Words and Music

I hadn’t expected to find myself blogging at the end of my little period of purdah, behind the writing screen, closed off from twitter and the world.

I finished last Tuesday my filming for DOORS OPEN, the Ian Rankin art-theft thriller whose adaptation we’re making for ITV and since then I’ve been sitting at a desk, trying not to look too hard out of the window.

You may have heard the view-halloos and cries and squeals of pleasure and delight on Sunday evening as I stabbed my finger down onto the send button and pushed my little libretto far away into the inbox of my collaborator, the real talent in our little opera team, who has been patiently awaiting my words for a long time.

It has been a fabulous experience, quite unlike anything I’ve ever done, although I had been given the burdensome but wonderfully exciting duty of translating Schikaneder’s original Magic Flute libretto from German into English for Ken Branagh’s cinematic production of Mozart’s last and most mysterious full-length opera some years ago. That experience, taking out the words that Mozart had set to music and trying to replace them with English equivalents, taught me one thing that I am anxious to share with an expectant world. Mozart knew what he was doing. Ho, yes. The man, as Control or Smiley might say, was Good, George. Damned good. He knew his tradecraft.

This more recent task, an adaptation of an E. M. Forster short story, has been more invigorating: much less weight is on our shoulders since it this a new opera and we don’t have the best part of 300 years to betray. My collaborator, Louis Mander, is a young, preposterously talented composer, and I am an old… well there you are. Spring turned to October and eventually, as I started turning scarlet and gold and found myself decaying into November, I at last managed to deliver. I exaggerate for effect. Forgive me, all those who write in the moment I say something to denigrate myself.

But more of that as and when. Many a slip twixt wicket-keeper and gully.

Unhappy news

I’m writing because, what with all my recent concentrated deadline fury, the death of Dietrich Fischer Dieskau two days ago quite passed me by. I know of course that he had to die some time, but I never thought it would be soon. Heavens, he had reached his 87th year and had every right to leave the party. It is just that I can’t remember a time when his voice hasn’t been a part of my life and the idea of his not being on the planet is going to take a bit of getting used to.

When did I first hear that miraculous instrument? My father often had him playing on his gramophone or wireless set. It must have been around the age of seven or eight when I first became fascinated with this tenor who wasn’t quite a baritone and this baritone who wasn’t quite a tenor. He was one of a simply remarkable generation of German musicians who straddled the war years (much to their subsequent discomfort and distress all round as Furtwüngler and von Karajan inter alia discovered) and who quite simply transformed the way music was recorded in studios.

Ronnie Harwood, one of our finest playwrights (awarded an Oscar© for The Pianist of course) wrote a marvellous pair of plays about that whole issue, including the relationship between “Aryan” Richard Strauß and Jewish Stefan Zweig – whose inexplicably brilliant novel Beware of Pity I am reading just now at the suggestion of my mother. It is a flawless and quite inexplicably moving story. I say inexplicable because you never catch Zweig attempting to engage or enrage. He casts you as the protagonist of the story and you fall short. Rather as Balzac made us do with Rastignac and Dickens with Pip. Anyway, that’s a side-issue and a coincidence.

EMI and Decca

That generation of singers, conductors and musicians came mostly from a Germany and Austria that had, almost along the way, revolutionised the recording industry. When the first American engineers arrived in Munich and Berlin and saw what BASF/AEG and their reel-to-reel machines were able to do with music and radio, it resulted, I would suggest, in a bigger step change than that from tape cassettes to CD or CD to MP3 (indeed we all know many who would regard those last two step changes as step changes in the wrong direction. Vinyl or reel-to-reel for them: and tube/valve amplifiers too while we’re at it.) The modern age of stereophonic High Fidelity, or HiFI as it was known, had arrived. Voices and (in the case of opera) cast and creatures could be “placed” in studio stereo stages, instruments could be “desked” in knew ways that smote the musical world much inn the way that the first cleanings of the old masters did at around the same time. When played back, people found a new direct engagement with music that had for hundreds of years before only been heard live in bandstands and concert halls and subsequently on hissing 78 RPM shellac discs. I love concert halls, I love 78s – but this truly was something extraordinary.

Well, it’s too long a story to tell here: I could cover pages on the engineering genius John Culshaw – you know, it’s weird but I’ve never stopped to ask the celebrated impressionist of the same name if he was descended from him? – and his pioneering Solti recording of Wagner’s Ring – but I don’t have enough time.

Fine Legge

The producer Walter Legge, who married Elizabeth Schwartzkopf (or Betty Blackhead as we irreligiously and with a great sense of literalness referred to her at university when we were discovering the Golden Age of gramophone) was one of the giants of this age. Most of the greatest records being produced in the world by this time were either at the EMI Studios in Abbey Road or at Decca’s premises a little further up in West Hampstead. Abbey Road didn’t just produce the Beatles. EMI produced for Legge and his wife, the aforementioned Betty Blackhead, and for Giulini, Böhm and many of the greatest conductors in the world. I still believe Giulini’s Don Giovanni and Klemperer’s Marriage of Figaro and Böhm’s Così Fan Tutte are unsurpassed. Not that my taste matters. It was all such an adventure then, simply getting to know the repertoire.


The figure who most especially stood out as the completest musician and the performer with the most exquisite tone and taste, was, few would disagree, Dirty Fisher Dishcloth, as we dubbed Dietrich Fischer Dieskau. Poor Birgit Nilsson was Beergut Nelly, of course, and the greatest soprano of them, all, IMHO, Kirsten Flagstadt, was Kirsty Flatshag or Kristy FatSlag. How childish we were: the crudity of these names was in inverse proportion, let me assure you, to the matchless mixture of steel and radiance that marks out the great Wagnerian singer.

Music and music

With what open-mouthed ecstasy we listened to these records again and again and again. Sometimes if I so much as connect Spotify or some other music service to Twitter and a follower sees that I am listening to a piece of classical music, they will tweet something charming like “posh twat”, “Why do you listen to that boring rubbish?” or “who are you trying to impress?” I’m beyond being bothered by such tragically irremediable rudeness and intolerance, but I do hope sane, open people will give themselves time to listen to music. Classical music isn’t to be danced to, it doesn’t necessarily remind you of your first snog or your first bust up – those inestimable, moving and essential services are certainly part of popular music’s draw and connective power. Classical music, since that is what we must call it, is something else. It must be payed attention to.  It is not wallpaper or “the soundtrack to one’s life” as much other music in my life (happily) is.  It is Art.  There, I said it and I can’t and won’t apologise for making that distinction. I’d go the gallows for it. And while you may think me an elitist, I have never in my 40 years of engaging with such music encountered the snobbery that is routine amongst listeners to popular sounds, who tell you with absolute cutting certainty that this artist is “crap” and this one is “god”. I can remember the embarrassed parties at which older teenagers would muscle up to my hopeful record deck and sneer “Haven’t you got any decent music?” Some people in the classical sphere will always prefer Couperin to Alkan or Debussy to Rossini, naturally, but it’s very very rare to find the equivalent curled lip condescension as one’s music collection or playlists are “inspected” by some self-appointed schoolboy DJ. I suppose “highlights” and endless versions of Pachabel’s Canon and The Lark Ascending might cause the odd eyebrow to raise, but not from me or anyone I’d give houseroom to. Let people love One Direction and let them love Laurie Anderson, or Mahler, Reich, Kate Rusby or Alfie Boe, but don’t they DARE make anyone feel small for their loves.

Classical music is, functionally at least, beyond fashion and outside time, (though of course it can be studied in quite the reverse way). To engage you need know nothing, only to be able to sit and listen. To make the journey and visit the places the music takes you.

You will find yourself inside the most astonishing aural architecture that has ever been constructed. Frightening, awe-inspiring, forbidding at first. But when you realise that these pieces were written by people like you who believe first in foremost in love and hope, bliss, justice and connection, and that they want to take you by the hand and cause your heart to burst in your breast for joy and wonder and pity, the fear melts away. Not something one is always ready for, any more than one could eat haute cuisine every day. But when you need it, oh the difference …

A legacy

Fisher Dishcloth was a man who inspired in Mozart operas and in Wagner too (and this is a rare thing for a singer to be able to do. Placido Domingo is the only comparable figure of our time I can think of. And our own Bryn Terfel perhaps) He naturally held my attention. I still think his Hans Sachs in the Eugen Jochum recording of the Mastersingers of Nuremberg is unmatched for sheer intelligence, insight and emotional depth. In many ways, the character of Hans Sachs is more the Lear – the absolute summit in Wagner – even than Wotan: Fischer Dieskau achieved it with thrilling modesty, intensity, intellect and a complete lack of ostentation. He also I think stands as one of the very greatest Count Almavivas in all of the Marriage of Figaro’s recording history. He made his mark too with modernists like Hindemith and was personally selected by the composer to be there for that monumental moment in 1962 when Britten’s War Requiem first shattered the world.


So pure and smooth was Dieskau’s voice (it never seemed to flicker or strain in the higher swoops of the tenor line or lose power and richness down in the darker or sometimes more buffa tones other works demanded of him) so pure it was that it incurred – I shall not say the wrath – but the curiosity of Roland Barthes – whose word was holy writ in the English departments of early 80s universities when I was a student. In an essay entitled “On Grain” Barthes wondered, in the recording industry as it was in the late 70s, with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic as the supreme arbiters and bestsellers worldwide, if all those silken legatos and perfectly moulded rubatos had stopped us from making the primal connection between violin string and bowed and rosined catgut; whether we ever were again allowed to hear – from virtuosi like Tuckwell and Parry in the horn section or James Galway in the wind –  the spittle rattling in the tubes and dripping from the sump-hole to the floor. Would we hear the squeak of the guitarist’s fingers on the fret-board and the buzzing rattle of the reed on the lips of the oboist? All seemed to be tending toward tones and timbres of the utmost smoothness, an aesthetic that appeared to scorn what in photography we clearly know to be grain.

And when it came to vox humana, Barthes suggested, the magical purity, beauty and flexibility of Dietrich Fischer Dieskau (about whose superlunary gifts and intellect no one in the world was in the slightest doubt), dangerously (for Art), almost transcended the human sphere. Barthes allowed himself to wonder, as legitimately he might, whether this was a fashion or a permanent new product of technological advances and technical training in the human voice. And he couldn’t see it as all good. If every singer had tried to sing like DFD I would have agreed whole- heartedly, but of course they didn’t. We had Eberhard Wächter, Giuseppe Taddei and a host of alternative baritones whose voices were as different from Dieskau’s as from Frank Sinatra’s or Elvis Presley’s. Or indeed from each others’.

Well it pleased me that the hippest voices in criticism, the French structuralists and deconstructionists, were not the vain, inverted snobs or recondite obscurantist poseurs so many took them for, and that they had as high and passionate a sense of taste as any educated person might strive to achieve. I have always believed great music is for everyone, for it speaks – more than any other genre – directly to the individual, soul to soul – shorn of fashion, hipness, stories, context and baggage. Their works are for us to listen to as we will. Or won’t. But I shan’t beat that drum (out of time) again.


I just wanted to celebrate and bid auf Wiederhören to the life of one of the paragons of our age, truly one of the most supremely gifted vocalists and discriminating and insightful musicians. It was the lieder form that he so magisterially exhumed and polished and perfected before our ears, Schubert principally of course, but Wolf and Schoek too, lesser known names but now regularly performed thanks to him.

Many people when they first listen to Winterreise for example, or the better known of all Schubert’s lieder, The Trout, or Der Erlkönig feel – despite the simply unprecedented tunefulness and hummable melodic flowering – that they can’t “relate” to this genre of lilting folk songs, sung by an operatic tenor baritone hybrid, reciting poems about lonely romantic travelling and being impressed by lime trees and melting snow, which seems so buttoned up and concert-hall and swanky while pretending to be the wild woodnotes of a free romantic artist who is making a musical journey of his life. We all know autumn reminds us of decay and winter of frozen stasis and spring of promise. What could that syphilitic old (well young in fact) speccie Schubert bring to the party that might make us feel anything new?

Try it, try it do

Oh. Oh you wait. You’ll hate it at first perhaps. But leave it on. Leave it on over the next few days and suddenly, it will steal into you and never leave you. And if you never thank me for anything ever again. Thank me for that. There is a great line by Philip Larkin (well of course there is, there is almost nothing but great lines by him) – but one of my favourite is to a musical hero of his, the Jazz clarinettist and saxophonist, Sidney Bechet:

“Oh play that thing!” he cries, and then adds this, on which I and (I should guess no one alive could improve)

On me your sounds falls as they say love should Like an enormous yes.

I’ll grant you, Wigmore Hall and the QE Hall and the Festival and all the others, much as I love them, have work to do before they’ll get people in to venues that most will instantly respond to as stuffy and which will remind them of the music teachers they least liked and whose breath most reeked.

But there’s always your own bedroom.

I promise you, what Morrissey could plant in the mind of a lonely 14 year old, DFD and Schubert can plant in yours. You just have to give it a little time. It’s a new mode and it’ll fuck your head the first time you hear it. But then just you, the incomparable Gerald Moore at the piano and the melting, utterly modest, plain, simple and yet shatteringly emotional voice of one of the most perfect singers ever to be born on this planet … to die without giving it a chance would be a crime against nature and history and art.

Well. You owe it to yourself to try don’t you? Hell, I listened to Nicki Menaj. Oh I do hope I’ve spelt her right. I’ll get such beans if I’ve fluffed it…