Archive for the ‘News’ Category

New ABRSM Piano and Clarinet Syllabi

The ABRSM have announced the release of a new piano syllabus, details available from Thursday, June 7th, 2018. The new clarinet syllabus can be downloaded here .

Fantasy for Clarinet and Piano – Carl Nielsen

The 2018-2021 ABRSM clarinet exam syllabus includes a noteworthy early work by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen. Born on the island of Funen in 1865 to a family of modest means, Nielsen became one of the most individual musical voices of the early twentieth century.

Carl Nielsen

Although he is best known outside Denmark for his cycle of six symphonies, Nielsen’s output was extensive and of the highest quality across the range of genres.

Towards the end of his life, Nielsen wrote a concerto for clarinet which has become a staple of the repertoire. The Fantasy Piece for Clarinet and Piano is the only other work he wrote featuring the clarinet, and comes at the beginning of Nielsen’s career as a composer. In this way, the clarinet frames his stylistic development.

The Fantasy Piece appears to have been written between 1881 and 1883, while the teenage Nielsen was a trombone and horn player in a military band in Odense.

Carl Nielsen in his mid-teens

The source consists of manuscript copies of the parts, originally attributed to the hand of the dedicatee, a certain ‘M. Hansen’ (possibly one of the clarinetists in the band), but now believed to be in Nielsen’s own hand. The style reflects Nielsen’s limited experience up to that point, and owes much to Niels Gade who later became one of Nielsen’s tutors at the Copenhagen Conservatory. Dynamic extremes in quick succession accord both with the high Romantic sound-world of the period and Nielsen’s tender youth at the time of composition. Musical ideas are handled well, with a competence and polish belying Nielsen’s limited formal musical education at that time, although there is little evidence of the distinctive character his music would later acquire.

The title ‘fantasy’ traditionally indicates a free composition – free in the sense that it is not required to conform to a set musical structure – and Nielsen emphasises this aspect by means of a motto inscribed beneath the dedication on the piano part of the source. This appears to be a quotation from a poem by Ludwig Uhland which was also used by Gade as a motto for his Opus 1 overture ‘Efterklange af Ossian’: “Formulae we leave behind us, Our art is poesy.” So it is with this piece; after an opening fanfare from the piano, a cantabile melody unfolds over four bars, which is then repeated with decoration and a four bar coda which modulates swiftly to a cadence in the relative major, before returning to g minor and repeating.

The second time bar leads into a simple cadenza (nothing more than a descending chromatic scale and an accelerando trill over the tonic), after which the piano begins the brief Allegro Agitato with fortissimo octaves in the left hand and tremolo chords in the right. The clarinet overlays the harmony with a repeated scalic figure before joining the piano for Beethovenian punctuation chords to conclude.

This is not high art, but competently crafted occasional music intended as a pleasing programme filler to showcase the clarinet. It is entertaining and satisfying to perform, both for the soloist and the accompanist, and is not without interest. Had Nielsen produced this during his time at the Conservatory, I suspect it would have merited a ‘good effort’, or its Danish equivalent, from Professor Gade!

Updates and Changes to the ABRSM Woodwind Syllabus

The ABRSM will be releasing details of their new woodwind syllabus on July 6. Details include refreshed repertoire for flute, oboe, clarinet, basoon, saxophone and recorders, and significant adjustments to the sight-reading and scale requirements. Among the new supporting publications, the Board will be including books of saxophone exam pieces for the first time. Further details can be found at Read the rest of this entry »

Dyslexia, Music and Exams – ABRSM Article

The ABRSM have recently added a very helpful and interesting article to their website, authored by Sally Daunt of the British Dyslexia Association. It can be found at

The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross

Consider this question: do you like classical music, or popular?

Now, think: what is wrong with this question?

For a start, it makes an assumption that ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ (or ‘pop’) are two separate musical genres, as if popularity in itself were a defining characteristic and that ‘classical’ music is by definition not popular. In addition, what is meant by the term ‘classical?’ According to Grove Music Online1, ‘classical’ music without further qualification most commonly refers to the Viennese idiom identified with the work of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Of course, the popular classical music radio station Classic FM (are you following this?) doesn’t restrict itself to just those three composers. In fact, judging by it’s playlist, Classic FM defines ‘classical’ music as anything from plainchant to the latest movie soundtracks.

The definition of ‘classical’ music has been fluid for a long time, and is still a subject of debate. In his book ‘The Rest Is Noise,’ New Yorker magazine critic Alex Ross spends even less time than I have done above attempting to define the term. Instead, he launches into an exhilarating review of major trends and developments in music from the start of the twentieth century. It quickly becomes evident that Ross is talking about music as art rather than music as entertainment. To a certain extent, his book is about unpopular, non-classical music – the revolutionary sounds of Schoenberg and Boulez and Harrison Birtwhistle. However, by placing this music in its socio-political context, the author endeavours to re-connect it to the people. Starting with Richard Strauss’ opera ‘Salome’, and ending with John Adams’ ‘Nixon in China’, Ross unashamedly cherry-picks his personal selection of key musical moments and uses them to define trends in twentieth-century music for the informed but non-expert reader.

Arnold Schoenberg turning his back on music audiences

The result is an engagingly coherent narrative. In particular, Ross explores the origins of a disconnect between audience and composer in the early twentieth-century, and identifies causes and motivations. The chapters in which he deals with the Darmstadt set and total serialism are cleverly linked with a discussion of the role of Messaien in America and the rise of minimalism. Again, by connecting developments in music in Europe and America with the cultural and social events of the time, he advances the thesis that even the extremes of Boulez and Reich can be seen as products of their environment. I particularly like his suggestion that the reaction against tonality in Europe in the 1950’s reflected revulsion and rejection of the horrors experienced during the second world war, and that America having suffered less immediately , the reaction there was less extreme and tonality could return without the same historical and political baggage.

At the core of his work are three chapters which focus on music between 1933 and 1945 under extreme political conditions: the Russia of Stalin, the United States of Roosevelt, and the Germany of Hitler. Utterly fascinating. In addition, Ross includes chapters on Benjamin Britten and Sibelius, along with material on numerous other composers of significance as they pass through the narrative. Stravinsky is discussed at some length, of course, although some may be surprised at the episodic nature of the discussion. However, in the context of developments in twentieth-century music, this treatment of Stravinsky seems appropriate, given his long composing lifespan and the chameleon character of his oeuvre.

In addition to the book, there is an excellent accompanying website  (available without purchasing the book), which includes relevant excerpts of most of the works referred to, along with links and references to further information. This is an outstanding resource, and one of the best examples of it’s type.

‘The Rest Is Noise’ provides a way in to the seemingly impenetrable complexities of Western art music in the twentieth-century with style and enthusiasm. I like this book. Buy it, read it and listen.

1. Heartz, Daniel and Brown, Bruce Alan. “Classical.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 30 Mar. 2013..

Daily Telegraph report on the value of music education

The Daily Telegraph published this article on June 20th, in which it reports on efforts to implement a music education scheme based on ‘El Sistema’ in Venezuela. 

It states that there is clear evidence of the “cognitive, behavioural, emotional, therapeutic and social benefits” of music education, and further comments on the value of discipline and focused practice. The writer speaks of an “Amadeus mythology . . . in which musical talent is thought to be a divine gift to a few favoured souls,” and criticises the perception of classical music as an elitist, middle-class activity.