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.

 

Talking About Performance Anxiety

anxietyHaving started the cello much later to most other musicians, I found myself battling the fear of performing at the same time as facing an insecure self-image that often comes with being a 12 year old. I believe this made the issue far greater than it would’ve been, had I been performing at an earlier age. It has, nonetheless, forced me to address the way I deal with my anxiety on and off stage and encouraged me to read much more into the subject.

What is performance anxiety for you?

Performance anxiety for me is waking up on the day of a performance and being so terrified that you are unable to move. It is going over and over in your head all the possible worst-case scenarios and the consequences of performing badly. It’s being desperate to impress people and to receive reassurance that you’re doing OK. It’s trying to calm your breathing but you end up making it more rapid. Then it’s playing as though you have no connection between your mind and your arms and even less connection between your mind and your instrument. Performing feels like a mad free-for-all. Every man is for himself as I push through this Bach suite movement, making a hundred mistakes a minute working to the end. And then there’s after; the beating yourself up for being so anxious and losing security and control, feeling as though it was never all worth it and will never be again. But what is important to remember, though difficult to believe, is that these are all just thoughts.

We are not doomed. We deserve to play the way we dream about and share music with people on the the highest level that we a capable. We can hold ourselves and forget ourselves at the same time and we can find the benefits to this alongside. The philosopher Kierkegaard had an existentialist theory which I think can help us understand the way we perceive music in performance. His idea was that people need a deep satisfaction and relationship with themselves, the energy of the universe (God etc.) and the core of their being. It is only after that that they can enjoy the materials (aesthetic) and relationships on earth without depending on them. We are all guilty about having a huge desire to impress people, but the issue is that we make this the center of our thoughts around a performance and become greedy for praise and recognition. If we think about Kierkegaard’s theory, connect with ourselves through being mindful and agree that whether or not our performance goes well, we will still feel at one with ourselves (and music!), we suddenly see a performance completely differently. It’s purpose isn’t to satisfy our needs as individuals for recognition, it is for us to connect with the power music has and our ability to give this power to our audience as a gift. It is much less diabolical to hold this at the centre of our thinking. Then, be it praise, opportunity or reward, we can enjoy these parts to a performance without relying on them.

This theory is not so difficult to explain or understand, but how can it be applied? Many books have helped me shape a rusty but improving bank of coping strategies alongside experience and talking to different people about their opinions and experiences. The most important way to start is to talk about it. Just like any mental health issue (people dislike the terminology but it is what it is!) performance anxiety can be improved by talking to people. One of many reasons for this is it can make you feel much less alone- almost all musicians experience performance anxiety to some degree and certainly have a lot to say about it. Another reason for this is it can increase awareness of the issue of performance anxiety in the arts industry and encourage more people to talk about it. Certainly raising the issue with your teacher can hold enormous benefits, but anyone you trust can be a worthy listener.

But even once you’ve altered your mindset towards performing and you are happy that everything will be OK, how do you manage the sometimes inevitable symptoms that we experience before a performance? The most important thing to remember here is that we can still perform well when we are nervous. There is nothing stopping us even when feeling sick and shaky- we can concentrate and there is no reason the physical emotions should overpower us. It is easy to develop a ‘fear of the fear’ because we associate the physical sensations with a bad performance, but there’s no reason for us to. We are still in control. People often talk about being prepared as being a very important part of combating anxiety but I contrary this and say that practicing performing when you’re under-prepared is incredibly beneficial. Of course, the anxiety involved in this is great but it is likely that you will emerge feeling much better about the situation. The reason is that your confidence increases as your mind believes ‘well if I did that when I was so unprepared, I can do anything!’

The final part to thinking and discovering more about performance anxiety is forgiving yourself for failure. You are on an incredible road, learning at every part of it and finding ways to manage anxiety is just a part of the bigger picture. It cannot be solved overnight, but you  will find that you become more and more aware of yourself and your purpose as a musician. These ideas I have shared are not an exhaustive list and I will collect many resources below for you to explore. What works for me may not work for you and I am a long way from an answer. I still can get cripplingly nervous but I try to distance myself from my thoughts and turn the focus for the music. I think to take any of this on board you must first ask yourself why. Why music and why love and why faith? The answer is purpose and if music gives you an enormous sense of purpose, you are not destined to sabotage your communication and expression and you will, in time, find a solution.

“There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming” Soren Kierkegaard

Resources:

This is an amazing, short book complied by many famous classical musicians- great short term relief!  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Keeping-Your-Nerve-Confidence-Strategies/dp/0571519229/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490095038&sr=8-1&keywords=keeping+your+nerve

For changing your perception:Life Is Not A Journey  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSSzYIqQsdw

A classic, but it really helped me to start thinking: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Inner-Game-Music-Timothy-Gallwey/dp/1447291727/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490095345&sr=8-1&keywords=the+inner+game+of+music

How do we feel inspired in the world at the moment? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tSBkT9AFWA

Fantastic book for liberally exploring faith https://www.amazon.co.uk/Simple-Faith-Margaret-Silf/dp/0232527946/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1490095497&sr=8-1&keywords=faith+margaret+silf

 

21/03/2017 Hattie Butterworth

 

 

REVIVAL

img_8770

Etched emotion opened

A basic can opener

some tainted past

Revealed, oppressed depressed

Stark compression released, deceased

Speaking to break the silence, altered

Alive not alone

Far from the floor

But escaping the lifeless lies through a stiffening door

Why Elgar?

IMG_7742

 

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.

The Flaw of Supremacy


If you only played the dream
And sang nothing but the love,

The spirit and the depths of the soul
If nothing mattered but the pleasure

And all you wrote rang in perfect harmony

What would you do in order to forget?
Plagued with the boundary of infinite joy

Would you live here with me as a human,

Or inhabit a parallel world as a distant star

A Curiosity

A curiosity comes

And then it goes as soon as I realize

All I’m curious about has less than an explanation

No one knows what I desire to know

It’s not for me to ask what or how or why

It’s for me to do great, live well

Then die.IMG_1457

I’m worried that I now look boring when playing

Since addressing the impact my technique was having on my body, I discovered that much of the tension I was creating was from extreme movement of my body and head and neck. I discovered that although  I thought my movements were freeing my music, they were clearly impacting on my body in a negative way. Since this breakthrough, I’ve focused on the fundamentals of the Alexander Technique in my playing. A big part of this was releasing the tension in my neck and back to allow fluid movements in my arms. Since discovering that my sound is much more beautiful when I am stiller and the music much simpler, I’ve tried to incorporate this stillness and balance into my playing and musicality. I’ve certainly noticed a difference. The thing that scares me is how dull I look when playing in this way. I feel fantastic and far more connected with the music, though am not convinced that this is expressed to my audience. I know that prevention of injury is much more important that swaying to look pretty, but I felt comfortable moving. It’s what I’m comfortable with and what I was addicted to. Like anything, it will take take time for me to get used to my new technique and fully imprint a twinkle in my eye and smile whilst remaining stiller and yet far more sophisticated… Hopefully!

I’ve just discovered that I have never listened

Until very, very recently I understood the art of listening to be a passive, almost reflex action. Something we don’t have to think about, something that occurs naturally just like looking or feeling. I didn’t expect to have to keep a specific awareness of the sounds and messages around me- I expected them to come to me. I expected my hands to play the Haydn Cello concerto and my ears to judge each performance and tiny mistake. 

It may be obvious to many that this is in fact not an advisable method of becoming a professional musician. I realise that i never really listened with a whole awareness  to the sound I was making, just judged and criticised without careful thought and deliberation. 

The first time my teacher mentioned my absence of listening was many many months ago just before a concerto competition. I felt ready despite some injury setbacks and had just played the whole piece to her in an accompanist rehearsal. I thought it went well. I couldn’t remember much of the performance but I couldnt remember many slip-ups. But my teacher wasn’t quite so objective or reassuring. ‘You can play it’ she said, ‘but you didn’t listen to a single note that you played’ This hit me quite hard so I went on a quest to discover what it really is to listen and respond without judgment, especially in a performance situation. The Alexander Technique would say that if the primary control (awareness and release of head, neck and back) is in place, the ears are able to have a heightened awareness as the body feels balanced. I’ve certainly discovered that I require balance in my body to be able to play well and ultimately listen to what I’ve played. I almost view the ability to listen and feel balanced above the ability to play in tune. I certainly feel much better about myself if I’ve felt balanced and comfortable, even if I don’t play every note in tune.

I’m still searching for this ideal of being able to be both the performer and the audience member but will admit that I still feel in the dark. I know I’m not alone when I say that I find listening in concerts a challenge and listening specifically in my practice.

I have observed two things however- first is that I am completely engaged as a listener in a concert if I have either played the piece I’m listening to or listened to it many many times. I have also observed that as soon as I know someone may be listening to my practice I immediately turn my ears on and am aware of exactly what I want and what parts of my piece that I’ve been mindlessly playing through.

Perhaps these discoveries give a reassurance that it’s a similar awareness I have when people are listening to my performance to when people (potentially) listen to my practice. It is useful to have this judgmental awareness in practice, but not quite so useful in performance. Perhaps in performance I need to imagine myself much more as the listener. How would I want someone to hear this piece? How do I want to hear this piece? In a performance, it’s too late to listen judgementally. A performance is when you can share what you’ve practice with both your audience and yourself.

As for the being able to listen better if I’ve played the piece, perhaps this shows me how prepared I am to listen attentively. I know how the piece is going to sound and, most of the time, I know I have the capability of playing it well. It’s very easy to forget your knowledge of a piece and brilliant preparation when you’re forced into a stressful situation. I think it’s important to trust your hands and ears to listen and play to make the experienced relaxed and enjoyable, just as it is in practice.