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Update March 2018

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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Saturday, March 17, 2018 - March 23, 2018

A bit of the Blarney

Aloys Fleischmann
in 1936.

 This weekend, any of the pubs and beer-bars in town will be pleased to remind you that 17th March is St. Patrick’s Day.  There cannot be very many English-speaking people who have not heard of St Patrick, yet his life remains something of a mystery.  Many of the tales surrounding him came about through generations of exaggerated storytelling.  Legend has it that he got rid of Ireland’s snakes by driving them into the sea.  However, there have never been snakes in Ireland.  The country is more famous for its folk music and dancing.  Then there’s Irish whiskey and that equally famous, dark stout that originated in 1759 at the brewery of Arthur Guinness.

But how many Irish composers can you name?  Not many I bet, unless of course you happen to be Irish.  Yesterday, I could think only of three – John Field, who virtually invented the style of piano piece known as a nocturne; Michael William Balfe, best known for his opera The Bohemian Girl and Ernest John Moeran whose cello concerto is still popular.  Delving into the weighty tome The Oxford Companion to Music reminded me of several others, notably Hamilton Harty and Charles Villiers Stanford who I’d completely forgotten was Irish.  I admit that the name Aloys Fleischmann doesn’t sound particularly Irish, but he was one of Ireland’s most influential musicians who lived most of his life in the City of Cork.

Only five miles from Cork is the village of Blarney with its famous Castle, an essential stop on every tourist itinerary.  I was taken there by my parents when I was about ten.  The castle is the home of the Blarney Stone which in 1446 was built into the battlements of the castle.  According to legend, kissing the stone endows the kisser with great eloquence and skills of flattery.  However, the feat of actually kissing the stone is not easily achieved. It’s not for the faint-hearted or those with a morbid fear of heights.  For a timid ten-year-old, the prospect was terrifying.

Aloys Fleischmann (1910–1992): Overture, Time’s Offspring. European Union Youth Orchestra cond. Laurent Pillot (Duration: 04:44; Video: 480p)

Fleischmann was born in Munich to German parents, both of whom were musicians living in Cork.  He later studied at the University College Cork and later worked there as a professor.  He is perhaps best known for his magisterial 1,400-page book Sources of Irish Traditional Music, a daunting task that took him forty years to complete.  He was also a conductor of the Cork Symphony and Radio Éireann Orchestras; he served on many committees and he was an influential figure in Irish musical life.  For one so busy, it is perhaps surprising that he found time to write anything at all, but he turned out ballets, chamber music, orchestral works and compositions for choir. 

Time’s Offspring is a five-movement cantata for speaker, choir and orchestra written in 1985.  The overture is entertaining music though at times it feels a bit like the sound-track of an animated movie.  It’s easily approachable music with a wealth of melodic ideas and rhythmic vitality.

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924): The Bluebird. The King’s Singers (Duration: 03:30: Video 1080p HD)

Now then, here’s a real musical treat.  Sir Charles Villiers Stanford made his reputation as a composer with his seven symphonies, a CD of which I have just by chance, in front of me.  At the age of twenty-nine Stanford became one of the founding professors of London’s Royal College of Music where two of his composition students were Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, although his own composing style was rather old fashioned for the time.

Stanford is also well-known for his choral music.  This is a delightful choral setting of a rather mystical and enigmatic poem called The Bluebird by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge.  It was originally written for choir but this performance by The King’s Singers is to my mind, as good as any.  The vocal quality, vocal blending, phrasing and intonation are faultless.  Notice Stanford’s use of rich, luxuriant harmony and how the counter-tenor voice floats in and out of the texture on the word “blue.”

Bluebirds of course have become symbols of happiness and as a result have been used in many poems and popular songs.  A bluebird was mentioned in the 1917 song, I’m Always Chasing Rainbows and also in the 1934 song Bluebird of Happiness.  Paul McCartney sang about them and so did Judy Garland in Over the Rainbow.  They’re mentioned in Vera Lynn’s song The White Cliffs of Dover in the lines, “There’ll be bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover”.  This is a bit unlikely as there are no bluebirds of any kind in Europe.  If for some reason you want to see one, you’ll have to go to America.

Update Saturday, March 10, 2018 - March 16, 2018

Two rivers


George Butterworth as a student at Eton.

The English author Aidan Chambers once wrote, “I thought how lovely and how strange a river is.  A river is a river, always there, and yet the water flowing through it is never the same water and is never still.  It’s always changing and is always on the move.  And over time the river itself changes too.  It widens and deepens as it rubs and scours, gnaws and kneads, eats and bores its way through the land.  Even the greatest rivers… the Nile and the Ganges, the Yangtze and the Mississippi must have been no more than trickles and flickering streams before they grew into mighty rivers.”

Battles have been fought over rivers or at least, close to them.  The Battle of the Somme was a tragic episode during the First World War, involving British and French troops against those of the German Empire.  The battle began in July 1916 and raged for over four months on both sides of the River Somme in France.  By the following November, over a million soldiers had been killed or wounded.

One of them was 31-year-old George Butterworth, a Lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry who had already been awarded the Military Cross for bravery.  On 5th August 1916 in the muddy trenches near the river, he was killed by sniper fire.  Most of the other soldiers including his commanding officer were unaware that Butterworth was one of the most promising young English composers of his generation.

George Butterworth (1885-1916): The Banks of Green Willow. National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain, cond. Roger Clarkson (Duration: 06:34; Video: 480p)

Although he was born in London’s Paddington district, the family soon moved to Yorkshire so that his father could take up an appointment as General Manager of the North Eastern Railway.  The boy received his first music lessons from his mother and he began composing at an early age, playing the organ for services in the chapel of his elementary school.  He won a scholarship to Eton College and later in life became a close friend of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The Banks of Green Willow was written in 1913 and it’s a pastoral piece, based loosely on a folk song that Butterworth heard and wrote down in Sussex.  It is probably the composer’s best-known work and the title implies a musical picture of a river somewhere in England, but we don’t know exactly where. 

The work is given an engaging and lively performance by the National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain, a well-established organization founded in 1978.  Hearing these young musicians playing with such commitment and maturity it is hard to believe that they are all less than thirteen years old.

Like so much of the music by Delius and Vaughan Williams, this work sounds utterly English.  It’s a picture of the England that Butterworth loved so much and for which, like so many others of his generation he fought for and paid for with his life.

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884): Vltava. Gimnazija Kranj Symphony Orchestra, cond. Nejc Beča (Duration: 14:40; Video: 1080p)

Unlike Butterworth’s meandering English river, we know exactly where this one is.  It’s often called “the Czech national river”. 

Bedřich Smetana is considered the grandfather of Czech music because he pioneered a national musical style.  Má Vlast, meaning “My Homeland” is a set of six symphonic poems that Smetana wrote during the 1870s and one of the movements is called Vltava, also known by its German name Die Moldau.  It describes the journey of the Vltava River from its source in the Bohemian mountains through the countryside to the city of Prague.  The piece contains Smetana’s most famous melody, an adaptation of a borrowed Moldavian folksong which is strikingly similar to the tune of the Israeli national anthem.

This performance is by Gimnazija Kranj Symphony Orchestra, a youth orchestra based at Gimnazija Kranj high school in Slovenia.  Established in 1810, the school is one of the oldest and most respected in the country and has over a thousand students between the ages of fifteen to eighteen.  The orchestral playing is amazingly good and a remarkable technical and musical standard.

The piece begins with a musical picture of the springs at the source of the great river and eventually leads into the main theme.  There are various musical snapshots during the work which include a sound image of a hunt in the forest, a peasant wedding, water-nymphs in the moonlight, St John’s Rapids and finally the concluding section in which the river triumphantly enters Prague and then flows away into the distance.  It would be pleasing to tell you that the river eventually flows majestically to the sea, but it doesn’t.  Further downstream, it merges with the River Elbe.

Update Saturday, March 3, 2018 - March 9, 2018

Gaining points


Béla Bartók in March 1939.

Somebody who is terribly important but whose name I have completely forgotten once remarked that counterpoint is among the main things that characterize Western classical music.  I suspect it’s one of the least understood things too especially by non-musicians, perhaps because it rarely occurs in folk and popular music.  At its most basic, counterpoint (from Latin, meaning “point against point”) is the process of combining two of more distinct melodic lines for an aesthetic effect.  You can hear counterpoint in its simplest form in rounds like Frere Jacques or Three Blind Mice in which voices enter in sequence.

The art of using counterpoint emerged during the early Middle Ages and became the focal point of the polyphonic vocal music of the Renaissance when it reached its peak.  This type of counterpoint was governed by various technical conventions and today is sometimes known as “strict” counterpoint.  Its leading exponents were Josquin des Prez, Palestrina and Orlando di Lasso who often used complex melodic relationships in their florid music.  In the baroque, counterpoint of a freer style flourished and dominated the music of the entire era.  Even today, music composition students are required to study counterpoint in depth.  They always were.

In 1725, a book called Gradus ad Parnassum was published by the Austrian composer and music theorist Johann Joseph Fux, whose name (you might be disappointed to know) is pronounced FOOKS.  It was the first major study of counterpoint and focused on the Renaissance style as written by Palestrina.  The book was held in high esteem by J. S. Bach; Mozart used it for his studies and Haydn worked his way through every lesson.  Even Beethoven used it.  So influential was the book that it’s still available today and essential reading for advanced composition students.

The essence of counterpoint is something deeper than merely manipulating notes.  It is an inner part of the music and an essential ingredient of its expressive qualities.  You can find examples of counterpoint even in twentieth century music.  Oddly enough, it’s one of the key features of traditional jazz.  Both the works this week share a structural feature in that the Bartók quartet is in five movements instead of the usual four and the concerto is in four movements instead of the usual three.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945): String quartet No. 4 in C major. Quatuor Ebčne (Duration: 27:05; Video: 480p HD)

Composed in 1928, the work has an arch-like structure in that the first movement is thematically related to the fifth and the second to the fourth.  If you’re unfamiliar with the music of Bartók you might be surprised at the variety of extraordinary sounds that the players produce.  Many of them are made by “extended instrumental techniques” which are heard relatively rarely in the concert hall.  They include glissandi, in which the player slides from one note to another, notes played without vibrato and the so-called “Bartók pizzicato” in which the player plucks the string with sufficient aggression that it rebounds against the fingerboard giving a sharp percussive “thwack”.

This quartet is rooted firmly in the twentieth century yet it uses many contrapuntal passages in which instruments pass melodic and rhythmic fragments between each other.  The first movement is splendidly percussive and the second uses muted strings throughout.  The third is a typical example of Bartók’s “night music” style which contains eerie dissonances, strange nocturnal sounds, odd twittering and sometimes fragments of folk melody.  Clashing chords open the intensely rhythmic last movement which takes on the character of a wild Hungarian folk dance.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op 77. Vadim Repin (vln), Orchestre de Paris cond. Paavo Järvi (Duration: 39:16; Video: 720p HD)

This concerto, by one of the major composers of the twentieth century was written during 1947 and 1948.  In this extensive work, counterpoint dominates from the beginning, when the woodwind phrases and the solo violin play fragments of the theme over an ominous, slowly moving bass line.  There’s a sense of organic growth as the brooding music intensifies.  In contrast, the second movement is a wild demonic dance which seems to have its origins in Russian folk music. 

The third movement (at 20:52) is the great Passacaglia, a musical form that originated in early seventeenth-century Spain and is characterized by a repeated melody in the bass.  This highly contrapuntal movement has great depth, power and passion and it develops into an exceptionally long cadenza of staggering virtuosity which leads seamlessly and dramatically (at 34:33) into the frenetic finale.

I first heard this work as a teenager in the Old Country.  It was a performance by David Oistrakh with the Leningrad Philharmonic conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky.  Even on a black-and-white television with a tiny screen and feeble sound, it was nonetheless a thrilling experience.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

A bit of the Blarney

Two rivers

Gaining points



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