Happy Sunday my wonderful readers! I have such a treat to share with you today, I’m sure you’re all going to love this brilliant work. I was thinking the other day I should find a piece that has a humorous edge to it, because that’s what is so wonderful about this genre – it’s so versatile! To help me with this blog I contacted the composer on the off-chance that he would reply, and to my luck he did! So today’s blog is on the wonderful Paul Drayton’s vocal work, Masterpiece.
Paul Drayton was born in the East of Yorkshire, 1944. After taking an academic route at a young age, Drayton successfully completed his advanced performing diploma of the Royal Academy of Music by the time he was sixteen. After this, he went to study his undergraduate degree in musicology at The University of Oxford, which was followed by his postgraduate degree in composition. Drayton not only composes, but also teaches, lectures and writes on different musics.
Drayton has worked as the musical director of Cornwall’s premier opera company, Duchy Opera. With this company he has conducted productions such as Verdi’s Tosca and Handel’s Semele. Whilst there he also conducted his own “operatic chiller” The Hanging Oak (you can find recordings of all of Paul Drayton’s work on his website: http://www.pauldraytoncomposer.com). Drayton’s music has been published, recorded around the world and he has played/conducted in many wonderful venues such as Vienna’s Theater an der Wien.
Drayton has composed a vast range of different music within his lifetime, these include works for organ such as: Dance in a Desolate Place and Advent Dances. Orchestral works such as: Sinfonietta for Chamber Orchestra, Odyssey Variations and Elegiac Variations for 12 Cellos. Drayton has also composed a number of stage works such as The Hobbit, Nero and The Mermaid of Zennor.
His main compositional output, however, is for voice. He has written compositions for solo voice such as Perceptions (for tenor and chamber ensemble), Orchard Nocturne (mezzo-soprano, clarinet and piano) and How Pleasant to know Mr. Lear! (five songs for tenor and piano). As well as solo voice, Drayton has also composed for chorus and orchestra, for example: Canticle of the Bells (double SATB, piano duet, organ and percussion), Orpheus (chorus and orchestra) and The Scholar’s Life (chorus and orchestra).
Drayton has had a very positive relationship with the fantastic vocal ensemble The King’s Singers, and has composed commissions for this group. Works such as Sonnet and Six Characters in Search of an Opera are among the many compositions Drayton has composed for this ensemble. Masterpiece was written in 1987 (soon to be published by Hinshaw Music, USA), for The King’s Singers who ran a competition for a new piece, but the ensemble decided that the work could not win the competition as it wasn’t really pastiche. However, the ensemble really liked the composition and it has since been sung all over the world. The King’s Singers then recorded it for their 2005 DVD From Byrd to The Beatles. Naturally, as the personnel of the ensemble change, so does the interpretations of the work, however it is still being requested in the present day from audience members.
Masterpiece essentially aims to cover the last 400 years of Western Classical music in c.11 minutes. Over email, Drayton told me that due to time constraints he (obviously) could not fit in all composers, apparantely due to this he provoked wide complaints of the work. Drayton says he picked the composers that he thought were the most entertaining and also the most susceptible to crude mimicry. Each composer that is mentioned may be sung in the stereotypical style of that era. The work shows a progression between the starting composer (Bach) and one of the end composers (Debussy). I personally find this piece not only incredibly clever and witty, but intriguing as to how we perceive certain types of Western classical musics. I’m going to attempt to give a walk-through account of this work, so I can point out any particularly witty parts and also celebrate just how fantastic this piece is!
The piece begins with a short tenor solo singing ‘Johann Sebastian Bach’ in a very Bacherian manner. Other voices begin to enter to make this beautiful polyphony – something that Bach composed a lot within his music. The voices are paired together at this point singing either ‘Johann Sebastian Bach’ or different tempo markings such as ‘tempo guisto’. There is a running joke through this section of the performers singing the very many initials of Bach’s sons (Johann Christian, Carl Phillip Emmanuel etc). Soon the voices split into trios and argue between the various sons names as well as J.S Bach’s name. The bass then takes control of the situation and very loudly proclaims ‘Johann Sebastian Bach’, to which the voices begin to resolve into a cadence before a quick silence, then the bass starts with the beginning cadence note, whilst the other voices layer in to create a perfect cadence. The performers end with a very pertinent ‘ch’ sound at the end of ‘Bach’ which is highly comical, and perhaps to do with how we are taught to say Bach’s name from a young age (especially those who had singing lessons!).
The next composer mentioned is George Friedrich Handel. This section starts as a fanfare on the composer’s name. The tempo then speeds up into a very bouncy sequence of melismatic notes from the counter-tenor and the bass voices. There is a very sweet sound to this section, and again, is a very predictable sound we would hear from compositions by Handel. Also, it is worth noting that this section is incredibly difficult due to the compound time and the amount of notes in each melismatic phrase. So on the outside it may seem bouncy and simple, but for the performers I would suggest that this is one of the hardest sections to sing (and to still be clearly heard!). This section ends on another perfect cadence.
The next section revolves around Mozart. With a slow Alberti bass to begin with, the performers comes together as an accompaniment before the tenor voice takes a solo line. This section is ever so sweet and it lists different performance directions and operas that Mozart composed. There is an alternation between voices here, so firstly you hear ‘Cosi fan Tutti’, followed by ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’. Then ‘Don Giovani’ which is replied by the basses with ‘Idomeneo’. There is also an emphasis of the expression term ‘expressivo’, which rises above the operas being mentioned. This section ends quietly with the voices coming together saying “by Mozart”.
Next up is Beethoven. This section always seems to find people’s attention as it is a massive mood change from the preceding sections. Again, as a play on his name, the performers sing in a very Beethoverian style, not least mimicking that of his Fifth Symphony. There’s a very lovely embellishment within this part of the section from the top voices (can you hear it?). I really like the juxtaposition of moods here as it shows Beethoven’s colourful palette for mood and emotion. To start a new accompaniment, the performers comically sing some performance directions such as ‘Sforzando, subito piano, agitata, appassionata’ – these are then repeated (as they all oppose each other in the sequence). Then a new joke is made between the discrepancy between the composer’s name. So Beethoven changed his Dutch ‘van’ in his name to ‘von’ to imply some sort of aristocratic pedigree. This is illustrated here between two voices who argue which one it truly is. The voices then speed up until they come to a compromise. A small fanfare then leads the outcry of ‘Beethoven’ – which is answered with a comical whistle (typically from the bass): the second of these whistles mimics Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The section ends with a fade-out of the initial fanfare. This segues into a bass solo, which tries to find the next bass line, before starting the next section.
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy is the next composer on the list. This is a very simple section which is very easy to listen to (similar to the Mozart section). There is a nod to Mendelssohn’s sentimental value in his music, which leads to this short section ending with one of my favourite lines: ‘allegretto con molto sentimen…delssohn’. A quick segue sees us into the next composer which is Strauss. A change into 3/4 to create a waltz feel sets this section up to be very resonant of Strauss. The performers go through the different members of the Strauss, before then singing about various pieces by the different Strauss composers. There then a change in mood and various conductors are mentioned such as Herbert von Karajan and Willi Boskovsky. The tempo starts to speed up until the voices come together to proclaim ‘amen to the waltzes of Johann Strauss!’.
There is a whirlwind of notes heard until it begins to calm and land into the next section, which is perhaps my favourite. The tenor then sings ‘Claude Debussy’ in a very laid-back style. The performers then begin singing in French, which creates a very fluid and beautiful section. They sing about Debussy’s arabesques for piano among other compositions. Clair de Lune and La Mer are also mentioned in this section. Interestingly, the voices are mostly together throughout the whole of this section. By the end of the section the tempo has sped up and the voices are proclaiming ‘Monsieur Debussy’.
This section leads us into a speed-list of different composers, beginning with Cesar Franck, Liszt, Holst and Bax. This list is then interrupted by a tenor singing ‘Wagner! Wagner! Herr Richard Wa..!’ before stepping back after realising he’s the only one singing. The speed list starts again with other composers such as Britten, Bruckner, Chopin, Schumann, Mahler and Poulenc. Composers names that start with similar sounding letters are grouped together to create some sort of consistency. This is then interrupted again by a proclamation of Wagner. This time he pursues this comical interruption. This then leads into yet another speed-list which includes composers such as Berlioz, Massenet, Meyerbeer and Viotti. This leads up to each voice saying the next composer in this order (bass-counter-tenor): Pacini, Mussorgsky, Menotti, Rossini, Resphigi, Puccini!
There is a small pause, before a small section on William Byrd, where the performers sing in the style of the composer. They then exclaim ‘Cage’, referring to modernist composer, John Cage. Whilst in contact with Paul Drayton, he told me about his joke in this section. It’s one I have never noticed before but think about it…Byrd Cage! After this, the performers start singing ‘From everyone…’, then proceed to probe the likes of Stockhausen and Gershwin (with a really nice use of a blue note!).
To end the piece the singers go back to Bach, singing ‘And Bach again’ over and over again. There is a small phrase which starts at the basses and makes it way through the voices which soars above the spoken word. The piece ends with a small phrase similar to that of the previous motif, which then resolves perfectly at the end with all voices entering on different beats.
Masterpiece is such a brilliant piece that mixes comedy, stereotypes and complex musical styles together to create this compact guide to the last 400 years of Western classical music. This is genuinely one of my all-time favourite pieces as it just makes me smile every time I listen to it. The King’s Singers are absolutely sublime in their performances of this work and it really does it the justice it deserves.
I would like to express my gratitude to Paul Drayton for helping me out with this blog as some information was tricky to find. I hope you have enjoyed this blog, many thanks for your kindness!
Like they say at the start of this piece – if your favourite composer isn’t mentioned…tough!