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No prescription needed December 5, 2012

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Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer who studied music in Tallinn before getting work as a recording engineer for Estonian Radio and composing film and theatre scores. He developed his own style of minimalist writing which was inspired by his studies on early music and Gergorian chant. Because of the closed nature of the Soviet Union at the time, his minimalism has a different sound to other minimalist works from the rest of Western Europe. He named his tonal technique “tintinnabuli” after the bell like notes of a triad. A tintinnabular work is in two parts. The first is a melodic voice moving in a stepwise motion around a central pitch and the second, tintinnabuli voice, sounds the notes of the tonic triad.
One of the most beautiful and, deceptively, simple pieces of music I have ever heard is Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel. The name means mirror in the mirror and refers to the infinite images created by parallel mirrors. 
The piece was originally written for piano and solo violin but it is sometimes also heard on the viola or cello – I am biased towards the violin though!
The piano plays triad arpeggios in F major while the violin plays beautiful slow moving rising and falling scale patterns always ending on A. Although the music looks simple it is very difficult to play well. Every note has to be perfect to carry the piece.
The music lasts for about 10 minutes and, in that time, really does nothing remarkable music-wise. I find it incredibly calming, peaceful and natural though. It’s nigh on impossible to do anything else while listening – for those few minutes of music, although the world just carries on rushing around, my head is still and calm. It feels like the effect you get when there is a lot fresh snow – everything just feels that little bit muffled and slow. There have been a few times when things have really been getting frazzled that I have flicked Spiegel im Spiegel on and just taken those few minutes to breath again. Done me the power of good too!


Favourite pieces – Fantasia

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Vaughan-Williams’ Lark Ascending or Tallis Fantasia? It’s the Daddy or Chips? of the Classic FM Hall of Fame. Me? I like the Lark well enough, it’s a nice piece of music, but it’s twittering bird can’t hold a candle to the luscious, dense, soaring strings of the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. It is my favourite piece of music. It appeals to me as a string player but also as a singer, it being based on a psalm tune by Thomas Tallis written in 1567.
Ralph Vaughan-Williams was born in 1872 in Gloucestershire. He studied both piano and violin. He apparently described the violin as his salvation – something that I can relate to. His musical ability far exceeds my own but I would be lost without my fiddle. Vaughan-Williams was also one of the first people to travel the English country collecting folk songs and carols from the people and would later incorporate some of these melodies into his works.
He studied with Hubert Parry and Charles Stanford at the Royal College of Music and, later, with Max Bruch and Maurice Ravel. It was Ravel who encouraged Vaughan-Williams to consider the varied sounds that could be created with different ensembles and orchestral forces.
The Tallis Fantasia was written after his studies with Ravel and, being based on a psalm tune, was an attempt to translate Tallis’ choral music into a string orchestra. Thinking of the  different sounds created by different ensembles, the piece is written for three ensembles: a full sized string orchestra, a singled desk string orchestra (ie. 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos and a double base), and a string quartet. The second orchestra should be placed apart from the first to emphasise the echo effect.
The piece starts off picking out the theme in the lower strings before building to a point where all the strings are playing to create a beautiful wall of sound which, to me, just seems to shimmer. Although it is very steady and controlled it feels like it is bursting with passion. There are beautiful call and response sections using the different forces of the different sized ensembles. Wonderful flattened sevenths and minor thirds and, my absolute favourite, Picardy Thirds (or Tierce de Picardie) where music in a minor key will suddenly stabilise into a major.
The piece was first performed in 1910 at The Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral and an anonymous correspondent for the Musical Times described it as a “grave work, exhibiting power and charm of the contemplative kind”. Grave isn’t a word I’ve ever thought of while listening to it. I’m more with the organ scholar Herbert Howells who said “it was an over whealming evening, so disturbing and moving that I even asked Ralph Vaughan-Williams for his autograph – and got it!” Now that’s my sort of geeky fan reaction! When I hear people say they don’t like 20th century music and it’s all just noise I hope they hear the Tallis Fantasia and discover it’s beauty for themselves. 
Sadly I’ve never heard it live or had the chance to play it but maybe one day. But until then, twitter away pretty Lark but you’ll never reach the heights of the Fantasia for me.