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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update September 30, 2016

Larking around

Vaughan Williams as a young man.

Despite the ornithological theme, I have to admit that I’m not much good at recognising birds, even though my father could spot a great crested grebe at two hundred yards.  Quite frankly I couldn’t recognize a great crested grebe if you hit me over the head with a stuffed one.  I can manage owls, seagulls and swans but that’s about it.  I suppose I might recognise a lark given a helpful clue, such as “This is a lark”.

Talking of larks, in Greek mythology the bird represented the break of day.  Geoffrey Chaucer describes “the busy lark, messenger of day” in his famous work The Canterbury Tales.  In one of his sonnets (the twenty-ninth, since you asked) Shakespeare wrote “the lark at break of day arising, from sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate”.

I didn’t realise until yesterday that larks are sometimes kept as pets in China.  In Beijing, larks are sometimes taught to mimic the calls of other songbirds or even animals.  Apparently some Chinese people teach their larks thirteen different sounds in a certain order and - presumably after a bit of practice - the bird is expected to repeat the sounds from memory in the correct order.  I would have thought that would be a challenge for many humans, let alone a Chinese lark.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): String Quartet, Op. 64 No. 5 “The Lark”. Attacca Quartet (First movement duration 06:31; Video 720p HD)

As you know, a string quartet consists of two violins, a viola and a cello.  But it’s not just that.  The four players have to work together for a considerable time to discover how they can function as a close-knit team, blend their separate sounds effectively, develop ensemble skills and make musical sense of what they’re playing.  Sometimes it can take years.

The young Attacca Quartet is based in New York City and won first prize in the Seventh Osaka International Chamber Music Competition in 2011.  The quartet was formed at the Julliard School in 2003 and has been praised by The Strad magazine for possessing “maturity beyond its members’ years”.  The New York Times described their playing as “exuberant, funky and exactingly nuanced.”

The German poet and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe described the string quartet as “a stimulating conversation between four intelligent people.”  All of Haydn’s eighty-three string quartets provide a sophisticated musical experience in four movements, aptly described by composer Paul Epstein as “a story, a song, a dance and a party”.  The notion of “a story” comes from the traditional structure of the first movement in which musical ideas and developed and juxtaposed.

In 1790 Haydn composed a set of six string quartets which were later published as his Opus 64 and The Lark is the fifth of the set.  The nickname comes from the melody played by the first violin near the beginning.  The second movement is beautifully lyrical and although it sounds relatively simple, to my mind it’s a fine example of art that conceals art.  The third movement is traditionally a minuet and trio and here Haydn’s sense of humour shines through as well as his gift for making everything sound so interesting.  The vivacious three-minute finale is perhaps responsible for the work’s popularity and in this performance the movement taken at a whirlwind tempo and the energy never lets up for a moment.  Sparkling playing, too.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): The Lark Ascending. Arabella Steinbacher (vln), North German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Andrew Manze (Duration: 18:11; Video: 480p)

George Meredith was an English novelist and poet, whose friends and acquaintances included Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and J.M. Barrie, he of Peter Pan fame.

Meredith’s poem The Lark Ascending dates from 1881 when he once jokingly wrote that he had become afflicted by “the dreadful curse of verse”.  Vaughan Williams was attracted to the poem and in 1914 wrote a piece of the same name for violin and piano which he orchestrated six years later.  The title has a pleasing ring to it, which perhaps wouldn’t have been the case if Meredith had instead written a poem about the great tit or the little bustard.

This is lyrical evocative music in which the violin mimics the “silver chain of sound” that Meredith describes.  There’s a wonderful and compelling sense of place too.  It could only be England.  Incidentally, when Vaughan Williams was making sketches for the piece in August 1914, he visited Margate for a short holiday on the same day that Britain entered the Great War.  As bad luck would have it, a small boy observed the composer making notes and assumed he was writing some kind of secret code.  The boy did his duty for King and Country and informed a police officer.  Vaughan Williams was promptly arrested on the grounds of suspicious behaviour.

Update September 24, 2016

The Falling Leaves

Composer Lü Wencheng playing
the two-stringed erhu.

Our title comes from a poem by the English atheist, feminist, pacifist, and socialist Margaret Postgate-Cole.  The Falling Leaves dates from 1915 and is one of her poems about the First World War.  The poem has a curious feeling of serene detachment and the writer draws a parallel between the falling leaves and British soldiers falling in battle, dying “like snowflakes falling on the Flemish clay.”  Around this time the poet was a classics teacher at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in West London where the Director of Music was composer Gustav Holst.

I suppose to many people, the phrase merely suggests autumn.  In case these things interest you, the word “autumn” has its origins in ancient Etruscan and was borrowed by the neighbouring Romans to become the Latin autumnus.  It was transformed to the old French word autompne and the curious-looking word autumpne in Middle English.  The popular American word for autumn has its origins in the Old English word feallan and the word “fall” was also in common in sixteenth century England.  During the seventeenth century, immigrants to the British colonies in North America took their language with them but the word “fall” gradually became obsolete in Britain.

In many countries, autumn also has a strong association with the end of summer holidays and the start of a new academic year and therefore especially significant for students and teachers.  It’s associated with the change from warm to cold weather, and in poetry, it has often been associated with melancholia.  The hopes and delights of summer are gone and the grey chill of winter is ever-approaching.  On the island in northern Europe where I spent my childhood, the autumn – especially late autumn – could be a joyless time of year with only the prospect of bleak grey winters and dismal weather.  It was a time - both physically and mentally - to turn inward.

The subject of autumn has proved irresistible to many composers.  Red Autumn was written by the English composer Arnold Bax, not by a Chinese communist one as you might reasonably suppose.  Frank Bridge, another English composer wrote In Autumn, Edward Grieg composed An Autumn Overture and a similar theme was used in works by Debussy, Panufnik, Takemitsu.  You can probably think of some others.

Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936): Autumn from “The Seasons”. Philharmonie Jeunesse de Montréal cond. Stéphane Forgues (Duration 07:59; Video: 1080p HD)

This allegorical single-act ballet was composed in 1899 and consists of four scenes or tableau representing each season.  It was first performed the following year by the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg.  The entire Imperial Court showed up for the premičre which featured the legendary ballet dancer Anna Pavlova.  She was one of the few artistes who gave her name to a dessert.  Another with this dubious honour was of course was soprano Nellie Melba whose real name, incidentally was Helen Porter Mitchell.  She borrowed the pseudonym “Melba” from her home town of Melbourne.

The Seasons ballet runs for nearly forty minutes and contains a wealth of captivating music in which Autumn is the fourth and final tableau.  In the original version a lively Bacchanal opens and closes the movement but in this video it appears only as the closer.  The performance begins with the delightful Petit Adagio, full of lovely melodic writing and richly satisfying orchestration.  It’s followed by the rhythmic Variation du Satyre and concludes with the ebullient Bacchanal which contains reminders of John Williams’ theme from Star Wars.  Or perhaps it’s the other way around.  Glazunov was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, one of the great masters of orchestration. And it shows.

Lü Wencheng (1898-1981): Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake. Lang Lang (pno) (Duration: 04:37; Video: 360p)

Lü Wencheng (also written as Lui Man-Sing) was a Chinese composer and musician born in Zhongshan, a city in the south of the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong Province.  He grew up in Shanghai and became a master of Cantonese music and Guangdong folk music.  In 1932, he moved to Hong Kong where he lived for the rest of his life.  He wrote over a hundred compositions, many with pastoral-sounding titles such as Flowers falling from sky, Intoxicated by the easterly wind, Meeting in the Milky Way, Fisherman’s song at dusk and so on.  Much of his music has a hypnotic and tranquil folk-song quality.

Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake was composed during the 1930s and is one of Lü’s most well-known pieces.  The composition was evidently inspired by the composer’s visit to the famous West Lake in Hangzhou, Eastern China, considered a place of tranquility since ancient times.  Chinese poets have written about it since the twelfth century.

The music is atmospheric and this Debussy-like piano transcription is in the repertoire of many Chinese pianists.  The distinguished pianist Lang Lang provides a compelling performance of this charming, if ever-so-slightly kitsch composition.

Update September 17, 2016

ˇViva Mexico!

José Pablo Moncayo.

I can’t remember why I first went to Mexico but it must have seemed a good idea at the time.  Strangely enough, some Mexicans slightly resemble Thai people with the result that sometimes I absent-mindedly addressed them in broken Thai rather than in broken Spanish. 

I was surprised that so few Mexicans spoke English though in retrospect there is no earthly reason why they should.  So I was jolly glad that I’d spent a couple of months brushing up my Spanish before going.

This physical similarity seems to give credence to the theory that around 50,000 years ago nomads from Asia crossed the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska and over hundreds of years moved further and further south. The history of modern Mexico’s is divided into two main parts; before and after the Spanish conquest. 

Reminders of its Aztec and Spanish history sit side by side and the country has some wonderful ecclesiastical colonial architecture including over a hundred cathedrals.  Only this afternoon, I discovered to my surprise that Thailand has eleven cathedrals but I’ll let you find out where they are for yourself. Of course, Mexico had an advanced civilization long before the Aztecs. 

The city of Teotihuacán - which lay slightly north-east of today’s Mexico City - was the finest and most impressive city in the ancient world and reached its zenith between 200 and 500 AD. 

Today, tourists visit the site in busloads to see the remains of this once-great city, especially the enormous pyramids. Independence Day celebrates freedom from Spain on 16th September 1810.  It’s commemorated with fireworks, fiestas, food, dance and music. 

And what music!  The country has an incredibly rich tradition of many styles of folk music and different types of ensemble, including the ubiquitous mariachi bands.  They typically use violins, guitar and trumpets along with the vihuela and the guitarrón, a huge acoustic bass guitar.  If you’re in a restaurant in Mexico, don’t be surprised if a mariachi band suddenly wanders in to entertain the diners.

Much of Mexico’s “classical” orchestral music is as colourful as the country’s history, yet today only a handful of names are recognised beyond its borders, notably Aniceto Ortega, Carlos Chávez, Silvestre Revueltas and Jos้ Pablo Moncayo García.

Carlos Chávez (1899-1978): Sinfonia India (Symphony No. 2). SCM Symphony Orchestra cond. Eduardo Diazmuńoz (Duration: 13:20; Video 720p HD)

Rejoicing in the name of Carlos Antonio de Padua Chávez y Ramírez, the composer was one of the most influential of all Mexican musicians.  He was also a conductor, music theorist, educator, journalist and the founder and director of the Mexican Symphonic Orchestra. Chávez was an incredibly prolific composer and freely drew on native cultures for his distinctive and often highly percussive music. 

His output includes five ballets, seven symphonies, four concertos, a cantata and opera as well as many chamber works.  He also found time to write two books on modern music and over two hundred articles on music. Sinfonía India was completed in 1936 and is based on melodies from Native American tribes of northern Mexico, hence the title. 

The percussion section originally included a large number of indigenous Mexican instruments including the jicara de agua (half of a gourd inverted partly submerged in a basin of water and struck with sticks), the tenabari (a string of butterfly cocoons), and the grijutian (a string of deer hooves).  There’s a wonderful finale and listening to this raw energetic music, it’s not difficult to see where other Mexican composers like Silvestre Revueltas found their inspiration. Incidentally, you’ll need a good sound system or high quality headphones to fully appreciate this thrilling and relentlessly percussive music.

José Pablo Moncayo (1912-1958): Huapango. Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra cond. Gustavo Dudamel (Duration: 08:51, Video: 480p)

Moncayo is almost unknown outside his native Mexico where he’s considered one of the country’s major orchestral composers. 

He wrote many orchestral works, chamber music, a couple of symphonies, an opera and a ballet. The huapango is a Mexican folk dance which has a complicated rhythmic structure mixing duple and triple meters.  Incidentally, the orchestra in this video was once called the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. 

However, the ageing members could no longer be reasonably described as “youths” and the name was subsequently changed.  The brilliant Gustavo Dudamel is their chief conductor and he’s also Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. 

Those who know Dudamel personally comment on his dedication and passion for music, his capacity for sheer hard work and his prodigious feats of memory. Written in 1941, this music is Mexican to the core. 

It’s a power-house of brilliantly articulated sounds with a wonderful sense of place.  The music has raw energy and heart-tugging moments of poignant and ravishing melody.  If any music has the ability to make you weep with joy, this is it.

Update September 10, 2016

Songs of the Sea

Malcolm Arnold. (Photo: BBC)

The other day I was reciting that John Masefield poem called Cargoes to one of the dogs.  That’s the short poem which begins theatrically with the evocative line, “Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir”.  The dog seemed to enjoy the recitation but I don’t suppose she has the remotest idea what a quinquireme is.  Perhaps you don’t either, in which case I shall leave you to find out about them for yourself.  Assuming of course, that you feel it’s worth the effort.  Incidentally, I wouldn’t want everyone to know that I recite poetry to the dogs, so I’d be grateful if you would keep this snippet of information to yourself.

Anyway, the nautical theme of the Masefield poem led me to thinking about sea shanties, those colourful and energetic work songs that flourished during the second half of the nineteenth century and coincided roughly with the rapid development of merchant shipping services.  It’s thought that sea shanties date back to the fifteenth century and perhaps even earlier, when there was much repetitive work to be done on ships like reefing sails, hauling lines or using a pump or capstan.  Strangely enough, before the nineteenth century, singing was actually prohibited on many British ships.

We don’t know for sure about the origin of the word shanty (or “chanty”) though one obvious explanation is that it comes from the word “chant” which itself comes from the French word chanter  meaning to sing.  On the other hand, it might have a similar origin to the expression shanty-town. 

The lyrics of British sea shanties come from many sources.  It’s thought that many are based on the hauling cries of Elizabethan seamen or from the rich source of British folksongs.  Some shanties, like so many words in the English language were almost certainly imported from other countries. 

Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006): Three Shanties for Woodwind Quintet. Silpakorn Wind Ensemble (Duration: 07:82; Video: 1080p HD)

The music of the prolific English composer Malcolm Arnold seems to have fallen out of popularity in recent years, despite the fact that he wrote nine symphonies, numerous concertos, concert works, chamber music, choral music and music for band.  He wrote over a hundred movie scores, including the music for the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai which was based in Thailand but actually shot in Sri Lanka.  So it seems appropriate to cite a performance given by a Thai wind ensemble, and very competent they are too, being members of the Silpakorn Summer Music School.

Malcolm Arnold wrote this attractive three-movement work in 1943 and it’s based on three sea shanties: What shall we do with the drunken sailor? Boney Was a Warrior and finally Johnny Come Down to Hilo.  Arnold uses spiky harmonies and “wrong-note” effects and uses his skill as a composer to develop each song into something completely new and refreshing.  It’s all clever stuff.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Sea Songs. Houston Youth Symphony cond. Héctor Agüero (Duration 04:20; Video 1080p HD)

This short but well-known work is based on the sea shanties Princess Royal, Admiral Benbow and Portsmouth.  It’s basically a three-part march and you may recognise some of the melodies because this work has had plenty of radio and TV exposure over the years.  The composer originally scored the work for military band and it was used as the start-up music to Britain’s Anglia Television until the early 1980s.

Henry Wood (1869-1944): Fantasia on British Sea Songs. BBC Concert Orchestra cond. Paul Daniel (Duration: 19:12; Video: 360p)

Sir Henry Wood conducted London’s annual series of promenade concerts, known as the Proms for nearly half a century.  Although the Proms brought hundreds of new works to British audiences, Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs has become the traditional finale to the Last Night of the Proms. 

The work was written in 1905 to celebrate the centenary of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar and this video is the original version.  There are nine sections which are described on the web page.  The performance of this piece on The Last Night is a peculiarly British event which would leave most foreigners bewildered.  At various times during the work, the audience traditionally sings along with the music, whistles or claps or engages in a strange knee-bending activity.  The last number, Rule Britannia sees the appearance of British flags which are usually waved triumphantly in an unabashed display of passionate nationalism, although I noted that at this particular performance there seemed to be fewer flags than usual.  Even so, I don’t suppose many of those people in the audience know what quinquiremes are either.

Update September 3, 2016

To boldy go…


Béla Bartók. (Photo: Fritz Reiner)

It’s one of the most well-known split infinitives of the last few decades, thanks to the cult TV series Star Trek.  Each programme began with a voice-over from Capt. Kirk (William Shatner) which included the line, “To boldly go where no man has gone before”.  In later programmes the word “man” was replaced, presumably on the grounds of gender stereotyping, but the split infinitive joyously remained.

Of course, to be grammatically correct, it should be “to go boldly” but this doesn’t quite have the same gravitas.  Anyway, the phrase came to mind when I was listening to one of the Bart๓k string quartets recently.  He was one of the many composers who broke away from the conventional and took his music to where no one had gone before.  As a schoolboy, I remember being thrilled on hearing a recording of his Divertimento for Strings.  It sounded “modern” back then as did the string quartets, but somehow Bart๓k’s musical language seems to have mellowed over the years.  Or perhaps we simply don’t get shocked by that kind of dissonance any more.

Like so many other composers, Béla Bartók (BAY-lah BAR-tohk) created his own musical soundscapes and you can often recognise his personal “Hungarian” sound within seconds.  I suppose much the same could be said of people like Sibelius, Delius, Debussy, Stravinsky or Vaughan Williams.  They developed the ability to build a musical sound-world that’s instantly recognizable.  Many painters too had this same ability to create a unique visual style.  Just think how easy it is to recognise a work by Caravaggio, Hieronymus Bosch, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali or Paul Cézanne.  And you could probably recognise one of Mark Rothko’s enormous “Seagram” paintings at two hundred yards.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945): Concerto for Orchestra. The Orchestra of the University of Music Franz Liszt, Weimar cond. Nicolás Pasquet (Duration: 40:04, Video: 1080p HD)

Bartók left his home country of Hungary in 1940 and settled in America but within a short time he was diagnosed with leukemia.  During his last years, he had a surge of creative energy and composed some of his finest works.  One of them was the Concerto for Orchestra.  Bartók completed the score in October 1943 and the work was performed two months later by the Boston Symphony conducted by Serge Koussevitzky who had commissioned the work.  The title might seem rather odd because concertos are normally for a solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment. Bartók explained that he called the piece a concerto rather than a symphony because each section of instruments is treated in a solo-like manner.

It has become Bartók’s best-known orchestral work and if you are unfamiliar with this composer, this five movement concerto is a good place to start.  It may have sounded “modern” seventy years ago, but now it falls easily on the ear with plenty of attractive Hungarian-style melodies and lively rhythms.  The talented young students from the University at Weimar give a stunningly good performance too.

Elliott Carter (1908-2012): Concerto for Orchestra. Tanglewood Festival Orchestra cond. Oliver Knussen (Duration: 23:27, Video: 360p)

You may find Elliott Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra a bit of a challenge, even though he was one of the grand old men of American music.  Like the Bartók work, Carter’s piece is a concerto in several senses, not only for the entire orchestra but also for soloists as well as small groups of instruments.  It’s a four-movement work written in 1969 commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and it’s been praised by musicians and critics alike.  Tom Service of The Guardian newspaper described it as “an incandescent blaze of musical poetry.”

Even so, Elliott Carter wrote music of exceptional complexity and like Bartók, pushed music to where no one had gone before, boldly or otherwise.  He was a remarkably prolific composer especially in his later years and published more than forty works between the ages of 90 and 100.  After his 100th birthday, when most people would seriously consider taking a break, he wrote twenty more works.

Carter spent four years composing this concerto and it’s the most complex of all of his works.  It’s possibly the most complex work written by anyone.  The technical and musical challenges are such that at the premiere in 1969, some members of the New York Philharmonic considered the work almost unplayable, so this performance by these young Tanglewood musicians is all the more remarkable.

In the days before the concert, conductor Oliver Knussen evidently spent considerable time drilling the musicians at a series of intensive rehearsals.  At the end of this incredible performance, there’s a standing ovation and a heart-warming appearance by the one-hundred-year old composer, accompanied by whoops and yells from a wildly enthusiastic audience .

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Larking around

The Falling Leaves

ˇViva Mexico!

Songs of the Sea

To boldy go…