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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update August 29, 2015

Once upon a time

Tchaikovsky in the late 1880s.

Last week I was chatting with a couple of friends at a local coffee house and the subject turned, as it so often does, to music.  To be more specific, it turned to time signatures – those two numbers which look like a fraction and appear at the beginning of almost every piece of printed music.  The top number tells you the number of beats in every measure or “bar”, to use the British term.  Most western music falls naturally into groups of two, three or four beats and printed music nearly always uses vertical lines to divide the music visually into separate measures which reflect these natural groupings.  It simply makes it easier to read.  Most western pop songs have four beats per measure.  Waltzes and minuets have three beats in every measure, polkas have two and marches have either two or four.

But of course, there’s more to music than pop songs, waltzes, minuets, polkas and marches.  You may for example, recall that jazz number Take Five made famous by the Dave Brubeck Quartet.  It was written in 5/4 time with five beats in each measure, hence the title of the song.  Although irregular meters are unusual in Western music, they’re often found in the traditional music of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Greece and Turkey where five, eleven, thirteen or fifteen beats per measure are not unusual.  In fact, Dave Brubeck got the idea of using irregular meters after hearing Turkish street musicians and went on to record many jazz pieces that used irregular meters.  You might also recall the old television series Mission Impossible in which the pounding theme music, composed by Lalo Schifrin, was also in 5/4 time.

As early as 1828 Chopin used 5/4 time for the third movement of his first piano sonata and irregular meters appeared more frequently towards the end of the nineteenth century.  During the twentieth century, irregular meters became increasingly popular among composers and Igor Stravinsky used them often, sometimes changing the time signature many times during the course of a piece.  The heroic closing section of The Firebird has seven beats per measure and so has Khachaturian’s famous Sabre Dance.  In Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, the second movement first sounds like a waltz, but listen closely and you can hear distinctly that the meter falls into groups of five.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Symphony No.6 (Pathétique) 2nd movement. Vienna Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (Duration: 08:55; Video: 480p)

This work dates from the last year of the composer’s life and was given its first performance to an enthusiastic audience in October 1893 with the composer himself conducting.  The symphony is a powerful and emotional statement which, uncharacteristically for Tchaikovsky, ends extremely quietly in a minor key.

The composer, then at the peak of his career, died only nine days after the first performance giving rise to rumours that the work contained some kind of hidden messages.  Rimsky-Korsakov had evidently asked Tchaikovsky whether there was a hidden meaning behind the work and Tchaikovsky asserted that there was, but preferred to keep it to himself. The slow movement, a romantic sweeping sort of waltz with a haunting middle section, is given an odd twist by writing it with five beats in each measure rather than three.  It must have puzzled the audience and given rise to even further speculation as to what the symphony was all about.

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959): Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9. Brazilian Symphony Orchestra cond. Roberto Minczuk (Duration: 09:30; Video: 720p)

Stravinsky once asked, “Why is it that whenever I hear a piece of music I don’t like, it’s always by Villa Lobos?”  The colourful, cigar-smoking Heitor Villa-Lobos was once described as “the single most significant creative figure in 20th-century.”  Stravinsky would no doubt have disagreed, but Villa-Lobos remains Brazil’s best known and most cherished composer.  He was largely self-taught and composed over two thousand works which draw heavily on elements of Brazilian folk music.

Bachianas Brasileiras consists of nine suites for various combinations of instruments and voices.  The final suite is for string orchestra and takes the form of a Prelude and Fugue.  The prelude, with sustained strings and haunting viola solo leads into a lively rhythmic fugue with eleven beats per measure and a time signature 11/8.  This is not as daunting as it appears, because irregular meters nearly always sub-divide into smaller groups of beats. Take Five for example, subdivides into three plus two beats throughout and Gustav Holst’s Mars, the Bringer or War which is also mostly in 5/4 time does the same. 

Incidentally, at the local market last week, a lively instrumental piece from Issan was played over the loudspeakers.  I couldn’t help noticing that if someone had the time and the inclination to write it all out, the correct time signature would have been a rather scary-looking 24/16.

Update August 22, 2015

Stars of the guitar

Rising star: Hitoshi Miyashita.
(Photo/Khanuengnit Thongbaion)

Right then.  Here’s today’s quiz question, so sit up straight and try to look as though you’re interested.  Can you name some of the world’s top classical guitarists?  You probably know the name of Andrés Segovia even if you’ve only a passing interest in classical music.  In Britain, Julian Bream carried the flag for years and the Australian John Williams, not to be confused with the film-music composer, is considered one of technical masters of the guitar.

You may have come across Narciso Yepes too.  He was given his first guitar when he was only four years old and later had lessons three times a week, travelling five miles there and back on a donkey.  That’s dedication for you.  There’s also Pepe Romero who was also a fine flamenco player and although there are other brilliant guitar players around, as far as international stars are concerned that’s probably about it.  Compared to pianists, singers and conductors the list isn’t very long, so there’s probably room for a few more.

The origins of the guitar go back to the lute and the Spanish vihuela.  Renaissance and Baroque guitars were more elongated than the modern instrument and used double strings called “courses”.  Each pair of strings was tuned to the same note and plucked simultaneously producing a bright sound, rich in overtones.  Although some guitars had up to six courses (a total of twelve strings), during the seventeenth century the four-course guitar was probably the most popular.  These double-stringed instruments must have been killers to tune and they eventually fell out of fashion, giving way to single-stringed guitars.

The second half of the eighteenth century saw the appearance of numerous player-composers, notably Ferdinando Carulli, Fernando Sor and Mauro Giuliani.  The father of modern guitar playing technique is considered to be Francisco Tárrega, one of the great virtuosos and teachers of the late nineteenth century.  The famous little melody which is heard on Nokia mobile phones is taken from one of his many guitar compositions. 

The classical guitar repertoire is enormous and although much of it consists of solo works, there are a good many concertos too.  Rodrigo’s two concertos have justifiably become the most familiar, along with those of Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Mauro Giuliani, Villa-Lobos and the Mexican composer Manuel Ponce.

Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829): Guitar Concerto No 1 in A major. Armin Egger (gtr) Taipei Century Symphony Orchestra cond. David Liao (Duration: 32.14; Video: 360p)

Rejoicing in the name of Mauro Giuseppe Sergio Pantaleo Giuliani, he was the leading guitar virtuoso of the early 19th century.  He lived in interesting times because the so-called classical period was drawing to a close and many composers were turning away from what must have seemed increasingly old-fashioned.  Giuliani was an almost exact contemporary of Beethoven with whom he was acquainted, along with some of the most influential people in Austria’s high society.

He wrote over a hundred and fifty works for guitar which form the core of early nineteenth-century guitar music.  This concerto - the first of three - harmonically and stylistically seems to reflect the spirit of the times, especially in the delightfully sunny and joyful last movement.  It was first performed in Vienna in 1808 with Giuliani himself as soloist and it received a warm ovation from the audience.  According to those who heard him play, his expression and tone were astonishing.  In the words of one writer, “he made the instrument sing”.

Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006): Guitar Concerto, Op. 67. Hitoshi Miyashita (gtr), Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Alfonso Scarano (Duration: 23:35; Video: 480p)

This work dates from 1959 and was commissioned by Julian Bream.  Like so much of Arnold’s music it shows subdued influences of jazz and although he wrote nine symphonies, seven ballets and two operas he’s probably best-known for his film music.  He composed 132 film scores and won an Academy Award for the music to David Lean’s movie The Bridge on the River Kwai which was filmed not in Thailand as was generally supposed, but in Sri Lanka.

This performance features the talented young Thai-Japanese guitarist, Hitoshi Miyashita.  Born in Phuket, Hitoshi began his guitar studies at the age of twelve with Wanchai Saiwilai and won a scholarship to the Young Artist Program at Mahidol University’s College of Music.  He currently studies with Dr. Paul Cesarcyzk and has already given performances in Germany, Japan, Nepal, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Taiwan.

Although Hitoshi says that he’s “not a trophy hunter” he’s won many awards at guitar competitions in Spain, India, Russia, Tokyo and the Philippines as well as in his native Thailand.  He recently won a scholarship to study at the prestigious University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, starting this October.  Hitoshi is one of the rising stars of the classical guitar but at least, unlike Narciso Yepes, he won’t have to travel to his guitar lessons on the back of a donkey.

Update August 15, 2015

Puppet on a String

Salzburg Marionette Theatre.

If you are over a certain age, you may recall this song from the Swinging Sixties.  It was made famous by Sandy Shaw after winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 1967, remaining at the top of the British pop music charts for three weeks.  Sandy Shaw (whose real name was Sandra Ann Goodrich) evidently loathed it and once said that she “hated it from the very first oom-pah to the final bang on the bass drum.”  She was “instinctively repelled by its sexist drivel and cuckoo-clock tune.”

Incidentally, in 1964 Elvis Presley recorded a song also called Puppet on a String, but it was a syrupy mawkish ballad with breathtakingly vapid lyrics that could have been written by a horse.  The other day, I was amazed to discover that the Eurovision Song Contest is still going strong since its first airing in 1956.

The art of making and manipulating puppets probably originated at least three or four thousand years ago in what is now India.  It’s thought that puppetry eventually appeared in almost all human societies both as a form of entertainment and as a form of ritual.  The early Christian church used puppets to perform morality plays and gave us the word marionette (meaning “little Mary”) referring to the tiny models of the Virgin Mary used in the plays.  During the eighteenth century puppetry flourished all over Europe and the technology developed too.  Marionettes eventually had up to eight strings to allow a wide range of movements.

At the same time, marionette operas became popular and Haydn wrote about half a dozen specifically for the Royal Marionette Theatre when he was in the employment of the fabulously wealthy Prince Esterhazy.  Today, there are marionette theatres in several European cities but the Salzburg Marionette Theatre is one of the best-known.  Founded in 1913, it’s one of the oldest continuing marionette theatres in the world and performs a large repertoire of operas, ballets and other productions for both children and adults.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) Salzburg Marionette Theatre. Various soloists, London Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Carlo Maria Guilini (Duration: 01:52:56; Video 360p)

This a complete performance of Mozart’s popular comic opera which was first performed at the Burgtheater in Vienna in 1786.  Mozart himself directed the performance from the keyboard, as was the custom in those days.  It was well-received by the Viennese audience and it ran for nine performances, but this pales in comparison with The Magic Flute which ran every other day for several months.

The fascinating marionette performance in this video uses Guilini’s well-known 1950s recording and the scenes are introduced by Sir Peter Ustinov, who brings his own brand of insight and humour to explain the convoluted plot.  In this performance marionettes play the roles of humans, but in Stravinsky’s Petrushka the situation is reversed with ballet dancers playing the roles of puppets.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Petrushka (original 1911 version). National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain cond. Edward Gardner (Duration: 34:19; Video: 720p HD)

Stravinsky achieved international recognition with three ballets commissioned by the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev.  They were premiered in Paris by Diaghilev’s own company, Ballets Russes.  In an incredible frenzy of creative activity, The Firebird appeared in 1910, Petrushka in 1911 and The Rite of Spring in 1913.  This work was so ahead of its time that it caused a near-riot at the first performance, but it was to become the most influential orchestral work of the twentieth century.

The composer had originally conceived Petrushka for the concert hall but Diaghilev immediately realized its theatrical potential as a ballet.  Petrushka is a rather charmless folk character who has been around for a good many years.  He may have had his origins in the Italian masked comedies of the sixteenth century in which he was known as Pulcinella.  In Great Britain he was transformed from a marionette to a hand-puppet called Punch, the villain of traditional Punch and Judy shows.

The ballet tells the story of the loves and jealousies of three puppets magically brought to life by a showman during the Shrovetide Fair in Saint Petersburg.  At the first performance, the title role was danced by the great Vaslav Nijinsky and the performance conducted by Pierre Monteux.

One of the interesting musical devices that Stravinsky used has become known as the Petrushka chord and it’s employed to announce the appearance of Petrushka himself.  It consists of the chords C major and F sharp major played together which harmonically is about as far as two chords can be from one another.  Perhaps this might sound a bit daunting but actually the music is tuneful and approachable, full of lively rhythms and of course, it sizzles with Stravinsky’s brilliant orchestration.

This performance was recorded last year at the Proms and these young British musicians give a thrilling account of the colourful work.

Update August 7, 2015

Music of the Mountains


Modest Mussorgsky in1870.

During the late 1950s a new name unexpectedly appeared on the British popular music scene.  It was Manuel and the Music of the Mountains and the group recorded about thirty LPs over the following years, including a surprising number of hits.  It was an original concept, contrasting the clunky sounds of folk-like South-American instruments with lush orchestral strings.  Many people must have imagined Manuel as a mustachioed Peruvian in a poncho, thoughtfully strumming a charango in his mountain village.

But sadly, Manuel didn’t exist.  Neither did the mountains.  Manuel was the pseudonym of the British band-leader Geoff Love who recorded the titles in London with a studio orchestra.  He was an exceptional band arranger, jazz player and composer of easy-listening music.  Under the name Manuel, he popularized the slow movement of Rodrigo’s guitar concerto, which he served up in a Hollywood-style arrangement of saccharine sweetness with soaring strings and obligatory rhythm section.  In 1975, the recording was released as a single and by the following year it had reached the top of the charts.

Mountains have often stirred the imagination of artists and composers especially since the dawn of the Romantic era.  The Czech composer Vítezslav Novák wrote a Symphonic poem entitled In the Tatra Mountains and the French composer Vincent d’Indy wrote the Symphony on a French Mountain Air as well as a vast symphonic poem entitled Jour d’été à la Montagne.  Then there was the American composer Alan Hovhaness whose Second Symphony is called Mysterious Mountain

There are probably dozens of other examples but mention “mountains” to classical music followers and they’ll probably remember a work by a Russian composer who wanted to create a musical picture of a witches’ Sabbath on St. John’s Eve.  The setting was a stormy night on a bleak mountain and the composer was twenty-eight at the time.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881): A Night on Bare Mountain. National Youth Orchestra of Spain cond. José Serebrier (Duration: 10:06; Video: 480p)

The original Russian title translates literally as Saint John’s Eve on Bald Mountain, but it’s known by a number of alternative titles in English.  For some years, Mussorgsky had been toying with the idea of composing something on the subject of Gogol’s short story, St. John’s Eve. 

Mussorgsky (whose name has alternative spellings) began writing this orchestral piece at the beginning of June 1867 and strangely enough, completed it on the eve of St. John’s Day, 23rd June.  Even more strangely, his original score was not published until a hundred years later in 1968.  There was of course, a reason.  Shortly after Mussorgsky’s premature death (caused largely by excessive booze) his friends prepared some of his manuscripts for publication in an attempt to preserve them for posterity.  Most of the editing work was done Rimsky-Korsakov, who in 1886 produced his edition of the work to which he had characteristically made improvements to the original.  This version has been used for most concert performances ever since.  Only in recent years has there been interest in Mussorgsky’s original score.

Millions of people heard this work through yet another version in the Walt Disney 1940 animated movie, Fantasia.  It was arranged by the conductor Leopold Stokowski and this is the version played by the National Youth Orchestra of Spain directed by the Uruguayan conductor and composer, José Serebrier.  And here’s an interesting connection: Serebrier was once Stokowski’s associate conductor.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949): An Alpine Symphony. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Bernard Haitink
(Duration: 56:37; Video: 1080p HD)

This powerful work dates from 1915 and was the last symphonic poem that Strauss composed.  By this time, Strauss was at the height of his fame, especially as an opera composer and although he called the work a “symphony” it doesn’t follow the conventional symphonic structure.  Instead, it consists of twenty-two short continuous sections depicting the experiences of eleven hours spent climbing an Alpine mountain.  It was inspired by the composer’s participation in a real mountaineering expedition in his youth, during which his luckless party managed to lose its way on the way up the mountain and met with a terrifying thunderstorm on the way down. 

The work requires an enormous orchestra which includes an organ, two sets of timpani, extensive percussion and a wind machine.  An in case you’re wondering, the wind machine doesn’t actually produce wind, merely the sound of it.  Incidentally, Richard Strauss (who was German) was no relation of the Strauss family of waltz fame (who were Austrian).

The premiere was given in Berlin with Strauss himself conducting and although he was evidently pleased with the performance, some critics were not impressed.  Nevertheless, the work has stood the test of time and it shows Richard Strauss as a superb orchestrator.  It’s one of the finest examples of brilliantly coloured, almost cinematic musical tone-painting and includes one of the most thrilling storm sequences ever written.

Update August 1, 2015

The Ox on the Roof

Darius Milhaud (circa 1920).

It’s not often you come across a restaurant named after a piece of classical music, but there’s one in Paris which has a particular claim to fame.  The story began when the French composer Darius Milhaud (MEE-oh) was working in Brazil from 1917 to 1919 not as a musician as you might expect, but as secretary to the French Ambassador to Brazil, Paul Claudel who also happened to be an eminent poet and dramatist.  They collaborated for several years and Milhaud set many of Claudel’s poems to music.  Milhaud was captivated by the vibrant popular music of Brazil and especially with a popular tango entitled in Portuguese O Boi no Telhado, which the composer translated as Le Bœuf sur le Toit.

Returning to Paris in 1919, Milhaud wrote the score for a surrealist comical ballet of the same name, using Brazilian popular songs and dances.  This was the beginning of the Roaring Twenties, known in France as the années folles , when Paris was probably the most influential and insatiable cultural centre in the world. 

Milhaud and his composer friends had earlier formed a group called Les Six, the most-well known being Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc and of course Milhaud himself.  They met at a popular artists’ bar called La Gaya in rue Duphot, which connects rue Saint Honoré with the majestic Boulevard des Capucines.  The presence of Milhaud, Cocteau and their intellectual entourage made La Gaya immensely popular and in 1921 when the bar relocated, the owner renamed it Le Bœuf sur le toit, presumably to ensure that Milhaud and his crowd would continue to patronize it.

And patronize it they did, together with dozens of other distinguished customers and hangers-on.  Anyone who was anyone showed up there at some point, including Coco Chanel, Charlie Chaplin, Maurice Chevalier, Jean Cocteau, Ernest Hem­mingway (of course) and Igor Stravinsky.  From the day it opened, Le Boeuf was the epicenter of cultural Paris.  Not surprisingly, most people erroneously assumed that the ballet, which had become hugely popular, was named after the bar, not the other way around.

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974): Le Bœuf sur le toit. Orchestre de Paris cond. Alondra de la Parra (Duration: 19:02; Video: 420p)

This exuberant, unbridled music is almost a sound-picture of The Roaring Twenties and will brighten the greyest of days.  You get the impression of a selection of scenes pasted together like the contents of a scrapbook and this is partly where its charm lies.

Much of Milhaud’s music is influenced by jazz and popular song, and he often used a technique known as polytonality, in which parts of the music are written in more than one key simultaneously to create a vaguely bizarre effect.  You can hear an example at 00:31, near the beginning of the piece when the flutes are clearly playing in a different key to the rest of the orchestra.

The work was first performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in February 1920 with a scenario by Jean Cocteau and stage designs by Raoul Dufy.  The ballet is set in a bar and instead of a story-line consists of a sequence of scenes featuring a troupe of slightly surreal characters.  Incidentally, Milhaud was also a composition teacher and one of his students included the songwriter Burt Bacharach, to whom Milhaud once said, “Don’t be afraid of writing something people can remember and whistle.” Bacharach later wrote well over a hundred hits, so it must have been good advice.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963): Sinfonietta. Swedish Chamber Orchestra cond. Nathalie Stutzmann (Duration: 29:19; Video: 720p HD)

The Sinfonietta was a commission from the BBC in 1947 and was first performed in London the following year.  The colourful music is light and dance-like, sometimes whimsical, sometimes haunting and sometimes pure Hollywood.  Like Le Boeuf, it’s full of rapid scene-changes and musical surprises but a little more restrained and more reflective.  Although there are echoes of the Twenties, by 1947 the world had become a different place.

Francis Poulenc was another of the regulars at Le Bœuf sur le toit.  From the age of fourteen, he knew he was going to be a composer and during the war years he got to know Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric and Erik Satie.  He was largely self-taught but has been described as one of the great melody-writers of the twentieth century.  Listening to this most charming and approachable of works, you’d never guess that throughout his life, Poulenc was plagued with periods of manic-depression, nowadays described as bipolar disorder.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Le Bœuf sur le Toit still exists in Paris, in the form of an ultra-chic restaurant which has jazz evenings every Friday and Saturday.  It’s at 34 rue du Colisée, near the Champs Élysées.  Reservations are essential of course.  Don’t forget your credit card. .

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Once upon a time

Stars of the guitar

Puppet on a String

Music of the Mountains

The Ox on the Roof