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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Clock works


Composer Maurice Ravel.

Do you remember that song called My Grandfather’s Clock? I bet you didn’t know that it was written back in 1876. You may recall that the song was about a clock which worked for ninety years but stopped for good when its grandfather owner breathed his last. The song was most famously recorded by Johnny Cash and remained a standard for years in Britain and America. The composer, one Henry Clay Work was self-taught and also wrote the rather more jubilant Marching through Georgia.

I suppose one of the other best-known popular pieces of music about clocks is Leroy Anderson’s number called The Syncopated Clock which he wrote in 1945 while serving with the U.S. Army. Although a gifted linguist (he was fluent in nine languages) he made his name in light music, notably with simple but effective pieces like Blue Tango, The Typewriter and Sleigh Ride. Even so, his catchy tunes have the habit of becoming irritatingly lodged in the memory in the same way that bits of chicken get stuck between the back teeth.

Prokofiev imitated the sound of a clock to strike midnight in his ballet Cinderella and Kodály creates an image of an elaborate musical clock in his opera Háry Janos. At one point in the Richard Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier, there are thirteen strikes of the clock in the orchestra, created by using a celesta and two harps. The beginning of the second movement in Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony sounds as though it’s imitating something mechanical. There’s a widespread belief that the effect is supposed to be an imitation of a metronome, one of which had recently been produced by Beethoven’s friend Johann Maelzel. But no one really knows for sure.

In 1998, the British composer Harrison Birtwistle wrote a set of five piano pieces called Harrison’s Clocks, challenging for both performer and audience alike. The work was inspired by Dava Sobel’s short book Longitude which tells the fascinating story of the eighteenth-century English clockmaker John Harrison and his mission to build an accurate chronometer for use at sea.

Einar Englund’s ravishing Fourth Symphony has a sizzling second movement which includes many clock-like sounds of chiming bells, frenetic ticking and imitations of ponderous clockwork mechanisms. It’s a shame that the music of this extraordinary Finnish composer is so rarely performed.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): L’heure Espagnole. Glyndebourne Festival, London Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Sian Edwards. (Duration: 52:49; Video: 360p)

This jolly one-act opera is dominated by clocks and set in 18th century Spain. It’s a comedy involving a desperately over-sexed Spanish woman arranging secret assignations with her various lovers, while her husband innocently occupies himself with clockwork mechanisms and services the municipal clocks in the town of Toledo.

L’heure Espagnole (“Spanish Time”) was first performed at the Paris Opéra-Comique May 1911 and Maurice Ravel created a Spanish flavour by using ideas from traditional Spanish dances. It was produced in Britain for the first time at Covent Garden in 1919 and in the following year it was seen in Chicago and New York.

The piece sometimes descends into pure farce in which various characters are obliged to hide in clocks and it has become one of the most popular operas of the twentieth century. This Glyndebourne production dates from 1987 and it’s sung in the original French. However, there are also English subtitles which might be useful if your French is a bit rusty.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Symphony No.101 (“The Clock”). Mito Chamber Orchestra cond. Jun Märkl (Duration: 28:41; Video: 360p)

The Austrian composer Joseph Haydn wrote at least 104 symphonies and the so-called “London” symphonies are perhaps his best-known. They date from between 1791 and 1795 and as you may have guessed, were intended for performance in London. They’re in the usual four movements and apart from No 95 they all have a slow introduction to the first movement, one of Haydn’s personal trade-marks.

Symphony No 101 was premiered in March 1794 and its nickname “The Clock” comes from the second movement (at 07:55) in which a distinct ticking sound dominates the movement. Haydn’s music was hugely popular in London at the time and the audience was wildly enthusiastic. The reporter for the London newspaper “The Morning Chronicle” waxed lyrical: “As usual the most delicious part of the entertainment was a new symphony by Haydn; the inexhaustible, the wonderful, the sublime Haydn! The first two movements were encored and the character that pervaded the whole composition was heartfelt joy.”

The symphony proved so successful that a second performance was arranged a week later. It is indeed a wonderful composition which has stood the test of time and well over two hundred years later it remains one of Haydn’s most popular works. This Japanese orchestra gives a fine performance and the symphony is worth hearing all the way through, if that is, you’re not watching the clock.

Fabulous birds


Stravinsky drawn by Picasso in 1920.

A few nights ago, having nothing much better to do, I started to make a list of classical music inspired by birds. Yes I know, sad but true. Incidentally, if this week’s title has brought unwholesome thoughts into your mind about the denizens of Walking Street, what follows might come as a disappointment because the connections are merely ornithological. Sorry about that, but life can often be full of disappointments.

Anyway, back to the birds. Most classical music doesn’t describe anything at all but some composers, especially those of the late nineteenth century often turned to non-musical ideas, particularly those from nature. As early as the eighteenth century the French composer Louis-Claude Daquin wrote a tinkling harpsichord piece called The Cuckoo, though you have to listen carefully to hear the quaint cuckoo imitations. Bird themes appear in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute and Rossini’s opera The Thieving Magpie. Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous ballet Swan Lake has swans by the truck-load. Then of course, there’s Stravinsky’s wonderful music for The Firebird. This splendid work was one of the first pieces of classical music I discovered as a young teenager and it still brings a thrill every time I hear it. 

Igor Stravinsky was a virtually unknown composer when the famously ruthless taskmaster and impresario Sergei Diaghilev hired him to compose for the dance company, the Ballets Russes. Stravinsky’s first project was music for a ballet based on Russian folk tales about a legendary and magical glowing bird - The Firebird. With choreography by Michel Fokine, the ballet was first performed in June 1910 and turned out to be a huge success with both the audience and the critics.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Suite: The Firebird. Toronto Symphony Orchestra cond. Peter Oundjian (Duration: 21:59; Video: 1080p HD)

The original ballet score runs for about fifty minutes but in subsequent years Stravinsky completed three concert suites in 1911, 1919 and 1945. They differ in the number of movements, their order and the orchestration. The 1919 version is the most popular of the three and the most frequently performed. It was written for the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet.

At one time, The Firebird was considered a notoriously difficult work to play and in some ways, it still is. The first dozen or so bars for example, are written for the low strings in the daunting key of C flat, which is enough to drive many string players into a state of apoplexy. The work was well ahead of its time and shows the composer’s command of the most complex rhythms and wonderful sparkling orchestration using some techniques which were completely new. It not only brought Stravinsky instant fame, but it also marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between Diaghilev and Stravinsky which resulted two further ballets Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913), two of the most influential works of the early twentieth century.

The suite is full of magic moments but one of my favourite comes at 18:20 when, over shimmering strings, a solo horn announces the noble melody that dominates the heroic final section, written (unusually at the time) with seven beats to the bar. The charismatic Leopold Stokowski recorded The Firebird Suite eight times, more than any other conductor. His last Firebird recording was with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1967. He was aged eighty-five.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): The Lark Ascending. Charlie Siem (vln), City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong cond. Jean Thorel (Duration: 14:06; Video: 720p)

The soaring lark of Vaughan Williams couldn’t be more different to Stravinsky’s extravagant, tempestuous Firebird. The Lark Ascending was written for violin and piano in 1914 and was orchestrated by the composer six years later. The first orchestral performance was given in 1921, under the conductor Adrian Boult and today the work is nearly always heard in this version. It’s a musical reflection on a poem by the English poet George Meredith, about the song of a skylark. The title has a poetic ring to it, which perhaps wouldn’t have been quite the same if George Meredith had instead written about the Great Tit or the Little Brown Bustard.

Several years ago, BBC radio listeners in the UK voted this work Britain’s all-time favourite and for several years it stayed at the top of the Classic FM Hall of Fame. Not surprising really, because this is lyrical evocative music in which the violin mimics the “silver chain of sound” that Meredith describes. There’s a wonderful and compelling sense of place too, which can only be England.

Incidentally, when Vaughan Williams was making sketches for the piece, he visited Margate for a short holiday, coincidentally on the same day that Britain entered the Great War. A small boy observed the composer making notes and, assuming he was writing some kind of secret code, informed a police officer who promptly arrested the composer on the grounds of suspicious behaviour.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Clock works

Fabulous birds