Part Three – Reflective Account

Part Three was a welcome return for me to an area of music with which I had some acquaintance and “history”. Although my personal preference, background and area of interest is and has always been the baroque-influenced end of electronica, rock/metal and ambient instrumental music, no one can deny the influence that the classical and romantic periods have had on the development of Western music over the last two hundred years.

Although Mozart and Beethoven have always been part of my listening repertoire, part three has given me the opportunity to listen more critically to the output of this most creative of eras and I believe that I have a greater appreciation of the work because of it. Because I was already acquainted with and understood the music presented, it didn’t have such an impact on me as did the work in part two. The subject matter was also less contentious so I didn’t have to reason with myself so much when trying to describe the pieces.

Having said that, I did find the actual writing more of a struggle with this section as this period in Western art music is well known to all of us and we all have opinions, feelings and at least a degree of knowledge of most of the pieces presented or referred to tangentially. Because of this the temptation is to keep writing as we move deeper into the subject, following rich seams of content and concepts and moving away from the focus and point of the argument. I have a small amount of knowledge regarding instrument construction (see and the temptation to ramble on about fingerboard radii when playing double-stops (or whatever the subject might be) is strong. It’s an interesting yet frustrating exercise; having to temper ones enthusiasm for a particular subject to keep the text pertinent and to avoid straying into the realm of the dull and geeky. I’m afraid that my writing in this section has suffered because of this, especially the pieces on Beethoven (here) and the assignment (here).

One section that I’d never really considered in depth before and which has made at least an academic difference to my outlook on a certain sector of romanticism was my research for the piece on Wagner and Nazism (here). I was loosely aware of the connection between the two, mostly from a book that I read in my twenties (The Isle of Sea Lizards (Bellairs, A. (1989))) but I would never have known of the depth of feeling from so many of the prominent composers of the day.

In all, I come away from this section with a renewed interest in the development of the orchestra as a composition tool and palette for the artist and although I had to stop work for a month in the middle of the allotted timeframe I’m quite happy with my progress in listening and the results of my research.

Assignment Three – The Cello

The violoncello (abbreviated to Cello in English and German) is a member of the string group of orchestral instruments, and the bass member of the violin family. As with all other violin-like instruments, the cello is primarily played with a bow strung with horse or synthetic hair, allowing a good deal of control over the resultant note and its tone. The cello is tuned in perfect fifths an octave lower than the viola at A3 D3 G2 C2.

The front and side of the cello.

The front and side of the cello(Click to view).

Coming into existence around the early fifteenth century, the advent of the cello parallels the move towards a lower register as polyphonic vocal music gained acceptance, due in no small part to the work of the Franco-Flemish School and its most celebrated composer, Johannes Ockeghem. As Western vocal music became more complex, instrumental music followed suit allowing definite bass and tenor parts to form in accepted and expected multi-part harmony. The need or desire was for a “bass violin” to add a lower register of accompaniment and harmony to the melodies provided by the violins before the viola more completely held the middle register.

In line with the rest of the violin family, the fingerboard of the cello is unfretted, providing infinite variation to the played note at the expense of the requirement of increased accuracy by the musician. A fretted cello-like instrument does exist, the viola da gamba (from which the cello’s role evolved and eventually took over during the eighteenth century), but the frets make the microtonal adjustments required for orchestral participation extremely difficult to play, and therefore unsuitable for this type of music.

The main body of the cello (and its method of acoustically amplifying the vibration of the strings) is the sound box. This is mechanically connected to the strings by the bridge. The vibrating strings cause the bridge to react sympathetically and transfer this sympathetic vibration to the top plate of the cello (what we see as the “front”). The greater surface area of the top plate produces a far greater volume of sound than the string alone due to the increased mass of air moved.

The strings of a modern cello are anchored to the bottom of the instrument via a tailpiece which is attached (via the tailpiece “loop”) around the supporting floor spike so we don’t need the complex system of struts for support and reinforcement that would be found in an instrument with a bridge affixed to the top plate such as an acoustic guitar. The only two internal components are a bass bar running under the C string and a sound post located just below the bridge which connects the top and bottom plates, allowing them to resonate sympathetically. The bass bar serves to distribute the vibrations from the bridge and also lends some support to the top of the instrument which might be as little as four millimetres thick.

Cello endpin

The cello’s endpin, used for supporting the instrument on the floor. Note the loop used to anchor the tailpiece and strings to the end of the instrument (Click to view).

The size of the cello’s body has settled and standardised at around 75 centimetres long after experimentation which began in seventeenth century Bologna by various luthiers, including Antonio Stradivari. Previous to this the instrument was larger and more difficult to play, especially when attempting faster passages. The woods used in the construction of the instrument have also become traditionally standardised with spruce used for the top plate and maple for the sides, back and neck. The fingerboard is traditionally ebony. Modern luthiers frequently experiment with other woods and materials such as carbon fibre or aluminium for reasons of cost, scarcity of traditional tonewoods and to achieve aesthetic or tonal effects.

A feature seen on all members of the violin family is the scroll and pegbox at the top of the neck. The tuning pegs aren’t cylindrical, but slightly conical to allow the player to push the peg “into” the pegbox as it’s being tuned, generating the friction which holds the peg in place.

The Cello's Pegbox

The cello scroll and pegbox. Note the nut supporting the strings and keeping them correctly spaced (Click to view).

Development has continued throughout the history of the instrument and the eighteenth century saw the arrival of several important improvements including the thinning and lengthening of both the neck and fingerboard and the introduction of more robust, thinner and tighter strings, resulting in increased responsiveness in both the instrument and the tone produced. Another innovation worthy of note was the development of the concave bow by François Tourte in the eighteen-seventies, resulting in the precision and level of manipulation of the instrument that modern players can employ.

The cello came to prominence as a recognised solo instrument in the seventeenth century after works such as those by J. S. Bach (Six suites for solo cello) and Haydn (Cello concerto in C Major) were performed to a wider audience, and the baton was taken up by other composers such as Brahms and Saint-Saëns. As the solo repertoire grew, so did the cello’s role in the orchestra with later compositions from the likes of Dvorak, Elgar and Shostakovich.

Playing these enhanced roles required a more disciplined, focussed and competent musician and several notable performers from the classical and romantic periods are documented. Cellists such as Domenico Gabrielli (1659-1690), Giovanni Battista Cirri (1724-1808) and Jean-Baptiste Bréval (1753-1823) paved the way for future virtuosos, each raising the profile of the instrument. Moving into the romantic period we find outstanding musicians such as the Bohemian Antonín Kraft (1752-1820) and Bernhard Romberg (1767-1841) from Germany playing their part to promote the Cello. Many of these prominent instrumentalists were also composers, ensuring that their instrument of choice was given suitable exposure in their productions.

Music for cello is usually written in the bass clef and the available range of four octaves makes it extremely versatile. As a consequence of this, a cello score may frequently move to the treble clef.

Compositions focussing on the cello in the classical and romantic periods were provided by most if not all of the major composers with work from Mozart, Haydn, Boccherini and Beethoven clarifying the ideas that had been provided by Bach, Handel, et al. By the time of the early romantics such as Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn, the cello was firmly entrenched as both a member of the orchestra and as a solo instrument and many sonatas were composed for it.

It would be impossible to outline the effect that each of these composers had on the development of the cello as a classical or romantic symphonic instrument but one piece stands out for me, Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor Op. 104.

Of all the stringed instruments, the cello is most closely comparable to the human voice, generating empathy between the musician and listener and because of this, audiences have always found the cello compositions approachable. This piece by Dvořák seems to exemplify the range and dynamic of the instrument, both leading and supporting the orchestra with virtuoso flourishes and rhythmic stability in turn while maintaining this accessibility for the listener. There’s no conflict between the two sides, orchestra and soloist, no battle of wills and most importantly, the listener is permitted to just enjoy the well-rounded whole without having to perform any cerebral gymnastics in order to make sense of the work.

A final note about this most versatile of instruments returns us to the first point regarding its malleability of tone. Like all of the bowed string instruments, the cello can be played in a number of ways, generating multiple, sometimes compound effects: Col Legno (with the back (wood) of the bow), pizzicato (plucking the strings), natural and artificial harmonics, the list goes on and more are being discovered and developed. The cello is particularly receptive to this type of adventurous technique due to its well balanced size, scale (string) length and playable range. The strings are neither too short and thin  like the violin or viola, restricting manipulation and movement, nor too long and heavy like the double bass, needing too much energy to excite, therefore becoming cumbersome and lacking dynamism. The cello is ready for another ars nova in orchestral and solo music and can be expected to lead the way.

Click here to hear Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor.

– Wade-Matthews, M. (2000) The illustrated book of musical instruments. London: Southwater.
– Scholes, P. (1970) The Oxford companion to music. Tenth edition (reset). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
– Oling, B. and Wallisch, H. (2004) The complete encyclopaedia of musical instruments. Second edition. Netherlands: Rebo international b. v.
– Midgley, R. et al. (1976) Musical instruments of the world. London: Paddington Press Ltd.
– Sadie, S. and Latham, A. (1985) The Cambridge music guide. First paperback edition, 1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wagner and Nazism

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) was a German composer, conductor and librettist, best known for his operas or “Music Dramas”. His most famous works are those completed during the mid to late nineteenth century and include “The Flying Dutchman” (Der fliegende Holländer), “Tannhäuser” and “Lohengrin”, collectively known as his Romantic Operas.

His later works included “Tristan und Isolde” (Tristan and Isolde), the comedy “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg), Parsifal,  and his masterwork “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (The Ring of the Nibelung), a four-piece operatic cycle, played over four evenings, running to some fifteen hours and composed over a period of around twenty six years. Wagner has also become known for his extensive use of the Leitmotif technique where a musical phrase is associated with a character in the performance and is played when that character is active on stage.

Much of Wagner’s work is concerned with Germanic and Norse mythology and has become associated with nationalism to a degree that perhaps no other composer has matched.

This association with nationalism has come about due to a concatenation of factors including those from Wagner himself; the pomp and boldness of his music, his essays and books and his published opinions. A by-product of these opinions (of which more later) was that right-wing nationalist factions in Wagner’s homeland of Germany appropriated the composer’s output for their own means until the two were inseparable to the wider world. The primary faction in question was, of course, the Nazi movement in 20th Century Europe, led by Adolf Hitler.

Wagner famously held outspoken anti-Semitic views and even went as far as publishing an essay, “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (Judaism in Music (see link below)) which made broad attacks on Jewish musical output and, perhaps more controversially, Wagner’s erstwhile companion and fellow composer, Giacomo Meyerbeer, along with Felix Mendelssohn.

The essay comments on, among other topics, Wagner’s opinion regarding the inability of Jewish composers to write music of any depth, of Jewish singers to pronounce elegantly and therefore perform with grace, and even his dislike of the physical appearance of the Jewish peoples. The comments are broad, sweeping and harsh, and are now generally believed to have been lifted from works of previous authors and collated in this piece.

Adolf Hitler was an ardent aficionado of Wagner. Having been exposed to the opera “Lohengrin” in his early teens, the man that would become Chancellor of Germany during the years of depression following the First World War soon became entranced by the dramatic output of the composer and it could only have been a matter of time before Hitler became aware of Wagner’s socio-political leanings. As Hitler progressed within German politics his influence spread in strength and breadth, and the Wagnerian soundtrack grew with it. The dictator frequently attended the Bayreuth Festival, staying in Villa Wahnfried, Wagner’s home in the town, and maintaining close contact with Wagner’s descendants.

Little wonder then that, over time, the work of Wagner has become associated with the rise of the Nazi regime and, as a consequence, anti-Semitism although an important consideration should be that Wagner was by no means unique in exhibiting overtly racist politics. Many left-wing thinkers held the Jews to be responsible for helping to fund bourgeois society during the failed nineteenth-century socialist revolutions including composers such as Mussorsky, Chopin and, to a lesser extent, Liszt. It might be seen that although Wagner had clear anti-Semitic politics, they were amplified by Hitler until we can’t think of one without the other.

As an interesting aside, when West Indian migrant workers came to the UK in the 1950s they bought with them a heavily rhythmic music (Ska) that was adopted by the nascent Skinhead movement in London. Early Skinheads weren’t racist (many being black) and were only interested in their youth culture and music as can be seen in such bands as The Specials and The Selecter. It wasn’t until the late 70s that violent racist groups in UK cities adopted the Skinhead look, ultimately sealing the fate of Skinheads to be known as racist themselves, and taking areas of Punk and Oi! music with it. Skinheads and Two Tone are making a positive effort to take it back.

When listening to Wagner’s music we must recall that the politics, opinions and broad educational awareness were a lot different to our own more enlightened times. When referring to the Black population in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the “N-word” was commonly and openly used, prejudices against ethnic or cultural minorities weren’t as vilified as they are today, and universal education and access to literature was still somewhat limited to the wealthy few that had the time and money for such lofty pursuits. This doesn’t excuse Wagner’s writings but maybe it might help us to understand the world in which he lived.

Read the full text of “Judaism in Music” here.

Listen to The Specials – “Too Much Too Young” and The Selecter “On My Radio”.

Transcribing for the Piano

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is a work of outstanding potency and beauty and has become the piece that most of the world associates with the troubled, brilliant composer.

One of the reasons that we love this piece is it’s unabashed drama and power, exemplified in the four notes of the first five bars, and on as the theme is developed in the first movement.

Listening to an orchestral rendition of the piece, one couldn’t deny that part of the power comes from the massed strings playing in unison and it’s an all-encompassing experience.

When the music is played on the piano, the notes are the same and the emotion from the performer is arguably heightened by playing solo, but the depth simply isn’t there. It doesn’t matter how hard the pianist hits the keys, the opening of the fifth should pin you to the back of the chair and ten fingers simply can’t provide that punch in the chest.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there.

Emotion and strength doesn’t only come from the brute force of a sixty-strong string section. Consider the combination of tones, the intervals played between the sections, the spread of the musicians across the soundstage of the listener, the ability of percussion to provide definite punctuation to the beginning or end of a phrase or note envelope. All of these things combine to make a whole that is far more than the sum of its parts. A single piano couldn’t hope to compete with or emulate this.

This issue is compounded by the piano trying to overcompensate and play too many harmonies below middle C which results in a muddied bass section. An orchestra can afford to divide the labour of harmony between many sections, thus creating texture.

There is no denying that Liszt made a splendid job of transcribing the purely mathematical structure of the notes themselves to be played on a piano, and we all recognise the motif of the fifth, but this motif could be played on a tin whistle.

I don’t believe that Liszt’s transcription detracts from the original any further than a pub band in Norfolk playing “Whole Lotta Rosie” detracts from the emotion of a performance of the same by AC/DC (click to listen, it’s exquisite).

We know what is meant by the performance and we appreciate it for what it is. Of course, I would prefer to listen to an orchestra because I would get the full Beethoven experience, but Liszt’s transcription makes an heroic effort in coming second.

Listen to the piano here…

Then listen to the orchestra here.

The Folk Tradition

I believe my first memory of a nursery rhyme or song is my mother singing “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” to me in the dining room of our house. Strangely, although I now know all of the traditional songs I don’t have any direct memory of learning them or singing them as a child.

Not having children myself I haven’t had the opportunity to teach any songs to a new generation but a quick search on Amazon UK provides a number of current publications that list a range of traditional children’s folk songs and, given the way market economics works (they wouldn’t be produced if nobody was buying them) I can only assume that the current generation of children is enjoying them as much as the last.

I’ve also asked a number of friends with children and it seems that traditional nursery rhymes and rounds are still very popular although a number of people commented that songs from television programmes are also frequently being sung.

Although the two terms might in some cases be interchangeable, the origin of individual nursery rhymes are, initially at least, generally distinct from the historical formation folk songs due to the selection of subject matter.

Folk song as a genre may have developed from the storytelling tradition of wandering minstrels relaying semi-historical or fictitious accounts of courtly love or derring-do. Once a melody or subject had become popularised there would be no control over manipulation of the music or text so it could be changed at will by the people at large.

However, a subject that might seem initially to address a social issue of some depth might, in time, develop into something completely different as both circumstance and society develop. A useful example is “Ring o’ Roses” where an early version might have been being sung as far back as the late eighteenth century. Twentieth century received wisdom was that the poem/song was concerned with the great plague of 1665. The ring of roses were said to represent the red rash that accompanied infection, the pocket of posies were the nosegays used by the population to fend off the smell of corruption from the bodies that littered London, “A-tishoo! A-tishoo!”, the sneezing which accompanied an advanced case and, somewhat brusquely, “we all fall down!”, everybody dies. Splendid.

Unfortunately, these don’t seem to tie in with the symptoms of the plague but it hasn’t stopped generations of children (children being what they will) reveling in morbid fascination at the thought of the demise of thousands. We now happily sing this in nursery schools.

The birth of new nursery rhymes might need to be meme-like as an individual composer wouldn’t be able to recognize the cultural relevance of a work to a future audience. For instance, writing a catchy tune with text relating to the folly of George Osborne would only work if history painted the subject in a comparable light. If future generations looked favourably on the Chancellor’s work, the rhyme wouldn’t be retold and would soon wither.

The musical structure of most nursery rhymes seems to rely on the major scale with as few accidentals as possible. The perfect fifth features strongly. Twinkle Twinkle jumps from the tonic straight to the perfect fifth, up a further tone, then straight back down the scale. This is easy to listen to and easy for young ears to remember. Frère Jacques has a similar formulation in that it begins with a climb from the tonic to the major third, then climbs again to the perfect fifth, creating a nice harmonic triad. The second two phrases are a bit more challenging in that the third line (fifth, sixth, fifth, fourth, third, tonic, repeat) asks the singer to double the time for half of the bar, and the last requires movement to a fourth below the tonic, that being an octave below the original fifth.

“London Bridge is Falling Down” is a little more unusual as it doesn’t begin on the tonic but on the perfect fifth, and this is where the melody returns most frequently. We only get resolution to the tonic with the last three notes, another pleasant harmonic triad.

Lyrically, nursery rhymes tend to stick to an easy-to-remember formula that will allow a child to follow and join in quickly:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star, (Star – A)
How I wonder what you are. (Are – A)
Up above the world so high, (High – B)
Like a diamond in the sky. (Sky – B)

Incidentally, the same AABB pattern can be seen in rudimentary Rock ‘n’ Roll:

The warden threw a party in the county jail.
The prison band was there and they began to wail.
The band was jumpin’ and the joint began to swing.
You should’ve heard those knocked out jailbirds sing.

Another popular pattern is ABCB:

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

It would be quite difficult in the 21st Century to try and pin these songs down to a particular region without a reference of some kind (like naming the place in London’s Burning), especially in a region such as northern Europe where there has been such movement between countries. For instance, Twinkle Twinkle is based on a French tune but the text is from an English poet, Jane Taylor.