Saturday, January 30, 2010


It has been a difficult week. The blog's always the first thing to go.

Monday, January 25, 2010


Saturday, January 23, 2010

KSO Programme notes: Dohnányi, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky

Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960)

Symphonic Minutes, Op36

1. Capriccio

2. Rapsodia

3. Scherzo

4. Tema con variazioni

5. Rondo

Ernő Dohnányi (Ernst von Dohnányi in German, as he generally had it on his published compositions) is now an obscure figure, but in his day was considered the greatest pianist and composer to emerge from Hungary after Liszt. He studied at the Budapest Academy along with his childhood friend Béla Bartók. In the late 1890s he shot to fame after a single performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in London. At the same time he made headway as a composer: his Piano Quintet was acclaimed by Brahms, who arranged its première in Vienna.

In the years that followed he also established himself as a conductor, and championed the music of Bartók among others. Unlike many star pianists of the day, he was equally comfortable appearing as a concerto soloist and as a chamber musician. His piano playing is preserved in what was for the day the cutting edge of recorded media: in the 1920s he recorded a number of pieces on the Ampico Reproducing Piano, which captured performances on piano rolls. This technological marvel’s life would be cut short by the advent of electrical sound recording, as well as the collapse of the market for player-pianos after the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

He became head of the Budapest Academy, but resigned in 1941 in protest at the anti-Semitic policies being introduced by the fascist government under the influence of the Nazis. This stance was not enough to prevent him becoming the victim of a whispering campaign by the Communist government that took over after the war, and he lived the latter part of his life in exile in America. Only in recent years has his role in the development of Hungarian music in the early twentieth century been reappraised and recognised.

Although he took some inspiration from Hungarian folk music, Dohnányi the composer is not a nationalist like Bartok or Kodály. His music is firmly in the mainstream tradition of 19th century Europe, and in his lush harmonies and orchestrations comes across as a more cheerful cousin of that of his Russian contemporary, Rachmaninov. The five delightful miniatures that comprise the Symphonic Minutes date from 1933, shortly before he joined the Budapest Academy.

Pyotr IlyichTchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35

1. Allegro moderato

2. Canzonetta: Andante

3. Finale: Allegro vivacissimo

In July 1877 Tchaikovsky married Antonina Miliukova. He was neither the first nor the last man to enter into matrimony as a facade for his real inclinations. It was, however, by any standards one of the most catastrophically ill-advised acts he could have performed. He had first met her in 1865, when he was 25 and she 16. He did not remember this occasion although it seems she did, and carried a torch for him ever after. She later studied at the Moscow Conservatory where Tchaikovsky was one of her professors, but had to leave due to financial difficulties.

She wrote to him at least twice in 1877, and their engagement was announced that year. By then she was 28, rather past what was then considered the ideal marrying age, and Tchaikovsky was the subject of gossip concerning his sexual tastes. He hoped that marriage would provide the cover for him to pursue his own liaisons as before. The marriage would therefore appear to have been the product of a certain desperation on both sides. Even on their honeymoon, Tchaikovsky was writing to his sister detailing all that he despised about Antonina and her family.

Entering an institution to which he was so unsuited with a woman whom he did not even like very much was clearly not going to end well. Tchaikovsky duly suffered a mental collapse and walked out on the marriage after only six weeks. The couple remained legally married until Tchaikovsky’s death, and Antonina spent 20 of the 24 years she outlived her husband in an asylum. Her own reminiscences of her marriage were recorded there after her husband’s death. They suggest a naive woman unable properly to understand what had happened but vaguely aware that there had been some sort of misunderstanding between them. For his part, Tchaikovsky virulently criticised her in letters to his friends, referring to her as “The Reptile.” They met only a couple of times again, even then much to Tchaikovsky’s disgust.

Tchaikovsky escaped to a resort by Lake Geneva in Switzerland to recover. It was here that his Violin Concerto took shape. He was joined by a pupil of his: Yosif Kotek was talented enough to have been a pupil of Joseph Joachim. They played through a number of works on violin and piano, including the French composer Eduard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole. This seems to have been the immediate catalyst for the concerto. He wrote to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck. “Lalo... does not strive after profundity, but he carefully avoids routine, seeks out new forms, and thinks more about musical beauty than about observing established traditions, as do the Germans.”

With Kotek on hand to provide technical advice, work on the new concerto proceeded swiftly and it was completed within a month, even though Tchaikovsky replaced the original middle movement with the Canzonetta that provides the lyrical heart. He hoped that the violinist Leopold Auer would give the first performance. In his enthusiasm he sent it straight to his publisher complete with dedication: it was in print before the dedicatee had actually seen it. Later in life, Auer denied the rumour that he had declared the concerto “unplayable”, but he was certainly not convinced of its quality, and felt that some of the violin writing was not suited to the instrument. He therefore declined to perform it, and the planned premiere in March 1879 had to be cancelled. Eventually Adolf Brodsky became the first performer, and second dedicatee of the concerto in December 1881.

Reactions were mixed. “Long and pretentious” was the judgement of the influential critic Eduard Hanslick, while Theodore Helm of the Wiener Signale declared it to be “an accumulation of discords, confused climaxes and dressed-up trivialities, covered by the national flag of the most barbarous sort of Russian nihilism.” None of this has prevented it becoming a firmly established favourite with violinists and audiences alike.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Symphony in C

1: Allegro

2: Larghetto Concertante

3: Largo

4: Allegro non troppo

Stravinsky’s Symphony in C was composed in difficult circumstances. He had been living with his family in Paris since 1934, while continuing a long-term affair with Vera de Bosset. His wife Katya had long since become aware and eventually, accepting of his infidelity. In 1938, Katya, already stricken with cancer, contracted tuberculosis, which she passed both to her husband and their daughter Lyudmila. They were all confined to a sanatorium where Lyudmila died in November 1938, followed within months by her mother. Then in June 1939 Stravinsky’s own mother died. This was surely the most wretched period of his life.

Stravinsky sketched the first two movements of what became the Symphony in C in the sanatorium in response to a commission from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A further sign of his standing in America came with the offer of a lucrative post at Harvard. Stravinsky’s star was waning from the height of his fame in Europe, and so he was only too happy to accept the post.

Politically the time was ripe to leave Europe, although Stravinsky was not in personal danger from the rise of the Nazis as were Jewish composers such as Schoenberg. He was essentially an apolitical conservative. Understandably for someone who had been cut off from his homeland and culture by revolution, he sought order above all. This probably explains his rather unfortunate admiration for Mussolini throughout the 1930s. If he was in any doubt that the winds were blowing against him, he would have received a rude awakening in 1938 when the Nazis included his work in their exhibition of “Degenerate” Art. This, coupled with his desperate financial straits (the Chicago commission was the only one on the table at the time) made emigration an attractive prospect. Thus in September 1939, as war broke out, Stravinsky boarded a boat for the United States. He resumed work on the symphony in New York. In early 1940 Vera followed him, and became his second wife.

Some of the philanthropic wives of Chicago who were bankrolling the commission had withdrawn their money from the commission when they found out how much Stravinsky would be earning for a year’s lectures at Harvard. Nevertheless, the symphony was completed in 1940 and premiered in November that year in Chicago. Its reception was lukewarm, and it remains something of a Cinderella among his works. Stravinsky would observe drily in later years that it only received as many performances as it did because he conducted them.

Stravinsky frequently and controversially changed his compositional style throughout his career. Many of his contemporaries accused him of adopting a series of masks in place of displaying a consistent artistic voice. With hindsight it becomes more obvious that beneath the constant shape shifting on the surface of his music there is anunswerving purpose and personality. Stravinsky’s approach to the past is more similar to our times than his own. It is seen not as a lineage to be continued, but a vast resource to be appropriated, quoted, distorted or adapted as suits the composer’s purpose. Although this symphony takes as its starting point the archetypes of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, it pursues its own course, transforming and distorting its found model to produce something that still sounds like it could have been written by no-one else.

The middle movements nod more to baroque models than anything classical. The third in particular caused Stravinsky some trouble. He attempted to write something that would perform the same function as a Haydn minuet or a Beethoven scherzo without being reminiscent of either. The finale begins forcefully, but concludes in an unexpectedly sombre mood. There is here a strong scent of Stravinsky’s devout Russian Orthodox faith: its ritualistic air suggests perhaps a prayer both for the three women he had lost and the continent he had left behind.

Notes on a Slow Walk

I've signed up for Slow Club, an 8-week experiment in living life more slowly. Every week we have a task to perform. My first was to walk a walk I do regularly, but slowly. The following are notes I took on Thursday as I walked to the sandwich shop at lunchtime. Don't expect any startling insights...

Thursday, 12.38

Rush out of office. Remember - slow walk! Pause in corridor. Rattle of air conditioning unit. Somewhere a chair scrapes. Floorboard creaks as I move on. Wave to Jon as I walk out to stairwell.

High-pitched note - from building site over road? Small squares of sunlight dapple the road below. A drill somewhere.

Spots of light on stairwell from spotlights. Become conscious of my own footsteps, slow and irregular as I take notes - as I pause when I jot words down.

As I pass the First Floor, lift door slides shut. Out of the window: stone arch, two workmen on a crane over the road, 2 more inside above them. Doors open and close all up and down. Sudden distant shriek of people talking as they go past outside.


Outside. Chilly. Other people walking down the road past me, all going the same direction as me.

Two men through window in an office - one hunched over computer with tie over his shoulder, the other leans back in his chair, apparently napping.

Workman leans on corner. Below, past railing on basement window on corner - window boxes with small evergreen trees and ivy.

I feel the need to speed up as I approach the workman, lest I be looked at funny. I resist it.

A Volvo parks as I pause on the corner to write. Piles of planks on the corner pavement. Cars parked all along. Bike. Robert comes the other way, I say hello. Girl on phone follows, also the other way. A crocodile of kids behind me. Man with BBC pass approaches, concentrating on his phone (texting?) rather than what's ahead. He looks up in time to see me and not walk into me.

Cab on corner by pub with suitcases in open boot. Coming up to main road now, more people walking up and down.

Two men sat outside pub smoking. One has hat and (I presume) photo reactive glasses (not sunglasses?). Cross road. Gut on a bike with sunglasses (white frames) looks at me funny as he passes. Cross road. Cross of St George painted on lorry.

Pace of different people interests me. Cashpoint. Rejected! Bah!

Want to speed up, get back so I can check bank balance. Resist.


Speed up a bit to get across road before traffic kills me (I'd already started crossing before it went). People on phones everywhere. Man on phone - first person I've seen smiling.


Walking back


Cracks in pavement. People on phones - notice more people talking to each other. The people in company smile more. Two men stand on opposite corner having conversation. Woman leans on railing smoking and looking at phone.

Walk back down other side of road. Bike I passed last time has a horn on it. Jogger. "Thieves, beware" warns a sign on a post. Am overtaken by Lyr walking back to the office.

Another bike, tied to a lamppost, strange I didn't really register it on the way out (was it there?). It has a rear-view mirror attached to handlebar - hangs below it, I wonder how effective it is.

Leafy designs on cornices above doors. People now coming against me. Round window by side door to office.

I realise I came halfway round block same way back - wonder if I should have come back other way. See more people on way back, going upstairs. Have to pay attention! Walk slowly upstairs, feel my leg muscles tense and release, feel my weight going down into the floor/stair. Back in the corridor under the rattling aircon. One of lights in corridor isn't on.


Back in office - taken half hour on walk that'd normally take less than 10 minutes. Conscious of the cold in my fingers and nose.

The Moment


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Waiting for Tchaikovsky

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Monday, January 18, 2010

First Principles

Sunday, January 17, 2010

PopStar to Opera Star

You know as soon as you see Alan Titchmarsh that you're not in for anything nasty. The housewives' favourite isn't going to preside over the sort of laughing at the mentally ill and desperate that Simon Cowell fronts in the early episodes of the X-Factor, is he? And so it proves in ITV's latest attempt to get some decent viewing figures by cobbling together spare parts from other TV shows like a cathode ray Frankenstein. You have to admire Mylene Kalss's professionalism, too. She stands next to Alan as he does his bumblingly affable schtick, and then delivers her lines with a steely determination. There's barely a hint of the pounding fear that must underlie every waking moment when you've rescued your career by wearing a bikini in the jungle and are absolutely, fiercely resolute that you are going to hang on to the spotlight this time, oh yes.

The judges on PopStar to Opera Star are a bizarre combination. One wonders what drugs the production staff were on when they chose them. I assumed before I switched on that Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen must have been chosen because he's a bit frilly and poncey - y'know, like classical music? - but it turns out he's on because he's a DJ on Classic FM these days, presumably because he's a bit frilly and poncey - y'know, like classical music? Meat Loaf, of course, is famous for his operatic records. Operatic in the sense of wildly ridiculous and over the top, that is. Which is the point at which you begin to realise exactly how opera fits into the scheme here.

The other two judges are also the coaches for the celebs, which is disappointing, because it means no-one's ever going to be anything other than nice to the contestants. This is surely going to be a strain when they get to Alex James, who is surely the undisputed king of Being Shit At Classical Music On Telly. They are Kathryn Jenkins and Animal from the Muppets. Ironically, Animal is the only person here who's actually been in an opera. That's not half as ironic as the presence of Katherine Jenkins, though - a woman famous for singing everything the same on a programme whose whole point is supposed to be about singing things differently to normal. There must be a personality buried somewhere beneath the blonde hair, makeup and cleavage - maybe she's really filthy in bed? - but if there is it's never allowed to break through the relentlessly bland facade.

The format follows the pattern we all know from Strictly X-Maestro Academy. Each celeb in turn is shown "in training", then emerges onto the set to bawl out a popular aria, every warble the subject of frenzied cheering form the (allegedly) live audience. There's no insight into how "operatic" singing differs from "pop" singing, or of why the celebs should want to do it (other than being paid to appear in an 8-week TV series, which is steady work for a couple of months, isn't it?). "I only know my song from the Stella ad!" exclaims Kym Marsh, to the hilarity of some canned laughter. Of course, most people only know that song from the Stella ad, but we'll let that pass, eh?

Animal and the Jenkster are never gong to be nasty to their pupils on live telly, not even Alex James, but you'd hope one of the other two might offer a more jaded counterbalance to their gushing. But no. Meat Loaf appears to be channelling John Barrowman, while Lawrence Fop, appears at first as though he might do a Craig Revel-Horwood, but as soon as he opens his mouth it becomes clear nothing's going to upset the applecart. You'd hope that at least a mild frisson would develop when Kym and Mylene have to share a stage, but even they manage to put on a half decent pretence of liking each other.

There's a decent idea for a TV show struggling to get out of all this. Well, there might have been, but it's been strangled at birth. There's no insight into how classical singing differs from pop singing, no indication why either might be worth attempting (oh, how I'd love to see a programme where Kitty J was made to try and sing in a "pop" style, or indeed to inject any sense of insight or understanding into anything she sings, ever). The complete absence of any criticism means that there's nothing to be learned. It's not really anything to do with opera, either. But I suppose "PopStar to PopStar Singing In A More Wobbly Voice" wouldn't have been such a catchy title.

Some will probably say that this is dumbing down classical music or opera. Well, duh. There's not really much point in fretting over that though. The classical music business sold itself down the river a long time ago, and really only has itself to blame that it's become the musical equivalent of a posh bubble bath. Anyway, this is ITV. We didn't come here to be educated. But you might at least hope to be entertained. You'd be disappointed.

ITV's absolute fear of doing anything that might be dangerous, or risky, or innovative, means that all the tropes they've stolen from other shows are neutered. There isn't even any danger that the celebs might look a bit shit, not even Alex James, the King of Being Shit At Classical Music On Telly. I know this because I saw his bit on YouTube this Morning. We actually switched off halfway through Kym Marsh's introduction, unable to take another seven contestants when we could be doing, well, almost anything else. I was hoping it'd be a bit of trashy fun, but it was just dull. That's what you've done, ITV: you've made a programme so dull I couldn't keep watching long enough to see Alex James being Shit at Classical Music On Telly. And that is surely the nadir of dull.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Friday, January 15, 2010

Who'd have thought that snow falls

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Triad on 7

Today is Morton Feldman's birthday.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Progression on a 3/2

Friday, January 08, 2010

Seven and syntonic

Thursday, January 07, 2010


Seriously, this happened: a couple of nights ago I had a dream consisting of harmonies based on the 13th partial of the harmonic series. What I've written down isn't that - that's hard to describe. In a way it was really just the single 13/8 pitch at the start of this page, but somehow there was a multitude of other sounds shimmering round it. It wasn't a visual dream, but it had a huge sense of space. What can it all mean?

I could just sit and play that first interval for ages. It's a strange one, it takes some listening because it lies even further outside the harmony I was brought up with than the 11th partial (which does bear a passing resemblance to "quarter tones" in equal temperament).

Wednesday, January 06, 2010


One of the things about Just Intonation on a cello is the fact that the strings are tuned in perfect fifths, which means that if you take C as your 1/1, the A string's actually too sharp. So here I detuned the A string by 80/81. I did this by stopping an E on the D string (tuned to make a just sixth with the G string) and then tuning the A down so it made a perfect 4/3 with that.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Monday, January 04, 2010


Sunday, January 03, 2010

2010 on D

Friday, January 01, 2010

New Year

Just Intonation Notation

For an explanation of Just Intonation and what all these ratios are, go here.

Ben Johnston's notation system for Just Intonation aims to produce something that looks similar enough to conventional notation that the average musician can get their head round it without going too batshit insane.

The basic notation is the C major scale. The notated triad C-E-G, F-A-C and G-B-D all represent just major triads, in ratio 4:5:6 (e.g. if C is 1/1 [=4/4], then E is 5/4 and G is 3/2 [=6/4])

One consequence of this is that the interval D-A isn't a perfect fifth, it's actually 40/27. This arises because of the syntonic comma, the difference between a just-tuned major third and a Pythagorean major third (i.e. one derived through the so-called "cycle of fifths"). This small interval is a ratio of 81/80, and that's notated by a + or a - (line a above)

(Another consequence of this is that if you tune to "A", as is standard practice, the open strings of a cello are therfore not A, D, G, C but A, D-, G-, C-. I experimented for a while with a version of this notation in which a key signature of one sharp indicates that the uninflected notes of the G major scale are the 4-5-6 triads instead of the C major scale. This meant that for a cello the open strings would be notated as naturals (although a violin's E string would have to be E+). I decided this was potentially too confusing and I've now reverted to Johnston's original plan.)

b) sharps and flats raise or lower a note by the ration 25/24, which is the difference between a just major and minor third (5/4 and 6/5)

c) the 7 and upside-down-7 signs raise or lower by 36/35, which is the difference between a just minor ninth (9/5) and the "flat" seventh partial in the harmonic series (in C major, Bb7)

d) the up and down arrow raises or lowers by 33/32, which is the difference between a perfect fourth and the "sharp" fourth that is the eleventh partial (in C, F^)

e) the "13" and upside-down "13" raise or lower by 65/64, which is, you guessed it, the difference between a minor 6th and the "sharp" minor 6th of the 13th partial (Ab13).

You can go on ad infinitum, adding a new inflection for every prime number, but that's quite enough to be going on with. f), g) and h) show a few examples of how these accidentals may be combined to form compound signs, except the +/- of 81/80, which is always separate and always closest to the note.