A Cure for Homesickness

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:

The Banks of Green Willow by George Butterworth

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.

Mal Sims by Giles Farnaby

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:

Gustav Holst: A Moorside Suite arranged for string orchestra.

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…

Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra by Benjamin Britten

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.

Herbert Howells: Hymn to St Cecilia

On with our journey, we’re almost there …

Seascape by Ruth Gipps

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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Concerts in my Kitchen

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 perhaps they 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 through his 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:

Alex Ross with the latest what’s online:   The Rest is Noise – Covid 19 Live streams

On now till 6/06/20: Bergen International Festival

Live concerts from Oslo Concert Hall: https://ofo.no/en/mellomspill-interlude

Live With Carnegie Hall: https://www.carnegiehall.org/Explore/Watch-and-Listen/Live-with-Carnegie-Hall

Live concerts from Budapest Festival Orchestra

Berlin Philharmonic: Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall

Royal Scottish National Orchestra, recorded concerts and more: https://www.rsno.org.uk/rsno-online/

London Symphony Orchestra: https://lso.co.uk/whats-on/alwaysplaying.html

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/3PnXsxbTjKHCVCc7ZVYPNlV/bbc-sso-in-isolation-musicliftsthespirit

Yo-Yo Ma and Silkroad Ensemble: Songs of Comfort on You Tube




Back to Bach

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:

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Digital Concert Hall