Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: The Symphony Lost in the Mail

Mail truck driving off with papers flying out the back, stick figure aghast

So, George said to Ralph,
“You should write a symphony.”
He pondered the thought.

He had some sketches,
Some tone poems that would do,
And he set to work.

After the debut,
He sent it to Germany
To a conductor.

It never got there.
A war broke out; it was lost.
What would Ralph do now?

Ralph called his friend George,
Who had been reviewing it
As it was written.

And with some others,
Ralph rebuilt the symphony.
It would live again!

That’s the story of
A London Symphony of
One Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The above haiku (although simplistic) is the true story of A London Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams.  In a biography, Vaughan Williams is quoted as saying,

We were talking together one day when he said in his gruff, abrupt manner: ‘You know, you ought to write a symphony’. I answered… that I’d never written a symphony and never intended to… I suppose Butterworth’s words stung me and, anyhow, I looked out some sketches I had made for… a symphonic poem about London and decided to throw it into symphonic form… From that moment, the idea of a symphony dominated my mind. I showed the sketches to George bit by bit as they were finished…1

The Butterworth in the quote is English composer George Butterworth, a personal favorite of mine.  Vaughan Williams dedicated A London Symphony to Butterworth.

The symphony was first performed in 1914.  Thereafter, Vaughan Williams sent the score to conductor Fritz Busch in Germany.

After it was posted, World War I broke out.  In the chaos that ensued, the score really was lost in the mail.

Vaughan Williams called upon Butterworth and some others to help him rebuild the symphony from sketches and orchestral parts he still had.

Finally, the symphony was reconstructed.  But that’s not the end of the story.

This 1913 version underwent several revisions.  Vaughan Williams published the 1920 version.  He revisited it again, and the 1933 version explicitly states that earlier versions should not be performed.  He revised it again, and published a new version in 1936, and that’s the version that is performed today.

Except.

Vaughan Williams’s widow permitted one recording of the original 1913 score.  She was so happy with the recording by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox, that subsequent performances have been made possible.3

Opinions differ strongly about these two versions.  Some say Vaughan Williams said not to perform the earlier one; they say that later editing improved the symphony, giving it a tighter, more cohesive structure.

Some, however, say the removal of nearly 20 minutes of material from the 1913 version totally changed the character of the work.  In its original version it is more like the tone poems it derived from, less like a symphony, and it is a darker, more contemplative work.  They say Vaughan Williams cut out some beautiful melodies for the sake of conciseness.  But then Vaughan Williams himself described one removed passage as “a bad hymn tune.”2

I’m not sure where I stand on this.  I can see both sides.  I’ve listened to both, and I’ll give you links to performances of both.

Regardless of which you prefer, you will be treated to a picture of a bustling London through its day, and, in the end, through the ages.

I hope you will enjoy it.

Here is a performance of the 1913 version, conducted by Richard Hickox.

Here is a performance of the standard version.

References

  1. Lloyd, Stephen, in Ralph Vaughan Williams in Perspective, ed. Lewis Foreman, Albion Music Ltd, 1998.  “The quoted text in (a) is a portmanteau of two originals, the bulk being from a letter to Sir Alexander Butterworth, father of the composer” via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_London_Symphony.
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_London_Symphony.
  3. McGregor, Andrew, “Vaughan Williams. A London Symphony. Review” http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/88cz/
  4. You can see the revised score at http://imslp.org/wiki/File:PMLP60779-Vaughan-Williams_-_Symphony_No._2_(orch._score).pdf.

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Image attribution: C. Gallant, 2017.

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Haiku Wednesday: Tubas and More

Bass Tuba

A euphonium
Is not a sousaphone, nor
A tuba, oh no.

Though the sound goes round
And round, and emerges deep
In tone, soft or loud,
Do not believe that
Oom-pah-pah is all that you
Will ever hear—no.
For mellow is one
Of the tones that will surprise,
And, yes, delight you.

Oh, when the saints go
Marching in, the angels play
harps, cherubim, flutes;
But somewhere in the
Line, I know, you are sure to
Find, yes, a tuba.

I thought this post would be easy.

I thought I could simply contrast the tuba, euphonium, sousaphone, add some pictures, some samples, and done!

But no.

It wasn’t long before I found the saxtuba, the helicon and its ancestors the buccina and cornu, and, then Wagner came along, and…

Anyway, let’s get started.  Most folks have heard of a tuba.  It is the lowest-pitched of the brass instruments.  There are contrabass tubas, the lowest of all, and slightly smaller (and slightly higher-pitched) bass tubas.  The fundamental pitch of a contrabass tuba can be 32 Hz or 29 Hz.  The threshold of human hearing is 20 Hz.  Click this link to see how a tuba is madeSee the world’s largest tuba here.

A euphonium is pitched an octave higher than the lowest contrabass tuba.  It is also somewhat smaller.  Here’s a comparison picture, showing the euphonium on the left and tuba on the right.

Euphonium and tuba

The brass instrument you’re likely to see in a marching band, its bright bell shining in the sun, is a sousaphone.  It was popularized by John Philip Sousa, the American march king.  Sousa was unhappy with the predecessor of the sousaphone, the helicon.  He wanted the sound to go up over the band.  And so the sousaphone was created.  But the original bells pointed skyward, which became a problem when marching on a rainy day. So eventually the bell shifted to a forward-pointing position.

Sousaphone

Sousaphone

Helicon

Helicon

The helicon was derived from the saxtuba, which in turn was derived from the cornu and buccina, which signaled the Roman legions in ancient times.

Saxtuba

Saxtuba

Cornu players (cornicen) on Trajan's Column

Cornu players (cornicen) on Trajan’s Column

You’ve probably noted the “sax” tacked onto saxtuba.  There’s also a family of instruments called saxhorns.  That’s because Adolphe Sax, father of the saxophone (which is actually a woodwind, not a brass instrument), was prolific in his production of brass instruments.  Here’s a page cataloging various Sax instruments.

Adolphe Sax's instrument catalogue

One day, Richard Wagner entered Adolphe Sax’s shop.  He was looking for a certain sound for his new opera.  He was shown a saxhorn, but it wasn’t quite what he wanted, so he had another instrument builder create a Wagner tuba for use in Das Rheingold, for the Valhalla theme.  You can hear it here.

Double Wagner tuba

Double Wagner tuba

And now to the music!

Here is the Concerto in F Minor for Bass Tuba and Orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Here is John Williams’s Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra featuring some flying finger passages for the tuba.

And finally, the soulful Czardas by Vittorio Monti, arranged here for solo tuba and three trombones.

Wishing you a happy Tuba Thursday!

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Image attributions

Euphonium and Tuba by user Elf at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEuphoniumAndTuba_wb.jpg

Sousaphone by Yamaha Corporation (Yamaha Music Europe) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AYamaha_Sousaphone_YSH-411.jpg

Helicon by Matthias Bramboeck (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHelikon-Stowasser-Graz.jpg

Saxtuba by Anonymous (http://www.jstor.org/pss/842482) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASaxtuba.jpg

Cornu players (cornice) carved on Trajan’s column, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACornicen_on_Trajan’s_column.JPG

Sax instrument chart by Adolphe Sax [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAdolphe_Sax_instrument_catalogue.jpg

Wagner tuba by Zanetta (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADouble_Wagner_tuba_by_Alexander.jpg


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Antarctica: Its Symphonies

Steam rising from Mount Erebus, Earth's southernmost active volcano, Antarctica.

Steam rising from Mount Erebus, Earth’s southernmost active volcano, Antarctica. Photo credit: Eric Christian/NASA

The continent of Antarctica is an unknown land to most people.  It is one of Earth’s last frontiers.  It is dangerous.  It is unforgiving.  And it is starkly beautiful.

Antarctica has been the source of inspiration for a number of musical compositions. Here, I’d like to highlight two Antarctic symphonies.

Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote the score for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic.  He then used this material in the composition of his Sinfonia Antartica (Symphony No 7). Here is the complete symphony.

Peter Maxwell Davies was selected to compose music with an Antarctic theme to mark the 50th anniversary of the Sinfonia Antartica.  After an excursion to Antarctica, Davies wrote his Antarctic Symphony (Symphony No 8).

Davies mentioned how strongly he was affected by the roar of cracking ice and an avalanche that he experienced during the expedition, describing the avalanche as “a whisper and a hiss that paradoxically seemed to be more profoundly quiet than the previous silence.”  You can read Davies’s notes on the Antarctic Symphony in the link.

This video of a calving glacier is not from Antarctica, but it might give you a sense of the wonder and, perhaps, terror, of the sounds that Davies heard, interpreted, and incorporated in his symphony.

And now, here is Davies’s Antarctic Symphony.


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Memorial Day

Battlefield memorial, helmet on rifle, World War I

Battlefield memorial, World War I.

Today in the US we commemorate those who have died while serving in the armed forces.

There is an abundance of music written for those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Charles Ives’s Decoration Day (what Memorial Day was called at an earlier time in America) incorporates Taps into his depiction of Memorial Day proceedings in New England.  Here is a performance of Decoration Day.

Walt Whitman’s poem Dirge for Two Veterans has been set to music by a number of composers.  Here are links to performances of settings of this poem by Holst, Kurt Weill, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Maurice Ravel wrote Le Tombeau de Couperin, a suite for solo piano in six movements.  Each movement is dedicated to a friend who lost his life in World War I.  A performance of Le Tombeau de Couperin can be found here.

Frank Bridge’s intense Piano Sonata was written in memory of a friend who was killed in World War I.  You can hear it here.

Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was first performed at the consecration of the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed during World War II.  The poignancy of the piece is heightened by the use of the poetry of Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action one week before the end of World War I.  A performance can be found here.  A short documentary on War Requiem from the Royal Opera House can be found here.  A recording of a moving performance at Coventry Cathedral is available on DVD.

Sadly, I’m sure there are other notable works that I’ve omitted with a similar origin.  It is utterly human and noble to try to create beauty from loss.

I salute the bravery of those who serve.

I honor the memory of those we have lost.

Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 2nd Marines Memorial Service

Boots, rifle, dog tags, and kevlar helmet stand in solitude to honor Cpl. Orville Gerena, Lance Cpl. David Parr, and PFC Jacob Spann during a service held by Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 2nd Marines, the ground combat element of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq Feb. 18, 2006. The three Charlie Company Marines were killed conducting counterinsurgency operations in Iraq’s Al Anbar province.

References

Wounded Warriors Family Support http://www.wwfs.org/wounded-warriors-family-support/information-main/about-us

Fisher House Foundation https://www.fisherhouse.org/about/

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) http://www.taps.org/about/

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Image attributions:

Helmet and Rifle, World War I.  Courtesy of Getty Images Hulton Collection. http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/photo/battlefield-grave-high-res-stock-photography/HH8040-001

Helmet and Rifle, 2006, Iraq.  22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit website http://www.22ndmeu.marines.mil/News/ArticleView/tabid/196/Article/510146/22nd-meu-blt-12-marines-mourn-the-loss-of-three-warriors.aspx