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”

Treasure Trove: The Banks of Green Willow, by George Butterworth

willow-treeThis short orchestral work was composed by George Butterworth (1885-1916) in 1913, and has become the best-known and most widely-performed of his small output. It’s a charming little work in the English Romantic tradition which is based on a number of folk songs, most notably a less-than-charming tale of a country lass who falls in love with a sailor, becomes pregnant and runs away to sea with him only to suffer a difficult labour. Dying, she asks her lover to throw her and the baby overboard, where they both perish. Continue reading “Treasure Trove: The Banks of Green Willow, by George Butterworth”

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)”

Mothers, Daughters, Wives; or, ‘what about the women’?

But you never thought to question,
You just went on with your lives,
‘Cos all they’d taught you who to be,
Was mothers, daughters, wives.

Judy Small, ‘Mothers, Daughters, Wives’

In recent years there’s been a growing awareness of the role that women played in World Wars One and Two, which has resulted in a growing body of non-fiction and fictionalised accounts of women’s lives during this time, from the classic Diary of Anne Frank to books and television shows about nurses and land girls (Australia’s ‘ANZAC Girls’; the BBC’s ‘Land Girls’). The Wars have also long provided a backdrop for paperback fiction aimed at women: romances and kitchen-sink dramas. But look for what might be classed as ‘classic literature’ by and about women in the Wars and you’re likely to be disappointed: there is no All Quiet on the Western Front, no Birdsong, no Catch-22. Women, when they appear at all, are almost always secondary characters who exist primarily as an (often-romantic) appendage of the men. Continue reading “Mothers, Daughters, Wives; or, ‘what about the women’?”

Introducing the Orchestra

People have been playing instruments together since there were instruments to play, but as classical music became more complex and more instruments were invented during the Baroque and Classical periods, the layout of these groups if instruments also became more complex, resulting in the modern orchestra which we see today. Continue reading “Introducing the Orchestra”

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”

Classical Music: Beyond Romanticism

From the pre-Baroque up until the Romantic period, the history of classical music can be regarded as a pretty straightforward progression: with a little overlap as the avant garde raced ahead and the traditionalists lagged behind it goes Baroque 1600-1750, Classical 1750-1825, Romantic 1825-1875. Now it starts to get a little messy. Romantic music doesn’t simply disappear in the years following 1875 but continues to be composed even as other distinct styles enter the scene. Think of it as being a bit like popular music today. There’s pop. And there’s rock. There’s metal. Alternative. Dance. Trance. Hip-hop. Soul. Rhythm and Blues. I could go on, but you get the idea. Continue reading “Classical Music: Beyond Romanticism”

Christmas Classics: Carols

In my student days I spent several Christmases working in retail. Musically, it took me years to recover from spending ten hours a day listening to piped Christmas ‘muzak’, which tends to feature a lot of snow and very little religious sentiment, often while muttering darkly about how I live in a country where Christmas occurs in the middle of summer and ‘if it does f***ing snow I am NOT going to be impressed.’

Christmas carols, however, are another thing altogether for me, and it seems I’m not alone. Even in secularised New Zealand community-organised open-air carol singing events can still draw a crowd. Santa usually puts in an appearance, and there’s an atmosphere of good-natured celebration, if not exactly religious devotion, which is arguably fitting to the singing of carols. Continue reading “Christmas Classics: Carols”

Classical Music: The Classical Period

Not long after I first started primary school in the 1980s my class did a unit study on Pompeii and the ancient Romans. It made such an impression on me that while travelling in Europe in 2005 I finally realised the dream of twenty years before and visited the city famously buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79C.E.

Classical musicians
Musicians preparing to perform during the Classical period.

I am far from the first person to be fascinated by this ancient ruined city. When it was first rediscovered in 1748 the art, architecture and sculpture that emerged sparked a movement in the artistic world that would come to be known as The Classical Period. Continue reading “Classical Music: The Classical Period”