I never tire of listening to the voice of Peggy Lee (1920-2002), the American jazz and popular music singer who was also a songwriter, composer and actress. And with an active career that spanned some six decades, it seems I’m not the only one in her fan club. Her unique vocal timbre was apposite to one of her hits, Sing a Rainbow. I wondered if the Naxos catalogue could similarly zing a rainbow and turn up an interesting collage of pieces reflecting the individual colours of the spectrum. As I set to preparing the search button, I remembered that the lyrics of Sing a Rainbow mistakenly substitutes the colour pink for indigo, and purple does a quick do-si-do with violet. We’ll stick with the official colours on our catalogue trawl: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.
First up, red, for which I’ve chosen John Corigliano I’s Red Violin Concerto, in which the composer elaborates on music from his third film score, The Red Violin. This traces the history of a beautiful antique violin from its creation in Cremona, Italy, in 1681, where a legendary violin maker paints it with his dead wife’s blood to keep her memory alive, to an auction house in modern-day Montreal, where it draws the eye of an expert appraiser. Over the years between, the violin travels through four different countries, where it has a profound impact on all those who own it. Corigliano describes his structural approach to composing the score:
“The story of The Red Violin is perfect for a lover of the repertoire and the instrument. It spans three centuries in the life of a magnificent but haunted violin in its travels through time and space. A story this episodic needed to be tied together with a single musical idea. For this purpose I used the Baroque device of a chaconne: a repeated pattern of chords upon which the music is built. Against the chaconne chords I juxtaposed Anna’s theme, a lyrical yet intense melody representing the violin builder’s doomed wife. Then, from those elements, I wove a series of virtuosic etudes for the solo violin, which followed the instrument from country to country, century to century.”
A further three movements were subsequently added to this chaconne to produce a full-length concerto. We’ll hear the finale, described as follows by the composer:
“The fourth movement (Accelerando Finale), as the title suggests, is a rollicking race in which the opposed forces of soloist and orchestra vie with each other. They each accelerate at different times and speeds, providing a virtuoso climax befitting a last movement. Some other unusual techniques are used here: the violin (and orchestral strings) are asked to press so hard on their strings that there is no pitch at all, just a crunch. This percussive and unusual sound provides energy, especially during the races. A major theme from the film that was not used in the concert chaconne was that given to Moritz, the contemporary violin expert who discovers the mystery of the Red Violin. It is a sadly romantic theme, and becomes the lyrical counterpoint to the high spirits of this final movement. Near the end of the work, the original chaconne from the first movement comes back to complete the journey of this violin concerto.”
Accelerando Finale (8.559671)
I turned to the contemporary British composer Jonathan Dove for an orange reference, and to his three-song cycle Cut My Shadow. Premiered in 2011, Dove adopts the gritty realism of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) for his texts, which were translated by Gwynne Edwards. Lorca, a member of the Generation of 27, was executed in 1936 by nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War. His remains were never found, making these lines from the first song (Surprise) tragically prophetic:
He lay dead in the street
With a Knife in his heart
And no one knew him
The final Song of the Dry Orange Tree offers no respite from the pervading mood of real fear and a need for justice and liberation. The song pleads for freedom from anguish, and there is a hopeless sense of defeat and tiredness throughout. The accompaniment prods and interjects – ‘liberation’, when it comes, is swift. Dove maintains a constant unease and longing for a homeland in these songs.
Cut my shadow.
Free me from the anguish
Of seeing myself fruitless.
Oh! Why was I born among mirrors?
The day moves around me,
And the night reflects me
In each of its stars.
I want to live but not to see myself
And I shall dream
That my leaves and birds
Are turned into ants and hawks.
Cut my shadow.
Free me from the anguish
Of seeing myself fruitless.
Song of the Dry Orange Tree (8.573080)
The first movement of Jennifer Higdon’s 2-movement Piano Trio is titled Pale Yellow. Here’s how the American composer explains the concept of her work:
“Can music reflect colors and can colors be reflected in music? I have always been fascinated with the connection between painting and music. In my composing, I often picture colors as if I were spreading them on a canvas, except I do so with melodies, harmonies and through the peculiar sounds of the instruments themselves. The colors that I have chosen in both of the movement titles of my Piano Trio, Pale Yellow and Fiery Red, and in the music itself, reflect very different moods and energy levels, which I find fascinating, as it begs the question, can colors (in music, words and painting) actually convey a mood?”
You can decide for yourself as we listen to the first movement.
Pale Yellow (8.559298)
There are numerous green shoots in the catalogue, but I’ve gone for a piece by Percy Grainger to showcase the colour. Green Bushes is a passacaglia on an English folk-song collected by Cecil Sharp (1859-1924), the founding father of the folk-song revival in England. Originally scored for small orchestra in 1905-06, it was re-scored for larger forces in 1921, which is the version we’ll listen to here. The Green Bushes tune is heard almost constantly throughout, to which Grainger adds a multitude of original counter-melodies. The innovation of using folksong in passacaglia form was a first in British music and, so Grainger suggested, led Delius to write his Brigg Fair and Dance Rhapsodies in a similar mould.
Green Bushes (8.554263)
Capriccio in Blue by Polish composer Romuald Twardowski (b. 1930) was premiered in its orchestral version at the 1979 DoRe-Mi Festival in Łódź; it’s a national event promoting contemporary music for young people. Bearing the subtitle ‘George Gershwin in memoriam’, it’s one of two Twardowski works inspired by the great American composer (the other, written in 1986, is Symphonic Variations on a Theme by George Gershwin).
The piece opens with a lengthy cadenza for the soloist. Once the orchestra enters, one hears occasional harmonic flavouring and syncopated rhythms reminiscent of Gershwin, but the American’s influence comes most prominently to the fore in the lyrical theme that follows. But this is not faux-Gershwin; Twardowski’s originality is stamped on every bar, especially in the ensuing passage featuring unmissable syncopations. A jazzy lick for solo clarinet leads to a second lyrical idea, but the syncopations return. A second, shorter cadenza leads back to the opening material. This cross-pollination of two widely divergent composers and cultures results in something delightfully original, neither American nor Polish, but highly entertaining.
Capriccio in Blue (8.579031)
Staying on the jazz wavelength for the colour indigo, I’ve chosen one of the works that helped secure Duke Ellington’s name on the American jazz scene. For most of his long and illustrious career Duke Ellington was a major figure in the genre, and an active participant in the evolution of recordings spanning the years 1923 to 1973. By the early 1930s he was already established as a top bandleader, and celebrated both as an arranger and a composer in his own right. Always willing to adapt, Duke mirrored and often anticipated new directions and it is to this that we owe the existence of many of the great standards he left behind. Dating from 1930, here’s his best-selling Mood Indigo.
Mood Indigo (8.555017)
Mozart has the final word today with his song Das Veilchen (The Violet), written in Vienna in 1785. Here’s an English translation of the German poem by Goethe which Mozart set so beautifully, and colourfully, to music:
A little violet stood upon the meadow,
Lowly, humble, and unknown;
It was a dear little violet.
There came a young shepherdess
With a light step and a merry spirit
Along the meadow, and sang.
Ah! thinks the violet, if I only were
The most beautiful flower in nature,
Ah, only for a little while,
Until the darling had picked me
And pressed me to her bosom until I became faint,
Ah only, ah only
A quarter of an hour long!
Alas! but alas! the maiden came
And paid no heed to the little violet,
She trampled the poor violet.
It drooped and died and yet rejoiced:
And if I must die, yet I die
Through her, through her,
Yet I die at her feet.
Das Veilchen (8.557900-01)