Celebrating Robert Burns

Once again we hand over to Douglas from the Music Library, this time to tell us about the many composers who have been inspired by the works of Robert Burns.

Robert Burns – poet, lyricist, lover, fighter, farmer, exciseman – regarded by most as Scotland’s national poet. Burns was born 264 years ago on the 25 January 1759, a day celebrated near and far as Burns Night, with suppers given in his honour and much Irn Bru drunk and sugary tablet eaten, (or maybe that’s just my Burns Suppers).

Burns’ memory is toasted with the finest malt whisky and a dinner of haggis, tatties and neeps. The haggis is marched in, accompanied by a piper, and addressed by a guest speaker, before being served. Then songs are sung, dances are danced and the Bard’s poems are recited for the entertainment of the assembled diners.

The Music Library’s Burns display this year contains songs in settings Burns afficionados would perhaps not expect to see and hear. There are also settings that are perhaps less well known and a few select items from the collection of our neighbours, the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection.

Burns Night display in the Music Library
Music Library Burns Night display
Burns night display in cabinet in Music Library

The items in the cabinet are not normally the songs sung at a Burns supper – this small collection are a few of the less well-known settings of the ploughman poet’s work.

The cabinet contains settings by Pleyell, Haydn, Beethoven, Ravel, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Shostakovich. Of the composers represented in the cabinet, Pleyell, Haydn, Beethoven and Schumann never visited Scotland, although Clara Schumann, composer, gifted pianist and wife of Robert, visited Scotland in 1867 on tour with the celebrated violinist Joseph Joacim. Robert Schumann revisited the lyrics and poems of Robert Burns a few times, the great romantic composer setting the works of the great romantic lyricist. In 1840, Schumann set some of Burns poems in his song cycle Myrten Op25 which was dedicated to his beloved bride to be, Clara. In 1846, Schumann wrote Five songs for Choir Op55 all with words by Robert Burns. There is also a jaunty little setting of My Love is like a Red Red Rose.

Felix Mendelssohn was much taken by Scotland when he visited in 1829. The 20 year old composer “did Scotland” top to bottom. His trip produced the Hebrides Overture and the 3rd Symphony. It also produced some fascinating letters to his family and excellent sketches. Starting in Edinburgh on the 26 July, Mendelssohn set off with with Karl Klingemann a diplomat stationed in London and a close friend of the Mendelssohn Family.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, 1830
by Eckart Kleßmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Felix Mendelssohn had arrived in London on April 21 after a difficult channel crossing. He chose to initially perform only on piano and only in private houses at small functions. It was not until 25 May that Mendelssohn made his London concert debut with the RPO. He was to appear throughout the Summer as soloist in the Weber Concert-stuck and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. He also premiered some of his own works. When the London concert season finished, he was free to travel with Klingemann to their walking holiday in Scotland.

Described as inveterate reviser, the Hebrides Overture has several different names and a few different versions until Mendelssohn deemed himself “satisfied” with the work in 1832. The Scottish Symphony took longer to finish – a full 13 years, the same year as his Volksleid based on the poetry of Robert Burns.

Maurice Ravel,1912, unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Maurice Ravel wrote his Chanson Ecossaise in 1910 and eventually managed to visit Scotland two years later, perhaps this is some sort of pre-inspiration. At the behest of Russian singer Marie Olenine d’Alheim and her so called Maison du Lied which she founded in Moscow in 1908. The Maison organised concerts and international competitions for song arrangements. Ravel entered one of these competitions. Four of his Chansons Populaire won first place, whilst other Russian, Scottish and Italian songs were never published. This edition of the Chanson Ecossaise is reconstructed from existing sketches.

Portrait of Dimitri Shostakovich
Deutsche Fotothek‎, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons

Shostakovich’s visit to the 1962 Edinburgh Festival was heavily policed by Russian authorities with all that he said and did being monitored by his state minders. What actual picture or impression of Scotland he got from this visit we cannot tell. Dimitri seems to have been criticised on all levels for all things. His 1962 visit to Scotland to the Edinburgh Festival, allowed every critic and letter writer to “have a go”. If he had had a twitter account, he would have been trolled out of the country.  He was unequally lauded and vilified. Individual critics were torn between carrying him through the streets as one of the great Russian composers or trying to find room on his back for one more knife. His crime was to stay alive during the Stalin era, an era in which to fall out of step with Russia’s tiptop tyrant, meant disappearance, banishment, or death. Shostakovich suffered none of these fates despite almost falling out of line, he always managed to pull himself back from the edge by writing works to please the Party. It was this music, the safe party music which drew most criticism and the behaviour of being seen as a sycophant rather than being dead, which also brought disfavour from the amateur and professional critic, and all the outraged letter writers of Edinburgh. 

The Shostakovich Six Romances on English Folk Tunes Op 62 were premiered in 1943, a difficult time in Russia’s history, it is hard to see how this could be anything other than Shostakovich the patriot, writing music for Russia and the Russians.

Benjamin Britten by
Szalay Zoltán, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Benjamin Britten – A Birthday Hansell (‘hansel’ is an old Scottish word for a welcome gift or present) was written in 1975 for the Queen Mother’s 75th birthday in 1976. The piece was commissioned by the late Queen Elizabeth II and became Britten’s last song cycle. It was given its first performance by Peter Pears, tenor and the harpist Osian Ellis, whose advice Britten often sought for the harp arrangements. In 1973 Britten had had a failing heart valve replaced successfully but he was never the most robustly healthy man. It was clear by he middle of 1976 that he was unwell and unlikely to get better. His Scottish nurse Rita Thomson organised champagne receptions where the dying composer could say his goodbyes to his friends and family.  Britten died on the 4 December 1976 and was buried in his beloved Aldeburgh in the church graveyard, there he was joined by his partner, Peter Pears on his passing in 1986.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was a great champion of indigenous music, much of his work revolved around English Folk tradition, in amongst all his many works are settings and arrangements of folk songs from other lands. Ca the Yowes is from 1922.

The works by Beethoven, Haydn and Pleyell come from a lucrative arrangement entered in to by them and the Edinburgh based, clerk, businessman, musician and composer George Thomson (1757 – 1851). Thomson was an attendee, but not a member, at the Edinburgh Music Society in their home in the St Cecilia Halls in the Cowgate. Here, he heard the “tasteful” renditions of Scots songs by the Italian Castrato Tenducci, a visitor to the society. This gave Thomson the idea of publishing collections of Scots songs in “tasteful arrangements”.

George Thomson
by Henry Raeburn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Spanning a period of over 40 years, Thomson published six volumes and employed the services of eight composers – Pleyel, Kozelich, Haydn, Beethoven, Weber (briefly), Hummell, H.R. Bishop and G. F. Graham. From various records, Thomson paid between 2/4 ducats for an arrangement. In the time that Beethoven worked with Thomson he produced between 125 and 179 arrangements which almost all were requested by Thomson. This was a favourable arrangement, but disagreements flared between Thomson and Beethoven over the difficulty of the accompaniments. The publisher claimed the arrangements were too hard for the people buying his collections, Beethoven refused to compromise, notoriously ill-tempered. This was when Thomson and Beethoven parted company and Thomson moved on to his next composer. Thompson’s starting point for his volumes of song had been existing works and only Scottish works along the way. Thomson now commissioned works for his collection and expanded the collection to include works from Ireland, Wales and England. Thomson commissioned Burns to write 170 new works and it was Burns who persuaded Thomson to include the work of the other home nations. 

Whether completely new tunes to familiar words or surprising arrangements of well kent tunes. It is always interesting to find how far and wide Robert Burns words travelled, all the way from England to Russian and many stops in between.

There are many more perhaps surprising Burns works at both Naxos streaming sites, Classical and Jazz. Both the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection and the Music Library have many more Burns volumes than can be listed here.

Tinderbox Orchestra launch We Make Music Instrument Libraries

Want to borrow a violin? Or perhaps you’d prefer a guitar or a clarinet?

We Make Music Instrument Libraries is a brand new initiative to get musical instruments into public libraries across Scotland. People can borrow these instruments for free, just like taking out a book. The programme is launching with nine libraries in Fife, North Ayrshire and Edinburgh, with the intention that it spreads further across Scotland in future.

Tinderbox Orchestra

Edinburgh Libraries currently hold collections of instruments in Craigmillar, Drumbrae, Moredun, Muirhouse, Wester Hailes and the Music Library at Central Library. We have a wide variety of instruments from guitars, keyboards and ukuleles, to violins, trombones and orchestral instruments. The Music Library also has two digital pianos, a full-sized keyboard and a drum kit available to use in the library.

We are working in partnership with Tinderbox Collective to deliver this initiative and what better way to launch this new service than to welcome Tinderbox Orchestra to perform in the library! Join us on the Mezzanine at Central Library on Saturday 28 January. Tinderbox Orchestra will play from 1:30 to 2:15pm and if you’ve been inspired, join us for an open mic session running afterwards from 2:30 to 3:30pm hosted by Tinderbox Collective.

Get your free ticket to see Tinderbox Orchestra on Saturday 28 January or drop in for a jam on the day.

Beautiful game and beautiful music

The World Cup, beautiful music, dangerous defenders and recreational drumming – all the meanderings of a lapsed football fan.

It had been a long time since I have watched a football match. The opportunity arose on Saturday 22 October, for me to take myself to the newly refurbished Meadowbank Stadium and watch the mighty F.C. Edinburgh take on the pride of Lanarkshire, Airdrieonians. This is not a football report but to explain why my mind wandered away from football, to music to film and video and prawns. I should explain that the result, despite Airdrieonians equalising in the 47th minute, wasn’t a game that Edinburgh ever looked like they were going to lose. Another reason for shutting down and meandering through the back corridors of this old head, was the accompanying drumming. That, and the predictable goings-on on the pitch meant my mind wandered (a lot).

In the olden days, I used to attend Meadowbank to watch football in an amiable silence marred only by an off or on the ball incident which elicited some response from the crowd. When I say crowd, I mean the few hundred diehards who frequented the stadium of a Saturday afternoon.

Back to the F.C. Edinburgh v Airdrieonians and my meanderings. Like flicking through channels on the TV with a remote control, I move back and forward through years of stored rubbish in my head. Whilst the young footballers attempted to gain the upper hand on their opponents and the young drummers recreate the word Ed-in-burggghhhhh. I stop off at a point many years ago…

Bill Boaden / Concert at the Meadowbank Stadium

For a time, I was a member of the Edinburgh Cine and Video Club. For one Halloween night, many Halloween nights ago, the members were charged with the task of producing a film/video of things that scared us. I had collected a lot of video clips to cut together a kind of ‘pop’ video of scary things  such as heights and prawns, and scariest of all, Dave McPherson scoring an own goal in the 1993 Rangers v Hibernian Scottish League Cup Final at Hampden – a low diving header into the corner of his own net. At the other end of the park this would have been a stunning goal. Thankfully for Mr McPherson, his team scored two goals to cancel out his error. All of this and more were set to the soundtrack of a hauntingly beautiful work by the 17th century Italian composer Lotti, his Crucifixus a8. It was maybe a bit obvious to set ugly, scary images to beautiful music, but I like it and it worked. I managed to enrage one member who walked out, I still don’t know whether it was heights, prawns or Dave McPherson which maddened him.

Crucifixus a 8 by Antonio Lotti available via Naxos

Antonio Lotti was born in 1667, he lived most of his life in Venice, beginning and ending there, his middle years were spent in Germany. The Crucifixus is perhaps his most well-known work. There is some confusing information out there about Antonio Lotti and writings on the composer spending more time, bafflingly, talking of the things he didn’t do and the works he didn’t write, rather than the things he did. Apart from his middle years in which he wrote many secular works, mostly for the theatre, most of his output is devoted to the church and his last 20 years at San Marco in Venice was devoted to his sacred writings.

It is half-time and the score remains 1-1. During the break, as Meadowbank does not have a Tannoy, I read the scores for all the other Scottish football matches played today.

The second half resumes.

A short 12 minutes later my attention was drawn back to the events in Meadowbank, what should be an easy clearance for the Airdrie keeper spun off his glove and into his net. 2 – 1. 

As mentioned, Meadowbank does not have the joy of a Tannoy system. Or if it does, they didn’t inflict it on us during this match.

Football teams around the country use Tannoy systems to play music to usher teams onto the pitch or onto success. The music used could be described as from the sublime to the ridiculous, a cliché well worth trotting out at this point and as this is a blog about football and music, both no stranger to the odd, overused cliché.

Just a short hop from where I sit at my kitchen table writing this, is Easter Road, home of Hibernian F.C. Often heard there is the evocative “Sunshine on Leith” by the Proclaimers. It is unexpectantly moving to hear that song sung there by a near capacity crowd, men, women and children all giving voice to their anthem.

Hibernian’s arch-rivals across the city at Tynecastle park, Heart of Midlothian or as the song says, “H-E–A-R-T-S, if you cannae spell it then here’s what it says, Hearts, Hearts, glorious Hearts”. This song has welcomed teams to Tynecastle for very many years, recorded by Hector Nicol and the Kelvin Country Dance Band. Hector and his band also recorded “Glory, Glory to the Hibees”, for Hibernian F.C., “the Terrors of Tanadice” for Dundee United FC and “Dark blues of Dundee”, for Dundee FC. Hector was prolific in the football song department. St Mirren-supporting Nicol (1920-1985) was a Scottish born singer and composer of football songs, successful and admired as an actor and comedian. His tragic personal life almost prematurely ended his performing career.

150 years of the Black Dyke Mills Band available via Naxos

Leicester City have been marching, or perhaps galloping on, to the Post Horn Gallop. This work by German born cornet virtuoso, Herman Koenig, has been a staple at the King Power Stadium.  Koenig was a composer and designed a cornet which still bears his name. Koenig was well known to London audiences as a member of Louis Jullien’s Drury Lane Orchestra, with which he toured America in 1853.

Themes from The Phantom Menace and Other Film Hits) (Royal Scottish National Orchestra) available via Naxos

For some reason Tottenham Hotspur enter to the portentous Duel of the Fates from “The Phantom Menace”, part of the Star Wars Franchise. 

Strangely, Watford FC and Everton both use the theme from the 60s TV favourite Z-Cars.

Find a version of When The Saints Go Marching In on this album by Louis Armstrong via Naxos

Rather predictably Southampton, known as the Saints march on to “When the Saints, go marching in”.

There are many more.

Things at Meadowbank are coming to an end with the score stuck at 2-1. Airdrie are trying to find a goal to salvage something from a bad day and Edinburgh are defending, somewhat comfortably, with forays into their opponents’ half with the hope of extending their lead. The citizens are happy and drumming to show their delight. Airdrie fans are winding their way home perhaps having given up on a last-minute equaliser. 

With moments to go in the match at Meadowbank, I think perhaps I should concentrate more on what’s happening in front of me but I am distracted by the thought that we are in a World Cup year. I replay some of the golden musical moments of World Cups past. For someone of my years, Scotland’s appearances at World Cups are a distant memory and we are only left with the hope that one day it might happen again, we might just qualify. Not this year though. For those that intend to watch, this year’s controversial World Cup starts on 20 November.

Nessun Dorma available via Naxos

Soon the broadcasting companies will unveil their branding for these shows and music which, in past years, has become famous for introducing World Cup highlights and no doubt this year will do so again. Something will rival Nessun Dorma or The Pavane by Faure.

The pick of the BBC’s theme music over the years was in 1982, when they used from the musical, Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber, The Jellicle Cat.

West Side Story available via Naxos

For the 1990 opening credits they used Nessun Dorma from Turandot by Puccini.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in 1994 for the World Cup in America, the BBC chose the Aria America from Leonard Bernstein’s musical West Side Story.

For the 1998 World Cup in France and the last time Scotland appeared, the BBC chose the Pavane by Faure sedate, poised and for some, typically French.

Pavane by Faure available via Naxos

Jump forward one World Cup, to the 2006 finals in Germany and the BBC chose the music of a German born naturalised Englishman, George Fredrich Handel and a chorus from Judas Maccabaeus. 

Judas Maccabaeus by G. F. Handel available via Naxos

Probably one of the biggest add-on events of the World Cups was the concert(s) by the Three Tenors, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras with the conductor, Zubin Mehta. An open-air extravaganza which took place on the eve of the World Cup final in the Baths of Caracalla. This live broadcast event spawned an industry which would continue till their last concert together in 2003. The three sang together in the next World Cups and toured stadia around the world.

Carreras, Domingo, Pavarotti in concert available via Naxos

At Meadowbank Stadium, the 90 minutes have come and gone and we are in extra time. With each attack by the plucky Airdrieonians, they are left dangerously open at the back and in the 95th minute Edinburgh take advantage of the gaps and score a third. And as Kenneth Wolstenholme said 56 years ago at the World Cup at Wembley, “come on ye, F. C. Ed-in-burgghhhhhh!”

No, he didn’t. He famously said, “some people are on the pitch, they think it’s all over. It is now”.

It is over for F. C. Edinburgh, and it is over for Airdrieonians. No one was on the pitch and there was no great surprise at the outcome. The drummers drummed and the players left the pitch to muted applause, and we all wind our merry ways home. Sometimes at football grounds you are sent home to the sound of music, sometimes to the sound of the Tannoy announcing the scores from around the grounds, but on Saturday 22 October at Meadowbank Stadium it is a general hum of quiet conversation.

A lot of the music mentioned is available at our streaming site Naxos Music.

Maybe the next article will be classical composers, singers, musicians, songwriters and Popes who were footballers or avid fans of the game, like Shostakovitch, a lifelong supporter of Zenit Leningrad. Until then, check out these football related albums at Naxos, including an album called “Good Sport! nostalgic music for the armchair athlete”.

Good Sport! available via Naxos
Soundtrack to The Match available via Naxos
45 Minutes of Music on the Subject of Football available via Naxos
Living Football by Hans Zimmer available via Naxos
Bend It Like Beckham original cast album available via Naxos

Felix Yaniewicz and the first Edinburgh music festival

Felix Yaniewicz (1762-1848) was a celebrated violin virtuoso and composer who settled in Britain and co-founded the first Edinburgh music festival in 1815. 

Painted portrait of Felix Yaniewicz alongside his signature

He was born in Vilnius, and rose to prominence as a musician in the Polish Royal Chapel. His career took him to Vienna, Italy, and Paris before he fled the French Revolution and came to Britain. After spells in London and Liverpool, and touring concerts up and down the country in fashionable cities such as Bath, he made his home in Edinburgh. 

The Friends of Felix Yaniewicz have kindly shared the story of his life and times in Edinburgh in a new story on Our Town Stories. Read the story and find out about his role in Edinburgh’s first music festival!

Ralph Vaughan Williams – an English composer

On the 150th anniversary of his birth we celebrate the long life of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, with a small display and this sweeping and painfully short, on detail, summary of his 86 years. 

Ralph Vaughan Williams ca. 1900., artist unknown, via Wikimedia Commons

Remembering the life of Ralph Vaughan Williams, hereafter known as RVW, there is a temptation to just quote the facts and figures of a life well lived. So here goes.

Display of RVW material in the Music Library

The symphonies, like many great composers he managed nine. Some are named, and again like his fellow great composers, were spread out over his life, till the final 9th symphony, finished just before his death in 1958. RVW, like Beethoven was very hard of hearing. Unlike Beethoven, RVW could sit beside a very large and powerful speaker to hear his works, technology not available to Ludwig van Beethoven. His symphonies, 1 and 2 are respectively the London Symphony and the Sea Symphony, the 7th is Sinfonia Antartica. For some of a certain vintage, the 6th symphony will be forever known for the theme music to Family at War, a Granada Television series which ran from 1970 to 1972. They used a noble theme from the end of the 1st movement. Other Orchestral music includes the two Norfolk Rhapsodies and perhaps one of his “greatest hits”, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.  

Film composing is a splendid discipline, and I recommend a course of it to all composition teachers whose pupils are apt to be dawdling in their ideas, or whose every bar is sacred and must not be cut or altered.
RVW in The Royal College of Music Magazine

RVW composed works for the stage and screen, produced Operas, religious and secular choral works, concertos, instrumental and chamber works. His instrumental works include a Romance for Harmonica and Orchestra written for and first performed by Larry Adler. Adler gave the first performances in 1952 in New York and then at the London Proms. Two years later, RVW wrote a Tuba concerto for the Principal Tubist of the LSO Phillip Catelinet. This work was premiered in 1954. For this 150th year RVW’s intention, never carried out in his lifetime, of arranging the Tuba Concerto for the Euphonium, a slightly smaller and slightly higher pitched relative of the tuba, has been realised. On hearing this arrangement, I like to think that RVW perhaps revisited his thoughts on this arrangement and decided against it.
It just doesn’t work.

Concerti work for his favoured viola – Flos Campi for Viola, wordless chorus and small orchestra and a Suite for Viola and Small Orchestra, The Lark Ascending for Violin and Orchestra, an oboe concerto and a piano concerto.

Operas include Sir John in Love, based on the Merry Wives of Windsor by his beloved Shakespeare; Hugh the Drover, a romantic ballad opera; Riders to the Sea, a play by J M Synge. RVW used practically the complete play as his libretto, commentators on the works of RVW list this opera, Riders to the Sea, as his most complete.

His ballet music often written for full orchestral forces plus chorus and vocal soloists. A masque adapted from A Christmas carol – On Christmas Night, The Running Set- Traditional Dance tunes for Orchestra and Job: A Masque for Dancing.

Oxford University Press, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A wealth of choral music both secular and sacred, of which perhaps the best known are Towards an Unknown Region, Fantasy of Christmas Carols and Five Mystical Songs.

Like most British composers of the time, RVW was encouraged to work in film for which he produced several scores, some of which are now maybe not the most well known of films, they are important none the less.  His most prolific time was during the war, including the films the 49th Parallel and Coastal Command. His score for the film Scott of the Antarctic, became the bases for his own 7th symphony – Sinfonia Antarctica.

A son of the manse but described as an agnostic humanist, RVW was retained as the editor of the English Hymnal published in 1906, for which he also composed new works.

Having succumbed to the temptation to quote facts and list works, here are some more. If this is the who, what, where, and the why of RVW, this is maybe the who and maybe the where.

Ralph (pronounced Rafe) Vaughan Williams was born on the 12 October 1872 to Margaret and Arthur Vaughan Williams, in the Gloucester village of Down Ampney. Down Ampney is rightly proud of their famous former resident and have a display to him in the All-Saints Church. This is the church in which Ralph’s father was minister and is buried.

Arthur Vaughan Williams, father of Ralph Vaughan Williams.
https://rvwsociety.com/comprehensive-biography/, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Reverend Arthur Vaughan Williams was the son of a family of distinguished lawyers. Unfortunately this influence on RVW’s life was cut short as Arthur died when Ralph was two. It can never be properly imagined how a child/adult’s life changes when a parent is lost, that is true for RVW. We do know that Down Ampney was important to RVW even though it was only home for two years. For the English Hymnal published in1906, one of RVW’s four original hymns was entitled Down Ampney.

Arthur’s death left his mother Margaret, the sole devoted parent, she moved the family, Ralph and his two elder brothers, to her family’s home in Leith Hill Place. Leith Hill Place was the family home of the Wedgewood family, Josiah Wedgwood III bought the house in 1847, after it had been a school run by a Reverend Rusden. The house was built in the 16th century and remodelled and reskinned in its better known Palladian aspect in the 1700s. 

Margaret Vaughan Williams, mother of Ralph Vaughan Williams
https://rvwsociety.com/comprehensive-biography/, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Vaughan Williams was the daughter of Josiah Wedgewood III and Caroline Darwin. In their long biography of Ralph, the RVW society, use the slightly ominous phrase “the Wedgewood and the Darwin families often intermarried.” Ralph could count in his forebears the grandparents of the writer of The Origin of the Species, and head of one of the world’s major potteries companies. All of RVWs forebears could be considered to be forward and radical in deed and thought.

RVW’s first musical training was from his Aunt Sophy Wedgewood, his mother’s sister.

The idyll of his childhood at Leith Hill Place came to an end when he was sent to boarding school first to Rottingdean, from there he went to Charterhouse, in Godalming, Surrey. At Charterhouse he was allowed, by the Headmaster to put on concerts and, unheard of till RVW,  permitted to change boarding house to the house of a master whose interest was music. Today, the School of Music at Charterhouse is named after RVW.

Leith Hill Place, Surrey, childhood home of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams
Rob enwiki, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After Charterhouse, RVW entered the Royal College of Music to study composition with Sir Hubert Parry, then two years later went to Trinity College Cambridge to gain his BMus and his History degree. He returned to RCM to continue his studies with Parry. On Parry’s elevation to the Head of the Royal College of Music, RVW’s compositional studies were continued with Charles Villiers Stanforth. Whilst at RCM he met and befriended Gustav Holst a companionship which would last till Holst’s untimely death at the age of 59 in 1934. He also met and married his first wife Adeline Fisher, a talented cellist and pianist. Adeline, a first cousin of Virginia Woolf, is described as having a lively and keen intelligence, someone who could be considered another forward-thinking influence on the young RVW.  

Ralph Vaughan Williams 1917 with his wife Adeline Fisher in Barton Street,
unknown artist, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

During this time, in his early married years RVW travelled in Europe, to study and to expand his musical language. He spent time in Germany studying with Max Bruch and later in Paris learning composition with Ravel, who was to become a friend and often stayed with the Vaughan Williams’ when he visited London.

RVW’s only salaried appointment was a position as Organist at St Barnabas Church in South Lambeth, London.  A position which he held from 1895 to 1899. When he resigned this position in 1899 he had tried to interest his close friend Holst in taking over from him. His description of the job is less than favourable but his list of the duties, describes a fairly easy week. 

It is during this period that RVW – the English composer starts to appear. RVW was a lifelong champion of the English folk song, and the music of Elizabethan and Tudor England, and also a great supporter of amateur music making.  Ralph had met the composer and folk song collector Cecil Sharp. It was this meeting that initiated RVW’s work in collecting folk song. These threads would inform his music and RVW understood a need to be an English composer demonstrating his own voice.

This music and these interests were to shape his output for the rest of his life. It is these threads, folk song, the music of Elizabethan and Tudor England which informs arguments about RVW the English composer, with voices on both sides pushing and pulling the discussion to suit the side of the fence on which the one sits. RVW the English composer, nationalist or internationalist. A modernist pushing form, structure and tonality, or a pastoralist, idolising the pre-industrial, merrie old England. RVW did both and throughout his life he demonstrated all of these aspects and more in  the works in which he is said to “embrace the marginalised and the dispossessed” – the tragic lives of the sea folk in the Opera Riders to the Sea, the Pilgrim in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the voices of the peoples of London in the last movement of, what was said to be his own favourite work, his 1st symphony, a London Symphony.

“In former times, musical England came to grief by trying to be foreign; no less surely shall we now fail through trying to be English… the national English style must be modelled on the personal style of English musicians.”
Ralph Vaughan Williams

Just mentioned, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was a work which was to occupy RVW almost all his life – as an early one act opera, The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains from 1921, incidental music for a BBC radio dramatization of the Pilgrim’s Progress in 1942 and finally his Opera or Morality as he called it, which premiered in 1951. For this version RVW had prepared his own libretto, which included interpolations and Bible excerpts by his 2nd wife, the poet and writer Ursula Wood. 

Jumping back and forward in the list and facts of the life of RVW and having just attested to his “natural socialism”, a description by the conductor Roger Norrington. In 1935 RVW was contacted by Buckingham Palace and asked to consider accepting an Order of Merit. The Order of Merit was initiated by Edward VII in 1902. There are only ever 24 in the order and it is an order recognising distinguished service in the armed forces, science, art, literature, or for the promotion of culture. Recipients include Florence Nightingale, Thomas Hardy, Sir Edward Elgar, Henry James, M R James, Lord Baden Powell, Sir Edward Lutyens, Benjamin Britten, William Walton, Sir John Gielgud. RVW was uncomfortable with awards such as this but was persuaded to accept the Order Of Merit.

The next major happenstance of RVW’s life was meeting Ursula Woods, a writer and poet, Ursula had heard Job: A Masque for Dancing and vowed to meet RVW and work with him, which she achieved in 1938. Thus began a close working and personal relationship which lasted for the rest of RVW’s life. Ursula was married to Michael Wood, an army officer and RVW was married to the ailing Adeline. On Michael’s death in 1942 Ursula’s relationship with the Vaughan Williams’ become closer when she took on some duties as Adeline’s carer. In her biography, Paradise Remembered, published in 2002, Ursula describes lovingly, the strange afternoons of this artistic threesome. Warm autumnal tea sessions in the garden with RVW reading, writing, snoozing, Adeline wrapped warmly and in her highbacked chair sleeping or reading and Ursula, a poetic commentator, caring for both her aged lover and his wife. In her biography, Ursula remembers the death of Adeline recalling her “little and derelict body” whose influence could still be felt throughout the house. 

For the rest of RVW’s life and indeed for the rest of her own life, Ursula became the protector and guardian of RVW and his legacy.

His last few years were busy and productive. The 8th and 9th symphonies showing a composer still experimenting with form and tonality, a violin sonata and the tuba concerto. He produced songs and another Christmas work. He had begun to compose Thomas the Rhymer in collaboration with Simon Pakenham. Along with his conducting and visits to America to premier and perform works or just to be an invited, distinguished guest at performances.

Ralph Vaughan Williams died peacefully in his sleep on 26 August 1958 and despite his age, his death was unexpected. Ursula and all who surrounded him considered him “invincible”. 

This a celebration of the lIfe and work of the great composer. It is short on detail but more can be found with the help of the list below –

The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society has a lot of great resources on their website, and we have a number of printed biographies of RVW including Ursula’s biography –  Paradise Remembered.

We have a collection af CDs, scores and sheet music of many of RVW’s major works. Search our library catalogue.

Or listen to all your favourite or your new favourite RVW works at our classical music streaming site, Naxos.

Music Club is on!

“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”
Maya Angelou

There is a space in Central Library, amongst the books, sheet music, CDs, DVDs and musical instruments where you will find people who have music as their passion – the Music Library.

Whether they are customers or library staff, they will be talking and researching about classical music, pop, rock, jazz, opera, experimental music, dance and also sharing many stories.

These daily encounters between people with a love for music was what motivated the creation of a group to exchange knowledge and stories about music, in all its aspects – cultural, social, emotional, etc.

Every last Wednesday of the month at 6pm we’ll meet for a lively and informal meeting.

Join us for the first session on Wednesday 31 August which will be held in the Music Room at Central Library. (Subsequent meetings will be held in the Music Library.)

Please register your interest by emailing MusicLibrary@edinburgh.gov.uk

Group age 16+

See you soon!

We Make Music Instrument Libraries

We’re delighted to be part of We Make Music Instrument Libraries, a brand new initiative to get musical instruments into public libraries across Scotland.

People will be able to borrow an instrument for free, just like taking out a book. The programme is in libraries in Fife, North Ayrshire and Edinburgh, and across other areas in future. In Edinburgh, there will be six libraries taking part covering different areas of the city: Craigmillar, Drumbrae, Moredun, Muirhouse, Wester Hailes and the Music Library at Central Library.

The libraries will stock a wide variety of instruments from guitars, keyboards and ukuleles, to violins, trombones and orchestral instruments, as well as music software and midi keyboards so people can make music on library computers. Each library is paired with a local music project or the local authority’s instrumental music service, and all of the libraries are keen to build links with other local music groups, schools, community projects and venues. 

The project has launched a crowdfunding campaign, with a call-out for donations of both money and musical instruments, to help fill the libraries with as many musical instruments and learning resources as possible. All money will go towards buying, repairing and servicing donated instruments so they are in good condition for the libraries, as well as music software and midi keyboards for making music on library computers. They also want to offer music workshops and introductory lessons, develop online resources and organise live music events in and around the libraries. The more money raised, and the more instruments people donate, the more new music libraries will open up around Scotland!

If you want to give your old musical instrument a new lease of life by donating it to the We Make Music Instrument Libraries project, please email Diane.Yule@edinburgh.gov.uk

Make Music Day 2022

Way back in 2019, Central Library put together a programme of interesting and talented local musicians for the Make Music Day celebrations of that year. We had groups in our Lending department and on the Mezzanine in our Music Library. We reflected at the end of the day about how we could grow on this success and how do we encourage our groups to come back and new performers to join us?

Then we went into the two Covid-filled years we have just had.

We, with the rest of the world, went online and put together programmes to be part of the day. In 2021, our online programme included original music for flute and piano, 3 local choirs, a film premiere and a performance of “Stand By Me” by members of staff – not to be missed!

This year, and my fingers are still crossed, we are back in the building and able to have a programme of live music with performances starting at midday and going on till 6pm.

Craigmillar, McDonald Road and Stockbridge Libraries are also hosting performances on Tuesday 21 June.

For the Central Library programme, we start our day by welcoming back the group who opened our programme in 2019, The Rolling Hills Chorus.

The Rolling Hills Chorus in May at the UK Barbershop Championship

Expect a superb programme of close harmony, a capella favourites from film, musical, folk and pop. The Rolling Hills Chorus are a busy group. This will be the first of two appearances on Make Music Day, as they have their own show in the evening, which I am sure they will mention.

Some quotes –
‘Fantastic show… Heart warming and uplifting’
‘Definitely feel-good 100% Distilled Harmony!’
‘The Rolling Hills Chorus just keeps getting better and this 5th Fringe appearance is a triumph!’
‘Wonderful Scottish songs sung in beautiful harmony’
‘My friend was so moved by “My Homeland” it gave her goosebumps!’

Two members of staff from the Music team, Michalina Pawlus and Fernando Bijos, have been working on a “jam” session for anyone to join in on. The session will feature new tunes by Fernando and Michalina and some jazz standards. If you have a few minutes to spare and your instrument and you are in the area, come and join the session at 12.45pm on the Mezzanine.

Another group returning to the library, are the artists formally known as “Play it again, Tam”. Now called Drookit they will be playing their folk-based selections in the Lending Library. Drookit members initially came together in a Scots Music Group, mixed instrument ensemble, playing distinctive folk tunes chosen and arranged by Sarah Northcott.

The six-piece band was created after the musicians performed in the 2018 “Big Tune Machine”, an Edinburgh Festival event organised by fiddler Amy Geddes and guitarist Donald Knox.

Drookit

We are thrilled to welcome musicians from the Tinderbox Collective to Central Library for the first time.

Tinderbox Collective

Tinderbox will be represented for this performance by some of their eclectic young talented players from this growing collective of musicians and artists. Edinburgh Libraries are pleased to be in partnership with the Tinderbox collective for their “We Make Musical Instrument Libraries” initiative, in which they will house musical instruments in various Libraries around Edinburgh and other towns and cities around Scotland.

Some quotes on Tinderbox Collective projects:
“Rave Culture meets last night of the Proms”, The Herald
“A trip on a grand, ambitious and stimulating scale”, The Scotsman
“Makes the consequences of globalisation personal, it’s impressively powerful stuff”, The Scotsman
“A spectacular modern band”, The Guardian
“An unusual and curious idea, this is a meeting of cultures that typifies the spirit of the Fringe”, Broadway Baby
“Clashes cultures on very personal and emotive footing”, **** fest
“A musical tour de force… This Tinderbox has already kindled something that dazzles”, The List

We are also pleased to say a big hello to the Edinburgh Mandolin and Guitar Orchestra in their first of hopefully many, visits to Central Library. EMGO’s programme will draw from their wide repertoire of musical genres, from classics to pop, baroque to bebop and striding across continents along the way.

Edinburgh Mandolin and Guitar Orchestra

Tenement Jazz Band are also making their first appearance in the library and we hope not their last. In their brief history they have played in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Dundee and as part of Glasgow Jazz Festivals, and performed their own hit show on the Edinburgh Fringe telling the story of the ‘Red Hot Roots of Jazz’ from turn of the century New Orleans and beyond.

Tenement Jazz Band

Some quotes:
“Brings a freshness and energy of youth to New Orleans style traditional jazz whilst also staying true to the original style”, Ron Simpson, The Jazz Rag, May 2019
“They’ve done their homework… The results are rich and multi-layered”, Joe Bebco, Associate Editor of The Syncopated Times. 

Bringing our day to a close, but not Make Music Day, are the Edinburgh Police Choir. Formed in 2008, as the Lothian and Borders Police Choir and then expanded to include members of the other emergency services and their family and friends, now the Edinburgh Police Choir has developed into a truly community choir. They have performed at the Royal Albert Hall for a concert in aid of Care of Police Survivors, at the Sage in Gateshead as part of Sky Arts Project and at Edinburgh’s St Giles Cathedral for a National Emergency Services Day event.     

Edinburgh Police Choir

Our Libraries around the city are hosting events and performances. Craigmillar Library has a busy day with performances starting at 10.30am in the morning with players from Castlebrae Community Campus followed throughout the day by programmes of guitar music by three very different performers, David Price, Danielo Olivara and Raymond Charles.

The Nelson Hall in McDonald Road Library will resound to the sound of music with the indie feminist punk band Suffrajitsu.

Our colleagues at Stockbridge Library will host performances form mezzo-soprano Ana Filogonio and from accordionist, Linda Campbell. 

All the music performances in Edinburgh Libraries will take place during the day, except for McDonald Road Library, where Suffrajitsu are due to play in the evening.

Wherever you spend 21 June, spend it musically! Make Music Day is a celebration of music, all events are free and open to the public. That is the same for all the events in the library service.

All of the events for Make Music Day for the Libraries, for Edinburgh and for the UK are listed on the Make Music Day website.

Don’t forget to follow Central Library on the day for coverage of all the musical happenings on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!

More treasures from our drawers 

This time the Music Library highlight treasures from their bottom drawers. These mostly contain box sets or DVDs.  

We are going to look at a few of our DVDs. Whilst you may think that everything you can think of, you can watch on some streaming or video platform there are still many musical recording gems to be found in our Music Library drawers. Not everyone can watch DVDs; not everyone has a player or a computer or laptop with a DVD drawer, but whilst these things still exist for some, let us highlight some of the delights of our drawers. Not just our drawers, we also have a fine collection of operas, dance, pop and film on DVD, displayed in our department. Some of these DVDs will be available on our streaming site Medici TV, but a lot are not, which is why picking up the DVD at the library is still an option.  

Douglas from the Music Library has chosen 8 DVDs from our drawers to highlight.

Leonard Bernstein Omnibus 4 DVD set
Firstly, Leonard Bernstein is renowned as a composer, conductor, pianist, and for some for his Norton Harvard Lectures and this set of documentary/lectures made for the three American broadcasters of the time CBS, NBC and ABC. They stand as great acts of demystification, not dumbing down or bedazzling, just a great communicator doing what he perhaps did best, sharing his beloved subject, on this occasion through the spoken word, with the world.
Borrow Leonard Bernstein Omnibus 4 DVD set

Quincy Jones Live in 1960 
This DVD is from a time in which Quincy Jones was almost stuck in Europe. Quincy and his 18-piece dream band had gone to Europe where they had enjoyed great critical success. The band and Quincy were later to admit that although that was true, great critical success was not matched by any financial success. They all lived there for some time making recordings for French, Belgium and Swiss TV. Here are performances from Belgium and Switzerland with a band that contained the great Jazz French Hornist Julius Watkins, and the Trombone player Melba Liston, one of a very few female Jazz Trombonists to gain any fame at that time. 
Borrow Quincy Jones Live in 1960

Glenn Gould: a film by Bruno Monsaingeon 
The Film maker, Monsaingeon, says in his sleeve notes that Glenn Gould is much more than one of the greatest pianists of all time. In this, almost 2 hour documentary, he attempts to show us why he believes this. Gould is mentioned mostly for his famous/infamous recordings of the Goldberg Variations which is, in equal measures, lauded and laughed at, for his humming whilst he plays. 
Borrow Glen Gould – Hereafter

Lomax – the songhunter – a film by Rogier Kappers
Kappers visits and revisits the frail and ill Alan Lomax in this documentary, made one year before Lomax’s death and when unable to communicate due to a brain haemorrhage. Famously Lomax was a collector of folk songs and traditions from round the world. Lomax, benignly enjoys the journeys of the filmmaker, Kappers, as he retraces Lomax’s steps.
Borrow Lomax – the songhunter 

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Soprano
This DVD presents programmes of Songs and Arias recorded at various times over a ten-year period in 1960/70, This is interesting for several reasons. Schwarzkopf is one of the few castaways on Desert Island Discs to choose entirely her own recordings. All seven of her choices by herself. On two of the sessions featured on this DVD she is accompanied by the wonderful pianist, Gerald Moore, whose autobiography “Am I To Loud?” is one of the most interesting musical autobiographies I have read. Perhaps not famous for her work with more modern composers, one of the songs featured is by composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Menotti is best known as the composer of Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera written for television.
Borrow Elisabeth Schwarzkopf classic archive

Mr McFalls Chamber – Live from the Queen’s Hall
Mr McFalls Chamber was formed by musicians from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Scottish Ballet Orchestra to, in their words, create new audiences, new music and new directions in music. Featuring in their programmes are any type and genre of music from Prog-Rock to Renaissance music, and everything you can imagine in between.
Borrow Mr McFalls Chamber – Live from the Queen’s Hall

Jiri Kylian’s Car Men
Choreographer Jiri Kylian and director Boris Pavel Conen created this work based on the opera, Carmen, entirely on location. They used Bizet’s original score and integrated original music. Four dancers tell the story of Carmen, the infatuated Don Jose, the womaniser Escimillo and the kind-hearted Micaela.
Borrow Jiri Kylian’s Car Men

Aiyun Huang and friends  – Save Percussion Theatre
I know nothing of this group, or the players and music featured in this DVD. If it is on loan when you come into the Library check with me as I may well have it on my ticket. Aiyun Huang’s unique recital,  “Save Percussion Theatre,” is a video-recording of theatre music for percussion dedicated to the pioneering work of the Parisian group “Trio Le Cercle,” for whom many of these works are written and by whom they have been championed.
Borrow Aiyun Huang and friends – Save Percussion Theatre

Our music video streaming site, Medici TV has a wealth of concerts, operas, ballets, music documentaries and masterclasses. If, as U2 say, “you still haven’t found what you’ve been looking for”, then take a look at our DVD collection, dust of your player and relax for a few hours with your chosen moment.

All the DVDs are available from the Music Library as is the biography, “Am I too loud?” by Gerald Moore. 

On 11th May…

Music Library, Central Library

Central Library is undergoing some repair works, some of which has meant having to close for a couple of weeks, but tomorrow, we will be back open. 

Tomorrow is 11 May, and here are a few bits and bobs about 11 May. Firstly May, May is the fifth month of the year, likely named after Maia Goddess of Spring, embodying growth and fertility. May has 31 days and in the northern hemisphere is the last month of spring, ushering in the summer. 

11 May is the 131st day of the year, with 234 days remaining till Christmas, if Christmas is what you look forward to. If this were your birthday, your star sign would be Taurus. Salvador Dali was born in 1904, the IBM computer Deep Blue beat Chess Grandmaster Gary Kasparov in the final match of a six-game series in 1997. Gordon Brown resigned as Prime Minister ending Labour’s 13-year run in power. In Vietnam it is National Human Rights Day, India celebrates National Technology Day and it is Statehood Day in Minnesota, USA. 

These are a few things that happened in the music world on 11 May. 

Way back in 1963 the Beatles started a 30-week run at the no. 1 slot in the UK album Chart with their debut album “Please Please Me”. They were knocked off the no. 1 slot by themselves and their second album, “With the Beatles” which stayed at the top slot for 21 weeks. Looking at the history of the UK album charts, the Beatles are the only band holding four of the top slots in the run-down of most weeks at no. 1. Those four albums being Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, A Hard Day’s Night and the two previously mentioned, Please Please Me and With the Beatles.

Roger Miller had recorded King of the Road in 1964 and released it as a single in January of 1965. It eventually reached no. 1 on 11 May. I spent some time trying to check this information was true and it is but according to different chart histories, websites, and books there is a slight difference in when in May and for how long it stayed at number one. What we do know is that it has been covered by many different, disparate groups from REM’s shameful shambolic, drunken version to the Proclaimers chart-topping 1990 version. It has spawned comedy versions and an answer called the Queen of the House by country music star Jody Miller (no relation), who wrote a new lyric to Roger Miller’s music. 

According to The Top of the Pops Archive, The Bee Gees first ever performance on the programme was on 11 May 1967. Broadcast on a Thursday and presented by Pete Murray, the Bee Gees performed “The New York Mining Disaster 1941”. This was the first of 89 appearances on the programme. 

Born on 11 May in 1888, composer Irving Berlin came into the world as Israel Beilin, one of eight children, thought to be born in Byelorussia, the family immigrated to New York in 1893. Berlin had his first hit in 1911 with Alexander Ragtime Band. Variously described as “The Greatest Songwriter who has ever lived” by George Gershwin or by Jerome Kern “Irving Berlin has no place in American music – he is American Music.”  Berlin lived to the age of 101, dying in in 1989. 

Irving Berlin
Samuel Johnson Woolf, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Still rocking and rolling Eric Burdon of the Animals, famous for their hit “The House of the Rising Sun,” was born, or you could say – the son rose in the Burdon household – in Newcastle on 11 May 1941. 

Eric Burdon interviewed by Judith Bosch after performing in the Dutch TV programme Fanclub, 1967
Photographer: F. van Geelen, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL via Wikimedia Commons

On 11 May 2006, the late, great George Michael was discovered “tired and emotional” behind the wheel of his car and then was involved in his second small car smash in as many days, trying to evade the pestering paparazzi. 

Richard Harris
City of Boston Archives, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Dumbledore (Richard Harris) recorded and had a hit with the enigmatic Jimmy Webb song MacArthur Park, in 1968. Richard Harris could only magic up a number nine place in the charts. Ten years later Donna Summer had a no. 1 with her disco version. Bass trombonist and arranger Adrian Drover, who played with the BBC Scottish Radio Orchestra, scored a massive hit with his arrangement of MacArthur Park for the great Canadian trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and his band. There are several recordings of his arrangement at our Jazz streaming service Naxos Jazz.

Donna Summer performing at the inaugural gala at the Convention Centre in Washington DC, 19/1/1985
President (1981-1989 : Reagan). White House Photographic Office. 1981-1989 (Most Recent), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Reggae Legend Bob Marley passed away in 1981 from cancer. Exodus by Bob Marley and the Wailers was voted best album of the 20th century by Time Magazine. A 1984 compilation Album “Legend” became the best-selling reggae album ever with sales of over 20 million. 6 February, the day of Bob Marley’s birth, was made a national holiday in Jamaica in 1990. 

Bob Marley live in concert in Zurich, Switzerland, 1980
Ueli Frey, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

If you are reading this on 12 May, then you can celebrate with us the birth of French Composer Jules Massenet known mainly for his work in opera but probably most famous for the Meditation from Thais. This piece written for solo violin and orchestra is an entr’acte or intermezzo between scenes one and two in Act 2 of the opera. This work has a life of its own and has become the chosen encore of many of the world’s greatest violinists. It perhaps overshadows the opera it came from and probably all of the composer’s other works. Massenet was born in 1842 and died in Aug 1913.  

Jules Massenet in 1880
Pierre Petit (d. 1909). Tim riley at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

If you are reading this on 13 May then we can all celebrate the 81st birthday of the wonderful Joe Brown, entertainer, rock ‘n’ roller and ukulele player. His version of “I’ll see you in my Dreams” (written by Isham Jones and Gus Kahn), is the reason I took up the ukulele. 

Access our catalogue and search for books and music of The Beatles, Massenet, Donna Summer, The Animals and much more. Stream and download music from our two online collections: 
Naxos Music Library
and
Naxos Jazz.

Watch music documentaries, concerts, operas including 3 versions of Werther by Massenet and one production of his Manon, ballets, and masterclass at Medici TV

Welcome back (for tomorrow), come in and see us soon. 

Calling all musicians! Calling all musicians! Calling all musicians!

Tuesday 21 June will be Make Music Day and Edinburgh Libraries are calling out to all musicians, groups, ensembles, choirs, orchestras to join us. We will be putting together a varied programme to fill midsummer’s day with music all across our service.

Clarinite, Make Music Day, Central Lending Library 2019

In 2019 we ran successful programmes of events in Central, Morningside, Craigmillar and Stockbridge Libraries. With a range of groups performing Opera to Klezmer, recorder solos to the Rolling Hills Chorus. In 2020 and 2021 we were forced online with a curtailed but no less interesting programme of events with choirs, instrumentalists and Library staff singing the Make Music Day anthems Bring Me Sunshine and Stand By Me.

Kleyne Klezmer, Make Music Day, Central Lending Library 2019

Make Music Day started life 40 years ago in 1982. In France under President Mitterrand’s Socialist Party, Maurice Fleuret, was appointed as Director of Music and Dance at the French Ministry of Culture with a responsibility for festivals and events. He immediately saw that there was a discrepancy in the number of children and adults able to play musical instruments and the numbers who actually participated in any form of music making.

Craigmillar Library, Make Music Day 2019
Stockbridge Library, Make Music Day 2019

Fete da la Musique was born. Fleuret’s statement rang loud: “Music is everywhere and the concert is nowhere”. The mission statement for the day became that amateur and professional musician should give of their time freely and that all performances should to be free to attend. Forty years on those statements are pretty much the same.

Year on year the festival grew and not just in France. By the early 90s the festival had become an event in approximately 80 countries and this year that number stands at 126 countries around the world. The 21 June was chosen as it is normally the longest day of the year or the summer solstice. If you wished, and some people do, you could have musical events from the early hours when the sun rises to when it sets late in the evening, and those performances could be anywhere – street corners, driveways, concert halls, libraries, bandstands, telephone boxes. Anywhere and everywhere, performed and watched by anyone and everyone.

Louise Guy, Central Lending Library, Make Music Day 2019
Magnus Turpie, Music Library, Mezzanine, Make Music Day 2019

In that spirit, this year we are back and able to welcome musicians into the building to perform and we will welcome audiences to the library to watch live music. Please get in touch with us if you would like to take part. Please give us a description of what you do or what you would like to do on the 21 June. If you are able to link us to any online examples of your previous work, that would be useful, but certainly not essential.

Calling all musicians, calling all musicians, calling all musicians!

We look forward to hearing from you. Thank you!

0131 242 8050
central.music.library@edinburgh.gov.uk

The Rolling Hills Chorus, Music Library, Mezzanine, Make Music Day 2019

Happy Birthday, Mr Haydn

Portrait of Joseph Haydn

Joseph Haydn, known by some as the father of the symphony, inventor of the string quartet, was born on 31 March 1732 and 290 years later, we celebrate the life and times of one of the world’s great composers.

Haydn died in 1809, in the midst of Napoleon’s occupation of Vienna. A few weeks before his passing, Haydn was most touched that Napoleon put guards around his house and the one of those guards sung to him from his oratorio “The Creation”.

Landscape near Rohrau

Many of Haydn’s 108 Symphonies were also given nicknames 5,6,7 – Le matin, Le Midi, Le Soir, No. 38 the Echo, No. 47 The Palindrome. No. 94 the Famous Surprise Symphony known for its ‘jokes’. There are 12 London symphonies completed on his two successful tours and 6 Paris symphonies.

Birthplace in Rohrau

In 1732, Bach was working on the B minor Mass, and also born that year were Abbas III, Shah of Persia, Carl Gotthard Langhans, German architect, Richard Arkwright, English inventor and George Washington who would become the first President of the USA. 

In 1732, Russia signed a treaty with Persia stating it would no longer establish claims on Persian Territories and another, The Treaty of the Three Black Eagles or the Treaty of Berlin, a secret treaty between the Austrian Empire, the Russian Empire and Prussia against the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.  

Spain completed the conquest of the Algerian cities of Oran and Mers El Kébir in the Oran Province, after a 17-day siege.  

Haydn was born in uncertain times and died in uncertain times.

At the age of 8 in 1740, Haydn’s musical ability was brought to the attention of Georg von Reutter, joining the choir school of St Stephen’s Cathedral there in 1740. Haydn arrived in 1740 in Vienna where the ailing, impoverished and almost forgotten Vivaldi was soon to die.  St Stephen’s Cathedral musical director, Reutter, was not the kindest of men and worked Haydn and his young colleagues hard, on sometimes little or no food. Haydn had no formal training whist at St Stephen’s but he picked up a lot whilst there just by listening and watching and gained a musical education simply by serving as a professional musician at St Stephen’s. 

Lean times followed until Haydn secured some work, briefly as valet-accompanist to the composer Nicola Porpora (singing teacher of the famous castrato Farinelli). Haydn was later to recall learning “the true fundamentals of composition” during his time with Porpora. In this period of moving onward and upward it is probably fair to say that Haydn was self-taught by learning on the job at St Stephen’s, gaining much knowledge whilst working as accompanist to Porpora, learning the compositions of CPE Bach and working through the counterpoint exercises in the text Gradus ad Parnassum by Johann Joseph Fux. As his knowledge and skills as a composer increased so did the employment he sought and the employment he was offered, until in 1761 (a mere three hundred years before I was born) Haydn was appointed  Vice-Kapellmeister for the Esterhazy Family, a family which he would work for, almost all his life. In 1766, on the death of Gregor Werner, Haydn was instated as Kapellmeister responsible for all of the music in the Esterhazy estate.

Esterhazy Castle

These were prolific years for Haydn as attested in his large catalogue of work.

Haydn’s works were catalogued by Anthony van Hoboken in his Hoboken catalogue, Hoboken worked on this listing of Haydn’s works, first in card catalogue format in 1934 up until the publication of the third book volume in 1978. Unlike most other catalogues which sort works chronologically – for example, Mozart K1 is the earliest and K626 is the last great unfinished D minor Mass – the Hoboken catalogue sorts by musical genre. All the masses are Hob 22 then numbered 1-14, Symphonies are Hob 1 then 1 – 108 ( there are 104 symphonies but Hoboken includes 4 other works in this selection) and so on, through all of his different genres of works.

Oxford University

In 1791 Haydn was awarded an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. Haydn’s Symphony No. 92 is called the Oxford. Haydn performed this work at his award ceremony, but this was not the work he presented to the university for his doctorial submission. A candidate for this doctorate was required to present a specimen of their skill in composition. The work he presented was the al rovescio (Palindrome) Minuet from his 1772 Symphony No 47. The Nickname The Oxford has been perhaps wrongly attributed to the symphony No. 92.

Garden House in Eisenstadt                                                                      
Haydn’s house in Eisenstadt                                                                   

On Haydn’s return from his second trip to London in 1795. He learned of the passing of Prince Anton and the succession of Prince Nikolaus II. Nikolaus II was keen to reinstate court music to where he thought it should be and keen also to place Haydn back in charge of that music scene. Haydn was by this time a much more established public figure and agreed to only return to the Esterhazy’s in the summer months. Leaving the rest of the year for his own work. The summer months were none the less prolific times. By the early 1800s, Beethoven was very clearly moving way from classicism and towards romanticism, Napoleon was elected Emperor of France and the decade saw the births of other notable composers – in 1803 Hectore Berlioz, and in 1804 Mikhail Glinka and Johann Strauss I. In Vienna, Haydn’s powers were waning, physically, and composing became more of a struggle. Very little new work appeared at this time, works that had been complete pre-1800 received performances or were revised and completed for performance. This final period of Haydn’s life saw the production off his two great Oratorios – The Creation in 1798 and The Seasons in 1801. 

Haydn’s final years are spent in quiet retirement cared or by his faithful servants and in his final illness Haydn was protected by a benevolent Napoleon, who provided a guard for Haydn’s House.

House in which Haydn died, Haydngasse, Vienna

In 1809, the same year that welcomed the arrival of the, yet to be, great composer Felix Mendelssohn, Haydn passed. Hopefully his journey to the next life was accompanied by the singing of his guards.

You can explore Haydn’s musical masterpieces in our collections. Naxos has a vast collection of works by Haydn, and in the Music Library we have a great collection of scores and parts from a vast array of works by Haydn.

Pop into the Music Library or search our library catalogue and reserve items for pick up at your nearest reopened library. 

And search all the entries for Haydn on Naxos, our music streaming service.  

Or watch concerts and operas on Medici TV.

Calvary Church with Haydn’s tomb, Eisenstadt

The Illustrations in this article are from The Joseph Haydn Memorial Portfolio, published in 1932, the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s birth, by the Haydn Festival Committee of the Official Tourist Office for Lower Austria, for the Haydn Birth-place Benefit Fund in Rohrau on the Leitha.
The twelve original drawings are by Igo Potsch, Austrian artist, lithographer, painter and poster artist as well as art teacher. Potsch was born in 1884 and died in 1943. Born in Graz, he was a student of the artist Heinrich August Schwach and Paul Schad-Rossa in Graz and studied under Victor Mader at the Institute of Graphic Arts and Research in Vienna where he taught from 1922 to 1928. 

Ignatz (Igo) Potsch
copyright: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

The treasures from the CD drawers in the Music Library

CD treasures from the Music Library

Unless you know the Music Library very well and know how our CD “Island” and how our collection runs, you might be unaware of the storage under the CDs on show. There are 18 drawers containing more of the genres on display above. Rock and Pop, Blues and Jazz, Country-Western, Folk, Opera and Film and Theatre Soundtracks. There is Classical Music and Choral Music, Light Orchestral and Popular Vocals.

One drawer contains part of our collection of CDs from the sections called Scottish and Miscellaneous. Which contains exactly that, Scottish CDs and CDs that do not fit any other genre. On display here is a few choice selections to wet your whistle. Obviously as we still have some Covid restrictions in place, you cannot wet anyone else’s whistle, so here are a few choice picks to fire your imagination.

We have quite a bit of Pipes and Drum music on CD, so rather than be blasted by numerous pipers on The Mound or Princes Street, choose the time and place you wish to take in, for instance, the music from the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo or dance to the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, or simply be hypnotised by the mesmeric Masters of Piobaireachd. Piobaireachd is an ancient form of pipe music, a sort of classical music for the pipes. They mostly take the form of a theme and variations and are more often slow in pace. If you like minimalists like Philip Glass or post-rock bands like Explosions in the Sky, this is not a million miles away from those. In the drawers there are Scots Songsters like the wonderful Isla St Clair perhaps better known as Larry Grayson’s assistant on the Generation Game. Isla was, and is, a talented folk singer and here in our display, is her CD Royal Lovers and Scandals. Spoken word CDs in the drawer again feature different genres, actor John Cairney features in The Robert Burns Story, Burn’s life told in song, verse and Cairney’s narration. Comedy CDs with spoken word and song is represented by, amongst others Ivor Cutler, Francie and Josie and The Goodies, if its comedy you want there is also Beyond the Fringe and The Goons.

Music in the miscellaneous drawer features Brass Bands and Military Bands on display here are 400 Glorious Years, a History of Military Music and a CD by the Sellers Engineering Band called Reflections. People putting on plays or making radio plays often looked for sound effects on tape or CD we still have some, as well as the songs of the Birds of Britain and Europe and the other songs of the sea and the forest. Music for silent films with Minima’s collection including The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Finally the wonderful Alain Presencer brings us the music of the Singing Bowls of Tibet.

Out there in the big wonderful world of streaming and downloads not everything is at your fingertips. Take a dive into our CD drawers and sample some of the rich delights hidden just below our on-show collection!

Franz Schubert (31 January 1797 – 19 November 1828)

Portrait of Franz Schubert, 2020, 3D modeling
Hadi Karimi https://hadikarimi.com/, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Happy Birthday Franz Schubert! Had he lived he would have been 225 on the 31 January 2022, impossible yes, but had he lived beyond his 31 years, we could start to ask about the ‘What ifs?’ and ‘What could have beens?’

In his short life, Schubert produced a huge list of compositions, over 600 songs, almost as many works for piano, 20 stage works, approximately 40 liturgical works including several masses, 13 symphonies – 7 complete, several overtures and chamber music amounting to 20 string quartets and quintets trios and duos for different combinations of instruments. Schubert’s works have been catalogued by Otto Erich Deutsch and each entry in the catalogue, first published in 1951, is annotated with a D. The catalogue has been reprinted 4 times and every work including fragments and unfinished works are listed within giving a list of some 1500 works.

Schubert was first given violin and piano lessons by his father and brother, but he quickly went beyond their abilities.  He gained a scholarship to the Imperial Court Chapel Choir and with an education at the Stadtkonvikt, where he studied composition with Antonio Salieri.  His star shined at school and he continued to produce works and studied with Salieri after he had finished with the choir and the school.  

After this youthful period his star waned and the work-a-day life of having to earn money to make a living took over. He continued to compose, at the same time working as a teacher and music master. His works were performed and with some small success but not frequently.

It is not until the final year of his life, shy, reserved and often unwell, Schubert performed a concert of his own works for the first and last time on the 26 March 1828. This was a great success both financially and artistically. With the proceeds Schubert was able to buy himself a piano. Unfortunately his health broke for the final time, he contracted typhoid fever and died surrounded by his loyal friends.

Like Beethoven, whom he admired greatly, Schubert straddled that period between the classicism and the romanticism. Producing ever more mature and fascinating works which leave us wondering where we would have placed Schubert in the list of great composers of that time – Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Schumann – had he celebrated more than his 31 birthdays.

Explore Schubert’s music on Naxos Music Library, our download and streaming service for classical music. The Music Library also has a wealth of printed music, biographies and critical essays on Schubert and his work.      

Happy Birthday Franz.

Here are just a few items from our collections:
Schubert: memoirs by his friends (English translation by Rosamund Ley and John Nowe)

The Cambridge Companion to Schubert

Franz Schubert: a biography by Elizabeth Norman McKay

A companion to Schubert’s Schwanengesang : history, poets, analysis, performance

Schubert’s winter journey: anatomy of an obsession

Burns, not Burns

Display in Music Library, Central Library

Not Mr Burns the Scrooge-like boss from The Simpsons, not Pete Burns, unique frontman of the band Dead or Alive, not Frank Burns character in the hit TV show M.A.S.H. and the butt of many a joke, also not Gordon Burns journalist and broadcaster, host of the Krypton Factor or indeed, not the wonderfully named Otway Burns the American privateer and later State Senator for North Carolina born just a few years after the Burns of today’s blog – Robert Burns, our National Bard.

Life is but a day at most.

Written In Friars Carse Hermitage

Robert Burns, fair fa’ his honest, sonsie face, writer of everything and the voice of Scotland since the beginning of time, even though he was born in 1759, and died in 1796, at the age of only 37.

Now health forsakes that angel face.

Fragment “Now health forsakes that angel face”, Robert Burns

Burns, Robert Burns, licensed to rhyme, lived his short live to the full, his many roles included exciseman, poet, republican, song collector, father of four.

I’m twenty-three, and five feet nine, I’ll go and be a sodger.

Extempore Burns 1781/82

His legendary excesses, his many loves and love affairs resulting in, at least, the four children mentioned earlier and his membership of the Crochallan Fencibles, an Edinburgh convivial club who had their meetings in the Anchor Tavern just off the High Street.

I flatter my fancy I may get anither, My heart it shall never be broken for ane”.

As I go wand’ring, A song collected by Burns, C1792

Robert Burns, so good they only had to name him once, is known as a great poet, with a catalogue of hundreds of works and these hundreds of poems and songs make up the lyrics of the great Scottish song collection since the mid 1700s. With a cannon of works as large as Burns has, it is the case that he is the go-to lyricist for all of the songsters since, well since him, Robert Burns.

God knows, I’m no the thing I should be, Nor am I even the thing I could be”.

Epistle To The Rev. John M’math

Our small display in the Music Library highlights the Burns collection of Jean Redpath with Serge Hovey. In 1976, when Jean Redpath began recording the complete songs of Robert Burns, Hovey researched and arranged 324 songs for the project but died before the project could be completed, leaving only seven critically acclaimed volumes of the planned twenty-two, Jean Redpath felt unable to continue without Hovey.

While winds frae aff Ben-Lomond blaw,
An’ bar the doors wi’ driving snaw,
An’ hing us owre the ingle,
I set me down to pass the time,
An’ spin a verse or twa o’ rhyme,
In hamely, westlin jingle.”

Epistle to Davie, A Brother Poet

Thereafter our display highlights the works of other notable poets, many known by, or contemporaries of, Burns. Many of these works, poems and songs by the people below and their contempories were collected by Burns on his travels round the country, this small selection demonstrate that although Burns is the pre-eminent lyricist in the Great Scottish Songbook, there are many others wordsmith for us to celebrate.

Owre the Muir, Amang the Heather (O’er the Moor, Amang the Heather) by Jean Glover
Jean Glover (1758 – 1801) of Kilmarnock was known by Burns as a fine singer and poet, it was he who recorded this song. Burns seems to have had some sort of relationship with Glover, possibly literary sparring partners, possibly more. 

Jock O’Hazeldean by Sir Walter Scott
The fifteen-year-old Scott met Burns at a ‘literary’ get together, where he prompted the bard with the name of a poet whose lines had just been quoted. Scott later remembered how touched he was by the gratitude shown by the great Burns.

Cam’ ye by Athol James Hogg
It is not clear whether Burns was aware of the work of the Ettrick Shepherd but Hogg was certainly aware of the former’s work. Hogg recounts in his memoir how he was in rapture when he heard Tam O’Shanter for the first time and how he learned it in an afternoon.

Farewell to Lochaber by Allan Ramsey
Allan Ramsey died a year before Burns birth, so was unaware of the talent to come. Burns was more familiar with the work of the great Ramsey. Burns was always willing to acknowledge the elder influence, he was not, however, always fulsome with his praise.

Auld Robin Gray by Lady Anne Lindsay
Born Ann Lindsay in 1750, she became Lady Anne Barnard when she married Sir Andrew Barnard in 1763. She accompanied him to the Cape of Good Hope when he became colonial secretary there in 1797. They returned to London in 1802. When Sir Andrew chose to return to the Cape in 1806, Anne decided to remain in London. Sir Andrew Barnard died in the Cape in 1807. “Auld Robin Gray,” written to the music of an old song, was first published anonymously; in 1823 she confided its authorship to her friend Sir Walter Scott, who in 1825 prepared an edition of the ballad. Lady Anne died in 1825 in London.

O! Are you sleepin’ Maggie by Robert Tannahill
The Weaver Poet was born in Paisley, in 1774, where he lived and worked all his short life. Prone to bouts of depression, Robert took his own life in 1810. Tannahill was a great admirer of Burns and was the first Sectretary of the Paisley Burns Club, one of the oldest Burns clubs, which was founded in Tannahill’s house in 1805.

Annie Laurie by William Douglas
William Douglas (1682(?) to 1741) soldier, poet and Jacobite. It was this last part which brought Douglas into direct, and at times physical, conflict with Annie Laurie’s royalist father. Annie and William’s flaming romance fizzled out and they both went on to marry others, but we are left with a wonderful song.

The Auld House by Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne
Carolina Oliphant was a prolific author and collector of songs and poems. Considered by many to be a national bard second only to Robert Burns.

Mary McNeill by Erskine Conally
Conally, born in the year of Burns’ death would have been aware of the Bard’s work. After schooling at a local high school, Conally was apprenticed to an Anstruther bookseller. He moved to Edinburgh and worked as a clerk to a writer to the signet. From there he went into partnership with a solicitor. On his partner’s death Conally took over and ran the firm. Although he never published a collection of his work, many are well-known, with “Mary McNeill” being the best known.

Song Gems (Scots) The Dunedin Collection which contains Mary McNeill is edited by composer Learmont Drysdale, who arranged a number of the songs in this volume. The list of arrangers/composers contains some names of composers/arrangers who crop up regularly in the “Scots Songbook” – J Kenyon Lees, C R Baptie, Ord Hume. In amongst these, there are a few notables in Scottish Music including Sir Alexander McKenzie, Natale Corri and Learmont Drysdale himself.

There is another book to mention in our wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous  display, which is a Volume of “Seventy Scots Songs” by Helen Hopekirk.  Hopekirk was born in Portobello in 1856 and became a world-famous concert pianist and composer, working and touring in Europe and America. After making her home in America, she visited her native Scotland many times during her long life, song collecting and composing. During an extended visit she played her own piano concerto in D major with the Scottish Orchestra in 1919.

So, gie bring to me a pint o’ wine and we will celebrate Rabbie’s birth on the 25 January with suppers and socially distanced get togethers, to drink whisky, or Scotland’s other national drink, Irn Bru, eat Haggis and too much tablet, whilst we recite the verse and sing the songs.

To everyone else born on the 25 January we celebrate you too, and raise a glass in hope that this year is better than last.

Explore Burns in our collections! Here are just a few suggestions –

The Complete Works of Robert Burns
Borrow the ebook

Robert Burns – complete classics
Borrow the audiobook

Burns Supper Companion by Hugh Douglas
Reserve print copy online

Burns Supper Companion by Nancy Marshall
Reserve print copy online

The Ultimate Burns Supper Book by Clark McGinn
Borrow the ebook
Reserve the print copy online

The Broons’ Burns Night
Reserve the print copy online

Burns Night: a freestyle guide by Boyd Baines
Borrow the ebook
Reserve the print copy online

The Edinburgh and Scottish Collection has lots more material available on Robert Burns and the Music Library has many CDS of Burns’ music available. Go to the Your Library website and search the catalogue for Burns suppers, Burns songs etc for much, much more.

And for a quick virtual tour of the Bard’s time in Edinburgh, read the Robert Burns in Edinburgh story on Our Town Stories.

Christmas isn’t Christmas until you’ve heard…

Christmas, for many, would not be Christmas without… At this point there are a number of endings to that phrase, depending on your point of view. For those of the bah humbug camp, of which I am a part-time sympathiser, the finish to the sentence would be, knowing that it will soon be January 3rd. For some it would be a big decorated tree or the midnight service, the Queen’s speech or a large turkey and for some strange people, mince pies.

Christmas music is very much like mince pies or Marmite, you either love or hate it. The advent of online shopping means that you no longer have to follow Noddy Holder of Slade, around all the shops as he screams “It’s Christmas!” for the millionth time, and pushing stress levels through the top of your woolly hat. There is however, Christmas music to soothe the weary shopper, which would make the finish to the statement, Christmas just would not be Christmas without … music.

Your preferences would then be, to participate in music making or to sit back and allow yourself to be entertained in the concert hall or in your own home. Whether your choice is a trip to see Handel’s Messiah or the chance to sing in a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio or for the umpteenth time watching David Bowie duetting with Bing Crosby, heroin chic meets wholesome Hollywood, in a rendition of ‘The Little Drummer Boy’. The traditions of Christmas can be strong depending on faith, culture, creed or, and this is where the biggest traditions are, just what your family does each and every year. A Christmas tradition in our house, now thankfully passed but sort of missed, small children knocking on the door at some unearthly hour, to see if it is time to get up yet.   

We have chosen to highlight just a few of the hardy perennials, which unlike mince pies bring people together, in these sometimes fraught years, to share some moments of simple joy in the hearing of beloved masterpieces.

Handel’s Messiah a great favourite in the Christmas period and often performed on New Year’s Day. This work was not composed for the festive period, nor is it all about the birth of Jesus. The first part is, but the second section covers the death of Jesus, and the third, the resurrection. Handel (1685-1759) composed this work, based on biblical texts supplied by Charles Jennings (1700 – 1773), between August and September 1741, for such a huge work, that is an incredibly short period of time.  The work was premiered at the New Music Hall in Dublin on 13 April 1742. With its London premiere almost a year later, on 23 March 1743 at Covent Garden Theatre.

The Handel and Haydn Society will give their annual Christmas oratorio, the Messiah, at the Boston Music Hall, on Sunday evening, Dec’r 30th, 1860
Author unknown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Listen to Handel’s Messiah on Naxos

According to the preface of the Peters Edition of Handel’s Messiah, the composer took charge of 36 performances of the work, but each time amended or lengthened the work in some way, never conducting the same performance twice. A much-loved work which grew over the composer’s lifetime and by the 1900s had become the festive favourite work it is now. The remaining debate over the Messiah is whether to stand or sit during the Hallelujah Chorus. The story goes that at the London premiere, King George II, was so moved by the performance that he stood during this chorus, and as he did, so did all the audience. There are though some doubts about this event. There is much doubt as to whether King George even attended that or any performance of the Messiah. It is unlikely that all of the writers who were in attendance, neglected to mention the presence of the monarch and indeed the first mention of this event was in a letter some 37 years later. Stand or sit, the debate will continue no doubt.

Listen to A Ceremony of Carols on Naxos

Benjamin Britten’s contribution to the Christmas tradition, A Ceremony of Carols, was written mostly on a boat returning from America. Britten had left England in 1939, it would seem that he felt he should, perhaps, have been by that time regarded as England’s foremost composer, but wasn’t, so left to taste life on the other side of the Atlantic. It took three years to realise, perhaps, that he had made a mistake and home was where the heart was. Britten had been studying how to write for the harp, with a concerto for the instrument planned. The boat made a scheduled stop in Nova Scotia before attempting the arduous and dangerous wartime, North Atlantic Ocean crossing. It was in a book shop in Nova Scotia that he came across a volume called the English Galaxy of Shorter Poems edited by Gerald Bullet. With his study texts on the harp, his volume of Shorter Poems and an enforced longish voyage across the Atlantic, A Ceremony of Carols was begun.

Benjamin Britten
Benjamin Britten, 1965
Szalay Zoltán, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Listen to Saint Nicolas on Naxos

The original scoring of A Ceremony of Carols was for a three part chorus of (Soprano, Soprano, Alto) children’s voices with harp accompaniment. There is an edition a year later for four-part chorus (SATB). Seven movements of this work were first performed by a women’s chorus the Fleet Street Choir in the Library of Norwich Castle. The same group gave the first broadcast performance of the work, twinned with the composers Hymn to St Cecylia on the Home Service of the BBC on 25 January 1943. The work is dedicated to Ursula Nettleship, a singing teacher and choral trainer who later was responsible for assembling the choir that took part in the first performance of Britten’s Saint Nicolas in 1948, which is another Britten work often performed at Christmas time. Less well known, it was one of the first works to be written very much for the amateur musician. The score recommends the Tenor Soloist and a string Quartet, who lead the rest of the strings and the percussionists, be professionals.

Two hundred years or so, earlier, J S Bach produced another much loved and oft performed Christmas favourite. The Christmas Oratorio is a set of six cantatas conceived to be performed over six separate days from the first part on Christmas Day to the sixth part on Epiphany (6 January). Bach wrote the Oratorio over a short period of time and it has been identified that Bach stole for himself, using at least 11 sections from three earlier secular cantatas. Intended and first performed in the Christmas period of 1734/35 the six performances were split between two of Bach’s churches, parts 1,2,4,6 were performed at Thomaskirche, parts 3,5 at Nicolaikirche. The Christmas Oratorio BVW248 is a part of three oratorios written in 1734/35, the others are the Ascension Oratorio BVW11 and the Easter Oratorio BVW249, the Christmas Oratorio is the longest and the most complex of the three.

Listen to Anderson’s The Typewriter and Sleigh Ride on Naxos

Some more modern orchestral pieces which, like bells, ring out on Christmas Day. Leroy Anderson was born in 1908 in America, he was first taught the piano by his mother, a church organist and later went to study at Harvard, completing his Bachelor of Arts and also studying languages. Around this time his music came to the notice of Arthur Fiedler conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, who recorded two of his short works. During the war, Anderson was a translator and interpreter in the intelligence corp.  Anderson is perhaps best known for works such as Trumpeters Lullaby, Buglers Holiday and the Typewriter a work which he wrote in 1954 and uses an actual typewriter as a percussion instrument. This piece is best known to British audiences as the theme music for the long running Radio 4 quiz show The News Quiz. The News Quiz has been on the air since 1977 and the Typewriter, in a performance arranged for brass and performed by the James Shepherd Versatile Brass, has been its theme music since the beginning. 

Anderson contribution to the Christmas cannon is Sleigh Ride. Written in 1948 it has been a constant in Christmas programmes. First recorded by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1949 this piece was immediately successful and has been arranged for many different formats, brass band, concert band and it was given words in 1950 by American Lyricist, Mitchell Parish.  

Listen to Lieutenant Kijé Suite on Naxos

Another sleigh ride which is as Christmas as mince pies and mulled wine only much, much tastier is The Troika from the Lieutenant Kije Suite by Prokofiev. A Troika is a traditional Russian vehicle/sled pulled by three horses rigged in a line. The Troika by Prokofiev is much played at Christmas time and is from a suite Prokofiev composed for the 1934 Russian film Lieutenant Kije. Kije is a comedy of errors, and accidental invention given life through the fear of the rage of the Tsar. Woken by a shriek, Tsar Paul I demands to know who woke him, meanwhile elsewhere a clerk creating a military duty rota mistakenly writes down a name KIJE, an officer who doesn’t exist. Seeing this mistake, the name of the non-existent Kije is offered up to the Tsar as the culprit who woke him. This begins a series of events to which the non-exsistant Kije is banished to a Gulag, brought home from the gulag, pardoned, awarded damages and made a General. He is then discredited again, and the damages are demanded back. As ‘he’ cannot return the damages, he is demoted back down to Private and he ‘dies’ in poverty . 

The Troika is the fourth movement of Prokofiev’s suite, based on an old hussar’s song, after a slow start, the impetus and combination of rapid pizzicato strings and sleigh bells gives the impression of a fast winter’s journey in a Troika. 

The film score for Kije was Prokofiev’s first foray into writing for the cinema. He seemed an odd choice for such a mainstream subject as he was based in Paris and known as a experimental composer fond of dissonance, and not greatly popular with Stalin, but Prokofiev was homesick and longed to return to Russia and he saw this as, perhaps, a way back.

Listen to Mozart’s German dances on Naxos

We have had Anderson’s Sleigh Ride, Prokofiev’s Troika, for a third sleigh ride, we highlight Mozart’s Die Schlittenfahrt or the Sleigh ride which is the third of three German dances written by Mozart in February 1791, shortly before his death in December of that year. The three playful little pieces give no indication, that this young man was unwell or in the last stages of his life. They are quirky little pieces and the third dance, known as the Sleigh Ride or Die Schlittenfahrt, Mozart adds to the orchestra for this movement only, two post horns and tuned sleigh bells. This is not a particularly festive piece and I don’t think it is all that often included in Christmas orchestral programmes or indeed is that well known. Mozart was very fond of a dance and an enthusiastic dancer which leads to another much loved Christmas tradition…

Attending the ballet makes Christmas, Christmas. An annual trip to a production of The Nutcracker with Tchaikovsky’s music to Dumas adaption of the E T A Hoffman Story of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. There are other sumptuous Christmas favourite ballets such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty or Hansel and Gretel. Not a musical tradition but certainly a must for some.

The hardiest perennial of all at Christmas time is the carol. Everyone has a favourite to sing at the top of their voice and watching loved ones in a carol concert can warm the heart of the coldest Scrooge. 

Portrait of Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1920s
Herbert Lambert (1882-1936), CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Fantasia on Christmas Carols is Ralph Vaughan Williams work of 1912, features folk Carols, which RVW and Cecil Sharp collected in southern England in the earlier part of the century. The Carols in the first section of the work are “There is a fountain of Christ’s Blood” and “The Truth sent from above”. These rather sombre carols are brought to a close by the introduction of the Sussex Carol, known as the more jovial “Come all ye worthy Gentlemen”, there are excerpts and snippets from other carols woven throughout the Fantasia.

The work was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival, a festival which has its origins in the early 1700s with an agreement between the choirs of three churches, Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford, to aspire to annual musical meeting. In the three hundred years since its inception, the festival has premiered many works including, in the same year as the fantasia, Ode on the Nativity of Christ by Parry, who commented in his diary “Vaughan Williams carol piece, very jolly”, 1913 Saint-Saens conducted the premier of his Oratorio The Promised Land, The Evening Watch by Holst, conducted by the composer, The Morning Watch by Arnold Bax. There have been UK premieres of works by Bernstein and Poulenc, also notable visits from Dvorak, Kodaly, Elgar and Britten. The Fantasia was first performed in Hereford Cathedral on 12 September 1912, conducted by the composer with Campbell MacInnes as the Baritone Soloist, not a seasonal introduction but since then it has found a place in the Christmas concert tradition.  

The first recording of the Fantasia was made in the 1940s by Leopold Stokowski famed for his long association with the Philadelphia Orchestra and for appearing in the Walt Disney classic animation, Fantasia, shaking hands with Mickey Mouse. Stokowski is also renowned for some of his slightly eccentric arrangements of great works. In 1943, he programmed an arrangement of The Fantasia on Christmas Carols for Orchestra, with no choir or soloist, full of less than subtle cuts and most probably by Stokowski himself, and almost certainly made without the consent of the composer. Stokowski, although Williams junior by 14 years, was a contemporary of Williams at the Royal College of Music and was a great standard bearer for Vaughan Williams work in America.  

Logo for the 1940 Walt Disney film Fantasia, as seen in the film’s original theatrical trailer,
Walt Disney Productions for RKO Radio Pictures, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Leopold Stokowski from “Carnegie Hall“,
United Artists / Federal Films, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

You can choose to go out or choose to stay in, brave a mince pie or have something tasty, (definitely something tasty), sit in your favourite chair or choose your spot in the concert hall. But if you do choose to sit in your favourite chair, then you can relax and enjoy all the great pieces of Christmas music that are on offer from our Naxos streaming service or borrow them on CD from Edinburgh Libraries.

If after all this, you find yourself drifting off, napping, during what seems like, the annual showing of a Christmas Carol, your eyes slowly closing, all the seasons excesses taking their toll. Just before Tiny Tim can utter his immortal line his face morphs seamlessly from  that of a small waif to the shaggy haired, lead singer of Slade in his garish checked suit,  Noddy Holder looms into your face screaming IT’S CHRIIIIIIIIISTMAAAAAAAAAAAAAS!

Slade in AVRO’s TopPop (Dutch television show) in 1973
AVRO, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL via Wikimedia Commons

I am sorry for turning your nap into a nightmare.

Blame the mince pies. 

From the Music and Art & Design Team – Seasons Greetings, and hopefully we are all given the New Year we deserve.

The Music Library adds a drum kit to their Music Studio!

Whether like BBC weatherman, Owain Wyn Evans, you are taking up the challenge to drum for 24 hours non-stop for charity, or if you want to crash your crash cymbal like Cozy Powell, beat your bass drum like Buddy Rich or be a drummer like Ringo Starr, we’ve got the answer!

Buddy Rich during a concert in Cologne (Germany) on 3 March 1977
by Paul Spürk, Paul Spürk, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

If you just want to practise your single strokes, double open stroke rolls or polish your paradiddles or adjust your diddles, we might be able to help you. Beat a path to our door!

If you understand this –

or would like to, don’t sit at your table drumming your fingers, when you could be here drumming on a real drum kit. 

The Music Library has a now got a drum kit which we have placed in our Music Studio. For most of the week we will ask players to play with headphones but at some points of the week, we will be able to let you play through the practice speaker.

The kit we have is a Carslbro CSD500 which comprises of:
1 x Commander 500 Sound Module

1 x 8″ Mesh Bass drum pad pad with bass kick pedal

1 x 10″ Mesh Dual-zone Snare pad and rim shot

3 x 8″ Mesh Dual-zone Tom pads

1 x 10″ Single-zone Hi-hat cymbal pad

1 x 12″ Dual-zone crash cymbal pad with choke

1 x 12″ Dual-zone ride cymbal pad with choke

1 x Hi-hat controller pedal

1 x sturdy 4-legged drum rack.

All this can be played through a Carlsbro 30w drum amp or through headphones. The Commander 500 sound module has lots of preset drum kit sounds, songs and a metronome to play along to. The drum kit is housed in the Music Studio with our second piano. We are hoping that you will come along and take advantage of this practice station within the library.

The Music Studio will be open when the Music Library/Central Library is open, which at present is:
Monday and Wednesday: 1pm – 8pm
Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday: 10am – 5pm
 
Contact the Music/Art & Design Team on 0131 242 8050 or alternatively email us on central.music.library@edinburgh.gov.uk

If you’re emailing, give us your preferred date and time and we will get back to you with whether the piano/drum kit is available on your choice of day.   

Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band play the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney, Australia, 2013
by Eva Rinaldi from Sydney Australia, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

No. 2s

No. 2s display in the Music Library

Here, a short celebration of a few 2nd piano concertos, inspired by this month’s 140th anniversary of two 2nd piano concertos, by Brahms and Tchaikovsky. To give them a modern frame of reference, they are a bit like the difficult 2nd album that some bands talk of, and like some bands one was more successful than the other. Tchaikovsky’s 2nd piano has never attained the popularity of his 1st concerto, it was initially well received by dedicatee Nikolai Rubinstein, who had disliked Tchaikovsky’s 1st piano concerto. Brahms on the other had his often performed and was popular, written 20 years approximately after his first concerto. Brahms was being ironic when he wrote to Clara Schumann and told her that he had written “a very small piano concerto with a very small and pretty scherzo”. The 2nd concerto is a very big work in four movements with a performance time of around 50 minutes, depending who is playing it.

A small personal anecdote, the Brahms concerto always brings me out in a bit of a sweat when I think of it, which, isn’t often. I was a French Horn player and was the third horn in the Scottish Sinfonia for a time. The Sinfonia is a very talented amateur orchestra, conducted by my horn teacher Neil Mantle.

On one occasion, the program for the concert was to be only two works. The first part was the 2nd Piano concerto by Brahms and the second part of the concert was a large and long symphony, possibly Mahler. I, as usual in my cockiness had not paid any attention to the program or what I was playing and because of other commitments had not attended the Brahms rehearsal. The Brahms is not a work I knew well so, it was on the day of the concert that I found out that the work opens with a horn call which was in my part and that this simple tune was to open the concert. I have never been that nervous as I was on that occasion and I am glad to say I managed to get through that night without receiving one of Neil’s withering looks.

Many composers wrote multiple piano concertos, of which we have just a few of their 2nds on display in the Music Library. To highlight two of these two’s, the wonderful Shostakovich concerto written in 1957 for the 19th birthday of the composer’s son Maxim, a piece which happens to have the most beautiful slow movement of any concerto. The ever-popular Rachmaninov 2nd concerto, which of course is famous as being used to underscore for the David Lean film, of the Noel Coward screen play, Brief Encounter. A beautiful film with beautiful music.

All of these 2nd piano concertos and many more, and many 1st and only piano concertos, are available to stream at our classical music website, Naxos. Log on with you library card to access a wealth of great classical music.

John Blanke – royal trumpet player

John Blanke, trumpeter at Henry VIII’s jousting tournament
Anonymous Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Our display in the Music Library is inspired by some of the music which would have been heard and played by musicians like the subject of this short blog.

Music Library display

I think we perhaps still see the Middle Ages and Tudor times in Britain as a country which is predominantly white and this is not a surprising conclusion based on the histories we are given. Our perception of the past is changing.  Black and Minority Ethnic peoples have been coming to this, Great Britain since before the Roman Invasion, whether forcibly or through work or choice, lots have stayed, and lots have made significant contributions to their points in history. The most significant contribution perhaps is to diversify our abundant gene pool, all those that consider themselves British through and through, would gain some much-needed perspective on the world, if they looked back at their family tree to see where they really came from. 

One settler who made his life for a time in Tudor England was the royal trumpeter, John Blanke. It is unusual for us to know much about a court musician of the 1500s but we are lucky to know quite a bit about John, lucky also because we can not only read about parts of John’s life but we can see what John looked like. 

John Blanke was a well-respected court musician in the employ of first, Henry VII and then Henry VIII. 

It is unlikely that Blanke was John’s real name but a play on either, the Spanish blanco, or the French Blanc, both meaning white, that’s what passes for Tudor humour. It is only when he arrives in Tudor England that we begin to know a bit about his life, we know nothing of his early life, where he came from, how he became a trumpet player, how he ended up in Britain. 

It is thought that Blanke arrived in the service of Catherine of Aragon, who is known to have had nine trumpeters in her entourage. If this is the case then John Blanke switched employers at some point, probably after the death of Prince Arthur, whom Catherine married but on his death was left without a dowry and no means to pay her servants. John Blanke remains the only Black Tudor for whom we have an identifiable image. 

The earliest mention of John Blanke in any court records is in December 1507 when it is recorded that he was paid for his services during the month of November the sum of 20 shillings, approx 8d (old pence) a day. He was one of eight royal trumpeters under the leadership of Peter De Casa Nova. 

John, as a royal trumpeter and at court was not poor, and in addition to any wages was given room and board and livery robes. Around this time it is recorded that John petitioned the king for an increase in his daily wage, after the death of Domynck Justinian, whose last performance was recorded as the coronation of King Henry VIII,  one of the more senior trumpeters. This petition was successful, and his daily rate went up to 16d per day. His petition is a polite and well-worded and well-written document recorded in the National Archives, whether this was written by John, or scribed by someone else is not known. 

The image at the top of the page is John Blanke at a Grand Jousting Tournament in Westminster in 1511, held to celebrate the birth of Henry VIII’s first son, also Henry, who only lived for a very short time. It shows John not only as musician but also as a horseman. In the scroll John is liveried in a turban, it is not known whether this might suggest John was a Muslim or whether this was one of Henry VIII’s affectations of having his court dressed in robes from round the world. 

In 1512 Henry gifted John a wedding outfit, it is assumed that this was for his, John’s, own wedding. If that is the case he would have needed to have converted to Roman Catholicism, as would his wife to be, as England at that time was a Catholic country.  We do not know whether this was the case or who his wife was. 

John’s arrival at Court was part of a long tradition of Black musicians in European royal courts. It is known that long before John’s arrival at the court of Henry VII of England, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI had Black trumpeters in his entourage and James IV of Scotland employed black drummers. 

The works of authors and historians like Miranda Kaufman have given us information of the lives of some of the settlers in our lands. Kaufman’s research has given us short portraits of some approx. 360 black Tudors, here are some :- 

Jacques Francis, the salvage diver
An expert swimmer and diver, he was hired to salvage guns from the wreck of the Mary Rose in 1546. When his Venetian master was accused of theft in Southampton, Francis became the first known African to give evidence in an English court of law. 

Diego, the circumnavigator
Diego asked to be taken aboard Sir Francis Drake’s ship in Panama in 1572. Diego and Drake circumnavigated the globe in 1577, claiming California for the crown in 1579. 

Anne Cobbie, prostitute
Cobbie was one of 10 women cited when the owners of the brothel where she worked were brought before the Westminster sessions court in 1626. 

Reasonable Blackman, the silk weaver
He lived in Southwark around 1579-1592 and had probably arrived from the Netherlands. He had at least three children, but lost two to the plague in 1592. 

Mary Fillis, servant
The daughter of Fillis of Morisco, a Moroccan basket weaver and shovel-maker, Mary came to London around 1583-4 and became a servant to a merchant. Later she worked for a seamstress from East Smithfield. 

Dederi Jaquoah, merchant and prince
Jaquoah was the son of King Caddi-biah, ruler of a kingdom in modern Liberia. He arrived in England in 1610 and was baptised in London on New Year’s Day 1611. He spent two years in England with a leading merchant. 

Early music making was for the most part sponsored by either the courts, or by the church.  As each seemed to follow each other’s fashions, if Black musicians were the musicians to have, then all courts or churches had to have Black musicians. As music moved out of the patronage of the church and state, the musicians moved out, or were moved out, too. It is at this point, that inevitably, our pictures of the lives of Black musicians in the 1600s and early 1700s becomes less clear.

With the advent of the classical era we get to see the occasional Black musician/composer’s life being recorded: Joseph de Bologne, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges composer and violinist, George Bridgewater violinist, Ignatius Sancho composer, José Mauricio Nunes Garcia, Afro-Brazilian priest and composer. Francis “Frank” Johnson (1792 – 1844) keyed bugler, composer, Samuel ColeridgeTaylor (1875 – 1912) conductor composer, Florence Price (1887–1953) composer, pianist, organist and music teacher, George Walker (1922 – 2018) composer, pianist, and organist, Henry Jay Lewis (1932 – 1996) double bassist and conductor, first Black conductor of a major American symphony orchestra, Robert Lee (1948) horn, first principal hornist in a major American symphony orchestra, Randall Goosby (1996) violinist championing the works of Black composers, The Kanneh-Mason Family and Chineke Orchestra.

These people listed are exceptions, their lives are recorded, the less remarkable rank and file musicians lives are not, so we have no record of any black musicians who may have played  in the orchestras of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schuman, Wagner, Elgar, Britten (incidentally, all male and all white) and still today the make-up of most western symphony orchestras is mostly male and white. To digress, one orchestra making some moves in this direction is the Orchestra of the English Touring Opera, their orchestra is a group of freelance musicians employed season to season. A small group of them have not been re-employed, offered new contracts this year in an effort by the management of the company to increase diversity in the organisation. Some news organisations are reporting them as being “sacked” which is misleading. This small step has been less than welcomed in some press outlets, and described as controversial in others.

Z is for Bee-zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Like trains of cars on tracks of plush
I hear the level bee:
A jar across the flowers goes,
Their velvet masonry

Withstands until the sweet assault
Their chivalry consumes,
While he, victorious, tilts away
To vanquish other blooms.

His feet are shod with gauze,
His helmet is of gold;
His breast, a single onyx
With chrysoprase, inlaid.

His labor is a chant,
His idleness a tune;
Oh, for a bee’s experience
Of clovers and of noon!

‘The Bee’ by Emily Dickinson

I love everything about this poem. How does a bee move? Like trains of cars on tracks of plush. So many sounds: trains, cars, tracks – plush. Its movement is so precise. It is a level bee; it is an architect of the air. It is also a knightly bee. And glorious. It is shod with gauze and wears a golden helmet. It has onyx for a breast (a layered and banded form of the black silicate mineral, chalcedony), and the onyx is inlaid with another gemstone, chrysoprase. I’ve just been looking this up, and chrysoprase is also chalcedony, and actually tends to be apple-green – which makes me think of an expanse of plants and early summer flowers reflected onto the belly of this buzzing bee.

And his voice – the music? The bee both chants and gives a tune, it labours and is idle: the dichotomy of metaphors we’ve always laid on top of the bee as a creature. What is your experience, glorious bee, of clovers and of noon? How can you be both busy and idle – and magnificent – all at the same time? I’d like to know that very much.

Listen to Flight of the Bumblebee on Naxos

The Flight of the Bumblebee by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov is a busy piece of music and a very famous one. My colleague, Natasha, mentioned it right at the beginning of this alphabet in a post on animals. Written as an orchestral interlude for an opera, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, an enchanted swan changes the Tsar’s son into a bee so he can fly away and visit his father who does not know that he is alive. There is a frenetic energy to this piece; it teeters on the very edge of being in control. That’s part of its charm – the control is just about to go, any second now – and then it doesn’t. Phew. I’ve written about my toddler too much in these blogs but it makes me think of breakfasts with him, and trying to get ready for the day. Not surprisingly, we definitely lose the control. Porridge, yoghurt, [ba]NANNAH!: breakfast is a messy business.

Toddlers seem busy to me. We describe our son as busy as he goes about the flat doing his busy toddler thing; he goes to a Busy Bees Nursery (Busy Bees is the umbrella name for the nursery company). Somehow, ‘busy’ is a perfect adjective. Because it makes us laugh when applied to him, and because it describes so exactly his intense concentration as he does whatever he’s up to. Whatever he’s up to, is, for him, both work and play; a mysterious wonderful melding of the two – and almost certainly destructive.  

And then there’s that moment when busy-ness, and tiredness, turn to silliness. When all kinds of nonsense comes out. Nonsense that, in the right hands, is of course quite clever. I’m thinking of Monty Python’s, Eric the Half-a-Bee:

Half a bee, philosophically,
Must, ipso facto, half not be.
But half the bee has got to be
Vis a vis, its entity. D’you see?

Bee, what a fun word. I also think of Edward Lear. Central Library has a really wonderful biography by Jenny Uglow on Edward Lear – and up in the Art & Design Library we have lots of his now quite forgotten topographical work, and a big Taschen volume of plates containing his parrots (142 big beautiful reproductions of his hand-coloured lithographs). Bees, of course, feature in his nonsense and drawings. Here are a couple:

The Book of Nonsense,There was an Old Person of Dover
Edward Lear, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Book of Nonsense, There was an Old Man in a tree
Edward Lear
Dmitrismirnov, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The buzz of a bee can be confusing. Is it a bee (be kind; they die when they sting you) – or a wasp (wasps don’t die when they sting you, but be kind anyway). Not the message in John Vernon Lord’s Giant Jam Sandwich, that’s for sure. And our relationship as humans to the buzz of an insect is complicated. On wasps, my colleague Douglas, recommended a favourite: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ composition for a production of Aristophanes’ The Wasps. He wrote it in 1909, for Trinity College, Cambridge. I love the name of the piece, “March Past of the Kitchen Utensils”, and listening to it, it is clean, grey, and efficient. Bang, clash, go the kitchen utensils, march on, march on, march on.

Chopin wrote an étude which is sometimes known as “The Bees” – Opus 25, no. 2 in F minor. It’s written in polyrhythms: the right hand plays quaver triplets, so the natural accent is on the 3rd and 6th notes; and the left hand plays crotchet triplets. Matching them together, that’s the difficult part. But it’s soft and skidding and beautiful.

Another beautiful one, by the English madrigalist, John Wilbye – “Sweet Honey-Sucking Bees”. It’s sung a capella, and as it’s polyphonic, each voice takes it in turns to lead the line. It makes me think about flight.

There are many many songs and pieces of music about bees, of course. And insects. One last one – Muddy Waters wrote a lot about bees, and I love “Honey Bee” – “Sail on/ Sail on my little honey bee sail on… She been all around the world making honey/ but now she is coming back home to me.”

Last autumn, we made a long visit to my parents’ house. It was nice, nice on all fronts, and it was the first visit in a long time because of Covid. They live not far from the New Forest, and one day we took a trip to Lepe beach. The season was turning and the weather was changeable. The sea and tide were high, and the sky a steely blue-grey. It reminded me of the beach in David Copperfield where Pegotty’s family boathouse stood. We walked – not very far, because my dad was very sick – and we collected flint pebbles; filled our pockets with them. I still have the flint pebbles, they sit in a line in our bedroom by the window. But another memory I have, sharp as glass when time is precious, is of a cliff-face of bees. It seemed so unusual for the air to be filled with bees, so late in the year and right beside the sea. The day was wild, and the rain was about to blow in. There were hundreds of them.

Driving home I looked them up – they were Ivy mining bees. They fly late in the autumn because they feed almost exclusively on the nectar and pollen of ivy flowers. It’s nice to remember them buzzing about in the landscape of that day. An intangible aural/visual memory.

Bees and insects are, we know only to well, utterly central to our lives. We also know the bees’ plight, and we worry. To think seriously about bees feels like standing on eggshells; there is something always shifting under our feet. And I suppose, unfortunately, we must learn to balance and walk on this shifting surface. A tricky thing to do.

A few other bee-related thoughts, because really, I don’t want this alphabet to end.

A colleague reminded me of the bee-loud glade in W. B. Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree, and my partner, of the illustrator, Chris Ware’s Branford: the best bee in the world in his (very big) compendium Building Stories. Also, of the Breughel picture of beekeepers with their basket masks and woven hives.

The Beekeepers, c1568
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve known for a while that commercial beekeeping isn’t always a pretty business, but this is a brilliant podcast from 99% Invisible.

And this looked like it was a great Words and Music programme on Radio 3. It’s not available anymore unfortunately but you can see the programme.  

I could write a whole post on bees and bestiaries. There’s a British library blog on their medieval manuscripts collection called Birds and Bees, which is image after image of the most exquisite pictures.

And on the garden and little garden creatures, we have a gem of a book in the Art & Design Library by Kitagawa Utamaro called Songs of the Garden. He did a book on insects too, and it’s possible to browse a little of it on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.

Finally, please do continue to explore our streaming services: Naxos and Naxos Jazz, and Medici TV!

And here ends our musical alphabet. We’ve loved doing it and hope you’ve enjoyed it too.