Sound and vision blog

254 posts categorized "Arts, literature & performance"

23 January 2023

Recording of the week: Bob Cobbing (1920-2002)

This week’s recording of the week was selected by Steve Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary and Creative Recordings.

Black and white photocopied image of Bob Cobbing

Above: Image of Bob Cobbing from a scan supplied by Jennifer Cobbing in 2008. Photographer not known.

This is a selection from the personal tape archive of the British sound poet Bob Cobbing.

The archive comprises recordings of Cobbing - solo and with various collaborators - in live, studio and home settings. The British Library acquired it in 2005.

The Library is also home to Bob Cobbing’s manuscript archive.  And we hold copies of many of the publications issued by Cobbing’s Writers Forum imprint, as well as books about his artistic practice.

This particular piece, ‘WORM’, was recorded in 1966. It was among the tracks issued by the Library in 2009 on a CD compliation of Cobbing’s work called ‘The Spoken Word: Early Recordings 1965-1973’.

That CD is now long out of print and hard to find. Soon though, we will be making available - for free online listening - a selection of further treasures from the vaults. Our thanks are due to Barbara and Patrick Cobbing of the Bob Cobbing Estate, and also William Cobbing, for helping this to happen.

Keep an eye on our social media channels for news on the launch of our new ‘sounds’ web site.

Listen to Bob Cobbing

Download Bob Cobbing transcript

Note: The downloadable transcript is for the benefit of people with a hearing impairment. It is not intended as a guide to how the words should appear on the printed page. Cobbing published various treatments of the piece over the years. One published version has the words in horizontal lines from left to right, but also in four columns. Another visualisation sees the words printed off-register and arranged in wiggly vertical strings. The impression given is of worms on the ground, viewed from above.

Text and recording are copyright of the Bob Cobbing Estate, Used with permission.

16 January 2023

Recording of the week: ‘Reggae Fi May Ayim’ by Linton Kwesi Johnson

This week’s post comes from Daisy Chamberlain, Preservation Assistant for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

Linton Kwesi Johnson was born in Chapelton, Jamaica in 1952. His mother, Sylvena, migrated to Britain just before Jamaica gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1962, and Linton followed three years later, aged 11. His first home in the UK was in Brixton, South London, an area he described as ‘an oasis of resistance and rebellion’.

Photo of Linton Kwesi Johnson

Photo credit: Bryan Ledgard on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

In the following recording, Linton Kwesi Johnson recites his poem, ‘Reggae Fi May Ayim’ (British Library reference: C1532/14), written in memory of the Black German activist and poet, and his personal friend, May Ayim, at his birthday reception at Homerton College, Cambridge in 2012. May Ayim was the child of a German mother and a Ghanaian father, but was adopted by a white German family at a young age. She died on August 9, 1996, when she was only 36 years old.

Listen to Reggae Fi May Ayim

Download Reggae Fi May Ayim transcript

Though Linton Kwesi Johnson often works with a live band or backing track, this recitation of ‘Reggae Fi Ayim’ is performed without any music. His words have a rhythm and a musicality of their own, though, and the absence of any backing adds to the solemnity of his elegy.

From hamburg via bremen / den finally / Berlin

Ayim moved to Berlin in 1984, where the self-described ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’ Audre Lorde was working as a visiting professor in North American Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. Ayim attended Lorde’s seminars while working on her thesis on the cultural and social history of Afro-Germans. Lorde soon became a close personal friend and mentor to Ayim, and the following year the pair co-founded the West Berlin Chapter of the Initiative Schwarze Deutsche (ISD), an organisation of Black Germans campaigning against racial injustice in Germany to facilitate bonds between Afro-Germans and create new cultural practices.

Photo of May Ayim (right) with her mentor Audre Lorde (left)

Photo credit:  Dagmar Schults / CC BY-SA 4.0

Afro-german warrior woman

The relationship between Johnson and Ayim was personal – the poem reveals that the pair met at a black radical book fair. It was also political – both Johnson and Ayim used poetry as a tool for inciting political change, and as a core component of their activism. Ayim’s own poetry dealt with the themes of classism, racism and feminism, and emphasised the potential of writing to build coalitions between Black Europeans and transform their social lives. As well as this elegy for May Ayim, Johnson has written poems for Blair Peach (‘Reggae Fi Peach’), a white teacher from New Zealand killed at a protest against the National Front in Southall in 1979, and George Lindo (‘It Dread Inna Inglan’), a Black man from Bradford who was wrongfully convicted of robbery despite a lack of evidence and a strong alibi. You can browse individual recordings of these poems in the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.

Fallin screamin / Terteen stanzahs down

The opening stanza of ‘Reggae fi May Ayim’ sets the tone of the poem as a pained and emotional elegy for a close friend by highlighting the conspiracy between life and death to ‘shattah di awts most fragile diziah’ (shatter the heart’s most fragile desire). The lines ‘Fallin screamin / Terteen stanzahs down’ are a reference to Ayim’s tragic suicide in 1996. The poet jumped from the thirteenth floor of an apartment building after battling depression and a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

Before Ayim died, she received invitations from across the world to attend and speak at conferences about feminism, anti-racism and human rights. It was through her global activism and her commitment to Afro-diasporic coalition that Ayim connected with individuals like Linton Kwesi Johnson. ‘Reggae Fi May Ayim’ is just one of many tributes sent by her friends and colleagues following her death.

20 December 2022

'Jiune Rahara' / Desire to live

Rahul Giri was one of our Resonations artists-in-residence during 2022. The Resonations artist residency programme is generously supported by the British Council. 

Also known as _RHL, Rahul Giri is a producer and DJ based in Bangalore, India. While studying broadcast journalism, Rahul became one half of the duo Sulk Station, whose work has been described as ‘hypnotic, downtempo electronica with Hindustani musical influences’. For years, he has been an active developer of Bangalore’s alternative scene and musical identity, running Consolidate – an independent collective-turned-record-label. 

In his last blog as artist-in-residence, Rahul gives us some insight into what he has done during the six months of his online residency:

Over the last six months working with the British Library’s sound archive as a Resonations artist-in-residence, I have engaged with various forms of Nepali music that cut across language, culture and geography. My primary focus within this vast archive has been the recordings of the Gandharva community - a wandering musician caste from Nepal.

Photo of Lurey Gandharva taken by Doctor Carol Tingey  in Tarkughat Village  Lamjung  1992
Photo of Lurey Gandharva taken by Doctor Carol Tingey, in Tarkughat Village, Lamjung, 1992

Some of the Gandharva recordings I have closely listened to were written against the backdrop of war.

Jiune Rahara’, performed by Lurey Gandharva on voice and sarangi, and recorded by Carol Tingey in Tarkughat Village, Lamjung, in 1992, is one such example. The song was most likely written over 200 years ago. It references the time when the Gorkha Kingdom (a hill state in central Nepal) was at war with its neighbouring states. This war was part of an expansion campaign (also known as unification of Nepal) that took place in the 18th and 19th century. It ultimately led to the formation of present-day Nepal.

The song ‘Jiune Rahara’ explores the complex psyche of men preparing to leave for the battlefield. Sung from the perspective of the soldiers, the text juxtaposes themes of faith and fate. The song lyrics narrate how men going to war rely on various practices that are considered auspicious in Nepali culture.

The refrain ‘Jiune Rahara’ which literally translates as ‘the desire to live’ puts things into perspective. It poignantly describes the mindset of the soldiers who are well aware of the realities of war - how the fear of death and the desire to live simultaneously manifest themselves through these rituals and acts of faith.

Reading the lyrics of the song, makes this clear:

Find the auspicious hour, brother, [for us to leave]
We have as blessings the curd and the banana
The desire to live

Consecrated grains of the shali rice
And curd from the mali cow
Give us the tika mark
The desire to live
Brother - we head off to the fields of war

In how many places, brother, were you hit
By musket balls?
How many places, the cut of the khukuri [machete]?
The desire to live
Will you ever come home again?

[Translated into english by Prawin Adhikari]

One of the first thoughts that came to my mind while listening to ‘Jiune Rahara’ was how the song could be applied to the lives of present day Nepali migrant workers.

Every year thousands of Nepali men and women travel abroad for employment. They especially travel to Gulf countries (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and others) and Malaysia. Like the soldiers in the song ‘Jiune Rahara’, they are well aware of the trials and tribulations that await them, including the possibility of death. Most of them make this journey out of necessity - out of a desire to live - to escape poverty, to provide for their family or to simply look for a better life.

‘Jiune Rahara’ is part of a larger body of Gandharva songs that explore themes of war through an individual’s perspective. The song is an intersection of art and reportage where loss and longing, hope and fear make way for grander narratives of valour and bravado.

Inspired by ‘Jiune Rahara’s’ approach to dealing with complex themes in such a poetic and effective way, I started thinking about creating a body of work that was based on the experiences of Nepali migrant workers'.

In the early stages of this residency while researching the Gandharva tradition I was also listening to recordings of sarangi with sampling and sound design in mind. Sarangi is the primary instrument of Gandharvas. It is a four stringed fiddle played vertically with a bow. The music producer in me was drawn to the melancholia, granularity and vulnerability in these sound recordings. I was also interested in the dissonance, grit and scrappiness which crept into them every once in a while but was especially audible when musicians tuned their instruments in between songs and conversations.

I asked Rajan Shrestha, a musician and ethnomusicologist from Kathmandu, to send me very basic recordings of sarangi - long drawn notes with no direct connection to the Gandharva compositions.

My initial goal was to create a body of work that used the sound of the sarangi as a building block - to create a varied sonic palette based on the textures, timbres and tonalities of these archival recordings. To do this, I would use various sound design and sampling techniques.

The decision to work with newly made recordings of sarangi was partly out of respect for the Gandharva tradition. It also gave me a lot more freedom as a producer as I was starting from scratch and could manipulate these recordings to match my inclinations.

Over the last few months I have been working towards reimagining and re-contextualizing these recordings - extracting and exploring elements of noise, drone and dissonance to soundtrack aspects of Nepali migrant workers journey. Most of my work with these recordings has coincided with the build up and the culmination of the World Cup in Qatar.

The majority of my work in progress is a response to the reportage around the plight of South Asian migrant workers involved in building the stadiums and infrastructure for the World Cup.

You can listen to some snippets of my work in progress on Soundcloud.

Some of these sketches include sound design ideas that replicate construction sites - claustrophobic walls of sound that represent the harsh working and living conditions, meditative musical passages that reflect muted optimism and hope that some of the workers have shown in interviews.

As of now these are just fragments, a collection of sketches, audio notes that I hope to build on in the coming months.

28 November 2022

Recording of the week: ‘Is fiction truth or is it fantasy?’ By Anita Desai

This week's selection comes from Dr Eva del Rey, Curator of Drama and Literature Recordings.

PEN International Writers' Day programme 1994

Author Anita Desai gives the 1994 Dawson Scott Memorial Lecture on International Writers' Day. The event took place at the Cafe Royal, London, organized by English PEN.

In her lecture, Anita Desai discusses how writers bring a work of fiction to life by blending facts and fantasy. Using examples from her own work and the works of authors such as Salman Rushdie, Herman Melville, and Ted Hughes, she makes the following argument:

I think that possibly the last person to be asked the question whether fiction is truth or fantasy is a writer of fiction.

How can I tell truth from fantasy or fantasy from truth? Are they separate? For I am not in the business of separating them. What I do is make the separations disappear.

Whether we read the work as fact or fantasy depends much on where we stand as readers.

Note: At 15 minutes 28 seconds into the recording, Anita Desai reads Ted Hughes’s poem ‘The Thought-Fox’. For copyright reasons the poem has been redacted from the recording presented here and is not included in the transcript either. There is an audio recording of Ted Hughes reading the poem online with transcription at The Poetry Archive.

Listen to Anita Desai - British Library ref C125_242

Download Anita Desai transcript

You can access more PEN recordings in the Library’s Reading Rooms and browse the collection online in the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue using the British Library reference C125.

The English PEN collection at the British Library consists of literary talks and readings hosted and recorded by PEN between 1953 and 2006. It contains 1187 recordings from over 400 tapes.  It also includes the International Writers’ Day events recorded by the British Library. Most of the events took place either in London or in different parts of the UK.

For news on current and future PEN events visit English PEN.

28 October 2022

Black History Month – The Cullen Maiden collection

By Frankie Perry, UOSH Cataloguer and Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Newspaper clipping Cullen Maiden 1958

When I acquired the collection of African American singer and poet Cullen Maiden in 2015 I wrote a blog about him which you can read here.  Since then, the British Library sound archive has digitised a large number of its collections under the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project funded by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The Maiden collection was one I was keen to have digitised, so as to make it available to researchers in the Reading Rooms of the British Library.

A further bonus of the UOSH work is having every recording fully catalogued and thus visible through our online Sound and Moving Image catalogue SAMI.  For a collection as large and complicated as this it took up to five cataloguers working full time, while the audio presented problems of differing speeds and track figuration within many of the tapes.

Now that it is completed, Cullen Maiden’s life and career is traceable through his performances around the world.

Frankie Perry, one of the cataloguers of the collection, has selected some extracts of the recordings and through her efforts has followed the thread of Cullen Maiden’s life and work.

Cullen Maiden’s collection of 590 open-reel tapes has now been digitised and catalogued as part of the UOSH project. By way of introduction to an extensive and diverse collection spanning around fifty years, here we share four short recordings that represent various strands of Maiden’s singing career (he was also a poet, composer, and actor). As very little information about Maiden is available online, this post weaves in biographical context gleaned from interviews, programmes, and other material held in the Music Manuscripts collection also deposited at the Library in 2015 (MS Mus. 1894).  Many thanks also to Maiden’s widow and donor of the collection Christine Hall-Maiden for sharing some of her memories during a recent visit to the Library.

Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Maiden was named after the Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, and attended the same high school as Langston Hughes (Central Senior High). His lifelong immersion in and advocacy for Black American culture is palpable throughout the collection, evident in the themes of his youthful poetry sketches right through to the repertoire selected for song recitals given in the 1970s-90s. Maiden was introduced to classical music by his school teachers, who encouraged him to nurture his talent for singing alongside his development as a promising welterweight boxer; his points of entry were recordings of Paul Robeson and Feodor Chaliapin, and he later described this pair as ‘idols of my life’.[1]

Early recordings in the collection include national broadcasts of the 17-year-old Maiden singing ‘Waterboy’ and demonstrating his fantastically low bass range against a piano on the ‘Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour’ talent show.[2]

Following his bachelor’s degree at Ohio Wesleyan University, his vocal studies at the Juilliard School in New York were interrupted by a call-up for national service: he was sent as a Private First Class to Pusan Area in South Korea, where he worked primarily as an entertainment director. As a performer, he appeared in four Seoul Symphony concerts, and appeared on both AFKN radio and television and Korean radio networks. He also put on numerous concerts for troops and wider audiences in 1957 and 1958, in division and area command service clubs.

One example is a concert given with soprano Hai-Kyong Chang of the Seoul Opera Company and pianist PFC Richard Jennings, where we see the emergence of a signature Cullen Maiden programming strategy of pairing classical staples with spirituals and work songs; his Korean concerts also included Korean folk songs. Maiden had acquired a volume of traditional Korean songs in delicate arrangements by Sung-Tai Kim for voice and piano, and annotations in his heavily-used copy suggest he sang several. The one we have on record (in a couple of different renditions) is Kim’s arrangement of the popular song ‘Arirang’.

Arirang 1958 South Korea

Concert of Song with piano programme

Maiden also appeared as a soloist with the Seoul Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the influential Korean-American conductor John S. Kim, performing Mozart arias and show tunes (he was known throughout his career for his renditions of ‘Ol’ Man River’). Here’s ‘La vendetta’ from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro:

Mozart La vendetta 1957 South Korea

Seoul Orchestral concert programme cover

On returning from military service, Maiden returned to his Juilliard studies, and became a vocal soloist for the Katherine Dunham Dance Company (he had sung for Dunham during one of the dancer’s goodwill visits to Korea) and toured Europe with the company in 1959; he also toured the US with the Harry Belafonte Folk Singers. In 1962, Maiden spent six months in Stockholm performing in Lia Schubert’s Jazz-Balett 62, paired in a duo with the young guitarist Lars [Lasse] Åberg, who would go on to become a celebrated actor.

Periods of study in Rome with Luigi Ricci followed, as well as a year in London during which he had poems published in Tribune and gave poetry recitals. In the knowledge that many Black classical musicians found more employment opportunities in Europe than in the US, Maiden moved to Munich, together with Christine, and began auditioning widely. But the barriers were present there too: Maiden auditioned at companies across East and West Germany, but ‘for many of them, the idea of fitting a Black man into a German ensemble seemed to be a great hurdle. That caused a lot of problems. My Blackness prevented me from getting a job’.[3]

Maiden persevered and successfully auditioned for Walter Felsenstein’s Komische Oper, which was in East Berlin: his early roles in the company included the Town Mayor in Henze’s Der junge Lord (1968), and Farfarello in Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges (1969), both of which he performed in white make-up. His defining part came as the title character, opposite Carolyn Smith-Meyer, in the company’s 1970 production of Porgy and Bess, which was directed by Felsenstein’s second-in-command Götz Friedrich and widely praised for being a thoughtful production that highlighted social issues, and avoided the racist stereotyping upon which many productions of the opera (both before and since) relied. For Maiden, the role was ‘defining’ for the best and worst reasons. On the one hand, his performance received rave reviews that reached across the operatic world – photos of Maiden and Smith-Meyer appeared on the covers of major magazines – and led to a steady stream of further engagements to perform the role in English and German-language productions. On the other hand, Maiden’s success in the role also resulted in a long-term struggle to escape from his close association with Porgy and to be cast in other roles. Maiden’s testimony in a 1974 interview makes plain the reasons why:

‘No one accepts me as Cullen Maiden. They accept me as Every Black Man. […] When Robert Merrill is offstage, no one greets him as Rigoletto. But when I am offstage, people call me Porgy’.[4]

At the time of this interview, Maiden thought he had given over 250 performances of the work, and was trialling a policy of only accepting Porgy engagements if the company in question hired him for another opera too. Maiden also spoke of his desire to develop his US opera career, and of his fears that this would be impossible: he acknowledged that ‘Europe is relaxed and wonderful [...] it is not bi-racial, so you do not feel this pressure’, but that ‘most Americans I meet traveling miss America. You love your country, and you feel frustrated in Europe. I miss my family and my friends and just being here’.[5]

Maiden’s differing experiences of structural and everyday racism in America and Europe resonate in many ways with the stories and histories illuminated in Kira Thurman’s recent book Singing Like Germans: Black Musicians in the Land of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.[6] The deep tensions of Maiden’s experiences as a Black American abroad, and the different struggles of Black German communities in his adopted home, are implied in a quote from a later interview: ‘It is time for African Germans to wake up and to stop agonising about whether they are black or white. They are Black. This society does not accept them as full Germans’.[7] This archive contains a wealth of material relating to Black cultural life in West Germany (and East Berlin) between the late 1960s and mid-1990s, and great potential for future research in this area.

Maiden did find operatic success in America, especially through a series of engagements with the pioneering Black-led company Opera/South.[8] The collection holds rehearsal recordings of his animated Osmin in a punchy English-language version of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and recordings of him workshopping the role of Father Lestant ahead of the PBS television production of William Grant Still’s A Bayou Legend (this was the first opera by an African American composer to be televised in the United States). There’s also plenty of photos, reviews, and other material relating to this production.

Below is a concert recording from 1992 of a song from a different opera by Still, ‘Our fathers taught us to be pure in heart’ from Costaso.

Still Our fathers taught us 1992 West Berlin

A hallmark of Maiden’s later solo recitals is his inclusion of music by Black composers: the collection includes live recordings spanning from 1977 to 1992 of songs by Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Still, Charles Naginski, and Howard Swanson, which was unusual in Europe at the time. Many of these songs set poetry by Langston Hughes, and Maiden emphasised the importance to him of performing music that sets Black poetry that in turn draws upon Black experience. Advocacy was at the heart of Maiden’s recitals, as is clear from their titles which include ‘My Soul is a Witness: Black History in Song, Poetry and Prose’, “The Souls of Black Folk’ – The Black Experience in a White World’, and ‘Aspects of Black History and the Black Experience in Songs, Poetry, Prose, Black Drama and Black Humor’’. From the early 1980s he performed under the auspices of Black Arts Theater Productions – details of this venture are unclear, but correspondence in the papers shows his ambitious visions and plans for a Black arts company in Berlin. Several programmes were given during February, the American Black History Month, including the concert advertised here:

Programme for 1992 concert in Berlin

These concerts usually combined songs with poetry and prose readings, and Maiden typically gave lengthy semi-scripted introductions to individual items – the recordings are moving and humorous in equal measure, and Maiden often had to wait for the audience’s laughter and applause to die down before continuing. The spirituals, work songs, and prison songs in the recitals were sometimes performed unaccompanied, and sometimes sung in voice-piano arrangements from the ‘concert spiritual’ tradition – including versions by Black composers and versions made famous by singers such as Paul Robeson and Roland Hayes. Maiden also wrote his own arrangements of several songs, variously with piano or guitar accompaniment.

Maiden said in an interview that:

Black music is not like pop or classical music. One has to know the agony, the doubts and trials that Black people are subjected to daily. Only then can they fully understand the rich heritage in Black life’.[9]

The recording below, of ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’, uses an arrangement adapted from that of Harry T. Burleigh, and is introduced through a brief story of Maiden’s own family history.

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child Hanover c1977

In addition to his singing, Maiden’s seemingly limitless artistic talents included poetry and prose writing, musical composition (in several styles), film and theatre acting, and drawing – his sketch of world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949 Joe Louis, signed by ‘Curly Maiden’, is below. A poetry collection, Soul on Fire, was published in 2008,[10] and the Music Manuscripts collection includes annotated copies of the poems and lengthy feedback notes from Audre Lorde, who lived for a while in Berlin. Beneath one of Maiden’s poems, ‘A Black Mother Asks of the Lord’, Lorde simply wrote: ‘This reminds me of Langston’.

Sketch of Joe Louis

Alongside 120 tapes containing Maiden’s original recordings, another substantial portion of the donation includes his extensive collection of off-air recordings, copied from German (pre- and post-unification), Italian, and British radio broadcasts over several decades. Maiden clearly made a concerted effort to record broadcasts of Black musicians, both classical and in various popular styles. Highlights range from live broadcasts from European festivals by figures like Leontyne Price and Simon Estes, to rare live recordings of twentieth-century repertoire sung by William Pearson, to Annabelle Bernard singing orchestrated Schubert lieder with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. This strand of the collection is testament to Maiden’s lifelong advocacy for Black music and art: his capturing of these broadcasts will mean that many recordings which were previously inaccessible or buried in European radio archives can now be heard again.

Maiden died in 2011, having moved to London in the late 1990s where he continued to sing, teach, and compose and write. Cataloguing of the Sound Archive’s collection is now complete, meaning the recordings are searchable online and will soon be listenable on-site at the British Library.

 

[1] ‘Interview with African-American Opera star, the bass-baritone Cullen Maiden’ [author unknown], Isivivane: Journal of Letters and Arts in Africa and the Diaspora, 3, January 1991, 20-25: 24.

[2] Name of the talent show inferred from a newspaper cutting: ‘Cullen Maiden develops qualities of leadership at Central Sr. High’, Call & Post, [author and date unknown]. Held in MS Mus. 1894.

[3] Isivivane, 21.

[4] Wilma Salisbury, ‘Heart and soul, singer’s quest is for identity’, The Plain Dealer, 1 September 1974. Newspaper cutting held in MS Mus. 1894.

[5] Salisbury, ‘Heart and soul, singer’s quest is for identity’.

[6] Cornell University Press, 2021.

[7] Isivivane, 25.

[8] See Ben E. Bailey, ‘Opera/South: A Brief History’, The Black Perspective in Music, 13/1, 1985, 48-78.

[9] Isivivane, 25.

[10] Cullen Maiden, Soul on Fire: Poems and Writings (AuthorHouse, 2008).

24 October 2022

Recording of the week: Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 6 - the premiere

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

Photo of Vaughan Williams disc

I was looking for something by which to celebrate the 150th anniversary this month of the birth of one of England’s greatest symphonic composers of the twentieth century, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). His nine symphonies span more than fifty years from the first, which he began in 1903, to the last, composed in 1956 and 1957.

More than twenty years ago the British Library sound archive acquired the collection of engineer Kenneth Leech, who began to record radio broadcasts from the mid-1930s on to lacquer discs. I was delighted to discover that Mr. Leech had recorded the opening of the Symphony No. 6 from its first performance on 21st April 1948.

Extract from the Radio Times

Adrian Boult is conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a Royal Philharmonic Society Concert from the Albert Hall. The sound from the unique lacquer disc is low fidelity and the beginning is clipped, but the power and impact of the music of this arresting opening is undeniable. Apparently, this is all that has survived of that first performance.

Listen to British Library disc 1LL0009106

Boult made a commercial recording of the work for EMI with the London Symphony Orchestra on the 23rd and 24th February 1949 at Abbey Road Studios, but he was pipped to the post by Leopold Stokowski who recorded it with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for Columbia on the 21st February 1949 making it the first studio recording of the work. All of these performances are of the work before it was revised by the composer in 1950.

11 October 2022

Classical Podcast No. 6 Philip Fowke

Philip Fowke in the recording studio Philip Fowke  (photo © Jonathan Summers)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

One of our great British pianists, Philip Fowke performed and broadcast on BBC radio and television from the late 1970s for more than two decades.  He also made studio recordings for EMI, CRD, Naxos, Chandos, Dutton and Unicorn-Kanchana.

In this podcast I talk to him about his life and career including the pitfalls of excessive working and playing the piano too much.  He also talks candidly about learning major works for one performance and never playing them again and gives his views on current teaching and performing.

For me, the highlight is the performance of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor Op. 40 at the Proms in 1986.  Mr Fowke has supplied some photos of the rehearsal for this performance with Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Photo of Philip Fowke with Simon Rattle and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra rehearsal 1986

Photo of Philip Fowke with Simon Rattle and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra rehearsal 1986Philip Fowke rehearsing with Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra September 1986.  (Photos courtesy of Philip Fowke)

 

06 October 2022

Brahms, Vienna and early Hungarian national bands

Image of ZigeunerconcertA scene from Viennese life; a Gypsy-concert in the Wurstelprater park’, Illustrirte Zeitung, 4 October 1873

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Dr Jon Banks former Senior Lecturer in Music at Anglia Ruskin University

This project, generously supported by a British Library Edison Fellowship, brings together traditional accounts of one of the great Viennese composers with the parallel story of the Hungarian national bands who worked in the same city, told by newspaper advertisements and also, crucially, by the earliest recordings of Hungarian traditional music. These were made in the decade or so after Brahms died in 1897, but cross-referencing the artists with the ephemera of performance publicity from the last years of his life confirms that they were either the same as the ones he heard, or dynastically related to them. The recordings, mostly commercial 78rpm discs, survive in archives and libraries and I am grateful to the Edison Fellowship for access to the material held in the British Library and the opportunity to explore it.

The connections between Brahms and Hungarian traditional music, or ‘Gypsy music’ as it was often referred to in Vienna, run deep. Though not Hungarian or Roma himself, he encountered it playing as a teenager with Ede Reményi, a revolutionary exile passing through his home town of Hamburg. It has often been cited as a possible influence on his compositions, and is the explicit root of his famous Hungarian dances. Just before beginning the Fellowship, I had written an article for Music & Letters - ‘Brahms Hungarian Dances and the early Csárdás recordings’ - based on material available online from Hungarian collections. I received invaluable help in that from the curators of these collections, especially Ferenc Szabó (formerly an Edison Fellow), Martón Kurutz and Illyés Boglárka of the National Széchényi Library, and in the course of our communications it became clear that there was still much to be discovered and so one of the first objectives of my Fellowship was to establish what might be held at the British Library.

London may not seem the obvious place to search for old Hungarian recordings but the Library is of course an international institution and many of the artists I was interested in had visited Great Britain, either as part of touring schedules or in certain cases in the express employment of the Royal Family here. Locating possible recordings involved considerable catalogue research, something that was new to me; I am again grateful for the help and expertise provided by library staff. Some of the results that turned up could be identified as duplicates of material from Hungary, but there were several that were completely unknown to me. The Fellowship gave me the opportunity not only to view and handle them but also to have some of them digitised in order to listen to what was on them, as in this one:

Repülj fecksém

The first side is listed in the catalogue under the title on the label, ‘Repülj fecksém’. Listening to it reveals that in fact it comprises a medley of two tunes, of which only the first is ‘Repülj fecksém’, an old song melody identifiable from several other recordings in a similar slow hallgató style; in notated form it can be traced back to Színi Károly’s A magyar nép dalai és Dallamai. Hangjegyekre tette és kiadta Színi Károly. 200 dal (1865), no.51. The second tune is similarly identifiable as ‘Lenn a falu végén’, but this is not mentioned on side one though it curiously forms part of the title on the side two, apparently in error. This begs the question of what actually does appear on side two.

Csak egy kislány van a világon lent a faluvégén nem füstöl a kémény

On listening, it transpires that this is another medley of two pieces, given the single title of ‘Csak egy kislány van a világon lent a faluvégén nem füstöl a kémény’. The opening melody is indeed ‘Csak egy kislány van a világon’, again unmistakable from earlier recordings and notations, whereas ‘lent a faluvégén nem füstöl a kémény’ is the part that refers to the music on the first side. The second tune on side two is therefore unnamed; it is in a lively dance rhythm and appears nowhere else, making it a valuable new discovery, since one of the foundations of my project was to compile a concordance of all melodies in the csárdás genre recorded in this early period. Therefore, as well as making it possible to clear up the confusion embodied in the original label, actually hearing this music has unearthed a previously unknown csárdás recording by the violinist Berkes Béla, whose band had previously visited Vienna in Brahms’s time and were favourites of the press there, as in this portrait in the city’s Welt Blatt newspaper shows.

Image of Béla Berkes

‘The newly-appointed Hungarian court dance music director, Gypsy virtuoso Béla Berkes’ - Welt Blatt, 7 June 1907

In addition, actually hearing the music to ‘Lenn a falu végén’ on this particular recording is invaluable in terms of understanding the interpermeability of melody styles and genres. Side one is unique in presenting the ‘Lenn a falu végén’ tune in a rhythmic guise as a foil to the slow ‘Repülj fecksém’, since other ‘Gypsy-band’ recordings have it as a slow opening hallgató in its own right; it also appears recast in a very different style in a number of military band recordings, with an unrelated title, ‘Csebogár March’. Side two, on the other hand, begins with some distinctively Romanian violin figurations, reminiscent of contemporaries like Grigoraș Dinicu from Bucharest, before launching into an equally distinctive Hungarian csárdás, demonstrating how conventions of national style were always blurred by musicians imitating and learning from each other.

Another objective of the project was to trace the survival of this repertory after the First World War, and I had the opportunity to hear otherwise unobtainable recordings by Hungarian bands from the Library’s collections. These are especially important because this style of music fell out of favour after 1918, when the focus of Hungarian nationalists like Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály was on collecting rural peasant songs, compared to which the music of what they called ‘Gypsy bands’ came to be dismissed as little more than an urban light music, or in Bartók’s words a ‘mass product for the half-educated multitudes.’

Even more catastrophic for the society that supported this music were the Second World War, the Holocaust and the suppression of minority identities under communism; and although ‘Gypsy music’ is a favourite genre among record companies now, it is often based on a different Balkan tradition that was called ‘Romanian’ on the pre-1914 recordings and premised on a more modern identity politics.

 The final aim of this project is to tell the forgotten story of the many Hungarian musicians working in the classical ‘eternal city’ of nineteenth-century Vienna, and so re-evaluate their considerable contribution to its cultural life and their interaction with composers who lived there such as Brahms. Studying the early recordings is a vital part of this, because many of them were made by artists who worked regularly in Vienna and so confirm the repertories that they played, which can then be directly related to, for example, Brahms’s Hungarian Dances. They also provide an authentic insight into the performing style of the music, which can only be guessed at from the tantalising descriptions of the time, such as this one from Liszt:

…it seemed as if every possible sound or tone was crashing down together like mountain crests which fall with a frightful uproar on sheets of sand mixed with blocks of rock and stone. We felt uncertain whether the ceiling, which seemed to rock with these sudden displacements of sonorous currents and vibrations, would not really fall upon our heads; such was the crushing nature of the music which all the conservatories of the world would certainly have condemned and even we found to be just a trifle risky.

The recordings are thus essential in establishing the reality behind this kind of hyperbole and also in understanding how ‘classical’ composers such as Liszt came to view this music in such extreme terms. They also feed directly into performance, especially in my professional work with the ensemble ZRI, reimagining some of the great Viennese classics using the soundworld and instrumentation of Hungarian national bands. The recordings lie at the heart of both these projects and I look forward to studying them further in the future.

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