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BBC Young Composer 2020

The BBC have launched this year’s BBC Young Composer competition. Previously known as the BBC Proms Inspire Competition and the BBC Young Composer of the Year, the annual competition is open to composers aged between 12 and 18 from across the UK. Winners take part in a development programme and work with a mentor composer on a composition for the BBC Concert Orchestra, to be performed at the BBC Proms in 2021 in a special young composers concert. The closing date for entries to the competition is 5pm on Thursday 11 June 2020.

Former winners

The competition boasts an illustrious list of former winners including Shiva Feshareki, Kate Whitley, Tom Harrold, Alissa Firsova, Mark Simpson, Toby Young, Lloyd Coleman and Duncan Ward. 

Shiva Feshareki won the BBC Young Composer Award in 2004 and has since been honoured with the 2017 Ivor Novello Award for Innovation (formerly known as British Composer Award) and The Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize (2009). She achieved her doctorate from the Royal Academy of Music and her research has contributed to the rediscovery of some of the early innovators of electronic music such as Pauline Oliveros, Daphne Oram and Éliane Radigue. In the 2018 BBC Proms, Feshareki performed Oram’s Still Point for turntables, double orchestra and five microphones with the sound artist and curator James Bulley and the LCO. This performance took place in the Royal Albert Hall; the venue for which the work was written.

Kate Whitley runs The Multi-Story Orchestra with conductor Christopher Stark. Her composition Speak Out, which uses the words of Nobel prize winner Malala Yousafzai, was commissioned by the BBC for International Women’s Day 2017, in support of the campaign for better education for girls. Whitley won a Critics Circle Award in 2018.

Tom Harrold’s recent projects include Nightfires, a commission from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra , a Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra for Emma McPhilemy and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, A Brief Nostalgia for Birmingham Royal Ballet and Queensland Ballet companies, and Unchained, a mini-concerto for percussionist Colin Currie.

Alissa Firsova won the BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer competition in 2001. She has since received two world premieres at the BBC Proms: Bach Allegro in 2010 and Bergen Bonfire in 2015. Alongside her work as a composer, Firova is also a pianist and conductor and her triple-debut with the English Chamber Orchestra at the Cadogan Hall in 2013 as director, composer and conductor.

Mark Simpson won the BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer of the Year competitions in 2006. In the same year he won the BBC Young Musician of the Year – he was the first (and to date the only) musician to win both. Some of Simpson’s composing highlights include the premiere of his first opera, Pleasure, with a libretto by Melanie Challenger, commissioned by Opera North, the Royal Opera House and Aldeburgh Music with performances in Leeds, Liverpool, Aldeburgh and London. He also gave the online premiere of Darkness Moves for solo clarinet, commissioned by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust.

Toby Young won the Guardian/BBC Proms Young Composer of the Year in 2006 and 2008, going on to win the International ABRSM Composition Competition in 2009. Young’s works have been performed by orchestras such as London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Academy of Ancient Music, and choirs such as Westminster Abbey, the Joyful Company of Singers, and the BBC Singers. He is currently Composer-in-Residence with the Armonico Consort, following past residencies with the London Oriana Choir and Reverie and being the featured composer at the Kings Lynn and Stratford Festivals.

Lloyd Coleman works closely with conductor Charles Hazlewood and the British Paraorchestra, the first professional ensemble in the world comprised of disabled musicians. In 2017 Coleman was appointed as their first Associate Music Director and he wrote Towards Harmony for the ensemble. Alongside his composing and performing work, Coleman is also a presenter on TV and Radio including for the BBC Proms.

Duncan Ward won the BBC Young Composer of the Year in 2005 and now spends time both as a composer and conductor. Ward’s recent commissions include an encore for the Bamberger Symphoniker, premiered under Rafael Payare in March 2019 and Rainbow Beats, a work for orchestra for the South African organisation MIAGI (Music Is A Great Investment) was premiered on a major tour of Europe in Summer 2018 in celebration of Nelson Mandela’s centenary including performances at the Elbphilharmonie, Concertgebouw, Berlin Konzerthaus and Verbier Festival.

The competition is a springboard for up and coming composers. Winners and highly commended composers are invited to join the BBC Young Composer Ambassadors, giving an opportunity to develop an ongoing relationship with the BBC Proms. Past winners have received additional commissions from the BBC such as:

  • Tom Harold’s Raze for BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms in 2016
  • Grace Mason’s River for Proms At…Stage@TheDock in 2017 which was commissioned by BBC Radio 4’s ‘Front Row’ programme and the BBC Proms to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Handel’s Water Music.
  • In 2018, Alex Woolf’s The NHS Symphony which is a half-hour portrait in music and sound of the National Health Service as it celebrated its 70th anniversary. The work was nominated for an ARIAS Award (the BAFTAs of UK Radio) in the Factual Storytelling category in October 2018.
  • Sarah Jenkins, the 2017 winner was commissioned to write And the Sun Stood Still for the BBC Concert Orchestra
  • Alexia Sloane’s Brink was written for BBC Concert Orchestra and will be premiered on Thursday 19thMarch at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre, London. Details at https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ezhn5v
  • The BBC Singers’ commission for International Women’s Day 2020 entitled Seven Ages of Woman features 7 composers including Helena Paish and Electra Perivolaris
  • Mark Simpson is currently Composer in Association with the BBC Philharmonic, works include The Immortal and his Clarinet Concerto

The competition

Each year the compositions are judged by a panel of leading composers and music industry professionals who have a keen interested in finding and developing young talent. This year the judges include Errollyn Wallen, Shiva Feshareki (former winner), Matthew Kaner and the Director of the Proms, David Pickard. More judges will be announced soon.

The judges will assess the submissions based on compositional idea, originality and creativity and entries are judged in three categories:

Junior Category aged 12-14

Junior Category aged 15-16.

Senior Category aged 17-18

(Note: age category is determined by age on the closing date)

To enter, compositions should be uploaded to www.bbc.co.uk/youngcomposer where the applicants have a form to complete alongside submitting the audio composition file. Compositions can include any instrumentation such as voices, acoustic instruments, electronic instruments and computer-generated sounds.

Past participants have highlighted benefits of taking part in the competition such as meeting people with similar interests, having the opportunity to collaborate, working with established composers and hearing their works performed by professional musicians.

So why not enter the competition this year? The closing date for entries to the competition is 5pm on Thursday 11 June 2020.

For more inspiration, listen to works by former winners at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p030pblf

Featured images source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_W.Bubbles%27_Music_Writing_Pen(32869862850).jpg

Stravinsky & Diaghilev – Anniversary of a Collaboration

1920 was a busy year for Stravinsky and Diaghilev with the premiere of the ballet Le Chant du Roissignol on 2nd February and the premiere of Pulcinella on 15th May.

Stravinsky first worked with Diaghilev on L’Oiseau de Feu (The Firebird) in 1910. The work is of interest both as Stravinsky’s breakthrough piece and as the beginning of one of the most well known collaborations in the ballet world.

Le Chant du roissignol

Le Chant du Roissignol ballet premiered on 2nd February but had it’s origins in Stravinsky’s opera Le Rossignol (The Nightingale), based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, which he began working on in 1908. In 1917, Stravinsky adapted the music into a Symphonic Poem.

The first act of the opera was written in 1908, with acts two and three written between 1913 and 1914. Stravinsky put the work on the opera on hold while he worked with Diaghilev on L’Oiseau de Feu (The Firebird), Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. An original costume design from The Rite of Spring is pictured above.

Stravinsky’s commented on his decision to adapt the work into a Symphonic Poem:

I reached the conclusion—very regretfully, since I was the author of many works for the theatre—that a perfect rendering can be achieved only in the concert hall, because the stage presents a combination of several elements upon which the music has often to depend, so that it cannot rely upon the exclusive consideration which it receives at a concert.

The Symphonic Poem was premiered in 1919 in Geneva and greeted with criticism due to the non-traditional use of dissonance and instruments. This may have influenced Stravinsky’s decision to adapt the piece once again, this time into a ballet for Diaghilev.

The ballet was choreographed by Léonide Massine with décor by Henri Matisse and danced by Tamara Karsavina, Lydia Sokolova and Stanislas Idzikowski. The ballet is also divided into three parts. The ballet begins with the Nightingale delighting the Emperor of China. In the second scene, the Emperor receives a mechanical nightingale which fascinates the court, leading to the Nightingale flying away. In the final scene, the Emperor becomes ill and meets Death. The Nightingale appears outside the Emperor’s window, and persuades Death to let the Emperor recover. The Nightingale leaves, returning to nature.

After the initial run in 1920, the ballet was revived in 1925 with new choreography by George Balanchine, at the time one of Diaghilev’s students. This was the beginning of another great collaboration for Stravinsky. Balanchine and Stravinsky shared a similar taste in music, art and movement and both had a passion for creation. Stravinsky commented:

I do not see how one can be a choreographer unless, like Balanchine, one is a musician first.

Balanchine was immediately willing to take the challenge of choreographing the ballet, saying:

I learned the music well, and so … when Diaghilev asked me to stage Stravinsky’s ballet Le Chant du Rossignol, I was able to do it quickly.

Pulcinella

Pulcinella was based on an 18th Century play Quatre Polichinelles Semblables (“Four identical Pulcinellas”). The character of Pulcinella orginated in the 17th Century Italian commedia dell’arte.

The work was commissioned by Diaghilev who wanted a new ballet based on a piece which at the time was believed to have been composed by Pergolesi. This idea was inspired by Vincenzo Tommassini’s The Good-Humoured Ladies written in 1917, which adapted sontatas by Domenico Scarlatti. Conductor Ernest Ansermet approached Stravinsky about adapting the music, but this did not initially appeal to the composer. After Stravinsky spent time studying the scores Diaghilev had discovered in Naples and London, he changed his mind and re-wrote the music, taking themes and textures and adding modern rhythms, cadences and harmonies.

This work marked the beginning of Stravinsky’s second period as a composer, his “neo-classical” period which included works such as his octet for winds, the “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto, the Concerto in D for string orchestra, the Symphony of PsalmsSymphony in C, and Symphony in Three Movements, the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex and the ballets Apollo and Orpheus. Stravinsky stated that:

Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course—the first of many love affairs in that direction—but it was a look in the mirror, too.

The ballet’s creative team again featured Léonide Massine who wrote the libretto, created the choreography and danced the title role alongside Tamara Karsavina, Vera Mentchinova, Lubov Tchernicheva, Enrico Cecchetti, Stanislas Idzikowski, Sigmund Novak and Nicholas Zverev. The costumes and sets were designed by Pablo Picasso. The premiere was conducted by Ernest Ansermet.

Stravinsky

The orchestration, as is often the case with Stravinsky’s work is not a standard ensemble. Pulcinella calls for Solo Soprano, Solo Tenor, Solo Bass voices, plus 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns in F, 1 trumpet in C, 1 trombone plus strings which, inspired by Baroque ensembles, are grouped into Concertino – string quartet (2 violins, viola, cello) plus double bass and Ripieno of 8 violins, 4 violas, 3 celli and 3 double basses.

The ballet is in one act and features the title character of Pulcinella along with his girlfriend Pimpinella and their friends. The story starts with Florindo and Cloviello serenading Prudenza and Rosetta. The women are unimpressed and shower the suitors with water before Prudenza’s father, a doctor, chases them away.

The next section begins with Rosetta and her father. Rosetta dances for Pulcinella leading to a kiss which is interrupted by Pimpinella, Pulcinella’s girlfriend. Florindo and Cloviello arrive and being jealous of Pulcinella, beat him up. It seems that Pulcinella has been stabbed, but this is ruse to get Pimpinella to forgive him. Furbo, arrives dressed as magician and brings Pulcinella back to life. Pimpinella forgives Pulcinella, Florindo and Cloviello successfully woo Prudenza and Rosetta and the ballet ends with the marriage of the three couples.

Stravinsky’s Pulcinella’s notebook is part of the British’s Library’s collection and can be viewed at https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/stravinsky-pulcinella

Image source, Rite of Spring Costume: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lélue_(Sacre_du_printemps,ballets_russes)(4557057918).jpg

The Nutcracker

On 18th December 1892, Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker was premiered at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Although the ballet is now popular throughout the world, the premiere was not well received, with popularity only coming after Tchaikovsky worked the music into a Suite.

Following the success of Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky was looking for inspiration for his next ballet and a gift of a new Russian translation of E.T.A Hoffmann’s story Nussknacker und Mausekönig gave him a story he could work with. It has been suggested that his love of the ballet Coppelia by Delibes, premiered in 1870, which was also based on two Hoffmann stories, Der Sandmann (The Sandman) and Die Puppe (The Doll) may have influenced his decision. Hoffmann’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig mixes reality and fantasy and there is some debate as to whether it was written as a children’s story or not due to the philosophical content and allusions unlikely to have been understood by children.

Tchaikovsky had collaborated with Marius Petipa on Sleeping Beauty, and so they set out to work together on The Nutcracker. Petipa took Hoffmann’s story and provided a scenario with detailed notes on action and dance plan with some suggestions for the music. However Petipa fell ill and passed the task to Lev Ivanov who had worked with him on Sleeping Beauty. Ivanov had previous devised the dances for Borodin’s Prince Igor and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mlada.

The ballet is now a firm family favourite, and tells the story of a Christmas gathering where Drosselmeyer, a local councilman, toymaker and magician appears. He brings dancing dolls to entertain the children, then gives Clara and Fritz a toy for them: A wooden nutcracker which is carved in the shape of a man. Clara immediately takes a liking to it however Fritz breaks it, leaving Clara upset. Once everyone is in bed, Clara creeps downstairs to check on the broken Nutcracker and as the clock strikes midnight she sees Drosselmeyer on top of the Christmas tree which begins to grow as does the nutcracker. Mice appear, led by their King and begin to fight with an army of gingerbread soldiers.

The nutcracker leads the army of gingerbread soldiers and tin soldiers, as the Mouse King advances on the still-wounded nutcracker, Clara throws her slipper at him, distracting him long enough for the nutcracker to stab him.

As the mice retreat, in true fairy tale style, the nutcracker transforms into a handsome price, leading Clara to his Kingdom through a pine forest in the snow.

The second act begins in the Land of Sweets which is being ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Prince’s absence. When Clara and the Prince arrive, he tells how Clara saved him from the Mouse King and returned him to his human form. To celebrate his return and to honour Clara, a celebration is staged with dances from around the world, ending with a performance by the Sugar Plum Fairy.

A final dance is performed by all the sweets, before the Sugar Plum Fairy ushers Clara and the Prince down from their throne. He bows to her, she kisses Clara goodbye, and leads them to a reindeer drawn sleigh. It takes off as they wave goodbye to all the subjects who wave back.

For the full ballet, watch the Mariinsky Theatre’s performance here:

Having been influenced by Haydn’s Toy Symphony and Bernhard Romberg’s Kinder-Symphonie, Tchaikovsky includes some unusual instruments in the scoring of The Nutcracker including toy trumpet, rattle and bird calls. He also included a celeste. He wrote in a letter:

I have discovered a new orchestral instrument in Paris, something between a small piano and a Glockenspeil, which a divinely beautiful tone… I want to ask you to order one of these instruments… have it sent direct to Petersburg; but no-one there must know about it. I am afraid that Rimsky-Korsakov or Glazunov might hear of it and make use of the new effect before I can.

After the premier of the ballet, Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother

The staging … was splendid … even too splendid – one’s eyes grew tired of this luxuriance.

There were mixed reviews of the first performance, The St Petersburg Gazette stated:

A more tedious work was never seen…

However, the St Petersburg News-sheet declared

Concerning the music of this ballet, it is hard to say which number is best, for everything from beginning to end is beautiful, melodious, original and individual.

It is this view that seems to resonate with audiences of the ballet and the suite today.

For a sneaky peek at how the Royal Ballet create the wonder and spectacle of The Nutcracker at The Royal Opera House, watch this video:

Leopold Mozart: Composition and Controversy

November 2019 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Leopold Mozart (November 14, 1719 – May 28, 1787). Perhaps often primarily known as the father of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Leopold is an almost mythical figure, equated, perhaps partly thanks to the blockbuster film Amadeus, with a stern and conflicted father/son relationship. 

Another interpretation is that Leopold, who had supported his child prodigy son for many years, was concerned as Wolfgang pushed for more independence that his son was unfit to look after himself – a worry which proved to be grounded in reality.

Leopold and his wife Anna Maria had seven children, but only his daughter Maria Anna (Nannerl) and his youngest son Wolfgang survived past infancy. His parenting of his adult children is largely the subject that causes controversy, but it seems possible that his over-involvement was motivated by love rather than any negative emotion. Being guardian to such precocious children must have been a huge responsibility.

Although he expended huge amounts of energy promoting his son Wolfgang and his daughter Nannerl, gradually making this the focus of his life, Leopold Mozart was an extraordinary and well-respected musician himself. His 1756 treatise on violin playing ranks alongside those of Flesch and Galamian in the history of violin pedagogy. His skill and influence as a violinist and violin teacher is evident through the work of his son, in particular the violin concertos, and Leopold’s book is a valuable resource for understanding the both development of violin technique and historic musical ornamentation.

His own career as a court musician and composer was somewhat hampered by the amount of time he spent travelling with his children, and his most significant contribution is considered to be his teaching. From 1743 he worked as fourth violinist in the musical establishment of Count Leopold Anton von Firmian, the ruling Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. In 1758 he was promoted to second violinist, and in 1763 to deputy Kapellmeister, but numerous others were promoted over him to the position of Kapellmeister. His compositions were widely circulated, but biographers describe them with adjectives such as, “undistinguished.”

It’s fair to say that the discovery of his children’s talent transformed his life. He once referred to his son as, “The miracle which God let be born in Salzburg.” He began touring with the children in 1762, travelling to cities including Paris, London, Munich and Vienna to perform for both public and aristocracy. It’s unclear whether these tours generated much income. Whist the audience was extensive, costs must have been high, and Leopold was unable to continue his own work for the duration of the trips.

According to the Grove Dictionary, Nannerl later claimed that he “entirely gave up both violin instruction and composition in order to direct that time not claimed in service to the prince to the education of his two children.” After 1762 he seemed to limit his writing to revising his earlier compositions and he composed nothing after 1771.

Leopold’s support for Nannerl was significant. After her marriage, her father would still take care of shopping and the engagement of servants, send her news from Salzburg, Munich, and Vienna to divert her, organise the maintenance of her fortepiano, pay for Wolfgang’s music to be copied and arranged for her to receive it, look after her health, and, according to Halliwell, encouraged her to stand up to her husband when he was being unreasonable. Nannerl’s marriage involved her looking after five step children, and her own son (born in 1785) was initially raised by entirely by Leopold. It is possible that Leopold had hoped to train another child prodigy, but he died in 1787 when little Leopold was not quite two years old.

Scholars are still conflicted over his role as father. Some see him as misrepresented, and frustrated in being unable to guide his son into the sort of role his talent deserved. Others feel he was unable to give his adult children independence, which resulted in considerable problems for them.

As a composer, his contribution is less controversial. He willingly sacrificed his own career for that of his son, but some work survives.

But Leopold’s Cassation in G for Orchestra and Toys (Toy Symphony) is still popular, and there are a number of symphonies, a trumpet concerto, and some other works.

According to Grove, a contemporary report described what Leopold had composed prior to 1757 thus:

“many contrapuntal and other church items; further a great number of symphonies, some only à 4 but others with all the customary instruments; likewise more than 30 large serenades in which solos for various instruments appear. In addition he has brought forth many concertos, in particular for the transverse flute, oboe, bassoon, Waldhorn, trumpet etc.: countless trios and divertimentos for various instruments; 12 oratorios and a number of theatrical items, even pantomimes, and especially certain occasional pieces such as martial music … Turkish music, music with ‘steel keyboard’ and lastly a musical sleigh ride; not to speak of marches, so-called ‘Nachtstücke’ and many hundreds of minuets, opera dances and similar items.

He was interested in creating a naturalistic feel in is work. His Jagdsinfonie (or Sinfonia da Caccia for four horns and strings) requires the use of shotguns, and his Bauernhochzeit (Peasant Wedding) includes dulcimer, bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, ‘whoops and whistles’ (ad. lib.) and pistol shots.

Much of his work is now lost, and scholars are only now beginning to assess the extent and quality of his compositions. Some of the work was wrongly attributed to Wolfgang, and vice versa. Much of what survives is light music, and it’s is not known how representitive this is of his output. There is some more substantial work in the Sacramental Litany in D major (1762) and three fortepiano sonatas, all of which were published in his lifetime, and Cliff Eisen describes in his doctoral dissertation on Leopold Mozart’s symphonies, that the G major symphony “compares favourably with those of virtually any of Mozart’s immediate contemporaries”.

Sources and further reading:

http://www.mozart.com/en/timeline/life/mozart-and-his-father/

https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/diss201019/92/

Composing the Future

On 1st October 2019, Sound and Music announced the findings of their National Music Educators’ Survey, Can Compose. The report, which is based on responses from over 500 educators, is the first of it’s kind to look specifically at creativity and composers.

Sound and Music believe that composing should be a core element of every child’s music education – and 97% of their respondents agreed.

One of the areas of the report is the identification of 5 key barriers (from the over 600 barriers that were reported) that prevent young people’s progression in composing:

  • Many young people lack the skills, knowledge and confidence to compose their own music
  • There are concerns about the relevance of opportunities for young people 
  • Many educators lack support and training in how to teach composing 
  • There is limited, patchy and unequal access to resources and opportunities 
  • Composing as a core part of music education is undervalued 

These are worrying findings for those of us who believe in the importance of opportunity for creativity and access to music for young people, however not a great surprise to the MWC team who see a wide range of musical opportunities for young people in schools in many areas, but speak to teachers who do not have the skills to teaching composition or do not have access to the necessary resources.

Sound and Music suggest that these findings point to the need for changes in perceptions, provision, practice and policy.

As well as identifying the barriers to young people composing, Sound and Music’s report also identifies 5 outcomes to address the barriers:

  • There should be more opportunities for young people to compose in and out of school 
  • Opportunities for young people to compose should be more relevant and diverse 
  • There should be improved provision of training, support and resources for educators, music education hubs and schools 
  • There should be improved progression pathways through better networks and signposting 
  • More value should be placed on composing

Sound and Music state:

“We want to see a world where more young people have the opportunity, skills and confidence to create their own music; where their creativity and imagination can flourish; and where the composers of the future, key to the success of many of the UK’s creative industries, are nurtured.”

This is a sentiment that we, at MWC, fully support.

Key Findings

Key findings from the report include:

97% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that creating and composing music should be a core element of music education

96%  of respondents agreed that creating and composing music enables children and young people to develop their identity and their wellbeing

97% of respondents also agreed that there should be more opportunities for students to compose their own music

Young peoples’ confidence and performance opportunities

An important point for consideration is that young people’s confidence in composing declines throughout their time in education up to the age of 16. By age of 16 and over, the confidence in composing seems to return a little, however, the number of young people participating in music education in schools at this stage is a very small proportion of all young people. One concern is that many students lack confidence in themselves as composers and worry about being judged. The report suggests this lack of confidence to experiment and make mistakes when learning to compose has its roots in a number of the issues identified throughout the survey. The report further suggests that this lack of confidence is compounded by the systemic deprioritisation of composing compared to performing.

Also highlighted in the Sound and Music report is the fact that opportunities for young people to hear their own compositions performed live are extremely limited. The research found that there is a mismatch between students composing and works being performed.

Teachers confidence and CPD

The research suggests that teachers and educators are not accessing training and Continuing Professional Development focused on composing with only 41% of respondents reporting that they had received composing-focused Continuing Professional Development (CPD) within the last 5 years. Educators seem to value to CPD with 45% of respondents agreeing that “CPD for themselves and colleagues” that be the activity that would most benefit young people. Linked to this is a lack of confidence in educators regarding assessing composing, particularly for exams. Educators’ confidence can be undermined by exam boards’ assessment methodologies, which are not always perceived to be reliable or transparent.

As educators do not always feel confident teaching composing, the report found that schools increasingly rely on external music tuition to fulfil curriculum and examination requirements, which particularly impacts composing,

The question “what would most benefit young people to compose music?”, 38% of those respondents directly involved in teaching music, and 45% of those respondents working for organisations, said that better teaching resources would help them support composing activity.  This was broken down with categories most frequently given as school facilities, equipment and space (34% of responses within this category), including the need for more technology and equipment; insufficient breakout spaces for group composing activity; and a lack of accessible instruments for pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. This last point is highlighted in the finding that music educators struggle to support young people who face disabling barriers to composing and creating music.

Also identified as something that would help young people compose was access to composers. The report suggests “Providing young people with more opportunities to work alongside composers, and supporting composers in developing their skills as educators, are two important steps that educators feel the music education sector needs to take.”

Concern about the future of music in schools

A concern that MWC has raised in numerous blogs is the challenge that music as a curriculum subject is being deprioritised. In the Sound and Music report, 78% of respondents identified the deprioritisation of music as a curriculum subject or lack of time for music within the school curriculum as barriers to young people composing their own music.

Recommendations

The report goes on to identify ways to create opportunities and support young people to compose. These recommendations link to key areas:

  • Creating more opportunities for young people to compose both in and out of school
  • More relevant and diverse opportunities for young people to compose
  • An improved offering of training, support and resources for educators, music education hubs and schools
  • Clear signposting to improved progression pathways with better networks
  • A higher value to be placed on composing

To read the full report visit http://soundandmusic.org/projects/can-compose-national-music-educators-survey

Clara Schumann – prodigy, performer, proponent and pioneer

Clara Wieck was born in Leipzig in September 1819. Although for decades she has been predominantly known as the ‘wife of Robert Schumann,’ her contribution to music as a performer, composer and inspiration was immense.

As a woman in a male-dominated world, she gives us a fascinating glimpse into creative relationships, and perhaps a sense of what other women could and did achieve, despite the familiar list of traditionally male historic composers.

She is to be celebrated for her own achievements, for the support she gave to Schumann and Brahms amongst others, and for the lost voices of many other women who were unable to achieve the same level of emancipation. Notably, while Clara’s work has often been marginalised by claims that her husband was the ‘real’ composer behind her work, she earned most of the money in the Schumann household, which was extremely unusual for the time, and her pieces were more popular than his.

Clara Schumann was a child prodigy. As Schumann’s wife she juggled an international solo career with motherhood to eight children, seven of whom survived infancy. She composed, promoted and inspired a vast amount of music, shaping the 19th century in a way few other artists could. 

Daughter of the ambitions piano teacher and instrument dealer, Friedrich Wieck, Clara Schumann spent the first 25 years of her life in Leipzig. Before her birth, her father had resolved that she would be a great musician. She made her concert debut in Leipzig’s Gewandhaus at the age of nine, her first complete piano recital was in 1830 (age 11) and her first extended tour to cities including Paris, Vienna, Copenhagen and St. Petersburg, was in 1831.

In 1830, Robert Schumann came to live and study with Weick. Seven years later, when Clara was 18, he asked permission to marry her. Weick objected and did all he could to prevent the wedding, but Robert and Clara went ahead, marrying the day before her 21st birthday, on September 12th 1840. 

From a modern perspective the image of the pushy father who had already decided his daughter’s career path and a man of 20 moving to live in a household where he subsequently married the daughter who had been 11 on first meeting doesn’t scream emancipation. But Clara was ambitious, and within the framework of society at the time, this path allowed her familial and creative happiness.

Her playing was said to be characterised by technical mastery, poetic spirit, thoughtful interpretation, a singing, tone, depth of feeling and strict observance of the composer’s markings. At the age of 13, she was one of the first pianists to perform from memory – standard practice amongst concert pianists today.

It was expected in the 1830s for performers to play their own compositions in recitals and Clara’s early compositions were written to show off her skills as a pianist, including writing for wide stretches up to tenths, due to her large hands.

Clara was just 13 when she began working on her Piano Concerto Op 7 and she performed it just after her 16th birthday at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. The work showcased Clara’s skill on the piano and gives the impression of improvisation. 

The work is being performance at the BBC Proms on Sunday 18thAugust at 7:30pm and will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.

One reviewer commented, “If the name of a female composer were not on the title one would never think it was written by a women.” However not all reviews were positive and one critic took issue with the unconventional key changes between movements. His only explanation for this was that, “Women are moody.” Comments such as these may help to explain Clara’s insecurities about her compositions.

While Clara’s ambitions as a concert pianist and composer were naturally hindered by the responsibilities of family life (though she still managed a career total of 38 concert tours outside of Germany), Robert encouraged her to compose. Their musical discourse was intense, and they studies scores, performances and literature together. They would write diary entries to each other, chronicling a significant and intimate narrative of the lives of two artists.

In 1853, composer Johannes Brahms met the Schumanns. Brahms remained a close friend of both until their deaths, despite the fact that he was in love with Clara.

In 1854, Robert, who had various mental health problems, attempted suicide, and was, at his own request, placed in an asylum. Brahms, who at this point came to stay in their home to offer support, was allowed to visit, but Clara could not visit her husband. She did not see him again until two days before his death in 1856.

Clara was 36 when her husband died, and notably, given this personal tragedy and the loss of her creative champion, all of her compositions date from 1853 or before. She simply stopped composing.  

In later life she said:

I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?

In 1857, after her husband’s death, Clara moved to Berlin. Here, she taught, performed (she played regularly with the violinist Joseph Joachim and others) and edited Robert’s works and letters continuing to support her family.

Having had a direct influence on their compositions, she became known as both advocate and interpreter of the music of Brahms and Schumann. Brahms was always supportive of Clara’s professional career, and she was the first person to publicly perform any of his work (specifically the Andante and Scherzo from the Sonata in F minor, in Leipzig, 23 October 1854).

Clara continued to travel, whilst the children were looked after at home. In 1856 she first visited England, where critics received Robert’s music coolly. However she returned to London in 1865 and made regular appearances there in later years.

She became the authoritative editor of her husband’s compositions for Breitkopf & Härtel. It was speculated that she and Brahms destroyed many of Schumann’s late works which were tainted by his illness, but the Violin Concerto, the Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra and the Violin Sonata No. 3, all from 1853, have entered the repertoire, and only Five Pieces for Cello and Pianoare known to have been lost. She was instrumental in getting the works of Robert Schumann recognised, appreciated and added to the repertoire, promoting him tirelessly. Although when she began, his music was unknown or disliked, and the only other important figure in music to occasionally play Schumann was Liszt, she continued until the end of her long career. Those, therefore, who consider Schumann to have been influential on the 19thcentury must look to Clara for the fact that this influence has been realised. 

In 1878 Clara Schumann was honoured at a ceremony in Leipzig’s Gewandhaus to mark her 50th year as an artist.

She died on May 20th, 1896 (aged 76) in Frankfurt.

Her compositions include 29 songs, 3 partsongs, 4 pieces for piano and orchestra, 20 pieces for solo piano, and cadenzas for 3 piano concertos by Beethoven and Mozart; her works are numbered up to Op. 23, with 17 others without opus numbers. She set poetry by: Heine, Rückert, H. Rollet, E. Geibel, Kerner, F. Serre, Goethe, Lyser, and Burns (translated by Gerhard).

The Female Trailblazers : Women in Electronic Music

Electronic music is music that employs electronic and digital musical instruments and circuitry-based music technology. Pure electronic instruments like synthesisers, computers and the theremin have no sound producing mechanisms like strings or hammers, but electronic compositions also include electro-acoustic elements.

A little history

Electronic music began as early as 1913 with Luigi Russolo’s conceptualisation of the genre and development of prototype synthesisers. While the 1920s and 30s saw the introduction of more electronic instruments and compositions for them, historians credit Russolo with redirecting the development of music, redefining what music could be and how it could be produced. 

Alongside the liberating emergence of jazz, the ideas in electronic music affected the way technology was uses to mix noise and sound. These concepts subsequently fed through the work of composers like Stockhausen and Cage, and into popular music, making ‘electronic’ one of the single biggest influences on 20th century music. 

As the genre developed, artists such as Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Depeche Mode, Tiësto and Armin Van Buuren have all come to be considered as its pioneers. However, despite its modernity, electronic music seems to share an age-old and anachronistic characteristic with both its classical counterpart and with the tech industries: There’s very little acknowledgement of the contribution of female composers and performers. 

In an otherwise fairly thorough discussion of the genre, Wikipedia explains how electronic instruments offered expansions in pitch resources that were exploited by advocates of microtonal music. Examples include Charles Ives, Dimitrios Levidis, Olivier Messiaen and Edgard Varèse. Percy Grainger used the theremin to abandon fixed tonation, and Russian composers such as Gavriil Popov treated the instrument as a source of noise in otherwise-acoustic noise music.

But where are the women?

Improving the profile of women

As in classical music, much has been done in recent decades to redress the balance, and to give a voice to women composers and musicians, and this work continues.

In 1998, Austrian music producer, Techno DJ and feminist, Susanne Kirchmayr aka Electric Indigo (born 1965) launched the web-based database Female:Pressure. Female:Pressure provides an international platform for female DJs, producers and artists involved in electronic music and was created to promote mutual support and communication, and to provide a source of information about artists. The database contains links to all kinds of electronic musicians, ranging from noise, free, electro-acoustic, contemporary new and beat orientated to soundscapes, field recordings and installations.

Female:Pressure has also undertaken three studies (in 2013, 2015, 2017 and with a fourth in 2019) of electronic music festivals around the world. This research looks at numbers regarding gender and clearly demonstrates the disconnect between talent and gender equality. In 2012, only 9.2% of acts performing at festivals were female. By 2017 this had increased to 18.9% – a notable improvement, but nonetheless far short of the 75.4% representing male performers.  

Image: https://femalepressure.wordpress.com
Image: https://femalepressure.wordpress.com

As well as Female:Pressure, a number of UK websites are developing and increasing their activities. These include:

Yorkshire Sound Women Network

This website includes resources such as a lesson plan on the history of women in electronic music

Women in sound/women on sound network 

Sounding the Feminists– an Irish-based, voluntary-led collective of composers, sound artists, performers, musicologists, critics, promoters, industry professionals, organisations, and individuals, committed to promoting and publicising the creative work of female musicians.

Symposiums and events are also looking more closely at equality whilst still focusing on electronic music, art, installation work and research. In particular, the research centres at Middlesex and Goldsmiths Universities are doing important work in this area.

Some Great Women Pioneers of Electronic Music

Lituanian-born Clara Rockmore was instrumental in the development of the theremin. Mainly performing on violin and theremin, she worked alongside Léon Theremin. As she had absolute pitch – the ability to identify any note on hearing it- she helped the inventor to refine his instrument for performance use. Rockwell’s recommendations, which translated into actual modifications, included increasing the sensitivity of the pitch antenna and lowering the instrument to make the player more visible. 

The German-American pianist, Johanna M. Beyer (1888 – 1944) was the brains behind Music of the Spheres, the first known score written by a female composer entirely for electronic instruments. 

Daphne Oram (1925 – 2003) was a British composer who was involved in early experimentation with ‘musique concrete’ – a type a type of music composition that uses recorded sounds such as sounds from nature, the human voice and digitally produced noise as raw material. In this genre, sounds are often altered using audio effects and tape manipulation techniques.

Oram was also the first woman to direct an electronic music studio. She co-founded the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop Sound Effects Studio with Desmond Briscoe in 1958. And she was the first woman to design and construct an electronic musical instrument.

Wendy Carlos, born in 1939, was one of the earliest composers to promote the use of the synthesiser. Now overused, the instrument initially provided an important step in introducing electronic music to audiences. Carlos’s work can be heard in many popular movie scores including Tron, The Shining, and A Clockwork Orange. 

Delia Derbyshire (1937 – 2001) was another British musician and composer who was a pioneer at the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop. She is most noted for composing the original theme for Dr. Who in 1963 – one of the first tracks ever to be produced entirely using electronic instruments. 

Suzanne Ciani (b. 1946) is an American musician, sound designer, composer, and record label executive. Initially trained as a classical pianist, she studied masters in composition, as well as taking evening classes in acoustics, the psychology of acoustics, and computer music. Before she found success as a composer, she spent some time living on the floor of Philip Glass’s basement. In the 1970’s she worked on advertisements for Coca-Cola, Merrill Lynch, AT&T and General Electric. Few people at the time understood what the Buchla synthesiser could do as it lacked a keyboard and this gave her creative freedom. The sound of a bottle of Coca-Cola being opened and poured was one of Ciani’s most widely recognised works and was used in radio and tv commercials in the late 1970s. She continued to pioneer electronic music and in June 2018, Ciani and producer KamranV released LIVE Quadraphonic, a live album documenting her first solo performance on a Buchla synthesiser in 40 years.

Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016) was an American composer and accordionist. She was central to the development of experimental and post-war electronic art music. A founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Centre, she also served as its director, and taught music at Mills College, the University of California San Diego (UCSD), Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Oliveros formulated new music theories, wrote books and explored new ways to focus attention on music including her concepts of “deep listening” and “sonic awareness”.

Other women of note include Éliane Radigue, Laurie Spiegel, Laurel Halo, Maryanne Amacher and Laetitia Sonama. Their achievements are too many to list here.

Musicians current in International Electronic Music by Country:

Ireland: Dr Ann Cleare, a composer using electroacoustics

Belgrade, Serbia: Svetlana Maras, who runs Electronic Studio Radio Belgrade

U.S.: 

Sister (electronic music composer and DJ) 

Kinds of kings– electroacoustic new music composers – 

Germany: Luz Diaz, who runs Room for Resistance, a Berlin-based queer femme forward collective focused on community-building and creating safer space & visibility for underrepresented artists in dance music.

Holland: New Emergences

Further reading:

https://mixmag.net/feature/the-women-whove-shaped-electronic-music

https://thevinylfactory.com/features/the-pioneering-women-of-electronic-music-an-interactive-timeline/

Wikipedia’s list of female electronic musicians, composers, and sound artists who work in the various genres of electronic music, and the musical groups of which they are members: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_female_electronic_musicians

This blog is written with thanks to Semay Wu for much of the information about the current position of women in electronic music.

Melody Amongst the Cacophony

June 11 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of composer Helen Tobias-Duesberg. 

Helen Tobias-Duesberg

Tobias-Duesberg produced a large and varied body of work. She was respected by her contemporaries and her work was regularly performed, yet few recordings exist and her name is not familiar.

It would be easy to draw the obvious conclusion that this is because of her gender. The contribution of so many talented and successful women in the Arts has been marginalised. However the promotion of female composers ‘for the sake of it’ seems unhelpful in redressing the balance. It could also be argued that her origins in the former Soviet Union might play a part, though she spent most of her working life in the US. With those considerations in mind, the reason for this blog is that June 2019 marks the centenary of the birth of an interesting composer.

Born in Suure-Jaani, Estonia, then part of the Soviet Union, Helen Tobias was the youngest daughter of the composer Rudolf Tobias. She never knew her father, except through his music, as he had died from pneumonia in October 1918.

Whilst his may not be a familiar name outside of Estonia, Rudolf Tobias was noted as the first Estonian professional composer. After his death his achievements were celebrated by the erection of monuments in Haapsalu and Kullamaa, the renaming of a street in Tallinn, and his name was given to the Children’s Music School in Kärdla. In 1973, the centenary of his birth, a museum was opened in Selja, Käina Parish in the house where he was born.

Helen Tobias studied music composition at the Tallinn Conservatoire (now known as the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre). Her teachers were Artur Kapp and Heino Eller. She graduated in 1943 as an organist, and went on to further study at the Berlin University of Music.

During World War II she met Wilhelm Duesberg, a journalist who was to become her husband. He was imprisoned on numerous occasions for writing stories critical of Adolf Hitler, and died of a heart attack shortly after the war. At the time of his death he was in a Stuttgart courtroom preparing to testify against several Nazi war criminals.

In 1951, Tobias-Duesberg moved to the United States. Sources describe that it was then that she began composing music, although her training had been as a composer as well as an organist. The music she wrote was a far cry from much of the contemporary work at the time. In fact, in a swipe at the direction of classical music in the 1960’s and 70’s, Leonard Bernstein described her as a female composer who,

…dares to be original and musical at the same time, while all the men run around writing intellectual cacophony.”

He had a point. Her Requiem is described by allmusic.com thus:

A hybrid of the neo-Baroque and neo-Classical styles she absorbed in the middle decades of the twentieth century, though some aspects of Romanticism are evident in her instrumentation and presentation. Bach’s cantatas are the most pronounced influences, though Duesberg’s forays into fugue seem at times closer to Beethoven’s forceful counterpoint in his Missa Solemnis. But because this Requiem seems designed for practical use — specifically for the Estonian Bethany Church of New York — Duesberg’s use of traditional techniques is perhaps intended more for the congregation’s spiritual comfort than as a clever pastiche.

The writer also describes her shorter chamber works as “intellectually stimulating,” mentioning the “darkly chromatic Sonata No. 1 for violin and piano and the comical Suite for woodwind quintet, both of which reveal more of Duesberg’s character, since imitation of past models is replaced by her own ingenuity and craft.”


“Blessings” from Requiem:

Little is recorded about her personal life or feelings about political issues, other than the connection with her husband, but notably, during the Civil Rights Movement, she played the organ at Friendship Baptist Church in Harlem, the church where the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. served as a guest preacher.

The full list of her works is extensive, and the comment from Bernstein indicates a relatively high profile, yet as previously mentioned few recordings exist. Although her work has been performed on major concert stages in the United States, Canada, and Europe as well as the Aspen, Ravinia and Spoleto festivals, her online discography reveals only two CDs; Through the Seasons, made a year after her death, and the album containing Requiem,Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano, and Suite for Woodwind Quintet, recorded in 2005. Compositions include violin and cello sonatas, string quartets, song cycles, concertos, and a wide range of choral works. She also reworked and edited some of her father’s work.

Helen Tobias-Duesberg died on February 4th in the US. She was laid to rest alongside her father and grandfather in her native Estonia.


Image of the composer used as featured image is taken from: https://www.emic.ee/helen-tobias-duesberg

Nationalism in Music: A Grand Expression of Political Turbulence

The Eduqas A-level music syllabus includes study of Western Classical music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The syllabus asks students to explore this era, which “witnessed a fading romanticism and looked forward to new directions and musical challenges”.

This was a period of change and emancipation. No single composer led the way in terms of style, and artistic creativity was expressed with compositional devices including explorations in instrumental sonority and harmony, including increased use of dissonance and chromaticism. Nationalism, the use of cultural and patriotic references including the integration of elements of folk songs and folklore (often as programmatic forms and ideas) became an important feature.

However, alongside the stylistic emancipation, which has to some extent become romanticised in itself in the music history texts, this was a period of significant upheaval and in some areas of the world, restriction, dictatorship and death camps.

What Prompted the Rise of Nationalism?

Nationalism in music did not exist out of context. Rather topically to today’s political events, it was an ideological movement that provided an important factor in the development of Europe. In the late 19th century (1871), both Germany and Italy were newly unified, created from their various regional states and given a common ‘national identity’. Other countries, including Serbia, Poland, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania, were formed in uprisings against the Ottoman Empire and Russia. At a time of social and political upheaval, romantic nationalism purportedly represented a general optimism for self-determined rule by newly formed government in place of the traditional monarchies and foreign control of territories. 

The Dark Side of Nationalism

It is common for nationalism in music to be superficially explained as the patriotic exploration of a nation’s folk music in the high cultural field, which makes sense in light of the new feeling of identity. However, if nationalism can be described as calling on people “to identify with the interests of their national group and to support the creation of a state – a nation-state – to support those interests,” (Professor Leon Baradat) music could also be used as a propaganda tool. It is interesting that when current politics demonstrate the dangers of nationalism, or of strong national identity without inclusion or integration, this element is often romanticised as a positive expression in the context of classical music

The truth is, composers were not always exploring nationalist ideas out of sheer creative and patriotic inspiration. This was demonstrated with the discovery of a Suite on Finnish Themesby Dmitri Shostakovich, which was written in 1939 but only discovered in 2001. The composer had never claimed authorship of the suite, it was never performed in his lifetime, and only one reference is made to it in his letters. Why?

The Winter War began on November 30th 1939, when the Red Army invaded Finland. Research shows that the Soviet government commissioned Shostakovich to write a suite based on Finnish melodies. The commission was instigated between November 23rd and 25th 1939, with a completion date of December 2nd, representing the timeframe of the invasion and the proposed date of occupation. 

A Finnish machine gun station during the Winter War

This was a propaganda tool. If the invasion had succeeded, Shostakovich’s suite would have been performed by Red Army marching bands in the streets of Helsinki, either with the intention to demonstrate the Soviet commitment to nurturing Finnish culture and prevent dissent, or to further humiliate the Finnish people after their defeat.

Shostakovich had a notably difficult relationship with the Soviet state throughout his life. He was one of the few composers who did not flee Russia when the revolution took place, and he was kept under close scrutiny. The Finnish commission of 1939 came some time after the composer’s first denouncement by the Communist Party, and these condemnations of Shostakovich’s music were not insignificant.

In fear for his life, Shostakovic was forced to take a more conservative and patriotic approach, as heard in particular in his 1937 Fifth Symphony. His acceptance of the commission to write the Suite on Finnish Themes demonstrates this forced patriotism. Shostakovich needed to escape the Communist Party backlash and return to Stalin’s favour. His alternative, the consequence for dissention, the Gulags. 

Further Examples of Nationalism in Music

Edvard Grieg – Norway

Grieg combined elements of traditional Norwegian folk songs with the Romantic style, often using poems by Norwegian poets such as Henrik Ibsen and Bjornstjerne Bjornson to set to his vocal songs.

His Opus 25, a set of six songs all set to poems by Ibsen, is a good example of his compositional style, demonstrating his feelings about nationalism through his synthesis of compositional elements and text. The form, harmony and melody of his works reflect his close relationship with the landscape of his home country. 

Bela Bartók – Hungary

Bartók is often painted as a highly nationalist composter, but study of his music shows how his idea of nationalism developed throughout his career and actually became diluted by social awareness.

In his late teens, in allegiance to the divisive politics of Hungarian nationalism he was attracted to what was known as the Hungarian popular music, often performed by Gypsy musicians. One of his early works, the 1903 symphonic poem Kossuth, tells the story of one of the heroes of the 1848-9 revolution.

This work employs characteristic features of the urban Gypsy music, which is also heard in the music of Franz Liszt. Musical devices include the use of a minor key scale with a sharpened fourth note, a short-long rhythmic figure (much like the Scotch-snap found in Scottish folk music) derived from the stress pattern of Hungarian speech, and the emulation of the performance style of indigenous instruments. These included the hammered dulcimer or cimbalom, the sound of which was later made famous in Anton Karas’s score for The Third Man.

However, through the influence of his friend Zoltán Kodály, Bartók was to discover a very different type of Hungarian popular music – music from the countryside. Much like Cecil Sharpe who built up the English folk song and dance collection, Bartók subsequently spent much of his life collecting, editing and cataloguing these folk songs, which he recorded in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, North Africa, and Turkey. Along with 2700 Hungarian melodies, Bartók collected 3500 Romanian and 3400 Slovakian tunes, and 10,000 other melodies from field workers.

Gypsy musicians in Budapest, May 1946, image source: http://www.fortepan.hu

One notable aspect of Bartók’s research was that he attempted to be properly systematic and scientific, making use of the recently developed phonograph rather than transcribing by ear. He refined the approach thoughout his life, creating ever more detailed transcriptions and seeking out points of correspondence between the music he had sourced from people of different ethnic backgrounds.

Through this ethnomusicological study he effectively reorientated himself. What had begun in his youth as a narrow Hungarian nationalist outlook became a much broader and more inclusive view. He came to see an essential unity between the rural working people of Hungary and its neighbouring states. In compositional terms this led to a musical style with a firm base in Hungary but which was permeated by elements derived from other cultures.

Richard Rogers’ Oklahoma! The Story of a Game Changing Musical…

Musical Theatre, or ‘Music for Theatre’ is a diverse topic, and the variety and quality it offers ensures its place in the exam board syllabus. Both the AQA and Eduqas at A-Level curriculums give Musical Theatre equal weight to hefty genres like the western classical tradition and jazz.

One composer common to both syllabuses is Richard Rogers (June 28, 1902 – December 30, 1979). Rogers wrote 43 Broadway musicals and more than 900 songs, and is recognised as one of the most significant composers of 20th century American music. He is known in particular for his song-writing partnerships with the lyricists Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. His work has had a significant impact on musical theatre and popular music, and 2018 marks the 75thanniversary of the opening of his ground-breaking musical Oklahoma!

Rogers met Lorenz Hart, his first collaborator, at Columbia University, in 1919. Together they wrote 26 musicals, which were performed on Broadway, in London and recorded in Hollywood. Sadly the partnership ended in 1943 when Hart died. Their work together includes On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse (based on Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors) and Pal Joey.

In 1942 Rodgers began working with Oscar Hammerstein II who he had also met at Columbia University. Hammerstein had already made a name for himself working with Jerome Kern but the partnership of Rogers and Hammerstein took both to higher success. It could be argued that this musical partnership changed the American musical: Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals earned a total of 35 Tony Awards, 15 Academy Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, two Grammy Awards, and two Emmy Awards.

Their first work was Oklahoma!. The musical was immediately popular and ran for an unprecedented 2,212 performances – 5 years and 9 months. This was a record that it held for 15 years, until My Fair Lady ran for 2,717 performances from March 1956.

The history of Oklahoma! provides its own interesting story. The musical is based on Lynn Riggs’s play of 1930, Green Grow the Lilacs the name of which is from an old American Civil War song. The play, set in ‘Indian territory’ in 1900, seven years before the State of Oklahoma was founded, was performed just 64 times on Broadway between January and March 1931. However, ten years later in 1941, Theresa Helburn, a producer at the Theatre Guild, saw a production of Green Grow the Lilacs which was supplemented with traditional folk songs and square dance. She saw that the play could be the basis of a musical good enough that it might revive the struggling Guild and approached Rogers and Hart about writing it. Rogers was interested in the project and bought the rights to the play.

Green Grow the Lilacs

Rogers had already started talking to Hammerstein about working together with Hart. Hammerstein had said he would be happy to work with Rogers if Hart were unable to work, and as Hart was struggling with alcoholism and finding it hard to write, it was suggested that Hammerstein would be an ideal new partner for Rogers.

Coincidentally, Hammerstein had already considered setting Green Grow the Lilacs to music, but his then collaborator, Kern was not interested, so when he heard that Rogers was looking for a partner to write the show, he jumped at the opportunity.

One of the reasons the Rogers and Hammerstein partnership worked so well was that the partnership allowed both collaborators to follow their preferred writing methods: Hammerstein preferred to write a complete lyrics before his libretto was set to music, and Rodgers preferred to set completed lyrics to music. It has been suggested that this permitted Hammerstein to build the lyrics into the story so that the songs could enhance the story instead of diverting it.

The work was originally called Away We Go! But following tryouts, it was re-named Oklahoma!for the Broadway run.

According to playwright and theatre writer Thomas Hischak,

Not only is Oklahoma!the most important of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, it is also the single most influential work in the American musical theatre. … It is the first fully integrated musical play and its blending of song, character, plot and even dance would serve as the model for Broadway shows for decades.

However, initially it was expected that the show would bomb. According to theatrehistory.com

The saga of the trials and tribulations of Oklahoma!before it reached its premiere performance in New York to become one of the surpassing triumphs of the American theatre is now a twice-told tale. Virtually everybody connected with the production was convinced he was involved with a box-office disaster. Here was a musical without stars; without “gags” and humour; without the sex appeal of chorus girls in flimsy attire. Here was a musical that strayed into realism and grim tragedy, with Jud as one of the main characters, and his death as a climax of the story. Here, finally, was a musical which for the first time in Broadway history leaned heavily upon American folk-ballet–the choreography by Agnes De Mille, one of America’s foremost choreographers and ballet dancers. Oklahoma!might be fine art, was the general consensus of opinion before premiere time, but it was poison at the box-office. The effort to get the necessary financial backing proved to be a back-breaking operation, successfully consummated only because the Theatre Guild, which had undertaken the production, had many friends and allies. But there was hardly an investor anywhere who did not think he was throwing his money down a sewer.”

In 1955 the show was made into a feature film, in fact, the first feature film shot in 70mm widescreen. It was also unique in that Rodgers and Hammerstein, having held onto the rights until the stage run had finished, personally oversaw the making of the film to ensure that no changes were made. As a result, the film follows the stage version much more closely than any other Rodgers and Hammerstein. The film won Academy Awards for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture and Best Sound, Recording.

Fact file:

  • One innovative feature of Oklahoma! is the dream ballet sequence which reveals the hidden fears and desires of the main characters: A device that was later used in many musicals including, famously An American in Paris: 
  • A key element of the story, following in the footsteps of Show Boat (also by Hammerstein) and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, is the showcasing on Broadway of the pioneering men and women who had worked the land of the American Southwest. It has been suggested that harking back to the ‘good old days’ was timely as Americans fought in the Second World War. Roger and Hammerstein’s Carousel in 1945 also built on this theme.
  • Oklahoma!It opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on April 30, 1947 to rave press reviews and sell-out houses, running for 1,543 performances. Its pre-London run opened a day late at the Manchester Opera House on April 18, 1947, because the ship carrying the cast, scenery, and costumes ran aground on a sandbank off Southampton.
  • The exclamation mark in the show’s title was in common use in musical titles in the 1930s and 1940s. As George Jean Nathan, an American drama critic and magazine editor stated “It seems that the moment anyone gets hold of an exclamation mark these days, he promptly writes a musical show around it”.
  • As the end of the musical celebrates the formation of the state of Oklahoma, the title song became the official state song of Oklahoma in 1953 and is the only state song from a Broadway musical.
  • Richard Rodgers was the first person to win all four top show business awards. He was awarded an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony, and also won a Pulitzer Prize.
The dream sequence from An American in Paris

Songs from the musical:

Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’

The Surrey with the Fringe on Top

Kansas City

I Cain’t Say No

Many a New Day

People Will Say We’re in Love

Pore Jud Is Daid

Out of My Dreams

The Farmer and the Cowman Annie, Laurey, Ike Skidmore, Cord Elam & Ensemble

All Er Nuthin’

Oklahoma

BBC Proms performances with the John Wilson Orchestra:

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