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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update October 29, 2016

It’s Czech, mate!

Vltava River in Prague.
(Photo: Petr Novák, Wikipedia)

When people think about Czech classical music, one composer tends to spring to mind.  He’s the one who wrote the so-called New World Symphony.  He was also famous for Songs my Mother Taught Me and a suite of seven piano pieces which he called Humoresques.  Of course, you know who I’m talking about which is why I am not going to type his name.  It simply takes too long.  That’s because it contains three diacritical markings which are a real bother to find on the keyboard.  Actually, they are not on the keyboard at all, unless you happened to have bought your computer in the Czech Republic.  Adding these markings involves going to the “insert symbol” menu and searching among a dizzying collection of assorted hieroglyphics and squiggles.

There are of course, a great many other Czech composers but few pre-1900 composers seemed to have gained a foothold in Western Europe and America, let alone Asia.  You may have heard the name Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber.  At least, you should have heard it if (like the dogs and me) you’re a regular reader of this column.  Then there was Jan Ladislav Dussek known to generations of student pianists for his relatively easy piano sonatas.  Oh yes, and the composer-pianist Carl Czerny had Czech origins too.  He studied with Beethoven no less, going on to be a brilliant teacher of piano techniques, so much so that his music is still used in piano teaching.  There was Franz Benda and Franz Xavier Richter but you don’t hear much of their music these days. 

As we plod through the annals of early Czech musical history the first “great” name is that of Bedřich Smetana, widely regarded in his homeland as the father of Czech music.

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884): Vltava. Gimnazija Kranj Symphony Orchestra cond. Nejc Bečan (Duration 124:40; Video: 1080p HD)

During the years 1874 and 1879 Smetana composed a set of six symphonic poems called Má Vlast which means “My Homeland”.  They are sometimes presented as a single work with six movements, although Smetana had always intended them as stand-alone pieces.  Technically they are symphonic poems, an orchestral form pioneered by Smetana’s Hungarian contemporary Franz Liszt.  My Homeland is imbued with national idealism and each one of the works is intended to depict some aspect of Bohemian life and legend.

The symphonic poem Vltava is also known by its German name Die Moldau and dates from 1874.  It’s a musical portrait of a river, not just any old river you understand, but the longest one in the Czech Republic.  The River Vltava (vul-TAH-vah) is almost three hundred miles long, rising in southwestern Bohemia and journeying through the countryside until it reaches Prague, where the river is crossed by eighteen bridges.

Smetana helpfully provided the listener with a guide to the work writing that it “describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs… to the unification of both streams into a single current… its course through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer’s wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night’s moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft.  The Vltava swirls into the St John’s Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague… and then majestically vanishes into the distance.”

The main theme is remarkably like Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem and evidently has its melodic roots in Romanian and Czech folk music.  You’ll easily recognise the sequences representing the wedding, the moonlight scene and the thunderous rapids.  This captivating work is given a wonderful performance by this young Slovenian orchestra with thoughtful conducting and effective tempo variations.  There’s also excellent video and first-class sound. 

Franz Krommer (1759–1831): Concerto for Two Clarinets in E Flat Major Op. 91. Dalton Tran, Nicole Galisatus (clts), UCLA Philharmonia cond. Geoffrey Pope

You may not be familiar with Franz Krommer even though he was remarkably prolific, with at least three hundred published compositions including at least nine symphonies, seventy string quartets and many others for winds and strings.  There are also about fifteen string quintets and dozens of concertos.  Today he’s best known for his wind music and the concertos for two clarinets show him and his most entertaining.

Written around 1815, this is the second of the two concerti and was clearly intended as a crowd-pleaser with its catchy melodies and brilliant clarinet writing.  It’s stereotypically classical and it’s also a technically challenging work cast in the usual three movements but you’ll have to search around on YouTube to find the second and third.  

The video was recorded at the All Star Concert at the UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) earlier this year, which accounts for the boisterous and enthusiastic behaviour of the student audience.  But it’s a delightful performance and the two young soloists prove to be exceptional clarinet players.

Update October 15, 2016

Sonata for what?

The arpeggione.

It is surprising the number of instruments that have fallen out of favour over the years.  For over two hundred years the most influential bowed stringed instruments in Western European music were the viols – a whole family of them.  They appeared in the early years of the sixteenth century and became tremendously popular, especially for do-it-yourself music making. 

Contrary to popular belief, the viols were not the predecessors of the violin family.  The violin first appeared around 1530 and the viol and violin families coexisted happily for about two hundred years.  Eventually however, the violin family eclipsed that of the viol because they were not only louder but had a brighter tone quality which was more appropriate for the musical styles of the day.  The viols eventually disappeared altogether but were revived in the twentieth century to meet the renewed interest in early music.

You might have encountered early European instruments like the crumhorn, the cornemuse, the dulcian and the racket, less charmingly known as the sausage bassoon.  They disappeared generations ago but like the viols were revived in the twentieth century.  Over the years, various other musical oddities have come and gone.  The glass harmonica enjoyed brief popularity during the eighteenth century.  It used rotating glass bowls to produce its sound and an improved treadle-operated version was invented in 1761 by Benjamin Franklin (yes, the famous one).  Many major composers including Mozart and Beethoven wrote pieces for the instrument before it faded into obscurity.

During the nineteenth century some instruments, especially woodwind and brass underwent a kind of Darwinian evolution and gradually became transformed into those we have today.  This period also saw the appearance of many new instruments including oddities like the sarrusophone, an elephantine contraption which vaguely resembled a contrabass clarinet but is now extinct. One instrument which had the dubious distinction of surviving for only about ten years, was the arpeggione.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione, D821. Miklňs Perényi (vlc) András Schiff (pno) (Duration: 24:49; Video: 360p)

It would be hardly worth learning to play the arpeggione, because only one piece by a major composer was ever written for it.  The instrument was invented in 1823 by the Viennese instrument-maker Johann Georg Staufer.  It was a peculiar hybrid with six strings, a fretted fingerboard, tuned like a guitar, bowed like a cello and held between the knees. It never really caught on, perhaps because of its resemblance to the older viola de gamba which by the nineteenth century was probably considered somewhat passé.  More importantly, the arpeggione had technical limitations and could barely handle the wide range of dynamics and expressiveness required by composers of the time.  

Schubert composed this sonata in 1824 for his friend Vincenz Schuster, a rare virtuoso of the arpeggione when the newly-invented instrument was creating some interest.  Unfortunately, by the time the sonata was published posthumously in 1871 the enthusiasm for the arpeggione had long since disappeared along with the instrument itself.  Today, the sonata is usually heard in transcriptions for cello and piano.

Interestingly the first three notes of the main theme are the same as those of Schubert’s Eighth Symphony which dates from a couple of years earlier.  The first movement is light and airy; typically full of delightful melodies.  The slow movement (at 11:11) sounds at first like Beethoven but has Schubert’s unmistakable song-like touch and contains one of the most fragile and plaintive melodies that he wrote.  You might even find yourself reaching for the Kleenex.  The music grows in strength and confidence passing through surprising key changes and prepares for the energetic and complex final movement which contains a wealth of melody. 

W. A. Mozart (1756-1791): Sonata in D major for Balalaika and Organ K311. Nikolai Kovalevich (bka), Sergey Silaevsky (org)  (Duration: 15:50; Video 720p HD)

If you are whizz-kid with those Mozart “K” numbers you’ll probably know that K311 is a piano sonata dating from 1777.  The balalaika version is a transcription because as far as we know, Mozart didn’t write anything for balalaika.  If he did, he didn’t tell anyone.  It’s a Russian three-stringed plucked instrument with a characteristic triangular-shaped body.  As you might expect, there’s a whole family of them ranging from the rarely-seen piccolo model to the enormous contrabass balalaika which is over five feet long.  They’re played either with the fingers or a plectrum depending on the style of music being played.

Nikolai Kovalevich is clearly a hugely talented musician and obviously finds a great deal of fun in what he’s performing, although for some reason the organist is decked out in period costume and wears a wig.  Balalaika orchestras remain popular in Russia and unlike the long-defunct arpeggione the balalaika is alive and well.  You can even buy one from Amazon together with an instruction book.

Update October 8, 2016

Lights in the sky


Geirr Tveitt.

If it sounds like this is going to be a breathless piece of journalism about UFOs over Pattaya, I am afraid it’s not.  I’m sorry if you are disappointed but honestly, life can sometimes be a b*tch.  Anyway, with the relentless orange glow from neon signs and street lights, you’d be lucky to see anything in the night sky above Pattaya, let alone a mother-ship from Planet Zorg.

For people who live in the city, a clear night sky is rare indeed.  I remember once driving through Snowdonia National Park in the middle of the night.  It was high in the mountains and the place was deserted – not another vehicle in sight and not even a herd of dozing animals.  Still, it was about one o’clock in the morning, so perhaps this was not surprising.

Now you are probably wondering why I’m telling you all this. (The thought had occurred to me – Ed.)  Well, I was suddenly compelled to stop the car and soak in the night.  When I switched off the ignition and became accustomed to the darkness, the magnificence of the night sky was revealed.  The Milky Way was as clear as a river across the sky: the stars shone with a throbbing intensity and from time to time a falling star would briefly appear.  Jupiter shone like a searchlight and the silence was total.  I would have stayed longer but it was intensely cold and I didn’t want to attract the attention of unwelcome predators, human or otherwise.

Some composers have been inspired by the night sky.  The Finnish composer Kimmo Hakola recently wrote a piece about the distant Oort Cloud which, with breath-taking originality, he named The Oort Cloud and another Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho wrote a piece about a certain asteroid, an unlovely hunk of rock known as 4179 Toutatis.

Frank Ticheli (b. 1958): Shooting Stars. Sewanee Symphony cond. Larry Livingston (Duration: 05:49; Video: 1090p HD)

Frank Ticheli is currently a Professor of Composition at the University of Southern California and has a huge list of compositions to his credit.  He received numerous awards and prizes for his music and many commissions for new works.  “But what do they sound like?” I hear you ask.  His music has been described in The Los Angeles Times as “optimistic and thoughtful” and in The New York Times as “lean and muscular”.  Yes, well. The composer wrote about his work Shooting Stars, “I was imagining quick flashes of colour… note-clusters are sprinkled everywhere, like streaks of bright light. Fleeting events of many kinds are cut and pasted at unexpected moments. The movement burns quickly and ends explosively, scarcely leaving a trail.”

So there you have it, from the horse’s mouth.  Shooting Stars is actually the first movement of Ticheli’s Second Symphony and the subsequent movements continue the space theme with Dreams under a New Moon and Apollo Unleashed.  The piece is incredibly complex and technically challenging.  It’s thrilling stuff. 

Geirr Tveitt (1908-1981):  Piano Concerto No 4, “Northern Lights”. Donna Amato (pno), Musica Nova Orchestra, cond. Warren Cohen (Duration: 12:26 (1st mvt); Video: 1080p HD)

The Norwegian composer and pianist Geirr Tveitt was born the year after Edvard Grieg died and like his predecessor, took a passionate interest in Norwegian folk music.  As a young man, Tveitt sought out the most distinguished composers and obtained lessons from Arthur Honegger and Heitor Villa-Lobos.  He received tuition from both Nadia Boulanger and from the Austrian composer Egon Wellesz.

Tveitt’s music draws on the barbaric style of Stravinsky’s early ballets, the rhythms and textures of Bartók’s music and the mystic qualities in the music of Debussy and Ravel.  His work was influenced by ideas drawn from Norwegian folk-music but after World War II anything that smacked of nationalism had become somewhat passé in Norway and his music fell out of fashion.

Tveitt became increasingly isolated and spent much of his time at the old family farm house with his unpublished manuscripts: five piano concertos, two violin concertos, an opera, a couple of symphonies and a vast collection of folk-song arrangements.  The music was filed in wooden boxes.  It was a disaster waiting to happen.  In 1970 the farm house burned to the ground, along with three hundred of Tveitt’s musical compositions.  Eighty percent of his life’s work was lost forever.  After that event Tveitt had little appetite for composing though he produced a second violin concerto in 1974.

The Fourth Piano Concerto has been faithfully reconstructed from the orchestral parts and recordings.  The first movement was inspired by the aurora borealis and the celestial theme continues through the other movements.  This is a splendid, magical work with reflections of Debussy and Bartók and a gorgeously rhythmic second movement.  Few of Tveitt’s works were ever published and I can’t help wondering what other wonderful music was lost to the world in the catastrophic fire.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

It’s Czech, mate!

Sonata for what?

Lights in the sky