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43 posts categorized "Classical music"

07 March 2017

Michael Tippett: In the composer’s own voice

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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 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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22 February 2017

They Walk Alone – A Benjamin Britten discovery

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Britten by Berkeley

Benjamin Britten composing in Crantock, Cornwall 1936 [PH/1/30]

Photo Lennox Berkeley, by permission of the Lennox Berkeley Estate 

Rob Smith, metadata support officer on the Save our Sounds project, alerted me to the fact that he had discovered a hitherto unknown recording of an early work by Benjamin Britten.  Rob has been working on the Bishop Sound discs, which were made for theatrical productions, and has previously blogged about them here.

Britten1edit

As a young man, Britten wrote some incidental music for the play They Walk Alone by Max Catto (1907-1992) who was a Manchester playwright and novelist born Mark Finkell.  It was first performed at the ‘Q’ Theatre, Kew Bridge on the 21st November 1938.

Miss Beatrix Lehmann, who has not been seen on the London stage since her appearance in Mr Eugene O’Neill’s trilogy, Mourning becomes Elektra, will have the leading part in They Walk Alone, a new play by Mr Max Catto, which Mr Berthold Viertel is to produce at the “Q” Theatre to-day week.  (Times 14th November 1938)

Programme cover

PG/1939/0132/1 Image provided by the Britten-Pears Foundation

The play then moved to the Shaftesbury Theatre on the 19th January 1939 and was presented by Firth Shephard. Jack Bishop had a long standing working relationship with Shephard and had been involved with a number of productions with him by this point. From the 1st May 1939 to 3rd June 1939, the play was performed in the Comedy Theatre on Panton Street, where Bishop had some offices for a period of time.

Lehmann played Emmy, a girl who goes to a Lincolnshire farm to become a servant.  She is affected by organ music from a nearby chapel which is sometimes heard in the early hours of the morning.  Young men are found horribly murdered, a dog howls and the melodrama ends with Emmy being found out and caught as the murderess.

Programme synopsis

PG/1939/0132/8 Image provided by the Britten-Pears Foundation

The music was not mentioned in the Times review of the play which was published on Britten’s twenty-fifth birthday.  Special praise was given to Lehmann in the role of Emmy.

Here is melodramatic material played by an actress of rare imaginative power and played by her for its thrill.  She uses her face as a tragic mask sprung to life; she does not hesitate before the uses of the grotesque; she draws fear into her on her finger-tips; she employs, as first-rate acting in melodrama must employ, the forces of dramatic hypnosis.  Analysis of the play cannot make much of it, but under Miss Lehmann’s spell it has astonishing impact.  (Times 22nd November 1938)

Ten years later Catto used his play as the basis for the British film Daughter of Darkness (1948) where Siobhan McKenna played the role of Emmy, resulting in the offer of a Hollywood contract.  The role of the organ music as catalyst for her criminal tendencies was replaced by a travelling circus.

Britten wrote a few cues for dramatic moments but the only extended piece, titled Prelude to They Walk Alone, edited by Colin Matthews, was first published in 2004 by the Britten Estate.  The Trustees of the Britten Estate have kindly given me permission for the whole recording to be posted on this blog.  So here we have the first recording of the work, the unidentified organist playing from the manuscript.  There are two complete takes of the Prelude, the first with experiments in registration, the second, presented here, a more unified performance.  This is the disc that would have been played at performances of the play and you can hear it here.

Prelude to They Walk Alone

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13 February 2017

Recording of the week: John Blackwood McEwen

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This week's selection comes from Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music Recordings.

Scottish composer Sir John Blackwood McEwen (1868-1948) had a distinguished career producing a large amount of music, little of which is heard today. He was Principal of the Royal Academy of Music from 1924-1936 and was knighted in 1931. His String Quartet No. 6, 'Biscay', written in 1913 (and confusingly published as No. 8), consists of three movements. The second and third were recorded in 1916 by the London String Quartet and a live recording from 1951 of the complete work exists from the Library of Congress. Here is the delightful third movement, La racleuse (The Oyster-Raker) from 1916.

String Quartet No. 6 (Biscay)_La racleuse

Portrait_of_Sir_John_Blackwood_McEwenPortrait of Sir John Blackwood McEwan by Reginald Grenville Eves (Royal College of Music, CC BY-SA 4.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Visit Chamber Music on British Library Sounds to listen to more performances by the London String Quartet.

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18 January 2017

Music for a President

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The inauguration of the 45th President of the United States made me think of the music written by the great American composer John Philip Sousa. 

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John Philip Sousa in 1911 (Library of Congress)

Born in Washington in 1854, Sousa’s father was of Portuguese and Spanish origin and his mother was German.  Their son’s musical fame led him to became one of the few enshrined in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1976.

Sousa is famous for his patriotic marches, the most well-known being Stars and Stripes Forever, written in 1896 and made the official national march of the United States by an act of Congress in 1987.  Here is a recording performed by the Sousa Band more than a century ago in extremely good sound for 1909.  The fidelity of the piccolo solo is remarkable.

Stars & Stripes 1909

Hail to the Chief is the official Presidential anthem of the United States which is played at public appearances.  This was a song written around 1812 by a little known London theatre conductor James Sanderson to verses from Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake.  After being published in Philadelphia it was played firstly to honour George Washington and then at various occasions including the inauguration of the eighth president, Martin van Buren.

It was the 21st President, Chester Arthur, who requested a new musical work to be written specifically to be associated with the President of the United States because he did not like Hail to the Chief.  Sousa’s offering was Semper Fidelis (Latin for ‘Always Faithful’) written in 1888.  It is regarded as the official march of the United States Marine Corps and here they are playing it in 1909.

Semper Fidelis

These marches, along with The Liberty Bell and The Washington Post will keep Sousa’s name alive, but he also wrote a number of operettas – El Capitan having 112 performances on Broadway in 1896.  His march of the same name uses music form the score and is here performed by the Sousa Band.

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A poster for the original production of John Phillip Sousa's operetta El Capitan (1896), starring DeWolf Hopper (Library of Congress)

El Capitan

The reason so many early recordings of Sousa’s works exist is because the primitive acoustical recording process was best at reproducing the sound of loud performances - something an opera singer or a brass or military band could provide.  Indeed, some of the very earliest recordings are of bands.  Here is a London recording of Stars and Stripes Forever when it was hot off the press, made by the London Regimental Band 120 years ago somewhere between 1896 and 1900.  Certainly, it has a more primitive sound than Edison was later to achieve; the piccolo solo on this recording is barely audible.

Stars & Stripes 1896

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The Sousa Band at the St. Louis Exposition in 1893 - each member sporting a moustache

Sousa believed that the phonograph would put musicians out of work stating in 1906 that it would prevent music being made at home and that ‘they are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country.’  For this reason he would not enter a recording studio although allowed his band to do so.  Therefore, he is not conducting these early performances.  However, he did conduct a few recordings and broadcasts later in life.

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16 January 2017

Listen to and tag thousands of music tracks on Europeana's radio player

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Europeana Sounds, a project that connects digital sound archives across Europe, has just launched an interactive radio player.

Now you can enjoy listening to 200,000 music tracks, and while listening, add labels to help other listeners to find recordings.

The player and tagging are very easy to use and no sign-up is required:

  • Press the play button in the player below to hear a recording
  • Select a term in the list shown in the 'Refine the music genre' box, then press 'Add'
  • Use the buttons below the play window to pause a recording, or to jump to the next
  • You can also select Classical, Folk, or Popular music genres
  • So, listen & tag!


On Thursday, Europeana Sounds will be holding a #TagDayThursday. We want to gather as many new genre tags in Europeana Radio as possible – you can help us make this happen! A progress bar can be seen at www.europeana.eu/portal/en/radio.html

For more information, please see the Europeana Sounds website www.europeanasounds.eu and the press release about the Europeana radio player http://pro.europeana.eu/blogpost/new-interactive-player-europeana-radio-launches-as-an-outcome-of-europeana-sounds-project

The animation below shows how to add tags:

The Europeana Sounds project is co-funded by the European Commission under the Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme.

06 December 2016

Messiaen and the songs of wild birds

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This guest blog comes from Delphine Evans whose Master's thesis explored the manuscript notations of birdsong made by the French composer Olivier Messiaen during the 1950s, in relation to the early wildlife recordings that inspired them and to the musical compositions in which they feature.

This year, there has been something of a revival of interest in birdsong and natural soundscapes. In particular, a series of programmes devoted to birdsong  appeared on BBC Radio 3. This included a birdsong mixtape, new interpretations of birdsong-inspired music (perhaps most notably Pierre-Laurent Aimard's day-long performance of Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux at the Aldeburgh festival), and debate on the topic ‘Is birdsong music?’ Also of interest was the weekly birdsong segment on Radio 3’s Sunday Breakfast show, where the remarkable field recordings of different species of birds by Chris Watson were paired with excerpts of music from a variety of composers, from Ravel to Respighi.

The British Library’s sound archive is home to a unique collection of over 200,000 wildlife sound recordings from 1889 to the present day. Of all these, the work of Ludwig Koch (1881-1974) is remarkable in that it represents a pioneering attempt to document the natural sound world using recording technology.

During his lifetime, Koch devoted himself to collecting the sound phenomena he heard in the world around him. In 1889, as a child in his native Germany, he was given an early Edison phonograph which he used to make one of the first known recordings of birdsong: his pet Indian Sharma. When he arrived in England in 1936, Koch began to travel all over the British Isles, capturing birdsong and the sounds of natural environments on wax discs before transferring these to shellac. This was a long and laborious process, often requiring hours or even days of observation of a particular bird before beginning to record its voice. 

Koch’s first British recordings were published as Songs of Wild Birds in 1936, in partnership with the ornithologist E.M. Nicholson. This was followed by More Songs of Wild Birds in 1937. These unique collections combine textual descriptions of the songs and habitats of a variety of species, illustrations of the birds themselves and excerpts of their recorded songs and calls. Koch described Songs of Wild Birds as ‘the first sound-book of British birdsong’ – an early multimedia document that combines text, image and audio.

Songs of Wild Birds box set coverFront cover of Songs of Wild Birds (1936) by E.M. Nicholson and Ludwig Koch

What is remarkable about Koch’s recordings of birdsong is how skilfully he manages to isolate the songster within the recording, yet still captures elements of its surrounding environment - rather like a soloist performing to the backdrop of an orchestral accompaniment. This provides the listener with a clear sense of the habitat in which the featured bird lives: in other words, the recording presents a particular ‘soundscape’. These ‘backdrops’ comprise of many different sounds, from the songs of other neighbouring birds to the fortuitous sound of a passing aircraft.

Grey Heron calls with background birds (More Songs of Wild Birds, 1937)

Curlew bubbling song with overhead aircraft (More Songs of Wild Birds, 1937)

Koch’s recordings were a source of inspiration to another celebrated musical figure whose interest in birdsong is well known. Throughout his life, the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) notated birdsong and other natural sound phenomena. Like his German contemporary, Messiaen had also started to collect the songs of birds as a child – yet, as a musician and (later) composer, his preferred method was to write them down using musical notation. The earliest surviving examples of Messiaen’s autograph notations date from 1951: today, they belong to a collection of over 200 manuscripts that are housed in the archives of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. These are the cahiers de notations des chants d’oiseaux – the composer’s pocket notebooks that he used to carry around with him and capture birdsong at every available opportunity.

[Recueil_Photographies_Portraits_de_Olivier_[...]Cande_Daniel_btv1b9083761jPortrait of Olivier Messiaen at the 1987 Festival D'Avignon by Daniel Cande (source: Gallica -Bibliothèque nationale de France digital library)

Interestingly enough for a musician who experimented with avant-garde techniques, Messiaen didn't choose to write down what he heard using a progressive form of notation, but instead preferred to use the more traditional stave. He does this in a highly personal and sensitive way, by adding textual descriptions of the quality of a bird’s song, onomatopoeia to evoke its calls (a tried-and-tested ornithologist’s method), and symbols that provide an additional layer of detail to the notations. All of this provides a remarkably thorough depiction of the sounds that he encountered.

Le Courlis Cendre scoreLe Courlis cendré, Catalogue d'oiseaux XIII, p.4. Leduc editions, © 1964

As well as notations made outdoors in the heart of nature, Messiaen’s notebooks also contain a great number of musical sketches that were made from recorded birdsong. These sources were ornithological collections that were commercially available on record – such as Ludwig Koch’s Songs of Wild Birds (1936) and Songs of British Birds (1953)!

Messiaen’s ability to replay time and again the sounds captured in these recordings (something that is obviously impossible with ‘live’ birdsong) doubtlessly enabled an astounding level of precision in his notations. The songs of several birds that feature in Koch’s recordings subsequently found their way into Messiaen’s compositions, as the latter turned to the notations he had made as a source of musical material. For instance, in the final piece of the great piano cycle Catalogue d’Oiseaux of 1956-1958, entitled 'Le Courlis cendré', we can hear a direct 'quotation' of the curlew’s call that features on More Songs of Wild Birds:

Le Courlis Cendré (extract)

Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen: piano & organ music (2008). Decca 478 0353, British Library shelfmark 1SS0006222

Curlew calls recorded by Ludwig Koch (More Songs of Wild Birds, 1937)

As well as using bird songs and calls recorded by Koch as a source of musical ideas, it may well be that Messiaen was also inspired by the unique way in which his contemporary captured 'images in sound' of birds within their natural habitat. The notion of a 'soundscape', as pioneered by Koch in his work, finds a lasting legacy in Messiaen’s music. This great French composer similarly presents his listeners with a catalogue, or an inventory, of birds – not only of their songs, but also of the specific environments in which they live. In this sense, Messiaen’s birdsong pieces are like musical pictures: designed to document a particular scene almost as faithfully as the sound recordings from which they take their inspiration.

Delphine Evans is a pianist, musicologist and music educator. Her research is focused on birdsong and the natural sound world, and as a pianist she specialises in 20th Century French music. She has gained musical and academic experience in Canada and France, studying at the universities of Montreal and Paris-Sorbonne. She is currently based in Manchester where she teaches Music and French. 

02 December 2016

Yehudi Menuhin Centenary

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This year of 2016 will be remembered for many reasons, but as it draws to a close it is worth recalling that it was the centenary year of the birth of the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

Hepsyba_en_Yehudi_Menuhin_(1963)

Hephzibah and Yehudi Menuhin in 1963 (Photo: Joop van Bilsen / Anefo)

Although he was the star of the family, his two sisters were also very talented – Hephzibah often acting as his accompanist in recordings and performances.  Much has been written about internal family relationships.  His mother, described as being cold, taught the young Yehudi never to show his feelings.  Producing three prodigies was certainly something unusual to cope with, but it seems that the parents exercised a considerable amount of control over their children’s lives.

Menuhin made his first recordings as a boy in 1928 accompanied by his teacher Louis Persinger (1887-1966).  These were made in California where the family was living at the time.  His fame led to touring and further recordings were made in Paris and London.  It was at the newly opened Abbey Road Studios in London in 1932 that Menuhin made his famous recording of Elgar’s Violin Concerto with the composer conducting.  A few years later he returned to record some solos on 28th November 1934 with his father Moshe (1893-1983) and sister Hephzibah.  Someone had the idea to record a sound letter for their mother but all are embarrassed and lark around – Hephzibah sings ‘cuckoo’ and Yehudi plucks his violin, but most notably the father Moshe takes the limelight singing the opening of Sarasate’s Romanza Andalusa Op. 22 No. 1, a work Menuhin recorded that day.

Menuhin Family at Abbey Road

Most interesting is the inclusion of the speaking voice of producer/engineer Fred Gaisberg who had joined the Gramophone Company in 1898.  Apart from the father, none of them want to get near the microphone but, ever the experienced recording engineer, Gaisberg says to the children ‘You’re absolutely stymied, frozen…..it’s amazing how you get paralysed when that red light goes on…..what you could do is give your experience of something, I don’t know what…your experience of making gramophone records’.  Yehudi says, ‘couple it with this last one we did’.  Unfortunately, a lot of the recording is distant and it ends at this point.

Celebrity Concert 151154

Exactly twenty years later in November 1954 Menuhin recorded a thirty minute television recital with Gerald Moore as accompanist.  The sound from discs is not good but probably better than the TV film soundtrack, if it survives. Here is the Prelude from the E major Partita by Bach.

Menuhin Bach Gavotte 1954

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