THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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49 posts categorized "Classical music"

29 June 2017

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

08 June 2017

Franck's Prelude, Chorale & Fugue revisited

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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. 

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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

15 May 2017

Recording of the Week: a musical family

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

Jacob Collier has been creating a stir in the musical world recently, winning two Grammys in February at the age of twenty-two. His grandfather Derek made his first broadcasts for the BBC at the same age, in 1949. Here he is in a work by Handel arranged for solo violin by the great Hungarian violinist and teacher Jenő Hubay.

Handel Larghetto from Op. 1 arranged by Hubay

Collier b+w photo 

Derek Collier (courtesy of Suzie Collier)

Over 100 recordings from the Derek Collier collection can be found on British Library Sounds

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

04 May 2017

Beecham in Hollywood

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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

12 April 2017

By preserving our sound heritage now, in the future we can recreate the past

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Sound recordings freeze moments in time: music or theatrical performances, the words spoken by the famous or in everyday speech, or the sounds of our environment. When played back, they allow us to understand, to experience, to be immersed in - to relive - those moments.

Yet preserving sound recordings and making them accessible is a huge challenge, not least because sound recordings can rapidly decay and as technology marches forward, formats quickly become unplayable.

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Many thousands of archived magnetic tapes urgently need digitising

The British Library’s Save Our Sounds programme received a tremendous boost when in 2015 a £9.5 million grant was earmarked by the National Lottery. After months of preparation and assessment, prioritising the most significant at-risk sounds collections around the UK and building a network of 10 collaborating institutions, our ambitious project called Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is launched today.

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage builds on the generous support of other donors and funders, meaning that the total project funding of £18.8 million is now in place. The funding enables the formation of the first ever UK-wide network of ten sound preservation centres. This network will now come together with the British Library to save almost half a million rare and unique recordings.

The funding allows the British Library to lead this major preservation and access project, sharing skills and supporting the ten centres across the UK in order to preserve their own unique and rare regional sounds and make them more accessible to the public.

The Library and its ten partners will invest in a schedule of public engagement activities, including well-being workshops, learning events for families, and tours, events and exhibitions. A vital element of the project will be a new website for listeners to explore a wide selection of recordings. This website is scheduled to go live in 2019.

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Cleaning a shellac disc before digitisation in the British Library’s sound studios

Dr Sue Davies, Project Manager at the British Library commented:

“This project has been a long time in development and, over the last 18 months, we have laid good foundations for the next five years. I am excited to be part of this HLF funded project which will make a huge difference to the care of and use of audio archives across the UK. I am particularly looking forward to working with the ten institutional partners, sharing our skills and making it easier for a wide range of people to engage with recorded sound.”

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage has been made possible thanks to the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Foyle Foundation, Headley Trust, the British Library Trust and the American Trust for the British Library and other kind donors.

The ten centres that will soon begin work on preserving their regional sounds are: National Museums Northern Ireland, Archives + with Manchester City Council, Norfolk Record Office, National Library of Scotland, University of Leicester, The Keep in Brighton with the University of Sussex, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, National Library of Wales, London Metropolitan Archives, and Bristol Culture.

Richard Ranft, Head of Sound and Vision

More information: 
Save our Sounds
Unlocking our Sound Heritage press release 12/04/17
£9.5m boost from Heritage Lottery Fund for our Save our Sounds campaign
Save our Sounds: 15 years to save the UK’s sound collections

31 March 2017

Plucked from obscurity - reassessing Denis ApIvor

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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 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.

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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