Monthly Archives: June 2018

Clavichord On Music

‘From his very childhood HANDEL had discovered such a strong propensity to Music, that his father, who always intended him for the study of the Civil Law, had reason to be alarmed. Perceiving that this inclination still increased, he took every method to oppose it. He strictly forbad him to meddle with any musical instrument; nothing of that kind was suffered to remain in the house, nor was he ever permitted to go to any other, where such kind of furniture was in use. All this caution and art, instead of restraining, did but augment his passion. He had found means to get a little clavichord privately convey’d to a room at the top of the house. To this room he constantly stole when the family was asleep. He had made some progress before Music had been prohibited, and by his assiduous practice at hours of rest, had made such farther advances, as, tho’ not attended to at that time, were no slight prognostications of his future greatness.’’

John Mainwaring, Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel, 1760

Anybody whose neighbours complain about their keyboard practice could, like Handel, turn to the clavichord. Its seemingly soft tones have enchanted musicians from about the fifteenth century, and contemporary composers including Herbert Howells, Stephen Dodgson and Peter Maxwell Davies have written pieces specifically for this Cinderella of the keyboard.

The clavichord’s mechanism is disarmingly simple: each key lever has a brass blade (tangent) at its end that pushes up against pairs of strings when the key is pressed down. This direct connection with the strings allows the player not only to make dynamic contrasts but also to sustain and control the sound. Apart from the accordion, the clavichord is unique amongst keyboard instruments in allowing the player some vibrato. Eighteenth-century composers such as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, for whom the clavichord was an ideal vehicle for the ‘empfindsamer Stil’ (‘’expressive style’’), even notated vibrato in their keyboard music.

Clavichords may be fretted or unfretted. In fretted instruments, one pair of strings serves more than one note, at least for part of the compass; in unfretted ones each note has its own pair of strings. Until the early eighteenth-century clavichords were usually fretted, while later ones were frequently unfretted. Compasses range from around four octaves in the early fifteenth century to five octaves or more in the eighteenth.

Comparing the rectangular clavichord to the harpsichord is akin to the story of the tortoise and the hare. While the harpsichord has always been the more public, dazzling instrument, it petered out towards the end of the eighteenth century in favour of the fortepiano, while the clavichord, being primarily a quiet personal instrument, continued to be used into the nineteenth century – especially in Scandinavia (Carl Nielsen may even have used one when composing). The clavichord was the first type of keyboard instrument that Arnold Dolmetsch revived in 1894, and its intimate charms have inspired performers ranging from Gustav Leonhardt to Oscar Peterson.

Though do not be fooled. For the clavichord is an unforgiving mistress that requires a firm yet delicate touch. It is these apparently opposing demands that draw me inexorably to this lady. Furthermore, Johann Sebastian Bach himself is reputed to have said that the clavichord was his favourite type of keyboard instrument, and his small-scaled French Suites seem particularly well-suited to it. What better reasons to record these works on the clavichord?

How the inner ear works

“This helps us understand the mechanisms that enable us to perceive speech and music. We hope that more knowledge about the capabilities of the ear will lead to better treatments for the hearing impaired,” says Anders Fridberger, professor of neuroscience at Linköping University.

To perceive speech and music, you must be able to hear low-frequency sound. And to do this, the brain needs information from the receptors, which are located close to the top of the cochlea, the spiral cavity in the inner ear. This part of the inner ear is difficult to study, as it is embedded in thick bone that is hard to make holes in, without causing damage. Now the international research team has been able to measure, in an intact inner ear, how the hearing organ reacts to sound. The results have been published in PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To measure in the hearing organ, the researchers used optical coherence tomography, a visualization technology for biological matter that is often used to examine the eye.

“We have been able to measure the inner ear response to sound without having to open the surrounding bone structures and we found that the hearing organ responds in a completely different way to sounds in the voice-frequency range. It goes against what was previously thought of how the inner ear works.

All About the Orchestra Challenge

In the first episode of The Great Orchestra Challenge, we meet each of the five competing orchestras as they take on conductor Paul Daniel’s first musical task: the symphony. Daniel has chosen five very different works for each of the orchestras to tackle, by five very different composers. And, to introduce each orchestra to their piece, Daniel goes on a tour around the country to see them all, accompanied by presenter Katie Derham and mentor Chi-Chi Nwanoku.

The Stirling Orchestra are first up, with the finale from Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, ‘From the New World’. Daniel conducts the first ten minutes of rehearsal, pelting off at top speed with the orchestra looking slightly bewildered at the pace. ‘You know you’re good, but you don’t do what’s in the parts’, admonishes Daniel genially. ‘You’re not letting the sound come from the bottom, which is where all good sound comes from.’

Meanwhile, around the country, the other orchestras are receiving their symphonies. The London Gay Symphony Orchestra (LGSO) is given Tchaikovsky No. 6, the North Devon Sinfonia gets Beethoven’s Fifth, the Slaithwaite Philharmonic receives Rachmaninov No. 2 and The People’s Orchestra is allocated Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.

After Daniel spends time with each of the orchestras, mentor Chi-Chi Nwanoku ‘enters the fray’ for more specialised masterclasses. The most entertaining of these is with The People’s Orchestra in a Birmingham pub, pint of ale in hand.

We get a sense of how important the ensembles are to individuals within the orchestras. Gardener Paula Goodwin was helped to come out as transgender while a member of the LGSO (‘Nobody cares, as long as I don’t play loud, wrong notes!’), and Annie Hill uses her percussion playing as a way of escaping the stress of caring for her husband, who has multiple sclerosis.

All of the orchestras are given quite different advice, from The People’s Orchestra (accuracy and balance) to the Slaithwaite Orchestra (energy and excitement). The North Devon Sinfonia’s conductor Emma Kent has a one-on-one masterclass with Nwanoku, to get her to engage more with the orchestra rather than hiding behind her music.

Before we know it, finals week arrives. All five orchestras descend on the BBC’s Maida Vale studios in London, the home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. They’ll give one final performance before judge Paul Daniel decides who will be leaving the competition at this stage.

‘The most important thing is to enjoy it…’ is amateur conductor Stephen Broad’s pep talk to the Stirling Orchestra, ‘and the second most important thing is not to give up, whatever happens’. All of the players seem quite nervous ahead of their performances, but manage to give good performances nonetheless. North Devon’s conductor Emma Kent has decided to conduct without her score, so there is no chance of hiding behind it.

Finally, decision time. Paul Daniel gives positive and negative feedback to all five orchestras, each represented by their conductor and a member of the orchestra.

But who is leaving the competition?

It’s the Slaithwaite Philharmonic. Despite being technically the most proficient of all the orchestras, Daniel says that they weren’t able to communicate their passion in their performance.

Do you agree with his decision? Comment below, or join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #GreatOrchestraChallenge.

 

High resolution audio

The study compared data from over 12,000 different trials from 18 studies where participants were asked to discriminate between samples of music in different formats.

Dr Joshua Reiss from QMUL’s Centre for Digital Music in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science said: “Audio purists and industry should welcome these findings — our study finds high resolution audio has a small but important advantage in its quality of reproduction over standard audio content.”

Many in the music industry have been split as to whether people can really hear a difference between CD quality music and high resolution audio — even celebrity musicians have entered the fray with new music streaming services: Tidal launched by Jay-Z and Pono players and music service spearheaded by Neil Young and crowd funded through a Kickstarter campaign.

Both streaming services launched in the last two years have been met with scepticism. However, this new study found that listeners can tell the difference between low and high resolution audio formats, and the effect is dramatically increased with training: trained test subjects could distinguish between the formats around sixty per cent of the time.

Writing in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, the research suggested that careful selection of stimuli, such as using long samples of more than 30 seconds, may play an important role in the ability to discriminate between the formats.

Dr Reiss explained: “One motivation for this research was that people in the audio community endlessly discuss whether the use of high resolution formats and equipment really make a difference. Conventional wisdom states that CD quality should be sufficient to capture everything we hear, yet anecdotes abound where individuals claim that hi-res content sounds crisper, or more intense. And people often cherry-pick their favourite study to support whichever side they’re on.

“Our study is the first attempt to have a thorough and impartial look at whether high res audio can be heard. We gathered 80 publications, and analysed all available data, even asking authors of earlier studies for their original reports from old filing cabinets. We subjected the data to many forms of analysis. The effect was clear, and there were some indicators as to what conditions demonstrate it most effectively. Hopefully, we can now move forward towards identifying how and why we perceive these differences.”

The samples analysed were mainly classical and jazz music, though it’s not clear for which type of music high resolution recording and playback made the biggest difference.

Classical works about Scotland

This famous concert overture is most commonly known as Fingal’s Cave – the source of its inspiration. After a visit to the island of Staffa in 1829 Mendelssohn was so taken by the echoing waves in the cave’s natural acoustic that he immediately wrote the opening few bars. Sending the music to his sister Fanny Mendelssohn, he wrote “’In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.’ The piece’s enduring appeal has encouraged people from all around the globe to visit this natural wonder.

A Scottish Fantasy by Max Bruch

Despite having never visited Scotland before its composition, the German composer took elements of traditional folk tunes such as Hey Tuttie Tatie, The Dusty Miller and Auld Rob Morris to create this four-movement composition for violin and orchestra. Bruch had a special place in his heart for the music of Scotland, saying that the folk tunes ‘pulled me into their magical circle’. The prominent role of the harp as an accompaniment to the violin is also a nod to Scotland’s earliest music. Highly popular at the time of its premiere, this piece remains one of Bruch’s most famous works.

Scottish Rhapsody by Ronald Binge

‘The mist enshrouded lochs, the calm of the glens, the skirl of the pipes and the swirl of the kilt as the highland fling dances on its with merry way.’ This is the image conjured up for composer Ernest Tomlinson by Binge’s mighty orchestral work. As well as using tunes such as Kelvin Groveand Fairy Dance Reel, the English composer simply wrote in his own melodies where he saw fit, successfully managing to emulate the traditional style.

Four Scottish Dances by Malcolm Arnold

Written in 1957 for the BBC Light Music Festival, these four colourful dances heavily use key features of traditional Scottish music, such as scotch snaps and reels. The composer also used different timbres to imitate the drone of the Highland bagpipes. Though most of the vibrant melodies are original, Arnold did use one written by Robert Burns himself.

You know that Music demonstrated to alleviate cancer

A systematic review published by the Cochrane Library found that there is significant evidence that music interventions help alleviate symptoms of anxiety, pain and fatigue in cancer patients, while also boosting their quality of life.

Led by Joke Bradt, PhD, associate professor in Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, a team looked into studies that examined the impact of music therapy (a personalized music experience offered by trained music therapists) and music medicine (listening to pre-recorded music provided by a doctor or nurse) on psychological and physical outcomes in people with cancer.

“We found that music therapy interventions specifically help improve patients’ quality of life,” explained Bradt. “These are important findings as these outcomes play an important role in patients’ overall well-being.”

A total of 52 trials were examined in the review, constituting of 3,731 participants with cancer. Twenty-three of the trials were categorized as music therapy and the remaining 29 were classified as music medicine interventions.

Overall, one of the most impactful findings was that music interventions of all kinds resulted in a moderate-to-strong effect in reducing patients’ anxiety.

When it came to pain reduction, the researchers found a large treatment benefit; for fatigue, a small-to-moderate treatment effect was found.

Small reductions in heart and respiratory rates, as well as lowered blood pressure, were also linked to music interventions.

“The results of single studies suggest that music listening may reduce the need for anesthetics and analgesics, as well as decreased recovery time and duration of hospitalization, but more research is needed for these outcomes,” according to Bradt and her co-authors.

When comparing music therapy to music medicine, the team saw a moderate increase in patients’ quality of life when music therapy was applied. There was not a similar effect in the case of music medicine interventions.

“Both music medicine and music therapy interventions play an important role in cancer care but we didn’t quite know yet which interventions may be best suited for which type of outcome,” Bradt said.

In light of the benefits to cancer patients’ quality of life, and specifically their levels of anxiety, pain and fatigue, the researchers hope music interventions will become more widespread.

“We hope that the findings of this review will encourage health care providers in medical settings to seriously consider the use of music therapy in the psychosocial care of people with cancer,” Bradt said.

Trill on music that you should know about it

Now this one’s simple, isn’t it? A trill is one of those extended wobbles on a long note you tend to hear at the end of a show-off solo in a concerto or coloratura aria. In the Baroque or Classical eras it’s virtually a fixture. Yes, the wobble must be on two notes – neighbouring notes to be precise (either a major or a minor second) – but surely that’s it.

Alas, no. Go back to the very early Baroque period (at this point regular readers of this column may be experiencing a slight anticipatory contraction of the stomach muscles), to the vocal works of Monteverdi and his contemporaries, and there you will find the word ‘trillo’ identified with something significantly different. There it’s not so much a wobble as a shake, and on just one repeated note. The kind of trill described above is usually smooth, legato, but this one is jerkier, more like a vocal spasm.

The gorgeous ‘Duo Seraphim’ from Monteverdi’s Vespers contains plenty of these, as when the word ‘Sanctus’ becomes ‘Sa-ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-han-ctus’. When historically minded performers first revived this kind of trill, critics and listeners found it rather funny; now we’re used to it, it can be strangely touching or, even more strangely, erotic. Nowadays we’d be inclined to call this a ‘tremolo’. Monteverdi would also have used the word ‘tremolo’, but what he meant by it would be what we would call a trill. At some stage during the 17th century, the two terms seem to have swapped over. 

The sign for a trill is an italic tr followed by a wavy horizontal line, which for once looks very like what it represents, and perhaps for that reason it has remained standard since the early-18th century. What it doesn’t tell you, however, is how to begin or end the trill. All sorts of exit strategies are possible. You can anticipate the final note by a fraction of a beat, or just drop onto it. You can preface the fall to the final note with an elegant downward twist or a breath-catching minute pause. As for the beginning, unless indicated otherwise, the modern trill starts on the lower note; the high Baroque trill, however, began on the upper note. The change seems to have happened around 1830. Not for the first time, I wonder if this was just a change in fashion, or whether there’s some deeper sociological significance. A possible subject for a thesis?