Looking at the music of Dutch rock band Focus, started in the late sixties by Thijs Van Leer (b /31/03/48) with Jan Akkerman (b 24/12/46). Van Leer still performs and records under the name today (official site here). Akkerman's site here.




Jan Akkerman: the classical element 1

The word ‘classical’ has many meanings. Here we use it to refer to older and more traditional musical styles as opposed to more contemporary and popular ones. I am not a very great fan of classical music, though I have many classical CDs. Much of my classical education has been via men like Jan Akkerman.
Akkerman’s most famous period was with Focus in the 1970s. He remarkably finished the At the Rainbow concert by coming on stage and performing a John Dowland piece on solo lute (check it out on youtube). He had become interested in the instrument through seeing Julian Bream in concert back in the seventies. It seems that the live act often included a Menuett from J S Bach (1685-1750) some Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) and the fourth movement of the Concerto for Orchestra by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945), among other things classical, that were never released. Akkerman expressed particular appreciation for Bach and for Bartok's Concerto and Third Piano Concerto. In an interview from the period he neatly sums up the difference between the two. Bach, he says, sought to make earthly music and made heavenly, while Bartok sought to make heavenly music and made beautiful earthly music. (In a 1973 interview in Dutch he expanded on this saying - "Talking about Bach, this composer tried to create the earthly aspect in his music, but got very heavenly music instead. Maybe his subconscious desire for death has to do with that. He is constantly happy in his music, you’ll never hear any dissonance. His Fugues, for instance, are very well built, very major. And when he does something in minor, it still sounds happy, but it has a depth, which is almost frightening. A composer like Bartók, is the opposite. He tried to create heavenly music, but it became very earthly. In his music I hear waterfalls, I see beautiful trees and butterflies, alternated with weirdness, strange dissonants, and so on." In the same interview he says "A pop musician is being influenced all the time. I started to play rock ‘n’ roll but if one is confronted with classical music and it moves you, then you’ll be influenced by that. That will be recognisable in the music and that is very much an element in the music of Focus. We don’t go back to, let’s say, to Bach and stuff like that, no, we go back even a little further … and I like that.").
Even without such comments journalists at the time were not slow to spot the classical influence on the music. Relistening to the recorded corpus this is not immediately obvious. The careful listener, however, soon spots the influence as far back as the coda to Anonymus (In and out of) through to the Hamburger Concerto album and beyond. It is sometimes in the background as with Anonymus, Eruption (Moving Waves) or P’s March and Spake the Lord Creator (Ship of Memories) or there are parodies such as with the opera singing on Hamburger Concerto or the harpsichord intro to Birth (Hamburger Concerto). Then there are tracks in a classical style such as Le Clochard (Moving Waves) on guitar or Elspeth of Nottingham (Focus 3) on lute.
It was apparently intended that Eruption should include adaptations from Bartok but the composer's family refused permission. At least one listener has spotted in Eruption a lift from the opera Orpheus and Euridice by Monteverdi (1567-1643) and believes there is also a quotation from the opera of the same name by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787).
As for direct lifts from classical composers, however, there appear only to be some three tracks of this sort. They are Delitae Musicae and the Starter from the title track of Hamburger Concerto and Father Bach (Mother Focus). The first is credited to good old Anonymous. The story goes that Akkerman found a manuscript by an old Belgian composer from Antwerp in a London music shop. It was then arranged for lute and recorder with Van Leer. It has been suggested that the piece is the work of a J Hove whose lute arrangement of a motet appeared in 1612 as Delitiae Musicae Cantiones. Starter uses the theme best known as The St Anthony Chorale. It was written by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) as a trumpet serenade and later taken up by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) in his Variations on a theme by Haydn (Op 56a), completed in 1873. The third piece is based on part of Bach’s St Matthew Passion of 1729.
Turning to Akkerman’s solo output we remind ourselves that his very first release, aged 15, was a rocked up version of Melody in F (but played in 'A') by American classical pianist Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982). We can make similar divisions to those above. The albums vary in classical content from some (eg Tabernakel) that are full of it to others (eg CU) that appear to have none at all.
Guitar for Sale, the debut album, gives only a slight hint of classicism with the Jewish traditional Hineimatov. The next two albums have several classical themes. Profile (1972) is very diverse and shows plenty of evidence of Akkerman’s classical training on the second side where four of seven tracks are in a classical style for solo guitar or lute. First, the anonymous Kemp’s jig, on lute. William Kemp was apparently a Shakespearian actor who came to fame with his nine days wonder - a morris dance performed from London to Norwich in the days of Elizabeth I. Then comes an etude by Matteo Carcassi (1792-1853), a leading 19th Century guitarist-composer. Born in Florence he began as a pianist but changed to guitar, beginning a concert career in Germany in 1810. He moved from place to place but was eventually based in Paris where he died. His fame there rivalled that of Carulli, though the two differed greatly in technique and style. Carcassi left almost a hundred works for guitar, all of romantic taste, brilliant and technically demanding. His Method (Op 59) is still considered among the best didactic works of 19th Century guitar masters and his etudes (Op 60) are popular. Track four is by Austrian composer Antonio Diabelli (1781-1858). Andante Sostenuto, as its title suggests, is slow and sustained. It is from a Guitar Sonata (Op 29 No 3) and is described by one aficionado as ‘almost too beautiful to be true’. The sixth track is a short lute composition of Akkerman’s own - Minstrel/Farmers dance.
To be continued

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