Ringing the Changes

Happy New Year!

I don’t usually bother making new year’s resolutions but I do sometimes like to set myself a few informal goals for the coming year. Last year, I had a few opera-related goals. One was to see a live opera, which I didn’t manage to achieve, although I’m more likely to manage it now that our local theatre has reopened (as of December) and is promising occasional operas amongst its programme. Another was to start exploring the Russian opera repertoire (the source of my first two encounters with live opera back in the early 1990s) — I succeeded in revisiting both of the Russian operas I’d seen live: Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades and Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges; I also listened to Eugene Onegin (another Tchaikovsky work and possibly the most popular Russian opera in the world) and I look forward to watching it on DVD soon (along with Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, another of the “great” Russian operas).

My big goal, though, was to properly acquaint myself with Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. This is a story (based on Teutonic mythology) spread out over four operas, lasting a grand total of about 15 hours, so it’s not for the faint-hearted. Indeed, Wagner’s music, and the Ring cycle in particular, seems to be one of those love-it-or-hate-it kind of things, sort of the Marmite of the music world (apologies to any non-British readers who quite possibly have no idea what I mean by that reference, though the Wikipedia link should help you).

Previously, I had been familiar with the Ride of the Valkyries, which is probably known to just about everybody in the Western world although most (myself included, until very recently) would likely not be able to tell you that it is the music which opens Act 3 of Die Walküre (the second opera in the cycle – the English translation of the name is “The Valkyries”, so it’s probably not too surprising that it’s in this one) or that the main theme from it crops up again quite a few other times within the cycle (in fact, as far as I could spot, it first appeared at the start of Act 2 of the same opera, though in a less developed form) and a couple of years ago (before I started to get properly into opera) I got a CD of orchestral music by Wagner which turned out to consist of preludes and other instrumental sections from his operas (apparently he composed very little else).

When I started to explore opera, I got a couple of compilation albums (one with a book attached). One of these included the Immolation Scene from the end of Götterdämerung (the final opera in the cycle; actually, this scene is the very last one of the whole cycle). I enjoyed this (and the instrumental stuff from my earlier CD) enough to want to listen to more.

Round about November 2014, I got a DVD of highlights of the Ring, purporting to tell the essential story through extracts from the operas, leaving out much of the padding (of which there is a lot in the Ring cycle – albeit largely set to wonderful music) and bringing the runtime down from about 15 hours to a much more manageable 100 minutes. These extracts were taken from a cycle staged by a Spanish group called La Fura dels Baus, with lots of exciting stage lighting and acrobatics to complement the music. I rather enjoyed watching this and it led to my decision, when considering operatic goals for 2015, to aim to see or hear the whole cycle.

I acquired my first (and so far only) complete Ring cycle on DVD last January, as I managed to find a well-acclaimed one (the Barenboim-Kupfer one from Bayreuth, c. 1992) going for a very reasonable price (about £15, which works out at £1/hour). Before plunging into this, though, I picked up a couple of CDs of highlights, one conducted by Herbert von Karajan and the other by George Solti (both, I gather, did multiple Ring cycle recordings and I don’t recall which ones I’ve got – basically whichever had highlight albums available nice and cheap).  I also had a look at a couple of Wagner’s other operas – Der Fliegende Holländer (aka the Flying Dutchman, suitable for my growing interest in sailing and things maritime last year, not to mention a fairly manageable 2 hours or so; I have watched a DVD version and listened to an audio one) and Tristan und Isolde (a 4+ hour mammoth, but at least there’s only one opera to sit through; this one I’ve only listened to so far, though at least one Wagner-specialist music critic describes this as “the ideal gramophone opera” in any case).

Though I was now feeling ready to tackle the full Ring cycle, I decided that I wanted to watch the operas, at least for the first time, together in one block rather than spread out across several weekends. The first opportunity to do so didn’t come until this week, when I was able to make use of a few days off work between Christmas and the new year to watch the operas on consecutive days, starting on Tuesday 29th December.  In fact, I ended up starting Götterdämerung a bit later than intended last night and, as it’s quite long and I was falling asleep (because I’d been out late at a New Year’s party the previous night, not because the music’s boring) I decided to postpone the final scene (the aforementioned Immolation Scene) until this morning so that I could better appreciate it.

Watching the Ring cycle was, in some ways, quite different from most other operas, but I found it a very enjoyable experience and one I’d like to repeat (though next time I probably won’t be so concerned about watching all the operas so close together).  If I get a chance to snap up any other versions of the Ring at sensible prices I may well do so (e.g. a more traditionally staged one, or perhaps the complete version of the Fura dels Baus one I mentioned earlier, which is even less traditional than the Kupfer-Barenboim one), though I’ll also be happy to enjoy this version again (and perhaps one or two audio recordings too). And I’d love to experience a live performance of the Ring cycle, in the unlikely event that I ever get a chance to do so.

I mentioned that the Ring is a bit like operatic Marmite.  In a sense I think this is quite an appropriate simile, not least because both are supposed to be things you either love or hate but in both cases I find myself somewhat towards the love end of the spectrum but not absolutely wild about it.  There will be times when Wagner is just the thing I want to listen to, and other times when I’m more in a mood for, say, Rossini, just like there are times when I want marmite on my toast and other times when I want marmalade (perhaps made with Seville oranges).

The Marmite Man of Music

Without a doubt, one of my favourite 21st century composers is Karl Jenkins. Admittedly, I have not listened to very much recent classical music (as my interests generally lie somewhat earlier) and I’m also slightly biased because Jenkins is a composer from my adopted homeland of Wales.  Still, I very much enjoy listening to his work.

I was intrigued recently when I came across a description of Jenkins as “the  Marmite Man of Music”.  Apparently this appellation was first used in an article in the Times in March 2008.  Unfortunately you have to be a Times subscriber to be able to access this original article, so I haven’t had a chance to read it.  I did find a reference to it in a Telegraph article by Julian Lloyd Webber in April 2008, which is readable without a subscription.

Anyone from the UK or familiar with our culture will almost certainly understand the reference to Marmite, but for the benefit of anyone else reading this I should expain that this food product (a dark brown, salty paste made from a yeast extract that is a by-product of beer brewing) is famous for polarising people into two opposite camps – those who think it’s the best thing since sliced bread (as well as being especially good on sliced, and toasted, bread) and those who think it’s absolutely gross.  Indeed, the marketing slogan for Marmite in the UK is “Love it or hate it”, which was presumably inspired by and, in turn, helps to perpetuate the myth of Marmite as a foodstuff with no middle ground on the enjoyment scale.

I call it a myth since, in fact, many people (myself included) actually quite like Marmite but are not absolutely wild about it.  There are rare occasions when I get a strong craving for a bit of Marmite on toast, but in general I’m happy to eat it or to do without it.  Nevertheless, Marmite remains a handy substance to use figuratively to refer to other things that tend to (or are believed, however erroneously, to) polarise opinion.

As far as I could make out, not having read the article itself, the Times critic behind the original article was fairly firmly in the “hate it” camp when it comes to Jenkins as musical Marmite.  I got the impression that his dislike essentially stemmed from the fact that Jenkins sold “too many” CDs, so I suspect there was a bit of musical snobbery going on (and I can’t say that I’ve never found myself assuming that if something is sufficiently popular it must be naff, so I probably shouldn’t cast too many stones).

Certainly, Jenkins does tend to blend Western classical music with elements of world music (mostly Middle Eastern and some Celtic folk music in the pieces I’ve heard), so his music may not float the boat of classical purists.  To me, however, this mixture is one of the attractions of the music, along with the fact that the vocal stuff (and most of the Jenkins repertoire I’ve heard includes singing) is in an eclectic mixture of languages. By and large, the harmonies (at least for the more classical bits) are fairly conventionally tonal and relatively easy on the ear compared to a lot of modern classical music).  I understand that, before his career as a composer took off, Jenkins was a jazz and jazz-rock musician (playing oboe in addition to the more common jazz instruments of saxophone and piano), but I’ve not really noticed any jazz influences in his compositions.

My first encounter with Jenkins’ music, or at least the first time I was aware of who he was, was with his Stabat Mater (2008), which I mentioned the other day.  I think it was about two years ago I first heard that, having asked for it for Christmas after having read about it somewhere and being intrigued at the promised mix of languages and blending of musical styles.  Since then I have also listened to some of the music from his Adiemus project (mostly Adiemus IV: The Eternal Knot (2001), which is the only Adiemus album I have a copy of), This Land of Ours (2007 – an album recorded with a brass band and a male-voice choir and featuring a mix of Jenkins’ own compositions and his arrangements of other works) and most recently (this morning, in fact, for the first time) The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace (1999).

This last piece is, I gather, similar to Benjamin Britten’s famous War Requiem (a piece I haven’t heard for years, though I would like to get hold of a copy) in that both are essentially anti-war pieces combining the traditional texts of the Catholic mass (the requiem mass in Britten’s case, the ordinary of the mass for Jenkins) with other texts (some of Wilfred Owen’s poems for Britten and a mixture of sources for Jenkins).  One of Jenkins’ sources (and the inspiration for the name of the work) was L’homme armé, a 15th century French folksong that was incorporated into many medieval (and some later) settings of the mass.

On reflection, I think that “the Marmite Man of Music” is not a bad description of Karl Jenkins from the standpoint of my own appreciation of his music since, like Marmite, I enjoy it every now and then but it wouldn’t feature near the very top of my list of favourites.  On the other hand, that would also be a fair description of most other composers (or foods, for that matter).