All posts by Corymbus

Walking In The Air

Roseberry Topping in the snow, by Chris Combe. Shared under Creative Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

Since its release in 1982, The Snowman has become a much-loved Christmas classic. If you’re a Brit under the age of 40, there’s a good chance this film was an annual television tradition in your childhood, as it was in mine. Its story, of a Snowman who takes a boy on a magical flight to meet Santa Claus, is charming and poignant. And unusually, it is told without dialogue – through animation and music alone.

The score for The Snowman was composed by Howard Blake, and in a long career it has become his most famous work. Its musical icon is the centrepiece song for boy soprano, Walking In The Air. 

The film is based on a children’s book by Raymond Briggs. The soft and warmly atmospheric animation style which lends it such charm is modelled on his illustrations. But interestingly, the original was not a Christmas story at all. Instead of a trip to meet Santa Claus, it featured only a short flight to Brighton pier. Briggs’ idea was to gently introduce children to mortality, as the Snowman is shown to have melted away at the very end.

It might seem strange then to adapt this story for Christmas – the season of Jesus’ birth. But in doing so, this story acquires new shades of meaning, drawing on a different kind of childhood loss.

The Snowman taps into a common theme among Christmas tales, both sacred and secular – that in the dark skies of a winter night, magic can happen. The star of Bethlehem, the angel Gabriel, Santa Claus in his sleigh: these are all miracles invoked in our festive traditions, and they enchant young children.

And there too, above our deep and dreamless sleep, we hope it might start to snow. It is this most longed-for Christmas promise – one so rarely fulfilled in the south of England, anyway – that forms the introduction to The Snowman. We see sweeping vistas of white countryside, and the Walking In The Air theme is foreshadowed on piano and strings – wistful, melancholy and mysterious.

For most of its first half, the film has a gently playful tone. At his rural house, the boy and his magical Snowman engage in a series of nocturnal hijinks, and the score tracks their actions with nimbleness and witty touches. We see the Snowman swap his nose for various pieces of fruit, and hear a strain of the song Oranges And Lemons. As he sneezes, the orchestra lets out a cacophonous splurge of sound.

These episodes lull you into what seems to be a whimsical tale of childish misbehaviour, played out with familiar modern objects – a set of dentures, a TV, a motorbike. But all along, it has another magical card up its sleeve.

As it happens, The Snowman was released in the same year as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Both are tales of boys with an otherworldly friend who gives them the ability to fly. And both set the moment of flight to memorable music. John Williams’ score for E.T. marks take-off with a theme of triumphant exhilaration, soaring higher and higher.

Blake’s flight, however, is very different. As the Snowman takes the boy’s hand and leads him running through the garden, a striking series of upward flourishes in the orchestra alert us that something amazing is about to happen. But when they start to fly, the music falls away to a high tremolo note in the strings. There is an eerie calm as Walking In The Air begins, underpinned by dark notes in the bass, and icy violins above.

This flying sequence suspends the rhythm of the story in stillness. The music comes to the fore now, with the fresh sound of a human voice and a glacial grandeur. Beautifully crafted animation shows unfolding views of winter scenery in continuous snowfall.

Perhaps it is appropriate that the origin of this enchanting song is a story of very adult disillusionment. Blake has described how, some time before The Snowman’s commission, he had become ill through overwork and exhaustion. On doctor’s advice he took up meditation, and decided to have a break in Cornwall. It was there on a beach one day that this melody ‘of perfect innocence’ came to him.

Meditation teaches us to be in the moment, rather than toiling towards distant goals. Similarly, Walking In The Air is about the purity of experience in the present tense. Only here are the boy’s thoughts given voice, suggesting a newly enhanced state of being. Meanwhile the lyrics – also written by Blake – are a stream of consciousness, affirming the act of flying and the sights they can see.

Far across the world
The villages go by like dreams
The rivers and the hills, the forests and the streams.

But it is Blake’s haunting, deceptively simple music that really elevates this scene. Walking In The Air has no chorus – the verse is its melodic hook. The tune is brief, with a secretive, teasing quality. It alternates between a short repeated rhythm and long held notes – there is strangely little else for us to get a handle on.

The dreaminess of the flight is also emphasised through irregular timings. Each verse is nine bars long, an odd number which lacks an intuitive four-square feel. Blake varies the lead-in to later verses too, and together these touches disorient your sense of when musical changes will arrive.

At the same time, the shapes of the music poetically reflect their flight over a series of hills: the voice swoops above piano arpeggios that undulate up and down. The grandeur of the orchestration gradually builds, matching the scenery as it becomes more mountainous.

The success of The Snowman has helped Walking In The Air to become a popular Christmas song in its own right. A separate recording was later released as a single, and its sheet music arrangements have become a valued part of many childhoods. But within the film, the song has an extra narrative significance, and forms an important bridge in its arc.

When they reach Santa Claus’s home, the boy discovers a Snowman party is in full swing. This place is full of merriment, and seems to represent the true Christmas spirit of good company. Santa presents the boy with the gift of a scarf, but only after a extended dance sequence, set to music of springing jollity. Crucially, the festive atmosphere is in striking contrast to the quiet house he has left behind.

During the flight back, the Walking In The Air theme is transformed into a major key, played instrumentally with lush orchestration. It is the happiest music of the score, and only here is there the kind of cosy sweetness we expect from the conclusion of a Christmas film. Our boy seems to have gained a new contentment through this friendship, and their shared experience.

But of course, it is not the end. The following morning, the boy runs downstairs and is dejected to discover that the Snowman has melted. Only a formless pile of snow remains. He reaches into his dressing gown pocket and finds the scarf, to prove it was not just a dream. It is there, but the magic is gone.

As the credits roll and we hear the piano tones of Walking In The Air once more, this music is now a sad reminder of all he has lost. So too is the scarf, whose meaning is now clear. Our Christmas gifts are only as valuable as the relationships they represent.

The Snowman succeeds as Briggs intended, by introducing children to themes of passing. But it speaks to adults too, by evoking a lost world of childhood wonder. It resonates with the way that memories of Christmas help us to mark out time in our lives. For my generation, the film itself is part of those memories too.

By ending in disappointment, The Snowman also touches on a sadder truth – that for many, Christmas will not be a happy experience. For various personal reasons, we might wish to be taken away to a place with more laughter, more music, and more joy. This is even hinted at in the ambiguous family circumstances of the boy’s home. He does not seem to have siblings for company, and his father remains a strangely aloof figure, who does not play with him in the fresh snow.

The Snowman is a hybrid work, and its enchanting storytelling is so much more than the sum of its parts. It remains so popular in part because its quiet truthfulness stands out, among the bombardments of gaudy Christmas marketing that clamour for our attention. Its animation and music are crafted with a love and dedication that truly fits the spirit of the season. And we understand that its final message of passing is also one of hope – we must make the most of our relationships while we can.

As we continue to tell children Christmas stories, it is a pleasure for adults to see young eyes inspired by their magic. But when the Snowman leads the boy into the air, he puts an arm around him, and for a short while it seems he can do what no parent can. He can show you that the magic is real. He can raise you to a place above the troubles of the world, a place where you will be forever loved and protected.

‘I’m finding I can fly so high above with you’, the boy sings, as the Snowman guides him across a sleeping wonderland. It is a beautiful dream, while it lasts. But it too must melt away, like the rarest Christmas snow.

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Reed Stanzas

The river Alde at Snape. Photo by Andrew Barclay. Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

On the stony beach at Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast, there stands a sculpture of a broken scallop shell. At over four metres high, its steel rim is pierced by a line of words: ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’. The composer Benjamin Britten used to walk along this beach, and the shell is dedicated to him, the celebrated resident who co-founded the Aldeburgh Festival. Its evocative words are uttered by the protagonist of one of his most famous operas, the tormented fisherman of Peter Grimes.

Sculptures are the public art form that most directly interact with landscape. Yet here is an artwork also in dialogue with a musical story. And while music is invisible, it has at least as much power to enchant our perception of place.

I recently discovered the third string quartet of Sally Beamish, Reed Stanzas, which was premiered in 2011. The work owes its own debt to Britten. Beamish composed it for the Elias Quartet, and she revealed how its name arose from listening to their recordings of Britten’s music. It brought back memories of her days playing viola at Snape, and ‘the wind blowing through the reed beds’ on the nearby river Alde. This village, five miles inland from Aldeburgh, is home to the Snape Maltings concert hall, which was established by Britten as part of the Aldeburgh Festival.

But another location looms large in Reed Stanzas. It was partly composed at the opposite extreme of Britain, on the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. The two places, as Beamish puts it, are ‘very different, but equally windswept’. Her cottage had a view of the meadow along the shoreline, a special habitat known as the machair. The ‘loneliness and vastness’ of these two landscapes, experienced and remembered, underpins the music.

Machair on Harris, by James Laing. Creative Commons.

Beamish has lived in Scotland since 1990, and the country’s traditional music has been a strong influence in her work. The quartet begins with a melody ‘in the manner of Pibroch’ – a Highland bagpipe tradition. This is given to the Elias’ second violinist Donald Grant, who is also a skilled player of traditional Scottish fiddle. In the premiere recording below, he walks on stage playing this theme, so that the music seems to emerge out of another tradition, and another time.

I have written about Vaughan Williams’ tone poem In The Fen Country, which also portrays of a vast East Anglian landscape. Like that work, the solo of modal melody which opens Reed Stanzas conveys both a loneliness and a sense of history.

But whereas Vaughan Williams’ piece blossoms into full-bodied impressionism, Beamish’s approach is reticent, fragmentary, and mysterious. Much of Reed Stanzas is quiet and high in register, avoiding richer textures. The string quartet medium is more of a charcoal sketch, deftly outlining a vastness it cannot fully describe.

As Beamish mentions in her programme note, bagpipes are one of a host of instruments that use reeds in their construction. Clarinets, oboes and accordions have all called on them to create sound, while the body of the ney, a flute heard in Arabic music, is made from the stem of a giant reed.

She also mentions the huge variety of symbolisms that reeds have acquired across different cultures. As long as humans have needed access to water, they have been navigating reed beds. Like the infant Moses hidden in the bulrushes of the Nile, they appear in many of our oldest stories.

Reeds mark the meeting of land and water, but it is their dance with the air which seems to fascinate most. Aesop told the fable of how the weak reed bends in the wind, but it is the strong tree that falls when the storm comes. Blaise Pascal described mankind as a ‘thinking reed’ – we have the capacity for understanding the universe, even as we are fragile against its powers.

Achille Michallon, The Oak And The Reed.

The gentle movements of reed beds prompt listening, and contemplation. To begin his spiritual epic Masnavi, the Sufi poet Rumi invites us to listen to the reed flute, and hear how its song laments the separation from its bed. Its notes are brought about not just by the wind, he says, but also the ‘fire of love’.

When W.B. Yeats titled an early poetry collection The Wind Among The Reeds, he invoked the hushed atmosphere of the supernatural. Of these poems, The Host Of The Air draws on an Irish folk tale. A man is driving ducks from the reeds of a lake – at dusk, he hears the uncanny sound of piping, and is briefly ushered into the ethereal dream-land of the faeries. There he sees his new bride, who has been stolen away into their world. The vision vanishes, but the strange notes of the piping remain, ‘high up in the air’.

The musicality of reed beds are assured by the birds that dwell in and around them. Beamish describes how they haunt the ‘salt-scented wilderness’ of Harris too. She was so ‘berated’ by a lapwing while composing Reed Stanzas that its call was composed into the score.

The way that Beamish introduces this work invites us to think deeply about landscapes, and the more universal aspects of our relationship to nature. But by linking the work to Snape, she also embeds it into a history of a particular place, one as inevitably connected to Britten as the Alde is to the sea.

Snape Maltings from the air, with Aldeburgh in the distance. Photo by John Fielding. Creative Commons.

Britten was born in Lowestoft, and moved to Snape in his mid-twenties. Before he founded the Aldeburgh Festival, he and his future partner Peter Pears spent three years pursuing new opportunities in America.

During this time, Britten read an article by EM Forster about the Aldeburgh-born poet George Crabbe. It included extracts from his narrative poem Peter Grimes, a disturbing tale of a sadistic fisherman accused of murdering apprentice boys. Britten bought a book of his poems, and Crabbe’s evocations of the Suffolk coast he knew so well galvanised his homesickness. Britten later described the discovery like an epiphany: ‘I suddenly realized where I belonged and what I lacked.’ The idea of an opera on the Grimes story was born.

What Beamish calls the ‘vastness and loneliness’ of the landscape is there in Crabbe’s poetry. Forster sets the scene: ‘expanses of mud, saltish commons, the marsh-birds crying […] Crabbe heard that sound and saw that melancholy, and they got into his verse’. The first lines that Forster quotes – and so the first that Britten read – describe Grimes alone in his boat.

When tides were neap, and, in the sultry day,
Through the tall bounding mudbanks made their way,
Which on each side rose swelling, and below
The dark warm flood ran silently and slow;
There anchoring, Peter chose from man to hide,
There hang his head, and view the lazy tide
In its hot slimy channel slowly glide […]

At this point, Grimes is an accused man – he ‘hangs his head’ while he watches, as if in guilt. The slow, warm tide seems a sinister force, while the ‘hot slimy channels’ of the estuary suggest a unwelcoming borderland where no man should wish to hide – an alien place, even a disgusting one.

Beside the melancholy of the flat marshes, Crabbe touches on a disconcerting aspect of estuaries – their blurred boundaries and confused intermingling. They are a place where the land begins to take on the level shape of water, where even as the river flows out, the sea comes in.

After Britten and Pears returned to England, Peter Grimes was premiered in 1945. The work was wildly successful. Britten moved to Aldeburgh, and together with Pears and the director Eric Crozier, they co-founded the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948. Composer biographies often tell of talented youths journeying to the city to learn their craft – not so many of them travel back to bring the music home. Britten’s decision to base himself in Suffolk, and to run a festival there, have charged this part of the country with a musical energy that lingers long after his death.

The Scallop at Aldeburgh beach, photo by Airwolfhound. Wikimedia Commons.

But Beamish’s comparison of two ‘very different, but equally windswept’ landscapes raises broader questions: of the longer, slower processes that lie behind our relationship to place. To this end, Harris and Suffolk are particularly good examples.

It is easy to forget that some aspects of our landscapes are much older than others. 9000 years ago, you could have walked from where Aldeburgh stands today all the way to Denmark. The lower sea level of the last ice age meant that a vast area was exposed, now known as Doggerland. Here, Mesolithic humans once flourished. The cloudy waters which brood so inscrutably in Peter Grimes are the graveyard of an ancient culture.

‘What a wallop the sea makes as it pounds at the shingle!’, Forster wrote of Crabbe’s hometown. The waves drum out a warning – if they so choose, they can overwhelm us still. In 1953, a storm combined with a high spring tide, and water surged inland all along this low-lying coast, creating one of the worst disasters in British peacetime history. In England over 300 people were killed. Britten’s house was flooded – its address, appropriately enough, was on Crabbe Street.

The sea’s violence persists, even incrementally. Suffolk’s vulnerability is encoded in a coastline that suffers continual erosion. Each tide that oozes up its estuaries is the long breath of a sleeping giant.

The chalk and clays of this county are geologically young, but in contrast, the Outer Hebrides can boast some of the oldest rocks in Europe. Their backbone is made of the Lewisian Gneisses – true hardy survivors, formed and reformed in stages between one and three billion years ago. This island chain, with their prehistoric standing stones of Callanish, are themselves standing stones to a third of the earth’s history.

Callanish Stones, Isle of Lewis. Photo by Marta Gutowska, wikimedia commons.

The rocky peaks of Harris project a kind of craggy resilience in a stormy sea. But the machair meadows that Beamish’s cottage looked out upon are much more delicate. This rare ecosystem is created by sandy sediments and shell matter which are washed ashore by the waves and blown inland. The machair then is quite literally ‘wind-swept’: the wind, via the waves, swept it into being.

With different landscapes come different patterns of living. The Outer Hebrides have a history of crofting, while low-lying East Anglia is particularly suited to arable farming. And it was access to prime agricultural country, along with a river passage, that made Snape a choice site for Victorian entrepreneur Newson Garrett to build a Maltings – a place to malt barley for beer, and ship it to breweries.

When malting finally ceased in the 1960s, the Aldeburgh Festival was outgrowing its smaller venues in the area. Britten saw the opportunity to lease the largest building on the Maltings site, and convert it into a concert hall. And so it began that strains of music joined the wind among the reeds on the river Alde.

Snape Maltings concert hall, by Amanda Slater. Creative Commons.

Forster said that Crabbe was ‘a provincial; and I am using provincial as a word of high praise’. A similar sentiment could be expressed about Britten’s decision to root himself in his home county. But unlike Crabbe, who never left these shores, Britten was also a worldly traveller, whose cosmopolitanism informed the music he composed here.

In Japan, a Shinto creation myth describes deities sprouting into existence like reed shoots from primeval waters. It was during a trip to Tokyo that Britten attended a performance of Sumidagawa (Sumida River), a play in the highly stylised Noh theatre tradition. Its simple story, of a madwoman crossing a river in search of her lost son, fascinated him.

With librettist William Plomer, Britten made this into a ‘church parable’ – a one-act opera for church performance. The tale was moved to a Christian setting in medieval East Anglia, under the new name Curlew River.

Britten was keen to avoid a pastiche of Noh, but he retained a ritualised form and an eastern-inspired palette of sound. We are told that a miracle took place nearby, ‘where, in our reedy fens, the Curlew River runs’. In the unfolding tale, the madwoman takes the river ferry in search of her lost son, only to find out he has died – on the far bank lies his grave.

The river and its curlews seem laden with a strange meaning. Using an ensemble of just seven instruments, Britten creates an extraordinary atmosphere. Hypnotic tone-clusters on the organ recall the sho, a Japanese reed mouth-organ.

Ferry Boat And Capital Birds On The Sumida River, by Katsushika Hokusai.

Stricken by grief at her son’s graveside, the miracle occurs when the madwoman and her fellow passengers hear the dead boy’s voice. He tells her to go in peace, for they shall meet again in heaven. As in Yeats’ poem, the reedy shore is a place that whispers to us from other worlds.

Echoing the traditional fiddle solo that begins Beamish’s quartet, Curlew River is framed by a procession of plainchant – its performers sing as they walk in, and take their places. Our parable seems to emerge out of another realm, and Britten’s scoring shares much of the quartet’s understated aesthetic. Both works ascribe a mysterious power to locality; both simultaneously suggest that these locations could be anywhere.

Reed Stanzas touches on the fact that Britten’s legacy is not just in the body of music he left, but in a deepening enchantment of the places that he lived and worked. This process continues in various ways: through the festival he founded, The Scallop on Aldeburgh beach, and the local celebrations that marked his 2013 centenary. Beamish’s quartet adds a new chapter to that ongoing story.

We can see it too when concertgoers post pictures of the Snape reed beds on social media, and marvel at the beauty of the location. Like a site of pilgrimage, its remoteness from the metropolitan centres of music has become part of its appeal and enchanted meaning.

The reed beds outside Snape Maltings. Photo by David Train. Creative Commons.

Reed Stanzas is a relatively short work, but the plurality of its title suggests that there is more to the music than the riverside of Snape, or the machair of Harris. Through its quiet contemplation and fragmented form, it prompts the imagination to a greater vastness, and a counterpoint of histories sounding in timescales orders of magnitude apart.

The music seems to say that, if we listen to the wind in the reeds, we too can hear voices that refuse to be drowned. They speak in stanzas as old as the first footprint in the tidal mud. In this bed of memory we crossed the lost plains of Doggerland, and touched the sand of the world’s farthest islands. In there too we spelled circles out of stones, moulded deep in the earth over a billion years ago.

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Rearrangements Reconsidered

Rachmaninov at the piano. Cropped from source. Wikimedia Commons.

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 22.12.45     By Young-Jin Hur

By personal associations of an untraceable nature, the music of Rachmaninov has a quality of winter for me. It is by no accident then that around the time of year that Christmas decorations are slowly appearing, I find myself listening to a work by this Russian composer.

A recent choice is the so-called ‘fifth piano concerto’, performed by pianist Julius-Jeongwon Kim and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Francis. As Rachmaninov has four piano concertos to his name, one may be surprised to come across this disc. There is little evidence that the composer ever conceived of a fifth work in the genre. In fact, this concerto is a remoulding of Rachmaninov’s second symphony.

Yet this ‘fifth’ concerto is no mere transcription. Beyond the added texture of a solo piano, the symphony’s four-movement structure is cast into a three-movement form by amalgamating the Scherzo and Adagio of the original work. There are also some noticeable personal stamps of Alexander Warenberg, who arranged the work in 2001 by commission of Pieter Van Winkel and Alexandre Rachmaninov (the composer’s grandson). With such reshaping of the second symphony, and the degree of re-composition considered, a newly numbered concerto status assigned to the work is somewhat justifiable.

Most certainly, this is no occasion for purists. Warenburg’s creation obviously goes against the composer’s intention of the symphony as a complete work, and the balance of the original architecture is questioned. Whether this concerto, so extensively reworked, can be called a Rachmaninov piece is debatable. Still, interpretational diversity and rearrangements are common in the performing arts, and classical music is no exception.

Otto Klemperer’s lugubrious 1965 recording of Handel’s Messiah will undoubtedly raise eyebrows among Baroque specialists, because its approach is thought to be much against the way music was played in the 18th century. The uniqueness of this recording is especially pronounced when compared to ‘period’ performances, such as those by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. Beyond the issues of slow tempo and use of modern playing techniques (e.g. vibrato), Klemperer’s decision to diminish the role of the harpsichord, use modern instruments, and ignore da capos, (i.e. repeats), give an altogether new feel to the Baroque masterpiece.

Incidentally, it is the same conductor who cut around 220 bars from his studio recording of Bruckner’s 8th symphony, citing that ‘the composer was so full of musical invention that he went too far.’ Still, it was no rare occasion for conductors of past generations to manipulate what is written on the score. Furtwängler and Mengelberg produced exhilarating performances at the expense of strictly adhering to tempo markings. The symphonies of Robert Schumann have been particular targets of re-orchestration, given the widespread belief of the German composer’s inexperience in this regard. To cite the Hungarian conductor George Szell, Schumann’s ‘inability to establish proper balances … can and must be helped with all means known to any professional conductor who professes to be a cultured and style-conscious musician.’ Gustav Mahler, who documented his own edited versions of symphonies by Schumann and Beethoven by altering the form as well as the orchestration, was convinced such rearrangements would benefit the music as these changes would fit modern ears.

Still, pure objectivity is foreign to these reworkings, as they often reflect the arranger’s own personal style, perhaps inevitably so. Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral arrangements of J.S. Bach often have a lyrical ardour, reflecting the string sound the conductor nurtured in the Philadelphia Orchestra. The pointillistic colour of Arnold Schoenberg’s adaptation of Bach’s prelude and fugue in E flat major, on the other hand, may owe to the composer’s idea of Klangfarbenmelodie, where a musical melody is broken down between various instruments.

If anything, given the contour unique to each instrument, rearrangements themselves often produce unique emotional effects. Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour On The Cross proves a good example of how a single work can exist in no fewer than four different combinations, (orchestral, string quartet, choral, piano), all written/approved by the composer himself. Unquestionably, the intimacy of the piano version can never match the thunderous sublimity present in the choral version of the work.

Often, the reworking of certain works require much more than the transfer between mediums. Notable examples include the completion of unfinished symphonies, left by composers such as Enescu, Elgar, Mahler and Bruckner. These are the efforts of scholars and musicians, who reconstruct a work based on their research of existing manuscripts, correspondences and sketches. The recent completion of Schubert’s ‘unfinished’ symphony in B minor by Venzago and the Kammerorchester Basel is especially enlightening in the creative direction it took. In addition to the two movements usually performed, Venzago includes two further movements, based on existing sketches and excerpts of the incidental music to Rosamunde. The arrangement is informed by the record of the composer supposedly having used the finished finale of the symphony as a substitute for sections of the Rosamunde score.

Unfortunately, not all re-workings are clear in the delineation between the composer’s own input and the works of colleagues. One case is Mozart’s Requiem, a work left unfinished at the composer’s death, and believed to have been finished by a contemporary Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Borodin’s opera Prince Igor was a work left in such fragmented manuscripts that the joint effort of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov was necessary for its posthumous performance. In both cases, the question of the extent of the input of the original composer is a perennial itch among scholars and performers alike.

Then there is Stravinsky. Stravinsky’s flair for adopting and re-composing existing melodies is reflected in his words that ‘lesser artists borrow, great artists steal’. The wide range of his practice ranges from the numerous remodellings of his own works – Pulcinella, which is based on music from 18th century Italy, exists in three different versions – to compositions based on melodies outside classical music. The Fairy’s Kiss, composed as a ballet work commemorating the 35th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s death, is rooted on the late composer’s early piano works. The unmistakable presence of Stravinsky’s clarity and rhythmic alertness combines with Tchaikovsky’s melodic sensibility to wondrous effect. Much like Venzago’s attempt at completing Schubert’s symphony, this is a case of how rearrangements are not bounded by specific genres.

Purists will exist in any field of the performing arts, in the form of voices pointing to adherence to the intentions of the creator, or in the will to refrain from disrupting an order set by standards of the past.

But an important consideration is the validity of the so-called original intentions. There is no way of determining exactly how Handel wanted his oratorios to be played, nor how Borodin wanted his opera to be shaped. Clearly, Schubert did not expect his B minor symphony to be performed as an unfinished two-movement work, nor did Tchaikovsky expect his youthful piano works to form the basis of a ballet with 20th century musical idioms. Yet these works still get performed in their various ways, and they are as appreciated and as moving as ever.

As the conductor Herbert von Karajan noted, music-making is like the touching of fresh snow; once touched by the warmth of human hands, snow ceases to be the pure thing it was – yet without touching the snow, it is impossible to feel it. To put it differently, interpretation is inevitable in musical performance. If this is true, the notions of composers being presented objectively or truthfully soon acquire layers of vanity if not absurdity. As such, re-creation is intrinsic to the very nature of music-making, to which the act of rearranging works is merely an extension.

Herbert von Karajan, 1938.

If anything, what is relevant to life never will cease to be questioned and reinvented. Thus it is the music lover’s responsibility to recognize the diversity of creation and the unique surprises they provide, and that music is never a settled matter when written down. Like language, music does not live off predestined absolutes, but exists as an organism of ever-evolving nature. So, let the music speak for itself in all its vast possibilities.

As I listen to Rachmaninov’s fifth piano concerto, I glimpse the inner world of the composer from a new light. The sensitive and clear-eyed playing of Julius Kim combines with the LSO’s clarity and warmth. While the second movement – based on the symphony’s two middle movements – works surprisingly well, the biggest surprise waits in the Allegro vivace. Here, Julius Kim’s composed poise generates a chamber music-like intimacy with the orchestra and conductor, even in the most virtuosic of moments. I am convinced. The music has spoken.

Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’). He contributes regularly to Bachtrack, Seen and Heard and MusicWeb International. His writings are available on his blog Where Cherries Ripen.

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A Riddle Like The Cause

A wood-cut from The Confession Of Richard Brandon, executioner of Charles I, 1649.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.

Shakespeare, The Merchant Of Venice

In 1597, the composer Thomas Morley wrote in A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musick that ‘the most principal and chiefest’ kind of instrumental music was the ‘fantasy’. This he defined as follows:

When a musician taketh a point at his pleasure and wresteth and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it according as shall seem best in his own conceit. 

It might seem strange that so seemingly casual a description could be something ‘most principal and chiefest’. Yet the fantasy – or ‘fancy’ as it was also known – was a key force in an enormously fertile period for the cultivation of chamber music in England. It flourished into the second half of the 17th century, through one of the most troubled periods of English history – the Civil War.

Morley was a contemporary of Shakespeare who set his words to music. And it is through the Bard that we can shed light on the free aesthetic of the fantasy. As Erin Minear has noted, Morley’s definition resembles the titles of As You Like It and What You Will. She suggests that the Elizabethan notion of ‘fancy’ shares a Shakespearean ideal of ‘inventive and imaginative play’.

This was a golden age for English composition, and it is striking how often the worlds of words and music intertwined. Alongside the fantasy, a popular instrumental form was the In Nomine. This set the challenge of weaving counterpoint around a cantus firmus – a specific fragment from a choral mass setting by John Taverner from the 1520s.

Madrigals, with their expressive word-painting, were often played on viols too. The Italian repertoire was particularly influential in England – in his guide, Morley found space to complain of ‘our countrymen who will highly esteem whatsoever cometh from beyond the seas (and specially from Italy) be it never so simple, condemning that which is done at home though it be never so excellent’.

Such was the vogue for all things Italian, the composer John Cooper changed his name to the affectation ‘Coprario’. In the 1620s, it was he who began a tradition of putting a fantasy at the head of suites, followed by two dance movements. Other composers soon followed his lead.

Although the viol was a popular instrument with the Elizabethans, the violin gradually started to replace it in the 17th century, and the two would often coexist in ensembles. The organ and theorbo were frequently included too.

Christopher D. S. Field has argued that the gestures and structures of fantasia-suites can be compared to contemporary ideas about rhetoric. ‘As part of the trivium’, he writes, ‘rhetoric was a staple ingredient of education, and the habits it inculcated permeated intellectual thought’. He also suggests that Coprario’s three-movement suite structure may have been intended to imitate the formula of Exordium – Medium – Finis, described by German theorists of oration and music as musica poetica.

But while the music of Shakespeare’s day is rightly celebrated, the decades between leading up the arrival of Purcell under Charles II are a shadowy, less familiar terrain in English music history. The story of the music in these turbulent times is a complex and intriguing one, in which consort music would play an important role.

‘And When Did You Last See Your Father?’ by William Frederick Yeames.

In the 1640s, the outbreak of war and increasing Puritan influence in parliament took its toll on the arts. Theatres – including the ‘great Globe itself’ – were shut down. Meanwhile the new policy for church services was the simple ‘singing of psalms together in the congregation’. The choral tradition which had blossomed so gloriously in cathedrals through the preceding century was ordered to fall silent. Organs were broken up.

And inevitably, the human cost of war was enormous. William Lawes was a musician for Charles I, and during his reign he became a leading composer of consort music. Among his works are set of suites with the striking addition of a harp. Lawes fought with the Royalist forces, and during the siege of Chester in 1645, he was fatally shot.

Dead at age 43, Lawes was mourned as a tragic loss to English music – although his brother Henry, also a composer, would go on to live into the Restoration. But wherever music died, poetry paid its respects. Thomas Jordan composed an ‘urn epitaph’, making wordplay on the politics of the time.

Concord is conquer’d: In this Urne there lies
The Master of great Musick’s mysteries,
And in it is a riddle like the cause:
Will. Lawes was slain by such whose wills were laws.

With the Parliamentarians victorious, on 30th January 1649 came one of the most extraordinary moments in English history. King Charles I was beheaded in Whitehall, and England became a Commonwealth. Shortly after, a 76 year old composer called Thomas Tomkins sat down and composed a Sad Pavan For These Distracted Times. 

Tomkins had worked in music since the days of Elizabeth I, both in the Chapel Royal and at Worcester Cathedral – a city which had suffered two punishing sieges. His pavan is a poignant example of the consolation of chamber music in what must have seemed a time of great uncertainty and senseless destruction. Tomkins died in 1656 at the grand old age of 84, though it was sadly too soon to see the Restoration, nor to hear choral polyphony echoing through the cloisters once again.


Victorious sounds! yet here your Homage do
Unto a gentler Conqueror than you;
Who though He flies the Musick of his praise,
Would with you Heavens Hallelujahs raise.

Andrew Marvell, Musicks Empire

The Cromwellian period has an austere reputation. But Andrew Marvell’s poem Musicks Empire illustrates something of the prestige music still carried, and its continuing intermingling with literature. Cromwell himself employed musicians who would entertain for visiting dignitaries, including John Hingeston, who composed fantasies for an unusual combination of cornett, sackbut and organ.

In private spheres, music making still flourished. John Jenkins was one composer who made a prolific contribution during in this period. Much of his work tends towards a kind of flowing serenity, as if a sanctuary from the tumult of politics and war – though he composed a notable pavan and galliard depicting the siege of Newark.

The younger Matthew Locke was also writing for consorts. His music has delightful expressive and dramatic flair, with arresting rhythms and bold harmonic movement, that would go on to influence the young Purcell.

In some ways, the upheavals of the period proved an unexpected catalyst to music. The removal of royal monopolies enabled entrepreneurial spirit to emerge in the industry of publishing. John Playford’s English Dancing Master, a collection of tunes with instructions for each dance, first appeared in 1651 and was enormously successful.

A woodcut that appeared in Playford prints in the 1650s.

Furthermore, the censorship of playhouses gave impetus to any dramatic form with a pretext of musical performance. And so in this period came productions generally regarded as the first English operas. The Siege of Rhodes, ‘sung in Recitative Musick’, was put on by William Davenant in a room in his own house, a remarkable fact given he was a staunch Royalist who had fled the country and been imprisoned. The score has not survived, but it was a collaborative effort whose composers included Henry Lawes.

Clearly, England remained a considerably musical place. But Musicks Empire, with its ‘harmonious colonies’, alludes to another continuing thread – imperial expansion. Cromwell remains infamous for his brutal campaign in Ireland. Under his rule England gained control of Jamaica, whose sugar plantations would become a key part of the transatlantic slave trade. Music was not immune to imperialist propaganda either – a subsequent Davenant production from this period was called, with little subtlety, The Cruelty Of The Spaniards In Peru. Locke composed the score.

Cromwell At Dunbar, by Andrew Carrick Gow.

The Cromwellian period fascinates us partly because it is an aberration in a history we measure in monarchs. But it is also because revolutions open possibilities of what might be – and in doing so, suggest what still could be. Some of the movements that emerged around this time, such as the Levellers and the Diggers, envisioned a society built on radically more egalitarian lines, and have continued to inspire progressive thinkers.

History teases us with ‘what-ifs’. Had Cromwell lived longer, or had the future Charles II not made his near-miraculous escape after the Battle of Worcester, might Britain be a republic today? Of course, we will never know.

And yet on a musical note, one obscure document gives pause for thought. In 1657 a petition was put to the Council of State for a ‘Corporacion or Colledge of Musicians’ to be built in London, with Hingeston one of the signatories. Nothing came of the request. Given that the Royal Academy of Music would not be founded until 1822, it is tantalising to think how differently English music history might have turned out, had it been approved.


Sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My musick shows ye have your closes,
And all must die.

George Herbert, Vertue

Having fled to the continent, Charles II had developed a taste for French music when he returned to England at the Restoration. In November 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded a scene in which the new King ‘bade the French musique play, which, my Lord says, do much outdo all ours’.

Fashions were changing, and while the fantasy persisted for a while, its Shakespearean salad days had passed. As soon as 1667, Christopher Simpson would write that the form was now ‘much neglected by reason of the scarcity of auditors that understand it, their ears being better acquainted and more delighted with light and airy music’.

For this reason, it is something of a mystery as to why the young Henry Purcell composed a number of fantasies and In Nomines around 1680. Unpublished in his lifetime, they lay in the obscurity of manuscripts until the 20th century.

What is certain is that, through contrapuntal ingenuity and intensely concentrated expression, Purcell showed how much these forms could still do. He evidently relished the challenge of restriction – besides two In Nomines, he took the extraordinary step of composing a fantasy ‘Upon One Note’, in which one part plays a single C throughout.

And yet in his radiant seven-part In Nomine, there is a modal darkness that seems consciously antiquated. Its strikingly ghostly ending leaves us without the harmonious third of the triad. Even as Purcell was mastering this tradition – a direct link to the pre-Reformation England of Henry VIII – he seemed to be etching it into an intricate death mask.

Perhaps sensing the way the wind was blowing, Purcell instead opted to publish a set of trio sonatas. In these, he proclaimed, he had ‘faithfully endeavour’d a just imitation of the most fam’d Italian Masters’. Morley would wresteth and turneth in his grave.

But the spirit of the fantasy would have a far-flung afterlife. In the early 20th century, a wealthy philanthropist called Walter Willson Cobbett instituted competitions for British composers to write in a modern version of the form. His aspiration was to foster a culture of domestic music making through the creation of shorter chamber works – the kind of culture that had thrived among the educated classes of the 17th century.

And in the late 1980s, over three centuries after their composition, Purcell’s fantasias were a revelation for the young composer George Benjamin. ‘The combination of concentrated counterpoint with a harmonic, beguiling sensitivity immediately captivated me,’ he said. ‘The discovery of these pieces quite simply changed the way I perceived – and wrote – music.’

One reason that the fantasy form continues to intrigue and inspire is surely its openness. Morley wrote that ‘in this may more art be shown than in any other music because the composer is tied to nothing’. It makes explicit the inherent puzzle of instrumental composition – what, and how, do you make sense out of pure sound?

The fantasy throws down a gauntlet: it invites us to conquer ‘great Musick’s mysteries’. No wonder, then, that the worlds of song, drama, and rhetoric beg to be let in to play along with this little game. It is the very riddle in the composer’s cause.

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Tracing The Origins Of Danny Boy

Binevenagh, County Derry/Londonderry. cc-by-sa/2.0© Albert Bridge. Cropped from source.

     By Anne Ku

The tune known as Londonderry Air long preceded the song Danny Boy, which was published in 1913. Yet today listeners recognize the music as Danny Boy, and not of the numerous other songs and hymns set to the same melody. Why were the lyrics of Danny Boy able to withstand the test of time and its competitors for this tune? Various books, studies, and TV documentaries help to paint a holistic picture of the song’s history and evolution.

The story of Danny Boy spans three distinct periods in music making and dissemination: the oral tradition of Irish folk musicians, the proliferation of sheet music for domestic piano playing, and artist recordings and broadcasts.

In the 19th and earlier centuries, Irish musicians travelled from town to town playing the music of their ancestors or creating their own tunes. None of this was recorded or notated until concerted efforts were made by music scholars to actively collect and publish for preservation.

The tune we know today as Danny Boy first appeared in the 1855 publication The Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland, arranged for piano. The melody had been contributed by Jane Ross, a collector of Irish melodies from County Londonderry, as an anonymous air. That she did not reveal the source has added to the tune’s mystique, though descendants of a blind fiddler called Jimmy McCurry have claimed that he was the musician who played it to her. Whatever the truth of this, Ross’ tune acquired the name Londonderry Air when the Irish poet Katharine Tynan Hinkson composed the words of Irish Love Song to the melody in 1894.

In his 1979 article New Dates for Old Songs 1766–1803, Hugh Shields points to similarities to an older tune called A Young Man’s Dream, published in Bunting’s The Ancient Music of Ireland in 1796. This used a 3/4 time signature more common to Irish airs, rather than the 4/4 of Ross’ melody. In a major study The Provenance of the Londonderry Air, Brian Audley analysed these tunes to show resemblance and an attribution of lineage. He also notes that that by the year 1923, more than 80 lyrics had been set to the melody.

Writing in The Musical Quarterly in 1920, Annie Patterson attributed the growing interest in this tune to several factors. The composer Sir Hubert Parry had praised the melody in his 1896 book The Evolution Of The Art Of Music, saying that ‘as a simple emotional type’ it was ‘one of the most perfect in existence’. Around the same time, Gaelic culture festivals in Ireland were encouraging composers to put traditional melodies into four-part arrangements and classical forms. Percy Grainger made several piano and orchestral arrangements of Londonderry Air, which charmed the public.

Given the song’s Irish origins and associations, it is ironic that the words to Danny Boy were composed by an Englishman. Frederic E. Weatherly was a barrister and King’s Counsel, but he also wrote over 3000 lyrics, half of which were published as songs. A well-known character who mixed in fashionable circles, he was often invited to pen words for special occasions. Late in life, his regular broadcasts on BBC radio about his life and songs led to his nickname ‘the grand old man of song’.

Frederic Weatherly.

In a 2013 book, Weatherly’s great-grandson Anthony Mann described how the words of Danny Boy had originally been set to a different tune, without success. Though accounts differ as to the precise circumstances, Weatherly had encountered the Londonderry Air via his sister-in-law, who lived in America. He recalled that:

I had never heard the melody or even heard of it […] It so happened that I had written in March of 1910 a song called Danny Boy and re-written it in 1911. By lucky chance it only required a few alterations to make it fit that beautiful melody.

The song was published by Boosey & Co. in 1913. When war broke out the following year, English opera singer Elsie Griffin popularised Weatherly’s song with the British troops in France. The German-American contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink became the first to record it in 1915. In Stories Behind The World’s Best Loved Songs, Max Cryer argues that Schumann-Heink’s version ‘influenced nearly 200 artists to make recordings of the song, long before recordings became electrical.’

The spread of the gramophone and wireless radio enabled Danny Boy to move swiftly overseas and gain worldwide appreciation. The song acquired particular resonance through the convergence of the rise of Irish nationalism, mass Irish emigration, and the world wars.

In the 1940s, Hollywood embraced Danny Boy in film. In the 1946 romantic comedy Because Of Him it is sung in a crucial scene. The same year, a film about a retired war service dog called Danny Boy featured the melody in the soundtrack.

In the following decades many different artists have brought Danny Boy into the charts, including the Glenn Miller Band, Bing Crosby, and Andy Williams. A 1996 TV documentary on the song featured a host of musicians including Shane McGowan, Eric Clapton, Sinead O’Connor and Van Morrison. Johnny Cash made his performance personal by prefacing it with a story of a Danny in his own life. Elvis Presley lauded it as ‘written by angels’, and it was among the selection of music played at his funeral. For the mourning of personal loss this tune has proven particularly powerful – hymn versions of the Londonderry Air were sung at services for the untimely deaths of both Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy. And as a 2013 BBC documentary about the song showed, Danny Boy gave solace to New York firefighters as they grieved their colleagues who were killed in the September 11th attacks, many of whom were Irish-American.

It may be that Weatherly’s fame through his BBC broadcasts encouraged the widespread adoption of his lyrics to this tune. But a crucial factor in its success is surely how the relationship between Danny Boy and the singer remains tantalisingly unspecified. Danny might be a lover, brother, friend, or son. This flexibility makes the song applicable to a wide range of human sentiments and situations.

The universal themes in Weatherley’s words have also enabled Danny Boy to transcend Ireland’s political and sectarian divisions. Although Weatherly had never visited Ireland, in his autobiography he acknowledged that Danny Boy ‘is sung all over the world by Sinn Feiners and Ulstermen alike’. Over a century later, Danny Boy has become an unofficial anthem for the Irish, a symbol of Irish diaspora, and an enduring song of love and loss.

Anne Ku was born in Brunei and raised in Okinawa, Japan. She began taking piano lessons at age eight, and obtained a degree in composition and teaching diploma in piano from Utrecht Conservatory. Thereafter she taught music at University of Hawaii Maui College for a number of years. Her official website has links to her blogs about cultural economics, behind-the-scenes stories of her piano guitar duo, and her latest passion – the ukulele.

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Toward A Matriarchal Aesthetic Of Music

‘Meredith Monk – On Behalf of Nature’ by Steven Pisano. Cropped from source. Creative Commons.

      By Alexander K. Rothe

In the early 1980s—when the world seemed to be on the brink of a nuclear war—feminist authors on both sides of the Berlin Wall turned to matriarchal studies as a way of criticizing the militaristic and destructive nature of patriarchal societies. In East Germany, where there was no independent women’s movement and feminism was forbidden by the state, authors such as Christa Wolf and Irmtraud Morgner based their understanding of matriarchy on the anthropologist Johann Jakob Bachofen and the Marxist texts of Friedrich Engels and August Bebel.

Bachofen’s 1861 book Mother Right describes the course of human history as a transition from matriarchy to patriarchy, where the matriarchal stage is one in which kinship is matrilineal and human relations are peaceful and egalitarian. Also influenced by Bachofen, West German feminists—in particular Heide Göttner-Abendroth—had a more critical interpretation of the matriarchal theories of the past. In her 1982 book The Dancing Goddess, Göttner-Abendroth rejects the essentialism of Bachofen and his depiction of matriarchal societies as being more primitive. Instead, she views matriarchy as a ‘societal form’ with many different cultural manifestations, and it is her aim to investigate the specific socio-historical changes leading to its demise.

Although these matriarchal texts were very much a product of their time (the early 1980s), I argue that they are helpful for considering the current political and cultural climate, which is threatened by a similar sort of destructive patriarchal thinking. Even though the composers and artists discussed below did not explicitly draw on matriarchal theory—with perhaps the exception of Tania León—the matriarchal concept is nevertheless an effective tool for highlighting particular aspects of the music that are often disregarded as a result of the values underlying existing musical canons.

A matriarchal aesthetic of music de-emphasizes the composer’s role in favor of collaboration. It also interrogates different kinds of musical hierarchies (formal, genre, institutional), drawing attention to the gender inequality that is bound up with them. Such an aesthetic does not assume a timeless essence or group of style features that all female composers share in common. The matriarchal aesthetic is a historical approach that takes into account the specific cultural context. Finally, it is an approach that emphasizes the agency of female composers and artists in the creation and negotiation of social reality.

My argument is that matriarchal studies provides a new perspective for feminist music scholarship, one that explores spirituality and ways of thinking about difference that are in keeping with the difference models outlined by Ruth Solie and Olivia Bloechl and Melanie Lowe. More specifically, a matriarchal aesthetic critically interrogates those values underlying the Western art music tradition that are often falsely assumed to be universal and naturally given.

Meredith Monk’s Atlas 

Inspired by Alexandra David-Néel’s book Magic and Mystery in Tibet, Meredith Monk’s Atlas (1991) is an opera about the spiritual quest of Alexandra Daniels—a woman who is presented at three stages in her life, each performed by a different singer. In place of a conventional libretto, the text consists of mainly non-verbal vocalizations.

Drawing on Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva, Renée Cox Lorraine investigates the possibility of a musical kind of écriture féminine (‘feminine writing’) —a mode of composing that refers back to the ‘rhythmic, presymbolic play of mother-infant communication in the infant’s preoedipal stage of fusion with the mother.’ In 1976 Monk discussed her treatment of the voice in similar terms: ‘a tool for discovering, activating, remembering, uncovering, demonstrating primordial/prelogical consciousness.’ One could argue that Monk’s use of non-verbal vocalizations captures what Lorraine describes as jouissance (‘pleasure’)—a mode uninhibited by the patriarchal constraints of symbolic language.

There is a second way in which Monk’s Atlas reflects matriarchal thinking. At various points in the opera, Monk juxtaposes matriarchal and patriarchal societies. The scene Agricultural Community depicts a society in harmony with the earth, as conveyed by the music’s dance-like asymmetrical meters and the harmonious layering of ostinatos. In contrast, Possibility of Destruction is an apocalyptic scene of soldiers and heavy industry. The music here is highly dissonant and disorienting, with its juxtaposition of asynchronized layers of contrasting rhythmic and melodic material.

In Earth Seen from Above, Monk presents us with a vision of a matriarchal order that exists in us all as listeners. She writes in her 1989 process notes: ‘This music has the radiance and resonance that implies the existence of an invisible world that underlies what we think reality is but that we rarely notice or connect with.’ The text of this scene consists of only two syllables (‘nn’ and ‘doh’), and the music conveys the impression of bells ringing at different points in space. Composed for seven parts (SSAATTB), the piece begins with altos and sopranos alone, gradually filling in the notes of a first-inversion major triad. Variations of a simple dotted rhythm appear in each of the parts, resulting in an echo effect between the voices. The steady pulse and slowly moving harmonies give the piece a feeling of timelessness.

Finally, Monk’s collaborative process demonstrates what I take to be her matriarchal mode of production. In addition to being the composer of Atlas, Monk is a performer and contributes to the choreography and the stage and costume design. In contrast to the traditional hierarchal structure of the opera house, the members of Monk’s vocal ensemble are both soloists and ensemble singers. Moreover, Monk’s compositional process leaves room for the performers to improvise. It wasn’t until later in the collaborative process that she notated her music. Overall, her working process distributes creative responsibilities in a more egalitarian fashion.

Tania León’s Scourge of Hyacinths

Based on a radio play by the Nobel-Prize winner Wole Soyinka, Tania León’s 1994 opera Scourge of Hyacinths tells the story of Miguel Domingo, a man unjustly sentenced to death by a military regime in Nigeria. Miguel’s mother pleads with him not to escape prison, invoking the protection of the Yoruba goddess Yemanja. The water hyacinths, a potent symbol of how the military regime violates the civil rights of its people, prevent Miguel from reaching Yemanja’s sacred island. Soyinka’s play captures the tragic confrontation of a matriarchal society with a patriarchal one.

León, who was born in Cuba and is partly of West African ancestry, describes how her own mother would pray to Yemanja in the form of the Virgin Mary, since African religions were forbidden in Cuba. León recalls how she composed Oh Yemanja (‘Mother’s Prayer’) after asking her mother to sing the traditional Yemanja melody from her childhood.

Freely adapted from Soyinka’s play, Oh Yemanja is a prayer sung by Miguel’s mother to the goddess Yemanja, asking the latter for protection of her son. The prayer juxtaposes imagery of clear water, associated with the goddess’s wisdom and guidance, with that of the muddied water obstructed by the ‘fulsome hyacinths’. The clarity of Yemanja’s vision is conveyed by the diatonicism of the piano’s introductory music, which is then interrupted by a chromatic cello line—a sonic image of the muddied waters. The voice begins with a tritone motif that returns throughout the song whenever the mother sings the words Oh Yemanja. Apart from this motivic continuity, the song is through-composed, and the cello line is gradually integrated into Yemanja’s tonal world. The voice remains unresolved at the end, foreshadowing the opera’s tragic outcome. Through the mixture of declamation and lyricism in the vocal writing, we as listeners are meant to sympathize and identify with the mother’s character.

Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda

Guthrie Ramsey refers to a tradition within Afro-modernism that moves beyond the latter’s male-oriented discourse of freedom. The era of Afro-modernism (1940s through the 1970s) saw unprecedented changes for blacks across the globe, including decolonization of Africa, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Black Consciousness Movement. Women played a key role in this era, and this is particularly evident in the music of the time. Be that as it may, women are often excluded from historical accounts of this era, as a result of the preoccupation with the freedom of the male body and identity. Alluding to the music of Alice Coltrane and Mary Lou Williams, Ramsey points to ‘alternative epistemologies’ within Afro-modernism that go beyond the freedom discourse to address such important values as spiritual growth and community building.

After her husband John Coltrane passed away in 1967, Alice Coltrane (née McLeod) recorded a number of highly original albums that—continuing along the lines of John Coltrane—explored the possibility of using music as a pathway to spiritual enlightenment. As Tammy Kernodle points out, although women were frequently barred from participating in free jazz and avant-garde experimentation, Alice Coltrane pushed the genre in new directions that made her one of the most innovative musicians and composers of the time period.

Alice Coltrane’s outstanding creativity and spirituality are especially evident in her fourth album, Journey in Satchidananda (1971). She recorded the album after meeting Swami Satchidananda, a profound spiritual mentor who guided her study of Hinduism. Alice was particularly moved by the swami’s teachings on self-realization and universal love, themes that would frequently appear in her subsequent albums. As discussed by Franya Berkman, this was the first of Alice’s albums to explore non-Western instruments and ideas. In its title track, we hear Alice perform harp alongside Pharoah Sanders on saxophone, Cecil McBee on bass, Tulsi on tamboura, Rashied Ali on drums, and Majid Shabazz on bells and tambourine. An unusual solo instrument in jazz, the harp enabled Alice to explore new sonorities and textures. On this track, Sanders and Alice take turns soloing above the Satchidananda melody, which occurs in the bass as an ostinato figure. This melody later became a hymn when Alice founded her own spiritual center, the Sai Anantam Ashram, in California in 1983. Alice Coltrane’s music effectively breaks down the barrier between performance and ritual spaces.

A list of further reading appears at the bottom of the page.

Alexander K. Rothe is a Core Lecturer at Columbia University. His research interests are opera staging, Regieoper, Wagner Studies, and new music. He is currently working on a book project on stagings of Wagner’s Ring cycle and afterlives of 1968 in divided Germany. Visit his website for more information.

Further Reading

Berkman, Franya J. 2010. Monument Eternal: The Music of Alice Coltrane. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Bloechl, Olivia and Melanie Lowe. 2015. ‘Introduction: Rethinking Difference.’ In Rethinking Difference in Music Scholarship, edited by Olivia Bloechl, Melanie Lowe, and Jeffrey Kallberg, 1-52. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Göttner-Abendroth, Heide. 1991. The Dancing Goddess: Principles of a Matriarchal Aesthetic. Translated by Maureen T. Krause. Boston: Beacon Press. (See also the original: Die tanzende Göttin: Prinzipien einer matriarchalen Ästhetik. Munich: Verlag Frauenoffensive, 1982.)

Jowitt, Deborah, ed. 1997. Meredith Monk. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Kernodle, Tammy L. 2010. ‘Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Alice Coltrane and the Redefining of the Jazz Avant-Garde.’ In John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music, edited by Leonard L. Brown, 73-98. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lorraine, Renée Cox. 1991. ‘Recovering Jouissance: Feminist Aesthetics and Music.’ In Women and Music: A History, edited by Karin Pendle, 3-20. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Ramsey, Guthrie P. 2017. ‘Afro-modernism and Music: On Science, Community, and Magic in the Black Avant-Garde.’ In The Transformation of Black Music: The Rhythms, the Songs, and the Ships That Make the African Diaspora, edited by Samuel A. Floyd Jr., Melanie L. Zeck, and Guthrie P. Ramsey, 155-172. New York: Oxford University Press.

Solie, Ruth A. 1995. ‘Introduction: On ‘Difference.’ In Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, edited by Ruth A. Solie, 1-22. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Making Waves

Waves at Cabo Polonio, Uruguay. Photo by Johntex, cropped. Shared under Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

At some point while I was studying for music A Level, we had a class in which we were each performing for constructive criticism. One of the students sat at the piano and sang a song she had written. The accompaniment was simple – a few repeating chords, giving prominence to her expressive voice.

At the end, the teacher remarked that it had been very effective, but it would not be a good submission as composition coursework. This kind of minimal style, he explained, did not exhibit the variety of techniques that examiners would be looking to see that students were aware of.

In other words: the song was lovely, but it did not tick the right boxes for varied harmonic structure that, say, an Elton John song might do. Deeply felt self-expression, an idea which makes studying music attractive, was not what we were there for.

And yet the simplicity of my classmate’s song was certainly of its time. Wayne Marshall has noted how the four-chord sequence used in the 2017 hit single Despacito has become remarkably widespread in recent years. Another article by Dean Olivet identifies a decline of traditional ‘functional’ harmony in modern pop music. Instead, Olivet suggests, much of it meanders or cycles around, ‘like a lost monk chanting in the woods’.

Perhaps this is just a matter of changing fashions. It could be that a more rootless approach to tonality resonates with the zeitgeist in some way. Perhaps harmonic structure, with the potential to ‘modulate’ between keys, has simply become a less important musical parameter. Hip-hop – by one measure the world’s most popular music genre – puts more emphasis on lyrical content, rhythm, and the sonic possibilities of sampling.

Whatever the explanation, the priorities of our A Level were made clear when we learnt to compose perfect cadences in the style of chorales from 18th-century Leipzig.

At around this same time, I became aware of the pianist-composer Ludovico Einaudi. His albums Le Onde (The Waves) and I Giorni (The Days) had been taken up by Classic FM, and he blended the kind of chord sequences that saturate pop music with minimalist piano textures.

I came to admire Einaudi’s piano music as much for its gentle poetry as its audacious simplicity. The remarkable fan base it has gained, including a large cohort of young listeners, is something that should give pause for thought. To some, Einaudi is understood as part of a ‘dumbed down’ wave of classical crossover music. ‘The Land Modulation Forgot’ was the mocking sticker I once noticed attached to his drawer in the music section of a London book shop. Words my A Level teacher might have used to my fellow student, had he been less kind.

But to notice only a lack of modulation in Einaudi’s music reveals a curiously insular view. Besides songs like Despactio, how many musical traditions around the world do not use modulation to a great extent? It must surely be many, especially when – like European music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance – the capabilities of instruments do not easily facilitate it.

After a gap of several years, I recently revisited I Giorni, whose title track tinkles away in the background to BBC TV trailers. By chance it was straight after listening to Mali In Oak by Tunde Jegede, a kora player I have written about here. Suddenly, with this serendipity of juxtaposition, Einaudi’s music started to make sense in a different kind of way.

This should have been no surprise. I had completely forgotten that I Giorni was itself inspired by a trip to Mali. The sleeve notes describe a car journey near Bamako with another kora player, Toumani Diabate, where he explained the story behind an ancient Mande song playing on the radio.

I Giorni is not African pastiche, but it is interesting how Einaudi uses the piano much like the 21-string kora, with its far more limited harmonic range. He mostly keeps within one key centre, and manipulates textural figurations in ways that bring out the sound colour of the instrument.

Now our bookshop joker may or may not be culturally insensitive enough to dismiss Mande musical traditions as A Land Modulation Forgot. But either way, a careful listen to I Giorni reveals that there is a subtle musical intelligence at play. Einaudi understands the power of creating space, and making the listener wait. Often simply through pausing, but also by holding back harmonic movement, textural weight, or melodic prominence, and then variously releasing it to shape the music.

It sounds easy, of course. But as with composing text, the ease of simple communication can be deceptive.

With all this in mind, we can see how the idea of Einaudi representing the ‘Relaxing Classics’ touted by Classic FM is misleading. He is tapping into an aesthetic of graceful simplicity, of ‘less is more’, that can be found within all sorts of musical traditions, from Mande song to Gregorian Chant to the wildly successful recording of Gorecki’s third symphony. Einaudi studied under composers like Berio and Stockhausen, but has also said that ‘all my life, my heart has felt closer to Rock’n’Roll’. Many of his melodies would sound, in another arrangement, just like folk music.

Einaudi has never ‘forgotten’ modulation. But he does have an understanding of the broader and older ways that music speaks to people, and the role it can play in busy lives, which renders modulation a moot point.

The scope of his musical sympathies are exemplified most vividly in the 2015 collaborative album Taranta Project, which features African and Turkish musicians. Complete with upbeat percussion and electric guitar, it explores a colourful sound world that is a far cry from the marbled piano tones of I Giorni.

Nonetheless, it is true that much of Einaudi’s music is gentle, and avoids a sense of conflict. His solo piano works tend to move in phases, often separated by pauses, without any sudden extremes of dynamics. As I argued in relation to John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, this kind of approach creates a built-in versatility: the music can work as a background to other activities as well as the focal point of a concert experience.

But if listeners find Einaudi ‘relaxing’ – as a lifelong fan of relaxing, I take no issue here – we might also say that, like Olivet’s monk roaming the woods, it is transcendent or meditative. ‘The landscape is always the sand, the sky, the clouds, the sea,’ he writes about his breakthrough album Le Onde. ‘Only the waves change, always the same and always different’.

This peaceful scene painting also points to a humane perception behind his music. Its simplicity expresses a common yearning for a truer existence, the kind of impulse that fires idealistic dreams of quitting the city job and going to live off the land somewhere. The same sort of sentiment expressed in the oft-tweeted lines of Langston Hughes:

I am so tired of waiting,
Aren’t you,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?

In essence, Einaudi’s repeating arpeggios and gentle melodies suggest a form of contented self-limitation. And perhaps that is the one thing our bookshop vandal can never forgive. Such an outlook cannot be computed by the intellectual and aspirational value set that classical music is bound up in, the same values that my fellow A Level student encountered when her sincerely heartfelt song was deemed to be ultimately unworthy.

Like the omnipresent chord sequence of Despacito, his extraordinary popularity probably arises from a multitude of factors. But my hunch is that Einaudi’s quiet music embodies an idea which, for many, carries a quiet appeal. It is an idea that is considered dangerous to any overarching culture – musical, political or otherwise – that conditions us to strive, compete, demand more, and achieve the exceptional. The idea of simply saying ‘this is enough’. That most radical notion: choosing humility.

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From The Mouth Of The Gambia

Black Crowned Night Heron at the river Gambia, by Charlie Jackson. Cropped. Creative Commons.

      By Simon Brackenborough

In 1795, the 23-year-old Mungo Park set sail from Portsmouth. The young Scottish physician had offered his services to the African Association – a British society set up to fund expeditions into Africa, with a view to opening opportunities for trade.

Park joined the brig Endeavour, which set out to trade in beeswax and ivory at the Gambia, the great river flowing out of Africa into the Atlantic. An established meeting point between African and European merchants, the Gambia not only enabled the transport of goods, but also enslaved Africans, to be sold and shipped to the Americas.

Of particular interest to the Association were two features of West African geography which held a near-legendary status: the river Niger, whose precise course was unknown, and the ancient city of Timbuktu, rumoured for its wealth.

Mungo Park portrait, Wikimedia Commons.

Landing at the Gambia and heading upstream to a British trading station, Park stayed for several months to learn the local Mandinka language, before setting out with guides on his journey inland.

It was two years before Park arrived back in Britain. He brought news that he had found the Niger, but had been yet unable to reach Timbuktu. In 1799 his published account of his adventures, Travels In The Interior Districts Of Africa, thrilled the public and became a bestseller.

The book’s success is easy to understand – it is an often breathless narrative of a genuinely exciting story. Park being an educated man with an eye for detail, his keenly observed descriptions of unfamiliar cultures and landscapes stimulated the public’s imagination.

In one passage he summarises the African musical instruments he had seen, and he mentions a korro, ‘a large harp with eighteen strings’.

This seems to be the first ever written description of what is today called a kora, a West African lute-harp with twenty-one strings. The kora is a traditional instrument of the Mandinka people, one ethnic group within the larger group of Mande people.


In the 1980s, the American ethnomusicologist Eric Charry made his own trip to West Africa. Here he spent several years studying the wide variety of music of the Mande. Charry’s book Mande Music is a deep, authoritative analysis of a rich musical culture.

The Mande are descendants of the Mali Empire, which at its height in the fourteenth century commanded a vast swathe of land from the Atlantic coast into the centre of West Africa. Today, populations of Mandinka people are found with particularly high concentrations in the former western Mande territories, such as The Gambia, Mali, and Guinea.

Constructed from local materials, the kora is distinctive for its large round resonating chamber made from a calabash gourd. It is one of several instruments performed by Mandinka artisan musicians known as Jalis.

Jalis have equivalents across the Mande peoples, and are referred to more generally as Griots. But music is only part of their role – Jalis are also oral historians, story-tellers, and public speakers. The essence of their art, in Charry’s words, is ‘instilling in the listeners pride and strength derived from the example of the deeds of their ancestors’. Lineage is key – Jalis are born Jalis, and through a limited number of families they trace their ancestry for this role as far back as the thirteenth century.

The kora is not the only instrument belonging to their tradition, but with its striking look and beautiful sound, it has become perhaps the most well known outside Africa. Kora technique is based around polyrhythms, with the two thumbs and forefingers creating a pattern of interweaving parts. Players also specialise in dazzlingly fast improvised solo runs, a technique with the wonderfully onomatopoeic name birimintingo, or ‘rolling’.


When Mungo Park finally set eyes upon the Niger, he had been travelling from the Gambia for seven months. He had survived sickness, thirst, robbery, and even imprisonment to get this far.

One of them called out, geo ajffilli (see the water); and looking forwards, I saw with infinite pleasure the great object of my mission; the long sought for majestic Niger, glittering to the morning sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, and flowing slowly to the eastward. I hastened to the brink, and, having drank of the water, lifted up my fervent thanks in prayer, to the Great Ruler of all things, for having thus far crowned my endeavours with success. 

While Park observed that the river flowed east, he did not know that its course is in fact a colossal boomerang. Rising in the Guinea Highlands, the impetuous young river charges directly inland, where it forms a wide delta. It then continues almost as far north as the Sahara, before turning to sweep down in an immense arc to the Gulf of Guinea.

Map of the River Niger, Wikimedia Commons.

Geologists now believe that this bizarre shape resulted from what were once two separate rivers, with the original upper Niger emptying into a large long-lost lake. This would mean that the river Mungo Park found was a descendent of something even more elusive: an ancient river entirely trapped by a continent. Never trading its waters with the world, but spreading out wide to vanish in the hot African sun.


The height of the Mali Empire coincided with the reign of Mansa Musa. He is thought be one of the richest people to have ever lived, and news of his wealth spread far enough for him to be depicted holding a gold coin in the Catalan Atlas of 1375. A devout Muslim, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324; one chronicler recorded that his lavish gifts of gold along the way single-handedly deflated the metal’s price in Cairo.

Mansa Musa on the Catalan Atlas, Wikimedia Commons.

During Musa’s reign the Mali Empire annexed Timbuktu. Situated between the Niger and the southern edge of the Sahara, this was an important destination for the trading caravans coming across the desert. In the following centuries control of Timbuktu changed hands several times, while the city went through a golden age as a centre of learning, with several Madrasas (Islamic universities) and a bustling trade in Arabic manuscripts. When the Andalusi diplomat Leo Africanus visited in the sixteenth century, he was struck to discover that the city had ‘more profit made from this commerce than from all other merchandise’.

Reports of Timbuktu’s wealth intrigued Europeans, and its remote location beyond the vast Sahara lent it a mystique – even today, its name is a byword for a near-mythical place. By Park’s time, the city’s fortunes were in decline, but its heritage of Islamic scholarship remains a powerful symbol of the propagation of the religion across the African continent.

Sankore Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, cropped. Creative Commons.

Political power comes and goes, but ideas can cling on with much greater tenacity. Today the Mandinka people are predominantly Muslim. While the role of Jalis is not religious, quotations from the Quran are common in their songs and speeches. Charry also suggests that their tradition of monophonic singing (without harmony) and the melodic ornamentation of birimintingo may have some connection with this spiritual drift – ‘the musical aesthetics carried in the recitation of the Koran that is bound up in Islam wherever it travels’.


‘They say that when a Griot dies, it’s like a library burning down’, explains the kora player Tunde Jegede, in the 1995 BBC film Africa I Remember.

Born in London to a Nigerian father and Irish mother, Jegede was not descended from Mande lineage. But as a child he heard a kora player at the Keskidee Centre, an arts hub for London’s black community. He was so taken by the kora that his mother took him to The Gambia to learn the instrument with a Griot.

Jegede also studied cello in London, and his training in both the European and West African classical traditions has given him a diverse career, in which he has collaborated widely as instrumentalist and composer. He describes an affinity between the Baroque music of Bach and Scarlatti to the polyphonic textures of the kora.

Jegede’s Kora Concerto was commissioned by the Psappha Ensemble. Here the delicate, silvery sound of the instrument integrates into a chamber orchestra of just thirteen players. Far from any awkward incongruity, the intimacy of this musical fusion seems to speak of an intimacy of understanding – a deep appreciation of two traditions that Jegede has been in the unusual position to acquire from a young age.


In 1805 Mungo Park embarked on a second journey to the Gambia, sponsored by the British Government. He would return to the river Niger with a simple intent: to ‘set sail for the east with the fixed resolution to discover the termination […] or perish in the attempt’.

Park was never to return. The only report of his fate comes via Amadi Fatouma, an African guide who accompanied him nearly to his end. Though much depleted by deaths through sickness, the party had navigated the river past Timbuktu, and far into its southbound section. But they had been repeatedly troubled by hostile local forces. When passing through the rapids at Bussa, in modern-day Nigeria, they were ambushed. Facing volleys of arrows and stones, they fled their boat in a desperate attempt to swim to safety. But Park and the remaining British men drowned.

The mighty Niger, whose glittering waters Park had drunk from ten years previously, was the end of him. He was just 34.

Park may have failed in his mission. But through his writings he revealed a continent rich in natural wonder and human life. He is notable for his self-effacing approach – he does not cast himself as a swashbuckling hero, and he recorded the invaluable kindness shown to him by Africans on his journey, commenting that ‘whatever difference there is between the Negro and European […] there is none in the genuine sympathies and characteristic feelings of our common nature’.

Nonetheless, some uncomfortable facts remain. On the first expedition, his route back to the Gambia was secured with the help of a slave trader, and his return to Britain came via a slave ship to Antigua. He wrote with unflinching frankness, and sometimes sorrow, at seeing both the types of servitude practiced among Africans, and the transatlantic trade. On board the slave ship he gave medical assistance, and was able to converse with some slaves in Mandinka. ‘They had in truth need of every consolation in my power to bestow’, he remarked grimly.

A year after his death, Britain passed the 1807 Slave Trade Act, which abolished the trade of slaves (but not yet slavery itself). Over the following decades, the mouth of the Gambia was bolstered with a gun battery and a fort to enforce the law. But these buildings, like the work of the African Association, fit into a larger pattern of increasing European involvement in Africa, one that would lead to the near-total colonisation of the continent in the early twentieth century.

Today The Gambia, once the western edge of the Empire that brought immense wealth to Mansa Musa, is Africa’s smallest nation state. Its borders, negotiated between Britain and France in the late nineteenth century, track only a few miles each side of its precious river, slipping like a dagger into surrounding Senegal.


Boats on the Gambia, by tjabeljan. Cropped. Creative Commons.

Precisely 200 years after Park first landed at the Gambia, the BBC broadcast Africa I Remember. In the film, Jegede returns to visit the Griot who taught him as a child, only now with his sister Maya, who, breaking the tradition of the kora as a male domain, was learning to play it herself.

As the Griot goes into a recitative about Mandinka ancestry, Jegede notes that ‘this is what makes the history a living history. It’s not used in the past tense’. Today, Jegede is just one of many musicians who have brought this Griot tradition to international attention, while finding fresh streams for the sound of the kora in jazz, classical and folk music.

‘I think my quest for African classical music really stems back to the first journey I that made to The Gambia’, he says, ‘because it was there that I got an understanding of my inner self, or my inner voice. And it’s that voice I’ve followed which has led me to this idiom, and redefining it, and the need to redefine it. It’s almost like that’s my way of paying back what I’ve received’.

He tells of how the slave trade was made more real for him when he visited James Island, once the last stop for slaves before their departure from the Gambia. It has since been renamed Kunta Kinteh Island, after the protagonist of Roots, Alex Haley’s hugely popular novel centred on the Gambian slave trade. Park’s travelogue would not be the last bestselling story to emerge from this river.

Walking along the island beach, Jegede described how beads worn by enslaved Africans are still washed ashore to this day. On his first visit, he found one of these beads. Tourists would often take them home – artefacts of a cultural identity left behind, a humanity stripped away.

But Jegede could not. ‘I felt that since that was the last piece of them, if you like, to remain in Africa, the bead that I found I had to pass back into the sea’.

Eric Charry’s ‘Mande Music’ is available from University Of Chicago Press

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In Search Of Ruth Gipps

Ruth Gipps. Shared with the permission of Lance Baker.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

On a concert poster from 1931 is a photograph of a young girl. She calmly smiles while holding a cat, a picture of domestic innocence. Below her run the words ‘CHILD PIANIST AND COMPOSER-AGE 10’. This musical prodigy will perform a Haydn concerto, alongside some of her own compositions.

The striking image features in Jill Halstead’s book Ruth Gipps: Anti-Modernism, Nationalism And Difference in English Music. Born in 1921, Gipps went on to become a concert pianist, composer, conductor, orchestral oboist, and music teacher, before her death in 1999.

Yet go in search of Ruth Gipps today, and you mostly find a legacy of absence. CD racks run seamlessly from Gershwin to Glass. Most of her compositions are not available on commercial recordings. Halstead’s excellent study, the outcome of scholarly research and her own correspondence with the composer, is seldom seen on bookshelves.

I first discovered Ruth Gipps (pronounced with a ‘hard’ G) while browsing a YouTube channel that features uploads of old broadcast recordings. Though the sound quality was far from perfect, the music immediately stood out: emotionally direct, memorably melodic, expertly crafted. I was amazed that I had not heard her name before.

From the very beginning gender forms a pattern of difference in Gipps’ story. Struggle for recognition in a man’s world is a main theme, but as Halstead’s book shows, the role that womanhood played in her life was also more nuanced and complicated.

Beside talent, one advantage that the young Gipps enjoyed was an ideal musical environment. Born into a family of musicians, her mother Hélène, a larger-than-life Swiss pianist, ran Bexhill School Of Music from their home. Perhaps equally important, she was also an unusually powerful female role model, the ‘undisputed head of the Gipps family’, and main financial provider.

By the age of two, Ruth insisted on being called ‘Widdy’ – later simply ‘Wid’ – a name that stuck for life. It was an early omen of a determined personality.

The young Gipps’ talents proved exceptional when she began piano lessons. Performing from the age of five, she astonished audiences. Music for her simply seemed to be a way of being:

I had known all along of course that playing piano was my job; the first concert merely confirmed it. But I also knew without a shadow of a doubt, although I had not yet written anything, that I was a composer. Not that I wanted to be a composer – that I was one.

And so it came to pass. At age eight, her piano piece The Fairy Shoemaker won competitions, and was even published. By ten she had a regular performing schedule in the south east of England, by fourteen she was composing a piano concerto.

Gipps’ journey into adulthood is littered with stellar achievements. Entering the Royal College of Music at sixteen, she took up the oboe as a second instrument, progressing from complete beginner to professional standard in only a few years. In composition, she won various College prizes, including for her first symphony. Her symphonic poem Knight In Armour was chosen by Sir Henry Wood for the last night of the Proms in 1942.

But the smile of the girl on the poster masked a less happy story. Hélène brought up her children with an unusual degree of independence, treating them as equals, which – alongside her extraordinary talents – meant the young Gipps had difficulties fitting in at school. Initially she was one of a handful of girls in a school of mostly boys, but found no solidarity there. ‘They made my life a misery’ she said, ‘in all the small ways known to little girls with an odd one among them’.

With the boys, however, she was much happier. Consequently, a later move to a girl’s school proved disastrous. The physical and emotional bullying – from staff as well as pupils – was so horrific that Gipps was eventually given permission to leave at age twelve. Such early isolation from her peers, Halstead writes, would go on to breed ‘a particular kind of self-sufficiency’ but with a high emotional cost, creating ‘a deep rooted sense of alienation and defensiveness’. Gipps’ self-defined outsider status would develop into a mentality that attack was the best form of defence.

Her arrival at the Royal College of Music was a chance for a fresh start. But while she was a provincial Wunderkind, Gipps discovered that her piano playing was no longer so exceptional here. Her self-esteem tied up in childhood adulation, this was a blow to confidence which, combined with a long-term hand injury, gradually drew her away from the path of a concert pianist.

Ruth Gipps at age 20. Shared with the permission of Lance Baker.

However the relationships she formed at this time were crucial. Gipps became engaged to the clarinettist Robert Baker at age 19, marrying him in 1942. As he was called up to the RAF for the war effort, they spent much of the first years of marriage apart. At the same time, a friendship with a young conductor called George Weldon proved pivotal. When he was appointed to the City of Birmingham Orchestra (later the CBSO), he secured her a full-time oboe position.

Furthermore, this friendship enabled Gipps to have the orchestra showcase her other talents, a chance she seized on with unapologetic enthusiasm. In one 1945 concert, she was both the soloist in Glazunov’s piano concerto and played the oboe in her own first symphony. This led to a perception of favouritism which began to ruffle feathers in the orchestra; their closeness aroused suspicion, with rumours that they were having an affair. While there is no indication that this was true, such was the growing hostility that Gipps was eventually forced out.

In 1947, while seven months pregnant with her son Lance, Gipps passed an exam for a doctorate in music, completing the degree with a cantata, The Cat, the following year. Around this time, Weldon recommended her for the job of chorus master to the City of Birmingham Choir. This involved rehearsing the choir for concerts, and she took to it with characteristic flair, discovering a love for conducting that would go on to define her career.

Seeing her clear abilities in this new role, and sensing her growing ambition, even the supportive Weldon began to feel uneasy, complaining that ‘one day you will want to conduct symphonies’. He seems to have summed up the conflicted attitudes to women conductors at the time, and Halstead’s analysis of the gender politics in this period, drawing on the work of the scholar Lucy Green, is particularly fascinating. ‘When conducting work stood within the parameters of ‘enabling’ it could be encouraged, as it seemed a natural extension of woman’s role as nurturer’. As a chorus master, or conductor of a youth orchestra, women could ‘enable’ some later musical goal, but a woman conducting professional concerts – embodying the ultimate authority on stage – was another matter.

Gipps was characteristically undeterred. But securing work would prove difficult. In 1955 she applied for an assistant role at BBC Midland, only to be told that a woman could not command the respect of the orchestra. ‘Any woman taking to the podium has to confront all these negative notions of feminine distractiveness’, Halstead writes, ‘while also negotiating a traditionally male space’. When conducting opportunities did come Gipps’ way, her approach in the early years could be provocative – where other women might have played down their femininity, she deliberately cultivated a stage persona with eye-catching dresses.

Gipps the conductor. Shared with permission of Lance Baker.

Gipps’ eventual solution was simple: she would set up her own ensemble. Having now moved back to London, the One Rehearsal Orchestra – later named the London Repertoire Orchestra – was designed to help musicians at the start of their careers to improve their sight-reading, addressing the common challenge of performing unfamiliar works at short notice. A very practical initiative, it was both an enabling role for musicians, but also for her – now she could finally conduct regularly. She led the orchestra for 31 years.

Further to this, when her husband came into an inheritance, Gipps was able to found the London Chanticleer Orchestra in 1961 – a  professional body that later received Arts Council funding and performed with up-and-coming soloists, including a young Julian Lloyd Webber.

But running her own orchestras would turn out to be both a blessing and a curse. While it allowed her complete control, it also increasingly isolated her from mainstream musical life. Gipps’ concerts received relatively little attention from the press. A sad and damning illustration of this came in the 1980s, when the music critic Keith Potter mused on the fact he had never seen a review of her work as conductor or composer:

A full examination of the implications of this would very likely lead to a survey of the whole way our cultural scheme of things operates in this country […] whatever one’s conclusions about all this, it did seem time […] that one of us actually went to one of Gipps’ concerts.

Gipps’ work in conducting, teaching and music administration meant that her rate of composition slowed down, but her musical outlook remained resolute. She saw her art as a continuation of an English tradition of Vaughan Williams, Bliss and Walton, and she fiercely opposed all forms of musical modernism, which she considered a ‘conning of the public’. Like many composers at this time, she fell the wrong side of the more progressive focus of William Glock, the influential Head of Music at the BBC from 1959, and her music suffered as a result. Her tirades against the BBC’s position and their enormous centralised power can hardly have helped. But through her own orchestras she performed a wide range of overlooked repertoire, including music by fellow women Elizabeth Maconchy and Grace Williams.

Ruth Gipps discussing her symphony no. 4 with its dedicatee, Arthur Bliss. Shared with permission of Lance Baker.

Today, a stark injustice is simply that so little of her music is able to be heard. What has been recorded shows that, while the ingredients are familiar, there is a powerful imagination and distinctive personality at work. Listening to the magnificent and moving fourth symphony, it is hard not to conclude that a man who had written this score would have had a complete box-set of symphonies released by now. Currently, only the single-movement no.2 has a modern commercial recording – a woeful state of affairs. I will make a rare prediction: awards are waiting to be won for whichever label is shrewd enough to give this piece a new start in life.

Despite her often brash personality, Gipps was known to be enormously generous and helpful to other musicians, and was admired for her courage, energy and integrity. Yet as a figure forced to be defined by her gender, her views on the position of women can seem contradictory. She campaigned against the ‘sex bar’ that prevented married women from playing in many orchestras into the 1960s. She refused to let motherhood hold back her career – a stance admittedly aided by the class privileges of nannies and boarding school. And yet she held very conservative views on sex and marriage, and emphatically distanced herself from feminism. It is particularly interesting that she composed a cantata setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market – an erotically suggestive fairytale of two sisters and their temptation by fruit-selling goblins. ‘Well into old age’, Halstead recalls, ‘her need to discuss sexuality was palpable, leaving the impression that it remained an unceasing source of fascination and anxiety.’

Gipps in her Morgan sports car. Shared with permission of Lance Baker.

A consistent theme is that music, a steadfast force in her life, would always come first. Even so, one particularly startling fact stands out. Gipps freely admitted that she had only ever kissed her son once, and then by mistake. It occurred when he was a baby, and she momentarily thought that, like the little girl on the poster, she was holding her cat.

The thorny thickets of Gipps’ character seem to stand in contrast to the clarity, emotional appeal, and tenderness in her music. After her death in 1999, a poem was found among her belongings, typed on a scrap of paper. It speaks of a world-weariness, and a wish to be ‘Reincarnated in the sea / So deep that steamers passing by / Are fathoms over where I lie.’

The poems ends with an image of retreat unfamiliar to her gung-ho public persona: ‘A shell my homely habitation / A hermit crab my designation.’ Go in search of Ruth Gipps, and even when you find her, something hides away. Inevitably you are drawn back to that smiling prodigy, both applauded and bullied, gradually fencing herself in.

At age seven, Gipps would say, she learnt how to win respect from the boys at school. One day a boy pushed her to the floor, expecting her to cry. But she got back up, fists raised, ready to fight back. What sounds like a trivial account of a childhood horseplay has, Halstead notes, a kind of romantic symbolism of how she saw her life. Of how an extraordinary but isolated girl would compete in a world of men, aggressively navigating her own kind of Goblin Market.

‘I learnt that I, who was always the odd one out with girls, got on fine with boys’, Gipps said. ‘They very, very nearly accepted me as one of themselves’.

Ruth Gipps: Anti-Modernism, Nationalism and Difference in English Music can be ordered online from Routledge.

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The Art Of Rejection


Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 12.16.14       By Kate Romano

How’s your day? Not your social media whoo-hoo day, but your real, emotional, volatile, unpredictable, roller-coaster day? The one that causes you to take long, hard breaths when something doesn’t quite work out, the one that requires you to dig deep and find a bit more resilience. There cannot be many of us – musicians, writers, actors, artists  – who have not lived through (or are still to experience) a patch of our artistic life where rejection features quite significantly. To survive as an artist, a young Sinead O’Connor once said, you need to have the delicacy of a feather and a core of steel. Too right.

‘No’ of course, comes in many forms. The unanswered email. The phone that doesn’t ring back. The stomach-lurching grant refusal letter. The face-to-face verbal feedback in an audition. The score returned to the composer. The harsh review. The scathing look in response to a passionate project pitch. When I was trying to get a place at a music conservatoire some 20 years ago, one college posted up names of those who had made it through to the final round. Around 200 hopeful 17 year olds (and their parents) crowded round that piece of A4 paper that revealed our fate. It would have made great reality TV.

The ‘brace-yourself’ clues are often there if you know what to look for. A grant rejection letter is thin and has a second class stamp. Its fat, first-class counterpart is the one you want. A cursory skim usually confirms the presence of the words ‘unfortunately’ and ‘unsuccessful’ in close proximity. But hang on…it says there was ‘an unprecedented number of applications and competition was very high’. I wait for the feelings of warmth and optimism to kick back in…except they don’t.

Is there any other way of saying ‘no’? Is there anything that the over-stretched administrator could have written that prevents our psyche from interpreting these well-mannered words as, ‘Dear applicant, your project sucks, love from The Funding People’. Feedback on the application might be constructive  – a welcome spot of logic to ease injured feelings. But no funding body has the man-power to provide this level of individual response. The best rejection I ever had came from Sound & Music a few years ago. My project didn’t make it on to the scheme, but my ‘no’ email came with an offer of some free publicity and promotion of my event. That simple consolation gesture not only saved me a few quid on my marketing, but it also said ‘hey, your project doesn’t completely suck…and to prove it, we’ll get behind it and help promote it for you’.

But what does ‘no’ really mean? Is ‘no’ always an end-point or is it an obstacle to be overcome and a creative force?

Perhaps those of us who head up small organisations or are self-employed are at an advantage when faced with barriers; we can often scurry around these obstacles (financial, logistic, geographic, structural…) in our path like ants on the forest floor and we sometimes find a better route in the process. Temporarily scattered, we re-group, we-rejoin, the circles close up again. Most projects and organisations feature some ‘well, I didn’t quite see THAT coming…’ moments. Maybe, in fact, we need the injection of these surprises, these sudden turning points to keep our minds, our art, and our processes lively. In a culture that expects us have well-formed ‘right or wrong’ opinions, an obstacle can offer up the luxury to rethink, to understand better, to learn. And almost certainly provides an extra boost of adrenaline too.

Can obstacles themselves be creative forces? Certainly. In the 2003 film The Five Obstructions, Danish director Lars von Trier makes a deal with his mentor and idol, filmmaker Jørgen Leth. Trier asks Leth to remake one of his own films five times with a series of ever-more difficult obstructions (rules) that Leth must adhere to. Trier describes the Leth film as ‘a little gem we are now going to ruin’. His premise is a belief that ‘the greatest gift an actor can offer a director is to screw up’. Trier’s intention is for the obstructions to trip Leth up in order that Leth might unlock more of his own creative potential. The Five Obstructions is like watching Jørgen Leth’s own personal Room 101 unfold; each set of obstructions is more elaborate and challenging than the last, from ‘no set, no shot lasting longer than twelve frames’ through to filming in the ‘worst place in the world’ and finally (Leth’s personal horror) re-making the film as a cartoon. It’s a fascinating documentary-essay-film on the nature of artistic thought processes and encapsulates Leth’s can-do ability to find a new creative stride in this world of ‘no’s’. In an interview about the film, Leth stresses the importance of being receptive to accept obstacles: ‘There must be room for them and humility to receive them – the key word is open-ness’.

History is full of stories about artists who worked within severe restrictions, who persevered in the face of astonishing adversity, who proved their critics wrong (or at least stopped giving a hoot about what they thought). Of course, our knowledge and hence our culture is built upon the successes, upon what did happen. But I’m curious about what didn’t happen; all that was considered untenable, unfundable, undesirable at a particular moment in time. What might be done with these rejected ideas? It seems rather a missed opportunity to let them fall beside the wayside and slip away unnoticed and unheard.

To put the scope and scale of unrealised ideas into a mind-boggling context, look to the British Library where the UK’s national patent database is housed. Established in the mid 19th century, this is a collection of some fifty million patent specifications with another million added annually. For anyone with geek-ish Rowland Emmett tendencies (such as me) this database is a Wunderkammer of inspiration, a treasure trove of humanity’s response to historical concerns, delightful, shocking and poignant. With help, you could locate the patent for the ATM, the hovercraft, the cat’s-eye, the thermos flask. But most striking of all are the countless bright ideas in the collection that never got off the ground – quite literally in the case of British Rail who applied for a flying saucer patent in 1970 as an unrealised attempt to move into other methods of transport. 

Rejected, unrealised ideas sit dormant in databanks, in notepads, in creative minds. In 2012, art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist devised the Agency of Unrealized Projects. The premise was to draw attention to unrealised artworks which were unnoticed or little-known. It was also a chance to explore ideas of partial expression, of incompleteness in art, the whisper of unfulfilled intention. The Agency of Unrealized Projects also highlighted a working practice common to many creative thinkers: that not all projects are intended to be completed and that there is great value in experiments and interesting ‘failures’. Some of the projects featured were rendered impossible due to the utopian or conceptual contexts needed to realise them. In the musical world, I think immediately of Varèse and his well-documented 1930s prophecies for electronic sound-projection and a future time when one could compose ‘symphonies in space’.

For Varèse, for thousands of ideas in the patent-bank and the Agency exhibition, that lack of a supportive context was often the crucial missing ingredient for success. What might commuter life be like today if British Rail had indeed pursued urban space travel in the 1970s? What if funding had not been withdrawn from Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower plans? Had they come to fruition, ‘magnifying transmitter’ towers could have provided free electricity and wireless communication as early as the 1920s. What would contemporary art have been like if New York had not embraced John Cage and Marcel Duchamp? What would 20th century music have been like if the spirit of the 1940s been less receptive to the fiery young Boulez and his revolt against his forefathers? Ideas blossom when they are presented at the right place and in the right time. They need a nurturing infrastructure to thrive.

Who drives the criteria for this infrastructure? We do. What society values in inventiveness will directly influence the kinds of innovation that it produces. As a direct extension of our work, I would strongly suggest that we – the creators –  play a role in establishing that criteria for acceptance. If you like it, if you value it then support it and get excited about it. Want more funding for opera? Go to the opera and keep going to the opera. Want more support for new music? Programme it, talk about it, write about it. In one of my producer notebooks is a quietly unrealised ambition to curate a project all about quietly unrealised musical projects of the past. And now I’m interested in building an infrastructure for it to flourish in…replete with obstacles, obstructions, rejections and all.

Noted as ‘one of the most versatile musicians of her generation’, Kate is a clarinetist, producer, fundraiser, artistic director and writer. Previously a senior member of staff at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for 12 years, she now creates ‘Adventures in Sound’ with her own production company and chamber music ensemble. She tweets as @KateRomano2 and her website can be found at

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