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Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

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Peter and the Firebird – A Birmingham Schools Spectacular

Peter and the Firebird – A Birmingham Schools Spectacular

Some projects are a long time in the making, but often all the more satisfying because of it. Earlier this week I was in Birmingham for the culmination of a glorious, ambitious, beautiful project, hosted by King Edward School and their music teacher/conductor Dr Martin Leigh, music teacher Keith Farr, and embracing seven other schools in the Birmingham area.

With the idea of using story and art in music as an aid to inspire primary school children to compose their own music, I helped develop a book for schools, “Exploring Music through Stories”, full of useful teaching notes. Meanwhile Martin and Keith were actively involved in working directly with schools and teachers to encourage the children to create something wonderful – and they did!

They should be named: Hallmoor (who presented – and charmingly acted – songs from Hansel and Gretel); Bourneville and Tiverton (who offered a fresh look at Peter and the Wolf); Brownmead (who conjured the witch Baba Yaga with a beautifully slavic sounding song); The Oval (I loved their midnight clock for Cinderella!); Elms Farm (Their “Snegurochka” song touched the heart in their version of The Snow Maiden) and Hillstone (who brilliantly used percussion and all kinds of unusual sounds to share the underwater world of Sadko – amazing!). Huge congratulations to them all – it was truly wonderful to witness! all the children, shining with pride and achievement!

Afterwards, in keeping with the Russian Fairy Tale theme, I narrated and illustrated the original version of Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev, plus a couple of extracts from Stravinsky’s Firebird, with the KES symphony orchestra, who played superbly.

But that wasn’t all – there then followed an evening performance of Peter and the Wolf and the full 1919 suite from The Firebird. A pretty full day! For me, the challenge was to learn the narration for Peter and the Wolf and many complicated cues, by heart. As I was illustrating the tale simultaneously, at my easel, it wasn’t possible to use a score, so it all had to be firmly embedded in my memory. Happily I survived both times without mishap, and the lovely warm Birmingham audience made me most welcome.

My thanks to and admiration for Keith and Martin are boundless. The way Martin thanked every single student in the orchestra, as they left the stage, was utterly heartwarming. Also thanks to Sarah Mullen of the brilliant Busy Parents Network, who so ably supported this glorious, unforgettable event. One of the best I’ve ever been involved in.

I’m now looking forward to returning to Birmingham for several Busy Parent Network events at their Bournville Book Fest in March, including another concert, with Birmingham opera singer Abigail Kelly, an event full of art and arias as I accompany her singing with painting! You can find out more here:

James Mayhew

James is the creator of the much-loved Katie and Ella Bella Ballerina series and many other books, including Koshka’s Tales, Miranda the Explorer and Boy. Alongside his work in publishing, James has devised and performs in a hugely successful series of concerts for children, combining live classical music, storytelling and art.

Churcher on Widmann

Jӧrg Widmann is a contemporary German composer, clarinettist and conductor. His music has received great critical acclaim and his reputation is such that he took the position of Composer in Residence at the Lucerne Festival in 2009. He has also received many awards for his work, most recently the prestigious Robert Schumann Prize for Poetry and Music. Widmann currently holds the position of professor of composition at the Barenboim–Said Akademie, Berlin and he is currently finishing his tenure as the 2017-2018 artist in residence at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

180 beats per minute (1993) was composed shortly after Widmann left school and it was inspired by the rhythmic drive and constant pulse changes of “techno beat” music, which was very popular at the time. As suggested by the title, the piece is played at 180 beats per minute throughout, although constant syncopation and pulse changes counter any potential rigid, metronomic elements. The piece is a study on a single chord which is varied throughout the entire piece. About half way through the piece, the first violin announces the subject of a canon, which wanders through all of the instruments whilst still playing beguilingly with oscillating major and minor thirds.  In the words of Widmann himself, “The work makes no claims to be more than the sum of its parts – the sheer enjoyment of rhythm.”

Christopher Churcher, Fourths

Recording with Notebenders



Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Recording with Notebenders

It’s been a very special year for The Notebenders Big Band, with many events celebrating what would have been the 100thbirthday of its founder, the jazz saxophonist, Andy Hamilton. We’ve performed at a concert for Andy at the Town Hall, done our monthly gigs at Symphony Hall, taken part in the Big Band Day at the Spotted Dog and played for a day with Birmingham Conservatoire jazz students at the Eastside Jazz Club.

In October we cut our first professionally produced CD at the Conservatoire Recording Studio.  It was an incredibly exciting, hectic and truly exhausting day, and my first experience of the fascinating world of recording and music tech. The day started with a sound check where we had to try out a few phrases of our choice. Then we worked our way through the tunes, often having several goes to get each one right; one required ten attempts – not one I was in, fortunately!

I also learnt how to while away the hours when you’re not needed with the help of great friends, pizza and highly-competitive rounds of UNO!

Now we just have to wait while all the mixing and other magic is done – can’t wait to hear the finished product and find out what they’ve done with my solo!

Owen Swanborough (Shells)

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Cornish on Lutosławski


Witold Lutosławski (1913-1944): Chain 1 (1983)

Witold Lutosławski (pronounced ‘Lootoswavski’) was born in Poland in 1913. He is considered to be the country’s most important composer of the 20th century. His style both features folk-music influences, and pushes the boundaries of musical form, as we see in this piece. During WW2 he made a living playing the piano in bars. Under Soviet rule, his music was looked down on as ‘formalist’ because the communists saw it as only accessible to an elite, and they even banned his First Symphony. Lutosławski however, strove to maintain his musical integrity and refused to conform to what he perceived as a step in the wrong direction, boycotting the Polish Military Government in support of ‘Solidarity’ by refusing to perform his music.

Chain 1 was written for the London Sinfonietta in 1983 on the requests of Michael Vyner, the conductor, who had wanted to play Lutosławski’s music, but found that it was all for an ensemble either much bigger, or much smaller, than his own. That is why the piece is written for such an unusual selection of instruments. In fact, it was designed simply ‘for fourteen instruments’, but we have chosen to represent the original selection by which it was first performed. It is an intense, brooding work, full of melodic twists and turns to create both discomfort and resolution through its unorthodox structural techniques.

Lutosławski wrote three ‘chain pieces’ related only in their use of ‘chain’ form. This is an attempt to do away with conventional musical structure, creating music that neither exactly begins nor ends. Most of this piece is notated without a time signature, and the musicians rely on the conductor’s downbeats for direction. They play short motifs, in this piece specified exactly by Lutosławski, ‘in time’ according to their own intuition. The idea is that these ‘chain links’ flow into each other by merit of the musicians’ slightly differing tempos to create an unbroken musical line. Hence, every performance of this piece will be different, and yet the effect will be the same. In the later ‘chain’ pieces, Lutosławski wrote complementary ‘hexachords’ from which the musicians could create melodic lines.

The piece is made up of three sections. First, a fragmented introduction featuring overlapping ‘links’. This starts with the whole group (minus double bass) performing an introductory ‘gesture’. The section then moves through a unison passage before diverging into separate parts. This convergence and divergence is a key feature of the work, allowing Lutosławski to create structure through unifying and dividing the musical texture. Another device he uses to change the harmonic density is ‘chord aggregates’ (big piles of notes) to mark out sections. For example, both sections 1 and 2 begin with such a chord aggregate.

After this, the second section continues with a unison passage, and gradually builds up to a climax. This features ad libitum (free) sections whereby the players create their own tempo. Through this, the texture is manipulated to create the ‘chain link’ structure. Through such passages, chord aggregates, and convergence and divergence, Lutosławski subverts the normal way of writing music and constructs a piece that is almost totally original in its form and texture.

The second section ends with a 12-note chord-aggregate by way of a climax, which may be reached by the players at different moments. This will therefore be unique in every performance of the piece. It is followed by a decisive tam-tam strike, which clearly marks out the high point of the composition. From here, the third section winds the piece down through more ad libitum passages as the music slips away into an ‘inconclusive conclusion’.

When this piece was written in 1983, Lutoslawski was boycotting the Polish Government by refusing to play music there because of its repressive attitudes. This went even to the point of letting another conductor make the recording of one of his own pieces, Novelleto, for his home country. However, he did send a recording of his third symphony to be played in a church in the city of Gdansk as a political statement supporting the church and the ‘Solidarity’ movement in Eastern Europe, which was gaining significance at the time in opposition of Russian Soviet influence. He was even awarded, that year, the ‘Solidarity Prize’, which was of high significance. He is reported to have treasured this above all his other accolades as a composer.

Nathan Cornish, Divisions

Murphy on Ibert


Jacques Ibert (1890-1962): Cinq pièces en trio (1935)

The Parisian born Jacques Ibert received violin and piano lessons as a boy and later studied composition at the celebrated Paris Conservatoire. During his long and fruitful career, he composed in virtually every genre and, moreover, became one of the best known French composers of the 20th century.

The reed trio ensemble (oboe, clarinet and bassoon) became popular in the early 20th century, particularly after the assembly of the Paris Reed Trio by one Fernand Oubradous (1903-1986), a bassoonist, composer and conductor. Oubradous was somewhat of a polymath with a good sense of humour. When once asked to comment on reeds, he famously said, ‘have a lot of respect for them, but treat them as often as possible with contempt!’

Ibert and Oubradous became acquainted during the 1920s with the latter often conducting the prolific composer’s works. Cinq pièces was written in 1935 and dedicated to Oubradous. The work lasts for around nine minutes and is comprised of two andantes and three allegros, each sharply contrasting its preceding movement. Ibert’s genius lies in his ability to maintain strong musical unity and coherence throughout these contrasting movements, whilst also delivering a compositional style that is firmly neo-classical, charming and lyrical in character. Listen out for the wistful second Andante, which demonstrates more than a subtle nod to Stravinsky, before the final, jaunty Allegro concludes the work.

Peter Murphy, Divisions

Howdle on Ibert

Jacques Ibert (1890-1962): Divertissement (1930)

i. Introduction
ii. Cortège
iii. Nocturne
iv. Valse
v. Parade
vi. Finale

Jacques Ibert was a French composer who studied at the Paris Conservatoire and won its top prize, the ‘Prix de Rome’ at his first attempt, despite his studies having been interrupted by service in World War I. Divertissement is a collection of pieces drawn from the score Ibert produced for the film production of the farcical nineteenth century play, The Italian Straw Hat by French dramatist Labiche. Labiche’s comedy recounts the adventures of a nervous bridegroom on his wedding day as he attempts to find a hat to replace one belonging to a lady that his horse has eaten! His bride to be follows his frantic mission everywhere he goes, along with her suspicious father and the entire wedding party who think they are following the bridegroom to the ceremony.

Throughout the six movements, Ibert, skilfully manages to weave his own music with many other styles including blues, jazz, Viennese waltzes and music hall tunes. There’s even some spiky modernist dissonance too. Hidden within the piece’s light- hearted atmosphere, one can also hear some recognisable melodies, such as Strauss’s Blue Danube and even the parody quotation of Mendelssohn’s well-known Wedding March. These provide yet more of the piece’s many surprises…

Charlotte Howdle,  Lower Sixth

King Edward’s boys sing a new work by Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi

King Edward's School, Birmingham, Music Department, Black Sabbath

Singing with Birmingham Cathedral Choir, King Edward’s boys sang in the first performance of ‘How Good It Is’ by Tony Iommi, founder of Black Sabbath.

You can read the full BBC story about it here:

You can hear the song on Mr. Iommi’s website at:


 Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

To Leipzig with Birmingham Cathedral Choir

King Edward's School, Birmingham, Music Department

The Thomaskirche in Leipzig.

1. The Adventure begins!

As our 52 brave explorers checked in at the airport, they knew there was no going back.

Five of these were in the charge of their chaperone Andrew Thompson (nicknamed ‘His Majesty’). These individuals were called Ocean, Joshua, Yuhan, Remi and Christopher. After they had survived security, they all set out on the flight. Several books and a phone were what many of them had to survive on. After more security in Germany the group was free to embark on the final flight until they landed in Leipzig.

The first big task after the coach journey was to sort out who had which bed. This proved to be easier for some. Many ran into the room and sorted it out by who sat on which bed first.

2. Thomaskirche

After the first night, three of our heroes, Joshua, Ocean and Christopher had their hunger satiated by the ample food at the breakfast buffet. Our 52 voyagers were separated because half of them had filled up a tram and the others were left behind. The courageous leaders, Andrew and Canon Janet safely led the stragglers to the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas’s Church) where they would sing. The Thomaskirche was the church where Bach was the organist for nearly 30 years!

Two practices and one lunch were enjoyed until the big moment. The first performance on the tour began… it was thrilling although somewhat nerve-racking. The amazing acoustics were startling to our choir as they have recently become used to echoes being dampened by scaffolding at Birmingham Cathedral. The acoustics especially enhanced the Bairstow Anthem called ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’. After the first few pieces the choristers settled down and found that the hour and a bit seemed to last a much shorter period than Sunday evensong! The 650 people they performed to had queued up for the concert 45 minutes, and some people were turned away because the church was full.

3. Thomaskirche again

Sunday was to be the last day of formal choral activities. The Choristers sang a truly beautiful piece called ‘If ye love me’ by Thomas Tallis. They also sang the hymn by Bach, ‘Ach Mein Gott Himmel Sieh Darein’ that contained many complicated German words. The morning service contained a good opportunity for those that had a disturbed night to sleep as possibly the longest sermon ever took place there-what’s more, in German!

4. Naumburg

After the service, they were free to roam in the hotel until they went to Naumburg Cathedral. People used this opportunity in different ways. Possible activities included, chatting, reading, sleeping, watching a film about Colditz, playing cards etc. The clock was ticking away minutes like seconds, and the 2 or 3-hour break seemed to only take 20 – 30 minutes. Still, an hour coach journey was an opportunity seized by those in possession of a DS (which is an electronic device that you can play games on).

Many of the choristers were pleased as the Naumburg concert had the Hallelujah Chorus on the schedule! A quick tour around the site revealed many interesting facts about it.

The concert was raising money for refugees and in the audience was some people that had come from Afghanistan and, because people are not allowed to sing there, they had never heard singing and were blown away by the experience! Conceivably, the most challenging thing that the choristers had to do on the whole trip was to eat the whole of the main course at a nearby restaurant. It consisted of lots of pork in the form of steaks and dumplings. This challenge, many of them failed dismally.

5. Off to prison

As the title suggests, the travelling people got put inside the four walls of Colditz. During the second world war, Colditz was used camp for unco-operative soldiers who had a habit of being good escape artists. The guide told some entertaining stories of escape attempts and devices used to help them escape, such as a puppet and a glider fixed together with porridge! As a group, the tourists all enjoyed the visit very much.

6. The Final Day.

Sadly, Tuesday was the final day of the tour. This day, however, was the day of the Bach museum, something that many had been anticipating for a while. The Bach museum contained several original manuscripts of his pieces! There was an exhibition of his organ with all of the stops and pedals and an exhibition of Baroque instruments. Such as the Bassono Grosso (A bassoon), the theorbo (a type of Baroque guitar) and the lute (similar to the theorbo but smaller). There were several computers with the full works of Bach to search through at leisure and listen to via headphones which definitely made it a massive highlight for most.

The final experience was a delicious lunch at the Panorama Tower restaurant, 29 floors up! The group sang former Leipzig resident Felix Mendelssohn’s Kyrie Eleison much to the enjoyment of our Leipzig hosts. Thanks to the Birmingham city council for arranging this as Birmingham and Leipzig are twinned.

The 52 adventurers then made their way back to the airport. The five heroes were very tired but thrilled by their exploits in Leipzig.

Thanks a lot to Andrew for giving them a right royal time!

Christopher Churcher (Shell)

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Alfred Brendel and the Chief Master

Alfred Brendel at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Alfred Brendel and John Claughton, Chief Master of King Edward’s School.

John Claughton, Chief Master, said: “It was a rare privilege for all of us to welcome one of the world’s greatest musicians to the school and it was an unforgettable occasion both for those who have listened to Brendel play throughout their lives and for pupils whose musical careers are beginning. He spoke about the nature of music and art with a wisdom born of a lifetime’s dedication.

“This school has a great tradition in music, producing exceptional players through a 90-strong Symphony Orchestra, providing nearly 20 different musical groups and a choir of 150 boys. So, to hear such a man in the beautiful surroundings of the Ruddock Hall was an unforgettable moment for all of us.”

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham





Five-star review in the Birmingham Post

Alfred Brendel at King Edward’s School.

He may have retired from the concert platform but Alfred Brendel remains a consummately communicative performer.

On Tuesday the pianist held 500 listeners in the palm of his hand as he delivered what was the fifth Tolkien Lecture in the magnificent Ruddock Hall within King Edward VI School’s remarkable new performing arts building.

Introducing his distinguished guest, Chief Master John Claughton revealed that KES Old Boy J.R.R.Tolkien in fact came from a family of piano manufacturers – a neat link as Brendel launched into a talk derived from his own masterly book, A Pianist’s A to Z.

Speaking from a lifetime of experience, Brendel addressed so many aspects of the performer’s art – how to balance intellect and emotion, how to observe the way vocalists and conductors cultivate and phrase singing lines (in other words the importance of a “cantabile tone – playing out of the instrument’s keys, not hitting out at them), and, perhaps most strikingly, how a pianist should take composition lessons from a good teacher in order fully to appreciate considerations of structure, notation and general cohesion.

Brendel’s talk was peppered with anecdotes and jokes, often mischievous, and always tellingly pertinent. He also included recorded examples from pianists he particularly admired (“on a good day, when the wind was blowing in the right direction for them”) – Edwin Fischer in Bach, Alfred Cortot in Chopin, and offerings by Schumann and Haydn where he didn’t identify the performer; modestly, perhaps they were from himself.

And his facial expressions during the Haydn extract illustrating humour in music were almost as eloquent as had been his fingers during the many decades when his playing spoke so much to us all.

Christopher Morley
24 September, 2015

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Tomorrow: Alfred Brendel at King Edward’s School

Alfred Brendel’s Tolkien lecture is tomorrow at 1830 in the Ruddock Hall of the Ruddock Performing Arts Centre at King Edward’s School.

A final video, then, to celebrate this great man, and to whet your appetite. This is one of Mozart’s most powerful piano sonatas (his KV457), in a glorious performance:





Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Alfred Brendel at King Edward’s School — three days to go

With three days to go before Alfred Brendel’s Tolkien lecture, we have a chance to explore the artistry of this fascinating man.

When he retired from the keyboard, Alfred Brendel turned to poetry. Today’s selection is his poem, ‘Cologne’:

The Coughers of Cologne
have joined forces with the Cologne Clappers
and established the Cough and Clap Society
a non-profit-making organization
whose aim it is
to guarantee each concert-goer’s right
to cough and applaud
Attempts by unfeeling artists or impresarios
to question such privileges
have led to a Coughers and Clappers initiative
Members are required to applaud
immediately after sublime codas
and cough distinctly
during expressive silences
Distinct coughing is of paramount importance
to stifle or muffle it
forbidden on pain of expulsion
Coughs of outstanding tenacity
are awarded the Coughing Rhinemaiden
a handsome if slightly baroque appendage
to be worn dangling from the neck
The C&C’s recent merger
with the New York Sneezers
and the London Whistlers
raises high hopes
for Cologne’s musical future


Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Alfred Brendel at King Edward’s School — four days to go

With four days to go before Alfred Brendel’s Tolkien lecture, we have a chance to explore the artistry of this fascinating man.

Alfred Brendel was one of the first artists to explore fully the music of Liszt, valuing it not just for its virtuosity, but also for its musical innovation and extraordinary imaginative power.

Brendel describes Liszt as the ‘Romantic sovereign of the piano … [the] Radical precursor of modernity … the piano’s supreme artist.’

Today’s performance is of Liszt’s second piano concerto:

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Alfred Brendel at King Edward’s School — five days to go

With five days to go before Alfred Brendel’s Tolkien lecture, we have a chance to explore the artistry of this fascinating man.

Alfred Brendel’s lecture is entitled ‘A-Z, A Pianist’s Alphabet’. In 2013 he published a little book of thoughts and aphorisms of a similar title. From this, today’s selection is Alfred Brendel’s entry for ‘Silence’:

‘Silence is the basis of music. We find it before, after, in, underneath and behind the sound. Some pieces emerge out of silence or lead back into it.

But silence ought also to be the core of each concert. Remember the anagram: listen=silent.’


Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Alfred Brendel at King Edward’s School — six days to go

With six days to go before Alfred Brendel’s Tolkien lecture, we have a chance to explore the artistry of this fascinating man.

Alfred Brendel was the first to record the complete piano works of Beethoven, and today’s selection is his mighty 1970 performance of the mightier-yet Hammerklavier (op.106).

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham