2. Make we joy now in this fest (Seldon manuscript, c1450)
The original meaning of carol was ‘round dance’, and from here evolves the Medieval carol. It consists of a burden (chorus) which alternates with verses sung by one or more solo voices. There is no better example of that dance structure than here.
Pygott’s macaronic (mixed-language) poem with its mixture of sacred and profane takes the listener back to medieval forms, yet his clever use of imitative polyphony turns a delightful text into quite exquisite music.
Mouton gives us much more than a technical feat (a quadruple canon over a plainchant melody). This is without doubt one of the finest Renaissance motets for the Christmas season – slow moving harmonies, subtly controlled, yet rich in ideas.
Written not only to celebrate Mass on Christmas Day but also to honour Queen Mary’s (mistaken) belief that she was pregnant, the seven-voice texture of this carol is so sonorous and inventive that there can be no better celebration to the birth of our Lord.
classical-music.com | Sat, 08 Dec 2018 10:00:10 +0000
For such an incredibly well-known work, the genesis of Handel's masterwork was remarkably humble...
After the London ‘season’ ended in 1741, Handel turned as usual to writing works for the next autumn. One of these was a setting of a new libretto by the literary scholar and editor of Shakespeare’s plays, Charles Jennens, who had provided the text for Saul four years earlier. He described Messiah as a ‘Scripture Collection’, a series of short extracts from the Authorised Version of the Bible, somewhat different from Handel’s usual preference for oratorios based on larger-than-life characters and dramatic stories from the Old Testament.
Handel, in debt and depressed as a result, began composition on Saturday 22 August 1741, completed drafts of each Part in about a week each, and ‘filled up’ the score in a couple more days, a total of 23 days for the complete work – an astonishing work-rate, even if some numbers were recycled from earlier music (why throw away good music after its public performances?).
It was so quick, in fact, that most of us would be hard-pressed simply to copy out the music, let alone conceive virtually all of it from scratch.
Jennens was suprised to hear that Messiah was not scheduled for first performance in London: he wrote in a letter ‘it was some mortification to me to hear that instead of performing it here he was gone into Ireland with it’.
Internal evidence from the score, though, suggests that Handel had it in mind for Dublin rather than for the more generous resources of London. It’s modestly scored, for just strings, trumpets and drums, and it only requires four soloists, one each of soprano, alto, tenor and bass.
The English music historian Dr Charles Burney claims that, as a 15-year-old boy at school in Chester, he saw Handel there, en route to Dublin, ‘[smoking] a pipe over a dish of coffee at the Exchange Coffee-House’. Handel asked Burney’s music teacher, the cathedral organist ‘whether there were any choirmen in the Cathedral who could sing at sight, as he wished to prove some books that had been hastily transcribed by trying the choruses which he intended to perform in Ireland’.
A bass, a printer named Jansen, was recommended to him and a rehearsal took place at the Golden Falcon where Handel was staying. Jansen failed miserably to cope with ‘And with his stripes’ from Messiah at which, says Burney, Handel, ‘after swearing at him in four or five different languages, cried out in broken English: “You shcauntrel, tid you not tell me zat you could sing at sight?”. “Yes sir”, says the printer, “and so I can, but not at first sight”’. Some scholars have cast doubt on this lively anecdote. To others it has a ring of truth if only because it seems qutie unlikely that a reputable writer such as Burney should simply invent it.
Handel arrived in Dublin from Holyhead on 18 November 1741 followed three days later by a soprano, Christina Maria Avolio, who sang for him during his stay in Dublin. He quickly set up a series of six subscription concerts including his Ode based on John Milton’s pastoral poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso in a newly built concert room in Fishamble Street (named after the fish ‘ambles’ or stalls in the market there). The concerts were an immediate success, Handel reporting that the subscribers filled ‘a Room of 600 Persons, so that I needed not sell one single Ticket at the door’.
Attendances were no less in January, with such traffic jams that ‘Gentlemen and Ladies are desired to order their Coaches and Chairs to come down Fishamble Street, which will prevent a great deal of Inconvenience that happened the Night before’. Concert promotion was not without its problems though. Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral had given approval for vicars-choral from the Cathedral choir to take part in Handel’s series. Suddenly, apparently the result of a failing memory (he was described as ‘dying from the top’), he rescinded the licence to ‘assist at a club of fiddlers in Fishamble Street’, and required his ‘Sub-Dean and Chapter to punish such vicars as shall ever appear there, as songsters, fiddlers, pipers, trumpeters, drummers, drum-majors, or in any sonal quality, according to the flagitious aggravations of their respective disobedience, rebellion, perfidy, and ingratitude’. Swift seems to have forgotten this change of heart as quickly as he first experienced it, and cathedral singers took part, potential ‘flagitious aggravations’ notwithstanding, in successful concerts from January onwards.
The Dublin Journal of 27 March 1742, announcing the first performance of Messiah, stressed its charitable aims: ‘For Relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay, on Monday the 12 April, will be performed at the Musick hall in Fishamble Street, Mr. Handel’s new Grand oratorio, call’d the MESSIAH, in which the Gentlemen of the Choirs of both Cathedrals will assist, with some Concertoes on the Organ, by Mr. Handell.’
Tickets cost half a guinea each, about £45 in today’s money, but they also gave admission to the rehearsal on the 9 April which was received by ‘a most Grand, Polite and crouded Audience’. Presumably in response to such ticket sales, the Journal published an appeal on 10 April that: ‘The Ladies who honour this Performance with their Presence would be pleased to come without Hoops, as it will greatly encrease the Charity, by making room for more company’, and on the day of the performance, delayed until the 13 April, ‘The Gentlemen [were] desired to come without their Swords’, and for good reason – the ‘Musick hall’ designed for an audience of about 600, had 700 packed into it by midday, when the performance duly began.
Information about the performers for this inaugural performance is rather sketchy. Exact numbers of singers or orchestral players aren’t known. But the orchestra was certainly led by Matthew Dubourg, who moved from London to Dublin in 1728 and from then on divided his time between the two capital cities. He was a long-term friend of Handel who left him £100 in his will. They clearly seem to have enjoyed a wry joke or two together: on one occasion, after he had improvised an exceptionally long cadenza, Handel declared ‘Welcome home, Mr Dubourg!’.
Handel presumably directed the performance from the organ, his own portable-sized instrument which he had arranged to be brought to Dublin. Of the solo singers, the soprano was Christina Avolio of whom Handel wrote that ‘she pleases extraordinary’. His female alto was Susanna Maria Cibber, both actress and singer who, according to Charles Burney, ‘had captivated every hearer of sensibility by her native sweetness of voice and powers of expression’. She had fled to Dublin from London to escape the scandal of an adulterous affair and seems to achieved public absolution when one Rev. Dr. Delaney was moved to rise from his seat after her singing of ‘He was despised’ and exclaim ‘Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven’.
The other soloists came from the Cathedral Choirs, and also sang in the chorus. This was relatively small. Handel may have called on up to 26 boy trebles from the two Cathedrals but, for the lower parts, the Handel scholar Donald Burrows has imaginatively counted up the known cathedral men, subtracted four who were probably ordained and so not permitted to engage in secular concerts, and come up with only around three or four singers to a part – the sort of chamber-music scale to which we’re refreshingly returning today.
The performance received rave reviews. The Dublin Journal reported: ‘…the best Judges allowed [Messiah] to be the most finished piece of Musick. Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience. The Sublime, the grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear’. For 268 years since, Messiah has remained pre-eminent among sacred oratorios. Through all its Classical additions by Mozart, gargantuan scoring by Sir Thomas Beecham, Crystal Palace renderings by casts of thousands (see Another fine Messiah overleaf), spontaneous ‘from scratch’ performances, up until more recent rediscovery of its original scale and character, it has never failed to ‘transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear’.
classical-music.com | Fri, 07 Dec 2018 10:00:00 +0000
Following on from the successes of 2018’s live orchestral film screenings, we’ve compiled a list of the film, silent film and television performances of 2019, and where to find them. There’s sure to be something to suit everyone!
classical-music.com | Thu, 06 Dec 2018 20:00:00 +0000
HRH The Prince of Wales will be appearing on BBC Radio 3’s Private Passions this Christmas, to celebrate the programme producing over 1000 episodes. It will be available to listen to on BBC Sounds from Boxing Day onwards, and will be broadcast on Radio 3 on Sunday 30 December at midday.
Prince Charles will speak to presenter and composer Michael Berkeley, who has hosted the programme for 23 years, about the role music has played throughout his life.
His musical choices include one of the pieces performed at his wedding to the Duchess of Cornwall, as well as the work he conducted with members of the Philharmonia Orchestra as part of his wife’s 60th birthday.
The Prince of Wales also discusses his musical memories of childhood, reflecting on attending concerts and the ballet with his grandmother, the Queen Mother. He goes on to discuss his time as a student at Cambridge University where he played the cello in the Trinity College Orchestra.
‘It’s a wonderfully varied programme,’ says Private Passions presenter Michael Berkeley. “It unveils someone who passionately loves music.’
classical-music.com | Thu, 06 Dec 2018 12:47:37 +0000
Welcome to the Christmas episode of the BBC Music Magazine podcast, presented by editor Oliver Condy along with reviews editor Michael Beek and editorial assistant Freya Parr.
This month, we discuss the winners of Young Chorister of the Year 2018, the bank-breaking Pavarotti art case and the research that shows that classical music recordings are getting significantly faster by the year.
classical-music.com | Wed, 05 Dec 2018 10:35:20 +0000
The annual British Composer Awards were announced last night at a ceremony at the British Museum in London, with the winners including Judith Weir, Trevor Wishart, Sally Beamish and Harrison Birtwistle. It was the eighth such award for Birtwistle, making him the most celebrated composer in the awards' 14-year history.
New composers took centre stage this year, with 70 per cent of the winners receiving their first British Composer Awards. Improving the accessibility of music was an issue addressed by two first-time winners: Liam Taylor-West and Oliver Searle, who won in the Community or Educational Project and Amateur or Young Performer categories respectively.
Taylor-West utilises a combination of electronic and acoustic instruments in a work composed for disabled and non-disabled musicians, while Searle’s work Microscopic Dances uses digital technologies to provide opportunities for disabled and non-disabled young people to perform together.
In other works using unusual instrumentation, first-time winner Dominic Murcott’s The Harmonic Canon is composed for a computer-designed half-ton double bell. The composition blurs the boundaries between music and a public work of art.
Judith Weir won her second British Composer Award this year for her choral work In the Land of Uz, a dramatisation of the Book of Job from the Old Testament.
Harrison Birtwistle won his award in the Orchestral category for Deep Time, which explores the progression of time as seen through the changes in geographical landscapes.
Sally Beamish and Trevor Wishart were presented with Gift of BASCA Awards in recognition of their contribution to new music.
A jazz category was introduced this year, with winners awarded for both large and small ensemble. Cassie Kinoshi’s Afronaut – a piece inspired by author Samuel R Delany’s science fiction – won in the Large Ensemble category, while Simon Lasky took home the Small Ensemble prize for Close to Ecstasy, which combines improvisation with detailed notation.
BBC Radio 3 will broadcast the British Composer Awards on Sunday 9 December at 9.20pm.
See below for the full list of winners:
Amateur or Young Performers: Microscoping Dances by Oliver Searle
Chamber Ensemble Libro di fiammelle e ombre by James Weeks
Choral In the Land of Uz by Judith Weir
Community or Educational Project The Umbrella by Liam Taylor-West
Jazz Composition for Large Ensemble Afronaut by Cassie Kinoshi
Jazz Composition for Small Ensemble Close to Ecstasy by Simon Lasky
Orchestral Deep Time by Harrison Birtwistle
Small Chamber Unbreathed by Rebecca Saunders
Solo or Duo Halfway to Heaven by Emily Peasgood
Stage Works Shorelines by Oliver Coates
Wind Band or Brass Band The Turing Test by Simon Dobson
British Composer Award for Innovation Trevor Wishart
British Composer Award for Inspiration Sally Beamish
classical-music.com | Wed, 05 Dec 2018 10:00:00 +0000
The Moonlight Sonata is not only the most famous of the Beethoven Sonatas, but is a candidate for the most famous piece of serious art music ever written,’ claims Charles Rosen in his book on the Piano Sonatas. But it’s the first movement, with its hypnotic triplets, that is so celebrated – many people have never heard the rest.
Beethoven had proven himself a master of the sonata in his previous 13 piano works, and was restless to try something different, so he called his two Op. 27 Sonatas ‘quasi una fantasia’. This, the second, has its slow movement first, then a brief equivocal middle movement, and finally a terrifying presto, of which Rosen writes ‘even today, 200 years later, its ferocity is astonishing’.
Performances are to be judged above all by how astonishing the last movement sounds, not by whether the first sends you into a state of bliss…
Out of the 300 or so recordings available, so many are fine that choosing a winner is more than usually foolish. But I find Stephen Kovacevich’s account at least as great as any other I have heard, despite EMI’s slightly constricted sound.
He doesn’t make a meal of the first movement, keeping those murmurous triplets in their place, letting the climaxes, which aren’t large, emerge from and sink into the general level of the movement naturally, as if it were breathing.
Beethoven instructs that the movement be played without muting, ie without bringing the hammers nearer the strings, but also that the sustaining pedal be held down for lengthy stretches. That would have worked better on his pianos than on ours, where too much pedalling results in a more atmospheric haze.
The middle movement, which is a bit of a puzzle, Kovacevich plays without any particular emphasis, leaving an impression – the right one, I believe –of almost trite normality between its two bizarre neighbours.
But then he hurls himself into the last movement, with those furious arpeggios clearly articulated; the two crashing chords at the climax of each are violent but not an assault on the ears, as too many pianists make them.
Many performances of the Moonlight Sonata are virtually indistinguishable, which is not necessarily a criticism. But Romanian Radu Lupu is utterly individual – and that is no criticism either, at least in his case.
He opens the Sonata very quietly, very softly – I’d swear he is using the soft pedal – and creates almost a Debussyian halo of sound, certainly a sensuous effect which is magical but surely far from anything the composer imagined. He builds the movement to an unindicated climax, too, but can you resist the persuasiveness of this playing?
The short second movement is, by contrast, neat and well-behaved, and the third is played with waves of excitement, pauses for breath, and then a further volley of sound. Decca provides the warmest acoustic of all these recordings.
As soon as I listened to the Ukrainian pianist Emil Gilels, wonderfully recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, I wondered how I could possibly find anyone greater. But that is the Gilels effect – the directness and honesty of his playing.
On the other hand, with a work so almost stultifyingly familiar as at any rate the first movement, there may be something to be said for some idiosyncrasy, if only to jerk us out of conventional responses.
I don’t feel that Gilels quite does that, though it is a curious criticism to make of someone that they seem to be giving us the actual work, without any intermediate interpretation.
The only possible criticism one can make of this superb artist is that he never gives the impression of almost losing control – and the last movement of the Moonlight is demented. So for anyone of nervous temperament, this is the recording to choose.
My final choice could so easily be Maurizio Pollini or Wilhelm Kempff, or even Paul Lewis, but invidiously I have chosen the Hungarian virtuoso Géza Anda, because he presents, as he does in almost everything, an account which is fresh and somewhat surprising.
Where others seek out the imponderable mysteries of the first movement, Anda, with a weird acoustic, seems more interested in exploring a foreign sound-world.
He plays the short second movement with almost comic decorum, as if it were a piece by Haydn, and then whirls into the last movement with more swagger than fury, so that rather than being cowed, as we usually are, the effect is one of exhilaration.
It pains me to say so, but Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau’s Philips CD, and his live performance on Euroarts DVD, are sadly laboured affairs, ponderous in tempo and communicating not a lot more than the effort indicated by the sweat on his brow.
He was so often a supreme artist, but sometimes he would have done a good deal more justice to a great composer if he hadn’t tried so hard, and these are very evidently two of those occasions.
classical-music.com | Tue, 04 Dec 2018 10:00:00 +0000
'The all-pervasive melancholy of Les Regrets'
This week's free download is Couperin's Les Regrets, taken from Ordre No. 3 of his works for harpsichord. It is performed by harpsichordist Bertrand Cuiller and recorded on the Harmonia Mundi label. The recording was awarded four stars for both performance and recording in the December issue of BBC Music Magazine.
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classical-music.com | Mon, 03 Dec 2018 16:00:00 +0000
Sunday in the Park with George (1984) - Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece throws light on some eerily resonant truths about the process of making art, and the effect that process has on the lives of those around the artist.
Its central character is George Seurat, the post-impressionist painter whose most celebrated work, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, is created out of a multitude of tiny multi-coloured dots.
Sondheim parallels that pointillism and colour in the harmonically adventurous score and orchestration in a most ingenious way. Probably its most famous song is 'Finishing The Hat', a soliloquy on the artist’s preoccupation with his work while the outside world - the rest of life - passes by his window.
Jake Gyllenhaal singing 'Finishing the Hat' in the 2017 Broadway production of Sunday in the Park with George
The plot for this 90s musical is simple enough: Floyd is a caver who gets his foot trapped deep underground. Yet the score is striking for its highly original (and unlikely) fusion of styles; one description of it might be 'Bartók meets country and bluegrass'.
There are delightful numbers everywhere in this score, including 'Lucky' in Act 1, and 'The Dream' in Act 2. But the emotional highlight for me is the moving final number, 'Where Glory Goes', in which the dying Floyd Collins wonders what he can expect in the afterlife.
Composer Adam Cork and playwright Alecky Blythe’s ground-breaking musical about the community affected by the Ipswich serial murders of 2006 broke new ground in musical theatre.
It used a ‘verbatim' style, in which interviews with members of the community were recorded, transcribed and performed by the actors exactly as they were spoken, but the genius of Adam’s score was that this principle extended to having the music’s rhythmic patterns and pitch contours all following this scheme too. London Road was subsequently turned into a film, directed by Rufus Norris and starring Olivia Colman and Tom Hardy.
These days we take for granted that a musical should integrate its stage elements in a seamless believable way, with the songs and dances springing naturally from the dramatic demands of the characters and the text and advancing the plot.
But this wasn’t always the case; in the early days of American musical theatre, the focus was very much on superficial humour and show-stopping numbers and effects that interrupted the flow of what (little) story there was.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma was one of the first important musicals to change this pattern. Alongside a story that features rounded and developing characters, the score is full of highly memorable tunes. The song 'Out Of My Dreams' and the ballet sequence based on it are utterly mesmerising.