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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update September 26, 2015

The Sound of Silence

Anonymous painting of Joseph Haydn rehearsing.
(StaatsMuseum, Vienna)

The other night, having nothing much to do, I was looking through the orchestral score of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony – his last one.  He died only nine days after its first performance and the end of the symphony too literally fades away to complete silence.  The last eight measures are scored for muted cellos and basses playing a low chord of B minor, so quiet that it’s barely audible.  Then in the last measure of the symphony, Tchaikovsky writes a rest sign – the musical sign for silence, with a pause mark over the top, thus effectively writing in several moments’ complete silence at the end of the work.

In his Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky used silence dramatically in the last movement at a moment when the entire orchestra builds to a thundering climax.  There are a few seconds of silence before the heroic closing section begins.  It’s a moment of high drama because of the extraordinary sense of tension and anticipation that it creates.  The silence is not just “nothing” but an integral part of the musical experience.

At its simplest level, silence marks the beginning and end of the music.  It also occurs briefly between musical phrases, so that we can hear where one phrase ends and another one begins.  Just think of Gregorian chant, and those periods of silence occur between the long flowing phrases.  Beethoven often used silence for musical effect and during the early years of the twentieth century so did composers like Schoenberg and Webern.  In some of Webern’s music there is probably more silence than there are notes.  In contrast, in one of his string quartets Joseph Haydn used silence for a different reason: to raise a laugh.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Quartet in E flat major, Op. 33 No. 2, (“The Joke”). Ariel Quartet (Duration: 17:20; Video: 720p HD)

In the late summer of 1781, Haydn wrote a set of six string quartets (classified as Op. 33) for the Viennese publisher Artaria, then one of the top publishing houses in Europe.  Haydn was forty-nine and at the peak of his career. 

Like his symphonies, many of Haydn’s quartets have acquired nicknames, largely because he wrote so many.  In this one, known as “The Joke”, Haydn used silence in the last movement to create several false endings, so that the audience would applaud in the wrong places.  It must have been tremendous fun at the first performance. 

The performance by the brilliant Israeli Ariel Quartet is exceptional, partly because in their customary manner they perform the entire work from memory.  It’s in the usual four movements, and like some other Op. 33 quartets, Haydn places the scherzo immediately after the first movement.  This scherzo a very minuet-like affair, and is actually an Austrian peasant dance known as a Schuhplattler.  In both this movement and the following slow movement, Haydn frequently uses silence to create tension.

The last movement (which begins at 13:55) takes the form of a lively Italian folk dance called the Tarantella.  The first false ending is at 16:23; another one at 16.45 and another one at 16.50 which really sounds like the end of the piece.  The real ending arrives at 17.00 but even in this video, the audience seems unsure whether or not to applaud.  After two hundred years, you’d have thought that Haydn’s joke might have worn a bit thin but as this performance shows, it still seems to work.

John Cage (1912-1992):  4’33" (Four minutes, thirty-three seconds). BBC Symphony Orchestra cond. Lawrence Foster (Duration 05:42; Video 480p)

John Cage, once the enfant terrible of American contemporary music, took the notion of silence in music to the obvious limits when he created a piece consisting entirely of silence.  Strangely enough, the idea was not entirely new.  This three-movement work (if such it can be called) dates from 1952 and consists of virtually blank pages.

The total length of the three movements is supposed to be four minutes and thirty three seconds and it can be played by any instrument or combination of instruments.  Cage always insisted that the piece was not a joke and it has even attracted serious academic debate.  Of course, it can only work in the formalized concert performance setting at which the audience is expected to behave appropriately and demonstrate correct concert etiquette by sitting quietly and listening.  The point of the whole exercise is that silence doesn’t actually exist and it draws attention instead to ambient sounds inside and outside the concert hall.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra gives a fine performance of this technically challenging work.  The dynamics are beautifully measured, especially in the pianissimo sections and there’s an elegant sense of phrasing.  Conductor Laurence Foster brings a rare insight into this remarkable work and creates a wonderful sense of expansiveness.  You’ll probably want to listen to it several times. 

Update September 20, 2015

Turning the clock back

It’s not much, but it’s home: Dumbarton Oaks.

One day, during my time as an impoverished music student in London, I was ferreting through the records in a second-hand music shop and came across one of those rather unusual 45rpm classical recordings.  It was recorded by the London Mozart Players (founded in 1949 and still going strong) and featured Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto.  I bought the record without hesitation and didn’t regret it. 

We have to thank the absurdly-wealthy American diplomat Robert Woods Bliss and his wife Mildred for this piece.  To mark their thirtieth wedding anniversary in 1938, they commissioned a new work from Igor Stravinsky, then one of the superstar musicians of the day and much in demand as a composer and conductor.  As a result of the commission, he wrote the Concerto in E-flat for Chamber Orchestra while staying in a town near Geneva where his eldest daughter was fighting a terminal battle with tuberculosis.

The work was first performed in the grandiose music room of the Bliss house, rustically named Dumbarton Oaks.  For years, I had pictured a homely, rambling country house with roses and wisteria everywhere blissfully unaware that Dumbarton Oaks was actually an enormous nineteenth century building of palatial proportions, situated in Washington’s up-market Georgetown neighborhood.  Even so, the name provided a convenient and enduring nickname for the concerto.  As fate would have it, on the day of the first performance Stravinsky was in hospital with tuberculosis (though he lived to tell the tale) and the ensemble was conducted by the legendary teacher and musician Nadia Boulanger.

During the 1920s, Stravinsky had become profoundly interested in a neoclassical approach to composition which he later claimed to have invented himself.  This drew on some of the aesthetic principles vaguely associated with European music’s Classical Period which was roughly between 1750 and 1820.  Although Stravinsky wrote some of the best-known neoclassical works in the repertoire, other composers notably Hindemith, Prokofiev, Bartók, Milhaud and Poulenc were also influenced by neoclassical principles.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Concerto in E-flat for Chamber Orchestra (“Dumbarton Oaks”).  Geneva Camerata cond. David Greilsammer (Duration: 16:02; Video: 1080p HD)

If your knowledge of Stravinsky’s music is through the ballets written before the First World War, this work may come as a pleasant surprise.  Stravinsky first explored the neoclassical approach in his ballet Pulcinella which dates from around 1920 and was based on melodies presumed at the time to have been written by the eighteenth century Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi.  As it turned out, they weren’t, but the ballet began Stravinsky’s long fascination with neoclassical principles.  The Concerto in E-flat is a three-movement work written along the lines of a baroque concerto grosso in which unlike a conventional concerto, a group of instruments perform the solo sections.  It’s scored for ten stringed instruments, a handful of woodwind and two horns.

Perhaps “neo-baroque” would be a more appropriate description, because you’ll hear fascinating echoes of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3 emerging through the light and airy textures, with snippets of melody that sound as though they’ve come from dance music of the thirties.  The light and delicate second movement is followed by an energetic finale that’s full of melodies, shifting accents and driving rhythms and although the music turns the clock back to the eighteenth century for its inspiration, the sound is pure Stravinsky.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): Symphony No 1 in D (“Classical”). Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Thomas Sřndergĺrd (Duration: 15:33; Video: 1080p HD)

Prokofiev wrote this work during 1916-17, which puts Stravinsky’s claim to be the “inventor of neoclassicism” on somewhat shaky ground.  Prokofiev was in his mid-twenties and already a successful composer with several operas, ballets and other orchestral works to his credit, including his first two piano concertos.

The Classical Symphony draws on the musical style of Joseph Haydn for its inspiration and has become Prokofiev’s most popular orchestral work.  Prokofiev once commented that “if Haydn were alive today, he would compose as he did before, but at the same time would include something new in his manner of composition”.

The work is scored for small orchestra and the format is pretty similar to the symphonies with which Haydn would have been familiar except that the traditional minuet is replaced with a gavotte.  Prokofiev uses techniques that Haydn would have recognised, yet the musical language is unmistakably his own, with jaunty playful rhythms and spiky melodies.  There’s a lovely lyrical second movement and an elegant gavotte which contains surprisingly satisfying twists of harmony.  The brilliant finale is a scampering movement which contains plenty of lively tunes.  There’s an especially catchy one, first heard on the flute (at 11:23) that you might find yourself humming for a long time afterwards.

The performance by these Danish musicians is staggeringly good.  Listen out for the brilliantly virtuosic woodwind playing in the last movement.

Update September 12, 2015

The Melody Lingers On


The Kontras Quartet. (fanjoy labrenz photography)

The title comes from a song by Irving Berlin, first recorded in 1928 by Ruth Etting, once known as “America’s sweetheart of song”.  Of course, melody - lingering or otherwise - is one of the most important features of music.  During the early Middle Ages, most music consisted of a single melody and precious little else.  The composer Joseph Haydn once remarked that “melody is the main thing; harmony is useful only to charm the ear” and the musical theorist Johann Philipp Kirnberger put it more bluntly saying that “the true goal of music - its proper enterprise - is melody”.

For many people, melody is the most memorable feature in a piece long after other aspects of the music things are forgotten, so in that respect Irving Berlin hit the nail on the head.  During the second half of the twentieth century, melody temporarily became less relevant in classical music, prompting the irritatingly pompous Sir Thomas Beecham to remark that composers should write “tunes that chauffeurs and errand boys can whistle.”  In contrast, Aaron Copland, known for his ability to write fine melodies, commented that a melody isn’t “merely something you can hum.”

So this week, here are two popular works full of memorable melodies.  They’re both for string quartet which nearly always consists of two violins, a viola player and a cellist.  This type of ensemble emerged sometime during the eighteenth century and has been popular with composers ever since.  Haydn wrote seventy works for string quartet; Mozart wrote twenty-three and the ever-prolific Luigi Boccherini churned out more than ninety.  Beethoven’s eighteen quartets are considered to be some of the finest ever written, especially the later ones.

Alexander Borodin, the Russian composer, who incidentally was also a medical doctor and a chemist, managed only two string quartets because much of his time was engaged in scientific research.  Even so, he was particularly adept at crafting jolly good tunes.  So good were they, that many were borrowed (or stolen, if you prefer) for the 1953 musical Kismet, set in a fictional Baghdad during the time of The Arabian Nights.

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887): String Quartet No. 2 in D Major (first movement). Kontras Quartet (Duration: 08:08; Video: 720p HD)

This quartet was written in 1881 when the composer was on holiday, staying with a friend in Zhitovo, a country town in Southern Russia.  The first movement has been described as “one of the most perfect examples” of Borodin’s lyrical style and it’s full of lovely melodies and magical changes of key.

The four movements are presented on YouTube as separate videos, listed on the right-hand-side of the screen.  Unusually, the second movement is not a slow one, but a quick and lively scherzo in which you’ll hear a melody which later became better known as Baubles, Bangles and Beads.  The slow third movement is beautiful and you’ll probably recognize the main theme as yet another hit from the show, And This is My Beloved.

The Kontras Quartet is a brilliant young American string quartet based in Chicago and has established an international reputation.  This is a fine recording in which the four players work to produce a balanced, seamless and perfectly synchronized performance. 

Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904): String Quartet No 12 in F, Op 96 (“American”). Prazak Quartet (Duration: 25:05; Video: 360p)

If any string quartet can stake a claim for the most popular work in the chamber music repertoire, it has to be this.  I first encountered it as a teenager and thought it was the best quartet I’d ever heard.  This performance has been watched over 218,000 times on YouTube alone, so there’s clearly an audience for chamber music.

The work dates from 1893 when the Czech composer was Director of the National Conservatory in New York City.  Like Borodin, he was taking a summer holiday when he wrote it.  Dvorák stayed in the small Iowa town of Spillville which was home to a small Czech community.  Even today the town has only a few hundred residents.

Dvorák sketched the quartet in just three days and completed the entire work less than a fortnight later.  He’d recently completed his famous New World Symphony and the string quartet contains many similar American-sounding themes, often using the sweet-sounding pentatonic scale.  For a long time, it was assumed that Dvorák had used genuine folk songs and spirituals and although the composer heard many American folksongs during his stay, all the melodies in the quartet are largely the composer’s own.

The Prazak Quartet was established in 1972 and it’s interesting how these Czech musicians approach the work.  Unlike some American and British string quartets that tend to go for a smooth and restrained performance of this work, there’s no pussy-footing around here and the musicians give a lively and passionate performance that seems to bring out more of the Bohemian qualities of the music.

Update September 4, 2015

Clapped Out

The Tuileries Palace, Paris c. 1778.

I’m sure you’ve been to one of those concerts where someone starts clapping at an inappropriate moment, causing acute embarrassment to themselves and a general feeling of discomfort among everyone else.  One of the Golden Rules of classical music concerts is that one doesn’t clap between movements.  One simply doesn’t, my dear.

Of course, it wasn’t always thus.  “Up until the beginning of the twentieth century”, writes the American music critic Alex Ross, “Applause between movements and even during movements was the sign of a knowledgeable, appreciative audience, not of an ignorant one.”

At the first performance of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto in 1858 the composer knew things were not going well because there was no applause after the first movement.  Hissing, but no applause.  On the other hand (if you’ll excuse the irresistible pun), Mendelssohn explicitly asked that his Third Symphony be played without a break to avoid “the usual lengthy interruptions”.  It’s thought that the practice of keeping quiet between movements may have originated in Germany during the late nineteenth century.

I remember once hearing a thrilling performance of a Beethoven piano concerto in which the dramatic end of the first movement surely must have been composed to elicit an audience reaction.  I cannot have been the only one who wanted to release my excitement and applaud or even cheer the soloist.  But of course, nothing of the sort happened apart from the usual coughing and shuffling in an awkward self-imposed silence.  In Beethoven’s time there would probably have been a standing ovation. 

It’s easy to understand how newcomers to classical music or those who don’t know The Golden Rule will break into spontaneous applause at such moments.  Perhaps it’s time to change the way we think about concerts.  Even so, to rebuke people for showing their appreciation is sheer bad manners.  At a local concert last year during the performance of a Bach concerto, there was a tentative ripple of polite applause from the back of the hall at the end of the first movement.  One of the concert promoters leapt from his seat and gestured wildly at the offenders, thus making himself more of a downright nuisance than those he was foolishly and misguidedly reprimanding.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Symphony No 31 in D major “Paris”. Danish National Chamber Orchestra cond. Adam Fischer (Duration: 16:41; Video: 720p HD)

The 22-year-old Mozart had a dismal time when he was job-hunting in Paris, but at least the experience brought us this symphony, which was given its first public performance at the Tuileries Palace in 1778.  In a letter to his father, Mozart enthusiastically relates how the Parisian audience burst into applause at particularly exciting moments during the first movement.  The letter clearly reveals that Mozart was composing for a specific type of audience and was even tailoring his music to elicit reactions.  Of course, he wasn’t the first composer – or the last – to do so.

The symphony is scored for a large orchestra which included comparative newcomers, a pair of clarinets.  Mozart had first heard them in Mannheim and was enthusiastic about using the instruments in his Paris symphony.  The enthusiasm shows.  Mozart uses many colourful orchestral effects which clearly went down well with the Parisians and it’s interesting to speculate at which moment the noisy but appreciative audience might have applauded.  Even today this remains one of Mozart’s most popular symphonies.  But try applauding during the first movement as they did in Paris and you’ll probably be hauled out of the concert hall by armed guards. 

Steve Reich (b. 1936): Clapping Music (1972).  Performed by composition students at the College of Music, University of Colorado at Boulder (Duration: 04:54; Video: 480p)

In this piece it’s the performers, rather than the audience, who do the clapping.  Steve Reich is one of the pioneers of minimalism and he’s had a huge influence on contemporary music.  Clapping Music was originally written for two performers and it consists of just twelve measures (bars) each of which is played eight times.  One performer claps a single rhythm throughout the piece.  In the first measure, the second performer claps the same rhythm (eight times of course) but in the next measure the rhythm shifts by one eighth note to the right.  This process continues throughout the piece until the thirteenth measure when the second performer is inevitably clapping the same rhythm as the first, drawing the piece to its logical and inescapable close.  It’s elegantly simple but strangely mesmerizing as the rhythmic patterns shift out of phase with each other.

Although originally written for two performers, Clapping Music is invariably performed by a group, which to my mind makes for a much more satisfying sound.  If you want to brush up your music-reading skills you can download the printed score and clap along with the performers.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

The Sound of Silence

Turning the clock back

The Melody Lingers On

Clapped Out