• Stealin’ Apples

A variety of searches has led to today’s seasonal post.  Following up last month’s excerpt from John Clare’s A Shepherd’s Calendar (about a boy nicking fruit from orchards in the dead of night) and thinking about Eddie Condon’s career after recording The Minor Drag with Fats Waller, I’ve come up with this.

Consider the situation.  You’ve been asked to put together a new Encyclopaedia of Music with some crusty old professors.  Then someone tells you that there’s a new type of music that you must include in the book.  But you know nothing about it.  What do you do?  Simple.  Get involved with an attractive young night-club singer who knows about such things and who’s wanted by the police about her gangster boyfriend.  Of course, you must invite some of the practitioners of this new-fangled music to play some of it for you.  Imagine Grove 6 inviting the Sex Pistols around for tea and crumpet.

Then you film the results for international distribution.  Absurd?  Well, it’s been done.  Danny Kaye (Professor Hobart Frisbee!) and Virginia Mayo (Honey Swanson) are the acting stars in A Song Is Born (Howard Hawks, 1948).  And the musicians?  None other than Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Mel Powell and Benny Goodman (‘disguised’ as Professor Magenbruch).

These last three star in the scene above (with the other two contributing to the introductory dialogue), rather archly set-up and hammed it’s true (watch the stop-time …), but it’s a brilliant performance of Fats Waller’s song Stealin’ Apples (1936).  There’s some great playing by Powell on piano and especially by Hampton on vibes.  It fair jingles along.

There are many other performances out there of this song.

• Benny Goodman’s performance in Los Angeles in 1961 of Fletcher Henderson’s 1936 arrangement is smooth, zippy, though the sound quality is poor in places; there are also some interesting audience shots <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evS47squKmM>
• Eddie Condon recorded it a year later in a TV studio with his All Stars septet, giving even greater prominence to the clarinettist (Peanuts Hucko) than in the other two videos <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NKFEm9Qd1w>.

Thanks to enquiries made by Nancy Giffin, Bill Haesler and Adrian Ford, it’s also possible to bring you Andy Razaf’s lyrics, although it appears that Stealin’ Apples has never been recorded in its song form.

I was always taught that it was wrong to be a thief.
He who took his neighbour’s good would surely come to grief.
There’s exceptions to the tune I guess,
What I used to take brought happiness.

Apple time was always time for stealin’,
Just to be with you was so appealin’
Takin’ chances
Stealin’ apples with you.

We would wait and catch the farmer nappin’,
In his orchard anything could happen,
Takin’ chances,
Stealing apples with you

I could hardly wait until you would bite one,
For it meant a kiss if it was the right one.
What a joy dear, it would be,
If I could find myself once more back in wildwood,
Takin’ chances,
Stealin’ apples with you.

• Charles Trenet in ‘Cavalcade des heures’

Following on from yesterday’s ‘What Are You Up To, Radio 3 – Essentially?’, I thought I’d point up one of the delights of ‘inessential’ revelations in Classical Collection which I caught two years ago.  I think it was Rob Cowan who played Mam’zelle Clio, sung by Charles Trenet.  I fell for its joie-de-vivre and humour straightaway and immediately ordered CDs and sheet music.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Here was a singer and composer with a very special talent to amuse, à la français, bien sûr (he was known as ‘le fou chantant’), as well as to pull on the strings of sentiment.  I knew La Mer, his greatest international hit, but nothing else.  Thank you, Rob Cowan.  May you continue to throw unexpected, non-mainstream and ‘inessential’ items into the mix of your new programme, whatever its title.

I’m attaching two contrasting clips from a film Trenet appeared in when he was turning 30, La Cavalcade des Heures (Yvan Noé, 1943).  In the first, he doesn’t sing on screen, but listens to a 78 of a song that he co-wrote and recorded a year earlier, Que reste-t-il de nos amours?.  Its mood is suitably seasonal: ‘Tonight, the wind that knocks on my door/talks to me of dead loves/in front of the fire which is going out.  Tonight, it’s a song of autumn/in the house that shivers/and I think of distant days.  [Refrain] What is left of our loves?/What is left of those fine days?/A photo, old photo/of my youth. …’  You may recognise the melody, which was reused for I Wish You Love and recorded by Marlene Dietrich, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Rod Stewart and others.  But nothing beats Trenet’s understated original.

The second clip shows Trenet singing a very different song, in his trademark trilby.  Débit de l’eau … Débit de lait is one of his most popular in France, mainly because of its clever and delightfully whimsical lyrics and tongue-twisting patter.  The refrain includes lines such as:

Ah qu’il est beau, le débit de lait, Ah qu’il est laid, le débit de l’eau
Débit de lait si beau, débit de l’eau si laid
S’il est un débit beau, c’est bien le beau débit de lait.
Au débit d’eau y a le beau Boby, Au débit d’lait y a la bell’Babée …

Here’s a resumé of the main threads of the story: two shops (débits) in the street, one ugly (laid) selling water (l’eau), one pretty (beau) selling milk (lait); Boby sells the water, Babée the milk.  They don’t get on and quarrel over the churns (bidons).  But they get married; Boby puts milk in his water and Babée puts water in her milk.  And Boby makes sure he keeps pretty Babée’s two best churns of milk for himself (Oui mais Boby garde pour lui Les deux plus beaux bidons de lait de la Babée jolie) …

• What Are You Up To, Radio 3 – Essentially?

Oh dear, Auntie Beeb is at it again.  She’s asking us to sit comfortably in our antimacassar Queen Anne chairs, our tooth mug by our side and a cup of … well, you get the picture.  Welcome to Radio 3’s new morning ‘not-drive-time’ replacement for Classical Collection.  With its aura of chocolate boxes and nice gift shops, that title wasn’t much to shout about either.  Now, make way for … (‘Drumroll’, among other symphonies) … Essential Classics.

What a stroke of genius.  It’s fresh, original, unforgettable.  Others will soon catch on, mind.  I can see the future: fascinating CDs and downloads called Essential Vivaldi, Essential Mozart, Essential Mendelssohn.  We might even get, wait for it, Essential Ravel or Essential, Essential Classics.  And, dare I think the unthinkable?  How about Essential World Music or Essential Classic Jazz (a double hit there, surely)?

Say the word over and over and it becomes meaningless.  Actually, it’s pretty meaningless anyway.  Essential for whom, for what?  I believe that the title is nothing but a cynical ploy to be seen to try to attract less-demanding listeners.  Are radio listeners that dumb?  Radio 3 has a robust following, so does it think that its survival depends on some putative untapped constituency with few musical brain cells between the ears?  Seriously, who these days is going to be won over by such a title?  Not the younger listener, that’s for sure.  In any event, I don’t think that Radio 3 really believes in titles like this.  Classical Collection frequently goes beyond expectations, so why shouldn’t Essential Classics?  It had jolly well better do, otherwise it will lose listeners.

There is so much twaddle that accompanies schedule changes.  Radio 3 says: ‘The extended length of this programme will allow for longer pieces of repertoire to be played and will include, for example, a performance of the complete ‘Building A Library’ recommendation’.  To take the latter point first: Classical Collection presents the complete ‘Building A Library’ recommendation already – so what’s new?  As to ‘longer pieces of repertoire’, there are plenty of examples in recent Classical Collection playlists of works lasting 20’-30’.  Less than two weeks ago, it  broadcast Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony, which comes in at c. 50’.  So another piece of promotional tosh.

Yet there may be hope for those of us who like a challenge or something ‘inessential’ in our morning (or anytime) listening.  I’m thinking of a wonderful use of my least favourite word in the marketing of an Olympia CD back in 1993.  It was of music by Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (OCD 385) and was clearly piggybacking on the phenomenal international success of Elektra Nonesuch’s CD the previous year of the Pole’s Third Symphony, ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ (1976).

What better way to encourage sales than by calling the CD  The Essential Górecki Orchestral and Choral Music.  Recordings Selected by the Composer?  Brilliant.  Though I’m damn sure that Górecki didn’t choose the headline title.  Pity the poor enthusiast for the Third Symphony who bought this CD expecting more of the same, because isn’t that what was being implied?  If the enthusiast listened to music from the comfort of a well-upholstered and well-protected armchair, then a life-threatening shock was in store.

Why?  Because the five works on The Essential Górecki were nothing like the Third Symphony.  There was the terse, Webernian Epitafium (1958), the explosively avant-garde Scontri (Collisions, 1960), the gritty Genesis II (1962), the Messiaenic Refrain (1965) and the modal v. serial-atonal Old Polish Music (1969).

If, on the other hand, the listener was open-eared, unconcerned with mantras about ‘core repertoire’, a wonderful, mould-shattering surprise awaited.  Because, to appropriate the word ‘essential’, this music from 1958-69 was and is representative of the composer’s creative drive and imagination and an essential component in an understanding of his musical journey.

Olympia’s marketing was either a cynical move or an inspired hijacking – of a stale, tired, forgettable term – whose subversive intention was to stimulate individual hearing buds and catch the listener unawares.  If that’s what Radio 3 has in mind for Essential Classics, but isn’t telling, than hurrah for that.

Listen out from 9 a.m. on Monday, 12 September.

• Conundrum – When Does A Shower Become Rain?

Yesterday at 06.30, BBC Radio’s weather forecasters predicted “showers in the West”.  It then proceeded to rain solidly – and heavily – for three hours.

So when does a shower become rain?

I’d like to think that there’s Zen-like enlightenment to be found in that elusive moment of transition.

• Reclaiming Heligan

An unpromising early weather forecast yesterday didn’t deter us from making an excursion to The Lost Gardens of Heligan.  Pouring rain en route was not encouraging.  On arrival, it seemed wise to take the opportunity to have a coffee-break with the few other visitors who had braved the elements.  But the forecast was right – it cleared up.  Yet the gardens remained virtually deserted.  We had the Northern Summerhouse to ourselves (rain-soaked views to the sea) and even, an hour or so later, the Italian Garden (above).  These two spots are particularly atmospheric, fit for contemplation from their open-fronted summerhouses.  Yesterday, this really was possible.

 Why, at the height of the tourist season, were there so few visitors?  I hope that it wasn’t a result of the appallingly feeble BBC2 documentary last Wednesday (produced and narrated by Philippa Forrester).  I’ve been to Heligan over half-a-dozen times in the last couple of years and have been continually amazed by its variety, its surprises, its seasonal beauty, the vigour of its spirit, the rigour of its restoration and the dedicated discipline of its workforce.  Its magic lies, I think, in the unusual combination of man-made structures with both tamed and untamed nature.  The last thing it needed was some slack TV team making a twee, toothless travesty of a nature programme about it.

Natural World: Heligan – Secrets of a Lost Garden (no secrets were revealed) was soft-focus, slow-motion and hugely overextended (its hour’s content could have been contained in a programme a third of its length).  It did Heligan no service and, a few episodes of mildly interesting visuals aside (mating toads, seaweed gathering), added nothing to existing widespread knowledge of the place nor of the lives of the few animal species upon which it set its blinkered gaze.

When you go to the Hide, for example, you’ll see Heligan’s own films of its wildlife that knock spots off the BBC’s.  The programme’s music tracks were almost uniformly distracting and inappropriate, with the saccharine tone of the spoken commentary seemingly about to break into the phrase “This is not just Heligan.  This is Your Heligan”.  And who is it with two brain cells who can’t see through the ludicrously anthropomorphised text and visuals concerning the death of a young fox or the Great Spotted Woodpeckers, which we were supposed to believe might be laying a few extra eggs especially so that Nice Mr Grey Squirrel could have a few?  Surely the world and the rest of the BBC have long moved on from (the inimitable) Beatrix Potter when it comes to discussing wildlife.  Not even the coverage of the restoration of Heligan came anywhere near adequate.  It was just plain lazy.

So, if you haven’t already been to Heligan, go soon, no matter what the weather, walk the grounds and reclaim its history and marvel at its living character.  You’ll find it an infinitely more intense, real and fascinating experience than this low-grade gift-shop souvenir would have you believe.

• Sit, Stand, Walk

Yesterday, I got in from a convivial evening with friends at the Rising Sun near Altarnun just in time to catch Radio 3’s late-night Hear And Now, a broadcast of a brilliant concert from this year’s Spitalfields Festival.  It was given by Chroma and featured works by Param Vir (Hayagriva) and Jonathan Harvey (Sringara Chaconne).  But for me the highlights were two works by Rolf Hind: Horse Sacrifice (2001) and the premiere of Sit, Stand, Walk (2011).

photo: Alys Tomlinson

I should declare an interest here: Rolf spent nine days in Cornwall in July 2010, meditating intensely indoors and outdoors (though not on a deckchair, as I recall).  More importantly, he composed one of the movements of Sit, Stand, Walk in my music room.  His stay has spurred me on to get quotes for converting the garage into a proper studio where artists of any discipline can come and be creative away from their normal hustle and bustle.

I first met Rolf when he came to give a recital at Queen’s University, Belfast, in the mid-1980s.  I’ve never forgotten his stunning performances of Beethoven, Copland and Carter sonatas that evening.  Few pianists can match his total dedication to new music and it’s no wonder that composers specifically ask to work with him, knowing that he’ll get to the heart of their music, both interpretatively and technically.  So it’s great that the tables are now turning and performers are asking to work on his own growing output as a composer.

He has a distinctive voice that comes in large part, I suspect, from the tough demands that he makes on himself in his Buddhist meditation.  He also has an acute ear for the delicate balance of musical continuities and discontinuities, for ritual and for unusual instrumental sonorities and combinations.  The solo-ensemble drama of Horse Sacrifice played out like a miniature concerto, deft, expressive and perfectly formed, with a particularly atmospheric final movement.

Ten years on, Sit, Stand, Walk revisits the concerto principle, this time with the clarinet (a virtuosic performance from Stewart King) as protagonist.  This was even more like a journey of the soul, revealing the interior through tender antiphony (or antiphonal tenderness?) between the soloist and the slowly-gathering reflectors of the other instruments.  The ritualistic punctuation of the percussion was offset by unexpected colours, especially that of the accordion, which whetted the appetite for Rolf’s forthcoming accordion concerto (for James Crabb and the BBCSO).  This was a haunting exploration of the experience of meditation, completed by a brief fourth movement ‘Open’, which the composer rightly called ‘an exponential explosion of joy’.  A great piece and a fascinating concert of meditation-inspired pieces, though perhaps before midnight on a Saturday was not the most ideal placing!

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