Introducing Classical Music #3 The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives

Okay, for this recommendation of a piece of classical music that you should listen to I have shifted gears a little. Because I want to look at a short music by the American composer Charles Ives, a man who was such a maverick when it came to writing music that he refused to make a living from it, working as an insurance salesman, just so he could write the music he wanted to write without having to submit to the tastes of others.

This short piece was described by Ives as being something of a cosmic landscape, with the low constant whisper of the strings representing the druids, unseeing, hearing and doing. But ever present. To me the strings are more like the divine, as they are always present, like an undertone that never changes. The interjections of the flutes are symbolic of the human, the anguish, and suffering of the human experience as it yells out why.

The last burst of despair from the flutes is really telling, because it sounds like a scream of despair as the flautist blasts the air with force through the instrument.

This is a great example of how you can use music to express an idea with very little instrumentation. You can listen to it on Spotify below.

 

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Concert Review: Finding Answers with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Wednesday 14th March 2018

Lighthouse Arts Centre, Poole.

Theirry Fischer (conducting)

Stephen Hough (piano)

Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto

The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives

Brahms’ 1st Symphony

The concert began with Stephen Hough performing Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto. Called the Emperor although not by the composer himself, this was the only concerto that was not debuted by Beethoven himself when his hearing had become so poor he could no longer perform. The piece was a masterpiece of virtuosity and composition by one of, if not the greatest composers in music history. Like the his third symphony it begins with a force of power, and it sweeps the listener along with that same force throughout.

Stephen Hough was as masterful as the audience had hoped he would be, and it was quite a thrill to see him perform this piece without a score. It was as much a feat of memory as a physical one but both the orchestra and Mr Hough were up to the task and the performance was masterful and beautiful. The audience lapped up the music and were not stingy with the applause afterwards.

The only disappointment for the audience was that Mr Hough did not perform an encore, but this was only because of the delight as seeing one of the foremost pianists in the world performing so eloquently. He is quite simply a national treasure.

After the intermission the orchestra performed two very different pieces of music. The first was the hauntingly albeit brief Unanswered Question by Charles Ives. For many  in the audience this inclusion was puzzling as it was at odds from the “pure music” of Beethoven and Brahms that surrounded it in the program. However I was looking forward to listening to it live and I was not disappointed. This piece is at times as stark and brutal when the flutes erupted over the ever present quivering strings.

In a touch of brilliance that confused the audience, the last notes of Ives’ Unanswered Question had barely died down, when Theirry Fischer launched into the bombastic opening of Brahms’ first symphony.  For Brahms the act of the writing a symphony after Beethoven was no small thing and it took him seven years to complete this one. It was hailed as one of the greatest first symphonies ever written.

The B.S.O. are truly one of the finest orchestras and they showed just how phenomenal they are with this performance. This really was a good night out, and if you get a chance to see the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra then you should do so. You will not regret it.

Shifting gears, my favourite albums of last year.

Okay, so when I started this blog it was with the intention of writing about classical music. Which of course it still will be for the most part. That is because I love classical. But music is one of those things that you cannot pigeonhole it. Also if you look at the about page of this blog you will see the quote about music being my aeroplane, which anyone who knows anything about music would know that’s a quote from Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

So to shift gears a little I am going to write about the albums that I really loved from last year, which was really hard because 2017 was an amazing year for album releases.

1: MUSIC FROM BEFORE THE STORM by DAUGHTER

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Daughter is easily one of my favourite groups. They are pretty morbid some would say. But I don’t buy it. This is their third long-play album and was released in September last year.

It is the soundtrack to a computer game called Life is Strange: Before The Storm and they relied heavily on the protagonist of the game for the inspiration behind the composition of this album, and you can tell that this is different than their previous albums because of it. The first notable difference is the fact that the album is mostly instrumental.

The songs on this CD are not the typical style one has come to associate with Daughter. But the difference in style comes from having to be written for a soundtrack and not a naturally evolved band project, but none of that matters because this album is gorgeous. Since its release, it has been on heavy rotation on my Spotify. My tracks on the album are Flaws and Witches. But the whole album is just out of this world.

2: RELAXER by ALT-J

Alt-J_-_Relaxer_cover

This is one of the best albums of the year. Period. The opening track is just out of this world. 3WW is an amazing example of how good contemporary Prog-rock can be.

There is no escaping the folk influences in this album. Their version of The House of The Rising Sun for example and also in Adeline the repeated line about “the auld triangle” is taken from a well known Irish folk song which was made famous in a Brendan Behan play. But there are moments when there are just what you would call out and out pure punk. It is an album that is hard to really categorise due to eclectic nature of the material.

Also, there are some seriously lush cameos in this album from Ellie Rowsell and Marika Hackman which just add to the sheer wonder of this album. Ellie’s vocals in 3WW are particularly gorgeous.

3: TRUTH IS A BEAUTIFUL THING by LONDON GRAMMAR

This album was certainly long-awaited. Their sophomore offering had high expectationsLondon_Grammar_-_Truth_Is_a_Beautiful_Thing which only comes when the first album is so good, and this album was not a letdown but was easily one of the finest albums of the year. Hannah’s vocals are so often praised to the point that it has become difficult to describe it without sounding trite and falling on cliches or hyperbole. But it really is powerful and for me, one of the finest moments listening to a live act comes when I saw this group in Bristol in the fall of last year. The crowd were rowdy and mouthing off at the group and she began singing on her own and literally hushed the crowd in their drunken gobbieness. It was like watch Cohen at the Isle of Wight festival when he subdued a riotous mob.

The album is not much of a deviation from their first record, however, that is not a bad thing and there are many new standards that fans can sing and feel good about it.  One of my favourite parts of the album comes in their song Oh Woman, Oh Man with the striking lyrics “I’ve always had a thing for you, but nothing made you want me better. There is nothing I can do. I’d steal the moon, and nothing made you want me better.” Yeats couldn’t have written about unrequited love better than that. Brilliant.

The rest of the album is great too, and for me, one of the highlights is available only on the deluxe version. What A Day is a wonderful track that begins with a very classical piano motif and builds to a vocal crescendo of Hannah’s glorious vocals. But overall this album was definitely a highlight of an amazing year for albums.

4 : LUST FOR LIFE by LANA DEL REY

Now I know there are many who do not like Lana Del Rey, she really has such a dark Lana_Del_Rey_-_Lust_for_Life.pngsound that some would label morbid, but this album was a like a shade of light in the darker mood of her previous albums. Somewhat like when the melody of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is inverted, the light comes in and it is beautiful.

This album saw Lana doing what she did best, being edgy like a troubled girlfriend who you didn’t know what she would do. But also being so heartbreakingly vulnerable that you couldn’t ever think of not loving her.

The work swells with a Sixties vibe that so many have tried to do but have failed. Yet she manages to mingle it all with hip-hop beats making it sound not like some lame copy of a Sixties girl group. The title track is gorgeous, although I find the video annoying because The Weekend looks more interested in pouting and looking cool that he comes across as not knowing how to treat a woman like Lana, but the song is amazing. Cherry is a good song, despite the profanity that takes away from it, but the rhythm of the track is catchy and the line “I fall to pieces” just adds to the angst of the song. The whole album is a fascinating listen.

5: STRANGER IN THE ALPS by PHEOBE BRIDGERS

This album has to be included because it got a whole lot of play in my rotation. Pheobe is stranger-in-the-alpsa dark, dark, girl indeed and there is a massive melancholy throughout the whole album that speaks to those who have a morbid streak a mile long. But there is beauty in the way she sings that makes this album a lot easier to listen to that one would think given the subject matter.  Even the song Funeral which begins with her lamenting that she will sing at the funeral of someone who is younger than she is before she begins to sing about her own mental health problems. But then remembers that she has no reason to feel bad about anything, given the fact she is going to sing for some guy who has lost his kid.

I loved this album the moment I heard it, and Smoke Signals and Motion Sickness are two great tracks for anyone’s playlist.

So that is my top five albums from last year which was on heavy rotation as well as the wonderful classical albums and older albums mingled in. 2017 was a great year for music, and this year is meant to be just as hot with the long-awaited album by Lo-Moon, a new one by Black Rebel Motorcycle club, Wolf Alice and the debut by post-punk outfit Shame, and some more music from Art School Girlfriend set to hit the shelves this year. Much to look forward to indeed.

Introducing Classical Music #3 Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Okay, so now it is that time of the year where everyone has packed away the decorations, and even though the evenings are still dark, and there is that cold wind whirling around that makes life miserable and not very nice at all. There is hope. Spring is only just around the corner.

There are very few pieces of music that quite make me think of a warm day in spring when the flowers are out in bloom, birdsong fills the air, and the sun’s warmth floods down upon us bathing in such a warm light that our eyes go yellow when we look upwards with them closed. But this is one of them. I can never listen to it without thinking of spring days full of life and joy. Cricket is being played in parks and fields around the country, and life feels that much brighter and enjoyable.

Okay, it is very cliched. But there are not a lot of composers who quite evoke the gentleness of the English landscape in full bloom quite like Vaughan Williams. For that reason, many either look at him with disdain, while others wave his music around like a George’s Cross flag. A defining mark of their Englishness. Giving little thought to the man, and the more significant meaning behind his music.

Yes, he was a very proud Englishman. Not in the mould that we find in abundance today, who sees the pride of nationality as little more than a loathing of all other nations. For him being a proud Englishman meant that he took pleasure in the folk and music customs of the country. He and George Butterworth spend the pre-war years travelling the land recording the lyrics and music of songs that were fast dying out, in an effort to save them for posterity. Like Yeats in Ireland who recorded the folk stories that in turn gave shape to his vision of the art of Ireland, Vaughan Williams used these folk melodies to give a definitive English voice to his music.

He did this because he wanted English music to be clearly defined away from the German mode which was prevalent due to the Germanic world’s iconic composers who had themselves heavily influenced composers from the rest of Europe, Elgar himself was heavily influenced in the Germanic musical tradition in no small part to his being embraced there before he became the definitive voice of English music.

That Vaughan Williams did this at a time when Sibelius, Dvorak, and others were also looking to their native music and stories for inspiration shows how much he was on the pulse of the growing nationalism that saw Europe tip over into a destructive war, one which RVW himself served in as an ambulance driver and killed George Butterworth and other young voices that could have become greats too had they lived.

He also looked to English music of the Renaissance period, and this piece is based on a melody written by one of the great English Renaissance composers Thomas Tallis, whose Spem in Alium (I will get around to this piece) is just an exquisite piece of muscle flexing by a composer from a country looked down upon by the continent.  The melody was composed in 1567 to be included in a hymn book.

The Fantasia was composed and performed in 1910, but was altered a couple of times between then and 1919 before RVW was happy with it, and we have the version known and loved by many today.

So it should be no surprise that this music conjures up the feeling of being out in the British landscape in spring, feeling the carefree joie de vivre which only spring can evoke in us.

So listen to this music close your eyes and see if this music makes you think of spring too, which given the cold weather made bleaker by another Ashes defeat in Australia, might be a welcome prospect for you dear reader, as it is for me. Enjoy the glorious nostalgia for happy times and just breath in the prospect of a gorgeous spring day which is not too far away from us now.

This version is taken from the 2014 album released by the Halle Orchestra under the baton of Sir Mark Elder.

Introducing Classical Music #2 Symphony No1 in G Minor 2nd Movement (Andante Commodamente) By Vasily Kalinnikov

Okay so, first of all, don’t let all the rambling words in the above title put you off. What you need to know simply is that I am recommending the second movement of Kalinnikov’s first symphony. The G Minor and the Andante Commodamente are the kinds of extra information that people who have an understanding of music theory like to say. It sounds more pretentious and that is the attraction of it all. But it must not put you off.

Especially when it comes to a piece of music like this which is so staggeringly beautiful and really is an underrated gem by a composer who is so completely overlooked by most that it should be illegal!

Vasily Kalinnikov as you can tell was Russian and was a contemporary of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. He died in 1901 just before his 35th birthday of tuberculosis having failed to get the notoriety and recognition that his contemporaries did, though both men tried to help his cause and helped him get publishing contracts for his work, and Tchaikovsky helped him get two theatre posts, however his sickness worsened and he had to resign.

He wrote this piece in the mid to late 90s in Yalta where he was convalescing from his illness and it was premiered in Kiev. This and the third movement went down so well with the crowd that they demanded repeat performances of both movements during the concert and when you listen you will see why. It is romantic music done in a way that only the Russians seem to know how to do best.

Kalinnikov never had it easy, poverty blighted his life and made his sickness somewhat inevitable. But it shouldn’t be inevitable that someone who wrote music like this should be overlooked and forgot. So I really urge you to click on the link below and listen not only to this recommendation and my first one too. You seriously will be glad that you did.

Introducing Classical #1 Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op 43 Sergei Rachmaninov

One of the things that strikes me about classical and those who want to get into the genre is that often due to the sheer volume of music it is often hard to know where to start. I too had this problem when I decided that I wanted to get to know classical music a bit better, and I was fortunate enough to know a girl who was learning classical guitar and who made a recommendation for me. It was her recommendation that started my love affair with this music and I hope that it will spark off your love of the music too.

She had suggested that I listened to my first recommendation Sergei Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini which at the time was a bigger gamble for someone who wanted to get to know more about classical because it meant that I had to go and buy the record from a store rather than merely listening to it on one of the many music streaming services available. But I went and bought a CD that had the Rhapsody along with the 3rd piano concerto, and from the moment I heard it, I was hooked.

Listen to Rhapsody On A Theme of Paganini by clicking here.

Now a little bit of a background about this piece, it was called a Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini because it basically features a variation of the 24th and last Caprice by the violin legend and bad boy Niccolo Paganini (who was said to have made a deal with the devil to be the best violinist ever, and was also said to have murdered three of his lovers and used their guts for violin strings. Though this is just a story of course.)

It was written for a piano and orchestra and is somewhat like a piano concerto in which the pianist has moments to show off their virtuoso skills while the orchestra accompanies and sometimes competes with the pianist.  There are 24 variations split into three parts though when it is played, it is played continuously with no breaks. Which is why it is not really a concerto.

Now anyway, that is some of the boring stuff about it. However, now we get to the main thrust of it. Why do I recommend this piece? Because it is one of the most breathtaking and enthralling pieces of classical music. It is fast and playful at times, there are parts that sound like some score from the golden age of Hollywood, there are thoughtful almost mournful parts too, and you will not fail to miss that there is one bit that sounds like the song What a Feeling from the 80s film Flashdance.  This is 14:42 minutes into the piece.

There are some who will say that it is not a rhapsody because it just feels somewhat too gloomy. I understand that. But once you get into the end of the piece it is gushing and romantic and so beautiful and the inverted them sounds so sunny and bright and uplifting.

I highly recommend this piece for anyone who wants to come to learn about classical because it is full of just wonderful tunes. It was the first classical music piece that I actually sat down and listened to and loved and for that reason, I am recommending it to you first. There will be much more to come of course. But for now, I urge you to listen to it. Don’t feel you have to sit in a dark room in a big chair or something like that. Put it on as you would any other music and knocking it up to the appropriate level. You are in for a wild ride.

So you want to listen to classical music?

For most classical music seems like some closed club that you need to know music theory to enjoy. In this article, I explain why anyone can get into it.

This question seems daunting, almost like a challenge. I remember being asked that by a person I know who likes classical music and fits into the mould that so many of that ilk seem to be made from. She was the highfalutin kind of person who seemed to make out that in order to appreciate classical music you had to know the ins and out of musical theory, and that if you did not understand even the simple basics of music theory then you would not be capable of enjoying this art form. Her question sounded more like she was mocking me rather than looking to discuss a common interest with me. She knew I had no musical training, while she had. The impression she gave me was that there was no way I could possibly like classical music because I knew nothing about it.

But this is complete and utter rubbish. You can enjoy any art form whatsoever without having even the slightest idea how someone does something. From painting, through music, the only thing you need to know is that art is appreciated not because one knows the theory behind its construction but (1) you like what you are seeing, reading, or hearing, and (2) beyond the superficial of aesthetics there is some deeper emotional connection to the piece.

Classical music is as hardcore and rebellious as punk rock. Trust me, the more you get to know about it the more you will see that this is the case.

When you look at other music forms, like pop, rock, or whatever, a person enjoys the song or tune simply for that reason. They might just like the catchy tune or melody, the drum beat and baselines, or just enjoy the lyrics. But apart from that, you have no idea what the composer went through when writing it, what music theory went into its composition, or what tricks went into its being recorded. The same can definitely be said about classical music. You do not need to know about music theory to enjoy it, no matter what form you are listening to.

The difference between classical music and all the other forms of musical genres is the fact that classical stretch further back in time taking in hundreds of years of music history whereas most other forms are a still relatively new. Pop is the best example, this form really only got started in the late 50s early 60s.

A common misconception, therefore, is that classical music is old, stuffy, and out of date. A relic, or museum piece that nobody young would like. But this is just not true at all. Classical music is as hardcore and rebellious as punk rock. Trust me, the more you get to know about it the more you will see that this is the case.

Just as rock can be divided into different forms based on when it was recorded, say for example rock and roll, hard rock, prog rock, punk rock, and heavy metal, all tell you something of the style and time period, so too can Classical music be divided into sub-genres that tell you something of the style and times they were written in.

There are 7 definite periods of classical music. These are as follows.

The Ancient (pre 500) Early music (500- 1400)The Renaissance (1400-1600) The Baroque (1600- 1750) The Classical Period (1750-1820) The Romantic Period (1820- 1910) and The Contemporary Period (1910- today) I personally like to split the contemporary period into two parts. The Modern (1910-1930) and the Post Modern (1930- today) because it is crazy to compare the works of Rachmaninov with that of Philip Glass.

In the end, the best way to get into the music is to just listen to it.

The best way to get into the music, however, is not to get too bogged down with the dates and titles of these periods. The point is that you should look at each of these different periods as a chance to find what particular type of classical music you like best. Plunge into the music by sampling the different periods to find what you like. Remember also that a lot of the early periods were written mostly for the church and tend to be religious, though not always. It is good to note that these early periods also contain a lot more vocal music. The Classical period saw a move away from religious music as society became more secular.

Just listen to what you can, find what you like, and don’t let anyone put you off. Everyone starts any endeavour with the same amount of knowledge.

Another good way to get into music is to think of composers that you would like to listen to. The classical period contains a lot of the names that we have come to know about, Mozart, Hayden, Beethoven for example. This could help as you do some research, look up the different periods and see what names were big names and see if you can come up with something that really reaches you. Google the names of the composers and see what comes up, in the end, the best way to get into the music is to just listen to it.

Don’t let anyone put you off. Classical music is not an exclusive club that requires some insider knowledge. It is just like any other type of music that you listen to. Just pick up an album and listen, go to concerts, they are not expensive and if you are unsure of when to clap, just wait for others to start clapping. I will deal more about concert going in another post, but for now, just listen to what you can, find what you like, and don’t let anyone put you off. Everyone starts any endeavour with the same amount of knowledge.

Classical music is not an exclusive club that requires some insider knowledge. It is just like any other type of music that you listen to. Just pick up an album and listen.

The only thing you really need to know is that when you look up a piece of classical music, say for example Beethoven’s 5th symphony, and you see Op 67, it might be confusing. Don’t fret. This stands for opus and is a device that enables us to slot a piece in the order of it’s being written. For Mozart, this is designated as a K number, not an OP number. These numbers help us, for example, Beethoven’s first symphony is his Opus 21, which means he wrote 20 other pieces of music before writing that symphony, his second symphony has the opus number 36. We see then that it is a really helpful device for dating a work and seeing where it slots in the overall work of the composer. I added this explanation because someone once asked what the OP number meant and she was laughed at by people who felt too happy to tear down rather than help. These people seem to care nothing about the music but simply relish the pretence of elitism that the music gives them. Take no heed of those ones. Classical music is a great form. Get into it.