The numbers factor

Triskaidekaphobia. Paraskevidekatriaphobia. Could they be ancient Greek versions of that song from Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins, sounding even more atrocious than Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious? No. They’re terms signifying respectively a fear of the number 13 in general, and Friday the 13th in particular. Today’s blog post, falling on such a date, will try and unearth some musical links.

The challenge had me scratching my head, until I realised that today, Friday 13th July, marks the opening of the 2018 BBC Promenade Concerts; so the festival’s planners clearly found no fear in a phobia of the thirteenth. The First Night of the Proms’ programme features Holst’s The Planets Suite, his popular extravaganza for large orchestra and female choruses. Holst originally scored the suite, however, for four hands, two pianos. Such a drastic reduction in forces put me in my mind of Mahler’s Song of the Earth, which Arnold Schoenberg reduced to a version for voices and chamber ensemble in order to air it at his Society for Private Musical Performances. This was founded a century ago, on 23 November 1918, to give a devastated post-WWI musical scene the chance to become acquainted with modern music.

Schoenberg suffered from triskaidekaphobia. Unfortunately for him, he was born on the 13th day of the month (in September, 1874) and died, even more fatefully, on Friday 13th July, 1951. He was aged 76 (7 + 6 = 13). Let’s hear part of that arrangement of Mahler’s song cycle (8.573536) with the closing part of the last movement titled Der Abschied (The Farewell).

Before we leave Schoenberg, let’s take the opportunity to hear part of his last completed composition. This was Psalm 130 (13 + 0 = …), De Profundis, for mixed chorus (8.557528), which Schoenberg finished in 1951, the year of his death (1 x 9 + 51 = …) but wasn’t performed until some three years later. The structure of the piece is formed not only by combining pitched choral singing and spoken choral declamation, but also by contrasting passages of pure speech with passages of pure singing.

Another composer whose birth and death both fell on dates that attract attention was Rossini. Born in a leap year (on 29 February 1792) Rossini, like Schoenberg, died on a Friday the 13th, in 1868. Also like Schoenberg, he was aged 76. Remembered mostly for his highly successful operas, Rossini actually stopped composing in that genre in 1829, when he was only in his late 30s. Although his ink didn’t totally dry up, he did treat himself to a long semi-retirement after that watershed. Among the pieces that filled the latter part of his life were the Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of Old Age), a series of piano solos and other chamber pieces.

In 1867, Rossini began organising these compositions that had been accumulating over the previous ten years or so into fourteen albums, motivated not just by tidiness, but also by a clear-cut objective relating to their publication. He intended his wife, Olympe, should be able to sell the pieces to publishers on the most advantageous terms possible after he had died. Pianist Alessandro Marangoni has been recording all these works for Naxos, and the final two volumes of this edition are scheduled for release in November.

Let’s enjoy a dose of eccentricity from the fourth volume of Rossini’s compilation, which has four items of hors d’œuvres – radishes, anchovies, gherkins and butter, followed by four desserts – figs, almonds, raisins and hazelnuts. The title for the raisins movement is Raisins – To my little parakeet (8.573107). The bird betrays something of a military background in its own additions to the score, including commands to shoulder arms, present arms and to fire, and songs of smoking and drinking. I don’t make this up, you know. Here’s the proof.

There’s no definitive explanation for the reputation of Friday the 13th, but one widely accepted is that it refers to the 13 people – Christ and his 12 Apostles – who gathered for the Last Supper on a Thursday, which was followed by Christ’s crucifixion the following day, on a Friday. That latter scene was dramatically painted by György Kurtág in his six Songs of Despair and Sorrow (CD93.174). Here’s the fifth song, Raspjatije (Crucifixion). It sets a text by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, that translates as follows:

Magdalena beat her breast and sobbed,
The belov’d disciple turned to stone,
But there where stood the Mother, silent,
No one so much as dared to turn his eyes.

Let’s clear the mournful air by returning to the programme for tonight’s BBC Proms concert, on Friday 13 July. Preceding Holst’s The Planets is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region (8.557798), a setting of part of Walt Whitman’s Whispers of Heavenly Death. When both Holst and Vaughan Williams considered themselves creatively ’stuck’ in the early years of the 20th century, they decided that they should both set this same text and jointly select the winner. Vaughan Williams was duly awarded the palm. Here’s the concluding section of Vaughan Williams’ song for chorus and orchestra, that radiates an optimism even superstition cannot withstand. By the way, did I mention that Vaughan Williams died aged 85 (8 + 5 = and so on … )? (This subject is now closed. Ed.).

Then we burst forth, we float,
In Time and Space O soul, prepared for them,
Equal, equipt at last, (O joy! O fruit of all!) them to fulfil O soul.

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