Lazy Sunday Afternoon: They left early

All the artists gathered here died in their 30’s, and music lovers the world over have in each case speculated on what they might have produced had they lived for just a few more years. Mozart is the touchstone in this game of dreaming, as the muse stayed with him until the very end, and nothing is more fascinating (or hopeless) than to imagine what he might have produced if he had heard Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, as he could have done had he made it into old age.

The death of George Gershwin in his late 30’s after an unsuccessful attempt to remove a brain tumour stunned America. John O’Hara was prompted to say ‘George Gershwin died on July 11th, 1937 but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to’. The feeling was universal. Over the previous 20 years Jacob Gershvin had produced a tidal-wave of popular and symphonic music that later encouraged Lenny Bernstein, another product of Russian Jewish stock, to declare that he was ‘the most inspired melodist since Tchaikovsky’. Older brother Ira was the wordsmith, fitting lyrics to the stream of melody that George produced. A complex man, of ambiguous sexuality, he had a nagging inferiority complex about the tin pan alley world he dominated, and constantly sought to improve himself, with mixed results. The famously austere Arnold Schoenberg was, bizarrely, a tennis buddy, and George begged the older man for music lessons. Schoenberg’s often quoted reply was apposite – ‘I would only make you a second rate Schoenberg, and you are such a good Gershwin already’.

By common consent, Gershwin’s unchallenged masterpiece is the folk opera Porgy & Bess, overlong, but packed with wonderful music. Here, from the filmed version of the famous Glyndebourne production, the great Jamaican-born bass-baritone Willard White as Porgy, sings of his love to Cynthia Haymon’s Bess, in the duet, Bess You Is My Woman Now.

To those not necessarily devoted to the Teutonic spirit of profundity in music (Thomas Beecham was a well know example), the vigor and freshness of Georges Bizet has an instant appeal. The whole of his short life – he died at just 36 – was a lead-up to the production of his masterpiece Carmen, in 1875. One of the problems in producing this opera comique on stage is in the casting of the title role. Until fairly recently, there were plenty of singers capable of delivering the vocal line, but they were usually…how shall we say….stout, and often plain. And if you are trying to impersonate a ‘sexy, seductive gypsy girl’ this just will not wash. But the last decade or so – could it be something in the food chain – has brought us a string of young women who, with little or no help from either costume or make-up, can comfortably assume this taxing role. None is better equipped than Anna Caterina Antonacci. Here singing the popular Habanera, she both acts and sings in a totally convincing way to the seeming unconcern of the poor sap Don Jose who will, in about an hour, be reduced to a weeping, murderous wreck.

Franz Schubert died in 1828 at the almost unreal age of just 31. You have to love women (he did) to die of syphilis and this, with perhaps typhoid fever, was the most likely cause of his death. Along with Mozart he takes the top prize in the What If Stakes, as most music lovers feel robbed by his early passing, and the endless dreaming on what he might have produced after the perfection of the ‘Unfinished’, and most of the 600 odd songs. His great cycle of 24 poems, Die Winterreise, to fairly undistinguished verses by Wilhelm Muller, is regularly cited as the greatest song-cycle ever composed and, although I resist ‘best of’ or ‘greatest’ in any art, I’m stumped to think of anything finer. Many of the thousands of people affected by Thalidomide seek out impossible challenges and are comfortable living with the aura of danger, as a result of their condition. The mother of the great German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff took the drug for morning sickness, but could never have guessed that he would overcome this dreadful disfigurement to reach world recognition as one of the finest voices of his generation. Here he sings the last song in the cycle, Der Leiermann (the hurdy-gurdy man), a desolate piece, with an almost complete lack of harmonic activity in the piano part as the song unfolds. Daniel Barenboim reveals his commanding touch here, playing the part of death stalking the land, to perfection.

Almost as precocious as the infant Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn died at just 38 after a series of strokes. A dazzling child prodigy, his wonderful Octet, composed when he was just 16, is a fully formed masterpiece, greater than anything composed by anybody at that age, before or since. It would be misleading to suggest that after his spectacular youth and maturity that he wrote himself out toward the end of his short life – but it would be fair to say that at their passing Bizet, Gershwin and Schubert had plenty more to say, whilst Felix was pretty much done. Here, the spectacular Russian virtuoso Arcadi Volodos, due in London soon, knocks off the famous Wedding March from the Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His smile says it all.

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About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

4 thoughts on “Lazy Sunday Afternoon: They left early

  1. Brit
    December 19, 2010 at 13:29

    Ah, Mahlerman – as usual, your Sunday post is an education as well as a thing of beauty…

    Toby Ash
    December 19, 2010 at 14:34

    Thank you Mahlerman. Thomas Quasthoff’s voice is exquisite.

    Gadjo Dilo
    December 19, 2010 at 14:38

    Yep, and an interesting selection criterion – what a bunch! Nobody tops Schubert’s songs, for me. And Gershin was incredible, considering what he acheived in an idiom so different from his own background. Agnes Baltsa – though more Greek femme fatal than gypsy – is still the Carmen who would have made me a weeping wreck. Is that really the wedding march as it was originally written? I prefer it to what was played at my wedding.

    December 19, 2010 at 17:18

    Thankfully, musical talent genius is not constrained by age – though these days, we’d probably analyse a young composer’s music for signs of ‘maturity’. Perhaps in days of yore there were fewer barriers to achieving one’s full potential? This selection certainly demonstrates true genius.

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