King Edward's Music

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

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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:

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