‘Horrid’ music: The dark side of the concert hall
The idea that classical music ought to be ‘nice’ has gained an alarming currency. Thank goodness, then, for ‘uneasy listening’ numbers performed at the Summer Baroque Festival
Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas was performed on Sunday by Denmark’s Theatre of Voices with the National Chamber Choir under Paul Hillier (above). Photograph: Frank Miller
Can you name a composer who described his own music as “horrid”? We live in a world where classical music is often portrayed as relaxing, and in a country where the major radio outlet for classical music, RTÉ Lyric FM, has branded itself as part of that culture. Back in 2006, the station issued a compilation CD, Escape . . . with Drivetime Classics, which sold itself as “the ideal collection for anyone who wants to relax and escape the routine, even if you are stuck in a tailback on the M50”.
It was in fact an RTÉ presenter who alerted me to the scale of the problem. She was introducing Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin, a work – the composer called it a pantomime rather than a ballet – with a fairy-tale gruesome scenario based on a story by Melchior Lengyel.
Here is Bartok’s summary: “In a sordid den three ruffians compel a pretty girl to lure men into her shabby room where they can be robbed. The first victim is a down-at-heels gentleman; the second, a shy boy, is not worth much more. But the third is a rich Mandarin. A good catch. The girl entertains him with her dancing and arouses his desire which changes into a passion for her. But she finds him repulsive. The ruffians attack him, rob him and then try to smother him under a blanket, thrust a sword through his body and hang him. But in vain; they cannot vanquish him and the Mandarin continues to stare at the girl with desire. Finally the female instinct overcomes her and the girl gives in to the Mandarin’s desire. Only then does he collapse on the ground and die.”
The first production, in Cologne in 1926, was shut down after a single performance by the city’s mayor, Konrad Adenauer, the man who would go on to become chancellor of West Germany. A 1931 Budapest staging was cancelled after the dress rehearsal, and the piece was never seen in Hungary during the composer’s lifetime.
The RTÉ announcer restricted herself to the sketchiest details, and wrapped up by wondering who would want to be thinking about such things. Well, probably everyone who watches Love/Hate or The Sopranos, or who’s ever been to Macbeth or Hamlet, or read a serious novel.
Give yourself to the dark side
The idea that dark emotions are to be avoided in the concert hall, that classical music ought to be “nice” has an alarming currency. And there’s the concomitant paradox that there are people happy to have the wits scared out of them by the music of Penderecki when they hear it in Stanley Kubrick’s horror film The Shining, who shy away from the same kind of experience from an orchestral performance.
Get the context and delivery right and the music may well explain itself. I came across quite a few people who would normally have regarded Schoenberg with something approaching fear, yet who were fully engaged by Daniel Barenboim’s coupling of his orchestral works with the piano concertos of Beethoven (this was in a series with the Dresden Staatskapelle that travelled around Europe). Their engagement was as much with the Schoenberg as with the Beethoven. And there are those famous programmes that Maurizio Pollini has been playing for decades, coupling sonatas by Beethoven and Boulez. Easy listening, of course, is not usually what Barenboim and Pollini offer.