Sound and vision blog

8 posts from November 2021

30 November 2021

Nelson Freire – a great pianist remembered

Nelson Freire and Jonathan SummersJonathan Summers and Nelson Freire (photo © Jonathan Summers)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

When Brazilian Nelson Freire died last month at the age of seventy-seven, the world lost one of its greatest pianists.

A naturally talented child whose playing was already formed by the age of seven, Freire then studied with Nise Obino and Lucia Branco until the age of fourteen.  He later claimed that he owed everything to them – ‘There was no question for them of separating work on tone from finger practice, or music from technique.  In fact, they founded their teaching on tone.  Never force it, never produce a sound that is not harmonious.’  At fourteen he went to Vienna to study with Bruno Seidlhofer and by this time already had in his repertoire fourteen piano concertos and numerous solo works.  It was not a particularly happy time for the teenage Freire and he mainly attended concerts and listened to records and in doing so, discovered recordings of great pianists of the past including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Backhaus.  ‘I listened to records more than I worked.’

Freire was also influenced by his friend, the Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes (1895-1979).  Earlier this year I was reading 'My Adventures in the Golden Age of Music' by Henry Finck published in 1926 in which there is a section on Novaes which I sent to Nelson.  He was delighted to read such a glowing contemporary account of her.

Rather than give examples from his commercial recordings to illustrate his art, I have decided to use broadcast recordings that are less well-known.  For a pianist of his standing it was extraordinary that Freire did not play at the Proms until 2005 when he was already over sixty.  He obliged with a magisterial performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Brahms, a work that puts incredible demands on the stamina of the pianist.  Freire’s performance, as always, was effortless.  He was a pianist who knew about the importance of muscular relaxation at the keyboard and the conservation of strength.  One only has to watch any of the videos on YouTube to see this, particularly his exemplary performance of the Liszt Piano Sonata from the University of Maryland in 1982.  Here are two short extracts of the Brahms performance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Ilan Volkov.

Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 extract 1

Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 extract 2

One of the most memorable concerts I have attended was at the Barbican Hall in February 2009 when Freire played Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Lionel Bringuier.  Conductor and orchestra gave a thrilling account of the rarely heard ‘La Tragédie de Salomé’ by Florent Schmitt but the highlight was Freire’s performance of the Chopin Concerto.  The pianist enters after a long orchestral tutti with an attack on a unison D flat in both hands.  Accented and marked fortissimo by the composer, it can often sound hard and unpleasant, but Freire played it as I had never heard it before with a chordal upward sweep incorporating the notes of the following downward flourish.  When I later asked him how he got the idea to do this he looked at me with a smile and said ‘Novaes’.  Indeed, on her studio recording with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Otto Klemperer Novaes plays the octave D flat with one hand, supported by a chord in the left.

As a young man Freire recorded for Columbia/CBS but fortunately, Decca Classics signed him to their label in October 2001 and he recorded both Brahms Concertos and the Chopin F minor Concerto plus many solo discs of Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, Debussy, Brahms, Bach, Schumann and one of Brazilian music.  He did not record the work for piano and orchestra by Villa-Lobos titled ‘Momoprécoce’, a 1929 orchestration of solo piano pieces from the early 1920s, but he did play it at his last appearance at the Proms in 2012 with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and Marin Alsop.

Villa-Lobos Momoprecoce extract

It was at the Barbican Hall on 8th December 2006 that he played the Piano Concerto No. 4 of Beethoven with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Manfred Honeck.  In this extract from the second movement, the two distinct characters of the orchestra and piano are sharply contrasted where the pianist seems to play with an air of being resigned to his fate.

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 Andante extract

One surprise I found was Freire in chamber music, and not just regular repertoire, but the rarely heard Piano Quintet in C minor by Alexander Borodin that was not published until 1938.  The BBC asked Freire to record it at their Maida Vale studios with the Prazak Quartet in 1998.

Borodin Piano Quintet 3rd mvt opening

One of the few pianists of the twenty-first century to carry on the traditions of the Golden Age of Pianism, Nelson Freire will be missed by many.  He was a shy and retiring man, a true virtuoso of the keyboard who cajoled his listeners rather than beat them into submission.

The commercial recordings, video and audio broadcasts of Nelson Freire will keep his great artistry before the public for many years to come.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

29 November 2021

Recording of the Week: The musical pillars of a medieval Indian temple

This week's selection comes from Jim Hickson, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

In the British Library's sound archive collections, we have a lot of recordings of temple music – various types of song and music in dedication to any number of religions across the world, performed in a holy space.

Today’s Recording of the Week is temple music with a slight difference –music performed not only in a temple, but also on a temple.

Hampi030Some of the musical pillars of the Vittala Temple. Photo by Tom Vater’s travel companion Aroon Thaewchatturat.

The Shri Vijaya Vittala Temple sits among the breath-taking and sprawling ruins of the ancient city of Hampi, in Karnataka, India. Dedicated to Vittala, a manifestation of the god Vishnu and his avatar Krishna, the temple began construction sometime in the 15th or 16th centuries but was never finished – the city was destroyed in 1565.

The impressive temple is famous for many reasons, including a giant stone shrine in the shape of a chariot, which is pictured on the ₹50 note. It is also known for its 56 musical pillars.

Each of the temple’s eight main pillars are surrounded by seven smaller pillars. When these small pillars are struck with the hand or a wooden beater, they ring in a clear, bell-like tone. Not only that, but each pillar in a set is tuned to a different note, meaning that together they sound a scale on which music can be performed.

Vittala Temple C799/6 S1 C2 [BL REF]

The pillars are made from solid granite, with minute differences in size and shape to give them their clear and perfectly-tuned tones. Different pillars are also said to represent different instruments, some representing melody instruments such as the veena and some representing percussion such as the mridangam.

This recording – which can be found in the sound archive's catalogue, was made by Tom Vater in 1995, and it’s one of the clearest and most detailed recording of a ‘performance’ of the Vittala Temple pillars. While most other recordings demonstrate the sound of just one or two pillars, Vater’s captures the sound of several sets of notes, while insects and birds fill the soundscape behind.

The entirety of the ruined city of Hampi is a UNESCO Heritage Site, and in order to protect the temple and its pillars, it is no longer permitted to play the musical pillars. Vater’s recording gives a valuable insight into this fascinating monument of the medieval world as well as being an outstanding and intriguing document in its own right: where temple music meets 'architecturomusicology'!

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25 November 2021

Gerry and Paula discuss Paula’s severe social anxiety

This Disability History Month, staff from across the British Library have collaborated on a series of blog posts to highlight stories of disability and disabled people in the Library’s collections. Each week a curator will showcase an item from the collections and present it alongside commentary from a member of the British Library’s staff Disability Support Network. These selections are a snapshot insight into the Library’s holdings of disability stories, and we invite readers to use these as a starting point to explore the collections further and share your findings with us.

This selection has been made by Dr Madeline White, Oral History Curator.


A photograph of an in focus coffee cup with two people out of focus in a conversation behind itCourtesy of Matt @ PEK/Wikimedia

At the British Library Sound Archive the oral history collections contain many interviews with people with disabilities, talking in their own words about their lives in full including – but not restricted to – their experiences of living as a person with an impairment. Our collection guide on oral histories of disability and personal and mental health showcases some of these collections – and we’re adding new collections in 2021, such as Whizz-Kidz’s ‘30 years, 30 stories’ oral history project.

Despite these efforts, some stories remain hidden. As people with disabilities exist in all spheres of life, their experiences and stories can be – and are – detailed in collections besides those which are explicitly labelled as ‘disability collections’. These stories are not always easy to find. The words we use to write text summaries to help make an audio recording more searchable are not always the same words that the user of the archive will search for in our catalogue. This is particularly true of the word ‘disability’, which may not have been used in the same way by interviewees and cataloguers several decades ago. It is also possible that an interviewee discusses a health condition or an impairment without specifically identifying themselves as ‘disabled’.

As I searched for these stories I reflected on one of the themes of UK Disability History Month 2021, ‘Hidden Impairments’. My challenge was to uncover stories of disability that have been twice hidden – once in the social sense of stories that often go unnoticed or untold due to the hidden nature of many disabilities; and again where the description and words in the catalogue might make them difficult to find.

The story I highlight here is of one woman’s experience of severe social anxiety, as told in conversation with her husband. Paula and Gerry recorded a 45-minute conversation on the subject of Paula’s impairment as part of The Listening Project, an audio archive of personal conversations recorded and broadcast by BBC radio and archived at The British Library. The project seeks to preserve intimate conversations between two people on a subject of their choosing, with a view to building a collective picture of the lives and relationships of people in Britain today. This methodology lends itself to very open and honest storytelling. It is unclear if Paula has ever identified herself as disabled, but her conversation with her husband is a powerful account of the impact of a hidden impairment on them both, as individuals and as a couple.

In this first extract, they describe how Paula’s anxiety manifested as constant stress, before during and after a social situation:

On negotiating social situations (C1500/719)

Download On negotiating social situations (C1500-719) Transcript

The whole recording charts the development of their relationship from the early days of their dating, through their wedding, to the present day, and the role that Paula’s anxiety – and eventually her attempts to overcome it – played in that development. Here, Gerry talks about how the extent of Paula’s anxiety wasn’t obvious to him in the early days of their relationship and the process by which he gradually came to understand the severity of Paula’s anxiety:

Explaining social anxiety (C1500/719)

Download Explaining social anxiety (C1500-719) Transcript

What is particularly moving about the one-to-one conversational style of The Listening Project recordings in comparison with more traditional, interviewer-interviewee style oral history interviews is the insight it offers into a situation or experience from two different perspectives. Some of the most touching moments of Paula and Gerry’s recording occur when Paula offers Gerry the opportunity to reflect on her condition from his perspective, as she does in the following extract when she invites him to talk about how he felt about their wedding, which was a particularly low-key affair to accommodate Paula’s anxieties:

How anxiety shaped their wedding (C1500/719)

Download How anxiety shaped their wedding (C1500-719)

Far from what Paula anticipated when she asked the question, they conclude that as much as there were moments of a traditional wedding that they’d missed, there were many ways in which Paula’s anxiety had enabled them to have the occasion that suited them both.

At the time of recording Paula had largely overcome her anxiety, having embarked in 2012 on a challenge to learn every sport at the Commonwealth Games in an effort to confront her own anxiety. Her conversation with her husband is nonetheless a valuable record of the experience of living with a hidden impairment, as well as a reflection on the social perceptions of invisible conditions and a challenge to negative perceptions of disability.

Reflection from British Library staff Disability Support Network member:

Paula’s story really resonates with me, as someone who has depression and anxiety, social situations can be a real trigger for me. When people experience poor mental health, it is very much a hidden, or invisible disability, and therefore makes it harder to talk about with other people, either to explain it or to seek help. I feel that sharing first-hand accounts like Paula’s is really important to raise awareness. Most disabilities and impairments people live with everyday are invisible to most other people, there are more invisible disabilities than there are visible ones.

Sarah

Find out more

You can listen to Gerry and Paula’s full recording on the British Library Sounds website: https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/The-Listening-Project/021M-C1500X0719XX-0001V0. This recording is part of The Listening Project (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01cqx3b), a collaboration between the British Library and BBC local and national radio stations which has been capturing the nation in conversation since 2012. A selection of recordings made by The Listening Project is available for remote listening via the internet on British Library Sounds: https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/The-Listening-Project. For more information on the wide range of disability oral history collections at the British Library, consult our oral histories of disability and personal and mental health collection guide: https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/oral-histories-of-personal-and-mental-health-and-disability

18 November 2021

Introducing the Collections in Dialogue commission with Leeds Art Gallery and the British Library

Written by Jill McKnight, Artist-in-Residence.

I am an artist based in Leeds working across sculpture, writing, installation, drawing and print and I’ve been selected as the artist in residency for Collections in Dialogue, a co-commission project by the British Library and Leeds Art Gallery. The project brief particularly interested me because it focused on cultural identity which is one of my central artistic concerns, particularly the representation of working-class people in Northern England and lesser-heard voices that would otherwise be lost or overlooked. This opportunity has been incredibly timely, enabling me to develop these interests through researching the Library’s and Leeds Art Gallery’s digitised collections. My research will culminate in an exhibition of new artwork at Leeds Art Gallery next year.

I am exploring specific areas of the two collections; World & Traditional Music and Accents and Dialects collections in the British Library’s sound archive and Works on Paper at Leeds Art Gallery. As both collections are vast – 6.5 million recordings in the sound archive, and over 10,000 works on paper – I established key themes to direct my research. As an artist working in the city, I chose to explore how people in the Leeds region have represented themselves and others in the two collections. Where there are gaps in representation in one collection, particularly of people traditionally underrepresented in the arts, I plan to bring them into conversation with representations in the other collection through my work.

Following meetings with British Library Curators Jonnie Robinson and Andrea Zarza and the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage team, I have been searching the Library’s Sound & Moving Image Catalogue to identify relevant recordings.

The Opie Collection of Children’s Games & Songs fascinates me because rhymes passed down by word of mouth tell collective stories about society. Rowland Kellet was a folklorist born in Leeds, who I learned about from this collection. Kellet collected children’s games, songs and jingles from across the UK, including variations of the same song in different parts of Leeds. Although many different versions of folk songs exist, each version is unique to the performer. These communal songs share a relationship with work songs and folk songs, which connect with Leeds’ industrial history.

Kellett comments on the timelessness of these songs in his interview with Iona Opie, saying, ‘There is no life, there’s no deaths of these songs. To me they are eternal. You can’t kill them because, because if you try to kill it you bring a different variant of it.’ I have been fortunate to view some of Kellet’s paper archives held at Leeds Central Library, and will be listening to folk songs performed by Kellet, recently catalogued as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

Leeds is a city that has thrived due to the diversity of its population. In recordings like 'Conversation in Leeds about accent, dialect and attitudes to language', part of BBC Voices, six interviewees from Moortown, Leeds, talk about their own accents, Yorkshire dialect and the Punjabi language – one interviewee recognises both regions as being rooted in common industrial identities, saying, ‘you could say they were twin cities basically, twin states Yorkshire and Punjab.’

In 'Leeds - Millennium Memory Bank' six teenagers from South Leeds talk about being proud of working-class, with one explaining, ‘Even when my dad gives me pocket money I don’t like it, because you know like I ending washing up for him or something, because I like earning money because then I know I’ve worked for it.’ This same work ethic in 1999 connects with lines from folk song The Maid’s Lament, performed by Mrs Johnstone and recorded in 1967, by Fred Hamer.

Excerpt of The Maid's Lament sung by Mrs Johnstone [BL REF C433/7]

At Leeds Art Gallery, I chose to focus on the works on paper collection due to its range – from sketches to finished compositions; watercolours to photography; large quantity and conservation considerations that have meant some works have never been on display.

Works of art on paper spread out across a wooden table.            Selection of works on paper that I viewed in person at Leeds Art Gallery © Jill McKnight

I met with Assistant Curator Laura Claveria to discuss key words and themes, including working-class culture, women, children and Leeds-related artists, from which Laura sent an initial longlist of relevant works from the collection. From this, I made a shortlist to view in person. It was fantastic to see the works up close, where intricacies and details conveying the hand of the artist often jump out more directly than in digital form.

Artist sitting at a wooden table consulting paper files and writing with pencil in notebook.                 Researching Edna Lumb’s artist file archive at Leeds Art Gallery © Jill McKnight

So far I have discovered a number of artists unknown to me, including Edna Lumb (1931-1992) and Effie Hummerston (1891-1982). Both artists were born and studied in Leeds and went on to capture some of the area’s male-dominated industrial landscapes in their paintings. Edna Lumb’s work achieved national recognition during her lifetime. This is reflected in the large amount of material in Lumb’s artist file. However, critics noted that it was the scientific community, rather than artistic, who more frequently celebrated the work due to its realist depiction of industrial technology.

Painting of Tingley Gas Works in the distant horizon above green fields.                Edna Lumb, Tingley Gas Works, oil on canvas, 1964. © Leeds Museums & Galleries.

Another fascinating part of the collection are works on paper by seven artists that were ideas for a mural scheme for Leeds Town Hall, a commission in 1920 led by Michael Sadler, which was also intended as a commemorative response to the First World War. Artists selected were local and national including Percy Hague Jowett, Jacob Kramer and Albert Rutherston. The mural designs took into account the architecture of the Town Hall, with features such as doorways represented by blank spaces. The majority of the works feature industrial or pastoral scenes of Leeds, including woollen mills, the canal and Kirkstall Abbey. Perhaps this is how the artists thought the people of Leeds would want their city represented, however the designs were heavily criticised and the murals were never realised, providing an insight into the politics of that time.

My first few weeks of research have unearthed an abundance of stories, which I am now responding to through initial sketches and writing of my own. This will further direct my ongoing research and inform my final proposal at the start of next year for the exhibition in spring.

Collections in Dialogue

Collections in Dialogue is a new artist co-commission project between Leeds Art Gallery and the British Library.

It is formed around the commissioning an artist based in the North of England to work with collections at both institutions as a catalyst to produce new work that creates a dialogue between them. Following a recruitment process, the commission was awarded to Jill McKnight in summer 2021. The work Jill creates will be exhibited at Leeds Art Gallery from March – October 2022 with some digital elements shown online.

Collections in Dialogue is part of the British Library’s growing culture programme in Leeds and the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project.

15 November 2021

Recording of the week: Graham Stuart Thomas on bringing historic flowers back to life

This week's selection comes from Chloe Lafferty, Remote Volunteer for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

As autumn slowly unfurls, with colder mornings and falling leaves, it is comforting to think of sunshine and new life. ‘Down to Earth: An Oral History of British Horticulture’ documents the lives and careers of twentieth century gardeners, landscape architects, and other horticultural experts in a series of long life story interviews and was conducted by Louise Brodie between 2001 and 2009, in the UK. Audio recordings of these interviews have recently been digitised as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project, and in the following excerpt, horticulturist Graham Stuart Thomas (1909-2003) discusses his life-long interest in historic roses with Louise Brodie. The interview took place in 2001.

Graham Stuart Thomas talks about roses C1029/03/04 [BL REF]

Graham Stuart Thomas began collecting roses early in his career as a nurseryman, motivated ‘to bring forth these lovely things from retirement’. Many of these varieties had become rare by the mid 20th century, as they were less commercially viable than modern roses. The culmination of Thomas’ work now forms the 'National Collection of pre-1900 roses', cared for by the National Trust at Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire, U.K.

A painted engraving of a roseRosa centifolia foliacea, a painted engraving of a rose by Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759–1840).

However, this national collection of traditional flowers has some surprising links to revolutionary France.

This 2001 interview with Thomas demonstrates the connections between his own research and the botanical prints of Belgian artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840). Redouté’s prints are as detailed as photographs, but were painted over two hundred years ago, when the artist was patronised by Marie-Antoinette, and subsequently Napoleon’s wife Josephine. As Thomas describes in the following excerpt from his interview, Redouté’s work helped to document the roses growing in Josephine’s garden at Malmaison. He has been termed the ‘Raphael’ of flowers. 

Thomas talks about a historic collection of roses C1029/3/4 [BL REF]

In the mid 20th century Redouté’s prints were expensive and largely inaccessible. In order to research traditional rose varieties, Thomas needed to consult old volumes held in library collections; the British Library holds copies of much of Redouté’s work.

Since then, many of these prints have been digitised and are widely available online, which would have saved Thomas significant amounts of time and effort!

painting of students at botanical drawing school in 17th century FranceJulie Ribault, Pierre-Joseph Redoute's school of botanical drawing in the Salle Buffon in the Jardin des Plantes, 1830.

These interviews demonstrate how Redouté’s prints influenced Graham Stuart Thomas’ rose collection, and their legacy survives in a living garden. Although most roses bloom in early summer, some of Thomas’ historic examples make an appearance in autumn, and are still there even though the leaves are beginning to fall.

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08 November 2021

Recording of the week: James Baldwin at the Cambridge Union

By Steve Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary and Creative Recordings.

The British Library launches a new web resource this week. It is called 'Speaking Out', and it seeks to explore the spoken word in its most forceful guise: that of the public address.  Through historical archive recordings, together with new essays, we aim to shine a light on the art and power of public speaking in all its forms.

Today's 'Recording of the Week' showcases a landmark speech by the US writer James Baldwin.

On 18 February 1965 Baldwin was invited to speak at the Cambridge University Union. The motion was 'The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro'. His opposite number in the debate was the conservative writer and broadcaster William F. Buckley Jr., a supporter of the racial segregation that existed in the Southern states.

The debate was a significant moment in the story of the US civil rights struggle. Baldwin's speech specifically is among the most celebrated in the history of the Cambridge Union. David Leeming's 1994 biography of Baldwin tells us it received a standing ovation and carried the post-debate vote, receiving 544 votes, as against 184 for Buckley.

Photo of James Baldwin - copyright Getty Images

James Baldwin. Photo copyright © Getty Images. 

Listen to James Baldwin

Audio copyright © James Baldwin Estate

Download Transcript

Founded in 1815, the Cambridge Union Society is the oldest debating society in the world. Speakers are drawn from all walks of public life and include politicians, peers, scientists, journalists, celebrities, experts of all kinds, and student debaters. 

In the summer of 2007, following successful negotiations with the Cambridge Union Society, the collected recordings of more than 600 of the Society's weekly debates were transferred to the care of the British Library. The Society was concerned to find a new permanent home for the collection, lacking the facilities on their own premises for archival storage of the material or the provision of regular public or student access to it.

The period covered is 1963-1999. Although the bulk of the collection is made up of TDK D90 audio cassettes dating from 1983 onwards, there are also many open reel tapes dating from the earlier period (such as the James Baldwin tape, pictured below). 

Photo of James Baldwin tape box

All the recordings are available to listen to at the British Library but you will need to apply for a Reader Pass if you don't already have one.

05 November 2021

Ken Essex - A long life with music

Ken Essex with violaKen Essex (courtesy of Liz Golding)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

The violist Ken Essex has died aged 101.  Millions unwittingly heard him playing the music to the television series ‘Fawlty Towers’ and it is inevitable that obituaries have highlighted his recording of the Beatles song ‘Yesterday’ on which he was part of the string quartet, but these were a very small part of Ken's incredibly illustrious career as a musician.

In 2015 I interview Ken about his life and work.  At the age of 94 he collected me from the station in his car, drove me to his home and talked for two hours in great detail without the aid of notes of any kind.

Ken was born in Hinckley, Leicestershire in 1920.  He studied the violin and viola with various local teachers and won some local competitions.  In those days, as soon as children were able to work, they were responsible for contributing to the family income.

Early Days

He then had the opportunity to audition for a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Dale

Benjamin Dale (1885-1943) was the first in a long line of important musicians that Ken played with.

His father could only afford to pay for one term at the Royal Academy of Music, but during his time there Ken was awarded many grants and bursaries to continue for a full course of tuition.

After service during the Second World War Ken joined the London Philharmonic Orchestra.  At his first rehearsal he played Stravinsky’s Petrushka under Ernest Ansermet.

Ansermet

Ansermet also directed the first production at Glyndebourne after the War - Benjamin Britten’s new opera written for Kathleen Ferrier, ‘The Rape of Lucretia’.  Ken was allowed to break his contract with the LPO to do this job.

Another great conductor Ken worked under during his first few weeks with the LPO was the Italian Victor de Sabata (1892-1967).

De Sabata

One of the first recording sessions he took part in was for Decca when Eduard van Beinum (1900-1959) conducted Brahms's Symphony No. 3 at Walthamstow Town Hall in March 1946.

Van Beinum

Here is the opening of the third movement of that recording.

Brahms Symphony 3

For many years Ken was violist in the Hurwitz Quartet and part of the String Trio of Amaryllis Fleming.  He often played in the Goldsborough Orchestra, London Chamber Orchestra with Anthony Bernard, the Riddick String Orchestra and the very successful Boyd Neel String Orchestra.

In the early 1950s young artists could appear on BBC radio once they had passed an audition.  Ken relates his extraordinary first experience of being on the air.

BBC 9am broadcast

Another great conductor that Ken worked for was Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) who came to London for a television recording of his new work ‘Trouble in Tahiti.’  Ken had previously played Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in New York whilst on tour.

Bernstein

During the late 1950s Ken joined the London Symphony Orchestra playing under Malcolm Sargent, Basil Cameron, Josef Krips and John Barbirolli.  Although he continued to play in chamber ensembles and string quartets such as the Amadeus Quartet, Aeolian Quartet, Gabrielli Quartet, Amphion Quartet, Allegri Quartet and Delmé Quartet, he decided in 1960 that, with his excellent sight reading skills, freelance and session work was preferable to being contracted to a symphony orchestra.  This was how the Beatles job happened.

The Beatles

International stars from the popular field that Ken worked with included Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.

Crosby and Sinatra

Ken also played on hundreds of film scores from the early 1960s onwards.  Dimitri Tiomkin (1894-1979) and Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) were two composers that came to London from the United States to conduct their scores.  Ken played on the score to 'The Guns of Navarone' and also recorded Herrmann’s Clarinet Quintet in 1974 with Robert Hill and the Ariel Quartet for Unicorn-Kanchana.

Herrmann Clarinet Quintet

One of his most fruitful collaborations was with Carl Davis.   Ken remembers recording scores for television and film productions by Davis as well as those he wrote for many of the restorations of the great films of the silent era.  

Carl Davis


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01 November 2021

Recording of the week: Preserving the Peruvian jarija

This week's selection comes from Catherine Smith, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Last autumn, while cataloguing the Neil Stevenson Collection made in Peru in the early seventies, I gradually started to develop a mental image of Santiago de Chocorvos, a village in the central Peruvian highlands. A few weeks ago, this image was unexpectedly brought into focus by an email containing photographs and accompanying comments sent by Neil himself. It was surprisingly moving to put faces to the voices that had become so familiar.C1103 Neil Stevenson - Men ploughingMaize sowing on terraces in Peru. Men work in groups of three or four turning the earth with a foot-plough - the leaf of a lorry spring lashed to a wooden stick. They chant in rhythm to synchronise the back-breaking work. © Neil Stevenson

The collection consists of Dr Neil Stevenson’s field recordings recorded in and around the village of Santiago de Chocorvos, Huaytará, Huancavelica, Peru, between 1971 and 1972. He was there conducting research on concepts of disease and the recordings mostly document the music and traditions of the region’s various annual agricultural ceremonies and religious festivities throughout the year.

Today’s recording of the week is a jarija work chant, sung during ploughing as part of a Minga ceremony in October 1971. Minga, or Minka, from the Quechua word 'minccacuni' means 'to ask for help promising something in return'. This is a tradition of community work dating back to the Incas. The Minga recorded by Stevenson is the annual maize sowing ceremony held in September and October, to coincide with the rainy season.

The terraced plots on the valley sides are ploughed and sown by a system of reciprocal labour, carried out cooperatively by the landowners. Each owner's plot is ploughed and seeded by his relatives and neighbours. The men plough in groups of three or four, using an Andean foot-plough, called a chakitaklla. The song is intoned by the captain who receives responses from his 'soldiers' [1]. The continuous rhythm of the jarija work chant, along with the chewing of kuka (Quechua for coca leaves) and ‘frequent nips of cane alcohol’ [2] enables the ploughing to carry on at a vigorous pace for several hours.

This excerpt of a jarija, recorded in 1971, is chanted by Faustino Gutiérrez, Justiniano Bautista and accompanying workers:

Jarija chant during ploughing. Minga of Maximo Soto [BL REF C110314 C2]

Meanwhile, women follow the ploughing, breaking up clods of earth with heavy sticks called maqana. They pause from time to time to stand in a group and sing a song called the yarawi into their cupped hands.Women sowing maize on terraced plot in PeruMaize sowing on terraces in Peru. Following the men's ploughing women break up the clods of earth with wooden sticks. Periodically they pause to sing a traditional call and response entreating the fertility of the seeds. © Neil Stevenson

When the ploughing is completed, the workers gather in the corner of a terrace for a maize seed ceremony, during which the women sing the yarawi de semilla (semilla means seed in Spanish). This is followed by a fertility rite, involving the exchanging of flowers. As Stevenson puts it, ‘from this point on there is a general air of licentiousness about the proceedings’ [3]. The men then dig furrows to the rhythm of a slower jarija chant and the women sow the seed.

The work is completed by nightfall and, after further rites, the workers carry the plot owner ‘perched on top of a platform made from crossed foot ploughs’[4] back to his home where they enjoy a large meal of traditional dishes, including one example of each food that the earth provides [5]. After the meal, there is a party involving a singing and dancing competition called the jachua, recordings of which are also in Stevenson’s collection. The songs and joking continue well into the night.

In a letter to the BBC Sound Archive written in 1974, Stevenson indicated that these are rare and ‘probably unique’ recordings of the Minga tradition at this time: ‘the ceremony was previously widely celebrated in this form in Peru but is now found only in a very few places and the complete form, as I have recorded, has not been discovered anywhere else.’ [6]

The ceremony has in fact continued to this day in Santiago de Chocorvos, as this video demonstrates. In this other YouTube video, made by the organisation ‘Quechuata Rimay’, Juan Huachin gives further insight into the tradition. Juan and the interviewer demonstrate a jarija chant at 8 minutes 06 seconds.

Stevenson’s recordings inspired my contribution to the British Library Sound Archive’s NTS radio programme on work songs from around the world. The hour-long selection includes the jarija work chant featured in this post, followed by the equally haunting, yet energetic women’s yarawi song. Like in this modern recording of the ceremony (at 2 minutes 02 seconds), we can hear the men’s jarija in the background whilst the women sing.

Should Dr Neil Stevenson see any of these videos, I can’t help wondering if he might recognise some of the families from fifty years ago. Thank you Neil, for the wonderful recordings, photographs and insights.

Further reading and listening:

[1] Neil I. Stevenson. Andean Village Technology: An Introduction to a Collection of Manufactured Articles from Santiago de Chocorvos, Peru. Oxford: Pitt Rivers Museum, 1974.

[2] Neil Stevenson. Music from Highland Peru. BBC Radio 3, 1974. [BL REF C1103/29 S1 C1]

[3] Ibid.

[4] Neil I. Stevenson. Andean Village Technology: An Introduction to a Collection of Manufactured Articles from Santiago de Chocorvos, Peru. Oxford: Pitt Rivers Museum, 1974.

[5] Neil Stevenson. Music from Highland Peru. BBC Radio 3, 1974. [BL REF C1103/29 S1 C1]

[6] Neil Stevenson. Letter to Jillian M. White, BBC Sound Archive. 25 July 1974.

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