Hearing it in black and white.

A bifocal blog this week that steers from a lust for colour in music to a quick dig in the catalogue for works presented on a monochrome platform, either black or white.

Peter Maxwell Davies

My first pick is Peter Maxwell Davies’ Black Pentecost, the catalyst for which was provided by the threat of uranium mining in the Yesnaby region of Scotland’s Orkney archipelago, provoking a vigorous (and ultimately successful) response from the local population. It’s a ‘vocal symphony’ along the lines of Mahler’s Song of the Earth or Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony.

The opening movement is a purely orchestral evocation of what is to come. The second starts with simmering activity for woodwind and strings, subtly underpinned by marimba. This continues as the baritone enters with a description of the beginnings of Operation Black Star and the consequent demise of the imaginary village of Hellya in its wake:

Black Star. Operation Black Star was how they described it. Great cargoes of cement were unloaded, lorries, hut sections, cranes, bulldozers, transformers. The houses collapsed before clashing jaws and black battering foreheads. Piecemeal the village died, shrivelled slowly in the radiance of Black, Black Star. What was happening was impossible to find out. The almost completed fence was too well guarded by men and dogs. But Hellya was probed and tunnelled to the roots. The island was full of noises, a clangour from morning to night. A thin shifting veil of dust hung between island and sun. A wooden town sprang up overnight with cook-house, laundry, canteens, sickbay, offices, a detention centre.

Black Pentecost (8.572359)


Alexander Scriabin
© HNH International

Scriabin’s Ninth Piano Sonata was dubbed ‘Black Mass’ by Alexei Podgayetsky, one of Scriabin’s musical companions, and the subtitle stuck. The Satanic atmosphere of the single-movement work is achieved through various means. ‘Poisonous’ and ‘a parade of the forces of evil’ is how Scriabin described sections of the 9-minute work. The sonata opens with the mystery of a distant legend, leading to a muffled fanfare and music that mounts in intensity until the appearance of the second theme. These elements recur, intermingled, with increasing use of single repeated notes, leading to a savage Alla marcia, with the material of the opening bars returning only in brief conclusion.

‘Black Mass’ (SWR10164)


Duke Ellington
Source: eBay / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Something that swings in a lighter vein now by Duke Ellington. Reflecting his view that music could deliver a message from the national experience, in the early 1930s Ellington conceived Black, Brown and Beige, a tribute to the nation’s African-American heritage. As usual, he was cryptic about a title. With a coy wink he sometimes referred to the work as B, B and B, and for each facet he provided a particular colour code. For the premiere at Carnegie Hall in January 1943 (the piece lasted some 50 minutes and was subsequently re-orchestrated as the suite we hear in this blog), the composer provided brief descriptions of each movement, summarised as follows:

Beige is an evocation of the Renaissance in African American music, conjuring the night life of Harlem. Brown offers tribute to the African-American soldiers who fought and gave their lives in the Civil War and World Wars I and II. Black pays homage to the tradition of African-American faith in prayer and hard work, and includes a people’s work song and the spiritual phrases of the tune Come Sunday.”

Black (8.559737)


George Rochberg

The American composer George Rochberg (1918-2005) was lionised as America’s first and greatest master of composition to use a serial language, or 12-tone technique, but his evolution towards a multiplicity of simultaneous languages was already well in train from his earliest compositions. Rochberg speaks of his use of twelve-tone techniques as engendering a ‘hard’ Romanticism. One has only to look at the slow movement of his Second Symphony — Rochberg’s serial work par excellence — to see that the tone row yields music that alternates between melting, elegiac beauty and desperate explosions of anguish.

His Black Sounds is by turns an angry, stark and desolate work. New York’s Lincoln Center commissioned it for a September 1965 telecast, where it was first performed as a ballet by Anna Sokolow under the title The Act, describing an act of murder. It’s scored for twelve wind and brass instruments, four percussion, and piano/celesta. Here’s the first half of the 14-minute piece.

Black Sounds (8.559115)


Turning to the opposite end of the colour spectrum, I’ve chosen not three pieces, but three composers to represent the colour white.

The first is the English composer Robert White (1538-1574) who was trained as a singer at Trinity College, Cambridge and later served as Master of the Choristers at Ely Cathedral. He seems later to have been employed at Chester Cathedral and finally at Westminster Abbey. White’s church music includes settings of a number of Latin texts, with two versions of the Holy Week Lamentations, one for a 5-part choir, the other for six voices. There’s a touch of mournful grey, then, in what emerged from White’s pen for his five-part version. Here are the concluding two sections of the work.

Lamentations (8.550572)


Clarence Cameron White
Source: Maud Cuney-Hare, 1874–1936 / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Now to a miniature by the American composer and concert violinist Clarence Cameron White (1880-1960) who has probably kept a low profile in most people’s record collections but certainly caught the attention of the legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz. During the Second World War Heifetz toured widely, entertaining US troops with popular  repertoire as well as that of the great classical composers. He performed this lighter music with all of the precision and passion he invested in major masterpieces. As Heifetz himself once said: “There are only two kinds of music—good music and bad music.” Clarence Cameron White’s Levee Dance clearly fell into the former estimation as we can here in this recording of Heifetz himself performing the miniature.

Levee Dance (8.111379)


Finally to a  bit of a toe-tapper by Edward White (1910–1994), who was a British composer and arranger of light music. You might have come across his music before, without knowing who the composer was, since many of his compositions were used rather anonymously as theme tunes for radio and television in the middle of the last century. Whilst holidaying in England’s Isle of Wight, White was inspired by a grand steam locomotive called Puffing Billy to write his most familiar work, Puffin’ Billy. It was used on both sides of The Pond: in the UK it became the signature tune for BBC Radio’s Children’s Favourites — a radio request programme which ran from 1952 to 1966; and in America it served as the theme music for some twenty years to CBS TV’s children’s series Captain Kangaroo.

Puffin’ Billy (8.553515)


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