a lecture by




Composers sometimes use special musical techniques to symbolise or evoke the natural elements or the human temperament. The madrigal composers that flourished at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries employed a conventional catalogue of musical devices to heighten the expression of the words in the text: panting rests for the singing of the word "alas!" Extended suspensions for 'weeping' cadences; bursts of rapid quavers for 'flying'; chromatic ascents and descents to convey hills and mountains; downward glissandi and dissonant chords to depict death or grief. Luca Marenzio was a master of word-painting, who in one madrigal depicted Roman pillars by massive chords, and arches by ascending and descending scales.

The glissando technique (rapidly sliding up or down a series of adjacent notes)has been used for many symbolic associations. A downward glissando on the solo violin in Richard Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel (Op 28, 1895) represents Till's tearing off his priest's disguise to seek amorous adventures. When Don Quixote lies dying in the finale of Strauss's tone poem we can hear reminiscences of the melodies previously heard in the hey day of of his knightly adventures - then a downward glissando on the solo cello marks the dying breath of the errant knight. This was a technique to be later adopted by William Walton in his music for Olivier's film of Shakespeare's Richard III when the King submits to death during the battle of Bosworth Field.

Some composers adopt an autobiographical technique in their music. The use of numbers and the initials of key signatures in music have been symbolic devices used by many composers from Bach to Shostakovich. The notes BACH can be heard in Bach's Art of Fugue. Shostakovich, not only includes his motto theme 'DSCH' but also uses old themes reflectively from previous music as does Richard Strauss in his Sinfonia Domestica and Ein Heldenleben.
Bach employs a fund of musical devices to illustrate the texts of his cantatas, but he always does so at the service of the music itself and never descends to corniness or banality. Shostakovich uses blatant sexual innuendo in his use of a trombone in a scene from his opera Katerina Ismailova. The call of the cuckoo can be heard in countless works ranging from dawn choruses and pastoral scenes to a symbol of cuckoldry in opera.

Janacek was keen on incorporating natural speech inflections in his vocal musician and in one of his operas he is said to have incorporated the sound of the dying utterance of his wife which he had previously noted down. His deafness is symbolised by a sustained note on the violin in one of his string quartets. In his composition 'A Memory of Sky', composed in the 1980s, Giles Swaine intersperses his music with spaces of silence which represent the space between the bars of a prison cell. A common procedure in some of the romantic opera composers was to re-state the theme of a love duet at a later stage of the plot in order to create a sense of poignancy in reminding us of the happier days in the past. This device can be heard in Puccini's La Bohème when Mimi echoes Rodolfo's 'frozen hand' theme during the latter stages of La Bohème.

Haydn prolongs the word 'ewiger'(eternal) in The Seasons (1801) with the chorus of sopranos soaring up to high b flat to illustrate the word. Indeed Haydn's music is full of symbolism (or Thonmahlery - 'word painting'). When God exhorts His creatures to be fruitful and multiply (No 16 in The Creation) He divides the violas and the cellos with the double bass at its lowest register. There is considerable 'word painting' in his Masses on such words as 'descendit', 'ascendit' etc. In choral works the Trinity is sometimes expressed in three part harmony on the word 'three' and all three singers move into unison on the word 'one'.

M.Mersenne, frontispiece to his book on the Theory and Practice of Music , published in Paris 1636.

Examples of 'word painting' and illustration in Programme music

Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967) Háry János, Op 15 (1926/27); orchestral suite from the opera. Rias Symphony Orchestra, Berlin, conducted by Ferenc Fricsay

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) Alto recitative 'Die Freude wird zur Traurigkeit' from Cantata - Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig, BWV 26 (1724). Text probably by Picander. Hertha Topper (contralto) with the Munich-Bach Orchestra directed by Karl Richter, recorded in 1966.

John Dowland (1563?-1626) The last two lines from 'Sorrow, sorrow stay.' Third song from a Second Booke of Songs (1600). Martin Hill (tenor) with Anthony Rooley (lute) and Trevor Jones (bass viol), recorded in 1977.

Olivier Messiaen (b 1908) Catalogue d'Oiseaux (1956-58). VII 'La Rouserolle Effarvatte' - The Reed Warbler. Peter Hill (piano) recorded in 1988.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) Herzgewächse (Foliage of the Heart), Op 20 (1911). Song for soprano, celeste, harmonium and harp. Words by Maeterlinck. June Barton (soprano) with members of the London Sinfonietta - John Constable (celeste), Harold Lester (harmonium), Sidonie Goossens (harp), conducted by David Atherton in 1974.

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) Die Serenaden, a cantata for Soprano, Oboe, Viola and Cello. Opus 35, 1925. Part 2, No. 3 - 'Der Wurm Am Meer' by J.W. Meinhold, Lois Winter (soprano), Ronald Roseman (oboe), Karen Tuttle (viola) and John Goberman (cello). Recorded before 1980.

Spike Jones Nutcracker Suite after Tchaichovsky Spike Jones and his City Slickers recorded in the 1940s.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) Ab aeterno ordinata sum (motetto voce sola in basso) Motet for solo bass with chamber organ from 'Selva morale e Spirituale' first published in 1640 but probably composed before 1610. First part. Text from Proverbs 8, 23-31. David Thomas (bass) and Peter Holman (chamber organ) recorded in 1981.

Carl Orff (1895-1982) Der Mond (Opera - Ein kleines Welt-theater) (1939). Franz Crass as St Peter (bass) with the Gemischter Orchestra directed by Kurt Eichhorn in 1970.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) Bass aria - from verse V 'Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm' from Cantata - Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4 (before 1714). Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) with the Munich-Bach Orchestra directed by Karl Richter, recorded in 1968.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) Don Quixote (Fantastic Variations on a Knightly Theme; Finale). Op 35, 1897. Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rudolph Kempe in a recording made in 1958.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) Final scene from Salome Op 54
(1905). Salome is sung by Eva Marton with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis and recorded in 1983.

Arthur Honneger (1892-1955) 'Pacific 231' (1923) from Three Symphonic Movements. Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Serge Baudo recorded in 1963.

Reinhold Gliere (1875-1956) Symphony No 3 in B Minor 'Ilya Murometz' (1912). Beginning of the second movement - Andante, entitled 'Ilya Murometz and Solovei the Brigand.' Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Harold Farberman, recorded in 1979.
Adriano Banchieri (1568-1634) 'Contrappunto bestiale alla mente' from a dramatic madrigal group - Festino per la sera del Giovedi Grasso, composed in 1608. Il Nuovo Madrigaletto Italiano directed by Emilio Giani, recorded in 1966.

Edward Elgar (1857-1934) Enigma Variations Op 36 (1899). Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Solti, recorded in 1980.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704) 'die Katz' from Sonata Violino Solo representiva (Representatio Avium), composed during the second half of the seventeenth century. Alice Harnoncourt (violin)with continuo - Herbert Tachezi(harpsichord) and Nikolaus Harnoncourt (cello), recorded c.1970.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704) 'die Henn' (from the same as above)

Jean-Phillippe Rameau (1683-1764) La Poule from Suite in G major/minor (c 1728) Silvia Kind (harpsichord) recorded in 1968.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) Overture :The Lark Ascending for violin and orchestra (1914 revised 1920) Joseph Silverstein (violin and conductor) and the Utah Symphony Orchestra.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) Don Quixote (Fantastic Variations on a Knightly Theme), Op 35, 1897. Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rudolph Kempe recorded in 1958.

Bela Bartok (1881-1945) 'From the Diary of a Fly' from Mikrokosmos No 142, (1937) George Solchany (piano), recorded in 1958

George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) Chorus - 'He spake the Word' (No 6) from the oratorio Israel in Egypt, (1738). Leeds Festival Chorus with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Charles Mackerras in a 1970 recording.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) Ein Heldenleben Op 40 (1898). New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta in 1983.

Charles Mingus 'What Love' (1960) from the record album - Charles Mingus presents Charles Mingus. From a recording made in 1960 Charles Mingus (double bass) and Eric Dolphy (bass clarinet).
Kai Mortensen (1865-1931) The Laughing Violin (1944). Short extract. John Georgiadis (violin) and Susan Giorgiadis (piano)

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) Wind Quintet (Op 43, 1922). Extract from the last movement. The Tuckwell Wind Quintet, performed in the early 1980s.

Krzysztof Penderecki (b 1933) Passio et Mors Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Secundum Lucam (1965) (St Luke's Passion - Part X (Evangelist and Chorus from St Luke 22, 63-64; 70.) Leszek Herdegen (evangelist), Andrzej Hiolski (Christ) with the chorus of the Cracow Philharmonia, conducted by Henryk Czyz and recorded in the late 1960s.

Olivier Messiaen (b 1908) Messe de la Pentecôte - v. Le Vent de L'Esprit (Sortie). (1950). 'A rushing mighty wind...filled all the house' (Acts II 2.) Jennifer Bate on the organ of Beauvais Cathedral, France. Recorded in 1981. Last part = 1m 16 s.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) Don Quixote (Fantastic Variations on a Knightly Theme), Op 35, 1897. The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Downes in the mid 1980s.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Storm: the fourth sea interlude from the opera Peter Grimes. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steuart Bedford recorded in 1989.

Henry Purcell (1659-95) 'What Power art thou' - Genius's aria from the opera King Arthur (text by Dryden) Z.628 (1691). Trevor Anthony (bass) with Thurston Dart (harpsichord) and the Philomusica of London conducted by Anthony Lewis recorded in 1959.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) La Bohème (1896) An opera in four acts. Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa & Luigi Illica, after Murga. Nicolai Gedda, as Rodolfo, the poet, and Mirella Freni as Mimi. Chorus of the Opera House, Rome conducted by Thomas Schippers, recorded in 1964.

Gioachino Antonio Rossini (1792-1868) La Cenerentola (1817). An opera in two acts. Libretto by Jacopo Ferretti. Michael Cousins (tenor) as Prince Don Ramiro Timothy Nolen (bass) as his valet - Dandini Audrey Michael (soprano) Ugly sister- Clorinda Laura Zannini (mezzo-soprano) Ugly sister - Tisbe Orchestra of the Suisse Romande, conducted by Nello Santi at a live performance in the early 1980s

Bela Bartok (1881-1945) Concerto for Orchestra (1943) (Intermezzo interrotto) Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton, broadcast from the radio 2 November 1989.

Alfred Schnittke (1934 - ) Symphony No 1 (1980s) The BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky during the first UK performance on December 17th 1986, live from the Royal Festival Hall.

Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Act 1, Scene 3. Op 29 (1930-31). London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich and recorded in 1979.