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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


American Express

“America’s Beethoven” Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781-1861).

Three hundred and fifty years after the Pilgrims settled in New England, I decided to make a trip there myself but not, you understand, for the same reason.  It was my first visit to America and I stayed at an elegant hotel in Boston’s Copley Square.  At the breakfast bar the first morning, suffering from mild jet-lag, the serving-lady asked “Over well?”  I assumed she was enquiring about the quality of my previous night’s sleep, but it turned out she was asking about eggs.  Judging by her bewildered expression, my long response was not quite the answer she expected.

At the time, it hadn’t dawned on me that New England was the home of American music.  William Billings was regarded as the first American choral composer.  He also lived in Boston and was evidently addicted to snuff.  He was described as “a singular man of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye…and with an uncommon negligence of person.”  One of his less scruffy contemporaries rejoiced in the name of Supply Belcher and was one of a group of mostly self-taught composers who developed a unique choral style suitable for amateur local choirs.

Not surprisingly, American orchestral music took longer to develop.  The first American composer to write for symphony orchestra was the mildly eccentric Anthony Philip Heinrich.  He gave his compositions quaint and rambling titles such as The Dawning of Music in Kentucky, or the Pleasures of Harmony in the Solitudes of Nature.  The music had little in common with what was being written in Europe, although one critic referred to him as “the Beethoven of America.”  

As the nineteenth century marched onward, a new breed of composers began to emerge who had studied in Europe but returned home to compose, perform, and acquire students.  Among them were George Whitefield Chadwick, Amy Beach, Edward MacDowell, and Horatio Parker.

John Adams (b. 1947): Short Ride in a Fast Machine. BBC Symphony Orchestra, cond. Marin Alsop (Duration: 04:40 Video: 480p)

John Adams was born in Worcester, Massachusetts and this thrilling work is an iconic example of his post-minimal style, which uses the characteristic techniques of repetition, a steady beat, and perhaps most importantly, a tonality that relies on consonant harmony.

This is one of Adams’ most approachable works and dates from 1986, when it was first performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.  Short Ride in a Fast Machine is a joyfully exuberant piece and brilliantly scored for a large orchestra.  The work was going to be performed at the Last Night of the Proms in 1997 but the performance had to be cancelled because of its title.  Only a week earlier, Princess Diana had been killed in a very fast-moving Mercedes Benz.  The performance was re-scheduled for the 2001 Proms Season but was cancelled yet again after the tragic 11th September terrorist attacks in the USA.

About a hundred years before John Adams wrote Short Ride, one of America’s most influential composers was born, though during his lifetime his music was largely ignored.  

Charles Ives (1874-1954): Symphony No. 1 in D minor. The Perm Opera & Ballet Theatre Orchestra, Russia cond. Valeriy Platonov (Duration: 38:39 Video: 720p HD)

Another New Englander, Charles Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut to George Ives, a U.S. Army bandleader and his wife Mary.  As a small child, Charles played drums in his father’s band and at an early age composed a large collection of songs, two string quartets and other chamber music.  In 1894, Ives entered Yale University and studied under Horatio Parker.  He became a leading student at Yale and also excelled at sport.  

Later in life, he was among the first composers to engage in musical experiments which included polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters and chance elements.  All this was to become commonplace by the end of the twentieth century but it proved too much of a challenge for many of his contemporaries.  His music was generally ignored, partly because of the inherent performance difficulties and also because of the relentless dissonance.

This lovely symphony - the first of four – was composed between 1898 and 1902 when the composer was in his mid-twenties.  It’s written in a late romantic European style with four movements.  The second one is exceptionally beautiful and moving, evoking an atmosphere similar to the slow movement of the New World Symphony.  The scherzo is delightful with a tuneful ländler-like trio section, while the last movement is a real tour-de-force with thrilling brass writing, bringing the work to a joyful and triumphant conclusion.  You can also find recordings of his later symphonies on YouTube.

Just to put things into perspective, when Charles Ives was born in 1874, the American Express Company had already been in existence for almost twenty-five years.  It started out in 1850 as an express mail business in Buffalo, New York.

To watch these YouTube videos, either use your Smartphone to read the QR codes or go to this article online, click on the “live” links and go direct to the videos. If you have a laptop, sound quality can be improved significantly by using headphones or external speakers.

Relatively Speaking

Salzburg around Leopold Mozart’s time
(Painting by J. B. Homann).

Two friends of mine used to travel a lot together, especially in America.  Although they had no family connections, they just happened to share the same surname.  They were invariably asked “Are you related?”  One of them amused himself by responding, “Yes, but not to each other.”

Ask any Western musicians which classical composers they most admire, and the chances are that the name Bach will come up.  In the Welsh language, the word bach means “small”, which the Bach family certainly wasn’t.  It included dozens of musicians and a handful of notable composers still revered today.  The family played a significant role in German music for nearly two hundred years.

These days, the best-known of the whole bunch is Johann Sebastian Bach who inherited the traditions of a powerful and united family.  But just look at all these musicians: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Gottfried Heinrich Bach, Johann Christian Bach, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, Johann Gottfried Bernhard Bach (all sons of JSB), Christoph Bach (his grandfather), Johann Ambrosius Bach (his father), Georg Christoph Bach, Johann Aegidius Bach (both uncles) and Johann Christoph Bach (his brother).  I can sense your eyes glazing over already so I’ll stop there, even though there are about fifty more of them.

Henry Purcell had a younger brother called Daniel, who also wrote music.  Ferdinand Schubert was an Austrian composer remembered for his role in publishing the works of his younger and more famous brother, Franz.  Arnold Mendelssohn also wrote music and was the son of Felix Mendelssohn’s second cousin Wilhelm.  Mendelssohn had a sister called Fanny (honestly) who was a pianist and composer.  Clara Schumann, the wife of composer Robert Schumann was one of the most distinguished pianists of her time.  Alma Mahler, the wife of the more famous Gustav, wrote some attractive songs.  The opera composer Puccini had a brother and father who wrote music, though not quite in the same class.

Leopold Mozart was born in Germany and moved to Salzburg in 1737.  He was well-known during the middle of the eighteenth century as a composer, violinist and violin teacher.  He actually made his name with a book crisply entitled Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule, a detailed study of violin playing.

Leopold Mozart (1719-1787): Concerto for Alto Trombone. Ricardo Mollá (trb), Valencia Symphony Orchestra (Duration: 17:49 Video: 1080p HD)

The most common trombone these days is the tenor, used in orchestras and many jazz ensembles.  There’s also the bass trombone which usually appears in large orchestras.  Today, the small alto trombone is a rare beast indeed, but it was popular during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  It appears in the scores of several Beethoven symphonies and in nearly all the symphonies of Schumann and Brahms.

This concerto was written in 1756 in the same year that Wolfgang Amadeus was born.  It was composed for Thomas Gschladt, the finest Austrian trombone player of the day.  In the score, Leopold Mozart wrote that he wanted no one else to play the work, but I’m sure he wouldn’t have been disappointed with this fine performance.  The concerto begins with a lyrical slow movement, followed by an elegant minuet and trio, concluding with a final fast movement and cadenza.  As an encore, Ricardo Mollá plays his own tenor trombone arrangement of the main theme from the slow movement of Dvoák’s New World Symphony.

Michael Haydn (1737-1806): Requiem C minor. Helsinki Chamber Choir and soloists, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Andres Mustonen (Duration: 42:44 Video: 1080p HD)

Michael Haydn was the younger brother of the more famous Franz Joseph Haydn.  The elder Haydn regarded his brother’s music highly, and even felt that Michael’s religious works were better than his own.  Michael wrote it in December 1771, following the death of the splendidly-named Count Archbishop Sigismund von Schrattenbach.  Interestingly, both Leopold Mozart and his son Wolfgang came along to the first three performances of the Requiem in January 1772.  It was around the time of Wolfgang’s sixteenth birthday and the work had a lasting impression.

The mass is divided into seven sections and is typically scored for soloists, mixed choir and orchestra.  The performance was filmed in almost total darkness in what appears to be a deserted factory, lit by batteries of theatrical spotlights.  The choir members wear dark baggy overalls giving the impression that they’re either all Finnish garbage collectors or operatives at a boiler-house.  Even so, this is an extraordinary performance with some very fine choral and solo singing.

The opening Requiem aeternam is sung over a melancholy plodding bass line with beautiful melodies and sumptuous harmonies.  And do you know?  Among the brass players in the semi-darkness, I think I spotted an alto trombone.  Oh, and by the way, Johann Sebastian Bach also had a grandson with exactly the same name.  Not many people know that.

All Saxed Up

Aram Khachaturian.

The River Meuse begins its long journey in France and flows through Belgium and the Netherlands before reaching the North Sea.  On the left bank, not far from the French border is the Belgian town of Dinant, dominated by the imposing Collegiate Church of Notre Dame.  The town is famous both for its flamiche, which is a local version of quiche and for the Couque de Dinant, claimed to be Europe’s hardest biscuit, which on reflection seems a curious claim to make. 

Dinant is perhaps more famous as the birth-place of Antoine-Joseph “Adolphe” Sax who was born in 1814 and whose father, Charles-Joseph was a designer of musical instruments.  Following in his father’s musical footsteps, the young Adolphe began to design his own instruments while still a child.

At the age of twenty-four, Adolphe moved to Paris and set to work improving the valved bugle, a standard instrument in French military bands.  His instruments were so successful that they became known as saxhorns and were produced in at least seven different sizes.  They became the most common brass instrument in bands during the American Civil War.

Sax invented many instruments including short-lived novelties like the saxotromba and the saxtuba, but for most people his name is inexorably linked with the saxophone.  Although the saxophone tends to be associated with jazz, it was actually invented many years before jazz emerged.  Strangely enough, the first of the family that Sax built – around 1841 - was an elephantine bass saxophone, which evidently impressed Hector Berlioz.  The composer was amazed at its versatility, unique tone and presumably its enormous dimensions. 

Adolphe Sax was convinced that saxophones of various sizes could enhance the sound of the military band, and within a few years he’d designed an entire saxophone family of fourteen instruments.  Most of them have become obsolete and only four of the original fourteen remain in regular use today, the soprano, alto, tenor and baritone.  The bass sax is very rarely heard in classical music.

The saxophone was originally designed to have a smooth and mellifluous sound and this is the preferred tone quality for classical saxophonists, far removed from the raucous sound produced by most jazz and rock players in more recent years.  The characteristic tone quality inspired many composers to write concertos for the instrument - especially the alto sax – among them Debussy, Ibert, Milhaud, Hindemith, Villa-Lobos, Paul Creston and Philip Glass.

Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936): Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra Op 109. Joseph Lulloff (alt sax), Brevard Music Center Orchestra cond. JoAnn Falletta (Duration: 15:25 Video: 1080p HD)

Glazunov was born in St. Petersburg and was the son of a wealthy publisher.  He began studying piano at the age of nine and started composing soon afterwards.  In later years, he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov and went on to enjoy international fame.  He was a prolific composer who completed nine symphonies and several concertos together with a vast array of orchestral works.  The lyrical and rather melancholy saxophone concerto dates from 1934, towards the end of his life.  It was in fact, his last composition.  The music is deeply rooted in Romanticism and it’s become part of the standard saxophone repertoire.

Gabriel Pierné  (1863-1937):
Introduction et Variations sur une Ronde Populaire.
TCU Saxophone Quartet (Duration: 08:44 Video: 1080p HD)

In the world of classical music, Marcel Mule (1901-2001) is universally recognized as the greatest master of the instrument.  He was described in one newspaper review as “the Jascha Heifetz of the saxophone”.  In 1927, he formed the Marcel Mule Saxophone Quartet which was more of a challenge than it sounds, because at the time no music existed for such an ensemble.  Undaunted, Mule began the task of writing arrangements himself and also encouraged many composers to write works for the instrument or the quartet.  One of them was Gabriel Pierné, well-known in Paris as an organist and conductor.  It was he, who in 1910 conducted the world premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird.

Pierné wrote the Introduction and Variations in 1934 and dedicated the work to the Marcel Mule Quartet.  The music is elegant, charming and somehow very French and these young musicians give an excellent and expressive performance.  Notice how the low notes of the baritone saxophone add a sumptuous richness to the musical texture.

Of course as well as the saxophone, Belgium also gave the world French fries, although I suppose most Belgians are probably fed up being reminded about it.  But we also have to thank Belgium for the contraceptive pill, the Mercator projection, the praline, the jpg conversion, and strangely enough, roller skates - which date from the middle of the nineteenth century.  It is pleasing to think that perhaps the young Adolphe might have used a pair of them to hurtle around the streets of Dinant.


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American Express

Relatively Speaking

All Saxed Up