In Concert

Get a flavour of the music collections of the Library of Birmingham – quirky, practical, historical, contemporary

Dancing ‘Tête-à-tête’: more on La Valse — May 16, 2019

Dancing ‘Tête-à-tête’: more on La Valse

Waltzes are Viennese in origin, right? Yes, unless they’re French. In an earlier post, The Shocking Waltz – Johann Strauss I and Joseph Lanner , we looked at the origins of the waltz in England. To fit in with the preconception, all the composers in that post were Austrian. This time around, the composers are French. As before, I’m going to be quoting from an excellent article by Cheryl A. Wilson.

Laurent  Satanella Valse (publ. 1850s)

Henri Laurent Satanella Valse
The dramatic cover which has been cropped at some point

Very little is known about Henri Laurent, but he obviously kept up with the current fashions. One way to make a set of waltzes up-to-date and immediately attractive was to base them on themes from the current hot opera. In this case, it was an offering from Michael Balfe. Satanella is a four-act, supernatural extravaganza involving she-demons, lightning strikes, a thwarted wedding, pirates, and redemption. It was this sort of opera that Gilbert and Sullivan set out to skewer so successfully in their Savoy operas.

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‘March, march, swing you along’ – Ethel Smyth’s life and music — May 2, 2019

‘March, march, swing you along’ – Ethel Smyth’s life and music

A while ago, I wrote our sole post about a female composer: Pretty as a picture? Songs by Liza Lehmann . It’s high time we had another one, so this time I chose to look at Ethel Smyth.

Ethel Smyth in 1901 – portrait by John Singer Sargent

As well as being composers at the start of the twentieth century, both women were members of the Society of Women Musicians . Since I posted the first essay, the fascinating linked article by Sophie Fuller came to light.  About the same time as the Society was formed (1911), Ethel Smyth was also heavily involved in the militant suffragette movement, Women’s Social and Political Union . When a call for direct action went out, Smyth responded and ended up serving two months in Holloway Prison.

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All Dressed Up … — April 18, 2019

All Dressed Up …

As may have already been said before, I’m amazed by some of the books and scores to be found on our shelves. They raise so many questions: who’s that composer; when and how did we buy that; and why. The book I’m going to look at in this post is definitely a ‘why’.

Fischer  Les Costumes de l’Opéra (publ. 1931)

Two sketches by Jean Berain
Two sketches by Jean Berain

It doesn’t take much knowledge of French to gather that it’s apparently something to do with opera costumes. However it’s not any old stage apparel; the subject is specifically geared to the wardrobe department of the Opera de Paris (the ‘l’Opéra’ of the title). So already a book with a limited readership. Add to this a scholarly, substantial text entirely in French, and my eyebrows are on the rise. Its saving grace is the illustrations and coloured plates which are scattered throughout. Continue reading

Is it that long? — April 4, 2019

Is it that long?

This blog is coming up to its second birthday! It doesn’t seem that long since I wrote our first anniversary post. While I’ve felt more relaxed about the topics featured, there have still been some distinct threads. Let’s have a look at some of the themes and popular posts over the past year.


all performers
All the performers (Jonathan Schoeps)

November saw a flurry of posts. Continue reading

Set Phasers To Stun — March 27, 2019

Set Phasers To Stun

A few weeks ago, I did a post about the composer, Gustav Holst called A Journey beyond ‘The Planets’ . In it, I looked at some lesser-known works Holst wrote. By a strange coincidence, Holst is our subject this time around as well. There’s no denying the long-lasting appeal of The Planets as a piece of music for listening to or performing. For many amateur orchestral players, having The Planets in their season’s schedule is something special.

Sometimes this isn’t possible though: if you play in a smaller orchestra, a tenor tuba,  double set of timpani, or a contra-bassoon won’t be part of your normal line-up. In that case, an inventive solution is necessary. In this post, we hear how Leamington Sinfonia  found theirs. Continue reading

Saturday Night: learning to play the guitar the BBC2 way — March 7, 2019

Saturday Night: learning to play the guitar the BBC2 way

How many ways are there to learn the guitar nowadays? Lots – ranging from online videos and virtual tuition, through CDs and sheet music, to actual teachers or learning from your peers. It seems odd now that 50 years ago, BBC2 ran two series of guitar lessons, broadcast on Saturday evenings. Unfortunately, it appears that none of the episodes survive.

The host / tutor on both occasions was John Pearse , a well-known guitarist and singer on the British folk scene. The first series was ‘Hold Down a Chord’ (broadcast 1965); the next, ‘Fingerpicking’. The book I’m going to look at was issued to complement the second series.

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A Journey beyond ‘The Planets’ — February 21, 2019

A Journey beyond ‘The Planets’

If you know anything of the composer, Gustav Holst, I imagine you’d immediately think of The Planets. Perhaps also Egdon Heath, or the ballet music from The Perfect Fool, but little beyond that. I can’t claim to be much further forward, though I have explored some of the lesser-known works. Wandering around our stacks in my usual search for inspiration, my eye was caught by a couple of works by Holst, about which I knew virtually nothing.

The scores don’t look attractive or have colourful front covers, but I think we’ll have an interesting time nevertheless.

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A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening … — February 14, 2019

A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening …

This Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d spend some time at the movies. Nothing more recent than the 1940s though. Of course we’ll have more recent sheets concerning love, but this was a quick trawl through that small part of the collection where love leads the title.

Let’s start in the 1930s …

Youmans  Love is like a song (publ. 1930)

Love is like a song
A striking front cover

It’s easy to see who was expected to sell this song sheet, and it certainly wasn’t Vincent Youmans, the composer. Gloria Swanson’s character is shown striking various poses, giving the impression of an independent, sassy woman. What a widow, the film, is reportedly lost, with only a trailer and soundtrack now known. It’s described as a ‘pre-code’ movie. That intrigued me, so I went looking.

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‘Get Along Little Dogies’ – the music of Cisco Houston — January 24, 2019

‘Get Along Little Dogies’ – the music of Cisco Houston

Once again, our folk collection here is the source of this post. This unassuming volume, 900 Miles – the ballads, blues and folksongs of Cisco Houston, is yet another Oak Publication.

houston 900 miles
The front cover

These earlier posts taken from other Oak Publications: The ‘House of the rising sun’ blues …Hard-hit People: Songs of the American Great Depression, and A Time of Trial: More Songs from the American Great Depression took me on fascinating journeys, and I expect this volume to do the same. Interestingly enough, this is the only obvious library copy in the UK, despite it still being on sale.

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A Staffordshire Cleopatra? — January 10, 2019

A Staffordshire Cleopatra?

No time for a proper post this week, so here’s a review of some works by Havergal Brian. Including an extended choral work, The Vision of Cleopatra.

On record: ENO Chorus & Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Havergal Brian: The Vision of Cleopatra (Epoch)

Brian is associated with Staffordshire in general and the region around Stoke on Trent in particular. During his long life, his compositions were generally ignored and hardly ever performed. The situation has improved somewhat since his death.

Here’s another review from the same site, this time for two of his many symphonies:

On record: Havergal Brian – Symphonies 2 & 14 (Dutton Epoch)

Back to normal for the next post.


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