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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update February 27, 2016

When the world was a quieter place

Guillaume Dufay (left) with composer Gilles Binchois.

Last night I was re-reading Jeremy Paxman’s entertaining and brilliantly perceptive book The English: a Portrait of a People.  At least, I was attempting to re-read it but was distracted by the sound of an open-air disco going on somewhere across the fields.  It was quite a long way off but the thudding incessant bass and the repetitive, mind-dulling noise of techno-rock made concentration almost impossible.  You will probably say, “This is Thailand; what’s new?”  But while the distant music was pounding relentlessly, it occurred to me that over the centuries, music has gradually become louder, even without the aid of electric amplification.  The eighteenth century orchestra for example, was quieter than those of today partly because it was smaller but also because instruments produced softer sounds. 

For a moment, let’s cast our minds back to the early Middle Ages, the so-called “dark ages” that lasted between the fifth and the tenth centuries.  The beginnings of western classical music lie somewhere here in the plainchant of the Roman Catholic Church.  These chants were unaccompanied melodies sung by small groups of nuns, monks or other clerics rather than by trained singers.  But just imagine how quiet it must have been when the loudest musical sound was that of a few human voices.

During the early years of the Middle Ages, the chants were passed on by memory alone but in the early ninth century the Emperor Charlemagne decreed that the music be written down and plainchant books be distributed to churches and monasteries across Europe.  Whether we like it or not, we have to thank the early Christian church for the preservation and development of the earliest classical music.

Sometime during the early Middle Ages, a musical style known as organum appeared.  It had nothing to do with organs but referred to the practice of improvising a second vocal part in parallel with the melody.  It was usually sung a perfect fourth or fifth below and produced that stereotypical “medieval sound” that is so easy to recognise today.  A supporting part was often added in the form of a single sustained lower note like the drone of a bagpipe.

Pérotin (1160-1225): Sederunt Principes. The Hilliard Ensemble (Duration: 10:50; Video: 1080p HD)

The two composers Léonin and Pérotin worked at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  Léonin was about ten years older and had developed the previously improvised organum into an art-form.

Pérotin perfected the technical feat of writing organum in three and four parts.  He used Léonin’s technique of taking a simple Gregorian melody and literally stretching it out in time.  In Sederunt Principes, the first syllable “se” is drawn out for well over a minute and sung to a long melodic line.  At the same time, he created second and third voices that interweaved with the melody producing a fascinating rhythmic counterpoint of vocal sounds.

The foundation of the music was the conventional low-pitched drone but sometimes Pérotin changed the notes to create a sense of contrast.  The Bishop of Chartres wrote that Pérotin’s music “drives away care from the soul and… confers joy and peace and exultation in God, and transports the soul to the society of angels”.

This recording is audio only but the music appears on screen in modern notation.  If you can read music you’ll get a fascinating glimpse into Pérotin’s composing style.  But if you don’t, just sit back and enjoy the music.  Using the text from Psalm 118, Sederunt Principes is a hymn for the mass of the Feast of St. Stephen and notice the incredibly beautiful harmonies at about 03:50 for the plea Adjuva me (“Help me”).  It’s haunting, powerful music that speaks to us passionately and eloquently across the centuries.

Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474): Nuper rosarum flores. Quire Cleveland, dir. Ross W. Duffin (Duration: 06:08; Video: 1080p HD)

If we jump forward in time a couple of hundred years, we’ll find that although music hasn’t got much louder it has certainly become more complex and expressive.  During the mid-fifteenth century Guillaume Dufay (sometimes written du Fay) was regarded as the leading composer in Europe.  Just listen how music has moved on from the time of Pérotin.

Although it’s probably not obvious, this work is also based on Gregorian chant and even though its medieval origins are unmistakable, the overall sound is mellifluous, rich in harmony and it has more sophisticated melodies.

This work was written in 1436 for the consecration of Florence cathedral and the piece is constructed using duration ratios of 6:4:2:3 for each section.  Now this might seem an irrelevant snippet of information but the American musicologist Craig Wright discovered that this ratio is exactly the same as the dimensions of the biblical Temple of Solomon and is also roughly the same ratio of dimensions of Florence cathedral itself.  Now if that’s not a fascinating revelation, I don’t know what is.

Update February 20, 2016

You play the what?

The oud: a long history but a short neck.

A recent concert given by the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra included an unusual work for alpenhorn – an unwieldy thing about eight feet long that has the unusual distinction of being considered a brass instrument when it’s actually made of wood. 

It shares a similar honour with the saxophone, which is one of the few woodwind instruments made of brass.  However, the alpenhorn has none of the usual mechanisms you find on most modern wind instruments.  It has, in fact no mechanisms at all.  The notes are produced by variations in the player’s embouchure, utilizing the upper partials of the harmonic series.  Oh dear, that sounds a bit technical.  Basically, it’s just the way you hold your mouth.

Leopold Mozart wrote a concerto for alpenhorn, as well as concertos for other unlikely candidates like the bagpipes and the hurdy-gurdy.  Then there was the Swiss composer Jean Daetwyler who also wrote a somewhat rambling concerto for alpenhorn.  All of which brings me to the question, what do the these six instruments have in common?  They are the pipa, the sarod, the oud, the didgeridoo, the erhu and the tar.  Well, apart from not being seen very often in these parts, they’ve all had concertos written for them.

Marcel Khalifé (b. 1950): Andalusian Suite for Oud and Orchestra. Marcel Khalifé (oud) Algerian Symphony Orchestra cond. Amine Kouider (Duration: c. 30:00; Video 480p)

The oud (usually pronounced to rhyme with “wood”) has a long and rich history.  It’s a pear-shaped plucked-string instrument common all over the Middle East and North Africa.  At first glance it looks like a lute, which almost certainly developed from it, except that the neck is unusually short and there are no frets. 

There’s a charming legend that the oud was invented by one Adam’s grandsons and while this might be difficult to prove, the instrument has certainly been around - in one form or another - for a few thousand years.

Marcel Khalifé was born in a small coastal village north of Beirut and was introduced to music – and the oud - at an early age.  He later studied the instrument at the National Academy of Music in Beirut and in 1972 he formed a vocal group in his native village in an attempt to revive interest in Arabic choral singing.  The first performances were during the Lebanese civil war when the risk of bombing was at its height.  Since then Khalifé has achieved world-wide fame and in 2005 was named a UNESCO Artist for Peace.  He has performed in the major concert halls of the world and had recorded more than twenty albums and DVDs.

His Andalusian Suite for Oud and Orchestra dates from 2002 and is an attractive approachable work, reflecting the southern Spanish spirit through haunting Iberian melodies and rhythms.  “My music is for the service of humanity” wrote the composer, “And is intended to present a serious and sincere work for those tormented in this destructive war… a sort of balm for those wounds.”  And his music does indeed have an unreal, dreamy quality at times with its insistent rhythms and hypnotic repetitive phrases.

Tan Dun (b. 1957): Concerto for Zheng and String Orchestra. Yuan Li (zheng), Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Julian Kuerti (Duration: 24:17; Video: 720p HD)

The zheng (or guzheng) is a large Chinese plucked zither with at least eighteen strings set over movable bridges.  It is thought to have originated sometime during the third century BC.

The modern zheng is quite different from those of ancient times.  For example, the strings once made from silk, are now made from metal or nylon and the bodywork has been considerably improved.  The zheng has an amazingly wide range of expressive sounds and is often used in Chinese popular music.

The name Tan Dun may seem unfamiliar, but if you’ve ever seen the movies Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero, you’ve heard his music.  He’s also written many works for the concert hall and already completed five operas. 

Tan Dun spent his childhood days in the village of Changsha in the Hunan province of China where he became fascinated by the rituals and ceremonies of the village shaman, usually set to music produced with natural objects such as rocks and water.  He moved to New York City in the 1980s to study music at Columbia University but his fascination with natural sounds continued throughout his career and led to works like the Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra composed in 1998.

Tan Dun has a highly personal musical language which is derived from both classical Chinese and Western influences.  It makes for fascinating listening and contains some beautiful and innovative string writing.

This compelling and surprisingly tuneful work is in four movements and employs many percussive sounds, but without the use of percussion instruments.  I’ll leave you to discover for yourself how it’s done.

Update February 13, 2016

Into Finn air

Einojuhani Rautavaara. (Photo: Sirpa Räihä)

In must have been a good many years ago, but my one-and-only journey to Finland was to a music conference in Helsinki.  I can’t recall much about the conference but I was amazed by the astronomical prices of everyday goods in the shops.  I was also slightly taken aback by the number of drunks in the streets, either staggering about aimlessly or sleeping on the pavement.  I tactfully enquired at my hotel why there were so many. “It’s because of the extremely high price of alcohol in Finland” explained the receptionist solemnly, “This makes many people feel depressed and so they drink to overcome the depression.”  “Oh, I see,” I replied, not really seeing at all.

Unlike Germany and France, Finland is not known for its long list of classical composers - at least not before the twentieth century.  Sibelius of course is generally regarded as the greatest of them all, even though he doesn’t have a Finnish name.  His first name is French (and should be pronounced as such) and his last name comes from Latin and is pronounced si-BAY-lee-us, not as sigh-BEE-lee-us as one of my linguistically-challenged friends likes to say.

The so-called “Father of Finnish Music” is Fredrik Pacius who was born in 1809 and also sported a Latin-style name despite the fact that he was actually German.  Pacius is remembered today as the composer of the Finnish national anthem, the melody of which is also used in the Estonian anthem.  He was the composer of the first Finnish opera (1852, since you asked) and he also wrote a violin concerto, a symphony, a string quartet and several other operas.

The composer Armas Jarnefelt achieved modest success with his orchestral works but spent most of his time conducting the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm.  Selim Palmgren was born in 1878 and became known as “The Finnish Chopin” on account of his vast number of piano compositions, some of which are still popular today.  And that’s about it.

Not until the twentieth century did Finnish composers begin to emerge, though few of them have really achieved international fame.  The best-known are Sven Einar Englund, Kaija Anneli Saariaho and the dauntingly named Einojuhani Rautavaara.

Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928): Suite for Strings. Burlington Chamber Orchestra, cond. Michael Hopkins (Duration: 14:55; Video: 720p HD)

Let’s get the pronunciation sorted out first.  It sounds roughly like AY-no-yoo-hah-nee RAO-ta-vah-ra (in which “RAO” rhymes with “cow”).  Now say it ten times slowly, because there will be a test later.

Rautavaara is Finland’s best-known contemporary composer and his music is frequently performed.  He’s also incredibly prolific with eight symphonies to his name, three piano concertos, a violin concerto, a harp concerto and clarinet concerto.  There’s also a concerto for birds and orchestra in which the orchestral part is enhanced with bird-song recorded by the composer himself.

Many of his works have rather mystic-sounding titles and Rautavaara is considered by many to be a rather contradictory figure whose music cannot easily be categorized in terms of style.  In 1955 the Koussewitzky Foundation allowed Sibelius to nominate a young Finnish composer to study in the United States.  Sibelius selected Rautavaara who subsequently spent two years at the Juilliard School of Music and also at Tanglewood studying with Roger Sessions and Aaron Copland.

Although in the 1960s Rautavaara went through an avant-garde phase, his 1952 Suite for Strings is a most approachable work.  It was originally scored for string quartet but the following year he arranged it for orchestra.  The work has echoes of Finnish folk songs and a distinct hint of neo-classical Stravinsky.  The middle slow movement has a lovely poignant melody played above a drone bass while the joyful finale is in the form of a lively folk dance.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): Lemminkäinen Suite, Op 22. Vienna Philharmonic cond. Franz Welser-Möst Duration: 45:48; Video 720p HD)

This splendid work is not performed often but it offers a wonderful glimpse into the composer’s musical style.  It was originally conceived in 1895 as a mythological opera of Wagnerian proportions but Sibelius changed his mind and instead it became a set of four short symphonic poems intended to be performed one after another.  He revised the work in 1897 and again in 1937.

The music is based on the heroic adventures of a Finnish mythological character called Lemminkäinen (LEH-min-kay-ee-nen) whose story is told in the Finnish national epic the Kalevala.  You don’t need to know details of the convoluted plot to appreciate the work but you’ll probably recognise the second section as The Swan of Tuonela which is often played as a stand-alone concert piece.

It’s a stunningly good performance by a world-class orchestra, given in the concert hall of Helsinki’s impressive Music Centre.  Now then, can you say Einojuhani Rautavaara without stumbling over his first name?  No, I thought not.

Update February 6, 2016

Mixed doubles

Composer Jean Françaix.

Go to almost any orchestral concert and you’ll find that there’s probably a concerto for something-or-other on the programme.  Why are concertos so popular?  Perhaps it’s because by their nature, concertos tend to be show-pieces.  Perhaps it’s because the spectacle of a single musician pitted against a full orchestra has theatrical appeal.

Professor Octavio Roca of the University of Miami wrote, “There’s always drama in a concerto.  It’s a musical form based on contrasts, a battleground for the most passionate musical ideas and a showcase for heroic musical gestures.  The concerto is also, perhaps even more than the symphony or string quartet, the most accessible… for the newcomer to classical music.”

The concerto in one form or another has been around for about three hundred years.  The concept of the concerto – that of contrasting one source of sound against another – had existed for even longer but it was developed in Venice during the sixteenth century.  As time passed, the concerto evolved into both the solo concerto and the so-called concerto grosso in which a group of instrumentalists were contrasted with a larger ensemble.

Vivaldi wrote hundreds of concertos and standardised it into the conventional three movement form.  During the eighteenth century it went through a process of refinement but in the nineteenth century the concerto reached a pinnacle of popularity.  This was partly because many of them were commissioned by top soloists of the day who expected composers to write something which would demonstrate the soloist’s brilliant technical skills.  They wanted musical fireworks - and usually got them.

A double concerto is nearly always for two instruments and orchestra and its history dates back to the baroque.  Many double concertos have been written especially for two violins, or violin and cello.  Ask any classical musician to name double concertos and you can bet they’ll come up with either those of Bach or Brahms.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750):  Double Violin Concerto in D minor BWV 1043. Natalia Stêposz, Zuzanna Bolon (vlns), Cracow Young Philharmonic cond. Tomasz Chmiel (Duration 17:31; Video: 1080p HD)

Known in the music business simply as “The Bach Double”, this is probably one of the composer’s most famous works and dates from sometime between 1717 and 1723 when he was working for the musically enlightened Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen.  Unlike the violin concertos of Vivaldi, Bach’s violin concertos are not intended as show-pieces even though they’re technically demanding.

The work is cast in three movements and relies largely on the soloists exchanging themes and musical phrases, weaving them into complex counterpoint.  The second movement is one of Bach’s most sublime and eloquent musical creations.  There are plenty of recordings of this work by big-name international musicians but I rather liked this youthful performance because although it’s not flawless, it contains some attractive and thoughtful playing.

Jean Françaix (1912-1997): Double Concerto for Flute, Clarinet and Orchestra. Jean-François Doumerc (fl), Radovan Cavallin (clt) Orquesta Filarmónica de Gran Canaria cond. Christoph Campestrini (Duration: 23:04; Video: 720p HD)

There’s something terribly French about the music of Jean Françaix.  It’s as French as baguettes, the Citroën 2CV and Édith Piaf.  Françaix was a prolific composer known for his colourful and lively musical style.  He was a gifted child born into an intensely musical family and started composing at the age of six in a style influenced by Ravel.  Although Françaix became an accomplished concert pianist he never stopped composing, barely finishing one piece before starting another.

This double concerto dates from 1991, but in parts sounds as though it comes from seventy years earlier.  It’s a delightful work and unusually for a concerto, comes in four movements.  There’s a particularly boisterous finale reminiscent of la gaîté Parisienne of the 1920s.

André Previn (b. 1929): Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra. Jaime Laredo (vln), Sharon Robinson (vlc), Detroit Symphony Orchestra con. Leonard Slatkin (Duration 25:04; Video: 720p HD)

You might associate Previn’s name either with his early recordings as a jazz pianist or perhaps with his later work as a conductor, because he was principal conductor for the London Symphony Orchestra for over ten years before moving to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Previn is also a prolific composer with a couple of dozen film scores to his credit together with an enormous amount of orchestral music, chamber music, songs and two operas.

Written in 2007, this work was commissioned by a consortium of eight orchestras and given its first performance by the Boston Symphony with the composer conducting.  The music is rhythmic, tuneful, approachable, sophisticated, well-written and not surprisingly, brilliantly orchestrated.  Each movement begins with a short duet by the two soloists.  The lyrical and retrospective slow movement, in which the opening and closing duets are particularly compelling, seems to be at the heart of this splendid concerto.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

When the world was a quieter place

You play the what?

Into Finn air

Mixed doubles