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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update February 25, 2017


An 1886 portrait of Verdi by Giovanni Boldini.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Update February 18, 2017

I Got Rhythm

Alberto Ginastera.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Update February 11, 2017

Just a song at Twilight

Giacomo Puccini in 1900.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Update February 4, 2017

Baroque Adventures

Arcangelo Corelli.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Update January 28, 2017

The Spanish Mozart

Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Update January 21, 2017

Diverting pleasures

Walter Piston.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update January 14, 2017

Making waves

Pietro Mascagni.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update January 8, 2017

The road to hell

Antonio Vivaldi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Update December 30, 2016

Music from another time

Josquin des Prez.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update December 24, 2016

Eastern delights

Composer Yűzô Toyama.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update December 17, 2016

Shall we dance?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update December 10, 2016

Birthday boys


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update December 3, 2016

Opus One


Anton Webern in 1911.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]



I Got Rhythm

Just a song at Twilight

Baroque Adventures

The Spanish Mozart

Diverting pleasures

Making waves

The road to hell

Music from another time

Eastern delights

Shall we dance?

Birthday boys

Opus One



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