Friday, 27 January 2012

Mozart: Of Funerals and Birthdays



One of my favourites pieces of music by Mozart is the one-off, six-minute orchestral work known as the Masonic Funeral Music, K.477

When I first heard it I was amazed, particularly at how far in advance of his time Mozart appeared to be in his use of harmony; indeed, how far in advance of his usual self he seemed to be. Some of the harmonic progressions are far more suited to the height of the Romantic Era than they are to the Classical Era. The fact that these harmonies are used in a Classical piece (a style we listeners instinctively associate with certain harmonic progressions) makes them sound wondrously strange, and deeply stirring.

The piece opens with a pair of falling notes, keening. These are played in thirds by a couple of oboes. It's an ear-grabbing start, suggesting pain and grief. After a pause, bassoons and horns perform their own versions of the keening figure, deepening the harmony. Then all the winds, including the clarinets, play the figure, enriching the sonority and the harmony yet further. The first violins (accompanied by the other string sections) enter, playing in wandering quavers as though their thoughts are distracted. The winds punctuate this string texture with more versions of the keening figure before the oboes expand it into a plaintive melodic phrase (a falling scale fragment) which is answered by new melody from the violins marked out by three repeated notes - like three short knocks at the door - followed by a very fast scale fragment (in demisemiquavers) with a turn at the end. Together these comprise the main theme, whose parts, whether knocking or flashing by, are the key players in the piece (separately or together) and dominate its stunning central climax. 


We're not at that climax yet though. At exactly 2.00 (in the performance linked to above) the oboes and clarinets begin playing a Gregorian chant associated with the Lamentations of Jeremiah. It sounds not unlike a Bach chorale tune standing out nobly (in long notes) against a contrasting texture - here a beautiful counter-melody from the strings. This great passage is succeeded by an even greater one, beginning at 2.46, where the first violins take the main theme and runs with it very expressively against a gorgeously rich backdrop composed of rich wind chords, syncopated second violin and viola chords, and a cello bass-line marked by a highly mobile dotted figure. With a titanic force, the harmonic shift like great tides. It's majestic and moving - and one of my 'tingle factor' moments. At 3.35, the tides subside but with the re-entry of the horns in heroic glory  at 3.54 we very briefly re-live the thrill of that central climatic passage. The keening wind figures then seem to turn into 'amens' against the chromatic motion of the strings. A varied reprise of the passage that introduced the main theme leads to a final rousing climax before the piece begins its slow, sad, beautiful wind-down towards the final faltering steps and closing major-key chord.

Wolfgang would have been 356 years old today. Happy birthday!

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Helgoland



Even those who love the symphonies and motets of Anton Bruckner tend to be unfamiliar with his last completed work - Helgoland, for men's chorus and large orchestra, composed in 1893. It's a patriotic piece (though, given that he was a loyal subject of the Hapsburg rather than the German emperor, maybe it wasn't!), recalling the saving of the Saxon inhabitants of the islands from Roman invasion, all thanks to God! 

Given its rarity (and, perhaps, its subject matter), you might well assume that it's not very good, but you'd be dead wrong. It's a great piece, worthy to stand alongside the symphonies and sharing many of their characteristics.

Eschewing one characteristic of the Bruckner symphonies, the work fails to begin nebulously but instead launches itself majestically with both chorus and orchestra blazing out a theme based on the notes of a G minor arpeggio. Being Bruckner, splendid excursions into chromaticism and the use of pulsing octaves provides richness to match such power. This passage is followed by a beautiful chorale, largely unaccompanied. Brass fanfares then summon us into heroism but as the section that follows arrives at its intended climax it breaks off and Bruckner waves his magic wand. High strings and woodwinds palpitate softly and the high tenors sing (in a new key) a lyrical theme with horn comments that is wholly typical of the composer - music of beauty and nobility. Majesty blazes back in a mighty major-key declamation but struggle necessitates harmonic disturbance - and that duly follows. A tremolo-rich modulatory passage based on the lyrical theme leads to a brief waxing followed by a waning. The 'recapitulation' begins with the orchestra stirring up a stalwart climax in preparation for the jubilant chorale. Here Bruckner towers and a thrilling tremolo-struck climax is reached. The chorale re-enters quietly but soon builds again in grandeur towards the closing blaze of major-key glory. 

It's a stunning work, isn't it?

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Simples



Though both he and his music have mellowed over the nearly seven decades of his fame as a composer/conductor, the works of the one time enfant terrible of modern music, Pierre Boulez, still strike fear into many a listener's heart. An exception seems to be Rituel: in memorium Bruno Maderna, which audiences always seem to take to it. Why? Well, probably for the simple reason that it's his most approachable work. 

Why is Rituel, relatively-speaking, so easy on the ear? 

One reason is the simplicity of its structure. Its sections alternate between a very slow chorale-like 'refrain' marked by gong strokes and two-note calls and their brusque answers and, in contrast, moderately-paced 'verses' marked by melodies and accompanied by ticking percussion. Though the sections lengthen and grow more complex as ever more instruments begin to participate in the rite (though this process goes into reverse towards the end of the piece), this easy-to-follow format persists throughout the piece. Boulez's structures are rarely this simple.

A second reason is that Rituel is a work with melody - a seven-note set governing its distinctive and melodically-attractive shapes. The oboe gives us its tuneful essence at the beginning of the first 'verse', accompanied by the pulse of the tabla (an Indian drum). In later 'verses' melody turns polyphonic but, however rich the weave, it remains melody. Boulez is rarely this openly melodic, in the traditional sense.


A third reason is the piece's appealingly exotic sound, part of its ritualistic character, evoking an East Asian soundworld. Percussion are rife. This is a funeral piece and the ritual resides in this union of Asian sonority and repetition. Boulez was rarely this repetitive and, though pieces like Le marteau sans maitre reflect this interest in East Asian sonorities, rarely interested in conveying a sense of ritual. 

A final reason is that this use of Asian sonorities and repetition owes much to Messiaen - and many people (including me) love the music of Messiaen. Rituel is Boulez's most Messiaen-like piece, clearly drawing on the example of such masterpieces as Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. Boulez is rarely so Messiaen-like.

The work contains some improvisatory passages but these are perfectly integrated into the work's ritualistic spirit - so much so that you may be hard pressed to guess which passages are improvised.

The piece was composed in memory of Boulez's friend and fellow traveller of the post-war avant garde, Bruno Maderna, whose Serenade No.2 is well worth a listen, especially its beguiling outer sections.


As for Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, this also reflects its composer's style at its simplest. It was meant for performance in huge open spaces, and is no less ritualistic in manner. Gongs again dominate the landscape, reverberating between birdsong-and-plainsong-inspired invention to awe-inspiring effect. The metallic percussion are out in force and, as with Rituel, help to give the piece a Far Eastern feel (in certain sections). Brass and woodwinds join the percussion, with no space for the soft-edged strings, or even Messiaen's beloved piano.

The opening movement evokes the deep abyss, calling towards Christ in louring brass sonorities. The culminating sequence of gong-battered chords is powerfully exciting. Its daunting melodies are typical of Messiaen and have the feel of plainchant about them.

The second movement evokes Christ's Second Coming and contrasts soft-calling melodic phrases on solo woodwinds with a dancing melody (in an Indian rhythm) scored for concerted woodwinds set against a dazzling drizzle of percussion.


In the third movement evoking the time when the dead will hear Christ's voice uses three main elements - birdsong (namely, the South American Uirapura - see above), a four-note sequence announced by the tubular bells and a massive crescendo on a single chord. The colours change on repetition. Simple yes, but also magnificent.

The joy of the Resurrection is portrayed in the fourth movement, which again uses a trinity of main elements - plainchant-like melodies, the song of the Calandra lark, and three long strokes of the gong. The third element is repeated at contrasted dynamic levels while the first comes in the magical plumage of the metal percussion and woodwinds.

The final movement has a pulse - a single pulse, unusually for Messiaen. I find it mesmeric. It looms like a thunder cloud. The movement's melody is, again, pure Messiaen-style plainchant, sung alternately by woodwinds and brass.

I love both works. Hope you will give them a try.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

All Men Must Die, but, Hey, Not to Worry!



Bach's Little Organ Book (Orgelbüchlein) is full of treasure, but it's just one of those jewels that I'm going to write about here, namely the penultimate piece, the chorale prelude Alle Menschen müssen sterben (All Men Must Die)

The piece is an example of four-part counterpoint. There's a noble chorale melody in the soprano (right hand), a melodically engaging two-part accompaniment in the left with much beguiling use of thirds and sixths and, finally, a bass line on the pedal that make much use of a five-note figure drawn from the accompanying tune. It's a perfect masterpiece in miniature. 

Now, All Men Must Die doesn't exactly sound like a barrel of laughs, but several recording do make it sound cheerful. Take the performance by Wolfgang Zerer. Here, taken at a moderate pace, the syncopations in Bach's accompaniment have a surprisingly jaunty swing to them. I can't help feeling that it wouldn't take a great deal more swing to turn the piece into jazz! (Bach is quite susceptible to being jazzed-up). The result is dignified yet delightful. 

Ton Koopman takes the prelude at a faster pace and plays it with loud jubilation throughout. The music is made to sound overpoweringly exultant. Much of the sense of swing is lost, along with quite a bit of the melodic appeal of the accompaniment, yet the performance socks you between the eyes with its confidence.


All Men Must Die, yet it's cheerful music? Well, the title uses only the first words of the text. The chorale ends by affirming the central Christian belief that death is (for the blessed) the beginning of eternal joy - and so something to be welcomed. Wolfgang Zerer and Ton Koopman are clearly aiming, in their different ways, to convey that joyful message. 

If you take the piece a little slower than Mr. Zerer and a lot slower than Mr. Koopman, as Ulrich Böhme does, an air of serene confidence can enter the music. This peaceful, intimate performance is strikingly different to Ton Koopman's, isn't it? I suspect this is closer to the true spirit of the piece than Mr. Koopman's radical approach. But I could be wrong.  It's certainly closer to how I like to hear it though.

YouTube offers some lovely arrangements, such as this, played in the same spirit at Mr. Böhme, on organ and viols. 

But taken much slower than any of the other performances, please also take a listen to the arrangement for piano made by and played by the great Angela Hewitt. This perhaps speaks more to familiar sensibilities than any of the others as its mood of Christian hope is tinged with understandable sadness. It is absolutely beautiful. There's no exultation in it. 

How do you prefer your Alle Menschen müssen sterben?

Sunday, 22 January 2012

French Cuckoos



Going back to yesterday's Music Matters and an earlier post of mine, there was an interesting discussion about 'The Delius Problem'. The presenter, Guardian writer and blogger Tom Service, began by highlighting a particular 'problem', which I hadn't considered - that Delius is seen as an English composer. That's long been seen as 'a bad thing' in certain quarters, entailing parochialism, insularity, cow-pat pastoralism, and whatever other bogey words can be slung at early Twentieth Century English music. Don't panic though as the guests agreed that Delius was far from being an English composer and far from sounding like an English composer, being 'cosmopolitan'. Why is this such a problem anyhow? Debussy was proudly French and sounds French to me. I don't hold that against him, even though I'm English. Why are we English so nervous about how others - especially our continental European friends - might see us? It seems to me to be rather similar to what the Australians call 'cultural cringe'. If Delius sounds English, so what? 

The composer Anthony Payne made some characteristically thought-provoking comments, arguing that the usual squabble between Delius's devotees and detractors over structure is one where both sides are missing the point. Delius didn't merely meander aimlessly nor did he transform old traditions but, in a profoundly original way that anticipates the 'moments' principle of Stockhausen, sought to get the listener to live for the moment, savouring each harmony as it passes rather than following an argument or looking for the overall structure of the piece. Where you are going and where you came from doesn't matter, on this reading, what counts is where you are. He contended that ignorance of modern music is responsible for people failing to see the extent to which Delius was a radical structural innovator. I can't say I'm wholly convinced by this, especially when pushed as far as Mr. Payne was pushing it, but it may have a grain of truth in it. Those chromatic chords that underpin whatever melody or thematic tag Delius is seemingly rhapsodising over are clearly meant to be savoured in themselves and in relation to what comes before and after them. The changes of orchestral colour are, similarly, there to be savoured for the own sake. But...surely not only for their own sake. Anthony Payne is, doubtless, trying to cleanse our ears when we listen to Delius, but he's surely going too far in his comparison. 


Anthony Payne also rejected the idea that Delius's music is full of nostalgia, saying that any nostalgia listeners might find in his works is purely a result of their own feelings of nostalgia being imported into the work in question. For him, Delius's music floats above the world, and that's its appeal. Again, thought-provoking but I do feel it to be nostalgic in mood, and I like that quality in it. I've noted - and you may have done so too - that 'nostalgia' seems to be another 'bad thing' in certain sections of the arts. 'English nostalgia', in particular, is a very 'bad thing'. Is Anthony Payne failing to find nostalgia in Delius's music because he doesn't wish to find nostalgia in music he seeks to advocate in favour of?

Anyhow, let me advocate in favour of Delius's A Song before Sunrise! This is late Delius, dating from 1923.  Its marking is an unusual one, 'Freshly', but it conveys what Delius wanted very clearly. The pulse is driven by that characteristic rhythm, the crochet-quaver-crochet-quaver pattern beloved of the composer. The first violins, accompanied by their divided string-fellows, present the main tune, whose occasional chromatic notes are amplified by the underlying string harmonies and by the wind comments above. The sighing phrases have a tendency to fall away, which helps give the work an...er...nostalgic feel. The winds take turns to comment, fixing in particular on a five-note dotted figure that you'll become very familiar with as the piece progresses. This phrase and phrases from the main theme ride atop the harmonic flow and the lilting rhythm. The music surges onto a brief, less chromatic climax just about a minute in, where the music almost seems to break out into a gorgeous nostalgic waltz. It swiftly sinks away to bird calls - trills from the flute, cuckoo calls from the clarinets. The waltz-like melody returns briefly but beautifully on the cellos before a solo oboe introduces a new nine-note phrase to a stricter accompaniment of the crochet-quaver-crochet-quaver pattern but this temporary dancing mood quickly slackens and woodwinds call over dreamy string chords. There are some entrancing changes of colour in this passage. After a pause, the upper strings introduce a delightfully Debussy-like melody, full of consecutive fourths and drawing its notes from the pentatonic scale, before cuckoos guide us into a slumbering transition to the recapitulation. Yes, a recapitulation of the opening section. That's not a typical structural event in the Delian calender. The dying moments feature more bird calls, including a phrase meant to depict a cockerel greeting the rising sun, over a characteristically peaceful final string chord.  


It was almost certainly meant to evoke the beauty of the French countryside, where Delius had dwelt for so long. So those are French cuckoos and French cockerels! Still, it sounds English to me. 

English or French, it's a lovely piece of music that brings a warm glow to this nostalgia-filled, English heart.

(The paintings are again by Alfred Sisley, a French painter of English origin.)

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Chasing Syrinx



Flautists seems to be very fond of Claude Debussy's Syrinx

It was historically important as it brought solo flute music back from the dead. There don't seem to have been any important works for solo flute since the days of the Bach Family. Since Syrinx, however, solo flute works have become much more common. So flautists can be grateful to Debussy for that. 

However, they're doubtless really fond of it because it's such a beguiling piece, short but full of dreams and sensuality and beauty. It's all melody, spinning out from the phrase heard at the start. Whether it depicts the nymph Syrinx being chased by the god Pan or the lament of Pan, it has a wonderfully exotic sound, thanks to its use of chromaticism and the whole tone scale as well as to its use of arabesques and incantatory repetition. Its phrases tend to fall at the end, like tears or sighs, culminating in the final diminuendo on a descending whole tone scale. This weight of expression expressed with French delicacy is another reason flautists love Syrinx. It's phrase structuring sounds so spontaneous, improvisatory even, but Debussy builds it in a long arc towards the climax and the closing dying away. It lasts less than three minutes, but packs a punch well above its weight. 


Flautists tend to want to stamp their own individual responses on their performances of Syrinx. It's one of those works that needs to be heard performed by a range of performers. If you click on the following links you'll hear what I mean. No performance sounds alike.



Another famous classic of the 20th Century solo flute repetoire is Edgar Varèse's Density 21.5 (written for the platinum flute, the title refers to the specific gravity of the element). It lasts not much longer than the Debussy (around four minutes) and also packs a punch beyond its weight. Though Varèse seems to have sought to consciously distance himself from Debussy's Syrinx, it was his model and, whatever his intentions, it seems clear to me that Density 21.5 has much in common with Syrinx. You feel it straight away, in the quiet, mysterious opening, where a chromatic melodic cell is spun out into melody, with the same air of (illusory) spontaneity. It's a beautiful opening. Later though, Varèse veers towards atonality, making much of the tritone (the devil in music) and taking chromaticism much further than Debussy. Moreover, the intervals in his melodic lines are prone to much wider leaps, generally (but not always) upwards, for, whereas the phrase in the Debussy piece tended to fall, those of Density 21.5 tend to rise, aspire, soar.  Like the Debussy though, it has a definite overall shape - crudely put, a journey from darkness to light. I'm very fond of the piece, though when I first heard it (many years ago) I didn't get it. Tastes can change.

There are a number of performances of Density 21.5 on YouTube. They are all individual, of course, but this composer leaves them much  less space for expressive license:



Finally, if you enjoy Syrinx and Density 21.5, it's likely you'll warm to Air by everyone's favourite Japanese classical composer, the late Toru Takemitsu. Takemitsu composed many quiet, reflective works reflecting his country's landscapes and gardens, drawing on the music of Debussy and Messiaen above all, though not without a little serial input, to express his deeply poetic worldview. The results can be very attractive. Air is a solo work flute that clearly owes something to Syrinx and I suspect also to Density 21.5. Chromaticism, touches of the whole tone scale, modal writing (after the manner of Messiaen), all inform his melodic writing, with little melodic hooks drawing the listener in. You can listen to it here. I hope you do!

Album-leaves are Falling



BBC Radio 3's Music Matters, with some (metaphorical) fanfare, today broadcast a newly-discovered piano piece in A minor by Johannes Brahms. It's quite something to find a lost piece by a composer who so assiduously covered his own tracks (mostly by destroying everything that didn't meet his exacting standards). The conductor Christopher Hogwood told us how he discovered it completely by chance and the great pianist András Schiff performed its broadcast premiere for us. It's a wholly characteristic, mature-sounding piece, despite being an early work (1853), with rich textures, some unexpected harmonies and a beautiful melody. Mr. Hogwood called it Albumblatt (Album-leaf).

If you go to 2.51 on this link, you'll hear this very tune played by a horn. It's the start of the trio section from the scherzo of Brahms's great Horn Trio. The programme made it clear that this complete-sounding little piano piece is an early version of that trio section. Comparative listening (which I advise) reveals that the older Brahms didn't change very much of it, either melodically or harmonically, when he came to re-score and re-use it. The twofold presentation of the melody is very similar in both versions (except in the scoring!). The following sequences diverge but follow the same overall shape, with the trio version rising more smoothly and, if I may say so, less interestingly than the Albumblatt version but falling away more interestingly, through the use of syncopation. Immediately afterwards, the two pieces are pretty much (metaphorically) singing from the same hymn-sheet again - though the final cadences are somewhat different. So what we have is a little piece that Brahms later incorporated, almost wholesale, into the second movement of his Horn Trio

There is, surprisingly, the intriguing whiff of controversy over this 'new' piece. Norman Lebrecht links to the story here. Clicking on Mr. Lebrecht's own link takes you to The Music Antiquarian Blog, which in turn links to a sales catalogue from April 2011, where the manuscript of the newly-discovered piece is shown and the work described, which is very rum! It gets rummer. At The Music Antiquarian Blog, a wholly different tale is told of the re-discovery of this little piano piece. It's a fascinating read. What's going on? Are some people embroidering the truth?

YouTube posted a performance of the piece a couple of days ago by Andrew Sun, two days earlier than the BBC's premiere broadcast. As our American friends say, 'Go figure!' I'd only add, 'Go listen!'

Swedish Rhapsody



The Northernmost nations of Europe all seem to have a clear candidate for their country's greatest classical composer. The Finns have Sibelius, the Norwegians have Grieg, the Danes have Nielsen, even the Icelanders have Leifs. The exception is Sweden. Some would say their greatest classical composer is the glorious early Romantic Franz Berwald, others the late Romantic Wilhelm Stenhammar. (Only adding the word 'classical' puts Benny Andersson out of contention!) More rarely, a claim goes in for another late Romantic, Hugo Alfvén (1872-1960). He's the composer of a piece that seems to have a place in Swedish music that, say, Smetana's Vltava has in Czech music, or Sibelius's Finlandia in Finland, or Enescu's Romanian Rhapsody No.1 in Romania: the Swedish Rhapsody No.1 (Midsummer Vigil)

This is a tuneful symphonic poem depicting the magic of Midsummer night in Sweden, where darkness barely falls and people love to party!

It opens with a tune many of you will recognise - a bright and breezy one on clarinet, played over pizzicato strings and to the accompaniment of a wind drone. It's got a folk-like quality that proves to be characteristic of the themes of the Swedish Rhapsody.  (The American country music guitarist Chet Atkins took in up, and it was also featured in an episode of The Simpsons). Other woodwinds join in, ending with a bassoon, before the orchestra as a whole belts out the tune with enthusiasm. It's then given a bit of symphonic development as the partying begins to get into full swing. Solo woodwinds, with a definite hint of tipsiness, introduce phrases from the next theme, which the brass then take up and begin to run with. This is another very catchy, vigorous tune that once heard isn't easily forgotten. (Does it remind anyone else of that Christmas perennial, Stop the Cavalry by Jona Lewie?). It lends itself to contrapuntal treatment and a rather drunken fugue breaks out as a result, climaxing riotously. It dies away, suggesting the crowd of revellers temporarily dispersing, as fragments of the main theme are heard. 


A slow, quiet passage, presumably painting in sound the brief fall of darkness, adds a touch of Wagnerian harmony to what is a piece whose prime influence is, very obviously, Grieg. A cor anglais, with help from the harp, then adds the flavour of romance with a beautiful new melody, somewhat wistful in character. A solo horn continues the romance before the strings shimmer with the light of the returning day, climaxing in a depiction of sunrise. This is a gorgeous passage. The painting above, by the composer himself, captures some of its mood. 

The people re-begin the merriment with another new tune - a charming, light-as-a-feather one, initially scored as if it had come straight out of a Tchaikovsky ballet but soon bursting out into celebration. A final folkdance-like tune, first sounding very much like one of those hardanger fiddle tunes by Grieg, accompanied by a heavy drone effect, bursts in and carries the partying to a heady conclusion.

The Swedish Rhapsody is so full of good tunes and so well constructed that its popularity is easy to understand. 


Outside Sweden, Alfvén isn't known for much else. The Elegy from his incidental music to Gustav II Adolf is the other piece you are most likely to hear. It's very much in the same vein as Grieg (in elegiac mood) and is, I hope you'll agree (if you click on the link), a lovely piece of music. 

You might also have come across the ballet suite, The Mountain King (Bergakungen). This score occupies much the same territory as Grieg's Peer Gynt, with its trolls and herd-maids - and not just in its story. My favourite here is Summer Rainwhere romantic warmth meets impressionism and delightful scoring. The other movements are winning too, with a lively piece of Tchaikovsky-like Rococo charm in the outer sections of the Herd-Maid's Danceplus a grotesque Trolls' Dance and another lovely evocation of a Swedish Midsummer's night (which follows straight on from the Trolls' Dance link).

This is all cheerful, entertaining music - far from the spirit of Ingmar Bergman. I'm sure there is a more serious side to Alfvén's music (and I hope to explore it) - given that he wrote five symphonies - but what price seriousness when you can get such pleasure from the lighter, brighter side of music?

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Rendering unto Schubert



Hopefully most people have heard of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony (the Eighth), one of the best-loved symphonic works in the repertoire, but there's also what we might call the Barely Begun Symphony (the Tenth). The Italian avant-garde composer Luciano Berio took the fragmentary sketches of Schubert's Tenth and wove them into a work from 1989 called Rendering. If you like Schubert, please give it a try. You will be delighted!!

Rendering gives us what can be given of the Schubert, but in the gaps Berio provides his own dream-like interludes - washes of threads from myriad other works by Schubert. You'll know when these are beginning, as Berio uses the celesta as a herald. The technique was inspired, I read, by modern restorations of old frescoes - such as those by Giotto (whose paintings grace this post) - that don't seek to disguise the damages of time but concentrate on reviving the vividness of their original colours. The interludes are seamlessly linked to the 'true' Schubert and cast their own spell.

What sort of work was/would have been/is Schubert's Symphony No.10? Well, these are my impressions.

The theme Berio assumes (surely rightly) to be the first movement's opening theme is a fine one, characteristic of the composer when thinking big. There are powerful rhythms and a repetitive three-note figure - ideas open to development, modulation and colouring, as Berio shows. An ambitious work was clearly on the cards, but one with Dvorak-like touches (Dvorak, half a century in the future, was one of Schubert's spiritual grandchildren, so to speak). A transition with a momentary trace of Spain leads to...nowhere. When we pick up 'Schubert' again (after the Berio interlude) we find ourselves near the end of another stormy transition after which a dancing development of the main theme begins. A climax is reached and a delightful theme enters in Schubert's best and most tuneful vein (the second subject, presumably?). It is very song-like. Another exciting transition follows with what sounds like an heroic new theme but is in fact a wonderful variant of the main theme. Further transitional writing then dissolve into...well, we'll never know. We meet up with 'Schubert' next with a chorale-like passage. Reminders of the tuneful 'second subject' lead to a short crisis that passes swiftly and the main subject brings what would clearly have been a much-loved movement to a powerful close.


The sketches for the B minor Andante also reveal extraordinary riches. The third symphony of Mahler's First Symphony is made to feel close by Berio, for this is a funeral march. Over a march rhythm a fine melody and a related counter-melody process, mournfully but beautifully. A noble crescendo and a change to the major shows some of the near Brucknerian scope of Schubert's fragmented vision, as does the subsequent ebbing away. Magical!  We pick the movement up again (after a Berio interlude) as the march is obviously spreading towards heavenly length and a lyrical phrase rises sweetly against Brucknerian figuration - a brief but beautiful pastoral vision. Would we had much more! The next fragment of 'Schubert'  recapitulates the main theme as we first heard it before spreading again...or at least starting to spread again...

The Scherzo/Finale has another great theme, with a swinging, somewhat folk-like, almost Grieg-like character, which 'Schubert' sets dancing contrapuntally. A gentler second theme wanders over a classic jogtrot accompaniment before the main theme's return with an even stronger contrapuntal treatment. The next fragment continues this contrapuntal development with considerable vigour and then switches to lyrical lightness with a trio-like episode of some charm. The Grieg-like theme returns before a boisterous 'folk-dance' erupts and...then...inevitably...ah, well, we had a good run there! There's more 'Schubert' to come though - a fugue on the main subject and a varied reprise with symphonic 'goings-on'. What a movement this would have been! I suspect, given Schubert's previous, that it would have been a long and varied one.


I'm guessing that the Berio interludes, written in the spirit of avant-garde music of our day (or nearly 25 years ago!), have militated against Rendering become a popular classic ('Schubert's Tenth'), just as 'Mahler's Tenth' and 'Elgar's Third' would have suffered if their respective 'realisers' had done what Berio chose to do. Many people just can't take avant-garde music. That's a shame. Berio does Schubert proud throughout and writes very convincingly in his style (and in his own). He gives us some superb music. It deserves far greater fame.

As evidence for the point I was just making, I've heard significantly more broadcasts/performances of another of Berio's recreations of the past - one where he overlays several versions of the same movement by the original composer, yet achieves a thoroughly non-modernist result. It is the colourful, delightful re-working of Boccherini called Ritirata notturna di Madrid. Audiences love it!

Music! hark!





YouTube has the premiere recording (1938) of Serenade to Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, conducted by Sir Henry Wood (the founder of the Proms). Sixteen solo voices and orchestra, just as it should be.

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There's not the smallest orb that thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear,
And draw her home with music.
I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
The reason is, your spirits are attentive
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Music! hark!
It is your music of the house.
Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Silence bestows that virtue on it
How many things by season season'd are
To their right praise and true perfection!
Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion
And would not be awak'd. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

   (Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice)

Such a warm, glowing piece. Someone should name a blog after it!

RVW (hack centre), Sir Henry Wood & the 16 soloists

Were you sitting an A-level in music, this is what they might ask you about the piece:

Listen to the opening orchestral introduction and the setting of the following text:
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music creep in our ears
Soft stillness and the night become the touches of sweet harmony
1. How does Vaughan Williams create the impression of night and moonlight in the orchestral introduction?
2. How does Vaughan Williams set the text? Are there any exceptions and if so, why has he chosen to change his word setting?
3. Vaughan Williams originally wrote this for 16 soloists (4 each of SATB) and the recording follows this pattern. Listen on to the rest of the piece. What effect does the composer create by having 16 solo voices rather than a choir?
4. Listen to the section “Come ho and wake Diana with a hymn”. Diana was a goddess of hunting. How does the composer tell us this using music?
5. This piece was written in 1938. Pierrot Lunaire was written in 1914. Which do you feel is more “modern” sounding and why?

Feel free to try to answer them for yourselves!

Gustav Leonhardt: 1928-2012



Sad to read that the great master of the Baroque keyboard, Gustav Leonhardt, has died.

Sweelinck - Echo-fantasie in A No.12 
Bach - Goldberg Variations BWV 988
D. Scarlatti - Sonatas K.185 /K.184
Francois Couperin - La dilligente
Scheidemann - Praeambulum No. 5 in D
Bach - Cantata BWV32

R.I.P.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Canons to the left of them, Canons to the right of them



A few years ago, BBC Radio 3 broadcast 'A Bach Christmas', playing all the works of old Sebastian, and having enjoyed a feast of counterpoint I thought I might surprise the family with a little canon based on Bach tunes. They're not really into classical music (to put it mildly), but as I recorded it using the 'Bells' sound on our electric organ, it sounded very festive - like having our own cathedral to ring in the new year. It grabbed their attention for at least a couple of minutes. Yes, that was one wild new year!

I love trying to write canons but, no, I'm not going to share them with you. Instead, I want to try to give a short overview of what canons are.

You'll certainly all know what canons are anyhow (if you don't already know) if I tell you that they're also called 'rounds' (or 'catches') and you may have sung them at school. Popular examples are Frère Jacques, Row, Row, Row Your Boat and Three Blind Mice

A round is a piece of music where one voice (or instrument) begins the tune and two or more other voices (or instruments) join it later, singing the same tune, note for note, overlapping the first voice. The result is that different phrases of the tune are sung simultaneously. The result should sound harmonious. 

This definition (my own) of a round can serve just as well as the definition of a canon, as the round is only the simplest form of canon, known as a canon at the unison - that is when the second voice (and then the third voice and the fourth voice, etc) begins the tune on exactly the same note as the first voice. A canon at the octave is very nearly the same thing (and will sound pretty much identical to the listener, especially when a mixed choir is singing), except that the second voice begins...and I think you might guess where I'm going with this one...an octave higher. All my attempts so far have been canons at the unison or octave. 

The first-ever (known) piece of counterpoint was a canon at the unison: Sumer Is Icumen In (Summer is here!), dating from around 1260. Even if you don't read music, comparing the shapes of each of the lines in the score below should give you a good idea of how a canon at the unison looks on the page, and perhaps how it might work in practice:




With Sumer Is Icumen In, it's not very difficult to hear the process in action. Even the accompanying figure (which you can see beginning in the tenor part at the end of printed score) doesn't distract the ear. 

That's not always the case. A well-known later example of a canon at the octave is the eight piece, God grant with grace, in Tudor composer Thomas Tallis's extremely beautiful Nine Psalm Tunes for Archbishop Parker's Psalter, a piece known as Tallis's Canon, or as the hymn Glory to thee, my God, this night. Here the soprano follows four beats behind the tenor and begins an octave higher. The other two voices do their own thing, though occasionally echoing parts of the canon. Whether you listen from 6.10 in this video or 6.07 in this one or 6.08 in this one, can you hear the canon being sung between the tenor and soprano? I'm afraid I just seem unable to hear the piece as anything other than a soprano tune accompanied by three other voices providing harmony. For me, the tenor's tune gets lost in the lines and harmony of his two non-soprano companions. I can see the canon in the score but can't hear it in performance. Possibly if some performances brought out the tenor part out more (got Placido Domingo to sing it maybe!) then I might hear the process of Tallis's canon in action, but I'm not so sure about that. 

You can have canons at any interval - at the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, etc. Pachebel's Canon, if you were wondering, is a canon at the unison, with a ground bass for accompaniment: 


File:Pachelbel-canon-colors.png

Canons are fun for composers. They are a bit like doing crossword puzzles or playing chess. They take a great deal of ingenuity to pull off. Many composers want us listeners to share their pleasure in the ingenuity of their canons. They want us to hear what they're up to. We listeners can indeed find it highly satisfying to follow the different voices as they imitate each other. However, some composers are far less concerned that the listener hears the canonic process. They might even wish us not to notice the intellectual scaffolding beneath their music. Or they might care only to please themselves, or connoisseurs of scores, or performers. The anonymous composer of Sumer Is Icumen In clearly fell in the first camp, and I suspect Tallis fell in the second camp.

Where does Webern fall with his Dormi Jesu from the 5 Canons on Latin Texts, Op.16? Well, he's not exactly hiding the fact that his pieces are all canons, having chosen that title for the set. This particular tiny little piece for soprano and clarinet, however, is an example of a type of canon that is rather hard for the listener to follow as a canon - canon by inversion. Here any rising interval in the first voice becomes a falling interval in the second voice - an instance of contrary motion. It's easiest heard at the very start of Dormi Jesu, where the first four notes played by the clarinet rise through three intervals and the soprano then enters with four notes falling through the same three intervals, upside down. Thereafter I suspect you will find it harder to follow (as a listener), given the wide leaps in the two lines and the fact that you will probably hear the two parts as being completely different melodies.

Even harder not to hear as two completely different melodies is the retrograde canon, or crab-canon, or cancrizans. Here the second voice imitates the first voice by simultaneously singing/playing the melody backwards. The ear is, I would say, incapable of hearing the second voice's part as a new tune altogether, unrelated to the original tune - except to anyone reading a score. With a crab-canon, the composer is satisfying himself and score-reading scholars, but not his listeners - at least as regards the satisfaction given by following canons. Obviously, the piece can still delight us even if we don't know that there are canons at work. (That really is obvious!) This truly excellent YouTube video gives a very clear demonstration of the cancrizans at work in a movement from Bach's Musical Offering.


And there's more. Stravinsky wrote a deeply expressive Double Canon, where two canons on different themes proceed simultaneously. You can have triple canons, or as many canons going on as you like. The great American-born maverick Conlon Nancarrow had twelve of them going on in his jaw-dropping Study No.37 for player piano! Plus, as the Nancarrow example shows, canons can be played at different speeds. There are prolation canons where the tune is, indeed, played at different speeds in different voices. A beautiful recent example is Arvo Pärt's Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten. where an A minor scale falls repeatedly against itself at various speeds.


Canons have been with us since around 1260 then and continued to flourish for the rest of the Medieval period. They were very popular with the Renaissance and the Baroque. After a very short dip they rose again with the Classical era. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all wrote them. Many were jokes, such as Beethoven's delightful Ta ta ta, lieber Mälzel (the tune of which might well remind you of this). One of Beethoven's most wonderful creations, the quartet Mir ist so wunderbar from the opera Fidelio, is also a canon. YouTube has huge numbers of these fantastic little chips from Beethoven's workshop here. Canons lasted even through the Romantic era, where they tended to become far less strict and were usually accompanied examples, such as this gem from Schumann, his Study No.4 from Op.56. Brahms was their greatest Romantic exponent, using canons in many of his works and writing a fair few stand-alone ones, such as this magical specimen, Einförmig is der Liebe Gram, based on Schubert's Der Leiermann from Die Winterreise. With the coming of the Twentieth Century, canons of the stricter and unaccompanied kind came back with a vengeance. All manner of composers relished them, from Schoenberg (you should enjoy these!) to Stravinsky (see above), from Pärt (also see above) to Ligeti (not yet on YouTube). 

In other words, they've always been loved by composers and are one of the most durable musical forms.  Long may that continue to be so!

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Mr. Beethoven, your majesty!



It seems nobody's quite sure why he wrote them but my fellow Brits will be pleased to know that Beethoven wrote a set of variations on our national anthem, his 7 Variations in C on 'God Save the King', WoO78. They aren't exactly his deepest work but they have quite a few things to recommend them.

(If this post goes awry it's because it's not easy to tap out a post on a laptop when you're standing for the national anthem!)

The theme is presented straightforwardly. Then Variation I adds some charming touches to the theme, such as the little turn on its first note and the unexpected frisson of an out-of-key F sharp in the second bar followed by the even more unexpected C sharp in the third bar. Who would have anticipated such adventurous harmonies so early in the piece? There's also the syncopations beginning at the end of the third bar and  the chromatic notes in the second half leading up to the surprise rest in the tune which results in more syncopations. That's the first of my favourites. Variation II turns the tune into an agile two-part invention and hits the spot with those repeated Gs that run along the middle of the texture at the start of the second half. Variation III is jaunty and almost jazzy in its use of syncopation and Variation IV continues the rhythmic games in a way that looks forward (as I always do!) to Schumann. Ah, now we arrive at Variation V and the obligatory minor key variation. Who would have thought that this famous tune would have yielded such tenderness? The grace of the melody and the loveliness of Beethoven's harmonies are the keys to this variation's special appeal. As you may have guessed, that's the second of my favourites. A strutting march follows in Variation VI, breaking the spell of Variation V. The final variation then whirls into action, the theme bouncing along on a perpetual motion of semiquavers. After a short adagio reminder of the theme in all its stately grandeur, Beethoven's coda erupts in a new kind of whirling figuration, on which the theme dances, sings a couple of phrases more lyrically before returning to the whirling figuration before erupting in the sort of brilliance expected at the very end of works like these. 

Now, it's fair to say that Beethoven doesn't present the anthem throughout with the majesty we might expect, but then this is a set of variations presumably written for the delight of audiences rather than to hail the arrival of British monarchs!

I love variations.

Wakey Wakey!



You know that a piece of music is popular when you hear it being played while you're shopping in Argos. Bach's first Schübler Chorale for organ, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme ("Wake, Awake, a Voice is Calling") BWV645, is one such piece. It sounds festive and seems to have become associated with Christmas. It is also blessed with one of Bach's best tunes, which positively skips along. Against this tune appears the noble chorale melody, which is a thing of beauty in itself. Beneath both runs a bass line which has a far from uninteresting character of its own. It's a winning combination. Like all the other Schübler Chorales, it's an arrangement by the composer of a movement from one of his cantatas, here from BWV140 (beginning at 14.39). There the tune was played by the violins and violas, here it's played by the right hand. There the chorale was sung by unison tenors (or a solo tenor), here by the organist's left hand. There the bass was played by the continuo, here by the organist's feet. The transformation could not sound more natural. 

There are five more Schübler Chorales, not that you hear them with anything like the frequency of Wachet auf. Is that for a good reason? Are the others less special?

I think the answer would have to be 'yes' - with one exception. Though far from festive, so never likely to be piped to Christmas shoppers, the fourth Schübler Chorale is just as wonderful as its famous companion. Meine Seele erhebt den Herren (My soul doth magnify the Lord) BWV648 is an inward looking piece, with the bass (on the pedal) announcing a mysterious chromatic theme which the alto and tenor of the organ (the left hand) take up and sing in duet. Against them the phrases of the chorale tune appear in the soprano (right hand). The effect is magical. It's an arrangement of a splendid duet for alto and tenor from Cantata 10 (a movement called He remembers His mercy), where the chorale was given to oboes and trumpet (11.37 into the video). This is one of my favourite Bach pieces and should be played more often (as should the cantata). 


What then of the rest? 

Wo soll ich fliehen hin (Whither shall I flee?) BWV646 certainly has least going for it, being pleasant but rather ordinary (by Bach's standards). The hands develop a little figure that, aptly, runs hither and thither while the pedal plays the chorale. The cantata it was presumably taken from has not survived. (It doesn't come from Cantata 5, which is based on the same chorale melody.)  

Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten (Who allows God alone to rule him) BWV647 is better and has a beautiful chorale melody, which is played on the pedal. Above it unfolds a three-part invention shared between the hands. This is transcribed from a charming soprano-alto duet in Cantata 93 (beginning at 11.00), where strings play the chorale.

I'm even fonder of Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ (Lord Jesus Christ, with us abide) BWV649. This is as festive in spirit as Wachet auf. The right hand has the chorale with the left-hand playing the delightfully catchy figurative line that makes the piece such a pleasure to hear. The pedal provides an unexceptional bass. The chorale is arrangement from a soprano aria in Cantata 6, where the catchy tune is played by a cello and the soprano sings the chorale. 

Just as delightful is the final Schübler Chorale Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter
(Come thou, Jesu, from heaven to earth) BWV650. The chorale tune, played here on the pedal, will be recognisable to lovers of Anglican hymns as Praise to the Lord, the Almighty. The soprano has a lively and tuneful theme, which may represent the hovering of an angel, and the left hand provides a bass to accompany it. This is an arrangement of a lovely alto chorale from Cantata 137 (3.26 in) where the angelic theme is played by a solo violin. 

There's very little in this set that isn't wonderful, and the closing pair come close to being as wonderful as Wachet auf and Meine Seele erhebt den Herren

Complex-Simple



After the peak of the post-Webern avant-garde (Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio, Babbitt et al), there were various reactions. Beginning in the 1970s and flourishing in the 1980s, one was labelled 'New Complexity' and another 'New Simplicity'. Both labels pretty much tell you what the composers involved were aiming at!

The New Complexity folk - figures including Michael Finnissy, James Dillon and Brian Ferneyhough - sought to take the 'progressive' serial mission of Boulez & Co. much further. The New Simplicity folk - including Walter Zimmermann, Christopher Fox and Kevin Volans - sought to rebel against that serial mission. The New Complexity crowd favoured elaborate, microscopically-planned scores that would challenge both players and audiences. The New Simplicity crowd wanted to create an impulsive music that would speak directly to audiences. New Complexity scores were aimed primarily at sympathetic new music audiences  while New Simplicity scores hoped to appeal to a general audience. New Complexity was to make the most 'advanced' playing techniques and virtuosity a hallmark of its style. New Simplicity was much less interested in such things. The New Complexity composers wanted to make as few concessions to the dreaded 19th century tradition as humanly possible, whereas the New Simplicity composers often courted its forms and the tonal language. New Complexity was to be full of tension, dissonance, effects of fragmentation and avoid old-fashioned tunes at all costs. New Simplicity was to allow consonance, coherence and even some old-fashioned tunes. Whereas the New Complexity movement embraced the aim of objectivity found in the old avant-garde the New Simplicity movement sought to restore subjectivity to music. Most obviously, the world of New Complexity music exulted in textural complexity while the textures of New Simplicity music are much simpler. New Complexity scores are a thicket of notes covered in dynamic markings while New Simplicity scores are far sparser and far less fussed about markings. New Complexity works are ultra-sophisticated and intellectual while New Simplicity pieces aim for an impression of spontaneity and naivety.


Now this overview has entailed a lot of simplification and generalisation - so much so that it could be described as Extreme Simplicity music writing! - but hopefully contains enough grains of truth to help make sense of why the two pieces of music I'm about to link to - as examples from each encampment - are so very different.


I swooped on the Ferneyhough piece because (a) it's a useful example, (b) it's short and therefore easier to grasp and (c) it's actually one his most approachable pieces. I chose the Volans because it's his most popular work and shows the distinction between his and Ferneyhough's music clearly and because I like it! (I suppose to have really shown the contrast it might have been better to have chose a longer, more fiendishly complex piece from Ferneyhough!)


There's a score on the video for Adagissimo that shows that the string quartet is divided into two parts, with the two violins playing one kind of music and the viola and cello playing another. (The image above shows a page from the score). The violins play fast music and, even if you don't read music, you'll be able to see just how complicated their parts are, especially compared to the comparatively spare parts for viola and cello. Those violin parts are New Complexity instrumental writing - and its notation - in another nutshell! Though the viola and cello parts with their many sustained notes and far slower movement aren't really what you expect from Ferneyhough and help give the piece its uncharacteristically easier-on-the-ear feel, they do underline the serialist roots of Ferneyhough's writing. 


There's no score on the White Man Sleeping video, but then you don't really need it. (Still, there's an image of a page from the first violin part above). The piece is Kevin Volans's first string quartet and is in five movements. The energetic first movement has a folk-like character, with an unusual and engaging 13/4 time metre. The materials are, however, simple and the music's closeness to minimalism is clear to hear. Repetition is an important element. (Ferneyhough tries to avoid repetition like the plague.) In the piece the composer attempted to fuse the folk music of his native South Africa with Western music traditions, like a contemporary Bartok (in that sense at least)! The second movement, called 'Panpipes', is also mostly fast and rhythmic. No constant changing of dynamics, you will note - so unlike the Ferneyhough. Also unlike Ferneyhough are the catchy melodies that appear in the middle of the movement. There is also a lovely passage though where sustained notes overlap and where time seems to stop for a short while. The central movement uses some extended playing techniques, but the old kind of extended playing techniques (harmonics, pizzicato, col legno) to delightfully fresh effect. The fourth movement is a magical ethereal lullaby, quietly, quietly singing to us in long, overlapping notes before turning into a lilting, lulling dance. The uniformity of technique in this movement would not appeal to Ferneyhough, not its soothing immediacy. The Finale sounds a little like a hundred drums heard from afar and is full of gently seething energy. 


We live in what people call a post-modern age where 'pluralism' reigns supreme. We can have Ferneyhough and Volans, Tavener and Carter, Birtwistle and Rutter, John Williams and Helmut Lachenmann. The once powerful enforcers are now ignored when they speak of music having to do such and such. Some disapprove of this, others rejoice. I rejoice. 

Friday, 13 January 2012

It was on the eleventh of April...



Australian maverick composer Percy Grainger walked out one morning in the April of 1905 and recorded a folk-singer from Brigg, Lincolnshire called Joseph Taylor. The wax cylinder survives and Taylor can be heard singing Brigg Fair here, with a graceful guitar accompaniment by modern folk artist Gloria Jeffries. (Taylor sang unaccompanied on the Grainger recording). 

Grainger arranged the song for solo tenor and chorus, and that beautiful piece can be heard here (sung by Ian Bostridge). 

As this post concerns Delius's orchestral variations on Brigg Fair, what is so interesting about the Grainger arrangement is that its adventurous harmonies have a scent of Delius about them. This is probably to be accounted for by the fact that they both drew on the same Grieg and Wagner brew as the root of their styles (Grainger was very firmly to add Delius himself to that brew after they met in 1907.) The dates of composition for the Grainger are 1906 and for the Delius 1907-08.


Delius's Brigg Fair is styled 'an English rhapsody', and rhapsodic it most certainly is - like so much of the composer's music. It begins with a pastoral evocation that, like the opening bars of On Hearing the First Cuckoo of Spring, is deliciously atmospheric. A flute sings gently, like a bird, over dreamy harp figuration, before the strings enter beneath with typical added harmony chords. The Grainger arrangement is then transcribed, first for the woodwinds lead by solo oboe, then for solo flute and strings, then for strings alone, then for flutes and clarinets with strings. So the variations initially begin as restatements of the modal tune in various orchestral hues and against a backdrop of varying harmonies before becoming much freer. The first freer variation begins immediately with Delius's trademark lilting rhythm turning the tune into a slow and stately dance with running figures for the violins. Horns and then a solo trumpet continue to ring the changes on the colours of the theme. There's then a rhapsodic central section, begun by the solo flute from the work's opening, where strict variation form flies out of the window. The melody here is a new theme. (Some of the phrases here have always reminded me of something else, but I've only just realised what - a phrase from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet. It's a fleeting moment and almost certainly not worth me passing on to you, but still now I've got it off my chest. So there!) This particularly gorgeous, peaceable stretch of the score eventually rouses itself from its languor with a brass-led variation (with percussion) and this leads on to a crescendo and a brief climax. The next section continues the rhapsodic treatment of variation form, albeit more solemnly, with trumpet and trombone leading a march with an off-the-beat accompaniment. The flute from the opening returns over a steady tread from the drums before a slight spring enters the music's step (only slight, this is Delius after all!) and bears us towards the next crescendo towards a majestic climax and then, characteristically, the variations end and there starts a long, slow, soft fade into the sunset with a glowing, nostalgic recreation of the atmospheric music of the rhapsody's opening pages. 

The climaxes are few and far between in Brigg Fair and the music remains mostly tranquil in mood throughout, as is to be expected from this composer. The folksong is about love and there is certainly love music here, especially in that ravishingly romantic central section. This is, for me, the finest music in Brigg Fair and a passage I just love listening to, not matter how many times I hear it. The opening is loveable too, totally impressionistic in character, all about conjuring up the beauty of the countryside, which it does very successfully I would say, and the coda is beautiful too. If you don't know Brigg Fair, I strongly recommend you give it a try.

On Hearing the First Delius of 2012



A lot of music lovers feel passionately about the music of Frederick Delius (1962-1934). Some love it and some loathe it. I've heard more than one BBC Radio 3 programme (one was even a series) where well-known music lovers are asked to share their personal dislikes and the name 'Delius' has cropped up and received a few thwacks. A music magazine recently did something similar and, again, the name 'Delius' came up and loathing was expressed. The first time I heard someone do this, quite a long time ago now, the comment went along the lines of  "I hate hot-house composers like Delius". At the time I was taken aback and wondered how anyone could pick on the composer of the inoffensive On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, especially when there were so many other composers to dislike. It seemed such an odd choice. Time has taught me, however, that it wasn't an odd choice at all. People keep on making the same choice. She clearly has a lot of allies out there in the music-loving world, many ready and willing to express their reservations about this composer above all other composers. That said, for every detractor who is either left cold or irritated by his music, there seems to be a devotee who absolutely adores Delius. Why is this composer among the select band of love-'em-or-loathe-'em composers? Speaking as a moderate fan of Delius, I've had to rack my brains about this. Here are some possible explanations, with apologies in advance for a few (necessary?) sweeping statements along the way.

One peculiar quality of Delius's music is its lack of variety. The mood of one Delius piece is pretty much the same as the mood of any other Delius piece. Within a particular piece, the initial mood is generally maintained throughout. Contrast for contrast's sake did not interest him. Some find this quality engaging, others obviously find it boring. Similarly, his trademark ever-shifting chromatic harmonies are ever-present, from piece to piece, and most of his music moves at a leisurely pace. Now if you like his music, its lack of variety is no problem for, obviously, if you love one piece you're very likely to love the rest too. Naturally, the reverse is also true: If one Delius piece leaves you cold, then it's probable that the rest will too.

How, incidentally, to define that mood? Delicate, dreamy, contemplative, bitter-sweet, nostalgic perhaps, sometimes ecstatic? It can be languorous and occasionally rather hot and sticky, but is generally relaxed (and relaxing). 

Also, this isn't music of argument and logic and the intellect. It's music of atmosphere and feeling and poetry. Delius was perfectly explicit about this, and thoroughly proud of his stance. He hated systematic composing, counterpoint and, famously, nearly all music other than his own! Structurally, his pieces rhapsodise - even his concertos - and give the impression of being largely intuitive (which could also be glossed as 'organic'). Sonata form, if used at all, is used with such freedom as to barely count as such. For lovers of his music this isn't a problem (far from it!), but for the detractors it clearly is. For the former there is dreaminess and a visionary quality in the way his works unfold, while for the latter it's all very diffuse, meandering about aimlessly, lacking backbone.


Those trademark ever-shifting chromatic harmonies are probably the key defining feature of Delius's music. Melody is less important. In some works, a short theme is continually repeated against a continually varying harmonic accompaniment. The pleasure for enthusiasts is in riding those harmonies. Those not in sympathy with them will find them tiring (and tiresome).

Another distinctive feature in the works for (or with) orchestra is their exceptionally refined scoring. Delius is just as well-known for his orchestration as he is for his individual way with harmony. He made it an integral part of his music. His writing for instruments is sometimes compared to drawing with pastels. His admirers are particularly taken with this facet of his art, though his detractors seem to regard this feature as over-important and would probably prefer the musical equivalent of oil painting or acrylics! My preferred painterly comparison here is between Delius and the delicate, lyrical impressionist painting of Alfred Sisley, whose works grace this post. (I might spell this out at a later date.) 

Delius is certainly an impressionistic composer. For supporters, Delius is worthy of comparison in this respect to Debussy. For opponents, Debussy's clarity of vision far surpasses Delius's. 

Perhaps the nub of the criticism boils down to the starting point of this post. The 'hot-house' accusation is only the modern incarnation of the old criticism that Delius's music is 'precious' (in the sense of being "affectedly or excessively delicate".) Some will find the qualities I've been outlining as proof that Delius's music is precious, some in that particular sense of the word, others in the more familiar sense of "having great value".

Onto some pieces by the man himself, beginning with one that isn't in the slightest bit typical! I was particularly pleased on Christmas Day to have heard Classic FM give us Sleigh Ride (1888-1890). Apparently, the main tune is being used in a TV advert, thus pushing the piece more into the public eye. Well, good! Sleigh Ride should always have been a popular classic. It's a very early piece, a 'small tone poem' written in the years immediately after the start of his friendship with Norway's finest, Edvard Grieg. The main tune definitely has a lot of Grieg about it and the work is generally far in spirit from the mature voice of Delius. He rarely went in for jolly tunes later in life! There are touches of orchestration in the beautiful central passage that hint at the future composer though.


Though it quotes a folksong Grieg had already used (I Ola Dolam), comparing what Delius did with the Norwegian melody in On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring is to show that by 1912 he was entirely his own man, recreating it in his own image, even adding his own melodic phrases. That tune comes after a tune of Delius's own, a tune with his most characteristic rhythm - crochet, minim, crochet, minim... (yes, that particular lilting, triple-time rhythm - and ones very like it - does keep cropping up throughout his collected works). The two themes seem like peas from the same pod and flow naturally into each other as the rhapsodising proceeds. The opening bars are typically atmospheric in their pastoral scene-setting, with divided strings playing a tonic (C major) chord with an added seventh to establish a misty morning mood before horns, bassoons and clarinets perform a fragment of Delius's tune answered by a fragment of the folktune on oboe. As the strings shimmer on their final held note, the clarinets very quietly cuckoo. The piece in a nutshell and, I think, surpassingly beautiful. This attention to tone colour - just as much the strings as the woodwind - is, of course, also Delius in a nutshell, as inseparable from the experience of his piece as any of the melodies and harmonies. A solo clarinet gets to play the hero! The harmonies themselves are rich and beautiful, with some of loveliest coming in the closing minute before the final fading major chord. If you don't find this at all beguiling, then Delius really isn't the composer for you.

...unless something unfamiliar might tempt you in - such as the songs. Orchestral songs are an especially attractive medium as far as I'm concerned and Delius wrote some very beautiful ones. Please give Twilight Fancies (one of his Seven Songs from the Norwegian) a try. Again, it's an early work with a little Grieg and a twinge or two of Wagner but the exquisite use of the orchestra and the nostalgic mood conjured up is pure Delius. The same mood (though the exquisite scoring this time comes courtesy of Eric Fenby) comes in To Daffodils (from his Four Old English Lyrics), written much later during the First World War. Setting the famous Herrick poem, To Daffodils is very characteristic of its composer. The key is C major and opens with a four note melodic turn of phrase that recurs quite often across his output. As with the opening chord of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, it's a tonic chord with an added note (here an added sixth rather than an added seventh). By the second half of the second bar a diminished seventh (enharmonically speaking) appears followed by a B major seventh chord but, in a way Delians love, immediately resolves back onto the added sixth chord of the opening which, consequently, sounds even brighter than before whilst also sounding not unlike a sigh. These harmonies oscillate dreamily, bitter-sweetly, until (on "noon") a short sudden outbreak of ecstasy introduces a straight B major seventh chord followed by a C sharp major seventh chord. Many more sharps and flats make their appearance in the score though the C major added harmony of the opening returns from time to time. This is Delius's chromatic harmony in action. Another gorgeous song is I-Brasil. Listen to this and then listen again to The First Cuckoo and you'll hear what I mean about the lack of variety in his music - similar turns of phrase, rhythmic patterns, harmonies, scoring and, even though its melancholy is deeper, even the mood is similar. I am perfectly relaxed about that!


Sometimes though, as in his violin sonatas (especially Nos. 1 and 2), the perceived limitations of Delius's rhapsodic style - those things that annoy so many - can be...well...perceived, even by a sympathetic listener such as myself. Lyricism is all pervasive though the melodies are hardly memorable and unsympathetic listeners may hurl accusations of note-spinning. The flow of the pieces is generally slow-moving despite the odd faster section, chromatic harmony is everywhere and there are no obvious landmarks. The result is that they feel a bit unrelieved. You could ask, "Who needs landmarks when every direction you look you find beauty?" A Perfect Delian might, indeed, very well say something like that. Still, these are sort of pieces where, when I'm in a certain mood, I can see where the foes of Delius are coming from. 

Still, there is so much for the sympathetic listener to revel in and over the coming year, in the spirit of anniversary mania, I shall endeavour to bring you some chose cuts of Delius - from orchestral miniatures to mighty choral giants and opera.