Remember, remember the 8th of November

I started musing on the date of the posting of this blog, 8 November, as its initial focus. But I soon found myself sidetracked by some interesting snippets that popped up en route. At least I ended up gathering some hopefully attractive music samples for you in my wake. If you’re ready to go walkabout with me, let’s start with the English composer Arnold Bax, who was born on 8 November 1883. First detour: as a young teacher I was lucky to be able to join an educational exchange visit to the USSR, a rather impregnable landmass to outsiders at the time. I spent an afternoon at the seaside resort of Yalta. A vendor of sheet music had set up a stall outdoors on the sea front, where I was very surprised to see some piano music by Bax for sale. I’d nearly bought it as a memento of my visit before realising that it was in fact by Ƃax, the Russian script for Bach. To compound that muddle of a memory, here’s a piano piece by the real Bax titled In a Vodka Shop.

In a Vodka Shop (8.557439)


Now to music by Arnold Rosner, who was born in New York City on 8 November 1945. The composer of three operas, eight symphonies, six string quartets, and numerous other orchestral, chamber, vocal and choral works, he was in his early forties when he made his first essay in writing for wind band. He recalled the experience as follows:

“I will admit that I was somewhat skeptical about the band as a medium for serious music; it took three friends to persuade me to give it a try.

In the field of surveying, the concept of triangulation is often used, referring to looking at an area from three different perspectives or angles so as to understand it in full dimension. In my Symphony No. 8 ‘Trinity’, I have attempted to bring this approach to meditative or spiritual thought. If one views the mysteries from three different, and to some extent opposing viewpoints, does one derive deeper insights or simply confusion? Whether my work succeeds in providing such a full dimension is for the listener to decide.”

The symphony’s three movements are titled Ave Maria, Le Rondeau du Monsieur le Diable, and Pythagoras. We’ll hear that central devilish movement.

Le Rondeau du Monsieur le Diable (8.573060)


There was something else about Rosner’s life that caught my attention. Second detour: he died on his birthday. Another musician who did likewise was the American jazz clarinettist and saxophonist Sidney Bechet (b. and d. 14 May, respectively in 1897 and 1959). Born in New Orleans with an insatiable penchant for wandering, Bechet arrived as a member of an all black band in London in 1919 to play at the Philharmonic Hall where his “extraordinary clarinet virtuoso” playing was extolled by the great classical conductor Ernest Ansermet. Here’s a recording from some 20 years later that features Bechet in his own composition What a Dream.

What a Dream (8.120699)


Third detour: from music to the politics of religion, and back again. The Catholic Robert Catesby died on 8 May 1605, three days after his failed plot to blow up James I, the Protestant King of England, at the State Opening of Parliament, planned for 5 November 1605. One of his followers, Guy Fawkes, was guarding the gunpowder kegs when the plot was discovered. Catesby made his last stand against a 200-strong company of armed men at Holbeche House in Staffordshire on 8 May.

To mark that event in history, English fireworks enjoy a field day every year on 5 November. Fireworks, in their turn, have been memorialised in a number of musical compositions, so we’ll conclude today with a selection of pieces based on that notion.

Feux d’artifice (Fireworks) is the last entry in Debussy’s Two Books of Preludes, completed respectively in 1910 and 1913. The composer’s poetic sensibility and delicate use of keyboard nuances, developed from Chopin, is clearly heard in these works. Feux d’artifice is a display of piano fireworks, suggesting a celebration in some city park which accommodates, shortly before the end, the distant sound of a fragment of La Marseillaise.

Feux d’artifice I (8.553293)


Fourth detour: Debussy’s Preludes have been orchestrated by several composers to enrich the pianistic colour that they’re built on. One such arranger is Peter Breiner, whose name will be well known to Naxos followers; his catalogue entries include the massive resource of the National Anthems of the World, in which he has expertly arranged each anthem from hundreds of countries. The arranger’s art is a very special one, as can be heard here in Breiner’s transformation of Debussy’s Feux d’artifice for symphony orchestra.

Feux d’artifice II (8.572584)


If Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes notably failed to produce their plotted sparks, Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks accompanied a much more spectacular failure. The suite was a royal commission to celebrate the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1749 and, while the event proved a musical triumph, it was a pyrotechnic disaster. Handel was persuaded to offer a public rehearsal of his Royal Fireworks Music at Vauxhall Gardens that involved a hundred musicians playing to an audience of more than twelve thousand, a highly successful occasion.

A week later the music was performed in Green Park, as a possible accompaniment to the King’s prior inspection of the elaborate ‘machine’ that was the centrepiece of the display. The fireworks themselves were disappointing and during the evening the pavilion to the right of the main structure caught fire. We can temper the sense of disappointment the crowds must have felt by hearing the penultimate movement La rejouissance (Rejoicing) that at least reflects the joy of having concluded the peace treaty.

Music for the Royal Fireworks (8.557764)


I thought we should end on a musical firework that has its roots in the 18th century: The Mannheim Rocket, which many of you will recall from your own music studies. A couple of centuries later, the American composer John Corigliano applied an imaginative makeover to the term. I’ll let him talk us out today with his description of the background to his orchestral work The Mannheim Rocket, which premiered in 2001:

“I first heard of the Mannheim Rocket in a music history course in my freshman year at college. The term was used to describe a musical technique perfected by the Mannheim Orchestra in the 18th century in which a rising figure (a scale or arpeggio) speeded up and grew louder as it rose higher and higher (hence the term ‘rocket’).

As a young music student, however, my imagination construed a very different image – that of a giant 18th-century wedding-cake-rocket, commandeered by the great Baron von Munchausen, and its marvelous journey to the heavens and back.

It was this image that excited me when I was asked to write a work for today’s Mannheim Orchestra: I knew I had to re-create the rocket of my young imagination and travel with it through its adventures.

And so this ten-minute work begins with the scratch of a match and a serpentine 12-tone fuse that sparkles with light and fire. The ignition leads to a slow heaving as the giant engine builds up steam. The ‘motor’ of the rocket is a very low, very slow ‘Alberti bass’, the accompaniment pattern that has served as the motor of so many classical pieces.

To get it started, I included a quote from one of the originators of the ‘Mannheim Rocket’, Johann Wenzel Anton Stamitz (1717-57). The stately opening of his Sinfonia in E-flat (La melodia Germanica No. 3) uses a scalar ‘rocket’ to lift our heavy structure and start it on its way.

This is the first in a series of quotes as the rocket rises and moves faster and faster, climbing through more than two hundred years of German music, finally breaking through a glass ceiling to float serenely in heaven.

There the rocket and crew are serenaded by tranquil ‘Music of the Spheres’. But what comes up must come down, and with a return of the opening fuse-music, the descent begins.

The rocket accelerates as flashes of the ascent – backwards – mark the fall. Just before the inevitable crash, Wagner tries to halt things, but the rocket is uncontrollable; even he can’t stop it. After a crunching meeting with terra firma the slow heaving and Alberti-bass-motor die away as we hear a fleeting memory of heaven, and, finally, a coda composed of a Mannheim Rocket.”

The Mannheim Rocket (ODE1039-2)


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