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Update February 2019

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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Staying in tune

Henri Vieuxtemps is shown in this sketch by Marie-Alexandre Alophe.

Tuning an orchestral instrument is an unwelcome chore for every musician who plays one. You might reasonably ask why tuning is necessary, because you could argue, the instrument should be in tune anyway. If only that were true! The problem is that the pitch of most musical instruments drifts with temperature, humidity and other environmental factors.

Although modern concert halls are kept at a constant temperature musicians bring their instruments from home. On the way to work, the instruments are exposed to jolting or vehicle vibrations and possibly extreme outside temperatures. By the time they arrive at the concert hall, they’ll need tuning again, especially stringed instruments which are drastically affected by movement and temperature. The pitch of stringed instruments is determined by the tension of the strings and the tuning mechanism tends to slip especially when they are carried around. In lower temperatures stringed instruments become “sharper” which means that their pitch goes up. Trombones and trumpets tend to stay in tune more accurately but they too are affected by atmospheric changes. As brass instruments warm up, their pitch goes down because the metal expands. Although the change is microscopic, it’s enough to make a difference. As you might expect, larger instruments are affected more than smaller ones. This is why an orchestra often re-tunes during a concert.

Some woodwind instruments are dismantled before they’re put in their case and have to be reassembled before use. They are built in such a way that small adjustments can be made to the tuning and these must be checked every time before playing. Harps are notorious for going out of tune with the result that harpists usually spend more time tuning their instruments than actually playing them. There’s an old joke among musicians which asks, “How long does it take to tune a harp?” The answer is that nobody knows.

Musical instruments are tuned to a precise pitch. These days it is pretty well standard at 440 vibrations per second usually written as 440 Hz (Hertz). In musical terms it’s the note “A” six notes above “middle C” on a keyboard and it’s the note an oboe plays at the start of a concert. In the past, the note was obtained by striking a tuning fork but today a digital device or a Smartphone is more common. The pitch has fluctuated over the years though some ensembles - especially those that use historical instruments - often tune to a different pitch.

Michael Praetorius (1571-1621): Suite from Terpsichore. Voices of Music (Duration: 10:01; Video 2160p UHD)

Michael Praetorius was a versatile German composer and considered the greatest musical academic of his day.  He had the distinction of being born on 15th February and dying on the same day of the month, fifty years later. He was a successful writer of choral music but in 1612, he published a massive volume containing more than three hundred popular instrumental dances most of which come from the French dance repertoire. In keeping with Renaissance taste for classical themes it was entitled “Terpsichore” (it rhymes with “hickory”) referring to the Greek goddess of dance. In the introductory notes, Praetorius states with touching modesty that he merely arranged the pieces but didn’t compose them. They’re mostly French court dances though Praetorius also included some Spanish and English dances.

The dances are all quite short and thus began the performance custom of stringing two or three numbers together to make a more substantial piece. Although popular in the early seventeenth century the music fell into obscurity for years until the Renaissance revival of the 1960s. If you enjoy these charming dances, plenty of others can be found on YouTube.

Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881): Violin Concerto No 5 in A minor, Op 37. Nikita Borisoglebsky (vln), Mariinsky Theatre Symphony Orchestra cond. Clemens Schuldt (Duration: 20:33; Video: 720p HD)

You’d be forgiven for not immediately recognizing the name of this composer, whose birthday also falls on this weekend. Vieuxtemps was born in the Belgian town of Verviers which at the time was part of Holland. He gave his first violin concerto performance at the age of six and became one of the leading violinists of the nineteenth century. He composed seven concertos for the violin for which he is best-known.

Vieuxtemps completed this attractive work in 1859 and it was published a couple of years later. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Vieuxtemps never indulged in musical fireworks just for the sake of it. Although he was technically brilliant himself, sheer virtuosity for its own sake was not his thing. In some ways, this three-movement concerto is quite conservative but it’s none the worse for that and has some lovely melodies and many magic moments.

Double take


An oboe double reed.

At almost every orchestral concert, the first instrument you hear is always the oboe. This is because the oboe sounds the note to which all the other instruments tune. This convention came about largely because the penetrating tone of the oboe can be clearly heard above the other instruments.

The oboe has a long history though the origins are obscure. We know that the instrument as we know it first emerged during the middle of the seventeenth century when it was known by the French name hautbois (OH-bwah). In French, haut means “high” and bois means “wood”. Its predecessor was called the shawm which dated back to medieval times and a harsh-sounding thing it was too.

I’ve always felt that anyone who starts learning the oboe must possess a certain degree of tenacity, because the instrument is something of a challenge for a beginner. The clarinet and saxophone produce their sound with a single reed and it is relatively easy for an absolute beginner to produce a half-decent sound at the first attempt. The oboe has a double reed which consists of two reeds bound to each other and it’s controlled by pressing the lips close together over the double reed. The first sound that beginners manage on the oboe is usually a duck-like honk which surely must be discouraging to a sensitive child. It takes a great deal of practice to convert those initial quacks into something worth hearing.

In the hands of a fine player the oboe can produce a bright, reedy sound with a yearning, lyrical tone quality. The characteristic tone quality, known to musicians as timbre comes from the design of the tube which, like that of the saxophone and the tuba gradually increases in diameter.

The reed has a significant effect on the sound, so much so that oboe players spend a great deal of time selecting a reed that suits their purpose. Most professional oboists make their own reeds but this is a tricky skill that can take years to master. Some professional players make a bit on the side by selling home-made reeds to other oboists.

 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Concerto for Oboe in C major KV314. François Leleux (ob), Frankfurt Radio Symphony cond. Andrés Orozco-Estrada (Duration: 22:11; Video: 720p HD)

Like the vast majority of concertos written during the so-called classical period, this one is cast in three movements: two lively outside movements and a slow one in between them. Mozart wrote this work during the spring of 1777 for the Italian oboist Giuseppe Ferlendis who was the oboist in the orchestra of the Archbishop of Salzburg. The following year the composer re-worked this concerto for flute, changing the key to D major. It has since become a well-known concert-piece for both instruments.

The first movement kicks off in joyful fashion, yet with the elegance that typifies so much of Mozart’s music. Notice the clever way the solo oboe begins – a single scale leading to a long note over the shifting melodies played by the orchestra. Listen out for the way Mozart creates interplay between the oboe and the other instruments, sometimes imitating each other or sometimes the solo oboe flying off in little extravaganzas of its own. The orchestration is light and transparent, highlighting the soloist and creating a delicacy of touch.

The slow movement opens in a sombre mood but gradually becomes more song-like and lyrical. In contrast, the chirpy finale fairly belts along and it’s a showpiece for the brilliant technique of this renowned French oboist.  It’s a delight to hear the crystal-clear articulation and the way François Leleux navigates through the difficult virtuosic passages with consummate ease.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Concerto for Oboe in C major. Christoph Hartmann (ob), Symphony Orchestra of the University of Caxias do Sul cond. Diego Schuck Biasibetti (Duration: 23:25; Video: 1080p HD)

The German oboist Christoph Hartmann gives a sparkling performance of this concerto, well supported by the Brazilian orchestra. This three-movement concerto is usually attributed to Haydn. It sounds rather like Haydn’s music and exudes the grace and charm that typifies his orchestral works. However, it’s generally agreed by music historians that he didn’t actually write it. It’s thought the work was composed around 1790 though it was not published until 1926.

The orchestral score was assembled from a unique set of nineteenth-century hand-written orchestral parts found in a monastic library in Zittau, Germany. Someone, for reasons unknown, added Haydn’s name to the title page. Modern research has shown that the concerto was possibly the work of Ignaz Malzat, a rather shadowy figure who lived during the second half of the eighteenth century. Or it might have been written by someone else. Honestly, no one knows for sure.

Light on the Air

   Composer Eric Coates.

 If you grew up in Britain and have reached A Certain Age, you’ll probably remember the BBC Light Programme which lasted for over twenty years between 1945 until 1967 before being re-branded as Radio 2. It was part of the BBC’s national broadcasting system and if I recall correctly, broadcast at 1500 metres and was one of the few stations that used the so-called long wave. The service provided a diet of light entertainment including dozens of comedy shows, children’s programmes, popular drama and quiz games. The programmes could be heard all over the country and were tremendously popular. Many presenters were household names. The Light Programme was also an oasis of what is generally known as light music.

Light music is easy to recognize but difficult to define. It emerged not from symphonies and concertos but from the less “serious” orchestral music of the late 19th century such as the operettas of Franz von Suppé and Arthur Sullivan and the waltzes and marches of the Strauss family. From this tradition came many short orchestral pieces designed to appeal to a wider audience.

Light music is nearly always dominated by catchy melodies, lively rhythms and pleasing harmonies. It was the staple of British seaside and theatre orchestras that flourished towards the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It came to the fore during the early years of radio broadcasting in the 1920s. In Britain, it reached its peak in the 1950s when lively, joyous and optimistic music was probably just the thing after the bleak war years.

British radio and television required a large supply of light orchestral music for theme tunes and background music to reflect the popular musical tastes of the day. And there was no shortage of composers who were only too willing to provide it. Sir Thomas Beecham often concluded his otherwise serious orchestral concerts with what he called “lollipops” meaning short or amusing works chosen as a crowd-pleasing encore.

Dozens of composers contributed to the genre including Ronald Binge, Frederic Curzon, Trevor Duncan, Robert Farnon, Ron Goodwin, Ernest Tomlinson and Haydn Wood.  But one name stands out among the others, that of Eric Coates.

Eric Coates (1886-1957): The Three Elizabeths Suite. Taipei Wind Orchestra cond. Leonard Yui-Biau Hou (Duration: c. 22:00; Video: 1080p HD)

Eric Coates was born in Nottinghamshire; the son of a doctor who was an amateur flautist and whose wife was a competent pianist. In adult life, Coates became a prolific composer of light music and even today enduring pieces such as Knightsbridge March, By the Sleepy Lagoon and The Dambusters March are still well-known. His marches were popular choices as theme music for radio and television programmes.

This work dates from the early 1940s and the title refers to three members of the British royal family, the historical Elizabeth I of Shakespeare’s time, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and the present Queen Elizabeth. The work is cast in three movements (which are contained in three separate videos) and although originally scored for orchestra it’s heard here in an interesting wind orchestra arrangement.

The first movement opens heroically in the style of film music of the day and turns into jaunty dance-like movement, typical of Coates’ easy-on-the-ear style. The pastoral second movement (Springtime in Angus) evokes the Scottish countryside of northern Scotland and the suite concludes with a rousing march which Coates could do so well, putting his personal musical stamp on the music. The main theme is a foot-tapping, snappy melody contrasted with the more lyrical middle section. It couldn’t have been written by anyone else.

Robert Farnon (1917-2005): Fantasy Medley. London Philharmonic orchestra cond. Robert Farnon (Duration: 09:02; Video: 1080p)

Canadian-born Robert Farnon was a composer, conductor and musical arranger who was a fine jazz trumpeter and a longtime friend of Dizzy Gillespie. Farnon was one of the leaders in the light music genre but in later life he composed a number of more advanced orchestral works, including three symphonies and a piano concerto. He also wrote the music for more than forty films and became a prominent orchestral arranger for vocalists including Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan. He was considered by his peers to be the finest arranger in the world.

The video quality here leaves much to be desired, but this performance by the London Philharmonic at London’s Royal Albert Hall dates from 1971. It’s difficult to believe that it was almost fifty years ago. The medley contains some of Farnon’s best-known pieces: A Star is Born, Peanut Polka, Jumping Bean, Westminster Waltz, Portrait of a Flirt and State Occasion. Over the years, light music has faded from popularity and these days sounds a bit like a reflection of a bygone age. Even so, if those titles evoke no memories, I’m sure that you’ll recognize some of the music.  

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Staying in tune

Double take

Light on the Air