The BBC marked the beginning day of the Beijing Olympics by offering the first performance of Olympic Fire, commissioned for the occasion from Chen Yi. All of Chen’s music uses Western modernist practices to evoke her native culture, but Olympic Fire deals even more directly in Chinese materials, using folksongs both from the predominant Han Chinese and from minority Chinese ethnic groups as well (Chen keeps to the Chinese government party line by considering Tibetans among those Chinese ethnic minorities), and imitating the sounds of Chinese instruments, particularly the lusheng (described by Chen as a “mouth pipe-organ”).  Olympic Fire begins with enormous energy and unrelenting febrile motion and considerable instrumental brilliance featuring the brass and the xylophone.  The initial ebullient activity continues for quite a while, to be interrupted by a slightly slower high ostinato music with a less thick texture, evoking bird calls and still featuring the xylophone, which turns out to be an accompaniment to longer lyrical tunes in the lower registers.

The opening celebratory activity is eventually regained, with the layering of different musics over a repeated rhythmic figures. The music goes driving headlong into a furiously explosive timpani cadenza which leads to a roaring ending.  The performance, by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, matched the exuberance of the music.

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Proms is commemorating it by offering a survey of his music.  In fact, the very day of his death, August 26 is to be marked with an all Vaughan Williams concert.  British composers used to regard Vaughan Williams with a certain amount of embarrassment, just as American composers, two or three decades ago, used to regard Copland.  Americans composers certainly got over it with Copland–maybe went a little too far in the other direction, in fact–I’m not sure whether the Brits have yet made their piece with Vaughan Williams.  The second half of the concert which began with the Chen, contained two big pieces by Vaughan Williams, the Sixth Symphony and Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’ for strings and harp.  ‘Divies and Lazarus’ is an English folk song which Vaughan Williams seems to have loved it; he included it in the England Hymnal as a hymn tune called Kingsfold.  He also seems to have liked this piece, since he wanted it to be played at his funeral.  Much is made of the fact that the Dives and Lazarus piece is called ‘Variants of’ rather than ‘Variations on’ the tune.  The term was used by folk song collectors, of whom Vaughan Williams was one, in describing apparently different tunes that turned out to be really different versions of the same tune.   The implications of the titles most immediately, in this case, is than rather dealing with the tune, as classical variations would, by developing it by ever increasing elaboration, here the process involves more a presentation of the tune in different versions.   On the larger scale it means that rather than having a series of short sections with similar structure, there is a less articulated, more fluid, meditative, and continuous continuity.
The Sixth Symphony is in Vaughan Williams late, more or less polytonal–or bitonal, anyway–style.  Maybe the most striking aspect of it is its last movement, which is very soft throughout.   It also has, in its scherzo, a technological feat: it’s very hard to orchestrate octaves; usually they just disappear into the texture, but here there are bunches of clunky galumphing octaves.  Slatkin is something of a Vaughan Williams champion, but it was a little hard to tell from this performance, which wasn’t particularly idiomatic and seemed mostly just complacent.  The last movement was most of the time not soft enough to have the sort of post apocalyptic effect it should have had; earlier movements lacked rhythmic vigor and drive.

A few days later another installment of the Vaughan Williams survey, his Piano Concerto, was offered by pianist Ashley Wass and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vassily Sinaisky.   The piano concerto has always been a problematic piece.  Vaughan Williams worked it over a time or two after its first performances, and even did a version of it for two pianos.  Neither has been performed much.   The biggest problem with the work is that Vaughan Williams, who was a violinist and organist, seems not to have had any clue about how to write effectively for the piano.   The problem is immediately apparent at the very beginning of the piece, where the piano has masses of notes right in the middle of the piano, none of which are heard at all over the full orchestra.   That tendency to have many too many notes in the solo part arranged where they don’t have any resonance is probably a fatal problem, but not the only one.   The last movement is a very chromatic fugue whose tune then becomes a waltz, but the waltz is a little too short and leads to a rather fuzzy coda; it’s clear that he just couldn’t figure out how to get out of the movement and end things.   I think this must be the only piano concerto with an organ part, which may be another manifestation of the problem.  Although there is a fair amount of very nice music in the piece, especially in the slow movement, the piece seems finally to be unsalvageable. Sometimes pieces don’t get performed much for good reasons.

8 Responses to “Chen Yi’s Olympic Fire – More From the Proms”
  1. David Rakowski says:

    Going for the odd-numbered symphonies — how very, um, Beethoven. But first movement of the eighth — in Beethoven, it would be the finale. And the other two movements that aren’t the first. I could be wrong. But if I had a choice between the first movement of the Beethoven 8 and hives, I’d take the hives. Which is way off-topic.

    Clunky octaves — well, I put the iPod on to play the Previn recording of the VW sixth, and didn’t find any. Galumphing — definitely, in the second theme of the first movement, and maybe half a bar in the scherzo. So “we are at an impasse.” (Princess Bride)

    David S, I enjoyed reading your response. Keep it up.

  2. Rodney Lister says:

    Glad you all like VW6, which, I admit, is not one of my favorites (I go for 3, 5, 9, & 1–also 8 first movement). I can’t quote chapter and verse
    at the moment (and will, under pressure, as Tom Leherer said, not only retract my statement, but be willing to swear under oath that I never made it), but the place I was thinking about was in the scherzo–somewhere. (And even though it’s an isolated place, I would be willing to–there–stand by the adjectives clunky and galumpfing.

  3. David Salvage says:

    Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh!!! Yeah, I thought my first comment wasn’t worthy of elaboration or argument. I was just chatting…

  4. Nathan Brock says:

    I think David’s and Tom’s comments were concerning the octave issue in the discussion of the V-W Sixth, rather than in your concerto. I’d also like to know about it – the “clunky galumphing octaves” you mention, where they appear, the specifics of the orchestration that makes them appear that way, instead of “disappear[ing] into the orchestral texture.”

  5. David Salvage says:

    In the passage in question, both hands of the pianist play the same notes in the same rhythm–steady eighth notes. The register is low-middle. I wrote the passage thusly: the left hand plays octaves; the right hand plays the same line, an octave higher, but in single notes. Danielpour suggested I use octaves in the right hand as well so that the passage would project better.

    But extended passages in which the pianist’s hands are stretched build up tension. When you relax your hand, you contract the hand; allowing the hands to close releases tension. This I learned playing Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz as a teenager.

    Had I used octaves in the right hand instead of single notes, the right hand would have become more tired because I would have thereby required the hand to stay in a stretched position (playing loudly) for a good amount of time.

    The recapitulation of the movement, subsequent to the passage in question, has similarly fatiguing parts; and these parts are also pretty loud. (The pianist who played it, a great player, himself commented on how fatiguing the piece was to play physically.)

    By writing the passage as I did–single notes in the right hand instead of octaves–I actually allowed the pianist to conserve energy for the end. Were I to take Danielpour’s suggestion, the pasage in question would be more thunderous, sure; but the pianist would have had less energy to thunder on through the end.

    Am I clear now?

  6. Tom Myron says:

    I’ll second the 6th & also request clarification on the octave issue. I’m not getting you.

  7. David Rakowski says:


    WTF? First, I want to say I love the Vaughan Williams Sixth (old Sandow kitsch article notwithstanding). But this thing about octaves … makes no sense whatsoever.

  8. David Salvage says:

    Rodney–I’m really glad for the comments about orchestration in this and your previous post. I remember Danielpour telling me in my piano concerto that the piano at one point would project better if the passage were in double-octave, rather than having the left-hand only play octaves while the right hand was in single notes.

    He was right, I’m sure. But the piece is fatiguing. Now I believe I was right to have written it the way I did: the pianist may not have had the energy to get through the louder passages toward the end of the movement had he spent his energy on a big double-octave passage earlier.