By Colin Kaye
When the world was a quieter place
Guillaume Dufay (left) with composer Gilles
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928): Suite for Strings.
Burlington Chamber Orchestra, cond. Michael Hopkins (Duration: 14:55; Video:
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.
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
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.
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
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)
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.