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  • The best recordings of Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony

    classical-music.com | Wed, 24 Apr 2019 09:00:00 +0000

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    Though live performances are relatively rare, many fine recordings of the Manfred Symphony are available. Arturo Toscanini’s trail-blazing 1949 recording (RCA), for instance, demands to be heard, despite the savage cuts to the score and lo-fi sound. Gennady Rozhdestvensky, meanwhile, wears his Russian heart on his sleeve in a white-hot reading (Melodyia), and Vladimir Ashkenazy’s debut recording as a conductor with the New Philharmonia (Decca) is another strong candidate.

     

     

    The best recording

    Vasily Petrenko (conductor)
    Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (2008)
    Naxos 8.570568

    Vasily Petrenko’s 2008 recording was a release that first alerted music-lovers to what the young Russian conductor was achieving in Liverpool, turning a fine provincial orchestra into a world-class one. Here, the symphony’s doom-laden opening bars are as lento lugubre as Tchaikovsky demands, and the shifts in tension are superbly gauged throughout the movement. Petrenko resists going for broke in the coda without compromising on excitement.

    He then takes the Vivace con spirito at a dangerous, break-neck speed, leaving the listener – though not his dazzling wind players – breathless. Admittedly, the initial tempo for the Andante con moto feels too slow – the first oboe’s lovingly phrased solo sounds just a little too languorous, whereas other conductors allow the music to flow more naturally. Petrenko, though, sets a cracking pace for the Finale, building and maintaining a fine head of steam through to the full-throttle re-emergence of the Manfred theme.

     

     

    There is an appropriate abrasive edge to the playing and recorded sound which is altogether exhilarating, and Petrenko never fails to remind us that this is no comfortable work. The controversial organ part in the coda is heard better in this recording than any other – clear and to-the-fore but without being allowed to simply blast us out of our seats.  

    No single recording of this unique masterpiece sweeps the board in all four movements, and various approaches all bring their own rewards (see ‘Three other great recordings’, below). After repeated hearings, however – and irrespective of its bargain price – it is Petrenko’s sharply etched interpretation in vivid upfront sound that has ‘winner’ written all over it.

     

     

     

    Three other great recordings

    Semyon Bychkov (conductor)
    Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (2017)
    Decca 483 2320

    The most beautiful orchestral playing imaginable can be heard on Semyon Bychkov’s 2017 recording with the Czech Philharmonic, in which Decca’s state-of-the art recording captures every detail. It beggars belief that the orchestra’s musicians had not previously encountered the Manfred until Bychkov introduced them to it, but initial scepticism from them clearly became a labour of love. Choosing between Bychkov and Petrenko proved a headache: a model of restraint, Bychkov’s is the more measured and has the finest sound of all recordings; Petrenko’s is the more volatile and viscerally exciting.

     

     

     

    Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)
    London Philharmonic Orchestra (2004)
    LPO Live LPO-0009

    By 2006, when this recording was made, Vladimir Jurowski had established a great rapport with the London Philharmonic Orchestra – it shows in a live recording that is magnificent in all respects, and is particularly successful in the Finale. As with Petrenko’s recording, we aren’t drowned out in a welter of organ sound, and the enthusiastic response from the Royal Festival Hall audience reflects the excitement of the occasion. For similar thrills from a close contemporary of Jurowski, Andris Nelsons’s 2013 CBSO account (Orfeo) would run this one close were it not for the conductor’s heavy, and distracting, intakes of breath.

     

     

    Mikhail Pletnev (conductor)
    Russian National Orchestra (2013)
    Pentatone PTC 5186 387

    Originally hand-picked by Mikhail Pletnev during the Glasnost era, the Russian National Orchestra has remained arguably Russia’s most outstanding symphony orchestra. As in his earlier 1992 recording for DG, Pletnev manages to maul the repeated string passage following the Finale’s opening flourish, but even so, this 2013 version for Pentatone is very impressive – he is quite a cool customer here, and takes a more classical approach than most. The recorded sound is also good, despite the remoteness of the horns.

     

     

     

    And one to avoid…

     

    Evgeny Svetlanov (conductor)
    There are two Manfred recordings by Evgeny Svetlanov available. In his live 1989 account with the Berlin Phil (on the Testament label), he ditches the organ-led final pages, substituting them with a barn-storming reprise of the Manfred theme. This ‘alternative’ ending is undoubtedly exciting and is greeted with audience approval, but it is not what Tchaikovsky wrote.

     

  • A guide to Beethoven's Symphony No. 7

    classical-music.com | Tue, 23 Apr 2019 17:00:00 +0000

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    Premiere:

    Vienna, 8 December 1813

    After the titanic adventures in sound-colour, form and dramatic expression of Symphonies Nos 5 and 6, the Seventh might initially seem a return to safer, more classical ground. Except that Beethoven doesn’t really do ‘safer’ – not by this stage in his career, anyhow.

     

    Madness and rhythmic patterns:

     

    Composed after a much-needed restorative spa holiday in 1811, Symphony No. 7 sounds like what Beethoven would later call a ‘return to life’. The key of A major is often associated with light and buoyancy (Mendelssohn’s Italian, Schubert’s Trout Quintet), but here the sheer physical energy – expressed in dancing muscular rhythms and brilliant orchestration – can, in some performances, border on the unnerving. Confronted with one particularly obsessive chain of repetitions (possibly the spine-chilling final crescendo in the first movement), Beethoven’s younger contemporary Carl Maria von Weber pronounced him ‘ripe for the madhouse’.

    But there’s nothing mad about the way Beethoven draws together the seemingly diverse dance rhythms in this work. Just over a minute into the substantial slow introduction, the woodwind intone a rhythmic pattern: DA de-de – in classical metric terms, a ‘dactyl’.

    This same pattern pulses expectantly in the audacious sustained one-note transition to the Vivace, then springs to life in its main theme. The wonderful veiled Allegretto that follows is haunted by the same rhythm, the Trio of the scherzo repeats it like a playground game, while the finale is positively possessed by it, right up to the ferocious elation of the final bars.

     

     

    Dynamics: 

     

    Just before the end, for the first time ever in an orchestral work, Beethoven uses the marking ffffortississimo: ‘louder than as loud as possible’. There are times listening to this astonishing finale that one wonders if it wasn’t here that Stravinsky got the idea for the ‘Sacrificial Dance’ from the Rite of Spring – except that it is life, not death, that triumphs.

     

    Tonality:

     

    It isn’t all joyous assertion, of course. Like TS Eliot, Beethoven realised that it is darkness that ‘declares the glory of light’. The voluptuous nocturnal world of the Allegretto opens on a minor-key wind chord which, after the glowing A major that ends the first movement, feels like the deft extinguishing of a light. 

    Beethoven expands his tonal universe as never before in a symphony, allowing the bright A major to be continually undermined by a remote (and, in context, darker) F major – if that sounds technical, the effect in performance is fully visceral. But ultimately, the Seventh Symphony is testimony to Beethoven’s enduring ability to find energy and hope amidst inner and outer desolation, and as such it’s indispensible.

     

     

    Recommended recording:

     

    Riccardo Chailly achieves the near-impossible, combining the classicising insights of period-style performers with the tonal richness and expressive gravity of old-school master interpreters such as Otto Klemperer or Carlos Kleiber. The rhythms are crisp and vital, the colours gorgeous, the expression intense and broad-ranging, and all is captured in superb recorded sound.

    Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Riccardo Chailly Decca 478 3496

     

     

    Words by Stephen Johnson. This article first appeared in the December 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine.

  • The best classical music for St George's Day

    classical-music.com | Tue, 23 Apr 2019 10:37:04 +0000

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    The Medieval period (1250-1485)

     

    Dunstable: Veni Sancte Spiritus – Veni Creator Spiritus

    Dunstable, referred to now as Dunstaple, was born in 1390 or thereabouts, worked in France between 1422-37 at the court of Henry V’s regent, the Duke of Bedford, and died in 1453. Many sources, in his lifetime and shortly after, acknowledge him as a crucial inspiration to Binchois (1400-1460) and Dufay (c1400-1474), who was arguably the most eminent composer of his time, and perhaps the main bridge between medieval and Renaissance music.

    One measure of Dunstaple’s importance in the eyes of his contemporaries is the number of surviving manuscripts of his works, which have been found across Europe as far as Estonia. Dunstaple was a master of contenance angloise, the style characterised by sweet-sounding thirds and triads, with all voices consonant with each other.

     

     

    Veni Sancte Spiritus – Veni Creator Spiritus is probably the most illuminating example of his wonderful blending of technical complexity with emotional directness and warm humanity. It’s a motet built around a late 12th-century hymn and is, to use a 20th-century term, ‘isorhythmic’. That’s to say that rhythms and melodies are repeated but with varying results due to both being of differing lengths. Though quite short (five to seven minutes, depending on the interpretation), it is packed with fascinating detail: in the second section Dunstaple reduces the note values by one third, then further reduces them by half in the third section, giving a ratio of 3:2:1.

     

    What happened next…

    Dunstaple helped to popularise English discant, where the chant that formed the basis of a piece would be harmonised by adding voices at intervals of a third and a sixth above. Until his time these intervals were considered dissonant in mainland Europe, whereas they had long been regarded as acceptable in England. Dunstaple’s use of triads, the brightness of his harmonies and the airiness of his melodies, were adopted and developed by Dufay and thus contributed to the evolution of mainstream European music.

    Barry Witherden

     

     

    The Tudors (1485-1603)

     

    Tallis: Miserere nostri

    Thomas Tallis steered a remarkable passage through the choppy waters of religious upheaval, faithfully serving four monarchs (Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth I). Somewhere along this difficult journey he composed his Miserere nostri, a three-worded, three-minute work whose construction, symbolism and sheer aural beauty make this one of the shortest yet most compelling masterpieces of all time. It was quite possibly during the short reign of Queen Mary that Miserere nostri was composed.

    When Elizabeth I later granted Tallis and his younger contemporary William Byrd an exclusive licence to publish music, Miserere nostri quickly appeared in print. The piece is set for seven voices. The Seven Joys and the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary had significance during the reign of Queen Mary. And when Tallis and Byrd published the Cantiones sacrae in 1575, Miserere nostri was printed as the final piece in the collection – the last word, as it were, in the musical achievements of the day.

     

     

    Miserere nostri contains a ‘Canon 6 in 2’: the Tenor part is freely-composed, but the other six voices are built from only two musical building blocks. For all of its breathtaking craftsmanship and numerological significance, Miserere nostri is also achingly beautiful. It moves inexorably to its conclusion as it offers up its gut-wrenching Tudor prayer: ‘Have mercy on us, O Lord’.

     

     

    What happened next…

    At the end of the 16th century, Thomas Morley recognised that canons were a highly effective means of compositional education (‘whosoever will exercise himself diligently in that kind, may in short time become an excellent musician’). However, while far from neglected, Tallis’s canonic tour de force is these days often overshadowed by his 40-voice motet Spem in alium. Yet both are great works. When in 1585 William Byrd poignantly wrote that ‘Tallis is dead and music dies’ he was speaking too much for his own time.

    Tallis wrote spectacular music whose influence allowed the English Golden Age to extend from the House of Tudor into the House of Stuart and beyond.

    Jeremy Summerly

     

     

     

    The Stuarts (1603-1714)

     

    Purcell: Hail, bright Cecilia

    During his short but prolific career, Henry Purcell graced St Cecilia’s Day celebrations with a series of impressive odes and a large-scale ceremonial setting of the Te Deum and Jubilate. Hail, bright Cecilia was the fourth and final ode commissioned from Purcell by the gentlemen of the Musical Society at Stationers Hall in London.

    The first performance of his new ode was given on 22 November 1692 with at least 13 soloists (including the first female singer in such a work) and a full orchestra of trumpets, drums, recorders, oboes, bassoon and strings. Lasting 50 minutes, this was Purcell’s longest, grandest and most carefully structured choral work, the like of which audiences had never heard.

    The grandeur of the music is apparent from the very first bars. A ringing fanfare shared between trumpets, oboes and strings develops into a ten-minute Italianate symphony – one of the longest such overtures of the time. In the solos, Purcell took the art of writing arias over a repeated ‘ground bass’ to new heights of sophistication, and ‘Tis Nature’s voice’, with all its extravagant ornamentation, ranks as Purcell’s most expressive declamatory song.

    But what must have surprised and impressed listeners most was the massive choral writing which opens and closes the work and provides its core – the richly expressive ‘Soul of the world’. With Hail, bright Cecilia a favourite at some of the country’s earliest public concerts, it marked the start of the British secular choral tradition.

     

    What happened next…

    Judging by the number of surviving manuscript copies of the piece from the late-17th and 18th century, Hail, bright Cecilia became Purcell’s most popular large-scale work and, along with the ceremonial St Cecilia Te Deum and Jubilate of 1694, kept his style alive in an England which increasingly worshipped at the altar of George Frideric Handel.

    The British secular choral tradition, borne of works like Hail, bright Cecilia, blossomed during the 19th century, giving rise to masterpieces like Parry’s Blest pair of sirens. During the 20th century Purcell’s music was revived by a wide spectrum of composers from Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippet to Peter Maxwell-Davies and Michael Nyman.

    Simon Heighes

     

     

    The Georgian era (1714-1837)

     

    Handel: Messiah

    Messiah was the seventh and most famous of Handel’s oratorios. Premiered in Dublin in April 1742, it confirmed the wisdom of his decision to expend much of his creative energies during the latter part of his life to writing oratorio.

    It is interesting to note that Messiah was unique among Handel’s oratorios. Whereas works like Israel in Egypt and Samson were essentially biblical dramas that happened to have been performed without stage action, Messiah is essentially a narrative, its text drawn from the Bible (mostly the Old Testament) and constructed in three parts, the first celebrating Christ’s birth, the second the Passion and the third a powerful affirmation of faith. In choosing to set such material outside the realms of the church, Handel realised that he was courting controversy and when the work was eventually performed in London at the Kings Theatre in 1745 it was simply billed as a ‘new sacred oratorio’ in the hope that clerical sensibilities would not be offended.

     

     

    The real breakthrough for Messiah occurred five years later when he mounted annual performances of the work at the Foundling Hospital (an organization for underprivileged children) which from 1750 onwards attracted ever increasing popularity. Some 30 years later the historian Charles Burney was to write most aptly of Messiah that ‘this great work has been heard in all parts of the kingdom with increasing reverence and delight; it has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan and enriched succeeding managers of the oratorios, more than any single production in this or any other country.’

     

    What happened next…

    Frederick Delius’s frequently quoted remark from 1909 that Handel ‘paralysed music in England for generations and they have not yet quite got over him’ holds more than a grain of truth. Quite simply, British composers were totally intimidated by Handel’s achievement and during his lifetime and for many years later no one could possibly match the brilliance and majesty of its invention.

     

     

    Ironically, while the popularity of Messiah was to stifle the development of British oratorio until the landmark first performance Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius in 1900, it was to prove liberating for composers on the continent. For example, Mozart’s musical style was immeasurably richened by his experience of re-orchestrating Messiah in the 1780s. Some years later Haydn, attending a performance of Messiah, claimed that ‘this man is the master of us all.’

    Erik Levi

     

     

     

    The Victorian age (1837-1900)

     

    Parry: Blest Pair of Sirens

    Though popularly portrayed as the nadir in the history of ‘the Land without Music’, Queen Victoria’s long reign actually teemed with music-making, and arguably integrated music into the social fabric more thoroughly than before or since.

    But at the height of Continental Romanticism, gifted native composers could hardly compete with the acclaim lavished on visiting continental stars, while British opera, symphonic and instrumental music languished in the shadow of the cathedral-dominated ‘cantata market’. A movement for reform and subversion was early active, however. George Grove founded London’s National Training School for Music – forerunner of the Royal College of Music.

    The great movement for increased excellence in music which gave rise to the phenomenon we call the ‘British Musical Renaissance’ was initiated by idealistic Victorians, including the Englishman Hubert Parry. Parry, who joined the staff of the RCM as soon as it opened and eventually became its principal, was skilled as no British composer had been for a century in choral, orchestral and chamber music. He proposed a bolder choral music, stemming from Purcell, that would complement the riches of English poetry with vigorous and sophisticated music, robust and idiomatic in its wordsetting.

     

     

    Most influential was his magnificent setting of Milton’s ‘Ode on a Solemn Music’, Blest Pair of Sirens, composed for the Bach Choir in 1887. With its huge, ardent melodic paragraphs, perfect in proportion and enacting, rather than depicting, the essence of Milton’s paean to the ‘sphere-born, harmonious sisters, Voice and Verse’, Parry’s work established itself more firmly than any composition by his colleague and rival Stanford. It made manifest a new and visionary strain in British music which impressed and inspired his successors.

     

    What happened next…

    Parry’s work was highly influential – especially on his pupils such as Vaughan Williams, Howells and Dyson, but also on Elgar, from an essentially different background, who in 1904 called Parry ‘the head of our art in this country’. The choral tradition that he rejuvenated continued to be one of the glories of British music in succeeding decades. And though the composers who came of age in the 1930s often affected to dismiss Parry, even Tippett’s Child of Our Time and even Britten’s War Requiem ultimately owe him a significant debt.

     

     

     

    Calum MacDonald

     

    The 20th century (1900-present)

     

    Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

    The story of English music’s rebirth in the 20th century takes in some legendary happenings. Regarding what’s truly meant by ‘influential’, let’s consider a work for strings – lasting only 15 minutes, and first heard at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910. The setting was appropriate. The Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis was the first great flowering of an interest in English church music that Vaughan Williams had been pursuing for some years.

    While compiling a new edition of the English Hymnal, he had been impressed by Tallis’s sombre Phrygian-mode tune for the 1567 Psalter for Matthew Parker, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Fantasia that was to grow from this had another source also. Vaughan Williams naturally knew the Baroque concerto grosso, with its solo and collective string groups, and Elgar had taken up the same idea with brilliance in his Introduction and Allegro of 1905. 

     

     

    The Tallis Fantasia uses similar resources, but in a different way: not as a virtuoso display of symphonic-style development, but an anti-virtuoso summoning of musical space. On one level this is achieved by the presence of three distinct ensembles: a string quartet, the main string orchestra, and a smaller one placed at a distance.

    These multiple perspectives create a remarkable equivalent, in musical terms, of the proportions of cathedral architecture. Everything grows from different elements of the same idea – the Tallis tune itself which moves and breathes with a particular kind of ease and freedom, bypassing classical tradition altogether.

     

    What happened next…

    Reaching back to the realm of Tudor church music, the Tallis Fantasia had come up with a new vision of what music itself actually was, and of how it could work. Spatial deployment of voices and instruments has since become a standard musical resource: Britten’s War Requiem is one major example, Tavener’s Ultimos Ritos another. And the application of pre-Classical methods in a modern context has encouraged some of English music’s boldest explorers – for instance the ritual, medieval-style structures of Birtwistle, or Maxwell Davies’s use of cantus firmus techniques. Sometimes the unlikeliest musical revolution is indeed the deepest.

    Malcolm Hayes

     

     

    This article was first published in the October 2008 issue of BBC Music Magazine. 

  • Free Download: Bruch's Double Concerto for Clarinet and Viola

    classical-music.com | Tue, 23 Apr 2019 10:00:00 +0000

    'A pastoral piece underpinned by nostalgia'

    This week's free download is the first movement of Bruch's Double Concerto for Clarinet and Viola with Orchestra, performed by clarinettist Roeland Hendrikx and violist Sander Geerts with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins. It was recorded on the Evil Penguin label and was awarded four stars for both performance and recording in the Christmas 2018 issue of BBC Music Magazine.

    DOWNLOAD INSTRUCTIONS:

    If you'd like to enjoy our free weekly download simply log in or sign up to our website.

    Once you've done that, return to this page and you'll be able to see a 'Download Now' button on the picture above – simply click on it to download your free track.

    If you experience any technical problems please email support@classical-music.com. Please reference 'Classical Music Free Download', and include details of the system you are using and your location. If you are unsure of what details to include please take a screenshot of this page.

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  • Five essential works by Haydn

    classical-music.com | Sun, 21 Apr 2019 17:00:04 +0000

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    Symphony No. 103, ‘Drumroll’

    Of his last dozen symphonies written for London visits, the Drumroll is an excellent introduction to Haydn’s playful style – from portentous to ebullient in a heartbeat.

    Recommended recording:
    Concertgebouw Orchestra/Colin Davis
    Philips 442 6112

     

     

     

    String Quartets, Op. 33

    Recognised as Haydn’s finest set of string quartets, these include one nicknamed ‘The Bird’ for its birdsong-like first violin part and another, ‘The Joke’, so-named for reasons evident in the finale.

    Recommended recording:
    Festetics Quartet
    Arcana A 414

     

     

     

    Trumpet Concerto

    Haydn’s genius transformed this martial instrument into an eloquent and charming soloist, both in the inspired slow movement and in the sparkling finale.

    Recommended recording:
    Alison Balsom; German Chamber Philharmonic, Bremen
    EMI 216 2130

     

     

     

    The Creation

    Haydn’s vivid musical portrait of the Biblical creation story up to the creation of Adam and Eve is direct yet charmingly apt.

    Recommended recording:
    Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh
    DG Archiv 477 7361

     

     

     

    Nelson Mass

    The dramatic military-style rhythms which open this Mass reflect the Napoleonic War raging while Haydn composed. Otherwise, it’s charming and upbeat, even if the baleful opening returns in the ‘Benedictus’.

    Recommended recording:
    Collegium Musicum 90/Richard Hickox
    Chandos CHAN 0640

     

  • Daniel Kramer resigns as artistic director of the English National Opera

    classical-music.com | Thu, 18 Apr 2019 16:05:04 +0000

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    The English National Opera has announced that Daniel Kramer, is standing down from his role as artistic director after almost three years.

    The company announced that he will leave his position at the end of this season, which comes as a surprise after such a short stint with the ENO. Although he has divided opinions throughout his career, Harry Brünjes, ENO’s chairman, said that ‘Daniel Kramer’s focus on creative artistic output is the underlying reason why our most recent season was both thought provoking and entertaining, as well as commercially successful’.

    Kramer is known for his sometimes unusual twists on performances, such as his daringly feminine take on Strauss’s Salome featuring controversial costumes. Some of his other recent projects have included Turn of the Screw, Porgy and Bess and Iolanthe.

     

     

    The American director first worked with the ENO in 2008 when he directed Punch and Judy, and again the following year with Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, before being appointed to his permanent role in 2016 alongside music director Martyn Brabbins.

    Despite joining the ENO in the midst of arts funding cuts, Kramer has broken box office records throughout his tenure. He said he is now leaving his role to focus on his freelance work, such as directing Britten's War Requiem in Taiwan and Puccini's La bohème and John Adams's Nixon in China closer to home in Europe.

    Kramer is due to step down from his role in July this year, but will continue to work with the ENO until the end of 2019 to complete his work on the four-part Orpheus series being performed at the London Coliseum between 1 October and 29 November. Kramer commissioned works by Gluck, Offenbach, Birtwistle and Glass, which take the audience through the different composers’ interpretations on the Greek mythological character.

     

     

  • A guide to Florence Price

    classical-music.com | Thu, 18 Apr 2019 10:00:00 +0000

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    Florence B Price, née Smith, was a composer, pianist and organist, thought to be the first female symphonist of African-American heritage. She composed over 300 works – symphonies, chamber works and songs noted for their lush orchestration and enchanting lyricism – that were performed by leading orchestras and performers, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and contralto Marian Anderson.

    So why has such a figure remained on the fringes of 20th-century music? In 1,000 years of classical musicology, there is barely a mention of composers of colour, even though these musicians have contributed significantly to the evolution of the genre. Florence Price is just one of a plethora of such composers that have been overlooked.

     

     

    Upbringing

    Price’s life was typical of that lived by middle-class African Americans at the turn of the 20th century. The youngest of three, Florence was born in Little Rock, Arkansas on 9 April 1888 to James and Florence Irene Smith. It was a time when anyone of African heritage in North America was seen as an under-class, no matter their status, so the impact of her remarkable parents can never be underestimated.

    The young Smith’s mother was a wily entrepreneur who ran a restaurant, sold property and served as secretary of the International Loan and Trust Company. She was also a music teacher and taught her daughter the piano. Florence’s father, Dr James Smith, was a notable dentist and inventor of patented dental implements.

    He was possibly the only African-American dentist in Little Rock at that time and, because of his colour, had to overcome innumerable hurdles to qualify. He was also a successful painter who exhibited at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

     

     

    Florence Smith, however, grew up at a time and place in the American South where middle-class African-American families could at least progress to a limited degree, which was certainly not the case for African Americans in other parts of the US. It may have been a coincidence, but a comparably noted African-American composer, William Grant Still, was one of Price’s classmates. Charlotte Stephens, who over a 70-year teaching career influenced many notable alumni in other fields of endeavour, taught both Smith and Still, as well as the equally-noted composer, William Dawson.

    Clearly gifted, the Smith family was considered to be one of the ‘10 percenters’, people that, according to the Harlem Renaissance philosopher and activist W. E. B. Du Bois, had benefited from a classical education and who had the potential to lead American society.

    At their Little Rock home, Smith’s parents hosted many gatherings of African-American intelligentsia, including the piano prodigy ‘Blind’ Tom Wiggins, Du Bois himself and educator Booker T Washington. The young Florence, steeped in the tenets of the Harlem Renaissance that coursed through the veins of the ‘10 percenters’, entertained her parents’ high-profile guests on the piano.

    It was an exciting time, with the blossoming of an African-American belief in equal opportunity and equal cultural value as promoted by the fiery Jamaican pan-Africanist orator Marcus Mosiah Garvey, who toured 38 US states in the early 20th century.

     

     

    Pursuing music

    At the age of 14, Smith graduated as high school valedictorian and two years later, in 1903, left Little Rock to attend the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts where there were only one or two other students of colour (she won her place after following her mother’s advice to present herself as being of Mexican descent).

    In just three years at the conservatory, she gained a soloist’s diploma in organ and a teacher’s diploma in piano, and she was the only one of 2,000 students to pursue a double-major in organ and piano. The principal, George Whitefield Chadwick, encouraged Florence to compose, which turned out to be life-changing advice. She took lessons in composition and counterpoint with composer Benjamin Cutter in her spare time and her early works included pieces for piano and organ.

     

     

    After graduating, Florence Smith returned to the American South to teach in the town of Cotton Plant at the Arkadelphia Presbyterian Academy for a year and then at Little Rock’s Shorter College. In 1910 she moved to Atlanta, Georgia and soon became head of the music department at Clark University, staying there until 1912. It was, again, a tremendous achievement for a woman at that time. Smith returned to Little Rock in 1912 to marry attorney Thomas Jewell Price on 25 September.

    The couple had two daughters and one son, who died in infancy. Price (now her married name) was heartbroken and composed the song To My Little Son in remembrance of him. Her husband worked with the highly respected law firm owned by Scipio Jones, known for successfully defending the appeals of 12 black men sentenced to death following the Elaine Massacre of 1919.

     

     

    Facing prejudice

    The notorious Jim Crow law (1877-1954) permeated life in the American South at the time and kept African Americans subjugated and voiceless. Any aspiration was stifled and achievements negated in American daily life.

    So despite her qualifications, Price was denied membership to the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association. Instead, she established her own music studio, teaching the piano, music theory and composing short teaching pieces for her students. Additionally, to counter her rejection, she founded the Little Rock Club of Musicians. But racial problems continued to escalate in Little Rock, leading to the lynching of several African-American men in 1927. The Prices fled to Chicago for their safety and for a better quality of life.

    Price’s husband, however, had difficulty finding work in Chicago, and financial struggles led to their divorce in 1931. Price became a single mother to her two daughters and, to make ends meet, played the organ for silent film screenings and wrote popular songs for WGN radio ads under the pen name Vee Jay.

     

     

    Beginnings of success

    She joined the R Nathaniel Dett Club of Music and the Allied Arts to gain friendships with like-minded musicians and artists and continued her composition studies at institutions such as the American Conservatory of Music, the Chicago Teachers College, the University of Chicago and the Chicago Musical College. While studying composition and orchestration with Carl Busch and Wesley LaViolette, her beginner piano pieces were published by G Schirmer and the McKinley Music Company.

    All the while, Price continued to enter composing compositions with some success, including newly-established awards for black musicians and second place in the 1925 and 1927 Holstein Prize for composition. Eventually, her concert music came to the attention of one of her teachers, the composer and organist Leo Sowerby, who became one of her great champions.

    In 1932 her big break finally arrived when she won several prizes at the Wanamaker Music Composition Contest: first prize in the orchestral category for her Symphony in E minor (1931-2), first prize for her Piano Sonata (1931) in the solo instrumental category, with the orchestral work Ethiopia’s Shadow in America and the Piano Fantasie mentioned in dispatches.

     

     

    The first symphony


    Fort Smith Symphony perform Price's Symphony No. 1

    Her successes attracted the attention of Frederick Stock, the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He conducted a performance of her First Symphony with the CSO on 15 June 1933 at the Century of Progress Exhibition, and Price became firmly established as a composer of note and the first black women in American history to have a symphonic work performed by a major American orchestra. ‘It is a faultless work,’ wrote The Chicago Daily News, ‘a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion … worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertory.’

    The work, originally nicknamed ‘Negro Symphony’, is nearly 40 minutes long and is imbued with African-American spirituals – Price’s music would go on to be steeped in both European and African-American musical and cultural elements including rhythmic syncopation, spiritual melodies, gospel church music, polyphony, references to African dances, blue notes, the pentatonic scale and African instruments such as the marimba.

    Florence Price made significant friendships during the 1930s, including with the pianist and composer Margaret Bonds and the contralto Marian Anderson and the writer Langston Hughes. Anderson, who had sung her spiritual arrangement of ‘My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord’ in a broadcast from Prague on 6 May 1937, performed the song at the end of her programme at her renowned Lincoln Memorial concert on Easter Sunday in 1939. With 75,000 people attending the performance and many more listening on the radio, Price won overnight fame.


    Marian Anderson singing Price's 'My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord'

    So it’s something of a mystery as to why Price couldn’t get her First Symphony published, despite nationwide performances. It spurred her on to send a letter to the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. ‘My dear Dr Koussevitzky,’ she wrote. ‘To begin with I have two handicaps – those of sex and race. I am a woman with some Negro blood in my veins. Knowing the worst then, would you be good enough to hold in check the possible inclination to regards a woman’s composition as long on emotionalism but short of virility…’

     

     

    Unsung genius

    Even with her relative success, Price struggled to keep a roof over her head and was saved from destitution by friends. She suffered from poor health for most of her adult life and was often in hospital. In May 1953, however, her work was gaining momentum, and she was about to fly to Europe to promote her music when she suffered a heart attack and died on 3 June 1953.

    Performances of her work declined from the late 1950s, but in the last few years there has been a resurgence. Notable advocates include the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble, the pianist Karen Walwyn, the violinist Er-Gene Kahng and Apo Hsu, director and conductor of The Women’s Philharmonic.

    Emeritus Professor James Greeson has made an insightful film about her life, and the academic Professor Rae Linda Brown, who died last year, has written a biography. The time may have come when the roots of ‘a truly American art music’ will be re-examined and composers such as Florence Price will gain their true place among the great American composers.

     

     

    Words by Shirley Thompson. This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of BBC Music Magazine.

  • Six of the best works by Respighi

    classical-music.com | Wed, 17 Apr 2019 16:31:27 +0000

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    In a world of traditional Italian operas and original dramatic 20th-century works, Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) emerged as a composer best known for arranging and orchestrating early music. It was his fascination with Ancient Italy and Renaissance composers that led to his obsession with Gregorian chant, found in a lot of his music. His most common form of compositions are tone poems which are visually stimulating pieces featuring musical representations of a range of scenes and sounds from death to birdsong. His music is an insight into his sensitive but highly nationalistic mind. 

     

     

    These are 6 of his best works...

     

    Pines of Rome (1924)

    Respighi created this colourful musical work after being inspired by four particular areas of Rome’s famous pine trees. The opening movement is about the ‘Pines of the Villa Borghese’, a wealthy Italian family home in the 17th century. In contrast, the 2nd movement, ‘Pines Near a Catacomb’, depicts the ominous shadows in deserted Campagna. Listen carefully to the 3rd movement, ‘The Pines of the Janiculum’, as Respighi plays actual recordings of birds on the Janiculum Hill, heard on a record player within the music. Respighi’s nationalistic ideas come into play in the final movement, ‘The Pines of the Appian Way’ in which the army is heard marching underneath a row of pines. Respighi perfectly captures the natural beauty of the city in this work.

    Recommended recording: 

     

     

     

     

    Fountains of Rome (1917)

    Rome is renowned for its stunning architecture, and Respighi found his inspiration for this work in four fountains around the capital city. The opening pastoral movement is about the ‘Fountain of Valle Giulia’ while dancing mythical beings can be heard in ‘The Triton Fountain’. The famous ‘Trevi Fountain’, home to the triumphant Triton is the subject of the third movement, finishing with the contrasting melancholic mood of ‘The Villa Medici Fountain’ to finish the work.

    Recommended recording:  

     

     

    The Birds (1928)

    Drawing on his enthusiasm for early music, Respighi was inspired by great harpsichord composers of the 17th and 18th century to create the sounds of birds in this music. He imitates the sounds of a cuckoo, a dove, a hen and a nightingale in each movement through the influence of composers such as Pasquini and Rameau; two of the most well-known harpsichord composers of their day. Many sounds are created to represent the birds’ flapping wings and scratching claws.

    Recommended recording:

     

     

    Concerto Gregoriano (1921)

    Respighi uses his love of Gregorian chants in this violin concerto, combining great chordal moments with virtuosic solo violin passages. The concerto was premiered in 1922 in Rome, a perfect location for a modern arrangement of early Christian chants and plainsong. The violin flourishes in the triumphant ending and leaves a lasting impression.

    Recommended recording: 

     

    Ancient Airs and Dances (1917-1932)

    Based on various Renaissance lute pieces, these three suites are characterised by each movement's titled dance. From a lilting Siciliana to a lively rustic dance, Respighi has created a more intimate sound with a reduced-size orchestra in the first and third suites, again most likely influenced by his focus on early music.

    Recommended recording:

     

     

    Belkis, Queen of Sheba (1934)

    Respighi arranged this suite based on his own Ballet about the biblical story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, after his wife thought it was too long to be performed. It is full of majestic and regal moments which contrast with the more serene movements.

    However, this work ends on a dramatic cliff-hanger, as the ballet was so long to arrange that Respighi died before being able to complete the second suite!

    Recommended recording:

     

     

  • How do you get tickets to the BBC Proms?

    classical-music.com | Wed, 17 Apr 2019 12:26:21 +0000

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    The 2019 BBC Proms season is almost upon us, so we’re here to give you all the information you need to attend.

    This year’s season begins with the First Night of the Proms on Friday 19 July with concerts every day until the Last Night on Saturday 14 September. 

     

     

    How to buy tickets

    A full Proms schedule is available here, where you can also buy tickets in advance online.

    Season and Weekend Promming passes go on sale on 11 May, with general booking opening on 11 May at 9am.

    You can also order tickets over the phone by calling the Box Office on +44 (0)20 7070 4441 or +44 (0)20 7589 8212 (international).

     

     

    Promming

    If you fancy a slightly different Proms experience, you could join the Prommers and queue for £6 tickets on the door. It’s recommended that you get there from 5pm to ensure you get a queueing ticket (although you may need to go earlier for very popular concerts).

    If you’re an avid Prommer and want to buy your tickets in bulk, you may find that a weekend or season pass is better value. Have a look at the ticket bundles here.

     

     

    The Last Night of the Proms

    The Last Night of the Proms is a slightly different affair, owing to its huge demand. For Prommers, an early rise is on the cards. The stewards allow you to leave the queue for 30-minute intervals, and they will explain the specific Promming protocol to all queue members on the day.

    If you have attended at least five other Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, you can enter the ballot to buy a maximum of two tickets for the Last Night. The Five-Concert Ballot closes on Thursday 6 June.

    There is also an open ballot for the Last Night of the Proms, in which 200 seats are available. The ballot opens closes on Thursday 4 July. Apply here.

    Any remaining tickets for the Last Night will go on sale on Friday 12 July at 9am, by phone and online only. 

    The Last Night of the Proms extends beyond the Albert Hall, with celebrations also taking place in Hyde Park. As well as the Prom being streamed live from the Albert Hall, there will be performances from artists and ensembles.

     

     

    Watch and listen at home

    Every Prom is broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and some will be televised on Sundays and Fridays on BBC Four and Proms Extra on BBC Two. 

  • BBC Proms 2019 season unveiled

    classical-music.com | Wed, 17 Apr 2019 11:40:21 +0000

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    The programme for this year’s BBC Proms has been revealed, with major celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landings scheduled across the season. Founder and conductor Sir Henry Wood is also honoured this year, as the Proms celebrates the 150th anniversary of his birth.

    Composers have long been inspired by the sound of space, imagined or otherwise. This year’s  season will highlight some of these works to mark the anniversary of the moon landings. Holst’s The Planets and John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine will be performed, as well as premieres of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Metacosmos, which is focused around the concept of black holes, and a work by Zosha Di Castri about the moon landings, which will be the first piece heard at the 2019 Proms. 

    Public Service Broadcasting has its own Late Night Prom this year, orchestrating its 2015 concept album The Race for Space, which blends music with broadcast recordings from the US/USSR Space Race era. Expanding on the space theme further, there will also be a Sci-Fi Film Music Prom in which the London Contemporary Orchestra will take on legendary scores from cult sci-fi films. 

    Exploring how our role on earth ties in with the solar system, Hans Zimmer has been commissioned by the BBC for this year’s Ten Pieces scheme. His new work, Earth, will be performed in the CBeebies Prom by the Chineke! Orchestra. This Prom will also be broadcast on CBeebies. 

     

     

    With a diverse range of performers, we will see Proms debuts from a clutch of BBC New Generation Artists as well as Eric Lu, winner of the 2019 Leeds International Piano Competition. Alongside these young performers are legends including Murray Perahia, who will play Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic, under 2018 BBC Music Magazine Recording of the Year winner Bernard Haitink.

    As ever, the Proms venture beyond the walls of the Royal Albert Hall with the Proms at… series. This year, concerts will be held at Cadogan Hall, Battersea Arts Centre and the Holy Sepulchre London, where Proms founder Sir Henry Wood is buried.

    Wood’s anniversary is being marked in several ways during this year’s season. As a major advocate of new music, Wood used the Proms as a platform for showcasing newly-written compositions. Thirty-three of the works Wood gave British and world premieres of will be performed again this year, including Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. The 2019 Proms will match this number, with 33 new works commissioned this year. 

     

     

    Henry Wood was a fan of dedicating a full night to one composer, a programming style which will be emulated in the final week of this year’s Proms season with concerts given over to Wagner, Bach and Beethoven.

    To mark the 120th anniversary of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, a new anonymously-written theme has been written, inspired by Elgar’s legendary orchestral work. This new piece features variations by 14 composers including Sally Beamish, Judith Weir and Sir Harrison Birtwistle.

    Other anniversaries and birthdays celebrated in this year’s Proms include those of Berlioz, Louis Andriessen, Peter Eötvös and Sir James MacMillan. 

     

     

    New BBC conductors will make their Proms debuts this year: the BBC Philharmonic’s new chief conductor Omer Meir Wellber and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s principal guest conductor Dalia Stasevska. In other firsts in 2019, Karina Canellakis will be the first woman to conduct the First Night of the Proms.

    Mezzo-soprano and winner of the 2018 BBC Music Magazine Vocal Award Jamie Barton will take to the stage for this year's Last Night of the Proms, accompanied by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under its chief conductor Sakari Oramo.

    All Proms will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and 25 of the concerts will be available to watch on BBC TV. 

    The BBC Proms will take place from Friday 19 July to Saturday 14 September 2019.

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