Paul Mealor ‘De Profundis’: Hear My Voice

Dearest readers, welcome to Day ‘M’ of my October Alphabet Challenge. I have been eagerly anticipating writing this blog as I had a pre-conceived idea as to what I wanted to write about, and after getting in touch with the composer, I will be writing this blog on Paul Mealor’s De Profundis – enjoy!

Paul Mealor was born in North Wales, 1975, and as a young child he studied composition with William Mathias. He attended the University of York, and studied under John Pickard and Nicola LeFanu. For fourteen years now, Mealor has taught composition at the University of Aberdeen. Mealor is perhaps most well-known for his commission to be the composer for the Royal wedding between Prince William and Catherine Middleton, at Westminster Abbey on 29th April 2011. Also in 2011, Mealor composed the choral work, De Profundis, which is what this blog is centred around.

Inspired by the pureness and beauty of Russian Orthodox Chant, Mealor composer De Profundis for choir and bass soloist. What makes this particular piece unique is the range that Mealor has written for the bass voice, which goes down to a low E – a sixth lower than a cello can go. To find the perfect (and of course, capable) voice for this part, the hunt began to find someone with this extraordinary singing voice. After a global campaign and over 400 entrants, Mealor and his team chose Tim Storms to sing this record-breaking part. Although they had many applicants, only 40 were shortlisted, and even then many of these men strained to get down to the infamous low E. However, this is not the case with Tim Storms, as his range is very rich and secure, meaning the clarity of his voice in that range is incredibly impressive. After it was recorded it won the Guinness World Record for a piece of music with the lowest note for choir that is possible to sing.

Based on Psalm 130, De Profundis represents a man (the soloist) talking to God, and asking for his help. Mealor makes some very small changes to the literally translated Hebrew text, and below is that translation:

From the depths I have cried out to you, O Lord;

Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication

If you, Lord, were to mark iniquities, who, O Lord, shall stand?

But with you is forgiveness, that you may be revered.

I trust in the Lord;

My soul trusts in his word.

My soul waits for the Lord,

More than watchmen wait for the dawn, let Israel hope in the Lord.

For with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.

And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

The text used throughout De Profundis:

Out of the depths do I cry to you O Lord;

Lord hear my voice

Let your ears be attentive to my voice,

In my supplication

My Lord

I cried to you, O Lord

Let you ears be attentive

To my voice

I cried to you, I cried to you,

I cried to you

Let your ears be attentive to my voice

In you is forgiveness, my Lord

Amen

The cleverness of this work can be from the sheer novelty of this bass voice. The attentiveness that the soloist is asking for from God, is being received in abundance by the listeners (and, of course, the choir). Mealor commented on this evolution of this piece saying that he has “been constantly trying to write lower and lower, and the bassists I write for seem very pleased about this.” He goes on to say that “My setting of De Profundis calls for a rich and powerful voice; a voice that can not only touch the heart with its sincerity and truth, but also make every fabric of the human body resonate as it plunges into the very lowest parts of the vocal spectrum.”

The choir reacts to the soloist by taking key words or phrases and layering them into the cluster-chord filled texture. Words such as ‘hear’ and ‘cry’ are taken to support the dramaturgy of the work, which becomes a very powerful tool for Mealor. A lot of the accompaniment from the choir is indistinguishable, which creates an even more mysterious undertone to the work. The staggered entries at the beginning of the work set the scene, before a quick resolution in the chord progression, which sets up the soloist to enter ‘out of the depths’ as it were. With the text used, it definitely comes across as a plead from the soloist for the higher power to listen, help and forgive. I find this work particularly powerful for this reason.

Mealor also uses word-painting throughout, which offers different interpretations of this work. For example, the second line ‘Lord hear my voice’ the soloist hits the lowest note of the work thus far, with the choir dropping out on the word ‘voice’ so the Lord can hear this voice properly. For me, this also shows the vulnerability of the soloist, in context to the text. The next line ‘Let your ears be attentive to my voice’ is manipulated in such a way that the words ‘my voice’ is sung in a descending sequence (unlike the rest of this line), making it the focal point of this section. Another way Mealor uses word-painting is example is when he and the choir climax on ‘I cried to you’, which is repeated three times. The highest of the soloist’s range is heard here, which could represent the desperation that this person is feeling, and even with the support of the choir, is still not able to reach the attention of the higher power. Furthermore, two lines later on ‘My Lord’, the soloist is again left alone by the choir and the lowest note of the work is then heard – the infamous E1. Again, this highlights the importance of the soloist, and of course the novelty of being able to sing that low! The ending is subtle, with the choir proclaiming their ‘Amen’ quietly, and then the soloist coming in after with the closing ‘Amen’.

A really atmospheric work, De Profundis is certainly a bold statement from Mealor, and is one of my favourite choral works! I came across this recording on an album entitled Tranquillity: Voices of Deep Calm – which for me says it all! This blog would not have been possible without the invaluable help and kindness of Paul Mealor himself, who kindly offered me some information about this work, thus this blog is dedicated to him and the wonderful music he creates!

Join me soon for Day ‘N’!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

 

 

 

 

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Tania León ‘Batá’: Exploring African Traditions

Dearest readers, I must apologise for the delay in this blog, the last week has been very busy and life has very much been in the way of me writing. Here we are though on Day ‘L’ of my October Alphabet Challenge! Today’s instalment will be on Cuban-born composer, Tania León – enjoy!

Born in Havana, Cuba in 1943, Tania León began learning the piano at the young age of four years old. Twenty years on, she had earned her bachelors and master degrees in music from the Carlos Alfredo Peyrellade Conservatory. After this, she made the move to New York and continued her studies there. As well as a composer, León is also known as an advisor to arts organisations and an educator. Her work has been often recognised and in 1998 she was awarded the New York Governor’s ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’.

In 1969, León became a founding member and first musical director of Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem (where she established its music school and orchestra). León is a distinguished professor at Brooklyn College, and also guest lectures at Harvard and other prestigious institutes. She has also been a guest conductor at the National Symphony Orchestra of South Africa, and Beethovenhalle Orchestra in Bonn. She has also been composer in residence with a range of different orchestras and ensembles, which has made her catalogue of music grow steadily over the last few decades. León has composed many chamber works, orchestral works, vocal works and operas, which have been recognised worldwide.

In 2010, León’s work for flute and piano , Alma, was performed in her home town of Havana at the Leo Brouwer Festival of Chamber Music. Her catalogue of compositions is extensive, so it has been a difficult task to pick just one to write about today. I have chosen her 1985 orchestral work, Batá for this blog.

Focusing on the ritual drumming of the Yoruban people of West Africa, Batá, utilises Afro-Cuban percussion and African rhythms. Batá drums are two-headed and have an hourglass shaped body. Throughout Batá, León emphasises the art of improvisation by using Western techniques such as hemiolas, syncopation and irregular phrasings. Texture is also a prominent feature of this work, with timbres being mixed within instruments to create different effects. For instance, the opening of the work sees the piccolo and muted trumpet sound combined creating a piercing and dissonant sound. The work takes around five minutes to perform, and is 167 bars long. It isn’t until around half way through that the first clear reference to African rhythm is heard. The cowbell is at the forefront of these African rhythms, which are often in 6/8 time.

The wash of angular melodies throughout gives the impression of very long phrases, which all have unique articulations. Batá highlights León’s handling of the orchestra and the rhythmic vitality she writes in this particular work. Each pattern, or section is heavily decorated with complex rhythmic structures, which offer varying effects to the work. León juxtaposes compound and simple metres to create contrasting subdivisions of notes, resulting in incredibly clever polyphonic writing for orchestra.

Batá is a piece for the world, and it’s inclusion of African traditional drumming, as well as León’s familiar Cuban twist, makes this work so very intriguing. I would like to end this blog with a quote from the composer herself:

“I am who I am, thanks to my mestizo heritage and my ancestors from China, Nigeria, France, and Spain. I’m a citizen of the world with a global consciousness, and I do not like to be categorised by race, gender, or nationality. My music is my contribution to mankind. This is my heritage and I’m proud of it.”

Definitely something we should all be aware of.

Join me very soon for the next instalment of my October Alphabet Challenge!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

Alexander Krein ‘Jewish Sketches’: Blurring the Lines of Traditions

Good day, readers! Welcome to Day ‘K’ of my ever-exciting October Alphabet Challenge. So far we have explored a range of different composers, all with unique styles and works, and I’d like to add to that by discussing Soviet composer, Alexander Krein and his work for clarinet quintet – Jewish Sketches. Enjoy!

Born in Russia in 1883, Krein and his family were surrounded by Jewish traditions. His father, Abram Krein, moved from Lithuania to Russia in 1870, was a well-known violinist. Krein was one of seven brothers, to which all of them became musicians due to having a father who was a recognised musician. At the tender age of 14, Krein gained a place at the prestigious Moscow Conservatory, where he studied composition with Sergei Taneyev and cello performance with Alexander von Glehn. Not an abundance of information is known about Krein and his life, other than he worked on a lot of official music admin positions. He is remembered largely for being the leader of a Jewish national school in Russia, which one of his brothers was also a part of. Krein also taught at his alma mater for some years after the 1917 Revolution. Krein died in 1951 in Russia.

Krein’s style can perhaps be described as a hybrid between traditional Jewish music (both secular and sacred) and French Impressionism. Like many composers of the time, Krein’s religion played a large role in his compositional processes. I would even go as far as to say it was a constant inspiration for him, with some works being obviously linked by just the title (i.e Jewish Sketches), and some being not so (i.e Aria for Violin and Piano). It can also be said that his style became an admixture of late-nineteenth century Russian classical traditions and French Impressionism, giving his music a unique voice.

Jewish Sketches was composed in 1909, and later published in 1914 and was dedicated to his parents. It is written for clarinet quintet (solo clarinet and string quartet, if you will), and from the outset it is clear where Krein has taken his inspiration from. The klezmer traditions were so prominent throughout his life, which is perhaps why this particular work is dedicated to his parents. Krein’s ability to go between different sounds is emphasised in this work, with the music being a balance of classical and klezmer traditions. Although the clarinet is the solo instrument, the accompaniment emphasises important melodic phrases, creates a sense of unity between the parts. This can be heard throughout the three movements of this work.

The first movement, Lento, is slow and mournful, and introduces us to Jewish folk melodies. The use of embellishments, especially in the solo part, gives us the cultural twang that we associate with this kind of traditional music.

The second movement, Andante, is started by the cello and then the clarinet joins in above the subtle tremolos from the strings. Soon after the first kernel of music is heard, the tempo changes and the next section explodes into a colourful mix of melodies and harmonies. There is a lot of light and shade in this movement, with Krein’s keen use of dramatic dynamics.

The finale movement, Allegro moderato, begins with a jaunty dance motif with the clarinet and violin. The feel of dance is then taken through this movement, and the exciting coda section makes for a fantastic and powerful ending to this culturally exploratory work.

Alexander Krein’s Jewish Sketches for clarinet quintet is exciting due to Krein’s unique style. The ease of moving between traditions is so subtle that you sometimes may not even notice it! An exciting composer with a catalogue of fantastic works – a great way to celebrate Day ‘K’ of my October Alphabet Challenge!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

Karl Jenkins ‘Palladio’: Mathematically Structured Music

Welcome to Day ‘J’ of my October Alphabet Challenge! An exciting letter indeed, and I have chosen to write about composer Karl Jenkins, and his instantly recognisable Palladio, for string orchestra.

Sir Karl William Pamp Jenkins (CBE), was born on 17th February, 1944, in Penclawdd, Wales. He first received music training from his father, who was a choirmaster and chapel organist. Jenkins learnt the oboe, and played in the National Youth Orchestra of Wales. Further to this, he went and studied music at Cardiff University, and then at the Royal Academy of Music.

Regarded as the ‘most performed living composer in the world’, Jenkins’ work can be heard in films, TV series and concert halls. In 2005, Jenkins composed the score for the feature film, River Queen, which subsequently won the Golden Goblet Award for ‘Best Score’. Jenkins is also well-known for his Adiemus project, which combined Western classical styles with ethnic vocal sounds and percussion, with a new, invented language. Jenkins is also celebrated for his royal commissions such as his harp concerto Over the Stone, which was for HRH The Prince of Wales’ harpist. He has also worked with euphonium virtuoso, David Childs, violinist Marat Bisengaliev and Welsh baritone, Bryn Terfel.

Jenkins has a large catalogue of recorded music, including:

  • Requiem 
  • This Land of Ours
  • Stabat Mater
  • Palladio

Apart from the score itself, the name Palladio has caused much discussion as to its origins. Put simply, it refers to Venice-born architect, Andrea Palladio. The form is a concerto grosso for string orchestra, with Jenkins saying this about the work:

Palladio was inspired by the sixteenth-century Italian architect, Andrea Palladio, whose work embodies the Renaissance celebration of harmony and order. Two of Palladio’s hallmarks are mathematical harmony and architectural elements borrowed from classical antiquity, a philosophy which I feel reflects my own approach to composition. The first movement I adapted and used for the ‘Shadows’ A Diamond is Forever television commercial for a worldwide campaign. The middle movement I have since rearranged for two female voices and string orchestra, as heard in Cantus Insolitus from my woks Songs of Sanctuary.

Palladio, composed in 1995, is in three movements:

  1. Allegretto
  2. Largo
  3. Vivace

The first movement utilises unity, with the main theme (you’ll know it when you hear it!) being played in unison by the whole string orchestra. This small kernel of melodic material and movement is then taken and developed throughout all three movements, but most obviously in the first. The way Jenkins has composed this is resonant to composers such as Antonio Vivaldi, with the first movement definitely taking some inspiration from hi Four Seasons. The celebration of this baroque sound is heard throughout all three movements. There is a lot of light and shade throughout, with communication between instruments playing a key part here. Starting together, solo parts begin to emerge and alternate between solo and tutti markings, creating drama and suspense. Jenkins also utilises dynamics to build tension, adding to this idea of dramatic music.

The second movement, largo, begins with a pulsating figure, which moves in a chromatic manner. Again, the ensemble are playing together, until the solo violin emerges with the main melodic figure. The accompaniment offered by the lower parts does not waver from the opening pulsating rhythms. Unlike the first movement, the second is very slow and solemn, creating a very different atmosphere. The solo violin sings above the accompaniment, highlighting some really heart-wrenching melodies. Again, dynamics really help the music along, with the accompaniment building with the intensity of the soloist, and then quickly dying away to create the vision of nothingness, perhaps.

The final movement is quick, and emphasises the importance of timbre at the beginning, with there being a mix of pizzicato and arco parts. The jaunty and brash melodic idea is repeated, steadily going through different harmonies for over two minutes. Soon, this idea is developed into a less-harsh style of playing, and one that is very resonant of the first movement. The ensemble is the soloist for this movement, and everything is played in unison, creating a powerful wall of sound. As aforementioned, with this score being inspired by Andrea Palladio, the harmony and structures are rigid and very mathematical, something that is less-heard of in the 21st Century.

An exciting way to celebrate Day ‘J’ of my October Alphabet Challenge! Join me very soon, where I will be exploring a very exciting composer and work to celebrate Day ‘K’!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

John Ireland ‘Decorations’: The Finest English Impressionism

Dearest readers, we have made it to Day ‘I’ of my jam-packed October Alphabet Challenge! Today, I shall be delving into the musical world of John Ireland, and his set of three miniatures for piano – Decorations. 

John Ireland was born in Bowdon, Cheshire in 1879, and was the youngest of five children. It has been widely documented that Ireland had a rough childhood. His mother and father died within a year of each other in 1893 and 1894, when he was just 14/15 years old. From 1893, Ireland had enrolled at the Royal College of Music, studying piano with Frederic Cliffe. From 1897, he then began studying composition under the tutelage of Charles Villiers Stanford. Like many composers of that time, Ireland was heavily influenced by landscapes, and he would make the effort to travel to the Channel Islands to soak up the views.

As well as a composer and working musician, Ireland was also a music educator and in 1923 he began to teach at the Royal College of Music. Ireland’s pupils include the likes of Benjamin Britten, Richard Arnell and Anthony Bernard. Although relatively well-known for his musical output, many have described Ireland’s personality and character. One has referred to Ireland as “a self-critical, introspective man, haunted by memories of a sad childhood.” Britten commented on Ireland as his student saying he possessed “a strong personality, but a weak character.” Ireland remained alone for the most part of his life, bar a brief marriage which ended in under a year. In 1953, Ireland retired in Sussex, where he lived in a converted windmill. In 1959, Ireland declined an OBE award from the Queen, but we are still unsure as to why this was. At age 82, Ireland died in 1962 in Sussex, UK.

Ireland was heavily influenced by the French Impressionism era, with Ravel and Debussy being at the forefront. This caused Ireland to develop his own ‘English Impressionistic’ style. Ireland wrote smaller works, meaning no symphonies or operas. His output includes chamber music, choral music and a large catalogue of piano works. Today, Ireland is best-know for his Piano Concerto, and many of his smaller-scale piano works.

Decorations was composed between 1912-1913, whilst Ireland was on one of his ‘landscape trips.’ The work, which takes around 10 minutes to perform, is in three movements:

  1. The Island Spell
  2. Moonglade
  3. The Scarlet Ceremonies

The imagery that is threaded through these movements are a testament to Ireland’s unique and thought-provoking style. Magic seas and fairy woods are evoked by the serene,and also dramatic first movement. It is compelling and charming and a wonderful example of pictorial writing in music. I find this movement very resonant of Debussy, and French impressionism. The gentleness of the piano glides as the simple melodies sing out. The music intensifies with the use of acceleration, dynamic and a gradual increase of shorter notes, which creates a beautiful wall of sound. The ending comes back down to a very quiet dynamic, and becomes chordal again, rather than note-driven.

The second movement is again, slow, remote and ‘pure impressionism’ some would claim. Small kernels of music are stretched out to create longer phrases. A quote from Arthur Symons is reflected in this movement – “Why are you so sorrowful in dreams?” and this can be interpreted through the sparse nature, the (largely) minor tonality, and the dragging feel at times. Throughout this movement, there is a sense of the music fading away, and this literally happens at the end, after every small kernel of material has been sounded.

The third and final movement of this set is entitled “The Scarlet Ceremonies” and is certainly the most striking of the collection. A relenting pulsating rhythmic frame can be heard throughout, with clear melodies being sounded in both the left and right hands. The whole movement is essentially based and developed from the initial twelve bars. The music is full of literal decorations such as trills and ornaments, which adds energy and excitement to the movement. The climax at the end, with the double glissandos on the black notes (ouch!), is the focal point of the piece.

An innovative, artistic and wonderfully put together. A trio that should never be forgotten! I do hope you have enjoyed today’s instalment, it is a work I like very much. Join me very soon for Day ‘J’ of my October Alphabet Challenge – you will not want to miss out!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

 

Paul Hindemith ‘Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber’: Double Take!

Dearest readers and classical music fans alike, welcome to Day ‘H’ of my October Alphabet Challenge! Delighted to have your company this evening as I begin to explore the German composer, Paul Hindemith. For this blog, I shall be looking into his orchestral work, and arguably his most popular work, Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber. 

Born in November 1895 in Hanau (near Frankfurt), Paul Hindemith engaged with music at a young age. Starting with playing the violin, Hindemith later attended Frankfurt’s Hoch’sche Konservatorium, where he studied violin performance with Adolf Rebner. Further to this, Hindemith also studied composition with Arnold Mendelssohn and Bernhard Sekles. In 1917, Hindemith was sent to join the German army, where he played the bass drum in the regiment band, and he also formed a string quartet. In May 1918, his diary entries showed he only survived grenade attacks “by good luck” whilst serving as a sentry in Flanders.

After returning from war, Hindemith founded the Amar Quartet, where he played viola. He began travelling quite extensively, both on tour, and through his other musical projects. From Germany to Egypt to Turkey and France, Hindemith ended up a very well-travelled man. In 1946, Hindemith became a US citizen, although he returned to Europe in 1953, where he lived in Zurich. In the last few years of his life, Hindemith began to conduct more, namely his own compositions, which were then recorded. After a decline in his physical health, Hindemith died on 28th December 1963, age 68.

Hindemith is remembered as a prolific composer of his time, and he produced both Romantic and expressionist works, which he then developed into an even more unique and complex style by the 1920s. Broadly, this style has been described as ‘neoclassical’, with researchers describing Hindemith’s style as ‘resonant of early Schoenberg, contrapuntal like Bach and with the Classical clarity of Mozart.’

Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber was composed in 1943. As the title suggests, Symphonic Metamorphosis takes various melodies from different works by Weber. The idea came from choreographer Léonide Massine, who suggested to Hindemith that he should arrange music by Weber for a ballet. After sketching out some movements for the ballet, the project fell through after Hindemith and Massine had too many ‘artistic differences.’ Massine felt that Hindemith’s score was “too personal” (what?!), and vice-versa, Hindemith felt that Massine’s staging and backdrops were too strange. Therefore, in 1943, Hindemith took the music sketches from this ballet and created Symphonic Metamorphosis, a bright, lavish composition for orchestra. After being premiered in 1944, Symphonic Metamorphosis gained instant success and praise from audiences in New York. Today, it has remained Hindemith’s most popular work.

Why Carl Maria von Weber, I hear you cry? Well, Weber (1786-1826) was a very important figure in the development of German opera in the classical era. Further to this, his music also had a small influence on the beginning of Romanticism. Weber retained importance and a legacy with later composers, which is interesting considering in today’s concert halls, it is actually quite rare to hear a piece by Weber.

Hindemith took various melodies from some of Weber’s more obscure piano works. In homage to the composer, Hindemith preserves the themes pretty much exactly as Weber composed them, as well as retaining the structure of the works as well. However, to balance this out, and ‘making it his own’, Hindemith changed everything else, which includes the harmony, extending melodic phrases and the development of the work as a whole. If you listen to Weber’s works next to Hindemith’s, you can hear the melodies and how little they have been changed. What I find intriguing, is how Hindemith’s final product, as a whole, sounds so far away from Weber’s style, but perhaps that is the point!

Symphonic Metamorphosis is in four movements:

  1. Allegro
  2. Scherzo
  3. Andantino
  4. Marsch

The first movement, Allegro, is upbeat and militaristic. It is based on Weber’s Piano Sonata for Four Hands, which Hindemith used to play to his wife. Hindemith makes this melody into a fully fledged orchestral movement. The A and B sections highlight the two principle themes, which are threaded throughout this movement. There is a certain intensity felt throughout this short movement, with the ‘end product’, if you will, being the cadences. Hindemith develops Weber’s sonata by expanding the cadences, decorations and harmonic movement, making it an exciting interpretation.

The second movement, a scherzo, explores the incidental music that Weber originally composed for a play called Turandot. This play was set in ancient China, and the first melody heard is resonant of Chinese musical tradition. This movement highlights the moving between different eras, starting at baroque, and ending in twentieth-Century America. Hindemith’s orchestration shows the light and shade between instruments with extremities in pitches. The conversations between the instruments create isorhythmic patterns, which become noticeably denser as the movement progresses. Hindemith also utilises counterpoint, which shows the influence of the baroque era. The end brings thunderous drumming and the main Turandot melody, and it has been said these last phrases signal its survival.

The slow third movement is based on Weber’s Piano Duet Op. 3 No. 2. The serenity within this movement is more than welcome after the tumultuous second movement. The melodies are smoother, the rhythms are set in a balanced 2 throughout most of the movement. The upper woodwinds glimmer like sunshine throughout, and the complex harmonic accompaniment supports this.

The fourth movement, which is set like as a march, is based on another piano work (op. 70). Hindemith has expanded this material to essentially ‘show off’ every instrument of the orchestra. In a strong ABA structure, this movement utilises Weber’s melodic material fully. Although in a strict march at the beginning, the fourth movement becomes whimsical in places, with the instruments really milking Weber’s luscious melodies.

Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber, is a powerful work which highlights not only Weber’s wonderful melodies, but Hindemith’s keen eye for orchestration and the development of small kernels of music. A fantastic addition to our list! Join me soon for Day ‘I’ of my October Alphabet Challenge!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

 

Sofia Gubaidulina ‘Duo Sonata for Two Bassoons’: Unleashing Fantasy, Drama and Prayer

Welcome to Day ‘G’ of my October Alphabet Challenge! I have looked forward to this day as I have meant to write a blog about Sofia Gubaidulina for a long time! For this blog I shall be looking into her unique Duo Sonata for Two Bassoons. 

Sofia Gubaidulina was born and raised in the Kazan region of the (former) Soviet Union. Whilst growing up she was influenced by both Eastern and Western cultures due to her father being a Muslim, and her mother a Russian Orthodox. Whilst starting her musical studies as a pianist, under the tutelage of Grigori Kogan, at the Kazan Conservatory, Gubaidulina received musical and spiritual inspiration from the two main cultures in her life. Gubaidulina’s use of Western harmonies and forms, in contrast to her improvisation techniques and quarter-tone compositions highlight this clash of cultures in her life. After graduating in Kazan, Gubaidulina moved to Moscow and subsequently enrolled at the prestigious Moscow Conservatory. There, she studied with Russian composers such as Nikolai Peiko and Vissarion Shebalin. The conservatory recognised Gubaidulina’s musical talents, however, her beliefs, which subsequently bled into her music, brought difficulties for her.

Living through a turbulent time in the Soviet Union, Gubaidulina was subject to government pressures when it came to music – reflecting a similar situation to that of Shostakovich. Gubaidulina has also been referred to as one of the most important post-Stalin Russian composers since Shostakovich. Unlike Shostakovich, however, Gubaidulina’s musical voice was not muted, but instead she lost popularity at times. Again, this was due to her progressive music, and at times was deemed “irresponsible” whilst she was studying at the conservatory. Gubaidulina expressed her modernist tone in various film scores including On Submarine Scooters and Adventures of Mowgli.

The issues that Gubaidulina had whilst composing in the former Soviet Union regarded her associating her music with human transcendence and spiritualism. Being a devout member of the Russian Orthodox church, Gubaidulina’s abstract religious beliefs are resonant in her compositions. Furthermore, coupled with her modernist approach to composition, it makes her music idiosyncratic and progressive, even by today’s standards.

The twentieth century saw composers pushing boundaries with how they used instruments in compositions. New notation aided this cause, and the development of extended techniques for traditional instruments became more popular. The development of extended techniques for the bassoon resulted in a cluster of compositions for the instrument being published between 1962-1995, including works by George Perle, Christopher Weait, Bruno Barolozzi and Sofia Gubaidulina. Extended techniques for the bassoon included reed manipulations such as distortion, pitch-bending and glissandos, finger manipulations including multi phonics, quarter-tones and key-slaps, and tongue manipulations including tongue-slaps and flutter-tonguing. Gubaidulina took this further by incorporating air sounds, improvisation and mutes in her compositions (plus many more). Duo Sonata for Two Bassoons was composed in 1977, and is composed of complex rhythmic structures, unique harmonic language and varying textures which are built on articulations – all of which are atypical to Gubaidulina’s compositional style.

Duo Sonata for Two Bassoons can be read in two defining sections. The first utilises the quarter-tone, and the second emphasises the use of multi-phonics. The rhythmic structures in this work contrast between the parts, with both often being complicated – requiring the instrumentalist to be incredibly disciplined. The opening phrase is created like a prayer, with both of the bassoon part containing material which is representative of a chant. Gubaidulina’s use of the Western twelve-tone scale represents darkness for her, and she explains that “I understand it as a unification of two spaces: the first is the twelve-semi tonal space, and the second is another twelve-semi tonal space a quarter-tone higher. For me, this is a metaphor of the image and its shadow, or a day and a night.”

The work calls for a wealth of extended techniques including flutter-tonguing, growling and percussive effects. All of these techniques, together, creates a colourful variety of textures and timbres, which has become a strength and trend of Gubaidulina’s music. Duo Sonata for Two Bassoons is dramatic in many different ways, and through this Gubaidulina was able to express her spiritual needs through these unusual sounds and structures. The goal for the performers of Duo Sonata for Two Bassoons is to find their way through the piece, in order to fully express Gubaidulina’s elements of prayer and drama.

The work is atonal, meaning that the various phrases and sections are linked by melodic phrases, rather than normative key relationships. The irony of the work is that the structure emphasises that of traditional Western sonata form, however the music itself is a menagerie of unusual sounds, mainly created by extended techniques. This composition is certainly unique!

Duo Sonata for Two Bassoons is a rigorous exercise for any bassoonist as it tests your physicality, stamina and technical dexterity. Gubaidulina’s compositional prowess is certainly present within this work, and I believe it is one of her finest chamber works to date. A progressive composition that places the spotlight on a wonderful instrument. Join me soon for Day ‘H’ of my October Alphabet Challenge!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

Gabriel Fauré ‘Cantique de Jean Racine’: Immortal Glory

Dearest readers, welcome to Day ‘F’ of my October Alphabet Challenge. Similar to most days in this challenge, it is difficult to choose just one composer and one of their pieces. For this blog I have decided to look into the great Gabriel Fauré and his choral work, Cantique de Jean Racine. 

Gabriel Fauré was born on 12th May 1845 in the south of France, and was the fifth son of six children. Out of his siblings, Gabriel was the only to pursue a career in music, as his four brothers went into journalism, and his sister became a public servant. In the last year of his life, Fauré recalled a chapel, which was attached to the school her attended:

“I grew up, a rather quiet well-behaved child, in an area of great beauty. The only thing I clearly remember is the harmonium in that little chapel. Every time I could get away I ran there, and I regaled myself. I played atrociously, no method at all, quite without technique, but I do remember that I was happy

After boarding to the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse (School of Classical and Religious Music) for a total of eleven years, Fauré received top quality tutelage from Louis Niedermeyer (who founded the school), Xavier Wackenthaler and Clément Loret. After Niedermeyer died in 1861, Camille Saint-Saëns took over the piano studies strand of the course, and began offering a contemporary view of classical music to Fauré. The two became close friends for life, until Saint-Saëns’ death some sixty years later. Whilst at school, Fauré won many prizes, including a premier prix in composition for none other than Cantique de Jean Racine. 

Throughout his whole life, Fauré was involved with music. Whether that was being choirmaster at the Église Saint-Sulpice, being a founding member of the Société Nationale de Musique, or being Head at Paris Conservatoire. When appointed Head at Paris Conservatoire, it secured him financially, however, this left him little to no time to keep composing, which was something he was becoming more well-known for. However, in these later years, Fauré’s hearing began to fade, but also distort. Lower notes, due to painful distortion, made many things seem out of tune. It was until 1924 that Fauré died, and it was due to pneumonia.

Fauré’s legacy can be seen from many different angles. From his ‘radical’ running of the conservatory (which means he was open to new music trends, however this was abolished after his death and the conservatory became resilient to new music saying that “modernism is the enemy”).

Fauré’s music has been likened to that of Chopin and Berlioz, however his music is often personal and offers a fresh perspective on old traditions. In later years, Fauré took inspiration from Schoenberg and atonal music in general. Music critic, Jerry Dubins, describes Fauré’s music as “the link between the late-German Romanticism of Brahms and the French Impressionism of Debussy.” Today, Fauré is largely celebrated for his vocal music, with his Requiem, being one of the most famous.

Cantique de Jean Racine is a composition for mixed choir and organ, and was composed in 1865. The work is also dedicated to César Franck. This work shows a very similar style to that of his Requiem, and today they are usually performed together. First performed on 4th August 1866, many arrangements of this work have been published (although the most sought after now is mixed choir and organ). The text derives from Jean Racine, a leading French dramatist in the 17th Century. He often wrote spiritual poems for the theatre after his retirement. Verbe égal au Trés-Haut (Word, one with the Highest), was written in 1688:

French Original

Verbe, égal au Trés-Haut, notre unique espérance

Jour éternel de la terre et des cieux,

De la paisible nuit nous rompons le silence.

Divin Sauveur, jette sur nous les yeux.

 

Répands sur nous le feu de la grâce puissante

Que tout l’enfer fuie au son de ta voix.

Dissipe le sommeil d’une âme languissante

Qui la conduit á l’oubli de tes lois.

 

O Christ, sois favorable á ce peiple fidéle

Pour te bénir maintenant rassemblé.

Reçois les chants qu’il offre á ta gloire immortelle

Et de tes dons qu’il reourne comblé.

 

English Translation

Word, equal to the Almighty, our sole hope,

Eternal day of the earth and the heavens,

We break the silence of the peaceful night.

Divine saviour, cast your eyes upon us.

 

Pour on us the fire of your powerful grace

So that all hell flees at the sound of your voice.

Dispel the sleep of a languishing soul

Who lives forgetful of your laws.

 

O Christ, look kindly on your faithful people

Assembled now to glorify you.

Receive the songs that we offer to your immortal glory

And let us depart, crowned with your gifts.

 

Although written technically in his ‘Early Period’, Cantique de Jean Racine offers both sides of the coin. From the long, luscious melodic lines, resonant of the late Romantic period, to the atonal nature (at times) and the complex harmonic progressions, which were resonant of the new music trends of the time. At the tender age of 19, it must be remembered that this work was written for a competition, so Fauré perhaps didn’t push the boundaries as much as some of his later compositions.

Marked Andante, Cantique de Jean Racine is set in Db major (a universally difficult key to play in). To emphasise the long melodic lines, Fauré often directs lines to be played ‘Legato’ or ‘sempre legato’ – adding richness to the music. There are many modulations during this work, however by the end, Fauré has modulated back to Db major and ended the work with a simple V-I cadence. There are trends in these modulations, with them moving up in thirds. The step motion of the notes also highlight the consistent passing of phrases. Many have commented on this work, saying that one comes away with more than a melody in their heads, but a real sense of the depth of the work, and how the harmony changes and affects the text.

Its accuracy in terms of being like a hymn is very close, and Fauré emphasises the yearning seen in the text, by corresponding the yearning, as it were, of the harmony. Cantique de Jean Racine is a beautiful choral work, which is performed often in today’s concert programmes. Fauré’s use of harmony is extensive and impressive, and there’s no wonder as to why it won the premier prix award. His use of traditional choral techniques such as staggered entries, singing in unison and not to emphasise text, and of course his use of word-painting, and portraying this text in the best light possible. A wonderful work! Join me very soon for Day ‘G’ – you will not want to miss out!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

Martin Ellerby ‘Paris Sketches’: Ding Dong Tolls the Bells

Dearest readers, welcome to Day ‘E’ of my October Alphabet Challenge! An exciting day it is indeed, and for today’s offering I shall be exploring Martin Ellerby’s Paris Sketches, which is a composition for wind orchestra – enjoy!

Born in England in 1957, Martin Ellerby has studied music, more specifically composition, at the Royal College of Music. He has also had lessons with the great Wilfred Josephs. Ellerby has composed a range of different genres of music including symphonies, concertos, brass band works, chamber music and much repertoire for concert/wind bands. As well as writing a vast amount of music, Ellerby has also worked with a range of different ensembles and worked in many prestigious concert halls such as the Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall, Barbican Centre and the Syndey Opera House. Ellerby’s work has been performed worldwide, and his works can be seen over seventy-five CDs.

Throughout my musical career, I have played many compositions by Ellerby, and these were largely in wind orchestras and brass bands. For this particular blog, I have chosen to look into his evocative Paris Sketches (1994), which is scored for wind orchestra. Many have commented that this work is both engaging and accessible for both the players and audiences. Ellerby’s style of composition, coupled with his keen eye for orchestration, makes this work atypical of his style, and is a credit to his talent. Instead of it being a one-movement work, Paris Sketches is presented in four smaller vignettes, each of them paying homage to some part of the French capital. Below is Ellerby’s programme note for this work:

“This is my personal tribute to a city I love, and each movement pays homage to some part of the French capital and to other composers who lived, worked or passed through – rather as Ravel did in his own tribute to an earlier master in Le Tombeau de Couperin. Running like a unifying thread throughout the whole piece is the idea of bells – a prominent feature of Parisian life. The work is cast in four movements.”

1. Saint Germain-des-Prés 

“The Latin Quarter, famous for artistic associations and bohemian lifestyle. This is a dawn prelude haunted by the shade of Ravel: the city awakens with the ever-present sound of morning bells.”

From the outset, this first movement is balancing a soft melodic line in the horns, with the percussion highlighting the unifying bell motif. There are luscious, long-note accompaniments, which accentuate the simple, yet effective melody. The trumpets are muted, as if they are sounding from a distance. This ‘dawn prelude’ is absolutely beautiful in the climax bars, and Ellerby’s orchestration here is rich and he utilises ‘bottom parts’ of instruments, such as 3rds and 4ths, giving a deeper tone to the composition.

2. Pigalle 

“The Soho of Paris. This is a ‘burlesque with scenes’ cast in the mould of a balletic scherzo – humorous in a kind of ‘Stravinsky-meets-Prokofiev’ way. It is episodic, but everything is based on the harmonic figuration of the opening. The bells are car horns and police sirens!”

This movement is entertaining due to its fast-paced nature and its general characteristics. Many of the phrases within this movement are exaggerated, giving off a fun atmosphere. For me, this movement has a similar nature to that of Uranus, from Gustav Holst’s suite The Planets. Littered with scalic runs and grace notes, Pigalle is carefree and evocative of the ‘Soho of Paris.’

3. Pére Lachaise 

“The city’s largest cemetery, the final resting place of many a celebrity who once walked its streets. The spirit of Satie’s Gymnopédies – themselves a tribute to a still more distant past – is affectionately evoked before the movement concludes with a ‘hidden’ quotation of the Dies Irae. This is the work’s slow movement, the mood is one of softness and delicacy, which I have attempted to match with more transparent orchestration. The bells are gentle, nostalgic, wistful.”

As the more ‘expressive’ of the four movements, Pére Lachaise is steady, calm and a vast change from the previous playful scherzo. The trumpets offer a soft bell sound during parts of the movement, resonating the ‘wistful bells.’ The Dies Irae figure in the glockenspiel should resonate at the end, so they can be clearly heard, linking them to the other movements.

4. Les Halles 

“A bustling finale with bells triumphant and celebratory. Les Halles is the old market area, a Parisian Covent Garden and , like Piagelle, this is a series of related by contrasted episodes. The climax quotes from Berlioz’s Te Deum, which was first performed in 1855 at the church of St. Eustache, actually in the district of Les Halles. A gradual crescendo, initiated by the percussion, prefaces the material proper and the work ends with a backward glance at the first movement, before closing with the final bars of the Berlioz Te Deum.

This fast and complex finale offers an interesting perspective of a Parisian Covent Garden. Triumphant trumpets supports the celebratory feel of this movement, and the percussion act as a driving force throughout the work. Nearing the end of this movement, there is certainly a military feel to the music, which is accentuated by the snare drum. The work ends with a very short note, with the bass drum and timpani dampened so that they do not ring out too much.

Paris Sketches encompasses Parisian life and culture, without being over the top or boisterous with its themes. The subtle bell motif is a wonderful way to unify all the movements, and once you know it’s there, it really rings out (figuratively and literally!). Both Ellerby’s compositional and orchestrating efforts are in full force during this work, and it really is a joy to play in a wind orchestra. His complex harmonies and unique rhythmic structures keeps both players and audiences on their toes when engaging with Paris Sketches. A fantastic way to celebrate Day ‘E’ of my October Alphabet Challenge! Join me tomorrow to see what Day ‘F’ has in store for us!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

 

Antonín Dvořák ‘In Nature’s Realm’: Bohemian Luminosity

Classical music fans – welcome (or welcome back!) to my October Alphabet Challenge. This challenge is great for a number of reasons, with one of them being able to look into composers I really enjoy the music of. Today’s offering for Day ‘D’, is exploring Antonín Dvořák’s concert overture, In Nature’s Realm. An exciting late-Romantic work, which I am certain you will all enjoy!

Antonín Dvořák was born in 1841 in a town called Nelahozeves, which is near Prague, Czech Republic. Dvořák was the first child of fourteen, although many of these children did not live past infancy (with eight surviving). During his upbringing, Dvořák was surrounded by Christian faith and Bohemian heritage, which is something that resonated within his music. When starting infant school in 1847, Dvořák began learning the violin, and even at this tender young age, showed a real talent and skill for music. After getting his head around music theory and violin performance, Dvořák composed his first work in 1855, which was a polka dance in C major. Assuming that he wanted to be fully immersed in classical music, Dvořák was also tutored in German language, which aided his studies. Further to violin, the young composer also began learning organ and piano from his German language teacher, Anton Liehmann.

After leaving to move to Prague in 1857, Dvořák  entered the city’s prestigious Organ School, where he studied organ performance with Joseph Foerster (Josef Bhuslav Foerster’s brother). Throughout his music education, Dvořák was always heavily involved in music bands and orchestras, which gave him ways to communicate with other musicians, as well as further his own technique. Dvořák furthered his own musical career by setting up ensembles and composing a range of different works, including string quartets/quintets, orchestral works such as symphonies and concert overtures, and chamber music.

Many of Dvořák’s works were directly inspired by Moravian, Czech and Slavic traditions. With many composers around this time, Dvořák took much inspiration from folk dance forms, such as the Polish mazurka and polonaise and the Ukrainian dumka. The most obvious of his works that resonate these themes is his sixteen Slavonic Dances, which propelled him into fame. It has been said that Dvořák’s style was based on classical models, and that he admired past composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. Due to this, many of his works abide by classical models (for instance the four-movement symphony in a particular order). However, Dvořák played a key role in the development of the symphonic poem. Today, Dvořák is largely remembered for his symphonies (in particular the ninth – From the New World), as well his other orchestral works, such as In Nature’s Realm and Slavonic Dances. As previously mentioned, Dvořák was a ‘jack of all trades’, and his large collection of works proves this.

During the last few years of his life, Dvořák moved back to Prague, after travelling the world, and subsequently died on 1st May, 1904. The five weeks before his passing, Dvořák had begun an abundance of new compositions, and sadly these were left unfinished. In Nature’s Realm, was composed in the later part of Dvořák’s life, in 1891, and is part of a concert overture trilogy. Referred to as “Nature, Life and Love”, this set of three overtures each outline one of these themes. Quite obviously In Nature’s Realm is referring to the first part “Nature.” The other two parts of this trilogy are the Carnival Overture (“Life”) and Othello (“Love”).

In Nature’s Realm was composed between March 31st and July 8th 1891, and the first performance was given the following April in Prague. The trio is connected by themes that represent nature, and to begin with they were going to be published together, until Dvořák changed his mind at the last minute. In Nature’s Realm has been described as a landscape painting, due to its richness in tone, colour and timbre throughout. It is also seen as a somewhat self-portrait of Dvořák’s home town, Vysoká, where he composed in a forest with peace and quiet, and the only noises that disturbed him were the natural sounds outside his window.

In terms of structure, In Nature’s Realm, is broadly in sonata form and begins with an evocative, soft introduction from the basses. The nature motif, in its simplest form, is then sounded by the strings, with woodwinds, such as the flute and oboe, reflecting some sort of bird-song above. These ‘voices of nature’, as they can be described, are representative of the whole work, and then within the other two concert overtures. The main theme, heard slightly later on, is resonant of Moravian yodelling, and this is exhibited with the theme being passed through different instruments and registers. The work uses the call and response technique many times, which emphasises just how important and central the theme of nature really is.

The development section has different atmosphere from the previous light and carefree sections. Again, the nature motif takes centre stage, however it is now layered over complex harmonies and very clever contrapuntal lines, which reflects Dvořák’s homage to J. S. Bach. The recapitulation is similar to the opening, however there is a growth in intensity, which resolves into a much more tranquil coda section. The work can thus be seen as a circle, with it starting and ending the same way. In Nature’s Realm is not often in concert programmes today, however, this does not detract from its beauty, sonority and rich musical writing. The work resembles a microcosm of nature, and its wonders are unlocked upon listening to this wonderfully serene work.

I have waited a while to share with you a work by Dvořák, and I am now very happy this has happened. To me, a composer who is celebrated for only a few works, when actually his catalogue of music is not only large, but full of musical gems such as In Nature’s Realm. Join me tomorrow for Day ‘E’ of my October Alphabet Challenge – you won’t want to miss this one!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording: