Selected live reviews
Classical Music Daily (12/05/2008)
The thread of commonality that ran through the performances was Schellhorn's combination of clarity, sense of line and brilliant technique. This was a sequence of deeply felt performances. A fine début recital [at Wigmore Hall] from a talented pianist with an enviable technique.Robert Hugill (solo recital at Wigmore Hall, 07/05/2008)
The Independent (09/05/2008)
Schellhorn was in his element, letting the pedalled chords float and calibrating the interplay between darkness and light with fastidious care.Michael Church solo recital at Wigmore Hall, 07/05/2008)
MusicWeb International (11/2008)
What impressed more than anything was indeed the wealth of musical detail revealed by Matthew Schellhorn's playing. He clearly loves every note of the music and understands every element of its subtlety but his technique is also so assured (and so apparently effortless) that not a nuance was left unexpressed, not a silence given less than its due importance, not an emotional pivot-point neglected.Bill Kenny (solo recital at Purcell Room, 06/04/2006)Schellhorn’s playing was limpid and colourful with superb technique and committed artistry. ... consummate excellence ... The playing was simply inspired. When the final chords faded there was a silence for half a minute before rapturous applause and a standing ovation. Like me, much of the audience had been overwhelmed by the music and such wonderful playing.David R Dunsmore (chamber recital at St George's Bristol 19/07/2008)
Musical Opinion (04/2006 & 07/2008)
Matthew Schellhorn gave dazzling accounts ... Schellhorn possesses a seemingly perfect and complete piano technique for such things and his readings, always vivid and dramatic, were deeply satisfying.Max Harrison (solo recital at Purcell Room, 06/04/2006)In 2006 Matthew Schellhorn gave a brilliantly successful all-Messiaen recital [in the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre] but artists who devote a programme to only one composer always leave the question of how they would fare with other music. On 7 May [at Wigmore Hall] Schellhorn fully responded to that query with a wide range of music. Schellhorn ended with thoughtfully considered readings of Chopin’s Three Nocturnes Op. 9 and the Scherzo Op. 54. Juxtaposing early and late Chopin is often an effective programmatic idea and the rubato was beautifully judged, the piano tone as perfectly apt.Max Harrison (solo recital at Wigmore Hall, 07/05/2008)
Matthew Schellhorn's total command of this virtuoso piano part was never more aptly apparent than in the cadenza at the end of ‘Joie du sang des étoiles’ [in Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie] - totally breathtaking! This was a special evening and one that all involved should be proud and hold dear to their hearts for a long time. A great achievement.Malcolm Ball (performance at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge)
Interviews & features
“My Yorkshire: Matthew Schellhorn” (The Yorkshire Post, 2018)
Matthew Schellhorn reflects on what attracts him to the county of his birthWhat’s your first Yorkshire memory? I was born in Doncaster Royal Infirmary and l was brought up in Hatfield, which is a few miles outside the town. I remember visiting my grandparents, who lived ln Cantley, but I especially remember singing in the choir of the parish church, St Lawrence. Piano lessons started when I was about six, and I remember my teacher very well indeed. She was very rigorous and very structured and she also told me, in later years, that I was the only one of her pupils who stayed on the piano stool when the lesson finished.
What’s your favourite part of the county and why? It has to be the area where I grew up in South Yorkshire. l loved – and still love – the flatness of it, and the particular light you get. There’s one stretch that stands out, and it’s the landscape as you approach Sheffield. It seems to rear up, away from the levels, and goes suddenly into all those steep hills and onward to the Peak District.
What's your idea of a perfect day out, or a perfect weekend out, in Yorkshire? To my shame, I hardly know the north of the county at all, and that’s something I should like to rectify. So it’ll be a trip up to Ripon, and then the road to Whitby for a wander around, a lunch of fish and chips (and maybe a pint!) and then on to Scarborough for a wander around the castle.
Do you have a favourite walk, or view? People never believe me, but there is the most magical nature reserve just outside Doncaster, which runs alongside the River Don and the canal. When I was a youngster, we’d take a picnic up there on a fine day.
Which Yorkshire stage or screen star, past or present, would you like to take for dinner? The unforgettable Ernie Wise. There are so many happy memories of watching Morecambe and Wise’s TV shows, and particularly their Christmas “specials”. Theirs was such an amazing talent that, when the programmes are repeated, they can still make me laugh joyously and the ratings go through the roof. Timeless fun.
lf you had to name your Yorkshire “hidden gem”, what would it be? In the middle of The Shambles in York you will find the house that used to be home to Margaret Clitherow, who was martyred for her faith in the time of Elizabeth I. There’s a plaque on the wall but so many people seem to just pass on by, which is a shame, as she was a remarkable woman.
lf you could choose somewhere or some object, from or in Yorkshire to own for a day, what would it be? May I have the run of Brodsworth Hall? I have a fascination with old properties and especially the “backstairs areas” where you see the reality, rather than the splendour.
What do you think gives Yorkshire its unique identity? Those of us who see it from within, and the one that is perceived by outsiders. We know that the county in warm and welcoming, humorous and self-effacing – but with a slight reserve towards strangers until they get to know us, and we them. From outside the border, others sometimes see us as very protective and proud of who and what we are.
Do you have a favourite restaurant or pub? The Bay Horse in Hatfield holds a lot of very good memories for me. At one time, they did a very good rabbit pie.
Do you have a favourite food shop? My own regime is that I always have a good meal on the evening before I play anyway, and then limit myself on the day that I do. If the date is in Yorkshire, then I’ll be seeking out a good Indian restaurant.
How do you think that Yorkshire has changed, for better or for worse, in the time that you’ve known it? We have become far more diverse in what we do, and how we live. Retail outlets have certainly grown a lot, and the arts, creativity and live performance have burgeoned.
If you had to change one thing in, or about Yorkshire, what would that be? It’s a horribly selfish thing, but I’d move it all slightly closer to London, so that I wouldn’t have to take so much time in getting here to perform.
Who is the Yorkshire person that you most admire? Beverley-born Cardinal John Fisher, who died for his faith in 1535, on Tower Hill. He had defied Henry VIII and his demands to divorce Katherine of Aragn, and said, very plain, that the King was not the supreme head of the Church of England.
Has Yorkshire influenced your work? Yes. It seems to have fed organically into what I do and what. Love. I think that the openness of so many people has developed my musical tastes.
Name your favourite Yorkshire book / author / artist / CD / performer. It has to be Dame Janet Baker – who was, like me, from Hatfield. She conquered stages all over the world with her performances in lieder and opera.
If a stranger to Yorkshire only had time to visit one place, it would be? Go to any one of our fine religious buildings – Fountains Abbey, Selby Abbey, Beverley Minster, Roche Abbey. Each place will become very special to the visitor.
This article was originally published in The Yorkshire Post on 12 January 2019
“A Touch of Class” (BBC Music Magazine, 2017)
When Dinu Lipatti died, at just 33, the world lost a pianist of rare talent. Assisted by today’s great players, Roger Nichols admires the Romanian’s genius“Those whom the gods love,’ wrote the Ancient Greek playwright Menander, ‘die young.’ Whether or not his gods passed that habit on to those operating in the Christian era, who knows? But many musicians at least do seem to reserve a special place in their hearts for composers who left us before their time – Purcell, Schubert, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Mozart of course, all dead in their thirties. Performers may find it harder to make a lasting mark so young, but I can name two exceptions: Yehudi Menuhin, for whom an early death might have left his legacy more secure; and Dinu Lipatti, who was born on 19 March 1917 and died on 2 December 1950.
Heavenly powers smiled on Lipatti’s boyhood. His father Theodor was a violinist who had studied with Carl Flesch in Bucharest and then with Sarasate in Paris, his mother Anna was an accomplished pianist, and his godfather was violinist and composer George Enescu. At an early age Dinu clapped rhythms and imitated sounds to the delight of all, and even played on the piano a representation of a parental argument. He also composed. But his health had always been delicate and his parents waited until he was eight before letting him have piano lessons with Mihail Jora. Three years later he entered the Bucharest Royal Academy of Music to study under Florica Musicescu to whom
he remained devoted until his death. From here on, progress was swift. In each of the three years 1931–33 he performed a concerto: the Grieg, the Chopin E minor, the Liszt E flat, all of which he would later record. In 1934 he entered the Vienna International Piano Competition and was placed second – to the disgust of juror Alfred Cortot who promptly resigned.
Offers of concerts flooded in, but were mostly refused.
Instead Anna harboured the idea that Dinu should go to Paris. She sold their Bucharest house without Theodor’s knowledge and bought a Paris apartment. So to Paris they went and Lipatti entered the Ecole Normale de Musique, which Cortot had founded and where he taught. Paul Dukas gave Lipatti composition lessons and had a high opinion of his abilities and, when Dukas died in 1935 and his funeral coincided with a Lipatti recital, the pianist as a tribute opened with Myra Hess’s transcription of ‘Jesu, Joy’ which was to become a talismanic piece for him. For Cortot, the 18-year-old Lipatti was now no longer a student and he duly enrolled him on the school’s jury for its Diploma of Virtuosity.
Another teacher at the Ecole Normale who became a close friend was Nadia Boulanger. With his concert work now growing apace, in 1938 he recorded with her a selection of the Brahms Waltzes for piano duet. In July 1939, with war threatening, the family moved back to Bucharest, but Lipatti toured widely during the war and played in a number of German cities without, apparently, incurring blame either then or afterwards. Lovers of Ravel can only drool inwardly on reading that in a performance of Le Tombeau de Couperin the ‘Toccata’ was ‘splendidly rendered by Lipatti’s prodigious technique, and a crystal-clear and incisive playing with fine tonal range and full of brio’. Not everyone was thrilled by his interpretations. A Stockholm critic in 1943 reviled him as having ‘nothing of the thinker, no refinement of nuances nor any of the mysterious subtleties of musical expression’ and, in Chopin’s B minor Sonata, of ‘hurling himself at the keyboard and playing with the fury of a machine-gun salvo.’ But then said critic was a Vladimir Horowitz fan (of whom, more below). More positive were Lipatti’s relations with the pianist Edwin Fischer, whose playing of Schubert reduced him to tears.
The heavenly powers, however, had a terrible and, as it turned out, fatal blow in store for Lipatti. At the end of 1943, shortly after he moved to Geneva, he ran a fever, but the tests showed nothing abnormal. Concerts had to be postponed or cancelled and money was low. Then in April 1944 he was appointed as professor of the ‘Virtuosity Course’ at the Geneva Conservatoire, a post he held for five years. This gave his life stability, but Swiss musical politics (Lipatti refers in inverted commas to his ‘dear colleagues’) did their best to scupper things until the post was finalised.
The last six years of Lipatti’s life saw a battle against what was finally diagnosed as Hodgkin lymphoma, with his doctors’ warnings against over-exertion on one side, and Lipatti’s duty to his audiences on the other. Clearly the anticipated US tour was no longer a possibility, but at least Lipatti had the good fortune
to make a friend of Arturo Toscanini. The conductor let it be known that for him Enescu was ‘Europe’s greatest musician’, and then went on to allow Lipatti the unique privilege of sitting in on his rehearsals; even if the last of these was, in Lipatti’s words, ‘a stormy one with scores thrown about, shouts, insults, threats, until we didn’t know where to hide ourselves’, he admitted to learning a great deal.
For us today, the most wonderful and exciting products of these years were his recordings, notably those made with producer Walter Legge. But even these were often stressful, his 1947 recording of the Chopin B minor Sonata being stretched over two whole days. His last recordings, made in the months before his death in Geneva, are a testament to his unflinching honesty and determination to serve the music he played. Nor, for him, was death the end. His beloved Madeleine, whom he could marry only as late as 1949 when her husband, who had refused a divorce, finally died, recorded his last words: ‘If we suffer here below, it is to prepare for ourselves a better life.’
But what of his playing? Legge pronounced two illuminating truths about Lipatti: that he was ‘the “cleanest” player I have ever worked with’; and that he was ‘unable, in showing a pupil how not to phrase, even of imitating bad taste’. If these two judgements risk making Lipatti sound antiseptic, nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly the Stockholm critic was in a minority of perhaps one in accusing him of being a machine gunner. But bland he was not – a verdict backed up by talking to a number of today’s leading players. Matthew Schellhorn says, ‘When I want access to fresh ideas, or be reminded of why I love a certain piece, I go to Lipatti’s playing’, and Stephen Hough confirms that ‘Apart from the sheer polish of Lipatti’s playing (all the perfectly-sewn seams hidden under the cloth) I love the way he is able to combine elegance with passion, and humility with a deep individuality.’
On the technical front, Lipatti was a perfectionist. Asked how he learnt the fiendish Chopin Etude in thirds, he replied, ‘Practising it an hour every day for six months’. He was not hindered by the fact that he could stretch a 12th and, when his health allowed, his octave playing evinced absolute command. On a narrower level, too, his repeated notes in Ravel’s ‘Alborada del gracioso’ are breathtaking. But much of the power and grace of his playing came from deep thinking. Steven Osborne admires his ‘remarkable way of bringing meaning to the smallest detail
of the music while never losing sight of the bigger picture’. In his recording of Busoni’s arrangement of Bach’s chorale prelude Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, not only does each of the three strands have its own shape, but so does the piece as a whole, while, as Charles Owen says, he ‘allows the listener to relish all the voices without any intrusive point making’. He also makes a perfect shape of Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnet 104 and likewise makes a strong musical statement out of the Grieg Concerto. Indeed, he was widely felt to have rescued from the shadows this piece, of which he said, ‘Only those players who have a superficial grasp of the work are in danger of slipping into cheap dilettantism, and to belittle it is proof of their lack of understanding’.
For Charles Owen, one of the qualities that strikes him in Lipatti’s Chopin ‘is how very “modern” he sounds. By this, I mean a real simplicity – in the best sense of the word – of style with a sound so translucent and polished with judicious, minimal rubato and a complete absence of desynchronisation between the hands... Surely Michelangelo and Pollini would not have sounded as they do without the influence of Lipatti?’ One aspect of this modernism, in the sense of a total respect for the composer’s text, came out in what a colleague remembered as ‘his holy rages against bunglers, blockheads and narcissists’. Without actually accusing Horowitz of being any of those things, he did note in a review how, in Chopin’s E major Scherzo, the pianist happily ‘forgot he was Horowitz and returned to being a simple musician’. Angela Brownridge touches on this point, remarking that ‘it’s the poetical element which I love in his playing… he was never out to prove anything, no ego to distort the music he so obviously loved… a sublime pianist that I never tire of listening to’.
It’s perhaps not entirely surprising that his collaborations with Herbert von Karajan had their awkward moments. Although their recording of the Schumann Concerto is rightly admired, Lipatti complained in a letter to Floria Musicescu of the ‘remarkable but superclassical conductor who, instead of helping my timid romantic élan, put a brake on my good intentions.’ As for their 1950 recording of Mozart’s Concerto, K467, here indeed is little ‘refinement of nuances’, though perhaps Lipatti’s ill health should take some of the blame. He, however, would make no such excuses. In an attitude that takes us back again to the Ancient Greeks, who understood the concept of pathei mathos (learning through suffering), he claimed that his illness had taught him to play better.
The Chopin Barcarolle, two recordings of the Waltzes, ‘Jesu, Joy’, Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and… Not enough really for a man whom Steven Osborne calls ‘one of the supreme musicians among pianists’. But let’s be grateful for what we have, and savour Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s heartfelt exclamation: ‘Mon Dieu, qu’il jouait bien!’
This interview first appeared in the February 2017 issue of BBC Music Magazine
“Touching the Divine” (New Liturgical Movement, 2015)
Matthew Schellhorn discusses his work with Sacred Music ahead of a working pilgrimage to RomeCan you introduce yourself – your background and your current activities?
I am a musician living in London, originally from Yorkshire. I went to school in Manchester and then read Music at Cambridge, where I still work. I am a pianist by training and my professional activities include teaching and giving recitals on my own and with others. Singing has always been part of my life and is the heart of my music making, even at the piano. After I converted to Catholicism in 1999, I realised that the Sacred Liturgy needed to be serviced with a much higher standard of music, both in terms of performance and repertoire. The traditional liturgy and the movement surrounding its promotion provides rich opportunities for chant and polyphony, and it is a great privilege to be involved with so many celebrations in the UK and further afield.
You will be in Rome in late October for both the General Assembly of Una Voce and for the pilgrimage Summorum Pontificum. Can you explain the musical programme that you will perform during these two events?
My colleagues and I will be providing the music for several celebrations, including the Eucharistic Adoration in San Lorenzo in Damaso (before the procession to St Peter’s) and for the Sunday Mass in the historic church of Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini. I wanted to programme works that highlight our British provenance and the international nature of the events. So, we have music by Robert Parsons and William Byrd, both English composers who worked at the Chapel Royal and were most probably teacher and pupil respectively. We also have music by the great English Catholic composer Sir Edward Elgar, Master of the King’s Musick from 1924–34; his music is considered nowadays the epitome of “Englishness” or “Britishness”, but in fact owes more to continental Europe. I have also included a motet by my friend Sir James MacMillan, a potent musical voice who does much to represent Sacred Music and who is a Patron of The Latin Mass Society of England and Wales, which is sponsoring our work in Rome. To reflect the international dimension, I have programmed works by Josquin, Lotti, Viadana, Victoria, Palestrina, Mozart, Robledo and Franck. This will be a grand tour of Sacred Music!
You have assembled a choral group especially for this purpose: can you introduce it to us and tell us if it will continue in the future?
I founded Cantus Magnus as a small professional vocal ensemble in 2011 to fulfil the objective of performing Sacred Music in the context for which it is composed – the worship of God during Solemn Mass. We give no concerts, make no recordings. I do not believe in hearing Sacred Music in the concert hall. We have been fortunate to be supported by the Latin Mass Society, assisting with its events including national pilgrimages and cathedral celebrations. Since 2012, we have provided the music for the Sacred Triduum held at St Mary Moorfields, London, where we also gave what we believe was the UK premiere of the Tenebrae Lamentations and Responses by Italian cleric and composer Pietro Amico Giacobetti (fl. 1579–1616). I very much hope this work will continue, allowing the faithful to hear such beautiful music in the manner it was intended.
What is the link between your musical calling and Catholic faith?
Good music can draw people into the mystery of worship and therefore I see being a musician as primarily a vocation of service. Beyond that, I can only explain in general terms. I am a Catholic musician, but all Catholics are musicians in the sense that our patrimony includes music because music is an essential human quality. As Cardinal Ratzinger explained: "When man comes into contact with God, mere speech is not enough.”. Or, to use St Augustine’s phrase: “Cantare amantis est” – singing is a lover’s thing. This truth, then, is the link for me and for others. We sing because we have faith; and we have faith so we sing.
This interview was published on newliturgicalmovement.org on 25 September 2015
“Speaking Out” (The Catholic Herald, 2014)
The Catholic Herald interviews Matthew Schellhorn about his powerful appeal against the Falconer BillOn the eve of the assisted suicide debate in the House of Lords you issued a powerful appeal against the Bill. Why did you feel compelled to speak out?
Until last week only a limited number of people knew about my experiences as a carer towards the end of my mother’s life. But when I read in the media that some people were arguing that there is an unacceptable indignity in disability, illness and death I felt I had to speak out. Not having projected my beliefs into the public arena before I tentatively tweeted about my mother’s terminal illness and several people responded positively. So I decided to write a longer piece with more detail. What was important to me was to get across that we as a family had encountered something rather beautiful, and because of that unexpected finding our lives were enriched; I am not saying it was not difficult.
What kind of reaction have you had?
Largely a positive one. Many people have appreciated hearing a personal viewpoint. Others have felt the need to let me know they do not share my beliefs and do not want to hear from me again. Several peers have contacted me to thank me for writing the article, with one previously undecided now leaning towards my view.
What do you think the music world’s response will be to your outspoken intervention?
That remains to be seen. I might never know. Several people told me I was brave to publish the article. I think there is always a reaction when people break out of their usual environment. Then again, often we hear musicians perform but never get to know anything about them personally. I have always found the classical music world to be very secular and unconcerned with pro-life issues. It is rare to hear an artist speak on politics or religion: I think people do not expect it. But sometimes it is necessary to speak out.
Does faith play a role in your life?
I am a Catholic. I converted at the age of 21, from Anglicanism, when I was at university.
Could you tell us how your faith influences your life as a musician?
As a Catholic, I believe that musicians have a distinctive role in the world. Music can affect people profoundly. It can soothe or it can disturb. It can challenge. It can invigorate. And it can unite people. I never play music that I think audiences will not enjoy. I also see it as part of my vocation to help with the music in the Sacred Liturgy, so I teach and lead the chant at several churches from time to time. I am also interested in the roots of western art music and am researching the influence of plainchant in the classical repertoire.
You are a well-known interpreter of the works of Olivier Messiaen. What draws you to his work?
Initially, I was attracted to the music of Messiaen because of its sound and its colour. Then I got to know some of the religious inspiration behind it. When I was at school I began to learn the Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (“Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus”) and the Catalogue d’oiseaux (“Bird Catalogue”). As I played this powerful music more I became conscious of a unique blend of technique and Catholic theology. Messiaen was also interested in the natural world and particularly in birds. As it happens, my mother loved birds and birdsong, so I inherited that from her.
People are sometimes surprised that Messiaen was both artistically adventurous and deeply rooted in Catholic tradition. How do you think he was able to combine these traits, which some regard as incompatible?
Messiaen was special and he certainly developed new compositional methods. Moreover, as a teacher he encouraged his students to pursue new ideas. But Messiaen was not a modernist in musical terms. In the melodic and rhythmic domain he was influenced by plainchant. And, despite the complexity, there is nothing chaotic or unordered in Messiaen’s music. It reminds me a bit of Pope Benedict’s phrase “hermeneutic of continuity”, in the sense that Messiaen found a way to reconcile the past with the present.
Your latest CD is a recording of Ian Wilson’s Stations, a piece that was inspired by the 14 Stations of the Cross. Did recording this work give you any new insights into this time-honoured devotion?
Ian’s remarkable piece is built, in artistic terms, on an abstraction of the emotional peaks and troughs in the Via Crucis. The work can be heard in a non-religious way, or it can appeal on a more obvious level. Personally, I have found a greater love of, and greater stamina for, the Stations of the Cross since getting to know this work. I think the composer – perhaps unconsciously – has found a way of elucidating certain theological points in musical terms.
In your article, you mention that your mother’s terminal illness made you lose interest in music and put your career in jeopardy. Was there a point where you regained your interest in the art form and your career took off again?
When you are coping with serious illness your world view necessarily contracts. I found it impossible to focus on my own career at the same time as being enormously worried about someone else. I was very aware that I could not play at my best, which felt terrible while performing with others. I was also unable to build new opportunities because I was so focused on looking after my mother. I would say I am only now beginning to enjoy music again.
This interview first appeared in The Catholic Herald on 25 July 2014
“Messiaen and the Freedom of Birdsong” (15questions.net, 2012)
Matthew Schellhorn answers questions about music in the natural worldDeep connexions
Can animal sounds be considered music? Is bird song a display of creativity? Are there ways that human artists can benefit from the acoustic riches of nature? These considerations hardly matter to most contemporary composers. To Olivier Messiaen, however, they were among the key aspects of his oeuvre – to the point that he frequently referred to himself as an ornithologist rather than a composer. Messiaen's work may be more relevant today than ever, but it has remained fiendishly hard to categorise. We decided to speak to someone capable of gauging its meaning and importance for a new generation of musicians: Pianist Matthew Schellhorn studied with Messiaen's wife Yvonne Loriod and has recorded a widely applauded album of his chamber works. For his Wigmore Hall debut and subsequently, he has built several programmes around the theme of bird song. The most remarkable thing about these programmes is that they both confirm and contest Messiaen's position in the field of birdsong: "One of the things I wish to articulate in this programme is how dependent he was, perhaps, on those who had gone before him", according to Schellhorn. It seems our love for birdsong is more universal than some may have thought.
What are the musical reason why we love birdsong so much?
I think there is a deep connexion between humans and the natural world, and particularly birds. The bird is an ever-present part of our human experience. It is also universally identifiable with freedom, with simplicity, with beauty. Birds have fascinated man from prehistory and they have developed symbolic and religious significance through the ages, from the Roman eagle of the Caesars to the dove of the Bible, from the fantastic phoenix to the griffin and the god-peacock of India. In its interaction with man, it is found in every cultural area, in music of course, in visual art, in poetry, even in heraldry.
As to the music of birdsong and why we love it, I should say that beautiful singing is enjoyed by humans and birdsong is understood as the most natural manifestation of song. We are interested by its familiarity and its unpredictability, its contrasts and its consistency. It is perhaps for this reason that in my exploration of works inspired by birds and birdsong I have found no detriment to good musical sense, in fact quite the opposite. There is no emotion, no musical satisfaction, no artistic integrity, lacking in a selection of works based on this subject.
In your "Birds and Birdsong" programmes, you examine the topic of birdsong in music from a historical perspective. It is astounding how far back that journey goes ...
Yes, these programmes span a very large period, and it is amazing to think that birdsong has been a constant inspiration to composers for hundreds of years! What is remarkable is the variety of ways in which birdsong can be woven through the music. So, we have in Daquin an almost ceaseless thread of the cuckoo's song, forming a backbone to the tonal and harmonic content; in Rameau and Ravel we have what might be described as "generic" song infused into a complex musical creation that explores natural fluctuations of mood. Birdsong, and the subject of the bird, is often a "way in", therefore, to a deeper understanding of reality.
And then, there's Messiaen, of course ...
Messiaen's birdsong music obviously occupies a special place in the repertoire. He elevated this area to an art-form, perhaps even a science. Taking into consideration his early "La Colombe" ("Dove"; from the Préludes of 1929) and the monumental Catalogue d'oiseaux (1956–8), I would single out the stunning La Fauvette des jardins ("The Garden Warbler"; 1970) as an unparalleled masterpiece.
There's a quotation from Messiaen that reads: "I doubt that one can find in any human music, however inspired, melodies and rhythms that have the sovereign freedom of bird song."
While Messiaen found birds to be "sovereign" in their creative capacity, he also said they are "the closest to us, and the easiest to reproduce". I should assert that the only man-made music ever, perhaps, to come close to birdsong is Gregorian chant. This music, the music proper to the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, manifests the same flexibility of both melody and rhythm. There is even evidence to suggest that the Gregorian melodies we have written down were the basis, in fact, of improvisation – which of course further reminds us of the sounds of the natural world.
Again, we note that in music inspired by birds we find an opportunity to explore the natural sounds around us, which is another reason why there is such vitality and depth in all this music.
From your point of view, which of the two aspects – the ornithological or the musical – is more prevalent in Messiaen's style?
I referred earlier to Messiaen's "science" in this area. It is true that some of the birds, most of them in fact, are astonishingly similar to their inspiration. But if it possible to divide our subject, I have to say that I find the musical, not the replicative, to be the predominant faculty in his works. In simpler terms, birdsong seems put to the service of the music. Although there are episodes of "freedom" and "improvisation" - some of them fiendishly difficult! - it is the way the whole is arranged in every case that enables the works to become pieces of music in the way we would understand it in performance. Messiaen can be very free in his musical forms, but there is balance and proportion in every compositional choice.
Some works, such as "Le Traquet stapazin" ("The Black-eared wheatear"), "Le Courlis cendré ("The Curlew") (both from Catalogue d'oiseaux) and La Fauvette des jardins, explore the notion of time: here, although our sense of time is rooted by apparently extra-musical subjects – like the movement of the sun – the musical material is used in logical and "accepted" ways in order to articulate the action.
I find that, in spite of – perhaps because of – being inspired by birds and birdsong, these works are some of the most traditional as any in the piano repertoire.
Open to development
Catalogue d'oiseaux is a cornerstone of 20th-century music, but it never created a school in the true meaning of the word. What's the importance of the piece for 20th-century composition from your point of view?
It is correct to say that the importance of this music is felt now in the least obvious ways. I think there is a need to look back to the natural world for its own inspiration, particularly in the technological age. I am hoping for more new works in this vein.
It is notable that all of these bird-related works, by all composers, are extremely creative and exploratory. And what we learn mostly is that musical forms, melodic and rhythmic possibilities, piano timbre and technique are still open to development – often in radical ways. Messiaen's piano writing here is incredibly pianistic. For this, we have his wife, Yvonne Loriod, to thank in large part. Her extraordinary capabilities opened up Messiaen's language to embrace this field of music and to enable its sounds to be heard in our concert halls. And the possibilities of piano writing are still being explored, having been developed in the 20th century in such ways.
In terms of performance for you as a pianist, what are some of the challenges of the catalogue's pieces?
The basic challenge of rendering birdsong on the piano is to try to match the unbridled freedom of the bird in its performance. For that, one needs a great familiarity with the patterns of the song and a solid methodology in preparing for the technical difficulties. The biggest challenge is the same as with all music, though perhaps more necessary here: "ars est celare artem" – it is art to conceal art. The pianist has to find ways to bridge the divide between the natural and the unnatural: that is perhaps the artistic "meaning" of this music, and why birdsong is the perfect subject matter.
So did you study the "originals" in any form?
Yes, I have made a study of birdsong, and I have several ornithological books and recordings about the subject. I have also experimented with trying to mimic birdsong at the piano. This ongoing study has grown out of a fascination with birds and birdsong inherited from my mother, who shares my passion. I do not think it makes sense to play a piece without understanding its background. I like to keep a handle on the extra-musical programme as I play it. But I have also said before that it is what Messiaen and other composers "do" with the song that is the most fascinating thing. It is possible, I assert, to appreciate this music without any reference to titles, programmes, labels.
In particular, I have visited the areas of France that inspired the Catalogue d'oiseaux and also La Fauvette – the Meije Glacier and the Dauphiné (Isère), for instance. Here, I have got a feel for the landscape; I have seen – and heard! – the environment that has inspired this music. Perhaps I have heard some descendants of the birds Messiaen himself heard.
Has working with Messiaen's music changed your perception of what constitutes "music"?
Messiaen himself said that he made "no distinction between noise and sound" – the sounds of wind and water, or mountain streams and waterfalls, all constituted music. So, I have understood that view from an early age. I should mention the wonderful non-bird sounds found in Messiaen's music: abstract colour-chords, cicadas, water, wind, the movement of trees – even lighthouse foghorns! In this music we find ourselves constantly surprised by the inventiveness on offer and our expectations are never disappointed. I find something new every time I play this music.
This interview was published in December 2012 on 15questions.net
“Homage to Haydn” (Muso magazine, 2010)
Matthew Schellhorn talks to Claire Jackson, Editor of Muso magazine about his latest project – a series of six miniatures that take unusual inspiration from the great composerFrom birthdays to death dates, 2009 saw myriad composer anniversaries commemorated; we marked 200 years after Mendelssohn's birth and 350 years post Purcell's arrival. We paid our sombre respects to Handel, 250 years after his passing and noted the 50 years gone by after the death of Martinu. While these are all worthy events, it can be difficult for the discerning artist or programmer to find an appropriate means of showcasing the legacy of the composers' repertoire without resorting to simply trotting out populist classics.
So, when pianist Matthew Schellhorn (above) began planning his recital at the Cambridge Music Festival in November, he vowed to mark the 200 years after Haydn's death with a fitting, creative and contemporary tribute. Schellhorn sought inspiration from a soggetto cavato project undertaken 100 years ago for the Haydn centenary, in which prominent composers of the day – Debussy, Ravel, Dukas, d'Indy, Hahn and Widor – each wrote a piece based on the letters H, A, Y, D, N translated into the musical notes B, A, D, D, G (where B = H in German, and with D and G supplying for otherwise unplayable letters). The pieces were later published in La Revue Musicale, for the Société Internationale de Musique. Schellhorn asked six British composers – Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Michael Zev Gordon, Cecilia McDowall, Colin Riley, Jeremy Thurlow, and Tim Watts – to write new works in a similar vein, this time freeing up the use of the letters, with some extraordinary results.
'A typical centenary would survey pieces by the composer himself,' explains Schellhorn. 'I became aware of the La Revue Musicale project and thought it seemed a neat and fun way of celebrating 200 years of Haydn.'
Watts, a close composer friend of Schellhorn's from their Cambridge University days was a clear choice when it came to commissioning; the other writers were picked due to their broad-ranging techniques and musical personalities. 'I wanted to get a nice spread of styles because it was obvious to me from the original set that each composer is very different,' says Schellhorn. 'I left the brief fairly open to ensure different responses. Originally the five notes were predetermined but I suggested either using these or having a completely different pattern of notes, if the composers could justify them. I was worried that they might all come back with the same piece and feared direct repetition, but they've all dealt with it differently. I did consider putting them all in touch with each other to prevent any crossover, but I decided that might be a bit synthetic.'
There is a strong sense of individuality within the final set; each piece has its own personality, from the pensive, meditative sustained notes of Riley's weave to the structural technique employed in Butterfly by Thurlow. Such clear characterisation might have made the work as a whole disjointed, but Schellhorn has given the order of appearance much consideration: 'The order they appear [in the magazine] is the order I performed them. I decided to start with Tim's piece, which imitates a clock whirring back to life. The set is a bit like a Haydn symphony, really, with a slow introduction and then a minuet in the middle, finishing with a virtuosic finale.'
The music was premiered at the 2009 Cambridge Music Festival in November, as part of a concert that also showcased works by Mendelssohn, marking the composer's aforementioned 200th birthday. While contemporary music often gets a hard rap from musicians and critics alike, Schellhorn is confident the Homage to Haydn project has broken boundaries in a way that audiences can engage with.
'This isn't gimmicky,' he says, firmly. 'Every piece was new at some point. Often we listen to music and accept it, simply because it's famous or by a composer we know. Virtually every great piece came with some controversy; it seems appropriate to celebrate Haydn, who was a groundbreaking composer, with pieces that are entirely new.
This interview first appeared in the Dec 2009/Jan 2010 issue of Muso magazine
Articles by Matthew Schellhorn
“Silent Treatment” (The Catholic Herald, May 2020)
Musicians’ ‘darkest hour’ has exposed the fragility of their working terms, writes Matthew SchellhornLiturgical musicians need prayers. Many are unable to work during the pandemic – and the nature of their working conditions makes them especially vulnerable.
For those with fixed employment contracts – cathedral musicians, for instance – there is government support. But freelancers are in a more difficult position. Along with money worries, many are distressed by a breakdown of communication with the churches where they have been working, and where they have found a kind of second home. The consequences could last well beyond the pandemic.
Lawrence is an experienced singer with a regular job in a Central London church where he has served for a decade. Some clients, he says, “have not been in contact at all – no contact whatsoever”. “Just a show of solidarity would be appreciated. It feels like we are not valued.” In some cases, choir directors have done little to represent musicians’ needs to the contract holder. “Choir members have been led into unclear and complicated conversations by clergy who do not seem down-to-earth and sensitive to our welfare,” says Lawrence.
Technology has provided an answer in many sectors, but not all churches have engaged with offers to pursue creative ideas – especially after the government offered graded income support to some freelancers.
“Church authorities lost interest in helping out,” says Arabella, a singer who has seen her regular work disappear. She is “lucky” that her husband is in stable employment. But musicians are being cold-shouldered, she says, with some churches broadcasting archive music for their online services instead of considering live online solutions.
Other churches have acted quickly to support their musicians. Rebecca, a prize-winning vocalist, is now “very unemployed”; her husband, also a trained musician, has taken on shifts as a delivery driver. In her case, churches have treated her well, interpreting agreements “generously”.
“With a demographic that is elderly, we were told online services would not be appropriate, but we are being paid fees despite the fact the church collection must be down,” she said. “But I have concerns about what the future looks like in a church that will have suffered financially. I wonder what we are coming back to.”
Some fear that the pandemic will become a pretext to slim down liturgical provision permanently. Shelly, a choir director, offered several creative solutions to the lockdown, including online music provision. Instead, the parish priest ended the contract. With mouths to feed and real concern about finding similar work in the future, Shelly is considering legal action.
At this highly unusual time, bodies such as the Incorporated Society of Musicians are not only at the front line of protecting the contractual rights of professional musicians, but also campaigning for an increased understanding of their work.
Their Chief Executive, Deborah Annetts, has written to the Chancellor to outline the plight of musicians. “In our long history, which spans two world wars, we have never seen the professional suffering in the way they are now,” Annetts says. “Freelance musicians including musicians who work in a church setting have lost virtually all of their work overnight.”
The Musicians’ Union states that “the music industry is currently facing its darkest hour”. In a survey of 1,459 of its members, 38 per cent said they could not access Government support; 19 per. cent were considering abandoning music altogether.
There are several reasons why the music industry requires a special package of measures. Many musicians work as casual hourly-paid workers and have been told they are not eligible for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, or their income is jointly employed and self-employed but in the “wrong” ratio to make them eligible for the self-employed scheme. A recent letter, signed by 50 members of the House of Lords, has urged the Government to provide robust financial support to music and the performing arts, which now “face ruin”.
One company director says: “I feel I have a moral duty to try to safeguard musicians’ work opportunities as much as possible but sadly my only option is to furlough myself. That means I cannot maintain my music business. It is unfair that in my situation I am treated differently to the self-employed, because after all there will be no work to come back to if company directors cannot work in the meantime.”
There could, though, be a silver lining to this very dark cloud. In his Letter to Artists, Pope St John Paul II wrote that the Church “needs musicians”, and, when churches open again, musicians will expect a fairer working environment.
While a system persists where few liturgical musicians have written contracts, where they are engaged on an ad hoc basis with no recourse for cancelled work, no control over the fees they are paid, and little to no representation in the churches they serve, an end to lockdown will not be an end to an endemic problem. After this cataclysmic episode, along with an increased awareness of how technology can serve liturgical music, hopefully we shall emerge with fairer working terms.
Some names have been changed.
This article was published in The Catholic Herald in May 2020
“Remote teaching: lessons from a pupil” (matthewschellhorn.com, 12/05/2020)
Music education during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemicDuring this extraordinary period of one’s musical career – at the height of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic – every teaching musician affected by lockdown has a single professional goal: instrumental lessons must be kept safe, personal and inspirational, and pupils’ continuity of learning needs to be safeguarded so as to keep musical progress at pace.
To assist with the transition to the necessity of online-only lesson delivery, there are many helpful articles giving specialist advice and information on technology, teaching styles and safeguarding. With this in mind, I decided nonetheless to ask not fellow colleagues but rather a longstanding pupil in order to identify what has changed for them since lessons – for better or for worse – and to reflect on the results in order to enhance our online lessons further.
Sarah, who has learned with me for over two years, recommenced her musical learning in her sixties with a significant aim – to achieve personal fulfilment by developing not only her practical and expressive but also her theoretical skills. Despite much progress to date – she recently achieved her Grade 8 Theory – there is also a sociable dimension: although not the priority, I think it would not be a push to say that for a lady who lives alone (contentedly so), the regularity of structured one-to-one lessons are particularly welcome – making the present climate particularly challenging.
I asked Sarah to consider what is better or worse about online music lessons compared with the traditional model, and her answers were surprising. The first loss has been “the ability to play together”, and though I was initially sad to read that the answer points towards a recognition of the music’s most important social dimensions, expressing a desire to converse and to exchange ideas in a non-linguistic context.
If there are occasions when Sarah wonders whether “technology struggles to feed comfortably and seamlessly into live music-making”, on the other hand one can “look back” on lessons in a sometimes more reliable way. Online platforms allow for recordings to be made, which can be used to extend the learning process and to focus on clear learning objectives at a pace that suits oneself. She looks at these recordings “regularly and frequently, often several times over” – though with the lessons stored (with her consent) in my Dropbox, she is blissfully unaware of the data cost!
And in any case, as I have often said to pupils during better times – and which recording musicians know first-hand – seeing and hearing oneself perform is a learning experience in itself. In Sarah’s words: “I can hear much more easily in the recording what I am doing badly, and then, how to correct mistakes.”
Despite the fast-moving pace of technology, Sarah has found the technology (we use zoom, with Adobe Acrobat supplying the means of marking scores and notational work) surprisingly “intuitive and easy to use”. In the area of annotation, then, lessons remain unchanged, and although I think the pace is perhaps somewhat slower my pupil feels that it is “generally unchanged”.
This last response suggests that online learning enjoys the same complexity as the usual model: teaching and learning can be experienced differently, and on the subject of “pacing” it is always important to check perceptions and to base reactions on a pupil-centric perspective.
Finally, this pupil thankfully considers that online-only lessons have led to a marked increase in navigating accident-prone performance moments. Sarah’s view is that the medium has equipped her with the tools to “reflect on where mistakes occur and why”. And I must add that I have noticed a greater depth to her musicality, which is possibly to do with removing the self-consciousness whereby a proximate audience can become for some pupils a drawback.
As I reflect on these responses, I notice with a degree of surprise that the answers were not entirely as I expected. My goals must, despite the temptation to become ever more self-centred while confined at home, remain those of my pupils’. Teaching is, after all, not all about me – though neither is the learning all about the pupil. Music allows us, particularly in the worst moments of life, precious moments of togetherness.
This article was published on 12/05/2020
“A new Schola for London” (Mass of Ages, Summer 2020)
Matthew Schellhorn discusses his work helping to establish a Gregorian chant initiativeAt the start of last year, the Latin Mass Society established a new Gregorian chant initiative designed to help a new generation of chant enthusiasts be trained for singing in the Sacred Liturgy. Working with professional singers, the new all-male Schola Cantorum began to accompany selected traditional Catholic liturgies (Mass and Divine Office) in the London area, including some of the long-established regular Monday evening Masses in the beautifully restored Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane in Covent Garden. Members of the Schola gave service at Holy Week in 2019 (and stood ready to do so in 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic), at Masses for the Catholic Medical Association, and at our annual pilgrimage to Aylesford.
For our Patron, we chose a saint with links to our local area. Essex-born Carthusian St John Houghton was the proto-martyr of the Protestant Revolt in England, being hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1535. As Prior of the London Charterhouse in the City of London, he had refused the take the Oath demanded by the Act of Supremacy. He was beatified in 1886 and canonised in 1970. The logo of the Schola is a double reference to the chant neume torculus and the infamous three-legged Tyburn Tree.
That the Church requires greater capacity to service its Sacred Music with high-quality singing is undeniable. Summorum Pontificum not only led to a widening access to the Traditional Mass but in doing so has also inspired many colleagues of mine to assess their professional output in light of a sense of vocation. Such a recommitment to the Church’s needs is long overdue: those involved in music in churches just after the time of the reform, including our late Patron Colin Mawby, give testimony to the fact that Sacred Music was a first casualty of modernistic trends in the 1950s and 60s, and of course the desultory state of Catholic liturgical music in the ensuing decades need not be spoken of.
We are inspired by the perennial teaching of the Church in relation to the music specifically endorsed to accompany its ceremonies. Pope Pius X wrote in Tra le Sollicitudine (1903): ‘These qualities [holiness, artistic beauty, and universality] are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian Chant, which is consequently the Chant proper to the Roman Church, the only chant she has inherited from the ancient fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices, which she directly proposes to the faithful as her own, which she prescribes exclusively for some parts of the liturgy.’
The Schola’s regular schedule of rehearsal and performance opportunities in Central London makes it possible for those with no previous experience of singing Gregorian Chant to learn how to do so. Our new Schola has seen a group of very committed gentlemen give of their time and not inconsiderable natural abilities towards refining their musical skills to an extent I have rarely seen in grass-roots initiatives.
And so, six singers, some of whom had never sung solo before others, have been trained to ‘cantor standard’ and have led the group on several occasions, all of which would be unthinkable without regular, gradated training and support. On several occasions, I have invited singers from the London Oratory and Westminster Cathedral to give vocal training and lead workshops.
From the start, I believed we should ‘plug in’ to spiritual assistance not only when on duty but also while rehearsing. I was delighted that Fr Gabriel Díaz-Patri agreed to be our advisor, not only on account of his priestly ministry but also his musical skills and insight. He regularly attends rehearsals, giving valuable input and joining us for the Office – having studied the repertoire for our forthcoming duties, we often conclude with sung Compline.
The Schola Cantorum Sancti Johannis Houghton meets on Friday evenings at the start of the month. Those who feel the call to help are welcome to get in touch. There is no charge and all music is provided. An ability to follow direction, to maintain group ethos and to be organised is required, and we say that due respect for the spirituality of the Sacred Chant and the culture of the Church’s sacred environment is expected.
Perhaps our musician readers – or indeed our newly trained chant singers – will wish to begin a similar initiative elsewhere?
This article was first published in Mass of Ages, the quarterly magazine of the Latin Mass Society, in Summer 2020 (Issue 204)
“Putting mobile phones in their place” (The Catholic Herald, 30/09/2019)
Matthew Schellhorn argues that, though phones can seem helpful, they cause too much distractionComing soon to a church near you: a sea of backlit mobile phone and tablet screens creating a fittingly reverential aura round the People of God.
I often think of the Catholic Church as resembling a symphony orchestra, and my forecast is based on the news of the BBC Philharmonic’s recent technological initiative. From the start of their 2019–20 Season, audience members are invited to keep their mobile devices on throughout concerts. Will they not use the opportunity to check email and do online shopping? Apparently not. As the players go about their Janáček and Kabalevsky, listeners will diligently navigate a purpose-built app to peruse beautifully synchronised nuggets of programme information.
The BBC Philharmonic is no stranger to risk-taking. Apart from regularly programming contemporary music, its recent collaboration with bands such as indie pop group The xx has caused it to trespass onto BBC Radio 1.
Its latest “reimagining” of the concert-going experience means the future is bright, according to Simon Webb, General Manager: “We can’t wait for audiences to start getting even more out of our music than they did before.”
I am sceptical. For a start, music is essentially a nonverbal medium: it does not require or rely on textual or visual stimuli to reveal its secrets or to convey a “meaning”. Moreover, a musical performance in fact involves an exchange between performer and audience.
That the observing, silent party possesses what is in fact an active role in a transcendent discourse is in fact where the comparison with our churchgoing brings to bear. Sacrosanctum Concilium reiterated the teaching of the Church that all the faithful should “fully, consciously and actively” participate in the ceremonies, but it took a musician – the German musicologist Karl Gustav Fellerer – to point out in 1966 that “[t]here is as much active participation in experiencing music as in singing oneself”.
Should people forget how to participate as listeners, it will not be long before – when looking down from the organ loft on a congregation fiddling with Facebook – I and my colleagues fail to navigate a particularly tricksy Alleluia chant.
Do not think it is only the congregation glued to their screens. Over the last decade, I have noticed an increase in professional musicians expecting to use internet-connected apparatus during rehearsal and services. There is clearly a misconception of the collaborative effort, a sense of being “off duty” when not singing or playing at a given moment in time. In turn, there comes a corresponding fall in concentration levels, in group morale, and in the recalling of rehearsal directions to the extent that the correct piece is begun at the correct time.
Although the current obsession with smartphones is alarming, I am assured that my own experience is not unique. I have an orchestral musician friend (in a different top-flight orchestra to the aforementioned) who says that her fellow players perpetually whip out their phones during rehearsals. This they do unopposed by their Chief Conductor: if he objected, he would – despite his advanced years and unrivalled reputation – be told where to go with such an unreasonable complaint.
I know I am a stick-in-the-mud out of step with the zeitgeist. Perhaps the writing is on the wall. No doubt, at the next Easter Vigil we shall be AirDropping a virtual flame to our neighbour’s candid candle. Swipe right for the bidding prayers you support. Vote on the orthodoxy of the homily: hashtag a heretic.
Or not. In our sacred spaces – this includes in their different ways concert halls and churches – we should resist any “advances” that put up barriers between us and our neighbour, or that prevent our appreciation of profound and unrepeatable live experiences. A congregation that comes to associate live music with screen use will come to see attendance at the Sacred Liturgy as mere concert-going (and therefore will it matter anymore in which direction a Sanctuary is orientated?). Likewise, musicians who are habitually distracted by the bottomless pit of the internet will get perilously close to jeopardising standards of professional delivery. Perhaps it is time to refresh our browsers and consider why we as a community are in church (or in the concert hall) at all.
This article was published on CatholicHerald.co.uk on 30/09/2019
“Maria Curcio Remembered” (matthewschellhorn.com, 2017)
Matthew Schellhorn recalls his teacher, the extraordinary pedagogue Maria CurcioMost professional musicians cringe when they contemplate themselves as a youngster attempting to play music they now perform regularly – and I am no exception. But many musicians often also say they would like to be able to experience their lessons again.
I have recently had a remarkable experience, brought about through the process of participating in a research project by a student at the Royal Academy of Music, Jack Lambert, as he tries to document the recollections and experiences of the pupils of the remarkable piano pedagogue, Maria Curcio, who died in 2009. During an interview with Jack I recalled that one of the masterclasses I took part in at Chetham’s before I started having regular private lessons with Maria was recorded – an unusual state of affairs given the intensely private nature of my former teacher.
After some searching through my belongings I found this recording, made on an old tape cassette which I lacked the equipment to hear. And so through technology that is actually rather commonplace nowadays I was able to transfer this tape cassette onto computer and hear myself – and Maria Curcio – twenty-three years on.
As far as is known, this recording made on 10th March 1993 (when I was 16 and she was 76) – which can be heard below – is the only audio footage of Maria’s teaching excepting a documentary produced by BBC Scotland (called Fulfilling a Legacy) in 2009. Two commercial recordings of her performances are in existence. There are plenty of written hagiographies, but (as Jack has found) primary sources are rare in the extreme.
My relationship with this tape is rather complex, and having now heard its contents I am not surprised.
First of all, any reluctance to hear this tape was caused, so I thought, by potential embarrassment at my own playing; in fact, the recording is an extremely valuable document of Maria’s teaching and the fact that I was not entirely on top of the music makes for an important opportunity to hear her views about how to improve that performance.
Secondly, the recording gives a very poignant chance to consider how one’s own teaching methods have been formed by those of others.
Finally, the masterclass shows how ‘intense’ lessons with Maria could be (and, as Jack’s research bears out, my experience was not unique), which in turn calls into question what methodologies are suitable to be employed, and to be endorsed by educational establishments, for different age groups.
Thankfully, moreover, the tape also documents Maria’s own playing, showing what an extraordinarily crystalline and scintillating piano tone she could produce.
I am putting this recording online so that others may hear in detail how Maria Curcio taught and how this extraordinary pupil of Artur Schnabel and of Nadia Boulanger conveyed her musicianship to others.
I await Jack Lambert’s thesis with great interest and I look forward to reading about others’ recollections.
And, for all the negative feelings I had over that intense public lesson, now that I have aired the tape perhaps I might be able to perform Beethoven’s Opus 54 in public again.00:00/00:00
“Triduum Sacrum” (Mass of Ages, Summer 2017)
Matthew Schellhorn writes about his work planning for Holy Week with vocal ensemble, Cantus MagnusIt has once again been my enormous privilege to plan and put into effect the musical repertoire for the Sacred Triduum celebrated at St Mary Moorfields in the City of London, organized by the Latin Mass Society.
I first took on this responsibility in 2012, and it is remarkable how much one seems to grow in understanding and appreciation of the task in hand the more one experiences the beauty and the power of these sacred ceremonies.
In earlier years, I was preoccupied with musical standards in individual services. More recently, I have become more aware of the overall shape of the Triduum as a whole. I mean this not only in a liturgical sense but also in a musical one. Now, I try to plan the musical repertoire such that those who attend all the ceremonies are not bored or become so acclimatized to the musical style that they cease to be moved by it. By the same token, it is crucial that for the person who might attend even only a few services, or even one, he or she take away something fresh, exhilarating and meaningful from that encounter.
This year, I should say, was the most ambitious programme yet, particularly on account of our performances of the complete Tenebrae Responsoria by Carlo Gesualdo di Venosa (1566–1613) over three days. This remarkable nobleman – Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza – has supplied us with the most astonishing settings of the Tenebrae Responseries: these texts are most commonly heard as set by near-contemporary Tomás Luis de Victoria (c. 1548–1611) and yet here we encounter them in an unnerving, almost post-modern manifestation – shocking dissonances and disturbing chord progressions move us into musical territory as far removed from our comfort zone as Christ himself in his human form was from us on the first Good Friday.
As I choose the music, another priority for me is to try to reflect the universality of the Catholic religion. Hence, we had English settings of the Mass and of the Passion (by Tallis and Byrd respectively), Italian settings of the Benedictus at all three Tenebraes (by Palestrina, Asola and Anerio), and a French menu to pull together the various strands of the Easter Vigil (by Gounod and Franck, with organ music by Vierne). This brings me to a rather surprising South American piece which for its sheer beauty and appropriateness of style I continue to use year after year – a most moving setting of one of the Mandatum Antiphons (Domine, tu mihi lavas pedes) by José Maurício Nunes Garcia (1767–1830), a Brazilian priest who was also a very gifted and prolific composer.
To fulfil all these ideas, I am particularly grateful to my friends and colleagues who form the vocal ensemble, Cantus Magnus, which I founded six years ago specifically to provide polyphony and chant for celebrations of the traditional Latin Mass: my objective for this group is precisely to perform sacred music in the context for which it was composed. It is a very rewarding aspect of my work that I might not only bring to congregations the joys of such wonderful music but also to fellow musicians the joys of such wonderful sacred ceremonies.
This article was first published in Mass of Ages, the quarterly magazine of the Latin Mass Society, in Summer 2017 (Issue 192)
“Preserve Harmony” (matthewschellhorn.com, 2016)
On researching the armorial bearings of the Worshipful Company of MusiciansWhen admitted to the Freedom of the Worshipful Company of Musicians in January 2015, I knew I was joining an historic body and indeed one rightly proud of its past. Perhaps the most visible feature of the Company’s status is our coat of arms, used not only on our documents and regalia but nowadays also on our website. The charges (symbols) of this heraldic achievement – including a silver swan and a lyre – form a clear and unique reference point for our identity, further alluding to the stability necessary for any effective corporate body.
With an interest in history and particularly in heraldry I decided to do some research about the origin of the Company’s armorial bearings. Information in our own archives is, perhaps surprisingly, rather scarce, and so I turned to the College of Arms for further details. Founded in 1484 and part of the Royal Household of the United Kingdom, the College is the official heraldic authority of the realm, and it is responsible, among other things, for granting new coats of arms and maintaining heraldic and genealogical registers.
The College of Arms holds five manuscripts relating to the armorial bearings of the Company. The earliest is a certificate of the Arms and Crest of the Company, accompanied by a pen and ink drawing, issued during the heralds’ visitation of London in 1634. This document refers to an original grant of 15 October 1604 – now sadly lost. The Company’s armorial bearings go back, then, to the very founding (some would say, re-founding) of our guild. The original grant was clearly made very shortly – in point of fact, 100 days – after the Company’s Charter of King James VI and I, and suggests that we were very clear on our identity, perhaps already using the Arms as they still stand. This document is also notable for being a near-contemporary reference to Philip Pikeman as Master of the Company: he is included in the accepted list between Thomas Chamberlain (1633) and Robert Gill (1637).
A final word about our motto and the title of the Company's magazine. The manuscripts do not contain any reference to a motto, although this should not be surprising since mottoes do not – at least in English heraldry – form an intrinsic part of any coat of arms (even though they might often be used). Observant members of the Company might have noticed that the Master’s Jewel, made in 1879, gives HARMONY. Here, however, the Company archives prove useful: the Minute Books from 1899 tell us that PRESEVE HARMONY was taken up (again?) at the suggestion of Sir John Stainer, then Junior Warden; he clearly believed the two-word motto was an earlier form, apparently as shown on an old plate. Additionally, Bromley and Child’s book on heraldry and the London guilds also provides A DEO ET CÆLO SYMPHONIA; the source, again, is as yet a mystery!
So, the plot thickens. Meantime, however, I encourage all readers to visit the Company's archives website and see the recently found documents for themselves.
This article is adapted from an article first published in Preserve Harmony, magazine of The Worshipful Company of Musicians, issue 53 (Autumn 2016)
“The Passing of Time” (The Catholic Herald, 03/09/2016)
Matthew Schellhorn makes the case for celebrating John Rastell, early music publishing pioneerIn the Classical music world we are used to celebrating all sorts of anniversaries. There is barely a concert series or a festival that does not hang its programming on some kind of ‘milestone’ – it might be 100 years since this musician's birth, 450 years since that composer’s death, or 950 years since a venue where music has been continually heard on a daily basis was founded (as happened late last year for Westminster Abbey).
My candidate does not have a certain date of birth, nor even an exact date of death – although (I feel obliged to calculate) the most likely anniversary of his passing would be 480 years this year. What we do know is that John Rastell (b. c. 1475), brother-in-law of St Thomas More, was a unique and immensely important figure in the history of music who in turn affected our liturgical experience forever.
His biographer Cecil H. Clough has written that he was ‘a prime example of the turn of fortune’s wheel in Tudor England’. After a period working in his hometown of Coventry (where we know that Thomas More visited his sister Elizabeth and her husband), John Rastell managed a thriving legal practice for twenty years in London. He appears to have ultimately succumbed to social pressure, or at least to have tried to second-guess the winds of change, in abandoning the ‘old religion’ and making positive noises about the new ways of thinking. Such opportunism evidently tipped over into a futile fervour when, towards the end of his life in spring 1535, he repeatedly visited the Charterhouse attempting to ‘convert’ its monks.
However, it was as a printer that John Rastell made his mark, picking up projects reflecting his societal associations – perhaps his first printed book (in c. 1509) was a biographical work with translation by Thomas More – and developing (towards 1520) a remarkable new way of printing music. Rastell’s own moral play A new interlude and a mery of the nature of the .iiij. elements included a three-part song ‘Tyme to pas’ and was the first attempt anywhere in Europe to print a musical score. Rastell’s way of working was clearly established very quickly, since we know that he provided the music in the same way for the ballad ‘A wey mornynge’ around 1526.
The impact of John Rastell’s work should not be underestimated and can hardly be calculated. His single-impression printing method triumphed over the system developed by his rival the Venetian printer and publisher, Ottaviano Petrucci (1466–1539), where a sheet of paper was pressed at least twice, if not three times, beginning with the stave (or guide lines) and the notes, and then possibly the words. Rastell’s system, though somewhat rougher in outcome, was significantly more economical in every sense than Petrucci’s. The speed of its results enabled faster and larger circulation. Most importantly, it was cheaper and so patrons of large volumes were found more easily. In short, the revolution in music publishing and the consequent easy distribution at a formative point in its development is of great interest to historians of sacred music. Ultimately, it meant the securing of a system dating back to Guido of Arezzo (b. c. 991) for worldwide consumption. It also means the relationship between liturgy and music has been intertwined not only in its language but also in its representation for 1000 years.
Petrucci’s name has enjoyed a recent renaissance in the form of International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP), also known as the Petrucci Music Library. (This resource itself has famously transitioned from being seen as a controversial repository that swerves copyright issues to being reborn as an essential go-to resource for musicians the globe over.)
But Rastell’s name appears to be taken for granted and languishes in obscurity. Indeed, musicians working in the Catholic Church must confess that were he not part of a saint’s extended family we might not necessarily learn of him. It is clear, however, that Rastell’s greatest achievement is probably music’s single most important achievement in the second millennium – that of being able to transmit a meaning, succinctly and effortlessly, and to inspire and lift up hearts in a sacred setting.
The passing of time makes us remember a remarkable figure in the music world. For those who celebrate the achievements of important figures in music history, we should remember and celebrate him. And as with all the faithful departed – regardless of their anniversaries – we should pray for him.
This article was published on CatholicHerald.co.uk on 03/09/2016
“The Sound of Silence” (The Catholic Herald, 18/02/2016)
Matthew Schellhorn discusses music as “the silence between the notes”‘Music is the silence between the notes.’ This profound observation – it is difficult to discover who said it first – has often preoccupied me in my own performances on the concert platform. It seems to take on a new significance since silence is being, well, talked about quite a lot these days.
In the Church, Cardinal Robert Sarah is one of the most vocal about the value of silence. His 2015 article for L’Osservatore Romano explored the Second Vatican Council’s exhortations on liturgy – ‘not in fact a simple catalogue of “recipes” for reform but a true and proper Magna Carta for all liturgical action’. ‘We often forget’, he writes, ‘that sacred silence is one of the means indicated by the Council to foster participation’. Noting that Sacrosanctum Concilium states that all ‘action is directed to contemplation’, Sarah goes on to assert that since liturgy is, in the words of the Council, ‘above all things the worship of the divine majesty’ it ‘requires our silence’.
Cardinal Sarah’s latest book, God or Nothing, has been described by Cardinal Burke, Patron of the Order of Malta, as a ‘remarkable testimonial of the Catholic faith in the face of many serious contemporary challenges’, and the issue of what to do about the sheer noise of daily life is again top of the agenda. Here, though, it is the problem of the Christian voice being at its quietest and its least heard for several centuries that occupies Sarah. As he observes: ‘Western societies are organized and live as though God did not exist. Christians themselves, on many occasions, have settled down to a silent apostasy.’
January 2016 saw an appeal from Cardinal Sarah for a ‘high-quality liturgical renewal’ involving silence as a fundamental component. We need to respect silence in the sacred liturgy as ‘a Christian ascetical value’, a ‘necessary condition for deep, contemplative prayer’. Sarah asks: ‘If our “interior cell phone” is always busy because we are “having a conversation” with other creatures, how can the Creator reach us, how can he “call us”?’
As a musician, I would like to point out that in classical music, too, silence is a controversial subject. To go back to our quotation, consensus seems to ascribe it to Debussy – but then again Google puts Mozart in the frame, and Aaron Copland, and Erik Satie. I can imagine as a candidate American composer and theorist John Cage. That seems appropriate, after all, since the composer who ‘wrote’ what is arguably the most infamous piece of twentieth-century music – a piece consisting of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of ‘silence’ – was surely the greatest proponent of the notion of silence as a kind of music.
Music theorists like to find in Cage’s 4′33″ some achievement of ‘conceptual’ genius, and they ascribe to it layers upon layers of meaning that they notably cannot seem to find in works of ‘sounding’ music. It is remarkable to note what Cage himself discovered in his research about the phenomenon of silence. On visiting the acoustically isolated anechoic chamber at Harvard, Cage found that ‘real’ silence was rather loud: ‘It was not silent. Two sounds: one high, one low.’ He was later told these sounds were his own nervous system in operation and his blood circulating.
In silence, then, Cage heard himself, and his piece of music allows us to do the same. But if allowing four and a half minutes of silence into the concert hall stands as a testimony to the ultimate absorption of silence into the arena of classical music more generally, there are countless other works from right through the ages owing their effectiveness to similar great judgement calls of punctuation and expectation. As our quotation implies, it is possible to experience the wonderful phenomenon which Cage’s piece takes to extremes in virtually every piece of music. In the opening material of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for instance, there seems to be what can only be described as a living force between as well as during the iconic phrases.
And then there can be the silence immediately after a great performance. An example that gained much publicity at the time was the masterful rendition of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony by the late Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in August 2010 (thankfully available on DVD). Critic Paul Gent, for The Daily Telegraph, described events as follows: ‘As the violins began the slow winding-down and decomposition of the final pages, the texture thinned to a spectral web. Several times, the music seemed almost to stutter to an exhausted halt. At last, the strings whispered the final phrase, almost inaudibly. And nothing happened. Abbado kept his arms raised, the players held their instruments in position. I almost forgot to breathe. Then, slowly, he lowered his hands and the musicians put down their instruments. And still nothing happened. The rapt audience sat in silence, unwilling to break the mood, for maybe two minutes – an eternity in the concert hall. At last the applause started and went on even longer than the silence. It was an extraordinary end to an extraordinary concert.’
Our need to experience the possibilities of silence is being recognised in contemporary classical music. Electronic media able to produce barely audible sounds are in vogue: infinitesimal nuances occupy our contemplation and tempt us to notions of irreality. As we enter the sacred spaces of traditional performance we are more and more jealously trying to guard our silence and we are thrown off guard should anything disturb it: many concert programmes mercifully include an exhortation to ‘turn off phones and other electronic devices’ before the performance begins. (And now please may I thank the person who punctuated my cadenza in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C, K415 – St John’s, Smith Square, June 1999 – with a ringtone of the opening of Bach’s D minor organ Fugue. I did not enjoy it at the time, but I do now.)
Should you require it, you can even buy a mobile app that allows you to listen to exactly four and a half minutes of silence on the go. (You really cannot make it up.) That is 2016 for you, but what is really revealing, however, is that Cage felt that his piece would be ‘incomprehensible in the Western context’ when he ‘wrote’ it in 1952. Because, funnily enough, four and a half minutes or so is about the time of absolute silence we experience during the Canon of the Mass in the Usus Antiquior, the traditional Latin Mass. In other words, this length of silence proposed by Cage to classical music audiences in the mid-twentieth century was of a length commonly experienced daily by millions in the Western world at that time.
But, sadly, it may be that silence in the Mass was not understood well enough for us to register its sheer normality and naturalness. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1908 gives us the ‘mystic reasons’ for the profound four-and-a-half-minute silence in the traditional Mass. The silent prayers are ‘thus shown to be purely sacerdotal, belonging only to the priest, the silence increases our reverence at the most sacred moment of the Mass, removes the Consecration from ordinary vulgar use, and is a symbol of our Lord’s silent prayer in the Garden and silence during his Passion’. Moreover, ‘the Ordinary to the Sanctus, with its lessons, represents Christ's public life and teaching; the Canon is a type of the Passion and death – hence it is said in silence. Christ taught plainly, but did not open his mouth when he was accused and suffered’.
So let us not forget that Catholics are traditionally used to listening to the sound of silence. Fortunately, through a reabsorption of this phenomenon promoted by Cardinal Sarah we can now rediscover and relish this opportunity – in music and in liturgy – more and more.
This article was published on CatholicHerald.co.uk on 18/02/2016
“Singing a New Song” (The Catholic Herald, 19/03/2015)
Matthew Schellhorn discusses the place of contemporary music in Catholic worshipProfessional musicians pop up periodically and call for better music in the Catholic Church. So here I am.
Recently, I came across a rather obscure lecture given thirty years ago at the Eighth International Church Music Congress in Rome. ‘Wherever man praises God, the word alone does not suffice’, the author starts off, and as he explores the links between liturgy and music he notes that ‘their relation to one another has also been strained, especially at the turning points of history and culture’. A cautionary tale is told about the eroded status of sacred music since the liturgical reform following the Second Vatican Council: stemming from a ‘basically new understanding of liturgy’, practice has mostly been based more on the ‘spirit’ of the Council rather than its words. The lecture moves through several intellectual phases. First is noted the caricaturing of Gregorian chant and polyphony as ‘tutelary gods of a mythicized, ancient repertoire’ and allies of an historical liturgy that mirrors only a ‘cultic bureaucracy’ rather than the ‘singing activity of the people’. Second comes a consideration of the true nature of musical creativity – a concept wholly different to what spawns the ‘banal formulas’ inserted into the text of the Missal. The author at length concludes that sacred music has for its intrinsic property the ‘integration of sensibility and spirit’, with the defining characteristic that it is ‘not the work of a moment but participation in a history’.
That lecture was given by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. His profound observations and assertions were made twenty years before he was elected Pope – in 1985. Have things since improved?
I should say – tentatively – yes, they have. One of the more encouraging developments of recent years has been a resurgence of interest in Gregorian chant, not only from the scholarly but also the practical perspective. After all, as a 2010 document from the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff points out, it was one of the ‘determinant opportunities’ of Pope Benedict’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum of 2007 that gave an ‘opportunity for the revival of Gregorian chant, in those places in which it was previously practiced, as well as its insertion in contexts in which it is not yet known’. Various initiatives have sprung up in the last decade, such as the Gregorian Chant Network, which organizes residential courses for singers of all levels of experience and which recently had its biennial meeting in London. Likewise, James MacMillan ¬– who once described the fight for decent liturgical music as a ‘war zone’ – spearheads Musica Sacra Scotland, which draws together leading church musicians and enthusiasts at an annual conference focusing on chant revival. Online resources are growing, too, with access to a plethora of chant books; one can even drop by a virtual Chant Café.
All is looking rosy for Gregorian chant. But what intrigued me most in Ratzinger’s lecture was an interesting set of questions: ‘Humanly speaking, can one hope that new creative possibilities are still open? And how is that to happen?’
To think of ‘contemporary music’ in Catholic worship brings to mind the clearly hastily written and often very poor quality contributions of the 60s and 70s still in use in some places as a meagre alternative to anything of real artistic value. The waters are muddied here by an agenda that extols a particular kind of congregational ‘active participation’, meaning that in general musical offerings by modern composers – mostly written for the laity to have some part in – have to be supplied at the level of the lowest common denominator.
This controversy about the place of music in the Church is, as Ratzinger says, ‘becoming symptomatic for the deeper question about what the liturgy is’. As a means of breaking the deadlock I would say that the place of contemporary music in the Sacred Liturgy must be re-evaluated. New and imaginative music should certainly not be cast aside simply owing to bad experience. Ratzinger asserts: ‘It is not … a question of playing off congregational activity against elitist art. Nor is the rejection of a historicist rigidification, which only copies the past and remains without a present and a future, the real issue point at issue.’
This week, the winner of a new prize for sacred music composition I founded was announced. The brief was to write a Eucharistic motet for four parts, thereby precluding monophonic or simplistic entries rivaling Gregorian chant and furthermore requiring the use of capable musicians for performance. I was pleased to receive interest from composers all over the world, hungry to write for the Church and seeking opportunities for their God-given skills to be recognised and valued. I and the panel of judges can testify that the quality of entries was consistently high. The winner is a young composer from the Wirral, Marco Galvani, who has a bright future ahead of him; his piece, Ecce Quam Bonum, will be premiered at St Mary Moorfields in the City on Holy Saturday.
I have hope, then, that the Catholic Church can attract quality new music into its sacred ceremonies. I like to imagine that the Church has a future once more as patron of musical art. I believe we must push forward and, in the words of Cardinal Ratzinger, not be afraid of summoning up ‘those deeper realms of understanding and response that disclose themselves in music’. This ‘musification of faith’ is required lest we forget how the Creator moves us to identify with Him. The composition of sacred music needs to become, once more, a living tradition: composers must be given the opportunity to continue to participate in history. Cantate Domino canticum novum!
This article was published on CatholicHerald.co.uk on 19/03/2015
“Living Life to the Full” (The Catholic Herald, 18/07/2014)
Matthew Schellhorn engages in debate about Lord Falconer's Assisted Dying BillWhen my mum was diagnosed with late-stage cancer she turned to me and said, ‘We will get through it.’ At the time, I did not know what that could possibly mean.
Looking after my mum disrupted my normal life. Being her carer took away my time. It made me lose interest in music and endangered professional opportunities. It also dragged my pregnant wife and young son into a world of commodes, hoists, medication and round-the-clock worry.
But amidst the difficulties we all built our motivation on one solid belief, that life was something precious, something to be celebrated, cherished and affirmed. As mum’s health declined and the opportunities for ‘normal life’ decreased, the possibilities expanded. We lived the paradox that when there are limits to life the freedom is greater. Mum knew that positive experiences would sustain the bereaved left behind: that further altruism gave her life some meaning.
I am so glad I did not have to discuss the Assisted Dying Bill with my terminally ill mother. I think that if my mum had lived to know about this Bill it might well have destroyed all our happy experiences. I think she would have been terrified to know that the same doctors so keen to see her enjoying life, even in a limited way, might be perfectly willing to help her to end her life, should she have so chosen. It would have destroyed the relationship of trust to know that there were no boundaries between healthcare professionals and patients. And it would have demoralised her carers, who together worked towards making life comfortable, to think that their efforts might be considered futile.
It would also have increased my mother’s vulnerability. As she lay in bed for 23 hours a day in our living room I knew she was already self-conscious about the enormous strain put on us. Numerous times she took decisions about routine and food that she presumed would alleviate any difficulties in our family life. The sanctioning of that inclination, the condoning of any despair, might well tip the balance in favour of a fatal outcome ahead of further positive experiences. As I tried enormously hard to remove all suggestion that her presence was an unwelcome burden, there could have been an altogether more powerful tacit force undermining me.
Although it has made for uncomfortable reading, I have considered the arguments in favour of this Bill. Lord Carey and Desmond Tutu have given their reasons why it is ‘compassionate’ to provide an exit door to the terminally ill ahead of their natural demise. The Care Minister, Norman Lamb, thinks people should be able ‘to make their own decision about their life’.
These ways of thinking contradict established medical ethics and fly in the face of all logic. The life of a physically sick person is worth as much as a physically healthy person. Importantly, the person in question gains happiness from experiencing that truth. Now that the dust has settled, I see we ‘got through’ terminal illness, each in our own way. That is why I oppose this Bill.
This article was published on CatholicHerald.co.uk on 18 July 2014
“We Don't Do God” (The Sampler Blog, 2014)
Matthew Schellhorn writes about his latest album, Ian Wilson: StationsClassical musicians ‘don’t do God’. That’s what sprang to mind when Ian Wilson asked me if I was interested in a large-scale solo piano work inspired by the Stations of the Cross. Not that I wasn’t interested; I was. But secularism is rife in the music world. I feared that any piece inspired by a religious devotion but intended for the concert hall would never catch on.
True, it is easy to take in a concert of Masses, Requiems and motets. ‘Easy-listening’ CDs of plainchant are all the rage. Latin is making a comeback.
However, the proper context for sacred music is often lamentably evaded. It is preferable to dissociate location and experience. Listening to sacred music in the concert hall or in the car is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it compromise: we can be made ecstatic but under no obligation.
Don’t get me wrong, we must be thankful the repertoire has been preserved. There are sadly only a handful of churches in Britain where you can hear sacred music in the context for which it was written. James MacMillan has written that for decades ‘mind-numbingly depressing banality’ has been favoured in the Catholic Church, with the ‘vast repository of tradition ignored and wilfully forgotten’. Thankfully, the situation has improved in recent years, but it will be a long time before church will be the logical preference to concert hall.
So it is perhaps inevitable, therefore, that in his Stations Ian Wilson has felt it necessary to try to ‘distil the emotional content’ of the Stations of the Cross and ‘transpose them onto dramatic musical frameworks that carry the movements forward unhindered by dogma or imagery’. The result is a ‘journey-type piece’ that ‘creates its own sense of musical drama as it proceeds’.
Yet, with this piece I think the compromise between composer and listener has been radically altered. Gone is the tension between differing expectations: a devotional sequence is embedded in the creative process, but there are no ‘portrayals’ to be grappled with or, worse, to risk being ignored. Gone, too, is the confrontation between different ‘meanings’: no titles are used, and no subtext other than musical implication is suggested. Ian Wilson has created a level playing field where religion is no longer a game we play when it is convenient.
When performing Ian Wilson’s music I am very conscious of encountering a dimension that seems to speak to the soul. I hope this disc communicates the joy of that artistic and spiritual encounter.
This article was first published on Sound and Music's The Sampler blog in 2014.
“Sunsets and Silences” (London International Piano Symposium, 02/2013)
Matthew Schellhorn discusses the notion of time in Messiaen's monumental Catalogue d'oiseauxIt seems a hugely ironic and ambitious task to give a 20-minute talk – even limited to a single theme – on a work that when performed in its entirety lasts just under 3 hours!
But I want in this paper to examine the role of time in Messiaen’s great piano cycle Catalogue d’oiseaux, the extraordinary and monumental ‘bird catalogue’ composed in the mid-nineteen-fifties. Specifically, I want to explore how narratives are articulated through a representation of the passage of time. It is my hope that in this short talk we can identify specific chronologies and so start to gain an understanding of their musical role.
(I hope there will be time to hear some of this amazing music, but I am going to save any playing until the end in order to get through my observations.)
Many of Olivier Messiaen’s works testify to the fascination the composer had with temporal aspects of music – titles allude to such concepts as ‘eternity’, ‘immortality’, and indeed ‘the end of Time’.
In fact, we know that a preoccupation with time is at the forefront of Messiaen’s considerations in his ‘bird catalogue’. Messiaen himself says that while composing the Catalogue (between October 1956 and September 1958) he experienced a strange reaction to the passage of time. Even though ‘long periods of time went by between repeated travellings and stays in various parts of the world’, memories dating back several years were ‘easily awakened’ owing to the precision of his notation.
It is right, therefore, to see in Messiaen’s Catalogue an attempt to recreate the context of his travels. And this includes not only their repetitious and precision-tooled attitude toward detail, but also their luxuriant, extended nature. We are in no rush to hear the sounds of some 77 different birds contained within this massive work. But Messiaen wants our experience of time to be an authentic one.
(Of course, we must add that the great virtuosity entailed in this work was also partly inspired by Messiaen’s wife Yvonne Loriod – to her, Messiaen wrote, ‘anything was possible’.)
The ordering of ‘movements’
Figure 1 shows the ‘movements’ of the Catalogue. I hesitate to refer to ‘movements’ since every ‘movement’ is a piece in its own right. Each movement or piece focuses on one bird, the bird typical of a specific French province, although this bird is not alone: ‘he is surrounded by his neighbours in the same habitat who also sing, thus lending a greater variety to the language of the pieces’.
Fig. 1: ‘Movement’ list and approximate timings of Catalogue d’oiseaux
In the overall ordering of these pieces we can see a logic insofar as temporal considerations go. Because Messiaen’s metronome markings are so precise and he expected performers to honour his meticulously notated rhythms and silences it is possible to speak with some confidence about the lengths of the ‘movements’. So the outer movements of the first and last books (that’s pieces I and III and XI and XIII) are relatively longer works to play, sandwiching a more modest piece (numbers II and XII). Then, working in towards the centre, the movements on their own (No. IV, ‘Le Traquet stapazin, and No. X, ‘Le Merle de roche’) are even longer; these pieces, which have their ‘own’ books, are particularly long – some 15 to 20 minutes each. The shortest pieces are situated towards the middle of the cycle – the shortest being ‘L’Alouette calandrelle’, No. VIII, at just over 5 minutes. And all the pieces seeming to focus on the centre of the Catalogue, the seventh piece (‘Le Rousserolle effarvatte’, the ‘Reed Warbler’), which is the longest piece at over half an hour’s length.
Just as there is a symmetrical ordering of pieces in relation to the books (3-1-2-1-2-1-3), there is also a symmetrical ordering overall in relation to lengths. Another way of seeing that is to describe the overall form as a circle. This circular form is itself reflected in ‘Le Rousserolle effarvatte’ (the ‘Reed Warbler’), which connotes a time-range of midnight to 3 o’clock in the morning right round to midnight to 3 o’clock in the morning of the following day, ‘with all the sonorous events of a night, a day and the following night’. In a little while, we shall see how Messiaen’s treatment of form is influenced further by a sense of time.
‘Technical experiments’ and rhythm
So much for the structure of the Catalogue in terms of length and the time it takes to perform or to listen. Most of all, it is important to emphasise that the role of time is explored at the small-scale, technical level of the music.
Messiaen says that the music is ‘primarily that of birds’ but their environment – ‘the landscape with its colours, its shadows and light’ – enabled him to make certain technical experiments.
First, these ‘shadows and lights’ are reflected in Messiaen’s rhythms. The importance of the rhythmic domain in Messiaen’s ‘musical language’ need hardly be stated. But it could be said that of all Messiaen’s works, the Catalogue d’oiseaux represents his greatest achievement as a composer in the sense he preferred: for Messiaen called himself an ‘ornithologist and rhythmician’, and he said he had a ‘secret preference’ for rhythm, considering it as the ‘primordial and perhaps essential part of music’. If we understand rhythm correctly, ‘rhythmic music is music that scorns repetition, squareness, and equal divisions, and that is inspired by the movements of nature, movements of free and unequal durations’.
Messiaen acknowledges that the rhythms of the natural world are allied to the freedom and organicism in his music. We find this freedom at the start of ‘La Chouette hulotte’ (the ‘Tawny Owl’), where Messiaen represents ‘la nuit’ (‘the night’) – ‘the fear of night’ – by what he calls a ‘mode of durations and nuances (time-values and dynamics)’. You can see the opening of ‘The Tawny Owl’ in Figure 2.
Fig. 2: Opening of 'La Chouette hulotte' ('Tawny Owl')
Another ‘experiment’ is found is respect of silence. My title refers to the silences in Messiaen’s Catalogue but in a twist we find the notion of silence represented audibly in ‘Le Merle de roche’ (the ‘Rock Thrush’). Here, we see the same attitude as before to extremely precise time-values as Messiaen uses different chromatic durations, 1 to 32 demi-semiquavers, to represent ‘precisely notated moments of silence’. You can see these ‘silences’ in Figure 3.
Fig. 3, ‘Silences’ in ‘Le Merle de roche’ (‘Rock Thrush’)
The ‘role of the seasons’
This discussion of natural rhythms brings me to another area I want to comment on with regard to the technical means used by Messiaen to represent time: form. Messiaen acknowledges that his forms have ‘nothing traditional about them. He speaks of an ‘alternation of songs and silences, light and shadows’ present in all the pieces.
In the Catalogue, the notion of time is reflected in both the monthly-yearly sense and the minutes-hours, the daily sense. Messiaen described how the ‘best time’ to hear birdsong is spring, the season of love – thus we have movements set at ‘the end of April’, ‘May’, ‘the end of June’, and into ‘July’. This was the yearly rhythm well known in nature and perceived by Messiaen: the composer called it the ‘role of the seasons’: ‘summer is a time of silence because the birds are parenting and occupied with feeding their young. … They don’t have time to sing, material concerns prevail over art—Finally winter comes: for some it means the acceptance of very bitter cold, sometimes death; for others, it means migration with substantial traveling, amazing and unexplainable journeys of thousands of kilometres: no more singing’.
Figure 4 shows the distribution of months across the cycle.
Fig. 4: The ‘role of the seasons’ in Catalogue d’oiseaux
7 of the 13 pieces connote a specific time of year and the range is just as Messiaen spoke – the season of love. It will be seen from the movement numbers (in Roman numerals) that Messiaen does not respect the strict chronology of the year: we have June towards the ‘beginning’ of the cycle, but April and May towards the end. Rather, it is the tension between the order of movements and the flexibility towards the time of year they represent that is a defining feature. This contradiction is perhaps best explained by the fact that the individual pieces may be played out of context, that is to say that the Catalogue can be, and often is, performed not in its entirety. It is a catalogue, to be dipped in and dipped out of. In this sense, then, the seasons give a context to each piece, but they are not intended to contribute to a strict understanding of the passage of time throughout the work.
Times of day
On to the smaller scale, and we find natural rhythms taking on a stronger role. The score itself is littered with references to the time of day. That is perhaps not surprising since we know Messiaen notated his birdsongs in the form of a diary. But Messiaen writes that in each of the 13 movements the different times of day and night ‘are present’. I take this to mean not just indicated in the score but playing an active part in the music.
Again, we notice a preference of the composer with regard to time. When asked by Claude Samuel ‘How do you go about collecting bird songs?’, Messiaen replied: ‘The best time of day corresponds to the sun’s rising and setting, rising around six o’clock in the morning in the month of April or between four and five o’clock in June; and setting around seven o’clock in the evening in April, around nine o’clock and even nine-thirty in June. … Certain birds like the Blackcap sing in the morning and afternoon; but there is one hour when you hear absolutely nothing: that’s between noon and one o’clock’.
Messiaen seems at pains to contextualise many of the pieces in the Catalogue by the use of daily time. Of the 13 pieces in Catalogue d’oiseaux, 10 concern themselves with a representation of time in the daily sense as a ‘harness’ to the form. Of these, we identify several ‘types’ of time. Figure 5 shows the pieces of the Catalogue re-ordered according to this understanding of time.
Fig. 5: ‘Types’ of time in Catalogue d’oiseaux
1) First, where the composer does not mention a time in the day or night. Where the action proceeds in a linear way (as in ‘Le Chocard des Alpes’ and ‘La Buse variable’) or where events are presented as unconnected vignettes (‘Le Merle bleu’). I call this kind of time ‘abstract time’.
2) There is a second ‘kind’ of time, where times of day are used to contextualise events, to give a focus to certain activity or to ‘contain’ the drama within a limited timeframe. There is often a single time, like ‘morning’ (‘La Bouscarle’) or ‘the middle of the night’ (‘La Chouette hulotte’). I call this ‘locative time’ because it locates the action – it places it at a certain point in the day.
3) Finally, there is another ‘kind’ of time, where the passage of time is intrinsic to the musical narrative. Where the very passage of time itself narrates the drama. Though not the passage of our ‘real time’ as an audience, the passage of time is ‘felt’ throughout the work as Messiaen chooses to order the individual piece as a series of ‘movements’ and particularly according to a representation of the fall and rise of the sun. I call this kind of time ‘narrative time’.
Earlier, I spoke about the ‘alternation of … light and shadow’ present in all the pieces. In fact, it is the movement – the rise and fall – of the sun, and its changing colour and intensity, that provides one of the most remarkable ways in which Messiaen attempts to indicate the passage of time in his Catalogue d’oiseaux.
The representation of the sun is largely allied to a harmonic method. Messiaen uses shifting harmonic intensities to indicate the changing colour of the sun. This method is found in ‘Le Traquet stapazin’ (the ‘Black-eared Wheatear’; the colours of the chords of ‘transposed inversion’ or ‘contracted resonance’ represent the red and orange sunset) and in ‘La Rouserolle effarvatte’ (the ‘Reed Warbler’; the ‘death of the sun’ is represented by chords of the 4th mode of limited transposition (in their 5th inversion)). Messiaen also draws our attention to the technique in ‘La Bouscarle’ (‘Cetti’s Warbler’), where ‘the melodious phrase harmonised in coloured chords of mode 3 unwinds slowly’: ‘step by step’, Messiaen says, ‘minute by minute, the form follows the living march of the hours of day and night!’
So, to conclude, the manipulation and articulation of time in Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux is a complex, indeed clearly necessary, feature of a work on this scale.
Messiaen is preoccupied with the concept of time. This preoccupation is obvious at the small-scale technical level – rhythm, harmony and birdsong melody – but also extends to the large-scale formal level, not only in the individual pieces but in the overall cycle. Several ‘kinds’ of time appear to be used in order to articulate form. Sunsets and silences occupy a very special place in Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux, not merely present as representations of realities or memories. Instead, they become truly musical, identifiable parameters by which to measure our sense of the passage of time.
Most importantly, the ‘technical experiments’ of the Catalogue d’oiseaux are felt in the choice of the birdsong itself. Messiaen identifies three kinds of bird song. The first, a ‘song of proprietorship’ (to assert territory); the second, a ‘song of seduction’ (the title is self-explanatory!); and finally the ‘salutation to daybreak or twilight’ – a song heard at sunrise or sunset. This final song, connected as it is to the time of day, Messiaen calls ‘the most beautiful of all!’ It is worth noting, then, that Messiaen acknowledges himself as drawn to the song that most closely relates to the time of day, and particularly the movement of the sun.
A final consideration comes with a passage not from the Catalogue d’oiseaux but from a later work of 1972 – La Fauvette des jardins (which translates as ‘Garden Warbler’). This is also a substantial piece, but in one movement: in fact, it is Messiaen’s longest single work for piano, at nearly 40 minutes. The piece might be described as a kind of ‘postscript’ to the Catalogue, and also in the sense that Messiaen chooses several of the most ‘successful’ techniques inherited from the Catalogue – namely the circular form described previously using a representation of the sun to connote daily time. Here, Messiaen weaves the rise and fall of the sun into the work, and so divides the form into appreciable sections while at the same time propelling the action toward an inevitable conclusion. In this passage (pages 47–9 of the score), we hear the piecing together of the separate strands of sun chords. The sun was first heard during the opening minutes of the piece; we now see the sun at its peak, reaching the top of its arc. Several birds chime in: the Yellowhammer, the Chaffinch, and the Goldfinch.
This article is adapted from a talk given at the London International Piano Symposium hosted by the Royal College of Music, London, UK, in February 2013
“In Haydn's Name” (Haydn Society of Great Britain Journal, 2012)
Matthew Schellhorn writes about six new commissions on the name of HaydnIn 2009, I commissioned a group of piano miniatures in celebration of the Haydn bicentenary. The project fulfilled, in a sense, a personal ambition to honour a composer who had inspired me since my childhood.
My first exposure to Haydn came when I was at school. I remember particularly a talk given by H.C. Robbins Landon – in fact, I still have my signed copy of his BBC Music Guide on the Haydn Symphonies. I studied these works for at A-level, getting to know them in their interpretations by Barry Wordsworth and the Capella Istropolitana (on the new, suitable-to-the-schoolboy-pocket Naxos label). At the same time, my piano teacher asked me to learn the Sonata in A major, Hob. XVI: 26. By playing this enthralling sonata I became familiar with some of the hallmarks of Haydn’s style – his sense of proportion and motivic unity (as in the first movement), his fascination (as in the second) with enigma and pattern, and (as in the third) his gift for brevity and his pithy wit.
Now in my thirties, I decided to construct a tribute programme unlike the ones usually requested by concert promoters, making a set of new Haydn-inspired pieces the main item. With composer anniversaries one can find oneself playing what everyone else is playing, which is not so much of a problem with great repertoire but something seemed lacking for this great composer. I wanted something fresh, something showing not repetition but continuity: Haydn has, after all, been called a ‘father’.
The idea came to me to rerun the project of a hundred years ago, when Jules Écorcheville, editor of the Revue musicale of the Societé Internationale de Musique, asked six composers – on that occasion, Debussy, Ravel, Dukas, d’Indy, Hahn and Widor – to write a miniature for the piano based on the letters H-A-Y-D-N (translated into the musical notes B-A-D-D-G). I attempted to avoid the danger that the same remit might produce the same piece six times over by involving composers whose styles were, in my experience, different from each others’. Composer friends Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Michael Zev Gordon, Cecilia McDowall, Colin Riley, Jeremy Thurlow, and Tim Watts all accepted willingly. And I contributed some flexibility to the soundworld by leaving the choice of the ‘spare’ notes in Haydn’s name (the Y and the N) to the composers themselves.
The freedom in the brief produced some surprising results. In Odd Sympathies by Tim Watts (b. 1979) the gaps in Haydn’s name were embraced, with the composer deciding to do without Y and N and making the notion of absent sounds the raison d’être of the music. We hear Haydn’s name, fittingly, as only an echo: three keys are silently depressed and a melody line ‘catches’ the sound as if by accident.
It seems, in Tim’s words, ‘a neat way to encapsulate not only physical resonances, but also the notion of historical resonance, which allows a twenty-first century ear to tune into Haydn’s world and feel a sense of fellowship with this marvellous musician’. The name of this miniature comes from a phrase (‘une espèce de sympathie’, ‘an odd kind of sympathy’) describing the action of clock pendulums: Dutch mathematician and physicist Christiaan Huygens observed they will always swing in exactly opposite directions when mounted on the same beam. In this way, and also in its shrewd quotations, the piece pays homage to Haydn’s Symphony No. 101 ‘The Clock’ – but with a twist: there is no pendulum here, and instead the melody ‘circles the chord, working centrifugally towards the keyboard’s extremes’.
Finally, as though a stopped grandfather clock has been brought back to life, its ‘long-silenced chime’ slowly reawakened, the chime ‘resolves’ in its echo and Haydn is left with us only in memory.
Further surprises came with the remarkable ways in which the pieces engage with Haydn’s compositional style. Formal concision and motivic economy are watchwords of weave by Colin Riley (b. 1963). The composer states that its material is used in three simple ways – repetition, overlapping, and transposition – weaving the name of Haydn into the tapestry twelve times over.
Echoes arise with the previous piece as we again encounter shifting harmonies, the music also punctuated by bell-like chords. Stasis and motion are held in balance by each other.
The aptly titled Haydn Seek by Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951) seems to fix on Sturm und Drang. Bright chords declare Haydn’s name at the start, with a thrilling al rovescio treatment of the motif.
Cecilia subtitles her piece ‘chiaroscuro’: ‘the duality of “hide and seek” suggests the light and the dark’, she writes, pointing to ‘bright, high textures in dialogue with darker, more obscure passages, punctuated by a forte, rhythmic snap’.
Submerged in Cecilia’s piece is a fragment of Haydn’s Sonata in C major, Hob. XVI: 50. In Stolen Rhythm, Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b. 1980) raises the game, rigorously and relentlessly basing her piece on the third movement of the Sonata in E flat major, Hob. XVI: 45. In doing so, she explores other features so characteristic of Haydn’s style – rhythmic energy. She writes: ‘It seemed to me that it was the rhythmic content of the movement that gave it these properties, so I decided shamelessly to steal the rhythm, hook line and sinker, and simply put my notes to it.’
Like a series of ‘jokes’ told in an unfamiliar dialect, Cheryl’s piece shines with Austrian humour. Sometimes, the rhythm ‘skips’ unexpectedly and an 11/16 bar slips in and trips us over. The clear lines of Haydn’s original are replaced by clusters and harmonic pitfalls until, in the end, a cadence worthy of the eighteenth century draws proceedings to an abrupt, witty close.
I was overjoyed when the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors decided to honour Cheryl with an award for this piece in the Instrumental Solo category of the 2011 British Composer Awards. With no disrespect to her creation, I remarked to Cheryl at the ceremony that it seemed slightly unfair given that she only composed half the piece!
Michael Zev Gordon (b. 1963) pays homage not only to Haydn but also to the original French set of 1909. His Innocente explores Haydn’s ‘lightness of touch, perfectly timed silences, [and] an almost child-like playfulness’, and also brings in some elements from Ravel and Debussy. Michael noticed that the opening notes of the Piano Sonata in G, Hob. XVI: 40 spell part of Haydn’s name. So, his piece (taking for its title the tempo marking of that piece) begins with this melodic fragment, ‘but as if in a kind of dream, coloured by a chord from Debussy’s Hommage, then Ravel’s, then a chord of my own invention, and only finally the clarity of the Haydn harmony and texture itself’.
Michael’s piece includes some striking colouristic effects as he elaborates ‘a tiny wisp’ of a figure over what seems like a forgotten classical dance form.
Jeremy Thurlow (b. 1967) calls his piece Butterfly in reference to a composer of ‘deft and quicksilver’ music. We have in the final piece of the set not only a reflection of Haydn’s wit but also of his ingenuity and lightness of touch – this last quality required in a literal sense from the performer. A ‘flickering, darting’ melody in the right hand alternates with shimmering, humming textures, the whole piece dividing into five harmonic areas that spell out Haydn’s name.
I have gone through ‘my’ set in the order in which I chose to group them – a choice I had to make when the manuscripts came in. The clear personalities of the pieces saw me experimenting with a variety of orders. But in the end I decided to group the pieces somewhat like a Haydn symphony – a slow introduction, a dance in the middle, a dazzling finale to conclude.
I gave the premiere of these pieces in the 2009 Cambridge Festival. But as a final emulation of the original project I was in search of a publisher. The exciting Muso magazine came to my aid here, and with the support of the editor, Claire Jackson, the project was given superb coverage in the December 2009/January 2010 issue. There, with huge thanks to the six composers and to the publisher, I expressed my hope that my ‘Homage to Haydn’ project has broken boundaries and engaged audiences.
This article first appeared in the 2012 Haydn Society of Great Britain Journal
“Messiaen and the Young Pianist” (Piano Professional, Summer 2011)
Matthew Schellhorn considers how we can encourage young pianists to engage with Messiaen’s piano musicWhen, at the age of fifteen, I was requested by my piano teacher to start preparing a piece by a recently deceased French composer, little did I know that this musical encounter would spark the beginning of a lifelong passion! As I acquainted myself more with the music of Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) I was stunned by its vivid colour, its rhythmic power and its overwhelming sense of joy.
In this centenary year, Messiaen’s music is being performed with love by many who share my enthusiasm, but the piano repertoire continues to be considered the preserve of the professional artist. As teachers of music, how can we ensure that this inimitable composer is not overlooked? How can we encourage young pianists to engage with this most important figure of twentieth-century music?
It seems to me that the problems of approaching Messiaen’s music at a young age are the same as attempting to grasp any music, particularly the most recently composed, without being given any background explanation. Much twentieth-century music can be viewed as prohibitively complicated for the learner, but only if we cling to the traditional norms of our Western music tradition. Mostly, technical difficulties are only as serious as the unfamiliar terminology used to describe them. But in Messiaen’s ‘musical language’ scales are now ‘modes’, harmony is ‘colour’, and rhythm is ‘the ordering of movement’. To understand how our horizons can be opened, take this last category: Messiaen said that the classicists, in the Western sense of the term, ‘were bad rhythmicians, or rather, composers who knew nothing of rhythm’. This might seem surprising, as we teachers require of our pupils to play their Bach preludes ‘in time’ and their Haydn sonatas ‘with the beat’, but to Messiaen such works are by no means the apogee of rhythmic music: ‘In these works we hear an uninterrupted succession of equal durations that puts the listener in a state of beatific satisfaction; nothing interferes with his pulse, breathing or heartbeat. So he is very calm, receives no shock, and all this seems perfectly “rhythmic” to him. … The march … with its uninterrupted succession of absolutely equal note-values, is anti-natural.’
While it is difficult to imagine avoiding Bach when learning keyboard technique, it is intriguing to consider Messiaen’s point of view, and as a teenage pianist his anti-traditional notions about music theory fascinated me. Discovering rhythmic palindromes in music had a kind of Poirot-esque delight about it, and I began to appreciate how the evident building blocks of composing rely on a performer almost to obscure them. For although Messiaen’s ‘musical language’ is still, even now, somewhat outside our tradition, it repays close inspection, and it is remarkably transparent on the page. This is because Messiaen was an enthusiastic teacher himself: Messiaen said he could have ‘died from grief’ the day he left behind his teaching duties at the Paris Conservatoire. In particular, Messiaen’s scores abound with interpretative detail about tempo, nuance, rhythmic emphasis and dynamic: learn to read Messiaen well, and you are reading music well.
The piano is present in the majority of Messiaen’s works, and his concentration on the instrument is owed mainly to the ‘transcendent virtuosity and the absolutely amazing technical facility’ of Yvonne Loriod (Messiaen’s wife from 1961 until his death): ‘I was therefore able to allow myself the greatest eccentricities… . I knew I could invent very difficult, very extraordinary, and very new things: they would be played, and played well.’ Messiaen’s piano music is at times, then, highly virtuosic, and unsuitable for very young pianists. But for all its ‘eccentricities’, it sits well with other ‘standard’ repertoire, and judiciously chosen works can form part of any young pianist’s repertoire. Messiaen’s own favourites were Rameau, Scarlatti, Mozart (‘an extraordinary rhythmician’), Chopin (‘the greatest composer for the piano’), Debussy, Albéniz, Bartók, Prokofiev. The common factor here is colour, the importance of which in piano repertoire cannot, in my opinion, be over-emphasized. Messiaen said that he himself played the piano as though he were ‘conducting an orchestra, which is to say by turning the piano into a mock orchestra with a large palette of timbres and accents’. This is surely a good recommendation for anyone!
I can think readily of repertoire suggestions for the young pianist which are excellent introductions to Messiaen’s style and from which useful lessons about general pianism can be drawn. The obvious starting place in encountering Messiaen’s piano music at young age would be one of the Préludes (1928–29): ‘La Colombe’ and ‘Plainte calme’ are among the shortest and the most charming. The beauty for the learner about these pieces is the amount of repetition. Messiaen’s forms are easily explained and easily communicable.
‘Je dors, mais mon coeur veille’, No. 19 from Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (1944), is another a prime (if somewhat more challenging) example of the accessibility of Messiaen’s piano style. This piece is certainly for the pianist with bigger hands. That said, the emphasis is again on subtlety of expression, and there is much here to be learned about phrasing and counting. Once again, repetition of material comes to the learner’s aid.
‘Premiere Communion de la Vierge’, No. 11 from Vingt regards is also very approachable. Even though one could at first be intimidated by the copious amount of hemidemisemiquavers (!) the figuration is surprisingly comfortable if a sensible fingering is chosen and stuck to. Moreover, the piece’s tranquil effect is only enhanced by a slower tempo – one can take Messiaen’s ‘rapide’ marking with a pinch of salt, if necessary – a testimony to how a judicious choice of a modest tempo (with flow) can assist in creating a beautiful sound-world. Here, repetition is tempered by charming modification: have fun explaining and counting in prime numbers towards the end…!
For the more ambitious young pianist, one of Messiaen’s pieces written in the ‘style-oiseau’ will undoubtedly fascinate. ‘Le Merle noir’ from Petites esquisses d’oiseaux (1985) is a good first choice, using a blackbird’s song to articulate a musical form. As familiarity with this style increases, pieces from the Catalogue d’oiseaux (1956–68) will only beckon….
For maximum entertainment value (to the teacher!), Messiaen wrote a wonderful sight-reading piece – Morceau de lecture à vue – in 1934 for his own students to try their hand at. One page long, in 6/8 throughout, this rarity can be found in the recently published Messiaen (Yale University Press) by Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone.
I myself came to Messiaen’s piano music blithely unaware of its compositional complexities. But I was fortunate to have teachers at an early age who had already instilled in me a sense of curiosity and respect for the unknown. Surely the most important lesson to teach a young musician is to cultivate an open mind.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of Piano Professional
“Yvonne Loriod Remembered” (Musical Opinion, 01/2011)
Matthew Schellhorn remembers his teacher Yvonne Loriod, who died in May 2010‘Each of us must go some day to meet the Lord, and all life long we yearn for that encounter to be a joyful one.’ The words of Yvonne Loriod, widow of Olivier Messiaen, written to me after the death of my father: they seem so poignant following her own death on May 17, 2010. During her lifetime, Loriod undoubtedly found joy in Messiaen’s special and vital music. For the majority of her 86 years, her raison d’être was in being by his side, as a wife and interpreter – both of them together in an extraordinary creative partnership. So it is tempting to view Mme Messiaen through the lens of her husband’s life – indeed, most of the press obituaries have said perhaps too much about him and not enough about her. Yet, in my meetings with Loriod, I found the woman behind the man to be utterly fascinating in her own right, as a teacher, as a pianist, and as a person.
I got to know Yvonne Loriod during my mid-twenties while preparing repertoire for the Messiaen 2002 International Conference in Sheffield. She was already an inspiration to me – I was familiar with her commanding and authoritative concert and recorded interpretations of Messiaen’s music. Yet the thought of lessons with her was rather daunting, my main concern being not to cause any displeasure to this most formidably gifted and important lady in her own home.
It was here, at the Messiaen apartment in the heart of Montmartre, that I visited Yvonne Loriod on a number of occasions and got an unforgettable glimpse into her world. This place had been Mme Loriod’s home since before she married. She told me the story of how they had colonized successive adjacent apartments as they became free. With walls knocked through, all spaces soundproofed, the result was a sizeable unit of compact rooms spread over three floors.
Loriod’s beautiful manner and personal charm set me at ease straight away. I had made the faux pas of bringing to a diabetic the gift of syruped fruit – but she would get enjoyment, she reassured me, all the more by being able to offer these delicacies to visitors. This altruism was borne out by her offer to me of Coca-Cola. ‘I get it in specially for my young visitors,’ she said.
Lessons with Loriod were thrilling, particularly for the way they started. She would ask ‘Will you play with music?’, at the same time removing the score from my hand. It was a question loaded with more- than-ordinary significance, I knew, since Loriod’s own memory was legendary: it had allowed her to learn Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto in just eight days for the first French performance with the Orchestre National under Manuel Rosenthal. As I played to her, Loriod was always hugely attentive, always encouraging. She would enthuse verbally during a performance if she was enjoying it, praising me and sometimes asking me to repeat a passage. Her connexion to the music itself – even though she was not playing it – was always manifestly obvious. (At one of Peter Hill’s recitals at which Loriod was present I observed her fingers moving constantly.)
One of the most memorable features of my lessons with Loriod was the sound she produced when she played for me. Demonstrations were (sadly) few and far between – lessons were more about drawing out of me the best I could offer. But on occasion she would move me from the piano and fill the apartment with that instantly recognisable, incisive sound of hers. As she went she would explain how she was achieving the required tone. One method revolved around ‘picking out’ specific notes within the texture. In Messiaen, she explained, every chord has a ‘focus’. And every chord progression has a melody. Sometimes, it is at the top of the texture; sometimes, it is in the middle. But it must always be audible; it can never be too present. As an example, over and over again she asked me to give more sound to the top notes of the progression that opens the Petites esquisses d’oiseaux.
Another way Loriod achieved such a warm, resonant sound, was by her liberal use of the pedal. She talked a lot about speed of pedaling, or, more accurately, the speed of change in the pedal. In particular, she was always concerned that the rate of pedal change complemented the tempo. In the passage mentioned above, she wanted the chords joined by legatissimo pedal, specifically requiring me to wait (what seemed to me) a very long time after each chord. She offered the same advice with the chords of ‘the rose-coloured lake at dawn’ in La Fauvette des jardins, and in many similar instances she would repeatedly say ‘change after’, ‘change later’. This way, I noticed, the changes in harmony become almost imperceptible. On the other hand, Mme Loriod was very clear that elsewhere, particularly before rests, the pedal be cleared quickly.
A major characteristic of Loriod’s playing was its physicality, something that she would try to explicate if necessary. She would frequently demonstrate the touch she wanted on my hand, coaxing out more suppleness for the ‘Regard de l’esprit de joie’ (No. 10 from Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus), or a precise attack for the Song Thrush in the Petites esquisses. Sometimes, gesture was as much about the visual as the practical: both arms should be lifted to the same height in bar 10 of La Fauvette des jardins – ‘to look like the mountains’, she said. On occasion, she encouraged me to ‘draw’ with my hands, to imagine myself as a painter and the piano a canvas, the scene at once repres- ented in the music and on the instrument.
Loriod frequently impressed upon me the importance of respect for the written score. She reminded me many times that Messiaen’s rhythmic values are exact, absolute. She was extremely sensitive to even slight transgressions, for instance drawing attention to unwarranted rests of four demisemiquavers as opposed to five demisemiquavers. This scrupulosity tended to result in requiring me to count – in French, out loud – from one to five at a tempo of demisemiquaver equals 240; it was lesson well learned, I feel.
On not a few occasions, Mme Loriod took a liberal attitude with Messiaen’s text. She would, for instance, insert pedal breaks in a multitude of places where Messiaen himself had not marked them. A striking example of this is in ‘Le Merle noir’ from the Petites esquisses, where she asserted that the chord in bar 4 (and corresponding places) was not to be linked to the previous chord sequence; in this case, the pedaling was to be broken abruptly. Moreover, even though in the same piece Messiaen clearly dictates that the pedal resonance ring on from bar 5 into bar 6, Mme Loriod insisted there needed to be a break. In every such case, I have come to understand there is a structural concern, best appreciated in the context of performance. A similar challenge to the printed score was with the tempo of ‘Par Lui tout a été fait’, the phenomenally challenging fugue from Vingt Regards; here, the piece can be faster than indicated – ‘It is easier nowadays than it was then,’ Loriod pointed out.
Nowhere was Loriod’s technical mastery more evident to me in our lessons than in the area of keyboard fingering. It is hardly surprising that this aspect of piano technique – so much a challenge with Messiaen – should have been given the most attention. There were definite ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ – no thumbs on black notes, for example. In ‘Première communion de la Vierge’ (No. 10 from Vingt Regards) there were some ingenious borrowings between the hands. Overall, the sheer creativity of Mme Loriod’s ‘solutions’ to the physical challenges of Messiaen’s music was fascinating.
Loriod had the gift of bringing the piano to life, and whenever I met her I came away more inspired and more in love with Messiaen’s music. My personal sadness on her death was balanced by an intense gratitude for having had the opportunity to meet her, to play for her, and to enjoy her guidance at the instrument. The warmth and good humour that characterised being in her company will always stay with me. At the end of the lessons, as I left the Messiaen apartment, she would say, not ‘Au revoir’ or ‘Bonne chance’, but ‘Courage!’ It was, I felt, a reflection of her joyful attitude to life, which stemmed from the complete security she had in her Catholic faith.
Yvonne Loriod’s sublime technique was summed up by Messiaen: ‘to her anything is possible’. I learned that her technical aptitude for her husband’s music merely underlined her spiritual and emotional oneness with it. The double entendre of Loriod’s name – Le Loriot is French for ‘Golden Oriole’ – was a serendipity in which Messiaen delighted. When I was preparing La Fauvette des jardins with her, Mme Loriod explained to me that the arrival of the Oriole two-thirds of the way through is ‘an event’ – its song is so beautiful that ‘all the other birds stop to listen’. She told me the story of how the Golden Oriole would come to the Messiaens’ garden at their summer-house in Petichet and eat all the cherries – and then she promptly produced some cherries she had bought in to feed me specifically at this point in my performance. It was all part of giving character to the moment, to the playing. And so she told me to give Messiaen’s birds a vivid, dramatic character – the Robin was ‘amiable, kind, tender, charming’, the Nightingale was ‘joyous, triumphant’, the Great Reed Warbler was ‘angry, not nice’.
I once asked Mme Loriod how she got by missing Messiaen. She replied that her life continued to be enriched by him. After retirement from the concert platform, she spent her time faithfully bringing to fruition Messiaen’s enormous Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie. And, she told me, she played Mozart every day.
Yvonne Loriod is buried with her husband in the cemetery of Saint Théoffrey, the grave marked by a headstone in the shape of a bird that she herself designed. It reads, ‘Tous les oiseaux des étoiles’ – ‘All the birds of the stars’. The passage, from Messiaen’s song cycle Harawi, continues: ‘Loin du tableau mes mains chantent’ – ‘Far from the painting my hands are singing’.
This article first appeared in the January 2011 issue of Musical Opinion
“Visions: the Legacy of Yvonne Loriod” (Muso Magazine, 08/2010)
Though her name is synonymous with the music of Messiaen, Matthew Schellhorn asserts that the legacy of Yvonne Loriod is inspiration in its own termsWith the death of Yvonne Loriod on 17 May this year, the musical world lost not only a great pianist and teacher but also the catalyst behind some of the 20th century’s most extraordinary music. For some 50 years she was personally linked to Olivier Messiaen, first as his pupil, then as his muse and dedicatee, then as his wife and pre-eminent interpreter.
She was also, to me and to many others, an inspiration. I first met Yvonne Loriod in 1994, two years after Messiaen’s death, when I was a pupil at Chetham’s School of Music. My music teacher had arranged for me to visit her in her dressing room at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, where she was giving a performance of Réveil des oiseaux that evening. I was already in love with Messiaen’s music, and was preparing to perform Visions de l’Amen – the first work written by Messiaen for Loriod, and which she and the composer premiered in 1943. It made a huge impression on me to meet the very person for whom the piece was written. Seeing Loriod perform in concert – on this occasion in partnership with her sister, Jeanne, on ondes Martenot – was also a wonderful spectacle: the two venerable ladies, dressed in matching multicoloured voluminous dresses, captivated the audience with irresistible flair and panache.
Loriod’s playing was, in a word, extraordinary. A child prodigy, who had learned the whole of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas by the age of 14, her pianism was so mature and powerful by the time Messiaen met her in 1941 that it gave him a blank canvas. He is quoted as saying: ‘I could allow myself the greatest eccentricities because to her anything is possible. I knew I could invent very difficult, very extraordinary, and very new things: they would be played, and played well.’ While Messiaen’s early piano style had been rooted in organ-like textures, now he gave free rein to his imagination. So followed a stream of pieces written specifically with Loriod’s remarkable gifts in mind. After Visions de l’Amen came Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (‘Twenty gazes on the Christ-child’, 1944), and then the enormous Turangalîla-Symphonie (1946-48) – ‘like a piano concerto’, Messiaen described it.
Many other works for piano and orchestra followed, but of all the works written for Loriod it is the epic piano cycle Catalogue d’oiseaux (‘Bird Catalogue’, 1956-58) that encapsulates how her incisive playing provided Messiaen with the ‘voice’ his music most required. In her great 1970 recording of the Catalogue, the rhythmic precision and the voicing is belied by the seeming naturalness of the playing. Loriod can be seen in many pictures following the composer in the fields and woods with a tape recorder. Messiaen, of course, delighted in the double entendre of Loriod’s name: in French, Le Loriot is the Golden Oriole, a bird that in the Catalogue has a movement of its own. It was my privilege to prepare the other solo bird pieces, La Fauvette des jardins (‘The Garden Warbler’, 1970) and the Petites esquisses d’oiseaux (‘Small Bird Sketches’, 1985), with Loriod in my mid-twenties. I remember her gift for (vocal) mimicry, and the enthusiasm with which she would continually rush to the bookcase to get books on birds – all duly described in purely anthropomorphic terms, of course. Most of all, I remember the joy she experienced hearing her husband’s music – she always referred to him as Messiaen – music she herself knew so well, and which she must have played and heard hundreds of times.
Loriod was always inquisitive about the new music I was playing, and I was pleased to be able to tell her about the works I was premiering. Her championing of new music takes on a significance when one considers the lesser-known fact that she was a talented composer in her own right. She was modest about her unusual and intriguing musical works. Mostly premiered during the 1940s, they are characterised by their unusual combinations of instruments (Pièces africaines is scored for a bizarre ensemble of flute, oboe, ondes Martenot, guitar, bongos, timpani and two pianos, for example). It is perhaps this personal affinity with Messiaen’s vocation, combined with her other phenomenal skills, which gave this lady the edge in terms of her ability to communicate Messiaen’s music. Yvonne Loriod’s life and career testify to the fact that all new music needs passionate advocates, and all performers have a role to play in the creative process.
This article first appeared in the August 2010 issue of Muso magazine