A New Operatic Dogma- How Gluck changed the ‘ridiculous and wearisome’

Christoph_Willibald_Ritter_von_GluckOpera, Italian for ‘work’, is an art form over 400 years old. Inspired by mythology, history, folk stories and politics, composers have turned to writing operas as an outlet of creativity, but the stories behind opera’s broad and fascinating history are incredibly thought provoking in themselves.

The fifth week of our opera history course at the Royal College of Music has seen us studying the operas of Gluck, paying close attention to his reforms to the way opera was written and perceived by its audiences. Willibald Christoph Gluck (1714-1787) is best known for is opera ‘Orpheo ed Euridice’, based on the ancient legend Orpheus and Euridice. I think it is important to remember that opera’s ‘purpose’ previous to Gluck had been rather light and fun entertainment. Of course, darker themes were addressed, but in general opera was, by and large, a social event accompanied by virtuosic and light music. Gluck made it known that he highly disregarded this ‘ridiculous and wearisome’ Italian opera. Gluck believed opera was ready for reform, and made it no secret that he was to lead this ‘stripping down’ of opera into something much simpler. Gluck believed that by ‘stifling the action with superfluidity of ornaments’ composers were taking music away from its ‘true office of serving poetry’. In order to serve the text, Gluck controversially removed virtuosic melismas, da capo arias and vocal improvisation, and instead increased the orchestra’s dramatic presence and gave it a greater role.

Although these reforms paved the way for the operas of Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner, I believe Gluck’s dogmatic views on the true purpose of music to be somewhat flawed. Gluck talks of the ‘true purpose’ of music being to serve the text. Perhaps in opera this holds more truth than symphonies based on stories or texts, though talking of music’s true purpose is not something that can be taken lightly. Music and its purpose has a highly personalised response from each person. Some people interpret music as a playful use of emotions, some see it as escapism, others as an academic and chemical process. For Gluck, its true purpose was to serve the text and through his musical reforms, he could bring the text out by keeping the musical interest out of the vocal line and putting it in the orchestra. A good example of this is Orfeo’s arioso “Che puro ciel”. Here the voice is reduced to the minor role of recit-style oration. Here it is the oboe that carries the main melody, supported by solos from the flute, cello, bassoon, and horn. There is also accompaniment from the strings (playing in triplets) and the continuo. This is thought to be the most complex orchestration that Gluck ever wrote.

Although, on the face of it, Gluck’s ideas for reform appear rather opinionated and controversial, we cannot deny that his opera style triggered a major shift in Operas style. An example of Gluck’s influence is the quotation in Mozart’s Don Giovanni of Gluck’s Alceste. Mozart used the same chord progression in the garden scene for the Commendatore speaking to Don Giovanni that Gluck used in his opera when the High Priest says Alceste will die if no one takes her place. The influence is unquestionable, and leads us to question whether Gluck’s philosophy behind music and opera, although seemingly narrow minded, holds a longevity to inspire and influence other great composers.

 

Our World From Up Here

Our world from up here

Vast scenes below then hypnotic

Sunsets far and wide

And warm until memories 

Like a canal flow gliding

Open to us and run free- 

Alive in the clouds but 

Below the moon still 

Glowing black like darkened

Emotion pouring to heal

And your voice to seal 

Echoed cries from their booming

On Flight Pattern

A reflection in words of the contemporary ballet ‘Flight Pattern’ choreographed by Crystal Pite

 

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Heavily they walk

No two men the same

But united through rejection

Or maybe through the spartan

Uniforms they wear

Of doubt that hope

Exists or may come into

Existing only for a past

Life not so easily left behind-

Larsen Magnacore Cello String Review

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Strings are to a musician like ballet shoes are to a dancer. Just as each dancer is very different and requires different size and softness of shoes, every cello is vastly different and requires different strings to compliment the resonance of the instrument. My cello has an especially bright and powerful quality, especially on the A string, but it also has the tendency to sound brash. It also often has projection difficulties on the low strings, particularly in high positions. I knew more could be done to improve the sound and I started to think about trying new strings in order to address this issue.

With this in mind, I got in contact with Larsen some weeks ago, eager to try new strings on my cello. Having been a devotee to their standard cello strings for quite a while, I was hearing great things about their Magnacore strings and was desperate to give them a try. I’d been reassured how balanced the string sounds were across the cello and, knowing my cello was in desperate need of this balance, was excited to try them. Suffice it so say, I was not disappointed! I changed the A and D strings first and noticed an immediate increase in the sound quality. The strings needed virtually no playing in time and adapted to my cello immediately. A strings on my cello often have the tendency to sound increasingly ‘brash’ on my cello, but the Magnacore A string had a sweetness that I was convinced my cello wasn’t capable of producing. The D string matched the A both in resonance and quality of sound and was so buoyant to play. Finally I have found strings that create equal tones on both A and D, I have struggled for so long with a brash A string and a muted D string, thanks to these strings I feel my strings compliment each other and my playing.

I later replaced my G and C Spirocore strings with the Magnacore C and G and, once again, the effect was immediate. The strings were so much more responsive on my cello and the resonance was electric. I did find the strings to feel quite a bit stiffer and not entirely flexible under the fingers, though they tuned up easily and maintained tuning with no issues. In saying this, it was as I expected that the bottom two strings took a few days to play in and feel totally settled. This created an short period of discomfort, but it quickly subsided and, once settled, my cello produced resonant and expressive sonorities that were unprecedented but certainly welcome!

Proof of the strings’ transformation of my cello came about when I played the Bach Suite no.3 in my cello lesson last week. My Teacher immediately mention how much she thought my sound had improved. I mentioned that I’d recently changed my strings to Magnacore and she was fascinated at how much of a difference they had made to my sound in such a short space of time.

It’s such a joy and a blessing to find strings finally that work with my cello and not against it. I’ll certainly be using Magnacore again and will be intrigued to witness their longevity. They cannot come more highly recommended!

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Hattie Butterworth

Tennis and musical injury- the injustice

  
Following a hectic final term at school, my return home last Friday was greeted with the excitement of both the women and men’s Wimbledon finals. Throughout the whole of the tournament this year, I couldn’t help but compare the lives of tennis players with our lives as musicians, and how tennis may be revealing the darker injustice in the musical industry.

Much of my cello playing career so far has been enormously rewarding, but I did encounter a traumatic tendon injury for 6 months last year. I don’t feel it an exaggeration to admit that I felt very much alone during this time. This was not entirely out of the fault of my school, but largely because I felt injury wasn’t discussed or accepted within the school. Prior to my injury I had received little, if any, education about injuries and prevention, and had no idea who to talk to. So often I was made to feel I was letting people down, the fault being my own. This stemmed from being one of the only injured musicians in my school at the time. 

The isolation I encountered through my injury is far from the experiences of those in the sports world and tennis in particular. If a player has recovered from injury, many of the commentators and treat it as a tremendous act of resilience and bravery for them to be competing. They understand the impact of an injury and don’t ‘expect’ the player to return at full health straight away, because injuries are understood in the sports world. Sports people don’t fear them because they know they will have the support they need to recover. Why are musicians different? As well as physical injury, being unable to play and has a significant mental impact that needs treatment and support. Injury is a big deal because you lose your means of expression. Injured Musicians are left watching rehearsals, excluded from concerts and plagued with the fear of missing opportunities that their fitter fellow students will instead receive. I know my experiences aren’t rare and, although musical injuries are perhaps less common than those encountered by sports players, most musicians will experience an injury at some point in their career. 

It’s also interesting to question why injury happens in musicians and highlight another comparison between the sports and classical music industry. It is without a doubt that success in the classical music industry nowadays is based around perfection. We attend a concert expecting a certain standard. If a musician makes a name for themselves, they are expected to maintain this level throughout their career and at every concert they perform. The classic example of a ‘bad day’ was seen in Djokovic’s devastating 4th round loss in Wimbledon this year. Of course, many fans were disappointed, but the sports world as a whole appears much more understanding of failure. Djokovic has been so successful in his career that this one set back doesn’t fail him in our estimation. I’m not entirely certain whether the same would be true in the classical music industry. This fear of failure and constant search for perfection puts stress on the body for many people, and it is here that injury is likely to occur. It feels more often that our motives in practice are turned towards perfection, rather than the ability we have to communicate the inner soul of the composer. This can’t be healthy or rewarding in the long term.

Musicians are communicators, just as sports people are, and both, more importantly, are human. It appears that the sports world are much more in tune with this fact than the musical world and, as a result of this, the failings of the athletes are both respected and expected. Musicians are humans with human needs and functions. Although my injury turned into something positive in the end, it took a lot of pain, darkness and loneliness before I was able to release myself. We shouldn’t go at it alone and don’t deserve to.

 I can only hope we begin to learn from those in the sports world; an industry that is far closer to us than we may invisage. 

“Play it like something you hear down by the river”

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I believe it is now widely accepted, or at least should be, that the soul of great music and a great artist is not solely created in the practice room. We use the practice room as a place to learn how to interpret a composers emotions though our instruments. The practice room is used to iron out any technical faults that may come between ourselves and the composers music. It allows us to perform with as little of ourselves and technical issues and with as much of the composers emotions. Practice is a guidance tool to our music making and by no means the heart of it.

It is important to remember that these entities go hand in hand. In order to translate an emotion, or at least interpret it, we need to access a part of ourselves that has experienced life outside of the practice room. Our audience connect to the soul of our performance. If we are to encourage non-musicians into classical music, we need to ensure our music connects to them. Observing the way we go about our day-to-day life may be the first step. Observing and relating to what ‘ordinary’ people do could be the key to communicating classical music to them. This being said, it can also remind us not to lose touch of ourselves and of the real world. The practice room holds no value unless we enter with an intention of how we want to communicate and are prepared to experiment. Once the technical barriers are gone, or at least diminished, the world of expression is your oyster.

I suppose what I’m trying to puzzle out here is how we as young musicians can connect to real people outside the music bubble when we’re bombarded with the ‘practice’ mantra? The answer is that I don’t believe we can. Our inspiration is what creates great music. Translating what we see, hear and experience outside our practice is a life long exploration, but it is vital if we want our music to be universal.

Perhaps ‘fine artists’ are the lucky ones. They have a direct line between the images they see and the image they produce on paper, so are used to interpreting nature and ‘real life’. Musicians also need to connect this line. Although it may not be as direct and tangible, it is the most necessary part of our music making.

Why do performers find composition difficult?

I’m aware my blog has been somewhat neglected for a few weeks so I wanted to post a quick thought whilst travelling back from London today. I’ve been on the Stop Trident CND march which was awe inspiring! It always excites me to see just how many people are willing to stand up to the government and say no. My stance on trident is in opposition due to the disgusting thirst for power through this system, but also the money at stake. Think about how many places could be funded at Chethams School of Music for 100 billion pounds! Sickening, but anyway…

  
Whenever I find I have time on my hands to dedicate to music, I attempt, in vain, to turn my creativity to composition. Needless to say, this is invariably an impossible task, ending in me either writing poetry instead or sullenly pick up my cello to play some solemn elegy. I don’t feel a natural connection between my inspiration and the creation of a melody or piece of music. Personally, I find words to be more appealing, easier to handle and craft. How can this be if I have striven to a life in the music industry for so long? Shouldn’t my musical creativity be overflowing? 

I have come to a few conclusions. Firstly, I am a performer and have been for many years. I have been trained to channel my emotions into interpreting other people’s music. This is natural for me, so  suddenly to create an original piece of music results, often, in the music being either contrived or stiff. As performers, recreation is not often at the forefront of the teaching syllabus. This makes composition rather alien to a group of people who should know it rather well. 

Another reason for the blankness may be because I haven’t yet been inspired to write music- I actually discovered poetry through silence of music! Perhaps composition will be the same? Our creative minds are constantly changing and developing so it may be that soon I will feel comfortable with composition. I think it certainly would help my performing and interpretations if I were to recreate, or at least attempt it. In the meantime, I’m not panicked about it, just simply curious as to why. 

It may be that composition will never come naturally to me, but I don’t think that should stop me trying now and again. 

My first recital was appalling,

My first poetry is laughable.

Why Is Silence So Loud In Music?

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I have always hated the sound of nothing. I grind my teeth in silences and put music on as soon as I am by myself. I am scared about what might happen if I am left alone with myself. Inside my mind, what might be waiting for me? I think I’d rather avoid it than face the consequences.

It has now been accepted that silence is the pathway to the soul and to the truest form of yourself, and therefore your music making. In this busy world, many of us cannot even go to sleep at night without a reassuring murmur of sound in the background. As our lives get busier, there becomes less and less time for silence. To be silent becomes a weakness. As the louder of us get heard and the others of us are forgotten, it is easy to devalue silence and inner peace and focus on conquering the ‘confident’ and ‘outgoing’ sides of ourselves in order to be respected. We have associated silence with weakness and a voice as the strength. Is it that through silence we stay more and more connected with the love and passion surrounding us? Could it be that those who respect silence and practice it are in touch with an inner voice much more powerful than arrogant confidence? It is from these people that we can learn how to grow from the silence and play music in the most selfless way possible.

On the surface of the classical music industry is a huge hustle and bustle of judgment, criticism, comparison and self-improvement. From a young age, musicians are taught to strive to better themselves, fight against each other and focus on the virtuosity of the music and the impression of the audience. Very little time is given to space and awareness, true musical understanding and, most importantly, the study of silence. Music is created from the nuances of the deafening silence. The talented performer is he who listens to the end of the note, focuses on the effectiveness of pauses and connects with a similar peace of mind that the composer once felt. This focus is unattainable if we have a mind flooded with fear of failure, voices of criticism and a disconnect with ourselves.

Without realizing, I too entered into the music industry from the noisy end. Performances were a huge gamble and my thoughts were so loud that I was never content with the sound I created, mainly because I wasn’t really listening. How can we be expected to listen if criticism is 3X louder than the music? This was until I got RSI for 6 months and was forced to step away from the 4 hours of mindless, self centered practice I was doing. I was suddenly faced with silence. Nothing to cling to or listen to and this was deafening. I didn’t know how to react so at first I cried to hide the silence and entered into a state of hatred of myself. The silence scared me but what I found most terrifying was my inability to know when the sound, and my ability to play, would return. I was blessed with half an hour a day of practice, which I usually avoided and took to shopping and crying! As I began to realize that it would take more than a few months to reverse the pain, I made the most of the little time a day I had to practice. Suddenly I knew I had to listen.

Having the noise removed was the most terrifying, yet liberating thing that has ever happened to me. I began to write and read and enjoyed spending time walking and doing yoga. I began to understand the links between the nature and music, and through that, the beauty of silence.

I still find silence difficult at first. It is never easy to face the vast expanse of your mind but I think it is completely necessary if we want to perform as the truest versions of ourselves. Being exposed to the expanse of your mind is similar to being in front of a large audience in a concert hall. It takes a lot of time to get used to and is not always comfortable or pleasant. People who are comfortable with the silence are likely to understand the noise and pressures of our culture. People who are comfortable with the silence don’t have themselves getting in the way. Their music and lives are the most musical to our ears because they are able to play from the inner most part of their being. They respect the silence and from it, they weave the music that connects with us most strongly.

Practicing silence is, therefore, even more important than practicing your instrument or art form, yet is the thing we seem to leave the least amount of time for. Perhaps we need to start making it a top priority in our own musical development and begin to open up our inner most self. If performance anxiety is one of the most feared emotion of artists today, why is its powerful counteract, silence, not more valued in the path to inner calm and artistry?

Why Elgar?

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For many years now Edward Elgar has been the main inspiration for my music making and growing passion of music. For those who aren’t familiar with Elgar’s life story, he was the son of of a piano tuner and lived in Worcester for his early years. He has become the definition of English music and his cello concerto has inspired and astounded performers for generations.

Elgar is an inspiration for all of us. Self-taught in his younger years, Elgar learnt to take inspiration from his surroundings, most notably the Malvern Hills and the Worcestershire countryside. Elgar spent so much of his time ‘living and ‘being’ in order to ‘fix the sounds’, his music reveals a freshness and ingenuity that can so quickly be related to a scene or emotion. Through his deep relationship with nature, Elgar was as much an artist and painter as composer. He painted the sounds he saw and not the sounds he had learnt were correct and beautiful. Elgar lived his childhood surrounded by his siblings and left composing from the countryside in ‘the reeds’.

Music is an entity which derives not only from your heart, but from the way your heart reacts to the environment you are surrounded in. Elgar learnt what true love was before he learnt about the theory and rules surrounding music. This immersion in nature was a relationship that would remain in Elgar for the rest of his life. Even when in London, Elgar pined for Worcestershire and its beauty. Elgar knew where his inspiration came from and in that environment composing came as naturally to him as talking. As performers of Elgars music, can musicians like me only understand his motivation behind his music if we experience the environment for ourselves? Anyone who has walked on the Malvern Hills can appreciate the huge sense of power and and yet vulnerability you experience being face with a huge expanse of country either side- rather like performing an Elgar symphony!

Elgars’ choral music so often encapsulates a certain natural image, for me at least. Of course, his choice of words to set his music to also has an impact, but the textures of voices instantly create an image in my mind. For example, one of the 4 part-songs,’ There Is Sweet Music’, instantly creates the image of a frosted valley, the different voice parts bouncing from the hills either side. The regular phrasing and slow tempo reveal the calm and unscathed condition of the environment, Elgars’ use of imitation reinforces this echo effect. The music ends very softly, the word ‘sleep’ is repeated between male and female voice parts until it lands silently, perhaps just as the final leaf of the autumn assumes its place on the frosted ground.

My interpretations and musical decisions are of course merely inspired by my experience of  nature and perhaps photography and art of this part of nature. By broadening our knowledge and asking our emotions how it responds to images and experiences, we can relate these emotions to our music making. If we learn about the place that Elgar was most inspired, we can combine this inspiration with our personal interpretations and create beautiful image. Just as Elgars’ countryside was different each time he saw it, as is our interpretation allowed to be as varied and exciting as we please. It is, however, still important that we perform this interpretation in knowledge of the composers intention of inspiration, whether this be a poem, book or artwork.

My love for countryside and exploration of new emotions comes with my love for Elgar. Every note he wrote, though subconscious, was inspired by his experiences and passions. We can connect to our inner selves just as Elgar did simply by experiencing the same level of love and passion he discovered on the Malvern Hills.

Does Art Have To Be Understood?

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I often wander cautiously around art galleries, often in the shadow of sincere tourists with their hands behind their back, face poised in a wonderfully intellectual and pensive expression. I feel inclined to understand the vast collections before me as they seemingly are, and marvel at the sense of x throughout the complexity of y. But now the time has come for me to admit it- I really don’t know very much at all about art.

From my experience and understanding, any emotion or expression of the heart and soul can exhibit itself in the form of art, be that a painting, sculpture, pop song or Shakespeare play. Art has been created from deep in the soul of an individual and is a highly personal expression of emotions. Artists are sensitive and aware, the most popular work they create can often be the pieces that took comparatively no conscious thought or time at all. Whilst we poor A Level students pour over a Dickinson poem or Shakespeare play, annotating it as best we can, the truth often remains; perhaps the artist has less of an idea than you.

Thought and Art are two very different concepts, and although intertwined and linked in some ways, they are worlds apart in others. Your talents are not created by a thought process necessarily. Talents are a gift of expression, a method of escape or way of life. It is also often the case that we cannot articulate our thoughts out loud. If someone asks you to explain your thoughts, I doubt many of us would be able to explain the exact workings of your mind. The fact remains, why are we so hard on ourselves (and our A Level students!). If art wasn’t created from a conscious thought, then why must we use conscious thought to explain it? By employing this form of explanation, it is in a sense a form of blasphemy towards the ‘meaning’ of art. Has anyone ever asked you what love is? Or what faith is? Or why you like the colour blue? These are phenomenons that are not explained. They are the great rhetoric of our world and existence. The artists use this absence of judgment to explore they very core of their being. Why then are we so set on judgment, criticism and intellect in this world of love, imagination and wonder?

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Allow yourself to spend time being with the art. Think about how the art affects you naturally and how you respond to it. Of course it is inevitable that we will have to explain art now and again in an attempt to please people or even to lure them in to our vibrant world, but don’t allow the academic side control your opinions and emotions- only you decide whether you like Schoenberg or not. If, on the other hand, you simply want to skip through a gallery and get to the shop, that’s also fine because the space in itself is to be experienced in as many different ways as possible and in experiencing rather that studying you are perhaps closer to the art than you imagine.

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Accept the little you will ever know about art and be humble. Allow faith or energy or love to come to you and accept it if it isn’t immediate. Remember too that no one decided what ‘good art’ was in the beginning. Good art is true love, true faith, an open heart and a thirst for life!