Throwback Thursday

In which an video is replayed.

Several times – okay many times – in the past I have expressed my fondness for the work of the great Sir Thomas Beecham.  He was one of the musical greats of the last century – an innovator, founder of orchestras, and an early champion of music that is now part of the standard repertoire. But he also had an ear for an enchanting melody that would please his audience.

A comment I received on a video I made and posted on YouTube back in January of 2013 had me taking another look at it.  It’s such a charming piece of music and never fails to brighten my day each time I hear it.

A left click on this caricature of Sir Tommy from 1931 will take you to that post and the video. The details can be seen more clearly by click the full screen icon fullscreen_grey_192x192.jpgat the lower right of the video.


On this day in 1922: First use of insulin to treat diabetes in a human patient.

Mercoledi Musicale

La-BohemeThere are so many stories about the great Sir Thomas Beecham – some apocryphal I’m sure – and one of my favourites is about a recording session for his unsurpassed La Boheme.  By happenstance Victoria de los Angles, Jussi Björling, Robert Merrill, Giorgio Tozzi, and Beecham were all in New York in the spring of 1956.  In a spur of the moment decision EMI asked their American partner RCA to record the opera with Beecham conducting.  The New York rehearsal and recording sessions were tightly scheduled over nine days.  When it came time to record the poignant opening of Act 4 Beecham had Björling and Merrill repeat the scene several times.  He didn’t suggest any changes or give any notes on their performances, he just requested that they do it again.   After the fourth (perfect) take the recording engineer, knowing that time was running short, approached Sir Thomas and asked what he wanted done differently.  He reportedly, smiled seraphically and said:  Not a thing.  I just love hearing those two sing together.

Sir Thomas was seldom wrong on things musical and on this one he hit the LP on the spindle.  Rodolfo (Björling) and Marcello (Merrill) have parted from Mimi and Musetta and try to joke, unsuccessfully, over their heartbreak but the music tells us a different story.  I honestly can’t think of another performance where the singing, playing and conducting capture so beautifully the bitter-sweetness of the moment.

Björling and Merrill often sang together on the stage at the old Met and in 1951 recorded a series of duets on 78s under conductor Renato Cellini.   Included in the set is one of the most played and treasured souvenirs of operatic singing not just of the 20th century but of any time.   The two singers reached heights that have never been surpassed in “Au fond du temple saint” from Georges Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles.

On this day in 1669:  Citing poor eyesight, Samuel Pepys records the last event in his diary.

The First Sunday in Advent


Stir up we beseech thee, O Lord thy power, and come; that we may be found worthy to be rescued by thy protection from the threatening dangers of our sins, and to be set free by thy deliverance.

Collect for the First Sunday in Advent
Sarum Missal – 1911 Translation
F. E. Warren

The Collects for the season of Advent in the Sarum Rite all begin with the request – almost demand? –  that the Lord “stir up” or “excite” both Himself and his people in anticipation of the arrival of the Messiah.

In his text for Part I of Messiah Charles Jennens reaches back to the prophets of the Old Testament to the exhortations of Isaiah, Haggai, and Malachi as they stirred up the people of Israel with news of the advent of the Promised One.  And Handel matched the words with music meant to excite and move as the great event is foretold.

And I know of no more exciting, or stirring, a beginning to a Messiah than the great tenor Jon Vickers trumpeting the words of Isaiah 40: 1-4 in the 1959 recording conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham.  Nor the mighty Huddersfield Choral Society hymning the glory of the Lord in Eugene Goossen’s reorchestration in which  ” ……. Handel’s music glowed, boomed and tinkled unprecedentedly” according to Beecham’s biographer Charles Reid.

Isaiah 40: Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
2 Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned:( for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.)
3 The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

4 Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:

5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

The Goossen’s reorchestration was only heard in a single performance  at the Lucerne Festival in 1959 and recorded that same year.  After Sir Thomas’s death Lady Beecham discouraged performances and a dispute arose between her and the Goossen’s estate on the provenance and ownership of the score.  It was heard again at a Proms performance in 1999 and at that time the Telegraph published an extensive piece on the ups and downs of this gloriously Edwardian sounding arrangements.

I have to admit that the RCA recording is one of my favourites amongst the several Messiahs I have at hand.  Though it has been criticized I think Goossen’s himself had the best rebuttal when he was challenged on his use of cymbals in the Hallelujah Chorus:

“And why not?” he explained in an interview for Records and Recordings in April 1960: “Aren’t we exhorted in the Bible to ‘praise the Lord with the sound of cymbals’?”

 On this day in 1781: The crew of the British slave ship Zong murders 133 Africans by dumping them into the sea to claim insurance.

The Magic in the Flute

Legend says that the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg himself literally kicked Mozart out of his
palace – in truth it was his Grace’s steward Count Arno who delivered the Episcopal drop kick.
In Emanuele Luzzati’s drawing the young Mozart seems to enjoy the event.  But it seems some
little success and an admonishing Emperor Josef are awaiting his arrival in Vienna.

An article on Mozart’s The Magic Flute by my friend David Nice over at I’ll Think of Something Later led me (as David’s writings so often do)  to do two things: download one of the great recordings of Mozart’s masterpiece and search for one of several books I have on the work of Emanuele Luzzati as inspired by the genius that was Wolfgang A.

Never out of the catalogue since the day it was issued, the recording was produced by Walter Legge in Germany between November 8, 1937 and March 8th of the following year in Berlin’s Beethovensaal. It featured the Berlin Philharmonic and the cream of Germany’s operatic talent – or at least those who had not been forced to leave by the Nazis; but most surprisingly it was conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham.  Beecham had created some controversy in 1936 when he taken the London Philharmonic on tour to Germany and had agreed to the “request” not to include Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony in their repertoire – though a convert to Christianity the Nazi government still regarded Mendelssohn as a “Jewish composer”.  To the discomfort of the authorities even Der Fuehrer was not exempt from one of Sir Thomas’s comments.  When Hitler showed up late for one of the Berlin concerts Beecham was heard, in one of those mutters of his that could fill a room, to observe “That stupid old bugger’s late!”

A computer reconstruction of the Beethovensaal, home of the Berlin Philharmonic
before the Second World War.  It was destroyed in the Allied bombing raids.
It was the major recording venue for HMV between the two Great Wars.

Though not an Nazi sympathizer – Beecham refused invitations to tour Germany after 1936 – he nevertheless honoured contracts he had with the Berlin State Opera in ’37-38.  For HMV Legge assembled an all-German cast (though Danish-born Helge Rosvaenge made his career in Germany and Austria) and it seems that he audaciously replaced a few “unacceptable” members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra strategically with players from the Berlin State Opera Orchestra.  The Queen of the Night’s aria O zitt’re nicht, mein lieber Sohn (Tremble not, my dear son) was still unrecorded when Beecham left Berlin at the beginning of March and was recorded later that month with Bruno Seidler-Winkler conducting the Berlin State Opera Orchestra.

HMV’s Mozart Opera Society issued four operas on 78s over the space of
several years. The First was the Glyndebourne Nozze di Figaro followed by
Cosi and Don Giovanni also from John Christie’s country opera house. The
Beecham Zauberflote was the only non-British recording in the set. Along
with the Cosi it was to remain in the catalogue since its first issue and is
considered one of the great recordings of the 20th century.

Despite its slightly clouded history the recording was greeted with superlatives when it was issued on 19 double-sided shellac 78s as one of HMV’s The Mozart Opera Society recordings.  As the LP era took over many other recordings were to appear but this pioneering effort was the one most frequently held up for comparison.   My own Flute of choice has always been the 1962 recording also produced by Legge under the baton of Otto Klemperer.  I recall hearing an LP transfer of the earlier Berlin recording and not being terribly impressed – it sounded as if it had been copied from the 78s clicks, pops and hisses intact.  But after several hearings of the 2001 remastering of Beecham’s historical recording on Naxos I am inclined to place it very close second in my list of favourites.   Though the two conductors could not be more different in their approach they both capture the inspired lunacy of Schikaneder that is made magical by Mozart’s music.   The surprise with Klemperer was always how jolly and warm, almost folk-like, the more comic moments sounded and with Beecham it is the sublime majesty of the more serious  – but then should I really be that surprised?  He was, after-all, a conductor of Wagner, Strauss and Delius.

Emanuele Luzzati’s set model for the 1963 Die Zauberflote at Glyndebourne.  Ten
triangular screens, each manipulated by a stagehand hidden inside moved about
the stage under the direction of a stage manager using early wireless technology.

Luzzati’s sketches suggest the positions he wanted for the screens and designs (each side had a
different colour and design theme) he wanted revealed for the various scenes as the opera unfolded.

That strange juxtaposition of the inane and the sublime has always been a problem both in the pit and on stage.  How do you reconcile the antics of Papageno with the proclamations of Sarastro; how do you handle that sudden switch of bad guys half-way through the first act.  How do you stage a work which, as Winthrop Sargeant observed, is often dramatically dull and where “in the last act – the Klu Klux Klan marches around and says “No!” while Tamino tries to become an Eagle Scout”? And Sargeant is right – it can all be very morally upright and lets admit it the stage is not really the place where moral uprightness shows to best advantage.  Often when stage directors have failed their designers have come through and found the magic in the Flute.   And an incredible array of designers have strove and in many cases found the balance between Mozart and Schikaneder;  amongst the more famous are Marc Chagall at the Met in 1967,  David Hockney at Glynedebourne (’78)  and the Met (’91),  Beni Montressor at the NYC Opera, William Kentridge at La Monnaie (’05) and La Scala (’11), Oskar Kokoschka, Maurice Sendak and again at Glyndebourne my beloved Emanuele Luzzati in 1963.

Every year, beginning in 1960, I ordered a copy of the Glyndebourne Programme Book and between those lavish publications and the marvelous recordings I had from the Festival (Le Comte Ory, Cenerentola, the 1936 Cosi)  I would armchair travel in tuxedoed splendor on the train from Victoria to the Sussex downs,  picnic by the HaHa, wander in the gardens and revel in Mozart or Rossini.  I first became aware of Luzzati’s work when I opened that 1963 Programme Book.   I was immediately captured by his strange drawings – and remember wondering how on earth they were ever realized.  But I was even more intrigued by his use of 10 three sided screens maneuvered about the stage by a stagehand inside who took instructions from the Stage Manager on wireless headphones – how modern was that?  In subsequent years I was fascinated by Luzzati’s designs for Don Giovanni, Macbeth and Die Entführung aus dem Serail.  All very different but all distinctively Luzzati.

I finally got to Glyndebourne in 1969, dined in the Nether Wallop and saw the new Luzzati-John Pritchard Cosi along with Pelléas and Werther.  But the following year was to be “the year” – as well as Janet Baker in La Calisto and Graziella Scuitti in Il Turco in Italia – I finally got to see that Magic Flute.  If in my memory book it takes second place to the Calisto (one of those truly great nights of opera that I can count on the fingers of one hand) it was still memorable for the performances of a young Illena Cortubas, Weishal Ochman and Hans Sotin – and the magic of Luzzati’s designs.  At one moment dark and glittering, the next all bosky green and in a twinkling gleaming gold they perfectly captured the shifts from whimsy to wisdom that so intrigues in this silly-sublime final work of the equally silly-sublime Mozart.

Luzzati only designed that one production of The Magic Flute for the stage but he was to use the opera as the inspiration for designs of all sorts throughout his life.  Posters, playing cards, a full length animation and a children’s book were all to give him opportunities to express the joy that the work so obviously gave him.  Though long out of print I was able to find that children’s book online and decided that I’d make a short video combining those two things that my friend David had led me to search out:  Sir Thomas’s recording from so long ago and Luzzati’s interpretation for children – so different and yet often similar to his vision for the stage. 

Many thanks David – as always you led me to something wonderful.

May 4 -1919: May Fourth Movement: Student demonstrations take place in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, protesting the Treaty of Versailles, which transferred Chinese territory to Japan.

One Fine Day I Met Upon My Way …..

… Three Great Kings in their bright array.

This rather fanciful, and busy to the point I couldn’t get the camera to focus, scene is an Adoration of the Magi cutout that I bought at the Tirolervolks Museum in Innsbruck.  This little “creche in a perspective box” was the work of the Engelbrecht Brothers some time between 1712-1735 and is very like the tradition of the toy theatre.  Prints could be bought plain to be hand-coloured or already coloured and ready to be cut out and assembled.  I also have the Visit of the Shepherds – which is not quite as busy – shepherds bring with them only sheep not a royal entourage.

I remember this from my choral music class in grade 9 and being told by Mr Livingstone that it was based on music from Bizet. Being the smug little bastard I was I probably told him that it was incidental music for a play and based on an old Provençal carol. How he then resisted the urge to jam his baton down my throat I will never know.

Of course the tune, Marcho dei Rei, is known outside Provençe as a theme that runs through Bizet’s music for L’Arlésienne. In its best known appearance Bizet combines it with Danse dei chivau-frus a traditional folk-dance melody that may have roots as far back as Le bon roi René.

Can there be anything as exuberant as this lovely pop-up Presepe by the genius that was Emanuele Luzzati? His jewel-like colours and the lively faces of his people and animals are filled with the joy of Christmas.
King Balthazar’s horse seems as pleased as the Kings themselves to arrive at their destination.
And rather ingeniously they are hidden away in a slot and drop down in time to arrive on  January 6th.
One of my great regrets is being with a few feet of the Museo Luzzati in Genoa and not realizing it
because of the pounding rain.

The Second Suite, arranged four years after Bizet’s death by Ernest Guiraud, has been recorded many, many times but my favourite is one of the older recordings made by one of the great conductors of the 20th Century – Sir Thomas Beecham.  Behind his facade of English eccentricity lay the ability to reach into music, particularly French music, and bring out colours that allow you to hear old favourites anew.  He was a true “amateur” – one who loves.

Of course what inspired my listening to this piece is the celebration today in the Western Christian Church of The Feast of the Epiphany. The day when tradition says that the word was revealed to the Gentiles:

    Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.
And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

Gospel of St Matthew 2: 1-12

Matthew is the only Gospel where the visit of the Magi or Kings or simply Wise Men is recounted. But out of it came a mythology rich in tradition and symbolism for the Christian Church.

These three Polish glass ornaments have been on our tree for many years:

It is uncertain when the tradition of Balthasar
coming from Africa began as in earlier mythology
he was said to be an Arabian scholar.
Though first accounts say that Melchior was a Persian
wise man over time he came to represent Europe and tradition
said he was the King who came bearing gold.


Gaspar was said to be an Indian sage and he came bearing
frankincense but again in time his origins changed and his
homeland has various been portrayed as China or Mongolia.


Matthew does not tell us how many wise men there were but he does say that they bore three gifts; as early as 500 AD the writer in a Greek document assumed that three gifts meant three kings.  An 8th Irish manuscript not only gave them names but the countries their journeys began in as well. It was said that Melchior was from Persia, Gaspar was from India and Balthasar started his travels in Arabia.  Though their names remained essentially the same as Christianity spread their countries of origin were adapted to reflect an expanding world.   Balthasar was said to come from Africa (perhaps Ethiopia), Gaspar from Asia (Yemen or possibly China or Mongolia) and Melchior from Europe, his origins being either Celtic or Frankish.


The figures in our Polish creche have a more serious mien but I find the rather weary looks on the 
three royal travellers faces touching.  Their journey has taken them far and having reached their 
destination they gaze onthe object of their search with obvious adoration.

Unlike their birth places the gifts of the Kings (Wise men, Sages) have never changed: gold and frankincense and myrrh.  It has been thought they have a spiritual meaning of Jesus as King and God and Sacrifice: gold – signifying earthly kingship; frankincense – an offering of sweet smelling incense to a deity; and myrrh – an ancient embalming oil symbolizing death.  But it has also been suggested that the gold could stand for virtue, the frankincense for prayer and myrrh for suffering.   What happened to these gifts is never made clear in the gospel but stories developed around them.  One legend said that the gold was stolen by the two thieves who were crucified with Christ; another says that Mary and Joseph used it when they fled to Egypt; a third has it being entrusted to Judas who used it for his own ends. Another story says that Mary kept the myrrh and used it to anoint his body after his crucifixion.

06 January – 1907: Maria Montessori opens her first school and daycare centre for working class children in Rome, Italy.

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