Remembered for her progressive style, fearless musicianship, and commendable performance techniques, Grażyna Bacewicz is still one of the most successful female composers that Poland has produced. Her body of work is so exciting, and this blog focuses on her life, legacy, and work for solo violin: Polish Caprice.
Born in Łódź, Poland in 1909, Grażyna Bacewicz was introduced to music by her father and brother, who were both musicians and composers. Wanting to continue her musical education, Bacewicz enrolled at the Helena Kijenska-Dobikiewiczowa’s Musical Conservatory in 1919. Whilst there, she received training on the piano, violin, and music theory. When the Bacewicz family moved to Warsaw in 1923, a year later Bacewicz secured a place at the prestigious Warsaw Conservatory, where she studied composition with Kazimierz Sikorski, piano with Józef Turczyński, and violin with Józef Jarzębski. Although starting with three disciplines, Bacewicz graduated with diplomas in violin and composition, and had dropped piano halfway through her course. After graduating in 1932, Bacewicz secured a grant in the same year to study composition at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris (1932-1933). Whilst there, Bacewicz studied under the great Nadia Boulanger, as well as receiving private violin lessons with Henri Touret. Bacewicz then returned to Paris a year later in 1934, to study under Hungarian violinist, Carl Flesch.
As well as being a well-acclaimed composer, Bacewicz was also a virtuoso on the violin. 1935 saw her first solo success on the violin, where she won the Henryk Wieniawski International Violin Competition in Warsaw. Between 1936 and 1938, Bacewicz also played first violin with the Warsaw Polish Radio Orchestra. Throughout her life, Bacewicz remained very involved with violin performance, whether that be ensemble playing, solo recitals, or giving private violin lessons at European Conservatories. Throughout her performance career, Bacewicz travelled across Europe, and played recitals in Belgium, France, Hungary, and the USSR.
Bacewicz gave a large proportion of her life to teaching new generations music, more specifically violin, music theory, and composition. 1945 saw her appointed as a lecturer of music theory, and as a violin teacher at the National Conservatory (now known as the Academy of Music), in Poland. From 1966 to her death in 1969, she worked at the National Higher School of Music in Warsaw, where she led the composition course, and was soon made a professor in 1967. Bacewicz was also a definitive figure on jury panels for violin and composition competitions, as well as serving as vice-chair of the Polish Composers’ Union from 1955-1957, and then again between 1960-1969.
Bacewicz is chiefly remembered, however, for her body of compositions, which are still popular today. Her composition archives was recognized and honoured many times, which included her winning many composition competitions. Her Quintet for Wind Instruments (1932) won 1st Prize at the 1933 Aide aux femmes de professions libres competition in Paris. Her Piano Concerto (1949) won 2nd prize (with no first prize being awarded) at the the Polish Composers’ Union Fryderyk Chopin Composition Competition in 1951. These are mere examples, as Bacewicz won a large amount of awards for works, which also includes the Belgian Government Award and Gold Medal for her Violin Concerto No. 7 (1965).
Hailing from a country where women musicians are heavily underrepresented, it seems that Bacewicz made her mark successfully, as her legacy lives on today. Her compositions range through many genres, although as a violinist herself, Bacewicz composed more music for strings and solo violin, including her Polish Caprice, which was composed in 1949.
Caprice, or Capriccio (Polish: Kaprysy), is usually defined as a single movement piece, that has a free structure, which may contain one, or many different sections within. This made this kind of composition liberal in its style, and Bacewicz utilised this form on many different occasions. Bacewicz composed three solo violin Caprices in 1949, 1952, and 1968. Folk melodies were incredibly popular with European composers during Bacewicz’s lifetime, so it is to no surprise that Polish Caprice is laden with Polish folk melodies.
Polish Caprice is only a short work, lasting around two minutes, but it is full of dynamic twists and turns, which is perhaps why is is still a popular recital piece in the modern day. Bacewicz experiments with tonality, using major-minor tonality throughout, which resonates with Polish folk music, which often uses major-minor modes throughout.
Beginning with a slow E minor recitative-like introduction, this melodic line leads into a brighter E major dance section, marked ‘Allegro’. You could say this work is in ternary form, as you have clearly defined sections that line up with ABA’ format. Five different keys are heard throughout this work, which adds to the dramaturgy of the piece. The acceleration at the end of Polish Caprice is dramatic, exciting and sounds very virtuosic. The structure of this work has been likened to that of the Kujawiak folk dance, which originates from Poland. The Kujawiak folk dance starts slow, has a faster middle section, and then accelerates at the end, thus one could certainly suggest that Bacewicz’s Polish Caprice has taken some sort of inspiration from this type of folk dance.
After her death in 1969, Grażyna Bacewicz is still celebrated as a composer, performer and educator in the modern day, with many of her works being performed in concert halls, examinations, and in recital programmes. Her progressive style of writing is one of the most exciting traits of her music, and Polish Caprice is no exception to this. A ground-breaking Polish composer, who has made herself an unbreakable legacy.
©Alex Burns 2018
Alex Burns has recently graduated from The University of Sheffield, after studying for a Bmus in Music, and for an MA in Musicology. Her specialisms are the life and works of Gustav Mahler, as well as the works and lost stories of women composers. She runs the No. 1 Classical Music blog in the world, and has written on a range of different composers, aiming to make classical music more accessible to everybody.
Come along to one of the Illuminate concerts to hear Polish Caprice performed by our fantastic violinist Sabina Virtosu!
Hélène de Montgeroult (b. Lyon, 1764; d. Florence, 1836) was a composer, pianist and teacher, a contemporary of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven whose life spanned the French Revolution. She experienced life under arrest and her first husband was killed as a consequence of their aristocratic status but it is the denial of this status that allowed her to publish her compositions and pursue a teaching career. Alongside political and social upheavals, Montgeroult experienced the transition of keyboard manufacture from harpsichord to fortepiano. She commissioned an early fortepiano from Erard that, through the application of multiple pedals, allowed for the exploration and expression of a range of timbres. She was the first Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire when it opened in 1795. The faint biographical trace she has left through history tells us that she was a student of Jan Ladislav Dussek, Nicolas Joseph Hüllmandel, Clementi and Reicha; that she had pieces dedicated to her by Julie Candeille, Johann Baptist Cramer, Dussek, Louis Emmanuel Jadi and Phillip Libon. She was an admired duo partner of the virtuoso violinist Viotti with whom she collaborated as an accompanist, improviser and arranger (Gautier). By these few accounts we can establish that she was a remarkable person.
Her published compositions suggest a keen musical intelligence that could assimilate a wide range of styles but which was also uniquely creative and capable of ‘avant garde’ explorations. Jérôme Dorival, who has done much to bring her music back into circulation, describes her as ‘the pre-cursor of Romanticism’. Her output includes canons and fugues in the Baroque style; she reportedly introduced Bach to the Conservatoire syllabus and is known to have visited Leipzig. And she professed a strong admiration for the work of Handel completing an extensive set of variations on themes by Handel. She wrote at least nine Sonatas, a set of 6 Nocturnes for voice and piano, and devised a rich and varied, three volume teaching method: Cours complet pour l’enseignement du Forté Paino conduisant progressivement des premiere éléments aus plus grandes difficultés. This magnum opus contains 972 exercises and 114 Studies. Many of the Studies are beautifully balanced, intensely expressive works which bear the characteristics of what we now recognize as the hallmarks of Romanticism. Montgeroult’s oeuvre is a portfolio of musical negotiations between Classical and Romantic aesthetic preferences. Three of the Studies from the third volume of the Cours complet are analysed briefly below to illustrate the historical fluidity and personal characteristics of Montgeroult’s compositional approach.
Etude no. 106 ‘Aria’
Performance by Marcia Hadjimarkos below:
Score available at
http://hz.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/7/7d/IMSLP468173-PMLP760279-montgeroult_cours3_bnf.pdf pp. 165-9
This Study or Aria in B major triple time shows Montgeroult’s command of the bel canto style but with the melody and outline harmonic bass perpetually accompanied by a semi-quaver ‘walking’ line. The Study is in tertiary or a written out Da Capo form with the central section in E minor. The less than obvious modulation to the sub-dominant minor can be explained in Neo-Reimannian terms as a nebenverwandt relationship (successive RLP transformations), a modulatory gambit that is commonly found in Schubert, Chopin, Brahms and Liszt. So despite the archaic texture the tonality is distinctly adventurous, even Romantic.
The melody is reminiscent of Handel’s ‘Ombra mai fu’ from Xerxes with two extended, descending phrases cadencing with dotted rhythms. As with Handel, Montgeroult creates an opening three bar phrase but her extension is through prolongation of the tonic in bars 2-3 rather than Handel’s anticipatory bar. Montgeroult’s consequent phrase is five bars long. This passes briefly through a cycle of 5ths in bar 5-6 with a hint of a hemiola that again foreshadows Brahms and his penchant for similar, syncopated harmonic sequences.
Another notable feature of this Study is the means by which Montgeroult brings it to a close. If we invest imagination in the printed sub-title ‘Aria’ then the ‘vocal’ part ends on a low A#3-B3 authentic cadence but the semi-quaver ‘walking’ part proceeds to make a connective ascent into a six bar codetta. This wistful codetta elaborates a tonic pedal, not unlike Schubert’s near contemporaneous setting of Wiegenlied D.498, and Montgeroult introduces a fourth line to the texture, a ‘tenor’ part which dramatically ascends a diatonic octave B major scale in quavers only to descend chromatically, echoed by the melodic ‘soprano’ line. The two ‘vocal’ lines then settle, in the final three bars, to a series of neighbour note decorations of the tonic triad in parallel sixths. This short postlude reinforces the Study’s titular designation of ‘Aria’, suggesting the sort of multiple, poetic personae that were to be developed in the new genre of lieder of the period.
Commercial recordings by Robilliard (Hortus) and Stern (Orchid) – see Resources
Score available at
http://hz.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/7/7d/IMSLP468173-PMLP760279-montgeroult_cours3_bnf.pdf pp. 170-173
In a review of Edna Stern’s recording of Montgeroult’s Etude 107 the Orchid label, Emma Jeal writes, ‘Chopin’s C minor Etude sounds less Revolutionary after you’ve heard de Montgeroult’s swirling Etude No 107, which anticipates it by 20-odd years.’ Indeed, the resemblance is audible in that both open with a similar, four note dotted rhythmic figure in the right hand accompanied by rapid semi-quaver figurations for the left hand.
Example 1: de Montgeroult Etude No. 107, bb. 1-5
Example 2: Chopin Etude Op. 10 No. 12 in C minor b.1-4
They are both in minor – but not the same – keys (de Mongeroult in D minor, Chopin in C minor), they are both in common time, and both exhibit a tertiary structure. But de Montgeroult’s Study is formally much less expansive that Chopin’s, her modulation is to the relative major whereas Chopin moves to the parallel major, then the dominant of the relative major but mainly to sub-mediant. Interestingly de Montgeroult employs frequent ‘feminine cadences’, often underpinned by vii˚ - I harmonies which give her Study a distinctive, plaintive character. But perhaps it is the revolutionary ‘back stories’ to both pieces that connect these works in the mind more than comparable, revolutionary musical tendencies.
Performance by François-Frédéric Guy below:
Score available at
http://hz.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/7/7d/IMSLP468173-PMLP760279-montgeroult_cours3_bnf.pdf pp. 189-193
Etude no. 111 is perhaps the best known of de Montgeroult’s works having been used in the soundtrack to the 2012 film A Royal Affair, a Danish historical drama directed by Nikolaj Arcel. De Montgeroult observes that the pedagogic intention of the Study is the combination of expression and speed. This combination seems to have inspired her to produce a work that has immense energy. The duple compound time Etude is built from a simple, four-bar melody that contains two urgently repeated motifs, the second of which has micro-decrescendos, accompanied by a pounding, off-beat accompaniment. Together these features create a sense of breathless intensity, even panic.
Example 3: de Montgeroult Etude no. 111, bb. 1-4
This intensity is ratcheted up through a series of daring modulations. At bar 25 the theme returns in Eb major which, in neo-Reimannian terms, is a Leading Note transformation but two tortuous chromatic sequences in bars 37-44 bring the theme back in the remote key of F minor. Another sequence in bars 63-66 bring the theme round to what appears to be a restatement in the relative major of Ab major but the ‘a’ motif is treated to a rising sequence that leads to the climax of the piece built around a long dominant pedal that expends itself with a surprisingly gentle resolution back into G minor. The energy is not fully spent however and it is only with continued emphasis on the secondary dominant that the piece finally concludes with a widely registered tonic triad rooted on G1. The way that de Montgeroult handles the sequential development of small motives together with suprising chromaticisms and emphasis on secondary dominants, teleological drivers that were common in Bach, is very similar in effect to Robert Schumann’s piano works.
It is unlikely that de Montgeroult ever performed outside of the salon culture of Paris but her prowess as a pianist, teacher and composer are beginning to receive recognition. Montgeroult’s portfolio demonstrates how she was able to draw on a broad knowledge of historical and contemporary musical practices but also experiment creatively with characteristics that are perhaps erroneously recognised as the compositional ‘fingerprints’ of later (male) composers. Performance and study resources more also becoming more widely available and some of these are listed below.
© Dr Helen Thomas
Conservatoire de Paris, 250E Anniversaire Hélène de Montgeroult
Dorival, Jérôme, La Marquise et la Marseillaise (préface par Geneviève Fraisse), Symétrie, Lyon 2006.
Johnson, Calvert, ‘Hélène de Montgeroult: Composer and Piano Pedagogue at the Paris Conservatoire’, Women of Note Quarterly, 1993, pp. 18-30.
Sadie, Julie Anne. "Montgeroult, Hélène-Antoinette-Marie de Nervo de." Grove Music Online.
Van Epenhuysen, Rose, Hélène de Montgeroult and the Art of Singing Well on the Piano, Women & Music, vol. 5, 2001, pp. 99-124.
Hélène de Montgeroult, pianiste, compositrice et pédagogue
Hélène de Montgeroult, artiste visonnaire https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFQI40wKO0Y
Scores available on IMSLP Petrucci Music Library
Cours complet pour l’enseignement du forte piano
Piano Sonata Op. 5 No. 1
Piano Sonata Op. 5 No. 2
Piano Sonata Op. 5 No. 3
Pièce Op. 3
3 Sonatas Op. 1
3 Sonatas Op. 2
Bruno Robilliard, Montgeroult: La Marquise et la Marseillaise, CD Hortus, piano modern, 2006
Nicola Stavy, Montgeroult: La jeunesse du piano romantique, CD Hortus, piano modern, 2009
Edna Stern, Hélène de Montgeroult Orchid Classics, 2017
Forthcoming performance at time of blog publication
11 April 2018, University of Liverpool
Selected Etudes by Hélène de Montgeroult performed by Ian Buckle
Regarded today as one of the most influential and popular women composers, Clara Schumann’s body of compositions is incredibly impressive. Her style, technique and expression amalgamates into some truly fine chamber and solo music, which are still enjoyed today. For this blog, I shall be looking into her life and her work for solo piano - Scherzo No. 2.
Clara Josephine Wieck was born on September 13th, 1819, in Leipzig. Her mother was a famous singer in the area, and a lot of her musical experiences originated with her. However, when Clara was five years old, her parents divorced and she lived with her father. Friedrich Wieck saw the potential in Clara’s musical abilities, so he began to plan her career, including all the small details. She received daily composition, piano, violin, singing, theory and harmony and counterpoint lessons. This was then followed by 2-3 hours of practise. At age 8, Clara performed at Dr. Ernst Carus’ house. There, she met another young musical talent - Robert Schumann. Robert apparently admired Clara’s playing so much, that he asked to stopped studying law, so that he could take up piano lessons with Clara’s father. By age 11, Clara was touring Europe, giving recitals to the public. Her first tour was around Paris, and there she met Niccoló Paganini, who thought very highly of her, and requested to perform with her in the future. By age 18, Clara had performed in a series of tours and recitals around the continent, and she often performed the piano works of Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin.
Whilst in Vienna in 1837, Clara was named the Royal and Imperial Chamber Virtuoso, which was the highest musical honour in Austria. Robert Schumann was still in Clara’s life at this point, and when she turned 18 he proposed to her (she was nine years his junior). Although Clara wanted the marriage to go ahead, her father did not offer his blessing. After much drama, which involved the courts, Robert and Clara wed in 1840. The marriage lasted sixteen years, until Robert died after being committed to an asylum for the last two years of his life (due to numerous suicide attempts). After Robert’s death, Clara began going on more concert tours, as well as shifting some of her focus onto composition.
Later, in 1878, Clara was appointed the position of piano teacher at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where she stayed until 1892. Clara passed away in 1896, and was subsequently buried with her husband. Her legacy as both a performer and composer has stood the test of time, as she is still highly regarded today. Her 61 year career was, and still is an incredible achievement. In regards to composition, Clara once said, and I think this should ring true with all composers in some way:
“Composing gives me great pleasure. There is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation, if only because through it one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound.”
Although she enjoyed composing, due to her hectic performance schedules, she never regularly composed. As well as Clara feeling that this was a shame, her husband also thought similar things:
“Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out.”
It has been said many times that Clara famously stated that “women are not born to compose”, however during the middle of her career, she churned out a significant amount of compositions. Her Three Romances for Violin and Piano was composed in 1853, and was very popular. It was dedicated to her close friend and violinist, Joseph Joachim, and the pair toured playing this work, with King George V of Hanover commenting that:
“All three pieces display an individual character conceived in a truly sincere manner and written in a delicate and fragrant hand.”
Clara Schumann Three Romances for Violin (1853):
As a pianist herself it is unsurprising that a large body of her work uses the piano, either in a chamber ensemble, or as its own solo instrument. Clara’s earliest composition date from around 1828, and the piano works she liked to compose show the virtuosity of the performers, with her writing bravura works that show technical dominances. Numerous caprices, concertos and variations showcases her evident brilliance on the piano. Op. 14 Scherzo in C minor was composed in 1845. This particular work very much reflects the stylings of Chopin. The stormy arpeggiated figure that dominates a large proportion of this work resembles that of Chopin’s game changing Etude style.
The fast pace and technical demands of the first section of the work add to its light, yet intense nature. The transition into the Ab major trio section, is mainly chordal, and brings the mood down just a tad from the previous section. This dance-like section shows her grasp on various genres, and how to express them in innovative ways. Her composition style is accessible, virtuosic and legendary still to this day. The seamlessness of her Scherzo No. 2 is perhaps why it is a well-loved work to this day. To hear a performance of this must be incredibly exciting.
Read the article written by Dr Angela Elizabeth Slater for Rhinegold's Classical Music Magazine by clicking this link
Through my composition I developed an interest in incorporating different aspects of the natural world into my compositions. I have created a large series of works that engage with the natural world, musically mapping certain aspects into the fabric of the music. Through this I have been increasingly fascinated by the idea of colour in music and how this can manifest itself in different ways through musical expression. I find it very exciting to explore the potential expressive impact that timbre can have within the musical space.
Within the broader theme of the natural world I have often found myself writing a number of works related more closely to a specific sub-theme. For example I have recently written a number of pieces to do with space particularly focusing on eclipses, the sun, moon and stars. These are Veiling of the Sun for string quartet, The Moon Runs Red for solo trumpet, Sun Catcher for wind quintet, and the three works I have written for the Illuminate concert series: The Moon is Falling for classical guitar and violin, Into the Scarlet Sky for shakuhachi and classical guitar, and Night Mirrors for solo piano.
When I compose I find it extremely helpful to have a clear concept for the piece before I begin. I often find the title for the piece before I start as this can give me a lot of stimulus from which I can develop musical ideas and a framework. I often first sit down with a blank piece of paper to plan the structure of the piece. This can take the form of written words and timings, but more often then not there are shapes and sketches and notes to myself about instruments or timbre. As much as possible I like to feel a connection to the instruments for which I am writing and will try to compose ideas on the instrument as much as I can, even if I can hardly play the instrument at all. This allows me to feel how the fingers sit and how the sound really resonates. Of course, this is not always possible however much I would love to own a whole orchestra of instruments. I unfortunately do not! In this situation my default tends to be the piano or relying on my inner ear to guide me.
In my work Veiling of the Sun the previous influences of using the natural world as an influence on different parameters is present as well as now foregrounding timbre as a modulating and structural parameter. The piece explores ideas and imagery associated with a solar eclipse. It explores different representations of light and uses timbral dissonance to represent the blocking out of light. These moments of timbral dissonance gradually increase in rhythmic pacing as the sun becomes more and more covered by the moon. Timbre is also used as a structural device to create progression within the piece, with the most dissonant moments coming in the form of bow over-pressure twinned with harmonic dissonance, and violent gestural material. The fading light of the sun is represented earlier in the piece through fragile timbral devices such as harmonic and quiet sul ponticello passages. As the sun’s light gradually gets more blocked out by the moon the rate of bow over-pressure moments increases. The last passage represents the final glimpses of light around the edge of the moon before the eclipse reaches totality and darkness truly takes hold.
Another piece that is based on the theme of eclipse and timbre as structure is my work As The Moon Runs Red for solo trumpet. This piece explores different timbres of the trumpet making extensive use of its different mutes through the lens of a lunar eclipse. A lunar eclipse is a natural phenomenon where the Earth blocks the sun’s light from reaching the moon. As the moon passes behind the Earth the shortest light lengths of colours, such as violet and blue, are scattered as they go through the Earth's atmosphere, leaving the longer wavelengths such as orange and red. This means the moon appears to go a deep red colour as the only light able to reach it is these longer wavelengths. This piece draws on the imagery of a lunar eclipse exploring each colours character and timbre before it is scattered away gradually building in intensity until only the violent red music is left to colour the moons surface.
You can hear this piece live at the John Armitage Memorial Trust 'Music of Our Time' concert on 22 March, 7.30pm. It will be performed by Alan Thomas, part of Onyx Brass.
Night Mirrors for solo piano (for the Illuminate concert series)
Before I wrote Night Mirrors I had recently watched several different documentaries about space and the training astronauts have to go through. One of the programmes showed the amazing natural phenomenon that is Salar de Uyuni (or Salar de Tunupa) which is where the world's largest salt flat acts as the largest natural occurring mirror. When darkness falls on a clear night, the night sky is reflected by the salt flat, creating a 360 view of the universe. These programmes and this image particularly stuck in my mind, as I was caught up thinking about the vastness of space and the complexities within it, but it also made me think about how everything is essentially created from the same elements and the simplicity of this idea.
This idea of complexity versus simplicity manifests itself in Night Mirrors with contrasts between some sections being very complex and dense in harmony and gesture, before gradually shifting to only three, three-note chords that control the harmony. This simple harmony then combines with the complex gestural material essentially pairing complexity and simplicity together.
Night Mirrors also explores the shapes and stars of the universe in the night sky and its mirror-image. The piece explores the depths and height of space, the drama and the stillness, using symmetry and reflection throughout the piece in different ways to create a musical mirror.
To hear the full version of my piece Night Mirrors live as well as my other pieces Into the Scarlet Sky for shakuhachi and classical guitar and The Moon is Falling for classical guitar and violin, I hope you will join us at one or more of the Illuminate concerts!
© Angela Elizabeth Slater
As a small child, I was intent on trying to copy the sounds that I heard around me. I created patterns of whistled melodies that I linked together in different combinations. Eventually, when I received flute and piano lessons, I began to create pieces on these instruments. I was keen to improvise using sounds in an attempt to capture feelings and experiences in the moment. I thus considered that my composing was a mirror of my experience and thought, like philosopher Immanuel Kant, who regarded art as a reflection of life. Kant wrote that ‘art can only be termed beautiful, where we are conscious of its being art; while yet it has the appearance of nature.’ Unless a piece of music copies an actual sound, it is an abstract art form. However, it is possible for a composer to associate certain sounds and sequences with meanings. I consciously create sounds that represent emotions, ideas or characters in my works. I believe that this helps me to convey meaning and may aid the listener to recognise pattern and structure in the work.
Two composers who have influenced my approach to composition are, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1934–2016), and Edgard Varèse (1883–1965). I have performed Varèse’s solo flute piece, Density 21.5, many times. The music of Varèse introduced me to a sound world that appealed to me – music that is melody-led, imitates sounds from the environment, features wide intervals and appears, initially, to be rhythmically free. My solo flute piece, Tantrum, features the same components. It attempts to portray the raw emotion of a small child who is angry and inconsolable.
The consideration of pieces of music that have left a powerful impression on me has led me to realise that I particularly value works that have to invent a new language in order to express what needs to be said. I endeavour to write each of my pieces with an open mind as to the requirements of pitch, form, rhythm and harmony. Certain melodic fragments seem to recur - although they are rarely identical. For the most part, I am content to work within the confines of equal temperament and regular (but constantly changing) time signatures. My music is eclectic with regard to tonality in the sense that I like to mix diatonic, modal, chromatic, and atonal sounds as well as those from other cultures. I do not feel the need to unify my material by being exclusively wedded to one school of thought or historical fashion. I experiment with sounds that are held together in a collage-style piece with something other than a diatonic harmonic structure. Edgard Varèse also built chords around pitches that did not relate to functional harmony, often using pitches that related to the overtone series or sounds chosen for their timbral effect rather than their relationship to a particular key.
I have written a number of pieces that focused on patterns of melodic intervals or motifs. This has led to thoughts about repetition and experimentation with pieces that used phrases reminiscent of previous material in the same piece that were similar but not identical. This way of working with melodic development was a result of an interest in the form of shakuhachi (Japanese flute) music. The aurally transmitted collection of music played by the Honkyoku school was possibly created as long ago as the twelfth century. Many of these solo pieces have a basic phrase that reappears several times with more tones, effects or ornaments added as the music progresses. I similarly enjoy working with a process of continual transformation as ideas return but are always changed.
Hifumi Hachigaeshi - played by Katushi Matama is one of the Honkyoku traditional pieces for solo shakuhachi.
Many of my works have a back-story and are sometimes about a particular time and place. I admire many of Maxwell Davies’ compositions that convey a strong sense of time and place and take a story for their inspiration. This can be overt in pieces like Eight Songs for a Mad King or act as a backdrop in a composition such as the Second Symphony. Musical symbols can become part of the storytelling function of a piece. For example, my string trio, Betrayal, tells the story of two Viking earls who ruled jointly. One was jealous of the other and ordered his assassination. My music describes the horror of the recognition of betrayal and knowledge that death is imminent. This trio is part of my opera, The Story of Magnus Erlendsson which premiered at the St Magnus Festival in 2017.
I hypothesise that a satisfying piece of new music creates symbols that each listener can attach meaning to even though the sounds and structures of the piece may be unfamiliar. I have explored this idea more fully with my found sound electronic pieces that have accompanied sculpture installations. Found and The Fabian Strategy
were created in collaboration with sculptor Craig Ellis. I have recently set up a bimonthly series of inter-disciplinary performances called The Experimental Music Project with a view to promoting events that remove boundaries between different art forms and allow audiences to be more inter-active.
© Gemma McGregor, 2018
An American composer based in London, Arlene Sierra’s large and diverse catalogue includes chamber, orchestral and vocal music, as well as opera, music for dance, and music for film. In 2001, she was the first woman to win the Takemitsu Prize for her first orchestral work Aquilo. Following on from several prestigious commissions, many of Sierra's mature works have their origins in military strategy and game theory. Other interests include writing dramatic works for the stage, as well as connecting with physical movement through her series of scores to films by Maya Deren.
Another important inspiration for Sierra is her fascination with the behaviours and mechanisms of biological life forms from tiny insects to humanity itself. It is the processes of nature, rather than a simple reflection or meditation that form the basis for Sierra’s compositional approach. Her 2009 work, Game of Attrition, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, takes its structure from processes described by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species. Another such example is Butterflies Remember a Mountain (2013), a piano trio commissioned by the Bremen Philharmonic Society, which was inspired by a peculiar detour in the annual mass migration of monarch butterflies, the cause of which is theorised to be a long since eroded mountain that once stood in their path. This trio was the starting point for her biggest statement yet, recently premiered Nature Symphony (2017) commissioned by the BBC Philharmonic and BBC Radio 3.[i] A selection of other works that employ natural sounds and processes include Urban Birds (2014) for three pianos with percussion and sampled birdsong, as well as Birds and Insects, Books 1 and 2 (2007, 2015) for piano solo, selections from which will be performed as part of Illuminate’s inaugural season in Cardiff on 11 March.
Arlene Sierra’s Birds and Insects, Book 1 (2003-2007), included on her 2011 chamber music release by Bridge Records, has been a touchstone for many other works exploring the natural world, as well as maintaining a connection to the piano, her primary instrument from childhood.[ii] Far from her place of birth, settling in London was another importance impetus that prompted Sierra to set a number of Pablo Neruda’s (1904-1973) Odes to Common Things, which reflect on nature and memory.
“The poetry got me thinking about using birdsong, and other associations from nature that I’d experienced as a child. London has its inspirations too: for example, I love the huge scarab beetle sculpture in the British Museum, and when I read about the living insect’s ability to navigate using magnetic fields, that immediately prompted a musical idea for a piece.” The result was the first of a series of piano works that became Birds and Insects, Book 1. [iii]
In a 2013 conversation with pianist Xenia Pestova, Sierra discusses her use of birdsong as a natural outgrowth from her love of sampling when she made her first electro-acoustic compositions as an undergraduate at Oberlin College-Conservatory.
“Birdsongs and insect calls give an immediate sense of place, and of space, so were a welcome resource when thinking about creating atmospheres connected with nature. They also tend to be short, fitting nicely into the kind of motivic construction a lot of my works are driven by.”[iv]
Sierra’s first explorations into composition were actually through electronic music.
‘It was a way of getting ideas down, manipulating musical materials without having to worry about notation. And for someone who studied piano and didn’t study composition, that was really a relief and a wonderful opening to ways of manipulating sound and making new things.’[v]
Her PRS New Music Biennial Commission Urban Birds (2014) in which three piano soloists play music in response to pre-recorded birdsong was an important piece written between Birds and Insects Book 1 and Book 2. It allowed a chance to return to electronics and sampling, as well as to focus on more percussion and percussive effects in her piano writing.
Our Illuminate pianist, Késia Decoté, will perform two selections from Sierra’s Birds and Insects, Book 2: Hermit Thrush and Thermometer Cricket at 2.00pm on 11 March at Cardiff University Concert Hall.
Sierra’s music is published by Cecilian Music and further information may be found on her website, arlenesierra.com. She holds degrees from Oberlin College-Conservatory (BA, Bmus), Yale School of Music (MMus) and the University of Michigan (DMA). Dr. Sierra is currently Reader in Composition and Deputy Head of School at Cardiff University School of Music.
[i] ‘Premieres: November’s new music’, Wright, Katy,
[ii] ‘Color and Rhythmic Dexterity: Interview with Arlene Sierra’, Nomos Alpha, Published 15 April 2013, http://nomosalphamagazine.com/admin/2013/04/15/color-and-rhythmic-dexterity-interview-with-arlene-sierra/
[iii] ‘Unflinching Depictions of Nature: A Conversation with Arlene Sierra’,
Natural Light, Published 7 September 2015, http://www.naturemusicpoetry.com/news-and-blog/unflinching-depictions-of-nature
[iv] ‘Conversation with Arlene Sierra’, Pestova, Xenia, I Care if You Listen June/July 2013
[v] 'The Evolution of Process' Gardner, Alexandra, New Music Box, Published: May 1, 2013, https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/arlene-sierra-the-evolution-of-process/
Throughout history storytelling and narratives through music have both entertained and educated audiences. From Bach’s Messiah to John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls these works have brought worlds to life and engaged audiences on a range of issues. Having originally trained as a dancer, being able to capture an audience’s attention whilst telling a story has always been important to me, something that has also followed me into my work as a composer.
Composers have had many different approaches to narrative over the years. One technique that has been under-utilised over the years has been transcriptions, with particular regard to transcriptions of found sound (sounds from the natural environment). I first came across the idea of using transcriptions after watching Honor Harger’s TED Talk by Honor Harger ‘A history of the universe in sound’. Having a brother from a scientific background, currently studying for a PhD in epigenetics, I have always been curious about the world around us and the different ways this could be explored. Listening to Harger’s talk, I became transfixed by the unusual yet strangely relatable sounds and the idea of exploring a world previously unheard.
I began aurally transcribing these sounds onto piano and then incorporating them into my work as either motifs, pitch or rhythmic material. I decided not to incorporate the found sounds as electronic recordings as I personally found there was greater flexibility for both performers and myself by using them as acoustic transcriptions, although I do appreciate that many composers find this the most effective way of working. By using aural transcriptions of found sound, I discovered it created a strong connection and a basis of reality to the source material that was both accurate and musically engaging.
Over the years I have explored this technique with various works. Here are three examples of work that include this approach to narrative, including A Note from the Blue, a new work for Illuminate.
Songs from the Stars Movement I
Having listened and transcribed the sounds from Hargers’ talk as well as from other sources I desperately wanted to put these sounds into action. At the same time two events were happening: The first being the comet lander from the Rossetta project Philae had woken up after seven months, having been shrouded in darkest and unable to operate its solar panels. The second event was that I discovered the Disney film WALL-E (2008) and had become transfixed by the idea of a robot with feelings alone in space. Combining the narrative of WALL-E, the true events of the Philae lander and the transcriptions from various sounds in space I began to construct Songs from the Stars.
The first movement, played here by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales as part of their Composition: Wales Project 2016, introduces the audience to space. Using the sound of a radio storm between Jupiter and Io, stardust from the NASA soundcloud database as well as the drone of the sun the movement works similar to that of a panoramic photo in guiding the listener through the various parts of space. As each motif is introduced the texture builds to cacophony of sound, illustrating both the vastness and mind crushing beauty of space, before dying away and returning back to the original motif, the sun.
Bulawayo Railway was a very personal piece for both myself and my family. Over twenty five years ago my parents and paternal family left Zimbabwe for the UK. During their time there my grandfather worked for the then Rhodesia Railways and later National Railways of Zimbabwe, finishing his career as Station Master of Bulawayo Railway Station. I have always been fascinated with the country and the role it played in shaping my family history. In addition I have always been fascinated by Steve Reich’s Different Trains and the way it explores the different cities and the struggles the people experienced, including the Holocaust. This ability to discuss difficult subjects in a smart and engaging way challenged me to discuss the issue of Zimbabwe in my family history.
After many conversations including stories of lonesome visits to outposts, sabotage of train tracks and the increasingly hostile political landscape, Bulawayo Railway, explores some of these events. I then listened to and transcribed various videos of Garratt steam trains (use during the time my grandfather worked) and used a combination of these transcriptions as motifs to trace the journey of he Garratt steam trains through the beautiful setting of Zimbabwe, illustrating the constant shifting motions of the time - both mechanically and socio-politically.
A Note from the blue Written for Illuminate
(picture National Geographic)
Having spent the majority of the last few years writing about space I very much wanted to come back down to earth. After some research I discovered the database of Discovery of Sound in the Sea, a vast collection of sounds of both marine life and the impact humans were having upon it. I particularly became interested in the Humpback whale and was fascinated to discover that Humpbacks actually sing and compose their own songs.
Through research from scientists such as Roger Payne and Scott McVay, scientists have discovered that whales, much like minimalist composers, begin with a unit, grow this into a phrase and then develop this into a theme. Whilst the purpose of these songs is still undetermined, though most likely for mating and territory, I wanted to explore how these songs could be developed.
Using research from the Whale Trust in Maui, Hawaii I transcribed these themes. However unlike other compositions, here I used only the first part of each theme and then developed the material, similar to that of a Humpback. In addition I tried to emulate the harmonic language Humpbacks use, using only notes from each theme for that section of the work. This lead to the work beginning with a rich harmonic language, similar to that most audiences would expect, and gradually becoming more sparse, as if the Humpback was unable to find anyone.
Dr Helen Thomas