Anna Picard explores the charms of a long ago concert season and its chroniclers.
Captain Arthur Hugh Sidgwick, who was killed in action in Flanders in September 1917 at the age of 34, was a classicist and educationist. A year younger than PG Wodehouse, he was also a deft humourist, poking gentle fun at the middle-classes and their cultural pursuits, writing light verse and hymning the social and solitary joys of walking in Walking Essays (1912). Published in 1914, Sidgwick’s The Promenade Ticket: A Lay Record of Concert-Going is a prelapsarian romp through popular reception history in which seven fictional bright and not-so-bright young things report on their experiences at Queen’s Hall in return for access to a kindly uncle’s season ticket.
As Nigel, Rhoda, Delia, Henry, Roberts, Harrison and Lane work their way through the season, there are inevitable disagreements of taste and opinion, often centered on new music and cheerfully resolved over cake. None of them are experts. Concerts are enjoyed and sometimes endured. A committee is formed to discuss Wagner. Sidgwick’s index of their differing impressions is amusing in itself: “Brahms, a gentleman, 53; orchestration impugned, 41, 121; orchestration vindicated, 53, 56, 121; relation to schoolgirls, 121, 127-8; relation to Higher Thought, 33, 127-8”. To this reader, however, the most interesting passage is listed under “Italian Opera, characteristics of, 14”.
Barrel-organs and pianolas
Here is Nigel enthusiastically writing to his Uncle George about the opening concert of the season, a mixed programme of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Grieg’s Peer Gynt, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and the intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana: “I still find it difficult to remember that the intermezzo was not composed specially for barrel-organs, but was really conceived as an interlude between the religious rejoicings which always begin an Italian opera, and the double murder and suicide which generally end it.”
By 1914 there were indeed barrel-organs playing Mascagni. Popular classics from the opera had squeezed their way into the front parlour in transcriptions for amateur pianists, and in one of his concert reports, Lane mentions having heard ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ on a friend’s player-piano. (“It sounded different on the band, but the tunes were the same.”) Yet some snobbery or transalpine sectarianism attached to verismo in the concert hall. If you admired, say, Schumann, you were supposed to disapprove of Cilea. As Simon Russell Beale noted last week, until recently Puccini was considered vulgar.
Snobbery did not stop Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker recording an album of Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Wolf-Ferrari and Giordano intermezzi in 1967, albeit with an air of holding the music between thumb and fore-finger. But with the exception of the balmy intermezzo from Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this most practical of forms, used to cover a scene change and indicate the passing of time, has been consigned to encore material. The mixed programme of the sort that was regularly heard in concerts from the Queen’s Hall to the Winter Gardens in Blackpool in the early twentieth century has faded into history.
Sidgwick’s alter ego Nigel had a point about the intermezzo: the body count at the end of works such as Cavalleria rusticana, Pagliacci, Fedora, Adriana Lecouvreur and I gioielli della Madonna is notable and includes some unusual murder weapons. (Death by violets? Why not?) The intermezzo from L’amico Fritz is the only item on Karajan’s recording that heralds a happy ending. What a pity that the rest of Italy’s romantic comedies are so little known, especially when you recall the magpie brilliance of the intermezzo in Wolf-Ferrari’s Il segreto di Susanna.
Strauss, the most playful of stylists, took the word as the title for his 1924 ‘bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes’, Intermezzo. This thinly-disguised autobiographical portrait of a marriage between a mild-mannered conductor and his highly-strung wife was ostensibly a nod to the comic one-acters that played in the interval of more serious operas in the eighteenth century. Anticipating trouble, Hugo von Hofmannstahl declined to write the libretto and Strauss wrote it himself. Pauline Strauss was not amused.
Elsewhere in the repertoire the i-word, tarnished by its kitchy association with verismo, was carefully softened or airbrushed away. While many people know that ‘The Walk to the Paradise Garden’ comes from Delius’s opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet, it is less well known that it was marked as an intermezzo and only added to the score in 1906. Four years earlier, when the Opéra comique’s stage machinery could not match the scene changes in Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy extended the orchestral passages in his watery, secretive score with no ambition to recycle them for the concert hall, though several composers arranged them into suites after his death.
Very odd in parts
Look for Debussy, then radically modern, in The Promenade Ticket and the first entry after his name in the index is ‘whether in tune, 45’. The work in question is not identified. “It sounded very odd in parts”, writes Nigel’s friend Harrison, who also heard the Prelude to Lohengrin, Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas (“a topping tune”) and the Prologue to Pagliacci, sung by “a man who looked rather Welsh”, in the same programme. A Wooster avant la lettre, Harrison nonetheless correctly detects the influence of Wagner on Leoncavallo. His next concert report concludes “Met some friends afterwards and argued about Wagner. (Mem: Ask Bill what the Ring is. Is it a song?)”
Nigel is more positive than Harrison about Debussy when he hears Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune later in the season: “It is strange stuff, of course, quite unlike anything else; but so is most good music. It is dreamy, but definite; odd, but beautiful; delicate, but strong; it arrests the attention while seeming to allow it to wander at will.” Some cross-checking with the Proms archive reveals that Uncle George’s ticket must have been for the 1912 season, and that this was the London premiere of a work not quite six months old. Debussy was still alive, as were Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Strauss, Delius and Puccini. All would outlive Arthur Hugh Sidgwick.
An imagined reunion
It is sad to think how much more music Sidgwick would have heard and commented upon, in his own voice or in the invented voices of his characters, had he survived WWI, returned to his position at the Board of Education and continued writing about the British middle classes and their sometimes bemused love of music. Had he survived the war that followed and lived to his early 60s, with concert-going nieces and nephews of his own, he might even have attended the premiere of Peter Grimes between VE Day and VJ Day.
In Peter Grimes we have a set of orchestral interludes that stand proud as a quartet in their concert hall formation, and that mirror the traditional function of the intermezzo in evoking changing time and temperature in the theatre. They describe a seascape as dominant in the hard lives of the characters of Britten’s characters as the Sicilian landscape is in the hard lives of Mascagni’s characters. Here, too, is the classic verismo contrast between religious celebration (the bright bells of ‘Sunday Morning’) and a double murder, or manslaughter, and suicide.
It is pleasing to imagine a reunion of the promenaders at Sadler’s Wells in June 1945 and intriguing to wonder what their impressions would have been. Harrison would have been vexed by the moral ambiguity of Peter Grimes. Rhoda, by now long married to Gilbert, would have found it a trifle tiring and the choral accusations quite alarming. Henry, who preferred “to hear nice tunes with none of your beastly intellectualism”, would have composed an angry letter to The Times. Nigel, aka Sidgwick, I suspect, would have loved it, as he did everything strange and new.