A musical commemoration of World War I

It’s the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I this year, and I’ve seen some touching tributes. This is the first I’ve heard of a musical one, though. The London Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic have recorded a couple of pieces together under Simon Rattle, to commemorate the dead. Mark Brown, in The Guardian:

The commemoration at the St Symphorien military cemetery is one of three big events taking place on 4 August – the centenary of the declaration of war – and the only one with cultural content.

Rattle chose two works for the LSO and Berlin Phil to record: the last movement of Brahms’s German Requiem and George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad. The latter is laden with symbolism as Butterworth himself died in the trenches.

It’s a beautiful idea, and the pieces are well-chosen. I hadn’t heard of Butterworth before reading this piece, but using a piece by a composer who died in the war is as moving and true a tribute as I can think of. I took a short trip around some of the war sites in Belgium earlier this year, and what stayed with me most of all is what a pointless waste of life it all was.


Later in the piece, Brown mentions some problems that the orchestras had to overcome in playing together. Quoting Nicholas Kenyon, the creative consultant on the project: “There were interesting little problems, like they don’t play at exactly the same pitch.”

I knew that orchestras on the west and east of the Pacific used to play at slightly different pitches, but I’d thought that as recording spread, those changes were pretty much wiped out. There’s a video on YouTube where you can hear, in chronological order, the first two chords of every major recording of Beethoven’s third symphony. At first, it’s jarring, even unpleasant, with sometimes major differences in pitching. As you come into the sixties and seventies, though, it starts to feel more like a warped record, with generally just slight variations. You get to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and the only outliers are those played on traditional instruments, pitched noticeably lower than modern ones.

I suppose that at the level of these orchestras, the differences in fine tuning only become apparent when they play together.

Alive Inside

Dawn Chmielewski, at Re/code, on the new documentary Alive Inside

Audiences first encounter Henry hunched over in his wheelchair, head down, hands clasped firmly together, unresponsive to the world around him.

As soon as a pair of headphones are placed on his head, the 94-year-old dementia patient opens his eyes, sits up straight and begins swaying and humming along with the music. Henry speaks animatedly about his favorite band leader, Cab Calloway, and even begins to emulate the jazz artist’s style of scat singing — at one point launching into a rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

I first encountered Henry’s story two years ago, through a promotional video for the film. That music can reach people who have even lost the ability to recognize their loved ones is incredibly moving, and the transformation in Henry’s case is astonishing.

I hope the film gets cinematic release on this side of the ocean. It sounds like one not to be missed.

Some Type of Bloomsday

Jurek Delimeta and Liz O’Carroll entertain outside Sweny’s Chemist, Dublin. “Photographs are a pint each.”

I had a nice surprise on my way home from work last Monday afternoon: outside Sweny’s, the chemist in which Leopold Bloom buys a bar of lemon soap in Ulysses, a small crowd was gathered. It included a James Joyce lookalike, who I initially presumed to be an actor there for the festivities, but who turned out to be Joyce’s grand-nephew Jurek Delimata. He and a volunteer, Liz O’Carroll, were sitting outside of the chemist’s drinking, smoking, and entertaining the gathered group of tourists and Joyce aficionados.

I eventually worked my way into the crowded little chemist’s, to buy my own bar of lemon soap. After a little chat with the volunteers working there, I was shown a rather beautiful old trade book from 1941. It featured lots of information generally useful to chemists, but was also riddled with beautiful ads for items to sell—from children’s vitamins to hair products. The chance to hold and examine the beautiful old advertisements and typography was a rare privilege, and, flicking through the book, I found myself smiling a lot.

I noticed quite a lot of (I think) Futura—not exactly a new typeface in those days (it was invented in 1927), but presumably still futuristic-looking. And an ad for a(nother) bar of soap had a nice block of justified text exactly the size and shape of the bar in the picture.

A beautiful old ad for soap.jpg

Sweny’s is a marvellous institution. Part artefact of fiction, part relic of old Dublin, and part museum, it exists as a vestige of our literary heritage, and of our social history. It’s also in financial trouble. If you live in Dublin, consider popping in for one of their regular Joyce readings, and while you’re there, pick up a bar of lemon soap, or just make a donation. They will certainly appreciate it, and it will help keep a part of Dublin’s literary history alive.

Red Hot Bach

This is a rather neat little app from The Red Hot Organization—a free app that’ll let you listen to, and muck about with, music by Johann Sebastian. It’s a good selection, including some classic recordings (the aria from Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, the prelude from Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of the prelude from Cello Suite no. 1, to name two) along with modern interpretations.

The app is free, but connected to a full album (Red Hot + Bach), with a wealth of recordings. I can’t vouch for the album as I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet, but all the proceeds from the group go to fighting AIDS, so what’s not to like?


I found this app through The Guardian’s Top Twenty iOS apps of the week.

Brandenburg in Summer

It was about a year ago that I first discovered that the Brandenburg Concertos, surprisingly, make perfect driving music, particularly in sunshine, and best of all if you’re not in a hurry. They’re Bach at his most optimistic, his lightest, and his most exciting, and are some of the most extraordinary pieces of music in history.

Their own history is extraordinary too. They were given to the Margrave of Brandenburg, Christian Ludwig, in 1721, but after receiving them he realised (or decided) that he couldn’t afford to have them performed, so left them on a bookshelf. There they stayed until his death thirteen years later, when they were sold for a pittance—a little less than $25, in today’s money. They vanished, and were forgotten, until their discovery in the Brandenburg archives in 1849. They were published a year later, and so were first performed a hundred and thirty years after their completion.1

This means that most of the great composers of the late 18th and early 19th century—household names like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven—never had a chance to hear them. Even Felix Mendelssohn, the musician probably most responsible for the revival of interest in Bach’s music, died two years before they were rediscovered. Imagine how much he would have loved to conduct the first performance of the great lost works.

If you’ve never had a chance to listen to the Brandenburg Concertos, or if it’s been a while, then take some time out of your Sunday to hear them now. They’re true summer music, as bright and as light-of-touch as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but far more creative. Each one is fairly short: six concertos in all, consisting of six different combinations of instruments, each one showing off its instruments’ strengths.

And they can all be had for free, in a superb performance by the Czech Republic’s Musica Florea, here.


1 Actually, probably a bit longer. It’s very likely that they were completed before 1721 and just collected for the Margrave.

Behind the Roar: Finding Godzilla’s Iconic Voice

I loved discovering how the original Godzilla roar was made, in this article by Dawn Chmielewski on Re/code:

“It’s one of the most famous sound effects in cinema history,” said Aadahl. “We really wanted to embrace that and use the original as our template, and pay homage to that.”

The original film’s composer, Akira Ifukube, used a double bass, a leather glove and some pine tar to produce Godzilla’s trademark call.

“They’d rub the glove against the double base to create that groan,” Aadahl said.

The imagination of sound artists in those days blows my mind.

Some Rachmaninoff for your Easter Sunday

Normal(ish) service will resume as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, enjoy this extraordinary performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Artur Rubinstein.

Two parts, alas, but the split is clean.

With most pianists, it’s worth watching their hands for the athletic performance, but keep your eyes on Rubinstein’s face here: no matter how virtuosic it gets, he looks like he’s taking it all at his leisure.