By Colin Kaye
Update Saturday, Oct. 21 - Oct. 27, 2017
Chabrier in 1882.
I wonder whether you recall that court
case involving the song My Sweet Lord supposedly by George Harrison.
The song came out in 1971 and bore striking similarities to He’s So Fine
recorded nine years earlier by a female group from New York called The
By the time the Harrison song was released, The
Chiffons were under the Bright Tunes Music Corporation which swiftly filed a
lawsuit against George Harrison. The case was finally heard in court in
February 1976 when Harrison’s lawyers tried to prove that the songs were
different. The judge decided otherwise. Harrison was found guilty of
“subconscious plagiarism” and fined $587,000.
In contrast, the Church of the Middle Ages regularly
re-used melodies because it was the standard way of creating new works. One
process, known as “troping” was to extend an existing musical setting of
sacred verses by simply adding more material. There was no conception of
music being a commodity, having monetary value or even having an owner.
The first British copyright laws date from 1709, though
they were probably interpreted somewhat liberally. Nevertheless, the German
composer and theorist Johann Mattheson claimed in 1739 that “borrowing was
acceptable and necessary”. However, he added that “one must so construct
and develop imitations that they are prettier and better than the pieces
from which they are derived.” Clearly, Mattheson had no scruples about
using someone else’s music. His father was a successful tax-collector,
which may have had something to do with it.
Bach, Handel, and most other professional composers of
the day routinely recycled their own music and the music of others. Bach’s
Anna Magdalena Notebook of 1725 contained short pieces written
for his wife, but many of them were borrowed. The Minuet in G for
example, was actually written by Christian Petzold. Over two hundred later
it was borrowed again for a song called A Lover’s Concerto and sung
by another female group from New York called The Toys.
Both Haydn and Mozart borrowed music freely. Not until
1909 was it realised that Mozart’s Symphony No. 37 was actually a re-working
of Michael Haydn’s Symphony No 25. The idea of the composer as a singular
genius forging an original path was virtually unknown to seventeenth and
eighteenth century sensibilities. It’s been estimated that Beethoven
reworked existing music in more than a third of his compositions.
The 1911 musical Kismet used music written by
Alexander Borodin who had died twenty-four years earlier. You may recall
the songs Baubles, Bangles and Beads and the more well-known
Stranger in Paradise, both of which were revived in the 1950s. There
are dozens of other examples. The song Hot Diggity was recorded in
1956 by one Pierino Ronald Como better known as Perry, except perhaps to his
mother. The song went to the top of the charts and while the words were
nonsense, the melody was wonderful. As you may have guessed, it was stolen.
Chabrier (1841-1894): España.
Orchestra cond. Leonard Slatkin
(Duration 06:25; Video Resolution: 360p)
Chabrier went on a tour of Spain in 1882 and wrote
España a year later. The work isn’t all flamenco and castanets as you
might expect, nor is it descriptive music in the usual sense. I think
Chabrier was more interested in creating something more impressionistic,
reflecting the exuberance and colour of Spanish life. He was after all,
close friends of the Impressionist painters Claude Monet and Édouard Manet.
The orchestration is sizzling and brilliant and the
work exudes tremendous gaiety with an unmistakable Spanish flavour. The
trouble is, every time I hear the main tune, I can’t get the idiotic words
of Hot Diggity out of my head.
The words of another Perry Como hit, Catch a Falling
Star weren’t a great deal more sensible. They suggested that you should
“catch a falling star and put it in your pocket”, which I would have thought
would be the last place you’d want to place a red-hot meteorite. This time
though, the music had been stolen from Brahms.
Brahms (1833-1897): Academic Festival Overture.
Studenten Orkest 2012, cond. Lucas Vis (Duration 11:41; Video
Resolution: 1080p HD)
In a twist of delicious irony, Brahms had also stolen
the tune. He composed the Academic Festival Overture during the
summer of 1880 as a token of gratitude to the University of Breslau, which
had awarded him an honorary doctorate degree. The dull-sounding title
belies the fact that this is a very jolly piece indeed, composed largely of
student drinking songs. The work is scored for large orchestra and Brahms
conducted the premiere for a delighted audience in 1881. It’s full of
memorable tunes, ending with a thunderous rendering of the popular academic
song Gaudeamus Igitur. The words of this song poke fun at academia
and they probably appealed to the composer’s dry sense of humour.
And in case you’re wondering, George Harrison did pay
the fine. Being one of the Beatles, he could probably afford such a modest
Update Saturday October 14 - October 20, 2017
Boys don’t cry
If you’re over a
certain age, you may recall a popular French song entitled Les Trois
Cloches, made famous by Edith Piaf and Les Compagnons de la Chanson.
It’s more well-known by its English title, The Three Bells and in
1959 it became a huge hit for an American vocal trio called The Browns. At
the time, I was very young, but the song appealed because it had a good
tune, lovely harmonies and was hopelessly sentimental. Of course, the
mawkish lyrics had much to do with that, and it’s easy to understand why
songs or opera arias can arouse emotions, even tears. But I often wonder
how music can create a huge emotional impact without the help of words.
Perhaps Hans Christian Andersen hit the nail on the head when he wrote,
“Where words fail, music speaks”.
I remember as a
teenager becoming hopelessly weepy every time I listened to the yearning and
passionate slow movement of the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto, though I
could never understand why. Some years ago, UK’s Classic FM published a
list of what was considered the “saddest music ever written”. Predictably,
it contained the well-known lament from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas.
This incidentally, was my very first professional engagement, not singing
the role of Dido you understand, but playing the cello part in the
The Classic FM list
also contained some purely instrumental works which included the slow
movement from Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, Albinoni’s Adagio
and the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. Oh yes, and there
was the slow movement from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which leapt to fame
after Luchino Visconti used it his 1971 movie, Death in Venice.
Where does sad music
get its sadness from? Do you ask a composer or a cognitive psychologist? I
suspect that few composers would know. But we have to be careful here,
otherwise there’s a risk of over-simplifying and dividing music into “sad”
and “happy” which of course would be nonsense. There are countless shades
of meaning between and beyond these two words and as Beethoven wrote, rather
pompously perhaps, “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and
It used to be thought
that a minor key produces a sad effect but I don’t think that explanation
holds much water. The well-known song My Favourite Things is in a
minor key, and it’s anything but sad. The Rachmaninov movement which got me
so lachrymose as a teenager is in a major key. And so for that matter, is
the last movement of Mahler’s massive Third Symphony which is almost
guaranteed to bring a tear unless you have a heart of stone. But whether
it’s a tear of melancholy, sadness, joy, elation or ecstasy, I shall leave
it to you to decide.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) Symphony No. 3 (last movement),
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Václav Neumann, (Duration: 21.06; Video
This movement, although
undeniably introspective and poignant, is in the bright sunny key of D major
and was composed between 1893 and 1896. It’s probably the longest symphony
ever written, running for about an hour and a half. Unusually, it has six
movements instead of the more conventional four. Mahler originally gave
each movement a title, implying that they were mildly descriptive.
Strangely enough, before the symphony was published in 1898, he dropped all
the titles, so he must have had a major change of mind.
The great conductor
Bruno Walter wrote, “In the last movement, words are stilled, for what
language can utter heavenly love more powerfully and forcefully than music
itself?” The broad sweeping lines of the melodies touch the emotions in all
sorts of ways and seem to grow organically, beginning very softly with a
hymn-like melody which slowly builds to a loud, majestic and triumphant
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) Adagio for Strings.
Dover String Quartet.
(Duration: 08:02; Video 1080p HD)
Barber was one of
America’s most celebrated composers of the twentieth century. This piece
was originally the slow movement of his String Quartet in B minor, written
in Austria during 1935 and 1936. It would have probably remained obscure
had not the conductor Arturo Toscanini urged Barber to arrange it for
orchestra. The orchestral version has since become hugely popular and been
used in several feature films. When the BBC launched a competition to find
the “saddest music in the world”, Barber’s Adagio came at the top of
This video shows a
performance of the original version for string quartet, which to my mind
sounds more intimate and emotional. Incidentally, the word “adagio” simply
means “slowly” and this is an intense work which grows in power and volume
from the start. Notice how the melody develops and how Barber uses silence
for dramatic effect in the long pause after the climax at 05:58. For a
moment, it seems like the end of piece. But it isn’t. Instead, Barber
takes us back to that quiet place where we began our melancholy journey.
Update Saturday October 7 - October 13, 2017
If at first…
It must have been an
interesting time musically during the closing years of the eighteenth
century and the first few decades of the nineteenth. Music had moved away
from the royal courts and much more into the public arena; orchestras were
gradually becoming larger and an increasing number of composers were being
influenced by the growing movement of Romanticism which flourished all over
Europe, especially during the second half of the century.
During the early years
of the nineteenth century, baroque music as far as the general public was
concerned, was dead and gone. The elegant eighteenth century classical
styles of Haydn and Mozart must have seemed increasingly old-fashioned
because the new era was giving way to bolder and more individual styles. It
must have been quite a challenging time for composers, because audiences
expected something new and innovative, though not too new.
critics were only too willing to pour scorn on new works perceived to be
“too modern”. Even Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony was described by one critic
as “eccentric and laborious”. Indeed, some composers were slow to gain
success and it was only with stolid determination and sheer willpower that
they managed to achieve anything at all.
Daniel F. E. Auber (1782-1871): Overture: La muette de Portici.
Szymanowski School of Music Symphony Orchestra (Wroc³aw, Poland) cond.
Marcin Grabosz (Duration: 08:59; Video 720p HD)
One of these was Daniel
François Esprit Auber, who was the son of a Paris print-seller. Auber
(oh-BEHR) was born in Caen in Normandy and his father expected him to
continue in the print-selling business, so at the age of twenty Daniel was
packed off to London for business training. Either the training was
inadequate or perhaps Daniel simply didn’t have a head for business, but he
wasn’t particularly successful. He instead returned to music composing. It
was not an auspicious beginning. His first opera Le Séjour militaire
had a poor reception and his second one, several years later was no better
received than the first.
Having slogged away at
two unsuccessful operas, most people would have called it a day and found
some other way of occupying their lives but Auber was clearly not the sort
to give up easily. In the following year of 1820 he attempted yet another
opera, La Bergère Chatelaine and no doubt to his delight and relief,
it was a huge success. It was a milestone, for it turned out to be the
first in a long string of operatic successes which brought the composer fame
and fortune. Although today Auber and his music have fallen pretty well
into obscurity, at the height of his career he was a household name.
In 1828 came his
equally successful opera La Muette de Portici. The title “The Dumb
Girl of Portici” doesn’t translate elegantly into English and it must have
seemed odd to write an opera around a central character who is unable to
sing. Auber neatly got around this problem by giving the leading role to a
ballerina rather than a singer and the opera consequently includes
substantial sections of mime. Portici in case you’re wondering, is a small
coastal town five miles outside Naples near the foothills of Mount
The setting of the
five-act opera is Naples in 1647 and the story takes places against the
historical background of the local revolt against Spanish rule. When the
opera was performed in Brussels in 1830 it sparked a riot which became the
starting point for the Belgian Revolution. The opera was significant
because it was the first French “grand opera”, a theatrical style that sets
a fictional drama within a historical context and uses a large chorus,
spectacular scenic effects and ballet sequences.
Ferdinand Hérold (1791-1833): Overture: Zampa.
Argovia Philharmonic cond. Sascha Goetzel (Duration: 10:12; Video: 2160p
As a child, Ferdinand
Hérold had a promising start to his musical career, but in later years
received more than his fair share of operatic failures. Perseverance in the
face of adversity got him through. His opera Zampa was one of his
major successes and was premiered in Paris in 1831. Over the ensuing forty
years it was performed over five hundred times. The opera itself has faded
into obscurity but the overture is still often played. Along with the
ballet La fille mal gardée it’s one of the composer’s best-known
This video, recorded in
Zurich is one of the few available in ultra-high definition. At this
resolution the picture quality is strikingly realistic and the stereo sound
quality is also superb. However, unless you have a fast fibre optic
connection and a really decent processor in your computer, you’ll have to
settle for something less.
Like Auber, the name of
Ferdinand Hérold is barely recognised today but this delightful overture
shows that he could certainly produce the goods.