Thursday 23 April
Tippett & Mahler
'The minute you hear The Rose Lake and you hear the finale of the tenth you’ll know what I was after – both of them, they’re in some kind of transcendent region that only comes to people near the end of the journey. It’s as simple as that.'
The Rose Lake, a song without words for orchestra
medium fast -
The Lake begins to sing: slow – fast –
The Lake Song is echoed from the sky: slow – fast – medium slow –The Lake is in full song: slow – medium slow – medium fast – medium slow –
The Lake Song leaves the sky: slow – fast –
The Lake sings itself to sleep: medium slow – medium fast
In Senegal, north-west Africa, a little way north-east of the capital, Dakar, there is a pink lake, separated from the Atlantic ocean only by a narrow line of sand dunes. Lake Retba, as it is called, contains an algae (dunaliella salina) that produces a red pigment able to absorb light. Catch the lake in bright sunshine, as Michael Tippett did in November 1990, two months before his 86th birthday, and its waters shine an eerie, dusty pink.
Tippett, by then acclaimed as one of the country’s leading composers and enjoying an Indian summer of astonishing vigour and creativity, had promised Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra a piece of some kind for his 90th-birthday celebrations. Standing by Lake Retba, he began to imagine The Rose Lake. 'A song without words for orchestra', it would be nothing so crude as a sonic depiction of the lake, but an attempt to capture in music the dappled interplay between water and light and colour, and to chart a progression from dawn to dusk.
Image: Lake Retba
Composition did not begin until August 1991. Macular degeneration and cataracts had made Tippett almost blind. The first seven minutes of The Rose Lake took him around eight months, and he suffered badly from exhaustion and depression. He struggled on, but eventually his loyal assistant and near namesake, Michael Tillett, was called in to sit by the composer at the piano and take dictation. Tippett regained enough strength to finish The Rose Lake, in his own hand, on 22 April 1993.
The score is, on any terms, one of fertile imagination and exquisite detail. Knowledge of its compositional circumstances makes it seem a remarkable, perhaps unprecedented, achievement. Physical difficulties had not hampered Tippett’s creative power, nor his determination to explore new worlds with each passing piece. A 60-year career had seen his music shift from verdant lyricism to fragmented violence and back again. Listeners cannot help but hear The Rose Lake as a swansong, and Tippett himself knew it would be his last major work. But in many ways the piece is more questing than valedictory, and although it has a rich, twilit beauty, it uses techniques and instruments that added new colours to its composer’s palette. The summation of Tippett’s return in old age to the lyricism of his earlier works, The Rose Lake nevertheless has its own climate.
The Lake Songs
Studded through The Rose Lake are five 'Lake Songs', rapturously lyrical, densely but somehow translucently orchestrated. They are also developmental, each song a variation reflecting and refracting motifs from the first: a yearning major ninth, first rising and then setting; a curl of notes introduced during a Wagnerian passage for the horns above a deep-sea drone of E-flat (the first note of The Ring), as if Retba had merged with the Rhine. Floating at the centre of The Rose Lake comes 'The Lake in full song', with flocks of strings ducking and diving in joyous flight, lit by a midday glare of brass.
The five songs are inlaid into a backdrop mosaic of contrasting musical tiles, resulting in patchwork interludes that dart around the orchestra between the five pools of song. Highly contrasted with the songs, the interludes lay out undeveloping blocks of sound in spare and imaginative combinations of instruments, occasionally quoting from Tippett’s earlier pieces, as in a thick swirl of eleven-part strings from his opera King Priam (1958–61). The songs make use of canonic imitation, with one instrument mirroring or echoing the other. The interludes are fascinated with heterophony: two instruments play the same line simultaneously, and while one keeps to the melody, the other washes it in ripples of decoration.
The five songs and five interludes are book-ended by an introduction and a coda. Tippett, in his late music, was eager always to snap listeners out of their reverie. The Rose Lake doesn’t rage against the dying of the light, but nor does it go gently. Its wispy coda, using flotsam from the introduction, begins with trickles of harp that suddenly dissolve into woodwind chirrup. A final watery hiccup from the brass is marked in the score not with a bang but a 'plop'.
The premiere of The Rose Lake, on 19 February 1995, was part of an LSO season entitled Tippett: Visions of Paradise. As the applause began, and a frail Tippett, now 90, was helped on to the platform, a band of musicians knows as 'The Hecklers', who were at the time protesting against the supposed cacophany of contemporary music, began to shout and catcall: 'Visions of hell!' The Hecklers were, claimed their leader, 'booing for beauty'. With The Rose Lake, the joke was on them.
Programme Notes by Oliver Soden
Oliver Soden is a writer and broadcaster on music and the arts. His work includes an edition of John Barton’s ten-play epic Tantalus; articles in publications such as Gramophone and The Guardian; and a number of appearances on BBC Radio. His biography of Michael Tippett will be published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 2019.
Image: Christian Allard
Michael Tippett was born on 2 January 1905 into a precariously wealthy family that was politically aware (his mother was imprisoned as a suffragette) but relatively unmusical. As a child, and maybe as an adult too, he was something of the perennial outsider, at odds with, even ahead of, the beliefs and taboos of the times.
Tippett was eventually acclaimed as a composer of international stature and importance, but his career was slowburn, and his originality slow to develop. After studies at the Royal College of Music there followed almost a decade of ambitious amateur music-making alongside involvement in left-wing politics. From 1940 to 1951 he was an enterprising head of music at Morley College in South London. On the outbreak of war, Tippett’s Trotskyist politics gave way to a committed pacifism, and in August 1943, having refused to fulfil the conditions of his exemption from war service as a conscientious objector, he served a three-month sentence in Wormwood Scrubs.
Works such as his String Quartet No 1 (1934–35) and the Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1938–39) displayed for the first time and in all its originality the seductive rhythmic gallop and blues-inflected lyricism of his hard-won compositional maturity. In 1944 Benjamin Britten, who had become a close friend, helped organise the premiere of Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time (1939–41).
The oratorio’s success seemed almost to unravel the following decade when Tippett’s first opera, The Midsummer Marriage (1946–52), was greeted with bafflement and dislike. The breakdown of his Second Symphony’s premiere in 1958 only added to the suspicion in which his music could be held. A younger generation of performers eventually offered up such pieces new minted to a fresh and devoted audience, and Tippett began to enjoy considerable success. He was knighted in 1966. After Britten’s death in 1976, Tippett had no real competition for the title of Britain’s ‘greatest living composer’, an accolade to which he lived up for a two-decade Indian summer that saw no decline in energetic output.
His was a career of constant self-reinvention. The lyricism that book-ended his compositions contained a period of violent and fragmented mosaics, not least his war-blasted Homeric opera, King Priam (1958–61). His third opera, The Knot Garden (1966–69), was shot through with jazz and electric guitar, while the Symphony No 3 (1970–72) turned both to Beethoven and to blues for spiritual and emotional solace.
Much of Tippett’s late music has yet to fasten its hold on the repertoire, but Birmingham Opera’s Company revival, in April 2015, of his fourth opera, The Ice Break (1973–76), thrillingly reimagined the work for the 21st-century. A final opera, New Year (1985–88), remains unrecorded and awaits reappraisal. In his 80s, now a member of the Order of Merit, Tippett produced a handful of last, luminous works: a large-scale setting of Yeats’ Byzantium (1989–90); the last of his five string quartets (1990–91); and The Rose Lake (1991–93), which crowned a 60-year career that, as for all innovators, has been greeted alike with consternation and with jubilance.
He died aged 93 in January 1998.
Composer Profile by Oliver Soden
'To live for you! To die for you!'
Gustav Mahler comp Cooke
Symphony No 10
in F-sharp minor
Gustav Mahler's death in 1911, at the shockingly early age of 50, came as a complete surprise to many. Only the previous year, the premiere of his colossal, heaven-storming Eighth Symphony had stunned the German-speaking musical world into the realisation that Mahler wasn't just a great conductor, he was also an outstandingly original composer. Here was the triumph Mahler had longed for all his life, and yet he'd only had a pitiful few months to enjoy it. When Mahler's last two completed works – the Ninth Symphony and the 'Song-Symphony' Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) – were heard for the first time, many heard a note of farewell in his music. Added to the news that Mahler's health had been precarious for some time, it all began to make sense. Mahler had seen his own end coming, and had anticipated it in his last two masterpieces.
In fact it wasn't quite as straightforward as that. The diagnosis of a heart lesion, made back in 1907, wasn't necessarily a life sentence. As Mahler began to recover, and at the same time struggled to come to terms with the death of his beloved daughter Maria, he'd thrown himself back into his conducting and composing career as energetically as ever. The killer blow almost certainly came in that summer of 1910, when Mahler discovered that his adored wife and muse Alma, whom he had hymned in quasi-religious tones in his Eighth Symphony, was having an affair with the handsome, brilliant young architect, Walter Gropius. Although Mahler and Alma were able to patch things up, the shock gradually began to tell physically. Mahler's heart finally gave way the following May.
Not long after Mahler's death came the news that during that fateful summer he had been working on a Tenth Symphony. How far had he got with it? Was any of it performable? The answers were tantalising: the first movement, a substantial Adagio, was more-or-less complete, and one other – a strange, sinister little movement entitled 'Purgatorio' – was certainly salvageable. These were presented to the world, and the Adagio made quite an impression, not least because its startlingly dissonant harmonies and near-expressionist intensity brought it closer to the wild imaginings of Viennese radicals like Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg than anything he'd written before. But as to the other three planned movements, all that apparently remained was a hopeless, tangled mass of sketches. Was this confusion itself a reflection of Mahler's state of mind at the time? Scrawled across these pages were heart-rending verbal exclamations, to Alma, to God or the Fates: 'The Devil dances it with me!' 'You alone know what it means!' Over the Symphony's final huge sigh Mahler had inscribed his pet name for Alma:
For years most experts insisted that the second, fourth and fifth movements of the Tenth Symphony were beyond rescue. Then the English musicologist Deryck Cooke began to look more closely. He realised that Mahler had come closer than anyone thought to finishing the Symphony. Once Cooke had established the order of the sketches, it could be seen that melodies, harmonies, counterpoints and important orchestral colours were indicated quite clearly for nearly the whole work. Cooke set about producing what he called a 'Performing Version' of the sketches – not a 'completion' however. Cooke always insisted that he'd meant only to give an idea of the state the Symphony had reached at the time Mahler died, not to speculate as to how it might have been in its final form.
Cooke's 'Performing Version' was a revelation. What it showed was that the Tenth was on its way to being one of Mahler's most audacious, stirring and magnificently structured symphonies. While much of it echoed the death-shadowed utterances of the Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde, the ending in particular suggested that he'd begun to move into new spiritual territory. Certainly the ghostly, tonally rootless theme for unaccompanied violas that begins the first movement sounds like the voice of a man who has just returned from the abyss. Eventually – after much tortured aspiration and sardonic, deflated dance music – there is a cathartic climax, with an immense piled-up dissonance and a painfully sustained high trumpet note. Yet the coda brings consolation, and the warmest, most tonally stable music we've heard so far.
In the Scherzo that follows, the dance music of Mahler's home city Vienna and of the Austrian countryside is subjected to an exuberant rhythmic 'deconstruction' of a kind that might have impressed Stravinsky. The Scherzo ends with a magnificent upsurge, culminating in a great shout of joy. Could this be life returning in triumph? But then comes the haunted Purgatorio, with its unmistakable cries of pain in the central section. After this, the second Scherzo takes us back to the nightmarish intoxication of the first movement of Das Lied von der Erde. It is on the sketch pages of this movement that we find many of those agonised exclamations to Alma.
Then, as the Scherzo morphs into the Finale, comes one of Mahler's most awe-inspiring inspirations: muffled drum strokes separated by long 'dead' silences, with eerie, fragmentary deep bass sounds. Apparently this is in part a memory of a funeral procession for a young fireman Mahler and Alma witnessed in New York. Yet somehow the Symphony survives this vision of abysmal nothingness. A wonderful long flute solo is the first sign of life returning again, then the singing resumes with growing fervour. An agitated middle section, culminating in a memory of the first movement's climactic dissonance, fails to destroy what Mahler called the Tenth Symphony's 'one great song'. An exquisite hymn to love emerges, culminating in that heartfelt final sigh: 'Almschi'. Love may not be, as the Bible has it, 'strong as death', but while it still breathes, Mahler seems to say, there can yet be hope.
Note by Stephen Johnson
Stephen Johnson is the author of Bruckner Remembered. He contributes regularly to BBC Music Magazine and The Guardian, and broadcasts for BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service.
Image: Deryck Cooke
Mahler’s early experiences of music were influenced by the military bands and folk singers who passed by his father’s inn. He received formal piano lessons from local musicians, gave his first recital in 1870 and, five years later, applied to the Vienna Conservatory.
After graduation, Mahler supported himself by teaching, before accepting a succession of conducting posts, culminating in the position of Resident Conductor and then Director of the prestigious Vienna Hofoper. The demands of both opera conducting and administration meant that he could only devote the summer months to composition. Working in the Austrian countryside he completed his nine symphonies and a series of eloquent, often poignant songs.
An anti-Semitic campaign in the Viennese press threatened Mahler’s position at the Hofoper, and in 1907 he accepted an invitation to become Principal Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera. In 1911 he contracted a bacterial infection and returned to Vienna. When he died a few months before his 51st birthday, Mahler had just completed part of his Tenth Symphony and was still working on sketches for other movements.
Composer Profile by Andrew Stewart Andrew Stewart is a freelance music journalist and writer. He is the author of The LSO at 90, and contributes to a wide variety of specialist classical music publications.
Sir Simon Rattle
Sir Simon Rattle was born in Liverpool and studied at the Royal Academy of Music. From 1980 to 1998, he was Principal Conductor and Artistic Adviser of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and was appointed Music Director in 1990. In 2002, he took up the position of Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic where he remained until the end of the 2017/18 season. He became Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra in September 2017.
Sir Simon regularly tours within Europe, North America and Asia, and has long- standing relationships with the world’s leading orchestras. Initially working closely with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Boston Symphony Orchestras, Simon has also recently worked with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera. Sir Simon is also a Principal Artist of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Founding Patron of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.
Sir Simon Rattle was knighted in 1994. In the New Year’s Honours of 2014 he received the Order of Merit from Her Majesty the Queen.
Image: Ranald Mackechnie
The LSO was established in 1904 and has a unique ethos. As a musical collective, it is built on artistic ownership and partnership. With an inimitable signature sound, the LSO’s mission is to bring the greatest music to the greatest number of people.
The LSO has been the only Resident Orchestra at the Barbican Centre in the City of London since it opened in 1982, giving 70 symphonic concerts there every year. The Orchestra works with a family of artists that includes some of the world’s greatest conductors – Sir Simon Rattle as Music Director, Principal Guest Conductors Gianandrea Noseda and François-Xavier Roth, and Michael Tilson Thomas as Conductor Laureate.
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Image: Ranald Mackechnie
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Join us for our next full-length concert
Sunday 26 April 7pm BST
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring
Webern Six Pieces for Orchestra
Berg Three Fragments from 'Wozzeck'
Ligeti Mysteries of the Macabre
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring
Sir Simon Rattle conductor
Barbara Hannigan soprano