By Colin Kaye
Update September 30, 2016
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.
Haydn (1732-1809): String Quartet, Op. 64 No. 5 “The Lark”.
Attacca Quartet (First movement duration 06:31; Video
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
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,
Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): The Lark Ascending.
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
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
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
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 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)
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.
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
Update September 17, 2016
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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 .