Which notes are worth more?
Broadcaster James Naughtie tells Marisa Duffy the remarkable stories that helped shape his favourite pieces of music
AS THE presenter of the Today programme on Radio 4, James Naughtie is used to asking the questions; answering them isn’t always so easy. We asked the broadcaster to choose his favourite piece of music before his appearance at this year’s Aye Write! book festival, but he didn’t find it quite as easy as he’d hoped. “It is actually a more difficult question than most people realise until they’ve tried it,” he admits.
In his new book, The Making of Music: A Journey With Notes, Naughtie puts European music into a historical context. He tells of the background, the places and the characters who fashioned a musical heritage. In choosing his favourite pieces of music, he shares just some of those stories, although he is keen to point out that his personal tastes dip in and out of most genres.
“I love a lot of traditional folk music and I’m very fond of early American jazz – Bessie Smith or some great singers from the great Blues era,” he says. “I’d put some Gershwin in there and I’d also have some Scottish fiddle music, of course.”
Naughtie, who was born near Huntly, Aberdeenshire, also has a secret penchant for rock. “It’s a terrible admission of age, really, but [I like] late 1960s and early 1970s stuff, which I listened to in my twenties. I mean, I just love the Stones, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.” Indeed, Naughtie found himself almost cheek-tocheek with one of his musical idols while attending a late-night party at a large country house during the Hay Literary festival.
“There was a piano and various people singing, and I sat down and started playing this piano and somebody else sat down beside me and started joining in,” says Naughtie. “Eventually I turned round and it was Dave Gilmour [of Pink Floyd]. I fell off the piano and quickly scuttled into the night.”
And now for Naughtie’s favourites . . .
Falstaff, by Verdi
“Verdi’s Falstaff is remarkable. I’m very fond of Verdi and Italian opera but the point about Falstaff is that he wrote it very late in his life – it was his last opera. The theme is obviously Shakespearean. I suppose the structure is The Merry Wives of Windsor, which is just a silly little play, but Verdi created this wonderful opera which looks forward to the twentieth century.
“It doesn’t have any standard arias of the sort you would get in the early days of Verdi in the 1840s and 1850s, the tradition of bel canto Italian opera. It’s got these wonderful ensembles and writing for multiple voices, and ends with a fantastic fugue. It’s melodically brilliant, it’s harmonically brilliant, it’s dramatically clever. It’s just a bit of life on the stage and I love it.
“I think people often take time to get into it. I certainly did, because in terms of nineteenth-century opera it’s very unconventional, but I think it’s one of the most rewarding things imaginable.”
The Marriage of Figaro, by Mozart
“I couldn’t be without Mozart. The Marriage of Figaro is just a perfect construction, really; he does everything. He was innovating, he was producing memorable melody and harmony just as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. He can’t stop doing it, it just pours out of him like a river and I find myself lost in it every time.
“That isn’t to say you don’t get bad productions – most productions of it are bad because they go into some sort of terrible slapstick nonsense with people wearing wigs and tights that seldom works – sometimes, but seldom. But the music and the darkness of the comedy is what matters. The cruelty of the conception of the story is a very bitter reflection on Mozart’s time.
“It was first performed in 1786 and it took opera to a completely new level. People were turned into flesh-and-blood characters who were telling a story about their own time, about Mozart’s time, not set in some remote classical past. It was revolutionary, in that sense.
“The story is about the relationship between servants and aristocrats, and for that to be played in Vienna in the 1780s, round about the time when France was about to go into the convulsions of the revolution, was extraordinary. Nobody in the aristocratic audience, as it would have been at that time, would miss what was going on there.”
Piano Concerto in B flat number 27 (K595), by Mozart
“I love Mozart piano concertos because they are pure and have a kind of uplifting quality which doesn’t seem to fade.
“The one I would have to choose would be the Piano Concerto in B flat, number 27 (K595). It’s the last piano concerto he wrote and it’s a fantastic blend of effervescence and melancholy. I wish I could play a Mozart piano concerto, but I can’t.
“One of the best descriptions of Mozart, when you try to sum it up, is ‘divine simplicity’. It’s always easy to play but there is a kind of clarity about him which is extraordinary.”
The two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier, by J S Bach
“These works were written for the harpsichord as training pieces, which take you through all the keys. In them, Bach reveals what I refer to in the book as the nervous system of music. It’s as if he has almost dissected the anatomy of music – how harmony works, how melody works, how rhythm works, what makes music take wing.
“If you get somebody like Daniel Barenboim, who has a twentieth-century sensibility but brings it back to the absolutely crystal-clear skeleton of Bach’s music, you get a fantastic combination of fire and passion.
“Hearing Barenboim playing the preludes and fugues is just great. There are Bach purists who think he plays them in far too individualistic and emotional a way, and I think that is to misunderstand Bach. These pieces are so robust that you can bring anything to them. If you’ve got the technique and the respect for the structure, you can make them sing.”
String Quintet in C major, by Schubert
“Schubert’s String Quintet in C major is one of the most wonderful pieces of chamber music there is. There are a couple of cellos in there, which gives it a real bit of guts. It is romantic music at its best, to me.
“Schubert, who could write a tune like other people breathe, wrote the greatest songs in the German art song tradition that have ever been. Schubert turned out this incredible range of things. I think he is one of those people that you don’t need to worry about applying the word ‘genius’ to. There was just a kind of insistence to his talent, a churning creativity, which was amazing.
“I love to think of him wandering round Vienna in the 1820s, scared to talk to Beethoven. He popped into coffee houses and there was Beethoven barking away to somebody, being angry, and he would sort of shrink away and worry about his syphilis.
“When Beethoven died in 1827, Schubert was one of the ones who carried a torch at his funeral, not knowing he’d be dead two years later at the age of 31.”
Metamorphosen, by Richard Strauss
“One of the most haunting pieces of music I know is Strauss’s Metamorphosen. It seems to speak to me not just of the brilliance of a guy who can write for strings or an orchestra in a majestic way, but it has all the sadness of the man who had to make the terrible decision to stay in Germany and to some degree compromised himself with the regime which was actually destroying the German culture. Nazism poisoned that culture, partly by revering it in a grotesque way.
“There is a wonderful story of Strauss being found at the end of the war sitting in his home as American soldiers were doing house-to-house searches. They saw this old man sitting there and he was asked to identify himself. He looked up and said: ‘My name is Richard Strauss. I am the composer of Der Rosenkavalier.’
“It’s terribly touching – here is an opera he had written in Vienna in 1910 at the height, as he saw it, of European glory, culturally speaking. Music had reached a wonderful peak of maturity – he was probably the most famous composer in the world in the years before the First World War – but it was the last moment, really, before everything turned to dust and blood in the First World War.
“To think of him sitting there in 1945 looking back and realising everything that had been destroyed and poisoned in Germany . . . I think he was an extraordinarily sad figure. You can hear in the four last songs, written in the late 1940s, that longing for a world that had gone. Metamorphosen, to me, is very indicative of that kind of mood and I find it very moving.”
And to finish . . .
“I can’t resist choosing one more thing. I’d want a really big symphony so it would be Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, which if you’re talking about romantic symphonies is about as good as it gets – after Beethoven.”