Ballet on the Sofa: Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’

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The premiere of The Rite of Spring made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Most famous as the ballet that started a riot at its premiere, ‘The Rite of Spring’ features music composed by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and an original choreography by the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950). It represented a radical departure from both Stravinsky’s previous work and the ‘traditional’ ballet of pirouettes and tutus. In other words, it’s a Modernist work produced slightly too early – it premiered in 1913, at the very end of La Belle Époque – hence the riots. Continue reading “Ballet on the Sofa: Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’”

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Treasure Trove: ‘Aslan’s Theme’ by Geoffrey Burgon

This short piece was the theme music for the BBC’s ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ back in the 1980s. I loved the series, and consider it to be superior to the more recent movies because it was far truer to the books and therefore did a far better job of conveying the deeper meaning of Lewis’ works, rather than focussing on the visual appeal of special effects.

Characters from the BBC's The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, 1988
Characters from the BBC’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, 1988

Geoffrey Burgon (1941-2010) was a composer of television and film scores whose best-known works include the scores for Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ and ITVs ‘Brideshead Revisited’. He won BAFTAs for his themes for ‘Longitude’ and the remake of ‘The Forsyte Saga’. He was also a jazz trumpeter, and this was his original intended career. He eschewed the various musical trends of the 20th century in favour of more traditional styles and medieval influences. As a result he was dismissed by critics as ‘commercial’ – and popular with mainstream audiences like eight-year-old me who understood nothing of classical music but liked the pretty, hummable tune which heralded the latest instalment of a favourite show.

Opera in my Pyjamas: Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes posterThe accusation that opera is utterly unrealistic is hard to apply to Benjamin Britten’s (1913-1976) 1945 work ‘Peter Grimes’. Loosely based on a narrative poem by George Crabbe (1754-1832) it’s a tale of small-town gossip and prejudice and its devastating effect on the life of the social outcast Peter Grimes. Continue reading “Opera in my Pyjamas: Peter Grimes”

Local Culture: The Air Force in Concert at the Whanganui Opera House

It’s been a while since I had a local cultural experience to blog about, but my Significant Other’s birthday provided the perfect excuse to head along to the Wanganui Opera House and hear the New Zealand Air Force band in concert, performing music from, and inspired by, the stage and screen.

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Continue reading “Local Culture: The Air Force in Concert at the Whanganui Opera House”

Ballet on the Sofa: The Firebird

Bright, brief, and action-packed, Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ was the perfect antidote to my underwhelming response to Wagner’s ‘Tristian and Isolde’. Stravinsky composed the score for Firebird in 1910, and the music is so appealing and enjoyable that it continues to be performed regularly even without the accompanying ballet as ‘The Firebird Suite’.

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The Firebird subduing Koschei’s minions.

The original ballet itself was choreographed by Michel Fokine. It is based on a Russian folk-tale of the mystical Firebird, who can be either a blessing or a curse to whoever owns her. Continue reading “Ballet on the Sofa: The Firebird”

Composer Profile: Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

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Ralph Vaughan Williams in later life.

Unlike the musical wunderkinds Mozart and Mendelssohn, Ralph (‘Rafe’) Vaughan Williams was a slow and steady developer musically. The son of an Anglican vicar, Arthur, he was descended on his mother Margaret’s side from the manufacturing and philanthropic Wedgwood family. From the age of five he had piano lessons with his aunt Sophy Wedgwood, but preferred the violin, which he began to study a year later. Although his family doubted that he had the talent required to succeed as a professional composer and musician they were staunch in their support, enabling him to study at the Royal College of Music and Cambridge. He also spent several months in 1907-08 studying with Ravel in Paris. It’s fair to say that, regardless of their doubts, ultimately his family’s faith was not misplaced. Continue reading “Composer Profile: Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)”

Local Culture: The Organ Is Dancing

When I think of organ music two things have always come to mind: traditional hymns and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (a.k.a ‘that piece the Phantom of the Opera plays, you know, the really creepy-sounding one’), so when internationally-recognised, New Zealand-based organist Kemp English came to Whanganui recently I just had to go along and check it out.

Kemp English

Continue reading “Local Culture: The Organ Is Dancing”

Composer Profile: Edward Elgar (1857-1934)

Elgar aged about 60
The composer Edward Elgar, aged around 60

A Roman Catholic in fiercely Protestant England; the son of a tradesman pursuing upper-middle-class interests in a determinedly class-based society; a self-taught composer at a time when formal musical education was considered essential; and a composer in the Romantic and Nationalist traditions as the 20th century turned its musical ear towards Atonality, Minimalism, and the many and varied forms of ‘Popular’ music – Edward Elgar seems to have lived much of his life as an outsider.

 

Yet it was Elgar who, in spite of his relatively meagre output (around fifty works, including only two symphonies), brought English classical music back onto the world stage after some two hundred years spent languishing in the shadow of the great Continental composers. Continue reading “Composer Profile: Edward Elgar (1857-1934)”

Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor (op. 85)

Reservoir Cemetery just after the war
Reservoir Cemetery, Ypres, just after WWI

Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor is one of those (for me) rare things in classical music; a piece which I found instantly comprehensible. It is sad. Heartbreakingly sad, and angry, and touched with aching nostalgia. Composed in 1919, it is the composer’s last great master-work, a eulogy for the millions of war dead composed in the same Sussex home from which, during the War, Elgar had heard at night the artillery fire from across the Channel. It has also been speculated that it was a eulogy for one soldier in particular, the New Zealand-born son of his first love, Helen Weaver, who was killed on the Somme. Continue reading “Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor (op. 85)”

Spot the Difference: Opera and Musical

Opera Week was my first experience of opera (apart from one I went to in high school, which may or may not have been Bizet’s ‘Carmen’, and about which I can honestly remember absolutely nothing), but I’ve loved musicals since I was a teenager and have been fortunate enough to attend a number of them over the years. Opera and Musicals are two different things, but I started asking myself ‘where does that difference lie?’ Continue reading “Spot the Difference: Opera and Musical”