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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update December 30, 2016

Music from another time

Josquin des Prez.

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 progenies. 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.

The beautifully 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  century.  The details of its origin and author remain mysteriously unknown.

Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521): Ave Maria...Virgo Serena. Schola Antiqua of Chicago, dir. Michael Alan Anderson (Duration: 05:34; Video: 720p HD)

Ave 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. 

Surprisingly, for 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.

Ave 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.

Update December 24, 2016

Eastern delights

Composer Yűzô Toyama.

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 idioms.

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 HD)

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 1080p HD)

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 electronic means.

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.”

Update December 17, 2016

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 inextricably linked.

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 inspiration.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): La Valse. Philharmonic Orchestra of Radio France cond. Myung-Whun Chung (Duration: 12.55; Video 360p)

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 conclusion.

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.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945): Dance Suite. German 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. 

Update December 10, 2016

Birthday boys


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 subject. 

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.

Kodály became 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 beaters.

François-Adrien Boieldieu (1775-1834): Overture: The Caliph of Baghdad. Symphonette Raanana Orchestra, cond. Shmuel Elbaz (Duration: 07:57; Video: 1080p HD)

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.

Update December 3, 2016

Opus One


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 xylophone.

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 composers.

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. 

The passacaglia (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: 1080p HD)

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 Firebird.

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. 

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Music from another time

Eastern delights

Shall we dance?

Birthday boys

Opus One