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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Pictures from Britain


Composer Arnold Bax.

It’s surprising how many British composers have succeeded in painting musical pictures of their own country. Some composers, like Vaughan Williams, wrote visionary music which seemed imbued with “Englishness” although many people would be at pains to try and describe what this musical quality actually is. To me, Benjamin Britten’s music always creates images of the grey North Sea whose waves crash on to the stony and equally grey beach of Aldeburgh, the small English town which for many years was the composer’s home.

In some ways, the twentieth century was Britain’s Second Golden Age of Music. The first one of course was during the reign of Elizabeth I. But in the early years of the Baroque, the action seemed to shift into Continental Europe. Only a handful of British composers from that period are remembered today, notably Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel who was of course, originally German. During the Classical period in the second half of the eighteenth century, Germany and Austria led the field in music.

During the twilight years of the nineteenth century, young composers emerged who were to eventually become the Grand Old Men of British music, such as Frederick Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst and Arthur Bliss. During the mid-twentieth century the torch was carried by other internationally known names such as William Walton, Gerald Finzi, Michael Tippett, Richard Rodney Bennett and many others. Wikipedia carries a chronological list of British composers and it’s amazing to see the sheer quantity and array of talent. The remarkable music of Arnold Bax is not as well known as it should be. Take this work, for example.

Arnold Bax (1883-1953): Tintagel. RTVE Symphony Orchestra, cond. Adrian Leaper (Duration 14:53; Video 480p)

The prolific English composer Arnold Bax came from a family of Dutch descent, which explains his slightly odd surname. While still a teenager, Bax fell under the spell of all things Irish and especially the poetry of William Butler Yeats. When he was nineteen, Bax went to Ireland and visited the most isolated and secluded places he could find. He taught himself Gaelic and in later years, under the pseudonym of Dermot O’Byrne, wrote many successful plays, poems, and short stories. Ironically though, his most famous orchestral work was inspired not by Ireland, but by the restless seas around the West Country of England.

Tintagel village and its castle lie on the Atlantic coast of Cornwall and they’re closely associated with the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Bax visited Tintagel Castle during the summer of 1917 and was so captivated with the atmosphere that he produced this thrilling and joyous symphonic poem. It is his best-known work. The expansive and visionary music is meant to depict a castle standing heroically on the rocks, lashed by the waves of the Atlantic. Just listen to the opening with its luscious chords coloured by bird-like twitterings of melody from the woodwind. To my mind, this is British music at its best.

Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006): Four Scottish Dances Op. 59. Hong Kong Youth Symphony Orchestra cond. Artem Konstantinov (Duration: 12:03; Video: 1080p HD)

As a child, I recall my Scottish grandmother listening to records of a dance band led by the well-known Scottish accordionist, Jimmy Shand. The band played medleys of relentlessly jollity and she’d listen to them for hours, tapping her foot with lady-like gentility. I’m not sure what she would have made of this work, composed in 1957. You can’t mistake the Scottish influence and the work has much in common with the exuberant Scottish concert overture Tam o’ Shanter which Arnold composed two years earlier.

Written in the slightly unusual 5/4 time, the first movement echoes the dance known as the Strathspey which has the unmistakable imitations of groaning bagpipes and the characteristic abrupt rhythm known as “the Scottish snap”. It’s a wild-sounding piece but not without the typical Arnold touches of humour. The two middle movements are full of attractive melodies. The third one contains some remarkably beautiful music and sounds vaguely like a Hollywood take on a Hebridean folksong. Even so, the sound is magical and really captures the sense of the rugged Scottish landscapes, something that few composers have managed to succeed in doing. Droning bagpipes return in the swirling last movement which turns into a brief, wild and turbulent dance.

Made in England


Composer Orlando Gibbons.

The Elizabethan Era, often referred to as “England’s Golden Age” was a remarkable if rather brief period in England’s history. During the forty-five year reign of Queen Elizabeth there were significant developments in science, national expansion, exploration and creativity. It ran roughly between 1558 and 1603 during which time the symbol of Britannia was first used.

Even in farming there were new developments. The traditional open grazing fields were replaced by large closed areas of land that required fewer workers. As a result, many rural people left their villages and headed for the expanding urban areas. The knock-on effect was that towns and cities burgeoned in Elizabethan times. The towns had money and they were an ideal climate for the arts to flourish, especially music and the theatre.

The Elizabethan inns provided lodging and entertainment and also attracted traveling actors, musicians and poets. Inn yards became the first venues for theatre plays. It was not long before people realized that there was money to be made by producing plays and then teaming up with inn owners to charge for the performances. The theatre needed music of course, and that too flowered during the Golden Age.

Queen Elizabeth was a patron of the arts and was a skilled performer on the lute and the virginals. She was also an enthusiastic dancer. The top composers of the day were William Byrd, Thomas Campion, John Dowland, John Farmer, Orlando Gibbons, Robert Johnson and Thomas Tallis. And I mustn’t forget the Cornish composer Giles Farnaby who wrote some of the first quaint examples of descriptive keyboard music.

Printed music, both instrumental and vocal was becoming increasingly available. The orchestra as we know it had yet to evolve, but music for smaller groups was popular and so was the instrument known as the viol, which came in a variety of sizes.

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625): Fancy for Six Viols. L’Achéron Instrumental Ensemble (Duration: 05:07; Video: 1080p HD)

The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould championed the music of Gibbons. “Ever since my teenage years”, he wrote, “this music has moved me more deeply than any other sound experience I can think of.” Gibbons was one of the most versatile English composers of his time, and produced a large number of keyboard works, around thirty fantasias for viols and many madrigals the best-known of which being The Silver Swan. Gibbons came from a large family of musicians and was considered one of the finest keyboard players in England.

The consort of viols was a popular musical ensemble in Elizabethan times and this short work dates from around 1603. Unlike the instruments of the violin family, the viol (also known as the viola da gamba) has between five and seven strings, a fretted fingerboard and it’s always played upright rather than under the chin. You might notice that the bow is held differently too.

William Byrd (1543-1623): Ne Irascaris Domine & Civitas Sancti Tui. VOCES8  Vocal Ensemble (Duration: 10:18; Video: 1080p HD)

Byrd, whose name is pronounced the same as “bird” was one of the most popular Elizabethan composers partly because he wrote in many of the musical forms current at the time including choral music, ensemble works and pieces for keyboard. He could turn his hand to a wide range of musical forms and yet imbue them with his own personal musical style. He composed almost five hundred works and is now regarded as one of the great masters of European Renaissance music. Although he composed music for Anglican services, sometime during the 1570s he changed sides and became a Roman Catholic with the inevitable result that he wrote Catholic sacred music later in his life.

These two motets were published in1589 in Byrd’s first book of sacred choral music. The music is remarkable for its breath-taking beauty. The performance by this British vocal ensemble is stunningly good and I cannot recall hearing Byrd’s music so movingly performed. Just listen to those rich bass notes, the colourful, poignant harmonies and the wonderful sense of melodic line.

The name “motet” comes from the French word mot meaning “word” and was a choral piece for several different voices. Composers of the day often used a technique called “word-colouring” in which important words of the text were reflected in the harmonies or rhythms of the music. The 13th-century music theorist Johannes de Grocheo believed that the motet was “not to be celebrated in the presence of common people, because they do not notice its subtlety.” Old Johannes sounds a bit of a musical snob to me.

This wonderful, elegant music speaks of another age and it would be the perfect antidote to a stressful afternoon spent elbowing through the crowds at Terminal 21.

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Pictures from Britain

Made in England