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  • Writer's pictureHelsingin Kamariorkesteri

The Sound of Great Britain

Updated: Aug 27, 2020

Concert at Temppeliaukio Church on May 22nd 2020. Livia Schweizer, flute | Laura Lammi, oboe | James Salomon Kahane, conductor. Buy tickets here.

Highlights and rarities from the British Empire.

The United Kingdom has always had a particular place in the world of western classical music. While always at the center of the cultural scene in Europe, with the greatest composers of each century visiting and sometimes living in England, the fragmented aspect of the country's culture draws not only from the specificities of each of the lands that composed the British Empire, but also from the myths and legends of the north, following the Normand's arrival to Great-Britain in the middle ages. As such, British music has always been highly multi-cultural and for a long time seemingly carried a somewhat weaker sense of national identity. However, in the late XIXth century and early XXth, the surge of British composers of international fame pushed for the resurgence of the country's own style, with these composers forging all the elements of the multiple cultures that compose Great Britain into one specific and very recognizable style. Some of the most recognizable aspects of this style is the strong influence of folk tunes and early music elements, as well as the straightforward approach to expression of emotions, as opposed to the esoteric French approach and the visceral German sound. Each composer heard on this program has had a long lasting influence on British music, not only through specific highlights that have marked the audience for years, but also through more discrete rarities that are necessary to complete the musical picture of one of the most influential countries in the world at the time.


  • Benjamin Britten: Simple Symphony

  • Gustav Holst: A Fugal Concerto

  • Ralph Vaughan Williams: Oboe Concerto

  • Benjamin Britten: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge

Benjamin Britten: Simple Symphony

At the age of 20, Britten transcribed a handful of old piano tunes and song melodies from his pre-teen years into a four-movement work for string orchestra. Entitled A Simple Symphony and composed between 1933 and 1934, the work contains the irresistible charm of youth projected as an array of musical colors that, although combined in a relatively sophisticated manner, retain at least the impression of innocence. The symphony's widespread popularity can be attributed to several factors, among the most significant of which is its idiomatic string writing. Perhaps the real reason for the work's appeal, however, is the way that Britten refuses to wholly subordinate the pleasantly cliché-ridden fruits of his youth to the more sophisticated musical syntax that, by the mid-1930s, was emerging as the driving force behind other works as the choral Te Deum (1934) and the orchestral Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937). However near and dear these melodies may have been to Britten's heart, he clearly felt it necessary to apply a substantial amount of touch-up as he forged them into a symphonic form. For example, the colorful twists and turns of the first movement, "Boisterous Bourée," do not really represent Britten as a child composer as much as they do a maturing composer's desire to reawaken the spirit of an earlier time. However, the movement does retain a certain juvenile spirit, especially in its heavy emphasis on the melodic contours and rhythmic cadences of English folk song. The Presto possibile "Playful Pizzicato," with its rounded, wittily arpeggiated theme, is just what its title would seem to indicate. The trio section makes effective use of an irregular phrase structure (i.e., empty bars shape the gestures into three-bar groups). Its material is derived from a 1924 Scherzo for piano and from a song that apparently dates from later in that same year. The "Sentimental Saraband" unfolds in a straightforward ternary (ABA) form, its somber main theme first announced by the violins over a stubborn G pedal in the cellos and basses. A second melody, originally part of a waltz, is, by comparison, quite translucent, as are the gently repeated chords of the coda. After an introduction made up of dramatic open fifths, the "Frolicsome Finale" takes off with a subject that recalls the cello theme of the "Boisterous Bourée"; the chromatically descending inner lines are, however, unique to this final movement. After a contrasting second theme, the first idea undergoes development. Soon enough a recapitulation arrives, during which the second theme is cast in an almost heroic light. A grand pause ushers in the kinetic coda.

Gustav Holst: A Fugal Concerto

The short Fugal Concerto for Flute, Oboe and Strings, is one of the many well crafted and orchestrated works by Gustav Holst, who is known to a large extent for his huge and powerful orchestral suite The Planets. For many years, the neuritis that crippled Holst's hands made composing a painful process, and had also forced him to give up the piano in favor of trombone years earlier. Holst's difficulty in writing, as well as his feeling that he had submerged his own personality beneath the huge orchestral machinery of The Planets, led him in the early 1920s to try smaller combinations of instruments that didn't require so many notes, and to attempt to find a more intimate and personal style. The two works with "fugal" in the title, A Fugal Overture, Op. 40, No. 1, and this work are one part of this search. The rather strict form of the fugue generally offers composers a chance to see what they can achieve in a very disciplined format that demands complete mastery of the rules of counterpoint. In terms of musical history, both works represent Holst's response to the brand-new, post-World War I European style of neo-Classicism. The Fugal Concerto firmly contradicts the idea that fugues have to reek of the academy. Above all, Holst finds lovely flowing melodies that are also first-rate fugue subjects. The first movement has a running quality, with quicksilver trade-offs among the orchestra and the two soloists. The second movement is essentially a canon for the two soloists, sharing a plaintive melody. The lovely middle sections admits the viola section as a third voice in canon-like writing, and leads directly into a joyful concluding movement in a very English 6/8 dancing rhythm. In the middle there is a simultaneous cadenza for both the flute and oboe, leading to the introduction of an English folk song called "If all the World were Paper." This tune sticks around as the main rhythmic tune returns, making the last part of the finale, in fact, a double fugue with breathless, propulsive rhythms.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Oboe Concerto

Vaughan Williams began to write his Oboe Concerto immediately upon completion of his Symphony No. 5 in D major, and the concerto in fact uses themes originally intended for the Symphony. Leon Goossens, for whom it was written, gave the first performance in Liverpool on September 30, 1944. Pastoral in tone and expansively modal in expression, the Oboe Concerto is deceptively easy to listen to, given the considerable difficulties that Vaughan Williams sets for the accompanying string orchestra, which in the space of the concerto's eighteen minutes must navigate a host of technical challenges, all at dynamic levels that don't overwhelm the soft timbres of the solo instrument. The first movement, Rondo Pastorale, opens with three soft chords from the strings, over which the oboe sounds a supple and pensive modal theme, which is developed in linear fashion over thoughtful commentary from the strings. A livelier second theme, dance-like but rhythmically uneven, is introduced by the oboe and then taken up by the strings in canon. A return of the first theme brings about a moment of lovely contemplation, a short accompanied cadenza and a brief, somewhat more melancholic conclusion. The second movement is marked by a superficial nod to eighteenth century dance forms, Minuet and Musette. The Minuet is in the customary three-quarter time, and the Musette makes use of a strong pedal point, however beyond that, the writing is plainly modern. The two dances are also seamlessly integrated, testament to Vaughan Williams' musical subtlety. The movement is brief and leads directly to the finale, Scherzo. In the last movement, the writing for strings is supremely difficult, full of quick figurations and tricky counterpoint, over which the oboe sounds a chattering theme that quickly resolves into a feather-light waltz. A broader, more nostalgic melody serves as the second theme and recalls the shapes of themes already heard. There is a chromatic tune made out of the opening theme, quietly dissonant and in complex rhythm, before an aching, wistful passage, followed by a return of the quick waltz with the second theme in tow, and a richly harmonized slow coda. The same three chords which opened the piece are then used to conclude it as well.

Benjamin Britten: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge

Benjamin Britten began taking composition lessons from Frank Bridge in the year of 1927. Bridge was fairly well known as a composer and viola player, but his greatest contribution was most notable in the role of a teacher. Britten was also a violist who greatly admired Bridge's playing. Over the next few years, Britten grew immensely as a musician and as an individual. His raw talent in composition was refined and his ideals were formed under the tutelage of Bridge. In 1932, Britten wished to compose a tribute piece for his teacher and began work on a set of variations on a theme from one of Bridge's works. The young composer soon was distracted from this project and was forced to temporarily stop to work on it. Five years later, the opportunity arose for Britten to complete the dedication composition for Bridge, while also fulfilling a rather important commission. Boyd Neel, an English conductor, founded the first chamber string orchestra consisting only of players of virtuosic ability in England. The reputation of this orchestra soon spread quickly across Europe, and Neel's ensemble was invited, in May 1937, to perform at the Salzburg Festival, which was occurring in the upcoming August. The only condition was that the group was required to perform a new work by a British composer. Britten was not well known at the time, but Neel had conducted his film score for Love from a Stranger (1936), and remembered being astonished by the quickness in which Britten could compose quality music. With only three months until his scheduled performance, Neel asked Britten to accept the commission and to work fast. However, he could not have expected that Britten would have completed a composition sketch of Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge (1937) only 10 days after accepting the task. The work was fully scored for Neel's string orchestra within a month. The finished score is dated July 12, 1937, and is dedicated "to F.B. A tribute with affection and admiration." The theme is from the second of Bridge's Three Idylls for string quartet. Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge was premiered at the Salzburg Festival on August 27, 1937, and was immediately received by the Europeans as a fine composition. The London premiere took place on October 5, 1937. For the first time, Britten's name was known on an international level as the work was performed over 50 times within the first two years of its composition in Europe and the United States.

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