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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update April 30, 2016

Double trouble

Richard Strauss in the early 1940s.

Most woodwind players spend a great deal of their time fretting about reeds.  Flute players are lucky because flutes don’t use reeds but all other woodwind instruments do.  This preoccupation with reeds is justified because the reed is where the sound begins.  You can have the finest clarinet in the world but with a poor reed the instrument will sound awful.

Reeds are usually made from a type of giant cane known to botanists as Arundo donax.  In their box, reeds look pretty much the same but there’s no way of knowing what a reed will actually sound like until you stick it in the mouthpiece and try it out.  A clarinet player I know used to travel regularly to Paris to buy boxes of reeds direct from the factory and then spend days testing them individually and selecting the best for concert work.  A good reed might give him about fifteen or twenty hours’ use and sometimes considerably less.  They break easily, too.  You’ve got to be pretty dedicated to go through all that palaver.

Oboe and bassoon players have a more difficult time because their instruments use double reeds – two pieces of cane bound together.  Not surprisingly double reeds are more expensive.  A professional oboe or bassoon reed, bought at a specialist woodwind shop could cost up to thirty dollars.  That’s not for a box of them, it’s for one.  As a result, some players make their own reeds but it takes a great deal of skill and practice.  They then have to spend hours trying them out, which gave rise to the old orchestral joke about how many oboists are needed to change a light bulb.  The answer is only one, but he’ll go through thirty of forty bulbs to find the best.

The oboe has a bright and penetrating tone, which is why it’s used to sound the note “A” to which other orchestral instruments tune.  It was a popular concerto instrument during the baroque and classical periods but strangely enough, only a handful of rather obscure nineteenth century composers wrote a concerto for the instrument.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949): Concerto for Oboe in D Major. Marin Tinev (ob), Orchestra of the Trossingen Musikhochschule (Germany) cond. Sebastian Tewinkel (Duration: 20:14; Video 480p)

This was one of the composer’s last works, but it may not have been written at all, had it not been for young Corporal John de Lancie of the US Army, who in civilian life was Principal Oboist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.  In 1945, Corporal Lancie was stationed near the Bavarian winter-sports town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen where Richard Strauss lived.  On one occasion he was taken by a friend to visit the composer at his home.  The Corporal asked Strauss whether he’d ever considered writing a concerto for oboe, which he hadn’t, but the idea evidently grew on him and by September of the same year Strauss had completed the work.

It is a challenging concerto for the soloist, especially the opening in which the oboe has a solo of fifty-seven bars with hardly a rest between phrases.  But for the listener, it’s a charming and approachable work which contains some lovely lyrical music with much interplay between the soloist and the orchestral woodwind.  The scoring is light and delicate and at times, especially in the melancholy slow movement, it sounds positively old-fashioned as though the composer is glancing back longingly over his shoulder to a bygone age.

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826): Concerto for Bassoon. Laurent Lefèvre (bsn), Simon Bolivar Orchestra cond. Pablo Castellanos (Duration: 20:14; Video 480p)

Weber was a contemporary of Beethoven, though sixteen years his junior and best-known for his operas which had a huge influence on those written later in the nineteenth century.  Unusually, Weber was also interested in the music of other cultures and was the first Western composer to use a genuine Chinese melody in one of his pieces of incidental music for a play.  His instrumental music remains popular today especially the two piano concertos, the horn concerto and the two clarinet concertos.  There are also two symphonies, though these are rarely heard.

This concerto was written in Munich in 1811 when the composer was twenty-five.  Along with Mozart’s bassoon concerto, it’s considered one of the finest for the instrument.  At times it even sounds slightly Mozartian and is thoroughly classical in conception.  The composer revised the work some years later, but it is essentially the same piece with brilliant virtuosic writing.

The soloist in this recording was appointed Principal Bassoon in the Orchestra of the Opera National of Paris at the age of only twenty-two, a position he still holds today as well as teaching and giving solo concert performances.  But you can be certain that he also spends a great deal of time messing about with reeds.

Update April 23, 2016

England’s Green and Pleasant Land

Vaughan Williams
as a young man.

You’ll probably remember this week’s title’s evocative phrase, the last line of that visionary poem by the English poet and painter William Blake.  It’s become best known as the stirring hymn-tune Jerusalem with music written by Sir Hubert Parry. 

The poem was inspired by the apocryphal story that the young Jesus, accompanied by Joseph of Arimathea, travelled to what is now England during his so-called “unknown years”.  Incidentally, you can find Blake’s illustrated manuscript online, where the text is written against a swirl of colour that seems to anticipate the vivid paintings of the twentieth century master Mark Rothko.

If you are English, as distinct from being British you probably know that 23rd April is St. George’s Day.  It’s virtually England’s National Day though not celebrated as enthusiastically as it was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in the second half of the sixteenth century.  That was the time of William Shakespeare, born on 26th April 1564 and who died on 23rd April 1616.  This brief window in history is known as the Golden Age of English Music.   The queen herself was fond of music and dancing and encouraged it among her subjects.  Anyone in high society was expected by their peers to read music, sing or play an instrument.  Music by English composers became popular as never before.

The leading composer of religious music was William Byrd, organist and composer to the queen.  Other popular composers were John Taverner, Thomas Morley, Orlando Gibbons and Thomas Tallis.  The favourite composer of songs and lute music was John Dowland.  His first book of rather melancholy lute songs, published in 1597 became a bestseller. 

It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that English music regained its importance with the work of Hubert Parry, Charles Stanford, Edward Elgar, Frederick Delius and Ralph Vaughan Williams.  English music thrived not only in Britain but became increasingly popular in concert halls around the world.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Toward the Unknown Region. Irish Youth Chamber Choir, National Youth Orchestra and Choir of Great Britain cond. Vasily Petrenko (Duration: 12:20; Video 240p)

The evocative title of this short work is from a poem by Walt Whitman, whose writing influenced many young artists and musicians during the late nineteenth century.  Vaughan Williams was fascinated by Whitman’s poetry and the collection of poems Leaves of Grass was a constant companion.  The Sea Symphony of 1910, written for choir and orchestra uses Whitman’s poetry throughout. 

A companion piece, which was actually finished before the symphony was Toward the Unknown Region first performed at the Leeds Festival in October 1907 with the composer conducting.  He described it as a “song” for chorus and orchestra and it’s his first major choral work though rarely performed today.  This is a shame for it’s a wonderful setting of the poem with superb choral writing, brilliant orchestration and soaring melodies.

This performance, recorded at The Proms in 2013 is fresh and captivating with superb sound quality too.  Try using good quality headphones to enjoy the expansive spatial quality of the recording.

Edward Elgar (1857-1934):  Enigma Variations, Op 36. St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Yuri Temirkanov (Duration 31:50; Video: 720p)

Elgar is best known for his Pomp and Circumstance Marches and especially the first one, composed in 1901 in which the middle section became the patriotic song Land of Hope and Glory.  It’s always performed at the Last Night of the Proms and bawled out with infectious enthusiasm by hordes of flag-waving concert-goers.  Oddly enough, the music came before the words.  When King Edward VII heard the tune he told Elgar that he thought it would make a great song.  The text was duly written by Arthur C. Benson, poet, essayist and writer of popular ghost stories.

One evening in October 1898, after a tiring day of teaching, Elgar sat down at his piano and started improvising.  A melody caught the attention of his wife and Elgar began to improvise variations on it in different styles, reflecting the character of some of his friends.  His original improvised ideas were developed and orchestrated and eventually the Enigma Variations came into being.  By naming the main theme Enigma, the composer created a puzzle which has never been convincingly answered although it’s thought it might involve a hidden melody.

Elgar dedicated the fourteen variations “to my friends pictured within” and their initials appear in the score.  The most famous is the profoundly moving ninth variation, known as Nimrod (12:50) which has become popular in its own right and sometimes played at British funerals, memorial services, and other solemn occasions.  It is always performed at the Cenotaph in London on Remembrance Sunday.  Over the years, this poignant, arching melody must have reduced countless people to tears.

Update April 16, 2016

Spring in the air

Debussy as a music student, late 1870s.

There can be no other season that brings such a mood of joyful expectation as the spring.  One of the things I miss about the Old Country is the sudden appearance of daffodils in the fields, as if to herald the end of the ghastly grey and rainy winter.  The daffodils were the harbingers of spring.  And yes, now you mention it, there’s that poem by William Wordsworth about daffodils, which in a moment of astonishing originality he entitled “Daffodils.”  It’s the one that begins “I wandered, lonely as a cloud”.  The poem - or at least the first line of it - was probably known by every child in the country in those days. 

Anyway, where was I?  You interrupted me by mentioning Wordsworth and I’ve completely lost my train of thought.  I’m terribly sorry, but we’ll have to start again.  You have only yourself to blame.

There can be no other season that brings such a mood of joyful expectation as the spring.  It’s the season of rebirth and renewal and it’s full of expectations for the months to come.  It’s not surprising that so many artists and composers have been attracted to the idea of spring.  It’s been celebrated in music at least since the fifteenth century and possibly even earlier.

Delius wrote Spring Morning and On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, Roussel wrote Pour une Fete de Printemps, Joachim Raff composed Ode to Spring and Karl Goldmark wrote an overture called In The Spring.  There’s Schumann’s so-called Spring Symphony and the waltz Voices of Spring by Johann Strauss II.

There are dozens more of course but perhaps the most influential composition on the theme was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring composed for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev’s company, Ballets Russes.  It caused a sensation at its first performance and a near-riot in the audience.  I first heard the work when I was about fourteen and thought it was one of the most thrilling pieces of music ever written.  In many ways, I still do.  But let’s begin with something a little less famous.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918): Printemps (Suite symphonique). Orquestra Sinfônica de Minas Gerais (Brazil) cond. Charles Roussin (Duration: 16:43; Video: 480p)

Compared to the brittle and grinding harmonies that characterize Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Debussy’s orchestral essay on the theme seems somewhat genteel.  Even so, at the time it was considered “excessively progressive” by the conservatively-minded Fine Arts Academy in Paris.  By today’s standards the music is entirely approachable and immensely enjoyable.

Spring was always a source of inspiration for Debussy and this was a student work, originally sketched out for piano duet.  Debussy didn’t get around to getting an orchestral version prepared until 1913 but it’s glorious music and bears hallmarks of the composer’s later style with rich post-Wagnerian harmonies and of course, masterful orchestration.  

Debussy described the music as representing “the slow, laborious birth of beings and things in nature, and then their blossoming outward and upward, and finally a burst of joy at being reborn to new life.”  The music is in two contrasting movements and the second one, which starts at 09:44, is full of attractive, infectious melodies.

Li Huanzhi (1919-2000): Spring Festival Overture. National Orchestre de France cond. Hu Rong-yan (Duration: 04:33; Video: 240p)

The year after Debussy died in Paris, on the other side of the world Li Huanzhi was born in Hong Kong.  He was to become one of China’s premier composers of the twentieth century who also wrote text books on music and composition.  He studied music at the National Music College in Shanghai, and later went to Yan’an where he studied at the Lu Xun Arts College.  After the outbreak of the war of resistance against the Japanese he composed among other things, propaganda songs against Japan.

Li Huanzhi wrote over four hundred compositions and was Chairman of the China Musicians’ Association for many years.  During his life he composed a large amount of music with uplifting titles like March of the Foundation of a New Democratic Country, March of the Youth of New China and the breathtakingly prosaic Socialism is Good.

One of his best-known works is the orchestral suite Spring Festival, but over the years the first movement has become detached from the rest of the suite and become known as the Spring Festival Overture.  Li Huanzhi’s notion of spring is a rather more boisterous affair than Debussy’s reflecting the high spirits of Chinese New Year and while it’s written in a kind of plink-plonk modern-Chinese style there are some catchy tunes.  There’s a lovely lyrical middle section too with pleasing woodwind solos.

Incidentally, there’s also a delightful performance on YouTube by the China Central Chinese Orchestra conducted by Chen Xieyang.  It’s all jolly stuff and fascinating to hear the music played on traditional Chinese instruments.

Update April 9, 2016

Small diversions

Jacques Ibert.

You might be surprised to know that apart from all his symphonies, concertos and operas, Mozart also wrote quite a lot of what we’d describe as background music.  It was intended to fulfill much the same purpose as today’s piped music that pervades most restaurants and supermarkets.  I don’t know about you but I simply cannot understand why restaurant and bar owners feel the need for a constant stream of irritating background noise.  At one of the best-known local supermarkets there is continuous tinkling of obnoxious piano music, the sound of which induces in me a kind of trolley rage.

I’m not the only one who gets annoyed over this unwelcome intrusion.  In Britain there’s an organisation called Pipedown, which campaigns to rid public places of unwanted piped music.  It’s supported by many well-known musicians and thousands of lesser mortals who loathe the incessant jangle of piped music.  Pipedown has been successful in persuading the management of Britain’s Gatwick Airport to drop piped music in its public areas and convincing two UK major supermarket chains not to install background music in their branches.  We really should have a similar outfit here in Thailand, though I suspect they’d have a hard time.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh yes, Mozart.  He and many other eighteenth century composers earned money by writing background music for social occasions and even for private homes, if the owners could afford to hire a small orchestra or chamber group.  The music usually consisted of five or six independent movements and invariably contained many repeated sections to spin them out.  These suites were often called serenades, but sometimes the suite was called a notturno, sometimes a cassation and sometimes a divertimento - a word from the Italian divertire meaning “to amuse”.  Despite their different names, there was little to distinguish one from another because they all consisted of light-hearted music intended to accompany a party, banquet or other social occasion.  The main difference between the serenade and the notturno for example, was that a serenade was for mid-evening whereas a notturno was for around 11.00pm.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Divertimento in D major, K.136. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Ricardo Muti (Duration: 18:36; Video 720p HD)

Mozart probably wrote more divertimenti than most of his contemporaries.  Notice the correct Italian plural form.  Not that I am stickler for correct Italian grammar you understand, but “divertimentos” just sounds wrong.  He composed a couple of dozen of them as well as a dozen serenades along with many other works of a similar type.  Some of them, like of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik took the form of a small symphony in which the first movement is a text-book example of sonata form, the traditional structure of classical and early romantic symphonies.

This three-movement Divertimento for strings was written in the winter of 1772 when Mozart was about sixteen.  Nobody seems to know the origin of the work except that it was written in the composer’s home-town of Salzburg and was almost certainly intended for a social occasion.  The brilliant opening movement is cast in simple sonata form and it’s followed by a lyrical slow movement which demonstrates that even when writing background music, the young Mozart could be wonderfully expressive.  The bustling high-speed finale (at 14:37) begins deceptively simply but leads into some virtuosic playing.

Ricardo Muti and the fine string players of the VPO give the work a beautifully shaped and elegant performance in which all the repeats are observed. 

Jacques Ibert (1890-1962): Divertissement. Orquesta Sinfónica Sinaloa de las Artes (Mexico) cond. Gordon Campbell (Duration: 16:37; Video 720p HD)

We don’t hear much of Ibert’s music these days, despite the fact that he wrote seven operas, five ballets, several choral works and incidental music for plays and films.

This entertaining orchestral suite dates from 1930 and is probably his best-known work.  Divertissement is the French equivalent of “diversion” and the music is both entertaining and thoroughly French, consisting of six movements which overflow with vivacity and brash high spirits.  The Introduction has amusing wrong-note effects with clear echoes of Stravinsky and Milhaud.  The second movement contains quotes from Mendelssohn’s Wedding March and transforms itself into a raucous march played with the delicacy of a Mexican mariachi band.  The short third movement is a wistful nocturne and the fourth movement is an attractive waltz which turns into an uncouth version of The Blue Danube.  The fifth movement is a parade which seems to evoke the sounds of an incompetent circus band. As the parade passes by, there’s a brief but hopelessly incoherent piano cadenza which introduces the Finale, a hilariously chaotic march in which the players are encouraged by the frenzied blowing of a whistle. It’s a delightful work which manages to combine catchy melodies, sparkling wit and delicious vulgarity.

Update April 2, 2016

A cause for celebration

Sir William Walton (left) with a friend.

If you type the words “festival overture” into the search panel of your web browser it will probably come up with the three most popular concert overtures ever written.  They are the Academic Festival Overture by Brahms, a jolly piece written during the summer of 1880 as a token of gratitude to the University of Breslau, which had awarded him an honorary doctorate degree.  You’ll probably see a reference to the Festive Overture by Shostakovich and there will almost certainly be a mention of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which incidentally you can hear in its full splendour at Pattaya’s Tiffany Show Theatre next Saturday, 9th April.

You might think that the word “overture” is a rather curious choice for these pieces.  It comes from the French word ouverture meaning “opening” and was traditionally a short orchestral piece played before an opera to generally set the scene and give the audience time to settle down.  By the end of the eighteenth century popular opera overtures were often played as separate items in a concert programme.

During the early nineteenth century, composers such as Beethoven and Mendelssohn began to use the word “overture” for a stand-alone orchestral concert piece and many other composers started to do the same thing.  These concert overtures were nearly always fairly short single-movement works invariably with some kind of literary, historical or descriptive associations.  Some were written for specific celebratory occasions.

This is how Walton’s Johannesburg Festival Overture came into being.  The composer was at the peak of his musical career in Britain when he received a request to write a work for the celebrations surrounding the seventieth anniversary of Johannesburg.  The commission came from the impresario Ernest Fleischmann, the Musical Director of the Johannesburg Festival Committee who also asked that Walton include some African themes in the music.

William Walton (1902-1983): Johannesburg Festival Overture. National Youth Orchestra of Scotland cond. Michael Francis (Duration: 7:34; Video 720p HD)

The work dates from 1956 and unlike the slightly later Second Symphony, which received mostly negative reviews, this is more straightforward with lively melodies and an attractive rhythmic drive.  Walton was a successful composer of film music, and his fine orchestration skills are much evident in this entertaining work.  It’s scored for large orchestra with many percussion instruments that include tom-toms, clave, castanets and maracas but I have to admit that the African themes, which were requested in the commission, are not immediately obvious..

The overture is one of his lighter and more approachable works, described by the composer as “a non-stop gallop...slightly crazy, hilarious and vulgar”. These young Scottish musicians give an impressive account of the overture, helped by fine conducting and a superb sound recording.

Although by the 1960s, interest in Walton’s music had started to wane and was considered somewhat old fashioned, he was nonetheless awarded a knighthood.  I remember hearing the first performance of his rather opaque Second Symphony on the radio.  It was all a bit heavy going but at the end, just before the tentative applause someone in the audience yelled “Rubbish!” which at the time struck me as downright rude, especially as the composer was probably in the audience too.

Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Festival Overture on the Danish National Anthem. State Youth Orchestra of Armenia cond. Sergey Smbatyan (Duration: 11:52; Video 720p HD)

This one of Tchaikovsky’s lesser-known works although he thought rather highly of it and considered it musically superior to the 1812 Overture.  The music is based on the same national anthem that is used in Denmark today, although no one seems to know who actually composed the original melody.

Like the Walton overture, this was also a commission.  It came in 1866 from Nikolay Rubinstein, the principal of the Moscow Conservatoire where Tchaikovsky was working at the time.  The heir to the Russian throne, later to be crowned Tsar Alexander III of Russia was planning to visit Moscow with his new Danish bride, Princess Dagmar of Denmark.  It was deemed appropriate that Tchaikovsky should be commissioned to write a festival overture based on the melody of the Danish national anthem. 

Despite the celebratory mood of the occasion this is quite a complex piece but bears the unmistakable hand of Tchaikovsky.  Towards the end the mood lightens and we hear the Danish national anthem belted out heroically by the full orchestra very much in the 1812 style.  It must have gone down a treat with the Danish Princess because Tchaikovsky received a gift of gold cuff links from the tsar-to-be as a token of royal gratitude.

The conservative yet somewhat unrefined Alexander III remained enthusiastic about Tchaikovsky’s music all his life and in 1885 awarded the composer a state pension, which Tchaikovsky probably appreciated more than the cuff links. 

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Double trouble

England’s Green and Pleasant Land

Spring in the air

Small diversions

A cause for celebration