By Colin Kaye
There was a time, not
so long ago when much of Béla Bartók’s music seemed terribly
modern-sounding. As a schoolboy during the last century, I remember being
thrilled on hearing for the first time, a recording of his Divertimento
for Strings. It was the sheer sound of the music that was so exciting.
The Bartók string
quartets were a bit of a challenge, though today they fall more easily on
the ear than they did fifty years ago. Sound is what it’s all about. Like
many of the best composers, Béla Bartók (BAY-lah BAR-tohk) had his
own particular way with sounds. He created his own musical soundscapes and
you can often recognise his personal sounds within seconds.
I suppose much the
same could be said of composers like Sibelius, Delius, Debussy, Stravinsky
or Vaughan Williams. You can probably think of others who had the ability
to build a musical sound-world that is almost instantly recognizable. Many
of the finest painters had this same extraordinary skill of visualizing and
creating a unique and personal style. Just think how easy it is to
recognise a Caravaggio, a Hieronymus Bosch, a Max Ernst, a Salvador Dali or
a Paul Cézanne. And you could probably spot a painting by Mark Rothko at
two hundred yards.
Although he was
well-travelled, Bartók remained in his native Hungary until the declining
political situation after the outbreak of World War II. He was opposed to
the Hungarians siding with Germany and his anti-fascist views not
surprisingly brought him into conflict with the Hungarian establishment. He
finally left the country in 1940 and settled in America. But not for long,
because within several years, he was diagnosed with leukemia and at that
stage, little could be done about it.
During his last years,
when he must have realised that time was not on his side, he had a surge of
creative energy and composed some of his finest works. One of them was the
Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky, the
conductor of the Boston Symphony.
Bartók (1881-1945): Concerto for Orchestra.
The Orchestra of the University of Music Franz Liszt, Weimar cond. Nicolás
Pasquet (Duration: 40:04, Video: 1080p HD)
Bartók completed the
score of this work on 8th October
1943 and it was performed two months later by the Boston Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Koussevitzky. The title Concerto might seem rather odd
because they are normally for a solo instrument with orchestral
accompaniment. Bartók explained that he called the piece a concerto rather
than a symphony because each section of instruments is treated in a
solo-like manner. It has become Bartók’s best-known orchestral work and if
you are unfamiliar with this composer, this is as good a place as any to
start. Written in five movements, there are plenty of attractive
Hungarian-style melodies, lively rhythms and reflective moments. The
talented young students from the University at Weimar give a stunningly good
Janáček (1854-1928): Taras Bulba.
Symfonieorkest Vlaanderen cond. Jan Latham-Koenig (Duration: 23:39, Video:
If Bartók is one of the most singular musical voices of Hungary, then
Janáček is probably his Czech counterpart despite the fact that he was born
in Moravia, then part of the Austrian Empire. Leoš Janáček (LAY-osh
yan-AH-chek) had a somewhat daunting personality and as a student he was
self-opinionated and unhesitatingly critical of his teachers. In later
years, his own students found him to be strict and uncompromising.
Nevertheless, he was a tireless worker who composed eight operas, and his
early orchestral works show the influence of Dvořák whom he knew personally.
But after 1900 Janáček had found his own singular voice and stylistically
his later works lie firmly in the twentieth century.
Janáček completed this suite in 1918 and the original idea came from a novel
by Nicolai Gogol involving a Cossack military leader named Taras Bulba. The
music depicts episodes from a 1628 conflict between Cossacks and Poles and
there are three movements rather gloomily entitled The Death of Andrei, The
Death of Ostap and The Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba. But don’t be
deterred by the morbid titles because it’s a remarkably satisfying work.
You’ll get a real taste of Janáček’s more mature musical style in the last
movement, in which jagged melodies suddenly appear and musical ideas are
seemingly thrown around. There are passionate outbursts of sound then sudden
romantic moments. It contains some bizarre musical ideas, yet also has the
most poignantly beautiful melodies. It also uses one of Janáček’s
characteristic harmonic progressions, which you’ll hear over and over again,
bringing the work to a thrilling and heroic conclusion. The progression uses
a dominant thirteenth chord, which instead of the classical conventional
resolution, falls to the chord of the sharpened supertonic with a decorated
9-8 suspension. I just thought you’d like to know.
Silvestre Revueltas in 1924.
know about you, but I seem to have an aversion to snakes. Now I’m sorry if
you are a snake-lover but I can’t stand the wretched things, largely because
they give me the creeps. Of course, this is totally irrational and probably
unfair to snakes, but that’s how it is. And what are they for anyway? They
just seem to laze around all day. Mind you, that’s probably not much
different to some of the foreign residents in these parts.
don’t do much for me either because they can be unpleasant little beasts
when they put their minds to it. Strangely enough, an ominous-looking
wasps’ nest has appeared on a lighting pole in my soi causing considerable
consternation to the night-guard. At least, their presence might encourage
him to stay awake.
day I discovered why some wasps are relatively benign while others seem
irritable and unreasonably aggressive. Apparently, it’s all to do with the
queen wasp who decides what the “mood” of the nest is going to be and then
emits a chemical called a pheromone. This has some kind of mind-altering
properties which affect the behaviour of the lesser wasps. Of course, all
this is irrelevant to a classical music column but I just thought you’d like
to know. Anyway, back to the snakes.
Revueltas (1899-1940): Sensemayá.
Portland Youth Philharmonic
cond. David Hattner (Duration: 07:17, Video: 1080p HD)
Revueltas Sánchez was one of Mexico’s leading musicians in the first half of
the twentieth century. He first achieved fame as a concert violinist and
was later appointed Assistant Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra
of Mexico. He wrote songs and chamber music but he’s best-known for his
dramatic film music, particularly his score for the 1939 Mexican movie La
Noche de los Mayas.
clashing dissonances with abandon and many of his works have a passionate
rhythmic vitality and raw visceral energy. Sensemayá dates from 1938
and was inspired by a poem by the Cuban writer Nicolás Guillén which evoked
a ritual Afro-Caribbean chant performed while killing a snake. Originally
the music was scored for small orchestra but the composer later changed it
into a full-scale orchestral work calling for nearly thirty wind
instruments, fourteen percussion and strings.
poem refers to a mayombero, a man skilled in herbal medicines and
arcane rituals. One of the main rhythmic motives in Sensemayá is
derived from the repeated chant of the mayombero and evidently used
in an actual snake-killing ceremony. The music begins quietly and ominously
and the volume gradually builds up over an obsessive, ritualistic pounding
rhythm. There are moments which might remind you of Stravinsky’s Rite of
Spring but this is an unmistakable Mexican voice that evokes the exotic
legends and beliefs of another age. The rhythms are powerful and hypnotic:
just listen to the complex surging patterns of sounds that Revueltas creates
at around 06:32 onwards.
young Americans give a terrific performance. The orchestra was established
in Portland, Oregon in 1924 and is the longest-established youth orchestra
in the country. It would have been immensely satisfying to tell you that
its emblem is a writhing snake. But unfortunately, it isn’t.
Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Overture “The Wasps”.
Corpus Medicorum cond. Keith Crellin (Duration: 10:26, Video: 720p HD)
there’s a choice between having a snake and a wasp, I’ll have a wasp, thank
you very much. Contrary to popular belief, this overture is not really
about wasps at all. It’s about people who behave like them. Or so thought
Aristophanes, who in 422 BC wrote a play called The Wasps. It was a
caustic satire that ridiculed the Athenian law courts, the juror system and
the bickering old codgers who chose to become jurors. They’re described in
the play as being “as terrible as a swarm of wasps, carrying below their
loins the sharpest of stings”.
Medicorum is made up of doctors, medical students and other health
professionals who also happen to be musicians. It was founded in 2002 and
gives concerts to raise funds for Lung Cancer Services at the Royal
Ralph Vaughan Williams was invited to write the incidental music for a
production of the play at Cambridge. He later adapted the music to create a
suite of five movements, the overture being the first. It’s become a
favourite concert piece in its own right although the other movements are
sometimes also performed, one of which is intriguingly entitled
March-Past of the Kitchen Utensils.
from the opening fifty seconds of wasp-like buzzing sounds, the music
doesn’t have much to do with wasps or even ancient Greece. It’s pure
Edwardian England, full of wholesome folk-like tunes and about as far from
Athens as you can get. Musically it’s a lot closer to Nether
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.
An under-rated master
Telemann’s image on a German postage stamp of
three baroque composers and you’ll probably come up with Bach, Handel and
Vivaldi. There were hundreds of others of course, most of which have fallen
into oblivion and some of them rightly so. But in the early years of the
eighteenth century, one of the most powerful voices was that of the German
composer, Georg Philipp Telemann.
born on 14th March 1681 into a religious middle-class family in
Magdeburg, a medieval town on the banks of the River Elbe. Telemann was
virtually self-taught and today would be considered something of a child
prodigy. He taught himself several instruments and began writing arias,
motets and instrumental works, completing his first opera at the age of
twelve. Despite this remarkable talent, his mother did everything possible
to discourage him, having been influenced by the joyless Puritan Lutherans.
At one point, this grossly misguided woman confiscated the boy’s musical
instruments and commanded him to stop composing altogether. At about the
age of twelve Georg was packed off to a school in Zellerfeld but the head
teacher, to his eternal credit, recognised the boy’s extraordinary talents
and provided much-needed encouragement.
years, Telemann started studying law at the University of Leipzig but the
call of music proved irresistible. He began writing choral music for a
church in Leipzig and quickly became a local celebrity. In 1702, at the
early age of twenty-one, Telemann became director of the Leipzig Opera, and
over the next few years he wrote several operas for the company. For a
time, Telemann was the most famous musician in Germany. He held some of the
most prestigious jobs available and evidently had a good sense of humour and
a likable personality. Handel and Bach were among his personal friends,
although interestingly, Telemann’s salary was about three times higher than
that of Bach.
is one of the most prolific composers of all time. He wrote over a thousand
church cantatas, a couple of dozen concertos, nearly fifty settings of the
Passion and fifty operas. Just stop to think about that – fifty operas!
It’s been estimated that he produced over three thousand musical works.
happened? Why is one of the baroque’s brightest stars so neglected today?
Well, in the twilight years of the eighteenth century baroque music simply
fell out of fashion to be replaced by the lighter musical styles of
composers like Haydn, Mozart and the young Beethoven. The music of Bach was
not rediscovered until the 1850s, a hundred years after his death. Bach was
hailed as a master of the baroque at the expense of other composers of the
period including Telemann, who remained in obscurity. It wasn’t until the
middle of the twentieth century that a new interest in Telemann’s music
brought him back into the limelight.
Telemann (1681-1767): Concerto for viola, oboe d'amore and flute.
Members of Stuttgart
Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Roger Norrington (Duration: 15:18, Video:
the baroque period
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMpzPMkrALMthe concerto often featured
two or more solo instruments, unlike the nineteenth century model which was
usually for a single soloist. In case you’re wondering, the oboe d’amore
is slightly larger than the standard oboe with a less assertive tone and the
viola d'amore used in this recording has six or seven strings with an
equal number of sympathetic strings below the fingerboard. These vibrate in
sympathy with the played notes.
exquisite work dates from around 1740 and has sensuous harmonies, elegant,
tuneful melodies and beautifully transparent orchestration.
Deus judicium tuum. Pygmalion Choir
and Orchestra cond.
Raphaël Pichon (Duration: 21:17,
listen to the majestic choral opening of this work and you’ll hear a
composer who really knew what he was doing. It’s one his finest works for
choir and orchestra and dates from 1737 when Telemann was enjoying huge
success in Paris. The work was written for the Concert Spirituel,
one of the first-ever series of concerts intended for the general public.
There’s some colourful orchestral writing and surprising harmonies which
must have sounded very modern to the citizens of Paris.
Suite for Strings in E major “La Lyra”.
Orquesta Civitas Musicae cond.
Echeverría (Duration: 14:23, Video: 720p HD)
Telemann estimated that he’d already composed six hundred suites. Only
about a quarter of them have survived and this is a splendid example of
Telemann’s string writing, quite different in style from that of Bach and
Vivaldi. The suite is typically composed of popular dances such as the
bourrée, the gigue and the minuet and Telemann’s music is intensely
rhythmic, enormously varied, with bubbling energy and a seemingly limitless
display of musical ideas. There’s so much more of Telemann’s wonderful
music waiting to be rediscovered. Let’s hope it doesn’t have to wait too
A class apart
Erich Wolfgang Korngold on his 16th birthday.
through some music videos the other day, I came across a performance by a
violinist of about six years old who was described as a “child prodigy”. He
was quite talented, but he wasn’t a child prodigy. Nowhere near. I’ve just
been re-reading the fascinating book by Claude Kenneson called Musical
Prodigies in which he writes, “I was a gifted child but certainly not a
prodigy. There is a vast difference between the two. One is sometimes
remarkable, the other always phenomenal, startling to witness.”
prosaic terms, a child prodigy is usually defined as someone who has reached
adult or even professional levels of performance before the age of ten. The
pianist Van Cliburn, who started playing piano at the age of three, once
described child prodigies as “having extraordinary vision and unusual
prescience, amazingly aware of the world at an early age.”
child prodigies in many different subject domains, especially mathematics
and science, but music seems to have more than its fair share. Composers
who were child prodigies included Barber, Bizet, Chopin, Menotti, Paganini
and Purcell. The most famous perhaps were Mozart and Mendelssohn. Science
knows remarkably little about the mental functioning of these extraordinary
beings, though there is no shortage of theories.
inevitably brings up the time-worn “nature vs. nurture” debate, which is
about whether potential high levels of skill are already present when the
child is born, or whether they’re brought about by the child’s early
environment. The latest thinking seems to indicate that both nature and
nurture have a role to play.
Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz of Ohio State University has estimated that
there’s one child prodigy to every five million, or possibly ten million
other children. The Ohio research has shown that a common denominator among
these gifted children is an exceptional working memory. They also have an
intense attention to detail, an elevated general intelligence and
interestingly, they tend to be far more altruistic than most other people.
Contrary to popular belief, child prodigies don’t usually fade away in their
adult years. Many prodigies have lived into their eighties and nineties and
continued performing careers until towards the end of their lives.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Concerto for Piano,
Violin & Strings in D minor. Anna
Savkina (vln); Anna Denisova (pno); Kremlin Chamber Orchestra cond. Misha
Rachlevsky (Duration 1st mvt:
18:33, Video: 1080p HD)(3 videos)
German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe considered the young Mendelssohn
superior to Mozart at the same age. In 1823, when Mendelssohn was fourteen,
he wrote this sparkling double concerto in three movements. The music is
imbued with the Romantic spirit and there are some delightful melodies and
some brilliant virtuosic passages. It’s a remarkable work for a
fourteen-year-old and offers many glimpses into the composer’s more mature
odd reason, the young Russian musicians in this recording are positioned in
such a way that the pianist can see neither the conductor nor the
violinist. Even so, the performance is confident and technically assured
with an impressive sense of ensemble.
Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957): Sinfonietta. Malaysian
Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Hannu Lintu (Duration: 44:53, Video 480p)
Mahler described the young Korngold as a musical genius. At the age of
eleven, Korngold composed his ballet Der Schneemann (“The Snowman”),
which was first performed by the Hamburg Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1910.
It’s an amazingly complex work for one so young.
Sinfonietta, his first large-scale orchestral composition, dates from
1912 when Korngold was fifteen. Such was the enormous fame of the young
composer that the work was first performed by none less than the Vienna
Philharmonic Orchestra under the renowned Felix Weingartner. The
brilliantly orchestrated work is remarkable in its maturity and really
sounds as though it was written by someone with many more years’
experience. There are some wonderful melodies and the beginning of the
scherzo (at 11:17) is almost pure Hollywood.
of course later went to Hollywood and became a very fine composer of film
music. It’s sometimes said that he “invented” film music because he treated
each movie as an “opera without singing”, writing sumptuous melodies and
contrapuntally intricate scores. He wanted his music to stand alone in the
concert hall and although his musical style sounds a bit dated nowadays, he
had a significant influence on film music.
he won an Academy Award for his score to The Adventures of Robin Hood,
the first composer to receive one. Even so, he became disillusioned with
the movie industry and in 1946 stopped writing film scores altogether,
turning his attention to writing music for the concert hall. But his music
remained stylistically in the nineteenth century and one American critic
unkindly described Korngold’s Violin Concerto as being “more corn than
gold”. Honestly, how bitchy can you get?
The Outer Limits
György Ligeti in 1984. (Photo: H. J. Kropp)
“There is nothing wrong
with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture…We will control
the horizontal. We will control the vertical…”
If you are over A
Certain Age, these words may bring back memories of television of the
1960s. You might also recall messing about with the control knobs to
prevent the image from inexplicably rolling, or turning into meaningless
diagonal patterns, which it tended to do at moments of high drama. To
anyone under forty, the references to the horizontal and the vertical are
probably meaningless, because by the early 1980s improved technology had
rendered these manual controls unnecessary.
The quotation comes
from the spoken introduction to an iconic television series called The
Outer Limits which first appeared in the early 1960s. Many composers
have also pushed music to the outer limits, especially during the twentieth
century. Even so, the quest for newness isn’t particularly new.
In the fifteenth
century, the Flemish composers Johannes Ockeghem and Josquin des Prez were
pushing musical techniques forward and in the sixteenth century, Adrian
Willaert was developing chromatic harmony and creating new musical
structures. But there were dozens of others. Frescobaldi in the
seventeenth century wrote virtuosic passages that challenge performers
today, and some of his music delved deeply into chromaticism. The beginning
of the twentieth century saw some of the greatest changes ever in music
composition. But what about the sixties, when The Outer Limits was
scaring the wits out of its audience? What was new then?
György Ligeti (1923-2006): Lontano.
Hajibeyov Azerbaijan State Symphony Orchestra Cond. Rauf Abdullayev
(Duration: 13:42, Video: 480p)
György Ligeti (jurj
LIH-geh-tee) wrote this piece in 1967. It’s a powerful, brooding work
in which he takes us by the hand (or, more precisely by the ear) and leads
us into an alien, uncharted territory where reality and unreality are
indistinguishable. Don’t try to search for “meaning” in this music: it
doesn’t actually describe anything in the sense that Smetana’s Vltava
describes a river, or Debussy’s La Mer evokes images of a troubled
begins almost inaudibly with a single A flat on the flute, then gradually
other instruments enter playing the same note. They’re joined almost
imperceptibly by the trumpets but then the woodwinds move one by one
down to G, thereby creating an increasingly cutting dissonance. If you’ve
not heard this piece before, your first reaction could be, “What’s going on
Ligeti wrote an
explanation (but take a deep breath). “The harmonic crystallization within
the area of sonority leads to an intervallic-harmonic thought process…
achieved with the aid of polyphonic methods: the fictive harmonies emerge
from the complex vocal woven texture and the gradual opacity and new
crystallization are the result of discrete alterations in the individual
parts”. Yes, well. Perhaps it makes more sense in the original Hungarian.
He seems to be saying that many horizontal threads of simultaneous melody
sometimes combine to produce brief moments of recogniseable harmony.
From time to time, a
familiar-sounding chord emerges through the rich texture then fades away as
quickly as it appeared, tantalizingly out of reach. I have always loved
Lontano and find it immensely satisfying. The score contains many
detailed written instructions and interestingly, the piece ends with a
silent bar which lasts between ten and twenty seconds. Not many people know
Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933):
AUKSO Chamber Orchestra of Tychy cond. Penderecki (Duration: 06:16, Video:
The title of this
amazing work is derived from the Greek word poly meaning “many” and
morph meaning “shape” or “form”. Another Greek word - aukso
(“growth”) was borrowed by the orchestra, which is one of Europe’s most
Krzysztof Penderecki (KZHISH-toff
pen-der-ETS-kee) has been described as Poland’s greatest living
composer, probably best known for his Threnody to the Victims of
Hiroshima and the St. Luke Passion. Polymorphia is scored
for 48 stringed instruments and is probably one of the most scary-sounding
works ever written. It was used in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and
perhaps more famously in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.
The piece was first
performed in 1961, thus pre-dating The Outer Limits by a couple of
years. Conventional melody and harmony don’t exist in this sound-world that
Penderecki created. He sometimes employed unusual playing techniques for
which he devised his own form of notation.
Parts of the work are
based on sound interpretations of electroencephalograms, which detect
electrical activity in the brain and record it in the form of wavy lines.
These were recorded at the Kraków Medical Center while volunteer patients
listened to Penderecki’s own piece, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,
thus creating a pleasing symmetry which must have brought considerable
satisfaction to the composer. Of course, you’d never have guessed that the
music was inspired by brain waves, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s the
thought that counts.