Category Archives: Meeting report

Bach and the Leipzig cantatas

This was the title of a presentation by Tim Rowe at the Society’s last meeting where he played a selection of the cantatas composed by JS Bach during his time in Leipzig.  He was Kantor at the Thomas church.

Born in Eisenach in 1685, Bach had a difficult childhood being orphaned by the age of 10 and spent his early years living with one of his brothers.

Tim explained that despite his enormous output and his amazing genius, very little in fact is known about him as a person.  Almost no letters survive and there is no contemporary biography.  There is even some doubt about what he looked like.

Focusing on the Leipzig years, upon being appointed, Bach set about composing music for the full Lutheran liturgical year.  This was an enormous task.  Tim provided a circular calendar explaining the timetable for the various cantatas.  They were produced in an almost production line process, starting on a Monday, finished by Thursday, copied on Friday, rehearsed on Saturday and then performed on Sunday.

The performances were quite unlike the concert halls of today.  There was considerable noise and confusion as people and animals came and went.  Churches would employ a whipper to keep control of the dogs.  Services lasted hours.  People were segregated according to class.  It’s a wonder in all the confusion that he music was heard at all.

We use the word ‘cantata’ to describe these works yet it is not the word used by Bach himself.  Often pieces had ordinary generic words to describe them such as ‘church music’ or ‘church piece.’  216 of his compositions survive from this period as regrettably, many manuscripts were lost, indeed, it has been estimated that 40% are missing.  Part of the problem might have been paper since this was a valuable commodity at the time, still being produced by hand.

Bach’s modern reputation – his ‘unfathomable genius’ as Tim put it – owes a lot to Felix Mendelssohn who worked hard to revive him.  Had it not been for Mendelssohn, his music may have continued to languish in obscurity.  Mendelssohn was distantly linked to the Bach family through his maternal grandmother who was taught harpsichord by one of Bach’s sons and who collected his manuscripts.

Tim played a range of the cantatas all performed by the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi choir under the baton of John Eliot Gardiner.  These were recorded in the year 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death.

This was a splendid evening listening to some wonderful works by this great composer.

Peter Curbishley


The next meeting is on 5 March

 

 

 

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The Case for the Unfinished

The Case for the Unfinished was the title of last nights presentation from Tony Powell.  One might be forgiven for thinking this was about Schubert’s unfinished symphony but in fact it was about other composer’s unfinished works of which of course there are plenty.  Attempts to add another movement to Schubert’s work have not been successful and indeed it is possible that what is left is indeed finished.

Tony instead started with a Night on a Bare Mountain by Mussorgsky.  The final movement was changed by Rimsky Korsakov and this was played first.  Then we heard the original version which was entirely different and a complete contrast.  The point here was that finishing another composer’s work may be acceptable if it is in the spirit of the original.

Mozart

Two evenings devoted to this composer

Another famous unfinished work is the Requiem by Mozart and this was being feverishly composed as he was dying.  It was famously finished by his pupil and sometime collaborator Süssmayr.  There are many arguments about who wrote what bit of the work but nevertheless, there is sufficient of Mozart in the piece to make it a great work of art.  The difference here is that the work was intended to be finished and Mozart was dictating ideas until his actual death.  With Schubert on the other hand, we do not know of his intentions.

Bruckner’s ninth is usually played in its incomplete form but again, a lot of material was left – indeed a substantial number of sketches and completed elements – to enable an attempt to be made to create a final movement.  We heard Sir Simon Rattle conducting a performance and he was quoted as saying that there was ‘more Bruckner in the final movement than there was of Mozart in the Requiem.’  It certainly sounded authentic although there were references to the 5th now and again.

It was a surprise to some present that Puccini did not finish Turandot but the opera was left 15 minutes or so short at his death. It was finished by Franco Alfano yet it is recognisably in the master’s hand.

After a long fallow period following the Great War, Elgar started work on his 3rd Symphony which he did not finish by the time of his death in 1934.  From the surviving material the BBC asked Anthony Payne to finish it and he worked on the project for many years.  The first performance was in 1998 conducted by Andrew Davies.  The usual attribution is to both Elgar and Payne.  We heard part of the 1st movement and most of the 2nd.

Finally, Mahler and the unfinished 10th.  Mahler left a lot of notes and a ‘short score’ that is, not a fully orchestrated version.  Mahler had discovered that his wife had been unfaithful and this added to the turmoil in his life.  Initially his widow resisted attempts to finish and fully orchestrate the score but later relented.   There were several attempts and many statements by musicians saying it shouldn’t be done.  Deryck Cooke worked on the score and this was first performed in 1964.  Alma Mahler had changed her mind once she had seen the finished work and heard a performance.  We listened to one movement which was extremely ‘Mahler like’ in its sound and development.

This was a most interesting evening and shed light on the difficulties and problems of trying to finish another composer’s work.  Composition is a highly individual activity and however many notes and sketches are left, what would have ultimately been produced can never be recreated.  But if the attempts are honest to the original composer’s style and intentions, a worthwhile result can be achieved.

The group next meets on 5 February 2018.

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Members’ evening

UPDATE: 23 November

If you have arrived here having read the report in the Salisbury Journal, welcome.  Our next meeting – the last this year – is on Monday 27th and you would be very welcome to come.  £3 for non-members.

The last meeting was a members’ evening where each will present and play a piece which they particularly like and want to share with others.  A wide variety of pieces were performed:

  • it was probably the first time in some years we had heard Wolf-Ferrari and in this case it was the last 2 movements from the Jewels of Madonna
  • Mozart followed with a rare outing of Varrei Spiegarvi o Dio, an aria interopolated into another, now lost opera.
  • we do not often hear the bassoon as a solo instrument but a piece by Weber – andante and Hungarian rondo showed the instrument off well.  It can sound strained in the higher registers but the soloist managed to avoid this
  • back to Mozart and a movement from a quintet K593 he composed around a year before he died
  • Alec Roth has almost certainly never been played before and is a composer with a slight Salisbury connection.  We heard an excerpt from string quintet #2
  • this was followed by some Schubert songs – always a favourite
  • Bach and two cantatas from his time in Leipzig – BWV 8 and 95
  • there was then a mystery piece and this defeated the audience.  It was part of Symphony #4 by the Polish composer Schmidt-Kowalski and several were impressed by this extract.
  • the penultimate piece was a Chopin ballade and to finish
  • .. Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from the Midsummer Nights Dream, but played on two pianos

A very diverse programme with no clear theme except that they were pieces loved by the members.

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The ‘Scottish Orpheus’

The music of James Oswald, described as the ‘Scottish Orpheus’

James Oswald was born in the little town of Crail, Fife and started life as a dancing master in Dunfermline.  He spent time in Edinburgh and

James Oswald. Pic: Spartacus-educational

then went to London and started to compose music based on Scottish tunes then the rage in the 1740’s.  He set up shop near St Martin’s Churchyard and this became a meeting place for expatriate Scots.  He developed his links with the English aristocracy and was appointed Chamber Composer by George III.

We were delighted to welcome Jeremy Barlow to the meeting, an authority on this period of music.  Jeremy is one of the most versatile musicians on the British early music scene, with a career encompassing writing, lecturing, and performing.  After studying at Trinity College Cambridge and the Royal Academy of Music, London, his first job was as flutist with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.

But what characterises Scottish music and makes it so recognisable?  The basic reason is that it is based on the pentatonic scale not the normal 7 note scale we are used to.  It also has a base accompaniment which is a chord which only changes one note at a time as the melody progresses.  The third feature is something called the ‘Scotch Snap’, a short accented note before a longer note.  These combine to give Scottish music its particular sound.

Image result for jeremy barlow musician

Jeremy Barlow

As an introduction, Jeremy played the Birthday Ode for Queen Mary composed in 1692 by Henry Purcell.  This uses a Scottish tune in the base line.  We also heard contemporary examples by William McGibbon; Francesco Geminiani and Alexander Erskine, Earl of Kelly.  The main part of the evening was music by Oswald which included Airs for the Seasons, the curiously named Dust Cart Cantata and the Divertimento No. 8 for English guitar.  Jeremy Barlow directed the Broadside Band in Airs for all the Seasons, Oswald’s finest work.

Oswald became particularly friendly with John Robinson-Lytton the owner of Knebworth House in Hertfordshire.  After Robinson-Lytton died he married his widow and moved into Knebworth, he had surely come a long way.

An interesting evening concerning the work of a composer few would be familiar with.


I am indebted to the notes provided by Jeremy in writing this piece

Peter Curbishley

Next meeting 13 November which is a members’ evening so please let Tony Powell know what your choice is.

 

 

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Pupils of famous composers

Who was this composer’s teacher?

Many composers taught pupils in a kind of apprenticeship scheme.  Composers often needed the money and no doubt the son or daughter of a wealthy family brought in a useful income.  Some pupils went on to have promising careers – others did not have sufficient talent to succeed.

In last night’s meeting Alan Forshaw played pieces by a variety of composers and asked us to guess who had been their teacher.  A combination of style, dates and where they lived or studied gave us a clue in some cases, especially the earlier ones, but it became steadily more difficult as we approached modern times.  Once again in a Society evening, we heard examples of music by long forgotten composers who’s music is worthy of a hearing.  Many were prolific in their day turning out operas, symphonies and concertos by the dozen.  The pieces we heard were:

  • a piano sonata in C by Johann Muthel a pupil of JS Bach
  • the Adagio from the Symphonie Concertante in A by Ignaz Pleyel, who’s name survives on pianos and music scores.  He wrote 41 symphonies. He was taught by Haydn and his influence was audible
  • Thomas Attwood (pictured) studied in Vienna under Mozart and his remains are buried in St Pauls.  We heard his Rondo from a Trio fo

    Thomas Attwood

    r Piano, Violin and ‘cello

  • this was followed by a Fantasia by Steven Storace who was born in London and also studied in Vienna
  • Carl Czerny is slightly better known and was a pupil of Beethoven.  The master’s influence could clearly be heard in his Theme and Variations for Horn and Piano
  • another pupil of Beethoven was Ferdinand Reis, a native of Bonn (a clue) and his Rondo from a Piano Concerto in C# minor showed a lot of talent
  • Franz Liszt needs no introduction and was a pupil of Czerny in Vienna.  We heard his Hungarian Rhapsody No 13
  • the immensely talented but almost unknown Carl Filtsch from Romania led Liszt to say when he heard him play, he would give up performing.  Tragically, he died in his teens but his Impromptu in Gb Major showed what a loss he was to music
  • another pupil of Czerny was Thomas Tellefsen from Norway who also studied in Paris.  Waltz in Db Major
  • Valsa Caprichosa from 3 Portuguese Scenes was composed by a pupil of Liszt, Jose Vianna da Motta who was born on the island of Sao Tome off the coast of Africa
  • Carl Reinecke has almost disappeared from view and is rarely heard today.  His Finale from Wind Octet in Bb Major was a delight
  • Gabriel Fauré needs no introduction who was a pupil of  Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns.  We heard the famous Paradisum from the Requiem
  • Someone less famous, or even unheard of, is Eugene Gigout also from France who studied in Paris under Saint-Saëns.  His Toccata in B Minor is exciting and worth listening to.  He was a famous organist in his day (born 1844)
  • Josef Suk was part of a large musical family and studied under Antonín Dvořák famous for his Symphony from the New World.  Suk does sometimes make it onto present day concerts and last night we heard the Andante from the Serenade for Strings Opus 6, a fine piece
  • Glazunov was a pupil of  Rimsky-Korsakov and studied in St Petersburg.  A prolific composer and we heard the preamble from Scenes de Ballet
  • another pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov was Igor Stravinsky one of the composers who had an enormous influence over the course of 20th century musical history and famous for his ballets.  His Piano Sonata No 2 was special and well worth a listen if you can
  • the Australian Percy Grainger had several teachers and studied in Berlin and elsewhere.  We heard the extraordinary Zanzibar Boat Song – six hands on one piano
  • Busoni was the teacher of Frederick Loewe famous for his musicals with Alan Lerner and it was The Rain In Spain from My Fair Lady we heard to illustrate his talent
  • Lennox Berkeley was a pupil of the enigmatic Maurice Ravel who’s influence could just be heard in Polka Opus 5a

    Vaughan Williams

  • Finally, another pupil of Ravel was Vaughan Williams (and we will be hearing more of him later in the season with a talk from the Vaughan Williams Society coming).  We heard part of March ‘Seventeen Come Sunday from the Folk Song suite (1924)

Alan had put in a lot of work to track down some of the more obscure pieces especially in the first half which made it an interesting and worthwhile evening.

Peter Curbishley


Next meeting on 30 October

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Schubert Centenary Competition

Finishing the Unfinished

It is well-known that Franz Schubert did not finish his eighth symphony, Number 8 in D Minor. What is less well-known that there was a competition launched in 1928 inviting composers to compose the final movements from the surviving notes.  The competition was proposed by the British arm of the Columbia Phonograph company after the bankruptcy of the American parent.  1927 was the centenary of Beethoven’s death and the company released electrical copies of all nine symphonies which were a commercial success.  What to do next?  Well 1928 was the centenary of Schubert’s death and so a competition to complete the Unfinished was proposed.  A prize of over £100,000 in today’s money was to be awarded.

Cue outrage from the musical world and cries of ‘sacrilege’.  The original theme of the competition was dropped and in its place a competition for new works where composers were required to:

[provide] compositions, apart from faultless formal structure, must be marked by the predominance of a vigorous melodic content, and the number of instruments employed must not substantially exceed the measure established by the classical orchestras of time.

Last night’s presentation about this subject was by Robin Lim who had clearly done a deal of research to unearth the background and to find some of the music composed for this competition.

The first piece was by Felix Weingartner and was his Symphony No 6 from which we heard the allegro.  This incorporated some of the known fragments but could not be considered for the competition as he was invited to sit on the judging panel.

Next we heard two movements in symphonic form by Frank Merrick from Bristol, best known in his day as a pianist.

After that was a piece called Pax Vobiscum by john St Anthony Johnson born circa 1874 and about whom little is known.

Finally before the break we heard the 3rd movement from Hans Gal’s Symphony No 1.  Gal lived in Edinburgh and was interned as an enemy alien during WWII.

The evening ended by listening to some of the prize winners.  The judging panel was extraordinary and included Ravel, Respighi, de Falla, Szymanowski and Thomas Beecham.  Third prize went to a piece by Czeslaw Marek (who’s music we have heard in an earlier evening of the Society).  We heard an extract from his symphonia.  This is a composer who we should hear more of as he only rarely appears on concert programmes.

Second prize went to Franz Schmidt and we heard the scherzo from his 3rd Symphony.  This composer does still sometimes still feature in concert programmes – indeed he was performed in the 2015 Proms – but is not well known.

The winner?  This was by the composer Kurt Atterberg and we heard the finale to his 6th Symphony.

The story did not end there though.  Ernest Newman writing in the Sunday Times that;

Atterberg may have looked down the list of judges and slyly made up his mind that he would put ins a bit of something that would appeal to each of them in turn – a bit of Scheherazade for the Russian Glazunov, a bit of Cockaigne for Mr Tovey, a bit of the New World Symphony for Mr Damrosch, and bit of Petrushka for the modernist Alfan and bit of Granados for Salazar … but I wonder if there may not be another explanation  … Atterberg is not merely a composer.  He is a musical critic … suppose he looked round with a cynical smile that was all the world knows all critics wear and decided to pull the world’s leg?

The story was picked up by other newspapers and stories with headlines such as “£2000 Symphony hoax” and “Joke of Swedish Composer” soon appeared.  Columbia sought to recoup the prize money but it was too late — Atterberg had spent it on a new Ford car.

A fascinating insight into a period of musical history which has been all but forgotten.

Peter Curbishley


I am grateful for the notes provided by Robin Lim in writing this piece.

Next meeting 16 October

 

 

 

 

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Delius

The works of Frederick Delius

Delius. Delius Society

The works of Frederick Delius were the subject of the Society’s evening on April 24th and we were delighted to welcome Martin Lee-Browne, the ex-president of the Delius Society.  This was an informed presentation – not just because Martin knew a great deal about this composer – but because of the family connections he has with him.  His grandfather was a good friend to Delius and also taught Sir Thomas Beecham the famous conductor.  It was Beecham who did so much to promote the composer.

Delius’s father was a wool merchant and wanted his son to go into the business which he did for about 2 years.  His heart was not in it so he then persuaded his father to help set him up in the orange plantation business in Florida which he did for a couple of years.  He then gave that up and moved to Danville in Virginia.

He studied music in Leipzig in 1886 but was unimpressed with the teaching there which he found old fashioned and apparently, they were not too impressed with him.  He met and became friends with the Norwegian Composer Edvard Grieg and persuaded him to come to England to meet his father.  Norway was a big influence on his work and the Song of the High Hills is based on his time there.  Beecham described this as one of the composer’s major works.

His father was so impressed that his son knew someone as famous as Grieg that he continued funding his musical activities for another year.  This he spent living in Montparnasse in Paris.  He struggled to make a living there as a composer.  By 1899 he had managed to get only 20 songs published.

He returned to England and self-funded a concert of his own works which had mixed success but began to get him recognised as a serious composer.  Gradually his pieces entered the repertoire.   Martin played several of his works – including some early compositions which one would not at first sight have realised were by him – as well as selections from his more famous and familiar works.  These included Brigg Fair, the single movement Violin Concerto and Sea Drift, the latter strongly influenced by Walt Whitman.

Martin Lee-Browne. Picture: Salisbury RMS

Martin also brought along some memorabilia included a score annotated in the margin by Percy Grainger.  In 1910 his health seriously declined and he was only able to compose with the aid of Eric Fenby who wrote the music to Delius’s direction.  He lived for most of his life in Grez-sur-Loing in France and he is buried with his wife in Limpsfield in Surrey.

 

 

 

 

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Anton Bruckner

Picture: Wikipedia

For some, Anton Bruckner (pictured) was one of the great symphonists to come out of the nineteenth century.  Nowadays, his works are performed around the world and are a regular feature of the repertoire.  There are many recordings of the nine numbered symphonies.  But for a long time, his reputation languished and there was a major effort to recognise his genius in the 1960’s.

At the last meeting of the Society, Terry Barfoot gave an illustrated history of the composer and played four movements from 4 different symphonies to illustrate his work.  Bruckner was born in Ansfelden in Austria in 1824, the son of a school teacher.  He himself became a school teacher.  He was an organist of prodigious ability and toured Europe mostly playing improvisations.  Little of this survives.  He was the first to play the organ at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

View of the organ, RFH. Picture: Peter Curbishley

One can hear the influence of the organ in his music.  As Terry put it:

[…] the sound-world of the organ in the resonant acoustic of a great cathedral is relevant in his symphonies, as of course it is in his religious works.  From Wagner he derived his long time-spans, his weighty brass writing and expressive string textures, while another recurring was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and especially its opening […]

He was clearly a late developer as a composer and Terry made the point that had he died at the same age as Schubert (31) he would today be completely unknown.

He was deeply religious and trained as a musician at the monastery church at Sankt Florian a place he was to return to throughout his life especially when he was depressed.  He was also organist in Linz.

Like so many composers – indeed artists generally – he was not appreciated fully in his lifetime.  The famous critic Eduard Hanslick gave him a hard time and his time with the Vienna Philharmonic was not a success.

Terry put together a programme to illustrate his range and development as a composer.  Bruckner is something of a challenge in the context of a Society evening as the expansiveness of his music does not lend itself to short extracts!  He played the following:

  • Motet: Locus Iste
  • Symphony No. 8 first movement
  • Symphony No. 6 second movement
  • Symphony No. 4 third movement
  • Symphony No. 7 fourth movement

Together with photographs of locations around Austria where Bruckner lived or worked this was an interesting and illuminating evening.  We were grateful to Terry Barfoot for putting it together.


Terry runs Arts in Residence

Note: the next meeting is not for 3 weeks because of Easter

 

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The solo violin

The solo violin in classical music

This was a presentation by Salisbury violinist Frida Backman on music for the solo violin.

FB mar 17

Perhaps the first thing to say is that there isn’t that much for the solo instrument.  Beyond Bach one might be stumped to think of many solo works and although Kodály was mentioned and later his fellow Hungarian Bartók, apart from a few virtuoso performers, there are not many works of note.  There is of course a huge repertoire of accompanied violin music and concertos.

The instrument was developed into what we see today in the sixteenth century in Cremona, Italy and one of the first masters was Amati.  The instrument consists of no less than 70 parts.

Frida started with some early works by Nicola Matteis who was a violinist in the early eighteenth century and who composed pieces more advanced than his contemporaries.  We then heard a piece by Tartini also of this era, and who was influential in teaching the instrument and wrote a treatise which may have influenced Mozart’s father.

The composer of a large amount of solo work was JS Bach and we heard several pieces by him including an arrangement by Fritz Kreisler in a 1904 recording of a partita with a piano accompaniment.  We also heard pieces by Biber, Prokofiev, Ysaÿe, and Ravel’s Tzigane composed in the early ’20s.

A brilliant virtuoso of the early nineteenth century was Paganini who’s phenomenal abilities were said to derive from the devil.  He was hugely successful and owned no less than 11 Stradivari violins.  Two of his caprices were played, numbers 23 and 24.

Frida explained that development of the bow was crucial to the instrument’s success.  As music moved out of the salon into the concert hall, more power and volume was needed and the modern bow enabled that to be achieved.  However, many players still use a baroque style bow to achieve greater authenticity and Frida played two CDs of the same piece to illustrate the difference in tone.

Frida ended her presentation with a live rendition of a piece by a modern composer Zura Dzagnidze called Intruder composed in 2005.  This she played against a backing track with herself.

A most interesting evening exploring the history of this most versatile of instruments.

Peter Curbishley


Picture: Frida Backman

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Music fit for an Emperor

Superb and surprising selection of music from the Hapsburg empire

Last night’s presentation by Angus Menzies was of music composed for several of the emperors of the Habsburg court from the middle of 16th to the middle of the 17th centuries.  This was pre-Haydn and Mozart of course and most of the music played was by composers who, for the most part have been forgotten – undeservedly so.

Image result for johann fux

Johann Fux. Picture: Wikipedia

Each would have his own favourites of course but those who stood out were Antonio Bertali; Johann Schmelzer; Heinrich Biber and Johann Fux.  We also heard a piece composed by Leopold I entitled Il lutto dell universe which was ‘not without talent’ as one might say.  The pieces played were mostly composed for weddings and coronations and hence had a magisterial quality.  Others were from operas.  Schmelzer’s Die Fechstchule was played alongside mass horse displays as monarchs from that era often used equestrian events to impress and show off their country.  Indeed, portraits from that era often feature monarchs astride a horse as a symbol of power.  Little is known of him but he was a favourite of Leopold I and became a Kapellmeister in Vienna.

Another composer to impress was Jan Zelenka and we heard Melodrama de Sancto Wenceslao and also Johann Reutter whose aria Venga l’eta was played from La Magnamitada Alessandro.  Zelenka was ranked along side Telemann and Handel in his day but is now mostly forgotten.

A worthwhile evening with many surprises and providing a window into the music of this era in history.

 

 

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