Calm sea and Prosperous voyage

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A few years before my mother died, I persuaded my parents to invest in a stereo hi-fi system. My mother would only have such a system if it looked nice. So, they settled on a Bang and Olufsen system. Unfortunately, the aesthetically pleasing speakers sounded awful and we replaced them with something less pleasing to look at but which sounded good. When CD’s (compact discs) became available, I added a CD player to the system. By then, my mother was dead and the appearance of the player no longer mattered.

After my mother died, I was living in Kent. I used to visit my father on Sundays. We used to have lunch together in various restaurants in Hampstead village in north-west London. Always, after we had eaten, we used to viit the Waterstones bookshop and the Our Price music shop nearby.  Often, I would purchase a CD to add to my father’s small collection. On one occasion, I bought a CD with some orchestral music by Beethoven.

Some weeks later, I asked my father if he had enjoyed that CD. He said:

“There is something wrong with it. There is complete silence for the first few minutes.”

I said that I would look into this. When I reached his house, our family home, I turned on the hi-fi system and inserted the problematic CD. My father was right. For the first few minutes, there was nothing to be heard.  Then, I looked at the volume adjustment slider which was marked at equally spaced intervals from 0 to 10. I discovered that my father had been using the system with the volume slider set between 0 and 1. 

The first track on the CD was Beethoven’s Opus 12: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The first few minutes of this piece are very quiet, which is why setting the volume so low made it sound silent. My father’s penchant for barely audible low volume background music was the reason for doubting the integrity of the CD, which I had given him.

 

You can listen to the music mentioned above by clickingH E R E

Poetry

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I have never been able to enjoy reading poetry and enjoy it. However, if it is read out aloud by someone else, I usually love what I hear.  Poetry is like music made with words.

Here is a poem that I have enjoyed ever since I was a young teenager. It is Adlestrop by Edward Thomas (1878-1917). He was killed in France during WW1. His poem captures the essence of the world that reveals itself gradually when a train stops at a small country station.

 

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—

The name, because one afternoon

Of heat the express-train drew up there

Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Sounds new

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Last week, I attended two concerts that showcased the works young composers studying at the Royal College of Music (‘RCM’) in Kensington, London. Most of the compositions were no longer than five minutes in duration. They were performed by musicians, vocalists and instrumentalists, also studying at the RCM.

I am not a musician, but I do enjoy classical music, both historical and contemporary. As a musically uneducated member of the audience, I was puzzled by many of the pieces that I heard. It struck me that many of the budding composers were aiming to make the performers produce extremely unusual sounds from their instruments or with their voices. It seemed to me that the compositions were written to make the performers produce the most unexpected sounds, many of them although interesting were not too pleasing to my ears and definitely atypical of the instrument making them. Tunefulness was of little or no importance in most of the pieces I heard. Many of the vocal pieces performed involved making various hissing sounds without using the vocalists’ vocal cords.  The object semmed to be to intrigue the audience rather than to please it.

Each piece, despite my misgivings, attracted generous applause. Either the audience was being kind as many in it were members of the RCM, or they really enjoyed what they heard. I could not decide which was the case.

At the end of the second concert, I wondered how the composers, whose works I had just heard, would ever be able to make a living if they continued composing such unmusical (to my ears) music as I had experienced. Well, I wish them luck.

A musical offering

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This evening, I attended a performance of A Musical Offering by JS Bach (opus BWV 1079) at the Royal College of Music in Kensington. Each of the sections of this work was introduced by the conductor, Joe Parks, who explained what was musically interesting about them.

The whole piece is based on a theme composed by King Frederick II of Prussia. He gave it to Bach on the 7th of May 1747, and challenged the composer to do something interesting with it. A Musical Offering is what Bach did with the King’s theme. I am no musician, so can hardly explain the compositional procedures with which Bach exploited the King’s somewhat dull theme. For example, in one of the sections improvisations on the theme are played with musicians simultaneously playing the modified theme both forwards and in reverse. In another section, the theme is improvised in a range of different keys. In brief, this piece by Bach is both intriguing and challenging for musicians. Although this aspect of the music is lost on me, my enjoyment of the work was not impaired.

What fascinates me is that a piece of music so full of compositional twists and turns is a delight to hear. Bach has not only satisfied his desires to hone his compositinal technique in this piece, but also he has created a work that is highly satisfying to the listener.

Great music like great paintings reach into the the inner subconscious of the listener or viewer and thereby evoke an almost visceral sensation of joy. It does not matter that the music is full of compositional magic or the painting might be impressionistic or abstract because the great artist knows how to produce a work that reaches those hidden parts of the body that evoke feelings we call emotion. Without doubt, A Musical Offering did that for me.

Music for Pleasure

 

My parents were not particularly musical. My late mother, a person who never gave up on anything she started, was forced to learn to play the piano when she was a child in South Africa. Through persistence rather than out of love of music, she passed many piano exams. When she became a mother, she decided that it was up to my sister and I to decide if we wanted to learn to play any musical instruments. My sister learnt to play several instruments, but, apart from one miserable  six week attempt at the piano, I did not.

At the school I attended between 1960 and ‘65 in London’s Swiss Cottage, we had music lessons once a week. They were conducted in the so-called ‘Billiards Room’ by Miss McDonald. We spent the lesson singing songs such as “The British Grenadier” while she accompanied us on the piano. Miss McDonald quickly worked out which of us in the class could sing well, and which could not. I was one of the vocally challenged group. Those who she considered to be poor singers had to sit on the floor. She referred to us as the ‘mice’. Potential choristers and others with tolerable singing voices sat high above us on upholstered chairs. Several times during each lesson, our teacher made the mice sing one verse of a song alone and unaccompanied. No doubt, we sounded feeble and unmelodious. The rest of the class, the future ‘Pavarottis and Bryn Terfels’, laughed at us.

When I arrived at my secondary school, Highate School (founded 1565), a boy’s school in 1965, all the new entrants had to take a voice test. The purpose of this was to determine which of us had a good enough voice for the school choir. Mr Chapman (nickname ‘Cherry’), the senior music teacher sat at a piano. The new boys lined up. One by one, each of us approached the piano. Cherry hit one key, and the boy had to sing the note. When I reached Cherry and his piano, I made a sound that must have resembled the ‘Aaaah’ that one makes when a doctor is examining your throat. With that short demonstration of my vocal skills, I was rejected from joining the choir. Once a week, there was a forty-five-minute period when the school choir met for rehearsals. The boys, who were not required for this, spent the period reading quietly.

In addition to music, Cherry also taught mathematics. Occasionally someone in the class, who had not heard what Cherry had just said, would shout: “pardon.” Cherry always replied; “granted” because he wanted to make the point that when someone could not hear him, he expected them to say something like: “Pardon me, sir, but what did you say?” To their faces, all teachers were addressed as ‘sir’.

The deputy music teacher was a Mr Wallace. During a year nearer the end of my five years at Highgate, we were given classes that were outside our chosen pre-university specialities. The idea was to broaden our general knowledge. One of these weekly classes was conducted by Mr Wallace. He used to set up a gramophone, and then play us classical music on LPs for forty-five minutes. He simply told us what we were about to hear and no more. Less of a disciplinarian than Cherry, he must have hoped and prayed that the class would not end up in mayhem, which it did often. Most of my fellow classmates were far more interested in The Rolling Stones than Rachmaninov.

One day, Mr Wallace played us one of the first two of the symphonies by the Finnish composer Sibelius. I was entranced by it. That weekend, I made my way to the branch of WH Smiths in Temple Fortune, our nearest shopping centre, and bought a recording of the symphony. It was issued by EMI on a low-cost series of recordings called ‘Music for Pleasure’. I played it often and bought other recordings of Sibelius’s music. I was hooked on classical music. Thanks to Mr Wallace, I began amassing a huge collection of classical music LPs, and then later CDs. Thanks to him, I enjoy attending classical concerts and meeting musicians.

I imagine that Mr Wallace must have passed away, and now enjoys music played by angels on their celestial harps. Sadly, I do not think that I ever told him how much I valued his musical appreciation classes.

Ephemeral Dreamscapes

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On the evening of the 20th of October 2018, I attended a superb orchestral concert called “Ephemeral Dreamscapes” at St Stephen’s Church at Gloucester Road (London SW7 4RL). The Albanian born conductor Olsi Qinami conducted the London City Philhamonic orchestra. They played four pieces. Three of them are well-known: Mussorgsky’s “Night on a Bare Mountain”, Wagner’s “Prelude & Liebestod”, and Ravel’s “La Valse”.  Although everything was beautifully played, the performance of the Ravel, a very difficult piece, was outstanding.

The fourth piece on the programme has rarely been performed live, as its score, written in the 1950s by Albanian composer Çesk Zadeja (1927-97), was only recently (2012) found in a Russian archive. Zadeja, who was from Shkodra, died in Rome. It was discovered by the composer’s son, who had been searching for it for many years. Described as ‘The Father of Albanian Music’, Zadeja studied in Moscow. The work performed at the concert was a stirring orchestral suite compiled from music that Zadeja composed for the soundtrack of the film “The Great Warrior Skanderbeg”. This film, an Albanian/Soviet co-production, was released in 1953. Some of the other music in the film’s soundtrack was composed by the Russian Georgy Sviridov (1915-98). Olsi Qinami’s performance of the music by Zadeja was the British concert premiere of the work. The almost full house gave it rapturous applause.

In summary, the concert was highly enjoyable. Olsi Qinami’s conducting gets the best out of his excellent players in whatever they are playing. I get the impression, having attended several of his concerts, that his orchestral players regard him with great affection. Watch out for his next concert at St Stephens, which is to be on the 9th February 2019.