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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Sax Therapy

Yo Matsushita with his soprano saxophone.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the saxophone, even since I was a teenager. At the time, I was especially impressed with the lyrical playing of Frank Trumbauer whose 1927 recording with Bix Beiderbecke of Singing the Blues was considered a jazz classic. I once laboriously wrote out the music by listening to the record over and over again. Trumbauer was particularly associated with the C-melody saxophone which had a lovely singing tone, though the instrument is rarely seen today.

In a way, it’s curious that the saxophone was so eagerly employed by jazz musicians because it was invented in Belgium in the 1840s, long before the emergence of jazz. To be more accurate, a whole family of saxophones was invented, ranging from the small soprano to the elephantine bass. By the 1850s saxophones were often used in bands and small ensembles all over Europe. The creator of this new instrument was the Belgian inventor Adolphe Sax, who with touching modesty, named the instruments after himself. Today only three types of saxophone are in common use, the alto, tenor and baritone. The soprano sax, popularized by jazz musician Sidney Bechet is less often encountered.

The saxophone was slow to enter the world of classical music. Wagner evidently hated it, yet Berlioz, always on the hunt for something new, was charmed by the instrument’s novel tone quality. Yet even today it rarely appears as a member of the symphony orchestra. The French saxophone player Marcel Mule was largely responsible for bringing the saxophone into the classical world. He played in a restrained style using an embouchure somewhat similar to that used for a clarinet which produced a wonderful, fluid tone quality. His members of his eponymous saxophone quartet played the same way and I remember being captivated when I first heard their recordings. Debussy was probably the first major composer to write a concert work for alto sax and orchestra in 1901, but the most popular concerto is probably that by Glazunov, written in 1934. The 20th century saw dozens of saxophone concertos appear, mostly for alto sax.

Paul Creston (1906-1985): Saxophone Concerto, Op 26. Rob Burton (alto sax), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra cond. Mark Wigglesworth, (Duration: 20:02; Video: 720p HD) 

Paul Creston is one of the senior composers in American classical music yet surprisingly he was self-taught. He was prolific too and wrote six symphonies and a wealth of other compositions. Musically he is rather conservative, yet the music has a rhythmic drive and melodic appeal. This concerto dates from 1944 and it’s considered one of the composer’s major works. Twenty years after its composition he re-scored for symphonic band. The three-movement work requires advanced technique of the highest order and this performance is especially rewarding because it’s given by the 20-year-old finalist of the BBC’s 2018 Young Musician competition, Rob Burton. His playing is superb throughout, expressively phrased and flawlessly articulated. The first energy-driven movement contrasts with the lovely second movement (06:42) which is flowing and plaintive. The scampering final movement (14:24) also bursts with energy yet has moments of lyricism and reflection with a sudden, dramatic ending.

Narong Prangcharoen (b. 1973): Concerto for Saxophone - Maha Mantras. Yo Matsushita (saxes), Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Dariusz Mikulski, (Duration: 18:14; Video: 1080p HD)

This concerto is for both soprano and alto saxophones, which are sometimes played simultaneously. The musical language is in sharp contrast to the conservative style of Paul Creston. It stands firmly in the 21st century, sometimes with allusions to the folk and classical music of Thailand. It’s powerful, compelling music by one of Thailand’s new generation of composers who have achieved international success. Currently, Dr. Narong serves as Dean of the College of Music, Mahidol University where he’s also the composer-in-residence for the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra and the Pacific Symphony in Orange County, California. His compositions have won him the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Alexander Zemlinsky International Composition Competition Prize.

This technically challenging work is played by another young musician of enormous talent. Yo Matsushita, who graduated at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts provides a captivating performance and plays with a rich and commanding tone quality with a keen sense of phrasing, dynamic contrast and articulation.

This concerto was published in 2013 and its composer writes, “Cast in one movement with many subplots, Maha Mantras is a concerto for saxophonist switching between soprano and alto, and features a dazzling tour-de-force cadenza in which the soloist plays both instruments simultaneously… it’s based on pentatonic themes tinged with highly ornate and chromatic shadings. The work’s title indicates a magnification and development of the composer’s earlier work, Mantras both compositions inspired by the creation of music as a healing force.”

Narong Prangcharoen’s concerto is powerfully charged yet there are many moments of sublime calm. The middle of the work is an extended cadenza which leads into a short final dramatic section with pounding percussion, frenetic orchestral writing and the extreme top notes of the soprano sax. It’s thrilling music.

Music at the Movies

Richard Wagner.

Chatting with a friend over coffee recently, we were reminding ourselves about famous movies that used classical music for their sound tracks. Driving back home, I began to realize that a classical music soundtrack is not such a novel idea as I first imagined. The concept goes back to the earliest days of cinema. I read somewhere that music was originally played during silent films not for any artistic purpose, but was merely intended as a distraction from the continuous clatter of the projector. It was usually provided by a pianist and many helpful books were published to provide accompanists with suitable musical examples for various scenes. It eventually became common practice for film distributors to provide musical cue sheets with each print of the film. I would guess that because many cinema pianists were classically trained, they would also draw on their knowledge of the classical repertoire to supplement their partly improvised performances.

The first days of January 1915 saw the premier of the movie Birth of a Nation, hailed for its dramatic and visual innovations. With a running time three hours it was longest film ever made up to that point and its use of music was also something of a revolution. But the film itself was silent because sound-on-film technology was not developed until the mid 1920s. The composer and conductor Joseph Carl Breil assembled a three-hour score for Birth of a Nation intended to be played by an orchestra during the screening. He used adaptations of classical works together with well-known melodies and newly composed music. During the early years of sound film, classical music was used freely, especially music from the nineteenth century.

But once the ability to synchronize music and sound became possible, the role of background music started to become an integral part of the movie and part of the story-telling process. Thus began the role of the film music composer. Some of Hollywood’s most influential film composers such as Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold came from Austria or other parts of Eastern Europe and their musical roots were deeply embedded in European romantic tradition. This is indeed where the characteristic Hollywood Sound came from, with its soaring melodies, rich orchestral textures and sumptuous harmonies.

Even so, some film directors were drawn to classical music to underscore their films. I suppose one obvious reason might have been that composers do not demand fees or royalties when they have been dead for two hundred years. But more importantly, classical music can add a sense if historical framework, it can add a depth and breadth that is otherwise rarely achieved. Just think back for a moment to some of the most compelling cinematic moments: the opening scene of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey enriched by the powerful music of Richard Strauss; the melancholy sequences in Visconti’s Death in Venice which used music by Mahler and the brilliant use of Wagner’s music in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883): The Ride of the Valkyries. Berlin Philharmonic cond. Daniel Barenboim (Duration: 05:05; Video: 720p)  

It’s difficult to hear this piece without mental images of helicopters surging towards the coast of Vietnam; such was the impact of the music in Coppola’s movie, in which at first the music is barely audible under the ominous drone of the helicopters then comes surging forward. The music dates from the 1850s and is part of the opera Die Walküre (The Valkyries) which is the second opera in the four that make up Wagner’s great opera cycle, Der Ring des Niblungen. And case you’re wondering, a Valkyrie is a female god-like being from Norse mythology who chooses those who will die in a battle and those who will live.

The music gives the spotlight to the brass instruments but in the original operatic version we hear the battle cries of the Valkyries above the orchestra. The orchestral version, without the shrieking Valkyries has become one of Wagner’s most well-known works.  Incidentally, I discovered this morning that this work was also used in Joseph Carl Breil’s score for Birth of a Nation.  

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943): Piano Concerto No 2. Evgeny Igorevich Kissin (pno), Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France cond. Myung-Whun Chung (Duration: 38:40; Video: 720p HD)

A few nights ago, I watched a cleaned-up print of David Lean’s 1945 classic movie, Brief Encounter. After all those years it is still a wonderful experience and in many ways a remarkable movie. Throughout the film Lean draws on excerpts from Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, one of the great piano works of the twentieth century, though its heart is firmly in the nineteenth. As a teenager, I adored this work and eventually saved up enough money to buy the Deutsche Grammophon recording of the brilliant Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter playing it. The dreamy and lyrical slow movement used to reduce me to a helpless sniffling wreck. Sometimes, it still does.

Flute Fever


Two 18th century ivory flutes and ivory piccolo.

If you are a bit hazy about which woodwind instrument is which, you can’t really mistake the flute because in the orchestra it’s the only woodwind instrument that is played sideways.  The same goes for the other members of the flute family which includes the piccolo (the Italian name simply means “small”) and the larger and less often seen alto flute. You might be surprised to know that there is even a contrabass flute, a massive unwieldy contraption which is sometimes heard in flute ensembles. It makes a strange and ghostly sound and gives some people the creeps.

Unlike other woodwind instruments which use a reed to produce the vibrating air, the flute sound is created by blowing across the top of a hole at the end (or head-joint) of the instrument in much the same way as children produce an owl-like sound by blowing across the top of an empty bottle. Flutes, in one form or another have been around for thousands of years. One of the earliest examples was discovered recently in Germany: a simple five-holed flute made from the wing bone of a vulture and shown to be 35,000 years old. Some other ancient flutes found in Europe are thought to be much older, possibly 43,000 years. Of course, flute-type instruments are known in different cultures all over the world and especially in Asia.

Traditionally, flutes were made of bone, bamboo or wood but today, despite being classed as a woodwind instrument, most flutes are made of metal. The exception is the piccolo which is usually still made of wood. Student flutes are made of nickel, silver, or brass that has been silver-plated, while many professional players prefer flutes made of solid silver or gold. Some top professional players use instruments use flutes made of platinum but they don’t come cheap. And for that matter, neither do the players. Incidentally, in America, flute players are referred to as “flutists” which seems logical, but in Britain they are known as “flautists”.

During the Baroque, recorders were generally used in ensembles but gradually they were replaced by flutes which had a brighter and more penetrating tone quality. Even by the end of the 18th century it was still a relatively simple instrument for the complex Boehm system of mechanical key-work had yet to be invented. 

W. A. Mozart (1756-1791): Flute Concerto No. 1 in G Major, K.313. Yeojin Han (flt), Korean Symphony Orchestra cond. Chiyong Jeong (Duration: 31:33; Video: 720p HD)

Although Mozart evidently disliked the flute he wrote a concerto for it, commissioned by the well-known Dutch flute player Ferdinand De Jeann. For generations, it was thought that Mozart wrote two flute concertos, but in the 1950s evidence came to light that the second concerto was actually a reworking of his own oboe concerto.  The first concerto dates from 1778 and its cast in the usual three movements. It receives a lively performance by these fine Korean musicians and as a bonus the encore piece is Paganini’s Caprice No 24, originally written for solo violin in 1807 and considered by musicians to be one of the most difficult violin pieces ever written. This work, you may notice is the one with the famous opening theme which was since borrowed by dozens of other composers as a basis for orchestral variations.

Carl Stamitz (1745-1801): Flute Concerto in G major. Davide Baldo (flt), Bohčme Orchestra cond. Giuseppe Montesano (Duration: 17:56; Video: 1080p HD) 

In the late eighteenth century, Mannheim had the finest and most famous court orchestra anywhere. It attracted some of Europe’s best instrumental players and composers and was lavishly funded by Duke Karl Theodor. The composer Carl Stamitz is closely associated with the Mannheim School and his father Johann is considered to be its founder. By the age of seventeen Carl Stamitz was employed as a violinist in the Mannheim court orchestra and his father must have had hopes for him. However, at the age of twenty-five, Carl left his secure job in Mannheim and began concert tours around Europe. For a time he lived in London. He was a prolific composer, turning out more than fifty symphonies, sixty concertos and a large amount of chamber music. The concertos are noted for melodic appeal and courtly grace rather than virtuosity. Despite his musical achievements Stamitz was less successful at managing his finances. He never managed to hold down a job with one of the major royal courts. It seems that he taught at the university at Jena, but received only a modest income. He began to sink into debt and inevitably his funds ran dry. Then in January 1801, his wife died. By the following November, Stamitz too was in his grave. All his possessions, including many tracts on alchemy were auctioned to pay off his debts. Whether Stamitz was studying alchemy to try and turn base metals into gold, cure some disease or search for the elixir of youth we simply don’t know.

Job for the Boyss

King’s College, England.

If you do a search for “boy choir” on YouTube and trawl through the countless videos that appear, you might be surprised to see the vast number of boy choirs that exist. It might also surprise you, as it did me, to see that huge numbers of them apparently exist to perform popular music and little else. There are endless boy choir versions of pop songs, folk songs, gospel songs, Christmas carols and music from shows and movies.

It seems that boy choirs are all the rage, especially in America. Many of them are professionally trained; they have colourful uniforms and an unmistakable commercial feel to the presentations. Far be it from me to express cynicism, but perhaps there’s money to be made in the boy choir business.

All this razzmatazz is a far cry from the traditional concept of a boy choir, which in the quieter world of yesteryear was a permanent feature of every cathedral and significant church. Choral music developed during the early middle ages, largely due to the Christian church. It thrived in the cultured atmosphere where learning, the arts, devotion to duty and spiritual values were fundamental to life. In keeping with the traditions of the early church, the singers were always men but boys were needed to add a vocal contrast and also to increase the range of notes available.

In the year 1498 the Emperor Maximilian I moved his court from Innsbruck to Vienna, some three hundred miles to the north-east. He also instructed his court officials to employ a singing master, two bass singers and six boys. This humble start became the foundation of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, perhaps the most famous boys’ choir in the world.

Boys’ choirs are usually made up of pre-pubescent boys technically known as trebles or boy sopranos and whose voices remain unbroken. Some boys have naturally lower voices and can sing in the alto range while much older boys or men provide the tenor and bass parts.

Today, many European churches have permanent boy choirs though since the end of the nineteenth century girls have also been included in some choirs, much to the dismay of church music purists.

Nearly fifty cathedrals in Britain have permanent choirs, most of them running both boy and girl choirs. A few cathedrals still provide choral music on a daily basis, but this is an increasingly rare phenomenon.

Giovanni Battista Martini (1706-1784): Domine, Ad Adjuvandum Me Festina. Georgia Boy Choir, cond. David R. White (Duration: 07:02; Video: 1080p)

We don’t hear much of Martini these days, though whether he has any connection with the eponymous beverage is anyone’s guess. He was an amazingly prolific composer and a well-known teacher who had his own private music school in Bologna. Among his pupils was the young Mozart. Padre Martini was an ordained priest and an avid collector of printed music. His personal library was estimated to have contained a staggering 17,000 volumes and eventually became the basis for the Bologna Civic Library.

This work is a setting of Psalm 69 and the title means “Lord, My God, Assist Me Now.” It’s superbly performed by the Georgia Boy Choir which, in case you’re wondering, is from Georgia the state not Georgia the country. Unlike the Vienna Boys Choir with its five hundred years of history, this choir is relatively recent and was established in 2009 by its Artistic Director and Conductor, David R. White. The choir has already acquired an international reputation.

Gregorio Allegri (c. 1582-1652): Misereri Mei, Deus. Choir of King’s College, Cambridge cond. Stephen Cleobury (Duration: 05:43; Video: 1080p HD)

Not strictly a “boy choir”, this renowned choir from England was established in 1449. Allegri started his musical life as a chorister. He spent almost his entire life in the service of the church, writing music especially for the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Today his most well-known piece is the Miserere Mei, Deus (“Have mercy on me, God) and the piece is shrouded in fascinating bits of history. For years it was sung only during Holy Week at the Sistine Chapel and nowhere else. The Vatican prevented copies of its music being made, so published versions of the work did not exist. However, in 1770, the fourteen-year-old Mozart, who was in Rome with his father, heard the work being performed at the Sistine Chapel and later transcribed it from memory, thus creating the first unauthorized copy. Or so the story goes. In more recent years, evidence has gradually emerged that there might have been illicit copies in circulation before Mozart’s visit.

The work was published in England in 1771 but the version performed today contains a curious error that somehow crept into the work. Because of an unexpected change of key which could have been the mistake of a 19th century copyist, the work contains a top “C” in the soprano part for which the Miserere has become well-known. In this recording, you hear it first it at 01:43. Strangely, this top “C”, the nightmare of many a boy soprano, didn’t appear in Allegri’s original.

Falling Rain

A small rain stick.

Yesterday I was pottering around among the books in the study and among the bookshelves I suddenly came across an old rain-stick, a curious thing which I bought at a Mexican festival on London’s South Bank countless years ago. Perhaps you’ve not yet encountered a rain-stick. It’s a cylindrical object, about thirty inches long and about three inches in diameter and made from the trunk of a particular species of prickly cactus. To make one, you cut out a section of the trunk, remove the spiky thorns and then bash them back into the wood so that they protrude on the inside of the tube. It’s slightly more complicated than this, because the thorns must be arranged in a particular way. The whole thing is left out in the sun to dry and later one end is sealed. Small pebbles or dried beans are poured inside and the other end of the tube is sealed. When the tube is upended, the contents trickle down catching on the thorns as they go.

The oddly satisfying sound is reminiscent of gently falling rain, especially if you hold your ear close to the tube. It’s thought that the rain-stick was invented by the Mapuche, the indigenous inhabitants of present day Chile and Argentina. Similar devices are also found in Asia and Africa where they’re more usually made of bamboo. The Mapuche optimistically believed that sounding the rain-stick could bring about a downfall though whether it actually worked is anyone’s guess.

Like other artifacts originally designed for everyday use, they’re sometimes used as musical instruments, though in the concert hall the sound is barely audible. One of the few orchestral works that features a rain-stick is a thrilling concerto by one of Finland’s most significant living composers.

Kalevi Aho (b. 1949): Sieidi - Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra. Martin Grubinger (perc), Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Gustavo Gimeno (Duration: 35:46; Video: 720p HD)

Kalevi Aho is a hugely productive composer and draws on a wide range of musical genres to create his own soundscapes. He is known especially for his large scale works which include seventeen symphonies, thirty concertos, five operas and a great deal of chamber music. This concerto dates from 2010 and uses a wide range of percussion instruments and unusual playing techniques.

Watch out for the appearance of a vibraphone (at 14:30), a large xylophone-like instrument with aluminium bars and motor-driven rotating disks at the top end of its resonator tubes, producing a tremolo effect.

The concerto is performed by the Austrian percussionist who provides a virtuosic display which is nothing short of thrilling. It’s an incredible feat of musical memory too. Towards the end of the concerto the thunderous sounds begin to die away and the work ends in almost total silence with the sound of a rain-stick. 

Joseph Schwantner (b. 1943): Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra. Thomas Burritt (perc), Texas Festival Orchestra cond. Vladimir Kulenovic (Duration: 30:56; Video: 1080p HD)

In many societies, the raw elemental power of drums, bells and cymbals has ceremonial, sacred, or symbolic associations. The first drum appeared after someone decided to place a dried animal hide over a frame and then pull it tight so that it vibrated when struck. Perhaps it was invented by accident. Percussion instruments were slow to enter the developing orchestra of the eighteenth century but the timpani (or kettle-drums) were the first, usually in the form of a pair of tuned drums to reinforce the sound at climatic moments. The twentieth century saw the rise of orchestral percussion as never before and composers frequently wrote for a massive battery of instruments requiring a high level of skill to play them.

Joseph Schwantner is a prolific American composer who draws on many different musical traditions such as impressionism, jazz, serialism, African drumming and minimalism. The Concerto for Percussion dates from 1994 and was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic. The soloist uses two groups of percussion, one placed behind the orchestra and used during the first and third movements and another group placed in front of the orchestra for the second. Not only that, but there’s also orchestral percussion and timpani along with piano and harp. The work relies very much on repetitive minimalist approaches with contrasting timbres and textures and uses a wide variety of percussion instruments and playing techniques.

Oh, and if you’d like a rain-stick for your own personal entertainment, you can buy them ready made at Amazon. They come in a variety of styles and sizes and they’re pleasant things to have around the home, especially the brightly decorated varieties. Alternatively, you can hire my own rain-stick for a few days. There would, of course be a modest fee.


The Harmony of Words

Hector Berlioz in 1845.

A few months ago, during those distant care-free days when we could wander the streets without surgical masks and sit in a bar with a glass of half-decent wine, I overheard some bloke at a nearby table remark loudly to his companion that he couldn’t stand poetry. “A waste of words” he snorted and implied in his dismissive comments that poetry was basically a load of arty-farty nonsense fit only for wimps and fairies. Poor old sod! He had no idea what he’s been missing.

I resisted the temptation to comment because I’ve found that if people tell you that they hate poetry, or hate ballet or hate asparagus, further discussion is pointless. They will never change their minds. Rather than become irritated with the poetry-hater, I dismissed his fatuous remarks on the grounds that he is the loser. He will never experience, let alone understand the joy of magical words.

Anyway, this all came to mind the other day when I was looking through a book of poems by that remarkable Bengali writer Rabindraneth Tagore. The book is entitled Gitanjali and inside the front cover is my mother’s maiden name followed by the inscription “Christmas 1934.” Looking through the yellowed pages and pouring over Tagore’s mystical verses, I was strangely reminded of what the English composer Henry Purcell wrote in 1650: “Musick and poetry have ever been acknowledged sisters, which walking hand in hand support each other; as poetry is the harmony of words, so musick that of notes…”

Music and poetry have indeed been intertwined for thousands of years. Even the first lyric poets in ancient Greece performed to the accompaniment of the lyre. From Elizabeth times until the 19th century, songs, music and poetry influenced each other in a kind of symbiotic, reciprocal kind of way. The art songs of the great 19th century song-writers were nearly always settings of existing poems. But even more interesting was the 19th century realization that poetry and literature could become the starting point for music. Berlioz and Liszt spring to mind as two of the many composers who turned to poetry. Richard Strauss drew heavily on German romantic poetry for his massive, brooding orchestral works. There must be hundreds of classical works that owe their existence to a poem. The English composers Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams often turned for inspiration to the poetry of the American writer Walt Whitman.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Toward the Unknown Region. National Youth Orchestra and Choir of Great Britain cond. Vasily Petrenko (Duration: 12:20; Video: 240p)

The evocative title of this work is from a poem by Whitman, whose writing influenced many young artists and musicians during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Vaughan Williams was fascinated by Whitman’s poetry and the collection of poems Leaves of Grass was a constant companion. The Sea Symphony of 1910, written for choir and orchestra uses Whitman’s poetry throughout. Toward the Unknown Region was intended as a companion piece for the symphony. It was actually finished before the symphony and first performed at the Leeds Festival in October 1907 with the composer conducting. He described it as a “song” for chorus and orchestra though it’s rarely performed today. This is a shame, for it’s a wonderful setting of the poem with superb choral writing, brilliant orchestration and soaring melodies. This performance, recorded at The Proms in 2013 is fresh and captivating with superb sound quality too. Try using a good quality headset to enjoy the expansive spatial audio of the recording.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869): Harold in Italy. Antoine Tamestit (vla),
Frankfurt Radio Symphony cond. Eliahu Inbal (Duration: 43:56; Video: 1080p)

Many years ago my mother confided in me that when she was a teenager, she loved to read the poetry of Lord Byron, until she heard that he was “one of those horrid perverts.” In fairness to Byron, I don’t suppose he was any more perverted than some of his other artistic chums. However, if this revelation titivates your sensibilities, I shall leave to explore the subject in your own time.

If you’re not familiar with this work, you might find the title mildly puzzling. The eponymous Harold was a character created by Byron and the subject of a lengthy, partly autobiographical poem completed in 1818 and entitled Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. It describes the travels and reflections of Harold, a somewhat world-weary young man who traipses around Europe looking for distraction in foreign lands. The word “childe” is a medieval title for someone who is a candidate for knighthood.  Berlioz used Byron’s poem as a basis for the music, which he described as “a symphony in four parts with viola solo”.  The viola reflects the character of Harold, the melancholy dreamer. Berlioz was good at writing memorable tunes and the solo viola enters with a remarkably beautiful melody (at 03:48) delicately accompanied by strings and harp. Completed in 1834, it’s all splendidly romantic music with a typically French lightness of touch. If Berlioz is new to you, here’s a rewarding place to start.

Being Stubborn

Henry Purcell.

Do you ever find that sometimes a melody drifts into your mind without invitation? This happens to me quite often and sometimes I don’t even recognise it. Recently I heard an orchestra playing a short phrase in my mind. It was only two bars of six notes and I could recall nothing else. After several days of musical agony, I wrote down the phrase and emailed it to some musical friends. The next day, an email arrived from a colleague who has a vast knowledge of the orchestral repertoire. I was pretty sure he would know the answer - and he did. The six-note phrase came from the Shostakovich orchestral suite, The Gadfly. The last time I had heard the work was in Germany thirty years ago.

Last night, while making some coffee in the kitchen I had a similar experience, but at least I knew the tune. You probably know it too (if you’re old enough) because in 1963, it was a hit for Shirley Bassey. The song was I who have nothing. I later discovered that it was originally recorded in 1961 by the Italian singer Joe Sentieri under the title Uno Dei Tanti. Now I have to admit that I am not usually a pop music enthusiast, largely on the grounds that much of it lacks musical interest. But this song has some interesting features.

It has a well-crafted tune in a minor key which itself is unusual. As the intensity of the lyrics increase, the pitch of the melody rises and the mood of despondency changes to one of elation by suddenly switching into the major key. There are several moments of dramatic silence in the song, yet one the most compelling features is not so much the melody, but the persistent chugging rhythm of the accompaniment. It creates a sense of urgency and helps to propel the music forward. This repeated musical device is called an ostinato, a term derived from the Italian word meaning “stubborn”. An ostinato can take the form a melody or rhythm that repeats itself and becomes an integral part of the music. In a few cases, notably Ravel’s Bolero, the ostinato rhythm is repeated throughout the entire piece.

The notion of ostinato has been around since medieval times and was used extensively during the late renaissance and baroque. Sometimes the ostinato took the form of a melody in the bass and became known as a ground bass or basso ostinato. The English composer Henry Purcell was especially skilful at writing them and his most famous one appears in the final aria of his one opera, Dido and Aeneas.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695): Dido’s Lament, from “Dido & Aeneas”. Malena Ernman, (sop), Choir and Orchestra of Les Arts Florisants con. William Christie (Duration: 07:43; Video: 1080p HD)

This three-act opera was composed around 1688. In this production, Dido the Queen of Carthage takes poison to end her life. The final aria (“When I am laid in earth…”) begins with a brief and typically chromatic introduction before the ground bass starts at 01:10, played on the cello. This haunting ostinato melody is repeated eleven times throughout the aria. The music itself is loaded with baroque symbolism and the chromatic ostinato descending melody suggests death and despair. Purcell’s rich, sumptuous harmonies carry the soaring melody of the aria and plaintive repeated phrase “Remember me!” is heart-breaking. The aria makes a poignant conclusion to the opera and this powerful performance is probably the finest you’re likely to encounter, both musically and dramatically. It’s given by the Swedish soprano Malena Ernman who incidentally, is the mother of the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706): Canon in D. Ímpetus Madrid Baroque Ensemble, dir. Yago Mahugo (Duration: 04:30; Video: 1080p HD)

A canon is a piece of music in which the melody is copied in turn by other voices or instruments. The type of song known as a round is a simple canon. Think of the songs Frčre Jacques and Three Blind Mice, in which voices sing the same melody at different, though precise moments. In the hands of competent composers, the canon could be made into an extended elaborate composition with melodies weaving around each other. Pachelbel’s famous work cleverly combines a three-part canon with a ground bass. In this performance, you’ll hear the ground bass first; an eight-note phrase played on the cello and later the double bass. It’s repeated 28 times throughout the piece. The eight-note canon melody is heard on each of the three violins in turn before the music gradually becomes more rhythmically complex. Composers found canons fascinating, because the original melody could be modified and elaborated in countless different ways. Just listen – this is exactly what Pachelbel did.


Down to Basics

Double bass virtuoso Bottesini (c. 1865)

When I was a music student back in The Old Country, I used to do some instrumental teaching to earn a bit of extra money. Most of us students did some teaching, despite the fact we were barely qualified. For a time, I taught cello at a school just outside London. One day, the Head of Music asked me to teach some double bass students presumably because the cello and bass looked vaguely similar. I agreed, on the grounds that the students were beginners and more importantly, I needed the money. Fortunately for me, they were also slow learners.

Of all the bowed stringed instruments, the double bass is the largest and most unwieldy. It is heavy, easily damaged and impossible to fit into a normal car. From a distance, it looks like a larger version of the other bowed strings. But appearances can be deceptive. While the double bass is similar in construction to the violin, it has some features of the older viol family. Bass strings are tuned in fourths whereas all other orchestral strings are tuned in fifths so cello and bass fingering for example, are completely different. Like the viol, the “shoulders” of the body are sloping thus allowing the player to reach the higher notes.

The modern double bass stands around six feet from the top of the scroll to the end-pin which rests on the floor. Players either stand, or sit on a high stool with the instrument leaning against their body. Half-size and quarter-size basses are available for young learners. The half-size bass is actually only about 15% smaller than a full-size model.

If you are observant, you may have noticed that not all bass players hold their bows the same way. This is because there are two distinct types of bass bow. The “French” bow is similar in shape and holding position to that of the violin and cello. The older “German” bow is a different shape and held in a hack-saw position, similar to that of a viol. There is considerable argument over which type of bow is more efficient but it’s largely a matter of personal preference. Another feature you might notice is an extra section of fingerboard mounted at the top of the instrument. These extensions are quite common in British and American orchestras and allow the player a few extra low notes.

In the past, few composers wrote concerti for the double bass because of the technical problems. The main difficulty is making sure that the bass is not overshadowed by the orchestra’s volume. The low register doesn’t project well; so much of the music has to be written in the more difficult high register. In addition, few 19th century bass players had an advanced technique.

Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889): Concerto for Double Bass No. 2 in B minor. John Keene (db), Sydney College of Music Chamber Orchestra (Duration: 15:49; Video: 720p HD)

Giovanni Bottesini was born into a musical family. As a teenager, he studied violin and probably would have continued had not a curious opportunity arisen. Milan Conservatory was currently offering two scholarships for double bass and bassoon and the young Giovanni wanted a place. Within a matter of weeks, Giovanni switched from violin to double bass and was good enough to be admitted to the college. Within a few years he had become an exceptional player and began an international career as “the Paganini of the Double Bass”. Not only did he develop bass technique enormously, he also composed many works for the instrument, some with challenging technical demands. His Concerto in B minor dates from in 1845 and is now a standard work for the instrument. You might be surprised to hear that the double bass can reach some surprisingly high notes. These are known as “harmonics” and produced by touching the string lightly at critical positions.

Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951): Concerto for Double Bass Op. 3. To-Yen Yu (db), Tainan National University of the Arts Symphony Orchestra cond. Wen-Pin Chien (Duration: 17:04; Video: 480p HD)

Koussevitzky is remembered as an orchestral conductor especially for his long stint with the Boston Symphony Orchestra but it’s often forgotten that he began his musical career as a bass player. At the age of fourteen he received a scholarship to attend Music College in Moscow and was good enough to join the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra at the age of twenty.

This three-movement concerto dates from 1902 and the opening theme bears a remarkable resemblance to the main theme of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. The similarity is so startling that one wonders how Koussevitzky got away with it. Nevertheless, the work has become the best-known piece for double bass by a Russian composer and probably the most popular concerto in the bass literature.

Unwanted Serenades

Humperdinck c.1894.

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.

Country Folk

Composer Gustav Holst.

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. Nejc Becan (Duration: 18:57; Video: 1080p HD)

The Slavonic Dances were inspired by the Hungarian Dances of Johannes Brahms, 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 sound.

Big Ideas

Gustav Mahler.

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 necessary.

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 horns.

It was not until the early years of the 19th century 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: 720p HD)

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.

Licorice Sticks

The complex 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 musician.

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 later.

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 musical instrument.

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: 720p HD)

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.


Japanese Delights

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 20th century 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 HD)

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

Composer 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 (Humming Chorus). 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.

Minor Thirds

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

Goethe (by James Posselwhite)

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 land.

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


Dumbarton 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 Nadia Boulanger.

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 Chamber Orchestra (“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 afterwards.

A Time and a Plaice


Gérard 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 Animals”.


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 Christian Schubart.

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 style.

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.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Sax Therapy

Music at the Movies

Flute Fever

Job for the Boys

Falling Rain

The Harmony of Words

Being Stubborn

Down to Basics

Unwanted Serenades

Country Folk

Big Ideas

Licorice Sticks

Japanese Delights

Just a Song at Twilight

Minor Thirds

Sailing the Seas

Echoes of another Age

A Time and a Plaice


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