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Taking a toll. Mid-festival at the BBC Proms.

August 8, 2014

Next week the BBC Promenade Concerts arrive at their mid-festival point. A number of programmes for the concerts being held during 15-21 August are assembled around themes; unsurprisingly, the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war is marked on 17 August by music written around that dark period in history. Familiar works by Butterworth and Vaughan Williams are paired with less well-known pieces by Rudi Stephan (Music for Orchestra) and Frederick Kelly (Elegy for Strings). We read that the latter was an Olympic rower as well as a deft composer, and that Butterworth was equally distinguished as a soldier and a composer.

George Butterworth

The Royal Albert Hall, the venue for the majority of the Proms concerts, recently mounted an exhibition commemorating the efforts of the staff employed there during the war to keep the hall buzzing with concerts and other events. Some of them went to the front line and never returned. A similar fate befell George Butterworth, the English composer whose song-cycle of six songs from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (8.572426) will open the concert on 17 August. Butterworth was killed in action at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and was buried where he fell. That chilling thought resonates with the final song in the set, Is my team ploughing?, in which the interred body of a dead man speaks to the familiar scenes above ground that he has left behind. One line from that poem got me thinking how there’s a particular thread weaving across several of the concerts in this fifth week of the Proms. You can hear it in this extract:

“Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?”
Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.

Sleigh bells

I’m thinking of bells and their assortment of characters. The sound of harness jingles in Butterworth’s song isn’t directly portrayed in the music, but sleigh-bells are clearly heard at the start of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 (8.550527), which Bernard Haitink conducts on 16 August. Their use immediately sets the tone for the thread of innocence and beauty that runs through much of the symphony, as can be heard in this extract.

Although Tchaikovsky considered his 1812 Overture (8.553248) to be “without any serious merits”, his use of cannon fire plus a cacophony of bells to depict the triumph of Russian forces over Napoleon’s army ensured a long shelf-life for the piece. Here’s the resplendent conclusion of the work which can be heard on 18 August.

Church bells

Larger, deeper-toned bells exude a more sinister association with death. Berlioz’s autobiographical and vividly orchestrated extravaganza Symphonie fantastique (8.572886) features the tolling of funeral bells in the last movement, when witches throw themselves with abandon into a cult gathering. The work gets an airing on August 19 and it’s always interesting to hear which type of bell (and the accompanying casserole of overtones) conductors insist on for this section.

Sergei Rachmaninov

Tintinnabulation gets its biggest spotlight on 18 August with a performance of Rachmaninov’s 4-movement choral symphony The Bells (8.550805). Inspired by a Russian version of Edgar Alan Poe’s poem of the same name, the work gave Rachmaninov the chance to vent a textual and musical expression of his fascination with bells:  silver sleigh-bells of birth; golden wedding bells; brazen bells of alarm; and the iron death bell. This extract is Rachmaninov’s realisation of the reference to bells at the opening of the the third movement:

Hear the alarm bell howl.
It groans just like some brazen hell.
The sounds, in barbarous torment,
reiterate a tale of terrors.

Tubular bells

The Bells was first performed in 1913, on the cusp of the first world war. Britten’s War Requiem (8.553558-59) was written in the aftermath of the second world war. The pacifist composer was commissioned to write the work to celebrate the re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, which had been rebuilt following its virtual destruction by war-time bombing. Britten’s monumental work, scheduled for 21 August, uses the sound of tolling bells at the poignant opening and conclusion of the piece.


Let’s end, however, with a more cheerful use of the bell-like sounds of the celesta, a keyboard instrument that strikes small metal bars to create the gentler sound of high-pitched bells. Tchaikovsky used the instrument in his ballet The Nutcracker to depict The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Stravinsky used it in one of his less well-know works, programmed for 18 August: his Scherzo fantastique (8.571224). Listen out for it as it makes a couple of brief appearances in this extract.

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