THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

92 posts categorized "Arts, literature & performance"

03 July 2017

Recording of the week: Wioletta Greg reads her poetry

Add comment

This week's selection comes from Stephen Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary & Creative Recordings.

Polish poet and writer Wioletta Greg has attracted critical praise for her coming-of-age tale Swallowing Mercury, which was published in January this year by Portobello Books. For this week's 'Recording of the Week' we offer a unique recording of Wioletta reading her poetry, made by the British Library in 2012 at the poet's home on the Isle of Wight. The reading is in Polish, with English translations made and read by Marek Kazmierski. 

Wioletta Greg reading_C1340/79

Wioletta-Greg

This recording is part of Between Two Worlds: Poetry and Translation, an ongoing Arts Council-funded audio recording project conducted by the British Library in collaboration with the poet Amarjit Chandan.

Follow @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

29 June 2017

Walter Legge and the Hugo Wolf Society’s recordings of the Spanisches Liederbuch

Add comment

Guest blog by Ammiel Bushakevitz, current Edison Fellow at the British Library and freelance pianist based in Berlin, Germany.

 Walter Legge, his wife Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Geoffrey Parsons (Getty Images)

Although the majority of his legacy was produced more than half a century ago, Walter Legge (1906–1979) left behind such a copious treasure of legendary recordings that his achievements in the field have yet to be surpassed.  During his tenure as chief classical record producer from 1932 to 1962 for EMI in London and for EMI’s subsidiary, Angel Records, Legge played a significant part in launching and documenting the careers of artists including Callas, Fischer-Dieskau, Gieseking, Flagstadt, Karajan, Klemperer, Lipatti, Ludwig and Schwarzkopf.  An indomitable autodidact, quotable though controversial, Walter Legge possessed a flair for spotting talent and an uncompromising ear for musical quality.  He was a music critic, lecturer, writer, editor, masterclass teacher and founder of the Philharmonia Orchestra; but it is in his capacity as a record producer that he contributed the most to posterity.  Alan Sanders, in his Walter Legge: A Discography (1984, Greenwood Press), commences the introduction to his extensive Legge discography as follows:

Walter Legge was the first record producer. Before him were “artistes’ department representatives” who saw to it that matters went smoothly at recording sessions [...]. His quest for perfection was untiring and it is thanks to his vision that a large proportion of the greatest recordings from the 1930s onwards came into being.

Included in the vast catalogue of recordings produced and supervised meticulously by Legge are such historically portentous examples as the Callas/Gobbi/di Stefano/de Sabado Tosca (1953), the Ludwig/Schwarzkopf/Karajan Der Rosenkavalier (1956), most of Callas’s records, numerous recordings of the Irish tenor John McCormack, Arthur Schnabel’s complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas, and a collection of recordings of veteran conductors including Beecham, Boult and Toscanini.

Even though Legge was a man of many hats, there was one obsession that haunted him more than any other throughout his life - the lieder of Hugo Wolf.  Legge was an avid young Wagnerite when he borrowed Ernest Newman’s biography of Hugo Wolf from a London lending library, a day Legge describes as “probably the best day of my life”.  The lack of any recordings of Hugo Wolf's lieder in England prompted Legge to launch the Hugo Wolf Society in order to raise funds to record the lieder of Wolf.  The Hugo Wolf Society subscription recordings commenced in 1931, ending with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, and were reissued on LP in 1981 and again on CD in 1998 as a box set by EMI.

As an Edison Fellow of the British Library, I am fortunate to have direct access to the original 78 rpm shellac records of the original recordings made between 1931 and 1939. The originals are housed in the archives of the British Library and the two audio tracks on this blog are direct conversions of these original 78 rpm discs. The unfiltered audio is thus a reasonable indication of the sound that the original subscribers would have heard when listening to these records in the 1930s.

The formation and history of the Hugo Wolf Society is of special interest to me personally, since I often accompany the songs of Hugo Wolf as a pianist. Walter Legge was a colossal figure in the history of song recording and set a certain standard, often in collaboration with the great song pianist, Gerald Moore, and such illustrious lieder singers as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Victoria de los Angeles and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Elena_Gerhardt_(LOC)_(15223086654)

Elena Gerhardt (1883-1961), the great German mezzo-soprano who moved permanently to London in 1934, largely due to her political convictions, but in part also because of the success of the Hugo Wolf Society (Library of Congress)

Nun wandre Maria

Spanisches Liederbuch: No 3, “Nun wandre, Maria” by Hugo Wolf .  Elena Gerhardt (Mezzo Soprano) Coenraad Bos (Piano). Recorded 11th June 1931

A background to Hugo Wolf’s Spanisches Liederbuch

One of the defining traits of the German Romantic Age was their interest in the poetry of the world. In their eager quest of national and folk themes and subjects, the Romance languages and traditions were especially sought after.  As German artists had longed for the clear air and warm light of Italy, so German writers and poets and musicians found their own native art-forms irradiated by the light of the Southern Countries and especially, of Italy and Spain.  As Eric Sams mentions is his The Songs of Hugo Wolf (2011: Faber & Faber), the ideas of Spanish local colours and costumes, pride and passion, the guitar and the castanet made a particular appeal to the lighter lyric poets such as Emanuel Geibel (1815-84) and through them to the great song writers such as Schumann, whose Geibel setting Der Hidalgo of 1840 was among the very first to put Spain on the map of the Lied.  And in 1852 he collaborated with a younger poet, Paul Heyse, on a joint compilation, the Spanisches Liederbuch, dividing the poems into sacred and secular and drawing on famous writers such as Cervantes alongside anonymous sources and two obscure characters, “Don Manuel Rio” and “Don Luis el Chico”, who turn out to be none other than Geibel and Heyse themselves.  Wolf’s own collection of settings of the “Spanish Songbook” is the finest fruit of a long-lasting fascination with Spain that had begun in 1882 with an aborted opera set in Seville and culminated in the two operas of his final creative years, Der Corregidor and the unfinished fragment Manuel Venegas.

Hugo_Wolf_1902

Hugo Wolf in 1902

The motifs in the Spanisches Liederbuch

For Wolf, the expression of his musical language was intensely personal.  Wolf’s detailed knowledge of Wagner make the resemblances between the two composers very strong.  These resemblances are usually general and not specific - the affinity goes far deeper, down to the very roots that both music and language have in common.  It is the same relationship that Schubert shared with Mozart. These masters of music and of song learn from the masters of drama, the motive power of music and drama is converted into the lyrical mode. In this way, Wolf expressed himself in motifs which traverse his entire output of songs.

Examples of the motifs include worship, submission, smallness, weakness, mockery, criticism, unrest, manliness, freedom, release, longing and love. Perhaps his most intense motif is that of isolation, separation and loneliness.  This is a wonderful example of primary musical metaphor. The right hand of the piano part has repeated chords, from which the left-hand moves away and downwards.  It is difficult to define this sound yet the passages in which it occurred are clearly related in meaning.  Im Frühling, for example, is a great example of this.  It seems unlikely that in this song there is any particular thematic significance, but the motive of isolation is clear throughout. The associations, and there is no mistaking the meaning of the motif, that goes grieving through the piano part.

The themes of mystery and magic are also important in the Spanish Songbook.  This involves a progression in harmonies, usually based on the interval of the descending dominant seventh.  This occurs in slow time, involving a chromatic shift in which two unrelated tonalities are juxtaposed. This creates a mysterious sound reminiscent of Wagner, who may have influenced the connection in the younger composer’s mind between this motif and the theme of mystery and magic.

 Walter Legge and the Hugo Wolf Society

It was in 1931 that Walter Legge first came to prominence in the world of records when, as a young executive for His Master’s Voice he had a brilliant idea of making available important new recordings on a subscription basis so that the cost of making the recordings was guaranteed by advance payment.  This was indeed the time of the Depression and money and financing was hard to come by.  Walter Legge had a quest for perfection that was untiring, and it is thanks to his vision that a large proportion of the greatest recordings from the 1930s onwards came into being.  The 24-year-old Walter Legge suggested to EMI that he would find 500 subscribers who would pay in advance for the product and thus support its recording and release.  In a way, this is similar to the many online fundraising endeavours of today’s internet age.  Walter Legge received approval from his company and thus the Hugo Wolf Society was born.

Gerhard_Husch_in_Japan_1952_Scan10008

Gerhard Hüsch (1901-1984) in Japan, 1952

Auf dem grünen Balkon

Spanisches Liederbuch: No 15, “Auf dem grünen Balkon” by Hugo Wolf .  Gerhard Hüsch (Baritone), Hanns Udo Müller (Piano). Recorded 2nd May 1935

Legge, always having an eye for opportunity, wanted to share his youthful love for the still relatively unknown Hugo Wolf with other interested listeners.  The Wolf songs were relatively unknown in England so Legge had to create a society of interested patrons (subscribers) in order to fund the hiring of top-notch performers.  These artists included:

Elena Gerhardt, mezzo (1883-1961)

Karl Erb, tenor (1877-1958)

Marta Fuchs, soprano (1898-1974)

Ria Ginster, soprano (1989-1985)

Gerhard Hüsch, baritone (1901-1984)

Herbert Janssen, baritone (1892-1965)

Alexander Kipnis, bass (1891-1978)

Tiana Lemnitz, soprano (1897-1994)

John McCormack, tenor (1884-1945)

Elisabeth Rethberg, soprano (1894-1976)

Helge Roswaenge, baritone (1897-1972)

Friedrich Schorr, bass-baritone (1888-1953)

Alexandra Trianti, soprano (1901-1977)

Ludwig Weber, bass (1899-1974)

When the Second World War broke out, many of the senior EMI staff were called up for war duty. Due to he is very poor eyesight, Legge was considered unfit for service and after a period of uncertainty when he was often called upon to record lighter repertoire not to his taste, he assumed a dual role.  With the ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) organisation, he became responsible for supplying concerts of serious music to those on active service at home and abroad or working in war factories.  He also became responsible for all new EMI classical recordings.  The great majority of these recordings he oversaw to the last detail himself, and soon his energy and flair were at work in bringing to fruition some astonishing projects considering that the country was in a situation of war.  It was also at this time that his legendary temper began demonstrating itself. Yet his main ambition was to form a great orchestra, and at the end of the war, with the best musicians returning to normal life in London, he formed the Philharmonia Orchestra, an ensemble which soon became one of the finest orchestras in the world and which he controlled absolutely for the next 19 years.

Legge’s many further ventures led to the highest levels of performers and a collection of recordings, many of which are now legendary, spanning many decades.  Yet his affinity to the songs of Hugo Wolf never subsided and he would always return to Wolf.  Especially dear to Legge, a song from the Spanisches Liederbuch was Legge’s first recorded work on 5 November 1931 (for the Hugo Wolf Society) and he recorded another song from the same set at his last recording session on 2 January 1979, just weeks before his death.  The circle had been completed.

Further Reading

Cook, C. 2007. Walter Legge – The Tosca Sessions. Gramophone Magazine, June 2007.

Davis, P. 2002 [1982]. Preface. On and Off the Record: A Memoir of Walter Legge. Lebanon: University Press of New England.

Gelatt, R. 1965. The Fabulous Phonograph: From Edison to Stereo. Revised Edition. New York: Appleton.

Legge, W. 2002 [1982]. On and Off the Record: A Memoir of Walter Legge. Lebanon: University Press of New England.

Legge, W. 2012 [1966]. Preface. Hugo Wolf. Ernest Newman, Author. New York: Dover.

Mann, W. 2001. “Legge, Walter”, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Second edition. Edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.

Sanders, A. 1984. Walter Legge: A Discography. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Schwarzkopf, E. 2002 [1982]. On and Off the Record: A Memoir of Walter Legge. Lebanon: University Press of New England.

Walker, M. 1986. Legge’s Records. The Musical Times, Vol. 127, No. 1719 (June 1986).

20 June 2017

A conversation: celebrating the donation of the Hay Festival archive

Add comment

To celebrate their anniversary the Hay Festival, led by Director Peter Florence, has generously donated the archive of some 5000 audio recordings, 2000 video recordings, and many folders of correspondence. Here, Head of Contemporary British Collections Richard Price reflects on the Festival and its archive.

Digital-Audio-Tape

Thirty years ago, the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts began life as a conversation round a kitchen table. Actors Norman Florence and Rhoda Lewis were talking with their 23-year old son, Peter Florence, about the possibilities of live literature, of the extra life books can have when their authors are discussing them with a live audience. Was there room in the literary calendar for a new literature festival? They thought probably yes, and they thought right: thirty years later, from its modest beginnings in improvised spaces in the Welsh borders town of Hay-on-Wye, the Hay Festival is now one of the largest literary festivals in the UK.

You can go too far with the word ‘conversation’ – it has become a cliché of cultural criticism that a book is ‘in conversation’ with another earlier book, this painting ‘in dialogue’ with another. And is a reader really ‘in conversation’ with the book they are reading? -- this to my mind just slightly misrenders that mysterious relationship between a reader and literature.  Even interactive apps can’t really have a dialogue with their users, and a traditional book can’t really, either.  But that is one of the glories of a reader’s relationship with a book: the conversation is all in the reader’s head. One of the joys of reading is the peaceful stimulation of internal ‘voices’ which reading entails.

A festival is more clearly a two-way conversation -- or a series of ones . It is a gathering to share word and thought and enthusiasm, and to pass all that literate energy on, to learn through interchange (yes, authors do learn from their audiences – it’s not a one-way transaction); to inspire.  A festival is one of the few places where author and audience can actually meet and talk about the ideas a writer has dwelt with for many years, labouring to create their book. Members of the public will relish that opportunity (and the opportunity to meet other readers) but for many writers it is also a time when they can step out of their normal solitude and see at first hand the effect their writing has had on other people.

Over the years, the Festival has played host to almost every UK writer or public intellectual with a significant public profile. Writers featured in the archive are far too numerous to name but include Maya Angelou, Orhan Pamuk, Hanif Kureishi, Will Self, Karl Ove Knausgård, Dave Eggers, Ben Okri, George Szirtes, Germaine Greer, Mario Vargas Llosa, Ian McEwan, Michael Ondaatje, Carlos Fuentes, Laurent Binet, Ruth Rendell, Arnold Wesker, Margaret Atwood, Susan Sontag, Paul Muldoon, Doris Lessing, Edna O'Brien, Jackie Collins … and the list goes on.  Artists and musicians include Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Brian Eno, Billy Bragg, Grayson Perry, and Gilbert & George.

The Library holds many discrete collections of audio recordings of public and literary talks. These include talks recorded at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), the writers' organization PEN International, and the Royal Society of Literature. The Hay Festival collection, however, greatly exceeds in scale all of these collections put together.

Clearly, Hay is a major player in the literary part of the creative economy. Although the archive is bound to be used for the light it sheds on individual authors – and hundreds of authors have appeared at Hay - it is also likely to be a source for understanding how festivals can generate success and sales.

Researchers at the British Library will find the Hay archive a rich source in that regard, and they will also be able to use our other resources alongside the archive to get a fuller understanding of literary production. Fiction or poetry captured in a book has already been through all kinds of dialogue before it reaches the printed page. The writer’s real-life conversations with friends, family, other writers, his or her editor, mentors, school days teachers, new teachers, colleagues and even strangers past and present, all will have affected the production of a short story or a novel or a poem.

The Library’s Author’s Lives oral history programme (in partnership with National Life Stories) tries to capture the hidden life of the writer and their work. We interview acclaimed writers at length – the interviews take place over several days – taking them back through their lives in a way that can sharply elucidate the work they would later produce. In our contemporary manuscripts collections we acquire authors’ notebooks, diaries and letters to, again, build a richer picture of the writer and their world.

And then finally there it is: the finished published work, going out multiply to readers of all kinds. Our Legal Deposit collection of UK and Irish books, in which a copy of almost everything published in these territories is held at the British Library, helps preserve the immense creativity of these islands as represented in those literary traditions.

The Hay Festival archive will complement these collections by focussing on the continuing life of the book after its physical entity – Hay is about readings of the work itself and discussions of the feelings and ideas literature and other works conjure. The Hay archive bears witness to authors who have shaped the literary landscape of recent times – Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy, James Kelman, and Beryl Bainbridge, to name just a few. Politics and science are also part of the Hay worldview, and so Jimmy Carter, Mary Warnock, Germaine Greer and Mo Mowlam are there – all figures who in their various ways are fundamental to an understanding of modern times, and, no doubt, to the continuing conversations of future generations.

08 June 2017

Franck's Prelude, Chorale & Fugue revisited

Add comment

Label crop

Original disc label (BL shelf mark 9CL0043737-9CL0043738)

A previous blog on murdered Chicago pianist Marion Roberts garnered a considerable amount of attention.  One reader supplied information from a local Chicago paper stating that Roberts was a composer and also a pupil of none other than the great pianist Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938).  She performed his works, opening one recital in 1925 with Godowsky’s recently published transcription of Bach’s Cello Suite in C minor.

In order to put Roberts’ recording of the Prelude Chorale and Fugue by Cesar Franck into context I listened to contemporary recordings of the work.  I was familiar with those by Alfred Cortot, Blanche Selva and Marcel Maas but had not heard the one by Yvonne Lévy.  While musically not in the same class as the Roberts recording, Lévy’s is still of interest and makes for fascinating comparative listening.  However, the comparisons don’t end there – both were young women whose only solo piano recording was of the Franck work and it is possible that both were murdered, in Lévy’s case by the Nazis.  Extensive research has not been able to confirm this as there were a number of people with the same name born around the same time in France.

There is very little information on Lévy and she does not appear in the standard reference works.  Yvonne-Elisabeth Lévy was born in Paris on 24th July 1894.  From the age of fourteen she studied at the Paris Conservatoire in the preparatory class of Madame Chéné winning a troisième prix medal in 1908.  The following year she gained a premier prix.  Chéné, was a respected teacher of young students whose pupils include Blanche Selva, Marguerite Long and Jean Doyen.

Towards the end of 1911 Lévy was accepted into the piano class of one of the most famous professors at the Conservatoire, Isidor Philipp, gaining a deuxième prix in 1914 and a première prix the following year. 

Export (1)

Résultais des concours de piano (femmes) Comoedia 28th June 1914

During the 1920s and 1930s she performed with violinist Edmond Bastide and the Bastide Quartet primarily programming modern French works.  At the Theatre Marigny in 1921 the Bastide Quartet performed the String Quartet by Ravel during the Festival de musique moderne française.  Later Lévy joined them in the Quintet in F minor by Franck and accompanied Bastide in the Violin Sonata by Lekeu leading a critic to describe her as an ‘excellente pianiste’.  In 1932 they broadcast the Franck Quintet but disappear from view around 1938.  An Yvonne Lévy died in Paris in 1977 and one hopes it is the same person.  If any reader has information on Lévy the pianist, please contact me jonathan.summers@bl.uk

The only other recording Lévy made, for the same label, was of the Piano Quartet in A major Op. 30 by Chausson with the Bastide Quartet. 

Nick Morgan, who had donated the Roberts recording to the British Library, also donated the Lévy recording which was published on the unusual Tri-Ergon label.  He supplies some information on the label here.

Shortly before the end of World War I, three German engineers invented a ‘sound on film’ system. Typically, early talkies used ‘sound on disc’ synchronised with the images. In the German system, sound waves were captured by an electrostatic ‘Kathodophon’, converted by a photoelectric transducer and written onto the film itself. Baptised ‘Tri-Ergon’ (‘Work of Three’), the system had a difficult birth amidst post-War inflation. The inventors found German and Swiss backers to launch the system in Europe, where it enjoyed some success. They also sold rights to an American entrepreneur, who waged prolonged commercial and courtroom campaigns against big US concerns such as Paramount and MGM – and lost.

Reportedly devised as a further money-spinner, ‘Tri-Ergon Photo-Electro-Records’ were made and sold in several European countries. Outwardly conventional, these 78s were mastered by transferring Tri-Ergon film strips onto wax at one hundredth speed, taking four hours per side. The quality was variable, but an ambitious catalogue was built up, mainly popular music plus a little folk, classical and speech. In France, Tri-Ergon’s talkie technology was unveiled in 1929, and adopted almost immediately by the great director René Clair. But the first locally recorded Tri-Ergon discs were apparently released only in 1932. Only two classical French Tri-Ergon sets are known, both with pianist Yvonne Lévy – a fascinating if flawed echo from an earlier age of technological innovation, competition and globalisation.

Lévy’s recording of the Franck Prelude, Chorale & Fugue can be heard here.

Yvonne Levy

26 May 2017

The first British ‘blues boom’ - and the reception of African American music and dance in 1920s Britain

Add comment

Blues trot003

British Library VOC/1923/GILBERT

Guest blog by Lawrence Davies, current Edison Fellow and PhD student at King’s College London. Lawrence has contributed a chapter on British Blues to a forthcoming volume of the Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World and writes about the history of blues music at allthirteenkeys.com.

Mention ‘British blues’ to anyone interested in popular music, and they will likely think of the early 1960s and the music of bands like the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, or the Animals. These bands’ interpretations of African American blues and R&B attest to the global popularity of blues music after the Second World War.

In fact the blues has a much longer and more complex international history. Britain had its first brush with the blues forty years earlier, in the autumn of 1923. As part of my Edison Fellowship, I have been examining the British Library’s extensive collections of commercial sound recordings, printed music, early record catalogues, and historical newspapers to better understand this early phase of blues appreciation and performance in Britain. I’m interested to know how much audiences understood about the blues’s origins and character; how it became part of the nation’s musical life; and what audiences’ encounters with the genre can tell us about the history and meaning of African American popular music outside the United States.

One fascinating item I’ve encountered during my research is a tune called ‘The Blues Trot Blues’. Written in 1923 by British songwriter Joseph George Gilbert, it was recorded in September of the same year by Jack Hylton’s Orchestra. Both sheet music and recording were produced to publicise the introduction of a new dance, the ‘blues trot’, to the British social dancing scene. The sheet music contains a detailed description of the dance by its creator, Morry M. Blake.

Blues trot text005

 

HMV label image

‘The Blues Trot Blues’ recorded as ‘Blue Trot Blues’ September 19, 1923 (1CS0057220)

Blues Trot Blues

It’s quite hard to know what to make of this piece. It certainly doesn’t sound like the blues as we know it today. Many of the common stylistic traits appear to be absent: the song comprises a sixteen bar verse followed by a sixteen bar chorus, rather than a conventional twelve bar blues sequence. The Hylton Orchestra’s performance is clipped and straight-laced, lacking the earthy vitality that we associate with 1920s ‘classic’ blues singers like Bessie Smith or Ida Cox, or with rural blues singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson or Charley Patton.

We might be tempted to discard a recording like this as a mere imitation of ‘authentic’ blues, at best a misunderstanding of the genre’s essential features, at worst an attempt to cash in on a new fad. At the same time, it’s worth trying to situate the piece in its historical context, relative to what listeners at the time thought the blues sounded like. The dance instructor Natalie Spencer, who had played the piano with the American Southern Syncopated Orchestra during its British tour in 1919, described in 1923 blues music having ‘gently but unmistakably syncopated’ melody, a ‘soft sobbing accompaniment’, and ‘sleepy, flattened-out’ triplets. Other contemporary writers highlighted the blues’s noticeably slower speed relative to other dance music styles, such as the foxtrot. These elements are clearly audible in Hylton’s recording.

Gilbert’s lyrics, although not included in Hylton’s recording, reveal an awareness of the many contemporary vocal blues that were becoming available in Britain, both on record and in print. Songs like ‘You’re Always Messin’ Round With My Man’, ‘Aggravatin’ Papa’, and ‘Down Hearted Blues’ encapsulate Spencer’s description of vocal blues as ‘wailing songs of a “Complainin’” order; usually with an underlying cynical humour.’ In ‘The Blues Trot Blues’, the female protagonist describes being captivated and cast adrift by the blues’s rhythmic and melodic allure, but by the end of the song it is apparent that she is equally captivated by her male dancing instructor, whom she needs to ‘come and drive away’ her blues!

But we get the best sense of how British audiences related the blues to contemporary African American expressive culture when we look at how the blues was adopted as a dance style. The genre’s slow tempo made foxtrot steps – the most widely used dance step at the time – unsuitable. Morry Blake’s choreography calls instead for a distinctive ‘rhythmic walk’ every two beats: ‘Stretch the foot well forward or backwards’, Blake instructs, ‘…before allowing the foot to take the ground, as if you were stepping from sleeper to sleeper of a railroad track.’ More popularly known as the ‘camel walk’, this dance step originated in African American ragtime and vaudeville routines.

Another element of the ‘blues trot’ was a sideways ‘blues step’. Blake instructs the dancers to ‘stretch the left foot well to the side…at the same time twisting on the ball of the right foot…[to] allow the body to sway slightly rearward’ to create what Blake described as ‘a gentle rippling motion’. Combining a sideways step with a rearward shift of balance was a marked departure from British ballroom conventions of the time; in his 1923 book Modern Ballroom Dancing, champion dancer Victor Silvester emphasised that dancers should always maintain their balance in line with their leading foot. This modified posture evoked a range of dance steps originating in African American expressive culture, such as the ‘black bottom’ of 1919 or the nineteenth century ‘cakewalk’.

Importantly, dancers’ appetite for ‘unbalanced’ posture and movements that went against the grain of European dance conventions illuminates the extent to which dances associated with African American expressive culture were viewed as exotic or alien. Press coverage of early blues dancing contained noticeable undercurrents of excess and moral panic: The Manchester Guardian likened the spread of blues dancing to a weed, observing that ‘those who spied on [the blues’s] introduction…[as] an evil growth can claim now that it has shown all the hardihood of vice.’ There were particular misgivings around the variations that some dancers were incorporating into the blues, which were deemed too risqué for the British ballroom. Warning against the addition of the ‘eagle rock’ (another dance step of African American origin), critic Philip Richardson declared that musical rhythm ‘transferred to the upper part of the body…appear[s] not only grotesque, but positively unpleasant.’

Although ‘The Blues Trot Blues’ is musically a far cry from our modern idea of the blues, it can tell us a great deal about the early reception and performance of the genre in Britain. It reveals how the British ‘blues boom’ of 1923 was a multimedia phenomenon. The blues arrived in Britain through recordings and printed music, but it was the resultant dance craze that appears to have brought the genre to popular attention. This ‘connected history’ of the blues has been largely overlooked in more recent histories that only approach the genre through the prism of recordings.

And while anxieties surrounding the blues bore all the hallmarks of prevailing attitudes to race, reading between the lines of these accounts can also reveal much about the popularity and visibility of African American expressive culture in Britain at this time. The nation’s first ‘blues boom’ paved the way for the many visiting African American performers and composers who would gain an increasing foothold in British entertainment throughout the 1920s, both on record and onstage. Conscious of their audiences’ attitudes to the blues, they would tread a fine line between their own creative aspirations and their need to fit prevailing stereotypes of black music and dance. But that would be the subject of another blog post…

Further Reading

‘The Blues: English Adapter Explains the Latest Dance’, The Manchester Guardian, July 31, 1923, 14.

Rye, Howard, ‘Southern Syncopated Orchestra: The Roster’, Black Music Research Journal 30/1 (Spring 2010), 19-70.

Silvester, Victor, Modern Ballroom Dancing (London: Herbert Jenkins Ltd., 1927 [1923]).

Spencer, Natalie, ‘“Blues” From the Musical Standpoint’, The Dancing Times (October, 1923), 23.

Platt, Len, Tobias Becker, and David Linton (eds.), Popular Musical Theatre in London and Berlin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

04 May 2017

Beecham in Hollywood

Add comment

Bb5292485h_1_2

Baja California and the West Postcard Collection. MSS 235. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego

A few weeks ago I received a telephone call from John Lucas, author of Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music.  In the past John had donated some Armed Forces Radio Services discs of a Beecham concert broadcast on 21st April 1945 from the Ritz Theater in New York.  Now he had spotted some lacquer discs for sale on ebay of a Beecham concert in Hollywood and wondered if the British Library had the recording.  A quick search on our Sound and Vision catalogue showed that we appeared to have this recording on an Armed Forces Radio Service shellac disc but something was amiss: our single disc had 15 minutes of music on each side, labelled 1 and 3, but sides 2 and 4 were not in the collection.  The new discs comprised four sides and included Voices of Spring by Johann Strauss which did not appear on our catalogue entry. ‘I’ll bid on them, and if I get them, you can have them!’

A few days later an email told me that John’s bid was successful.  He kindly brought in and donated the four 14-inch discs to the Library which our engineer dubbed using a special sized turntable.

Programme cover-page-001

Programme for 'Symphonies Under the Stars', 7th week (Courtesy of John Lucas)

The background to the concert was this.  Under the heading ‘Beecham will conduct here’, the Los Angeles Times informed the public on 11th August 1944 that ‘Sir Thomas Beecham will replace Artur Rodzinski as conductor of six concerts at Hollywood Bowl, beginning August 22nd, it was announced last night.  Illness in Mr Rodzinski’s family makes it impossible for him to travel west.  Beecham is now in Mexico City.’

Beecham was in Mexico City conducting a three-week festival of Mozart opera so was in an ideal location to act as a last minute substitute.  In the end he conducted four of the six concerts given by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, their summer home since 1922, in the 'Symphonies Under the Stars' series. The last minute change in conductor was made in time for the correct name to appear on the programme, but the actual works performed were changed. 

Programme-page-001

Programme for 'Symphonies Under the Stars', 7th week (Courtesy of John Lucas)

Beecham probably agreed to conduct without knowing the programme beforehand.  Changes were made so that on the programme of 27th August soloist Amparo Iturbi played the second and third movements from Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D major instead of her brother’s Fantasia for piano and orchestra while Handel and Delibes were dropped in favour of Johann Strauss and dances from Smetana’s Bartered Bride.  The only works retained on the printed programme were the Overture to Mignon by Thomas and the ballet music from Gounod’s Faust.  Because the Sunday Standard Hour was only on air for that limited time, the Grieg Piano Concerto was not broadcast, but a short review of 28th August proves that it was performed.

Sir-Thomas-Beecham-US-1948

Beecham in the US in 1948

Here is an extract from the Overture to the opera Mignon by Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896), a work Beecham never recorded commercially.

Mignon extract Beecham

The curious thing about the discs is that they turned up not in the United States, but in Devon.  Thanks to the eagle eye and generosity of John Lucas, they are now preserved for the nation.

Follow all the latest news @BL_Classical

23 April 2017

Cry ‘God for Harry! England! and Saint George!’

Add comment

 Although I am curator of Classical recordings at the British Library, I have a fascination with the oldest extant examples of both sound recordings and photographs.  Both are a window, albeit sometimes very misty, allowing us a view into the past.  St George’s Day made me think of two early recordings – The Yeoman of England from Edward German’s hugely popular comic opera Merrie England of 1902 and actor Lewis Waller’s speech from Henry V

Merrie England opened at the Savoy Theatre in April 1902 and only a month later Henry Lytton, who created the role of the Earl of Essex, recorded selections from it for the Gramophone Company.  Of more interest on many levels for me however, is the Shakespeare recording by Lewis Waller.

Since the days of LP reissues in the 1960s, this famous recording has been included on almost every collection of historic recordings of actors.  While sometimes derided today for its perceived ‘over the top’ or ‘histrionic and old-fashioned’ style of acting, a few points need to be remembered when listening to it.  Firstly, and most importantly, is the playback speed.  Many early recordings rarely play back at the later standard of 78rpm.  If the Waller is reproduced at the standard 78rpm it can make his natural vocal vibrato sound comical.  Another point to remember is that the recording was made at a time when theatres (and indeed recording studios) had no microphones.  Actors had to project their voices in a way that today can sound artificial, but they were ideal for the fledgling acoustic recording process, as were singers.  One final element is the visual.  We can no longer witness a performance from Waller, but he evidently had great stage presence and was something of a heart-throb prompting the creation of fan clubs.  Being in his presence during the declamation of a speech such as this would have had a much greater effect than the historic recording can possibly offer.

Brutus Julius Caesar 1893

Lewis Waller as Brutus in Julius Caesar 1893

Born William Waller Lewis in 1860 he became a leading figure on the London stage and of provincial tours in the 1880s becoming an actor-manager until his death in 1915 at the age of 55 from pneumonia.  In 1895 he created the role of Sir Robert Chiltern in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband

Lewis-Waller-Ideal-Husband

Lewis Waller as Sir Robert Chiltern in An Ideal Husband 1895

He had popular success in contemporary plays by Conan Doyle and Booth Tarkington, but his great love was Shakespeare and he often played roles in lavish Shakespeare productions by his friend Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917) at London’s Haymarket Theatre.  The famous speech from Henry V was recorded for the Gramophone Company by Waller on 4th August 1911 (when he also recorded the St Crispin’s Day speech from the same play and Tennyson’s 'Charge of the Light Brigade').  It can be heard on our British Library Sounds website here.  However, when researching for this blog I was delighted to find that Waller had previously recorded the same speech over four and a half years earlier on 3rd January 1907.  To hear a different performance of a recording I knew so well was thrilling.  Although the sound quality is inferior to the later recording, Waller announces the extract and overall gives a faster reading – a delivery vastly more modern than that of Beerbohm Tree who can often sound ponderous and affected.  He makes the same small cut in the text and a few word substitutions, but the main difference is that in the 1911 recording he gets the order of the first line mixed, saying ‘Once more unto the breach, once more, dear friends’ but on the 1907 recording quotes the first line correctly.

Waller Henry V 1907

Henry V Act III Scene i

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

Follow @BL_Classical for all the latest news

19 April 2017

Live Art in the UK: Lois Keidan interview - part 2

Add comment

Lois Keidan is co-founder and co-director of the Live Art Development Agency (LADA), an organization based in London dedicated to the support and promotion of live art in the UK and abroad.

This is part two of an interview with Lois, which took place at the British Library, 20 January 2017. She discussed the history of live art in the UK, the work of LADA, and how live art can help us to understand contemporary Britain.

Playing_Up_Tate_image_Seraphina Neville blog
PLAYING UP, Tate Modern. Photograph by Seraphina Neville.

Can we talk about who are your audiences? Last year you had a very successful programme at the Tate with children.

Yes, that was great.

We work in all sorts of different ways - on our own curatorial initiatives and on programme partnerships, which set out to develop new contexts for art and for developing new audiences.

2016 was the first time we ever engaged with kids and that was through a collaboration with Tate Families Programme and the brilliant artist from Germany Sybille Peters of Theatre of Research. We were aware that there are a growing number of artists making interesting work for or with kids and a growing number of kids whose parents wanted them to be able to experience something unusual and different.

Susan Sheddan of Tate Families Programme was also interested in live art as a way of engaging with young people. So we jointly commissioned Sybille to create something in response and she came up with the idea of PLAYING UP -  a game that kids and adults play together, which draws on seminal live art works and on key live art methodologies and practices.

PLAYING UP was launched with a public ‘play-in’ in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern which was phenomenally successfully and certainly our most diverse audience programme in terms of age-ranges and cultural backgrounds. It was fantastic for us to see so many families engaged with live art and performing live art works.

After the successful play-in at Tate other venues and festivals wanted to host one, so we toured play-ins around the UK throughout 2016, with more planned for 2017. In this way we can now say that kids, young people and their parents are our audiences.

We think about audiences in lots of different ways at LADA. There are direct audiences that engage with our programmes and publications - artists, students, academics - and the adventurous and curious who come and see our work or buy a book that we published.

But we also think about audiences in other ways: for example, live art can offer different experiences to audiences and can engage audiences in the making of work and so we do a lot of work supporting the artistic development of artists and their thinking about their relationship with audiences.

We also think about audiences in terms of how live art can influence mainstream culture. Live art has led many of the developments in participatory, experiential practices and has influenced younger artists like Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd of You Me Bum Bum Train who create extraordinary participatory events that absolutely capture a mainstream imagination and engage with mainstream audiences.

So we think about audiences in all kinds of ways from the very diverse audiences that come to see our work right through audiences who have never heard of live art, who have never heard of LADA but in some way are engaging with art that has been influenced by live art.

And you do a lot of international work as well…

We try to do a lot of international work. In the pre-internet days we did a lot of travelling, going to places and flying the flag for live art and helping to promote artists’ work by doing screening programmes and talks. And now, in this internet age, we can do all that without leaving our office in Hackney Wick. We have just done a screening programme at the 3rd Venice International Performance Art Week and as much as we would have loved to have been there we couldn't go - but in a sense we didn't need to be there because the work could be seen there without us. I’ve also taken part in various symposia around the world by Skype rather than being somewhere in person.

As well as international programmes, we are also part of a four-year EU-supported Collaborative Arts Partnership Programme (CAPP) which is particularly looking at collaborative practices and how they can engage with new publics.

So what would you say live art offers that other arts don’t?

In addition to some of the things I have already suggested I think it offers experiences which might be difficult to find in other art forms. For example, the idea of placing the audiences at the centre of the work so they become responsible for the making and the meaning of the work. In that sense it offers its audiences a form of agency that they possibly wouldn’t get with other areas of practice. It can also provoke audiences to think about things that they might not otherwise have thought about or they don't necessarily want to think about. It might not change their minds about things but it might make them at least reconsider, or reinforce their opinions in a way. So I think it offers interesting provocations as well as interesting cultural experiences.

Do you think that live art can help us to understand contemporary Britain?

Yes, I think we've ended up in a very strange place. Live art and the arts in the UK has been a very inclusive area of practice which has given voice to silenced or disenfranchised artists such as black artists, queer artists, and disabled artists. Live art has given a voice to marginalized artists and offered a practice which artists can make their own - they don't have to conform to dominant cultural narratives, or received ways of doing things, but can make work that reflects their experiences in all kinds of interesting ways.

Because so much live art is about experiences and conversations, I think it does have something to contribute to addressing the new schisms and divisions we’re now facing.

Can you tell us about events or projects that LADA has planned for 2017? We heard that you are moving to a different location this year?

We are relocating to Bethnal Green and moving there will afford us the opportunity to do lots of events and activities which we can’t do at the moment.

We are going to be doing more work with kids and young people, working again with Sybille Peters and Tate on KAPUTT: a transgenerational academy of destruction - the first academy that will bring together people of all ages.

We are going to be working with the artist Hester Chillingworth, as a thinker-in-residence, looking at different strategies and methodologies for engaging with young people, particularly genderqueer teenagers.

We are going to be producing a whole bunch of new publications - a  major new title on the artist Kira O’Reilly, and books with the artists Martin O’Brien, Zinzi Minott and the Serbian artist Tanja Ostojić amongst others.

We are also going to do more podcasts for the Live Art UK network we coordinate. Live Art UK has also just been awarded an Ambition for Excellence award from Arts Council England for Diverse Actions, a four-year programme with all 28 members of the network looking at the next generation of black artists, producers, thinkers, and activists in the UK.

We will are also going to be working on different programmes and partnerships internationally and here in the UK, including the Folkestone Triennial, and running our annual DIY scheme - a professional development scheme run in partnership with 20 organisations across the UK in which artists conceive and run unusual and often outlandish workshops and research projects for other artists.

And what is going to happen with the study room in the new building?

The Study Room is moving with us and as we will have a much bigger space in our new premises and we are going to be doing even more Study Room events and activities.

And more study room guides?

Yes, more Study Room guides. Since 2006 or so we have commissioned over 30 Study Room guides around themes ranging from Live Art and Journeys to Live Art and Food to Live Art and Motherhood, and we have around ten new guides in the pipeline.  

How do you see the climate of live art in 2017 in comparison with what it was 20 years ago when you were programming performance at the ICA, or with the early years of LADA? How have things changed since?

In some ways the climate of live art today is unrecognizable, and in other ways its identical. For example in a recent gathering with a group of emerging artists from the SPILL Showcase which was  part of last year’s SPILL Festival of Performance in Ipswich a lot of the issues that came up and that artists were concerned about were similar from the ones that artists were discussing 20 years ago.

But in other ways it is unrecognizable because there is so much more policy in provision now and live art is recognized and understood as an area of practice. 20 years ago when we  talked about live art we always had to explain what it was and why it was important. Now we don't always need to explain it, and here we are talking about it at the British Library.

So live art has a much higher profile nowadays. Technology has liberated live art in all kinds of ways and enabled all kinds of advances. We can now publish books and DVDs because the technology is there to do it.  Technology means that artists can produce and distribute their own titles without having to depend on the gatekeepers of culture. Artists can also disseminate information about themselves through Facebook and social media and make connections across the world and with like-minded people. Technology enables lost histories to be reclaimed and new forms of online research to be undertaken.

So technology has made the conditions in which live art is happening completely unrecognizable from what they were 20 years ago. There is more recognition and more provision and more opportunities for artists. But a lot of the fundamental problems and challenges for artists are still there.

So in a way live art is in a better place…

Yes, a better place but it can still be tough.

Well that’s all from me Lois, if you would like to add something else…

The only thing I would like to add is how brilliant the British Library has been in its recognition and support for live art.

We started working with the British Library when I was running the programme at the ICA and you came along and documented everything. And that means that those kinds of histories are kept here for posterity and they have been afforded a cultural value by the British Library and that is unbelievably important to us so just huge thanks to the British Library for their support for live art.

Go to part one.