By Colin Kaye
Paws for thought
Domenico Scarlatti, painted by Domingo Antonio
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
Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757): Essercizo Nr 30 - Cat
David Clark Little (virginal) (Duration: 05:10; Video 480p)
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
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.
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
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
Singin’ in the Rain
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.
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 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.
‘This Ghastly Dream’
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
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:
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)
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.
(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.