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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update October 31, 2015

Play it again, Sam

Repeated patterns at the Palace of Versailles. (Photo: Urban)

As any movie buff will be delighted to tell you, this is one of the most well-known misquoted lines in cinema.  It’s usually attributed to the leading character played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1942 movie Casablanca, but he didn’t actually say it.  And neither evidently, did anyone else.  Even so, it’s interesting to ponder why we enjoy hearing familiar things over and over again. 

A musical repeat sign.

Classical concert promoters know only too well that one way to fill a concert hall is to include music that people know.  David Huron is a musicologist at Ohio State University and he’s estimated that when people listen to music, ninety percent of it is music they’ve heard before.

Repetition also occurs within the music itself.  The majority of popular songs and folk songs include a chorus, usually repeated several times.  Bruno Nettl has suggested that repetition is one of the few things that is common to music the world over.  It’s even been discovered that our brains show more activity in their emotional regions when the music we’re listening to is familiar, regardless of whether or not we actually like it.

Repetition became especially important during the classical era of European music when greater emphasis was placed on form and shape.  You can see the same obsession with the repeated patterns and formal elegance in classical French gardens such as the Gardens of Versailles, a style which was subsequently copied by other European courts.

In eighteenth century symphonies and other instrumental music large sections of music are traditionally repeated.  This not only helped the audience absorb the melodies but also was an easy way to lengthen the music without undue hard work, because the composers simply inserted repeat marks into the score.  At the same time, the rondo was a popular form in which the same melody, or a variation of it, was repeated several times during the piece.

Repetition is also used within melodies and musical phrases.  At one point in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3 the melody includes the note G played twenty-four times in succession.  In Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (the one that opens with the famous four-note motif) the entire first movement is based on repetition.  Perhaps this might account for the work being one of his most popular symphonies. 

Far be it from me to bore you with technicalities but the word ostinato (think “obstinate”) is used to describe a motif, phrase or rhythm that persistently repeats during the music.  The device has been popular with composers for years and it’s used dramatically in two works by Maurice Ravel and Gustav Holst.  Ravel’s Boléro was actually intended for a short ballet and it’s probably the world’s most frequently played piece of classical music.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): Boléro. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Gustavo Dudamel (Duration: 17:22; Video: 720p HD)

Ravel had been commissioned to write a ballet by the Russian actress and dancer Ida Rubinstein and he got the idea for this piece when on holiday in Saint-Jean-de-Luz on the French Basque coast.  The music is dominated by a relentless snare-drum ostinato rhythm which begins almost inaudibly, played near the rim of the drum and accompanies a hypnotic wandering melody that repeats throughout the piece.  Gradually the volume and texture increase and by using his own brand of masterful orchestration, Ravel builds the work up to a thrilling climax. 

The first performance was in 1928 and acclaimed by a shouting, stamping and cheering audience.  It must have gone down well.  Incidentally, the dance known as the bolero has three beats to the bar and originated in eighteenth century Spain.  It’s totally unrelated to the Cuban dance of the same name.

Gustav Holst (1874-1934): Mars - the Bringer of War (The Planets). BBC Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Charles Mackerras (Duration: 07:22; Video 480p)

Holst began writing his massive suite The Planets in 1914 and completed the work two years later.  The first movement Mars: The Bringer of War has been described as “the most devastating piece of music ever written”.  The ostinato consists of an ominous rhythmic pattern which dominates the entire movement.  At the opening, the strings play this rhythm col legno which involves hitting the string with the wood of the bow, producing an eerie percussive sound.  The movement builds up tension throughout, with a menacing quieter middle section.  This is not a battle with bows and arrows; it’s about the horrors of mechanized warfare, emphasized by the composer’s use of pounding percussion, grinding, clashing harmonies and of course the relentless ostinato.  Gradually the music lumbers towards its inevitable climax, leaving us with a sense of poignant loss and desolation.

Oh, and just in case you’re wondering what Sam was requested to play again, it was the immortal song As Time Goes By which had been written ten years earlier.

Update October 24, 2015

Fishy business

Gérard Souzay c. 1958.

The other day I started to make a list of pieces of classical music inspired by fish.  Sad, I know.  Here we are in South East Asia’s most exciting and vibrant city and I am sitting at home making lists of music about fish.  I really must try to get out more often.

Anyway, as it turned out the list wasn’t very long, presumably because not many composers find fish particularly inspiring.  Debussy wrote a piano piece about a goldfish, but it’s in the key of F sharp and hopelessly difficult, at least by my limited pianistic standards.  Another French composer Erik Satie composed a piano piece called The Dreamy Fish and in 2005 the British composer Cecilia McDowall wrote a jolly number for alto saxophone and strings with the curious title of Dancing Fish.  When he was just twenty-four, Benjamin Britten composed a rather serious song for voice and piano entitled Fish in the Unruffled Lakes with words by Auden.  Oh yes, there are fish in the Saint-Saens piece Aquarium from “Carnival of the Animals”.

And that, you might be relieved to know, is about it.  Alan Hovhaness wrote a work called And God Created Great Whales, which blended recordings of whale sounds with those of an orchestra.  And yes, I know that whales are not actually fish but from a distance they look as though they ought to be.  And did you realise that the whale is the closest living relative of the hippopotamus?  It’s not exactly relevant, but I thought you’d like to know.  The most well-known classical fish song was written by Franz Schubert using a poem by someone confusingly named Christian Schubart.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Die Forelle. Gérard Souzay (bar), Dalton Baldwin (pno), (Duration: 02:06)

We tend to think of Schubert as a composer of symphonies and chamber music but in his day, he was best-known in Vienna as a songwriter.  Among his six hundred songs, usually referred to by the German word Lieder, this one entitled Die Forelle (“The Trout”) is probably his most famous.  

Schubert was only about twenty when he wrote this song in 1817 and it’s not difficult to understand why it became so popular.  The melody has a kind of folksy charm to it and the sparkling piano accompaniment suggests a fish swimming through rippling waters.  There’s no shortage of performances on YouTube, but I find myself returning to the old 1961 recording made by Gérard Souzay in which pianist Dalton Baldwin provides a splendidly articulated accompaniment.  Souzay was one of the finest baritones of his time and he brings a delicacy and lightness of touch to the song, with perfect diction and a compelling sense of style which few other singers can match.

Franz Schubert: Quintet in A major (“The Trout”). Zoltán Kocsis (pno), Gábor Takács-Nagy (vln), Gábor Ormai (vla), András Fejér (vc), Ferenc Csontos (db), (Duration: 42:47; Video: 480p) 

Perhaps the popularity of Die Forelle encouraged Schubert to write a set of variations on it for the fourth movement of his Piano Quintet, which he completed the following year.  Instead of the conventional combination of string quartet plus piano, Schubert scored this quintet for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass, but strangely enough it wasn’t published during his lifetime.  For such a young composer it’s a remarkable work.  If you are new to Schubert’s chamber music here’s a great place to start, because Schubert’s skills as a song-writer are much in evidence throughout.  

There are several videos available but this Hungarian performance is my favourite, recorded in 1982 in the opulent Congress Hall of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.  Of course, the recording’s getting a bit old in the tooth now as the audio quality will testify, but these wonderful musicians give a captivating performance to which I listened with admiration.  There’s superb playing from everyone and a splendid sense of elegance and style.  In more recent times, the pianist Zoltán Kocsis has become conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the Hungarian National Philharmonic.

They take the third movement (21:04) at a fair old lick and this is surely the fastest I’ve ever heard it played.  In contrast, the start of the theme and variations on Die Forelle (24:40) begins almost dreamily.  Schubert weaves the original fish song into wonderful melodies of Mozartian elegance especially during the lovely cello solo.  But just wait for the stunning show of pianistic bravura in the fourth variation (27:57).  A lively and engaging last movement brings the work to a satisfying conclusion with several false endings, perhaps a glance back to Haydn’s “Joke” quartet.

If you have an hour to spare, treat yourself to this delightful performance, perhaps with a bit of smoked salmon.  Or smoked trout of course, if you’re a purist.

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 October 17, 2015

Season of mists…

William Alwyn, a busy composer.

“…and mellow fruitfulness” I hear you murmur.  Or perhaps I don’t, if you are not familiar with the writings of John Keats.  He was of course one of the great English Romantic poets, although he initially trained at Guy’s Hospital to become a surgeon.  His short life was coloured by sadness.  He was born in East London in 1795 but his father died after an accident when the boy was eight.  His mother died of tuberculosis six years later.  As a young adult, Keats went to Rome on medical advice in search of a warmer climate, but he too fell victim to tuberculosis on 23rd February, 1821.  He was twenty-five.

Good heavens, this is a depressing start!  Honestly, I don’t want to give you a fit of melancholia so early in the weekend.  If you’re feeling a little bit down at the moment, it’s probably better if you skip this column altogether and come back next week.  To be honest, the only reason I quote Keats is to set the scene for two orchestral pieces about autumn.  You see, one day in 1819 Keats went for a country stroll near the old English town of Winchester and the poem entitled To Autumn was the result.  It was published the same year and was one of his last.

Although Keats was not much appreciated during his lifetime, by the end of the nineteenth century he had become one of the best loved of all English poets.  But of course, things have a habit of changing.  Last year, the BBC organised a poll in an attempt to discover Britain’s favourite poets.  Amazingly, over eighteen thousand people voted but the once-popular Keats had fallen back to ninth place.  And in case you’re wondering, the nation’s most popular poet - somewhat surprisingly - turned out to be T.S. Elliott.

Anyway, where were we?  Ah yes, autumn.  There’s lots of music inspired by autumn ever since Vivaldi wrote a concerto on the theme in his set of violin concertos collectively known as The Four Seasons.  It’s perhaps the only classical work that might have inspired a pizza.

William Alwyn (1905-1985): Autumn Legend. Rebecca Van de Ven (cor anglais) Sewanee Summer Music Festival Chamber Ensemble. (Duration: 13:21; Video: 720p HD)

Born in Northampton, William Alwyn studied flute and composition at London’s Royal Academy of Music and later returned there as a professor of composition, a position which he held for nearly thirty years.  He was also a flautist in the London Symphony Orchestra but he’s especially associated with film music because during his lifetime he wrote nearly two hundred film music scores.  These included classic movies such as Odd Man Out, Desert Victory, Fires Were Started, The History of Mr. Polly, The Fallen Idol and The Crimson Pirate.  Few people know that William Alwyn also wrote five symphonies, four operas, as well as several concertos and string quartets.  As if that weren’t enough, he was also a poet and an artist.  He couldn’t have had much spare time on his hands. 

Autumn Legend dates from 1954 and is scored for cor anglais and small string orchestra.  As you probably know, the cor anglais is a kind of tenor oboe and sometimes known as an English horn; a rather inappropriate name really because it’s neither English nor a horn.  But music is full of inconsistencies.  This short but expressive work has a Debussy-like impressionist feel to it; a season of mists indeed.  The dark, plaintive tone-colour of the cor anglais, superbly played by Rebecca Van de Ven, brings reminders of that other evocative but somewhat gloomy work by Sibelius, The Swan of Tuonela.

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907): Overture - In Autumn, Op 11. Strathmere Festival Orchestra cond. Per Brevig. (Duration: 12:08; Video: 480p)

In contrast, Grieg’s vision of a Norwegian autumn is rather more joyous.  On a visit to Copenhagen, the twenty-two year old Grieg showed the score of this overture to Niels Gade, the conductor, composer, violinist and organist who was considered the most influential Danish musician of his day.  On seeing the music, Gade is said to have uncharitably remarked, “This is rubbish, Grieg.  Go home and write something better.”

Grieg did indeed go home and recast the work as a piano duet.  He entered the new arrangement in a competition organised by the Swedish Academy and - presumably to his delight - it won first prize.  One of the judges was none other than Niels Gade who it should be added, later helped Grieg’s musical career and played a major role in bringing international recognition to Scandinavian music.

This splendidly-performed orchestral version dates from 1865 and it shows remarkable composing and orchestration skills.  Although it’s a youthful work, it exudes infectious charm and has some lovely lyrical moments, finely-wrought melodies and a satisfyingly triumphant conclusion.

Update October 10, 2015

Clock works


Maurice Ravel in 1925.

Do you remember that song called My Grand­father’s Clock?  I bet you didn’t know that it was written way back in 1876.  You may recall that the song involved a clock that worked for ninety years but stopped for good when the grandfather in question breathed his last.  The song remained a standard for years especially in Britain and America.  It was most famously recorded by Johnny Cash and its composer, Henry Clay Work was a self-taught musician who also wrote the rather more jubilant Marching Through Georgia.

I suppose one of the other best-known popular pieces of music about clocks is Leroy Anderson’s number called The Syncopated Clock which he wrote in 1945 while serving with the U.S. Army.  Although a gifted linguist (he was fluent in nine languages) he made his name in light music, notably with simple but effective pieces like Blue Tango, The Typewriter and Sleigh Ride.  Even so, his catchy tunes have the habit of becoming irritatingly lodged in the memory, in the same way that bits of bacon get stuck between the back teeth.

Prokofiev imitated the sound of a clock to strike midnight in his ballet Cinderella and Kodály creates an image of an elaborate musical clock in his opera Háry Janos.  At one point in the Richard Strauss opera Der Rosen­kavalier, there are thirteen strikes of the clock in the orchestra, created by using a celesta and two harps.  The beginning of the second movement in Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony sounds as though it’s imitating something mechanical.  There’s a widespread belief that the effect is supposed to be an imitation of a metronome, one of which had recently been produced by Beethoven’s friend Johann Maelzel.  But no one really knows for sure.

In 1998, the British composer Harrison Birtwistle wrote a set of five piano pieces called Harrison’s Clocks, challenging for both pianist and audience.  The work was inspired by Dava Sobel’s brief but fascinating book Longitude which tells the absorbing story of the eighteenth-century clockmaker John Harrison and his mission to build an accurate chronometer for use at sea.  Einar Englund’s ravishing Fourth Symphony has a sizzling second movement which includes many clock-like sounds of chiming bells, frenetic ticking and imitations of ponderous clockwork mechanisms.  It is a shame that the music of this extraordinary Finnish composer is so rarely performed.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): L’heure Espagnole. Glyndebourne Festival, London Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Sian Edwards. (Duration: 52: 49; Video: 360p)

This jolly one-act opera is dominated by clocks. It’s a comedy involving a desperately over-sexed Spanish woman arranging secret assignations with her various lovers while her husband innocently occupies himself with clockwork mechanisms and services the municipal clocks in the town of Toledo. 

The opera was first performed at the Paris Opéra-Comique May 1911 and Ravel created a Spanish flavour by using motives from traditional Spanish dances.  It was produced in Britain for the first time at Covent Garden in 1919 and in the following year it was seen in Chicago and New York. 

The piece sometimes descends into pure farce in which various characters are obliged to hide in clocks, but it has become one of the most popular operas of the twentieth century.  This splendid Glyndebourne production dates from 1987 and it’s sung in the original French with – you might be pleased to know - English subtitles.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Symphony No.101 (“The Clock”). Mito Chamber Orchestra cond. Jun Märkl (Duration: 28:41; Video: 360p)

The Austrian composer Joseph Haydn wrote at least 104 symphonies and the so-called “London” symphonies are perhaps his finest.  These last twelve symphonies date from between 1791 and 1795 and as you may have guessed, they were intended for performance in London.  They’re in the usual four movements and apart from No 95 they all have a slow introduction to the first movement, one of Haydn’s personal trade-marks.

Symphony No 101 was premiered in March 1794 and the nickname “The Clock” comes from the second movement (at 07:55) which has a distinct ticking sound that dominates the movement.  Haydn’s music was hugely popular in London at the time and the audience was wildly enthusiastic.  The reporter for the London newspaper The Morning Chronicle waxed lyrical: “As usual the most delicious part of the entertainment was a new… symphony by Haydn; the inexhaustible, the wonderful, the sublime Haydn!  The first two movements were encored and the character that pervaded the whole composition was heartfelt joy.”

The symphony proved so successful that a second performance was arranged a week later.  It is indeed a wonderful composition which has stood the test of time and well over two hundred years later it remains one of Haydn’s most popular works.  This Japanese orchestra gives a fine performance, and the symphony is worth hearing all the way through, if that is, you have the time.

Update October 3, 2015

The other Bachs

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach circa 1760.

One of the most common words in the Welsh language is “bach”. It means “small” and it’s sometimes used as a term of endearment. The German Bach family of musicians was anything but small. In fact, it was enormous. Many of them were involved in music and the family – with over fifty known musicians and several notable composers - played a significant role in musical history for nearly two hundred years.

Of course the best-known of the whole bunch was Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) and when anyone speaks of Bach, they’re referring to him. Popular books on musical history usually refer to Bach’s twenty children, but actually his family life was plagued by death. Only ten of his children lived until adulthood. Poor little Johann August Abraham Bach, despite his grandiose name, lived for only one day after his birth, such was the staggering incidence of infant mortality during the early eighteenth century.

History has conveniently filtered out the lesser Bachs and today we need concern ourselves with only three of them apart from the old man himself. The most influential sons were unquestionably (1) Wilhelm Friedemann (2) Carl Philipp Emanuel and (3) Johann Christian, who became known as the “London Bach” because he lived there for twenty years, quaintly known to the locals as John Bach. He was the most forward-looking of them all and his music was greatly admired by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-1784): Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen. Soloists, Mainz Bach Choir, L’arpa Festante München cond. Ralf Otto (Duration: 19:05; Video: 720p HD)

Wilhelm was the eldest son of J.S. Bach and was born in Weimar on St Cecilia’s Day. She is the patron saint of musicians so it must have seemed an auspicious day to come into the world.

Johann Sebastian took particular pains over Wilhelm’s education and in later life helped him find employment. But despite the initial promise, Wilhelm’s career never really came anywhere near his aspirations, let alone his father’s high hopes. He had problems with employment, possibly due to his difficult temperament, and his lack of income eventually led him to pass off many of his father’s compositions as his own. Things must have been desperate indeed and he finally died in poverty. Even so, Wilhelm was a talented composer and had a reputation as the most accomplished improviser-organist of his time.

This cantata was written when Wilhelm was Director of Music in Halle between 1746 and 1764 where he was required to perform a cantata every third week and on all other religious days. Although the work kicks off in a lively style, some of the music must have sounded distinctly old-fashioned at the time and not that much different to that which Wilhelm’s illustrious father was writing thirty years earlier. His reluctance to totally embrace newer musical styles may even have led to his luckless financial situation. Even so, this is fine music and makes for fascinating listening. The soloists are superb and the German chamber orchestra uses period instruments to get as close as possible to the original sound.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788): Magnificat in D major (Wq. 215). Soloists, RIAS Chamber Choir, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin cond. Hans-Cristoph Rademann (Duration: 41:38; Video: 720p HD)

Carl Philipp was Bach’s second son and just four years younger than Wilhelm. He became one of the foremost harpsichord players in Europe and is today considered the most influential among Bach’s children. This was the age of royal patronage, and musicians were aware that a university education was essential for those who could afford it. For one thing, a degree opened doors to other jobs if times got tough and a distinguished university background discouraged royal employers from treating their musicians like servants. So like his brothers, Carl Philipp went to University and studied law. At the age of twenty-four he acquired his degree, and was finally able to turn his full attention to music.

Carl Philipp became known as the “Hamburg Bach” (for reasons which must be obvious) and drew musical ideas not only from his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann but also from Handel. While his early works are rooted in the Baroque, his style gradually moved towards the new classical principles, especially in his ground-breaking symphonies and keyboard sonatas.

This seven-movement Magnificat was written in Berlin in 1749, and was the composer’s first major choral work. The sparkling first movement reveals that Carl Philipp is moving away from the Baroque yet the work clearly shows his father’s influence. It contains some gorgeous music and the performance is given in the splendidly neoclassical Konzerthaus Berlin, acoustically one of the best concert venues in the world. And it’s a fine performance too, with excellent soloists, brilliant instrumental playing on period instruments and splendid choral singing.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Play it again, Sam

Fishy business

Season of mists…

Clock works

The other Bachs