Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Thoughts on a tweet-sized Verdi Requiem


Yesterday I switched on BBC Radio 3 and found myself listening to an extract from Verdi's Requiem. To my astonishment the back announcement at the end of the Libera Me told me the extract was part of a concert, not a record programme. The concert was billed as "Music to Die For - a heavenly mix of devilishly popular classics" and performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra, with extracts from the Mozart and Fauré Requiems and from Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde also featuring in it. Single movement extracts have become the norm on Radio 3 record programmes, but this is the first time I have come across a concert of single movement excerpts from the mainstream repertoire. Which set me thinking about the following passage from Peter Mayne's A Year in Marrakesh, a book, incidentally, which dates from 1953.
'...it is also the way the Qu'ran is learnt, the 'perspicuous book' of Islam. Muslim children sit swaying back and forth in their tiny windowless schoolrooms while the preceptor flicks at them with his twig to hold their attention, endlessly repeating the verses. At first it means nothing, even the language is unfamiliar, but finally it takes charge. Once the Qu'ran has taken charge, the children are safely Muslim for ever.'
Today classical music is sliced, diced and generally blanded-out in the vain hope that it will provide instant gratification for the Twitter generation. But there is another way for the music to take charge; sadly the alternative method does not deliver instant results, but in my experience it still works very well. While travelling recently my listening included music recorded in Syria some years before the current tragic conflict. The Aleppian Music Room is a double CD of traditional Arab classical music performed by Julian Weiss' Ensemble al-Kindī with singers Sabri Moudallal and Omar Sarmini, see sleeve above and photo below. During five weeks away from home I listened to this alien music repeatedly. To misquote Peter Mayne, at first it meant almost nothing, even the harmonic language was unfamiliar, but finally it took charge, and I became a devotee of Arab classical music, presumably for ever - radio producers please note.

I bought The Aleppian Music Room in the Harmonia Mundi Boutique in Avignon. It was recorded in 1998 and is one in a series of 'two for the price of one' reissues of CDs by Julien Weiss and Ensemble al-Kindī on the Chant du Monde label. My voyage of discovery was smoothed by the excellent English sleeve notes by the late author, composer and authority on Arab music Christian Poché. Informed continuity announcements are another victim of the blanding-out of classical radio, while the disappearing art of sleeve note writing is presumably the price we must pay for the instant gratification of MP3 downloads. But enough carping; let us just be thankful that in an age where the Verdi Requiem has to be served up in tweet sized morsels we still have chunky re-releases like The Aleppian Music Room.

After a period on the fringes of the counterculture, French born Julien Weiss converted to Islam in 1983 and took the name Jalal Eddine. In 1995 he made his home in a 14th century Mamelouk residence in Aleppo, which is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and still an important cultural center. The Aleppian Music Room was recorded in Aleppo, both Sabri Moudallal and Omar Sarmini were born in the city, and it was also the home of musicologist Christian Poché. Aleppo is at the centre of the current terrible events in Syria, it has suffered extensive damage and many lives have been lost. So let us remember that while 'Music to die for' may mean one thing to ratings chasers in London, it means something very different to the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. My 2010 post about John Adams' Syrian connection came with a prescient health warning about the political regime, while there is more music from Aleppo here.

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1 comment:

Pliable said...

American conductor Keith Lockhart conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra in Music to Die For. The same orchestra and Lockhart accompanied Lang Lang in a truncated version of Rhapsody in Blue at the Queen's Jubilee Concert last week alongside Cliff Richard and others.