Vaughan Williams on the Classical/Popular Divide

Vaughan Williams is the one of the most fun and insightful composers to read. His prose is plain and clear, and he never seems to hold back his many opinions. A frequent theme in his essay writing is the now-unfashionable subject of ‘national music’, and specifically English music. Here’s an extract:

And the reason why ‘English Music’ is nowadays considered negligible by so many writers is that we have separated our music from our nationality. ‘Classical’ music is considered to be a foreign luxury imported from abroad with our champagne and our cigars for those who have the money to afford it and the taste to appreciate it. We must break down the distinction between ‘classical’ and ‘popular’—all music should be classical and all music should be popular.

Related to this, he remarks that

If music is the exclusive privilege of a wealthy class who can pay to have it composed and performed, then there will be a period of insipid and gorgeously mounted operas, difficult concertos, and a general show-off for the virtuoso. But when music is a national possession, when people want music for their churches, for their homes, when they want to produce their own art and not to pay others to make it for them, then is the age (as it was in Tudor times) of the anthem, the madrigal, music for choral singing on a small scale, music for the lute or the virginals.

Popular music to VW was clearly the opposite of what it is today. He saw popular music as synonymous with the people of a nation. But if anything, modern popular music seeks to undermine national character. And yes, ‘classical music’ is an annoying term to which there is really no better alternative — ‘serious music’ is possibly even worse.

Oh, if only classical music had kept its foothold in the home! Music isn’t quite the exclusive privilege of a wealthy class, but the twentieth century did bring composers who greatly disdained their audiences, and the taste for spectacular complexity and challenging music lives on. We do live in an age of ‘insipid and gorgeously mounted operas, difficult concertos, and a general show-off for the virtuoso’. Almost none of the public play classical music in their homes, and if they do, it will almost certainly not be contemporary.

There have been some modern composers who have done a very good job at reversing this trend. Peter Maxwell Davies spent a lot of time going to schools, composing for children (see his Two Fiddlers opera he wrote for a local grammar school, or his amusing Home-time at last) and encouraging other composers to do the same. He set up a festival in his adopted home of Orkney, the St Magnus Festival, and wrote music, some of it ‘popular’ in the VW sense, intimately wedded to the character of the island. Though still mostly a ‘serious’ and ‘modern’ composer and all that, and many of his concertos and symphonies are brilliant, he came much closer to VW’s desire that ‘all music should be classical and all music should be popular’ than most. This seemed to come with professional strains too. The Guardian back in 2004 on the rift between Birtwhistle and Maxwell Davies: ‘Sir Harrison says that Sir Peter’s habit of writing rather flashy, audience-pleasing pieces made him feel uncomfortable and competitive, and that his own compositions suffered as a result.’

Probably Maxwell Davies’ most performed orchestral piece, An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, with a one-minute opening conversation between the composer himself and Tom Service:

Messiaen Turangalîla Symphony

What am I missing? I recently saw this live, and was extremely excited to do so. But half way through I realised I didn’t actually like it that much. It’s so lurid, so unusually irreverent for Messiaen. Most reviewers have raved about the performance and the work, except for Neil Fisher at The Times, who described Turangalîla as ‘stupefyingly dull, its 80-minute span leaving me less filled with cosmic energy than stifling some truly cosmic yawns.’ I don’t think it’s dull. I was thoroughly interested and engaged throughout; the work is filled with colour and complexity. It’s just too boisterous, too repetitive — and again, ‘lurid’ is the term that keeps coming to mind.

The concert opened with L’Ascension, which is a mesmerising piece. I knew it by the organ version, which has a different third movement. The third movement in the orchestral version is more Turangalîla-like than the other movements, beginning with a fanfare then it moves along hurriedly, and becomes almost dance-like towards the end when the tambourine gets going. But it’s somehow much less vulgar than Turangalîla, with splashes of majestic chords, no sensual extravagance and no pointless sliding up and down on the bleeding ondes Martenot.

The last movement of L’Ascension, which sounded like a sort of inversion of the first movement, was so beautiful. Constantly moving forward in unity, weaving through aching dissonances and surprising you, almost serendipitously, with such joyous harmonies. Going from that to Turangalîla was like wandering from church into a nightclub. Yet maybe this is what people what? The Bachtrack review began by saying this: ‘Messiaen’s L’Ascension came and went. It was fine, pleasant enough, nothing special. And then came Turangalîla.’ 

I’m not out to bash Turangalîla and proclaim it overrated. I think the first movement is an exciting start, the symphony has some nice lyricism in it and I want to like its wilder moments. But it’s just — ugh, I’m going to have to say it for a third time — so lurid! It doesn’t help, I suppose, that it must be one of the longest symphonies ever written. Though I had no problem enjoying his two-hour piano work, Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus.

Anyway, here it is, performed by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony and conducted by Paavo Järvi, Turangalîla:

Mille Regretz

Mille Regretz (‘A Thousand Regrets’) is a gorgeous and once popular song thought to be written by the Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez. Its fame is invariably linked to King Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, who was said to be very fond of it, so much so that a good handful of contemporary composers wrote versions for him. This is the original Josquin version (well, some dispute its authorship, but for the sake of this blog post I’ll refer to it as his).

Luys de Narváez was a Spanish vihuelist during this time and intabulated the song for his instrument. The vihuela was a small guitar-like instrument particular to Spain, of which Charles was king, and was for all intents and purposes very similar to the lute. Narváez, who wrote one of the few extant books of vihuela music, gave the subtitle ‘la cancion del Emperador’ (‘the emperor’s song’) for his intabulation of Mille Regretz, the most explicit evidence we have of Charles’ fondness for the song. Unlike the Josquin version, there is more ornamentation as the vihuela, like the lute, cannot possibly hold a note for as long as a singer. This is a fantastic piece to play on the guitar too, and not at all difficult. Just tune the G string to F#, and maybe capo at the third fret, and you can play it from the original score. Here’s Julian Bream playing it on the vihuela:

Cristóbal de Morales was another Spanish composer who used the song in order to gain the king’s favour. Missa Mille Regretz is a parody mass — that is, not work of comedy but rather one that steals material, often from secular songs — and contrary to modern values this wasn’t looked down upon. The Kyrie from Morales’ mass setting:

Nicolas Gombert’s is the only other contemporary arrangement I’m aware of, and like Morales’ it is expanded to six-parts. I was not familiar with it until today, but it is very beautiful and seems to be the most intricate arrangement:

We can assume that there were also plenty of non-scored arrangements of this popular song, and if you browse on YouTube you will find plenty of modern ones. This is a particularly attractive version by the American early music group Voices of Music for organ and cornett:

King Charles V is perhaps better known to music lovers by his strange appearance in Verdi’s opera Don Carlo. Just at the end, he emerges from his tomb Commendatore-style as King Philip II and the Grand Inquisitor are chasing after Don Carlos, proclaiming

‘The sorrows of the world
follow us into the cloister.
The struggle in our hearts
will find peace only in heaven!’

At which point he rescues Don Carlos.

Below is the final scene of Don Carlos. Charles emerges exactly 10 minutes in — he’s the one holding the enormous, ornate cross. It is a total what-on-earth-just-happened moment that suddenly comes in the last minute of this grand three hour opera.

What an ending!

Musical Challenges à la Radio 3

BBC Radio 3 have a musical challenge every morning in which a piece is either reversed or mixed with another piece, and you have to work out what it is. Or they play a piece and you have to work out its association. For example, they might play Vaughan William’s London Symphony, without telling you the title or composer, and the association would of course be London. I thought it would be fun to make my own, so here it goes:

1. The music has been reversed. Can you figure out what song it is, and for a bonus point, who’s singing?

2. Two pieces have been mixed together. Can you name them and their composers? [Update: youtube blocked the audio so here it is on Soundcloud instead]

3. Which composer, viheulist and king link this piece?

I put the answers on a separate page to help avoid accidentally seeing them. Here’s the link.

Guitar Transcription of Ligeti’s Cello Sonata

I transcribed this a couple of months ago as it seemed a slow, manageable and beautiful piece for someone new to classical guitar such as myself. And indeed it largely is, though it takes a careful, sensitive guitarist to make it sing. Note that I haven’t scored the second movement because it seemed beyond my ability to play.

I haven’t included fingering as I personally like to do that myself as I learn a piece, and hate when a score comes cluttered with annotations. Musically, the guitar score is essentially the same, but one tone higher, and with the sixth string tuned to D. I removed the glissandi on the pizzicato chords as that seemed impractical on the guitar. This is the most substantial difference between the original version and the transcription.

I was slightly irritated to find that some other guitarist had gotten there first in playing Ligeti’s Cello Sonata on guitar. However, he’s not giving out a free score, so this should post should be of use to someone.

Here’s the link to the PDF

And if you’d rather just look at it on this page, here’s the score in image format:Ligeti Cello Sonata_0001.png

Ligeti Cello Sonata_0002

The Guitar and the Conceptual Penis

I have just finished reading this impeccable paper on the conceptual penis. The penis, it is argued, is ‘better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a social construct isomorphic to performative toxic masculinity’.

plain-guitarNow, I am a guitarist. And as a guitarist I have had to battle against the inherent hypermasculine violence of the instrument. The guitar’s shape was purposely designed to be suggestive of the phallus, the chief symbol of the patriarchy. Even the strings are suggestive of the frenulum.

I suggest we adopt a new guitar shape to counter the phallic toxicity represented by the instrument. And furthermore, we can do this while also promoting a body positive image — as opposed to the covert sexist symbolism promoted through the guitar’s hour-glass body shape:


And those strings damn well better be vegan friendly.

[Note: the paper is a hoax, as most will already know.]

It’s not always easy being a music listener

There are pieces of music I barely understand, even after serious attempts to do so. And it can make me slightly anxious wondering why. Sometimes I imagine it is because they are sublime, so brilliant that they almost blind you — this has been my experience with a lot of Bach. Other times I wonder why on earth I bother — is there actually anything to be gained by repeated, concentrated listening to Stockhausen’s Gruppen, say? And then there are those total blind spots, mine being Mahler. His bloated works seem to me like the allure of the planet jupiter: an awesome, intimidating planet that’s really just a gas giant.

As a listener, one has to train oneself. You have to have a good musical memory. All music is remembering what came before, enjoying the note or chord of the moment, and anticipating the direction of travel. If you are genuinely just letting it ‘wash over you’, as so many people say, you might as well be given an automated machine that plucks random notes of a scale. Music only works when the listener observes and remembers the patterns of the music, or else phrasing and surprise and development is meaningless to them.

New musical styles will obviously mean new demands on the listener. I am least acquainted with late romanticism, perhaps, so it takes many more listens before I can step back and perceive the music’s architecture. There is something mathematical about music in this sense. Music is an unanswered question, but pieces of music are attempts at answers — the working out when one tries to solve an equation. A listener has to follow the logic of that working out, and that should be an interesting and revelatory thing, but not necessarily easy until it is learned.

There are too many instances to count where a work was utterly incomprehensible to me — then a month later I’d be listening to it with such understanding that I would feel as if I were inside the music itself. I’m never exactly sure what I did to get from A to B, except listen a lot, nor am I sure why certain works can seem so abstruse at first. But that process is among the most exciting things about music, like shaking and feeling and eventually ripping open a Christmas present. I’ll end with Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, just one recent instance of this: