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14 October 2019

Recording of the week: Dr John interviewed by Charlie Gillett

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This week's selection comes from Andy Linehan, Curator of Popular Music.

Charlie Gillett, in his later years best-known as a World Music broadcaster, spent many years investigating the roots of rock music. He hosted Honky-Tonk on BBC Radio London in the 1970s where many of his guests were influential figures in the history of rock that Charlie traced in his book The sound of the city.

This excerpt is from an interview Charlie conducted with legendary New Orleans musician Dr. John, who describes a recording session in London where he had to find musicians at short notice – luckily he had some good contacts that resulted in some well-known names coming to his aid. The sessions were eventually issued on his album The sun, moon & herbs.

The entire interview takes place in the back of a taxi driving through New Orleans with all the background noise that entails plus the occasional interruptions of a small child who is also in the cab. It probably wasn’t good enough quality for broadcast use but does provide first-hand testimony about Dr John’s relationship with his fellow musicians and management and the problems they encountered with the stresses of touring and recording.

Excerpt from Charlie Gillett interview with Dr John (C510/46-48)

Open reel tape containing Charlie Gillett's interview with Dr John (C510/46-48))Open reel tape containing Charlie Gillett's interview with Dr John (C510/46-48)

The Charlie Gillett collection contains interviews and broadcasts from both his early work as a presenter and writer specialising in the history of rock’n’roll and his later interest and influence on the development of the world music scene in the UK. He died in 2010 and his collection has been digitised as part of the British Library's Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

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

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01 October 2019

Classical Podcast No. 4 Feodor Chaliapin with Simon Callow

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Chaliapin in the 1930sChaliapin in the 1930s

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

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

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

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

Chaliapin and RachmaninoffChaliapin and Rachmaninoff

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

Chaliapin as Boris GodunovChaliapin as Boris Godunov

Chaliapin as SalieriChaliapin as Salieri

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

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

Previous Classical podcasts can be heard here.

For all the latest news follow@BL_Classical

25 September 2019

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

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Bohemian Quartet drawingBohemian Quartet (Tully Potter collection)

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

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

01 Smetana mvt 1 opening

and now the Pavel Haas Quartet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

02 Smetana Polka BQ opening

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

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

03 Smetana Polka Sevcik Lhotsky opening

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

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

04 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ opening

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

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

05 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ acc fig

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

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

06 Smetana Polka BQ rhythm

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

07 Dvorak mvt 3 BQ rhythm

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

08 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ flex (2)

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

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

09 Dvorak mvt 1 BQ winddown

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

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

Disc label Valse TristeDisc label (1CL0074346 BL collections)

10 Nedbal Valse Triste 1CL0074346

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

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

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

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

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

23 September 2019

Recording of the week: The Beautiful Garden

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This week's selection comes from Adonis Lebotho, Social Media Intern for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

I recently came across Robert Pogue Harrison’s Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, a book on the cultural, historical and philosophical significance of gardens. Throughout, Pogue reflects on the relationship between ‘care and gardens’.[1] The act of tending to and cultivating a certain special place, he says, frames gardening as a model for tenderness and responsibility, above all ‘as a counterforce to history’s deleterious drives’.[2] In other words, gardeners take time and effort to cultivate a small perfectible corner of the world, against the chaos and disorder around them.

I mention this book as gardens have come to my attention several times recently, namely through The Beautiful Garden'an acapella vocal piece performed by Valerie Chapman found in the Roy Palmer English Folk Music Collection and the opening of the British Library’s community Story Garden. Click here to learn more about the Story Garden, a temporary community-run garden giving space for people to plant, cook and be together.

Photograph of a woman planting flowers in a flowerbedA woman plants flowers in a flowerbed

‘The Beautiful Garden’ tells the story of a boy and girl from vastly different backgrounds who strike up a chance friendship while playing from either side of a garden fence. The song considers how unfortunate and petty the things that divide them are and imagines a time when the pair might happily walk ‘side by side.’

They played in their beautiful garden, the children of high degree
Outside the gates the beggars passed in their misery
But there was one of the children that could not join the play
And a poor little beggar maiden watched for him day by day
Once he had given her a flower and oh, how he smiled to see
The thin pale hand through the railing stretched out so eagerly
She came again to the garden to see the children play
But the little white face had vanished, little feet gone astray
She crept away to a corner down by a murky stream
But the thin pale face in the garden shone through her restless dream
But the thin pale face in the garden shone through her restless dream
That highborn child and the beggar maid passed onwards side by side
For the ways of men are narrow but the gates of heaven are wide
For the ways of men are narrow but the gates of heaven are wide

The Beautiful Garden (C1023/6)

Though there’s very little information about Valerie Chapman, there is a little more about her father, George Dunn. George’s recordings, from which ‘The Beautiful Garden’ is taken, form a significant part of the Roy Palmer English Folk Music Collection. A chain maker and traditional singer from the village of Quarry Bank, Birmingham, George was descended from a line iron workers. He performed at private parties and public houses, but once he’d retired from the life of a musician, even his daughter was largely unaware of his musical background.

Beginning in the 1960s, Roy Palmer dedicated himself to collecting and sharing traditional music and folklore, including soldier’s songs and folk drama. The Roy Palmer Collection consists of 140 hours of field recordings of traditional English music in 1549 sound items. These recordings were largely produced in Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, and Birmingham, where Dunn was based.

Click here to find out more about the Roy Palmer English Folk Music Collection.

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[1] Robert Pogue Harrison, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, (University of Chicago Press, 2008), pg. 7.

[2] Robert Pogue Harrison, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, (University of Chicago Press, 2008), pg. X.

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

 

17 September 2019

Beginnings: Arabic music in the 'Ezra Hakkāk and Emile Cohen Collection

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Hazem Jamjoum joined the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project in April 2019 as Gulf Audio Curator and Cataloguer. Over the next 2-3 years he will be working on the Library's audio collections connected with the Gulf region to scope, catalogue and research them, to manage their preservation and access and to write about them. In this blog Hazem talks of his introduction to the collections.

 

It was at the very beginning, less than three weeks into my role as Gulf History Audio Curator that I found myself with British Library Sound Archive doyen Ian Macaskill in the disc and tape-bestrewn room through which newly acquired sound and moving image materials enter the British Library’s collections. At the end of this audio-cataloguer rite of passage, one foot already out the door, I was beckoned back into the room to describe my role at the Library to another veteran of the accessioning team. As if awaiting confirmation that I would work with Arabic language materials, a bemused Jowan Collier rose from his seat and began the dance around the stacks of CDs to the other end of the room. “I imagine there’s a box that’s been sitting here that might just pique your interest.” A few dozen shellacs in an assortment of discrepant sleeves lay in a dark wooden box marked “532: Emile Cohen Collection.” A yellow sticky note, curled up like a delaminated lacquer disc on the side of the box announced October 25, 2016 as the donation date.

Image of Emile Cohen Box
“…there’s a box that’s been sitting here that might just pique your interest.”


I eventually found out that it was my predecessor on the British Library-Qatar Foundation partnership, Rolf Killius, who had arranged for this gift. Rolf had delivered a lecture about Iraqi music at the British Institute for the Study of Iraq after which an elderly gentleman introduced himself, and soon thereafter offered to donate a collection of shellacs to the British Library. This was Emile Cohen. Born in Baghdad in 1943 to a secular scion of a rabbinical family, Emile spent the evenings of his youth listening to the dozens of guests who would assemble at his grandfather’s house for edifying conversation. Given the centrality of Baghdad’s Jewish community to the city’s musical life, much of this conversation centred on things musical. It didn’t hurt that from the roof of their house they could eavesdrop on the regular musical performances at the nightclub next door. Cohen had obtained the recordings from 'Ezra Hakkāk. The Hakkāk’s owned a shop on al-Rasheed Street in Baghdad and another in Tehran that started off selling leather goods, branching out into sewing machines, electronics and, ultimately gramophone machines and records.

Emile narrates much about these and other stories in an oral history interview conducted by Richard Green and held at the Library as part of the Sephardi Voices UK Collection (C1638), and which comprises oral history testimony about the settlement of Jews from West Asia and North Africa in the UK.

Image of Emile Cohen with Collection – photo by Rolf Killius 2016
Emile Cohen just before a trip to the British Library to donate his shellac collection. Photo: Rolf Killius, 2016.

Much can be said about what was in that little box, but ‘beginnings’ might be ‘a very good place to start’ given how many of the recordings contained in that box of wonders embodied career-launching events in the contributing artists’ biographies. At the very top of the box’s stack of discs lay two Baidaphon records by the legendary Laylā Murād (1918-1995). Though Murād had achieved enough fame as a teenager in one of Cairo’s top music halls to be cast in one of the earliest full length Egyptian films (al-Dhaḥāyā [The Victims], 1932, dir. Bahija Hafez and Ibrahim Lama), hers was a minor role in the silent film. She achieved a bit more notoriety when that film was reissued as a ‘talkie’ a few years later, landing her a recording deal with Baidaphon that resulted in Ḥabbayt w shuft ktīr (I've loved and seen a great deal), which was also in the box. But it was not until her 1938 collaboration with Moḥammad ʻAbd al-Wahhāb on the film Yaḥyā al-Ḥubb (Long Live Love, dir. Moḥammad Karīm) that her career as a superstar singer and actor began. Indeed, the two records at the top of the delightful box were Yā mā ʼaraqq al-nasīm (oh how soft the breeze) and Yā qalbī mālak (oh my heart, what is the matter), both written by Aḥmad Rāmī and composed by ʻAbd al-Wahhāb, and both from that film’s soundtrack.

Image of Habbayt w shuft kteer on the Baidaphon label
“Ḥabbayt w shuft ktīr” on the Baidaphon label. Recorded when she was 19 years of age, it was one of Layla Murad’s very first recordings.

Nestled among the shellacs in the box of wonders was a little 17cm disc in its original sleeve proclaiming the artist as “Om Kalsoum”, one of more than a dozen variations on the Egyptian diva’s name. The recording is “Enta fein wel ḥobb fein” which roughly translates as “love is here, and you are way over there”, a song much better known after its opening verse "ḥubb eh illi-inta gayy tʼūl 'aleh" (what love is it that you speak of). By 1960, when this song was first performed, Um Kulthūm was already well established as the pre-eminent Arab artist across the region. Indeed, at that time Egypt and Syria had united into the United Arab Republic, and Um Kulthūm had been chosen to sing the union’s national anthem. But it was the largely unknown composer of this runaway hit who skyrocketed to regional fame when it was first performed. Balīgh Ḥamdī (1931-1993) had studied music since the age of nine, spending his college years between law school and the music academy before trying his hand as a singer in the late 1950s. It was around this time that Um Kulthūm was looking for a new sound, meeting Ḥamdī at the recommendation of singer (and Misrphon label owner) Moḥamad Fawzī. In the two decades that followed the success of ḥubb eh, Ḥamdī became one of the most sought after composers in the Arab world, composing for every major artist of the mid-twentieth century as well as for radio, television, theatre and the cinema. Hip hop aficionados will be very familiar with Timbaland’s sampling of the melody from Ḥamdī’s Khusāra khusāra on Jay Z’s first major hit single, Big Pimpin’. Intellectual property enthusiasts are likely also familiar with it after Ḥamdī’s nephew sued Jay Z, Timbaland and EMI in 2007 for copyright infringement. The court summarily dismissed the case in 2015, finding that Egyptian law was not applicable, and that as a result the artists and the recording company were under no obligation to seek the permission of Ḥamdī’s family for what the family considered a debauched use of Balīgh Ḥamdī’s work.

Image of Um Kulthūm on the cover of Enta Fein wel Hobb Fein
The original sleeve of Um Kulthūm’s ḥubb eh, composed by Balīgh Ḥamdī


In addition to a host of other career-making recordings, Emile Cohen’s gift can tell the tale of another sort of beginning; the beginning of Egyptian music’s regional dominance in the interwar period. Many of those involved in the development of cultural production in Egypt since the nineteenth century were artists whose families had moved to Egypt from Greater Syria, a trend that continued well into the twentieth century. From this collection alone, some names that stand out include:

  • Ṣabāḥ, who was brought to Egypt from Mount Lebanon by filmmaker ’Āssia Dāgher and ultimately recorded over 3000 songs and performed in over 100 plays and films;
  • Moḥammad Salmān, who moved to Cairo from Mt. Lebanon to pursue a career in music but would later find his passion as an actor and filmmaker in the Egyptian capital;
  • Ḥalīm al-Rūmī, who grew up in Palestine performing as an amateur until he was sent to study at the music academy in Cairo in 1937. There, he became deeply involved in composing and performing for radio audiences before eventually becoming head of music programming at the Near East Broadcasting Service in Palestine until the expulsion of, and denial of return to, two-thirds of the Palestinian population in 1947-1948. After a few years with the broadcast service which had moved to Cyprus, he moved to Lebanon to head the music department at the Lebanese radio service al-Sharq al-Awsat;
  • Najāḥ Salām’s Beiruti father was a well-known composer and ‘ūd player and took the chanteuse, already known in Lebanon, to Cairo in 1948 to meet many of the leading musical figures of the Egyptian capital. This, of course, did wonders for her career. So much so that by the mid-1970s she was granted honorary Egyptian citizenship.
  • Sihām Rifqī who moved from Syria to Egypt for a music and film career, recording over a dozen hits before an early retirement;
    and of course
  • Farīd al-‘Aṭrash and Amal al-‘Aṭrash (aka Asmahān), brother and sister born to a notable Druze family that had led the resistance against the French occupation of Syria, moving to Egypt because of the anticolonial connections between their family and that of the Egyptian independence movement’s leader Sa‘d Zaghlūl. The siblings rose to dominate the music and musical film scene in Cairo by the 1940s.
Image of Baidaphon sleeve featuring their top recording artists
Baidaphon was a Beirut-based record label, and possibly the first homegrown music recording company in the Arab world. This sleeve from the 1940s showcases the company’s top recording artists. It is notable that all of these artists hail from Greater Syria, and all of them launched their stardom and regional celebrity in Egypt. Clockwise from the top: Asmahān, Najāḥ Salām, Ḥalīm al-Rūmī, Sihām Rifqī, Moḥammad Salmān, Ḥanān. The record in the photograph is by an Egyptian dancer of Syrian origin, Bibā ʻIzz al-Dīn, who achieved far more notoriety for her live shows in Cairo’s music halls than she did for her recorded output.

Those familiar with postcolonial dynamics will be particularly aware of just how politicised cultural battles between former coloniser and colonised can be. In the case of Arab states emerging from British, French and Italian colonial rule, and in light of the centrality of Cairo described above, the battle over national culture was also waged with an eye to Egypt. Whether in Tunisia, Iraq, or elsewhere, the mid-twentieth century witnessed an immense amount of activity that practically accepted Egyptian cultural production as the language of Arabic culture, but each of these fledgling nation-states sought to develop and elevate their own dialect within that. The dynamic between language and dialect is not only metaphor; any composer in the interwar period who wanted to produce 'serious' music had to do so in either classical Arabic or an Egyptian dialect, while other dialects were reserved for their own folklore. After the post-WWII wave of postcolonial independence, composers and lyricists beyond the confines of Cairo sought a legitimacy for their own dialects, including other Egyptian dialects, as ones that could convey a cultivated urbanity.

The recordings in this collection help tell that story as it unfolded in Lebanon. The early recordings by Ṣabāḥ and Wadī‘ al-Ṣāf ī in the collection typify the folkloric bent of the music recorded in Lebanon well into the 1940s. One of the more significant recordings in the collection is the song Waynik yā Laylā (Where are you Layla) by Sāmī al-Ṣaydāwī, who originally composed the song for Lebanese singer Kamāl al-Ṭawīl. Both Ṣaydāwī and Ṭawīl had built careers performing in the Egyptian dialect to audiences in both Egypt and Greater Syria; Waynik yā Laylā was one of the early non-folkloric songs performed and recorded in the Syro-Lebanese dialect, forming part of a trend that would continue and grow over the decades that followed.

Image of the iconic cover art of Fairūz and the Raḥbānī brothers’ 1952 hit: ʻItāb (reproach)
The iconic cover art of Fairūz and the Raḥbānī brothers’ 1952 hit: ʻItāb (reproach)



The artists who did the most to propel Lebanese song into the more exalted register regionally all had a part to play in yet another item in the box of wonders. The song ʻItāb (reproach), appearing on the Zodephone label in the early 1950s, was an instant hit, one that proved momentous for the emergence of Beirut as Cairo’s main musical rival. The vocalist, Nuhād Haddād, had been 'discovered' a few years earlier by Mohamad Flayfel, composer of such songs as Mawṭini (‘my homeland’, the popularly accepted national anthem of Palestine, and the post-2003-occupation anthem of Iraq) and Ḥumāt al-Diyār (‘defenders of the home,’ the national anthem of Syria). Flayfel encouraged Haddād to study music at the conservatory, and to immerse herself in that repository of vocal technique at the heart of ecstatic Arabic song: Qur’anic recitation (tajwīd). While at the conservatory, Ḥalīm al-Rūmī heard her sing and decided to take her under his wing, introducing her to his friends the Raḥbānī brothers, ‘Assī and Manṣūr. Rūmī also decided to pick out a stage name for her, one that means turquoise, and that millions of people now associate with their morning coffee: Fairūz.

As a romance blossomed between ‘Assī Raḥbānī and Nuhād (they married in 1955), so did their creative collaboration, the first fruit of which was the song ʻItāb that is on this recording. The airing of this song on Lebanese and then Syrian radio in late 1952 launched Fairūz’s regional fame, enabling her to sign her first recording contract with Zodephone. Indeed, Zodephone's early success as a record company was based on the company's recordings of Fairuz songs.

All that’s left to say is a big warm thank you to Emile Cohen and ‘Ezra Hakkāk for such wonderful beginnings!

 

Written by Hazem Jamjoum, Gulf Audio Curator and Cataloguer, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project (BLQF), which produces the Qatar Digital Library. Follow the BLQF Project @BLQatar

Follow The British Library’s World and Traditional Music team @BL_WorldTrad

Follow Unlocking Our Sound Heritage updates @BLSoundHeritage

09 August 2019

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

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Beatrice Harrison with celloBeatrice Harrison with cello (BL Collections)

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

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

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

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

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

Beatrice and May HarrisonBeatrice and May Harrison (BL Collections)

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

Elgar Adagio with Princess Victoria

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

Margaret Harrison interview

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

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

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

Elgar Cello Concerto 1928

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

Chant Hindu

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

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

Scrapbook for 1924 excerpt

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Somm Recordings for permission to use the Elgar recordings

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

19 July 2019

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

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Winifred Atwell in the late 1950s

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

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

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

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

Pearl Connor C1019/16

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

Radio Times 21st October 1946

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

Michael Craxton C1019/16

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

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

Grieg Piano Concerto

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

Atwell Rachmaninoff

Winifred Atwell LP

1LP0239366 (BL collections)

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

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

16 July 2019

Magnetic Tape Alert Project

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The Magnetic Tape Alert Project is an initiative of the Information for All Programme (IFAP) Working Group on Information Preservation.

Magnetic tape formats and replay equipment are dying out. Photo: Bernhard Graf, Vienna Phonogrammarchiv
Photo: Bernhard Graf, Vienna Phonogrammarchiv

 

Today’s knowledge of the linguistic and cultural diversity of humanity is widely based on magnetic tape recordings produced over the past 60 years. Magnetic audio and video tape formats are now obsolete, replay equipment in working condition is disappearing rapidly and the supply and service of spare parts is fading. As a result, the routine transfer of magnetic tape recordings is likely to cease around 2025. The only way to preserve these sounds and images in the long term, and to keep them accessible for future generations, is to digitize them and transfer to them to safe digital repositories.

While many professional memory institutions have already secured their audiovisual holdings, or have plans to do so in time, a great number of audio and video recordings are still in their original state, kept in small academic or cultural institutions, or in private hands.

With the Magnetic Tape Alert Project, the Information for All Programme (IFAP) of UNESCO, in cooperation with the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA), aims to alert stakeholders to the imminent risk of losing access to their audiovisual documents.

Part of this is to conduct a survey, focusing on unique recordings, to assess the scale of the risk. The information obtained through the survey will serve as a basis for future planning for the safeguarding of these irreplaceable original documents in the long-term. Information gathered will be used to compile a report that will be made publicly available.

For further information and to respond to the questionnaire, please go to the project website.

Deadline for completion: 30 September 2019

The project coordinator, Andrew Pace, can be contacted at: MTAP@iasa-web.org

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