Sound and vision blog

109 posts categorized "Classical music"

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.

20 September 2022

Recording of the week: The Rite of Spring

This week’s post comes from Giulia Baldorilli, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist.

Photo of Columbia LX 119 disc label

The following post is inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s famous work, The Rite of Spring. The audio featured below is an excerpt from a 12” 78 rpm disc from our archive, released on Columbia Records in 1929. Stravinksy himself conducts the Symphonic Orchestra of Paris.

I was drawn to this recording after recently going to see a revival of Pina Bausch’s 1975 staging of The Rite of Spring at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. This was performed by a company of dancers from African countries.

Pina Bausch (1940-2009) was a German dancer and choreographer who was enormously influential in the fields of dance and performance. She worked in the tradition of ‘Tanztheater’ (literally ‘dance theatre’), which marries many different creative skills.

The performance was not very long; it ran for about 45 minutes with no interval. While I was watching it, I kept thinking about the meaning of the title, and its association with the spectacle I was seeing. I found I was often unsure of what exactly I was looking at or whether there was an explicit plotline to follow. It looked to me like a metaphor of seasons passing, of a romantic relationship, but mostly, of an emotional battle framed through an erotically charged dance performance.

The colour red was used throughout the production. Red is the colour of tension, of a bullfight, or, perhaps, of sensual attraction. The pure aesthetic of the movements, and their role in narrating the plot, are probably the things I remember the most. The whole performance revolves around the intrinsic, entangled relationship between two disciplines: theatre and dance.

Ultimately, Bausch’s choreography tells a story of sacrifice. The woman with the red dress is hunted to death by the other men and women on stage.

There is a pervasive emotional tension that is difficult to evade. Whilst the recording we are posting today is not the version used in the stage performance, it relays that said emotional tension, which connects the two works of Bausch and Stravinsky.

Listen to The Rite of Spring (excerpt)

Pina Bausch’s legacy resides in her conception of a new language of dance. She is remembered as one of the most innovative choreographers of all times. Since her death in 2009, her works continue to be performed around the world. It is a testament to Bausch’s interpretative abilities that her choreography for The Rite of Spring continues to reach new audiences, spanning several decades and several continents in the process.

05 September 2022

Recording of the week: Oskar Nedbal (1874-1930)

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

Photo of the Czech Quartet

Above: The Bohemian Quartet in 1895. Left to right: Karel Hoffmann (1st violinist); Hanuš Wihan (violoncellist); Oskar Nedbal (violist); and Josef Suk (2nd violinist). Photographer unknown.

A name rarely heard today, Oskar Nedbal was a talented musician who excelled in many areas of musical life. He first focused on the violin at the Prague Conservatory from 1885 to 1892, where he also studied composition with Dvořák, before moving to viola. He was the founder member and violist in the Bohemian (later Czech) Quartet where Josef Suk was the second violin.

The Bohemian Quartet raised the standards of quartet playing to an international level and Nedbal sometimes played the piano in the group. They first performed in London in 1897 and upon their return a year later were described by one critic as ‘beyond all praise’. However, Nedbal had to leave the Quartet in 1906 as he apparently absconded with the wife of the first violinist Karel Hoffmann.

Nedbal was also a conductor of repute and from 1896 to 1906 was one of the first conductors of the famous Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. He became renowned outside of his homeland, touring as a guest conductor.

Photo of Oskar Nedbal

Above: Oskar Nedbal, 1901. Portrait by Šechtl and Voseček studios. From Wikimedia Commons. Used under CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Rendered here in b&w rather than RGB colour.

In addition to his instrumental and conducting activities, Nedbal was a popular composer and many of his operettas and ballets written before the First World War met with great success not only in Vienna and Berlin, but throughout the world. At the 1898 London concert mentioned above, Hoffmann and Ilona Eibenschütz played Nedbal’s Violin Sonata. His orchestral works continued to be performed in London in the early years of the twentieth century.

Nedbal settled in Vienna in 1907 where he founded the Wiener Tonkünstler-Orchester. He made two sides with them for Deutsche Grammophon in 1910. He also recorded as a solo violist in the same year. A few years later, around 1913, he made four more recordings with the Tonkünstler-Orchester for the Anker label including the first movement of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. He also recorded two waltzes by Johann Strauss, one of which, Wiener Blut, you can hear below.

Photo of Anker disc label

Listen to Wiener Blut

Nedbal returned to Prague in the early 1920s after the formation of the Czechoslovak Republic but his style of composition was viewed as dated and out of fashion. He continued to visit London, conducting the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra, accompanying violinist Jan Kubelik in 1921.

During the 1920s, Nedbal was Head of Opera at the Slovak National Theatre and worked for Radio Bratislava. Unfortunately, he fell into financial difficulties and committed suicide by jumping out of a window of the Zagreb Opera House in 1930.

14 December 2021

A Mengelberg discovery – Mengelberg in London

Mengelberg in 1919 by Jacob MerkelbachMengelberg in 1919 by Jacob Merkelbach

By Jonathan Summers Curator, Classical Music

Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951) was one of the greatest conductors of the first half of the twentieth century.  A friend of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, Mengelberg championed their works with his expertly disciplined orchestra, the Concertgebouw, in Amsterdam.  As their chief conductor, which he became at the age of twenty four, he reigned supreme from 1895 to 1945 creating one of the finest orchestras in the world.  His success was so great that he was also appointed conductor of the New York Philharmonic during the 1920s. 

It is 150 years ago this year that Mengelberg was born, so why is his name so little known today?  When EMI/IMG produced their CD series ‘Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century’ in 2002, some forty conductors were represented on sets of two CDs, but not Mengelberg.  Could it be due to the fact that Mengelberg stayed in Holland at the helm of the Concertgebouw Orchestra when the country was occupied by the Germans during the Second World War?  Wilhelm Furtwangler conducted for the Nazis in Germany, yet his complete studio recordings have just been released again by Warner Classics.  Mengelberg’s Columbia and Telefunken recordings have not been systematically re-issued by the companies who own them.  Could it be that Mengelberg’s style of conducting is out of fashion at the moment?  It took a recent letter from the music librarian of the Barbican Music Library to prompt Gramophone magazine to publish a short article this month on Mengelberg and his recordings.  There is, however, a definitive 1300 page two volume biography of the conductor by Frits Zwart, recently translated into English, published by Amsterdam University Press.

One only has to hear Mengelberg’s studio recordings or broadcasts to realise that here is a conductor that galvanized his orchestra to give their all - and more.  Mengelberg, like Fritz Reiner with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra, knew that an orchestra is an army of musicians that need commanding in order to get the best out of them; the conductor is the general in charge, the orchestra his troops. Mengelberg had strongly held convictions about the way a work should be interpreted, even ‘improving’ upon the composer’s directions and sometimes, the orchestration. 

Studio recordings of ‘Les Preludes’ by Liszt, Tchaikovsky’s Overture to ‘Romeo and Juliet’, or Wagner’s ‘Tannhauser’ Overture amply reveal this.  Many of Mengelberg's performances have intense emotional impact, refined orchestral playing of the highest order, and, in certain repertoire, a flexibility of tempo and line that makes the music sound organic - as if it is living and breathing.

The recordings have value on many levels today.  His close relationship with Gustav Mahler gives authority to his interpretations of the composer’s music.  A live broadcast from 1939 of the Symphony No. 4 has a genuine freshness about it while the tempo he takes for the famous Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony makes one realise that this movement has got slower and slower over the decades, particularly since it was used in the Visconti film ‘Death in Venice.’  Mengelberg wrote on his score that Mahler told him that it was a love letter to his wife Alma and that is what the movement represented. 

Composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was so impressed with Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra that he dedicated one of his major tone poems – ‘Ein Heldenleben’ (a Hero’s Life) – to the conductor and orchestra.  Mengelberg’s 1928 recording of this work with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is still regarded by critics and musicians as one of the best, more than 90 years after it was recorded. 

While Mengelberg spent the Second World War in Holland, some of his concerts were broadcast by the Dutch broadcasting system AVRO (Algemene Vereniging Radio Omroep) by whom they were recorded and archived.  It is therefore possible to hear some of these concerts which have been released on CD by various labels.  Unfortunately, the BBC did not record and archive broadcasts at this time, but the British Library Sound Archive holds the collection of Kenneth Leech, an engineer who recorded at home on a disc cutting machine from 1936 onwards.  Although Mengelberg had performed in London previously, it was in 1936 that he was invited to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the first time, and Mr Leech captured extracts from the broadcast of the 4th November 1936 concert. 

Radio Times 4th November 1936

The concert, which included Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 played by English pianist Myra Hess and ‘Ein Heldenleben’ by Richard Strauss was to take place at the Queen’s Hall, and Mengelberg and his party stayed in the Langham Hotel opposite.  Adrian Boult, conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, took Mengelberg to the BBC’s studios at Maida Vale for the first rehearsal.  (Incidentally, Boult was invited to conduct Mengelberg’s orchestra at the Concertgebouw Hall in February 1940 when he gave a performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations which was recorded and archived by AVRO).  However, at the Maida Vale studios in London, Mengelberg was not happy with the acoustic of the hall, according to orchestra leader Paul Beard, who found Mengelberg to be ‘awful and unpleasant’ to work with, but described him as ‘unquestionably the greatest musician working on the podium at the time.’ 

Rehearsing the BBC Symphony OrchestraFrom 'The Sphere' November 1936

A highly detailed account of the rehearsal was published by principal violist Bernard Shore in his book ‘The Orchestra Speaks.’  Here are some extracts.

When he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the first time, he bowed to the exigencies of broadcasting, and only grumbled a little at having his basses and ‘celli separated. 

Tuning with him is a ceremony that may take anything from five minutes to (in extreme cases) two hours….On the first occasion this tuning took twenty-five minutes, and gave rise to his first dissertation.

This little matter of time apart, his great experience enables him to solve every orchestral problem.  In a difficult work like ‘Heldenleben’ he hears everything and sees at the same time; instantly puts his finger on a weak spot, and proceeds to clear it up without losing his temper; and never resorts to sarcasm, or the time-honoured remark that every other orchestra “plays this easily.”

His unremitting attention to technical details of every kind, as they arise, results in magnificent and confident playing, which it is doubtful whether any conductor can surpass. 

Mostly he rehearses from memory.  The whole of his first rehearsal with the BBC Orchestra was devoted to the opening portion of ‘Heldenleben’ as far as the entry of the solo violin.

Thoroughly characteristic of his methods was the way in which he tackled the great opening phrase.  Each note of the arpeggio had to be detached, in spite of the composer’s direction, because, he said, the audience should hear every note, “and if they are all slurred by the strings, there will be no definition, and the passage will only sound like a chord of E flat,” whereas he wants it to make the terrific effect of a brilliantly clear arpeggio.

He rehearses the opening as far as fig. 2 at great length.  First of all taking the violas, ‘celli and horns, until there is complete unanimity in ensemble, phrasing, intonation and style, and all traces of untidiness is removed.

Queen's Hall microphoneQueen's Hall in the early 1930s showing the single BBC microphone (circled in blue)

Leech recorded two five minute segments - the opening of ‘Ein Heldenleben’ (‘The Hero’), the very opening section that had been rehearsed extensively and described above.  He also recorded the section ‘The Hero's Retirement from this World and Completion’ near the end of the work.  This is an eighty-five year old home recording taken off-air, but the sound is remarkably good from the single microphone the BBC used at this time suspended over the violin section.  At once, one can hear the almost visceral attack from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, very similar to the way the Concertgebouw and New York Philharmonic commenced the work under the same conductor.

Ein Heldenleben ex 1 1936

Heldenleben disc labelThe cellulose nitrate on aluminium disc recorded by Kenneth Leech

Shore goes on to say:

Not only is this opening passage typical of his genius for producing superb playing, but it also shows his attitude to the composition he is interpreting.  Nothing will induce him to obey blindly the composer’s directions if his own experience tells him that they could be made more effective by a slight alteration.

In the concluding scene, a Mengelberg of extreme gentleness appears, capable of exquisite tenderness; and the lovely interjectory phrases on the first and second violins, during the cor anglais solo, are made to sound as if there was all humanity in them. 

Ein Heldenleben ex 2 1936

But if he cannot obtain what he wants from an artist, he will be as hard as iron and may seem to oppose rather than aid.  He has the true virtuoso’s intolerance of inadequate playing; he expects to be able to start his rehearsing from scratch, without having to nurse any weakness amongst his players.  His ear detects everything.  His particular genius is for hearing from the point of view of the man at the back of the hall.  Besides satisfying him, this redoubles the clarity for the rest of the audience.

As exciting as this discovery is, I was delighted to find that Mr Leech recorded another portion of a Mengelberg concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra two years later on 19th January 1938.  Unfortunately, the surfaces of the discs are noisier and there is less clarity of orchestral sound.  However, the recording is important for the fact that it documents another tone poem by his friend Richard Strauss that Mengelberg did not record commercially, nor does a radio broadcast survive of him conducting this work, so this is the only recorded example currently known.  The opening of ‘Also Sprach Zarathrustra’ later lodged itself in the public consciousness when it was used in the Arthur C. Clarke film ‘2001 – a Space Odyssey.’  Mr Leech probably realized that the famous opening would be difficult to record and that his cutter head would be overloaded at the climax.  He chose to record the following beautiful string section ‘Of the Backworldsmen’, then parts of ‘The Convalescent’, and finally the end of ‘The Dance Song’ followed by the final section of the work ‘Song of the Night Wanderer’.  While the recording may not be as thrilling to hear as ‘Ein Heldenleben’ it is none the less an important aural document from more than eighty years ago.  The last few notes are missing.

Zarathustra ex 1 1938

Zarathustra ex 2 1938

Zarathustra disc labelThe cellulose nitrate on aluminium disc recorded by Kenneth Leech

In addition to the Strauss tone poem, the concert included music from Gluck’s ‘Alceste’, the Third Symphony of Brahms and Hindemith’s Variations for Orchestra.  The Radio Times noted that:

Richard Strauss has enjoyed Mengelberg’s continued interest and championship.  In 1903 Mengelberg brought the Concertgebouw Orchestra to London and directed a Strauss Festival, and in 1924 he organised a Strauss Festival in Amsterdam.  Listeners will remember the magnificent reading he gave of ‘Ein Heldenleben’, which is dedicated to him, when he last conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra on November 4, 1936. It will be interesting to hear his performance of the less frequently heard ‘Zarathustra’.

Willelm Mengelberg deserves a higher profile today as one of the most important conductors of the first half of the twentieth century.  As Scott Goddard wrote in 1938:

Willem Mengelberg, who has conducted much in America and has been often heard here at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s concerts and at those of the London Symphony Orchestra, is among the first flight, the upper ten of virtuoso conductors of the day, a position that he has won for himself mainly because he is an unbending disciplinarian and a scrupulous trainer.

It is that discipline and scrupulous training along with a strongly held musical conviction that produces the results we hear in Mengelberg’s recordings and the two newly discovered ones here amply prove that.

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10 December 2021

Classical Podcast No. 5 Clifford Curzon

Clifford Curzon by Fritz CurzonClifford Curzon (photo © Fritz Curzon. Used with permission)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

One of the great British pianists of the twentieth century, Clifford Curzon is remembered in this podcast by Callum Ross.  We trace his life and career from his early days at the Royal Academy of Music in London and hear many extracts of his masterful playing - always focused on beauty of tone and quality of sound.

Young CurzonThe Young Curzon (courtesy of Fritz Curzon)

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

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