Sir C. HUBERT H. PARRY (1848-1918)  Jerusalem (1916 – orchestrated Edward Elgar 1922) Words by William Blake (1808)

Sir C. HUBERT H. PARRY (1848-1918) Jerusalem (1916 – orchestrated Edward Elgar 1922) Words by William Blake (1808)

Hubert Parry was born in 1848, the year of European unrest, and died almost exactly 100 years ago on 7 October 1918, just over a month before the end of the First World War. He was Director of the Royal College of Music for some 35 years, his students including Vaughan Williams, Holst, John Ireland and Frank Bridge, who in his turn taught Benjamin Britten. He was respected as a musicologist and it is good in this centenary year to see his compositions, which included five excellent symphonies and the anthems Blest Pair of Sirens and I was Glad, being re-evaluated.

Jerusalem, setting William Blake’s poem, was written in 1916 for a meeting of the Suffragette movement at the Queens Hall (which was the venue for the Henry Wood Proms until it was bombed during the Blitz). After the granting of the vote to women over 30 in 1918 it became the anthem of another women’s movement, the Women’s Institute, and George V wished it to replace the National Anthem itself. Shortly before his death Parry conducted his own orchestration in the Royal Albert Hall and it immediately became a national institution. Elgar’s magnificent orchestration, made in 1922 for the Leeds Festival, has become the standard version for the Last Night of the BBC Proms, a superb conjunction of two of Britain’s greatest composers.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among those dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold,
Bring me my arrows of desire,
Bring me my spear, O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.
will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

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PETER ILICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Marche Slave, Op 31 (1876)

PETER ILICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Marche Slave, Op 31 (1876)

Marche Slave (pronounced ‘Slahv’ and meaning Slavonic March) was written in 1876 at a time when Tchaikovsky was at a low ebb, struggling with all aspects of his life including finances and his sexuality. Shortly afterwards he was set on his feet by the mysterious widow Nadezhda von Meck, whose financial support meant that he could compose freely and allow his imagination full rein — her condition being that they should never meet. One of the first fruits of his new-found confidence was the wonderful Fourth Symphony (1877), which he dedicated to Mme von Meck.

March Slave, however, was written to a commission from the Russian Musical Society for a charity concert in aid of the wounded from the conflict between Serbia and Turkey, in which the Russian government and many citizens supported the Serbs. Its premiere took place late in 1876, conducted by Nicolai Rubinstein.

As was often the case in similar pieces, such as the 1812 Overture (1882), Tchaikovsky revelled in quoting apposite songs to illuminate the sentiments of the work, although his choice of the key of B flat minor (5 flats) for the non-transposing instruments such as strings, woodwind except for clarinets, and trombones creates numerous technical difficulties.

The tortured opening section of the work, using the harmonic minor of B flat, describes the Turkish oppression of Serbia, and uses two Serbian folksongs, Bright sun, you do not shine equally, and Gladly does the Serb become a soldier. The work changes into B flat major to portray the Russians swarming to help the Serbs and we hear another folk-like melody which gradually increases in intensity until the Russian National Anthem blazes, just as it was later to in the 1812 Overture. Reiteration of the ‘oppression’ music eventually brings us to its use as a counterpoint to a triumphant repeat of the Anthem, then finally the coda brings the work to a joyous conclusion.

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JULES MASSENET (1842-1912) Ballet Suite: Le Cid (1885)

JULES MASSENET (1842-1912) Ballet Suite: Le Cid (1885)

  1. Castillane
  2. Andalouse
  3. Aragonaise
  4. Aubade
  5. Catalane
  6. Madrilene
  7. Navarraise

Jules Massenet was a prodigy who entered the Paris Conservatoire aged just 11, eventually studying opera composition under Ambroise Thomas, the Director of the Conservatoire and composer of the opera Mignon; Massenet would become a teacher himself at the Conservatoire in 1878, and still later take over from Thomas as Director, numbering amongst his pupils Gustave Charpentier, Ernest Chausson and Reynaldo Hahn.

In 1863 Massenet won the Prix de Rome, the most coveted European composition prize — which Berlioz had finally won in 1830 at his fourth attempt – with a jolly little cantata on the bloody and controversial murder in 1566 of Mary Queen of Scots’s private secretary David Rizzio, and went on to write over two dozen operas, several of which remain in the repertoire, including Manon, Werther and the Egypt-set Thais (from which comes the well-known Meditation for violin and orchestra). He was distinctly prolific in many genres, including ballet, cantata, works for orchestra and song. His opera Le Cid (The Lord), was based on the legend of the 11th century Castillian nobleman Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, who heroically rid Castile of the marauding Moors with the support of his wife Chimene (in French Rodrigue and Chimene). It is a story also immortalised in Anthony Mann’s film El Cid (1961), which starred Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren.

Massenet was inspired by a popular play by Corneille, as were both Bizet and Debussy, but Massenet was the only one of the three to complete his opera, which remained very popular throughout Europe for its first thirty-five years but then fell into disuse. Luckily Massenet was able to extract a ballet suite from the opera as a concert item in its own right, comprising seven movements, almost all characteristic Spanish regional dances.

The opening Castillane, from Castile, Rodrigue’s home province, is a mixture of elegance and full-blooded heroic Spanish dance.

The Andalouse, from Andalucia, is lazy and reflective, with cellos providing an atmospheric accompaniment to flute, then violins. The Aragonaise, from Aragon, is one of the most flamboyant dances in the set.

The Aubade, (Morning Piece) has bubbling flutes to the fore again with pizzicato strings.

The Catalane is again boldly Spanish, with triplet and duplet rhythms and the cellos to the fore in a smouldering dance which only bursts into flame at the end.

The Madrilene begins atmospherically, then becomes a rollicking dance which involves ricochet bowing in the strings.

Finally the Navarraise sets off with percussive accompaniment to a rather arrogant main theme before the Aragonaise returns to user in a bacchanalian finish.

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HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Overture: Le Corsaire (1844)

HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Overture: Le Corsaire (1844)

Following the break-up of his marriage in 1843 Berlioz busied himself with drawing together a manual for composers on how to write for the various instruments of the orchestra — intriguing in that, almost uniquely, he had become one of the first virtuoso orchestrators in musical history with no keyboard skills, and with scarcely any practical ability on any orchestral instruments either; he could apparently play the flute after a fashion and also had a little knowledge of the guitar, but he relied largely on flair, and had been known, for example, to write for clarinets notes outside their range. Nevertheless, his Treatise on Instrumentation became, with Rimsky ­Korsakov’s similar work, the seminal 19th century work on the subject.

In August 1844, still smarting from Harriet’s departure (although by now he had a new mistress), he took a recuperative holiday in Nice and, as if to reiterate his credentials, wrote while he was there one of his most virtuosic concert overtures, Le Corsaire, or The Pirate. Originally he called it La Tour de Nice, (The Tower of Nice), but then realised he needed a more flamboyant title and, feeding on his literary knowledge, named it Le Corsaire Rouge (The Red Pirate) after James Fennimore Cooper’s novel The Red Rover, but then, to Europeanise it, reduced it to Le Corsaire after a poem by Byron. The overture was premiered in January 1845 under its Nice title, and, finally as Le Corsaire, has remained a staple of orchestral repertoire together with most of his other concert-openers.

The overture begins with a scintillating flourish, testing the whole orchestra, before his characteristic lyrical introduction introduces a note of romantic wistfulness. The Allegro shortly reintroduces us to the opening flourish, leading to the main theme which has an irresistible swagger and later, following the development section, returns with still further brilliance. The coda brings the work to a flashing conclusion.

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JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957)  Tone Poem: Finlandia, Op 26 (1900)

JEAN SIBELIUS (1865-1957) Tone Poem: Finlandia, Op 26 (1900)

2017 saw the 60th anniversary of the death of one of the twentieth century’s great composers, Jean Sibelius; beginning as a major participant in the nationalist movement amongst composers such as Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Grieg and Smetana, Sibelius followed the former two in producing a symphony cycle which transcended its origins and developed into a universal utterance of huge importance in the history of music.

Sibelius was born into the family of a doctor in a small village in the south of Finland and until he went to school spoke Swedish, as it was the language of his social class. Having begun to learn Finnish he developed a huge interest in the legends and folk culture of his country, although Swedish remained his first language for some while. At this time Finland was a Grand-Duchy of Russia, the result of defeat late in the eighteenth century, and in his early years Sibelius, in common with many of his compatriots, came to resent bitterly the oppressive laws imposed by the Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, a new tranche arriving in 1898.

As with Berlioz we have reason to thank Fate for its intervention in the career of Sibelius. His early musical development centred round the violin, and he became proficient enough to audition, though unsuccessfully, for the famous Vienna Philharmonic whilst studying composition in Vienna with Robert Fuchs. Had he achieved that seat in the VPO we might never have had Sibelius’s symphony-cycle, and perhaps not even his violin concerto, safely within the half-dozen greatest violin concertos of all. Many compositions were to spring from his deep literary interest and nationalist concern, including the Karelia Suite, the symphonic poem En Saga and the Lemminkainen Suite, which comprises four Legends based on the Finnish epic poem Kalevala and including the magical Swan of Tuonela.

Strangely, however, Sibelius laid down his pen following the Seventh Symphony and the symphonic poem Tapiola in 1926 and wrote no more until his death in 1957, although he enjoyed overseeing and appraising recordings of his works by conductors such as Robert Kajanus and Sir Thomas Beecham, one of his greatest champions.

Completed in 1900 to express the determination and national integrity of his beloved Finland, Finlandia has become perhaps the epitome of nationalist compositions. Not surprisingly the work met with the displeasure of the Russian authorities, and intriguingly it was performed, it seems, under a series of alternative titles, including the wonderfully inappropriate Happy feelings at the awakening of Finnish Spring!

It begins with a defiant snarl in the brass and timpani, which is answered by reverent woodwind and then richly expressive strings. Shortly a serenely confident theme arrives in the flute and a woodwind choir, which leads into a volcanic Allegro, in which the ‘snarl’ reappears. Shortly the mood calms and a magnificently heartfelt melody ensues; this would soon be taken up as Finland’s national hymn. Finally the Allegro ends in a triumph of optimism.

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EMIL von REZNICEK (1860-1945) Overture: Donna Diana (1894)

EMIL von REZNICEK (1860-1945) Overture: Donna Diana (1894)

Reznicek was born in Austria of Czech parentage and began conducting and composing during his Music Degree in Graz before moving to Berlin and then Prague, where he was Musical Director for the Prague Infantry. Here his operawas premiered in 1894, and it became his greatest success. Eventually settling in Berlin he toured all over Europe, including several visits to Russia and to Britain.

Unlike many musicians who were ensnared against their better judgment or left Germany to go into exile, he managed to remain aloof from the rise of the Nazis, remaining a working composer and conductor through the war until his death in August 1945 right at the end of the War.

He moved in exalted circles, counting himself a friend and colleague of Richard Strauss in the 1910s, although he did make fun musically of what he saw as Strauss’s overblown ego; apparently his symphonic poem Schlemihl (1912) can be seen as a direct parody of Strauss’s autobiographical Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life).

Donna Diana overture. The opera as a whole is an adaptation of a comic play by the 17th century Spanish dramatist Agustin Moreto y Cavana, El Desden con el Desden, (Distain with Disdain), and the plot centres round Donna Diana, proud and haughty daughter of the Count Sovereign of Barcelona. She has several sincere suitors, including Don Cesar, but she rejects him with disdain time and time again; eventually he plays her at her own game and stands on his own dignity, whereupon she realises her mistake and succumbs.

The opera has fallen out of use, but the gloriously effervescent overture remains popular. It begins with a witty false start both rhythmically and in terms of key, but the first violins take charge and set off the bubbly first theme, which is quickly taken up by the full orchestra. Shortly the bubbly theme in the wind becomes a counterpoint to the serenely lyrical second theme in the upper strings. Both themes are also involved in the development, which features the woodwind while the violas draw the short straw and chatter away underneath. Soon the main themes return and the piece works itself towards a humorous conclusion.

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HAMISH MacCUNN (1868-1916) The Land of the Mountain and the Flood (1886)

HAMISH MacCUNN (1868-1916) The Land of the Mountain and the Flood (1886)

Hamish MacCunn was one of Scotland’s most distinguished musicians. As one of the first students to gain a scholarship to the Royal College of Music he studied in London with the twin pillars of the British musical establishment, Parry and Stanford, and later taught at the Royal Academy and the Guildhall School of Music.

Like a number of other similar RCM students, such as Vaughan Williams, his instinct moved him away from the somewhat Brahms-influenced teaching he had received and he developed his own voice, becoming a respected composer of operas which drew on his Scottish literary heritage, his masterpiece being Jeanie Deans, based on the central character of Sir Walter Scott’s Heart of Midlothian.

He also became a distinguished conductor, working for many years with the famous Carl Rosa Opera Company, whose mission was to present opera in English, and thus it came about that he was entrusted with conducting the first English-language performances of Wagner’s Tristan and lsolde. Sadly MacCunn died at the early age of 48 having ruined his health through overwork.

The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, written in 1887 while he was still a teenager, is a concert overture which expresses the spirit of Scotland as Finlandia had done for Finland, but without the same defiant agenda. The title also comes from Scott — The Lay (Song) of the Last Minstrel.

0 Caledonia! Stern and wild,

Meet nurse for a poetic child!

Land of the heath and the shaggy wood,

Land of the mountain and the flood…..

It begins with a typically Scottish melody incorporating ‘Scotch snaps’ and rapidly develops into a more symphonic style. Its chief lyric melody may well be familiar to those who recall the 1970s Scottish TV series Sutherland’s Law, starring Ian Cuthbertson. The development begins with galloping strings over which the brass provide a more rollicking version of the opening theme. The work ends in a blaze of Scottishness!

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HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Overture: Roman Carnival (1844)

HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803-1869) Overture: Roman Carnival (1844)

Berlioz’s father, a doctor, who had a clear idea of the path he expected his son to take, discouraged him vehemently from learning the piano, a decision which Berlioz later described as both an advantage and a curse. In 1821 his father pressed home his agenda and packed him off to Medical School in Paris, but he spent most of his time either watching opera or in the library of the Paris Conservatoire copying out parts from Gluck operas. He abandoned his medical studies in 1824 and within a couple of years had gained entry to the Paris Conservatoire.
Always deeply inspired by classic poets and dramatists including Shakespeare and Byron, in 1829 he attended a performance in Paris of Hamlet and immediately fell head-over-heels for English actress Harriet Smithson as Ophelia. Her initial failure to reciprocate led him to produce one of his great masterpieces, the feverishly romantic and trailblazing Symphonie Fantastique in 1830. In 1833 Smithson succumbed and they were married, but the marriage was always doomed and in 1843 they separated, although Berlioz continued to provide for her until her death in 1854.
His unique imagination led him into a huge range of acclaimed works, such as Harold en Italie for viola and orchestra, (based on Byron and written for the violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini), operas including Romeo et Juliette, Beatrice et Benedict (based on Much Ado About Nothing), La Damnation de Faust and the immense, Wagnerian-scale, Les Troyens (The Trojans), together with the flamboyant Grande Messe des Morts and the exquisite L’Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ).
We can be grateful, however that he didn’t possess the ‘Midas touch’ all the time; his opera Benvenuto Cellini, inspired by the sixteenth century sculptor and adventurer, proved to be so difficult to perform and uninspiring for audiences that it has failed to find regular performance to this day. Indeed, he wrote engagingly of his failure in his memoirs in 1834: ‘1 had been greatly struck by certain episodes in the life of Benvenuto Cellini and had the misfortune to believe they would make an interesting and dramatic subject for an opera.’ Nevertheless his overture Benvenuto Cellini passed into concert use, and in 1844, in order to make sure at least a little more of his opera would remain in regular hearing, he crystallised some of its material into the concert overture Roman Carnival. It is written for large orchestra and uses several themes from the opera, the main Allegro representing its carnival scene. The slow introduction includes one of the most famous of all solos for the cor anglais, which is taken up by the violas and then all strings in canon before the carnival arrives. There are few more flamboyant works in the whole of orchestral music!

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