Vieuxtemps is shown in this sketch by Marie-Alexandre Alophe.
Tuning an orchestral instrument is an unwelcome chore
for every musician who plays one. You might reasonably ask why tuning is
necessary, because you could argue, the instrument should be in tune anyway.
If only that were true! The problem is that the pitch of most musical
instruments drifts with temperature, humidity and other environmental
Although modern concert halls are kept at a constant temperature
musicians bring their instruments from home. On the way to work, the
instruments are exposed to jolting or vehicle vibrations and possibly
extreme outside temperatures. By the time they arrive at the concert hall,
they’ll need tuning again, especially stringed instruments which are
drastically affected by movement and temperature. The pitch of stringed
instruments is determined by the tension of the strings and the tuning
mechanism tends to slip especially when they are carried around. In lower
temperatures stringed instruments become “sharper” which means that their
pitch goes up. Trombones and trumpets tend to stay in tune more accurately
but they too are affected by atmospheric changes. As brass instruments warm
up, their pitch goes down because the metal expands. Although the change is
microscopic, it’s enough to make a difference. As you might expect, larger
instruments are affected more than smaller ones. This is why an orchestra
often re-tunes during a concert.
Some woodwind instruments are dismantled before they’re put in their case
and have to be reassembled before use. They are built in such a way that
small adjustments can be made to the tuning and these must be checked every
time before playing. Harps are notorious for going out of tune with the
result that harpists usually spend more time tuning their instruments than
actually playing them. There’s an old joke among musicians which asks, “How
long does it take to tune a harp?” The answer is that nobody knows.
Musical instruments are tuned to a precise pitch. These days it is pretty
well standard at 440 vibrations per second usually written as 440 Hz
(Hertz). In musical terms it’s the note “A” six notes above “middle C” on a
keyboard and it’s the note an oboe plays at the start of a concert. In the
past, the note was obtained by striking a tuning fork but today a digital
device or a Smartphone is more common. The pitch has fluctuated over the
years though some ensembles - especially those that use historical
instruments - often tune to a different pitch.
Michael Praetorius was a versatile German composer and considered the
greatest musical academic of his day. He had the distinction of being born
on 15th February and dying on the same day of the month, fifty years later.
He was a successful writer of choral music but in 1612, he published a
massive volume containing more than three hundred popular instrumental
dances most of which come from the French dance repertoire. In keeping with
Renaissance taste for classical themes it was entitled “Terpsichore” (it
rhymes with “hickory”) referring to the Greek goddess of dance. In the
introductory notes, Praetorius states with touching modesty that he merely
arranged the pieces but didn’t compose them. They’re mostly French court
dances though Praetorius also included some Spanish and English dances.
The dances are all quite short and thus began the performance custom of
stringing two or three numbers together to make a more substantial piece.
Although popular in the early seventeenth century the music fell into
obscurity for years until the Renaissance revival of the 1960s. If you enjoy
these charming dances, plenty of others can be found on YouTube.
You’d be forgiven for not immediately recognizing the name of this
composer, whose birthday also falls on this weekend. Vieuxtemps was born in
the Belgian town of Verviers which at the time was part of Holland. He gave
his first violin concerto performance at the age of six and became one of
the leading violinists of the nineteenth century. He composed seven
concertos for the violin for which he is best-known.
Vieuxtemps completed this attractive work in 1859 and it was published a
couple of years later. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Vieuxtemps never
indulged in musical fireworks just for the sake of it. Although he was
technically brilliant himself, sheer virtuosity for its own sake was not his
thing. In some ways, this three-movement concerto is quite conservative but
it’s none the worse for that and has some lovely melodies and many magic
An oboe double reed.
At almost every orchestral concert, the first instrument
you hear is always the oboe. This is because the oboe sounds the note to
which all the other instruments tune. This convention came about largely
because the penetrating tone of the oboe can be clearly heard above the
The oboe has a long history though the
origins are obscure. We know that the instrument as we know it first emerged
during the middle of the seventeenth century when it was known by the French
name hautbois (OH-bwah). In French, haut means “high” and bois means “wood”.
Its predecessor was called the shawm which dated back to medieval times and
a harsh-sounding thing it was too.
I’ve always felt that anyone who starts
learning the oboe must possess a certain degree of tenacity, because the
instrument is something of a challenge for a beginner. The clarinet and
saxophone produce their sound with a single reed and it is relatively easy
for an absolute beginner to produce a half-decent sound at the first
attempt. The oboe has a double reed which consists of two reeds bound to
each other and it’s controlled by pressing the lips close together over the
double reed. The first sound that beginners manage on the oboe is usually a
duck-like honk which surely must be discouraging to a sensitive child. It
takes a great deal of practice to convert those initial quacks into
something worth hearing.
In the hands of a fine player the oboe
can produce a bright, reedy sound with a yearning, lyrical tone quality. The
characteristic tone quality, known to musicians as timbre comes from the
design of the tube which, like that of the saxophone and the tuba gradually
increases in diameter.
The reed has a significant effect on
the sound, so much so that oboe players spend a great deal of time selecting
a reed that suits their purpose. Most professional oboists make their own
reeds but this is a tricky skill that can take years to master. Some
professional players make a bit on the side by selling home-made reeds to
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Concerto
for Oboe in C major KV314. François
Leleux (ob), Frankfurt Radio Symphony cond. Andrés Orozco-Estrada (Duration:
22:11; Video: 720p HD)
vast majority of concertos written during the so-called classical period,
this one is cast in three movements: two lively outside movements and a slow
one in between them. Mozart wrote this work during the spring of 1777 for
the Italian oboist Giuseppe Ferlendis who was the oboist in the orchestra of
the Archbishop of Salzburg. The following year the composer re-worked this
concerto for flute, changing the key to D major. It has since become a
well-known concert-piece for both instruments.
first movement kicks off in joyful fashion, yet with the elegance that
typifies so much of Mozart’s music. Notice the clever way the solo oboe
begins – a single scale leading to a long note over the shifting melodies
played by the orchestra. Listen out for the way Mozart creates interplay
between the oboe and the other instruments, sometimes imitating each other
or sometimes the solo oboe flying off in little extravaganzas of its own.
The orchestration is light and transparent, highlighting the soloist and
creating a delicacy of touch.
movement opens in a sombre mood but gradually becomes more song-like and
lyrical. In contrast, the chirpy finale fairly belts along and it’s a
showpiece for the brilliant technique of this renowned French oboist. It’s
a delight to hear the crystal-clear articulation and the way François Leleux
navigates through the difficult virtuosic passages with consummate ease.
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Concerto
for Oboe in C major. Christoph
Hartmann (ob), Symphony Orchestra of the University of Caxias do Sul cond.
Diego Schuck Biasibetti (Duration: 23:25; Video: 1080p HD)
German oboist Christoph Hartmann gives a sparkling performance of this
concerto, well supported by the Brazilian orchestra. This three-movement
concerto is usually attributed to Haydn. It sounds rather like Haydn’s music
and exudes the grace and charm that typifies his orchestral works. However,
it’s generally agreed by music historians that he didn’t actually write it.
It’s thought the work was composed around 1790 though it was not published
orchestral score was assembled from a unique set of nineteenth-century
hand-written orchestral parts found in a monastic library in Zittau,
Germany. Someone, for reasons unknown, added Haydn’s name to the title page.
Modern research has shown that the concerto was possibly the work of Ignaz
Malzat, a rather shadowy figure who lived during the second half of the
eighteenth century. Or it might have been written by someone else. Honestly,
no one knows for sure.
Composer Eric Coates.
If you grew up in
Britain and have reached A Certain Age, you’ll probably remember the BBC
Light Programme which lasted for over twenty years between 1945 until 1967
before being re-branded as Radio 2. It was part of the BBC’s national
broadcasting system and if I recall correctly, broadcast at 1500 metres and
was one of the few stations that used the so-called long wave. The service
provided a diet of light entertainment including dozens of comedy shows,
children’s programmes, popular drama and quiz games. The programmes could be
heard all over the country and were tremendously popular. Many presenters
were household names. The Light Programme was also an oasis of what is
generally known as light music.
Light music is easy to
recognize but difficult to define. It emerged not from symphonies and
concertos but from the less “serious” orchestral music of the late 19th century
such as the operettas of Franz von Suppé and Arthur Sullivan and the waltzes
and marches of the Strauss family. From this tradition came many short
orchestral pieces designed to appeal to a wider audience.
Light music is nearly
always dominated by catchy melodies, lively rhythms and pleasing harmonies.
It was the staple of British seaside and theatre orchestras that flourished
towards the end of the 19th and
early 20th centuries.
It came to the fore during the early years of radio broadcasting in the
1920s. In Britain, it reached its peak in the 1950s when lively, joyous and
optimistic music was probably just the thing after the bleak war years.
British radio and
television required a large supply of light orchestral music for theme tunes
and background music to reflect the popular musical tastes of the day. And
there was no shortage of composers who were only too willing to provide it.
Sir Thomas Beecham often concluded his otherwise serious orchestral concerts
with what he called “lollipops” meaning short or amusing works chosen as a
Dozens of composers
contributed to the genre including Ronald Binge, Frederic Curzon, Trevor
Duncan, Robert Farnon, Ron Goodwin, Ernest Tomlinson and Haydn Wood. But
one name stands out among the others, that of Eric Coates.
Eric Coates (1886-1957): The Three Elizabeths Suite.
Taipei Wind Orchestra cond. Leonard Yui-Biau Hou (Duration: c. 22:00; Video:
Eric Coates was born in
Nottinghamshire; the son of a doctor who was an amateur flautist and whose
wife was a competent pianist. In adult life, Coates became a prolific
composer of light music and even today enduring pieces such as
Knightsbridge March, By the Sleepy Lagoon and The Dambusters
March are still well-known. His marches were popular choices as theme
music for radio and television programmes.
This work dates from
the early 1940s and the title refers to three members of the British royal
family, the historical Elizabeth I of Shakespeare’s time, Queen Elizabeth
the Queen Mother and the present Queen Elizabeth. The work is cast in three
movements (which are contained in three separate videos) and although
originally scored for orchestra it’s heard here in an interesting wind
The first movement
opens heroically in the style of film music of the day and turns into jaunty
dance-like movement, typical of Coates’ easy-on-the-ear style. The pastoral
second movement (Springtime in Angus) evokes the Scottish countryside
of northern Scotland and the suite concludes with a rousing march which
Coates could do so well, putting his personal musical stamp on the music.
The main theme is a foot-tapping, snappy melody contrasted with the more
lyrical middle section. It couldn’t have been written by anyone else.
Robert Farnon (1917-2005): Fantasy Medley.
London Philharmonic orchestra cond. Robert Farnon (Duration: 09:02; Video:
Farnon was a composer, conductor and musical arranger who was a fine jazz
trumpeter and a longtime friend of Dizzy Gillespie. Farnon was one of the
leaders in the light music genre but in later life he composed a number of
more advanced orchestral works, including three symphonies and a piano
concerto. He also wrote the music for more than forty films and became a
prominent orchestral arranger for vocalists including Frank Sinatra and
Sarah Vaughan. He was considered by his peers to be the finest arranger in
The video quality here
leaves much to be desired, but this performance by the London Philharmonic
at London’s Royal Albert Hall dates from 1971. It’s difficult to believe
that it was almost fifty years ago. The medley contains some of Farnon’s
best-known pieces: A Star is Born, Peanut Polka, Jumping Bean,
Westminster Waltz, Portrait of a Flirt and State Occasion. Over
the years, light music has faded from popularity and these days sounds a bit
like a reflection of a bygone age. Even so, if those titles evoke no
memories, I’m sure that you’ll recognize some of the music.