Saturday, 19 December 2009

Moments of Magic Number 6

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Piano Concerto No.5 "Emperor" by L.V. Beethoven

Do not be fooled by the inclusion of Napoleon's imperial portrait. The 5th piano concerto had, apparently, nothing to do with the famous French emperor.
It was given the title 'Emperor' not by Beethoven, as he himself loathed the ruling class, but by others because of its particularly grand style. Ironically, 'the Beast' was once an admirer of Napoleon but was so enraged when he crowned himself Emperor that he tore up the piece he had dedicated to him; his third Symphony, the "Eroica." Though evidently a masterful musician and a composer of extraordinary genius, when it came to politics and reality, Beethoven was hopelessly credulous and naive.

In addition, Beethoven had a notoriously thunderous temper, earning him his sobriquet, and was frequently unfair and cruel to household staff, friends and family. He was arrogant, tough and even unfeeling - the very picture of the patricians he held in such disdain.
Though admired, he was not liked. His favour with the court in Vienna was uncertain, his social skills were poorly developed but he had a revolutionary and extraordinary approach to writing music that meant he provided a unique bridge between the old world of Classical music and the new world of Romantic music.

He influenced Chopin, among others, with piano concerti such as this in which the instrument comes to the fore; he skips up and down the keyboard with great freedom, a style which was initially shocking to the conservative audiences of Vienna, and, in this particular sequence reveals the measured majesty of his mind. Like his "Pathetique" adagio cantabile, the notes themselves are simple, the rhythm is gentle and calm but the overpowering sophistication of that simplicity is an extraordinarily difficult trick. Beethoven was possessed with these powers, and here it is shown to great effect.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Moments of Magic Number 5

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Zadok the Priest by G. F. Handel

It is without doubt that George Frideric Handel wrote some of the most energetic, powerful and memorable music in history. Like many composers, he is largely known, sadly, for a handful of compositions rather than his greater body of work. His operas, though rich, emotional and splendid, were largely forgotten until the renewed interest in baroque music in the mid-twentieth century; a considerable investment of time, talent and his own money that bore little fruit in his own life.

He is mostly associated with the Messiah oratorio, the Water Music Suite and the Music for the Royal Fireworks. A closer look at his body of work reveals an impressive diversity and depth;
42 operas; 29 oratorios; more than 120 cantatas, trios and duets; numerous arias; chamber music;a large number of ecumenical pieces; odes and serenatas and 16 organ concerti. He was an outrageously fast worker, writing the entire Messiah in three weeks, a court favourite of George I and a great philanthropist.


Zadok the Priest was one of four anthems commissioned for the coronation of King George II in 1727. It has been played at every coronation since. Considering the lack of 'great' English spectacle-composition talent since Handel (apart from Elgar) this is perhaps unsurprising. However, for such a piece to hold sway in years when baroque music was embarrassingly out of fashion is testament to its power and incomparable beauty. Though the chorus, with the high trumpets, positively drips with majesty and regality, it is the beautiful strings that begin the piece that make it such a fantastic processional. This selection is my favourite sequence of that opening. Initially, the pace and the lightness of the strings indicate an eagerness and an excitement. Then, instead of remaining in the major key, Handel takes us down, albeit briefly, into the minor key from a dominant chord. Though certainly not unlike him, or indeed other baroque music, for a processional that was commissioned to be positive, encouraging and glorious, it is a risk - but one that pays off enormously. It makes the work multi-dimensional, not simply monarchist background music, adding a touch of intrigue, emotion and romance to what might have been, in less worthy hands, a bombastic, self-righteous and dated composition.


Standing the test of time, this selection is a perfect example of what Mozart and Beethoven referred to as Handel's mastery of 'effect.' The former said that "... When he chooses, he strikes like a thunder bolt." The latter that one should, "...go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means."

Beethoven was more complimentary of Handel's powers than almost any other composer and declared him "...the master of us all... the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb."