Being the youngest sibling from a musical family, I had the great good fortune to hear music-making at home every day when young. I've often pondered on which pieces from those days continue to influence me today. Last year I consciously returned to one of them … the second movement from Handel's Suite in G major HWV441 … as the starting point for the 9th set of my Songs without Words project which is dedicated to my eldest sister, whom I remember playing the piece. (Click on the link HERE to see this set of piano pieces.) To the best of my knowledge, I am yet to lean on early memories of my mother's party piece at the piano - Leander Fisher's 'The Robin's Return' - but that's not to say it hasn't had its subconscious influence… One of my stronger childhood musical memories is of another sister and my brother playing Henry Geehl's piano duet arrangements of three movements from the Bach cantatas. Whilst 'Jesu, Joy of man's desiring' (as it is more usually known) may be the best known of these, my memories are haunted by the second: 'Sheep may safely graze' (Schafe können sicher weiden'). Looking back, I think this is where my appetite for rich harmonic progression was born. Constructed in a ternary sandwich form, the opening section conveys a calm pastoral scene in Bb major, underlined by the tonic pedal at the start of the introduction. The first phrase of the chorale melody gently takes us to the sunshine of the dominant, and the next phrase briefly visits the woolly warmth of the subdominant; but for these passing inflections, however, the opening section is a reliably diatonic staple diet - almost like grass. It is the middle section where my nostalgic memories of harmonic adventure courtesy of my siblings lie. It is often true that we only know something by experience of its opposite. Safe-grazing is all very well for us sheep, but Bach 'shows' us a less placid, untroubled world in this passage. Almost immediately we are rounded up and taken into the darker world of the relative minor; but that does not suffice for Bach - two bars later he takes into the more sorrowful C minor. But this tonal route map is only a dry headline. The wonder is the harmonic mastery with which this journey is steered with all the cunning of the wisest of sheepdogs. As early as the second beat of the section (b.213) the we feel the gravitational pull of G minor with a chord of VIIb - the inevitable tonal destination is only confirmed a bar later. Thus apprenticed in the minor side, the subsequent route to C minor is wonderfully prolonged: its shadow is felt as early as b.224 but its confirmatory cadence is only reached at b.263. How is this achieved? Through assured use of subtle chord inversions: V7d, Ib, VIIb, Ib, V7b, Ic, IIb, V7d and Ib, each delaying the unequivocal perfect cadence. Complementing this harmonic mastery is a melodic contour that is magnificently expressive - mostly high in register, incorporating an expectant rising sequence (b.23-24) and having the widest leap of the piece so far: a swooning diminished 7th that - with Ab and B - can only belong to C minor. It is easy to think that momentum in music - a highly desirable quality in many instances - depends on rhythm: one only has to think of the driving rhythms on snare drum and xylophone (among other instruments) in the development section of the opening movement to Shostakovich's 5th Symphony with its insistent anapaest pattern (though, of course, Bach got there first in the opening movement of the 3rd Brandenburg Concerto!). However, harmony too can create momentum: Bach signposts the next harmonic or tonal destination and we are captured by the music's desire to move in that direction. To my mind, the best is yet to come. From C minor, after a ritornello passage, the middle section continues and carries the music to another minor key - D minor (relative of the dominant) and onwards back to G minor before, via descending sequence (to balance the earlier rising sequence) to close the middle section in F major, ready - through a dominant-tonic resolution - for the da capo return to Bb major. And here again, progression of harmony drives the music on, and the masterstroke is the sleight of hand in b.31 where we sense a brightening of the tonal weather as the E natural leads us into F major at b.321, but the return to major tonality (and safe grazing) is fleeting: by b.322 we sense an immediate coldness of D minor. The sheep are once more bleating. With a deft touch, Bach points the moment with an octave leap in the melody, quite literally a moment of heightened tension: The cantata from which this movement is taken, 'Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd, BWV208, was written by Bach for the 31st birthday of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels on 23 Feburary 1713. Recording this extraordinary movement today in 2020's strange world of Coronavirus lockdown, linked by modern-day technology to a violinist 150 miles away in Liverpool, how fantastic it is that Johann Sebastian's sublime harmonic creativity of 307 years ago can speak to us of safe grazing set against a dark backdrop. And how grateful am I for those early musical experiences of hearing my siblings play such great music! Thank you.
Tag, classical music
Among those teachers to whom I owe gratitude is the late Ken Naylor. His teaching career was largely at the Leys, Cambridge, where he taught for 27 years, but the autumn of his career was spent at Christ's Hospital where he was manager of the Arts Centre. This was a terrific boon to the Music Department: Ken was a superb additional organist to the community, but he was also a wonderful arranger. I understand that he provided the fledgling King's Singers with some of their early arrangements; it was the elaborate, many-voiced arrangement of 'Lullaby of Broadway' which became a favourite with our close harmony Male Voice Choir (a curiously named ensemble in - as it was then - an all boys school!). I was very fortunate to have Ken teaching me the History of Music when I was in Year 12 (or the 'Deputy Grecians' as we were known in C.H. lingo). It was only when life had moved on and I was into my career that I first came across Ken's wonderful tune 'Coe Fen' which he wrote to John Mason's hymn 'How shall I sing that majesty?'. Choosing Eb major and triple time is always a good start for a hymn tune, but Ken was on top form the day he wrote this tune: the way the highest note of each phrase creeps ever higher until the top Eb at the start of line 7 (after an exquisitely prolonged last note of line 6) is masterly, and there aren't many hymn tunes that start their second half on a half diminished 7th! The finest hymn singing I have ever heard was by Downside School at the memorial service for their Christ Hospital educated Director of Music, Chris Tambling: Coe Fen in truly monumental guise, and a wonderful tribute to a special man. Now that composing has become my own career, I was asked to work on a hymn for communal singing during a local church event. With this occasion and Coe Fen in mind, it seemed to me that the one thing that Ken Naylor's great hymn tune lacked was a thrilling descant. So I set to work. http://www.coefen.org/ It was only on completing my attempt and sharing it with other Coe Fen admirers that I discovered that Ken had written a descant to his tune. Had I known this, I would not have trodden upon such hallowed ground: it seems like disrespect, even at this distance down the years. I requested that the master's own descant be scanned and sent to me. At least there was some affirmation: like my descant, Ken had started his in bar 2, imitating the congregational tune one bar later at a higher pitch; but then, shock! I realised that Ken had committed one of those grave sins of good part-writing: on beats 2 and 3 he had his descant moving in parallel octaves with the bass line! Perplexed, and - if I'm being honest - a little smug, I shared this discovery with a musical colleague. A day later he returned to the topic and gently pointed out that in my descant beats 2 and 3 moved in parallel 5ths with the congregational tune. Time for a quick revision and a portion of humble pie… Download score here - How shall I sing that majesty
I had the pleasure recently of re-visiting ‘La Serenissima’ – Venice – for the first time in many years. Staying in a wonderful bed and breakfast near the Rialto, it was difficult to avoid posters for the frequent (seemingly nightly) concerts of Vivaldi. And so, one evening, I found myself in La Chiesa de San Vidal listening to the Interpreti Veneziani. It was not difficult to enjoy: a stunning Venetian church, some fine playing by a small group of vibrant string players, and an almost exclusively Vivaldi programme. One of the things that struck me was just how full was the church. Presumably, this must be the case night after night. Of course, it would be possible to rail against this: the commercialisation of fine music, packaged to furnish the tourist industry. The conversation of two ladies in the row behind me after the final piece tended to suggest a different mindset to mine: ‘I rather enjoyed that – very good value for money, I thought’, ‘Yes: they played a lot of notes’. Reflecting on the experience, I thought differently. Where else but Venice would you be able to perfom a concert of Vivaldi to a full house, not just as a one-off, but night after night, giorno dopo giorno? This points to some of music’s wonderful truths. In our globalised world, with our homogenous high streets and plagiarised television, music still offers individuality, and away from the synthesized sounds of commercial music, we are the inheritors of so many unique ways in which music has reflected societies and people through the centuries and across the world. What could be more Venetian than Vivaldi? In this unique place, one of the best ways the tourist can escape the usual perspective of looking at other tourists looking at Venice, is to sit and listen to those sounds that were first heard in that city back in the first half of the 18th century. Those fresh, eager ritornelli, those excited rising sequences, those incisive chords on the harpsichord. Whether it’s Vivaldi in Venice, or Tango in San Telmo, let us delight in the extraordinary kaleidoscope of unique musical styles – a kaleidoscope that merely reflects the myriad styles of society and types of people that we meet in life. Let us steer away from globalised homogeneity and encourage, through our music, diversity, authenticity and mutual respect and acceptance.
One of my favourite maxims : ‘You’re born with a million lives; you die having had one’. Some of the lives I might have had, I am sure I will never be able to imagine; but when – as sometimes happens – I am asked ‘if you hadn’t done music, what would you have done instead?’, my answer is always the same: architecture. Like many boys, a favourite toy was Lego, but in the late 60s this wasn’t a case of sets of specific bricks that made one particular thing; rather it was lots and lots of square and rectangular bricks, a few windows and roofing tiles. I made buildings: houses, castles, churches. These were not to some set picture on the box (actually the Lego was stored in old biscuit tins, I seem to remember), but each time different – products of my imagination. My favourite thing was doing the roof when there were gables with gulleys and subsidiary ridges. When I was at school, my best subject at O’ level (as it then was) was Mathematics, closely followed by Geometric and Engineering Drawing. Now there’s a subject! Strangely, I didn’t do O’ level Music, just lots of practical music: piano, organ, violin, singing and keyboard harmony every week, and orchestras and choirs each day. In a different school, maybe the Music would not have been so encouraged, and then what? I suspect the answer would have been architecture. Curiously, architecture is in my family: it was my father’s creative skill, and it is my nephew’s career (Simon Knight Architects) – very talented he is too. Thinking it through, I see the two as very similar: both fill a space – architecture’s space is physical, music’s temporal; both need a structure to make the edifice work, and both have a surface above that structure which is received by the passer by (architecture through the eyes, music via the ears). Each can be savoured much more deeply by the committed admirer, both are dependent on manipulating with technical knowledge wedded to creative imagination conduits for the architectural / musical concept – architecture via materials such as concrete, timber and glass, music with instruments such as strings, winds and brass. Both have to be realised by other specialists – builders and performing musicians. One can draw further parallels with aesthetic and style, commissioning briefs, site / performance venue, budgetary constraints, etc. Sometimes the two get very close: Bruckner’s symphonies come to mind – one can almost see pillars and arches as you listen to them, and symmetries in his love of inverted motifs. Next time I meet up with my nephew, I must ask him which architects design buildings that are most like music.
I was playing at a school Chapel this morning; sadly, St. David’s Day was unmentioned, but I didn’t let it pass: Vaughan Williams’s Prelude on Rhosymedre before, and an improvisation on Men of Harlech as afters.
I sometimes ponder how much of my musical instinct comes from my Welsh genes: my maternal grandfather’s father came from Montgomeryshire and my mother has often told me how they both would ‘naturally sing in harmony’. I feel harmony is probably my strongest musical instinct too; I often improvise on rising and falling chromatic scale.
[caption id="attachment_936" align="alignnone" width="261"] My Great Grandfather: Albert Joseph Owen
b.30th July 1884, Rock House, Trelystan; d.1965[/caption] Of all hymn tunes, Cwm Rhondda is just about the best known and most lustily sung. I recall with some profound echo within the singing of this hymn at my Great Aunt Dorothy’s funeral a few years ago. Not only were my siblings and I giving it our lustiest 4-part harmony, but there was everyone else too: for years Great Aunt Dorothy played the piano for a Male Voice choir, and they had turned out in force. At the end, the Priest gently rested her hand on the coffin and said with a sense of joy: ‘Oh Dorothy! Can you hear us? The singing’s amazing!’ The fulcrum of Cwm Rhondda is, of course that dominant 7th, the one that all Welsh men linger over, stretching out that inevitable need for fulfilment until everyone has felt the pull and can then savour the arrival in the promised land of the tonic. What a glorious, thrilling sound to grow up with; what an inspiring example to have the men around you creating this for you with nothing more than their combined voices. How this tradition should be sustained and valued. Hapus dydd Dewi Sant!
The Blank Canvas
An analogyIf you were about to get creative in a visual way by painting a picture, you would at this point be looking at a blank canvas: a two-dimensional empty space. It is highly likely that you would spend some time contemplating the empty space: its dimensions, its orientation, and its emptiness. Onto this canvas you would begin to imagine the picture you are going to paint: whether it is to be figurative or abstract, whether it is going to have strong or blurred outlines, which colours you are going to need. You would also start thinking about the process you were going to need to follow: which parts of the project would be best to put in place first, which colour paints you are going to need to have ready, which brushes and other apparatus will be required. We have a turn of phrase for this, we say things like ‘I can see in my mind’s eye…’ In your mind’s eye you advance your picture far beyond a simple sketch of outline; you have a clear perception of what you are aiming for with your new painting. This image, which is known only to you until the painting is completed, can be inspired by a wide range of different things:
- A desire to capture in art something you can see: a view, object or person
- A fascination with some specific shape: stripes, geometric designs or flowing patterns
- An interest in a particular colour or contrast of colours
- An experiment with some aspect of painting technique or technical aspect of the artist’s materials
- A wish to make an artistic statement with an image, maybe something political or the expression of a particular mood you are feeling
- An intention to deliberately mimic a particular work or the style of another artist in order to improve your own artistic understanding and facility
- A commission from a patron that you have accepted in order to earn money
Why compose?Composing music is an amazing thing to do. The possible combinations of notes are close to infinite; meanwhile, the language of music enables our species to express itself in extraordinary and extraordinarily diverse ways. Take, for instance, the following examples:
- Bach expressing his faith in the ineffable in his B minor Mass
- Mozart taking delight in human relationships and insecurities in his opera Le Nozze di Figaro
- Elgar expressing his most intimate musings in the cadenza of his Violin Concerto
- Gabriel Yared portraying the expanse of the desert in his film score to The English Patient
- Claude-Michel Schönberg bringing the drama of the French Revolution to life in his music for Les Misérables
- Miles Davis blending the sounds of acoustic and electronic instruments in Shhh
- Piazzolla mixing tango and string quartet in his Five Tango sensations
- Anoushka Shankar combining Indian classical sitar music with electronica beats and synthesized sonic backdrops in Oceanic
- The nationalities of the composers and artists
- The years in which the pieces were written
- The singers and instrumentalists required by each piece
- The intended venue for hearing the music
- The emotions expressed by the music
- The style of the music