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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update May 30, 2015

Visions of America

Ferde Grofé. (Photo/United States Library of Congress)

Sometime during the 1970s – I am not quite sure exactly when – the Turnabout record label released a pair of vinyl LPs entitled Americana.   They contained, as you might reasonably expect, recordings of music deemed to embody the spirit of America or at least, the spirit of rural America a hundred years ago.  The works included Men and Mountains by Charles Ruggles, From the Steeples and the Mountains by Charles Ives and Quiet City by Aaron Copland, a piece that for many people has come to symbolize a sleepy town somewhere in the mid-West.

Another American composer, Ferde Grofé - famous for his sound-pictures of the American landscape - wasn’t represented on the recording.  Ferdinand Rudolf von Grofé was born in New York into a family of well-established professional musicians.  When he was still a child, his mother spirited him off to Germany to study piano, viola and composition in Leipzig, where he also became proficient on a wide range of instruments, a skill which served him well in his later years as a composer and brilliant arranger. 

When Grofé was sixteen years old, he lived in San Francisco and after a succession of dead-end jobs found himself playing piano in a house of ill-repute, supposedly unaware of the lusty and breathless activities going on upstairs.  San Francisco was also where the young Grofé first heard jazz.  Although there are sometimes jazz influences in the music of Copland especially in the Clarinet Concerto, Grofé absorbed jazz totally.  The jazz that excited him relied heavily on improvisation and he became interested in finding ways writing it all down.  His arranging skills were eventually noticed by band-leader Paul Whiteman, who in 1924 hired him as pianist and arranger.  Grofé orchestrated Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for Whiteman’s orchestra and when the work was adapted for symphony orchestra, again it was Ferde Grofé who took on the job.

Ferde Grofé (1892-1972): Grand Canyon. Walt Disney movie featuring the Graunke Symphony Orchestra cond. Frederick Stark (Duration: 27:42, Video: 480p)

There’s an interesting connection here because like Rhapsody in Blue, the Grand Canyon Suite was originally also written for a small orchestra and also first performed by the Paul Whiteman orchestra.  It was only later that Grofé expanded the work for full symphony orchestra.  It consists of five movements, each a sound-picture of a particular scene typical of the Grand Canyon.  Grofé may have got the first ideas for the work as early as 1916 when he drove across the Arizona desert to watch the sun rise over the Grand Canyon. 

In 1958, Walt Disney produced a movie called Grand Canyon employing the recently-invented Cinemascope format and using Grofé’s expansive composition as the sound-track.  There is no story and no dialogue but the movie was considered outstanding enough for an Academy Award.  Directed by James Algar, it has some fine and original photography and despite its age, it’s a delight to watch.

For some reason, the name of the orchestra is not shown in the opening titles.  However, it turns out to be the Graunke Symphony Orchestra, formed in Germany in 1945 and later becoming the Munich Symphony Orchestra.  In many ways this is a remarkable work, not least for its superb orchestration.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990):  Appalachian Spring. Detroit Symphony Orchestra cond. Leonard Slatkin (Duration: 43:45, Video: 720p HD)

Like the Grand Canyon Suite, this well-known work was originally scored for small orchestra.  It was commissioned by the legendary ballet dancer and choreographer Martha Graham and first performed in 1944 at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.

The ballet tells the story of a spring celebration of nineteenth century American pioneers after having built a new farmhouse in Pennsylvania.  The work is full of traditional American themes, including the Shaker song Simple Gifts, which Copland borrowed and wove into the music.  You might recognise the tune as the popular hymn Lord of the Dance.  Even during the first few moments of the music when stillness prevails, Copland creates a compelling impression of the wide open spaces.

In 1945, the composer arranged the music for symphony orchestra and this is the version usually performed today.  For various complicated reasons, there are four published versions of this work but like the Grofé suite, it’s a fine example of orchestration at its best.

Interestingly, when Copland wrote the music, he had no title in mind and simply referred to it as the “Ballet for Martha” but before the first performance, she suggested that the title could be a phrase from a poem by the American poet Harold Hart Crane.  The phrase, of course was “Appalachian Spring”.  Although the poem is about a journey to meet springtime, the word “spring” in the title refers to a source of water, not to the season.  Not many people know that.

Update May 23, 2015

The Twilight Zone

The slightly androgynous 12-year-old Mendelssohn.

Mention the words “night music” and I suppose the first classical piece that springs to mind is Mozart’s Serenade No. 13 in G Major, better known as Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Contrary to popular belief, it has nothing to do with night. The literal translation is misleading because the German title means “a little serenade”. Despite its popularity today, the work is surrounded by mysteries. No one knows why Mozart wrote it. He nearly always wrote for commissions, but it’s not known who asked him to write the work or the purpose for which it was intended. Oddly enough, no one seems to know where or when it was first performed. It lay forgotten for many years and wasn’t published until 1827 - thirty six years after Mozart had breathed his last.

These days, we tend to hear the work played by string orchestra but it was actually written for a string quartet with optional double bass. There’s a fine video of this original version on YouTube, given by the Gewandhaus Quartet of Leipzig, which incidentally is the oldest string quartet in the world. It was established in 1808 and has been going ever since, though not of course with the same members..

I can’t think of many classical works that attempt to describe night-time. There’s Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain and Manual de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Oh yes, then there’s the lovely Summer Night on the River, by Frederick Delius. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata doesn’t count, because the music has nothing to do with the moon or even night. The sonata acquired its romantic nick-name five years after Beethoven’s death thanks to an imaginative German music critic and poet named Ludwig Rellstab.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): A Midsummer Night’s Dreamm Overture, Op.21. Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, cond. Kurt Masur (Duration: 12:46, Video 720p HD)

Mendelssohn was a brilliant child prodigy. The delightful string symphonies were written when he was twelve years old, and he was seventeen when he wrote this overture after reading a translation of Shakespeare’s play. The English music writer and critic George Grove (he of dictionary fame) called the overture “the greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music”. It was intended as a stand-alone concert overture and not until many years later did Mendelssohn write the incidental music for the same play. The famous Wedding March comes from this later work. There are some interesting connections here because the translator of the play was August Wilhelm Schlegel; the overture was completed in August 1826 and Schlegel’s brother married Mendelssohn’s Aunt Dorothea, who died in August 1839.

This is a charming, evocative work and remarkable for its striking orchestral effects, such as the imitation of scampering fairy feet near the beginning. It was reported that Mendelssohn sketched out the opening chords after hearing an evening breeze rustle the leaves in the garden of the family home..

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951): Verklärte Nacht, op. 4. Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. by Daniel Harding (Duration: 34:45, Video: 480p)

After he moved to the United States in 1934, Arnold Schönberg altered the spelling of his surname to the less Germanic-looking Schoenberg. In photographs he always looks serious and intense, surprisingly perhaps for a man who evidently enjoyed watching Hopalong Cassidy movies. Although Schoenberg was born on 13th September he had a morbid fear of the number thirteen. It’s a condition known as triskaidekaphobia and one that he apparently shared with Napoleon and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Schoenberg is perhaps best-known for his invention of twelve-tone serialism, a composing technique based on a tone row, which is a particular arrangement of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”) was written before Schoenberg had developed serialism, but was controversial because of the advanced and richly chromatic harmonic language. At its first performance in Vienna in 1902, it must have left many people somewhat perplexed. Like Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the work was originally written for a chamber ensemble but the composer later re-scored the work for string orchestra, which is the version most often heard today. Written in just three weeks, the work was based on a poem of the same name by Richard Dehmel, which centred on a somewhat bizarre conversation between two people walking through a moonlight forest.

Schoenberg was an important music theorist and writer as well as an influential teacher of composition. He was also a competent painter whose pictures were thought good enough to exhibit alongside those of Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky.

Schoenberg was sure that he would die during a year which was a multiple of thirteen so he must have felt relieved to get through 1950 – which is such a year. As fate would have it, he died a year later. On Friday 13th July.

Update May 16, 2015

Harping on

Reinhold Glière.

A well-established joke among musicians is that harps are like old people; they’re unforgiving and difficult to get in and out of cars. Harps have been the target for musicians’ jokes ever since the instrument appeared in the symphony orchestra during the middle of the nineteenth century. For example, how can you tell when harpists are playing out of tune? Answer: Their fingers are moving.

There’s an element of truth in this, or at least there was twenty years ago before the advent of digital harp tuners. The harp is difficult to tune accurately and unlike the piano which requires a specialist tuner, harpists are expected to do it themselves. The instrument can get out of tune quickly, especially if there are temperature variations at the concert venue. The problem is summed up in another musicians’ joke which asks, “How long does it take to tune a harp?” Answer: Nobody knows yet.

Although simple harps were in use as early as 3500 BC the standard harp you see in orchestras today dates from the eighteenth century. It’s technically known as the pedal harp and has forty-seven strings covering a range of six-and-a-half octaves and weighs about eighty pounds. As the name implies, it has seven pedals which are connected to an internal mechanical system that changes the pitch of the strings.

Harps don’t come cheap. You can buy a student model for about $15,000 but a professional instrument could set you back over $100,000. You also need to buy a big van to carry it around.

Surprisingly the harp is popular in Mexico, the Andes, Venezuela and Paraguay and although these instruments have slightly different designs, they have a common ancestor - the Baroque harps brought from Spain during the colonial period.

Reinhold Glière (1875-1956): Concerto for Harp and Orchestra. Elizaveta Bushueva (hp), Moscow City Symphony cond. Sergey Tararin (Duration: 29:45, Video: 1080p HD)

Despite his German first name and his French-sounding second name, Glière was actually Russian. His surname was originally Glier but when he was fifteen, he changed the spelling and pronunciation of his surname to Glière, giving rise to confusion ever since.

The son of an instrument-maker, he was born in Kiev and became an accomplished violinist while still a boy. He took an early interest in composing and during his life wrote four string quartets, eleven operas and ballets, five concertos and three symphonies along with many other instrumental works. His orchestral style, which combined lyricism with traditional harmonies, was much admired by the Soviet authorities who took a dim view of anything that sounded “modern”. Although he was honoured with many awards during his lifetime, today much of his music has fallen into neglect.

This concerto dates from 1938 though you’d never guess. Harmonically and stylistically it’s entrenched in Russian nationalist music of the nineteenth century. But never mind. It’s warm and lyrical with charming melodies and sometimes hints of early Hollywood. If you enjoy the post-Romantic style of Rachmaninoff, you’ll almost certainly take to this approachable work. There’s a delightful slow movement with a delicate melody followed by a lively third movement that culminates in a brief and sunny conclusion.

For a composer, the harp can be a tricky instrument to handle and Glière sought the technical advice of the Russian harpist Ksenia Alexandrovna Erdely. She made so many suggestions that Glière evidently offered to credit her as co-composer, but she graciously declined.

Allan Gilliland (b. 1965): “Gaol’s Rhuah Ròs” A Celtic Concerto for Harp and Orchestra. Patricia Masri-Fletcher (hp), Detroit Symphony Orchestra cond. Leonard Slatkin. (Duration: 11:50, Video: 720p HD)

Allan Gilliland was born in Scotland but moved to Canada in 1972 and settled in Edmonton, Alberta. He’s a prolific writer who’s been described as “one of Canada’s busiest composers” and he holds degrees in performance and composition from the University of Alberta and the University of Edinburgh. He has composed music for solo instruments, orchestra, chorus, brass quintet, wind ensemble, big band, film, television and theatre. This harp concerto was written between 2002 and 2003 when he was Composer in Residence with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.

The title Gaol’s Ruadh Ròs is Gaelic for “Love’s Red Rose” referring to the well-known song by Robert Burns. This Scottish melody, which we first hear at 05:14 is beautifully harmonized each time it appears and it dominates the concerto. It’s a joyous and approachable work with a brilliantly effervescent opening and you don’t have to wait long for the Scottish influence to appear. The work is intensely rhythmic and makes much use of the Scottish “snap” which is not, as you might imagine, some kind of crispbread from Aberdeen, but a rhythmic device found in much Scottish traditional music and easier to recognise than to describe.

Update May 10, 2015

From song-plugger to star

Modest start: George Gershwin.

George Gershwin had a modest start to his musical career.  After leaving school at the age of fifteen his first job was a song-plugger whose task it was to promote new sheet music to customers in music shops or department stores.  He worked for the New York music publisher Jerome H. Remick and Company and earned the princely sum of fifteen dollars a week.

Song-pluggers or “song demonstrators” as they were sometimes called, played whatever sheet music was handed to them by customers who presumably couldn’t manage to read it themselves.  Gershwin wanted to write songs of his own and his first publication was the crisply entitled, When you want ’em, you can’t get ‘em, When you’ve got ’em, you don’t want ’em.  It was published when Gershwin was seventeen and evidently earned him fifty cents.  His first big hit was the song Swanee, composed in ten minutes on a bus.  Al Jolson, the famous Broadway singer of the day, heard Gershwin perform the song at a party and decided to include it in one of his shows.  The song eventually sold a million sheet music copies and an estimated two million records.  The year was 1919 and Swanee was the biggest-selling song of Gershwin’s career.

In the following decade Gershwin with his brother Ira churned out a basketful of enduring popular songs such as Fascinating Rhythm, Oh Lady be Good and Embraceable You.  Gershwin also turned his interest to the orchestra and became fascinated with the orchestral music of the French composers of the day.  In later years, Gershwin also became quite skilled at painting and his last portrait was of his good friend, the composer Arnold Schoenberg with whom he used to play tennis once a week.

George Gershwin:  An American in Paris. Los Angeles
Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Gustavo Dudamel (Duration: 20:45, Video: 360p)

Gershwin got the idea for this popular jazz-flavoured symphonic poem after arriving in Paris in March 1928.  It was a commission from Walter Damrosch who was the conductor of the New York Philharmonic.  Gershwin scored the piece for standard orchestra plus celesta, saxophones and four taxi horns which he had managed to acquire in Paris for the New York premiere.  But despite his efforts, the work received mixed reviews at the first performance.

In case you are wondering, nowadays most orchestras hire a set of taxi horns when this work is performed.  They cost about $100 for a week and they’re normally played - perhaps “honked” - would be a better word - by one of the percussion players.

George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue. Herbie Hancock (pno), Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Gustavo Dudamel (Duration: 21:11, Video: 480p)

Rhapsody in Blue dates from four years earlier, before Gershwin had started learning the skills of orchestration.  It was commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman and the original version was much shorter and scored by Ferde Grof for Whiteman’s jazz orchestra.  An interesting, if somewhat bizarre movie of this early version is on YouTube, billed as Rhapsody in Blue - King of Jazz.  It features Gershwin at the piano and it’s introduced by Paul Whiteman who bears an unsettling resemblance to Oliver Hardy.

This later symphonic version has become a staple for classical concert pianists but multi-talented Herbie Hancock brings a fascinating jazzman’s perspective to the score.  Hancock made his name in 1963 after he joined the Miles Davis Quintet but then moved on to carve out his own unique niche in music.

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel is entertaining to watch and clearly someone who loves his job.  He has the entire orchestra literally at his finger-tips.  And notice that he doesn’t use any music.  Like the best conductors, he has the score in his head, not his head in the score.

George Gershwin: Cuban Overture. Teresa Carreo Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, cond. Joshua Dos Santos (Duration: 10:23, Video: 480p)

The Cuban Overture was a result of a two-week holiday which Gershwin took in Havana in February 1932 and the piece is dominated by Caribbean rhythms and Latin-American percussion.  Originally entitled Rumba, it’s a joyous yet rhythmically complex work that uses instrumental colour to the full.  Several of the catchy melodies were influenced by popular traditional folk songs of the day.  Listen closely and at 04:50 onwards, you’ll hear those evocative lush tropical harmonies that Gershwin used in the song Summertime, composed two years later for his opera “Porgy and Bess”.

Incidentally, in the 1920s Gershwin wanted to study with Igor Stravinsky, considered the most influential and successful classical composer of the time.  When he approached The Great Man at a party in Paris, Stravinsky surprised him with the question, “How much money do you make a year?”  Upon hearing the answer Stravinsky replied, “Perhaps, Mr. Gershwin, I should study with you.”

Update May 2, 2015

Seconds apart

Alexander Borodin – chemist and composer.

One of the most satisfying things about playing in an orchestra is that you experience the music from a different perspective. It’s difficult to describe, but you feel that you’re actually inside the music, even though for much of the time you’re merely reading notes from a printed part.

When I was an innocent twelve-year old, the headmaster of our school told me one day that I should learn to play the cello. Being the kind of child who didn’t usually argue with the headmaster, cello lessons duly began. I was first taught by a lady who owned the local pub and who played the cello in her spare time. She was a large and kindly person who swept down the school corridors in a halo of beery aroma. After a couple of years, I was playing in our rustic county orchestra and much later, I found myself as principal cellist of our national youth orchestra.

When I rolled up, they were rehearsing Borodin’s Second Symphony, which fortunately isn’t a particularly difficult work to play, at least as far as the cellos are concerned. On another occasion we tackled the more challenging Sibelius Second Symphony which is a very different kettle of kippers. Both these works are probably the two most popular second symphonies ever written, but musically they couldn’t be more different.

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887): Symphony No 2 in B minor. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra cond. Karel Mark Chichon (Duration: 30:14, Video: 720p HD)

Although today we associate Borodin with music, in his time he was one of Russia’s most famous research chemists and for several years before that, a medical practitioner. The second symphony took several years to complete, because of his extensive research and teaching duties as Professor of Chemistry at the Medico-Surgical Academy at St. Petersburg. It was finally finished in 1876 but before the first performance, Borodin somehow managed to lose the scores of the first and last movements and had to write them again. He described himself as “a Sunday composer” but hearing this compelling work you’d never guess.

The memorable and powerful opening theme of just eight notes (or possibly nine, depending on how you hear it) dominates the symphony and appears in many different forms along with other attractive melodies, colourful orchestration and idiosyncratic use of harmony. The second movement is a fast scherzo written mostly in the unusual time signature of 1/1 and as far as I know, this is the only example in the orchestral repertoire. The lyrical third movement is the emotional heart of the work, full of lovely melodies and delicate scoring. In the last movement it’s back to the action again with lively Slavic dances and catchy melodies.

Some contemporary critics complained that there were too many tunes and others baulked at the outlandish changes of key, which must have sounded very modern at the time. The music sometimes has a kind of Eastern feeling to it and if you know Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances there will be some familiar moments.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): Symphony No. 2 in D major. Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Eivind Gullberg Jensen (Duration: 45:37, Video: 720p HD)

Perhaps the weather had something to do with it, but Sibelius (sib-AY-lee-us) spent long periods of time away from his native Finland. He began work on the Second Symphony in the Italian seaside town of Rapallo in the winter of 1901 completing it a year later when he was back in Finland. At the time, Russian sanctions on Finnish language and culture were being imposed and some writers have suggested that the work might have been influenced by the ensuing struggle for Finnish independence.

No one seems to know whether Sibelius intended it as some kind of patriotic message a hundred years on, but perhaps what is more interesting to the listener is his highly individual method of composing. The symphony – like many other works by Sibelius - seems to grow organically.

Just as Borodin’s opening theme dominates his symphony, the first melodies of the Sibelius provide the seeds for organic growth, though unlike Borodin’s work this one is all about growth and development. The opening bars of repeated chords use a three note motif, followed by a clarinet melody which is actually a variation on the motif. Themes seem to appear out of nowhere and gradually become drawn in to become integral parts of the work.

The third movement leads into the last without a break and opens with a heart-warming theme. You’d never guess, but it’s simply the first three notes of the original clarinet motif played backwards. This movement is an absolute joy, with soaring melodies, moments of high tension and drama, and a long closing section (42:20) that is surely one of the finest moments in symphonic music.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Visions of America

The Twilight Zone

Harping on

From song-plugger to star

Seconds apart