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Update November 2017

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Update by Natrakorn Paewsoongnern

Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update Saturday, Nov. 18 - Nov. 24, 2017

Elizabethan Serenades

Poet, physician, lutenist and composer Thomas Campion.

You’d never guess from the sober-looking portraits, but Queen Elizabeth I of England was an enthusiastic dancer.  The Virgin Queen or Good Queen Bess (as she was also known) held the view that dancing was excellent physical exercise and seventy musicians were employed at the royal court, not merely to provide dance music but to supply instrumental and vocal music for various court occasions. 

Like her father Henry VIII, Elizabeth had musical ability and could play the lute and the virginals.  She expected that everyone else should be capable of doing the same.  Among the wealthy classes, musical literacy and the ability to play an instrument or sing at sight were essential social skills.  Those who lacked them were regarded as uncultured laughing-stock.

Elizabeth I reigned between 1558 and 1603, a period sometimes called The English Renaissance.  It saw a flowering of drama, literature, poetry and music as never before.  Those were the days of Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. 

The most well-known composers at the time were William Byrd, Thomas Morley, Thomas Campion, John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons, and Thomas Tallis.  In 1601, Thomas Morley published a collection of twenty-five madrigals specially written by different composers in honour of the Queen.  It was called The Triumphs of Oriana and each madrigal ended with an identical couplet praising the queen.  The early seventeenth century saw an increasing number of music publishing houses both in Britain and continental Europe to supply much-needed printed music to an affluent and ever-growing market.

The composer and lutenist John Dowland owed much of his success to publishing and his songs were as popular as those of Bob Dylan in the 1960s.  His First Booke of Songes and Ayres appeared in 1597 and became a bestseller.  Dowland produced three more songbooks in the 1600s and he became associated with melancholy themes of love and longing that were so popular during Elizabethan times.

John Dowland (1653-1626): Semper Dowland, semper dolens. Concordia Viol Consort. (Duration: 07:19; Video: 1080p HD)

John Dowland is best known today for his songs such as Come, heavy sleep, Flow my tears, I saw my Lady weepe and In darkness let me dwell.  During the mid-twentieth century his songs and instrumental music underwent a major revival.  Today, most classical guitarists will have a few Dowland numbers in their repertoire, transcribed from the original lute scores. 

Despite the incessant gloom that pervades his songs, Dowland was not a self-pitying individual though he was evidently rather sensitive and prone to bearing grudges.  Musically he was reflecting the sensitivities of the time when a melancholy nature was considered a sign of a superior individual.

Queen Elizabeth I would almost certainly have played or sung some of Dowland’s earlier pieces herself, though Dowland was never appointed to Elizabeth’s Protestant court.  He claimed the reason was his Catholic religion, which seems a reasonable enough excuse.  Dowland did little to discourage his reputation as the great melancholic, punning on his own name in a piece called Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens (“always Dowland, always doleful”).  The work appears in a collection of twenty-one instrumental pieces entitled characteristically Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares scored for five-part viol consort and lute.  At the time, the viol was the most popular family of bowed instruments.  Much of the music is melancholy indeed, even the faster dance numbers, but it has a strange beauty that somehow speaks of another age.

Thomas Campion (1567-1620): Ariadné Consort (Duration: 01:45; Video: 1080p HD)

The multi-talented Thomas Campion was well-known as a poet and songwriter who composed over a hundred lute songs and masques for dancing.  While still a young teenager, Campion’s step-father packed him off to Cambridge University. But after spending four years there, he left without a degree for some reason and entered London’s Gray’s Inn to study law.

Another change in career plans took him to Caen in north western France where he studied medicine, receiving his medical degree in 1605.  He finally moved back to London, where he worked as a physician.  It is pleasing to think of him humming snippets of his songs as he poked around examining his patients.

His first book of poetry appeared in 1591 and his first songbook in 1601 so Elizabeth would almost certainly have been familiar with his early works and could well have performed some of the songs herself.  But not this one.  The song comes from Campion’s a song book which appeared around 1613, ten years after the queen’s death. 

Campion was also highly knowledgeable in music theory.  In 1615, he published a technical book crisply entitled A New Way of Making Foure Parts in Counterpoint by a Most Familiar and Infallible Rule.  For many years, it was the standard textbook on counterpoint, though it probably didn’t contain many jokes.

Update Saturday, Nov. 11 - Nov. 17, 2017

Twelve feet of brass tubing


Gordon Jacob in the 1950s.

It might surprise you to know that the French horn isn’t French at all.  It was actually invented in Germany so the name “German horn” would probably be more appropriate.  In any case, the name “French horn” is used only by English speakers.  Everyone else simply calls it a horn.  And in case you were wondering, it has nothing to do with the English horn which is neither English nor a horn.

The earliest horns date back to antiquity, made from animal horns such as those of rams or cattle.  They could play only a few notes and were used for signaling rather than for musical purposes. The hunting horn has existed since medieval times and for ease of use, it was made like a hoop, a shape that has persisted in orchestral horns to this day.  There’s another reason for the hoop shape.  If you had the time and inclination to uncoil a modern horn, it would be about twelve feet long.

The orchestral horn appeared during the seventeenth century when the most important horn makers were based in France.  By modern standards they were simple instruments: a mouthpiece, a hoop of brass tubing and a flared bell.  They had a limited range of notes until someone came up with the idea of adding extra coils of tubing (called crooks) to increase the overall length and therefore the pitch.  It was not until the early nineteenth century that valves and the instrument’s design were developed in Germany.

There are several types of horn, although from a distance most of them look similar.  The standard instrument is the German horn (known as the French horn) which has three lever-operated rotary valves.  Most orchestral players use an instrument known as a “double horn” which employs a fourth valve to open a separate set of tubes.  There is also the genuine French horn, but you don’t see them very often.  It has three trumpet-like pistons to control the valves.  Then there’s the Vienna horn which is used in Vienna and nowhere else and uses rather complicated valves.  During the twentieth century, instrument makers developed a horn for marching and it looks like a large trumpet.  Strangely enough, the horn never caught on as a jazz instrument although for some reason jazz musicians refer to all wind instruments as horns.

The most well-known horn concertos are the four by Mozart and the two by Richard Strauss. The horn concertos by Gordon Jacob and Reinhold Glière are the most popular twentieth century examples.  There’s an interesting coincidence too; the Jacob concerto was first performed in London on 8th May 1951 and the Glière work was premiered in Leningrad two days later.

Gordon Jacob (1895-1984): Concerto for Horn and Strings. Jörg Brückner (hn), Orchestra of the Musikgymnasium Schloss Belvedere cond. Joan Pagès Valls (Duration: 23:22; Video: 720p HD)

Gordon Jacob was rather conservative in his approach to composition.  He was a prolific composer who published over four hundred works as well as four books and many musical essays.  This delightful three-movement work is typical of his style.  After the first performance, the critic for The Musical Times wrote, “it is music designed for entertainment rather than edification… but though it in no way taxes the listener, it makes phenomenal demands on the soloist.”

The work was written for the legendary British horn player Dennis Brain who at the time was the most sought-after horn player in the country.  His 1953 recordings of the Mozart horn concertos, which he played from memory, are still considered to the finest ever made.  Like the conductor Herbert von Karajan, Dennis Brain had a passion for cars.  He famously always kept the latest edition of the magazine Autocar on his music stand at concerts and recording sessions.  Sadly, Dennis Brain lost his life at the age of thirty-six in a car accident.  At the time, he was driving home in his Triumph TR2 sports car when it left the road and collided with a tree.

Reinhold Glière (1875-1956): Horn Concerto in B-flat Major, Op.91. I-Ping Chiu (hn) unidentified orchestra cond. Caleb Young (Duration: 26:38; Video: 720p HD)

Reinhold Glière was born in the Russian city of Kiev to a German father and a Polish mother.  According to his birth certificate, his original name was Reinhold Glier.  For reasons best known to himself, in 1900 he changed the spelling and pronunciation of his surname to Glière giving rise to the legend that he was of French or Belgian descent.  Perhaps that was his intention.

Along with his famous ballet The Red Poppy, this three-movement concerto is one of the composer’s most acclaimed works.  It has some splendid writing and full of lovely melodies.  It has another thing in common with the Gordon Jacob concerto, rather than looking forward in its musical style it looks back towards a bygone age.

Update Saturday, Nov. 4 - Nov. 10, 2017

Joking apart


Ludwig van Beethoven in 1803.

A few days ago, a friend mentioned that just for the fun of it, he was working on one of the Chopin scherzos.  Now I should explain that this is a feat in itself, because you have to be a pianist of professional ability to get your fingers around the notes, let alone make any musical sense of them.  I eventually listened to all Chopin’s scherzos and wonderful they are too.  But I began wondering about the word itself, which has an interesting background.  Like the words pizza and Chianti, you have to use the Italian pronunciation (SHKEHR-tsoh) with a definite roll on the letter “r”.

The word is related to the Italian verb scherzare which means to joke, jest or play.  It was sometimes used during the late Renaissance and early Baroque to describe a light-hearted piece of music invariably in triple time.  Monteverdi wrote his Scherzi Musicali in 1607 and they are charming works for one, two or three voices accompanied by a small instrumental ensemble.  A scherzo shows up in J S Bach’s Partita No. 3 in A minor but generally during the Baroque and Classical periods the form was rarely used.

Eighteenth century symphonies, chamber works and sonatas invariably included a minuet - usually as the third movement of a work.  Its origins lay in the courtly dance of the same name.  As the Romantic Movement began to emerge in the nineteenth century there was less interest in form, style and elegance, and more in human expression, emotions and the glories of nature.  The thoughts and feelings of the individual were paramount and music needed to reflect that individuality.  The graceful minuet was simply no longer appropriate. 

Although Beethoven included a minuet in his first symphony, it is but a distant cousin of the minuets or Haydn and Mozart.  In his second symphony Beethoven ditched the minuet altogether and wrote a boisterous lively movement in triple time – a scherzo.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Scherzo (Symphony No 3). Hallé Orchestra cond. Sir Mark Elder. (Duration: 05:50; Video: 480p)

You probably know the work, so perhaps taking the third movement out of context is permissible.  When Beethoven began writing this symphony in May 1803, he had already realized that his deafness was incurable and likely to become total.  A couple of years earlier, in a confidential letter to his close friends, he admitted that the problem had become so acute that he once contemplated taking his own life.  Fortunately his passion for music prevented him from doing so.

This thrilling scherzo illustrates how far Beethoven had moved from the minuets of the eighteenth century.  The opening theme on the woodwinds is fast and playful with characteristic repeated notes but when the melody is thundered out at 00:39 you can hear that Beethoven really means business: this is no mere dance.  Sometimes Beethoven plays with rhythmic ambiguities and occasionally it’s not clear whether the music is in duple or triple time.  This of course was exactly Beethoven’s intention and no doubt contributed to the confusion of the audience at the first performance.

This was the first major symphony to use three French horns instead of two and they feature prominently in the middle section of the scherzo.  This contrasting middle section is a remnant of the older minuet which contained a central section known as a trio.  Beethoven probably didn’t realize at the time but he started a trend.  Almost all later composers included a scherzo in their symphonies.

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849):  Scherzo No. 3 Op. 39. Martha Argerich (pno). (Duration: 06:59; Video: 720p HD)

Chopin wrote four scherzos (or scherzi if you’re fussy about Italian plurals).  They are considered by many to be the apex of the genre but they’re far removed from the original connotations of light-heartedness or humour.  The third scherzo was written in 1839 on the composer’s visit to the Spanish island of Mallorca.  He travelled there with the free and easy Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin, better known by her pseudonym George Sand.  They rented a suite of rooms at a privatized Carthusian monastery in the village of Valldemossa which lies among the island’s rugged mountains.  Chopin’s upright piano is still there.

The scherzo opens with a mysterious introduction which leads into the sprightly and technically challenging main theme with rapid double octaves in both hands.  But later there’s a key change into D flat and we hear a remarkably beautiful chorale-like melody interspersed with delicate falling arpeggios, like a magical sprinkling of stardust.  The chorale theme returns again later and the work develops in character and dynamic range with flurries of octaves everywhere.

This performance was filmed in 1965 when Martha Argerich was in her early twenties but even then she showed remarkable proficiency.  The work culminates in an astonishing flourish; a coda described by the South African pianist Jonathan Oshry as “a real finger-buster.”

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Elizabethan Serenades

Twelve feet of brass tubing

Joking apart



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