Friday, 9 October 2015

Autumn (4) -10 & 11 October


Classical Break:  Autumn 4
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Intro:  Picking of Sticks,  Playford
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham.  Today’s script was researched and written by Mike Burrows, and presents a programme of music that, intentionally or not, seems to evoke Autumn.

Grieg’s Concert Overture, I Hoest – In Autumn  - was an early work revized  in the midst of the most active phase in his compulsive Europeantours.   It dated from the first years after his abridged time at Leipzig Conservatoire, and after his friendship with Richard Nordraak, a young nationalist composer who had done much to  show him where his future path and style lay.  In Rome for the first time, he was living with the guilt of having left Nordraak on his deathbed in Berlin to see Italy; Nordraak who described his galloping  tuberculosis in tones of zest as ‘a grand case’ in the eyes of his doctors, had died waiting for him to return.  Grieg, himself, was plagued as an adult by chest-trouble – he had lost a lung to pleurisy - at Leipzig; for once, he had perhaps absented himself in a spirit of self--preservation, though there is evidence to suggest that he had failed to realize how sick Nordraak had become.

The Overture was based on a song written a year previously, Autumn Storm, and quotes and adds to the sonata-form brew a folktune, a springdans from Hardangerdal.  The long--established Danish symphonic composer, Niels Gade, was meant to be impressed when Grieg returned from Rome and showed him the work, but wasn’t.  It begins with drone-fifths to represent the Norwegian fiddle, the hardingfele:  there is a slow, brooding introduction that leads to a more venturesome first subject – an extensive quote from the song - a tenderly-begun second subject and  snatch of the springdans,  The development is short-breathed but strenuous, darting, impulsive, modulatory and occasionally mysterious, before the recapitulation and fuller, more brazen treatment of the springdans, bring things to a conclusion.  The scoring is impressive, as revised,  sustaining the curt brevity of the music’s gestures.  The woodwind and strings, given the most affecting and elementally evocative moments, stay in one’s memory as much as the blustering brass.   It is a fascinating piece, one of Grieg’s few conventional attempts at ‘form’.  It’s as though he sought to answer academic Leipzig in the person of the self-consciously folkish Nordraak!   

Track 1:  In Autumn, Grieg      
For Scandinavians, Autumn is a severe change from Summer, wild, wet and cold, a time for harvest and battening-down, looming darkness and the  promise of months of Arctic chill.  All this may be felt in a piece that Grieg conducted first at Birmingham in 1888, and was proud enough of to send with other favourites among his works to a new friend, Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Let’s hear a partsong by Sibelius.  Autumn Evening is a strophic setting for mixed voices of a poem by the Swedish poet, Runeberg.  One of a group of partsongs that date from student-days, Autumn Evening begins in a world that lies in its bleak grave of Autumn, harried, withered, dead,  the blossoms of Summer passed and the forest silent – but looks up into the stars, from whence eternal home smiles upon the soul.

“Thus dream I in the Autumn evening, and see

How the leaves fall down from the birch,

A naked shore stands reflected in the deep
                                                                    bay,

And over the moon a silver cloud is sailing.”   

Autumn has its bleak side, matched here in the severity of chorale-like strains, dotted rhythms and some awkward rather than adventurous writing in the parts, but the twenty-three year-old composer has the measure of the poem’s sentiments.  If the setting is less flexible and imaginative than Sibelius’ later treatments of Finnish  verse, this may partly be due to the Germanic nature of the Swedish language, its totally different system of stresses – Finnish stresses first syllables – its  heavy consonants and less rich store of vowel-sounds, all of which lend themselves naturally to a Germanic  melody with little irregularity of metre, in which rhythmical variety is introduced with dotted notes.   

Track 2:  Autumn Evening, Sibelius
Oh, Autumn,
let thy deepest colours
shine in bold abandon
for our joy!
“The Michigan Handel”, Leo Sowerby, was a master of word-setting; his church-music is highly regarded in the United States, but he was also a great song-writer.  His development followed a long and fruitful course, and his Paean To Autumn,  setting words by Jeanne de Lamartier,  is a late work, gnarled and making much use of whole-tones, but following the natural stresses of the lines in a scrupulous manner that may make some think of Gerald Finzi.
Track 3:  Paean To Autumn, Sowerby
Harvest Song, now.   This folksong urges beer on tired labourers.  Its stressing of the hardness of agricultural labour and the joys of sinking a quart of beer no doubt derived from the fruits of that  labour is understandable in this age of strivers and skivers – and the song blesses the employer for his generosity!  Workers in the fields have never had much protection from long hours and low pay; further, casual labourers continue to see even less reward than retained.  Of course, a poor harvest once meant a starved-out year, the harshest conditions being reserved for the labourer.  One should point out that down three centuries, many thinkers on employment – strivers to a man or woman - have decried drink – like smoking - as an evil influence on the ordinary worker, as much as anything, because it affects optimum productivity.   

Track 4:  Harvest Song, Trad








Come the night of October the 31st, everyone who is anyone on another plane is all dressed up with somewhere to go.  On this one night of the year, Mr – or Ms - Ghost goes to town  almost with our approval.  What he – or she - makes of trick-or-treating is anyone’s guess. Ghosts are a part of a tradition that has outlasted many fads.  For them, the next big night will be New Year’s Eve, when ghost-stories are told.

The dapper ghost conjured up by trombonist, Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra, including a trumpeter of great style, is evidently a one-time figure in jazz-high-society.  ,

Track 5:  Mr Ghost Goes To Town, Dorsey
“Remember, remember the 5th of November,

Gunpowder, treason and plot!”

Here are two sonnets, the first commemorating a Bonfire-night party and the second, its morning after,  written by Mike Burrows.

                     (Guy Fawkes Party At Tanybwlch
                                               Hall)
                Fireworks were never the same again.  There

                In the wood, standing in groups, the chill night

                Warmed by thick clothes, friendships - and  embers bright

                And smoking in the incinerator -

                Some played with sparklers; all watched for the glare

                Of first banged colours to print threads on sight

                From volcano, or a rocket’s whooshed white

                Popped in stars.  This galaxy made me stare.


                For forms - wool hats, scarves, coats - the warden’s hand

                And ‘tached smile touched off such spells, or checked spuds

                In glowing ash.  And the girl at my side

                Deepened, lit little, kissing.  Sombre land

                Lay silent, its true stars high-spaced - no duds -

                In bursts of aeons:  a lover’s thrilled pride.


                Never the same, that powder-reek rejoiced

                In.  So it is my memory.  Rainbow-fire,

                Spittering glints, thick smoke billowing from pyre

                Of a tiny soul whose burnt body, hoist

                With its reason for being, I found by moist

                Autumn garlic next day, charred where, entire,

                I shook my head and went on:  the lost spire

                Of a roman candle scorched, lit, still voiced.


                To the beach and town - or college - simply

                A student in love.  Or a ghost years off,

                Picturing the next year as on each year,

                Self hoist by what I did not want to be.

                Sparks brilliant for others - smoke’s sharp cough

                Makes them smile, and aeons will shine them clear. 
Copyright, Mike Burrows, October 16th, 2013

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Our Remembrance piece this year is a setting of AE Housman’s tribute to the military dead of all wars, Soldier From The Wars Returning, made by the reclusive Charles Wilfrid Orr, the Cheltenham composer who recoiled from the artistic life in London to live in Painswick.  He served briefly in the Coldstream Guards during the Great War before being discharged without seeing active service, owing to eczema.  Soldier From The Wars Returning is a heartfelt elegy beginning over a solemn tread of rich progressions that rises swaying into a sturdy dismissal of the kingly sponsors of patriotism and the wars of empire.  Sadly, in these avowedly more democratic days, we have kings and kaisers of our own.  Mourning the dead need not bamboozle us into accepting that they must be sent others for company.

Track 6:  Soldier From The Wars Returning, CW Orr
The prosperous Alexandr Glazunov’s eminence in Pre-Revolutionary Russia began under the tutelage of Rimsky-Korsakov.   He matured early, and his First Symphony was  presented to acclaim when he was  just 16.  His was a first-rate talent, and he lived long after its eclipse; he directed the St Petersburg Conservatoire for many years, and emigrated from Russia to Paris some time after the Revolution.  Since his early days, musical styles had changed greatly, which circumstance only served to confirm him in his articulate conservatism.

However he may have felt out of sympathy with modern tendencies where the new, bold and bewildering at first dominated the Soviet musical world, one wonders if he would have survived the accession to power of Comrade General Secretary Stalin.

Like Rimsky, he was a fine, imaginative harmonist and orchestrator, and blended occasionally Wagnerist harmony with Russian melody as exemplified in folksong and liturgical music.  He learned, also, from Rimsky’s rival, Tchaikovsky.  There is a certain detachment in his address to the listener, which may be put down partly to his controlling intellect and professional prolificness:  he did not have to wait on inspiration.  In his own right, he has been consistently under-rated by musicologists and historians.  Very often, his music, whether for concert-hall or theatre, has irresistible verve.  His most popular work may be The Seasons, a ballet presented first at the Hermitage Theatre in St Petersburg in 1900.  There is no continuous story, only the character of the seasons in turn; the dancers represent satyrs, fauns, nymphs, bacchantes of the classical world.  The thrill of the tones from the orchestra-pit would have been extraordinary, not to be outdone by the staging, even in metropolitan Tsarist Russia, where ballet- and opera-production  had become the most imaginative and lavish to be found anywhere in the world.  The brass in the music rang out to tiers of gilded boxes , but all eyes would have been on the stage – on hypnotic light and colour, and sublimely choreographed, swift and graceful movement. Of Glazunov’s  Seasons, Autumn is the culminatory group of dances.  In brilliant and affecting succession, we hear:  Bacchanal; Entries of The Seasons; Petit Adagio; Variation:  The Satyr; The Bacchantes; The Satyrs and Fauns; Fall of The Dead Leaves – Apotheosis.

Track 7:  Autumn, from The Seasons, Glazunov

Where were we? 
The Finn, Ilmari Hannikainen came of the generation following that of Sibelius.  He received his training in Helsinki, Vienna and St Petersburg, and became an international pianist as well as composer mainly for the piano.  His style is of its time, elegant, finely-turned, Griegian, Debussyan, often playful, but with an undertow of deep feeling and thinking – as might be expected, given his models.  The occasional melancholy that – thanks, perhaps, to Grieg and Sibelius in particular -  is required of a Scandinavian composer is there, expressed in pauses, ostinati, subdued melody– sometimes owing something to Finnish folksong – and chordal complexities; but somehow it does not prevail with the listener, who feels a kind of contentment in harmonic and sentimental beauty.  Here is his piece, Syysateita, Autumn Rain.

This was Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham.   Our celebration of Autumn in music was written and researched by Mike Burrows.  We hope you enjoyed it and will tune in again, soon.  Goodbye!

Track 8:  Autumn Rain, Hannikainen    

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