Classical Music as a peaceful political programme

A Music critic writes

Welcome to my blog,

little did I imagine before that without adding too many extra pages to my website that I would start, within a few months of beginning this adventure, to unfold many of my interests that I have only had the chance to develop in the criticism section of Irland Almanach. This was an annual I co-edited with four German friends which from 1999 through 2002 portrayed things Irish in German but which the publishers for lack of funds sadly discontinued after the fourth isssue entitled "The Celtic Tiger". One aspect we dealt with was music of all kinds, in my case classical music. So I had been looking forward to a concert at Leer, East Frisia, for some months in which Andrew Manze was to conduct the Radiophilharmonic Orchestra Hanover in a programme with Beethoven, Brahms, the violin concerto, and the Fifth Symphony in D-Major by Ralph Vaughan-Williams. I had hoped for a festival, and I was not deceived. However, in the context both of this blog and the current crisis in the British Isles the concert told me another story, too, which I'd like to unfold now if you care to follow me here.

It was one of those days when a full professional programme in the morning was to be met by another private one in the afternoon, only to find its climax in a long-craved leisure time activity. For, to be honest, listening to a concert of classical music to me is not just a moment when I can relax and allow only my senses and feelings to take over. Having performed the humble "office" of music critic for the local paper "Ostfriesenzeitung" for two seasons some years, I have never returned to the hall since then without recalling the suspense I felt when listening plus the tension of having to produce a piece on time the next day.

All the same, I was afraid of perhaps missing this concert, for it's a very successful local charity that has been running these concerts since shortly after the Second World War, and most of the time the concerts are sold out. It was like this on Friday, too, but I was lucky since a couple who had arrived earlier could do nothing with the single ticket which was still to be had. The gentleman I sat down beside a few minutes later proudly told me these was the best row - perfect visibility of the orchestra, the soloist and the conductor and room for one's legs. I couldn't but concur here.

Then I noticed that there was hardly anything said about Andrew Manze in the programme notes - a lacunae I tried to fill in after the event by reading up on him on the Internet and by watching a documentary done by NDR in English, too, on his life as a musician. So while in the concert hall I was left with my impressions of what he did. And the overture to Beethoven's only opera "Fidelio" was already quite a treat. While the programme notes said nothing about the content of the opera - which dealt with the subject of freedom - I felt that even at this early moment the concert seemed to aim at something not spelled out explicitly in the music - a political agenda, that is.

It needs to be understood that Ludwig van Beethoven, born in Bonn, went on to spend his life in Vienna, spreading his musical message from there. At the time, Austria was an Empire, something you still see when visiting the city. This quality also attracted a certain Dr William Wilde who arrived in Austria in the 1830s to enlarge his vision of eye surgery. His younger son, Oscar, however, never made it to Vienna while being aware of both his father's journey and Austrian politics which made it into his play "An Ideal Husband". Neither Wilde himself nor his father could claim to have been such, nor did this apply to either Beethoven or Johannes Brahms, the second composer of the night, whose Violin concerto in D Major was played to almost standing ovations by the audience in Leer by the Christian Tetzlaff. He was born in Hamburg like Johannes Brahms who, like Beethoven, reached the apex of his career in Vienna.

If utter freedom was the idea behind "Fidelio", something like the individual sheltered by society, as imaged by the soloist who found a congenial accompanist in the Hanover Radiophilharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Manze, was the idea behind the performance of the Brahm concerto. At least this is what I felt the more the longer the music enthralled me. And since the members of the orchestra assembled like a man or woman behind the soloist I suddenly associated the latter with Ireland and the former with the European Union that has, since the Brexit referendum, taken to supporting the lone Anglophone voice in Europe outside the United Kingdom. And interestingly, this orchestra is conducted by someone who, as I heard in the documentary, feels at home where his family are, in Sweden, and somewhat strange, an outsider even, when he returns to Britain. He does so regularly, when acting as Guest Conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic, where he also speaks differently to the musicians. But at Leer, he appeared to me to be the acting president of the EU, allowing Ireland her solo part in the effort to solve more than one crisis. During the interval, I gave vent to this idea, adding, too, and now it is up to England.

Such things, of course, are difficult to explain in a few words, let alone if other people had quite different associations. In any case, it was a wonderful concert, the first half having been completed by a movement from one of J. S. Bach's solo pieces for violin which I again felt bore an association to a lullaby, a soothing narrative for someone, or all of us, in dire need of rest and consolation. Christian Tetzlaff, whom I had never heard live before, was at his best, something the local critic could not but agree on in her notice published in Monday's edition of "Ostfriesenzeitung". There was no mention of a hidden agenda, while she, of course, noticed Andrew Manze's comment, made tongue in cheek, I thought, when announcing the encore, two movements from Handel's "Fireworks Music", saying briefly, laughing to me, as he does very often and very sympathetically during the interview done for NDR, "more English music". It goes without saying that he knew as many in the audience did that Handel was German-born and passed a long time in England, composing his most famous pieces there.

At the same time, as the conductor of the Hanover Radiophilharmonic, founded after the Second World War when the British had come back to Germany as occupying force, Andrew Manze probably also knew that in Handel's time George II was the second of four Hanover Kings and that, in particular for the "Fireworks Music", the composer did speak up very much against the monarch's wishes for no "fiddlers", only "trumpets and drums" to celebrate the peace treaty of 1748. While Handel's prestige allowed him to get away with such moments of stress with the King, a century and a half later Oscar Wilde was unable to weather the storm the revelations about his private double life had raised in London. Interestingly, apart from Bach, the German composers featured in the concert were all bachelors whose private lives did all but cause scandals harming their careers - either before or after their deaths. I do not know about Ralph Vaughan-Williams, the only English composer of the concert whose symphony when premiered in 1943 seemed to bear out a vision of piece, the programme notes said. In fact, he had already outlined the work before the Second World War. Still, the 1930s were a decade of many political crises in all of Europe, not least in the United Kingdom, so Vaughan-Williams may have craved peace even then. For me, the movement of waves, described both in the programme notes and in today's critical notice, seemed to suggest the way mainstream Britons imagine their country's history, one of of ups and downs which, however, peter out at the end, as do the waves at the seaside when a storm has abated.

This is part of musical history in Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, for example, excerpts of which, the second movement of the "The Pastoral" can be heard at the beginning of the documentary on Andrew Manze. It is interesting to note that both he and Yehudi Menuhin, whom I once witnessed at the Royal Festival with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on 2nd October 1979, appear to share a preference for just this work by Beethoven. While Beethoven opened the concert, standing ovations after the Vaughan-Williams called for another composer, Handel, that is. And as with other things I only learned through the documentary watched on Sunday night that Manze had started his career as a musician as a baroque violinist and may - by a mere chance - have been part of an Amsterdam orchestre in September 1991 when I listened to a brilliant performance in Osnabrück. Returning to the place, Stadthalle, that is, Manze said that he could not gauge the reactions of the audience since he had only been there once in recent years. In Liverpool for rehearsals as well as negotiations about Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" to be performed in 2018 in both cities with both orchestras, Manze similarly talked about the acoustics and the audience, so that I am very sure he was made aware of the possible reactions of the audience in little Leer - having but 35,000 inhabitants all in all.

When the orchestra started playing the Handel I realized at once this was a treat for all of them, in particular the two trumpet players allowed at last to shine for all to hear. At the end, I felt this was Europe calling Britain to order for there was both harmony there and unity in the sound, while, as is common with musicians who have played in historical instruments like Manze, the sound was all but uniform, something Europeans need to appreciate once more just as it is to be wished that Britons go for another part in Europe. There are some who say that having been exentric for the best part of fifty years as part of the club does not mean that you will be pampered any more once you declare to leave it.

Jörg W. Rademacher, 21st January 2019, on learning that the political concert, of course, was not heard by hardliners

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