Few people in recorded music history can have met such an ignonimous end as Phil Spector. He is currently serving 19 to life for the murder of Lana Clarkson, will be 88 before being considered eligible for parole, and yet the fairy-tale beginnings of the lower middle class Jewish boy who had to deal with his father's suicide at the age of 9 and then went on to score a massive hit with the Teddy Bears' …
I first encountered John Tavener’s music in 1992, when a hugely successful recording of The Protecting Veil seemed to fill the public’s need for religiously inspired, slow-moving pieces (at the time, Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony was also shifting units to an unprecedented degree). He began his composing career as something of an enfant terrible (but then so have many others): The Whale, written in 1966, premiered two years later to considerable acclaim for a work largely based on an encyclopedia entry that includes a totally improvised section and non-musical choral sounds. The Beatles issued a recording on Apple that even featured a spoken part by Ringo Starr. Tavener converted to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977 and their teachings influenced his subsequent work.
His career was not without its speed-bumps, however: Thérèse (1979) disappointed Covent Garden opera-goers and the Akhmatova Requiem was a failure at its first performance at the Edinburgh Festival in 1981 and caused walkouts during its debut at the Proms. Nevertheless, The Lamb (1982) has outlasted such over-ambitious works, and Song For Athene (1993) gained worldwide exposure when performed at Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997. He suffered poor health for many years, including a stroke and two heart attacks, and his death last month at the age of 69 followed years of frailty. One of the products of his later years, Ex Maria Virgine (2005) came at a time when he was exploring other religions in addition to Christianity, as he felt that the Orthodox tonal system restricted him. It is a series of settings of what have become part of the traditional canon of Christmas carols, but to music that enlivens and refreshes the sentiments: for example, the stern warning Remember O Thou Man takes on a more comforting aspect in Tavener’s hands. The work was composed in celebration of the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, and the feeling one gets while listening to it is that engendered by the body of Tavener’s work: as if it has been around and part of our lives for all time. Buy or download the excellently-packaged CD from Naxos.
Tavener, Ex Maria Virgine
Today’s share is possibly my favourite piece of Christmas music by one of my favourite composers. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) had already written two ballets, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, but it is arguably the Nutcracker, premiered in St. Petersburg on Sunday 18 December 1892, that is his best-know. This is due to the instant success of the suite of musical numbers taken from it, because the ballet itself didn’t go down that well at first: I suggest this is down to its structural weakness, since the first act tells a dramatic and convincing story but the second is merely a series of dances that don’t advance the action. However, those numbers are among the most famous in the classical canon, explaining why the work has met with as much success in the concert hall as it has in the theatre. You can’t say that the first-night audience didn’t get value for money: the Nutcracker went out on the same bill as Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta.
It tells the story of a young girl, Clara, who is given a nutcracker in the shape of a man by a local toymaker. Her brother breaks it on purpose, and the heartbroken girl comes down to see it again at midnight while all the family are asleep. It comes to life and prompts a battle between gingerbread soldiers and mice: the biscuits win, and Clara ‘s nutcracker is transformed into a handsome prince. He takes her to the Land Of Sweets and the two are crowned rulers. She wakes at the foot of the tree, with an ambivalent ending leaving her wondering whether it was all a dream or not.
At one time, this was the only Christmas music I had and during the festive season, I played it repeatedly, something I hope you will do too. The performance of the complete ballet is by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati: I would urge you to buy it, but the Philips Duo CD it comes from has been deleted.
Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker
I was intending to break my long silence by posting a cheery item for St. Andrew’s Day yesterday, but the tragedy in Glasgow turned my words to ice. Today, as we begin to think about the festive season (albeit tempered with tears), I’d like to start by sharing a piece called A Ceremony Of Carols that Benjamin Britten composed at sea during March 1942, which is a kind of chamber piece for the church: it begins and ends with a procession and recession. However, as always with Britten, nothing in the composition process was totally straightforward: it is scored for treble (originally women’s) voices and harp, and instead of giving us a potpourri of favourites in the tradition of Fantasia On Christmas Carols, he deliberately sets medieval texts with the intention of celebrating life before the fall of man (witness the setting of Adam Lay I-Bounden). This is a Radio 3 staple of the season, and one that repays repeated listening. Track listing:
- Procession (accompanied)
- Wolcum Yole! (anon, 14th century)
- There Is No Rose (anon, 14th century)
- That Yonge Child (anon, 14th century)
- Balulalow (James, John and Robert Wedderburn, 16th century)
- As Dew In Aprille (anon, c. 1400)
- This Little Babe (Robert Southwell, 16th century)
- Interlude: andante pastorale (harp solo)
- In Freezing Winter Night (Robert Southwell)
- Spring Carol (William Cornish, 15th/16th century)
- Adam Lay I-Bounden (anon, 15th century)
- Recession (unaccompanied)
Britten, A Ceremony Of Carols
New London Children’s Choir, cond. Ronald Corp. Buy or download the whole CD from Naxos.
…well, definitely not punk. I still had my Deep Purple records, and didn’t discover Peel until early the following year. This, though, remains one of my top 10 TV shows ever:
The Street at Christmas: Hilda Ogden as Oliver Hardy and Gail putting on the Jam instead of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Priceless. ALBERT TATLOCK!!!
Go buy something! I fancy the JVC clunky old VCR, which was probably used to record these. I doubt if anybody would buy a perfume called Tramp these days (or be persuaded by Twiggy urging us to ‘spread the word’ about her bloody shampoo).
I never understood middle-aged angst, being 13. How things change:
How did redressed music hall featuring puppets from Sesame Street become essential early evening viewing?
Yeah, we’ve all seen it a million times, but with Python dead, this was a worthy replacement:
Without video recorders (then costing in the region of £600 – one hell of a region), we wouldn’t have been able to see this, as it’s never been made available on DVD:
The last 50 years have seen ten British Prime ministers and U.S. presidents; the Moon landings; Live Aid; the end of apartheid; the beginnings of Channel 4, Capital Radio, the Internet and video gaming; the deaths of John Peel, the Queen Mother, Princess Diana and Freddie Mercury; and in my own life, one marriage, one son, two blogs and nine years living in South Korea. A recent crossing off from my wish list happened on Sunday in London SW19, but I’m sure you’re all sick of hearing about that. Instead, my present to you on my birthday is the continuation of the 2008 Peel sessions poll, which I count as an achievement I’m proud of, and we’ve reached number…..
As we all know, Reginald Kenneth Dwight became the epitome of both glam rock costume excess, beautifully crafted albums, poetic and catchy singles, and hair transplants. Yet his beginnings, while not exactly humble, were a far cry from the Top Of The Pops and stadium bashes. At the age of 15, he was the pub pianist at the Northwood Hills Hotel for four nights a week, earning £35 plus tips banging out standards and chart hits. Eleven years later, he was to put this experience to good use for his second Peel session (any recordings of his first, from 1968, have yet to surface). He gives us medleys of popular songs, Christmas tunes and Bob Dylan numbers, and a bizarre singalong of his hits ‘Daniel’ and ‘Your Song,’ in which he gently sends himself up with a backing chorus of just about everybody who wasn’t busy in the BBC at the time, including Peel, Walters and Teddy Warrick. John repeated this session or parts of it several times and spoke warmly of Elton as a person years later, whatever he came to think of his music.
Every Sunday night!
Every Monday night! ‘Shut it!’
Then on the 27 March, the realisation of man’s inhumanity to his fellow creature.
But there was always the end of the year to reassure us:
A move to the balmy South coast (Chichester) and suddenly I was waking up every school holiday morning to this:
I sometimes got to stay up late and see this: