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The thread connecting all the beautiful works we shared with you at Hackney Town Hall is ephemeral: Romance. Romance, meaning love, adoration, beauty, in and of itself, without requiring to be anything more.
However, in searching and putting together sumptuous pieces to share with you for our almost-Valentine’s event, an interesting connection emerged… Many of the works we were drawn to, that captured the spirit of romance in some way, were composed by Englishmen:
Gerald Finzi, William Walton, Edward Elgar and Henry Purcell.
This at first might seem a little strange as the English don’t exactly have a reputation for romance. “An inability to express their emotions” might be closer to the mark, especially uttered by one of their southern Mediterranean neighbours.
Perhaps, it is just that the emotions are buried deeper in the English. Through their composers, we gain a glimpse of the rich inner life we all share as human beings, that in the English can be quite hidden away and tucked out of sight.
Interestingly, between Purcell (1659-95), the earliest of these composers, and Edward Elgar (1857-1934), the next big fish to appear on the English and international music scenes, there is a veritable lack of star composers. 150 or so years of barren wasteland…
With Elgar and his peers (have a look at our Timeline of English composers on the following tab to get a sense of the landscape…) there is a flowering and overflowing of musical composition in England, that in some sense trumps even Germany at the time.
Finzi (1901-56) and Walton (1902-83) belong to the second or third wave of this flowering.
It is a fascinating question to ask: why the desert of 150 years or so between Purcell and the charge led by Elgar? What causes the deep oasis to finally bubble over and produce a lush green, textured garden?
Perhaps, however, that is a question best left for another time! Let’s begin with Gerald Finzi’s Romance.
Gerald Finzi (1901-56) Romance
Although perhaps undeservedly Finzi is not that well known, there is something incredibly beautiful about this romance for strings. By the time he wrote it in 1928, aged 27 and living in London, he had already suffered more loss than any person has a right to bear.
It all began with the death of his father when he was 8 years old and continued over the next 10 years with the deaths of his 3 brothers, as well as his music teacher. A boy who grew up surrounded by tragedy.
There is something in the Romance that speaks of having accepted this tragedy in his early life. The mixture of love and sorrow have created a beautiful backdrop for the music…
Other works of his that we’d like to share with you, both coincidentally featuring a soloist accompanied by strings, are his Eclogue for piano and strings and his Clarinet Concerto.
W A Mozart (1756-91) Eine kleine Nachtmusik – Minuet & Trio
If this programme were a delicious meal, Mozart would be the crisp, clean sorbet to cleanse the palette between dishes of a rich and heady nature.
He wrote this ‘Little Serenade’ in Vienna in 1787, some four years before his death at the age of just 35. Alas, we do not know the occasion the Serenade was written for, but it has the air of a piece written for entertainment rather than the expression of profound artistic thought.
The work has four movements of which the Minuet & Trio is the third.
A minuet was a French courtly dance, of a somewhat stately nature, that was very popular among the aristocrats between the mid-17th and late 18th centuries. It was adopted into instrumental music where it often functioned as a light contrast between movements of a more substantial nature.
The Trio is the central section of a minuet and usually has a gentler nature than its counterpart, as is the case here in the serenely floating section you can hear in the middle.
So the structure goes Minuet, Trio and then we return to the Minuet for one final play through.
On a personal note about the orchestra, this is our fifth concert and so far we haven’t missed one without including at least a little Mozart. It seems to have unwittingly become a bit of a tradition, though it might just be that we break the mold in our summer sizzler on 2 and 3 June at Oval Space… ; – )
William Walton (1902-83) Two Pieces from Henry V
I. Passacaglia: The Death of Falstaff
II. Touch her soft lips and part
It casts a gentle smile in our hearts that with these two beautiful miniatures drawn from William Walton’s score for Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V, we are able to celebrate not only Walton in some small way, but also in the same stroke pay homage to our finest poet-playwright, William Shakespeare, in 2016, the year that marks the 400th anniversary of his death. A happy co-incidence in our selection of these pieces!
So here, by way of a little Valentine’s treat we’d like to share with you a sonnet by Shakespeare.
Shakespeare – Sonnet 116
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
The first of these miniatures, Passacaglia: The Death of Falstaff, somewhat unsurprisingly plays during the death of Falstaff! Falstaff is a major character in Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II but has very little to do in Henry V other than die! In the play he has no lines – his death is recounted through another character – but in the film Olivier adds a little spice with the voice of his king hanging in the air as his life draws to a close…
SCENE FROM ‘HENRY V’ (dir. L. Olivier)
INT. A BEDROOM AT “THE BOAR’S HEAD INN” – NIGHT
SLOW ZOOM TO REVEAL FALSTAFF, AN OLD MAN on his deathbed. HOSTESS QUICKLY, landlady of “The Boar’s Head” is tending to him.
HOSTESS QUICKLY exits leaving FALSTAFF alone. He sits up in bed and reminisces about his last encounter with KING HENRY V.
MUSIC ‘The Death of Falstaff’ (Walton) plays throughout softly.
God save thy Grace, King Hal; my royal Hal!
God save thee, my sweet boy!
My King! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!
KING HENRY V (v/o)
SLOW ZOOM on FALSTAFF’s face as he recalls KING HENRY’s words.
I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so profane;
But being awak’d, I do despise my dream.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest;
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
FALSTAFF falls slowly back on his pillow and closes his eyes.
HOSTESS QUICKLY has re-entered the bedroom. C/U on HOSTESS QUICKLY looking at FALSTAFF’s face in repose as she raises one hand to her mouth in shock.
So what is a Passacaglia?
Well, in this context, it is essentially a form in which a continuous set of variations unfold over a ground bass.
So what is a ground bass?
Well, it is a musical sentence played in the bass which steadfastly repeats throughout the course of a composition providing a ground over which the other elements of the composition may vary. The ground is typically stated on its own at the start before other elements join in above it, as is the case in the Walton where it is introduced by the cellos and basses. As the music evolves the motif often leaves the bass to dwell in other higher parts for a time. Towards the end of the Walton the final statement of the ground is heard played by the 1st violins (high violins) and violas, for example.
Here is a cracking 12 minute example from the grand master himself, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), on whose ground Mozart, Beethoven and countless others built their achievements in the periods following on from his Passacaglia in C minor for organ BWV 582.
The mood of the Passacaglia is sombre, full of atmosphere and a heavy-laden pathos. Perhaps this is not what comes to mind when one thinks of romance. However, all is set right with the second miniature: Touch her soft lips and part, that in the film plays under the end of the scene when the soldiers bid farewell to their lady loves as they set out for France and glory.
As these musical moments from the film attest this is a stunning score, not to mention that it is a cracking film worth watching if you haven’t seen it. One of the things that strikingly stands out for me is the clear ringing voice of Laurence Olivier that permeates throughout with such power. It feels like it could cut through anything and be heard for miles around.
The score was, unsurprisingly, nominated for an Oscar but in the end did not win.
Walton Spitfire Prelude & Fugue
Another highlight from Walton’s substantial film-composing career that spanned 35 years and 14 films is the Spitfire Prelude and Fugue, a work that was plucked from his fabulous score for the film The First of the Few (1942), a story about the Battle of Britain.
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) Serenade for Strings
I: Allegretto piacevole (pleasantly flowing along)
II: Larghetto (somewhat slow)
III: Allegretto (flowing along)
Elgar emerged from the provinces, where he had been gradually and steadily honing his craft. At the turn of the century with his Enigma Variations (1899) the landscape of British music was changed forever. It is perhaps the most iconic and well-known of all English orchestral works at any time or place in history.
Another mature work of his that stands out with arresting feeling and beauty is his Cello Concerto (1919). The work soared to fame many years after its composition. In the 1960s the young English cellist Jacqueline du Pré made a recording that catapulted the work into the hearts and minds of the public. Jacqui, as she was popularly was known, tragically had a very short career.
And then there are Elgar’s five Pomp and Circumstance Marches (1901-30) which share something of the patriotic sound world of Walton’s Spitfire Prelude & Fugue.
The first march has gained lasting fame by virtue of being a fixture of the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall.
By contrast, the Serenade for Strings (1892), is a more modest work written by a younger Elgar. It was the earliest of his works to become widely known and when he was older held a place in his heart as one of his favourite pieces. He also dedicated the version for piano (four hands) to his wife Alice, on the occasion of their third wedding anniversary.
If you enjoyed this Serenade, please do check out two of the masterpieces of the string orchestra repertoire: Tchaikovsky’s Serenade and Dvořák’s Serenade, both written a decade or so before Elgar’s.
Mozart Eine kleine Nachtmusik
W A Mozart (1756-91) Eine kleine Nachtmusik – Rondo
This is the finale from Mozart’s ‘Little Serenade’ from which we heard the Minuet & Trio earlier. We introduced this movement to create a little levity between works of a more substantial texture. Here is the whole work.
Henry Purcell (1659-95) Dido’s Lament from Dido and Aeneas, arranged by Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977)
It gives us enormous pleasure to share this work with you. In fact, when we first started considering what music to programme for this concert Dido’s Lament was one of the first pieces that sprang to mind. If you haven’t heard the original aria from the end of Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, you must check it out! It is an achingly beautiful example of the lament of a broken heart…
Purcell Dido’s Lament (Original Version)
Our story begins with Dido, the widowed Queen of Carthage, entertaining Aeneas, a handsome Trojan prince who is taking a respite from his and his people’s wanderings.
Love ensues. However, due to the plans of an evil sorceress, who would see the death of Dido, all goes awry… She fakes a message from the god Mercury ordering Aeneas to continue on his journey. Aeneas then tells Dido he has to leave and after some bitter final words she dismisses him. She knows there is only one course of action for her to take.
She creates a funeral pyre and after singing her final lament, it is lit and she flings herself upon it, in the final hope that Aeneas, as he sails away, will see the flaming pyre and know what it means…
When I am laid in Earth, may my Wrongs create
No trouble in thy Breast.
Remember me, but ah!
Forget my Fate.
Dido’s aria is built on a similar structure to Walton’s Passacaglia, namely the ground bass. In this case, the ground descends sorrowfully by small steps, expressing Dido’s despair.
Bach arr. Stokowski Passacaglia
The presence of the ground, with its unchanging nature, as death approaches for both Falstaff and Dido, suggests that there is something in its the nature that lends itself well to expressing this moment of unadorned nakedness.
It could also well be that Walton drew his inspiration for Falstaff’s death directly from Dido’s Lament.
Leopold Stokowski was one of the brilliant conductors of the 20th century. Despite his name (his father was Polish), he was English. He was born and grew up in England and later moved to America where he achieved great fame.
He was also a passionate arranger of other people’s music, most notably Johann Sebastian Bach. Previously in these programme notes we shared with you Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor for organ. This is one of the works that Stokowski lovingly arranged for full orchestra to quite striking effect.
He also made this lush arrangement of Dido’s Lament, scored for strings only.
The video of him conducting his arrangement, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, is awe-inspiring. Towards the end you get a chance to see the maestro at work. The way he expresses and communicates the sound and shape of the music through his hands is truly something to behold…
Richard Wagner (1813-83) Siegfried Idyll
The Wagner is beautiful. It is full of a glowing warmth and harmony that perfectly express the sublime feelings of a man whose love for his new wife and their blissful life together is evident in every beat and measure.
On the morning of 25 December 1870, Cosima Wagner awoke to the sound of music playing outside her bedroom door… It was the day after her 33rd birthday, the day that Richard and she always celebrated it on. The setting is their home, named Tribschen, on the shores of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. They have been married just five months, though their hearts and lives have belonged to each other for some years.
Here is Cosima’s diary entry for that day:
Wagner Tristan and Isolde prelude
“When I woke up I heard a sound, it grew ever louder, I could no longer imagine myself in a dream, music was sounding, and what music! After it had died away, R. came in to me with the five children and put into my hands the score of his “symphonic birthday greeting.” I was in tears, but so, too, was the whole household; R. had set up his orchestra on the stairs and thus consecrated our Tribschen forever! The Tribschen Idyll—so the work is called . . .”
In fact Wagner’s full title was Tribschen Idyll with Fidi’s birdsong and the orange sunrise, a symphonic birthday greeting. Presented to his Cosima by her Richard.
Fidi was the nickname for their youngest child, Siegfried, born the year before. Wagner later simplified the title to Siegfried Idyll, a title perhaps more fitting for a public audience.
Wagner was primarily a composer of large-scale operas and interestingly all their children were named after characters from his operas. In this case Siegfried was named after the hero from his opera of the same name.
If you would like to dip your toe into this world, check out the instrumental opening of Tristan and Isolde, which tells the story of their ill-fated love.
By way of rounding off our journey into romanticism, coupled with our brief exploration into the world of English composers, here are some of the other beautiful works that didn’t quite make it into the programme:
Vaughan Williams Playlist
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1959) The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.
The best way to end is by returning to the beginning. Let’s go out with a bang! Here is a glorious work by Benjamin Britten, the most recent English composer we’ve mentioned. His A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is a brilliant set of variations based on a piece by Purcell. This piece runs through the different groups of the orchestra, exploring their characters and quirks, and finishes in a most glorious way.
Britten Young Person’s Guide