By Colin Kaye
Play it again, Sam
Repeated patterns at the Palace of Versailles.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Charles Mackerras (Duration: 07:22;
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
Gérard Souzay c. 1958.
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.
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”.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Season of mists…
William Alwyn, a busy composer.
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.
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.
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.
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
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Symphony No.101 (“The Clock”).
Mito Chamber Orchestra cond. Jun Märkl (Duration: 28:41;
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.
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
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
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.