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'The pity of war'

Saturday 15 November 2014
United Reformed Church,
Southernhay, Exeter

'The pity of war'

Second suite for Military band in F major - Gustav Holst

Violin Concerto in D major - Erich Korngold (soloist: Mihkel Kerem)

The Banks of Green Willow - George Butterworth

Symphony No. 6 in E minor - Ralph Vaughan Williams

As we remember the start of the First World War strong connections appear - relating to the desolation and destruction; the love of homeland, and the music of hope.

Second suite for Military band in F major - Gustav Holst

Written in 1911 (two years after the First Suite for Military Band), this Second Suite opens with a March that combines a Morris dance with folk songs. The second movement features a lyrical tune which tells of lovers separated by their parents. This is followed by the Song of the Blacksmith, complete with a lively rhythm played on the blacksmith's anvil. The Suite concludes with the Dargason country dance and folk song entwined with the well‑known Greensleeves melody. ShowHide programme notes

Gustav Holst was a poorly child. His eyes were weak, as was his chest. In his youth, Gustav hated practicing the violin, but enjoyed the piano, which he had began to practice as soon as his fingers could reach the keyboard.

On arriving at The Royal College in London, Holst studied composition with Charles Stanford. Although he often disagreed with Stanford's opinions, Holst was always grateful to him, especially for teaching him how to become his own critic. During this time cramping neuritis in his right hand was perpetually defeating him as a keyboardist, and prolonged practice was impossible, so Holst therefore decided to take up the trombone. It would allow him to play in orchestras and provide him with an income. Also, the experience would be useful to him as a composer.

Whereas other composers wrote for the concert band as they would for an orchestra without strings, Holst was able to create a unique sound intended to cast the concert band as a serious concert medium. Also most British bands until this time performed only arrangements of popular orchestral pieces.

Holst therefore composed two Suites for Military bands that would be accessible to as many bands as possible, ingeniously scoring them so that they could be played by a minimum number of musicians, while additional parts could be added or removed without compromising the integrity of the work.
Ian Lace & James Huff

Violin Concerto in D major - Erich Korngold

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was 50 years old at the time of the 1947 debut of his Violin Concerto in D Major, a lyrical and exuberant work begun a decade earlier. The half-century mark can seem significant to any artist, but for Korngold it held special meaning: "Fifty is old," he said, "for a child prodigy." ShowHide programme notes

Korngold, born in Austria in 1897, was playing piano at age 6, writing keyboard pieces at 8, and composing a ballet at 11. Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss were among young Korngold's mentors. At 20, he wrote his first opera. Within three years, he was one of the most popular opera composers in Europe.

This Wunderkind flourished in early 20th-century Vienna, where culture was king. As an artist and a personality, Korngold was most at home in the musical theater, where he became a colleague of director Max Reinhardt. It was Reinhardt who coaxed Korngold to Los Angeles in 1934 to adapt the music of Mendelssohn for the Warner Bros. movie version of Reinhardt's Hollywood Bowl production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Warners convinced the Jewish Korngold, once Hitler had invaded Austria, to relocate with his family to California.

With a studio contract that allowed him to keep the copyright of everything he wrote, Korngold turned his pen for the next decade to Hollywood film music, an infant genre that, with his 20 or so scores, he to a great extent created. After the war, Korngold retired from film scoring to once more write for the concert stage—to return to the world and career he'd been forced to abandon in 1938.

The most dramatic example of this was Korngold's Violin Concerto—its first movement containing haunting themes first heard in 1937's "Another Dawn" and 1939's "Juarez"; its fast‑dancing third movement originating in 1937's "The Prince and the Pauper"; and its achingly beautiful second movement from the Oscar-winning music for 1936's "Anthony Adverse." (The score for this is one of the most extensive ever composed for a Hollywood movie, containing no fewer than 43 themes and providing almost continuous background music for the film’s 136 minutes).

Korngold said this concerto was written "more for a Caruso than a Paganini," and its singing nature is declared in a soulful opening strain soaring with nostalgia. A more aggressive theme winds around this plaintive air, the moods alternating with the speed of emotion, until a cadenza has the violinist twisting in a gyre between loss and possibility. The concerto's emotional core is an almost unbearably beautiful second movement, which seems to conjure a shimmering vision of loveliness forever out of reach. A bravura, double-time third movement finds the soloist racing in staccato stride toward the future, brave of heart and eager to embrace both pain and joy. Korngold's Violin Concerto, like the rest of his music and his whole career, mixes sadness and sweetness, regret and exultation, and in the end becomes its own affirmative consolation.

No less a virtuoso than Jascha Heifetz gave the Korngold concerto its world premiere in 1947 with the St. Louis Symphony, where the performance earned a historic ovation. But influential East Coast critics were not kind to this gorgeous music that seemed so out of step with postwar atonalism. "More corn than gold," sniffed the New York Sun's Irving Kolodin.
Tom Nolan

Mihkel Kerem - Violin

Soloist: Mihkel Kerem - Violin

Since his early teens Mihkel Kerem has been a prolific composer. His work has a wide range of influence, from Shostakovitch to Schoenberg.

Compositions to date include three symphonies, three concertos (violin, viola and two cellos), and 10 other works for orchestra. Chamber compositions include nine string quartets, a string sextet, a string octet, three sonatas for violin and piano, two wind quintets and several pieces for piano. Mihkel’s works have been performed in the USA, Russia, UK, Germany, Holland, and many other European countries. He has been composer in residence at the Schleswig Holstein Music Festival in Germany and the Aurora Chamber Music Festival in Sweden. Performers have included the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra with Neeme Järvi, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, Oulu Sinfonia, Joensuu City Orchestra, Camerata Nordica and the Chilingirian String Quartet: several concerts have been dedicated solely to his music. In 2012, Toccata Classics released a CD of his 4 Violin Sonatas.
A second CD of Symphony No. 3, Lamento for Viola and Strings and the String Sextet was issued in 2013. Mihkel is published by Fennica Gehrman publishing house. As a solo violinist, Mihkel has played with many orchestras including the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, Estonian Opera Orchestra, Brandenburg Sinfonia, Southbank Sinfonia. He has performed all the major concertos, as well as some lesser known works, such as Trandafilovski’s violin concerto (of which he gave the London premiere in 2004). He has frequently lead and directed tours with Camerata Nordica and been the leader of Southbank Sinfonia and Estonian National Symphony Orchestra. As a guest, he performs with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, English Chamber Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Chamber Orchestra. Mihkel is the leader of Brandenburg Sinfonia and section principal in Camerata Nordica.

The Banks of Green Willow - George Butterworth

George Butterworth is probably the best-known of the ‘war composers’, held up as emblematic of the lost talent of his generation. A keen folk dancer and cricketer, Butterworth and his music seem the very model of a particular type of Englishman. ShowHide programme notes

Relentlessly self critical, Butterworth regrettably destroyed the majority of his early compositions in 1915 before leaving for the Front, leaving four completed orchestral works, plus a tantalising fragment of a longer orchestral fantasia, his eleven song settings of A.E. Housman, a still unrecorded string quartet and a handful of other songs and choral pieces, all dating from the period 1910-14.

Several of his works remain in the repertoire. The justly famous orchestral pastorale ‘The Banks of Green Willow’ of 1913 is a staple of the English music canon. With genuine mass appeal, a century after its premiere the public voted it 80th in the Classic FM Hall of Fame.

The Banks of Green Willow is based on two folk song melodies, ‘The banks of green willow’ (a ballad about a farmer’s daughter who runs away to sea and dies in childbirth) and ‘Green bushes’ (a common and popular tune, also used by Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger). Butterworth heard various versions of these tunes when travelling in Sussex and Surrey before the war, and his own treatment of the melodies creates new variants again. The piece opens with solo clarinet and strings creating a pastoral scene with the title theme, followed by a short development and restatement of the tune. The mood becomes more sombre and agitated as a new theme (Butterworth's own, on horns) is introduced. An animated motif leads to a passionate climax, before the music subsides and the ‘green bushes’ melody is introduced hesitantly on the oboe. This is repeated gently on flute, accompanied by harp, and the piece ends peacefully with glimpses of the title theme on violin solo, horn and oboe.

The premiere of The Banks of Green Willow took place on 27 February 1914, when Adrian Boult conducted a combined orchestra of forty members of the Hallé and Liverpool orchestras in West Kirby. The London premiere took place three weeks later, and seems to have been the last occasion Butterworth heard his own music.

Butterworth was killed on 5 August 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. He was aged 31, and was a Lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry.
Robert Weedon

Symphony No. 6 in E minor - Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams began his Sixth Symphony in 1944, when he was approaching 72, and completed it in 1947. It was first played on 21st April 1948 in the Albert Hall by the BBC symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Only two years later it had its 100th performance. It is dedicated to Michael Mulliner. ShowHide programme notes

In 1948, when the Second World War was fresh in the mind and the possibility of another seemed to be hardening into probability, this Symphony seemed to reflect the temper of the age or to be a prophecy. One sympathetic commentator labelled it ‘the War Symphony’, only to be severely rebuked by the composer for implying the existence of a ‘programme’ which he emphatically denied. Speculation was particularly intense about the strange pianissimo Epilogue which many people heard as a musical depiction of a world laid waste by atomic warfare. In a letter dated 22 January 1956 Vaughan Williams said: ‘with regard to the last movement of my no.6, I do not believe in meanings and mottoes, as you know, but I think we can get in words nearest to the substance of my last movement in “we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”.’ These lines from Prospero’s Farewell in Shakespeare’s The Tempest are the correct clue to the whole work’s emotional climate. The storms of life, of which war is one, end in the greatest mystery of all, the nature of that eternal ‘sleep’ which rounds it off.

The Symphony is given a compelling structural and tragic unity by the conflict of major and minor thirds and the interval of the augmented fourth in its attendant conflicts. In the First Movement the key is E minor conflicting with F minor. The strident opening bars explode fortissimo like the sudden release of tension, plunging down through several keys. This is succeeded by a 6/8 rhythm, mainly featuring brass and saxophone. The cross-rhythms and a succeeding ‘close‑harmony’ type tune have a jazz flavour, but were in fact anticipated in the composer’s short work for military band composed in 1924. The next episode in this close-knit movement is a lyrical tune in B minor strangely out of key (in all respects) with this tumultuous allegro. But the augmented fourth is prominent even here, with the alterations of major and minor. The development section is concerned with the efforts of this B minor theme to gain ascendancy, culminating in its delivery by full brass and, eventually, in its transformation to E major for strings with chords on harps and trombones. It rises to E and immediately re-ignites the ferocity of the opening.

As the movement restlessly subsides on the lower strings, trumpets begin the Second Movement, with a restless theme characterised by a tree-note rhythmic figure. The atmosphere at the beginning can only be described as ominous. The figure begins to dominate the music on trumpets and drums. Four times it rises to a pitch of fury, crushing all resistance. When eventually its passion is spent, the cor anglais utters a lamentation and there are three final pianissimo grumbles from the drums before the Scherzo erupts like a hell’s kitchen. Where the first allegro was tempest-tossed, this seems to try to express all the satiric humour of which music is capable: rumbustious, sardonic, scornful. The progress is from B flat to E, with difficulty and the hysterical clatter of the xylophone. The trio brings little respite, the saxophone offering a caricature of jazz and then, by a series of descending augmented fourths, accompanied by violins tremolando, leading back into a repeat of Scherzo and Trio, both with hectic intensity. The movement disintegrates and the bass clarinet leads us into the dream world of the Epilogue.

The composer described this finale as ‘whiffs of theme drifting about’, but it is truer to say that the drifting is done by fragments of the opening theme. The music, never once rising above pianissimo, inhabits an unknown region far from this world’s insubstantial pageant, a region reminiscent of Holst’s Neptune. An oboe brings a ray of hope into the desolate scene – an echo, perhaps, of the human voice at the end of the Pastoral Symphony, or of the tenor soloist in Sancta Civitas. As it fades, the music becomes quieter and slower and more remote. At the end the upper strings alternate chords of E minor and E major, while the cellos and basses, pizzicato, recall the main theme of the movement. The end is a chord of E minor, a question mark.
Michael Kennedy