In Concert

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

‘I’m dreaming of a …’ — December 13, 2018

‘I’m dreaming of a …’

Whether it’s a white Christmas, or something else, this is the time for seasonal favourites. Or perhaps you regard them as so much aural wallpaper? One of many reasons I don’t envy those working in the retail sector, is the thought of having to suffer a Christmas soundtrack from mid-October onward. It must make these songs something akin to white noise, which is a pity.

Berlin  White Christmas (publ. 1954)

White Christmas, the title song of this film, first appeared in another Irving Berlin film Holiday Inn. It is one of the most ubiquitous seasonal songs. I imagine most of us could croon the refrain, or some of it at least. Continue reading

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Voices In Concert — November 29, 2018

Voices In Concert

At the end of this special, memorial November, I’m taking the opportunity to revisit the concert we described at the start of the month. In this post, we hear from people involved in the performance, and what the concert meant to them. My thanks go to Jane Eminson for doing the hard work, and Jonathan Schöps, photographer with the Jena University Choir for allowing his images to be reproduced here. All photos used in this post are © 2018, Jonathan Schöps Fotografie.

balcony audience
The view from the balcony. (Jonathan Schoeps)

From the Audience:

What an amazingly wonderful event! The choirs were spectacular and seemed as if they’d been singing together forever, stunning pianissimos and magnificent high sopranos. Soloists very good quality (better than many Proms performances!). It must have been an enormous feat of organisation, persuasion and stamina. We are so glad we came and it was very moving to be surrounded by French and German nationals as well. We discussed everything from Brexit to War Remembrance, and the roots of World War 2 in the Versailles Treaty.
Liz and Robert Chalmers

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‘Beyond the sea’ – the Mayflower tercentenary song book — November 22, 2018

‘Beyond the sea’ – the Mayflower tercentenary song book

Today is the major American holiday of Thanksgiving, so I thought I’d revisit a post I wrote last year, looking at something in our stock which commemorates the sailing of the Mayflower.

The Mayflower was the ship that transported the first group of Puritans from England to the New World. It sailed from Plymouth in the summer of 1620 with 102 passengers. They weren’t the first group of people aiming to settle in the New World, of course. But when they landed far from where they had intended to settle in Virginia, they had to form their own colony on Cape Cod.

The Mayflower carried not only people fleeing religious persecution, but also adventurers and traders. With the prospect of trying to survive a bitter and snowy Massachusetts winter, tempers started to fray, with some individuals wanting to go it alone. It quickly became clear that all the surviving settlers had to work together for the greater good. Continue reading

Grant Us Peace! — November 15, 2018

Grant Us Peace!

Once again, we hand over the blog to another musical organisation. This time it’s Birmingham Festival Choral Society and their contribution to the Armistice commemorations. We met members of BFCS in an earlier post which talked about a weekend away rehearsing. As this post goes out, it falls between two concerts which BFCS and Nottinghamshire-based Ryton Chorale are presenting together on the theme of war and peace. The two works are Howard Goodall’s Eternal Light, and Ralph Vaughan William’s Dona Nobis Pacem.

Poppies in Flanders
Poppies flowering in Flanders

I know the VW well, having played in two performances, but I don’t know the Goodall. Both composers take ancient Latin texts from the church liturgy and add new words. In VW’s case, more poetry from his beloved Walt Whitman, and the Old Testament; and from various sources for Goodall’s work.

Here’s a piece from one of BFCS’ singers about her experience of performing in the first concert.

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After The Guns Fell Silent — November 1, 2018

After The Guns Fell Silent

Frank_Boggs,_Armistice_Day,_Paris,_1918
Armistice Day, Paris, 1918 (Artist: Frank Boggs) Public domain image from Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By some quirk of the calendar, Remembrance Sunday this year here in the UK is actually the eleventh of November. How propitious that it occurs at the same time as the end of the World War I centenary commemorations? Many musical organisations are seeking to mark the conclusion of the Great War a century ago during this November. One such is Wolverhampton Symphony Orchestra. On this occasion, we hand over the blog to a guest writer (as we do every now and again). Here is Jane Eminson talking about the fruition of a great, multi-national, musical project.

St Matthew's Walsall
St Matthew’s Church, Walsall

If you hear the ‘Ode to Joy’ coming from a house near you over the next week, it’s probably one of nearly 400 participants in the Remembrance and Reconciliation concert doing their practice. Continue reading

A Song and Dance Routine — October 18, 2018

A Song and Dance Routine

You might think a song can’t be a dance, and vice versa, but our song sheet collections show this to be wrong. So here, for your delight and delectation, are some tangos, together with the odd foxtrot and bolero, which are also happen to be songs.

Grosz & Kennedy  Tina – a tango-foxtrot ballad (publ. 1934)

Tina - front cover
The front cover

I’m not sure how a ballad can be both a tango and a foxtrot. The direction at the top of the music is ‘Tempo di tango’ and it certainly appears to be in a basic tango rhythm. The foxtrot was at the height of its popularity in the 1930s, so maybe it’s just there as a hook. The composer, Will (Wilhelm) Grosz fled his native Austria during the 1930s Nazi takeover. When he arrived in England, his avant-garde music didn’t garner much interest. Instead, he turned his hand to composing music for popular songs. His best known hits were Isle of Capri and Harbour Lights, with lyrics also written by Jimmy Kennedy.

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An illustrated ‘Tristan and Isolde’ — October 4, 2018

An illustrated ‘Tristan and Isolde’

For this post, I’m going to look at an unusual illustrated libretto of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, published in Austria the year after the end of WWI. Once again it wasn’t what I thought I’d be writing about.

When I first started this blog, I set out the various headings which I thought covered the areas I’d be writing about. That lasted for the first few months, then my eye started wandering, finding all sorts of other things to look at. This book is a classic example. While debating a post about another local interest topic, I turned to the shelf opposite and came across this libretto.

Wagner  Tristan and Isolde (publ. 1919, Avalun Verlag)

Wagner Tristan und Isolde (Avalun Verlag) front cover
The front cover (notice the seahorse).

It’s not surprising it caught my eye. That this is no ordinary opera wordbook is apparent from the front cover, even before I opened it up.

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The Shocking Waltz – Johann Strauss I and Joseph Lanner — September 20, 2018

The Shocking Waltz – Johann Strauss I and Joseph Lanner

When the waltz was introduced as a new dance to early C19 Regency England, it was regarded as something quite scandalous. Unlike the group country dances of the times when the participants touched regularly, but only fleetingly, in the waltz, the two partners danced together exclusively. Not only that, they were touching all the time.

French caricature of the waltz
French caricature of the waltz from 1801. (Public domain)

Here’s what Lord Byron wrote at the time (anonymously) about the waltz:

Endearing Waltz! — to thy more melting tune
Bow Irish jig and ancient rigadoon.
Scotch reels, avaunt! and country-dance, forego
Your future claims to each fantastic toe!
Waltz — Waltz alone — both legs and arms demands,
Liberal of feet, and lavish of her hands;
Hands which may freely range in public sight
Where ne’er before — but — pray “put out the light.”
Methinks the glare of yonder chandelier
Shines much too far — or I am much too near;
And true, though strange — Waltz whispers this remark,
“My slippery steps are safest in the dark!”

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The Jolly Machine – Michael Raven and urban English folk song — September 6, 2018

The Jolly Machine – Michael Raven and urban English folk song

When thinking about English folk song, it is all too easy to think of classic English folk music as collected by Cecil Sharp, Vaughan Williams, and others. Songs of an agrarian existence, sometimes idyllic, often times not, which harked back to the time when the majority of people made their living from the land. In fact, that was to be the subject of this blog post until I got distracted by a slim, home-made volume of much grittier, urban songs.

Michael Raven: The Jolly Machine (publ. 1974)

Jolly machine by Michael Raven
The front cover of the song book.

Already you get the sense of something completely different from the front cover. Here are no songs about farm labourers and pretty lasses, instead Michael Raven focusses on the ‘songs of industrial protest and social discontent’ from the area all around Birmingham. The photograph used is of four coal miners from Wednesbury, taken in the 1880s. The dirtied work clothes and the coal-blackened faces are testament to the men working in the area of the West Midlands known as the Black Country.

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A Time of Trial: More Songs from the American Great Depression — August 23, 2018

A Time of Trial: More Songs from the American Great Depression

I’m returning to Hard-hitting Songs for Hard-hit People, a song collection about the American Great Depression. Last time , I looked at agricultural workers. This time, working, or more likely, unemployment.

‘You’re dead broke’ 

Destitute_man_vacant_store
Unemployed, destitute man in San Francisco. (Photo credit: Dorothea Lange. Public domain)

In his publisher’s forward, Irwin Silber, sets the picture of the early 1930s American Great Depression brilliantly:

The central fact was mass unemployment. Everything else – the soup kitchens, the home relief lines, the unmitigated misery of the old, the sick, the feeble who had no resources and no place to turn – all these stemmed from the fact that in some basic, incomprehensible way, the system had fallen apart at the seams. Factories, mills, and mines closed down and people were thrown out of work. This began a cycle of business failures, wage-cutting, lockouts, land evictions which … produced … the most massive economic collapse this country has ever known.   

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