Archives for category: Musical Authors

deathAt the Oxford Bach Choir we’ve been rehearsing this nine movement, 50 minute long choral work since mid-January. But it’s often only at our mid-term longer Saturday daytime rehearsal that the music we are working on really starts to come into focus. That was the case this week when composer Jonathan Dove joined us for the day – he not only listened to and commented on our singing, but participated as well – singing the solo parts and playing the piano accompaniment during sectionals. For an Unknown Soldier was first performed on November 9 last year in Portsmouth Cathedral, followed by a repeat the following week in Croydon, both times conducted by the OBC’s principal conductor Nicholas Cleobury.  Our performance will take place at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on Saturday March 14 when we’ll also be singing Mozart’s Mass in C Minor.

At the rehearsal Dove told us that he likes to think of himself as “a storyteller,” and the work uses a sequence of poems telling the story of what might have been just one soldier’s war – from the initial enthusiasm to enlist through to realization of the horror of war, death, and the bereavement of those left behind. Any composer choosing war as a theme has to negotiate around the overwhelming example of Britten’s War Requiem.  Dove deals with this by setting much less familiar poems of the  First World War, some by poets killed in action, and some by poets who survived.  Among them are those that Robert Graves identified (in Goodbye to All That) as “the three poets of importance killed during the war” – Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Charles Hamilton Sorley.

Two movements in particular have started to stand out for me as I become more familiar with the music. The third movement sets Jessie Pope’s The Call alongside Sorley’s All the Hills and Vales Along. The Call is a patriotic jingle first published in the Daily Mail, echoing then popular sentiments– and sung here by a children’s choir, as if chanting the lines in the playground. This innocence is set against the Sorley poem, which describes men singing as they march to their deaths – all to an accompaniment that sounds like bullets ricocheting. The sixth movement is surely the centerpiece of the whole work, setting the extraordinary poem Dead Man’s Dump by Rosenberg (unknown to me until now). It’s full of harrowing war images.  Here the four choral voices are locked together in jagged and dramatic homophony, with interjections from the tenor soloist.

We’ve still work to do before we reach performance standard, namely the mastering of the technical difficulties so that we can start getting the emotion across. “I can still hear the counting” said Dove as we sang through a particularly fiendish passage of alternating 5/4, 7/4 and 3/2 bars. But we’ll get there.  There are no recordings as yet, but I think this piece will prove to be popular with choral societies in the future.  Come to the concert if you can.


themeIn the past it wasn’t easy to identify an unknown piece of music heard by chance, with no other evidence to hand than the melody itself. In fact just about the only hope was to go to a specialist library and consult A Dictionary of Musical Themes by Sam Morgenstern and Harold Barlow. This reference book, first published in 1950, collects together 10,000 musical themes (mostly classical works) and indexes them using a notation index based on transposing the pitches to C major or C minor (so that “God Save the Queen”, for instance, would come out as CCDBCDEEFE). To compile this dictionary was clearly a labour of love for the authors, both composers themselves. It reminds me of the efforts Victorian scholars put in to compile massive concordances of classic literature, including the Bible and Shakespeare. And similarly, all that effort would no longer be required today.

So who were the authors? Sam Morgenstern (1906-1989) was a teacher at Mannes College of Music in Greenwich Village, New York, and the conductor of Lower Manhattan’s Lemonade Opera Company, which gave the US premiere of Prokofiev’s Duenna in 1948. He composed two short operas himself, along with the Warsaw Ghetto (setting a spoken word poem by Harry Granick to background music), which was premiered at Carnegie Hall on February 10, 1946. He also composed a choral cantata The Common Man, and the latin-tinged piano piece Toccata Guatemala. Although there are no recordings of his work, a crackly radio disk transcription of the second performance of Warsaw Ghetto, made in the studio a week after the premiere, can be heard here (36 minutes in). Morgenstern’s other books included the classic anthology Composers on Music (1956).

Co-author Harold Barlow (1915-93), who devised the notation scheme, was a popular song composer who studied violin at the University of Boston and went on to become a bandleader during World War II. He wrote the comedy song “I’ve Got Tears in My Ears” in 1949 (recorded by Homer and Jethro), and the lyrics to the 1960 Connie Francis hit “Mama”. But Barlow became better known later in his career when he became a consultant on plagiarism, most famously defending George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” against the accusations that it was copied from the Chiffons’ hit “He’s So Fine”. (Harrison still lost the case). Barlow also worked on cases involving Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Elton John, Dolly Parton and Billy Joel.

A new attempt at classifying tunes was published in 1975 by Denys Parsons. The Dictionary of Tunes and Musical Themes used the contours of a melody, avoiding the need to transpose the notes into C (which involves some musical knowledge). Using the letters U,D and R to denote up, down and repeat, and an asterisk for the first note, “God Save the Queen” comes out as *RUDUU URUDDD UDDU. Parsons (1914, died circa 2000) was the grandson of the famous actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, initially a scientist, then a film maker, and from 1933-80 the press officer for the British Library – as well as a talented pianist and flautist. He was also the father of Alan Parsons, the producer of Dark Side of the Moon and leader of the Alan Parsons Project. Denys Parsons covered around 15,000 classical, popular and folk pieces in his dictionary. And in the process he found out that *UU is the most popular opening contour, used in 23% of all the themes, something that applies to all the genres.

Today all this can be done on the Internet – either by plugging an audio file into Gracenote or iTunes, or by going to sites such as The Multimedia Library (the Barlow method) or Musipedia (the Parsons method). They are still very handy resources when trying to identify an elusive melody.

under milkThe suite Under Milk Wood is often cited as evidence that not all British Jazz in the 1950s and 1960s was just a pale imitation of its US counterpart. In fact Stan Tracey – who sadly died, aged 86, on December 6th – cited Duke Ellington as his biggest influence, and while house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s from 1959 until the late 1960s provided backing for some of the biggest US front men, including Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery, Sonny Rollins and Ben Webster. (Getz was unappreciative, prompting on stage bickering, but Rollins was the opposite, commenting to the audience: “Doesn’t anyone here know how good he is?”). Despite that, in the 1960s Tracey began forging a very un-American sounding jazz, first with the New Departures Quartet LP (particularly the evocative “Culloden Moor”), and then with Under Milk Wood, inspired by Dylan Thomas.

It’s perhaps dangerous to make too much of the poetry-jazz connection. Certainly some joint gigs with poet Michael Horowitz encouraged the kind of improvisation-based mood pieces found on both LPs. And the prose that inspired the best known track of the suite, “Starless and Black Bible”, is every bit as musical in its effect as Thomas’s poetry:

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine tonight in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping

But Tracey – famously a man of very few words – was dismissive of any kind of close link between the music and the literature. He first heard the audio recording made by the author himself. “I was very taken with it and thought it would be a good idea to base a suite on the characters or places”, he told Alyn Shipton. But, he went on, “you end up with the music….and you make your own pictures”. And it’s hard to hear any specific influence on the music from the rhythm of the words, as some commentators have suggested. The importance, though, is that the starting point results in a very different perspective from any US models.

Essentially an improvisation with close interplay between Tracey’s distinctive and slightly menacing piano and the lyrical playing of tenor sax player Bobby Wellins, “Starless and Black Bible” establishes an appropriately melancholy mood using the slightest of means – an initial theme and short chord sequence, followed by a series of downward scales from Wellins that soon leads to a harmonic resting point on what sounds something like the dominant harmony. Then there’s a return to the opening theme and sequence. The music has survived to this day, despite patchy availability, with Tracey in the end having to issue the piece on his own record label.

yeatsI wondered how well the poems of Yeats would serve as pop song lyrics – especially a whole album’s worth – but Mike Scott carries it off superbly. Of course he’s done it before – he set “The Stolen Child” on the Fisherman’s Blues album – but this is a far more sustained effort: Scott says he’s written around 36 settings, 20 of which were used for a road show which premiered at Yeats’ own Abbey Theatre, Dublin in March 2010. The audiences responded well, so he recorded 14 of the songs for this album, released a year later. It works because Scott isn’t over-reverential about the texts, he’s prepared to adapt them as necessary to serve the song, changing rhyming schemes, repeating phrases and in some cases, mixing several poems together. But they stay essentially intact and the words are always audible, so if you listen with a Selected Poems edition in hand it can act as a great primer to the poetry. Scott’s doesn’t just stick to the early poems, his choice covers all periods, right up until “Politics”, the last lyric poem Yeats wrote in 1939.

Early Yeats, often based on romantic Irish folklore, has more often been used as the basis for lyrics. “The Song of Wandering Aengus” (from the 1899 collection The Wind Among the Reeds), set previously by Judy Collins, Donovan, Christy Moore and David Gray, among others, is both familiar and suitable for song:

I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Mike Scott’s version is based on a simple 16 bar chord sequence that repeats right through the song, and uses a regular meter, the instrumentation gradually building until it reaches the famous final couplet – and there follows a long flute solo by Sarah Allen on the same chord sequence that further intensifies the mood. (The same technique is used, as we have already seen, in the Waterboys song A Man is In Love).

However, Scott also tackles late Yeats, where the language is greatly simplified and more direct – the lively “Sweet Dancer” for instance, from 1939’s Last Poems, which describes the mental breakdown of the poet’s much younger lover, the actress Margot Ruddock. I especially like “Before the World Was Made”, a poem from 1929 (part of the sequence A Woman Young and Old) exploring self-identity, one of Yeats classic themes. With everything leading up to the haunting final two lines, it comes over as almost Dylanesque in this tiny setting.

I’m looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.

Musical Authors. Lawrence Durrell had an affinity for music and was a jazz pianist, but as a composer the one musical project that (at least half) saw the light of day was a projected musical comedy, Ulysses Come Back. The first reference to this comes in May 1968 in a letter from Durrell to Henry Miller. “I have three smashing songs for a musical about Ulysses”, he wrote, “which I’m writing from sheer boredom”. By September 1969 he is telling Miller “I have half written my musical and at last found a musician eager to collaborate on it; who knows, we might get it on! It would make me laugh….I regretted that he [Wallace Southam?] couldn’t raise interest in my Ulysses libretto. However tomorrow we’ll see what Antony Hopkins makes of it.”

Southam – an amateur composer and a friend of Durrell in pre-war Athens – traveled to the South of France to meet Durrell in Sommieres during early 1970 and spent a week notating the songs Durrell had completed for the proposed musical. Shortly afterwards Durrell came to London to make the recording, which was produced by Southam. On the first side there is a sketch of the musical, narrated by Durrell, on the other some additional songs, with Larry himself singing the recitative, Belle Gonzalez taking the female parts, Pat Smythe on piano and Jeff Clyne on bass. The recording was issued by Bernard Stone’s Turret Records, but only 99 copies were made, and so extant copies sell only for large amounts of money. I haven’t heard it.

The piece was intended to be humorous, with Durrell apparently wryly sympathetic with Ulysses’ trouble with women. “I think it’s funny and good in parts” he told Henry Miller, and sent him a copy. Miller replied in October 1970. “I began laughing when I heard your opening. Somehow you reminded me of good old Noel Coward., whom I used to put down, but whom I have come to admire, even adore after seeing him on TV several times in long interviews. It’s a jolly good attempt, this sketch, as you call it. Must have been fun to do.” This disk is a curiosity, and the material on it probably isn’t substantial enough to work into a performable piece. But it sheds a different light on Durrell, and provides us with a little more detail on the elusive Wallace Southam, of whom I will return to at least once more in the future.

Durrell also wrote an opera libretto, Sappho, that was set to music by the Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks in 1963. After years of neglect it was recorded by Toccatta in 2012

havanaI’m currently a third of the way through (and enjoying) the biography Malcolm Williamson: A Mischievous Muse by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris. Williamson was born in 1931 and died in 2003. So far, it’s covered his early years in Sydney and his early (and very drunkard) time in London up until his marriage in 1960, which seemed to reform him almost instantly. There followed a very productive period of composition – I’ve reached 1966. The biggest impact in those years came from the opera Our Man in Havana, premiered on 2 July 1963 at Sadler’s Wells. A rare foray for opera into contemporary literature, Havana was generally well received. However, there were only five initial performances, followed by three more in 1964 and a live BBC broadcast on June 30 1964. As Sadler’s Wells typically relied on non-specialist audiences, it couldn’t afford a long run.

Its neglect since, including the lack of any recording, is hard to understand. There have been two London revivals, the first at the Cochrane Theatre in 1987 and the second at the Greenwich Theatre in 2004 – though both were college performances. Most of the initial reviews praised the boldness and skill by which Williamson fused various elements together – popular and serious, comedy and tragedy – and handled the contemporary themes. Although approaching the musical in terms of its directness of communication, the two hour work is undeniably an opera. As in many of his other compositions, Williamson incorporated seemingly incompatible musical styles in the same piece – Cuban habanera and European dances with serial influences from Berg and neo-classicism from Stravinsky. Inevitably, it occasionally also brings Bernstein to mind.

The Cuban dance elements come out in the scenes set in Havana’s “Wonder Bar” and are reflected in the freely adapted orchestral suite Williamson extracted – now pretty much the only accessible material from the opera. The musical contrasts are in evidence even within the suite. Particularly suave, and by far the lightest movement, is the Serenade, which famously provoked a conga line in the audience at the Last Night of the Proms in 1976. It evokes the kind of music used in many an espionage thriller during the 1960s, and many judged it would have been more effective than the actual music used in the film of Graham Greene’s novel, which had come out five years earlier. Greene himself approved of the opera. And Malcolm Williamson went on to write another opera based on a contemporary novel – The Violins of Saint-Jacques based on the book by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Musical Authors I have ignored Dominico Scarlatti’s one movement keyboard sonatas for years, thinking of them (if I did at all) as sub-Bach. A passage from Basil Bunting’s long poem Briggflats that I came across recently has made me go and seek them out. Here’s the passage:

As the player’s breath warms the fipple the tone clears.
It is time to consider how Domenico Scarlatti
condensed so much music into so few bars
with never a crabbed turn or congested cadence,
never a boast or a see-here; and stars and lakes
echo him and the copse drums out his measure,
snow peaks are lifted up in moonlight and twilight
and the sun rises on an acknowledged land.

Bunting (1900-1985) was always interested in music and his poetry was written to be read aloud to bring out its sonic qualities. Briggflatts is a long autobiographical poem written in 1965 (“the finest long poem to be written in England since T S Eliot’s Four Quartets”, according to Cyril Connolly). In live performances, Bunting used to read its five parts interspersed with recordings of Scarlatti, and modeled the structure of his poems on the music. He chose the classic 1956 George Malcolm harpsichord selection (also used in Neil Astley’s Bloodaxe recording of the poem, first issued in 1980), but I’m afraid I prefer the piano, and Mikhail Pletnev’s performances in particular, despite some criticism that he brings too much of a romantic sensibility to the pieces. However, to me they balance the two worlds perfectly – in the D major sonata (KK 443, L418) for instance, the brittle, ornamented opening immediately brings to mind the harpsichord, but as soon as the main theme comes in (at 12 seconds), Pletnev eases into the music with finely judged pianistic legato and expansiveness.

Scarlatti suffers from the fact that there are over 550 sonatas and it’s hard to know where to start – the Malcolm and Pletnev recordings only share four common selections.

Musical Authors As mentioned in a previous post, the poet Edward Thomas was killed at the Battle of Arras in April 1917 only ten weeks after being sent out to the front line. One of the last poems he wrote before embarkation was Lights Out, an evocation of the moments just before sleep (and by association, of course, death) overtakes us.

I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.

Ivor Gurney, another poet, but also a musician, survived the First World War, but the resultant shell-shock blighted the rest of his life, which ended in an asylum. The composer Michael Hurd has written on this period, and the accompanist and Schubert scholar Graham Johnson has suggested that “over-cautious censorship by his well-meaning musician friends anxious to spare him humiliation at the time” led to the initial suppression of many fine songs that they had not fully comprehended – and Lights Out is a prime example. At the end of Gurney’s setting the structure of the song itself starts to disintegrate as consciousness ebbs away:

The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way
And myself.

As Johnson says in the sleeve notes to his Hyperion recording with Alice Coote : “The song’s strangely inconclusive ending must have seemed incomprehensible to its earlier listeners, but it is almost unbearably moving to us now, and right.” And Roderic Dunnett, writing in The Independent, put it this way: “Gurney does something astonishing: he sets it so that towards the end the song just kind of unravels. It’s a wonderful effect, and it gives me goose-pimples just to hear it. One is reminded, too, how Gurney himself was frequently unable to sleep after the war: instead, he would get up and tramp across fields at night for 20 miles or more.”

Musical Authors: Ezra Pound (2)

In 1920s Paris Ezra Pound began writing music criticism for The New Age under the name William Atheling. He befriended the iconoclast composer George Antheil, and even wrote a book of musical theory, Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony. He also began composing his first opera, The Testament of Francis Villon. The opera had to wait until October 1931 before it gained widespread attention through a BBC broadcast organized by the innovative producer Archie Harding. But although Harding commissioned a further opera, Cavalcanti, which Pound spent much of 1932 working on, his bosses became worried about Pound’s “amateur” status as a composer and the second work was never broadcast.

Another major influence in his life, both musically and poetically, was the musicologist and concert violinist Olga Rudge, his long-term mistress and the muse who helped inspire him to complete the Cantos. She was born in 1895 and died in 1996, aged 101. During the 1930s she was a central figure driving the revival of interest in the music of Vivaldi. Pound reviewed her concert of November 1930 (poster above), met her properly in 1922 and then encouraged his friend Antheil to write some music for her to play. But he also composed some pieces himself, premiered alongside Antheil’s three violin sonatas in Paris in late 1923 and London in May 1924. Some of these pieces were subsequently put together as Fiddle Music, first suite in 2004 and recorded on The Music of Ezra Pound. There are six movements, all less than one minute long. This is Pound’s only absolute music. The use of the word “fiddle” rather than violin points to the Celtic folk influence they display.

Pound’s operatic music was somewhat influenced by the anti-romanticism of Erik Satie and Les Six – and the recitative nature and sometimes the starkness of his settings certainly brings Satie’s Socrate to mind. But it also looks back to the homophonic music of medieval music, and goes much further than any of them in its focus on the rhythm of speech.

According to Margaret Fisher, it was Pound’s radio work at the BBC which led to his involvement with Rome Radio and the radio activities of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the leader of the Italian futurist art movement. Through Marinetti he began to broadcast the series of propaganda talks that led to his indictment for fascism and a thirteen year incarceration at St Elizabeth’s Federal Hospital for the Insane in Washington. There he wrote what many consider the finest of his poetic works, the complex and highly musical Pisan Cantos.

Musical Authors: Ezra Pound (1)
One of the central concerns of the work of Ezra Pound is his attempt to bring poetry and music closer together. Of all the poets who have taken an active interest in music, Pound can be judged one of the most serious. Yet until a recent revival of interest, his musical compositions have been all but ignored since the 1930s. One reason for the neglect is possibly the fact that Pound had no formal musical training and couldn’t carry a tune.

A lack of knowledge never stopped Pound doing anything. “Pound never quite admitted that there was anything he couldn’t do,” says Guy Davenport. The poet William Carlos Williams put it this way: “He knows nothing about music, being tone deaf. That’s what makes him a musician. He’s a misplaced romantic. That’s what makes him a historical realist. And he’s batty in the head. That’s what makes him a philosopher. But, in spite of it all, he’s a good poet”. Pound just followed his art wherever it led him. Even setting aside the compositions themselves, there are other reasons to take notice of Pound’s musical activities. “Pound’s venture into music for literary reasons – poetic analysis, preservation, and, ultimately, popularization (the goal of all scholarship according to Pound) – is unparalleled”, says Margaret Fisher, who has published a detailed study of the two completed operas and reconstructed the fragments of a third.

Musical preoccupations first began to surface as part of Pound’s researches into the work of the Provencal troubadour poets, discussed in his series of essays The Spirit of Romance, published in 1910. With the troubadours, words and music were closely fused together, though in Pound’s day the musical element wasn’t widely understood. His three act opera Cavalcanti sets the word of the Florentine troubadour influenced poet Guido Cavalcanti to original music. Related to this is his exploration of the art of translation. “Poetry is what gets lost in translation” said Robert Frost, but Pound believed that the essence of a poem could be discovered through translation – and enhanced through music. “I have been reduced to setting [Catullus and Villon] to music as I cannot translate them,” he said.

Is it worth listening to as music? Like the poetry, it can be forbidding on the surface. But American composer Charles Amirkhanian – who runs the Other Minds festival in San Francisco – thinks so. Repeated listenings reveal the arias from Cavalcanti to be “among the most compelling operatic arias written in the 1930,” he says. “It is regrettable that they have been kept secret for so long.”