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Update April 2017

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Update by Natrakorn Paewsoongnern

Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update April 23, 2017

Italian Journeys

Edward Elgar in 1900.

During the last few weeks, I have been once again wading through Charles Burney’s magisterial book entitled Music, Men and Manners in France and Italy, 1770.  It describes his journey in great detail and his meetings with the rich and famous, though I have to admit that the book can sometimes be a bit heavy going, especially when the author feels compelled to list all the objets d’arts in some rural church.

The main purpose of his journey was to gather material for his more famous volume A General History of Music, published in London in 1789.  If these things interest you, it’s possible to download the entire book from various web-sites.  However, it’s even heavier going than its predecessor and would require considerable perseverance to plod through its eight hundred pages with their rambling and long-winded footnotes.

Burney of course was not the first - or last - to travel through France and Italy in search of the arts.  Since about 1600, these countries had been on the itinerary of that educational rite of passage The Grand Tour, the traditional trek through Europe undertaken by upper class European young men of sufficient wealth and social status.  The tour could take months or even years. Italy was invariably the final destination and Rome had been the goal of pilgrims for centuries.  Italy was not only the destination but the inspiration, and no Grand Tour would be complete without an extended stay in the country.

At the age of twenty, Felix Mendelssohn did just that.  The composer had been a child prodigy and by the time of his two-year Italian journey he was already a successful composer.  Mendelssohn found everything in Italy was “the supreme joy in life” and spent part of his time there working on a symphony inspired by what he saw and heard.  From Rome, he wrote to his sister, “The Italian symphony is making great progress.  It will be the jolliest piece I have ever done, especially the last movement.”  He also made some sketches and some water-colour paintings, for Mendelssohn was also a pretty good amateur artist.


Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Symphony No 4 (Italian). Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Paavo Järvi (Duration 31:37; Video: 720p HD)

The symphony was completed back home in Germany in 1833 after the composer received a convenient commission from the London Philharmonic Society.  During the course of his short life, Mendelssohn visited Britain ten times and made a significant impact on British musical society. 

The so-called Italian Symphony was first performed in London in May 1833 and was conducted by the composer.  It was an instant success and the sparkling opening, with its initial explosion of sound and its lively melody over quickly repeated chords must have captivated the audience.  The work is written in the usual four movements and exudes the graceful charm and lightness of touch that typifies Mendelssohn’s music.

The second movement (at 11:10) begins with a relaxed melody over a plodding bass and reflects images of religious processions he must have seen in Rome.  The third movement is a delightful minuet, although the form must have seemed a bit old-fashioned by the 1830s.  The bustling Finale (at 23:04) returns to the energetic spirits of the first movement and the music is based on the Neapolitan dance known as the saltarello.  Mendelssohn keeps the energy driving along throughout the entire movement.

Incidentally, when Mendelssohn became the conductor of the famous Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1835, he introduced a series of “historical concerts” which consisted of music by well-known but deceased composers - a distinctly novel idea at the time.  He would have been bemused to discover that almost all orchestral concerts today are historical concerts. 


Edward Elgar (1857-1934): Concert Overture - In the South “Alassio”.  Artosphere Festival Orchestra cond. Corrado Rovaris (Duration: 21:03; Video: 1080p HD)

Elgar’s picture of Italy opens in the same boisterous manner as does Mendelssohn’s but in the musical language of the dawning twentieth century.  By 1903, Elgar was making enough money to afford a winter holiday in the fashionable Italian town of Alassio on the Italian Riviera, only about fifty miles from the French border.  After many strolls in the hills and old towns of the Mediterranean day-dreaming about Italy’s colourful history Elgar wrote, “Then I woke up and found I’d composed an overture.  The rest was merely writing it down.”  How easy he makes it sound!

The work was given its first performance by the Hallé Orchestra conducted by the composer in March 1904, on the third day of an “Elgar Festival” at the Royal Opera House in London.  It’s a heart-warming, majestic work filled with rich colours and some surprisingly modern-sounding harmonies.  There are many lyrical moments too (listen to the lovely viola solo at 10:40) which serve as a reminder that Elgar was always a dab hand at turning out a jolly good tune.

Update April 16, 2017

And all that jazz…

George Antheil.

Yesterday I was reluctantly washing the dishes in the kitchen, an activity that requires so little mental effort that the mind tends to wander to more stimulating matters.  I began to ruminate over the number of twentieth century composers whose music was influenced by jazz.  Mind you, I wouldn’t have been doing the dishes at all if the dish washing machine still worked.  You see, it’s all the fault of the rats.  We have two resident rats - named Boo-pee and Gertrude (since you asked) though no one is quite sure which is which.  Some weeks ago, the dogs chased them into the kitchen and they took up residence in a hole in the wall behind the dishwasher.  It seems that they’ve chewed through all the exposed electric cables thus rendering the machine completely useless.  How they achieved this without being electrocuted is beyond me.  Despite interrogation, neither Boo-pee nor Gertrude would own up to their deeds, but that’s hardly to be expected because you know what rats are like.

Now then, where was I? (Washing dishes – Ed.)  Ah yes, the jazz influence.  George Gershwin springs to mind with works like Rhapsody in Blue, the Piano Concerto and An American in Paris.  Stravinsky wrote his Ebony Concerto for bandleader Woody Herman but it doesn’t sound much like jazz.  But Stravinsky was Russian which might explain it.  Leonard Bernstein frequently used jazz idioms in quite a sophisticated way and Aaron Copland occasionally used jazz-like themes.

In the early years of the twentieth century when jazz recordings began to appear on the other side of the Atlantic, several notable European composers became fascinated with its rhythms and tonalities.  Some travelled to America to hear live jazz for themselves.


Darius Milhaud (1892-1974): La Création du Monde. Ensemble of the University of Texas at Austin cond. Corey Pompey (Duration: 17:55; Video 720p HD)

One such composer was Darius Milhaud.  He first heard the Billy Arnold Band in London in 1920 and was so captivated that he later travelled to New York City to seek out jazz, for the music had long since travelled from its homeland in New Orleans.  In Harlem, Milhaud heard authentic jazz on the streets.  It left a lasting impression.

Jazz influences appear in many of Milhaud’s later works but La Création du Monde was the first.  It’s a short ballet dating from 1923 and describes the creation of the world through the eyes of African folklore.

The work is in six continuous sections and it’s scored for chamber orchestra, though rather a large one with eighteen players.  Incidentally, although the expression “chamber music” implies something that can be played in a room rather than a concert hall, the technical definition is that it’s music in which every instrument plays an individual part.

In many ways La Création du Monde is a remarkable piece, with some beautiful moments.  It begins with an overture, a serene movement in which a solo saxophone sounds above an oscillating figure played by the strings and piano.  The peaceful mood doesn’t last for long because Milhaud takes us on a jazz and Latin-American inspired journey into the newly-emerging world.


George Antheil (1900-1959): A Jazz Symphony. Orquesta Ciudad de Granada, Granada Big Band cond. Jonathan Dirk Waleson (Duration: c.14:00; Video: 360p)

During the early twentieth century, George Antheil was the Enfant Terrible of American music.  He moved among some of the best-known musicians, artists and literati of the day and in his relatively short life composed over three hundred musical works in all major genres including symphonies, chamber works and operas.  He was also a pianist, author and inventor and a much sought-after film music composer.

Following the premier of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in 1925, Antheil composed his Jazz Symphony, modestly predicting that his new work would “put Gershwin in the shade.”  It didn’t, of course but Antheil had a reputation for being outspoken and held his own music in high regard. 

The work begins in a pseudo-mariachi style during which the conductor looks as though he’s tossing small bags of peanuts into the orchestra.  The work is a curious mélange of musical ideas.  It’s not a symphony in the accepted structural sense but seems to have its origins in not only in jazz but also in the music of Latin America.  Sometimes the style harks back to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with repeated chugging chords and spicy harmony.  In an over-long improvised section, the trumpet soloist sounds as though he’s attempting a succession of animal impressions, but they seem to fit the overall eccentricity of the work.  It’s all entertaining stuff and worth hearing, especially since so little of Antheil’s music is available these days.  Incidentally, in 1945, he published his autobiography, which became a bestseller.  The title was Bad Boy of Music.

Update April 9, 2017

New Horizons

Edgard Varčse in 1931. (Portrait by Man Ray)

The German writer and dramatist August von Kotzebue once wrote in the magazine Der Freimütige, “All impartial musicians and music lovers were in perfect agreement that never was anything so incoherent, shrill, chaotic and ear-splitting produced in music.  The most piercing dissonances clash in really atrocious harmony and a few puny ideas only increase the disagreeable and deafening effect.”  The year was September 1806 and Kotzebue was referring to Beethoven’s overture Fidelio.  Incidentally, Kotzebue was murdered thirteen years later but not, surprisingly by Beethoven.

Samuel Butler once wrote, “The only things we really hate are unfamiliar things”.  We know how children can be squeamish about unfamiliar foods and suspicion surrounding the unfamiliar can pass well into adulthood and even old age.  In his book Lexicon of Musical Invective (from which the two above quotations are taken) musician and writer Nicolas Slonimsky describes this phenomenon as “non-acceptance of the unfamiliar”.  Look at any newspaper and you can see this phenomenon at work every day, whether in music, art, science or religion.

In 1915 the French composer Edgar (or Edgard) Varčse arrived in New York from Europe.  Soon afterwards, he wrote his first American composition entitled Amériques which was later premiered at Carnegie Hall in April 1926 by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski.  The music critic of the New York Times wrote, “No sooner had the last of the strange sounds of Mr. Varčse disappeared in the silence when the audience commenced to demonstrate: to hiss, to applaud, to gesticulate, even to whistle and bawl.”


Edgar Varčse (1883-1965): Amériques. Orchestre du Conservatoire de Paris and the Ensemble Intercontemporain cond. Matthias Pintscher (Duration: 23:41; Video: 1080p HD)

Amériques has been described as “a musical picture of the machine age” with sounds which evoke the clatter of New York’s railways, the hooting of foghorns on the Hudson River and the incessant wailing of police-car sirens.  It’s scored for a massive orchestra with double woodwind and brass and also requires a large percussion section with exotic instruments such as sleigh bells, a cyclone whistle, a steamboat whistle, a twig brush and a crow call. In case you’re wondering, the crow call sound is made by squeezing the mouthpiece with your teeth while blowing into the instrument.

The work is full of strikingly dissonant sounds and extremely complex rhythmic patterns built up using blocks of sound with short motifs juxtaposed against each other.  Varčse used unconventional techniques and instrumental effects and about two thirds of the way through the work a strange hypnotic dance emerges with repeated figure in the strings and a haunting melody in the upper winds.

The sheer elemental power of the work is exhilarating but I have to admit that this music will not be to everyone’s taste.  Varčse was opening up a new sound world and, to quote the voiceover of a famous television series, he was attempting to “boldly go where no one had gone before”.


György Ligeti (1923-2006): Lontano. Hajibeyov Azerbaijan State Symphony Orchestra Cond. Rauf Abdullayev (Duration: 13:42; Video: 480p)

Dating from 1967, this is a powerful, brooding work in which Ligeti takes us by the hand (or, more accurately by the ear) and leads us into an alien, uncharted territory.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons Stanley Kubrick used Ligeti’s music in his seminal movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.  But this music doesn’t actually describe anything in the sense that Smetana’s Vltava describes a river, or Debussy’s La Mer evokes images of the sea. Lontano begins almost inaudibly with a single A flat on the flute, then gradually other instruments enter playing the same note.  They’re joined by the trumpets but then the woodwinds move one by one down to G, thereby creating an increasingly cutting dissonance. If you’ve not heard this piece before, your first reaction might be, “What’s going on here?”

György Ligeti (jurj LIH-geh-tee)  explained that - “the harmonic crystallization within the area of sonority leads to an intervallic-harmonic thought process… achieved with the aid of polyphonic methods: the fictive harmonies emerge from the complex vocal woven texture and the gradual opacity and new crystallization are the result of discrete alterations in the individual parts”.  Perhaps it makes more sense in the original Hungarian.  He seems to be saying that many horizontal threads of simultaneous melody sometimes combine to produce brief moments of recogniseable harmony.

From time to time, a familiar-sounding chord emerges through the rich texture then fades away as quickly as it appeared, tantalizingly out of reach.  I have always loved Lontano and find it immensely satisfying.  Perhaps at first hearing it sounds as though the music is happening by chance, but it is actually incredibly detailed and precise in its notation.  The score contains many specific written instructions and interestingly, the piece ends with a silent bar which lasts between ten and twenty seconds.  Not many people know that.

Update April 2, 2017

Unexpected outcomes

The corpulent Rossini in 1865.

Perhaps you’ve remembered that 31st March is the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach, considered by many musicians to be one of the greatest composers who ever walked the earth, if not the greatest.  It is also the birthday of another “great”, the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn, who revolutionized symphonic music in the eighteenth century and became known as The Father of the Symphony.  He was also known as The Father of the String Quartet which in Haydn’s hands became virtually full-length symphonies for four instruments.  So it seemed appropriate that this week’s column should honour Bach and Haydn.  But then I thought, why should I?  They never did anything for me.

So instead, I shall tell you about two well-known pieces of music which in their different ways have close connections with American popular culture of the 1950s, though neither composer could possibly have envisioned what those connections would be.

Gioachino Rossini was the most popular opera composer in history.  He wrote his first opera at the age of eighteen and then went on to churn out a staggering list of works which are still popular today such as The Barber of Seville, The Italian Girl in Algiers, and The Thieving Magpie.  Many of Rossini’s overtures have become popular as stand-alone concert pieces. 

In 1829, after composing thirty-nine major operas Rossini retired.  It would seem that he’d simply had enough.  And in any case, he had become extremely wealthy.  In the remaining forty years of his life he wrote a few choral and vocal works but continued to indulge in his life-long passion for cooking and eating, much to the detriment of his waistline.


 Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868): William Tell Overture. Artosphere Festival Orchestra cond. Corrado Rovaris (Duration: 12:03; Video: 720p HD)

Written in 1829, William Tell was Rossini’s last opera and was based on a play of the same name by Friedrich Schiller.  This in turn was based on the fourteenth century Swiss legend about the freedom-fighter and mountain climber William Tell who was also an expert shot with the crossbow.  He, you will recall was the folk hero who, as a punishment for not bowing to authority was required to shoot an apple placed on his son’s head.  The story is closely linked to the Swiss struggle for independence from the Habsburg Empire.  Unusually the overture was written in four distinct movements played without a break.

I had completely forgotten the delightful opening prelude (entitled Dawn), scored for five cellos accompanied by basses and interrupted ominously by distant rolls of thunder.  Musical raindrops lead into a whirling storm for the full orchestra in which the trombones play a dramatic role.  The storm fades into a charming pastoral movement (Call to the Cows) featuring a cor anglais solo and gorgeous woodwind writing.

The finale is often known as March of the Swiss Soldiers.  After some lively trumpet fanfares the music becomes an energetic march – played at an indecently furious tempo in this recording.  If you’re over A Certain Age, you’ll probably associate this music with the 1950s TV series The Lone Ranger about the masked do-gooder who, with the help of his ever-present chum Tonto fought outlaws and other undesirables in the American Old West.  The Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich jokingly quoted the same melody in the first movement of his Fifteenth Symphony.


Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894): Espańa - Rhapsody for Orchestra. BBC Symphony Orchestra, cond. Leonard Slatkin (Duration: 06:25; Video: 420p)

When Emmanuel Chabrier and his wife toured Spain in 1882, Chabrier was an amateur composer, a lawyer by training who worked as a civil servant.  The tour marked a huge change in his musical fortunes. Chabrier was enthralled with everything he saw and heard and felt that “an extraordinary fantasia” of wonderful music would emerge from his experiences. Espańa was first performed in Paris in 1883 and was an immediate success. It made the composer an overnight celebrity and it was reported that some of the tunes were being whistled on the streets of Paris.

The overture opens quietly with a rhythm in triple time suggesting the strumming of a guitar.  Suddenly, it’s echoed by the full orchestra and a joyful second theme is heard on the French horns.  Chabrier used dramatic light and shade throughout the work especially in the middle section with its atmospheric use of repeated chords on the harp.  At the time, the music must have sounded distinctly modern.

Chabrier’s colourful melodies must have proved too much of a temptation for the American song writers Al Hoffman and Dick Manning who in 1956 stole the tunes and simplified them for a song poetically entitled Hot Diggity.  It was recorded by Perry Como and like Chabrier’s original composition was an instant success.  I’d guess that the tune of Hot Diggity was soon being whistled on the streets of New York.

Update March 25, 2017

Third World

Bohuslav Martinů.

As a teenager I spent many hours listening to the radio or “the wireless” as my parents preferred to call it.  We didn’t have a television in those days, because we lived on a small grey island too far from the transmitter to receive a recogniseable picture.  My favourite radio station was the BBC’s classical network, known at the time as The Third Programme though on occasions I secretly listened to the teenage-orientated Radio Luxembourg.  The Third Programme, I discovered last night, first went on the air in September 1946.  It became one of the most influential cultural and intellectual forces in Britain and played a leading role in disseminating the arts to the farthest corners of the land.

The Third Programme was a world of its own.  It regularly broadcast live orchestral concerts, full-length operas, chamber music recitals and record programmes.  It commissioned new works from composers and new plays and poetry from writers.  With its classical music, intellectual discussions and poetry readings, some people regarded the Third Programme as a bit highbrow, but the BBC saw it as promoting “something fundamental to our civilization” and as contributing to “the refinement of society”.  Thankfully, the network still exists though in September 1967, as part of a general shake-up within the BBC, the name was changed to Radio Three.

For us kids who lived out in the sticks yet wanted to hear classical music, the Third Programme was an artistic lifeline.  Late one afternoon while listening to the Third, I heard the music of Bohuslav Martinů for the first time.  It was a broadcast of his Third Cello Sonata and even as a fifteen-year-old, I found the work captivating.  It spoke in a tonal language which I’d never encountered before and from that day onwards, I became an admirer of Martinů’s music.


Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959): La Revue de cuisine. Cologne Chamber Soloists (Duration: 15:24; Video 1080p HD)

After working as a violinist in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, in 1923 Martinů moved to Paris which had long been a bustling centre of contemporary arts.  During his career, Martinů composed six symphonies, fifteen operas, fourteen ballet scores and a staggering quantity of other works for orchestra, chamber ensemble or voices.  He wrote La Revue de Cuisine in 1927 and it became his first popular success.  It was originally a jazz ballet in which the dancers played a variety of cooking utensils which surrealistically swagger through romantic episodes of kitchen life.

The suite that Martinů later assembled from the ballet music is scored for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin, cello and piano.  It has four movements: Prologue, Tango, Charleston, and Final.  However, this jazz-inspired music is by no means typical of the composer’s style for much of his work seems to be focused on loftier thoughts.

Although La Revue de Cuisine evokes the popular music of the day it uses complex rhythms and there are many irregular time-changes.  It’s full of catchy tunes and a tremendous piece of fun.  The neo-classical Prologue leads to a dark, dreamy tango with a solo from the muted trumpet and a lovely lyrical passage for bassoon and clarinet accompanied by pizzicato strings.  It leads without a break into a jubilant Charleston which brilliantly captures the spirit of that once-popular dance.  The deceptively simple Final shows Martinů’s prolific melodic invention and skillful instrumentation.


Jacques Ibert (1890-1962): Divertissement. Zaporizhzhya (Ukraine) Academic Symphony Orchestra cond. Vyacheslav Redya (Duration: 16:01; Video 720p HD)

I first heard this suite on the Third Programme and at the time, it seemed oddly incongruous hearing such riotous music from a radio station normally associated with the more serious things in life.  The Divertissement dates from 1930 and it’s probably the composer’s best-known work among seven operas, five ballets, several choral works and incidental music for plays and films.  It’s both entertaining and thoroughly French, consisting of six movements which overflow with vivacity and bombastic high spirits.

The Introduction has amusing wrong-note effects and the second movement (Cortčge) contains a hilarious quote from Mendelssohn’s Wedding March.   It then transforms into a raucous march in the manner of an amateur mariachi band on a bad night.  Duff notes abound, and there are odd honks from various brass instruments. 

The third movement is a wistful nocturne and the fourth is an attractive waltz which turns into an uncouth imitation of Johann Strauss.  The fifth movement depicts a parade with the sounds of an incompetent circus band.  As the parade passes, there’s a brief but hopelessly incoherent piano cadenza which introduces the Finale, a furious chaotic march in which the players are encouraged by the frenzied blowing of a whistle by the conductor.  It’s a rollicking work which combines catchy melodies, sparkling wit and delicious vulgarity, though some of the stony-faced Ukrainians in the audience don’t seem particularly amused.

Update March 18, 2017

A bird in the hand…

Stravinsky, drawn by Picasso in 1920.

I was thinking the other night (an unusual activity in itself) that many classical composers have been fascinated by birdsong.  Olivier Messiaen and his musical bird catalogue spring to mind but we can go much further back in musical history.  The oldest known composition using six-part voices is the thirteenth century English round Sumer Is Icumen In which includes cuckoo imitations.  In 1735 Louis-Claude Daquin used cuckoo calls in a harpsichord piece entitled, not surprisingly Le Coucou though you need to listen carefully to hear them.

One of Handel’s organ concertos of 1738 became known as The Cuckoo and the Nightingale on account of the imitated birdsong in the solo part.  Bird themes appear in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute and Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie.  Beethoven added several imitations of bird calls to his Pastoral Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake has swans by the truck-load.  Ravel composed a piano suite entitled Miroirs.  One of the movements is called Sad Birds, which sounds as though it might be a musical depiction of Walking Street in the rainy season.  One of Frederick Delius’s most well-known pieces is called On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and includes a series of morose cuckoo calls played on the clarinet.

Messiaen referred to birds as “God’s own musicians” and he notated birdsong from all over the world and incorporated many of his transcriptions into his music.  According to a poll conducted by Britain’s Classic FM, one of the most popular pieces in the UK is The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams, a composition inspired by one of George Meredith’s poems.

Respighi used a 78rpm recording of birdsong to add realism to his 1924 orchestral work Pines of Rome and almost fifty years later Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara used recordings of birdsong made near the Arctic Circle in his wonderfully evocative Cantus Arcticus.  Then of course, from the legends of Russia comes Stravinsky’s wonderful music for The Firebird.  I first heard this incredible work as a child a long time ago, when my father started collecting the newly-invented LP records.


Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): The Firebird (1919 version). Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Myung-Whun Chung (Duration: 22:05; Video: 720p HD)

Igor Stravinsky was virtually unknown when Sergei Diaghilev hired him to compose for the Ballets Russes 1910 Paris Season.  Diaghilev needed music for a ballet based on Russian folk tales about a legendary and magical glowing bird.  At the time, Stravinsky was working on another ornithological project - his opera The Nightingale but put it aside for the commission.

The Firebird was scored for an enormous orchestra which included quadruple woodwind and three harps as well as a piano.  The ballet was a momentous success and brought Stravinsky instant fame marking the beginning of a collaboration between Diaghilev and Stravinsky that produced two further ballets, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring which became iconic works of the early twentieth century.

Stravinsky created three separate suites from the ballet in 1911, 1919 and 1945 scored for a smaller orchestra than the original.  The five-movement suite from 1919 is the most well-known.  This is a superb performance with a French orchestra under a distinguished South Korean conductor who was once a student of bird-loving Messiaen.  The rich, sumptuous score has countless magic moments.  Just listen to the one at 18:19 where after a slow, hushed passage of tremolo strings, a solo horn announces the majestic melody that eventually brings the work to its heroic conclusion. 


Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936): The Birds. Academic Chamber Soloists, Prague cond. Lukas Pohunek (Duration: 21:59; Video: 1080p HD)

Eighteen years after The Firebird was premiered in Paris, Respighi wrote this delightful five-movement suite entitled Gli Uccelli (“The Birds”) scored for small orchestra.  It’s based on bird-themed music by seventeenth and eighteenth century composers including Rameau and Pasquini.  

Respighi was an expert in early music and among other academic ventures published new editions of the music of Monteverdi and Vivaldi.  Music of the past also influenced his own compositions notably his three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances.

In The Birds, Respighi creates imitations of birdsong, fluttering wings, or scratching feet using the musical language of a bygone age, yet with touches that clearly belong to the twentieth century.  The opening Prelude also appears at the end of the work and between1965 and 1977 was used as the signature tune for the BBC TV series Going for a Song.  During the suite, we hear musical portraits of a pastoral dove, a scraping, clucking hen and a haunting movement inspired by the nightingale.  In the sparkling finale, the music gives an animated picture of a playful cuckoo.  All this might seem a bit simplistic but it’s sophisticated charming music, brilliantly orchestrated by a past master of the art.

Update March 11, 2017

Swiss Air

Arthur Honegger.

My mother once complained, on first hearing my new LP of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that she couldn’t pick out the air.  She was of course using the old English word which used to be written ayre and meant a melody.  In a more specialist sense, the word ayre means a solo song usually with lute accompaniment that flourished in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. 

Now I come to think about it, my mother savoured old-fashioned words and archaic spellings.  “Air” was one of her favourites.  We hardly hear the word today in a musical context except in things like Air on the G String which is actually a romanticized version of the second movement of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3.

The arrangement was made at the end of the nineteenth century by the curiously-named German violinist August Wilhelmj who transposed Bach’s original melody down, so that it could be played entirely on the violin’s lowest string.  He rewrote the other string parts too, thus converting it into a romantic violin solo and in stark contrast to the baroque original.

Then there’s that work known as Symphony on a French Mountain Air by Vincent d’Indy based on a folk song he heard near the Cévennes in the 1880s.  Only a couple of years earlier, the young Robert Louis Stevenson had tramped through the same district with his donkey Modestine, a recalcitrant, tenacious creature that yielded to authority only with considerable reluctance. 

The Swiss composer Arthur Honegger was born on 10th March 1892 so this seems a good enough reason to celebrate his music which - it has to be admitted - is not often heard these days.  He is perhaps best-known for the engagingly-entitled Pacific 231, a symphonic portrait of a steam locomotive.  Honegger was born in France (Le Havre, since you asked) and he spent most of his professional life in Paris.  He became a member of Les Six, the irreverent group of Parisian composers whose music was often seen as a reaction against German-dominated late romantic music.  However, Honegger’s music was usually rather more sober than that of his Parisian contemporaries.


Arthur Honegger (1892–1955): Concerto da camera. Ensemble Atmusica. (Duration: 20:42; Video: 1080p HD)

Concerto de camera means of course “chamber concerto” not a concerto for a camera but I am sure you worked that out anyway.  It’s virtually a double concerto for cor anglais and flute with small string orchestra.

The work has noticeable neo-classical overtones and was written in the summer of 1948 while Honegger was living in America.  After a Copland-like opening with sustained strings, the cor anglais plays a lyrical air and later the flute introduces a livelier bucolic mood which seems to pervade the movement.  The second movement is introspective perhaps because for the first time, Honegger started to suffer from angina, a condition which rapidly led to coronary thrombosis.  The musicologist Geoffrey Spratt compared the movement to “a prayer of thanksgiving tinged with the quiet gratitude of one who has recently survived an almost fatal illness”.  The third and last movement seems to brush all the worries aside and as the composer noted, “has the feeling of a scherzo.” 


Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957): Penthesilea Suite. Orchestra of Zurich University of the Arts/Orchestra of Geneva University of Music cond. Andreas Delfs (Duration: 23:06; Video: 360p)

If you enjoy rich, powerful post-romantic music with more than a hint of Hollywood, this wonderful suite could be just up your soi.  Othmar Schoeck (OT-mah SHIRK) was a contemporary of Honegger and the two knew each other, though while Honegger preferred the musical scene in exuberant and cosmopolitan Paris, Schoeck spent his entire career in the rather more subdued city of Zürich.  He was known mainly for his many art songs and song cycles though he also wrote several operas, notably Penthesilea which was premiered in 1927.  It tells the story of the dramatic life and death of Penthesilea, the Queen of the Amazons, that legendary race of warrior women in Greek mythology.  The suite was drawn from the opera by not by the composer, but by Andreas Delfs who conducts this spell-binding performance.

The suite opens with a ferocious declamatory statement and leads into a forlorn landscape from which ominous shapes and forms seem to emerge.  Then the action starts and we seem to be in the midst of a fierce battle with loud interjections from the brass.  Gradually light appears and a splendidly heroic melody begins to form.  The composer’s musical language is fascinating.  Sometimes there’s a splash of Janáček-like astringency contrasted with ravishing melodic passages that seem to echo Mahler at his most lyrical. 

The suite is in one continuous movement and scored for huge orchestra including two pianos.  There really is some lovely music here and plenty of airs too.  I’m sure my mother would have appreciated them.

Update March 4, 2017

The Crying Game

Samuel Barber.

Some years ago, UK’s Classic FM radio station published a list of what was considered the “saddest music ever written”.  It contained the well-known lament from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas.  This incidentally, was my very first professional engagement, not singing the role of Dido you understand, but playing the cello in the orchestra. 

The Classic FM list also contained some instrumental works which included the slow movement from Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, Albinoni’s Adagio and the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony.  Then there was the slow movement from Mahler's Fifth Symphony, which leapt to fame after Luchino Visconti used it his 1971 movie Death in Venice.

As a young teenager I remember becoming hopelessly weepy every time I listened to the yearning slow movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, though I could never understand the reason.  When you look at the score, the melodic line looks straightforward enough but somehow, the wandering theme hits the button, especially when it’s taken up by the strings.  The music isn’t actually sad.  If anything, it’s elevating and enriching and at some moments, filled with joy. 

Charles Darwin noted that “several of our strongest emotions – grief, great joy, and sympathy – lead to the free secretion of tears and it is not surprising that music should be apt to cause our eyes to become suffused with tears”.  Darwin realised of course that music doesn’t have to be “sad” to bring out powerful emotions.  In any case, the word “sad” is far too childishly simplistic to be of much value.

I recently came across a fascinating article on the subject by Robert Barry, amusingly entitled Having a Bawl in which he wrote, “There are tears and then there are tears.  Emotional tears, the ones wrung from inner pain and the recognition of tragedy, have even a different chemical composition.  There are proteins that are theirs alone.  And the precise network of higher brain functions involved in these less obviously functional emissions remains shrouded in mystery.”

It’s sometimes been suggested that a minor key can produce a “sad” effect but I don’t think that explanation holds much water, or much of anything for that matter.  The song My Favourite Things is in a minor key and it’s anything but sad.  The Rachmaninov movement which made me lachrymose as a teenager is in a major key.  And so for that matter is the last movement of Mahler’s massive Third Symphony which is almost guaranteed to bring a tear or three.  But whether it’s a tear of melancholy, sadness, joy, elation or ecstasy, I shall leave it to you to decide.


Gustav Mahler (1860-1911): Symphony No. 3 (last movement). Czech Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Václav Neumann, (Duration: 21.06; Video 720p)

This final movement, undeniably introspective and poignant is in the bright sunny key of D major.  The symphony was composed between 1893 and 1896 and it’s probably the longest symphony ever written, running for about an hour and a half.  The work is scored for an enormous orchestra too, with the result that it’s played less often than Mahler’s other symphonies. 

Unusually, it has six movements instead of the more conventional four.  In a letter to a friend, Mahler referred to the work as “A Summer's Midday Dream” and he gave each movement a fanciful title implying that they were mildly descriptive.  However, before the symphony was published in 1898, he ditched all the titles, indicating that he must have had a major change of heart.

The conductor Bruno Walter wrote, “In the last movement, words are stilled, for what language can utter heavenly love more powerfully and forcefully than music itself?”  The broad sweeping lines of the melodies touch the emotions in all sorts of ways and seem to grow organically, beginning very softly with a hymn-like melody which slowly builds to a loud, majestic and triumphant conclusion.


Samuel Barber (1910-1981):  Adagio for Strings. Detroit Symphony Orchestra, cond. Leonard Slatkin (Duration: 08:47; Video 720p HD)

Barber was one of America’s most celebrated composers of the twentieth century.  This piece was originally the slow movement of his String Quartet in B minor, written in Austria during 1935 and 1936.  It would have probably remained obscure had not the conductor Arturo Toscanini urged Barber to arrange it for orchestra.  It has since become hugely popular and been used in several feature films. 

When the BBC launched a competition to find the “saddest music in the world”, Barber’s Adagio came at the top of the list.  However, the word “sad” in this context is another over-simplification, for the music has moments of joy and triumph.  Incidentally, the Italian word “adagio” simply means “slowly” and this is an intense work which grows in power and volume from the beginning.  Notice how the melody develops and how Barber uses silence for dramatic effect in the long pause after the climax at 05:58.  For a moment, it seems like the end of piece.  But it isn’t.  Instead, the composer takes us back to that quiet, secretive place where our melancholy journey began.

Update February 25, 2017


An 1886 portrait of Verdi by Giovanni Boldini.

I wonder if you’ve come across that excellent and scholarly book called At Day’s Close superbly written by A. Roger Ekirch.  It sets out to explore the history of night-time in Western society before the advent of the Industrial Revolution.  I bought a copy in Asia Books a few years ago and have just started to plough into it for the second time.

The author’s main interest lies in how people coped after dark, in the face of both real and supernatural perils.  Of course these were the days before artificial lighting, when night invariably brought total darkness.  During the early modern era witches were considered the gravest threat to life, limb and sanity.  Witch hunts, trials and executions were common and while no one knows the exact number of supposed witches who were put to death, Erkich estimates that upwards of thirty thousand people from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries might have been executed.  The most common of those accused of witch-craft were, somewhat predictably, elderly unmarried women of modest means.

Shakespeare’s play Macbeth begins unusually with a scene in which three witches and their familiars are temporarily bidding each other goodbye.  The play is said to be cursed, with the result that superstitious actors avoid mentioning its name when in the theatre and instead use the euphemism “The Scottish Play”.  It’s recommended not to quote any lines from the play inside a theatre, lest one encounters some unfortunate and inexplicable calamity.  The first performance was probably in 1606 and Shakespeare would be well aware of the fear and trepidation that witches instilled in the gentlefolk of England.

A good few years ago I took part in a London production of the play, not as a witch you understand, but as the Music Director.  It was a Restoration version of the play dating from around the 1660s when Sir William Davenant adapted Macbeth to the tastes of the day, even adding songs and dances.  The music was by Matthew Locke, one of Davenant’s small team of composers.

My job was to arrange the music from Locke’s original manuscript, score it for small theatre band and conduct the performances.  Incidentally, the play was brilliantly directed by Richard Doubleday who also directed many episodes of Coronation Street and had already achieved considerable acclaim as producer of the British TV series A Family at War.


Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901): Overture - Macbeth. Orchestra of La Scala Opera, Milan cond. Riccardo Muti (Duration: 02:52; Video: 480p)

Macbeth was the first Shakespearean play that Verdi adapted for the opera stage.  It was his tenth opera and first performed in Florence in March 1847 followed by over twenty performances in other parts of Italy.  The overture is surprisingly short but if you have a couple of hours to spare you can watch the entire opera on YouTube.

Verdi later revised the opera and the new version appeared in 1865.  His opera follows Shakespeare’s original play quite closely but with a few significant changes.  Instead of using three witches as in the play, Verdi writes for a large female chorus of witches, singing in three-part harmony.  The last act begins with an assembly of refugees on the English border and in the revised version includes a chorus of bards celebrating the final victory over the tyrant Macbeth.


Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881): A Night on Bare Mountain. National Youth Orchestra of Spain cond. José Serebrier (Duration: 10:06; Video: 480p)

The original Russian title translates literally as Saint John’s Eve on Bald Mountain but it’s known by several alternative names.  For some years, Mussorgsky had been toying with the idea of composing something on the subject of Gogol’s short story St. John's Eve which described the goings-on at a witches’ Sabbath. 

Mussorgsky (whose name also has alternative spellings) began writing this orchestral piece at the beginning of June 1867 and by an odd coincidence completed the music on the eve of St. John's Day, 23rd June.  His original score was not published until a hundred years later in 1968.  There was of course, a reason.  Shortly after Mussorgsky’s premature death (caused largely by an excess of booze) his friends prepared some of his manuscripts for publication in an attempt to preserve them for posterity.  Most of the editing work was done by Rimsky-Korsakov, who in 1886 produced his own edition of the work.  He had made so many changes and improvements to the original that it is virtually his own composition.  Rimsky-Korsakov’s version has been used for most concert performances ever since.

In the twentieth century millions of people first heard this work through yet another version arranged by the conductor Leopold Stokowski.  It was written for the Walt Disney animated movie, Fantasia which appeared in1940.  This arrangement is the version played here by the National Youth Orchestra of Spain directed by the Uruguayan conductor and composer, José Serebrier.  And here’s another interesting connection.  For a time, Serebrier was Stokowski’s Associate Conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra.

Update February 18, 2017

I Got Rhythm

Alberto Ginastera.

Now then, I wonder if you can reel off a list of Latin-American composers.  If this seems a daunting task, don’t let it bother you too much because I suspect that few people in these parts can accomplish such a feat.  Many concert-goers in Europe would find themselves in a similar position although some could probably dredge up the names of the Brazilian Villa-Lobos and possibly the Mexican composer Carlos Chavez.  There are dozens of others whose music is frequently performed in Latin America but it has been slow to penetrate the rest of the classical music world.  But honestly, I don’t know why. 

Out of curiosity, I dug out my 2002 edition of the venerable Oxford Companion to Music.  The entire history of Latin-American music is summed up in three pages.  In contrast, Johannes Brahms gets four pages and Beethoven gets five.  Villa-Lobos, who wrote over a thousand works, gets just two paragraphs.  This less-than-subtle Eurocentric perspective is to me at least, deeply disturbing.  It may have been valid during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but now the world is a different place.

Recently the conductor Gisele Ben-Dor wrote in Symphony magazine, “Listen to some Latin-American composers and you're going to find treasures.  Keep digging… I think we need to discover music that we didn't know before - new music, even if it's old.” 

Although there are some examples of early Latin-American music, the twentieth century has seen an explosion of composing activity.  Many Latin-American composers write music which is intensely rhythmic, drawing freely on elements of national folk dance.

If you find yourself at a loose end one day, try typing a few names into the YouTube search box, followed by the word “composer”. For a start, you could try Leo Brouwer (Cuba), Silvestre Revueltas or Rodolfo Halffter (Mexico), José Serebrier (Uruguay) or Astor Piazzolla (Argentina).  Oh yes, then there’s Oscar Lorenzo Fernández, one of the older school of twentieth century Brazilian composers.  He eventually became a distinguished music teacher and founded the Brazilian Conservatory of Music in which he served as Director.


Oscar Lorenzo Fernández (1897-1948): Batuque. Symphony Orchestra of Brazil cond. Roberto Minczuk (Duration: 04:18; Video: 720p HD)

Like the nineteenth century French composer Hector Berlioz, Fernández first studied medicine, but was eventually drawn to music and moved through the Rio de Janeiro musical establishment, at first basing his music on European models.  In 1924 Fernández won a composing competition with a piano trio entitled Trio Brasileiro, a work infused with elements of Brazilian popular song and dance.  Most of his subsequent works, which include two symphonies, five symphonic poems and a handful of concertos, are decisively Brazilian in character and frequently quote folksongs.

In the early 1930s he wrote a three-act opera, entitled Malazarte which is a colourful, nationalistic work and thought to be the first successful Brazilian opera of its type.  As composers so often do, Fernández extracted a three-movement suite from the opera, the last one of which, Batuque has become especially popular.  This lively percussion-driven piece is based on an Afro-Brazilian folk dance.  It uses pulsating and pounding rhythms and seems to give a foretaste of the minimalist movement yet to come.


Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983): Danza final (Malambo) from “Estancia”. Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela cond. Gustavo Dudamel (Duration: 05:09; Video: 480p)

Alberto Ginastera (jee-nah-STEHR-ah) is considered the most powerful voice in Argentine classical music.  He studied at the conservatoire in Buenos Aires, and later with the American composer Aaron Copland.  Ginastera’s music can be challenging, percussive, thrilling, thought-provoking and sometimes even downright scary.  If anything sums it up, the word is rhythm.

Much of Ginastera’s music draws on Argentine folk themes or other elements of traditional music.  He greatly admired the Gaucho traditions and this is reflected in his 1942 one-act ballet Estancia (“The Ranch”).  Ginastera turned the ballet music into a delightful four-movement orchestral suite and if you haven’t heard his music before, this is a great place to start.  All the hallmarks of his style are here: his passion for percussive sounds, his sparkling angular melodies and of course his infectious sense of rhythm.

This is an absolute “must hear”.  The closing section (at 10:47) is thrilling, with cataclysmic percussion and brilliantly articulated playing.  The Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela is the product of another music teacher, José Antonio Abreu, who developed the music education programme known as El Sistema.

And by the way, the Gershwin song ungrammatically entitled I Got Rhythm was published in 1930 and was written in the surprisingly unusual key of D flat.  I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but the second phrase is the same as the first, played backwards.

Update February 11, 2017

Just a song at Twilight

Giacomo Puccini in 1900.

You can probably sing that line even though the song was written before you were born and probably before your parents were born.  The song has an interesting tale behind it.  For a start, the words were not written at twilight but at four o’clock in the morning.  The insomniac writer was one Graham Clifton Bingham, the son of a Bristol bookseller.  He was a prolific writer with 1,650 song lyrics to his name.  Just a song at Twilight is the opening line of the chorus to a song called “Love’s Old Sweet Song” which was published in 1884 with music by the Irish composer James Lynam Molloy.  At the time he worked as a private secretary to the Attorney General having previously been a war correspondent for the London Standard during the Franco-Prussian War.

The song became extremely popular during the 1890s when the Gilbert and Sullivan operas were all the rage, especially in London.  In 1898 The Gondoliers was premiered at the Savoy Theatre, running for over five hundred performances.  It includes a song entitled When a Merry Maiden Marries and the opening bars bear a striking resemblance to Love’s Old Sweet Song.  When Sir Arthur Sullivan was accused of stealing part of James Molloy’s melody he denied it with the classic response, “We had only eight notes between us”.


Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924): Coro a boca cerrada (Humming Chorus). Schola Cantorum Labronica, Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Andrea Colombini (Duration: 03:18; Video 720p HD)

The opera Madame Butterfly has an even more interesting background.  The story is somewhat convoluted so I shall try to keep it short.  Please sit up and try and look as though you’re interested.

In 1887 a semi-autobiographical French novel appeared entitled Madame Chrysanthčme written by Pierre Loti, the pseudonym of Louis Marie-Julien Viaud who was a French naval officer and novelist, known for his stories set in exotic places.  The novel told the story of a naval officer who was temporarily married to a Japanese girl while he was stationed in Nagasaki.  The plot was based on the true-life diaries kept by the author.  The novel came to the attention of the French composer André Messager who used it as the basis for an opera of the same name, first performed in Paris in 1893.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, an American lawyer and writer named John Luther Long published a short story entitled Madame Butterfly.  It was also based partly on the Pierre Loti novel and on the recollections of his sister who had been to Japan with her husband. 

The American playwright and theatre producer David Belasco adapted Long’s story as a one-act play entitled Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan.  After its first run in New York in 1900 the play moved to London where by chance it was seen by the Italian composer Puccini who decided that it would make a good opera and arranged for an Italian libretto to be written.  Four years later, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was premiered at La Scala in Milan.  It was a disaster, largely due to inadequate rehearsal time.  The composer revised the work five times and his final version of 1907 is the one performed today.  It has become one of the world’s most popular operas: the tragic love affair and marriage of a naive young Japanese girl to a thoughtless and callous American playboy Naval Officer.

The Humming Chorus is a wordless, melancholy tune heard from off-stage at the end of Act 2 when the Japanese girl Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly), her child and her servant Suzuki are waiting at home one evening for the return of the American husband whose ship is in the harbour.  They are unaware of the devastating news and terrible tragedy that is about to unfold.


Frederick Delius (1862-1934): Summer Night on the River. Orquestra Clássica do Centro (Portugal) cond. David Wyn Lloyd (Duration: 06:37; Video: 1080p HD)

Delius is one of those few composers whose musical language you can usually recognise within seconds.  In 1911 he composed two short tone-poems for chamber orchestra, the first one being his more well-known On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring.   

The two pieces were written at the Delius house in the French village of Grez, near Fontainebleau.  The garden faced the small River Loing where Delius spent many hours in contemplation.  This river was the inspiration the lilting music of Summer Night on the River.  Delius was gifted at creating an atmosphere in his music and in this piece, the vague harmonies create an impressionistic picture of mists settling over the river.  You can almost feel the shifting waters, the gentle rocking of small boats, the darkening of the skies and the deepening of the colours.

Update February 4, 2017

Baroque Adventures

Arcangelo Corelli.

We tend to think of a concerto as a work for a lone soloist battling it out against a full orchestra and during the late romantic period this was a fairly accurate if stereotypical picture. 

In the seventeenth century the word concerto was rather vague.  It was originally used to describe more-or-less anything for voices with instrumental accompaniment.  Later many such works were described as cantatas.  During the baroque two types of concerto emerged and they existed pretty well side by side.  One was the solo concerto for a single instrument and orchestra, and the other was the so-called concerto grosso or “big concerto”.  The main feature of the big concerto was that it was conceived for two groups: a small group of soloists known as the concertino - literally the “little ensemble” - and the larger group often described as the ripieno. The concertino or soloists’ group predictably contained more virtuosic music than that of the ripieno.

Countless concerti grossi - to use the correct Italian plural - were churned out by baroque composers but the best-known were those of Corelli, Handel and Vivaldi.  Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are mostly concerti grossi in all but name.  Eventually the concerto grosso went the way of most things and by the 1750s had simply fallen out of fashion.  It gave way to the solo concerto which so perfectly matched the romantic ideals of the century to come.

Like so many historical forms, the concerto grosso was revived in the twentieth century by composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Ernest Bloch, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Heitor Villa-Lobos who used various baroque ideas within a more modern musical language.


Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713): Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No.3 in C minor. ORT Ensemble dir. Chiara Morandi (Duration: 12:08; Video 1080p HD)

Arcangelo Corelli was the first important composer to use the description “concerto grosso” although the format of a small group contrasted against a larger one had been around for some years.  He was a key figure in baroque music and one of the most influential violinists of all time.  His twelve concerti grossi were published in Amsterdam in 1714 and their influence was enormous.

Although considered a fine violinist, Corelli never ventured above the note D on the highest string.  By today’s standards that is conservative indeed.  This C minor concerto follows the conventional pattern of slow-fast-slow-fast-fast and each movement becomes progressively longer.  The concertino group consists of just two violins and cello.  There’s a typical declamatory opening that leads into a quicker movement.  The following slow movement is rich in harmony although it must have sounded quite progressive at the time.  The vivace movement is vivacious indeed and so is the scurrying finale but sadly some of the detail in the fast passages is almost lost in the cavernous acoustic of the church.


George Frederic Handel (1685-1759): Concerto Grosso in G Major, Op. 6, No. 1. The Colburn Young Artists Academy Virtuosi Orchestra (Duration: 10:27; Video: 1080p HD)

Fast-forward twenty years and we find something quite different.  Handel wrote a couple of dozen concerti grossi, nearly all of which are found in two sets: the Opus 3 and the Opus 6.  The earlier set was compiled in 1734 by a London publisher simply by cobbling together various bits and pieces of Handel’s music together without the composer’s involvement or even his permission.  In those days they could get away with that sort of thing.  The Opus 6 collection consists of twelve concertos that Handel had written specifically as a coherent set during 1739.

Like the Corelli, they’re scored for a concertino group of two violins and cello and a string orchestra with harpsichord continuo.  The overall pattern is pretty similar to that of Corelli’s as well but there the similarity ends.  Handel brings to the music a huge variety of musical styles and these concerti and are generally considered to be amongst the finest examples of the genre.

Incidentally this is a charming performance too from students at The Colburn Young Artists Academy in Los Angeles.  There’s some fine string playing, lovely ensemble contrast and a careful observation of dynamics.  There are a couple of moments when the tempo feels slightly insecure but considering they are playing without a conductor I certainly won’t hold that against them.

The first short movement starts dramatically and leads into a lively fast movement.  The third is slow and dignified in which the violin soloists build phrases in imitation with some lovely harmonies.  The lively fourth movement sounds as though it’s going to be a fugue but instead turns into a delightful episodic movement with some jolly tunes and a few musical surprises too.  The dance-like final movement (at 08:22) uses a great deal of spirited imitation in which at times the soloists echo phrases played by the full orchestra, revealing Handel at his light-hearted best.

Update January 28, 2017

The Spanish Mozart

Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga.

The brilliant musical career of composer Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, dubbed the “Spanish Mozart” by later musicians was tragically cut short.  Rejoicing in the name of Juan Crisóstomo Jacobo Antonio de Arriaga y Balzola, he was born in Bilbao where his father and brother had strong connections with the Madrid court.  And it’s true that Arriaga had much in common with Mozart.  For a start, he was born on 27th January and the same date as Mozart, though exactly fifty years later.  They also shared the first and second baptismal names.

Like Mozart, Arriaga played the piano and violin and was first taught by his father.  He proved to be a child prodigy and “an excellent and intuitive musician” whose earliest compositions included the divertimento Nada y mucho composed at the age of eleven and a two-act opera Los Esclavos Felices written when he was thirteen and first performed in Bilbao to great acclaim.  And sadly, like Mozart he was destined to die young.

When he was fifteen Arriaga went to Paris to study and met Luigi Cherubini, who for a time was an examiner at the Paris Conservatoire.  He was admitted to study theory and composition and while there composed three string quartets, some piano pieces, choral music and his one symphony.  Arriaga soon became a teaching assistant at the Conservatoire and was well known for his extraordinary talent.  Cherubini referred to Arriaga’s fugue for eight voices simply as “a masterpiece”.

What impressed all his teachers was the young man’s ability to use musically sophisticated harmonies, counterpoint, and related techniques without ever being taught them.  It’s possible that the intensity of his work at the Paris Conservatoire may have taken a toll on his health.  Just ten days before his twentieth birthday, Arriaga died of a lung condition probably complicated by physical and mental exhaustion.


Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga (1806-1826): Symphony in D Major.  Symphony Orchestra of Galacia cond. Jesús López Cobos (Duration: 28:58; Video: 1080p HD)

Arriaga's early death was not only a loss to Spanish music but to European music as a whole.  Along with his string quartets, this symphony is Arriaga’s most important work.  If you didn’t know, you’d probably guess that it might be an early symphony of Schubert, who was only nine years older than Arriaga.

The symphony is written in the usual four movements but drifts between D major and D minor so frequently that it’s not really in either key.  The slow introduction sounds almost Mozartian.  But not for long.  The ensuing fast section seems to leave the eighteenth century far behind.  There are some imaginative and effective twists of harmony and between the lyrical melodies, Arriaga creates some dramatic moments.

In the second movement (at 10:20) the young composer writes lovely lyrical expansive melodies, one of which sounds vaguely similar to the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful.  The minuet is strikingly original with beautifully transparent scoring in the waltz-like trio.  It has a delightful and original ending too.

At times, the final movement (at 23:05) seems to echo Rossini, whose opera The Barber of Seville had been given its premiere when Arriaga was ten years old.  But although there are reflections of Schubert and Rossini in this extraordinary work, the musical language is entirely Arriaga’s own.  One can’t help wondering what he would have brought to music had he not been taken away so early in his life.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Symphony No 30 in D Major K202. Danish National Chamber Orchestra cond. Adam Fischer (Duration: 18:45; Video: 720p HD)

Mozart was eighteen and the same age as Arriaga when he wrote his Symphony in D in 1774.  But there was a difference, because Mozart already had a couple of dozen symphonies behind him.  We don’t know exactly how many because some early Mozart symphonies are of doubtful authenticity.  For example, Symphony No. 2 was almost certainly written by his father and Symphony No 3 was written by Carl Friedrich Abel.  But the young Mozart wasn’t cheating.  The eight-year-old Mozart had merely copied out Abel’s symphony for study purposes when he visited London in 1764 and publishers later assumed it was his own work.

Symphony No 30 is cast in the usual four movements and kicks off with a confident fanfare-like figure for the full orchestra, later making much use of dynamic contrast and answering phrases.  The delicate second movement (at 06:39) shows Mozart’s increasingly sophisticated writing.  The minuet and trio are anything but dance-like and display a wealth of invention with many answering phrases and sudden dynamic contrasts.  The opening notes of the playful and charming last movement look back briefly to the beginning of the symphony while the closing bars of the work come as a complete surprise.  Even as a teenager, Mozart could be so unpredictable.

Update January 21, 2017

Diverting pleasures

Walter Piston.

In the eighteenth century, background music was an essential part of courtly life.  Many composers earned a bit of extra money by churning out selections of lightweight pieces to serve as a musical back drop for formal dinners and social chatter.  Mozart, Haydn and Boccherini were not averse to writing for such courtly occasions and even for private homes if the owners could afford to hire a small orchestra.

The music usually took the form of a suite of dances or a selection of five or six independent movements.  There were invariably many repeated sections to spin them out.  They were often called divertimentos, or divertimenti to use the more correct Italian plural.  The word comes from the verb devertire, meaning “to amuse” and for practical reasons they were generally scored for a small ensemble rather than a large orchestra.

Sometimes the selections were known as serenades or cassations.  Despite their different names, there was little to distinguish one from another.  Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is one famous example, though contrary to popular belief the German title actually means “a little serenade”.

During the nineteenth century the divertimento faded in popularity because there were fewer courts, and social changes were gradually moving musical performance from the private court to the public concert hall.  The divertimento was revived in the twentieth century, not as a form of background music but as a work for the concert performance.

Walter Piston (1894-1976): Divertimento. OSG Sinfonietta dir. José A. Trigueros (Duration: 14.33; Video: 1080p HD)

The New England composer Walter Piston was a Professor of Music at Harvard University, and in the 1950s he wrote four books on technical aspects of music which are considered classics in their fields: The Principles of Harmonic Analysis, Counterpoint, Orchestration, and Harmony.  Even today, they’re still considered essential reading for advanced music students.  I have the books on orchestration and harmony on my shelves.  At least, I thought I had.  When I went to look for them this morning they had mysteriously disappeared.

During World War I Piston joined the U.S. Navy as a band musician after rapidly teaching himself to play saxophone.  While he was there he discovered that wind instruments were “just lying around” and as he later remarked “no one minded if you picked them up and found out what they could do.”  So Piston did what anyone else would in the circumstances.  He taught himself to play them all.

In later years Piston became a prolific composer with eight symphonies to his name and a wealth of other works.  The Divertimento for Nine Instruments dates from 1946 and it’s scored for string quintet and four woodwind instruments.  I shall leave you to guess what they are.  It’s a delightful three-movement work and neo-classical in style, using the characteristic “wrong-note” harmonies favoured by Stravinsky and Milhaud.  It sounds as though it came from the same stable as Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks concerto.

Incidentally, the neo-classical style was a trend which emerged during the two World Wars, in which composers sought to return to the principal qualities of eighteenth century music: an emphasis on balance, clarity and economy of means.  Stravinsky modestly claimed to be the “inventor” of the genre but Sergei Prokofiev’s First Symphony of 1917 was probably the first important neo-classical composition.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945: Divertimento for String Orchestra. Hungarian State Orchestra cond. János Ferencsik (Duration: 28:18; Video 480p)

This work has been described as being neo-classical but perhaps the expression “neo-baroque” would more appropriate.  Throughout the work and especially in the last movement, the composer borrows an idea from the baroque concerto grosso in which a small group of soloists alternate with the full orchestra creating a contrast in texture.  Even so it’s the Hungarian qualities that dominate the work.

Bartók and Liszt are considered Hungary’s greatest composers.  Bartók was born in the small town of Nagyszentmiklós.  Now, say it slowly after me: NAHJ-zent-mee-glohsh.  Try to get it right, because I might test you later.  This incredible work was the last that Bartók wrote before he hastily left Hungary and immigrated to the United States during the outbreak of World War II.  He completed it in 1939 after fifteen days of busy composing while on holiday in Switzerland.

The dance-like first movement opens with energetic repeated chords played by the lower strings while a characteristic gipsy-style melody appears in the violins.  The music is punctuated with irregular rhythms and unexpected turns of phrase.  The dark and ominous second movement is a strangely unsettling experience.  It contrasts rich harmonies with an unnerving passage that seems to push tonality to its limits.  The lively and playful last movement is more neo-baroque in sound but its Hungarian heritage is unmistakable. It’s also full of musical surprises.

Update January 14, 2017

Making waves

Pietro Mascagni.

On the 13th January 1910 the first public radio broadcast took place in the USA; a performance of the operas Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.  It was an experiment and publicity stunt arranged by Lee de Forest, the inventor of a device called the Audion which was effectively the original radio valve and the first method of electrical amplification that actually worked.

The opera performance starred the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso.  Few people actually heard the broadcast because the only radio receivers were those at the De Forest Laboratory, some hotels on Times Square and various locations in New York where members of the press optimistically waited.  There were also receivers on ships in New York Harbour.

The following day, The New York Times reported breathlessly that the sounds of the opera were “borne by wireless Hertzian waves over the turbulent waters of the sea to transcontinental and coastwise ships and over the mountainous peaks and undulating valleys of the country.”  Despite the poetic licence and purple prose, the sound quality wasn’t particularly good because early microphones had technical limitations and the antenna on the roof of the opera house was evidently no more than a long fishing pole.  Or so the story goes.

The two short operas Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci have been conjoined since 1893 when they were paired for a performance – also at the Metropolitan - and usually known as Cav and Pag.  Both were conceived in the novel verismo (realistic) style of opera which instead of using mythological themes and tales of kings and queens, told stories about ordinary people, usually enlivened with a bit of sex and violence.

Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945): Intermezzo from “Cavalleria Rusticana”. Evergreen Symphony Orchestra cond. Lim Kek-tjiang (Duration: 04:25; Video: 480p)

Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana (“Rustic Chivalry”) caused one of the greatest sensations in opera history.  It came about because of a competition.  In July 1888 a music publisher in Milan announced an opera competition open to all young Italian composers whose work was unperformed.  Pietro Mascagni (PYAY-troh mah-SKAHN-yee) heard about it only a couple of months before the closing date and hastily got to work using a libretto based on a story set in a Sicilian village.

Cavalleria Rusticana was probably the first opera in the verismo style and was premiered in 1890 to an audience of the most authoritative music critics in the country.  With its rich melodies and powerful dramatic style it was an enormous success, requiring the composer to take forty curtain calls.  He also won First Prize in the competition.  It brought Mascagni fantastic success both as a composer and conductor.  None of his later works ever managed to eclipse this opera which by the composer’s death had received fourteen thousand performances in Italy alone.

The beautiful and moving Intermezzo is one of most well-known instrumental pieces from the opera.  The Evergreen Symphony Orchestra is from Taiwan and part of the Evergreen Group which also owns EVA Air.  If you take an EVA flight, you’ll probably hear recordings of this orchestra playing the background music during boarding and landing.

Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919): Pagliacci. Film directed by Franco Zeffirelli with Teresa Stratas, Plácido Domingo, Juan Pons, Alberto Rinaldi, Orchestra and Choir of La Scala, Milan cond. Georges Prętre (Duration: 1:11:04; Video: 360p)

Now here’s a real treat if you have an hour to spare.  In 1982, Franco Zeffirelli made a TV movie of the opera shot in Milan’s La Scala opera house and on a sound stage.  All the actors, including Plácido Domingo and Teresa Stratas in the starring roles, sang their own parts.  The video quality isn’t so good by today’s standards, but otherwise this is a compelling production with subtitles in English.

Although Leoncavallo’s opera was originally set in the late 1860s, Zeffirelli's production is updated to sometime between the wars.  Zeffirelli also made a TV movie of Cavalleria Rusticana with much the same cast and many sequences shot on location.  You can find it on YouTube but there are no subtitles.

Before writing this opera, Ruggero Leoncavallo was a relatively unknown Italian composer but he was impressed with the enormous success of Cavalleria Rusticana and hastily got to work on his own new opera also in the verismo style.  Pagliacci  (Pah-lee-AH-chee) was performed in Milan in 1892 with immediate success.  Although the composer produced numerous operas throughout his career Pagliacci (“The Clowns”) is his only work in today’s operatic repertoire.  The plot was based on an incident from his childhood; a true-life murder trial over which his father, who was a judge, had presided in court.

The opera is a cleverly designed story-within-a-story and recounts a tragedy that takes place in a travelling comedy troupe.  What starts as seemingly innocent clowning turns jealousy to rage and then inevitably to a dramatic double murder.

Update January 8, 2017

The road to hell

Antonio Vivaldi.

One day in 1668, Samuel Pepys (he of diary fame) went to Mr. Drumbleby’s shop in London and “did buy a recorder which I do intend to learn to play on, the sound of it being of all sounds in this world most pleasing to me.”

Today, few people would share Pepys’s enthusiasm.  If the mention of the word “recorder” brings to mind that ghostly hooting and squeaking of schoolchildren blowing into plastic recorders, you’re probably not alone.  For years, the instrument has been used as an educational aid in much of the western world but it’s invariably badly taught and badly played.  Thanks to years of musical abuse in schools it has acquired rather a doubtful reputation.  Of course, it was not always thus.

The recorder has a history spreading over eight centuries and its ancestors can be traced back much further.  Technically it’s known rather unglamorously as “an internal duct flute” which is a flute with a whistle mouthpiece.  When you come to think about it, the name is rather curious.  It derives in a rather roundabout way from Middle French in which the verb recordeur meant to learn by heart, to recite or to play music.

The earliest known document in English mentioning “a pipe called the recordour” dates from 1388.  The instrument became very popular during the Middle Ages and remained so during the Renaissance and the Baroque despite the fact that the puritanical kill-joy Stephen Gosson claimed in 1579 that playing the recorder was the first step on the road to hell.

The instrument fell into disuse during the nineteenth century but was revived in the twentieth, not only for educational use but to meet the needs of musicians wanting to recreate authentic sounds of the Baroque.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741): Recorder Concerto RV 443. Maurice Steger (rec), Cappella Gabetta dir. Andrés Gabetta (Duration: 11.25; Video: 1080p HD)

There is a large sign in town advertising something, I have forgotten exactly what, but it says “prepare to be amazed.”  I’ve often wondered how one prepares for amazement.  If you have found the secret, prepare to be amazed when you hear this performance.  Maurice Steger is a Swiss musician who has been described by the British newspaper The Independent as “the world’s leading recorder player”.

Vivaldi of course is one of the most important Baroque composers and best known for his set of violin concertos known as The Four Seasons.  Less well-known is the fact that he also wrote forty operas and several hundred concertos.  In 1739, Charles de Brosses wrote that Vivaldi can compose a concerto faster than a copyist can produce the parts.  Sometimes it sounds like it.  Igor Stravinsky once dryly remarked that Vivaldi’s concertos are “the same concerto four hundred times”, which is probably a bit unfair.

The concerto is cast in the usual three movements (fast-slow-fast) the first of which is taken at a furious tempo and displays Steger’s phenomenal technique.  The sheer velocity of his playing is extraordinary.  Vivaldi makes a simple musical joke at the end of the movement which even gets a laugh two hundred and eighty years on.  There’s a brilliant solo performance in the last movement too, with fine string playing from the supporting ensemble.

Incidentally, the RV number refers to the work’s place in the Ryom-Verzeichnis (Ryom Catalogue) a listing of Vivaldi’s works complied in the 1980s by the Danish musicologist Peter Ryom.

Giuseppe Sammartini (1695-1750): Recorder Concerto in F.  Andreas Prittwitz (rec), Lookingback Baroque Orchestra (Duration: 12:48; Video: 1080p HD)

Giuseppe Sammartini was a Baroque Italian composer and oboist and was also known as St Martini, San Martini, San Martino or just plain old Martini.  He hailed from Milan but spent most of his professional life in London.  Giuseppe had a younger brother named Giovanni who was also a composer and oboist and people have been getting them mixed up ever since.  I recently read an article about Giuseppe which, rather hilariously showed a portrait of his brother by mistake.  To add to the confusion there was also a Milanese sculptor called Giuseppe Sanmartino. 

Giuseppe Sammartini was an exceptionally skilled oboist who could also play the flute and recorder.  He was once described as “the greatest oboist the world had ever known” so by any standards, he must have been pretty good.  His three-movement Recorder Concerto is a much more sedate affair than the Vivaldi one and shows that Giuseppe Sammartini was gradually moving away from the ideals of the Baroque.

I’ve just remembered that there are a couple of recorders in the house.  All this has inspired me to dust them off and get into practice.  If you happen to be walking along the soi outside, don’t be surprised to hear the sounds of merry piping drifting over the garden wall.


Update December 30, 2016

Music from another time

Josquin des Prez.

At the watering hole the other night, someone was saying that medieval music seems to have a rather unworldly quality and a sense of purity.  This perhaps is probably an over-simplification but I know exactly what they mean.  Much of the music composed between 1400 and 1500 was invariably for voices and intended for religious purposes.  In those days music was simpler harmonically than that of the nineteenth and twentieth century but amazingly it still has the ability to speak to us over a historical chasm of more than five hundred years.

The church took it upon itself to record music in written form and without these laboriously-copied manuscripts, we’d have little idea of what medieval music actually sounded like.  On reflection, it’s surprising that so much medieval music has been preserved, though what survives today must be a tiny proportion of what once existed.

But it was not only the church that took on the responsibility of preserving musical compositions.  The so-called Old Hall Manuscript for example, is the largest and most significant source of English sacred music of the late medieval period and early renaissance.  The manuscript contains 148 compositions written on red staves by different copyists, some possibly by the composers themselves.  The book is a large format and while some pages are plain musical notation others are richly and colourfully decorated. It’s thought that the work took about twenty years to complete and contains sacred music by some of the best-known English composers of the day. 

Leonel Power (1370-1445):  Beata progenies. Ensemble Ligeriana dir. Katia Caré (Duration: 04:17; Video: 1090p HD)

One of them was Leonel Power about whom we know precious little, except that he was probably a native of Kent in South East England.  In those days English spelling was more chaotic than it is today and his first name has appeared as Lionel, Lyonel, Leonellus and even sometimes Leonelle. 

For a time Power worked as a choral teacher at the household chapel of Thomas of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Clarence.  He then served until the end of his days as choirmaster at the Christ Church Priory in Canterbury by which time he was already a big name in English music.

The beautifully lyrical and haunting motet Beata progenies is for three vocal parts (performed here with two singers to a part) and was linked to the immaculate conception of Mary which the church celebrated on 8th December.  Power uses remarkably rich and expressive harmonies to underline the meaning of the text.

On this video, there’s also a bonus performance: an anonymous motet entitled Ave Regina Celorum which dates from sometime during the 14th  century.  The details of its origin and author remain mysteriously unknown.

Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521): Ave Maria...Virgo Serena. Schola Antiqua of Chicago, dir. Michael Alan Anderson (Duration: 05:34; Video: 720p HD)

Ave Maria...Virgo Serenaa is considered Josquin’s most famous motet and one of the most well-known choral works of the time.  In 1502 it appeared as the opening number in the first volume of motets ever printed.  It’s far removed from Leonel Power’s musical language and the beginning, in which the voices imitate each other, was revolutionary at the time.

Josquin des Prez (usually known simply as Josquin) was a Franco-Flemish composer who acquired a reputation as the greatest of his day.  Even Martin Luther wrote about his fame and some notable theorists considered that his style represented musical perfection.  Many anonymous compositions were attributed to him in the hope of increasing their sales. 

Surprisingly, for someone so famous his biography, especially his early years is somewhat vague and we know pretty well nothing about him as an individual.  He lived during what must have been an exciting time, for it was a transitional stage in music history and styles were changing rapidly.  This was partly due to the increasing mobility of composers and musicians around Europe.

Ave Maria...Virgo Serena was written at some point between 1476 and 1497 when the composer was in service at the North Italian court at Milan.  In many ways this is a remarkable work and reflects the ideals of the Italian Renaissance.  Each musical phrase corresponds to a line of text and Josquin uses a great deal of imitation which you can hear clearly, especially near the beginning.  Gradually the work enters a realm of contrapuntal complexity and internal aesthetic beauty that must have made it seem modern and exciting to fifteenth century ears.

It’s a motet of classic balance and it’s also a fine early example of using musical techniques to bring expressiveness and colour to the text.  Throughout the work the voices interplay between each other and it’s not until the final lines, sung rather like a hymn that they finally blend together as one.  The profound religious symbolism of this musical device would not have been lost on contemporary listeners.

Update December 24, 2016

Eastern delights

Composer Yűzô Toyama.

With Christmas just around the corner, it occurred to me that I might tell you about some classical Christmas music.  But then I thought “No.  Why should I?”  To be perfectly honest, I find the Christmas thing a bit of a bore and I’m jolly glad when the whole tiresome business is over.  So instead, I’ll tell you about two interesting Japanese works that I discovered recently.  And incidentally, it’s a fortunate coincidence that 23rd December just happens to be the birthday of the Japanese emperor.

Since the latter half of the nineteenth century, Japanese composers have tended to look towards Western musical culture as well as drawing on elements from Japanese traditional music.  Kômei Abe was one of the leading Japanese composers of the twentieth century and his First Symphony of 1957 is a good introduction to Japanese classical-music-in-the-Western-style, although it’s a curious mix of musical idioms.

The prolific Toshiro Mayuzumi composed more than a hundred film scores and if you’d like an entertaining musical experience, seek out his Concertino for Xylophone and Orchestra which I believe is still available on YouTube.  Kunihico Hashimoto was another leading Japanese composer whose music reflects elements of late romanticism and impressionism, as well as of the traditional music of Japan.

Oh yes, and I mustn’t forget Toru Takemitsu, perhaps the most revered of the whole lot.  He composed hundreds of works that combined elements of Eastern and Western philosophy to create his own unique sound landscape.  More than anyone, Takemitsu put Japanese music on the map. 

Yűzô Toyama (b. 1931): Rhapsody for Orchestra. Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Eiji Oue (Duration: 09:54; Video: 1080p HD)

Yűzô Toyama is a native of Tokyo who studied with Kan-ichi Shimofusa, a pupil of the German composer Paul Hindemith.  The Rhapsody for Orchestra is probably the composer’s best-known work.  He is also known as a conductor and for years held the post of chief conductor with the NHK Symphony Orchestra.  In case you are wondering, NHK stands for Nippon Hôsô Kyôkai - the Japan Broadcasting Corporation.  In 1960 Toyama conducted the orchestra on a world tour which included several of his most popular works. 

As a composer, his most important musical influences were probably Béla Bartók and Dmitri Shostakovich.  He is fond of incorporating Japanese traditional music into his work, drawing on folksongs and the classical Japanese dance-dramas of Kabuki theatre.  Toyama has written well over two hundred compositions and has received numerous awards in Japan for his contributions to the nation’s musical life.

The Rhapsody for Orchestra dates from 1960 and is based on Japanese folk songs in which traditional instruments, including the kyoshigi (paired percussive wooden sticks) are blended into a conventional Western orchestra.  You’ll notice distinctive Mikado-like moments from time to time.  The work starts with thunderous percussion so keep your fingers on the volume control. 

This is a splendid performance and the Polish musicians seem to enjoy playing the work.  With excellent sound and video, it looks superb in full screen mode provided that your download speed and processor are fast enough.

Takashi Yoshimatsu (b. 1953): Cyberbird Concerto, Op. 59.  Hiromi Hara (sax), Shinpei Ooka (pno), Shohei Tachibana (perc) Shobi Symphony Orchestra  cond. Kon Suzuki  (Duration: 26:21; Video 1080p HD)

Yoshimatsu is also from Tokyo and like his compatriot Toru Takemitsu, didn’t receive formal musical training until adulthood.  He left the faculty of technology of Keio University in 1972 and became interested in jazz and progressive rock music, particularly through electronic means.

Yoshimatsu first dabbled in serial music but eventually became disenchanted with it and instead began to compose in a free neo-romantic style with strong influences from jazz, rock and Japanese traditional music.  He’s already completed six symphonies, twelve concertos, a number of sonatas and shorter pieces for various ensembles.  In contrast to his earlier compositions, much of his more recent work uses relatively simple harmonic structures. 

This curiously-named work is technically a triple concerto and the ornithological reference reappears in his Symphony No. 6 written in 2014, subtitled Birds and Angels.  Yoshimatsu described this concerto as alluding to “an imaginary bird in the realm of electronic cyberspace.”  It’s a concerto for saxophone in all but name and uses a free atonal jazz idiom for the soloists against a conventional symphony orchestra.  It was composed in 1993 for Hiromi Hara who performs it on this video.  The three movements are entitled Bird in Colours, Bird in Grief, and Bird in the Wind.

There’s some brilliant playing from these talented young musicians with a lovely haunting second movement and a joyous third movement with some fine brass writing and a thunderous ending. 

If you are into eclectic modern jazz this video, with its superb sound and video, will be right up your soi.  As Mr Spock in Star Trek might have said to Captain Kirk, “It’s classical music Jim, but not as we know it.”

Update December 17, 2016

Shall we dance?


Maurice Ravel (right) and American band-leader Paul Whiteman in 1928.

If you are over A Certain Age you may recall that the original movie entitled Shall We Dance dates from 1937 and was one of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals.  About sixty years later in 1996 an award-winning movie of the same name, but with a different story line appeared in Japan with the Japanese title Sharu wi Dansu (honestly).  The title referred in a curiously circular way to a song – also called Shall we Dance from a well-known 1956 Hollywood movie which was banned in Thailand.  You probably know the one I mean.  Then to confuse the issue even more, in 2004 another American film called Shall We Dance appeared - a remake not of the Astaire-Rogers movie, but of the Japanese one.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not much good at dancing.  Not much good at all.  To be more precise I am completely useless.  I’d have a better chance of parsing Sanskrit than doing a tango.  Strangely enough nobody knows exactly when people started to dance though some archaeologists have traced the activity back to 3,000 BC.  Although early dance for ceremonial or religious purposes might have existed without musical accompaniment, it’s difficult to imagine dance without music.  For the last couple of millennia music and dance have become inextricably linked.

It wasn’t until the Renaissance that an increasing amount of dance music was written down.  Huge collections were produced during the second half of the sixteenth century onwards, notably by prolific composers like Michael Praetorius, Tielman Susato and Pierre Phalčse.  During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, dance music of all forms flowed from the pens of many composers, including some distinguished ones like Bach, Handel, and Georg Philipp Telemann who wrote suites of dances, not for dancing but as courtly entertainment.  In more modern times, composers have often turned to dance music for ideas and inspiration.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): La Valse. Philharmonic Orchestra of Radio France cond. Myung-Whun Chung (Duration: 12.55; Video 360p)

This waltz is a fine example of Ravel’s sophisticated use of musical ideas and brilliant orchestration.  It’s actually several waltz melodies combined and he called the work a “choreographic poem for orchestra”.  Ravel started writing it in 1919 and it was first performed on 12 December 1920 in Paris.  It was originally intended to be a ballet but these days it’s usually performed as a stand-alone concert piece.

Although there are unmistakable echoes of the nineteenth century, this powerful work couldn’t be more removed from the innocent waltz melodies of Johann Strauss that were so popular in Vienna and later of course, throughout the western world.  Ravel’s waltz sometimes feels more like a surrealist nightmare in a haunted ballroom. 

The piece begins quietly with ominous rumbling of double basses and cellos but gradually the tempo and intensity increase, fragments of tune appear and then swirling melodies emerge.  You can even get an unsettling sense of foreboding organic growth within the music, as it hurls itself towards an almost terrifying but inevitable conclusion.

Incidentally, eight years later in 1928 Ravel embarked on a two-month tour of America where he was able to explore his interest in jazz.  He met many other musicians and composers there including Paul Whiteman – he of jazz orchestra fame.  When Ravel returned to France he started writing his brilliant piano concerto which borrowed many ideas taken from jazz music.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945): Dance Suite. German Symphony Orchestra cond. Ingo Metzmacher (Duration: 16:22; Video: 720p HD)

Hungarian tourist guides enjoy telling visitors that Budapest was once made up of two separate towns.  Buda was the old aristocratic town on the hill overlooking the Danube while Pest lay on the flat land on the opposite side of the river.  The two towns were officially merged in 1873 and with a flash of original thinking on the part of the city council, the merged city was named Budapest.

In 1923, the council threw an enormous party to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the merger.  To bring a sense of gravitas to the event, they staged a grand concert for which the country’s leading composers were commissioned to contribute new works.  One of the composers was Béla Bartók, who wrote his Dance Suite for the occasion.  Although the composer wasn’t happy with the shoddy performance, the work was later rapturously received during the following years when it was played all over Europe.  It probably did more for Bartók’s reputation than all his previous works put together.

Bartók had been studying and recording Hungarian folk music since 1905 and although the melodies in the Dance Suite speak of Eastern Europe they are entirely Bartók’s own invention.  The work is full of typical Hungarian rhythms and along with his popular Concerto for Orchestra, it makes an excellent and exciting introduction to the music of this influential twentieth century composer. 

Update December 10, 2016

Birthday boys


Zoltán Kodály c. 1918 and his state-of-the-art recording equipment.

One of the most influential Hungarian composers of the early twentieth century was Zoltán Kodály, who was born on 16th December.  Because of his interest in music education he became known in Hungary primarily as an educator and he wrote several influential books on the subject. 

Oddly enough Zoltán Kodály (zohl-TAHN koh-DAH-yee) is most closely associated with a teaching aid he didn’t actually invent: the hand signs.  The so-called Kodály hand signs were devised in the mid-nineteenth century by an English minister, John Curwen.  Each hand position (or shape) represents a note of the scale and after being adopted by Kodály the signs were extensively used in elementary schools in both Europe and the USA a means of teaching sight-singing.  In many schools, they still are.  The hand signs were used in the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but they didn’t really have much to do with the plot and were perhaps merely included to add a bit of gravitas to a rather implausible scene.

Kodály became interested in children’s music education in 1925 when he happened to hear some school kids singing in the street.  He was horrified by their tuneless squawking and drew the conclusion that music teaching in the schools was to blame.  He set about a campaign for better teachers, a better curriculum, and more class-time devoted to music.  His tireless work resulted in many publications which outlined his approach to musical education and had a world-wide impact.  Kodály was also fascinated with Hungarian folksongs and spent many years recording them, initially on phonograph cylinders.

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967): Háry János Suite. Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Juraj Valčuha  (Duration: 27:46; Video: 720p HD)

Perhaps his devotion to researching and writing about music education and his years collecting folksongs gave him less time to compose because his output is fairly modest.  There are a couple of dozen chamber works and choral pieces, a handful of orchestral works, and two operas, one of the which is the folk opera Háry János.

The story is of a veteran soldier in the Austrian army named Háry János who regularly sits in the village inn spinning yarns to his long-suffering listeners with fantastic tales of unlikely heroism, one of which was single-handedly defeating Napoleon and his armies.

The suite, as you might have gathered is a collection of material lifted out of the opera. It forms a pleasing six-movement orchestral work.  Both the opera and the suite begin with an orchestral impression of a sneeze, symbolizing the Hungarian belief that a sneeze before the telling of a story indicates that it’s going to be the absolute truth.  In the third movement, Kodály adds a bit of local colour by using a cimbalom, a Hungarian dulcimer-like instrument played with beaters.

François-Adrien Boieldieu (1775-1834): Overture: The Caliph of Baghdad. Symphonette Raanana Orchestra, cond. Shmuel Elbaz (Duration: 07:57; Video: 1080p HD)

When I was a teenager living on a stone-grey island far away, I used to play the cello.  Every Wednesday evening a group of us young musicians would clamber aboard the local bus taking us on a twenty-mile journey to the rehearsal of the County Orchestra.  One of the conductor’s favourite overtures was The Caliph of Baghdad, perhaps because it was relatively easy to play.  We seemed to perform it an awful lot.  The work came to mind because 16th December is also the birthday of its composer François Boieldieu (BWAL-dee-yuh) who for a time was flatteringly known as “the French Mozart”.

As a teenager, François composed his earliest works using words written by his father and this brought him local success.  The opera Le Calife de Bagdad was composed when he was approaching twenty-five and first performed at the classy Théâtre National de l’Opéra Comique in Paris.  Incidentally, the word “comique” does not translate as “comical” – it was a popular style of opera in which arias were interspersed with spoken dialogue.

The opera was Boieldieu’s first major triumph and the opera soon became tremendously popular all over Europe.  By operatic standards, the story is fairly straightforward and revolves around the main character Isaoun who is the eponymous Caliph.  He adopts a disguise so he can roam freely among the streets without being recognised, which of course, he eventually is. 

At the time, there was a fashion for operas on Oriental themes and the overture features prominent “eastern” percussion.  It’s thought that this opera may have influenced Carl Maria von Weber, particularly his own Eastern-themed opera Abu Hassan.

If these things interest you, the Théâtre National de l’Opéra Comique is still going strong in Paris and you can find it in Place Boieldieu.  Yes, named after the composer.  But don’t go there just yet in the hope of seeing a show – it’s closed until January 2017 for renovations.

Update December 3, 2016

Opus One


Anton Webern in 1911.

For connoisseurs of exceptional wines, Opus One means only one thing.  It’s the name of a winery in California, founded in 1980 as a joint venture between two great names in the wine trade: Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild.  Yes, he of the legendary Château Mouton Rothschild.  Today they produce a single Bordeaux-style blend based on the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown in Napa Valley.  Other traditional grapes such as Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot are also used in the Bordeaux-style blend.

It’s a fabulous wine and as you might expect, it doesn’t come cheap.  Neither do I for that matter.  Six bottles of the much-lauded 2013 vintage will set you back just over two thousand dollars and they’re tastefully wrapped in high-quality tissue paper.  The bottles are delivered in a pine wooden box which, if you have the time and inclination could be later chopped up and made into a xylophone.

The musical meaning of the word “opus” is rather less interesting but I’ll tell you anyway.  The word comes from the Latin term meaning “work” or “labour” and is traditionally added to the title of a composition (or a set of compositions) to indicate the chronological position in the composer’s production. 

From around 1800, composers usually assigned an opus number to a work when it was published.  From about 1900 onwards, many composers gave their works opus numbers whether they were published or not.  Alban Berg initially gave his works opus numbers and then stopped.  Some composers never used them.  Sergei Prokofiev on the other hand optimistically gave an opus number to a composition before he had even started writing it.

So when a composer assigns Opus 1 to a work, it means that it’s either his first publication, or the first work that he considers worthy of his name.  Both the compositions this week were written within a few years of each other by students who were about the same age.  One lived in Austria and the other in Russia but they were both destined to become internationally-known composers.

Anton Webern (1883-1945): Passacaglia Op 1. West German Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Jukka-Pekka Saraste (Duration: 10:42; Video: 1080p HD)

Webern was the composer of some of the most tense and terse music ever created but that was some years after he wrote this work in 1908.  It’s a tonal piece with rich and haunting harmonies which at one moment seems to languish in the closing years of the nineteenth century and at another pushes the boundaries of tonality - hinting of things to come. 

The passacaglia (pah-sah-KAH-lee-a) is a musical form that dates back to seventeenth-century Spain. It consisted of a short theme in the bass overlaid with a series of continuous variations.  It became a fairly standard form which regained popularity among composers during the twentieth century.  Webern’s passacaglia has twenty three continuous variations which are based on the hesitant pizzicato theme heard at the outset.  This finely-crafted work shows remarkable individuality and has a sense of powerful drama within a framework of emotional complexity.

Because few of Webern’s compositions achieved commercial success, this one has remained his most performed and most readily understood work. He gave it the appellation Op 1, and thus acknowledged that the Passacaglia was effectively his graduation thesis.  Significantly it was also Webern’s last piece for standard symphony orchestra used in a conventional way.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Symphony No 1, Op 1. Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra cond. Vakhtang Kakhidze (Duration: 46:08; Video: 1080p HD)

If your experience of Stravinsky is through works like The Firebird, The Rite of Spring or Petrushka, this symphony might take you by surprise.  This is a genuine Op 1 in that it was the composer’s first publication, and amazingly his first composition for orchestra.  It was written between 1905 and 1907 when he was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov.  Stravinsky structured the symphony, which he dedicated to his teacher, on the well-established format of four movements, although he made the Scherzo the second movement rather than the third. 

If you didn’t read the label, you’d probably guess that it’s an early symphony by Tchaikovsky or Glazunov and certainly shows strong influence of these composers.  You might also pick up echoes of Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and even Wagner.  But even though this wonderful symphony is steeped in the Russian romantic style you might pick out the unmistakable voice of the later Stravinsky.  For example, at 16:48 there is a peek into the future as Stravinsky uses a melody that later plays an important role in Petrushka.  At the end of the third movement there’s a tantalising glimpse of a work yet to come – The Firebird.

Right, that’s that.  Now I can begin making my xylophone.  I couldn’t manage two thousand bucks for the six bottles of Opus One Cabernet Sauvignon, but I scraped enough money together to buy the empty wooden box. 

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]


Italian Journeys

And all that jazz…

New Horizons

Unexpected outcomes

Third World

A bird in the hand…

Swiss Air

The Crying Game


I Got Rhythm

Just a song at Twilight

Baroque Adventures

The Spanish Mozart

Diverting pleasures

Making waves

The road to hell

Music from another time

Eastern delights

Shall we dance?

Birthday boys

Opus One



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