Hugues Cuénod – Some Classical Music

The world of politics is so crazy at the moment (as usual, it’s like five-year-olds on LSD) that despite the fact that this is history in the fast lane, I can’t be bothered commenting on it.

So instead, another music post (and a rather self indulgent one at that). Back in March I made a post featuring some of my favourite pop music. The post is called If music be the food of love, play on, and in it I said that I’d probably get round to doing a similar post about classical music, which is what this is. Maybe some greats of the classical music world will help to kick the slough of depression about contemporary events. Who knows?

I’m honing in here on a radio programme I made back in 2010 (which is why this post is a tad self indulgent) about the life and times of the Swiss opera singer Hugues Cuénod (pronounced Kwayno), who had the longest singing career in history, and at the age of 85 he was the oldest person ever to make a debut at the Met (and at the age of 102 he was also the oldest person ever to have a gay marriage) The programme is called The Gift of Idleness and is one hour long. I made the programme with Janet Kenny, who also presented it. Janet Kenny is a former London based opera singer now living in Australia, who provided the expert knowledge (Janet had also worked with Cuénod back in the 1960s). Cuénod celebrated his 108th birthday during the summer of 2010, just as Janet and I were in the middle of making the programme. Although a bit of a legend, Cuénod is not that widely known outside of the classical music world. My thinking was, that at such an age the old boy wouldn’t last much longer, and when he did go to that great dressing room in the sky, broadcasters would be putting out tributes to him, which would hopefully include The Gift of Idleness.

I was never a big fan of opera, yet as the programme unfolded I became capitivated by the rich musical history and by Cuénod’s character (amongst other things, the programme contains clips from an interview he gave to Hawaii Public Radio when he was 99 years old). Sadly, he did pass away peacefully in December 2010, not that many months after we finished the programme. At the time, a producer at BBC Radio was interested in The Gift of Idleness, but in order to pitch to the BBC you have to be part of a rather select club, which I was not. Another producer at NPR in America also showed interest, but nothing ever came of it.

But it was a blast making The Gift of Idleness (I learnt so much!), and here’s five of my favourite pieces from it (from the 24 pieces of music contained in the programme), starting with the Toccata from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, played by Vlado Perlemuter (who was without doubt one of the best interpreters of Ravel’s music). Due to ill health, the French composer Maurice Ravel had been exempted from military service when he was a young man. Ravel was 39 years old when the First World War began and was determined to do his bit. In 1915 he managed to enlist in an artillery unit as a truck and ambulance driver. In the thick of the fighting, Ravel suffered from exhaustion and insomnia. Eventually his health broke down and in September 1916, suffering from dysentery, he had to have surgery. Ravel’s convalescence was prolonged by depression, caused by the loss of numerous friends on the battlefield.

Prior to the war, Ravel had started writing a suite of French dances for piano, as a homage to 18th century French composers, and in particular Francois Couperin. Hence the title of the piece: Le Tombeau de Couperin. This translates literally as ‘The tomb of Couperin’. However, it should not be taken as meaning a burial place in this context, as there is a long French tradition of using the term tombeau for a piece written by a composer for an admired colleague. During his convalescence, Ravel finished his Le Tombeau de Couperin, and dedicated each of its six sections to friends who had been killed in the war. Thus the piece took on a much more personal feel. Ravel was criticised for composing a light-hearted and sometimes reflective work rather than a sombre one. He replied: “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.” And so onto the Toccata, the 6th section, dedicated “To the memory of Captain Joseph de Marliave” – Joseph de Marliave was killed in action in August 1914. The premiere of Le Tombeau de Couperin was given at the Salle Gaveau on April 11, 1919, by Marguerite Long, who was not only a prominent performer of Ravel’s works but also the widow of Joseph de Marliave. Take it away Vlado…

Bach’s Passion according to Saint Matthew needs no introduction. Here’s the opening part of it…

Francis Poulenc was a French composer who lived in Paris and died in 1963 shortly after his sixty fourth birthday. A one-time communist and openly gay, Poulenc was a prolific composer who wrote solo piano music, chamber music, film music, oratorio, choral music, opera, ballet and orchestral music. He’s probably best remembered for his piano pieces. This one is called Valse in c major, written during the German occupation of Paris in 1940, and a retort to it, and I believe this version is being performed by Pascal Rogé…

And here’s Cuénod himself, performing Arithmetic from Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, staged back in the 1950s and a very avant garde opera for its time…

Monteverdi was Cuénod’s favourite composer, and Cuénod performed many Monteverdi pieces. Unfortunately there’s very little left of these recordings online. So instead here’s The Taverner Choir and Consort performing Beatus Vir

The Gift of Idleness

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