The Philharmonia, conducted by Esa Pekka Salonen at Birmingham Symphony Hall, Friday 27th February 2009

So great is the size of orchestra and choir required to do justice to Schoenberg’s late Romantic epic that it is performed very rarely in its entirety. My school took a small party of students to see the Gurrelieder. This was a huge privilege: perhaps the only time in my life I will see this oratorio, I was also lucky to see Salonen conduct. Like the wood-dove herself, Salonen almost seemed to take off as he led the music. Was he lifting the orchestra or was the orchestra lifting him? Birdlike, always, at the close of the piece he held up his left hand as though cupping the essence of the Gurrelieder in his palm. Thanks to him, the great wave of songs rose and fell exactly as they should: extravagant, lush, precise and clear. A phalanx of musicians left the ground with him and landed again flawlessly. He, the orchestra, the choir, and the soloists had ballon; musicians, they were dancers too. Below is a short account of the work they performed.

Waldemar, Schoenberg’s lover-king protagonist in the Gurrelieder, opens the piece with an image of stillness:

Nun dämpft die Dämm’rung jeden Ton

Von Meer und Land.

‘Now dusk mutes every sound / on land and sea.’ Schoenberg’s oceanic final voyage into Romanticism, with its titanic orchestration,  unfolds from the day’s end, from silence. From nothing and from shadows this oratorio takes us on a journey to a castle (Gurre), where Waldemar visits his lover Tove. After the pair are reunited, the songs take us to darker places:  Tove dies at the hands of Waldemar’s vengeful wife, and, from there, Waldemar  journeys through the afterlife, rising from the dead with his vassals to go in search of his murdered lover.  No fulfillment, no happiness returns us to the peace we experience in those opening lines. Schoenberg’s theme  is longing or saudade, as the Portuguese would have it, and it is this saudade that gives the Gurrelieder its explosive drive. We glimpse rest and peace in the incipit, and every note that follows pulses with a desire for the peace of  ‘Nun dämpft die Dämm’rung jeden Ton.’ What doesn’t move creates movement.

From stillness, two choirs, two timpanists, a celeste, vast woodwind and string sections, four concert harps–even two piccolos–produce such a ‘call-note’ of longing that audience members feel obliterated by it. Hearing it, we are dislodged beautifully but violently from ourselves. ‘Holla’ sing the male voice choir in unison in part three as they hunt through the forest. The chase is on through the darkness to first light. Evening and morning, the last day.

The Dirty Three are an unholy and a holy trinity: Warren Ellis, Mick Turner, Jim White have played together under this name since the mid nineties. Ellis is also a member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and all three have played with an impressive number of highly respected artists such as PJ Harvey, Cat Power and Bonny Prince Billy. What’s in The Dirty Three’s rather splendid name? Are they a band of outlaws ? Musically, yes. Are they dirty like the Dubliners and the Pogues were dirty? Well, in a way: the Three’s dirt and that of their folk cousins is the dirt of raw emotion, whatever that may be–eighty percent proof, musical poteen. Their dirt is also the dirt of sex. Most music is designed to seduce, to lead up to sex. The Dirty Three, however, create music which is sex itself–sex and the post-coital come-down; abandon and melancholy, orgasm and after.

But what of this ‘after’ state, this melancholy? In actual fact, the Three also give us not just dirt but dust. There is a sense when you listen to an extraordinary album like Cinder that you are hearing a dissolve into death. The melodies (for the most part the band do not use words) hardly seem to be there at all. Their music doesn’t beat you into submission but soaks into you, patterned like ocean currents. As someone who loves singing to herself but who doesn’t perform and who has little or no technical knowledge of music, I can at least get a sense of how daring and experimental, how difficult and extraordinary these melodies are, by trying to sing them. As soon as I think I have understood a tune, I realise it slips away from me. The Dity Three’s music controls you, you do not control it.

And this is where the deity bit comes in–Orpheus to be exact. When you hear Ellis on violin or mandolin you realise the truth of those Greek myths in which Orpheus charms and spellbinds the humans, the plants, the animals into a kind of ecstatic sadness. Sadness (Saudade) here is medicinal. The frenzy of human activity, what Wordsworth called ‘getting and spending,’ is suspended as you listen.

Byron thought of Robert Burns as a rare combination of ‘half dirt, half deity.’ Rare indeed is the ability of musicians to be both of these things at once: outlaw and angel, fugitive and present.

Call a singer a ‘crooner’ these days and you don’t exactly appear to be giving them a compliment. ‘Crooner’ seems somehow to be the opposite of ‘rock’n’roll.’ Crooners are smooth, unruffled creatures of some bygone era: think of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr, Bing Crosby. You can’t easily mosh to ‘Volare,’ ‘White Christmas’ or ‘Isle of Capri.’ If punk is all pogo and piledriving, crooning is a fondle well-nigh horizontal. At odds with the times, it’s not designed for mp3 listening (you have to really listen to and feel the quiet bits–turning up the volume in your headphones as you pass the mechanical digger and the ambulance with its siren on won’t aid your appreciation of the music) and it don’t look good on the modern dancefloor. Why then, does crooning have such a bad press? Is it really a synonym for sentimental slop? Perhaps, if your name is  ‘Tony the Rat-Pack style Wedding Singer.’ But take a look at the etymology and there’s the beating heart of the word: ‘to sing in a subdued tone and reflective or sentimental style.’ Crooning, in other words, is singing that thinks, acts as a pure mirror, reflects back emotion. More than that, the word’s origin is ‘probably from Dutch cronen to lament,’ (Chambers Dictionary). And so we return again to duende, saudade; the great sadness that reaches up through modern masters like Richard Hawley and Nick Cave. A synonym for ‘croon’? Perhaps ‘ache,’ perhaps ‘grownup lullaby.’