Music in the air

Starscape 2015
From 2015.

OCTOBER 23rd 2018 — All the entries in my “Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland” series now come with playlists of all the recordings mentioned and available on Spotify.

As this series progresses, the variety of music will grow ever wider, since my interests in music extend to all types of music and since for decades THE GRAMOPHONE covered all types of music, not only classical, as today.

The quality of recordings will also soon improve radically, since the late 1920s marked the switchover from the much less advanced (and so-called-then) acoustic process to the (again so-called-then) electric process of recording.

From my rudimentary reading on this topic, this basically meant that microphones started being used for recording. Up until that time, music was recorded by singing and/or playing into a kind of tube.

Here are links to the entries so far:

No. 1 — April 1923

No. 2 — June 1923

No. 3 — August 1923

No. 4 — September 1923


The issues covered in this “Let’s read” series are available as part of the magazine’s digital archive, which every subscriber (a month or a year, digital or print+digital) gets access to.

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Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 4 — September 1923

Gramophone 4 ad
In the digital archive, this issue features only this single page of the many ads.

OCTOBER 19th 2018 — Starting with this entry of this “Let’s read” series, I have decided to share Spotify playlists of the pieces I pick out from each issue for special mention. These have also been added to the previous entries.

Editor Compton Mackenzie opens the issue by presenting the idea of what would later be named the National Gramophonic Society. Here he is only asking his readers whether they would support the venture enough for it to be worth doing. They would, and the Society would go on to make many worthwhile recordings of music previously unavailable on record.

The editorial is followed by an installment of “A Musical Autobiography”, also by the Editor. He looks back on a time when he was such a short way along the path of musical appreciation that he honestly couldn’t perceive the melody in the opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s SYMPHONY NO. 6 IN B MINOR, even though a friend played it to him over and over, getting more annoyed with each attempt.

Elsewhere in this feature the Editor writes:

“[…] I am always suspicious of perfect taste that has not been reached by leagues of bad taste.” (p. 65)

And:

“For one’s own pleasure I am sure that it is a mistake to have exquisite taste in all the arts. For the rest of my life I intend to be quite impenitent about music and painting, and never to allow myself to get beyond works of art that still delight me, though I know them to be far removed from the first rank.” (p. 65)

And:

“I do not fancy that I shall ever lose my bad taste in music, although I regret to say that I am beginning to find Puccini impossible. This is a sad business, and I grow to like Bach better and better every day.” (p. 66)

About the page numbers: At this point in its history, and for years to come, THE GRAMOPHONE employed page numbering that continued from one issue to another throughout one volume — one year.

Many people would have these volumes bound in handsome hardcover collections, so the result at the end of every volume was essentially a thick book of several hundred pages.

A highly detailed index was also produced for each volume. I have not seen any of these indices myself, as unfortunately they are not part of the magazine’s digital archive. But I should add that the digital archive is searchable — to the extent that the Optical Character Recognition catches each word.

Maybe one day an angel somewhere will drop these indices — not to mention the missing ads from the early years — on the laps of the people maintaining the archive. I hope so.

Recordings of especial interest that are on Spotify:

  • Cellist Pablo Casals and pianist Walter Golde play a transcription of Chopin’s NOCTURNE IN E FLAT MAJOR, Op. 9 No. 2. Casals would record this again some years later.
  • From pioneering harpsichordist Violet Gordon-Woodhouse (discussed in previous articles in this “Let’s read” series), Domenico Scarlatti’s SONATA IN A MAJOR, K. 113, L. 345 and SONATA IN D MAJOR, K. 29, L. 461. In these early days, recordings of instruments other than the most familiar ones comprising the symphony orchestra — and piano, of course — were rare. I always perk up when I find on Spotify one of these recordings featuring less common instruments.
  • Ragtime piano with Max Darewski: “MONKEY BLUES”.

F. Sharp starts her review of dance records with:

“To listen in cold blood to a succession of dance records is fair neither to the records nor to the reviewers. The following have all been danced to, and a dancing expert has given her valuable opinion on their merits.” (p. 79)

And a few paragraphs later she makes the first mention in the pages of THE GRAMOPHONE of the wonderful Cole Porter:

“Talking of syncopation, I cannot find in any catalogue records of Cole Porter’s marvelous syncopated music. I have not any American catalogues by me, but I suppose some recording company has got him on their list. I cannot understand why we are not given anything by this young master of rag-time.” (p. 79)


Spotify playlist for this entry, “Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 4 — September 1923”:

This issue is available as part of the magazine’s digital archive, which every subscriber (a month or a year, digital or print+digital) gets access to.

Earlier entries in this series:

Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 3 — August 1923

Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 2 — June 1923

Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 1 — April 1923

A fresh wind

Moore, Gerald - book
Mister Rawshark likes it too.

OCTOBER 2nd 2018 — There’s a fresh wind blowing. Some corner has been turned. I don’t know why or how. But that’s the feeling.

I was thinking this with some wonder on my way to the grocery store, and next thing I knew, this book, THE UNASHAMED ACCOMPANIST (1984) by Gerald Moore, fell in my lap — I found it on the free book exchange rack at the nearby shopping center.

Gerald Moore is a pianist whose work I got to know in the early 2000s when I acquired a collection of back issues of BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE, the cover CDs of which featured full, quality performances of classical music. He played on some of them.

(I still have that collection of magazines and CDs. I packed them and only a small number of other important things into plastic storage boxes and asked my parents to keep them for me back in Finland.)

I also remembered an interview with him from those issues. And the thing is, he was already active in the 1920s, so I’m currently coming across his name in the back issues of THE GRAMOPHONE I’m now reading.

To paraphrase from memory one of my favorite writers: We respect serendipity around here. I’ll share the exact quote in a later entry when I come across it again.

Or, for another paraphrase of the general thought, when two meaningful events occur in such close succession, it means something.

Somehow, the things we need seem to find us sooner or later, wherever we go. At least, as long as we follow our hearts. No matter how strange or difficult the road.

P.S. “There’s a fresh wind blowing in THE WILD SHORE,” is what Ursula K. Le Guin said of Kim Stanley Robinson’s debut novel, which I only just realized was published the same year as THE UNASHAMED ACCOMPANIST. Mister Robinson is the only living science fiction author whose work I read.

Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 3 — August 1923

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The only picture in this issue is of the author of the article on Byrd on the 300th anniversary of his death, the Reverend Doctor Fellowes. Unfortunately many of these early issues are minus the advertisement pages, which I would love to see included for every issue. Fortunately this will change with later issues.

SEPTEMBER 24th 2018 — The third issue of THE GRAMOPHONE bears the cover date August 1923.

Reverend Edmund H. Fellowes, Doctor of Music, contributes a one-page article on English Renaissance composer William Byrd to mark the 300th anniversary of his death. This was a time when music from times this far in the past was only starting to be recorded, and its admirers therefore treasured every new release.

Few of these early recordings of Byrd are on Spotify, but four that are are mentioned in the reviews section. All played on the harpsichord by Violet Gordon-Woodhouse:

  • “ROWLAND OR LORD WILLOBIE’S WELCOME HOME”, FVB. 160.
  • “THE QUEENE’S ALMAN”, FVB. 171.
  • “GALIARDA”, FVB. 255.
  • “EARLE OF OXFORD’S MARCHE”, FVB. 259.

See this earlier post in this “Let’s read” series for a photo of Ms. Gordon-Woodhouse. She did a lot to increase the popularity of the harpsichord and awareness of its importance in the history of music.

I have to mention one more Byrd song cited in this issue, though the recording is not on Spotify, because it has such a great title: “WHY DO I USE MY PAPER, INK, AND PEN?” Most great composers also had great senses of humor. Bach composed a COFFEE CANTATA.

An aside: These back issues of nearly a century ago (at the time of writing this) are treasures. But they are also relics. For example, the N word appears in this issue.

As someone with an academic background (the unwelcome effects of which I have long worked to shed), I am personally not shocked by such things — because anyone who has done any reading of old texts has seen this type of language in old texts all too often. But it is good to realize times have changed since then.

That said, I assume an intelligent readership, so I won’t be climbing on any soapboxes or wasting space commenting further on matters like this. But I did not want to sweep this under the carpet.

Francis Brett Young in an article called “At Random”:

“A little time since, I was asked to contribute to a symposium on a question raised in America […]: whether the cinematograph had not rendered the novel superfluous. The question seemed to me a silly one, for it disregarded one of the fundamental functions of the novelist, which is the achievement of verbal beauty, with all its suggestions, in prose.”

“Z.” rues the loss of a record:

“I only had an opportunity of playing the last-mentioned record once, when the interpretation made a great impression on me, and I am sorry to say that the disc has disappeared from my review shelves. Perhaps my colleague, Mr. J. Caskett, was so much pleased with it that he has literally devoured it, or it may be that he sat on it by accident and buried the fragments in the garden without daring to confess his crime.”

I miss this kind of relaxed, conversational style in publications like THE GRAMOPHONE (these days minus the definite article). Also, digital music — much as I deeply appreciate it and its availability — means no such anecdotes or musings could come about anymore, except with the hardy souls who never abandoned physical media.

Another flight of fancy from “Z.”:

“Much is lost if they are not played with the loudest needle, and although the scratch is not unduly in evidence, so exquisite is this music that I have never felt such bitterness against chemists for not being able to do what they ought to be able to do. If I were a despot, I would summon before me the leading chemists of the day; I would immure them in a completely equipped laboratory, and I would give them two years to eliminate the scratch from gramophone records. The penalty for failure should be imprisonment for the term of their life in a cell lit by acetylene gas and covered with encaustic tiles. Here they should spend the rest of their unnatural lives, listening day and night to the strains of a cheap gramophone playing on a scratchy record ‘I’M FOR EVER BLOWING BUBBLES’. Their food should be sent in to them from the Eustace Miles restaurant in Chandos Street; their lightest reading should be Freud, Jung, and Ernest Jones; and doubtless, if I really were a despot, I should be able to devise all sorts of additional horrors, which in my present state of limited power I have neither space nor time to enumerate.”

He did well enough already. Eccentric digressions like this in these vintage issues often make me smile. They are very human, and more of human life and of humanity comes through when writers are allowed real freedom of thought and expression, and the luxury of enough space. Something has been lost since these days, at least when it comes to most music journalism.

Less charmingly, “Z.” strays from the eccentric to the crude with this:

“Not that I crave to hear the words of what is one of the most tiresome songs ever written, and one that by some curious misfortune of mine second-rate sopranos always choose to sing whenever I go to a concert in Italy. I nearly committed sopranocidio by throwing a lemon squash at the last woman I heard sing it.”

Hardly gracious or gentlemanly.

So while I admire some aspects of these older approaches to music journalism, things like this occasionally cool these warm feelings.

Back along more amusing lines, “Z.” again of a record:

“I thought that it was a really good record; but, alas, with each succeeding performance it becomes more tinny, and if I play it much more I shall be able to preserve tomatoes in it.”

Frank Swinnerton comments on the limitations of the day’s recording technology:

“The gramophone cannot yet reproduce the letter ‘S’. It cannot yet render satisfactorily the full volume of an orchestra or the pure tone of the pianoforte. Always the orchestra has a tinny vibration — a dwarfing of the original; nearly always the piano has many notes — particularly loud notes — resembling the banjo. Pang, pang, pang… Strings are still the most satisfactory instruments for mechanical reproduction.”

A recording already mentioned in this “Let’s read” series and available on Spotify:

  • Norman Allin singing Albert Ketèlbey’s Shakespeare setting “BLOW, BLOW, THOU WINTER WIND”. “Z.” says it “can be used for frightening cats.” I like this composer’s orchestral pieces more, though.

In the “Gramophone Societies’ Reports” (yes, people used to gather together to listen to music on the gramophone), Ernest Baker of The South-East London (Recorded) Music Society comments on Wagner’s music:

“It covers the whole gamut of musical emotion; it has such amazing descriptive power and is so full of pure musical beauties. We have the music of the sea, of fire, the air, love, life, and death — all painted by a master-hand upon an immense canvas.”

All this reminds me of Iceland as well.

An article called “A Decca Romance” tells the story of a portable Decca gramophone that a British battalion hauled around in “a large clothes basket” in World War I. Everyone brought back records when on leave, in England or Paris, for example, and records were also ordered by post.

“Strange homes that old Decca has had, up and down the villages of France, in ruined houses, in huts, in tents, in transport lines.”

After the war was over:

“It was put up for a raffle in the village, and no less a sum than five pounds was raised for the Benevolent Fund of the battalion’s Old Comrades’ Association, while the man who won it for one shilling is not grumbling at his bargain. Long may it flourish in its new home!”

Wagner pieces or extracts mentioned in this issue with some relevance to Icelandic sagas (though none of the recordings mentioned is on Spotify), cited again here for their evocative titles (Wotan = Óðinn / Odin):

SIEGFRIED

“Forest Murmurs”

“Forging Songs” / “Siegfried Forges the Broken Sword”

“Mime’s Treachery to Siegfried”

“Siegfried Follows the Forest Bird”

“Brünnhilde Hails the Radiant Sun”

“Brünnhilde Recalls Her Valkyrie Days”

“Introduction: Wotan Invokes Erda”

“Siegfried’s Ascent to the Valkyrie Rock”

“Brünnhilde Yields to Siegfried”

Plus the related composition, not part of the opera:

SIEGFRIED IDYLL

 

GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG (TWILIGHT OF THE GODS)

“The Parting of Brünnhilde and Siegfried”

“Hagen Meditates Revenge”

“Gunther and Gutrune Welcome Siegfried”

“Prelude: The Rhinemaidens Scene”

“Brünnhilde Kindles the Funeral Pyre”


Spotify playlist for this entry, “Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 3 — August 1923”:

This issue is available as part of the magazine’s digital archive, which every subscriber (a month or a year, digital or print+digital) gets access to.

Earlier entries in this series:

Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 2 — June 1923

Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 1 — April 1923

Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 2 — June 1923

IMG_5550
Amelita Galli-Curci, one of the most popular sopranos of her day. “Gramophone Celebrities — I. Galli-Curci”, THE GRAMOPHONE No. 2, Jun. 1923.

SEPTEMBER 12th 2018 — It would be a challenge to find something in today’s issues of THE GRAMOPHONE to make one choke upon one’s breakfast cereal, but these classic issues suffer from no such handicap. Among the morsels from the second issue:

“[…] it is no use asking canaries to sing music written for elephants.” (“Z.” discussing Wagner operas)

Musically, the following recordings mentioned and available on Spotify stand out:

  • Bach: AIR FOR G STRING played by cellist Pablo Casals. Specifically a recording made by the pre-electric acoustic process between 1916 and 1920. Casals later re-recorded this electrically.
  • Sebastián Iradier: “LA PALOMA” (“THE DOVE”) (1850s), sung by Spanish-American baritone Emilio de Gogorza. This rendition of this popular song will be mentioned numerous times in issues to come, but with this as well as most other pieces, I will note only the first mention I come across.
  • Albert Ketèlbey: “BLOW, BLOW, THOU WINTER WIND” (based on Shakespeare) sung by Norman Allin. This is not among my favorite works from this composer, but I wanted to mention it because Ketèlbey is a composer who intrigues me. His music is cinematic, like soundtrack music of several decades later. I will note his other, more alluring works in installments to come.
  • Two spirituals sung by Roland Hayes: “STEAL AWAY” (arranged by Lawrence Brown) and “GO DOWN, MOSES” (arr. Harry Burleigh). I find that some of these early recordings of spirituals still communicate powerfully and directly across all these years. Compared to that directness of emotion and composition, most “white” music from this era seems feeble and insincere. One doesn’t need to be devotedly religious to appreciate these qualities. This music inspired and its power flowed into the works of Bob Dylan and many other later composers and musicians.

A Swiss musician called Edmond Roethlisberger is quoted on Bach’s harpsichord music:

“Would you know Bach at his most intimate, his most original, it is in his harpsichord compositions that he is to be found… He wrote for it from his earliest youth until his death and confided to it many of those almost supernatural inspirations which hypnotize us as if messages from a Beyond to which he alone could penetrate.” (pp. 36–37)

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Portrait of the author from the article “The Harpsichord and Gramophone”.

The author of the article in which this quote appears, harpsichordist Violet Gordon-Woodhouse makes an interesting observation:

“It must […] be remembered that in Bach’s and Mozart’s time the harpsichord always figured in the orchestra. Conductors used it much more than the baton. Its quality of tone enabled it to accompany without smothering the principal instruments and blend with the strings as no piano can.”

In another article another writer muses on the proper times and situations for a Brit to listen to the gramophone:

“Again, to show how ridiculous our inhibitions are, let me ask what you would say if, on visiting a lady or gentleman, you found her or him solitary, listening to the music of his own gramophone. You would think it odd, would you not? You would endeavor to dissemble your surprise; you would look twice to see whether some other person were not hidden in some corner of the room, and if you found no such one, would painfully blush, as if you had discovered your friend sniffing cocaine, emptying a bottle of whisky, or plaiting straws in his hair.” (Orlo Williams, “Times and Seasons”, p. 38)

An anonymous writer starts an article on “New Dance Records” thus:

“It was, I believe, a late Shah of Persia, who, when taken to the opera in order that he might be impressed by Western music, expressed preference for the ‘tuning up’ of the orchestra, and desired that it might be repeated.” (p. 40)

The article also tells us that the popular music of the day (1923) was already occasionally quoting classical music.


Spotify playlist for this entry, “Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 2 — June 1923”:

This issue is available as part of the magazine’s digital archive, which every subscriber (a month or a year, digital or print+digital) gets access to.

Earlier entry in this series:

Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 1 — April 1923

Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 1 — April 1923

 

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1st page of the 1st issue of THE GRAMOPHONE (now over a thousand issues young), Apr. 1923. From the digital archive.

SEPTEMBER 9th 2018 — This entry inaugurates a tradition I plan to follow in the future:

The following of a number of threads like this, with the intention to see where they lead and what light they throw upon my special interests in life. This is far from the only “Let’s” series I have in mind.

THE GRAMOPHONE magazine was founded in Great Britain in 1923 by Compton Mackenzie, novelist, critic, actor, and gardener, along with London editor Christopher Stone. For many decades it covered all music released on record, unlike today, when it is solely dedicated to classical music.

This earlier orientation means it is quite a comprehensive bible to music of all genres released in those several decades. Combined with Spotify, it makes for a wonderful resource and guide into the music of times past.

Let’s see where the first issue takes us. You can find all these back issues as part of the digital archive available at least on iOS and other platforms as well. As a dedicated Apple user these days, I do most things in iOS.

A word of caution, however: I will be commenting only upon pieces of music that interest me at the particular time that I write my entries. There is a lot of more than worthy music that I will pass by. I just want to comment on some.

* * *

The time is April 1923.

One thing that these classic issues have to offer is a use of English now largely lost. While there are attitudes that will justly strike a modern reader as awful and harsh, there are also graces and subtleties that no modern publication can offer. The use of language is often rich and luxurious.

Of all the recordings mentioned in this issue, it would be hard not to place at the top the one by violinists Kreisler and Zimbalist of Bach’s CONCERTO FOR TWO VIOLINS. This can be found on Spotify in three parts: I. VIVACE. II. LARGO. III. ALLEGRO. This is music with a guilelessness perhaps almost wholly unfamiliar to most modern musicmakers.

Chopin’s NOCTURNE NO. 19 IN E MINOR, Op. 72 No. 1, played by pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch, is referenced. This wonderful piece is also available on Spotify.

Let’s learn some music theory:

E minor means that the piece is in the key of E minor. That means it follows the modern minor scale, which works like this (every half step is a step towards the next key on the piano keyboard, whether a black or white key, and every whole step is two steps on the piano keyboard, whether black or white keys):

Starting from the root note, in this case E, it follows this pattern ascending up the scale:

E, whole step (F#), half step (G), whole step (A), whole step (B), half step (C), whole step (D), whole step (E), arriving at another E.

Every minor scale in modern music follows this same pattern of whole and half steps.

So the only difference between modern minor scales is which root note they start from. The relationship between the notes of the scale is exactly the same in all minor scales. The same is true of all major scales, but I will come to that later.

In this way you can construct any modern minor scale in any key. You simply pick the root note (any white or black key on the piano or other similar keyboard) and follow this pattern of steps:

root W H W W H W W

You can also start on any of the black keys, and sharps and flats are added to the basic note names as needed.

A sharp is simply the next note above, whether a black or white key, from the default form of the note, and a flat is simply the next note below, again whether a black or white key.

Thus C# or C sharp is the black key between C and D, and Cb or C flat is the white note below C — in other words, B. Pairs like Cb and B, which actually refer to the selfsame note, are called enharmonic notes.

But enough theory for now. To conclude, the Chopin NOCTURNE IN E MINOR is called that because it takes E as its root and fundamental note and is in the minor key, so it uses primarily the seven notes of the E minor scale (or eight if you count the E above also).

Few of the early Wagner records mentioned in these early issues are on Spotify. Perhaps needless to say, Wagner dipped for his RING cycle into the well of myths first or only written down in Iceland — the Eddic sagas.

But though these are not on Spotify, I want to cite here the titles — evocative on their own — given for some Wagner recordings in this issue. In the following, Wotan = Óðinn / Odin.

 

DAS RHEINGOLD (THE RHINEGOLD)

“Alberich steals the gold: The dawn over Valhalla”

“The descent to Nibelheim: Capture of Alberich”

“The entry of the gods into Valhalla”

 

DIE WALKÜRE (THE VALKYRIE)

“Prelude: Siegmund seeks shelter from the storm (Act I)”

“Siegmund sees the sword hilt in the tree”

“Siegmund greets the spring night”

“Siegmund draws out his sword”

“Introduction: Brünnhilde’s battle cry”

“Wotan warns Brünnhilde not to disobey”

“Brünnhilde foretells Siegmund’s death”

“Introduction: Ride of the Valkyries”

“Brünnhilde gives Sieglinde the broken sword”

“Brünnhilde implores the protection of fire”

“Wotan bids farewell to Brünnhilde”

“Wotan kisses Brünnhilde into a deep slumber”

“The rock is surrounded by fire: Finale of opera”

Still on the subject of Iceland:

  • “A Review of the First Quarter of 1923” by the Editor mentions “THE SONG OF THE VIKING GUEST” sung by Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin (p. 16). This early cylinder recording is available on Spotify. The song is from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera SADKO (premiered in Moscow in 1898).
  • The Zonophone ad in this issue (p. VI) lists singer Foster Richardson, with orchestra, performing Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “THE VIKING SONG”. This, however, is not on Spotify.

Also mentioned in this Zonophone ad, as well as in the Editor’s review of the first quarter (p. 16), is the lovely Elizabethan song, “DRINK TO ME ONLY WITH THINE EYES”, recorded for example by Johnny Cash in much later days.


Spotify playlist for this entry, “Let’s read THE GRAMOPHONE in Iceland: No. 1 — April 1923”:

This issue is available as part of the magazine’s digital archive, which every subscriber (a month or a year, digital or print+digital) gets access to.