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168 posts categorized "Arts, literature & performance"

01 October 2019

Classical Podcast No. 4 Feodor Chaliapin with Simon Callow

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Chaliapin in the 1930sChaliapin in the 1930s

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Welcome to another in the occasional series of podcasts showcasing treasures from the classical collection of the British Library Sound Archive.

Actor and author Simon Callow shares his passion for the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938) whose recordings convey much of his unique stage presence and charisma. 

We discuss Chaliapin's early years working with his compatriot Rachmaninoff.

Chaliapin and RachmaninoffChaliapin and Rachmaninoff

We also talk about and hear him in some of his famous roles including Boris Godunov and Salieri.

Chaliapin as Boris GodunovChaliapin as Boris Godunov

Chaliapin as SalieriChaliapin as Salieri

Cartoon by ChaliapinCartoon by Chaliapin of Sergei Diaghilev (Simon Callow collection, used with permission)

Thanks to Ward Marston and Marston Records for use of the recordings.  All images in the public domain except where noted.

Previous Classical podcasts can be heard here.

For all the latest news follow@BL_Classical

25 September 2019

Sounds from Bohemia: exploring the Bohemian Quartet’s recordings of Dvorak and Smetana

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Bohemian Quartet drawingBohemian Quartet (Tully Potter collection)

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Rosalind Ventris, a concert violist and teacher of viola and chamber music at the Royal Irish Academy of Music

Listen to these two examples of the opening of Smetana’s String Quartet No.1 in E minor ‘From my life’. First, the Bohemian Quartet recorded in 1928

01 Smetana mvt 1 opening

and now the Pavel Haas Quartet

Here we have two interpretations by Czech quartets separated by almost ninety years, each passionate and invigorating, but how different they sound!

I first became aware of the Bohemian Quartet (or Ceské Kvarteto) in a fascinating talk Robert Philip gave at the IMS Prussia Cove Open Chamber Music in 2013, in which he played their recording of Dvořák’s American Quartet. This initial encounter made a strong impression on me and I have since spent time at the British Library as an Edison Fellow delving into the Sound Archive's collection of early recordings of Czech quartets playing Czech repertoire. The Bohemian Quartet’s recordings are especially revealing, and exemplify an approach to expressivity and ensemble that differs markedly to some performance styles today. In particular, their use of variation in bow technique, portamento, vibrato, tempo and rhythm all stand out as noteworthy. Perhaps surprisingly, performance practice of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Czech music has received less scholarly attention than other national schools, and the work that has been done in this field is not often reflected in performance today.

A particular interest in Dvořák led to my proposing his lesser-known quartets for a recording cycle with my former string quartet (the Albion) for Signum Classics. One of the CDs also features Josef Suk’s short Meditation on the Old Czech Hymn 'St Wenceslas' for String Quartet, Op. 35a. Two discs coincided with initial visits to the British Library. The Edison Fellowship has since provided a valuable opportunity to dig deeper into questions that arose when listening to the Bohemian Quartet and recording Czech string quartets.

Experts in historical recording are united in their praise of the Bohemian Quartet, and particular for their achievement of a genuine equality across the four players. Chamber music specialist Tully Potter describes them as ‘by common consent, the first great modern chamber ensemble’ (liner notes to The Czech Quartet Tradition, Biddulph), and Robert Philip calls them ‘the string quartet acknowledged as the first modern “ensemble of equals”’ (Robert Philip Performing Music in the Age of Recording, 21). Celebrated violin pedagogue Carl Flesch first encountered the Bohemians in 1894, writing in his Memoirs:

Hitherto, one had been accustomed to see in quartet ensembles chiefly a foil for the dominating leader, as was the case above all in the Joachim Quartet... here for the first time one heard ensemble playing by four congenial individualities who were on the same technical level. (Philip Performing Music in the Age of Recording, 122-123)

Their career spanned forty years of chamber music making from the early 1890s to the 1930s, with few changes of membership in that time. By the time the ensemble reached its tenth birthday they had already performed a thousand concerts, and they kept up this pace for most of the quartet’s existence. They toured extensively throughout Europe and collaborated with the likes of clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld (1906), violist Lionel Tertis (1906 and 1929) and many other illustrious musicians. Great composers such as Elgar and Janáček were among their many admirers. On hearing them rehearse his String Quartet Elgar exclaimed, ‘The reason I have lived so long is so as to experience your performance’ (Tully Potter, unpublished chapter). Czech composer Janáček was similarly enthralled by their playing, writing to his muse Kamila Stösslová, ‘I’ve not yet heard anything so magnificent as the way the Bohemian Quartet played my work’ (Tully Potter unpublished chapter). When Czechoslovakia came in to being in 1918 the group changed their name to the ‘Czech Quartet’, although in practice the name ‘Bohemian’ stuck.

Bohemian Quartet 1895The Bohemian Quartet in 1895  Karel Hoffmann, Hanuš Wihan, Oskar Nedbal, Josef Suk

The quartet’s members knew Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) personally and were closely associated with the music of Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884). When the violinist Antonín Bennewitz (1833-1926) became Director of the Prague Conservatory in 1882 he, alongside the cello professor Hanuš Wihan (1855-1920), began encouraging more chamber music at the institution. In 1891, at Wihan’s suggestion, the Bohemian Quartet was formed. The original membership consisted of violinists Karel Hoffmann (1872-1936), Josef Suk (1874-1935), violist Oskar Nedbal (1875-1930) and cellist Otakar Berger (1873-1897). The upper three were pupils of Bennewitz, and Berger studied with Wihan. After Berger’s illness and early death he was subsequently replaced by Wihan, who then became the group’s cellist for the bulk of their career.

The quartet’s teachers were also closely connected to Dvořák and Smetana. Both professors worked alongside Dvořák at the Prague Conservatory (Dvořák later succeeded Bennewitz as Director). Bennewitz gave the public premiere of Quartet No.7 Op.16 in A minor (29th December 1878, Prague). Wihan premiered the ‘Dumky’ Trio with the composer himself at the piano, and was the dedicatee of Dvořák’s B minor Cello Concerto, the arrangement of Silent Woods for cello and piano, and the Rondo in G minor. The Bohemian Quartet’s original members also all had close personal relationships with Dvořák. Three of the group’s founders: Suk, Nedbal and Berger were also Dvořák’s composition students, and Suk was also his son-in-law. The quartet gave the world premiere of Dvořák’s G major quartet Op.106 (9th October 1896), having given the first Prague performance of the A flat Quartet Op.105 earlier in that year on 21st January.

Bennewitz premiered Smetana’s Trio in G minor, and was a founder of the Kammermusikverein in 1876, a chamber music society whose nationalist principles spurred Smetana to write his first string quartet later that year. In the British Library Archive there is a very interesting radio programme from 1995 (H5456/2) by Duncan Druce on ‘From my life’, in which he talks of the initial resistance to this piece in some quarters. The Bohemians, however, made it their own: they first performed it in 1892, and so it was part of their repertoire from the beginning. Nedbal’s delivery of the opening viola solo— turning round to face the audience and playing it from memory— was much commented on by many illustrious witnesses, such as Sir Arnold Bax and Eric Coates.

By the time the Bohemians made their recordings in the 1920s, Hoffmann and Suk were still in the group, but in rather acrimonious circumstances in 1913 Wihan had been replaced by the younger Ladislav Zelenka (1881-1957) and Nedbal by Jiří Herold (1875-1934). (Happily, though, the British Library also has a couple of short recordings of Oskar Nedbal. Nedbal’s departure caused a scandal as he ran off ran off with first violinist Karel Hoffmann's wife in 1906!)

Given its members’ personal connections to Dvořák, the Bohemian Quartet’s recordings should clearly be a starting point for anyone interested in performance practices for this repertoire. With their pedigree it is perhaps particularly striking that the expressive devices that this group used—with one foot still firmly rooted in the nineteenth century—have largely been overlooked, especially when we think of the interest in period performance and the rise of this with regard to the music of nineteenth-century composers. Dvořák seems to have been particularly neglected. As Martin Jemelka has commented in a recent article (‘Antonin Dvořák’s Music made on period instruments’ Czech Music, 2012), only a small handful of chamber music discs of this repertoire touch on historically informed stylistic awareness.

Although the Bohemian Quartet’s recordings date from the 1920s, they clearly embody a fundamentally nineteenth-century performance style. They played on gut strings throughout their careers, there is considerable flexibility in their approach to tempo and use of rubato (they are far from metronomic), ensemble is less tight, rhythms are more gestural than exact, and obviously portamento is much more audibly prevalent than vibrato. There are some lapses of intonation in these recordings, which perhaps should be put down to the players’ advancing years. Since vibrato and portamento have been discussed in studies of historical recordings elsewhere, albeit not greatly in relation to this repertoire, I would like to draw attention here to some different features—those involving the players’ use of the bow.

In a sense it is surprising that the bow has received so little attention, since any string player would agree with Louis Spohr’s proclamation that the bow is the ‘soul of playing’ (Milsom Theory and Practice in late 19th-century violin performance, 34). Robert Philip provides some clarity as to the Bohemian Quartet’s general style, and comments that the

old ‘German’ way of playing extended far beyond Joachim’s direct influence. Different versions of it can be heard in recordings of the Rosé, Bohemian, Capet and the original Budapest Quartet. . . . The so-called German school was therefore not just a narrow group associated with Joachim, but a wider culture of violin playing, which, for a time, resisted the trend towards more powerful and assertive styles. Its preference for a broad style of bowing, and little vibrato, was a continuation of early nineteenth century practice. (Philip Performing Music in the Age of Recording 192-3)

Earlier Philip describes the old German grip 'with the low elbow, the fingers are close together, and roughly at right-angles to the bow.' 

Articulation markings seem to carry implications for bowing that are not exemplified in performances of this repertoire today. Where staccato dots are marked, the stroke is much more varied and often on the string (which is to say that the bow is not lifted off the string at the end of the note, as would be more common in modern performance). Moreover, any figure marked with a dot at the end is sometimes stopped rather than lifted. There are many examples of this in the Bohemian recordings, such as in the second movement Polka from Smetana’s Quartet No.1.

02 Smetana Polka BQ opening

In the score all the un-slurred notes are marked staccato. In this clip these are definitely more on the string before loosening up at the very end of the recording in bar 11.

We can compare the Bohemians with another contemporaneous version available in the British Library, which is similar in its approach to articulation.

03 Smetana Polka Sevcik Lhotsky opening

This recording is by a slightly younger Czech group—the Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet—which was made just a year after the Bohemian Quartet’s own. Again we hear the more on-the-string style that we encountered with the Bohemians. In the Ševčík-Lhotský’s rendition occasionally the bow will be thrown as an effect (e.g. violin 1 second movement bar 11), whereas the Bohemians were a little more controlled here.

Similarly, in the opening of the ‘American’ quartet of Dvořák both Hoffmann and Herold from the Bohemians prefer a more ‘on-the-string’ approach.

04 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ opening

This prevalence for more on-the-string strokes might in part be a result of the old ‘German’ style of bow-hold described above, lending itself more to these kinds of on the string strokes. Clive Brown (in Classical and Romantic Performing Practice 1750-1900) and David Milsom (in Theory and practice in late nineteenth-century violin performance) have also both commented that in the nineteenth-century German school the upper-half of the bow was used more frequently for off-the-string strokes.

It is also noticeable that the Bohemians are not always consistent with their strokes: they sometimes vary articulation on a repeated passage on a second hearing. Often this is clearly for musical variety, but there are also examples where differences in articulation could be down to age. This is illustrated in the accompaniment in the first movement in this passage in the Dvořák ‘American' Quartet.

05 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ acc fig

Clearly Hoffman’s bow control is not the same—or perhaps this could also be put down to different priorities. If you listen again to the very start of the movement in the previous extract you can audibly hear Hoffmann put the bow to the string and the sound is slightly shaky.

It is worth pointing out that the Bohemian’s articulation and right-hand choices often link to emphasising rhythmic shapes and gestures. For instance, double-dotting is apparent in the extracts above in the first movement of the Dvořák ‘American’ and the Smetana ‘From my life’ opening. In the Smetana Polka we heard earlier the ‘quasi Tromba’ theme is double-dotted in the viola and violin, and is particularly striking when it reaches the first violin in terms of rhythmic gesture: the first two quavers of the bar are marked slurred with a dot under the second, and Hoffmann and Herold play with the beat-placement here to make the rhythm particularly dance-like.

06 Smetana Polka BQ rhythm

Hear the opening of third movement of the Dvořák ‘American’ for the same effect

07 Dvorak mvt 3 BQ rhythm

In fact, wherever there are a couple of repeated rhythmic values together they are often played with a lengthening of the first of the group. One good example is the evocative harmonic turning point in the first movement of the Dvořák ‘American’

08 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ flex (2)

Often this rhythmic flexibility will be led by the first violinist, and there are many examples of this throughout the recordings. For me, the Bohemian Quartet’s rendition of the second movement of the Dvořák ‘American’ offers a masterclass in rhythmic flexibility.

In line with nineteenth-century practice the group significantly slows down into more restful passages of music and then rushes through more excited bits: listen again to the opening of the polka extract from the Smetana ‘From my life’ second movement above, and here again is a fuller version of the last extract to show how the group first pushes through, followed by an extreme winding down into the second theme.

09 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ winddown

Portamento is used by the players to emphasise the dissipating of energy in this passage—a device which is used with similarly effective results elsewhere.

The Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet also use rubato and portamenti in the manner of the Bohemians. As a final example, listen to this beautiful, swooping rendition of Osakar Nedbal’s Valse Triste played by the Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet recorded on 28th May 1929.

Disc label Valse TristeDisc label (1CL0074346 BL collections)

10 Nedbal Valse Triste 1CL0074346

Although the Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet clearly had their own very different interpretations of Czech masterpieces, the fact that they also used similar expressive devices as the Bohemians bolsters the argument that these were fundamental to the character of this repertoire and not just the product of an unusual idiosyncratic ensemble.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many ways in which the time spent with these recordings during this Fellowship has influenced my approach to this repertoire in my playing. I am looking forward to building on the work undertaken during my Fellowship with a Research trip next month to Prague, as a recipient of the Royal Irish Academy of Music’s Amplify Grant. This visit will then feed back into my chamber music teaching at the RIAM, to help the students develop a performer-oriented understanding of stylistic traits and broaden their expressive palettes.

I am very grateful to the British Library and to Jonathan Summers for his guidance throughout this Fellowship, and to Tully Potter for sharing his fascinating materials and insights into the world of the Bohemian Quartet with me.

During my fellowship I also wrote an article on Ševčík’s teaching for The Strad magazine.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

09 September 2019

Recording of the week: representing Britain at the Venice Biennale

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This week's selection comes from Camille Johnston, Oral History Assistant Archivist.

Every two years since 1895 the Venice Biennale has been bringing together artists from across the globe to take part in an almighty exhibition. This year is the 58th exhibition, and 89 countries are taking part. For our Recording of the Week we’re returning to 1956, when Lynn Chadwick (1914-2003) won the International Prize for Sculpture.

Chadwick was described as the ‘breakthrough artist’ when he first exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1952, and in 1956, Alan Bowness described him as ‘a figure of international artistic importance’.[1]

Lynn Chadwick, surrounded by sculptures, at his home in GloucestershireLynn Chadwick, surrounded by sculptures, at home in Lypiatt Park, Gloucestershire, where his Artists' Lives recording took place. Courtesy Cathy Courtney.

Despite being awarded such a prestigious prize, when asked about the Biennale Chadwick’s response is humble. Clearly delighted for his work to be exhibited internationally, he remembers how it felt to be the centre of attention.

Lynn Chadwick on the Venice Biennale and the life of an artist (C466/28)

The second half of this audio extract comes from a different part of Chadwick’s interview – and reveals a different side to the life of an artist. Chadwick recalls a conversation shared with German surrealist Max Ernst, and reflects on how artists fall in and out of fashion.

Lynn Chadwick CBE RA was interviewed for the National Life Stories project Artists’ Lives in 1995. Despite his wish to go to art school, which was refused by his parents, Chadwick began his working life in an architect’s office through a placement organised by his school headmaster. He trained to be an architectural draughtsman before realising that he would not succeed as an architect, and after the war moved to a small cottage in Gloucestershire where he began experimenting with mobiles (partly inspired by the work of fellow artist Alexander Calder). Gradually Chadwick’s work became more fixed as he developed his own techniques for working with metal, and is he known today for his distinctive sculptures in bronze and steel.

These clips and image are taken from Michael Bird’s essay, ‘Opening up to international influences: British art in the 20th century’ on the website Voices of art.

[1] UK Artists at the Venice Biennale in the 1950s. British Council.

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

26 August 2019

Recording of the week: Winnie-the-Pooh

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

This week's recording of the week features A. A. Milne reading from his children's classic Winnie-the-Pooh. This is a short excerpt from the complete chapter three featured on the disc, 'in which Pooh and Piglet go hunting and nearly catch a Woozle'.       

Listen to the voice of A. A. Milne (1CS0089348)                                                                                                     

The recording was made in June 1929 and issued on a 10" disc by the Dominion company, which produced a series of  twelve literary spoken-word discs featuring popular writers around that time. 

Photograph of the Winnie the Pooh disc

A. A. Milne famously based his Winnie-the-Pooh stories on the bedtime stories he told his son, Christopher Robin. Toy animals provided the inspiration for Pooh the bear and his friends, Piglet, Eeeyore, Kanga and Roo. Milne also wrote collections of children's verse, humourous essays, plays and an autobiography.

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

15 August 2019

Napoléon Bonaparte

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First Consul Bonaparte by Antoine-Jean Gros c. 1802

First Consul Bonaparte by Antoine-Jean Gros c. 1802

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

In May of this year I wrote a blog on the 250th anniversary of the birth of Arthur Wellesley, Field Marshall His Grace the Duke of Wellington. 

His enemy at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoléon Bonaparte, was also born in 1769, on 15 August, 250 years ago today. 

Napoleon crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David 1800

Napoléon crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David 1800

Finding a recording that provides a direct link to Napoléon Bonaparte is not easy, but there is one.  Napoléon raised the fortunes of his family so that his youngest brother, Jérôme-Napoléon Bonaparte (1784-1860) became Jerome I, King of Westphalia and later Prince of Montfort.

Jérôme’s second son was Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte known as Napoléon-Jérôme Bonaparte (1822-1891).  His cousin Emperor Napoléon III, to whom he was a close adviser, gave him the title of Prince Napoléon in 1852 (as well as third Prince of Montfort amongst other appellations). 

Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte by Hippolyte Flandrin

Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte by Hippolyte Flandrin 1860

Plon-Plon, as Prince Napoléon was known, was pretender to the throne, and upon the death of the Prince Imperial, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1856-1879) he became the most senior member of the large and confusingly named Napoléon family. However, the Prince Imperial’s will decreed that Plon-Plon should not succeed, but that his son Victor be the next head of the family causing a rift between father and son.

Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte by Roger Fenton

Photograph of Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte by Roger Fenton 1855

It was this first nephew of Napoléon that was recorded shortly before his death by Edison’s agent Colonel Gouraud in 1890.  Gouraud introduces the Prince who speaks in French.  Then some ladies of the court are introduced, the last probably being La Marquise de Saint-Paul, who was Marie Charlotte Diane Feydeau de Brou (1848-1943) a noted pianist who played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at a charity concert in the Salle Erard in 1884 and who counted Saint-Saëns, Widor and Massenet among her friends.  Only the voice of the Marquise de St Paul seems to have survived on the cylinder.

George Gouraud from Vanity Fair 13 April 1889

George Gouraud from Vanity Fair 13th April 1889

Prince Napoleon 1890

While we can hear the actual voice of Napoléon Bonaparte’s nephew recorded 130 years ago, Abel Gance’s epic five and a half hour film about the great Frenchman from 1927 is silent.  Silent as far a dialogue is concerned, but Carl Davis skillfully uses the music of Beethoven and others to bring the film to life. 

The connection between Napoléon and Beethoven is well known – as the original dedicatee of the Eroica Symphony, the composer captured the spirit of Napoléon’s forceful personality in his music.  You can read more about it in a blog I wrote on Felix Weingartner’s recording of the work.

Recording from the Alan Cooban collection digitised with funds from the Saga Trust

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

09 August 2019

The nightingale sings again - the life, career, and recordings of Beatrice Harrison

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Beatrice Harrison with celloBeatrice Harrison with cello (BL Collections)

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Chas Helge who is currently writing his dissertation on Beatrice Harrison

Suddenly, the door opened and the King came in. He was quite alone. He came up to me… saying, 'Nightingale, nightingale,' he said, 'you have done what I have not yet been able to do. You have encircled the empire with the song of the nightingale with your cello.'

These are the words spoken by the cello virtuoso Beatrice Harrison (1892-1965) in 1955 for the BBC Home Service programme Scrapbook for 1924. Harrison, who was once a household name at the height of Great Britain’s colonial empire, lent her first-hand account to help create an historical snapshot of 1924. The monarch she is referencing is King George V. This interview is just one of the rare resources found in the Sound and Moving Image collection at the British Library. My Edison Fellowship facilitated travel to London to access this and many more primary sources for my dissertation exploring the career, life, and recordings of this outstanding early 20th century performer.

Beatrice Harrison’s development was meteoric. She was second of four prodigiously talented sisters: May, Beatrice, Margaret, and Monica. Their early musical studies were supervised by their firebrand of a mother, Annie Harrison. Annie was a talented amateur singer and pianist, and perhaps because she was not able to pursue a musical career herself, mobilized all of her family’s resources to the careers of her children as professional musicians. One of the most fascinating windows into the Harrison family’s lives are their practice journals. The girls were expected to keep meticulous records to document every hour of every day’s productivity. Annie’s devotion and tenacity paid off. Beatrice received exceptional training at the Royal College of Music, the Frankfurt Hoch Conservatory, and the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. While studying with the famous German cello pedagogue Hugo Becker (1863-1941), she won the Mendelssohn Prize at age seventeen.

In their early 20s, Beatrice and her elder sister May Harrison toured Europe and Russia performing the Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello some fifty-nine times. During their travels, they met Gabriel Fauré, Sergei Rachmaninov, Alexander Glazunov, Gustav Holst, and David Popper. The Harrison sisters also brushed shoulders with the world’s political elite including European royalty, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and in England, King George V and his sister Princess Victoria. 

Beatrice and May HarrisonBeatrice and May Harrison (BL Collections)

Beatrice became close friends with Princess Victoria, so close, that it was Princess Victoria who paid for Harrison’s beloved cello, the great ‘Pietro Guarnieri’.  In August 1928 HMV made some private recordings for the Princess.  Here is one of the third movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor featuring Beatrice on the cello and Princess Victoria accompanying her on the piano.

Elgar Adagio with Princess Victoria

Another recording, which can be heard at the British Library, is an interview conducted in 1986 with Margaret Harrison (1899-1995), Beatrice’s younger sister. Margaret herself was a prodigy as the youngest pupil of the Royal College of Music (age 4) and her piano skills were extensive enough that she toured with Beatrice in the United States (they even made it to Texas). Here, we can listen to Margaret create a portal, not only into the life of the Harrison family, but also into the private life of Princess Victoria.

Margaret Harrison interview

Harrison’s greatest claims to fame straddle two different sides of the music world during the 1920s. Today, Harrison’s legacy endures for her recordings of the Elgar Cello Concerto recorded under the baton of Sir Edward Elgar himself. She was his preferred cellist for the concerto and he credited her for popularizing it after its disastrous premiere.  They first recorded it together in 1919 and 1920 by the old acoustic process.

Elgar and Beatrice Harrison recording for HMV in 1920Elgar and Beatrice Harrison recording for HMV in 1920

A new recording was made by the electric process on 23rd March 1928 where two turntables were recording simultaneously.  Using modern digital technology, these two recordings made at the same session have been combined to create a new stereo version.  It also stands as the most accurate representation of what Elgar intended his famous concerto to express.

Elgar Cello Concerto 1928

The second contribution Harrison made was as an international radio superstar.  In 1924, she had a 'hard tussle' (her words) to convince managing director of the BBC Sir John Reith to have sound engineers go to her garden near Oxted in Surrey.  Her vision was to recreate on live radio what she had successfully accomplished herself many times: marry the rich sound of her cello with the song of the nightingale.  In the dark, positioned under an oak tree, surrounded by rabbits, microphones, and wires, Harrison performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s Chant Hindu accompanied by the sound of nightingales to a radio audience of a million people.  Four years later she recreated this for the HMV microphone.

Chant Hindu

HMV label of B2470Label of HMV B 2470 (BL Collections)

Meanwhile, the live broadcast was a hit. It was the first time the BBC had broadcast the sound of birds in their natural habitat. Harrison received more than fifty thousand fan letters and welcomed hundreds of visitors to her estate from every corner of the British Empire. They all hoped to meet ‘The Lady of the Nightingales.’ Harrison and the BBC recreated their broadcast every springtime for twelve consecutive years and later, in the 1955 Scrapbook programme mentioned above.  Here is an excerpt from that broadcast describing what happened in 1924 and ending with her recollection of the King's comments mentioned above.

Scrapbook for 1924 excerpt

Harrison’s success even led to her appearing as herself in the 1943 British propaganda film The Demi-Paradise, and extraordinary scene where she plays in a garden with nightingales during an air raid for a radio broadcast.

Harrison embraced her status as an international British cultural icon and thus named her memoir The Cello and the Nightingales

As an American, the Edison Fellowship was my ticket to accessing not only the British Library’s resources, but many institutions and individuals in London. The Harrison Sisters’ scores at the Royal College of Music and Harrison’s correspondence (contracts, internal memos, and letters) with the BBC at their archives in Caversham. Both the RCM and the BBC Archives were so very kind and helpful, especially the RCM librarians who made dozens of trips into the basement to pull up heavy boxes of music, I thank you for helping this helpless American. 

While in London, I was privileged to meet the two leading Beatrice Harrison historians, David Candlin, Chairman of the Harrison Sisters Trust and Patricia Cleveland-Peck, author of many beloved children’s books and the annotator/editor of Beatrice’s autobiography, The Cello and the Nightingales. David was kind enough to invite me into his home and show me the Harrisons' church and graves and the Music House in Surrey. He also provided access to documents and countless photos I had never seen before. 

Special thanks to Jonathan Summers at the British Library Sound Archive who manages the Edison Fellowships for help and guidance during my stay in London, and for accompanying me in Anton Rubinstein’s Cello Sonata and a Beatrice Harrison manuscript!  Finally, thanks to Cheryl Tipp, curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds, for the use of a recording studio to finish the transcriptions of the recorded interviews. 

Thanks to Somm Recordings for permission to use the Elgar recordings

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

19 July 2019

‘My Other Piano’ – the classical side of Winifred Atwell

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Winifred Atwell in the late 1950s

Winifred Atwell in the late 1950s  (1LP0248992 BL collections)

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Uchenna Ngwe who is studying Black classical musicians in Britain before 1960

Little is known about the early years of Winifred Atwell but she is thought to have been born in either 1910 or 1914. By the 1950s the Trinidad-born pianist had become a household name in Britain and Australia but has become a forgotten figure today.

Although various sources claim that Atwell arrived in London in 1946, BBC documents show that she actually appeared on at least two episodes of the radio programme Calling The West Indies in 1945, and was already living in London by this time. Her first appearance was as piano accompanist to a fellow Trinidadian, renowned singer and actor Edric Connor. In 1993, his widow, Pearl Connor, spoke to Stephen Bourne in this unedited interview about Atwell for the BBC Radio 2 programme Salutations.

Pearl Connor C1019/16

Following the 1945 broadcasts, Atwell was asked to perform on the radio on a number of occasions over the next year before her inaugural TV appearance on the BBC’s Stars in Your Eyes on the afternoon of 21st October 1946.

Radio Times 21st October 1946

Winifred Atwell made her name mainly from popular music but, as she continued to show in her stage act, she was also well-versed in standard classical repertoire. Soon after her arrival in Britain, she began taking piano lessons with Harold Craxton (1885 – 1971), a well-respected teacher at the Royal Academy of Music and sought-after accompanist. In another unedited interview for Salutations, Michael Craxton, Harold’s son, described Atwell’s visits to the family home to study with his father.

Michael Craxton C1019/16

After working with a variety of agents from early on in her career, Atwell was represented by Bernard Delfont Ltd from July 1948. Delfont was a former music-hall dancer and theatrical agent before embarking on a career as a successful theatre and leisure impresario – his brothers Lew and Leslie Grade were also theatrical agents before both becoming television executives. This collaboration proved to be very successful and Atwell was in huge demand for her TV, radio and live theatre performances. By the late 1950s she was earning the equivalent of around £4,000 per TV appearance.

Michael Craxton also refers to Atwell's work with his father on Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. On the 28th November 1954, Atwell made her classical debut at the Royal Albert Hall performing this piece with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Stanford Robinson (1904 – 1984). A few days later on the 1st and 2nd of December, Atwell recorded the work for the Decca label with the same ensemble and conductor. These sessions were Decca’s first ever UK stereo recordings but sadly this experiment remains unpublished and the concerto was only issued in mono.

Grieg Piano Concerto

Despite her abilities and considerable public draw, assumptions made due to her race and success outside of the classical genre meant that Atwell was not taken seriously as a classical musician. However, her work mainly with pop and jazz-influenced music led to the achievement of a remarkable amount of success during her career, including two British no. 1 singles – Let’s Have Another Party (1954) and Poor People of Paris (1956). Her highest-ranking classical recording was of the 18th variation from Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsodie on a theme of Paganini, which was performed on the soundtrack of the film The Story of Three Loves by Jakob Gimpel. Atwell’s version, with Wally Stott and his Orchestra, peaked at no. 9 in the UK charts in 1954.

Atwell Rachmaninoff

Winifred Atwell LP

1LP0239366 (BL collections)

I was pleased to correct details of Atwell’s early career through my Edison Fellowship research at the BBC archives at Caversham and to be able to put this into context with the rest of my work on Black music in Britain before 1960.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

02 July 2019

Innovations in sound and art

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Mary Stewart and Eleanor Dare reflect on an excellent collaboration…

In spring 2019, based in both the British Library and the Royal College of Art School of Communication, seven students from the MA Digital Direction course participated in an elective module entitled The Other Voice. After listening in-depth to a selection of oral history interviews, the students learnt how to edit and creatively interpret oral histories, gaining insight into the complex and nuanced ethical and practical implications of working with other people’s life stories. The culmination of this collaboration was a two-day student-curated showcase at the British Library, where the students displayed their own creative and very personal responses to the oral history testimonies. The module was led by Eleanor Dare (Head of Programme for MA Digital Direction, RCA), Matt Lewis (Sound Artist and Musician and RCA Tutor) and Mary Stewart (British Library Oral History Curator). We were delighted that over 100 British Library staff took the time to come to the showcase, engage with the artwork and discuss their responses with the students. Eleanor reflects: “The students have benefited enormously from this collaboration, gaining a deeper understanding of the ethics of editing, the particular power of oral history and of course, the feedback and stimulation of having a show in the British Library.” Here is just a taster of the amazing works the students created.

Karthika Sakthivel and Giulia Brancati were both inspired by the testimony of Irene Elliot, who was interviewed by Dvora Liberman in 2014 for an innovative project on Crown Court Clerks. They were both moved by Irene’s rich description of her mother’s hard work bringing up five children in 1950s Preston. Giulia created On the way back an installation featuring two audio points – one with excerpts of Irene’s testimony and another an audio collage inspired by Irene’s description. Two old fashioned telephones played the audio, which the listener absorbed while curled up in an arm chair in a fictional front room. It was a wonderfully immersive experience.

A visitor listens to Irene Elliot's testimony on two telephones while sitting at a table with scones and a tea cup

Irene Elliot's testimony interwoven with the audio collage (C1674/05)

Audio collage and photography © Giulia Brancati.

Giulia commented: “In a world full of noise and overwhelming information, to sit and really pay attention to someone’s personal story is an act of mindful presence. This module has been continuous learning experience in which ‘the other voice’ became a trigger for creativity and personal reflection.”

Inspired by Irene’s testimony Karthika created a wonderful sonic quilt, entitled Memory Foam. Karthika explains, “There was power in Irene’s voice, enough to make me want to sew - something I’d never really done on my own before. But in her story there was comfort, there was warmth and that kept me going.”

Illustrated with objects drawn from Irene's memories, each square of the patchwork quilt encased conductive fabric that triggered audio clips. Upon touching each square, the corresponding story would play. Karthika further commented, “The initial visitor interactions with the piece gave me useful insights that enabled me to improve the experience in real time by testing alternate ways of hanging and displaying the quilt. After engaging with the quilt guests walked up to me with recollections of their own mothers and grandmothers – and these emotional connections were deeply rewarding.”

Karthika, Giulia and the whole group were honoured that Irene and her daughter Jayne travelled from Preston to come to the exhibition, Karthika: "It was the greatest honour to have her experience my patchwork of her memories. This project for me unfurled yards of possibilities, the common thread being - the power of a voice.”

Irene Elliot and her daughter Jayne look at the Memory Foam audio quilt

Irene's words activated by touching the lime green patch with lace and a zip (top left of the quilt) (C1674/05)

Image Caption: Irene and her daughter Jayne experiencing Memory Foam © Karthika Sakthivel.

Listening to ceramicist Walter Keeler's memories of making a pot inspired James Roadnight and David Sappa to travel to Cornwall and record new oral histories to create Meditations in Clay. This was an immersive documentary that explores what we, as members of this modern society, can learn from the craft of pottery - a technology as old as time itself. The film combines interviews conducted at the Bernard Leach pottery with audio-visual documentation of the St Ives studio and its rugged Cornish surroundings.

Meditations in Clay, video montage © James Roadnight and David Sappa.

Those attending the showcase were bewitched as they watched the landscape documentary on the large screen and engaged with the selection of listening pots, which when held to the ear played excerpts of the oral history interviews. James and David commented, “This project has taught us a great deal about the deep interview techniques involved in Oral History. Seeing visitors at the showcase engage deeply with our work, watching the film and listening to our guided meditation for 15, 20 minutes at a time was more than we could have ever imagined.”

Raf Martins responded innovatively to Jonathan Blake’s interview describing his experiences as one of the first people in the UK to be diagnosed with HIV. In Beyond Form Raf created an audio soundscape of environmental sounds and excerpts from the interview which played alongside a projected 3D hologram based on the cellular structure of the HIV virus. The hologram changed form and shape when activated by the audio – an intriguing visual artefact that translated the vibrant individual story into a futuristic media.

3D hologram as designed by Raf Martins

Jonathan Blake's testimony interwoven with environmental soundscape (C456/104)

Soundscape and image © Raf Martins.

Also inspired by Jonathan Blake’s interview was the short film Stiff Upper Lip by Kinglsey Tao which used clips of the interview as part of a short film exploring sexuality, identity and reactions to health and sickness.

Donald Palmer’s interview with Paul Merchant contained a wonderful and warm description of the front room that his Jamaican-born parents ‘kept for best’ in 1970s London. Alex Remoleux created a virtual reality tour of the reimagined space, entitled Donald in Wonderland, where the viewer could point to various objects in the virtual space and launch the corresponding snippet of audio. Alex commented, “I am really happy that I provided a Virtual Reality experience, and that Donald Palmer himself came to see my work. In the picture below you can see Donald using the remote in order to point and touch the objects represented in the virtual world.”

Interviewee Donald Palmer wearing the virtual reality headset, and exploring the virtual reality space created by Alex Remoleux

Donald Palmer describes his parents' front room (C1379/102)

Image Caption: Interviewee Donald Palmer wearing the virtual reality headset, exploring the virtual reality space (pictured) created by Alex Remoleux.

The reaction to the showcase from the visitors and British Library staff was overwhelmingly positive, as shown by this small selection of comments. We were incredibly grateful to interviewees Irene and Donald for attending the showcase too. This was an excellent collaboration: RCA students and staff alike gained new insights into the significance and breadth of the British Library Oral History collection and the British Library staff were bowled over by the creative responses to the archival collection.

Post it note comments from visitors to the showcase

With thanks to the MA Other Voice cohort Giulia Brancati, Raf Martins, Alexia Remoleux, James Roadnight, Karthika Sakthivel, David Sappa and Kingsley Tao, RCA tutors Eleanor Dare and Matt Lewis & BL Oral History Curator Mary Stewart, plus all the interviewees who recorded their stories and the visitors who took the time to attend the showcase.