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84 posts categorized "Classical music"

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

01 July 2019

Recording of the week: wonderful Weingartner

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

This year is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Napoleon Bonaparte and next year is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven.  Both men, known the world over by a single name, are joined in history by the fact that Beethoven originally dedicated his Third Symphony to Bonaparte.

In 1806, the score was published under the Italian title Sinfonia Eroica - 'Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.'  Apparently, in order to gain a fee from a nobleman for the composition, Beethoven deleted Bonaparte's name and changed the dedication to Prince Franz Joseph Maximilian Lobkowitz. 

Title page for Beethoven's Symphony in E flat major, Op.55, 'Eroica'Title page for Beethoven's Symphony in E flat major, Op.55, 'Eroica' (via Wikimedia Commons)

Composer and conductor Felix Weingartner (1863-1942), a pupil of Franz Liszt, was the first to record all of Beethoven's symphonies, many more than once.  This recording of the Eroica was made in 1936 with one of the finest orchestras then and now, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Symphony no. 3 op. 55 E flat major (Eroica)

Photograph of Felix WeingartnerFelix Weingartner circa 1890 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Weingartner brings fresh, clean lines, a taught rhythmic vitality and plenty of colour to the performance.  The quiet surfaces of this Columbia recording and the resonance of the Grosser Musikvereinssaal make for an exciting listening experience, particularly the Scherzo (at 29:28) and the Finale (at 33:36).

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13 May 2019

Recording of the week: Gieseking and Bohm

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

The early recordings of German conductor Karl Bohm often have a sprightly character and when he accompanied pianist Walter Gieseking, the resulting Piano Concerto No. 4 by Beethoven is a revelation. The famous opening statement by the solo piano is straightforward with no precious pretension or posturing. The whole performance is like a breath of fresh air.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra no. 4 op. 58 G major (Shelfmark 1CL0055489) 


Photograph of Walter GiesekingWalter Gieseking (via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

This and thousands of other classical music recordings can be heard at British Library Sounds. A new series of classical music podcasts, launched in May 2018, can be found on the British Library's Soundcloud page.

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

23 April 2019

Merrie England

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Merrie England  HMV illustrationIllustration from HMV set of Merrie England (Courtesy of Damien's 78s)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

To celebrate St George’s Day this year I have selected a work whose popularity lasted well into the twentieth century.

When Arthur Sullivan died in 1900 he had written fourteen operas with his writing partner W. S Gilbert together producing such famous and immensely popular titles as The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, The Mikado and The Gondoliers.  In his last works he collaborated with librettist Basil Hood (1864-1917), but Sullivan died before their last work, The Emerald Isle, was completed.  English composer Edward German (1862-1936) was asked to finish the work and this led to further collaborations with Hood, the most famous being Merrie England from 1902 and Tom Jones from 1907. 

Basil Hood 1917Basil Hood in 1917

Merrie England is a comic opera set in the court of Elizabeth I.  The work played at the Savoy Theatre during 1902 and 1903 and the runaway hit from the show, The Yeomen of England, was recorded at the time in remarkably good sound by its originator, Henry Lytton (1865-1936).  In the days before microphones and amplification, singers had to be heard throughout a large theatre unaided, so the recording studio’s acoustic horn easily captured Lytton’s large and powerful voice. 

Henry Lytton 1902 in D

The opera proved so popular that in 1918 a complete recording was made by HMV on eleven twelve-inch 78rpm discs supervised and conducted by the composer.  This was quite an undertaking for its time as generally only extracts, arias and songs were recorded from operas and shows.  It would also have been extremely expensive to buy the complete set of acoustically recorded discs. 

HMV text for Merrie England set of recordsCourtesy of Damian's 78s

The soloist for The Yeoman of England was Charles Mott, an English baritone who had made his name in Wagner roles, including the English premiere of Parsifal, and was chosen by Elgar to appear in some of his performances and productions.  Mott recorded the side on 27th February 1918.  Although already thirty-eight, Mott was conscripted into the army and joined the Artists Rifles.  Three months after making this recording he was shot at the Third Battle of Aisne on 20th May 1918 and died of his wounds two days later.  The disc label, therefore, reflects this.

HMV label for Yeoman of England

Charles Mott 1918

A later recording, by the sonically superior electrical process, was made in 1931 and although conducted by Clarence Raybould, it was recorded ‘under the supervision of the composer.’  The work’s popularity continued through amateur productions up and down the country and HMV recorded it again in 1960.  The work is still revived at times of patriotic events such as royal jubilees, the most recent being in 2012 for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. 

Edward GermanEdward German

 

31 January 2019

Classical Podcast No. 3 Albert Coates

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Albert Coates circa 1920 on a boat with legs crossedAlbert Coates circa 1920 (Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

David Patmore, a retired lecturer from the University of Sheffield, shares his passion for conductor Albert Coates whose flamboyant style and super-charged performances from the 1920s and 1930s were captured in his copious recorded output.  We discuss his early years under Arthur Nikisch (1855-1922) and include some of his commercial recordings and supplement these with unique off-air material and an interview with his daughter Tamara.

Title page for score of On the Field of Kulikovo
Title page of Cantata by Yuri Shaporin (BL collections)

Albert Coates rehearsing in his undershirt
Coates rehearsing in his undershirt (BL collections)

The recording of Mark Reizen and the Glinka overture used with permission of Marston Records.

Previous Classical podcasts can be heard here.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

05 December 2018

Concert cylinders and the first recording of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra

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Concert cylinder label close up

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

It was exciting to receive an Edison concert cylinder as a donation recently, but much more so to discover that it is probably the first recording by members of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra.  Cylinder box labels and the cylinders housed within often do not match, so until we were able to play the cylinder, with a special sized mandrel, we did not know if it was what the label declared.  Fortunately, there was an announcement and the strains of Weber’s Invitation to the Waltz were immediately recognizable. 

Pitching the recording and ensuring the correct playback speed was of paramount importance.  Our engineer had found discussion on the internet speculating that the speed should be 120 rpm for concert cylinders.  However, this pitched the music far too high.  The work was written in D flat major and I found in the British Library collections the score and parts of the edition that probably would have been used for this recording published by Boosey and Company in 1889.  Like the original work, the key of this arrangement is D flat major.  The cylinder had to be played at 102 rpm to give a satisfactory performance of the work.  Evidence that it is a copy (by the pantograph process) and not an original can be heard at the end of the recording where three thuds are heard as the master cylinder hits the end of the grooves, but the copy keeps running.  The first few grooves containing the announcement are damaged but once the music begins, the sound is surprisingly good for 116 years ago.

Weber Invitation to the Waltz

Sir Henry Wood with his wind quintet

Sir Henry Wood with the Queen's Hall Wind Quintet by William Whiteley Ltd  Albumen cabinet card, circa 1897 NPG P1837  © National Portrait Gallery, London

The Queen's Hall orchestra was founded in 1895 to inaugurate the new Promenade Concerts.  It was in 1902 that the Queen’s Hall Wind Quintet was founded. Trained and rehearsed by the orchestra’s conductor Henry Wood, who also played the piano in performances, the group was known as Wood Wind.  Lecture concerts were given in the Small Queen’s Hall in an effort to make works written for wind ensemble known to the general public.  The members were Albert Fransella (flute), Désiré Lalande (oboe), Manuel Gomez (clarinet), Frederick James (bassoon) and Adolphe Borsdorf (horn).  It is highly likely that some or all of these musicians are heard on this recording.  Most were born in the 1860s and Lalande died in 1904 at the age of thirty-eight.  Gomez, born in 1859, was a founding member of the London Symphony Orchestra while Borsdorf, born in 1854, performed in the English premiere of Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel under the baton of the composer in 1896.  The Queen’s Hall was destroyed in 1941 when it was bombed by the Germans.

Drawing of concert cylinder stage performance

Concert cylinders were developed to produce a louder sound so that recordings could ‘be clearly and distinctly heard throughout the largest halls, and in the open air.’  They were not commercially successful, no doubt due to the price and cost of playback equipment.  The A1 Concert Grand, which could play both standard size and concert cylinders retailed at £16 and 16 shillings.  

Edison Concert Cylinder player A1

The recording we have here was made around 1902 being priced at six shillings, equivalent to around £31 in today’s money.  The machines were very expensive with a complete package including horns, twelve cylinders and three blanks costing an amazing £40 in 1902.

Grand Concert Phonograph from The Phonograph and Talking Machine Exchange

A list of twenty recordings by the London Regimental Band augmented by members of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra appeared for the 1902 season advertised in the Phonograph and Talking Machine Exchange, so they could have been recorded the previous year.

List of London Concert Cylinders by the London Regimental Band

Thanks to Jolyon Hudson for the donation of the cylinder and extra information.

 For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

 

29 October 2018

Recording of the week: a high fidelity direct recording

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This week's selection comes from audio engineer Robert Cowlin.

Instantaneous lacquer discs frequently contain unique or rare recordings and, due to the instability of their sound carrying layer, are a preservation priority at the British Library Sound Archive. Also known as acetate discs, they generally consist of a metal substrate coated in a lacquer of cellulose nitrate which is modulated by a cutting stylus. The process is still in use today, comprising the first step in the manufacture of vinyl records. Many of the lacquers in the British Library’s collection were cut ‘on demand’ – direct to disc from radio broadcasts for patrons by independent cutters, such as W. H. Troutbeck of Twickenham. Today’s disc contains excerpts from “Visions of Saint Godric”, by Peter Crossley-Holland, cut on 17 October 1959.

Photograph of a Troutbeck lacquer disc cut on 17 October 1959

Cellulose nitrate degrades continuously over time, as it reacts with water vapour and oxygen, resulting in the eventual shrinkage of the lacquer layer. As the metal substrate cannot shrink, the lacquer cracks and flakes off resulting in the inevitable and irreversible loss of the sound carrying layer, hence their preservation priority status.

Lacquers from the 1950s onwards can be played like any other microgroove disc, with a lightweight elliptical or line contact pickup tracking at around 1.5 grams. Coarse groove lacquers also exist, so playback parameters may need to be modified to accommodate a wider groove. Test with a microgroove stylus first though.

This disc was cleaned in an ultrasonic bath using a solution of 1 parts photographic wetting agent to 70 parts deionised water. Like shellac discs, lacquers should not be cleaned with alcohol. Some instantaneous discs were coated with gelatine rather than cellulose nitrate. Gelatine reacts badly when exposed to water. I always perform a patch test on a non-modulated area before cleaning. Apart from digitising, one should avoid playing lacquer discs due to their fragility.

The disc in question is in very good condition considering its age, with no signs of delamination and only minor scuffing, it retains its deep shine when held to the light. Apart from some pops and intermittent surface noise, the sound quality is excellent. I’ve chosen a short passage that highlights the format’s ability to convey low-level detail – listen out for the audience!

Excerpt from Visions of Saint Godric by Peter Crossley-Holland (BL shelfmark 1LS0001183)

I’m giving a presentation on signal extraction from lacquer discs at this year’s British & Irish Sound Archives conference at the National Library of Wales on 17 November. More information about the conference can be found at http://www.bisa-web.org/next-event

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

16 October 2018

Black History Month - The Gold Coast Police Band

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HMV disc label of JZ 282

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

For Black History month in previous years I have highlighted the career and work of classical musicians such as Dean Dixon and Cullen Maiden.  While considering people for this year’s blog, I received a donation which included a fascinating disc.  The performers are The Gold Coast Police Band.

It used to be that many organisations in the UK had bands made up of employees.  It was a wonderful way of promoting a community spirit, a striving for excellence dependent on each individual’s hard work and commitment producing an end result of combined quality.  The Metropolitan Police Force had divisional bands, then a main band of officers drawn from the divisions.  Its demise due to cuts happened around 1997 and only a choir now remains.  One of the most famous bands from a motor works is Foden’s Motor Works Band (still extant), a large collection of whose discs recorded from 1914 to 1963 I acquired for the British Library in 2003.

The Gold Coast Police Band was formed 1917 in Ghana.  The first recruits were retired army bandsmen from the West African Frontier Force who had studied at Kneller Hall, the Royal Military School of Music in Whitton.  From 1926 to 1941 the first European bandmaster, Mr G. T. March, was in charge and in 1943 his place was taken by Thomas Stenning.  Enlisted in the 7th Dragoon Guards in 1905, Stenning went to France with the 6th Dragoon Guards in August 1914 and was granted a regular commission in the Royal West Kent Regiment in 1917.  He resigned from this in order to study at Kneller Hall to be trained as an Army bandmaster.  From 1923 to 1936 Stenning was bandmaster to the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own) stationed in India.  From there he went to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst as bandmaster.  It was in 1943 that he took up his post with the Gold Coast Police Band.  The bandsmen were all locally enlisted African men whose sole qualification upon enlistment was ‘a liking for music.’ 

The Gold Coast Police Band at the police depot in Accra, GhanaThe Gold Coast Police Band at the police depot in Accra, Ghana (courtesy of Marlborough Rare Books)

The band of thirty-five African men arrived in London by air from Accra on Wednesday 7th May 1947 for a four month tour, departing the end of August.  Two days later they were rehearsing at Hounslow before setting off on the tour.  During their stay they played in many of the London parks including, Greenwich, Victoria, Hyde and Regent’s as well as Horse Guards Parade.  On 18th May the band performed at Jephson Gardens Pavilion, Leamington Spa and on the 24th May were back in London where they led the procession from the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields to the Cenotaph for the Empire Day ceremony.  A visit to Nottingham due earlier in May was postponed until the 27th from whence they travelled to Bath for a week of performances during the first week of June.  The highlight of the tour occurred on 10th June when the band played at a Buckingham Palace Presentation Party for 5,000 guests alternating with the Band of the Coldstream Guards.  Around this time a visit to Hendon was filmed by the newsreel cameras for Colonial Cinemagazine No. 9. 

Unfortunately the film is not in colour but the newspapers described the uniforms as scarlet and navy blue with white blouses.  The band wore black shorts braided with red and had matching black caps with red tassels and wore puttees on their feet.

It was in June that the band made the first of their HMV recordings in London for sale in West Africa.  The company began recording in Accra and Lagos in 1937 and these recordings were issued with the JZ prefix.  It appears that they had made one recording in West Africa for HMV which was issued as JZ 94 accompanying J. R. Roberts in songs from The Downfall of Zachariah Fee, a pantomime by Sir Arnold Hodson, Governor of the Gold Coast Colony (and previously the Falkland Islands).

On the 20th June 1947 they recorded six sides and, just before their departure on the 29th August, six more.  As these recordings were made for the West African market they were mainly of traditional songs, with some sides conducted by Sergeant Isaac Annam.  One side was recorded with a vocal trio sung in Fanti, but there is also a disc of marches and one of Rockin’ in Rhythm by Duke Ellington.  The first recording to be made was the one classical title, the Overture to Poet and Peasant by Franz von Suppé.  The instrumental playing is of a high standard, particularly the precision of the opening quietly played brass chords.

Poet and Peasant Overture

Two years later the Daily Mirror reported that compared to pre-war trade, dealers were now selling as many as three times the number of gramophones and four times the number of records in West Africa.  In big demand were the Gold Coast Police Band’s recordings of Duke Ellington’s Rockin’ in Rhythm and an African dance number, Everybody Likes Saturday Night.  

On 6th July the band broadcast on the BBC Home Service for a half hour programme and in the middle of the month travelled north where they were billeted at Crash Camp, Sandy Lane, Gosforth for performances in Newcastle.  On 16th July they lunched with the Lord Mayor of Newcastle and took afternoon tea with the Chief Constable.  A dance in their honour was given  at Albion Assembly Rooms, North Shields where a local dance band was hired to provide entertainment.  The next day, afternoon and evening performances at Exhibition Park were given before leaving for Edinburgh and an appearance at Pittencrief Park, Dunfermline on 22nd July.  The Band then headed south for a week at Warrior Square Gardens, Hastings and further performances in London and, one would hope, some time off to explore the city before their return to Accra at the end of August.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical