Musical Instruments: The Percussion Family

Bodhran
The traditional Irish drum, the bodhran, is a frequent accompaniment in Irish folk music.

The name ‘percussion’ comes from the Latin ‘percussio/percussus’, indicating beating or striking an object. Percussion instruments have been around longer than any other musical instrument, and are found in pretty much every culture. They can be ‘unpitched’, meaning that they produce a single sound which doesn’t sound like a particular musical note, and ‘pitched’, meaning that they produce notes with an identifiable musical pitch. Continue reading “Musical Instruments: The Percussion Family”

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Musical Instruments: The Brass Family

saxophone
The saxophone. Not technically a brass instrument.

Seated up the back right as you look at an orchestra is the brass family. In typical classical fashion, not all instruments in the brass family are made of brass, and not all instruments made of brass are members of the brass family: the term actually refers to instruments which produce sound through the ‘sympathetic vibration’ of the player’s lips against the mouth-piece of a tubular resonator. Thus the digeridoo, which is made of wood, is technically a ‘brass’ instrument, but the saxophone, which produces sound by means of a reed in the mouth-piece, is not a ‘brass’ instrument. Continue reading “Musical Instruments: The Brass Family”

Musical Instruments: The Woodwind Family

recorder
Was I born in England? Yes I was. In the 1980s? Yes I was. Am I a girl? Yes I am. Therefore I can play the recorder. Am I exaggerating? Only slightly.

The woodwind family is part of a vast and ancient family of wind instruments, all of which are played by blowing air across a hollow pipe or pipes of varying length. The air stream is concentrated in some way, either by being blown at an angle or by having a narrowing or a ‘reed’ positioned inside or just below the mouthpiece. As the name would suggest, once upon a time all the woodwinds were made of wood, although these days many are made of metal or plastic. The only instrument I can play with any degree of competency is a woodwind – the recorder. Continue reading “Musical Instruments: The Woodwind Family”

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)

Ralph Vaughan Williams 1
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”