A reader in Paderborn, Germany, Prof Dietmar Klenke, tells me of his discovery in a dusty Bonn University archive of a long lost Beethoven work, the Bachelor-Mephisto-Ballade (1819) which contains the original version of the Ode to Joy music. Beethoven composed it, Klenke tells me, as a gesture of solidarity with university teachers whose freedom to teach whatever they liked had been curtailed by the post-Napoleonic, reactionary Metternich government.
This seems incredible, and is. There is not an ounce of truth in it. Klenke is a piano-playing satirist who has written the Ballade to draw attention to the dictates of the European Union’s 1999 Bologna-Prozess, under which education ministers in EU member states agreed on wide-ranging reforms to their universities in the name of efficiency and quality assurance, resulting in a marked reduction of self-regulation and independence. The commission had introduced not only a pernicious points system by which to judge university teachers, Klenke says, but also the American/English term ‘Bachelor’ for university qualifications. No more, the title Magister for German graduates, he sighs. Hence the name of his spoof Beethoven work. Most had accepted the restrictions, he says, but the tendency in man to make no fuss, to sleep-walk while liberties were lost, was surely part of the master-plan of Mephisto in the world.
‘Mephisto tritt ein, wenn wir nichts taeten,’ the Professor warns (the devil creeps in if we do nothing), urging action. He invites me to a performance in Bonn of the Ballade to celebrate the publication of his book on Tuesday, but alas, I cannot attend so he sends me a copy of the book to review and a picture of the dust-jacket instead.
LISZT WEEK LAST WEEK AT KINGS PLACE
The Joyful Company of Singers, Friday 28 January
I avoid the Kings Cross drunks and blink in the brightness of the Kings Place foyer. I descend two floors to Hall One which is panelled in the wood of a single oak tree. Lovely as it looks, the panelling cannot be responsible for the echo, which is too resonant for the room and surely ‘enhanced’ as the Bruckner-ish harmonies of Liszt’s Ave Maria and Ave Verum die away. The choir sings with restraint, the tenors sotto voce-ing their high imitative phrases with the whispered penitence of practised church-goers who know how to get the best out of God.
The Hungarian Cultural Institute has financed the week in its keenness to re-affirm Liszt as the father of Hungarian music even though he spoke no Hungarian. The only other choral work by him in the programme is in French, the Hymne de l’enfant a son reveil to a poem by Alphonse Lamartine. It is for female voices in three parts with accompaniment by pianist Grace Yeo, a prayer enumerating the qualities of the Christ-child sung here with well balanced tenderness. The soloist however sings rather stiffly into her copy a line she must have rehearsed dozens of times. She could have
Liszt leads circuitously to Bartok. The gentlemen, with impressive low basses, sing a little unsurely of imprisonment in Bortonben, the mezzos add a sad edge to the start of A bujodisi (the exile) and everyone manages to offset the sexist and racist (anti-Turk) folk-text of Az elado (girl for sale) with humour. Some screeched singing spoils Kodaly’s setting of Mihaly’s poem To Franz Liszt – ‘Renowned musician, freeman of the world / and yet our kinsman everywhere you go’ - at the end of the first half. Later comes Ligeti with his thrilling way with words in Ejsacka (night) and Reggel (morning), goading percussive consonants from endlessly repeated syllables, and firing the singers with snapped rhythms and crushing, difficult dissonances which they carry off with conviction. The contemporary daring makes the concert feel relevant and vital, even two floors below pavement level in a dingy part of town. Ligeti is an experimenter in the Lisztian mould and the Joyful Company beams as it accepts the admiring applause.
Peter Broadbent conducts with fluidity and style, moulding the dynamics, commanding the eye and leading his choir’s concerted bow as if doing butterfly in the local baths. Pianist Yeo gives the choir a break with Bartok’s Five Hungarian Folksongs, which she plays with constantly flowing hands, and Liszt’s Sonetto del Petrarca 104, which she phrases in poetic lines. It’s a shame the sonnet is not printed in the programme as it would have been interesting to know the source of Liszt’s inspiration. Petrarch’s Sonnet No333 is, because the choir sings it in a setting by Ferenc Farkas (1905-2000). The beautiful translation is by the American poet William Dudley Foulke (1848-1935), who has kept the rhythm and rhyme of the original. It is a love song to a dead mistress and it inspires the choir to expressive mourning so that momentarily the joyful company is joyless.
HEAR YE HEAR YE
Complete Symphonic Poems transcribed for solo piano by August Stradal, performed by Risto-Mattu Marin
Toccata Classics sends over a CD of Finnish pianist Ristu-Mattu Marin playing transcriptions of three symphonic poems by Liszt – Les Preludes, Heroide funebre and Die Ideale. These solo piano versions were created by Liszt’s devoted follower August Stradal, which in itself is a considerable feat especially as the composer had managed to reduce them only to duets. Marin, a former Liszt Competition prizewinner, succeeds not just in playing all the notes (albeit ducking out of the opening ossia passage), but also in changing colour for the different instrumental entries which Stradal has been careful to indicate in the score. The four motifs of Les Preludes have distinct individual character under Marin’s finely calibrated touch. The central theme of Heroide funebre emerges from the preceding, slightly too quick funeral march with a aclarinet’s warmth sounding not unlike Liszt’s hit melody Liebestraum No3.
Marin is a keyboard declaimer and the tone poems mighty epics. Liszt invented the single-movement construct in an attempt to break free of hackneyed sonata form. They are the prototype pyramids of their kind. Each here is a grand statement. Les Preludes is inspired by a French poem about the four elements, though later dedicated to the poet-politician Lamartine. One is buffeted by Marin’s earth, wind, fire and water storm. The Heroide funebre is a response to the poet Ovid’s imagined letters of wives and lovers to Roman heroes. Marin cries them from the steps of the Forum, tearfully softening for the central love-lyric. Die Ideale is the title of a noble poem by Schiller, the verses, mourning the loss of mankind’s ideals, printed in the score. Marin flagellates the keyboard with echoing regret. He delivers Liszt’s colourful ensemble pieces with the concentrated eloquence of the public orator and it will be intriguing to see whether he can sustain the attention over the other nine Stradal-Liszt Tondichtung solos.
HURSTMERE SCHOOL CHOIR
Half a dozen potential choristers show up, grateful for the warmth indoors away from the freezing playground. I accompany them singing Rolf Harris’ tongue-twister The Court of King Caractacus. The most prominent voice belongs to Brendan, who volunteers that his Dad has all Rolf Harris’ records. Then I teach them the anonymous American song Cripple Creek, falsettoing the top E flats to force them out of their football terrace tone and bellowed intonation. They have never heard such a noise.
I do not use my girly voice when Mr Mackenzie-Ingle’s Year 10 class challenges me to a song at registration on Thursday afternoon. I point out the red rose that has been romancing the Google box for the last couple of days and tell them it signifies Burns Night. They are none the wiser but I sing My Love is like a Red Red Rose anyway. They applaud, but they prefer Molly Malone which I have sung to them previously. The line ‘where the girls are so pretty’ appeals to their softening, specialist-sports-college-student hearts.