A London plaque for Joseph Haydn

plaqueFINALThis autumn I have been fronting the campaign to put up a plaque in London to the composer Joseph Haydn. Despite his enormous contribution to London’s musical life and two long visits to the city at the end of the eighteenth century, there is no permanent memorial to him here.

As there is no original building that can support a plaque (and thus qualify for English Heritage consideration), a small team from the Haydn Society of Great Britain has worked to obtain the required permissions relating to the building that now stands at 18 Great Pulteney St. This is the site where Haydn lived when he first arrived in London in January 1791, as recorded in a letter he wrote to Maria Anna von Genzinger.

We have exceeded our crowdfunding target for the costs of the plaque’s manufacture and installation and, in the process of fundraising, we have also opened a wonderful dialogue with Haydn fans across the world. We have talked to people from as far afield as the USA and Japan about their favourite works by Haydn and why they feel he is still not as popular as his contemporaries Mozart and Beethoven. This highly unscientific survey will be summarised next year in an article for the Haydn Society.

The exact date of the plaque unveiling has yet to be confirmed. The hope is that the plaque will be in place in Spring 2015 and London will finally have its first memorial to a composer who was such an important part of its cultural heritage.

For more information about the campaign and research into the plaque’s position, go to The Haydn Society of Great Britain and Kickstarter.

Haydn better than paracetamol – it’s official!

imagesThis week Radio 3’s breakfast show quoted a recent poll of 1,000 people, in which nearly 90% of respondents agreed that listening to music can make them “feel perkier when they are sick or faced with hard times”. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was the winner in the original poll, which makes a certain amount of sense. However Radio 3 listeners called in with their own classical suggestions and I was delighted to find that Haydn is cited by many as their favourite musical ‘pick-me-up’.

It’s hardly surprising, considering the energy of so many of his symphonies and string quartets, as well as the sheer joyfulness of his music. But, in the week that the Haydn Society of Great Britain launches a fundraising campaign to put up a plaque to Haydn in London, it’s reassuring to be reminded that his music is still cherished by music-lovers across the country.

It’s something of a surprise that there isn’t already a plaque, given the extent of Haydn’s celebrity when he was here in the 1790s and the quality of the music specifically written for the London audience. Charles Burney, the great critic of the day, recorded the excitement surrounding composer’s first public appearance:

“Haydn himself presided at the piano-forte; and the sight of that renowned composer so electrified the audience, as to excite an attention and a pleasure superior to any that had ever been caused by instrumental music in England.”

How can such a man not deserve to be commemorated?

Haydn Plaque gif

If you want to get involved with the Haydn Society’s plaque campaign or donate online, click here

More information about the campaign is available on the Haydn Society’s website.

Do Androids dream of electric pianos?

In what is threatening to become a series on the subject, I have felt moved to write some more about the work of the classical accompanist. Specifically, about playing an electric piano, which I am sure is a pleasure many pianists have endured at some point, but which I guess most would prefer to avoid.

Few classical singers would choose to be accompanied by synthetic sound, any more than a classical pianist would choose to play an electric piano (untuned pub upright notwithstanding). However, if a venue doesn’t have a piano of its own and is unable to afford hire costs, an electric piano is often the only alternative. It can allow us to take a performance to audiences in new or unusual venues, which is surely a good thing. The instruments are improving in quality and touch, but if the piano usually spends its life in a school hall, the chances are it isn’t from the upper end of the quality scale. It’s often impossible to double-guess this in advance, so it’s a case of turning up and doing battle with whatever is there.

5265543390_b83d8c5570_zWhat does it mean for a professional pianist to try to make music with an electric instrument? If it’s for a rehearsal it doesn’t matter too much, but it’s not so much fun if it’s a song recital. I’ll tell you about a concert I did recently, in which most of the things that can hamper a pianist were in evidence.

We narrowly missed having no electricity supply at all (due to admin confusion) which would have killed off the concert there and then; the sustain pedal (usually a good sign in an electric piano) refused to work at all for the first half hour, then perked up intermittently and inconsistently; the aforementioned pedal didn’t want to stay in one place on a shiny, stone floor, and slowly migrated away from the pianist, who had to stop between songs to retrieve it.

Most challengingly, the piano had no touch sensitivity, so we could equalise the balance of sound between top and bottom of the keyboard, but not the volume of the sound. As it turned out, this was controlled by a slider, obliging my pianist to grow a third hand at critical moments, in order to control the dynamics. And of course, constructing a seat of the appropriate height out of uncomfortable, stacking bucket chairs is an art that has to be honed over many years.

It was not anyone’s fault that it was not a great piano, but it fell to my pianist to perform some kind of magic trick. Of course I was absolutely aware of every phrase and adjustment that she was making (and am still filled with admiration at her creativity) but there’s only so much you can do with no sustain function at all.

imagesMy good taste in accompanists is evidenced by the fact that I have only ever worked with people who, despite deserving Steinways, are game for an electric piano anyway. As I described in my previous piano-related blog-post, it can be pretty stressful for singer and pianist when the instrument has to be tamed under the nose of the audience, but our job requires us to conceal that fact. The reassuring truth is that the performance won’t have been significantly diminished for many of the audience members on account of the piano being electric. Indeed it shouldn’t be about us, but about whether the audience has had a good experience. We aspire to a high and consistent standard, but there are many factors beside the piano that can compromise the result and thankfully, sometimes, the audience doesn’t know the half of it.

So, once again, I raise a grateful toast to my accompanist. Thank you, Libby Burgess.

TS Eliot’s Margate

Yesterday I took a trip down to the coast of northern Kent to visit Margate. The town is on the cusp of a remarkable regeneration. There is a great deal of wonderful heritage both clearly extant and being gradually re-discovered. A new art gallery, Turner Contemporary, bears the name of one sometime resident and frequent visitor, JMW Turner. This and the recently introduced HighSpeed rail link to St Pancras International offer the possibility of fresh prospects.

TS Eliot shelter MargateThis may well have been the same sort of Margate that the convalescent TS Eliot and his first wife Vivienne visited in 1921. Alone at first, Eliot stayed at a hotel on one side of the old town (Cliftonville) and took a daily tram to the other where he would sit in a Victorian shelter and write. This regimen was to midwife part three of The Waste Land, subtitled The Fire Sermon. The shelter still stands. Indeed it has recently been awarded Grade II listed status although it bears no notice of this. Rather it remains a stoic, practical edifice at the central point of the town, halfway between the station and the beach, next to a bunker of a public convenience (“TOILETS” a single word shouts at both road and sea). Cheap hotels or abandoned amusements stand at a self-consciously dissociated distance either side along the promenade.

‘On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect

wrote Eliot in the poem, neatly surmising the Margate of nearly a century later, with the strong brine air the pungent equivalent of the conversations held by happy street drinkers on promenade and street alike. The anonymity of this proud but unrevered shelter is another ‘nothing’ for passing locals or tourists.

mandolineIn a letter dated 4 November 1921, Eliot wrote

I have written only some fifty lines, and have read nothing, literally – I sketch the people, after a fashion, and practice scales on the mandoline.

Margate seems always to have been a place for cure or entertainment. Eliot tried to displace his own concerns with a mandolin(e) that Vivienne gave him (the photo above a serendipitously discovered study volume in one of Margate’s many ‘Vintage’ shops). The dominant pleasure palace of Margate’s contemporary seafront is closed, the bathos of an art-deco structure with a tower that bears its name, ‘Dreamland’. You can see Dreamland in the background of the image of the shelter above. As one of the articles covering the shelter’s listing in 2009 notes, ‘Dreamland currently resembles Eliot’s “heap of broken images”‘. This line from the first part of The Waste Land has itself recently been co-opted as the title for a new exhibition of paintings by Bartholomew Beal, in which the artist has taken lines from the poem to inspire canvases, often featuring figures lost in their own tasks and certainly – suspended in abstracted backgrounds – decontextualised from the immediate world.

‘My people humble people
who expect nothing.’

Dickens HouseOn the evening of my visit I visited the neighbouring town of Broadstairs. A cosy, rather more gentrified place than Margate, Broadstairs has embraced the legacy of its own literary visitor, Charles Dickens. I ate at a restaurant next to Dickens House – itself next to Charles Dickens Hotel (with its bar ‘Copperfields’!) – and looking out across the bay towards Bleak House. I was reminded that the working title for The Waste Land was in fact ‘He Do The Police In Different Voices’, a comment from the admiring Betty Higden in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. Betty is drawn as a warm but vulnerable working class woman who is caught in the miserable social cul-de-sac of the workhouse. Another humble person expecting nothing.

imageFor all that I’m drawing a rather pale impression of Margate, I had a really enjoyable visit. The bay on which the town sits is a vast, beautiful sweep of proper sand on which dogs and families were happily playing. The town’s many historic firsts include the Royal Sea Bathing Hospital (opened 1791, now desirable flats) and first seaside town to get a theatre (Theatre Royal, still in use) and the old part of the town centre contains many attractive Georgian buildings, so there is plenty to see.

Both in passing and in conversation I found the town full of characters self-possessed and making their own way. This is the population that TS Eliot looked out on as he sat in the Nayland Rock shelter, jotting down what Stephen Moss perfectly reasonably referred to as ‘the greatest poem of the 20th century’. Of course, from my perspective as the producer of a work concerning his wife, I like TS Eliot’s comment in that letter of 4 November, that he ‘must wait for Vivien’s opinion as to whether it is printable.

Haydn and Women

I’m really looking forward to taking Haydn’s London Ladies to the English Haydn Festival later this year. I’m especially looking forward to performing the music in the show for the first time with fortepiano, on which it would all originally have been played. In Haydn’s London Ladies I detail the relationships that Haydn developed with four women in particular. They are the poetess Anne Hunter, the pianist Therese Jansen, the soprano and composer Harriet Abrams and, most importantly at a romantic level, the beautiful widow and music-lover Rebecca Schroeter.

There are two other fascinating women whom I have had to leave out of my narrative because they are not part of Haydn’s ‘London story’, but who were also important to him, both personally and historically.

Emma_Hamilton-781442The first of these is Lady Emma Hamilton, famous society beauty, muse of the painter George Romney and mistress of Lord Nelson. Haydn met her in Vienna in 1800 when she was travelling with her husband Sir William (Ambassador to Naples) and Nelson, trying to get back from Sicily to London without bumping into any of Napoleon’s troops. They stayed for a few days at Eisenstadt, as Emma, in particular, was crazy about music and wanted to spend time with Haydn. (His Missa In Angustiis was later re-christened the Nelson Mass although there is no hard evidence that the Hamiltons and Nelson heard the mass during their visit). In one of a series of concerts during their stay, Emma sang an aria from Haydn’s cantata Arianna auf Naxos, accompanied by the composer, and he presented her with manuscripts of two of his songs. Despite showing signs of her age, Emma was still one of the great beauties of Europe and no doubt Haydn would have enjoyed her company for this as well as her considerable musicianship.

The other important lady in Haydn’s life remained in Vienna but corresponded with him regularly. She was Maria Anna von Genzinger, wife of Prince Esterhazy’s physician, daughter of the minor aristocracy on her mother’s side and a keen amateur musician. She arranged movements of Haydn’s symphonies for the piano, and held soirées for the musical elite of Vienna, at which Haydn was an honoured guest. Their correspondence is important as a demonstration of Haydn’s capacity for deep feeling (frustratingly, of the letters he exchanged with Rebecca Schroeter we now have only her side of the correspondence) and some commentators consider that Haydn was in love with Maria Anna. He may have been at some point, but he also understood the realities of their relative social positions, and there is no evidence of him attempting to form any actual romantic attachment. Maria Anna died at the early age of 38 while Haydn was in London, and the great Haydn scholar HC Robbins Landon proposed that his F Minor Variations may have been written in response to this news. Haydn had already dedicated his Piano Sonata in E flat Hob.VXI/49 to Maria Anna and written to her, “I recommend [the second movement] especially to your attention for it contains many things which I shall analyse for your Grace when the time comes; it is rather difficult but full of feeling”.

Haydn’s London Ladies on tour

Haydn's London LadiesGood news for Haydn’s London Ladies, who will be visiting this year’s English Haydn Festival at Bridgnorth in Shropshire on Sunday 8 June.

This hour-long recital with fortepiano tells the stories of Haydn’s friendships with four women whom he met during his visits to London during the 1790s, and presents the music that developed out these relationships, including his much-loved Canzonettas.

More details here.

Vivienne: tickets for Autumn performances

Bloomsburylogolinedates13Two more performances of Vivienne are taking place before the end of the year. The first, on Thursday 17 October at 6pm, is part of the Bloomsbury Festival and can be seen at the October Gallery. The advance tickets have now all been taken but there will be more available on the door.ROH_logo

The second and final performance of 2014 takes place in the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, on Monday 25 November at 1pm, as part of the lunchtime recital series. Booking for this performance opens on 16 November. A proportion of the tickets is retained and available on the day.

Tickets for both performances are free.

Vivienne in Camden, Wed 20/08/13 SPECIAL OFFER

*** STOP PRESS ***

Were you expecting to see The Same Deep Water As Me at The Donmar Warehouse tonight?

Then by now you may know that tonight’s performance of that show has been cancelled.


Don’t worry though…

We’d hate to think you were at loose end. So, FOR TONIGHT ONLY if you come to The Forge, Camden and can prove that you had bought a ticket for tonight’s Donmar Warehouse performance – bring a Donmar, ATG or e-ticket – then we will sell you a ticket for Vivienne for just £5. The show starts at 9.45pm. Details here


wasteland_rowsonThe idea occured to us as Vivienne composer and librettist Stephen McNeff and Andy Rashleigh caused something if a stir with their last TS Eliot-inflected show, The Waste Land (after Martin Rowson) – which was at the Donmar Warehouse as part of the 1994 Covent Garden Festival.

This is a one-off offer. You dont have to give up your Donmar Ticket. They’re giving full refunds on all tickets for their cancelled show, so don’t worry, you’ll get that anyway, and we don’t ask you to give up your proof of having bought a Donmar ticket. This offer isn’t anything to do with the Donmar or ATG – it’s just our way of making sure you get to see a high-quality show in a London venue instead of having to go home to the telly! It’s also subject to availability – if there are no tickets left at The Forge for Vivienne, we can’t sell you one.

The offer, made by McCaldin Arts, is effected at the box office of The Forge whose staff act with their discretion and have the final say over whether a discounted ticket may be sold.

Even if you don’t have a receipt or ticket for the Donmar’s The Same Deep Water As Me to show (and so can’t take up this offer), you’re very welcome to come and see Vivienne. Normal tickets are only £8. We’re proud of it, it’s a 5* hit. And we’re going to see The Same Deep Water As Me later in the run, as we hope yo will too!

London’s great, isn’t it!

High praise for Vivienne

We have had some excellent reviews for the first two performances of Vivienne (read a comprehensive digest of published feedback via Storify):

★★★★★ from the Evening Standard

1148742_10152349627812565_1216588172_nMcNeff delivers an unpredictable yet instantly appealing score. The story unwraps in songs that always hint at popular idiom — crunchy bebop infuses her late-Forties mourning, Berlin-style cabaret hints at Eliot’s possible Fascist sympathies — but their structure is elastic and mutable. You enjoy the tune but never quite catch it.

Andy Rashleigh’s libretto is allusive and witty: an affair with Bertrand Russell unfolds with reference to Macavity the Mystery Cat. All is delivered by catty, horny McCaldin, all with a sheen of barmy. It’s a far better performance than we’re entitled to from someone who can also sing.

★★★★☆ from One Stop Arts

Andy Rashleigh’s text … is rather brilliantly realised: we get some very funny passages from Vivienne accusing T.S. Eliot of being too ‘clever’ with his Greek and Sanskrit references, and a fantastic account of her affair with the philosopher Bertrand Russell in the style of Eliot’s ‘Macavity: The Mystery Cat’.

Musically, too, Stephen McNeff’s score has much of the same pastiche and multi-voiced confusion of Eliot’s poetry. Pianist Libby Burgess accompanied McCaldin throughout, with threads of music hall tunes, jazz and Tin Pan Alley almost sneakily strung together in a score that is tuneful yet changeable enough to avoid predictability.

Clare McCaldin performed fantastically, perfectly channeling Vivienne’s fragile mental state. She conveys the desperation of a woman who was once seductive, charming and intelligent, but whose powers now fail her. Her voice was continually well-matched to the fickle moods of an insane woman, from melancholy moaning to belting out rude sailor songs.

It’s rare that a one-woman show can be so clever and funny without dragging towards the end – but Vivienne kept up its pace, and was a fitting elegy to the woman behind much of T.S. Eliot’s poetry.

Kickstarter Appeal for Vivienne

VivienneWe are less than two months away from our Vivienne opening night at the 2013 Tete a Tete Opera Festival and so we are about to start the first rehearsals this brand new piece.

As Vivienne is a commission we have stretched ourselves to make sure that the words and music are completed and fine-tuned in good time. Now we need to make the ends meet with our production budget.

We are going to see if we can raise outstanding costs via a crowdfunding platform. Kickstarter.com operates a system whereby anyone can choose to pledge any amount (beside a scaled rewards system) towards our estimated expenditure. If we achieve our goal the money is taken and passed on to us (for a fee). If not, no money changes hands.

You can visit our Kickstarter page here. Do have a look – there are a couple of rehearsal clips you can’t see anywhere else!