Writing on Father’s Day … some memories of my late dad’s influence on my musical education:
My dad was a research scientist who worked on developing a battery for a prototype electric car in the 1960s and 70s. It was shown on TV on ‘Tomorrow’s World’. He was meant to drive it on to the set but dropped out at the last minute because he was too shy. We all sat round the TV and were so disappointed when someone else drove on instead, especially as I’d told all my friends to watch. He later told us he had been worried that the car might stall and the thought of the impending embarrassment had held him back. He asked one of his colleagues to take his place. I know that feeling – should I attempt the solo part I have been offered or ask someone else play it?
My dad, a scientist; my mum, a dancer/teacher: I’ve always credited my mum for encouraging my love of music and wrote about it here (Thank you for the Music, Mum) but I came to know and love many of the classics because of my dad. He listened to the BBC ‘third programme’ which played music by the ‘great’ composers: overtures, concertos and symphonies by Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn (amongst others) every day. Orchestral sounds, dramatic rhythms and (what soon became) well-known melodies drifted around the house. He not only listened on his home-made valve wireless but also had music playing in the car.He gave me a lift every school day, car radio turned up and when I heard something I really liked, I was in danger of making myself late by staying to listen to the end. I first heard Brahms’ second piano concerto in the car. I was stunned by the beauty of the cello solo melody that opens the second movement and recurs throughout. I’d never heard of a cello solo in a piano concerto before. I really didn’t want to get out of the car that morning. Next birthday, my dad gave me a double LP of both Brahms piano concertos and I listened over and over to that movement.
Listening to it now, I find it such a sad, nostalgic sounding melody, I wonder at my teenage self sometimes!
Symphonies and piano concertos were one thing but there was another type of music where my dad’s enthusiasm left me cold. That was opera. I was never a fan. It didn’t help that the first one he took me to as a young teenager was La Belle Hélène by Offenbach. I didn’t like the warbly voices, couldn’t make out the lyrics and couldn’t follow the plot. Worst of all, confirming my annoyance at being there, the leading lady began to strip off revealing her corset and bloomers! I was mortified and excruciatingly embarrassed. The whole experience put me off opera for years. When I was clearing out my dad’s house, what did I find in the attic? An LP of La Belle Hélène with the leading lady there on the front in her corset! My dread came flooding back!
Over the past decade, my musical studies have taken me on a virtual world tour. I have enjoyed learning to play Indonesian gamelan, Indian sitar and tabla, learning West African dance and playing in a Chinese orchestra but all of a sudden a strange thing has happened. Just lately during lockdown I have become homesick for England. Due to pandemic restrictions here where I live in Scotland, I haven’t been over the border for over a year. So what better cure than to let the music take me there?
Join me on a virtual English journey:
Already, I can see the English countryside, I’m a child making daisy chains and paddling in streams on long summer days. That was George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow, based on an English folk song. Butterworth was one of the composers, along with Ralph Vaughan Williams and others, who collected and transcribed hundreds of folk songs in rural England before WW1. The influence on their own musical style is clear as day: their compositions evoke a kind of pastoral idyll. Sadly, Butterworth never made it back from the war, dying on the Somme in 1916 aged only 31, which makes this piece even more poignant.
From a different era now, let’s visit Shakespeare’s England.
I love this arrangement of the music of Giles Farnaby played by the Philip Jones brass ensemble, originally written for keyboard. Farnaby was a keyboard instrument maker by trade as well as a composer and I imagine him trying out his compositions in his workshop.
Now time for another tramp across the fields:
A Moorside Suite by Gustav Holst was originally written for brass band but I think this string version is equally effective at conjuring up an English landscape. Holst, born in 1874 is most famous for The Planets written in 1913, a brilliant piece that sounds so modern it could have been composed yesterday.
Now another trip back in time to the 16th century to hear the music of John Dowland, a composer who excelled in the fashionable melancholic style of the era. This is an arrangement of The Earle of Essex Galiard – one of his more cheerful numbers.
From a century later, a song by Henry Purcell – a brilliant example of his use of a ground bass (a bass line which repeats itself throughout). To me this bass line is a melody in itself and the feeling of security it gives, allows the melody to flow. It’s so beautiful! No wonder Purcell is thought of as one of England’s greatest composers.
Travelling forward to the 20th century, let’s hear from a composer whose most famous piece is based on a theme by Purcell. It is of course Benjamin Britten, who is associated with the area of England where he spent much of his life: East Anglia. Its wild, coastal landscape inspired his operatic works: Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. In this piece, his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, I love the way he characterises each instrumental section – especially when it comes to the percussion – you can still hear the tune in your head when they play. When Britten was composing this in the post-war era, there was a resurgence of culture in the UK and a belief in its value in healing a nation: something we could do with again as we come out of this pandemic…
I’ve mentioned my memories of the English countryside but I spent my childhood in a northern suburb of Manchester. In my teens, we moved to a town in Lancashire at the edge of the Pennine hills: the town of Haslingden which happens to be the birthplace of the composer Alan Rawsthorne. Here’s the opening theme of his music for the film The Cruel Sea about the Battle of the Atlantic during WW2. Whilst attempting to obey orders to attack one another, both sides realise the danger of their mission puts them at the mercy of the sea and by implication, the impossible demands of those in command. Dramatic and stirring …
As I come from northern England, of course I have to include brass band music: associated with the area from the time when mills and collieries started up their own bands. Industry may have gone but the bands continue. I’ve chosen the Brighouse and Rastrick band. I studied music in Huddersfield in west Yorkshire and one my fellow music students played in this band, in fact I think he still does. Here they are playing Cornet Carillon which reminds me of another quintessential English sound – the peeling of English church bells.
Let’s get back to our rural idyll with the music of Gerald Finzi. I first came across Finzi’s music when I was playing in a chamber orchestra at Huddersfield. We performed Dies Natalis with one of my talented fellow students singing the solo. I loved the string parts, the gorgeous harmonies and the plaintive melodies. Here’s another evocative piece by Finzi called Forlana, from his 5 Bagatelles.
Music from the great tradition of English choral music next. Herbert Howells’ hymns and psalm settings are a well-loved part of choral evensong repertoire. This is his Hymn to St Cecilia – the patron saint of music.
On with our journey, we’re almost there …
Music by Ruth Gipps, proving you don’t have to be a man to compose great music. Although at that time, it helped you to get recognition. Born in 1921, she was a professional oboist, conductor and a prolific composer. I am ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of her until she was BBC radio 3 composer of the week recently.
If it hasn’t done it already, the music from now on is going to tug at your heart strings so turn the volume up and prepare to shed a tear. I can’t imagine hearing the following music without associating it with England but for me much of this music evokes a time not just a place, a time I can’t ever get back.
And although I sound English, I feel quite Scottish, having lived here for most of my adult life. I think of myself as a European and a citizen of the world rather than particularly English.
This musical journey is about missing family, it’s about fond memories, of places I have spent happy times and of lost loved ones.
So to take us to the end of our tour, here are two pieces which indulge my nostalgia with an old-fashioned English melody: Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves and Elgar’s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations.
Do you have a piece of music that reminds you of home? I’d love to hear about it.
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I have never visited Norway, let alone been to a concert there but thanks to the new normal, I have been enjoying the latest series of live performances from Oslo and Bergen, in my kitchen in Edinburgh, Scotland, on a laptop plugged into a couple of speakers.
Musicians from the Oslo Philharmonic have been broadcasting digital concerts from the Oslo Concert Hall and so far I’ve heard some superb performances of a range of music including a Bach keyboard concerto (BWV 1056), Debussy’s Prélude à L’après-midi d’un Faune, Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet and Steve Riech’s Vermont Counterpoint and New York Counterpoint: all works for solo, small ensemble or chamber orchestra, making self-distancing possible.
Last week, I heard their stunning performance of Berio’s Folk Songs with the soprano Stina Steingrim Levvel. Her command of a wide range of styles and languages was remarkable. But it was the way she communicated with her invisible audience, that was so compelling. I was on the edge of my seat.
Another treat from Norway was the opening concert of the Bergen International Festival last week. Its concerts are also going online in venues without an audience. This concert by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra introduced me to the music of Jörg Widman: his exciting brass Fanfare, his rhythmic 180 Beats per Minute for string orchestra and his Con Brio for orchestra with fragments of Beethoven’s 7th symphony flickering almost imperceptibly inside the music. After a wonderful performance of Mozart’s concert aria, Ch’io mi scordi di te? with soprano Mari Eriksmoen as soloist, the concert concluded with Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa for two violins, string orchestra and prepared piano – a thrilling and hopeful piece which I hadn’t heard for ages and which seemed perfectly programmed for these uncertain times.
These are just two organisations producing live concert broadcasts during restrictions and whilst they don’t have their usual physical audiences perhapsthey have a more world-wide online following. With major concert halls around the world closed to the public, is it time for a rethink?
As well as these wonderful events from Norway, I’ve now seen online concerts from Germany, Hungary, the US and the UK. I’m getting used to watching performances in empty concert halls – the echo of footsteps on the stage, normally soaked up by an audience, musicians bowing to rows of empty seats, no clapping, no-one shaking hands. Sometimes a wave from the musicians breaks the ice as if they recognise that we are watching.
Of course there are many musicians performing in much more informal settings. International soloists, violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Jeremy Denk, recently played solos and as a trio, broadcast on Live with Carnegie Hall, chatting and performing from their homes in three different locations. It was great to hear such musicianship and ensemble playing, unfazed by all the obstacles that come from being in different continents, on computers, with headphones. Throughout the world, musicians are now finding a new way of reaching us.
I heard about all these events and many more, thanks to Alec Ross who has been researching and updating links to some great online performances across the world throughhis website: The Rest is Noise. (link below)
As the pandemic goes on, I’ll be continuing to watch online concerts in my kitchen. If you too would like to hear some first class performances online, here are a few links:
Later today, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma is going to play all six Bach suites in memory of those who have died of Covid-19. He has performed the suites in many parts of the world and now will play them in a concert online. (See a previous post: Yo-Yo Ma builds bridges with Bach.) He has been playing Bach’s music to communicate his message of peace and hope across nations and now he will play a memorial concert for those who have been lost to the pandemic.
For me, as a cellist, Bach’s suites for solo cello are, of course, very special. But I also adore Bach’s magnificent works for large forces. The St John Passion for solo voices, chorus and orchestra, is almost overwhelming in its emotional power. I was lucky enough to catch an unusual online performance of this work arranged for solo voice, percussion and harpsichord/organ given on Good Friday at St Thomas Church, Leipzig. Yes, the church where Bach was concert master and organist. It was arranged and sung by Benedikt Kristjansson. Wow! Am I glad I stopped still for a few hours to watch this. The singing was spine-tingling, the arrangement imaginative and creative. It was one of the most moving performances of the piece I have ever heard. And that was the third St John Passion I had heard since lockdown!
And the other two were by the Berlin Phil. One of the first things I did was take advantage of the 30 day free trial of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra digital concert hall: a treasure trove of concert archives. It was the beginning of lockdown and I was full of positive energy and optimism that a few weeks indoors would cure this pandemic. I spent several days watching concerts including two performances of Bach’s St John and St Matthew Passions. Mark Padmore sang the part of the Evangelist, Simon Rattle conducted and Peter Sellars directed these stunning dramatised performances. Each performance was profoundly moving and affected me for days afterwards.
Now, several weeks on and still in lockdown, Bach’s music remains balm for the soul, for me. So thank you in advance to Yo-Yo Ma for this concert of Bach’s cello suites to be performed on You Tube at 8pm this evening.
Yo-Yo Ma plays a Bach memorial concert, on Sunday, May 24 at 3p ET (8pm BST)
For performances of St John and St Matthew Passions and much more:
Last weekend, I watched the 1945 classic film Brief Encounter for the first time and now at last, I understand what the big deal is about its use of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto as its soundtrack. I first heard the piece as a teenager and loved its dramatic opening chords and sweeping string melodies and I listened to it over and over. My mum, a cinema fan since her early teens, always told me she couldn’t hear it without thinking of the heart-rending, romantic film which came out when she was fourteen. But I’d found the music heart-rending and romantic without seeing the film, swept along by its swirling themes and virtuosic, rippling piano sounds.
I had seen a clip from the film, a couple at a train window with Rachmaninov’s music telling you all you need to know about their relationship. Now, watching from the start, as the whistle of a steam train whooshing through the station ushers in the ominous piano chords which launch into the first stirring melody, the turbulent mood is set and I’m already hooked.
This is a story of conflicted emotions. Two strangers, Laura and Alec (both married to other people) begin to fall for one another, after meeting by chance in the refreshment room at Milford Junction. The initial dialogue scenes in the refreshment room are starkly unaccompanied. But on the train home, a plaintive theme begins quietly, as Laura reflects on her feelings, a theme that returns at poignant moments later in the film. As the story unfolds, we see Laura, in a highly emotional state, hurrying through the station, whilst an agitated theme leads to another yearning melody and trains continue to hurtle by.
For me, there’s something nostalgic and romantic about old fashioned stations anyway, especially during the age of the steam train – couples saying their goodbyes and waving to each other as they disappear into the distance. So, when we come to the famous scene at the train window towards the end that I had seen out of context, I am now on board and in bits. Is it the setting, the story or the music?
Perhaps it’s the combination of all three. It seems to me as if the music could have been written for the film, the extracts (taken from different parts of the concerto) fit so perfectly, taking us on a whirlwind journey of heady romance. Unsettling passages from the score highlight Laura’s anguish as she wrestles with feelings of guilt, decency and honour. To modern ears, the couple’s terribly polite clipped English accents seem to intensify the restraint in their conversation but Rachmaninov’s music leaves you in no doubt of their passionate feelings.
I love the way the story is told by Laura, as she imagines telling it to her husband (which she knows she never can) as they sit at home together, listening to the radio, whilst he does the Times crossword. The answer to the clue she helps him with just happens to be the word ‘romance’ and when she switches on the radiogram, it just happens to be playing Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto. She relives her romance as she listens, just as my mum relived the film every time we listened to that same music, as we sat by our fireside.
Listen to this piece and be ready for an emotional journey. Watch the film and indulge in a foolish, romantic dream, swept along by the music. Oh dear, I think I just got a speck of something in my eye (cue Rachmaninov).
The film Brief Encounter directed by David Lean and starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard is available on BBC iPlayer till 13/06/20.