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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update July 25, 2015

Take me to your Lieder

Robert Schumann (circa 1850).

People have been singing songs for thousands of years and songs can probably be found in almost every culture on Earth.  In their simplest form songs are just melodies, usually with words attached.  The earliest were almost certainly unaccompanied.

Songs written by classical composers (and here I use the word “classical” in its loosest sense) are fundamentally different from songs in popular and folk cultures.  For a start art songs, as they’re often called, are nearly always written for voice and piano, but more importantly they’re musical settings of independent poems which previously existed in their own right.  More often than not, art songs are intended for “a classical recital in a relatively formal social occasion”.  The last bit is quoted from Wikipedia, because it rather neatly hits the nail on the head.

Although art songs had been written for generations, notably by John Dowland and Thomas Campion in England, the Great Age of Song occurred in Germany during the nineteenth century, which is why the German word “lieder” (LEE-duh) is often used to describe them.  The enormous flowering of Germanic romanticism provided perfect conditions for the art song to flourish.  And flourish it did, especially in the hands of Franz Schubert whose six hundred songs explore a range of romantic ideas.  Schubert developed the idea of the song cycle – a collection of individual numbers loosely linked through some kind of non-musical idea, thus paving the way for Schumann, Wolf, and many others.

As the nineteenth century wore on, orchestral music became increasingly popular in Europe partly because more orchestras were appearing in the burgeoning cities.  Furthermore, orchestras were slowly shifting from the royal courts to public concert halls.  Some composers who had written song cycles for voice and piano arranged their work for voice and orchestra, notably Hector Berlioz and later Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss.  Of course, the concept of voice with orchestra wasn’t particularly new because it was well-established in opera.   

Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Dichterliebe. Matthew Worth (baritone), Shai Wosner (pno) (Duration: 28:47; Video: 1080p HD)

Schumann wrote several song cycles in 1840, notably Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love), which was to become his best-known.  It was composed in a matter of days and consists of sixteen settings of poems by Heinrich Heine, one of the great German writers of the time.  Nowadays, the work is nearly always performed by a male singer but it was actually dedicated to the once-famous soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient.  She achieved more fame (or possibly notoriety) after her death with two volumes describing her erotic adventures, the second of which explores sexual activities that really shouldn’t be mentioned in a family newspaper.  Some people have uncharitably suggested that she made the whole thing up.  Even so, the book became Germany’s most famous work of erotic literature (if such it can be called), and was published in English under the quaint title Pauline the Prima Donna.  The contents are anything but quaint and if such unwholesome things interest you, an English translation can be read online, but it’s pretty strong stuff.  Or so I’m told.

Schumann’s song cycle is chaste in comparison and he takes a novel approach to the setting of Heine’s verses.  He adapts the words of the poems to his musical needs, sometimes repeating phrases and often rewording a line of text to give the desired effect.  The piano part sometimes reflects the mood of the text, yet at other times it seems that the music and the text are at odds with each other using harmonies that must have seemed quite advanced at the time.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911):  Rückert Lieder. Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano), Lucerne Festival Orchestra, cond. Claudio Abbado (Duration: 20:10; Video: 720p HD)

Mahler was one of the great names of the late romantic movement and Rückert-Lieder is a song cycle based on poems written by the German poet and linguist Friedrich Rückert.  He was best-known as a translator of Oriental poetry and was a master of thirty different languages.  His own poetry was much admired and set by many composers including Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Richard Strauss, Hindemith, Bartók and Berg.  As a composer, Gustav Mahler always had a close relationship with song and one of his remarkable skills was the ability to convey subtle emotions with what appear to be relatively simple melodic lines.

Unlike some of his gargantuan orchestral works, this one uses a comparatively small orchestra and Mahler accompanies the lyrical songs with delicate orchestral scoring.  The size and instrumentation varies from song to song, but gives the listener a glimpse of the composer’s masterful orchestration skills.  This is a fine performance too, with a legendary Italian conductor and a superb Czech soprano. 

Update July 18, 2015

Sweet dances

Bartók’s high-school-graduation photo, 1899.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not much good at dancing.  Not much good at all.  To be honest, I am completely useless at dancing and would have a better chance of parsing Sanskrit rather than doing the waltz.

I blame my old secondary school.  Oh yes, they used to teach us how to dance, especially before the Christmas social evenings but because the medieval gramophone rarely worked, I got the job of playing the piano, being the only one in the class who could make a decent job of it.  So while the other spotty teens were stumbling about in the school hall learning all the steps, I was stuck at the piano.  On reflection, it probably didn’t matter very much because not many people these days do the waltz, let alone the Boston Two Step.

Perhaps the human body was meant for dancing, except mine of course.  Dance has been part of ceremony, ritual and celebration for thousands of years.  Archaeologists have traced dance back to around 3,000 BC and its origins may be even earlier.  I wouldn’t mind betting that some of the earliest forms of dance, especially those for ceremonial or religious purposes might have existed without any kind of musical assistance.

In more modern times, the concept of dance without music is difficult to imagine and for the last couple of millennia music and dance have become inextricably linked.  Since Baroque times, composers have turned to dance music for ideas and inspiration.  Dance suites have been popular since the early seventeenth century and remained popular with composers ever since.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945): Dance Suite. Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, cond. Ingo Metzmacher (Duration: 16:22; Video: 720p HD)

Hungarian tourist guides are fond of telling everyone that their capital city was once made up of two separate towns.  Buda is the old aristocratic town on the hill overlooking the Danube and Pest lies on the flat land on the opposite side of the river.  The two towns were officially merged in 1873 and with a flash of original thinking were re-named Budapest.

In 1923, the city council threw an enormous party to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the merger.  To bring a sense of gravitas to the event, the council decided to stage a grand concert for which the country’s leading composers were commissioned to contribute new works.  One of them was Béla Bartók, who composed the Dance Suite for the occasion.  He was extremely unhappy about the performance and afterwards wrote that “it was so badly performed that it couldn’t achieve any significant success.  As usual, rehearsal time was much too short, so the performance sounded like a sight-reading, and a poor one at that.” 

Bartók had to wait another two years until the work got the performance it deserved – in Prague, as it turned out.  The work was rapturously received and during the following years it was played all over Europe.  It probably did more for Bartók’s reputation than all his previous works put together.

Bartók had been studying and recording folk music since 1905 and although the melodies in the Dance Suite speak of Eastern Europe they are entirely Bartók’s own invention.  The work is full of typical Hungarian rhythms and along with his popular Concerto for Orchestra, it makes an excellent introduction to the music of this titan of the twentieth century. 

The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin was founded in 1946 by American occupation forces and called the RIAS-Symphonie-Orchester.  The acronym stands for Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor and in1956 it was renamed the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and in 1993 assumed its present name.  The Orchestra’s first principal conductor was Ferenc Fricsay whose distinguished son lives in Pattaya.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990):  Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story”.  Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela cond. Gustavo Dudamel (Duration: 23:04; Video: 480p)

West Side Story was inspired partly by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  The story is set in New York City in the mid-1950s and explores the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds.  Dance plays a crucial role in the musical and it contains some wonderful melodies presented with brilliant orchestration.

Contrary to popular belief, the Symphonic Dances were not actually orchestrated by the composer although he closely supervised the process.  He wrote the score of the original stage production, but later appointed several people, among them the professional orchestrators Irwin Kostal and Sid Ramin to scale up the music from a theatre band to a huge symphony orchestra.

Vibrant instrumental combinations and a huge percussion section are used to enhance the music.  It is truly exciting stuff and it includes all the well-known numbers from the show.  If you have fond memories of West Side Story, I am sure you’ll enjoy this version played by this superb orchestra.

Update July 11, 2015

Intimate voices


Hildegard von Bingen. (Karlheinz Oswald, 1998)

There was a time when music was much quieter than it is today. Before the eleventh century most music consisted of a single unaccompanied vocal melody. The so-called Gregorian chant was just this. It appeared during the ninth century and was supposed to have been invented by Pope St. Gregory the Great, or so the story goes. Many of these haunting melodies are strangely beautiful.

By the twelfth century composers gradually caught on to the idea of adding extra vocal parts, at first just a single sustained drone-like note below the melody. This added musical interest and gave the music a sense of tonality. It was music for contemplation and by today’s standards it was exceptionally quiet, sung in an ecclesiastical setting by small groups of men and boys. Musical instruments didn’t come on to the scene in western religious music until a good many years later.

We know the names of only a few dozen composers from those far-off medieval times and the manuscripts which still exist represent only a fraction of the music composed to meet the growing needs of church and court. One of the most remarkable composers of the day was also accomplished in poetry, theology, the visual arts and the natural sciences and was also one of the few women composers whose name graces the pages of musical history. When relatively few women could even read, Hildegard of Bingen wrote books about theology, botany and medicine and also found time to write liturgical songs. In October 2012, Pope Benedict XVI named Hildegard a Doctor of the Church, a title which is evidently more important than it sounds.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179): Ave generosa. Arreanna Rostosky (soloist), UCLA Early Music Ensemble. (Duration: 05:03; Video: 1080p HD)

Saint Hildegard of Bingen was born to aristocratic parents, not in Bingen as you might reasonably assume, but about seventy miles to the south in Bermersheim. The youngest of ten children she was evidently a rather sickly child and from early childhood claimed to have visions. Perhaps because of this, her parents packed her off to the church where she seemed to thrive. In later years, as a Benedictine abbess, Hildegard founded the monasteries of Rupertsberg and Eibingen. She was among the most powerful and influential people of her time, consulted by bishops, popes and kings. Her scientific books contain more than two thousand remedies and health suggestions and she described how trees and plants could be used for healing.

Throughout her life, Hildegard saw visions and heard voices but because her visions were usually accompanied by illness, one can’t help wondering whether there might have been some connection. Hildegard certainly had an original musical style, characterized by wide vocal ranges, large melodic leaps and florid melodies. Nearly all her music consists of a single melody in a chant-like style but it remained in obscurity until the late twentieth century, when there was a revival of interest in her work.

Ave generosa is a song dedicated to the Virgin Mary and although Hildegard’s musical style is evident - especially her use of soaring melodies - the music clearly belongs to the early middle ages with its single melody and drone-like sustained tone. But my heavens, it is astonishing how this extraordinary music still speaks to us from across the centuries.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594): Missa Papae Marcelli. The Tallis Scholars (Duration: 33:04; Video 480p)

Oddly enough, here’s another composer whose name has become attached to the name of a town, in this case the ancient city and commune of Palestrina which lies about thirty miles east of Rome. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina is the best-known of the Italian Renaissance composers and he had a huge impact on the development of church music. He certainly wrote plenty of it: over a hundred masses, three hundred motets over thirty magnificats and countless other compositions.

Missa Papae Marcelli, or Pope Marcellus Mass, is one of Palestrina’s most well-known works. It was probably written around 1562, composed in honour of Pope Marcellus II, who had the distinction of being Pope for just twenty-two days. (He died, since you asked.)

Of course, musically things had moved on from the days of Hildegard von Bingen. This work is written for six independent voices and you’ll probably notice a sense of smoothness to the sound. This is one of the main features of Palestrina’s music, achieved partly by placing dissonant sounds on weak beats and also by crafting his melodies with care. Even today, advanced students of music theory are required to write exercises in “the Palestrina style”, observing the strict rules of species counterpoint that were laid down in the 18th century by Johann Joseph Fux. In case you’re wondering, his name is pronounced “Fooks” and species counterpoint is as difficult as it sounds, I can tell you.

Update July 4, 2015

Great Danes

Carl Nielsen in 1884.

If you are over a certain age, you may recall a recording that was released in the 1950s and remained popular for many years afterwards.  The Singing Dogs was not, as some people probably assumed at the time, a canine barking troupe but was actually a recording project by Carl Weismann, an amateur Danish ornithologist who spent much of his time recording bird calls.

In the 1950s, tape recording was pretty much in its infancy having been developed in Germany during the previous decade.  One of the major advantages of using tape was that with the aid of a razor blade, some sticky tape and an editing block you could literally cut out any unwanted sounds.  On many occasions, Weismann had to remove intrusive dog-barks from his bird recordings, and he eventually came up with a novel idea for using all the lengths of wasted tape.

Wandering around the streets of Copenhagen, Weismann made dozens of recordings of various dogs barking at different pitches, then he carefully spliced together the most suitable, giving the impression that the dogs were actually barking out a melody.  It must have been an arduous and time-consuming task, but with the assistance of record producer Don Charles who supplied the backing tracks, the first record was released in 1955 and eventually became a huge hit in Europe and America.

It’s just occurred to me that if you are a dog person you might be under the impression that this week’s column has a canine theme.  Well, I’m afraid that I have misled you and it’s actually about Danish classical music.  I’m terribly sorry if this revelation has ruined your day, but sometimes life can be a challenge.

The first Danish composer with any claim to greatness was the seventeenth-century Dieterich Buxtehude.  History doesn’t record whether or not he had a dog, but his music made a great impression on Bach.  Ask any concert-goers to name a Danish person who wrote music and they’ll probably come up with Carl Nielsen, generally considered to be the country’s greatest composer.

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931): Aladdin Suite Op. 34. The Karol Szymanowski Youth Symphony Orchestra cond. Szymon Bywalec (Duration: 16:33; Video 1080p HD)

Nielsen achieved his first success with Suite for Strings (1888) but by the time he started to write the music for Aladdin he was already an established musician.  It was intended for a new production to be performed at The Royal Theatre in Copenhagen in February 1919.  Nielsen composed much of the music in Denmark’s seaside town of Skagen during the summer of 1918.  The original score runs for over eighty minutes but unfortunately the rehearsals were marred by endless clashes between Nielsen and the director Johannes Poulsen.  As it turned out, the production was not much of a success and it closed after only fifteen performances.

The composer often conducted various movements from Aladdin on his concert tours.  This splendid performance is by one of the winning orchestras at the Polish Nationwide Music Schools’ Symphonic Orchestras Competition in 2014.  In this version, there are four movements, beginning with the rousing Oriental Festival March.

Following a major heart attack, Nielsen died in a Hamburg hospital surrounded by his family who had dutifully assembled in his room.  His last words to them were evidently “You’re standing there as though you’re waiting for something.”

Hans Christian Lumbye (1810–1874): Copenhagen Steam Railway Galop. Vienna Philharmonic cond. Mariss Jansons (Duration: 04:50; Video 480p)

Hans Christian Lumbye was a contemporary of his namesake, the more well-known but slightly peculiar Hans Christian Andersen.  As a young man, Lumbye played trumpet in a military band and at the age of nineteen joined the Horse Guards in Copenhagen.  He was also a talented violinist and after hearing a Viennese orchestra play music by Johann Strauss the Elder, he decided to set up a similar orchestra of his own and then started composing waltzes, polkas, mazurkas and gallops, blatantly copying Strauss’s musical style.  His music became so popular that the composer eventually earned the nickname “The Strauss of the North”.

For thirty years, Lumbye and his orchestra were associated with the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, where he was the music director and resident composer.  He’s best known for his light-hearted compositions, many of which like the Champagne Galop use sound-effects. 

The Copenhagen Steam Railway Galop was written in 1847 to celebrate the inauguration of the first Danish railway line between Copenhagen and Roskilde.  With the aid of bells, whistles, scrapers and assorted percussion instruments, the music recreates the sounds of a train chugging out of a station and eventually coming to a halt at its destination.  Perhaps it all seems a bit simplistic by today’s standards, but in the nineteenth century these jolly sound effects must have delighted the audiences of the day.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Take me to your Lieder

Sweet dances

Intimate voices

Great Danes