Elgar’s Christmas Greeting

Elgar is not associated with Christmas in the same way that other English composers are. Through settings of carols by Vaughn Williams, Arthur Sullivan and the wonderful festive contributions by Benjamin Britten we have much to feast on. It appears Elgar is lost for us at Christmas, though in saying this his three choral pieces Ave Verum, Ave Maria and Ave Maris Stella written in January 1887 often form a significant part of my advent listening.

I feel it high time to speak about a beautiful unknown contribution of Elgar’s to Christmas music, A Christmas Greeting. Composed in 1907 in Rome and words by Elgar’s wife, Caroline Alice, there are very few recordings of this piece, and only one online by the choir of Hereford Cathedral in 1978 (above). The piece was originally written On 8 December 1907, while they were in Rome.  They sent it home to Hereford for Dr G R Sinclair and his cathedral choristers who gave the first performance on New Year’s Day 1908.

The setting is fascinating, written for two violins, piano and two voice parts. The start of the piece is almost as strictly Elgarian as possible with an introduction from piano and violins that could almost be a direct quotation from the Introduction and Allegro for Strings, his Violin Concerto or even an Elgar symphony. The subsequent theme is one of deep poise and lyricism, the violins often in 3rds and providing such a festive shimmer to the piece. The entry of the voices is accompanied by a childlike, excitable melody in the piano. Another section is introduced by a direct and beautiful quotation from the movement entitled ‘Pifa’ or ‘pastoral symphony’ from Handel’s Messiah. The voices talk about the ‘pifferari’ or ‘wandering musicians’ and the shepherds, Elgar’s Messiah reference staying close to Handels original vision of his ‘Pifa’ depicting the shepherds abiding in the fields.The violins provide this lyrical ‘Pifa’ quotation in 3rds, suggesting that the scoring of this piece to include two violin parts was to satisfy Elgar’s desire for an affective and pastoral mood.

Upon hearing the piece I was overwhelmed by its simplicity and beauty as well as such sensitive scoring. It is so surprising to me that only 5000 people have viewed the one recording that is available on YouTube, I hope this piece someday makes its way into the core Christmas repertoire. Although Caroline Alice’s Libretti have come under some scrutiny to say the least, this contribution is affective and reflective at the very least and Elgar’s interpretation of her words shows us so much about his reactions to pastoral imagery and life.

A Christmas Greeting

Bowered on sloping hillsides rise
In sunny glow, the purpling vine;
Beneath the greyer English skies,
In fair array, the red-gold apples shine.
   To those in snow,
   To those in sun,
   Love is but one;
   Hearts beat and glow,
   By oak and palm.
Friends, in storm or calm.

On and on old Tiber speeds,
Dark with the weight of ancient crime;
Far north, thr' green and quiet meads,
Flows on the Wye in mist and silv'ring rime.
   To those in snow,
   To those in sun,
   Love is but one;
   Hearts beat and glow,
   By oak and palm.
Friends, in storm or calm.

The pifferari wander far,
They seek the shrines, and hymn the peace
Which herald angels, 'neath the star,
Foretold to shepherds, bidding strife to cease.

Our England sleeps in shroud of snow,
Bells, sadly sweet, knell life's swift flight,
And tears, unbid, are wont to flow,
As "Noel! Noel!" sounds across the night.
   To those in snow,
   To those in sun,
   Love is but one!
   Hearts beat and glow,
   By oak and palm.
Friends, in storm or calm.

Commitment to sound 6- less is more?

The ‘less is more’ mentality is well documented in our stressed out society, although perhaps not well enough! Just as many religious people talk of there needing to be a balance between action and contemplation, musicians also require a similar balance. Every musician has experienced the seemingly paradoxical rewards from doing less and trying less hard, yet we still struggle with it constantly.

We discover so much about sound though sitting with it and letting it happen; staying free and relaxed around our instruments and practice time. The number of times I have been urged by teachers to ‘care less’ and ‘let it happen’ are innumerable, yet always I have the urge to return to the try-hard mentality. Perhaps this urge is to do with self worth. I tend to rely on work to give me a sense of achievement and worth, and seldom see sound beauty as the ultimate goal.

This sound series is starting to become just a set of reminders! I know the freedom of sound I am capable of, I need to give myself permission to breathe and trust. Work and practice balanced with breathing and living. I want to strive to create a peace around playing my instrument, not enter constantly into the microcosm of stress and tension.

We deserve to appreciate both the active and contemplative sides to our music making. One cannot come without the other. Giving ourselves the permission to be free and live openly can only do wonders for the way our music speaks.

A Delayed Beginning- what starting an instrument at the age of 12 was like

466712_367875383274742_1061255093_oI often think about the time I started learning the cello. I had received a few lessons when I was 8 but quickly decided it wasn’t for me and went back to my imaginary 8 year old world of few anxieties. It was shortly before I turned 12 that a student at my secondary school offered to teach me the cello. It was normal to start learning an instrument at this time in my school, but I very quickly became determined that cello was to be my life. I had barely passed grade 4 when I decided it was the only thing I wanted to do and that felt very depressing. In the context of my small school, it felt a reasonable assumption but as soon as I branched out, auditioned to music schools and faced numbers of rejections, I realised just how far behind I really was.

It was shortly after I had taken my grade 5 exam that I auditioned for Chethams for the first time. I was 14 and adamant that this school was the only place I wanted to be. They told me to return and reaudition in two years time for the sixth form. Already I had faced so much rejection and self-doubt consumed me. Being at the age of 14 with so many insecurities and struggles already, I felt I couldn’t get hold of what I loved, however hard I worked. It took many hours of practice a day and a lot of motivation from my teacher at Birmingham Junior Conservatoire for me to feel there was any chance. Sure enough two years passed, I had a grade 8 distinction and a place at Chetham’s for sixth form. A further four years and I am in my third year at the Royal College of Music and still have periods of intense doubt that I will ever be good enough.

All this time I’ve been so convinced that if only I had continued with the cello at a younger age, the struggles I faced would have greatly diminished. Beginning a musical instrument at a young age certainly allows you to get a lot of the difficulties out of the way, especially if you become a professional musician. Motivation is largely down to the parents and how they manage practice time, we are much less self-conscious and self-belief is on an all time high. Such a large part of my struggle was with performing and the anxieties it created for me. Younger beginners are much more used to performance situations and learn to deal with it from early on and they don’t have such an extreme sense of how others may perceive them. Sharing my music made me so terrified because I felt I wasn’t worthy of performing. I wasn’t yet worthy to express how I felt because I wasn’t good enough and it didn’t justify how I wanted it to sound. I was hugely aware of how I compared to others my age and this often crushed me.

Starting later than others has meant that everything has happened very quickly for me. The awareness of being behind forced me to work harder than others that started much earlier. This forced me to create a strong work ethic from the beginning. I always kept a long list of goals and, although I often felt very down about my standard, I never truly doubted that my goal was possible. My parents were also clear with me that music was my own journey and, although they were supportive, they didn’t want to manage me. It all had to come from me.Throughout all these extra components to the music world, I knew that what I wanted was possible because of how much I loved music and loved playing the cello.

If we love what we do and have a drive to get closer to it, I don’t believe that there is any correct time to start. It may be that I would’ve faced fewer barriers if I had started sooner, but I often try to remind myself of how important it was for me to find music by myself and how authentic this feels.

Commitment to Sound 5- Is it the instrument?

This short post is just a reminder really to myself, and maybe others, that it is easy to become very comfortable playing your own instrument all the time. We become accustomed to the nuances of sound it can create, it’s certain strengths and how to play to them. We so often forget to spend some time trying others of our instrument and listening to what it can teach us about sound.

It is the most liberating feeling to be trying out different cellos and I find that you notice what issues are essentially ‘you’ and which are to do with your instrument. If a certain sound is suffering on all instruments I try, I must know it is something for me to work on more technically. Similarly with bow weight and string crossings, some instruments will feel very natural to play and others ask you to work much harder. A great part of playing lots of different instruments is that we suddenly listen better because we are reacting to a sound that is unfamiliar. With different instruments to try, we are able to experiment with sounds to such a greater degree and have more scope for improvement as we are forced to listen deeper. Pianists often see changing instruments as a curse, but I think it must teach them to adapt, listen and to play to a higher standard for the instance of an instrument that isn’t quite up to standard. Something we certainly can learn from.

A side note, but this thought about instruments comes about after I took my bow for a rehair last week and discovered it had incurred a crack among many other issues. Upon playing the bow I had been leant for a few days, I was astonished to hear the vast change in sound of my instrument. I felt so much more confident on a bow that was working well. It just goes to show how often negligence of our tools can make our sound suffer.

Trying different instruments gives us a bigger picture of sound worlds. We can learn so much about how sound is created and how we react to it by frequently going out of our instrumental comfort zone.

Commitment to Sound 4- sound in tension?

I am coming to realise the differences between a sound of monotony and one of nuance often lies in the use of tension and release.

First it is important to think about what tension might mean. Tension and release are naturally found in the keys and textures of the music. There are moments in music of obvious tension and freedom and release. The way in which a composer modulates, or how they create a certain emotion, determines the tension we create.

We can only practice how we use tension and release if we are aware of how we fit in the music. In sonata playing, this means having a good knowledge of the piano part and the key structure of the music. This has always freaked me out a bit! Key’s have always felt like a foreign field to me, but I’m beginning to understand keys as colours (and not stiff academia!) and through this understand how I create sounds. For example, if I have a sustained note I am struggling with, by studying the score I can know whether, in context, it is a note of ease, beauty and freedom or conversely one of conflict and tension by looking at the harmony and texture. Once I am aware of the context of phrases and notes, I can begin to explore different colours on my instrument.

Tension and release can also be created by a knowledge of how to use silences and forming theories as to why a composer have chosen the silences. A great exponent of this is Beethoven. Beethoven has a way of taking us to a different land altogether through is silences. His climaxes often culminate in a huge general pause, before taking us to a completely different environment. In this context, the silence is what creates the tension but is important that we actually learn to ‘play’ a tense silence, a comical silence and a relieving silence.

Much of our use of tension and release comes naturally to us as we respond to the music in the moment, but taking it a step further by looking into the score can bring sounds to a different level of understanding.

Commitment to sound- technique as the foundation for sound

One of the hardest aspects of sound creation to come to terms with is that a great sound cannot be maintained without an awareness of how to create it physically. I am always tempted to believe that sound should be created naturally and without much thought, but the reality is that we must first search for it.

We all have occasional moments in practice where everything suddenly feels balanced and our sound is beautiful and free. It is these moments that I think should provoke our obsession with sound. We should always be aiming for that quality of sound and asking how the sound is created. For string instruments, often the distribution of the bow and the point of contact on the string can add wonderful colour and shape to our sound. Alongside this is freedom within the bowing arm, an awareness of how to create a sound that’s free, as sound that’s focused and a sound that’s forced.

Once the technique is in place to enhance the sounds created, it requires less thought and the music is able to speak. I am finding this is more and more difficult to implement. I want to find a technique that supports my music making, but at the moment many things still feel uncomfortable and it is taking time to sort. In practice, I am very focused on the freedom of my body and bow, but in a performance it becomes clear that the technique isn’t solid enough. I go back to old habits and the music doesn’t speak so well.

Without exploring a freedom of technique and matching techniques to sounds, our music becomes rather unfocused and shapeless in this way. I’m going to try and integrate the technique I am forming in practice into performances. I think a good way of starting this is finding lower pressure performance situations, such as recordings or playing to friends. This way I can allow myself to focus on comfort and freedom of sound without the pressure of the music or desire to perform well.

This sound journey needs me to look for all sorts of sounds, not just one that’s ‘nice’ or ‘pretty’. I want a full and complete sound that speaks the music I love and I am interested to look at my technique more closely in order to begin achieving this.

A Commitment to Sound 2: Finding a Voice

One of the most natural parts of us is our speaking and singing voice. We shape our phrases and intonation to match the mood and express ourselves in speech. Most importantly, we do this totally subconsciously.

To find our voice in playing an instrument means developing an awareness that playing a piece of material, such as wood or metal, is not inherently natural. It is incredibly difficult to develop a sound on our instrument without the influence of our voices to guide the way.

My journey with sound so far has shown me how musical phrases sometimes hold words, gestures and articulations that can be first explored with the voice as the voice has a natural sense of phrasing. Often I have sung a phrase I’m working on and suddenly become aware of bowings and phrasing I have been adopting that make no sense in the context of the voice.

This sense of awareness through the use of the voice is such a valuable tool and makes our sound much more personal. We are developing our own ‘accent’ in a sense, just as actors have arresting voices we strive to develop an arresting sound as our voice between the composer and audience.

My voice is a part of me I am so familiar with and it is wonderful how much it is starting to teach me about my sound!

A Commitment to Sound 1- Motivated by What?

This series shows the ups and downs of me having made a commitment to sound. I have spent many years studying the cello, but very little time has been dedicated to the sound I create and how I create it. Because of this I want to make sound, and not success, my new obsession.

The aspect of this new venture that I am finding most challenging is that I am not always sure what sound I actually want to create. It’s very easy to tune out and get away with a very average sound, especially in the practice room.

I know that my ability to push for a great sound is there because as soon as I am under pressure my critical voice works overtime. It is in my cello lessons, or when someone is listening to me practice, that some of the greatest sound work is done. This is both because my teacher is always pushing for a wonderful sound, but also because suddenly I am being observed. When we start to work on the repertoire have bought I can’t help but hear all the unevenness, the intonation issues and the lumpy phrasing. I am suddenly very frustrated, hyper aware and am striving for better.

If only this constructive and critical voice were more present in my practice. I am happy with less in practice because there is no one watching me, and therefore (admittedly) no one to impress?! The sound commitment I have made is purely for a deeper connection with music through the sound I am creating. Through this I should be trying to impress myself with a wonderful sound and not only motivated towards it in the presence of others.

I have tried to take the music I am playing, maybe also the composer, and imagining them observing my practice. I am asking them questions about how their piece should sound, what type of vibrato to use and how to achieve this. The benefit of this is that the sound motivation has changed from being success and validation to being for the music itself and living up to the expectation the composers had of their piece.

It has also been interesting to record my practice and imagine teaching myself. As a response to recording, so much of the sound work I have done so far has been focused on releasing tension that is obstructing the freedom I am searching for. I often move a great deal when I play, especially when performing, but once relaxed I observe that the emotion in the sound is a result of freedom and not tension.

Sound is such a huge concept and highly personal also. It is proving a tough commitment to have made but one full of much more life and motivation.

A Commitment to Sound

It has been unnervingly easy to go about living, practicing and exploring music without really listening to what I create. I have become complacent, getting by with what is ‘good enough’ and what might sound impressive. My practice has become a frustrating mass of confusion towards a foggy goal of ‘perfect’. Unaware of what I want to achieve, hours per day has become a reassurance that I must be improving. I must be achieving things because I am working hard.

Practice is the bones of creating wonderful music, but what is the use of it if we don’t know what we want to hear? I was about to go to bed a few nights ago when suddenly I decided that I’d had enough of this mediocrity and the rut i’d got into. The many composers whose music I worship and study deserve better. I sat down and wrote ‘I have made a commitment to sound’ in my diary. I commitment not to 7+ hours a day of practice, not to the next award or to proving myself against other musicians. I have made a commitment to, well, the music really and a desire to play it as it needs to be heard.

A ‘nice enough’ sound is not enough to sustain me anymore. There’s no going back from here which is exciting. I am going to use my practice to explore sound and the spirit within the composers bursting to come out. Playing the cello isn’t a sport anymore, I am going to start listening and loving otherwise I see very little point.

I am going to use my blog to share my sound journey with short videos and a raw honesty of how I’m feeling and how my practice is going. I anticipate that this journey is not going to be quick, but with the sound and music now at the centre I am looking to a direction and greater understanding of music.


Thoughts on what makes our favourite music

It has only recently occurred to me quite how many pieces of music have had a profound effect on my life. Some are pieces that I have grown to love through practice and performance and others that, on the first hearing, I have found myself in a prodigious state of awe and wonder, almost beyond the ability to describe. These experiences with music provide a large part of what I see as my ‘spiritual life’, and through this comes the music which forms my identity.

The music closest to my heart creates a peace, some a deep serenity, some a joy, sadness etc. The way in which they move me is always different and often in ways, and with pieces, I would not expect. I am struck, however, by the comparatively small amount of the musical repertoire I have experienced to date. To think how many of these I keep so close to me feels both overwhelming and exciting.

There is so much life and beauty still to uncover through listening and playing. I will never find it all in this lifetime, but to have experienced a small amount of it to such a degree, I believe, is such a wonderful component of faith.

A list of pieces I have found most profound, also a suggested listening. I’m sure I have missed a lot from this list!

Elgar- ‘There Is Sweet Music’ part song

Schubert- Piano Sonata no.21 in B flat (opening 1st movement)

Brahms- violin concerto 1st movement 2nd subject

John Ireland- ‘the Hills’

Puccini- La Boheme, ‘Che gelida manina’

Schubert- Two cello Quintet 1st movement cello duet

Elgar- The Dream of Gerontius

Haydn- Piano trio no.44 1&3 movements

Bach- St Matthew Passion

Elgar- cello concerto 3rd movement

Walton- Belshazzar’s Feast

Vaughn Williams- ‘O taste and see’

Purcell- Dido’s Lament

Thomas Morley- English madrigals

Sumsion- Magnificat in G

Poulenc- Cello sonata

Debussy- violin sonata

Howells- Magnificat Gloucester service

Tsintsadsze- Chonguri

Janacek- On an Overgrown Path

Shostakovich- Fugue no.7 in A

Chopin-Ballade no.3