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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update June 25, 2016

What’s in a name?

Portrait of Haydn by Thomas Hardy (1791).

So asked the teenage Juliet before coming out with another immortal line, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…” Anyway, the phrase sprang to mind the other day when I was looking through a list of classical works best-known by their nicknames.  Maybe I should explain.

Sometimes composers gave their works sub-titles such as Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony and Beethoven’s Eroica and Pastoral symphonies but these don’t count as nicknames because a nickname is not given by the composer.  Mozart’s Symphony No 41 was probably nicknamed Jupiter by the impresario Johann Salomon.  Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 14 became known as The Moonlight Sonata from comments made after the composer’s death by the German music critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab.  Subsequent publications of the work used this catchy nickname and it stuck.  Incidentally, the word “nickname” can be traced back to 1303 and to the word ekename which derives from an Old English phrase meaning “to increase”.  By the fifteenth century the word had evolved into nekename.

Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major was dubbed The Trout because the fourth movement is a set of variations on his song of the same name.  A surprising number of Haydn’s symphonies have acquired nicknames, probably because he wrote so many and a nickname makes a useful mnemonic.  So for example, we have Haydn symphonies known as The Bear, The Hen, The Clock, The Military, The Philosopher, and so on.  Some of the nicknames have little musical significance but one of them has an interesting story behind it, told by Haydn himself in his old age to his biographers Albert Christoph Dies and Georg August Griesinger.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Symphony No. 45 in F sharp minor (“Farewell”). Stanislaw Moniuszko School of Music Symphony Orchestra in Bielsko Biala (Poland) cond. Andrzej Kucybala (Duration: 30:07; Video 1080p HD)

Perhaps you know the story already.  At the time, Haydn was employed as Kapellmeister to the fabulously wealthy Prince Nikolaus Esterházy.  The family’s main palace was Schloss Esterházy in Eisenstadt in Eastern Austria.  The family also had a sumptuous summer palace in Esterhaza, about a day’s journey away to which the entire court - together with Haydn and the orchestra - would go every summer.

In 1772 the summer retreat was longer than expected and by October many wanted to get home to their families in Eisenstadt.  The musicians asked Haydn to appeal to Prince Esterházy on their behalf and preferring diplomacy to confrontation, Haydn put his request in the form of a symphony which was subsequently performed for the Prince and the court.  In the last movement, groups of musicians stop playing, snuff out the candles on their music stands and leave the stage.  In the end there are just two violinists left.  In the original performance these were Haydn himself and the orchestra’s leader Luigi Tomasini.  Fortunately, Prince Esterházy took the hint and the following day the entire court returned to Eisenstadt.

Incidentally, it’s thought that this is the only eighteenth century symphony written in the key of F sharp minor.  It’s probably the only classical symphony that has a second slow movement at the end.  But this might have been necessary for Haydn’s trick to work and must have come as a surprise to the Prince who at first probably wondered what was going on.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Piano Trio in D Major Op.70, No.1 (“The Ghost”). Emanuel Ax (pno), Isaac Stern (vln), Yo-Yo Ma (vlc) (Duration: 23:12; Video: 480p)

This is one of Beethoven’s most brilliant works from his so-called middle-period, a time when he wrote some of his most famous works, including the fifth and sixth symphonies. 

This trio was published in 1808 and represents the composer’s venturing into new musical territories.  The nickname “Ghost” comes from the oddly scored and eerie-sounding slow movement which even two hundred years later seems remarkably ominous at times.  Interestingly at about the same time, Beethoven had begun sketching ideas for an opera based on Shakespeare’s supernaturally-charged play Macbeth but the librettist Heinrich Joachim von Collin eventually gave up work on the text because he found the whole story too depressing.  Or perhaps he was overtly superstitious.

The two outer movements are in complete contrast to the ghostly goings-on, with lively rhythms, expansive melodies and an exuberant drive that never runs out of energy.  The musicians are about as good as you’ll get and include a comparatively young Yo-Yo Ma performing with the incomparable Isaac Stern, thirty-five years his senior.  Watching these splendid musicians is an education in itself and you can see the close eye they keep on each other.  It’s well worth enduring the rather poor video quality for such a superb performance.

Update June 18, 2016

Touching in its majesty

Percy Grainger in 1922.

We have to thank William Wordsworth for the title.  It’s a phrase from one of his sonnets and refers - surprisingly perhaps - to London.  In July 1802, Wordsworth travelled from his home in the Lake District to the French seaside town of Calais.  The journey necessitated passing through London and while there, Wordsworth sketched out his sonnet Composed upon Westminster Bridge which describes London and the River Thames in the early morning.  In case you’d forgotten (or possibly never knew) it’s the poem that begins “Earth has not anything to show more fair…” referring to the misty view of London’s river.  But of course, this was London in the early years of the nineteenth century.  At the time, Wordsworth was thirty-two and already an established poet.  He was almost exactly the same age as Beethoven.

He was one of many poets, painters and composers who found inspiration from London and if not from the town itself then from (to quote Wordsworth again) the “ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples” that brought character to the vibrant city.  In 1901, Edward Elgar wrote his concert overture Cockaigne (In London Town) which was a lively musical portrait of Edwardian London.  Gustav Holst of The Planets fame also wrote music inspired by familiar places in West London, notably Hammersmith and Brook Green.  John Ireland composed A London Overture which at one point famously imitates the cry of a London bus conductor calling out the name “Piccadilly”.  Eric Coates wrote two orchestral suites about London, one of which contained a march entitled Knightsbridge.  This achieved national fame as the theme tune for the BBC Radio programme In Town Tonight which ran for nearly thirty years.

Percy Grainger (1882-1961): Handel in the Strand. Melbourne Symphony Orchestra cond. Sir Andrew Davis (Duration: 04:18; Video 720p HD)

Every Londoner knows the old music hall song Let’s all go Down the Strand.  The locals usually shout the improvised line “Have a banana” into the chorus, though no one seems to know quite why.  The Strand is one of London’s most interesting streets though it’s less than a mile long.  It was popular for centuries and many important mansions were built between the Strand and the nearby River Thames.  During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries The Strand became well-known for its coffee shops, taverns and restaurants and it was certainly a thriving street when Handel lived in London during the first half of the eighteenth century.  He must have wandered along The Strand many times, possibly even with a banana.

The eccentric Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger initially called this piece, perhaps somewhat unimaginatively, Clog Dance but later he changed the name to Handel in the Strand which seems to have a better ring to it.  It is typical Grainger; light-hearted and slightly folksy with some catchy melodies.  In his day he was considered an outstanding pianist but as a composer he didn’t produce any symphonies or concertos.  This led some critics to assume that he probably couldn’t.  Most of his compositions were less than seven or eight minutes in length.  However, modesty was not Grainger’s strong point and he pronounced his own music superior to that of both Mozart and Tchaikovsky.  He’s usually associated with the English folksong Country Gardens which he arranged in 1918 for piano and orchestra.

Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Symphony No. 2: A London Symphony. Spanish Radio and Television Orchestra cond. Carlos Kalmar (Duration: 48:59; Video 480p)

Vaughan Williams began writing this symphony in 1908; the score was completed in 1914 and the work was first performed in London the same year.  The composer then sent the manuscript to the conductor Fritz Busch in Germany for his consideration but the score was accidentally destroyed, giving the symphony the dubious honour of being one the first casualties of the First World War.  In 1920 the score was reconstructed from the instrumental parts but the composer took the opportunity to revise it.  It was later revised yet again with about twenty minutes’ worth of music hacked out of the original. 

Although Vaughan Williams originally claimed that the music was not programmatic, he seems to have later changed his mind.  The atmospheric day-break music at the start echoes the sentiments of Wordsworth’s sonnet and we even hear (at 03:03) the Westminster chimes on the harp.  Vaughan Williams said that the second slow movement is intended to evoke Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon and to appreciate the third movement he suggested that “the listener should imagine himself standing on Westminster Embankment at night, surrounded by the distant sounds of The Strand, with its great hotels… crowded streets and flaring lights.”  The rich and powerful last movement depicts the Thames passing, and along with it London’s Edwardian days of glory.  As the excitement dies down the Westminster chimes are heard again (at 43:45) and the mood returns to that of the beginning, drawing this great symphony to a reflective and melancholy conclusion.

Update June 11, 2016

A hundred and still counting

Francis Poulenc.Francis Poulenc.

You might be interested to know that this is the one hundredth Classical Connections column.  On the other hand perhaps you couldn’t care less, but if you’re going to take that sort of attitude you may as well go and read something else. 

Of course, in newspaper terms, a hundred articles is nothing special.  The distinguished British paper, The Times first appeared in 1785 as The Daily Universal Register.  The Netherlands paper Opregte Haarlemsche Courant was first published in 1656 and it’s still going strong as the Haarlems Dagblad.  The prize for the world’s oldest newspaper must go to the crisply-entitled Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien, a weekly paper which first appeared in Strasbourg during 1605.

Compared to those august periodicals, my hundred columns doesn’t seem particularly significant.  Even in this newspaper, Classical Connections is something of a newcomer.  Miss Hillary has been dispensing sage advice to forlorn farangs since Mozart was a boy.  Even so, by way of modest celebration, I’ve been looking for classical works which have the number 100 somewhere in the title and this work by Haydn is an obvious choice.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Symphony No. 100 in G Major (“Military”). Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra cond. Mariss Jansons (Duration: 25:53; Video: 720p HD)

You could claim quite a bit of kudos by casually mentioning that you used to teach Beethoven.  When Haydn was travelling from Vienna to London in 1790, he met the twenty-year-old Ludwig in his native city of Bonn and made arrangements to teach him on his return.  Haydn spent much of his life in Austria in the service of the fabulously wealthy Esterházy family at their remote country estate.  Despite his relative isolation, by the end of his life he was one of the most celebrated composers in Europe.

Haydn’s music was hugely popular in London too and most concerts contained at least one of his works.  On the first of his two extended visits to London, Haydn arrived in Calais on New Year’s Day 1791, hardly the most auspicious time of year to cross the English Channel.  He was fifty eight, at the top of his musical career and in Calais he saw the sea for the first time. 

The London visit was an enormous success and extremely profitable, so much so that Haydn returned in 1794.  His Symphony No 100 dates from around the same year and it acquired the nickname “Military” from a short and slightly unexpected passage of trumpet fanfares towards the end of the second movement.  This bit also features the triangle, cymbals and bass drum which must have seemed exotic at the time, though these instruments are now permanent residents of almost every primary school music room in the country.  Even so, it’s not difficult to understand why British concert-goers fell in love with this elegant and attractive music.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963): Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet, Op. 100. Anastasiya Lukyanenko (pno) and members of National Philharmonic of Ukraine (Duration: 17:52; Video: 1080p HD)

The word opus incidentally, has Latin origins and means “work” or “labour”.  During the seventeenth century, some composers identified their works with an opus number but by the eighteenth century, publishers usually assigned opus numbers with the result that opus numbers were not necessarily in chronological order.  Unpublished compositions had no opus number, but from about 1900 onwards many composers added opus numbers to their works whether they were published or not.

This delightful three-movement sextet is scored for piano and wind quintet and was written between 1932 and 1939.  Poulenc was once described as “a musical clown of the first order”, though whether the composer admired this back-handed compliment I have no idea.  He was certainly more interested in the aesthetic ideals of people like Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie and less moved by the esoteric approach of Debussy or Ravel.  Poulenc’s inspiration came from the theatre, the musical hall, the boulevard cafés and the streets of Paris.  Although he could evidently be moved to tears by the simplest things, he liked a good drink and enjoyed the kind of jokes that you wouldn’t tell your maiden aunt.

The first movement begins with Stravinsky-like bustling and there’s a contrasting middle section that contains that melancholy music that Poulenc was so good at composing.  The second movement opens in a pastoral mood before breaking into a more playful spirit with a wealth of eloquent melodies and ending with a curious little wistful moment.  The final movement is a rondo with hints of ragtime and popular song.  It’s all great fun, with Poulenc’s constant interplay of light and shade, comedy and sadness, brashness and tenderness.  But this is not music to be taken too seriously.  It is not for pontificating upon, which I have just been doing for the last two paragraphs.

Update June 7, 2016

Musical forks

Composer and TV presenter
Yasushi Akutagawa in 1952.

Every one of the countless number of Yamaha motorcycles sports the company’s famous logo.  If you look at it closely, it should be obvious that it’s an image of three overlaid tuning forks.  This might seem a curious choice for a motorbike but it reminds us that when the Yamaha Company was established in 1887 it produced pianos and reed organs.  It wasn’t until the mid 1950s that it started making electronic equipment and motor bikes.

The Yamaha story began when a watchmaker named Torakusu Yamaha tried his hand at building a reed organ in 1887.  Unfortunately, the instrument was criticised for being out of tune but undaunted, Torakusu went back to the drawing-board and began to study music theory and tuning.  After four months of endless daily labour, he finally built a successful reed organ with the help of tuning forks, which had been invented in England 170 years earlier by a British musician named John Shore.

Oddly enough, the tuning fork logo didn’t appear on Yamaha products until 1967 even though the company had been producing pianos for years.  Today, Yamaha also makes a wide range of fine orchestral instruments and their brass and woodwind instruments are especially popular.  Japan has become the producer of top-or-the-range instruments including saxophones from Yanagisawa and flutes from Miyazawa and Nagahara.  You may be interested to know that one of the Nagahara professional flutes is made of 18K gold and comes at the eye-watering price of $33,000.

For some reason, we don’t seem to hear much music from Japanese composers, although there are plenty of them.  Since the latter half of the nineteenth century, Japanese composers have looked towards western musical culture, often drawing on elements from Japanese traditional music.  Kômei Abe was one of the leading Japanese composers of the last century.  His First Symphony of 1957 is a good introduction although it’s a curious mix of musical styles.  The incredibly prolific Toshiro Mayuzumi composed more than a hundred film scores and if you’d like an entertaining musical experience, seek out his Concertino for Xylophone and Orchestra.  Kunihico Hashimoto was one of the leading Japanese composers in the twentieth century, whose music reflects elements of late romanticism and impressionism, as well as of the traditional music of Japan.

Yasushi Akutagawa (1925-1989): Triptyque for String Orchestra. New Orchestra of Washington cond. Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez (Duration: c. 14:36; Video: 1080p HD)

Yasushi Akutagawa was a student of Hashimoto at the Tokyo Conservatory of Music.  His lucky break came in 1954 when he illegally entered the Soviet Union and became friends with Dmitri Shostakovich, Aram Kha­chaturian and Dmitri Kabalevsky.  He was the only Japanese composer whose music was officially published in the Soviet Union at that time.  His 1950 Music for Symphony Orchestra certainly owes a debt to Shostakovich and the Triptyque is a spiky work which shows influences of Stravinsky and Prokofiev.  Incidentally, Akutagawa was one of the few composers who was also a popular presenter of television shows.

Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996): From me flows what you call Time. La Jolla Symphony Orchestra cond. Steven Schick (Duration: 28:58; Video: 360p)

Takemitsu is currently Japan’s best-known composer but his fame came about by someone else’s mistake.  When Stravinsky visited Japan in 1958, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation NHK arranged for him to hear some of the latest Japanese music.  A recent recording of Takemitsu’s Requiem for String Orchestra was played by mistake but Stravinsky insisted on hearing it to the end.  He greatly admired the work and later invited the young composer to lunch.  Takemitsu later received a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation, no doubt thanks to Stravinsky who must have put in a good word for him.

Takemitsu was virtually self-taught and began to compose at the age of sixteen.  He gradually acquired orchestration skills and learned how to combine elements of Japanese and Western ideas, creating a sound which was entirely his own.  This work was commissioned by Carnegie Hall in celebration of its 100th anniversary.  Although it is effectively a concerto for percussion it is not intended as the composer explained, “to show off the virtuosity of the soloists.  The ruling emotion of the work is one of prayer.”

The title comes from a poem by Makoto Ooka, a Japanese poet and friend of the composer.  And incidentally, you’ll need to give the piece some time to get going, but when it does you’ll enter Takemitsu’s highly personal and evocative sound-world, perhaps inspired by the music of Messiaen and Ligeti.  He uses some exotic instruments too but if so-called “modern music” isn’t normally your idea of fun, do give this compelling work a try.

To return to Mr Yamaha and his tuning forks, I sometimes wonder how many Yamaha motor bike owners have the remotest idea what the logo represents.  Not many, I suspect.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

What’s in a name?

Touching in its majesty

A hundred and still counting

Musical forks