Calm before the storm: Two women, a sensitive Russian and the persecution of Christ
In Brighton, April is traditionally the quiet month before the maelstrom of events that comprise the Brighton Festival in May. This year’s, with Vanessa Redgrave at the helm, promises to be spectacular. There are two main events this month, both are real gems.
On Good Friday, 6th April at 7pm, the East Sussex Bach Choir will be performing Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion in St Bartholemew’s Church, Ann Street. They will be joined by members of the Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) Singers.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote his Passio Domini Nostri Jesus Christus Secundum Evangelistam Matthaeum – or St Matthew’s Passion for short – in 1727. Regarded as one of the masterpieces of sacred choral music, it is written for soloists, two choirs and two orchestras.
The tradition of reciting the Passion, or the story of the Crucifixion as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, was established as early as the fourth century.
The texts were read as Gospel lessons during Holy Week, and were to be recited “in a solemn manner.” This manner of chant soon took on a rough musical and dramatic shape. By the time we get to Bach in 18th century Leipzig, this is a long established tradition.
As a jobbing composer and performer, Bach had to compose a weekly quota of sacred music for church services, but he also the opportunity for larger ecclesiastical settings. The St Matthew Passion received its first performance on Good Friday of 1727, as part of the usual afternoon Vespers service; its two parts would have framed a lengthy sermon, with congregational hymns before and after the Passion setting. Bach did not intend this to be a concert oratorio, but rather a devotional exercise, using all available musical means to make the central story of Christianity as vivid and immediate as possible to his listeners.
Bach’s St Matthew Passion is not an easy listening experience. It is a depiction of the time leading up to and including the execution of Jesus; both beautiful and harrowing. There are references to blood, tears, weeping, distress or mourning on every page. In one place, Bach writes a lashing figure for the violins and violas that depicts the blows of the whips. In other places, quavers (notes half a beat long) depict drops of tears.
It’s a bit like a Wagner opera: you’ve got to be in the mood and you have to do some work. World-class Wagnerian baritone, Sir John Tomlinson, will being singing the part of Jesus.
I once played in the orchestra when he sang the last half hour of Wagner’s The Valkyrie (where the famous ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ comes form) in the Brighton Festival; it was an incredibly experience. I remember him opening his mouth and the sound that came out completely smothered the orchestra! My friend, cellist Dan James, and I challenged the formidable gentleman to a pie-eating competition to which he quietly responded “Oh, well I don’t know about that.” It’s worth going along to see Sir John at work.
On the 21st April at 7.30pm, the London Philharmonic Orchestra will be at the Brighton Dome under the baton of Yan Pascal Tortelier. Mendelssohn’s Overture to Ruy Blas and Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto comprise the first half. After the interval is the barnstorming Fourth Symphony of Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).
The piece is a tale of two women. Both entered the composer’s life in 1877, the year he wrote it. One of them nurtured his creative career with bountiful gifts of friendship and money; the other, in a brief turbulent marriage, nearly destroyed it.
The first was Nadezhda von Meck, an heiress to a substantial financial empire. Early in 1877, she began writing long, heartfelt letters to him: “I regard the musician-human as the supreme creation of nature. … in you, the musician and the human being are united so beautifully, so harmoniously, that one can give oneself up entirely to the charm of the sounds of your music, because in these sounds there is noble, unfeigned meaning.”
For 14 years, they poured out their innermost to each other, and she sent him a large sum of money every year.
They never met.
He stayed at her estate when she was away and once, when they accidentally encountered each other on a street in Florence, they raced past each other in embarrassment.
Tchaikovsky was homosexual. In a bid to be “respectable”, he married his pupil Antonina Milyukova in July 1877. The relationship was a disaster and drove the composer to a nervous breakdown. He fled his new bride almost immediately and travelled Europe to avoid her. The turbulence of its first movement with its pervading “Fate “ fanfare, and the almost hysterical rejoicing of its finale reflect all this craziness.
I will include a passage of a letter in which Tchaikovsky tried to put into words the journey he went through during the composition.
Movement 1: “The introduction [the loud fanfare theme] is the seed of the whole symphony, without a doubt its main idea. This is Fatum, the fateful force which prevents our urge for happiness from achieving its end…hangs over our heads like the sword of Damocles, and constantly, unceasingly, poisons our soul…
“Discontent and despair grow stronger, become more scathing. Would it not be better to turn one’s back upon reality and plunge into dreams? [the solo clarinet’s wistful theme]…
“O joy! At least one sweet and tender dream has appeared. Some beatific, luminous human image flies by, beckoning us on: [the sweeping, waltz-like music]…
[Return of Fate fanfare] “No! They were only dreams, and Fatum awakes us. … So life itself is the incessant alternation of painful reality and evanescent dreams of happiness …”
Movement 2: “The second part of the symphony expresses a different aspect of human anguish. It is the melancholy feeling that appears in the evening, when you are sitting alone. … Memories swarm around you. You feel sad about what was and is no more. … It is sad and somehow sweet to sink into the past.”
Movement 3: “The third part … is made up of the capricious arabesques … that pass through the mind when one has drunk a little wine and feels the first phase of intoxication. The soul is neither merry nor sad. One does not think of anything; one leaves free rein to the imagination, and, for some reason, it begins to draw strange designs. … These are the disconnected pictures that pass though the head when one goes to sleep. They have nothing in common with reality; they are bizarre, strange, incoherent.”
Finale: “If you do not find cause for joy in yourself, look to others. Go to the people … They make merry and surrender wholeheartedly to joyful feelings. Picture a popular festival. Scarcely have you forgotten yourself and become interested in the spectacle of other people’s joy, when the tireless Fatum appears again and reminds you of his existence. … Do not say that everything is sad in the world. There exist simple but deep joys. … Life can still be lived.