Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra- A Poetic Response

Saturday 13th January was my first experience of the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle. One thing and another sadly prevented me from hearing the first half of the concert’s Genesis Suite, but luckily arrived in time to hear the incomparable Concerto for Orchestra by the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok.

I had the idea of a sort of live poetry stream as the concert was running. Although we were in almost complete darkness, I set about this challenge, jotting ideas in my notebook and couldn’t believe how natural it felt. The concert began with a reading of a letter Bartok wrote to his friend whilst writing the concerto. The letter talked in great detail about how much the natural imagery surrounding him inspired the writing of the piece. We were also prompted by a back- drop of nature scenes, each refleting a movement of the concerto.

The orchestra were so detailed and expressive in their use of colours. Each member knew their role and were frequently given clear direction and artistic inspiration from Rattle. He struck me as the work’s true soloist and was indefatigable in his commitment, charm and love towards both music and orchestra.

The poem beneath is a totally unedited version of what I wrote as the music was playing. It was so tempting to edit it as I was typing it up, but I felt it important to stay true to the words that came to me in the moment. This new style of poetry has never felt so natural, this down foremost to the orchestra’s poetic excellence!

 

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Painting by Philippa Butterworth

 

The mist is sort of solid

It’s humming a cheerful tune

Laden with discontented discords

The mist clears to expose

Such a raw urgency, a coarse tension

Imagery of such hills as these pushes

My vast imagination further-

A blanket of interweaving paths

None quite explored, and yet cheerfully

Enticing

To be shown either side of a peace,

A deep sleep encircled with pungent colour

And warm horizons slowly encroaching

 

This clan chuckles

In thirds, a joyful good morning

A mockery of our silent peacefulness

Some stark hunger to provoke this

Creeping, a hide and seek

Where’s my laughter faded to

Once upheld by strong sun stokes

 

Mischief in pairs

One, two, three to brighten

Our dreary winters

 

Seasons, both heavy and light

Inhabit the clearings in our conscious mind

An elegy for those swimming in grief

Such as this

A deep hole of loss, a pool of tears

Need never be understood-

Too close for comfort

These variants on love and death

A memory kept alive through shortness of time

The fear is greeted with a shaft of sweetened light

The darkness is softened, knelled in our joy’s

Raging sun

 

Images of meadows etcet. Etcet.

Is this all too obvious?

Yet

It feels so genuine!

Oh blow,

Let’s sit another hour

This love is so bright and blooming

And it intercepts our longing for

Whatever.

 

Great swathes of energy

Hurl us towards this huge beacon

Stinging, reaching

Energy to fill intensities of sorrow,

A persistent murmur of peace.

Here sits the contemplative

A rising joy, that these days have strengthened

In their outbursts they raise us up to Him.

 

Hattie Butterworth

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-

The Hill of Crosses


This poem is inspired by a recent visit to the Hill of Crosses in Šiauliai, Lithuania. 


Ashed grey and weathered through

Surrounded some century’s

Past suffering not so different from our own.

 
To come and lay a sign

That love releases to save

Black memory’s, solidify some erotic emotions alluring

 

And then wander up and through the woven pathways

A child’s playground

Spiritual maze from loud cries of women weeping

 

To look up from the ground at them

And see some serialist horror

Scraped and scourged graveyard rituals

 

Only to feel also

peaceful serenity from suffering’s rock

Flowing with the river that sits alongside

 

Then to the other end

To realising that the mass continues

Around for acres of simple honoured vessels

Our Streets

I encountered more people

With faces, sunken

Cut through with a cold stone blade

Blinked- then an opportunity missed

For here, now to give wider

No eyes to see change

Through skin so scaled and rusted

That your copper coin sticks fast

To make a golden impression to

Listen and answer the rattling

Of the links untied through neglect

One by one to convince them

That the world’s hope is to dust

And passers by are too busy to give a thought to change a

World’s eye view

 

Through a hole in the wall

They now can see the flowers

In the gardens we dance

Striving for wilting dandelions find

Peace of mind to sing of love

We- the deaf who walk close each time

To the silent hum of our eye lined bubble because

You don’t want to know, and you don’t have to

Play- pretend sublimity, oblivious fun

You are the most through dust on the ground

The creaking-jointed human

Kind of the broken wanderer

Who need us as we are and ask for

No more.

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REVIVAL

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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

Glass Half Gone

The World demands your deliberate artifice

But right in the now and hear

You’re Walking alone, along a lonely
Love burnt grey and dust of stars

Streaming ankle level and below

Beneath and between your fears own me
Dawn cracking down on a darkened day

Alive about a sunbeam, once in May

Living a lie, a dream, still lonely
Shipwrecked amongst the living

A breathing hollow and lifeless laughter

Piercing a cry of cold limbs, only
Ended right at the beginning

From A blackened senseless lying

And a deadened deafness, a restless dying

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.

Finding Home 

  

 If the home was just a memory that you touched once upon a dream
And even the stars’ brightness faded the closer to them you passed

Where could you lay the foundations of your heart?
If yet you received the greatest riches and witnessed the sweetest music

If you could part the waves and conjure the snowfall 

Where would the core of your heart cry back to?
If you reach the bottom of the ocean or fly beyond the highest mountains 

You must still make a home for your love and a life for your happiness 

But an armchair for the lost wanderer and a fire for his soul.

Hattie Butterworth