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15 socially distanced pieces of classical music

Classical music already has a tranche of tailor-made pieces of music perfectly suited to a world of social distancing. Claire Jackson explores a number of these pandemic-ready pieces that already require their musicians to perform suitably apart

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Current social distancing measures are inspiring a new wave of music-making, from violinist Nicola Benedetti’s Zoom-based string workshops to English National Opera’s drive-in performance of Puccini’s La bohème, set in the modern-day UK, with a cast that never comes within two metres of each other and an implication that Mimì is dying not of consumption, but of COVID-19.

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Composers are responding to the crisis with adaptations aplenty – John Rutter recently arranged some of his best-loved choral works for intermediate solo piano, on the basis that they might amuse isolated choir members. And for some light relief, there’s Jeff DePaoli’s Coronavirus Etude for Piano and Disinfecting Wipe (version available for organ), a parody piece that requires the performer to produce glissandos while cleaning the keyboard. But this isn’t the first time that composers have demanded that their performers – or audiences – observe the ‘one-metre-plus’ rule, as the following 15 examples show…

1. Britten: Six Metamorphoses after Ovid

Oboist Joy Boughton gave the first performance of Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid from a rowing boat on Thorpeness Meare in 1951. The intrepid soloist battled midges and a strong Suffolk breeze – at one point the sheet music (the composer’s manuscript) had to be retrieved from the water with a punt pole. Not wanting to miss out on all the fun, the Aldeburgh Festival audience was also positioned in vessels on the boating lake.

Oboist Nicholas Daniel recreated the concert in 2017, playing from a floating platform – and a firmly fixed iPad.

2. Allegri: Miserere

Composed in the 1630s, Allegri’s iconic setting of the Miserere was originally sung in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week. In recent decades, it has become common practice for the vocal quartet to sing some distance from the main choir, often in the upper balconies of churches and cathedrals.

‘It’s not until the final verse that both choirs sing together,’ explains Harry Christophers, founder and conductor of vocal ensemble The Sixteen; ‘it can mean that the quartet has to make a hasty move through the plainsong to get in a position to see the conductor! One of the more extreme spatially distanced performances is held at St Paul’s Cathedral in Lent, where the quartet sings from the top of the whispering gallery to the main choir below – the effect is astonishing.’

3. HolstThe Planets: VII. Neptune, the Mystic

Holst took distancing measures one step further in ‘Neptune, the Mystic’, the final movement of The Planets. The shimmering sound of flutes, harps and celesta are enhanced by an offstage chorus of women’s voices. The singers begin with a long held G, which gradually develops into a wordless, shifting sequence. As the orchestra falls silent, the chorus continues until the offstage door is closed – a musical and theatrical coup d’état.

4. Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis

It’s possible that Holst took inspiration from his teacher Vaughan Williams, whose 1910 Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis had created a sensation for its use of divided ensembles. The Fantasia is scored for strings, divided into a main orchestra, an echo orchestra and a string quartet. In the premiere at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral, the groups were positioned across the building, with melodies passed from group to group.

5. PucciniTosca

Opera often features offstage effects but not many integrated distant parts. One exception is Puccini’s Tosca, which includes a solo sung by a shepherd boy, written to be performed away from the main action. The song opens the start of Act III, as church bells sound the call for prayer.

6. BerliozLes Troyens

Berlioz didn’t like to make things easy for himself – or his patrons. Not only does his epic five-act opera Les Troyens feature 22 roles, an enormous chorus and ballet, it also includes an eccentric selection of instruments, including saxhorns, a gong and a thunder machine. These musicians are positioned away from the pit and around the opera house, with the distance adding an additional acoustic dimension.

7. RespighiPines of Rome

In his Pines of Rome, Respighi uses a broad range of instruments to depict the trees around the Italian capital, specifying positions for musicians away from the stage. The second movement, ‘The Pines Near a Catacomb’, includes an offstage trumpet solo, while the third, ‘The Pines of the Janiculum’, incorporates a nightingale. The last movement, ‘The Pines of the Appian Way’, calls for six buccine – ancient circular trumpets that are usually represented by modern flugelhorns and which are often partially played offstage.

8. Mahler: Symphony No. 3

What is it about the brass section that makes composers regularly evict members of it from the stage? Having got a taste for remote fanfares in his First and Second symphonies, Mahler mixes things up in Symphony No 3. The music begins with eight horns in unison, but things quickly fragment – a solo is performed by a flugelhorn off stage. The onstage trumpet fanfare heralds the return of the orchestra and the distant horn joins the group.

9. Julian Anderson: The Crazed Moon

In Julian Anderson’s The Crazed Moon, all three trumpets play the first section offstage, then join the orchestra, before leaving again for the end of the work. Richard Knights, a freelance trumpet player, says it can feel a little like musical chairs. ‘If players are needed to be both on and offstage during the same work, then you do see some people walk on and off. There are also offstage trumpet parts in Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, Britten’s Plymouth Town overture, Verdi’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3 Overture, The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives and Handel’s Messiah.’

10. Strauss: Alpine Symphony

It’s not always just one or two brass instruments that have to keep their distance. In his Alpine Symphony, Richard Strauss asks for 14 brass instrumentalists to be positioned off stage, but it’s Berlioz (again!) who goes the extra distance – his 1837 Grande Messe de Morts is scored for four offstage brass bands.

11. StockhausenSternklang

Last August, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group joined Oslo’s Nordic Voices and German group Das Neue Ensemble in Hanover for one of the summer’s few large-scale live performances. There was no need to make any adaptions to pandemic-proof – their chosen work, Stockhausen’s 1971 Sternklang (Star Sound), was written to be performed outside, at disparate locations. Described as ‘park music’, the work takes its shape from constellations, which are translated as musical figures. The 21 performers (singers and/or instrumentalists) are divided into five groups, each performer projected over loudspeakers, and all held together by a percussionist in a central location.

12. Stockhausen: ‘Helicopter Quartet’

In fact, Stockhausen was never one for the constraints of the concert hall. His ‘Helicopter Quartet’ from Mittwoch Aus Licht – part of his opera cycle Light: The Seven Days of the Week – requires the string players to perform from four separate aircraft. The sound of the strings – amplified, of course – is intended to blend with that of the rotor blades so that the helicopters become instruments in their own right. Practicalities (and eye-watering expense) will no doubt prevent the 1995 masterpiece from enjoying a resurgence.

13. Max Richter: Sleep

Dozing during a concert is generally frowned upon – unless it’s a performance of Max Richter’s Sleep where, as the title suggests, listeners are encouraged to drift in and out of the gentle, repetitive patterns. Audience members lie rather than sit – often spread out in single beds, as was the case at the opening of the 22nd Beijing Music Festival, held at the Great Wall of China. Radio 3’s live broadcast of the 2015 premiere from the Reading Room of London’s Wellcome Collection broke two Guinness World Records – for the longest broadcast of a piece of music and the longest live broadcast of a piece of music.

14. Works for self-playing piano

Pianists are familiar with self-isolation, with an enormous solo repertoire and the possibility of playing orchestral reductions. For those of us with less polished skills and a yearning for ‘live’ music, there’s always a self-playing piano – Steinway’s Black Diamond grands, for instance, come preloaded with Lang Lang’s own recording of Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C, Mendelssohn’s Spinning Song and Debussy’s Rêverie among others, bringing the superstar pianist direct to your living room. Another option comes in the form of a pianola, the original player piano. Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano are especially written for a machine-operated instrument – no facemasks required.

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15. Tan Dun: Internet Symphony No. 1

The proliferation of Facebook recitals, Zoom lessons and even, in the case of the Guildhall School of Music, a virtual opera, has been cheering. However, as we moan about internet speeds and software limitations, spare a thought for Tan Dun, who composed the Internet Symphony No.1 – ‘Eroica’ back in 2008. The piece was created for auditions for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, run by YouTube and the LSO and one of the first ensembles to meet online. The work features the main theme from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, as well as timbres created from car parts such as disc brakes.