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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

2020 – the year of Beethoven?

December 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.

The event seems to have split the Classical Music community. Some individuals and organisations see the occasion as an opportunity to celebrate Beethoven’s musical achievements. Others suggest that Beethoven’s music is popular enough and performances and recordings of it are already so plentiful that audiences should be exploring new repertoire and lesser known composers, and particularly work by underrepresented groups.

Beethoven is one of a group of composers from the Western Classical tradition who is often given the title ‘genius’. He was a prolific composer, writing 722 works, including 9 Symphonies, 16 overtures and incidental pieces, 16 string quartets, 32 piano sonatas, 20 sets of variations for piano, 10 works for chorus and orchestra, hundreds of songs, operas, piano trios, works for wind ensembles and concertos for violin, piano and a lost work for oboe. His development of musical forms such as the symphony, string quartet and piano sonata are seen as revolutionary, and his influence on later composers is often cited.

If you want to take 2020 as the year to explore Beethoven’s works further, check out #TheCompleteBeethoven on Twitter for advice from The Symphonist or follow the hashtag #Beethoven2020.

Beethoven led an interesting life. His father was abusive, he struggled with his health, he lived in politically turbulent times, his romantic life was complicated and he suffered hearing loss. However there are stories of his bad temper and of his poor treatment of his sister-in-law and nephew. All these elements add to the image of a tortured genius, a persona that has appealed to audiences and, it could be argued, has helped keep his music popular over the past 200 years. 

As Beethoven’s work is frequently performed, recorded and broadcast on radio, should we take his 250th anniversary as an opportunity to enjoy ever popular works such as his 9th Symphony and 5th Piano Concerto, or should we explore some of his lesser known works, such as his works for military band…

or his songs…

Or should we be exploring more obscure composers? As William Gibbons states on Twitter:

Every time I listen to Beethoven, I’m not listening to something else.

Inspired by some of the discussion around exploring a wider range of composers, Musicology Duck’s blog influenced by Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge, has suggested a hashtag of #ListenWider. Rather than recommending specific books or pieces, both challenges give categories, allowing readers and listeners to find works that appeal to them. Musicology Duck gives 30 categories of pieces to listen to including a composition of 60 minutes or more in length by a woman or non-binary composer, a miniature composition under 90 seconds long, a top hit from the year you were born or from a country other than your own, and a concerto for tuba, bassoon or double bass. 

You could take the opportunity to explore works by other composers and performers who have key anniversaries in 2020, such as:

Dave Brubeck – 100th anniversary of his birth

Dorothea Anne Franchi – 100th anniversary of her birth

Ravi Shankar – 100th anniversary of his birth

Del Woods – 100th anniversary of her birth

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) – 100th anniversary

John Rutter – 75th Birthday

Of course, there is a happy medium for those who love Beethoven’s music but still want to discover new repertoire. Ensembles such as the English Symphony Orchestra are taking the opportunity to partner Beethoven’s works with lesser known composers such as Ruth Gipps and Adrian Williams.

So how will you approach your year of listening to music? Let us know what you think in the comments!

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/

50 Years Since Woodstock

August 2019 marks 50 years since Woodstock ’69, the ‘most popular event in music history.’

Held between August 15 and 19 1969, Woodstock took place at Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York. The festival, which was billed as ‘An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music’ drew crowds of more than 400,000 people who heard 32 acts performing open-air gigs, sometimes playing through the rain.

Image: Derek Redmond and Paul Campbell

Described by singer songwriter, Joni Mitchell as, “A spark of beauty” where half-a-million kids “saw that they were part of a greater organism”, Woodstock has long been regarded as a pivotal movement in both popular music history and within the larger counterculture generation. Rolling Stone listed the festival as number 19 of ‘50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll,’ and in 2017, the festival site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While it wasn’t the first music festival, it was certainly the biggest of its time, and quickly assumed almost mythological status.

The event was recorded via the 1970 Academy Award-winning documentary film Woodstock (and its accompanying soundtrack album), and encapsulated in Joni Mitchell’s song of the same name which became a major hit for both Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Matthews Southern Comfort. 

Performers included Richie Havens, Ravi Shankar, Joe Cocker, Joan Baez, Santana, Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix.

The Effect on Music and Musicians

Woodstock had a powerful impact on rock musicians, folk musicians and those invested in counterculture. This was a transformative time in music. The Beatles broke up in September 1969, though John Lennon’s departure from the group wasn’t announced until April 1970. Janis Joplin died in October 1970 of a heroin overdose, Hendrix in September of the same year of a barbiturate overdose – two of the most influential counterculture musicians gone shortly after the festival where perhaps their fame had peaked.  

The festival advanced the popularity of many budding musicians too, and helped solidify lasting careers. Carlos Santana, now considered to be one of the greatest guitar players alive, has released 25 studio albums since appearing at Woodstock.

The former promoter of Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, Kenny Weissberg, reflects in his 2013 memoir, Off My Rocker:

The music, the sharing, and the collective zeitgeist were all life-changing…Even though I was only 21, I came away from that weekend profoundly aware that anything was possible. From Woodstock on, I embraced the idea of taking chances and following all of my musical dreams. Three days at Woodstock crystallized my life’s path.

However, Pete Townshend of The Who presented an alternate opinion. Despite the fact his band played a career-changing performance at Woodstock, Townshend’s assessment was:

The dream and ideology of rock ’n’ roll was rooted in the idea that this generation, the ‘Woodstock generation,’ were super-luminaries, but I’ve never agreed with that. I always thought that was the biggest crock of s— America has ever come up with.

The Who’s set at Woodstock was interrupted by an anti-war activist, Abbie Hoffman, who grabbed a microphone and launched, mid-song, into a political rant. Townshend hit Hoffman with his electric guitar, pushing him off stage and dispelling any idea of ‘peace and love.’

While the spirit of the festival was very much anti-materialism, and due to ineptitude it took the promoters nearly a decade to recoup their losses, Woodstock was essentially created to make money for its promoters. In the aftermath, the success of Woodstock became a capitalist goldmine. It was immediately apparent to corporate America that this young audience represented a huge untapped market.

The music may have been seminal, and the event undoubtedly changed the way live music developed as an industry, but the overriding nostalgic image of peace, love and freely available drugs certainly wasn’t for everyone. Commenting on a 45thAnniversary feature in the San Diego Union Tribune, singer Billy Joel said:

I went to Woodstock and I hated it. I think a lot of that `community spirit’ was based on the fact that everybody was so wasted. Because everybody was stoned — everybody was passing around pot and acid — and I wasn’t into it… I was there for a night and a day, and then I left just before The Who went on. I really wanted to see them, but it was very hard to because everybody was hopping up and down and banging into you. So I walked out and hitched a ride home.

Woodstock’s place in culture

This was also a transformative time culturally. Barely four months after Woodstock, the utopian bubble burst at the Altamont free music festival near San Francisco. Fans arrived in their hundreds of thousands to hear the Rolling Stones and Woodstock veterans including Jefferson Airplane, Santana and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Things took a turn for the worse – the Stones had arranged security for themselves, provided by members of the Hells Angels, leading to some festival goers being beaten, and a young African-American man, Meredith Hunter, who waved a gun, was stabbed and beaten to death. While Woodstock attracted a peaceful, multiracial audience, Hunter’s death stood in stark contrast.

Woodstock presented a place for people who embraced hippie culture to find a sense of deeper community – in that sense the festival became a flagship for counterculture ideals such as equality of race and sex. It was also a place where LSD use peaked – drug taking was seen as a way to protest, to make a political and cultural statement against society, and to have fun whilst doing so.

Issues surrounding Vietnam were very present at the time, and Woodstock was followed in October 1969 by Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam – a massive demonstration and teach-in across the United States against the United States involvement in the Vietnam War.

Image: Derek Redmond and Paul Campbell

Woodstock 2019

Fifty years have passed since Woodstock, and society is still struggling with issues of equality, war and community. Under the banner of the utopian nostalgia around the festival, promoters were planning a huge Woodstock 50 event to commemorate.

One of the main investors was Japanese international advertising and public relations joint stock company Dentsu, the fifth largest advertising agency in the world in terms of worldwide revenues (932,680 yen in 2018).

Dentsu explained its involvement, underlining how commercial the music industry has become:

It’s a dream for agencies to work with iconic brands and to be associated with meaningful movements. We have a strong history of producing experiences that bring people together around common interests and causes which is why we chose to be a part of the Woodstock 50th Anniversary Festival.

However, Woodstock 50 has been cancelled because investors “don’t believe the production of the festival can be executed as an event worthy of the Woodstock Brand”. 

50 years on, what has been called a “spark of beauty” and remembered an iconic event that centred on community, social justice and love of music has been relegated to the status of ‘brand’.

Woodstock’s impact on live music has been phenomenal – in terms of musical influence and maybe even more so in terms of the money that non-musicians can now draw from the industry. But the music and political hope that this gathering promised live on.

As, perhaps, does the ideal described by Kenny Weissberg: That anything is possible when enough people believe.

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

Movers and Shakers: Sir Charles Hallé and Sir Henry Wood

March 2019 is the 150th ‘birthday’ of Henry Wood, and April 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Hallé. Both men left a lasting musical legacy integral to the orchestral world in the UK. But where did they come from and what inspired their achievements?  In this ‘double bill’ we celebrate the lives of two great musicians…

Sir Henry Wood

Sir Henry Wood, described in an interview in the Guardian from October 1938 as the ‘busiest and most versatile of Britain’s musicians,’ began his career conducting at a church choral society in 1888 where he earned ‘the enormous sum’ of two guineas.

Born within a stone’s throw of Oxford Street, Wood’s interest in music was encouraged by an intensely musical engineer father. Trained in the UK (he studied composition and voice at the Royal Academy of Music from 1886) he travelled widely to see and learn from great international musicians.

Often credited with founding the Proms, Henry Wood was instrumental in bringing the summer music series to London. He did so in partnership with the entrepreneur, Robert Newman who became manager and lessee of the newly opened Queen’s Hall in 1894, and Harley Street throat specialist, Dr. George Cathcart, who funded the first season. The vision was a series of classical concerts that anyone could attend, regardless of income. In 1895, Promming tickets cost one shilling, the equivalent of around 60p today.

It was Newman who devised the idea of Promenade concerts on the French model and who took on Wood as the sole conductor. However, while Newman and Cathcart’s input was essential, it was short lived. Newman went bust in 1902, and the main backer withdrew in 1926 leaving the Proms without support until the BBC took over in 1927, yet Henry Wood continued.

Drawing of the inside of Queens Hall

The first ever ‘First Night of the Proms’ was on August 10th 1895. 2,500 people gathered for the concert, which opened with the National Anthem. The programme featured popular works by Saint-Saëns, Haydn and Liszt, as well as London premieres of works by Chopin and Bizet. By the time of the 1938 interview, Wood was in his 44th season at Queen’s Hall, and had conducted nearly 3,000 Promenade Concerts, nearly 1,000 Sunday concerts and 600 symphony concerts.

The 1939 Proms season was abandoned after only 3 weeks following the declaration of war: The season, which had opened during the Battle of Britain, was forced to close early due to the Blitz. The concert on September 7th 1939 was the last Prom concert to take place at the Queen’s Hall, as the building was destroyed when a bomb hit the roof on 10th May 1941. In its 50th season, now at the Royal Albert Hall (RAH), the Proms again finished early because of the war, but concerts scheduled for broadcasting continued from the BBC’s Bedford wartime studios.

Wood was a charismatic presence on stage, embracing a new German style of conducting where the conductor’s role was much more expressive, not confined to keeping time. And he had a voracious appetite for music of all kinds. He and Newman had been determined to introduce a broad range of music to a wider audience, working to democratise the genre. The concert atmosphere was informal, with eating and drinking allowed during the performance, and the music had to be popular.

As the seasons progressed, Wood developed an enterprising, challenging and entertaining selection of music, always programming new works. He conducted an astonishing list of premieres during his career: 716 works by 356 composers, including Debussy’s L’Apres-midi d’un Faun. In fact, he was responsible for introducing many of the leading composers of the day to the Proms audiences, including Richard Strauss, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Ravel and Vaughan Williams. He was also passionate about promoting young and talented performers, and worked to raise the standard of orchestral playing.

[Image by: Ed g2s/wikicommons images]

Wood passed away on 19 August 1944 aged 75. He had conducted at the Proms for nearly 50 years. After his death, the concerts were renamed the “Henry Wood Promenade Concerts”, and the Proms continues as the longest running series of orchestral concerts in the world. Henry Wood is remembered every year, by the placing of a bronze bust (borrowed from the Royal Academy of Music) at the back of the RAH stage. His legacy is celebrated at the Last Night concert when a member of the audience drapes a wreath around the neck of the bust and the conductor leads ‘three cheers’ for Henry Wood.


Pianist and conductor Charles Hallé was born Karl Hallé on April 11th 1819 in Hagen, Westphalia. His father, a choirmaster and organist, first introduced him to music, and he quickly excelled. He was a child prodigy, first performing a sonatina in public at the age of 4, and in 1828 he played in a concert where he attracted the attention of the virtuoso violinist (and inventor of the violin chin rest) Louis Spohr.

Aged 16, he studied at Darmstadt with the organist and composer Rinck, and at 17 he went to Paris, where he stayed for 12 years. Whilst in Paris, he knew everybody worth knowing, counting musical greats including Cherubini, Chopin, Lisz and Wagner among his friends.

His time in the French capital ended with the February Revolution of 1848. Hallé had begun a series of chamber concerts in a small room at the Conservatoire, but the third series was cut short by the revolution and finding musical life in Paris had suffered after the revolution, he left for England.

His first appearance in his new home country was as soloist in an orchestral concert at Covent Garden, May 12th, 1848, where he performed Beethoven’s Concerto in E flat. In fact, the familiarity of the Beethoven piano sonatas in England is largely due to Hallé, who was the first pianist to play the complete series here.

He was also the inventor of a mechanical page-turning device for pianists. The pages were set into the mechanism, which was operated by means of a foot pedal. According to Harold C Schonberg’s 1963 book, The Great Pianists: “People would go to his concerts just to see the spectacle of leaf after leaf turning over, ghostlike, without the intervention of human hands.” 

But Hallé didn’t much like London, and in 1853 he accepted an offer to run Manchester’s Gentleman’s Concerts, which had its own orchestra. This orchestra was apparently so bad that Hallé considered returning to Paris, but he was industrious and meticulous. Being the type of person who would not open a letter until he had answered all previous correspondence, he taught himself English every morning on the way to work, and he stuck with the orchestra.

In May 1857, Hallé was asked to put together a small orchestra to play for Prince Albert at the opening ceremony of the Art Treasures of Great Britain. This was the biggest single exhibition Manchester had ever hosted. Hallé accepted the challenge and was so happy with the results that he kept the group together until October. This was the beginning of the Hallé Orchestra, now one of the oldest professional orchestras in England.

Hallé went on to start his own concert series, raising the orchestra to a standard far higher than normal for English music at that time. He decided to keep working with the musicians on a more formal basis, and on January 30th, 1858, the Hallé gave its first concert.

He conducted almost every concert and performed as piano soloist at many, until his death in 1895. He excited the public about music, raising standards and expectations, and introducing new concepts and works including premieres of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and The Damnation of Faust.

A passage in the 1890 publication Manchester Faces and Places describes the change in attitude to music during Hallé’s time in Manchester:

… he declares his conviction that the progress of music in England has been greater during that time than in any other country.

This remark is illustrated by several anecdotes including this:

At that period [Hallé] discovered that if he asked a gentleman in society, ‘Do you play an instrument?’ this appeared to be considered an insult. Did not Lord Chesterfield indeed warn his son not ‘to fiddle,’ on pain of forfeiting his claim to rank as a gentleman? But since then how great is the change! A love of music is now becoming the common passion uniting all classes. A few years ago Sir Charles Hallé was waiting for the train at Derby, when a railway porter who recognised him said, ‘Can you tell me, Mr. Halle, when the ‘Elijah’ will be next performed in Manchester, because I can have leave to take my missus there?’ Only the other day a music-seller in Sheffield, who is in a position to know, assured Sir Charles that there are in that town alone between five hundred and six hundred artisans who play the violin.

Hallé’s death on October 25th, 1895, shook Manchester and the wider musical world, and his funeral procession brought the city to a standstill. Three of his closest friends, Henry Simon, Gustav Behrens and James Forsyth, immediately set about securing the future of the Orchestra, guaranteeing the 1895-96 season against loss. This commitment was renewed for a further three years whilst the Hallé Concerts Society was formed. Under the guidance of such distinguished conductors as Hans Richter, Sir Hamilton Harty and Sir John Barbirolli the Orchestra continued to thrive and develop.

In an interview for the Telegraph, Mark Elder, current music director of the Hallé since 2000 (seen in the image above with the orchestra in 2011), explains the driving force in the success of the orchestra both then and now:

One way in which Hallé was ahead of his time was his understanding that education is absolutely key to an orchestra’s success. When you understand something, you enjoy it. That’s why he was so keen to bring the latest music to England, and why he was the first person to play a complete cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas.

He also understood that to reach a public you have to make the effort to go out to them. Part of the secret, I feel, is to link the orchestra to its community in a way that goes beyond concert-going.



Both Hallé and Wood were passionate, not only about their own musical careers, but about sharing their love and excitement for music with the wider community. The legacy of these two historic artists centres around what is now a formal body of classical music but one which, in the case of both the Hallé and the Proms, still works to engage the wider community in as many ways as possible, staying true to its original intent. It is almost impossible to quantify the value of those musicians who work so hard to share their gifts, except in the enjoyment of the opportunities and organisations they leave behind, whatever the challenges they faced. In a time when the future of music in education is unclear, it is encouraging to understand how much difference one person with talent and vision can make.

Welsh Dance – A Living Tradition

Music holds an important place in Welsh national identity – so much so that Wales is traditionally referred to as the ‘Land of Song’. However, despite the positive implications this moniker has in terms of the Welsh affinity with music, this is actually a modern stereotype based on the importance of 19th century choral music and 20th century male voice choirs, and in some ways it clouds a long and unique musical and social history. 

[Image: National Assembly for Wales]

Like Ireland and Scotland, Wales has its own history of folk music, its own cultures and its own dances. The music has distinctive instrumentation and song types. It can traditionally be heard at a twmpath (folk dance session), gŵyl werin (folk festival) or noon lawen (traditional party similar to the Gaelic ceilidh). The fact that Welsh music is less familiar than that of England, Scotland and Ireland is simply due to many years of suppression.

The main reasons for this effectual annihilation of Welsh history were politics and religion. Various Acts of Union, and in particular the 1707 Act that formed the Kingdom of Great Britain, promoted the English language and the eradication of Welsh culture, and the rise of the Methodist Church in the 18th and 19th century further silenced Welsh voices. 

The fervent zeal of the religious revival of the latter part of the last century and the early years of the present century, persecuted and exiled old traditionally Welsh dances.

A Welsh Folk Dancing Handbook by A E Williams

Wales is a small country. It stretches only 130 miles from north to south with a population of around 3 million. Its initial loss of independence came with the fall of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd during the 13th century. In 1536 Wales was brought under the laws and customs of the English crown and the Welsh language was outlawed. The nationalism prevalent during the 18th century went some way to encourage Welsh patriotism, which slowly grew throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. St David’s Day celebrations became common, the red dragon (the royal badge of Wales since 1807) and an unofficial national anthem (Hen Wlad fy nhadau or Land of My Fathers has been used since around 1905) returned a sense of national identity and pride. But much of what could be interpreted as Welsh patriotism was a tourist-orientated and romanticised ‘Victorian’ version of the country’s genuine culture.

In recent decades much work has been done to advance the Welsh language and the customs of Wales. Radio and television channels transmit in Welsh, the country has an increasing presence in parliament from members of Plaid Cymru, and in September 1997 a national referendum furnished Wales with its own elected assembly. Thanks to the work of individuals and societies like the Welsh Folk Dance Society (formed in 1949) there is an abundance of Welsh folk dancing today. 

About the dances

Welsh folk dancing encompasses several forms of dance – set dance (couple dancing), Morris dance and clog (or step) dance.

Clog dancers create rhythmic sounds by the placing and timing of their steps, manipulated with foot, ankle and shoe, a wooden-soled clog. Clog dancing differs from tap dancing in that it relies on the use of the whole foot rather than the ball of the foot, but like other forms of dance it includes the use of improvisation. Male dancers would often perform solo step dances in the local village pubs, competitive displays of virility, strength and agility. Women’s solo step dances were generally more controlled and portray aspects of folklore such as the ‘Mother of Wales’ and local customs such as courting rituals.

Set dancing is a kind of dance where everyone can join in and the dance can often be learned quickly. If you have ever learned a ceilidh dance at a wedding or party this will be a familiar concept. Folk dances are social by nature. This can be seen in the Children Festival, Gwyl y Plant, where children from all over Wales come together to dance the simple twmpath dances.

Some dances, including court dances, are much better suited for display and are most often seen at Eisteddfods where the dance itself and the skill of the dancers is important. In fact, these competitions have helped to raise the standard of dancing. Dance performances must be based on traditional patterns and steps, though it is argued by some participants that this hinders the natural development of a living tradition.

Morris dancing also exists in Wales. Dances are associated with important festivals and days including Christmas and the New Year.

Welsh folk dancing only saw a revival in the early 20thcentury, making it a relatively young tradition. Its survival and progression relies on its popularity with younger generations. The tradition was suppressed for over a century, and there is no way of fully knowing what a folk dance looked like. The music and dance styles from other countries and regions within the British Isles will have influenced Welsh dance in the meantime, and these influences are as integral to the tradition as they have been to the history that built it. Old manuscripts, notations and visual recollections provide clues but no absolute points of reference that a dance was ‘exactly’ one way or another. In some ways this gives the opportunity to look at where Welsh dance fits in Wales today, rather than holding onto an authentic version of its steps, styles and meaning, opening the way for the true continuation of a living tradition. 

Welsh folk dancing only saw a revival in the early 20th century, making it a relatively young tradition. Its survival and progression relies on its popularity with younger generations. Dancing in Wales was suppressed for over a century, and there is no way of fully knowing what a folk dance looked like. The music and dance styles from other countries and regions within the British Isles will have influenced Welsh dance in the meantime, and these influences are as integral to the tradition as they have been to the history that built it. Old manuscripts, notations and visual recollections provide clues but no absolute points of reference that a dance was ‘exactly’ one way or another. In some ways this gives the opportunity to look at where Welsh dance fits in Wales today, rather than holding onto an authentic version of its steps, styles and meaning, opening the way for the true continuation of a living tradition. 




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.

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