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While all was quiet in our streets during lockdown, many changes have no doubt been taking place in relative silence.

One of them was Sheffield Cathedral’s decision to disband their choir. The recently hired choirmaster felt he should resign. The choirmaster was not involved in the clergy’s discussions.

It is unclear what exactly infected the minds of the Church of England clergy during lockdown, but some of the ensuing results, such as this, are questionable.

On Thursday, July 23, 2020, The Guardian reported:

In a break with centuries of tradition, Sheffield cathedral is to stand down its choir in order to make a “completely fresh start” with a new team of choristers that reflects and engages with an increasingly diverse city.

A statement published on the cathedral’s website on Wednesday said “significant change” was needed. The cathedral’s governing body, the Chapter, had decided on “a new model for Anglican choral life here, with a renewed ambition for engagement and inclusion”, it added.

Although the cathedral’s music department had been the subject of a review, the closure of the choir was unexpected and is likely to infuriate traditionalists in the Church of England and classical music circles.

Apart from a handful of adult singers, the current choir is drawn largely from schools in the Sheffield area (including private schools) and mainly performs music from the Anglican choral tradition.

Clicking on the link for the Cathedral’s statement produces a pop-up window stating (emphases in the original):

Sheffield Cathedral is your Cathedral

Your Cathedral has seen many adversities throughout history to present time. Now we are faced with overcoming the challenges of COVID-19. 

Sheffield Cathedral is a beacon of hope for the whole community. People have been gathering on this site for nearly 1,000 years. With your support now, people will be able to gather here for many more years to come.

Please help your Cathedral to continue to be ‘A Place for All People’. Thank you.

The Very Reverend Peter Bradley, DL
The Dean of Sheffield

Well, that no longer holds true for the choir or the choir director, it would seem.

The Cathedral’s statement of July 22 reads, in part (emphases mine):

For some years the Dean and Chapter have been looking carefully at the music offer of Sheffield Cathedral. They have come to the conclusion that there needs to be significant change. This is in order to create a Music Department and Choir ready for the exciting future of the mixed urban community in which we live and work.

With the Diocesan Bishop, Chapter are appointing a new Canon Precentor in August, responsible for Cathedral worship and music. They hope this will bring increased creativity and stability.

Following a review of the Music Department in 2019, Sheffield Cathedral Chapter has decided that a completely fresh start is needed. As a result, Chapter concluded this is the right time to close the current Cathedral Choir.

This decision has not been easy because it will directly impact several colleagues and indirectly impact us all in our close-knit community. However, we believe this is in the best interests of the long-term mission of the Cathedral

For some time, Chapter has been considering a new model for Anglican choral life here, with a renewed ambition for engagement and inclusion. They recognise that this will require flexibility, imagination and experiment …

They look forward to working with our partners throughout our City and Diocese to make this renewed vision a reality under God.

Dean Bradley told The Guardian:

“We need to be engaging with people who are part of this changing city. We believe strongly in equality and giving as many children as possible the opportunity to sing at the highest level.”

The appeal of church music was wide but sometimes “presented in a way that can be seen as elitist”, he said.

Bradley acknowledged the decision to close the current choir would “cause genuine grief”. He hoped that some of the existing choristers would become members of a new choir, which will be formed after the appointment of a new canon precentor this summer.

The new choir will continue to perform music from the Anglican choral tradition but will broaden its repertoire, he said.

“This sort of change in our sort of institution can be immensely painful, but that’s not a reason not to move forward. My view is that many cathedrals will be making similar changes over the next few years.

“It’s going to be a bit torrid for us, but we’re not going to sit in a bunker.”

You can see photos and biographies of the men who made the decision here. Perhaps they should consider making a ‘new model’ — borrowing their words — for cathedral leadership themselves. Given their own logic, they could resign.

But I digress.

Back to The Guardian, which says that one professional vocalist who had sung at Sheffield Cathedral was deeply disappointed by the decision:

James Bingham, a former member of the Sheffield cathedral choir who now works for the Irish National Opera, said he was appalled by the cathedral’s statement, tweeting: “It implies that the Anglican church’s rich choral tradition is to blame for its declining influence.”

“Choral music is one of the great cultural legacies of the Church of England,” he told the Guardian.

The idea that classical music was elitist was misguided, Bingham said. “At Sheffield [cathedral], they’re making amazing music on a daily basis in the city centre that is free to everyone.”

As a student at Sheffield university, Bingham had sung as a choral scholar five times a week for three years. Choirs were strong communities bound together by frequent performance and rehearsal, he said.

“The cathedral choir still holds a big place in my heart. If this had happened while I was still there, I would be heartbroken.”

I agree. I sang in my church’s choir as a teenager, and it was a very close-knit group of people, young and old, male and female.

This was the Cathedral’s tweet on Saturday, July 25:


You can read more disappointed reactions here.

Another tweet, by way of reply, posted a link to the petition ‘Save Sheffield Cathedral Choir’. When I wrote this post at the end of July, the count of signatories went up and up as I was reading the petition.

The petition explains that the choir is already quite diverse:

In recent years, Sheffield Cathedral Choir has made great advances in encouraging the role of women and non-binary members among the lay clerks and choral scholars of the choir. It also supported a girls’ choir and a Schola Cantorum, serving university student communities. Cathedral musicians, past and present, led the Cathedral’s outreach work which took music across the city. Notably, this included the Sheffield Cathedral Sing! Project, which worked with 2,000 children from 30 primary schools each year, including children of mixed heritage, disabilities, and of socio-economic disadvantage. Through this work, cathedral musicians connected meaningfully with schools from some of Sheffield’s most disadvantaged areas.

The petition also takes exception to the accusation about privately-educated choristers:

Regrettably, the Dean and Chapter’s statement also advances a misleading argument regarding the proportion of choristers at Sheffield Cathedral that were privately educated. Over the last 20 years, privately educated children have typically constituted a minority of the choristers at Sheffield Cathedral. In fact, we are aware that the Dean and Chapter were seeking to establish a formal partnership with Birkdale School, a private school in the city this year. These actions seem to be at odds with the Dean and Chapter’s statements.

The mother of one of the choristers wrote a lengthy explanation of the background to the choir situation on Facebook. That post is a copy of a letter she sent to the Church Times. The Master of Music — choirmaster — who has since resigned was a recent hire. Excerpts follow.

See what changes lockdown can produce:

This is my understanding of what has happened, from my vantage point as a choir parent since 2011:

There was a very short review (perhaps two days?) last summer, but changes were made and the choir went from strength to strength from September 2019 to March 2020, evidenced in Chapter’s unanimous decision to appoint Joshua Stephens as Master of Music, taking up his post on 8th March to everyone’s great delight. However, with the onset of coronavirus, Mr Stephens was furloughed and the cathedral failed to communicate this to any of the choir. Mr Stephens allegedly experienced harassment from the cathedral management and silence from the clergy while furloughed. This was not unusual behaviour for the cathedral as others have experienced the same in the past, but lockdown sharpened the focus and made it more evident. I made a formal complaint but little action was taken, and Mr Stephens resigned at the end of June stating that he was not compatible with the prevailing culture in the cathedral. Chapter accepted his resignation without talking to him to understand his motives. Lay-clerks, parents, and choristers were distraught and begged Chapter to initiate mediation. But instead they decided to close down the choir and start afresh, with no encouragement to ex-choir members to be part of the new vision.

The lady posting on Facebook said that the choir had been considering a tour in Berlin, a wider recruitment programme and a means of providing continuity for boys whose voices were changing.

The clergy apparently did not care too much about the choir during lockdown, although the choristers’ parents did their best to maintain morale:

The choir was energised and optimistic, but during all the pressures of lockdown as well as the fire at the Cathedral Archer Project, the clergy admitted that the music department had “slipped through the net”. Nevertheless choir parents and layclerks kept up morale amongst the choristers with zoom parties on the theme of different composers each week, but there was no communication at all from the cathedral to the choir from the last choir rehearsal before lockdown until 24th June when the Dean talked about bringing Mr Stephens back off furlough and preparing to start up again.


Mr Stephens was not copied into that email and he resigned the following day.


The fourth Director of Music to leave Sheffield cathedral in five years.

His departure precipitated other resignations:

The cathedral’s Head Steward has also since resigned in protest, as did the leaders of the 100-strong Toddler group last year, and as has one of the choir chaperones, stating that she feels unsafe and unsupported.


The first the choristers and their parents found out about the disbanding of the choir was through the media:

Indeed the press heard about it before even the choristers did!

Something is very wrong with the Church of England. They have used coronavirus to make rather unwelcome changes. Our churches are now becoming increasingly politicised.

Instead of offering succour to those who had a hard time getting through lockdown and the loss or illness of loved ones, they have turned their attention to the prevailing cultural movements of the day, rather than to our loving Saviour and merciful God our Father.

How un-Christian. How unbiblical.

I hope to post an update when I find out more news.

This is the final instalment of my Cannes notebook for 2019 (see parts 1 and 2).

Tomorrow, posts delve into the city’s restaurants.

Before then, here is a bit more about Cannes past and present.

The Anglo-French relationship

In 2017, I wrote a brief history of Cannes, from its earliest days to the present.

For centuries, the Church — via the local monastery on St Honorat Island — played a huge part in the lives of the townspeople.

After the Revolution, things changed dramatically. By then, the English were making their grand tours of France and Italy.

In 1834, Lord Brougham and his daughter Eleonora toured the Côte d’Azur in the hope of finding a place where she could recuperate from her bronchial ailment. By chance, they stopped in Cannes — then, like neighbouring Nice, a poor fishing village — where she recovered. The Cannois extended exceptional hospitality towards the two, and it was not long before Lord Brougham built a villa there for his daughter.

He and his family enjoyed their stays in Cannes. He told his English friends that they, too, should consider spending their holidays there.

With that, the numbers of foreigners grew and grew. By the time Lord Brougham died in 1868, dignitaries and royalty from not only Britain but also the Continent had built holiday villas in Cannes.

Today, everyone visiting Cannes can see a grand statue of Lord Brougham in the city centre (next to McDonald’s!) overlooking a large fountain facing the Bay of Cannes.

As one can see from this Provençal festival poster below, the English were still involved in the city’s activities in the 1920s:

The Lord Brougham referenced there would have been a direct descendant.

The Entente Cordiale between Britain and France began in 1904. This short British Pathé newsreel shows the 25th anniversary commemoration of this important alliance, which exists to this day. In 1929, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, was the honoured guest in Cannes, along with many other British and French dignitaries:

The cityscape looks much different these days! For a start, the old casino in the film was razed a long time ago.

New developments

Mayor David Lisnard has been making many changes which he hopes will further improve the city.

I am less sure, but then I always liked the little quirks that made Cannes such a unique place. They are quickly disappearing.

Rue Felix Faure

This street runs parallel to La Croisette and has the city’s most popular restaurants.

Lisnard is pedestrianising the street so that it forms a new esplanade running from the north side of the Croisette near the bandshell all the way to the restaurants’ frontage.

I already miss the traffic that used to go down there. I used to look at the registration numbers to see where the various cars were from. There were no bin men doing their early evening collections, either. Oh well.

I can understand Lisnard’s objective, but yet another quirky aspect of Cannes daily life has disappeared.

Plage Zamehnof

Zamenhof Beach is at the eastern end of La Croisette.

It has recently been enlarged and improved:

Largely, it’s a great move, especially as this is a public beach.

But …

Look at the rocks to the left of the photo. When we first started going to Cannes regularly in the late 1990s, they used to be a haven for locals who sunbathed nude. They did not bother anyone because the place was deserted. The sunbathers did not seek each other out. They placed themselves as far apart as possible.

Some years later, the nearby marina was expanded, making that area more exposed. Fewer lone sunbathers went there for privacy and quiet.

Now, as you can see, the rocks are deserted.

Another quirk gone forever.

Le Carré d’Or

The Golden Square is just off the Croisette.

It had the city’s nightclubs, particularly the late, glitzy Sparkling (6-8 Rue des Frères Pradignac), which was no stranger to the local news in 2013.

This area, comprising the small streets of Rue Macé, Rue des Frères Pradignac, Rue Gérard Monod and Rue du Commandant André, is undergoing renovation:

I can vouch for the fact that, since 2014, a number of traditional French restaurants in that area have closed. I accept that a) people retire and b) restaurants fail.

However, their replacements in Le Carré d’Or are highly-priced, characterless, blingy restaurants and bars designed for those on expense accounts, i.e. conference goers.

I liked the old places better. It was in this Golden Square that we had our first serious dining experiences in Cannes.

Another bit of ‘old’ (my term) Cannes that is no more.

Rue des Serbes

Arrgh! This is where the Nice Airport bus used to stop on its return journeys. It was so easy for travellers staying in the vicinity.

Note the palm trees in the before and after photos:

Okay, it’s now streamlined, and no doubt delivery lorries find it much easier now, but it’s too darned tidy!

I also lament the absence of the palm trees just to make a new bus lane.

This part of Rue des Serbes coming off La Croisette was actually quite pretty in the ‘old’ days. No longer.

Le Suquet

On top of Le Suquet, the old quarter, is a fortress which was turned into a modern art museum many years ago.

Added since our last visit is a large gold CANNES sign, similar to the HOLLYWOOD one in California, only more discreet.

You cannot see the sign in the photos below, but when you are in the centre of town a few storeys up you can see it and the clock clearly, even if the clock looks tiny here:

I haven’t been up there so I cannot comment, but I have been along the streets below the fortress, and they had some character to them. I will have to return next time to see if everything there has been cleaned up, too.


We saw a lot fewer cars in the centre of Cannes.

It seems that is one of the objectives of this exercise.

With that, however, the city is also beginning to lose some of its innate charm.

Cannes needs a bit of its old chaos. However, that’s all by the wayside now.

Notre-Dame de Bon Voyage

I attended Mass in this 19th century church in May 1978, in the days when I was still Catholic.

It is absolutely beautiful and, if I am not mistaken, Grace Kelly attended Sunday Mass when she was in town for the Cannes Film Festival one year in the 1950s.

This is another restoration project the city is undertaking:

There is a stone plaque on the side of the church along Rue Notre-Dame commemorating Napoleon’s march along that route.

It is one of Cannes’s oldest churches and why it is important to Mayor Lisnard and to the city. Both the exterior and interior will undergo renovation:

The importance of classical music in Cannes

Notre-Dame de Bon Voyage is known for its organ music. Often, between 6 and 7 p.m. you can hear the organist rehearse for Mass.

On June 24, the local Conservatoire de Musique et Théâtre gave an end of term concert at the church:

Here are some excellent photographs of that event — and of the church interior:


As I mentioned yesterday, education has long been a priority for Cannes.

A new initiative has been launched for every child born in Cannes who is still living in the city on his or her sixth birthday — a set of six books to enjoy during their formative years:

These books will cover traditional subjects such as fairy tales, mythology, history, animals and nature:

Lisnard’s EAC — Education Artistique et Culturelle — has been achieved and appears to be going nationwide:

Parents attend special art workshops with their children. This one was held on a Saturday in June:

The mayor also actively promotes civic education in schools:

In order to receive the ‘passport’, each child has to undertake eight activities, involving personal behaviour, citizenship, computing and the environment:

This was a voluntary school project but will become mandatory in all Cannes schools for the next academic year:

Mayor Lisnard distributed the passports personally:

Thus ends my summary of Cannes for another year — with nary a celebrity or film star in sight!

In response to my post ‘Lifting the lid off the piano’, one of my readers Michael J McFadden, author of Dissecting Antismokers’ Brains and Tobacconacht – The Antismoking Endgame, asked:

We’re all familiar with Beethoven’s hearing problems, but has there ever been a famous composer who didn’t physically know how or was incapable of playing the piano themselves?

A great question.

There are many classical composers who are considered to be ‘disabled’ through depression or addiction. However, for the purposes of this post, disability is considered on the basis of incapability or difficulty of playing a piano or other instrument.

Gustav Holst

Gustavus Holst was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, on September 21, 1874. His father Adolph von Holst was a renowned pianist and his mother Clara was a student of his with whom he fell in love and married. Clara died when Gustavus was eight years old.

Gustav Holst is best known for his magnificent orchestral composition, The Planets, still very popular in Britain today. He wrote it in 1914.

Young Gustavus was a sickly child. His eyesight and chest functions were weak. He also suffered from neuritis, which affected his learning the piano and other musical instruments. His hands were shaky. This prevented him from playing an instrument for any length of time. As a result, he was unable to attend a prestigious conservatory for further training.

However, he did not let his disability overcome his love of music. He persevered and, when he was 17 years old:

He was appointed to play organ and act as a choirmaster at Wyck Rissington. He gave his first official performance with his father at a concert where he played the role of the pianist. The audience of that show called him Gustav which he opted [for] instead of his original name “Gustavus”.

In 1893, he was able to enter the Royal College of Music, with financial help from his father. His first job after graduating in 1898 was with the Carl Rosa Opera Company where he coached and played piano during rehearsals.

In 1900, he wrote a symphony performed to great acclaim in 1902. He married Emily Harrison in 1901. He decided to teach music. After a period spent at a school in south London, the well-known St Paul’s Girls School appointed him Director of Music. He worked there until his death in 1934 of a duodenal ulcer. His funeral was held at Chichester Cathedral on the south coast. Composer Vaughan Williams played Holst’s music during the service.

Holst’s other compositions include:

First Suite in E-flat for Military Band, Second Suite in F for Military Band, I vow to thee, My Country, St. Paul’s Suite, In the Bleak Midwinter, A Choral Fantasia, Two Eastern Pictures, The Wandering Scholar, First Choral Symphony, Ave Maria, A Moorside Suite, In Youth is Pleasure, The Magician and Hammersmith among others.

I vow to thee, My Country and In the Bleak Midwinter are popular hymns to this day.

Today, Holst is still considered as one of England’s greatest composers.

Jean ‘Django’ Reinhardt

The late Belgian guitarist Jean ‘Django’ Reinhardt (1910 – 1953) also had a hand disability.

He suffered burns to his left hand in a fire, which paralysed his fourth and fifth fingers.

Like Holst, he refused to allow this disability to affect his love of music. He played chords with the index and middle fingers only. This resulted in a new style of music, sometimes called ‘hot jazz’, which attracted the attention of Duke Ellington, with whom he toured in 1946, and Stéphane Grappelli among others.

Whilst Reinhardt was a jazz musician, he is worth including because of his perseverance in overcoming disability. The fire also left his right leg paralysed. Doctors wanted to amputate it, but Reinhardt refused. Within a year he was able to get around with the help of a walking stick.

Allan Pettersson

The late Swedish composer Allan Petterson contracted rheumatoid arthritis in the 1950s.

By 1968, he was housebound. He remained at home until his death in 1980.

Despite severe arthritic pain — and unfriendly neighbours — he continued composing prolifically:

he composed 15 large-scale symphonies which are among the most powerful of the 20th century, along with several imposing concertos of comparable length.


Maurice Ravel

In the midst of a stunning career French composer and arranger Maurice Ravel began experiencing problems with speech, hand co-ordination and memory.

No one is sure what the condition was. Some suggest Ravel had Pick’s Disease. Others say aphasia.

The symptoms began in 1927, much to Ravel’s distress as well as that of his fellow musicians, family and friends. His contemporary, Igor Stravinsky, said:

His final years were cruel, for he was gradually losing his memory and some of his coordinating powers, and he was, of course, quite aware of it.

In 1932, Ravel suffered severe head injuries in a collision. He was a passenger in a taxi.

It is thought that the injuries exacerbated the disorder he already had. With the help of transcribers, he wrote his last piece in 1933, the score for the film Don Quixote.

By 1937, Ravel was in great pain, though socially active. He sought expert help from one of France’s foremost neurosurgeons who operated on him. The surgery appeared to be successful, but within a short period of time, Ravel lapsed into a coma and died in December of that year.

Charles John Stanley

The English composer and musician Charles John Stanley (he later went by ‘John’), lived between 1712 and 1786 and was nearly blind for most of his life.

At the age of two, he struck his head on a marble hearth whilst carrying a china basin.

Despite this, Stanley began studying music at the age of seven. As well as playing the organ and harpsichord he was also an accomplished violinist.

By the age of nine, he was an occasional organist at the Church of All Hallows Bread Street in London. When their regular organist died, the church officials appointed him head organist; Stanley was 11 years old.

At the age of 14, he was appointed head organist at St Andrew’s, Holborn. At 17, he became the youngest person to earn a Bachelor of Music degree from Oxford University.

Persistence and hard work — despite near-blindness — paid off from Stanley’s childhood!

In 1734, he became the organist for the Society of the Inner Temple, one of the four Inns of Court. He held this appointment until he died in 1786. His assignment also included playing the organ at Temple Church, where he met George Frideric Handel, who used to hear Stanley play frequently. He later directed Handel’s Oratorios, committing them to memory first.

Stanley wrote several compositions, which he played at well-attended venues such as Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, Covent Garden and the Drury Lane Theatre.

In 1734, he married Sarah Arlond, whose father was a captain of the East India Company. Sarah’s sister Ann transcribed Stanley’s compositions.

Stanley had an active social life with many influential friends. Amazingly, he was also an avid card player!

George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) is probably best known for his Messiah and Water Music.

In Britain, we also know his Zadok the Priest which he wrote for George II’s coronation in 1727. It has been part of our coronation services ever since.

This is the best recording I have heard, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to present this in a proper context rather than giving it a gratuitous mention, tempting though that is:

In Britain — including Ireland, then under British rule — Handel was also famous for giving many charity concerts.

In August 1750, Handel was returning to England from a visit to his native Germany. He was a passenger in a carriage involved in a serious accident somewhere between the Hague and Haarlem in the Netherlands. The following year, he had lost some of his sight in one eye. A London surgeon operated on him, but the procedure seem to worsen his eyesight.

It was during this time that John Stanley (see above) took over directing Handel’s music at concerts.

Handel died in Brook Street in central London in 1759 at the age of 74. He lies buried in Westminster Abbey.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) needs little introduction.

This Baroque composer came from a family of musicians and is one of the greatest of all time.

He spent his entire life in Germany. Most of his appointments were to Lutheran churches. His last major work was Mass in B Minor which he wrote between 1748 and 1749.

That was fortuitous, because in 1749, his health began to decline. Bach began to lose his eyesight. A British eye surgeon travelled to Leipzig to operate on him early in 1750, but the great composer died in July of that year, aged 65. Although the cause of death was stroke and pneumonia, a newspaper at the time noted:

the unhappy consequences of the very unsuccessful eye operation

as the true cause.

After his death, Bach’s music went out of fashion for a time. Some of his family members who were bequeathed his unpublished compositions fell on hard times and had to sell them. The unhappy result was that over 100 cantatas have been lost as well as his St Mark’s Passion.

However, by the end of the 18th century, Bach’s reputation was revived by Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann and Mendelssohn who incorporated some of his techniques in their own work. Beethoven described Bach as the

original father of harmony.

Louis Braille

Although we think of Louis Braille (1809-1852) as being the inventor of the famous reading and writing system for the blind, he was also an accomplished cellist and organist.

A devout Catholic, Braille was the organist at two churches in Paris: Saint-Nicholas-des Champs and Saint-Vincent-de-Paul in the 1830s and 1840s.

He was also highly intelligent and very well educated, more about which in a moment.

Braille’s father had a successful leather and horse tack business. Young Louis loved to play in the workshop. One day, when he was three years old, he tried making holes in leather using an awl. Unfortunately, Louis had his head close to the awl. The tool slipped and struck him in one eye.

As the family lived close to Paris, they were able to take him to a highly respected surgeon for treatment. However, the surgeon said that nothing could be done. Louis’s eye became infected and, in what is known as sympathetic opthalmia, his other eye also was severely affected. The boy was in great pain.

By the age of five, Braille was blind in both eyes.

His parents were undaunted and were determined that Louis live as normal a life as possible.

Louis’s father made him sticks which allowed him to navigate the village. He was even able to study at the local school until he was ten years old. His teachers and the local priests were impressed with Louis’s ability to learn.

Braille was admitted to the Royal Institute for Blind Youth — now the National Institute for Blind Youth — in Paris where he prospered.

He absorbed the school’s entire curriculum and asked to stay on as a teaching assistant. In 1833, he became a full professor there and spent most of the remainder of his life teaching history, geometry and algebra.

As for his reading and writing system, Braille used an awl, the same tool that blinded him! He had largely developed his Braille system by the age of 15 in 1824! French Army Captain Charles Barbier had an influence on Braille when the youngster began using the officer’s method of ‘night writing’ as well as his slate and stylus tools in 1821.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Louis Vierne

French composer and organist Louis Vierne (1870-1937) was born legally blind with congenital cataracts.

Despite that, he was able to attend school locally before he began studying music at the Paris Conservatory.

Vierne had a gift for music from the age of two. A pianist played him a Schubert lullaby and the toddler began tapping at the correct keys afterward.

As an adult, Vierne’s life was marked by divorce and the death of both his brother and son in the Great War.

Nonetheless, he went on to become the principal organist at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. He held the post from 1900 until his death in 1937.

For his compositions, Vierne used huge sheets of paper, enabling him to see the notes he was writing. Wikipedia tells us:

His output for organ includes six organ symphonies, 24 Fantasy Pieces (which includes his famous Carillon de Westminster), and 24 Pieces in Free Style, among other works. There are also several chamber works (sonatas for violin and cello, a piano quintet and a string quartet for example), vocal and choral music, and a Symphony in A minor for orchestra.

Vierne also taught music. His students described him as kind and encouraging.

On the evening of June 2, 1937, Vierne gave his 1750th organ recital at Notre-Dame. He had finished the first part of the concert playing magnificently, the best ever, according to contemporary accounts of the time.

When he began his closing section, he suddenly lurched forward. He lost consciousness from either a stroke or a heart attack, however, his foot was on the lower ‘E’ pedal of the organ. The sound reverberated around the cathedral for some time.

As shocking as it must have been for the audience, Vierne had achieved his lifelong dream of dying at the console of the organ in Notre-Dame.

Jean Langlais

The style of French organist and composer Jean Langlais (1907-1991) is more contemporary classical.

Much of his canon was comprised of Masses influenced by Gregorian chants as well as polymodal harmonies.

Langlais, as some of the other composers here, went blind in early childhood. Langlais’s malady was glaucoma, which usually afflicts middle-aged and older people. He was only two years old.

Like Louis Braille, Langlais attended the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris. Like Louis Vierne, he progressed to the Paris Conservatory, where he received prizes for organ playing and composition.

After completing his studies, he taught both at the National Institute for Blind Youth and at the Schola Cantorum. His teaching career began in 1961 and ended in 1976.

Most people know of his fame as an organist, however. He was the principal organist at Paris’s Basilica of Saint-Clothilde from 1945 to 1988. He also toured the world, giving concerts and recitals.

Langlais died at the age of 84. His widow, second wife Marie-Louise Jaquet-Langlais, and three children, Janine, Claude and Caroline, survive him.

Beethoven’s deafness

We all know that Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was deaf, but how much and when?

He was a prolific composer. His best known compositions comprise:

9 symphonies, 5 concertos for piano, 1 violin concerto, 32 piano sonatas, and 16 string quartets. He also composed other chamber music, choral works (including the celebrated Missa solemnis), and songs.

Beethoven’s father Johann was an accomplished musician who began the boy’s musical education. Alas, home life was unhappy, and young Ludwig used to play the piano in an attempt to stop Johann beating his mother.

Beethoven could hear until he reached his 20s, at which time he began to grow increasingly deaf.

When Beethoven died in 1827, his autopsy report stated:

… The ear cartilage is of a huge dimension and an irregular form. The scaphoïde dimple, and above all the auricle, were vast and had one and a half times the usual depth…

By 1796, according to Beethoven’s letters, he began to experience buzzing noises and other abnormal sounds.

By 1801, the composer had lost 60% of his hearing.

He went completely deaf in 1816.

Although doctors have studied his case posthumously, no one has reached a definite cause of deafness. There was no family history of it. Beethoven had no ear problems when growing up. Furthermore, no matter what doctors tried, nothing worked. The deafness continued to progress. This leads some to think that Beethoven had syphilis, although this has not been proven.

Beethoven eventually gave up concerts and recitals. At his last concert in 1824, stage assistants had to turn him around to face the cheering audience.

Nevertheless, he continued to write compositions in private.

Interestingly, he wrote many of his most famous works whilst being completely deaf.


Disabilities are terrible afflictions.

However, the preceding stories should give parents and siblings of the disabled — as well as the disabled themselves — hope for the future.

If men living up to 300 years ago can be successful despite blindness, deafness or hand problems, then, we, too, can encourage the disabled to follow their dreams and do what we can to help.

And, finally …

Thanks, Michael, for the question. I hadn’t realised this would have been such a fascinating and inspiring topic!

Cello Stock PhotoWhilst there is no clinical proof that classical music benefits children’s emotional and physical development, for decades psychologists and therapists have advocated early exposure to the world’s best music.

This is nothing new, however. Any family with a piano knew and played classical compositions. Children learned about classical music at home. The piano was the 19th and early 20th century equivalent of today’s ‘entertainment centre’.

Dr Ellen Weber summarises psychologist Don Campbell’s findings on classical music and mood (emphases in the original):

Gregorian chant creates quiet in our minds and can reduce stress.

Slower Baroque music, such as Bach, Handel, Vivaldi or Corelli, can create mentally stimulating environments for creativity and new innovations.

Classical music, such as Haydn and Mozart, often improves concentration and memory when played in the background.

Romantic music, such as Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky , Chopin and Liszt, enhances our senses and increases a sense of sympathy and love.

Impressionist music, such as Debussy, Faure and Ravel, can unlock dreamlike images that put us in touch with our unconscious thoughts and belief systems.

Campbell wrote The Mozart Effect in 2001. The book examines the effect of classical music on young people. Bright Hub Education explains the theory (emphases mine):

The study of the impact of classical music on young children’s brains is often referred to as The Mozart Effect. In the 1990’s, two musically minded neuroscientists put the theory of the Mozart Effect to the test. They tested several college students using a standard IQ test after exposing the students to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, a relaxation recording and complete silence. The interesting results of that test were that the students performed better on the spatial reasoning portion of the test after listening to the Mozart piece than either the relaxation recording or silence. The little discussed piece of this research is that the effects of the music appear to wear off after about fifteen minutes. The college student’s scores dropped back to normal twenty minutes after listening to the music.

Bright Hub summarises how and when classical music can help children develop their mental acuity:

For example, Gregorian Chant can quiet the mind and promote relaxation. For an early childhood educator, Gregorian chant may be a good choice of music for rest time or even a good snack time selection. Bach and Vivaldi are thought to stimulate creativity. Why not try to play these musical selections while children are painting at the easel or working with craft materials? Classical composers such as Mozart and Haydn are thought to improve concentration and memory, a good choice for children working on puzzles, manipulatives or other math activities.

Of course, contemporary music has its place, too, especially for physical activity. However, we are inundated with it, whilst classical music is largely ignored.

Campbell has written four other books on the Mozart effect and has also compiled a CD of Mozart’s music for use in the preschool environment. Another Bright Hub Education article says that playing Mozart alone can direct children to calm down or engage in classroom activity:

How can preschool teachers incorporate this technique in their classrooms? The easiest way is by playing Mozart effect music like Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40 in G Minor” or “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra” as the kids settle down for naps. Many preschoolers find it difficult to relax and sleep during nap time, and the effects of calming music are well-documented …

Another way for preschool teachers to utilize the Mozart effect on their students is by playing classical music, especially works by Mozart, in the background while preschool children are working in centers or playing. Some of Mozart’s well-known energetic selections are “Sonata in D Major,” “Eine Kleine Nachtsmusik,” or “The Marriage of Figaro.”

Educating children in classical music is one of the greatest favours we adults can do for them. Not only are they able to gain a trained ear for it but they also learn to love it from a young age.

My mother used to play Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite a lot when I was little. I could hardly wait to see the ballet, which was one of my Christmas gifts when I was nine years old. What a treat!

This early exposure also helped me in the two mandatory music appreciation courses I took in secondary school and at university. A whole new world came to life via instruments and genres. For that, I shall be forever grateful.

So let’s start exposing children to this musical world, take them to concerts, ballet and, perhaps, the opera. It helps to make them well-rounded, educated individuals.

Until a few days ago, I’d never really thought much about the piano.

My maternal grandparents had an upright, which my late mother and aunt learned how to play. My late paternal aunt owned and played a Yamaha baby grand. I could read music and play a bit myself.

However, lifting the lid off the piano reveals a world of science and nature many of us haven’t contemplated.

The French newsweekly Marianne recently reported on the intricacies of the piano, from sound to brand dominance (‘Un Steinway, sinon rien?’ [‘A Steinway or nothing?’] by Emmanuel Tresmontant, 24 – 30 April 2015, pp. 80-83).

Hundreds of manufacturers, now gone

There was a time when every Western nation — even a US state — had its own piano manufacturer. Wikipedia has a nearly complete list here. (My grandparents had a Gulbransen, not included.)

Very few of them are still in business. A handful of survivors have moved production to the Far East.

The French manufacturer Pleyel was the most recent to stop production. That was in 2013.

Interestingly, around the time Pleyel was winding down, a new company in England, Cavendish Pianos, launched. Named after the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, Cavendish being their family name — and partly financed by them — the company makes five models from uprights to grands. They are located at Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire and use the county’s finest expertise, wood and wool in manufacture.

However, most of us know only the Steinway and Yamaha brands. And there’s a reason for that. More in a moment.

What classical composers used

The Marianne article tells us that in the 19th century, Paris had over 100 piano manufacturers (p. 81).

The pianos were made in various shapes depending on the sound desired: pear, pyramid, cube and even a giraffe! Some pianos were able to indefinitely carry the sound of one note played until the person playing lifted his finger. If you try this today, you’ll be disappointed. The sound fades out even with your finger on the key.

Pleyel pianos were developed by the classical composer Ignaz Pleyel. He introduced the upright model to France in 1815. This piano was developed from models popular in Britain at the time. By 1834, Pleyel et Cie employed 250 workers who constructed 1,000 pianos each year.

Chopin composed and played on a Pleyel, said to have a singing sound quality. Liszt used a piano made by rival Erard, thought to have been even better in tonality. Pleyel bought Erard and another pianomaker Gaveau in the 1980s.

Today, only a few models made by these companies and others around the world exist. The classical pieces we hear today from other pianos lose some of the earlier subtleties in the original compositions.

Steinway’s world dominance

These days, most concert pianists play a Steinway, the leading brand of piano.

French music critic Alain Lompech explained Steinway’s evolution, which began in the 1800s (p. 81):

The genius of Steinway & Sons, founded in New York in 1853 by Heinrich Steinweg, a German, was to take the best innovations of the other manufacturers and integrate them in a harmonious unit. At the first Universal Exposition in Paris in 1867, Steinway took three gold medals from Pleyel and Erard. The most unbelievable bit is that Steinway pianos are made the same as they were in 1880! Nothing has changed since the patents were granted. It’s an absolute miracle.

Philippe Copin, arguably one of Europe’s best piano technicians, told Marianne why Steinway dominates the market (p. 82):

Steinways distinguish themselves by their capacity for resonance. They can project sound in concert halls with 3,000 seats, which had never been done before. Steinway also knew how to accommodate from the start the demands of composers such as Liszt, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov who needed more percussive pianos: a fortissimo from Prokofiev does not have the same impact as one from Mozart or Beethoven.

Copin adds that few professional pianists know how to get the best from a Steinway:

They don’t know how it’s made and how this affects its timbre. Most often, they all ask for the same thing: that their piano be adaptable and allow them to play all repertoires … In order to respond to all these demands, it has been observed that only one brand can meet them: Steinway! Add to that that a grand piano for concerts costs €140,000 whatever the marque. You then understand why there is so little diversity.

Marianne points out that other manufacturers ended up trying to imitate Steinway to meet the demands of pianists. For example, the sound from the Austrian make Bösendorfer started out as ’round and soft, deep’ (p. 82). Not so long ago, concert pianists complained that Bösendorfer wasn’t powerful enough, so the maker altered its hammers in response, resulting in a ‘hard and metallic’ sound.

Incidentally, Yamaha bought Bösendorfer in 2007.

Musicologiest Ziad Kreidy told Marianne that he is sorry the original sounds which distinguished one piano manufacturer from another are history (pp. 82, 83):

… to satisfy demand on a global scale, piano manufacture has become extremely automated and standardised.

Modern pianos have such heavy, sonorous and rich basses that it’s impossible to respect the pedals played, for example, by Chopin in some of his Nocturnes.

This also holds true for Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3:

On a modern Steinway Beethoven’s instrumentation is impossible to achieve. A too-insistent resonance ruins the sound and the interplay becomes cacophony. On an old Pleyel, by contrast, you had only to respect the pedal indications for the melody to unfold naturally.

He went on to say (p. 83) that, previously, each manufacturer had their own notion of tonal

warmth, clarity and the natural which made the reputations of Pleyel and Erard, handmade by passionate artisans, depositors of a savoir-faire completely lost now …

With these instruments, as rare as they are fragile, we enter into another poetic universe. The sound is natural, round and golden, as if it were amber.

Concert virtuoso Alain Planès was fortunate enough to play a 1836 Pleyel which he said sounded

totally authentic … exactly as Chopin intended.

He was also able to record Debussy’s Préludes on an 1897 Bechstein which left his heart pounding with excitement.

Yamaha, the only real rival

Marianne noted that, whilst the Italian manufacturer Fazioli and the German Bluthner still make ‘excellent’ pianos, Steinway’s only real rival is Yamaha, especially with their newest model, the CFX (p. 82).

Only time will tell.

Hammers and wool

Modern Steinways have much harder hammers than the old, beloved makes of piano (p. 83). This affects the sound quality, making it bold, percussive and heavy.

Another factor contributing to sound is the sheep’s wool felt used on the hammers. Alain Planès said that the late, great pianist Rudolf Serkin who died in 1991, surmised that modern felt is considerably different to that of the old days:

He thought that today’s sheep are badly nourished, that their wool no longer has the same quality as their ancestors’ and that this, naturally, has a direct influence on the sound coming from the piano.

An interesting theory, one which might be true.

It is interesting to note that the earliest covering on piano hammers was leather. Felt replaced leather. The first piano felt manufacturer was JD Weickert, based in Leipzig:

In 1847 the first felt for piano hammer was made in Germany by the Weickert factory. This felt was successful[ly] tested and used by the piano factory J.G. Irmler. Piano Felt Factory J.D. Weickert was the new name of the company.

The existing and newly founded Piano factories at that time caused an increasing demand for Piano Felt. Even today well-known companies as Steinway, Blüthner, Bösendorfer , Ibach, Bechstein or Rönisch were already customers of the Felt factory. The factory had to increase the capacity and had to add on new facilities. The number of staff increased by 50 in year 1860 to 350 employees at the beginning of the 20th century.

In the late 19th century, The Guardian tells us:

more people were employed making pianos in London than in any other manufacturing business.

Highly technical

None of us doubts that manufacturing a piano is an involved process.

So is being a piano technician. Philippe Copin spent ten years training at Yamaha’s factory in Japan. It can take a highly trained technician up to two days to properly tune and adjust a piano before a major concert (pp. 81, 82).

This video describes some of what is involved in adjusting individual key’s temperaments:

Wikipedia has an excellent entry on Boston’s Timothy Gilbert and his piano patents from the 19th century, which were very technical and highly successful.

The technology and mathematical calculations behind piano hammers is discussed here, complete with illustrations.

Today, at Cavendish Pianos, owner and founder Adam Cox told The Guardian that:

With each piano made up of as many as 20,000 parts, the suppliers include hardwood sawmills, feltmakers and a hand-spinner of piano strings, all within easy reach of the ex-cowsheds.

“China and the far east have many advantages but we can beat them,” says Cox, whose favourite statistic is a reminder of the glory days of British piano sales.

Whilst many reading this will say, ‘Keyboards get the job done, too,’ Cox says:

Keyboards and the like had a novelty but people are realising their limitations compared with a real piano.

When it comes to music, nothing’s grander than a grand — or even a standard upright piano! Expensive, yes, but well worth it. And now we know what’s under the lid.

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