King Edward's Music

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Category: masterclass

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.

Peter & the Wolf: melting icy hearts

 

 

Peter & the Wolf: Elms Farm Primary School

Pupils from Elms Farm Primary School followed the story of Snow Maiden. These are just some of the chalk drawings they have created.

Peter & the Wolf: creating music together


 

 

Peter & the Wolf: Brownmead Academy

King Edward’s pupils and pupils from Brownmead Academy worked together to create some wonderful music.

Peter & the Wolf: magical world

 

 

Peter & the Wolf: The Oval Primary School  

Pupils from the Oval Primary School have recreated some of the Cinderella magic.

Peter & the Wolf: construction

 

 

 

Peter & the Wolf: Hallmoor School 

Hallmoor School students have immersed themselves into the world of Hensel and Gretel. They built some beautiful houses.

Peter & the Wolf: young artists

Peter & the Wolf: Hillstone Primary School

Pupils at Hillstone Primary School have created some truly marvellous paintings in readiness for their performance on 5 February.

Peter and the Wolf: pupils hard at work

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham -- Peter and the Wolf


Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham: Peter and the Wolf

Peter & the Wolf: Bourville and Tiverton Primary Schools

Pupils at Bourville and Tiverton Primary schools are working very hard on their composition pieces to be performed on 5 February at the Ruddock Hall.

This is just the taster of the musical soundscape they created. We are all very excited to hear their live performance!

 

Players from the CBSO record the Fifths’ string quartets.

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham -- CBSO recordings of boys' string quartets

Knowing the score

So………..serialism. That great musical genre, of harmony, tunefulness and beautifulness. Unfortunately, it wasn’t anything like that. Our compositions were full of increasingly obscure intervals and notes which clash and produce a dissonance that would usually mean your music is awful. But no, not serialism. It can sound as unusual and un-’musical’ as you want. I think that’s the really interesting aspect of our compositions is that we can break the majority of the rules we thought existed. Thus, the creations had rhythms that were harder to notate than play, titles which seemed like the composer was going mad while writing them and notes which had no musical bearing to their surroundings, save the matrix which we so faithfully trusted.

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham -- CBSO recordings of boys' string quartets (4)

Trust the Matrix

We embarked on our ‘creations’ towards the end of our fourth year and finally at the end of the autumn term in fifths our pieces got recorded by a remarkable set of players: Kate Suthers, CBSO principal second violin; Kate Oswin, CBSO first violin; Adam Römer, CBSO principal viola; Richard Jenkinson, ex-CBSO ‘cello, Mark Walkem, double bass extraordinaire and Sara Wilander, pianist of note. On that Friday, these players all came together to give life to our pieces and a recording of our pieces that even the titan of Sibelius (the musical composition software not the man himself…) could reproduce.

Arush’s piece Twisted Flamingoes, untwisted into particularly difficult slow triplet minims. We then had a sad moment when Rohan’s Orangutans died, so we had to play them a funeral piece, which was handily composed by Rohan. Then as time flew along we had Louis’ Tempus, and no sooner had we started the baroque-styled piece we moved on. We then had Heftigkeit (violence) by Gokul, which was lost over the summer and then refound (i.e. Gokul re-wrote it). We then tamed Jacob’s Wild Beasts, which turned out to be the middle strings.

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham -- CBSO recordings of boys' string quartets (2)

Written the night before?

Then, we had the piano pieces. These came about due to our rebellious nature: Dr Leigh said do a string quartet, so I did a piano sextet, Shirom a piano trio and Jiaqi a piano quartet. I got the prize for the longest title being: A three legged waltz, a bridge, hell and back again. Then Shirom had his Notes- The exploration of serialism through the transcendence of life and love, which had some interesting rhythms and some challenging double stopping that even the CBSO found tricky. Finally Jiaqi, the most rebellious one. He had a ‘normal’ piece after giving up on his serialist one. It had a piano part that wouldn’t be amiss in a Rachmaninov prelude and had some recognisable motifs, at least to the CBSO.

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham -- CBSO recordings of boys' string quartets (3)

Hell and back?

So, all I need do now is say thank you to the players and to Dr. Leigh for making this happen.

 

George Roberts, Fifths

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

Peter and the Wolf workshop

 

 

Peter and the Wolf workshop

17 November 2018, Hillstone Primary School

The team behind the Peter and the Wolf project convened again at Hillstone Primary School last Thursday. They explored further the model for composition work and also introduced the visual part of the project. The workshop was led by James Mayhew and some truly outstanding masterpieces were created.

 

 

Margaret Cookhorn on BBC Radio 3

Music at King Edward's Music, Birmingham: BBC Inside Music

Inside Music
Saturday, 12 May at 1300 on BBC Radio 3

A new series in which each week a musician reveals a selection of music – from the inside.

Today, bassoonist and principal contrabassoonist of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and woodwind tutor at King Edward’s School, Margaret Cookhorn shares her excitement about a rare experience – playing the contrabassoon in chamber music by Mozart. She also analyses how Richard Strauss brings exotic flavours to the orchestra in his take on Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils, and explains her fascination for patterns in the music of Benjamin Britten. Margaret’s choices range from a miniature by Elgar played by violinist Nigel Kennedy to part of Messiaen’s massive Turangalila Symphony, plus vocal acrobatics from Ella Fitzgerald and Bobby McFerrin.

At 2 o’clock Margaret introduces her Must Listen piece – something she thinks everyone should hear at least once in their life – as she says: “it contains one of the most exciting and rhythmic endings to a symphony ever written”.

You can read more at the programme by visiting:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b2jdyd

 


Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

 

The Cecil Aronowitz International Viola Competition

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham; viola players at the Cecil Aronowitz competition

A convocation of viola greatness: members of KES/KEHS Symphony Orchestra in their safe space.


There has been speculation that there is, somewhere in the world, a mobile safe haven for violas. Its existence has since been confirmed, as the viola tribe manifested itself in the form of the Cecil Aronowitz International Viola Competition at the Birmingham conservatoire during the penultimate week of November. Violists and other supporters flocked from far and wide to listen and participate in a week of masterclasses, recitals workshops and, of course, the main event: the international competition itself.

Several members of symphony orchestra headed down on Monday to get a piece of the action: Naina played in a masterclass with Timothy Ridout and later joined the rest of the merry band in a workshop hosted by the Absolute Zero (temperature, not skill) viola quartet – yes, viola quartets do exist. The workshop was an amusing time where arrangements for viola ensemble were played and new techniques picked up. They also watched Round 2 of the competition.

The Robin Ireland evening recital included one of his own works, Pairings II for two viola, a Bach Chaconne (played with a baroque bow), Seven Preludes by Shostakovich and Six pieces from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. A magical and inspirational performance by one of the viola greats.

All in all, it was an informative and fun experience – maybe next time we’ll be competing for real! … or not.

 

Gabriel and Junias Wong


Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

 

Players from the CBSO record the Fifths’ string quartets.

Music is, depressingly, becoming less prevalent in the curriculum in this day and age. Yet, contrary to popular belief, I have concluded that the reason for this isn’t the content of the course itself, but the students who choose to take it. Sometimes I struggle to understand how Dr Leigh has the motivation to teach us, let alone spend more time with us than the bare minimum. Yet, through his will and determination, he fearlessly led our ragtag crew into the expanse of the Ruddock Hall on an especially dreary Friday afternoon.

Now, if I am giving the impression of reluctance thus far, I wish to say that this was an especially exciting day, for we were to present our ‘serial’ compositions to a select group of musicians (from City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Dante Quartet) consisting Shulah Oliver, Zhiko Georgiev, Adam Romer, and Richard Jenkinson), so we could experience our IGCSE compositions realised in full surround-sound audio, contrary to the pained wailing of a so-called ‘violin’ that Sibelius does its utmost to render.

At this point I should mention the nature of serialism (No, not Special K and the like), as I am sure the introduction of this technical language has caught many of you off guard. I believe the art of serialism can be best summarised by a quote from Schoenberg, the founding father of serialism himself:

‘My music is not lovely.’

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham: string quartet recordings by CBSO

Unlovely music

In layman’s terms, serialism is designed to sound pretty rubbish. One can go into the joy of retrogrades, rows, combinatoriality, and inversions, but essentially serialism is crafted around a foundation of a twelve-tone scale, and doesn’t follow the conventions of traditional western harmony, resulting in something that sounds a ‘bit dodgy’, to use the words of Jonnie. Yet Schoenburg also said:

‘My work should be judged as it enters the ears and heads of listeners, not as it is described to the eyes of readers.’

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham: string quartet recordings by CBSO

Fragile and unreliable

So, I humbly concede to the fragility and unreliability of words, and move on to the topic of the music itself. Our class, being as it is, showed serious apprehension to the dea of purposely bad music, however on the realisation that we were able to ‘bung any old note in and they can’t criticise it’, we discovered a newfound glee at the idea of having one fewer thing to think about when composing.

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham: string quartet recordings by CBSO

Newfound glee

And so we presented our crisp copies featuring, but not limited to:

“Alas, my teapot has run off with a spoon. (A Lament of Youth)” by Nathan Cornish
“O why does my toenail itch so?” by Isaac Elliot
“No! Layers, Onions have layers!” by Jonnie Green

And prayed that these fine players would be able to work their way around our indiscernible blotches. Thankfully, despite Jonnie’s initial worries that they may not have a full grasp of dotted rhythms, they realised our work with aplomb, and we left feeling fulfilled, enriched, and most definitely tired.

Matthew Igoe, Fifths

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham: string quartet recordings by CBSO Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham: string quartet recordings by CBSO

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham: string quartet recordings by CBSO

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

The bassoonists work with Margaret Cookhorn

Margaret Cookhorn and the bassoons of King Edward's School, Birmingham

On Tuesday some of the young bassoonists of King Edward’s School and of King Edward VI High School for Girls had the opportunity to work with Margaret Cookhorn. Mrs. Cookhorn, principal contra-bassoonist of CBSO and recent soloist at the BBC Proms, shared some of her tricks and secrets, and the group played together as a bassoon choir.

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

 

The bassoonists work with Margaret Cookhorn

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham -- our bassoonists work with Margaret Cookhorn

On Thursday last week some of the young bassoonists of King Edward’s School and of King Edward VI High School for Girls had the opportunity to work with Margaret Cookhorn. Mrs. Cookhorn, principal contra-bassoonist of CBSO and recent soloist at the BBC Proms, shared some of her tricks and secrets, and the group played together as a bassoon choir.

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham

 

Players from the CBSO record the Fifths’ string quartets.

Music Department at King Edward's School, Birmingham: recording compositions with the CBSO

Coaching the CBSO?

There was a cold snap to the air that brisk Sunday morning as ten drowsy boys trudged into school from each corner of Birmingham, the sound of their alarms still piercing their skulls. You ask; why were they in school on a Sunday? What could have possibly coerced them into doing such a thing? These are both valid albeit contrived questions as there are very few circumstances which involve lazy adolescents leaving the house on what is, after all, a day of rest.

However, this particular morning elicited no such signs of reluctance, as each and every member of the group had arrived to realise their true calling – to spread the sweet, dulcet tones of serial music, which in case you don’t know, is music that is designed to, well, sound bad…

Hmm, perhaps I should explain this in a little more detail.

     ‘Serial music is that which does not follow a scale or conventional harmony. Rather, it is a combination of different primes, retrogrades, inversion and retrograde-inversions of a chosen line of dissonant notes. I know right.’

Okay, okay. So maybe these school boys were initially somewhat sceptical about composition in such a genre. After all, they had never before listened to let alone composed serial music of any description, and although I would like to say that these minute reservations had vanished once the creative juices started flowing, the truth is that they stuck around until today when the nervous pupils found themselves holding their pristine scores with trepidation.

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham: recording with the CBSO

The author looks on, a picture of trepidation.

Perhaps part of this apprehension stemmed not only from the fact that these performances counted towards the final GCSE grade, but also from the weight of the occasion; alas, if seeing Dr. Leigh with his top two, yes two, buttons undone was not already enough make these boys uneasy, then they were in for a treat as today, playing their serial compositions, was the highly esteemed string quartet form none other than the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra! *Cue fanfare*.

The ensemble was comprised of the revered likes of Lena Zeliszwska at first violin, Zhiko Georgiev at second violin, Mike Jenkinson on the viola and Richard Jenkinson on the cello. We were spoiled with their prowess, which made proceedings run smoothly even when some of the students’ limited knowledge of dynamics became blindingly obvious *cough, cough*.

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham: recording with the CBSO

The CBSO quartet.

As we progressed through pieces such as ‘Shi No Numa’, ‘Seriaously Bad’ and ‘Why?’ the general consensus amongst the composers began to change from “Grrr, Sunday” to one of a much more positive nature; it was as if real-life string instruments didn’t sound like saxophones as they did on Sibelius; as if this wasn’t all part of one of Dr Leigh’s evil plots! By the end of the session, we’d had great fun listening to some exquisite pieces, played in a manner both unforgettable and professional, and all in time for Sunday lunch.

Miles McCollum, Fifths

Music at King Edward's School, Birmingham