Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Britten’

music shall untune the sky

November 22, 2009

November 22nd – happy St. Cecilia’s day, honoring the patron saint of music, and musicians!

In old England, the occasion used to represent such a grand feast day that composers like Handel and Purcell were commissioned to write special festive “Odes” to the patron saint. Benjamin Britten carried the tradition into the modern era with his Hymn to St. Cecilia, a work whose motivation was both altruistic AND personal, since November 22nd is also his own birthday.

For today’s observance? I recommend celebrating by listening to some of your very favorite tunes. All of them, in fact.

Here’s the poem that Handel used, not once – but twice – for musical tributes to St. Cecilia:

A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, 1687
by John Dryden

From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
When nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
‘Arise, ye more than dead!’
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And Music’s power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.

What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
When Jubal struck the chorded shell,
His listening brethren stood around,
And, wondering, on their faces fell
To worship that celestial sound:
Less than a God they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell,
That spoke so sweetly, and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?

The trumpet’s loud clangour
Excites us to arms,
With shrill notes of anger,
And mortal alarms.
The double double double beat
Of the thundering drum
Cries Hark! the foes come;
Charge, charge, ’tis too late to retreat!

The soft complaining flute,
In dying notes, discovers
The woes of hopeless lovers,
Whose dirge is whisper’d by the warbling lute.

Sharp violins proclaim
Their jealous pangs and desperation,
Fury, frantic indignation,
Depth of pains, and height of passion,
For the fair, disdainful dame.

But O, what art can teach,
What human voice can reach,
The sacred organ’s praise?
Notes inspiring holy love,
Notes that wing their heavenly ways
To mend the choirs above.

Orpheus could lead the savage race;
And trees unrooted left their place,
Sequacious of the lyre;
But bright Cecilia rais’d the wonder higher:
When to her organ vocal breath was given,
An angel heard, and straight appear’d
Mistaking Earth for Heaven.

As from the power of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator’s praise
To all the Blest above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And Music shall untune the sky!


May 2, 2009

2009-may03-fiddles01May (early May, specifically) is fiddlehead season in Vermont. Even as the little green furled fists rise out of the ground in resolute defiance of winter, cooks all over the region rejoice with recipes like fiddlehead soup, sautéed fiddleheads, and fiddlehead fettucini (no kidding, I’ve made it and it’s great.)

Today Randolph hosted the annually-anticipated Fiddlehead Festival: an entire day reserved to revel in the short-lived delicacy, learn more about it and other wild edibles, sample fiddlehead foods, and, yes, of course – swap recipes.

This evening Burlington’s Flynn Theatre resounded with the other kind of fiddleheads: the cellos, violas, violins and basses of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra in concert with the rest of the group.

It was the final Masterworks concert of the 2008/9 season, with music by Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky, Joan Tower and Paul Hindemith to conclude a whole adventurous season spent in “Music of Our Time”.

The evening got underway with Britten’s lively, dancing Soirées Musicales, one of two suites written on original melodies by Rossini. I love both of them, and apparently George Balanchine did too. In the early 1940s he choreographed them into the single ballet, his Divertimento. Soirées is not a deep work; neither is its companion, the Matinées Musicales. (It’s Rossini, remember.) But they’re satisfying in their own right for an evening at the symphony when they’re played well, and Soirées sure was, from the jaunty wood blocks to the plucky strings and the cheerful muted solo trumpet. 2009-may03-vsologo

Next came Paul Hindemith’s shimmering Trauermusic, the fortunate result of an unfortunate circumstance in 1936, as Hindemith (a gifted violist) was getting ready for a guest appearance with the BBC Philharmonic. When the news was announced that King George V had died, Hindemith changed up his prepared program and rose to the occasion by writing a brand new memorial piece for viola and strings, his Trauermusic. The work was written in a single afternoon and premiered the next day on the BBC. – Talented, much?

Less an overt dirge or lament than an offering of consolation, 2009-may03-fiddles02the work is not nearly as dreary as the title suggests (Trauer = funeral, or mourning). Cyntha Phelps, visiting Vermont from her day job as principal violist of the New York Philharmonic, gave it a heartfelt and warm performance. For some reason the passages in the upper register sounded thinner, somewhat constricted, and less resonant than those moving in the lower register of the instrument. However since that impression was not shared by a colleague in another area of the auditorium I’m willing to believe it was not the soloist nor the instrument itself at the heart of issue, but rather some other unknown variable.

Joan Tower was onhand for tonight’s performance of her concerto Purple Rhapsody, again featuring Ms. Phelps, who was commanding and statuesque in a seemingly made-for-the-occasion long royal purple gown. Tower’s introduction of the piece gives you a great idea of her deadpan humor, which had also enlivened the crowd in the “Musically Speaking” pre-concert talk at 7pm: “Good evening, I wrote the piece you’re about to hear next. And I’m still alive.”

The Rhapsody is “around 17 and a half minutes long. Depending on how fast it’s played.” (Again, Tower’s dry humor.) A continuous, colorful and texturally rich work, it’s a demanding viola showcase and it was a pleasure to hear Phelps working so fluidly and expressively at both ends of the instrument’s range.

Fresh fiddleheads from the woods behind my house...mmmm.

Fresh fiddleheads from the woods behind my house...mmmm.

Intermission, then Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet, written 1909 and significantly revised in this 1945 edition. During the pre-concert discussion with VPR’s Walter Parker (full disclosure-Walter and I are coworkers), composer-in-residence David Ludwig was asked to talk a little about the work from a composer’s perspective and explain what’s great about it. He pointed out the rhythm, color, and originality of the work. And those very attributes turned out to be the elements the Vermont Symphony Orchestra’s exciting, technically brilliant performance highlighted.

Tonight’s seat on the left side of the Theatre gave me perfect line-of-sight to the percussion section. Special mention here to Jeremy Levine, the orchestra’s principal timpanist, for his ultimate artistry and precision. Never an easy job, but one that’s not made any easier by the intense pacing and rhythm changes in the Firebird!

The final word here goes to to Joan Tower, who continues to teach and is also currently working on a commissioned flute quartet for Carol Wincenc and the Juilliard String Quartet: “I don’t teach composition. I’m a traffic cop”.


Curious to give fiddleheads a try in your kitchen? You can buy a violin if you’re really feeling creative, or, try my Cream of Fiddlehead Soup recipe – I think you’ll like it!

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