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Update June 2018

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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


June 16, 2018 - June 22, 2018

Byrd and the Bees

Boris Blacher.

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 Navy.

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

Folk tales


Aaron 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 time. 

Encouraged by the waves of nationalist fervour that emerged in Europe during the second half of the 19th century, 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: 1080p HD)

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 musical expeditions.

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 music.

June 2, 2018 - June 8, 2018

Turning up the volume


Gioacchino Rossini.

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.

Gioacchino 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.

Maurice Ravel (1875 - 1937): Boléro. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Gustavo Dudamel (Duration: 17:31; Video: 1080p HD)

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.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Byrd and the Bees

Folk tales

Turning up the volume



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