Musical Instruments: The String Family

Violin Mae
World-famous violinist Vanessa Mae in concert.

Stringed instruments, strummed, plucked, or played with a bow, have been with us since antiquity: the psalms, for example, contain a number of references to various ‘stringed instruments’. In the world of classical music the term ‘strings’ usually refers to the violin, viola, cello, and double bass, all of which are played with a bow, although the harp, which is plucked and strummed, is also a stringed instrument. Continue reading “Musical Instruments: The String Family”

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”

Treasure Trove: Bach’s Cello Suite #1 in G

Bach Cello Suite 1This piece is another of those things I never would have discovered without the Culture Project. Bach (Johann Sebastian) composed six cello suites between 1717 and 1723. They’ve been described as “monophonic music wherein a man has created a dance of God.” It’s a beautiful description of beautiful music. Continue reading “Treasure Trove: Bach’s Cello Suite #1 in G”

Composer Profile: George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Handel by Balthasar Denner c1726
Portrait of Handel by Balthasar Denner, c.1726

Born in the same year as J. S. Bach and outliving him by nine years, Handel, who was something of a bon vivant, was in many ways the opposite of his somewhat ascetic countryman.

Relatively little is known of Handel’s personal life: he was born in Halle, Germany, and his father, a barber-surgeon of advanced years and considerable reputation, was determined that he should study law. The young Handel was thus forbidden from pursuing his passion for music, but continued to do so on the sly. He did begin studying law at the University of Halle in 1702 but also obtained a position as organist in the local reformed church (previously the cathedral). It seems he never looked back: in 1703 he joined the orchestra in Hamburg, and his first two operas were produced in 1705. Continue reading “Composer Profile: George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)”

Composer Profile: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Bach by E G Haussmann 1748
J. S Bach, by E. G. Haussmann, 1748

Bach, J. S. (to distinguish him from the many other composers in a ridiculously talented lineage that included two of his own sons) is today recognised as one of the greatest composers in history, having produced music in every genre of the Baroque with the sole exception of opera. For many years, however, he was something of a composer’s composer, his Well-Tempered Clavier a foundational necessity for anyone intending to master any of the keyboard instruments, but much of the rest of his repertoire sadly neglected. Continue reading “Composer Profile: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)”

Local Sound: Whanganui’s Schola Sacra Choir with the Renaissance Singers

Schola SacraSome of you may remember that back before Christmas I was blown away by a live performance of Handel’s Messiah featuring local choir Schola Sacra. This month they were back, performing with the Palmerston North-based Renaissance Singers. Although both groups were formed in the 1970s this was the first time they had performed together, and I went along to check it out.

As their name would suggest, Schola Sacra place a particular emphasis on the performance of sacred music, with a repertoire that stretches back to medieval plainsong, although they also perform a considerable number of secular works. The Renaissance singers meanwhile place particular emphasis on the music, both sacred and secular, of the 16th to 18th centuries, although again they are by no means limited only to this music. Continue reading “Local Sound: Whanganui’s Schola Sacra Choir with the Renaissance Singers”

Glory, Hallelujah

What We Do In The Shadows
New Zealand mokumentary What We Do In The Shadows plays an extensive excerpt from Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria’ when the human Stu wins over the vampires.

It happens most often in comedy movies. The protagonist has just had an epiphany (or pseudo-epiphany), found the plot-relevant object or achieved an important goal, and their success is greeted with the sound of an angelic choir and perhaps a ray of heavenly light.

In order to really hammer home the importance of the moment (and because they are well and truly in the public domain) movie-makers often fall back on excerpts from two instantly-recognisable pieces of stock music to convey the significance of this moment.

The first is Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria’ . The second is the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’  from Handel’s Messiah. Continue reading “Glory, Hallelujah”

Christmas Classics: Handel’s ‘Messiah’

And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.
(Prologue to Handel’s ‘Messiah’, 1 Timothy 3:16, KJV)

I have heard Handel’s ‘Messiah’ on CD, in part and in full, a number of times, but this year marks the first time I have had the privilege of attending a live performance. I’ll move on to the history of ‘Messiah’ and the details of this particular performance presently, but first…

As someone who is deeply engaged with the religious tradition in which Handel’s masterpiece originates, I cannot overstate how deeply moving, on a spiritual level, I found the performance to be, in a way I simply hadn’t anticipated.

Christ nativity
The Nativity of Christ: the Adoration of the Magi (Orthodox icon).

Continue reading “Christmas Classics: Handel’s ‘Messiah’”