All posts by Corymbus

In Pursuit Of The Ondes Martenot

Plaque at the Stalag VIII A memorial in Görlitz. This image is shared under the creative commons license. Original here.
Plaque at the Stalag VIII A memorial in Görlitz. This image is shared under the creative commons license. Original here.

peterassimov       By Peter Asimov

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.

Performance of the Turangalîla-Symphonie in Oslo, complete with dramatic lighting effects.

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.

The German-Polish border in Görlitz is, as in much of the European Union, open.

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.

I try the ondes Martenot for the first time, made possible by Thomas Bloch.

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

Read more about 20th-century classical music:

Different Heroes

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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Ravel’s Piano Concerto For The Left Hand

Maurice Ravel
ianfleming        By Ian Fleming

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.

Paul Wittgenstein

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.

Read more about piano music on Corymbus:

Rarities of Piano Music

Ian Fleming is a composer and pianist based in Kent, UK. You can find him on Soundcloud, Vimeo and on Twitter.

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The Fall Of The Leaf

‘Copper Beeches’ by Mark Freeth. Shared under the creative commons license. Original is here.
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

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!

But in fact, Finzi’s elegy echoes something that predates either of those poems. The Fall of the Leafe is one of four surviving keyboard works by Martin Peerson (c.1571-c.1650) and appears in the famous Fitzwilliam Virginal Book collection. 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 hymn may seem twee and childish now, but in its message of savouring life’s little details there is something worth remembering.

Read more by Simon Brackenborough:

Through The Looking-Glass: Alice Mary Smith, And What The Victorians Did For Us

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