Thursday, 24 September 2015

Frank Bridge Sea Idyll, Lament and Winter Pastoral

Frank Bridge piano music varies considerably in length, complexity and character, extending from Etude Rhapsodique, which blends the pianistic styles of Franz Liszt and Debussy into a generally light-hearted capriccio to the violent outbursts and deep introspection of the Piano Sonata. While Bridge is best known as a viola player, which makes itself known in the piano compositions by the placement of his melodies, his piano writing falls well under the hands even when his works reach a point of saturation, as in the climax of the “Lament”.

Three of the shorter works stand out as mini-masterworks and frame the Piano sonata which is arguably his masterpiece. In order of composition they are “A Sea Idyll” (written in 1905 and published 1917), the “Lament” written in 1915 (for string orchestra and as an arrangement for piano) and “A Winter Pastoral” written in 1925.

The following are links to my recordings of the 3 pieces and are intended to aid the commentary that follows:

A Sea Idyll

Written in 1905 this is a concise piano composition, a little short of 80 bars, ABA in structure with the three sections well balanced with 25, 24, and 28 bars of music. The harmony is much as one might expect of the period, with the exception of the transition back to the A section, and there are few indications of the storm to come in the piano sonata.  One might wonder, given that introduction, why select this work. 

The music is very fine, the one point that all writers on the music of Frank Bridge agree upon is his craftsmanship, and repeated listening only confirms that ‘less is more’ here.
One might think that in such a short piece 23 bars based on an E arpeggio would create too static an opening, but Bridge increases and releases the tension with superb control.  The phrase starts on the second semi quaver which permits the inclusion of a rising figure on the first at bar 13. Such detailed planning makes the first climax at bar 16 inevitable.

Similarly if we follow the length of the chords in quavers the same level of control is apparent:
4 2 4 2 2 2 1 1 4 2 (4 bars)
4 2 4 2 2 2 1 1 4 2
4 2 4 2 2 2 1 1 2 2 1 1 2 2 1 1
4 2 4 2 4 2 4 2
4 2 4 2
6 9 6 9

Sea Idyll has the spirit of Rheingold's opening expressed in 25 bars, along with the surging nature of "La Mer" in miniature.
The melody is not remarkable; it certainly isn't the main focus. The opening 8 bars of melody gets the usual Bridge treatment of being repeated up an octave (bar 11) with an intensification of the harmony to lead us to the forte chord at bar 16.  We will see that the use of octaves to highlight melodic material remains with Bridge throughout his composing life, even when the music becomes highly dissonant.
The poco animato is restless, a dialogue takes place between the tenor and soprano lines (another Bridge characteristic, no doubt reflecting his experience as a viola player, more of this later). The phrase oscillates but the harmonic design is a descending figure (as in the accompaniment to the phrase). 

E D (E D) C sharp B sharp

The answering phrase rises up a tone to start on F sharp.  Both phrases are then repeated in the same manner as Debussy is inclined to do.  Clearly there is a homage of sorts here, but where Debussy’s repetitions lead to stillness, Bridge’s music increases the agitation.  Let us recall that “Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune” with its characteristic repeated phrases was first performed in 1894 and “La Mer” completed by 1905, the same year as “A Sea Idyll” but the latter is held from publication for over a decade.
Bars 34/35 break out of the sequential writing to excite the music to the main climax at bar 38.  Bar 39, a tempo, replays the B section phrase in the upper part alone.  A repeat of the B section begins at bar 43 but it is a false start and the music loses its momentum and a cadence leads us back to the A section.  The first 8 bars of the second A rearranges the arpeggio figure for a brighter texture while the melody is harmonised by tetrachords, at bar 57 the harmonisation is identical to the opening, while the arpeggio is extended rhythmically.  The coda doubles the duration of the arpeggio for a sustained close.

Returning to the harmony of the first section one can hear a progression that plays an important part in the Piano Sonata:  Using pc notation makes the rising and falling of the parallel chords clear, starting with the open fifth (E,B):

      1                     4 - 6 - 8
11    11-  1 -   3 -  1 - 2 - 4
         8 -  9 - 11-   9 -11- 1
4       4 -  6 -   8 -  6

The harmony can be accounted for as a traditional harmonic progression, but when we come across its use in the piano sonata it takes on a new significance.

The musical argument is simple, it's execution masterful.  It is unfair to place it alongside "La Mer" or compare it with some of the Britten sea pieces, but it has its place in the development towards the latter.

Lament (for Catherine, aged 9 “Lusitania 1915)

Being able to express a world of sorrow in two pages of manuscript is a remarkable achievement, and the feat is all the greater for its economy of material.  It precedes another adagio, Barber’s Adagio for Strings by over 20 years, but they have many features in common, particularly the way the melody climbs and the harmony intensifies, though the dynamic only reaches mf on the Bridge score.  Bridge does not have the personality of a showman, and here he is exploring a private near introverted world.
The opening chords create a musical “sigh” that forms a remarkable introduction to the melody, it is highly chromatic and moves downwards by a semitone. Parallel chord formations come to play a significant part of Bridge’s music, but the point will not be laboured here.  The range of the fall increases as it becomes the accompaniment to the melody, and the connection with the harmonisation of the melody in Bridge’s Piano Sonata is striking.  (The progressive nature of the music is such that the first fall is two chords, the second six and the third eight).
Though the opening “sigh” is chromatic, the melody, particularly on its first hearing, has a strongly pentatonic character; one could be forgiven for hearing the music as being derived from an African-American spiritual.  The melody progresses from E flat to B flat, back to E flat and rises to A flat, the final statement producing a highly condensed bar of overlapping motifs.
After the climax we have a brief moment of tenderness, pastoral in nature, based on a chord that can be read as a ninth chord, having characteristics of the major/minor hexachords that form a powerful compositional tool in the Sonata.  If taken as a collection the chord forms a 0,2,4,6,9 pentachord, a subset of the fermata chord in the first bar, though it sounds like new material it is not, and the link formed back to the melody is superbly crafted.
On this repetition of the opening melody the bass fifth is arpeggiated, the empty chord now becomes a heartbeat, one can hear it as a metaphor in the story of the lament.  The melody doubled at the octave is played p dolcissimo, and remains on E flat for the repeat, stabilising the harmony until we hear a second pastoral figure based on a major/minor hexachord harmony, (E flat major/F minor).  Though the two pastoral phrases arise from different harmony the descending second phrase has a clear affinity with the first.
The contrast of the “sigh” with the pastoral motif gives the music a powerful sense of poignancy that reaches out from the death of a young child to a universal grief.  This makes a connection with the Piano Sonata that cannot be ignored.
The final descent in the poco piu adagio takes the music into the deep, and as the repeated D flat B flat descends onto G natural, the bittersweet progression makes the perfect statement to conclude the “Lament” on E flat.

Recordings of the Lament vary considerably in the overall length, Boult has a quicker tempo and one can hear the nature of a lullaby in the music.  Slowing the music down does emphasise the sense of grief, but then loses out when playing the gentle pastoral passage.  To give a few examples of the range of tempi we have Boult with a performance of 3’.35”, William Boughton with 4’.40” and Peter Jacobs with the piano version at 5’.24”.

For those who take a delight in hearing connections between compositions it is fascinating to draw a parallel between the melody over the open fifth (bars 2 to 6) in the Lament and a glorious moment in Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” when the baritone solo sings a cadenza like figure on “a remender”

Tua pulchra facies,                                               Your beautiful face,
me fey planszer milies,                                       makes me weep a thousand times,
pectus habens glacies,                                        your heart is of ice.
a remender statim vivus fierem                        As a cure, I would be revived by a kiss.

The oxymoron works for both compositions though the degree of intensity and purpose is a world apart.

Winter Pastoral

Written in 1928  Winter Pastoral is by far the most economical piece out of the three shorter piano pieces by Frank Bridge considered here.  All three works ("The Sea Idyll", "Lament" and the "Winter Pastoral") are slow, but the latter is remarkably slow, particularly at the close. To recall some details from the previous commentaries each piece shares a technique of developing melodic material and a dependence on long pedal points.  Despite the quiet, almost introverted nature of the music, dolce and tranquillo being regularly used, each has a moment of intensity where a number of motifs arrive together providing a clear climax.  Each of the pieces has a clear outline of a progression from simplicity to intensity and back.

The Winter Pastoral is of the three the most dependent on thematic development, and like the others if the theme is taken out of context it isn't particularly melodious, it is the interplay of melody and harmony that provides the character.  After the four bar introduction we have a theme which phrased (at bars 6/7) with a minor third fall from A to F sharp, repeated, the theme then continues for an additional two bars which provide a cadence onto F sharp.
Three bars of an F sharp pedal with a syncopated rhythm follow, supporting open fifth chords in the upper part and echoing the A F sharp half close a minor / major fall (E sharp to C sharp then E to C sharp).  This falling figure is reminiscent of the "sigh" of the Lament, and there is little doubt in my mind that they share a common purpose.  This simple figure is heard regularly and becomes an essential ingredient to the fabric of the piece.
What follows appears to be a reference to the opening but becomes a full repeat of the bar 5 to 9 melody, now transposed up a fourth, closing on B.  From this point the melody becomes complex drawing on and developing an inversion of the opening three notes of bar 5 until the introductory material is heard an octave above its original placement.
This leads to the poco largamente climax where the bass directs us to a B major chord for the return to tempo primo.  The opening bar of this section is derived from bar 8 (up an octave) but with the bass ascending, contrary to its first appearance.  The melodic material at the primo tempo is the opening bar transposed down a tone, partly repeated with grace notes which are derived from bar 3, and are treated in such a way as to recall the minor third fall of bars 6 and 7.  There is something archaic in the music here; partly it brings a flavour of pipe music, as if the pastoral is indebted to Pan, a Pan who regrets the passing away of the old gods, or if you prefer it less poetically, Bridge looks back with immense sadness on a period of innocence that WW1 destroyed absolutely.
Of the last 13 bars 8 are over a pedal F sharp which the descending chord are derived from bars 9 to 11, but extended to take the music to the lower registers of the piano.  Unlike the Lament it doesn't finish in the "deep", the music replays dolcissimo the opening material, somewhat slower than its original statement through the use of pauses and lengthening specific notes.  It is its context following the pedal passage that makes the music extraordinarily slow, and prevents the return of the melody giving a cyclic nature to the music.

Each piece is characterised by introspection, a characteristic that becomes intensified with age and his reaction to the Great War.  Just how intense that reaction is can only be understood by dwelling on the Piano Sonata, a work that develops a harmonic language only hinted at in these miniatures. 

Monday, 7 September 2015

This post introduces Nurtan's thoughts on polytonality in the form of a series of articles forming a guide to the topic.  I found it an informative read and felt like I was being invited to travel across the world with him in his exploration of the topic.



The series of discussion papers on polytonality, bitonality and polymodality featured in this blog are not scholarly papers or extensive instructions on how to compose in a particular style. There will only be a few bookish references and technical detail will be kept to the minimum. The musical examples cited range from well know pieces to fragments of our own compositions.

This raises the question of the utility of this effort. That is easy to answer. Polytonality had a long history in different cultures and probably used extensively prior to music of early renaissance. We hear the traces of this in the folk music of Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Ukrainian and Russian steppes, Northern Persia and India. These folk songs have been transmitted by oral tradition and reflect to a large extent the ease of achieving expressive, emotional content by their use.

By definition, polytonality uses more than one key simultaneously. This is fairly easy to achieve through writing each voice in a different key. However, the selection of the melodies and the choice of keys can get complicated. In addition if the polytonal passages are too complicated, the ear will pick a key and unintentionally hear only that, the music may sound highly ornamented or off key. The polytonal music with three or more tonal centres will be discussed towards the end of this series.

If an entire composition of a section or a passage uses two tonal centres it is called bitonal. depending upon the mode of each key bitonal scales provide a very wide variety of musical language. In general, bitonal sections might be unimodal (for example, each is major, or minor etc.) but there is no restriction on this aspect. Also, the tempered scale of the Western music is not a requirement for the bitonal-bimodal arrangements.

I think the music of the Roman liturgy; Gregorian chant and medieval music are probably the exception rather than the universal in Western musical practice – especially in secular music. The huge influence of the Byzantine Empire on the culture of Eastern Mediterranean regions is undeniable. The examples of the use of polytonality in generating simple polyphony still survive in Armenian, Greek, Kurdish and Turkish multi-instrument folk music. This seems to be continuous from the antiquity through the Greek, Byzantine, Armenian, Ottoman and Islamic heritages.

From the early Baroque through common practice until late in 19th century bitonality was more or less dormant, Composers seeking more a colourful palette started to weaken the rules of common practise tonality; which in turn led to several schools of thought in the harmonic language of the Western music. French Romantic Music of Debussy, Saint-Saȅns, et al. introduced ambiguous excursion (Debussy's Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un Faune starts and ends in E major, but it is all-over the place in between). Arnold Schoenberg introduced serial composition in which the tonality is deliberately destroyed.

One result of this activity is that composers start using bitonality as a means to write expressive and emotionally charged music, Charles Ives: Psalm 67 (1902), Frank Bridge: The Sea Idyll*, Capriccio No1, & No 2 (1908), Béla Bartok: 14 Bagatelles (1908), Igor Stravinski: Petrushka (1911) firmly established the use of bitonality. Later on Darius Milhaud: Saudades do Brasil (1920), Benjamin Britten in his  operas  Billy Budd and Peter Grimes among other composers completely integrated the technique into the  musical vocabulary.

Several scholars and theorists object to the concept of polytonality and present cogent arguments to give the technique other names and attributes. Since the technique survived over 100 years under this name, we present the rose is a rose argument for keeping the name as it is for practical purposes.

* The Sea Idyll was the first piece analysed by us when we started these cross-Atlantic discussions and will be included as this blog progresses. Ken

Before we post another part of the bitonality/polytonality discussion, I would like to share one of the many e-mails sent between us as we explore different possibilities and aspects of extending our composing techniques and understanding of new music (shall we say anything from Debussy to the present day).  I was encouraged to do this by Nurtan as it touches on, and perhaps extends on an aspect of his thoughts and arguments that were covered by Bernstein in his famous lectures.
For those who have heard and want to be reminded of the content of these lectures they are of course available on the net:

to Nurtan
subject: some thoughts after a hospital visit

Yesterday I visited my mother in a hospital in North Wales, the location is a stronghold of the Welsh language and the majority of staff are fluent Welsh speakers, and for many it is their first language.
During my visit some of the medical staff were moving about the ward and I picked up on the term osteoporosis, a condition that affects my mother, and probably the reason why I tuned in to another person's speech.
I gave it little thought until I was driving back to my home and then I realised that I was working with words from three different languages.  There was no effort in exchanging between Welsh and English and knowing the Greek term and its roots made all three languages blend.  I recall Arthur Koestler making the same sorts of observations about the ease with which he could follow conversations in different tongues, so I assume it is a common enough feature.
I took to considering your experiment with major and minor tonalities and the way we hear sounds in combination.  Anthony Burgess wrote in one of his early novels about a character who could hear all 4 parts of a fugue in his head. 
Now I can recreate the sound of a Bach fugue in my head after playing it, sometimes only part of the fugue, and then it does a strange looping back to the beginning, which is rather frustrating!  The question is am I really hearing all the parts?  I don't know for certain as it isn't exactly like listening to a CD, though there are times when the music is particularly vivid.
Similarly, am I hearing two or more distinct languages at once, or is it a rapid alternation between words and their meaning?  When I think about it it isn't just a matter of vocabulary, Welsh has a cadence and stress to the speech quite unlike English.
If our brains can cope with this degree of information, coping with two or more keys in a bitonal piece shouldn't be beyond our listening skills, nor discriminating between various combinations of bitonal chords.  However, I have a certain sense of unease about hearing two tonic chords at once, why is this?  When I am hearing two languages does one take precedence over the other, if (let us say) Welsh was spoken first or more regularly than English would I gravitate to that language?  I am not suggesting that because we might start playing the piano with pieces in C that we would gravitate to that key over all others (don't even start thinking about writing pieces in C and C sharp for lesson one, we might never extract ourselves from that pathway)!  Has equal tuning ensured that we have no particular "home" key in our minds?
How much saturation could we cope with before we decide that there is no sense to the music presented? Does a massive amount of information become a global event that can be contrasted with another? In musical terms we could be talking about Ligeti's "Atmospheres" or Nielsen's "Commotio" or Nancarrow's player piano studies.
If we were discussing rhythm the same issues apply, a change from a crotchet pulse to a triplet crotchet to quaver can be heard as three events or as an acceleration.  We could grade each note in a sequence with a minutely different duration and get a similar effect, but would our ears mark the difference?  Of course one could compose with a legion of different tempi and have three orchestras to perform them, but would we manage to discriminate the material or combine it into a gesture?
Perhaps the question seems trivial, but if the composer has a responsibility to present his audience with coherence rather than chaos these fine lines need some consideration, and I know of no rule book which says where the boundary lies.

Have I taken the analogy too far?
As always I look forward to your opinions,


Friday, 4 September 2015

Many years ago, when I first started running a music department in a Welsh school, I was approached by a music lover who wanted to donate a large collection of operas on vinyl.  As we talked I understood that large meant large, there were thousands of discs covering the entire history of opera.
While I was excited by the idea I soon came to realise that there were a number of problems in accepting his gift.
Space wasn't a real issue, at the time the building was new and I could have housed the discs, but I wasn't a librarian, and the building was for education in which the love of opera wasn't a primary concern.
If I had accepted the collection what would be done with the discs?  I could have listened to them all, I may have enjoyed many of the works and their multiple performances, though opera isn't my passion.  I could have carried on the task of sharing the material, but being a very trusting person could I have faced the loss of discs to unscrupulous borrowers, and what about damage to these somewhat fragile objects?
I raised the question of permanence and suggested recording the discs onto a safe medium (I must have thought tape was safer than vinyl), but the smile on the collectors face brought me to my senses.
Even if digital technology had been available at that time it would have been a Herculean task to transcribe the material.
Finally I asked why he didn't just keep the collection, he explained that his home wasn't a home any longer, it had become a museum.  Family had won over art.

I share this at the start of this blog as Nurtan Esmen and myself are slowly evolving into a similar situation. We aren't collectors in the usual sense, though we both have many years of music stored away in one form or another. What we do have is a lively passion for listening, and that passion has lasted many decades.
If we listened for two hours a day (not much of a task for enthusiasts) a year would amount to 1,460 hours between us. Given a minimum of forty years of listening we would be approaching the 60K hour mark. In reality the figure is underestimated. If we were to add the hours we spent composing to the listening one wonders how the demands of daily life were met, we must have very forgiving families.

So the big question is what do we do with this "collection"?

We would like to share some of our passion about music, but in a practical way.
Our listening has informed our composing styles, and over the years we have encountered many problems regarding style and technique.  In our discussions we have been able to offer help to each other to resolve problems and offer a critical ear when required.
We have set ourselves tasks to keep our thinking fresh, including what is to be a part of this blog, an analysis of some very challenging 20th century music.  More of that later.

Should any musician ask for opinions on their music (shared via electronic media on the net) or request information regarding composing techniques, we will certainly reply.  If you are a less experienced listener and wish to broaden your outlook, we will be happy to share ideas. If you enjoy sharing music please contact us.

Finally, we understand that music has a technical language, we are experienced in its use, but simplicity is valued above complexity.