All posts by Corymbus

Silence: A Fertile Soil

Interior with Ida Playing the Piano, by Vilhelm Hammershøi, cropped. Original here.
Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 22.12.45     By Young-Jin Hur

LISTEN to me,” said the Demon as he placed his hand upon my head. “The region of which I speak is a dreary region in Libya, by the borders of the river Zaire. And there is no quiet there, nor silence.”

So starts Edgar Allan Poe’s short story Silence – A Fable. The tale commences with the demon’s successive attempts to frighten a man bearing ‘sorrow, and weariness, and disgust with mankind, and a longing after solitude.’ The dark forest of tall primeval trees, the river of sickly hue, the roaring and frightful animals, and a violent tempest do not threaten the man – he shakes in solitude but perseveres. At last, when the demon conjures up an unworldly silence that sets everything to absolute stillness, the man flees in terror.

Poe shows silence as a source of great terror. Indeed, there is an ominous and often frightful aspect to silence. 18th-century English philosophers, including Edmund Burke (1729-1797), would not disagree. ‘All general privation’, Burke writes, ‘they are all terrible; Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude, and Silence.’

The Soviet composer Nokolai Myaskovsky’s (1881-1950) symphonic poem Silence is based on the Poe short story. It depicts the terror and unease with a brooding introspection building up to a violent release. There are moments of great passion, in which the propulsive rhythm draws a graphic and dramatic picture.

While silence as a literary concept often reveals a sense of dread and terror, what are the effects of silence when utilised as a compositional device? And ultimately, what is the relationship between silence and music?

The Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) was notorious for using silence in his music, to such a degree that his Second symphony was at one point nicknamed the Pausensymphonie, ‘symphony of pauses.’ In fact, this is very characteristic of Bruckner’s compositions. While frequent pauses abruptly disturb the flow of music, they bring out a sense of granite-like monumentality, a rigid architecture. By eschewing smooth transitions between differing musical ideas, Bruckner also achieves heightened contrasts and surprise. ‘You must take a new breath when you intend to say something important,’ he once explained to the conductor Arthur Nikisch.

These characteristics are prominent in his fifth symphony. Slow pizzicatos (plucking of the strings) solemnly and mysteriously open up a spacious canvas, upon which walls of sound build up to stately musical climaxes. In the coda of the finale, the giant work concludes with ecstatic grandeur, again through pause-driven suspense and release.

The second half of the 20th century saw an increasing tendency for composers to identify silence as an important musical language. According to Boulez, the initiation of such a paradigm shift can be attributed to the works of Anton Webern (1883-1945). Boulez writes* in 1955: ‘if one can, in a certain sense, maintain […] that Webern was obsessed with formal purity to the point of silence, it was an obsession that he carried to a degree of tension hitherto unknown in music.’

While ‘pointillistic’, ‘concentrated’, and ‘economical’ are terms often used to describe Webern’s works, such illustrations often overlook the deeply emotional nature of his music. Webern’s unique and potent use of silence allows the listener to hear each individual note clearly, right from the birth of the note to its decay, which gives his music layers of eerie contemplation and introspection. The short duration of his works and radical harmony only add a deeply personal and abstract poetry. Such characteristics are represented well in his terse string quartet, Op.28.

A particular group of composers in New York, led by John Cage (1912-1992), took the element of silence to another plane. It was Cage, with his Zen-like spirituality, who brought silence to the fore through his infamous 4’33’’, where not a single note is played. Cage also left a substantial amount of writing on silence in music. Yet it was the composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987) who struck an ideal balance between silence both as a concept and musical language. In his essays published in 1985, Feldman writes, ‘silence is my substitute for counterpoint. It’s nothing against something […] It’s a real thing, it’s a breathing thing.’

In his mammoth, 70-minute piano work For Bunita Marcus, strange repetitions of notes echo between the abysmal valleys of silence. Yet for all its strangeness, there is an atmosphere of calm. It is also noticeable that the music has a spatial dimension, much like the musical architecture of Bruckner’s symphonies. However, Feldman’s unique grandeur never roars or imposes – it merely whispers and gasps.

Feldman infamously wished to be completely dissociated from the Western musical tradition, to be remembered as the first great Jewish composer. Still, if one can hear a strange resemblance to the music of Webern, this may be no accident. Stefan Wolpe (1902-1972), the tutor of Feldman, was an ardent advocate of Webern’s music, after all.

It appears that whether loud or quiet, music with ample doses of silence acquires characteristics of contemplation and breath – characteristics well suited for sacred music. The religious music of Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) lacks no intentions for creating silence as a source of awe and spirituality. ‘Silence’, says Pärt in a recent interview, ‘is like fertile soil, which, as it were, awaits our creative act, our seed […] [and] must be approached with a feeling of awe.’ Such is felt in abundance in Da Pacem Domine (‘give peace, o Lord’).

Yet Pärt is no pioneer in this regard. In fact, Pärt’s art of distilling silence in long stretches for the purposes of spirituality has long been practiced and mastered by Renaissance polyphony composers, as can be seen through the works of Heinrich Isaac (1450-1517).

Isaac, much like Pärt, uses elements of silence as a crucial form of composition, the difference perhaps being that Pärt was more conscious of his choice of silence. It is fascinating to know that Webern studied Isaac’s music extensively for his doctorate thesis. Could it be that Webern’s paradigm shifting musical language of silence may, therefore, be as old as it is new?

Silence has a long tradition in the thinking of East Asia, and developed independently from various Western developments. The state of emptiness is crucial in the teachings of Buddhism and Taoism. The Japanese Wabi-sabi, furthermore, is an aesthetic discourse that finds grace and beauty in the emphasis on emptiness. Such appreciation of nothingness is reflected in the general aesthetics of East Asia, as can be seen in the following work by the calligrapher Chusa Kim Jeong-Hui (1786-1856) from Joseon (now the Korean peninsula).

Original here.

It is possible to notice the palpable empty spaces in such paintings. Here, emptiness is not the absence of presence (i.e. dead space), but rather the presence of absence, through which one realises the humbling of the physically tangible. It comes as no surprise that such attitude towards silence is reflected in the musical tradition of East Asia. For instance, Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) and Teizo Matsumura (1929-2007) made no secret of their fascination of silence. I present the music of the Buddhist composer Somei Sato (b. 1947). Taken from the album From the Depth of Silence, Satoh, in Kisetsu (‘season’), combines a uniquely East Asian sensibility of meditative vision using a Western orchestra and (relatively) traditional Western harmonies.

It isn’t hard to argue that there can be no music without silence. Silence, after all, is the canvas of music upon which notes are written. Yet is it not also the case that silence cannot exist without music? Is it not music or the presence of sound that allows our realisation of the importance and presence of silence? And the stronger the sense of silence, the stronger the sense of sound. I like to think therefore of silence as a very musical problem.

The experience of music is also the experience of silence, and much like the yin and yang, one cannot be detached one from the other. Once aware of the coexistence of sound and silence, we may start hearing things we never noticed before. And this awareness of the intimate relationship between being and its relative not being may go beyond a physical realisation, to a metaphysical one. Is this the state that James Joyce felt, for instance, when he wrote the following in the dying paragraphs of his short story, The Dead?

His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling. 

Heidegger’s sweeping metaphysical rumination brings new light:

Let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself. 

* I would like to reserve special thanks to Dr. Edward Campbell of the University of Aberdeen, who helped me find the exact quote of Boulez on Webern.

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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Musical Borders

Colton Map of Europe, 1855.
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

In Sophie’s World, Jostein Gaarder’s postmodern novel about the history of philosophy, the young heroine Sophie is in a woodland cabin with her mentor Alberto, when a thunderous series of knocks is heard at the door. The visitor, unexpectedly, is Alice in Wonderland. ‘I am to give Sophie these little philosophy bottles,’ Alice explains. She hands them to Sophie and runs off into the woods.

One bottle is red, one blue. Both are labelled DRINK ME. With Alberto’s encouragement, Sophie sips from the red bottle. Her surroundings seem to change. ‘It felt as if the lake and the woods and the cabin all merged into one […] everything she saw was one person, and that person was Sophie herself.’

When Sophie drinks from the blue bottle, an entirely different transformation occurs. The surroundings fracture into infinite, dizzying variety. ‘The tiniest twig was like a fairy-tale world about which a thousand stories could be told.’ Alberto explains that the bottles reflect the pantheistic Idealism of the Romantics (red) and the Individualism of the philosopher Kierkegaard (blue). Kierkegaard disagreed with the Romantics, but neither his view or theirs is a strictly correct way to see the world.

This lesson cuts to the heart of a basic question of perception: how much do we see unity, how much uniqueness? It was an issue that briefly surfaced in the panel discussion of February’s Music Into Words event. There was a suggestion from the audience that genres like ‘classical’ were of limited use. Can’t we just talk about music?

I have always found this argument odd. Most of us enjoy music of many genres. But that does not mean that genre traditions are not meaningfully distinctive. All music has something to tell us about the people and the culture that made it.

The idea of ‘just music’ also conveniently ignores the messy business of politics: in an unequal world, musics are not created equal. Whether we like it or not, classical music has a a long history of establishment support and aristocratic patronage. In popular culture it is frequently used as code for refinement, class privilege, and prestige – and however unfairly limiting these associations might be, neither are they accidental.

I can certainly understand a desire to rid ourselves of this baggage – but baggage is part of inheritance. Rather than aspiring to eliminate genres, we could develop a better understanding of where they’ve come from, and what they tell us about where we are today.

Frances Stonor Saunders, in her insightful and moving essay Where on Earth are you? writes about borders both mental and physical:

All borders […] are explanations of identity. We construct borders, literally and figuratively, to fortify our sense of who we are; and we cross them in search of who we might become.

To fortify our sense of who we are. On the whole, the traditions of Western classical music are distinctive enough that what it is seems to be pretty well understood. And when musicians experiment across genres, that they are doing so also seems fairly well understood – with music as with geography, borders do not have to mean barricades.

However, for some classical artists who adopt approaches from more popular cultural forms, and in doing so achieve wide popularity, you can see battle lines of identity being drawn. The contempt it is common to hear reserved for figures like Ludovico Einaudi or André Rieu – as representing music supposedly too simplistic, vulgar, commodified – claims the opposite values as part of a supposedly authentic classical music. If Einaudi and Reiu were straightforward pop acts, distancing oneself would not be necessary – they disturb precisely because they occupy a kind of musical ‘uncanny valley’, an uncomfortable proximity. We use borders to mark differences; we use them to obscure similarities.

Thankfully, not everyone is so dismissive. But while some forms of identity are loudly declared, others hide in plain sight. Why is the classical repertoire so dominated by the works of dead white men? There may be many historic factors, but we do not learn about dead white men in music lessons, we learn of ‘great composers’, ‘masterpieces’. We are left to suppose the repertoire is defined by merit, even though the idea of such a purely meritocratic outcome is laughable. Yet this narrative can become so deeply ingrained that when a different story is told it often genuinely upsets people, even (or perhaps especially) when it is illustrated by the most damning of figures.

Can't we just pretend that gender doesn't matter?
Can’t we just pretend that gender doesn’t matter?

But since I’m on the subject of borders, I want to think about what it means that Western classical music, even as it has spread around the world, is European in origin. Particularly at this time when the borders of Europe are such a fraught political issue.

Britain will soon vote on whether to remain a member of the European Union – a project built on redefining the meaning of borders – or whether to pull back to its island shores. At the same time, the enormous humanitarian crisis at Europe’s edges has created tensions around borders on a much bigger scale.

The EU’s mission of a united Europe has echoes in its official anthem – Herbert von Karajan’s arrangement of the prelude to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, from the ninth symphony. If classical music is code for prestige, big choral-orchestral works signify might and glory (even UEFA, the European football body, use a pastiche of Handel’s Zadok The Priest for the Champions League Anthem). But Beethoven’s Ode is a glory of brotherhood rather than battle, and in pushing the boundaries of symphonic form it represents the spirit of progress, of building something bigger than before. It is also, of course, so familiar and renowned as to be iconic of classical music as a whole. And while Karajan’s arrangement is instrumental, the unifying sentiments of Schiller’s words inevitably hang about it in the air:

Your magics join again,
What custom strictly divided,
All people become brothers,
Where your gentle wing abides.

A world away from the halls of Brussels and Strasbourg, these words surely ring hollow at the recent sight of EU member states erecting fences and bolstering border controls. As we witness news reports of crowded boats sinking in the Mediterranean, Schiller’s ecstatic peroration – ‘Be embraced, you millions! / This kiss is for the whole world!’ – strikes a particularly sad dissonance against the calculating prose of contemporary politics.

And yet, despite the undeniable fear of mass immigration and far-right sentiment rising in many parts of Europe, there is plenty of compassion too. The classical music world has responded with charity concerts in aid of refugees. In March, Berlin saw a ‘welcome concert for refugees and helpers’, featuring three conductors and three orchestras. This was no doubt a worthwhile endeavour, but the music was predictably unambitious: Beethoven, Mozart, Prokofiev. What about the opportunity to start a cross-border dialogue with the music itself?

Back in November, Nicolas Nebout conducted a London concert to raise money for the UNICEF Syrian Children’s Appeal, with a programme including Pheonix in Exile, a work by contemporary Syrian-American composer Malek Jandali. This piece deals directly with the theme of the humanitarian crisis, and combines Middle-Eastern modes with Western classical forms and harmony. The programme note makes clear how Jandali uses the idea of the Pheonix, represented by oboe and violin solos, as a metaphor for the flight of refugees of Syria, as well as his hope for the eventual rebirth of the nation:

The Syrian people, like the Phoenix, will rise from the ruins and rebuild their homeland in a manner even more magnificent than it used to be.

Here it is worth reflecting on how relatively rarely we in the West seem to hear classical music from the non-West. It is not for a lack of it – plenty of music has been written for classical ensembles from countries as varied as Japan, Lebanon, Brazil. Much, like that of Jandali, incorporates non-Western musical elements.

We might conclude, then, that the well-worn maxim of music as a ‘universal language’ is too idealistic. My view is that all music can at some level be universally understood, but it will resonate differently with those who have an existing relationship with the traditions it has grown out of. It was on this point that last year, in Parochialism Is Universal, that I explained how music played a positive role in enriching my understanding of where I live – in my case works by British composers. But there is an important caveat: being interested in what is around you (literally ‘of the parish’) doesn’t mean being closed off to outside influences. In fact I would argue that to really understand where you are, that perspective is necessary.

Similarly, on a European level, it would surely be self-flattering to imagine that Bach and Beethoven speak to eternal human values, that they have transcended their European-ness, even their German-ness. If we know classical music can represent prestige, there is a danger of prestige becoming cultural triumphalism. This idea surfaces in Lucy Cheung’s recent article about an Orientalist attitude in the classical music world. She notes that conductor Daniel Barenboim has made several patronising comments about Asian and African countries he had visited to perform music. It is especially ironic given his friendship with the late Edward Said, leading critic of Western Orientalism.

Such comments should remind us that we can overlay the history of classical music remarkably well with the history of European Imperialism, from the Conquistadors of the late Renaissance to the breakdown of tonality at the time of the ‘Scramble For Africa’, which ended with European powers ruling an astonishing 90% of the continent. For many Europeans, it is our awkward inheritance that our history is also the history of peoples in distant parts of the world – their borders in many cases are our borders, the scars of European violence. These legacies still inform patterns of economic power and migration today, so how much we chose to remember matters. I cannot help but think, listening to the angry rhetoric about ‘taking back control of our borders’, that perhaps deep down rests an uneasy realisation – that the relative peace and prosperity we enjoy is not ours to fence off by any inherent moral right.

With all this in mind, we try to imagine what a classical music suited to the twenty-first century might look like, if it were designed anew. It could take on a leading role in navigating the bustling, multi-perspective world we find ourselves in. It could honour its many European roots, but do more to investigate the way those traditions have been adopted, and adapted, by other cultures. It could spend less time lounging in the historic squares of Vienna and Paris, and more exploring the confusing alleyways of the modern global megacity.

It could also spend more time exploring artistic borderlands. I was fortunate to attend a recent concert at Brighton Pavilion to mark the centenary of events, during World War One, when that pseudo-oriental pleasure palace became a makeshift hospital to injured Indian soldiers who were fighting for Britain. The concert featured English orchestral music by Vaughan Williams and Butterworth, both of whom served in that war (the latter fatally), and who were defining a new musical identity drawing on British folksong. Interspersed between these works was The Seasons of India, traditional Indian music scored with orchestral accompaniment by Kala Ramnath. Two different musical cultures were celebrated together as equals.

The Indian soldiers at the Pavilion were caught up in a catastrophic battle of colonial powers they had done nothing to start. We sat in the exact space they had lain hospitalised, and heard readings from letters they had sent home, of their adjustments to being in a strange land, of warning relatives not to enlist. These touching details invited us to consider the memories of places that would have come together under Brighton Dome, to make connections radiating out across the South Downs, past the villages where Vaughan Williams collected folksongs, to the battlefields of the Western Front, to distant British India.

A light show at Brighton Pavilion marks the ‘Dr. Blighty’ centenary celebrations, Brighton Festival 2016. Photo by David B Young, shared under Creative Commons License.

That concert, like the UNICEF fundraiser, was an example of how imaginative programming can illuminate shared history, while acknowledging the painful experiences so often bound up in it. Schiller’s vision that ‘all people become brothers’ is a noble sentiment, but has little precedence to offer us. The poet himself seemed to realise this later in life, describing in a letter to a friend how the Ode was ‘detached from reality’. Whether that is a bad omen for the future of the EU, we will have to wait and see.

Nonetheless, for all its flaws as an institution, I will be voting for Britain to remain a member of the Union. Perhaps I am something of a romantic idealist, but my instincts tell me that, for all our differences, progress more likely lies in partnership and collaboration. I cherish the idea that people can go abroad in search of a better life, whether they be EU citizens or Syrian refugees. But like Sophie, I think we need to drink from both bottles. In music as with politics, our distinctive histories are important to understand, even as we try to remember that they don’t have to define our future. Borders, as Saunders reminds us, are what we cross in search of who we might become.

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The Sea – A Musical Sublime

A Monk by the Sea, Caspar David Friedrich. Source.
A Monk by the Sea, Caspar David Friedrich. Source.
Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 22.12.45     By Young-Jin Hur

The ‘Sublime’ is one of the most notable theories in the history of Western aesthetic discourse. While the origin of the concept dates back to the ancient Greeks, probably the most popular characterisation of the phenomenon as it is known today was made in Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful of 1757. This is how Burke conceptualises the sublime:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.

Edmund Burke - source.
A painting of Edmund Burke, from the studio of Joshua Reynolds  – source.

In other words, the sublime is an overwhelming emotional experience related to fear. Characteristics of this concept become palpable when compared to loving pleasure, a joy which lies opposite to the dark-hued emotional landscape of the sublime, or as Burke puts it, ‘beauty’:

Sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small; beauty should be smooth, and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly […] beauty should not be obscure; the great out to be dark and gloomy; beauty should be light and delicate; the great out to be solid, and even massive […] They are indeed ideas of a very different nature one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure […] 

Yet for all its fear, the sublime is a form of delight – humans are attracted to such terrible experiences. Consequently, the Burkean sublime relates to experiences that present a complex and almost contradictory mixture of emotions. As one is overwhelmed by unpleasant forces beyond one’s control and capacity of reason, within this springs a sense of delight. Later in the book Burke would ascribe this phenomenon to existential awareness.

The sea represents the quintessential qualities associated with the sublime – it encompasses the evocative feelings and expectations of danger, the unknowable, a scale beyond one’s understanding. English essayist Joseph Addison (1672-1719), a pioneer of theories of the sublime, gives a vivid explanation:

I cannot see the heavings of this prodigious bulk of water, even in calm, without a very pleasing astonishment; but when it is worked up in a tempest, so that the horizon on every side is nothing but foaming billows and floating mountains, it is impossible to describe the agreeable horror that rises from such a prospect. A troubled ocean, to a man who sails upon it, is, I think, the biggest object that he can see in motion, and consequently gives his imagination one of the highest kinds of pleasure that can arise from greatness.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

JMW Turner, The Shipwreck - source.
JMW Turner, The Shipwreck – source.

How is the sea, the bearer of the sublime, represented in classical music? Below, I present a selection of six pieces associated with images of the sea.

Symphony No. 3 by Peter Maxwell Davies is an hour-long work dating from 1984. While the symphony alludes to renaissance architecture practices, including applications of the Fibonacci sequence, the composer nevertheless had the following to say:

The thing that will strike the first-time listener most strongly may be the presence, through the whole work, of the sea reflecting the circumstances of its composition, at home in a tiny isolated cottage on a remote island off the north coast of Scotland, on a clifftop overlooking the meeting of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. Here the sound, sight, and mood of the sea influences your whole existence, all your perceptions, and—particularly in winter, shudders right through the stones of the house, and indeed through your very bones.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) is often cited as one of the most influential composers in the development of 20th century British classical music, including that of Maxwell Davies. Both composers experimented with symphonic structure; both also had a deep affinity for nature, and through their music communicated something jointly elemental and emotional. Sibelius’s musical world is deeply rooted in 19th century Romanticism (sweeping melodies, dramatic devices, etc.) and portrays the evocative atmosphere unique to his native country. These traits are present in the seascape-based The Oceanides. It is a tone poem of two contrasting faces of the sea: a scene of blithely playing sea nymphs, and a storm. Yet the transformation is done utterly naturally, and the overarching warmth the music was imbued with before the turning point is recalled in the serene closing section.

Neither Richard Wagner (1813-1883) nor Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), men of Germany and Austria respectively, had substantial experience of living at sea. Yet given that both were renowned for composing music of unworldly monumentality, their take on the sea is somewhat fitting. Wagner’s overture to The Flying Dutchman sets the mood to his most dramatic opera at the time. The opera portrays a spiritual voyage where the vanity of man to conquer nature – particularly the sea – provokes the devil. Amidst the wild tempest, the characters are redeemed only through fidelity of love.

Bruckner’s Helgoland is a late work for orchestra and choir. The text of the setting illustrates the divine intervention that saves the Saxon people from the invading vessels of the Romans on the Frisian island of Heligoland. As with the Flying Dutchman, the dangers associated with the sea are omnipresent – in this case not necessarily the sea per se, but it is difficult to not acknowledge the sea as an appropriate setting for human helplessness and redemption.

The Sea by Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) is a work dedicated to Wagner, so some Wagnerian grandeur might be expected. Yet a sense of scale and ambition for drama are where the similarities end to this work by an echt-Russian soul. The vivid colours, rustic and bittersweet melodies alongside passionate dance-like rhythms are qualities very characteristic of the great Russian musical tradition. Glazunov provides an almost cinematic program for the piece:

A man sat on the shore and the various pictures of nature passed before his eyes. Bright sun shone in the sky, the sea was calm. Suddenly a raging whistling gust of wind arose, followed by another. The sky grew dark, the sea became agitated. The elements launched into a struggle, relentless, with a great roaring, with majestic force. A violent storm burst. But the tempest passed away, the sea became calm again. The sun shone anew over the calm surface of the water. 

Going further east, a very different kind of sea awaits in Toru Takemitsu’s late masterpiece Quotation of Dream; Say sea, take me! Unlike many works portraying the sea, the sea here has distinctively elusive qualities. Differing sections are not segmented clearly, and for most times the two solo pianos converge into unified bundles of aural haze – one could say that there is no communication between the two pianos at all, for communication assumes transactions between two entities. The latter half of the title refers to the poem My River runs to thee by Emily Dickinson:

My River runs to thee – 
Blue Sea – Wilt welcome me?
My River waits reply.
Oh Sea – look graciously!
I’ll fetch thee Brooks
From spotted nooks – 
Say Sea – take Me?

Like many works by this composer, the sound-world may feel exotic to Western ears, because of Takemitsu’s lack of formal Western musical training and his endorsement of East Asian instruments and melodies. The eclecticism is further enhanced by the composer’s impeccable ear for glowing sonority and subtlety of expression. One is at times reminded of the sensual spirituality of Olivier Messiaen and the evanescent beauty of Claude Debussy.

In all of the above works, traces of the Burkean sublime – an experience of threat-tinged delight – can be commonly detected, especially in those works by Wagner and Glazunov. Yet it is also noticeable that not all selected works fit into this taxonomy. Takemitsu’s gentle sea presents a somewhat meditative picture. And while Sibelius’s sea certainly contains elements of tension, the overall impression is hardly terrorising.

What can this mean – does the sea in itself not exhaust the experience of the sublime? One thing seems clear: works of the sea suggest scale and power. Even in the softest utterances, one hears a lofty sense of inner strength. These works promise a musical drama concerning the ineffable, transcendental and invariably ambitious. It is worth noting that most works concerning the sea – even beyond my selection – take on forms of large orchestras, which can create an expansiveness and depth not easily achieved by smaller ensembles.

A simple conclusion of gross generalisation would diminish the complexities and realities of both musical and sublime experiences. I leave you with the last lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, The Secret of the Sea.

Till my soul is full of longing
For the secret of the sea,
And the heart of the great ocean
Sends a thrilling pulse through me.

Read more by Young-Jin Hur:

Silence: A Fertile Soil

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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Different Heroes

Adverts for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 2013 David Bowie exhibition. Shared under Creative Commons License. Cropped from original by Eiimeon here.
By Bobby Jewell

There’s a plethora of articles online about the influence of classical music on pop, whether it’s the sampling of Mozart in Hop Hop or Beethoven in Disco, rock band legal disputes over Bach plagiarisms, or the use of baroque orchestral instrumentation. Less talked about though is the influence of contemporary music on classical, where avant-garde pop and rock acts slowly came to impact composers during the later half of the 20th century and into the 21st.

In 1992 minimalist giant Philip Glass created his Symphony No. 1, an homage to David Bowie’s 1977 album Low, itself a bleak and sonically adventurous work by the singer-songwriter and producer Brian Eno that pushed the boundaries of conventional pop music. Glass’s Symphony broke down the album, focusing on several themes within the music, creating a slow, sombre orchestral work that relied on relatively little of Glass’s regular techniques and tropes.

Glass would later revisit the concept in 1996 with his more direct Symphony No.4, taking on Bowie’s album Heroes in a similar vein, the second in Bowie’s famous ‘Berlin Trilogy’.

Fellow minimalist titan Steve Reich also looked to contemporary music in 2012 with Radio Rewrite, a reworking of two songs by the English band Radiohead (Everything in Its Right Place from Kid A, and In Rainbows Jigsaw Falling Into Place). Having previously shown the influence of African and Indonesian Gamelan in his music, Reich admittedly came late to discover the band in 2010. Radio Rewrite coincidentally works similarly to Glass’s Symphony in that it only hints at its inspirations rather than mimicking them fully. Reich was quoted as saying ‘the piece is a mixture of moments where you will hear Radiohead, but most moments where you won’t’.

This cross-disciplinary collaboration owes a lot to the New York art scene of the 50s and 60s, where composers like Glass and Reich would be interacting with dancers, performance artists, painters and musicians. One key act of the period was the Andy Warhol-managed Velvet Underground, who experimented with minimalism, tape loops, distortion and psychedelia. Hugely influential on rock music both then and now, their influence has also spread to classical music. For example David Lang – an American composer and co-founder of the ensemble Bang On A Can – put together an arrangement of their 1967 song Heroin for tenor and cello, which was released on his album Pierced in 2010.

After the Velvet Underground disbanded, lead singer Lou Reed would go on to have an adventurous and acclaimed career of his own. One infamous piece, the 1975 double album Metal Machine Music, was a free-form assault of harsh noise that lasted over 65 minutes. Although totally bizarre and heavily derided at the time, the album has gone on to be seen as pioneer of the noise, industrial and heavy metal genres and was arranged for orchestra by Ulrich Krieger for German ensemble Zeitkratzer in 2007.

Apart from reinterpretations and arrangements, some composers used their own styles to craft tributes to pop musicians. Take for example Lukas Foss’s Night Music (For John Lennon) released in 1983. Though it was originally meant to be a new commission for the Northwood Symphonette, Foss began working on the piece on the day of John Lennon’s death and soon began crafting the work from that inspiration. While not stylistically linked to any of The Beatles’ work, Night Music plays with contrasting melodic and harsh elements. The use of an electric guitar and colourful switching of tones creates a work that doesn’t seem too far removed from the personality of a Stockhausen aficionado like Lennon.

With the breaking down of musical barriers in the 20th century there’s a reciprocal element to what modern composers have drawn on. Contemporary artists such as Max Richter and A Winged Victory For the Sullen cite minimalists like Glass and Reich equally with the ambient music created by Brian Eno, other pop musicians and traditional classical composers.

Collaborative live performances such as Techno legend Jeff Mill’s Light From The Outside World with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and electronic producer Actress’s recent show at the Barbican with the London Contemporary Orchestra again show the continued blurring of dichotomies with traditional genres, and the willingness of audiences to follow the results.

Read more about 20th-century classical music on Corymbus:

In Pursuit Of The Ondes Martenot

Bobby Jewell is an arts and music writer based in London and has written for This Is Tomorrow, O Fluxo, and Perfect Wave. He makes monthly ambient/classical mixes which can be found at He tweets at @bobby_jewell.

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Shakespeare in Scandinavia

Ingmar Bergman’s 1941 A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Sagoteatern
Ingmar Bergman’s 1941 rosperoroduction of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with his Sagoteatern Theatre Company, (Stockholm). Original photo here.
leahbroad     By Leah Broad

Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare. With the 400th anniversary of his death this year (following hot on the heels of his 450th birthday in 2014), it’s difficult to go far before being confronted by the British bard. I am always a little nervous about anniversaries, because they run the distinct risk of becoming tedious. Repeated showings of Timon of Athens and Titus Andronicus set in Fascist Germany are enough to put anybody off Shakespeare for life. And Shakespeare hardly needs more advocacy — as one of my friends put it, ‘Well, he can’t live up to the hype. Just makes him seem a bit over-rated, doesn’t it?’

In some ways, I’m inclined to agree. But it’s because he’s over-rated that Shakespeare can be so fascinating. Lauded as a universal playwright of the people, Shakespeare has been reinvented in the image of every generation — and not just in Britain. His plays are something of a geographical and chronological constant, enduring across continents and throughout changing political regimes. Shakespeare is a mirror which cultures have held up to themselves, reflecting fragments of history through his familiar words.

Take, for example, the Nordic countries at the turn of the twentieth century. Alongside the Swedish playwright August Strindberg, Shakespeare was seen as a touchstone for the “modern” director, continually staged in both the provinces and capitals of the Nordic countries. The Swedish director Per Lindberg staged Hamlet (twice), As You Like It, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, The Comedy of Errors, The Merchant of Venice and Othello at the Lorensberg Theatre in Gothenburg; when he later moved to Stockholm, his first major production in 1926 was Antony and Cleopatra. Such was Shakespeare’s popularity in Scandinavia that in Danish critic Georg Brandes’ 1898 critical history of the playwright, Brandes wrote: ‘Europe is still busied with him as though with a contemporary. His dramas are acted and read wherever civilisation extends.’

A watercolour sketch by Knut Ström for a Romeo and Juliet production at the Lorensberg (Stockholm) in 1922.
A watercolour sketch by Knut Ström for Romeo and Juliet at the Lorensberg (Stockholm), 1922.

And central to all these productions was music. Music is threaded into the fabric of Shakespeare’s plays, from the opening of Twelfth Night (‘If music be the food of love, play on’) to Hamlet likening himself to an instrument (‘there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak’) and the witches’ scenes in Macbeth (‘I’ll charm the air to give a sound / While you perform your antic round’).

For a composer, Shakespeare is the gift that keeps on giving. In his lifetime, it is likely that music would only have been used when called for in the script — when the clown in Twelfth Night sings ‘Come away, come away death’, for example. This probably would have been a solo singer, perhaps accompanied by a single instrument (for, as Shakespeare was at pains to point out, musicians were expensive to hire).

Twentieth century composers provided music for these moments (‘Come away death’ was set by Jean Sibelius, in the Swedish translation ‘Kom nu hit, död’), but they also wrote much more extensive orchestral scores to accompany these dramas. It was customary to commission incidental music for the largest productions of the early twentieth century stage, and Shakespeare performances fell squarely into this bracket. The Swedish composer Ture Rangström wrote no fewer than 50 short movements for Hamlet in 1942, and Sibelius produced 34 pieces for The Tempest in 1925-26, orchestrated for some of the largest forces he ever composed for.

Sadly, much of this music has never made its way into published, let alone recorded, format. At least part of the problem lies in the nature of incidental music — without the production that the music was meant for, it loses much of its context. Even setting aside the visual aspects, if you record theatre music, do you include the text? Another clue is in the terminology itself — “incidental” music. The sonic elements of the theatre are so often forgotten, assumed to be subordinate to a performance’s visual and textual elements.

Gösta Ekman as Hamlet in 1934 (Vasateatern, Stockholm).
Gösta Ekman as Hamlet in 1934 (Vasateatern, Stockholm).

But these scores were the lifeblood of the twentieth century stage. In 1908, one reviewer wrote of Sibelius’s music for Strindberg’s play Swanwhite that it was ‘needed so that the piece can work on stage.’ And the theatre provided a vital platform for experimentation. Theatrical resources were often so limited that composers had to look for innovative new methods of scoring, and ways of being expressive in an extremely concentrated format.

We only have to turn to Sibelius’s second song in his Twelfth Night settings, ‘Hey ho, the wind and the rain’, to hear this. It’s a cheeky, modern setting that relies on having performers with a flair for the dramatic. It takes the ribald humour of Shakespeare’s original setting and puts a twentieth century spin on it: and at a running time of just over 2 minutes, Sibelius has a very short amount of time in which to do so. Techniques honed on the theatrical stage were transferred across to concert works, and vice versa, the different genres enjoying a mutually symbiotic relationship.

Sibelius’s Overture for The Tempest — his study of a storm with its whirling, destructive aeolian sonorities — generates the sound-world for his final tone poem Tapiola, composed only a year later. Musicologist Daniel Grimley has suggested that Sibelius’s interest in The Tempest is fundamental to understanding both Sibelius’s late works and his later silence; that he was drawn to the play because of the character of Prospero, and because of all Shakespeare’s plays, it is the one most motivated by music. Sibelius himself wrote to the critic Gunnar Hauch that ‘The Tempest [is dearest to me] because of its musicality.’ He seems to have identified strongly with Tempest’s cast of exiles, especially the creative castaway Prospero.

At the time, Prospero was broadly interpreted as Shakespeare’s autobiographical character, and that the character of the creative castaway was Shakespeare’s meditation upon his own late years and artistic process. This no doubt resonated with Sibelius at a period when he was struggling with his own self-criticism, struggling to justify his place on an international stage that was increasingly attentive to the angular sounds of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Scriabin. Sibelius’s setting of The Tempest, then, holds invaluable keys to his later compositional years.

On the other end of the spectrum lies Lars-Erik Larsson’s orchestral piece En vintersaga. This is not incidental music per se, but was commissioned in 1937 for a radio broadcast of A Winter’s Tale.  Larsson is an eclectic composer difficult to pigeon-hole in to any one specific “style”, but En vintersaga is a lush, romantic score that emphasises the pastoral elements of Shakespeare’s script. The Prologue opens with lilting, low strings over a bass drone, the gentle melody passing between the winds before culminating in a statement in the brass. The rippling wind motifs capture the fluidity of Shakespeare’s text, such as when Polixenes says ‘Nine changes of the watery star hath been/ The shepherd’s note since we have left our throne/ Without a burden.’

Within Sweden, only Larsson’s contemporary Hugo Alfvén could rival him for popularity, and Larsson undoubtedly drew on the sound world of his most popular work, Midsommarvaka, (‘Midsummer vigil’). This is an orchestral rhapsody that depicts the gaiety of the Swedish Midsummer festival, using Swedish folk tunes and dance rhythms. By transferring these sounds to Twelfth Night, Larsson set Shakespeare’s play in a place that is both timeless — Midsummer has pagan associations, seen as a liminal space between past and future, the real and the imaginary or mystical — but also identifiably Swedish.

Nearly twenty years later, in 1951/2, the sound of ‘Swedish Shakespeare’ had changed considerably. Titled Symphony Shakespeariana, Gösta Nystroem’s 4th Symphony was composed in the wake of his music for both The Tempest (1934) and The Merchant of Venice (1936). Shakespeare clearly stayed with him, subtitling the symphony’s movements with quotations from the sonnets and from The Tempest.

Nystroem’s Prelude to Tempest bears some remarkable similarities to Sibelius’s, but it is an altogether more mechanical storm, with undertones of music such as Alexander Mosolov’s Iron Foundry underlying the wordless chorus. His symphonic version is less pictatorial, but retains the idea of nature tempered by a destructive militaristic pulse. Moving away from Sibelius’s almost symbolist concerns about the individual in nature, Nystroem’s Shakespeare seems to occupy an altogether more politicised landscape, emerging fragmented from the wreckage of the 1940s.

Whether it was by providing a vessel for compositional anxieties, or acting a vehicle for nationalist expression, Shakespeare has continually been cast simultaneously in the roles of the most abstract and specific of playwrights. Performing Shakespeare carries with it a formidable weight of tradition, but it is through the continual reinvention of this tradition that Shakespeare is at his most vital. He continues to find new political and spiritual guises across the world today — as in, for example, Thomas Adès’s opera The Tempest. For as long as Shakespeare continues to be the canvas upon which musicians, actors, artists, and poets can inscribe their passions and anxieties, thank goodness for over-rated Shakespeare.

Leah Broad is a DPhil at the University of Oxford. As the founder and editor of The Oxford Culture Review she writes extensively on the arts, and won the Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Best Arts Journalism Essay 2015. She is a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker 2016, and co-leads Oxford’s Nordic Research Network.  More of her work can be found on her website. She tweets as @leahbroad.

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Become Ocean

Jellyfish at Monterey Bay Aquarium, California.
Jellyfish at Monterey Bay Aquarium, California.
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

When news recently broke that pop star Taylor Swift had donated $50,000 to the Seattle Symphony, eyebrows were understandably raised. They surely shot higher with the revelation that Swift had been inspired by the recording of John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, a contemporary orchestral piece of over 40 minutes length.

Even before Swift’s commendation emerged, the Seattle Symphony’s recording had sold extraordinarily well – at least by classical music standards – no doubt helped by Become Ocean winning the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music. It seems that Adams has become that rare thing: a living classical composer who has struck a chord with a wide audience.

John Luther Adams – not to be confused with the other American composer John Adams – was born in Mississippi in 1953. After visiting Alaska through his work in environmental protection, he settled there in 1978 – with ‘high ideals and big dreams’, as he explained in a recent essay for the New Yorker. ‘Up here, unfettered by competitive careerism, I felt free to follow the music wherever it might lead me’.

Adams and his wife Cindy lived in Alaska for over 30 years, but now divide their time between New York and the Sonoran Desert in Mexico. It was in the latter location, near the Pacific coast, that Adams began composing Become Ocean in 2012. These stories of working in remote places inevitably add a certain romance to his image – as if he were a hermit forsaking our noisy world in order to gain a higher perspective on existence. It is the kind of escape that many of us might dream about, but few have the resolve to carry through.

An Alaskan landscape. Cropped from original, here.
An Alaskan landscape. Cropped from original, here.

Escape, perhaps, is a key word. It seems to be the primary route by which contemporary composers can achieve popularity, whether through the spirituality of John Tavener, the soothing arpeggios of Ludovico Einaudi, or the timeless melancholy of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, whose 1992 release is still the best-selling contemporary classical record to date. Being a quiet sanctuary is a positive role that classical music can play in modern life, though it is just one of many.

But if Become Ocean is a kind of escape, it is also nuanced and complex. Its interplay of rapid movements and glacial shifts creates a mesmerising experience. It murmurs, groans, fizzes, glitters. And it simply is there – in the words of Gramophone Magazine’s Pwyll ap Siôn, it is like ‘an immense sonic object, slowly floating across a vast area’. At the same time, in an astonishing feat of construction noted by Alex Ross, it is composed as a colossal palindrome: at the half-way point the tide turns, and the music starts running backwards.

Perhaps one reason why the recording has sold so well is that it rewards close listening, but does not demand it. A good deal of contemporary classical music takes for granted the listener’s familiarity with modernism, while assuming their undivided attention. Become Ocean, on the other hand, can work both as an immersive experience and as a strangely beautiful soundtrack to writing emails – music that swells to huge climaxes without ever assaulting the ears. In our multimedia age, such versatility is surely a strength.

In a note to the score, Adams warns us that ‘as the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean’. That might sound crass, but at the opposite extreme of the USA from Alaska, Miami is already dealing with this reality.

It is those same warm Gulf of Mexico seas which, via Atlantic currents, give Britain its relatively mild winters. But even by our standards this December has been extraordinary, the countryside panicking into a hasty spring – catkins on the hedgerows, gorse in flower, daffodils emerging. A snow-laden Christmas is always more of a hope than an expectation in these parts. This year the idea seemed like a bitter joke.

Adams must know this sense of disquiet as well as anyone. Alaska is warming two to three times as fast as the mainland USA, and in his last decade there he witnessed profound change taking shape: ‘a summer of vast wildfires would be followed by a summer of seemingly incessant rain […] our sub-Arctic winters lost the pristine cold and deep stillness they once had’.

The natural world has always been a web of highly complex and dynamic relationships – it is a human fallacy to see it as balanced or ordered. But it is also a human failing to overlook our deep and numerous disturbances of those relationships. In an interview with The Guardian, Adams described a sense of ‘embeddedness in this staggeringly beautiful and complex experience of being in the world’. The composer added:

If we lived in a society where we felt empowered by that idea, and felt a responsibility to the world at that level, problems like climate change would be dealt with instantly, because they would just have to be.

Embeddedness, then, is another key word. It is surely something that music, like all art, can aspire to reveal. And yet, warnings of environmental catastrophe can actually carry their own dangers. Psychology research suggests that a sense of threat often results in people suppressing concern for others, or ‘retreating into materialistic comforts’, at precisely the time when clear-sighted collective action is needed.

It seems that paradoxes abound. In his summing up of new classical music in 2015, Ross discerned a conflicted zeitgeist, a mixture of ‘an ominous stasis, an unstable stillness’, with ‘rapid-shifting textures, spasms of nervous energy. Together, all this music suggests a world at once hurtling forward and spinning in place – very much the state in which we live’.

‘An ominous stasis, an unstable stillness’ could well apply to parts of Become Ocean too. The dark, implacable presence that looms at the beginning and end of the work might be a reflection of our current condition, with its challenges that often seem intractable and overwhelming. If there is a chilling undercurrent to this ocean of sound, it surely springs from the monolithic direction that heads the score: ‘Inexorable’.

In November 2014, shortly after the Become Ocean recording was released, I took a road trip down California’s spectacular coastal highway, Route 1. It was my first encounter with the Pacific, a westward expanse of over five thousand miles. I felt perched on the edge of the world. It seemed – though it was surely a trick of the mind – that it looked vaster than any ocean I had seen before.

Big Sur, California
Big Sur, California

It is easy to feel romantic or spiritual in a location like Big Sur. But as the waves lap ever higher, the question at the heart of Adams’ titanic work calls us with a simple urgency: what next? The truth we cannot turn away from is that we have already become ocean. It is now a beast of our own creation, its depths only as mysterious as ourselves.  If only we could reach the mid-point in the palindrome, and let it all run in reverse.

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Nowell Sing We

A section of the Roll Of Carols, The James Catalogue Of Western Manuscripts. Original here.
A section of the Roll Of Carols, the James Catalogue Of Western Manuscripts. Shared under the Creative Commons License. Original here.

Eleanorparker       By Eleanor Parker

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.

Read more by Eleanor Parker on Corymbus:

Nowell Sing We

Eleanor Parker is an academic and writer based in Oxford, who researches and teaches medieval English literature. She blogs at

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The Many Ghosts Of Holst’s Psalm 86

Dorchester Abbey, by Howard Stanbury. Original here, above cropped. Shared under the Creative Commons License.
Dorchester Abbey, by Howard Stanbury. Original here, cropped. Shared under the Creative Commons License.
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

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’.

The Psalm 86 tune in an 1632 English translation of the Genevan Psalter, and in Holst’s 1906 arrangement. Image sources are respectively here and here.

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.

Detail from the Kelmscott Chaucer. Engravings were designed by Morris' friend and collaborator Edward Burne-Jones. Shared under the Wikimedia Commons, original here.
Detail from the Kelmscott Chaucer. The wood-cut illustrations were designed by Morris’ friend and collaborator Edward Burne-Jones. Shared under the Wikimedia Commons, original here.

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 Tallis Fantasia 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.

The Holst memorial, and a detail from a carving of Lazarus of Bethany, in Chichester Cathedral
The Holst memorial, and a detail from a carving of the raising of Lazarus, in Chichester Cathedral

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.

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Walter Willson Cobbett And The Chamber Music Phantasy

“Tallinn String Quartet in Tel Aviv” by Estonian Foreign Ministry. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

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 specific In 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.

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Rarities of Piano Music

Schloss vor Husum, Germany, photo by Tjark (original here). Shared under the Creative Commons License.

Fran      By Frances Wilson

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.

More information about the Rarities of Piano Music festival can be found here.

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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