Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Jesus, now be praised



Imagine you were attending the New Year's Day service at Leipzig's Thomaskirche in 1725...

And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.
Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.
For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.
For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

First Footing



Happy New Year!

And what piece of music is better to start 2014 that the thrilling toccata which opens Monteverdi's Orfeo - the first extant notes of operatic music in the Western world.

What a entrance!


And if that's not thrilling enough, just listen to what Monteverdi did to it when he set it to sacred words and added a dancing ritornello at the start of his great Vespers.

'Wow!' is the word.

May 2014 bring you joy!

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Any Cause for Carolling will do



One BBC programme that I've had the time to listen to closely in recent days has been Jeremy Summerly's wonderful A Cause for Carolling on Radio 4 - a ten-part history of the Christmas carol. 

As Christmas carols fascinate me, I took a few notes about particular Christmas carols and, in the spirit of of Christmas, I thought I'd share them with you here. 

The title of the series comes from Thomas Hardy's poem The Darkling Thrush, though it's another Hardy poem I think most about at Christmas.

The Oxen 
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
   "Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
   By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
   They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
   To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
   In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
   "Come; see the oxen kneel,
"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
   Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
   Hoping it might be so.




A lovely example of a 'choir carol' (the type where the congregation just listens at the choir does its stuff), setting very old English words (probably from the 15th Century) but with newly composed 20th Century music by Basil Ord, organist and choirmaster at King's College, Cambridge. It was the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's which made his setting so famous. 



Inspired by the example of Mrs C.F. Alexander's Once in Royal David's City, several American hymn writers began writing other carols for children, such as this one. There's some uncertainly about who wrote its words though - an uncertainty partly helped by what seems to have been a marketing ploy which originally attempted to present it as having been written 400 years earlier by Martin Luther himself. The tune by which we know it, 'Cradle Song', was composed by schoolteacher William J. Kirkpatrick. 



No ancient carol this - neither its lyrics nor its music - but still a beautiful and well-loved Anglican anthem composed in the winter 1927 by the dissolute Peter Warlock (aka Philip Heseltine). The words were thought up by a journalist friend of his, Bruce Blunt, as he walked between a couple of pubs one night. They wrote it to help finance a heavy Christmas booze-up and got it published in the Daily Telegraph. That does seem rather in the old spirit of Christmas carols, though rather less in the spirit of Mrs C.F. Alexander!



This, "the quintessential Medieval carol" (in Jeremy Summerly's words), dates back to Tudor England (isn't that "Renaissance" rather than Medieval"?) and The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. Ah, but that play was performed in Medieval Coventry. Old and new in Tudor England. It's a song from a show then - specifically the bit of the show which deals with Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents as the mothers sing lullabies to their ill-fated infants while Mary and Joseph exit stage left.



Jeremy Summerly's favourite Christmas carol. As a kid, I enjoyed it too - especially that long, falling sequence ('burden') on 'Gloria'. Can anyone resist that?  Originally a dance (from 16th Century France), a 20th Century bell-ringer called George Woodward decided to set it to some words of his own devising. His composer friend Charles Wood then gave it new harmonies. 


Jeremy Summerly: "Don't worry so much about the lyrics. Listen to the drive and energy. It has the feel of a West Country wassail about it and if the 14th Century Franciscans had been around today they'd have tweaked the words and brought it firmly into the fold." 




Quite how old this folk carol is no one seems quite sure but it became known through the pioneering collections of antiquarians Davies Gilbert and William Sandys (in the 1820s and 30s) who took it to be a Cornish carol.  



This is the only Christmas carol mentioned by name in Dickens's A Christmas Carol. It seems to have been around since the latter half of the 17th Century, though no one knows who wrote it.



This is also known to Classical Music lovers as 'In dulci jubilo', and originated in Germany in the 14th Century (or even earlier). Luther may have added a verse to it, and J.S. Bach arranged it. The Victorians translated it into English (taking it from the Finnish 17th Century collection Piae Cantiones) and arranged it anew, making it a popular British carol. A couple of short notes were mistranscribed into long notes creating an extra bar in each verse, leading J.M. Neale to write the hymn's most memorable phrases 'News! News!' and 'Joy! Joy!' in an attempt to cover up the mistake. Arrangements continued thereafter, with Mike Oldfield taking In dulci jubilo to No.4 in the charts in 1976.



Apparently this has something to do with Medieval fertility rituals. Also, apparently, Wenceslas was 'Good Duke Wenceslas' and 'Good King Wenceslas' and, anyhow, was only 'good' in comparison to his bad boy brother. The tune is based on a 13th Century spring song called Tempus adest floridum ('The flowers are springing/and the time is burgeoning') and gained a new lease of life in mid 19th Century when the high church Oxford Movement hymnwriter J.M. Neale gave it new lyrics (again taking it from Piae Cantiones). The Oxford Movement, with its keen antiquarian interests, played a key role in bringing back medieval music into the Anglican Church.



Do you know, I've know this carol since I was a wee nipper (my dad couldn't stand it) yet I still wasn't fully conscious of the fact that this hymn isn't in fact called 'Hark the Herald Angel Sing' (a singular mistake - and minus the '!' too).

The words were written by Methodist founder John Wesley's hymn-writer-extraordinaire brother Charles - though, as often seems to be the case with Christmas carols, the original words weren't quite what we know today: "Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings".

It went through a few tunes before, a century later, finding its famous match with Felix Mendelssohn's music. Strangely enough, Felix had originally written the tune to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the printing press, but his tune was soon pressed into a new, Christmassy use.



Cecil Sharp, the leader of England's folk song revival at the start of the 20th Century, collected the words and music of this carol from a Gloucestershire folk singer. It seems to have had old English roots. Sir Henry Walford Davies arranged it and made it popular.   




A 1985 piece by Judith Weir which Jeremy Summerly feels is likely to last and which has already been taken up quite widely - a thoroughly modern setting of a medieval Scottish text. 



Setting an 1871 poem by Christina Rossetti found in a posthumous collection of her works, Gustav Holst wrote this carol for the English Hymnal in 1906. Some say that the alternative setting by organist/composer Harold Darke, written in 1909, is more beautiful but I'm sticking with the great Gustav's version. 



An unusual carol in being in triple time. It's English, from the 17th Century, possibly from landlocked Derbyshire.



The quintessential American carol? Ah, no. The words are by Englishman Isaac Watts, dating from the 1710s, and the tune is an English Methodist one dating from the 1830s. The influence of Handel's Messiah has been strongly detected (especially the chorus Lift Up Your Heads).



A 1956 carol written by American composer Jester Hairston. Its original calypso rhythm has been smoothed out over the years by its many pop interpreters, but it's still a winner. 



This - every sniggering teenage schoolboy's favourite carol - came into being around 1740 to the Latin words 'Adeste fideles'.

Given that European composers like Liszt wrote pieces based on it I assumed that the tune may have had a European origin. Shame on me for that! There's a decent possibility that it may have been written by Thomas Arne of old England - the very same Thomas Arne famous for Rule Britannia and an early form of God Save the Queen - at least according to this BBC programme.

Oddly, Wikipedia fails to mention Arne, suggesting a more likely candidate to have been John Francis Wade.

Was it a Jacobite rallying-call though - the "faithful" being the followers of Catholic Bonnie Prince Charlie, summoned to arms? Well, at least one modern academic thinks so.

I was inclined to be sceptical but Wikipedia says John Francis Wade was a Jacobite and fled our shores when the rebellion failed. Given that Wikipedia is universally acknowledged to be 100% infallible (is it possible to be less than 100% infallible?), then maybe it's true after all!



This one - perhaps better considered an Advent carol - has mixed origins. It's based on the plainchant Veni, Veni Emmanuel. The words fuse various 8th Century sources and the tune derives from a 15th Century French melody.




Quintessentially English? Not quite, as the words were written in 1863 by an American Episcopal priest the Rev. Phillips Brooks whilst on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The tune, however, couldn't be more English. It's based on a Surrey folk tune collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1903. One night Rev. Brooks was sat astride his horse in the fields outside Bethlehem, He looked south towards the Church of the Nativity and found himself admiring the darkness and stillness of Bethlehem's streets.


The words of  Once in Royal David's City were written by the queen of Victorian hymnody Mrs C.F. Alexander (known for such gems as All Things Bright and Beautiful and There is a Green Hill Far Away) and come from her collection Hymns for Little Children. It elucidates the line from the Apostles' Creed "Conceived of the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary". The music was written by an organist called Henry Gauntlett. This child's carol is now used as the processional hymn in the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. 



A carol composed by the Victorian organist/composer Sir John Goss at the invitation of the king of Victorian carol arranging, Sir John Stainer. It appeared in Stainer and Bramley's landmark 1871 collection Christmas Carols New and Old as one of the new ones.  



Lots of people are aware that this is early 19th century German ('Stille Nacht') and written by church organist Franz Gruber. I've got something in the back of my head that church mice are involved in some way, though I can't remember quite how. Maybe Franz used to soothe them to sleep with his beautiful hymn, thus counteracting all the cheese they'd eaten that day (sparing them nightmares about cats)!



Pop? Classical? A category-defying carol from John Rutter full of jazz harmonies and lively syncopations which has entered the modern choir stalls.



First appearing it William B. Sandys' Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern of 1833, this is believed to be a traditional English folk carol though its pre-Sandys origins are shrouded in mystery.




An American carol, written by the Reverend John Henry Hopkins Jnr for his nephews and nieces to perform in a Christmas pageant.



Did you know that only one Christmas carol was legally permitted to be sung in the Church of England following the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660?

That carol was When Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night.

They weren't singing the tune we all know so well though - or at least not only that tune. No, they sung dozens and dozens of tunes (possibly well over a hundred of them) to the words of that approved hymn.

The tune we associate with those words, however, doesn't come from that time but from even earlier - the Renaissance (specially the England of young Edward VI). The tune appears to have been composed by the Tudor composer Christopher Tye, and soon took on a life of its own.

The familiar words of 'While Shepherds Watched' were matched with this old tune in the early 1700s. It is possible, though not certain, that Irish-born poet laureate Nahum Tate wrote them.

Only in 1782 was the legal monopoly of When Shepherds Watched revoked as Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and O Come all ye Faithful joined it in the licit embrace of the Anglican communion.

Monday, 11 March 2013

In the Fen Country


With 1904's orchestral In the Fen Country we seem to encounter the familiar voice of Ralph Vaughan Williams for the first time.

This is perhaps not quite right though. RVW made several revisions to the score over the decades, still revising it as late as the 1930s. So when we listen to recordings of In the Fen Country we are not hearing it as it was written in 1904 and it's probably fair to assume that the original version may not be quite the leap forward which it appears to be in the light of all those subsequent transformations. The gorgeous orchestration, for example, took thirty years to perfect. (It was well worth the time taken!)

Nonetheless, it still marks a significant step in the composer's progress - and a lovely piece It's strongly modal, largely sticking to the Aeolian scale throughout. The folkish tune with which its opens is its main theme. It's first heard on cor anglais - an instrument many early 20th century British composers felt a clear affinity for. It sets the scene, very well to my ears, of fens, mists, autumn melancholy, wide spaces and grey skies. This theme is then treated imitatively in a way that already looks back to the polyphony of the Tudors - in anticipation of the Tallis Fantasia. The piece soon begins swelling towards a majestic and beautiful climax. The climax itself is rendered original by its use of Tudor-style false relations. (Listen out from the notes that sounds wrong but aren't.) This gorgeous passage occurs at around a third of the way through the piece. We still have two-thirds of it to go though and nothing else reaches the exultant effect of that climax. The music seems to return to the misty fields and waterways before the metre (if not the mood) changes. The effect is poetic and rather understated - as, indeed, is the quiet ending with its valedictory viola solo.

I've been a lover of RVW's music for a long time now, but - by one of those strokes of fate - have never heard this piece before. I'm very taken with it.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Vaughan Williams: Confident First Steps



Sometimes composers can be their own worst enemies. Ralph Vaughan Williams was prone to over-modesty and kept making comments about his early music being "clumsy" and lacking in technique. As the early works in question were never heard, critics understandably took him at his word and parroted these self-disparaging remarks. In recent years, however, we've had the chance to finally hear some of these early pieces and they've blown this self-created myth clean out of the water. RVW had bags of technique and was a far from clumsy young(ish) composer. 

As proof of this please try the String Quartet in C minor from 1898 - a work that only saw the light of day again in 2002. My goodness, what a peach of a work it is!

Yes, it may owe a good deal to the examples of Dvorak and Tchaikovsky but the examples are applied with considerable expertise and the result is a delightful listen. The Dvorak influence is clearest in the opening movement - RVW's 'American Quartet movement'! That same influence probably also accounts for the strange fact that the opening theme of the second movement Andantino may well strike many a Vaughan Williams fan as being somewhat characteristic of the mature composer, in its being modal and folk-like (and beautiful). We are in the world of co-incidences here, are we not? After all, RVW's discovery of folk song in 1902-1906 is his (longish) transformational moment. The third movement Intermezzo has a main theme that, if you concentrate on the pitches of the melody rather than its rhythm, is intriguingly like the tune of the composer's much-loved early song Linden Lea (about which much more shortly). It is also full of modal touches. Its trio is the most virtuoso part of the piece. The Quartet ends with a carefully-wrought theme and variations, of which the waltz-like variation is the most irresistible. 

Not bad, eh? 

From the same year comes the Quintet in D major for clarinet, horn, violin, cello and piano. This has much less of the future RVW in it, sounding to be strongly under the influence of Brahms. Brahms isn't a composer anyone thinks of when listening to mature Vaughan Williams, so this must be seen as an utterly uncharacteristic piece. Might it be the influence of that great Brahmsian Parry? Isn't it a joy though? 

As light as a serenade, it is unfailing attractive throughout and, as in the Quartet, brings forth, from a clear influence, music of considerable skill and charm. That side of Brahms is one some people miss. Evidently RVW was in sympathy with it though, as you'll hear above all in the delectable Intermezzo second movement. I challenge you to hear a single bar of clumsiness in the piece. You won't find any however hard you try. The warmth of the Andantino is something you won't fail to pick up on either. Were you to 'blind listen' someone to this movement I would be very surprised if they came up with the name of Vaughan Williams as its composer. It sounds so unlike him. The finale sparkles too. 

Did you like that as much as I did? Does it baffle you as much as it does me why Vaughan Williams was so dismissive of his early works?

Remarkably, RVW was also inclined to be over-modest about his first - and initially most enduring - popular success, the 1901 song Linden Lea.

I love alliteration and assonance like a lark loves the light of a bright sky, so I could hardly fail to feel affection for (minor poet) William Barnes's poem. (Yes, I know it's old-fashioned Victorian poetry, but what's wrong with that?) That, however, is as nothing compared to my love for RWV's music for Linden Lea. The song has been popping into my head several times a year every year, for donkey's years - each time a welcome visitor. The immortality of its melody certainly helps, and so does the perfection of its piano accompaniment. There's nothing showy or Brittenesque about the latter, given that RVW wasn't a piano man, but it works nonetheless. Linden Lea certainly owes some debts to Schumann but it sounds to me like no one other than Vaughan Williams. Why does this art song from before the composer's discovery of folk song sound so like a timeless folk song though?

Within the woodlands, flow'ry gladed,
By the oak trees' mossy moot,
The shining grass blades, timber-shaded,
Now do quiver underfoot;
And birds do whistle overhead,
And water's bubbling in its bed;
And there, for me, the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.

When leaves, that lately were a-springing,
Now do fade within the copse,
And painted birds do hush their singing,
Up upon the timber tops;
And brown-leaved fruits a-turning red,
In cloudless sunshine overhead,
With fruit for me, the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.

Let other folk make money faster
In the air of dark-roomed towns;
I don't dread a peevish master,
Though no man may heed my frowns.
I be free to go abroad,
Or take again my homeward road
To where, for me, the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.

I hope my tendency to count things might come in handy here - and may be probably my only genuinely original contribution to musicology on the whole of this blog! The melody of the song, heard three times, contains 64 notes yet only 5 of those notes (all Cs and Fs) fall outside the compass of a folk-like pentatonic (i.e. five-note) scale. It's this (I believe) that gives Linden Lea its folksong-like character. Pentatonic-based tunes are, as Dvorak fans will know, a far from uncommon feature in folk music from many countries. Again, we may choose to ascribe the song's largely pentatonic melody to the influence of Dvorak. It doesn't sound anything like Dvorak though. It sounds English. (Does it sound English to non-English readers?)

And, to throw a spanner into the works, please take a listen to his very rarely heard Three Elizabethan Part-Songs, which appear to have been written prior to any of the pieces we've encountered so far. They set a poem by my favourite poet George Herbert ('So Sweet') and two poems by Shakespeare ('The Willow Song' from Othello and 'O Mistress Mine' from Twelfth Night).  The beautiful Herbert setting (the first part-song) in particular seems to show the composer hinting strongly at the interest in music of the Tudor age which was to manifest itself so famously in the Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis, but which also has harmonies and melodic turns that put me in mind of an even later work, the Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus. (I love that Herbert setting). 

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridall of the earth and skie:
The dew shall weep thy fall to night;
                                    For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angrie and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:
Thy root is ever in its grave
                                    And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My musick shows ye have your closes, 
                                    And all must die.

Onely a sweet and vertuous soul,
Like season’d timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
                                    Then chiefly lives.

Talking of almost completely unknown but attractive early part-songs by RVW, how about the Christina Rossetti setting Rest from 1902? 

Christina's brother, Dante Gabriel, was the poet set in the other early RVW song that has won him many an admirer over the years - Silent Noon. This is lovely song.
Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass, --

The finger-points look through like rosy blooms:
Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms
'Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.
All round our nest, far as the eye can pass,
Are golden kingcup-fields with silver edge
Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn-hedge.
'Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass.
Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky: --
So this wing'd hour is dropt to us from above.
Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
This close-companioned inarticulate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love.
I detect a hint of Brahms again (especially when a slow triple-time lilt enters the music), and a fruitful one. In it we get a glimpse of the mystical side of the composer, so powerfully projected later in his output. 

From the same year as Silent Noon came another of the composer's finest early songs, Orpheus with his Lute. This may be a setting of Shakespeare, or of his associate John Fletcher. It appeared in Henry VIII. This delightful song is the nearest RVW came to writing in the manner of Reynaldo Hahn. (I'm sure by complete coincidence, though you can never quite be certain). There is a definite touch of Bach about this piece, though the melody is purely Romantic.

Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass, 
Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain-tops that freeze,
Bow themselves, when he did sing:

To his music, plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.

Everything that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads, and then lay by.

In sweet music is such art:
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, or, hearing, die.

Vaughan Williams was beginning to awaken to the world of folk music, but before we meet his first ventures in trying to incorporate this influence into his work we have one final early chamber work to encounter - the Piano Quintet in C minor of 1903 - another piece no one could justifiably accuse of being the work of a clumsy composer.

It's scored for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass - the same combination Schubert called for in his Trout Quintet. Again, however, it's Brahms who springs to mind most when listening to this piece; perhaps under the influence of Parry again. Just listen to the slow movement though and you can clearly hear the same composer who wrote Silent Noon and Orpheus with his Lute. You probably still wouldn't guess it was by Vaughan Williams though. As with the earlier chamber pieces, it doesn't have the familiar hallmarks of mature RVW. It still sounds fully mature however, taken purely on its own terms. The finale is a theme and five variations. The theme was one RVW was to return to later in life, even though he withdrew the Quintet. Even if we gave up sounding like Brahms soon after, that Brahmsian tendency to purge his output of works which he didn't want to be heard remained strong. Fortunately he didn't go as far as Brahms in destroying these fine early works.

Hope you enjoyed these early works. We're off to the Fen Country next.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Debussy - The Orchestral Works (I)


I think it's time to do a couple of pieces on the orchestral music of Claude Debussy, given the wonders contained therein. The second post will deal with with the less familiar pieces, while this one will concentrate on the well-known masterpieces. 

In his orchestral pieces Debussy's dream-like, lyrical muse most came alive most vividly. 

Let's start in 1894...

Debussy's adorable tone poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune ('Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun') has called forth such words as "revolutionary" and "subversive" and Pierre Boulez called its première the moment of modern music's birth. To our 21st century ears, accustomed to so much challenging modernist and avant-garde music, this kind of description seems surprising. The Prélude comes across as a piece of pastoral mood painting not unlike the orchestral miniatures of Delius, exquisitely refined in scoring, warmly romantic at times, melodically winning and very, very beautiful. What the commentators mean though is that the work marked the point when 'Colour' was liberated - the moment when the sounds of the piece became ideas in themselves, worth savouring in their own right. 'Mosaic-like' music followed. Though I can see some truth in this, especially when projected onto Debussy's later works, this is surely an exaggeration. Colour is not wholly, mostly or even significantly independent. We hear it as serving mood, melody, harmony and structure. Yes, we relish its individual manifestations, but we also do that with Handel, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky (etc). Neither does the piece sound mosaic-like. It flows naturally, its themes and motifs moving like in a symphonic poem. 


The fourfold flowering of the flute's fragrant opening melody, answered by harp and horns, is as enchanting an introduction as anyone could hope for. The second comes amid a magical haze of string tremolos and the fourth is gently tickled by the harp. The theme seems to breathe. A clarinet briefly clouds the blue, lazy sky amidst shivers, but the oboe's lovely new tune dispels it and a gorgeous ardent climax is built. Ebbing with considerable beauty, the music sings on with another heavenly melody, growing ever lusher as it proceeds. The melody from the opening then returns and flowers again amidst new colours - most magically antique cymbals. Flutes then sing the piece to sleep, softly. 

The piece was inspired by a poem by the great symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé. Debussy was only concerned to give a general impression of its vision of dreams and desires in the heat of an afternoon. He succeeded. 


The Three Nocturnes of 1899 were described by their composer in this way:
"The title Nocturnes is to be interpreted here in a general and, more particularly, in a decorative sense. Therefore, it is not meant to designate the usual form of the Nocturne, but rather all the various impressions and the special effects of light that the word suggests. 'Nuages' renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white. 'Fêtes' gives us the vibrating, dancing rhythm of the atmosphere with sudden flashes of light. There is also the episode of the procession (a dazzling fantastic vision), which passes through the festive scene and becomes merged in it. But the background remains resistantly the same: the festival with its blending of music and luminous dust participating in the cosmic rhythm. 'Sirènes' depicts the sea and its countless rhythms and presently, amongst the waves silvered by the moonlight, is heard the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on." 
The spellbinding Nuages, an urban nocturne, begins with a floating alternation of fifths and thirds on woodwinds - the movement's germinating idea. Out of it comes a series of processing chords - clouds - composed of rich and entirely characteristic harmonies. These pass to the strings and then return to the woodwinds. Occasionally high violins suggest a glimpse of the bright universe through the gaps. A human-sounding note is struck by the cor anglais's questioning refrain. A lovely melody - moonlight! - enters with a pentatonic theme, first heard on flute and harp then on string trio. (It recalls the String Quartet, I think). This warm music ends magically before the cool cloud music and the plaintive human-sounding music return, dissolving into fragments and dying away. 


Debussy as the master of exciting motion and bright colours comes to the fore in Fêtes, the superb central nocturne. Carnival spirits are expressed through lively rhythms and a vivacious tune that moves like a ribbon in the wind. These dominate the movement's outer sections. This wonderful music, as vivid as the Shrovetide Fair music in Stravinsky's Petrushka, pauses as a parade approaches. We hear a march rhythm on harps, timpani and pizzicato strings. This thrilling passage climaxes with the entry of the side drums and the fantastic counterpointing of the march theme with the carnival theme. As the movement closes, drying away in fragments, the march is briefly recalled, as if blown in on the wind from the distance - a magical aural illusion. 



Sirènes is a seascape that uses all the impressionist tricks of the trade to conjure up the sea before our ears. It uses a wordless female chorus of eight sopranos and eight altos as extra colour and, excepting the Borodin-like phrase introduced by the cor anglais, derives its melodic profile from the interval of the second - whether rising or falling, or as a stepwise extension. The Russian input into Debussy's style is most strongly felt here.


'Three Symphonic Sketches' is Debussy's subtitle for La mer of 1905 - his orchestral masterpiece - and you can hear why. Though wonderful seascapes, evoking waves and ships and vast expanses, there's a weight to the work as a whole, plus certain structural principles in operation throughout, that call for the epithet 'symphonic'.


De l'aube à midi sur la mer ('From dawn to noon at sea') has a beautiful atmospheric slow introduction, with a pentatonic sunrise which also serves to introduce two themes that will be brought back in the work's finale - an intertwining of seconds on woodwinds and a trumpet theme (introduced over low string tremolos). Cyclical procedures, no less! (Mendelssohn, Schumann and the Russian symphonists would have approved!) The main Moderato bursts in, like sudden moonlight, with rippling strings, a new pentatonic woodwind figure, and glinting harps, over which magical surface sails a majestic horn theme. We are on a prosperous voyage! A gorgeous passage follows, symphonic exposition-like in its momentum, its stopping off for a more feminine 'second subject' (recognisable by its use of solo violin) and in its thematic working-out - though it remains a highly personal type of working-out. The crest of the movement comes when the horn theme returns amidst vigorous new figuration - an absolutely thrilling passage. A new theme on cello and horns marked by dotted rhythms enters as we embark on a sort of development section - a magical section in which the wonders of Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture are re-born for new times. Earlier material is recalled and a lovely lament, complete with whole tone passages, leads to a truly majestic climax - a chorale for horns and bassoons, also set to return in the 'finale', suggesting the awesome nature of the sea.


Were La mer a symphony then the central Jeux de vagues ('Play of the waves') would be its scherzo. The movement's character may, denuded of metaphor, be described as the play (at speed) or a set of brief but distinct themes as well as a play of orchestral colours. Both aspects go together. Thus the significant arabesque-like clarinet theme comes coloured by glockenspiel then, when transferred to oboe, appears brushed by harp and tremolo strings. Harp glissandi are another colour but also a tiny motif in their own right. The movement is an astonishing and delightful sound-fantasy but, like the first movement, retains vestiges of scherzo form, with an exciting climax and a coda to put Rimsky-Korsakov to shame!

The final movement, Dialogue du vent et de la mer ('Dialogue of the wind and the sea'), shows the sea's power, its turbulent energy and its majesty - and shows Debussy's music to be capable of these themes as well. Though much of its material first grew in the opening movement, it has its own great theme (representing the wind), introduced by woodwinds against a fast, rising chromatic scale fragment (ostinato) on low strings. The chorale theme from the close of the first movement is a key player here. After the initial storm has blown itself out, it enters softly on horns, answered by gorgeous arpeggiated violins, then returns in glory to crown La mer's closing pages. 

Glorious, isn't it?


1905-1912 saw our composer working on his three Images for orchestra. You rarely hear them performed as a set and, to be honest, they are best appreciated on their own terms.

The opening bars of Gigues, an evocation of English landscapes, with their string harmonics, harp glissandi, flute phrases and soft-held horn chords suggest a vision of England not unlike those of our own rhapsodists (Vaughan Williams, Butterworth, etc), but hear the chink of the celesta and, even more, the whole-tone harmony and you'll know that only Debussy could conjure such beauty. These bars give us fragments of the folk-dance The Keel Row


Fragments are all we will ever hear. This thematic idea soon meets the second main theme - a melancholy folktune-like melody introduced by oboe d'amore. Beauty and melancholy are characteristic moods of so many English scenes, but what about darkness and grotesquery? Debussy brings these elements in too. I love the modal flavouring of the oboe theme and some ravishing harmonies are heard connecting some of the darkest pages. The build-up to the final climax, over a drummed ostinato bass, is driven by a xylophone, and its string-rich climax eventually dissolves in disconsolately-tumbling woodwinds. The closing passages is melancholy and fragmentary.

Though La mer is Debussy's orchestral masterpiece Ibéria - the central Image - runs it a close second and is, in fact, its equal in my affections. 'Sheer genius' is the only way to describe this piece. The sheer inventiveness of its use of orchestral colour is beyond compare.

Par les rues et par les chemins ('In the streets and by-ways')begins with a bang but ends in nocturnal lightness. It's a sparkling movement, very Spanish-sounding, with castanets, Latin rhythms and modal tunes (all Debussy's own inventions, not folk songs). Themes and rhythms entwine in joyously-dancing polyphony. You find pleasure and interest in every bar. The four-note opening of the first clarinet theme is the movement's main thematic engine, but also listen out for the sultry theme for viola and oboe - and the just-as-lovely melody that follows it in the mysterious section prior to the central march. This march has its own  theme, immediately gathered up into the continually evolving polyphony, but also feels like a development section. Its central flowering and brassy follow-up are especially great moments. 


Les parfums de la nuit ('The fragrance of the night') is an exquisitely-scored nocturne of sultry character. The string pedal at the opening is pure atmosphere à la Borodin but the tiny touches of magic that accompany the shy oboe theme that moves across it is beyond Borodin's wildest dreams. A lovely Spanish-style theme for strings is greeted by a new, quiet tune for oboe. The movement may be term 'understated' overall but the romantic surge of strings midway is deliciously Hollywoody at times - and tunefulness sweeps us on. The coda is muted and poetic and leads us (with bells) straight into...

...the finale, Le matin d'un jour de fête ('The morning of the festival day'), a joy-making movement full of festive sounds and vivid rhythms - and, at times, a prophecy of Copland. Tunes come and go amidst the brightest colours. One fabulous section gets the strings to strum like a huge guitar, with bells providing magical stresses (before yielding to castanets). Solos, most notably from the clarinet and violin, are incidents in an incident-packed movement - and the ending is uproarious!

The most complex and elusive of the orchestral Images is the third, Rondes de Printemps. It is also the most radical. It wasn't just the title, when I first heard it, that made me think of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. This thought have pedigree and this movement may very well have been a direct influence on Stravinsky's revolutionary masterpiece.

Like Gigues, the ever-fascinating Rondes de Printemps uses a folk song - Nous n'irons plus au bois - but fragments it and re-shapes it without giving us it neat - until the climax that is. It begins in an atmospheric haze, with fragmentary woodwind phrases building by degrees to delightful, dancing (5-pulse) main theme which with the folk song and a passionate falling figure provides the chief material for the work (though, of course, there's much more besides). As you would expect the scoring is splendid and only adds to the music's richness. After the climax, when the folk song is sung in long notes, it does so surrounded by harp, celesta and dancing strings, bringing joy. Tremolos and trills from the strings pervade the score, giving it a fluttering quality. The woodwinds are the work's singing birds.


Jeux is Debussy's most radical score and, though it has none of the revolutionary ferocity of Stravinsky and Schoenberg's contemporary masterpieces, its Cinderella status with the general public (and its special appeal to the likes of Pierre Boulez) provides testimony for its 'difference' from the more familiar and somewhat more traditional works. It dates from 1912. 


Listeners will note that they are not finding many recognisable milestones as they listen to the piece - no immutable melodic phrases, no persistent rhythms. Everything seems to be always changing. Any echoes are only part-echoes. Motifs comes and go, registering in and then immediately checking out. Now Debussy is indeed a maker of musical mosaics. He still sounds like himself (as it were), but a tightened-up self, a pared-down self, a stringer-together of glittering diamonds. His Romantic side is not indulged in Jeux. 

All this said, Debussy's free stream-of-consciousness structure and style doesn't stop Jeux from flowing seamlessly and the listener, whose duty is to surrender to the music, will find pleasure in its extraordinary inventiveness and vitality. 

The work's most memorable landmark is its framing series of chords (which remind many people of Dukas). These woodwind sequences are whole-tone in nature - and a magical idea. Much of Jeux may be called 'scherzo-like' and, as music to dance to, is clearly ruled by gesture and step. Beauty is present throughout, such as in the lovely string writing and enchanting woodwind writing which greets the entry of the girls, with harp and percussion adding their colours too. 


Jeux will continue to keep winning itself new friends but - a prediction! - it will never become popular. It's just not that sort of piece.


As for the smaller, lesser-known pieces...well, they will have to way for another day. 

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Poland II: The Renaissance


Humanist waves began washing ashore in Poland not long after they they had begun forming. Renaissance musical trends naturally washed in too. 

Foremost among these pioneering Polish composers was Sebastian z Felsztyna (aka Sebastian de Felstin). His dates are unclear but he thrived in the early years of the 16th century and is acclaimed for bringing the influence of Netherlander composers into Poland. Not much of Sebastian's music survives but we can hear his two Alleluias Ave Maria and Felix es Sacra Virgo. These are both four-part works, which was far from common in Poland at the time. Each piece uses a plainchant melody (presented in long, even notes) in its tenor. There are occasional imitative touches, a few melismas and passages of note-against-note counterpoint ( meaning that the counterpoint moves parallel to the rhythm of the cantus firmus.)


Even less survives of the music of his contemporary, Mikołaj z Chrzanowa (1485-c.1560), namely a single motet Protexisti me, Deus; indeed, this had to be reconstructed from a transcription for organ found in a manuscript. It's a rather lovely piece, with some imitative writing and note-against-note counterpoint.

Continuing with the Nicholases, let's turn to Mikołaj z Krakowa (or Nicolaus Cracoviensis). He's best known for the delightful Aleć nade mną Wenus ('You, Venus, above me'), thought to be Poland's oldest madrigal, and wrote many sacred works (including a setting of the Salve Regina) and works for the court (such as Wesel się Polska Korona - 'Rejoice Polish Crown'). There's not much of his instrumental music at hand, however. Still, I bet you'll enjoy his popular little organ piece, Hayducki (I'll pass on the translation of that), and the just-as-short Alia poznanie.

Wacław z Szamotuł

Fine as all of these composers are, I'm sensing a major step up in standards when we come to our next composer, Wacław z Szamotuł (or Wacław Szamotulski), c.1520-c.1560. The a 4 motets In te Domine speravi and Ego sum pastor bonus carried his name - and the name of Polish music - abroad, making him the first Polish composer to gain an international reputation. With Wacław we are firmly in the mainstream of the international style that came from France and the Netherlands - fully-formed, richly polyphonic music. If you listen to In the Domine speravi you will hear very little homophony but lots of imitative writing. There is also a new richness to the music's play of rhythms. This is great music, repaying time spent re-hearing it. If you enjoyed it I'm sure you'll also enjoy Nunc scio vere.

Now, Wacław was capable of many things. He could write beautiful homophonic pieces too. I've read that he was involved in Protestantism and, just as in the radical England of young Edward VI composers like Thomas Tallis began writing simpler but luminous hymn-like works, so (it seems) Wacław began penning pieces like Powszechna spowiedź ('Daily Confession'), the lovely Lenten hymn Kryste dniu naszej światłości ('O Christ, Day of Our Light') and the chordally-harmonised setting of Psalm 85. I'm also taken with the joyful and, possibly to use an anachronistic term, part-song-like writing of Pieśń o narodzeniu Pańskim ('Song of the Nativity'). The most treasured of all his works, however, is the tender and radiant Już się zmierzka ('A Prayer When the Children Go To Sleep') - another 'part-song':

Fewer works have survived by Marcin Leopolita (Marcin of Lwów), c.1540-c.1584, a man whose music seems to bring a strong scent of the Italian Renaissance into Polish music.

Please take a listen to the beautiful Missa paschalis. Beginning with an upwards flourish of close imitation in all four parts, the mass carries on contrapuntally, weaving itself from four Easter plainchant melodies. That opening passage of imitation is based on an elaboration of the one of those melodies - a tune which reappears in every section. You will, for example hear it again (newly elaborated) at the words "et in terra pax" in the Gloria.


For more Leopolita, you might like to try his two introits - Mihi autem or (in a purely instrumental arrangement) Cibavit Eos.

Moving on, finally, to Mikołaj Gomółka (c.1535-c.1609), well, I think I'll let Wikipedia make the introductions here - as they do it rather well:
The only preserved work by Gomółka is a collection of 150 independent compositions to the text of David's Psalter by Jan Kochanowski, for four-part unaccompanied mixed choir. The music is fully subordinated to the contents and the expressive layer of the text; he illustrates the mood or particular words by means of musical devices. In some works the composer applies dance rhythms characteristic of canzonetta. The "Melodies for the Polish Psalter" are a valuable monument of Old Polish culture showing the lay achievements of the renaissance adapted to the Polish conditions.
To give you a sense of the expressive range of Gomółka's psalm settings please try the sorrowful Psalm 137 ('By the rivers of Babylon I sat down and wept') and then contrast that with the good cheer of Psalm 81 ('Sing aloud unto God our strength: make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob'). Other examples for your delectation are Psalm 29 ('Give unto the Lord, O ye mighty, give unto the Lord glory and strength') and Psalm 11 ('I trust in the Lord').

And with Gomółka we reach the end of this short survey of Polish Renaissance music. You can probably guess what's coming next...Kompozytorów polskiego baroku (according to Google Translate).

Poland I: The Middle Ages


As you would expect from such a great European nation, Poland has a long musical history and one that often shows a full-blooded engagement with the Western European mainstream - in spite of the country's prolonged periods of  foreign occupation from the East.

Poland's decision to embrace the Western Catholic Church rather than the Eastern Orthodox Church in the late 10th century is probably the crucial factor here. It opened the Poles to all manner of Western influences.

Gregorian chant came to Poland and became its dominant musical form for several centuries. (You can hear a programme - with examples - about plainchant in medieval Poland here). 

A tune from that time that has not only survived but thrived in Polish culture ever since is Gaude mater Polonia ('Rejoice, Mother Poland'), written for the beatification of the martyr St. Stanislaus of Szczepanów in 1253. It's been an important piece for Poles for centuries. It was used at royal coronations and weddings and after Polish victories in battle. What you will usually hear nowadays though is an elaboration of the hymn as a lovely four-part choral song composed in the 19th century by Teofil Klonowski. The work is still regularly heard throughout Poland (and beyond), especially in universities and on national holidays. I will admit to having some difficulties matching this up with the plainchant Gaude mater Polonia. (I am -officially! - confused over this point.) Please click on the links and see if you can reconcile them.

Even earlier (it seems) than Gaude mater Polonia and even more significant for Poles is Bogurodzica ('Mother of God'). This monophonic hymn - the first known hymn in the Polish language - was used to accompany coronations and inspire the armies of Poland in battle. Just how old it is and why is was originally written remains a mystery. It dates from somewhere between the 10th century and the 13th century, which is about an imprecise a dating as you will ever get in music. 

Bogurodzica still retains its power to stir the Polish spirit - and not just the Polish spirit. If you've never heard it before, you must try Panufnik's glorious Sinfonia Sacra. It is built on Bogurodzica and it always stirs my spirit.

Musicians came from the West to Poland throughout this period but the first significant Pole to stand out as an individual composer was Mikolaj z Radomia, whose career reached its peak around the 1420s. His music sounds very much of its age - the age coinciding with the early works of Dufay - thus proving the extent of Western European influence on Polish medieval music. Not much is known about the man behind the music. The music, however, is very pleasing.

Mikołaj's Magnificat shows his style at its simplest. You have two notated lines (the top and bottom ones), but a third (middle) voice is added by means of fauxbourden - that technique of harmonisation from Burgundy where the added voice sings in parallel to the upper voice (usually a fourth below). Moving on to one of his settings of the Gloria you will immediately hear that Mikołaj could also write imitatively and, as the same piece proceeds, you will also hear the effects of another late medieval technique, that of hocket - the process whereby lines passed rapidly between voices, aided by rests, resulting in a hiccoughing effect. A setting of the Credo also begins imitatively but this time continues (at least at times) in what's know as the conductus style - the technique where the upper voices tend to sing together and there's much more note-for-note writing. Mikołaj is giving us a one-man guide to some of the main features of medieval music! 

Other Mikolaj z Radomia pieces you might want to give a try include another Gloria, this one giving the treble (upper voice) the dominant part. Plus there's a delightful Alleluia (in a performance with instruments).

Poland's Renaissance was approaching...and with it a number of other stand-out composers. 

Saturday, 2 March 2013

The Running Set


In anticipation of an approaching major Serenade to Music survey...

Ralph Vaughan Williams himself said that his "fantasia on jig-rhythms for orchestra" The Running Set, a 'minor' work composed in 1933, is based on an old British folk dance whose original version has been lost forever. So, the composer gathered together four folk songs associated with the dance and wove them all together, creating this short orchestral piece - a genial quodlibet on English folk songs. The result is catchy and colourful, with (to my ears) something of RVW's tutor Ravel about its orchestration. An exciting whirl of activity ensues.

Good 'ol RVW!

Constant Delights


Constant Lambert (1905-1951) was the only British composer Serge Diaghilev commissioned to write a work for his Ballets Russes. That's quite a distinction, especially as the invitation came when he was a mere 20 years of age. 

A prodigy then, perhaps comparable to William Walton? Well, Lambert himself had performed in Walton's name-making Façade (an early Épater la bourgeoisie kind of piece that set the avant-garde poetry of Edith Sitwell and made use of popular idioms) and shot to fame with a work in a somewhat similar vein - Rio Grande. This 1927 masterpiece sets a poem by Edith's brother Sacheverell for alto solo and chorus accompanied by piano and an orchestra consisting of strings, brass and tons of percussion (but no woodwinds). Façade had been a succès de scandale; Rio Grande, however, was a succès, full stop. The public loved it. It's not hard to guess why. It was something new to our shores - a jazz-inspired concert piece by a British classical composer. Moreover, it's a work of considerable feeling, covering a range of moods from the energetic to the nostalgic. What's not for audiences to like?

Fans of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast (from 1931) will surely recognise the debts Walton owed to Lambert's Rio Grande in achieving his own subsequent "succès, full stop". Belshazzar's Feast's has often been acclaimed as the work that shook British choral music out of its complacency, but Constant Lambert was there first. 

The comparison with Walton keep on coming. Belshazzar's Feast and the First Symphony of a few years later marked the high point of Walton's success. The second half of his life was a long anti-climax (acclaim-wise). Something similar happened with Lambert, who never repeated his triumph with Rio Grande, making him (unlike Walton) something of a one-hit wonder who peaked too soon. (Lambert had other strings to his bow - as a highly influential critic and as a leading British conductor - so can get put away your handkerchiefs!). 

What more is there to Constant Lambert than Rio Grande


Well, there's another large-scale choral work, the choral masque Summer's Last Will and Testament of 1936, setting poems by  the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe. Baritone soloist, chorus and large orchestra (this time including woodwinds) join forces for a work that lasts some fifty minutes. Nashe's 1592 play, from which the poems are taken, deals with the then-annual plague that struck at the end of each summer. Lambert's score (successfully) attempts to encompass its satirical, nostalgic and tragic elements. There are seven sections, of which the Intrata and the remarkable Dies Irae-haunted Rondo Burlesca are purely orchestral:

1. Intrata
2. Madrigal Con Ritornelli
3. Coranto
4. Brawles
5. Madrigal Con Ritornelli
6. Rondo Burlesca (King Pest)
7. Saraband

The work adopts several forms from the Elizabethan era - the madrigal, of course, but also dances like the sicilienne of the Intrata, the courante and the sarabande (to Frenchify their names into something familiar).  This, at times, puts him in close musical proximity to fellow boozer Peter Warlock (of Capriol Suite fame). There are a few touches of jazz, but they aren't a major element in this score.

Unfortunately for Lambert, his most significant statement fell flat at its première as it just happened to follow in the wake of the death of King George V, when the public wasn't in the mood for a largely upbeat piece about the plague. The set-back knocked the composer for six, especially as he was (understandably) very proud of Summer's Last Will and Testament. He composed very little after that and his tendency towards alcoholism grew, eventually killing him after his final ballet Tiresias received critical drubbing sent him spinning into despair. (You can get you hankies out again now!). The revival in Summer's Last Will and Testament's fortunes in recent years hasn't come a moment too soon. It's an absorbing piece and I expect it will surprise you.

On a smaller scale (speaking length-wise!), you will also find the nostalgic vein found in parts of Summer's Last Will and Testament in the beautiful orchestral score Aubade Héroique of 1941 - a piece depicting   a particular dawn in The Hague, where the composer had been conducting, when German parachutists began their invasion of the Netherlands and Lambert and the Sadler's Wells ballet troupe made their escape.

If you feel (as I do) that the Aubade Héroique has some of the qualities of film music about it, then it might not surprise you to learn that Lambert was a fine (if not very prolific) composer for the cinema. From around the same time came the irresistibly tuneful music for the patriotic Merchant Seamen...

and from 1948 came his sweeping music for Anna Karenina (starring Vivien Leigh).

If Rio Grande is Constant Lambert's best-known piece, then Horoscope (1937) is his best-known ballet. It almost makes him a two-hit wonder. Legendary ballerina Margot Fonteyn danced in the first performance. Lambert surely enjoyed her moves, given that he was also having an affair with her at the time! It has nine movements:

1. Palindromic Prelude
2. Dance for the Followers of Leo
3. Saraband for the Followers of Virgo
4. Man's Variation
5. Woman's Variation
6. Bacchanale
7. Valse for the Gemini
8. Pas de Deux
9. Invocation to the Moon and Finale

Though a piece for dancing to, Horoscope was written in a way that will appeal to lovers of symphonic music. It's Palindromic Prelude is precisely what it says it is - it may be read backwards as well as forwards. Both the Dance for the Followers of Leo and the Bacchanale feature a catchy phrase with syncopated rhythms which will probably stick with you for hours afterwards. The latter movement isn't the only one where thoughts of Holst and The Planets spring to mind, perhaps not unsurprisingly in a work with astrological matters at its heart. I was especially thinking of Uranus for the Bacchanale. (As Frankie Howard might of put it, "Ooh, missus!"). Ravel comes to mind in some of the slower sections. Still, it's the music of William Walton (the later Walton of the film scores) which Lambert feels closest too here.  Incidentally, for fellow waltz-lovers, don't forget to check out the delightfully nonchalant Valse for the Gemini

It may not have the sharp individuality of Rio Grande but Horoscope deserves to be as widely performed as possible as it's a loveable score. 

Hope you'll enjoy listening to Lambert's music.