On Friday evening we were in the Metropolitan Cathedral for a concert by Harry Christopher’s The Sixteen, part of a national tour – called The Choral Pilgrimage 2013 – that has been progressing from one cathedral to another since the beginning of March. The Sixteen are renowned for their immaculate interpretation of both medieval and contemporary religious choral music, and Harry Christopher talked of this tour bringing ‘great music back to the buildings for which it was written’.
The music in question was programmed under the title The Queen of Heaven, the theme being an array of sacred choral pieces connected with the Virgin Mary, some praising her, some articulating her grief at the foot of the Cross. All but one of the works were by two composers, both working in the same tradition of devotional choral music but centuries apart. One was Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina, regarded as representing ultimate perfection in sacred choral music since the 16th century. The other, James MacMillan, was a contemporary Scottish composer whose music is inspired by his Roman Catholicism and sympathies for the oppressed (example: back in Capital of Culture year, 2008, we saw a performance of his work Búsqueda which uses poems by the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina, interlaced with the Latin text of the Mass). Alongside works by these two composers was a new, radically re-worked, version of Allegri’s Miserere.
Sacred choral music is not my usual cup of tea (I suffered a long time from the childhood trauma of repeated weekly doses of my mother – a Methodist, mind you – singing along heartily to Choral Evensong on the Home Service. To me the music seemed deadening, depressing – a long way from Lift Up Your Hearts). But Jan Garbarek’s collaborations with the Hilliard Ensemble have won me over to the ethereal beauty of choral music, especially when performed in the sublime acoustics of a cathedral (as we have experienced in Gloucester cathedral and in St David’s cathedral).
Listening on Friday evening as the voices of The Sixteen blended harmoniously in the magnificent acoustics of the Metropolitan cathedral, I really felt a sense of the rapture that medieval listeners must have experienced, hearing music that sounded unearthly, like no music they would have heard outside the walls of church or cathedral. It’s music that raises the hairs on the back of your neck.
There were moments in the medieval compositions by Palestrina and Allegri that moved me, but it was the contemporary pieces by James MacMillan that I enjoyed the most: edgier, with a mixture of dissonant and medieval. One piece – Dominus dabit benignitatem – featured ecstatic sopranos soaring over deeper, darker harmonies, while Videns Dominus presented dramatic contrasts between passages that hinted at influences from Celtic bagpipe music and moments of pregnant silence. Also on the programme was Macmillan’s Miserere, his setting of Psalm 51, which harks back to Allegri’s 17th-century setting, but with modern timbres and harmonies.
Plainsong – Regina caeli laetare
Palestrina – Kyrie from Missa Regina caeli
MacMillan – Dominus dabit benignitatem
Allegri – Miserere (new version)
MacMillan – Videns Dominus
Palestrina – Stabat Mater a8
Palestrina – Regina caeli laetare a8
Palestrina – Vineam meam non custodivi
MacMillan – O Radiant Dawn
Palestrina – Pulchrae sunt genae tuae
MacMillan – Miserere
Palestrina – Agnus Dei I-III from Missa Regina caeli
Harry Christophers explains the new version of Allegri’s Miserere
On Thursday evening we went to the Phil to see Petrenko conduct an all-Russian programme that culminated with Shostakovich’s monumental and impassioned Thirteenth Symphony, a choral work – effectively a song-cycle – consisting of settings of five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and opening with his poem written in protest at Soviet policy on the Nazi massacre of Jews at Babi Yar in 1941.
When I was at university in the sixties, Yevtushenko was one of the poets of the moment, to be read alongside other student radical favourites of the time like Christopher Logue, Adrian Mitchell and Alan Ginsberg. I remember I had a dual-language edition of Yevtushenko’s poems – the Russian on one side and the English translation on the facing page.
Yevtushenko wrote ‘Babi Yar’ in 1961 in part to protest the Soviet Union’s refusal to identify Babi Yar, a ravine in the suburbs of Kiev, as a site of the mass murder of 33,000 Jews on September 29–30, 1941. After the war, Soviet policy reflected both Stalin’s instinctive suspicion of Jews, and a rhetoric both of Russian nationalism and communist internationalism: the anti-fascist war had been fought bravely by Russians defending a communist state founded on the belief that all political divisions reflected class struggle. The result was, as Tony Judt wrote in Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945:
For various reasons it had always suited the Soviet purpose to downplay the distinctively racist character of Nazi brutality: the massacre of Ukrainian Jews at Babi Yar was officially commemorated as the ‘murder of peaceful Soviet citizens’, just as the post-war memorial at Auschwitz confined itself to general references to ‘victims of fascism’. racism had no part in the Marxist lexicon; dead Jews were posthumously assimilated into the same local communities that had so disliked them when they were alive.
Reading Yevtushenko’s poem again for the first time in decades, I am less impressed than I was fifty-odd years ago. Although I recognise the significance of the poet’s somewhat coded attack on Soviet policy, the poetry – however laudable its intent – now seems rather clunky, and the final invocation of the Internationale and the ‘true Russian’ grates.
No monument stands over Babi Yar. A drop sheer as a crude gravestone. I am afraid. Today I am as old in years as all the Jewish people. Now I seem to be a Jew.
Here I plod through ancient Egypt. Here I perish crucified, on the cross, and to this day I bear the scars of nails. I seem to be Dreyfus.
The Philistine is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars. Beset on every side. Hounded, spat on, slandered.
Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then a young boy in Byelostok. Blood runs, spilling over the floors. The barroom rabble-rousers give off a stench of vodka and onion. A boot kicks me aside, helpless. In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies. While they jeer and shout, “Beat the Yids. Save Russia!” some grain-marketeer beats up my mother.
0 my Russian people! I know you are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land. How vile these anti-Semites- without a qualm they pompously called themselves the Union of the Russian People!
I seem to be Anne Frank transparent as a branch in April.
And I love. And have no need of phrases. My need is that we gaze into each other. How little we can see or smell! We are denied the leaves, we are denied the sky. Yet we can do so much – tenderly embrace each other in a darkened room.
They’re coming here? Be not afraid. Those are the booming sounds of spring: spring is coming here. Come then to me. Quick, give me your lips. Are they smashing down the door? No, it’s the ice breaking …
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar. The trees look ominous, like judges.
Here all things scream silently, and, baring my head, slowly I feel myself turning gray.
And I myself am one massive, soundless scream above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am each old man here shot dead.
I am every child here shot dead.
Nothing in me shall ever forget!
The “Internationale,” let it thunder when the last anti-Semite on earth is buried forever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood. In their callous rage, all anti-Semites must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason I am a true Russian!
In the 1950s, Shostakovich had composed works that had drawn on the intonations of Jewish folk music, and had privately expressed to friends his loathing of anti-Semitism. In the conversations with Solomon Volkov, published in Testimony, hemade these comments on the Babi Yar massacre and anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union:
It would be good if Jews could live peacefully and happily in Russia, where they were born. But we must never forget about the dangers of anti-Semitism and keep reminding others of it, because the infection is still alive and who knows if it will ever disappear.
That’s why I was overjoyed when I read Yevtushenko’s ‘Babi Yar’; the poem astounded me. It astounded thousands of people. Many had heard about Babi Yar, but it took Yevtushenko’s poem to make them aware of it. They tried to destroy the memory of Babi Yar, first the Germans and then the Ukrainian government. But after Yevtushenko’s poem, it became clear that it would never be forgotten. That is the power of art.
People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtushenko’s poem, but they were silent. And when they read the poem, the silence was broken. Art destroys silence.
Babi Yar appeared in the Literaturnaya Gazeta in September 1961 and, along with the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, marked a brief opening for anti-Stalinist literature during the Khrushchev period as Soviet leader. By July 1962, Shostakovich had completed work on his ‘vocal-symphonic poem’, supplementing the opening ‘Babi Yar’ movement with four more, based on other poems by Yevtushenko that were critical of aspects of life in Soviet Russia.
In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross writes that:
The first movement, ‘Babi Yar’, is ostensibly a lament for Jewish suffering under the Nazis, but it also remembers life under Stalin. Yevtushenko devotes one section to a depiction of Anne Frank cowering with her family in the attic: ‘Someone’s coming!’ ‘They’re breaking down the door!’ ‘No, it’s the ice breaking!’ Shostakovich responds with a series of dissonant, hammering chords, which, in their peculiar, hollowed-out voicing, suggest not only a murderous hand hammering at a door but also the terrified reactions of those waiting behind it.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko recites ‘Babi Yar’ with music from Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony
Shostakovich Symphony No. 13, ‘Babi Yar’: BBC Prom, Albert Hall, August 2006 (first movement)
The Phil was packed on Thursday evening: Vasily Petrenko has a dedicated and enthusiastic and this was the last event of his long-term project to conduct all Shostakovich’s symphonies, a labour that has extended over several seasons. The stage was packed with the large array of orchestral musicians, male voice choir and bass soloist that this piece requires. Reviewing the performance by the RLPO for The Guardian, Tim Ashley wrote:
The Thirteenth is among the least ambiguous of Shostakovich’s symphonies. Setting poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko for male voice choir, bass soloist and a colossal orchestra, it rages overtly against Stalinism and demands we learn from history by refusing to revert to its extremes. The opening movement, drawing parallels between Nazi and Soviet antisemitism, is one of music’s great anti-racist statements, a thing of fury and terror, which Petrenko unleashed with tremendous force. Later he brought irony and sadness to bear on Shostakovich’s contemplation of the attempted suppression of satire, the dreariness of bread queues, and the nature of scientific and artistic responsibility.
Alexander Vinogradov was the aggressive yet sorrowing soloist. The men of the Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Huddersfield Choral Society sang with great fervour and intensity.
There were two additional pieces in the programme: Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, written in 1920 for an ensemble composed entirely of woodwind and brass instruments.The angular chordal blocks of that piece were in stark contrast to the second short work that made up the first half of the programme, Tchaikovsky’s romantic Serenade for Strings, composed entirely for strings.
Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments performed by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble
Last night we dipped our toes into the Manchester International Music Festival, attending a concert at the Bridgewater Hall featuring a very varied programme – Bartok, Beethoven and Arvo Part. I was there primarily for the Bartok (Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste) and Part (Lamentate), but most of the audience were there for pianist Martha Argerich, who played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, receiving several several rapturous standing ovations. Continue reading “Bartok, Beethoven and Pärt”→
On Friday evening we heard an electrifying centennial performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at the Philharmonic Hall with Vasily Petrenko conducting. At the close, the reception for Petrenko and the Philharmonic Orchestra was rapturous. There was no riot.
The programme had been billed as identical to the one in which the Rite had its infamous first performance in Paris on 29 May 1913. The orchestra began with de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat (although de Falla didn’t complete his ballet until 1919 – it was actually Les Sylphides they heard that night in Paris). De Falla’s sultry, stamping Spanish rhythms was
followed by the shimmering woodwinds and harps of Debussy’s Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune, and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances in a performance that rivalled the Rite for sheer power and excitement. The entire Philharmonic Choir had been marshalled for this 10-minute appearance, and with Petrenko directing the mass ranks of the choir and an augmented orchestra, the massed musicians generated a thrilling and immense sound. At one point I was certain that the choir were singing the melody of ‘Stranger In Paradise’. I now know they were: the melodies in the 1953 musical Kismet, from which that song derives, were all lifted from Polovtsian Dances.
This Wednesday will mark the 100th anniversary of the Rite‘s scandalous première. It’s possible that no musical work has had such a powerful influence or evoked as much controversy as The Rite of Spring. The work’s première on 29 May 1913, at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, outraged at least a section of the audience and provoked a modest riot. It wasn’t just the music: the ballet, with its bizarre story of pagan sacrifice, wild dances and outrageous costumes were as much of a provocation as Stravinsky’s musical radicalism.
One of the first reviews of the Paris première was by Jacques Rivière, a critic for the Nouvelle Revue Française. Apart from the fact that it was overwhelmingly positive, Rivière’s review is notable for the way it highlights the production as being a brilliant collaboration: ‘Who is the author of Le Sacre du Printemps?’ Rivière asked. ‘Who created it? Nijinsky, Stravinsky or Roerich?’
Serge Diaghilev was the director of the Ballets Russes. He and Stravinsky were close working partners for twenty years, until Diaghilev’s death in 1929. Many of Stravinsky’s most outstanding works were composed for Diaghilev productions, including The Firebird and Petrushka (1911), The Rite of Spring (1913), Pulcinella (1920) and Les Noces (1923). Their first collaboration was on the ballet Les Sylphides, the musically innocuous opening piece on that May night in Paris.
Then there was Nijinsky’s shocking choreography, far removed from the elegance expected in a ballet in 1913, and physically unnatural to perform: ‘With every leap we landed heavily enough to jar every organ in us’, one dancer recalled. When the curtain rose and the music began, without a melody but with loud, pulsating, dissonant chords and jarring, irregular accents, dancers emerged dressed as pagans from ancient Russia, performing with heavy steps, their bodies wrenched and pulled to the earth. One ballet historian quoted by Alex Ross in The Rest Is Noise states that ‘the dancers trembled, shook, shivered, stamped; jumped crudely and ferociously, circled the stage in wild khorovods’.
The costumes and scenery for The Rite of Spring were designed by artist and Slavonic folklore expert Nicholas Roerich. Diaghilev had commissioned Roerich to design several of the company’s ballets, and for The Rite, Roerich created costumes that were influenced by traditional Slavic folk dress and developed a scenic design that was sparse with primitive props and a backdrop of pagan landscapes – hills and trees painted in strange bright colours, intended to evoke intense feelings and the mystery of nature.
Last but not least, there was Stravinsky’s music, angular, dissonant and – in 1913, at least – totally unpredictable – and inscrutable. Accounts of the first performance note that many of those in the audience were baffled as to what instruments they were hearing. The introductory melody, adapted from a Lithuanian folk song, featured a bassoon being played higher in its range than anyone had ever been asked to do before. The unlikely sound of the instrument caused composer Camille Saint-Saens to exclaim, ‘If that is a bassoon, then I am a baboon!’
In The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross provides a vivid account of that first night:
The programme began innocuously, with a revival of the Ballets Russes’ Chopin fantasy Les Sylphides. After a pause, the theatre darkened again, and high, falsetto-like bassoon notes floated out of the orchestra. Strands of melody intertwined like vegetation bursting out of the earth – ‘sacred terror in the noonday sun’, Stravinsky called it, in a description that had been published that morning. The audience listened to the opening section of the Rite in relative silence, although the increasing density and dissonance of the music caused mutterings, titters, whistles, and shouts. Then, at the beginning of the second section, a dance for adolescents titled ‘The Augurs of Spring’, a quadruple shock arrived, in the form of harmony, rhythm, image, and movement. At the outset of the section, the strings and horns play a crunching discord, consisting of an F-flat-major triad and an E-flat dominant seventh superimposed. They are one semitone apart (F-flat being the same as E-natural), and they clash at every node. A steady pulse propels the chord, but accents land every which way, on and off the beat:
one two three four five six seven eight
one two three four five six seven eight
one two three four five six seven eight one two three four five six seven eight
Even Diaghilev quivered a little when he first heard the music. ‘Will it last a very long time this way?’ he asked. Stravinsky replied, ‘Till the end, my dear’. The chord repeats some two hundred times. Meanwhile, Nijinsky’s choreography discarded classical gestures in favour of near-anarchy. […]
Howls of discontent went up from the boxes, where the wealthiest onlookers sat. Immediately, the aesthetes in the balconies and the standing room howled back. There were overtones of class warfare in the proceedings. […]
Little more of the score was heard after that. ‘One literally could not, throughout the whole performance, hear the sound of music,’ Gertrude Stein recalled, no doubt overstating for effect. ‘Our attention was constantly distracted by a man in the box next to us flourishing his cane, and finally in a violent altercation with an enthusiast in the box next to him, his cane came down and smashed the opera hat the other had just put on in defiance. It was all incredibly fierce.’
Nevertheless, in Alex Ross’s judgement, the riot at the Rite‘s first night wasn’t unique – there had been other first night disturbances in previous years, and only a couple of months before the première of the Rite, police were called to a riot in Vienna triggered by the music of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Ross continues:
Soon enough, Parisian listeners realized that the language of the Rite was not so unfamiliar; it teemed with plain-spoken folk-song melodies, common chords in sparring layers, syncopations of irresistible potency. In a matter of days, confusion turned into pleasure, boos into bravos. Even at the first performance, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and the dancers had to bow four or five times for the benefit of the applauding faction. Subsequent performances were packed, and at each one the opposition dwindled. At the second, there was noise only during the latter part of the ballet; at the third, ‘vigorous applause’ and little protest. At a concert performance of the Rite one year later, ‘unprecedented exaltation’ and a ‘fever of adoration’ swept over the crowd, and admirers mobbed Stravinsky in the street afterwards, in a riot of delight.
As mentioned earlier, one of the first reviews of the Paris première was by Jacques Rivière, a critic for the Nouvelle Revue Française, and it was wildly enthusiastic:
But all of the sudden one night [there appeared] this thing without profit, this refusal to live off the past, this terrifying blow to the very expectations they had themselves implanted in us, this work which changes everything, which changes the very source of our esthetic judgments and one which we must immediately number among the greatest: Le Sacre du Printemps. […]
It was a masterpiece. I beg your pardon for expressing my great enthusiasm at such length without giving my reasons. It is just that they are too numerous and too important to be summarized in one sweeping statement. The work is so new that to grasp it fully one must let time mature and deepen the thoughts it suggests. It marks a date not only in the history of the dance and of music but in all the arts. Its beauty overflows everywhere. But that only makes it more difficult to embrace.
Whatever the scale of outrage and incomprehension that greeted its debut, Stravinsky’s score for The Rite of Spring is now regarded as one of the greatest musical masterpieces of the twentieth century – perhaps the greatest of all. Alex Ross puts it in context and makes this judgement:
The Rite, whose first part ends with a stampede for full orchestra titled ‘Dance of the Earth’, prophesied a new type of popular art – low-down yet sophisticated, smartly savage, style and muscle intertwined. It epitomized the ‘second avant-garde’ in classical composition, the post-Debussy strain that sought to drag the art out of Faustian ‘novel spheres’ and into the physical world. For much of the nineteenth century, music had been a theatre of the mind; now composers would create a music of the body. Melodies would follow the patterns of speech; rhythms would match the energy of dance; musical forms would be more concise and clear; sonorities would have the hardness of life as it is really lived.
A phalanx of European composers – Stravinsky in Russia, Bela Bartok in Hungary, Leos Janacek in what would become the Czech Republic, Maurice Ravel in France, and Manuel de Falla in Spain, to name some of the principals – devoted themselves to folk song and other musical remnants of a pre-urban life, trying to cast off the refinements of the city dweller. […]
The real break came with the First World War. Even before it was over, Satie and various young Parisians renounced fin-de-siecle solemnity and appropriated music-hall tunes, ragtime, and jazz; they also partook of the noisemaking spirit of Dada, which had enlivened Zurich during the war. Their earthiness was urban, not rural – frivolity with a militant edge.
A hundred years after that first performance, Vasily Petrenko and the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra gave a spine-tingling account of Stravinsky’s electrifying work. It was a truly visceral musical experience, the musicians approaching the piece with tremendous attack that emphasised its jagged rhythms and sharp contrasts. Is there anything that can compare to the deafening and shattering conclusion of this work – or to hearing it performed live?
Complete performance: Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 2010
Or, for a sense of what the original ballet production of 1913 would have been like:
Footnote, 28 May: according to an item in today’s Guardian, the audience at that first night 100 years ago included Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.
Best of all, though, is this visualisation of Stravinsky’s music by Jay Bacal and Stephen Malinowski, in two parts: The Adoration of the Earth, (above), and The Exalted Sacrifice, (below). It’s an animated graphical score that, in Malinowski’s words, allows “your eyes to lead your ears” as the music’s structure and the lines of orchestration are given shape on screen.
‘What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’ In Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale which we saw last night performed by by Ensemble 10/10, a soldier encounters the devil and trades the violin that represents his soul for the promise of riches. Composed in 1918, with its concluding moral that ‘no one can have it all’, The Soldier’s Tale sends echoes of the Biblical text and the Faust story forward to our own troubled times.
The Soldier’s Tale was composed by Stravinsky when he was short of cash himself. Stranded in Switzerland by the First World war, he was cut off from the income of his Russian estates and publisher royalties. The chances of mounting a production of a major ballet during wartime were slim to non-existent, so he came up with the idea of writing a piece that would be both inexpensive to perform and suitable for small venues.
The result is a work that is pared down to essentials in melody, rhythm and instrumentation. The Soldier’s Tale is scored for just seven instruments: clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, violin, double bass and percussion. So it is ideal for Ensemble 10/10, the contemporary music group formed from members of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Last night, the violinist Anthony Marwood directed the Ensemble in a bright and lively performance, with Walter van Dyk as the narrator, convincingly inhabiting each of the tale’s characters.
The Soldier’s Tale was composed as a ‘pocket theatre’ work to be ‘read, played, and danced’. The libretto was based on an old Russian folk tale, reworked by the Swiss writer C. F. Ramuz into a modern morality story. A soldier returning from the war meets the devil who tricks him into handing over his violin in exchange for a mysterious book that will tell him how to become fabulously rich. Too late he realises that his own soul is bound up with the violin, and though he manages subsequently to outwit the devil, he fails to learn from his first mistake, and finally loses everything he has gained.
The work may be nearly a century old, but in this excellent performance it still sounded fresh and modern, with its angular rhythms and shifting time signatures. There are echoes of eastern European gipsy tunes and of jazz, though Stravinsky had certainly never heard jazz in 1918, the date of its composition predating the age of jazz in Europe by several years.
Having fended off the devil at cards and with his fiddle playing, the soldier marries the Princess. He lives happily until he decides to leave his new town to return to his old home across the border. The work ends with the soldier crossing the frontier after being tempted by the idea of seeing his mother once again. But the devil is waiting, and Joseph turns back to find his wife gone. The final movement, the ‘triumphal march of the devil’, features violin and percussion entwined in a rhythmic duel before the violin fades out to a ghostly echo on percussion.
You must not seek to add To what you have, what you once had;
You have no right to share What you are with what you were.
No one can have it all, That is forbidden.
You must learn to choose between.
One happy thing is every happy thing: Two, is as if they had never been.
The image at the head of this post is by Martha Visser’t Hooft, one of several production sketches she made for a performance of The Soldier’s Tale in Buffalo in 1951.
When we visit London we usually try to fit in some jazz in the evening. This time, though, we did something different. I’m not a great one for classical music, especially big symphonic pieces. But I do enjoy 20th century classical – and chamber music from the Baroque period. So we went along to St Martin’s in the Fields to hear a great selection of Baroque masterpieces.
St Martin’s is such a landmark, on the corner of Trafalgar Square opposite the National Gallery, and I’ve probably passed it a hundred times – but never gone inside. I don’t know what I expected – but we arrived to find the church a busy, bustling place, packed with people. Apart from those who there to hear the music, downstairs the Cafe in the Crypt was bursting at the seams, too. There are concerts of classical music performed here on several nights during the week, and there are Jazz Nights most Wednesdays.
We had come to hear a programme of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and Antonio Vivaldi performed by the London Musical Arts Orchestra:
Bach – Violin Concerto in E
Vivaldi – ‘Summer’ from Four Seasons
Bach – Violin Concerto in A minor
Vivaldi – Concerto for Two Violins in A minor
Bach – Air ‘on the G String’
Bach – Concerto for Two Violins in D minor
Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major was composed in 1723. Of the 20 or so of Bach’s surviving concertos, only two are for solo violin. Both the A minor and E major concertos have long been cherished mainstays of the violin repertoire.
The E-major Violin Concerto is a creation of purest Bachian splendour. Opening with three aggressive chords, built on an E-major triad, that form the beginning of the main subject, the first movement unfolds in a fashion characteristic of the composer, but with some surprises. Two serious episodes in minor provide sharp contrast with the ebullience of the main material. And before the return to the main subject, the violin has a tiny solo followed by an unexpected pause before those three opening chords announce the final full exposition of the movement’s main substance.
The minor-keyed slow movement opens the floodgates of a kind of exquisitely controlled poignancy that is Bach’s inimitable version of Baroque romanticism. The form is chaconne-like, which is to say there is a persistent figure in the orchestra above which the violin, after entering on a long-held note, spins seemingly improvisatory strands of serene expressiveness. Bach at his most exalted.
The exuberant final movement is calculated to be give-and-take between orchestra and soloist – the group refrain appears five times with the soloist’s episodes in between. In the final solo episode Bach gives the soloist a brief but telling bit of virtuosity. – Orrin Howard, Los Angeles Philharmonic programme note
The music may have become over-familiar from being used in TV adverts, played down the phone while you’re put on hold or broadcast over shopping mall PA systems, but Vivaldi’s Four Seasons heard live remains a spine-tingling piece, as fresh as the first time you heard it. The Four Seasons was published in 1725, in a set of twelve concerto’s entitled Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The Test of Harmony and Invention). Each concerto is in the distinct form of fast-slow-fast movements. Vivaldi wrote individual sonnets to accompany each movement and the St Martins programme notes reproduced the sonnet for ‘Summer’:
Allegro non molto In the baking sun, pines burn and all languish. The cuckoo, turtle-dove and nightingale sing. Sweet zephyrs and the north wind blow and the shepherd cries. Adagio At rest, he is disturbed by thunder and swarms of gnats. Presto The storm shakes the heavens and breaks the corn.
Johann Sebastian Bach Violin Concerto in A minor
Bach’s approach to the violin concerto borrowed heavily from Vivaldi. His use of ritornello structures, movements organized in a fast-slow-fast arrangement, and an orchestrational approach that included the soloist as a component of the ensemble sound (as opposed to the more heroic soloist-versus-orchestra construct that would emerge in the following generations) all point directly to the Italian influence. The outer movements of the Concerto in A Minor demonstrate Bach’s fluidity and cohesion within this adopted format. Yet the most striking music is reserved for the slow movement; spanning more time than the other two movements combined, this hallowed meditation in the relative major key of C occupies the emotional core of the concerto. The movement unfolds as a spacious conversation between the insistent bass motive of repeated notes and the free-spirited violin melody, mediated by a spare accompaniment of pulsing chords in the upper strings.
– Aaron Grad, programme notes, Kennedy Centre
During the interval there’s a feature called Meet the Music in which the Orchestra’s Musical Director John Landoran gives an informative and entertaining introduction to a piece to be played in the second half – Bach’s Air from Suite No 3 in D ‘on the G string’. He explains how the music was composed by breaking it down to reveal the component elements layered into the piece, while the musicians demonstrate the elements separately, then together. To reinforce the point, the musicians perform the complete passage among the audience, in order to emphasise the separate elements.
During the interval we also had time to look around the building, which was renovated in 2008. The first reference to a church on the site of St Martin’s is in Norman times, in 1222. St Martin’s, then surrounded by fields, appears to have been used by monks from Westminster. The church was rebuilt by Henry VIII in 1542 to avoid plague victims from the area having to pass through his Palace of Whitehall. At that time, it was still literally ‘in the fields’ between the cities of Westminster and London.
The present church was designed by James Gibbs and completed in 1726. Gibbs’ design has been imitated across North America and throughout the world. During the first half of the concert I’d noticed a curious design in the window behind the performers. It’s the East Window, designed by artist Shirazeh Houshiary, and it depicts the rippled image of a cross as if it were seen reflected in water, and is a feature that was installed during the 2008 renovation.
Walking around the church I came across a sculpture dedicated to victims of injustice and violence. It was made by Chaim Stephenson and is dedicated to all victims of injustice and violence during the years of apartheid. It was edicated in 1994 by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1994
I also learned about how St Martin’s has always been responsive to injustice and social need. It was here that London’s first free lending library was established, Amnesty International was conceived, and Shelter and the Big Issue were launched. Work with the homeless began during the First World War and continues today with The Connection at St Martin’s, a project which helps homeless people by providing specialist services – including a day and night centre, outreach for rough sleepers, skills training and career advice, and specialist support for complex needs. The project caters to over 200 people in central London every day.
The second half of the concert began with Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins in A minor. In programme notes for the Los Angeles Orchestra, Steven Ledbetter emphasises the impact which Vivaldi’s compositions had on Bach:
Johann Sebastian Bach was gripped by the frenzy of discovery when he encountered Vivaldi’s concertos during his years in Weimar (1708 17). He studied them closely and learned Vivaldi’s technique by transcribing a number of his violin concertos into keyboard concertos. The concertos of Vivaldi’s Opus 3 taught many composers how to use the orchestral ritornello form as a efficient organizing principle. In the ritornello form, the basic material of the movement is set forth by the full orchestra in a passage that returns in various keys before being restated in the tonic at the end of the movement. These frequent restatements justify the term ritornello, which literally means ‘that which returns’. The function of these restatements is like that of the piers of a suspension bridge, supporting the airy span of the soloist’s (or soloists’) line. So effective is the ritornello that it was adopted as the formal principle for everything from concertos to opera arias in the ensuing decades.
Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor for Two Violins, No. 8 was published as one of a dozen concertos collected in his Opus 3. … Vivaldi may not have invented the ritornello form of the Baroque concerto, but these 12 compositions—only a tiny percentage of his more than 500 concertos—did more than any others to establish the form all over Europe. From the tip of the Italian boot up to England and Scandinavia, composers attempted to imitate the directness of Vivaldi’s pregnant themes and the energy of his rhythms, not to mention his highly refined ear for orchestral colour.
Vivaldi’s concerto was followed by Bach’s Air from Suite No 3 in D ‘on the G string’. John Landoran had explained during the interval that the title comes from violinist August Wilhelmj’s late 19th century arrangement of the piece for violin and piano. Wilhelmj placed the melody more than an octave lower than the pitch at which Bach wrote it, so that it could be played on the violin’s lowest string (the one tuned to G) with rich effect. Landoran had also reminded us of the Air’s use in the 1960s TV adverts for Hamlet cigars – and had demonstrated how it had been adapted for that purpose.
Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major has long been one of the favourites in his series of suites, largely on the strength of the second movement played here – a sustained melody of ravishing tranquility that Bach simply called ‘Air’.
The final piece was Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor. The two surviving violin concertos and this concerto for two violins were all written between 1717 and 1723 at Cothen, during a period when Bach was in the service of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen, who placed at his disposal an establishment of eighteen talented musicians. The six Brandenburg concertos also date from this period. Programme notes for this piece begin by once again noting the Vivaldi connection:
During his earlier years at Weimar, Bach had come to admire the Italian style of concerto as composed by Vivaldi. Indeed, he had paid the Venetian master the tribute of transcribing a number of his many published violin concertos for solo keyboard and had also arranged a Vivaldi concerto for four violins as a concerto for four harpsichords. Although these transcripts show Bach rethinking idiomatic violin music in terms of the keyboard, when it came to his own violin concertos the influence of the harpsichord, with its self-sufficient contrapuntal possibilities and quick unsustained brightness was entirely forgotten.
Bach’s violin concertos are not virtuoso showpieces, as Vivaldi’s tend to be, but are conceived completely in purely violinistic terms. With the need to display the skill of two soloists, Bach substantially reduces the orchestral contribution in this work. Once the extended opening tutti has established the mood, the weight of the first movement falls upon the soloists in two long episodes, the tutti returning briefly both in the middle and at the end. The soloists also have the responsibility of opening the finale and again dominate that movement.
Between these two outer movements lies one of Bach’s greatest and most sublime creations, an eloquent duet of overlapping and imitative phrases punctuated on four occasions by a gentle downward four-note fragment that each time seems to lead to an intensification of the poignancy and depth of feeling of this wonderful dialogue.
The performers of the London Musical Arts Ensemble were:
Solo Violins: Joshua Fisher, Dominika Rosiek
Violins: Helen Davies, George Hlawiczka
Viola: Matthew Quenby
Cello: Katharine Jenkinson
Bass: Benjamin Griffiths
Harpsichord: Nathaniel Mander
Four of us went along to the Philharmonic Hall last night for a concert programme headlined by Fauré’s Requiem. My encounters with classical music are fairly limited and it’s not my usual musical stamping ground, but I really enjoyed this. Faure’s spare and delicate orchestration for the Requiem, composed in the late 1880s, impressed me. Whereas composers of the day were tending to write for bigger and bigger orchestras, with denser textures, Fauré opts for a smaller ensemble and spare orchestration, omitting violins and wind instruments that he felt were unnecessary.
Unlike many composers, he wasn’t inspired to compose a Requiem because of the death of a loved one (though his father had died two years before); rather, he said, ‘My Requiem was composed for nothing … for fun, if I may be permitted to say so!’
Although the Requiem now ranks among the most frequently performed and most admired of Gabriel Faure’s works, it wasn’t until the 1930s that it was first performed in the UK, and it didn’t achieve its present enormous popularity until the 1960s. And it was only in 1969 that a French musicologist discovered the parts used for the first performances of the Requiem in the archives of the church of La Madeleine in Paris, where the composer was maitre de chapelle from 1877, and organist from 1896 to 1905. The arrangements corresponded to those of a chamber orchestra and not full symphony orchestra (as in what had been the official version since 1901). Thanks to the publication of this new edition of the Requiem, this splendid work of sacred music at last regained the intimate character that its composer intended.
YouTube excerpts from the Requiem, performed by the Exultate Festival Choir and Orchestra:
The Requiem is made up of seven sections written between October 1877 and January 1888: the Introit, Kyrie, Offertorium, Sanctus, Pie Jesu, Agnus Dei, and In Paradisum. In an jnterview in 1902, Faure declared, with a touch of humour:
Perhaps I also instinctively tried to get away from the well-trodden paths. I’ve accompanied funeral services on the organ for so long! I’ve had them up to here! I wanted to do something else.
The Requiem was an immense success from the start, making it one of the composer’s most popular works. However, some commentators reproached Faure for giving it a somewhat pagan character, and for deleting certain passages from the Mass. Faure’s response was that he wasn’t seeking to address the Catholic community alone, and that he was aiming at conveying his conception of death in terms of universal significance. Faure’s avowed aim was to ‘to get away from the well-trodden paths’ and ‘do something else’.
If this all sounds knowledgeable on my part, bear in mind that, not being Catholic and not being particularly well-educated in religious signs and symbols, the first time I remember being aware of the words Kyrie Eleison was when they were sung by the Electric Prunes on the soundtrack to Easy Rider (one of the road movies that was the subject of a witty and incisive deconstruction by comedian Rich Hall in his BBC 4 documentary Continental Drifters this week).