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January - March
2015

Nature’s Mingled Harmony:
The music of Arthur Butterworth

Paul Conway

Arthur Butterworth

This appreciation of the Lancashire-born composer, planned to mark his self-declared retirement from composition earlier in 2014, is now offered as a memorial tribute in the wake of his recent death.

Arthur Butterworth, who died at the age of 91 on November 20, wrote over one hundred and fifty works encompassing large-scale orchestral statements, variously scored chamber and instrumental pieces and a significant body of work for brass band. Most of these compositions were commissioned, frequently by individual musicians in the sure knowledge that his writing for their instrument or ensemble would be both idiomatic and challenging.

Prolific and hardworking, Butterworth sustained a fiercely independent approach to his craft, developing and honing a distinctive style for over seventy years. He trusted his instincts and remained loyal to his acknowledged influences: Sibelius, the English musical tradition (personified by Elgar and Vaughan Williams) and the culture and landscape of the northlands. Vagaries of fashion did not impinge upon his unique and instantly recognisable musical language.

By considering some key examples which have been recorded, this article seeks to offer a helpful starting-point for an exploration of Arthur Butterworth’s works. It is hoped the reader’s appetite will be increased, thereby, for a profoundly worthwhile composer’s rich catalogue that invariably repays repeated listening.

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Sibelius, Lambert and ‘Music Ho!’
A 2015 Perspective

Peter Frankland

Sibelius

The spurious winds of fashion have both venerated and denigrated many a fair reputation and perhaps none more so in twentieth Century music than the work of Jean Sibelius. The 150th anniversary of his birth this year does however provide a timely occasion on which to evaluate the claims made more than 80 years ago by Constant Lambert that ‘of all contemporary music, that of Sibelius seems to point forward most surely to the future’.

Constant Lambert was born in London on the 23rd August, 1905. His father was a talented painter, his brother Maurice was a noted sculptor and his son Kit discovered and managed rock group ‘The Who’. As a child the boy had poor health spending long periods in Infirmaries. However in 1922 Lambert won a scholarship to The Royal College of Music and was fortunate enough to study with Vaughan Williams.

Around this time Lambert was drawn into the fashionable world of the Sitwells. He became one of the leading British composers and in 1925 at the age of just twenty he received a commission to write a Ballet for the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes [Romeo and Juliet] His highly original ‘Rio grande’ for chorus, piano and orchestra dates from 1929. Lambert also composed a concerto for piano and nine orchestral players. During the 1930’s and 40’s he was music director of the then Vic-Wells Ballet company for sixteen years. It was in 1934 that Lambert wrote a highly influential book ‘Music Ho!’ In 1936 he composed a choral-orchestral piece ‘Summers last Will and Testament’. In the 1940’s Lambert became associate conductor of the Henry Wood Promenade concerts and conducted a number of Sibelius’s works. Eva Turner sang ‘Luonnotar’ on 9th August, 1945. On 21st August, 1945 he gave Sibelius fifth symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, 14th August, 1946 featured the first symphony with Lambert conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Just eight days later on 22nd August, Lambert gave the Sibelius third symphony, again with the LSO.

Constant Lambert was a cosmopolitan figure; he loved the Music Hall and jazz and in his book ‘Music Ho!’ he praised musicians such as Duke Ellington and devoted two chapters ‘The Spirit of Jazz’ and ‘Symphonic Jazz.’ It is all the more surprising then that for a man so much at home in the world of ‘Blues’ and ‘Ragtime’, Lambert was to embrace Sibelius’s art with so much conviction and insight.

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My New Music

John McLeod on ‘Out of the Silence’

John McLeod

In the latest in our occasional series, composer John McLeod talks about his latest commission for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, a homage to Carl Nielsen whose 150th anniversary is celebrated in 2015.

Much of my time as a composer is spent trying to acquire commissions and performances for the works I particularly want to write and most of my musical output is based on that premise. But there is another side to this coin when, from time to time and out of the blue, someone gets in touch to ask you to write a piece that you would never have thought of had it not been for their suggestion. This is always exciting and refreshing especially if the project appeals. So when Roy McEwan, Chief Executive of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, got in touch early in 2013 to ask if I would like to write a new orchestral work as a tribute to either Sibelius or Nielsen, both of whose 150th anniversaries would fall in 2015, I was intrigued and delighted to accept. I’m always in awe of Sibelius’s works which I adore, but I had no hesitation in choosing Carl Nielsen as the subject for my tribute. His musical language and maverick ideas have always appealed to me. Also the SCO is a world class orchestra and great supporter of new music. I knew it well having been their Associate Composer in the early days, and attended countless of their concerts (sometimes including my own music) ever since.

But how does one approach in a new way this idea of homage to another composer? There are plenty of examples, of course, as numerous composers have at one time paid tribute to their favourites – mostly through ‘theme and variation’ form. One of my first orchestral works was ‘The Shostakovich Connection’ in which I used a theme from the slow movement of the Symphony No.5 and the opening tone row from the 12th String Quartet as the basis for variations in tribute to the Russian master. That seemed to work as did my recent Fantasy on themes from Britten’s opera ‘Gloriana’ for guitar, composed for the centenary of Britten’s birth in 2013. Here I took some of Britten’s glorious tunes and subjected them to variations and elaborations. Now, however, I was looking for more unusual and more interesting ideas.

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Harry Kupfer – ‘The Master’s Master’

Eduardo Benarroch

Harry Kupfer

The first in an occasional series focusing on the problems attending the production of opera in the modern world. 

At a time when opera is going through a period of deformation by directors interested more in themselves than in the works they are contracted to present, it is a good time to stop for a moment and reflect on something which is perennial: the work of art. How many times has the reader seen La Traviata or La Boheme or even Der Rosenkavalier and how many times has he been left confused by what he has seen? And how many times has he left elated and refreshed after having seen a new production? I am not talking about the music nor about conducting, but about the “other” component of this sumptuous meal without which opera is not opera as it was intended, the production.

I was born in Argentina with a conservative musical taste as is usual the case the world over when one is a baby. It takes a big intellectual effort to break out from this comfort zone and for me it happened gradually. In the 1960s I would read German magazines and read about an opera where the singers were all naked and participating in orgies on stage. If this would have happened in conservative Buenos Aires they would have been arrested! Upon moving to London I travelled within Europe and saw productions which repelled me whilst others attracted me and opened me up for more. Luckily there was also English National Opera, The Powerhouse years, so if one wanted to, one could see challenging productions without travelling much. At the same time Welsh National Opera was engaged in a spot of challenge and I remember Kenneth Loveland being so angry at one production of Fidelio that he wished one of the two coffins on stage at the end of the opera should be reserved for the producer. But I had liked that production, so what was wrong with me? Later at ENO I saw another production by the same producer and I also liked it very much, and then another and another.... as its Artistic Director he brought the Komische Oper from Berlin to London with great success, then came The Ring in Bayreuth in 1988 and I never ever looked back. The way was carefully forward. I had also seen his production of Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten in Stuttgart and this cut my last links with traditional productions, from now on, only modern or even controversial productions would attract my attention.

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Henselt and the Russian Piano Music of his time Part II

Richard Beattie Davis

Adolf von Helselt

Marking the bicentenary of the birth of Adolf von Helselt, we are pleased to publish the text of a lecture given by the late Richard Beattie Davis on a particularly important aspect of the composer’s life, presented at the first International Henselt Conference in October 2002.

Considering the numerous composers of these types of romances which were being dispensed in the first half of the nineteenth century, it is surprising that Henselt did not choose to arrange from such people as Alexander A.Alyabyev, Gurilyov, Alexey N.Verstovsky, Pyotr A.Bulakhov at all.

Of Alexander Dargomizhsky one example only has been traced, 'I shall still always love her', published by A.M.Schlesinger in 1854/55 as Op.33b, and virtually indistinguishable in its manner of arrangement from that of another similar Dargomizhsky song, 'I am sad because I love you', transcribed by Theodor Kullak (1818-1882). Perhaps the earliest arrangements were by Michael Wielhorsky whose Deux Romances, of which the second is a melodic transformation of the first in the manner of Liszt, were published by Schott in 1842. Their publication seems to have coincided with the arrival for the first time in St. Petersburg of Franz Liszt. At a concert on the 28th. April 1842, Liszt played the first Wielhorsky song in Henselt's arrangement, which, surprisingly, was encored. Alexander N.Serov (1820-1871), at that time, before their rift, a friend of Vladimir V.Stasov (1824-1906) complained that Liszt should lavish such praise on so trivial a piece which, however, achieved some renown in its day, as several editions testify. Though I am unable to find any documentary evidence as to the first 'face to face' meeting of Glinka and Henselt, there must be a suggestion that it was at the reception which followed the concert, since they are both recorded as having been there. Thereafter, Glinka withdrew and did not reappear in St. Petersburg until November 1848 when he requested a meeting with Henselt. More should be known of the depth of this relationship.

 

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Erna Sack: an inevitable but unpredictable Prima Donna

Peter Feuchtwanger

Erna Sack

As a corollary to the series Great Prima Donnas by Sophie Lambton, we are pleased to publish this appreciation of the German soprano, followed by reminiscences of her Australian tour in 1953.

Every so often the age old complaint issues forth from music-lovers that the great artists of yesteryear have been lost forever with no one to take their place. However, in the case of the German soprano Erna Sack such comments may well ring true in any age she lived, since it is doubtful that such a singularly unusual voice as hers will ever again be equalled, or for that matter be replaced. It should be mentioned that Mado Robin (1918-1960), the brilliant French soprano, had the same top notes but unlike Sack her middle and lower registers were not comparable. The rarity of the Erna Sack voice lays in its versatility to function equally well in the lover, middle and extreme high regions from where she possessed the ability to pinpoint a very straightforward instrumental type note and attack it by a two-octave leap, and thence glide down the scale back to middle C had she so wished, emulating a piccolo, flute or violin. Easier said than done! Edith Helena, the American soprano, also imitated a violin on record with her voice.

However, everyone has their detractors: such extreme renderings can set off panic buttons, veer the listeners away from their ‘comfort zone’, so to speak. Also, critics have a tendency to frown upon such vocal excesses and cannot always understand any valid reason for them. They have been known to refer snidely to the coloratura voice as ‘canary fodder’. As for the audience, they often need to identify with such maverick singers, a prime example from the past being the coloratura soprano Maria Galvany, sometimes referred to as the ‘Queen of staccato’, who enjoyed singing at breakneck speed. And another – the American coloratura Ellen Beech-Yaw who, on records, effortlessly warbles bird-like in the higher regions, and simultaneously does a fine impression of a stringed instrument. However, for the unambitious listener, there has always been a dearth of predictable mediocre singers, enough to satisfy the aforesaid audiences’ meagre needs, to keep them safely tucked away from harms’ way. For them, Erna Sack will not appeal. She would be too unpredictable to deal with, and may well necessitate a rise in their blood pressure. So be it! It may be helpful here to dwell on the types of soprano voice.

 

 

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Xiayin Wang – an artist of her time

Gregor Tassie

Xiayin Wang & piano: photo by Dario Acosta

Walking along Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street on any day of the week one might be surprised at the number of Asian visitors and an encouraging feature of concerts in Scotland is the number of Chinese young people who are present. Through the Confucius project Glasgow University hosts many Chinese students extending the large community settled here. In recent years a growing number of fine musicians from this huge country have found success on the international concert scene: a graduate of Shanghai Conservatoire, Xiajin Wang has made highly regarded recordings in diverse repertoire. Her Scottish debut included the piano concertos by Copland, Barber and Gershwin with Peter Oundjian and the RSNO.

Wang’s remit also encompassed recording the pieces with Oundjian’s orchestra. I met with her between sessions and first inquired about the background of music in her country. ‘I think the [music] system was always there, in olden times there was great pianist Foo Tsong whose father was a philosopher and a writer. The present younger generation is more complete in their teaching [methodology] and still we have a lot of pianists who are exciting and interesting.’

Among the composers who have attracted Miss Wang is the Russian mystic Scriabin whom she has recorded on Naxos. ‘Definitely, the first time I heard Scriabin was when a friend played the Vers la Flame - I had never heard anything like it before. It affected me greatly, I loved the colours in the music and fell in love with it. There is so much colour in it. You can almost sense it. The music is very much associated with the type of music that I like, I can really find myself in this music, and one can get quite emotional. When I made this CD it was I think the right time for me.’ Asked by Chandos to set down all the sonatas she declined at least for the present, ‘when I look at the late sonatas, the Black mass, I need to grow more, the earlier ones are Chopinesque whereas the late sonatas are quite different, and so I shall do them gradually in a few steps.’ However there are more composers whom she wants to tackle both in the concert hall and studio.

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Reflections on COMA:
The 21st Anniversary Gala

Piers Hellawell

Few areas of central London appear less nurturing to the cultural voyager than the institutional streets of Westminster that surround that oasis for the spirit, St John’s, Smith Square; yet this much-loved venue offered sanctuary to one of our most empowering of music bodies, Contemporary Music for All (COMA), for its 21st anniversary Gala on October 25.

For the many professional composers who have rushed (and rushed again) to provide new work for COMA’s new music ensembles, COMA’s cheerfully can-do outlook offers an oasis in itself from the grim business of urging new work on ensembles, festivals and orchestras in the professional mainstream. The simple credo of COMA is manna to composers in our age of specialist expertise: it holds that all players with open ears, even if limited in technical command, can perform new music, so long as its composer cleverly amasses experimental textures on a cumulative basis, rather than building from the basis of individual virtuosity that dominates so much professionally commissioned new music today. Like the accumulated signal flashes of fire-flies, their lights pooled by common consent, the massed participation of keen non-professionals in COMA ensembles has transcended the individual, and a locked door has sprung open – the door marked ‘new music for anyone and everyone’.

The 21 years of this cheerful exercise in positivity have been the project of director Chris Surety; it was fitting that, on the participants’ insistence, much of this Gala celebrated him and his work, as its devotees converged on Smith Square from points as distant as Oldham, Nottingham, Brighton and Bristol. In a new music scene whose champions sometimes make a big song and dance about not making much happen, the apparently ageless Surety is an unusual hero, animating a host of musical activity with little fuss and even fewer resources. For St John’s he had planned a characteristic feature, framing not his own contribution but that of the burgeoning ensembles themselves: two lunchtime concerts, with a lunch break, paired each of a range of works from the bulging COMA library with prefatory fanfares composed for the occasion. The event functioned like an ant colony: staging, concert programmes and front of house brilliantly came together, yet on the face of it no one in particular was in charge. COMA’s secret may well be its horizontal energy – not to say the unflagging commitment of Surety and a faithful team. It is one of music’s ego-free zones.

 

 

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