The lighter side of English music

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Light music is a generic term for a British musical style of “light” orchestral music, which originated in the 19th century. It reached its peak in the mid 20th century but continues until the present day.

The style is a less serious form of Western classical music, usually comprised of shorter orchestral pieces and suites designed to appeal to a wider audience than more serious compositions. The form emphasises melody and tonal harmonies.

Occasionally known as mood music or concert music, light music is often grouped with the easy listening genre, although this designation is misleading. Although mainly a British phenomenon, light music was also popular in the United States. Composers such as Leroy Anderson and George Gershwin could be considered American progenitors of light music.

We’ll hear light music from Great Britain on the next English Pastorale, Sunday at 9 am.

Americans on Summer Listening

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While we take a quick break from Summer Listening today, and celebrate our Independence Day, it’s a good time to remember some of the great classical music created on our own continent. Some say “Jazz is America’s classical music,” and while jazz is certainly one of America’s native art forms, we have our own classical music tradition that goes as far back as the revolution.

William Billings (1746-1800) was trained as a tanner, but is known as one of the earliest American composers. He wrote hymns and “fuging tunes,” like this one. Centuries later, William Schuman (1910-1992) adapted three of Billings’ hymns for his New England Triptych for orchestra.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is well-known for his Adagio for Strings, but during Summer Listening we’re listening to his Violin Concerto, composed in 1939. Barber is one of the few composers who has won the Pulitzer twice. His violin concerto begins with a lush, lyrical movement, but ends with a blistering, Olympic race for the violin and orchestra. Here is a performance with Anne Akiko Meyers.

Arnold Eagle. Appalachian Spring (1945)

If you hear any classical music that sounds “American,” there’s a good chance it was written or inspired by Aaron Copland (1900-1990). It’s hard to describe the exact qualities that make it so, but when you hear it you know it.Appalachian Spring was written for Martha Graham (and was actually called “Ballet for Martha” before she gave it its actual title). Copland was always amused that people would tell him they “heard spring and the Appalachian mountains” in his music, since he wasn’t thinking of that when writing it. Like Schuman’s New England Triptych, Copland uses an old folk song, Simple Gifts, within this music. It provides the basis for a set of variations about halfway through. Earlier this year, the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra performed Appalachian Spring with choreography, in one of the most unique performances to date.

And here’s a fun video of Aaron Copland’s Hoe-down from Rodeo!

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Composer Arnold Bax wrote his Violin Concerto in 1937-38 for Jascha Heifetz. Heifetz, reportedly, was disappointed in the work. Bax himself didn’t acknowledge the opus until he was asked to provide a new work in 1943 for violinist Eda Kersey. The work was reintroduced by the soloist with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Henry Wood.

Bax was initially reluctant to compose music for film, but was persuaded to for the David Lean 1948 adaptation of Oliver Twist. Bax was not partial to Dickens’ novel and felt he couldn’t provide music appropriate to the subject. It was written quickly over the course of 10 weeks.

Three pieces for Small Orchestra date from 1912-13 when they first appeared as a set of four. Bax eventually abandoned the fourth and re-titled the others. The works are titled Evengling Piece, Irish Landscape and Dance in the Sunlight.

We’ll hear these works on English Pastorale, Sunday at 9 am.

Children’s Tales

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On the next English Pastorale, we’ll hear music inspired by tales for children.

Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote only one work intended for the ballet stage. Old King Cole was written for the English Folk Dance Society’s Cambridge branch, which premiered the work on June 5, 1923, at Trinity College. It was written for orchestra with an optional wordless chorus.

John Lanchbery used Victorian themes as the basis for his score for Royal Ballet’s film Tales of Beatrix Potter. The film was devised as a story presented in entirely visual terms with no words. Five stories from Potter were chosen for the production.

Frederick Delius set his musical sights on the folk-tales from the Norwegians Peter Christen Asbjornsen and Jorgen Engebretsen Moe. The music doesn’t follow the stories as a symphonic poem would, but describes the feel and mood of the whole collection of stories through music.

Here’s an excerpt from Lanchbery’s Tales of Beatrix Potter.

Local artist feature – Rachel Grimes

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While Lunchtime Classics takes its summer break, we’re looking back at some of the program’s featured artists.

Rachel Grimes is a pianist, composer, and arranger based in Kentucky. She has achieved a certain amount of fame in the ground-breaking chamber ensemble Rachel’s, with whom she toured and released six albums. Rachel’s solo releases include Book of Leaves, Marion County 1938, and Compound Leaves.

Grimes’s music defies a tidy description. Her music crosses many genres, from classical to jazz to ambient to Americana. BBC reviewer Spencer Grady said of her solo debut album that…

“Her most wondrous gift was always her ability to paint the most evocative pictures in purest ivory and her lightness of touch allows majestic statements such as the Corner Room and Long Before Us to ring out, echoing with sensuousness and sentiment before drawing the listener back in.”

Grimes is one of the artists included in the June 2014 issue of the Smithsonian Magazine, highlighting artistic interpretations of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”