Sunday, 26 February 2012

Sibelius in New Zealand

New Zealand's best-known composer is Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001). Another musical gem I'd like to share with you is his Second Symphony, composed in 1951. 

Lilburn's teacher was Vaughan Williams and this influence turns up from time to time, as does that of Copland. Far stronger than either though is the wholly benign influence of Sibelius. If, like me, you love the music of all three of these great composers, especially the later, you are in for a treat! 

The first movement, called Prelude, is a beauty. Its opening theme for strings, with repeated notes that seem to echo the opening of Sibelius's own Second Symphony, is marked by the rocking interval of a second. It is met by an oboe theme that could have been sung by Pohjola's Daughter - a pastoral tune answered by lovely string phrases. Anticipatory tremolos and rising strings take us soaring to a wonderfully stirring reprise of the main theme. The brass break in forcefully and a march begins, containing development of the main ideas, then a flute floats in and induces a slightly anxious mood. Anxiety needs release and this fine paragraph eventually gets it with renewed grand vistas courtesy of the returning main theme. Militant jubilation gives way once more to the pastoral peacefulness of the opening. 

The Scherzo is a delight. If the first movement was heroic and Sibelius-like, then this is cheerfully Copland-like in its outer sections and Vaughan Williams-like in its trio. The main section has two fine, catchy tunes. Syncopation abounds in the no less catchy trio, though this latter is a nostalgic creature and moves more slowly. Great tunes are here by the bucket-load. 

The slow movement, pointedly entitled Introduction, prepares us for the uplifting finale by taking us on an introspective yet heroic journey through a bare polar landscape (or so it sounds to me), somewhat in the manner of Vaughan Williams's Sinfonia Antartica

That finale brings glad rescue and restores Sibelius's primacy of influence. A refreshing sea-breeze on strings seems to blow in on strings, warmed by noble horns. This delightful, melodically bright beginning reaches an exciting climax, winds down again beautifully and pauses for solo woodwinds to sing and dance Lilburn's second subject. Beauties continue to abound in a symphonic finale that triumphantly succeeds while allowing space for lovely melody to breathe and the human spirit to dance.

There's so much hidden treasure out there.

A right grand symphony, lad

Those who learned the piano when young will probably know the name of Carl Czerny and a few of his easier piano pieces. Czerny's dates, 1791-1857, show him to be of Schubert's generation (though he lived a lot longer) and anyone familiar with Schubert's symphonies will recognise certain common features when listening to Czerny's Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.780 (must have been prolific to reach 780!). It's also known as his Grand Symphony, doubtless due to its generally serious demeanour, its storm-and-stress characteristics, its military rhythms and its strong use of brass and drums. It also turns out to be a 'grand' symphony in the sense that we Northerners use it (especially if we're characters out of Wallace and Gromit). 

The opening Allegro movement begins with a dramatic, dotted tutti figure. This is immediately met by a gently undulating woodwind figure (a la Schubert). The dotted figure then storms powerfully, taking us to the second subject - an oboe theme of lyrical character (though also pronounced in its rhythms) which is unaccompanied by nervous string figures. Drama then rages back in but pauses for a third subject - a noble string tune. The development section works away with dotted figures, reviews the second subject then launches itself into a fugato. It's an eventful movement.

There's a noble, heroic slow movement to follow, with long melodic lines and a military flavouring - an elegy for a great man, maybe? 

Czerny's scherzo, with its tripping dotted rhythms, has the interesting character of sounding like a Mendelssohn 'fairy scherzo', albeit taken at a much slower pace, that has been re-written first by Beethoven then by Schubert, each leaving clear evidence of their handiwork! Unfamiliar works by unfamiliar composers often sound like their more famous companions. Still, the result is engaging. So is the trio, which features a charming chorus of woodwinds met by an urgent response from strings and brass.

The finale returns us to storm and stress and symphonic seriousness, though its wind-led second subject whistles a jaunty tune and there's a spirited, Weber-like development section. 

Worth a go!

A Finn in America

I'm not alone in finding the Finn Magnus Lindberg's Clarinet Concerto (ten years old this year) an enjoyable listen. Technically dazzling, both for the solo performer and as a feat of composition, it scintillates with inventive orchestral sounds and has a sensuous impact. It pays tribute to Debussy, Gershwin and Copland, which gives proof of Lindberg's intention to give pleasure.

The work has a memorable tune, outlined simply in the opening bars and thereafter elaborated and played with, rising in richer form prior to the cadenza and then finally returning as an out-and-out 'big tune' to bring the concerto to a rousing conclusion. Its beginnings are pastoral-sounding, fixing in the memory the theme's essentials: falling minor third, rising perfect fourth, falling major second, falling minor third and falling major second. Of these elements, the falling minor third and the falling major second are the fulcrum intervals and from their combination much else flows.

The Clarinet Concerto is continuous but has discernible sections. The first rings the changes on the theme, taking it to many places (all worth visiting) - some are jazzy, others sequential extensions, one seems to fleetingly recall The Rite of Spring. Tonal plateaus are occasionally reached. The first, at nearly three minutes in, is like a flare of intense major-key light. There's a wonderful brass-led transition where I hear the ghost of another Finn, Sibelius, which leads to a scherzo-like section, led off by the clarinet which arpeggiates, arabesques and trills to fine effect. The third section returns to the main theme, making it sparkle anew before hoisting it aloft proudly. Its American side (both rural and urban) is brought out most beautifully here. Multiphonics and thumping drums mark the start of the fourth section - the section dominated by the cadenza. The cadenza is, in Classical fashion, left for the soloist to improvise but it is reached gradually by a process that calls for a neologism: cadenzaisation! We emerge from this cadenza (hopefully) dazzled and ready for the composer's grand finale. This begins light-heartedly but bulks itself up with lots of brass and dashes about dizzyingly until the 'big tune' returns with a vengeance - the clarinet surfing a gorgeous orchestral wave - before the work winds itself down to a quiet close. 

Magnus Lindberg has moved some way from his early modernism, found in such works as Quintetto dell'estate (1979) and Ur (1986), though traces can still be heard loud and clear. 

Monday, 20 February 2012

Catching incense

As I've explored more and more music from the past thousand years, I've found that I've ended up liking music from each and every era. As composer after composer and period after period fell into place (some more easily than others), I found that the last period of music to fall was the Renaissance - specifically Renaissance choral polyphony. I was OK with music from Dufay (first half of the 15th century) backwards and from Monteverdi (very end of the 16th century) onwards, but the music of that age that spread from roughly 1450 through to 1600 seemed hard to penetrate. It all sounded much the same to me, whether it be a Kyrie by Ockeghem, a Credo by Josquin or a Sanctus by Byrd. Instrumental music, Renaissance songs, homophonic choral music were fine, but unaccompanied choral polyphony all drifted through my ears without engaging my understanding. I felt as if I were hearing the same bland cloud of musical incense in pretty much every piece. I gave it time, however, and listened again and again and eventually it clicked with certain composers - Gesualdo, Victoria, Tallis - and the light then spread ever wider, until even Ockeghem, Josquin and Byrd fell. And when they fell, I could for the life of me think why I didn't love their music earlier. It was so beautiful, so masterful, so full of imagination.

I've tried to fathom it out ever since, and I now think I have an explanation.

The music of Dufay and, before him (going backwards in time), Dunstable and Machaut and Perotin and Hildegard is more immediate in its melodic appeal - as is the music of the Gabrielis and Monteverdi from the other end of the period and on. In other words, it's more tuneful. The emphasis was on melody because the melody the composers wanted their listeners to hear was placed where it could be heard most clearly - at the top of the texture. In a four-part piece, say, the sopranos (or more accurately 'superius') would have the tune, the tenors would have a plainchant melody to accompany it, the basses would provide a harmonic foundation and the altos would fill in the gaps (to put it simply!). The uppermost line - the one the ear catches onto easiest - was supreme. Come Ockeghem and Josquin - and those who came in their wake across the length and breadth of Europe - and this changed. All four voices became musically interesting in their own right and stopped specialising. The topmost line lost its primacy (however much its brightness of sound seems to magnetically draw our ears to it.) All lines were equal, and none were meant to be more equal than others (well, most of the time!). Therefore, it's not so easy to hear tunes because tunefulness isn't what the music's about.You are listening instead to a flow of harmony, expressed through interweaving lines. It's a luminous web of counterpoint. The lines are usually beautiful in their own right, but you don't (for the most part) hear them in their own right. They are blended. I'm sure many of you have had little difficulty in just enjoying hearing this blending of voices as they float dreamily across a stained-glass window, or the face of your radio. I'm afraid I need more. When I started following individual lines or listening to the flow of harmony, the clicking process began. After all, counterpoint where (say) four voices interweave and none has primacy is pretty much what Bach was about when writing his fugues. There's no reason why anyone who loves Bach fugues shouldn't take to Renaissance polyphony as well, is there?

Well, as I loved Bach fugues and yet didn't take to Renaissance polyphony anywhere near so readily, there must be more to it than that. What?

Well, composers before and after this period phrased their pieces in a different way to the composers of this period. The key is the way melodic phrases reach their cadences. Listen to Machaut or Dufay, for example, and you hear long, clearly-shaped melodic phrases built from distinctive shorter phrases, whereas with Ockeghem and Josquin the phrases seem to wander around without purpose. With Machaut and Dufay there are clear, punctuating cadences to which these phrases lead, whereas with Ockeghem and Josquin the cadences just seem to turn up - plus we have to wait longer for them to arrive. As a result, the feel of tonal-sounding harmony (which does seem to be something people respond to easily, even in modal music) is much less strong in the music from the heart of the Renaissance age than in any other period up till the 20th century. The freedom of the bass voice is another factor in the undermining of the sense we tonally-attuned modern types have of familiar tonal-sounding harmony in the music of Ockeghem, Josquin and Co. None of these 'problems' exists with a Bach fugue.

So, the music of the period I'm describing is less obviously tuneful and less harmonically familiar than either the music that preceded it or the music that succeeded it. (Yes, I know Machaut's music sounds unfamiliar too, but the unfamiliarity seems almost modern - unlike the unfamiliarity of the Renaissance masters). It is also far less concerned with contrast, especially as regards texture. That, I believe, is why I found it hard to come to terms with for so long. It seemed simultaneously strange and boring. Spend time with it though and it will surely cast its spell over you. Then it will cease to be strange and become anything but boring. The counterpoint can nourish the imagination, the entwining melodic lines carrying you along on one voice after another through lovely harmonies. 

Hopefully, you 'got it' much more quickly than me!

As examples of what I mean, please compare Dufay's motet Ave regina caelorum with the Kyrie from Ockeghem's Missa Prolationum or the Kyrie from Josquin's Missa l'Homme ArméOr compare the Kyrie of Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame with Ockeghem's mesmeric Deo Gratias. (Some truly stunning music here!)

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Celtic and Sapphic visions

One of these kinds of posts had to come eventually, I am English after all. Yes, it's my first 'Neglected British Composers' post. (Delius and Arnold don't really count). My nominee is Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946), a key man of British music in his heyday, friendly with many famous (and neglected) composers from our shores. Bantock has long has his loyal supporters, including a society that seeks to promote his works and reputation (it has its own website), but still his music remains unfamiliar to many music lovers.

I can't say I know many of his works, as they're not easy to get your hands on, but a lot of what I have heard suggests a fine composer and one whose music could give audiences a lot of pleasure - as the following recommendations will hopefully persuade you to agree! One of my favourites isn't available yet on YouTube, the comedy overture Pierrot of the Minute, but the following are:

A large-scale single-movement work, more sprawling rhapsody than symphony, Bantock's 'Hebridean' opens atmospherically in the mists from which the Hebrides and the surrounding sea soon emerge. This lovely opening stretch shows Bantock at his most impressionistic, with orchestral colouring of great refinement and a very attractive dreaminess carrying the listener along. Comparisons are frequently made by critics to Richard Strauss, Debussy and Sibelius, but the opening minutes especially recall the magical tone-poems of Liadov - a case of convergent evolution no doubt, but suggestive of where Bantock is coming from here. A later passage of wilder seas and sea-chill (to be Bantock-like in my choice of words) prepares us for the short second section - a storm. This opens with the sort of sweep that might befit a modern 'Batman'-style Hollywood blockbuster, though the white-hot excitement of that opening is not fully sustained.  The third section carries us back in time to the age of warfare on the Hebrides and brings the brass centre stage. The snap of the rhythms gives the heroic main melody, introduced by the horns, a distinctly Scots character. The section will not be forgotten by anyone who hears it, mainly because of an extraordinary two-minute passage where trumpets relentless repeat a tiny phrase (always at the same pitch). I've seen this passage compared favourably to Janacek, but Janacek would have released the tension generated (and a lot of tension is generated) into something stirring or something that screwed up the tension even more, whereas Bantock inflicts these maddening trumpets on us and then releases us from them into...well, an anti-climax. The final section largely restores the music of the opening span, beginning as a lament though also including a brief song of triumph. The Hebridean mists and dreams again inspire some ravishing impressionistic writing from the composer. The 'Hebridean Symphony' is not wholly inspired, with occasional lapses into the second-rate (especially in the third section), but a lot of it is. There are many minutes of great beauty. 

Romantic arrangements of old composers - from those by Brahms to those by Elgar and Respighi - couldn't be further from the contemporary spirit of period instrument perfomance but good tunes lovingly dressed in the warm colours of a Victorian or Edwardian orchestra continue to tickle the taste-buds of many a listener. And why not, when all's so enjoyable? Bantock enters this now-semi-prohibited field here, arranging works by five composers from the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. The results are delicious. First comes a sturdy arrangement of a contrapuntal Fantasia by Orlando Gibbons, followed by a lovely Lachrymae Pavan by master of melancholy John Dowland, which Bantock entrusts to the strings. The full range of orchestral colour is brought to bear on John Bull's cheerful 'The King's Hunt', placed third. Giles Famaby's 'Quoding's Delight' follows and, here, Bantock allows the woodwinds to play this graceful dance and its variations. Finally, there's a festive arrangement of William Byrd's variations on the catchy popular song, Sellinger's Round. 

The lighter side of Tchaikovsky is clearly what fired Sir Granville's imagination here. The result is a consumately-crafted suite of colourfully-scored tunes that you'll take to straight away. Just one problem though: The melodic genius of Tchaikovsky is missing. That's not to say that you won't like the tunes, just that they're not great tunes, thus slightly diluting the Tchaikovsky experience. First comes the vigorous 'At the Fair', which (taken as a whole) is my favourite movement. Next comes an elegant 'Mazurka', featuring as its main theme my favourite melody of the set. A pert 'Polka' (with sleigh bells) is place third. Bantock turns it into quite an orchestral tour-de-force. Fourth is a graceful, rather wistful 'Valse' and, to finish, there's a lively Russian-sounding 'Cossack Dance'. With exposure, a lot of people will probably like this.

This lovely quarter-hour long score for cello and orchestra opens with soulful restraint and seems to sing from the same hymn-sheet as Tchaikovsky, especially when passion enters with the cello. However, the piece's huge central climaxes lift the music into a highly Straussian orbit and the sunset mood of the close is close in spirit to many of Strauss's glowing codas. The lyrical impulse is strongly at the forefront of the music and the cello is very much a singer here - though there's some virtuosic writing too, befitting a concertante work.  As anyone who knows a bit about Bantock's music would anticipate, the orchestral accompaniment is beautifully written. The piece is dominated by the theme you hear at the very start and, though you won't find it to be a 'big tune', it flowers beguilingly throughout. A couple of listens and you'll be hooked.

Scored for strings and six harps, this is my favourite Bantock work and, I would say, stakes a claim for its composer to be placed much higher in the British pantheon than he currently is. The symphony, like the Hebridean, is rhapsodic in manner and structured as a single movement. It opens to slow-moving music of luminous beauty - a modal melody floating over over a seven-note ostinato that evokes the swell of the sea. A gorgeous sequence then descends like like a mist from the sky. It leads to the Allegro section where a strong, pentatonic tune (of the Scottish-sounding kind) awaits. The second subject is a noble dialogue on a melody build on a three note-phrase, which Bantock allows time and space to glow like an Orkney sunset before being developed powerfully. An Andante section brings back the luminous music of the opening before casting off a new line (and tune) of much loveliness, achingly nostalgic in character (and also pentatonic). The captivating passage is followed by a cello cadenza, after which a spirited Allegro breaks in - an invigorating folk-dance-style tune, again 'Celtic'-sounding. It is contrasted with a truly radiant, antiphonally-treated melody suggestive of long ago (oh, how I love this tune!). Bantock next treats us to a spell-casting flourish of all six harps. The radiant melody returns to bid us goodbye. A braw work, with no flaws! Audiences fancying a fresh masterpiece of British string writing need look no further.

Inspired by the example of Elgar's Enigma Variations, Bantock's Variations on the theme HFB are rooted in something personal, his wife's initials. It's on this little tag - not the whole of the very beautiful opening melody - that the piece works. There's so much wonderful invention - and so many cracking tunes - in the work that I would almost place it on a par with the Celtic Symphony and recommend it to audiences far and wide. Demanding critics might say the obvious influence of Tchaikovsky and Brahms in various of the variations is a sign of shameful unoriginality but I'd say 'Who cares?' given that the influences produce such superb results. Variations to listen out for include the warm Brahmsian second variation, the charmingly balletic third (shades of Swan Lake), the 'quasi religioso' fourth which uses the brass ingeniously to suggest peeling bells (magical!), the delightful capricious fifth variation (the one with the bassoon) and its successor which sounds as if it could have come from a dramatic Russian symphonic poem. The seventh variation is very special - a supremely beautiful horn duet that perhaps owes something to Brahms's First Symphony. A new ghost comes to the banquet in the following variation - Wagner (though the climax cannot but remind you of Tchaikovsky). There's another delightful balletic section (decked in exotic colours) and listen out for the remarkable Andante doloroso variation with its great tune and glorious, dark scoring. The Finale erupts energetically and provides a rousing conclusion, with a brief recall of the horn duet of the seventh variation for good measure. First-rate stuff, isn't it?

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Making Overtures

What this blog obviously needs is a chart countdown. It's been all the rage at Classic FM for years, and BBC Radio 3 has leaped on the bandwagon too now, so...'s my countdown of the best (stand-alone) overtures by Mendelssohn. There are seven contenders, and the countdown will follow tradition and work its way from lowest (worst) to highest (best). Exciting, eh?

Written when Felix was around 15 years old, this is his earliest overture and so it's probably not surprising that it lies in bottom place in this survey. It lacks the stamp of Mendelssohn's own personality, borrowing the personality of Mozart (in the slow introduction) and Weber (in the fast main section) instead. That's how young, learning composers develop of course, so Felix isn't to be blamed for writing in their style. It's far from being a dud though. There's a softly-lit slow section to begin with, whose main melody is pleasing and whose warmth of wind sonority brings a nice glow to this listener's stomach. The fast section (in sonata form) isn't quite so enjoyable, though the perky, colourfully-scored second subject is charming.

Written just before the Midsummer Night's Dream overture, this is better than its predecessor. It has a lot going for it, including bags of energy and some imaginative touches of scoring. What it lacks is memorable tunes. The work is unified by the fanfare-like figures first heard at the very beginning of the overture, and the best bits of the overture come with the use of the these figures at the start of the development section (2.42 onwards) and again towards its close (4.56 onwards), where something of the mystery and magic of the Hebrides Overture is glimpsed. The shimmering strings and the modulating harmonies suggest a sea-scape to me - and Felix is at his best when evoking the sea.

A portentous opening on brass presages a few melodramatic passages in this famous overture, evoking a play by Victor Hugo (for which Felix felt no high regard). The vigorous main theme is memorable and fully characteristic of its composer and the more lyrical second subject (introduced over pizzicato strings) is likable, though its sprightly companion is even more engaging. So, as you can see, lots of good tunes this time. The themes are developed with considerable purpose if with no moments of special magic. Because of its lack of such moments, I place this overture in such a low position.

Ah yes, those opening rippling figures from the clarinets, aren't they lovely? And, if you know your Wagner, they will inevitably remind you of the prelude to Das Rheingold (though Wagner makes something far more extraordinary and majestic of them than our Felix) where they serve a similarly watery purpose. Here they conjure up the beauty of the mermaid-like Melusina. The dotted rhythms in her theme, however, give her something of a domestic quality. A proud, dramatic theme in the minor erupts representing Melusina's soon-to-be husband, the knight Lusignan. The violins follow this with a more lyrical theme (surely a love theme) which is the work's best tune. The development of these themes runs through the expected paths, and the development of the main (Melusina) theme could (I'd have hoped) modulated with a good deal more magic than it does. The predictability of the development section (despite the pleasing way Mendelssohn takes us into the recapitulation) results in the overture being marked down into fourth place.

Goethe's twin poems are set to a two-part overture, the slow section depicting the calm sea - a merchant ship becalmed, so not a good thing in those days! - and the fast section depicting the ship speeding towards its destination. The 'Calm Sea' section is music of extraordinary visionary beauty and results in the overture's high ranking. The stillness and solitariness it evokes are tangible and can be compared to Beethoven's own setting of the poems. The wind-led transition to the breezy allegro is imaginative too. The 'Prosperous Voyage' section is nowhere near as magical as 'Calm Sea', but it's enjoyable enough, with some good themes and some attractive textures. Its weak point is its largely dull development section.

This is a close runner-up to my winning overture, as it and the winning overture are two of the composer's greatest and most-loved achievements. Purely personal preference places this in second place, as it's a work whose spell never fails (in a decent performance) to lift my spirits. Its structural proportions are perfect, its themes unforgettable and its scoring immaculate, beginning with four magical wind chords (destined to return at the very end). The fairy music on violins, with occasional pizzicato accompaniment from the violas, is ingenious and magical. Then there's the bold tune for the Athenian royals, which is followed (after a fine transition passage) by a lyrical theme for the lovers, begun by the woodwinds and continued by the strings. Next it's the rude mechanicals, and Bottom braying like an ass. So many fine ideas. The poetic development section concentrates on the fairy theme and takes us deep into magical strangeness, with all manner of unexpected noises. Its wistful close is a final surprise. The recapitulation is straightforward, which just leaves the very beautiful coda. Ah, what a work from such a young man, just 16 years old when he wrote it.

It had to be. This is my favourite piece by Mendelssohn, never mind just the overtures. Its poetry surpasses even the Midsummer Night's Dream overture. Again, it's sea music that brings out the finest magic from Felix. The scoring is of such a luminous beauty that, to borrow a phrase Debussy used about Wagner's Parsifal, it seems lit from behind. It's quite remarkable how much mileage the composer gets out of the little six-note melodic motif you hear at the very beginning. It is the essence of his main theme and often accompanies his other themes. The figure inescapably prompts images in the mind of the swell of the sea. The broad and beautiful second subject, begun by cellos, sings out against a lovely shimmer from the high strings, before passing to those very strings. It's heavenly stuff, but there's even more heavenly music to come. The development section is an absolute stunner. The main theme - i.e. that six-note figure - is send through all manner of keys against fanfare-like figures and more shimmering from the strings. The magic, mystery and majesty of the scene are indescribably moving. And then there's the most magical key change of all (at 5.16), as the music slows and the heart is flooded with warmth. A shadow of anxiety then seems to pass over, mingled with awe, and the development section then picks up speed and dances its way to an exciting climax and the wonderful re-entry of the main theme for the recapitulation. This time the recapitulation is not straightforward but rather a re-imagined take on the exposition. The coda is short and brilliant, with a final delightful surprise to finish. What a piece of music!

A Little Dallapiccola

The Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola has long been my favourite serialist composer, probably because - when he had fully taken it on board - he took what was best in Webern's music and made it more lyrical, listener-friendly and somewhat closer to tonality. It's serial music that often doesn't sound like serial music.

He didn't start as a serialist and his style changed significantly throughout this life, so those who remain unsympathetic towards his twelve-tone music can savour many wonderful tonal works, of which I'd recommend the magic-filled two-movement Piccolo Concerto per Muriel Couvreux (1939-1941) for piano and chamber orchestra - which lovers of Ravel, Stravinsky and Copland ('Apennine Spring') should take to like ducks to Lake Como - plus the delightful Sonatina Canonica su Capricci di Niccolò Paganini (1942-43), a four-movement piano piece based on those famous violin caprices, following in a long line of such works from the likes of Schumann, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Lutoslawski and many, many others. The latter is a neo-Classical work, though there are also several touches of Debussy and Schumann for their admirers to savour. These two pieces are both at their best when they are at their gentlest and most lyrical - and that's something that will remain a feature of the composer's music. The use of canon in the Sonatina is no less characteristic. As an example of Dallapiccola early vocal writing, one to relish is the Divertimento in Quattro Esercizi (1934) for soprano and small ensemble - four largely gentle and beautiful modal songs, softly touched with Stravinskyan harmonies, which fans of Berio's popular (and much later) Folk Songs will surely appreciate and recognise as kindred spirits before their time. There are plenty of others.

Dallapiccola could also be highly dramatic, as in his powerful one-act opera, Il Prigioniero (The Prisoner) (1948-52), which, if I can be crude, is (for newcomers) somewhat of a stylistic cross between Puccini and Berg, and after he embraced twelve-tone serialism his quiet, contemplative side - a side notable for expressing itself in beautiful, memorable melodic lines and a delicate style of scoring that showed scored an real ear for sensuality (an ear that was always apparent in its composer's music, as in the superb choral/orchestral Canti di Prigionia of 1938-41) - was complimented by a strengthening of this dramatic impulse.

Approaching the late serial works, with all these delightful, mostly tonal works behind us, the continuity of spirit becomes obvious - despite the serial soundworld, Now, that serial soundworld is one some of you don't warm to easily, but perhaps Dallapiccola might tempt you in where Schoenberg, Webern, even late Stravinsky fail to win you over.

Why not try the captivating Parole di San Paolo (Words of St. Paul) (1964) for mezzo-soprano and small ensemble? Again, the composer's voice is largely quiet-spoken, the scoring is soft as moonlight (with an enchanting use of tuned percussion) and the singer's lines - despite a few words in Schoenberg-style sprechgesang (speech-song) - is lyrical and elegantly shaped, with a particularly memorable phrase at 2.24 (on the linked video) and 3.39, setting similar phrases. The piece takes verses from 1 Corinthians 13 (St. Paul's Ode to Love):

si linguis hominum loquar et angelorum caritatem autem non habeam factus sum velut aes sonans aut cymbalum tinniens 
et si habuero prophetiam et noverim mysteria omnia et omnem scientiam et habuero omnem fidem ita ut montes transferam caritatem autem non habuero nihil sum 
et si distribuero in cibos pauperum omnes facultates meas et si tradidero corpus meum ut ardeam caritatem autem non habuero nihil mihi prodest 
caritas patiens est benigna est 
non gaudet super iniquitatem congaudet autem veritati 
omnia suffert omnia credit omnia sperat omnia sustinet 
nunc autem manet fides spes caritas tria haec maior autem his est caritas 

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 
If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 
Love is patient, love is kind.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. 

And from the same year came the orchestration of the Quattro Liriche di Antonio Machado for soprano and chamber orchestra. These, however, are arranged from the original version for soprano and piano which was composer backed in 1944 when the composer was still fusing his lyrical impulse with serialism. The Berio folk song-style spirit of the Divertimento lives on in the bright, lively opening song but the the silvery, sensual second song and the moonlit thoughtfulness of the fourth song are very much late Dallipiccola in their ambiance. The third though is dramatic, drawing on that side of the composer's dramatic side.

Talking of the poet Machado, Dallapiccola's best-known piece remains his haunting orchestral Piccola musica notturna (Little Night Music) of 1954 and this is a piece inspired by a poem of Machado's called Noche de verano, where a sensitive figure walks through a deserted square at night. This work surely proves beyond reasonable doubt that twelve-tone music can be deeply poetic and beautiful, suggestive as it is of the rapt mystery of night, and of that contemplative, solitary consciousness. Except for a few short loud outbursts, the piece is largely quiet and its atmosphere is as far from the splashy expressionism of Schoenberg as can be. Though driven by tone rows, the composer makes sure that the shadow of tonality falls strongly on the work, so you might not even recognise the piece as being a serial composition at all. Reading the poem is not unhelpful:

Es una hermosa noche de verano.
Tienen las altas casas
abiertos los balcones
del viejo pueblo a la anchurosa plaza.
En el amplio rectángulo desierto,
bancos de piedra, evónimos y acacias
simétricos dibujan
sus negras sombras en la arena blanca.
En el cenit, la luna, y en la torre,
la esfera del reloj iluminada.
Yo en este viejo pueblo paseando
solo, como un fantasma.

It is a beautiful summer's night.
The high houses
have their windows open
to the wide square of the old town.
In the spacious deserted square
stone benches, hedges and acacias
Sketch out symmetrically
their black shadows in the white sand.
In the zenith, the moon, and in the tower,
the sphere of the illuminated clock.
I walk through this old town,
alone, like a ghost.

For evidence that serial Dallapiccola could bring out the drama in his technique (and could engage in Schoenbergian angst when he wanted!), even as late in his life as 1970-71, try this intense Tempus destruendi - Tempus aedificandi (the title meaning "a time to destroy, a time to build" is taken from Ecclesiastes 3:3) for unaccompanied mixed chorus, whose two movements mingle lament at the destruction with urgent exhortations to rebuild. It's not my favourite Dallapiccola piece but it grows from strength to strength with each hearing, with many beautiful moments.

Still, it's the lyrical songs that are the finest fruits of his twelve-tone music, and the Liriche Greche for soprano and ensemble (where he first essayed this kind of writing in earnest) are among the choicest fruits of that harvest. They consist of three sets of songs:

Here Dallapiccola's genius for shaping lyrical melody out of his tone rows and setting them to subtle, colourful accompaniments is fully demonstrated. His love of counterpoint, especially canon, is a semi-hidden feature of these works.

The first of the Due liriche di Anacreonte (Eros languido desidero cantare) shows Dallapiccola's serial art at its most mellifluous, with a richly lyrical soprano line singing out against a subtle accompaniment. The composer's love of canon is particularly clear in this song, where Italian warmth softens Webern-style counterpoint with melodic sunlight. This is another example of how an individual composer can make something sweet, personal and beautiful out of Schoenberg's less-than-universally-popular and frequently dry-as-dust method.  Much the same can be said of the opening song of the Sex Carmina Alcaei, with its intimate tone and gorgeous piano writing (recalling, maybe, the opening of Berg's Violin Concerto?), the fourth song (a canon in contrary motion) and the Conclusio, though the fifth movement strikes a more playful note. 

My favourite set is the Cinque frammenti di Saffo, enchanting settings of the Greek erotic poetess. They fall far more attractively on the ear than any serial work by Webern and Schoenberg, even Berg. The soprano's lines sound effortlessly lyrical and the fifteen accompanying instruments weave a web of poetry around them. The songs are overwhelming gentle and intimate in feel, and the end of the third song is as beguiling as twelve-tone music gets. The lyricism is, as so often, often underpinned by counterpoint - the second song, for example, is a canon perpetuus. I'd love you to give these songs a hearing (preferably several hearings). All five are gems. The last (and longest) song is the loveliest of all. (Its opening and closing measures again seem like echoes of the opening of the Berg Violin Concerto).

E le Cretesi con armonia sui piedi leggeri cominciarono,
Spensierate, a girare intorno all'ara
Sulla tenera erba appena nata.

And the Cretans began harmoniously on light feet,
Carefree, to turn around
On the tender new grass.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Under Greenery like Scenery

'Early in the morning' is the kind of title you might expect from an English folksong, but it's also the title of the best-known song by the great American classical songwriter  Ned Rorem (b. 1923). I would love you to take a listen to this delightful work (written in 1954), as it's one of Rorem's loveliest pieces. It couldn't be further in spirit from English folksong!

It's a setting of the American poet Robert Hillyer:

Early in the morning 
On a lovely summer day
As they lowered the bright awning
At the outdoor cafe 
I was breakfasting on croissants and cafe au lait
Under greenery like scenery,
Rue Francois Premier 

They were hosing the hot pavement 
With a dash of flashing spray 
And a smell of summer showers 
When the dust is drenched away 
Under greenery like scenery, 
Rue Francois Premier 

I was twenty and a lover 
And in paradise to stay 
Very early in the morning 
Of a lovely summer day.

Ned Rorem was influenced by Francis Poulenc, and that entirely benign influence is clearly heard in Early in the MorningIt's also to be heard in instrumental works, such as the pleasing Sinfonia for winds (and optional other instruments).

If You Like Borodin...

Russian music really is a treasure house full of unsuspected jewels. A few years ago I made the acquaintance of the First Symphony by the the sadly short-lived Vasily Kalinnikov (1866-1901). Pleasingly, this endearing work is on YouTube and I want to share my mixed but largely positive feelings about it with you before introducing the Second Symphony.

Kalinnikov's Symphony No.1 in G minor (1894-95) is a work firmly in the Russian tradition, breathing the air of Russian folksong in a manner that reminds me of Borodin, though fans of Tchaikovsky will find this composer an agreeable companion. The work is winningly melodic and colourfully orchestrated.

The opening Moderato starts with an attractive folksong-style theme, presented in unison, but I bet it's the lyrical second subject that will really win you heart. It's one heck of a good tune! The strings get to sing it and the woodwinds decorate it. If you are familiar with the tunes of Borodin, this tune will doubtless strike you as being from the same family. OK. We've been introduced to the main themes. What happens next? A happy transition theme and some fist-shaking chords lead us into the development section, which is where the work's problems rise to the surface. Basically, these boil down to the statement that "Kalinnikov is not at his best when trying to be 'symphonic'". He starts to inflate his ideas and then blows them out of all proportion. Some of his climaxes are frankly unnecessary (as is that fugue). I find myself sighing with relief when the recapitulation gets going, and then relax and enjoy the tunes all over again - though giganticism does briefly return in the coda.

The Andante is a far more consistent achievement, and a real delight. It has an atmospheric quality only Russian composers (and Copland!) can capture - a nocturnal, open-spaces air, full of beauty and mystery. The opening, with its haunting ostinato on two notes and 'open' chords, is very beautiful and the gentle, nostalgic melody that wafts in is very lovely. Livelier folkish material follows, with a central Asian flavour - the sort of tune Russians did so well. Rename this movement 'More from the Steppes of Central Asia', set it free and let it win more hearts!

The Scherzo is a treat too. It too has a Borodin-like quality, with a vigorous 'Russian' main section and a 'Polovtsian' trio. The latter is particularly appealing.

The problems come back with a vengeance in the Finale. This is so strongly cyclic (i.e. recycling themes from earlier movements to unify the symphony) that it could be seen as a protracted summary of the three preceding movements, had it not some new material of its own. Unfortunately, the new material isn't very good. Moreover, the 'inflation' issue is once more the nub of the problem. Kalinnikov is attempting a grand symphonic finale and his method is to pile on peroration after peroration. Not content with twice out-Wagnering Wagner (think Tannhauser overture), he will not let the piece end without one final huge heave and a million cadences! The effect is an odd mixture of excitement and bathos. Still, there's so much good in the middle movements of the symphony, and that big tune from the opening movement is such a gem, that it's easy to let the composer off the hook for the failings of this movement.

What then of Symphony No.2 in A major (1895-97)? Well, it's a more consistent affair, though it lacks any extra-special moments - so some gains, and some losses. It follows much the same trajectory as its predecessor. 

The opening Moderato starts with imperious calls to attention but quickly turns these figures into an attractive, cheerful tune - namely the first subject - and carries us into the soundworld of Russian ballet, where Kalinnikov's art engages best, showing a flair for Tchaikovsky-style scoring and mobile bass figures. The second subject is cut from a familiar cloth - a broad string tune over a pizzicato accompaniment, firmly in the Russian Nationalist tradition, with Borodin again standing close by. As with the First Symphony, such melodic treats are soon given a full symphonic going-over, though this time less tiringly - though I could again do without the development section's fugue. Listen out for the lovely flute decoration of the main theme at the start of the recapitulation, which surely shows once more where the man's genius lies.

The Andante cantabile is, like the equivalent movement in the earlier symphony, a highlight. There's a gorgeous Borodin-like cor anglais melody set over a delicate, harp-rich accompaniment, which breathes that lyrical, melancholy, 'oriental' air that we musical Russophiles so love. We seem to be again on the steppes of Central Asia, possibly at night-time. The tune is passed around the sections of the orchestra, with some charming balletic exchanges and, yes, the odd BIG climax, and makes the movement a pleasure to hear.

The Scherzo makes me smile. Borodin wasn't a ballet composer but if he had have been he might have written something like this! The trio section is even better, bearing us back to the Polovtsian maidens with a tune of considerable catchiness which is given the Glinka treatment - i.e. repetition against a changing background. This tune is introduced by the cor anglais - a star instrument in this symphony.

Now it's Finale time again! How does Kalinnikov fare this time? Well, he wouldn't be Russian if he didn't invest a lot in his finales. A solo horn introduces it, though the cor anglais soon takes over. We briefly revisit (cyclic form again) the melancholy slow movement, then the main Allegro vivo theme leaps in like the heroic prince in a ballet. He soon meets his princess in the form of the lyrical second subject - a long tune over a very lively accompaniment. Linking passages bring ballet and symphony together - or at least side by side. It's fluent and quite enjoyable if rarely first-rate music. The balletic and purely melodic passages are the best, though this time the grand symphonic climax is genuinely exciting. So, though like its counterpart in the First Symphony, this finale is the weakest link, it's easily forgiven!

I hope you find these two symphonies as friendly and interesting as I did. Whatever faults they have are far outweighed by their rewards. 

Friday, 10 February 2012

Poulenc: "Half Monk, Half Knave"

Francis Poulenc (1899-1964) is one of my favourite composers. There's very little of his music that I don't find enjoyable but the light-touch character of much of his best-known music belies the sheer depth of craftsmanship that goes into his art. I would class him as the 20th Century's nearest equivalent to Mozart. 

He was one of Les Six (The Six) - an informal group of not-very-similar French (and Swiss) composers gathered together after the First World War, who are said to write in a light-hearted and unpretentious manner reflecting the would-be mood of post-war France. Poulenc was the most light-hearted and unpretentious of them all - at least in the early stages of his career. He is an essentially lyrical composer who writes tunes, doesn't fuss about elaborate structures and sticks with straightforward tonality (however much he spices it up with modality, surprising harmonic moves or dissonances). His music aims to win our hearts yet the artistry is consummate. That's why I find him so satisfying. 

Of course, Poulenc wasn't always light-hearted. He could flood his music with melancholy feeling, but it never becomes heavy or suffocating. 

What follows is an invitation to explore a few of the more unfamiliar works of Francis Poulenc, alongside a few of the favourites.

First, the Sinfonietta of 1947. This is a large-scale orchestral score which exhibits a mixture of styles and is to be enjoyed for the profusion of delightful episodes it presents rather than as a 'symphonic' piece. Pleasure-giving ideas almost trip over each other in the first movement Allegro, so thick and fast do they come. Stravinsky's beguiling Tchaikovsky-inspired ballet The Fairy's Kiss is a strong influence (you only need hear the opening bars to realise the similarity - if you know the Stravinsky that is!), but, as ever with Poulenc, the influences are personalised to such an extent that it sounds like pure Poulenc. The movement boasts a sweepingly romantic tune that brings the glamour of the ballroom into the work and has a beautiful, dream-like central episode. The 'recapitulation' is a speeded-up, abridged review. The neo-Classical scherzo second movement is just as enjoyable, scampering along one minute, singing sweet songs the next. The balletic nature of some of the music is clear to hear and, again highlighting the links to The Fairy's Kiss, the wonderful climactic passage comes close to recalling Swan Lake. The poignant Andante, with its tenderly-scored and surprisingly Brahms-like main theme, is gorgeous and unexpected. It this is pastiche, then it's lovingly-done pastiche and I've found myself falling in love with it. After this neo-Romantic slow movement, it's back to neo-Classicism for the Finale. This is an entertaining, jokey movement, full of out-and-out pastiche. A lover of rigorous structure could, if they were feeling uptight, find it lacking in coherence, but who needs coherence when you've got such a fine splicing of high jinx and romantic yearning?

It's to the Stravinsky of Pulcinella who Poulenc seems to have been glancing back at when composing his magical Suite  française  for brass, woodwind, percussion and harpsichord (1935) - a work that fills me with a Christmas-like warmth. Poulenc takes several tunes by French Renaissance composer Claude Gervaise and, keeping the tunes much as they are, adds all manner of modern harmonic touches - pure neo-Classicism. You'll hear, in this order, (1) a lively, military Bransle de Bourgogne, (2) a splendid, mournful Pavane, (3) a chipper Petite marche militaire, (4) a wistful Complainte, (5) a spry but graceful Bransle de Champagne, (6) a sublime, plaintive Sicilienne (my favourite movement) and (7) a lively Carillon. The Suite française is a particular favourite of mine. I suspect Poulenc loved it too, as he make a piano arrangment of it shortly after, which is also to be treasured. Less often encountered is a charming additional movement Poulenc composed in 1939, called Française.

Going back to 1929, Poulenc wrote a tiny tribute to the older French composer Albert Roussel called Pièce brève sur le nom d'Albert Roussel . It may last less than two minutes but it has a number of good tunes, especially the delightful one beginning at 00.24. Poulenc's gift for melody is one of the greatest among Classical composers.

One of his finest later pieces is the Thème Varié of 1951. The theme is an adorable one, song-like and gently wistful, and the eleven variations that follow are indeed varied in character. There's mischief in some, such as Var.2 ('Noble') with its pompous pseudo-Baroque dotted rhythms and wrong notes and Var.4 ('Sarcastique') which sounds rather like a spoof of Bartok's 'violent' style. Vars.1 & 8 are dazzlers, while Var.10 ('Sybilline') pursues that Stravinsky-inspired strain of austere chord-placing that Poulenc sometimes uses in his religious works. The slower, more melancholy variations number among my favourites, especially Var.3 ('Pastorale') with its classic Poulenc tune (all charm and elegance) and Var.5 ('Mélancolique'), a lovely song-without-words. And there's more!

At the other end of his career (1918), when the cheeky Poulenc was at his cheekiest, comes the Sonata for Piano, Four Hands. His magpie tendencies began early as he cheerfully pilfers Bartok's Allegro barbaro in the outer movements and Stravinsky's Petrushka in the central movement to create a short, characterful three-movement piece. The Prelude has an engaging folk-like tune and pounding, percussive piano writing, full of dissonance, with a gentler central passage for contrast. The charming central Rustique has a somewhat oriental-sounding melody and a slight whiff of gamelan music about it. The tangy, tuneful Finale is high-spirited and exciting.

Re-bounding to the late works, the Oboe Sonata of 1961 is one of the composer's best pieces. Written in memory of Prokofiev, it is overwhelmingly serious in tone. Seriousness was not central to Poulenc's early works, but became more so as time passed. The sonata begins with an Elégie. After a wistful four-note introduction, the oboe begins to sing a lovely, gentle melody (which circles around a five-note figure) over a pulsing accompaniment from the piano packed with characteristic harmonies. There a genial continuation. The second subject is marked by a skipping rhythm and is followed by a theme that has something of a Prokofiev-style march about it. The wistful mood then returns as does the main subject. The Scherzo is highly animated and has more Prokofiev-like moments - all thoroughly transmuted into pure Poulenc, as ever - with a trio section that seems to evoke the lyrical side of Prokofiev found in those great ballets Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet. The closing Déploration opens to a chorale-like, bell-like theme of the kind familiar from the Litanies.  The oboe's grieving theme seems to grow out of it, accompanied by more bell-like piano chords. In the next section, the piano pulses out a repeating pattern as the oboe leads it through modulations to an intensified reprise. The skipping theme from the Elegie is recalled before a coda that seems to allude to Romeo and Juliet

Re-bounding back to the early works, I've got to recommend one of the composer's best-known and best-loved pieces, just in case you don't know it. That's the Trois mouvements perpétuels (3 Perpetual Motions) of 1919, undoubtedly influenced by the contemporary piano pieces of Stravinsky but sounding entirely characteristic of their composer. The first movement (Assez modéré) is based on a one-bar ostinato over which a succession of charming phrases fall, forming a lyrical melody as they go to the accompaniment of often quirky harmonies.That these patterns could repeat forever is, I suppose, the point of the title! The second movement (Très modéré) is just as winning, with the ostinato patterns in each hand gradually growing apart from each other. (In the wind-dominated chamber orchestra version, the scoring gives it a pass-the-parcel-like quality.) The finale (Alerte) shows, as Poulenc's music is prone to do, the influence of the music hall. It has great tunes and is good fun. 

Poulenc is often said to be one of the 20th Century's greatest Classical songwriters. He certainly is that, as far as I'm concerned. One of his loveliest and most touching songs is "C" - written during World War II when France was under German occupation ("O my France, O my forsaken France"). This is a true favourite of mine, setting a poem by resistance poet, Louis Aragon. Its verse reflects the deep influence of Ravel (an influence I feel to be strongest in the songs) while the warm lilt of the refrain again owes something to the spirit of French music halls - both influences fully personalised by the composer:

J'ai traversé Les Ponts-de-Cé
C'est là que tout a commencé
Une chanson des temps passés
Parle d'un chevalier blessé,
D'une rose sur la chaussée
Et d'un corsage délacé,
Du château d'un duc insensé
Et des cygnes dans les fossés,
De la prairie où vient danser
Une éternelle fiancée,
Et, j'ai bu comme un lait glacé
Le long lai des gloires faussées.
La Loire emporte mes pensées
Avec les voitures versées,
Et les armes désamorcées,
Et les larmes mal effacées,
Oh ! ma France ! ô ma délaissée !
J'ai traversé Les Ponts-de-Cé.

I have crossed the bridges of Cé
It was there that it all began
A song of times past
Speaks of a wounded knight
Of a rose upon the road
And of a bodice unlaced
Of the castle of a mad duke
And of swans in its moats
Of the meadow where will dance
An eternal fiancée
And like cold milk I drink
The long lay of false glories
The Loire carries off my thoughts
Along with the overturned cars
And the defused weapons
And the tears not rubbed away
Oh my France, oh my abandoned one
I have crossed the bridges of Cé.

More consistent with the Les Six-like spirit of early, 'unoccupied' Poulenc, are the Chansons gaillardes of 1926 (second part here). There's plenty of engaging frivolity but also listen out for the boozy, bleary-eyed harmonies of the second song Chanson à boire , the exquisite harmonies of the fourth song, Invocation aux Parques, the deliciously catchy patter-song (the fifth) Couplets bachiques, the wistful-yet-light 'love song' (of the sauciest kind)  L'Offrande (the sixth) and warm neo-Classicism of the closing Sérénade. All the texts (and translations) can be found here.

Other fine sets include the Trois Poèmes De Louise De Vilmorin of 1936, which begins with a pair of quick, short songs - Le Garçon de Liège and Au-delà - the first a charming caprice, the second an even more charming song with tripping rhythms and pleasing major/minor switches of harmony. The longest song, by some way, is the final one - Aux Officiers de la garde blanche. This begins in modal simplicity, warms fetchingly then darkens harmonically before a lovely, rapt falling scale floats us towards an even more rapt take on the opening melody. A wistful postlude ends another attractive song.

Poulenc once wrote that his best piano writing wasn't to be found in his solo piano works but in the accompaniments to his songs. I don't believe that, but please listen to the wonderful piano part of the short  song cycle Métamorphoses of 1943 and you'll see that he certainly wrote some music there that equals his solo piano works in worth. The lyrical central song, C’est ainsi que tu es, is the finest.

What about the Concerto for Two Pianos of 1932? Yum, yum! It has everything you would want from a piece by Poulenc. All carping at its 'patchwork' structure and its 'stylistic kleptomania' (both accusations fully founded!) may be nonchalantly put in the non-recycling bin as 'besides the point'. C'est Poulenc! after all. There are non-sequitors galore (especially in the outer movements) but they only (somehow) work to increase my (and hopefully your) sense of pleasure - and they do hang together. It helps that each and every patch in the quilt is a joy in itself. Moreover, there are unifying subtleties. For instance, the gamelan music that occurs at intervals throughout each movement has, if you listen attentively, a guiding hand on the harmony and accompaniments of several of the non-gamelan passages. Also, the opening movement's Prokofiev-like main theme is 'developed' in an 'exposition' before a Spanish-sounding 'second subject' (the scare marks are necessary here) appears on cue. Continuing the story of the first movement, the initial fizz is not lost, despite what follows as Poulenc ditches a development section for a 'slow movement' of such a smootchy kind of beauty that the listener can surely only surrender to its spell. There's more fizz to come and listen out for the remarkable transition where Poulenc becomes almost like Webern for a while! That passage is followed by the truly ravishing gamelan-evoking coda with its gorgeous piano writing, lovely string phrases (also to reappear) and naughty ending. Those lovely string phrases reappear in the divine Larghetto that forms the concerto's central movement, romantically (and magically) decorated by the pianos. The Mozartian opening (though listen to the counter-melody) gives us another great tune to savour. A glittering new tune sets off the next section, which flows on only interrupted by a typical Stravinskyan moment. A shortened first section reprise (and a second Stravinskyan moment) is rounded off with a gamelan memory. Another gamelan memory also rounds off the dizzy Finale. This collage-like festival of fun begins with dazzling virtuosity before taking us into the Parisian bars for an affair with popular music and name-checking Ravel with a tune or two. It's not logical,  but it makes perfect sense to me! Its sudden melting climax (on one of those Ravelian tunes) is just what this listener ordered! Sheer panache! The whole work is, like the Suite  française and "C", a favourite of mine.

As are the Litanies à la Vierge Noire of 1936, for women's chorus and organ (or strings and timpani). The phrase "half monk, half knave" was coined (in 1950) by a French critic. It contrasts the worldly, frivolous, music hall side of Poulenc with his serious, heartfelt side, found most obviously in his later religious works. That serious, religious strain found its first expression in the Litanies, and was provoked by his reconversion to Catholicism following the death of a friend in accident. The work brought the modal element in Poulenc's art to the fore in seeking an austere, medieval, chant-like soundworld to reflect the text he was setting -though that austerity is tempered by a very French-sounding sweetness and, in contrast, by some other characteristic harmonies, often chromatic, sometimes highly dissonant - contrasting anxiety with humility. Some admirers of the lighter side of Poulenc part company with him here. Not me. I think the Litanies are pure magic. (Incidentally, as evidence that this strain in Poulenc's art didn't emerge out of nowhere, please try this enchanting little Sarabande for solo guitar, melancholic and beautiful.)

Several such works followed, including the shapely Quatre petites prières de Saint-François d'Assise for unaccompanied male chorus, where plainchant-like passages sit alongside others that are richly and imaginatively harmonised. Some of the harmonies will really take you by surprise, as in the excellent second piece, Tout puissant, which begins in a forthright manner that sounds unexpectedly like Russian Orthodox chant, but soon goes in all manner of unpredictable directions. 

The famous Gloria of 1959, in contrast, is much closer to the knavish side of his musical personality. In this piece for soprano, chorus and orchestra, Poulenc wanted to praise his Lord and that, for him, meant writing music that would express delight. So you'll find lots of cheerful syncopations and jaunty tunes. If it's the case that the Gloria is the second most popular piece of French Classical music (after Ravel's Bolero), then it means that I am very far from being the only listener who seeks out every opportunity to hear different performances of his lovable masterpiece. There are six movements:
1. Gloria
There are 'monkish' passages, even in the joyfully bouncy 'Laudamus Te' (beginning at 'Gratias agimus tibi'), and the heartfelt loveliness of the Domine Deus for soprano, chorus and orchestra is far from 'knavish', as is the glorious, dignified Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, again featuring a prominent part for solo soprano (my favourite movement of all). You will, if you followed my link to the Litanies, recognise a quotation from that work in the serene passage close to the end of the final movement. As you will have noticed from my earlier comments, there's often a flavour of Stravinsky haunting a piece by Poulenc, here the mesmeric Symphony of Psalms

Finally (for now), I must bring to anyone who hasn't heard it an early orchestral score that is the epitome of Poulenc the cheeky charmer of the music hall, the ballet Les biches (sort-of translates as 'The hinds') from 1922-23. The purely orchestral suite consists of a Rondeau, Adagietto, Rag-Mazurka, Andantino and Final. The glamorous Adagietto is especially delicious & has always been a firm favourite of mine. There's plenty of Pulcinella-style Stravinsky in this extremely tuneful score, plus a few passages where the sonorities of the Russian's Symphonies of Wind Instruments are clearly recalled. .

Now, it's not an anniversary year for Francis Poulenc this year, but I felt like celebrating a favourite composer of mine. Hope I enticed you to try a few less well-known pieces as well as the popular classics.

(The paintings in this post are by Raoul Dufy).