Archives for posts with tag: Beethoven

beamThe profile of Sally Beamish, a British composer living in Scotland, was raised considerably due to the performance of her accordion concerto “The Singing” at The Proms on August 1st. This 1996 work was a late replacement for the Violin Concerto (1994), due to the sickness of soloist Anthony Marwood. It was written for the virtuoso accordion player James Crabb and takes for its theme the Highland Clearances of the 1760s. Surrounding the concert were multiple radio interviews, including Woman’s Hour, CD Review, and a Proms Plus talk recorded just before the performance. Beamish’s music is often serious minded, but she can be playful as well, and has built up an intriguing back catalogue. (Examples: the Bach-inspired Chamber Concerto for saxophone quartet and strings (2008), and the somewhat harrowing, but still life-affirming Spinal Chords, written for the paralympics in 2012 – both works have been recorded).

One of the best entry points is the re-invention of a Beethoven string quartet (specifically Opus 18 No 4) in her String Quartet No 2 “Opus California”, which uses four themes from the first movement of the Beethoven as the basis for the four short movements, combining the classical influences with a West Coast sensibility. The source material for the second movement includes Beethoven’s first bridge passage, used (appropriately enough) for the portrait of the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in mist. But it’s the first movement (“Boardwalk”) that is most immediately striking. The sound world of the Beethoven is recognizably still there, but the music unveils in tiny fragments, very lightly put together and occasionally coming together into a sequence of sprung rhythms that approaches jazz. It’s accessible but at the same time slightly edgy, and I can hear it being used as the opening music to a modern play – something understated, like Art by Yasmina Reza, for instance.


Fifty Modern Classics I saw a live performance of Sinfonia by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop at the Royal Festival Hall last Friday, part of the Rest Is Noise Festival, on this occasion focusing on music from the 1960s. It featured vocals from the Swingle Singers, for which the piece was originally written. The singers are of course from a new generation, but the group has continued without a break since it was formed in 1962, with the remaining members holding auditions for replacements every time an individual member leaves.

The third movement of Sinfonia (according to the Modern World website, from which the graphic above also comes) is “possibly the most exhilarating twelve minutes that modern music has to offer.” I’d certainly agree with that, but there is the question as to how much of that is down to Berio himself and how much is inherited from his sources – particularly Mahler’s scherzo from the second “Resurrection” Symphony – that holds the movement together. The piece is chock full of quotations (ranging from Bach to Beethoven to Ravel, Richard Strauss and Boulez), but Mahler provides the narrative thread – a “river of sound” – that is sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background, and which is easily diverted by the introduction of other material. Alex Ross, in the book that inspired the festival, points out that the use of devices such as collage, pastiche and quotation gave contemporary European composers the opportunity “to commandeer tonal music without committing the sin of writing tonal music, as such.”

I agree that Mahler’s material is very central to the piece – even more so when we realize that the scherzo itself is a re-working of earlier material, a song from the cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The song recounts how St Anthony of Padua, discouraged by an empty church, preaches his sermon to the fish. They pay rapt attention (as in the original retelling of the miracle). However, the poem goes on to point out that, while the sermon has pleased the fish, the words themselves make no difference and they carry on exactly as before – the crabs still walk backwards, the pikes continues thieving, the carps remain greedy etc. We don’t hear any of St Anthony’s words directly, instead they are portrayed musically in a series of downward sequences, like bubbles descending into the water past the uncomprehending creatures and dissipating. Berio provides a flood of words on top of his river of music, some of them original, some from Samuel Beckett’s 1957 novel The Unnamable, but all of them striving to comprehend a “meaning” that may not exist. The text is humorous and self-referential as well as sometimes bleak, and like the music, it is woven into the texture as a whole so that the fragments are sometimes only partially audible.

Berio takes maximum advantage of the Mahler scherzo by bringing it to the surface of his texture at its most heightened moments, such as the plaintive slow descending passage for brass over strings towards the middle. And he introduces other very recognizable quotes – from Beethoven’s pastoral symphony, for instance, or his ingenious combination of Strauss and Ravel waltzes – to comment ironically on the text. But it’s the pure sound of the Swingle Singers’ vocals, who contribute to the musical material as well as narrating the text, which really transforms the original Mahler material into something quite different. Berio clearly loved this type of vocal sound, as he used it elsewhere in various other works such as A-Ronne (1974) and the classic 1958 electronic piece Thema (Omaggio a Joyce).

Late Masterpieces
The unearthly sound of the opening fugue from Beethoven’s C# minor quartet is partly due to the key (not a resonant one for strings), partly due to the chromatic element in the theme (leading to predominantly dissonant harmony), and partly due to the rhythmic interplay of the four voices, which, after the strict fugal exposition of the first 16 bars, seem most intent on getting into step with each other and staying there. For this is a very free fugue (just as many of Bach’s fugues are free), where the full length subject returns only rarely throughout the movement, letting the intervening episodes carry the main argument. As soon as bar 20, the theme appears to want to return, with the first violin starting to introduce it in the high register three times – but each time only reaching the first three notes. That leads to the first real moment of calm, a strikingly homophonic passage beginning at the end of bar 27 and continuing on for a further six bars of crotchet movement with coordinated phrases. At bar 35 the cello does manage to play a version of the theme, but it’s not answered adequately in the other voices, other than in small fragments.

We head into a crescendo and a change of key (at letter B, bar 54), and here the full subject does appear, though only in diminished form. The rhythmic motion speeds up into quavers at the same point, but the voices once again forgo the chance of flowing rhythmic counterpoint and get back in step with each other for a further nine bars. Again the first violin makes a strong attempt to voice the subject, but this soon drops back into an eerie, canonical passage for the two violins alone, followed by an answering duo from the viola and cello. Another crescendo finally leads to the full theme’s return at bar 92, this time through multiple stretto entries, including a spacious augmented (half speed) version in the cello. This proves to be the climax of the movement, and from here the momentum collapses as the home key returns in stark octaves – before the music shifts up a semitone to move straight into the second, mellower movement, the D major tonality (a much more sympathetic key for strings) like a shaft of sunlight.

Beethoven’s model for this fugue was clearly Bach – there are thematic echoes with the C# minor fugue in the first book of the Well Tempered Clavier as well as with the second Kyrie from the Mass in B Minor. But there’s also some evidence that Beethoven had recently studied some early Renaissance works by Josquin, and the homophonic style may have been partly influenced by that. However, a listener unfamiliar with the piece would be more likely to guess that it was written more recently – Bartok and Shostakovich are sometimes not many steps away from this music.

Musical Authors: Anthony Burgess (2)
The use of language in the writings of Anthony Burgess often highlights sound over meaning, an interest that he picked up from his enthusiasm for the work of James Joyce. In A Clockwork Orange Burgess distances the reader from the extreme violence though the made-up, Russian-influenced language “Nadsat” the narrator users. That language also creates its own distinctive sound world. Burgess explored this direction to the extreme in the wordless film script Quest for Fire, where he invents a tribal language that prehistoric man might have spoken, and in his non-fiction work on the sound of language, A Mouthful of Air. In A Clockwork Orange, Burgess also satirizes the traditional highbrow image of classical music and turns it into a soundtrack for violence – far from “soothing the savage beast”, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony incites Alex into ever more extreme acts of “ultraviolence.” In the film version, director Stanley Kubrick used realizations of Beethoven’s music for the synthesizer, produced by Wendy Carlos, to emphasis this, and in the later stage version with music, Burgess composed his own parodies of Beethoven rather than use the real thing.

However, Blooms of Dublin, a musical setting of James Joyce’s Ulysses written for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1982, takes a somewhat different approach. It’s a very free interpretation of Joyce’s text, with changes and interpolations by Burgess himself, all set to original music that blends opera with Gilbert and Sullivan and music hall styles. The aim seems to have been to make Ulysses more accessible (just as he’d also tried to do with his abridgement, A Shorter Finnegans Wake in 1969). And once again, Burgess blurs fiction and reality. In Earthly Powers (1980) the novel he was writing at the same time, the fictional composer Domenico Campanati has also written a musical based on Joyce called Blooms of Dublin, and seven lyrics derived from the real peace are included in the novel. Even more puzzlingly, the primary character, an author called Kenneth Toomey, comments on the fictional Blooms. His verdict? That Ulysses is “a totally un-adaptable masterpiece of literature”.

The BBC recording of the broadcast isn’t generally available, but I’ve heard it a few times and find it an interesting but uneven work (inevitably, perhaps, as it’s around two and a half hours long). As Toomey points out, the complexities and subtleties of Ulysses aren’t easy to translate into a fairly straightforward musicals format, The number “Copulation without population” in Act Two is an example – it’s a funny, bawdy music hall romp which gratuitously adds a chorus of drunks and whores into the mix, like a precursor to Jerry Springer The Opera. But it has little to do with the corresponding passage from Ulysses. In his defense, Burgess said: “The score is, I think, the kind of thing Joyce might have envisaged…he was the great master of the ordinary, and my music is ordinary enough. I had felt for some time that he might have had demotic musicals in mind ….”.

However, critics at the time were horrified at Burgess’ presumption. One called it “an act of vandalism.” Burgess took particular exception to a stinging review by Hans Keller, and for ever after bore the grudge. A few years later he wrote a new piece he called Hommage to Hans Keller, scoring it for the somewhat unlikely combination of four tubas. The Burgess biographer Roger Lewis (himself something of an iconoclast) described it as “a sort of lavatorial blast.”


Musical Authors: Anthony Burgess (1)
Anthony Burgess inherited his love for music from his mother (a music hall singer and dancer) and his father (a part-time cinema pianist). His early introduction to music is lightly disguised as fiction in his novel The Pianoplayers (1986). He began composing seriously while in the army during the war, and then while working as a teacher in Malaya, but couldn’t earn a living from it. When he was diagnosed with a terminal illness in 1959 and told he had just 12 months to live, Burgess embarked on a series of novels in an attempt to earn enough money to support his wife after his death. He survived the diagnosis, and wrote 11 novels between 1960 and 1964, including his best known work, A Clockwork Orange (1962).

Nearly all the writings, fiction and non-fiction, reflect his musical experiences. Biographical elements concerning musicians, particularly failed composers, occur everywhere. His early novel A Vision of Battlements (1965) concerns Richard Ennis, a composer of symphonies and concertos who is serving in the British army in Gibralter. His last, Byrne (1995), a novel set in verse form, is about a minor modern composer who enjoys greater success in bed than he does in the concert hall. Fictional works mentioned in the novels often parallel Burgess’ own real compositions, and provide a commentary on them, such as the St Celia’s Day cantata described in the 1976 novel Beard’s Roman Women, which surfaced two years after the novel was published as a real Burgess work. But the influence goes far beyond the biographical. There are experiments combining musical forms and literature such as Tremor of Intent (1966), the James Bond spoof thriller set in sonata form, and the Napoleon Symphony, a literary interpretation of Beethoven’s Eroica. His use of language often highlights sound over meaning.

Burgess wrote three symphonies himself, but the first two are lost. In his third, he contrived to take a theme directly from the pages of Shakespeare, using six notes quoted in sol fa notation by Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost. As Burgess himself explained: …“the pedant Holofernes, who was probably played by Shakespeare himself in the first presentation of the comedy, has a very interesting speech, in which he praises the old poet Mantuan, quotes a line from him, sings a snatch of Italian song – “Venezia, Venezia, chi non ti vede non ti prezia” – and also warbles the notes do re sol la mi fa. This snatch is, I believe, the only tune that Shakespeare wrote [Burgess was wrong here, there’s another sol fa sequence of four notes hummed by Edmund in King Lear] and it has been unaccountably neglected by Shakespeare scholars.”

The sol fa notation translates to the notes C D G A E and F, but of course there’s no indication of rhythm. Burgess points out that such as sequence “is suitable for a ground bass; it can be extended into a fugal subject. If we repeat it a tritone higher or lower, we have a perfect twelve-tone Grundstimmung for a serial composition”. In the third symphony, he says: “My finale pays homage to Love’s Labour’s Lost by basing itself on that brief Shakespeare motif – forward, backward, and upside down – and setting the Venezia words to an appropriate Adriatic- or Neapolitan-type melody, corny, full of schmalz, and with a mandoline tinkling away in the background.”

The symphony was commissioned by the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra in 1974, resulting in the first public performance of an orchestral work by Burgess – a momentous occasion for the composer which spurred him on to renew his composing activities with other large scale works and chamber music, including a violin concerto. A short extract of the Symphony can be heard here.