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Writing music

Here is Richard Wagner’s 1880 program note for King Ludwig of Bavaria for the performance of his opera Parsifal:

First theme: Love

“Take ye my body, take my blood, in token of our love!” (repeated in faint whispers by angel voices)

“Take ye my blood, my body take, in memory of me!” -- (again, repeated in whispers)

Second theme: Faith

Promise of redemption through faith. Firmly and stoutly faith declares itself, exalted, willing even in suffering.-- To the promise renewed Faith answers from the dimmest heights -- as on the pinions of the snow-white dove -- hovering downwards -- usurping more and more the hearts of men, filling the world, the whole of Nature with the mightiest force, then glancing up again to heaven’s vault as if appeased. But once more, from out the awe of solitude, throbs forth the cry of loving pity: the agony, the holy sweat of Olivet, the divine death-throes of Golgotha -- the body pales, the blood flows forth, and glows now in the chalice with the heavenly glow of blessing, shedding on all that lives and languishes the grace of ransom won by Love. For him who -- fearful rue for sin at heart -- must quail before the godlike vision of the Grail, for Amfortas, sinful keeper of the sacred relic, we are made ready: will redemption heal the gnawing torments of the soul? Once more we hear the promise, and -- we hope!

These are the only words I have read about Parsifal that actually get me closer to understanding the piece.

They are not difficult to understand, and sharply contrast with the various wordy ‘explanations’ that intellectuals have written about this and other works of this composer.

Maybe we should just accept that music, however complex in the execution, is not generally difficult to explain, at least, not if it is any good. Pop musicians seem to understand this, and the principle of simple, though often pungent, themes works for me, too. 

My compositions start with the effect, and from this the melody, countermelody and harmony follow. It takes me a long time to write, because I want to create something that sounds new, whatever the influences were.

I have three finished pieces and two more in progress (although have no idea when they will be completed).

Now … although I firmly believe that music should mostly strive to be beautiful, I would not dare to say this publicly as ‘serious’ classical composers regard this view as naïve and passé.

However, it is the reason I have little interest in attending any opera written since 1900, and why I would often rather face the other way for those written before then.

One recent opera I would have gladly attended, though, was Cinderella by Alma Deutscher . Here is Alma explaining why music should be beautiful:

The entire opera, as performed in San José, California in December 2017, is now available on DVD.

I am of course aware that Deutscher is a prodigious talent, but this exceeded my expectations. I already knew that she could write beautiful music, but in an opera one also has to create drama, which involves people behaving in ugly ways. I have to report, though, that the three antagonists (the stepmother and stepsisters) were sufficiently unpleasant to make the story work. Deutscher has evinced a talent for comedy, too: the king, in his eighteenth-century setting, listing modern medicines, for example, was classic.

Strangely, the role of Fairy Godmother is as much one she has taken for herself as given to the character of that name, as in the key inspirational moments she appears herself, playing the violin or piano. It is interesting to notice her body language when she is taking the curtain calls. She is, of course, beaming, enjoying the adulation, but you get the strong impression that she would be able to manage perfectly well without it.

I believe that Deutscher is unstoppable. Composing in the classical Romantic style may have been out of fashion since Wagner’s death in 1883, but she manages to connect directly with audiences, including many who ordinarily would never bother to see opera at all. Cinderella has left us feeling hungry for more, and it is a safe bet that this, and anything else she chooses to write will be playing to packed houses for the forseeable future. No other living operatic composer can make such a claim.

One group she will not be winning over any time soon, though, is the classical music establishment — not the composition part, anyway. I notice that some reviews, for example, this damn with faint praise, and have the weary tone of one who understands the art form so much better than the composer herself and feels duty bound to point out her errors. Really? I so much look forward to listening to these greatly-superior operas that you wrote at the age of ten! I found I agreed with none of the various criticisms, and least of all the notion that the piece is overlong (but then again, I am used to Wagner).

I have never seen anyone so completely dominated by their talent, and I am not sure that anyone else has, either. It seems to have been a white-knuckle ride — in the best possible way — for her parents just to keep up with the demands their daughter’s enormous gift has placed on their lives. I think we have a real musical game changer on our hands.

A painting of Alma, assisted by her sister Helen and Nannerl Mozart, commissioned by me, painted by my mother.

Although no instrumental virtuoso, another game changer was Richard Wagner. The last Romantic opera he wrote was Lohengrin. From Das Rheingold onwards they are something different, which one can only call Wagnerian. The thing that changed was that music became music-drama. Take for example, rage. In The Magic Flute, the Queen of the Night rages against Sarastro. Have you ever heard rage set to more beautiful music? I have not. If you did not know that she was, to use an American phrase, ‘mad as hell’, you would think she was merely appreciating the beauty of starlight, or diamonds, or flowers. Something nice, anyway. Mozart could not stop himself from writing beautiful music, even when it is wholly inappropriate. Take, for example, the catalogue aria in Don Giovanni: jaunty, fun music which only seems to mock Donna Elvira, valuing her inner turmoil at nought. With Wagner, post-Lohengrin, you would definitely feel her pain.

People often say that Wagner is ‘heavy’. Well — yes, it often is, because emotion is heavy. This is Wagner dealing with rage: in this case Wotan’s rage and despair at being forced to abandon Siegmund by his wife Fricka. The music and drama here flow in and out of each other in a way that no other composer seems to be able to do. If that is heavy, then, well, I like heavy — listening to the perfect music for every aspect of human experience is enriching.

It is often said that Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is a musical watershed. People have written books about just the opening chords. Music was certainly never to be the same afterwards, but the direction it took — away from melody and towards atonality was one that the master himself would have never have approved of. For all the chromaticism and endless key shifts in Tristan, it remains staunchly tonal and melodic.

Wagner wrote a lot about the direction that music was taking. In some ways he was just anticipating film music: the invisible orchestra, the egalitarian nature of the experience and focus on drama. As his grandson Wolfgang pointed out, if he had lived a century later, he would have worked in Hollywood. Luckily he did not. If he had, he would hardly have accepted the subservient role of composer: he would have insisted on directing, and thereby written much less of that sublime music. It is ironic that Wagner spent so much of his time designing and building the perfect outlet for his art in Bayreuth considering that, within the lifetime of Cosima (his second wife), cinema had become dominant.

It seems obvious to me that film is in any case the natural medium for Wagner. My favourite so far is the filmed Metropolitan Opera staging of The Ring in 2002 with Levine conducting . It is beautiful, both to look at and to hear, but without the restrictions imposed by a theatre, and with modern CGI, one could go a lot further. My dream is to set Arthur Rackham’s illustrations in motion.

But, at the very least, there is surely going to be a future for filmed opera without the restrictions of the theatre stage.

My favourite so far is not actually Wagner at all, but Joseph Losey’s film of Mozart’s Don Giovanni . If you have not seen it already, then check it out, and you will see what I am getting at. But I want more. And I fully expect young talents like Deutscher to deliver new works in this medium!

Do not get me wrong, though. I just love paying huge amounts of money to sit in uncomfortable seats barely being able to make out the performers in live theatres and opera houses. Especially after a year of lockdowns. It is the occasion of it that makes the extra effort worthwhile. But — let us face it — cinema and video are where the money is made, and one might as well make use of the extra freedom that goes with the medium.


James Hurley

Here is another person who is already making an impact on the world of opera, and this time one I know personally: James Hurley.

James is an opera director whose gets his singers to act. In a way, I feel sorry for them. Just standing on stage and singing would be a lot easier, and many directors, if such a post exists, are happy to allow this. However, with James’s approach the stories are really brought to life!

He generally chooses modern dress and modern sets, as he takes the view that this is the way to get the best performances out of the singers.

I see his point, but I am hoping that he will at some point use period sets and costume even if only as an experiment.

The Notation Sequencer

The compositions listed above Alma were done using Sibelius 7, a score-writing package developed by identical twins Ben and Jonathan Finn that was ahead of its time in terms of simplicity and ease of use. They called it “Manuscript paper that thinks”, and they weren’t wrong. It was one of the reasons for buying the otherwise-obsolete Acorn Archimedes computer. It was a masterpiece of software engineering not only in look and and feel, but also in terms of the efficient use of the limited resources available to computers at that time.

Nonetheless, I had a few gripes about the program, and when I sent them a list, their response was to hire me to help them produce the first Windows version of the product (they knew I was a programmer via a mutual friend)! So in late 1996 I had Jonathan driving up from London to my house near Hatfield each weekday where we would work on the new product. This only lasted for about six weeks as our visions diverged too much, but I hope that I was of some use to them.

Jonathan spent most of that time on font design, whereas I was writing code to do basic note drawing (the program was being re-written from scratch). The twins, I noticed, were as much interested in how the music looked as how it sounded: music engraving fascinated them much more than it did me, and Jonathan would regularly pick scores off the shelf to study the way they did slurs, or beaming, or whatever. My attitude was, generally, that if it made no difference to the sound, then I was not interested in it much, and when we parted ways I deleted all the code I had written for them (no — really) and started to implement my own vision — something I called the Notation Sequencer. This process was unfortunately interrupted when I got a job offer in the City of London a few months after.

I never finished it, but the idea is this: the only file format is MIDI files — call it an electronic piano roll: a list of time-stamped note presses and releases with no information about how to notate beyond time and key signature. The program translates these into musical notation on the fly. Note spacings and beamings are all calculated automatically, as are staff spacings, chosen simply to avoid collisions. The program does not think in terms of printed pages: formatting the music for the printed page is only done just before printing. So apart from a “print preview”, what you see on the screen is a continuous roll with line breaks to suit the screen rather than any printed page. That was to be phase one. Phase two was to then turn this into something that was more the composer’s (rather than copyist’s) tool: instant condensed scores, with instruments colour-coded; and a smart extended clipboard of motifs that could be readily transposed or swapped between instruments. The free, non-editing version of all of this would be a player of MIDI files (although without printing).

Here is one of the technical challenges in working only with MIDI files. The files start with a specification of how many ticks there should be per crotchet. This needs to be large enough so that you never need to sub-divide a tick, but otherwise as small as possible (larger values, i.e. shorter ticks slow the program down). However, with composers like Chopin, who are fond of creating tuplets containing a large prime number of notes, this tick could be extremely short, and in most cases it is easier just to approximate these tuplets with more standard note lengths. Below is a simple example, being a midi file saved by Sibelius 7. The file was saved with a tick size of 32, meaning that semi^4 quavers (5 tails) are the shortest interval allowed. The last beat of the top line is, in fact a 5-tuplet, but this has been approximated to 6-7-6-7-6 ticks, and I doubt that, hearing it, even Alma would be able to tell that the notes were not of equal length. For a performer, though, the notation is unreadable, and I think the solution is to have a minimum “comfortable” note length (maybe semidemiquaver here), and anything it finds that does not fit, it will try to reconstruct as a rendering of a tuplet.

Notation Sequencer with 5-tuplet

Another technical challenge is this: MIDI files identify the intruments in each track by patch numbers and the one standard for connecting patch numbers with instruments, known as General MIDI was clearly intended for use by pop rather than classical musicians. The committee that designed this evidently thought it worth using the limited number of possible assignments on helicopter and gunshot sounds, but not, apparently having distinct sounds for a solo violin and a violin section. Nor is there provision for muted brass or strings other than for trumpet. There is just one orchestral flute sound: no variants with different tongueing, and certainly no flutter-tongueing variant. Also the organ assignments are very limited. One could easily use up 128 patches just on the sounds a church organ makes and no doubt someone has already done this, but it will not be compliant with General MIDI. To get round this problem, the plan is to identify the sound of each track by "Instrument": a field that is already part of the MIDI specification but as far as I know not used except for human consumption. However if "Instrument" takes precedence over the patch changes embedded in the MIDI file, they can easily, and seamlessly, be switched to the patches of a sound module that provides customised sounds. It would be nice, too, to hide all of this, if desired, from the user, so that they do not, for example, need to know the array of patch numbers that “Con Sordini” could possibly correspond to, according to instrument: all they need to do is to specify the sound module and the software will do the rest.