Music For The Day

Ethereal, desolate, beautiful choral music by Vaughan Williams

From the hushed and mystical opening to the blazing fanfares and choruses which follow, the rarely heard oratorio Sancta Civitas (The Holy City) by Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of that composer’s finest compositions and a marvellous addition to the English choral music tradition.

I had the privilege to be at a performance of this work last summer as part of the BBC Proms 2015 season (a much better season, incidentally, than this year’s truly awful, themeless programming – barely one concert worth attending) conducted by the superb Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra and Choir.

Though it lacks the splashy, memorable tunefulness of, say, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (which also focuses on the fall of Babylon), Sancta Civitas is no less dramatic, with blazing brass and quickly moving strings as the chorus intones “His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns” – and “many crowns” crisply emphasised by percussion, adding suitably apocalyptic weight to these extracts from the Book of Revelation.

The offstage boys chorus, trumpet and tenor solo are also used to great effect – acoustically, this worked particularly well in the Proms setting of the Royal Albert Hall – and the piece closes in the same foreboding murmur in which it begins.

As Michael Steinberg puts it in “Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide”, describing the culmination of the piece:

And now comes the miracle in this great work, a new voice, a solo tenor, saved for this moment, and singing just sixteen words: “Behold, I come quickly, I am the bright and the morning star. Surely I come quickly.” Barely above the threshold of audibility the choir, ppp and parlando, responds: “Amen. Even so, come, Lord.” And with last recollections of the opening music, the vision of Sancta Civitas fades beyond our hearing.

Sancta Civitas is performed all too rarely, which is a great shame. The score possesses a rare, brooding, desolate beauty – particularly understandable, perhaps, given that it was composed in 1923-5 and had its premiere during the 1926 General Strike, so soon after the guns of the First World War fell silent.

Religiously speaking, this is an inescapably austere vision of the Holy City. No clouds and rainbows and reunions with long-deceased pets here; this is a vision of the Holy presence of God which strikes awe and no small amount of fear in the heart. Part of me responds positively to this – often the Christian faith today seems to be sanitised or presented in U-rated form, be it deliberately childish-sounding worship songs or watered down teaching of core doctrine. Sancta Civitas evokes something much more traditional and even severe, which in some ways is no bad thing.

Regardless: here is quintessentially Modern English choral music at its very best – but you probably have to be in the right mood.

 

Sancta Civitas - Vaughan Williams - BBC Proms

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Music For The Day

“The Fairy Garden” from Mother Goose Suite by Maurice Ravel (1910), performed here by the Scott Brothers duo in the original piano duet arrangement:

 

I had not previously encountered this duo, but the Scott Brothers’ official biography on their website states:

International Piano Magazine said of ‘Duets for Piano’ “I doubt whether Debussy’s Petite Suite or Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye have ever sounded more beguiling on disc.”

I am also new to this particular arrangement of “Ma Mère L’oye”, having heard it for the first time as an encore to yesterday’s BBC Prom concert, performed by acclaimed pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the conductor Philippe Jordan taking the other hot seat.

The piece has many of the hallmarks that characterise so much of Ravel’s writing for piano – beautiful melodies; clean, sparse and somewhat melancholy chords; and a wonderful sparkling sound that always conjures in my mind an image of crystal clear water in a bubbling brook.

 

And above is the orchestral version, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Charles Munch.

Yet another example of why Maurice Ravel remains the most gifted orchestrator ever to have lived.

A Musical Glass Ceiling, Finally Broken

For the first time ever, the person given the honour of conducting the Last Night of the Proms, that great British musical occasion, will be a woman. An exceptionally well qualified woman, Marin Alsop.

 

Yes, I’m biased. Alsop is a protege of one of my musical heroes, Leonard Bernstein. But she has also distinguished herself through her very well-received tenures with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Bournemouth Symphony.

Female conductors are still an incredibly rare site on the podium, as the Telegraph article relates:

Female conductors are about as common as hen’s teeth. A comedian friend of mine once said that a comic is always the person facing the wrong way, and this is doubly true of a conductor. If a comedian onstage is the only individual in the room facing the audience, then a conductor is the only person on stage facing the performers.

To put yourself in a position where you are neither orchestra nor audience, that is to say, a unique figure, elevated on your own little platform, essentially telling everyone in the room what to do (you listen; you play) requires a rather particular set of personal characteristics that we probably traditionally associate with men, slightly crazy, arrogant, wild-eyed men.

The series of summer musical concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and associated venues, collectively known as the BBC Promenade Concerts, have expanded boundaries in a number of areas. We have already had the first American conductor to take charge of the Last Night – the excellent (and underappreciated) Leonard Slatkin, of St. Louis fame. The Proms now include outdoor concerts, late night concerts, and science fiction themed concerts (to the delight of many Doctor Who fans). This is all well and good. But the announcement that Alsop will be the first woman to conduct the BBC Symphony on this illustrious occasion should serve as a reminder that much more needs to be done before women are fully represented at the highest levels of classical music. Alsop has blazed a trail, but there are far too few younger women following in her wake.

That is not to say that there are no other women conductors of great talent and some renown – one might think of the excellent Xian Zhang, who occasionally guest conducts the London Symphony Orchestra – but this wikipedia page shows the depressing truth of the matter. Just 61 entries.

As always, I shall look forward to the upcoming Proms season, and to the Last Night. But the fact that we are celebrating this particular milestone only in the year 2013 should give us all pause for thought.

Music For The Day

“Midnight” from the Cinderella Suite by Sergei Prokofiev:

 

An excellent and dramatic depiction of the clock striking midnight at the ball.

I had the pleasure of seeing the London Symphony Orchestra perform the entire ballet score at their recent BBC Proms concert the other night – as usual, they were on top form, particularly the woodwind section and the excellent and surprising offstage brass ensemble that played from the balcony during one particularly exciting section.

A review of the performance can be found here.