Monday, 28 December 2015

The composer’s perspective.

Like the composer’s toolbox these blogs are about the mechanics of music.  Instead of considering the methods that are commonly used by all composers (at some time) these blogs look at the combination of elements that have fashioned the composer’s outlook along with the working method.
Arnold Bax is a name familiar to those who love English music or music from the British Isles, today his music has supporters, particularly Vernon Handley, but his music is not as widely appreciated as R.V. Williams, Holst or Delius.  This is a sad state of affairs as the music is versatile and well crafted, and should be highly regarded by those who are interested in the craft of composition.
There are elements in Bax’s music that invited criticism, and such comments can be hard to shift once made.  For this reason I am going to refer to the negative comments after looking at one movement of one work, the first movement of the first symphony, that way a more honest appraisal can be made of the music.  This is not to say that Bax was without public support, his piano music was appreciated widely, particularly in the period after the end of WWI.
The opening movement of the first symphony is an intensely powerful statement built from very simple ideas which can be (almost) endlessly manipulated.

It is worth mentioning that Bax’s teacher of composition, Frederick Corder, was interested in the music of Wagner and Liszt, the latter composer having much in common with Bax’s approach to continual variation which is evident throughout the movement.
Part of the music of this symphony was originally composed as a piano sonata in E flat, an early work which is well crafted and far more than competent.  This recording is not available on YT but can be found on Spotify.

To listen to both one after another makes one want to praise the quality of the piano writing and then celebrate the brilliance of orchestration.  There is an emphasis on rhythmic design which is articulated with force at times in the orchestrated version.  The design as for the melodic material is relatively simple variation.
Follow the example below with the music playing and one can perceive a large part of the symphonic logic.  

The rhythmic emphasis doesn’t always demonstrate a strident character, though this dominates, as with all of Bax's music the movement takes on several different characteristics as cab be seen in the following table which outlines the main sections.

Allegro moderato e feroce 10 bars (strident character)
Poco largamente (“flowing” violin melody)
Bar 68 molto espressivo
Bar 102 Molto tranquillo to moderato 105
Bar 140 Feroce
Bar 179 Vivace
Bar 184 Molto meno mosso
Bar 237 Molto Largamente
Bar 244 Allegretto
Bar 272 Lento
Bar 276 Allegro con moto
Bar 288 to close Allegro moderato.

The changes reflect one of the most powerful interests in Bax’s music; contrast.  The flowing melody is the antithesis of the powerful opening.  Like the rhythm it undergoes several alterations as the movement progresses, and it can be argued that the melody isn’t heard in its complete form until the penultimate section of the movement.  When this melody appears in its final form it can be seen that it is structured from a succession of very simple figures with the units based within the interval of a third. (See below).

The pitch material of the symphony arises from a small number of ingredients the G flat, G, E flat opening which has the potential to play a part as a G minor figure though the key signature is of E flat minor, with the sonata marked as being in E flat (but not E flat minor), ambiguity always has a place in a symphonic movement.  The motto figure is gradually expanded, first by filling out the minor third: E flat, D, D flat, C, and this is treated both as ostinato and subject to sequence. By the time the “flowing” melody is heard the expansion to a full scale has already taken place, but as stated the melody is constructed from a succession of cells based on the interval of a third.  There is a distinct similarity between Mahler and Bax in the way the themes undergo metamorphosis, (the parallel with Liszt already noted) through extensions, developing segments etc. and this composing trait remains with Bax throughout the symphonies.  While the connection with Liszt and Mahler is backward looking one can draw a more contemporary parallel with Sibelius, and this is only the first of Bax’s symphonies.  I shall include a note from Nurtan here which throws light on the different attitudes to modernism at this time:
Bax came of age at a time RV Williams and Elgar were at the height of their popularity and very talented young British composers were producing works that challenged the tradition in more obvious ways than in this composer’s output. As Bax's first symphony (1922) was being introduced, many exciting innovations were starting to appear in the concert music stage and the era of innovation through serial 12 tone composition, introduction of folk music and jazz elements far beyond Mahler, development of national styles as in Sibelius. Polytonal and poly-rhythmic music are  the hall mark of the 1913-1922 era. Many of these innovations are very stark departures from the symphonic world that encompassed brilliant works of many composers of classic, romantic and even impressionistic eras. More importantly, these innovations were obvious to the untrained ear. Bax's innovations are subtle and they are not immediately obvious. With this handicap a symphonic work has to be unreasonably outstanding to survive over the years.  These are perhaps the most compelling reasons for his works to be labelled as backward looking and their current scarcity of performance.  In this respect Bax's music has a fate similar to Nikolai Miaskowski (or Myaskovsky or …) whose 27 symphonies are hardly ever heard.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

Earlier mention was made of the criticisms applied to Bax’s music, these include over scoring, that he is brazen romantic, and that his music meanders and is vague.  I hope that the examples given here put to rest the latter criticisms.  The aspect of scoring is interesting, there is a wonderful balance between all sections of the orchestra in this symphony, in later symphonies there are remarkable orchestral effects achieved with economy.  The Epilogue of the third symphony is such an example.  What does come to mind, particularly with the rapid changes through which the music evolves, is that the music could easily have been written for the cinema.  This is partly due to the wide range of emotions covered; again the feature of contrast plays its part.  It is also due to the fact that Bax can create a huge emotive statement in a short period of time, the last movement of the 6th symphony is such an example.  One could draw similarities with the music of Malcolm Arnold, though his experience within the orchestra as a player as well as conductor puts the brakes on the criticism of over scoring.  With the advantage of hindsight there are many similarities between these two symphonists not least in the range of emotional states which in Arnold’s music dwells at times on the uncomfortably dark side.

This symphony may be seen as a transition from the dominance of Germany on symphonic thought, and this is partly due to Frederick Corder.  Had Bax have been taught by Stanford the result on his compositional thought could have been intense, almost certainly producing a more traditional composer.  As it is the succeeding six symphonies developed the canon of British symphonic thought and outlined one particular pathway for composers to follow through to the present day.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Architecture v. form.  Beethoven sonata in D Op.28

As a picture is worth a thousand words the following two diagrams represent all the writing I need to do on this blog.  There is a commentary on the architecture of the 1st movement of this sonata on the previous blog: size matters.
There are several surprises here, the harmonic direction is reduced to 2 and 3 part harmony, for those who know the sonata the progressions are easily picked out.  Some features: 
the importance of the link sections in propelling the harmonic motion
the relationship between the internal ostinato sections and the 'turn'
the compactness of the development (which is driven by rhythmic compression and expansiion)
the additional development of the internal ostinato passage in the recapitulation.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Composer's toolbox - size matters

In a toolbox one finds other items of use other than tools, Mrs. H.’s father always has a tub of Vaseline (petroleum jelly) into which he dips screws before working them into wood or stone, this preparation saves him struggling years later when trying to remove the screws.  Forward thinking, preparation, these are the themes of this blog, in this case Vaseline could be compared to thinking about the scale of a composition. 

Clearly some music is written to demand, such music is outside the scope of this blog, but film composers and other composers may gain some musical insights from considering that there are limits to how well particular harmonies, rhythms, textures and musical devices can be used over a period of time.

There are two major considerations in play when a composer contemplates the scale of his / her music, financial and artistic.  This blog is only concerned with the latter.

Instrumental forces are a consideration in the scale of one's music but there is an even more significant issue. When contemplating an artistic venture how many composers consider the length of the music first?  There are merits to this action which may not be immediately clear, so this blog concerns itself with matters arising from the question of scale.  I recall as a student entering the room of a highly respected composer and seeing on the blackboard a multi coloured chalk diagram of the form of a large scale work with periods of time clearly marked out.  I made some comment as to the Beethoven sketch books which had extensive blank spaces between thematic material.  Both composers were considering long term planning which is one aspect of this thorny problem of determining the correct scale.

What decisions determine the size of a composition? Is there a point at which musical material can no longer sustain itself?  Could Ravel's Bolero have doubled its length and be as effective?
Would one more or one less Vexation have made any difference if we follow the notion of it being repeated 840 times? 
Listening to vintage recordings like Schnabel playing Beethoven sonatas, errors and all, we feel a tension when he repeats the first section of the Hammerklavier sonata:

with modern studio performances the repeat could be a cut and paste recording as the performances are near identical each and every time.  Getting to the point one should ask why are there written repeats in Baroque and Classical music? The common answer is usually "it is in binary form" (adapt as required for sonata, ternary etc.).  That may be true, but why repeat the music at all?  There could be matters of ornamentation to provide alteration on a second playing as suggested by Giorgio Sollazzi in a recent e-mail.  I found the repeats of melodies at the octave in part of the Goldberg variations performance by Schiff less than convincing, but that is a matter of taste. One argument is that in a period when repeats were unavailable one had a second chance to become familiar with the music.  Accounts of performances in Beethoven's time suggest that audiences at performances of his symphonies were determined to get their money's worth demanding several repeats of new music, usually movement by movement.

Perhaps a more technical answer is that the main argument of the sonata form is in the exposition where the change of key takes place so we get to hear the ‘trick’ twice before moving on to the development.  It is an architectural matter, the repeat focuses the intensity of the changes preparing us for the development (maximum tension) followed by dissolution in the recap. It may be the case that the architecture of a four part piece is more satisfying than three though I know of no evidence to suggest that it is so.

Is length determined by pre compositional decisions?  The question isn't as simple as it sounds.
If the music is based on a text there will be impositions on the music, if a decision is made to set "A Midsummer's Dream" not only will the composer be faced with illustrative decisions about the music to accompany Bottom but many more about how much text to include and inevitably questions about the degree of variation the motifs used will sustain, and their clarity when it comes to association with character and plot. Could it be that Mendelssohn’s Overture is a superbly crafted work which provides for those who know the play all the detail required in a shorter frame than the opera, and therefore less is more? Again that is a matter of taste.

Does a poem offer a guide to length?  It would be a travesty to remove text from a poem which has structure of its own.  The usual advice offered to young composers is don't select great poetry, which is a covert way of saying select something you can manipulate to your heart’s content.  In the case of “lesser” poetry words can be repeated for any number of good reasons and a short poem can become a lengthy piece of music.  But contrary to expectation Gustav Holst sets Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”, (along with fragments of the poet’s notes), in a large scale symphonic structure.  The work came into disrepute for taking such an approach, and the work has unjustly suffered since. In that example I cannot fault the piece on matters of length, it is well, indeed beautifully, proportioned.

Is the difficult question being avoided here?  Are there musical features that determine the length of a piece of music?  For the sake of a sensible discussion we will assume that the length is one of musical satisfaction to an experienced listener.  To discuss the implications of Cage’s work Organ2/ASLSP (As Slow aS Possible) would be fascinating but again outside the “toolbox” considerations.

Let us consider a short composition, Beethoven wrote a number of Bagatelles, Op. 109 No 10 is the shortest I know taking far less than a minute to play. It has a repeat of the first 8 bars. The key is A major but the opening is on B7 rising to E and the fourths cycle is continued to A which is reached in a satisfactory fashion in the 8th bar.  The reduction of the music shows fourths at play in that the melodic material forms a two part architecture the first part a repeat up the perfect fourth The second part of 5 bars continues the rhythmic pattern in the bass (the syncopation lasts the whole piece)over a pedal A. so settling the music back on the tonic after its momentous journey. So the progression reads:
B -  E  -  A - E - A

Having played with Satie's Vexations I was tempted to miss the final bar and loop back to the beginning. For my amusement I arranged the Bagatelle this way as if I was returning to the previous blog on earworm, purists should avoid visiting this performance:

The first composer that comes to mind when considering short pieces is Webern, many do take little time to perform but they are full of complexity which requires considerable repeated listening.
Two longer late works are Variations (Op. 27 and Op 30) here the length is a result of extending the manipulation of the material with an historic eye on the past.  There are two pieces which also suggest brevity in their titles 6 Bagatelles Op. 9 and Op. 11 Three Little Pieces, but when you examine the list of compositions descriptions are far and few between.  There is a reasonable argument for making a short 12 note work, once you have expressed the row in its four forms you have played through the full matrix.  There are a large number of modern works that use a matrix and there is much discussion regarding how one terminates its progression once under way.  “Stone Litany” by Maxwell Davies is such a piece but it has the advantage of setting a text so limiting the progress is less of a problem.
If we are having difficulty with determining what short means perhaps considering reasons for composing a long work might prove easier.
One of the great advantages of composing on a larger scale is that a change of harmony can be prepared over a lengthy period of time so when it arrives it can carry considerable power and musical weight, the opening 15 minutes of "Rheingold" provides excellent examples of 'arrival points'.  Greater length also permits repetition of other musical elements to prepare for drama, such as the final harmonies of the Bolero. Consider how the march in the Leningrad Symphony builds a tension contrasting its extreme banality with a rapid escalation into intensely emotional music.  Banality only works well within a larger scale composition, and it works very well indeed in Mahler, but Mahler's banality is never quite what it seems, Arnold Schoenberg made several points on the 6th symphony which challenge the term. However we must keep in mind that a longer work may be a collection of shorter paragraphs, sometimes quite distinct from each other. 
Let us take as an example the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in D major, the Pastoral, and view it in terms of texture rather than key structure.  It divides into three sections, as might be expected in sonata form, with the central part being dominated by rhythmic design, but that isn't the whole story by any means.
The music opens with a pedal D sustained for 39 bars, this is followed by a link through to the ‘turn’ section, (I suggest this term as it opens with a musical turn in steady quavers), this is followed by a second link, basically a rising scale in dotted minims, leading to the third section based on an internal ostinato figure which closes with cascades, this passage is repeated.  The first third of the movement concludes with a lyrical melody played over staccato chords.  We have 5 sections of different textures. This is contrasted by the middle which for the greater part plays with one idea, the contraction and then expansion of a rhythmic figure.

It is unthinkable for a development section in Classical music to completely turn away from previous melodic material so there is a frame with the pedal section and lyrical melody providing in truncated form an introduction and exit / link to the recap.
The illustration above shows the rhythmic play. 

Following this the recap follows precisely the plan of the exposition but adds a coda consisting of the pedal passage material.
The overall bar length of the music is
Exposition       162 bars
Development 104 bars
Recap             169 bars
Coda               24

an approximate ratio of 7/4/7/1.

Beethoven's sonata shows a balanced (if not architecturally precise) approach to long term planning and serves as an excellent model as to how to refresh his listener’s memory for details, but it is a collection of musical ideas not one extended musical thought.

If one is exploring a process e.g.  a progression through a cycle of fifths then there is a very obvious final goal, the return to the home note.  This process will have an effect on the lengths of sections, dwell over long on one key and the cycle becomes less well defined.
Almost all music designed primarily by length of time will reveal sets of proportions, the precise timings in Bartok's music reveal more than just the duration of the music.  Stockhausen in “Telemusic” is kind enough to provide sound markers to indicate the passage of time.  I’ll take a quotation from an article from News Music Art Info which provides a lot of information on Fibonacci and Stockhausen’s interest in it.

Telemusik consists of 32 so-called structures, or “moments” as Stockhausen also calls them. Every structure is a segment varying from 13 to 144 seconds, and every part opens with the stroke of one of six various Japanese ceremonial percussive instruments, where the instruments with the shortest duration introduce the short structures, and the instruments with the longest decay introduces the long structures.
In this way the structure of the composition becomes very clear, and the introductory percussive sound also gives us an idea of the length of the segment’s duration. Each new attack signals the passage of time, and a change to a new form of modulation and timbre. The structure’s duration is simply taken from the Fibonacci sequence and translated into seconds. The number of times each duration is to be repeated is also multiplied by a number from the Fibonacci sequence, thus leaving us with 32 structures. 

In an interview for the BBC Jonathan Harvey was asked if he knew precisely how his music would end and how it would progress to its conclusion.  His answer was somewhat unexpected,
When young he would know precisely the plan, but as he aged he became increasingly responsive to the narrative of the music.
I will take his suggestion and end this narrative here.

In the e-mail from Giorgio he provided three observations on length and repetition, regarding Classical form the main purpose of repetition is for recollection, which in the case of a development like the Beethoven sonata in D, where the main argument puts the thematic considerations largely aside, is a valid point.  Of the other two I have mentioned embellishment above, but there has been little room to consider dance:

In some compositions like Mazurkas, Waltzs and other dances (Chopin, Listz, Brahms, Dvorak a.s.o.) repetitions give sense of joy or simply the chance to dance and dance and dance ...

Being a dour Welshman I forget that from time to time repetition can be for fun. 

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Did English music find its own voice in the 20th century? A question posed by Giorgio Sollazzi

This blog will be regularly updated on this page. Hopefully this will make the discussion easier to follow.  As it is an edited e-mail conversation between Nurtan and myself sometimes our initials are used to outline a particular view, sometimes they are blended (as in the Holst choral symphony).

That is a huge question in less than a dozen words. I will make every effort to keep the English plain so I can offer some views that might be read by people outside the UK and Nurtan's USA.
Before Elgar (and perhaps including some of Elgar's music) the view is that English music followed the conventions and interests of the European masters. We think of the influence of the Baroque masters on Thomas Arne, the inescapable influence of Beethoven and Brahms on the symphonic writers like Charles Stanford. I notice that you use 20th century, that is helpful, there is so much activity by UK born composers that is harder to share because of availability of recordings and scores, though programmes like "Here and Now" on Radio 3 Saturday nights at 10.00 - 12.00 is a wonderful resource.
So, we have a wide choice, from the conservative Frank Bridge, the operatic Britten, the religious Tavener, the eccentric genius of Maxwell Davies, the precision of Jonathan Harvey. Where to begin?
I will share this with Nurtan who no doubt will touch on R. V. Williams, Walton, Bax and others. Wherever possible we shall include Youtube references as examples.

The twentieth century was a strange mixture of influences and trends that both highlighted and blurred the national identities of composers. I would argue that British music found its voice in that it was influential in the development of several styles - not necessarily in Britain. R.V. Williams, Walton, Bax, Finzi, Arnold contributed to the lyrical expressiveness that came to dominate much of film and stage music. Tippett's use of folklore and spirituals in A Child of Our Time influenced the integration of the past with the current as well as the introduction of expressive psycho-drama from theatre to concert stage. Lesser know but immensely influential composers such as Alun Hoddinott, who provided examples of dark, dense, aggressively rhythmic music and precision in modern orchestration that went beyond Mahler in managing the huge modern orchestra. I can continue this long list, but that would not be necessary. Yes, Britain found her voice in the 20th century.

That is a very clear response and outlines many areas where the British composers have contributed to art music. I notice you avoided the whole folk song tradition which is one unique area, and one which for many paints a picture of sentimentality which it doesn't always deserve. I don't know if Italy had a similar folk song to art music period, perhaps Giorgio could help us out there. Then we have Tudor influences to consider as well. It may be the case that the pre WW2 music was the period of finding ones voice and post WW2 losing it again, I shall have to dwell on that.
It might be valuable to consider the influence of the sea on British music too, there are so many works, right up to the present that return to this subject. Perhaps it is a knock on effect of Debussy writing the greatest symphony in "La Mer". Just consider though the great music reflecting this subject matter, Bax Tintagel, Bridge "The Sea" Britten "Peter Grimes", several Maxwell Davies works.
I have a notion that UK composers adapted serialism and avoided the austere language, you mentioned Hoddinott and he is a perfect example of this.
There is still a wealth of material to be explored in literature, composers are still mining Shakespeare and the Mabinogion is still a resource for several composers far more competent than myself.
Perhaps we are still searching for a voice rather than having found one. When you consider how many accents there are in the UK it isn't surprising that we might have more than one voice.
I would like to explore this question further, perhaps by looking at some specific areas, symphonic writing before 1945, and then the modern British symphony for example.
I might be able to offer some links to examples of what I consider to be the best examples of British orchestral music to help develop a sympathetic view of this art form.

It might be useful to consider this question in two sections, he first up to the second world war, and the second post WW2 extending a little into the 21st century when required.
There is a period of folk song collection which has to be considered because it is one way to establish a voice.  There are Welsh and Scottish composers who use folksong in art music but the bulk of recognised music at this time is English,
Alongside this there is a group of composers occupied with exploring a mix of tonal (in its widest sense) and modal music.  Several of these composers wrote symphonies, and as the symphony consists of a balanced presentation of several aspects of music where tonality plays a significant part, I would like to focus on these to answer the question.
There is a crossover between the composers of orchestral and the folk inspired music, the majority of these crossover works are symphonic poems. 

To make a start on this enormous task here is a partial timeline of British symphonic writers up to the 1940's.  The links do not indicate that one symphony is better than another but are a suggested listening list.

1900.   Gustav Holst               Symphony in F
1903    R.V. Williams              Sea Symphony 
1907    Edward Elgar             Symphony no 1
1911    Edward Elgar             Symphony no 2
1912.   R.V. Williams              Symphony No 2         
1923.  Gustav Holst               First choral symphony
1921.  R.V. Williams              Pastoral Symphony
1922   Arnold Bax                  Symphony No. 1
1926    Arnold Bax                  Symphony No. 2
1927    Havergal Brian            Gothic Symphony      
1929    Arnold Bax                  Symphony No. 3
1930   Arnold Bax                  Symphony No. 4
1931    Havergal Brian            Symphony No. 3        
1932    Arnold Bax                  Symphony No. 5
1934    R.V. Williams              Symphony No. 4         ps://
1934.   William Walton            Symphony no 1
1937.   Edmund Rubbra         Symphony No 1
1937.   Edmund Rubbra         Symphony No 2
1937    Havergal Brian            Symphony No. 5

1939.   Edmund Rubbra         Symphony No 3

Musicians who use filters understand their value is bringing a focus on a particular part of a sound.  Astronomers and musicians both appreciate the necessity to remove certain areas of information to reveal the wealth of data which would otherwise be missed.  In one sense the table provided of symphonic works is a filter on the music of the British Isles in the 20th century.
I stress this point because the notion of presenting a group of works may be viewed as some sort of beauty pageant with the notion of selecting a winner and runners up, which is not its intention.

If one was unwise and used commercial values as a filter then English music is heard with a distinctive voice.  These are among the most popular works:

·         The Lark Ascending                                                            1914 (rev. 1920)
·         Nimrod / Enigma variations                                            1899
·         Jupiter / Planets                                                                  1914 - 1916
·          Jerusalem                                                                             1916
·          The Angel’s Farewell / Dream of Gerontius 1900
·          Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus                               1939
·          The Banks of the Green Willow                                      1913

I have added the dates because they show that the most popular English music comes from a short period of time, and even if the list was extended to a hundred of the most popular pieces of music the trend would still be evident.  In answering Giorgio’s question about the English voice this has to be taken into consideration.
To accept the melancholic and hymn like melodies as the English voice is folly, but so is turning ones back on the characteristics that pervade these works.  There is a hymn like quality to parts of the fourth movement to the Sea Symphony:
O we can wait no longer,
We too take ship O soul,
Joyous we too launch out on trackless seas.

and the slow movement "On the beach at night alone" is undoubtedly touched with melancholy and the brooding about the conflict between the moment and the eternal:

All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d
And shall forever span them….

Yet, despite its sympathy with the “English” sentiments of the more popular music this remarkable symphony is not well received.
The list has already been filtered, not every symphony of the period (1900 - 1939) is included, time has made certain names less familiar or less popular, there are works which could be symphonic but are not named symphony, Bridge's "The Sea" like Debussy's "La Mer" should be considered in the classification.  There are great composers with a distinctive voice who are filtered out, Delius for example, could the North Country Sketches be considered as a symphony?  Four movements, each contrasted, and yet there is nothing of the symphonic argument here, however broadly we consider the term.

Let us substitute another word for ‘list’, and replace it with ‘sample’.  This should satisfy our requirements to explore areas of commonality which may offer at least a partial answer to Georgio's question.

Once our sample is in place the task of repeated listening takes place.  Refreshing one's perception of this group of works throws up an avalanche of observations, but the one that stood out was how did a work like Holst's "First Choral Symphony" fade into near obscurity compared to "The Planets"? This is a remarkable symphony, consistently well written, the choral writing is notable for its clarity, the harmonic language is never pedestrian and the orchestration well controlled.

Holst’s First Choral Symphony was written after WW1, Holst had been prevented from enlisting and taking a military role on the battlefield.  The term survivor guilt is usually placed on those who have firsthand knowledge of war, but both Holst and Frank Bridge display responses that suggest the term should be used more generally to any experience of war.
There is a musical point to be made of this; German music had dominated British thought and style, the war created tensions which influenced every artistic endeavour.  Holst and R. V. Williams wrote about national identities and there was a near necessity to express oneself outside the German tradition.

If an art is to live it must spring direct from the life and character of the people from where it had its origins. 
We shall not evolve great music by trying to fit our home made ideas to foreign forms.
RVW article on British Music.

That tradition had been upheld by two earlier symphonists, Parry and Stanford, the latter in particular having considerable influence through his role as a teacher of composition as well as composer.
Using the literature of a particular country is one way of developing a unique voice, the usual advice for selecting poetry is to take a poem of lesser quality, advice that Holst ignored completely.
The “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is one of the great poems, not just for its language but for its theme.
Holst took the poem and other samples of Keats writing as his text and used the poem as the core expressive content of the symphony.  The poem if full of musical imagery

“What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? / What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”

But the life of the poem is in its contradiction, it is a frozen moment in time, a reflection of the ideal where the music in unheard

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

There are many extra-musical themes here which become hallmarks of British music in this period.
It is impossible to discuss the voice of British composers without some discussion of harmony, and the second movement has a particularly clear example of the use of open fifths, static harmony and slowly oscillating chords.  In an earlier blog I referred to R. V. Williams’ use of these three ingredients in the last movement of the sixth symphony, one of the most distinctive passages of symphonic writing in the 20th century (though outside our time period here).
Holst the man appears reserved, shying away from publicity, happiest in study.  In his music there is introspection but there is also red-blooded fervour and this symphony has it all. Although the world premier of the  symphony in Leeds seem to have been well received, its London opening seems to have been panned,  It is difficult to reconstruct the London critics surprising reaction, we might take a wild guess  on what happened. It seems that the literary critics were offended by Holst’s re arrangement of the poem. Obviously, this is a gross misunderstanding of the reasons behind the re-arrangement through juxtaposition of parts of Keats' other poems. They are simply musical.
The added material extends the Ode in a manner to accommodate the balanced flow of music to conform the required format of a symphony. According to Holts' biographer Jon C. Mitchell, the rehearsals for the challenging choral and solo voice parts were rushed and wholly inadequate. It appears that, the resulting less than stellar performance's criticism fell on the composition of the symphony.
1.       It contained a literary outrage – "How dare a mere composer change the work of an immortal poet" .
2.       The great choral symphony – Beethoven's ninth had only one movement as an exposition of a poem – this is all singing, thus not a symphony in reality.
3.       Challenging became impossible. Examined dispassionately and with the first choral symphony in mind, of course these criticisms are nonsense, and should not have been accepted by the knowledgeable orchestra directors who choose the works that are played.  This regrettable incidence created an aura of impossibility of a satisfactory performance and led to the undeservedly diminished stature of the work. Shy, and to some extend reclusive, Holst did not seem to have advocated for the symphony to counter the London reaction. Probably, these  circumstances are the main contributory factors for the rare performances of this wonderful work. 

Before I close this section of the blog I would like to include an observation sent to me by Nurtan while I was considering the Holst Symphony:

After I read the introduction to Holst's piece and listen to the first choral Symphony again – I must admit for the first time in many years – I remembered how beautiful it was and how much the general public is missing by its rare appearance on the concert stage. I think (sharing) it would be a service to the public.

As I am thinking about the possibilities and the vastness of a blog on (this) music, I have a picture of two Don Quixotes sitting by the seaside with teacups in hand trying to empty the ocean. For me, It is fun, second childhood and better than thinking about the ills of the world. I hope it is the same for you.

Following my comments on the popular voice of English music in the period up to 1939 Nurtan offered the following thoughts on two of R.V. William’s most popular works.

Many of the concert attending, classical music enjoying public would associate Ralph Vaughan Williams with two works, “The Lark Ascending” and the “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” and consider them as pleasant but not too complicated pieces that can be enjoyed without much thought. Alas, those who believe that would be missing much in these two works. I don't mean to insult the intelligence of audiences and/or suggest that these two works are hard to follow. In fact, for me, listening to Lark Ascending played by a very high calibre violinist, for example Hilary Hahn or listening to Fantasia, Andrew Davis conducting BBC Symphony (my favourite performance) is something to behold. My main point is that there is much more to these two short pieces than one might expect.

Lark ascending (Lark) is easier to explore because there is a version, which happens to be the original version, written for solo violin with piano accompaniment. In this format, the intricacy of the violin solo especially about 4 ½ minute into the score and the last 30 bars are violin writing at its delicate best. I think, if you like to listen to violin music or better still if you are a violin player, you would appreciate the score for violin with piano reduction. Frequent use of pentatonic scales and free-form cadenzas provide an impressionistic tone painting of a skylark.  This work was described as a Romance for violin and orchestra, and it has a literary quotation from Meredith’s Poems and Lyrics of the Joys of Earth.
The latter part of the quotation reads:

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes.
Till lost on his aerial wings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

There is a less well known work, Romance for Viola and Piano, found after the composer’s death which may be taken as a parallel work to the Lark in many ways, and it expands our perception of V.W’s voice in this particular mode of expression.  It was written in or about the start of WW1 and has an extraordinary quality of space and stillness in the outer sections.  Stillness is a characteristic which pervades both these popular works. 
There is a sense of ecstasy in the poetry which comes through the music of the Lark in the rhapsodic pentatonic figures, this is a very different ecstasy to that heard in the fourth movement of the Sea Symphony. There is a tendency to soul searching in R. V.’s music, he understands that man sins and fails but that there is a possibility of redemption, as for Pilgrim and for Job. It may be this that results in the dramatic extremes of the 3rd to 6th symphonies, extremes which left many audiences baffled.

For the orchestral performance of the Lark, I have heard a number of very good performances. I think Hilary Hahn's interpretation with the LSO under Colin Davis is a very good choice for those who are familiar or unfamiliar with the piece.

Fantasia is another matter. In its premiere, conducted by the composer, was apparently to a quiet reception by the audience and ecstatic appreciation by musicians such as Howells. It is full of interesting innovations and a musically fascinating structure.
Before considering the Fantasia it is valuable to listen to the Tallis original
This performance is without the glitter of studio techniques but offers in its simplicity a valuable insight as to how the composer may have heard the music performed.

The strings in the Fantasia are put through every timbral nuance, they are divided into two sections, preferably located away from each other and the principals form a quartet. There are a number of solo passages which are treated to counterpoint while the full strings weave an organum-like texture which is to be reworked many times in later works. These are functional composition devices. In an intricate arrangement, the divided orchestra plays the themes with call and response (as in church antiphony), a quartet announces and joins the orchestra. It is a delicate dance, an echo and the presence of two choirs in a cathedral. This makes it a difficult piece to conduct. Heavy-handed conducting simply won't do. Beyond the usual accuracy requirements, the sensitivity to and understanding of this structure are the most important reason. Andrew Davis' conducting stands out as the best in my opinion, but I would strongly recommend comparing other performances. The call and response has to be just right to provide the intended effect and it should not be an echo – that is an intangible which is hard to communicate in a score.

The use of spatial music comes and goes as a fashion, The Vespers of 1610 is a remarkable example after which the attention to its use wanes, and this is the work that stands out in V. W.’s output for making serious use of the technique.  With the use of loudspeakers in concert halls the interest is rekindled, but this isn’t the composer being far sighted, it is a response to the traditions of the church.  As a side issue one may consider Ives (another composer with strong links to organised religion) to be a more powerful influence on this technique.

There is little doubt that audiences (and programme note writers) regard these as quintessentially English works as being the English voice, yet the works tend to stand alone, it is hard to draw parallels between R.V. Williams and the other composers of the same period, unless we take a non-musical link in the expression of melancholy which is conveyed so well in his music. 

Tallis is a very creative dead-end – once done it is inspired, original, exciting but end of the road. I don't think that it can be replicated in a way that it does not look like Tallis lookalike. I cannot think of a composer one might consider as his disciple. I'm not claiming an encyclopaedic knowledge of all English-speaking country composers, but I think I would have heard one or two voices that took his work and advanced it. Butterworth was his contemporary, Frank Bridge, Holst, even pastoralist Finzi were not stylistically like him.

Tallis- BBC Symphony this Andrew Davis conducting.

Lark – Hahn with London Symphony Orchestra Colin Davis conducting

Violin and piano score International Music Score Library (Not public domain)

PMLP49679-Vaughan-Williams - The Lark Ascending (piano red.).pdf

Monday, 7 December 2015

The composer’s toolbox – How to find your muse.

In a practical guide such as the manual for the Skoda Octavia you would expect to find the details of components, how to assemble and disassemble them and even such matters as comfort (seating and heating), but a chapter on how to drive your car with panache in not its concern, and a chapter on how to fall in love with your Skoda, or even more bizarrely how to get your Skoda to fall in love with you, belongs to another world.
I don’t want to go down the road of suggesting that a composer is like a car mechanic or designer, though there would be some fun to be had in stretching the analogy.  However, if there is a composer’s toolbox, then there must be tools, and these require knowledge of their use. With knowledge comes mastery of the form.

Here we have our wall. 

Some composers have an ability to communicate and reach out to an audience and some don’t.  Is this the fault of the tools we use, the way we use them, or is it as the Bard suggests

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…

If you feel the need to compose like a hunger then music rather than instant success is your primary goal.  There are barriers to composing, the first is that you have to learn the basics of music making in your culture and later perhaps other cultures as well.  It may be said that books on harmony, counterpoint and orchestration are lacking in excitement, for me they are less stimulating than a dictionary, but they are a necessity.
Is this blog about music theory rather than muses, no it isn’t, but before we understand inspiration we must accept that we require the knowledge of how to divine the inspiration.  Now there’s a word (divine) with double meanings, these are taken from the Chambers dictionary, much loved by crossword solvers who know a thing or two about inspiration:

Proceeding from a god, holy.
Excellent in the highest degree.
To forsee or fortell as if divinely inspired.
To guess or make out.
To search (as for underground water).

Let us take the most unlikely entry, the last one, and change the word ‘water’ for ‘source’.  Here we are, skilled musicians, proficient in harmony, melodic construction, counterpoint and the like, pen (or keyboard) in hand.  What happens next?  This is an account of Mahler on reading a copy of “Veni creator”:
"I saw the whole piece immediately before my eyes, and only needed to write it down as though it were being dictated to me."
Such an event would be welcomed by musicians, there being a sense of play rather than work in the process.  He finds a source and that source permits his energies to flow freely.  (In our analogy with water it is worth considering that underground rivers flow because they have channelled through rock over eons).
Now the first definition, proceeding from a god, and from god /  goddess take the term ‘muse’.  Chambers lists the nine Greek Goddesses whose skills encompass history, astronomy, tragedy and comedy, epic, love sacred and lyric poetry, and dancing.  Euterpe doubles lyric poetry with music, (there is a whole other blog in that pairing).  The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology has some additional information
Muse v. think, meditate….from Old French muser to ponder or loiter; literally, stay with one’s nose in the air.
(muse muzzle, from Gallo-Romance musa snout).

As the English say, to follow one’s nose.  So is inspiration nothing more than following a hunch?  One moment, there is more punning here, inspiration may be associated with the terms ‘flash’ and ‘brilliance’ but it is also the intake of breath, and we are all aware of that action of drawing breath on a sudden insight, the eureka moment.
The eureka effect (also known as the aha! moment or eureka moment) refers to the common human experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept.
This is an unexpected outcome resulting from pondering a problem for a considerable time. Following a period of intense work the person contemplating takes a step back and is “blessed” by an insight which resolves the puzzle, which is often followed by a period of equally intense, and often lengthy, explanation.  Perhaps the “Veni creator” hymn was the vehicle for Mahler’s aha! moment, and the problem may have been more prosaic, “how do I marry counterpoint with a Latin text and still express a world in a symphony?”

This doesn’t help the reader who dropped in on the blog hoping for inspiration, but, take a deep breath, it may do so yet.
Many years ago I was drawn to read Robert Graves “The White Goddess” a book about poetic inspiration.  Being a Welsh speaker I was delighted to see many references to Welsh (and Irish) poetry and intrigued by his vision of religion and nature.  This extract from the Wikipedia entry makes my task a little easier

Graves's The White Goddess deals with goddess worship as the prototypical religion, analysing it largely from literary evidence, in myth and poetry.
Graves admitted he was not a medieval historian, but a poet, and thus based his work on the premise that the
language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon-goddess, or Muse….
Let us not forget the dual role that Euterpe plays.
The self-imposed limit of a thousand words curtails the exploration of this dense and difficult book disregarded by many who may be deterred by its interplay of literal and poetic values.  

Let us summarize the role of and associations with the muse:

The muse is feminine.
Inspiration is of the breath and a realisation preceded by study.
The areas of study are drama and poetry expressed as music and dance, with an awareness of our past, (history), and our place in the greater environment, (astronomy).
It is divine.

At this time of the year many religious groups make great use of lights, I hope that this blog may act as a candle, sparking a little insight here and there.
Have a restful time, whatever your beliefs, and cherish the gifts of music, song and dance.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Illustration:  The final movement of R. V. Williams' 6th symphony displayed as an audio file.

Composer's toolbox: shades of grey.

In photography, painting, and other visual arts, middle gray or middle grey is a tone that is perceptually about halfway between black and white on a lightness scale.

For composers contrast is the life blood of their music, there is no difficulty in pairing musical devices and articulations, f and p, staccato and legato, tranquillo and furioso.  Going back many years to listening to Tchaikovsky's 4th symphony for the first time I remember thinking about the contrasts as the music played, when I heard the third movement pizzicato opening I was captivated by the pp sound and then stunned by the changes of texture that follow all preparing for the even greater surprise with the full orchestral opening of the fourth movement. 
There is a satisfaction in contrast, and in extremes.  It doesn't surprise me that in modern art we have a blank, white canvas and a black canvas;
Robert Rauschenberg:

Ad Renhardt

I am not going to enter the discussion on the shades of black, having had several lengthy discussions on tone in weaving with Mrs. H, but to say the matter is complex is an understatement. The artist Gerhard Richter helped clarify the direction of the discussion between my wife and myself before completing this blog, he writes:

‘Grey is the epitome of non-statement…it does not trigger off feelings or associations, it is actually neither visible nor invisible... Like no other colour it is suitable for illustrating ‘nothing’.

To avoid getting into cyclic arguments about tone and colour it may be more useful to use the term intensity, there is for example a probably that some agreement can be found in the idea that music can ‘sparkle’, a feature which can be related to the intensity of sound and touch; the delicate use of a triangle or staccato arpeggio as in Holst's "Mercury"

and Liszt's “Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa d’Este”.

With ‘grey’ we are discussing a midpoint of emotions, black and white becomes the ultimate contrast, like the chessboard a venue for drama conflict, war, grey is nihilism and loss. On Adobe Photoshop software there is a tool to work with contrast, and anybody who has played with this feature knows that life can be drained out of an image by its use. Black and white photography has the power to raise a portrait of a person to high art because it plays on shadows, heightens lines and emphasises pattern, so releasing the tension between the two extremes would be counter-intuitive, (and for that reason a challenge).

In the musical world the reduction of contrast also decreases the emotive impact of the composition, but wasn’t emotive impact was the concern of the 19th century? When Satie decided to write music that negated tensions and contrasts there was a full red-blooded rebellion, and this is one reason why many regard him as the father of the avant-garde. 

Let us examine the associations with grey; indecision, a psychological state of numbness, loss, inactivity, there are two outstanding reasons in the 20th century why such psychological states should interest the musician and artist, wars. R. V. Williams presents us with a succession of symphonies that deal with contrast, viz. peace and war, rural and urban, tension and relaxation.  In the last movement of the sixth symphony R.V. W. produces music that takes us to a barren place, the grey mid-ground with which this article is concerned.  The theme could be examined in a number of ways, I hear it as being built from an oscillation of E minor and F minor 7, the music is locked into the swaying motion between the chords and never escapes.  Entrances of voices are controlled so that the music is near seamless and the contrapuntal nature of the music only enhances that characteristic. 

There are changes; in nine and a half minutes of music one would expect that.  The brass at figure 4 plays with the two chord idea moving from F7 to E9 producing a texture that wouldn’t be out of place in previous symphonies, but here context is all, and it produces little more than a glimpse of an outline in a dense fog.  Other notable orchestral colours are the string tremolos and harp harmonics at fig. 8 and towards the close of the movement the bass clarinet almost offers a respite particularly as it progresses through string oscillations to the oboe solo, but there is no break in the spell.  The music closes on two chords with A’, D’, G moving to B, E, G (in effect E flat major to E minor and not in root position).  An oscillation like this could go on forever; it is a written “fade out”.  

The musical concept is not difficult to understand and David Cox’s description in The Symphony that it is “one of strangest journeys ever undertaken in music” is justifiable but needs taking with a pinch of salt. I find the comparison he makes between this movement and Holst’s “Saturn” more puzzling, there is a periodic phrasing in Saturn that puts the two movements poles apart, perhaps it is the oscillating chords that makes a connection between the two in his mind.
The opening movement of Bartok’s “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste” makes for a far better comparison in all respects, counterpoint, the merging of orchestral colour, the dynamic range is of course wider as may be seen from the audio clipping shown below.  To play both movements side by side is a revelation and shows two great minds exploring a similar musical preoccupation.

To conclude this short exploration of grey I have to refer to the landscape I grew up in here in Wales, one might consider it to be a land of green and brown, but in reality the castles, the slate, the sea and very often the skies are grey, perhaps that is why I appreciate landscapes which feature the alteration of fine detail.