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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye

 

Minor Thirds

WW2 British air-raid siren.

A long time ago, when I was two or three years old, we lived in an English village not far from the town of Crewe. Every few days, I remember hearing dull, booming thuds which my mother assured me were caused by trucks bumping along the road outside. This seemed a bit unlikely as we rarely saw any trucks in the village. The noise was in fact coming from German bombs exploding in the distance. Crewe was known for its large railway junction and its enormous railway engineering facility for manufacturing and overhauling locomotives. During World War II, military tanks were also built there, so the town naturally became a favourite target for the German Luftwaffe. The air raids were preceded and followed by the distinctive wailing sound of air-raid sirens which were installed in almost every town and village in the country. Sadly, for many people the air-raid siren was one of the last sounds they heard.

At that tender age, I used to tinkle around on my grandmother’s piano. My earliest musical memory was the discovery that the notes B flat and D flat played simultaneously sounded almost exactly the same pitches as the wailing air-raid sirens. I was tremendously excited about this revelation though no one else shared my enthusiasm. Perhaps they were more concerned about the bombs. Years later, I discovered that the notes B flat and D flat create a musical interval called a minor third. You might be wondering what it sounds like, especially if you can’t tell a B flat from a wombat’s armpit. Think of the song Greensleeves and sing the first two notes. Or sing the first two notes of the Beatles song Hey Jude. Then imagine those two notes sounding together. That’s a minor third, assuming that you’re singing in tune.

The distinctive sound of the minor third helps to create the character of music in minor keys. Some people describe the minor key as dark-sounding, soulful or heart-rending. Many folk songs in minor keys tend to stay in the minor throughout, but if a symphony is described as being in a minor key, you can be sure that it will drift into a bright and sunny major key sooner or later. Strangely enough, during the late eighteenth century, composers tended to avoid minor keys. Only two of Mozart’s forty-one symphonies are in a minor key and Haydn, who wrote over a hundred symphonies, chose minor keys for only seven. Only two of Beethoven’s nine symphonies are in a minor key. This might be a reflection of contemporary Viennese public taste because as the Romantic Movement surged across Europe during the 19th century, more symphonies appeared in minor keys. But let’s explore two less well-known symphonies, both in minor keys and both equally rewarding.

Charles Ives (1874-1954): Symphony No. 1 in D minor. The Perm Opera & Ballet Theatre Orchestra, Russia cond. Valeriy Platonov (Duration: 38:39; Video: 720p HD)

Considered the grandfather of American music, Charles Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut. This attractive work is the first of four symphonies and was composed between 1898 and 1902. It’s written in a late romantic European style and the second movement is exceptionally beautiful and moving, evoking an atmosphere similar to the slow movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. The scherzo is delightful with a tuneful dance-like trio section while the last movement is a real tour-de-force with thrilling brass writing.

Later in life, Charles Ives was among the first American composers to engage in daring musical experiments which included elements of chance. He also experimented with tone clusters and “polytonality” a word which means music played in several different keys at the same time. However, all this proved too much of a challenge for most audiences and his music was generally ignored, largely because of the relentless dissonance. It was Ives who famously said, “Stand up and take your dissonance like a man.”

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915): Symphony No. 3 in C minor Op. 43. Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia cond. Dima Slobodeniouk (Duration: 53:56; Video: 1080p HD)

Scriabin’s Third Symphony is subtitled The Divine Poem and was written between 1902 and 1904. The work marked a significant step towards Scriabin’s personal musical language and has a visionary quality which was only hinted at in his earlier works.

Scriabin liked a massive orchestral sound and at times, he turns the orchestra into an ensemble of soloists; each contributing points of detail to a complex web of sound texture. It’s been suggested that his emotionally-charged, highly personal music reflects the notions of nineteenth century existentialism and the mysticism of the famous, if slightly dotty Madame Blavatsky of the controversial Theosophical Society. Anyway, if you enjoy romantic, orchestral wall-to-wall sound, Scriabin’s Third Symphony will probably be right up your soi.


Sailing the Seas

Goethe (by James Posselwhite)

When I was a small boy and living on a grey island far, far away, there was a framed print on my bedroom wall which displayed the French text of an old Breton prayer. It included the line ma barque est si petite; votre mer est si grande. At the time, I assumed it meant “My bark is so small; your mother is so big”. I pondered the possible meanings of this Delphic sentence for considerable time until my mother gently explained that in French barque means “boat” and mer means “sea”. The Breton prayer finally made sense.

Only the other day, someone reminded me that the word barque is related to the Italian barca which also gives its name to the musical word barcarole. This was a type of lilting song popular with Venetian gondoliers, the triple metre being vaguely reminiscent of the slow and measured rowing strokes used to propel the boat. The word was sometimes used to describe instrumental music in a similar lilting style. The very mention of boats brings to my mind John Masefield’s short poem, Cargoes which begins theatrically with the line, “Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir”. And if your maritime history is a bit hazy, I shall leave you to find out about quinquiremes for yourself. Assuming of course, that you feel it’s worth the effort.

Unlike poets and painters, few composers seem to have found inspiration from the sea, let alone boats. Delius wrote a lovely orchestral piece called Sea Drift and both Britten and Elgar used sea themes. Vaughan Williams wrote a Sea Symphony and the lesser-known Granville Bantock composed a Hebridean Symphony. Oh yes, then there’s Ravel delightful piano piece called Une Barque sur l’Ocean. The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (GER-ter) was an extraordinary multi-talented individual and was one of the greatest German writers, thinkers and scientific theorists of all time. I mention him because in 1795 he wrote two short and but oddly expressive poems called Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. Although they have only eighteen lines between them, these two poems inspired musical works by several composers, notably Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Schubert.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op. 112. Warsaw Boys Choir, Frederic Chopin University of Music Symphony Orchestra, cond. Krzysztof Kusiel Moroz (Duration: 08:50; Video: 1080p HD)

Mention the title and most people will think of Mendelssohn, because in 1827 he wrote an orchestral concert overture of the same name. However, twelve years earlier, Beethoven had set the same poems as a short cantata for choir and orchestra. This small masterpiece has been described as “one of the most overlooked works in Beethoven’s output”. It’s thoroughly charming and beautifully performed by these young musicians from Poland and recorded in top quality video. Incidentally, Beethoven actually knew Goethe well and had admired Goethe’s poetry since his youth.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage mean more-or-less the same thing. But they are exact opposites. In the days of sailing ships, a totally silent, calm sea with no wind was cause for alarm. The first poem is about a ship hopelessly becalmed and going nowhere, while the second one describes how the wind lifts and the vessel joyfully continues its journey towards land.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883): Overture, The Flying Dutchman. National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain (Main Orchestra) cond. Howard Williams (Duration: 09:54; Video: 360p)

The Flying Dutchman is a Wagner opera about a legendary ghost-ship destined to roam the oceans forever. It was written in 1841 and inspired by a real-life event. In his 1870 autobiography Mein Leben (“My Life”) Richard Wagner tells how he was inspired to write the opera following a stormy sea crossing he made from Riga (now in Latvia) in July and August 1839. It had been a particularly bad year for him and he was heavily in debt. He was forced to leave the country illegally with his long-suffering wife Minna and Robber, their enormous Newfoundland dog. The voyage was neither calm nor prosperous because they encountered mountainous seas and ferocious storms, one of which almost wrecked the ship. The voyage should have lasted a few days but it turned out to be a nightmare lasting three and a half weeks. You can still sense the terror of the storm in the opening bars of the overture. This is a spirited performance by one of Great Britain’s youngest orchestras, splendidly conducted by Howard Williams.

And just in case you’re still wondering about the Breton prayer I mentioned earlier, here it is in full:

Protégez-moi, mon Seigneur,

Ma barque est si petite,

Votre mer est si grande.

I can’t help wondering whether Richard Wagner might have uttered rather similar sentiments during his horrific voyage in the summer of 1839.

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Echoes of another Age

 

Dumbarton Oaks: it’s not much but it’s home.

One day a good many years ago, during my time as an impoverished music student in London, I was ferreting through the records in a second-hand music shop and came across one of those unusual 45rpm classical recordings. It was a performance by the London Mozart Players (founded in 1949 and still going strong) and featured Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. I’d never heard of it before, but the music was by Stravinsky so I bought the record without hesitation.

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We have to thank the absurdly-wealthy American diplomat Robert Woods Bliss and his wife Mildred for this curiously-named piece. To mark their thirtieth wedding anniversary in 1938, they commissioned a new work from Igor Stravinsky who was then one of the superstar composers and musicians of the day. As a result of the commission, he wrote the Concerto in E-flat for Chamber Orchestra while staying near Geneva where his eldest daughter was fighting a terminal battle with tuberculosis. The work was first performed in the grandiose music room of the Bliss house, rustically named Dumbarton Oaks. For years, I had pictured a homely, rambling country house with roses and wisteria everywhere unaware that Dumbarton Oaks was actually an enormous nineteenth century building of palatial proportions, situated in Washington’s up-market Georgetown neighborhood. Even so, the name provided a convenient and enduring nickname for the concerto. As fate would have it, on the day of the first performance Stravinsky was also in hospital with tuberculosis (though he lived to tell the tale) and the ensemble was conducted by the legendary Nadia Boulanger.

During the 1920s, Stravinsky had become profoundly interested in the so-called neoclassical approach to composition which he claimed to have invented himself. This drew on some of the musical principles vaguely associated with the so-called Classical Period in European music which was roughly between 1750 and 1820.  Although Stravinsky wrote some of the best-known neoclassical works in the repertoire, other composers - notably Hindemith, Prokofiev, Bartók, Milhaud and Poulenc - were also influenced by neoclassical ideas.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Concerto in E-flat for Chamber Orchestra (“Dumbarton Oaks”).  Geneva Camerata cond. David Greilsammer (Duration: 16:02; Video: 1080p HD)

If your knowledge of Stravinsky’s music is through the well-known ballets written before the First World War, this work may come as a surprise. Stravinsky first explored the neoclassical approach in his ballet Pulcinella which dates from around 1920 and was based on melodies presumed at the time to have been written by the eighteenth century Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi. As it turned out, they weren’t but the ballet began Stravinsky’s long fascination with neoclassical principles. Perhaps “neo-baroque” would be a more appropriate description for this composition, because the Concerto in E-flat is a three-movement work written along the lines of a baroque concerto grosso. Unlike a solo concerto, this type of work contrasts a smaller group of instruments with the entire ensemble. It’s scored for ten stringed instruments, a handful of woodwind and two horns.

You’ll hear fascinating echoes of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3 emerging through the light and airy textures, with snippets of melody that sound as though they’ve come from dance music of the thirties. The light and delicate second movement is followed by an energetic finale that’s full of melodies, shifting accents and driving rhythms and although the music turns the clock back to the eighteenth century for its inspiration, the sound is pure Stravinsky.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): Symphony No 1 in D (“Classical”). Baltic Sea Philharmonic, cond. Kristjan Järvi (Duration: 13:59; Video: 1080p HD)

Prokofiev wrote this work during 1916-17 which puts Stravinsky’s claim to be the “inventor of neoclassicism” on somewhat dodgy ground. Prokofiev was in his mid-twenties and already a successful composer with several operas, ballets and other orchestral works to his credit including the first two piano concertos. The Classical Symphony draws on the musical style of Haydn for its inspiration and has become Prokofiev’s most popular orchestral work. The work is scored for small orchestra and the format is pretty similar to a classical symphony except that the traditional minuet is replaced with a gavotte. Prokofiev uses musical techniques that Haydn would have recognized, yet the musical language is unmistakably his own, with sudden changes of dynamics, jaunty playful rhythms and characteristically spiky melodies. There’s a lovely lyrical second movement and the elegant gavotte contains surprisingly satisfying twists of harmony. Incidentally, you might get the impression that the conductor Kristjan Järvi isn’t doing very much in this video, but the beautifully transparent and virtuosic performance betrays the fact that that a huge amount of careful preparation work must have been done at the rehearsals. The brilliant finale is a scampering movement which contains plenty of lively tunes. There’s an especially catchy one, first heard on the flute (at 10:26) that you might find yourself humming for a long time afterwards.


A Time and a Plaice

  

Gérard Souzay c. 1958.

The other day I made a list of pieces of classical music inspired by fish. Yes, it’s sad, I know. Here we are in one of South East Asia’s most vibrant cities and I am sitting at home making lists of music about fish. I really must get out more often. As it turned out, the list wasn’t exceptionally long, perhaps because few composers find fish suitably inspiring. Debussy wrote a piano piece about a goldfish, but it’s in the key of F sharp and hopelessly difficult, at least by my limited pianistic standards. Another French composer, Erik Satie composed a piano piece called The Dreamy Fish and in 2005 the British composer Cecilia McDowall wrote a jolly number for alto saxophone and strings with the curious title of Dancing Fish.  At the age of twenty-four, Benjamin Britten composed a rather serious song for voice and piano entitled Fish in the Unruffled Lakes. And before I forget, fish are depicted in the Saint-Saëns piece Aquarium from “Carnival of the Animals”.

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And that, you might be relieved to know, is about it. The prolific American composer Alan Hovhaness wrote a short but captivating work called And God Created Great Whales, which was premiered in 1970 and blended recordings of whale sounds with those of an orchestra. And yes, I know that whales are not actually fish but from a distance they look as though they ought to be. And that’s another thing. Did you realise that the whale is the closest living relative of the hippopotamus? It’s not exactly relevant to this column, but I thought you might be interested. Anyway, perhaps the most well-known fish song was written by Franz Schubert using a poem by someone confusingly named Christian Schubart.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Die Forelle. Gérard Souzay (bar), Dalton Baldwin (pno). (Duration: 02:06) (Audio only)

We tend to think of Schubert as a composer of symphonies and chamber music but in his day, he was best-known in Vienna as a songwriter. Among his six hundred songs, this one, entitled Die Forelle (“The Trout”) is probably his most famous. Schubert was only about twenty when he wrote the song in 1817 and it’s not difficult to understand why it became so popular. The melody has a kind of folksy charm and the sparkling piano accompaniment suggests a fish darting through rippling waters. There’s no shortage of excellent performances on YouTube, but I find myself returning to the old 1967 recording made by Gérard Souzay in which pianist Dalton Baldwin provides a splendidly articulated accompaniment. Souzay was one of the finest baritones of his time. He brings a delicacy and lightness of touch to the song and a compelling sense of style which few other singers can match.

Franz Schubert: Quintet in A major (“The Trout”).  Zoltán Kocsis (pno), Gábor Takács-Nagy (vln), Gábor Ormai (vla), András Fejér (vc), Ferenc Csontos (db). (Duration: 42:47; Video: 480p)

The popularity of Die Forelle encouraged Schubert to write a set of variations on it for the fourth movement of his Piano Quintet, which he completed the following year. Instead of the conventional combination of string quartet plus piano, Schubert scored this work for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass but strangely enough it wasn’t published during his lifetime.

For such a young composer it’s a remarkable work. If you are new to Schubert’s chamber music, here’s a great place to start because Schubert’s skills as a song-writer are much in evidence throughout. The work is simply packed with tunes. There are several recordings available on YouTube but this Hungarian performance is one of my favourites, recorded in 1982 in the opulent Congress Hall of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The recording is getting a bit old in the tooth, as the audio and video quality will testify, but these wonderful musicians give a captivating performance to which I listened with admiration. The phrasing and articulation are superb and there’s a splendid sense of elegance and style.

They take the third movement (21:04) at a fair old lick and this is surely the fastest I’ve ever heard it played. In contrast, the start of the theme and variations on Die Forelle (24:40) begins almost dreamily. Schubert weaves the original fish song into wonderful melodies of Mozartian elegance, especially during the lovely cello solo. But just wait for the stunning show of pianistic bravura in the fourth variation (27:57). A lively and engaging last movement brings the work to a satisfying conclusion with several false endings, perhaps a glance back to Haydn’s “Joke” quartet. If you have an hour to spare, treat yourself to this exceptional and delightful performance, enhanced with a glass or two of cold, crisp dry white wine and perhaps a few slices of smoked salmon. Or even smoked trout, if you are a purist.


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Minor Thirds

Sailing the Seas

Echoes of another Age

A Time and a Plaice
 

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