Playing with Fire: An Interview with Ben Crick

20 Feb 2020

Ben Crick

Next month Skipton Camerata's founder and artistic director will conduct a programme of romantic and at times tempestuous music including Haydn's 'Fire Symphony'. We sat down with Ben to ask him about 'Sturm und Drang' and about Camerata's future plans.

For the concert in Christ Church on 6th March you've chosen Haydn's Symphony No 59, nicknamed the 'Fire' Symphony. Out of Haydn's 104 symphonies, why did you choose this one?

Oh we're spoilt for choice when it comes to Haydn, he was that prolific. In fact, he's known as the 'father of the symphony' because it's largely down to him that the symphony took on the form it did. He was a big influence on Mozart, and many of Haydn's symphonies are just as good as the best of Mozart's. And of course he was Beethoven's teacher. The 'Fire' Symphony is typical of the period, volatile and theatrical. Actually, the other symphonies he wrote around this period - late 1760s, early 1770s - are just as fiery as this one but we think this one maybe got its nickname because he used the same music in a play called The Conflagration.

You've called the concert 'Dance of the Furies'. Why?

The Dance of the Furies is the opening piece in the concert. It's very exciting and a great showpiece for the musicians. It's from Gluck's opera Orpheus and Euridice based on the ancient Greek legend of talented lyre-virtuoso Orpheus. Having fallen in love with a pretty lass, Eurydice, she then dies and Orpheus descends into the underworld to fetch her back. It's there that the Furies - little devils - do their diabolical dance before succumbing to Orpheus's charm and letting him take Eurydice back to the world of the living. We named the whole concert after it because Gluck's Dance of the Furies is so typical of the 'Sturm und Drang' movement which influenced this and the rest of the music in the programme. In fact, Boccherini, who wrote the final piece in the concert, was so influenced by it that he stole Gluck's dance for the last movement of the symphony. Boccherini isn't nearly so well-known a composer but this symphony is fantastic.

Sturm und Drang? What's that?

It's actually the name given to a literary movement at the same time - literally 'storm and stress'. Musicians use it to describe music around the same period that broke with the constraints and conventions of opera and ballet up until then which were very stylised and formulaic. The aim was to shock, to frighten, to display emotions. Even men. Like Orpheus's grief-stricken aria when he loses her again, which we're also doing.

Well, talking about men, why is Orpheus in Gluck's opera sung by a soprano?

Sometimes he's sung by a soprano. Charlotte Hoather is singing the aria and a couple of others in this concert. These days the part is often sung by a countertenor, a man singing above the break. But in Gluck's day the main male hero role, at least in Italy, was performed by a castrato - a castrated male singer. Well you see, in the 18th century the pope had banned women from appearing on stage, so castrating boys with nice singing voices and opportunistic parents was clearly the solution. The best of them becoming as famous and rich as modern-day rock stars.

What about the orchestra? How has that changed since the 18th century?

They're really quite different to those Haydn and Gluck knew. They were smaller for a start, which is why we're using a relatively small band for this concert. Haydn's violins would have had gut strings, which were softer and warmer. The modern violin is designed for projection and power so it can bash out a Tchaikovsky tune above a battery of brass and percussion. But early horns and trumpets didn't have valves - they hadn't been invented yet - so the range of notes was limited.

What concerts are planned in Skipton after this one?

Things are a bit up in the air at the moment because Skipton Town Hall is closed for renovation until the end of this year. But the plans are for a big opening event followed by a mini-festival of concerts celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth. And before that we'll be back in Christ Church in July with Poulenc's Organ Concerto (think vaudeville meets Hammer House of Horrors!) plus more Mozart and some Delius. And we're also doing gigs in Sheffield, Bradford, Leeds - all over the place. We're even in a cave in the Dales this August. Bring it on!

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