In Concert

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

Sun, moon, and stars — July 27, 2017

Sun, moon, and stars

Browsing through our songsheets, I quickly became aware of how many songs refer to heavenly bodies in one way or another. So many, in fact, that I had to narrow down my selection for this post. I settled for classical composers, and it helped if the cover was attractive. I’m a sucker for a colourful, well-designed cover.

Johannes Brahms  Mondnacht, WoO 21 (publ. late C19)

Brahms Mondnacht front cover

This setting of an Eichendorff poem talks about the sky kissing the earth, and the illustrations show this with its ethereal light and those strange blue / silver shadows you get from moonlight. The illustrator shows the bleached look very well. What they don’t capture well is the sense of movement that the poem talks about: a breeze wafted, rustling … Everything seems frozen, somehow. The figure sitting centre-stage is the poet, presumably. Brahms wrote his version a number of years after one by his friend and mentor, Robert Schumann. Looking at the music, it is very Schumannesque and deliberately so, as a tribute to his friend.

Richard Strauss  An die Nacht, op. 68 no. 1 (publ. 1919)

Richard Strauss An die Nacht front cover

This design is so different from the one for the Brahms, but the moon still dominates. Everything possible is silvered and it’s amazing that the colour of the border particularly, still gleams so brightly after almost a century. The poem by Clemens Brentano is one of a set of six set by Strauss – a major achievement in lieder writing not surpassed until his much later Vier Letzte Lieder. Some years earlier, Gustav Mahler had set a number of Brentano’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection of folk poetry. Here, Strauss avoids that collection and sets some of Brentano’s original poetry. The publisher issued each song of the set separately, each with a different flower on the cover. These lilies (I’m not quite sure if they are lilies) would be appropriate, both for their colour and their association with bridal bouquets – the poem has references to the image of a bride.

Camille Saint-Saëns  Vénus (publ. 1896)

Saint-Saens  Venus front cover

This little-known duet for male voices is a setting of one of Saint-Saëns’ own poems. Composed for two singers from the Paris Opera (see the dedication at the top of the image), it is an impassioned plea to Venus, both as goddess of love, and as the evening star. Both singers ask the goddess not to be late, so that they might visit their girlfriends with her shining down upon them. The minimalist backdrop of the illustration beautifully suggests the light of the star shining on the sea. And again, the colours are those of starlight or moonlight.

Frédéric Chopin  So deep is the night (Tristesse) (publ. 1939)

Chopin  So deep is the night front cover

This songsheet is rather different. It’s not a song by Chopin at all. Instead, it’s new words set to the theme of one of his most famous piano etudes, op.10 no.3, nicknamed ‘Tristesse’. In looking through it, I’m amused at how different the English lyrics are from the original French. The opening line, for example: Reviens, mon amour. J’attends ce jour de tout mon coeur, plein d’infinie douceur. The English rendering is, So deep is the night, no moon tonight, no friendly star to guide me with its light. I have the impression of two different songs going on here. Still, for a high volume, popular song, the cover art is very effective and is obviously inspired by the opening line of the English lyrics. I wonder what the French publication looked like?

No room for the sun in this post, unfortunately. Next time, perhaps.

The not-so-silent movies 2 — June 29, 2017

The not-so-silent movies 2

Looking through our collection of silent movie music, it’s fascinating to see which titles got used many times, and then coming across sets which still look pristine. The two main owners of the material, Harry T. Saunders, and Louis Benson, both bought widely. Whereas the main collections in the US have mostly American publications, our collection has a greater proportion of scores from continental Europe than either the UK or the US. The differing ways that the publishers produced their wares is also interesting, although I have to say, it does sometimes feed into perceptions of national stereotypes as well.

 Ludwig Siede Der erste Kuss

Siede Der erste Kuss

To me, in fact, to anyone, it should be entirely unsurprising that this set looks rather the worse for wear. How many hundreds, thousands of films across the years have featured a first kiss? It’s probably a set that hardly left the musicians’ stands. This impression is confirmed by looking at the part for the first violin.

Siede Der erste kuss - showing cues

The cue written on it is only the most recent of many. Louis Benson’s sets are frequently marked with cues – apparently from the intertitles of whichever film the music was being used for. The boss is away – that, to me, suggests some kind of office setting where his (at this period, it almost has to be a man) employees are free to ignore their work in favour of a more tempting and delicious occupation.  The flirtatious, teasing nature of the possible scene is evoked beautifully by the music. The skittish trills and fast staccato scales fit exactly.

Ludwig Siede was a German composer with a very long list of compositions similar to this one – characteristic intermezzos which could be used for films, or simply for background music to all sorts of events. Other titles in our collection include Glückliche liebe  (Happy love) and Padischah – Turkisches charakterstück. Somebody equally prolific in this area was the American composer J.M. Zamecnik .

J.M. Zamecnik Samarkand

Zamecnik Samarkand - series front cover
Samarkand – series front cover

This sort of branding gives the impression that photoplay music was big business – as it was for a few short years. The whole cover sheet here has listings of four different series available from Sam Fox. The listing for the Paramount series makes an interesting claim: A musical interpretation for every motion picture situation … Really? Every available space has an advertisement, wanting to sell the cinema musician more and more music.

Zamecnik wrote a vast amount but it’s interesting that the collection here only has a small quantity (30 sets out of 850). This particular series was obviously written for news reels, so the music had to set the atmosphere almost immediately. No room for an introduction or building up themes. It was more for reinforcing the images were on the screen rather than suggesting or highlighting the drama – other titles include Oriental scene, Head of the parade, In the stirrups.

Zamecnik Samarkand excerpt

Compared with the Siede set, this looks unused. It was part of Harry Saunder’s collection and it’s easy to tell those sets which he used regularly. Maybe he didn’t have much call for Turkish scenes, or, more likely, he had something else which he preferred to use. The music does suggest what might be loosely termed Middle Eastern music by the use of the key in particular. The actual music might be termed a parody by our standards but it was quite common to write like this in the early C20.

I’ll look at French and English publications next time.

Songs from across the centuries 2 — May 18, 2017

Songs from across the centuries 2

There’s been a lot written and said about World War 1 recently because of the various centenary commemorations, but very little has focussed on the music. By this, I mean popular songs and piano music, not the well-known works by Elgar, Butterworth and others. From the examples we have in our collection, there was no room for doubt about the progress of the war at all in the minds of the composers and publishers. The outcome was certain – it was just a matter of time. Relentlessly upbeat would be a good description of a lot of them and the patriotism was applied by the bucket load.

I’m going to spend most of this blog looking at one sheet with particular Birmingham connections but, as I was looking for it, I came across this, a good example of a music hall song published in 1914.

God bless my soldier Daddy

IMG_20170503_160051

Although it’s written as a girl talking to her mother, to me, it immediately suggests a male music hall performer. I can just hear him milking the pathos of the chorus:

God bless my soldier Daddy, To war he had to go, Protect him from all danger, Because I love him so, Take care of him when fighting, Don’t let me pray in vain, God bless my soldier Daddy … And bring him safe home again.

The next song sheet is a much more home-grown affair, and also very different in its tone and purpose.

Britannia’s Glorious Flag

IMG_20170503_160146

Throughout the war, those who remained at home were encouraged to raise money either for the general war effort or for the soldiers at the front. This sheet was the project of two people called Brookes (presumably related)  from Birmingham – one composed the music and the other wrote the words. Their objective was to raise money for their named causes:

As The AUTHOR was also the publisher ie a private individual, it was presumably only meant for local distribution and sale. Certainly, there are no other obvious library copies held elsewhere. I’m curious to know how many copies were printed and sold – you’d have to sell a large number to make any significant contribution. Ten percent of the profits on the 6d selling price wasn’t so very much.

I suspect that the printer the Brookes used wasn’t a regular printer of sheet music – the music engraving is decidedly amateur at times:

IMG_20170503_160337

but again, as private individuals, they wouldn’t have had access to the engravers used by the big London publishing houses. Nor would they have wanted to spend a large amount of money getting it printed if the principal object was to raise money.

The song text is very patriotic (as you’d expect) but interestingly, it isn’t particularly anti-German. In fact, apart from a couple of mentions of the Kaiser and some commentary in the first verse, it concentrates entirely on the people caught up in the war effort, both those fighting and those at home. Here’s a sample:

“England’s in danger” was the cry: a million men replied – “We’ll rally round the good old flag” in life, in death, in pride: Our watchdogs on the sea alert, their eyes turned to the foe, Our airmen in the skies above, our submariners below … 

I’ll close with their dedication  – it shows the Brookes’ serious intent compared with the first song I looked at.

IMG_20170503_160351

 

The not-so-silent movies 1 — May 4, 2017

The not-so-silent movies 1

Going to the movies in the first decades of the C20 was anything but a silent experience. The film itself may not have had sound, but each cinema had its resident musician or group of players to provide a live soundtrack including sound effects.

The Library of Birmingham has a large collection of music scores and instrumental parts which were used to accompany silent films. These are not compositions married to a specific film, instead, they are short pieces for use with any film that came along. They might be generic pieces which were specially written, popular dance music, snippets of classical music, anything, really, which an enterprising musician could recycle to create a soundtrack. This led to a mini publishing boom with many music publishers producing whole series of compositions billed as written specially for the silent movies.

Giuseppe Becce (1877-1973)

Giuseppe Becce was an Italian-born composer who was heavily involved in the German film industry in the 1920s. He continued to compose for films far into the sound era, as well. He wrote the scores for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Der Letzte Mann and many other films, but what I’m going to look at is a collection of his generic pieces. Issued by the German publisher, Robert Lienau, the Kinothek series was aimed at the busy cinema musician, offering a choice selection of dramatic musical snippets. Although they are only short, they are also quite complex for the genre – demanding wide instrumental ranges, and well developed techniques to cope with his German late-romantic style.

You don’t need to have a great knowledge of silent film to understand how evocative these titles are. Resignation, for example, the hero awaiting his fate, or Tragedy, the heroine slumped in despair … Notice that the publisher helpfully lists how long each piece lasts, although they could be cut or stretched to fit as required. Improvisation was an important skill for any cinema musician – even if you had sheet music, there were still bridging passages needed to get you from one piece to the next without an awkward break or a change of key. The goal was to achieve a seamless accompaniment which matched what was on the screen, though I wonder how often it actually happened.

Here are a couple more listings from the same series:

Wild chase and Help! Help! are two which immediately bring pictures to my mind – Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, perhaps, being pursued by a mob, or pleading for help as a building is destroyed by fire. As for Supreme peril or Love’s yearning … they hardly need any introduction.

I shall return to this fascinating collection in future issues of this blog.

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In Concert

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