Remembrance Part 2

When Benjamin Britten was asked to write a piece for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral he chose to combine the words of the Requiem with poems by Wilfred Owen. For his soloists he wanted 3 of the warring nations to be represented – Russia, England and Germany.

Space restricts me to making just 2 points from the text – the common humanity of enemy nations and a bitter comment on the slaughter.

We are all made in God’s image is something we learn from Genesis. In the Britten this comes through the choice of Owen’s poem ‘Strange Meeting’ – a dialogue between a dead soldier and the one who killed him, featuring the words ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’.

In the Vaughan Williams movement ‘Reconciliation’ we find Whitman’s words “For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead”

Where the requiem text refers to God’s promise to Abraham, Britten intersperses an Owen poem about Abraham and Isaac with a twist at the end, suggesting that nations’ pride lay behind the slaughter.
“When lo! An angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son, –
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

Finally, I refer to the setting of the Housman poem ‘is my team ploughing?’ by George Butterworth who died at the Somme. Set as a question and answer dialogue between 2 friends, the opening pairs of verses deal with work and football, the later ones with more personal matters until it becomes clear that the responder has married the dead man’s sweetheart.

“Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?”

Ay, she lies down lightly,
She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
Be still, my lad, and sleep.

“Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?”

Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.


Remembrance (part 1)

I’ve written two short articles for the Church notice sheet. Space was limited – I could have said more – and I am very much addressing non-specialist readers.

If you listen to Classic FM especially late at night you will regularly hear ‘the lark ascending’, ‘fantasia on greensleeves’, ‘fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis’. All are deemed to be gentle, relaxing and suitable for bedtime listening. Earlier in the day you may hear the more energetic ‘seventeen come Sunday’ from the English Folk Song Suite.

Vaughan Williams was born in 1872 in rural Gloucestershire, son of a vicar. His mother, Margaret, was a great-granddaughter of Josiah Wedgwood and niece of Charles Darwin.

War began in 1914 and aged 42 he volunteered and became an ambulance driver. It is believed that like so many he never forgot those experiences of war. They found expression in many pieces including in 1936 ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ which I sang in a workshop last Saturday. The title is the closing words of the Latin Mass and is translated ‘Grant us peace’. Coming only 3 years before the outbreak of the Second World War, the piece is seen as both prescient and a warning. A warning that is valid for us today.
The text combines those words, poetry by Walt Whitman about the American Civil War, words of the Quaker MP John Bright spoken in 1855 in opposition to the Crimean War* and biblical selections concerning the coming of peace and a new heaven. It is a work of beauty and horror. The last section is largely triumphant and although a rollicking good sing I question whether it is a bit forced as to me it does not follow logically and unavoidably from what’s come before. As with the Verdi Requiem the last page brings everything to rest as we and the soprano soloist repeat the words ‘dona nobis pacem’.

For a church notice I must mention that he edited the English Hymnal between 1904 and 1906, writing the tunes Down Ampney for ‘Come down, O Love divine’, Sine nomine for ‘For all the saints’ and for the words ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say’ he harmonised a folk tune named Kingsfold after the village in Sussex where he heard it. This tune is also known as ‘Dives and Lazarus’.
In spite of writing music for the church and music with biblical themes, he was described by the second wife as having ‘drifted [from atheism] into a cheerful agnosticism’. He died in 1958 aged 85.

If you wish to explore more of Vaughan Williams, try youtube or spotify and look for ‘A Sea Symphony – words by Walt Whitman again’, ‘Serenade to Music – words by Shakespeare’, ‘Symphony No 5’, ‘Mass in G minor – the influence of Tudor church music again’

* John Bright’s words were “The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings. There is no one, as when the first-born were slain of old, to sprinkle with blood the lintel and the two side-posts of our doors, that he may spare and pass on.”

More Brahms (Op. 116 and Op. 1)

I have recently been learning a few pieces from Op. 116 – numbers 4-7. Very satisfying.

No 4 – beautiful

No 5 – very strange. Interesting how there seem to be 2 choices of tempo – a faster and a slower choice. i prefer the latter.

No 6 – In googling this one I came across the concept of rhythmic dissonance. I think this is what happens when the harmonic and melodic stresses disagree or interfere with one and another. Something I had sensed but could not put into words. Brahms clearly loved ambiguity and he will quite happily harmonise a few melodic notes in two different ways such that the stresses are not on the same beat.

No 7 – I’ve previously looked at page 1 and thought how exciting, turned to page 2 and totally failed to make sense of it. I’ve heard it on disc played by professionals and live by an amateur and it still didn’t make sense. However now I’ve learned the notes I find it compelling and who could not enjoy the powerful ending !

Though numbers 5 and 7 are not performance ready my teacher said why didn’t I learn something really big – such as the f minor sonata.

I have known the opening and the slow movement since I first became a big Brahms fan in my teenage years. It is the most recorded of the three, but last time I heard it I was not as ‘wowed’ as I thought I would be. But I was totally blown away by the first which I heard on Radio 3 from the Wigmore Hall (Boris Giltburg).

It could well be beyond me, but I’ve made a start. I don’t have particularly large hands so it may not be best suited to me. It is a fascinating work – all textbooks point out to nod to the Hammerklavier in the opening. The 1st time bar of the 1st movement is so exciting, as is the last page of that movement – Brahms was kind enough to provide an ossia which I shall use. The last movement has leaps which seem ridiculous but even in his op 1 Brahms is playing rhythmic tricks on us and shifting the stresses away from the first beat of a straightforward 9 8 in a hemiola-like fashion.


Editors and Clementi

A pupil was working with me on Clementi Sonatina in D op 36 No 6, 1st movement.

I wanted her to play longer phrases and I noticed that she was more or less following the phrase marks in her edition. I then looked at my different edition and found the phrases even more chopped up into smaller units.

How then to get across my feeling that her playing was too broken up when she probably felt she was following the text?

Her edition also had a sforzando at the high point of a lyrical phrase – again a need to explain or demonstrate that sfz’s in forte and piano passages differ. I suppose it was put there to help an inexperienced player give the phrase some shape.

Finally fingering – one edition had a slightly cramped change of position to maintain use of the stronger pair of fingers 2 and 4, the other avoid this but used the weaker pair of 3 and 5. You pays your money and makes your choice.

Sophisticated as it is notation cannot convey everything we may want to do with the shaping, timing and articulation.

Next, I want this player to shape her semiquaver runs and quieten the LH for the second subject and improve to her phrase endings.

I will play her Diane Hidy’s version on youtube 

Brahms Op 76 no 5 Capriccio in C-sharp minor

Brahms Op 76 no 5 Capriccio in C-sharp minor

The music of Brahms grabbed me in my late teens. I found a depth of emotion, from the heart, untainted by flashy keyboard antics. Maybe there’s a different kind of showing off in the way the pieces are constructed, the way motives are used, the way he can’t deny himself a cross-rhythm or two. He was a great craftsman and his music still holds great appeal for me, even though I also love practically all the piano repertoire.

I am revisiting this Capriccio which has defeated me at least twice in the past. I believe I now have the tools and guidance to do the job.

I write now merely to share a few observations – not to present a complete analysis. With greater experience I now find I spot points of interest that I missed years ago or I find them more quickly.

A few weeks ago I was struck by the similarity of a chord progression with one in Chopin’s 3rd Ballade. It’s not original. It just goes through the cycle of fifths. Technically having recently worked on the Chopin, the Brahms felt similar.


Ballade extr

Brahms: see bar 3

Brahms op 76 extr1

This Capriccio opens in a stormy manner. There are 3 constituents – the top line steps upwards in crotchets as if in 3 4 fighting against the 2-beats per bar 6 8 bass stabs with a chromatic inner line worming its way around.

Brahms op 76 extr2

The mood relaxes in the middle, the feeling is much more lyrical. Is the material new? No, it’s those opening 3 crotchets turned upside so that they descend.

Brahms op 76 extr3

The last page features a long diminuendo and rall as one is spent from all the turbulence. There is a moment of silence and then a rush to a tragic, angry or violent end. I notice the final C major Capriccio of the set also ends with a winding down, silence, some slower bars and another rush to the finish – this time exultant.

I am also reminded of the G minor Rhapsody with its feeling of winding down as sextuplets become triplet crotchets then crotchets before closing with 2 brusque chords.

If you don’t know it. Here’s a performance on youtube.