Commissioning new music costs money. Sometimes a lot of money. Given the everyday financial pressures on arts organisations, finding money for commissions can be difficult. New thinking required, perhaps?
This is going to be rather a different post from usual, focussing as it will do on contemporary and avant-garde classical music. And that includes our part in helping people to realise that classical music doesn’t stop somewhere in the early C20, but is a living, breathing art form with much to offer.
Most live contemporary music performances in the city come from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG).
BCMG has been a fixture on the Birmingham musical scene for over thirty years. From its start as an off-shoot of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), it has become one of the premier medium-sized ensembles in the UK. As an ensemble specialising in ‘new’ music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it could possibly have constructed all of its programmes from available, known music. Instead, it has made a name for itself by giving first performances of over 160 pieces of music, and counting.
Some seventy of these pieces were commissioned by BCMG. Which brings me back to my opening paragraph – how to fund these new pieces of music? Back in the 1990s, BCMG came up with a new, innovative scheme to involve ordinary music-lovers in the creation of particular works. Sound Investment is a cleverly-named scheme which invites individuals to donate money towards a particular composer’s work. Their investment allows new sounds to be created and performed. Without it, BCMG would have struggled to commission anything like that number of new pieces.
Song sheets contain masses of information beyond just their musical content. Social commentary, religious, political themes, and yes, matters related to fashion. Three songs from the nineteenth century caught my eye as I was flicking through our collection, looking for inspiration. As we’ll discover, they also give us information about the performers who brought the songs to life.
Burlington Bertie – words and music by Harry B. Norris (publ. 1900)
The first thing you notice is that the men’s clothes are being worn by a woman, Vesta Tilley. Born in Worcester, she was one of the most famous male impersonators of the music hall era. She started performing on the stage when she was still a child, most of the time in male clothes. She’s reported as saying: I felt that I could express myself better if I were dressed as a boy.
A small, battered volume appeared on my desk one day with the title of King Kong – the African jazz opera. As it was a title completely unknown to me, I went exploring. What I discovered was an eye-opening slice of South Africa’s cultural history.
Not the gorilla of Hollywood fame, but rather a then well-known, Johannesburg African boxer of the 1950s, Ezekiel Dlamini, who liked to call himself ‘King Kong’. The volume we have is the text of the play (book) which was the basis of a musical based on his life and times. There is a fascinating introductory essay by Harry Bloom , the author of the musical’s book and an active journalist at the time. I’ll be regularly quoting from the essay as it is a first-hand record of the musical’s background, development, and its subsequent fame. Part of his description of Dlamini pulls no punches:
He was a popular idol in the townships, yet he was a bully and a braggart who would thrash a man for giving an odd look or smiling at the wrong moment.
As part of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in Mao Zedong’s China, only eight approved stage works (operas and ballets) were allowed. The number of these ‘model plays’ (bāgè yàngbǎnxì) did increase over time, but the original eight continued to dominate the few productions allowed. These revolutionary operas were there not to glorify the usual characters of Peking opera (the aristocracy and courtiers). Instead they concentrated on people and happenings from China’s recent revolutionary past. Of course, they also highlighted Mao Zedong’s thoughts. Not that surprising perhaps, given his wife, Jiang Qing was the power behind the new operas.
Despite spending a lot of my life online, I still look forward at this time of year to getting Christmas cards through the post. It’s hard to make a display of e-cards and decorative emails – only the real, physical thing will do for me. In this post, I’ll be looking at one of our Victorian songs about the postman, and then sampling some of the Victorian Christmas cards which are part of the collections here in Birmingham.
Here is another of our guest blogs about musicians making music. This time, we hear from the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra, one of our local orchestras with whom we work closely. They borrow a lot of material from us, but on this occasion, Ursula tells us about a special performance which didn’t involve the library.
With the major American holiday of Thanksgiving just around the corner, I thought I’d look 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 (Virginia), they had to form their own colony. The Mayflower carried not only people fleeing religious persecution, but also adventurers and traders. In trying to survive a bitter and snowy Massachusetts winter, it was thought necessary for all the surviving settlers to work together for the greater good. Continue reading →
In the UK, what used to be called ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ and now more usually referred to as ‘Bonfire Night’ tends to be overshadowed these days by Halloween. If it is commemorated, it is usually billed as nothing more than an excuse to have a bonfire, some fun, and fireworks.
Just as well, really. Given that the story of Guido Fawkes and his fellow conspirators has its origins in religious intolerance, persecution, sedition, and a conspiracy to overthrow the Crown, it’s never seemed a good choice for a named ‘holiday’ in the British calendar. The persecution of anyone solely on the grounds of their religion has very uncomfortable resonances in today’s world. As has the attempt at a forced removal of a country’s head of state, or compromising the workings of democracy.
However, what I’m going to look at was published in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the social and political landscape was rather different. Although, by then, the situation for Catholics was finally starting to improve, after several centuries of either persecution, or being pushed to the margins of society. Catholic emancipation was enshrined in law in 1829, and here, in Birmingham, St. Chad’s Cathedral was the first Roman Catholic cathedral to be built in England since the Reformation, when it was completed in 1841.
Guy Fawkes – Sam Cowell’s Comic Songs (publ. ca. 1850)
I’ve left it as a rather larger illustration than usual, because there is just so much going on. It is a front cover that not only advertises the song within, but also alerts you, the buyer, to everything else in the same series that you might be persuaded to buy. And at the top, is a portrait of the song’s composer and singer. Almost like a trademark or a logo. I’ll look more closely at various elements as I go.
Sam Cowell (1820-1865) was a very famous singer and actor who spent most of his time performing in the early music hall and its forerunners. Obviously, his image on the title page is there to remind the buyer that the sheet contains one of his songs. It also serves as stamp of approval so that the buyer knew they were getting something good, something worth the three pence asking price. It is a promotional tool which is still very much in use today, and which is a powerful recommendation to any prospective buyer. Perhaps it also reminded the buyer to keep on going to hear Cowell singing live in the Song and Supper Rooms which preceded music halls, or indeed in the music halls themselves.
Alonzo the Brave
This is one of the promotional sketches which crowd around the outside of the main illustration. Alonzo the brave and fair Imogine is a Georgian gothic poem by Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis. I imagine that Cowell would have vamped up the horror elements, making something more comedic out of the poem, perhaps. That doesn’t offend my sensibilities particularly, but the next item does a little more …
Another of Cowell’s stage acts was apparently to take part in a burlesque version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This form of entertainment was quite common in Victorian Britain – taking ‘serious’ plays or operas, and making parodies of them. Sending them up, essentially, poking fun at things and people which mainstream Victorian society regarded as sacrosanct.
The central illustration brings to mind a pantomime, with Guy Fawkes the villain of the piece being apprehended by a distinctly Victorian-looking officer of the state. The sword hanging off his belt clashes with the nineteenth-century whiskers. The tone of the piece is set by the sub-title: a no-Popery squib.
The use of the word ‘squib’ is quite clever, referring as it does to both a small, unspectacular firework, and a piece of satirical writing. The first line of the lyrics might use the words ‘doleful tragedy’, but the tone of musical writing isn’t – a bright, jaunty rhythm in F major. It’s not hard to imagine this on a stage of some kind, with Cowell in the centre, and a pianist off to the side. He tells the tale with all sorts of asides, jokes, and contemporary references to things like gas lighting, and people such as Daniel Whittle Harvey , the first Commissioner of the City of London Police.
Handel’s oratorio the Messiah occupies a very special place in British musical life. He wrote plenty of other dramatic, supremely tuneful choral works, but none of them have had the lasting impact of Messiah. Ever since the Dublin first performance in 1742, this oratorio has always featured in the repertoire. The nineteenth century saw most of Handel’s music falling into disuse, but performances of Messiah continued on. Some of them on a truly stupendous scale, particularly those in the Crystal Palace. In fact, the idolisation of this particular work does strike me as being a little bizarre, however wonderful it is. Even more so, the fascination with the Hallelujah Chorus.
We have all sorts of versions of the Messiah in the Music Library here – the whole work, or the odd aria or chorus, or arrangements of the best-known themes for all sorts of instruments. They date from the late eighteenth century through to the present day. That in itself shows how integral the work has been to musical life through the ages. One volume in particular, I find fascinating. It is a Victorian facsimile of Handel’s autograph manuscript (ie written in his own hand, not by a copyist).
Fac-simile of the autograph score of Messiah … by G.F. Handel (publ. 1868)
Photo-lithography as a printing process for books is now synonymous with offset printing . This combination of photography and lithographic printing was invented in the 1850s. Amongst other uses, it allowed for accurate representations of historic documents. And so, which musical score appears early on? Messiah, of course, confirming its pre-eminence in the Victorian musical canon. And, as can be seen from the title page, the manuscript was owned at the time by the Crown. It is now one of the many jewels of the music collections at the British Library in London.
Let’s look at a few pages. It can take some time for your eye to adjust to Handel’s musical script, but once that’s happened, you can see quite clearly what is going on.
Glory to God
This is one of the first big choruses involving the use of trumpets (shown at the top of the score). Handel associates them with angels and the glories of Heaven. Comparing this with a modern piano reduction gives some other pointers:
Trying to locate the vocal lines in the original is the first problem. My eye scanned down until it came to a line with text. This is obviously a line for the choir, but there should be three of them. In fact, the two lines above are also for the choir. Handel saved time and ink by not replicating the sung text. If you can read music, you will notice that the notes are placed differently compared to the printed version. This is because Handel employed a clef (soprano ‘G’ clef) which is no longer used. You can also see him making alterations – ‘High-est’, for example.
I know that my Redeemer liveth
This aria for soprano opens the third part of the oratorio. It is a very well-known solo. Again, trying to work what’s going on takes a little while. It’s easier than the chorus because there’s much less going on, and Handel helpfully divides the systems. Compare it with a modern printing.
The blank line running through the first system is the line for the singer. It rather confusingly separates the two lines of the accompaniment. Again, the clef Handel uses makes the soprano line look as though it’s been transposed up a third. The accompaniment is in what we’d regard as normal clefs. So it looks confusingly as if the two lines, singer and accompaniment, are almost operating separately.
Easily the most famous part of Messiah, the Hallelujah Chorus must also be one of the most well-known and ubiquitous pieces of classical music ever. Parodies, reworkings, faithful renditions – this piece of music permeates our lives. Nevertheless, it still gives me a buzz to see Handel’s manuscript. The choir’s lines are the four above the bottom line. Handel’s saving time and ink once more, with the word ‘Hallelujah’ appearing sporadically. Here’s a modern piano reduction.
This wonderful manuscript doesn’t have the last word though, when it comes to determining an authentic, accurate score of Messiah. Handel altered and re-wrote things throughout his composing career, and Messiah was no exception. The current Novello publication, edited by Watkins Shaw, lists all manner of different versions, revisions, together with some transpositions. Still, this facsimile is a great thing to have.
Music isn’t music really, until it’s sung or played. Otherwise, it’s just so many dots on a page. In the main, the Music Library exists to enable people to play, and sing, individually, or in groups. In the first of an occasional series of guest blogs, we hear from one of the groups that benefits from borrowing our performance materials.
The film Orchestra
The film Orchestra (TfO) is the UK’s first amateur orchestra to perform only original music for film, TV, and video games. Since its founding by Worcester-based musician Jane Whittle in 2013, it has developed into a self-funding project. This comprises currently of five Community Orchestras spread across the Midlands, feeding into TfO, plus concert/wind bands, brass band, sax ensemble, and choir.
TfO first used the Music Library of the Library of Birmingham for its 2015 season with concerts in Worcester and Kidderminster.
The Worcester floods of February 2014 wreaked havoc with TfO’s finances as their February 13th concert fell prey to the ‘Worcester City Centre – Closed’ signs which went up. Together with the TV news cameras that came in to film the flood tourists on the closed Worcester bridge. The Swan Theatre remained open however, and with the River Severn creeping up the lower road, 79 out of 81 musicians (plus guide dog) found their way on-stage to present their concert, ‘Movie Amore’. A brave audience of 119 were in attendance, many of whom had been accosted on Worcester bridge that afternoon by Jane, waving flyers, declaring that, “The film Orchestra is afloat and we will be playing Titanic this evening!” Unfortunately, the concert made a loss of £500 which very nearly sank TfO at only its second performance. The orchestra had hired-in professional scores from the music publishers at a cost of around £500: a costly mistake when half the audience was put off attending by the media reports of a ‘closed city’.
Hence we looked to Birmingham Music Library for our next season’s repertoire. The orchestra had begun to buy film, TV & video game music sets to build its own library in response to the February disaster, but there were still gaps to fill. The ability to hire sets of orchestral film music for a reasonable price from the Music Library, meant TfO was able to re-group, and re-structure. Then we were able to press on with this exciting project which brings musicians of all ages and levels of experience together in monthly rehearsals, to enjoy playing music composed for the screen.
In December 2016, TfO was able to appoint its first-ever professional conductor, Huw Thomas, who trained at Birmingham Conservatoire with TfO Manager, Edward Roberts-Malpass. Huw and Ed have guided the re-structuring of TfO, as we strive to create a specialist amateur orchestra to be proud of, one which people want to listen to, as well as participate in. The supporting Community Orchestras have given less-experienced musicians a chance to play the music they love. Whilst the professional musicians who support the project, have been given the opportunity to develop their skills in conducting TfO ensembles, and giving workshops.
With light shows, back projections, actors and artists now getting involved with TfO in performances, the future is looking rosy and very exciting for TfO. We have been supported and advised by Worcestershire-based film composer Hilgrove Kenrick right from the beginning and the increasing interest from the film composers’ community around the world is a testament that The film Orchestra project is on the right track.
TfO and TfO Concert Band will perform their next concert ‘Out Of This World’ at Kidderminster Town Hall on Saturday, October 14th 2017. The concert will feature music from Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and Murray Gold with a special performance of ‘Trust me’ from the video game Titanfall 2 by composer, Stephen Barton who is hoping to attend the concert in person. Tickets are available from here. Be warned: we have a habit of selling out our concerts!