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Have you ever played that game where you invite eight guests to a fantasy dinner party where being alive isn’t an issue? I was wondering who I would ask to a classical music gathering. Leonard Bernstein would be top of my list. I saw him conduct in London but never met him, and he would be the perfect person, drinking (and unfortunately probably smoking) while holding forth on music and art, his investigation by the FBI as a communist sympathiser, and the state of politics.
Next to Lenny I would put Mozart. Their minds would race like Formula One cars down the speedway of music. Would Mozart be all 18th-century grace or would we see the more down-to earth Wolfgang of his letters, with stories of flatulence and other bodily functions? I hope the latter.
I would also want Tchaikovsky there. He needs a bit of cheering up. The New York Times critic once had a go at the snobbishness around his music – that the public loved it and the critics thought he was nothing but a “weeping machine”, but it would be nice for him to know that not a minute passes without some ballet company around the world performing one of his scores. He could also chat to Lenny about the terrible business of keeping your sexuality secret from an unforgiving world.
I think Handel would be a fun addition. He loved his food, and there is nothing more satisfying than a guest who tucks into what is put in front of him and then asks for seconds. Mozart and he would have a few things to chat about, in particular Mozart’s rearrangement of Handel’s Messiah.
There is nothing so boring as a dinner party full of dead white males, so I would also like to invite Anna Magdelena Bach to the table. How did she cope with all those children and did she actually write some of the music we think her husband composed? What was it like to sit darning 22 pairs of socks while Johann Sebastian wrote the St Matthew Passion in the other room?
Another guest would have to be Jacqueline du Pré. I don’t think I have ever seen someone so at one with their instrument. Her husband Daniel Barenboim said “music poured out of her as though from a source of nature”. Jacqueline would provide some light and joy at the table.
I would also send Cosima Wagner an invitation. She was the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt, then the husband of the conductor Hans von Bülow before running off to have an affair, a child and then a marriage with Richard Wagner. She was apparently quite a revolting person, but the stories she could tell...
Ravel would be an interesting addition. Mostly because I have no sense of the man himself. His music was beautifully crafted and passionate and magical, but what was he like? Witty? Quiet? Would he be in awe of Mozart? Would he have any interesting stories to tell, or would he sit charmingly staring at his plate?
What would one serve these people? Perhaps some tarragon chicken with a side serve of green beans and couscous and many fine bottles of Australian red. By the end of the evening all inhibitions and rivalries would have dissipated and everyone would gather round the piano as Lenny teaches Mozart new jazz chords and Mozart riffs on themes from West Side Story, playing upside down. Ravel and Jacqueline du Pré dance drunkenly as Tchaikovsky plays The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Cosima, no bad pianist herself, joins Anna Magdelena for four-hand renditions of the Musette from the Notebook, then Handel conducts everyone in a spirited rendition of the Halleljuah Chorus as Ravel and Mozart accompany. They would leave in carriages at midnight and I would spend some time doing the dishes only to discover that Handel had left his snuff box behind.