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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

Introduction
Prelude and The Raft of Poverty
In the Circus Ring
The Pedlar's Prediction
Hail Caesar!
Jealousy is Dead
A Steam Engine for a Piano
Stalin Organs
Hungarian Rhapsody: a failure
White Nights
All or Nothing
          

PILGRIMAGE TO SAINT FRAMBOURG

          Whenever I see a young artist in difficulty, I feel like helping him, reminded as I am of my own years of hardship and enforced silence. How many young people suffer from the taboo of being unknown? Just tell them that oneís twenties are the finest years of oneís life! I secretly vowed to open up to them the temple gates I had been kept away from for so long.

          Up until the 1960s, many artists were ignored by agents on the pretext that they had not made any records and were not known to the majority of music lovers. In their turn, the record companies hesitated to invite them to make a first recording because they had not given sufficient concerts.

          It took me a long time to find a way to break this vicious circle but in the end I found several solutions. To start with, I selected a number of young players and presented them to the audience at the end of my recitals, concerts and various TV appearances. Once the surprise had worn off, they were given a warm welcome. Rather than the usual encores, I let them take my place at the piano. At the same time I decided to reward future winners of the International Piano Competition which bore my name by altering the nature of the prizes. Instead of obtaining engagements and recordings, which risked only attracting a limited number of music lovers, I intended to share the platform with the prize winners so that they could enjoy the sort of large audience which paid me the honour of attending my recitals.

          Thatís fine, I thought, but not sufficient. It was then that in order to give my project more importance I thought of starting up a Foundation where there would be master classes and a recital hall sufficiently spacious and with the appropriate audio-visual equipment, giving young instrumentalists of all categories the opportunity to complete their training under the best teachers as well as giving recitals or making recordings at will, without being obliged to spend years in ante-rooms in the hope of being Ďdiscoveredí.

          As I am not in favour of fire-proofed formica or corrugated iron, which are, alas, used in the construction of virtually every cultural centre which our leisure civilisation is so avid for, I followed the old adage according to which the new should be built from the old. Wit the best intentions, I decided to go and see André Malraux to ask his advice.[Malraux (1901-1976) was at the time Minister for the Arts. He was also a novelist of repute.] This time luck was on my side. I met him the next day in a historical district known as Le Marais. I told him of my plans, which he welcomed enthusiastically.

          "Your project is all to your honour but itís not possible here in Paris. Thereís not an inch of land which someone hasnít laid hands on," he said, pointing wearily to the metal beams of the Centre Beaubourg outside, then in the final stages of construction. [Also known as the Centre Pompidou, it lies on the site of the former vegetable market Les Halles. Boulez's IRCAM lies beneath it.] "No," he said, "it would be better to go to Senlis. Itís quite different from other historical towns. Senlis is the birthplace of France. It was formerly the seat of the first Capetian kings. Iím fairly certain its oldest church, the former Chapel Royal of St Frambourg, is in danger of collapse. Since it was pillaged under the Revolution, it has been a Temple of Reason, a forge, fodder suppliers, a riding school, a firemanís barracks and, latterly, a carpark. Yet how beautiful it must once have been! If you were able to restore it, France would be deeply indebted to you, believe you me. But, dear Georges," he said, lowering his voice, "such an undertaking would require a great deal of money. Have you got enough?"

          "Frankly, no," I sighed in frustration. "Iíve just about enough to buy it in its present condition if the owner doesnít ask too much. And from what you say about the placeÖ" "Your savings wouldnít be sufficient, "he acknowledged, "so what do you intend to do?" "I donít know yet but I want to purchase that church and turn it into an auditorium dedicated to Liszt," I ventured. "And youíve got some means of doing that?" "Yes," I said, suddenly feeling reassured and placing my hands on his, the Royal Way [An allusion to Malraux's novel "La Voie Royale" (1930)], which also happens to be mine." "In short," said Malraux in amazement, "you hope to raise the Chapel Royal from its ashes with your own two hands?" "Yes," I replied. "Thatís the best way, providing God gives you help and strength. But you must admit," he said with a twinkle in his eye, "that a descendant of Attila returning to France to restore the birthplace of our kings really is the limit!"

          And so the great adventure began. Back from a concert tour, I went to Senlis to look round my future purchase. What a desolate sight met my eyes when I went inside. Twenty-odd parked cars were dotted here and there. Walls, pillars and ceiling had all been despoiled. Twenty-four gaping holes nearly ten feet high were all that remained of the stained glass windows. The roof leaked. Malraux had been right: everything would have to be restored.

          My wife Soleilka was to be mainly responsible for the seemingly impossible undertaking. Guided by her fervent intuition, I bought the church just as it was, exposed to the elements. The first thing we did was to have plate glass windows put in so that the dozens of crows, the hundreds of pigeons, thousands of sparrows, and black cats would know they would have to find a home elsewhere. I could do no more for the time being. I would have to be off to make more money. Restoration work advanced with tantalizing slowness and it melted away. Larger and larger sums were required. I worked like a galley slave. Luckily, as Soleilka had predicted, a new miracle occurred. In 1975 the Foundation was officially declared a public utility so we could accept gifts from friends wishing to support our cause. It was a drop in the ocean compared with the budget for the work yet to be done but at least we were not alone.

          At the time, we lived in Paris. The windows of my study, where I worked between tours, looked down onto a nearby church. One evening after work, I did not go to evening service as usual but just went there to meditate for a few moments. Back home, a new pile of bills was awaiting me containing so many zeros that I still shudder at the very thought of them. I am a believer and normally never pray for anything other than the health and happiness of my family. That particular day I prayed to Saint François de Sales, patron saint of the church, to give me strength to continue. Unless a miracle occurred, I could not go on assuming the heavy expenses of the undertaking. I needed to reduce the number of concerts I was giving but could not. Back home, Soleilka welcomed me with a strange piece of news. Someone had phoned to say she had two beautiful stained glass windows just the size we required and wanted to donate them to the Chapel Royal. We went to look at them and they were indeed magnificent. One was of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, the other of Saint François de Sales.

          "How strange," said Soleilka on our way back, "that we should jus chance on a stained glass portrayal of Saint Elizabeth." "And Saint François de Sales," I murmured pensively. "That makes a fair number of coincidences," she went on. "Saint Elizabeth is the patron saint of Hungary and Saint François de Sales, well we live just by a church dedicated to him. And, strangest of all, Liszt conducted the second performance of his The Legend of St Elizabeth in the same church. What do you make of all that?" "I donít know about the coincidences but it certainly makes you wonder," I replied, thinking back to my visit to the church the previous evening when I had felt so discouraged.

          The coincidences came together like the arches of Saint Frambourg, its patron saint, who was from the Auvergne where I organized the La Chaise-Dieu Festival each summer. During the war I had seen a chapel where I had just played the organ bombed and had been tempted to believe music could unleash destructive forces. It is a comfort to see another chapel resurrected through and for music.

          Events accelerated after that. Members of the Foundation arrived in their hundreds. They now number thousands. An unhoped-for grant enabled restoration work to forge ahead. Generous donators offered to take on financial responsibility for the rebuilding of the faced, including replacement of the great door. In the newly-converted crypt, all objects found during preliminary excavations will be put on show. The great nave itself will be entirely restored and fitted out by the end of the year. If you come to Senlis for a concert, I will be glad to welcome you. I am sure the Franz Liszt Auditorium will come into being. I shall have to work overtime for it is my lifeís work and after that the outside will need restoring.

          I should like to communicate the invisible thread linking the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest with this new auditorium of the same name on French soil to all young musicians who come to Senlis so as to justify this great adventure of the restoration of the Chapel Royal.

          Converting a religious sanctuary that has been pillaged, desecrated and betrayed into the Franz Liszt Auditorium is more than just homage to Liszt: it is an invocation and the achievement of a childhood vow in which I am totally involved. Since the age of ten I have been the bearer of a message which can only be understood after a lifetimeís experience and suffering. Before I could pass it on it had to penetrate me and feed on my inner substance. This message was passed on to me by my teacher at the Liszt Academy when he entrusted his secrets to us: the words of Liszt himself, to whom he had in his youth played Chopinís Fourth Ballade. No-one better than Liszt could have found words to express Chopinís inexpressible aura. In quoting, with respect and humility, the words engraved in his mind, he was indeed the transmitter of a tradition.

          Here is what Liszt said: "My hands no longer obey me and I fear that certain composers may see in my works nothing more than circus acrobatics. Let them talk: my time will come. But, as regards Chopin, watch out: his art has nothing to do with excessive emotional displays that so many think of as passion. Naturally, they think his music should be able to speak for itself and portray its essence, but under no circumstances should the interpreter give way to an affected or uncontrolled confession. Such music is a struggle with the powers of darkness in which there is no room for intellectual well-being. It meticulously lays bare a heart beyond time and space listening without complacency to its own beat."

          Lisztís genius consisted in praising Chopinís. Acknowledging Chopinís exceptional powers revealed his own destiny to him. "Chopin is all that and more. Iím more grateful to him than to anyone else for my contact with him has enriched and ennobled my own playing. Beware of aesthetes who delve into the inexpressible charm of his music as if it were a Vale of Tears. They are fake seraphim: ignore them."

          "Follow his true friends, of whom I had the privilege to be one. Make the various shapes and patterns of this richest of souls a part of you. I learnt from him a special form of perception enabling me to discern and transmit the ever-changing inner light emanating from his every work. The purity of the kaleidoscopic aura of his music is a miraculous, unique alliance of youthfulness and gloom. He spiritualizes the human condition, which was a burden to him. Early on he realized his days were numbered. As a consequence, his love of life became a shadowy, almost cult-like love of death. The intensity of his work with its candid, innocent language brings to all he wrote a tear-like purity. The idealist in him was more prolific than his dreadful suffering."

          "No, Chopin was far more than just a poet. He was the only metaphysician who could analyse the slightest tremor of his soul."

          "Much new music will be forgotten before another soul appears with such divining powers."

          "Like his gods Bach and Mozart, Chopin passed like a meteor. He went off in search of himself as only those predestined to do so know how, someone who has always born the laws of harmony within himself. Contrary to appearances, the outside world scarcely interested him. He was a vast membrane capturing the least movement of his inner universe Ė the only source of his creative impulse Ė which his genius at once transformed into emotion. The ever-growing rapidity of the process was a miracle. He was only too aware that he would have to hurry if he was to reach the summit and profit from it. In fact, Chopin only came back down to earth to consign the sum of what had been revealed to him in the course of his previous incarnations. Others might have written the astonishing Funeral March Sonata, but the fantastic murmur of the wind among the tombstones in the Epilogue could only have been evoked by someone for whom the mystery of death was a daily routine."

          "Like Mozart, Chopin was accorded only a brief spell in which to speak of Eternity, and even then he had to use some of his precious time to perfect a form of expression whose range and precision are no more than an invisible medium for his nirvana. Lamartineís "Líharmonieux éther dans ses vagues díazur" ["the silver waves of the harmonious sky"] merges with the breath of a soul imprisoned in a body undermined by tuberculosis for which life is only a passing phase slowing down its journey towards immortality. The only interest the Parisian salons held for him was to act as a resonator by which to measure the purity of an inspiration even more volatile than the dewdrops he put in the eyes of his ever-captive audiences. Chopinís piano was merely a means of bringing his visions to life in an endless search for transfiguration: the keyboard had become the instrument of his divine ecstasy."

          "Yes, hearing Chopin improvising or playing his compositions on his favourite piano was a rare pleasure. The glory and bondage of the interpreter all disappeared, leaving him his place as a legend for all eternity. The relation between his music and you must be the same."

          That was how I first heard about Chopinís art Ė by way of the inspiration of Liszt. And I repeat the recommendation of our teacher at the Franz Liszt Academy for todayís young players: "Draw the necessary conclusions."

  DAWN

          Many readers expect an artistís autobiography to be a succession of thrills and miracles in the course of a variety of episodes which help establish the mood. My life started Ė or rather re-started Ė just when the reader was expecting an edifying ending to the story.

          These fragments of my life have in common a single, obsessive theme: imminent spiritual death which, when all seems lost, becomes a new stage in artistic resurrection.

          I only ever felt truly alive and free when passing from darkness to light or on taking flight from a dingy prison cell like a firebird.

          I believe I have reached the beginning.

           

Senlis, September 1977

 

 



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