Archive for richard strauss

Scordatura: Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Scordatura (simply retuning of the strings from their conventional pitches) is not a technique exclusive to modern music; it dates back to the 16th century, when it was employed by French lutenists, then taken up for the violin by many composers, most notable of whom was Biber. After falling out of fashion in the 18th century (though employed for the viola part in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K. 364 for violin and viola), many 19th century violin treatises mention it (including that of Baillot from 1834), and it was a speciality of Paganini, and after him de Bériot, Vieuxtemps, and others. Also employed in Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben.

The technique is also common in much non-classical music, especially amongst folk fiddlers in various places. It’s questionable how meaningful the term is when alternative tunings can themselves become standard (as apparently an a-e-a-e tuning is in parts of Scotland and North America).

It is also impossible to play Nick Drake’s songs on the guitar because nobody knows how he tuned the instrument for different songs.

The Biber Rosary Sonatas are surely the classic examples where each sonata is tuned differently. On the only occasion when I heard them performed live the violinist (Elizabeth Wallfisch) had three different violins, each of which was immediately tuned for its own next sonata once it had been played, laid down, and then retuned again when its turn came round. It’s actually a bit of a palaver which detracts a bit from the whole performance because so much time is spent tuning the instruments.

Some Italian words that used to begin “dis” now begin with just “s”. So scordatura probably used to be discordatura.

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First Class Second Class Composers

Posted in BBC Radio 3, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

I remember fondly the BBC producing a series under this heading many years ago which highlighted works of great merit by lesser-known composers. Their craftsmanship, ideas and structure were in no way inferior to the works of the big names, but they simply didn’t make it to the forefront, possibly because they didn’t have the volume of output, or that they weren’t the big hitters like Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, et al.

This is especially noticeable in the field of chamber music, where works by Spohr, Berwald, Hummel and many others stand comparison with any of the big names.

My post title is of course a quote from Richard Strauss, who saw himself thus. On another occasion he said “I know more about music than Sibelius, but he is the better composer”. I think that is a profoundly truthful remark.

Other composers in this category I would list as Ravel, E. J. Moeran, Dutilleux, Massenet and Gounod.

If my memory serves me right, F.C.S.C.C. had its heyday before the advent of round-the-clock Radio 3 and after the primitive days of the Third Programme, which started at 6.00 p.m. then shut down four hours later.

Igor Stravinsky conducts L’oiseau de feu

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

Here are some of Stravinsky’s thoughts on other composers, taken from Robert Craft’s less than reliable book Conversations with Igor Stravinsky:

I remember seeing Mahler in St. Petersburg. His concert there was a triumph. Rimsky was still alive, I believe, but he wouldn’t have attended because a work by Tchaikovsky was on the programme (I think it was Manfred, the dullest piece imaginable). Mahler also played some Wagner fragments and a symphony of his own. Mahler impressed me greatly, himself and his conducting.

Rachmaninov’s immortalizing totality was his scowl. He was a six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl. He was the only pianist I have ever seen who did not grimace. That is a great deal.

Ravel? When I think of him, for example in relation to Satie, he appears quite ordinary. His musical judgement was quite acute, however, and I would say that he was the only musician who immediately understood Le Sacre du Printemps.

Satie was certainly the oddest person I have ever known, but the most rare and consistently witty person, too. No one ever saw him wash – he had a horror of soap. He was always very poor, poor by conviction, I think. His apartment did not have a bed but only a hammock. In winter Satie would fill bottles with hot water and put them flat in a row underneath his hammock. It looked like some strange kind of marimba.

We – and I mean the generation who are now saying “Webern and me” – must remember only Schoenberg’s perfect works, the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Herzgewächse, Pierrot, the Serenade, the Variations for orchestra and the Seraphita song from Op. 22. By these works Schoenberg is among the great composers. They constitute the true tradition.

If I were able to penetrate the barrier of style (Berg’s radically alien emotional climate) I suspect he would appear to me as the most gifted constructor in form of the composers of this century. His legacy contains very little on which to build, however. He is at the end of a development.

I would like to admit all Strauss operas to whichever purgatory punishes triumphant banality. Their musical substance is cheap and poor; it cannot interest a musician today. I am glad that young musicians today have come to appreciate the lyric gift in the songs of the composer Strauss despised, and is more significant in our music than he is: Gustav Mahler.

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Kiri Te Kanawa Retires

Posted in Music, News with tags , , , , , , , on August 13, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


I learn that Kiri Te Kanawa is to retire from the operatic stage, something I thought she had done some years ago, actually. I didn’t think she had ever got started! Good voice but no idea about musicianship. She’s known as the “can opener” in New Zealand … don’t ask me why, a friend of mine started it.

Oh dear. I suppose there’s a convention that if one doesn’t have anything nice to say, one keeps quiet, but (and I saw her on numerous occasions in the 1980s in both the theatre and in the concert hall) she was not really an opera singer at all.

She had an undeniably beautiful voice (although she was really more of a jacked-up mezzo than a soprano, as her early recordings demonstrate) but I can think of few singers who were less dramatic or engaged, or who came on stage showing less evidence that they actually knew their part (I remember a concert at the Royal Festival Hall in which she unwisely decided to sing Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder from memory, came unstuck, and André Previn as conductor desperately trying to help her out while shooting her the sort of looks that he normally reserved for Eric Morecambe).

Opera is not just, or even principally, about beautiful voices; it’s about guts, drama, commitment. During her time at Covent Garden you could slum it in St Martin’s Lane and see singing actors of the calibre of Janice Cairns and Josephine Barstow, who may not have had Kiri Te Kanawa’s vocal gifts but knew about performing on the operatic stage.

I’m afraid whatever else Kiri Te Kanawa may have been, in the performances I saw she was never the real thing on stage.

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Flats, Harps & Sharps

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on June 17, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


The key of B is occasionally written as C flat, so I presume that it is technically possible for the key of E to be written as F flat? If this is the case, I can’t think of a piece of music written in the key of F flat.

Am I correct (yes I know I am) in thinking that it suits harpists (sometimes) to play in keys like C flat?

I also understand that Havergal Brian would write in E sharp rather than F.

So far as Brian was concerned, it is (I presume) that writing with all those sharps and double sharps gave a somewhat more exotic flavour than the mundane single flat (B flat) of F major. Equally, moving sharp feels to the composer as if he is turning the screw, whereas going flat does the opposite. None of this can of course be heard by the listener.

Part of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen uses F flat major, which one commentator has called “a bitter enharmonic parody” of the earlier manifestations of E major in the piece.

But I must admit I wouldn’t have noticed.

In the case of the harpists it is to do with the neutral, up and down position of the seven pedals.

A modern concert harp when “glissandoed” will play a diatonic scale of C flat major when all seven pedals are in the up position. This is why harpists always use a C flat tuning fork to begin their tuning routine. Each pedal has three positions (up, middle and down) respectively raising the pitch of the strings it controls by one semitone. Each pedal is dedicated to altering one of the notes of the scale, hence the C-pedal will affect all the C-strings, the D-pedal all the D-strings, etc. Thus when all 7 pedals are put into their middle position the harp will play a scale of C major, and when in their fully down position, they will play C sharp major. By fiddling around with the pedals (which you will notice harpists do all the time, like some demented organist) they can set their harp to play any sort of scale. It needs quite a brain to do it, but if you look at an orchestral harp part it does have instructions about what to do.

Well, it’s easy, really. Most of the harpists I know are extremely serious.

Im Abendrot by Richard Strauss

Posted in Music with tags , , , on March 25, 2009 by Robin Gosnall
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