Prodigy: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a child. Picture: Rex features
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Extended play: the world's longest Mozart festival debuts at Wigmore Hall

On Mozart 250 and Sarah Connolly in America.

When the Mozart family arrived in London in April 1765, they had been on the road for a long time. Since leaving Salzburg two years earlier, the eight-year-old Wolfgang and his 12-year-old sister, Nannerl, had performed for rulers and courtiers all over the Holy Roman Empire, as well making visits to Paris and Versailles. Their father, Leopold, had embarked on this lengthy and risky journey as way of sharing his children’s exceptional musical abilities with the wider world, with the hope that it would make them influential connections to call upon in the future – in the 18th century, being a composer was a precarious existence.

The year that the young Wolfgang spent in London was a particularly formative musical period for him. As well as playing for George III, he was introduced to the musicians Carl Friedrich Abel and J C Bach (son of Johann Sebastian) and was exposed to the Anglo-German musical culture that had grown up in the city since the Hanoverian accession in 1714. He began to write his first symphonies, as well as vocal pieces such as the sacred motet “God is our Refuge”, which was dedicated to the newly established British Museum.

The debut concert of the Mozart 250 project (Wigmore Hall) sought to capture the musical flavour of this crucial year in the young composer’s life. Listening to Ian Page and his Classical Opera ensemble play Mozart’s Symphony No 1 in E flat major, it is difficult to comprehend that this confident and technically assured composition issued from the mind of an eight-year-old. It is perhaps possible to discern a certain childish flavour in the slow second movement – is that heavy, ascending figure in the bass inspired by Leopold’s tread on the stairs, as he comes to shoo his young son away from the keyboard and back to whatever he was supposed to be doing? The care and delicacy that Page’s players take with this early instrumental music makes it possible to hear new lines in even the most familiar pieces.

The programme featured works by Haydn, Gluck, Sacchini and other composers working in 1765, alongside Mozart’s own compositions from that time. Sarah Fox produced a warm, tender performance of an aria from J C Bach’s highly influential opera Adriano in Siria, but her fellow soprano Anna Devin was less successful with an intricate selection from Gluck’s Telemaco – her brittle tone and overactive vibrato struggled against the composer’s ever-more elaborate ornamentation in the vocal line. The early Mozart concert arias included in the programme provided tantalising glimpses of the potential that would flower years later in works such as The Magic Flute and Così fan tutte.

For Ian Page and Classical Opera, this concert is just the beginning. The Mozart 250 project will track his work and influences for the next 27 years, with the intention of bringing little-known contemporaneous pieces back to our attention in the versions Mozart would have heard. It is a monumental undertaking, and, if this first outing is anything to go by, one that will be well worth following.

Leap forward a couple of centuries or so and you arrive at the very different musical landscape explored by the mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and the Britten Sinfonia. Their selection of 20th-century American compositions, including Aaron Copland’s settings of Emily Dickinson poems and music for the ballet Appalachian Spring, came together into an intriguing programme for the Barbican at the Guildhall School of Music (even if they were performed in rather a strange order).

The highlight was undoubtedly the rarely performed A History of the Thé Dansant by Richard Rodney Bennett (an adopted, if not native, American). The smooth, evocative songs suited the deep tones of Connolly’s voice perfectly, transporting us to a 1920s dance hall with a foxtrot in full swing. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante for Strings provided a compelling counterpoint, the Britten Sinfonia expertly emphasising the dissonance and overlapping suspensions that mark it out as a modernist masterpiece.

The encore came as a bit of a surprise – two numbers from the American Songbook. Connolly’s usually astonishing voice sounded flat and restrained in these simple songs, and the Britten Sinfonia’s strings, so warm and rich when playing Copland, became blowsy and exaggerated to meet the demands of overwritten arrangements. It made for a striking and not altogether welcome contrast. 

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist