King Edward's Music

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

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The Miss Margaret Davis Memorial Recital – 24 September 2020

Naina Reddy on Vivaldi’s Gloria

Antonia Lucio Vivaldi, born in 1678, is regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Baroque period. Vivaldi spent his most productive years at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice as a priest, teaching a variety of instruments and composing instrumental concertos and choral pieces for the girls’ gifted orchestra and choir. Vivaldi was also regarded as a virtuosic violinist and was highly renowned throughout Europe for all his wonderful compositions. Because of this, he enjoyed great success and fortune in his lifetime which he unfortunately wasted on extravagance leading to his death in poverty in 1741. Lots of Vivaldi’s music, including the Gloria, was lost for two centuries until the 1920s when it was rediscovered amongst a pile of forgotten manuscripts.

The Gloria, Vivaldi’s most famous choral piece, was composed around 1715 for the choir at the Ospedale. It presents the traditional Gloria from the Latin Mass in twelve varied movements.

i. Gloria

The opening movement is a joyful chorus with trumpet and oboe obbligato and establishes the triumphant key of D major. The energetic orchestral introduction uses two motifs, one of octave leaps and the other a quaver-semiquaver figure. The choir enters dramatically with a dotted rhythm, announcing the text syllabically. These declamatory outbursts are punctuated by trumpets and oboe which bring a sense of grandeur to the movement

ii. Et in terra pax hominibus

This second movement (“And on Earth peace to all people”) completely contrasts the first as it is in triple time, a minor key and much slower. There are two subjects which appear throughout the movement, woven together in all the voices: “Et in terra pax…” and “Bonae voluntatis…”. The expressive chromatic harmonies in the music create a feeling of tension, which brings to mind how difficult it is for the world to be at peace.

iii. Laudamus te

The third movement is a joyful duet for two sopranos. The texture alternates between sections of simple imitation between the vocal lines and passages in parallel thirds where the voices sing together in cheerful harmony.

iv. Gratias agimus tibi

This six bar long, entirely homophonic movement in E minor uses homorhythm to solemnly evoke praise to God. The declaration of “Gratias agimus tibi” in two short phrases with dramatic pauses in between makes this a grand introduction to the following movement.

v.Propter magnam gloria

This movement, in the same key as the ‘Gratias’, showcases Vivaldi’s skill at contrapuntal writing. The movement is a fugue with the main subject starting in the soprano. It is characterised by four short crotchets followed by a minim and several quavers sung melismatically on the word “Gloria”. The subject is passed through the vocal parts but never sung by all four parts at once, giving the music a playful feel.

vi. Domine Deus

The Largo ‘Domine Deus’ is a beautiful duet between soprano and oboe. The movement is reminiscent of the Siciliana musical style with its dotted rhythms and compound time, which help to evoke a pastoral mood and the oboe adds to this graceful atmosphere.

vii. Domine Fili Unigenite

The ‘Domine Fili Unigenite’ is lively in tempo with the orchestra playing molto energico e ritmico (very energetically and rhythmically). The music embodies the French style of dotted rhythms making it sound like a rousing country dance. Whilst it may sound effortless and cheery, the music is rhythmically tricky as the choir have to be careful not to double dot every note.

viii. Domine Deus, Agnus Dei 

This Adagio in D minor starts with a brief cello solo introduction followed by a beautiful alto solo. Later on in the piece, every phrase sung by the alto soloist is paired with an antiphonal response from the choir, “Qui tollis peccata mundi”.

These interjections are generally loud with the final response from the choir sounding like a plea with its fortissimo dynamic.

ix. Qui tollis peccata mundi

This movement builds on the words introduced by the choir in the previous movement. Its rich harmonies and expressive chromaticism makes the opening of this movement especially emotive. The slightly faster “suscipe deprecationem nostram” is in triple time and the use of dotted rhythms gives this section a feeling of urgency.

x. Qui sedes ad dexteram

Although an Allegro, the ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram’ continues the serious mood of the previous two movements with its B minor tonality. This movement is originally an alto solo but in this afternoon’s interpretation it will be a bass solo.

xi. Quoniam tu solus sanctus

The ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ marks the return of the optimistic D major music from the opening movement but introduces some new text: “Quoniam tu solus sanctus, tu solus Dominus. Tu solus altissimus, Jesu Christe.”

xii. Cum sancto spirito

This Allegro double fugue ends the whole work with unstoppable energy and is actually borrowed from a setting of the same text by Venetian composer Giovanni Maria Ruggieri. The two subjects share the same “Cum sancto spiritu…” text but the first subject is introduced by the basses with a marcato bass accompaniment to sound majestic whilst the second subject starts on the off beat and is sung first by the sopranos, sounding much lighter. There are also “Amens” sprinkled throughout the movement to decorate both these subjects but the fff “Amen” at the end of the movement triumphantly ends the whole work.

The dramatic contrasts in mood, distinctive melodies and the rhythmic drive of the music makes Vivaldi’s Gloria one of the most well-known pieces in the repertoire of Choral music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jacob Rowley on Brahms’s Third Symphony

 

Johannes Brahms (1833-97): Symphony no.3 op.90

On 31 September 1853, a 20-year-old Johannes Brahms, then completely unknown to the musical world, paid a visit to Robert Schumann to play him his C-major piano sonata. Shortly after this brief preview, Schumann wrote in his diary, “Visit from Brahms, a genius”. It was clear from very early on that Brahms’s music was something special, and in decades that followed the “genius” German, born in Hamburg in 1833, became recognised as one of the finest composers of the 19th century, later to be heralded as one of the three “B”s of classical music alongside Bach and Beethoven. An extreme perfectionist who believed in “absolute music” and rejected music with any programme or narrative, Brahms scrapped anything he didn’t believe to be good enough, regardless of how far through the composition process he was (it took several performances of his First Symphony before he decided to completely rewrite the slow movement), and this is perhaps what accounts for his relatively small amount of compositional output; only four symphonies, four concertos, two serenades, two overtures and a theme-and-variations make up his orchestral works. 

Of his four symphonies, the third is the shortest, lasting between 30 and 45 minutes, depending on whether the frequently-omitted repeats are played. However, its length does not detract from how remarkable an achievement this symphony is. It opens with a striking statement of Brahms’s oft-used F-Ab-F motto, followed by a passionato introduction of a theme that bears an unmistakable resemblance to one from Schumann’s Third Symphony; given the close relationship between the two composers, this is unlikely to be coincidental. Though the movement is in F major, and indeed begins with a triumphant F major chord from the wind, the theme more-often-than-not flattens the A, undermining the otherwise straightforward major mode, giving the overall tone of the piece a sense of complex maturity, a feeling aided by the use of a diminished chord as early as the second bar. This unexpected darkening of the music’s character is something that occurs in several places elsewhere in the piece, most notably in the bars immediately preceding the A major second subject, where a sinister F natural in the viola part (darkened further by its repetition by the ‘cellos two bars later) crafts a foreboding set-up for the much more carefree music that follows. The dance-like

  Bob Whalley (KES/KEHS Symphony Orchestra, 1960)second subject offers a moment of calm after the stormy opening, though this respite is quickly dashed by the quick, staccato crotchets that are bounced around the string section before the intense lead-up to the development. The relatively short development, where the second subject returns in a sinister C# minor, is concluded by a triumphant restatement of the F-Ab-F motto, leading directly into the recapitulation. The coda brings the movement to an atypically quiet end, though quiet endings become something of a theme throughout the symphony. 

The storm clouds subside for the first (for there are two in this symphony) slow movement. It offers a striking textural departure from the previous movement, being mainly wind-dominated and featuring huge amounts of empty space in the string parts for the wind and brass to quietly tiptoe above. The dialogue between the strings and woodwind is inspired by folksong, and its simplicity and pastoral quality create a colourful landscape of blissful tranquillity. The mood suddenly brightens with a semiquaver-based decoration of the melody by  the  oboe  and  strings,  though  this  is  soon  replaced by  a  mysterious  atmosphere   of uncertainty, with a simple motif of two repeated notes that echoes throughout the orchestra through “a kaleidoscopic spectrum of harmonies”.  After the recapitulation brings us back full circle, the movement fades away, leaving nothing but complete stillness and calm. 

The famous third movement is driven by its breathtakingly expressive ‘cello melody. This haunting theme is encircled by a delicate glimmer of strings, an accompaniment that gradually intensifies as the piece progresses. Although it moves through several different keys and textures, the movement never loses its evocative intimacy, as every repetition of the theme adds a new layer of emotional intensity that only serves to fuel the shadowy aura surrounding it. Any slight humour implied by the syncopation of the bass line in the middle section is spoiled by the menacing teasing of the main theme by the woodwind that leads to the full return of the opening section. It is here that the opening theme feels the most isolated, as it is played by a solo horn, so that it sits outside the texture while the strings rustle in a whispered business around it.

And so we come to the very end, with a finale that opens with a winding, dactylic theme in octave unison that is meant to remind the listener of the finale of Brahms’s Second Symphony, composed six years earlier. As soon as the music begins to gain some momentum, with the entry of the flutes and clarinets being supported by a steady plod from the double basses, it is brought to a grinding halt by a solemn, serious chant driven by the strings. However, a sforzando upbeat at the end of this section launches the orchestra back into a frantic aggression, and though the second subject, on C major, livens the mood, the music nonetheless retains its energetic rhythmic drive. Invasive recollections of the opening motif add to the polyphonic chaos, which reaches its peak during the development, where, after a short but dramatic silence, a return of the chant from the exposition, now blasted out by the brass, is surrounded by a furious flurry of triplets in the string section. The return of the opening theme in the recapitulation appears far more violent than its initial iteration. Soon, however, the chaos once again subsides, and as the piece gradually fades away, a faint echo can be heard of the very opening theme of the symphony.

Jacob Rowley, Sixths

The first Sexagesimal Composition — Jiali Lu

It’s the sixtieth anniversary of the orchestra shared between King Edward’s School and King Edward VI High School for Girls.

This is the first post celebrating our Sexagesimal, a music-box composition by Jiali Lu.

King Edward's School, Sixtieth Anniversary of the Orchestra: Jiali Lu -- 60 years music box music (Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham)

 

 

The full score is posted here:

King Edward’s School, Sixtieth Anniversary of the Orchestra: Jiali Lu — 60 years music box music (Music at King Edward’s School, Birmingham)

 

George Roberts on Schubert

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham -- Schubert's Trout Quartet

 

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was an Austrian composer born in Himmelpfortgrund. He started learning the piano from his brother, Ignaz, at the age of five. However, he announced after a few months, that he had “no need of any further instruction”. Holzer, the local parish organist, gave Schubert a grounding in piano, organ, and figured bass. He then played viola in his family string quartet, writing his first quartets for them. Schubert began studying at the Stadtkonvikt(Imperial Seminary) on a choral scholarship. It was there he developed an admiration for Beethoven, particularly his overtures. After periods teaching at his father’s school, accompanying and writing operas, more of his works, from 1823, were being published. From 1823 alone came his eighth symphony, the ‘Unfinished’ and his first large-scale song cycle, die schöne Müllerin. Die Forelle, arguably, was written in 1819, but was published posthumously in 1829.

The name of this quintet, die Forellenquintett (“Trout” Quintet), comes from the theme in the fourth movement, which is based on Schubert’s earlier Lied “Die Forelle”. The inclusion of this Lied was the suggestion of Sylvester Paumgartner, an amateur ‘cellist and the man who gave the work its patronage. There are two interesting aspects of Die Forelle, the five-movement structure and the inclusion of the double bass. Both stem from the same place, the opus 87 piano quintet by Hummel. A quintet is conventionally piano and string quartet: Hummel’s decision was to substitute the second violin for double bass. Furthermore, Hummel wrote his op. 74, a wind septet, also including a double bass. The most intriguing aspect of the scoring is that no other of Schubert’s contemporaries, included a double bass in their piano quintets or string quartets neither Beethoven (despite including a double bass in his wind septet) nor his predecessors, Haydn and Mozart. Furthermore, the Hummel op. 87 also contains five movements, including a theme and variations, for the fourth movement, as does die Forelle.

Theme

The theme starts in the key D major, a semitone higher than the original Lied, with the strings, playing a quasi-chorale melody. Several musical aspects played first here, become the emphasis of later variations, all have been corrupted from earlier in the piece, or from the Lied. For example, the string portato (b.1 in all the strings) comes first in die Forelle in b. 25 and briefly appears in the Lied in bb.62-3. The dotted rhythms are more ambiguous, as the lied uses even notes. According to M. J. E. Brown, editor of the 1974 Edition Eulenburg score (the edition from which the author is working), Schubert “made certain changes in the melody… to render the tune more instrumental”. Trills, ornaments, added dotted rhythms are all cited by the above, as ways Schubert did this. The theme is set up into two-bar phrases often with a healthy dose of repetition and without the complex semiquaver sextuplet rhythmic motif accompaniment, of the Lied.

Variation I

The piano assumes control with the theme played in octaves, decorated by ornaments. The slurring changes to being between b. 212-3, rather than the whole bar, further changes exist. The strings can be divided into two here: the viola and double bass, who play an arpeggio motif (albeit the violas triplet semiquavers and bass as staccato quavers) and the violin and ‘cello who pass a triplet semiquaver motif between eachother. This motif is a corruption of the complex semiquaver sextuplet rhythmic motif, as found in the Lied. The second half, of the variation, sees a continuation, but with the violin occasionally launching into the stratosphere, as violinists tend to do.

Variation II

This variation is where the violinist earns their wages, by continuously playing triplet semiquavers. In the violin part, two interesting things happen: portati are used in bb. 49, 51, 55. Underneath that, the remaining continue with the tune passed between the strings and piano, until the cadence. It is a much grander section this, grandure derived from louder dynamics and thicker textures. From b. 49 onwards, the viola, ‘cello and bass play together, alternating with the piano.

Variation III

In a surprising move, the double bass and ‘cello are given the theme, albeit dwarfed by the sheer virtuosity of the piano, playing its demi-semiquavers. The upbeat contains a trill utilising the chromatic neighbour-note. Further on, in the first- and second-time bars, there is an ascending chromatic scale, played by the piano. Schubert shifts where the beat of each bar falls, in b.67 for example, by displacing the strong beat of the bar, through the phrasing of the demi-semiquavers. The violin, having a rare moment out of the spotlight, and the viola conspire together creating the accompaniment, with some, at times, jovial, off-beat semiquaver chords.

Variation IV

Until this point, the variations had been rooted in D major and the theme has been prominent: both change here. We move to D minor, though the up-beat of octave A’s create harmonic ambiguity, and the theme ostensibly disappears. Instead, triplet semiquaver chords appear antiphonically in the piano and upper strings. Underneath, the ‘cello and bass play a tricky motif, tricky for the bass at least. The most interesting aspect of this, aside of the sheer virtuosity being demonstrate by the double bass, is the D-G sharp-A pattern. The G sharp is diminished fifth below the D, an interval otherwise known as the devil’s interval. The fortissimo chords are contrasted with a more lyrical, major, pianissimo section, featuring a dialogue between the piano and violin. Ultimately, despite indications of movement back towards a major key, landing in D minor. At this moment, the trills which have been such a prominent feature of this movement are repeated by the piano, b.93-100, this offbeat chordal pattern appears, which derives from the Lied.

Variation V

This variation corrupts the Lied’s original melody one step further, by introducing a double-dotted version of the melody. It is played first by the ‘cello before being imitated by the piano. The violin adds a simple counter-melody, whilst the viola and double bass play the accompaniment. Harmonically, this variation becomes interesting from b. 114 onwards. The harmonic progression is thus, Gb minor – Db major (the original key of the Lied) – Ab major – Db major (this then repeats) – Ab major – Db major – E major – A major – C# major – F# major – A major. There isn’t an obvious pattern as to how this harmony works; there are plagal and perfect cadences, amongst other stranger cadences. Instead, the following chord always has one note of the previous chord contained within it, occasionally two. That is how Schubert manages to take from Db major to A major (which then allows us back to safer ground in D major).

Allegretto

The Allegretto, or coda, introduces a new rhythmic idea, new for the piece that is. These five sextuplet semiquavers form the vast majority of the accompaniment in the original Lied. The quintet’s coda is texturally thin, with all the instruments playing together only in the last eight bars. The violin and piano exchange the rhythmic idea, the violin and ‘cello the theme and the viola and double bass do their duties accompanying. In b.17, the piano increases the unease, instability and interest of the movement when it has a chromatic feature, which gets repeated later. The cadence runs thus, V7 – I, that is A major seventh to D major. It is a rather simple end to the movement, which proffers rhythmic and harmonic interest throughout, testing the instrumentalists often.

George Roberts, Divisions

Christopher Churcher’s ‘Always the Bridesmaid’ composed at The Sound and Music Summer School 2019

Christopher Churcher's 'Always the Bridesmaid' (Music Department at King Edward's School, Birmingham)

Christopher Churcher's 'Always the Bridesmaid' (Music Department at King Edward's School, Birmingham) (2)

A PDF is posted here: Christopher Churcher’s ‘Always the Bridesmaid’

 

 

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

The Sound and Music Summer School 2019

On the 4th of August, I arrived apprehensively with around 60 other composers from all across the UK at the Purcell School in Hertfordshire. We were all there to attend the annual week-long Summer school run by Sound and Music, the UK charity for new music. Having applied last April, I was lucky enough to be given a place, and was allocated to the ‘Vocal composition’ group (there were also others, including Film, Instrumental, Jazz and Cross-Cultural). By the end of the week, there were over 60 brand new compositions written, performed and recorded!

In the vocal composition group, I was able to work with six professional singers, after several days of exploring different types of vocal music, from the madness of Cathy Berberian’s ‘Stripsody’ to the comparative minimalism of Laurence Crane. We then had just 3 days to compose and rehearse our compositions until the recording session and, finally, performances.

As the creative process began, I took a newfound interest in Swedish folksong, something with which I was unacquainted beforehand, but which I found really haunting and bewitching. With the help of one of the tutors, who was very knowledgeable about the techniques used in Swedish folksong, I learnt about specific techniques such as Kulning, as well as traditional Swedish vocal ornamentation and the modes that Swedish folksong traditionally explores. 

Struck by fleeting inspiration, I decided to combine a Swedish folk-inspired vocal line with the singing bowl (a type of bell that vibrates and produces a rich, deep tone when played) which one of our tutors had brought with them. This constant drone created the illusion that the singer’s line was almost suspended in mid-air, yet always in relation to the drone, which the voice slowly materialises out of at the start of the piece and disappears back into at the end.

I absolutely loved the Sound and Music Summer School and would fully recommend it to any composer looking to gain experience working with professional musicians or hoping to expose themself to a really wide range of intra-classical styles.

Christopher Churcher, Fifths

 

 

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Summer with Notebenders

Music at King Edward's School -- Notebenders

It’s been another amazing summer for Notebenders, the Ladywood based community big band.  First, a main-stage slot at the Moseley Jazz Festival in Moseley Park, a hidden gem just off the high street. It was a slightly nerve-wracking, but exciting feeling looking out over the crowd; I’m glad we were all in it together.

Next, the Birchfield Jazz Festival, a smaller, friendlier event with delicious, home-made Jamaican and African food in a local church.  The acoustics were incredible and the reception genuinely warm. 

Finally, the renowned big band afternoon at the Spotted Dog in Digbeth, an annual gathering of rowdy jazz fanatics.  As well as awesome music (check out the incredible jazz flautist, Gareth Lokrane), there was a ready supply of great food and, for those of us playing, a free bar!

The best thing is being part of the music-making and coming together with some brilliant musicians to have fun. Roll on next year!

Owen Swanborough, Removes

 

 

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Joe Ward on Rachmaninov

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873—1943): Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27

“Rachmaninov was made of steel and gold; steel in his arms, gold in his heart.”

Rachmaninov is seen as the last great figure of the tradition of Russian Romanticism and was a leading piano virtuoso during his lifetime. In his youth he was a student of piano and composition at the Moscow Conservatory, studying piano under Nikolai Zverev, graduating aged 19 in 1892. His fame and popularity, both as composer and concert pianist, were launched by two compositions: the Prelude in C-sharp Minor, played for the first time in public on September 26, 1892, and his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, which had its first performance in Moscow on October 27, 1901.

Rachmaninov’s second symphony was composed during 1906 and 1907, and first performed in Saint Petersburg on January 26, 1908. This came over a decade after the disastrous 1897 premiere of his first symphony, which sent Rachmaninov into a depression that took four years to break out of. The scars created by this ordeal drove him away from the idea of a second symphony. However, by the autumn of 1906 enough confidence had returned for him to begin, in secret, to compose a second symphony and Rachmaninov conducted the work at the Saint Petersburg premiere in January 1908, with great success. The symphony won the Glinka Prize of 1,000 roubles that year and quickly made the rounds of the major orchestras of the world.

Despite its success whenever it was performed it was extensively cut, usually reducing it in length from an hour to between thirty-five and forty-five minutes. Before 1970 virtually only the cut version was performed; since then orchestras have used the full version almost exclusively.

Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, Rachmaninov and his family left Russia and settled in the United States. With his primary source of income now being from piano and conducting he devoted most of his time to performance, only completing six works between 1918 and 1943. These included Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Symphony No. 3, and Symphonic Dances. He died in the spring of 1943, four days before his seventieth birthday.

During his lifetime Rachmaninov’s work was often seen as unfashionable and dated, and he was often regarded as a much greater pianist than composer. Rachmaninov’s great Russian contemporary, Igor Stravinsky, for example, never could stomach the music or the man, even when they were neighbours in Los Angeles. However, now, as Rachmaninov always hoped, it is his music and not his piano playing that keeps his name alive. The Second Symphony has become one of Rachmaninov’s best loved works and has far surpassed his other two symphonies in popularity.

The Symphony

Duration: approx. 60 minutes

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 3 oboes (incl. English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, strings

1. Largo – Allegro moderato

The first movement begins with a seven-note motif, played by the lower strings, which then frequently reoccurs thought the entire symphony. The long introduction reaches its climax, and a cor anglais solo, which leads the movement into the first subject of its sonata form. The first subject is based on the original motif. A relaxed and expressive secondary theme on G major provides some contrast before violin and clarinet solos mark the start of the development, where the movement modulates through multiple keys. The recapitulation begins unusually, the first subject returns over a dominant pedal. The pedal only resolves at the second subject which returns in the key of E major. Rachmaninov adds much greater expansion to the second subject, in comparison to when it was first heard in the exposition.

2. Allegro molto 

Rachmaninov reverses the Classical order of a symphony’s interior movements by putting the scherzo (Allegro molto) before the slow movement. The movement follows an ABACABA form and begins with a lively ostinato played by the upper strings that unexpectedly makes way for a broad, lyrical melody.

The Dies Irae motif is referenced by the horns from the third bar into the movement, with that theme returning throughout. Rachmaninov’s interest in the Dies Irae motif suggests symbolic interest in the Day of Judgement and subsequently religion.

The central trio begins with a fugue launched by the second violins. After the return of the scherzo, Rachmaninov introduces the same Dies irae chant melody that he also cites in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

3. Adagio

The third movement begins with a short violin gesture, which soon passes over the melody to a clarinet solo. The clarinet solo is long, but seems never to repeat itself. Once the solo is over, the clarinet hands back over to the violins, who grow the melody even further in dynamics and range.

The second part of the movement is based on the initial motto theme of the symphony. After a transition back to the opening theme, the central melody of the movement is restated, this time played by the first violins, while fragments of the opening theme are heard in the accompaniment. The movement concludes in a tranquil fashion, dying away slowly in the strings.

4. Allegro vivace

The final movement is also written in sonata form. It begins with the whole orchestra playing a fanfare- like melody, that soon dies away into a march-like melody.  The development section builds with an astonishing passage of descending scales, falling at different speeds and from differing heights. The recapitulation begins to set the stage for the triumphant final section of the movement. Melodies from all movements can be heard throughout the recap, with woodwind lines singing above the unrelenting strings. A brief but excited coda ends the work, leading to an exciting and emphatic conclusion.

Joe Ward, Divisions

 

Jiali Lu on Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791): Requiem in D minor, K. 626

Mozart is one of the most well-known and beloved classical composers of all time, and his Requiem Mass is no exception to this popularity. (A Requiem Mass is a piece of music of which the words have been taken from the Catholic Requiem Mass, or the Mass for the Dead, which is often celebrated in the context of a funeral.) Mozart advanced the classical era greatly over the course of his lifetime, pushing the boundaries of contrapuntal motion and emotional reach. And so, with such popularity, it comes as no surprise that the Requiem has acquired its fair share of myths and legends.

The unusual origin stories of Mozart’s Requiem go back beyond Alexander Pushkin’s play Mozart and Salieri (1830), in which Mozart is poisoned by the jealous composer Salieri. In fact, it is most likely Mozart who is to blame for the origin of such sinister myths. He was a superstitious man, who had once written in a letter, “I think that something is going on behind the scenes, and that doubtless here too I have enemies” (1778). Hence, it is quite probable that Mozart’s paranoia grew when an anonymous patron commissioned a Requiem, around July of 1791.

That summer, Mozart had been ill. He was nearing his death, and experienced mood-swings often. According to his wife Constanze a few years after his death, Mozart declared that “I know I must die… they have ordered a Requiem, it is for myself I am writing this”. Indeed, Mozart was to die in December of the very year he was commissioned to write the Requiem. It is now easy to see how such a coincidence may have attracted so many rumours, and how even Mozart himself may have believed them; Mozart reportedly exclaimed that the commissioner must have given him “aqcua toffana”, a powerful poison, hence explaining the origins of Pushkin’s tale of poison.

In reality, the patron had other, less dramatic reasons to commission a Requiem. He was Franz von Walsegg, an eccentric count who had wanted to memorialise the recent death of his wife, who passed away on Valentine’s Day 1791, aged only 20. Walsegg had a history of commissioning works from several famous composers of the day and playing them in front of friends and his household, unnamed (perhaps in the same way we play “guess the song” today, to varying degrees of success). Walsegg would pass these compositions off as his own as his guests were unable to name any composer.

Mozart had been paid half of the fee up front, the rest to be paid after the delivery of the full composition. However, Mozart was to only complete the Introit fully before his death on the 5th December. Other parts up to the Lacrimosa were mostly written or heavily suggested in Mozart’s manuscript. After Mozart’s death, his widow Constanze was determined to finish the Requiem, and to receive the second half of the payment, worrying that Walsegg would ask for a refund otherwise. And so, the Requiem Mass was completed in secrecy.

Constanze asked several accomplished composers, many of whom had worked with or studied under Mozart, to complete the Requiem. However, nobody was capable of actually finishing the piece, although some contributed to the final composition. It was only when Constanze asked Franz Xaver Süßmayr, did she find success.

Many scholars have pointed out that it would have been impossible for Süßmayr to have ever completed the Requiem perfectly, not only because of the technical intricacies of Mozart’s style, but because of the no-win situation he was left with. Where the work is of high quality (such as the Agnus Dei), it is assumed that Süßmayr must have used notes left behind by Mozart, and where the work is of low quality (such as the final “amen” of the Lacrimosa, where Mozart had clearly indicated a fugue) it is assumed that Süßmayr is to blame completely.

Mozart’s Requiem was completed in 1792 and sent to Count Walsegg. By then, however, Constanze had organised a public benefit performance in which it was performed, unfortunately making Walsegg’s 18th century version of “guess the song” redundant.

1. Requiem Aeternam (Introitus)

The Requiem opens rather succinctly, the violins seeming to sigh heavily with swelling quavers, supporting a sweet but sorrowful lament from the clarinets and bassoons. A shining soprano line floats over the light string semiquavers. Grand moments of forte splendeur alternate with warmer moments of compassion

2. Kyrie (Introitus)

The Kyrie is a powerful and completely Mozartian fugue. The altos, violins and clarinets soon introduce one of the motifs of the movement, which is a fiendish semiquaver run. This motif forms part of the cornerstone of one of the trickiest movements in the Mozart’s Requiem. The movement ends on a D chord with the third removed. As a result, the movement is left undecided on its mood, neither major nor minor, appropriately illustrating the undecided “fate” of the choir.

3.  Dies Irae (Sequentia)

Dies Irae is the most furious point of the entire Requiem, crying out the terrifying vision of the “day of wrath”. The violins play rapid passages of semiquavers, rarely allowed the chance for even a breath. It is in Dies Irae where the orchestra is most focused and the choir is roaring with power, and it is then when each musician truly comes alive.

4. Tuba Mirum (Sequentia)

This solemn, solo movement opens with a serene trombone solo, making the Last Trumpet a voice of consolation and not of threat. With each lyrical soloist comes a new emotional revelation, before all four soloists join at the end in stunning, quasi-angelic harmony.

5. Rex Tremendae (Sequentia)

Even without a latin education, one can tell that this will be a dramatic movement. The full chorus starts by begging for mercy in short and thundering chords, but soon the altos and sopranos sigh for salvation on a dying fall in a change of heart.

6. Recordare (Sequentia)

The Recordare, a vision of paradise in the heart of the Sequentia, consists of breathtakingly expressive melodies. The words honour Jesus’ role as redeemer, and Mozart honours such words with appropriately beautiful, sunlit harmony and delicacy.

7. Confutatis (Sequentia)

Confutatis comes as a great shock, with savage and unstoppable ostinato rhythms in the strings, but there are also tender interjections of the women’s cries of “voca me”. The movement ends in a descending chromatic sequence which ends quite unexpectedly: what one expects to be the final chord is in fact the penultimate. The last chord is in fact an inverted dominant 7th chord, creating tension and anticipation for the next movement.

8. Lacrimosa (Sequentia)

A pulsing heartbeat from the strings opens possibly the most famous and poignant movement of the Requiem. The choir enter quietly, but slowly let a surge of emotion flood the Lacrimosa up to a climax, before dropping down both in pitch and volume. It is said, according to Mr Monks, who cites Mr Bridle (“So it must be true,” as Mr Monks is quoted), that it was after composing the first 8 bars did Mozart die. Perhaps it was the knowledge of his looming death did Mozart compose such grave bars, but in any case the Lacrimosa is a universal symbol of grief.

9. Domine Jesu (Offertorium)

It was this movement we started learning all the way back in September, but it remains as one of the most exciting movements nonetheless. It also contains the feared “Ne absorbeat eas Tartarus ne cadant in obscurum” motif, which involves several leaps at a high speed, and though difficult to sing, the dramatic motif is aurally rewarding.

10. Hostias (Offertorium)

The Hostias opens with a flowing and gentle melody in triple time, which illustrates the more hopeful words’ message, whilst simultaneously keeping its passion and spiritual conviction.

11. Sanctus (Offertorium)

Left with only a few sketches from Mozart, Süßmayr composes a majestic movement with long minims and forceful chordal harmonies. Then, the deceptively simple Hosanna fugue enters, which utilises everything from long-held minims to quick quavers. In a powerful yet sustained movement such as the Sanctus, stamina is of the essence.

12.  Benedictus (Offertorium)

The Benedictus consists of short soloist passages before all soloists sing together, creating harmonies that transport you far beyond the Ruddock Hall. Süßmayr claimed to have written this movement and Agnus Dei entirely from scratch, and if so, he masterfully crafts the movement by letting it gradually grow in intensity.

13.  Agnus Dei (Offertorium)

The Agnus Dei starts off low and ominous with a gorgeous and rich semiquaver pattern at the beginning. Possibly, the most beautiful moments occur in this movement. The original theme of the movement returns.

14.  Lux Aeterna (Communio)

The music of the opening returns, now in a magnificent major key. The ethereal opening soprano solo replaces the originally despairing men’s voices from the start of the Requiem, and to the request of Mozart himself, the Kyrie fugue from the start returns to finish the piece. It is an apt finish, bringing his life’s work to an end as it encapsulates the Mozart Requiem: it is technically challenging, musically intense and in dignified splendour.

The cyclical nature of Mozart’s Requiem in D minor could be interpreted to represent the cycle of life and death itself. It is also specifically suited to a concert audience, rather than to God; Mozart uses darker movements not so much as to symbolise hope, but more to illuminate the fear behind death itself. Ironically, it is in the darkest movements, such as Dies Irae, in which the most joy and excitement is found in the choir. Personally, Mozart’s Requiem has shown me intense, emotional sides to people that I did not know existed. It has brought me much joy, and I hope that our performance of the Mozart Requiem may bring joy from darkness to you in the same way.

As Mozart recommended in a letter to his father, Leopold (1787):

”Since death, when we come to consider it, is seen to be the true goal of our life, I have made acquaintance during these last few years with this best and truest friend of mankind, so that his image not only no longer has any terrors for me but suggests, on the contrary, much that is reassuring and consoling.”

Jiali Lu, Upper Fifths

 

 

 

Charlotte Howdle on Sibelius

Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957):  Violin concerto in D minor, op. 47

i. Allegro moderato 

ii. Adagio di molto 

iii. Allegro, ma non tanto 

 It was in 1903, with his successful second symphony behind him, that the Finnish composer, Sibelius, wrote his violin concerto. It was the only concerto he ever composed and had long been promised to Willy Burmester, a prominent soloist of the day. Sibelius was himself a violin virtuoso and described as a “genius” by one of his teachers in Helsinki. However, he appeared to have lost confidence and it was not without regret that he accepted his future as a composer rather than a violinist. This concerto was written during one of the most turbulent periods of his life where he was a heavy drinker and had mounting debts. His wife had regularly to  seek him out and take him from the fashionable clubs and bars of Helsinki to encourage him to work on the score. Once completed, he could not afford to fly Burmester to Finland to perform the piece and therefore he asked the Czech violinist Victor Nováček to play it. However, Nováček was not equal to the technical challenges of the work and the concerto met with incomprehension and disapproval; one critic of the time writing, “a red-faced and perspiring Nováček fought a losing battle with a solo part that bristled with … great difficulties.” After the lacklustre debut, Sibelius revised and condensed the work and Burmester again offered to play it, writing, “All of my twenty-five years’ stage experience, my artistry and insight will be at the service of this work … I shall play the concerto in Helsinki in such a way that the city will be at your feet.” However, Sibelius’ German publisher wanted Karl Halir, a violinist and the concertmaster in Berlin, to undertake the solo part and Sibelius agreed. Burmester was understandably outraged and vowed never to play the work, a promise which he kept. The revised version was heard in 1905, Richard Strauss conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.

Despite the frailties displayed by Sibelius in his personal life, there are no signs of weakness in the concerto. That said, there is certainly Nordic melancholy, and powerful emotions are expressed throughout. The concerto follows the classical tradition and retains the usual three-movement form. The soloist takes charge from the beginning of the expansive first movement with a long lyrical paragraph which is beautifully shaped over the tapestry of the accompanying divided violins. The second theme is impassioned, initially appearing in the orchestra, anticipated by the bassoons and clarinets, and taken up by the solo part.  This is followed by the orchestra’s introduction of a third thematic idea. Sibelius replaces the development section with a solo cadenza and this is followed by a recapitulation. An aching nostalgia is displayed in the three-part second movement, a woodwind introduction with a melody in thirds preparing for the broad, singing theme of the solo violin. The mood changes dramatically at the opening of the third and final movement which is a restless scherzo in rondo form. Over the rhythmic ostinato of the orchestra, the virtuosity of the violin is displayed most clearly, often in the violin’s highest range and the strong march-like tune passes back and forth between violin and orchestra. Its dance-like energy prompted the British musicologist, Donald Francis Tovey, to describe it as a “polonaise for polar bears.” However, this was clearly not intended to be derogatory as he went on: “In the … looser concerto forms invented by Mendelssohn and Schumann, I have not met a more original, a more masterly and a more exhilarating work than the Sibelius violin concerto”.

Charlotte Howdle, Upper Sixths

 

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:

https://www.jamesmayhew.co.uk/events/stories-from-the-opera

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