Once he hears to his heart’s content, sails on, a wiser man.
We know all the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured
on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—
all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!
I know of no better (water)colourist than Claude Debussy – the master of innovative impressionism: with brushstrokes that range from the deft pointillisme of Georges Seurat, to the manic ‘action painting’ of Jackson Pollock – but with the pigment applied to staves rather than canvas or board. Apart (maybe) from Benjamin Britten’s superb evocations, which so infuse Peter Grimes – or Peter Maxwell Davies: who lived much of his life surrounded by it – there is no greater depicter of the sea, in all its primordial moods.
His Nocturnes are not music that I know particularly well, however. But after hearing Sirènes – the final of the three – last night: launching a concert entitled From the Seas to the Skies, at Cheltenham Town Hall – I now want to know more! (Which is why I am sat here, reading the score.)
Directly inspired by a series of impressionist paintings of the same name – pictured throughout this review – by James Abbott McNeill Whistler – sans mère – this movement could, I suppose, be seen as preparation for (more a wet than a dry run), or even a prelude to, his masterpiece, La Mer (which was cleverly programmed to follow…) – although this earlier work is much more programmatic in nature (especially with its links to Greek mythology):
‘Sirènes’ depicts the sea and its countless rhythms and presently, amongst the waves silvered by the moonlight, is heard the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on.
– Debussy: Nocturnes – Introductory note
Whether consciously or not, the concert consisted of works that all relied on the creation of new musical languages and forms – works that have had an overwhelming influence on later composers (especially for the cinema…) – and all of which required huge orchestral forces. Such luscious programming could easily give the impression that the evening was spent gilding a large bunch of lilies. But the presence of the ladies of the Cheltenham Bach Choir, for this opener, actually demonstrated a cunning symmetry: mirroring the stupendous piece that was to conclude the evening (and send us off into the night: as conductor David Curtis said, “lured unto the furthest reaches of space”). It should also be noted that, sometimes – but as was definitely the case here – the larger the orchestra, the more subtle and transparent the sound.
Like its more famous oceanic successor, Sirènes begins quietly, Modérément animé, over harp and lower strings. But, unlike the later piece, it is not just the wind and brass that add colour, but the wordless voices of mezzo-sopranos then sopranos. It almost felt as if we were rising to the surface from some great depth… – both of the sea, and of consciousness. I closed my eyes.
I could sense the billows breaking on the rocks; feel the lure of those fatal calls peaking in harmony with the striking surges. Debussy warns us of these ominous undercurrents with a short, voiceless passage of unrest in the strings and higher woodwind. The horns then join the two harps (both groups on momentous form) in a build to what I could only discern as desperation: the Sirens pleading more strongly (but only momentarily) as the swell grows yet more forceful. (If this is laughter, then the humour that provokes it is as dark as Erebus.)
This soon recedes – David’s control of tempi and dynamics absolutely flawless… – yet it was the lull which followed that called to me: heavenly, slow, gentle, peaceful, magnetic music seeking to embrace. But it cannot last; and the surge foams more strongly; the strings soaring higher: calling us to an irresistible paradise.
Momentarily, the horns (again) – and then a gorgeous two-bar solo from trumpeter Paul Broekman – take up the temptresses’ duties. Magic envelops us: the supernatural music overwhelming our senses; our boat gently bobbing beneath us. Are those horns beckoning or admonishing?
It no longer matters. Eerie chimes from them and the harps imply that we have passed well beyond any warning buoy; that escape is no longer possible; resistance futile. Now it is rare beauty that we breathe; that whispers to us; and the breakers pound upon the rocks as our hearts sound within us. The horns call again: and we are – somehow – back where we started: a safe distance from those heavenly-voiced seductresses… – and yet they call, call, call to us; the sea almost placid, echoing their pleading song. Under a mournful wail from the cor anglais, the previously-plangent Sirènes can only hum – bouche fermée – as their power fades away: the waves also ebbing and flowing more slowly. Hushed harmonics in the harps are there to lead us home….
This was gorgeous, ravishing music – more atmospheric than the CSO’s more typical fare, perhaps: but played with real heart and deep skill. (Captain Curtis and the CSO seem to specialize in such complex musical challenges, it has to be said: whatever form they take. And yet the orchestra never appear stretched or stressed by them in performance. This was no exception.) If a concert embarks with such resolute magnificence, though, what magnificent destination awaits…?
And let me say (that never wept before)
My tears are now prevailing orators.
– Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus (III.i.25‑26)
Typically, during a concert, I will focus on members of the orchestra, soloists, or the conductor; but Debussy’s La Mer [pdf] is a tone poem – although designated as “trois esquisses”: three sketches, however consummate… – for the memory and imagination: conjuring, in my mind, many happy hours sat alone on the Scottish coastline between Elgin and Fraserburgh, feet dangling over the harbour walls of Pennan and Portsoy, camera or sketchbook untouched upon my knee.)
So I closed my eyes again…. And yet I could still glimpse the sun breaking through during the first movement, De l’aube à midi sur la mer (it doesn’t always rain, there, y’know…) – although hints of a cloudburst were never far from the surface calm. There was a swelling of light, wind and sea; ebbing and flowing; but growing relentlessly, in parallel with the morning, as nature’s moods vacillated around us. (In comparison with Britten, at least, Debussy’s musical language emerges here as more abstract; less literal and programmatic… – and yet it requires no translation. He created something so revolutionary that is has now become the lingua franca of those craving to conjure up their own oceanic storms.)
The seafarers of the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra were superb: their seemingly infinite palette daubed with every colour, every tint, every sonic shade necessary… – from the transparent, subtle, near-inaudibility of pre-dawn (and the shimmering harps of Cathy White and Charlotte Swayne), to the final overwhelming psychedelic clash of elemental might. The glorious solo violin of leader Caroline Broekman, and the stunning passage of four-part cellos, followed by the horns – Un peu plus mouvementé… Très rythmé – leading to a quasi-climax… – additional early highlights. Not every “ensemble of committed and experienced amateur, student and professional musicians” could muster such major musicianship (nor conjure up two harpists…). This was rhythmically and technically challenging stuff.
The cor anglais and flute playing of John Wright and Catherine Billington also deserve attention: parting the clouds for the sun to break through in all its brilliance. No orchestral light has ever shone so brightly. Streaming with tears, my eyes were dazzled (as were my ears); my skin rendered gooseflesh; my blood pumping with upsurges of pure emotion.
The second movement – Jeux de vagues – is a symphonic scherzo by any other name: its key changes as playful as the music itself! Here, the woodwind and brass were on splendid, delicate form – especially the horns (Laura Morris, Kelly Haines, Charlotte Montgomery, Christopher Sturdy and Sophie Ellis: surely the players of the night – and we haven’t even made it to the interval…). So lustrous and harmonious in the first movement, here their mellifluous tones were almost tangible, graspable: warming, tuneful, but occasionally impish – a trait soon developed by the whole orchestra; and then taken close to extremes. This was not simply the Play of the waves, but of the spirits which cause them to twinkle and sparkle; who cause their crests to whiten and shudder onto golden sands. [Having just seen The Tempest, I could only think of Prospero – in an uncommon jolly mood – conducting his “Spirits, which by mine art I have from their confines call’d to enact My present fancies”. All David lacked was a cloak, and a head and chin full of wise, white, spiky hair! (All Prospero lacks is a natty pair of socks.)]
As with the first movement, though, seriousness, darkness, is never far away – those continual changes of mood; of light; of weather… – clouds passing in front of the afternoon sun momentarily chilling the atmosphere; but soon warmed, here, by lyrical string playing of the highest order. But then the wind gathers; the swell rises; the trumpets inject splashes of colour – cheeky, yet foreboding.
A sequence of full orchestral punches (at figure 32, and following) are supplanted by a quieter, more animé interplay of strings and wind (percussion hovering, like Ariel, always ready to stir up mischief). And then we find ourselves swept up in the middle of an almost celebratory waltz: the waves dancing, now; the cellos, again, singing with all their hearts; the violins and violas (divided into seven parts) – supported by the rest of the orchestra – singing higher and more emphatically, repeating the same rhythm – dance-like, still; but not in a way anyone other than Ravel would recognize. Horns and trumpets burst through… – and, suddenly, disquiet reigns: the lower strings chuntering, fading away; the harps’ glorious glissandos perhaps two last wavelets, gently pluming ashore.
But all is not done. Those horns again! And an ethereal pause from more divided strings; the harps gentler, now. The waves are weary: and drift serenely, rockingly, to sleep. (It almost feels as if we are once more submerged beneath them: lulled ourselves to dream.)
If by your art, my dearest father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.
The sky it seems would pour down stinking pitch,
But that the sea, mounting to th’ welkin’s cheek,
Dashes the fire out.
– Shakespeare: The Tempest (I.i.1‑5)
It would have been natural for Debussy to assign particular (groups of) instruments to each of the two antagonists of the Dialogue du vent et de la mer – perhaps, literally, woodwind and brass for “le vent”; and strings and harps for “la mer”. But he was such a subtle artist – despite the leviathan instrumental requirements of this last movement: including almost a bandstand’s-worth of brass and percussion (all of them on the form of their lives) – that he could (and would) never fall into such a trap. And here he is at his Animé et tumultueux, Turneresque best: with a stunning pinnacle of the orchestrator’s art. I could feel the current ebbing and flowing – tide falling but especially rising – in the opening string motifs – almost expecting the great white shark from Jaws to appear! Something is astir: a storm brewing in the percussion, wind and brass.
These are possibly Debussy’s greatest brush-strokes: using mutes and string techniques to colour and shape tonality and dynamics. This is more a dispute than an equable “dialogue”, however – a lover’s tiff, perhaps? – and, yes, the waves are whipped up by the wind; and yet it feels it feels like neither elemental force has the upper hand. (Maybe they are working in tandem, after all: plotting to vanquish anything concrete that obstructs them?)
Eerie fanfares and listless murmurings; menacing horn-calls and thuds from the bass drum (knocking on our seaward-facing windows); all presaging the music that would end the evening – but they are also the sound of a crashing, crushing roller of orchestral might as strong as any storm: alerting us; warning of the unrest to come. This builds slowly, accumulating momentum, then ferocity – the bassoons scowling and scaring, joined by the horns, cellos and basses (“Grimes is at his exercise”) – amplifying, intensifying….
A momentous crash: a gargantuan breaker sweeps over the harbour walls, shaking the shutters we have now closed in fear. All we can do is huddle behind centuries-old stone walls, waiting for the battle – if it ever will – to cease.
Then, just as unexpectedly, calmness. The horns now seek to reassure us, but the unease rumbles on: even as flecks of sunlight spot the restless waves with silver. The harps return; flute and oboe (Tessa Pemberton) soaring – as ghostly albatrosses all aglide – over whispering strings. But, again, something stirs….
The entry of all other members of the orchestra, forte – perfectly coordinated by David – seems to signify that the foes have finally reached agreement. Like the violins and violas, the wind and the sea are in unison. But this, too, soon fades: and scurrying trumpets alert us to another change of mood. The main theme – a rise and fall in the flute and oboe again – brings hope: but we have heard it dashed and scattered to the four corners of the earth before. The first violins repeat it, though, with growing confidence. Then pause – gathering huge lungfuls of air (David in no need of a “magic garment” for such control). Is the storm breaking? There is certainly peace – albeit of a kind which disconcerts. The atmosphere remains restless: dark clouds on the horizon, growing, looming, threatening, scudding towards us with all their might. And yet the massed brass are steady (as she goes): a firm foundation of dry land; a comfort, even… – but an empty one.
Again, the white horses gallop toward us; huge marbles of rain pelting land and sea. A cornet cries out – a solitary voice, lost in the gale; or is this the sound of self-belief? And then we see the tsunami – a wall of air, water and reverberation – towering over us: fundamental forces overwhelming all. There is no greater power than this; no creator more powerful. We stand in awe, transfixed: blown away by the preternatural exhalation.
The rest is silence. And I open my eyes: a tidal wave of tears surging down my wind-blasted cheeks… – more in need of fresh air than I have been for a very long time.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
– Wilfred Owen: Anthem for Doomed Youth
When you think of war-inspired music, perhaps Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony comes to mind; or Nielsen’s fourth and fifth; and probably Britten’s War Requiem – but I can think of no more harrowing work than Holst’s The Planets. However joyous it might sometimes seem: to me, every note is suffused with wasted blood – Holst once telling the conductor Adrian Boult “that he wanted the stupidity of war to stand out” in performance. Mars, the Bringer of War is of course an obvious reference – goodness knows what the original audience made of this aggressive soul-curdling music in September 1918… – and it still shocks today. But the other movements all contain such references: whether to military pastiche, or contemplative sadness, weariness, and regret. Wilfred Owen, had he been sat next to me at last night’s concert, would have wept, as I did, with instant recognition.
This is truly great music; the very best of the best – and, as David said to me after the concert, it is truly unique. (I could easily make a case for it being one of the greatest pieces of classical music ever written – it is so utterly inspired in both its construction and instrumentation: ranging from the wonderful melody at the heart of Jupiter to the desolation of Saturn. But this is probably not the place or time….)
It is therefore not really about those shiny things we see in the night sky. As I wrote earlier in the week: “the constituent pieces have as much astrological inspiration as astronomical… mirroring Shakespeare’s ‘seven ages of man’”. They are principally about the human spirit: in all its various forms and stages – but especially when in, or after, conflict.
It seems strange, in many ways, that such dark music should become so popular – something the composer himself truly hated. But such imposing music will out: even if people see and hear only the surface gloss. It helps, of course, that – one hundred years after its composition; and its development of a new linguistic mode of musical expression… – it has become so readily accessible. But I wonder what others take away from its performance? [If they were in Cheltenham, last night, my guess is bruises: both physical and mental; awe, from the bombardment of timpani (Roger Clift and Sam Gerard) and percussion (Ros Fletcher, Ian Evans, and Elizabeth Alford); astonishment (especially the celeste playing of John Stillman) and the ‘solo’ of the three, lyrical double-basses (Simon Cox, Rob Tallis and Jenny Taylor); and a broken heart (especially from the singing cello of Stephen Pett).]
I have been fortunate to hear some truly amazing performances this year: but this was “the very best of the best” – every single musician working their socks off, giving it their all… until those ethereal, pure voices faded beyond hearing. The silence was unbearable. But so was the thought of applause.
I had wept from start to finish. I could not have done otherwise: my mind in tatters; my heart riven; my soul shattered to smithereens. Good music will do this, of course. But only if played this well. (I was tempted to list every single player and singer – they all deserve my thanks; and a bloody big hug.) Go home to your beds with pride, you great musicians of Cheltenham! Wake up with a smile; and the confidence that comes from a job better done than you would have dreamt possible…. The planets truly had aligned.