I Wanna Shake Your Hand!
Are you sure you want to know what goes on behind the curtain? Either way, once again we’ve been led backstage to what’s become less of a “magical mystery tour” and more of an ongoing unfolding of revelations about the music-making of The Beatles. It was bound to happen a couple of weeks ago when Sir George Martin passed away at age 90 on March 8th. He was the record producer who not only stood by The Beatles on Penny Lane, but also walked with them along a road that came to be lined with gold records.
George Martin had studied composition, conducting, piano and oboe at the Guildhall School in London. He brought those tools with him into the studio and brought classical music into the recordings of the Beatles and others. That’s not to say he didn’t face some initial resistance, even from those who would benefit from his sensibilities
A day after Martin’s passing, Sir Paul McCartney shared on his website a favorite memory of working with Sir George. At the time he recorded his song Yesterday, Martin suggested adding a string quartet to the sounds of McCartney’s voice and guitar, which already had been recorded in the studio. Paul objected, “Oh no George, we are a rock and roll band and I don’t think it’s a good idea.” He remembers Martin’s reply: “Let’s try it and if it doesn’t work we won’t use it and we’ll go with your solo version."
McCartney went to work on the arrangement with George Martin. There he got his first lesson in how strings were voiced for a quartet. When they actually recorded the quartet, he said he realized how correct Martin was and that he went around telling people for weeks about it.
String quartets, harpsichords and baroque style trumpets became part of the musical vocabulary of pop music listeners – not necessarily the terms, but the sounds. That wasn’t Sir George’s mission. But he helped bring it about while producing innovative and exciting recordings. He wasn’t the only one incorporating such elements into pop music, but he reached more listeners with his work than many others. The Beatles learned much, as did listeners, from George Martin.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies learned quite a bit from the children he taught and for whom he wrote music. And he seemed to be all the richer for the time he spent with them. That was the gist of the message he related when I spoke with him years ago, and of the program that resulted from those interviews. It was a nationally distributed program which I called: A Child to the Max: Stories and Music From Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. I wrote about it at length in a blog post at the time of the composer’s 80th birthday in September, 2014.
Max, as he was known to so many (and Master of the Queen’s Music from 2004 – 2014), passed away on March 14th at age 81. He had been living on the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland since 1971. That environment had a major influence on his music and his life over the years.
Sir Peter’s Orkney-inspired and children’s music were the focus of my interviews with him and the subsequent program. The title A Child to the Max referred to his work with children as well as the child-like excitement he generated in telling stories about children, children’s music he had written and life on the Orkney Islands. I was reassured about the title when I read Andrew Clements’ remembrance of the composer in the Guardian: “What never disappeared… was the almost boyish enthusiasm Maxwell Davies brought to writing and making music, and to his involvement with those performing it.” A new children’s opera titled The Hogboon, based on an Orkney legend, will be performed for the first time in London in June.
Nicolaus Harnoncourt passed away on March 5th. The Berlin-born cellist and conductor, who was a descendant of noble families, shook up the classical music world over the years with his authentic performance approaches to Baroque, Classical and Romantic music . He continued to perform with the ensemble Concentus Musicus Wien that he and his wife Alice, a violinist, founded. He also conducted and made recordings with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Berlin Philharmonic in his later years.
Harnoncourt’s work inspired a good many “period performance” ensembles. Though they take their approaches seriously, as he did, many have made it enjoyable to listen to early music with the energy they bring to it.
Not everybody has been convinced about the authentic performance approach. Interestingly enough, when I chatted with Maxwell Davies about his 20th century “realizations” of the music of Bach and Purcell, including his transformation of a Purcell piece into a foxtrot, he didn’t seem to think he should be bound by the original music. His response to whether Purcell would have minded was that he just treated him like a contemporary, “and the fact that he’s dead, well, tough!” I still smile when I think back on that.
It’s tempting to peek behind the scenes of music-making, where so many musicians have spent a lifetime. At some point, it’s best to just sit back and listen. There’s plenty to enjoy in front of the curtain. For that, we have the likes of Sir George, Sir Peter and Count Nikolaus to thank.
And I want to thank you – most recently for yet another year of allowing me to share classical music, stories and celebrations with you each weekday morning. On April 1st, we’ll celebrate the 6th anniversary of Classic Mornings! Join us Monday through Friday from 9 to noon – and for the Classic Morning Prelude just before at 8:50 – on FM 90.9 and online at will.illinois.edu.