Monthly Archives: November 2012

Havergal Brian

Saturday, December 1st, 2012, 5-6 pm on WRTI

Havergal Brian (1876-1972). Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme (1907). Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Penny. Marco Polo 223731, Tr 1-5. 11:58

Brian. In Memoriam (1910). Ireland National Symphony Orchestra, Adrian Leaper. Marco Polo 223481, Tr 1-3. 18:48

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). Helios Overture (1903). Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Herbert Blomstedt. Angel 81503, Tr 2. 12:01

Brian. Festal Dance (1908). Ireland National Symphony Orchestra, Adrian Leaper. Marco Polo 223481, Tr 4-5. 6:07

Who does this sound like?

That’s the first question we ask when we hear music new to us. It’s as true with Havergal Brian’s as with anyone else’s—probably more true, since his music is so rarely heard, and consequently so often new.

If we know anything about him, it’s that his first symphony, the “Gothic,” is called the largest ever written, with brass bands, choirs, harps, drums, and organ along with a gargantuan orchestra. Our knowledge of Havergal Brian usually ends there.

But he wrote 31 other symphonies, and much more music besides. On top of that, 27 of his symphonies and four of his five operas were composed in the last 25 years of his life, and he lived to be 96. On top of that, for most of his life not one note of his music was performed.

Why not? One reason may be that, while he did have proponents early on—conductors Thomas Beecham and Henry Wood, composer Granville Bantock—he was an uncomfortable “mixer.” He was shy, and he was a rarity, an English classical composer from the working class. There may be another reason, though.

A local businessman had faith in his promise, and supported him with an annual stipend so that he could be free to compose. But that putatively holy grail for artists seems for him to have been a curse. It shielded him from the necessity of producing “useful” music (which generates income through performance). It certainly enabled him to spend years of work on the Gothic, which had virtually no chance of being performed.

But Havergal Brian is no hot-house flower. It’s a delight to discover pieces that in fact work very well, causing us to applaud the recent upsurge in his recordings. The Fantastic Variations on an Old Rhyme and Festal Dance are carved out of another proposed first symphony. The “Old Rhyme” is “Three Blind Mice”; the dance was originally the Dance of the Farmer’s Wife, exulting in her victory over those pesky rodents.

No one knows for sure who is being memorialized in Brian’s work In Memoriam. He denied that it was for Edward VII, and other guesses are simply that: guesses. But the work nicely illuminates a noticeable aspect of Brian’s output, which is his love for marches. Fast or slow, they’re all over his music.

So who does he sound like? Different names have been suggested—Strauss, Elgar, Sibelius, others—and all tempt in different ways. The similarity in how Carl Nielsen transforms a theme has been noted, and so a listen to his Helios Overture may offer context.

By the end of the program, though, we’ll probably agree that he does share one trait with all fine composers: Havergal Brian sounds like himself.

On the first Saturday of the month Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI 90.1 FM in Philadelphia and on the all-classical webstream at wrti.org. We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (now 11 years and counting!) every Wednesday at 7:00 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

Lonely Motel

It’s the composer/electric guitarist Steven Mackey on Now is the Time, Sunday, November 25th at 10 pm. Performed by eighth blackbird, Lonely Motel: Music from Slide considers isolation and self-delusion. A psychologist whose fiancée has abandoned him contemplates his fate while looking at his research slides.

The theater piece also rocks, with homages, Mackey says, to Dowland, Mozart, Stravinsky, Piazzola, and The Beatles.

from Steven Mackey: Lonely Motel: Music from Slide

PROGRAM:

Steven Mackey. Lonely Motel: Music from Slide

Every Sunday night at 10, Kile Smith brings you Now is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at wrti.org. Here are the recording details and complete schedule.

Propinquity

[Reprinted with permission from the Broad Street Review under “Advice for aspiring composers: Stop all that strolling, and just stand still”]

It looked like a black sparrow, except that it was slightly larger than a sparrow, and also there’s no such thing as a black sparrow. This bird was on the ground in front of the dormant forsythia, scratching in fallen leaves the way a junco does, both feet hopping together forward and backward, quick, a hot-stove touch, uncovering bugs and seeds.

Juncos are gray, though, and white underneath. The binoculars reveal, yes, a white belly, too, and a beak more like a finch’s and, oh, bright red on the sides—how did I miss that?

I have no idea what it is, but this is a brilliant bird. It was happy to stay there, too, giving me time to get out my bird book if I wanted to. But I didn’t want to. The thing now was to stand still with it and watch.

Many people think that composers do their composing on long walks. I know they think this because they ask me if that’s what I do. It’s understandable; Beethoven is said to have strolled through Vienna with his hands clasped behind his back, singing loudly to overcome his deafness, scaring children. Brahms, too, strolled through Vienna to the tavern with his hands behind his back, scaring other composers, probably. Mahler, they say, did the same stroll in Vienna, to orchestra rehearsal, rubbing hands together, scaring brass players. Or Mozart…Vienna…hands swinging free…creditors.

Vienna has good P.R. But that’s not how composing works.

This hymn needed work

I do enjoy strolls, and composers do seem to share that trait, from what I’ve read. But walking mainly benefits the artist’s psyche, not any mechanics of generating art. That is, a composer is as calmed or as exhilarated as anyone else by walking, and is just as filled with an appreciation of nature’s beauty. A composer may even think of tunes or work out musical ideas to some extent while hiking around.

But to get any real work done, you’ve got to attach your posterior to a chair and have music paper in front of you.

I just finished working on a piano piece that will be recorded soon, a short setting of a hymn tune, Softly and Tenderly. I actually wrote it a long time ago, but over the years I knew that it needed another look. Something about it made me uneasy. Overall, I remembered liking it OK…but no, it needed work.

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling for you and for me;
See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me.

Come home, come home,
Ye who are weary, come home;
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!

The recording project gave me the excuse to take it out again. I looked at it and was frankly horrified by the doltisms. Everywhere I looked, more clunkers.

Ripping it up

This would take some doing to fix. Since it was in my memory, I would think of it while driving by myself, or walking, or dozing off at night.

No remedies appeared, however. I finished a deadline for another work and then finally did what (I now realize) I had been delaying so long: I sat at the computer, opened up a fresh page of piano staves, and started entering notes.

I began by simply re-copying the old version (so old, in fact, that it was in blessed manuscript). Hmm, some nice things.

Then I ripped it into pieces. There were so many items needing improvement: muddy voicings, awkward lines, an intro that couldn’t make up its mind, dead spots, an unsatisfying ending. I plunged in, rebuilding there, tweaking here, slashing, tightening.

Too simple, too obvious

The biggest problem, though, was the “come home” motif, two notes high, then repeated low as the lead-in to the melody. Because I didn’t want them to stagnate, I had changed the notes as the tune progressed. Leaving them as just two notes seemed too simple, too obvious. They had to go somewhere. Didn’t they?

That was the problem. They didn’t need to do anything, it finally occurred to me. They just needed to call me home.

So I trashed the changed notes and just repeated what was there. Come home, come home, come home—that’s what it needed. It was right in front of me, and as soon as I stopped trying to be sophisticated, the piece started to live.

All I had to do was sit down and look, sit and listen, to stop strolling, to stop moving. As soon as I stood still, with the music in front of me, it became clear.

Love and propinquity

P.G. Wodehouse describes this situation exactly, with Bertie Wooster trying to induce his two friends to fall in love.

“What do you call it when two people of opposite sexes are bunged together in close association in a secluded spot, meeting each other every day and seeing a lot of each other?”

“Is ‘propinquity’ the word you wish, sir?”

“It is. I stake everything on propinquity, Jeeves. Propinquity, in my opinion, is what will do the trick.”

Bertie knew the trick for Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeline. It’s the same for composers. Separate us from music paper, and the music disappears.

Walks are all very well, but what’s needed is to come home and stay still. The music paper—or the computer screen—with staff-lines waiting to be noted, that’s where the music happens. I stake everything on propinquity.

I looked it up finally, by the way. It was a towhee, an Eastern towhee that I saw while standing still. It’s a beautiful bird. I do hope that you may see one.

Sweet Lebanon Bologna!

David Woods laments euphemisms in the Broad Street Review. I and others write in, wailing. My teeth-gnashing:

This reminds of the “minced oaths” that parents once warned against: golly, gosh, and jeepers creepers all being veiled floutings of the Third Commandment. Although they’re euphemisms, they’re not vulgarities, but along with guarding against offense, they advertise thoughtlessness— which, to me, is the primary problem with euphemism.

Thinking stops when cursing starts. The f-word is the spoken equivalent of the note one hands to the teacher that reads, “The dog ate my homework.”

Mark Twain wrote somewhere that an author can quickly improve by substituting “damn” for each “very” in the submitted text. The editor would then delete every “damn,” and voila.

But a friend hit upon a delicious oath that I’m trying to popularize. He was driving west, in Amish country, saw a billboard, and exclaimed, “Sweet Lebanon Bologna!” It works in so many situations.

Softly and Tenderly

My talented colleague Tim Shaw is an excellent pianist as well as a successful composer of sacred music represented by major church music publishers. He’s about to record a CD of hymns for piano and asked if he could include a piece of mine. He remembered that I’d shown him a setting of Softly and Tenderly years ago.

I was delighted to say Yes, of course, but then said, Wait. I’d composed it a few years ago—I looked: 1986, oh my, that long ago—and then I looked at the music and, oh my, much of it was quite, um, poor. So I asked for some time to “brush it up”: major reconstructive surgery is what I meant.

It actually didn’t take long, once I sat down with it, and there wasn’t much rehabbing. No, not really, just those bass notes that sequenced and oughtn’t’ve. And that treble-clef run that had one chromatic too many, and the dynamics that couldn’t make up their minds, and the pedaling that couldn’t make up its mind, and the muddy, confusing inner voices under the low emergence of the melody, and those other bass notes that really did need to change but hadn’t, and the meter changes hopelessly red-flagging me that they had no idea what they were doing or where they were going, and the doltish dead spots between phrases, and the two brief but major interludes that were shockingly mindless.

Okay, I fibbed. It did take long, once I sat down with it. I guess I knew it would, which is why I’d put off sitting down with it for 26 years. It was a good piece; rather, it was waiting to be a good piece, it was hours away from being a good piece. Hours and hours over a few days, for 33 measures, just once through with these words behind it:

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling for you and for me;
See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me.

Come home, come home,
Ye who are weary, come home;
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!

It was nice to come home.

(For the Broad Street Review, I wrote about the process of revising this; you can read that here.)

I sent the new version off to Tim this week, hoping he hadn’t yet looked at the old one. Here’s some of it on MIDI piano: 

Wayfaring Stranger

We travel over different paths on Now is the Time, Sunday, November 18th at 10 pm. Sebastian Currier’s Static, the 2007 Grawemeyer Award winner, illuminates the two meanings of the title, from stillness to electricity. Saxophonist and composer Mark Engebretson evokes fresh and engaging melodic inventions in SaxMax.

Daron Hagen walks us from grief to a bright land in the piano trio he calls Wayfaring Stranger.

Kile Smith brings you Now is the Time, American contemporary music on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at wrti.org.

PROGRAM:

Sebastian Currier. Static
Mark Engebretson. SaxMax
Daron Hagen. Piano Trio No. 3, “Wayfaring Stranger”

from Daron Hagen: Piano Trio No. 3, “Wayfaring Stranger”

Now is the Time combines all styles of concert music by living American composers, every Sunday night at 10. Here are the recording details and complete schedule.