Expressing an English Identity

England has a structured musical heritage stretching back at least as far as liturgical chant in the Gregorian tradition from around the beginning of the sixth century. We can be confident that there was a tradition of secular folk music in existence well before this time but as the concept of notation wasn’t widely adopted outside the literary realm of the church until we approach the end of the first millennium we have no direct evidence of its impact.

The last 1500 years has seen a growing reliance on the established church to become a centre of society and communion for the inhabitants of a given area in England and this has given religious music a central part in the lives of many people living in harder times than we now experience. For this reason, church music became a driving force in musical theory, technique and production, not least because the church has frequently had the money to pay for it.

Alongside the religious fraternity (and it was a fraternity, women are a quite recent addition) we have had, especially after the reformation and the conjoining of church and state under Henry VIII, the input of the military, the combination of these two factions delivering a musical tradition with the propensity to be both martial and liturgical.

As we moved into the renaissance period we had input from mainland Europe culminating in the Baroque tradition and onward into more modern Classical then Romantic styles, where Western Art music became more homogenised and less distinctive with regard to international barriers.

Stepping back a pace then, we might look at our most celebrated Baroque composer, Henry Purcell (1659-1695), who was writing contemporaneously with the likes of Pachelbel and Scarlatti in the middle Baroque period, and just before the era of Vivaldi, Handel and J. S. Bach.

Purcell’s music, although heavily influenced by French and Italian work manages to sound intrinsically English and displays both of the previous components of martial vigour and solemn worship in works such as Jubilate Deo in D major (Z. 232).

It’s hard to think of England and to not conjure up images of rose gardens, cricket matches on the village green and views of castle battlements, and the music that goes with this image is the Rondeau from Purcell’s Abdelazer Suite.

Listen to it here.

Expressing National Identity

Chants d’Espagne (Songs of Spain) by Isaac Albéniz was completed and published by the Catalonian composer as a three movement work for piano in 1892, two further sections, Córdoba and Seguidillas being added in 1898.

Spanish traditional or folk music is inextricably linked with the guitar sound of Flamenco and, more recently what we know as the “Classical” guitar through the efforts of proponents and musicians such as Francisco Tárrega, Mauro Giuliani and more recently, Andrés Segovia who’s endeavours have moved the guitar firmly into the concert hall.

Before becoming a member of the classical family, the guitar in Spain was a primarily plebeian instrument* and the techniques used to play were percussive as well as melodic and used as an accompaniment to dancing, ne of the more dramatic and recognizable techniques is the “Rasgueo” or strumming which produces a rapidly arpeggiated chord. The heavily rhythmic rasgueo and its associated techniques give us the sound of Flamenco, the Spanish folk tradition.

Another is the use of the repeated note, generally played on the bass strings of a guitar with the thumb (noted as P for “Pulgar”), to provide a rudimental harmony or bass line to the melody played with the three first fingers (IMA (Indice, Medio, Anular (first, second, third respectively)).

Albéniz echoes these techniques with the repeated D in the treble clef while the bass clef provides the theme, then, initially in bar 25, a rasgueo chord in the treble clef, clearly mimicking the Flamenco style.

The Flamenco tradition also makes extensive use of the harmonic minor scale which reveals its Moorish heritage, and Albéniz takes advantage of this association in the primary motif of the first movement.

Hear it here.

Hear it played on a guitar here. This nicely showcases the techniques mentioned.

*There were notable court instruments, including those made by Stradivarius, but the techniques that we’re interested in here are Flamenco-based, using guitars such as those of the Torres school.

Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde

Mahler’s “Lied von der Erde” (The Song of the Earth””), a symphony in six movements (described as “songs”) was completed in 1909 and addresses Mahler’s thoughts and emotions based on subjects taken from a series of oriental poems with some text edited by the composer.

Although the sources of the text are of Chinese origin, the “songs” are in German and are shared between two adjacent voices, tenor and alto or tenor and baritone, although a celebrated 1992 recording conducted by Barenboim employs tenor and mezzo-soprano.

Leading up to the composition, Mahler was experiencing a particularly introspective (some might say melancholy) time of life after a series of personal tragedies and this can be seen in the somewhat fatalistic titles of the subjects chosen:

  • Drinking song of the misery of the earth (Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde)
  • The solitary one in autumn (Der Einsame im Herbst)
  • Of youth (Von der Jugend)
  • Of beauty (Von der Schönheit)
  • The drunkard in Spring (Der Trunkene im Frühling)
  • The farewell (Der Abschied)

From a programmatic point of view, Mahler takes pains to underline the sentiment of the lyric with suitably dynamic music and for the greater part succeeds.

In Von der Jugend, the verse portrays a group of friends sitting together, chatting, writing poetry, drinking, and the tone of the music is suitably whimsical and light. Not a hint of darkness is heard from the flutes or bells. In Von der Schönheit we are left in no doubt from the positive harmonies and sweeping strings that we are experiencing beauty and all parts of the performance are in concord. Conversely, in Der Abschied we are given plaintive oboe and low brass and it can only be a lament.

Mahler has produced an exhaustive and beautiful depiction of the six scenes and because of the accompanying lyric he has succeeded in bringing us the full story.

This doesn’t detract from the fact that the music on its own wouldn’t have been able to convey anything but the most basic of concepts; happy music for happy things, sad music for sad, etc., leaving the listener to sort out the details after providing a descriptive framework.

Listen to it here.

Programme Music

The Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 (1830) by Berlioz is an archetypal piece of programme music, where the composer has aimed to convey the feelings, thoughts or emotions of a subject or situation in purely musical terms.

The work is in five movements correlating with five distinct periods or situations in the life of an artist:

  • Rêveries – Passions (Reveries – Passions)
  • Un bal (A Ball)
  • Scène aux champs (Scene in the Fields)
  • Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold)
  • Songe d’une nuit de sabbat (Dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath)

The overarching conceit of the symphony is that of an artist who falls in love with what he perceives to be his perfect partner in the first movement. Her image haunts him in the two following sections, Un Bal and Scène aux champs. In the fourth (Marche au supplice), our hero admits to himself that his love is unrequited and poisons himself with opium. The administered dose not being fatal, the artist experiences visions of him killing his muse, his conviction of murder, and his own execution at the scaffold. The Songe d’une nuit de sabbat depicts the character at his own funeral, surrounded by a gathering of hideous creatures.

Looking at the movements individually, we can see the primary thrust of the scenes depicted in the orchestration and dynamic used but, even at the composer’s request, we need to be prompted into understanding the story. Berlioz requested that programme notes outlining the tale be distributed to the audience at every performance.

As an example, scene two gives us an idea in the title, Un Bal, then goes on to consist of primarily ballroom music. It would be incongruous for the movement to be called “Scene at a football match” then be accompanied by this music. In this respect, programme music as tool of storytelling seems to be a blunt instrument. If we need a first narrative to explain the second, why not be satisfied with the first. If the counter argument were to be that music isn’t a very robust medium for portraying complex tales, a responding counter argument might be “don’t use music to tell stories, use words”.

The third movement, Scène aux champs, underlines this point ever more eloquently in being much longer and thus, more open to interpretation. The scene is of two shepherds playing a duet in the countryside and the music is exquisite in its execution. The composer’s programme notes tell us what’s going on and we picture the vista before us. Unfortunately, that same argument could be made in that the movement could just as well be “Cloud formations in the French Alps” or “Evening journeys on the Zambezi”. The pictures are painted on the imagination by the words and it’s up to the audience to fill in the gaps.

The composer is almost asking the audience to develop synæsthesia in order to appreciate the work and, because of this I believe that programme music fails us. This piece of music, as a piece of music, is magnificent and we should appreciate it as such.

Listen to it here.

Niccolò Paganini – Caprice no.24

Niccolò Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Solo Violin have become somewhat of a benchmark for virtuoso musicians and although they might seem like “party piece” compositions, they stand out for me as being the archetype of classical violin technique.

Still today, two hundred years after their publication, violinists, cellists, guitarists and anybody else that wants to set a standard has worked to master these pieces.

Simply extraordinary.

Listen to a wonderful rendition of #24 on violin here.

Listen to an old demo of Jason Becker playing #5 here (poor quality but incredible talent).