Diving with the nymphs in an ocean of blue

Infinity. © Charles Thibo

A few years ago I crossed the Atlantic in a plane, flying home from Buenos Aires. I woke up around sunrise over the ocean, halfway home. I did not see the sun since the plane headed east. I saw something much more spectecular: an world in blue. The blue of the ocean fazed out into the blue of the atmosphere. By the clouds you could guess where the horizon actually was, but I was not much interested in that. It probably was one of the most beautiful things I had ever witnessed. I could not detach my eyes from it, I lost myself in this blue infinity.

Fantasies about Atlantis

One of the many thoughts that crossed my mind that moment was: And if Atlantis actually existed, centuries ago, burried now under the Atlantic? What if I just was flying over it without knowing? And I imagined seeing ruins of a splendid city, of palaces, temples, market places across the rippling water? A silly thought. A beautiful thought. And I smiled at myself happy to freely drift away in my fantasies.

In 1913-14 the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius wrote a symphonic poem in D major he called “The Oceanides”, Op. 73. It refers to Greek mythology: the life of nymphs in the Mediterranean Sea. Sibelius wrote this piece in one movement with two distinct themes: the games the nymphs play and the majesty of the ocean. The second subject is developed in three stages: a calm sea, a gathering storm, a thunderous wave. In the finale, the tempest moves away, peace returns, and the final bars suggest the infinite expanse of the sea. When I first heard the piece recorded by the Göteborg Symfoniker under Neeme Järvi, I immediately associated it with the picture of that infinite blueness.

“A devotee to beauty”

Sibelius conducted the premiere in 1914 at the Norfolk Music Festival in Connecticut and critics praised the piece as “the finest evocation of the sea … ever … produced in music”. The New York Tribune, once the largest daily paper published in New York, wrote at the time: “[T]he new composition […] is fresh and vital, full of imagination and strong in climax. Extremists will probably deplore the fact that the composer is still a respecter of form, still a devotee of beauty, still a believer in the potency of melody; but this is rather a matter for congratulation than regret. […] Mr. Sibelius is a f ine musical constructionist, an eloquent harmonist and a fine colorist despite his fondness for dark tints.”

I am aware that musicologists struggle with the term “impressionistic music”, but I will not hesitate to use it for Sibelius’ “Oceanides” or Debussy’s “La Mer” or Ravel’s “Une Barque sur l’Océan”. All three composers and several more represented sensory elements linked to the sea: its movements, the reflection of light, the violence of foaming waves, the delicate rippling of a calm sea, the clarity of the air, the gentle, cooling effect of the sea breeze – impressions!

© Charles Thibo

The mockingbird sings his defiant tune in F minor

This is not the Borodin String Quartet. © Charles Thibo

Satire is the only weapon available to the critical mind facing an overwhelming oppressor. Can you cast satire in music? Dmitry Shostakovich can. A few months back, I enjoyed the performance of his String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 122 by the Borodin String Quartet. If I had to characterize the concert in one word, I would say it was brilliant. Brilliant on two accounts. The Borodin String Quartet’s interpretation of Op. 122 was flawless. And the piece itself is one of Shostakovich’s ultimate strokes of genius.

Continue reading!

You can always check out…

London-Haydn Kopie

The bad news is: The United Kingdom will officially declare on March 29 that it intends to leave the EU. The good news is: It won’t leave the EU. Not by 2019. I looked into my crystal ball and saw endless negotiations in Brussels. Dead-lines will  be extended and the stock markets will be in turmoil. Political infighting will follow. The present government will not last. The crystal ball goes blank again.

The EU is like Hotel California: You can always check out, but you can never leave. And to encourage all those who do not want to leave the EU, here’s some up-lifting music. Let’s take a break from politics. A symphony written by a continental composer bearing the name to the City of London.

Continue reading!

Chasing the violin part of Kirkman’s sonatas

Medea Bindewald, the musician behind the Kirkman Project. © Stuart Hollis

Having supported the release of a CD with Jacob Kirkman’s music (see yesterday’s post), I talked to Medea Bindewald, the German harpsichord player behind the project. She volunteered for an interview conducted by email at the end of February.

Continue reading!