By Colin Kaye
Dancing the Night Away
Nobody knows when
humans started dancing, but it must have been a very long time ago. It was
probably a natural expression of joy or elation or perhaps even – in its
early days – frenetic body motions to frighten away undesirable animals. It
would be centuries before the concept of ritual dancing emerged. But of
course, all this is so far back in human history that we simply don’t know.
Your guess it as good as mine and to be honest, probably better.
We know that formalized dancing was
practised among the ancient Greeks, because various household objects such
as drinking vessels, depict images of dancers and musicians. Even so, we
don’t know very much about what the music actually sounded like. It wasn’t
until the Renaissance began to dawn, 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 publisher Pierre Phalèse who, in the
town of Leuven started a bookselling business which developed into a
successful publishing house. By 1575, Phalèse had produced nearly two
hundred books of popular dance music, many of which were for the lute, a
popular instrument at the time. At first, Phalèse outsourced his books to
various printers, but later produced his own music books using the then
state-of-the-art technology, movable type.
During the sixteenth and seventh
centuries, dance music of all forms flowed from many composers, including
some distinguished ones like Bach, Handel, and the hyper-productive Georg
Philipp Telemann who wrote suites of dances, though not for dancing but for
Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967): Dances of Galánta.
Symphony Orchestra of Galicia cond. Dima Slobodeniouk (Duration: 19:36;
Video: 1080p HD)
Zoltán Kodály (koh-DAH-yee) is
best known as the creator of the Kodály method of music education. He became
interested in music education in 1925 after hearing some school-kids singing
in the street. He was horrified by their tuneless squawking and assumed that
the 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 eventually influenced
music education world-wide.
Kodály is most closely associated with
something he didn’t actually invent: the hand-signs. These hand-signs
represent each note of the scale and were invented by the English minister
and music teacher John Curwen in the mid-nineteenth century. Curwen had
previously invented the Tonic sol-fa system and the hand-signs were a
natural extension of this approach. The hand-signs were used in the 1977
movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but they didn’t logically
fit the plot and were perhaps included in an attempt to add a bit of
gravitas to a rather implausible scene.
Kodály wrote his colourful Dances of
Galánta in 1933 using folk music of the Galánta region, now part of
Slovakia. The work is in five sections and the clarinet is especially
prominent because it represents a Hungarian folk instrument known as the
Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983): Dance Suite from
Frankfurt Radio Symphony cond. Andrés Orozco-Estrada (Duration: 13:37;
Alberto Ginastera (jee-nah-STEHR-ah)
is considered the most powerful voice in Argentine classical music. He
studied at the conservatoire in Buenos Aires, and later with the American
composer Aaron Copland. Ginastera’s music can be challenging, percussive,
thrilling, thought-provoking and sometimes even downright scary. The
thunderous last movement of his dramatic First Piano Concerto was brought to
fame in 1973 when it was adapted by the rock group Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
Ginastera even approved of the arrangement, which relied heavily on
keyboards and synthesized percussion.
Much of Ginastera’s music is
nationalistic and draws on Argentine folk themes or other elements of
traditional music. He greatly admired the fine Gaucho traditions and this is
reflected in his 1942 one-act ballet Estancia (“The Ranch”). It’s a
story about a city boy who falls for a rancher’s daughter but the girl finds
him weak and dull compared to the macho and intrepid Gauchos. Ginastera
turned the ballet music into a remarkable four-movement orchestral suite and
if you haven’t heard Ginastera’s work before, this is a great place to
start. All the hallmarks of his style are there: his love of percussive
sounds, his sparkling angular melodies and his exciting use of complex
You would need a heart of stone to not
be moved by the delicious slow movement with its searching melodies (03:19)
and the dazzling last movement entitled Malambo (09:19) which is an
absolute “must hear”. The malambo is a traditional and somewhat
complicated Argentinean folk dance performed only by men and the movement’s
closing section is absolutely thrilling, with cataclysmic percussion and
brilliantly articulated playing from this fine German orchestra. Recorded at
an outdoor concert in Frankfurt a couple of years ago, this is wonderful
action-packed music that is impossible to resist.
And all I ask is a tall ship…
in September 1872.
Do you ever get that
curious experience when for no apparent reason, a line of poetry, or a
long-forgotten name or phrase drifts into your mind and catches you
unawares? This morning I was making some dog food in the kitchen, when John
Masefield’s evocative line floated into my mind. And yes, since you asked,
the food was intended for the dogs not for me, although I have occasionally
tried those Pedigree Chum dog chews. They look a lot better than they
taste, I can tell you. But of course, these things are rather subjective and
you might be very fond of them.
Anyway, last week I was looking at some
of those stunning seascapes by Ivan Aivazovsky, the nineteenth century
Russian painter who’s regarded as one of the greatest marine artists in
history. He created literally thousands of seascapes and had the uncanny
ability to convey the effect of moving water and of reflected sun and
moonlight. If these things interest you, there are several websites where
you can see his remarkable and technically brilliant work. It’s not
surprising that the sea has had such a profound influence literature and the
arts. Two of Masefield’s best-known poems are about the sea and the second
line of Sea Fever with its yearning for a tall ship was quoted by
Captain James T. Kirk in a rare moment of reflection during a 1980s episode
of the television series Star Trek.
In Britain, you can’t go very far
without arriving at the coastline and the sea has influenced many other
British writers and composers. Benjamin Britten, born in a fishing port in
Suffolk, found inspiration in the sea and so did Arnold Bax and Edward Elgar
whose Sea Pictures are still a great favourite in Britain. In 1905,
the conductor Henry Wood (he of Proms fame) composed his Fantasia on
British Sea Songs, celebrating the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar
So then, here are two sea-inspired
works by English composers of the early twentieth century. Both are scored
for large orchestra, chorus and soloists and both are settings of poems by
the America’s “first poet of democracy” Walt Whitman.
Frederick Delius (1862-1934): Sea Drift.
Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone), BBC Symphony
Chorus and Orchestra cond. Sir Mark Elder (Duration: c. 25:00; Video: 720p
Frederick Delius was born to German
parents in the north of England and by all accounts he retained a noticeable
Yorkshire accent throughout his life. His atmospheric work Sea Drift
takes its name from one of Whitman’s poems in the Leaves of Grass
collection. It’s a large-scale work written in France where Delius lived for
most of his adult years. Sea Drift was composed between 1903 and 1904
and was first performed in Germany a couple of years later.
The first performance in England was
conducted by Henry Wood in 1908 at the Sheffield Festival. It was later
performed in Manchester though it was reported that there were more people
on the stage than there were in the audience. Even so, this is an impressive
work. The performance on this video was recorded by the BBC at the first
night of The Proms in 2012 and the audio quality and video production are
exemplary. It also has the added advantage of subtitles so that you can
fully appreciate the depth of meaning in Whitman’s engaging but profoundly
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): A Sea Symphony.
Soloists and Choir; Southwest German Radio
Symphony Orchestra, cond. Dennis Russell Davies (Duration: 1:12:31; Video:
The music of Ralph Vaughan Williams is
so established in his home country that British musicians often refer to him
simply as “RVW” but his name can be tricky for foreigners. His surname is
“Vaughan Williams” not just “Williams” and his first name is pronounced
“Rafe” to rhyme with “safe”. During his long and prolific life he wrote nine
magnificent symphonies for which he is best-known, a great deal of choral
works and music for stage and screen. Strangely enough, Vaughan Williams did
not number his first three symphonies although the Sea Symphony was
the first, composed between 1903 and 1909. It’s also his longest. Whitman’s
poems were not widely known in Britain at the time but Vaughan Williams was
attracted to them not only for their thematic content but also for their use
of free verse. The symphony uses five of Whitman’s lesser-known poems from
Leaves of Grass. The first three movements are entitled A Song for
All Seas, All Ships; On the Beach at Night, Alone and The
Waves. The last movement (The Explorers) uses text from
Passage to India. The Sea Symphony contains some thrilling
moments and some remarkably beautiful music. Towards the end of the work
(01:07:17) there’s a sublime duet for the soprano and baritone soloists and
the symphony ends almost inaudibly in a mood of profound serenity.
As you probably know,
wasps can be unpleasant little sods when they put their minds to it. Some
time ago, an ominous-looking wasp nest appeared on a lighting pole in my soi,
causing considerable consternation to the guard. At least, its presence
encouraged him to stay awake at night. I accidentally discovered another
wasp nest in the garden a few weeks ago when I was poking about in a tree
with a long stick, trying to dislodge a broken branch. I must have
inadvertently poked the nest too. The wasps were not amused. In fact they
were absolutely furious as I discovered to my cost.
Have you ever wondered why some wasps
are relatively benign while others seem irritable and unreasonably
aggressive? Apparently, it’s all to do with the queen wasp who decides what
the “mood” of the nest is going to be and then emits a mind-altering
chemical called a pheromone. If you are not familiar with this word,
it’s not surprising because it coined only in 1959. Pheromones contain
complex chemicals that trigger a social response in members of the same
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Overture “The Wasps”.
Wheaton College Symphony Orchestra cond. Isaiah Shim (Duration: 09:55;
Video: 1080p HD)
Wheaton College is about 25 miles west
of Chicago and these musicians give a lively performance of this popular
work. Contrary to popular belief, this overture is not really about wasps at
all. It’s about people who behave like them. Or so thought the Greek poet
and playwright Aristophanes, who in 422 BC wrote a play called The Wasps.
It was a caustic satire that ridiculed the Athenian law courts, the
juror system and the bickering old codgers who chose to become jurors.
They’re described in the play as being “as terrible as a swarm of wasps,
carrying below their loins the sharpest of stings”.
In 1909, Vaughan Williams was invited
to write the incidental music for a production of the play at Cambridge. He
later adapted the music to create a suite of five movements, the overture
being the first. It’s become a favourite concert piece in its own right
although the other movements are sometimes also performed, one of which is
intriguingly entitled March-Past of the Kitchen Utensils. Apart from
the opening fifty seconds of wasp-like buzzing sounds, the music doesn’t
have much to do with wasps or even ancient Greece. It’s pure Edwardian
England, full of wholesome folk-like tunes and stylistically just about as
far from Athens as you can get. Musically it’s closer to Nether
Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940): Sensemayá.
Portland Youth Philharmonic cond. David Hattner (Duration: 07:17; Video:
Now I don’t know about you, but I have
an aversion to snakes too. Wasps are bad enough but snakes take the cake.
Now I’m sorry if you are a snake-lover but I can’t stand the things purely
on the grounds that they give me the creeps. Of course, this is totally
irrational and probably unfair to snakes but that’s how it is. And what are
they for anyway? They just seem to laze around all day. Mind you, that’s
probably not much different to some of the foreign residents in these parts.
Silvestre Revueltas Sánchez was one of
Mexico’s leading musicians in the first half of the twentieth century. He
first achieved fame as a concert violinist and was later appointed Assistant
Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico. He’s best-known for
his dramatic film music particularly his score for the 1939 Mexican movie
La Noche de los Mayas. His music uses clashing dissonances with abandon
and many of his works have a passionate rhythmic vitality and raw visceral
energy. Sensemayá dates from 1938 and was inspired by a poem by the
Cuban writer Nicolás Guillén evoking a ritual chant performed while killing
a snake. Originally the music was scored for small orchestra but the
composer later changed it into a full-scale orchestral work.
Guillén’s poem refers to a mayombero,
a man skilled in herbal medicines and arcane rituals. One of the main
rhythmic motives in Sensemayá is derived from the repeated chant of
the mayombero and it’s evidently used in an actual snake-killing
ceremony. The music begins quietly and ominously and the volume gradually
builds up over an obsessive, pounding rhythm. There are moments which might
remind you of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring but this is an unmistakable
Mexican voice that evokes the exotic legends and beliefs of another age. The
rhythms are powerful and hypnotic: just listen to the complex surging
patterns of sounds that Revueltas creates as the work progresses. It’s
These young Americans give a terrific
performance. The orchestra was established in Portland, Oregon in 1924 and
is the longest-established youth orchestra in the country. It would have
been immensely satisfying to tell you that the orchestra’s emblem is a
writhing snake. But unfortunately it isn’t.
I played Max Bruch’s
first violin concerto when I was fourteen. Not the solo violin part you
understand, because at the time I couldn’t play the violin. I still can’t
play the violin and to be honest I have never tried. No, in those days I was
a spotty teenage cellist and a rather inexperienced one at that, sitting at
the back of the cello section of our national youth orchestra. But the
concerto had a lasting impression and as soon I had saved up enough pocket
money I bought the record, along with LPs of Bruch’s two other violin
concerti and a recording of his Scottish Fantasy. In his day Bruch
was much admired for his choral music but he also wrote three symphonies,
four operas, several concertos and a fair amount of chamber music.
The Scottish Fantasy has always
remained a popular concert piece perhaps because it contains some genuine
and well-known Scottish folk songs. And in case you’re wondering, the
curious expression “Scotch mist” has several different meanings. In its
literal sense it means the thick, cold and penetrating mist which verges on
rain and all too common in the northern parts of Britain. It’s also used as
an idiomatic expression for something that is hard to find or possibly
doesn’t even exist. It can also apply to a flowering plant known to
botanists as Galium sylvaticum and most important - as far as I’m
concerned - it’s the name of a splendid drink made with Scotch whisky, ice
and a dash of lemon. It makes a pleasing late-night drink before hitting the
hay. Now then, where was I? (Search me – Ed.)
Ah yes, I remember. Bruch’s Scottish
Fantasy was completed in 1880, despite the fact that he didn’t actually
visit Scotland until se veral years later. It’s a violin concerto in all but
name, though I suppose it’s more prosaically described as “a four-movement
fantasy based on Scottish folk melodies”.
Bruch (1838-1920): Scottish Fantasy Op. 46.
Clara-Jumi Kang (vln), Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Shi-Yeon Sung.
(Duration: 39:27; Video: 1080p HD)
After the slow and rather ominous
introduction, the mood gradually becomes lighter and more melodious. The
work is built around a handful of Scottish folk tunes. The first you’ll hear
is Through the Wood Laddie which also shows up later in the work
along with the songs The Dusty Miller and I’m a’ Doun for Lack O’
Johnnie. The unmistakable sound of Scots bagpipes is suggested in the
second movement (10:05) and you might even recognise some of the melodies,
especially a tune called Hey Tuttie Tatie that kicks off the sizzling
last movement (23:37). Surprisingly, this tune dates back to the 14th century.
The Fantasy would make a splendid introduction to the music of Max
Bruch who today is really not given the attention he deserves.
These fine South Korean musicians give
a compelling performance and violinist Clara-Jumi Kang is brilliantly
competent. A child prodigy, she started violin lessons at the age of three
and won a full scholarship at the age of seven to study at the prestigious
Julliard School. Incidentally, back in 1881 the soloist at the work’s
premiere was the distinguished violinist Joseph Joachim but the composer
accused him of “ruining” the performance. History does not record what
acerbic comments might have been exchanged.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 (“Scottish”).
Concierto de la Orquesta Joven de la OSG, dir. Roberto González Monjas.
(Duration: 41:33; Video: 1080p HD)
Felix Mendelssohn went to Scotland on
an extensive walking tour in 1829. It must have had quite an impression him
because it also inspired The Hebrides concert overture. After this
was completed he started sketches for the symphony, although progress was
evidently difficult, so much so that he abandoned the work for ten years and
didn’t get it finished until 1842. As a result, although it was the
composer’s fifth and final symphony, it was the third to be published and
has subsequently been known as Symphony No. 3.
It has an imposing first movement and
unusually the second movement (at 15:49) is a fast one with a lovely, sunny
theme which may strike you as familiar. This movement is meticulously played
with splendid precision and articulation especially by the brass. The last
movement draws ideas from Scottish dance music although unlike Bruch’s
Scottish Fantasy, no genuine Scottish folk songs have ever been
The Youth Symphony Orchestra of Galicia
is in splendid form. In case you’d forgotten (or possibly never knew)
Galicia lies on the north-west Atlantic coast of Spain, directly north of
Portugal. This performance is somewhat unusual for a 19th century
symphony in that it’s directed by the orchestra’s leader. But because the
work requires a relatively small number of players, a conductor is not
entirely necessary. Even so, it’s a bit disconcerting to see an empty space
where the conductor usually stands.