Monday, 5 March 2012

From the bells, bells, bells, bells...

When composer-conductor Oliver Knussen wrote a piece in memory of his friend and fellow composer Toru Takemitsu he called it Prayer Bell Sketch. Why? 

Well, concentrating on the 'Bell' bit, the music of Toru Takemitsu is saturated in bell-sounds. Stylistically his art's most obvious Western roots lie in Debussy, Ravel and Messiaen. Those composers shared his love of bell-sounds and each produced works which celebrate their magical properties. An especially beautiful example by Debussy is Cloches à travers les feuilles from his second book of Images for piano and from Ravel's Miroirs there's the captivating La Vallée de ClochesMessiaen's Noël from Vingt Regards is but one magnificent example from that composer's output. 

Literal bells are regular players in Takemitsu's orchestral works, such as in From me flows what you call time (closing section), but they are also evoked - as in the above examples from the French masters - in works for solo piano, such as the lovely Rain Tree Sketch II. Now, this piece isn't primarily about evoking bells (unlike the other pieces linked to) but the chords are placed in such a way and packed with harmony in such a way as to suggest bells sounding in a sodden (temple?) garden. 

When Oliver Knussen composed his Prayer Bell Sketch in loving memory of Toru Takemitsu, he picked up on his friend's love of bells - as well, of course, on the use of the word 'Sketch' and the ritualistic, meditative character of the Japanese composer's music implied by 'Prayer'. He took one of Takemitsu's favourite chords and made a collage of bell-sounds from it. The sonorities Knussen draws from the piano are easy to recognise as being in a direct line of descent from Debussy and Ravel through Messiaen and onto Takemitsu. The act of homage to a friend, suitably dreamy and sad, also pays tribute to the composers whose music meant so much to that friend - which is a lovely touch. 

At a slight tangent, I think this is as good a place as any to recommend a particularly magical piece by Edvard Grieg called Bell Ringing from his Lyric Pieces for piano, Op.54. This is a remarkable piece, composed some 16 years before Debussy's Images II and yet a perfect piece of musical impressionism avant la lettre, strikingly advanced for its time. The hidden greatness of Grieg is a theme I intend to return to. 

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