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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update May 28, 2016

Paws for thought

Domenico Scarlatti, painted by Domingo Antonio Velasco (1738).

The other day, while chatting with one of the dogs outside Tesco-Lotus, it occurred to me that animals of all sorts have been the inspiration for many classical works.  The most obvious I suppose is The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns who brought a collection of them, including some pianists and fossils into an entertaining musical menagerie.

Bach is well-known for his sheep in Sheep May Safely Graze, which is actually the title of an aria in his Cantata No. 208.  Edward Elgar wrote about bears in his Wand of Youth Suites and Haydn wrote a symphony which later became known as The Bear, not because it sounded like one, but because at several moments the music imitates the bagpipes, which were invariably used to accompany dancing bears in the streets of eighteenth century Europe.

Aaron Copland wrote a lovely work for a movie called The Red Pony and another American composer, Alan Hovhaness wrote a symphonic poem for orchestra entitled And God Created Great Whales.  And of course, a whale is an animal even though it doesn’t look like one.  The French composer Darius Milhaud is famous for his ballet The Ox on the Roof and the equally French Francis Poulenc wrote a charming setting of Babar the Elephant based on the children’s book Histoire de Babar by Jean de Brunhoff.  If you have time on your hands, you can probably think of some more.

The year 1685 was a good one for music. It saw the birth of three great composers, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederick Handel and Domenico Scarlatti.  Although Scarlatti was born in Naples into a well-known musical family, he spent much of his professional life in the service of the Portuguese and Spanish royal families.  As a result much of his work, and especially his 555 keyboard sonatas (yes, five hundred and fifty-five) show the influence of Iberian folk music.

Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757): Essercizo Nr 30 - Cat Fugue. David Clark Little (virginal) (Duration: 05:10; Video 480p)

Scarlatti’s most famous collection of keyboard music was his modestly-named Essercizi (“Exercises”) published in 1738.  It was well-received all over Europe and this fugue is the last number in the collection.  A fugue is a relatively complex style of composition that developed during the seventeenth century and was usually written for keyboard.  It always began with the main theme played on its own.  The theme was later imitated in the other parts, while various musical ideas were interwoven and developed during the course of the highly structured work.  It needed exceptional technical skill to write a good one, and most musicians agree that our old friend JSB wrote the best.

But you’re probably wondering about the cat.  Legend has it that Scarlatti had a pet cat called Pulcinella, who evidently enjoyed walking on the keys of the composer’s harpsichord.  Whether the story is true or not is anyone’s guess, but it certainly explains the puzzling and seemingly random notes of the fugue theme.  Although the composer didn’t make any feline references in the original manuscript, the work has always remained popular among keyboard players.

In this video, the fugue is played on a virginal (sometimes referred to in the plural) which is a smaller, simpler and quieter form of the harpsichord in which the single strings run parallel to the keyboard.  The instrument was usually made without legs and was placed on a table for playing. But just listen to the strange opening theme (thanks presumably to the cat) which must have seemed unworldly to eighteenth century listeners.

George Gershwin (1898-1937): Walking the Dog. Sebastian Manz (clt), Martin Klett (pno), Lars Olaf Schaper (db), Arya (dog), Danish String Quartet (Duration: 04:54; Video 1080p HD)

This piece was written in 1937 for the movie Shall we Dance, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  The composer wrote an enormous amount of music for this movie including three songs which have become Gershwin classics.  The dog-walking piece was published in 1960 under the name Promenade and in the movie it accompanied a sequence in which Fred Astaire walks a dog on board a luxury liner.

Most of the music from the movie has remained unpublished to this day.  However, in 2013 it was announced by the Gershwin family that as part of the Gershwin Project, the full orchestral score will eventually be published.  The objective of the Project is to create new detailed scores of all Gershwin’s music.  Curiously, much of it has never been edited and the original scores of iconic works as Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris and the Piano Concerto still contain numerous errors and inconsistencies that remain uncorrected.  Needless to say, this is a long-term undertaking so don’t hold your breath.  It’s been estimated that the entire project will take between thirty and forty years to complete.  We’ll just have to wait.

Update May 21, 2016

Seasonal changes

Anonymous portrait of Vivaldi, around 1723.

It cannot have escaped your notice that here in Thailand we are going through a period of seasonal change.  Even so, in this part of the world the change of seasons seems less dramatic than that in Europe and North America. 

Of course, it’s partly to do with the Earth’s orbit around the Sun and the way that our planet tilts on its axis.  In the more northern and southern regions this titling causes the sun to appear higher in the sky in summer bringing significant changes to the duration and intensity of sunlight.  Perhaps the contrast between the seasons is why European composers and painters have found them so interesting for there are dozens of classical works on the themes of spring and summer.  Musical works that pull all the seasons together are less common.

You’ve almost certainly heard of Vivaldi’s pot-boiler The Four Seasons, perhaps the only musical work that might have inspired a pizza.  Composed in 1723, it’s one of Vivaldi’s best-known compositions but it’s actually a collection of four quite separate violin concertos which bear the name of each season.

Vivaldi was not the first to take up the seasonal theme.  In 1695 the prolific French baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Lully wrote an opera-ballet called Les Saisons although it was more akin to a ballet than an opera.  Joseph Haydn wrote his oratorio The Seasons after the success of his previous 1798 oratorio The Creation, then being performed all over Europe.  The Seasons was premiered in 1801 after two years of hard work on Haydn’s part and interesting partly because the text is bilingual.  Haydn’s music was tremendously popular in England and The Seasons was available in both English and German as indeed was The Creation before it. 

Almost exactly a hundred years later in 1900, Alexander Glazunov’s ballet The Seasons, was first staged at the Mariinsky Theatre by the Russian Imperial Ballet.  The splendidly-named tango composer Astor Pantaleón Piazzolla wrote the colourful Four Seasons of Buenos Aires and in 1947 John Cage wrote a ballet called The Seasons, his first composition for orchestra.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741): The Four Seasons. Julia Fischer (vln) Academy of St. Martin in the Fields dir. Kenneth Sillito (Duration: 39:27; Video: 1080p HD)

There’s no shortage of good recordings of this exhilarating set of concertos but this one is excellent with a superb soloist, a world-renowned string orchestra and a lovely visual setting.  It was filmed in the National Botanic Garden of Wales and beautifully lit and photographed in high definition so you can watch it on a large screen without noticeable loss in quality.

German violinist Julia Fischer is recognised worldwide for her technical prowess.  She is an exceptionally gifted artist who has received numerous awards.  She started learning the violin at the age of three and her performances on this recording are likely to be some of the best you’ll hear.  The Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields is exemplary of course; firm and lively rhythmic playing, spot-on intonation and a splendid sense of ensemble.

The Four Seasons was published in Amsterdam in 1725 together with eight additional violin concertos.  Unusually for the time, Vivaldi provided the concertos with accompanying poems which he probably wrote himself.  No one seems to know for sure whether the music or the poems came first, but either way, the work is one of the earliest and most-detailed examples of what would later become known as programme music.

Vivaldi went to great lengths to link the text of the poems to the music, adding phrases from the text on the score as appropriate.  These famously include a scene (at 03:27) in the first concerto in which a goatherd sleeps while his dog barks.  A fair amount of imagination is required to realise that the repeated note on the viola is supposed to represent a barking dog.  It sounds rather like a repeated note on the viola.

Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): The Seasons. George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Valentin Doni (Duration: 50:30; video 480p)

I suppose strictly speaking, this work should have been called “The Months” because in 1875, Nikolay Bernard, the editor of the St. Petersburg monthly music magazine Nouvellist, commissioned Tchaikovsky to write twelve short piano pieces, each to be published in his magazine every month throughout 1876.  The editor suggested subtitles for each piece and presumably seeing this as a source of ready income, Tchaikovsky accepted the commission and the subtitles.  The idea was evidently a success and some of the pieces have become famous in their own right.

In 1942 the Russian conductor Alexandr Gauk took it upon himself to orchestrate all twelve pieces and in subsequent years several other composers did much the same thing, including the American composer Morton Gould.  However, Gauk’s fine orchestration brings out the distinctive character of these delightful works and they offer an intriguing insight into some of Tchaikovsky’s less well-known music.

Update May 14, 2016

Singin’ in the Rain

Richard Wagner.

A few days ago I was browsing through ‘The Newspaper You Can Trust’ and noticed that the Thai Meteorological Department has predicted - with rather optimistic precision - the start of the rainy season.  Its Deputy Chief, the appropriately-named Khun Songkran announced that the rainy season should start on 15th May.  Note the use of the word “should”.  This sounds slightly mandatory and somehow implies that the rainy season really ought to start on that date, whether it wants to or not.  Anyway, if the rain arrives as the Meteorological Department confidently expects, we’ll have some much-needed relief from the egg-boiling temperatures that have come this way over the last few weeks. 

Incidentally, you may recall that Singin’ in the Rain (with its irritating missing “g”) was an American musical comedy movie made in 1952 and offered an insouciant glimpse of Hollywood in the late 1920s.  Although it was only a modest success when first released, it’s now regarded as one of the best – of not the best - movie musicals ever made.

Many classical composers have played around with the idea of rain or portraying a rainstorm using the wealth of orchestral colours and textures at their disposal.  In Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony the peaceful, bucolic mood gives way in the fourth movement to a fierce storm, complete with howling wind and thunder.  At the beginning of Wagner’s opera Die Walküre, the hero Siegmund emerges from a raging storm and in Britten’s opera Peter Grimes there’s an impressive storm sequence with torrential rain and howling wind.  There’s a rainstorm in Rossini’s overture to William Tell and another one in the symphonic poem by Liszt, Les Preludes.  Another Wagner opera, The Flying Dutchman made much use of orchestral sounds to create the effect of a storm.  It was not incidentally, an opera about a Dutch trapeze artist but about a ship.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883): Overture, The Flying Dutchman. National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain (Main Orchestra) cond. Howard Williams (Duration: 09:54 Video: 360p)

In his 1870 autobiography Mein Leben (“My Life”) Richard Wagner claimed that he had been inspired to write the opera following a stormy sea crossing he made from Riga to Britain in July and August 1839.  The Flying Dutchman was actually a ghost ship, destined to roam the stormy oceans forever.

It had been a particularly bad year in Wagner’s career and he was heavily in debt.  He was forced to leave mainland Europe illegally with his long-suffering wife Minna and Robber, their enormous and equally long-suffering Newfoundland dog.  What should have been a mildly pleasant North Sea cruise of a few days, turned out to be a nightmare voyage lasting three and a half weeks.  They encountered mountainous seas and ferocious storms, one of which almost wrecked the ship.  You can still sense the terror of the storm in the opening bars of the overture.

This is a spirited performance by one of Great Britain’s youngest orchestras, splendidly conducted by Howard Williams who has performed over seventy different operas, mostly with the English National Opera.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949): An Alpine Symphony. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Bernard Haitink (Duration: 56:37; Video: 1080p HD)

This powerful and atmospheric work dates from 1915 and it was the last symphonic poem that Strauss composed.  By this time, Strauss was at the height of his fame especially as an opera composer, and although he called the work a “symphony” he didn’t follow the conventional four-movement symphonic structure.  Instead, it consists of twenty-two short continuous sections depicting the experiences of eleven hours on an Alpine mountain, from daybreak just before dawn to the following nightfall.  It was inspired by the composer’s participation in a genuine mountaineering expedition in his youth, during which his luckless party managed to lose its way on the way up the mountain and got thoroughly drenched by a thunderstorm on the way down.  Strauss had a passion for nature and in 1908 he built a house in the Bavarian ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen which had impressive views of the Alps.

The score of this work requires an enormous orchestra including an organ, two sets of timpani, extensive percussion and a wind machine.  And in case you’re wondering, the wind machine doesn’t actually produce wind, merely the sound of it.

The premiere was given in Berlin with Strauss himself conducting and although he was evidently pleased with the performance, some critics were not impressed.  Nevertheless, the work has stood the test of time and it shows Richard Strauss as a superb orchestrator and composer.  It’s one of the finest examples of brilliantly coloured, almost cinematic musical tone-painting and includes one of the most thrilling storm sequences ever written.

Update May 7, 2016

‘This Ghastly Dream’

Charles Gounod.

At the time, it was described by various writers as “useless and monstrous”, an object of “barbaric bulk” the “hateful tower” the “belfry skeleton” and a “mast of iron gymnasium apparatus, incomplete, confused and deformed”.  The apoplectic writers were of course referring to the Eiffel Tower which was officially opened in Paris on 6th May 1889. 

Originally intended as an imposing entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair it has become a cultural icon of France and one of the most recognizable structures in the world.  Today, few people realise that this great Parisian monument was intended to stand for only twenty years and was to be pulled down in 1909.  Indeed, one of design conditions was that the tower could be easily dismantled.  However, it proved so valuable for communications and scientific purposes that it was allowed to remain.  It eventually became one of the most-visited monuments in the world.  During the course of 2015 for example, nearly seven million people made the ascent to the top.

In the late 1880s many artists and architects deplored the bold design which to sensitive Parisian taste must have seemed avant-garde or even downright ugly.  Rather late in the day, a “Committee of Three Hundred” was hastily formed (one member for every metre of the tower’s planned height) and was responsible for a petition published in February 1887. It began:

“We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection… of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.  To bring our arguments home, imagine a ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe… all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream.”

This incensed prose was largely a waste of time because the project had been settled months earlier, and the construction of the tower had already begun.  Why they left it so hopelessly late to protest is anyone’s guess.  However, two of Committee were well-known French composers and as you might expect rather conservative composers at that, Charles Gounod and Jules Massenet.

Charles Gounod (1818-1893): Messe solennelle en L’honneur de Sainte-Cecile. Various soloists, ECOK Oratorio Choir, Netherlands Symphony Orchestra cond. Erik Kotterink (Duration: 49:54; Video 720p HD)

Although Charles Gounod (GOO-noh) evidently objected on aesthetic grounds to Mr Eiffel’s new tower, the composer is best-known for his Ave Maria, a piece that he cobbled together by adding a melody to Bach’s Prelude in C Major, the first piece in Bach’s collection known as The Well-Tempered Clavier.  Today such disregard for the original score would be regarded as an act of musical butchery or at the very least, a demonstration of dubious musical taste. Even so, over the years Ave Maria has become a popular instrumental piece for string players because it’s not especially difficult, though I can imagine poor old Bach turning in his grave at every performance.

Gounod wrote a dozen operas, but he was also a prolific writer of songs, piano music and especially religious music, mostly motets and masses.  The St. Cecilia Mass is considered one of his finest works and dates from 1855.  It pays homage to Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music and musicians and was first performed in Paris the same year, much to the enthusiasm of music critics.  The composer Camille Saint-Saëns was at the first performance and described the music as “like a serene light which rose before the musical world like a breaking dawn”.

Jules Massenet (1842-1912): Méditation from Thaïs. Chanelle Bednarczyk (vln), Stanis³aw Moniuszko School of Music Symphony Orchestra cond. Andrzej Kucyba³a (Bielsko-Bia³a, Poland) (Duration: 07:04; Video 720p HD)

Although historians do not rank Massenet (MASS-ehn-ay) among the handful of outstanding opera “greats” like Mozart, Verdi and Wagner, his operas are now widely accepted.  Towards the end of his life though, he was regarded by many as somewhat old-fashioned and unadventurous.

Thaïs (TAH-ees) is an opera set in Byzantine Egypt and was first performed in Paris in 1894.  The piece entitled Méditation is an instrumental number which is performed between the scenes of Act II in the opera, but it took on a life of its own and has become one of the world’s great encore pieces.  It’s a standard for top violin soloists such as Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, Anne-Sophie Mutter, and Itzhak Perlman.

This is a lovely performance and the soloist Chanelle Bednarczyk is exemplary, playing with a superb tone and splendid control of dynamics with sympathetic support from the excellent young Polish orchestra.  Jules Massenet may have been a bit old-fashioned but he certainly knew how to write a good tune.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Paws for thought

Seasonal changes

Singin’ in the Rain

‘This Ghastly Dream’