The performances of Tannhäuser aren't being cancelled, they're being given as concerts. I bet they'll be sold out and I bet they'll be superb.  Now, just suppose that this scandal had broken not because of the production but because the orchestra and singers weren't any good, and suppose the theatre had decided to cancel the music and just sell tickets to a silent view of the staging.  A couple of people might have come for half an hour out of curiosity, but Tannhäuser would have been absent and so would most of the audience. 

Now Ferruccio Furlanetto (superb in Don Carlos this month at Covent Garden) has spoken out against this nonsense, and more people need to do so because it's time to put regisseurs in their proper, significant but secondary place.  They cannot be the key figures that they want to be, any more than the wraiths who inhabit musicology can have the power they crave.  And please, pretty please with sugar on top, can we leave the Holocaust out of opera?  Just for a bit.

Sunday 7th April 2013.  Orford, Suffolk

Just inside the door of St Bartholomew's church is a small sculpture of Noah, his mouth open in excitement, his cloak billowing as into his extended arms flies a dove bearing an olive branch.  A startling image full of movement, it is very different from the rest of the decorations: a routine Victorian Holy family sits in a side chapel and a few clumsy carvings jut out from the pew ends, one of them sporting a set of unholy-looking fangs.  An ordinary parish church with its tracts and postcards and 50p histories on a side table.  By the font lurks the obligatory list of rectors, improbably named and going back to 950 or some such date.  The graveyard is capacious and comfortable; not a bad place to await Domesday, if a little chilly at this time of year.

Ordinary except in one respect: Benjamin Britten loved it, and composed masterpieces for the wide, airy central space.  Orford is fifteen or so miles south of Aldeburgh and Noyes Fludde and the three Church parables were first heard here.  The nave is broad but it is not a big building; only a couple of hundred people can have seen those first performances and I found myself thinking about the great prayer to Merodak in The Burning Fierey Furnace.  Performing it was one of the great elations of my playing life; a slow, ritual counterpoint of male voices, dirge-like at first, billows like a burning bush in a counterpoint without barlines.  It is the job of the single alto trombone to gather the swirling threads into a unison, a long high fanfare that should be difficult but isn't: somehow the music breathes for you and it is always a shock how solid the passage feels to blow.  What can it have sounded like in so intimate a place?  It must have overwhelmed.  The player in that first Orford performance was a friend of mine, much missed.  In the 1960s the alto trombone was an unusual instrument: Britten corresponded at length with his player, making sure that what he wrote for the instrument would work in every detail - and it does.

After all the travails of 2012, I found that the urge to write for the theatre had slipped away from me.  Seeing Du Bist Da in November called it back, Orford church had it tugging at my sleeve.  I realised suddenly that the space that an opera fills is as important to me as the characters I create.  Walking into the Altes Hallenbad in Feldkirch cleared a block in The Secret Agent, getting a feel for the theatre in Luzern changed the way I thought about The Stolen Smells and the great industrial barn of Kampnagel in Hamburg changed it all round again.

The current Zauberflöte at the Opera House has the trombones on the conductor's left - the opposite side of the pit from usual.  It is nice to be bothering violins for a change instead of violas, and my seat gives me a view of the right-hand upper slips at the top of the theatre, right next to the proscenium.  It is odd that such seats should exist, for if you sit in couple closest to the front of the auditorium you cannot see any part of the stage.  Eccentric they may be, but they were a formative part of my adolescence; when I was a teenager, these listen-only benches were sold to youngsters for 90p a performance and whenever I could afford it I would go, always sitting on the right and never seeing an inch of the stage.  The great empty body of the theatre created a sort of hunger in me; it was a space that demanded to be filled and the excitement I felt was mostly at the sound overflowing into it.  No concert hall, however good the acoustics, can match the opera theatre's sense of the music as a caged beast bursting out of its small space.  A curiously plot-free start to a composing career, but that's how it happened.

I have a great many opera scores in my studio, but hardly any recordings.  However good they may be, records cannot replicate that wash of sound into the waiting spaces of a theatre, over the broad beach of the stalls, into the rock pools of the boxes and eddying round all the little channels and corridors behind.  If I read a score, my mind creates the space that the music must fill and then the boiling into it of the sound; this is more important in the early stages than the particularities of plot.  It's a rather abstract way of thinking about drama, and probably accounts for my general aversion to the idea of regie as an art form!

When I sat on my 90p perch all those years ago, the idea that I would be middle aged and dim of eyesight would have seemed preposterous: I could see every detail of the pit and would be able to do so for ever.  Alas, now that time has done its job, I cannot see clearly into the slips from the orchestra.  When I was a boy, there were a couple of dimly lit music stands for those hear-only seats, and I would sit earnestly with a score as the performance unfolded.  It was pure pleasure.  I could be wrong, but it looks as if they have gone, presumably swept away in the refurbishment ten yeas ago.  I hope they haven't: there has never been a better way of learning the craft of a composer than sitting with the score as real people, in a space below you, toil to bring the music into being and it is nice to think that some other wispy youth, just like me, is sitting there, turning the pages and getting the itch to plant a singer on a stage and set them singing.

Wednesday 13th March 2013.  In the four-ale bar of the Blazing Donkey

So they've got a new one at last, and I am inspired to continue February 11th's papal and operatic musings in verse.  I was touched to learn that the new incumbent begged the conclave not to vote for him last time: the limerick is not a very latin verse form but wotthehell archy.

Il nuovo Papa, fra' Bergoglio,
Non ha un ramo di orgoglio:
L'ultima volta
Ha detto "ascolta;
Divenire Papa - non lo voglio!"

Despite having not a shard of Catholicism in me (I don't think aspiring to be Father Jack counts) I am currently a bit obsessed with saints and am seriously contemplating a piece about either St Juniper or St Aphrodisius of Languedoc, both of whom please me immoderately.  Of this, more another day.


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