One of the most attractive features of medieval Christmas carols is how often and how enthusiastically they celebrate the act of singing. Their refrains frequently contain exhortations to sing – ‘sing we now!’, or similar phrases – and many carols explore the part which song plays in the traditional Christmas story, from the rejoicing of the angels to the piping of the shepherds and Mary singing lullabies to the baby Christ. Medieval carols give space to all these different voices, and in the process remind the listener of the pleasures of making music, alone and with others, and of the important part music plays for most of us in the enjoyment of the Christmas season.
A good example is this lovely fifteenth-century carol, which is short enough to quote in full (in modernised form):
Nowell sing we now all and some, For Rex pacificus is come.
In Bethlehem, in that fair city,
A child was born of a maiden free,
That shall a lord and prince be, A solis ortus cardine.
Children were slain in full great plenty,
Jesu, for the love of thee;
Wherefore their souls saved be, Hostis Herodis impie.
As the sun shineth through the glass,
So Jesu in his mother was;
Thee to serve now grant us grace, O lux beata Trinitas.
Now God is come to worship us;
Now of Mary is born Jesus;
Make we merry amongst us; Exultet caelum laudibus.
Nowell sing we now all and some, For Rex pacificus is come.
‘All and some’ is a Middle English idiom meaning ‘everyone’ (like our phrase ‘one and all’) or ‘all together’, so this refrain enjoins everyone to sing in consort: ‘let us all now sing ‘Nowell!’ Like many medieval carols, this one is macaronic, ingeniously interweaving English and Latin, and there’s something particularly clever about the use of two languages in carols like this one: the last line of each verse quotes a different Latin hymn used in the Office, especially at Christmas and the Epiphany. Even the phrase ‘Rex pacificus’ (‘King of peace’) comes from the antiphon used on Christmas Eve. So this is in part a song about singing, making reference to familiar liturgical music as it encourages everyone to sing. In the final verse, the singers and audience are urged ‘make we merry’, to join in the celestial song as ‘the heavens rejoice’.
This carol survives in a number of fifteenth-century manuscripts, suggesting it was particularly popular. The different versions vary slightly, but this is the one preserved in the Trinity Carol Roll (Cambridge, Trinity College O.3.58), a scroll of vellum six feet long which contains the words and music of thirteen carols in English. Some are Christmas carols, including ‘There is no rose of such virtue’, and others are secular; one celebrates the English victory at Agincourt in 1415. This precious roll, which was probably made in East Anglia, contains some of the earliest examples of English carols, and the complexity of both words and music suggests it was made for a sophisticated audience.
You can listen to the music from the medieval manuscript here:
But there have also been several modern settings of the text. I’m fond of this one by Elizabeth Maconchy, published in 1967. Maconchy’s joyful and catchy setting gives a real energy to the medieval carol, as the ‘Nowell’ is taken up by one voice after another. It’s a busy tapestry of voices, and nothing could be more appropriate for a song which evokes the joy of singing in consort – one of the best-loved features of Christmas, in the Middle Ages as today.
It was in 2006 that, fresh out of university and unsure of where to look for paid employment, I became a volunteer at the first annual English Music Festival, a venture dedicated to performing neglected British classical works. Held in rural Oxfordshire, the primary venue is the beautiful medieval abbey in Dorchester on Thames, and it was here that I heard a performance of Gustav Holst’s Two Psalms for choir, organ and strings, composed in 1912.
Most people with any awareness of Holst will know his orchestral blockbuster The Planets. Many will also know his Christmas carol In the Bleak Midwinter, though its sparse style couldn’t be further from the cinematic splendour of Mars or Jupiter. But that sense of frugality – ‘what can I give Him, poor as I am?’- is partly what makes it so affecting.
Such economy of means was in fact something of a fetish for Holst. Edmund Rubbra, one of his composition pupils, reminisced about his teacher’s influence: ‘with what enthusiasm did we pare down our music to the very bone’. It was an approach that would prove well-suited to the first of the Two Psalms: number 86.
For the 1906 edition of The English Hymnal, alongside In The Bleak Midwinter, Holst had contributed an arrangement of a melody from the Genevan Psalter, a 16th-century collection of Calvinist Psalm tunes. For the text, he used a metrical version of Psalm 86 from around 1620, with its desperate cry of ‘send, O send relieving gladness / to my soul opprest with sadness’.
Holst must have seen that this melody and text had potential to be something more than a hymn, as he returned to them for the Two Psalms. With its simple and repetitive rhythmic pattern, the tune certainly has a haunting quality, and a particularly monastic one. Its slowly winding contour suggests Plainchant, and the minor-key Dorian mode adds a dark archaic flavour. The actual Reformation origin of the melody is not so important as this character, enhanced by way Holst presents it, of a general bleak ancientness.
The English Hymnal was edited by Holst’s close friend and fellow composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who contributed his own arrangement of an obscure 16th-century melody; one that in 1910 was expanded into his famous Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis. There are many differences between Holst’s Psalm 86 setting and Vaughan Williams’ fantasia, but both create a sense of Gothic mystery as they resurrect church music from ages past.
One common factor is that the two works introduce their melodies in fragments. Fragments evoke age, decay, intrigue; all key parts of the Gothic aesthetic. Their symbolism has echoes of the long tradition of using medieval ruins as a backdrop in Gothic literature – see Dracula’s castle, or the ruined abbey of Ann Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest. For both composers, the fragments return at later points in the music, as if hallucinations or dreamy recollections.
Yet intriguingly, Holst’s own past provides a link to a different strand of Medievalism. The young composer had discovered the writings of William Morris, the great Victorian polymath and socialist. In 1895, Holst joined the Hammersmith Socialist Society, which met in Morris’ London home of Kelmscott House. Here he heard speeches from figures such as George Bernard Shaw, and conducted the society’s choir.
Morris saw Medieval arts and crafts as representing a more organic, community-oriented way of living than that provided by Victorian capitalism. His Kelmscott Press, established in 1891, produced limited-edition books inspired by illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, and its magnum opus was a sumptuously illustrated edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, published in 1896 – at the same time that Holst was frequenting Kelmscott House. This fascination with medieval life was undoubtedly romantic and highly selective, but the enduring popularity of Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood attests to its powerful allure.
Holst being Holst however, his Psalm setting begins in a much more minimal style. The fragments of the Psalm tune provide two elements to set the scene – monastic austerity, and tender lamentation. The latter is a gently tumbling figure, which melts into a beautiful sequence that spirals down, a distillation of sorrow. It is this that becomes a recurring motif of the work, a nagging sense of hopelessness that can never be shifted.
The Gothic atmosphere deepens when the tune is introduced in full. It is a quietly sinister incantation from the altos and basses, with the eerie stasis of a low drone below – we could be a overhearing some secret, candlelit ritual.
What happens next is unexpected, and magical. A walking bass line emerges, the Psalm tune is taken by the strings, and a delicate web of parts weave gracefully around it. It could be a Kelmscott Press tracery in sound. The melody that was previously so ominous now becomes poignantly beautiful.
The whole work, even by Holst’s standards, is stunningly simple in its material. What is so miraculous is that he was nonetheless able to create a terse, compelling drama with remarkable expressive power and atmosphere. That it is much shorter than Vaughan Williams’ expansive TallisFantasia is a testament to Holst’s more austere sensibilities. His evocation of history is more fractured and elusive, but it is also harsher. The world he creates is one of meagreness, and pitiless brevity.
The setting concludes with a blistering rendition of the Genevan tune, all voices thundering in unison, the strings churning in a crude, brutally expressive counterpoint. But, at the death, it all dwindles away. We are left hanging on a quiet C major chord in the violas – a dim shaft of light after the storm. Two notes plucked in the basses mysteriously trail off to silence. Holst gave us a fragmented beginning, and he leaves us with a broken ending.
It was by coincidence that, on a recent visit to Chichester Cathedral, I discovered a lovely memorial to Holst. This took me by surprise, being unaware he had any link to the area. A volunteer explained that the composer was a friend of the Bishop George Bell, who had invited him and his Whitsuntide Singers to perform in the city. Clearly the relationship was a close one, as after Holst’s death his family requested that his ashes be interred here. Touchingly, they now reside under a memorial to Thomas Weelkes, former Chichester organist and Holst’s favourite Tudor composer.
I found myself fascinated by some of the wonderful medieval features still visible in the cathedral, including fragments of colourful paintwork that would once have adorned the interior. Another, protected by a glass screen, was a carving of the miracle of Lazarus of Bethany, thought to originate from the 12th century.
Looking at the wide-eyed, mournful stone expressions of the carved figures gives you a powerful connection to a time both familiar and alien; a crueller time, when death and suffering were close acquaintances of everyone, and for many the mercy of God was a desperate hope. It is a relic that resonates with the austere beauty of Holst’s Psalm, music which, in its own Lazarus-like way, brings the distant past back from the dead.
I reflected that in literature there are the lyric and epic poem, the short story and the long novel; in the orchestra, besides the symphony, the overture and the symphonic poem; but that in chamber music there is only one form that counts […] and I concluded that a new type suited to the needs of the chamber music composer was needed.
These words, spoken in 1911 in an address to the Royal College of Music, are something you don’t hear every day. The speaker describes inventing a new musical form: a short chamber music piece of just one movement, rather than the usual three or four. But traditions of composition, like forms in any art, don’t tend to come about in such a planned-out way. Had a composer uttered these words, we might think it arrogance. In fact, this boldness came from the confidence of a man with a lot of money.
Walter Willson Cobbett (1847-1937) made his fortune away from the marbled halls of the Royal Academy of Music, in the less glamorous world of transmission belting manufacturing. Yet like so many of us, a lucrative livelihood did not align with his life’s passion. In his own words he was ‘a very humble devotee’ of the ‘infinitely beautiful art’ of chamber music.
For Cobbett, an epiphany came upon hearing a performance of a Beethoven string quartet. He took up the violin, and though he began too late to achieve technical mastery, he was described as ‘an extremely competent amateur’, leading orchestras and playing quartets with professionals.
His passion was manifested in an impressive array of philanthropic projects to further the cause of chamber music. The mammoth reference work Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music, and the founding of both a Free Library of Chamber Music and the Chamber Music Association, were just a few of these.
Clearly, Cobbett was a music lover of unusual dedication. His observation in the address – that in chamber music only one form counted – was perhaps based on a keenly felt sense of injustice, that the music he loved so dearly was missing out on something.
And indeed it is an intriguing point, one that’s easy to overlook: why did composers like Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms, who wrote single-movement works for orchestra, not do the same for chamber ensembles like string quartet? The absence of such a tradition in chamber music, for such a long time, is surely one of the stranger quirks of classical music history.
But this unfortunate deficit gave Cobbett an idea. In 1905, he announced a prize for British composers to write what he called a ‘Phantasy’ for string quartet. The criteria were as follows:
The parts must be of equal importance, and the duration of the piece should not exceed twelve minutes. Though the Phantasy is to be performed without a break, it may consist of different sections varying in tempi and rhythm.
In fact the Phantasy was not an original invention. It would be a modern equivalent of the works by 16th and 17th-century British composers for viol consort, short pieces normally called ‘fancies’, ‘fantasies’, or the more specificIn Nomine. This school of music died out in the 17th century, but the discovery of these works had sparked Cobbett’s imagination; he was fascinated by their ‘naïvetés of construction and tonality’. As he saw it, there was a practical virtue in such brief musical forms:
There is a grain of truth in the frivolous saying, ‘those fiddlers never know when to leave off.’ They love it all so much that even the chamber works of Schubert are too short for them. But they are long for the average listener, and so I thought there might be a place in the scheme for shorter works.
The 1905 competition was won by a young composer called William Hurlstone, his Phantasy String Quartet described by Cobbett as an ‘ingenious mosaic of themes’. Winning a prize would be a helpful step up for any young composer, but tragically Hurlstone died the next year of bronchial asthma, aged only 30.
The young composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941) also entered the 1905 competition. He went on to win the 1907 competition for a Phantasy Piano Trio, and Cobbett then commissioned him to write a Phantasy Piano Quartet in 1910. Bridge came up with an elegant symmetrical form, and produced a truly stunning solution to the Phantasy challenge. Its autumnal, elegiac sweep is as emotionally wrenching as any multi-movement composition, but all the more satisfying for its single span. Cobbett regarded it as ‘among the most thrilling pieces of chamber music’ he had heard.
However, a 1912 commission for Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) gives a different insight to what Cobbett was looking for. His Phantasy String Quintet consists of four movements run together, ‘each coming to a definite close, though designed to follow on without appreciable pause’. It was this piece that gained a special accolade from Cobbett: ‘so exactly the Phantasy as I conceived it that it may well serve as a prototype to those who care to write in this form in the future’.
Perhaps a clue to Cobbett’s feelings lies in that observation about ‘naïvetés of construction and tonality’. Like Cobbett, Vaughan Williams was interested in Renaissance music: this commission came just two years after his famous Fantasia on a theme by the Tudor composer Thomas Tallis. The long, folksong-inspired solos and meditative chords at the opening of the Phantasy Quintet have an expressive simplicity a world away from the sophisticated Romantic language of Bridge.
Another distinct difference is that, while Bridge created an arched structure, Vaughan Williams revelled in the freedom of the form. Each section has its own descriptive title, like a condensed instrumental suite: Prelude, Scherzo, Alla Sarabanda, Burlesca. It is the engaging character of each section, varied in a slow-fast-slow-fast plan, that holds the listener’s attention. The Scherzo is thrillingly energetic, the Burlesca full of red-blooded folksy fun, and the exquisite Alla Sarabanda is, for my money, one of the most heart-breaking things Vaughan Williams ever wrote.
Over the following years, many Phantasies were composed through Cobbett’s competitions and commissions. And though the original time limit of twelve minutes seems to have become stretched, the idea otherwise remained intact. Composers even took to it by their own initiative: Arnold Bax’s Harp Quintet, which appeared in this blog, seems to be a Phantasy in all but name.
So Cobbett had successfully brought about a bite-size chamber music form. But variety, and the short attention spans of listeners, was not the only story here. In the years leading up to the First World War, musical periodicals saw fierce debate on the issue of ‘national’ music, particularly about the revival of interest in British folk-songs and their growing influence on modern composers.
The outbreak of war inevitably gave this debate a boost, and the Phantasies, based on old British models for viol consort, would not escape it: ‘I hope I am not over ambitious when I say that I should like to see this form of writing, translated into modern terms, become a national one once more’, Cobbett wrote. Moreover, he explained that the Phantasy concept contained its own nationalist impulse:
… to call to the attention of native composers the trend of the British mind towards emotional reticence, and to the value of such a mentality in the composition of chamber music, in which the absence of exaggeration is counted a great merit.
Here Cobbett invokes the British ‘Stiff Upper Lip’, something that seems quaint now, but was believed by many writers at the time. In explaining the suitability of chamber music to the British mind, Herbert Antcliffe wrote of ‘restraint and self-control’, while Sidney Grew evoked ‘dignity and calmness’ and ‘our great faculty to see things objectively’. Edwin Evans claimed that the most representative British music contained ‘directness of purpose’, ‘an open-air vigour, and a latent sense of fun’.
We Brits tend to be a bit more self-deprecating today. But these are revealing insights into the values by which Cobbett and his contemporaries chose to define themselves, and their Britishness. The Phantasy was in a prime position to embody this nationalist sentiment at a time when political turmoil meant that it was increasingly felt. Impressive, for a mere chamber music form.
But wartime patriotism aside, it’s clear that what drove Cobbett’s initiatives was, first and foremost, a love of chamber music. He believed passionately that it should be practised by amateurs like himself: it was, he said, ‘so conducive to personal happiness as to be of real interest to the community at large’. He went further, describing ‘the dream of my life to see private music making established throughout the country’. The Phantasy, then, had another justification: a less strenuous chamber form would help to foster a culture of amateur musicianship.
Sadly, such a culture has not materialised. If he were alive today, Cobbett would surely regret that most of the Phantasies he brought about now languish in obscurity (some of them have only just received their premiere recordings a hundred years after their composition), but more importantly, he would see the classical chamber music he loved so dearly still remaining, for the most part, the preserve of elite musicians.
Perhaps this is a testament to how uncommon Cobbett’s single-minded devotion to his art form was; even rarer, perhaps, than the enviable economic freedom with which he was able to dedicate himself to it.
The Cobbett Phantasy was very much the product of a time and place, and such a simple premise was inevitably overshadowed by the profound upheavals of musical modernism that followed later. But Cobbett should be remembered for his Herculean efforts of musical philanthropy, and the compositions that he financed from a golden generation of British composers should be far better known.
What’s more, his idea that chamber music should be practised because it is ‘conducive to personal happiness’ and ‘of interest to the community at large’ is still relevant today, and needs to be said. It stands in damning contrast to the political sphere in contemporary Britain which often frames the arts in the joyless terms of being beneficial to the economy.
Cobbett knew better than that. He knew he couldn’t become a professional violinist, but he also knew this didn’t make his pleasure in music any less worthwhile. He was said to still be practising for two hours a day until very near the end of his ninety years. It is this indomitable spirit, as much as the rich and varied body of music he brought about, that makes him one of my musical heroes.
Next year will be the 30th annual festival of ‘Raritäten der Klaviermusik’ (Rarities of Piano Music) held at Schloss vor Husum in the remote North German seaside town of Husum in Schleswig-Holstein. It is not a festival which parades its star performers. Rather, its very remoteness and its special focus on the unknown corners and by-ways of piano repertoire make it all the more intriguing.
Established in 1987, Rarities of Piano Music is the brainchild of Berlin-born pianist and pedagogue Peter Froundjian. When he was appointed to head the music school based in the Schloss vor Husum, he saw the possibility of a festival that would celebrate non-mainstream piano repertoire. The festival champions lesser-known and rarely-performed piano music and attracts international performers, and in thirty years it has grown from an obscure niche event to a festival renowned among connoisseurs of obscure piano music, both audience and performers alike.
Every year, in the second week of August, pianists and lovers of piano music gather, not to hear the standard canon of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert or Chopin (though there are performances of lesser-known works by these composers), but instead piano compositions of forgotten or little-known composers whose work demonstrates the huge range and variety of the piano and its literature. Concerts take place in the intimate Rittersaal (Knight’s Hall), which seats around 200 guests.
This year’s festival included performances by Jonathan Powell in music by Konstantin Eiges, Issai Dobrowen, Nikolai Medtner and Percy Grainer; Florian Uhlig (Hummel, Weber and Schumann); and Jonathan Plowright (Granville Bantock, Herbert Howells, Constant Lambert, Lord Berners and Eugene Goossens).
Previous years’ performers have included Marc-André Hamelin, Stephen Hough, Joseph Moog, Luiza Borac, Gabriela Montero, Andrew Zolinsky and Hamish Milne. With such artists as these appearing at the festival, virtuosity goes without saying, but obscurity is the overriding theme of the festival. Any pianist may apply to perform and submit repertoire choices which are then agreed based on what has been performed before and what has not. The pianists for the 30th festival have not yet been revealed, but given the organiser’s adventurous and experimental spirit, and the impressive roster of past performers, the 2016 festival should be a rich feast for the culturally curious.
I have never been to the Rarities of Piano Music Festival, though I would very much like to go one day. However, like other “armchair listeners”, I have been able to enjoy the music from the festival via a series of recordings released by Danacord. These stretch right back to 1987, the most recent release being last year’s festival – with the 2015 festival recording no doubt currently in preparation. A pianist friend of mine flagged up the recordings to me on Spotify and I have spent many hours exploring this interesting and unusual archive, and occasionally playing some of the music myself too.
With festivals such as this, the accompanying, easy-to-access recordings, and platforms such as Spotify and YouTube, there really is no excuse for discovering new or largely forgotten music. We are fed a narrow diet of the “standard canon” in concerts and on the radio, and the wealth and variety of piano literature tends to be overlooked as better known composers and works are more heavily promoted.
Because of this, the inquisitive listener or performer must dig deeper to unearth rare gems and curiosities of the repertoire. Having said this, I have not found it particularly difficult to obtain scores, much being available online via sites such as IMSLP, or through generous colleagues who have performed at the festival or who have a special interest in sharing piano rarities.
Here are just a handful of discoveries I’ve made from browsing the Rarities of Piano Music archive:
Lotusland (1905) – Cyril Scott
An atmospheric piece redolent of Satie’s Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes with its sensuous and dreamy soundworld which seems impossibly modern for 1905. Scott was a prolific composer and a pioneer of British piano music, producing more works in the period 1903-14 than any other British or international composer, with the exception of Scriabin. Lotusland is his best known work.
Astrologo (The Astrologer), No. 5 from the Machiette medioevali, Op.33– Ferrucio Busoni
A dark and brooding work from a suite of six portraits and sketches of medieval life.
Music Box and Se tu m’ami (Tribute to Pergolesi) Marc-Andre Hamelin.
Miniatures by Hamelin (from his set ‘Con intimissimo sentimento’, 1986-2000), which offers a glimpse into the extraordinary mind of one of today’s true virtuoso pianists.
Tango – Erwin Schulhoff
From Cinq Etudes de Jazz.
Preludes in E-flat minor & G-sharp minor – Boris Pasternak
I had no idea that the writer Boris Pasternak was also a composer. He was a close friend of Alexander Scriabin, whose influence is evident in these two Preludes.
This is just a tiny selection, but one which I hope reveals the breadth of the Rarities of Piano Music archive. There are 26 volumes from the festival available via Spotify and on disc, and each contains some fine performances (all recorded live). If you are looking for piano music beyond the straight and narrow, I heartily recommend this intriguing collection.
Frances Wilson is a pianist, writer, concert reviewer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist. She writes a monthly column on various aspects of piano playing for ‘Pianist’ magazine’s online content, and is a regular guest blogger for HelloStage, InterludeHK, and Musical Orbit. Her concert reviews appear on Bachtrack, international concert and opera listings site. Frances holds Licentiate and Associate Diplomas (both with Distinction) in Piano Performance from Trinity College of Music, London.
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Perhaps Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead put it best when he said: “I think I like the ondes Martenot because I can’t sing”.
Jonny was being interviewed in a recent French-Canadian documentary concerning this remarkable early electronic instrument, which had also captured the attention of composers such as Varèse, Honegger, and Olivier Messiaen many decades prior. Even if you have not heard of the ondes Martenot, you may have heard it unknowingly—if not via Radiohead, then perhaps on Daft Punk’s latest album, or in innumerable film scores, especially sci-fi. The history of the instrument, developed in the 1920s by Maurice Martenot, is fascinating, and even includes a mysterious ‘Martenot powder’ that appears to have been a key component to the instrument’s success.
While the ondes Martenot is not wanting for repertoire – some 60 concertos have been written for the instrument – it is rare to see any of it performed. Without a doubt, the highest-profile performance opportunities for players come along thanks to Messiaen, whose Turangalîla-Symphonie (1948), a colossal work scored for large orchestra with piano and ondes Martenot soloists, is increasingly standard repertoire.
Messiaen’s first ondes endeavor, composed for the 1937 World’s Fair, was a suite called Fête des belles eaux (Celebration of the Beautiful Waters) for not one but six ondes Martenot – you may recognize this excerpt from that work. When commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky a decade later to “choose as many instruments as you desire, write a work as long as you wish, in the style you want,” he included the electronic instrument in what was to become a seminal symphonic work of the 20th century.
Simply put, I am obsessed with Messiaen’s music. I have been since the first time I heard his Louange à l’éternité de Jésus (Praise to the Eternity Of Jesus) and I’ve never looked back. Short of converting to Catholicism, I have pursued the composer by as many angles as I can – learning some of his more manageable piano works, reading his treatises, and researching his legendary organ improvisations during a semester spent in Paris.
In an attempt to address Messiaen from a new angle, for the three-week period preceding the beginning of my graduate studies in musicology I set myself one goal: I was going to play an ondes Martenot. Like Jonny Greenwood, I cannot sing; and so as a pianist, I was attracted to this keyboardish instrument, with its elegant voice-like capacities for vibrato and unlimited portamento. This human vocal quality is what made the instrument so appealing to Messiaen, who otherwise showed little interest in electronic music.
However, certain obstacles made this task less than straightforward. First, almost all ondes Martenot activity is concentrated in Paris and Montreal. And yet, visiting one of those cities wouldn’t suffice; ondes Martenot players, due to the rarity of their breed, are in high demand for gigs of all sorts, and are constantly on the move, as are their instruments.
To wit, in September 2015 alone – by apparent coincidence – the Turangalîla was being performed three times in Europe, by three different orchestras and three different ondists. Thus, rather than waiting for a pause in their tour schedules, I decided to actively pursue all three of these performers, determined to meet each ondist and inquire about their niche in the musical world—and, perhaps, how I might join their ranks.
The first stop on my itinerary was Oslo, where I attended Cynthia Millar’s superb performance with the Oslo Philharmonic. Messiaen’s music is firmly rooted in academically rigorous rhythmic and tonal theory; and yet Turangalîla, while all of those things, simultaneously demands indulgence, rapture. The manifold influences Messiaen claimed provide easy (if facile) work for concert producers: the love story of Tristan and Isolde, the alluring Sanskrit name and Indian-inspired rhythms, the composer’s vivid sound-colour associations, and scrupulously transcribed birdcalls. Messiaen shamelessly combines his musical interests in this way, and the resulting symphony is a “more is more” epitome of Maximalism.
The inclusion of the electronic ondes Martenot is one more symptom of this style. Not to be outdone in Oslo, the concert producers staged a lightshow, punctuating climaxes with blinding floodlights and washes of red and blue. These ecstatic moments tend to be when the ondes Martenot is most impressively audible, its tone, high but never shrill, soaring over even the densest brass chorales.
Cynthia Millar’s agent had informed me that due to a full schedule, there would be no time for an ondes lesson, but that she would happily meet me onstage after the performance as she took apart her instrument. And so I joined a throng of curious audience members who had gathered about the ondes, inspecting as Millar carefully disassembled it. Once the crowd thinned, I was able to chat with her as she completed the teardown. Millar was classically trained from an early age, having studied piano, voice, and violin—she remarked, to my surprise, that the latter two were more important for her as an ondist.
This comment foreshadowed one of the most critical lessons I would learn about this instrument: while having the exterior appearance of a keyboard instrument, the mechanics of the ondes Martenot turned my piano instincts into obstacles.
The next day, Millar explained by way of wrapping up, she was flying to Venezuela to begin rehearsing with Gustavo Dudamel and his youth orchestra, with whom she will be touring with the Turangalîla in 2016. Millar promised to reach out to me when she next passed through London, and seemed impressed by my project such that, despite the brevity of our encounter, I was thrilled and reassured.
A week later, I headed to Manchester with a ticket to see the BBC Philharmonic play Turangalîla, with Valérie Hartmann-Claverie playing ondes Martenot. Until retiring this year, Hartmann held the prestigious ondes Martenot faculty chair at the Conservatoire de Paris once held by her teacher, Messiaen’s sister-in-law, Jeanne Loriod. The Conservatoire certainly has the most rigorous ondes program there is—the only one that requires prospective students to audition on the instrument itself, rather than letting musicians begin their studies at the conservatory. But how many children possibly have access to an ondes Martenot in high school, I wonder?
Hartmann did. She began playing the instrument at age seven, and for many years studied piano concurrently. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, her ondes was unavailable in Manchester, as it was in the orchestra’s custody. But Hartmann agreed to meet me backstage at the beautiful Bridgewater Hall between the dress rehearsal and the concert, and we spoke in the backstage café for nearly ninety minutes.
I wondered who Hartmann’s students were. What kind of people were interested in ondes Martenot? She explained that, once accepted into the Paris Conservatoire on one instrument, you can take an ondes “option”, and it was taken up not only by pianists, but violinists, oboists and jazz students, to name a few. Knowing me to be a pianist, she coyly revealed that I could in fact be at a disadvantage. This comment required more explanation; how could a pianist not have a leg-up on other musicians when approaching a keyboard instrument?
Think of it this way: for a pianist, the process of producing a note comes from one basic gesture, made with one finger. The note is selected and the tone is produced with that gesture, and any changes to the quality of that tone must be effected through modifications to the gesture. Using the keyboard on the ondes Martenot, the note is first selected, but not produced, by pressing a key with the right hand; then the left hand, having selected a combination of timbres (similar to an organist pulling stops) presses a transparent trapezoidal button, which has complete control over the volume of the chosen note. Once the note is sounding, the right hand may add vibrato on the keyboard for some added expression. Moreover, much ondes playing does not take place on the keyboard, but rather by sliding a ring along a cord running parallel to the keys (called the “ribbon”) in order to achieve the distinctive portamento slides with which the instrument is often associated.
In this way, the processes of note selection, production, and expression are separated into multiple gestures, with both hands implicated in the production of a single note. This makes the ondes analogous to the violin family, where the note is selected with the left hand, and then both hands, with bow and vibrato, combine to produce and express the tone. But as a pianist, it does not naturally occur to me to conceive of music in this way—to separate the properties of a note into elements that are each produced individually and sequentially. Understanding this convinced me that playing an ondes Martenot, and forcing myself to think about notes in this elemental way, would benefit me tremendously as a musician, even as a pianist. Hartmann agreed.
Then, finally, I would get my chance to play one. A flight from Manchester to Berlin followed by three trains, and I arrived in the German-Polish border town of Görlitz/Zgorzelec, a town of roughly 60,000 citizens and, astoundingly, a full-time symphony orchestra. The Neue Lausitzer Philharmonie is not a world-class orchestra, nor is it even a particularly large orchestra. Regarding Turangalîla, the conductor Andrea Sanguineti informed me “we don’t normally perform this sort of repertoire”. I learned that many members of the brass and percussion sections were hired specially.
If ever a small orchestra decided to tackle this gargantuan work, however, it makes sense that it should be in Görlitz. When Messiaen, fighting for France in World War Two, was captured by the German army, he was imprisoned in a P.O.W. camp called Stalag VIII-A, located on what is now the Polish side of town. It was while imprisoned here that, against all odds, Messiaen composed his Quartet for the End of Time, the work for which he is perhaps best known, and whose fifth movement had been my transformational initiation into Messiaen’s music. Messiaen seems like a household name in Görlitz. There is an institute named for him, there are signposts directing visitors to the site of the camp just outside of town, and the Quartet is performed every year in the Musicpoint Messiaen Concert Hall. But a Turangalîla is a much grander occurrence.
I was excited to be meeting Thomas Bloch here. As ondist, he has collaborated with Radiohead and Daft Punk, among many others, and he is a prolific composer; (he is also a glass harmonica player, frequently called upon to perform Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, which uses this obscure instrument). Bloch had suggested I come to Görlitz three days before the concert; he proposed I attend a day of rehearsals, and I could have an initiation lesson between morning and afternoon sessions.
The rehearsals, held in a remote school gymnasium, were illuminating. Hearing Maestro Sanguineti pick apart the densest parts into their sectional ingredients revealed beautiful voicings and counter-melodies which I had never perceived before. When it was lunchtime for everybody else, Bloch beckoned me over and began a demonstration of the ondes’ timbres and features.
The ondes Martenot has several timbral settings, which fall into the categories of principal, metallic, and resonant; each of these timbral categories has its own dedicated speaker, and the relative volumes of the speakers can be adjusted in order to multiply the potential timbral combinations. There are also settings to transpose the instrument by certain intervals, and to add an octave (like the 4’ organ stop). It turns out that, despite its role as soloist, the potential of the ondes Martenot is underutilized in the Turangalîla, at least compared to what younger composers would write in the ensuing years, and what Messiaen himself would write in his opera in St. Francis of Assisi in the 1970s.
Thomas invited me to sit at the ondes. Unsure where to begin, I played a note as best I could figure how. That transparent button controlling the production of sound was incredibly sensitive, and my first note blared like the rev of a car engine the first time a teenager presses the gas pedal. I eased up. He gave me some exercises to try: first, on a single note, over eight beats, create the most gradual crescendo possible, and then the reverse; then, groups of four notes, first attached then detached. While I was fumbling around, Thomas kindly but repeatedly reproached me for superfluous finger-lifting and wrist-maneuvering of my right hand. “You do not articulate with your right hand,” he would remind me, as I struggled to suppress the same reflexes that were ingrained in me throughout two decades of piano playing.
The same was true when I switched from playing on the keyboard to the ribbon. I was pressing downwards into the grooves that demarcate notes like frets under a guitar string, a motion that was slowing me down and causing me to play out of tune. Meanwhile for the left hand, whose job was to press that delicate button which produces the sound, the gestures were complex—to increase control over pressure, Thomas showed me how to use the wrist; to increase the speed of attack, he showed me how to use multiple fingers.
At this moment, I thought back to Cynthia Millar’s comment that violin and voice had served as better preparation for her ondes studies than piano. It made much more sense now. That one gesture that produces a note on the piano has a lot riding on it: the note will irreversibly decay, and the nature of the decay is determined in the same gesture. But singers, violinists, and ondists don’t get off the hook that easily – for them there is a world of expression to be explored between the notes, altering the pitch (as portamento), the dynamic, the speed of vibration, or any combination of the three. Sounding a note is just the birth of a changeable organism. A pianist who works with singers or other instrumentalists might be aware of that world of expression, but it is rare for us to be able to produce it directly. The ondes Martenot, even on my first day exploring the instrument, allowed a glimpse into that realm of possibility.
As I clumsily slid the ribbon through a slow passage from the Turangalîla, with curious members of the orchestra looking over my shoulder as they streamed back from lunch, it dawned on me how both familiar and foreign this instrument felt. I was simultaneously proud – there I was, playing Messiaen on the ondes Martenot, and it was starting to sound OK – and humbled, by the realization that piano technique could not by a long shot be converted into immediate ondes success.
After the rehearsals, inspired by a day of Messiaen’s music and aware of how rare it is to be in Görlitz, Thomas and I took an impromptu evening visit to the former site of Stalag VIII-A, guided by a Polish bassist named Pawel. There is a cultural center on the site, containing a small concert hall and exhibition about the remarkable range of theatrical and musical activity that was permitted to occur in the camp. Outside the modern building, a plaque and memorial statue, with text in French, commemorated the site, the majority of which was now lush forestland. It would all have seemed perfectly pristine, were it not for a dilapidated fence of cement posts and barbed wire, perhaps ten meters long and over seventy years old, standing along the parking lot.
I reflected on how it was here that Messiaen, composing for the motley assortment of musicians in the camp, had thought back to the final movement of his ondes Martenot sextet Fête des belles eaux and adapted it into a movement for cello and piano, which became the fifth movement of the Quartet for the End of Time. While not figuring in the Quartet itself, the ondes Martenot nonetheless inspired some of its most exquisite moments. All this considered, it felt deeply appropriate that my first experience playing the ondes Martenot should have taken place in Görlitz.
All of the ondes Martenot players whom I was privileged to meet were generous in recommending ways I might pursue learning the instrument, which I intend to do this year. They are convinced, as am I, of the instrument’s potential to enhance a pianist’s musicianship; and I am by nature drawn to that which is esoteric.
Excellent recordings of the Turangalîla-Symphonie are too numerous to cite here. I will note, however, that all three ondists I have met have produced one if not several recordings, and I can vouch that they each interpret the work superbly. I can therefore recommend the following:
Hyperion: Steven Osborne and Cynthia Millar, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Ondine: Angela Hewitt and Valérie Hartmann-Claverie, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Naxos: François Weigl and Thomas Bloch, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Other ondes Martenot:
Naxos: A survey of works for the instrument, featuring Thomas Bloch as performer and composer
London Sinfonietta Label: A CD featuring Jonny Greenwood’s Smear, as well as other works, interpreted by Valérie Hartmann-Claverie
Peter Asimov is a graduate student in Musicology at New College, Oxford. He is an accomplished pianist, whose solo and chamber music engagements have included concerts at Carnegie Hall, the Louvre, the Seoul Arts Center, and a recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
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Many people will know composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) for one piece: ‘Bolero’, the orchestral work that accompanied figure skaters Torvill and Dean in the 1984 Winter Olympics. But as is the case with many composers, there is far more to the Ravel than his most famous piece.
In 1929, not long after Bolero was written, Ravel began writing both his concerto for left hand and his much-loved piano concerto (for both hands). Although I could easily write a blog about the other concerto, the story of his left-hand concerto is far more interesting.
The concerto for left hand was one of many commissioned by a pianist named Paul Wittgenstein – the older brother of the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein – who lost his right arm in the First World War. Some of the other composers he commissioned were Britten, Prokofiev, Richard Strauss and Korngold, yet it is perhaps Ravel’s concerto that has become the most famous.
When I first learned of the concerto I regarded it as a gimmick, and argued that it could never be as pianistically interesting as a regular piano concerto. Ravel himself said that the difficulty of writing a concerto for the left hand is sustaining interest in an extended work with such limited means.
However, if listening unaware, you would be totally unable to tell that the pianist was using their left hand alone. The work is so technically difficult that I can only play some sections, and even then I have to cheat and use both hands. Wittgenstein claimed that this was even the case for Ravel himself, who played the solo part with both hands when he visited him. It was an awkward occasion, with Wittgenstein deciding that Ravel was not a very good pianist. Whatever the truth of this, it certainly highlights Ravel’s daring in writing such virtuosic piano music that he was unable to play.
Unlike most concertos, which are in multi-movement forms, Ravel’s contains just one movement, with a number of sections that differ in mood and pace. The whole work runs to about eighteen minutes.
The concerto starts as a rumbling of double basses playing open strings and slowly a gloomy melody begins to unfold on the contra-bassoon, an instrument rarely used for solos. It is a rather unusual beginning for a concerto – so slow and dark – but in time the orchestra builds to a climax of intense chromaticism. And then suddenly: silence, before the piano is heard for the first time.
Later in the piece, during a slower section, an incredibly beautiful and poignant melody emerges on the piano. The expressive atmosphere that Ravel creates in this passage is remarkably touching. Later on this same melody is reintroduced in a rather more virtuosic way, highlighting Ravel’s success in sustaining interest with such limited means.
The concerto was premièred on 5 January 1932 in Vienna, but not before Wittgenstein decided to make ‘improvements’ both to the orchestra and piano parts: much to Ravel’s discontent. Wittgenstein argued that ‘performers are not slaves’ and Ravel responded that ‘performers are slaves’ and spoke of infringement. The whole ordeal caused great resentment on Ravel’s part and the two never settled their differences. However, Wittgenstein later remarked that ‘it always took me time to appreciate a difficult work and only much later, after I’d studied the concerto for months, did I become fascinated by it and realize what a great work it was’.
It was not until March in 1937 that the concerto was performed as written, due to a contract Ravel signed giving Wittgenstein exclusive rights to it for six years. This was just nine months before the composer’s death. To make matters worse, pianist Alfred Cortot arranged a version of the piece for both hands. Ravel forbade publication and performance of this version, but this was ignored by Cortot.
Ravel’s concerto is one of the few pieces of music that truly astounds me both musically and physically. I am forever in awe of his piano writing and any pianist who attempts the piece. There is a recording of Wittgenstein performing the concerto on YouTube which demonstrates the extent to which he changed the score. As this recording is not Ravel’s intended version, I am linking another video that truly highlights the extraordinary piano writing, with soloist Hélène Tysman. Towards the end, Tysman’s finger begins to bleed. Despite this, she continues in what can only be described as a triumphant performance of an astonishing work.
Autumn days when the grass is jewelled,
And the silk inside a chestnut shell.
Jet-planes meeting in the air to be refuelled,
All these things I love so well…
Many British people who grew up in the 80s and 90s will remember singing the lines above at primary school. Autumn Days was a jolly hymn that didn’t explicitly mention religion at all, but celebrated little aspects of life to be grateful for. I’ve never seen jet-planes refuelling in the air, and this incongruous turn caused consternation in church choirs when it was first published. But with its contentedly bouncing tune, I remember that I enjoyed singing it immensely.
In its own innocent way, the first two lines remind us that autumn is a time rich with poetic detail, poetry that has moved and inspired an enormous amount of creative expression. In classical music alone, there is much more autumnal music than I can do justice to in one post.
It was September 2001 when, watching the last night of the BBC Proms on TV, I first heard music by Gerald Finzi (1901-56). Conducted by the American Leonard Slatkin, it turned out to be a very poignant affair. The 9/11 attacks had shocked the world just four days previously, and the normally exultant programme was revised to be more reflective. Barber’s celebrated Adagio for Strings was included, but the Finzi, programmed for his centenary year, also happened to fit the newly solemn mood. The work was his elegy for orchestra The Fall of the Leaf – left incomplete at his death but orchestrated by Howard Ferguson. I was struck by the emotional eloquence of the music.
Elegies are a natural fit to autumn – it is a season of slow decay and growing darkness, and this inevitably reminds of us death, and loss. The title of this piece might suggest that Finzi, a lover of English poetry, was thinking of Robert Burns’ The Fall Of The Leaf, or Autumn Song by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which quotes this phrase repeatedly. Both use the season as a means to dwell on grief and death.
The forests are leafless, the meadows are brown,
And all the gay foppery of summer is flown:
Apart let me wander, apart let me muse,
How quick Time is flying, how keen Fate pursues! (Burns)
But in fact, Finzi’s elegy echoes something that predates either of those poems. The Fall of the Leafeis one of four surviving keyboard works by Martin Peerson (c.1571-c.1650) and appears in the famous Fitzwilliam Virginal Bookcollection. It is a short minor-key work, with a gently descending tune that sets a mood of dreamy melancholy.
Peerson would never have dreamed that this title would ended up becoming the name of a Finnish heavy metal band, who even adopted his now-archaic spelling. But the inspiration doesn’t end there. In 1962 Imogen Holst (1907-84) took Peerson’s tune and used it as the starting point of a short suite for solo cello. In this atmospheric second movement, swiftly plucked notes drum like raindrops, contrasted with the ghostly wail of bowed harmonics.
If autumn is a time of introspection, it also causes unease. In England it generally heralds some of our most unsettled weather. The one life form who thrive at this time – fungi – are associated with death and decay, symbols of potential poison who belong neither to the plant nor animal kingdoms. As the nights draw in, marauding house spiders terrify the populace, while their garden counterparts hover in intricate webs. It’s notable that Halloween – that modern carnival of creepiness with its roots in the liturgy of remembering the dead – falls squarely in the middle of the season. Some scholars trace its origins to ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain, a time when the spirits of the Aos Sí could more easily enter the human world. In the hope to appease the spirits, offerings were given, that people and livestock might survive the approaching winter.
Two orchestral works, composed just one year apart, are born out of this idea of autumn as a time of disturbance. November Woods is a 1917 tone poem by Arnold Bax (1883-1953), and one of his most densely impressionistic scores, with a vivid sense of blustery chaos. It starts with strings, harp and woodwinds, creating a mesmerising vision of windswept trees, while a low theme jumps about impishly, a menace lurking in gloomy recesses. Throughout, woodwinds and brass flutter and career all over the place. As is often in the case with Bax, the stormy weather is a metaphor for a stormy emotional condition.
Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) wrote his Symphony No. 4, titled Løvfald (‘Leaf Fall’), in 1916, aged just 23 – though it was heavily abridged later. It’s a vibrant, brightly coloured work with the bracing energy of a stiff gust of wind. With sections labelled ‘despairing forest murmur’, ‘thunder’, and simply ‘despair’ again, it shares Bax’s vision of a restlessness in both nature and the human mind. It’s also interesting to note that these turbulent works were both written during the First World War – another resonance, whether intended or not.
Of course, autumn is not just about nature. It is about the traditions that we use to navigate the year. Autumn In Warsaw is a piano piece by Hungarian composer György Ligeti (1923-2006) from his first book of Études (studies) in 1985. The title refers to an annual contemporary music festival, and it is dedicated to his Polish friends. But it is interesting that like Peerson, Ligeti bases this piece on descending lines, in this case mostly descending chromatically. These are super-imposed across each other at different rhythmic speeds, adding a level of complexity that in places sounds surprisingly impressionistic, as if mirroring the random patterns of falling leaves.
While there are many more pieces I could mention, all these works share something: a response to how profoundly the changing seasons can affect us all, and in different ways. It’s as easy to see sadness and morbidity among the falling leaves as it is to see the beauty of their colouring.
Thankfully, winter is no longer a question of survival for most of us, and the idea of a Harvest Festival feels almost like a folk memory. But as the nights draw in, I still feel that autumn is a time for taking stock and acknowledging what you have. Maybe that’s why, unlike Burns and Rossetti, I tend to find this time of year strangely comforting.
There is a phenomenon called bletting, in which the first frosts help some fruit – such as quince, medlars and sloes – to improve their flavour. In much the same way, I like to think, autumn helps us to experience the sweetness in life’s simpler joys. My old school hymnmay seem twee and childish now, but in its message of savouring life’s little details there is something worth remembering.