Saturday, 19 December 2009

Moments of Magic Number 6

Piano Concerto No.5 "Emperor" by L.V. Beethoven

Do not be fooled by the inclusion of Napoleon's imperial portrait. The 5th piano concerto had, apparently, nothing to do with the famous French emperor.
It was given the title 'Emperor' not by Beethoven, as he himself loathed the ruling class, but by others because of its particularly grand style. Ironically, 'the Beast' was once an admirer of Napoleon but was so enraged when he crowned himself Emperor that he tore up the piece he had dedicated to him; his third Symphony, the "Eroica." Though evidently a masterful musician and a composer of extraordinary genius, when it came to politics and reality, Beethoven was hopelessly credulous and naive.

In addition, Beethoven had a notoriously thunderous temper, earning him his sobriquet, and was frequently unfair and cruel to household staff, friends and family. He was arrogant, tough and even unfeeling - the very picture of the patricians he held in such disdain.
Though admired, he was not liked. His favour with the court in Vienna was uncertain, his social skills were poorly developed but he had a revolutionary and extraordinary approach to writing music that meant he provided a unique bridge between the old world of Classical music and the new world of Romantic music.

He influenced Chopin, among others, with piano concerti such as this in which the instrument comes to the fore; he skips up and down the keyboard with great freedom, a style which was initially shocking to the conservative audiences of Vienna, and, in this particular sequence reveals the measured majesty of his mind. Like his "Pathetique" adagio cantabile, the notes themselves are simple, the rhythm is gentle and calm but the overpowering sophistication of that simplicity is an extraordinarily difficult trick. Beethoven was possessed with these powers, and here it is shown to great effect.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Moments of Magic Number 5

Zadok the Priest by G. F. Handel

It is without doubt that George Frideric Handel wrote some of the most energetic, powerful and memorable music in history. Like many composers, he is largely known, sadly, for a handful of compositions rather than his greater body of work. His operas, though rich, emotional and splendid, were largely forgotten until the renewed interest in baroque music in the mid-twentieth century; a considerable investment of time, talent and his own money that bore little fruit in his own life.

He is mostly associated with the Messiah oratorio, the Water Music Suite and the Music for the Royal Fireworks. A closer look at his body of work reveals an impressive diversity and depth;
42 operas; 29 oratorios; more than 120 cantatas, trios and duets; numerous arias; chamber music;a large number of ecumenical pieces; odes and serenatas and 16 organ concerti. He was an outrageously fast worker, writing the entire Messiah in three weeks, a court favourite of George I and a great philanthropist.

Zadok the Priest was one of four anthems commissioned for the coronation of King George II in 1727. It has been played at every coronation since. Considering the lack of 'great' English spectacle-composition talent since Handel (apart from Elgar) this is perhaps unsurprising. However, for such a piece to hold sway in years when baroque music was embarrassingly out of fashion is testament to its power and incomparable beauty. Though the chorus, with the high trumpets, positively drips with majesty and regality, it is the beautiful strings that begin the piece that make it such a fantastic processional. This selection is my favourite sequence of that opening. Initially, the pace and the lightness of the strings indicate an eagerness and an excitement. Then, instead of remaining in the major key, Handel takes us down, albeit briefly, into the minor key from a dominant chord. Though certainly not unlike him, or indeed other baroque music, for a processional that was commissioned to be positive, encouraging and glorious, it is a risk - but one that pays off enormously. It makes the work multi-dimensional, not simply monarchist background music, adding a touch of intrigue, emotion and romance to what might have been, in less worthy hands, a bombastic, self-righteous and dated composition.

Standing the test of time, this selection is a perfect example of what Mozart and Beethoven referred to as Handel's mastery of 'effect.' The former said that "... When he chooses, he strikes like a thunder bolt." The latter that one should, "...go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means."

Beethoven was more complimentary of Handel's powers than almost any other composer and declared him "...the master of us all... the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb."

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Moments of Magic Number 4

Stella By Starlight (written by Victor Young) - Percy Faith and his Orchestra

Stella By Starlight is one of the most beloved jazz standards of all time. Quirky, bouncy interpretations by the likes of Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald have ensured that the song is kept on the exclusive playlists in the underground jazz parlors of the world, as well as in the minds of many a jazz enthusiast.
However, this 'song' started life without lyrics. It was, to begin with, merely an instrumental theme in a Ray Milland feature called 'The Uninvited.' The popularity of the 'theme' encouraged an official 'song' release and in 1946 Ned Washington penned the now famous, if slightly peculiar, lyrics for what was intended to be a big band standard.

This 1960s orchestration by the legendary Percy Faith is far closer to the original 'spirit' of the piece than any of the charming interpretations since. It is extraordinarily lush and melodramatic, something which adds to rather than detracting from the quality of the piece. The soaring romance of the strings requires this kind of tear-jerking sensitivity; the light echo at the tail end of this piece is an excellent example.

This sample picks up at the end of the second, vigorous repeat of the refrain and fades out into a beautiful violin and cello duo, with trademark Faith vibrato that brings to mind a tearful scene from a black and white movie romance, with the high echo following taking the melody up from the depths and bass of the repeated refrain to a subtle and celestial ending that slows mournfully.

The shame is, music of this calibre of arrangement is largely ignored today. It is considered to be schmaltzy, weepy and indulgently saccharine. I do not share this view. There is magic and wonderful skill in this interpretation; it is gorgeous and indulgent but it is not the lesser for it. It takes those fabulous falling chords and wrings an exquisite and startingly melodic flourish. A perfect ending to a rather perfect tune.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Moments of Magic Number 3

'Larghetto' from Symphony No. 1 by S. Rachmaninov

One of my favourite composers, Sergei Rachmaninov was one of the greatest musicians of the 19th and 20th centuries. A virtuoso pianist with enormous hands, the aristocratic and rather diffident Russian is probably most famous for his Second and Third piano concerti; less vaunted are his symphonic works.
Indeed, this 'moment of magic' is actually from a piece that Rachmaninov effectively disowned due to a disastrous premiere and savage critique, courtesy of Cesar Cui. Apparently, the conductor was drunk and stumbled clumsily through this work, his Symphony No.1, which resulted in Rachmaninov leaving the performance before the close and descending into a deep depression that was to prove to be a creative prelude of titanic importance. He stopped writing for years, but when he finally composed again he produced one of the greatest piano concertos in the history of music: his Piano Concerto No. 2

This sequence is from the 'Larghetto', the slow, beautiful poem sequence of the symphony. I love the elegance and tenderness of this passage. It evokes a hazy, dreamlike recreation of an impossibly idealistic past. Rachmaninov, ever the nostalgic, was often dreaming of a 'finer' time. His era was tainted with civil unrest, revolution and war; shadows which he turned from as he dreamed of the past and perfect summer days on his family's estate. Nothing is more romantic than Rachmaninov. This sequence reveals his mighty talent; some of it is reminiscent of a Borodin nocturne and it certainly has a little dash of Tchaikovsky's ponderous majesty but the feeling generated by this Rachmaninov melody is unique. That there should be such depth of feeling, such strength of imagination, such wonder in the mind of a 24 year old man is incredible. This is classic Russian romance; effortlessly beautiful.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Moments of Magic Number 2

Anyone who knows me intimately knows that I adore a waltz. Composers of old often considered that a good waltz, above all other musical styles, was a work of genius. And although the Viennese waltzes sound dated to today's dancers, they were in vogue far longer than any dance that has been created since. Waltz, though originally a musical pastime of the commonfolk in central and eastern Europe, became popular as a style and social pursuit of the rich and the regal.

The grand ballrooms of Europe have many a musical ghost but the most booming of these ghosts is undoubtedly the waltz; the grand oom-pah-pah is such huge part of the history of social dancing that the chandeliers still tinkle to the mighty strains of Strauss. It is a Strauss selection offered here. Written in 1889 for the Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany as a mark of Austro-Hungarian-German friendship, it is now known as the Emperor Waltz. Though on its reception, there might have been plotting in the minds of the dedicatees - men who had the next European campaign on their minds and not the next dance partner - it stands as one of the grandest examples of Strauss's style.

This small sequence is not part of the triumphant oom-pah-pah main dance sequence but is a beautiful and delicate bridge between one waltz sequence and the other. I have always thought that there was something gloriously tragic in the echo of a waltz - a defiance of a bygone age. To me, this sequence captures the slowing whirligig of a culture and a life and an age that remains a fascination and a dream for thousands of people.

Emperor Waltz - J.Strauss

Moments of Magic

As much as I can adore a symphony, I can be seduced by a mere strain. And as much as I can admire a concerto, a tumble of a few notes can put me in a state of the most exquisite ecstasy.

Pieces of music in their entirety say a great deal about the listener but it is often the little moments within those great works, the riff or the hook or the chord change that ensure the attention and importantly, the musical intoxication, of the listener.

I have thought about compiling my favourite sequences from a range of different music for some time and have finally decided to knuckle down and do it. These selections vary in length and style. They are largely from 'classical' pieces although, being that most popular music relies on repetition, it is hardly surprising that I have not found as many unique sequences of magic within the modern pieces.

Opening the series, appropriately, we have Bach. This is one of my favourite pieces of music and without doubt one of the most majestic and celestial compilations of notes in history. The orchestral version of the cantata 'Where Sheep May Safely Graze.'

Although this entire cantata is beautiful, this intricate sequence in which Bach throws us from major key to minor key with an initially puzzling but in-the-end gratifying movement is not only an example of one type of emotion but of many, all in a bizarrely logical (it is Bach) and satisfying order. After the uncertainty and meandering of the middle of this sequence, the long return to the 'home' chord is all the more pleasing.

'Where Sheep May Safely Graze' - J.S. Bach

Monday, 17 August 2009


It's been over a year since I last posted on this blog. To celebrate the paucity of posts I will be posting several compositions of mine that have been yellowing and dusting on the virtual shelves of my hard drive.

I had not forgotten Moonlight, Martinis & Memories. Nor had I neglected my beloved piano, despite other concerns (work, I am afraid) taking precedence.

I have been shamefully negligent in that I have frequently failed to record much of my rambling up and down the keys. However, I plan to make up for this.

This blog is not dead.