Pellegrina's Notebook

"In art, as in love, instinct is enough."

Month: May, 2009

Immortal Eroica


“My heart is full of many things…
there are moments when I feel that
speech is nothing after all.”


Born 16th December 1770. Died 26th March 1827.

Immortal hero, but an of end of a life.

His funeral cortège was followed by nearly 20,000 mourners through the streets of Vienna. Schubert, one of the pall bearers, was to die the following year and would be buried alongside his hero. Below is the eulogy given at his funeral written by the dramatist Franz Grillparzer, which was read by Beethoven’s friend, the actor Heinrich Anschütz. One can imagine what a stirring piece of oratory this was on such an occasion.

I do not have much add. I was reminded of it today, listening to a recording of the C Sharp minor Quartet Op. 131. A work of such sublime deliverance, that words fail even me to describe it. The words below do better than mine at least in defining the estimation of Beethoven’s character by his peers – written in 1827, but aside from some of their pomp, prophetic and true for all time. It is hard not to weep at them with a deep sense of gratitude, as well as absorb their lament.

We who stand here at the grave of the deceased are in a sense the representatives of an entire nation, the whole German people, come to mourn the passing of one celebrated half of that which remained to us from the vanished brilliance of the fatherland. The hero of poetry in the German language and tongue still lives — and long may he live. But the last master of resounding song, the gracious mouth by which music spoke, the man who inherited and increased the immortal fame of Handel and Bach, of Haydn and Mozart, has ceased to be; and we stand weeping over the broken strings of an instrument now stilled.

An instrument now stilled. Let me call him that! For he was an artist, and what he was, he was only through art. The thorns of life had wounded him deeply, and as the shipwrecked man clutches the saving shore, he flew to your arms, oh wondrous sister of the good and true, comforter in affliction, the art that comes from on high! He held fast to you, and even when the gate through which you had entered was shut, you spoke through a deafened ear to him who could no longer discern you; and he carried your image in his heart, and when he died it still lay on his breast.

He was an artist, and who shall stand beside him? As the behemouth sweeps through the seas, he swept across the boundaries of his art. From the cooing of the dove to the thunder’s roll, from the subtlest interweaving of wilful artifices to that awesome point at which the fabric presses over into the lawlessness of clashing natural forces — he traversed all, he comprehended everything. He who follows him cannot continue; he must begin anew, for his predecessor ended where art ends.

Adelaide and Leonore! Commemorations of the heroes of Vittoria and humble tones of the Mass! Offspring of three and four-part voices. Resounding symphony, “Freude, schöner Götterfunken”, the swansong. Muses of song and of strings, gather at his grave and strew it with laurel!

He was an artist, but also a man, a man in every sense, in the highest sense. Because he shut himself off from the world, they called him hostile; and callous, because he shunned feelings. Oh, he who knows he is hardened does not flee! (It is the more delicate point that is most easily blunted, that bends or breaks.)

Excess of feeling avoids feelings. He fled the world because he did not find, in the whole compass of his loving nature, a weapon with which to resist it. He withdrew from his fellow men after he had given them everything and had received nothing in return. He remained alone because he found no second self. But until his death he preserved a human heart for all men, a father’s heart for his own people, the whole world.

Thus he was, thus he died, thus he will live for all time!

And you who have followed his escort to this place, hold your sorrow in sway. You have not lost him but won him. No living man enters the halls of immortality. The body must die before the gates are opened. He whom you mourn is now among the greatest men of all time, unassailable forever. Return to your homes, then, distressed but composed. And whenever, during your lives, the power of his works overwhelms you like a coming storm; when your rapture pours out in the midst of a generation yet unborn; then remember this hour and think: we were there when they buried him, and when he died we wept!

Beethoven's Funeral

Beethoven Quartet op 131 1st movt – Takács Quartet


The loveliest girl in Vienna


There is a well-known comedy song by Tom Lehrer that begins –

The loveliest girl in Vienna
Was Alma, the smartest as well.
Once you picked her up on your antenna,
You’d never be free of her spell.

Lehrer was inspired to write this song after happening upon an obituary in The New York Times, of one of the most famous women of early Twentieth century Vienna and the greatest muse of her age.  After some investigation he was fascinated by the woman who had love affairs with and married some of the greatest artistic minds of the Twentieth century, among them Alexander Zemlinsky the high Viennese romantic composer, with whom she studied, most famously Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, the architect of the Bauhaus and Franz Werfel, the poet and playwright.

Alma Schindler, born into the high artistic and cultural hub of her family circle, was raised to believe that a woman could live a fully rich artistic existence independent of the expectations of a society that too often found no place for them or pushed them into the shadows of their siblings or their husbands.  Unlike her musical predecessors Fanny Mendelssohn or Clara Schumann, though they had some success in their own ways, Alma had more opportunity than most to shine her own light rather than bearing the reflective glory of others around her.  Yet, Alma, prodigiously gifted as a musician as well as notoriously beautiful, was slayed by her first husband Gustav Mahler’s insistence that she lay down her gifts to serve his own.  With Mahler’s enforcement of a subservient role she was to define a new role for herself, and this is what makes Alma particularly fascinating.  Ultimately adaptable she evolved as the über muse to Mahler, who references her in several of his symphonies.

Many books have been written about her, along with a poorly constructed film in recent years, ‘The Bride of the Wind’, which washes her life in a froth of passion that could only barely give an impression of why Alma lived as Alma did. However, Alma’s own memoirs reveal a complex woman, liable to wrap a certain amount of hyperbole over her own story, so that inevitably myth might be born; but it was a myth she was happy to serve.  Musing is a serious business – recognising genius when others are oblivious, reflecting the fiery aura of passionate living and passionate art, requires a fully flexed creative mind even if it is indirectly stirred.

Late in Mahler’s life, contrite over his previous curtailing of her musical creativity, he had five of her songs published, and they are fine works indeed.  The nuance of all the influences around her as well as her very individual romanticism are certainly evident in them, but they form just part of her legacy.  The daughter she later had after she married Walter Gropius (who she notoriosly met whilst married to Mahler), a girl of gentle beauty, Manon, died from Polio aged eighteen and inspired Berg’s famous Violin concerto, given the epithet – ‘To the Memory of an Angel’.  Through Alma’s losses again, great music is raised.

Alma will remain an enigma in so many ways, because we have yet to fully substantiate the role of muse or see that she shares an equal measure of the creativity with her shadow.  So she remains simply a beautiful woman of great creative depth, a woman, who when all else fails will damn it, live as fully dug into the heart of artistic passion, at the arc of all creativity that changes and moves us and designs our destiny.  Das Ewig-Weibliche, the eternal feminine, Goethe’s Faustian hope (words from the last movement of Mahler’s 8th symphony), ring true for Alma.  Poor Tom Lehrer, little at the time he wrote his ditty, did he really understand!

And that is the story of Alma,
Who knew how to receive and to give.
The body that reached her embalma
Was one that had known how to live.

NB Alma Mahler is part of the inspiration behind my novel, ‘The Conductor’s Wife’.   She was after all just that, for some time.

A great link for all about Alma, and will provide a full biography which I can’t provide here!    almas_life.html

The haunting adagio of the Berg Violin Concerto in the hands of  Frank Peter Zimmerman  watch?v=rThdkUL9wkw

The famous Adagietto, from Mahler’s 5th Symphony written for Alma.  Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan. watch?v=HUatY-id-xQ

Chaconne à son goût


“The Chaconne is in my opinion one of the most wonderful and incomprehensible pieces of music. On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind” wrote Johannes Brahms to his famous confidante, Clara Wieck Schumann.  The Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D Minor for solo violin is indeed arguably the greatest piece ever composed for a single instrument.  It is a piece that to me defines and exudes the painful longing of love more effectively than any other and it was composed by a man known more for a prodigious output of largely functional and ecclesiastical work.  Yet, there is more to Bach than that, and the Chaconne alone is evidence of a labile and profoundly passionate  voice.  Part of its majesty lies in the way it can almost convince us that there is so much more than one voice and one instrument as Brahms points out.  Indeed, with the harmony and idiosyncratic bite of double-stopping, he makes an orchestra of the violin, rendering it a truly resplendent contrapuntal masterpiece.

It has been suggested that Bach wrote the Chaconne ‘in memoriam’ for his first wife,  Maria Barbara Bach (the same surname as she was also his second cousin), who died very suddenly in 1720 at the age of thirty-five and in uncertain circumstances.  Bach was away at the time and returned to find her both dead and buried and clearly along with his love for her, her sudden passing coloured by his absence from her last moments  may have defined the depth and nature of his grief.  This grief should be no surprise to anyone who on listening to the Chaconne should find evident the soul-bleeding voice of love lost and the agony of bereavement.  There is such tangible emotion in it one could feel pulled into a knot of unrelenting yearning  from the outset as it unfolds sombrely and slowly like a dark fable building to the most unimaginable climax.

Brahms was so affected by it that he transcribed it pianistically for the left hand and dedicated this to Clara Wieck Schumann, the concert pianist wife of composer Robert, a woman with whom it is generally accepted, Brahms felt a deep and lifelong passion for.  Another famous transcription and probably the most well known, is the piano transcription by Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni, who became so associated with it he was often mistakenly referred to as Maestro Bach-Busoni.  This transcription unfurls the violin voice over the piano and builds to extraordinary crescendi as dictated by the louder instrument and yet, nothing is lost and the work maintains its delicate intimacy. Whichever version you hear, whichever violinist or pianist, I challenge you not to be profoundly moved by its unequivocally stirring character.  There are things of which we cannot speak, can barely  describe – let the Chaconne continue where our words fail and well, the rest is silence.

Bach Chaconne for Solo Violin / Itzhak Perlman (Part 1/2)

Hélène Grimaud Bach – Busoni Chaconne in D minor (Part 1/2)