THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

7 posts from March 2017

31 March 2017

Plucked from obscurity - reassessing Denis ApIvor

Guest blog by Thomas Schuttenhelm, current Edison Fellow and author of  The Selected Letters of Michael Tippett, (Faber) a contributing author for the Tippett Cambridge Companion and monograph, also for Cambridge University Press, on The Orchestral Music of Michael Tippett: Creative Development and the Compositional Process. His book Vision and Revision: Michael Tippett’s Fifth String Quartet will be published by Routledge in 2017.

The composer Denis ApIvor (1916-2004) led an uncommon life.  He was a sensualist among scientists and an individual in the era of ideologues.  ApIvor’s music survives in various musical subcultures and is highly regarded in these circles, even if it is infrequently performed.  Although ApIvor’s music is not particularly well known, the Sound Archive at the British Library has proved to be a powerful tool for discovery and preservation of significant work and as an Edison Fellow I have devoted my time to exploring and appreciating this material.  Most of the excerpts used in this blog come from the larger collection of recordings donated to the British Library by the composer and are representative of the resources found in the Sound Archive.

Portrait

Source: MusicWeb International

Denis ApIvor was born in Ireland to Welsh parents.  In fact, ApIvor means son-of-Ivor in Welsh.  As a youth ApIvor learned the piano and sang in various cathedral choirs and by 1925 he was studying at Christ Church, Oxford on scholarship.  In 1928, after discovering Peter Warlock’s Three Carols in the new Oxford Book of Carols, he had “no doubt whatsoever that I wanted to know this musician.”  Despite his aptitude for music his parents were opposed to him pursuing it as a career and he matriculated at the University College London for medical studies.

On 14 March 1934 ApIvor heard a concert performance of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, in the Queen’s Hall, conducted by Adrian Boult, which left a lasting impression on him and would later influence his decision to turn to serialism, a system of composition most commonly associated with the Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg, in the late 1940s.  Here is an extract from that 1934 broadcast, the first performance in England, with Adrian Boult conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Wozzeck 1934  

While living in London ApIvor shared a flat on Marchmont Street with John Scott through whom he met the composer and critic Cecil Gray whose biography of Peter Warlock, A Memoir of Philip Heseltine (Jonathan Cape Ltd 1934) ApIvor greatly admired.  With Gray's assistance ApIvor took private instruction from Patrick Hadley and subsequently with Alan Rawsthorne.

 ApIvor’s connections with Gray and Rawsthorne led him into contact with Constant Lambert, whose book Music Ho!—a study of music in decline (1934) he read when he first came to London.  It was probably through this publication that ApIvor first came into contact with the poetry of T. S. Eliot.  ApIvor was immediately attracted to Eliot’s “romantic pessimism of the nineteenth century expressed in the music-hall technique of the twentieth-century lyric writer” and he allowed this to direct his next large-scale composition. [See Lambert, Music Ho! (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1934), 207.]  For this ApIvor chose Eliot’s The Hollow Men, which became the basis for his eponymously named Op. 5, for baritone, male chorus and orchestra (1939). The Hollow Men was not heard until 1950, when Lambert conducted it for a radio performance.

Music and Letters reported: “here is intensely interesting music of complete technical competence, showing an unhesitating sense of declamation and of colour, with a powerful melodic sense.”  [See Vol. 32, No. 3 (July, 1951), pp. 288-89.]  Colin Mason noted: “The greater significance of the work seems to me to lie in the evidence it offers that the composer has really profited by the example of the ‘great’ composers of the early twentieth century, particularly Stravinsky.  This is true of so few modern English composers that it puts Denis ApIvor among the very few who are likely, when their mature works can be heard, to earn themselves a lasting international reputation.”  [See Colin Mason, ‘London Contemporary Music Centre’, Musical Times, 91 (1950), 110.]

At the time ApIvor’s career appeared to be on the rise.  He received a commission from Sadler’s Wells Trust for his opera Yerma Op. 28 (1955-59); completed three highly successful ballets: The Goodman of Paris Op. 18 (1951), A Mirror for Witches, Op. 19 (1951), commissioned by the Royal Ballet and first performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1953, and Blood Wedding Op. 23 (1953), produced at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre; a Promenade Concert was produced in 1958 featuring his Piano Concerto Op. 13 (1948)—where he first started to experiment with serial techniques, and a retrospective concert of the composer's songs and chamber works was given at Wigmore Hall, which included Crystals Op. 39 (1965) for Hammond organ, amplified classical guitar, marimba, contrabass, and 2 percussion.

The ensemble configuration is certainly unique within twentieth-century music. Its antecedents can be found in works like Schoenberg’s Serenade Op. 24 (1921-3), Webern’s Op. 18 (1925) and Op. 19 (1926), and Berg’s Wozzeck (1914-22), all which feature the guitar, and the latter left a lasting impression on ApIvor that continued to resonate throughout his creative development.  Another work that might have influenced him was Le Marteau sans maître (1953-4), by Pierre Boulez, which received its British premiere in 1957 with Cornelius Cardew (a cellist by training) performing the guitar part.

 Crystals, a Concert Miniscule (1965), is an evocative work that is comprised of sensuous timbres.  It is caste in a geometrical design - a five movement ‘arch’ form, befitting its geological title.  It can be heard in a live recording from March 1984 made at the Royal Northern College of Music, conducted by George Hadjinikos.

Crystals B4808/1

ApIvor had a keen ear for the guitar and he was in complete command of its resources.  Unlike other composers, whose compositions for the guitar are often a catalogue of clichéd techniques, ApIvor gives careful consideration to the construction of the musical material and matches it to the expressive potential of the instrument.  Prior to composing the Concertino, ApIvor sought instruction from John Roberts who was a pupil of the guitarist and noted pedagogue Emilio Pujol (1886-1980).

The Concertino for Guitar and Orchestra Op. 26 (1954), which is often given the distinction as being the first post-war British guitar concerto, was first performed in 1958 by the BBC in Scotland, with Julian Bream as featured soloist.  Bream later commissioned the Variations Op. 29 (1959) for solo guitar, and both scores were eventually published by Schott, but neither have found their way—yet—into the standard repertoire.

Despite the commissions, and many high profile performances, ApIvor never achieved a “lasting international reputation,” and his music, while exquisitely crafted, remains almost entirely unknown, and none of it is available on commercial recordings.  In fact, Bream never recorded the Concertino and while performances of it are rare, it was captured on a live recording of the first concert performance, which took place at the Royal Northern College of Music Orchestra in March 1984, with James Woodrow performing the solo guitar.  This recording has been preserved in the Sound Archive at the British Library.  In a letter to the Sound Archive curator from July 1988, ApIvor writes: “There is the Bream recording in your collection; but the orchestral sound is much better in the RNCM tape.”

Concertino B4809/1

ApIvor’s compositions for the guitar deserve special consideration because they are among the most unique in the repertoire and they can occasionally be found on a recital programme.  For example, his next work for the guitar, the Discanti Op. 48 (1970), published by Bèrben Edizioni Musicali, is listed alongside Richard Rodney Bennett’s Impromptus, Lennox Berkeley’s Sonatina, and William Walton’s Five Bagatelles, as a Grade 10 example of 20th and 21st century repertoire in the Royal Conservatory Guitar Syllabus.

This was followed by El Silencio Ondulada Op. 51 (1972)—“The tremulous silence”—for guitar and chamber orchestra, which is inspired by the poem “El silencio” by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (1898-1936).  ApIvor had a longstanding interest in Lorca.  His Six Lorca Songs for voice and piano Op. 8 (1945-6), which he subsequently arranged for voice and guitar, were the first pieces to use Lorca as an influence.  ApIvor’s Yerma, Blood Wedding, and his very last composition, Lamentations de la Muerte Op. 100 (1996) all use Lorca as a basis for the music.  The performance heard in this live recording of El Silencio Ondulada also took place at the Royal Northern College of Music in March 1984, with James Woodrow performing the solo guitar part.

El silencio Ondulada B4809/1

ApIvor’s next solo work for the guitar was Saeta Op. 53. (1972).  A “specimen of the commercial recording of ‘Saeta’ for guitar solo, as part of a Whitetower recordings tape,” performed by Simon James, was appended to recordings the composer sent to the British Library in 1988.

Saeta B4808/1

ApIvor’s unique approach to composition makes use of all available pitches, presenting them in increasingly original combinations, and regulates their impact on the listener through careful and nuanced control of the expressive potentialities.  ApIvor’s treatment of musical materials bear some relationship to his occupation as an anesthesiologist as the two disciplines were not as distantly related as some would have us believe.  In fact, the merging of these two seemingly incompatible areas is entirely in keeping with the modernist mind.  It is only the most conservative cultural critics that adhere to an outdated paradigm that requires all composers to begin piano lessons at a young age followed by early attempts at composition, attendance at prestigious schools that include a long list of distinguished teachers, awards and accolades from even more prestigious institutions, performances by the best orchestras, and a home in some urban capital.  For those who have difficulty accepting the accomplishments of the creative artists who have skewed this stereotype would benefit from a reminder Charles Ives and Wallace Stevens were both highly successful insurance executives; William Carlos Williams was a practicing physician, and Edward Hopper spent many years working in advertising creating cover designs for trade magazines.

During the war ApIvor was posted abroad, including a period of time in India and this too had a considerable but not necessarily acknowledged influence on his compositional development, especially on his adaptation of the serial technique.  In his book An Introduction to Serial Composition for Guitarists (London and Suffolk: New Music Services Ltd, 1982), ApIvor found parallels between Indian ragas and tone-rows.  He explained that a tone row was “based on a succession of scale-like ‘ragas’, one of which has to be chosen for the piece, and which can only contain some of the available tones.  This brings the system very close to one aspect of the final systematized Schonbergian departure of ‘twelve tone’ music, in that the Indian musician must choose his notes or row or raga for each piece and stick to them.”  ApIvor was the not the first to demonstrate the similarities between these two systems but his desire to integrate them into a personal, if somewhat non-systematic, method of composition certainly placed him far ahead of the ‘world-music’ trend that has become a dominating aesthetic in the years since he made these observations.

ApIvor’s music can be difficult to classify and although it presently exists only on the fringes of classical communities (and the guitar world has been one of the most accepting) there is an expressive potential that is quite powerful and which these examples demonstrate.  Performers and audiences will be amply rewarded when they endeavor to take the time and effort to explore this fascinating music.

*The author wishes to thank Dr. Mark Marrington for his editorial assistance in preparing this blog.

27 March 2017

Recording of the week: Silversmithing - 2D to 3D

This week's selection comes from Liz Wright, National Life Stories Project Interviewer.

Rod Kelly is a silversmith who specialises in the technique of chasing to create low relief decoration on the surface of silver vessels, which he often raises (hammers from sheet metal) himself. Rod depicts images from nature with a fluidity of line that seems effortless, but the process of decorating a three-dimensional object, based on a two-dimensional design, can be painstaking. In this clip, he describes the nerve-wracking process of composing a design on a silver form.

Rod Kelly_the nerve-wracking art of silversmithing

BK-1988-5Silver vase, Philippe Wolfers c.1895 (Rijksmuseum) 

Visit Crafts on British Library Sounds to hear more from British artisans working with studio crafts such as pottery, metalwork, jewellery  and book arts.

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20 March 2017

Recording of the week: can you guess what it is yet?

This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.

Capturing authentic dialect and slang presents a considerable challenge, but documenting nonce-words is almost impossible. We have all probably coined a nonce-word on the spur of the moment – either intentionally or accidentally – to describe an action, object or phenomenon for which no conventional term readily springs to mind. If sufficiently amusing or apposite, the term may subsequently be adopted within a family or among a group of close friends, but evidence of this linguistic creativity is hard to find and even harder to evaluate as nonce-words are by their nature restricted to private use and typically short-lived. But surely English would benefit from a word like chubble?

The meaning of Chubble

Present-932219_1920

This recording was just one of the words and phrases contributed to the Evolving English WordBank by visitors to the British Library’s Evolving English exhibition in 2010/11.  People were invited to submit a word or phrase they felt was somehow ‘special’ in their variety of English. Contributions to the WordBank include local, regional and vernacular forms and idiolectal expressions used within families or friendship groups, creating a snapshot of spoken English at the start of the 21st century. 

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13 March 2017

Recording of the week: a Welsh kibbutz?!

This week's selection comes from Dr Cai Parry-Jones, Curator of Oral History.

In this extract, Holocaust survivor, Judith Steinberg, talks about her husband who arrived in Britain in 1939 on the Kindertransport from Germany. Steinberg’s husband was one of 200 Jewish refugee children who spent their early war years living and working in Gwrych Castle, north Wales, one of several hachsharoat (agricultural training centres) established in wartime Britain by German-Jewish Zionist Youth Organisations such as Bachad and Youth Aliyah. Working on the land, the hachshara (singular of hachsharoat) at Gwrych sought to train its apprentices for kibbutz life in Eretz Israel. 

Jewish Holocaust Survivors_Judith Steinberg extract

Gwrych_Castle,_Denbighshire;_The_Seat_of_Lloyd_Hesketh,_Bamford_Hes

Gwrych Castle, Denbighshire; The Seat of Lloyd Hesketh (National Library of Wales)

Judith Steinberg's full interview is part of the Jewish Holocaust Survivors collection on British Library Sounds.

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10 March 2017

Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery: how to buy a Hockney for £40

Artists’ Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery is a free display at the Tate Britain in London. You can listen to artists, curators and John Kasmin himself telling the story of the groundbreaking gallery in New Bond Street which became known as ‘the most beautiful room in London’. The art on display, by artists shown at the Kasmin Gallery, includes works by Anthony Caro (1924-2013), Robyn Denny (1930-2014) and Richard Smith (1931-2016).

Artists'_Lives_Spotlight_01Photography © Tate, 2016; Photographer Joe Humphrys

Kasmin, who was born in 1934, established the Kasmin Gallery in 1963 and has been involved in London’s art scene for over fifty years. His life story interview was recorded between 2008 and 2016 by Monica Petzal and Cathy Courtney. Kasmin’s engaging recall of people, events and conversations is extraordinary – but his storytelling style is not the only unusual thing about his interview.

Most National Life Stories interviews are recorded in sessions over a period of a few months; a typical Artists’ Lives completed interview might be around 20 -30 hours long. At over 180 hours, Kasmin’s interview (C466/184) is by far the longest interview held by the British Library’s Oral History section. The full interview is not yet fully documented and available online but audio clips, photographs and exhibition catalogues have been used in the exhibition.

In one of the extracts, Kasmin remembers going to the Young Contemporaries show in 1961 and becoming fascinated by one painting in particular, even though he didn’t understand its points of reference. That painting was Doll Boy by a then unknown student named David Hockney (now in Tate’s collection)– and he had to have it.

Kasmin on Doll Boy

At that time Kasmin did not yet have his own gallery – he was working at Marlborough New London. Kasmin invited Hockney round for tea after work. He liked the shy young man with NHS glasses and a strong Yorkshire accent. He admired his work so much that he wanted to help him, even if it meant upsetting his boss, Marlborough Fine Art co-founder Harry Fischer.

Kasmin on Hockney

Soon life at Marlborough became intolerable for Kasmin, who was not allowed to follow his artistic interests. Frank Lloyd, Marlborough’s other co-founder, was disappointed when Kasmin handed in his notice because he could see the young man’s potential – and also because he took the gallery’s main collector, Sheridan Dufferin, with him. Hockney went on to become one of Kasmin’s most famous artists.

Artists'_Lives_Spotlight_16Photography © Tate, 2016; Photographer Joe Humphrys

The idea of life story interview methodology is to capture a person’s whole life in detail, including childhood, education, family, social and working life. One of the benefits of this method is that the interviewees have a chance to explain the connections between phases and aspects of their lives and how these fit together. Interviewees often explain how random coincidences – such as spotting a painting at a show and liking it - lead to whole careers and relationships. These junctures can be missed or misinterpreted by biographers but they are often crucial to the life trajectory.

National Life Stories collects oral histories by project – this approach allows cross-reference (and often disagreement!) between interviewees. For example within the Artists Lives collection on BL Sounds [http://sounds.bl.uk/Arts-literature-and-performance/Art], the British Library’s online sound resource, you can listen to three full life story interviews with artists whose work was exhibited at the Kasmin Gallery and is now on display at Tate Britain: Richard Smith (C466/308), John Latham (C466/69) and Robyn Denny (C466/347).

In this clip artist Robyn Denny explains that he was delighted to show his work with Kasmin, whom he considered the most important person on the art scene from the 1960s onwards. Denny reflects on Kasmin’s odd mixture of attributes and roles in life, from poet to dealer to collector to dealer: ‘he was kind of nuts, Kasmin, and he is, but he isn’t.’

Denny on Kasmin

In total, over 200 Artists’ Lives oral histories are now freely available on BL Sounds. To explore Artists’ Lives interviews not online please search the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue.

Artists’ Lives is run by National Life Stories at the British Library in association with Tate. The Henry Moore Foundation and the Yale Center for British Art have supported the project since its inception in 1990, and NLS also works closely with the Henry Moore Institute. National Life Stories is grateful to all its sponsors in relation to the exhibition Artists’ Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery, particularly the Gubenkian Foundation UK and the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation.

You can visit the free BP Spotlight exhibition Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery at Tate Britain until Autumn 2017.

07 March 2017

Michael Tippett: In the composer’s own voice

Guest blog by Thomas Schuttenhelm, current Edison Fellow and author of  The Selected Letters of Michael Tippett, (Faber) a contributing author for the Tippett Cambridge Companion and monograph, also for Cambridge University Press, on The Orchestral Music of Michael Tippett: Creative Development and the Compositional Process. His book Vision and Revision: Michael Tippett’s Fifth String Quartet will be published by Ashgate-Routledge in 2017.

Tippett_at_work

Tippett at work (Courtesy of Schott Music)

Michael Tippett (1905-1998) was an English composer for whom the act of creating music was a constant obsession. His fierce commitment to composition resulted in works that were original in design and devastating in their expression. Each work by Tippett originated as a singular vision and resulted in a singular achievement and the consistency of his creative process allowed him to fashion artifacts of shocking originality. His oeuvre is comprised of works that are remarkably diverse especially when we consider that they were the product of just one composer. What is truly remarkable is that his compositional process remained so consistent throughout his many changeable creative phases.

Tippett was educated at the Royal College of Music and served as Director of Music at Morley College, London. In addition to his creative interests he was also active in broadcasting and television and his talks on music and musicians brought him widespread attention. Many of these have been preserved at the British Library Sound Archive and these will serve as a fascinating exploration into a hitherto unknown side of this dynamic creative artist. By referencing these remarks we are transported back into the historical moment and return to the most authentic source on Tippett’s music: the composer’s own voice.

Michael Tippett lived deep in the English countryside and his creative obsessions required him to live alone. This was both a choice and a necessity but this created a classic conflict between his social-emotional side and his creative side, and it left a deep ‘wound’ on his psyche as he told Dr. Antony Clare during a 1987 session In the Psychiatrists Chair.

1 Clare 23041987

In his interview with Dr. Antony Clare, Tippett continued: ‘The wound is something absolutely autonomous, something of its own …but the price, well, I was always willing to pay the price.’ Those most closely associated with the composer were well aware of his compulsion but some were unable to submit to the severity of his devotion to the creative act. Regarding his relationship with Francesca Allinson he remarked:

2 Clare 23041987

Allinson eventually committed suicide, and in the same interview Tippett admitted:  ‘Another man whom I loved and lived with at times also committed suicide [Karl Hawker]. I may, perhaps, attract people, I don’t know.’

Similar to the poetry of William Blake and William Butler Yeats, Tippett’s music was created from a self-constructed mythology. It is, at times, eccentric, but it is never without a guiding narrative or an internal logic. Tippett created characters of fantastical proportions to render these narratives through intricate operatic plotlines and in his concert music he invented such unique timbres for his themes that they required a realignment of the planes of musical abstraction. These attributes often confounded the public and he was occasionally the target of sharp criticisms, but his singular devotion to the creative impulse allowed him to persevere, and with each successive work his creative identity became stronger and his music became more strikingly original.

Tippett spent a considerable amount of time contemplating the details of his compositions and the essence of his originality lay in the conceptual dimensions that were so uniquely conceived for each individual work. Multiplicities abound in his music but they always remain in the service of a strong integrated vision for the particular composition.  

Tippett’s solitary existence allowed him the contemplative atmosphere in which to envision some radical music but he firmly declared that he needed, always, to maintain a strong contact with the world in which he was a part. His compositional process would transform his experiences into the materials he required for his music. Tippett’s imagination was luminous and it radiated outward, through the splendor of Augustinian windows, onto panoramic vistas that resounded with otherworldly music.  He explained to John Warrack on Musical Influences broadcast on 21 May 1969. 

3 Warrack 21051969

Inspiration for specific works often came from some outside source but his creative impulse was internal and his allegiance to it was unwavering. This process was often a mysterious one, even to the composer but he had an implicit trust in his powers of invention to guide his ear towards the sounds that gave the strongest resonance to his fertile imagination.

4 Amis 01071977

Tippet_Jane_Bown_100dpi

Tippett in later years by Jane Bown (Courtesy of Schott Music)

Throughout Tippett’s long life he witnessed many shifts in style but he was unaffected by these changes and remained committed to creating his own original music.  Here he talks to Natalie Wheen in one of his last broadcast interviews from 1995.

5 Wheen 021995

Tippett had an exceptional ability to capture the ethos of his time and he used this ability to create music where the hideous—‘mans inhumanity toward man’—and strongest visions of affirmation were placed into the strangest combinations. In the aura of its release, where chaos and brought into a convincing but temporary reconciliation, we are reminded how essential Tippett was to shaping the soundscape of contemporary music.

The Edison Fellowships are funded by the Saga Trust.  Three of the extracts come from recordings in the Alan Cooban collection (C1398) which was digitised with funding from the Saga Trust.

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06 March 2017

Recording of the week: Toscanini conducts Elgar

This week's selection comes from Kevin Lemonnier, Preservation Audio Engineer.

This is the only known recording in existence of Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra performing Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro Op. 47. The performance took place during the 1937 London Music Festival and was privately recorded off broadcast, onto a lacquer disc, by audio engineer Kenneth H. Leech (1892-1995).

Toscanini conducting Elgar's Introduction and Allegro Op. 47

Toscanini_Getty Museum

 Portrait of the composer Arturo Toscanini c.1926 (J. Paul Getty Museum)

The audio quality is rather poor due to wear and shrinkage of the cellulose nitrate but it still reveals a driving performance from the Italian master. 

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