King Edward's Music

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Category: Article

Five-star review in the Birmingham Post

Alfred Brendel at King Edward’s School.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Morley
24 September, 2015

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Tomorrow: Alfred Brendel at King Edward’s School

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

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





Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

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

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

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

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


Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

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

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

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

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

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

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

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

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

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

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

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


Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

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

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

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

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Alfred Brendel at King Edward’s School — one week to go

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

Today, one his most celebrated performances of a composer he did more than anyone in the twentieth century to champion, Franz Schubert. Brendel describes Schubert as ‘the most astonishing phenomenon in musical history.’

This is the first piece from Schubert’s late Klavierstücke (D946) in a recording described as ‘one of the classics of the gramophone.’


Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Alfred Brendel at King Edward’s School

Alfred Brendel's Tolkien lecture for the Music Department of King Edward's School, Birmingham.

This year’s Tolkien lecture, the fifth in the series, is given by one of the greatest musicians of the last century, Alfred Brendel. His career as a performer lasted 60 years and involved appearances with the leading orchestras and conductors of the world. He was also the first pianist to record of all Beethoven’s piano works. His final concert appearance was with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2008 and since then he has taken to writing and delivering lectures, poetry readings, and master-classes. He has recently spoken at the Festivals of Salzburg, Verbier, in the Vienna Musikverein and Konzerthaus, and at Princeton, Yale, and Cambridge.

Mr. Brendel’s title is ‘A-Z, A Pianist’s Alphabet’.

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Anne Dawson, our new singing teacher

Anne Dawson, singing teacher at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Anne Dawson studied with Caroline Crawshaw at the Royal Northern College of Music, and was the winner of the Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Scholarship. She enjoyed a significant career, singing principal roles with all the major British Opera companies and in Amsterdam, Geneva, Lausanne, Frankfurt, Paris, Strasbourg, Maastricht, Potsdam, and Vancouver.

She has performed and recorded with Sir Charles Mackerras, Sir Neville Marriner, Sir Charles Groves, Sir Bernard Haitink, Sir Richard Armstrong, Sir Mark Elder, Sir David Willocks, Ton Koopman, Richard Hickox, John Pritchard, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Yukka Pekka Saraste, Walter Weller, Jacques Delacote, Mariss Jansons, Raymond Leppard, Tadaaki Otaka, Kent Nagano, and Steuart Bedford.

Since making teaching her main focus, she has taught and given classes at New College, Oxford, RNCM, Oundle School, Birmingham University, and Birmingham Conservatoire. She has been an adjudicator of the BBC Young Chorister of the Year competition.

We are delighted to welcome her to King Edward’s School.


Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante

Mozart Sinfonia Concertante at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Mozart had been experimenting with the Sinfonia concertante genre whilst on a tour of Europe in 1778 – 1779 and produced three works of the genre: one for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and orchestra, which is of questionable authenticity; one for violin, viola, cello and orchestra, which was abandoned partway through the first movement; and the present work, which is widely considered to be his most effective crossover between symphony and concerto. It is a concerto in that the soloists are prominent throughout the piece, and it is a symphony in that the soloists are nevertheless part of the ensemble as a whole in the conveying of musical ideas. The work is unusual, however, in that the viola section is divided into two like the violins, lending a richer texture to the orchestral sound; furthermore, the viola part was originally written in D major, with the instruction that the viola be tuned a semitone sharp in order to give it a more brilliant sound. Unfortunately, most modern violists would not think of putting such strain on their instruments and simply play the part in E-flat.

The first movement is in sonata form with an introduction and a coda; the orchestra establishes the grand, majestic first subject of the exposition in the introduction. The soloists begin the second subject in unison texture, one octave apart – this unison texture only reappears between the soloists at the beginning of the recapitulation, even though they often play at different intervals elsewhere, lending a magical quality to the return of the second subject. The soloists continue to pass material back and forth, developing it further each time; throughout the movement, rapid, antiphonic semiquaver passages frequently alternate between soloists like dialogue. The development features a brief repose, introducing a mournful, minor melody which is flexible in tempo, contrasting with the bright, major themes of the exposition. The violin precedes the viola in the introduction of new material in the exposition and development, whereas during the recapitulation, which only briefly revisits the first subject, the viola precedes the violin; following the recapitulation is a cadenza shared by the soloists, in which rapid string crossings and double stops are exhibited. The orchestra concludes the movement with a coda which is reminiscent of the end of the introduction.

The Andante movement is in the relative minor, C minor, and begins with the orchestra stating the opening theme, a sorrowful, melancholy melody that is subsequently embellished by the solo violin. The solo viola then begins the same theme, but expands upon it and modulates to the relative major. The soloists then pass the melody back and forth, echoing each other and decorating the melody. We frequently hear the soloists in canon, as well as the violin and viola sections of the orchestra. Mozart also contrasts dense, dark chordal textures from the orchestra with the soloists at higher registers. After arriving back in C minor and reaching a fortissimo climax, the soloists share another cadenza, playing the opening melody in canon, but repeatedly reaching discordant suspensions that are slowly resolved: the cadenza reaches the highest note of the movement before the orchestra quietly echoes a variation of the opening melody, bringing the movement to a close.

The final movement is in sonata rondo form and returns to the original key of E-flat major. The orchestra opens with the first subject of the rondo, a sprightly and energetic melody played by the violin section of the orchestra, followed by the wind. The solo violin introduces the second subject, which is immediately memorable for its brisk ‘scotch snap’ rhythm. When the first subject returns in the rondo/recapitulation, this time played by the soloists, it is in the tonic key; however, the second subject follows in the subdominant via an interrupted cadence, instead of continuing in the tonic as is usual for a movement in sonata form. This allows Mozart to return to the tonic key in the same way as the second subject led into the development, lending a sense of symmetry to the movement. Like the first movement, the order in which the soloists play is reversed in the recapitulation; this is followed by another rondo, which culminates in each soloist soaring to the very top of their instrument’s range (the violin reaches the highest note Mozart ever wrote for the instrument), before the orchestra briefly revisits the rondo, bringing the work to a grand conclusion.

Daniel Yue, Fourths

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Pop Music Uncovered (Briefly)

What is it?

Pop Music is actually an abbreviation for Popular Music and really means any music that is fashionable and trendy at the time. There are certain elements which define this musical genre. These include generally short to medium-length songs, written in a basic form (often the verse-chorus structure), as well as the common employment of repeated choruses, melodic tunes, and hooks. The key feature of pop music is the hook as it makes the song catchy and therefore memorable.

The term “Pop Music” was first used in the 1880s. However, Grove Music Online claims that pop music is a term originating from Britain in the 1950s as a description for rock and roll and the new youth music styles that it influenced. This was the province of the young who defined themselves by urban tastes and interests. Pop is one of the most inclusive genres of music as it can include parts of many others, especially dance, jazz and rock.

General Characteristics:

  • A comfortable length so that the listener doesn’t get bored too easily. This usually means of a length of around 2-4 minutes. This also allows songs to be quickly played over the radio
  • Normally associated with a particular trend – Simon Cowell said “Image is everything”
  • Catchy or irritating to listen to so that you can easily remember it. If a song sticks in your head, it is very difficult to stop thinking about it. Others can also passively learn about new songs via their friends. Memorable choruses are vital to successful pop songs.
  • Something that relates well to children and teenagers as they often decide whether the music is cool or trendy. They also form the largest proportion of the record-buying public.


Music Department at King Edward's School, Birmingham

The MTV logo

Developments and Influences

There are and have been many iconic, memorable and downright controversial people who have been involved in the music and pop business over the years. In 2013 alone, the music industry contributed £3.5 billion to the UK economy. Recent stars such as Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and Taylor Swift have greatly helped the rise of the pop music industry. But before these celebrities were even born, technological advances such as an improved microphone design in the 1940s laid foundations for its development. Also crucially, in the 1950s televisions became commercially available, adding the possibility of a visual dimension to the music and in the 1960s cheap transistor radios were popular amongst teenagers who are still a large target audience today. During the early 1980s icons such as Michael Jackson and Madonna were brought up on and had their careers nurtured by channels such as MTV – a music television channel. These two figures clearly went on to reach the top of the business and helped make MTV the giant of a company that it is today. In other words, in the music world you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours! However, there are many people involved in the industry who work very hard behind the scenes for instance the studio, production, distribution and retail staff.

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Michael Jackson, the king of pop

The business has been dominated by USA and the UK but many smaller countries have their own version of pop music with local characteristics and trends. Grove Music Online stated that “Western derived pop styles have spread throughout the world”. Many non-Western countries however have developed a prosperous pop music industry, most notably Korea for ‘K-pop’ (Korean Pop).

Overall the pop music business is predominantly an international monoculture but has influenced many different parts of the world to create their own versions to fit in with the local cultures and customs.


Rayan De, Fourths


Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Miles’s Musical Enthusiasm

What Makes a Great Club Classic?

Yes – you guessed it – my musical passion is indeed club classics. I have developed an ear for them from tentatively listening to radio shows over the years (Friday evenings on Heart FM), and hope to share my love with the rest of the world.

Cast your minds back to the 80s – a time when rock was terrorised by misplaced synth and pop was just as bad as it is now. With the biggest genres of modern music evoking disgust across the entire western world, surely society as we know it must have disbanded into anarchy? Well, I wasn’t actually alive back then so I’m not sure. One thing is certain, however: it couldn’t have been that bad because club music was around.

What is club music?

This is a good question to begin with as the answer is not as simple as you may think. “Club music” is a phrase used to describe many different sub-genres that are similar and were all popular in the 70s and 80s. These include electronic, disco, and dance, and the basic gist is that you want to boogie when listening (hence the name “club”).

However, this is crucially not to be confused with the club music we see today; real club actually consisted of more than just an overused riff and a beat drop. Musicians actually exhibited talent throughout the songs, and you could still dance to them (I mean real dancing, not just jumping up and down with your hand in the air): such inviting beats are the essence of the genre.

NB You don’t have to be a good dancer to like club – even though I’m sure you are. (I am certainly not.)

To get you started, I’ll show you a couple of stonking tunes that will hopefully illustrate my point:

The Origins of Club Music

To understand the true meaning of club, one must understand its humble lineages. Now it didn’t all necessarily begin in the 80s – I just wanted to convey my hatred for WHAM!. In fact, it is easiest to define club music as originating at the same time as clubs or discos themselves. In the late 1960s and 70s, as discos came to popularity, instruments usually used in pop and rock music were played in a manner which facilitated dancing. The following tunes were especially famous in the mid-70s:

In the late 70s electronic instruments came into use and this is reflected in many of the club classics we hear from this time. Synthesisers and drum machines are examples of such. “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer was instantly hailed as “the sound of the future” by Brian Eno in 1977 who we now know to have been correct, whoever he was.

N.B: I would not class this as a club classic even though it was very famous; it just triggered an era of electronic songs that would become club classics.

It was these ages that harboured both disco and electronic dance music, collectively called club.

What is a club classic?

Using your newly acquired knowledge of club music and your assumed understanding of the word “classic”, the phrase “club classic” becomes pretty self-explanatory. That’s right – it is a club song that also happens to be a classic; a song that is so good, it has withstood the test of time and appeals even to the delinquents of my age.

Most people will recognise club classics when played because of both their popularity and catchy nature. Hits like “Funkytown” and “Super Freak” are still prevalent today.

So then, what makes a great club classic?

Yes, we have finally reached what you actually came here for: the answer to a question that has plagued philosophers’ minds for years: the difference between a timeless club classic and the soundtrack of a middle-aged booze-up:

  • Good Lyrics

This probably sounds as obvious and ambiguous as it does incorrect, considering most club songs are so unadventurously written about dancing. However, whatever the topic of discussion, short, catchy phrases are paramount in order to grasp the audience’s attention and make the song memorable. The fact that “we are family” is the only line from its namesake song that anyone ever seems to remember illustrates this point aptly.

  • Jammin’ Bass Line

Everybody knows that an instrument as simple and as unassuming as the modest bass is vital in any music, but especially so in club. Such bopping bass lines stitch the fibres of the rhythm and melody while remaining unobtrusively in the background. In fact, the bass is the only instrument that features in every club classic I have shown you thus far (except for drums but they don’t count). This song demonstrates my point, even if slightly contrived…

  • Strong Pulse

*Enter angry mob with torches and pitch forks*

“Every philosopher knew that!”

Calm down everyone! I know, I know. The last two were obvious enough, I know, but a strong beat is still important. Oftentimes in club music you will find that at the beginning of the song the percussion is undecorated for a while before other instruments join in; this establishes a solid beat that can be sustained throughout the song. The presence of such and authoritative pulse entices people to dance.

  • Dancing Coercion (?)

Okay, okay. You couldn’t actually expect me to know all of the material secrets of a good club classic; music isn’t like that – we wouldn’t be able to distinguish real classics if this were the case, and I would have made my fortune writing them by now.

But I digress; by now you must have realised that an unexplainable and undeniable compulsion to dance grips you when a club classic begins to play. This may be down to perhaps the strong initial pulse that I have already mentioned, but that isn’t exclusive to club music. I prefer to think that it’s a special something characteristic of club songs that is much harder to define and therefore makes them so precious.

So there we have it: the features of club classics even if somewhat questionable. If I must be so cheesy as I draw up a conclusion, I will say that music is a complex entity which may not be exactly expressed as a combination of ingredients, meaning, admittedly, my title is slightly misleading although there is some decent knowledge in there. If this answer seems hollow to you, I apologise; feel free to drown you sorrows in such a splendid music library and reminisce about a bygone era. Otherwise, I am glad you are so easily satisfied. Either way, I have certainly enjoyed spending this time with you talking about such a fascinating topic.

Miles McCollum, Fourths


Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

The sea

The sea – powerful and ferocious, able to wreck even the finest ships and rear up to magnificent heights, but also filled with the most astonishing tranquillity and sublime beauty one could possibly wish for.

Over the years many composers have been fascinated with the sea, and many, including Frank Bridge (1879-1941) and Claude Debussy (1862-1918), felt compelled to compose music depicting this natural phenomenon. This short text will deal with Debussy’s interpretation of the sea in his piece, La Mer.

Debussy’s parents wanted him to join the Navy. He himself was transfixed by the sea, and although he never had the opportunity to become a sailor, his childhood memories of holidays to the sea of Cannes were very vivid.

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Debussy at Eastbourne where he finished La Mer

La mer, trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestre was started in France in 1903 but finished in the Grand Hotel Eastbourne on the English coast in 1905. The name ‘symphonic sketches’ came about as a result of Debussy’s firm French nationalism. He disliked how the French national traditions were slowly being influenced by German music. Terms such as ‘symphony’ and ‘symphonic poems’ were emerging in Germany, and in order that people would not think that he was adopting these terms, he dubbed his work ‘symphonic sketches’.

The premiere of the piece was in 1905, Paris, where it was played by the Orchestre Lamoureux. Owing to lack of practice from the orchestra and other various personal circumstances concerning Debussy himself, the work was received poorly, but over the next century it became one of Debussy’s most admired and revered works.

The work is divided into three movements:

  1. ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’ – très lent – animez peu à peu
  2. ‘Jeux de vagues’ – allegro (dans un rythme très souple)–animé
  3. ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’–animé et tumultueux–cédez très légèrement.

Roughly translated, these are:

  1. From dawn to midday on the sea – very slow – little by little become animated
  2. Play of the Waves – allegro (with a very supple rhythm) – animated
  3. Dialogue between wind and waves – animated and tumultuous – very slightly held back
king edward's school, birmingham, music department

The original cover for the full score, inspired by the artist Hokusai

In each movement, Debussy paints very different pictures of the sea throughout the day, and the piece moves forward almost chronologically to mimic this, as if the audience is listening to the sea itself.

From dawn to midday on the sea – The piece begins with a soft and gentle tune, and slowly builds up through a crescendo, achieved partially by more instruments of the orchestra joining, to an emotional climax, surging at points, then holding back as the piece moves on, mimicking the awakening of the sea in the morning. Scalic features are used to evoke the waves, and often include whole-tone scales adding to the mysterious power of the sea and the music. Small fragmented motifs bring out the swelling and subsiding of the waves and the muted strings provide a foundation for the music to be explored. The ever-changing time signatures add to the impression of the unpredictable nature of the sea, and the movement comes to a subdued and quiet end.

Play of the Waves – A contrast with the first section, the second movement begins with the upper strings playfully passing around tremolo crotchets. The wind play long, held notes growing in volume only to drop back to piano, giving the opening an air of insistency and expectation. The movement has a lighter, more percussive texture, with the melody continually being passed from one section of the orchestra to the next, never settling. Much of this section is exposed, and requires virtuoso playing and precision from the string and wind players in order for the full effect of the movement to be realised. One way that Debussy creates the image of waves is by the rapid arpeggios, creating peaks and troughs in the pitch. The music dies away, leading into the third movement.

Dialogue between wind and waves – Tremolo from the percussion gives the opening an insistent and urgent feel. The bass and the ‘cellos take up a short, sharp motif, maybe characterising the waves, very dark and violent. They are subsequently joined by the violas, adding to the drama of the moment. This contrasts with a searching, forlorn melody which appears in the wind section, characterising the wind above the sea. A solo trumpet boldly announces a short tune before sinking back into the ever growing texture. Debussy harnesses the full power of the orchestra, gradually growing unto a triumphant conclusion, with the help of the percussion to portray the sea as powerful and majestic.

music department, king edward's school, birmingham

The Great Wave off the coast at Kanagawa, c1830. From ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’ by Hokusai. This inspired the cover of La Mer

This music is typical of Debussy’s writing- a strong sense of atmosphere and mood prevails throughout, but the delivery is subtle, as he paints a picture with a daring and bold palette of impressionistic harmonies and rhythms. The piece’s tonal qualities and interesting orchestration have meant that it has influenced many film scores, delighted many audiences and inspired the next generation of composers, like the sea inspired Debussy.

Gabriel Wong, Fourths

You can see the score of La Mer at IMSLP.

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

The sea


This is Claudio Abbado’s celebrated performance of La Mer with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra:

You can see the score of La Mer at IMSLP.

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

The erhu

Music Department at King Edward's School -- the erhuThe History

The erhu is a two stringed instrument that is over 1000 years old. It evolved from another ancient Chinese instrument the xiqin (奚 琴) that was introduced in China in the 10th century, during the Song Period. It was however in the Dynasties of Yuan (1206-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) that the erhu developed and grew in popularity. It was most commonly used to accompany local operas. It was first acclaimed as a solo instrument in the 20th century thanks to a man called Liu Tianhua (1895-1932). Now the erhu is one of the most popular instruments in China not only because of its rich history but also because of the prestigious value it has.

The name erhu (二胡) can be split into the two separate figures 二 and 胡. The first figure means ‘two’ in Mandarin and this may be because the instrument has two strings. Another argument is that it is because the erhu is the second highest huqin (胡琴) instrument. However, there is no yihu or sanhu (one and three) so personally I think that the fact it has two strings makes more sense. Also there is a sihu (四胡) which is another huqin instrument with four strings and surprise, surprise, si (四) means four.

The erhu belongs to the huqin family which consists of nine different instruments. The erhu is the most common of all the huqim instruments. Originally, the erhu was played using a rosined stick, however, in around the year 1000, horsehair bows reached China and most of the Asian continent. Thus the instrument that we know came into being.

The Instrument

The erhu is made from a long, vertical piece of wood that has two pegs attached to the top of it. At the bottom a sound box that is either an eight-sided or six-sided prism, covered by a python skin. Two strings tuned to a D4 and A4 are strung from the base to the pegs. The bow, normally made of horsehair, is never separated from the strings and is instead placed in-between the two. There is no fingerboard and are no frets.

The erhu is held upright on the performer’s leg, with the left hand holding it at the top and the right hand controlling the bow. Although there is a screw to vary the bow tension, the tautness of the bow is determined by the pressure of the right hand. This allows a great range of effects, from a very wispy, airy sound to a harsh, sharp sound.

The two strings were originally made from silk. However, this meant the sound wasn’t very loud and so now they are made from metal, mainly steel. The two strings are tuned a fifth apart and normally a D4 and an A4, the same as the middle two strings on a violin. In fact the erhu is sometimes referred to as the ‘Chinese violin’ as the principles are the same and in the Eastern orchestras the erhu has the same role as the violin in a western orchestra

The Music

The erhu has a weird and wonderful sound. It resembles the human voice and can also imitate many natural sounds, animals for example. It is a very expressive instrument that normally plays melancholy and melodic pieces. However it is also appropriate for more jovial and light-hearted pieces. There have been many great erhu players throughout history but one, by the name of Abing (Full name: Huà Yànjūn 华彦钧) really stands out from the crowd.

Abing (17 August 1893-4 December 1950) was a blind erhu player. He was an exceptional erhu performer, not only because he was blind but because also incorporated topical issues into his music. As well as playing the erhu he also composed many different prestigious pieces which are known throughout China (a particularly famous example is Erquan Yingyue 二泉映月 which means the Moon reflected in the Er-Quan). His pieces for erhu and pipa have become compulsory for every learner and he is widely acclaimed as the best erhu player of the 20th century. It is thanks to Abing that we have such wonderful pieces on the erhu and I think he is the one who developed the understanding and characteristics of the erhu the most.

Zhangqu Chen
Upper Middles

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

The erhu — selected videos

Moon Reflected on Erquan Pond, an erhu solo by Zhou Wei

The erhu explained:

The Ballad of North Henan Province 豫北叙事曲: