By Colin Kaye
WW2 British air-raid siren.
A long time ago, when I was two or
three years old, we lived in an English village not far from the town of
Crewe. Every few days, I remember hearing dull, booming thuds which my
mother assured me were caused by trucks bumping along the road outside. This
seemed a bit unlikely as we rarely saw any trucks in the village. The noise
was in fact coming from German bombs exploding in the distance. Crewe was
known for its large railway junction and its enormous railway engineering
facility for manufacturing and overhauling locomotives. During World War II,
military tanks were also built there, so the town naturally became a
favourite target for the German Luftwaffe. The air raids were preceded and
followed by the distinctive wailing sound of air-raid sirens which were
installed in almost every town and village in the country. Sadly, for many
people the air-raid siren was one of the last sounds they heard.
At that tender age, I used to tinkle
around on my grandmother’s piano. My earliest musical memory was the
discovery that the notes B flat and D flat played simultaneously sounded
almost exactly the same pitches as the wailing air-raid sirens. I was
tremendously excited about this revelation though no one else shared my
enthusiasm. Perhaps they were more concerned about the bombs. Years later, I
discovered that the notes B flat and D flat create a musical interval called
a minor third. You might be wondering what it sounds like, especially if you
can’t tell a B flat from a wombat’s armpit. Think of the song
Greensleeves and sing the first two notes. Or sing the first two notes
of the Beatles song Hey Jude. Then imagine those two notes sounding
together. That’s a minor third, assuming that you’re singing in tune.
The distinctive sound of the minor
third helps to create the character of music in minor keys. Some people
describe the minor key as dark-sounding, soulful or heart-rending. Many folk
songs in minor keys tend to stay in the minor throughout, but if a symphony
is described as being in a minor key, you can be sure that it will drift
into a bright and sunny major key sooner or later. Strangely enough, during
the late eighteenth century, composers tended to avoid minor keys. Only two
of Mozart’s forty-one symphonies are in a minor key and Haydn, who wrote
over a hundred symphonies, chose minor keys for only seven. Only two of
Beethoven’s nine symphonies are in a minor key. This might be a reflection
of contemporary Viennese public taste because as the Romantic Movement
surged across Europe during the 19th century,
more symphonies appeared in minor keys. But let’s explore two less
well-known symphonies, both in minor keys and both equally rewarding.
Charles Ives (1874-1954): Symphony No. 1 in D minor.
The Perm Opera & Ballet Theatre Orchestra, Russia cond. Valeriy Platonov
(Duration: 38:39; Video: 720p HD)
Considered the grandfather of American
music, Charles Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut. This attractive work
is the first of four symphonies and was composed between 1898 and 1902. It’s
written in a late romantic European style and the second movement is
exceptionally beautiful and moving, evoking an atmosphere similar to the
slow movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. The scherzo is
delightful with a tuneful dance-like trio section while the last movement is
a real tour-de-force with thrilling brass writing.
Later in life, Charles Ives was among
the first American composers to engage in daring musical experiments which
included elements of chance. He also experimented with tone clusters and
“polytonality” a word which means music played in several different keys at
the same time. However, all this proved too much of a challenge for most
audiences and his music was generally ignored, largely because of the
relentless dissonance. It was Ives who famously said, “Stand up and take
your dissonance like a man.”
Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915): Symphony No. 3 in C minor Op. 43.
Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia cond. Dima Slobodeniouk (Duration: 53:56;
Video: 1080p HD)
Scriabin’s Third Symphony is subtitled
The Divine Poem and was written between 1902 and 1904. The work
marked a significant step towards Scriabin’s personal musical language and
has a visionary quality which was only hinted at in his earlier works.
Scriabin liked a massive orchestral
sound and at times, he turns the orchestra into an ensemble of soloists;
each contributing points of detail to a complex web of sound texture. It’s
been suggested that his emotionally-charged, highly personal music reflects
the notions of nineteenth century existentialism and the mysticism of the
famous, if slightly dotty Madame Blavatsky of the controversial Theosophical
Society. Anyway, if you enjoy romantic, orchestral wall-to-wall sound,
Scriabin’s Third Symphony will probably be right up your soi.
Sailing the Seas
When I was a small boy and living on a
grey island far, far away, there was a framed print on my bedroom wall which
displayed the French text of an old Breton prayer. It included the line
ma barque est si petite; votre mer est si grande. At the time, I assumed
it meant “My bark is so small; your mother is so big”. I pondered the
possible meanings of this Delphic sentence for considerable time until my
mother gently explained that in French barque means “boat” and mer
means “sea”. The Breton prayer finally made sense.
Only the other day, someone reminded me
that the word barque is related to the Italian barca which
also gives its name to the musical word barcarole. This was a type of
lilting song popular with Venetian gondoliers, the triple metre being
vaguely reminiscent of the slow and measured rowing strokes used to propel
the boat. The word was sometimes used to describe instrumental music in a
similar lilting style. The very mention of boats brings to my mind John
Masefield’s short poem, Cargoes which begins theatrically with the
line, “Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir”. And if your maritime
history is a bit hazy, I shall leave you to find out about quinquiremes for
yourself. Assuming of course, that you feel it’s worth the effort.
Unlike poets and painters, few
composers seem to have found inspiration from the sea, let alone boats.
Delius wrote a lovely orchestral piece called Sea Drift and both
Britten and Elgar used sea themes. Vaughan Williams wrote a Sea Symphony
and the lesser-known Granville Bantock composed a Hebridean Symphony.
Oh yes, then there’s Ravel delightful piano piece called Une Barque sur
l’Ocean. The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (GER-ter) was
an extraordinary multi-talented individual and was one of the greatest
German writers, thinkers and scientific theorists of all time. I mention him
because in 1795 he wrote two short and but oddly expressive poems called
Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. Although they have only eighteen
lines between them, these two poems inspired musical works by several
composers, notably Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Schubert.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,
Op. 112. Warsaw Boys Choir, Frederic Chopin University of
Music Symphony Orchestra, cond. Krzysztof Kusiel Moroz (Duration: 08:50;
Video: 1080p HD)
Mention the title and most people will
think of Mendelssohn, because in 1827 he wrote an orchestral concert
overture of the same name. However, twelve years earlier, Beethoven had set
the same poems as a short cantata for choir and orchestra. This small
masterpiece has been described as “one of the most overlooked works in
Beethoven’s output”. It’s thoroughly charming and beautifully performed by
these young musicians from Poland and recorded in top quality video.
Incidentally, Beethoven actually knew Goethe well and had admired Goethe’s
poetry since his youth.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that
Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage mean more-or-less the same thing.
But they are exact opposites. In the days of sailing ships, a totally
silent, calm sea with no wind was cause for alarm. The first poem is about a
ship hopelessly becalmed and going nowhere, while the second one describes
how the wind lifts and the vessel joyfully continues its journey towards
Richard Wagner (1813-1883): Overture, The Flying Dutchman.
National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain (Main Orchestra) cond.
Howard Williams (Duration: 09:54; Video: 360p)
The Flying Dutchman
is a Wagner opera about a legendary ghost-ship destined to roam the oceans
forever. It was written in 1841 and inspired by a real-life event. In his
1870 autobiography Mein Leben (“My Life”) Richard Wagner tells how he
was inspired to write the opera following a stormy sea crossing he made from
Riga (now in Latvia) in July and August 1839. It had been a particularly bad
year for him and he was heavily in debt. He was forced to leave the country
illegally with his long-suffering wife Minna and Robber, their enormous
Newfoundland dog. The voyage was neither calm nor prosperous because they
encountered mountainous seas and ferocious storms, one of which almost
wrecked the ship. The voyage should have lasted a few days but it turned out
to be a nightmare lasting three and a half weeks. You can still sense the
terror of the storm in the opening bars of the overture. This is a spirited
performance by one of Great Britain’s youngest orchestras, splendidly
conducted by Howard Williams.
And just in case you’re still wondering
about the Breton prayer I mentioned earlier, here it is in full:
Protégez-moi, mon Seigneur,
Ma barque est si petite,
Votre mer est si grande.
I can’t help wondering whether Richard
Wagner might have uttered rather similar sentiments during his horrific
voyage in the summer of 1839.
Echoes of another Age
Oaks: it’s not much but it’s home.
One day a good many years ago, during
my time as an impoverished music student in London, I was ferreting through
the records in a second-hand music shop and came across one of those unusual
45rpm classical recordings. It was a performance by the London Mozart
Players (founded in 1949 and still going strong) and featured Stravinsky’s
Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. I’d never heard of it before, but the music
was by Stravinsky so I bought the record without hesitation.
We have to thank the absurdly-wealthy
American diplomat Robert Woods Bliss and his wife Mildred for this
curiously-named piece. To mark their thirtieth wedding anniversary in 1938,
they commissioned a new work from Igor Stravinsky who was then one of the
superstar composers and musicians of the day. As a result of the commission,
he wrote the Concerto in E-flat for Chamber Orchestra while staying
near Geneva where his eldest daughter was fighting a terminal battle with
tuberculosis. The work was first performed in the grandiose music room of
the Bliss house, rustically named Dumbarton Oaks. For years, I had
pictured a homely, rambling country house with roses and wisteria everywhere
unaware that Dumbarton Oaks was actually an enormous nineteenth
century building of palatial proportions, situated in Washington’s up-market
Georgetown neighborhood. Even so, the name provided a convenient and
enduring nickname for the concerto. As fate would have it, on the day of the
first performance Stravinsky was also in hospital with tuberculosis (though
he lived to tell the tale) and the ensemble was conducted by the legendary
During the 1920s, Stravinsky had become
profoundly interested in the so-called neoclassical approach to composition
which he claimed to have invented himself. This drew on some of the musical
principles vaguely associated with the so-called Classical Period in
European music which was roughly between 1750 and 1820. Although Stravinsky
wrote some of the best-known neoclassical works in the repertoire, other
composers - notably Hindemith, Prokofiev, Bartók, Milhaud and Poulenc - were
also influenced by neoclassical ideas.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Concerto in E-flat for
(“Dumbarton Oaks”). Geneva Camerata cond. David Greilsammer (Duration:
16:02; Video: 1080p HD)
If your knowledge of Stravinsky’s music
is through the well-known ballets written before the First World War, this
work may come as a surprise. Stravinsky first explored the neoclassical
approach in his ballet Pulcinella which dates from around 1920 and
was based on melodies presumed at the time to have been written by the
eighteenth century Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi. As it turned out,
they weren’t but the ballet began Stravinsky’s long fascination with
neoclassical principles. Perhaps “neo-baroque” would be a more appropriate
description for this composition, because the Concerto in E-flat is a
three-movement work written along the lines of a baroque concerto grosso.
Unlike a solo concerto, this type of work contrasts a smaller group of
instruments with the entire ensemble. It’s scored for ten stringed
instruments, a handful of woodwind and two horns.
You’ll hear fascinating echoes of
Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3 emerging through the light and airy
textures, with snippets of melody that sound as though they’ve come from
dance music of the thirties. The light and delicate second movement is
followed by an energetic finale that’s full of melodies, shifting accents
and driving rhythms and although the music turns the clock back to the
eighteenth century for its inspiration, the sound is pure Stravinsky.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): Symphony No 1 in D
(“Classical”). Baltic Sea Philharmonic, cond. Kristjan Järvi (Duration:
13:59; Video: 1080p HD)
Prokofiev wrote this work during
1916-17 which puts Stravinsky’s claim to be the “inventor of neoclassicism”
on somewhat dodgy ground. Prokofiev was in his mid-twenties and already a
successful composer with several operas, ballets and other orchestral works
to his credit including the first two piano concertos. The Classical
Symphony draws on the musical style of Haydn for its inspiration and has
become Prokofiev’s most popular orchestral work. The work is scored for
small orchestra and the format is pretty similar to a classical symphony
except that the traditional minuet is replaced with a gavotte. Prokofiev
uses musical techniques that Haydn would have recognized, yet the musical
language is unmistakably his own, with sudden changes of dynamics, jaunty
playful rhythms and characteristically spiky melodies. There’s a lovely
lyrical second movement and the elegant gavotte contains surprisingly
satisfying twists of harmony. Incidentally, you might get the impression
that the conductor Kristjan Järvi isn’t doing very much in this video, but
the beautifully transparent and virtuosic performance betrays the fact that
that a huge amount of careful preparation work must have been done at the
rehearsals. The brilliant finale is a scampering movement which contains
plenty of lively tunes. There’s an especially catchy one, first heard on the
flute (at 10:26) that you might find yourself humming for a long time
A Time and a Plaice
Souzay c. 1958.
The other day I made a
list of pieces of classical music inspired by fish. Yes, it’s sad, I know.
Here we are in one of South East Asia’s most vibrant cities and I am sitting
at home making lists of music about fish. I really must get out more often.
As it turned out, the list wasn’t exceptionally long, perhaps because few
composers find fish suitably inspiring. Debussy wrote a piano piece about a
goldfish, but it’s in the key of F sharp and hopelessly difficult, at least
by my limited pianistic standards. Another French composer, Erik Satie
composed a piano piece called The Dreamy Fish and in 2005 the British
composer Cecilia McDowall wrote a jolly number for alto saxophone and
strings with the curious title of Dancing Fish. At the age of
twenty-four, Benjamin Britten composed a rather serious song for voice and
piano entitled Fish in the Unruffled Lakes. And before I forget, fish
are depicted in the Saint-Saëns piece Aquarium from “Carnival of the
And that, you might be relieved to
know, is about it. The prolific American composer Alan Hovhaness wrote a
short but captivating work called And God Created Great Whales, which
was premiered in 1970 and blended recordings of whale sounds with those of
an orchestra. And yes, I know that whales are not actually fish but from a
distance they look as though they ought to be. And that’s another thing. Did
you realise that the whale is the closest living relative of the
hippopotamus? It’s not exactly relevant to this column, but I thought you
might be interested. Anyway, perhaps the most well-known fish song was
written by Franz Schubert using a poem by someone confusingly named
Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Die Forelle.
Gérard Souzay (bar), Dalton Baldwin (pno). (Duration: 02:06) (Audio only)
We tend to think of Schubert as a
composer of symphonies and chamber music but in his day, he was best-known
in Vienna as a songwriter. Among his six hundred songs, this one, entitled
Die Forelle (“The Trout”) is probably his most famous. Schubert was only
about twenty when he wrote the song in 1817 and it’s not difficult to
understand why it became so popular. The melody has a kind of folksy charm
and the sparkling piano accompaniment suggests a fish darting through
rippling waters. There’s no shortage of excellent performances on YouTube,
but I find myself returning to the old 1967 recording made by Gérard Souzay
in which pianist Dalton Baldwin provides a splendidly articulated
accompaniment. Souzay was one of the finest baritones of his time. He brings
a delicacy and lightness of touch to the song and a compelling sense of
style which few other singers can match.
Franz Schubert: Quintet in A major (“The Trout”).
Zoltán Kocsis (pno), Gábor Takács-Nagy (vln), Gábor Ormai (vla), András
Fejér (vc), Ferenc Csontos (db). (Duration: 42:47; Video: 480p)
The popularity of Die Forelle
encouraged Schubert to write a set of variations on it for the fourth
movement of his Piano Quintet, which he completed the following year.
Instead of the conventional combination of string quartet plus piano,
Schubert scored this work for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass
but strangely enough it wasn’t published during his lifetime.
For such a young composer it’s a
remarkable work. If you are new to Schubert’s chamber music, here’s a great
place to start because Schubert’s skills as a song-writer are much in
evidence throughout. The work is simply packed with tunes. There are several
recordings available on YouTube but this Hungarian performance is one of my
favourites, recorded in 1982 in the opulent Congress Hall of the Hungarian
Academy of Sciences. The recording is getting a bit old in the tooth, as the
audio and video quality will testify, but these wonderful musicians give a
captivating performance to which I listened with admiration. The phrasing
and articulation are superb and there’s a splendid sense of elegance and
They take the third movement (21:04) at
a fair old lick and this is surely the fastest I’ve ever heard it played. In
contrast, the start of the theme and variations on Die Forelle
(24:40) begins almost dreamily. Schubert weaves the original fish song into
wonderful melodies of Mozartian elegance, especially during the lovely cello
solo. But just wait for the stunning show of pianistic bravura in the fourth
variation (27:57). A lively and engaging last movement brings the work to a
satisfying conclusion with several false endings, perhaps a glance back to
Haydn’s “Joke” quartet. If you have an hour to spare, treat yourself to this
exceptional and delightful performance, enhanced with a glass or two of
cold, crisp dry white wine and perhaps a few slices of smoked salmon. Or
even smoked trout, if you are a purist.