The Nearly Lost Brandenburg Concertos

The Brandenburg Concerti by Johann Sebastian Bach were originally titled “Six Concerts à plusieurs instruments” and composed as a set of six works for concerto grosso. Presented by the composer to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721, they are lauded as some of the finest examples of Baroque music, and have a fascinating history.

Margrave Christian Ludwig

Wanting to make a good impression on the Margrave Ludwig, and foregoing the use of a copyist, Bach hand-wrote the music himself. Speculations abound whether or not Bach actually composed the concerti prior to 1721, and its certainly possible that the great composer had bits and pieces worked out before he set his mind to the task of creating these colossal works. Direct comparison between the Brandenburg concerti and works composed while Bach served as the Kapellmeister at Köthen reveal an eerie similarity.

Bach wrote a French dedication for the concerti to Margrave Ludwig, dated the 24th of March, 1721, and which read as follows:  

“As I had the good fortune a few years ago to be heard by Your Royal Highness, at Your Highness’s commands, and as I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking Leave of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honour me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my Composition: I have in accordance with Your Highness’s most gracious orders taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which I have adapted to several instruments; begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him.”

It would seem that Bach had a way with words as well as with music. For the time in which they were composed, the Brandenburg Concerti presented avant-garde combinations of instruments, a decision on Bach’s part which created new harmonic textures and ensured that this set of compositions would remain relevant long after the Baroque period waned. As your Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra will be rendering the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th concerti, respectively, let’s take a look at what makes each so special…   

Concerto No. 2 in F major, although written without a firm indication of tempo, is usually performed at Allegro. Beginning with the spirited Andante in D minor, the orchestra builds to dive into the Allegro assai. The energy of this second movement is sustained into the Concertino, the jewel of the entire concerto, in which a natural trumpet in F is supported by oboe and violin. The Ripieno (a fancy name for the instruments accompanying the body of a Baroque Concertino) within the final movement of the 2nd Brandenburg Concerto are two violins, viola, cello, bass and harpsichord.

There are no two ways to slice it, the trumpet part in this third movement continues to be regarded as unparalleled in its difficulty. During Bach’s time, the trumpet was still evolving into the instrument we recognize today and possessed no valves. This primitive trumpet was referred to as a “clarino”, and music historians maintain that there was only one clarino specialist Bach felt could do justice to the solo of his third movement: Johann Ludwig Schreiber.

Having met Schreiber when the former served as court trumpeter in Köthen, Bach may well have written the part as a sort of challenge to Schreiber’s embouchure. Unfortunately, the clarino was not destined for the sort of popularity Bach had hoped for. With its instrumental technique falling into obscurity during the 18th century, it was not uncommon moving forward for the solo of movement three to be played by the valved trumpet, French Horn, and piccolo trumpet.

Bach would have included more opportunities for a musician like Schreiber to demonstrate their proficiency on the clarino in the second movement, but this instrument only had the capability to play in major keys. As a master of the concerto grosso form, Bach was not willing to sacrifice the transition from the first movement’s major key to the contrasting minor of the second for the benefit of a single instrument. Musicologists recently confirmed that the melodies found in Concerto No. 2 were inspired by a previous composition of Bach’s now lost to time. The piece, originally composed for chamber music quintet, was called “Concerto da camera in Fa Maggiore” (Chamber Concerto in F major).

The next concerto in the set of six, Concerto No. 3 in G major, is usually performed at Allegro moderato during the first movement, contrasted by the slow majesty into the second movement (Adagio in E minor). The rich harmonic textures of this second movement gives way to a stunning and vivacious Allegro to round out the concerto. Both Allegro movements utilize the ritornello form, a type of musical architecture which retained significant popularity throughout the Baroque period. Concerto No. 3 is string-dominant, featuring three violins, three violas, and three cellos. A harpsichord is present is also featured to provide a supportive bassline. A special feature of this concerto, the Phrygian half cadence in the second movement provides the orchestra with an opportunity to insert movements from other Bach works or simply improvised cadenzas by the violinists or cellists. The shortest of the six concerti, No.3 is the perfect musical appetizer before the main course is served: Concerto No. 5.

Concerto No.5 in D major features an Affetuoso in B minor framed by two enervating Allegro movements (the first of which contains an opportunity for a dazzling harpsichord cadenza). As the largest and most complex of the concerti, this is truly the piece de resistance of the entire set. Bach outdoes himself with a delightful Concertino in which violin and flute create brilliant dynamic contrasts supported by the harpsichord. The ripieno of violin, viola, cello, and bass paint a captivating portrait of passion and joy throughout.

Manuscript of Brandenburg Concerto 5

Rumors have swirled through the centuries since Bach’s passing that the great composer wrote the beginnings of this concerto in 1719 to demonstrate his latest purchase from Berlin: a brand new harpsichord designed by Michael Mietke for use at the Köthen court. Some music historians insist that Concerto No. 5 was originally developed for a Dresden music competition, for which the French composer and organist Louis Marchand had entered. Upon hearing Concerto No. 5, Marchand recognized that Bach borrowed one of his themes in the central movement and rendered it far more effectively than he did originally. This was enough to intimidate Marchand, who reportedly fled before the competition even began. Concerto No. 5 is the first example of a concerto composed for solo keyboard, and indeed the harpsichord shines throughout its solo in the first Allegro movement.

Unfortunately, King Frederick William I of Prussia did not invest a great deal in the arts, and this impacted the number of musicians Margrave Ludwig could afford to populate his Berlin ensemble. The full score for the Brandenburg Concerti would have required musical resources that the Margrave simply did not have access to at the time. And so, the manuscripts lay forgotten in the Margrave’s library until after his death in 1734. The Brandenburg Concerti were sold for something equivalent to thirty Canadian dollars, and were only rediscovered deep in the archives of Brandenburg in 1849 by one Siegfried Wilhelm Dehn. The following year marked the first official publication for this genre-defining set of concerti. Perhaps fate deemed the Brandenburg Concerti too beautiful for the world to appreciate, as the original manuscripts were almost lost once again during World War II. Safe in the compartment of a traveling librarian who had sworn to protect the manuscript with his life, the train carrying the Brandenburg Concerti was subject to an aerial attack as it rocketed towards Prussia. The librarian managed to leap from the still-moving train and took refuge in a nearby forest, cradling Bach’s concerti under his winter cloak.   

So the Brandenburg Concerti beat all the odds, and survived to emerge into the 20th century as a shining example of the best that Bach had to offer the Baroque era. The Brandenburg Concerti were even deemed worthy of inclusion on the Voyager Golden Record, part of the two Voyager space probes and containing some of the most iconic pieces of music from human history. The Voyager Golden Record was sent into outer space in 1977, and somehow we’d like to think that Bach would appreciate his music being catapulted into the heavens in a blaze of light. You can hear your Sasaktoon Symphony Orchestra deliver numbers 2, 3, and 5 of the Brandenburg Concerti at our Bach in Brandenburg concert! 

Seeing the Light with Reena Esmail

It’s not everyday that a wind quintet has the chance to learn music featuring Hindustani ragas – its part of what makes The Light Stays the Same a high light of our La Chambre performance.

Reena Esmail is a Chicago-born pianist, vocalist, and composer whose works have been commissioned by ensembles including the Los Angeles Master Chorale,  Kronos Quartet, Imani Winds, Richmond Symphony, Town Music Seattle,  Albany Symphony, Chicago Sinfonietta,  River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, San Francisco Girls Chorus, The Elora Festival, Juilliard415, and Yale Institute of Sacred Music.

Having studied with the likes of Susan Botti, Samuel Adler, and Aaron Jay Kernis, Esmail holds degrees in composition from The Juilliard School (BM’05) and the Yale School of Music (MM’11, MMA’14, DMA’18). She studied Hindustani music in India under Srimati Lakshmi Shankar and Gaurav Mazundar after receiving a grant from Fulbright-Nehru. Her doctoral thesis (“Finding Common Ground: Uniting Practices in Hindustani and Western Art Musicians”) explores the methods and challenges of the collaborative process between Hindustani musicians and Western composers.

A 2019 United States Artist Fellow in Music, she was also a 2017-18 Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow and a recipient of the S & R Foundation’s Washington Award. Esmail is currently serving as the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s 2020-2023 Swan Family Artist in Residence, and the Seattle Symphony’s 2020-21 Composer-in-Residence. Esmail is the current Artistic Director of Shastra, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting cross-cultural music connection between music traditions of India and Western countries.

Esmail describes her journey to create this musical work of art as having been inspired by an ancient verse of poetry. “In my search for texts for my oratorio, “This Love Between Us”, which I was writing concurrently, I came across these wise words from the 13th century Sufi mystic poet, Rumi. He states so beautifully that…

Religions are many

But God is one

The lamps may be different,

But the Light is the same

…[so] even if our methods for searching for meaning and happiness look very different, the things we seek are so similar.”

In developing “The Light is the Same” for orchestra, Esmail integrated two Hindustani raags into the melodic core of the piece. In Hindustani classical music, a “raag” (also referred to as a “raga”) is a framework for musical improvisation, similar to the melodic modes of Western classical music. Endless in their variation and each with their own name, a raag (literally translated to mean “coloring”) is specifically rendered to invoke certain feelings or moods in the mind and heart of the listener.

Esmail drew on the tones of Raag Vachaspati and Raag Yaman, respectively, because “the bhav, the aesthetic of these raags are so different: Vachaspati is dark, brooding, complex and dense. Yaman is light and innocent. And yet, practically speaking, only one note is different between them. The melodies they generate and the way they move makes them feel worlds apart, and yet their notes are almost [identical]. The piece begins in Vachaspati, in desolate, spare melodic lines. Slowly, as Yaman peeks through the dense harmonies, the two raags begin to weave together into a seamless composite.”

               Uniting Eastern and Western harmonies in a scintillating piece of evocative musical expression, Reena Esmail’s “The Light is the Same” represents an important shift in the evolution of music you cannot afford to miss.  Find it as part of our La Chambre concert.

Aftab Darvishi and the Daughters of Sol

The music of Aftab Darvishi is something you have to hear. Mystical and engaging, her music transports the listener – and the players – and is one of the nightlights of our season.

Born in Tehran, Iran in 1987, Aftab Darvishi grew up playing piano, violin, and Kamancheh. Her father (the composer Mohammad-Reza Darvishi) encouraged her musical aspirations, and she graduated with a degree in Music Performance/Composition from the University of Tehran with honors.

In 2010 Aftab moved to the Netherlands, studying Carnatic Music at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam and achieving a master’s degree in Composing for Film in 2012. Following additional composition studies at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague (while simultaneously studying Carnatic Music at the Conservatory of Amsterdam with Rafael Reina), she was awarded the Tenso Young Composers Award in 2016 for her piece for acapella choir entitled “And the world stopped Lacking you…”

Aftab has created over 40 musical works for various mediums and contexts (opera, chamber music, choir, dance, film/animation scores and art installations just to name a few), and has worked with orchestral groups in demand all over the world. In addition to collaborations with the HERMESensemble, Orkest De Ereprijs, Oerknal ensemble, Riccioti ensemble, and Royal Ensemble, Aftab has also had the privilege of being commissioned by Kronos Quartet.

In 2017, the Grammy Award-winning string ensemble of international renown commissioned Darvishi’s stunning “Daughters of Sol” for inclusion in their “Fifty for the Future” project. This ambitious musical initiative seeks to amalgamate repertoire that exemplifies “the most contemporary approaches to the string quartet, designed expressly for the training of students and emerging professionals.”

Aftab Darvishi’s work has been described as possessing a keen awareness of breath. David Harrington, artistic director of Kronos Quartet, has remarked that “her music is very alive in the most natural way.” The unusual combinations of melodic voicing in her work draw from the rich variety of musical traditions and cultural heritage she has encountered along her compositional path. In this way, it can be said that her music is always evolving.

Aftab has composed for choirs such as Latvian Radio Choir, BBC singers, Chamber Choir Ireland and Helsingin Kamarikuoro. Her music has been presented in festivals including Holland Festival, Lunalia festival, Operadagen Rotterdam, New music Dublin Festival, Tehran Contemporary Music Festival and Kronos Festival.

Of her award-winning work “Daughters of Sol”, Darvishi shares that she found its core inspiration in a poem by contemporary Iranian poet Ahmad Shamloo. Created through a deep connection to the Iranian folk music of her childhood, she explains that “…this piece contains gentle transitions and detailed changes, which leads to dissolving of different shades and colors. It is a constant evolution between shadows and lights. It is a journey about conveying gentle circular movements, which I think…resembles cycles of life. We evolve and dissolve in gentle and harsh conversions. We change colors, yet we tend to go back to our roots [in spite] of our differences.”

Regularly invited as a guest lecturer at the University of Tehran, Aftab’s opera “Turan Dokht” premiered last year at the Holland Festival to great acclaim. Like so many of her works for orchestra, “Daughters of Sol” is sure to leave you spellbound.

You can hear the SSO String Wuartet perform Daughters of Sol as part of the SSO’s La Chambre.



Rediscovering Louise Farrenc

Born in the early years of the 19th Century, French composer Louise Farrenc (nee Dumont) began her musical career as a piano student of Cecile Soria (a former student of Muzio Clementi). Louise devoured the musical repertoire given to her by Ms. Soria, mastering the subtleties of pianistic expression in record time. It soon became obvious that Louise was a prodigy at the piano and needed more specific guidance if her talents were to be refined any further.

To become a professional pianist, Louise studied under Ignaz Moscheles and Johann Nepomuk Hummel. So specific was her understanding of music and its composition that, in 1819 and only fifteen years of age, she was encouraged by her parents to study composition with Anton Reicha (who taught composition at the Conservatoire). At the time, Anton’s class was only open to men.

Louise’s life changed forever when she met Aristide Farrenc (a flautist ten years her senior) at a concert given at the artists’ colony of the Sorbonne, where Louise’s family lived. The pair were happily married in 1821, and Louise put her studies on hold to perform at concerts throughout France alongside her new husband. Fortunately, the traveling life of a performer did not suit Aristide, and with the help of Louise he opened Éditions Farrenc: a publishing house in Paris which became France’s leading music publisher for almost 40 years.

Having settled their life together at last, Louise resumed her composition studies with Reicha. But she longed to perform again and soon after began an illustrious concert career that ran wholly uninterrupted until 1826, when she gave birth to her daughter Victorine. Four years later, the prospects of her musical career climbed even higher and, after more than a decade of pushing herself (and the piano) to its limit, she was appointed to the permanent position of Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatory in 1842. She would hold that position for thirty years, becoming a fantastic musical educator with many of her students graduating with Premier Prix and becoming professional musicians.

Chamber music represents the majority of Farrenc’s compositional output, as she greatly enjoyed writing works for various combinations of string and wind instruments alongside the piano (the instrument she composed exclusively for during the 1820’s and 1830’s). It was during the 1840s that the bulk of her chamber music (regarded by music historians as her finest work) was written. She was also documented as having written three complete symphonies and two overtures.

As per the times in which she lived, Farrenc was paid less for commissioned works than her male counterparts. It took decades of trying to change a broken system before Louise finally came out on top at the premiere of her nonet (at which the then-famous violinist Joseph Joachim performed). Farrenc demanded and received equal pay for her outstanding musical contributions from then onward but continued to meet with resistance from patriarchal forces within the musical “elite” of Paris.

To weather the challenges posed to the advancement of her career as a composer, Louise took up her quill to produce and edit an influential book, Le Trésor des Pianistes, about early music performance style. She was awarded the Prix Chartier of the Académie des Beaux-Arts on two separate occasions, first in 1861 and then in 1869. But even the popularity of her dazzling nonet was not enough to suppress the erasure that rivals heaped upon her legacy after she passed away in 1875. Though her music was recognized by devoted fans of classical music as simply superb, Louise Farrenc’s work fell into obscurity.

Still, Farrenc was to have the last laugh (albeit posthumously). During the late 20th century, a surge of interest in women composers led to the “rediscovery”, performance, and subsequent recording of her most enduring works. Farrenc was the subject of the long-running BBC Radio Three programme “Composer of the Week” in 2013. Musicologists have since discovered a gap in her compositional output: several contemporaries of Farrenc, serving as secondary sources, maintain that Louise was a brilliant composer of opera despite never being given a libretto. A conspiracy involving an unfair blacklisting by France’s Théâtre de l’Opéra and Théâtre de l’Opéra-Comique? Perhaps… but in the end, art that is given life by genius eventually resurfaces to take its rightful place in the sun.

The SSO Chamber Ensemble perform a selection from Farrenc’s Nonet as part of our La Chambre concert.

Time to Set Sail!

Our reimagined 90th season has taken us on some wonderful adventures – tangos in Argentina, love songs in Italy, strolling the street of Paris, even beer at Oktoberfest!

But now we’re hitting the high seas and taking a nautical journey in the golden days of transatlantic cruising aboard the RMS Queen Mary.

The concept came from conductor Judith Yan – and from the initial idea of setting sail from Southampton and landing in New York, the concept of a concert on the open ocean became a runaway idea.

Each piece takes you on a beautiful adventure!

Click for Transatlantic Cruise Journey – Click on Sound!



Discovering Ruth Gipps

Music was a more than just a passion for English composer Ruth Gipps: it was a way of being. Born in 1921 to a highly musical family (her mother was the principal at the Bexhill School of Music), she was herself considered an oboe and piano child prodigy. She began composing at age eight, and this first composition of Ruth’s was accomplished enough in its structure and style to be purchased by an audience member who worked for a local publishing house and had heard its debut performance. Despite the piece only garnering a guinea and a half to its composer, Gipps was hooked on giving form to the vibrant music which came to her in waking and in dream.

Ruth’s victory at a concerto competition, accompanied by the Hastings Municipal Orchestra, launched a career filled with highlights (both musical and academic in nature). Enrolling at the Royal College of Music at sixteen years of age, Ruth was privileged enough to study piano with Arthur Alexander and oboe with Leon Goossens. Her composition instructor, for a time, was Ralph Vaughan Williams, and had a tremendous influence on the pastoral elements of her music (in particular her early compositions).

After several successful debut performances of her own works at the Royal College, Ruth was encouraged by Williams to continue her studies abroad. She decided on Durham University, and met her future husband (the clarinettist Robert Baker) shortly before becoming the youngest British woman to ever receive a doctorate in music. This honor was conferred on her for a work she completed shortly before her twenty-sixth birthday, entitled “The Cat”.     

Gipps was fond of creating tone poems, orchestral pieces which are a single movement in length and which are inspired by some sort of rhapsodic theme. As she was establishing herself as a professional instrumentalist and composer, the legendary Sir Henry Wood accepted an invitation to conduct her tone poem “Knight in Armour at the Last Night of the Proms”. The year was 1942, and Ruth’s aspirations could not have been higher.  

Despite her rapidly blossoming career as a multi-instrumental soloist, however, Ruth faced an insurmountable obstacle at the age of thirty-three in the form of a shoulder injury. Refusing to give up on a career filled with musical creation, Ruth poured her heart and soul into conducting and composition for orchestra. It was during this period that she built on what she had learned from Vaughan Williams, refining her skillful use of instrumental color while riding against fads in the musical avant-garde of her day. Ruth would go on to construct five captivating symphonies, which she viewed collectively as her finest musical contributions to the world.

A composer with an intense desire to prove herself through her music, Gipps returned to performance only three years into her shoulder rehabilitation. In March 1945, she performed an outstanding rendition of Glazunov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the City of Birmingham Orchestra. That same evening, conducted by George Weldon, she picked up her beloved English Horn to perform her Symphony No. 1.

At the close of World War II, Gipps’musical interests shifted to reveal a fascination with all things chamber music. She continued to fight for female representation within her orchestral community, as early in her career she had been “affected strongly by discrimination against women in the male-dominated ranks of music (and particularly composition), by professors and judges as well as the world of music criticism”. She founded the London Repertoire Orchestra in 1955 to widen the musical range and expertise of budding professionals on instruments of all types. Her Clarinet Sonata, Op. 45, was lauded in 1956 as a stellar achievement for the genre, one that won her the Cobbett Prize of the Society of Women Musicians.

Conducting the Pro Arte Orchestra the following year, she spent the next four years working tirelessly on musical projects until founding the Chanticleer Orchestra in 1961.  The mandate of this new orchestra was a simple, but meaningful one: the professional ensemble would include a work by a living composer in every program performed. This venture cemented Gipps’ international reputation and offered her the opportunity to claim a faculty post at London’s Trinity College. After seven years at Trinity, Ruth returned to her alma mater (The Royal College of Music) to teach for a decade after her appointment as chairwoman of the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain.

The last twenty years of Ruth’s life were spent teaching composition at the Kingston Polytechnic of Gypsy Hill and adjusting to retired life in Sussex. Passing away from cancer and stroke related symptoms in 1999, Gipps was mourned by all of Britain: they had lost a quintessential compositional genius and firebrand personality which could not be replaced. But Ruth Gipps lives on in her captivating legacy of music and in her conviction that the great female composers of the future deserve a supportive platform upon which they can change the course of musical history. 

A trip on the RMS Queen Mary!

The story of the ocean liner RMS Queen Mary is one whose length and grandeur nearly rivals that of the ship herself. On the day she was unveiled to the world, King George V of England proclaimed enthusiastically that “Today we come to the happy task of sending on her way the stateliest ship now in being. It has been the nation’s will that she should be completed, and today we can send her forth no longer a number on the books, but a ship with a name in the world, alive with beauty, energy and strength! May her life among great waters spread friendship among the nations!”

The RMS Queen Mary sailed as a vessel of the Cunard Cruise Line from 1936 to 1967, a proud ocean liner that sped across the waves to deliver passengers from England to New York and back again. She held a nautical speed record unbroken for fourteen consecutive years, and after a lifetime of successful jaunts across the Atlantic now sits permanently moored as a historic hotel and tourist attraction in Long Beach California. Not a bad retirement for one whose career was as busy and exciting as that of the RMS Queen Mary. But what was it really like living aboard this luxurious cruise ship during her heyday? What were the amenities, what cuisine were passengers treated to, and what sorts of dignitaries and celebrities graced the deck of that mighty vessel?

Those brilliant individuals responsible for the Queen Mary’s construction spared no expense in outfitting her with every amenity passengers of the day might require. Advertisements from the thirties proudly boast of the liner’s features, which included “two indoor swimming pools, beauty salons, libraries and children’s nurseries for all three classes, a music studio and lecture hall, telephone connectivity to anywhere in the world, outdoor paddle tennis courts and dog kennels.” Many of the public rooms on board were air-conditioned, and it was rumored that the cabin-class swimming pool spanned over two decks in height! The ship itself boasted a massive cargo storage which accommodated scores of automotive vehicles, towered three stories in height, and was the first of its kind to be equipped with a Jewish prayer room.

Cruising the oceans can produce in a person the most ferocious appetite, so its no surprise that Cunard sent world-class chefs aboard the RMS Queen Mary to prepare the finest delicacies for patrons to enjoy at breakfast, luncheon, and dinner alike. Had you been aboard the ship on June 6th, 1952, your breakfast options would have included Apples, Oranges, Stewed Figs, and assorted fruit juices. Eggs (Fried, Turned, Boiled, or Scrambled) accompanied by Broiled Breakfast Bacon and Home-made Brawn were followed by Buckwheat and Griddle Cakes drenched in Maple and Golden Syrup. Passengers were invited to partake of Soda Scones and a variety of coffees, as well as heavenly slices of Hovis Bread.

Starving passengers at lunch time on December 26th, 1940 were served Consomme Chiffonade, Potage Chesterfield, and hearty Beefsteak and Kidney Pie. Others dined upon Broiled Haddock with Sauce Robert, Baked Jacket and French-Fried Potatoes, and topped it off with a mouth-watering Sago Custard Pudding. Children on board (in addition to the menu items above) were given ample helpings of Ice Cream and Wafers as a special treat. But what of dinner? On August 8th, 1937, passengers of the Queen Mary who fancied an evening bite to eat tucked into Honey Dew Melon Frappe, Herrings a la Tomate, Byron Salmon, and Chicken Halibut with Sauce Victoria. Still others dined on Roast Quarters of Lamb with Mint Sauce, Sweetbread Croquettes St. Cloud, and Egg Plant Lyonnaise. No matter what era you spent aboard the RMS Queen Mary, you were always treated to the finest cuisine possible.

In the three years following her maiden voyage, word of the grand passenger experiences aboard the RMS Queen Mary quickly reached the ears of celebrities and royalty alike. Actor/comedian Bob hope and actor/dancer Fred Astaire both took a voyage aboard the RMS Queen Mary in 1939, and were followed soon after by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It is maintained that he signed the D-Day Declaration while onboard, and considered the ship his “headquarters while at sea.” Nowadays, the Queen Mary hotel’s restaurant, Sir Winston’s is named after that famous dignitary (as is one of their luxury rooms, the Churchill Suite).

Singer Bing Crosby traveled overseas with the U.S.O aboard the RMS Queen Mary to boost troop morale during World War II, and Dwight Eisenhower sailed with his wife on the luxury liner on September 27th, 1946. Both Elizabeth Taylor and Clark Gable made the list of famous figures to grace the deck, with the former making outrageous demands in 1947 on behalf of her two poodles, and the latter delaying departure time by nearly 20 minutes in 1948 to bid adieu to his love interest who was a passenger. The then Duke & Duchess of Windsor (Edward VII & Wallis Simpson) used the ship for travel quite frequently and referred to the vessel as “their ship”. Edward VII’s mother was the namesake of the ship after all! The couple’s favorite room, M58 on the Main Deck, was renovated and is now referred to as the Windsor Suite. Their voyage in 1948 saw them bring 120 pieces of luggage on board along with their dogs.  

In 1953, the actress Greta Garbo decided to return home from a trip abroad in Europe using the RMS Queen Mary, and the following year the deck was graced by The Queen Mother herself. 1957 saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s star Audrey Hepburn travel aboard the vessel with her husband Mel Ferrer on their way to Europe for round two of a honeymoon. The RMS Queen Mary’s final claim to having a brush with fame came ten years later, when Lynne Redgrave (the sister of actress Vanessa Redgrave) took part in the ship’s final voyage to California. After a lifetime of dutiful service, it was decided that the RMS Queen Mary would live out the rest of her days in style. She entertains famous persons from across the globe to this day, and the dock at which she is permanently moored is protected indefinitely as a world heritage site. We salute you, RMS Queen Mary!

Copland’s Quiet City

A composition for trumpet, English Horn, and string orchestra, Aaron Copland’s “Quiet City” took the composer two years to write before it could be pronounced complete. Receiving its premiere on January 28, 1941, the piece was performed by conductor Daniel Saidenberg and his Saidenberg Little Symphony in New York City. However, this was not the official debut of “Quiet City” as a musical entity, nor was it the first iteration penned by Copland. The truth about this classic American composition would not surface for another seventy years.

In its original form, Copland’s “Quiet City” served as incidental music for playwright Irwin Shaw’s play of the same name. As the play was a besieged by incredible bad luck (it was regarded as a flop and consequently never ran past previews), Copland quietly buried his original score for trumpet, saxophone, clarinets and piano until he could resurrect it in a completely re-orchestrated form. It is speculated that Copland, trusting that his score had potential, wanted to distance his composition from being associated with the disastrous Shaw production. Copland had written a letter to a friend, the composer Virgil Thomson, around this time stating bleakly that “My career in the theater has been a flop.”

Aaron Copland, 1956 by Yousuf Karsh

Copland himself maintained in his autobiography that this original version of “Quiet City” was “an attempt to mirror the troubled main character of Irwin Shaw’s play”, who had chosen to reject his religious and artistic convictions by changing his name, vocation, and marrying for money. His conscience does not rest, however, and the man is plagued by the memory of his brother’s trumpet playing, a sonic recollection which refuses to silence itself as the man pursues a life of outward happiness and material wealth. Copland continues, remarking that “Quiet City seems to have become a musical entity, superseding the original reasons for its composition…”. Indeed, the modern listener does not require the original context of Shaw’s play to appreciate the richly textured night life of Copland’s musical New York.

But while Copland acknowledged the score’s original form and purpose, the existence of said original could not be proven to have existed without the discovery of a physical proof. That manuscript was unearthed by saxophonist and composer Christopher Brellochs in 2011, and he refused to rest until the original version of Copland’s Quiet City was recorded and debuted for the world. As he pursued his doctoral studies at Rutgers University, Brellochs had been searching for dissertation topics with an advisor, Paul Cohen. When Paul recalled that he had in his possession a copy of an old Copland score, one which had been given to him by an acquaintance at the Library of Congress, Brelloch knew precisely what topic his dissertation would cover. In Cohen’s words, the original score “had been collecting dust for years”, and it included new melodies which admirers of Copland’s music would never likely have heard had they not attended the handful of preview performances that Shaw’s play was able to withstand before folding entirely. 

The delicate pulsating tones of the trumpet and English Horn solos certainly paint a formidable picture of New York, with all its evening grandeur. Copland weaves what Brellochs refers to as “a goldmine of wonderful themes and melodies” throughout, a thoughtful musical commentary on the life of a city that is internationally renowned as never sleeping. While the original score may have explored the world of this failed play in greater detail, Copland more than makes up for lost context with a perfectly distilled masterpiece. In every painted street-corner, every dimly-lit lamppost, and every dusky skyscraper, Copland captured the heart of New York and enshrined it in his “Quiet City” for all time.

Sibelius’ Suite Mignonne

Regarding Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s fascination with nature, his biographer, Tawaststjerna famously wrote that “even by Nordic standards, Sibelius responded with exceptional intensity to the moods of nature and the changes in the seasons: he scanned the skies with his binoculars for the geese flying over the lake ice, listened to the screech of the cranes, and heard the cries of the curlew echo over the marshy grounds just below Ainola. He savoured the spring blossoms every bit as much as he did autumnal scents and colors.” Such a sentiment is echoed by no piece of Sibelius’ more than his Suite Mignonne, originally scored for two flutes and string orchestra. 

The first movement of the suite, entitled “Petite Scene” opens with a theme of a delightful hesitancy, and short dance-like passages weave their way between effectively placed moments of stillness. The effect conjured is not entirely dissimilar to watching a small bird flit and hop its way through overgrown patches of marshland. The brilliance of this movement lies in its ability to convey the refreshing breezes of the open country air while seamlessly transitioning into the following movement, “Polka”. 

The second movement of the Mignonne Suite truly captures the essence of its namesake, for “mignonne” is French for “daintily small” or “delicate” depending on the context in which it is used. As the birds from movement one grow chattier and bolder in nature, the melody becomes increasingly fixated on their pizzicato chirping. Sibelius’ writing for the cello in this section is quite challenging, as the part they play is very exposed and requires each cellist to create a contrasting texture for the lines of those who are bringing the “birds” to life.

Sibelius gave his son-in-law (the cellist Jussi Jalas) some directions for maximizing his expressive efficiency when performing this suite. The composer was insistent that “there should be a brief pause before the last eight bars of the first movement” and that “the Polka should be played slowly and without excessive stretto at the end.” He advised young Jussi that the suite’s final movement “should be rhythmically straight, without ritardando.”

And does this “Epilogue” ever fly without ritardando! The birds take to the sky, one by one, and the perfectly timed pauses in the string section work to effectively build excitement. A dream-like passage focuses our attention on the hazy clouds above the marshland before we are thrown once again (if only briefly) into the busy and joyful world of our avian friends. This “Epilogue” functions as a partial recapitulation of the “Petite Scene” to perfectly frame the lighthearted Polka. Sibelius’ romantic appraisal of the great outdoors is alive in his music, and it speaks to us in every season we can gaze out from our windows (be they frosted or smattered with rain) to see birds on the wing. 


Elgar’s Serenade for Strings

Edward Elgar’s Op.20 “Serenade for Strings” was written in March of 1892 and was first performed by the Worcester Ladies’ Orchestral class later that year. Musicologists posit that this enduringly popular offering from Elgar was written in an earlier period of the composer’s life, and that it is older even than his Wand of Youth suites. The assertion that the Serenade for Strings is a reworking of an earlier work is given credibility mainly by the characteristics of young Elgar’s compositional style which make it up: there is a youthful charm supported by a bedrock of ingenious musical machinations and textures. A lifelong perfectionist, it has been rumored that “Serenade for Strings” was one of the first pieces with which Elgar “professed [him]self truly satisfied.” 

The Serenade itself is set in E minor, utilizes a string orchestra as its musical vehicle, and is separated into three short movements: “Allegro Piacevole”, “Larghetto”, and “Allegretto”. A musical landscape of hills and valleys emerges as we hear the first movement sing out its compelling central theme. The rhythmic figure of this movement is characterized by a wind-blown momentum which propels one’s musical expectations towards the opening of the Larghetto.

Easily the most mature movement of the three, the brilliance of the Larghetto rests in its simple grandeur, and the subtle ways Elgar shifts tonalities to illustrate several distinct and intimate moment of warmth. It was the stylistic qualities of the Larghetto which signaled to music historians and researchers that this work had existed in a previous iteration. Although lamentably brief in terms of duration, this movement remains one of the most popular pieces of musical writing Elgar ever committed to paper.

The final movement of this piece (Allegretto) develops a melody which possesses a great sense of yearning and is unashamed of its romantic character. The violin comes alive in this movement, its song gifted points of luminous emotional expressivity by Elgar’s sensitive compositional insight. Beginning in 12/8 time, the measure alters to 6/8 near the movement’s conclusion in order to signal the reappearance of the Allegro Piacevole’s main theme.

Elgar dedicated his “Serenade for Strings” to an acquaintance of his, the organ builder and amateur musician Edward W. Whinfield. “Serenade for Strings” received its first public performance in Antwerp, Belgium on 21 July 1896. Although Edward Elgar felt for much of his life an outcast, there is no doubt that his Serenade for Strings represents an early triumph in a series of well-deserved compositional victories. Not unlike a sunset viewed from aboard a transatlantic cruise, Edward Elgar’s “Serenade for Strings” paints the mind of the beholder with touching shades of pink, orange, and gold.