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4 posts from August 2013

25 August 2013

Britten's Serenade

C1949 - At Crag House - photo by Roland Haupt. Image courtesy of www.britten100.orgAt the heart of our exhibition ‘Poetry in Sound: The Music of Benjamin Britten’ is the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Op. 31.  Arguably more than any other work in Britten’s output, the Serenade demonstrates his acutely sensitive response to the written word, to the extent that words and music often cohere with a natural simplicity that seems to encapsulate and transform the poetic intention.  The Serenade encompasses poetry by Keats, Tennyson, Blake, Cotton, and Jonson, together with an anonymous fifteenth-century text – each poem selected to fit an overall poetic conception that reflects on the approach of darkness as a metaphor for the journey from life into death.  It was composed in 1943, shortly after Britten returned to England from the US, and dedicated to the critic and novelist Edward Sackville-West (1901-65).  The work was first performed at the Wigmore Hall on 15 October 1943 by the great horn player Dennis Brain and the tenor Peter Pears. 

The Serenade opens with a prologue for solo horn, which at once sets a haunting tone for the work and introduces the instrument as an unspoken commentator on the sung text that follows.  For the first sung movement Britten selected four stanzas from the The Evening Quatrains by Charles Cotton (1630-87), which itself forms part of a cycle describing each part of the day: morning, noon, evening and night.  Cotton’s words appear in the 1689 edition of his Poems on Several Occasions, published in London by Hensman and Fox, a copy of which is on display in the exhibition.  The opening verse ‘The day’s grown old; the fainting sun / has but a little way to run’ sets the tone for Britten’s reflective setting, which is dominated by a descending musical theme echoed by the solo horn. 

William Blake, Sick RoseIn the second movement Britten’s music conveys the rapid shifts of emotion in Tennyson’s ‘Blow, bugle, blow’ from the narrative poem The Princess.  Here the sung text is punctuated by horn fanfares evoking the sound of a bugle echoing over an Arcadian landscape, an allegory for the inevitability of death followed by after-life.  The evidence of Britten’s manuscript demonstrates that he changed his mind about the title of the first and second movements: the original titles were ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Ballad’, but these were crossed through in red crayon and replaced with ‘Pastoral’ and ‘Nocturne’ respectively.  There were apparently no second thoughts concerning the title of the third movement, an ‘Elegy’ on William Blake’s famous ‘O Rose, thou art sick!’.  In this setting, which is dominated by the simple and unsettling motif of a descending semitone, the sung text is delivered to a sustained string accompaniment.  A lengthy introduction for horn and pulsating strings returns to form a suitably mournful postlude. 

Britten’s inspiration for the fourth movement was an anonymous fifthteenth-century poem, the Lyke-Wake Dirge, which continues the underlying theme of the Serenade by charting the journey undertaken by the soul from earth to purgatory.  Written in an old form of the Yorkshire dialect, the repetitive structure of the poem gave Britten the opportunity to create a setting that contrasts the jaunty rhythms of the vocal lines with an increasingly complex orchestral accompaniment – rather like a set of variations on a given theme. 

Ben Jonson, Cynthia's Revels, Act 5, Scene 1For the fifth movement Britten chose words from Cynthia’s Revels by Ben Jonson (1572-1637), a play first performed in 1600 which depicts Queen Elizabeth I as the virgin huntress Cynthia (elsewhere known as Diana). Britten selected the hymn, ‘Queen and huntress, chaste and fair’, from Act V (shown on the right in the edition published in London in 1601), allowing him to deploy the solo horn in hunting style, thus providing the work with a lively scherzo movement.  The final movement, however, marks a return to the reflective and intensely lyrical tone that pervades much of the work, with a setting of John Keats’s sonnet To Sleep.  Britten’s masterpiece ends with the strains of the solo horn, now off stage, its melancholy fanfare gradually disappearing into silence.  


22 August 2013

Kevin Volans' collection of music from Southern Africa

The South African born composer Kevin Volans recorded a wide range of music in Lesotho and South Africa during the 1970s. His fieldwork focused on the Zulu, Swazi and Xhosa people. This collection is now available online on the BL Sounds website.

Close up of the quill portion of a lesiba, taken at the Drum Cafe in Johannesburg. (c) Jenny Buccos 2007.

There is a recording of a lesiba being played: this is a stringed-wind instrument which has a quill attached to a long string. The quill is blown across, causing the string to vibrate and resulting in a sound rather similar to a didgeridu. Other names for this type of instrument are gora (see here for an example on the Europeana portal), ugwali and ugwala.

Other highlights from the collection include songs sung by Princess Constance Magogo, accompanying herself on the ugubhu or musical bow. There are several other types of musical bows which feature in Volans' collection, including the segankuru which you can read about in an earlier blog.

As well as the broad range of musical recordings, Volans also recorded some very beautiful soundscapes of birdsong, cicadas, thunderstorms and other atmospheric recordings. 

 More information can be found about Kevin Volans on his website.


20 August 2013

Trevor Wiggins Ghanaian Collection

Trevor Wiggins made extensive recordings in Ghana during the 1990s, focusing on the Dagaare people and their xylophone or "gyil" music, as well as recording various other instrumental and vocal music. These recordings are now available on the BL Sounds website.

A goge from the UCL Ethnography Collections

One such instrumental recording is of the gonje or goge, a Nigerian stringed instrument which is played with a bow. Here's an example from the UCL Ethnography Collections - you can see that the string is of horsehair and the main body is a hemispherical gourd with a skin covering.

Some of the xylophone or gyil recordings include demonstrations of the tuning of the xylophones and, also, the "signature tunes" of the performers. Here's the signature tune of Rallio Kpampul, followed by further music.

You can hear Trevor talking about his work when he was interviewed by Carolyn Landau in 2010. The interview is one of a group of interviews with leading ethnomusicologists.



14 August 2013

The Music of War: 1914–1918

CALL FOR PAPERS: The Music of War: 1914–1918

30–31 August 2014

British Library, London

Papers are invited for a two-day international conference on the theme of music during the First World War. The forthcoming centenary of the war is a timely opportunity to reconsider the fundamental role of music and musicians during the exceptional circumstances of the period 1914–1918. The conference aims to provide a forum for discussion to explore the roles and uses of music during this extended period of worldwide conflict, considering why—against a backdrop of large-scale death and destruction—music mattered, whether as entertainment, weapon, tool, or emotional catalyst. We welcome papers from scholars working in any discipline and which engage with any aspect of music-making during the war, whether on the home or fighting fronts, or in combatant or non-combatant countries.

Themes for consideration include, but are not limited to:

- Music-making on the home-fronts

- Concert and theatrical life

- Music and the military

- Music and/as propaganda

- Music and patriotism

- National identities

- Cultural transmission and international exchange

- Music as entertainment

- Music and charity

- Music and its therapeutic uses

- Composer responses to the war

- Musicians' participation in the war

- Music and commemoration

- Intersections of music and other art forms

Proposals are invited for individual papers of 20 minutes, to be followed by 10 minutes of discussion. We also encourage submissions for themed panel sessions of three related papers.

Proposals consisting of a title, abstract (max. 300 words), and short biographical note, should be submitted by e-mail to the organising committee at [email protected] by 30 November 2013. For panel sessions, please include a 250-word (max.) summary of the session and up to 300 words for each session participant. Please include contact details and institutional affiliation (if any), along with details of anticipated AV requirements. Proposals should be in English only. The conference language will be English.

KEYNOTE SPEAKER: Dr Kate McLoughlin (Birkbeck, London)


Professor Rachel Cowgill (Cardiff University)

Professor Annette Becker (Universite Paris Ouest Nanterre La Defense)

CONFERENCE EVENTS: The conference runs in tandem with the British Library’s Centenary Exhibition and will include a concert of music from the years 1914–1918 and wine reception. Full details of these and other conference activities will be made available on the conference website in due course.

Held as part of the British Library's Centenary events programme, supported by The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities.

Conference Organisers:

Jane Angell (Royal Holloway) and Dr Rachel Moore (University of Oxford)

Programme Committee:

Jane Angell (Royal Holloway, University of London) Dr Daniel Grimley (University of Oxford) Professor Barbara Kelly (University of Keele) Dr Stefan Manz (Aston University) Dr Rachel Moore (University of Oxford) Dr Rupert Ridgewell (British Library)