Thursday, 25 March 2010

Singin' in the Shed

This is another Guest Blog as part of the #bemyguest campaign by Emily Cagle and Adam Vincenzini. Writers are renowned for working in sheds (think of Roald Dahl and Philip Pullman). But how about composers? Shedworker and freelance journalist Alex Johnson investigates.
(You can catch my contribution to his blog - describing my ideal shed - over on Shedworking.)

Lamb and mint sauce. Tom and Jerry. Sheds and composers. Although for many people the third pairing is a less well known coupling, it's nonetheless one with a considerable and venerable history.
One of the great attractions of shedworking for composers in particular is the peace and quiet it provides. Joseph Haydn wrote several of his great creations in his composing hut on B├╝rgerspitalgasse, Eisenstadt, which is surrounded by his well-kept (and now recreated) herb garden.  In 1891 Edvard Grieg had built and then worked in a lakeside hut at Troldhaugen, Norway, following a spate of visitors and noise from the kitchen in his house, although he then found that the lake provided other, albeit more delightful, distractions such as boats going past. Whenever he left the hut, he left a message for intruders: If anyone should break in here, please leave the musical scores, since they have no value to anyone except Edvard Grieg. 
Gustav Mahler had three composing huts, as architect Keith Clarke describes in his groundbreaking study, Mahler's Heavenly Retreats. Mahler had a particular aversion to noise  including birdsong, the barking of his architect's dog, and the performances of nearby military bands   but also demanded that the servant who brought him his breakfast in one of his huts left via a route that meant Mahler would not see her so his train of thought would be undisturbed. Mahler's need for a place away from people and noise, for peace and quiet in which to compose his music, drove him to work away from his family, says Clarke. He arranged for the construction of workspaces, buildings built separately from his living quarters and constructed, one after another, in three different locations. They were created for him alone and visitors were not generally welcome. Mahler had composing huts at Steinbach, not far from Salzburg, where he wrote part of his second and all of his third symphony; Maernigg in southern Austria (symphonies four to eight); and Dobbiaco on the border of Italy and Austria (Das Lied von der Erde, his ninth symphony and sketches for the tenth). Mahler's Third, his Nature Symphony, is a celebration of the natural world in all its forms, its beauty, serenity and power, its comic and grotesque, says Clarke. The heavenly retreat at Steinbach, perhaps like no other, perfectly served Mahler's needs. It was a laboratory for his art. Director Ken Russell also made use of Mahler's huts in his film on the great composer, including a scene where one of them gets burnt to a crisp. 
Composer Harrison Birtwistle is another serial shedworker who has worked in garden offices in Twickenham, an island in Scotland, France, and now in his current home in Dorset. He works inside for seven hours a day and says he is now dependent on it as a retreat. Aren't we all?

1 comment:

  1. I read somewhere that Mahler used to get very angry with noisy cows while he was working, so I imagine his family might have been quite grateful for the relative calm of his absence.