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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Dancing the Night Away

Alberto Ginastera.

Nobody knows when humans started dancing, but it must have been a very long time ago. It was probably a natural expression of joy or elation or perhaps even – in its early days – frenetic body motions to frighten away undesirable animals. It would be centuries before the concept of ritual dancing emerged. But of course, all this is so far back in human history that we simply don’t know. Your guess it as good as mine and to be honest, probably better.

We know that formalized dancing was practised among the ancient Greeks, because various household objects such as drinking vessels, depict images of dancers and musicians. Even so, we don’t know very much about what the music actually sounded like. It wasn’t until the Renaissance began to dawn, that an increasing amount of dance music was written down. Huge collections were produced during the second half of the sixteenth century onwards, notably by prolific composers like Michael Praetorius, Tielman Susato and publisher Pierre Phalèse who, in the town of Leuven started a bookselling business which developed into a successful publishing house. By 1575, Phalèse had produced nearly two hundred books of popular dance music, many of which were for the lute, a popular instrument at the time. At first, Phalèse outsourced his books to various printers, but later produced his own music books using the then state-of-the-art technology, movable type.

During the sixteenth and seventh centuries, dance music of all forms flowed from many composers, including some distinguished ones like Bach, Handel, and the hyper-productive Georg Philipp Telemann who wrote suites of dances, though not for dancing but for courtly entertainment.

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967): Dances of Galánta. Symphony Orchestra of Galicia cond. Dima Slobodeniouk (Duration: 19:36; Video: 1080p HD)

Zoltán Kodály (koh-DAH-yee) is best known as the creator of the Kodály method of music education. He became interested in music education in 1925 after hearing some school-kids singing in the street. He was horrified by their tuneless squawking and assumed that the music teaching in the schools was to blame. He set about a campaign for better teachers, a better curriculum, and more class-time devoted to music. His tireless work resulted in many publications which eventually influenced music education world-wide.

Kodály is most closely associated with something he didn’t actually invent: the hand-signs. These hand-signs represent each note of the scale and were invented by the English minister and music teacher John Curwen in the mid-nineteenth century. Curwen had previously invented the Tonic sol-fa system and the hand-signs were a natural extension of this approach. The hand-signs were used in the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but they didn’t logically fit the plot and were perhaps included in an attempt to add a bit of gravitas to a rather implausible scene.

Kodály wrote his colourful Dances of Galánta in 1933 using folk music of the Galánta region, now part of Slovakia. The work is in five sections and the clarinet is especially prominent because it represents a Hungarian folk instrument known as the tárogató

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983): Dance Suite from “Estancia”.  Frankfurt Radio Symphony cond. Andrés Orozco-Estrada (Duration: 13:37; Video: 720p)

Alberto Ginastera (jee-nah-STEHR-ah) is considered the most powerful voice in Argentine classical music. He studied at the conservatoire in Buenos Aires, and later with the American composer Aaron Copland. Ginastera’s music can be challenging, percussive, thrilling, thought-provoking and sometimes even downright scary. The thunderous last movement of his dramatic First Piano Concerto was brought to fame in 1973 when it was adapted by the rock group Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Ginastera even approved of the arrangement, which relied heavily on keyboards and synthesized percussion.

Much of Ginastera’s music is nationalistic and draws on Argentine folk themes or other elements of traditional music. He greatly admired the fine Gaucho traditions and this is reflected in his 1942 one-act ballet Estancia (“The Ranch”). It’s a story about a city boy who falls for a rancher’s daughter but the girl finds him weak and dull compared to the macho and intrepid Gauchos. Ginastera turned the ballet music into a remarkable four-movement orchestral suite and if you haven’t heard Ginastera’s work before, this is a great place to start. All the hallmarks of his style are there: his love of percussive sounds, his sparkling angular melodies and his exciting use of complex rhythms.

You would need a heart of stone to not be moved by the delicious slow movement with its searching melodies (03:19) and the dazzling last movement entitled Malambo (09:19) which is an absolute “must hear”. The malambo is a traditional and somewhat complicated Argentinean folk dance performed only by men and the movement’s closing section is absolutely thrilling, with cataclysmic percussion and brilliantly articulated playing from this fine German orchestra. Recorded at an outdoor concert in Frankfurt a couple of years ago, this is wonderful action-packed music that is impossible to resist.

And all I ask is a tall ship…

Walt Whitman in September 1872.

Do you ever get that curious experience when for no apparent reason, a line of poetry, or a long-forgotten name or phrase drifts into your mind and catches you unawares?  This morning I was making some dog food in the kitchen, when John Masefield’s evocative line floated into my mind. And yes, since you asked, the food was intended for the dogs not for me, although I have occasionally tried those Pedigree Chum dog chews. They look a lot better than they taste, I can tell you. But of course, these things are rather subjective and you might be very fond of them.

Anyway, last week I was looking at some of those stunning seascapes by Ivan Aivazovsky, the nineteenth century Russian painter who’s regarded as one of the greatest marine artists in history. He created literally thousands of seascapes and had the uncanny ability to convey the effect of moving water and of reflected sun and moonlight. If these things interest you, there are several websites where you can see his remarkable and technically brilliant work. It’s not surprising that the sea has had such a profound influence literature and the arts. Two of Masefield’s best-known poems are about the sea and the second line of Sea Fever with its yearning for a tall ship was quoted by Captain James T. Kirk in a rare moment of reflection during a 1980s episode of the television series Star Trek.

In Britain, you can’t go very far without arriving at the coastline and the sea has influenced many other British writers and composers. Benjamin Britten, born in a fishing port in Suffolk, found inspiration in the sea and so did Arnold Bax and Edward Elgar whose Sea Pictures are still a great favourite in Britain. In 1905, the conductor Henry Wood (he of Proms fame) composed his Fantasia on British Sea Songs, celebrating the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805.

So then, here are two sea-inspired works by English composers of the early twentieth century. Both are scored for large orchestra, chorus and soloists and both are settings of poems by the America’s “first poet of democracy” Walt Whitman.

Frederick Delius (1862-1934): Sea Drift. Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone), BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra cond. Sir Mark Elder (Duration: c. 25:00; Video: 720p HD)

Frederick Delius was born to German parents in the north of England and by all accounts he retained a noticeable Yorkshire accent throughout his life. His atmospheric work Sea Drift takes its name from one of Whitman’s poems in the Leaves of Grass collection. It’s a large-scale work written in France where Delius lived for most of his adult years. Sea Drift was composed between 1903 and 1904 and was first performed in Germany a couple of years later.

The first performance in England was conducted by Henry Wood in 1908 at the Sheffield Festival. It was later performed in Manchester though it was reported that there were more people on the stage than there were in the audience. Even so, this is an impressive work. The performance on this video was recorded by the BBC at the first night of The Proms in 2012 and the audio quality and video production are exemplary. It also has the added advantage of subtitles so that you can fully appreciate the depth of meaning in Whitman’s engaging but profoundly sad poem.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): A Sea Symphony. Soloists and Choir; Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra, cond. Dennis Russell Davies (Duration: 1:12:31; Video: 1080p HD)

The music of Ralph Vaughan Williams is so established in his home country that British musicians often refer to him simply as “RVW” but his name can be tricky for foreigners. His surname is “Vaughan Williams” not just “Williams” and his first name is pronounced “Rafe” to rhyme with “safe”. During his long and prolific life he wrote nine magnificent symphonies for which he is best-known, a great deal of choral works and music for stage and screen. Strangely enough, Vaughan Williams did not number his first three symphonies although the Sea Symphony was the first, composed between 1903 and 1909. It’s also his longest. Whitman’s poems were not widely known in Britain at the time but Vaughan Williams was attracted to them not only for their thematic content but also for their use of free verse. The symphony uses five of Whitman’s lesser-known poems from Leaves of Grass. The first three movements are entitled A Song for All Seas, All Ships; On the Beach at Night, Alone and The Waves. The last movement (The Explorers) uses text from Passage to India. The Sea Symphony contains some thrilling moments and some remarkably beautiful music. Towards the end of the work (01:07:17) there’s a sublime duet for the soprano and baritone soloists and the symphony ends almost inaudibly in a mood of profound serenity.

Undesirable Creatures


Revueltas in 1923.

As you probably know, wasps can be unpleasant little sods when they put their minds to it. Some time ago, an ominous-looking wasp nest appeared on a lighting pole in my soi, causing considerable consternation to the guard. At least, its presence encouraged him to stay awake at night. I accidentally discovered another wasp nest in the garden a few weeks ago when I was poking about in a tree with a long stick, trying to dislodge a broken branch. I must have inadvertently poked the nest too. The wasps were not amused. In fact they were absolutely furious as I discovered to my cost.

Have you ever wondered why some wasps are relatively benign while others seem irritable and unreasonably aggressive? Apparently, it’s all to do with the queen wasp who decides what the “mood” of the nest is going to be and then emits a mind-altering chemical called a pheromone. If you are not familiar with this word, it’s not surprising because it coined only in 1959. Pheromones contain complex chemicals that trigger a social response in members of the same species.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Overture “The Wasps”. Wheaton College Symphony Orchestra cond. Isaiah Shim (Duration: 09:55; Video: 1080p HD)

Wheaton College is about 25 miles west of Chicago and these musicians give a lively performance of this popular work. Contrary to popular belief, this overture is not really about wasps at all. It’s about people who behave like them. Or so thought the Greek poet and playwright Aristophanes, who in 422 BC wrote a play called The Wasps. It was a caustic satire that ridiculed the Athenian law courts, the juror system and the bickering old codgers who chose to become jurors. They’re described in the play as being “as terrible as a swarm of wasps, carrying below their loins the sharpest of stings”.

In 1909, Vaughan Williams was invited to write the incidental music for a production of the play at Cambridge. He later adapted the music to create a suite of five movements, the overture being the first. It’s become a favourite concert piece in its own right although the other movements are sometimes also performed, one of which is intriguingly entitled March-Past of the Kitchen Utensils. Apart from the opening fifty seconds of wasp-like buzzing sounds, the music doesn’t have much to do with wasps or even ancient Greece. It’s pure Edwardian England, full of wholesome folk-like tunes and stylistically just about as far from Athens as you can get. Musically it’s closer to Nether Wallop-in-the-Gruttocks.

Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940): Sensemayá. Portland Youth Philharmonic cond. David Hattner (Duration: 07:17; Video: 1080p HD)

Now I don’t know about you, but I have an aversion to snakes too. Wasps are bad enough but snakes take the cake. Now I’m sorry if you are a snake-lover but I can’t stand the things purely on the grounds that they give me the creeps. Of course, this is totally irrational and probably unfair to snakes but that’s how it is. And what are they for anyway? They just seem to laze around all day. Mind you, that’s probably not much different to some of the foreign residents in these parts.

Silvestre Revueltas Sánchez was one of Mexico’s leading musicians in the first half of the twentieth century. He first achieved fame as a concert violinist and was later appointed Assistant Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico. He’s best-known for his dramatic film music particularly his score for the 1939 Mexican movie La Noche de los Mayas. His music uses clashing dissonances with abandon and many of his works have a passionate rhythmic vitality and raw visceral energy. Sensemayá dates from 1938 and was inspired by a poem by the Cuban writer Nicolás Guillén evoking a ritual chant performed while killing a snake. Originally the music was scored for small orchestra but the composer later changed it into a full-scale orchestral work.

Guillén’s poem refers to a mayombero, a man skilled in herbal medicines and arcane rituals. One of the main rhythmic motives in Sensemayá is derived from the repeated chant of the mayombero and it’s evidently used in an actual snake-killing ceremony. The music begins quietly and ominously and the volume gradually builds up over an obsessive, pounding rhythm. There are moments which might remind you of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring but this is an unmistakable Mexican voice that evokes the exotic legends and beliefs of another age. The rhythms are powerful and hypnotic: just listen to the complex surging patterns of sounds that Revueltas creates as the work progresses. It’s thrilling stuff.

These young Americans give a terrific performance. The orchestra was established in Portland, Oregon in 1924 and is the longest-established youth orchestra in the country. It would have been immensely satisfying to tell you that the orchestra’s emblem is a writhing snake. But unfortunately it isn’t.

Scotch Mist


Violinist Clara-Jumi Kang.

I played Max Bruch’s first violin concerto when I was fourteen. Not the solo violin part you understand, because at the time I couldn’t play the violin. I still can’t play the violin and to be honest I have never tried. No, in those days I was a spotty teenage cellist and a rather inexperienced one at that, sitting at the back of the cello section of our national youth orchestra. But the concerto had a lasting impression and as soon I had saved up enough pocket money I bought the record, along with LPs of Bruch’s two other violin concerti and a recording of his Scottish Fantasy. In his day Bruch was much admired for his choral music but he also wrote three symphonies, four operas, several concertos and a fair amount of chamber music.

The Scottish Fantasy has always remained a popular concert piece perhaps because it contains some genuine and well-known Scottish folk songs. And in case you’re wondering, the curious expression “Scotch mist” has several different meanings. In its literal sense it means the thick, cold and penetrating mist which verges on rain and all too common in the northern parts of Britain. It’s also used as an idiomatic expression for something that is hard to find or possibly doesn’t even exist. It can also apply to a flowering plant known to botanists as Galium sylvaticum and most important - as far as I’m concerned - it’s the name of a splendid drink made with Scotch whisky, ice and a dash of lemon. It makes a pleasing late-night drink before hitting the hay. Now then, where was I? (Search me – Ed.)

Ah yes, I remember. Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy was completed in 1880, despite the fact that he didn’t actually visit Scotland until se veral years later. It’s a violin concerto in all but name, though I suppose it’s more prosaically described as “a four-movement fantasy based on Scottish folk melodies”.

Max Bruch (1838-1920): Scottish Fantasy Op. 46. Clara-Jumi Kang (vln), Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Shi-Yeon Sung. (Duration: 39:27; Video: 1080p HD)

After the slow and rather ominous introduction, the mood gradually becomes lighter and more melodious. The work is built around a handful of Scottish folk tunes. The first you’ll hear is Through the Wood Laddie which also shows up later in the work along with the songs The Dusty Miller and I’m a’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie. The unmistakable sound of Scots bagpipes is suggested in the second movement (10:05) and you might even recognise some of the melodies, especially a tune called Hey Tuttie Tatie that kicks off the sizzling last movement (23:37). Surprisingly, this tune dates back to the 14th century. The Fantasy would make a splendid introduction to the music of Max Bruch who today is really not given the attention he deserves.

These fine South Korean musicians give a compelling performance and violinist Clara-Jumi Kang is brilliantly competent. A child prodigy, she started violin lessons at the age of three and won a full scholarship at the age of seven to study at the prestigious Julliard School. Incidentally, back in 1881 the soloist at the work’s premiere was the distinguished violinist Joseph Joachim but the composer accused him of “ruining” the performance. History does not record what acerbic comments might have been exchanged.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 (“Scottish”). Concierto de la Orquesta Joven de la OSG, dir. Roberto González Monjas. (Duration: 41:33; Video: 1080p HD)

Felix Mendelssohn went to Scotland on an extensive walking tour in 1829. It must have had quite an impression him because it also inspired The Hebrides concert overture. After this was completed he started sketches for the symphony, although progress was evidently difficult, so much so that he abandoned the work for ten years and didn’t get it finished until 1842. As a result, although it was the composer’s fifth and final symphony, it was the third to be published and has subsequently been known as Symphony No. 3.

It has an imposing first movement and unusually the second movement (at 15:49) is a fast one with a lovely, sunny theme which may strike you as familiar. This movement is meticulously played with splendid precision and articulation especially by the brass. The last movement draws ideas from Scottish dance music although unlike Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, no genuine Scottish folk songs have ever been identified.

The Youth Symphony Orchestra of Galicia is in splendid form. In case you’d forgotten (or possibly never knew) Galicia lies on the north-west Atlantic coast of Spain, directly north of Portugal.  This performance is somewhat unusual for a 19th century symphony in that it’s directed by the orchestra’s leader. But because the work requires a relatively small number of players, a conductor is not entirely necessary. Even so, it’s a bit disconcerting to see an empty space where the conductor usually stands.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Dancing the Night Away

And all I ask is a tall ship…

Undesirable Creatures

Scotch Mist