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Update July 2017

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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update July 22, 2017

When classical music isn’t

Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf.

I don’t know whether you’ve ever tried, but finding a meaningful definition of classical music is like trying to wrestle with eels.  Or so I am told, for I have never had the opportunity - or the inclination - to wrestle with one.  For a start, the expression “classical music” has two distinct meanings.  In casual conversation we use it to describe a genre essentially different to jazz, dance music, pop, rock and folk music.  Among musicians and historians the expression “classical music” has a more specific meaning and refers to the styles of musical composition that prevailed in Europe roughly between 1730 and 1800.  During those years, architecture and the arts began to move toward lighter styles which sought to emulate the perceived ideals of classical antiquity, especially those of Classical Greece.  They were in stark contrast to the seriousness and weighty magnificence of the Baroque, which was being seen as increasingly old-fashioned.

Today, the two most revered composers of the classical period are Haydn and Mozart who are now considered middle and late classical composers respectively.  At the time, other top-league composers were Salieri, Gluck, Clementi, Boccherini, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Dittersdorf.  So according to the musicians’ definition, Vivaldi (for example) didn’t write “classical” music and neither did Brahms, Wagner nor Tchaikovsky.

The period of classical music coincided roughly with Age of Enlightenment, sometimes known more prosaically as the Age of Reason.  It was partly inspired by the thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Francis Bacon and René Descartes.  It was one of the most extraordinary periods in Western cultural history and was partly responsible for the French and American Revolutions.  At the risk of being over-simplistic, it boiled down to the notion that people should think and reason for themselves.  It challenged individuals to question accepted norms, even the wisdom of the church and the ruling elite.

Enlightenment thinking pervaded every aspect of society and led to the concepts of freedom, democracy and human rights.  It also brought about new approaches in scientific reasoning.  Interestingly, the seeds of the Enlightenment had been partly sown in the field of science during the previous century with the discoveries of Galileo and Kepler.  Further momentum was provided in the 1680s when Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica and John Locke published his Essay Concerning Human Understanding.   Locke’s work had a significant influence on Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration of Independence.

The changes in the social order had a profound influence on music too.  The newer musical styles that we now refer to as “classical” tended toward simplicity and lightness of texture.  Instead of interweaving instrumental parts, the music relied more on attractive melodies supported by an unobtrusive harmonic accompaniment.  It also borrowed elements from the rather formal “gallant style” which emphasized elegance, grace and symmetry.

Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799): Harp Concerto in A major. Rosa Díaz Cotán (hp), Neubrandenburger Philharmonie cond. Daniel Stratievsky (Duration: 21:04; Video: 1080p HD)

Dittersdorf was a prolific composer who wrote 120 symphonies and possibly a hundred more.  Most of the symphonies were never published during his lifetime and still remain relatively unknown.  This delightful work is a transcription of one of his five keyboard concertos.  Composed in 1779, it’s cast in the standard three-movement concerto format; a lyrical slow movement sandwiched between two more robust fast movements. 

In his day, Dittersdorf was considered a top-ranking composer and hearing this confident work it is not difficult to see why.  There are many beautiful moments, especially in the charming slow movement (at 07:24) in which the oboe and harp exchange fragments of melody.  The last movement is typically light and playfully folk-like and the work receives a splendid performance from both soloist and orchestra.

Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816): Piano Concerto No. 5 in D major. Francesco Nicolosi (pno) Orchestra Antonio Vivaldi cond. Lorenzo Passerini (Duration: 14:29; Video: 1080p HD)

Giovanni Paisiello (jo-VAHN-nee pahee-zee-AYL-lo) was even more prolific than Dittersdorf and wrote eight piano concertos, a vast number of choral works and a staggering ninety-four operas.  This work dates from 1788 but after listening to the elegance of Dittersdorf, the exuberant and somewhat coarser style of Paisiello might come as an uncomfortable surprise.  Although his piano concerti bear superficial similarities to those of Mozart, this work is much less sophisticated and at times even a bit naive.  Even so, in his day Paisiello’s music was popular all over Europe.

The slow movement (at 06:16) is a finely honed melody, delicately supported by the orchestra.  The last movement (09:32) starts with a cheeky-sounding melody and the busy piano part scurries around imitated by other instruments.  It’s light-hearted and frothy and jolly good fun.  However, it also shows why Mozart is now considered one of the “great” composers whereas Paisiello - despite his ninety-four operas - is not.

Update July 15, 2017

French images

Claude Debussy in 1908. (Photo/Félix Nadar)

For many years, I lived in south-east England just outside a place called London.  You might have heard of it.  One of the advantages of living in that part of the country was that it’s quite a short drive to the coastal town of Dover where you can take a car ferry across the English Channel to France.  The voyage - if such it can be called - lasts a mere ninety minutes; sufficient time to enjoy a decent breakfast and a leisurely stroll around the deck.  These days there’s the added choice of the tunnel which makes the trip a lot faster though far less pleasurable.  I must have made that journey dozens of times over the years, sometimes just for the day to stock up on a few cases of cheap French wine and cheese.  Eggs too, because for reasons I have never discovered, they tasted a lot better than the eggs available in England.

Le quatorze juillet (14th July) is France’s National Day, known among English-speakers as Bastille Day, referring to the storming of the medieval fortress by disgruntled Parisians in 1789.  The Bastille was an armory and state prison and a hated symbol of royalty.  At the time of the attack, there were only seven prisoners inside but the fall of the fortress was the flashpoint of the French Revolution.

So this is as good an opportunity as any to celebrate the work of two French composers, although there are dozens of other distinguished names to choose from.  Like Laurel and Hardy or Batman and Robin, the names Debussy and Ravel are usually bundled together.  In some ways this isn’t too surprising for they were contemporaries who shared similar backgrounds.  They both lived in Paris and in some ways they influenced each other.  Although their music has superficial similarities the composers have their own distinctive sound and had quite a different attitudes and approaches to composing.  However, in these two works, both composers succeed in creating vivid images in the minds of the listeners. 

Claude Debussy (1862-1918): La Mer. Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Paavo Järvi (Duration: 27:22; Video: 720p HD)

As a successful composer, Debussy’s music was often described as “impressionist” and although the composer disliked the description he’s been stuck with it ever since.  Even so, you only have to hear the opening bars of La Mer (“The Sea”) to sense a similar diffuse and unfocused quality that so often characterizes the paintings of impressionist painters such as Monet, Pissarro or Turner.

The composer was about forty when he began this impressive work.  He described it as “three symphonic sketches for orchestra” and the movements are entitled From dawn to midday on the sea, Play of the waves and Dialogue between the wind and the waves.  Despite the descriptive titles, the music has nothing to do with sound effects.  Debussy was more interested in evoking moods through unexpected harmonies, unusual melodic lines, and surging orchestral colours.  It is a masterpiece of orchestration and has become one of the most influential and popular orchestral works of the twentieth century.

He started writing the work in France in 1903, completing the process while on holiday in English during the fearsomely hot summer of 1905.  He stayed in considerably luxury at the palatial Grand Hotel at Eastbourne on England’s south coast.  The hotel has long been associated with music.  Broadcasts of light classical music started there in 1925 and were described as “music from the palm court” although few people realised that the hotel didn’t actually have one.  The Grand Hotel still exists and the rooms in which Debussy stayed are now called The Debussy Suite.  You can book the suite for a mere Bt. 30,000 a night.  Coincidentally, Eastbourne was the place where in 1911 the English composer Frank Bridge completed a suite also entitled The Sea.

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

Ravel invariably did things differently to everyone else and this dark and brooding waltz is a fine example of his sophisticated use of musical ideas and brilliant orchestration.  He called it a “choreographic poem for orchestra” and began it in 1919.  It was conceived as a ballet but these days it’s usually performed as a concert piece.

Although there are unmistakable echoes of the nineteenth century, this powerful work couldn’t be more removed from the innocent melodies of Johann Strauss that so charmed the Viennese thirty years earlier.  It seems more like a nightmare from a haunted ballroom.  It beings quietly with ominous rumbling of double basses and cellos but gradually the tempo and intensity increase, fragments of tune appear then swirling melodies begin to emerge.  There is a kind of surreal quality to the music and you might get an unsettling sense of foreboding organic growth within the music, as it hurls itself towards an almost terrifying but inevitable conclusion.

Update July 8, 2017

Four’s company


The Dover Quartet. (Photo/Carlin Ma)

One of the great joys of playing the violin, the viola or the cello is that you have access to the enormous amount of music written for string quartet.  Almost every composer you can think of from Haydn to the present day has written something for this ensemble. 

When I was a music student, every Sunday afternoon I’d drive up to North London in my creaking and leaky Austin A40, the roof of which let in so much water that I kept umbrellas inside the car.  The trip was necessary because that’s where we played quartets.  One of the violinists had the luxury of a large if somewhat drab lounge in her rented flat, big enough for a string quartet to play in comfort.  And so it came to pass that Sundays were quartet days.  Each week someone would bring along a set of parts and we’d scramble our way through the music.  We had a whole lot of fun and got to know a lot of music at the same time.

During the early eighteenth century it was common practice, for reasons of economy to perform pieces for string orchestra with just four players.  Oddly enough, few composers seemed to show any interest in composing specifically for a string quartet.  That is, until the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn took the idea to heart.  He invested so much time and energy in developing the medium that he eventually became known as the “father of the string quartet.”

With a few exceptions, the instrumentation has always been two violins, one viola and one cello and during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the musical structure closely resembled that of the symphony.  The usual format was a lively first movement, sometimes preceded by a slow introduction; a second slow movement, a third movement in the form of a minuet and a bright and breezy finale.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1803): Quartet in B flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4 “Sunrise”.  Dover String Quartet (Duration: 24:53; Video: 1080p HD)

I have to admit that this is one of my all-time favourite Haydn quartets.  The nickname “Sunrise” comes from the gentle ascending theme at the very beginning of the quartet, played over quiet, sustained chords.  The theme returns, sometimes in modified form on several other occasions during the movement.

The quartet is the fourth in a set of six quartets that Haydn wrote in the late 1790s.  They’re among Haydn’s most advanced and ambitious quartets.  After the peaceful “sunrise” opening, the music scurries off at an extraordinary tempo and the various themes are developed in surprising and delightful ways.  There’s a lovely slow movement with a hymn-like opening and as usual, a minuet forms the third movement.  But this minuet is far removed from the courtly dance of the same name.  The music is full of quirky humour and in the middle section Haydn takes the listener into a mysterious world in which the music evokes the sound of rustic peasant bagpipes.  The Finale starts in a stately fashion but the music soon scampers away towards the satisfying conclusion.

This is wonderful music and it’s superbly played too.  The Chicago Tribune stated that the Dover String Quartet has “expert musicianship, razor-sharp ensemble, deep musical feeling and a palpable commitment to communication.”

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13 No. 2. Varty Manouelian, Movses Pogossian (vlns), Paul Coletti (vla) Clive Greensmith (vc) (Duration: 32:07; Video: 1080 HD)

By the time the teenage Mendelssohn wrote this work, the string quartet was well-established.  Haydn had written seventy of them and Mozart had written between twenty and thirty.  Both Schubert and Beethoven made significant contributions to the repertoire and dozens of other lesser composers had written for the medium.

When Mendelssohn wrote this wonderful quartet in 1827 he was eighteen and pretty well experienced as a composer.  He was fascinated by Beethoven’s quartets and evidently studied all the scores he could manage to obtain.  This quartet was written a few months after Beethoven’s death and not surprisingly contains noticeable influences.

This is one of Mendelssohn’s most passionate works, starting with a wonderfully moving and intimate opening which breaks into a tumultuous faster section.  The opening of the second movement is breathtakingly beautiful and for the third movement, Mendelssohn writes a light Intermezzo with a lilting theme recalling his overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream which he’d composed two years earlier.  The last movement (at 32:07) has a frenetic opening that leads into a movement of contrasting moods yet the pressing sense of urgency never seems to leave.  And yet, during all this tension, the composer gives hints of the lyrical mood that prevailed earlier in the work. In the closing bars of the quartet, after all the dramatic emotional events, Mendelssohn takes us back to the quiet reflective mood at the start of the work where we began our musical journey.

Update July 1, 2017

Don’t knock the Baroque


It’s not much, but it’s home. The baroque Upper Belvedere Palace, Vienna (Photo/Martin Falbisoner)

The chapter in history known as the Baroque lasted about a hundred and fifty years, give or take.  Music historians tend to divide the period into the early Baroque (about 1600 to 1650), the middle Baroque (about 1650 to 1700) and the late Baroque (about 1700 to 1750).  Now I have to admit that these years are somewhat arbitrary, but at least they’re round figures.  Wikipedia differs on this matter and so does one of my favourite reference books but of course, it all depends on what criteria you use.  In any case, it’s a bit misleading to state specific years because the Baroque movement gradually crept in over a period of time.  The first signs appeared in Italy and the movement gradually spread across Europe.  You can find Baroque elements in painting, sculpture, theatre, literature and architecture.

So what was the Baroque?  Let’s allow a few generalisations.  Baroque painting for example, was characterized by three things: a sense of grandeur, sensuous richness and powerful dramatic content.  Baroque architecture used grandiose designs and elaborate detail and was intended to impress.  Palaces, such as Prince Eugene’s stately Belvedere palace in Vienna, were invariably built around an imposing entrance with a grand and symmetrical façade of breath-taking opulence.

The three greatest composers of Baroque music were Bach, Handel and Vivaldi and their music reflected some of these characteristics.  Contrast and detail were two of the most important elements.  Melodies were made increasingly complex with the addition of trills and various other ornaments.  Rich and sonorous textures were used and the music was given a sense of urgency through the use of energetic rhythms.  It also had to be dramatic. Just think of the electrifying start to Bach’s famous Toccata in D minor for organ. 

The violin and trumpet became increasingly popular as solo instruments.  Baroque music used the so-called basso continuo, which was an accompaniment improvised by a keyboard instrument over a given bass line and harmonic pattern, supported by a bass instrument, usually the cello.  It was used extensively throughout the Baroque because it provided the fundamental rhythm and harmony, thus freeing up the other instruments or voices to weave elaborate contrapuntal patterns.

George Frederic Handel (1685-1759): Let the Bright Seraphim (“Samson”). Kathleen Battle (sop), Wynton Marsalis (tpt), Orchestra of St. Luke’s cond. John Nelson (Duration: 05:14; Video: 480p)

Here’s a delightful musical treat, despite the fact that it was recorded twenty five years ago in 1991.  Handel was rather ahead of his time in that he spent most of his career as a freelance composer – and a successful one too, receiving living expenses from a succession of monarchs. 

Samson is a three-act oratorio dating from 1741.  The aria Let the bright Seraphim has remained especially popular and appears towards the end of the work.  The premiere at Covent Garden in London in 1743 was so successful that a further six performances were hastily arranged.

But just listen to all those hallmarks of the late Baroque!  There are bright lively rhythms, a prominent part for the trumpet (in this case the piccolo trumpet) which responds to the singer’s phrases and creates an impression of grandeur and celebration.  The soprano sings an elaborate and virtuosic baroque-style melody using melismata – the word used to describe singing a long succession of different notes on a single syllable.  There’s a typical contrasting section in the middle of the aria and you can see the continuo harpsichord behind the singer.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741): Gloria, RV 589. National Chamber Choir and Chamber Orchestra of Armenia cond. Robert Mlkeyan (Duration: 30:12; Video 480p)

When Vivaldi was aged about twenty-six, he began his long association with the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice.  In reality, this institution was not a hospital but a home for the illegitimate daughters of Venetian noblemen who discretely helped to provide the necessary funding.

The Pietà had an excellent reputation for music and the students were considered the most accomplished young performers of their time.  Because they needed a constant supply of new music, it was expedient that Vivaldi should write it himself.  The Gloria was one such work, composed around 1715.  There are twelve separate movements, some of them quite short and yet they display all the hallmarks of the late Baroque such as the insistent chugging D’s played at the start and later, the melismatic vocal lines, the surprisingly chromatic harmony, the lively rhythms, contrasting textures, trumpet fanfares and the ever-present continuo played on the organ.

Even more than the four violin concertos known collectively as The Four Seasons, this vibrant music reveals Vivaldi’s extraordinary sense of invention and imagination.  If you want to get a real sense of what the late Baroque was all about, you can’t do much better than to listen to this splendid music, especially its triumphant finale. 

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

When classical music isn’t

French images

Four’s company

Don’t knock the Baroque



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