By Colin Kaye
It’s Czech, mate!
(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.
Smetana (1824-1884): Vltava.
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
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.
(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
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.
Sonata for what?
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
(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
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.
Lights in the sky
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
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
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:
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.
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.