Explore Chineke! and Sheku’s concert
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1975-1912): Ballade in A minor, Op. 33 (1898)
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in Holborn and studied composition with Stanford at the Royal College of Music. His first piece was published when he was 16, and he composed his Symphony in A minor aged just 20. Coleridge-Taylor was particularly celebrated in the United States, first visiting in 1904, when he was invited to meet President Roosevelt at the White House, and conducting his own music on far-reaching tours thereafter. In the UK, he was appointed conductor of the Handel Society of London in 1904, a position he held until his death aged only 37. He was also made Professor of Composition at both the Guildhall School of Music and Trinity College of Music.
After meeting the poet P.L. Dunbar in 1897, Coleridge-Taylor became increasingly interested in his heritage and in promoting the dignity of people of African descent. In the following year, Coleridge-Taylor composed his orchestral Ballade in A minor. The work was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival in the Spring of 1898 at the insistence of Edward Elgar, who had been the organisation’s initial choice. He responded: “I am sorry I am too busy to do so. I wish, wish, wish you would ask Coleridge-Taylor to do it. He still wants recognition, and he is far and away the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men.” Elgar’s friend, the publisher August Jaeger (the inspiration for Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’), declared that Coleridge-Taylor was “a genius”.
Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade is distinguished by its superb orchestration and dexterous handling of themes. The piece begins with a tremulous string texture and animated woodwind figurations, accentuated by the brass. After this arresting opening, the music mellows into a lyrical, passionate melody. These contrasting elements are explored before the lyrical theme builds to a glorious climax, and the work culminates in a thrilling conclusion.
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Cello Concerto No. 1 in C (c.1761-5)
3. Allegro molto
Between 1761 and 1790 Haydn was employed by the Esterházy family, spending much of his time at its vast but remote palace, Esterháza, where he was in charge of the court’s musical life. Another of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s employees was John Frederick Bridgetower, a man thought to have been of West Indian or African descent. One of Bridgetower’s sons, the virtuoso violinist George Bridgetower, inspired Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 in A, Op. 47; another son was a cellist based in Dresden.
Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 was probably composed some time between 1761 and 1765, early on in his time at Esterháza. The work was only discovered 200 years later, in 1961, by the musicologist Oldřich Pulkert in the Prague National Museum. It is believed that Haydn wrote the Concerto for his friend Joseph Weigl, principal cellist in Prince Esterházy’s orchestra. Indeed, it is possible that Weigl was the only cellist in the orchestra at this time, as the score indicates that the cellist should shift between ‘solo’ and ‘tutti’ roles. The work was written about 20 years before Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 2 in D (1783).
The Concerto in C opens with a vigorous orchestral introduction before the entry of the cello, which is given ambitious material including quadruple stopping (four strings played at once), agile leaps, rapid motifs and repeated figures and, towards the end of the movement, a lively cadenza. The graceful slow movement opens with the string ensemble, omitting winds, before a held cello note marks the beginning of the soloist’s entry. Haydn reprises this device several times, creating the impression that the cello melody is growing out of the orchestral texture, and the movement includes another cadenza.
The held-note device spills over into the famous finale, but produces a very different effect in this context: a discursive orchestral introduction is answered assertively by the cello’s sustained note in the manner of a declaration of intent, before the soloist launches into a flurry of activity. The level of virtuosity demanded of the cellist is extraordinary, at times creating the impression of frenetic dialogue between different registers of the same instrument.
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924): Élégie in C minor, Op. 24 (1880)
Fauré was born in Ariège in south-western France and became a highly influential composer, teacher and organist whose harmonic language left a lasting imprint on French music. Fauré began work on a cello sonata in 1880 but only completed one movement, which was then published as a stand-alone work: his Élégie. The piece was probably first performed in June 1880 at one of the private concerts of Saint-Saëns (who visited and was inspired by North Africa, although his compatriot drew upon influences closer to home). The first public performance followed in December 1883 at the Société Nationale de Musique, with the work’s dedicatee, Jules Loeb, taking the cello part and the composer at the piano. The piece was warmly received, and the conductor Édouard Colonne suggested that Fauré make an arrangement for cello and orchestra. Fauré agreed, and the result was premiered by Pablo Casals, with Fauré conducting, in April 1901.
The Élégie is a brooding, mournful cello soliloquy supported by an orchestral cushion of sound, its central section developing into a more animated tussle between soloist and ensemble. The Élégie’s directness of emotion is remarkable, representing perhaps the last work by Fauré in such an open, Romantic style. After this catharsis, his music would become more reserved and introspective.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73 (1877)
1. Allegro non troppo
2. Adagio non troppo
3. Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino)
4. Allegro con spirito
In 1873 Brahms wrote his Variations on a Theme by Haydn, after which anticipation grew about his first, “grand symphony”. In reality, Brahms took about 21 years in all to write his First Symphony; the work’s conception may date as far back as 1854-5, then in 1862 Brahms sent Clara Schumann an early version of the first movement, after which progress stalled. By the time the Symphony was finished in 1876, the composer was in his early 40s. Part of the reason for this slow gestation period was Brahms’s acute awareness of precedent. Beethoven cast a long shadow, and Brahms invariably hesitated to write music in the genres that his hero had mastered, especially the string quartet and the symphony. Yet once this hurdle had, at last, been overcome, Brahms produced his Second Symphony quite quickly, and the two symphonies are sometimes considered to be companion pieces. The First is a work of sombre nobility and power, balanced by the pastoral Second, which was completed within a year of its predecessor.
Brahms toyed with his publishers when describing the nature of the Symphony No. 2, writing on 22 November that the work “is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning.” This was, surely, tongue-in-cheek, although there are undoubtedly moments of both light and shade throughout. The Symphony was first performed on 30 December 1877 and was hailed by the music critic Eduard Hanslick as “a great, unqualified success”.
The lyrical opening melody dissolves into a darker sonority for trombones and timpani, although the melodic radiance of the movement ultimately prevails, including a theme introduced on violas and cellos based on ‘Brahms’s Lullaby’, a tune he had composed for his Wiegenlied (‘Lullaby’), Op. 49. The coda is unusual for a symphonic first movement, ending not with bombast but with gentleness. The richly Romantic second movement begins with violas and cellos unfolding one of Brahms’s deliberately ambiguous creations, a principal theme in which a fluid sense of meter is enriched by a wealth of ideas that lend themselves to ‘developing variation’. This term was coined in the 20th century by Arnold Schoenberg, who wrote an essay entitled ‘Brahms the Progressive’ crediting Brahms with more innovation than he has traditionally been ascribed. This technique combines variation and development so that the material is explored and expanded upon as the movement progresses.
The atmosphere brightens in the second half of the work, with occasional allusions to earlier moments of contemplation. Brahms starts the pastoral third movement with an oboe theme supported by the winds, with cellos playing pizzicato (plucked). The movement is in an original form, combining elements of the Scherzo and Trio pioneered by Beethoven with a more episodic rondo structure. Fleeting shadows pass across the finale, but hope wins through, and the work ends in a glorious blaze of sunshine.
© Joanna Wyld, 2020
Sheku Kanneh-Mason, one of the brightest young stars on the classical music scene, became a household name worldwide in May 2018 after performing at the wedding of TRH the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. His performance was greeted with universal excitement after being watched by nearly two billion people globally.
The winner of the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition, Sheku is already in great demand from major orchestras and concert halls worldwide. In January 2018, his debut recording for Decca Classics, Inspiration, was released, featuring the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. In June 2018, Sheku received the male artist of the year and the critics’ choice awards at the re-launched classic brit awards, and in July 2018 became the first artist to receive the new brit certified breakthrough award, having sold over 30,000 copies of his debut album in the uk and surpassing 100,000 album sales worldwide. In January 2020, Sheku released his second album, Elgar, centred around the Elgar Cello Concerto, which was recorded at Abbey Road studios with Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra. On its release, it reached No. 8 in the UK Official Album Chart, making Sheku the youngest classical instrumentalist and the first cellist in history to reach the UK Top 10.
Sheku has made debuts with orchestras such as the Seattle Symphony, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Netherlands Chamber Orchestra at the Concertgebouw, the Atlanta Symphony, Japan Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, and Baltimore Symphony Orchestras. Forthcoming highlights include debuts with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Hallé Orchestra, a tour of the US with the Chineke! Orchestra, and a tour of Australia performing with his six siblings.
Listen to more Sheku Kanneh-Mason
Chineke! was founded in 2015 by the double bass player, Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE, to provide career opportunities for young Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians in the UK and Europe. Chineke!’s mission is: ‘Championing change and celebrating diversity in classical music’.
The Chineke! Orchestra, the Foundation’s flagship ensemble, works closely with its sister ensemble, the Chineke! Junior Orchestra, a youth orchestra of BME players aged between 11 and 18, with senior players acting as mentors, teachers and role models to the young musicians.
In 2017, the Chineke! Orchestra made its BBC Proms debut at the Royal Albert Hall in August and performed at many other leading festivals throughout England, all to great critical acclaim. Chineke! has released two CDs over the past year with more planned in 2018 and 2019.
The Chineke! Ensemble comprises the principal players of the Chineke! Orchestra. It has performed in Manchester in 2017 and made its debut at Wigmore Hall in 2018 before going on to play at the Cheltenham and Ryedale festivals. In the autumn of 2018 it will perform at the Tonbridge Music Club, Wimbledon International Festival, Cambrige Music Festival and at St George’s Bristol.
Chineke!’s founder, Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE, says: ‘My aim is to create a space where BME musicians can walk on stage and know that they belong, in every sense of the word. If even one BME child feels that their colour is getting in the way of their musical ambitions, then I hope to inspire them, give them a platform, and show them that music, of whatever kind, is for all people.’
In the words of Sir Simon Rattle: ‘Chineke! is not only an exciting idea but a profoundly necessary one. The kind of idea which is so obvious that you wonder why it is not already in place. The kind of idea which could deepen and enrich classical music in the UK for generations. What a thrilling prospect!’