By Colin Kaye
Saturday, January 20, 2018 - January 26, 2018
Are you listening?
Copland (left) and Leonard Bernstein, c.1960.
In 1939 the American
composer Aaron Copland published the first edition of his book What to
Listen for in Music. In it, Copland described how music could be
listened to at three levels which he described as the sensuous, the
expressive, and the purely musical. He also felt that an astute listener is
“constantly moving from one level to another as the musical work unfolds”.
The sensuous level is
the most basic: a simple pleasurable experience which requires the least
amount of mental processing. It’s a bit like being pleasantly aware of
background music. Copland’s expressive level (the second one) requires some
concentration and might involve sensing some kind of emotion or
expressiveness in the music which we may not be able to articulate, but we
know it’s there.
Copland felt that most
people do not reach the musical level (the third one) in their listening
because this is the level at which most musicians operate. It’s about the
notes of the music, how they interact with each other and about
understanding the internal mechanics of the music. Professional musicians,
composers and arrangers always listen at this level. However, I suspect
that Copland was simplifying things. It seems to me that there is a missing
level between levels two and three. But I’ll leave you to ponder that at
Let’s try to unpack
Copland’s idea. Imagine the sound of an unaccompanied voice singing a
wordless melody. At the first level you’d be simply hearing the song
without giving it any thought: you’d be pleasantly aware of it, but that’s
At the second level,
you would be listening more carefully, hearing the quality of the voice and
noticing the character of the song. Perhaps you might feel some kind of
expressive quality within the music.
At the third level, the
purely musical one, a whole new world of sound opens. You’d be aware of the
tonality - whether the song is in a major or minor key or whether it’s
modal. You’d notice the individual notes of the melody, how they relate to
each other and how the elements of tension and relaxation are created within
the melodic line. You’d notice the exact intervals between the notes, the
rhythms in the melody and the inherent harmony, the changing tone colours of
the voice, the length and difference between the musical phrases and the
changes in dynamics. You’d probably also notice the overall structure of
This third level of
listening clearly requires more mental activity on the part of the listener
as well as a technical understanding of music. It’s sometimes called
active listening and it means giving the music your undivided
attention. This doesn’t mean that listening becomes a chore: it becomes
more of an enriching experience. As Copland suggested, the listener often
switches from one level to another, sometimes just to appreciate the sheer
beauty of the music. The implication for music education is perfectly
Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Piano
Concerto. Aaron Copland (pno), New York Philharmonic Orchestra cond.
Leonard Bernstein (Duration: 18:35; Video: 480p)
Here’s a treat, if ever
there was one. This spiky little concerto which Copland described as “the
slow blues and the snappy number” predates his popular “big-country” musical
style of the 1930s and 1940s. He wrote the concerto when he was 26 and it’s
a jazz-influenced piece which was common enough in the 1920s. Of course, it
isn’t actually jazz, nor does it pretend to be. Copland simply drew on
ideas from the popular music of the time into his own emerging musical
The concerto remained
unknown for many years after its premiere until the composer brought it back
into the limelight in a recording with Leonard Bernstein in 1962. This film
was made at a New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert in February 1964
and the performance is introduced by Bernstein.
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990):
Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story”. Simón Bolivar
Orchestra cond. Gustavo Dudamel (Duration: 23:04; Video: 480p)
In 1961 Bernstein
prepared a suite of orchestral music from the hugely successful show. The
orchestration is partly the work of the composer’s colleagues which was
common practice on Broadway. These dances are therefore the product of many
different orchestrators with a final editing done by the composer. There’s
some lovely orchestration too. Listen out for the magic moment when the
song There’s a Place for Us emerges at 04:20. It’s a breath-taking
few bars, delicately and transparently scored. Bernstein and his
orchestrators used colourful instrumental combinations and a huge percussion
This is a stunningly
good performance by the celebrated Venezuelan orchestra. Notice that as
always, Gustavo Dudamel conducts without a score, for he has a phenomenal
memory. He is probably one of those rare people who listens at what would
be Copland’s fourth level and therefore far ahead of the rest of us.
Update Saturday, January 13, 2018 - January 19, 2018
The big pictures
One day back in the
1970s, I made one of my regular visits to London’s Tate Gallery, an imposing
building that sits on the north bank of the River Thames only a mile or so
down the road from the Palace of Westminster. At the time, there was a mild
controversy over some paintings by Mark Rothko which had been acquired by
the gallery and I wanted to see them for myself. They had been commissioned
in1958 by the American beverage company Joseph Seagram and Sons, to adorn
their new luxury restaurant in New York, the Four Seasons.
Despite the fact that
Rothko had received the commission of a lifetime, for various convoluted
reasons he suddenly changed his mind at the last moment. He gave nine of
the paintings to the Tate Gallery with precise instructions as to how they
should be exhibited. Rothko, you might recall was best known for his large
abstract works which tended to feature out-of-focus blocks of colour. The
Seagram Paintings as they have become known are especially bleak and
I can vividly recall my
first encounter with these iconic works, which were hung reverently in a
low-lit cavernous room with grey walls. At first sight, they really are
breath-taking. I was surprised by the sheer size of the paintings, for they
are enormous. Although the browns and reds are warm and rich there is a
compelling sense of alien beauty about them. It was like coming to
face-to-face with another intelligence and ever-so-slightly unnerving. No
one can fail to look at them without some kind of reaction, if even only a
slight shudder. But that, it turned out is exactly what Rothko wanted.
Like Rothko, the
composer Morton Feldman was also of Russian-Jewish descent and his music
reminds me so often of Rothko’s vast paintings. Also like Rothko, Feldman
began to explore a style that had no relation to traditional practices. He
was breaking new ground and exploring territories as yet unknown. He
experimented with his own forms of musical notation, sometimes specifying
how many notes should be played at a certain time, but not exactly which
ones. He was pioneer of the so-called indeterminate music.
Morton Feldman (1926-1987): Rothko Chapel.
Vokalensemble cond. Marcus Creed (Duration: 24:50; Video: 1080p HD)
incidentally was born on 12th January,
was a major figure in American twentieth century music. He was close to the
key players in the arts and was also friends with Rothko. In its own way
his music is as distinctive as Rothko’s paintings are. Quietness
dominates. There’s a sense of slowly evolving organic growth and the
musical ideas seem to float lazily in his softly unfocussed sound world.
There’s a sense of free rhythm and a feeling of timelessness.
In some of his later
works, Feldman started exploring extremes of duration. His String
Quartet II for example which dates from 1983 is over six hours long. It
doesn’t get performed very often. In contrast, Rothko Chapel lasts a
fleeting twenty five minutes.
Feldman composed this
work in 1971 inspired by his visit to the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.
The building - as you might expect - contains paintings by Rothko. This
sparse, sombre and reflective music uses soft and delicate sounds which
often fade into silence. It’s scored for soprano, alto, viola, mixed chorus
and celesta with an impressive array of percussion instruments.
Perhaps the best way to
hear this enigmatic work is by using headphones in a quiet, darkened room
without distraction. This haunting music might not perhaps be your cup of
tea, but do give it a try. I find the work captivating, partly because it
evokes the unworldly spirit of those Rothko paintings I first encountered so
Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948): Sinfonia da camara in B flat, Op 8.
(Duration: 37:27; Video: 1080p HD)
Wolf-Ferrari was also
born on 12th January
and this chamber symphony is an immensely enjoyable work. In case you’re
wondering, his surname was originally plain old Wolf, but when he was
nineteen he cunningly added his mother’s maiden name. It instantly made his
name more appealing but perhaps he did it to avoid confusion with the
well-known Austrian composer and song-writer Hugo Wolf.
studied piano from an early age, he wanted to be a painter like his father
and even began studying at art school. But he eventually decided to
concentrate on music and later became known for his immensely successful
comic operas. He certainly had the gift of good melody writing. Just
listen to the gorgeous melody that emerges at 10:23 a few moments before the
end of the first movement. The lyrical second movement (10:57) has some
haunting melodies too. There are many other magic moments in this expansive
and delightful work. But if you don’t mind, I’ll leave you to discover them
for yourself. I’m going for a gin and tonic.
Update Saturday, Jan. 6 - Jan. 12, 2018
The Harp that Once…
Alberto Ginastera and his cat.
“Through Tara’s halls”
I hear you murmur. Or perhaps I don’t, if you’re not familiar with the
writings of that Irish poet, singer and songwriter Thomas Moore - not to be
confused with Sir Thomas More, the English statesman who was eventually
venerated in Catholicism as Saint Thomas More.
The song has certainly
been around for long enough; since 1821 to be exact, when it was first
published in a collection of Irish popular songs. The Irish Thomas Moore
was born nine years after Beethoven and he’s best remembered for the lyrics
of The Minstrel Boy, The Last Rose of Summer and other
timeless songs. Tara, as you might (or might not) recall was the ancient
seat of power in Ireland in prehistoric and early medieval times.
The harp is the
traditional musical instrument of Ireland and symbolizes the Irish people
and their culture. If you’ve ever tasted that splendid Irish dry stout
called Guinness, you may have noticed the trade-mark image of a Celtic harp
on every bottle. The harp is also the national instrument of Wales with a
history that can be traced back at least to the eleventh century. It’s one
of the oldest musical instruments in the world and simple harps, based
loosely on the shape of a hunter’s bow were in use as early as 3500 BC. The
large harp you see in orchestras today dates from the eighteenth century.
It’s technically known as the pedal harp and has forty-seven strings
covering a range of six-and-a-half octaves and weighs about eighty pounds.
An old chestnut among
harp players is that harps are like old people; they’re unforgiving and
difficult to get in and out of cars. As the name implies, the pedal harp
has a set of pedals (seven, since you asked) which are connected to an
ingenious internal mechanism which alters the pitch of the strings. Harps
don’t come cheap. You can buy a student model for about $15,000 but a
professional instrument could set you back over $100,000. You’ll also need
to buy a big van to cart the thing around.
The harp is popular in
Mexico, the Andes, Venezuela and Paraguay and although these instruments
have slightly different designs, they have a common ancestor: the Baroque
harps brought from Spain during the colonial period. Many classical
composers have been attracted to the unique sound of the harp and there are
perhaps surprisingly, a large number of harp concertos.
Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983): Harp Concerto Op 25.
Remy van Kesteren (hp), National Youth Orchestra of the Netherlands (NJO)
cond. Clark Rundell (Duration: 23:35; Video: 360p)
(jee-nah-STEHR-ah) was the most influential composer of Argentine
classical music. His music can be challenging, percussive, thrilling,
thought-provoking and sometimes even downright scary.
This three movement
concerto is a brilliant virtuosic work and it’s full of Ginastera’s musical
trade-marks. The churning rhythms punctuated by thumps on the timpani at
around 04:05 sound as though the passage has been lifted straight out of
Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Now I come to think about it,
Stravinsky himself once remarked that “Lesser artists borrow, great artists
The frenetic music
gradually transforms into the kind of mysterious musical landscape that
Ginastera paints so well. The slow second movement takes the listener into
a haunting sound-world of rich dark sonorities and strange angular
melodies. The last movement (at 14:20) begins unusually with a cadenza
which leads into a folk-like dance with sparkling rhythmic vivacity and
catchy fragmented melodies. Driving rhythms lead the music into a
thundering climax. It’s thrilling stuff and given a superb performance by
both soloist and orchestra.
Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799): Harp Concerto in A major.
Rosa Díaz Cotán (hp), Neubrandenburger Philharmonie cond. Daniel Stratievsky
(Duration: 21:04; Video: 1080p HD)
Nothing could be more
different to the unbuttoned Ginestera concerto than this delightful work by
one of the most prolific composers of the classical period. The Austrian
composer Carl Dittersdorf wrote over two hundred symphonies, although some
of them have not been authenticated. He wrote dozens of concertos, chamber
works, oratorios, masses and operas: enough music to fill a small library.
He was friends with Haydn and Mozart and with the composer Johann Baptist
Wanhal they often played string quartets together. Dittersdorf’s
three-movement Harp Concerto is a lovely work and exemplifies the classical
ideals of form, elegance, grace and charm.
Harps have been the
target for musicians’ jokes ever since the instrument appeared in the
symphony orchestra. Unlike pianists, who expect the services of a piano
tuner, harpists are expected to tune the instrument themselves. However, it
quickly gets out of tune especially if there are temperature variations at
the concert venue. The problem is summed up in a well-known orchestral
joke, “How long does it take to tune a harp?” The answer is that nobody