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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Give me five

Franz Schubert in 1824. (Wilhelm August Rieder)

If you spent your childhood years in Great Britain it’s more than likely that you came across a series of children’s books by Enid Blyton which related the summer holiday adventures of four children and a dog. I refer of course to the Famous Five although this name wasn’t used until 1951 after nine books in the series had already been published.

Enid Blyton evidently intended to write only six or eight books but their huge commercial success encouraged her to write twenty-one full-length Famous Five novels. She could apparently knock out a book within a week. It often showed, for there was sometimes a good deal of repetition. The child characters were aged about twelve or thirteen but they never seemed to grow up very much. They were frozen in childhood forever.

The books are still selling today at a staggering rate of two million copies a year. They’ve been translated into ninety languages. Yes, including Thai since you asked. Out of curiosity, I bought one of the Thai versions recently at Big C and wondered what the average kids in Buriram or Surin would make of these privileged, well-educated, middle-class and slightly insufferable British children obsessed with chasing petty criminals.

To a classical musician, “famous fives” will instantly bring to mind some of the great quintets. The string quintet can be traced back to early years of the seventeenth century. It’s usually a standard quartet (two violins, viola, and cello) supplemented by a fifth stringed instrument. Sometimes a woodwind instrument is added to the string quartet used such as a flute, oboe or clarinet thus providing a pleasing contrast of tone colour.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Quintet in C major D. 956. David Finckel (vlc), Emerson String Quartet (Duration: 48:23; Video: 720p HD)

I was about the same age as the children in the Enid Blyton novels when I first heard this work. It was on a Philips recording and featured the cellists Paul Tortelier and Pablo Casals, arguably two of the greatest cellists ever. Unfortunately, parts of the recording were marred by Casals’s characteristic deep-throated groaning.

Schubert completed this quintet in the autumn of 1828 but when he offered the work to his publisher the response was lukewarm. Even at the end of his career, Schubert was still regarded as a writer of songs and piano pieces. His chamber music was not taken seriously. This is richly ironic because this quintet is now regarded as being among the finest chamber works ever written. Schubert died just a couple of months after its completion.

He scored the work for string quartet plus an additional cello which often enjoys as much of the limelight as the first violin. The presence of the extra cello brings a darker, richer tone to the sound. But the most compelling thing is the sheer expansiveness of the work, the richness of melody and the brilliant use of harmony.

Schubert often contrasts lyrical moments with unsettling violent passages. The second theme of the first movement (01:58) has brought a tear to many an eye and the opening of the sublime slow movement (15:12) takes the listener to some tranquil, heavenly place for removed from the physical world. Then in typical Schubert fashion, the mood is shattered (19:56) by a troubled and disturbed section until the energy gradually subsides and finally returns us (26:01) to the peaceful place where we started. The bucolic scherzo could not offer more contrast and the reflective middle section daringly explores sudden changes of key and has many wonderful magic moments of harmony. The dance-like finale (38:18) offers a wealth of delightful melody.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Clarinet Quintet in A major, K581.  Ruokai Chen (clt), Old City String Quartet (Duration: 30:50; Video: 720p HD)

Mozart wrote two major works for clarinet; the concerto and the quintet, scored for clarinet and string quartet. They were both written for Anton Stadler, one of the leading Viennese players of the day. Mozart completed the quintet in September 1789. Incidentally, both works were originally written for the basset-clarinet which has an extended lower range.

This is a brilliant work which draws on Mozart’s enormous skills in melody-writing, drama and harmony. The Larghetto which forms the slow second movement is stunningly beautiful. The last movement has always struck me as a somewhat repetitive set of variations on a singularly banal tune. The lugubrious third variation with its tiresome viola solo sounds like a lapse of taste on Mozart’s part but perhaps he was pandering to the current Viennese fad for all things Turkish. I have the score in front of me and can’t help wondering what he was up to. But perhaps Wolfgang had been taking in a bit too much Austrian wine that day. By all accounts, he was an enthusiastic imbiber.

And all that jazz…


Darius Milhaud c. 1957.

A good many years ago I used to visit the 100 Club in London’s Oxford Street. In those days, it was a smoky, rather seedy joint in a cavernous dark cellar and well-known for its jazz concerts. I didn’t realize that the club had been founded back in 1942 and over the years it hosted some of the top names in jazz including Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman. Amazingly, the club is still going strong today though I’d guess it has become rather more sedate.

As a student I adored the jazz, especially the bright, brash sounds of Dixieland and visiting the club was enhanced by a slight frisson of guilt at being in such bohemian surroundings. Of course I didn’t tell my starchy professors back at the music college who surely have disapproved of such an undesirable place.

So I could sympathize with the young French composer Darius Milhaud when he heard jazz for the first time. It excited him so much that in 1922 he set off to America and visited clubs and bars in New York’s Harlem, which were probably a good deal seedier than the place in Oxford Street. Milhaud (MEE-oh) was twenty-four at the time and jazz had an enormous influence on him. As a result of this adventure, he was among the first European composers to incorporate jazz idioms in their music. His first jazz-inspired work, La Création du Monde dates from 1923.

It’s not often you come across a restaurant named after a piece of classical music but there’s one in Paris. When Milhaud visited Brazil around 1918 he became captivated by the vibrant popular music, especially a popular tango entitled O Boi no Telhado, which he translated as Le Bœuf sur le Toit (“The Cow on the Roof”). Returning to Paris in 1919, Milhaud wrote the score for a surrealist comic ballet of the same name, using Brazilian-style popular songs and dances. At the time, he and his professional friends used to meet at a popular artists’ bar in Paris called La Gaya. When the bar relocated in 1921, the owner renamed it Le Bœuf sur le toit, presumably to ensure that Milhaud and his crowd would continue to patronize it. They did, together with dozens of other distinguished customers, hangers-on and camp followers.

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974): Le Bœuf sur le toit. Orchestre de Paris cond. Alondra de la Parra (Duration: 19:02; Video: 420p) 

This exuberant, unbridled music is almost a sound-picture of The Roaring Twenties and will brighten the greyest of days. You get the impression of a selection of scenes pasted together like the contents of a scrapbook and this is where much of its charm lies. A lot of Milhaud’s music is influenced by jazz and popular song and he often used a composing technique known as polytonality, in which parts of the music are in different keys at the same time. It creates a vaguely bizarre effect and was much favoured by Stravinsky. You can hear an example at 00:31 when the flutes are clearly playing in a different key to the rest of the orchestra. The work was premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1920 with a scenario by Jean Cocteau and stage designs by Raoul Dufy.

In 1940 Milhaud emigrated to the United States where among other things, he taught composition at Mills College in California. Two of his most well-known students were Dave Brubeck and Burt Bacharach to whom Milhaud once said, “Don't be afraid of writing something people can remember and whistle.” Bacharach later wrote well over a hundred hits, so it was good advice.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): Piano Concerto in G major. Jean-Yves Thibaudet (pno); Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra cond. Philippe Jordan (Duration 29:09; Video 1080p HD) 

This wonderful concerto was written between 1929 and 1931. The first movement opens somewhat unusually with the sound of a whip-crack, created by slapping two pieces of wood together. The movement is a colourful blend of Basque and Spanish musical ideas super-charged with jazz idioms, brilliantly performed with fine precision. The slow movement (08:37) leaves jazz far behind and takes us into a reverie - an elegant, soul-searching melody with a gentle waltz-like accompaniment. The third movement (17:24) returns to a more frenetic world, permeated by the distinct sounds of jazz. The spiky opening theme came to Ravel during a train journey not in France, but between Oxford and London.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Le Bœuf sur le Toit still exists in Paris in the form of an ultra-chic restaurant which has jazz evenings every Friday and Saturday. It’s on rue du Colisée near the Champs Élysées and reservations are essential. If you decide to give it a try sometime, don’t forget your credit cards.

A sense of place


Jean Sibelius in the late 1880s.

Perhaps you might have come across that fascinating computer game called Geoguessr. When you log into it, a photo of some random place in the world appears on the screen and you have to search for various clues to guess exactly where you are. It’s based on Google Street View and so you can move around or even travel a considerable distance until you find enough clues to establish your whereabouts. It is hopelessly addictive. Anyway, the other day I logged in and found myself in a grim and joyless landscape, on a single-track narrow road with snow everywhere, gaunt-looking trees for miles around and an ominous sense of Poe-like bleakness. There was a compelling need to follow the road, which of course is the object of the exercise. There was not a vehicle in sight, not even a house or other sign of life. I clicked my way along the dismal track until I could bear no more but then suddenly reached a main highway where I found a sign giving the name of what eventually turned out to be a small and inconsequential town in northern Finland. The countryside brought to mind some of the dark, brooding music of Sibelius who of course was Finnish and would have probably felt perfectly at home in this haunting, monochrome place.

Sibelius had a musical style that is almost instantly recognizable and so often his music seems to conjure up a vivid sense of place; images of lakes and forests that are so typical of the Finnish landscape. In Britain he is probably best known for the opening movement of his suite Pelléas et Mélisande which was used as the theme of the world's longest-running TV programme, the BBC's The Sky at Night. It was first broadcast in 1957 and it’s still going.

Born in 1865 as Johan Julius Christian Sibelius, he was the most important and influential composer that Finland has produced and he began using the French form of his name, “Jean” during his student years. In his seven symphonies, he developed a style of composing in which tiny phrases continuously evolve into a fully grown melody. It’s like seeing – or rather hearing – organic cells gradually merging together and becoming transformed into a complete living being. I have a feeling that Charles Darwin would probably have appreciated it.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): The Swan of Tuonela. Norwegian Radio Orchestra cond. Avi Ostrowsky (Duration: 09:14; Video 480p) 

This is one of the composer’s more introvert pieces; music which transports you into a secret and mysterious world of brooding shadowy landscapes. The piece is virtually a solo for cor anglais (a kind of alto oboe) and this exceptional performance is conducted by the Israeli conductor, Avi Ostrowsky and features the evocative cor anglais playing of Ingrid Uddu. Composed in 1895 when Sibelius was thirty, this short tone poem is part of the composer’s Lemminkäinen Suite which is based on a story from the nineteenth century Kalevala, one of the most significant works of Finnish literature. The piece is scored for a comparatively small orchestra and the music paints an unworldly image of a mystical swan floating on the dark, gloomy river around Tuonela, the mythical Finnish island of the dead. The music really seems to transport you there.

 Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Appalachian Spring, Suite. Symfonieorkest Vlaanderen, cond. Seikyo Kim (Duration: 26:41; Video 720p HD) 

Copland also had that extraordinary ability to take the listener to somewhere else. Often, his music sounds “American” and gives you a sense of spacious prairies and summer skies. Even during the first few moments of the music you get a distinct sense of place. This work was commissioned by the ballet dancer and choreographer Martha Graham and first performed in 1944. The ballet tells the story of a spring celebration of nineteenth century American pioneers after having built their new farmhouse in Pennsylvania. The work is full of traditional American themes, including the Shaker song Simple Gifts, which Copland borrowed and wove into the music. You might recognise this tune as the popular hymn Lord of the Dance. These movements are fine examples of orchestration at its best. Interestingly, when Copland wrote the music, he had no title in mind and simply referred to it as the “Ballet for Martha” but before the first performance, she suggested an evocative phrase from a poem by Harold Hart Crane. The phrase as you might have guessed was “Appalachian Spring”. Although the poem is about a journey to meet springtime, the word “spring” in the title refers to a source of water, not to the season.

And strangely enough, having listened to this so very American music, I feel a compelling urge to go back to the computer screen and that same deserted country lane in Northern Finland to continue my search for human life.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Give me five

And all that jazz…

A sense of place