By Colin Kaye
February 24, 2018 - March 2, 2018
The sound of silence
Barber c. 1940.
Do you remember that song from back in
the sixties? It was written in 1963 by Paul Simon, he of Simon and
Garfunkel fame and the song was on the radio the other day. The title
reminded me of that abstruse remark by Claude Debussy who said “Music is the
silence between the notes.” Perhaps he meant that music “lies in the
silence between the notes” which is not quite the same thing. Anyway, I
think I know what he meant. Mozart and Busoni make similar comments.
Debussy was presumably referring to the
way a competent musician knows how to “place” notes in relation to one
another, a skill sometimes (inaccurately) referred to as “interpretation”.
Knowing exactly where to place the notes sometimes makes the difference
between a good performance and a great one. In essence, I suppose it’s
roughly similar to what actors refer to as “timing” though in practice a
great deal more complicated.
At its simplest level, silence marks
the beginning and end of the music. It occurs between musical phrases, so
that we know where one phrase ends and another one begins. Think of
Gregorian chant and those silent moments between the long flowing phrases.
Sometimes silence is used to create a
sense of surprise or drama. In Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony there’s
a break of several seconds silence at a moment of high drama in the last
movement. In his Sixth Symphony he went even further. The last
eight measures of the work are scored for cellos and basses playing a low
chord so quiet that it’s barely audible. In the final measure, Tchaikovsky
writes a rest sign – the musical sign for silence - with a pause mark over
the top, thus effectively writing in a period of complete silence at the end
of the work. I heard a performance not so long ago in which the conductor
held the silent pause for a full twenty-nine seconds. The effect was magical
- you could have heard a pin drop.
Twentieth century composers
particularly have used silence for dramatic effect. Tôru Takemitsu and
Morton Feldman use silence to create a sense of expanded time and in
Webern’s music there seems to be more silence than notes. In contrast, in
one of his string quartets Joseph Haydn used silence for a different reason:
to raise a laugh.
(1732-1809): Quartet in E flat major Op. 33 No. 2.
(Duration: 17:20; Video: 720p HD)
In the late summer of 1781, Haydn was
forty-nine and at the peak of his career. Many of his quartets have
acquired nicknames, partly because he wrote so many of them. In this one,
known as “The Joke”, Haydn used silence at the end of the last movement to
create several false endings, so that the audience would applaud in the
wrong places. It must be been great fun at the first performance. In this
one, the brilliant Israeli Ariel Quartet is exceptional, partly because they
perform the entire work from memory.
Throughout the quartet Haydn frequently
uses silence to create tension. The last movement (at 13:55) takes the form
of a lively Italian folk dance. The first false ending is at 16:23; another
one at 16.45 and another one at 16.50 which really sounds like the end of
the piece. The real ending arrives at 17.00 but even in this video, the
audience seems unsure when to applaud. After two hundred years, you’d have
thought that Haydn’s joke might have worn a bit thin, but as this
performance shows it still works.
(1910-1981): Adagio for Strings.
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Sir Simon Rattle (Duration 09:04; Video
Yes, I know I’ve told you about this
work before but it contains such a brilliant use of silence that it’s worth
revisiting. The Adagio (it just means “slowly”) was originally the
slow movement of Barber’s String Quartet completed in 1936. It would have
probably remained obscure had not Arturo Toscanini urged Barber to arrange
it for orchestra. The orchestral version has since become hugely popular
and been used in several feature films.
In this amazing performance, the start
is almost inaudible but gradually the volume and intensity grow until the
climax at 06:16. Then suddenly, silence. It sounds like the end of the
piece but it can’t be, because the music is not in the “home” key. The
tension is incredible and Rattle holds the silence for a full nine seconds.
Then, the music tentatively returns and takes us back to the quiet place
where we started. Perhaps that quiet place could be an elevated dimension
in the surreal, dystopian world described in Paul Simon’s song.
February 17, 2018 - February 23, 2018
A golden age perhaps yet to come
A couple of days ago, I was drinking
some wine from Portugal. Now in Thailand this is unusual enough, because
precious little of the stuff arrives on these shores. Portugal is best
known for Port, a fortified wine which enjoys a loyal following in Britain
but I was drinking something which is probably the exact opposite, a glass
of Vinho Verde. The fresh, zesty wine caused my mind to wander
towards Portuguese classical music which for many people today is something
of a mystery. Except presumably, the Portuguese. I couldn’t think of any
Portuguese musicians for a start, except the composer Alfredo Keil who wrote
lots of operas as well as the Portuguese National Anthem.
The Kingdom of Portugal devolved from
Spain during the Middle Ages and it’s the most western part of the European
mainland. Go any further west and you’ll find yourself sloshing around in
the North Atlantic. During the so-called Age of Discovery the country was
at the forefront of world-wide exploration. The Portuguese were, as far as
we know the first Europeans to show up in Brazil. However, unlike the
Spanish who found advanced civilizations in Mexico and Peru with precious
metals up for grabs, the Portuguese explorers found themselves in a land of
hunter-gatherers locked in the Stone Age. They must have been disappointed,
though the locals were in the habit of wandering around naked, so that might
have offered some small compensation.
Although there was music at the
Portuguese royal court during the sixteenth century most of the action was
going on elsewhere in Europe. Classical music has always gravitated to
wealthy royal courts, centres of learning or culturally-developed cities.
Aspiring Portuguese musicians of the day tended to drift off towards the
great Spanish cathedrals which provided both training and employment.
During the entire renaissance and
baroque periods, there are only a couple of dozen Portuguese composers whose
names are still remembered, and then only by music historians. Times have
changed, though Portugal remains a backwater in the annals of musical
history. Perhaps the golden age of Portuguese music is yet to come.
António da Fonseca Portugal (1762-1830): Missa Breve.
choir, National Symphony Orchestra of Brazil cond. Ligia Amadio (Duration:
17:23; Video: 720p HD)
Marcos Portugal as he became known was
one of the most influential composers of his day. He achieved international
fame for his choral music and his forty operas, twenty-one of which were
written for Italian theatres. He wrote over 140 religious works and had his
first public concert at the age of eighteen when two choral works were
performed. Perhaps on the strength of this early success, in 1782 Queen
Maria I commissioned a choral and orchestral work which marked the beginning
of a close collaboration with the Royal Family that influenced the rest of
his professional life.
In 1811, the Prince Regent summoned him
to the Portuguese colony of Brazil where he became the Royal Composer. He
remained in Brazil for the rest of his life until his death on 17th February
1830. The Missa Breve was composed by order of His Imperial Majesty
in December 1824. It is a charming work though stylistically a bit old-
fashioned and owes much to Mozart and Haydn. But I suspect the ex-pats in
Brazil at the time were probably starved of decent music, so this must have
come as something of a treat.
Santos (1924–1988): Symphony No.1, Op. 9.
Symphony Orchestra cond. Luís Carvalho (Duration: 38:04; Video: 720p HD)
Braga Santos was Portugal’s leading
twentieth century composer and symphonist who also wrote three operas, three
ballets, numerous concerti and other orchestral works, choral music, chamber
music, film music and songs. He was also a professional conductor and a
music producer for Portuguese radio.
This brooding, three-movement symphony
was written in 1946 when Braga Santos was twenty-two. It was composed in
memory of those fallen during the Second World War and it uses many
folk-like melodies, often against a background of sustained strings and
effective harmonies. This is attractive and compelling music, sometimes
quite moving too but you’ll probably notice that at the time Braga Santos
was heavily influenced by the music of composers Vaughan Williams and
Sibelius. The gloomy, threatening brass chords at 11:09 and the scurrying
string passage that follows could almost have been written by that Finnish
Just in case you’re wondering, EPMVC
stands for Escola Profissional de Música de Viana do Castelo
(Vocational School of Music of Viana do Castelo). According to Lonely
Planet, the Portuguese city of Viana do Castelo is considered the jewel
of the Costa Verde, “blessed with both an appealing medieval centre and
lovely beaches just outside the city. The old quarters showcase leafy,
nineteenth-century boulevards and narrow lanes crowded with rococo manors
and palaces.” I can’t wait to get there.
Update Saturday, February 10, 2018 - February 16, 2018
Symphony in red
Now then, what colour
is the key of C major? Or the smell of B minor? Or perhaps the taste of E
flat? The Russian composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov always felt that G
major is a brownish-gold key and once remarked that that the key of F-sharp
“is decidedly strawberry red”. His compatriot Alexander Scriabin felt that
G major is more of an orange-rose colour. Beethoven on the other hand is
said to have called B minor “the black key”. Scriabin’s Prometheus: The
Poem of Fire was written in 1910 for massive orchestra and choir and was
based on key colour. The work also featured the newly-invented colour
organ, but oddly enough no one today seems to know exactly how the thing
The notion of linking
musical elements with colour is called chromesthesia. It is a type
of synesthesia – a condition which has been described in layman’s terms as a
union of the senses in which one sensory experience involuntarily prompts
another. The philosopher John Locke wrote about combined senses as early as
the seventeenth century, though the term synesthesia wasn’t coined until the
mid-1800s. About the same time the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher
perceived a correspondence between colours and musical intervals. He
thought that an octave was green, a major sixth was fire-red and an
augmented fifth was dark brown.
According to Carol
Steen, the co-founder of the American Synesthesia Association, there are
more than sixty permutations of synesthesia and around four percent of us
have the condition in some form. They might include tasting words to
smelling a piano concerto but the most common kinds of synesthesia involve
colour. Sibelius is thought to have sometimes seen music as colours, and
Duke Ellington felt that G major is light blue satin but only if Johnny
Hodges is playing it. That seems a curious association because I’ve always
thought of G major as warm bright yellow, whether Johnny Hodges is playing
Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915): Symphony No 3 in C minor Op. 43.
Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia cond. Dima Slobodeniouk (Duration: 53:56;
Video: 1080p HD)
Symphony is subtitled The Divine Poem and was written between 1902
and 1904. The work marked a significant step towards Scriabin’s personal
musical language and has a visionary quality which was only hinted at in his
earlier works. At the time the composer was under the influence of the cult
philosopher Tatiana de Schloezer and music had come to mean a sensory
reaching-out to experiences beyond the prosaic. Perhaps this is why he used
the word “poem” in the title. The four sections of the work are played
without a break and consist of (1) Introduction, (2) Struggles (3) Delights
and (4) Divine Play.
Colours play a less
significant role in this work but Scriabin’s use of orchestral colour is
remarkable, because his orchestration is highly sophisticated. In some
sections, Scriabin turns his orchestra into an ensemble of soloists, each
contributing points of detail to a complex web of sound. Scriabin liked a
massive orchestral sound and some moments in this work seem to be the
inspiration for the great Hollywood movie scores that would be created
thirty or forty years later. In a way, the music is an expression of the
existentialism of the late nineteenth century and the mysticism of the
famous Madame Blavatsky, she of the controversial Theosophical Society.
Anyway, if you love big romantic, hedonistic orchestral wall-to-wall sound,
Scriabin’s Third Symphony will be right up your soi.
Philip Sparke (b. 1951): Symphony No. 3: A Colour Symphony.
WISH Wind Orchestra (Japan) cond. Makoto Kai (Duration: 26:46; Video 720p
In 1922 the composer
Arthur Bliss completed his Colour Symphony but its origins lay in
heraldry in which symbolic meanings are attached to certain colours. Philip
Sparke is another British composer and this Colour Symphony was first
performed in November 2014. The commission requested the inclusion of a
selection of instruments not usually found in a symphonic band, including
piano, harp and cellos. The composer had the idea of writing a symphony of
colours to take advantage of the rich palette of instrumental sounds
available. Sparke perceives equivalencies between instrumental tone colours
and certain harmonies and colours of the spectrum.
There are five
movements and each movement represents a colour. The first movement
(“White”) uses pure instrumental colours and clean textures while the lively
second movement (“Yellow”) has a feeling of brightness and sunshine. In
contrast, the third movement (“Blue”) has an atmosphere of stillness and
desolation and the next movement (“Red”) makes special use of the brass,
with energetic contrapuntal sections and fanfares. The last movement
(“Green”) takes the colour from nature and has a dance-like character with a
If all this sounds a
bit technical, fear not. Sparke’s music contains many elements of folk-song
and the work is delightfully approachable.
Update Saturday, February 3, 2018 - February 9, 2018
Two of the best
The other day I was
chatting with some friends (yes, I do have some) about who were considered
the world’s top violinists. This is a subject guaranteed to cause heated
discussion especially among string players. All the usual names were
dredged up but in some ways it was a fruitless exercise. For example, what
criteria do you use? Technical ability would come near the top of the list,
but that’s a broad category that includes things like mastery of bowing
techniques, articulation, velocity, projection, dynamic control, tone
quality and vibrato. And that’s just the start. And do you consider
breadth and quality of repertoire, contributions to playing technique and
The few musicians that
are considered “great” acquire it because they also bring insights into the
music that no one else has managed. It is a remarkably difficult thing to
do, which is why there are comparatively few “great” musicians. It requires
supreme intelligence, phenomenal memory and an intimate knowledge and
understanding of the music.
Anyway, after a great
deal of animated discussion everyone conceded that a list of top violinists
would surely include the names Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz. They were
both child prodigies; they both lived most of their lives in the twentieth
century and both made many recordings. They set new standards for the art
of violin playing and while Kreisler’s personal trademark was his sweet warm
tone quality, Heifetz was more renowned for his incredible bowing ability
and staggering virtuosity that remains unmatched to this day. They knew
each other too, yet when Kreisler first heard the eleven-year-old Heifetz in
1912, he famously remarked, “We can all just break our fiddles over our
knees.” Oddly enough, although Kreisler and Heifetz were born about
twenty-six years apart they both entered the world on 2nd February.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Violin Concerto in D major Op. 77.
Fritz Kreisler (vln), London Symphony Orchestra cond. John Barbirolli
(Duration: 37:11; sound only, no video)
Kreisler (KRIZE-luh) was born in Vienna in 1875 and at the age of
twelve he won the Premier Grand Prix de Rome gold medal competing
against forty other players some of whom were almost twice his age. Most of
his recordings were made between 1904 and 1946 but have since been digitally
re-mastered and available on CDs. Today his playing style might sound a bit
old-fashioned because he freely used a technique known as portamento
which involves sliding between one note and another. It’s now considered
rather dated and sentimental, yet in Kreisler’s time it was standard
practice and thought to make the music sound more expressive.
Kreisler had relatively
few concertos in his repertoire but he knew Brahms personally and so this
performance must count as something special. It’s his only concerto for
violin and dates from 1879. It was premiered the same year in Leipzig by
the legendary Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim with the composer
The Kreisler recording
was made in 1936 when the violinist was in his sixties but it reveals the
legendary Kreisler sound though perhaps not as rich as it once was. In the
first movement there is a “magic minute” between 04:10 and 05:10 when the
second theme appears on the solo violin. The cadenza at the end of the first
movement was written by Kreisler himself and it is an amazing musical feat.
There’s another magic moment at 19.15 just after the cadenza. But to my
mind the whole work is full of wonderful moments so I’ll leave you to
discover them for yourself.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921): Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in A
minor Op. 28.
Jascha Heifetz (vln), Studio Orchestra cond. Alfred Newman (Duration: 08:40;
(HIGH- fets) has been described as “the most profoundly influential
performing artist of all time”. That other great violinist Itzhak Perlman
once wrote “The goals he set still remain today, and for violinists today
it’s rather depressing that they may never really be attained again.”
Heifetz was a child
prodigy born in 1901 in Vilna, Lithuania. He started violin at the age of
five and later moved to America giving his teenage debut at Carnegie Hall to
a rapturous audience. Heifetz had a dazzling technique as well as a
remarkably beautiful tone quality. There are several films about Heifetz on
This work for violin
and orchestra dates from 1863 and was written for the virtuoso Spanish
violinist Pablo de Sarasate. This recording is something of a curiosity,
being taken from a 1939 movie entitled They Shall Have Music. The
story follows a young ghetto boy who dreams of being a violinist like
Heifetz. He first hears his idol after finding a ticket to Carnegie Hall on
magnificently and is clearly on top form. Watch out for some phenomenal
playing at 07:12. And yes, that young man conducting so meticulously is the
renowned Hollywood composer, Alfred Newman.