59_berlin-cover_frontThe Reich’s Orchestra:
The Berlin Philharmonic 1933–45
by Misha Aster
Mosaic Press
286 pages, photos; $27.95

In 1944 British warplanes bombed the Berlin Philharmonic’s home, destroying instruments, archives and music along with their beautiful concert hall. But still they managed to keep performing and even touring — right up until the day when, as Misha Aster writes, “The Third Reich’s demise cut the 1944–1945 Philharmonische Konzerte series drastically short.”

There were many factors involved in the orchestra’s remarkable survival under the Third Reich, not least the determination of the musicians themselves. But in this study of the orchestra during that period Aster pinpoints the main reason right in his title — it became the Reich’s orchestra.

With his exhaustive research in archives and obscure private collections, Aster traces how the orchestra, facing bankruptcy in 1933, went from being a self-governing, independent collective to a symbol of the Nazi regime. It was clearly a matter of compromise rather than political commitment. Its principal conductor at the time of the deal, the celebrated Wilhelm Furtwängler, never joined the Nazi party (unlike their long-serving post-war chief conductor, Herbert von Karajan). But once it was run directly by the Nazis, with Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, as boss, it now functioned as an “instrument of cultural propaganda.” Duties included performing for Hitler’s birthday celebrations.

Soon enough, the orchestra was purged of Jewish performers, including its prized concertmaster Szymon Goldberg. Jewish patrons were prohibited from attending concerts, and Jewish composers like Mendelssohn and Mahler were removed from the repertoire. But Furtwängler’s indignant resignation from the orchestra in 1934 — temporary, as it turned out — was sparked by the Nazis’ political interference in artistic affairs, in this case a choice of repertoire, rather than direct opposition to their policies.

Aster is a Canadian historian living in Berlin. His book was originally published in German, and too many traces of that still remain. Terms and concepts are left in their original German, and translated only on their initial mention, if at all. Nor are they included in the sparse index, or provided with a separate glossary. Similarly with the numerous acronyms — I couldn’t keep them straight. And many passages quoted in the text and the comprehensive footnotes are left untranslated from their original German and French.

But Aster’s thorough, systematic research pays off again and again throughout this book. His straightforward style proves ideal for uncovering the ambiguities of the orchestra’s situation, especially when, in the final chapter, he analyzes how it all adds up. After the war, the orchestra had to answer for its recent past and redesign itself. It did so by building on its strongest assets, “its collective combative spirit and the group’s shrewd political judgement.” These were the very qualities that had ensured its survival during the Third Reich, as Aster shows so well.

Concert Note (for 2012/13 season): The Philharmonia Quartett Berlin, made up of members of the Berlin Philharmonic, performs at the St. Lawrence Centre on October 11, 2012, at 8pm, for Music Toronto.

59_blow_your_horn_-_frontblow your OWN horn –
horn heresies: an anti horn-method method
by Fergus McWilliam
Mosaic Press
172 pages, illustrations; $21.95

Fergus McWilliam has played French horn with the Berlin Philharmonic for 27 years. It’s a wealth of experience he shares here in what he calls his “anti-horn method.” Right near the beginning he issues a warning, “If you believe that one first needs to acquire sufficient technique before attempting to make music, then this is not for you. Yours is still a flat earth.” The point he continually makes is that technique should not be separated from making music. “It is musical playing which fosters, nourishes and ultimately builds good technique. Musical playing not only requires, but actually encourages and improves technique.” Presumably that’s one of the “horn heresies” he refers to in his title.

But McWilliam is equally impatient with players who call themselves musicians first, hornists (as he refers to French horn players) second. This is not, it turns out, a contradiction of his emphasis on dealing with technical issues within the context of the music — rather, it seems to be a declaration of his passion for the sound of his instrument, “unique and idiosyncratic” as it is. “Which musical instrument,” he asks, “can rival the horn’s sound for sheer sonic impact?” He tells about first falling in love with the sound of the horn as a kid. And so he issues another warning, “We imperil ourselves if we fail to produce a viscerally exciting sound, irrespective of how wonderful our phrasing may be.” To prove the instrument’s “nearly unmatched potential for emotionally expressive power,” he mentions the horn’s single note that opens the final movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

Though McWilliam was born in Scotland, he grew up in Canada and graduated from the University of Toronto’s music faculty. Canada is where he began his performing and teaching career. In fact, it was McWilliam who arranged for the Canadian Opera Company to obtain its set of Wagner tubas for its Ring cycle. How odd then that the biography of McWilliam in this book mentions nothing about his relationship to Canada — even though it is published in Canada.

Even for those who have no intentions whatsoever of ever trying to play what McWilliam lovingly calls this “famously difficult instrument,” this book is rewarding on many levels. McWilliam offers insights not just into horn-playing, but into all aspects of performing (and by extension, listening to) an instrument. Enough of McWilliam’s engaging personality comes through to make me hope his next will be a memoir.

60_book_coverThe Trumpet
By John Wallace and Alexander McGrattan
Yale University Press
ISBN 978-0-300-11230-6
$40.00 hardcover, 360 pages
Publication Date: May 15, 2012

“What mouthpiece do you use?” is the usual conversation opener, one trumpet player to another. So now we have another opener: “Have you read The Trumpet by John Wallace and Alexander McGrattan?” This book is a most welcomed addition to the libraries of seasoned professional trumpeters (like me), a “must-have” for any aspiring trumpet student or for anyone wishing to follow the evolution and vibrant history of one of the world’s oldest instruments.

The Trumpet follows a broadly chronological pattern, starting by highlighting the prehistory through civilizations of the ancient world. Summaries of developments in the instrument and its playing techniques follow, setting the stage for more in-depth investigations of these topics in subsequent chapters. The Trumpet then chronicles a period of more than a thousand years, from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West in the fifth century through to the end of the 16th century. Wonderful inclusion of articles by Don Smithers and Peter Downey provoke fresh interest and controversy regarding this relatively neglected period in the history of the trumpet.

Further chapters explore the trumpet in the 17th and 18th centuries, often referred to as “the golden age” of the natural trumpet. I find particular interest in the attention to detail regarding sophisticated performance conventions and the virtuosic repertoire of the Baroque, including detailed studies of the trumpet parts in the works of Bach and Handel. Exploration of the new-found chromatic possibilities toward the end of this period leads beautifully to a detailed analysis of the concerti for the keyed trumpet by Haydn and Hummel. As these are staple audition, examination and performance repertoire, so the insights shared here by master teachers Wallace and McGrattan are invaluable.

Commentary outlines 19th and early 20th century development of valved instruments which redefined the possibilities of the trumpet and the ways in which it was understood by players, composers  and audiences. The charting of detailed and useful technical developments and focus on the implications of these innovations for performance is followed by discussions of the often complex relationships between natural and valved instruments, trumpet and cornet, as well as the development and use of the piccolo trumpet in solo and orchestral contexts.

In discussion of the development of the trumpet as an orchestral and a solo instrument since the early 20th century, homage is given to Maurice André who significantly extended the solo trumpet repertoire by commissioning new works and by performing transcriptions of baroque music. From the 1960s, collaborations between trumpeters and avant-garde composers led to an expansion of classical solo repertoire; a very useful appendix of 20th-century solo works is included as well as numerous orchestral excerpts to provide further clarity.

The role of the trumpet in jazz is a principal theme in the final chapter, with analysis of the early recordings of Louis Armstrong, a fascinating discussion of the more mainstream fields of popular music, brass chamber music and the use of the trumpet in scores for television and the motion picture industry. A welcomed inclusion is the consideration of the image of the trumpet player, exploring, among other things, the significant role of female trumpeters in jazz and classical music. Finally, the future direction of jazz is considered through the prominence of Wynton Marsalis and other influential jazz trumpeters, inspiring the re-emergence of the trumpet as a solo instrument in music today.

Author John Wallace was for nearly two decades principal trumpet of the Philharmonia Orchestra, London, and is principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Alexander McGrattan is on faculty at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, is a freelance trumpeter, and a leading exponent of the natural trumpet.

Perhaps worth consideration is the British (er, Scottish) perspective inherent within this work. While for some, this gives it a special appeal, for others, it may result in references which are less immediately accessible. It has been suggested that this is the first major book devoted to the trumpet in more than 20 years. In this reviewer’s perspective, and as a trumpeter, I would have to agree.

Trumpeter Garry Page, The WholeNote’s recently appointed director of marketing, is “subbing” for regular BookShelf columnist Pamela Margles who will return next month.

66_beckwith-unheard-finalfront-colourUnheard of: Memoirs of
a Canadian Composer
by John Beckwith
Wilfrid Laurier University Press
408 pages, photos, musical examples; $29.95 paper

At 85 years of age, Canadian composer John Beckwith can look back from a singular vantage point. Because his life is so intertwined with the development of modern music in Canada, and since he has been so productive in many aspects of it, his memoir has a particularly wide range of material to cover. He describes his early childhood years in Victoria, his complicated first marriage and family life, his experiences as a professor and Dean of the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto, his years working at the CBC during its heyday, his extensive writings as a music critic, most recently reviewing CDs for this magazine, and, above all, his achievements as the composer of over 150 works.

In describing his most significant works, he offers a revealing glimpse into how he created them. Taking a Stand, which he wrote for the then newly-formed Canadian Brass, shows the spirit of adventure that he brought to a great deal of his music. It’s interesting to see how operas like Crazy to Kill, Night Blooming Cereus and Taptoo! were born out of a deep friendship. Beckwith wrote them with poet James Reaney, whom he describes as “a writer who understood music.” In the case of his Quartet, written for the Orford Quartet, “Ideas came rapidly, as if I had a quartet inside me waiting to be written down.”

Throughout his career, Beckwith’s writings have been marked by his outspokenness — what he himself calls his “habitual critical bitchiness.” But here, though he is uncommonly candid about his own shortcomings and outright failures, he is surprisingly tolerant of the shortcomings of others.

Since Beckwith has already written extensively about figures in Canadian music he knew best, it’s understandable that he is reluctant to cover the same territory again here. He recently contributed a delightful portrait of his teacher John Weinzweig to the collection of essays about Weinzweig he edited with fellow Weinzweig student Brian Cherney. And he has explored his relationship with Glenn Gould extensively, especially in his biography of Alberto Guerrero, who taught both of them piano.

Yet the experiences with friends and colleagues he does recall here — such as the time fellow Canadian composer Barbara Pentland demanded that Beckwith be given a free ticket for a concert which featured one of his compositions — tell so much about the characters and issues involved. These are stories that would otherwise never be heard, and I’d love to hear more.

The extensive endnotes, index, and score excerpts all contribute to the considerable pleasure of reading this beautifully-written memoir. The collection of photos includes a terrific ad from 1968 for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It features a photo of a Volkswagon Beetle, and reads, “The bug and John Beckwith.” By the end of this memoir Beckwith is ready to admit that he does, perhaps, exaggerate his obscurity. “Unheard Of”? — hardly. “Unheard” — undoubtedly; though what Canadian composer feels otherwise? “Essential” would be more like it.

66_beautyofbelaieffcoverpageThe Beauty of Belaieff
by Richard Beattie Davis
Clef Publishing
384 pages, colour plates; $125.00
available at www.beautyofbelaieff.com

While researching late 19th century Russian music, musicologist Richard Beattie Davis was struck by the elaborate title pages that adorned many of the original scores. He soon recognized how the chromo-lithographed title pages published by Mitofan Petrovich Belaieff stood out for their exquisite artistry. It wasn’t just that they were so beautiful. As Davis points out in this definitive study of Belaieff’s title pages, they were clearly intended to be more than decorative, since they revealed important information about the music itself. At their best, he writes, they can “illuminate one’s comprehension, even intensify one’s appreciation” of the music.

Belaieff was a wealthy timber merchant, music lover and amateur violinist living in St. Petersburg. By the time he started publishing music in 1885, he had already been supporting composers like Glazunov and Scriabin, organizing concerts, and hosting his legendary Musical Fridays — get-togethers where a string quartet, usually with Belaieff playing viola, would try out new compositions by composers like Taneyev, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov.

During a period of 16 years Belaieff published some of the most important orchestral, chamber, operatic, vocal and instrumental works of this immensely rich period in Russian music, including 80 full scores of orchestral works alone. Combining the expertise of a scholar with the obsessiveness of a collector, Davis managed to track down most of the original scores Belaieff published. Of the almost 200 title pages that Belaieff is estimated to have produced, over 150 are reproduced here.

Balakirev’s influential collection of folksongs, which introduced the Volga Boat Song, bears a surprisingly simple title page. But the intricate title page for Borodin’s Prince Igor manages to encapsulate the story of the opera. The unusual title page for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol features a dedication to the orchestra which performed at the premiere under the composer’s direction. Underneath, the names of all 67 orchestra members are engraved. Davis notes that for the second performance Tchaikovsky played the castanets (so his name is not on the list).

The detailed essays that Davis pairs with each artwork add up to a veritable history of late-19th-century Russian music. But some details do nonetheless get left unexplained because of the format. He mentions that Belaieff published many operas, including seven by Rimsky-Korsakov alone. And according to Davis, Belaieff considered his edition of Prince Igor to be the jewel among his publications. Yet elsewhere Davis writes — with no further explanation — that Belaieff had an aversion to opera.

An epilogue to this beautifully-produced volume points out how Belaieff’s publishing venture, which had ceased by the time of his death in 1904, once again thrives in Germany today as M.P. Belaieff Musikverlag, publisher of Blacher and Pärt — though they no longer produce such magnificent title pages.

Pamela Margles is a Toronto-based journalist and frequent contributor to The WholeNote. She can be contacted at bookshelf@thewholenote.com.

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