Music from another time
At the watering
hole the other night, someone was saying that medieval music seems to
have a rather unworldly quality and a sense of purity. This perhaps is
probably an over-simplification but I know exactly what they mean. Much
of the music composed between 1400 and 1500 was invariably for voices
and intended for religious purposes. In those days music was simpler
harmonically than that of the nineteenth and twentieth century but
amazingly it still has the ability to speak to us over a historical
chasm of more than five hundred years.
The church took it
upon itself to record music in written form and without these
laboriously-copied manuscripts, we’d have little idea of what medieval
music actually sounded like. On reflection, it’s surprising that so
much medieval music has been preserved, though what survives today must
be a tiny proportion of what once existed.
But it was not only
the church that took on the responsibility of preserving musical
compositions. The so-called Old Hall Manuscript for example, is the
largest and most significant source of English sacred music of the late
medieval period and early renaissance. The manuscript contains 148
compositions written on red staves by different copyists, some possibly
by the composers themselves. The book is a large format and while some
pages are plain musical notation others are richly and colourfully
decorated. It’s thought that the work took about twenty years to
complete and contains sacred music by some of the best-known English
composers of the day.
Leonel Power (1370-1445): Beata
Ensemble Ligeriana dir. Katia Caré (Duration: 04:17; Video: 1090p HD)
One of them was
Leonel Power about whom we know precious little, except that he was
probably a native of Kent in South East England. In those days English
spelling was more chaotic than it is today and his first name has
appeared as Lionel, Lyonel, Leonellus and even sometimes Leonelle.
For a time Power
worked as a choral teacher at the household chapel of Thomas of
Lancaster, 1st Duke of Clarence. He then served until the end of his
days as choirmaster at the Christ Church Priory in Canterbury by which
time he was already a big name in English music.
lyrical and haunting motet Beata progenies is for three vocal
parts (performed here with two singers to a part) and was linked to the
immaculate conception of Mary which the church celebrated on 8th December.
Power uses remarkably rich and expressive harmonies to underline the
meaning of the text.
On this video,
there’s also a bonus performance: an anonymous motet entitled Ave
Regina Celorum which dates from sometime during the 14th
The details of its origin and author remain mysteriously unknown.
Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521): Ave Maria...Virgo
Schola Antiqua of Chicago, dir. Michael Alan Anderson
(Duration: 05:34; Video: 720p HD)
Maria...Virgo Serenaa is considered Josquin’s
most famous motet and one of the most well-known choral works of the
time. In 1502 it appeared as the opening number in the first volume of
motets ever printed. It’s far removed from Leonel Power’s musical
language and the beginning, in which the voices imitate each other, was
revolutionary at the time.
Josquin des Prez
(usually known simply as Josquin) was a Franco-Flemish composer who
acquired a reputation as the greatest of his day. Even Martin Luther
wrote about his fame and some notable theorists considered that his
style represented musical perfection. Many anonymous compositions were
attributed to him in the hope of increasing their sales.
someone so famous his biography, especially his early years is somewhat
vague and we know pretty well nothing about him as an individual. He
lived during what must have been an exciting time, for it was a
transitional stage in music history and styles were changing rapidly.
This was partly due to the increasing mobility of composers and
musicians around Europe.
Maria...Virgo Serena was written at some
point between 1476 and 1497 when the composer was in service at the
North Italian court at Milan. In many ways this is a remarkable work
and reflects the ideals of the Italian Renaissance. Each musical phrase
corresponds to a line of text and Josquin uses a great deal of imitation
which you can hear clearly, especially near the beginning. Gradually
the work enters a realm of contrapuntal complexity and internal
aesthetic beauty that must have made it seem modern and exciting to
fifteenth century ears.
It’s a motet of
classic balance and it’s also a fine early example of using musical
techniques to bring expressiveness and colour to the text. Throughout
the work the voices interplay between each other and it’s not until the
final lines, sung rather like a hymn that they finally blend together as
one. The profound religious symbolism of this musical device would not
have been lost on contemporary listeners.
With Christmas just around the corner,
it occurred to me that I might tell you about some classical Christmas
music. But then I thought “No. Why should I?” To be perfectly honest, I
find the Christmas thing a bit of a bore and I’m jolly glad when the whole
tiresome business is over. So instead, I’ll tell you about two interesting
Japanese works that I discovered recently. And incidentally, it’s a
fortunate coincidence that 23rd December
just happens to be the birthday of the Japanese emperor.
Since the latter half of the nineteenth
century, Japanese composers have tended to look towards Western musical
culture as well as drawing on elements from Japanese traditional music.
Kômei Abe was one of the leading Japanese composers of the twentieth century
and his First Symphony of 1957 is a good introduction to Japanese
classical-music-in-the-Western-style, although it’s a curious mix of musical
The 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 which
I believe is still available on YouTube. Kunihico Hashimoto was another
leading Japanese composer whose music reflects elements of late romanticism
and impressionism, as well as of the traditional music of Japan.
Oh yes, and I mustn’t forget Toru
Takemitsu, perhaps the most revered of the whole lot. He composed hundreds
of works that combined elements of Eastern and Western philosophy to create
his own unique sound landscape. More than anyone, Takemitsu put Japanese
music on the map.
Yűzô Toyama (b. 1931): Rhapsody for Orchestra.
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Eiji Oue (Duration: 09:54; Video: 1080p
Yűzô Toyama is a native of Tokyo who
studied with Kan-ichi Shimofusa, a pupil of the German composer Paul
Hindemith. The Rhapsody for Orchestra is probably the composer’s
best-known work. He is also known as a conductor and for years held the
post of chief conductor with the NHK Symphony Orchestra. In case you are
wondering, NHK stands for Nippon Hôsô Kyôkai - the Japan Broadcasting
Corporation. In 1960 Toyama conducted the orchestra on a world tour which
included several of his most popular works.
As a composer, his most important
musical influences were probably Béla Bartók and Dmitri Shostakovich. He is
fond of incorporating Japanese traditional music into his work, drawing on
folksongs and the classical Japanese dance-dramas of Kabuki theatre. Toyama
has written well over two hundred compositions and has received numerous
awards in Japan for his contributions to the nation’s musical life.
The Rhapsody for Orchestra dates
from 1960 and is based on Japanese folk songs in which traditional
instruments, including the kyoshigi (paired percussive wooden sticks)
are blended into a conventional Western orchestra. You’ll notice
distinctive Mikado-like moments from time to time. The work starts
with thunderous percussion so keep your fingers on the volume control.
This is a splendid performance and the
Polish musicians seem to enjoy playing the work. With excellent sound and
video, it looks superb in full screen mode provided that your download speed
and processor are fast enough.
Takashi Yoshimatsu (b. 1953): Cyberbird Concerto, Op. 59.
Hiromi Hara (sax), Shinpei Ooka (pno), Shohei Tachibana
(perc) Shobi Symphony Orchestra cond. Kon Suzuki (Duration: 26:21; Video
Yoshimatsu is also from Tokyo and like
his compatriot Toru Takemitsu, didn’t receive formal musical training until
adulthood. He left the faculty of technology of Keio University in 1972 and
became interested in jazz and progressive rock music, particularly through
Yoshimatsu first dabbled in serial
music but eventually became disenchanted with it and instead began to
compose in a free neo-romantic style with strong influences from jazz, rock
and Japanese traditional music. He’s already completed six symphonies,
twelve concertos, a number of sonatas and shorter pieces for various
ensembles. In contrast to his earlier compositions, much of his more recent
work uses relatively simple harmonic structures.
This curiously-named work is
technically a triple concerto and the ornithological reference reappears in
his Symphony No. 6 written in 2014, subtitled Birds and Angels.
Yoshimatsu described this concerto as alluding to “an imaginary bird in the
realm of electronic cyberspace.” It’s a concerto for saxophone in all but
name and uses a free atonal jazz idiom for the soloists against a
conventional symphony orchestra. It was composed in 1993 for Hiromi Hara
who performs it on this video. The three movements are entitled Bird in
Colours, Bird in Grief, and Bird in the Wind.
There’s some brilliant playing from
these talented young musicians with a lovely haunting second movement and a
joyous third movement with some fine brass writing and a thunderous ending.
If you are into eclectic modern jazz
this video, with its superb sound and video, will be right up your soi. As
Mr Spock in Star Trek might have said to Captain Kirk, “It’s
classical music Jim, but not as we know it.”
Shall we dance?
Maurice Ravel (right) and
American band-leader Paul Whiteman in 1928.
If you are over A Certain Age you may
recall that the original movie entitled Shall We Dance dates from
1937 and was one of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals. About
sixty years later in 1996 an award-winning movie of the same name, but with
a different story line appeared in Japan with the Japanese title Sharu wi
Dansu (honestly). The title referred in a curiously circular way to a
song – also called Shall we Dance from a well-known 1956 Hollywood
movie which was banned in Thailand. You probably know the one I mean. Then
to confuse the issue even more, in 2004 another American film called
Shall We Dance appeared - a remake not of the Astaire-Rogers movie, but
of the Japanese one.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m
not much good at dancing. Not much good at all. To be more precise I am
completely useless. I’d have a better chance of parsing Sanskrit than doing
a tango. Strangely enough nobody knows exactly when people started to dance
though some archaeologists have traced the activity back to 3,000 BC.
Although early dance for ceremonial or religious purposes might have existed
without musical accompaniment, it’s difficult to imagine dance without
music. For the last couple of millennia music and dance have become
It wasn’t until the Renaissance that an
increasing amount of dance music was written down. Huge collections were
produced during the second half of the sixteenth century onwards, notably by
prolific composers like Michael Praetorius, Tielman Susato and Pierre
Phalčse. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, dance music of
all forms flowed from the pens of many composers, including some
distinguished ones like Bach, Handel, and Georg Philipp Telemann who wrote
suites of dances, not for dancing but as courtly entertainment. In more
modern times, composers have often turned to dance music for ideas and
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): La Valse.
Orchestra of Radio France cond. Myung-Whun Chung (Duration: 12.55; Video
This waltz is a fine example of Ravel’s
sophisticated use of musical ideas and brilliant orchestration. It’s
actually several waltz melodies combined and he called the work a
“choreographic poem for orchestra”. Ravel started writing it in 1919 and it
was first performed on 12 December 1920 in Paris. It was originally
intended to be a ballet but these days it’s usually performed as a
stand-alone concert piece.
Although there are unmistakable echoes
of the nineteenth century, this powerful work couldn’t be more removed from
the innocent waltz melodies of Johann Strauss that were so popular in Vienna
and later of course, throughout the western world. Ravel’s waltz sometimes
feels more like a surrealist nightmare in a haunted ballroom.
The piece begins quietly with ominous
rumbling of double basses and cellos but gradually the tempo and intensity
increase, fragments of tune appear and then swirling melodies emerge. You
can even get an unsettling sense of foreboding organic growth within the
music, as it hurls itself towards an almost terrifying but inevitable
Incidentally, eight years later in 1928
Ravel embarked on a two-month tour of America where he was able to explore
his interest in jazz. He met many other musicians and composers there
including Paul Whiteman – he of jazz orchestra fame. When Ravel returned to
France he started writing his brilliant piano concerto which borrowed many
ideas taken from jazz music.
(1881-1945): Dance Suite.
Symphony Orchestra cond. Ingo Metzmacher (Duration: 16:22; Video: 720p HD)
Hungarian tourist guides enjoy telling
visitors that Budapest was once made up of two separate towns. Buda was the
old aristocratic town on the hill overlooking the Danube while Pest lay on
the flat land on the opposite side of the river. The two towns were
officially merged in 1873 and with a flash of original thinking on the part
of the city council, the merged city was named Budapest.
In 1923, the council threw an enormous
party to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the merger. To bring a sense
of gravitas to the event, they staged a grand concert for which the
country’s leading composers were commissioned to contribute new works. One
of the composers was Béla Bartók, who wrote his Dance Suite for the
occasion. Although the composer wasn’t happy with the shoddy performance,
the work was later rapturously received during the following years when it
was played all over Europe. It probably did more for Bartók’s reputation
than all his previous works put together.
Bartók had been studying and recording
Hungarian folk music since 1905 and although the melodies in the Dance
Suite speak of Eastern Europe they are entirely Bartók’s own invention.
The work is full of typical Hungarian rhythms and along with his popular
Concerto for Orchestra, it makes an excellent and exciting introduction
to the music of this influential twentieth century composer.
Zoltán Kodály c. 1918 and
his state-of-the-art recording equipment.
One of the most
influential Hungarian composers of the early twentieth century was Zoltán
Kodály, who was born on 16th December.
Because of his interest in music education he became known in Hungary
primarily as an educator and he wrote several influential books on the
Oddly enough Zoltán
Kodály (zohl-TAHN koh-DAH-yee) is most closely associated with a
teaching aid he didn’t actually invent: the hand signs. The so-called
Kodály hand signs were devised in the mid-nineteenth century by an English
minister, John Curwen. Each hand position (or shape) represents a note of
the scale and after being adopted by Kodály the signs were extensively used
in elementary schools in both Europe and the USA a means of teaching
sight-singing. In many schools, they still are. The hand signs were used
in the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but they didn’t
really have much to do with the plot and were perhaps merely included to add
a bit of gravitas to a rather implausible scene.
interested in children’s music education in 1925 when he happened to hear
some school kids singing in the street. He was horrified by their tuneless
squawking and drew the conclusion that music teaching in the schools was to
blame. He set about a campaign for better teachers, a better curriculum,
and more class-time devoted to music. His tireless work resulted in many
publications which outlined his approach to musical education and had a
world-wide impact. Kodály was also fascinated with Hungarian folksongs and
spent many years recording them, initially on phonograph cylinders.
Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967): Háry János Suite.
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Juraj Valčuha (Duration: 27:46;
Video: 720p HD)
Perhaps his devotion to
researching and writing about music education and his years collecting
folksongs gave him less time to compose because his output is fairly
modest. There are a couple of dozen chamber works and choral pieces, a
handful of orchestral works, and two operas, one of the which is the folk
opera Háry János.
The story is of a
veteran soldier in the Austrian army named Háry János who regularly sits in
the village inn spinning yarns to his long-suffering listeners with
fantastic tales of unlikely heroism, one of which was single-handedly
defeating Napoleon and his armies.
The suite, as you might
have gathered is a collection of material lifted out of the opera. It forms
a pleasing six-movement orchestral work. Both the opera and the suite begin
with an orchestral impression of a sneeze, symbolizing the Hungarian belief
that a sneeze before the telling of a story indicates that it’s going to be
the absolute truth. In the third movement, Kodály adds a bit of local
colour by using a cimbalom, a Hungarian dulcimer-like instrument played with
François-Adrien Boieldieu (1775-1834): Overture: The Caliph of Baghdad.
Symphonette Raanana Orchestra, cond. Shmuel Elbaz (Duration: 07:57; Video:
When I was a teenager
living on a stone-grey island far away, I used to play the cello. Every
Wednesday evening a group of us young musicians would clamber aboard the
local bus taking us on a twenty-mile journey to the rehearsal of the County
Orchestra. One of the conductor’s favourite overtures was The Caliph of
Baghdad, perhaps because it was relatively easy to play. We seemed to
perform it an awful lot. The work came to mind because 16th December
is also the birthday of its composer François Boieldieu (BWAL-dee-yuh)
who for a time was flatteringly known as “the French Mozart”.
As a teenager, François
composed his earliest works using words written by his father and this
brought him local success. The opera Le Calife de Bagdad was
composed when he was approaching twenty-five and first performed at the
classy Théâtre National de l’Opéra Comique in Paris. Incidentally,
the word “comique” does not translate as “comical” – it was a popular style
of opera in which arias were interspersed with spoken dialogue.
The opera was
Boieldieu’s first major triumph and the opera soon became tremendously
popular all over Europe. By operatic standards, the story is fairly
straightforward and revolves around the main character Isaoun who is the
eponymous Caliph. He adopts a disguise so he can roam freely among the
streets without being recognised, which of course, he eventually is.
At the time, there was
a fashion for operas on Oriental themes and the overture features prominent
“eastern” percussion. It’s thought that this opera may have influenced Carl
Maria von Weber, particularly his own Eastern-themed opera Abu Hassan.
If these things
interest you, the Théâtre National de l’Opéra Comique is still going
strong in Paris and you can find it in Place Boieldieu. Yes, named after
the composer. But don’t go there just yet in the hope of seeing a show –
it’s closed until January 2017 for renovations.
Anton Webern in 1911.
For connoisseurs of
exceptional wines, Opus One means only one thing. It’s the name of a
winery in California, founded in 1980 as a joint venture between two great
names in the wine trade: Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild.
Yes, he of the legendary Château Mouton Rothschild. Today they produce a
single Bordeaux-style blend based on the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown in
Napa Valley. Other traditional grapes such as Cabernet Franc and Petit
Verdot are also used in the Bordeaux-style blend.
It’s a fabulous wine
and as you might expect, it doesn’t come cheap. Neither do I for that
matter. Six bottles of the much-lauded 2013 vintage will set you back just
over two thousand dollars and they’re tastefully wrapped in high-quality
tissue paper. The bottles are delivered in a pine wooden box which, if you
have the time and inclination could be later chopped up and made into a
The musical meaning of
the word “opus” is rather less interesting but I’ll tell you anyway. The
word comes from the Latin term meaning “work” or “labour” and is
traditionally added to the title of a composition (or a set of compositions)
to indicate the chronological position in the composer’s production.
From around 1800,
composers usually assigned an opus number to a work when it was published.
From about 1900 onwards, many composers gave their works opus numbers
whether they were published or not. Alban Berg initially gave his works
opus numbers and then stopped. Some composers never used them. Sergei
Prokofiev on the other hand optimistically gave an opus number to a
composition before he had even started writing it.
So when a composer
assigns Opus 1 to a work, it means that it’s either his first publication,
or the first work that he considers worthy of his name. Both the
compositions this week were written within a few years of each other by
students who were about the same age. One lived in Austria and the other in
Russia but they were both destined to become internationally-known
Anton Webern (1883-1945): Passacaglia Op 1.
West German Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Jukka-Pekka Saraste (Duration:
10:42; Video: 1080p HD)
Webern was the composer
of some of the most tense and terse music ever created but that was some
years after he wrote this work in 1908. It’s a tonal piece with rich and
haunting harmonies which at one moment seems to languish in the closing
years of the nineteenth century and at another pushes the boundaries of
tonality - hinting of things to come.
(pah-sah-KAH-lee-a) is a musical form that dates back to
seventeenth-century Spain. It consisted of a short theme in the bass
overlaid with a series of continuous variations. It became a fairly
standard form which regained popularity among composers during the twentieth
century. Webern’s passacaglia has twenty three continuous variations which
are based on the hesitant pizzicato theme heard at the outset. This
finely-crafted work shows remarkable individuality and has a sense of
powerful drama within a framework of emotional complexity.
Because few of Webern’s
compositions achieved commercial success, this one has remained his most
performed and most readily understood work. He gave it the appellation Op 1,
and thus acknowledged that the Passacaglia was effectively his graduation
thesis. Significantly it was also Webern’s last piece for standard symphony
orchestra used in a conventional way.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Symphony No 1, Op 1.
Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra cond. Vakhtang Kakhidze (Duration: 46:08; Video:
If your experience of
Stravinsky is through works like The Firebird, The Rite of Spring
or Petrushka, this symphony might take you by surprise. This is a
genuine Op 1 in that it was the composer’s first publication, and amazingly
his first composition for orchestra. It was written between 1905 and 1907
when he was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov. Stravinsky structured the
symphony, which he dedicated to his teacher, on the well-established format
of four movements, although he made the Scherzo the second movement rather
than the third.
If you didn’t read the
label, you’d probably guess that it’s an early symphony by Tchaikovsky or
Glazunov and certainly shows strong influence of these composers. You might
also pick up echoes of Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and even Wagner. But even
though this wonderful symphony is steeped in the Russian romantic style you
might pick out the unmistakable voice of the later Stravinsky. For example,
at 16:48 there is a peek into the future as Stravinsky uses a melody that
later plays an important role in Petrushka. At the end of the third
movement there’s a tantalising glimpse of a work yet to come – The
Right, that’s that.
Now I can begin making my xylophone. I couldn’t manage two thousand bucks
for the six bottles of Opus One Cabernet Sauvignon, but I scraped
enough money together to buy the empty wooden box.