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Update August 2017

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Update by Natrakorn Paewsoongnern

Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update August 12, 2017



Adolphe Sax.

Some years ago I was driving through Belgium somewhere in the province of Namur.  I can’t remember exactly why, but it must have seemed a good idea at the time.  I have a feeling that I was attempting to follow the River Meuse, which on reflection would have been more effectively achieved with a boat rather than a car.  The river begins its five-hundred mile journey in France and flows through Belgium and the Netherlands before reaching the North Sea.

Anyway, I eventually found myself in the charming Belgian town of Dinant which is dominated by the imposing Collegiate Church of Notre Dame.  The town is famous for its flamiche, a local version of quiche but it also has the dubious distinction of producing the Couque de Dinant, claimed to be the hardest biscuit in Europe.

Dinant is also noted for being the birthplace of Antoine-Joseph “Adolphe” Sax, born to a musical instrument maker in 1814.  Within months the family moved to Brussels yet even as a child Adolphe began to design his own musical instruments.  Unfortunately he was also somewhat prone to accidents and had several close encounters with death.  These included being seriously burnt in a gunpowder explosion, falling into a hot frying pan, swallowing a pin, tumbling from a third floor room to the stone pavement below and being comatose for a week and on another occasion almost drowning in a river.

Sax survived all these calamities (including two assassination attempts in adult life) and went on to invent many new musical instruments including the saxhorns, which later became better known as the flugelhorn, the euphonium and the tuba.  Even so, he’s most closely associated with the saxophone which he patented in June 1846.  It was partly based on an older brass keyed instrument called the ophicleide.

Within a few years, Sax had designed an entire family of fourteen saxophones.  Most of them have since become obsolete and only three remain in regular use: the alto, tenor and baritone.  The soprano and bass saxophones are rarely seen.  Strangely enough the first that Sax built was a massive bass saxophone, which evidently impressed composer Hector Berlioz who was amazed at its versatility, unique tone and presumably its elephantine dimensions.

The saxophone was intended to have a smooth and mellifluous sound and this is the preferred tone quality for classical players, unlike the raucous honking favoured by some jazz and rock players today.  Several notable composers have written concertos for the instrument, among them Debussy, Ibert, Milhaud, Hindemith, Villa-Lobos, Paul Creston and Philip Glass.

Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936): Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra Op 109. Joseph Lulloff (alt sax), Brevard Music Center Orchestra cond. JoAnn Falletta (Duration: 15:25 Video: 1080p HD)

Glazunov was born in St. Petersburg and was the son of a wealthy publisher.  He began studying piano at the age of nine and started composing soon afterwards.  In later years, he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov and went on to enjoy international fame.  He was a prolific composer who completed nine symphonies and several concertos together with a vast array of orchestral works.

This lyrical and rather melancholy saxophone concerto dates from 1934, towards the end of his life.  It was his last composition but has becomes one of the mainstays of the saxophone repertoire.  Although the music is deeply rooted in the Romanticism of the previous century the work has become part of the standard saxophone repertoire.

Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937): Introduction et Variations sur une Ronde Populaire. TCU Saxophone Quartet (Duration: 08:44 Video: 1080p HD)

Marcel Mule (1901-2001) is universally recognized as the greatest master of the instrument, once described as “the Jascha Heifetz of the saxophone”.  In 1927, he formed the Marcel Mule Saxophone Quartet which was more of a challenge than it sounds, because at the time no music existed for saxophone quartet.  Undaunted, Mule began the task of writing arrangements himself and also encouraged many composers to write works for the instrument or the quartet.  One of them was Gabriel Pierné, (Pee-EHR-nay) well-known in Paris as an organist and conductor.  It was he, who conducted the world premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird.

Pierné wrote the Introduction and Variations in 1934 and the music is elegant, charming and quintessentially French.  These young musicians give an excellent and expressive performance of this delightful work and the baritone saxophone adds a sumptuous richness to the musical texture.

As well as the saxophone, Belgium also gave the world French fries, although I suppose most Belgians are probably fed up being reminded.  Belgium also gave us the contraceptive pill, the praline, the jpg conversion, and strangely enough, roller skates, introduced in 1760 by the Belgian inventor John Joseph Merlin.  It is pleasing to imagine that as a child, the accident-prone Adolphe Sax might have used a pair of them to hurtle around the streets of Brussels.

Update August 5, 2017

A bundle of sticks


Johann Nepomuk Hummel in 1820.
(Engraving by Pierre Roche Vigneron)

Thomas Mann, the German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist and author of the popular novella Death in Venice, was evidently not very fond of the bassoon.  The instrument (he wrote) “is a bass instrument without proper bass strength, oddly weak in sound, bleating burlesque.”  A lot of people would disagree, especially the three or four thousand members of the International Double Reed Society.  And so would the musician Frank Zappa who said, “The bassoon is one of my favorite instruments.  It has a medieval aroma.  Some people crave baseball... I find this unfathomable, but I can easily understand why a person could get excited about playing the bassoon.”

Now I have to admit that although the bassoon is one of my favourite instruments too, I have never felt a compelling urge to try and play one.  Like the oboe and the cor anglais, the bassoon is classed as a double reed instrument because the sound is produced by two pieces of cane which vibrate against each other.  This is in contrast to the large families of clarinets and saxophones, all of which use single reeds. 

The origins of the bassoon go back to a similar-looking woodwind instrument known as the “dulcian” which flourished roughly between 1550 and 1700.  It was traditionally carved from a single piece of wood and is still used in ensembles that specialise in performing early music.

The bassoon that we see in orchestras today emerged during the first part of the nineteenth century.  It was developed because of the increasing technical demands of composers and performers as well as the need for greater volume in concert halls.  It’s not obvious, but the bassoon has a conical bore, meaning that the inside of the tube becomes progressively wider.  The entire tube is about eight feet long, which is why it’s doubled back on itself to make the instrument more manageable.  The Italian and German names for the instrument are fagotto and Fagott respectively which, contrary to what some people might imagine, mean “a bundle of sticks”.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837): Grand Concerto in F Major for Bassoon and Orchestra. Sung Kwon You (bsn), Amadeus Chamber Orchestra dir. Choi Ho Soon (Duration: 25:21; Video: 720p HD)

We hear little of Hummel’s music these days though in his time he was considered by many to be the musical equal of Beethoven.  In 1804 Hummel acquired the highly desirable post of Konzertmeister at Prince Esterházy’s palace at Eisenstadt - a job he partly shared with the older Haydn.  Hummel was one of the leading piano virtuosos in Europe and wrote eight concertos for the instrument, though strangely enough not a single symphony.  He had a significant influence on Chopin and Schumann and also on countless other pianists with his seminal book, crisply entitled A Complete Theoretical and Practical Course of Instruction on the Art of Playing the Piano Forte.  It sold thousands of copies within days of its publication.

This three-movement concerto was written in Vienna sometime between 1811 and 1816 and rather looks back to the time of Mozart.  It has the grace of the gallant style, although it must have seemed a bit old-fashioned to the sophisticated Viennese listeners.  Nevertheless, Hummel had a natural gift for melody which is especially noticeable during the dreamy second movement.  The work contains some exciting virtuosic passages and it showcases the bassoon’s characteristic tone qualities: the rich baritone sound in the low register and the lyrical, slightly nasal tone quality on the upper notes.  

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826): Bassoon Concerto in F Major Op. 75. Izabela Musial (bsn), London City Orchestra cond. Pablo Urbina (Duration: 18:44; Video: 1080p HD)

Like Hummel, Weber was also a brilliant pianist though today his name is more closely associated with German Romantic Opera.  This concerto dates from 1811 (around the same time as the Hummel) but unlike the Hummel concerto this music seems to look forward to the romantic era which was beginning to emerge.  The concerto was written while Weber was in Munich on the first leg of an international concert tour that was also to include appearances in Prague, Dresden, Berlin, Copenhagen and St. Petersburg.

This is one of the most popular concerti among bassoonists.  This is not surprising because the work is full of energy; there are many gorgeous aria-like melodies and there’s a real sense of optimism.  The slow movement is remarkably beautiful with a lyrical melody that could have been lifted straight out of an Italian opera.  The third movement, which begins with a perky little tune that the bassoon handles so well, develops into an impressive display of virtuosity.  There are some amusing touches too and listening to this engaging but technically challenging music gives me the distinct impression that Weber probably had a keen sense of humour. 

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A bundle of sticks



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