London through Music

By Sara Mohr-Pietsch

Itís been said that the worst possible reason for programming the music of any composer is an anniversary. That may be so Ė do we need a reason to hear great music in addition to the music itself?
But for me, 2009 is more than a handy excuse to listen to wallto- wall Purcell, Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn, all of whom have major anniversaries this year. Itís a chance to explore the musical history of a great city over two centuries, a city which was and still is at the heart of a nationís musical life, and which all four composers had in common: London.
I grew up on the streets of London. I donít mean that literally Ė Iím no urchin. But I found my music, and through it my personal growth, out and about in my home city: in its concert halls, its free foyer music, its buskers, and in the aliveness of its musical culture. As a teenager, I felt I owned the South Bank; I used to walk into the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall and take part in free education events like Iíd organised them myself. I sang in the choral society at school as though it had been brought together just for me, and I found myself on the stages of the Coliseum and Royal Opera House in the childrenís chorus because I was lucky enough to live in a city where that was possible. I didnít know it at the time, but Londonís musical life had been growing, changing and shaping itself over centuries. Here, through the lens of my own experience as a Londoner, are my recommendations for anyone eager to get to know the music of these four wonderful composers:
Purcell was one of the first composers I grew to love. When I was fourteen, I sang the role of Aeneas in a school production of Dido and Aeneas. Written for a London school itself, Dido is a rare opera of striking beauty and richness of musical expression thatís somehow easy enough for schoolchildren to perform. I remember being thrilled by the choruses of cackling witches, bawdy sailors and sympathetic angels lamenting Didoís death.
If you want to tap into a real moment of London history, listen to the music Purcell wrote for the Funeral of Queen Mary. His beloved patron died in 1694, and on the day of her funeral the streets were packed with mourners. Purcellís music is ceremonial, majestic, and filled Westminster Abbey, and yet the sung funeral sentences (ĎMan that is born of a womaní) carry a weight of deeply personal loss. Purcell himself died just a year later.
When Handel settled in London in 1712 it was already a very different place from Purcellís home. The Pleasure Gardens at Vauxhall had gone from a small-scale enterprise to being the centre of a culture of public music, the kind of space that could attract an audience of 12,000 to hear merely a rehearsal of Handelís Music for the Royal Fireworks.
Itís not an exaggeration to say that I came to music through Handel. I get a thrill walking down Brook Street, not far from Broadcasting House where I now work as a radio presenter, where he made his home. At school, a friend and I would hide out in the music practice rooms, sightreading Handel duets, tasting the deliciousness of discovery. If you want to hear Handelís duet writing at its finest, listen to the final duet from Theodora, in which the lovers and Christian martyrs Theodora and Didymus, facing death, aspire to heaven, their voices threaded together in shared love and faith.
Messiah was my set work for GCSE music, and from the first ten movements alone (which was all we studied) itís clear that itís a masterpiece of an oratorio. Handelís oratorios are a staple of choral societies even today. Singing in a Handel chorus makes you feel part of something, and you can understand the profound effect that Handelís characterisation of the Hebrew nation in his later oratorios had on the London audienceís sense of collective identity.
They also made an impression on Haydn, who visited London twice in the 1790s, and heard Israel in Egypt (which was to influence Mendelssohn too). Shortly afterwards, Haydn wrote his own magnificent oratorio, The Creation. Although I came across The Creation first in school choral society, itís taken me rather longer to appreciate Haydn. Perhaps because we feel the need to pigeon-hole composers, heís always been the Ďwitty oneí, and wit is not the easiest quality for a teenager to identify with. It wasnít till I was at university that I fell in love with Haydnís chamber music Ė his piano sonatas, and in particular his string quartets. Try the Sunrise Quartet op.76 no.4, which begins with a still horizon in the lower three strings, out of which the first violin slowly rises like the glowing sun.
Haydnís two visits to London also produced some of his most wonderful symphonies, written at the request of the public concert impresario Salomon (who is buried in Westminster Abbey). To get a better feel of the sound of London in the 1790s, listen to the London Symphonies (nos.93-104).
And so we come to Mendelssohn, who described his favourite city as Ďthe grandest and most complicated monster on earth.í A frequent guest of Queen Victoria and a firm friend of Londonís musical establishment, Mendelssohn wrote his Italian Symphony for the Philharmonic Society in 1833, and in all visited the city ten times.
Mendelssohn was the greatest kind of child prodigy Ė one whose youthful works are among his finest. Schumann described him as the ĎMozart of the nineteenth centuryí, and praised him for seeing through and reconciling the contradictions of the era. As proof of this, listen to Mendelssohnís String Symphonies which are rich and charming, and his Preludes and Fugues op.35 for solo piano, which bridge the chasm between the baroque and the romantic, without ignoring what came between.
To find out more about the BBCís coverage of the four Composers of the Year, see:
Sara Mohr-Pietsch
presents Breakfast and Hear & Now on BBC Radio 3.