By Colin Kaye
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
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
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.
(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
And all that jazz…
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
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
(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.
(1900-1959): A Jazz Symphony. Orquesta Ciudad de Granada,
Granada Big Band cond. Jonathan Dirk Waleson (Duration: c.14:00; Video:
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.
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
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.”
(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”.
(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.
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
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.
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.
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
(1890-1962): Divertissement. Zaporizhzhya (Ukraine) Academic
Symphony Orchestra cond. Vyacheslav Redya (Duration: 16:01; Video 720p
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.
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.
(1882-1971): The Firebird (1919 version). Radio France
Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Myung-Whun Chung (Duration: 22:05; Video:
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
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.
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.
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
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:
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
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
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.
The Crying Game
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.
(1860-1911): Symphony No. 3 (last movement). Czech
Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Václav Neumann, (Duration: 21.06; Video
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
(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
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.
(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.
Mussorgsky (1839-1881): A Night on Bare Mountain. National
Youth Orchestra of Spain cond. José Serebrier (Duration: 10:06; Video:
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
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.
I Got Rhythm
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
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
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
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
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,
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”.
(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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Symphony No 30 in D Major K202. Danish
National Chamber Orchestra cond. Adam Fischer (Duration: 18:45; Video:
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
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.
(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
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
(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.
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
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.
(1863-1945): Intermezzo from “Cavalleria Rusticana”.
Evergreen Symphony Orchestra cond. Lim Kek-tjiang (Duration: 04:25;
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.
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
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.
The road to hell
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
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
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.
Music from another time
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
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.
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
The details of its origin and author remain mysteriously unknown.
Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521): Ave Maria...Virgo
Schola Antiqua of Chicago, dir. Michael Alan Anderson
(Duration: 05:34; Video: 720p HD)
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): La Valse.
Orchestra of Radio France cond. Myung-Whun Chung (Duration: 12.55; Video
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
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.
(1881-1945): Dance Suite.
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.
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
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.
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
François-Adrien Boieldieu (1775-1834): Overture: The Caliph of Baghdad.
Symphonette Raanana Orchestra, cond. Shmuel Elbaz (Duration: 07:57; Video:
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.
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
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
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.
(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:
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
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.