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Update May 2017

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Update by Natrakorn Paewsoongnern

Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update May 20, 2017

Theme and Variations


Niccolò Paganini.

It was 1817 when Niccolò Paganini completed his Twenty-four Caprices for solo violin.  Beethoven was forty-seven and at the peak of his career, Schubert was twenty and the seven-year-old Robert Schumann was just starting piano lessons.  At the time, the splendidly eccentric Paganini was one of the most celebrated virtuoso violinists in Europe.  He always dressed entirely in black for his famous concerts and arrived in a black coach drawn by black horses.  He evidently practised fifteen hours every day and always played from memory – a novelty at the time.

The final piece in the set – Caprice No 24 - is a theme and variations and considered one of the most challenging works ever written for solo violin.  It requires the use of many advanced techniques such as parallel octaves, rapid shifts and extremely fast scales and arpeggios.  There are many other extraordinarily difficult passages, the sight of which would make many a student violinist pass out.

Paganini couldn’t possibly have known that his opening theme from Caprice No 24 would later be borrowed by dozens of other composers as the starting point for variations of their own.  Brahms used it in his Variations on a Theme of Paganini and Rachmaninoff used it in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  There are well over fifty published works which use Paganini’s theme but no one knows the number of unpublished pieces.

Why did Paganini’s melody prove so irresistible to other composers?  At first glance the tune seems hardly worth writing home about.  It has four bars which are repeated and then eight more bars which are also repeated.  The rhythm is identical in almost every bar.  Yet the tune has a kind of catchiness and it’s the kind of thing that could jangle in your head all day given half a chance.  Perhaps the very simplicity made it attractive to composers and of course, the name Paganini in the title of a work adds a touch of magic and gravitas.

Paganini was not the only composer whose music was borrowed by others.  Bach wrote variations on a theme by Frederick the Great (The Musical Offering, since you asked); Brahms wrote variations on a theme by Haydn; Shostakovich wrote variations on a theme by Glinka; Britten wrote variations on a theme by Frank Bridge and Walton wrote variations on a theme by Hindemith.  And so the list goes on.  There must be hundreds of such works.  Usually the main theme is played at the start, followed by contrasting sections that vary some aspect of the initial melody and transform it into something new.  Each variation tends to be increasingly elaborate.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943): Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Denis Matsuev (pno), State Symphony Orchestra of Russia cond. Leonard Slatkin (Duration: 30:29; Video: 720p HD)

Rachmaninoff avoided the convention of stating the main theme at the beginning and instead merely hints at it.  This is a piano concerto in all but name and consists of twenty-four variations on Paganini’s theme.  Rachmaninoff wrote it in 1934 and the same year played the solo part at the premiere in Baltimore with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski.  The eighteenth variation, with its echoes of Hollywood romantic movies is by far the best known.  The composer must have known that this variation would be popular for he’s reputed to have remarked, “This one’s for my agent.”

The final variation is so technically demanding that even Rachmaninoff expressed trepidation about playing it correctly at the premiere.  Before the concert, he broke his usual rule and summoned up some Dutch courage with a glass of crème de menthe to steady his nerves.  It worked.  The concert was a spectacular success, and before every subsequent performance of the Rhapsody, Rachmaninoff always drank a glass of crème de menthe.

Anton Arensky (1861-1906): Variations on a Theme by Tchai­kovsky, Op. 35a. Sydney Conservatorium of Music Chamber Orchestra (Duration: 10:06; Video: 480p)

The letter “a” after the opus number is a clue that this work is an arrangement of something else.  In this case, the “something else” was Arensky’s Second String Quartet.  The quartet was written in 1894, the year after the death of Tchaikovsky, who had been a significant influence over the younger composer.  For the slow movement of his quartet, Arensky borrowed a melody from one of Tchaikovsky’s songs and as a tribute, composed variations on it.  At the first performance, the slow movement was so well received that Arensky later arranged it as a separate piece for string orchestra.

When he was eighteen, Arensky moved to St Petersburg with his parents so that he could study composition at the Conservatory.  For a time his teacher was Rimsky-Korsakov who didn’t have especially high hopes for him.  “He will quickly be forgotten” the great composer tartly remarked.  But he wasn’t.  Tchaikovsky’s haunting theme is transformed into a wealth of rich and powerful sonorities that reveal Arensky’s composing skill and his unmistakable Russian heritage. 

Update May 13, 2017

Stormy weather


Thomas Adès. (Photo: Claudia Prieler)

At this time of year, hardly a week goes by without reading in the newspaper that summer storms are brewing in the central provinces and possibly heading south to the Sunshine Province.  Fortunately the storms don’t always appear or just seem to fizzle out before they get here.  I don’t blame the newspaper of course, because it is after all, “the newspaper you can trust” but I’ve been told that accurate weather forecasting is notoriously difficult even with the sophisticated technology that we have at our disposal today.  I can appreciate that because even the movement of my dogs is almost impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy.

Back in the old days when I was a spotty teenager living on a cold grey island off the coast of Europe, it was winter storms we had to worry about.  They could be fierce things too, when howling winds would come thundering down the Irish Sea and churn the waters into raging waves.  It’s easy to understand how the ancients felt that some angry gods were at work.

The idea of imitating the sound of a storm in music goes back a good many years, but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century, when larger orchestras began to develop - that more and more composers started emulating the sounds of nature in their music.

The Romantic Movement, which began to emerge during the middle years of the nineteenth century, was sufficient encouragement for composers, along with painters and writers to turn to nature for their ideas.  The English painter Joseph Turner was one such person and was years ahead of his time.  During his lifetime he was considered somewhat controversial, but his contribution to Romantic painting (especially his stormy seascapes) was enormous.

Strangely enough, German Romanticism developed comparatively late though even in his Pastoral Symphony of 1808 Beethoven evoked the sounds of a thunderstorm, albeit a fairly tame one.  Berlioz did much the same thing in his opera The Trojans.  Both Tchaikovsky and Sibelius wrote stormy overtures entitled The Tempest derived from Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976): Four Sea Interludes Op 33a.  BBC Symphony Orchestra cond. Sakari Oramo (Duration: 16:35, Video: 720p HD)

If Britten had followed in his father’s footsteps, he would have become a dentist.  Fortunately he turned to music instead, becoming a central figure of twentieth-century British classical music.  He was born in the fishing port of Lowestoft in Suffolk and remained close to the sea all his life.  His first opera Peter Grimes dates from 1945 and tells the story of a mean, violent fisherman who is ostracized by the residents of the fishing town in which he lives.  The opera is a social tragedy peopled with several unsavory characters but the powerful music (indeed, a great deal of Britten’s music) seems to evoke the bleak seas and skies of the eastern coast of England.

The Four Sea Interludes come from the orchestral sections in the opera and oddly enough, they have become more popular than the opera itself.  From the opening moments, you can sense the cold North Sea in the early hours of the morning.  But even during the haunting flute melodies, there’s a brooding, uncomfortable sense of foreboding.  The sea dominates the music but you’ll have to wait until the last movement (at 12:09) for the storm. And what a storm it is!  It’s a ferocious tempest with endless explosions of thunder, a crashing sea and a fearsome wind shrieking through the ship’s rigging.

Thomas Adès (b. 1971): Overture “The Tempest” Op. 22a. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe cond. Thomas Adès (Duration: 04:48, Video: 480p)

If Britten’s storm in Peter Grimes is a Force 9 gale, this one is a Force 12 hurricane.  Thomas Adès (AH-dess) was born in London and has a formidable list of works to his credit including two operas.  In 1992 he was appointed Britten Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music.  The overture is from his opera The Tempest based on the eponymous Shakespeare play and in it, Adès creates a storm of Biblical proportions.  Compared to this mind-shattering tempest, the thunder-storm that appears in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony sounds more like a summer shower.  Adès pushes dissonance pretty well to the limits in this exciting work but brings it to a satisfying and peaceful conclusion.

It’s interesting to read a few of the less than complimentary comments on the YouTube page added by visitors.  Some of them indicate a typical reaction to something which is new and possibly difficult to initially understand.  The remarks remind me of the kind of ignorant verbal abuse Beethoven had to suffer in his day from some music critics who found his music “incoherent, shrill, chaotic and ear-splitting”.  The music critic and writer, August von Kotzebue (who wrote that silly description) would have been very cross about the music of Thomas Adès.  Very cross indeed.

Update May 6, 2017

On the tracks


Heitor Villa-Lobos
in 1922.

I wonder whether you recall that self-righteous little poem by Frances Cornford entitled, rather insensitively, To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train.  My mother was fond of quoting the lines, “O why do you walk through the fields in gloves, Missing so much and so much?” 

Frances Cornford (née Darwin) was a female poet of modest achievement whose father, the botanist Sir Francis Darwin was a son of the more famous Charles.  Her husband somewhat confusingly, was also named Francis.  Anyway, the verse came to mind the other day, when I was ruminating on my first train journey to Chiang Mai in the 1980s.  There’s something evocative and emotive about trains and few other forms of travel heighten the temporal nature of the things around us.  If the train goes slowly enough, which the one to Chiang Mai certainly used to do, you can gaze at the locals going about their daily work, unaware of your attention.  Then they pass from view and you realise that your paths in life will never run so close again.  It brings about a kind of melancholy, fleeting sense of loss.

The French of course, are proud of their super-fast TGV trains which in terms of sheer speed rather leave the Chiang Mai Express in the shade.  Michael Nyman even wrote a piece of music about them in 1993 to celebrate the inauguration of the Paris-Lille TGV run.

The Swiss composer Arthur Honegger adored trains and once said, “I have always loved locomotives passionately.  For me they are living creatures and I love them as others love women or horses.”  I don’t know about you, but that sounds a bit creepy to me.  Honegger wrote a massive amount of music including three concertos, five symphonies and nearly twenty ballets, he’s perhaps best-known these days for his music about a train, or to be more exact, a locomotive.

Arthur Honegger (1892-1955): Pacific 231. L’Orchestra Symphonique La Folla de Lille, cond. François Clercx (Duration: 09:11; Video: 480p)

The Pacific was an American steam locomotive and as any train enthusiast will be delighted to explain, locomotives are classed by their wheel arrangement.  In Britain and America, the Pacific would be designated as a 4-6-2, meaning that it has four pilot wheels, six driving wheels, and two trailing wheels.  The French of course, have to be different and count the axles rather than the wheels, hence the numbers 2-3-1.

Honegger wrote the piece as an exercise in building momentum and originally called it rather prosaically Mouvement Symphonique, giving it the name Pacific 231 only after it was finished.  Written in 1923, it must have taken audiences aback with its jarring harmonies, angular melodic fragments and abrasive percussion.  This video is virtually a re-make of Jean Mitry’s French 1949 classic movie, which used Honegger’s music as the sound-track.

If you are old enough, you might recall the British film Night Mail, a 1936 documentary about the mail train from London to Scotland.  W. H. Auden wrote a poem for it (the film I mean, not the train) and Benjamin Britten wrote some music.  It featured a locomotive known as the Royal Scot 6115 Scots Guardsman (a 4-6-0 since you asked).  And here’s an interesting connection; the film’s sound director hailed from Brazil - as does one of the best-loved pieces of train music.  But it’s a very different train to Honegger’s snarling Leviathan.

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959): The Little Train of the Caipira. National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain, cond. Natalia Luis-Bassa (Duration: 5:25; Video: 720p HD)

Villa-Lobos is considered the best-known South American composer of all time.  Rarely seen without his trade-mark cigar, he composed a staggering amount of music including twelve symphonies and seventeen string quartets.  Between 1930 and 1945, Villa-Lobos wrote Bachianas Brasileiras, a series of nine suites for various combinations of instruments and voices, which blended features of the European Baroque with folk melodies of Brazil.  This charming little railway piece comes from the second suite and the title refers to the local trains of the Brazilian countryside.

Several other classical works have been inspired by trains.  Charles-Valentin Alkan wrote a fiendishly difficult piano piece called Le Chemin de Fer.  It was written in 1844, only sixteen years after the appearance of Stephenson’s Rocket, perhaps a slightly optimistic name for a locomotive whose maximum speed was a stately 28 mph.  The Danish composer Hans Christian Lumbye wrote a jolly romp called Copenhagen Steam Railway Galop and in total contrast, there’s the strangely haunting Different Trains, by Steve Reich scored for string quartet and electronic sounds.

And by the way, the poet G. K. Chesterton, who coincidentally was married to someone called Frances, wrote an amusing rebuke to Frances Cornford.  It was a short poem called The Fat Lady Answers.  But I shall leave you to seek it out for yourself, if these things interest you. 

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Theme and Variations

Stormy weather

On the tracks



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