Mr Nobody (aka Mr Mystery) meets Mr Busoni

September 04, 2018

In his season-opening concert – his 12th on the MusicTORONTO stage – Canadian virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin includes some of his favourite piano transcriptions.  They include six by Mr Nobody.

Piano transcriptions, you say?

Not the real thing?

Secondhand piano music?

Mr Nobody?  A composer who daren’t show his face?

Let’s start where Marc-André will start his recital, with what is probably the most transcribed of all pieces in the classical repertoire: the Chaconne which closes Bach’s D minor Partita for solo violin in grand style.

Mendelssohn was the earliest to make the modest sound of Bach’s violin more ‘alive’ for an early 19th c concert audience by filling out the harmonies of the solo line by adding piano accompaniment. (Violinist Catherine Manoukian played Mendelssohn’s version, together with Schumann’s paler attempt to spice up the Chaconne for MusicTORONTO back in 2002. Anyone remember?).

Later on, we find Brahms writing to Clara Schumann and saying that by putting his left-hand to work and giving his right-hand the night off, playing his own left-hand transcription “makes me feel like a violinist.”

But Brahms was too respectful to Bach’s score and it took the one-armed Swiss pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961) to put the pianistic fireworks into a left-hand transcription for piano – in the process, extending Bach’s three-octave range and Brahms’s four, to 5.5 octaves.

Little space to mention impressive efforts made with Chaconne transcriptions for other instruments here. Lingering for a moment over a reverential, almost religious performance of his Busoni-inspired transcription for guitar that I heard from a silver-haired Segovia in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre back in the early 1970s.
And there was the ghostly, often ethereal, but still rich dumpling of an orchestral transcription that the 92-year-old Leopold Stokowski recorded with the LSO for Decca in St Giles church, Cripplegate in that same long-gone era.

Ferruccio Dante Michelangelo Benvenuto Busoni, on the other hand, took another approach, as you might expect with a composer whose very name reads like a transcription.

First, he re-imagined the Chaconne transcribed for organ in his mind, then he set to work transcribing this mental sonic picture for the piano.

Busoni uses all the piano registers, just about the full 7.25 octaves of the keyboard, from the lowest A to highest B-flat, and all three pedals.

The resulting masterpiece, bristling with four or five layers of counterpoint and eight or nine-voiced chords, will come alive under the fingers of Marc-André Hamelin.

Maybe you’ll be persuaded to join me in believing that a great composer-pianist can be inspired to create a transcription which not only casts new light on the original, but stands in its own right as an artistic creation of equal grandeur.

Chaconne à son goût! . . . “Chacun sa chaconne!”**

Which brings us to Mr Nobody and his brilliant efforts to bring French popular café songs to the concert platform.  Just listen to this shimmering transcription of En Avril, à Paris by Mr Nobody.


Mr Nobody’s En Avril, à Paris is like an intricately-woven spider’s web, glistening in the sun, wrapped around a simple six-note earworm of a tune.







Here’s another transcription, this time a glittering, less-than-one-minute take by Mr Nobody on Trenet’s 1938 story of lost love left behind in the hilly quarter of Paris known as Ménilmontant.


Mr Nobody released six of his arrangements of songs sung by Charles Trenet (1913–2001), the most influential popular French singer-songwriter of the mid-20th century, in the 1950s on a 45-rpm EP record on the Lumen label.

Cassette copies circulated. Insiders, of course, knew or had a good idea of the identity of the clearly brilliant pianist behind the release. (Marc-André Hamelin tells the tale in the MusicTORONTO program notes). But only in relatively recent times has it become publicly known that the pianist was Alexis Weissenberg (1929-2012).

The career of the Bulgarian-born, longtime Paris resident had its ups (winner of the 1947 prestigious Leventritt Award, then international bookings) and its downs (a decade under the radar, unhappy with his interpretations and career, working on his technique, teaching). Then more ups (recording all five Beethoven Concertos with Karajan and the Berlin Phil for EMI, decades at the top of his game performing and recording most of the standard rep) – and downs (he disappeared once more, eventually dying in Madrid from Parkinson’s disease).

Weissenberg was famously criticised for the cold precision of a finely-honed, prodigious technique, offering, in the words of one critic, “all the warmth and humanity of an autopsy.” When asked how much of his playing was intuitive and how much pre-planned,Weissenberg bit back at his interviewer: “All of it is intuitive and all of it is pre-planned.”

The name “Mr Nobody” was dreamed up to prevent negative association with crossover music long before the term was invented. Anonymity gave Weissenberg permission to explore a less buttoned, side of his complex, highly cultured, eloquently-spoken personality. This was the side that French tv viewers saw in the 1970s and 80s when the good-looking, sharply-dressed, suavely-spoken pianist could be seen as accompanist to the likes of Charles Aznavour and Nana Mouskouri.



“Mister Mystery” was another nom de plume of the pianist, who took French citizenship.


Weissenberg’s sleeve notes for the original 45-rpm release of his own transcriptions of melodies from My Fair Lady give an entertaining description of how to go about the serious business of making a piano transcription — the process of successfully transfering one musical medium to another.



“You take a tune you like and play it inside out, for yourself, until you are sick of it,” Weissenberg says.  “Then, the first thing you have to do about it is forget it.  Forget it, honestly; play other things, other tunes.

“When you come back to it, the tune will have ripened, ‘matured’, in your head, in your heart, in your feet, wherever you like. Don’t touch the score again. Play it the way you think you remember it. Your way.

“Now you have the basic element of your concoction. Put it in the shaker such as it is, or upside down, if you prefer. At this point, before adding ice cubes or egg yolks, (which in musical terms are called harmonies and modulations), you have to think up carefully the ‘spices’ you want to mix to make it really a ‘Special’, ‘Tops’, or an A-Plus’ beverage.

“Think hard. Olives, mustard, pepper, Angostura, mint, sugar, lemon, lime, Worcestershire, and Ketchup correspond, in music, to rhythms, trills, sound-effects, counterpoints, syncopated notes, triplets, glissandi, and such happy combinations as a schizophrenic battery and a non-committal bass, and, from time to time, the use of a triangle, of course.

“Once the choice is established, add the spices to your basic element. If necessary, multiply them. Put in an extra melody, if you so desire. Close the shaker tight and shake. Shake hard. When you open the shaker and pour out the content, you’ll have an arrangement all your own.”






Somebody should have told Busoni it is that easy!

Jazz colours many of Weissenberg’s compositions, which include a musical, Nostalgie, which premièred in 1992 and a musical comedy La fugue, which Martha Argerich presented in Lugano in 2008 (well into Weissenberg’s illness). Marc-André Hamelin brought Weissenberg’s 1982 Sonata in a State of Jazz to MusicTORONTO a few years ago. It’s a kind of jazz re-mix in which he distils the essence of four types of jazz popular in the 1950s – the tango, charleston, blues and samba – and structures them within a classical framework.

Earlier times are recalled with these selections from the Charles Trenet collection which Marc-André Hamelin will be playing in his 2018-19 season opener next month – and which you can hear Mr Nobody play right now!











Visit this growing archive for more rare recordings, interviews, photos, videos and much more.


** FOOTNOTE: “Chacun sa chaconne” are the concluding words of a chapter on Bach transcriptions from a book on virtuoso piano transcriptions by a brilliant pianist and dear colleague, Rian de Waal (1958-2011) with whom I worked on several projects. Metamorphoses: the art of the virtuoso piano transcription is published by Eburon Publishers, Delft (2013) and includes 6 CDs containing 50 tracks of professionally recorded virtuoso transcriptions, many of which are rarieties.

Marc-André Hamelin plays Bach-Busoni, Feinberg, Weissenberg-Trenet, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Chopin, Tuesday October 2, 2018
© copyright 2018 Keith Horner –

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On the Trail of . . . Ralph Vaughan Williams (part one)

All Saints' Church, Down Ampney, Gloucestershire

All Saints’ Church, Down Ampney, Gloucestershire

“19 villagers.
3 smallholders.
12 slaves.
1 priest.”


Those were the residents of the lovely Cotswold village of Down Ampney, as recorded in the Domesday Book of 1066.


That priest’s successor (with a switch from priest to vicar after Henry VIII’s say in such matters) was the father of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

The English composer died exactly 60 years ago, August 26 this year, and, earlier in the month, I went to take a look at the village where he was born. Preparations were underway for its first, modestly-scaled Vaughan Williams Festival (August 24-27).

The church is the centre of attention for both festival and visitor. Built by the Knights Templar, All Saints’ Church, Down Ampney first opened for business back in 1265.


Various brushes with plagues in the Middle Ages led to the village developing in directions away from its church, giving today’s setting the sort of pastoral tranquility where you could easily come upon a lark ascending.

But it wasn’t in Down Ampney that Vaughan Williams would have likely remembered hearing the larks that bring such a haunting beauty to his music.



Rev’d Arthur Vaughan Williams (1834-75)
Click to enlarge

The Rev’d Arthur Charles Vaughan Williams died when Ralph was only a little over two years old and the family had to move.

VW Snr. is buried at Down Ampney and has a memorial stained glass window inside the church where he gave sermons.


Memorial window to the Rev'd Arthur Vaughan Williams

Memorial window to the
Rev’d Arthur Vaughan Williams

There is a campaign underway to raise funds for the adjacent window to become a stained glass memorial to his son before the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 2022.




RVW birthplace as it was

RVW birthplace as it was


Vaughan Williams was born in the vicarage, in the centre of the village. The house is now in private hands.



The Old Vicarage, Down Ampney, today

The Old Vicarage, Down Ampney, today

English folksong, Elizabethan and Jacobean music and English hymns were the ingredients that triggered the musical style of Vaughan Williams. He was to become the leading English composer of his day and a key figure in the revival of English music.

Although an agnostic, he did edit The English Hymnal between 1904-6, purging it of Victoriana, rediscovering old tunes, adapting over 40 folk songs as hymns and writing several himself.

These included one he titled Down Ampney after the village where he was born. It’s sung to the words Come down, O love divine.

Down Ampney has returned the favour . . . with a street . . . which leads nowhere . . .

Linden Lea - a dead-end street in Down Ampney

Linden Lea – a dead-end street in Down Ampney


Down Ampney could do better.

Meanwhile, here’s the original Linden Lea sung by the Choir of New College, Oxford.

We did drive carefully, as the sign requests, and there will be more Vaughan Williams in a later post.


Blog post and photographs © copyright 2018 Keith Horner –

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On the trail of . . . Joseph Haydn in Eisenstadt

January 08, 2017

Esterházy Palace overlooking the town of Eisenstadt in present-day Austria

Esterházy Palace overlooking the town of Eisenstadt in present-day Austria

It is still quite easy to imagine walking in the footsteps of Joseph Haydn in Eisenstadt, a small town in the Austrian Burgenland, less than 50 km south-east of Vienna. Eisenstadt was the principal residence of the Esterházy family, whom Haydn served for more than four decades, and it was here that he created much of a vast catalogue of musical compositions.

Haydn received winter and summer livery each year as part of his Esterházy salary. Photo 1772-3 attrib Grundmann, painted C Peel

Haydn received winter and summer livery each year as part of his Esterházy salary

Walking a few steps beyond the palace, to the left of my photo above, you can find the Margaretinum.  It’s now a parish centre and, before that, a convent.  Even earlier, the building housed an apartment where the young Haydn lived with his wife in the early 1760s, when he was appointed Vice-Kapellmeister to Prince Paul Anton Esterházy.

Next door lies the Bergkirche where Haydn played the organ. His remains have lain in its crypt for almost two centuries. Sad to recount, Haydn’s corpse has only been reunited with its skull for a little over a quarter of this time . . . . . . maybe more of this gruesome tale in a later post.
A few minutes walk in the opposite direction, behind the buildings to the right above, there’s the Joseph Haydngasse – which was known as the Klostergasse in Haydn’s day.

No. 21 is the house that Haydn bought in 1766 once he was feeling confident in his future, having taken over the full Kapellmeistership of the Esterházy court.

Joseph Haydngasse, with No. 21 to the centre right

Joseph Haydngasse, with No. 21 to the centre right

Haydn and his wife lived upstairs, with his copyist Johann Elssler and pupils occupying a former stable on the ground floor.

The Haydn-Haus has been a museum since 1935. Its scope increased significantly after 1998 when the neighbouring property was acquired and carefully restored to allow for more display space.

Its eight rooms aim to give a picture of Haydn and his times in a chronological sequence.

There’s a fine looking Anton Walter piano from 1780, believed to have been used by Haydn. Sadly, I couldn’t find a way of  laying a finger upon it.

The Haydn-Haus (centre left) from the opposite direction, looking at the Franziscanerkirche

The Haydn-Haus (centre left) from the opposite direction, looking at the Franziscanerkirche

Anton Grassi bust of Haydn (1802)

Anton Grassi bust of Haydn (1802)

A standout, for me, is a craquelé porcelain bust made by Anton Grassi, for which Haydn sat in 1799 and again in 1802. This comes closest to the mental picture of the composer that I have built up for myself over the years through reading about the man and listening to the music.


Autograph scores, original letters and early printed scores which were formerly in the museum now appear to have been moved.


An exhibition Haydn and the Women: 12 stories about music and love coyly delves into Haydn’s sex life, without saying anything that’s new.


 Maria Anna Theresia Haydn (bap.1729-1800)

Maria Anna Theresia Haydn (bap.1729-1800)

Haydn married Maria Anna Theresia Keller, daughter of a wigmaker, in 1760 having first fallen in love with her sister, destined for a nunnery.

Unlike Mozart, who similarly first fell for the wrong sister a generation later, Haydn did not have a happy marriage.
Both Haydns had affairs and there were no children.
The Haydns were to remain together until Maria Anna’s death in 1800.

Her affair was with the court painter Ludwig Guttenbrunn.

His was (mainly) with the soprano Luigia Polzelli, hired with her violinist husband for the Esterháza opera in 1779, fired by Prince Nicolaus in 1780, but almost immediately reinstated (for the remaining decade of the relationship) at Haydn’s request.

Haydn wrote just one role for Luigia’s limited talents. He did, however, spend much time adapting, rewriting and arranging arias in operas by other composers that were presented in the busy Esterháza season, to best display her way with music described as “light, ironic and charming.”

Haydn is believed to have been the father of her son Antonio. He provided for the young violinist in his will and Antonio’s daughter, in turn, maintained that she was Haydn’s grand daughter.


 City plaque showing key Haydn sites in Eisenstadt

City plaque showing key Haydn sites in Eisenstadt

Along with the house at Klostergasse 21, the Haydns acquired several plots of land, including a “kitchen garden behind the hospital,” beyond the city walls.

Needless to say “Secrets from Mrs. Haydn’s Garden” is now a tourist attraction in itself, by ticket only.

An inventory drawn up following one of the two fires that damaged the Haydn-Haus during the 12 years that Haydn lived there reveals that he raised pigs and chickens received as part of his salary in this Kräutergarten.

Who knew?



Reluctant to let the Mozartkugel have the market to itself, Eisenstadt's Altdorfer bakery, dating back to Haydn's time, recently introduced the delicious Haydnrolle

Reluctant to let the Mozartkugel have the market to itself, Eisenstadt’s Altdorfer bakery, dating back to Haydn’s time, recently introduced the delicious Haydnrolle











Haydnsaal and stage in the Esterházy Palace

Haydnsaal and stage in the Esterházy Palace

Haydnsaal rear, balcony and elegant Garden Room beyond

Haydnsaal rear, balcony and elegant Garden Room beyond

Pride of place in the big house on the hill goes to the Haydnsaal, a 650-seat concert hall with outstanding acoustical and visual elements.
The room dates back to a Baroque building phase when 13th century fortress was transformed into 17th century palace.  Attractive ceiling frescos by Carpoforo Tencala tell the story of Psyche and Amor.

Berlin-based manager Andreas Richter programs the April through October concert season on behalf of the Esterházy Foundation. The Banff prizewinning Rolston Quartet will make its debut in the Haydnsaal June 6, 2017 and return the following year.
Richter outlined this year’s annual festival for me in a recent interview.
It runs September 6 – 16, 2017, titled Herbst Gold / Autumn Gold.
More details of the season, including stylish picnic concerts in the
splendid palace grounds HERE.

Eisenstadt during a recent off-season visit

Eisenstadt during a recent off-season visit




Some recent vintages produced on the extensive Esterházy estates. Details HERE. Haydn had a comfortable wine allowance of 504 litres per annum!

Some recent vintages produced on the extensive Esterházy estates.
Details HERE.
Haydn had a comfortable wine allowance of 504 litres per annum!






Haydn led a comfortable, if demanding, life working for the Esterházy family.

Under Prince Nicolaus he and the musicians initially moved between Eisenstadt and Vienna.

By the 1770s, as opera became the centre of the prince’s attention, a hunting lodge at Süttör was transformed into a new summer palace, complete with two theatres, one for opera, the other for marionette opera.

Now, Haydn’s life involved long summer residences at the newly named Esterháza palace, just across today’s Hungarian border.

The scale of the enterprise was huge, peaking in the year 1786, with 125 performances of 17 different operas, all of them under the direction of Haydn, several of them also composed by him.

With less time to spend in Eisenstadt, Haydn sold his house there in 1778 and lived in the accomodation built for the court musicians in the three hubs of their activity: Esterháza, Eisenstadt and, in December and January, Vienna.

With the death on Prince Nicolaus in 1790, opera for Haydn and the Esterházy family came to a crashing halt.

Prince Anton dismissed all the court musicians save his music director Haydn and concertmaster Tomasini.

The classical facade of the Esterházy palace is one of the main legacies made during the belt-tightening four-year rule of Prince Anton Esterházy

The classical facade of the Esterházy palace is one of the main legacies of the belt-tightening four-year rule of Prince Anton Esterházy

Haydn, however, survived the downsizing quite well.

He now had a pension of 1,000 gulden per annum from Prince Nicolaus’s will, plus a salary from Prince Anton of another 400 gulden.

With little music at court, the way was clear for Haydn – now the most celebrated living composer in Europe – to accept an invitation to travel to London for two visits in the early 1790s.

His successor, Nicolaus II extended the classical design to the garden facade of the palace. He completed only the centre columns and extensive landscaped gardens in the English style, complete with copses, grottoes, pools and temples, plus glasshouses and even an English steam engine to pump water around the park

His successor, Nicolaus II extended the classical design to the garden facade of the palace. He completed only the centre columns and extensive landscaped gardens in the English style, complete with copses, grottoes, pools and temples, plus glasshouses and even an English steam engine to pump water around the park

His house in Eisenstadt had brought in 2,000 gulden; but his time in London netted a princely 15,000 gulden.

“Such a thing is possible only in England,” the gleeful composer reported after one of his highly successful benefit concerts.

The rich proceeds of Haydn’s travel, together with his astute business sense selling his manuscripts to publishers across Europe, helped him prepare for old age in Vienna.

He purchased a house in 1793 for 1,370 gulden and had renovations done while he was away in the British capital.

With a salary increase to 700 gulden under Anton’s successor, Nicolaus II, and a wine allowance now at 515 litres a year, a complimentary uniform and various lump sum payments, Haydn additionally negotiated apothecary bills into his contract.

These were substantial and were to amount to 1,000 gulden in the final year of his life.

St Martin's, Eisenstadt's present-day cathedral. Haydn directed the first performance of his Missa in angustiis, the "Nelson' Mass from the organ here in 1798

St Martin’s, Eisenstadt’s present-day cathedral. Haydn directed the first performance of his Missa in angustiis, the ‘Nelson’ Mass,  from the organ here in 1798



Nicolaus II spent the main season, the winter season, in Vienna, with the main musical performances of a much reduced ensemble (now a wind harmonie of eight and string ensemble of a similar size) taking place in September and October. Haydn’s late masses date from this period.




Haydn’s Bergkirche undergoing restoration,sporting the banner ‘Restoration 2020: we’re saving the Haydn church.’ Haydn’s Bergkirche was originally intended as the presbytery to a much larger church, planned but never built. Throughout the 20th century – except for the year 1945 – to the present day, Haydn’s Seven Last Words has been performed here every Good Friday





Most of these six masses were privately performed on the nameday of the prince’s wife, Princess Marie, during a church service in the Bergkirche.



Incomplete rear of Bergkirche

Incomplete rear of Bergkirche





In Vienna, meanwhile, Haydn was having some of the greatest successes of his life with his two newly written oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons.


By 1806, Haydn was confined to his house and never returned to Eisenstadt.

He was a celebrated figure throughout the musical world, but frail and no longer composing. He was taken to a special performance of The Creation by Princess Esterházy and family, but it proved too overwhelming for him. He had to leave at the end of Part One.

Haydn died peacefully in his sleep at 12:40am, May 31, 1809.

The very beautiful and moving Haydn mausoleum in the Bergkirche

The very beautiful and moving Haydn mausoleum in the Bergkirche












The St. Lawrence Quartet will play two of Haydn’s Op. 20 string quartets, written in Eisenstadt in 1772 and first performed there, for MusicTORONTO, January 26, 2017.

Blog post and photographs © copyright 2017 Keith Horner –

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