By Colin Kaye
June 16, 2018 - June 22, 2018
Byrd and the Bees
William Byrd was one of
the most celebrated composers of the Shakespearean Era remembered today for
his fine choral works and his contribution to Elizabethan keyboard music. As
to the Bees, well, anyone who has accumulated a collection of classical CDs
knows only too well that you need a disproportionate amount of shelf space
to accommodate their music. I am of course referring to all those composers
whose surnames begin with the letter “B”. I have no idea why, but there do
seem to be an awful lot of them.
I suppose most people
know the names of the Big Bees like Beethoven, Brahms, Berlioz and Bruckner.
The seventeenth century saw the emergence of the influential Bach family in
Germany. In the Welsh language, the word bach means “small” but this
family was enormous and held sway in German musical circles for about two
hundred years. Fifty of the Bachs were musicians and at least four of them
are still recognized today as influential composers, especially Johann
Sebastian Bach considered the greatest of them all. The twentieth century
brought more Bees in the form of Berg, Berio, Boulez, Britten, Bliss,
Bernstein, Barber and Bartók to name just a handful.
Anyway, the other night
in the bar, not having much to occupy our minds, I suggested to my companion
that we should try to recall as many Bees as we could. After about half an
hour we had dredged up about three dozen names but after a couple of glasses
of wine it became increasingly difficult. I later discovered that Wikipedia
lists over seven hundred Bee composers so our collective feat of memory was
not particularly spectacular. However, the vast majority of the names on the
Wikipedia list are obscure to say the least. So this week I shall make
amends by telling you about the music of two composers whom the other night
we completely forgot about.
William Boyce (1711-1779): Symphony
No. 5 in D Major. Camerata Colonial cond. John Thomas Dodson (Duration:
08:20; Video 480p)
Along with Handel, who
in 1727 became a naturalized British subject, William Boyce was one of the
big names in eighteenth century English music. In 1755 he was appointed
Master of the King’s Musick and become one of the organists at the
Chapel Royal. Charles Burney, a contemporary of Boyce wrote that Boyce’s
Trio Sonatas “were longer and more generally purchased, performed and
admired, than any productions of the kind in this kingdom, except those of
Corelli.” Boyce’s music was performed everywhere and today the eight
symphonies are the most recorded of all his works.
The fifth symphony is a
good example of the kind of music people heard in British concert halls in
the mid-eighteenth century. These were early days in the development of the
symphony as a musical form and the extended symphonies of Haydn and Mozart
were yet to come. Boyce’s symphonies, written in a late baroque style were
comparatively short. This three-movement work was originally entitled
Overture to St. Cecilia and was intended to precede the composer’s
choral work, Ode for St Cecilia’s Day. The Ode was first
performed in London in 1739 and in Dublin the following year at the Great
Musick Hall. Incidentally, twenty years later Boyce composed the popular
march Heart of Oak which to this day remains the official march of
the British Royal Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal New Zealand
Boris Blacher (1903-1975):
Variations on a Theme by Paganini. National Orchestra of France
cond. Emmanuel Krivine (Duration: 15:44; Video: 1080p HD)
If the title of this
work sounds familiar it’s hardly surprising. Several dozen composers have
written works with the same title notably Brahms, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and
Lutoslawski. They’re all based on Caprice No. 24 in A minor written
in 1817 by the legendary nineteenth century violinist Niccolň Paganini.
This is a compelling
performance of one of Blacher’s most well-known works; though don’t be
confused when you hear Ravel’s Piano Concerto during the title sequence. The
Variations were written in 1947 and begin with a solo violin playing the
opening bars of Paganini’s original before Blacher begins his variations,
firstly among the woodwind instruments. It’s written in an approachable
style, jaunty and bold and at times there are echoes of Stravinsky. But
listen out for the charming little meandering melody (08:22) played by solo
woodwind instruments followed by the rich harmonies in the strings (09:18).
You might also notice how Blacher uses sudden moments of silence for
dramatic effect. It’s witty, lively music with attractive jazzy moments
(especially at 13:07 onwards) with colourful and masterful transparent
orchestration. The final section requires virtuosic string playing and the
work drives relentlessly to an exuberant conclusion. This is the work of a
Bee who deserves much greater recognition.
June 9, 2018 - June 15, 2018
Copland rehearsing the Arts Academy Orchestra in 1967.
Throughout most of
human history, if anyone wanted to hear some music they’d either have to
make it themselves or if they were rich enough, pay someone else to make it
for them. Ordinary people, the people who worked in the fields, the farms
and the workshops had to make their own music when it was needed. When they
were working, reaping or threshing, pulling loads of timber or working on
board a sailing ship, singing was a common activity. Not only did the songs
reduce the boredom of repetitive tasks, they also set the pace and
synchronized activities that involved teams of communal workers. Many sea
shanties served exactly this purpose. In their leisure time, telling
stories, singing and playing musical instruments were common forms of
self-made entertainment. People played and sung songs they remembered or
sometimes, made up new ones.
Thousands of these
songs have come down to us. Folk music has been defined in several ways: as
music transmitted orally, or as music with unknown composers. It’s sometimes
defined as music that has evolved by a process of oral transmission over a
period of time. The word folklore was coined as recently as 1846 by
the English antiquarian William Thoms who described it, rather grandly as
“the traditions, customs, and superstitions of the uncultured classes”. The
expression folk music didn’t appear in Europe until around the same
Encouraged by the waves
of nationalist fervour that emerged in Europe during the second half of the
some musicians began to take a serious interest in their country’s folk
music. In England, during the early years of the 20th century,
Cecil Sharp listened to hundreds of village folk singers and painstakingly
wrote down their songs. Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók did much the same
thing in Hungary as did Alan Lomax in America. At the same time, many
European composers sought to develop a musical style that somehow reflected
the essence of their homeland. To achieve this they inevitably turned to
traditional dances and folk songs.
Béla Bartók (1881-1945): Romanian Folk Dances for String Orchestra.
Norwegian Chamber Orchestra dir. Terje Třnnensen (Duration: 06:51; Video:
For a period of several
years, Bartók traipsed around Eastern Europe often with his lifelong friend
and colleague, the composer Zoltán Kodály. They notated Hungarian, Slovak,
Romanian and Bulgarian folk music. Bartók also collected in Moldavia,
Wallachia, and Algeria until the outbreak of World War I put an end to his
This suite is based on
folk tunes from Transylvania, the home of you-know-who. Bartók originally
arranged them for piano in 1915 then orchestrated them for strings two years
later. And they really are short – some of them lasting well under a minute.
But they’re fascinating musically because Bartók seems to have presented
them in this suite pretty much as he found them without being tempted to add
material of his own. Nonetheless, Bartók’s individual sound comes through in
the music precisely because these folk songs are the kind of music that the
composer drew on to create his personal musical language – The Bartók Sound,
if you like.
The suite begins with
the compelling Bot tánc (Stick Dance) which has some gorgeous
contrasting harmonies whereas the third movement has a distinctive Arabic
sound. The work culminates in the sixth and last dance which is formed by
two different melodies performed without a break. The Norwegians give a
brilliant performance of the work and it is good to see the musicians so
obviously enjoying themselves.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Suite - Billy the Kid.
NYO2 cond. Giancarlo Guerrero (Duration: 21:03; Video: 1080p HD)
Billy the Kid
is a ballet dating from 1938 and the story follows the life of America’s
most infamous outlaw. Along with Rodeo and Appalachian Spring,
it is one of Copland’s most popular and widely performed works. The ballet
is most famous for its incorporation of several American cowboy tunes and
folk songs which include Get along Little Doggies, The Old
Chisholm Trail and Goodbye Old Paint. This last song was composed
by one Charley Willis, a former slave who became a cowboy and rode the
Wyoming trail in the late 1800s. He evidently sang to the cattle when they
became restless, or so it was said.
In 1940 Copland created
a colourful eight-movement suite using the original ballet music. The music
is descriptive and there’s a brief outline of the plot on Wikipedia which
will help make more sense of what’s going on.
NYO2 is the younger
version of the National Youth Orchestra of the USA. It is the result of a
training programme for talented young instrumental players aged between
fourteen and seventeen and has a special mission to attract students from
social groups usually under-represented in classical music. The young
orchestra gives a tremendously confident performance of this challenging
June 2, 2018 - June 8, 2018
Turning up the volume
One of the most obvious differences
between classical music and most forms of popular music is that the former
invariably makes use of contrasts in loudness whereas the latter usually
doesn’t. The vast majority of pop songs and folk songs tend to be the same
degree of loudness throughout. In contrast, classical music makes frequent
use of dramatic contrasts between soft and loud passages.
But it wasn’t always thus. Before the
Early Renaissance, the concept of varying degrees of loudness, which we now
call dynamics wasn’t given much attention. The 16th century
composer Giovanni Gabrieli was one of the first to indicate dynamics in
music notation, but did so sparingly - as did everyone else. However, during
the Baroque, the emerging violin family permitted far more contrast in
dynamics than the older viols and gradually composers began using softness
and loudness as a means of expression.
In printed music, dynamics are
indicated by abbreviated Italian terms. The indication to play softly is
shown by a “p” which stands for the Italian word piano. The opposite
is shown by the letter “f” which stands for the word forte. These two
words gave their name to an early kind of piano known as a fortepiano,
because it could literally play loudly and softly, which the clavichord
couldn’t. By the 19th century,
composers had gradually pushed the dynamic boundaries outwards. A passage
marked “pp” (pianissimo) or “ppp” is virtually a musical whisper
whereas the loudest passages are marked “ff” (fortissimo) or even in
some extreme cases “ffff’, which is about as loud as you can get.
The concept of gradually increasing the
volume - known as a crescendo – didn’t appear until the mid-18th century.
The idea was developed, along with many other innovations by composers of
the Mannheim School, who wrote for the orchestra of Duke Charles-Theodore.
The crescendo and its opposite, the diminuendo became
favourite musical devices in the opera. The Italian composer Rossini
developed a technique of gradually increasing the volume, a device which he
often used in his opera overtures. This dramatic effect has become known,
not surprisingly as the Rossini crescendo. However, these extended
crescendi (and note my pernickety use of the Italian plural) are not
simply a matter of telling the orchestra to play louder and louder. There’s
much more to them than that.
Rossini (1792-1868): Overture - La gazza ladra.
Mannheim Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Boian Videnoff
(Duration: 09:38; Video: 1080p HD)
Rossini’s opera La Gazza Ladra
(The Thieving Magpie) is best known for its overture, famous for its use of
snare drums which must have taken the audience aback at the opera’s first
performance in 1817.
The work contains a splendid example of
the Rossini crescendo. Well, two actually. After the percussive
opening and a rumbustious melody the crescendo section begins (04.18) with a
graceful lilting melody on the oboe accompanied by light strings and
interjections from the clarinet and low brass. Rossini gradually adds more
instruments and increases the number of musical events making the music not
only louder but busier. It culminates in a joyful climax (06:09) with
vigorous descending scales on the trombone – another Rossini trademark.
Then, not one to miss a good opportunity, Rossini goes through the whole
routine again (07:08) but this time using different orchestration. As the
crescendo develops he changes the harmonies more rapidly giving the
effect of increasing tension and increased speed. And towards the end, we
hear another favourite Rossini trick (09:08) when he suddenly ratchets up
the tempo and brings the overture to a heroic conclusion.
(1875 - 1937): Boléro.
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Gustavo Dudamel (Duration: 17:31; Video:
Ravel’s most popular work is an
orchestral piece that is built on a long and measured crescendo. It
was originally a ballet and a sensational success when it was premiered at
the Paris Opéra in November 1928. Nobody was more surprised at its success
than Ravel himself.
Boléro begins with a snare drum
playing an insistent rhythm pianissimo close to rim and this
relentless rhythm dominates the entire work. Then at 00:33 we hear a faintly
Arabic-sounding tune played softly on a solo flute. This melody, which came
to Ravel when he was on holiday in Saint-Jean-de-Luz dominates the piece and
it’s played on different instruments, some rarely seen in the symphony
orchestra including the tiny E flat clarinet and the alto and soprano
saxophones. Gradually the loudness, the texture and the tension is slowly
tightened as more and more instruments are added. There’s a dramatic change
of key at 16:27 when the entire orchestra thunders out the melody.
Dudamel and the Vienna Philharmonic
give a memorable performance, and just watching Dudamel conduct is an
uplifting experience. Now there’s a man who clearly loves his job.