On closer inspection…

One of the things I enjoy most about my freelancing lifestyle is the sheer variety of repertoire that I’m able to engage with on a week-to-week basis. I might be teaching Schubert Lieder in one place; late nineteenth-century chamber music somewhere else; write programme notes on the music of James MacMillan; and also be preparing sessions on Haydn and Purcell. If the British Library made loyalty cards, I’d almost certainly have one.

And, among the many benefits of engaging with such a wide range of repertoire in order to teach it, is the opportunity to get to know it better yourself. Even if I’ve played a work, I might not have had the chance to explore its background in the same level of detail necessary to speak about it for two hours. Even if it’s a piece I’ve heard many times in concert or on record, there are bound to be things – structural, thematic, contextual – that I’ve missed simply because of the level of engagement necessary for a lecture rather than a listening experience. (Of course, there are people who pay far more attention to detail than I when ‘simply’ listening – I speak only for myself here.)

But the thing that has come out of several different classes of the past few weeks – on Haydn’s Creation, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin – is the way in which we treat words in music. Or rather, how we can know something so well, have heard it a thousand times, and yet not really thought about what is being said.

Glasses resting on open book

With The Creation, of course, this is partly a matter of mother tongue. The original libretto was in English, Haydn set it bilingually but was most certainly more comfortable with German, and his noble editor and translator, Baron van Swieten, was successful and clumsy in equal measure, leading to a rather bumpy reception of the work in London and a host of ‘corrected’ English versions that were fractionally less confusing. But of course, the language is archaic to us now (was, indeed, even when Haydn set it), the poetry old-fashioned and easily labelled as quaint. If the chorus is asked to sing a backwards sentence – ‘The wonder of his work displays the firmament’ rather than ‘The firmament displays the wonder of his work’, who are we to argue? It’s Historical, right?

Similarly, I had a fascinating discussion with my students this week about the first ten songs of Die schöne Müllerin. Having had the great privilege of working for accompanist and scholar Graham Johnson on his mighty three-volume Franz Schubert: The Complete Songs, I have spent rather more time thinking about, and reading about, Schubert’s Lieder than the average bear. We spent time in class this week attempting to unpick the narrative and what it revealed about our protagonist. But several students evidently thought me over-literal in the questions I asked. Should be really be reading that much into the miller boy’s actions in this particular strophe? This is just a standard Romantic poetic device, isn’t it, the constant references to nature and the little blue flowers by the stream?

As someone commented on my enthusiastic tweet about having the chance to teach this repertoire, understanding Schubert is not unlike peeling back the layers of an onion. The poetry, I believe, is similar, and as we worked through the dramatic implications of the miller boy’s specific actions, questions of narrative voice, references to the works of other writers in Müller’s poetry, and so on, we started to find further, deeper, levels of meaning. As I left my group in discussion to unpick the next bit of the story, I heard one of them say, in astonishment to their neighbour, ‘You know, I must have heard this thing a hundred times and I’d never noticed that before.’

This coming week, I’m giving a class on Dido and Aeneas. I’ve played continuo for this in the past, and thought myself fairly well-versed in the textual details. But the more I read about John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, and contemporary revivals of Macbeth, and the more I revisit Virgil, the more I realise how much I’ve been missing. It’s so easy not to look properly at the words, not to hear what they’re actually telling you. And in the case of song, in particular, where the entire construction might be a minute or two long, the level of detail contained therein can be staggering. (One of the many reasons why I am so in awe of the fabulous Lied scholar Susan Youens, whom I’ve heard give hour-long explanations of single Schumann songs, and not a single second has been wasted in order to get to the heart of the matter.)

Learning is all about looking harder, closer, differently. That’s why it’s such a joy. In the case of vocal music, the complexity of what a composer and poet or librettist lays before you has the potential to change the world twice over, in music and in words. Isn’t that amazing? Now then: go and find your favourite song, opera aria, cantata, oratorio movement. Go and find it, and listen to it. And look again. You might just be amazed at what you haven’t found yet.

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