By Colin Kaye
Composer Viatcheslav Semionov.
What’s the difference
between a macaw and an accordion? The answer is that one is loud,
obnoxious and noisy; the other is a bird. The instrument has been the butt of musical
jokes for years, but I once bought a piano accordion under the mistaken
impression that it would be easy to play. The keyboard looks friendly
enough, but there are dozens of buttons which are difficult to navigate,
especially when they’re out of sight. It’s an incredibly heavy contraption
too and practising requires something of a physical effort.
The other problem
is that the accordion is rather loud, which is why it’s so popular in
dance music. Sadly, it was not popular with my neighbours, who were
clearly not connoisseurs of accordion music, at least not of the variety
that I was producing. There were so many complaints that my potential
as an international accordion star was never realised. In any case, I
never really got the hang of working the bellows.
invention in 1829, the accordion became enormously popular partly
because of the contemporary craze for the polka. The instrument
travelled with migrating Europeans to many parts of the world. It was
ideal for folksongs and dance music not only because of its volume, but
also because the so-called “Stradella bass system” enabled the player to
produce bass notes and simple pre-set chords with the left hand
buttons. Ironically, this was one of the reasons that the accordion was
slow to be accepted into “serious” music. The breakthrough didn’t occur
until the emergence of the “free-bass accordion” which instead of simple
chords could play a wide range of individual notes on the left-hand
acceptance was slow in classical music and the instrument was often used
simply to provide local colour. The first composer to write for the
chromatic accordion was Paul Hindemith in his delightfully frivolous and
anarchic work entitled Kammermusik No. 1. The accordion was
occasionally used in works by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Milhaud, Kurt
Weill and George Antheil.
part of a large family of musical instruments known technically as
free-reed aerophones and include mouth organs, the Chinese sheng
and the Thai khaen. The melodeon and the concertina are
virtually simpler versions of the accordion with a set of buttons at
each end of the instrument and they’re used in many countries for
traditional folk music. The bandoneon, popular in Argentina, Uruguay
and Lithuania is a rather more complex concertina. The accordion was
popular in Russia during the nineteenth century and it’s been estimated
that by the 1870s they were producing over 700,000 instruments a year.
One wonders what happened to them all.
Nikolai Chaikin (1915-2000): Concerto No. 1 in Bb Major for accordion
Nick Ariondo (acc), Olympia Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Fung Ho.
(Duration 09:55; Video 480p)
is a chromatic button accordion developed in Russia in the early
twentieth century where it achieved widespread popularity. Composer
Nikolai Chaikin was one of the most famous bayan composers of the former
USSR and as a child, began his musical studies on the instrument.
concerto sounds pretty much how you would expect a Russian accordion
concerto to sound. It’s a delightful work which falls easily on the ear
and was originally composed for the bayan. It’s in a romantic late
nineteenth century style, looking back to the music of Balakirev and
Borodin. With a wealth of colourful melodies it’s a virtuosic work too
because the composer was one of the finest performers of his day.
was also a well known accordion teacher and a Professor at the Gorky
Conservatory and the prestigious Gnessin Academy of Music. More
significantly, he was one of the first composers in Russia and Europe
who introduced the accordion to the musical world as a professional
Viatcheslav Semionov (b. 1946): Frescoes - Concerto for accordion and
Aliaksandr Yasinski (acc), Talich Philharmonia Prague cond. Lukáš
Kovaøík (Duration: 28:33; Video: 1080p HD)
Semionov was born in 1946 in the city of Trubchevsk which lies about two
hundred miles south of Moscow. Like Nikolai Chaikin, he began playing
the bayan at an early age and showed exceptional talent at the
instrument. He studied at the Gnessin Academy of Music and has since
given performances in more than thirty countries.
inhabits a completely different sound-world to that of Chaikin and
explores themes on the spiritual development of humanity. “His major
works are saturated with emotional heat”, wrote one critic, “reflecting
the philosophy of the struggle between good and evil.” There’s some
wonderful writing in this concerto, but give it a chance to get going.
The brilliant closing section is triumphant and joyous, and the superb
soloist Aliaksandr Yasinski clearly loves the work. If accordion music
is not usually your cup of vodka, give this splendid concerto a try.
Catch a what?
The Big Three in 1940: (left-right) Sergei
Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and Aram Khachaturian.
Many years ago, when I
got a position playing cello in our district orchestra I found myself
sitting next to another boy of about my age who was clearly from foreign
parts. It turned out that his name was Paul, he played the cello and he
came from Armenia. At the time I hadn’t a clue where Armenia was and was
too polite to ask. I probably didn’t want to appear an idiot, either. I
had some vague idea that it might be somewhere between North Africa and the
Middle East but I must have been getting mixed up with somewhere else
because it turned out that Armenia is nowhere near Africa. And in case
you’re wondering, Armenia is actually a bit to the north-east of Turkey.
I mention all this by
way of a cheery introduction because this week’s column is about the most
renowned Armenian composer of the twentieth century who was also the
composer of the first Armenian ballet, symphony, concerto, and film score.
His name is Aram Khachaturian (katch-uh-TOOR-ee-uhn)
and his compositions have been performed in almost every country of
If you ever saw
Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, you’ve heard the music
of Khachaturian. If you ever watched the 1970s television series The
Onedin Line, you’ve heard the music of Khachaturian. In fact, it would
be very surprising if you had never heard any of his music. When I
was a schoolboy, his Sabre Dance was tremendously popular and known
to almost everyone. Even our dog knew it. He knew it so well that he could
even dance to it.
Aram Khachaturian: Sabre Dance. Berlin
Philharmonic cond. Sir Simon Rattle (Duration: 02:35; Video: 1080p HD)
Dating from 1942, this
is Khachaturian’s best known and most recognizable piece with a distinctive
middle section based on an Armenian folk song. It comes from his four-act
ballet entitled Gayaneh and is set on a Georgian farm collective. By
1948 Sabre Dance had become an unlikely jukebox hit in the United
It was one of the most
popular pieces of the twentieth century and been used in countless
television programmes and at least two dozen movies. Despite the outrageous
popularity of Sabre Dance, Khachaturian was officially denounced in
1948 as a “formalist” and his music dubbed “anti-people” by the monolithic
Central Committee of the Communist Party, but so were other composers
including Prokofiev and Shostakovich. However, the disapproval was
short-lived and for most of his career, Khachaturian held several high posts
in the Union of Soviet Composers. In Armenia today, Khachaturian is
considered a “national treasure”.
Aram Khachaturian: Violin Concerto.
Haik Kazazyan (vln), Moscow State Symphony Orchestra cond. Pavel Kogan
(Duration: 36:19; Video: 480p)
This work dates from
1940 and was dedicated to the Russian violinist David Oistrakh, who gave the
first performance in Moscow. Oistrakh acted as adviser to Khachaturian on
the writing of the solo part which is probably why the music seems to fit
the instrument so well. It has since become a standard work in the violin
After a brief
orchestral introduction, the soloist launches into a scampering theme that
sounds like Shostakovich but throughout the concerto, you’ll notice the
Eastern European influence in the themes that follow. There’s some
brilliant virtuosic writing which makes this concerto something of a
challenge even for the most accomplished professionals.
The reflective, moody
second movement also has elements of Eastern European music and contains
some beautifully expressive violin writing, while the third and final
movement opens with a lively orchestral fanfare and at times has the flavour
of an Armenian country dance. Throughout the work you’ll hear the
composer’s personal and distinctive musical voice.
Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978): Masquerade Suite.
Japan Sinfonia cond. Hisayoshi Inoue (Duration: 21:04; Video 480p)
And so to lighter
fayre. In 1941 Aram Khachaturian was asked to write the incidental music
for a production of the play Masquerade by the famous Russian poet,
painter and playwright Mikhail Lermontov. The plot involves a grand
masquerade ball, an expensive bracelet and a poisoned ice-cream but you
don’t need to know the intricate details to enjoy the music. It was first
performed in Moscow the same year but in 1944 the composer converted some of
the incidental music into this well-known five-movement suite for orchestra.
The opening movement,
a swirling, hypnotic Russian waltz in the minor key is central to the work
but although its composition evidently gave Khachaturian some difficulty it
has become well-known in its own right and you’ll probably recognise the
distinctive waltz melody. It’s followed by a brooding Nocturne, a
lilting Mazurka, a magical fairy-tale Romance and finally a
rousing Galop that could have made a good soundtrack for a Keystone
Claude Debussy in 1908.
Words and music have
always had a close association. I suppose songs are the most obvious
example and further back in musical history the chants of the early medieval
church. They could have been spoken of course and doubtless were, but
singing the words made them not only easier to memorise but a good deal more
pleasurable and fulfilling to perform. Generations later, during the
European romantic era, it became fashionable to use poems not merely as a
text for setting but as a starting point for an independent composition.
The two works this
week have their origins in poetry. In many ways, they are opposites because
whereas one of them looks forward into the twentieth century, the other
looks backward to a bygone age.
Debussy took a poem by
the French symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé about a faun and the English 20th century
composer John Tavener took a poem about a lamb by the great Romantic artist
William Blake. Debussy’s work is a broad, rhapsodic orchestral piece of
incredible complexity while Tavener’s choral piece is remarkable in its
The faun is a
half-human, half-goat with its upper section being human apart from a pair
of small goat horns on its head. The origins date back to Greek mythology
but the Romans kept the faun tradition alive and believed that they lived in
wild, remote places. They would evidently help or hinder humans depending
on their frame of mind. Mallarmé’s famous 1876 poem describes the sensual
experiences of a faun who has just woken up from his afternoon sleep. The
poem came to the attention of Debussy who in 1894 crafted his extraordinary
Claude Debussy (1862-1918): Prélude à l’après-midi d’un
faune. Orchestra Dell’accademia
Nazionale di Santa Cecilia cond. Leonard Bernstein (Duration: 11:59, Video:
composition was years ahead of its time, the opening flute solo must be one
of the most famous passages in the orchestral repertoire. Pierre Boulez has
said he considered the score to mark the beginning of modern music. It was
one of the most significant musical works of its day, consisting of a
complex organization of musical cells and motifs. It’s not actually
descriptive in the usual sense of the word but it uses rich whole-tone
harmonies, daring orchestration and to contemporary audiences must have
sounded very modern indeed.
wrote that the work “stretched the limits of tonality” and in so doing, set
the harmonic stage for the atonal music of the century to come.
was not at all happy with his poem being used as the basis for music,
because he believed poetry should stand alone. He felt “it was a veritable
crime as far as poetry was concerned to juxtapose poetry and music, even if
it were the finest music there is.” It’s unlikely that Mallarmé could have
possibly imagined what Debussy was going to write but eventually the poet
was enchanted by Debussy’s composition, and congratulated the composer most
warmly on his achievement saying that the music “presents a dissonance with
my text only by going much further really, into nostalgia and into light,
with finesse, with sensuality, with richness.”
In this recording,
Bernstein conducts the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia,
one of the best-known orchestras in Italy.
John Tavener (1944-2013): The Lamb.
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. (Duration: 03:05;
Confusingly, there are
two English composers with almost identical names. The first John Taverner
had two r’s in his surname (but not always) and lived from 1490 until 1545.
The twentieth century John Tavener has claimed to be his direct descendent.
He came to public attention with his cantata The Whale, first
performed in 1968 and he’s become one of the most popular composers of his
generation with a huge output of religious music. He’s perhaps best-known
for a haunting work for cello and orchestra The Protecting Veil, and
for the Song for Athene which was performed at the funeral of
is a setting of a short poem by William Blake and gives us a glimpse into
Tavener’s highly personal sound-world. It’s written for unaccompanied
four-part choir and is deceptively simple, yet the moving vocal parts
produce unexpected dissonances that seem to evoke the music of Eastern
“I wrote The Lamb
in 1982,” the composer once said, “while being driven by my mother from
South Devon to London. It came to me fully grown so to speak, so all I had
to do was to write it down.”
Dedicated to his
nephew’s third birthday, the piece is often performed as a Christmas carol
but like so much of Tavener’s music, it has a compelling sense of
timelessness. This piece has been recorded on nearly forty CDs and has
become a classic in its own time.
One hit wonders
The other day I was
reminded about the old joke about a Yorkshire band-master who asks one of
the young brass players, “Aye lad, do you play The Trumpet Voluntary?”
“No, replies the boy, “My dad makes me.”
Voluntary dates from around 1700 and is more correctly known as the
Prince of Denmark’s March. For years it was attributed to Henry Purcell
but research in the 1940s revealed that it was written by Jeremiah Clarke,
one of the few composers who ended his life by suicide. Although Clarke
wrote many choral works, today he’s known only for this single piece.
Russian composer Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov is known today for a movement
entitled Procession of the Sardar from his orchestral suites
Caucasian Sketches. And do you know? There are dozens of other
composers who are remembered by the general public for just one piece of
Luigi Boccherini was a
prolific composer who is remembered largely for the so-called Boccherini
Minuet. You’d assume from this title that he wrote only minuet but he
actually composed hundreds of them, along with countless other works. Jules
Massenet wrote over thirty operas as well as oratorios, ballets and
orchestral works yet he’s known to the general public for one piece, the
Meditation from his opera Thaïs (TAH-ees). Then there’s Johann
Pachelbel. He lived during Germany’s middle baroque and specialised in
organ music. He wrote choral music too, but it’s the organ works for which
he’s best remembered, with over two hundred works for the instrument.
Pachelbel was one of
the most successful composers of his time, yet today he’s generally known
for one short piece. Baroque music fell out of fashion during the
eighteenth century and by modern times Pachelbel’s music had become largely
a historical curiosity. Then along came the French music historian and
conductor Jean-François Paillard who established his own chamber orchestra
with the intention of recording baroque works for the French Erato label.
His 1968 recording of Pachelbel’s Canon and Gigue for three violins
unexpectedly rocketed the piece from centuries of obscurity to international
Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706): Canon in D (original version). Voices
of Music (Duration: 04:30; Video 1080p HD)
While many of his
organ works have been preserved, little of Pachelbel’s chamber music has
survived the centuries. The circumstances surrounding the composing of this
piece are unknown but it probably dates from the 1690s. One historian has
suggested that it might have been composed for Johann Christoph Bach’s
wedding. Even today in both Europe and America, it’s a popular choice for
weddings – and funerals. But why? Perhaps people are attracted to the
plodding bass line or perhaps the satisfying repeated chord progression
which has since been borrowed by many lesser composers. Or perhaps it is
fascinating build-up of sounds in the canon itself. And in case you’re
wondering, a canon is a piece based entirely on the counterpoint created by
melodies weaving around each other. The simplest form of canon is a round
like Frère Jacques in which voices enter at different moments with
the same melody.
During the renaissance
and baroque, composers found canons fascinating because the original melody
could be modified and elaborated in countless different ways. This is
exactly what Pachelbel did. In this video, the music is played on original
instruments and includes a theorbo, a plucked instrument of the lute
family. It’s pretty much how the composer might have heard it.
Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751): Adagio in G minor. Franz Liszt Chamber
Orchestra (Duration: 08:38; Video: 480p)
While Albinoni is
mainly remembered today for his instrumental music and especially for his
concertos, in his day he was known as an opera composer. Strangely enough,
few of his operas were ever published with the result that the scores have
been lost. Fortunately, nine collections of instrumental works were
eventually published and must have been successful because they were often
reprinted. Albinoni was evidently the first Italian composer to write
concertos for the oboe and he was favourably compared to Corelli and
Like the Pachelbel
work, there’s a fascinating twentieth century connection. Remo Giazotto was
an Italian musicologist and composer, best known for his catalogue and
biography of the works of Albinoni. In 1958 he published a composition
crisply entitled Adagio in G Minor for Strings and Organ on Two Thematic
Ideas and on a Figured Bass by Tomaso Albinoni. Originally he claimed
that he’d reconstructed the piece from a hand-written fragment by Albinoni
but later changed his story, and announced that it was his own original
composition. Perhaps royalties had something to do with it. However, after
Giazotto’s death in 1998, evidence came to light that he probably used a
tiny fragment by Albinoni, although most of the work was almost certainly
composed by Giazotto himself. It’s all a bit puzzling, so it’s probably
better just to sit back and enjoy the music.
Late 18th century
“To what?” I suppose
you could justifiably enquire. The expression is old jazz slang for a
clarinet because of course, clarinets are usually black. I’ve sometimes
heard classical players use the term but only when they’re joking, drunk or
When I was a student
at London’s Royal College of Music, I used to share a flat with a
clarinetist. Unlike me, he was an extremely diligent student and practised
his clarinet for hours every day. When he wasn’t practising he was sorting
out reeds with which he seemed obsessed. He used to buy them in Paris,
returning with several boxes which would then be carefully sorted and
graded. Then it was more practising. The upshot was that I became
acquainted with much of the clarinet repertoire while still fairly young.
And there’s plenty of it, I can tell you.
Although the clarinet
has a permanent place in the modern orchestra, it wasn’t always thus. And
it wasn’t black, either. The instrument first appeared during the early
years of the eighteenth century and it was a clever development of a simple
reed instrument called the chalumeau (SHALL-oo-moh). The word is
still used today to describe the low register of the clarinet. It looked a
bit like a tenor recorder with a few metal keys stuck here and there. By
the late eighteenth century more keys and levers had been added and the
instrument had become tremendously popular with composers. Usually made of
boxwood, these early clarinets were light brown and didn’t acquire the
licorice colour (and the complex mechanism) until many years later.
clarinet is actually part of a much larger family of clarinets some of which
are so rare as to never be seen. Some early models have simply faded away
and exist only in museums. Nowadays, you can sometimes spot the small E
flat clarinet and the bass clarinet in orchestras. The enormous contrabass
clarinet rarely makes an appearance. It’s an odd-looking thing and some
designs hardly look like a musical instrument at all.
Johann Stamitz (1717-1757): Clarinet Concerto in B flat Major.
Jaehee Choi (clt), NFA Project Orchestra cond. Charles Neidich (Duration:
16:55; Video: 720p HD)
Johann Stamitz was one
of the most prolific and important composers of the mid-eighteenth century.
He wrote nearly sixty symphonies and invented, if that’s the right word, the
four-movement symphony which remained a standard format for years to come.
In the early 1740s he was appointed as Musical Director to the Elector
Palatine whose court was at Mannheim. Stamitz was in charge of the court
orchestra to which he made significant improvements. He developed various
orchestral techniques (including the rapid ascending figure known as the
Mannheim Rocket) and brought the well-disciplined orchestra considerable
fame. It was once described by Dr Charles Burney as “an army of generals”.
Years later, Mozart heard this orchestra and was especially impressed by the
It was once thought
that this work of 1755 was the first clarinet concerto ever. However, six
clarinet concertos by Johann Molter were subsequently discovered, the first
of which dates from about 1743. There are also three works for clarinet and
oboe by Vivaldi which could possibly date back to 1711. No one knows for
The Stamitz concerto
is played here on a modern instrument and it’s typical of the court music of
the period, exhibiting the much-valued classical ideals of dignity, form and
elegant melodies; qualities from which Mozart would later take inspiration.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra.
Martin Fröst (clt), Norwegian Chamber Orchestra (Duration: 15:35; Video 720p
The first movement
must be one of the most beautiful pieces ever written. Few composers have
the gift of writing music that sounds truly American but Copland is one of
them. You can almost sense visions of vast prairies and distant hills in a
landscape bathed under radiant sunshine.
Copland started the
work in 1947 and scored it for strings, piano and harp. It was commissioned
by jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman who evidently paid two thousand dollars
for the work, a considerable sum in those days. There are just two
movements, linked by a cadenza – a standard part of most concertos
and usually intended to display the soloist’s technical skills. The first
movement is slow and expressive, full of what’s been described as Copland’s
“bitter-sweet lyricism”. The cadenza introduces some of the Latin-American
and jazz themes that dominate the lively second movement.
This is one of the
best recordings around: not only a brilliant soloist but an incredibly good
chamber ensemble. Just listen to the sparkling and virtuosic coda section
from 14:15 onwards and the thrilling glissando on the last chord! I used to
have a treasured LP of this work, conducted by the composer and featuring
Goodman himself. This stunning performance leaves it rather in the
shadows. Sorry, Benny.