Friday, 9 June 2017

10 & 11 June - Butterworth

George Butterworth.
(Script has been slightly edited to fit the timeslot)

This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme, written and researched by Mike Burrows, is a tribute to the composer, George Butterworth.
George Sainton Kaye Butterworth was born in 1885, the son of a lawyer and managing-director on the railways, and died as a Captain in the Durham Light Infantry during the Battle of the Somme. At about dawn, in August 1916, leading his company in action near Pozieres he was killed instantly by a sniper in a moment of sleep-deprived unconcern for his own safety. As a soldier, he had liked to lead from
the front; here, he had made an elementary slip and raised his head too high. Posthumously awarded the Military Cross, he lived up fully to what had been expected of him and thus to the example of his grandfather, an army General. Like many of his contemporaries of the privileged middle-classes, he died as a junior officer fighting the Hun, his last moments spent caught up in the crossfire of an attack in the blasted landscape of a sector of the Western Front, his body never recovered, his name added to the famous Thiepval Monument to many of those Allied troops who were killed in France or Belgium between 1914-18 and who have no known grave. The monument stands not far from where he was killed. At the time, the earthwork in which he fell became known as The Butterworth Trench.
Let’s hear an arrangement of a folksong arranged by him, one of his 11 Sussex Folksongs, Roving In
The Dew. He collected 3 versions of this song himself, under the title, Dabbling In The Dew, but
for this arrangement used a version taken down by another researcher.
Track 1 Roving In The Dew, Arr Butterworth 
It is doubtful that George Butterworth ever had thoughts of living up to his Grandfather’s example. Though an Old Etonian and graduate of Trinity College, Oxford and one who would have regarded himself as the social equal of most of the more famous victims of the meatgrinder in the teens of the last Century –the first-rate Tennants, Grenfells Asquiths and Horners of this life - was no conventional patriot, no Tory, no euphuist in any aspect of existence.  Whether learning or teaching music – he 
taught at Radley – he was an artist of close mouth and practical activity. He was a physically strong,
man who smoked a straight Lovatt briar, grew the expected flourishing moustache and tended to look as though smiling at the eyes – lucent eyes crinkled at the corners, the lower lids subject to upward pressure from his cheeks, humorous eyes, their humour with a touch of irony or scepticism, perhaps.
They were also watchful eyes. A graduate in Classics, he attended the Royal College of Music from 1910, a late starter in the College’s eyes – though a composer from the age of 9 - who knew where
he was going. The courses disappointed him, leading nowhere; he left after a year. He had the clearest ideas of form and modern harmony and had made a study of folk-music, becoming a staunch member of Cecil Sharp’s Folksong Society. He had worked through the expected influences of the day that wrecked the work of lesser talents; Wagner left his mark, possibly Grieg or Debussy and possibly, at the outside, the colourful and ingenious style of Slavic instrumentation. He remained the most analytical and clearminded of critics, and certainly cut through musical problems for that late-developer, Vaughan Williams. At the end of an evening, he took his pipe out of his mouth to suggest in his abrupt way that Vaughan Williams write a 2nd Symphony, The London Symphony, and Vaughan Williams dedicated it to him before its premiere in 1913. When Butterworth died, Vaughan Williams felt as though utterly bereft; there’s the matter of his having volunteering for war-service as an ambulance-driver but, in time, changing his battlefield vocation to become a Royal Artillery officer. Perhaps
the death of Butterworth contributed to this decision.
George would not have been impressed by talk of his bravery in encouraging his men – mostly hardbitten ex-miners - to one more effort, or by admiration of his Military Cross – which only officers could win. His men loved him, but that would have made the error seem all the more stupid. He would have kicked himself for making the mistake made by chivalrous idiots just posted up from home, clever lads who forgot to duck or who had no idea how hard it were to dodge the bullet of an unseen assailant – the speed with which death could be dealt in a modern War in France.  As a composer, George Butterworth’s work has come down to us as a proof of his technical ability as well as pure expression; he seems the most humane but poised of artists, a man who, quite possibly attained the very highest degree of feeling and polish; not one of his works appears blemished by extraneous or awkward details or developments. They appear to have been distilled and perfected by a musical magician. He must have destroyed volumes of early pieces before leaving for France – if not sooner. His complete oeuvre 
consists of four orchestral pieces, a couple of single songs – one setting Requiescat by Oscar Wilde after the death of his own mother, three song cycles – one based on poems from Stevenson’s Songs of Travel, two on the Shropshire Lad poems of AE Housman, one on poems by WE Henley, Love Blows
As The Wind Blows, a book of arrangements of 11 Sussex folksongs and – most famously – the ever-fresh four orchestral pieces, the Two English Idylls of 1911, the Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad, (1912) and An Idyll: The Banks of Green Willow (1913).
The Folksong movement in English music has been decried by modernists and so-called internationalists ever since its co-opted member-composers came to fame. Not one of the brilliant
minds who have pointed out that the world of folksong nostalgically revived was invalid as a form of
artistic expression because dead on its feet even as it was obtruded on the minds of sophisticated Rightwing intellectuals, or just plain substanceless when contrasted with industrial machine-reality, has
managed to extirpate the public’s love of its Art-music. The point has so often been missed that
folksong-and-dance formed the musical means of self-expression and entertainment of ordinary people who did not attend Public School or University or hire a suburban piano. Ordinary people toiled and died without mark save birth, marriage, census and funeral – unless they attained the charge-sheet, or entered the Workhouse.
Let’s hear the two English Idylls. The first is based on three folksongs: Dabbling in The Dew, whose
subject is unsuccessful wooing, Just as The Tide was Flowing, a story of successful wooing and Henry Martin, in which a man turns to piracy on the high seas in order to support his brothers!
Track 2: English Idyll No 1, Butterworth 

Butterworth’s use of alto instruments is a shading feature – voices we made of oboe, clarinet, violas, cellos, horns, trombones. The light and freshness comes from flute, harp, solo trumpet, violins. In rounding out the story how effective his harp runs are. The bass is unobtrusive but mobile or 
provides pedals of depth – a depth of earth like firmness. The interplay of instrumentation is lively. His use of harmonics and mutes is as breathtaking in its elemental scene setting as is his sense of drama
and tragedy. Full throated, his orchestra is a formidable force from which both Holst and Vaughan Williams and many other composers learned, as the deep earth settled on its perhaps one time Wagnerist only begetter. Constantly, the blending of timbres is both subtle and unerringly distinct.
In the English Idyll No 2, the folksong is Phoebe and Her Dark-eyed Sailor: in it, a girl encounters a sailor; he seeks to win her; she refuses the confident well-set up lad until she suddenly realizes that he is her betrothed who went to sea and was thought to have drowned. He tried and made his fortune.
Track 3: English Idyll No 2, Butterworth 
People had flocked from the poverty-stricken land to the cities, where pay was supposed survivable. The cities swelled with increasingly cheap labour with predictable results. Thousands were killed young
by machines, dust or fibre-polluted atmospheres and toxic agents, or by a home-life best imagined from the prints of contemporary artists. The workhouse – the being a charity-case – was merely dreaded more than work or a cholera- or typhoid epidemic. No wonder many folksongs sing bittersweetly or longingly of love, usually lost love, betrayal, death or some other form of separation, dalliances while going or coming from somewhere, or sailors, the season or life-occupation, the
possibility of making one’s fortune – with plenty of fireside beer, warming spice and baccy as well. It has to be remembered that at his most utile (and, coincidentally virtuous), the common man or woman was young, fit, unmarried, politically submissive and an abstainer from drinking, smoking and sexual
relations. When rich enough to feed, clothe and house children on one wage, well, a man and woman
could marry, settle down and breed fit young children of the same make. After all, at a higher
differential, this was how professionals not of independent means ought to live, to the glory of God and
Capital, and everyone knew what the alternative was – to be a pauper and expected to die. Moral force was with wealth and the employer; even the established church, socially enmeshed with the gentry and middleclasses, would not or could not ameliorate the conditions created by tyrannical Mammon, yet one had to conform.

The conflicts in AE Housman’s A Shropshire Lad are many; but central to Butterworth’s probable view of them would have been that between living in the countryside or coming to live and work in the
City, in London, as Housman had done, and having to hide one’s own very nature. Facing up to
an inimical, godless universe of chance and ill-fate, and to society’s capacity for damning short-lived man’s non-existent soul to cowering under the threat of social disgrace and even capital punishment as a criminal was a peculiarly Victorian dilemma – particularly after the trial of Oscar Wilde. The covertly homosexual Housman described himself as an Epicurian, and Butterworth likewise was no believer in the Christian God, but both must have felt themselves still to be swimming against the tide of middleclass conventional religion, politics and morality. Both loved the countryside, the seasons, the general goodheartedness of unsophisticated people. The countryside and country folk were still there, still sang and danced in reaction to life. The beauty of Butterworth’s orchestral evocation of Spring in the Rhapsody is superfine from the opening on string harmonics, but also as though of Nature itself. The woodwind, violins, violas and cellos shade the music to perfection, the brass affirmatory of
warmth, youthful happiness or dread fate. To judge from the use of harmony, Butterworth’s study of music must have included the works of Richard Strauss. I’d venture to suggest that no Straussian nor expressionist composer achieved a starker, harsher climax than that of this piece in which vaulting
fanfare builds and is broken by the tritone as in Sibelius. A moment of horror that stays with
one. (The whole tone scale from the harp at close may symbolize death by drowning). The day is
not saved by the Loveliest of Trees motif that has opposed it, all along, but by the phrase of last line of the song. “To see the cherry hung with snow.” Butterworth’s modification, qualification or distortion
of song-themes is a brilliant  and original feature of his orchestral work: he develops them as might
a symphonist. He searches out the harmonic implication or resonance to the last drachm (dram) or scruple. The harp’s rippling wholetone scale near the end has been suggested to symbolize a self-drowning.

The main theme of the Rhapsody, by name, Loveliest of Trees, is a folksong that was in fact
entirely Butterworth’s own. In its original form, it is the first song in his first cycle of Shropshire Lad settings. He ventriloquized Housman’s and Great Britain’s Lad in a song indistinguishable from those that move by every means but the intentional. To adapt Wilfred Owen, the poetry of the art-musician inspired by folksong is in the pity. No wonder the soldiers of his company thought so well of him.
In Butterworth’s music it is never, to use the Masefield couplet, “The smoke of all three farms lifts blue in air/As though man’s passionate mind had never suffered there.”
Track 4: Rhapsody – A Shropshire Lad, Butterworth 
Turn to 1913 and another orchestral Idyll, The Banks of Green Willow, based on two folksongs, the
first eponymous – a woman elopes with a captain, believes that she will die in childbirth and begs him
to throw her over the side – and the second, Green Bushes, in which a fickle maid finds a new lover.
It’s interesting that every Butterworth orchestral piece is in an arch construction:  first, there is the proposition of a beautiful tune and contrast material; then, there is a vehement quasi-development section; lastly, there is a restatement of the opening material – long drawn out, becoming hushed, fading into a dying fall, almost unbearably poignant, nostalgic, regretful but too touching not to be consoling and unforgettable 
Track 5: The Banks of Green Willow, George Butterworth 

Perhaps folk-music survived even the worst of the 19th Century’s murderous advancement of Feudal Capitalism as the basis for a modern society, partly thanks to the Folksong Society and young composers from privileged, even landed, backgrounds who bothered to listen and hear; folk-music was popular self-expression more real than music-hall popular songs or polite villa-ballads provided by paid hacks who might have wished to write symphonies. It was national self-expression; it came of the people, the nation rather than its rulers – as glorified by the latest in Art music-technique, those, for one thing, who bothered to note it down as played or sung, not as taught by the Brahmsian, Dvorakesque Professor Stanford. Modal, not diatonic, pentatonic folk-music could be embellished by being played over chromatic harmonies, subjected to direct strokes of development, manipulation, transformation, even counterpoint – and gain. There was never the intention to seem sophisticated. Sophistication is
not a positive value – it means capable of glib persuasiveness. Not exactly a desideratum in one who pays tribute to the victims of the 19th Century British holocaust who, trapped and left with little or no real comfort, leisure or notice created the only natural, meaningful form of music we had to distinguish
our artworks from superior European models. Everyone, not the educated connoisseur, critic or composer, owned folk-music – felt its pathos or humour – often, its defiant humour and unintentional pathos. Socialists might just look back to the 17th Century and think of Commonwealth – wealth held in common. Holst, Vaughan Williams, Butterworth, Grainger, Moeran and many others will not appeal to those who think their music easy or unpolitical. Anyone with half an ear for music will hear what their
music may mean – and find its influence compelling, magical and inexhaustible, the musical equivalent of a powerful poetic tradition stretching back to Shakespeare or even Chaucer – a bringing together of
the classes, a levelling process, a voice for us all, harmonies for our comedies and tragedies, our own
too-often oppressed and distracted lives. Even if in the Nineteenth Century the devil preached from holy scripture, still, pace the hymn or parlour song writers, he had almost none of the best tunes. True feeling was in the distinct lyrics, ballads and dances of semi-literate and self-taught musicians. Ribald, raucous, insolent or hail fellow, well-met, wistful, grieving, seeking solace, folk tunes held the truth of a materialistic, deeply false and unspeakably cruel age that had trashed earth and society for resources and productivity, profit and power.  How heartrending that Captain Butterworth failed to duck. Sometimes, it is hard to see what he fought and died for on the Somme. His music though is a glory of 
his generation and our country and, as the Great War was simply one more huge atrocity of ndustrialization, capital and utility, his pieces of lifelong-taken pains are made still more poignantly beautiful – as well as ironically bittersweet - by its being in part his and his lost generation’s
unconscious memorial.  How would his music have developed if he had returned to it after the Great War? That is unknowable; like Ivor Gurney, Butterworth was his own man, his future tendencies 
not to be predicted. He left one unfinished orchestral piece. Fantasia. This was completed a short while ago by Martin Yates. A long movement, it makes for fascinated listening, though always with the caveats that a major composer’s sketches are his own and subject to any change he likes, and his final intentions are not divined by editors or, as in this case, a talented fellow-composer who helps fragments across within composition of his own. Here it is. Memories of the pieces heard earlier are rife but welcome, and there is a very likeable dance-episode that Butterworth as a folk-dancer knew well how to encompass. Also, there are moments somewhat akin to Copland’s Appalachian Spring…
This was Classical Break, on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme was researched and written by Mike Burrows. We hope you enjoyed it and will tune in again soon. We leave you with Fantasia, sketched by Butterworth and “realized” by Martin Yates. Goodbye!
Track 6: Fantasia, Butterworth/Yates

Friday, 28 April 2017

30 April, 1 May - CB Shakespeare 2016


This week's Classical Break was recorded on William Shakespeare's 450th Birthday at the Holburne Museum in Bath where the Bath-based ensemble, Operaletta performed a 90-minute concert around music inspired by and set to the writings of the Bard in 2016.
For the purposes of the broadcast we have had to cut the programme to 58 minutes but a full version of the concert, along with details of the artists and pieces performed is available on the operaletta website.
Thanks to the Holburne Museum and the members of Operaletta for letting us record this concert and
thanks for listening.
This year's Shakespeare concert is quite different, and was recorded at the Holburne on Sunday March 23 2017- Shakespeare's actual birthday. It will be put out in a few weeks.

Friday, 14 April 2017

CB Easter 15/16 April

CB Spring/Easter 2016 

(this programme is a repeat)



(Some passages may not be heard on the programme, owing to lack of time). 



This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I'm Rupert Kirkham. Today's programme, written and researched by Mike Burrows, is devoted to Spring and Easter. We begin with Spring Song, the tone-poem by Jean Sibelius, a piece dating from early on in its composer's career – 1895 - that was later much-altered and simplified before publication in 1903. It is not lightly named. It is a Song, an orchestral “song without words”. The revision derives great strength from a long-breathed melody whose developing fervour and amplitude express perfectly the hopes attendant on the end of Winter and the replenishment – the increase in life - brought about by the return of the sun's warmth to the fertility of earth. 

The trajectory of the piece, as revized, is an emotive leap of directness, faith and seeming inevitability, the climax well-timed and -judged. The full-throated orchestration, in which the lower strings take their share in the singing, has much to do with this. The pealing of bells and brass at the close has little to do with Christianity. The hyperaesthetic Sibelius was not a Christian in any narrowly conventional sense, but a believer in Christian ethics, and pantheist or animist - lifelong a believer in the God of Creation, or the divine spark or spirit, in all living things. He felt the upswing in mood that Spring represents to dwellers in a cold climate. He praised that upswing's origin.

Fascinatingly, the effect of the single, opening, drum-accentuated chord of the piece is repeated at the opening of his last symphonic works, the 7th Symphony and Tapiola – commanding attention – and attendance in the world of his imagination - by the simplest of means. 

Track 1: Spring Song, Sibelius



Schumann's Six Songs for Choir, Opus 33, date from his Year of Song, during which he wrote at least 140 lieder, and sang out his heart in the long months before his fiancee of some years, Clara Wieck, and he escaped from her father's legal and not-so-legal efforts to separate them, and were married, the day before Clara reached her majority. 

Schumann's head must have rung with the synaesthetic seasonal symbolism of German poetry during that time, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter – and especially Spring! Thaw, changeable weather, raindrops, sunbeams, birdsong – particularly the nightingale – recovering gardens and bowers, linden-blossoms, early flowers, trees coming into leaf, fresh brooks, butterflies, frolicking lambs, the growth of love in all that was young.

Spring Bells, a poem by Robert Reinick – takes us from the snowdrop through the rose and lily, to the bluebell. It is a wistful appreciation of Spring, the only sadness being that with the bluebell, one has the last of Spring, and the consolation being that Spring has brought one so much. Birdsong culminates in the nightingale, of course - with the ghostly light of glow-worms, a mainstay of the mild nights of the Romantic late Spring and early Summer.

A strophic song of simplicity, characteristically German in its formulae of melody and harmonies is briefly – and exquisitely shadowed near the close, but ends as winningly as it has begun. 

Track 2: Fruhlingsglocken, Schumann 

Here is a lively instrumental version of a Lauda – a 13th Century demotic hymn, in this case from Cortona in Italy - De la Crudel Morte de Cristo, Of The Cruel Death of Christ. This dates from a time when hymns were often fitted to adaptations of popular tunes. The words, not sung here, tell the story of Christ's examination, condemnation, torture and death.

Track 3: De la Crudel Morte de Cristo, Cortona Manuscript 

Our view of Easter has changed mightily, if in cycles, over the 
years as expression of Christian faith has developed ever more in the way of schisms – often miscalled heresies – in the face of the material, purely political corruption of established religious institutions. Bishop Jeremy Taylor's 17th Century Jeremiad, Lord Come Away, calls on Christ to return, ride on triumphantly on the long-prepared way, rescue His Temple – “as full and dear/As that of Sion, and as full of sin:/Nothing but thieves and robbers dwell therein;/Enter, and chase them forth, and cleanse the floor!” - and crucify His enemies!

These sobering words were set to the full measure of their sternness by Vaughan Williams as the first of his Four Hymns for Tenor, Viola and Piano, later arranged for accompaniment by solo viola and string orchestra, commissioned from him for the Three Choirs Festival of 1914. 



Vaughan Williams was one of the few composers of his day capable of entering into the minds of 16th and 17th Century poets and composers and suiting his modes of expression to theirs, yet creating something inspirationally new and unencumbered in the 
process. Unegotistical by nature, he was, one may feel, something of a time-traveller. 

Track 4: Lord, Come Away, from Four Hymns, Vaughan Williams 




Now, an anthem, The Risen Lord, by the Michigan Handel, Leo Sowerby. For decades a church organist and choirmaster as well as composer, Sowerby wrote this in 1919; it was first performed in arrangement for Soprano/Alto/Tenor/Bass voices and four soloists at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago at Eastertide of that year. In this recording it is performed by two antiphonal groups. The text is drawn from a Hymn To The Trinity by Charles Wesley and a Lutheran text, Christ Ist Verstanden. 

Its tune and treatment are both straightforward; Sowerby was, first and foremost, a great practical musician of faith, but this should not blind one to his profound gift, which found expression in almost all Art-music's genres, including Symphony.



Track 5: The Risen Lord, Sowerby



Two short songs by Ernest John Moeran, now. Moeran, of Irish extraction, was a great setter of English verse. Here are his settings of Spring Goeth All in White, by Robert Bridges, and Blue-eyed Spring, by Robert Nichols. These poets of another age were alive at the time of the songs' composition – what a time to be a song-writer that must have been! The songs exemplify many aspects of Moeran's style, his Delius-derived chromatic harmony; his enjoyment of the inflections of both reflective and jolly folksong, a gratefulness in the writing for voice and downright or shyly and wistfully beautiful writing for piano (adapting to the sense of the words). For the rest, just as the Germans have their requisite Spring symbolism, so do we, and he does British Spring-imagery full justice. Whether reflections on a scene, mortality or yeasty youth, these are songs of the open air. 

Track 6: Spring Goeth All In White, Moeran 

Track 7: Blue-eyed Spring, Moeran 





Isn't Easter the time of redemption? Ivor Gurney's unaccompanied Anthem for Double Choir, Since I believe In God The Father Almighty (Johannes Milton Senex), setting verse by the freethinking Robert Bridges, was composed from the depths of The Stone House, Dartford Hospital, Kent, in the Summer of 1925, almost three years after his final breakdown. In it, he sets out his credo of freedom from “studied system”, “argument”, “delusion”, and “foolish invention”; he “will cherish his freedom in loving service,/Greatly adoring for delight beyond asking/Or thinking, and in hours of anguish and darkness /Confiding always on His excellent greatness.”  He has not seen God, cannot know him, nor know the “Heav'nly purpose” in this life, but he loves beauty and hates evil as unworthy.

This extraordinary work was written by a man who feared electrical tricks, radio-waves, machines under the floors that tortured him; heard voices; demanded death or regular employment; aggressively defied attendants and shunned the company of fellow-inmates. Its peculiar intensity derives from narrow intervals that widen unexpectedly, and by the interplay of the parts of the two choirs, which spotlight certain high or low notes, frequently dissonant, with weird distinctness, in the midst of expected periods of chant. An ex-chorister himself, Gurney would have known Anglican anthems and liturgical music of the past like the back of his hand, and comprehended their every feature.This is chant with a difference – chant that betrays fitful torment as well as settled faith, and with it, the well-understood melodic and harmonic influence of Sibelius in his strongest late vein. Its spareness, angularities and absence of academic counterpoint are skilful. It was true, though, that, as his friend Marion Scott put it, “Ivor could only ever do things in his own way.” There is aliveness to the moment, to the dark night within, but also outside, the asylum-cell. Gurney had been the Night-walker, tramping in Southern England between London and his home county, Gloucestershire, and become the night-pacer in corridors and his room. This did not prevent him from writing book after book of poetry and both composing and revizing songs – and Since I believed In God, The Father Almighty. Now, Gloucester Cathedral hears (and performs), 90 years too late, the suffering, clear vision of the creative artist, one of its own as a child and youth, who was said to be mad.

Dictates of pitch and of form, including extended canonic texture, do not prevent this Anthem from sounding akin to the music of an aeolian harp. 



Track 8: Since I believe In God The Father, Gurney



Nicolay Rimsky-Korsakov was the youngest of the group of five composers, The Mighty Handful, that came to dominate art-music in the capital of the Tsarist Russian Empire in the 1860s. 

By the time that he composed the Russian Easter Festival Overture in 1888, He was a mature artist, a long-time professor of composition at the St Petersburg Conservatoire whose learning had been acquired by self-will and diligence, and he had left the 
amateurism of the Mighty Handful behind, though not its desire to advance the cause of Russian music. He had made his peace with the Moscow of Tchaikovsky, and become an authority on fugue as well as on peasant themes and musical scales. The influences on him were wide, from Glinka, but also Berlioz, to Schumann, Liszt and Wagner, and he had the singularity, detachment and creative imagination to buy wisely at a market; to unite apt aspects of their styles in himself. 

This Overture On Liturgical Themes is based on three specimens of Orthodox Chant, Let God Arise, An Angel Cried, and Christ Is Risen. In spite of the long, solemn introduction that seems at one point to portray in solo trombone a priest intoning and in strings, a congregation's responses, Rimsky's aim was not to write religiose music. His inspiration juxtaposed liturgy with pagan life – with a life older than Christianity that had taken on the trappings of Christianity in their beauty, but that rejoiced in nature and Spring at least as much as in Easter, in merrymaking at least as much as in glorying in the Resurrection of the New Testament.

It is one of his more popular works, thrilling in its power and variety of orchestration, its contrasts in tone and focus, its harmonic resource and play of rhythm. It evokes all that it was intended to do, a masterpiece of hard-won skill, but is also intensely humane and humorous – a kind of measure of the full roundedness of ideal sprituality, earthy and honest in addition to wondering and a little uncanny. Birdsong and the glow of sun on white blossoms and an awakened world may succeed a candlelit, incense-filled atmosphere of solemn chant, with the suddenness of stepping outside the church entrance, and itself be succeeded by the dance. One scarcely notices sonata-form as the work unfolds, but the basic themes are thoroughly developed, contrasted and combined before the massive, gong-and bell-capped Christ Is Risen of the close! 

This was Classical Break, on Somer Valley FM, and I'm Rupert Kirkham. We hope you enjoyed our Spring And Easter Programme, and will tune in again soon. Goodbye!

Track 9: Overture, Russian Easter Festival, Rimsky-Korsakov 




Friday, 24 March 2017

25&26 March 2017 - The Agony and The Ecstasy - soundtrack


The Agony and The Ecstasy



This programme is repeated from July 2013.


Signature Tune:  The Path of The Beloved from the Suite Rakastava (Op14), Sibelius


This is Classical Break, on Somer Valley FM. Today’s programme consists of music from the 1965 feature film, The Agony and The Ecstasy. This Hollywood epic, Directed by Carol Reed and starring Charlton Heston, and Rex Harrison, Diane Cilento and Aldofo Celi, may seem an odd place in which to find music for a classical music-slot, but in fact the score of the main part of the picture, by Alex North and Alexander Courage, is a fascinating attempt to meld music of the renaissance with a Respighi-like pictorialism that suits fully a cinemascope keeping, the vivid colours and vibrant imagery of a film from the mid-‘60s. 

Alex North was the second most nominated film composer In Hollywood and received an honorary award In recognition of his brilliant artistry.  He provided music for films As various as Spartacus, Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Streetcar Named Desire, Dragonslayer and Good Morning Vietnam. 

He was nominated for an Oscar for The Agony and The Ecstasy in 1966.  In this film, location-work and studio-shot scenes are beautifully lit, a world of rich vestures and palaces, glinting armour and weaponry, bright banners and desolate, smoking scenes of military defeat, all captured in their gentility and horror. In dark interior scenes of chapel and tavern or in front of the vibrant, living frescoes of art and theocratic politics, there glowers the gaunt, paint-spattered figure of Michelangelo Buonarotti – the driven artist forced by Papal commission to break the habit of a lifetime and paint a ceiling with ‘appropriate designs’. The warrior-Pope, Julius the 2nd suffers, too: “Michelangelo, when will you make an end!” - “When I am finished!” and there is a danger that between showing that the Pope is driven also, in his case, to hold together the Catholic Church in a country of duchies and Europe beyond, and that Michelangelo has to suffer and be impossible with authority to paint like one inspired, the film earns another title, “The Mahogany and The Hickory - Or How The Sistine Chapel Gained A Ceiling (In The End)”.

Nevertheless, there is the score, in whose brilliance and half-tones the story of transcendent Art is most truly told through the use of Romantic organ and bells, brash handling of brass and side-drums, bucolic, courtly and agonized use of woodwind in weak register, moments of veil-like expectancy or surge at height and plod de profundis of strings. Snatches from mediaeval pipe-music, a martial galliard here, pastiche of consort- or choral music there, a Shostakovich-like angularity and lacerating implacability of line, chantlike melody and chromaticism that both hark back to Cesar Franck through the Gregorian Respighi; leading motives to represent characters or states of mind are also heard, a common thing in film-scores: with an incredibly wide range of musical influences, Alex North and his assistant, Alexander Courage, wrote a masterpiece expressive of the suffering and isolation of the true artist.  Here is the first cue: a scene in a precipitous marble quarry, The Mountains of Carrara.

Track One: The Mountains of Carrara

The second cue accompanies pastoral scenes (two piping oboes – oboes d’amour – and cor anglais in imitational piffero style) suddenly broken in on by skirmish:  relentlessly rhythmical cavalry pursue infantry into a maize-crop – slaughter ensues; by far the most of the music occurs to denote victory - the leader of the cavalry is soon revealed to be Julius the 2nd as he takes off his helmet and assumes his calot and white mantle.  Here occurs the in fact anachronistic reference to a galliard, ‘La Bataille’, from the Danserye of Tielman Susato.

The Warrior-Pope.

Track Two: The Warrior Pope

The Florentine family, the Medici, have been Buonarotti’s longest-serving patrons. Cardinal Giovanni de Medici and the Contessina De Medici, his sister, have won Buonarotti a commission to build Julius’s tomb; now, the Pope wishes the artist to paint images of the twelve apostles on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Buonarotti is a sculptor, and has scruples... So the adventure begins. The Medicis – a pastiche consort flute-and-strings number written by Alexander Courage - the flute closely attended by imitational figures.

Track Three: The Medici

In deep, brooding music, combining the Gregorian influence with that of what sounds like the Fifth Symphony slow movement of Shostakovich, work begins on scaffolding high in the vaults of the roof of the decayed chapel:  The Sketch of The Apostles New plaster is smoothed on. Outlines are laid.  Paint is applied...

Track Four: The Sketch of The Apostles

The Artist is dissatisfied with his commission. The faces of ordinary persons make the best faces for Apostles; nothing formal will do. Sketch Destroyed accompanies strokes of an adze and a flung bucket of red paint...

Track Five: Sketch Destroyed

Having fled and been pursued into the mountains of Carrara, Buonarotti has a vision of God and Adam in the clouds at dawn... There is a growling sonority to the quiet grandeur that, mollified, becomes alternately ethereal and more full-throated and ends terse, staggering, brazen and percussive...

Genesis!

Track Six: Genesis

Having successfully presented plans to the literally embattled pope... there follows The Return to The Sistine Chapel. Now, more than 300 figures must be painted, including seven OT prophets, five sybils, nine stories from Genesis, portraits of the great figures in Christ’s lineage and four scenes from the OT.

Track Seven: The Sistine Chapel

All begins with the quietly anxious cue, Painting!

Track Eight: Painting

Hours of working to all hours with toxic paint inches from his face, lack of rest and forgetting meals, and the necessity of shouting or sighing, “When I am finished,” or disputing  aesthetics and morals with cardinals brought in to witness progress, lead to The Agony, as Buonarotti working on alone at night by the light of a candle-stub suffers loss of sight, attempts to move down the scaffolding, falls clutching onto a rope and is swiftly let down onto the floor of the chapel, unconscious and in a fever. The music follows this quickly growing disaster with highly effective use of instrumentation, the growling bassoon particularly sinister.

Track Nine: The Agony

Michelangelo recovers in the care of the Contessina de Medici. This is another of Alexander Courage’s contribution, another consort-piece, like a pavane. Michelangelo’s Recovery.

Track Ten: Michelangelo’s Recovery

Again, haunted by the Susato Galliard, the Pope returns to Rome in brassy triumph. Festivity In St Peter’s Square.

Track Eleven: Festivity In St Peter’s Square

In the evening, Julius visits the recuperating Michelangelo to release him from his contract... Raphael may complete the ceiling...

Julius In The Garden.

Track Twelve: Julius In The Garden
Back at work... This time, progress is suddenly suspended as Michelangelo arrives in the chapel to discover workmen are dismantling the scaffolding...

Track Thirteen: Back To St Peter’s

The Pope and Michelangelo have come to a parting of the ways over the Pope’s desire to show the ceiling half-finished. Julius must go to war again – his enemies in Italy regrouping and victorious – without knowing if he will live to return or be able to see the ceiling completed. Brazenness is moderate in the music, the imploring strings bringing a feeling of pathos above side-drums and intermittent low brass.

Woodwind and low brass prefigure the next cue.

The War.

Track Fourteen: The War

Michelangelo seeks reconciliation with Julius on the battlefield... Julius’ military defeat inspires some of the best moments of the entire score – jagged, hollow horn, trombone and muted trumpet fanfares of desolation; the imploring tone returns in strings, answered by the implacability of deep-toned brass and woodwind.

Track Fifteen: The Battlefield

To brief, bright fanfares, the grievously-wounded Julius creates a new cardinal for a fee sufficient to permit Michelangelo to complete the ceiling... Michelangelo returns to work, and the tattered remnants of the pontiff’s army are portrayed on their blood and dust-stained horse and cart-borne journey to Rome. New Cardinal.

Track Sixteen: New Cardinal

Back in Rome, Julius, though reacquainted with the wonderful ceiling, soon lies close to death: only to be angered into rising from his bed by Michelangelo, who proposes to return to Florence with the ceiling incomplete! 

The Pope’s allies in Europe have gathered and defeated his enemies. The official soundtrack CD takes up the story with a mass celebrating victory and the completion of the ceiling... The finish has been hard-earned.

Track Seventeen: Michelangelo’s Magnificent Achievement – and Finale

In an affecting final scene, after the congregation and church staff have left, Julius tells Michelangelo what the ceiling means to him.  Commissioning it may be what he is remembered for; before the Seat of Judgement, he will present it as something to be placed in the balance; it may shorten his time in Purgatory.  Asked what he has learned, the artist says, “That I am not alone.” He refuses a further commission for an altar-piece fresco of The Judgement:  he was promised that he could go back to his interrupted work on the tomb; Julius admits that there is need of the tomb.  They part: Michelangelo is left to watch the Pope’s faltering progress from the body of the chapel. To Work My Son.

This was Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme was written by Mike Burrows. We hope you enjoyed it and that you will join us again soon. Goodbye!

Track Eighteen: To Work, My Son

Friday, 17 March 2017

18 & 19 March: Rachmaninov First Symphony

CLASSICAL BREAK
Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony in D Minor, Op13
NOTE:  This script is the original version, but due to it overrunning our time slot, the final programme omits some of the introductory analysis. I have left it in here for interest. 

 “If there were a conservatory in Hell, if one of its talented students were instructed to write a  programme symphony on “The Seven Plagues of Egypt”, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr Rachmaninov’s, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would bring delight to the inhabitants of Hell.  But for the time being we are still living on earth, and this music has a depressing effect on us, with its broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form, the meaningless repetition of the same short tricks, the nasal sound of the orchestra, the intense crash of brass, and above all the sickly, perverse hamonization and quasi-melodic outlines, and the complete lack of simplicity and naturalness, the complete lack of themes.”

With these words were dismissed the ambitions of a twenty-four year-old graduate pianist and composer; not just any graduate either, but the Gold Medal-holding Sergei Vasileyevitch Rachmaninoff, lately of the Moscow Conservatoire.  This is Classical Break, on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham.  Today’s programme is given over to Rachmaninoff’s extraordinary First Symphony, a work repudiated by him after a disastrous premiere at St Petersburg, given by the Russian Orchestral Society and conducted by Alexandr Glazunov.
Rachmaninoff himself tore up the score and later described it to a close friend as strained, childish and bombastic, but not wholly weak, its worse fault being bad orchestration; furthermore, he could not understand how a musician like Glazunov - one of Russia’s foremost composers and teachers, a great figure among the staff at the St Petersburg Conservatoire - could have conducted  so badly.  Rachmaninoff’s cousin, later his wife, claimed Glazunov had been drunk. 
The First Symphony in D Minor is scored for large orchestra.  From double-basses and (superb) tuba up to piccolo, the instrumentation is extremely well judged.  The form is cyclical with a short, snarling motto that colours or generates all the matter of its four movements.  Autocratically expressive,   this is possibly the first Russian symphony to take its chapter and verse from knowledge of znameniy or Orthodox liturgical chants as well as folk-music, and it echoes also the bells of Mousorgsky’s Boris Gudonov.  Moreover, the Catholic chant, Dies Irae, an idée-fixe of that other pianist composer, Franz Liszt, Is never far from the shape of things. Rachmaninoff was to make this fate-motif his own - it occurs in almost all his large-scale works! 

Cue:  Extract from Piano Trio in D Minor, Rachmaninoff
The first four notes of the motto-theme and an element of the second subject may have been carried over deliberately from the massive slow movement of the elegaic second Piano Trio in D Minor - written in memory of Tchaikovsky, who had mostly been very encouraging of Rachmaninoff’s efforts; assisted as an examiner in his graduation and died tragically two years before the Symphony was begun. The score is headed with the words, “Vengeance is mine (saith the Lord) I will repay.”  This quotation from the Scriptures occurs in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, of which more later..
The brass motto with which the symphony opens is reminiscent of the beginning of Borodin’s Second Symphony.
Cue:  Opening of Second Symphony In B Minor, Borodin
CueMotto and 1st Subject, Rachmaninoff
Besides a hint of the Dies Irae, there’s a woody coolness and purpose to the first subject, a continuation of the motto-theme - clarinet and then oboe prominent -  the first subject is built up of phrases from liturgical chants, a process his listeners would have been aware of on first hearing.  The subject has kinship  with the allegros of Rimsky-Korsakov, athletic, loose-limbed only because relying on sequence, the self-repetition of Jchoice narrow intervals, and contrapuntal entries.  Descending scalic figures - the clarinet’s being most noticeable - are built into the material.  A curious, overshadowed quality comes with changes in dynamics and scoring.   Tension rises to the hard-hitting first brassy climax, with its repeated-note tattoo - powerful in the lower brass and with an edge of hysteria added by the trumpet; it  falls away in murmurs - and in twirls the sinuous, feminine second subject on violins, astringent appoggiatura not permitting sinuousness to be relaxed.  The oboe, flutes and clarinet add plangency, the swell of the theme given the Tchaikovskian treatment - passionate first violins in unison, the horns glowing.
 Cue:  Second Subject, Rachmaninoff

A kind of gipsy-music or orientalism is found in it, not unlike the orientalism of Balakirev, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov - composers venerated by the St Petersburg Conservatoire.  Rachmaninoff had written a stipulated one-act opera for his graduation exercise - Aleko, a story of gipsy life.  After a close - the motto murmuring - the development begins as does that of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, The Pathetique:  with a loud crash on brass and percussion. Here is the Tchaikovsky.
Cue:  Diminuendo and Outset of 1st Movt Development of Sixth Symphony in B Minor, Tchaikovsky.
And, for the last of these brief cues, here is the Rachmaninoff:
Cue:  Diminuendo and Outset of Development, Rachmaninoff  
A trumpet-shriek - the motto theme in an instant!  The divided strings launch into a fugato based on it.  Their lack of support elsewhere makes keeping their pitch tricky. 
More is brewing, with vindictive fanfare- and plainchant-like brass twitted by high woodwind, even as the motto sounds underneath on horns.  The strings reassert themselves:  in crashes a variant of the motto, with new, perhaps ‘perverse’ brass chords of real keenness - piccolo - and in some performances, glockenspiel -tingling atop what seem like deepbells.  The trumpets answer trombones and horns in antiphon.  Sublimity!  Yet  the effect of an upward pressure narrows the harmonic scope of the fanfare, if not the melodic.. It is  an intensely personal, memorable transformation, terse and ringing, swaying between feelings of major and minor. The music moves on as the strings take the theme over, returning it to its striving first subject shape.
diminuendo.  All seems indistinct, misty - and clears as the second-subject comes in on flute.  It is now possible to hear this theme as a feminized development of the first subject; its deeply appoggiatura-ed hesitancy and ultimate fervour, and, at last, rich scoring remain moving in this reprise.  The episode of misty indistinctness heard earlier is altered to be like the swing of the tide, rocking.  The brass - gapped chords moving up the scale - presage the close of the movement.  Building up to a savage end derived from what went before it, dovetailing, canons and imitations between the sections of the orchestra now rend reticence to bits.  Derived from the first and second subject and the upward scale that accompanies the first subject, the final cadence, several lashing blows of Fate or impatience, is masterful.  
Track One:  First Symphony, l Grave, Allegro Ma Non Troppo, Rachmaninoff (13.45 min)
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham.  Today’s programme is devoted to one piece, the Symphony in D Minor by Rachmaninoff.  What hectored critics missed at the premiere was that the ‘perversity’ they perceived is a source of great expressive power.  They reacted against the music’s commandingness, its organization, its aesthetic consistency and yet originality.  The orchestral parts survived, mostly complete, and were exhumed from the Leningrad Conservatoire archives in 1944.  The Symphony was performed in a typical Soviet volte-face the following year:  the performance of Rachmaninoff’s works in the Soviet Union had been banned a while after his escape from Revolutionary Russia.  A celebrity world--wide, he had made no secret, everywhere he went, of his hatred of the crimes of Bolshevism.  He had died in Beverly Hills the previous year, and the discovery proved that he belonged to Soviet Russia after all...  Rachmaninoff, who’d suffered from crippling nostalgia for his country, would not have liked the irony.
That quotation, Vengeance is mine (saith the Lord) I will repay.  Rachmaninoff meant it to be a reference to Anna Karenina - the verse is quoted in the novel, apparently - but also to a lately-concluded affair with a married lady of gipsy blood!  The piece was dedicated to her - A.L. - Anna Alexandrovna Lodizhenskaya. 
Beginning with the motto-theme made douce, a simple, telling transformation in context, The second movement is an intermezzo rather than scherzo, mostly lightly scored.  It seems like woodland music, darting, as if breeze-blown among birch-trees - delicate with woodland flowers, the viola at times wry in solos less airy than the flute’s.  It is a hypersensitive mood-piece, a fantasy of alternate tensions on derivatives of first movement material.  There are harsh, driven moments on brass and lower strings, the first movement’s snarl and motto-theme never distant.  Where the music is brightest, most fine--spun, where it suggests sweetness or the slightest shade or fragrance, is perhaps where Anna is found and dwelt on.  Glazunov made a cut in this movement for the premiere.
After the viola’s nervy solo, the dark elements rise - only to be partly soothed and brought back to the mercurial mood and music of the opening.  Contrarities die out at last in the motto and semitonal oscillation.
Track Two:  ll Allegro Animato.
Another movement of kaleidoscopic orchestration, the third movement is a beautifully-scored love song with lyrical woodwind solos and delicate touches of appoggiatura from the violins and violas.  It begins with the fate-motif and develops the Symphony’s first and second subjects.  Beauty is interrupted by a passage  of savage foreboding in the bass of the orchestra, symbolizing jealousy with the Dies Irae, perhaps.  The viola picks up the song where it left off, and real passion - and hypersensitivity - return to the music, building through repetition and counterpointing of the two tunes of the first movement, the masculine first subject smearing the outline of the feminine second.  These  processes are the structure of this music.  Appoggiatura in lower strings and horn-tone seem either to soothe or to increase pain.  The music dies away overshadowed by a rocking alternation of tones on clarinet.  Dies Irae tells us that the day of judgement is near.









Track Three:  lll Larghetto
The last movement is lashed by brass and percussion into beginning proudly, with dotted-note fanfares.  The first subject of the symphony returns, triumphant and sinister.  It is continued by a zigeuner-like insistence on rhythm in the cellos and double-basses in particular - the horn adds foreboding.  This music was written years before Stravinsky’s percussive, motoric but rhythmically disruptive style became fashionable.  The feminine second subject sweeps one on, now, with Tchaikovskian swelling horns in canon, and castanets imitated by tambourine.  Hectoring brass breaks in with the motto fanfares; a diminuendo brings in the oboe in Anna’s theme.  It is taken up with an accompaniment of nervous quivering in the strings - time is running out.  The deep strings add a swell to the yearning - the horn still doesn’t achieve more than pathos - the gipsy-dance moments drop in exhaustion.  A lulling episode is followed by a bass-led revivification of the gaunt fate-music, with its odd rhythms and ruthlessness more marked, the violas characteristically dry and wiry in tone.
The sweep of the movement continues -down, the obsessive motto brushing aside gipsy tambourine, growing ever more frenetic yet apt to its context, and now, we’re at the ferocious climax of the entire Symphony, repeated whiplash phrases of the first subject or motto-theme continuation more and more short, sharp and frantic, reaching the listener’s breaking point, which comes soon enough, with the finality of drums and tam-tam, the motto-theme sombre in slow deep waves that return us to an image of the tide, one bleak stretch of coast; then, like a tidal wave that one has not seen in its rising, but turns to as it topples - or the wave that one has waited for and now throws oneself into - that last terrifying conflict, a downward chromatic scale pitted against, and out of step with, an upward, and broken thematic phrases in addition, the violins divided, sounding their own semitonal clash, screaming their way down on and through those upward, harmonized sequences of chromatic brass and other interjections until the alto and deeper instruments harmonizes in the downward scale, the violins still out of step - bearing down on everything.  The scale ends in a two-fold downward sequence derived from a four-note element of the second - feminine - subject, semitone-minor-third-semitone; in fact, the whole climax is an immense development of the feminine subject against first subject upward scale and Dies Irae. Curiously there is an echo of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman in there. 
We are left with reiteration of the opening of the motto-theme - altered subtlely from its other appearances - and at first with a response-phrase reminiscent of Dies Irae.  The procession is accompanied by regularly spaced drum-beats and crashes from the tam-tam, until, after five repetitions in the major, the movement is brought to a dead stop, by two identical, thudded chords.  Anna Karenina dies by suicide - throwing herself under the wheels of a railway-engine.  Here, antedating musique mechanique by about thirty years, Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony ends by appearing to evoke just such a death - one is left with the blind, remorseless force  of steam driving tons of steel.  









Track Four:  lV Allegro Con Fuoco
Glazunov’s fluent, ingratiating First Symphony had been premiered when he had been sixteen.  It had been a triumph.  At the premiere of his First Symphony, the twenty-four year-old Rachmaninoff left the hall to pace outside, wringing his hands at the terrible discords he heard.  Had he truly written these sounds? Of course, he most probably had written many of them - calculated them ruthlessly,  as contrapuntal clashes and as-logical harmonic progressions.
The critique that headed our programme - was by Cesar Cui, the least talented of the Moguchaya Kuchka or ‘Mighty Handful’ of great St Petersburg composers - Balakirev, Borodin, Moussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov having been the others.  Regarding themselves as the Pan-Slavist torch-bearers for Russian music, they had been rivals to the ‘westernizing’ Nicolai Rubenstein/Tchaikovsky axis in Moscow.  Years previously, Rimsky--Korsakov had groomed Glazunov for stardom...Rachmaninoff had been groomed by Zverev, Arensky and Taneiev, the first two figures Tchaikovskians, the last an expert in Flemish polyphony whose counterpoint-classes had taught Rachmaninoff a great deal. In Rachmaninoff’s last major work, the Symphonic Dances, there is a moment where the first subject of his First Symphony rises almost as if from the grave, shining and beautiful: and the late work - from nearly fifty years on - builds on the quotation of an Easter chant in its later stages. 
Cue from Symphonic Dances, l Non Allegro, Rachmaninoff
Resurrection came, beyond the imagining of the critics of that first performance - or the conscious hopes of Rachmaninoff, himself, who had the misfortune to be a young man caught between old factions fighting for influence over the future of Russian music, the death of Tchaikovsky having left everything to play for! Pace Mister Cui, it is possible not to be an inhabitant of Hell and yet see the critic as a brilliantly perceptive bigot:  his descriptions of the symphony apt so long as one discounts his aesthetic, which leads him to enumerate strengths as weaknesses!  You’ve been listening to Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham.  Today’s programme was written by Mike Burrows.  We hope you enjoyed it and will join us again soon.  Goodbye!