By Colin Kaye
“America’s Beethoven” Anthony Philip
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.
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.
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.”
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)
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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)
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)
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
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.
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.