By Colin Kaye
When I’m looking for a restaurant in an
unfamiliar place, I tend to avoid those that are completely empty. Another
reason to stay away is the ominous sight of a piano or other musical
instrument awaiting attention. You see, as far as I am concerned, background
music and especially “live” background music is usually nothing more than a
pointless distraction. Contrary to popular belief, objectors to background
music often outnumber those who feel they need it. Twenty years ago, Gatwick
Airport Management carried out a survey of customers’ attitudes to the piped
music then being played throughout the airport. Nearly half the respondents
claimed they wanted it to stop. And it did.
I like to visit Kuala Lumpur from time
to time. In the past I usually stayed at an old-fashioned budget hotel in
the city centre because it was cheap. The downside was that some of the
bedrooms had the charm of detention cells and the bathrooms were almost
medieval. The beds always seemed to be slightly damp and the lumpy pillows
felt as though they had been stuffed with dead hamsters.
One evening, to escape from these grim
surroundings I went to a familiar Italian restaurant. Peering through the
window, I could see that since my previous visit, a space among the tables
had been reserved for resident musicians. It contained the usual impedimenta
of their calling: an electronic keyboard, some spidery music stands, a pair
of bongo drums, a microphone and a battered loudspeaker. But I was hungry
and looking forward to an authentic lasagne, so this wasn’t going to put me
off. I ventured inside and requested a table as far from the instruments as
possible. Eventually two morose individuals traipsed in, one of them
clutching a guitar. He started to tune his instrument loudly, when suddenly
there was the satisfying twang of a breaking string, thus proving once again
that prayers are answered if you try hard enough.
By the time the guitarist had returned
with a replacement string, I was well into the lasagne and the Chianti had
induced a more tolerant frame of mind. So I thought today we might explore
some music that’s connected with food though I was surprised to discover
that few symphonic composers have found inspiration in what we eat.
Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921): Prelude, “Hänsel and Gretel”.
German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Christoph Poppen (Duration: 07:39;
Video: 1080p HD)
Humperdinck’s reputation today rests
almost entirely on his opera Hänsel and Gretel which he started in
1890. It was based loosely on a fairy tale about a young brother and sister
by the Brothers Grimm and originally took the form of a puppet show with
songs and piano accompaniment. Humperdinck must have seen the operatic
potential because in 1891 he started working on the full orchestral version.
Richard Strauss conducted the premiere two years later and it was an
enormous success. In 1923, it was chosen for the first-ever radio broadcast
of an entire opera from London’s Royal Opera House.
The music has a Wagnerian flavour as
well as memorable melodies and typically the Prelude which is an
overture in all but name, is a mélange of the melodies in the opera. You
might recall that the opera features a gingerbread house with a roof made of
cakes, licorice windows and walls decorated with biscuits. The plot also
includes references to strawberries, rains almond and gingerbread children.
Far too many calories if you ask me, but there are plenty of good tunes.
Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959): La Revue de Cuisine.
Cologne Chamber Soloists (Duration: 15:24; Video: 1080p HD)
Martinu composed six symphonies,
fifteen operas, fourteen ballet scores and a staggering quantity of other
works. He wrote La Revue de Cuisine in 1927 and it was his first
major success. It was originally a jazz ballet in which the dancers played
the roles of cooking utensils which surrealistically swagger through
romantic episodes of kitchen life. The suite that Martinu later assembled
from the ballet music is scored for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin,
cello and piano. It has four movements: Prologue, Tango, Charleston,
and Final. However, this jazz-inspired music is by no means typical
of the composer’s style for much of his work is focused on loftier thoughts.
Although La Revue de Cuisine is
full of catchy melodies and evokes the popular music of the day, it also
uses complex rhythms and many irregular time-changes. The neo-classical
Prologue leads to a sombre, dreamy tango with a solo from the muted
trumpet and a lovely lyrical passage for bassoon and clarinet, accompanied
by pizzicato strings. It leads without a break into the jubilant
Charleston which brilliantly captures the spirit of that once-popular
dance. The deceptively simple Final shows Martinu’s prolific melodic
invention and skillful instrumentation. But perhaps more importantly, it’s a
tremendous bit of fun.
Some years ago, I happened to be driving along the
North Shore of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva, en route to somewhere else, though
I have forgotten exactly where. In Lausanne that morning, I’d bought an
audio cassette of traditional Swiss folk songs. Later, my companion shoved
the cassette into the car’s player and the first track turned out to be a
yearning folksong from some Swiss mountain village. The lyrical music added
a magical dimension to the alpine scene before us. Now, if you’re familiar
with that part of the world, you’ll know that the scenery is pretty stunning
anyway, but the evocative music we were hearing belonged to the
landscape and somehow enriched the experience.
I’ve always been fascinated by folk music, partly
because it so often encaptures the spirit of a country or region. The folk
songs of Britain spring to mind. Despite the relative smallness of the
country, the diversity of British folk music is extraordinary. Folk songs
can often be traced far back into antiquity and in those bygone days, when
people were working, threshing or pulling loads of timber, singing was a
common activity. Not only did the songs reduce the boredom of repetitive
tasks, they also set the pace for synchronized activities that involved
teams of workers. Many sea shanties served exactly this purpose. During
leisure time, telling stories and singing the old songs were popular forms
of self-made entertainment.
Folk music has been defined as music that has evolved
by a process of oral transmission over a period of time. The word
folklore was coined as recently as 1846 by the English antiquarian
William Thoms who described it rather pompously as “the traditions, customs,
and superstitions of the uncultured classes”.
In Europe, the concept of nationalism was firmly
established by the 19th century when it became one of the most significant
political and social forces in history. Encouraged by waves of nationalist
fervour, many composers took a renewed interest in their country’s folk
music. In England, Cecil Sharp listened to hundreds of village folk singers
and painstakingly wrote down their songs. Zoltán Kodaly and Béla Bartók did
much the same in Hungary. Many European composers sought to develop a
musical style that somehow reflected the essence of their homeland. To
achieve this they inevitably turned to folk music.
Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904): Four Slavonic Dances.
Gimnazija Kranj Symphony
Orchestra (Slovenia) cond.
(Duration: 18:57; Video: 1080p HD)
The Slavonic Dances were inspired by the
a set of twenty-one lively dances composed for piano in 1879. Dvorak’s
publisher knew that the Brahms pieces were selling well and suggested that
Dvorak might write something along similar lines. Originally for piano duet,
the sixteen dances were published in two sets, the first in 1878 and the
second in 1886. Whereas Brahms used original Hungarian melodies, Dvorak took
typical Slavonic dances as models but used melodies that were entirely his
own. His publisher was impressed, and requested Dvorak make orchestral
arrangements. They have since become some of the composer’s best-loved
music. Performances of the two complete sets are rare and conductors tend to
pick and mix to suit the programme time available.
This colourful performance features the orchestra of
Kranj Secondary School in Slovenia. The school was founded over two hundred
years ago and the enormous orchestra uses a modern arrangement which
includes four saxophones, two guitars and accordion, none of which appeared
in Dvorak’s original score. Purists might foam at the mouth at these
additions to the composer’s already superb orchestration but it doesn’t
worry me too much under the circumstances. It was after all, the school’s
“Great Christmas Concert” and for such events, certain liberties can be
tolerated. I enjoyed the orchestra’s enthusiastic performance along with the
sheer exuberance and joie de vivre.
Gustav Holst (1874-1934): St Paul's Suite.
Eufonico String Orchestra
in Zdunska Wola, Poland cond. Rafal Nicze (Duration: 14:56;
Video: 1080p HD)
Here’s another compelling high school orchestra
offering, this one from Poland. You’d be forgiven for assuming that the
title of this work refers to the Biblical St Paul, but it takes its name
from St Paul’s School for Girls in Hammersmith, West London. Despite his
foreign-sounding name, Gustav Holst was English and he served as the music
teacher at the school from 1905 to 1934. This ever-popular work was
published in 1922 and it’s one of many he composed for the school’s
orchestra. The lively music draws its inspiration from folk song and dance
and it’s easily approachable too, full of rich modal melodies and
quintessentially English in spirit. If you don’t know the work, you might
get a surprise (at 11:23) during the last movement when the melody of the
most well-known of all English folksongs creeps into the rich texture of
Strangely enough, the word “orchestra”
originally meant a place, not a thing. In ancient Greece, the orchestra
was the circular space used by the chorus in front of the proscenium. It was
not until the 17th century
that the word assumed its modern meaning. The orchestra we know today has
its roots in the groups of instrumental players who were employed by royal
or noble families or those who could afford to employ resident musicians.
Mind you, they weren’t paid very much but usually a good deal more that what
churches offered, which was another source of employment for musicians.
Before 1750 the standardized orchestra
was unknown. Ensembles at royal households were pretty small and consisted
of whatever musicians were available, though stringed instruments
predominated. Part of the reason was economics because the larger the
ensemble, the more people you had to pay. In any case, musical performances
were informal private affairs held in room a within a royal household. It
wasn’t until the appearance of public concerts that larger orchestras became
In France, the first public concerts
were called Concerts Spirituels because they were held on religious
festival days when other forms of entertainment were closed. They flourished
in Paris throughout the 18th century
and the idea was taken up in other countries. Public concerts involved
larger audiences and to meet the need for greater volume, orchestras began
to expand in size. The string section remained the foundation while other
instruments were added if and when they were needed. Most symphonies of the
period for example, were scored for strings with just a couple of oboes and
It was not until the early years of the
that the full woodwind and brass sections began to appear. Part of the
reason was that the development of music schools and colleges meant that
more skilled instrumental players were available. By the end of the 19th century,
orchestras sometimes consisted of sixty or seventy players. Some composers
wanted even bigger orchestras to produce the sheer volume and expansive
sounds that they needed.
Mahler scored his eighth symphony for a
massive orchestra and choir, which is why it has acquired the nickname
Symphony of a Thousand. And in case you’re wondering, the world’s
largest orchestra was assembled in Australia in 2013 to achieve a new
Guinness World Record. It consisted of seven thousand participants ranging
from beginners to professional musicians. The gargantuan ensemble played a
medley which included Waltzing Matilda and Ode to Joy. It’s
all good fun but I don’t suppose you would want to hear it very often.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911): Symphony No. 5.
Lucerne Festival Orchestra, cond. Claudio Abbado (Duration: 01:13:42; Video:
Well, can anything new be said about
Mahler symphonies in a few words? I doubt it, but Mahler’s massive ten
symphonies cover almost every aspect of human expression. They also form a
cultural bridge between the German musical traditions of the nineteen
century and those of the twentieth. After several decades of neglect, the
1950s saw Mahler’s work and especially his symphonies being rediscovered by
a new generation of listeners. Mahler has become one of the most frequently
performed and recorded of all composers. He completed this much-loved
symphony in 1902. It’s a powerful, emotional work for a large orchestra and
you’ll need to put an hour aside to hear it. If this seems a bit daunting,
try taking it in smaller chunks – a movement at a time. I’m sure Mahler
wouldn’t mind. The third movement (45:10) is best known from its use in the
1971 Visconti movie, Death in Venice.
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869): Grand Messe de Morts.
WDR Choir, WDR Symphony Orchestra, cond. Jukka-Pekka
Saraste (Duration: 01:19:58; Video: 720p HD)
The French composer Hector Berlioz was
the son of a provincial doctor and attended medical school in Paris, before
defying his family’s wishes and taking up music as a profession. His
independent spirit and dismissal of tradition caused put him at odds with
the conservative musical establishment of Paris. But presumably not the
French government, which commissioned this Requiem, completed in 1837.
Berlioz scored his Grande Messe des
Morts for over four hundred musicians: over 200 in the orchestra and
another 200 choral singers. Berlioz evidently remarked that if there had
been enough space, he would have preferred 800 hundred voices. It seems he
was never satisfied. The orchestra includes four off-stage brass ensembles
and sixteen timpani, though the performance in this video, recorded in
Cologne’s impressive cathedral is somewhat scaled down. To my mind, the
sound is more well-defined as a result. If you haven’t got an entire hour to
spare, just listen to magnificent Tuba Mirum (“Hark the trumpet”) at
15:00 to get a sample of this fine work.
mechanism on a modern clarinet (Photo: Bob McEvoy).
“To what?” I suppose you could
justifiably enquire. The expression is old jazz slang for a clarinet because
of course, clarinets are usually black. I’ve sometimes heard orchestral
players use the term but only when they’re joking, drunk or both. When I was
a music student in London, I used to share a flat with a clarinetist. Unlike
me, he was an extremely diligent student and practised his clarinet for
hours every day. When he wasn’t practising he was sorting out reeds with
which he seemed obsessed. He used to buy Vandoren clarinet reeds in Paris,
returning with several boxes which would then be carefully sorted and
graded. This was followed by more hours of practising. All this endless
labour paid off because he eventually became a world-class professional
Although the clarinet has a permanent
place in the modern orchestra, it wasn’t always thus. And it wasn’t always
black, either. The instrument first appeared during the early years of the
eighteenth century and it was a clever development of a simple reed
instrument called the chalumeau (SHA-loo-moh). The word is still used
today to describe the low register of the clarinet. It looked a bit like a
wooden tenor recorder to which someone had stuck a few brass levers here and
there. By the late eighteenth century more keywork had been added to make
the instrument capable of playing more technically demanding music. Usually
made of boxwood, these early clarinets were light brown and didn’t acquire
the licorice colour (and the complex modern mechanism) until many years
The “standard” clarinet is actually
part of a much larger family of clarinets some of which are now so rare that
they’re encountered only in museums. Nowadays, you can sometimes spot the
small E flat clarinet and the bass clarinet in orchestras. The enormous
contrabass clarinet rarely makes an appearance. It’s an odd-looking
contraption and looks more like a science-fiction military weapon that a
Johann Stamitz (1717-1757): Clarinet Concerto in B flat Major.
Jaehee Choi (clt), NFA Project Orchestra cond. Charles Neidich (Duration:
16:55; Video: 720p HD)
Johann Stamitz was one of the most
prolific and important composers of the mid-eighteenth century. He wrote
nearly sixty symphonies and invented, if that’s the right word, the
four-movement symphony which remained a standard format for years to come.
In the early 1740s he was appointed as Musical Director to the Elector
Palatine whose court was at Mannheim. Stamitz was in charge of the court
orchestra and he developed various orchestral techniques (including the
rapid ascending figure known as the Mannheim Rocket) and brought the
well-disciplined orchestra considerable fame. It was once described by Dr
Charles Burney as “an army of generals”. Years later, Mozart heard this
orchestra and was especially impressed by the clarinets.
It was once thought that this work of
1755 was the first clarinet concerto ever but modern research has shown this
is not the case. The Stamitz concerto is played here on a modern instrument
and it’s typical of the court music of the period, exhibiting the
much-valued classical ideals of dignity, poise and elegant melodies;
qualities from which Mozart would later take inspiration.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra.
Martin Fröst (clt), Norwegian Chamber Orchestra (Duration: 15:35; Video:
Few composers have the gift of writing
music that sounds truly American but Copland is one of them. You can almost
sense the vision of a vast prairie with distant hills; a pastoral landscape
bathed in radiant early-morning sunshine. Copland started the work in 1947
and scored it for strings, piano and harp. It was commissioned by jazz
clarinetist Benny Goodman who evidently paid two thousand dollars for the
work, a considerable sum in those days. There are just two movements, linked
by a cadenza – a standard part of most concertos and usually intended
to display the soloist’s technical skills. The first movement is slow and
expressive, full of what’s been described as Copland’s “bitter-sweet
lyricism”. The cadenza introduces some of the Latin-American and jazz themes
that dominate the lively second movement.
This is one of the best recordings
around: not only a brilliant soloist but an incredibly good chamber
ensemble. Just listen to the sparkling and virtuosic coda section from 14:15
onwards and the thrilling glissando on the last chord! As a teenager, I used
to have a treasured LP of this work featuring Benny Goodman himself. But the
playing was urbane and over-polite, as though Goodman was attempting to
shake off his jazz persona and sound like a “classical” musician. This
stunning Norwegian performance is much more exuberant and leaves the old
Goodman recording rather in the shadows. Sorry, Benny.
Composer Yuzo Toyama.
Let’s start with a Quiz Question, so
please sit up and look as though you’re interested, especially those people
shuffling around at the back. Now then, can you give me the names of three
Japanese composers? This is not too difficult because if you cast your eyes
down the column you will see that I have generously given you two names
already, but what about a third? Let me try to jog your memory. You might
recall the name of Toru Takemitsu who is perhaps the most revered among 20th century
Japanese composers. He composed hundreds of works that combine elements of
Eastern and Western music and philosophy, to create his own unique sound
landscape. More than anyone, Takemitsu put Japanese music on the map.
Since the latter half of the nineteenth
century, Japanese composers have tended to look towards Western musical
culture as well as drawing on elements from their own traditional music.
Komei Abe was one of the leading Japanese composers of the twentieth century
and his First Symphony of 1957 is a good introduction to Japanese
classical-music-in-the-Western-style although it’s a curious mix of musical
idioms. The prolific Toshiro Mayuzumi composed more than a hundred film
scores and if you’d like an entertaining musical experience, seek out his
Concertino for Xylophone and Orchestra. Kunihico Hashimoto was another
leading Japanese composer whose music reflects elements of late romanticism
and impressionism, as well as of the traditional music of Japan. The strange
thing is that Japanese orchestral music simply doesn’t seem to have caught
on in the West. There’s no obvious reason why this is the case. At least, I
cannot think of one.
Yuzo Toyama (b. 1931): Rhapsody for Orchestra.
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Eiji Oue (Duration: 09:54; Video: 1080p
Yuzo Toyama is a native of Tokyo who
studied with Kan-ichi Shimofusa, a pupil of the German composer Paul
Hindemith. The Rhapsody for Orchestra is probably the composer’s
best-known work. He is also known as a conductor and for years held the post
of chief conductor with the NHK Symphony Orchestra. In case you are
wondering, NHK stands for Nippon Hoso Kyokai - the Japan Broadcasting
Corporation. In 1960 Toyama conducted the orchestra on a world tour on which
the orchestra performed several of his most popular works. His most
important musical influences were probably Bartók and Shostakovich and he is
fond of incorporating Japanese traditional music into his work, drawing on
folksongs and the classical Japanese dance-dramas of Kabuki theatre. Toyama
has written well over two hundred compositions and has received numerous
awards in Japan for his contributions to the nation’s musical life. The
Rhapsody for Orchestra dates from 1960 and it’s is based on Japanese
folk songs in which traditional instruments, including the kyoshigi
(paired percussive wooden sticks) are blended into a conventional Western
orchestra. You’ll notice distinctive Mikado-like moments from time to
time. The work starts with thunderous percussion so don’t set the volume
control too high. With excellent sound and video, the performance looks
superb in full screen mode.
Takashi Yoshimatsu (b. 1953): Cyberbird Concerto, Op. 59.
Hiromi Hara (sax), Shinpei Ooka (pno), Shohei Tachibana (perc), Shobi
Symphony Orchestra cond. Kon Suzuki (Duration: 26:21; Video: 1080p HD)
Yoshimatsu is also from Tokyo and like
his compatriot Toru Takemitsu, didn’t receive formal musical training until
adulthood. He left the faculty of technology of Keio University in 1972 and
became interested in jazz and progressive rock music, particularly through
electronic means. Yoshimatsu first dabbled in serial music but eventually
became disenchanted with it and instead began to compose in a free
neo-romantic style with strong influences from jazz, rock and Japanese
traditional music. He’s already completed six symphonies, twelve concertos,
a number of sonatas and shorter pieces for various ensembles. In contrast to
his earlier compositions, much of his more recent work uses relatively
simple harmonic structures.
This curiously-named work is
technically a triple concerto and the ornithological reference reappears in
his Symphony No. 6 written in 2014, subtitled Birds and Angels.
Yoshimatsu described this concerto as alluding to “an imaginary bird in the
realm of electronic cyberspace.” It’s a concerto for saxophone in all but
name and uses a free atonal jazz idiom for the soloists against a
conventional symphony orchestra. It was composed in 1993 for Hiromi Hara who
performs it on this video. The three movements are entitled Bird in
Colours, Bird in Grief, and Bird in the Wind. There’s some
brilliant playing from these talented young musicians with a lovely haunting
second movement and a joyous third movement with some fine brass writing and
a thunderous ending. If you are into eclectic modern jazz this video, with
its superb sound and video, will be right up your soi. As Mr Spock in
Star Trek might have said to Captain Kirk, “It’s classical music Jim,
but not as we know it.”
Just a Song at Twilight
James Molloy (1837-1909)
You can probably sing that famous line
even though the song was written before you were born - and probably before
your parents were born. The song has an interesting tale behind it. For a
start, the words were not written at twilight but at four o’clock in the
morning. The insomniac writer was one Graham Clifton Bingham, the son of a
Bristol bookseller. He was a prolific writer with 1,650 song lyrics to his
name. Just a song at Twilight is the opening line of the chorus to a
song called Love’s Old Sweet Song which was published in 1884 with
music by the Irish composer James Lynam Molloy. Some of Molloy’s music
became so popular in the early 20th century that it gained almost folksong
status. He wrote still-famous Kerry Dance in 1879.
Love’s Old Sweet Song
was extremely popular during the 1890s when the Gilbert and Sullivan operas
were all the rage, especially in London. In 1898 The Gondoliers was
premiered at the Savoy Theatre, running for over five hundred performances.
It includes a song entitled When a Merry Maiden Marries and the
opening bars bear more than a striking resemblance to Love’s Old Sweet
Song. When Sir Arthur Sullivan was accused of stealing part of James
Molloy’s melody, he denied it with the famous response, “We had only eight
notes between us”.
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924): Coro a boca cerrada
Schola Cantorum Labronica, Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Andrea
Colombini (Duration: 03:18; Video: 720p HD)
Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly
has an even more interesting background. The story is somewhat convoluted
and I shall try to keep it short. So please sit up straight and try and look
as though you’re interested. In 1887 a semi-autobiographical French novel
appeared, entitled Madame Chrysanthčme written by Pierre Loti, the
pseudonym of Louis Marie-Julien Viaud who was a French naval officer and
novelist, known for his stories set in exotic places. The novel told the
story of a naval officer who was temporarily married to a Japanese girl
while he was stationed in Nagasaki. The plot was based on the true-life
diaries kept by the author. The novel came to the attention of the French
composer André Messager who used it as the basis for an opera of the same
name, first performed in Paris in 1893.
Meanwhile across the Atlantic, an
American lawyer and writer named John Luther Long published a short story
entitled Madame Butterfly. It was also based partly on the Pierre
Loti novel and on the recollections of his sister who had been to Japan with
her husband. The American playwright and theatre producer David Belasco
adapted Long’s story as a one-act play entitled Madame Butterfly: A
Tragedy of Japan. After its first run in New York in 1900 the play moved
to London where by chance was seen by the Italian composer Puccini who
decided that it would make a good opera and arranged for an Italian libretto
to be written. Four years later, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was
premiered at La Scala in Milan. Unfortunately, it was not
particularly successful, largely due to inadequate rehearsal time. The
composer revised the work five times and his final version of 1907 is the
one that’s performed today. It has become one of the world’s most popular
operas: the tragic love affair and marriage of a naive young Japanese girl
to a thoughtless and callous American playboy Naval Officer.
The Humming Chorus is a
wordless, melancholy tune heard from off-stage at the end of Act 2 when the
Japanese girl Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly), her child and her servant Suzuki are
waiting at home one evening for the return of the American husband whose
ship has just in the harbour. They are unaware of the devastating news and
subsequent tragedy that is about to unfold.
Frederick Delius (1862-1934): Summer Night on the River.
Orquestra Clássica do Centro (Portugal) cond. David Wyn Lloyd (Duration:
06:37; Video: 1080p HD)
Delius is one of those composers whose
musical language you can usually recognise within seconds. In 1911 he
composed two short tone-poems for chamber orchestra, the first one being his
more well-known On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. The two
pieces were written at the Delius house in the French village of Grez, near
Fontainebleau. The garden faced the small River Loing where Delius spent
many hours in contemplation. This river was the inspiration for the lilting
music of Summer Night on the River. Delius was gifted at creating a
sense of atmosphere in his music and in this piece the vague, water-colour
harmonies create an impressionistic picture of evening mists settling over
the river. You can almost feel the shifting waters, the gentle rocking of
small boats, the darkening of the skies and the deepening of the colours.
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.