By Colin Kaye
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;
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;
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.
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.
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.
Stars of the guitar
Rising star: Hitoshi Miyashita.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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)
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.
Music of the Mountains
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
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;
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
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.
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
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)
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)
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. .