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Malcolm Gillies

Arnold Schoenberg rarely missed a punch. Whether in music theory, composition, or the fraught polemics of his age, he communicated with a clarity of purpose verging on the tyrannical. Visiting Schoenberg in California during his last years, the conductor Robert Craft commented on ‘the danger of crossing the circle of his pride, for though his humility is fathomless it is also plated all the way down with a hubris of stainless steel’. Harvey Sachs is worried that music lovers of the twenty-first century are failing to appreciate the continuing significance of the composer despite, or perhaps because of, this armour-plating. Addressed to the musical ‘layman’, Sachs’s ‘interpretive study’ is a passionate, occasionally self-doubting essay intended to demonstrate why Schoenberg still matters. Schoenberg’s five chapters follow a chronological track, attempting to account for most of the fifty-odd opuses of Schoenberg’s oeuvre, within a rich context of his life’s turbulent course. His chapter titles dramatically reflect the struggle – battle lines, war, breakthrough, and breakaway – of both his life and his works. Sachs popularises, refreshes, and sometimes refutes the stainless-steel images passed down in the sanctioned texts of musicology, many written by Schoenberg’s acolytes.

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To celebrate the year’s memorable plays, films, television, music, operas, dance, and exhibitions, we invited a number of arts professionals and critics to nominate their favourites.  

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Mahler’s Ninth Symphony 

Australian World Orchestra
by
24 November 2023

Along with Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner, Gustav Mahler wrote nine symphonies. For each composer there was an incomplete, or unrecognised, tenth symphonic essay, which diligent musicologists have attempted to flesh out into meaningful ‘continuity scores’ or reconstructions. Mahler was barely fifty when he completed his Ninth Symphony and dared to tempt the fates with a Tenth; the growing seriousness of a heart complaint, however, meant that death, already a frequent visitor to earlier works, was never far from his mind. He died in 1911, not having heard in performance any of his Ninth (1909–10), his incomplete Tenth (1910–11), or his Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth, 1908–9) – some four hours of his most moving music, much of which remained under-exposed for four decades until the ‘Mahler renaissance’ started in the 1950s.

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Midsummer Dreams: Mendelssohn Scottish and Beethoven Eight 

Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra
by
03 August 2023

A century ago, as Australia’s nascent capital planned its performing-arts future, it opted for a ‘commodious’ assembly hall, serving conference and recreational purposes, and doubling as a municipal theatre. Completed in 1928, Albert Hall was to be the ‘centre from which will radiate all those aspirations that are truly national’, as then Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce pompously intoned at its opening. Since then, the Hall’s record has been less illustrious, often housing carpet or shoe sales, community fairs or eisteddfods. With its peeling ceiling, drooping curtains, winter draughts, and cramped, overly elevated stage, it has proven a challenge to several generations of concert entrepreneurs.

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AWO’s national tour 

Australian World Orchestra
by
03 June 2021

‘Bringing the world back home’ was an early strapline of Australia’s SBS network. In those early multicultural days, it emphasised that being Australian did not restrict you from being culturally plural. It had the unfortunate implication, however, that Australia was not actually part of ‘the world’. We stood apart. Zoom forward to Covid-struck 2021, and Australia desperately wants to stand apart. Bringing that world back home has proven quite a technical difficulty, in sport, business, culture, even family reunion.

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La Clemenza di Tito 

National Opera
by
14 April 2021

For nearly two centuries considered the runt of Mozart’s operatic litter, La Clemenza di Tito has taken on new life this millennium. Written in the formalistic, to nineteenth-century ears even archaic, style of opera seria, this hastily composed two-act work of Mozart’s final year (first performed in Prague on 6 September 1791) is now received as fresh, even vital, overturning an inherited view of it as ‘a conception not fully realized’ (Julian Rushton). Its intensely political message is so pertinent to our own immoral times. Why, there is even a storming of the (Roman) Capitol towards the end of Act I, from which the instigators walk free.

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Bluebeard’s Castle 

Opera Australia
by
03 March 2021

Béla Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle was premièred amid the chaotic, final months of the Great War. Its lugubrious symphonic mood, grim libretto, and static set gained respect rather than favour from its first anxious audience. A century on, now freed from the shackles of copyright (Bartók died in 1945), the opera invites new approaches, arrangements, and settings. There is even now an annual Hungarian opera festival, where the Duke and his latest wife are presented everywhere from night bars to spa baths.

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Musicians like to play. Some play instruments, others play pieces, and a few, somehow, go deeper. They play ‘the music’, ideally sidelining the instrument or documentation, to connect with their audience person-to-person, even ear-to-ear. Chamber music is probably the most intimate of music’s genres. It is fundamentally about unmediated musical relationships, ...

Self-Portrait of Percy Grainger edited by Malcolm Gillies, David Pear, and Mark Carroll & Facing Percy Grainger edited by David Pear

by
October 2006, no. 285

To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s description of Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, Percy Grainger is a minstrel wrapped in a harlequin inside a jack-in-the-box. His personality, obsessions, and general eccentricities still cause one to gasp and stretch one’s eyes even almost half a century after his own hypnotic eyes closed forever. His music, too, remains quicksilver; indefinable in its eclecticism, yet the work of a sprite who was also a genius who, magpie-like, collected music from wildly different sources to stuff into the capacious if overcrowded nest that was his mind.

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