Dorothy Ker ‘A Gentle Infinity’: An Eccentric Sound Palette

Good afternoon readers, we’ve made it to the final day of my Female Fortnight Challenge! This challenge has been so successful that I will certainly be doing it again in the future. I’d like to thank everyone who has been involved with this project, it wouldn’t have been half as rewarding without your support and encouragement! Whilst I was researching for this challenge, one thing was always certain and that was who my finale blog would be on. So today I’m closer to home as I am writing about one of my university lecturers, the one and only Dorothy Ker! For this finale blog I will be looking into her orchestral work A Gentle Infinity. This is an absolutely fantastic work by an equally as fantastic composer and woman, so I hope you enjoy this final blog in the challenge!

Dorothy Ker was born in Caterton, New Zealand in 1965. She completed her BMus and MMus degrees at the University of Auckland, where she studied composition with the likes of John Rimmer and Douglas Mews. In terms of her performance, she is known as a vocalist and pianist. In 1992, Ker emigrated to the UK, where she completed her PhD at York University under the supervision of Harrison Birtwhistle and Nicola Lefanu. After her doctorate, Ker received Research Fellowships at Reading University (2001-2004). In 2005, Ker came to The University of Sheffield, where she began as a research fellow, then a lecturer in composition, and most recently Ker is now a Senior Lecturer in Composition. Ker has been commissioned to write for a wealth of different ensembles including large-scale orchestras, chamber ensembles and soloists. Ker’s music is performed all over the world, and her ties with both New Zealand and UK have certainly amplified this. In 2010, Ker was award a major research grant to make Amelia and the Mapmaker, which is a mixed theatre piece. When I started at The University of Sheffield in 2013, Ker was on sabbatical, where she spent a year as a Visiting Scholar at NZSM and she was also a resident at the Lilburn House in Wellington. Since returning back to Sheffield in 2014, Ker has been very busy composing, teaching and supervising various projects. In 2015, she received the Composers Association of New Zealand Trust Fund Award for her contributions to music composition. Ker’s music has been heard at international festivals in places such as Seoul, Auckland, London, Belfast and Darmstadt.

A Gentle Infinity was composed in 2009 and was first premiered in 2010. It was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra. Scored for a full orchestra, this piece is hauntingly atmospheric. Ker explains in the programme notes about A Gentle Infinity:

“The overall conception of the piece is underpinned by an evolving, wave-like movement – continuous cycles stretching/compressing/proliferating. There is a strong connection to the sea. A passacaglia of seven chords, gradually permutating until they eventually assemble into reverse order, form the ground or ‘canvas’. The various textural and linear surfaces of the piece all emerge from this ground as reflections, extensions, compressions, or distillations of the core material. Quarter-tones (division of the chromatic scale into 24 tone instead of the usual 12) enrich and intensify the harmony while rendering it more tactile and less pitch-defined.”

Colin Anderson from http://www.classicalsource.com, reviewed this work saying that “The 7-minute a gentle infinity is both atmospheric and deft in Ker’s handling of a large orchestra, subtly dynamic (not least in the use of percussion), edgily communicative and vibrant in its imagery; a piece full of good things, arguably cut off prematurely.”

The combination of Ker’s subtle hand and her use of timbres, textures and sounds makes this work incredibly atmospheric and intriguing. It begins with a growing rumble from the percussion and lower brass. The timpani softly roll, and the idea of air seems prominent here. The notion of there not being a pitch-based motif is emphasised here. A short burst of sound from the winds creates an intense feeling. The most prominent instrument here is the bass clarinet and the bassoon. Following this there is a shimmering effect, which leads us into another very haunting section. The upper strings are pitched very high, meaning the harmonics can be heard and blurred into the overall soundscapes that Ker is aiming to create. Although there is not obvious melodic theme, the intervals presented can be recognised as being either compressed or stretched out, to thus create new and different effects. I find the winds are very colourful and bright throughout the whole piece, especially the oboes. This colour brings the light towards the front at times, with the strings and percussion sometimes pushing it back again. The quarter-tones enrich the sound, and give you a much broader spectrum of sounds to play with when composing, and Ker has certainly taken this approach in A Gentle Infinity. 

The idea of dissonance is utilised a lot in the second half of the work, with the winds presenting some very brash chords that clash. The strings especially create this eerie effect, which is emphasised by the tuned percussion (for instance the xylophone). There are a lot of different textures and timbres that are utilised throughout the work and certain instruments are emphasised to highlight this. For instance, Ker’s extensive use of percussion penetrates the haunting atmosphere at times, and brings forward a much more abrasive and bold statement of sound. The waves of sound, as Ker explains, makes this piece one of a range of emotions, from perhaps some sort of sadness, to a more hopeful and positive outlook. The work ends with a brush effect from the percussion section, which leaves you really wanting more!

A Gentle Infinity is a fantastic work that showcases the idea of sound and creating an atmosphere with that sound. The piece is haunting, yet exciting as Ker’s use of quarter-tones offers such a colourful palette of sounds. I find this work eccentric, but in a very reserved kind of way, which is where the true beauty of it, for me, lies. Dorothy Ker is a fantastic, world-renowned composer, and I think sometimes we forget the calibre of people who teach us at University. I feel incredibly lucky to have worked with Dorothy Ker at university, and will be glad to work with her again next year whilst I undertake my MA. I can’t think of a better way to end a female composer challenge, than with a female composer at my university! I’d like to give my thanks to Dorothy for also letting me write this blog, I hope you have enjoyed it! We have sadly now come to the end of the Female Fortnight Challenge, but never fear I will be writing blogs as often as I can until my next challenge begins. Have you enjoyed this challenge? I’d love to hear your thoughts! If anybody has any requests, please let me know through my site/facebook/twitter/instagram.

Happy Reading as always!

Recommended Recording:

http://www.radionz.co.nz/concert/programmes/sounz-recordings/audio/201796756/dorothy-ker-a-gentle-infinity 

Joan Trimble ‘The Green Bough’: A Tranquil Duo

Good afternoon classical music fans! We are on the penultimate day of my Female Fortnight Challenge *sad face* but I promise you these last two female composers are such a treat. Today’s blog is on a composer who I like very much indeed and that is Joan Trimble. For this blog I’m going to be delving into her work The Green Bough which is scored for two pianos. I hope you can become as fond of Trimble as I am – her music is definitely worth it!

Joan Trimble was born in 1915 in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. She, from a young age, learnt to play the piano, read music and then compose her own music. She studied piano with Annie Lord at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, Dublin. She continued her studies at the Royal College of Music, where she studied piano and composition with the likes of Herbert Howells and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Joan and her sister Valerie performed as a piano duo, where they won numerous prizes and recognition for their performances. Trimble also composed frequently alongside her performances. The sisters played together until 1970, and during this time they performed works by Stravinsky, Bliss, Benjamin and many more. Trimble married and had children by 1942, which hindered her composition output for some time. However, in 1957 her opera Blind Rafferty was commissioned by the BBC and was the first TV opera composed by a woman. Trimble spent a lot of time in both England and Ireland, where she taught piano and composition at the Royal College of Music until 1977.

Trimble’s music is said to be conservative for her time as she combined impressionism and traditional Irish music. Her music is very rewarding for both performer and audience, which makes Trimble a very special kind of composer. She has composed in a range of different styles including operas, orchestral works, piano duos, songs and chamber music. Trimble has also won awards for her music, such as the Cobbett Prize for chamber music for her work Phantasy Trio (1940). In the late 1970s, Trimble and her husband moved back to Enniskillen, where she cared for him as he was severely ill until 2000. In the 1990s, Trimble gained some more recognition after being commissioned to compose a new piece for a chamber ensemble. Trimble died on 6th August 2000, only two weeks after the passing of her husband.

The Green Bough was composed in 1941 and it is a composition for two pianos. Trimble and her sister premiered the piece in 1941, and I for one think it is one of Trimble’s best piano duets. You can clearly hear the definition of different styles coming together, with some Irish melodies being presented in an impressionistic manner. This work is elegant and well-written, and with it lasting no longer than five minutes, it is quite intense, but very rewarding. The music is very friendly and the communication between the two pianos is clear upon listening to the recording. The piece begins with a fast scalic passage, with a pedal note acting as the foundation. You can here the impressionist flare in this introduction, which smoothly leads onto the main melody, which is derived from a traditional Irish folk song. The music itself goes between tonal and atonal sections, which brings a lot of harmonic colour. The main melody is so warm and it gives me chills every time I listen to it.

The two pianos bounce off of each other, creates lots of suspensions, which are full of harmonics and overtones. Sometimes the melody resolves where you think it will, which marks the tonal sections. At other times, the music goes somewhere slightly different, usually marking the atonal sections. The piece in general is absolutely full of musicality, colour and a mix of simple and complex passages. There is a slightly faster section where the pianos play fast-paced scalic lines, which sound like glissandos. Every time the music veers away from the main theme, it always ends up returning to the melody, which creates a very friendly sort of familiarity within the music. Whilst one piano plays the main theme, the other piano plays a second counter-theme. The piece ends quietly, with both pianos finishing with a part of the main melody.

I forgot how much I love this work until I found it again for this challenge. Joan Trimble wrote some absolutely fantastic works in her lifetime, and it is a shame she didn’t write more! Her music is earthy, traditional (although always with a twist!) and it tuneful and accessible to a lot of people. The Green Bough is a beautiful piece which is based around the idea of a tree. The music essentially uses the theme of nature to put across the scene that Trimble had in mind. An absolutely wonderful piano duet – a perfect fit in my Female Fortnight Challenge! I hope you can all relish in the delight that is Joan Trimble, she is genuinely brilliant. Tomorrow is the final day in my Female Fortnight Challenge and I have a very special composer and work for you all to enjoy!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

Cindy McTee ‘Adagio for String Orchestra’: An Engaging Experience

Evening readers! Welcome to Day 12 of my Female Fortnight Challenge, apologies for this blog being posted so late – it has been a hectic day indeed! Today’s blog is on modern-day composer Cindy McTee’s Adagio for String Orchestra. McTee is an absolutely fantastic composer and I hope you enjoy her works!

Cindy McTee was born in 1953 in Washington, where her mother and father were both musical. Her father played the trumpet and her mother played the clarinet, so from an early age, McTee was involved with music. By age six she was receiving piano lessons, and her teacher at the time encouraged her improvisation techniques, which later helped her composition career. When she was slightly older, she began taking saxophone lessons with her mother. She first studied music at Pacific Lutheran University (graduating in 1975). She went on to complete a master’s degree at the Yale School of Music (1978) and then she completed her PhD at the University of Iowa. Whilst studying at Pacific Lutheran University, she met Polish composer, Krzysztof Penderecki, who struck a deal with her that if she taught English to his children, he would offer composition lessons. She also spent a whole year living with the Penderecki family in Poland. She learnt about orchestration, counterpoint and other useful twentieth-century composition techniques.

McTee then began to teach at her undergraduate alma mater in Washington. In 1984 she joined the arts faculty at the University of North Texas. McTee has won awards for her music including the ‘Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award’ (the Detroit Symphony’s most prestigious award). She has also received fellowships from Guggenheim, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Composers Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Due to her successful career thus far, McTee has been commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Houston Symphony Orchestra, Wind Ensemble Consortia and the Amarillo Symphony Orchestra. Critics have described her music as a “charging, churning celebration of the musical and cultural energy of modern-day America.”

For this blog I am looking into her work entitled, Adagio for String Orchestra, which is a wonderfully atmospheric work that is quite minimalist, but also very expressive at points. The work was composed in 2002 and is about 11 and a half minutes in duration. Below are the official program notes for the work:

“Adapted from my Agnus Dei for organ in the wake of events following the horror of September 11, 2001, the Adagio became the second movement of my Symphony No.1: Ballet for Orchestra. It was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra – music director, Leonard Slatkin – and made possible by the John and June Hechinger Fund for New Orchestra Works.

The Adagio gradually exposes a hauntingly beautiful melody from Krzysztof Penderecki’s Polish Requiem (Ab, G, F, C, Db, Eb, Db, C). A falling half-step and subsequent whole-step empahsize the intervial of the minor third. With occasional references to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the work’s harmonic language reflects my interest in using both atonal and tonal materials within the same piece of music.

All night have the roses heard

The flute, violin, bassoon;

All night has the casement jessamine stirr’d

To the dancers dancing in tune;

Till a silence fell with the waking bird,

And a hush with the setting moon.

—- Alfred Lord Tennyson, Maud and Other Poems”

The work begins very quietly with quite a static feel. The cellos play a moving motif, which is then answered by the violins. The harmonics heard in this introduction are very haunting and this creates an amazing kind of atmosphere. The emphasis on the minor third interval is very prominent in this section. There is a lot of dissonances heard, with a lot of harmonics crossing paths. The timed silences are incredibly effective and they make the more climactic sections very bold and spine-tingling. You can hear the odd passage in homage to Barber’s Adagio for Strings, however McTee brings the familiar motif into a new light, and she takes it somewhere brand new. There is a very dark and eerie feel to the work and the fluctuation between atonality and tonality is very pertinent. Again, McTee’s very clever silences are placed so that she builds your emotions up with the music, but then she breaks them down to create a much more dramatic effect.

The strings, at moments, play in unison, which gives a very strong atmosphere. However, a lot of the time they are working in polyphony, so the texture is very rich. Also, she writes the cellos in quite a high octave, which brings a lovely warm and woody timbre to the mix of beautiful string sounds. The sound world that McTee is painting with this work is incredible, and the way she develops the main, very simple motif is exceptionally ingenious. This work is incredibly emotive throughout the whole piece, which in turn makes it a very intense piece of music to listen to. The piece is very reliant on the minor third interval which brings a certain sadness, but also musical colour to the work. The use of suspensions is also very effective as it allows McTee to create a chain-like reaction to the music. With one section starting a developed motif, and then other sections then following suit. If you close your eyes, this piece will take you away and you will be able to immerse yourself in this fantastic work. The work ends with a very atonal motif, which is accompanied by the lower strings playing a very static pedal note. The upper strings repeat this motif, whilst gradually getting quieter, before dying away into silence.

Cindy McTee is an absolutely fantastic composer who writes so beautifully and cleverly for a wealth of different instruments, especially strings. I would love to hear this work live at some point as I believe it would be such a magical experience. It is very fitting to write about this piece, seeing as yesterday was the anniversary of 9/11. Nearly all of McTee’s compositions have been recorded and put on her website, so if you like the Adagio, then you should definitely check more of her music out! Tomorrow is the penultimate day of my Female Fortnight Challenge – who’s turn is it next?

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

 

Cécile Chaminade ‘Concertino for Flute and Piano in D major’: A Tuneful Adventure

Afternoon classical music fans! Welcome to Day 11 of my Female Fortnight Challenge! Today’s female composer is Cécile Chaminade and I will be looking into her much-loved Concertino for Flute and Piano in D major. This is honestly one of the cutest pieces for flute, it is charismatic, lyrical and requires much dexterity at times. The concertino is very exciting and I am sure you will all love it as much as I do!

Cécile Chaminade was born in Paris, 1857. At a young age she started playing the piano, with her mother being her first teacher. She then learnt with Félix Le Couppey. As well as learning the piano, Chaminade also took an interest in learning the violin. She learnt with Marie Gabriel Savard and Martin Pierre Marsick. She then learnt basic music composition with Benjamin Godard. However, none of these were official as her father disapproved of her musical education (sigh). Chaminade flourished in music composition, so much so she showed some of her sacred music to Georges Bizet (at aged 8!). He was very impressed by her talent and worked closely with the young composer. When she was 18 she gave her first concert. From here her reputation as a composer grew and grew. She composed a lot of character pieces and salon songs, to which nearly all of them were published. After touring around France, Chaminade made her first trip to England, where he works were received in a very positive light. In 1901, Chaminade married music publisher, Louis-Mathieu Carbonel. It has been suggested that this marriage was convenient for them both, due to how much older Carbonel was.

In 1908, Chaminade took a trip to the USA. Her compositions were also received very well there. Whilst in the USA, Chaminade composed a ballet called Callirhoé and other orchestral works. She is also well-known for her songs, which were popular throughout Europe and the USA. Amrboise Thomas (French composer) said this of Chaminade: “This is not a woman who composes, but a composer who is a woman.” In 1913 she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur (the first for a female composer!). Before World War I broke out, Chaminade recorded many piano rolls. However, in her later life she composed less and less. She died in Monte Carolo, 1944.

Sadly, since her death, Chaminade has become incredibly obscure, with most of her songs and piano piece being forgotten. Her Concertino for Flute and Piano has remained her most well-known work. Initially this work was written for flute and piano, however in later years it has been orchestrated for flute and orchestra (for this blog I will be referring to the original arrangement for flute and piano). The piece was commissioned by the Paris Conservatoire in 1902 to be an examination piece for flute students. The Concertino is dedicated to flautist and teacher, Paul Taffanel. There is a legend behind the composition of this work, which nobody is sure whether it is true or not. Supposedly, Chaminade wrote this work to punish a flute-playing lover after he left her to marry somebody else. She thus wrote an extremely difficult concertino which he would not be able to play (though legend says he was able to play it!). The piece has remained popular in flute repertoire and is still used as an examination piece.

The work is in one movement as in rondo form. It begins with a broad statement from the piano, which leads into the flute entry. A lyrical melody built on quaver and triplet movement is heard and this decorative solo is the foundation of the whole work. This melody is very cute and it shows off the different ranges of the flute. More technical passages act as an interlude which lead into the next sections. This piece is very demanding for the soloist. Next there is a central section which is marked animato. This slightly more upbeat section uses different techniques such as double tonguing and decorations which make the solo part much more difficult. I find this section very colourful and bright, and it really highlights how wonderful the flute is. There are some sporadic fast passages which add to the excitement of the piece. The sheer speed is part of what makes the work fiendishly tricky.

An interlude from the piano leads into the next variation of the theme. This leads into the very exciting cadenza. The written cadenza requires keen dexterity and nerve from the soloist, as well as a bold sound and range. The piano returns after a trill from the flute. The final section of the work is composed of a reprise of the opening melody. The fast scalic runs are much more prominent in this final part of the concertino. An animated coda ends the work with an exciting passage of music.

So there we have it, Cécile Chaminade’s Concertino for Flute and Piano in D major. This truly is a wonderful piece of flute repertoire that is still popular today. It’s tuneful and very accessible for everybody, I can’t recommend it enough I think it’s a brilliant piece! We are heading into Day 12 tomorrow in the challenge, which female great will it be? Keep your eyes peeled to find out!

This blog is dedicated to one of my favourite people, Hannah Thornton. She is an absolutely fantastic flute player who I miss very much, I hope you enjoy this piece!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

 

Lera Auerbach ‘Icarus’: Scintillating Mythology

Good day, readers! We’ve come to Day 10 of the Female Fortnight Challenge! This is also my 70th blog on the site! Today we will be exploring a modern-day composer who I think is pretty incredible and her name is, Lera Auerbach. For this blog I will be looking into her symphonic poem Icarus. I do hope you enjoy this absolutely fantastic work and composer!

Lera Auerbach was born in 1973 in Chelyabinsk (a city that borders Siberia). Her mother was a piano teacher, so she received lessons from her at a young age. The Auerbach family have a history of being musical, so Lera was naturally a fast learner. She began composing at a very young age. After receiving the top music education in her home country, Auerbach went to The Julliard School, USA, where she studied composition and piano with Milton Babbitt. As well as this, she also graduated from the piano soloist program of the Hochschule fur Musik Hannover.

As well as making a performance career for herself, Auerbach also started to premiere her compositions. Her works have been commissioned by a wide-range of different artists, ensembles and companies, including the Berg Orchestra and the Royal Danish Ballet. She has also worked with festivals such as the Lucerne and Lockenhaus. Auerbach has composed in a variety of different styles which include orchestral symphonies, tone poems, ballets and operas. In 2007 her Symphony No.1 “Chimera” received its world premiere. In the same year she also premiered her Second Symphony as well as a collection of sacred texts entitled Russian Requiem. Most recently, Auerbach premiered her a capella ballet The Blind in 2013, which was controversial in its production as the entire audience were blindfolded.

At such a young age, Auerbach has won a menagerie of awards including the Paul Hindemith Prize and the Bremer Musikfest Prize. She was also, in 2007 (a big year for her it seems!), selected as a member of the forum of Young Global Leaders. Auerbach has also set up her own organisation called The LeraArt Foundation, which creates opportunities through its “Modern-Renaissance” projects.

Icarus was composed in 2006, and is actually composed of the last two movements of Auerbach’s Symphony No.1 “Chimera”. By taking these two movements out of context, Auerbach created the symphonic poem Icarus. In Greek mythology, Icarus is the son of the master craftsman, Daedalus (the creator of Labryrinth). Auerbach’s comment’s on this work in the program notes:

“What makes this myth so touching is Icarus’s impatience of the heart, his wish to reach the unreachable, the intensity of the ecstatic brevity of his flight and inevitability of his fall. If Icarus were to fly safely – there would be no myth. His tragic death is beautiful. It also poses the question – from Deadalus’ point of view – how can one distinguish success from failure? Deadalus’ greatest invention, the wings which allowed a man to fly, was his greatest failure as they caused the death of his son. Deadalus was brilliant, his wings were perfect, but he was also a blind father who did not truly understand his child.”

The world premiere of Icarus was in 2011, and took place at the Verbier Festival. Since then the scaled-down work has been a raging success, receiving a lot of performances from various professional ensembles. The work is about 15 minutes long and the intense and explosive journey it takes you on is turbulent yet emotional.

The piece begins with a low burst of sound from the lower strings. Some are playing col legno, which means with the wooden side of the bow. This creates a banging sort of effect which, in turn, makes the music dramatic and very raw. There is a lot of frantic movement within the strings, which changes tempo into a more lyrical section. The chimes and other tuned percussion create a very creepy atmosphere here. The tempo is very quick and when the brass enter with their fanfare the effect is very tumultuous and thundery. The next section is very different, with the solo violin playing a variation of the theme and the other strings playing pizzicato. We are led into a more lyrical section once more, which has undertones of something (or someone!) very creepy. There is a climax which builds up to the initial theme being repeated again. The work is very powerful and mature for a composer of Auerbach’s age, which is something to relish in.

The next section is a downward spiral effect with the horns and strings. This whirling atmosphere is perhaps trying to tell us about the death of Icarus. The incredibly rich string writing is so very prominent within this work. The texture dissolves and we are left with a solo violin and flute, who are soon joined by other members of the orchestra. Still, the atmosphere is mysterious and quite bizarre. There is a section with voices and strings which reaches a fantastically strong and bold climax. The brass and col legno strings play off beats to represent some sort of distress. The upper strings reach their upper registers and this climax with the whole orchestra is spine tingling! The way that Auerbach writes so beautifully for a large orchestra is incredible and the way the atmosphere is kept so very mysterious is very clever. The lower brass take the lead here and the col legno strings really add a woody texture to the timbre of sound. The sound world that Auerbach creates with this section is very atmospheric.

We now move into a slower section, led by the strings playing a pizzicato motif. This section already feels slightly calmer, until the solo violin enters. There is a sense of doom I feel in this section, which is then taken over by the oboe and other instruments. The solo violin is playing all sorts of harmonics, which creates a squealing sort of sound. The sound creation is so mysterious and it is always unsure as to where it is going next. The sense of lost tonality is also a very interesting effect. This quieter section is very spatially aware of where the sound is heading to and what the effect may be. The use of extreme ranges also gives the timbre here a very unique sound. The work ends by dying away slowly with the sound of the strings. This ending makes me think that it may be representing the “beautiful death” of Icarus. It is incredibly woeful, with very dark undertones.

Icarus is an absolutely magnificent symphonic poem, which tells us about the Greek mythology of Icarus and his death. The work is powerful, dark, mysterious, tumultuous, beautiful and incredibly brave. Lera Auerbach is one of my favourite composers at the moment – her work is so very fulfilling. If you enjoyed this piece then check out her other compositions, she is such a talent! A terrifying musical triumph from life to death – bravo Auerbach! Tomorrow we are on Day 11 of my Female Fortnight Challenge, so I do hope you will all join me to see what female delight is next on my list!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

 

 

Alma Mahler ‘Five Songs for Voice and Piano’: Light Lieder

Good day dearest readers, welcome back (or if this is your first visit – welcome!) to Day 9 of my Female Fortnight Challenge! We have a very exciting journey to go on today and it involves a woman who I know a great deal about as I am currently researching her family for my dissertation. Yes, today is on Alma Mahler! And I’m going to be focusing on her Five Songs for Voice and Piano which was published in 1911. So sit back, relax and enjoy this wonderful work!

Alma Mahler was born in Vienna 1879 to a landscape painter and his wife. Alma played the piano in her childhood and she first attempted composing at age nine. In 1895 she began lessons with Josef Labor and then with Alexander von Zemlinsky in 1900. In 1902, Alma married Gustav Mahler in 1902 and with him she had two daughters. When they wed there were terms, which were that Alma must abandon her own interest in composition, whilst Gustav pursued his. Although artistically stifled, Alma took this in her stride and supported her husband and his music career. In 1907, Maria Anna (the first-born child) died of scarlet fever, which left Alma severely depressed. Due to this she had an affair with young architect Walter Gropius. After Gustav found out about the affair, the marriage became even more turbulent. As a way of trying to fix the marriage, Gustav began taking more interest in Alma’s music, and he began urging her to get her songs published. This did ‘fix’ the marriage somewhat, however Gustav Mahler then died in 1911 due to heart complications.

After Gustav’s death, Alma had a few love affairs before marrying Walter Gropius in 1915. They had one daughter together – Manon Gropius (who died aged 18 from polio). She then became pregnant again and had a son named Martin, although it was unsure as to who the father was. This was due to her affair with Franz Werfel being exploited at the time. By 1920, Alma and Walter had divorced and felt the consequences after Martin had died from a premature birth. Franz and Alma married in 1929, at which time Alma changed her named to “Alma Mahler-Werfel”. After fleeing Austria due to their Jewish roots, the pair travelled around a lot of Europe before settling across the pond in New York City and then Los Angeles. Werfel died in 1945 due to a heart attack. Alma Mahler-Werfel was seen as somewhat cultural icon in the USA until her death in NYC, 1965.

In terms of her artistic output, Alma did not offer that much, however the songs that have been published are still popular today, with there being over 40 different recordings. There are three main published sets of songs composed by Alma, but it is unsure whether she kept composing after the last publication (she, very annoyingly, never dated her manuscripts). Though originally for piano and voice, there have been orchestral arrangements created.

The set of Five Songs for Voice and Piano I shall be looking into today are the ones published around 1911. This means that this is the set that Gustav Mahler helped and encouraged her with. This set was composed between 1899 and 1910. The five different movements are all based on poems by different famous poets (I will give the translated versions with each song I discuss). The five poets and movements are as follows:

I. Die stille Stadt (The Quiet Town) – Dehmel

II. In meines Vaters Garten (In my Father’s Garden) – Hartleben

III. Laue Sommernacht (Mild Summer’s Night) – Bierbaum

IV. Bei dir ist es traut (With You it is Pleasant) – Rilke

V. Ich wandle unter Blumen (I Stroll Among Flowers) – Heine

For this blog I found a fantastic version with soprano voice and piano which I will be referring to (and linking at the bottom of this blog). Each poem is very evocative and the way Alma sets this within a musical setting is very clever. With every song I will show you the English translation of the words – although the recording is, of course, sung in German.

I. Die stille Stadt (The Quiet Town

English Translation:

A town lies in the valley;

A pallid day fades.

It will not be long now

Before neither moon nor stars

But only night will be seen in the heavens.

From all the mountains

Fog presses down upon the town;

No roof may be discerned, no yard nor house,

No sound penetrates through the smoke,

Barely even a tower or a bridge.

But as the traveller became filled with dread

A little light shone out,

And through smoke and fog

A song praise began,

Sung by children.

This first song is depicting ‘The Quiet Town’ and the mysterious opening and quite prominent minor tonality sets the scene for this. The tempo is fairly slow, and the voice uses a lot of chromatic movement to depict the fog coming down on the houses. The tempo in the accompaniment seems to pick up a little due to the use of semiquavers. There is then a section which is incredibly passionate, which leads to a quiet end for the voice. The piano carries on, playing a nice refrain section, leading onto a resolve. Although an atonal bar precedes this which then leads to the final resolve of the song.

II. In meines Vaters Garten (In my Father’s Garden)

English Translation:

In my father’s garden

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

In my father’s garden

Stands a shady apple tree

Sweet dream, sweet dream!

Stands a shady apple tree.

 

Three blonde King’s daughters

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

Three beautiful maidens

Slept under the apple tree.

 

The youngest of the three

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

The youngest of the three

Blinked and hardly woke.

Sweet dream, sweet dream!

Blinked and hardly woke.

 

The second cleared her hair from her eyes

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

And saw the red morning’s hem

Sweet dream, sweet dream!

Clearly through the twilight air!

My Beloved joins in the strife

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

My beloved joins in the strife out there.

 

Kiss for me as victor his garments hem.

Sweet dream, sweet dream!

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

 

The third spoke and spoke so soft:

“I kiss the beloved’s garment hem.”

In my father’s garden

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

In my father’s garden

Stands a sunny apple tree

Sweet dream, sweet dream!

Stands a sunny apple tree.

The second song in the set is based around the poem “In my Father’s Garden” and it depicts an apple tree, three beautiful maidens and the one common thread: love. This song starts in 6/8 time, which gives it a bouncy feel. It is faster in tempo than the previous song. There is a lot of scalic movement within this song and the fluctuations between major and minor are very prominent in certain sections. This song is also the longest in the set. There are two main pauses, which then leads into the second half of the song (from the second maiden). There is a shift in tempo and the melody becomes angular. There is a lot of repetition in this song, which reiterates the main lines “Blossom, my heart, blossom!” and “Sweet dream, sweet dream!”. After a sequence of key changes we get to an ‘Agitato’ section, which is based on a descending chromatic figure. There is a cyclic feel in this movement with all the key changes. The song ends with just the piano, which resolves back to the tonic key.

III. Laue Sommernacht (Mild Summer’s Night)

English Translation:

Balmy summer night, in Heaven

There are no stars, in the wide forests

We searched ourselves deep in darkness,

And we found ourselves.

Found ourselves in the wide forests

In the night, saviours of the stars,

Held ourselves in wonder in each other’s arms

In the dark night.

Was not our whole life

Just a groping, just a seeking,

Then in its darkness

Love, fell your light.

The third song in the set begins with an upward-climbing motif. The voice and piano move together a lot at the beginning. Again, Mahler has utilised chromaticism to gain an effect within the text. The idea of finding yourself is definitely a theme within this song. The minor tonality also gives it a certain sadness, which is very charming. This song is incredibly short, and ends with “Love, fell your light” with the piano then playing a small interlude before not resolving (leaving you wanting more!).

IV. Bei dir ist es traut (With You it is Pleasant)

English Translation:

I am at ease with you,

Faint clocks strike as from olden days,

Come, tell your love to me,

But not too loud!

Somewhere a gate moves

Outside in the drifting blossoms,

Evening listens in at the window panes,

Let us stay quiet,

So no one knows of us!

The fourth song in this cycle is about the voice declaring how pleasant it is spending time with you. It begins with a light motif in common time. The voice bases the main theme on the note A. This song is perhaps the most simple of the group, but I think that is the whole point! The voice is telling us about how easy it is to be with you, so that doesn’t need complicated music, it needs simple melodies that are pleasant to hear. I find this movement ever so charming and beautiful, it is perhaps my favourite of the set! The song ends with an ascending sequence to the tonic chord.

 V. Ich wandle unter Blumen (I Stroll Among Flowers)

English Translation:

I wander among the flowers

And blossom myself along with them;

I wander as if in a dream

And sway with every step.

Oh hold me tightly, my beloved!

Or, drunk with love,

I will collapse at your feet;

and the garden is full of people!

The fifth and final song within this set is evocative of the voice going through a field of flowers. This song has very little range, it is based around the middle of the voice’s register. The tempo then changes and a recitative-like section begins. The ending is a shimmer of hope from the piano, ending on a tonic chord.

This set of songs is absolutely wonderful and it is such a shame that Alma did not pursue more of a career in composition. Her light touch and ability to set words to music in an effective and evocative way is something special to treasure indeed. I do hope you have enjoyed today’s instalment! It is Day 10 tomorrow and we are heading onto the final stretch of the challenge (booooo), so make sure you come back to see what it could be!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

Alexandra Pakhmutova ‘Trumpet Concerto’: A National Treasure

Happy Thursday, readers! Hope you are all well. We have made it to Day 8 in the Female Fortnight Challenge and I’m very excited by today’s choice! As you know I am a trumpet player and, like any other musician, I love finding new music. I came across this concerto when a friend played it for her final year recital last year, and I absolutely fell in love with it. So I then bought the music and learnt it myself, and what a demanding, but fruitful concerto this is! So today’s blog is on the absolutely terrific composer Alexandra Pakhmutova and her Trumpet Concerto. 

Alexandra Pakhmutova was born in 1929 in Russia. She began learning the piano at a very young age and she showed much potential. World War II interrupted her studies and in 1942 the Pakhmutova family were evacuated to Kazakstan. When the family moved back to Beketovka, Pakhmutova earned her place at the very prestigious Moscow Conservatory and graduate from there in 1953. After graduating, Pakhmutova stayed on at the conservatoire and completed a postgraduate degree in composition by 1956. Whilst studying in Moscow, Pakhmutova composed a lot of her symphonic works including the Trumpet Concerto and the orchestral work, Russian Suite. 

Pakhmutova has composed for a wealth of different genres such as orchestral, opera, children’s music, concertos and songs. She is very well-known for her songs, as she composed over 400 of them! One of the most famous is perhaps Goodbye Moscow which was used as the farewell piece at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. Other songs from her include: Russian Waltz, Tenderness, The Old Maple Tree and The Bird of Happiness. Pakhmutova’s music has been incredibly popular in Russia and she was Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s favourite composer. The words for most of her songs come from her husband, Nikolay Dobronravov, who is a poet. With this fame, Pakhmutova has won a large amount of awards for her services to both music and her country. She has received several Government Awards and State Prizes. She has also won an Order for Merit to the Fatherland…twice! In 1990 she was named Hero of Socialist Labour and then her name was given to Asteroid 1889. Pakhmutova is known as a national symbol in the Soviet Union.

Although Pakhmutova is known for her wealth of songs, I have chosen to look into her Trumpet Concerto because I genuinely think it is one of the best and most diverse concertos for the trumpet. It was composed in 1955 and was first performed by trumpeter Ivan Pavlov. Pakhmutova initially composed the work for trumpet and orchestra, but when she revised it in 1978 she made a second version which was a piano reduction and solo trumpet orchestration. The concerto is composed in a single movement, with different tempo markings within the piece to highlight the different sub-sections. The work begins with a short section marked ‘Andante’ and it is slow, spacious and lyrical. The slow melody is in the relative minor key here, which foreshadows the dark undertones that you can hear throughout the work. The trumpet plays above a rather static accompaniment from the strings, which shows off the lower register of the instrument. This is a very solemn way to begin a concerto, but I think it perfectly builds up the tension about what will come next. Different wind instruments take parts of the main theme before building up to a climax which has a contrasting tempo. The next section is incredibly lively and provides a much-needed contrast from the beginning. Double-tonguing and fast-paced finger work is at the heart of this section. The fluctuation between triplets and dotted rhythms is the most catching for me, it’s a fantastic theme which is passed around between the orchestra and trumpet. To lead into the next section the trumpet plays a dotted rhythm on a low D (transposed).

The next section is slightly slower and the first 16 bars acts as an introduction to what the trumpet will play. This theme is also very lyrical and is developed for longer than the introduction. There is an orchestral interlude and the trumpet ends the section quietly. This leads swiftly into a fast section which is syncopated at times. There is a climax and there is a short silence. A series of single notes (Ab) is heard from the orchestra, and the trumpet enters into a much more dreamlike section. This is my favourite part of the whole work, the melody is just so beautiful. The octave jumps really make you tingle! This theme is very different from any other theme within the work, which makes it even more striking. The trumpet then plays two calls muted, before the next section takes over.

This fast section is very bouncy and based around dotted rhythms. It is scherzo-like, as well as being perhaps one of the most dramatic parts. The double-tonguing here is incredibly tricky so performers are advised to pick a tempo that is not too fast here, or else it may become too difficult. The bright tonality of E major here makes this the lightest section of the work. The first theme returns and when the trumpet comes back after this orchestral interlude, its top range is emphasised. The next theme is syncopated and is a development of the second theme. A developmental section leads into a very dramatic final stretch of the piece. The material has been heard before, but now is played with slight differences such as orchestration and dynamics. A slow expressive section leads into the climax section, with the trumpet returning in a very regal and bold way. I tell you now this section is very fulfilling to play – even if it does require chops of steel! The end picks up speed and an octave sequence ends the concerto strongly.

And that marks the end of Alexandra Pakhmutova’s Trumpet Concerto. This is an absolutely fantastic work which I adore. I hope you have also been able to find some love for this Russian treasure! Tomorrow we are in Day 9 of the Female Fortnight Challenge…I wonder who it could be?!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

Clara Schumann ‘Three Romances for Violin and Piano’: Rippling Waves of Emotion

Hello readers! Welcome to Day 7, our halfway point in the Female Fortnight Challenge! Many thanks if you have kept up with this challenge, I do hope you have found it just as exciting as me! To celebrate us getting to the halfway mark I am going to write about an eagerly anticipated composer who I know some of you have been waiting for…Clara Schumann! I am going to be looking into her lovely work Three Romances for Violin and Piano for this blog – enjoy!

Clara Josephine Wieck was born on 13th September 1819 in Leipzig. Her mother was a famous singer in Leipzig at the time. When Clara was five, her parents divorced and she stayed with her father. Friedrich Wieck saw the potential in Clara’s musical ability and he began planning her career down to the small details. Daily she received lessons in piano, singing, violin, theory, harmony, composition and counterpoint. This was followed by 2-3 hours of practice. At age 8, Clara performed at the home of Dr. Ernst Carus. Whilst there she met another young musical talent – Robert Schumann. Robert admired Clara’s playing so much that he requested to stop studying law so he could take up music lessons with Clara’s father. At age 11, Clara went on a concert tour to Paris, where she gave her first performances of her career. Whilst there she met Niccoló Paganini who requested to perform with her. By the time she was 18, Clara performed a series of recitals in Vienna. She performed works from Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin. Below is a critique of Clara’s Vienna recitals from an anonymous music critic:

“The appearance of this artist can be regarded as epoch-making…In her creative hands, the most ordinary passage, the most routine motive acquires a significant meaning, a colour, which only those with the most consummate artistry can give.”

In the same year, Clara was named the Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso, which was the highest musical honour in Austria. Throughout this time, Robert Schumann was still on the scene and when Clara was 18 he proposed to her (he was nine years her senior). She said yes, but her father forbid the marriage. So the couple went to court to sue Clara’s father. The court ruled that the marriage could go ahead, so in 1840 they wed and shared a joint musical diary. In 1854, Robert Schumann attempted suicide. Due to this he was committed to an asylum for the last two years of his life. He then died in 1856. During this time Clara Schumann was supported by close friends Brahms, Joachim and Deitrich. Since her husband’s death Clara Schumann went on more concert tours, as well as focusing on composition a lot more. She took trips to England, Austria and France. Later in her life, Schumann published all of her late husband’s works. She also began building some hostility to certain composers, notably Liszt and Wagner. She refused to attend concerts that Wagner would be at, apparently he spoke bad of her husband and Brahms. Schumann was also unimpressed by composers such as Bruckner and Strauss, whose works were never impressive enough for her taste.

In 1878 she was appointed the position of piano teacher at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where she stayed until 1892. Schumann suffered a stroke in 1896 and she died age 76, she was buried with her husband. Her legacy as a performer has definitely stood the test of time as she is still regarded incredibly highly today.Her 61 year performance career was an incredible achievement. She also promoted her husband’s compositions endlessly, especially at the start of his career when nobody knew of him or his music. As for Clara’s compositions, she learnt how to compose at a young age. She once said that “composing gives me great pleasure. There is nothing that the surpasses the joy of creation, if only because through it one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound.” Due to her very busy performing schedule, Clara sadly couldn’t properly commit to composing on a regular basis. She commented on this saying “I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to composer – there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?” It wasn’t just Clara that thought it a shame her composition output was being put in the background. Her husband also expressed concern:

“Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out.”

Schumann was at her height with composition when she was in the middle of her career. In the modern-day, Schumann’s pieces are actually rather popular and they are played and recorded often. Her songs and piano trios are a particular favourite, alongside her Three Romances for Violin and Piano. This work was composed in 1853 and was first premiered in 1855. Clara Schumann famously said that “women are not born to compose”, however during this period, she composed quite a few of her most famous works. Three Romances for Violin and Piano was dedicated to close friend and virtuoso violinist, Joseph Joachim. Schumann and Joachim went on tour with this piece and they even played it before King George V of Hanover who absolutely loved the work. One critic said “All three pieces display an individual character conceived in a truly sincere manner and written in a delicate and fragrant hand.” Even in the modern-day, this work is perhaps one of Clara’s most famous, there was a critic who wrote in 2013 that this work was “lush and poignant, they make one regret that Clara’s career as a composer became subordinate to her husband’s.”

The work lasts about 10 minutes and, as the title suggests, the work is in three movements:

I. Andante molto

II. Allegretto 

III. Leidenschaftlich schnell 

Romances were one of Clara Schumann’s favourite forms to compose in, which is perhaps why this particular work is so effective. The three movements are contrasting, exciting and bursting with character. So without further ado, onto the music itself!

I. Andante Molto 

The first romance begins with a “gypsy pathos opening” which leads into a very emotional melodic framework. The brief central theme is then developed and embellished throughout this romance. This movement is incredibly passionate and the dialogue between the piano and violin is incredibly effective. The main theme is based loosely on arpeggios, with the final section of this movement referring to Robert Schumann’s First Violin Sonata. This movement is perhaps my favourite as the climaxes made between just the two instruments is very special and the resolve at the end is just beautiful.

II. Allegretto

The second romance is supposedly representative of all three movements as it embodies all the things that link these romances together. It is in G minor and is incredibly wistful. The main theme played by the violin is syncopated and there is a very melancholy atmosphere created throughout the movement. The attractive lyricism that Schumann writes for the violin in particular is such a wonder to listen to. The middle section picks up in tempo and the use of embellishments gives this section a shimmering kind of feel. This movement is also incredibly developmental and the theme is varied a lot for how short this movement is. The final section, which is back in G minor, reiterates the main theme before resolving with a charming pizzicato statement.

III. Leidenschaftlich schnell 

The third and final romance is by far the longest of the three and it is very similar to the first romance. Instantly there is a rippling accompaniment from the piano which is incredibly bubbly and fast-paced. The long melody played on the violin is very simple but it fits very well with very busy accompaniment. Schumann is very idiomatic with her violin writing in this work and this is why it’s so popular within violin repertoire. The work is very developmental, the main theme is taken and changed in a plethora of different ways with the use of dynamics, harmonies and pizzicato playing. The accompaniment part is unrelenting, with its fast-paced arpeggiated motifs and constant moving parts. The end of the work is very beautiful, the tempo is broken and the piece slows and beautifully resolves with the lower end of the violin register, and some rich tonic chords from the piano.

Clara Schumann led a fantastically successful life as a musician, in particular a performer. Sadly, she did not compose as much as she wanted to due to her affiliation with performance. I find this such a shame as the work that has survived time is absolutely wonderful and has become a staple in romantic music. Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano is absolutely beautiful and a complete joy to listen to. I hope you have enjoyed this work and this blog – we’ve made it halfway! I can promise you that tomorrow I have such a treat for you to hear, so watch out for when that is published!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

 

 

Elizabeth Maconchy ‘Nocturne for Orchestra’: A Beautifully Fashioned Orchestra

Happy Tuesday dearest readers! It’s Day 6 in my Female Fortnight Challenge, and today I have chosen to look into the wonderful composer that is…Elizabeth Maconchy! The piece I have chosen to delve into today is her work, entitled Nocturne for Orchestra. This is a superb work and I hope you will enjoy today’s musical journey!

Elizabeth Maconchy was born to Irish parents in Hertfordshire, 1907. After her birth, the family moved back to rural Ireland, where Maconchy began taking piano lessons. She began to write her own music by age six and when she was in her late teens she enrolled at the Royal College of Music. Her composition tutor was none other than Ralph Vaughan Williams – whom remained a lifelong friend to Maconchy. However, whilst Maconchy was developing her compositional style, she realised that she was less inclined towards English pastoralism that the likes of Vaughan Williams and Holst were composing. Maconchy was, in fact, more interested in central European modernism, with Bela Batrók being a particular favourite of the young composer. So to complete her studies, she transferred to Prague to study with K. B. Jirák. After her graduation, Maconchy returned to England, where she began her career as a composer. Her first large and successful premiere was in 1930 where her suite The Land Under Sir Henry Wood was performed in the 1930 Proms season. After this, Maconchy was in demand in premiere her music in a wealth of different European cities.

Post-war, Maconchy was in high demand as a composer and she worked with some of the leading professional ensembles, orchestras and soloists. Maconchy was soon recognised as a leader of her profession. She was first chaired for the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain. Following this she was President for the Society for the Promotion of New Music. Then in 1987 she was appointed Dame of the British Empire. Maconchy lived in an Essex village most of her life, with her husband, William LeFanu and together they had two daughters (the youngest of which is the composer Nicola LeFanu. Maconchy died in November 1994 due to natural causes.

Maconchy composed in a range on different forms in her lifetime, such opera, orchestral, chamber and vocal. This quote from Maconchy herself sums up what her conception of music is: “Music is an intellectual art, a balanced and reasoned statement of ideas, an impassioned argument, an intense but disciplined expression of emotion.” Maconchy was particularly keen to compose for strings, whether that be in a chamber or full orchestral setting. Her works for strings are generally her most well-known works and are the most prominent on her catalogue. Maconchy’s music has been described as ambitious but modest. A plethora of different genres have been enriched by Maconchy’s music, which makes her an incredibly important figure within 20th Century classical music.

Nocturne for Orchestra was composed in 1950 and is perhaps one of my favourite works by Maconchy. There is not a lot of documentation on this piece it seems, but one thing is for sure – this work is a showcase of Maconchy’s style and ambition whilst writing for a large orchestra. The work is incredibly well-orchestrated and the atmosphere created is very evocative. The piece is about 6-7 minutes in duration, but Maconchy packs a lot of emotion and musical complexity in within this short space of time.

The work begins with a mysterious chord played by the upper strings. The woodwinds play angular melodies, which create a fugal feel to the work. The strings move between two chords, but the feeling is quite static. The clarinets, oboes and flutes lead the melodic output in this section. The lower strings create more of a drive, which leads to a beautiful chord in the harp which creates an evocative dreamlike sound. The atmosphere created it very bizarre, it’s not completely dark and moody, but there is a sense of menace close by. The strings use their top range, with the horns proclaiming block chords, which creates a very sparse texture. The winds take turns in playing the disjunct melody. The strings take this theme over into their top register, creating an unsteady feel. The use of xylophone adds to the atmosphere that Maconchy is trying to create. Her extensive use of winds in this work makes the brass entries very passionate, loud and bold. The trumpet plays a long sweeping melody, which is accompanied by the whole ensemble. This leads to an explosion of sound led by the trombones. The strings take over and the colour of sound here is just wonderful. The dynamic dies away slightly, and the fanfares in the brass lead into a violin solo. The strings take over the melody that the trumpet played, this time the texture is very rich. The strings stay in their top register, with the harp embellishing the chord with a broken chord sequence. The horns and winds play some other embellishments to make the texture and timbre much more rich and colourful. The work slowly dies away to a silence at the end.

Just from the title itself we can deduce that this work is evocative of the night. The slightly menacing feel and the fast movements from the winds suggest birds or other creatures who are awake in the night. The atmosphere created in this piece is mysterious, yet dreamlike at some points. However, this is a slightly uneasy feel at times, which makes the work seem ‘on edge’ at times. I think this piece is wonderful, its evocative, imaginative and surprising. Maconchy was a wonderful British treasure and her compositions still inspire today. I hope you have enjoyed this blog today, make sure you keep your eyes peeled for what Day 7 (the halfway point!) of my challenge will be!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

Keiko Abe ‘The Wave Impressions Concerto for Marimba’: A Colourful Concerto

Hello readers! Welcome to blog 5 of my Female Fortnight Challenge and today we are coming into the 21st Century with a composer I am extremely fond of – Keiko Abe! This percussion giant has pushed the boundaries of tuned percussion composition for decades, and I am so very happy to sharing my favourite piece by her today – The Waves Concerto for Marimba. I hope you can find some delight in Keiko Abe like I can, she truly is an absolutely wonderful musician.

Keiko Abe was born in Tokyo, 1937 and she is primarily known for being a virtuoso marimba player and composer. Whilst in primary school, Abe began to learn the xylophone under Eiichi Asabuki. At age 13, Abe won her first contest, and from then she began performing in a professional capacity. She went to Tokyo Gakugei University where she received her undergraduate degree in music. She stayed on at the university and completed a master’s degree in music education. In 1962, she and two other marimba players founded the Xebec Marimba Trio. This ensemble performed Abe’s arrangements of folk songs, popular music and a wide-range of other styles of music. This performance opportunity was intense and the trio recorded a whopping seven albums between 1962 and 1966. As well as the trio, Abe also founded her own TV show, where she taught young children how to play the xylophone. Further to this, she also hosted her own radio show entitled “Good Morning Marimba”.

In this decade of Abe’s life, she managed to record thirteen albums in a 5-year span, as well as doing all of her educational work. Abe is also well-known for her collaboration with the Yamaha Corporation. In the early 1960s, Yamaha were looking to change and develop their designs of tuned percussion instruments, most notably the marimba. The corporation chose Abe to help assist and with the new designs. Abe was supposedly chosen for her original ideas of the marimba sound, design and development. Her ideas strongly guided Yamaha to develop their design of the marimba so that it would blend more effectively within an ensemble. She also persuaded them to stretch the range of the marimba from four to five octaves, which is now the standard for marimba soloists. Since then, Abe has always been associated with Yamaha, and she further aided their designs for new percussion mallets and xylophones.

As well as very successful performer, Abe has also composed over 70 works, all of them focusing on either the marimba, or other closely associated tuned percussion instruments. She bases her compositions on improvisation, which are then further developed into formed musical ideas. Amazingly, a lot of her compositions for marimba have become standards of marimba repertoire. Due to Abe’s education background, she is a big believer in helping young musicians, so she also commissions a lot of works by other composers. Abe is also a professor at the Toho Gakuen School of Music and she was the first woman to be inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame (1993). Abe is incredibly popular in Japan as a performer, but as a composer she is internationally recognised as an experimental and developmental composer of percussion music.

For this blog I am looking into her work The Wave Impression Concerto for Marimba. Abe composed this work in 2002 and it was initially written for orchestra, marimba. However, I found an excellent recording with a wind orchestra and Keiko Abe playing the marimba herself. I will include links to both the wind and orchestral versions for you to peruse at your leisure. For this blog though I will refer to the instrumentation of the orchestra arrangement. There is not a wealth of information on this particular work, but from the title and the music, it is clear that the sea is the main theme that runs through the work. Abe explains in this short paragraph what this concerto is all about:

“This piece consists of three contrasting musical elements and the approaches to the marimba. There is a short introduction with Japanese affections before the violent rising phrases of solo marimba and the energy of the marimba always leading the orchestra. In the middle section, a slow melody, almost an image of praying, is written over the deep and low range sound of the marimba. After the cadenza, the dreamlike world expands with changing meter. In contrast with the middle section which has the colour of a Japanese-like melody, in the final section, the long continuation of the marimba eighth note triplet gives a vital spark and the melody, that likes enjoying life, builds an energetic climax integrating with the orchestra. This is a concerto opposing the unique and original composer’s marimba sound and the profoundness of the orchestra and expressing a free-spirited style unconstrained by format.”

The concerto begins with a rumble from the orchestra, which set the scene for when the energetic marimba enters. There is an explosion of sound when the marimba starts playing, and the entry uses the range of the marimba. The soloist then plays a select two chords, which gradually speed up until a flourish into the top end of the instruments. The orchestra proclaims the initial motif once more. The marimba enters again with a similar entry to the first, with slight variation. The drums shadow a single motif from the marimba. This leads to a short silence before a climactic section with the marimba playing a succession of intervals in each octave of the marimba. The orchestra follow this, and the percussion section begin to reflect the rhythmic movement of the soloist. Another short silence is heard, then a very petite section begins. The marimba plays with the shaft of the stick, rather than the head to create a different tone and also a much quieter dynamic. This is then contrasted by a louder section, where the soloist plays with the head of the stick once more. The flute and piccolo also play this motif with the soloist. The more disjointed section is accompanied by a counter-melody from the lower brass and a pizzicato motif by the upper strings. This section sees the complete range of the marimba being used, which gives colour and a range of different tones.

Another section begins with the soloist using the shaft of the stick to create a more petite sound. A small orchestral interlude leads onto the soloist returning with a predominantly pentatonic motif. At times the marimba and orchestra are in unison, but more often than not there are always two melodies going on at any one time. A climactic section leads to the marimba leading a variation of a motif into the orchestra bringing down the mood to a dark and mysterious atmosphere. The soloist plays a sequence of notes down in the bottom range of the instrument, which gives a very woody timbre. The dynamic is extremely quiet here. The ominous lower strings add a lot to the timbre here. As the marimba begins to creep up in range, so do the strings. This middle section is what Abe describes as the “dreamlike” section. A much more dramatic atmosphere is created, and this dream like state is moving up and through the marimba. Next is a wonderful melody played in the upper register of the instrument.

The next section begins with a more up-beat tempo. The soloist and orchestra play in unison, with the soloist embellishing the initial theme. Soon the mood drops back into the very dark and moody atmosphere, with the soloist playing in the lower register once more. This leads into the cadenza which shows off the wonderful tones and range of the marimba. After the cadenza, the orchestra begin with a pizzicato motif. The tonality has turned major here, and the feeling is much more free. The marimba is playing a variation of different rhythms above the orchestra. There is another orchestral interlude, with the ensemble developing the main themes, the marimba returns and there is a rush of sound soon dies away into another interlude where the soloist plays with a mixture of the shaft and head of the sticks. There is a bold chord from the brass, which is where the sound of the marimba grows into dynamic fruition. The compound time signatures used in this section reflect the dexterity needed to play this kind of concerto. The complex rhythms are played until a climax, where the orchestra stay at a loud dynamic, but the soloist plays on the shaft again. This is one of the first times the soloist is not leading the ensemble.

A percussion breakdown section leads into another ominous section from the winds and strings, the marimba returns with harder sticks, which create a much brighter sound. The fluctuation between chords in this section creates an amalgamation of sound, which leads to a very frantic climax once more and the soloist playing an incredibly fast melody. The marimba then plays a broken chord down the whole range of the instrument. A swell from the orchestra leads to a triumphant end to the concerto.

So that’s my take on Keiko Abe’s The Wave Impressions Concerto for Marimba. It is an absolutely fantastic work that was composed by an equally as fantastic composer. This concerto highlights the versatility, sound and intricacies of the marimba and how, with the help of Abe, the sound is able to blend and sound at one with an ensemble, whilst still being able to lead. I really enjoy Keiko Abe’s music, she a fantastic musician who uses her virtuosic talents to aid her ever-expanding marimba repertoire.

This blog is, of course, dedicated to all my percussion-playing friends, but in particular the percussion section from university so Tom, Will, Robin, Andrew and Hannes. These chaps kindly let me into their section when I had a lip infection and was unable to play my instrument in orchestra! Big love to you guys, you’re all fantastic! (Told you I would do a percussion-based blog soon!).

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recordings:

This is the orchestral recording, which I prefer.

This is the wind orchestra arrangement, which has Keiko Abe playing the solo part herself.