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18 October 2019

Black History Month: King Menelik and Queen Taytu's phonograph message to Queen Victoria

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Menelik II Emperor of EthiopiaNegusa Nagast (King of Kings) Menelik II of Ethiopia

Guest blog by Eyob Derillo of the British Library Ethiopian collection

The year 2019 marks the 175th anniversary of the birth of King Menelik II, one of Ethiopia’s most famous and influential monarchs. King Menelik and his wife Queen Taytu bequeathed an important legacy to all Africa.  To celebrate their many achievements and lasting influence as Ethiopia’s most popular king and queen, we would like to invite you to hear a phonograph recording of the voices of these monarchs.

Few African leaders have achieved such fame as the Ethiopian King Menilik II.  He was born in Shewa on 17th August 1844 to King Haile Malakot (1824-1855) and his wife Woizero Ejigayehu. After the death of his father, Menelik was taken prisoner by Emperor Tewodros II, and ten years of his life were spent in captivity at the fort of Maqdala.  In November 1889, after the death of Yohannes IV, he was proclaimed King of Kings, Menelik II.  According to the official Ethiopian court chronicle of the period, he was named after the legendary first king of Ethiopia Menelik I , who was the eldest son of Makeda, Queen of Sheba and ruled over the country in the 10th century BC.

Menelik II’s triumphs on the battlefield of Adwa (1896) against an invading force of Italian troops allowed him to extend Ethiopia’s sphere of influence over most of East Africa.  Menelik II was the first Ethiopian king to succeed in mobilizing all the quarrelling nobles and regional rulers to unite against the Italian aggression.  His victory completely reshaped the balance of power in the Horn of Africa, allowing Ethiopia to play an assertive role in the geopolitics of the strategic Red Sea region.  Under his rule Ethiopia reached the zenith of its economic, political, diplomatic and cultural power.  The era of King Menelik II and Queen Taytu also saw the geographical expansion of the boundaries of the Ethiopian kingdom.  For peoples suffering under colonial rule Ethiopia became a symbol of hope and inspiration in their struggle towards freedom.  King Menelik’s great victory against the Italian General Oreste Baratieri at the Battle of Adwa also become a source of inspiration for the worldwide movement of pan-Africanism in the early twentieth century.

The Battle of AdwaThe Battle of Adwa, painting by an unknown Ethiopian artist. The painting depicts the Battle of Adwa, fought between Italy and Abyssinia in 1896 (Photo - © The British Museum)

Equally celebrated for her considerable political power and participation in the Battle of Adwa was Taytu Betul (c.1851-1918). Taytu was descended from a northern princely family who had ruled the northern region of Ethiopia since the seventeenth century.  Her education and family background gave her a keen insight into the workings of the court and political life, rendering her a formidable ruler in her own right.  Queen Taytu was admired for her mastery of the way the power structure functioned, and her diplomatic tact in dealing with the quarrelling factions of nobles who were constantly vying for the king's patronage.  As a result she was popularly known as ‘the light of Ethiopia’.

Queen Taytu

Portrait of Queen Taytu by Georgios Prokopiou (1905)

The capital city of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, was founded by Menelik II in 1889, though it is important to note that the location was both selected, and named by Taytu.  Her reign can be seen as representing the foundation of modern Ethiopia.  Menelik, on the other hand, founded the first modern school, and established the Ethiopian national bank, as well as the first railway, telegraph system and telephone lines.  One spectacular achievement was the construction of the railway from the Red Sea coast to Addis Ababa.

The victory of Adwa brought Ethiopia to the attention of the world, and soon new diplomatic relations were established and old ones renewed.  The history of diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and England can be traced as far back as the fifteenth century.  The British Library’s collections include the copy of a letter from King Henry IV to 'Prester John, King of Abyssinia' written in 1400, seeking to open communications and establish diplomatic relations.  With the expansion of Ottoman power in the eastern Mediterranean and north Africa, from the sixteenth century onwards the diplomatic relations between Europe and Ethiopia were characterized by a mutual awareness of the vital role each side could play in checking and containing the steady and at times seemingly irresistible expansion of the Ottoman Empire. 

Britain was one of the first to resume its alliance with Ethiopia, and in 1898 Queen Victoria sent a recorded phonograph message to King Menelik and Queen Taytu, expressing the 'hope that the friendship between our two Empires will constantly increase.'  In the following year King Menelik and Queen Taytu returned the compliment by making phonograph recordings of their voices and sending them to Queen Victoria.  Although in poor sound, these cylinder recordings, made 120 years ago, capture a unique relationship between monarchs who never met.

King Menelik II 1899

An Amharic translation of the recording was made by Abraham Demoz for the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1969:

I, Menelik II, king of kings of Ethiopia, say to our very honoured friend Victoria, Queen of the great English people, 'May the Saviour of the World give you health!'

When the very beautiful and excellent phonograph (recording) of the Queen reached me by the hands of Monsieur Harrington and when I heard the voice of Your Majesty (as if) you were beside me, I listened with great pleasure.

May God thank you for your good wishes for us and for my kingdom.  May God give you long life and health and give your people peace and repose.  I have spoken with M. Harrington concerning all issues between both our peoples.  When he told me that he was now returning to England, I said to him that I would be pleased if he could settle all our affairs before coming back.  And now, may the Queen receive him well.

Furthermore, we have told M. Harrington about Matamma, how our great king is and many of our compatriots died there for their religious zeal.  I have hopes that you will help us in having the English government recognize this city for us.

May God help us that Ethiopia and England may remain in peace and friendship.  Having said this, I extend my greetings of respect to your great people.

Queen Taytu 1899

I, Itege (Queen) Taitu, Light of Ethiopia, say to the very honoured Queen Victoria, the great Queen of the English...  May God give you health.  Your phonograph has reached me.  With great pleasure I listened to you (as if) you were beside me.  And now, since God has willed to bring my voice to the ear of the honoured Queen, I declare ... that God give you health and long life.  May God keep you many years in good health.

References

Demoz, Abraham: 'Emperor Menelik's Phonograph Message to Queen Victoria.'  Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 32, no. 2, 1969, pp. 251–256. 

Jonas, R. A., 2011. The Battle of Adwa: African victory in the age of empire. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Prouty, C., 1986. Empress Taytu and Menilek II: Ethiopia 1883-1910. London : Trenton: Ravens Educational & Development Services; Red Sea Press.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

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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07 October 2019

Recording of the week: No prisoners

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This week's selection comes from Mat Hart, World & Traditional Music volunteer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

This beautiful song is composed and performed by Madi Lehbib, who sings and plays percussion on this track, with accompaniment from guitarist Mahmud Bara. The song is sung in local Arabic dialect – Hassaniya. Madi’s lyrics reject the idea of political imprisonment and oppression, which his community – the Saharawi’s – have experienced as refugees living in exile in the Tindouf Province of South-Western Algeria.

The Saharawi’s are ethnically mixed descendants of Berbers, Arabs, and Black Africans. They have been living in exile since the mid-1970’s after fleeing from Moroccan forces during the Western Sahara War. Today, their people and communities live in refugee camps set up across the Tindouf Province. Having lived for centuries in the deserts of the Western Sahara, known as Africa’s last colony, the Saharawi’s land is, to this day, still occupied by Morocco and pending decolonisation.

Musical performances at the camps are common, as there are many musicians within the Saharawi community, though the lack of resources in the refugee camps forces musicians to constantly improvise with their instrumentation. In this recording, Madi is playing percussion on the body of his friend’s guitar. There is a humble beauty to his performance, which brings the Arabic voice and acoustic guitar together in gentle harmony.

No Prisoners performed by Madi Lehbib & Mahmud Bara, recorded by Violeta Ruano (C1640/1)

Photograph of Madi Lehbib during the sessionPhotograph of Madi Lehbib during the recording session

This recording was made by sound recordist Violeta Ruano Posada. Violeta spent six months staying in the various refugee camps during 2013 and 2014 conducting ethnographic fieldwork as part of her PhD research at London’s SOAS University - commissioned by the sound archive. This recording was made at the “Cape Bojador” refugee camp and was recorded at the camp’s shabiba (youth centre) with the help of a group of local Saharawi sound students.

To listen to more sound recordings of Sahrawi Music, browse the Violeta Ruano collection on British Library Sounds

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

04 October 2019

Cable Street and after: memories of antifascism

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A red plaque commemorating the Battle of Cable Street

Image courtesy of Richard Allen

The Battle of Cable Street took place 83 years ago today, on 4 October 1936. The ‘Battle’ was a huge confrontation between antifascists and police who were protecting a march of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) through London’s East End – provocatively intended to carry Blackshirts into the heart of the area’s Jewish community. A vast counter-demonstration gathered, barricades were erected and antifascists invoked the slogan Dolores Ibárruri had used in July that year to galvanise defenders of the Spanish Republic – ‘they shall not pass!’

The Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) narrative of leading the counter-demonstration might be contestable (its original plan was to rally in Trafalgar Square against Franco and only after that to protest the BUF; after pressure from East End members, fliers were amended to urge gathering at Aldgate instead). Nevertheless, the communists played a key role on the day and the Communist Party of Great Britain Biographical Project, archived at the British Library, is a rich source for oral histories of communist antifascism. There are over 150 interviews in the collection, conducted in 1999-2001 by academics at the University of Manchester. I find it particularly useful for researching the motivations of communists of Jewish heritage, like my grandfather, who were attracted to the Party’s antifascism – were they primarily driven by class struggle or ethnic particularism in resistance to fascist antisemitism?

A 1936 CPGB leaflet, altered to read 'rally at Aldgate, 2pm

CPGB leaflet, altered to read 'rally at Aldgate, 2pm', Wikimedia Commons

Despite the militancy of communist antifascism at Cable Street, there was some feeling among British communists that it was not enough just to ‘bash the fascists’. Instead, it was the role of the Party to address the socio-economic conditions that produced fascism – the kind of thinking behind communist initiatives like the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League (1937) which would support tenants against landlords even when tenants were BUF members, using this as an opportunity to prove that it was the communists and not the fascists who championed their rights. Hymie Frankel (C1049/50) observed BUF supporters at close hand and provided an explanation for fascist antisemitism when he remembered that, “they look[ed] lost – they had no jobs and no life...and Mosley whips them up and says Jews are to blame”. Here, he talks about the way the CPGB married resistance to fascism with its answers to the economic problems of the 1930s:

Hymie Frankel on the communist answer to mass unemployment and fascism (C1049/50/01)

In contrast, it was the CPGB’s practical antifascism in the first instance, rather than its ideology, that first attracted Esther 'Hetty' Bower (C1049/22/01-02). Born into an orthodox Jewish family in Hackney in 1905, Hetty was to be decisively impressed by the manner in which communists helped her brother-in-law after his brutal treatment at the hands of BUF stewards at Mosley’s Olympia rally in 1934: “He joined the Communist Party without knowing anything about it except that these were communists who helped him and bandaged him.” Hetty, disaffected with what she saw as the failure of the Independent Labour Party to engage with militant antifascism, joined the CPGB the next year, in 1935.

For some communists of Jewish heritage, their personal experience of antisemitism fitted into a much larger picture. Here, Harold Rosen talks about how for him antisemitism confirmed the ‘general idea’ – an ideological interpretation of world injustice – and how internationalism and the Spanish Civil War, rather than the East End and the BUF, dominated his thinking:

Harold Rosen on the Spanish Civil War and communist internationalism (C1049/128/01)

In an interview archived at the Imperial War Museum, Lou Kenton (33028) remembered antifascism as, “the major thing in the life of most active political people in East London, certainly of my group”. He also explained his arrival on the Left as the “natural result of the social background of the period...it arouse naturally that you were either Labour or communist, and there was never a very sharp division, certainly not in my mind”. For Kenton, improving and changing society were motivations for joining the CPGB which transcended reaction to fascist antisemitism. Indeed, he remembered realising that the Battle of Cable Street “had to be a non-Jewish thing”; he emphasised not Jewish antifascism but the Battle’s display of working-class unity: “a certain togetherness, of warmth”.

Kenton had a long involvement in antifascism, from Olympia to Cable Street and then volunteering with one of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He was interviewed for the CPGB Biographical Project in 2001.

Here, in a sound clip archived at the British Library and taken from an interview in the Labour Oral History Project, Kenton talks about going to Olympia to heckle Mosley. It’s a wonderful extract, complete with a section of Mosley’s speech and the clamouring of the appreciative fascist crowd, as well as Kenton’s memories of the violence meted out to antifascist hecklers by the BUF stewards:

Lou Kenton on going to the BUF rally at Olympia in 1934 (C609/86)

Cover of an Independent Labour Party publication commemoration of Cable Street, titled 'They Did Not Pass'

Independent Labour Party commemoration of Cable Street, © Independent Labour Publications

My doctoral research explores motivations for postwar British antifascism, concentrating on the extent to which this was shaped by Holocaust consciousness. My interview with Monty Goldman, a communist of Jewish heritage, revealed some of the tensions between ideological and ethnic particularist motivations for antifascism that also surface in memories of interwar antifascism. Goldman was born into a Jewish family in the East End in 1931. He joined the Young Communist League (YCL) in 1949, aged 18. While still at school, Goldman got to know the militant Jewish antifascist ‘43 Group’. Here, he talks about the Holocaust as justification for the 43 Group’s violent tactics, although emphasising the Soviet, rather than the Jewish victims of Nazism (and conflating the wider war, the occupation of the USSR and the Holocaust):

Monty Goldman on the Soviet victims of Nazism, interviewed by Joshua Cohen

He remembered that communists were talking about the Holocaust in 1949 but as part of wider Nazi violence, as was consistent with the norms of the time: “You spoke about the atrocities; you didn’t speak about the Holocaust”. And when Goldman discussed Nazi antisemitism, he tended to follow this with immediate reference to the Nazis’ political victims, with reminders that the concentration camps were originally meant for communist prisoners.

All 154 CPGB Biographical Project interviews are available for listeners at the British Library. For more information on this and similar collections please see the collection guide to Oral histories of politics and government.

Dr Joshua Cohen has recently completed his PhD entitled ‘The Holocaust and British Antifascism, 1945-67’ at the University of Leicester.

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

30 September 2019

Recording of the week: in Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire …

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This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.

H-dropping – the tendency for some speakers to omit the initial <h> sound in words like house – has a long history. It’s extremely common in England, Wales and parts of the Caribbean, but rare in Scotland, Ireland or indeed the USA and most other English-speaking parts of the world. Because of its association in the UK with ‘local’ speech, it’s extremely stigmatised and frequently provokes criticism as these speakers confirm.

Discussion about H-Dropping & Hypercorrect H. BBC Voices Recording from Devizes, Wiltshire, 2004 (C1190/34/03)

For many years, self-conscious speakers in the UK have been anxious to avoid this social gaffe. In some cases insecurity over when to include <h> and when to leave it out can prompt a speaker to insert a <h> sound where there is none in the written word – a process referred to by linguists as hypercorrection. In the 19th century as social status became increasingly associated with accent, elocution classes, instruction manuals and pamphlets, such as 'Poor Letter H', were extremely popular among lower-middle-class speakers keen to acquire prestigious pronunciation forms.

Illustration from 'Poor Letter H: its use and abuse' (1854)Illustration from 'Poor Letter H: its use and abuse' (1854)

More than 150 years of middle-class anxiety about H-dropping has occasionally led to a change in the way we pronounce individual words. In contrast to the advice given here in 'Poor Letter H', we now seek to pronounce humble, humour, humility and hospital with initial <h> in formal speech, although they were originally pronounced without it even in ‘polite circles’. We also expect herb with an audible <h> in the UK, although the older form (without <h>) persists in the USA and opinions vary as to the ‘correct’ pronunciation of hotel and historic (is it a historic moment or an historic moment?). Perhaps the increased tendency to pronounce the letter aitch as ‘haitch’ as discussed here is an example of a similar change in progress. If prompted by our continued disapproval of H-dropping, it’s particularly interesting as it requires speakers to insert a <h> sound that is not reflected in the spelling.

Personally, I can think of no greater guilty linguistic pleasure than a judiciously dropped H or indeed a hypercorrect one. One of my fondest memories of my dad (b. Castleford, 1934) is of the occasion he took me to a prestigious boarding school for a hockey match and asked a rather condescending-looking schoolmaster the way to the hall-weather ockey pitch. That was 1983 – I wish he were around now to ask for directions to the hastroturf.

Find out more about social variation in British English on our British Accents and Dialects website and follow @VoicesofEnglish for tweets about language.

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.

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