By Colin Kaye
Colin McPhee as a young man.
The other night, I was
having dinner with some friends at a local Indian place when one of them
asked who could name some Canadian composers. Why he asked this I have no
idea, because the question was so challenging I forgot to enquire. It
shouldn’t be challenging of course, because if he had asked for the names of
some American composers, a list would roll off the tongue as easily as it
takes to eat a papadum. But Canadian composers?
Canada’s most famous
musician was probably the mildly eccentric Glenn Gould, but he was a pianist
(and a brilliant one too) not a composer. My friends stared hard into their
chicken biryanis mentally searching for names. The only two names I could
dredge up were those of Murray Schafer and Allan Gilliland, the second of
whom was actually born in Scotland. Schafer has composed a vast amount of
music and written a good many books too. But he’s probably most closely
associated with music education, after publishing some influential ideas
about class teaching in the 1960s.
Anyway, to our shame
none of us could think of any more composer names but this probably reveals
more about Canadian classical music than it does about us.
In an article entitled
Six Canadian Composers You Should Know the Canadian writer and
composer Colin Eatock claims that “over the years, Canadian classical music
has acquired an unfortunate reputation. It’s boring. It’s ugly. It’s
incomprehensible”. He goes on to say that despite this, some Canadian
composers have succeeded in creating beautiful, fascinating and moving works
which deserve a wider audience.
Far be it from me to
take issue with Dr. Eatock because I know so little about Canadian music
that I’m hardly in a position to comment. However, taking his advice, I
selected one of the six composers he listed - Colin McPhee - and did a bit
Colin McPhee (1900-1964): Nocturne. MusicaNova
(Duration: 07:50; Video: 720p HD)
I couldn’t remember
why McPhee’s name sounded so familiar until I remembered that he was the
first Western composer to take a serious interest in the traditional gamelan
music of Bali. He wrote one of the first books on the subject,
imaginatively entitled Music in Bali which I once owned (the book I
mean, not the island). McPhee was responsible for introducing his friend
Benjamin Britten to Balinese music which is why some of Britten’s later
works like The Prince of the Pagodas and Curlew River have a
distinctly Balinese feeling from time to time.
In his early years,
McPhee studied with the avant-garde French-born composer Edgard Varèse and
was later involved in a group of experimental composers known as the
composition is Tabuh-Tabuhan composed for symphony orchestra
augmented with extra percussion and Balinese gongs and cymbals. He wrote
the work in Mexico in 1936 after four years in Bali engaged in musical
research. Although one of the movements in Tabuh-Tabuhan is entitled
Nocturne this particular Nocturne was written some years later
and explores a similar sound-world but in a more approachable way. The
music makes much use a solo flute, creating a luminous and evocative
soundscape which for me at least, seems to contain reminders of Debussy.
Estacio (b. 1966): Frenergy. Houston Youth Symphony Philharmonia
Alan Isadore (Duration: 05:22; Video: 1080p HD)
couldn’t be more different to McPhee’s dreamy evocation of the Balinese
countryside. The title looks like a typing mistake, but it turns out that
Estacio invented the word as an amalgamation of frenetic and
energy. Frenetic it certainly is, and it rather reminds me of the style
of the American composer John Adams in his use of rhythmic patterns, bright
tonalities and orchestral writing. This is an approachable and rewarding
work which lives up to its title.
Estacio has written
numerous symphonic and operatic works and during the last ten years he has
completed three operas, the first of which was entitled Filumena and
has won numerous awards.
Note for You Tube
watchers: you’ll get the best image for this video if you select the maximum
resolution by clicking on the little gear wheel underneath the main image
and selected the 1080p option.
Incidentally, if you
are still wondering which Six Canadian Composers You Should Know,
Colin Eatock suggests Jean Coulthard, Jacques Hétu, Colin McPhee, Ann
Southam, Claude Vivier and Healey Willan. I wouldn’t describe these as
household names and I bet a lot of Canadians haven’t heard of many of them
either. As a result, there are few recordings of music by these composers
on YouTube. The good news is that there are plenty of interesting examples
by both Colin McPhee and John Estacio but I’ll leave you to seek out their
music yourself. Half the fun of finding something is searching for it.
Sumer is Icumen In
In case you had
forgotten, or possibly never knew, the title is taken from one of the most
famous medieval songs ever composed. It appeared in a collection of
manuscripts from thirteenth-century England, written in old-fashioned square
notation on a staff of five red lines. Strictly speaking, it isn’t actually
a song at all, but a piece called a rota which is similar to a round
although slightly more complicated. It’s also the oldest known musical
composition that uses six-part polyphony so by the standards of the day it
was well ahead of its time, although to modern ears it sounds distinctly
It’s thought that the
work might have been composed by someone variously identified as Willelmo de
Winchecumbe, Willelmus de Winchecumbe or the slightly enigmatic W de Wyc.
By all accounts he was a composer, copyist and sub-deacon at the priory of
Leominster in Herefordshire during the late thirteenth century. He might
even have been a monk but whether he wrote the famous song, well, no one
knows for sure.
The words are in the
old Wessex dialect of Middle English and as different from modern English as
to be virtually incomprehensible. The title of course, means “summer is
arriving” and the jolly song rejoices in the coming of the warmer weather to
the English countryside and especially the arrival of the cuckoo. There are
references to bleating ewes, prancing bullocks and flatulent goats, though
the medieval lyrics use more rustic terminology.
I mention this because
even though the composer’s identity is uncertain, it’s the earliest known
European composition that celebrates the coming of summer. Much more music
on a similar theme was to follow, especially some of the madrigals of the
sixteenth century and the art-songs of the nineteenth, celebrating what
Longfellow later described as “that beautiful season.”
Frank Bridge (1879-1941): Symphonic Poem, Summer.
Cole Conservatory Symphony Orchestra cond. Johannes Müller-Stosch (Duration:
09:27, Video: 720p HD)
Although the music of
the English composer Frank Bridge was once quite popular it has fallen out
of fashion. Bridge was a very active performing musician around the turn of
the last century, playing viola in several string quartets and sometimes
conducting orchestras. Cruel time has revealed the rather acerbic Frank
Bridge, who was also the teacher of Benjamin Britten, to be one of the
lesser stars of the English musical firmament. Bridge’s music is much less
influential than his contemporaries, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst
and Arnold Bax. Even so, his music is beautifully crafted and rich in
is a fine example of his pre-war composing style and written in the fateful
year of 1914, so the joys of that particular summer were fairly
short-lived. It’s composed in an approachable style and perhaps, compared
to what Stravinsky was doing at the time, even a bit old-fashioned. But it
marked a change of style for Bridge because in later years he turned to a
more astringent musical language especially in the Piano Sonata, the Violin
Sonata and the Third and Fourth String Quartets. It was in keeping with
times of course, but in so doing he probably did himself a disservice
because the general concert-going public found his more radical musical
style less approachable. And just in case you’re wondering the Cole
Conservatory of Music is the music school of California State University and
named after its benefactor, an American real-estate investor, music lover
and amateur pianist named Bob Cole.
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869): Les Nuits d’Eté.
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Les Musiciens du Louvre cond. Marc
Minkowski (Duration: c. 31:00, Video: 320p)
I’m guessing here, but
I wouldn’t mind betting that apart from operatic arias, this work is
probably the first example of a collection of songs for voice and orchestra,
paving the way for the great works for voice and orchestra by Gustav Mahler
and Richard Strauss.
is a setting of six poems by the French art critic, journalist, poet and
fiction writer Théophile Gautier. Berlioz originally composed the work for
voices and piano but in 1856 he wrote the full orchestral score, which is
the version usually heard today. The music is charming, attractive, very
French and quite light-hearted for Berlioz who is more often associated with
grander, more serious stuff.
This well-known French
orchestra uses period instruments and it has acquired an international
reputation as one of the best Baroque and Classical ensembles around.
Founded in 1982 by its conductor Marc Minkowski, the ensemble seeks to get
closer to the original sound by using nineteenth century musical
instruments. What we hear on this excellent recording must be pretty close
to what Berlioz had in mind and there’s a lightness of sound and touch that
captures the essence of this delightful music.
Off the beaten track
the most rewarding music can often be found in the byways of musical history
rather than on the historical super-highway. Even as a schoolboy, I was
always more fascinated by the so-called “minor” composers than by the big
names, much to the irritation of my music teacher who held the view that one
should first become acquainted with the standard repertoire. You know the
kind of thing; learn the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies first before
wasting time with obscure blokes like Heller, Volkmann, Litolff and Raff.
But perhaps I just wanted to be different. After all, I played the cello
and cellists are supposed to be different.
the cello has always played an important role in the orchestra, few solo
concertos were written for the instrument before the nineteenth century.
Admittedly, there are a few early cello concertos by Joseph Haydn, Luigi
Boccherini, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and the prolific Antonio Vivaldi - who
churned out twenty-five of them – but at the time, the cello wasn’t really
considered a solo instrument. Perhaps the playing technique had not
developed sufficiently for the technical demands of a concerto. Or perhaps
a single cello couldn’t produce sufficient volume to carry above the sound
of an orchestra, especially in its low register.
the reason, the cello wasn’t recognised as a solo instrument until the
mid-nineteenth century with notable concertos by Schumann (1850),
Saint-Saëns (1872), Lalo (1876) and Dvořák (1894). Even so, compared to the
vast number of violin concertos, those for the cello were pretty thin on the
Incidentally, you may not know that Dvořák wrote two cello concertos. The
famous one is actually the second concerto although rarely described as
such. The composer wrote the first one thirty years earlier but never got
around to completing the orchestration.
Herbert (1859-1924): Cello Concerto No 2.
Michel (vc), Yakima Symphony Orchestra cond. Lawrence Golan (Duration:
21:44, Video: 1080p HD)
who?” you may well ask. Few people needed to ask such a question at the
turn of the twentieth century when Victor Herbert was a big name, best known
for many successful operettas such as Naughty Marietta and Babes
in Toyland. If the second one sounds familiar, it was the title of a
1961 Walt Disney Christmas movie based loosely on Herbert’s 1903 original.
Ireland and raised in Germany, Herbert began his career as a cellist in
Vienna but later he moved to America where his career blossomed as a
conductor and teacher. He conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony from 1898 to
1904 and founded the Victor Herbert Orchestra, which he conducted for the
rest of his life.
was a prolific composer and wrote two operas, over forty operettas and many
works for orchestra, band and solo instruments. The cello concerto is one
of the few of his works still in the repertoire. It was first performed in
March 1894 by the New York Philharmonic with the composer as soloist.
There’s an interesting connection here, because Victor Herbert evidently
drew some of his inspiration from Dvořák’s New World Symphony which
had been first performed the previous year. He even used the same key – E
minor. Dvořák had previously considered the cello unsuitable as a concerto
instrument, but was so impressed by Herbert's music that he had a change of
heart and within months, set to work writing his own.
The inspiration may have come
from the New World Symphony but Herbert’s musical style is very different
and if anything, a little more modern. We hear shades of Herbert’s popular
operetta style in the lovely lyrical slow movement. As the critic Lawrence
Hansen wrote, it’s “an
example of a lesser composer drawing inspiration from a greater one and, in
turn, inspiring his mentor”.
Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978): Cello Concerto in E Minor.
Denis Shapovalov (vc), Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra, cond. Vladimir
Fedoseyev (Duration: 33:52, Video: 1440p HD)
Khachaturian has remained one of the most important Russian composers of the
twentieth century. Between 1936 and 1946 he wrote three concertos for
piano, violin and cello respectively. Oddly enough, the cello concerto is
in that same key of E minor and although it was the last of the three to be
written, it was the first one that Khachaturian had seriously considered.
Even so, it’s probably the least-known of the three and is said to echo
Khachaturian's painful experiences of wartime.
Khachaturian is one of those composers who have their own distinctive
personal sound and while to modern ears, the work sounds perfectly
acceptable with its many reminders of Armenian folk songs and dance rhythms
it wasn’t always thus. In 1946 the work attracted the displeasure of the
Russian authorities because it was considered too “formalistic”, with the
result that Khachaturian was unceremoniously given the old heave-ho from the
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.
Kicking up a storm
Benjamin Britten in 1968. (Photo: Hans Wild)
“Recently there was given a performance of the (new) overture…and all
impartial musicians and music lovers were in perfect agreement that never was
anything as incoherent, shrill, chaotic and ear-splitting produced in music. The
most piercing dissonances clash in a really atrocious harmony and a few puny
ideas only increase the disagreeable and deafening effect.”
This scathing review was written by the German music critic and dramatist August
von Kotzebue and was published in a distinguished Viennese newspaper. It sounds
as though the disgruntled writer is describing some challenging contemporary
work from the early 21st century. But he’s actually describing Beethoven’s
overture to the new opera Fidelio. The date was September 1806. It’s
difficult for us to understand why August von Kotzebue got so frothed up about
it. By today’s standards, the music sounds relatively tame and contains nothing
that you or I would describe as “ear-splitting” let alone “piercing
In spite of this harsh criticism, the overture to Fidelio still remains a
standard work in the concert repertoire over two hundred years later. But you
know, what was once considered avant-garde or even downright outrageous can
often become perfectly acceptable in a later age. Perhaps this reveals more
about society and human nature than it does about art and music.
Anyone who learns the guitar at school soon encounters basic chords like D7 and
G7. They’re known, not surprisingly, as seventh chords and they can be found in
almost any piece of western music written after 1650. The most common variety is
the dominant seventh and it contains a musical entity known as the
tritone. This is the sound produced if you play (for example) a C and an F
sharp at the same time. It sounds innocent enough today, but it was once
considered highly discordant.
It’s thought that during the Middle Ages the tritone was regarded as
symbolising the devil and was forbidden by theorists. In church music the
tritone was conspicuously avoided for several hundred years. By the
eighteenth century though, it had been absorbed into conventional musical styles
and was no longer considered demonic. A storm in a tea-cup, you might say.
The idea of expressing the sound of a storm in music goes back a good many
years, but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century - when larger orchestras began
to develop - that more and more composers started emulating the sounds of nature
in their music. Beethoven evoked a thunderstorm in his Pastoral Symphony
and Berlioz did much the same thing in his opera The Trojans. Both
Tchaikovsky and Sibelius wrote stormy overtures entitled The Tempest
derived from Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976): Four Sea Interludes. BBC
Symphony Orchestra cond. Sakari Oramo (Duration: 16:35, Video: 720p HD)
If Britten had followed in his father’s footsteps, he would have become a
dentist. Instead, he became the central figure of twentieth-century British
classical music. He was born in the fishing port of Lowestoft in Suffolk and
remained close to the sea all his life.
In his first opera Peter Grimes (1945), the music seems to evoke the
bleak seas and skies of the eastern coast of England. The Four Sea Interludes
come from the orchestral interludes in the opera and oddly enough, this work has
become more popular than the opera itself. From the opening moments, you can
sense the cold North Sea in the early hours of the morning. But even during the
haunting flute melodies, there’s a brooding, uncomfortable sense of foreboding.
The sea dominates the music but you’ll have to wait until the last movement (at
12:09) for the storm. And what a storm it is! It’s a ferocious tempest with
endless explosions of thunder, a crashing sea and a fearsome wind shrieking
through the ship’s rigging.
Thomas Adès (b. 1971): Overture “The Tempest” Op.
22a. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe cond. Thomas Adès (Duration: 04:48, Video:
If Britten’s storm is a Force 9 gale, this one is a Force 12 hurricane. Thomas
Adès was born in London and has a formidable list of works to his credit
including two operas. The overture is from his opera The Tempest based of
course, on the Shakespeare play and in the overture, Adès creates a storm of
Compared to this mind-shattering tempest, the thunder-storm that appears in
Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is more like a summer shower. Adès pushes
dissonance pretty well to the limits in this exciting work but brings it to a
satisfying and peaceful conclusion. One cannot help wondering what poor old
August von Kotzebue, who found Beethoven so difficult to stomach, would have
made of it all. He would have probably staggered out of the concert hall with
his ears bleeding.