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Walter Olbertz, Karl Suske, Matthias Pfaender - Mozart Complete Edition, Disk 56 - Mozart: Piano Trio In G Major, K. 564: Iii. Allegretto
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Gerd Seifert, Brandis Quartet - Mozart Complete Edition, Disk 53 - Mozart: Horn Quintet In E-Flat Major, K. 407: I. Allegro
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Remy Baudet, Marten Boeken - Mozart Complete Edition, Disk 73 - Mozart: Duo In B-Flat Major, K. 424: Ii. Andante Cantabile
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Remy Baudet, Marten Boeken - Mozart Complete Edition, Disk 73 - Mozart: Duo In G Major, K. 423: Iii. Rondeau. Allegro
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Remy Bauder, Staas Swierstra, Rainer Zipperling - Mozart Complete Edition, Disk 74 - Mozart: Preludes & Fugues, K. 404A: Prelude (Original?) & Fugue (J.s. Bach, Bwv 882) In F Major
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Mozart Akademie Amsterdam, Jaap Ter Linden - Mozart Complete Edition, Disk 11 - Mozart: Symphony No. 40 In G Minor, K. 550: I. Molto Allegro
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Mozart Akademie Amsterdam, Jaap Ter Linden - Mozart Complete Edition, Disk 1 - Mozart: Symphony No. 1 In E-Flat Major, K. 16: I. Molto Allegro
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Klara Wurtz - Mozart Complete Edition, Disk 82 - Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 5 In G Major, K. 283: Ii. Andante
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Salvatore Accardo, Bruno Canino - Mozart Complete Edition, Disk 66 - Mozart: Violin Sonata In B-Flat Major, K. 378: Ii. Andantino Sostenuto E Cantabile
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Herman Jeurissen, Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, Roy Goodman - Mozart Complete Edition, Disk 26 - Mozart: Horn Concerto No. 3 In E-Flat Major, K. 447: I. Allegro
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Mozart Akademie Amsterdam, Jaap Ter Linden - Mozart Complete Edition, Disk 6 - Mozart: Symphony No. 25 In G Minor, K. 183: Iii. Menuetto
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Franz Schubert Quartet Of Vienna - Mozart Complete Edition, Disk 81 - Mozart: String Quartet In G Major, K. 80: I. Adagio
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Mozart Akademie Amsterdam, Jaap Ter Linden - Mozart Complete Edition, Disk 9 - Mozart: Symphony No. 31 In D Major, K. 297
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Mozart Akademie Amsterdam, Jaap Ter Linden - Mozart Complete Edition, Disk 4 - Mozart: Symphony No. 20 In D Major, K. 133: Ii. Andante
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Orlando Quartet, Nobuko Imai - Mozart Complete Edition, Disk 71 - Mozart: String Quintet In E-Flat Major, K. 614: Iv. Allegro
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Orlando Quartet, Nobuko Imai - Mozart Complete Edition, Disk 70 - Mozart: String Quintet In D Major, K. 593: Iv. Finale. Allegro
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Derek Han, Philharmonia Orchestra, Paul Freeman - Mozart Complete Edition, Disk 18 - Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 19 In F Major, K. 459: Iii. Allegro Assai
The finale to Vaughan Williams’s life returns at times to the pastoral, but in darker, dramatic moments, reflects the trauma of his wartime experiences.
Composed: 1956-7 Premiere: 2 April, 1958, Royal Festival Hall, London, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Malcolm Sargent
Vaughan Williams was 83 when he began the Ninth, which shows the composer to have been still at the height of his powers. He was also working on the cantata Epithalamion, he later wrote the Ten Blake Songs and began a three-act opera, Thomas the Rhymer. In another 1957 work, Variations for Brass Band, he was much taken with the flugelhorn, which he included in the score of the symphony together with three saxophones. He described it as a ‘beautiful and neglected instrument not usually allowed in the select circles of the orchestra, and banished to the brass band, where it is allowed to indulge in the bad habit of vibrato to its heart’s content. While in the orchestra it will be obliged to sit up and play straight’. The saxophones and flugelhorn impart a special dark tone-colour to the score.
Another contributory factor, as it had been in the Eighth Symphony, was Bach'sSt Matthew Passion, which he conducted every year at the Leith Hill Music Festival in Dorking. The principal subject of the first movement, first heard on trombones and tuba, occurred to him after playing some of the organ part of the opening of the Passion.
Another important starting point for the Ninth was the idea of a symphony about Salisbury and Hardy’s Wessex, particularly the association with Tess of the D’Urbervilles and her arrest at Stonehenge for murdering her seducer. Although this programme was abandoned, it did not disappear entirely.
The second movement in particular is the Stonehenge scene. But Vaughan Williams moved away from a literal depiction of Hardy’s idea of the gods killing Tess for sport to a wider consideration of sacrifice generally. His experiences in WWI seemed again to be haunting him. He had seen another world war since then, and the near-hopelessness of the human condition must have troubled such a sensitive artist, whose humanity is the focal point of his work.
Vaughan Williams was not a believer in a religious sense, but he believed in the human spirit. The mood of the Ninth Symphony is ambiguous and enigmatic. It is on an ample scale, it looks back and it looks forward. One of its themes is derived from an early and abandoned tone poem and it also occurs as the ‘limitless heaving breast’ of A Sea Symphony. Clearly it had some special significance for him. The work contains wistful pastoral episodes, but there is savagery too, and a darkness that has been interpreted as pessimism.
It seems more likely that Vaughan Williams feared the worst for mankind but hoped against hope for the best. He loved Arnold’s poem Thyrsis and could easily have prefaced this finale with the words: ‘The light we sought is shining still’ – dimly, perhaps. When the Ninth was first performed, many failed to recognise it as one of his deepest and finest works. After 50 years, that has changed.
Reception and Death
On August 25, 1958, during the night before he was to attend Sir Adrian Boult’s recording sessions of the Ninth, Ralph Vaughan Williams died suddenly and peacefully from a coronary thrombosis. His ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey near to Purcell and Stanford.
Symphony No. 9, dedicated to the Royal Philharmonic Society and arguably the hardest of the symphonies, was first played through on 21 March, 1958, after which Vaughan Williams cut and revised the finale. Asked for his reaction to the cool critical reception, he replied: ‘I don’t think they can quite forgive me for still being able to do it at my age.’
Recommended Recording: Leopold Stokowski & His Symphony Orchestra Cala CACD 0539
'Rarely is pianistic virtuosity put to the service of such refined artistry'
This week’s free download is the first movement, Grave, from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 ‘Pathétique’, performed by Jonathan Biss. It was recorded on JB Recordings and was the Instrumental Choice in the June issue of BBC Music Magazine.
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One of the UK's most prolific and prominent composers, Sir James MacMillan's creative voice spans all genres. Though, perhaps, most keenly associated with choral works, his vast writing output also includes chamber works and symphonies.
His fifth symphony will be premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in August, where his life and music will be celebrated during a week of events to mark his 60th birthday (16 July).
Don't forget to tune into Radio 3 throughout the week (15-19 July) as James is 'Composer of the Week'.
If you'd like to discover some of his music, why not have a listen to our playlist below? And look out for two new books: A Scot's Song by the man himself (Birlinn 978-1-780-27617-5, £7.99) and The Music of James MacMillan by Philip A. Cooke (Boydell Press 978-1-783-27370-6, £30).
Verdi et al. Messa per Rossini: 11. Agnus Dei (Veronica Simeoni, Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano/Riccardo Chailly)
Ethel Smyth Violin Sonata in A minor: IV. Finale. Allegro vivace (Tasmin Little, John Lenehan)
Berlioz Harold en Italie: 3. Sérénade d’un montagnard des Abbruzes à sa maîtresse (Tabea Zimmermann, Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth)
Xenakis Pléïades: IV. Mélanges (DeciBells, Domenico Melchiorre)
Schubert Symphony No. 3: IV. Presto vivace (City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner)
Vivaldi Il Giustino, Act II: Scene 1. Sento in seno ch’in pioggia di lagrime (Anastasio) (Accademia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone, Silke Gäng)
Gulda Concerto for Cello, Wind Orchestra and Band: I. Overture (Edgar Moreau, Raphaël Merlin, Les Forces Majeures)
Roxanna Panufnik Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis: I. Magnificat (Richard Johnson, Exultate Singers/David Ogden)
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4: IV. Finale (London Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda)
Weber Piano Sonata No. 2: III. Menuetto capriccioso. Presto assai (Paul Lewis)
Francis Lai Love Story – Theme (Arr. Campbell) (Jess Gillam, BBC Concert Orchestra/Ben Dawson)
Berlioz Harold in Italy: II. Marche de pèlerins chantant la prière du soir (Tabea Zimmermann, Les Siècles/François-Xavier Roth)
Arthur Lourié A Phoenix Park Nocturne (Vladimir Feltsman)
Ramin Djawadi The Rains of Castamere (Arr. Lawson) (VOCES8)
Philip Glass Etude No. 2 (Jeremy Denk)
Tallis Suscipe quaeso Domine (prima pars) (The Gentlemen of HM Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace/Carl Jackson)
Debussy Livre I: II. Pour les tierces (Roger Muraro)
Rachmaninov Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 No. 5 (Live at Philharmonie, Berlin) (Yuja Wang)
Stravinsky The Firebird: Tableau II, XIX: Disparition du palais et des sortilèges de Kastchei, animation des chevaliers petrifies. Allegresse génerale (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
Amy Beach Violin Sonata in A minor, Op. 34: II. Scherzo. Molto vivace (Tasmin Little, John Lenehan)
Hauscha Dew and Spiderwebs (Hauschka)
Frank Horvat The Thailand HRDs: No. 5, Boonsom Nimnoi (Mivos Quartet)
Trad. Deep River (Arr. Coleridge-Taylor, Kanneh-Mason) (Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Isata Kanneh-Mason, Braimah Kanneh-Mason)
Mendelssohn Lieder ohne Worte, Op. 19: No. 6 in G minor (Andante sostenuto) ‘Venetian Gondola Song’ (Jan Lisiecki)
Wim Henderickx Nostalgia (Boho Strings)
Mozart Così fan tutte, Act 1: Aria ‘Come scoglio’ (Héloise Mas, Alexander Sprague, Nazan Fikret, Francesco Vultaggio, European Opera Centre, Biagio Pizzuti, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Laurent Pillot)
Philip Glass Melodies for Saxophone (arr. for trumpet): No. 3 (Craig Morris)
Giovanni Paisiello Partimento in F minor (Nicoleta Paraschievescu)
Ramin Djawadi The Rains of Castamere (VOCES8)
Triumphal Parade (Scottish National Jazz Orchestra/Tommy Smith)
Josquin Des Prez Miserere mei, Deus, IJ. 50: I. Miserere mei, Deus (Cappella Amsterdam/Daniel Reuss)
Dowland Come, Heavy Sleep (Grace Davidson, David Miller)
Schumann Humoreske Op. 20: II. Hastig (William Youn)
RO Morris Love Came Down at Christmas (arr. Stephen Cleobury) (Stephen Cleobury, Henry Websdale, Choir of King's College, Cambridge)
Tchaikovsky The Seasons Op. 37a: XII. December. Christmas (Barry Douglas)
Berlioz Roméo et Juliette: Pt. 3, Finale - Oath of Reconciliation (San Francisco Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Michael Tilson Thomas)
Elgar Chanson de nuit (Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder)
James Burton Tomorrow Shalle Be My Dancing Day (Jack Hawkins, Michael Bell, James Adams, Joseph Wicks, Choir of St John's College, Cambridge)
Julian Anderson Heaven is Shy of Earth: III. Gloria (With Bird) (Susan Bickley, BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Oliver Knussen)
Richard Strauss Horn Concerto No. 1: III. Rondo. Allegro (Live) (William Caballero, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck)
Derek Bermel Murmurations: I. Gathering at Gretna Green (ROCO)
Frank Martin Ballade for Flute & Piano (Bridget Bolliger, Andrew West)
Debussy Violin Sonata in G minor: III. Finale. Très animé (Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov)
Anonymous Now May We Singen (ORA Singers/Suzi Didby)
Rachmaninov Prelude in G minor Op. 23 No. 5 (Live at Philharmonie, Berlin/2018) (Yuja Wang)
James Newton Howard Violin Concerto: II. Andante semplice (James Ehnes, Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Cristian Măcelaru)
Sally Beamish In the Stillness (Sonoro/Neil Ferris)
Parry Suite moderne (arr. J Dibble for Orchestra): III. Romanza. Lento (BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Rumon Gamba)
Jonathan Dove A Brief History of Creation: X. Whales Return to the Sea (Hallé Children's Choir, Hallé Orchestra/Mark Elder)
Purcell King Arthur, Act 1: 'Come if You Dare' (Robert Buckland, Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier)
Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 4 (Live at Kimmel Center, Philadelphia) (Daniil Trifonov, The Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin)
Fagerlund Höstsonaten, Act 1: charlotte Andergast! Vilken konstnär! (Krista Kujala, Mari Sares, Jere Martikainen, Jarmo Ojala, Finnish National Opera Chorus, Finnish National Opera Orchestra/John Storgards
Julian Anderson Heaven is Shy of Earth: III. Gloria (With Bird) (Susan Bickley, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Oliver Knussen)
Zemlinsky Albumblatt (Erinnerung aus Wien) (William Youn)
Schreker The Birthday of the Infanta: Suite I. Reigen (Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta)
Mozart Violin Concerto No. 1 K.207: III. Presto (Nikolaj Znaider, London Symphony Orchestra)
Tchaikovsky The Seasons, Op. 37a, TH 135: XII. December. Christmas (Barry Douglas)
Holst In the Bleak Midwinter (Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Isata Kanneh-Mason)
Glazunov The Seasons ‘L’été: No. 9, Scène de l’été (Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitri Kitayenko
JS Bach Prelude & Fugue BVW 855a: Prelude No. 10 in B minor (Vikingur Ólafsson)
Magnus Lindberg Tempus fugit Pt. 1 (Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu)
Gurney Since I Believe in God the Father Almighty (Tenebrae/Nigel Short)
Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker Act 1: No. 6 Clara and the Nutcracker (Los Angeles Philharmonic/Gustavo Dudamel)
Ravel Ma mère l’Oye Suite, M. 60: V. Le jardin féerique (Prague Philharmonia/Emmanuel Villaume)
Eric Whitacre Deep Field: Earth Choir (Eric Whitacre Singers, Virtual Choir 5, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Eric Whitacre)
It was a long and lavish night out; an exercise in PR, power and politics, and a very public private entertainment. On the balmy evening of 17 July 1717, at a cost of ‘a hundred and fifty pounds for the musicians alone’, King George I stepped into the Royal Barge at Whitehall and sailed in a flotilla of courtiers and diplomats to the Chelsea home of Lord Ranelagh, where he took supper.
His ear tickled by three orchestral suites that synthesized French, Italian and native styles with novel instrumentation (it is thought that the softer-edged G major Suite may have been played indoors) the King so much enjoyed Handel’s creation that he called for it to be played a second and third time.
The party ended back in Whitehall at 3am and Handel’s status as England’s leading composer was secured. As with many of his compositions for royal occasions, he had built on the legacy of Purcell’s theatre music, creating dances of immediate and lasting appeal. Yet the first complete edition of the ‘famous Water Musick’ was not published until almost 30 years after his death.
The best recording
Hervé Niquet (conductor) Le Concert Spirituel (2002) Glossa GCDSA921616
On disc and online, there is a wide choice of historically informed performances: Christopher Hogwood’s 1978 L’Oiseau Lyre recording with the Academy of Ancient Music remains outstanding for even-temperedness; Lars Ulrik Mortensen’s account of the Suite in F with the European Union Baroque Orchestra for Estonian Record Productions boasts a dynamic bass line; there’s a pleasing pithiness to Nicholas McGegan’s interpretation with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and great panache from Ensemble Zefiro directed by Alfredo Bernardini.
From questions of scale and ordering to speeds, dynamics and instrumentation, the variety is remarkable, but from a shortlist of 16, I found myself drawn to those discs with a distinctive, even radical character. We think of the 18th century as a quieter place, but audibility would have been a factor on the Thames (think of Canaletto’s busy riverscapes).
Then there’s the laugh-out-loud shock of hearing hunting horns with an orchestra for the first time. For this reason, Hervé Niquet’s 2002 Glossa disc took first place, with nine horns as pungently tuned as those of the Bohemian players engaged by Handel himself. There are vast choirs of Stanesby oboes and bassoons, kettledrums, and a Jingling Johnny in the final Gigue. It’s packed with humour and sensuality, as hedonistic as a tequila slammer and absurdly enjoyable.
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (2016) Harmonia Mundi HMC902216
No conductor, a single pair of oboes, two house-trained horns, a brace of gleaming natural trumpets and a band of musicians who really listen to each other. With 13 fewer players than Handel’s band of 50 and less than half of Hervé Niquet’s forces, Akademie für Alte Musik’s delicately drawn 2016 recording is exquisitely recorded to reflect the different colours in the writing, and is beautifully blended throughout.
There are some daringly slow tempos, a wide dynamic range, and touching intimacy in the minuet of the second suite, where lutenist Björn Colell shines. Where Niquet offers spectacle, the Berliners offer inventive articulation from the violas, playful trills from contrabassoon and double bass, and a soundworld perhaps better suited to the king’s Chelsea supper than the hurly-burly of the Thames.
Jordi Savall (conductor) Le Concert des Nations (1993) Alia Vox AVSA9860
Jordi Savall’s 1993 performance of the Water Music on Alia Vox boasts the warmest toned oboes, bassoons and horns and beautifully direct string playing in the unusually reverberant acoustic of Cardona Castle in Catalonia. It’s honeyed and poised playing, with sensitively pointed continuo accompaniment from Pierre Hantaï on harpsichord and Paula Chateaneuf on theorbo. Savall has played with the ordering of the D and G major dances, crafting them into one persuasive suite of similar length to the F major Suite.
The decoration is French in flavour and underlines how cleverly Handel built on Purcell’s legacy. While there is little sense of the outdoors, there is a great sense of theatre.
John Eliot Gardiner (conductor) English Baroque Soloists (1983) Philips 434 1542
There’s a haughty, ceremonial beauty to Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s 1983 performance with the English Baroque Soloists. Though the tone is a little thin by modern standards in the sections for single strings and solo oboe, the muscularity of the tutti trills is thrilling and the horns would make any monarch proud. No corner has escaped unexamined and the engagement of the cellos and double basses is unflagging.
The Adagio e staccato of the F major Suite is sculpted without cloying sentiment and the Andante is suavely balanced. What is lacking in tenderness in the birdlike and dewy dances of the G major Suite is compensated for by the athleticism of the D major Suite, a tart flavour to the final Bourrée, and a lovely round tone to the timpani.
'My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord' arr. Moses Hogan
New Orleans-born composer and arranger Moses Hogan was renowned for his arrangements of Negro spirituals, publishing over 70 such works, many of which were compiled in the 2002 Oxford Book of Spirituals. Hogan’s arrangement of 'My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord' makes use of deliciously varied vocals. The range of the bass voices is established very early on, following an electric and grabbing introduction.
The changes in texture are captivating: the majestic full-choir contrasts with bold solo bass passages, and this balanced handling of vocal parts continues throughout. Just when you think you know where the song is going, a wonderful antiphonal section breaks out between the female and male voices. The sopranos’ starring moment in the last phrase is the cherry on top of the cake.
Telling the story of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel's divine vision, this song has been recorded by many well-known American singers, including baritone Paul Robeson and blues singer John Lee Hooker. This was one of Dawson's final arrangements of his career, following a handful of original compositions.
This particular arrangement is a true tour de force, which will stretch the capabilities of most choirs. The brilliance of this arrangement is the cyclical nature and multi-layered writing, which means you can feel the ‘wheel’ turning in the air with the sound. This is particularly noticeable towards the end of the piece when the entire ensemble sings the title lyrics. The solo alto line is particularly striking, establishing itself with a soulfulness to complement the full-bodied sound of the choir.
'You Must Have that True Religion' arr. Roland Carter
This is considered core repertoire for historically black college university (HBCU) choral ensembles. The beauty of any great spiritual is the ability to not just have one type of texture throughout, but various sections that take the listener on a musical journey. This arrangement does exactly that.
The lyrics emphasise the honesty and truth to a religion that one should possess to earn the ultimate prize in heaven. The entire ensemble states this at first, then a soprano soloist above the group, ending with a wonderfully contrapuntal section. The men in this section traditionally start slower, singing ‘true religion, true religion, true religion’, which increases in speed until it sounds like a locomotive engine building up steam.
This is another example of an arrangement made up of many different choral configurations of the main theme. With soloists, separate sections for men and women and call-and-response reverberating throughout the main choir, there is a constant change in texture throughout. These multiple sections allow the listener to feel as though they have travelled with the choir on a musical journey and have, in fact, been changed – just as the title suggests. Damon Dandridge, like Roland Carter (above) works with choirs in historically black college universities in the US.
This is a wildly athletic spiritual which takes precision and clarity to pull off. This spiritual is asking whether you will stand for your Jesus or Religion. Its brilliance lies in the speed at which the two-note motif travels throughout the chorus. It’s a real crowd-pleaser.
Raymond Wise is a professor of African American studies and director of the African American Choral Ensemble at Indiana University Bloomington, having begun his musical career at the age of three, singing gospel music with his family singing group 'The Wise Singers'. He is also an ordained priest and has recorded a huge amount of African American music with various ensembles.
The title and lyrics of this spiritual refer to a fountain of life-sustaining holy water, with a section that rhythmically repeats ‘been drinking’. Again, it’s a very antiphonal work, with interactions between the bass and treble voices, which creates a really great effect. Audiences can almost see the sound bouncing back and forth around the ensemble. André Thomas is a current professor of music at Florida State University, and is a published author as well as a conductor and composer, having written Way Over in Beulah Lan': Understanding and Performing the Negro Spiritual.
This article was written by Eric Conway, director of the Morgan State Unviersity Choir. Details of their upcoming performances can be found here.
The Eighth, thought by many to be the lightest of the symphonies, contains many references, none of which Vaughan Williams feels the need to deny
Composed: 1953-5 (slight revision in 1956) Premiere: 2 May 1956, Free Trade Hall, Manchester, Hallé Orchestra/John Barbirolli
First sketches for the Eigth Symphony date from 1953, and Vaughan Williams took the rough score with him when he went to Cornell University, New York, to give some lectures in 1954.
It was in this year that his Christmas cantata Hodie had its first performance in Worcester Cathedral. He again awarded the first performance to the Hallé in Manchester, and the Eighth Symphony was sufficiently complete for its dedicatee, Sir John Barbirolli, to give it a run-through in the composer’s presence in February 1956.
The Eighth is sometimes considered the lightest of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies, a jeu d’esprit, but this is only partially true. As was his custom, he had it played through on the piano at an early stage to a select group of friends. One of these ‘jurors’ had questioned whether it was a symphony, and suggested Sinfonietta. The composer replied, ‘I am not taking your advice. I feel the thing is a symphony and it is going to remain one.’
All his previous symphonies could be said to embody some extra-musical idea, rather than an explicit programme. The Eighth is the exception. It has no sub-text, and is more like ‘just a piece of music’, to quote him on another occasion. The four movements are sharply differentiated in character, the second being for wind only, the third for strings. Although scored for what Vaughan Williams called a ‘Schubert’ orchestra, there is a large and exotic percussion section, ‘including all the “phones” and “spiels” known to the composer’ (in fact, side drum, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel, tubular bells, three tuned gongs and celesta, requiring five players).
The first movement, which Vaughan Williams nicknamed ‘seven variations in search of a theme’, is among his most subtle and sophisticated pieces. The second and fifth variations were written first, which explains the remark about searching for a theme.
It has been suggested that the flute solo in the first variation bears a relationship to the ‘human’ music in the ‘Intermezzo’ of Antartica and also to Holst’s tune for the Remembrance Day hymn ‘O Valiant Hearts’, so perhaps a subtext exists after all.
An American critic noted the resemblance of the opening theme of the Cavatina slow movement to the Passion chorale O Sacred Head. Vaughan Williams wrote to him: ‘I was thinking about the slow movement, and how I wanted a cello tune and it suddenly occurred to me how lovely that chorale would sound on the cellos so, as far as I can remember, without deliberately adopting it, the two themes got mixed up in my mind with the result you know. I am quite unrepentant!’
The Toccata, with its riot of percussion, bells and brass, sounds light-hearted, but the composer in his programme-note refers to its ‘short, rather sinister exordium’, which hints at a more profound intention.
At a visit to Covent Garden in February 1956 to hear Puccini’s Turandot, Vaughan Williams was fascinated by the tuned gongs, and added them to the Symphony (alongside an already expanded percussion section) saying they were ‘not absolutely essential but their inclusion was highly desirable’.
Hallé Orchestra/John Barbirolli BBC Legends BBCL 4100-2
Now in his eighties, Vaughan Williams’s energy has not decreased, and he adapts a film score into another surprising and innovative symphony.
Composed: 1949-52 Premiere: 14 July 1953, Free Trade Hall, Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
The seventh of Vaughan Williams’s symphonies is based on the score that he composed in 1947-8 for the Ealing Studios film, Scott of the Antarctic, about Captain Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1912.
He wrote much of the music without seeing any of the film because he was so gripped by the subject and by the opportunities for depicting snow and blizzards. He was also dismayed by the incompetence of much of the planning of the expedition.
The film was shown in 1948, and by June 1949, he asked for the score to be returned so that he could get on with what he was already calling Sinfonia Antartica. But his work was interrupted by revisions of his long-gestated opera, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and preparations for its world premiere at Covent Garden in 1951, as part of the celebrations for the Festival of Britain. Shortly afterwards, his wife, Adeline, died.
He was also working on a Concerto Grosso for strings, a cantata, The Sons of Light, with words by Ursula, the Romance in D flat for harmonica, strings and piano, written for Larry Adler and the Fantasia onthe‘Old 104th’ Psalm Tune, for piano, chorus and orchestra.
For the following year, 1952, a number of concerts were planned to mark the composer’s 80th birthday on 12 October. As a tribute to Vaughan Williams, Sir John Barbirolli conducted the existing six symphonies during the Hallé Orchestra’s 1951-2 season in Manchester.
Vaughan Williams took the full score to Manchester in March 1952 to show to Barbirolli, who related later that ‘Vaughan Williams was loath to show it to me, for he feared I might not like it and wanted to spare me the embarrassment of saying so’.
The symphony was played through at sight by the Hallé pianist, Rayson Whalley, a feat that amazed the composer. There was another full play-through in November and nine hours of rehearsal. After the first performance, two months later, Vaughan Williams declared it to be his ‘first flawless first performance’ and dubbed Barbirolli ‘Glorious John’. On the evening before he set off for Manchester for the first performance, Vaughan Williams asked Ursula Wood to marry him, which she did on 7 February.
The first performance was a resounding success, and was attended by Scott’s son Peter, the artist and naturalist. Although there was debate about whether Antartica was a symphony or a suite of film music, one important critic noted the work’s ‘masterly and completely unified symphonic form’.
The use of the wind machine and wordless women’s voices to describe the Polar winds and ice, the organ’s climax in the glacier sequence and the depiction of whales and penguins caught the public imagination right from the first.
Perhaps the germ of Antartica could be said to be in Vaughan Williams’s one-act opera Riders to the Sea, another example of man against nature. The keening voices of the women mourning for a drowned man anticipate the wordless voices of the Antarctic winds.
Margaret Ritchie (soprano), Women of the Hallé Choir; Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli EMI 566 5432
The ultimate homage to whom many consider the greatest US president, Lincoln Portrait was written by Aaron Copland after an invitation by conductor Andre Kostelanetz to write a piece honouring an ‘eminent American’. Scored for orchestra and narrator (including, among others, Henry Fonda, Neil Armstrong, Tom Hanks and Charlton Heston), the text includes extracts from Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address’, Lincoln’s poignant speech to mark the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, site of one of the bloodiest battles in the American civil war.
As with many of his works, Copland weaves American folk tunes into Lincoln Portrait including, here, Camptown Races and Springfield Mountain. Copland’s ‘American’ style has influenced all American composers since, from Bernstein to John Williams.
Adopted by official decree as the national march of the United States, Stars and Stripes Forever was one of over 130 marches Sousa wrote for military band.
Supposedly written on Christmas aboard an ocean liner, the catchy march has been arranged many times since, including for organ and piano – Russian-born pianist Vladimir Horowitz celebrated becoming an American citizen with a particularly eye-popping transcription that’s worth seeing, let along hearing… Arcadi Volodos is on blistering form here.
Movement titles don’t get much more patriotic than these: I. Washington’s Birthday; II. Decoration Day; III. The Fourth of July; IV. Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day. The orchestral language, however, is rather more tortured… Ives’s intention in his symphony was to recreate the childhood holiday memories of an adult, however distorted. Cue the overlapping and confusion of themes and an original use of atonality that gives the work a unique piquancy – and poignancy.
‘It has become that time of the evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently.’ So begins, in lilting fashion, Barber’s exquisite idyll of American country life from the perspective of a small boy. In Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Barber sets music to the poetry of James Agee – on reading Agee’s poem, the composer wrote, ‘the summer evening [Agee] describes in his native southern town reminded me so much of similar evenings when I was a child at home’.
Nothing much happens, although Barber’s music clearly points to some sort of trouble on the horizon… and many have pointed to the child’s words sounding as if they were the memory of an adult. Here’s a beautiful rendition featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw with the Orchestra of St Luke’s under David Zinman.
Virgil Thomson: Film score to 'The Plow That Broke the Plains'
Critic and composer Virgil Thomson has been credited by many with developing the ‘American’ sound – his score to this 1937 US documentary is packed full of US folk tunes accompanying the story of disastrous, uncontrolled agricultural farming in 20th-century America.
It might seem odd to include a piece written by one of the most English of English composers in this list, but Herbert Howells’s searing 10-minute choral work expresses the deep sorrow, pain and regret of a nation following the assassination of John F Kennedy in Dallas in 1963.
In his sleeve note to his own 1967 recording, Howells wrote, ‘Within the year following the tragic death of President Kennedy in Texas, plans were made for a dual American-Canadian Memorial Service to be held in Washington. I was asked to compose an a cappella work for the commemoration. The text was mine to choose, Biblical or other. Choice was settled when I recalled a poem by Prudentius (AD 348–413). I had already set it in its medieval Latin years earlier, as a study for Hymnus Paradisi. But now I used none of that unpublished setting. Instead I turned to Helen Waddell’s faultless translation […] Here was the perfect text—the Prudentius “Hymnus circa exsequias defuncti”.’