By Colin Kaye
Saturday, March 17, 2018 - March 23, 2018
A bit of the Blarney
This weekend, any of
the pubs and beer-bars in town will be pleased to remind you that 17th March
is St. Patrick’s Day. There cannot be very many English-speaking people who
have not heard of St Patrick, yet his life remains something of a mystery.
Many of the tales surrounding him came about through generations of
exaggerated storytelling. Legend has it that he got rid of Ireland’s snakes
by driving them into the sea. However, there have never been snakes in
Ireland. The country is more famous for its folk music and dancing. Then
there’s Irish whiskey and that equally famous, dark stout that originated in
1759 at the brewery of Arthur Guinness.
But how many Irish
composers can you name? Not many I bet, unless of course you happen to be
Irish. Yesterday, I could think only of three – John Field, who virtually
invented the style of piano piece known as a nocturne; Michael William
Balfe, best known for his opera The Bohemian Girl and Ernest John
Moeran whose cello concerto is still popular. Delving into the weighty tome
The Oxford Companion to Music reminded me of several others, notably
Hamilton Harty and Charles Villiers Stanford who I’d completely forgotten
was Irish. I admit that the name Aloys Fleischmann doesn’t sound
particularly Irish, but he was one of Ireland’s most influential musicians
who lived most of his life in the City of Cork.
Only five miles from
Cork is the village of Blarney with its famous Castle, an essential stop on
every tourist itinerary. I was taken there by my parents when I was about
ten. The castle is the home of the Blarney Stone which in 1446 was built
into the battlements of the castle. According to legend, kissing the stone
endows the kisser with great eloquence and skills of flattery. However, the
feat of actually kissing the stone is not easily achieved. It’s not for the
faint-hearted or those with a morbid fear of heights. For a timid
ten-year-old, the prospect was terrifying.
Aloys Fleischmann (1910–1992):
Overture, Time’s Offspring. European Union Youth Orchestra cond.
Laurent Pillot (Duration: 04:44; Video: 480p)
Fleischmann was born in
Munich to German parents, both of whom were musicians living in Cork. He
later studied at the University College Cork and later worked there as a
professor. He is perhaps best known for his magisterial 1,400-page book
Sources of Irish Traditional Music, a daunting task that took him forty
years to complete. He was also a conductor of the Cork Symphony and Radio
Éireann Orchestras; he served on many committees and he was an influential
figure in Irish musical life. For one so busy, it is perhaps surprising
that he found time to write anything at all, but he turned out ballets,
chamber music, orchestral works and compositions for choir.
is a five-movement cantata for speaker, choir and orchestra written in
1985. The overture is entertaining music though at times it feels a bit
like the sound-track of an animated movie. It’s easily approachable music
with a wealth of melodic ideas and rhythmic vitality.
Charles Villiers Stanford
(1852–1924): The Bluebird. The King’s Singers (Duration: 03:30:
Video 1080p HD)
Now then, here’s a real
musical treat. Sir Charles Villiers Stanford made his reputation as a
composer with his seven symphonies, a CD of which I have just by chance, in
front of me. At the age of twenty-nine Stanford became one of the founding
professors of London’s Royal College of Music where two of his composition
students were Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, although his own
composing style was rather old fashioned for the time.
Stanford is also
well-known for his choral music. This is a delightful choral setting of a
rather mystical and enigmatic poem called The Bluebird by Mary
Elizabeth Coleridge. It was originally written for choir but this
performance by The King’s Singers is to my mind, as good as any. The vocal
quality, vocal blending, phrasing and intonation are faultless. Notice
Stanford’s use of rich, luxuriant harmony and how the counter-tenor voice
floats in and out of the texture on the word “blue.”
Bluebirds of course
have become symbols of happiness and as a result have been used in many
poems and popular songs. A bluebird was mentioned in the 1917 song, I’m
Always Chasing Rainbows and also in the 1934 song Bluebird of
Happiness. Paul McCartney sang about them and so did Judy Garland in
Over the Rainbow. They’re mentioned in Vera Lynn’s song The White
Cliffs of Dover in the lines, “There’ll be bluebirds over the White
Cliffs of Dover”. This is a bit unlikely as there are no bluebirds of any
kind in Europe. If for some reason you want to see one, you’ll have to go
Update Saturday, March 10, 2018 - March 16, 2018
Butterworth as a student at Eton.
The English author
Aidan Chambers once wrote, “I thought how lovely and how strange a river
is. A river is a river, always there, and yet the water flowing through it
is never the same water and is never still. It’s always changing and is
always on the move. And over time the river itself changes too. It widens
and deepens as it rubs and scours, gnaws and kneads, eats and bores its way
through the land. Even the greatest rivers… the Nile and the Ganges, the
Yangtze and the Mississippi must have been no more than trickles and
flickering streams before they grew into mighty rivers.”
Battles have been
fought over rivers or at least, close to them. The Battle of the Somme was
a tragic episode during the First World War, involving British and French
troops against those of the German Empire. The battle began in July 1916
and raged for over four months on both sides of the River Somme in France.
By the following November, over a million soldiers had been killed or
One of them was
31-year-old George Butterworth, a Lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry
who had already been awarded the Military Cross for bravery. On 5th August
1916 in the muddy trenches near the river, he was killed by sniper fire.
Most of the other soldiers including his commanding officer were unaware
that Butterworth was one of the most promising young English composers of
George Butterworth (1885-1916): The Banks of Green Willow.
National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain, cond. Roger Clarkson
(Duration: 06:34; Video: 480p)
Although he was born in
London’s Paddington district, the family soon moved to Yorkshire so that his
father could take up an appointment as General Manager of the North Eastern
Railway. The boy received his first music lessons from his mother and he
began composing at an early age, playing the organ for services in the
chapel of his elementary school. He won a scholarship to Eton College and
later in life became a close friend of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.
The Banks of Green
Willow was written in 1913 and it’s a pastoral
piece, based loosely on a folk song that Butterworth heard and wrote down in
Sussex. It is probably the composer’s best-known work and the title implies
a musical picture of a river somewhere in England, but we don’t know exactly
The work is given an
engaging and lively performance by the National Children’s Orchestra of
Great Britain, a well-established organization founded in 1978. Hearing
these young musicians playing with such commitment and maturity it is hard
to believe that they are all less than thirteen years old.
Like so much of the
music by Delius and Vaughan Williams, this work sounds utterly English.
It’s a picture of the England that Butterworth loved so much and for which,
like so many others of his generation he fought for and paid for with his
Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884): Vltava.
Gimnazija Kranj Symphony Orchestra, cond. Nejc Beča (Duration: 14:40; Video:
meandering English river, we know exactly where this one is. It’s often
called “the Czech national river”.
Bedřich Smetana is
considered the grandfather of Czech music because he pioneered a national
musical style. Má Vlast, meaning “My Homeland” is a set of six
symphonic poems that Smetana wrote during the 1870s and one of the movements
is called Vltava, also known by its German name Die Moldau.
It describes the journey of the Vltava River from its source in the Bohemian
mountains through the countryside to the city of Prague. The piece contains
Smetana’s most famous melody, an adaptation of a borrowed Moldavian folksong
which is strikingly similar to the tune of the Israeli national anthem.
This performance is by
Gimnazija Kranj Symphony Orchestra, a youth orchestra based at Gimnazija
Kranj high school in Slovenia. Established in 1810, the school is one of
the oldest and most respected in the country and has over a thousand
students between the ages of fifteen to eighteen. The orchestral playing is
amazingly good and a remarkable technical and musical standard.
The piece begins with a
musical picture of the springs at the source of the great river and
eventually leads into the main theme. There are various musical snapshots
during the work which include a sound image of a hunt in the forest, a
peasant wedding, water-nymphs in the moonlight, St John’s Rapids and finally
the concluding section in which the river triumphantly enters Prague and
then flows away into the distance. It would be pleasing to tell you that
the river eventually flows majestically to the sea, but it doesn’t. Further
downstream, it merges with the River Elbe.
Update Saturday, March 3, 2018 - March 9, 2018
in March 1939.
Somebody who is terribly important but
whose name I have completely forgotten once remarked that counterpoint is
among the main things that characterize Western classical music. I suspect
it’s one of the least understood things too especially by non-musicians,
perhaps because it rarely occurs in folk and popular music. At its most
basic, counterpoint (from Latin, meaning “point against point”) is the
process of combining two of more distinct melodic lines for an aesthetic
effect. You can hear counterpoint in its simplest form in rounds like
Frere Jacques or Three Blind Mice in which voices enter in
The art of using counterpoint emerged
during the early Middle Ages and became the focal point of the polyphonic
vocal music of the Renaissance when it reached its peak. This type of
counterpoint was governed by various technical conventions and today is
sometimes known as “strict” counterpoint. Its leading exponents were
Josquin des Prez, Palestrina and Orlando di Lasso who often used complex
melodic relationships in their florid music. In the baroque, counterpoint
of a freer style flourished and dominated the music of the entire era. Even
today, music composition students are required to study counterpoint in
depth. They always were.
In 1725, a book called Gradus ad
Parnassum was published by the Austrian composer and music theorist
Johann Joseph Fux, whose name (you might be disappointed to know) is
pronounced FOOKS. It was the first major study of counterpoint and
focused on the Renaissance style as written by Palestrina. The book was
held in high esteem by J. S. Bach; Mozart used it for his studies and Haydn
worked his way through every lesson. Even Beethoven used it. So
influential was the book that it’s still available today and essential
reading for advanced composition students.
The essence of counterpoint is
something deeper than merely manipulating notes. It is an inner part of the
music and an essential ingredient of its expressive qualities. You can find
examples of counterpoint even in twentieth century music. Oddly enough,
it’s one of the key features of traditional jazz. Both the works this week
share a structural feature in that the Bartók quartet is in five movements
instead of the usual four and the concerto is in four movements instead of
the usual three.
(1881-1945): String quartet No. 4 in C major.
(Duration: 27:05; Video: 480p HD)
Composed in 1928, the work has an
arch-like structure in that the first movement is thematically related to
the fifth and the second to the fourth. If you’re unfamiliar with the music
of Bartók you might be surprised at the variety of extraordinary sounds that
the players produce. Many of them are made by “extended instrumental
techniques” which are heard relatively rarely in the concert hall. They
include glissandi, in which the player slides from one note to
another, notes played without vibrato and the so-called “Bartók pizzicato”
in which the player plucks the string with sufficient aggression that it
rebounds against the fingerboard giving a sharp percussive “thwack”.
This quartet is rooted firmly in the
twentieth century yet it uses many contrapuntal passages in which
instruments pass melodic and rhythmic fragments between each other. The
first movement is splendidly percussive and the second uses muted strings
throughout. The third is a typical example of Bartók’s “night music” style
which contains eerie dissonances, strange nocturnal sounds, odd twittering
and sometimes fragments of folk melody. Clashing chords open the intensely
rhythmic last movement which takes on the character of a wild Hungarian folk
Shostakovich (1906-1975): Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op 77.
Repin (vln), Orchestre de Paris cond. Paavo Järvi (Duration: 39:16; Video:
This concerto, by one of the major
composers of the twentieth century was written during 1947 and 1948. In
this extensive work, counterpoint dominates from the beginning, when the
woodwind phrases and the solo violin play fragments of the theme over an
ominous, slowly moving bass line. There’s a sense of organic growth as the
brooding music intensifies. In contrast, the second movement is a wild
demonic dance which seems to have its origins in Russian folk music.
The third movement (at 20:52) is the
great Passacaglia, a musical form that originated in early
seventeenth-century Spain and is characterized by a repeated melody in the
bass. This highly contrapuntal movement has great depth, power and passion
and it develops into an exceptionally long cadenza of staggering virtuosity
which leads seamlessly and dramatically (at 34:33) into the frenetic finale.
I first heard this work as a teenager
in the Old Country. It was a performance by David Oistrakh with the
Leningrad Philharmonic conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. Even on a
black-and-white television with a tiny screen and feeble sound, it was
nonetheless a thrilling experience.