Category: Spring 2020

Posts from March-June 2020

Unity rebranded

‘Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity’, the fourth movement of Gustav Holst’s The Planets, has remained one of the most popular orchestral pieces for the last hundred years and has often been performed by itself without the rest of the suite. That’s not surprising: it is dazzlingly bright, uplifting music, stuffed with big tunes — four […]

‘Just grief, heart’s tears, plaint worthy’

By this week the UK has the highest number of deaths from the COVID-19 virus — now more than 43,000 — and the highest mortality rate per capita of all our neighbour countries in Europe. How do we mourn for so many lives lost when such vast numbers become statistics that leave us numb, tone-deaf […]

The songs we remember are the sad songs

French songs of love have their own special character, determined not only by the linguistics of the language but also by France’s strong tradition of singer-songwriting with its penchant for intellectual introspection and the beauties of melancholy. ‘The songs we remember are the sad, romantic songs,’ says Françoise Hardy — and she should know, having […]

‘Sing to the life-giving Trinity’

After Pentecost, on Trinity Sunday the Christian Church globally celebrates the Holy Trinity: the belief in one God in three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is the central tenet that unites all the orthodox Christian denominations across both Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity: first adopted at the fourth-century councils of […]

Pentecost with Tallis

For Pentecost, when the Church remembers how the followers of Jesus Christ first received the Holy Spirit, some of the best music is by Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585), the most admired English composer of the sixteenth century. He managed to pursue his long career as an organist, singer, composer and Gentleman of the Chapel Royal through […]

Feel the tears

In modern popular culture, songs of love that dwell on the pain and tears of a failed relationship are a common type. Belonging to the broad category of pop with the oddly non-modern term ‘ballads’, they are frequently released not only because they address the heartbreak of breaking up and lost love that most people […]

Imagining war

Our series on big tunes, big sounds must include one of the most emphatic tunes and most massive sounds of any devised before the age of amplification and electronics: the first movement, ‘Mars: the Bringer of War’, of The Planets, the ‘Suite for Large Orchestra’ by Gustav Holst. In its awesome beauty, this music makes […]

One perfect harmony

Music sometimes addresses music itself: our love for it, our need of it, how it affects us, and how we respond to it — pertinent issues for each of us individually. One of the best examples of this is Hail! Bright Cecilia of 1692, an ode for St Cecilia’s Day (22 November), written by the […]

Music for an American disaster

The USA is in deep trouble, with, by 16 May, at least 90,000 deaths from COVID-19: the worst casualty-rate so far of any country in the world and already, in merely eight weeks, 50% greater than the number of US military personnel killed or missing in action over the eight years of the Vietnam War. […]

Music in the big picture

The second movement, Allegretto, of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Op. 92, is the choice for my third post in the big tune series. Today, it is probably the most widely loved example of Beethoven’s music because of its special place in modern popular culture, having been featured in at least nine movies, including, most recently, […]

Love in the depths of despair

Opera is often about love — its pleasures, its pain and its predicaments. Some of the most special moments are the rare duet-arias, where the solo honours are shared equally between two virtuoso singers. Typically the two characters, having fallen in love (at first sight, of course), express their happiness together and/or desire for each […]

When lads go a-maying

Being probably the best-known English madrigal of all, Thomas Morley’s Now is the month of maying is often performed but rarely performed well (singing it with the neatness it deserves is a considerable challenge). It may seem emblematic or even a caricature of the whole madrigal genre, which in modern times has had an image […]

Horn-calls for wellbeing

The nine-minute first movement of Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, Op. 97, is the choice for this, the second post in the ‘big tune‘ series. It has a persistently positive feel to it (as have movements 2-5 too) — some would say that’s exactly what we need when, in our social-distancing and lockdown, we work […]

Triste España

In the three weeks since this blog first considered the distressing loss of life from COVID-19 — focussing particularly on Italy: see Weep with songs of sadness — the crisis in Spain quickly became the second most acute in Europe, with 23,000 deaths attributed to the virus so far. Such large numbers represent an amount […]

The big tune

While we live with social distancing, when normal performances by orchestras, choirs, bands and other ensembles are not possible for several months at least, it’s worthwhile to remember the corporate music-making that is part of our culture and which, until recently, we took for granted. This is the first of some occasional posts on the […]

Tuning hearts

An anthem regularly sung in Anglican services at Eastertime is this one in six parts by Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), composed during the period from 1602 when he was employed as organist at Chichester Cathedral. Its words, by an unknown author, are packed full of less-than-subtle references to good music-making: to finding the ideal register and […]

Presto agitato

Music is regularly a target for satire, especially when a tradition of public performance that from too-frequent exposure invites ridicule. But, like satire of other kinds, to work well and hit home it needs to possess both its own integrity and a hook of familiarity that makes its target recognizable. One of the best instances […]

Alleluia! (Easter Day)

For Easter Day. This is the final post in a series of eight for Holy Week and Easter, 2020. After the austerity of Lent and the solemness of Holy Week, music for the Christian church on Easter Day bursts forth with great brightness and effusive praise to celebrate Christ’s victory over death. Multiple and repeated […]

Look and see (Holy Week, Saturday)

For Holy Saturday. This is the seventh post in a series for Holy Week and Easter Day, 2020. The liturgy of Tenebrae, in the tradition of the Roman Catholic church, was until 1955 celebrated at Matins and Lauds over three days, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. In addition to psalms and prayers, it […]

Crucified (Holy Week, Good Friday)

For Good Friday. This is the sixth post in a series for Holy Week and Easter Day, 2020. In Messiah, the significance of the crucifixion — from the ‘us’ perspective, for all people — is anticipated in powerful, anthem-like choruses using Isaiah’s words: Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows … and […]

Weren’t you with him? (Holy Week, Thursday)

For Thursday of Holy Week. This is the fifth post in a series for Holy Week and Easter Day, 2020. Peter’s three-times denial of knowing Jesus, in the hours after Jesus had been arrested and was being interrogated, is one of the most affecting and deeply personal parts of the Passion story, confronting us individually. […]

Jesus alone (Holy Week, Wednesday)

For Wednesday of Holy Week. This is the fourth post in a series for Holy Week and Easter Day, 2020. Isaiah 53:3: He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.Isaiah 50:6: He gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: […]

‘Let me hear joy and gladness’ (Holy Week, Tuesday)

For Tuesday of Holy Week. This is the third post in a series for Holy Week and Easter Day, 2020. Psalm 51, one of the penitential psalms sometimes referred to as simply the Miserere, is frequently said or sung during Lent in both Roman Catholic and various Protestant traditions, notably as part of Tenebrae services […]

Get in the scene! (Holy Week, Monday)

For Monday of Holy Week. This is the second post in a series for Holy Week and Easter Day, 2020. With this intense 10-minute opening movement of the Passion according to St John (Leipzig, Good Friday, 7 April 1724), Bach brings us — forcefully pushes us — into the drama of the events that led […]

Behold the Lamb (Holy Week, Sunday)

For Palm Sunday. This is the first post in a series for Holy Week and Easter Day, 2020. Palm Sunday, when we remember Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, is commonly celebrated with joyful praise, in emulation of how Jesus was welcomed with palms and loud cheers of ‘Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is He […]

Weep with songs of sadness

Vox Luminis, performing in Auxi-le-Château in 2012. In these days and weeks many people are weeping, especially from heartbreak over the loss of loved ones, friends and colleagues as the COVID-19 epidemic increasingly takes many lives in many countries — in many cases lives cut short in their prime and before their time. For each […]

Honouring the good life. Four chaconnes

In these weeks while witnessing the growing alarm and loss of life in Italy, Spain, France, the UK and our other neighbours, it is hard to know how to deal with and express our mixed feelings — of grief, solidarity with the suffering families and communities, and gratitude for those who are managing healthcare and […]