By Colin Kaye
Give me five
Schubert in 1824. (Wilhelm August Rieder)
If you spent your childhood years in
Great Britain it’s more than likely that you came across a series of
children’s books by Enid Blyton which related the summer holiday adventures
of four children and a dog. I refer of course to the Famous Five
although this name wasn’t used until 1951 after nine books in the series had
already been published.
Enid Blyton evidently intended to write
only six or eight books but their huge commercial success encouraged her to
write twenty-one full-length Famous Five novels. She could apparently
knock out a book within a week. It often showed, for there was sometimes a
good deal of repetition. The child characters were aged about twelve or
thirteen but they never seemed to grow up very much. They were frozen in
The books are still selling today at a
staggering rate of two million copies a year. They’ve been translated into
ninety languages. Yes, including Thai since you asked. Out of curiosity, I
bought one of the Thai versions recently at Big C and wondered what the
average kids in Buriram or Surin would make of these privileged,
well-educated, middle-class and slightly insufferable British children
obsessed with chasing petty criminals.
To a classical musician, “famous fives”
will instantly bring to mind some of the great quintets. The string quintet
can be traced back to early years of the seventeenth century. It’s usually a
standard quartet (two violins, viola, and cello) supplemented by a fifth
stringed instrument. Sometimes a woodwind instrument is added to the string
quartet used such as a flute, oboe or clarinet thus providing a pleasing
contrast of tone colour.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Quintet in C major D.
956. David Finckel (vlc), Emerson String Quartet (Duration: 48:23;
Video: 720p HD)
I was about the same age as the
children in the Enid Blyton novels when I first heard this work. It was on a
Philips recording and featured the cellists Paul Tortelier and Pablo Casals,
arguably two of the greatest cellists ever. Unfortunately, parts of the
recording were marred by Casals’s characteristic deep-throated groaning.
Schubert completed this quintet in the
autumn of 1828 but when he offered the work to his publisher the response
was lukewarm. Even at the end of his career, Schubert was still regarded as
a writer of songs and piano pieces. His chamber music was not taken
seriously. This is richly ironic because this quintet is now regarded as
being among the finest chamber works ever written. Schubert died just a
couple of months after its completion.
He scored the work for string quartet
plus an additional cello which often enjoys as much of the limelight as the
first violin. The presence of the extra cello brings a darker, richer tone
to the sound. But the most compelling thing is the sheer expansiveness of
the work, the richness of melody and the brilliant use of harmony.
Schubert often contrasts lyrical
moments with unsettling violent passages. The second theme of the first
movement (01:58) has brought a tear to many an eye and the opening of the
sublime slow movement (15:12) takes the listener to some tranquil, heavenly
place for removed from the physical world. Then in typical Schubert fashion,
the mood is shattered (19:56) by a troubled and disturbed section until the
energy gradually subsides and finally returns us (26:01) to the peaceful
place where we started. The bucolic scherzo could not offer more contrast
and the reflective middle section daringly explores sudden changes of key
and has many wonderful magic moments of harmony. The dance-like finale
(38:18) offers a wealth of delightful melody.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Clarinet
Quintet in A major, K581. Ruokai Chen (clt), Old City String
Quartet (Duration: 30:50; Video: 720p HD)
Mozart wrote two major works for
clarinet; the concerto and the quintet, scored for clarinet and string
quartet. They were both written for Anton Stadler, one of the leading
Viennese players of the day. Mozart completed the quintet in September 1789.
Incidentally, both works were originally written for the basset-clarinet
which has an extended lower range.
This is a brilliant work which draws on
Mozart’s enormous skills in melody-writing, drama and harmony. The
Larghetto which forms the slow second movement is stunningly beautiful.
The last movement has always struck me as a somewhat repetitive set of
variations on a singularly banal tune. The lugubrious third variation with
its tiresome viola solo sounds like a lapse of taste on Mozart’s part but
perhaps he was pandering to the current Viennese fad for all things Turkish.
I have the score in front of me and can’t help wondering what he was up to.
But perhaps Wolfgang had been taking in a bit too much Austrian wine that
day. By all accounts, he was an enthusiastic imbiber.
And all that jazz…
Darius Milhaud c. 1957.
A good many years ago I used to visit the 100 Club
in London’s Oxford Street. In those days, it was a smoky, rather seedy joint
in a cavernous dark cellar and well-known for its jazz concerts. I didn’t
realize that the club had been founded back in 1942 and over the years it
hosted some of the top names in jazz including Louis Armstrong and Benny
Goodman. Amazingly, the club is still going strong today though I’d guess it
has become rather more sedate.
As a student I adored the jazz, especially the bright,
brash sounds of Dixieland and visiting the club was enhanced by a slight
frisson of guilt at being in such bohemian surroundings. Of course I didn’t
tell my starchy professors back at the music college who surely have
disapproved of such an undesirable place.
So I could sympathize with the young French composer
Darius Milhaud when he heard jazz for the first time. It excited him so much
that in 1922 he set off to America and visited clubs and bars in New York’s
Harlem, which were probably a good deal seedier than the place in Oxford
Street. Milhaud (MEE-oh) was twenty-four at the time and jazz had an
enormous influence on him. As a result of this adventure, he was among the
first European composers to incorporate jazz idioms in their music. His
first jazz-inspired work, La Création du Monde dates from 1923.
It’s not often you come across a restaurant named after
a piece of classical music but there’s one in Paris. When Milhaud visited
Brazil around 1918 he became captivated by the vibrant popular music,
especially a popular tango entitled O Boi no Telhado, which he
translated as Le Bœuf sur le Toit (“The Cow on the Roof”). Returning
to Paris in 1919, Milhaud wrote the score for a surrealist comic ballet of
the same name, using Brazilian-style popular songs and dances. At the time,
he and his professional friends used to meet at a popular artists’ bar in
Paris called La Gaya. When the bar relocated in 1921, the owner
renamed it Le Bœuf sur le toit, presumably to ensure that Milhaud and
his crowd would continue to patronize it. They did, together with dozens of
other distinguished customers, hangers-on and camp followers.
(1892-1974): Le Bœuf sur le toit.
Orchestre de Paris cond. Alondra de la Parra (Duration: 19:02; Video: 420p)
This exuberant, unbridled music is almost a
sound-picture of The Roaring Twenties and will brighten the greyest of days.
You get the impression of a selection of scenes pasted together like the
contents of a scrapbook and this is where much of its charm lies. A lot of
Milhaud’s music is influenced by jazz and popular song and he often used a
composing technique known as polytonality, in which parts of the
music are in different keys at the same time. It creates a vaguely bizarre
effect and was much favoured by Stravinsky. You can hear an example at 00:31
when the flutes are clearly playing in a different key to the rest of the
orchestra. The work was premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1920
with a scenario by Jean Cocteau and stage designs by Raoul Dufy.
In 1940 Milhaud emigrated to the United States where
among other things, he taught composition at Mills College in California.
Two of his most well-known students were Dave Brubeck and Burt Bacharach to
whom Milhaud once said, “Don't be afraid of writing something people can
remember and whistle.” Bacharach later wrote well over a hundred hits, so it
was good advice.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): Piano
Concerto in G major. Jean-Yves Thibaudet (pno);
Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra cond. Philippe Jordan (Duration 29:09; Video
This wonderful concerto was written between 1929 and
1931. The first movement opens somewhat unusually with the sound of a
whip-crack, created by slapping two pieces of wood together. The movement is
a colourful blend of Basque and Spanish musical ideas super-charged with
jazz idioms, brilliantly performed with fine precision. The slow movement
(08:37) leaves jazz far behind and takes us into a reverie - an elegant,
soul-searching melody with a gentle waltz-like accompaniment. The third
movement (17:24) returns to a more frenetic world, permeated by the distinct
sounds of jazz. The spiky opening theme came to Ravel during a train journey
not in France, but between Oxford and London.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Le Bœuf sur le
Toit still exists in Paris in the form of an ultra-chic restaurant which
has jazz evenings every Friday and Saturday. It’s on rue du Colisée near the
Champs Élysées and reservations are essential. If you decide to give it a
try sometime, don’t forget your credit cards.
A sense of place
Sibelius in the late 1880s.
Perhaps you might have come across that fascinating
computer game called Geoguessr. When you log into it, a photo of some
random place in the world appears on the screen and you have to search for
various clues to guess exactly where you are. It’s based on Google Street
View and so you can move around or even travel a considerable distance until
you find enough clues to establish your whereabouts. It is hopelessly
addictive. Anyway, the other day I logged in and found myself in a grim and
joyless landscape, on a single-track narrow road with snow everywhere,
gaunt-looking trees for miles around and an ominous sense of Poe-like
bleakness. There was a compelling need to follow the road, which of course
is the object of the exercise. There was not a vehicle in sight, not even a
house or other sign of life. I clicked my way along the dismal track until I
could bear no more but then suddenly reached a main highway where I found a
sign giving the name of what eventually turned out to be a small and
inconsequential town in northern Finland. The countryside brought to mind
some of the dark, brooding music of Sibelius who of course was Finnish and
would have probably felt perfectly at home in this haunting, monochrome
Sibelius had a musical style that is almost instantly
recognizable and so often his music seems to conjure up a vivid sense of
place; images of lakes and forests that are so typical of the Finnish
landscape. In Britain he is probably best known for the opening movement of
his suite Pelléas et Mélisande which was used as the theme of the
world's longest-running TV programme, the BBC's The Sky at Night. It
was first broadcast in 1957 and it’s still going.
Born in 1865 as Johan Julius Christian Sibelius, he was
the most important and influential composer that Finland has produced and he
began using the French form of his name, “Jean” during his student years. In
his seven symphonies, he developed a style of composing in which tiny
phrases continuously evolve into a fully grown melody. It’s like seeing – or
rather hearing – organic cells gradually merging together and becoming
transformed into a complete living being. I have a feeling that Charles
Darwin would probably have appreciated it.
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): The Swan of Tuonela.
Norwegian Radio Orchestra cond. Avi Ostrowsky (Duration: 09:14; Video 480p)
This is one of the composer’s more introvert pieces;
music which transports you into a secret and mysterious world of brooding
shadowy landscapes. The piece is virtually a solo for cor anglais (a kind of
alto oboe) and this exceptional performance is conducted by the Israeli
conductor, Avi Ostrowsky and features the evocative cor anglais playing of
Ingrid Uddu. Composed in 1895 when Sibelius was thirty, this short tone poem
is part of the composer’s Lemminkäinen Suite which is based on a
story from the nineteenth century Kalevala, one of the most
significant works of Finnish literature. The piece is scored for a
comparatively small orchestra and the music paints an unworldly image of a
mystical swan floating on the dark, gloomy river around Tuonela, the
mythical Finnish island of the dead. The music really seems to transport you
Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Appalachian Spring,
Suite. Symfonieorkest Vlaanderen, cond. Seikyo Kim (Duration:
26:41; Video 720p HD)
Copland also had that extraordinary ability to take the
listener to somewhere else. Often, his music sounds “American” and gives you
a sense of spacious prairies and summer skies. Even during the first few
moments of the music you get a distinct sense of place. This work was
commissioned by the ballet dancer and choreographer Martha Graham and first
performed in 1944. The ballet tells the story of a spring celebration of
nineteenth century American pioneers after having built their new farmhouse
in Pennsylvania. The work is full of traditional American themes, including
the Shaker song Simple Gifts, which Copland borrowed and wove into
the music. You might recognise this tune as the popular hymn Lord of the
Dance. These movements are fine examples of orchestration at its best.
Interestingly, when Copland wrote the music, he had no title in mind and
simply referred to it as the “Ballet for Martha” but before the first
performance, she suggested an evocative phrase from a poem by Harold Hart
Crane. The phrase as you might have guessed was “Appalachian Spring”.
Although the poem is about a journey to meet springtime, the word “spring”
in the title refers to a source of water, not to the season.
And strangely enough, having listened to this so very
American music, I feel a compelling urge to go back to the computer screen
and that same deserted country lane in Northern Finland to continue my
search for human life.