So, what is a Cantata? A Cantata is a musical work composed for the voice. It is approximately twenty minutes long with smaller movements for solo voice, chorus and instrumental accompaniment — sometimes all three.
Church Cantatas, aka Sacred Cantatas, are intended to be performed during Christian liturgy.
What is the difference between an Opera and a Cantata? As a Cantata is a vocal work, mainly during the C17th and C18th, an Opera is a theatrical work combining drama, music, song and sometimes dance.
A few years ago I was online scanning the concert listings at a world-class venue in London. On this particular occasion I was looking for small scale music-making. The Baroque era is a favourite of mine, and I chose a recorder and theorbo programme.
On the day of the concert I was early, and so decided to spend some time in a book shop. Afterwards, I went to the concert hall and started my packed lunch. Before I could finish it was time for the concert to begin.
During the concert sometimes the instruments played together, sometimes they played solo. For one recorder solo, the recordist played two recorders simultaneously! When the theorboist played solo pieces, one of them was introduced as a passacaglia – which, to my amusement, collected philistinic giggles. If only the pictures of musical aristocracy on the walls of the concert room had ears of flesh!
This poem, The Known Great Composer, is about the concert. Head and shoulders above, one composer and his music made my whole time in London memorable. Memorable for the right reason – music.
No prizes, but if you can guess the Great Composer I don’t mention, you are a winner! Clue: Imagine the accompanying music in this clip being played two octaves lower on a solo cello…
“The Known Great Composer”
“The window blinds close
The stage lights are adjusted
Two musicians walk on stage
And we welcome them warmly…”
On the way home, I happened to see someone I knew. We talked for a while, and I expressed that I would be writing a poem about the concert. By this time, my mind had already begun putting the poem together.
Furthermore, before arriving home, I visited a local art gallery and talked more about poetry to the exhibiting Artist, referencing the couple of books I bought earlier that day written by the Poet Laureate.
The recent art exhibition at the Anna Lovely Gallery was open for two weeks, ending on the 3rd April 2022. The Artists showing were selected from the 2021 Summer Open Exhibition. On the penultimate day I made footage and added fitting music by Mussorgsky called ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’.
This is the most famous piece of organ music ever written!
From the very first notes it demands your attention. But, was it really composed by Johann Sebastian Bach? Well, surely everybody knows it was because, after all, that’s how we came to know the piece.
However, a very small ‘however,’ one or two quarters have made remarks about this music that are interesting.
Bombastic, outlandish and downright outrageous?
Sweeping, catchy proverbs after sweeping, catchy proverbs?
And, would maestro Bach ever compose in such a style so different from all his other output?
Answering the first question, my thoughts are that it is extremely flamboyant, debonair and daring.
To answer the second question I would say that, at times I couldn’t bear to hear the piece. It sounds so like the music you would hear when you are put on ‘hold’ on a customer services call. Or even a piece of elevator music. One cannot escape the fact that it is, as the title implies, virtuosic.
And to answer the third question let me say that, all great composers have the ability to write in a wide variety of different styles — the wider the variety, the greater the genius. Whether the quieter nuances or the spicy fireworks, if one can compose without limits, one is unlimited — a master. It is my opinion that Bach probably wrote the Toccata before breakfast. A mere exercise a virtuoso could dash off to dazzle and impress anyone who happens to be within the church’s vicinity.
For this post I will be taking the first movement, the Toccata.
Not all recordings are equal.
I have been enthusiastic and passionate about music, particularly the ‘classical’ genre, for my entire adult life, and have come to realise that different recordings of a piece can vary, one to the other — and quite a bit, too.
The piece under the spotlight here was composed for church organ, probably before 1708. There are also arrangements for orchestra, solo violin and the piano. It has been said that the moment a piece of music is re-arranged from its original, it has been re-composed.
I see the piano as the musical instrument of my choice since 1990. An eminent guitarist said a few years ago, “Whilst stringed music is for the emotions, piano music is for the intellect”. So, join me on this particular musical excursion, on the piano, with Bach’s legendary Toccata.
In my CD library (yes, they do still exist) are four CDs that include recordings of the Toccata on the piano (see below). Over the years I have developed a musical palette whereby I can tell within the first few bars of a recording whether it will be satisfying and pleasurable. If only I had all the ultimate recordings then I could rest! I want all of them — now!
As you can see below, there are four different publications of the Bach piece in my library – all arranged for solo piano.
These publications, with the help of recordings to an extent, shows one how to play the notes. However, playing the music is an entirely different game – I love affair – making the notes leave the page and into the ears.
Music is to be enjoyed and not endured. Making music is not a mechanical process played by automatron robots, but a dance between musician and listener, between a man and a woman. The heart, the intellect and the spirit of a person are all at play. To me, it is all about communication – two-way communication.
Music is nostalgic — enjoying the past now. Music is predictive — drawing down from tomorrow and enjoying it now. Music is art.
And how does one translate two notes on a page to two notes on the airwaves? Answer: interpretation. What statements are you going to make? What phrasing are you going to articulate? Are there any emphasis you could bring to highlight a point or two? And what is the overall shape, the story you want to tell: the starting point, the endpoint, and the interim?
And so to my interpretation of the Toccata from Bach’s BWV 565…
Thirty-five years ago since I became aware of the work, I am now hearing it call out to me: “Rubato!” and, “More rubato!” And sometimes I never pay the stolen time back! As I have been familiar with the piece for such a long time, I am instilling more musicality into performances — which, of course, is inseparable from elements of my personality. And so, naturally, I have made recordings – just for fun.
The last recording I made brought with it a surprise. Up until that date I had always played the opening with the same notes. But, for the first time it dawned on me to play the same passage with extra notes. I tried it. And, it worked! With these new notes came a new interpretation on how they should sound. In short, there is a deliberate slowing down of the opening, together with increased volume dynamics, and becoming more emphatic as the music descends down the keyboard into the sonorous depths of D minor… And that’s just the opening!
Look out for another exaggerated detachment — this time two notes. And the music continues…
In this section I draw further on my feelings on how poetry should be performed. This is played out with more manipulation of the timings. When, as I tell the story, I repeat a particular chord sequence, the chord sequence anticipates, predicting that something different is about to happen — a new scene, as it were, is just around the corner. This predictive text is not written in the score but comes from my memory of an old recording on audio cassette tape played on a church organ…
Much more rubato and dramatic storytelling…!
My own review of my own performance? Stately. Pronounced. Flights into the ether? Faithful to the term ‘toccata’. Organistic.
“The assignment, if you choose to accept, is to write a poem about fishing.” Well, that wasn’t quite the directive from Her Majesty’s Secret Service but by a local poetry collective some years ago. To be more precise, a person from the group Poetry Hour, which meets bi-monthly at Croydon Central Library, selected the topic of ‘sport’ that we could write about for the next meeting.
Now, I’m not really a sporty sort of person but very keen on most other aspects of health and fitness. I hadn’t a clue what to write about for a week or so until I was engrossed in another intensive sport akin to skydiving – the sport of ironing! There I was pressing the creases and my mind caught… a fish! I had never, ever, been fishing and so I went to the local angling store to conduct some research.
While I was there, I asked the sales assistant about the sport and bought some fishing line, a fly, a hook and an angling magazine – these would be visual aids that I would use during my reading. At least that was my intension.
The poem may, or may not, have been written with a tongue in my cheek.
It’s 3:15 am and I’ve just packed my lunch and kit
The predictive seaweed looks clammy as I check it
The shipping forecast confirms, rain is on the way
And hovering around minus two for most of the day…”
For the video productions of the poem there was only one choice of music that sprung to mind: The Trout by Franz Schubert. In my recording, I have brought out the jolly experience of fishing! Furthermore, there is a surprise at the end of the full length videobook version of the poem.
To wet, whoops, whet your appetite here is the first verse from the videobook: Gone Fishing
Wrynose Pass is a mountain road in an English National Park called The Lake District. It has been described as Britain’s most difficult road.
During a photography holiday in this part of England I was coming to the end of a particular day. I had been driving far and wide to many locations with my camera, rural and otherwise.
The time was approaching sunset when I reached Devoke Water, the last location before returning to the B & B. Although I had been to this lake before, this second visit was a trifle peculiar… What was not different was the voices of the angels and the view of the lake itself, made extra special by the setting sun with all its colours.
After the photography I returned to the car and started to make my way back but, unlike the previous occasion some years earlier, the journey was marked by a thick, nocturnal atmosphere – and I had no idea what lay ahead.
The location I chose to film this poem was an almost forgotten road somewhere that reminded me of Wrynose Pass… but where’s the car!
The first verse:
I’m on my way back to my lodgings
Not long, I hope, ‘till I’m safely back
I set the SatNav and follow its commands
It’s getting darker and will soon be pitch black…”
The music I chose for the video is titled: Sonata quasi una fantasia (translates to: Sonata in the style of a Fantasy). Although the sonata is also known as the Moonlight Sonata, I wanted to bring out the drama and sense of fantasy when I recorded it on my piano. The recording of the music also went through a mysterious and eventful journey. The morning after I had made the final edit, I played it back on my HiFi. Immediately after this I turned the radio on and exactly the same movement from the same piece was being played.
One evening when it was warm I took a walk to the shops. It was still daylight and the atmospheric conditions were good. The lighting was that which accompanies the setting of the sun. However, it wasn’t the setting sun that caught my senses, glorious as it may have been, but the quality of the ambient light. It was as if I was looking through a veil.
As I walked home, I found myself thinking about the first line to a Shakespeare sonnet: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (sonnet 18). Much of my preoccupation at the time concerned the sky – particularly writing about it. Within 24 to 48 hours I had drafted three poems about the sky. The feel of the first line of sonnet 18 lead me to write my first line: What is there in all creation…?
The ‘What Is There In All Creation…?’ poem is written in four verses, each verse with an ABBA rhyming form. That is: line 1 rhymes with line 4 and line 2 rhymes with line 3. At the time of composing the poem, I had no knowledge of any other poem written in this style. This knowledge came later.
‘What Is There In All Creation…?
What is there in all creation that can compare to the sky?
She, at times, can be quite calm as well as electrifying
Also, sometimes, conveys sadness and happiness — quite confusing
This is because she is pure and 3 times very high…’
In my videobook, the music that accompanies this poem is J. S. Bach’s Prelude No. 1 from his Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One.
The traditional folk song, Scarborough Fair, dates back to Medieval times and refers to an old fair in Scarborough, Yorkshire. The market fair included traders, merchants, entertainers and food vendors, starting from the 14th century until the 18th century. Today, several fairs are held in remembrance of the original.
‘Scarborough Fair’ Lyrics
The lyrics in ‘Scarborough Fair’ are about unrequited love; a man trying to attain his true love. The young man requests impossible tasks from his former lover, saying that if she can perform them, he will take her back. In return, she requests impossible tasks of him, saying she will perform hers when he performs his. In the Middle Ages, the herbs mentioned in the song represented virtues that were important to the lyrics. Parsley was comfort, sage was strength, rosemary was love and thyme was courage.
Simon and Garfunkel’s Version
In my re-imagined/re-composed version and recording of the traditional tune, thought was given to the costume and the videography. During the editing light balance and overall visual appearance were adjusted to convey a dreamlike, fairytale atmosphere. When I was recording the vocals it seemed, at times, as though I was fighting an invisible enemy. This gave my voice a different quality: (a) a sense of weak, youthful innocence similar to a feeling of indolence (Scarborough Fair), (b) a strong, macho/masculine presence similar to a military officer recounting events on a battlefield (Canticle).
I went to the National Poetry Library in London earlier this year. I was on a mission: to find out which magazines published similar poetry to mine. For the next two hours I looked at everything that was available. All, bar one, had absolutely no poems about music — not even remotely! In my first poetry book ‘Soaring Higher’ (see ‘books’ page) there are six full length poems with such tasty flavours!
This poem is about a musician — and no ordinary musician at that — but a Virtuoso. “But what is a Virtuoso?” I hear you cry. According to Grove Music Online:
“Virtuoso ( It., from Lat. virtus : ‘excellence’, ‘worth’ ) A person of notable accomplishment; a musician of extraordinary technical skill. In its original Italian usage (particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries) ‘virtuoso’ was a term of honour reserved for a person distinguished in any intellectual or artistic field: a poet, architect, scholar etc. A virtuoso in music might be a skilful performer, but more importantly he was a composer, a theorist or at least a famous maestro di cappella. In the late 17th and 18th centuries a great number of Italian”
“A Natural Virtuoso!”
“Just a few words I’ve penned over tea
That I hope will warm your heart and bless
Who in all the wide-world could it be?
An appreciative music lover no less…”
A piece of music that requires virtuosic technique is J. S. Bach’s famous showstopper: Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Fragments of the Toccata are included in a video of myself performing the poem.