Thursday, 26 October 2017


Classical Break has had its final airing.

After 9 years of weekly programmes, Mike and Rupert have ceased the Classical Break strand on Somer Valley FM.

Thanks to those of you who have remained loyal listeners. We hope you've enjoyed our take on what makes "Classical Music".

Many thanks also to  Dom and Luke at Somer Valley FM for all their support and encouragement for our productions over the years.

For the time being you will still be able to listen to recordings of  past editions of the Classical Break on the website and read the scripts on this blog.

We continue to produce two shows each month on Frome FM 96.6fm and online at
under the titles, "Performance" and "Classical Analysis".

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

6 August 2017 The Agony & The Ecstasy Soundtrack

The Agony and The Ecstasy

This programme is repeated from July 2013.

Signature Tune:  The Path of The Beloved from the Suite Rakastava (Op14), Sibelius

This is Classical Break, on Somer Valley FM. Today’s programme consists of music from the 1965 feature film, The Agony and The Ecstasy. This Hollywood epic, Directed by Carol Reed and starring Charlton Heston, and Rex Harrison, Diane Cilento and Aldofo Celi, may seem an odd place in which to find music for a classical music-slot, but in fact the score of the main part of the picture, by Alex North and Alexander Courage, is a fascinating attempt to meld music of the renaissance with a Respighi-like pictorialism that suits fully a cinemascope keeping, the vivid colours and vibrant imagery of a film from the mid-‘60s. 

Alex North was the second most nominated film composer In Hollywood and received an honorary award In recognition of his brilliant artistry.  He provided music for films As various as Spartacus, Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf, A Streetcar Named Desire, Dragonslayer and Good Morning Vietnam. 

He was nominated for an Oscar for The Agony and The Ecstasy in 1966.  In this film, location-work and studio-shot scenes are beautifully lit, a world of rich vestures and palaces, glinting armour and weaponry, bright banners and desolate, smoking scenes of military defeat, all captured in their gentility and horror. In dark interior scenes of chapel and tavern or in front of the vibrant, living frescoes of art and theocratic politics, there glowers the gaunt, paint-spattered figure of Michelangelo Buonarotti – the driven artist forced by Papal commission to break the habit of a lifetime and paint a ceiling with ‘appropriate designs’. The warrior-Pope, Julius the 2nd suffers, too: “Michelangelo, when will you make an end!” - “When I am finished!” and there is a danger that between showing that the Pope is driven also, in his case, to hold together the Catholic Church in a country of duchies and Europe beyond, and that Michelangelo has to suffer and be impossible with authority to paint like one inspired, the film earns another title, “The Mahogany and The Hickory - Or How The Sistine Chapel Gained A Ceiling (In The End)”.

Nevertheless, there is the score, in whose brilliance and half-tones the story of transcendent Art is most truly told through the use of Romantic organ and bells, brash handling of brass and side-drums, bucolic, courtly and agonized use of woodwind in weak register, moments of veil-like expectancy or surge at height and plod de profundis of strings. Snatches from mediaeval pipe-music, a martial galliard here, pastiche of consort- or choral music there, a Shostakovich-like angularity and lacerating implacability of line, chantlike melody and chromaticism that both hark back to Cesar Franck through the Gregorian Respighi; leading motives to represent characters or states of mind are also heard, a common thing in film-scores: with an incredibly wide range of musical influences, Alex North and his assistant, Alexander Courage, wrote a masterpiece expressive of the suffering and isolation of the true artist.  Here is the first cue: a scene in a precipitous marble quarry, The Mountains of Carrara.

Track One: The Mountains of Carrara

The second cue accompanies pastoral scenes (two piping oboes – oboes d’amour – and cor anglais in imitational piffero style) suddenly broken in on by skirmish:  relentlessly rhythmical cavalry pursue infantry into a maize-crop – slaughter ensues; by far the most of the music occurs to denote victory - the leader of the cavalry is soon revealed to be Julius the 2nd as he takes off his helmet and assumes his calot and white mantle.  Here occurs the in fact anachronistic reference to a galliard, ‘La Bataille’, from the Danserye of Tielman Susato.

The Warrior-Pope.

Track Two: The Warrior Pope

The Florentine family, the Medici, have been Buonarotti’s longest-serving patrons. Cardinal Giovanni de Medici and the Contessina De Medici, his sister, have won Buonarotti a commission to build Julius’s tomb; now, the Pope wishes the artist to paint images of the twelve apostles on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Buonarotti is a sculptor, and has scruples... So the adventure begins. The Medicis – a pastiche consort flute-and-strings number written by Alexander Courage - the flute closely attended by imitational figures.

Track Three: The Medici

In deep, brooding music, combining the Gregorian influence with that of what sounds like the Fifth Symphony slow movement of Shostakovich, work begins on scaffolding high in the vaults of the roof of the decayed chapel:  The Sketch of The Apostles New plaster is smoothed on. Outlines are laid.  Paint is applied...

Track Four: The Sketch of The Apostles

The Artist is dissatisfied with his commission. The faces of ordinary persons make the best faces for Apostles; nothing formal will do. Sketch Destroyed accompanies strokes of an adze and a flung bucket of red paint...

Track Five: Sketch Destroyed

Having fled and been pursued into the mountains of Carrara, Buonarotti has a vision of God and Adam in the clouds at dawn... There is a growling sonority to the quiet grandeur that, mollified, becomes alternately ethereal and more full-throated and ends terse, staggering, brazen and percussive...


Track Six: Genesis

Having successfully presented plans to the literally embattled pope... there follows The Return to The Sistine Chapel. Now, more than 300 figures must be painted, including seven OT prophets, five sybils, nine stories from Genesis, portraits of the great figures in Christ’s lineage and four scenes from the OT.

Track Seven: The Sistine Chapel

All begins with the quietly anxious cue, Painting!

Track Eight: Painting

Hours of working to all hours with toxic paint inches from his face, lack of rest and forgetting meals, and the necessity of shouting or sighing, “When I am finished,” or disputing  aesthetics and morals with cardinals brought in to witness progress, lead to The Agony, as Buonarotti working on alone at night by the light of a candle-stub suffers loss of sight, attempts to move down the scaffolding, falls clutching onto a rope and is swiftly let down onto the floor of the chapel, unconscious and in a fever. The music follows this quickly growing disaster with highly effective use of instrumentation, the growling bassoon particularly sinister.

Track Nine: The Agony

Michelangelo recovers in the care of the Contessina de Medici. This is another of Alexander Courage’s contribution, another consort-piece, like a pavane. Michelangelo’s Recovery.

Track Ten: Michelangelo’s Recovery

Again, haunted by the Susato Galliard, the Pope returns to Rome in brassy triumph. Festivity In St Peter’s Square.

Track Eleven: Festivity In St Peter’s Square

In the evening, Julius visits the recuperating Michelangelo to release him from his contract... Raphael may complete the ceiling...

Julius In The Garden.

Track Twelve: Julius In The Garden
Back at work... This time, progress is suddenly suspended as Michelangelo arrives in the chapel to discover workmen are dismantling the scaffolding...

Track Thirteen: Back To St Peter’s

The Pope and Michelangelo have come to a parting of the ways over the Pope’s desire to show the ceiling half-finished. Julius must go to war again – his enemies in Italy regrouping and victorious – without knowing if he will live to return or be able to see the ceiling completed. Brazenness is moderate in the music, the imploring strings bringing a feeling of pathos above side-drums and intermittent low brass.

Woodwind and low brass prefigure the next cue.

The War.

Track Fourteen: The War

Michelangelo seeks reconciliation with Julius on the battlefield... Julius’ military defeat inspires some of the best moments of the entire score – jagged, hollow horn, trombone and muted trumpet fanfares of desolation; the imploring tone returns in strings, answered by the implacability of deep-toned brass and woodwind.

Track Fifteen: The Battlefield

To brief, bright fanfares, the grievously-wounded Julius creates a new cardinal for a fee sufficient to permit Michelangelo to complete the ceiling... Michelangelo returns to work, and the tattered remnants of the pontiff’s army are portrayed on their blood and dust-stained horse and cart-borne journey to Rome. New Cardinal.

Track Sixteen: New Cardinal

Back in Rome, Julius, though reacquainted with the wonderful ceiling, soon lies close to death: only to be angered into rising from his bed by Michelangelo, who proposes to return to Florence with the ceiling incomplete! 

The Pope’s allies in Europe have gathered and defeated his enemies. The official soundtrack CD takes up the story with a mass celebrating victory and the completion of the ceiling... The finish has been hard-earned.

Track Seventeen: Michelangelo’s Magnificent Achievement – and Finale

In an affecting final scene, after the congregation and church staff have left, Julius tells Michelangelo what the ceiling means to him.  Commissioning it may be what he is remembered for; before the Seat of Judgement, he will present it as something to be placed in the balance; it may shorten his time in Purgatory.  Asked what he has learned, the artist says, “That I am not alone.” He refuses a further commission for an altar-piece fresco of The Judgement:  he was promised that he could go back to his interrupted work on the tomb; Julius admits that there is need of the tomb.  They part: Michelangelo is left to watch the Pope’s faltering progress from the body of the chapel. To Work My Son.

This was Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme was written by Mike Burrows. We hope you enjoyed it and that you will join us again soon. Goodbye!

Track Eighteen: To Work, My Son

Friday, 7 July 2017

8 & 9 July 2017: America V

(This programme is a repeat)

Track 1:  Fanfare For The New Atlantis, Hovhaness

This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham.  Today’s programme of music from  the United States was researched and written by Michael Burrows.  We’ve just heard Fanfare For The New Atlantis by Alan Hovhaness.  Atlantis, a city fabled retrospectively for its advanced civilization, science and philosophy, is said to have disappeared beneath stormy waves of the Mediterranean, to be Invoked by ancient scholars and neo-Platonists of the 17th Century alike, a kind of missing link in the chain of human culture, a void on which any imagination could work wonders of Utopia and hopeful searching for solutions to earthly and heavenly mysteries, its true geographical and historical position or circumstances of loss being not the least of those mysteries.

Drawing of Atlantis

Hovhaness’ music calls forth this State of story in effortless grandeur of broad paragraphs, fluid but unobscure harmony and rich but clear-lined, trumpet--led orchestration, timeless, sombre, pure, with ancient gravity wrought out of chant and responses of deliberate weight, melody forming the rhythmical patterns, adorned by brass tuckets on one note and, latterly, thrilling scalic rushes in the string-section.  Some long-lost marvel rises up before our eyes.  An extraordinary vision, this, from 1975.

The United States has developed an enviable variety in self-expression in All genres of Art-music:   symphonists of the calibre of Hovhaness, Ives, Copland, Schuman, Sowerby,  Harris... and purveyors of morelight-weight music whose productions, though popular, are also to be discussed as an artistic achievement.   In light music, Jazz, though in itself an inexhaustibly creative tradition, surely doesn’t have things all its own way.  What are we to make, for example, of this spry and sage song written in evident heartfeltness by the  immensely vigorous and prolific March-king, John Philip Sousa?

Track 2:  You’ll Miss Lots of Fun When You’re Married, Sousa

You’ll Miss Lots of Fun When You’re Married, by Sousa.

Trained at Reed College and the Eastman School of Music, Jacob Avshalamov was born in China in 1919.  His Siberian father, Aaron, was his first teacher, a composer in his own right and collector of Chinese folk music, which influenced his and, later, certain of his son’s works; Jacob’s other tutors included Ernst Toch and Aaron Copland.   His works include large-scale cantatas and symphonic movements as well as numerous small-scale instrumental pieces and songs.  Let’s hear his song for soprano, accompanied by flute, viola and piano, Taking Leave of A Friend, one of 3 settings of poems by the T’ang poet, Li Po.  Wholetone, euphonious and gentle, there is a Ravellian sensibility in this music, the accompaniment seemingly incised in its sparseness, the line improvisatory-sounding in its imitative entries.  After a long introduction, the voice comes in on its deeply nostalgic atmosphere.  This song was Avshalamov’s first chamber-piece, composed when he was 20, but revised many years later.    

Track 3:  Taking Leave of A Friend, Avshalamov

One name in our list of great symphonists of the United States may not be well-known to even many Americans.  Leo Sowerby, known largely for his church-music and songs, wrote 5 symphonies for orchestra, one for solo-singers, choir and orchestra  and two for organ-solo.  The Second orchestral Symphony was written in 1927-8, when Sowerby was 32 years old, his career as composer and choir--master and teacher well into its stride, with frequent large-scale commissions from  the then conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Frederick Stock to live up to.  In three movements, the Symphony in B Minor is a compact, well-argued piece, elliptical and introspective, in which power is derived from limitation of means.  The first movement, Sonatina, is formed from two subjects with a bridge-passage between them.  The first subject is chant-like, with some jazzy irregularity of rhythm and teasing turns of harmony.  The bridge passage brings one to a less busy but somehow restless, questioning lyricism.  Development follows, with percussively underlined fragments of the chant in canon and imitation, combined with the second  subject, which is as summarily dealt-with.  The First Subject and bridge-passage only are recapitulated, the bridge-passage elaborated and, after further squalls, the close gives almost the last word to the bridge-passage, as fresh in high woodwind as at first, but the dying fall belongs to the first subject, smoothed, but defiantly in the minor.  This is fascinating, teasing music, recognizably of its time and nation, every bit as effective as the symphonies of Copland, and of similar sources in Americana – perhaps of urban jazz and New England, with a soupcon of the Mid-West.

Track 4:  2nd Symphony in B Minor, Movt 1:  Sonatina, Sowerby

The film-music of Elmer Bernstein increased the stature of movies of all kinds.  Westerns, war-films, thrillers, fantasy-pictures for children.  The BridgeAt Remagen was no masterpiece as either history  or convincing drama unless Bernstein shaped one’s reaction to what one saw or heard.  In the brazen fanfare and loping, syncopated titles-theme – note the violins in unison here   - one crosses the Rhine, whatever the cost.  If you ignore the syncopation you may think that the tune resembles either liturgical chant or a Lutheran hymn; it is certainly an impressively broad and valiant melody.  Syncopation cuts across its accents, and  the harmonies refuse it easy passage.  War’s toll on young lives is hinted-at by a contrasting, slow-swinging, waltz--like theme heard after the repeat:  a tune of pathos and near-musical-box sonority, sweet violins singing in a nursery of the vanity of human wishes and of just war, given tension by regular phrasing, passing-notes and appoggiaturas.  This apparition ripples over one’s ears before one is returned to the theme of duty and endeavour and fanfare to close.  One may wonder if in this piece, one has the opening of a monumental symphonic movement.  How often this is true of music written for films.

Track 5:  The Bridge At Remagen, Bernstein

Carl Ruggles, born a year after Charles Ives, died in 1971, having outlived all the great early experimenters of the early 20th Century United States.  A comrade-in-arms of the immensely prolific Ives and Henry Cowell, he also enjoyed a long retirement, leaving a small corpus of work.  An individualist of dogmatic, arrogant manner, he wasted few words on detractors or supporters.  Such works as Suntreader,an orchestral piece based on Apache ritual, are proof that he had no time for conventional tastes or consonance; to him, discord pursued to the conclusion one wished was the be all and end all of real, individualistic music – of real American music.  On the other hand, one can adduce the day Ives caught him sounding the same simple chord over and over on the piano – Ruggles said that he was giving the chord ‘the test of time’!   Here, in contrast to his friend Cowell’s Grinnell Fanfare, is his piece for muted brass ensemble – four trumpets and two trombones -  Angels.

It should be noted that to score a piece for brass wholly con sordino is a fine way to create almost the dullest sound imaginable; only a real or exceptionally self--important composer would set himself such a challenge.  Then again, mutes ensure that the clashes in the parts are set up without unintentional resonance.   Angels is, as perhaps it should be, a remote, hieratic experience for the listener, immediate and becomingly terse. Angels are not necessarily beings of heat.

 Track 6:  Angels, Ruggles

Aaron Copland was not only one of America’s great modernist composers and teachers, but also a committee-man who represented the interests of composers in a nation of individualists that was and is curiously addicted to  committee-work.  Driving him thoughout his long career was a determination to create a democratic form of art--music that would break the hold of internationalist elitism on the world of American music, and represent more truly and inspire the best aspects of the peculiar nature of the American people.  Personally left-wing and liberal -as such allegiances are understood in the United States – he was inspired by American national symbolism in which a folk-hero – be he Billy The Kid or Abraham Lincoln – expressed something Of hope in the national character.  One of his most famous populist Works is, of course, Lincoln Portrait, an orchestra-accompanied  monologue  based on extracts from Lincoln’s Annual Message to Congress of December 1862, a political debate held before Lincoln became President,  a letter and the famous Gettysburg Address, possibly the greatest, most powerful – and unifying - speech heard during the Civil War.  Interleaved are framing interjections including a physical description of him during his presidency.  The work, written with obvious moral effect in mind, was premiered within a year of the United States’ entry into the Second World War.  It is formed in three parts beginning with an introduction to evoke what Copland called ‘the mysterious sense of fatality that surrounds Lincoln’s character.  Also,...something of his  gentleness and simplicity of spirit.’  A hymn, is quoted, Springfield Mountain, the tune given to clarinet over simple chords for strings.
A livelier, percussive, section treats Lincoln’s wilder days of youth – Copland utilizing his own gift for ‘American’ Tunes and sonorities - and adding Campdown  Races for good measure.  At the close of this scherzando section, the music broadens as destiny – or mysterious fatality – takes over.

The third section brings the piece to its climax – the spoken word and – at last, the Gettysburg Address capped with Springfield Mountain, most poignantly given to a Taps - or Last Post-like trumpet.  The piece ends in an abiding expression of wonder, love and inspiration.  Is this President Lincoln or another New Atlantis that we hear rise before us?  The symbol is perhaps greater than any man, but a hint of the ideals that we should serve as citizens as well as individuals.  Certainly, no modern politician in his or her right mind should set him- or herself up as speaker in this piece; to do so insults the historic symbol and is bound to let down listeners in their actual hopes; no real politician can be a Lincoln, and no-one should ever clothe him- or herself in words that will certainly dwarf him or her – as kingly robes dwarf Macbeth.  Those politicians who try  (and some have unaccountably done so), sound absurd or flatly disingenuous.

This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and  I’m Rupert Kirkham.  Today’s programme of American music was written and researched by Mike Burrows.  We hope that you enjoyed it and will tune in again soon.

Track 7:  Lincoln Portrait, Copland