Out of the blue

I’ve always thought of musical blues as being a tad unfair on the colour. Although ‘feeling blue’ is a convenient phrase to express a state of feeling emotionally low, there’s a lot more character to the colour to be found in recording catalogues. And in life, too. Living in Bangkok, I’m endlessly fascinated by the many different shades of blue reflective glass that adorn the temples around the city, sitting together harmoniously and shimmering to equally impressive effect by sunshine as by moonlight. And maybe you saw last month’s report in The Guardian that detailed NASA astronaut Terry Virts’ experiences in the International Space Station. Here’s part of what he had to say:

“On my first space flight, I launched at four in the morning … About 15 minutes later we were going over the North Atlantic in the daylight and I saw this thin, blue atmosphere. And I thought, “I’ve never seen that shade of blue before.” I never expected seeing a colour that I had never seen before but that was my first impression of Earth in the daylight: “I’ve never seen that shade of blue before.”

In this week’s blog, we’ll similarly try to find seven new musical shades of blue for you, starting with music by Aaron Jay Kernis and what started out as one of those rare pieces, a Concerto for Toy Piano and Orchestra. Following its première in 2002, Kernis felt he had to deal with a practical downside of the piece, ultimately finding a new life for the music in his Three Flavors (8.559711):

“Even with amplification, the small instrument was understandably overwhelmed by the large orchestra,” he wrote, “and after hearing the première I’d often “toyed” with adapting the piece for grand piano. This new (and final) version was premièred by Andrew Russo and the Albany Symphony in October 2013.”

Here’s the opening of the last movement of Three Flavors, titled Blue Whirl.

On to Thomas Bloch’s 2-movement Christ Hall Blues (8.572489), commissioned by the Sarrebourg Festival in 1990. At the première, the work was performed beneath the largest stained-glass window Marc Chagall ever created, in the Chapelle des Cordeliers in Sarrebourg, the dominant colour being blue. This unique atmosphere is reflected in Bloch’s scoring of the work for male soprano, glass harmonica, cristal Baschet, ondes Martenot, musical saw and glass bells. Here’s the opening of the second movement, Aria.

There’s something equally ethereal about Charles Villiers Stanford’s part song The Blue Bird (8.553088). I’ll let it speak for itself; the second stanza takes the ear into the blue ether and lets time hang right there:

The sky above was blue at last,
The sky beneath me blue in blue.
A moment, ere the bird had passed,
It caught his image as he flew.

Something a bit more earthy now in a popular piece by Hubert Bath that gave its name to the title of this week’s blog—Out of the Blue (8.570332). If you’re a Brit, then you might instantly recognise the piece as the theme music for the BBC’s Sports Report programme. The programme first aired in 1948, and in a charmingly British, anachronistic sort of way, the same music is still used to announce the Radio 5 programme. Here’s the opening.

Another cobalt composition to blow away the cobwebs is Leroy Anderson’s Blue Tango (8.555344). Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1908, Anderson was a graduate of Harvard University, where he studied composition with Walter Piston and George Enescu. He seemed headed for a career in linguistics until a guest spot in 1936 directing the Boston Pops Orchestra in his Harvard Fantasy. This caught the ear of Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler, who promptly asked Anderson to write some pieces for the orchestra. Anderson was the first composer to sell over a million copies of a purely instrumental work with his Blue Tango, which he wrote in 1953. Here’s an arrangement for salon orchestra.

My penultimate choice of blue music is taken from one of Bernstein’s final pieces, Divertimento (8.559245). It was dedicated to the Boston Symphony and composed for the occasion of the orchestra’s centenary. Paying tribute to the “hometown” orchestra which nurtured him, along with the attendant memories and emotions, Bernstein enjoys himself with a number of musical puns as the eight-movement form and breezy humour reflect the classical divertimento. Here’s the seventh movement, Blues, sad in essence maybe, but with a cheeky glint in its eye.

Having wrestled at one stage with ideas about the role of harmonic language, Michael Torke experienced an enlightenment on the matter for a new work that gifted him, as he recalls, “an unexpected freedom of expression … With the simplest means, my musical emotions and impulses were free to guide me. The feeling of working was exuberant; I would leave my outdoor studio, and the trees and bushes seemed to dance, and the sky seemed bright blue. That bright blue colour contributed towards the piece’s title, but in conjunction with another personal association. The key of the piece, D major (from which there is no true modulation), has been the colour for me since I was five years old.” No time to make a diversion here into synaesthesia, so we’ll simply wrap up with the closing section of that piece, Bright Blue Music (8.559782).

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