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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update June 27, 2015

Canada Dry

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 of searching.

Colin McPhee (1900-1964): Nocturne.  MusicaNova
Orchestra cond.
Warren Cohen
(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 “ultra-modernists”. 

McPhee’s best-known 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.

John Estacio (b. 1966): Frenergy.  Houston Youth Symphony Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Michael Alan Isadore (Duration: 05:22; Video: 1080p HD)

Estacio’s sound-world 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.

Update June 20, 2015

Sumer is Icumen In

Frank Bridge.

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 medieval.

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 haunting imagery.

Summer 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.

Summer Nights 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.

Update June 13, 2015

Off the beaten track

Victor Herbert.

Some of 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.

Although 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.

Whatever 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 ground.

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. 

Victor Herbert (1859-1924): Cello Concerto No 2. John Michel (vc), Yakima Symphony Orchestra cond. Lawrence Golan (Duration: 21:44, Video: 1080p HD) 

“Victor 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.

Born in 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.

Herbert 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)

Aram 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 Composers Union.

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.

Update June 6, 2015

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 dissonances”.

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: 480p)

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 Biblical proportions.

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.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Canada Dry

Sumer is Icumen In

Off the beaten track

Kicking up a storm