By Colin Kaye
Richard Strauss in the early 1940s.
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
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
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.
England’s Green and Pleasant Land
as a young man.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
(1919-2000): Spring Festival Overture.
National Orchestre de France cond. Hu Rong-yan (Duration: 04:33; Video:
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.
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.
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
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Ricardo Muti (Duration: 18:36; Video
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.