BBC Commission - Sample of Programme Notes Written for Children
© Katie Morgan (2014)
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(born 1865, died 1935)
The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Have you ever wished you could cast a magic spell to help you tidy your room? Well, this symphonic poem by Paul Dukas tells the story of a boy who did just that! Except not everything went quite to plan …
The Sorcerer's Apprentice, is based on a poem by Goethe about young boy who is an apprentice to a sorcerer. The apprentice wanted to learn how to create magic, but he was only allowed to do chores. When left alone by his master, the naughty apprentice decided try out a little magic. He cast a spell that made a broomstick sprout arms to fill buckets with water, and carry them into the Sorcerer’s castle. So far; so good - but he soon lost control. The broom continued to carry so much water, the castle began to flood! Unable to undo his spell, the apprentice hastily chopped the broom with an axe, but the pieces came back to life and continued fetching water from the river at an even faster pace! There was an entire army of brooms, filling buckets with water, and marching back to the castle to fill the now overflowing tub with even more water. The master returns and reverses the spell, but he is very annoyed at the apprentice!
What should I listen out for?
- The main tune, which keeps returning. Listen how it gets louder as the magic becomes increasingly out of hand.
- The solo bassoon passage represents the broomstick first springing to life. Also listen out for the second solo bassoon passage later in the piece, which represents two freshly cleaved pieces of broomstick coming to life, ready to wreak even more havoc!
- Listen out for the twinkling sound of the glockenspiel. Do you think it represents the image of magic?
- Listen how the swirling sound in the strings represents the image of whirling water, while the cymbals represent the crashing waves and splashing water.
- Does this piece seem familiar to you? Clue: think of the Disney film, ‘Fantasia’ featuring Mickey Mouse as the naughty apprentice.
What could I listen to next?:
Dukas was a perfectionist and destroyed many of his compositions, but listen out for the Symphony in C, and the sumptuous dance poem, La péri, which is also based upon the supernatural.
‘Let Fly’ - Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2013)
1. ♩ = 48–52 2. ♩ = 48–52 3. ♩ = 132–144
(♩ = number of crotchet beats per minute)
Imagine a scene where two star-crossed lovers are singing to each other across the mountaintops; their voices floating through the air.
Composer, Bright Sheng, grew up in China hearing a number of special ancient traditional songs, called ‘Flying Songs’. In some mountain regions of southern China, it is an ancient tradition that lovers who were separated by distance, would sing a special kind of song to each other across the mountaintops, to communicate and express their love to each other. This romantic aural imagery of the voice floating through the air is exactly the type of image that Bright Sheng had in mind when he composed his wonderful violin concerto, ‘Let Fly’. Think of the violin as a beautiful, melodious voice, floating across the mountains. Carefully blended into the middle of the concerto is a very special nursery tune that Sheng had composed especially for his daughter, Fayfay, in 2010.
What should I listen out for?:
- The violin sliding between notes. This is a special technique used by string players, called portamento. Here it is used to imitate Chinese folk music.
- Violin harmonics. Harmonics have an almost whistle-type sound to them. Let’s see if you can hear them!
- About half way through the concerto, a special nursery tune is hidden. It can be heard in the harmonics of the solo violin. See if you can hear it! It also appears later in movement 3, but this time in the orchestra!
- After the nursery tune, the violin plays a “showy” solo without the orchestra. This is called a Cadenza.
- At the end of a section there is a massive surge of brass. Can you hear it and identify the end of each section?
What could I listen to next?
Bright Sheng also composed the clarinet concerto, Wild Swan. Listen out for his orchestral works, Shanghai Overture and Zodiac Tales, which both strongly imitate Chinese music and culture. You could also try listening to some traditional Chinese folk music!
(born 1881, died 1945)
Concerto for Orchestra (1943) I. Introduction: At a fairly moderate pace - Very quick and lively II. Games: Quick and cheerfully III. Elegy: At a fairly moderate pace IV. Interrupted Intermezzo: Fairly quickly V. Finale: Very fast
Imagine you have leave your home, and how sad and homesick you might feel. That was exactly the situation that Béla Bartók was facing when he left Hungary during the Second World War, to try and forge a successful music career in America. If that wasn't bad enough, Bartók failed to make much impact as a composer, and he became seriously ill. To try and cheer Bartók up, Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, visited Bartók in hospital and asked him to write an orchestral work. Excited to finally receive a commission, he threw himself at the challenge, and decided to compose something a little unusual! - A concerto for orchestra!
A concerto usually features a solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment – just like ‘Let Fly’, which you heard earlier. Instead of writing a symphony (a piece for orchestra), Bartók decided to give individual instruments virtuosic music to play - just like a soloist, and decided to call it a concerto for orchestra. It was a great success, and has been performed regularly ever since.
What should I listen out for?:
- The wonderfully atmospheric phrase played by the cellos and basses at the beginning of the 1st movement. - The concerto was written at a time of crisis - If you listen carefully; you will hear Bartók's sadness expressed in the dark sounding first movement, and the death-song in the third movement. But, the Concerto isn’t all dark and mournful!
- Pay special attention to the way individual instruments play like soloists in the second movement. Two bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes and trumpets each take a turn to
play a cheerful tune derived from Yugoslavian folk songs.
- The Intermezzo begins with a peasant tune, which transforms into a popular melody borrowed from an operetta called, ‘Hungary you are beautiful, you are lovely’. Do you think this expresses Bartók feeling homesick?
- Listen out for the jolly tune and rude sounding "raspberries" played by the trombones half way through the Intermezzo! Rumour has it that Bartók was so annoyed that the composer Dmitri Shostakovich was more successful than him, that Bartók borrowed a fragment from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 (the happy tune), and mocked it with the sound of the trombones!
- The positive, uplifting, melody at the start of the 5th movement. Can you hear the contrast in mood between the Finale, and the darkness of the Introduction and Elegy at the start of the concerto?
What could I listen to next?
Violin Concerto No 2 is considered to be one of Bartók’s finest works. Also listen out for Duke Bluebeard's Castle; The Miraculous Mandarin; Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste; Piano Concerto No 2.
(Born May 7, 1833, died April 3, 1897)
Symphony No.2 in D Major, Op. 73 (1877)
I Fast, but not too fast
II Slow, but not too slow
III Fairly fast and graceful
IV Fast and spirited
Just imagine how wonderful it would be to stroll through beautiful Alpine landscapes! Brahms was so inspired by the pastoral scenery of lakes and mountains in the Alpine provinces of Austria, that he composed Symphony No. 2, during a long, idyllic summer holiday to Pörtschach am Wörthersee, in 1877. Brahms even jokingly said, “So many melodies fly about here that one must be careful not to tread on them”! Because of the location the Symphony No.2 was composed, it is sometimes unofficially referred to as Brahms’ ‘Pastoral Symphony’. If you were painting a picture of the scenery interpreted in the Symphony, what would the scenery look like?
What shall I listen out for?
- The simple three-note motive played by the cellos and basses at the start of the symphony. Can you hear this same figure return throughout the Symphony?
- Make sure to listen out for the tuba! Symphony No. 2 is the only one of Brahms’ four symphonies to feature a tuba!
- Even a sunny day can have moments of cloudiness and shade! Can you hear how Brahms achieves this? Listen how the low sound of the trombones and tuba creates extreme contradictions throughout the symphony. But, notice how the trombones are also used to create a blaze of joy at the end of the symphony!
- The first two movements explore some of the dark shadows in depth, while the following two movements are serene. In the third movement, picture rippling streams, blue sky, sunshine and cool green shadows, and listen out for the pastoral sounding folk-like melody played by the oboe and flute at the beginning. How beautiful it must have been at Pörtschach! The fourth movement is jubilant and electrifying - the clouds seem to disappear after the hushed opening bars, and the music moves forward toward the extraordinary brilliance at the end of the symphony!
What could I listen to next?
Violin Concerto was also composed during Brahms’ holidays to the Austrian Alps. Also listen out for Symphony No.1, which Brahms had worked on for nearly twenty years before he was ready to take it before audiences!