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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Just a Minuet

Writer Guy de Maupassant in 1888

A few days ago, having nothing much of importance to do, I read a short story by the 19th century master of the genre, Guy de Maupassant. In his brief life, he wrote about three hundred of them. The story that I chanced upon was called Minuet and set in the delightful Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. It is a strangely haunting and nostalgic piece, in which one of the characters refers to the minuet as the “the queen of dances, and the dance of queens”. And at one time, it was.

From about 1650, the minuet dominated aristocratic ballrooms all over in Europe for well over a hundred years. It was a symbol of the aristocracy and especially popular at the court of Louis XIV who incidentally, founded the Royal Academy of Dancing.  The word “minuet” derives from the French word menu which you might be surprised to know, means “slender” or “small” and refers to the tiny dance steps. To perform the dance with appropriate elegance, finely honed skills were necessary.

In court circles, the minuet became almost a state of mind as well as a dance, in which formal attire and ceremonious etiquette were expected. The minuet infiltrated most of the life at court, so it was hardly surprising that it appeared in much of the instrumental music of the day. The 17th century composer Jean-Baptiste Lully wrote over ninety minuets and both Bach and Handel used minuets in their orchestral suites, sometimes combining two of them to make a longer and more substantial piece. These minuets were not intended for dancing and were usually played at a faster tempo than those for the ballroom.

Such was the intense popularity of the dance that 18th century composers nearly always included a minuet in their symphonies and string quartets, usually as the third movement. Court orchestras were quite small by today’s standards and it became common practice to write a contrasting middle section for just three instruments. For obvious reasons this middle section was known as the Trio.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1803): Quartet in B flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4 “Sunrise”.  Dover String Quartet (Duration: 24:53; Video 1080p HD)

Although the origins of the string quartet can be traced back to Baroque times, it came into its own during the 18th century and has remained popular among composers ever since.  The instrumentation has nearly always been two violins, one viola and one cello and in the 18th century, music for string quartet used virtually the same structure as that of the symphony. As a result, the third movement was nearly always a Minuet and Trio. Over a span of four decades, Haydn wrote about seventy string quartets. The nickname Sunrise comes from the ascending theme played over quiet, sustained chords at the very beginning of the quartet.

Playing in a string quartet is more of a challenge than playing in an orchestra, because the individual parts are so exposed. There’s no conductor of course, so the musicians have the task of keeping together and judging the overall sound balance, largely by listening and watching each other. In performance, the players might look relaxed but there’s a lot of intense concentration going on. 

This quartet comes from a set of six that Haydn wrote in the late 1790s. The Minuet starts at 15:06 and in the Trio, we enter another world mysteriously evoking the sounds of peasant dances, far from the glittering ballrooms of the royal courts. If you have time, listen to the entire work because this is wonderful music, superbly played. The final part of the breathless last movement is thrilling.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Symphony No. 39 in E flat major K543. Szeged Symphony Orchestra cond. Tamás Pál (Duration: 26:22; Video: 1080p HD)

Mozart learned to dance as a child and as an adult he evidently danced very well indeed, especially the minuet. Even so, by Mozart’s time the minuet must have been considered slightly passé and pretty much at the end of its social life. But it thrived in symphonies and string quartets well into the early years of the following century.

Oddly enough, no one is quite certain how many symphonies Mozart wrote. It was always assumed that he wrote forty-one of them, but recent research has shown that there were probably several others that have since been lost. In this video, the splendidly lively minuet begins at 16:18 and very well-known it is too. If you listen to the whole symphony, you’ll find that there’s a great deal to enjoy in the other three movements.

So you may well ask, what happened to the minuet, the so-called Queen of Dances? As things tend to do, it simply faded out of fashion. I suppose much the same thing could be said - rather sadly - of the short stories by Guy de Maupassant. 

Name that Tune

Alexander Borodin.

If the title sounds familiar, it’s because it was the name of a long-running television game show of yesteryear. The programme originated in America but the show’s format eventually found its way to dozens of other countries including Britain.

Tunes (or melodies if you prefer) are the oldest elements of music. During the early Middle Ages, most music consisted of a single melody and little else. Melody is invariably the most memorable feature in music and can often be recalled long after other elements of the music, such as the harmonies, rhythms and textures have been forgotten.

During the second half of the twentieth century, melody temporarily became less relevant in classical music, prompting the irritatingly pompous Sir Thomas Beecham to remark that composers should write “tunes that chauffeurs and errand boys can whistle.” In contrast, Aaron Copland, known for his ability to write wonderfully evocative melodies, commented that a melody isn’t “merely something you can hum” implying that melody is much more than a sequence of notes and sometimes has more subtle qualities; more profound meanings.

So this week, let’s celebrate melody with two popular works which are full of memorable tunes. They’re both written for string quartet: two violins, a viola and a cello. And incidentally, the name “string quartet” can apply both to the ensemble itself as well as the music written for it. This type of chamber ensemble emerged sometime during the eighteenth century and has been popular with composers ever since.

Haydn wrote seventy works for string quartet; Mozart wrote twenty-three and the ever-prolific Luigi Boccherini churned out more than ninety. Beethoven’s eighteen quartets are considered to be some of the finest ever written, especially the later ones. Alexander Borodin, the Russian composer, who incidentally was also a medical doctor and a chemist, managed only two string quartets because much of his time was engaged in scientific research. Even so, he was particularly adept at crafting jolly good tunes. So good were they, that many were borrowed (or stolen, to be more accurate) for the 1953 musical Kismet, set in a fictional Baghdad during the time of The Arabian Nights.

 Alexander Borodin (1833-1887): String Quartet No. 2 in D Major (first movement). Kontras Quartet (Duration: 08:08; Video: 720p HD) 

This quartet was written in 1881 when the composer was on holiday and staying with a friend in Zhitovo, a country town in Southern Russia. The first movement has been described as one of the most perfect examples of Borodin’s lyrical style and it’s full of lovely melodies and magical changes of key.

The four movements are presented on YouTube as separate videos, listed on the right-hand-side of the screen. Unusually, the second movement is not a slow one, but a quick and lively scherzo in which you’ll hear a melody which later became better known as Baubles, Bangles and Beads. The slow third movement is remarkably beautiful and you’ll probably recognize the main theme as yet another hit from the show, And This is My Beloved.

The Kontras Quartet is a brilliant young American string quartet based in Chicago and has established an international reputation. This is a fine recording in which the four players work to produce a balanced, seamless and perfectly synchronized performance. 

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904): String Quartet No 12 in F, Op 96 (“American”). Prazak Quartet (Duration: 25:05; Video: 360p) 

If any string quartet can stake a claim for the most popular work in the chamber music repertoire, it has to be this. I first encountered it as a teenager and thought it was the best quartet I’d ever heard. This performance has been watched over 518,363 times on YouTube alone, so there’s clearly a ready audience for chamber music.

The work dates from 1893 when the Czech composer was Director of the National Conservatory in New York City. Like Borodin, he was taking a summer holiday when he wrote it. Dvorak stayed in the small Iowa town of Spillville, which lies among the hills of the Turkey River Valley. It was (and still is) the home of a expatriate community of a few hundred people.

Dvorak sketched the quartet in just three days and completed the entire work less than a fortnight later. He’d recently finished his New World Symphony and the string quartet contains many similar American-sounding themes, often using the sweet-sounding pentatonic scale. For a long time, it was assumed that Dvorak had used genuine folk songs and spirituals and although the composer heard many American folksongs during his stay, the melodies in the quartet are largely the composer’s own.

The Prazak Quartet was established in 1972 and it’s interesting how these Czech musicians approach the work. Unlike some American and British string quartets that tend to go for a smooth and restrained performance of this work, there’s no pussy-footing around here and the musicians give a lively, passionate reading that seems to bring out more of the Bohemian qualities of the music.

Clock works


Composer Maurice Ravel.

Do you remember that song called My Grandfather’s Clock? I bet you didn’t know that it was written back in 1876. You may recall that the song was about a clock which worked for ninety years but stopped for good when its grandfather owner breathed his last. The song was most famously recorded by Johnny Cash and remained a standard for years in Britain and America. The composer, one Henry Clay Work was self-taught and also wrote the rather more jubilant Marching through Georgia.

I suppose one of the other best-known popular pieces of music about clocks is Leroy Anderson’s number called The Syncopated Clock which he wrote in 1945 while serving with the U.S. Army. Although a gifted linguist (he was fluent in nine languages) he made his name in light music, notably with simple but effective pieces like Blue Tango, The Typewriter and Sleigh Ride. Even so, his catchy tunes have the habit of becoming irritatingly lodged in the memory in the same way that bits of chicken get stuck between the back teeth.

Prokofiev imitated the sound of a clock to strike midnight in his ballet Cinderella and Kodály creates an image of an elaborate musical clock in his opera Háry Janos. At one point in the Richard Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier, there are thirteen strikes of the clock in the orchestra, created by using a celesta and two harps. The beginning of the second movement in Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony sounds as though it’s imitating something mechanical. There’s a widespread belief that the effect is supposed to be an imitation of a metronome, one of which had recently been produced by Beethoven’s friend Johann Maelzel. But no one really knows for sure.

In 1998, the British composer Harrison Birtwistle wrote a set of five piano pieces called Harrison’s Clocks, challenging for both performer and audience alike. The work was inspired by Dava Sobel’s short book Longitude which tells the fascinating story of the eighteenth-century English clockmaker John Harrison and his mission to build an accurate chronometer for use at sea.

Einar Englund’s ravishing Fourth Symphony has a sizzling second movement which includes many clock-like sounds of chiming bells, frenetic ticking and imitations of ponderous clockwork mechanisms. It’s a shame that the music of this extraordinary Finnish composer is so rarely performed.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): L’heure Espagnole. Glyndebourne Festival, London Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Sian Edwards. (Duration: 52:49; Video: 360p)

This jolly one-act opera is dominated by clocks and set in 18th century Spain. It’s a comedy involving a desperately over-sexed Spanish woman arranging secret assignations with her various lovers, while her husband innocently occupies himself with clockwork mechanisms and services the municipal clocks in the town of Toledo.

L’heure Espagnole (“Spanish Time”) was first performed at the Paris Opéra-Comique May 1911 and Maurice Ravel created a Spanish flavour by using ideas from traditional Spanish dances. It was produced in Britain for the first time at Covent Garden in 1919 and in the following year it was seen in Chicago and New York.

The piece sometimes descends into pure farce in which various characters are obliged to hide in clocks and it has become one of the most popular operas of the twentieth century. This Glyndebourne production dates from 1987 and it’s sung in the original French. However, there are also English subtitles which might be useful if your French is a bit rusty.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Symphony No.101 (“The Clock”). Mito Chamber Orchestra cond. Jun Märkl (Duration: 28:41; Video: 360p)

The Austrian composer Joseph Haydn wrote at least 104 symphonies and the so-called “London” symphonies are perhaps his best-known. They date from between 1791 and 1795 and as you may have guessed, were intended for performance in London. They’re in the usual four movements and apart from No 95 they all have a slow introduction to the first movement, one of Haydn’s personal trade-marks.

Symphony No 101 was premiered in March 1794 and its nickname “The Clock” comes from the second movement (at 07:55) in which a distinct ticking sound dominates the movement. Haydn’s music was hugely popular in London at the time and the audience was wildly enthusiastic. The reporter for the London newspaper “The Morning Chronicle” waxed lyrical: “As usual the most delicious part of the entertainment was a new symphony by Haydn; the inexhaustible, the wonderful, the sublime Haydn! The first two movements were encored and the character that pervaded the whole composition was heartfelt joy.”

The symphony proved so successful that a second performance was arranged a week later. It is indeed a wonderful composition which has stood the test of time and well over two hundred years later it remains one of Haydn’s most popular works. This Japanese orchestra gives a fine performance and the symphony is worth hearing all the way through, if that is, you’re not watching the clock.

Fabulous birds


Stravinsky drawn by Picasso in 1920.

A few nights ago, having nothing much better to do, I started to make a list of classical music inspired by birds. Yes I know, sad but true. Incidentally, if this week’s title has brought unwholesome thoughts into your mind about the denizens of Walking Street, what follows might come as a disappointment because the connections are merely ornithological. Sorry about that, but life can often be full of disappointments.

Anyway, back to the birds. Most classical music doesn’t describe anything at all but some composers, especially those of the late nineteenth century often turned to non-musical ideas, particularly those from nature. As early as the eighteenth century the French composer Louis-Claude Daquin wrote a tinkling harpsichord piece called The Cuckoo, though you have to listen carefully to hear the quaint cuckoo imitations. Bird themes appear in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute and Rossini’s opera The Thieving Magpie. Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous ballet Swan Lake has swans by the truck-load. Then of course, there’s Stravinsky’s wonderful music for The Firebird. This splendid work was one of the first pieces of classical music I discovered as a young teenager and it still brings a thrill every time I hear it. 

Igor Stravinsky was a virtually unknown composer when the famously ruthless taskmaster and impresario Sergei Diaghilev hired him to compose for the dance company, the Ballets Russes. Stravinsky’s first project was music for a ballet based on Russian folk tales about a legendary and magical glowing bird - The Firebird. With choreography by Michel Fokine, the ballet was first performed in June 1910 and turned out to be a huge success with both the audience and the critics.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Suite: The Firebird. Toronto Symphony Orchestra cond. Peter Oundjian (Duration: 21:59; Video: 1080p HD)

The original ballet score runs for about fifty minutes but in subsequent years Stravinsky completed three concert suites in 1911, 1919 and 1945. They differ in the number of movements, their order and the orchestration. The 1919 version is the most popular of the three and the most frequently performed. It was written for the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet.

At one time, The Firebird was considered a notoriously difficult work to play and in some ways, it still is. The first dozen or so bars for example, are written for the low strings in the daunting key of C flat, which is enough to drive many string players into a state of apoplexy. The work was well ahead of its time and shows the composer’s command of the most complex rhythms and wonderful sparkling orchestration using some techniques which were completely new. It not only brought Stravinsky instant fame, but it also marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between Diaghilev and Stravinsky which resulted two further ballets Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913), two of the most influential works of the early twentieth century.

The suite is full of magic moments but one of my favourite comes at 18:20 when, over shimmering strings, a solo horn announces the noble melody that dominates the heroic final section, written (unusually at the time) with seven beats to the bar. The charismatic Leopold Stokowski recorded The Firebird Suite eight times, more than any other conductor. His last Firebird recording was with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1967. He was aged eighty-five.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): The Lark Ascending. Charlie Siem (vln), City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong cond. Jean Thorel (Duration: 14:06; Video: 720p)

The soaring lark of Vaughan Williams couldn’t be more different to Stravinsky’s extravagant, tempestuous Firebird. The Lark Ascending was written for violin and piano in 1914 and was orchestrated by the composer six years later. The first orchestral performance was given in 1921, under the conductor Adrian Boult and today the work is nearly always heard in this version. It’s a musical reflection on a poem by the English poet George Meredith, about the song of a skylark. The title has a poetic ring to it, which perhaps wouldn’t have been quite the same if George Meredith had instead written about the Great Tit or the Little Brown Bustard.

Several years ago, BBC radio listeners in the UK voted this work Britain’s all-time favourite and for several years it stayed at the top of the Classic FM Hall of Fame. Not surprising really, because this is lyrical evocative music in which the violin mimics the “silver chain of sound” that Meredith describes. There’s a wonderful and compelling sense of place too, which can only be England.

Incidentally, when Vaughan Williams was making sketches for the piece, he visited Margate for a short holiday, coincidentally on the same day that Britain entered the Great War. A small boy observed the composer making notes and, assuming he was writing some kind of secret code, informed a police officer who promptly arrested the composer on the grounds of suspicious behaviour.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Just a Minuet

Name that Tune

Clock works

Fabulous birds