This Group is currently closed. If anyone would like to see it resurrected by becoming Group Leader, please contact Diane Caulkett on 01621 783786 or email@example.com
The June meeting of the Understanding Music group focussed on Felix Mendelssohn.
Although he is regarded as one of the Romantic composers, he admired and based much of his work on the earlier Baroque and Classical giants – Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. He wrote some beautiful tunes. Here is his Octet, written when he was only 15.
And here is the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, also written in his 16th year.
Like Mozart, Felix was a child prodigy, giving his first public performance aged 9. According to the poet Goethe, who in his long life heard both the child Mozart and young Mendelssohn play the piano, Felix was by far the more mature and accomplished.
The Mendelssohns were a wealthy banking family and no expense was spared in the education of their four children. They had private tutors in literature, music and painting and Felix became a gifted and accomplished landscape painter as well as a composer. His older sister, Fanny, also became a concert pianist and a composer in her own right, although she did not receive the same encouragement in her endeavours as her brother.
When he was 28 he married Cecile, whom he met in Paris, and they had five children, none of whom followed in Felix’s footsteps.
Mendelssohn developed a great love of the British Isles, which he visited no less than 10 times. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were fans of his, and he performed for them on several occasions.
While visiting Scotland, Felix took a boat trip to the Hebrides, and, in spite of suffering from dreadful seasickness, he felt moved by the majestic scenery to write his famous “Fingal’s Cave” overture.
In 1846 the Birmingham Festival commissioned him to write his oratorio, “Elijah”, and it was premiered in Birmingham Town Hall. It has become a very popular work. The Burnham Music Group performed it in 2010, so several members of our U3A group know this music quite well.
The following year, in May, his beloved older sister Fanny died of a stroke, the same condition which had carried off her grandfather and both her parents. That November, less than 6 months later, Felix himself died of the same cause, leaving behind a catalogue of gorgeous music for us all to enjoy.
The Understanding Music group, in our chronological journey through classical music, has reached Victorian times, where there is a wealth of European composers to get to know.
In August we had a look at Antonin Dvorak’s life and music. His father was a butcher and innkeeper, and Antonin was expected to follow in his Dad’s footsteps. Luckily, Dad realised that his son had musical talent, and he made sure that the lad received proper training. In 1866 Antonin (shall we call him Tony?), aged 25, got a job as a viola player in the Bohemian Theatre Orchestra.
Nine years later, a certain Mr. Brahms was on the judging panel for a composition competition and Dvorak won. Two years after that, he won it again, and Johannes Brahms took notice of him. The two became good friends, and Brahms, who was 8 years older than Dvorak, made sure that his music got published.
The trendy thing at the time, started by the Russian composer Glinka in an attempt to get Russian music onto the Western European music scene, was to write music based on the local folk music. Smetana picked up this idea, and began to write distinctively Czech music, and Dvorak followed his example.
Click on the link below to hear Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance no.1. It lasts for 4 minutes and 43 seconds, but you can close it at any time to return to this page.
When he was 50, he was invited become Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York.
He took his ideas on folk music with him and began to search for American folk music. His very popular “New World” symphony contains many references to both Native American and Afro-American music.
We were fascinated to learn about this innovative and tuneful composer and we listened with fresh ears to several of his pieces on cd and on YouTube. Next time you hear his music played on Classic FM or radio 3, listen for the Slavic rhythms and tunes.
This year our group has continued its journey through time and the development of “classical” music. Last summer we waved goodbye to Bach and spent three months listening to, and finding out about, some of the other Baroque composers. We started with Vivaldi and Corelli and we found the sonnets which inspired Vivaldi to write his “Four Seasons” concertos.
Listening to the music with the words in front of us, we could hear the birds singing, the thunderstorm, the peasants sleeping in the sun and the icy blast of winter.
We listened to music by the Scarlattis, father and son, Telemann from Germany, Couperin from France, and we discovered that Albinoni’s famous Adagio was not written by Albinoni at all, but by Remo Giazotto in the 1940’s!
In October we regretfully left the Baroque era behind and began to look at the true Classical period. Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven occupied us for a full six months, and we listened to some of our favourite pieces by these three geniuses.
In some lighter moments, we heard Flanders and Swann’s version of Mozart’s horn concerto and Dudley Moore’s spoof Beethoven piano sonata. We also came across some interesting instruments. Haydn wrote pieces for the baryton – a sort of very complicated cello with extra strings at the back. We also heard a piece which Mozart had written for the glass harmonica.
From May this year we have moved out of the Classical and into the Romantic period, starting with Berlioz, Schubert and Chopin – so much more gorgeous music to listen to!
The new Understanding Music group first met in February. We had a two-pronged plan. The first was to watch a series of twelve lectures entitled “How Music and Mathematics Relate” which we had bought on DVD from “The Great Courses”. We are now halfway through the course, which is given by a professor of mathematics who is also a violinist and who illustrates his lectures by playing his violin. We have found a lot of it quite difficult to understand. Nevertheless, we have gleaned a smattering of understanding of why musical instruments sound different from each other; how musical scales are constructed; how pianos are tuned and how composers use rhythm.
The second part of our plan is to follow the history of the development of classical music. We are listening to an audio book, which has taken us so far from about 800 AD to 1600 AD, from Gregorian plainchant through troubadour songs to Italian, French and English madrigals. We make extensive use of YouTube, which has myriads of examples of all the music we want to listen to. Some of our favourite composers so far are Hildegard of Bingen; William of Aquitaine; Giovanni Palestrina and Thomas Tallis.
Three hundred U3A members gathered at the Royal Society in London on 11thJune, amongst them seven of us from Burnham. We were there to hear Dr. Victoria Williamson of Sheffield University talk about “Music and Memory”.
Dr. Williamson was very excited about her new research in neuroscience, which involves magnetic resonance imaging of peoples’ brains while they are thinking about (not listening to or performing in any way) music. She has discovered that it is not just the auditory parts of the brain which are active when we think about a piece of music, but lots of other areas including movement, emotions and deep memories. Injury to the brain, strokes and dementia tend to damage the cortex which is very vulnerable, but memories involving music are stored deep inside the brain, in the area Dr. Williamson calls the “golden triangle”, and so are often retained, even in cases of severe amnesia. Thus patients with dementia will respond with joy to familiar tunes from their youth, and we were shown a video clip of such people singing and dancing with the musicians from “Lost Chord” – an organisation for whom Terry Saunders sometimes works.
Finally, we were shown the brain scans of some people taken while they were listening to their favourite piece of music – you know – the one which sends shivers down your spine. The whole brain was lit up like a firework display, with all areas responding and dopamine (the happy stuff) being released by the bucketful.