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Update October 2017

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Update by Natrakorn Paewsoongnern

Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update Saturday, Oct. 21 - Oct. 27, 2017

Stolen melodies

Emmanuel Chabrier in 1882.

I wonder whether you recall that court case involving the song My Sweet Lord supposedly by George Harrison.  The song came out in 1971 and bore striking similarities to He’s So Fine recorded nine years earlier by a female group from New York called The Chiffons. 

By the time the Harrison song was released, The Chiffons were under the Bright Tunes Music Corporation which swiftly filed a lawsuit against George Harrison.  The case was finally heard in court in February 1976 when Harrison’s lawyers tried to prove that the songs were different.  The judge decided otherwise.  Harrison was found guilty of “subconscious plagiarism” and fined $587,000.

In contrast, the Church of the Middle Ages regularly re-used melodies because it was the standard way of creating new works.  One process, known as “troping” was to extend an existing musical setting of sacred verses by simply adding more material.  There was no conception of music being a commodity, having monetary value or even having an owner.

The first British copyright laws date from 1709, though they were probably interpreted somewhat liberally.  Nevertheless, the German composer and theorist Johann Mattheson claimed in 1739 that “borrowing was acceptable and necessary”.  However, he added that “one must so construct and develop imitations that they are prettier and better than the pieces from which they are derived.”  Clearly, Mattheson had no scruples about using someone else’s music.  His father was a successful tax-collector, which may have had something to do with it. 

Bach, Handel, and most other professional composers of the day routinely recycled their own music and the music of others.  Bach’s Anna Magdalena Notebook of 1725 contained short pieces written for his wife, but many of them were borrowed.  The Minuet in G for example, was actually written by Christian Petzold.  Over two hundred later it was borrowed again for a song called A Lover’s Concerto and sung by another female group from New York called The Toys.

Both Haydn and Mozart borrowed music freely.  Not until 1909 was it realised that Mozart’s Symphony No. 37 was actually a re-working of Michael Haydn’s Symphony No 25.  The idea of the composer as a singular genius forging an original path was virtually unknown to seventeenth and eighteenth century sensibilities.  It’s been estimated that Beethoven reworked existing music in more than a third of his compositions.

The 1911 musical Kismet used music written by Alexander Borodin who had died twenty-four years earlier.  You may recall the songs Baubles, Bangles and Beads and the more well-known Stranger in Paradise, both of which were revived in the 1950s.  There are dozens of other examples.  The song Hot Diggity was recorded in 1956 by one Pierino Ronald Como better known as Perry, except perhaps to his mother.  The song went to the top of the charts and while the words were nonsense, the melody was wonderful.  As you may have guessed, it was stolen.

Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894): España.  BBC symphony Orchestra cond. Leonard Slatkin (Duration 06:25; Video Resolution: 360p)

Chabrier went on a tour of Spain in 1882 and wrote España a year later.  The work isn’t all flamenco and castanets as you might expect, nor is it descriptive music in the usual sense.  I think Chabrier was more interested in creating something more impressionistic, reflecting the exuberance and colour of Spanish life.  He was after all, close friends of the Impressionist painters Claude Monet and Édouard Manet.

The orchestration is sizzling and brilliant and the work exudes tremendous gaiety with an unmistakable Spanish flavour.  The trouble is, every time I hear the main tune, I can’t get the idiotic words of Hot Diggity out of my head.

The words of another Perry Como hit, Catch a Falling Star weren’t a great deal more sensible.  They suggested that you should “catch a falling star and put it in your pocket”, which I would have thought would be the last place you’d want to place a red-hot meteorite.  This time though, the music had been stolen from Brahms.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Academic Festival Overture Nederlands Studenten Orkest 2012, cond. Lucas Vis (Duration 11:41; Video Resolution: 1080p HD)

In a twist of delicious irony, Brahms had also stolen the tune.  He composed the Academic Festival Overture during the summer of 1880 as a token of gratitude to the University of Breslau, which had awarded him an honorary doctorate degree.  The dull-sounding title belies the fact that this is a very jolly piece indeed, composed largely of student drinking songs.  The work is scored for large orchestra and Brahms conducted the premiere for a delighted audience in 1881.  It’s full of memorable tunes, ending with a thunderous rendering of the popular academic song Gaudeamus Igitur.  The words of this song poke fun at academia and they probably appealed to the composer’s dry sense of humour.

And in case you’re wondering, George Harrison did pay the fine.  Being one of the Beatles, he could probably afford such a modest sum.

Update Saturday October 14 - October 20, 2017

Boys don’t cry


Samuel Barber.

If you’re over a certain age, you may recall a popular French song entitled Les Trois Cloches, made famous by Edith Piaf and Les Compagnons de la Chanson.  It’s more well-known by its English title, The Three Bells and in 1959 it became a huge hit for an American vocal trio called The Browns.  At the time, I was very young, but the song appealed because it had a good tune, lovely harmonies and was hopelessly sentimental.  Of course, the mawkish lyrics had much to do with that, and it’s easy to understand why songs or opera arias can arouse emotions, even tears.  But I often wonder how music can create a huge emotional impact without the help of words.  Perhaps Hans Christian Andersen hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “Where words fail, music speaks”.

I remember as a teenager becoming hopelessly weepy every time I listened to the yearning and passionate slow movement of the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto, though I could never understand why.  Some years ago, UK’s Classic FM published a list of what was considered the “saddest music ever written”.  Predictably, 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 part in the orchestra.

The Classic FM list also contained some purely 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.  Oh yes, and 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.

Where does sad music get its sadness from?  Do you ask a composer or a cognitive psychologist?  I suspect that few composers would know.  But we have to be careful here, otherwise there’s a risk of over-simplifying and dividing music into “sad” and “happy” which of course would be nonsense.  There are countless shades of meaning between and beyond these two words and as Beethoven wrote, rather pompously perhaps, “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy”. 

It used to be thought that a minor key produces a sad effect but I don’t think that explanation holds much water.  The well-known song My Favourite Things is in a minor key, and it’s anything but sad.  The Rachmaninov movement which got me so 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 unless you have a heart of stone.  But whether it’s a tear of melancholy, sadness, joy, elation or ecstasy, I shall leave it to you to decide.

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

This movement, although undeniably introspective and poignant, is in the bright sunny key of D major and was composed between 1893 and 1896.  It’s probably the longest symphony ever written, running for about an hour and a half.  Unusually, it has six movements instead of the more conventional four.  Mahler originally gave each movement a title, implying that they were mildly descriptive.  Strangely enough, before the symphony was published in 1898, he dropped all the titles, so he must have had a major change of mind.

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

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) Adagio for Strings. Dover String Quartet. (Duration: 08:02; Video 1080p 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.  The orchestral version 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. 

This video shows a performance of the original version for string quartet, which to my mind sounds more intimate and emotional. Incidentally, the word “adagio” simply means “slowly” and this is an intense work which grows in power and volume from the start.  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, Barber takes us back to that quiet place where we began our melancholy journey.

Update Saturday October 7 - October 13, 2017

If at first…

Composer Daniel Auber.

It must have been an interesting time musically during the closing years of the eighteenth century and the first few decades of the nineteenth.  Music had moved away from the royal courts and much more into the public arena; orchestras were gradually becoming larger and an increasing number of composers were being influenced by the growing movement of Romanticism which flourished all over Europe, especially during the second half of the century. 

During the early years of the nineteenth century, baroque music as far as the general public was concerned, was dead and gone.  The elegant eighteenth century classical styles of Haydn and Mozart must have seemed increasingly old-fashioned because the new era was giving way to bolder and more individual styles.  It must have been quite a challenging time for composers, because audiences expected something new and innovative, though not too new.

Conservative music critics were only too willing to pour scorn on new works perceived to be “too modern”.  Even Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony was described by one critic as “eccentric and laborious”.  Indeed, some composers were slow to gain success and it was only with stolid determination and sheer willpower that they managed to achieve anything at all. 

Daniel F. E. Auber (1782-1871): Overture: La muette de Portici. Szymanowski School of Music Symphony Orchestra (Wroc³aw, Poland) cond. Marcin Grabosz (Duration:  08:59; Video 720p HD)

One of these was Daniel François Esprit Auber, who was the son of a Paris print-seller.  Auber (oh-BEHR) was born in Caen in Normandy and his father expected him to continue in the print-selling business, so at the age of twenty Daniel was packed off to London for business training.  Either the training was inadequate or perhaps Daniel simply didn’t have a head for business, but he wasn’t particularly successful.  He instead returned to music composing.  It was not an auspicious beginning.  His first opera Le Séjour militaire had a poor reception and his second one, several years later was no better received than the first. 

Having slogged away at two unsuccessful operas, most people would have called it a day and found some other way of occupying their lives but Auber was clearly not the sort to give up easily.  In the following year of 1820 he attempted yet another opera, La Bergère Chatelaine and no doubt to his delight and relief, it was a huge success.  It was a milestone, for it turned out to be the first in a long string of operatic successes which brought the composer fame and fortune.  Although today Auber and his music have fallen pretty well into obscurity, at the height of his career he was a household name.

In 1828 came his equally successful opera La Muette de Portici.  The title “The Dumb Girl of Portici” doesn’t translate elegantly into English and it must have seemed odd to write an opera around a central character who is unable to sing.  Auber neatly got around this problem by giving the leading role to a ballerina rather than a singer and the opera consequently includes substantial sections of mime.  Portici in case you’re wondering, is a small coastal town five miles outside Naples near the foothills of Mount Vesuvius. 

The setting of the five-act opera is Naples in 1647 and the story takes places against the historical background of the local revolt against Spanish rule.  When the opera was performed in Brussels in 1830 it sparked a riot which became the starting point for the Belgian Revolution.  The opera was significant because it was the first French “grand opera”, a theatrical style that sets a fictional drama within a historical context and uses a large chorus, spectacular scenic effects and ballet sequences.

Ferdinand Hérold (1791-1833): Overture: Zampa. Argovia Philharmonic cond. Sascha Goetzel (Duration: 10:12; Video: 2160p UHD)

As a child, Ferdinand Hérold had a promising start to his musical career, but in later years received more than his fair share of operatic failures.  Perseverance in the face of adversity got him through.  His opera Zampa was one of his major successes and was premiered in Paris in 1831. Over the ensuing forty years it was performed over five hundred times.  The opera itself has faded into obscurity but the overture is still often played.  Along with the ballet La fille mal gardée it’s one of the composer’s best-known works.

This video, recorded in Zurich is one of the few available in ultra-high definition.  At this resolution the picture quality is strikingly realistic and the stereo sound quality is also superb.  However, unless you have a fast fibre optic connection and a really decent processor in your computer, you’ll have to settle for something less. 

Like Auber, the name of Ferdinand Hérold is barely recognised today but this delightful overture shows that he could certainly produce the goods.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Stolen melodies

Boys don’t cry

If at first…



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