Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Classical "Supergroup"

Back in the late 1960s the idea of a "supergroup" arose. England had a whole bunch of excellent musicians playing pop music and sometimes the very best of these got together in one group. The locus classicus of this is probably the group Cream formed by guitarist Eric Clapton, drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce. All had been in previous groups like the Yardbirds, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers and the Graham Bond Organisation. Clapton was the premier blues guitarist at the time, Ginger Baker an outstanding drummer and Jack Bruce, apart from his skills on electric bass (he had been trained as a classical cellist), was a strong singer. Put them together and you get some truly extraordinary music. Here they are playing at Royal Albert Hall in their reunion concerts in 2005:

The song, "White Room", features an introduction in 5/4.

But supergroups didn't start in the 1960s. I just ran across an example from the 1780s! Vienna, the center of the music world at the time, was densely populated with excellent composers and performers. One of the great, long-standing traditions was that of the music salon (this is where the name of my blog came from). Musicians and music-lovers would get together on an informal basis, just to enjoy making music. On one epic occasion in 1785 at the home of Stephen Storace, an English opera composer and brother of the singer Nancy Storace, a few musicians got together to play some quartets. First violin was played by the famous composer and violinist Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, second violin was played by Joseph Haydn about whom I have written so much, viola was played by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart one of the most famous composers of all time and the cello by Johann Baptist Wanhal a student of Dittersdorf and prolific composer in his own right, author of one hundred string quartets.

Alas, there is no YouTube clip of that evening! So we will have to be content with listening to a quartet by Joseph Haydn. The Quartet No. 35 in D minor, op. 42 was composed in 1784 so it may well have been played that evening:

In his memoirs the Irish tenor Michael Kelly, who was present, recalls:
A greater treat, or a more remarkable one, cannot be imagined ... After the musical feast was over, we sat down to an excellent supper and became joyous and lively in the extreme.


Rickard Dahl said...

I found the song "White Room" boring to listen to, amongst other things because of the many times repeating electric guitar line. But then again most pop music is boring and hard to listen to for me.

Good point about classical supergroups. I guess the Russian Five and the French Six could be referred to as a supergroup of composers. Would be interesting to see a classical super group in today's World. Of course not some postmodernist, minimalist or modernist group but rather a group of composers writing good music not bound to those ideals.

Bryan Townsend said...

Sorry, Rickard! Cream were a group that I grew up with, but I suppose they are a minority taste.

Interesting thought about the groups of composers. Enclaves of artists seem to have been characteristic of a lot of late 19th and 20th century practice.

I put up another example of a pop "supergroup" quite a while ago. They were only together for one recording as far as I know, but somewhere on YouTube is a clip of John Lennon performing "Yer Blues" with Eric Clapton on lead guitar, Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones on bass and Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience on drums.

In classical music I think that the trio formed of Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein and Gregor Piatigorsky would certainly qualify as a "supergroup"!