The word piobaireachd is literally the Gaelic for ‘pipe playing’ or ‘pipe music’. The term (often anglicised as ‘pibroch’) is now normally restricted, however, to the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe. Another name for it is Ceòl Mòr, meaning the Big Music (that is, ‘art music’), which distinguishes piobaireachd from other forms of pipe music (marches, reels, jigs etc.) which are referred to as Ceòl Beag – the Little Music (‘light music’).
Bagpipes have been known in countries throughout the world, and are still used in folk music in many rural areas. We know of early bagpipes from depictions both in unsophisticated woodcuts and from classical paintings by the likes of Dürer and Breughel. But the origin of the emergence of the pipes is obscure, and old instruments in museums are difficult to date. At least one Scottish family (the Menzies Clan) claims to be in possession of instruments dating back to the fourteenth century – in this case the remnants of a pipe carried in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 – but the claim is extremely unlikely to be true.
The traditional view is that the Great Highland Bagpipe was developed about 1600, but recent scholarship, particularly by Hugo Cheape, has called this into question, and has demonstrated the complexity of the historiography of the instrument. What is certain is that as early as 1760 Joseph Macdonald published his Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe, the first treatise/tutorial on the topic. The particular musical form piobaireachd or Ceòl Mòr is highly stylised, often slow in tempo, and tends to celebrate famous figures or events in lament form. It is normally performed while the piper processes slowly, often in a circle in the open air, especially in piping competitions. The playing of piobaireachd is now followed with enthusiasm other parts of the world, especially in areas with close Scottish connections such as Glengarry and Guelph in Canada; British Columbia and other places in the USA; and in Australia and New Zealand.
Construction and sounds of the Great Highland Bagpipe
A set of Great Highland Bagpipes is constructed of four main parts: the blowstick, the bag, the chanter and three drones. The piper blows through the blowstick into the bag, filling it with a constant air supply. The bag is first filled by the piper before playing starts and is continuously refilled as it continues, thus allowing the piper to create continuous sound. The drones are tuneable, and each contains one reed. The chanter, also provided with a reed, produces the tune by the piper covering and releasing finger holes, rather as in a recorder. Owing to its construction, a bagpipe generates an unusual scale.
Technicalities, notation and structure of piobaireachd
There are a number of technical problems in the notation of piobaireachd, partly due to the characteristics of the instrument, but also because even a fairly strict interpretation of a tune almost always displays significant individual variations between pipers, particularly in the often highly complex ornamentation.
Tonality and notation
This deceptively simple basic bagpipe scale hides a number of difficulties. First, although the pitches of the drones and the tonic note on the chanter are referred to as ‘A’, they are actually much sharper than this on the modern Great Highland Bagpipe (indeed, higher than B♭). Measurements have shown that modern chanters tend to tune between 470 and 480Hz instead of the standard 440Hz. For this reason, tunes are sometimes written with a D or even an A key-signature containing the accidentals for the benefit of non-pipers trying to reconcile bagpipe tuning with conventional classical notations. Second, the pipe scale is far from equal temperament: the nine notes available on the chanter are fixed, but not in the same relationship as in classical, Western instruments, and there is even still some debate as to precisely what they should be.
The Campbell Canntaireachd
In the early 1800s the Highland Society of Scotland staged a competition to encourage the writing of piobaireachd on the stave. A number of pipers submitted proposals, but one competitor – Colin Campbell – came up with a radically different approach now known as the Campbell Canntaireachd [Gaelic for ‘chanting’]. His document, containing 168 tunes, was written in about 1797; instead of representing the music in staff notation, a form rather reminiscent of the sol-fa system was adopted – as if the tunes were being sung. Images of the tunes in the manuscript can be found on the Ceol Sean website. The story goes that Colin Campbell was taught (sung to) by his father Donald, who himself was a pupil of the piping dynasty the MacCrimmons. The distinguished piper and musicologist Barnaby Brown has reported his own experience with the canntaireachd technique in aninteresting projectsupported by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council.
The following example is paraphrased from the Campbell Search website. The beginning of the tune called Lament for the Viscount of Dundee appears in handwritten manuscript canntaireachd form as below.
This is more easily read in the transcribed version:
Anyone learning this today from a teacher of piobaireachd, is likely to have the music written on the stave:
Note there are gracenotes which appear small, and some of these are meant to be longer than one might assume. For example the tiny E which is a gracenote at the very beginning of the line, might last up to half a second long, depending on the performer. A teacher of piobaireachd would sing the music to his/her pupil, using the canntaireachd syllables, to demonstrate how long these little notes should be.
The following figure shows three common types of such gracenotes.
From 1959 onwards a series of highly influential piobaireachd books was published by Roddy Ross called Binneas is Borereig [loosely translated as ‘Sweetness of the Pipes’], using a different notation format, probably closer to the real expression of the music. Bar lines and time signatures were omitted, to render the phrases more easily seen, and the long E notes at the beginning of tunes (such as in The Viscount of Dundee) were expressed as normal notes:
A classical piobaireachd tune starts with the ground/urlar, which usually follows a regular pattern – for example with three lines of music, the first two being six bars long, and the last line having only four. In the so-called ‘primary’ pattern, the ground is composed of two two-bar phrases, A and B, played in the following order:
There are, however, several other forms the ground can take.
Some modern musicologists have criticised the traditional, rather simplistic, urlar structure given above. Their approaches are too complex to be discussed further here, however, and require a good familiarity with piobaireachd; indeed, typically, hundreds of tunes were analysed in order to come up with the more elaborate schemes.
The initial urlar is followed by a number of formal variations, some of the most important are the taorluath (related to the Gaelic for ‘noble’ or ‘free’), and the crunluath (probably meaning ‘crowning movement’) which follows the taorluath in a piobaireachd tune. To complicate matters even further, each can be doubled, or exist in a number of sub-forms! Dublachadh, ‘doubling’, is a quicker version of a variation, played in strict tempo (comparable to the use of the term in a Baroque dance suite).
The ‘classical’ repertoire
The majority of the piobaireachd repertoire to this day consists of the ‘classical’ corpus of tunes, largely collected and printed in the 19th Century. The most important of these was Angus MacKay’s 1838 Collection Of Ancient Piobaireachd (illustrated below) although more recently some have questioned its historical and musicological accuracy. The National Library of Scotland holds many relevant manuscripts, easily found by searching for piobaireachd in the National Library of Scotland Manuscript Collections.
A useful fourfold classification of titles / themes is:
Salutes, laments, marches and gatherings
Names reflecting musical characteristics of the piece
Quotations from song lyrics, usually the opening words
In addition to MacKay’s book, a slightly earlier publication by Donald MacDonald (1820/1826) is the other major source; for reasons that remain obscure, serious collecting appears to have ceased soon afterwards.
One of the characteristic features of the piobaireachd repertoire is that, like many other musical traditions, great pride is shown by players in their ‘piping genealogy’ as a series of master-pupil relationships. Indeed, many, if not most, of the distinguished players of recent times trace their piping ancestry to the great piping families the Camerons, the MacPhersons and the MacCrimmons. (Again, however, Hugo Cheape has criticised this ‘tradition’.)
As is the case in many genres of highly-skilled traditional music,competitions play a large part in the social life, the maintenance of identity, and the education and training of piobaireachd players. The most prestigious of the piobaireachd competitions is probably the Northern Meeting, held in Inverness, but there are also many local competitions and performances at local and national Highland Games, as well as another celebrated national annual event in Oban and the North American Winter Storm gathering.
Competition rules have become stricter over the years, and are now characterised by (usually mandatory) repertoires, expert adjudication, and long preparation by the contestants.
Listening to piobaireachd
To the beginner, approaching piobaireachd as an art form is often problematic; it is certainly truer of piobaireachd than of many other genres that some knowledge of form and structure is vital.
The embedded video is a full performance of Donald Duaghal Mackay’s Lament played by the distinguished piper Roddy MacLeod at the Glenfiddich Championship of 2016 (the recording is introduced by some interesting remarks given by the Master of Ceremonies).
Experienced musicians may find the full score of interest. Such musicians will find this extract straightforward to follow initially (apart from a very different approach to the ornaments in the performance), but as the piece goes on it is easy to get lost even for those skilled in reading a score. There is no very obvious distinction between the various structural elements and melody, and ornaments are often difficult to disentangle (often modified by the performer); if one’s attention wanders it can thus be difficult to pick up the reading. For this reason, it is better for a novice interested in piobaireachd to be introduced to the art by attending an event, preferably with a knowledgeable companion, in order to experience the social context of piping performances as a whole. As with many other musical genres, listening to piobaireachd requires active engagement, rather than simply passive exposure.
By the beginning of the twentieth century piobaireachd was in decline: difficult, unfashionable, and often backward looking. The establishment of various specialist and interest-groups, however, such as the Piobaireachd Society (formed in 1903), and The College of Piping (founded a few decades later in 1944, and devoted to pipe bands as well as piobaireachd) played a vital role in putting the form on a sound musicological basis, thus ensuring the future of the genre. The original aims of the Piobaireachd Society were – and remain – clear and simple: ‘to encourage the study and playing of piobaireachd’. To this end, the Society has collected and published many important available piobaireachd manuscripts, and has a well-designed and comprehensive website including audio files, texts, images, and much else. While many documents and recordings are restricted to members, a significant proportion is freely available to users. Nevertheless, the Society is largely conservative, concerned above all with the preservation and editing of the classical piobaireachd tradition. Even the so-called piobaireachd ‘revisionist’ movement is concerned with re-interpreting such tunes in the light of rigorous modern research and scholarship.
Many younger pipers, however, have experimented with highly novel approaches, such as composing and playing music with a ‘fusion’ ethos or in unusual ensembles. For the latter, the tuning issues of the bagpipe must be addressed. If all the instruments can be appropriately re-tuned (predominantly strings) there is no problem. Barnaby Brown, Allan MacDonald and Matthew Welch are some names to watch, incorporating other genres such as jazz, eastern music, and so on.
Using a bagpipe with a whole range of orchestral instruments, however, is always problematic. Peter Maxwell Davies’s entertaining An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise is a case in point: the drones and chanter have to be tuned to a standard A of 440 Hz – that is, the pitch must be lowered by about a semitone, an enormous modification for a bagpipe. It is possible to buy a special chanter (expensive if used only for rare performances) or modify an old one (difficult except for music technicians). The resulting, modified, instrument feels and sounds very different, and depending on the auditorium and the position of the piper, it might be necessary to ‘lead’ the orchestra by a significant amount.
The more avant-garde and revisionist modern attempts, on the other hand, have not been universally well received in the piping community. Barnaby Brown has noted in a blogpost the absence of a review of the newly released and (in some quarters) widely admired Dastirum in Piping Times; when he queried this, the editor is said to have explained, ‘I don’t have a good word to say about it. It would lead people astray’ – in other words, it’s not ‘real piobaireachd’.
The bagpipe is one of the great cultural symbols of Scotland, known the world over and popularised by drum and pipe bands, the military connection, and the romanticised image of the ‘solitary piper’. In spite of such romanticisation, and the many myths surrounding the bagpipe, the classical music of piobaireachd is a complex and highly-developed art form, understood, performed, listened to, and appreciated by a small minority of Scots. Nevertheless, its circle of enthusiasts is probably greater than ever before, with societies large and small, and activities ranging from the most modest local events to the great piping meetings in Scotland, North America and the Antipodes.
Chris Bissell is about to retire from nearly four decades as an academic at the Open University, where he has taught mathematics and technology, and researched the sociology and history of these areas. He has also had a long-standing interest in music, and is currently a student of the Open University MA in Music. This essay derives from his Master’s studies; thanks are due to his tutor, Lucy Cradduck, for her perceptive comments.
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For those of us who have learnt an instrument in the classical way, certain books of music often have a way of finding a special place in our affections. Those which contain a wealth of music we enjoy are revisited again and again, and left worn out with repetition.
If like me you studied piano, it might be Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, a two-volume set of the Beethoven sonatas, or a collection of Chopin’s waltzes. I have all of these and have enjoyed them in their turn. But there is another book, one I first encountered as a falling-apart old edition in my mother’s collection, that always fascinated me too.
The first version of The English Hymnal appeared in 1906. As an object it is something of a hefty brick, hard-backed and crammed with over 1000 thin pages. Held within is a collection of hymns spanning hundreds of years from many different choral traditions, even going as far back as plainchant.
To flick through these pages is to enter a rich world, one structured around the rhythms of the liturgical year. Each tune is given a name, often mysterious or evocative – Kingsfold, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, Forest Green. In the older editions, the note engraving has its own archaic charm – with short stems, and wide voids on its semibreves looking almost handwritten, overlapping like little venn diagrams when two parts land on the same note.
The musical editor of The English Hymnal was the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. This task came at an early stage in his career, and he told the story of how it began with an unexpected visit:
It must have been in 1904 that I was sitting in my study in Barton Street, Westminster, when a cab drove up to the door and ‘Mr. Dearmer’ was announced. I just knew his name vaguely as a parson who invited tramps to sleep in his drawing room; but he had not come to me about tramps. He went straight to the point and asked me to edit the music of a hymn book. I protested that I knew very little about hymns but he explained that Cecil Sharp had suggested my name […] and the final clench was given when I understood that if I did not do the job it would be offered to a well-known Church musician with whose musical ideas I was much out of sympathy.
Percy Dearmer was a priest in Primrose Hill, and an avowed socialist with a passion for social justice. As the head of the committee overseeing the new hymn book, he told Vaughan Williams that his work would take about two months. In fact it would last two years:
The truth is that I determined to do the work thoroughly, and that, besides being a compendium of all the tunes of worth that were already in use, the book should, in addition, be a thesaurus of all the finest hymn tunes in the world – at all event all such as were compatible with the metres of the words for which I had to find tunes.
Inevitably, some tunes would need new words – Dearmer himself penned Holy God We Show Forth Here to fit a chorale from Wagner’s opera DerMeistersinger. In other cases, fine words required new tunes. Vaughan Williams composed his beautiful Down Ampney, his friend Gustav Holst contributed his much-loved arrangement of Rossetti’s In The Bleak Midwinter,alongside music from other contemporary composers.
Altogether the hymnal contained melodies from across Europe and America. ‘No particular country, period, or school has been exclusively drawn upon to supply material’, Vaughan Williams wrote in the hymnal preface, ‘but an attempt has been made to include the best specimens of every style’.
However, at around this time Vaughan Williams was a leading figure in the British folk-song revival. His work involved traipsing through villages, cajoling older locals to sing him the country ballads that were fading from collective memory. ‘They will require a little persuasion’ he wrote of this delicate fieldwork, ‘and to be assured that they are not being laughed at’. The immersion in these songs went on to profoundly influence his own music.
Consequently, many of these folk melodies found their way into the hymnal, wherever appropriate words could be fitted to them. These became some of its now most familiar numbers: the christmas carol O Little Town Of Bethlehem was pegged to a tune sung to him by a man in Surrey, while the rousing melody of He Who Would Valiant Be was provided by a woman in Sussex (its new words, from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, were bowdlerised by Dearmer to remove references to lions and hobgoblins).
The hymnal would therefore cross England’s deeply entrenched class divides, combining the songs of manual labourers with melodies blotted down by prestigious composers of the past like Thomas Tallis and J.S. Bach.
This diversity of material is one reason why the hymnal is so rewarding to delve into, though the sheer quantity also produces its biggest irritation – the thick spine is reluctant to stay open on a music stand without something to pin it down. To play these hymns offers tiny lessons in simple forms of musical construction: how a set of phrases can be put together, how harmony builds and releases tension, how different voices in the part writing provide movement. And with some at an endearingly humble eight bars long, there is a satisfaction gained from their simple completeness.
It is worth remembering how easily this book could have been different. A less committed stewardship of the project would have produced something that was functional but dull – after all, hymnody is particularly susceptible to the perils of the plodding dirge. It is a testament to the efforts Dearmer and Vaughan Williams expended that, whether obscure or familiar, these hymns are more often than not interesting.
One important factor was Vaughan Williams’ insistence, unlike earlier hymn arrangers, of not ironing out musical quirks:
The original rhythms of many of the old psalter tunes have also been restored, especially the long initial on the first syllable, which gives such a broad and dignified effect to these tunes. Attempts to adapt them to the procrustean bed of the nineteenth century hymn tune have merely taken away their character and made them appear dull. For the same reason no attempt has been made to square the irregular times of some tunes. These irregularities are always easy to sing by ear–and this is the way in which a hymn melody should be learnt.
Out of necessity, many of the hymns keep their arrangements simple. Chromatic harmonies are, for the most part, used sparingly and judiciously, making the lines more easily singable for amateur church choirs. A good example is It Is A Thing Most Wonderful, which allows the natural eloquence of the the beautiful folk tune Herongate shine through.
For the 17th-century German tune in Deck Myself, My Soul With Gladness, Vaughan Williams uses a few suspended notes in the lower parts to poignant effect.
At other times, the choir is instructed to sing in unison with the congregation, and Vaughan Williams provides greater intricacy to the hands of the organist. Ye Watchers And Ye Holy Ones, another old German tune, is given a flowing accompaniment that unfurls mellifluously like a peal of bells.
A similar technique was used for Vaughan Williams’ own melody in his processional hymn For All The Saints, its verses alternating between unison singing over a marching organ part, and softer four-part choral writing.In both cases the loving craftsmanship casts the melody as the backbone of a more ornately beautiful texture – the unison passages from the choir adding extra force to the majesty of the melody.
The long process of poring over these hymns left a lasting impression on Vaughan Williams, echoed in subsequent works like his famous Tallis Fantasia, and his beautiful organ prelude on the Welsh hymn Rhosymedre. Nor would his collaboration with Dearmer end there. He was involved with the 1925 book Songs Of Praise, which drew heavily on The English Hymnal with the added intention of being more suitable for schools. An updated edition of the original book appeared in 1933.
‘The music is intended to be essentially congregational in character’, Vaughan Williams began his 1906 preface, ‘and this end has been kept in view both in the choice of tunes and in the manner of setting them out’. It is a book written for mass participation, not just for those who can read the notes. In putting the needs of church choirs and organists second, he offers a pre-emptive and amusingly forthright reproach to any dissenting voices:
The choir have their opportunity elsewhere, but in the hymn they must give way to the congregation, and it is a great mistake to suppose that the result will be inartistic. A large body of voices singing together makes a distinctly artistic effect, though that of each individual voice might be the opposite. And it may be added that a desire to parade a trained choir often accompanies a debased musical taste.
Today England is a more secular country than it was in 1906. For those like myself who are not church-goers, the relevance of hymns is different. They may not play a regular role in our lives, but like our parish churches they point to a beautiful and meaningful part of our history, one we wouldn’t want to lose altogether either.
What music today might we think of as being ‘essentially congregational in character’? It is one of those peculiarities of modern life that an audience is more likely to sing at a football match than at a classical concert. At pop and rock gigs, audience participation is often compulsive and unstoppable. Classical music is different: there is a distinctive value of collective stillness in listening to high-calibre musicians, and the concentration and attentiveness that involves.
Nonetheless, it is surely inarguable that singing together is one of the most instantly powerful bonding experiences that music can provide. Is it a coincidence that the most famous classical tradition in Britain, the last night of the Proms, culminates in a singalong? Yet it is precisely this that makes it eccentric and exceptional. I am not nostalgic for some golden age of church-going, if such a thing ever existed. But playing through The English Hymnal does make me ponder why there are not more opportunities for audiences to sing together, in our rather restrained art form. Vaughan Williams himself was not a man of faith. It was not belief that made his work a success, but understanding the human value of collective song, something which ultimately transcends religion.
It is easy to take books like The English Hymnal for granted. It can seem too mundane and commonplace to feel valuable – hymns are an unsexy topic, and the idea of creativity by committee doubly so. And yet through Vaughan Williams’ whole career, has anything else he did seeped into as many ordinary lives through a century of church services and school assemblies? To put aside the romantic idea of art as individual expression – and consider it as a civic act – his musical editorship of The English Hymnal, and its subsequent iterations,is arguably his most important achievement of all.
Importantly, it is also a model of inclusive, progressive Englishness, one which nurtures native heritage while casting its gaze wide abroad. It is not a window into the past but into many different pasts, brought together in an attempt to create a better future. ‘Is it not worth while making a vigorous effort to-day for the sake of establishing a good tradition?’, Vaughan Williams wrote. The book is bound with this simple idealism – that common worship can be more enriching, beautiful and dignified.
‘We have endeavoured to produce a book that shall suit the needs of learned and simple alike’, Dearmer says in his introduction, ‘and shall at the same time exhibit the characteristic virtue of hymnody – its witness, namely, to the act that in the worship of God Christians are drawn the closer together as they are drawn more closely to the one Lord.’
Whether singing these wonderful hymns, or fumbling through them at a piano, the lesson of this book is not just about how to craft music in a highly distilled form. It’s also in intent. To absorb the meaning of The English Hymnal is to ask the question of for what – and for whom – we compose at all.
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In 1965, a letter appeared in the Daily Telegraph from the concert pianist Harriet Cohen. She was writing about the programming of the BBC Proms, and recalling how one composer had been neglected at the festival in recent decades.
I, in company with dozens of people all over the country, consider it a grave wrong […] to have omitted ever since Sir Henry Wood’s death (so far as I remember) the yearly performances of the Third Symphony – played to packed houses and to scenes of incredible enthusiasm – that took place under the masterly and loving baton of Sir Henry, who told me, as did Vaughan Williams and Sibelius, that the work was one of his favourite modern symphonies.
Cohen was born in 1895, the same year that the Proms were founded. The composer of this symphony was a man she had met when she was a bright teenage talent at the Royal Academy of Music, way back in the 1910s. A married man twelve years her senior, their friendship would develop into a passionate love affair, and a fertile artistic partnership lasting for forty years. His name was Arnold Bax.
Bax’s third symphony was premiered by Henry Wood in March 1930, and under him it went on to be an enormous success. By 1942 he had conducted it at the Proms no fewer than eight times, and taken it abroad to Zurich, Rome, and Los Angeles. Its second movement was heard at the 1937 coronation of King George VI.
The story of Bax’s third symphony is one of music’s ephemeral power. How it can light up a moment in time, and linger long the memory of those it captivates. How its fire, if left untended, turns to embers and ash.
The West Highland Line runs from Glasgow to the Scottish port of Mallaig. It is widely considered one of the most scenic railway journeys in the world. This is just as well, as even today a train takes five hours to complete the route. The penultimate stop is the tiny village of Morar, near a beach of silver sand and views of the islands of Rhum and Eigg.
Here in December 1928, Bax came to orchestrate a new symphony in the quietness of the Highland winter. As his train wound its way along the so-called ‘Iron Road To The Isles’, the short score he carried with him was inscribed with a quotation from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
My wisdom became pregnant on lonely mountains; upon barren stones she brought forth her young.
Bax had an intense affinity for dramatic, ancient landscapes. As a young man, he had fallen in love with the poetry of W.B. Yeats, which sparked an infatuation with Ireland, particularly its rugged west coast. It would lead him to spend ‘more and more time alone in places lorded by the Atlantic and the dream-light of old tradition’.
The early poems of Yeats also fired Bax’s fascination with legend and mythology. ‘The sagas and dark winters of the north’, he later conceded, might have subconsciously influenced this symphony. There is always a sense that a hidden story runs through his music, and this is often reflected in his titles. The work he composed immediately after the third symphony would be called Winter Legends.
The narrative of the symphony is a complex, twisting one. Like the journey to Morar, Bax’s music is not just about reaching a destination, but also the variety of fleeting vistas along the way, the glimpses we are offered, however briefly, into other worlds.
Four notes – A, B flat, C sharp, D – are the puzzle that this symphony repeatedly tries to solve. We first hear a solo bassoon, rocking back and forth along this angular shape. Other woodwinds join in with harp, weaving a dense counterpoint in which key and pulse are both ambiguous. If the music evokes an ancient saga, this could be its untamed setting, a primordial woodland in sound.
The minor-third interval at the centre of this motif is a key driver in the music’s shifting moods – by turns it is mournful, mischievous, and mocking. What follows quickly escalates into a thrillingly vivid dance – savage repeated rhythms, lunging figures in the bass, and our four notes now a manic mantra in the violins.
And yet at the heart of this movement lies a wide pool of slow music. Bax introduces a romantic string melody, richly harmonised, but in a revealing detail asks that it is played con sordini: with mutes. As if shrouded in mist, we cannot fully fathom this place. It must remain half-unknown.
‘BAX’S MASTERPIECE’, proclaimed the Daily Mail. ‘An impressive outpouring of wild and melancholy music, sustained in a world of legend that is all his own […] the composer’s triumph is to keep us so engrossed in the strange, mysterious scenery that we hardly ask where he is or whither going.’
At the time of its writing, Bax was in his mid forties. He was at the height of his fame as a composer, admired at home and abroad. Cohen, who had been his lover for over ten years, was becoming one of the most celebrated pianists of her day, performing Bax’s music all over Europe.
Their relationship was passionate and turbulent, dogged by periods of insecurity. It was also an open secret in musical circles – Vaughan Williams, who was a friend to them both, was once greatly amused to find Cohen listed in a musical dictionary as ‘See under Bax’.
Bax’s family wealth meant that he had a private income. It afforded him a life of enviable freedom, in which he could travel and compose whatever he wanted, without seeking paid employment. It also enabled him to support various love interests throughout his life. These included Harriet Cohen, and but also his wife, Elsa.
It was Elsa whom Bax forsook for Cohen in 1918, financially supported with their two children, but emotionally abandoned. As Lewis Foreman puts it in his book Bax: A Composer And His Times, ‘Bax was not a married man by nature, but a nomad, and the encumbrances of married life stifled his free spirit’.
It would be easy to pass by Elsa. She is a mostly hidden figure, as Cohen insisted that Bax destroy her letters to him. But one letter does survive, in which she pours out her anguish and bewilderment to a friend, shortly after the separation. It gives us a poignant insight into the emotional wreckage of Bax’s affair, and her self-deluding optimism that he might come back:
To me, marriage always was the most sacred thing on earth, so much so, that once married nothing would justify a breaking of the word & promise given, and if one’s life partner turned out the most terrible bargain on earth, it is still up to one to be faithful and helpful in every way – that alone makes me act as I do – waiting until the return.
For Bax, the arrival of Cohen inspired an intense burst of creativity. In 1917, his passion for her shone with ecstatic splendour in his tone poem Tintagel, while the inner conflict he felt with his domestic commitments is thrashed out to exhaustion in the stormy November Woods.
‘She came at a most difficult period when all ideals seemed slipping,’ Bax wrote that year, ‘and now this that has happened has set them like fixed stars in the sky to burn for ever through what ever dangers and troubles may come’.
But with Bax’s nomadic lifestyle and Cohen’s performance schedule, their relationship would have to be played out through snatched periods together. Letters filled the gaps, and these now give us a precious insight into their romance. They are often passionate, sometimes erotic, and show they were both jealously possessive of the other. This is in spite of the fact that they both pursued other lovers – or maybe, precisely because of it.
In the mid 1920s, Cohen contracted a particularly virulent strain of tuberculosis. Bax paid for her to have a pioneering new treatment, which involved long stays in Geneva. This was a testing time, in which he fretted over the many admirers she was collecting.
‘Every man I meet seems to have fallen in love with me here,’ she wrote, teasing him. ‘I assure you I have had a very difficult time – they won’t believe in my mythical ‘fiancé’ in London. Is it true that I have got a marvellous figure? It’s all yours by the way.’
But it was also around the time of this long absence that Bax began an affair with a young woman called Mary Gleaves. It would be a relationship that had untold consequences for him and Cohen more than twenty years later.
A short walk inland from Morar village lies the western edge of Loch Morar. Dotted with forested islands near its shore, it stretches like a thin finger along a secluded valley for eleven miles. It is the deepest body of freshwater in Britain.
In February 1929 Bax wrote to Cohen:
This place is most enchanting when it is fine as it was this afternoon. I went down to the loch, and the silence and peace simply flooded me all through. It is impossible to feel disturbed about anything in such a place.
The second movement of the symphony seems to drink deep from this stillness. Here Bax achieved one of his most beguilingly gorgeous pieces of orchestration. A dim opening leads us through to an enchanted paradise, with glowing woodwind and brass, tinkling celesta, and lush divided strings. In the words of Colin Scott-Sutherland, it is like ‘a pristine world gradually illuminated by the first fingering beams of the morning’.
And yet, a bitter-sweet regret soon cuts across the landscape like a cold wind.
On the very same day that Bax visited the loch, Cohen was wowing Berlin on a European tour. There, she had the honour of an invitation to meet Albert Einstein and his wife at their apartment.
‘You are incandescent,’ the physicist told her, ‘you have a light within.’
Few days better illustrate the divergence of their lives, and the contrast of their personalities. Bax was a respected artist, but Cohen was a star. Not only a brilliant musician, she was a socialite with a seemingly magnetic attraction, one that drew in some of the most illustrious men of her day. As Helen Fry reveals in her biography, towards the end of the 1920sCohen embarked on ‘a series of sexual liaisons’, though quite how many is impossible to say. She certainly kept close relationships with many men, including the author H.G. Wells, Daily Express proprietor Max Beaverbrook, and even Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.
It is some testament to Cohen’s allure that she inspired several novels by those she knew. D.H. Lawrence had been an early admirer, and the character Harriet in Kangaroo may have been partly based on her. Around the time of the third symphony, Harriet Hume by Rebecca West told the story of a young pianist and a corrupt politician. The writer William Gerhardie, who definitely did have an affair with Cohen, used extracts from real letters between them in his novel Pending Heaven.
None of this glamour, of course, should distract from her musicianship. Major composers of the day composed for Cohen. Her repertoire encompassed music from Russia to Spain, and she was one of the first pianists to promote early English keyboard pieces. Her Bach was, for many, considered peerless. More impressive still is that she achieved this with a small hand span of barely an octave.
But her public role did not end at the applause. In the 1930s, she used her profile to lobby on behalf of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. In 1934, this cause would lead to a reunion with Einstein. Having since fled to America, it was he who played the violin with her on stage in New York, as they took part in a fundraising concert.
‘It is the best thing that Mr. Bax has given us so far’, announced the Daily Telegraph, ‘and, surely, one of the best things our contemporaries have produced’.
‘I was very delighted that the Symphony was so much appreciated,’ Bax wrote to his brother Clifford, ‘and somewhat taken aback at its strangely uproarious reception’.
‘We are very proud of him’, Henry Wood later said. ‘His brilliancy and even his complexity are alluring, and his output is staggering’.
Bax’s third symphony would go on to be admired by Rachmaninov and Sibelius. According to Cohen, the Finn once described him as ‘my son in music’, though it was a son he would outlive.
However, not everyone was completely won over. ‘I enjoyed the Bax’, noted the 16-year-old Benjamin Britten in his diary, ‘but didn’t understand it’.
The peace of Loch Morar is dispelled with a smash of a gong and a series of strident string chords. The third and final movement returns us to frenetic action, and a marching theme takes up the mischievous minor thirds. But there is a sense of optimism, even touches of sardonic humour in the story now.
With a triumphant brass climax, we sense an arc towards a blazing major-key close. But we are hoodwinked. It immediately starts to fade away, and a violin line slowly rises, as if vanishing up to heaven. We will not get to see the heroic endpoint of this saga, rather what Bax reveals to us requires another literary term, one that puts everything we have heard so far into sudden perspective.
There was a precedent for having an ‘epilogue’ in music. Vaughan Williams had drawn on that description for his London Symphony. Bax had been at its premiere in 1914, and the older composer even asked for his advice on a passage that had disappointed him. Bax persuaded him to add an oboe counter melody. The favour was returned at the time of the third symphony, with Vaughan Williams’ suggestion that Bax extend the abrupt ending of the first movement.
On paper, Bax’s epilogue looks simplistic, crude even. Low chords of C, D minor, and E minor repeat, each with a C and E over the top. A long high G emerges, cascading down the scale as a gentle melody.
But notation can never describe the magic of music, it merely offers us dark words with which to cast its spell. In Bax’s hands, these disarmingly simple gestures become something confoundingly beautiful.
As Foreman puts it, the chords in the strings and harp arrive ‘as if they have been going on for ever, but have only just come into our hearing’. The blend of unison woodwinds in the melody beckons us, like some far-off instrument not quite of our time. Meanwhile, the consoling loveliness of these shapes is gently disturbed by a low rumble, murmured half-thoughts in the music’s sleepy rhythm.
Vaughan Williams’ connection to this symphony has its own after-story. He so admired the epilogue that when he completed his piano concerto in 1931, he tucked away a brief quotation from it near the very end of his score. Naturally, Cohen was to perform this work. Vaughan Williams told her to play this passage ‘quite slow and very far off like a dream’.
But he later had a change of heart. This quotation was ‘a mistake for public performance’. The significance of this music was clearly personal for him. Quite what it meant is unclear. But an intriguing note lies beside these bars in the original score. It reads: ‘according to my promise’.
It was in 1944 that the symphony’s fortunes turned. That year, Bax’s music was wrapped up a Proms season that seemed to be strangely cursed.
It was wartime, and London was facing the new threat of ‘doodlebugs’ – V1 flying bombs. During a performance of Bax’s violin concerto, a doodlebug approach gradually became audible in the Albert Hall. By one account, the audience heard its engine cut out. The soloist, Eda Kersey, continued playing, ‘apparently oblivious to the fact that one ton of explosive was somewhat overhead. No one in the audience moved. It was a long wait. Then, at last, there came the muffled roar of the explosion’.
The next day, the BBC closed the venue for the rest of the season. It was a sad turn of events in the Proms’ 50th Jubilee year, and it thwarted a scheduled performance of the third symphony. But that summer would become sadder still. Eda Kersey died of cancer just two weeks after her performance, aged only 40. Then a month later came the passing of Sir Henry Wood himself. He had co-founded the Proms, and conducted its every season for nearly half a century.
With Wood’s death, this symphony’s great champion was vanquished. To this day, over 70 years on, Bax’s third has not been heard at the festival since.
It is therefore fitting that, in the very same year, the first recording of the symphony was released, conducted by John Barbirolli. 1944 marks the turning point towards this music’s modern fate: a creature beautifully preserved in amber, but never glimpsed in the wild. A collector’s curiosity, starved of the breath of life.
For now, this symphony remains the music that time forgot. Music which, through its own inspiration, chooses to forget time.
Elsa died in 1947. And in death, Bax’s wife would strike a final blow against his betrayal. Throughout their separation, her refusal to divorce had become convenient, effectively excusing him from any future commitments. He did not dare tell Cohen that he was a now a widower.
But such matters cannot be withheld forever. The following year, Cohen was recording Bax’s score for the David Lean film Oliver Twist, and over this period she discovered that Elsa’s will had been published.
‘All she wanted was to be Lady Bax’, Cohen’s sister would later say. But Bax was in no mind to remarry. Under pressure from Cohen, and possibly in the heat of an argument, he finally revealed his continuing affair with Mary Gleaves.
In the long saga of their love, they had both been unfaithful. But his rejection of marriage, combined with the revelation of a twenty-year mistress, must have been devastating. At some point in the following two weeks, Cohen severed an artery and damaged tendons in her right hand. She spent several days in hospital, and received nine stitches to her wrist. It was a terrible injury for a pianist, one her career would never fully recover from.
The cause was reported to be an accident while carrying a tray of glasses. In her biography, Fry pours some scepticism over this claim. We may never know if this injury was an act of self-harm – a cry for help, or even a suicide attempt. But you would expect that any accident so brutally damaging to Cohen’s craft would be mentioned in her memoir, A Bundle Of Time. Instead, there is silence.
It is unlikely that Bax wanted to hurt either women – from his letters, it seems, he loved them both. But a lifetime of duplicity and evasion had led to this juncture. Cohen’s injury would eventually heal, though her best playing days were now over. In the mean time, with one hand incapacitated, Bax composed her a Left-Hand Concertante for piano and orchestra.
A few months after her injury, Cohen wrote to Bax. She was still angry, and like all his betrayals, would never let him forget. But now she laid her cards on the table. She was nearly fifty three, and had loved him for over thirty years.
I’ve come to the conclusion that only complete happiness will make me well. It is all in your hands – all of me is in your hands – my life, and my future […] And you? Are you going to make an honest woman of me at last my precious? […] Perhaps everything had to happen to show you just how much you love me – & how awful a blank should you lose me. You never will, my love. I just won’t let go. Never will I go.
On some level, she must have known her plea for marriage would be futile. But she never did let go. And neither did he.
It was in keeping with Bax’s wishes that, in 1953, he died while visiting his beloved Ireland. In Dublin, he heardthe music professor Aloys Fleischmann conduct a concert of his music. Unknowingly, it became a final tribute to two great forces in his creative life. The orchestra performed the early tone poem The Garden of Fand, perhaps the most passionate flowering of his youthful love affair with that country. And Cohen was there too, playing his Left-hand Concertante, a testament to the strangely unshakable bond they had forged across four decades.
That weekend, Bax was staying with Fleischmann in Cork. He was driven out to a local beauty spot on the coast, the Old Head of Kinsale. By the account of Fleischmann’s mother Tilly, he witnessed the most glorious sunset over the Atlantic – Fand’s garden itself. ‘The whole sky was ablaze with colour of every possible hue; red, deep orange, yellow and far away on the horizon, there was a pale blue mist. Arnold was lost gazing at it.’
In the evening, Bax fell ill. A doctor was called, but by 10pm he had suffered coronary thrombosis and pulmonary edema. He was gone.
‘I can’t grow up and long for home and children and settled things,’ Bax once wrote. Throughout his life, he retained a streak of restless, wide-eyed adolescence. It formed a wellspring of his art, one he channelled into music of incredible richness and beauty of expression. But it is also there, swirling in those currents, that we can sense a source of his personal shortcomings.
Cohen died two years after her letter to the Daily Telegraph, in 1967. In many ways she had led the more extraordinary life – a woman of brilliance, determination and enormous accomplishment. It was never quite clear how this extrovert force of nature became so inextricably entangled with Bax, the introspective dreamer. Perhaps it is something they never fully understood themselves.
‘I received two tremendous moral lessons from great men in those months,’ Cohen recalled in her memoir, about the period of the third symphony. The cellist Pablo Casals left her speechless when he described how he practiced as if he would live to be five hundred. ‘Those few words affected my whole life: the wavering flame in me was rekindled and I never doubted or flagged again’.
The other was from Einstein, on that February day when Bax was walking beside Loch Morar, the place where the waters lie deepest. As she left the great scientist’s apartment and stepped into the cold Berlin air, he shared with her a favourite saying by Lessing. ‘The search for truth is more precious than its possession’.
Some puzzles in this story must remain unsolved. Who knows when Bax came across the Nietzsche quotation, buried near the end of a chapter in his mysterious screed? Who knows on what level it spoke to him, or why he left it out of the full score of the symphony. In that part of the book, Zarathustratells us of his Wild Wisdom, his lioness. It continues:
Now she runs foolishly through the harsh desert and seeks gentle turf – my old wild wisdom. Upon your hearts’ gentle turf, my friends, upon your love she would bed her most dearly beloved.
In the middle of Bax’s epilogue, our four-note motif returns. An eerie haze of tremolo strings and muted brass, it sounds like a distant memory, one whose meaning we can no longer quite remember.
But in the very last bars of the symphony, it builds to a deep brass rumble. Only now, with a twist of harmony, this figure melts into a radiant C major triad. In the music’s dying breath, its tortured shape has, at last, found its resolution.
The final C chord is lit up by woodwinds and harp, recalling that wild forest where our journey began. It hangs there, gently glowing. An island of perfect peace, forever beyond our reach.
Simon Brackenborough is the founder and editor of Corymbus. He is a music graduate who divides his time between Hampshire and London, and tweets at @sbrackenborough.
With special thanks to Graham Parlett for his help with this article.
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‘DO, a deer, a female deer, RE, a drop of golden sun’, sings Maria in a well-known song from The Sound Of Music. In doing so she teaches the von Trapp children about the notes of the major scale, through puns on the Solfège system. This proceeds well enough until LA, which lacks a suitable wordplay partner and merely becomes ‘a note to follow SO’. But there is a more subtle pun hiding at the end, one only recently pointed out to me. After ‘TI, a drink with jam and bread’, we have ‘that will bring us back to DO’ (dough).
Puns or no puns, to learn about distinct notes is normally one of our first encounters with music theory. The idea that the frequency of a sound wave can be segmented into pitches, and into pitch classes which recur in different octaves, is a fundamental starting point. In the film, Julie Andrews’ Maria has the von Trapp offspring scampering up a set of steps as they sing the scale.
This is an appropriate metaphor, as ‘scale’ derives from the the Latin scala, a ladder or staircase. The rungs of this ladder let us navigate any number of musical journeys. They are plainly visible in the lines of a musical stave, and in the bodywork of our instruments – the keys on a piano, the frets on a guitar, the holes in a recorder.
When Orsino in Twelfth Night recalls ‘that strain again, it had a dying fall’ he alludes to the remarkable fact – one easy to forget – that we can hear a series of these discrete pitches and ‘join the dots’ in our head. We can perceive a melodic contour, and grasp the story within it, out of a stream of entirely separate musical moments.
But the human voice has no in-built divisions of pitch, and some instruments also defy these segmentations. The trombone has its famously sardonic slide. The violin family (including violas, cellos and basses) allow the player’s finger border-free travel. To slide between notes is called a glissando, from the French glisser, to slip or glide. Some instruments, like the piano, can only approximate this effect with an extravagant sweep. The harp is well known for creating a mesmerising sound this way, but it is merely a flurry of notes in rapid succession.
Despite all these capabilities, the role of glissandi has for a long time been rather limited in western classical music. Opera singers might use portamento, a short expressive slide between two notes, though too much could be considered vulgar. When a real glissando happens, it is most often an ear-catching flourish, a special effect that briefly subverts (but is subservient to) the arrangement of fixed pitches. And because it defies our expectations, it can – like the cartoony swoop of the swanee-whistle – even sound comical.
Perhaps the most famous glissando in the orchestral repertoire is the clarinet solo that begins Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. This is notated as a scale figure, but – so the story goes – the virtuoso clarinettist Ross Gorman improvised an upward slide during the rehearsal for the premiere. Gershwin loved it and told him to keep it in. It’s not something the clarinet was designed to do, but a skilful player can pull it off, and it has become standard performance practice ever since. But then pitch-bending – the ‘blue’ note of the title – is a part of the jazz traditions Gershwin was drawing upon.
However, we cannot forget that Maria’s explainer is an introduction to tonal music. The arrival of atonality in the twentieth century freed notes from key hierarchies, while Serialism reorganised them into tone rows. Some composers have explored the subtler shades in between the twelve notes of the standard chromatic scale, such as ‘quartertones’, and other ‘microintervals’.
Quite what Maria’s song to explain these techniques might have sounded like, we can only imagine. But much like the puns in Do-Re-Mi, our word scale echoes with other meanings. If tonality gives us ladders of fixed points, microtones are more like the smooth scales of snakes – from the Old French escale, or shell – which, as in the children’s game Snakes And Ladders, we can slide along.
One composer who has explored the regions between our notes in a serious way is the American Gloria Coates. Coates was born in Wisconsin but moved to Munich in 1969, and has lived in Germany ever since. She has become known for the fact that many of her works feature extensive use of microtones, and in particular long string glissandi. In an interview with New Music Box, Coates cites their origin as an ‘Ur Schrei (primitive cry) which comes from a deeper part of me in singing’.
The experience of working with electronic music sharpened her perception of pitch – ‘there was much more space’ she recalls, ‘in between the quartertones’. At the same time, Coates points out how our technology-saturated lives also means we encounter more microtonal sounds, and mechanical glissandi, as ambient noise:
The sound of a car slowing down or speeding up, planes, machines of all sorts, even computer noises […] microtones are present in our speech, and they are present in nature […]
Quite unlike the archetypal flourish, perhaps Coates’ most distinctive use of glissandi are slow and creeping. Usually these are scored for string instruments, so it is unsurprising that she has explored the technique in a number of works for string quartet.
Here we hit on another aspect of music that Maria’s song left out: rhythm. Rhythm is an equally fundamental entry point, one that springs from the very motions of being alive – our heartbeat, our footsteps, our breath. But a long glissando cannot articulate rhythm as a series of notes can – at least, not on its own. If these glissandi sound strangely inhuman then, it is because they literally have no pulse. They might suggest an elemental force of nature, like a rising tide, as much as an accelerating engine. Or it could be our musical world sliding out of focus, a warping of reality. Either way, it is disorientating.
For me, this is part of their strange appeal. But Coates tells the story of presenting her composition teacher with an early glissando string quartet, and leaving him completely baffled. If you’re new to her work, you might react similarly. Coates is confronting us with something musically quite unfamiliar: sound always travelling, but rarely arriving.
My reference to Snakes And Ladders offers a little bit more than a laboured metaphor. You might remember it from childhood as a simple game of chance, but as Doug Bierend has shown, it has a long and fascinating history originating in ancient India. There exist many beautifully ornate interpretations of the familiar grid, some of which link the snakes and ladders with Hindu and Jain moral and spiritual concepts, such as karma and Moksha (salvation).
When the British took the idea to Europe in the late nineteenth century, mass-market versions soon appeared, some of which transposed western virtues and vices onto the board. In one hilariously pompous edition, cartoon scenes illustrate ‘kindness’ and ‘self-denial’ jumbled among such perilous pitfalls as ‘unpunctuality’ and ‘frivolity’.
Far from being just a way of helping young children learn to count, the very simplicity of the Snakes And Ladders concept, Bierend writes, served ‘as a durable chassis for any culture that took it up, containing and transmitting their moral and spiritual beliefs’.
The bigger lesson here is that the systems we teach children, no matter how innocent they seem, are always embedded with our values. And as for the lesson in the Do-Re-Mi song,it arrives with all the subtlety of an Alphorn. When the children sing along with Maria, we see them cooperating and bonding; their carefree frolicking around Salzburg shows us that learning is fun. Arguably, the principal theme of the film is the power of music to strengthen relationships. And from the opening shots, Austria is a glistening ideal of European culture, a place where the hills are alive ‘with songs they have sung for a thousand years’. In a story which climaxes with an escape from the Nazis, we come to understand music as the essence of a loving, joyful life – everything good which is under threat from Fascism.
For a contemporary composer, trying to find a voice in a post-atonal world, things may not be so simple. But whether you reject tonality and construct your own system, whether you re-adopt tonality, or adapt it to your own uses, your response will resonate with your own values. What particularly interests me about Gloria Coates is the relationship to tonal music in her work.
Despite the outlandishness of her musical gestures, Coates draws on that fustiest of musical techniques – the canon. If her music sometimes seems simple in construction, this can be deceptive: often the counterpoint, she hints, is ‘like a mathematics problem with only the solution given.’
Several compositions take much older pieces of music and re-cast them with a microtonal glaze. Her symphony no. 15 uses a ‘puzzle canon’, in which a section of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus is heard both forwards and backwards. Symphony no.14 makes dissonant play with the works of two obscure New England hymn composers (William Billings, and the fabulously named Supply Belcher). These resurrections seem to emphasise a distance, the uneasy coexistence of past and present, as much as any continuity of tradition. But her curiosity extents outside of the classical repertoire too. Symphony No.8, Indian Sounds, mixes microtones with Native American music to compellingly mysterious effect.
My favourite of all these invocations, however, is the first movement of her symphony no. 4, Chiaroscuro. Here we are introduced to a haze of microtonality, through which gradually emerges the outline of Dido’s Lament, the exquisitely poignant aria by Purcell.But it is fragmentary and unnaturally slow,a shadowy apparition which grows louder and louder as it lumbers towards us. The title of the movement is Illumination, and its light is decidedly gothic. The result is genuinely sinister.
Dido’s Lament is composed on a ground bass that descends semitone by semitone, a feature which, as Alex Ross described, has been used for centuries to express lamentation. In its own way it is also an approximated glissando, with the poetry of Orsino’s ‘dying fall’ in chromatically tonal terms. For Coates, this had a personal relevance. Symphony no. 4 is an orchestral expansion of the earlier chamber work Transitions, one she described as ‘the translation of metaphysical experiences I had after the death of my father’.
The mention of metaphysics recalls that Ur Schrei, the ‘deeper part of me in singing’, the sense that there is an aspect of Coates’ art which is forever unknown. And this is an important point to remember. However many ladders we climb in the pursuit of knowledge, there is nobody alive who has truly fathomed how music works, not in the way that matters most: the unique spaces of consciousness it opens within us. If Coates’ music often sounds simple, then it recalls our ancient board game, where an idea can unexpectedly lead us in all sorts of directions, even into ourselves.
There is another meaning of the world ‘scale’ – from the Old Norse skál, or bowl – which is the instrument we use to make precise measurements of weight. Perhaps we could say that Coates’ music is a kind of ‘precise imprecision’ – it is highly calculated, and yet it takes us through a continuum of pitch that by its nature can never be settled. It peers in between the lines of the stave, into that mysterious malleability that people have tried for so long to set into something beautiful and ordered. If her work speaks to us, it is by reminding us – quite literally – of the very sound of music.
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There’s a very engaging film yet to be made about the Polish composer Sir Andrzej Panufnik. It might begin with his experiences of the Anschluss, and then move on to his time in Nazi-occupied Poland. It could then tell the story of the loss of all of his early work in the Warsaw Uprising, the post-war restrictions on his art by the ruling Communist Party, culminating in an edge-of-the-seat depiction of his dramatic defection to Britain. And that would only cover his life to the age of 40.
Panufnik was born in interesting times, just two months after the outbreak of World War One, when his native Poland was a territory divided between the warring factions. By the time the conflict had ended, Poland had become a re-created independent state, albeit a fragile one. It was in this environment of burgeoning nationalism that Panufnik cut his teeth.
His musical talent was evident from an early age, and he attended the Warsaw Conservatoire to study first percussion, and then conducting and composition. Upon graduation, Panufnik planned to take up a place at the Vienna State Academy to study with the great Felix Weingartner. His plans were put on hold when he was called up for National Service, but thanks to the intervention of a Major Śledziński – himself a musician – Panufnik was discharged on dubious medical grounds. On the morning of his medical examination, Panufnik heard a radio broadcast of an old Polish hymn – the Bogurodzica– which had an immediate and profound effect upon the impressionable composer. It was a melody that would stay with him throughout his career.
Panufnik eventually went to Vienna, and enjoyed his time as a pupil of Weingartner. Circumstances were to change dramatically, however, in March 1938 when Austria was annexed into Nazi Germany in the Anschluss. Towards the end of the academic year, Weingartner was replaced at the Academy by a ‘good loyal Nazi’, and Panufnik promptly decided to leave Vienna without staying to take the final examination. In his view, he ‘did not care to have a piece of paper stamped with a Nazi swastika’.
Panufnik returned to Poland, but within months it too was under Nazi occupation. He remained in Warsaw despite a ban on organised gatherings meaning that musical performances became impossible. During the occupation, Panufnik formed a piano duo with his friend from the Warsaw Conservatoire, the composer Witold Lutosławski. They performed together in cafés to circumnavigate the Nazi-imposed performing restrictions.
In 1944, Panufnik took his sick mother to be cared for in the rural outskirts of Warsaw. While he was away, however, the Armia Krajowa (Home Army, the Polish resistance) attempted to liberate the city in what became known as the Warsaw Uprising – the largest single military effort taken by any European resistance movement during the Second World War. Without the hoped-for backing from the advancing Russian army, it was crushed and Warsaw was demolished.
When Panufnik returned to his former home he discovered, to his horror, that all of the music that he had written up to that point in his life had been destroyed – ironically not by the actions of the Nazis, but by a well-meaning compatriot. A woman who had taken over Panufnik’s rooms had simply cleared out the discarded papers and, oblivious to their worth, made a bonfire of them.
After the war, Panufnik moved to Kraków, where he began again as a composer. He tried to reconstruct those of his destroyed pieces that he could recall – notably the Tragic Overture, Five Polish Peasant Songs, and the Piano Trio. After attempting to re-compose his Symphony No. 1, he had to admit that his memory faltered and found the resulting work disappointing. He destroyed the score, and abandoned any further attempts to reconstruct his lost works. Instead, he set about composing a new symphony.
Written in 1948, Sinfonia Rustica was ostensibly a quite harmless and uncontroversial work, in strictly musical terms, yet its history was so troubled that Panufnik devoted an entire chapter of his excellent autobiography – Composing Myself – to its misfortunes.
In February 1948, Andrei Zhdanov, director of the Soviet Union’s cultural policy, had issued a decree on music, which stated that Russian composers should eliminate Western ‘bourgeois’ tendencies and embrace Socialist Realism. This was in turn adopted by the Soviet Composers’ Union, headed by Tikhon Khrenninov, and it soon became apparent that its guidelines would extend across the border into Poland.
It was against this backdrop that Panufnik wrote Sinfonia Rustica, based on northern Polish themes and an expression of his love for the country’s peasant music – and no doubt with one eye on its likely reception in Warsaw and Moscow. It appeared to have had the desired effect, being well received at its first performance and subsequently winning the Chopin Competition the following year.
Almost immediately afterwards, however, the ‘Russification’ of all aspects of Polish artistic life began to take hold. At a conference on the future direction of music in Łagow, Panufnik’s Nocturne was programmed and savagely criticised as ‘unsuitable for the broad masses’.
In 1950, at a meeting of the Polish Composers’ Union, attended by Khrenninov, the award-winning Sinfonia Rustica had its fate sealed in a matter of minutes. An attack on the work by a music critic and Communist Party member began a chain reaction of condemnation, which culminated in Polish Cultural Minister Włodzimierz Sokorski declaring, ‘Sinfonia Rustica has ceased to exist!’
The irony is that, with its rustic themes and use of folk melodies, it was a celebration of peasant life – the complete antithesis of bourgeois. It should, on the face of it, have fulfilled the brief of being ‘simple and understandable to the broad masses’. The vagueness of the Socialist Realism concept, however, meant that it was impossible to know whether a work would fall foul of the authorities.
During a tour to the Soviet Union soon afterwards, Panufnik made a throwaway remark about starting work on a Symphony of Peace. He hadn’t written a note of it, but the comment was immediately seized upon by the powers-that-be, whose enthusiasm for the project far exceeded his own. Panufnik was even moved into a Government Rest House, formerly owned by an aristocratic family, to ensure he was allowed to work on the symphony undisturbed.
While the concept of a three-movement choral symphony came fairly quickly, when it came to actually committing notes to paper Panufnik was bound up by anxiety. Mindful of the fate of his Sinfonia Rustica, and the requirement to conform to the elusive guidelines of Socialist Realism, progress was slow. And then a young girl of Irish parentage by the name of Marie Elizabeth O’Mahoney turned up at the Rest House and worked stopped altogether.
Everyone knew her as Scarlett, due to her resemblance to the lead character in Gone with the Wind, and despite her being there on honeymoon, she and Panufnik embarked upon a passionate affair. They were married the following July.
Panufnik did eventually deliver the score of his Symphony of Peace in time for its scheduled first performance in Spring 1951. Working to this deadline, and under the watchful gaze of the Ministry of Culture, it seems that Panufnik was less than totally happy with the finished piece. Nevertheless, at its première, he said that the ‘audience applauded with tremendous warmth’.
The authorities were less taken with it. It was awarded a State Prize, second class, which was roughly equivalent to damning it with faint praise. The minutes of the State Prize Committee stated that Panufnik’s artistic background, ‘has its roots in the formalist school’, and that by using medieval motifs, considered religious, the symphony ‘is not ideologically pure’. The Symphony of Peace had, indeed, met the same fate as the Rustica.
It seemed to Panufnik that, as his country’s leading composer, he was effectively being torn to shreds by the party zealots as an example to the younger generation. After his Heroic Overture was heavily criticised at an audition by a panel of judges in a seemingly premeditated attack, Panufnik stopped composing new music. And with Scarlett now expecting their first child – Oonagh, born in September 1952 – Panufnik had other priorities.
Matters eventually came to a head on a gruelling Chinese tour in Spring of 1953. Panufnik was reluctant to leave his young daughter, but was left under no illusion that it was his patriotic duty to go. Shortly before a gala concert in Beijing, attended by Mao Zedong himself, Panufnik received a short telegram wishing him ‘deepest sympathy’ – with no further explanation. Over a distorted phone line, he heard the devastating news that Scarlett, while bathing their daughter, had suffered an epileptic fit, and on regaining consciousness, she discovered that eight-month-old Oonagh had drowned. The distraught Panufnik begged to return home immediately, and although permission was granted, he was told he had to conduct the concert first.
Panufnik was a broken man, both emotionally and creatively, and he spent another year in Poland as, to use his own term, ‘a stuffed dummy of a composer’. In 1954, Panufnik was ordered to write letters to Western musicians to establish whether they would give their support to the Polish ‘Peace Movement’. Seeing this as a request to indirectly spy for Moscow, he decided there and then to leave Poland.
England was the obvious choice of destination. Scarlett’s family lived there, and as her father was seriously ill at the time, she could legitimately return on compassionate grounds. For Andrzej, however, a plan had to be hatched. First, a conducting engagement in Zurich was contrived. Then, with the help of Polish émigré friends in London, a flight from there to London was arranged through the British Foreign Office. While Panufnik was in Zurich, the authorities got wind of his plans, and ordered him to return to the Polish Legation. Instead, Panufnik gave the Secret Police the slip and, paying a taxi driver double to drive as fast as possible to lose his pursuers, he headed straight for the airport.
The Panufniks struggled financially during their early months in London after their defection. Andrzej set out to find work as a conductor, and tried to arrange performances of his works. The Symphony of Peace was given a revival in a performance in the Masonic Temple, Detroit under the baton of Stokowski. It once again received an enthusiastic reception, although Panufnik remained unhappy with the work and promptly withdrew it. The Sinfonia Rustica, in a slightly revised version, was conducted by the composer at the Proms in July 1955 and it too was extremely well-received.
Rejuvenated by these triumphs, Panufnik set about dismantling his withdrawn Symphony of Peace, and rebuilding it as his second catalogued symphony, the Sinfonia Elegiaca. Panufnik had considered the original work too long, although the surviving Polish radio broadcast lasts only 29 minutes – hardly Mahlerian. The musical language was of more concern to Panufnik, and the resulting Elegiaca is sparser and more direct.
The new work retained the symmetrical three-movement structure. The choral sections were, however, removed entirely and the original first movement provided the material for two new outer movements. Panufnik described these outer movement as laments for the dead, while the largely unchanged central movement – entitled Dramatico in the Symphony of Peace – was a dramatic protest against the inhumanity of war. He dedicated Sinfonia Elegiaca to the victims of the Second World War.
The drastic revision of the Symphony of Peace was not driven by a commission or promise of a performance, but appears to have been a purely cathartic exercise as Panufnik attempted to rescue the work from the painful association with the regime it was originally written to please. It apparently came as a complete surprise to Panufnik that the work was given its first performance in 1957 in Houston, by Stokowski.
Panufnik continued to find his early years in the UK something of a struggle. Occasional commissions came his way, but insufficient to provide a living. Life in the suburbs of London – where he lived next door to the Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. – did not provide him with the peace he craved to compose. Worst of all, his marriage to Scarlett was breaking down.
His financial situation improved after securing a two-year stint as principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), but that precluded any hope of composing. When he returned to London, he began work on his first new piece for three years, Autumn Music. By this time, he had been divorced from Scarlett, and had made the acquaintance of an ‘English rose’ by the name of Winsome Ward. Panufnik hoped that after the failure of his marriage to the socialite Scarlett he had found a woman with whom he could be truly happy.
It was not to be, however. Panufnik suspended work on Autumn Music to fulfil a lucrative conducting appointment in Buenos Aires, and when he returned, it was to the news that Winsome had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Panufnik now poured his heart into Autumn Music, saying in his autobiography:
… its theme of seasonal decline now cruelly apt alongside my heartbroken consciousness of a most precious human life in a different sort of decline – which would not be renewed by the coming of another spring.
It is a work of almost unbearable melancholy. Its second movement in particular, in which some of the most impassioned music Panufnik ever wrote soars above a tolling low B from the piano, tears at the heartstrings.
Against a backdrop of Winsome’s long and agonising decline, Panufnik began work on his third symphony to a commission from the Kościuszko Foundation to celebrate Poland’s Millennium Year – the Sinfonia Sacra. For this, Panufnik appropriately returned to his Polish roots and the Bogurodzica – the medieval hymn that had captivated him as an adolescent.
Part One of the symphony comprises three contrasting Visions: the first a fanfare for four trumpets; the second a calm and contemplative passage for strings in which the influence of Autumn Music can clearly be heard; the third a violent, percussion-driven depiction of war. Part Two is given over to a setting of the Bogurodzica. Beginning with barely audible violin harmonics, it swells through a ten-minute long crescendo to a powerful finale in which the opening fanfares return as shrill, out-of-key shrieks from the four corners of the auditorium.
Although Poland’s Millennium Year was actually 1966, the work was completed in 1963 and the financially compromised Panufnik decided to enter Sinfonia Sacra into that year’s Prince Rainier III Competition in Monaco. It won first prize out of 133 entries from 38 countries, and Panufnik, as well as welcoming the financial reward, saw this as a vindication of his artistic merit. The judging was anonymous, so there was no question of a politically motivated decision, and as Panufnik put it, ‘professionally at my lowest ebb, I needed the approval of that eminent international jury’.
The Sinfonia Sacra represents something of a turning point in Panufnik’s life. Apart from the international recognition it brought him, and the fillip it provided him with personally, it corresponds with a passage from his darkest period into possibly his happiest. Winsome Ward died from her illness during the early months of its composition, but by the time it was completed Panufnik had begun a relationship with the love of his life – Camilla Jessel. Camilla had been acting as Panufnik’s PA, having been introduced to him by the Foreign Office employee responsible for his defection, Neil Marten. Andrzej and Camilla were married in November 1963, a few months after his success in the Monaco competition. Sinfonia Sacra remains Panufnik’s most enduring and popular work, and is certainly the most frequently performed.
Meanwhile, back in his native Poland, Panufnik’s defection had come as a body blow to the communist regime. The inevitable steps were taken to denounce him as a traitor, declare him a ‘non-person’, and ban performances of his works. Neither his name nor his achievements could be published.
The Polish authorities had clearly been stung by the defection though, and, in a complete about-face, all restrictions on Polish composers had been lifted within a year. It was therefore quite ironic that, having left Poland in order to free himself from the restrictions of Socialist Realism, he now watched from afar as his former contemporaries, and up-and-coming composers such as Górecki and Kilar, started producing works at the very forefront of the avant garde.
The mid-Sixties were clearly a happy time for the newly-remarried Panufnik. Life in Twickenham was idyllic and he settled into domestic bliss. His output in the immediate aftermath of the success of Sinfonia Sacra was hardly prolific though, with his only significant new work being the Katyń Epitaph – dedicated to the 20,000 Polish officers murdered in Katyń Forest by the Russians during the Second World War.
The arrival of two children – a daughter, the composer Roxanna Panufnik, and a son, Jeremy – distracted him further from the business of composing. It was also clear that Panufnik was in something of a dilemma over his musical language, which he felt was stuck in the past, and relied too heavily on Polish themes. Panufnik resolved to develop a new way of expressing himself, and this manifested itself as an organic process in which an entire large-scale work could evolve from a tiny three-note cell. One of the earliest examples of this was in Triangles, a piece commissioned by BBC Television and broadcast in April 1972. The commission itself was an indication of Panufnik’s rising stock – he even went on to make a couple of appearances on the BBC TV panel show Face The Music!
The first use of this three-note cell approach in symphonic form came in Panufnik’s fourth symphony, the Sinfonia Concertante, for flute, harp and strings. It differs from its predecessor the Sacra, in almost every respect. The forces used are much reduced, and the sparser, almost minimalist thematic material makes for a far more austere sound world. It was a tenth wedding anniversary gift to his wife Camilla, and makes constant reference to her initial, the note C. The three-note cell is a C-D-A triad, in all inversions, reflected horizontally to form a melodic line. Secondary triads, as Panufnik refers to them, comprising the notes F-B-E are reflected vertically to form the accompaniment. The entire work evolves from this scant material, with the first molto cantabile movement treating it symmetrically and melodically, while the contrasting second molto ritmico movement is deliberately asymmetrical and dance-like.
Sinfonia Concertante was the first of four symphonies composed in just five years from the now-revitalised Panufnik. In his autobiography, the chapter covering this period in his life is entitled ‘Music Pouring From My Pen’, which accurately describes the most productive era in his creative life.
His fifth symphony, Sinfonia di Sfere (Symphony of Spheres) is a quite direct reference to his fascination with geometric patterns and how they might permeate a large-scale musical structure. Although it is a single-movement work, there are six sections in which the ‘Sphere of Tempo’ is explored from poco andante at the outset to molto allegro at the conclusion. There are five other ‘Spheres’ – Harmony, Rhythm, Melody, Dynamics, Structure – that are worked through as the symphony progresses. The circle influences every minute detail of Sinfonia di Sfere, even the percussionists are arranged around the platform in performance so that their sound constantly orbits the orchestra. Panufnik also records:
When the work was televised from the (circular) Royal Albert Hall in the 1978 Promenade season, the Television Director, Peter Butler, made brilliant use of every circular or spherical symbol he could find within the auditorium.
Panufnik returned to the theme of circles in his next symphony, the Sinfonia Mistica, written two years later. Being his sixth symphony, the music is infused by his fascination with the mathematical properties of the number six. Again, it has six sections, is in the metre of six. The thematic material is based on six triads, six melodic patterns and six melodic combinations.
Attempting to organise the chaos of dissonance was an issue that had exercised composers since the 1910s, and Panufnik’s choice to relate his music to geometric symbols was an attempt to provide a ‘spiritual, not a cerebral experience’, according to Antony Hopkins. While aesthetically pleasing, it has to be said that Sinfonia di Sfere and Sinfonia Mistica do rather lack the emotional power of Panufnik’s earlier works. This fact was not lost on the composer, who confessed that, as he sat in Middlesbrough Town Hall listening to the Northern Sinfonia giving Sinfonia Mistica its first performance, he felt he had gone too far in ‘allowing intellect to outstrip intuition’. Nevertheless, they are key works – studies of sorts – that enabled him to find his own voice as a composer.
The fourth in Panufnik’s cluster of mid-Seventies symphonies was his Metasinfonia of 1978. It was written for the unusual combination of organ, timpani and strings, and in it Panufnik made a conscious effort to redress the balance between ‘feeling and intellect, heart and brain, impulse and design’. The Nietzschian dichotomy between the Apollonian and Dionysian in art has exercised most great artists at one time or another and the Metasinfonia represents the point at which Panufnik most consciously wrestled with the problem. Having written at great length about the schematic approach he took to its predecessors, even to the extent of providing diagrams in the score, Panufnik’s programme notes for Metasinfonia were far more concise, accepting that the technicalities of his compositional methods might be of little interest to the listener.
Panufnik admitted that Metasinfonia was more of an organ concerto than a symphony, and the dialogue between the soloist and the strings could, superficially, be seen as an embodiment of the Nietzschian argument at the work’s heart. Insofar as he would elaborate on the work’s geometric form, he described it as a double helix, with ‘the first half of the symphony spiralling towards the centre, the second concentrically and symmetrically working its way outward again’. With Metasinfonia, Panufnik felt he had found his feet again as a composer, and while it is by no means his most well-known work – quite probably the least-performed – it is a very strong piece that deserves greater familiarity.
While Panufnik was completely absorbed in his family and refining his compositional craft, he was oblivious to that fact that, back in his homeland, there had been a relaxation of the ban on him. He, along with other ‘non-persons’, could have his name published, but only in specialist publications and with the caveat that it was prohibited to ‘overpraise the creativity of these persons or to represent them in too favourable a light’. A typical example of this literature can be found in the book Twelve Polish Composers by B.M. Maciejewski, dating from 1976:
When Panufnik arrived in England he was 39 years of age. Today he is 60 and during that time he wrote one major work only – The Universal Prayer.
By that time, he had in fact produced five symphonies, a piano concerto, a violin concerto and numerous other orchestral works. There is reference to Sinfonia Sacra winning the Prince Rainier III Competition, but this is qualified with ‘two Polish composers from Warsaw also won prizes’, namely Rudziński and Bloch. Panufnik’s oeuvre was dismissed with the less than complimentary term ‘film music’.
As mentioned earlier, Panufnik had made a conscious decision to turn away from Polish themes for musical impetus. Whether it was the realisation that his works were now being performed in Poland again – most notably the Universal Prayer at the 1977 Warsaw Autumn Festival – that turned his mind back towards his country of birth is unknown. But when Panufnik was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to write a work for their centenary, developments in his homeland were at the forefront of his mind.
In August 1980, 17,000 shipbuilders at Gdańsk Shipyard defied a ban on industrial action and went on strike. The Solidarność (Solidarity) trade union was formed, led by shipyard electrician Lech Wałęsa, to become the first non-communist union in the Eastern Bloc. It was an act of great bravery that the Polish government eventually tried to crush by imposing martial law.
Panufnik noted that the striking workers wore on their lapels the image of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa – a sacred symbol of independent Poland – and he decided that his next symphony would be his own votive offering to the Black Madonna, hence its title: Sinfonia Votiva.
In many ways, the symphony is modelled on his Sinfonia Sacra. There are echoes of the Bogurodzica – the medieval hymn that dominated the Sacra – in the thematic material. The work is also in two sections: the first, marked Con devozione, is a slow and impassioned prayer of devotion reminiscent of Vision II from the Sacra, while the second, Con passione, is turbulent and aggressive, ending with what Panufnik described as ‘a shout of sheer protest’ against the lack of full independence in Poland. The fact that he chose metal percussion instruments for the tumultuous climax of the work was taken by many to be a direct depiction of the clanging of metal in the shipyard. Panufnik insists, however, that the idea had simply not occurred to him.
Framing these contrasting movements is another of Panufnik’s trademark geometric forms. In this case, as it was his eighth symphony, a figure of eight comprising two large circles representing the two sections of the symphony, with four smaller circles within each large circle to create eight in total. Again though, Panufnik sought not to let the form outweigh the impact of the piece, saying that ‘the structure … should for the listener remain an invisible skeleton holding in unity the musical material’.
By now, Panufnik was firmly established as one of Britain’s foremost composers. His seventieth birthday in 1984 was marked by many performances of his works. The CBSO invited their former conductor back for a performance of his Sinfonia Sacra, and Panufnik spent the evening of his birthday conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in performances of his Piano Concerto and Sinfonia Votiva.
The following year, Panufnik received his most prestigious commission to date when The Royal Philharmonic Society requested he write a ninth symphony for their 175th anniversary. He initially found this prospect daunting. The ninth has, of course, mythical connotations for a symphonist, and this was exacerbated in Panufnik’s mind when it was pointed out that the Society had also commissioned Beethoven’s ninth.
Panufnik rose to the challenge, however, and produced his most ambitious work – the epic Sinfonia della Speranza (Symphony of Hope). He set himself the ‘formidable task of composing a continuous melodic line of about forty minutes’ duration’. It is comfortably the longest of his symphonies. However, its arching, rainbow structure and continuous melodic thread, give the piece a greater formal unity than any of his other large-scale works. Again, a three-note cell is the starting point. This time the cell acts as a prism creating, in Panufnik’s words, ‘a spectrum of colours … and shaping the melodic line’. This melody passes through a palindromic sequence of keys, starting and ending in E. In keeping with the recurring structural theme of arcs rather than spheres, the melodic line moves from high notes through the low register and symmetrically back to high.
Remarkably, the 74-year-old composer almost immediately set about working on his tenth Symphony, this time commissioned by his old friend Sir Georg Solti, for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s centenary. Having initially formed the idea of writing something akin to a concerto for orchestra, Panufnik decided instead to showcase their supreme sound quality, through different instrument combinations. He was drawn back to familiar themes: three-note cells and geometric forms. In contrast to the Sinfonia della Speranza, however, Symphony No. 10 is a tightly argued single-movement work of about 17 minutes’ duration. The invisible skeleton of the symphony is the so-called ‘golden ellipse’, which Panufnik ‘orbits’ one-and-a-half times, until ‘suddenly it straightens out into a new trajectory leading to the conclusion of the symphony’. The three-note cell is a familiar one: E-B-F, which he used in his first symphonic exploration of such organic development, his Sinfonia Concertante. In a glowing review, the Chicago Tribune wrote:
…it is not necessary to know geometry to be deeply affected by this music, by the typically ingenious manner in which it flowers from tiny thematic cells, by the hard, bright scoring and richness of incident. And it is this organic unity of idea and structure that allows Panufnik’s gestures to resonate with such urgency and power.
Having said at the outset that Panufnik’s story would make a very good film, there was something cinematic about how, in the final years of his life, a series of episodes reached a satisfactory conclusion. With glasnost and the collapse of the oppressive communist regimes in the Eastern Bloc, Lech Wałęsa, leader of the Solidarność union in Gdańsk, was elected President of Poland in the first free democratic elections there since the war. With the communist regime consigned to history, Panufnik felt able to end his voluntary exile, and he made a triumphant return at the 1990 Warsaw Autumn Festival, which featured 11 of his works, including the tenth Symphony.
In 1991, he received the ultimate accolade from his adoptive country when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for services to British music. By that time though, Panufnik had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He died in October 1991, just weeks after receiving his knighthood.
In the 25 years since his death, Panufnik’s music has suffered from a degree of neglect, with numbers of performances seemingly declining. True, his centenary year of 2014 was marked with a series of high-profile concerts, and the panufnik.comwebsite notes that there were over 420 performances worldwide to mark his centenary. Tellingly, however, the BBC Proms that year featured none of his works. In fact, the only Panufnik featured across the whole season was his daughter Roxanna, whose Three Paths to Peace was given its European première. This was an extraordinary oversight in a concert series that often features significant anniversaries. According to statistics provided by his publishers, Boosey & Hawkes, there have been just four performances of his symphonies in the UK since 2014, and three of those were given as part of a two-concert celebration by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in June 2015.
Britain has a long tradition of neglecting its own composers, and Panufnik is not alone in needing a champion to bring his music to the fore again. His story is, I’m sure you’ll agree, an extraordinary one, and few composers can have overcome so many obstacles to achieve success. His is a truly unique voice; in order to convey what he wanted to say he evolved his own language, and as a consequence his music is almost instantly recognisable. As one of a select group of knighted composers, his work should be more familiar to the classical music audience. Perhaps if there were a film of his life after all, he might gain a new generation of followers.
John Paul Hardy graduated in Music and Law from Keele University, where he studied composition with George Nicholson and Mike Vaughan. He now sings tenor with Durham Choral Society and Newcastle Bach Choir. His blog A Symphony A Day documents his challenge to listen to 365 different symphonies in 2017.
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Saint-Saëns’s 1877 opera, Samson et Dalila, is widely considered to be one of the jewels of the French operatic repertoire. Its Biblical story is well known: Samson, leader of the Israelites and blessed with superhuman strength by God, is led astray by Delilah – the stereotypical exotic and dangerous femme fatale. Upon Delilah’s discovery that Samson’s strength lies in his hair, he is shorn, captured and blinded. At the end of the opera, as he is goaded by his Philistine captors, Samson’s strength returns as a blessing from God and he destroys the Temple of Dagon along with everyone inside.
Delilah has long been compared unsympathetically with other Biblical fallen women; she is even further still from the Bible’s virginal ideal. Yet despite, or rather because of, this she is also a fascinating character; even Saint-Saëns could not resist her charms – the opera was originally entitled with her name alone, Dalila. This dangerous allure is rooted in the French fascination with the Orient at the time the opera was composed.
The growth of the Second French Empire, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, prompted an increase in French public interest in her colonies. These faraway lands provided an artistic opportunity to explore repressed feelings on socio-political topics which were otherwise avoided in polite society. Among these was the sexual liberation of women, a topic presented onstage through stereotypes such as the femme fatale. As an incarnation of social taboos, operatic femme fatales at this time were intended to be thrilling and shocking. To contemporary audiences, they conveyed an implicit message: that sexualised female behaviour may be exciting, but ultimately it was not only reprehensible, but downright dangerous. The Orient provided the geographical distance required to explore this idea, and the temporal distance of Saint-Saëns’s Biblical setting allowed for even further detachment.
Delilah, along with the likes of Carmen, is one of the most pertinent examples of the use of the exotic to explore empowered female sexuality through the femme fatale. The basis for this interpretation lies in Delilah’s voluptuous arias, the most famous of which, ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ (‘My heart opens at your voice’) is at the crux of her portrayal. While many productions use this aria to reinforce unthinkingly the one-dimensional femme fatale stereotype, others explore a more conflicted, remorseful Delilah. This musical moment is key to re-reading her character for twenty-first century audiences, who might wish to avoid outdated and misogynistic interpretations of strong women. By examining this aria through a lens that highlights sexual agency and female empowerment, it is possible to see how Delilah uses sexuality as a functional tool to achieve her goal. Once we understand this moment through such a lens, we can move away from an unthinking and outdated interpretation of women’s autonomy.
When adapting the story of Samson and Delilah for the operatic medium, it was in depicting Delilah’s motivations that Saint-Saëns and his librettist, Henri Lemaire, took their greatest liberties with the Biblical source material. While in the Bible, Delilah is paid for her part in Samson’s capture, her motivation for accepting the Philistines’ payment is never made clear. In contrast, the operatic Delilah does not accept the High Priest’s offer, instead citing her religious beliefs as motivation enough for her actions. In her recitative of Act II, Scene 2, Delilah makes clear that she has long tried to discern the secret of Samson’s strength, admitting ‘three times I have tried to discover the spell’. She has foreseen the necessity of deposing Samson, and by refusing payment, shows that she needs neither encouragement nor financial incentive.
Delilah executes her plan perfectly, exploiting her prey’s infatuation. In Samson’s eyes, she appears to surrender to him completely, suggesting that she is there for the taking. But this is, of course, a trap. She is determined to avenge her people and destroy Samson. Once we recognise that Delilah is actively using her sexuality to achieve her goal, this scene becomes very interesting.
And yet, if we begin by examining the aria’s text, it might at first seem that Delilah is entirely at Samson’s disposal. Even the first line, ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’ (‘My heart opens at your voice’) implies that Delilah’s heart is the object as opposed to the subject. She implores him to respond ‘Ah! réponds à ma tendresse!’ (Ah! Respond to my tenderness!) and to fill her with joy and happiness ‘Verse-moi, verse-moi l’ivresse!’ (Fill me with ecstasy!). Samson, it would seem, is entirely in control and Delilah is powerless to resist.
But what we are witnessing here is not female submission, but merely the illusion of it. Delilah uses her sexuality as a functional tool and expertly manipulates Samson’s desire for her. Her carefully chosen words expressed through consciously exotic music lure him into a false sense of security. And it is through an analysis of her musical language, that we can begin to fully understand Delilah’s sexual power and autonomy.
Delilah expresses her compelling sexuality musically through various exotic tropes, such as chromaticism, freer rhythms and wordless vocalise. Saint-Saëns used these devices liberally here as this scene was written while he was still considering the work as an oratorio: without the benefit of a set or costumes, the music had to set the scene.
In the aria’s second verse, the orchestral accompaniment becomes more chromatic – a trope commonly deployed to depict the exotic in the nineteenth century. These additional accidentals distance Delilah and her musical language from what is recognisably ‘Western’. Sextuplets create freer rhythms here, suggesting an improvisatory quality, and again liberating the music from ‘Western’ strictures. The figure below demonstrates both of these tropes at play (from 3:03 in the above recording):
In addition, Delilah’s wordless vocalisation ‘aah’, another exotic musical device, is exploited by Saint-Saëns later in the aria. Vocalisations were crucial in portraying the East as emotional and passionate, and thus distinct from the rational and coherent West. In other words, it is a rather crude device to demonstrate that the exotic is unable to express itself in recognisably Western terms. Unlike the orchestral accompaniment of the previous example, her singing plays a more ‘diegetic’ role in Delilah’s seduction. That is to say, that what we hear is not just a composer’s imposition of music on the narrative presented onstage; Samson too, can hear her singing, thus suggesting that that her use of exotic musical techniques is entirely conscious. (Figure 2 starts at 2:22 in the recording).
Ultimately, this active choiceto sexualise herself through the use of music – and her awarenessof the impact of her actions – empowers Delilah. She takes control of her own sexuality: she is no longer just a female subject of male actions. However unsavoury, her actions achieve her own ends. While it might appear otherwise to Samson, Delilah’s sexualisation is a choice for her own personal gain – she is in control of her sexual agency and how she is perceived, both by those in her operatic context and by audiences.
Delilah is irresistible: first to Samson, and then subsequently to Saint-Saëns and audiences. Such an obvious display of female sexuality would have been shocking to nineteenth-century audiences; and indeed, it was intended to be so. But in the twenty-first century it is surely time to move beyond the one-dimensional femme fatale stereotype and address this scene in a different light. Instead of seeing Delilah as a shameful harlot, I would argue that Delilah can – and should – be viewed as an empowered woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants.
This re-reading by no means argues that Delilah should be likeable: far from it. Indeed her cunning and ruthless disdain for Samson should disturb us; but we should not be shocked by her sexual wiles. To continue reading Delilah as a femme fatale merely reinforces nineteenth-century patriarchal views of women and sex. Rather than passively receiving the outdated interpretation that Saint-Saëns’s opera encouraged, we should grudgingly admire (or at least acknowledge) a more empowered woman getting exactly what she wants, no matter the means.
Emma Kavanagh graduated with a BA in Music from Jesus College, Cambridge in 2016. She is hoping to pursue postgraduate study, with a focus on gender, race and identity in nineteenth-century opera. She tweets at @kavaemma.
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I can’t listen to Delibes’ Coppelia without my mind leaping back to my five-year old self, dancing around the living room to an Ernest Ansermet Decca recording. The next LP on the shelf was The Rite of Spring – the only other classical record in the house as it happened. Once I’d pirouetted and pranced through to the end of the Coppelia Suite, I’d stomp my way through The Rite. The two works have remained inseparable to me ever since, musically linked by an accident of proximity.
How many examples of unintentional curation are there? How many compilations piled onto TDK audio cassettes in the 1980s cemented unique and unlikely connections between musical works of different styles and periods? These deeply personal soundscapes form the backdrop to our lives. We flick from radio channel to radio channel, from TV station to TV station creating extraordinary and accidental juxtapositions. We are shaped by – and give shape to – our sonic environment which affects our lives and the way that we listen to and perceive music. Mass manufacture and multiplicity of music have made us all curators of sorts.
As someone who programmes music on a regular basis, I’m intrigued by the question of how we ‘consume’ all this music. I’m interested in usage: not so much data on what we programme, not audience numbers, but what people actually ‘do with’ or ‘make of’ music and the experience of listening to it. Are musical events today a reflection of contemporary listening habits, needs or ideals? Or are they remnants of the past, rituals that have their roots in historical listening times? Can concert programming still satisfy a need that we cannot find elsewhere? And who are we programming for?
When people try and explain how they ‘consume’ music – or any art – there is often an underlying current of wonderment, a thrill at attempting to pin down, in words, this elusive slippery thing that we feel. Written accounts are fragmentary, repetitious, earnest, full of pauses, as the writer tries again and again to grasp the language that can capture those feelings. The responses are almost as compelling as the art itself. Here, in a famous passage, is Roland Barthes discussing the abstract ‘impossible thrill’ he experiences when listening to the singing of a Russian church bass:
Something is there, manifest and stubborn… something which is directly the cantor’s body, brought to your ears in one and the same movement from deep down in the cavities, the muscles, the membranes, the cartilages, and from deep down in the Slavonic language, as though a single skin lined the inner flesh of the performer and the music he sings.
Here is actor and writer Simon Callow responding to a painting by Clive Hicks Jenkins and then summarising the significance of the same artist in his life:
My thoughts were not of art…there was something …trapped, screaming for life, a terrible turbulence, an eruption, a commotion, a straining for air, panic, pain, horror. I gaze on…feeling like a witness to something desperate…[The artist] is the amanuensis of my dreams. He transcribes the contents of my unconscious, allows me to contemplate what is otherwise consigned to the half-light.
And here is an extract from an interview. The words are those of writer and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips who is seeking to comprehend the ‘impossible thrill’ not of a specific work, but of reading in general:
Reading can have a very powerful effect on you, an evocative effect….I know the books that grip me but their effect is indiscernible… I don’t quite know what it is. What is clear is that there are powerful unconscious evocative effects in reading books that one loves. They’re not fetishes that we use to fill gaps. They are like recurring dreams we can’t help thinking about.
Far from passive, these comments might suggest that ‘use’ or ‘consumption’ of art is, in itself, a creative process. Michael De Certeau in ThePractice of Everyday Living calls it a ‘silent production’ because each person hears music, reads a text or sees an image differently based on his or her own experiences and needs and draws different meanings from it. ‘An art of renters’ says Certeau; people who move into a space and make it their own ‘furnishing it with their acts and memories’. This deeply personal usage, this ‘secondary production’ is a quiet, clandestine affair. Certeau talks of a ‘secluded knowledge’, unconscious, with no language or subject of its own. We know that a piece of art is moving us deeply, yet in our conscience are ‘only fragments and effects of this knowledge’.
These examples show that there is clearly great delight embedded in a ‘half-knowing’ state. Ambiguity has aesthetic value. Perhaps it is precisely the hidden and inherent ambiguity of music’s powerful effect that keeps us coming back to the same pieces time and time again, seeking to find reasons to understand why we love them so much. And perhaps it is a love affair, of the one-sided sort that Barthes (again) details in A Lover’s Discourse; ‘The language of love is not a language we speak, for it is addressed to ourselves and to our imaginary beloved. It is, for that reason, a language of solitude’. Furthermore, we don’t appear to need live music to experience this joyful half-knowing. A favourite recording will suffice and in many cases, the ‘fixed’ state of the music might even have positive advantages of allowing us to focus purely on the waves of mutable feelings it creates. ‘Every experience is unrepeatable’ said Italo Calvino: ‘What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space.’
Studies show that we are attracted to ambiguity not only in the process of listening to music but also within music itself. Ambiguity only arises when we are trying to ‘make sense’ of the information we are given and this sophisticated process of making sense of sounds is known as Auditory Scene Analysis (ASA). It’s the ability we have to unravel what we might otherwise dismiss as meaningless noise, to identify and focus on one voice in a room full of talking people. It’s the ability we have to pick out the melodic line in a symphony when the whole orchestra is playing at once. Classical music is one of the most complex acoustic scenes we ever encounter.
ASA is built on our fundamental tendency to form groups from similar things. In music this might mean melodic lines with small step-wise intervals or few pitches, stand-out textures or timbres. ASA has been studied in a musical context and it is believed that many established rules of Western polyphonic writing are underpinned by these perceptual principles. Some composers play with the rules of ASA to create an individual language through illusions. Spectral composers challenged the idea of sound being a single source (a ‘dead object’ said Gérard Grisey) and treated each sound as a resonant acoustic complex. Ligeti used perceptual illusions as musical devices in their own right in shifting clouds of sound where individual timbres are difficult to isolate. He said ‘polyphony is written, but one hears harmony. It is true, I often work with acoustical illusions, very analogous to optical illusions, false perspectives. We are not very familiar with acoustical illusions. But they are very analogous and one can make very interesting things in this domain.’
Understanding how we listen presents interesting hypotheses as to why we may be drawn to some composers more than others and why the music industry relies so heavily on repeat programme choices leading to repeat purchases. But all this so far assumes two things: 1) that we are in the habit of giving our undivided attention to music and art and 2) that it is reasonable to draw conclusions about the effect art has on us based largely on the experience of highly specialized writers.
However, most us are not specialized writers. And for many of us, an everyday listening experience might be more like this:
John Williams is blaring from the television, shamelessly competing against the sound of my daughter practicing Tchaikovsky on her violin, returning again and again to the same phrase. The washing machine is rattling in another room. Adverts on the television now: each with their own defining soundtrack. The phone rings with little motif of a synthesized marimba. Somewhere in my head is an earworm picked up from some of the music I was exploring on SoundCloud early this morning: its still there as I drive my kids to a sports match, wriggling away, despite the efforts of the car radio to drown it out.
That was, in fact, last Sunday. Looking back, what strikes me initially is the sheer quantity and variety of music I was exposed to on what was a pretty ordinary day. Then, the number of ways in which I ‘consumed’ it: incidental, filtered through extraneous noise, incomplete and fragmented, intentional and focused. I did other things whilst much of this music was going on around me – I talked, drove, worked, cooked dinner. I am further struck by how accepting and unquestioning I was of this overlapping musical jumble, even how much I enjoyed it. Perhaps it’s not so much the music I was listening to but the sonic landscape of 21st century life. The music on this day seemed very connected to the world I live in. It was not hallowed. It was no precious artifact.
Yet flights of fancy still came into my head; daydreams, memories, desires triggered by music. Sometimes by a shapely phrase, a curious timbre, a complex rhythm. But my thoughts also sprang from the junctions, the intersections of all these musics, like sheets of translucent paper laid over and over each other. A fascinating sonic palimpsest for me to consume and make sense of. This type of activity is not reserved for the literary critic – it can be extended to all consumers.
‘Sound is a capricious force,’ David Hendy reminds us in his wonderful book Noise, a human history of sound and listening; ‘[Sound] moves freely through the air and has never been fully owned or manipulated by one institution or group of people more than another as if it was their exclusive property.’ We only have to think here of the history of protest songs, or of slaves finding creative ways to perform their own musical traditions in the face of oppression. Perhaps it’s easy to forget about this fundamental aspect of sound – that it travels freely through the air – differentiating it from the visual and literary arts which offer more fixed landscapes. It is impossible for us to truly seal and segregate the airwaves and in this way sounds floating through them have ‘something of an intrinsically revolutionary quality’. Soundscapes are fundamentally fluid. They overlap, they filter into one another in unpredictable ways.
What’s more, there is a lot of this multi-sonic activity going on. The vast majority of people do not regularly enter concert halls. Like me, they are mostly caught and captured in the nets of the media – by television, radio, recordings. I don’t have statistics for classical music daily consumption habits, but here is some data taken from an influential 2014 study of American adults’ all-music listening habits called ‘Share of Music’. The analysis was based on music journals submitted by nearly 3,000 respondents. American adults dedicate an average of 3 hours and 16 minutes a day to listening to music. Most (70%) listen in their car, 68% listen at home and 18% listen at work. Half of this listening is via the radio with the rest from own music collections and online sources. The study concluded that ‘America is in a golden age of audio consumption.’
If this is 21st century listening, a practice adopted by the large majority of the population, then it is surely a significant and important way of consuming music. Not an inferior one, not a second-rate type of usage, but a valid one that repeatedly connects the music we hear with the world we live in. It’s a living, vibrant, fluid process that enables us to develop tastes and preferences and feed those changing tastes back into the mix. For those of us who make musical events, it would be remiss to forget that people are responding creatively to these unique and complex soundscapes, forming their own ‘secondary productions’. The point is not whether modern listening habits are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The point is whether, as curators of sound, we accept that this is the way that the majority of people consume and enjoy music and consider how we might respond to that. If people have the open mindset and the skills to consume and enjoy music in extraordinary, bold and complex ways, we should not feel afraid to make extraordinary, bold and complex curatorial decisions.
The environment is a ‘blooming buzzing confusion’ said William James in 1882. And he might as well have been talking about music. Structure is not inherent in the environment, James summarized; it is imposed on an unordered and highly complex world by those who perceive it. The desire to understand and control sound is tens of thousands of years old. From prehistoric man who favoured ‘listening spots’ in caves, from the Neolithic monuments on Orkney designed to capture and control the natural soundscape, to the bell-drenched medieval monasteries and the restraints of the Victorian concert halls, history tells a story of our constant fascination with sound and the changing ways in which we consume it.
I’m an advocate of pioneering a ‘bottom up’ approach to music programming. This is not about asking people what they want to hear and then sticking it in a concert. It’s about allowing listeners to shape music, as well as allowing music to shape those who listen to it. Its about a change of attitude: less talk of pedagogy, ‘informing’ and enlightenment filtering down from the arts to the audience and more talk about looking upwards to explore how all this consumption impacts on the type of events we make. I’m interested in how musical events can flow into the environment and how we can build different types of bridges between the music we put out there and the people who consume it. Events that are co-producing, co-evolving, always on the move. Not fixed, not bounded and inherently mobile. Michael Foucault famously said that he would like his books to be ‘a kind of tool-box which others can rummage through to find a tool which they can use however they wish in their own area…I don’t write for an audience, I write for users.’ By challenging the idea of music consumption as ‘passive’ we may be able to discover fascinating and rich creative activity where we least expect to find it.
‘One of the most versatile musicians of her generation’, Kate Romano 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 works as a freelancer. She tweets as @KateRomano2 and her website can be found at Kateromano.co.uk.
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In this last of three articles on music and memory, Young-Jin Hur looks the relationship between memory and the form of music itself.
The link between music and memory goes beyond the domain of commemoration and historic imageries. Memory, too, resides in the narrative of music itself, free from extra-musical references.
It would be no exaggeration to suggest that at the core of enduring forms in music lies memory, in particular with relation to the logical construction of familiarity.
One example is sonata form. A movement in a Classical sonata form involves the contrasting of two theme groups to emerge and evolve together, as a unified musical essay. Whenever a theme re-emerges, either in disguised form or in exact repetition, it evokes a sense of familiarity and belonging, and ultimately delight. This moment of familiarity-based joy is most deeply and profoundly felt in the recapitulation – there is a sense of welcoming relief, as if to signal the end of a journey.
Similar things can be said about the variation form, where a vigorous musical argument is achieved through variations of a single theme. Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) intimately monumental Goldberg Variations are an appropriate example. The 30 variations of the initial Aria are based on elements of the theme itself, and the music flows naturally. But when the Aria is repeated note-for-note in the last movement, there is an ineffable sense of delight. I often find myself listening to the whole work to experience this moment of magic, where nothing has changed in the music but everything else has.
If there is an experience of pensiveness here, it is of a sort of nostalgic reflection, born perhaps of the passing of time and place, manifest in the world preceding the musical transformation. Further examples of forms can be given, such as the cyclical form (i.e. a certain fixed idea is repeated throughout a multi-movement work) and the Rondo-Allegro form (i.e. akin to cyclical form but within a movement). Common in these Classical forms is the notion that bringing back themes and motifs from earlier times is a crucial element of musical narrative.
The idea that familiarity leads to a sort of delight is one that is largely congruent to the psychological theory of ‘mere exposure effect’. The theory argues that simply repeating the exposure of a certain idea, or object, to an individual is enough to make him/her like what was presented – regardless of the characteristic of the object in question. Familiarity, then, is a powerful vehicle in the creation of preferences and liking, which can be applied to music.
Yet things are unlikely to be as simple. An excessive degree of familiarity will lead to monotony, whereas too little familiarity will damage cohesion. The logical construction of familiarity, thus, must be accommodated with an extra impetus of some kind.
I believe that in order for familiarity and memory to thrive in the construction of an immersive musical narrative, there must be some accompaniment of subtlety and organic unity. When Jean Sibelius, in a discussion with his contemporary Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) of the nature of symphonies, expressed ‘I admire the symphony’s style and severity of form, as well as the profound logic creating an inner connection among all of the motives,’ his ‘inner connection’ can have two meanings: the logical understanding of a manipulation of familiarity and memory, and the creation of a bounding coherence in the work. And it is likely that both elements are interactive: what gives rise to familiarity will likely contribute to giving a sense of coherence to a work, and vice versa.
Sibelius’ very own second symphony proves an embodiment of his quote. When the sweeping melody of the last movement arrives, the rhythmic structure is not changed from that of the third movement – the listeners are in a familiar plane, and a feeling of unity prevails. What’s more, the melody itself is patched together from the opening motifs of the first movement. If listeners are moved, it is not despite of the tight logic in the piece, but rather because of it. Sibelius has earned his victory through the ideal manipulation of familiarity and sense of unity.
If one understands, however, that Sibelius’ quote is not an explicit comment on any Classical forms – and he seems to have been fairly averse to them anyway – one can wonder to what degree the role of memory is integral in musical form per se.
Form, technically, is the logical structure that underlies a work of music. In experiential terms, however, is not form that which denotes what will happen after what came before? And the awareness of what comes after can be achieved only through one’s memory-driven familiarity. Memory, then, is the essence of form itself and the story told within a piece of music.
Can there be music without form? A deep analysis would be beyond the scope of this essay. In questions regarding the relationship between art and nature, Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) wrote that art is contained nature, and that a sense of beauty can arise from art only. Here, nature is seen as a chaos, an unorganised source of raw materials, the soil upon which the elegance and beauty of art is created.
If one sides with Schiller, music must assume form, for this is the very essence of art. Form, here, is not a mere structural layout of a work, but also a basis of aesthetic experience with the intention to mitigate and logically pursue what is inherently irrational and disjointed.
Even serialist music, which may sound like disjointed clusters of noise upon first hearing to some, has careful calculations of formulas and restrictions lying within. Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994), a pioneer of chance in music, spent efforts to reject the notion of total chance and improvisation by setting restrictions in his music.
One man who stretched the boundaries of the link between music and form was the American avant-garde composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987). When the composer Christian Wolff sat down with the score of Morton Feldman’s Piano Piece 1952, he exclaimed, ‘What is there to say? The music appears to be unanalysable. I don’t see any system.’ Wolff also believed that the composition lacked any perceivable formalistic intentions – ‘I see no interest such in pitch class or interval pattern organisation’. But Feldman rebuked him: ‘there is not one organisational procedure more advantageous than another, perhaps because no one pattern ever takes precedence over the others.’
Even Feldman, with his adventurousness, could not resist the importance of form. That Feldman further linked form with memory is not the least surprising – ‘music is essentially built upon primitive memory structures’, he remarked.
In the sparse echoes of the piano work, we might just be able to understand what this means.
Issues of memory, therefore, lie deep in musical experiences. But an immersive narrative is never a unidirectional process. In as much as the composer contributes structure and form to a work, it is the audience themselves that relate to the logic by involving their memory structures. Form translates into memory insofar as there is a deep involvement which triggers the listener’s memory.
The perception of music involves a process of co-creation, both from its author and its audiences. The listener constantly builds up expectations based on what was heard, which is confirmed or denied by the given form of music. This in itself is a musical joy. Indeed, recent works in psychology have demonstrated that the presence of expectation in itself plays an important role in the creation of musical emotions.
And how are expectations and imagination related to memory? Recent psychological research has also shown a close link between memory, expectation and imagination, represented by neural connections in the brain. In other words, these psychological functions may have a common biological source.
When philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797) illustrated the unique powers of imagination, he emphasised the role of memory:
[…] the mind of man possesses a sort of creative power of its own; either in representing at pleasure the images of things in the order and manner in which they were received by the senses, or in combining those images in a new manner, and according to a different order. This power is called imagination; and to this belongs whatever is called wit, fancy, invention, and the like […] the imagination is the most extensive province of pleasure and pain, as it is the region of our fears and our hopes, and of all our passions that are connected with them.
Or as the White Queen says in Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking Glass: ‘it’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards’.
Memory, then, is both the starting point and the endpoint to an intricate and dynamic musical experience. Audiences build up a narrative of music based on both memories, imagination and expectations, and a composer will, consciously or not, have this reflected in his/her musical forms.
In these three articles, I have observed that memory is represented in a wide range of works in music, that memory and yearning for the past occupies a special aesthetic category in its own right, and that memory may be an essential quality in the narrative of music itself.
Memory is the past seen from the present. But memory can never be solely an act of reliving the past – it is also a powerful reminder of what we are at the moment of looking back. It is an ephemeral glimpse between the boundaries of the past and future, between what will be and what is no more. It is something forever unsettled whilst being firmly grounded in the indifference of passing time.
Hence when the dead are remembered, it is the living that become aware of both life and its fragilities. When older times are idealised, it is a critical appraisal of the present state of things. When ruins are admired, the transience of the present in front of the monumentality of time is made palpable. And in the narrative of music, the notes that play now sound inspiring and valuable as a result of the memories of all that came before. And this brings about a feeling of a unique kind, something both distant yet closely felt, elusive yet definitive, sad yet joyous.
Through the appreciation of memory, one finds promise in the past, the present, and the pasts and presents that are to come. Some way or another they inform us of who we are within the now. Memory is thus a human achievement of mastering the various presents. It is a recollection of all that is.
We exist in our true knowing selves insofar as the present is within our knowing. Yet we are all too aware that without the present, there would be no past nor the future. There would be no time, the passage of it, nor our awareness of the present – in other words ‘life’. For this reason, the lines of Frederich Leopold, set in Schubert’s song To Sing On The Water, are not only admired because of their vivid imagination, but also because of the sympathy toward life and memory they procure:
Ah, with dewy wings On the rocking waves, time escapes from me Tomorrow with shimmering wings Like yesterday and today may time again escape from me, Until I on towering, radiant wings Myself escape from changing time.
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 contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’).
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Medieval carols have a cherished place in the modern Christmas repertoire. Perhaps the best-loved type is the lullaby carol, of which ‘Lullay, Myn Liking’ and the ‘Coventry Carol’ are among the most famous examples. It’s not difficult to understand the appeal of these carols, both in their original form and as texts set by contemporary composers: tender and gentle, deliberately simple in music and language, they evoke the loving intimacy of the relationship between a mother and her baby, offering a moment of stillness and reflection in the middle of the busy Christmas season.
This genre of carol was popular in the Middle Ages, too, and there are numerous beautiful examples dating from the fourteenth century onwards. It’s important to recognise that the simplicity of these carols is artful, not naive; medieval carol-writers often chose this apparently uncomplicated form in order to explore some of the complex mysteries of the Nativity story.
One of the most interesting of these lullaby carols is known today by the name ‘As I lay on Yule’s night’. It survives in its earliest and fullest form in a manuscript compiled by John of Grimestone, a Franciscan friar from Norfolk, in 1372. The manuscript contains materials John had gathered for use in his preaching, along with short poems and carols in English; John may have written these texts himself, or collected them from other sources. Shorter versions of the carol also survive in three fifteenth-century manuscripts, one of which preserves the music – a haunting tune, suiting the dark beauty of the words:
As I lay on Yule’s night, Alone in my longing, Methought I saw a well fair sight A maid her child rocking.
Lullay, lullay, la, lullay, My dear mother, lullay. [The recording below uses a slightly different version].
The carol begins in the darkness of a winter’s night, with a solitary speaker witnessing a vision of a mother and her baby. They are not identified by name, and at first appear to be just like any other mother and child. The mother hopes to get her baby to sleep without having to sing him a lullaby, but the child insists: he asks his mother to sing to him about his future, to foretell his adult life ‘as do mothers all’.
‘Sing now, mother,’ said that child, ‘What me shall befall Hereafter, when I come to age, As do mothers all.
Every mother, truly, Who can her cradle keep Is wont to lullen lovingly And sing her child asleep.’
All mothers sing lullabies, we are reminded, and the everyday, universal nature of the scene is emphasised – just as little children do insist on being sung to, so mothers often love to talk about what their children might be when they grow up.
But this mother and child are not ordinary, as we realise when the mother begins to speak. ‘I never yet knew more of thee / Than Gabriel’s greeting’, she says, and she tells her son the story of the angel’s message, recalling Gabriel’s words and her astonished reaction to the news that she will become the mother of the Son of God. The interplay of voices is skilful and intricate, as she repeats what Gabriel said to her and what she said in reply, as if she really is telling the story of her own experiences and trying to comprehend what has been said to her. Mary concludes:
Then, as he said, I thee bare On a midwinter night, In maidenhood, without care, [sorrow]
By grace of God almight. The shepherds that waked in the wold Heard a wondrous mirth Of angels there, as they told, At the time of thy birth.
Sweet son, certainly, No more can I say; But if I could I gladly would, To do all at thy pay. [to do everything to please you]
At this point her knowledge ends; she has reached the present moment of the carol (the ‘Yule’s night’ with which the vision begins), and cannot look into the future. Some versions of the carol finish with Mary’s narrative and leave her joyfully delighting in her baby, ‘mankind’s bliss, / Thee, my sweet son!’
But the fullest version of the carol goes on to look to the future, and takes a more serious and darker turn. Now the child takes over the story, and the parent’s role of prophesying a baby’s future. He’s only a few days old – even the visit of the three kings, twelve days after his birth, is still in his future – but his knowledge is complete, his mother’s incomplete; he says he will teach her to sing. He tells her everything that will happen to him, foretelling his childhood, baptism, preaching, and miracles – and his death on the cross. His mother listens eagerly, at first thrilled to learn that her son will be acclaimed as a king, then horror-struck to hear he will die a humiliating death. She cries ‘Why must I live to see the day / That will bring thee such woe?’ Her child comforts her, and promises to look after her:
I shall thee take, when time is, To me at the last, To be with me, mother, in bliss; All this, then, have I cast. [ordained]
All the narrative of Christ’s life is reimagined as the past, present, and future of these two people, who are in many ways an ordinary mother and baby, and their emotions make the familiar story seem as fresh as if it had never been heard before. The details of the story are unique and strange, but Mary’s reaction is entirely human: what mother, cradling a newborn baby, would wish to be told of all the sorrows and joys her child will undergo?
By definition a lullaby is a soothing, comforting song, but this carol uses it to tell a profoundly uncomfortable story of pain and suffering. The refrain of this carol turns the lullaby form on its head:
Lullay, lullay, la, lullay, My dear mother, lullay.
The mother, not the child, is the one being comforted here.
At the heart of this carol is a meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation: this is a baby who can foretell his own future, a child who consoles his mother, a God of infinite power who has become a helpless infant. These are ambitious theological concepts for a carol to explore, but the apparently simple form of the lullaby is key to what this carol aims to do. Lullabies are perhaps the most familiar, universal, and intimate of musical forms; they are the first songs we ever hear, and they evoke powerful memories and emotions. With its vision of Mary and her baby, this medieval carol finds the place where the Christmas story touches resonant chords of human experience: it reflects on the close entwining of love and grief, anxiety about the unknowable future, the poignancy of parents’ hopes and fears for their children. It’s a deeply compassionate carol, and its promise – its only comfort – is that Christ has come to earth to share this suffering, the nameless lonely ‘longing’ with which the carol begins and ends:
Certainly this sight I saw, This song I heard sing, As I lay this Yule’s day, Alone in my longing.
In this second of three articles on the role of memory in music, Young-Jin Hur considers how the yearning for the past is an important aesthetic category in its own right.
Given the large number of works related to personal remembrance, one cannot preclude the possibility that there is a special beauty and value arising from reverie and yearning for the past in general. If so, this would be detectable in various aesthetic domains.
Of the vicissitudes of scholarly and aesthetic fashions throughout Western history, Neoclassicism is one which is recorded in numerous occasions, and is closely associated with the idealisation and revival of imageries of the times of ancient Greece. Stylistically, there is a strong emphasis on clarity, balance and simplicity. Such a tendency, for instance, can be detected in the paintings by the German artist Anselm Feuerbach (1829-1880). The fact that Feuerbach was a close contemporary with Fin de Siècle modernists such as Gustav Klimt and Claude Monet puts Feuerbach’s Neoclassical leanings into perspective.
Similar stylistic and thematic tendencies of valuation of Grecian elegance can be found elsewhere in in time, such as in the paintings by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Examples of Neoclassicism in visual arts and architecture abound, through which one can be sure of the enduring status of this movement in aesthetic history.
In music, Neoclassicism has exerted an equally persuasively persevering voice. Similar to its visual counterpart, musical Neoclassicism considers themes from ancient Greece and stylistically follows ideals of poise and balance. The movement has been especially associated with a number of composers of the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) being most representative. Stravinsky’s ballet Orpheus pans out in emotional restraint and clarity in orchestration, and follows the mythological story of Orpheus’ descent into the underworld.
On the one hand, characterisations of musical Neoclassicism can have irregularities. Works that simply denote styles of simplicity and balance as opposed to the excessiveness of 19th century Romanticism, are often grossly categorised as Neoclassical (e.g. Sibelius, Martinů), even when imageries of ancient Greece are foreign to these works.
On the other hand, it is often observed that such stylistic tendencies rarely take place without references to styles of the past. Prokofiev’s Neoclassicism of his jovial first symphony, for instance, is Neoclassical due to its nod to times where elegance and simplicity were appreciated in music. Therefore, the patched conceptualisation of Neoclassicism in music, some way or another, signifies a reverence toward the past.
Important to the understanding of Neoclassicism is an acknowledgement of the passing of things and themes much beyond an experiential level. Unlike commemorations based on personal passing (dealt with in the previous article), Neoclassicism allows the creator to appreciate things that the creator has never personally experienced or encountered. In other words, Neoclassicism demonstrates the act of looking back and admiring things of the past, through the viewer’s stretched scope of imagination, as a category of aesthetic appreciation in its own right. This is a kind of yearning that appeals to memory in the broadest sense.
If anything, yearning for the past has not always required a concrete object of its admiration. Often it is the yearning itself that matters. This is aptly embodied in the notion of Sehnsucht, the longing for something that cannot be determined. Hence the psychological experience of yearning for the past without having experienced the object of the past, such as the admiration of things from historical cultures and civilizations, is justified.
If Neoclassicism demonstrates longing of the past through the reverie of things of ancient Greece where elements related to emotional poise, control, simplicity, elegance and clarity are seen as virtuous, a comparable tendency finds its place in the Romantic symbolism of ruins. Here, memory is evoked through irregularity, instability, and the irrational rawness associated with nature and the decay it brings through time.
Ruins are the physical manifestation of the passage of time. As one stands in front of a building that was once impeccably erect yet which from the present is ruined, one understands both the forces of time and nature. The story of the inevitable passage of time is ruggedly drawn on the walls of a building much larger and older than the viewer. One thinks, such a vast object of strength and durability, too, is a food of time. Therefore, much like Neoclassicism, ruins are likely to tell a tale of passing that is beyond the level of personal experience. Furthermore, underneath Neoclassicism and the appreciation of ruins lies a common ground of acknowledgement of what constitutes the passage of time through which memory is borne.
There is a wealth of literature in the fascination with ruins. For instance, Lord Kames (1696-1782) in his 1762 publication The Elements of Criticism wrote that ruins evoke a sense of ‘a melancholy but not unpleasant thought.’ Such complex emotional tapestry makes ruins an ideal candidate for evoking thoughts of nostalgia. This can be seen notably in William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850) The Prelude. Here, the protagonist meditates on themes of mortality and childhood. The choice of ruins as a device to illustrate these points cannot be more appropriate.
To a schoolboy’s vision, I had raised a pile Upon the basis of the coming time, That fell in ruins round me. Oh, what joy To see a sanctuary for our country’s youth Informed with such a spirit as might be Its own protection; a primeval grove, Where, though the shades with cheerfulness were filled, Nor indigent of songs warbled from crowds In under-coverts, yet the countenance Of the whole place should bear a stamp of awe; […]
The fascination with ruins, especially of their association with memory, can be attested further back in history, such as in Leon Battista Alberti’s (1404-1472) treatise of classic architecture De re aedificatoria. Here, ruin (ruina) is linked with concepts such as age (vetustas), eternity (perennitas), dignity (dignitas), renown (gloria), distinction (decus) or praise (laus) as well as with memory (memoria). Moreover, fascination with ruins continue to this day – for instance, typing into google ‘abandoned places’ gives a large number of results – further confirming that finding a peace of mind in ruins is no mere pastime relevant only to the age of Romanticism. Ruins thus appear to be a continuing topic of fascination by evoking a sense of memory, regardless of the era. Through its mysticism, to look back in time and feel the gap that the present and the past exhibit seems a fundamental human attraction.
How are ruins represented in music? On the one hand, there are works such as Arnold Bax’s (1883-1953) Tintagel, which was directly inspired by the composer’s visit to the Tintagel castle in Cornwall, a ruin set in the background of to the vast sea.
Parallels between ruins and music can further be found in Arthur Schopenhauer’s (1788-1860) World as Will and Representation, where the possibility of a musical ruin is suggested: ‘when music, in a sudden urge for independence, so to speak, seizes the occasion of a pause, in order to free itself from the control of rhythm, to launch out into the free fancy of an ornate cadenza; such a piece of music, divested of rhythm, [is] like a ruin devoid of symmetry…’ And if it is true that an ideal musical ruin can be projected by such a theory, with that sense of incoherence and ruggedness, it may be promising to expect the congruence of a visual imagery as presented in the paintings mentioned above.
Yet in my opinion the notion of ruins is best found in its musical equivalence when one considers the popularity of historic recordings of the monophonic era. From the questionable quality of sound, muddled in the omnipresence of hisses and frequent absences of extreme pitches, lies a musical performance that is palpably aged and undoubtedly mysterious. Not unlike ruins, there is a rugged imperfection that seems to imply the severity of the passage of time.
And while it is also possible to argue for one’s search for conducting styles characteristic to a certain period of time that is no longer observable in the contemporary world, such a question would return to the core enquiry: why is it that we are attracted to things that are no more in the first place? This is indeed a strange attraction, to yearn for the rugged, passed, aged, and distant. These, I believe, are qualities not too dissimilar from ones that can be felt through the admiration of a bare-boned cathedral. The following clip is a wartime recording of the legendary Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954), conducting the last movement of Brahms’ 4th symphony.
The popularity of Neoclassicism and ruins weigh increasingly on the fact that there appears to be an innate beauty in admiring the passage of time, especially since both lack an immediate practicality to easily justify their popularity. In fact, one can further argue that if these sensibilities toward time are so developed, such sentiments may find usage in common aesthetic expressions. Recent studies in psychology demonstrate this point. Nostalgia – thoughts and emotions uniquely related to looking back in time – is one of the nine most commonly reported emotional reactions to music. These results imply that these emotions arise commonly and importantly in general musical experiences, and such an allure towards the passage of time may be part of a psychological instinct, just as most humans innately have an understanding of fear and joy.
As such, beyond the function of commemoration based on largely personal encounters, there are traces of evidence demonstrating that reminiscing is a powerful experience. David Hume’s (1711-1776) psychological account in explicating human’s enjoyment of things of the past is deeply revealing: ‘[…] the imagination, passing, as is usual, from the consideration of the distance to the view of the distant objects, gives us a proportionable veneration for it; and this is the reason why all the relicts of antiquity are so precious in our eyes, and appear more valuable than what is brought even from the remotest parts of the world.’ This may explain how the appreciation of the past of looking back in time never exhausted itself of interests, throughout history and through differing professions, including music.
In the final article on music and memory, Young-Jin looks into how memory can be manifest in the narrative of music, which will be followed by a short conclusion.
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 contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’).
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