Update September 23, 2017
Sounds of the new century
Charles Wuorinen (right) with author Salman
Rushdie (Photo/Susan Johann)
A couple of months ago,
one of my friends was raving about a book by Alex Ross, an American music
critic who has been on the staff of The New Yorker magazine since
1996 before which time he was music critic for The New York Times.
The book is called The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.
I bought the book a week or two ago and it was instantly downloaded to my
secondhand Kindle, a splendid device that I coming to rely on increasingly
as time goes by. Incidentally, you may have observed that the book title is
a clever twist on Hamlet’s dying words, “the rest is silence”.
Ross is a splendid
writer who drives the book along with a tremendous sense of pace. The
progress of musical development through the century is seen largely through
composers and their music. Ross unearths all sorts of fascinating facts.
For example, I already knew that Britten had visited Japan and Indonesia in
the 1950s and transcribed gamelan music into notation. However, I hadn’t
realised that he was a friend of the Canadian composer Colin McPhee, who
acquired a profound knowledge of Balinese music by going to live there. I
have since bought McPhee’s beautifully written 1944 book entitled A House
in Bali and yes, it’s also for the Kindle.
But now the twentieth
century has gone for good. What will the new century bring musically? I
suspect that the dissonant and unforgiving “modern” music of the seventies
and eighties has probably had its day and we have moved on towards different
musical landscapes which tend to be described in music circles as “post
modern”. This is vague to say the least but in a sense it has to be. The
new century is only seventeen years old and we have no way of knowing which
directions music will take. So this week, I invite you to sample a couple
of works by living composers whose lives – and whose music -couldn’t be more
Charles Wuorinen (b. 1938): Flying to Kahani.
Anne-Marie McDermott (pno), Orchestra of the League of Composers cond.
Charles Wuorinen (Duration: 11:37; Video: 1080p HD)
The composer Arnold
Schoenberg famously wrote that “there is still much good music that can be
written in C major”. Charles Wuorinen may well dispute that statement for
he is known to be somewhat dismissive of composers who still use
“old-fashioned” tonality. Nevertheless, with well over two hundred
compositions to his name Charles Wuorinen (WOR-rih-nunn) is highly
regarded among America’s senior composers. He began writing music at the
age of five and during his life has won many awards for his compositions.
work is virtually a small piano concerto, derived from Wuorinen’s 2004 opera
Haroun and the Sea of Stories. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it
comes from Salman Rushdie’s 1990 children’s book of the same name. Kahani
is Earth’s undiscovered second moon. The eleven-year-old hero of the story
Haroun Khalifa and his companion fly there with the assistance of a
mechanical bird. On Kahani they arrive at a vast sea called the Ocean of
the Streams of Story, the place from which all stories originate. It’s all
magical stuff and to my ears at least, there’s magic in Wuorinen’s music
If at first you find
the musical language a bit daunting, stay with it and you might find that it
becomes more approachable as the work gradually unfolds. Incidentally,
Charles Wuorinen’s third opera was based on the short story Brokeback
Mountain by the American author and Pulitzer prizewinner Annie Proulx.
As you might recall, the story was made into the tremendously successful
2005 movie by Taiwanese film director Ang Lee. Wuorinen’s opera of the same
name was premiered in Madrid in 2014.
(b. 1946): Quartet for violin, viola, cello and piano (2001).
(Duration: 37:35; Video: 480p HD)
The music of Latvian
composer PÁteris Vasks is often associated with his country’s struggle for
independence. His early music showed the influence of Polish composers
Witold Lutoslawski and Krzysztof Penderecki and the American composer George
Crumb but in more recent years he has found a more personal voice, rooted in
the folk traditions of Latvia which date back over a thousand years. Often
his music has a kind of northern gritty earthiness and seems to reflect
echoes of a bygone age. Sometimes Vasks makes extensive use of minimalist
techniques, but he has never become attached to any particular composing
One of his most recent
successes was the remarkably beautiful choral piece The Fruit of Silence
composed in 2013. This quartet is a powerful work and offers a wonderfully
compelling musical experience. Beginning with fragments of melody hovering
around D minor the music takes the listener on an eventful and dramatic
journey. The music is in six sections which move lead though wildly
contrasting musical landscapes, sometimes with relentless pounding rhythms,
sometimes with moments of aching lyrical beauty.
Update September 16, 2017
Winds of change
Down at the drinking trough the other
night, someone carped that I never write about band music and to be honest,
he was probably right. It’s not that I have anything against bands, you
understand. Long ago back in the Old Country I used to conduct several
bands but on the grounds of national security I cannot reveal their names.
I’ve noticed that these days, the word
“band” is often applied to a group of two or three pop singers, which always
strikes me as downright silly. But even in musical circles the word “band”
is somewhat vague. Large ensembles used to be called “concert bands” but
this expression seems to have fallen out of favour, perhaps because of its
vague showbiz connotations.
While some bands are content to be
called simply wind bands, others have adopted more grandiose titles to add a
bit more gravitas and perhaps also to reflect their style of repertoire.
Look through the YouTube pages and you’ll find wind orchestras, symphonic
winds, symphonic bands, symphonic wind ensembles and many other variations.
In one sense they all boil down to the same thing in that they’re made up
entirely of wind instruments, invariably with added percussion. Sometimes a
string bass is used to add extra depth to the sound and many modern scores
call for pianos and harps for added colour.
The history of wind ensembles can be
traced into antiquity but the large wind bands of today have their origins
in the military bands of the nineteenth century. They were used largely for
ceremonial and festive occasions and the repertoire consisted of marches and
other rousing pieces. John Philip Sousa became famous for his marches, most
of which were written in the 1890s and early part of the twentieth century.
Few other notable composers wrote for band until Gustav Holst composed his
First Suite in E-Flat in 1909. It remains a corner-stone of the
symphonic band repertoire.
In the following years dozens of other
composers wrote for band, thus providing material for the ever-increasing
number of wind ensembles. The American style marching band caught on
worldwide but it has become more synonymous with “shows” in which the music
usually plays a subordinate role to elaborate visual displays.
(1896 -1981): Chorale & Alleluia.
Wind Orchestra cond. Frederick Fennell (Duration: 07:21; Video: 720p)
For forty years, Hanson was the
Director of Music at New York’s Eastman School of Music, founded in 1921 by
George Eastman, he of Kodak fame. During his tenure, Hanson transformed the
school into the finest of its kind in America.
Composed in January 1954, Chorale
and Alleluia was Hanson’s first work for band. This finely crafted
music strikes me as quintessentially “American” in the same sense that
Copland seemed to capture something of old American pioneering spirit and a
prairie-like sense of space. There are profound and sonorous passages in
the opening chorale, deliciously rich harmonies and an increasing sense of
intensity. Listen for the magic moment at 05:01 when the bustling music
gives way to majestic chords from the brass.
The Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra was
established in 1960. It’s a professional ensemble and along with the Dallas
Wind Symphony considered to be one of the best in the world. This
performance is conducted by the 86-year-old Frederick Fennell, an
internationally recognised conductor and one of the most influential figures
in the development of the symphonic band movement in the USA. In his New
York Times obituary, Jerry F. Junkin wrote that Fennell was “the most famous
band conductor since John Philip Sousa”.
Maslanka (1942-2017): Symphony No. 4.
Michigan Symphony Band cond. Michael Haithcock (Duration: 30:05; Video:
David Maslanka was best known for his
music for wind ensemble. He published well over a hundred works including
nine symphonies, most of which were written for band. His musical style is
typical late 20th century
American band music: rhythmically complex, melody-orientated and tonal in
This highly approachable work,
completed on 5th November
1993, differs from a conventional symphony in that it comes in a single
movement with six clearly-defined sections. The composer wrote that “the
central driving force is the spontaneous rise of the impulse to shout for
the joy of life. I feel it is the powerful voice of the Earth that comes to
me from my adopted western Montana, and the high plains and mountains of
Listening to this vigorous music you
can see what he means. Perhaps it’s a bit repetitive at times but there are
some heroic Hollywood-like moments of grandeur contrasted with solemn hymn
melodies which form the backbone of the work. Towards the end (at 23:28) we
hear the melody of “The Old Hundredth” thundered out by the trombones while
the flutes and clarinets seem to be imitating flocks of wheeling birds high
above Maslanka’s “high plains and mountains of central Idaho”.
The Boy King
Edward in 1546 aged nine – the year he was crowned King of England.
In an attempt to
improve my slender knowledge of science, I’ve just waded through Stephen
Hawking’s book The Grand Design, an introduction to the esoteric
world of quantum mechanics. Perhaps I should add that quantum mechanics are
not, as some might imagine, people who repair quantums. It’s a branch of
physics which explores the behaviour of the tiniest particles in existence
and it’s fascinating.
Although Hawking and
his co-writer Leonard Mlodinow do a decent job explaining an incredibly
difficult subject, I found some parts of the book a bit heavy going,
especially when it comes to the supposed curvature of time. So to provide
some light relief from the quarks, hadrons and leptons, I turned to Mark
Twain’s delightful novel The Prince and the Pauper, published in the
early 1880s and subtitled A Tale for Young People of All Ages.
This enthralling story
mixes real people with fictional characters and it’s set in the first couple
of months of the year 1547. The central character in the book is the
real-life Edward Tudor, Prince of Wales and later King Edward VI. You may
recall the plot in which, as a prank, the nine-year-old prince swaps roles
with an identical looking boy from a poor family in East London. Mark Twain
gives a fascinating glimpse of the social customs and moral values in
sixteenth-century London. But he drives the plot along with tremendous pace
and makes the book irresistible. I got through it one afternoon and
On 20 February1547,
Edward was crowned King of England at the age of nine. He was the son of
King Henry VIII who had died the previous month. Henry was a talented
composer and played various instruments of which he had a large collection,
including seventy-eight recorders. He would certainly have encouraged his
son, who was an extremely intelligent boy to become involved in music. We
know that Edward learned to play the lute and the virginals, a keyboard
instrument a bit like a small harpsichord. Reading Twain’s novel, I began
to wonder what music Edward would have heard, for it was central to the life
of the royal court.
Christopher Tye (c. 1505-1572): Three In Nomines.
Consortium5 Recorder Consort (Duration: 06:55; Video: 720p HD)
Christopher Tye knew
Edward personally both as prince and king. He worked closely with him and
appears to have been a personal friend. Tye was one of the most influential
English composers of his day and he acted as a kind of musical adviser to
the royal court.
During the sixteenth
century, the expression In Nomine (in NOM-in-ay) was a
general-purpose title used extensively for short instrumental pieces. They
were usually written for a consort of four or five instruments, typically
viols or recorders. Tye wrote twenty-four In Nomines and Edward
would undoubtedly have been familiar with some of them. He might have even
have played them too if he had, as likely as not, inherited his father’s
skills on the recorder.
We tend to associate
the recorder with that ghostly hooting sound made by elementary school
children, but during the early sixteenth century the recorder was one of the
most important wind instruments. The instrument was made in several
different sizes and a recorder consort usually contained a variety of
instruments ranging from the high-pitched sopranino to the somewhat unwieldy
Lamentations of Jeremiah I.
The Queen’s Six (Duration: 07:37; Video: 1080p HD)
Tallis is ranked among
England’s greatest composers and his name has become synonymous with choral
music. Edward would have been familiar with the music of Tallis and would
certainly have met him, for the composer became a Gentleman of the Chapel
Royal in 1543 at which he composed and performed for both Henry VIII and
In the sixteenth
century following prevailing fashions in Europe, it became customary for
composers to set various texts from the Book of Jeremiah. Tallis set the
first lesson sometime between 1560 and 1569. This rich, powerful and
beautifully-crafted music is typical of Tallis and much the sort of musical
style Edward would have heard in the Royal Chapel. Sadly, the young king
didn’t live long enough to relish this particular work. With a promising
life ahead of him, he tragically died on 6th July
1553 at the age of sixteen, thus missing out on the great flowering of
English renaissance music that was yet to come.
However, to end on a
slightly merrier note, if you have one of those amazingly useful Kindle
devices for reading books, you can go to Amazon online and order an
instantaneous download of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper for
less than a dollar. So if you haven’t already done so, there’s no excuse
for not reading it.
Alwyn in 1960
(Photo: Wolfgang Suschitzky)
It is hard to believe
that September is upon us once again. Marking the end of summer and the
start of autumn (at least in Northern parts), it has always struck me as a
rather melancholy month though not as melancholy as November, which in the
northern hemisphere can be downright depressing.
September is the start
of the academic year in many countries, in which children and teachers
traipse sometimes unwillingly, back to school after the long summer
holidays. The month derives its name from the Latin word septem
(seven) and so it should really be the seventh month rather than the ninth.
And of course it originally was, until the Romans decided to add January and
February to the start of the calendar thus confusing everyone including
themselves. Before then, the first month of the year had been March.
calendar September was called “harvest month” and in most northern
hemisphere vineyards, grapes are harvested throughout September. The month
used to have a similar name (Herbstmonat) in Switzerland and the
Anglo-Saxons called it Gerstmonath (barley month) because barley was
their main crop.
This year, 1st September
will bring a close visit of an asteroid charmingly known as Florence. It’s
almost three miles in diameter and its path is only four million miles
away. This sounds uncomfortably close but don’t be alarmed because that is
eighteen times the distance from the earth to the moon. So we should be
alright - in theory, at least. And yes since you asked, the asteroid was
named after Florence Nightingale. It would have added a pleasing symmetry
to tell you that she was born in September, but she wasn’t. And for that
matter, neither was I.
Neither was the German
composer Kurt Weill who wrote September Song which first appeared in
the 1938 Broadway musical production Knickerbocker Holiday. The
song, which laments the passing of youth, appeared again in the 1950 film
September Affair and has since become a popular standard. Oddly enough,
few classical composers wrote music inspired by September. The only work I
can dredge up at this stage of the week is Richard Strauss’s hauntingly
beautiful September from his “Four Last Songs”. But perhaps you have
a better memory than me.
Joseph Kosma (1905-1969): Autumn Leaves, arr. Toru Takemitsu.
…bŤne String Quartet (Duration: 05:28; Video: 480p)
composer Joseph Kosma is little-known these days but he was something of a
child prodigy who wrote his first opera at the age of eleven. As an adult
during the occupation of France in World War II, Kosma was placed under
house arrest and for some reason was banned from composition. Despite this
setback, he managed to covertly write the music for many movies during the
One of his best-known
popular songs is Les feuilles mortes (Autumn Leaves) which dates from
1945 but rose to fame five years later in the eponymous 1956 film starring
Joan Crawford. It has become a classic of the genre. This version is
especially interesting because the song has been arranged by the celebrated
classical Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu.
Takemitsu seemed to
have a natural ability to manipulate instrumental and orchestral timbres and
was greatly influenced by the French composers Debussy and Messiaen. In
Takemitsu’s beautiful and imaginative arrangement for string quartet, you
can clearly hear Debussy’s influence. Takemitsu weaves threads of melody
and gradually the song emerges from the rich harmonic sonorities. He has
virtually created a new composition in which there’s a telling sense of
William Alwyn (1905-1985): Autumn Legend.
Rebecca Van de Ven (cor anglais) Sewanee Summer Music Festival Chamber
Ensemble. (Duration: 13:21; Video: 720p HD)
(AHL-winn) has sadly become one of England’s forgotten composers though
with his legacy of fine music he could just be waiting to be re-discovered.
He studied flute and composition at London’s Royal Academy of Music and
later returned there as a professor of composition, a position which he held
for nearly thirty years. He was also a flautist in the London Symphony
Orchestra but he’s especially associated with film music because during his
lifetime he wrote nearly two hundred film music scores.
Few people realise that
Alwyn also wrote five symphonies and four operas along with several
concertos and string quartets. As if that weren’t enough, he was also a
poet and an artist. He couldn’t have had much spare time on his hands.
dates from 1954 and is scored for cor anglais and small
string orchestra. This expressive work also has a Debussy-like
impressionist feel to it and the dark, plaintive tone-colour of the cor
anglais, superbly played by Rebecca Van de Ven, brings to mind that other
evocative but somewhat gloomy work by Sibelius, The Swan of Tuonela.
And in case you’re wondering, Sibelius wasn’t born in September either.