Sunday, 13 November 2016

Early Musical Influences

Following on from bringing my grandchildren to their firstlive concert, I began to wonder what the impact of my own early musical experiences had been.

Clearly my father’s piano playing and the church played an important part (see Getting into Music). The question here is “to what extent have I guided my own musical taste?” as opposed to having it preordained by early experiences.

My teenage years coincided with the ‘Swinging 60's’. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and the Kinks permeated my young mind. Some of those influences were surprisingly sophisticated, but by the middle of the 70's I had lost all interest in popular music.

An opposing influence were the long playing records that Cla brought home from the Hendon Record Library. The emphasis was on song, mainly Schubert, but there were other important highlights (e.g. Haydn’s arrangement of “My Mother Bids me Bind my Hair” and Benjamin Britten’s folksong arrangements). Kathleen Ferrier and Irmgard Seefried figured large in this melee.

The records also had an impact on the piano music that Cla bought. These included both Schubert’s song cycles “Die schöne Müllerin” and “Winterreise” as well as the group known as Schwanengesang. There was also a large volume of Schubert’s more popular songs. These represented a wide source of exploration for me looking at the piano accompaniments. (There was a universal hatred of me attempting to sing along with myself.)

My tastes in instrumental music were also influenced heavily by Cla’s acquisitions from the Library. Once again, these were dominated by Schubert the piano sonatas, pieces for 4 hands, the myriad of impromtus and moments musicaux,  the ‘Trout’ quintet (including a wonderful cover cartoon of the string players fishing from a grand piano), the two piano trios Op 99 & 100 and the extra ordinary string quintet (Stern, Schneider, Katims, Casals, Tortelier). The emphasis on chamber music was certainly led by Cla, but I was also introduced to the “Great” C major symphony and the incidental music to Rosamunde.
Hoffnung's Trout Quintet Cartoon

This was quite a narrow fare of influence. It needed some external factors to encourage the expansion of my musical taste.

Two things happened at almost the same time. I began to learn the violin and I joined the Hendon County school choir under the direction of Charles Western. To the casual observer, Charles was a mild mannered man who presented a weak persona together with his sloping shoulders. Much fun was made of him, but he had true intellectual integrity in the way he presented choral music.

Naturally, the choir worked on the major choral works in English – Messiah, the Creation (Haydn). On the lighter side, he schooled us in Gilbert and Sullivan (I certainly remember Iolanthe, but I suspect there were others lost in the mists of my memory). His passion, however, was for the English madrigals. These were both great fun and contain sufficient technical difficulty to keep the choir’s collective nose to the grind stone.

Charles was well respected and influential as a choirmaster. He brought the school choir onto the BBC at least twice during my time. The highlight, for me, was the choir trip to Berlin, where Gertrude Stranz (Head of Chemistry) had contacts in Neukölln. The trip, long before the opening of the Channel Tunnel, was an adventure in itself. Charles never lost an opportunity to promote his choir. We sang from memory on board the cross channel ferry. The choir gave two concerts at the school in Neukölln. We also had the opportunity to explore Berlin. This included a brief strip across the wall into East Berlin (as it was then). To us westerners, this was a strange rather unsettling experience.

Learning to play the violin, was every bit as difficult as one might expect. Those hearing me practise must have had sore ears for quite a while. Curiously, I joined several orchestras but never really joined in. The process of working with other musicians meant that I had to submit to a communal discipline, especially with regard to bowing. This was something I have never quite achieved. I’m not deliberately or intentionally anarchic, it comes quite naturally.

Even so from the fringes of the various groups, got to know a much wider range of orchestral music. The highlights of these were the early Schubert symphonies (in particular 3 and 5), the Mozart A major Piano Concerto (No. 23), Mendelssohn’s Oratorio “Elijah”, Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” marches and, almost inevitably, the orchestral accompaniment to Handel’s “Messiah”. I also took this enforced expansion of my musical horizon into other areas of chamber music.

Two groups of works made a profound impression. These were the Beethoven “Rasumovksy” quartets (Op 59) and perhaps most importantly the Haydn string quartets Op 20 (also known as the Sun Quartets). The name “Sun Quartets” may well be made up, even so it is entirely appropriate. 

These quartets brought the genre out from background salon music into an era where the listener was expected to listen attentively. The form of the music was still in its early stages. The 1st violin was very prominent especially in the slow movements. The more egalitarian employment of all four instruments would develop in Haydn’s later quartet writing. Even so these 6 quartets are all emotionally powerful presentations and clearly a precursor to his “Sturm and Drang” period.

This started on me on a musical exploration that continues to this day.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Getting into Music

For me it began at home. Cla played popular songs from WW2 and Stephen Foster songs from the US on the piano. These were my earliest musical memories, caught on the verge of sleep. Setting dates to early memories is really difficult, but I guess these were when I was between 5 and 8 years old.

Curiously, I never remember my two eldest brothers at piano practice, I guess they must have learnt although neither of them play now. My closest brother, David, is a different matter. David is 5 years my senior. An age gap where the younger sibling can be real nuisance. I fitted that category to a ‘T’.

Initially, David took piano lessons from a teacher near his school in Hendon. While I certainly heard him practice, it made no impression on me. As I reached 10, my father wondered whether I would take to having lessons myself. David at that time was having lessons from Dennis Page at home. Dennis lived in Harrow and arrived at the house on a moped. It’s curious how these memories stick.

There was some doubt as to whether I had either the talent or was suitable for teaching. It turned out that I had very little talent, but plenty of energy and interest in music. When teaching young children that counts for a lot.

The initial stages must have been difficult for Dennis, but over the course of time I learnt my way around a keyboard. Reading music, and in particular sight reading, never came easily. Here my elder brother David was an absolute boon. He, of course, was practising a way at his pieces while I listened. This was not an intentional or surreptitious listening. It was simply part of life at home. I confess, however, when I got bored with practising my own pieces, I grabbed his and learnt them.

This was a cause of deep irritation for David. I gather he complained quite forcefully to Cla and Rose. But I was not very controllable and, in any case, whole episode was one of the primary reasons that I learnt to read music effectively. I have benefited hugely from this learning, in particular from the intimate knowledge of both the base and treble clefs. I still play the piano, albeit, very badly.

Dennis and his sister were both music teachers. Together they provided a platform for us young students to present our progress in performance. I remember being driven to Harrow and waiting with lots of other would be pianists (and the occasional violinist).

One of the most nerve racking experiences was the wait until I was called on stage. We young performers were in the wings of a theatre stage, trying (and in my case failing) to remain calm. I remember going through this process at least twice. At the last of these, I performed the “Gypsy” rondo from one of Haydn’s piano trios arranged for solo piano. (I still have the sheet music in my library of piano music.) Although it looks simple, it really isn’t.

Here I show images of the initial bars of the rondo up to the first recapitulation from two different sources. The first is 18 bars long and the second 26 bars. Broadly speaking rondos have standard structure of A – B – A – C – A. Second source shows the full rondo structure in its full glory, while the first is adapted for students at around grade 5 and entirely misses out two of the sections as well as some of the elements of the musical development.

Simplified version

Full Version

I highlight below some of the more interesting sections omitted from the student version.

Note the rather tricky rhythmic passages in the left hand of the second passage. I have certainly never managed this effectively on the piano. But this is taken up by the cello in the trio version and is much easier.

Notwithstanding that I eventually became a committed atheist, I attended church at Mill Hill until I was 16. Curiously, my weekly dose of hymn singing made very little impact on me. However, I was asked to accompany small children on piano at Watling Free Church during my later teens. This meant that I had to come to grips with a new hymn more or less every other week. This requirement to lead the children in, and to persuade them to sing with me was a very useful skill.

Although perhaps the most useful skill was being able to fudge the difficult bits. I’ve applied it ever since.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Live Music and Children

About a week ago I attended a workshop for orchestral instrumentalists organised by the Pulham Village Orchestra (PVO). These are biennial events and I attended my first in 1988, when my own children were all 10 or less.

This year the study pieces included Vaughan Williams, Symphony No.8; extracts from Hansel and Gretel, Humperdinck (including a couple of songs) and overture to Semiramide by Rossini. I expected the Vaughan Williams to be very challenging and indeed it was. After three fairly full days of rehearsal work, both as a whole orchestra and with tutors for individual sections we gave a performance. This time three generations of Allens and Walshes attended the concert.

Bryony, Meredith and Simon had their work cut out keeping Molly (8) and Nuala (4) from causing disruption, but they managed it. At least I didn’t notice anything untoward from the depths of the viola section. However, the order of the concert was geared for the benefit of the amateur players and our powers of concentration, rather than the audience.

The Vaughan Williams Symphony came first. It was something of a struggle for both audience and players. However the 3rd slow movement for strings only came over well. It certainly attracted Nuala’s attention. That’s quite a feat for a four year old.

Everybody enjoyed the singing in the Humperdinck but the purely orchestral parts did not come over as well.

Molly’s attention was really engaged by a recently composed duet for percussion. Unfortunately, neither the details of the performers nor the composer were included in the programme. I’ll try and locate these details over the next couple of weeks.

The Rossini overture was also attractive for both the children. Even so, I gather that their attention was beginning to waiver. From their viewpoint it would have been better received at the start of the concert (as implied by its title).

Molly and Nuala were by no means the only youngsters at the concert. It is important that they hear presentations of all sorts of standards. They will be much better able to appreciate what’s really good later on.