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Water Music

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Smetana

Smetana composed the set of six independent symphonic poems, Má vlast (My Homeland) over a period five years: Vysehrad and Vltava (Moldau in German) in 1874, Sarka and From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields in 1875, Tábor and Blánik in the winter of 1878/79. By the time of the first public performances of Vysehrad and Vltava at the same concert in Prague in 1875, the depredations of venereal disease had made Smetana deaf, to which in the following years would be added blindness and the hallucinations and self-destructiveness that caused him to be institutionalized. He died in a Prague asylum for the insane in May of 1884.

Smetana had not originally considered a set of symphonic poems, rather a single work tracing the course of the Vltava River from its source in the Bohemian forest to its majestic passage through Prague. But the notion took on a life of its own, becoming a musical picture of the landscape of Bohemia and episodes in its history.

The Moldau, which has achieved the strongest independent life among the six symphonic poems, is a rondo (with coda) in which the haunting, G-major main theme is introduced by the upper strings and woodwinds, with the lower strings suggesting the river waves. To quote poet-composer Václav Zeleny, who devised the programs, i.e., story lines, for all six tone poems: “This composition depicts the course of the Moldau. It sings of its first two springs, one warm the other cold, rising in the Bohemian forest, watches the streams as they join and follows the flow of the river through fields and woods... a meadow where the peasants are celebrating a wedding. In the silver moonlight the river nymphs frolic, castles and palaces float past, as well as ancient ruins growing out of the wild cliffs. The Moldau foams and surges in the Rapids of St. John, then flows in a broad stream toward Prague. Vysehrad Castle appears (the four-note theme from the first of the six symphonic poems) on its banks. The river strives on majestically, lost to view, finally yielding itself up to the Elbe.”

(Herbert Glass)

Elgar

Written immediately after the “Enigma” Variations, Elgar’s Sea Pictures have had a curious performance history. Well accepted by the public from the outset—when the striking contralto Clara Butt appeared at the Norwich Festival in October of 1899 dressed in a mermaid outfit and not in a corset (“guiltless of all confinement” was the contemporary description)—the songs have suffered from rather stuffy academic and critical commentary centering on the lack of profundity of their poems. Actually, however, in the era when Mahler was integrating the banal and the sublime in his Second and Third symphonies, and not too long before Berg would be setting lyrics from picture postcards in his Altenberg Lieder, these exquisite miniatures of Elgar are quite cutting-edge, ushering in a new aesthetic more inclusive of pop culture. Certainly in the age of Gilbert and Sullivan, the line between the opera house and the music hall was blurry indeed. Additionally, looking at the creation of these five lyrics, it is instructive to note that the first composed was penned by Elgar’s wife; perhaps her husband did not want to upstage her work with excerpts from Milton or Shakespeare.

The essence of these songs’ marine imagery is the overwhelming attraction of oblivion. A fitting metaphor for an island nation, the shoreline represents the boundary between the finite and the infinite, the careworn and the carefree, routine and escape. Elgar is extremely deft at bringing together the contemporary pastoral tradition, the Elizabethan view of the unison of love and death, the sentimental ballad, and the “goodbye to all that” nostalgia of the times. Fans of the film Gosford Park will recognize this uniquely British combination in the 1924 song “The Land of Might-Have Been” by the immensely popular Ivor Novello.

The cycle is a marvel of interwoven musical thought. One simple rising and falling motif from “In Haven (Capri)” is the sole building block for the five numbers. The ocean is the comforting, lullaby-singing mother in “Sea Slumber-Song,” peaceful and storm-tossed by turns in the Alice Elgar and the Browning. Perhaps the most remarkable three minutes in all of Elgar is the heart-wrenching “Where Corals Lie,” with verses by Richard Garnett the younger, a major Pre-Raphaelite figure of prodigious intellect. The mood is ecstatic and anticipatory, gay, almost cartoon-like, but the sought-after resolution is extinction (notice how the music of the orchestra gently pulls the listener under). The final song, “The Swimmer,” sets the poetry of Adam Gordon, a figure whose suicide would have been familiar to all in the original audiences. The intensity of its striving only increases the yearning for death. For the composer, Sea Pictures is a diving down to the depths of his soul, an antidote to the celebratory veneer of the “Enigma.” From this point forward, the sea would become a poignant thanatological emblem for English composers, from Gerald Finzi’s Channel Firing, to Arnold Bax’s Garden of Fand, to that most affecting of all British operas, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes.

(Fred Kirschnit)

 

I. Sea Slumber Song by Roden Noel (1834-1894)

Sea-birds are asleep,
The world forgets to weep,
Sea murmurs her soft slumber-song
On the shadowy sand
Of this elfin land;

“I, the Mother mild,
Hush thee, oh my child,
Forget the voices wild!
Hush thee, oh my child,
Hush thee.

Isles in elfin light
Dream, the rocks and caves,
Lulled by whispering waves,
Veil their marbles
Veil their marbles bright.
Foam glimmers faintly
faintly white
Upon the shelly sand
Of this elfin land;

Sea-sound, like violins,
To slumber woos and wins,
I murmur my soft slumber-song,
my slumber song
Leave woes, and wails, and sins.

Ocean's shadowy might
Breathes good night,
Good night...
Leave woes, and wails, and sins.
Good night...Good night...
Good night...

Good night...

Good night... Good night.

 

II. In Haven (Capri) by Caroline Alice Elgar (1848-1920)

Closely let me hold thy hand,
Storms are sweeping sea and land;
Love alone will stand.

Closely cling, for waves beat fast,
Foam-flakes cloud the hurrying blast;
Love alone will last.

Kiss my lips, and softly say:
Joy, sea-swept, may fade to-day;
Love alone will stay.

 

III. Sabbath Morning at Sea by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

The ship went on with solemn face;
To meet the darkness on the deep,
The solemn ship went onward.
I bowed down weary in the place;
for parting tears and present sleep
Had weighed mine eyelids downward.

The new sight, the new wondrous sight!
The waters around me, turbulent,
The skies, impassive o'er me,
Calm in a moonless, sunless light,
As glorified by even the intent
Of holding the day glory!

Love me, sweet friends, this sabbath day.
The sea sings round me while ye roll afar
The hymn, unaltered,
And kneel, where once I knelt to pray,
And bless me deeper in your soul
Because your voice has faltered.

And though this sabbath comes to me
Without the stolèd minister,
And chanting congregation,
God's Spirit shall give comfort.
He who brooded soft on waters drear,
Creator on creation.

He shall assist me to look higher,
He shall assist me to look higher,
Where keep the saints, with harp and song,

An endless endless sabbath morning,
An endless sabbath morning,
And on that sea commixed with fire,
On that sea commixed with fire,
Oft drop their eyelids raised too long

To the full Godhead's burning.
The full Godhead's burning.

 

IV. Where Corals Lie by Richard Garnett (1835-1906)

The deeps have music soft and low
When winds awake the airy spry,
It lures me, lures me on to go
And see the land where corals lie.
The land, the land where corals lie.

By mount and mead, by lawn and rill,
When night is deep, and moon is high,
That music seeks and finds me still,
And tells me where the corals lie.
And tells me where the corals lie.

Yes, press my eyelids close, 'tis well,
Yes, press my eyelids close, 'tis well,
But far the rapid fancies fly
The rolling worlds of wave and shell,
And all the lands where corals lie.

Thy lips are like a sunset glow,
Thy smile is like a morning sky,
Yet leave me, leave me, let me go
And see the land where corals lie.
The land, the land where corals lie.

 

V. The Swimmer by Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833-1870)

With short, sharp violent lights made vivid,
To southward far as the sight can roam,
Only the swirl of the surges livid,
The seas that climb and the surfs that comb.

Only the crag and the cliff to nor'ward,
The rocks receding, and reefs flung forward,
Waifs wreck'd seaward and wasted shoreward,
On shallows sheeted with flaming foam.

A grim, gray coast and a seaboard ghastly,
And shores trod seldom by feet of men -
Where the batter'd hull and the broken mast lie,
They have lain embedded these long years ten.

Love! Love! when we wandered here together,
Hand in hand! Hand in hand through the sparkling weather,
From the heights and hollows of fern and heather,

God surely loved us a little then.

The skies were fairer, the shores were firmer -
The blue sea over the bright sand roll'd;
Babble and prattle, and ripple and murmur,
Sheen of silver and glamour of gold.
Sheen of silver and glamour of gold.

So, girt with tempest and wing'd with thunder
And clad with lightning and shod with sleet,
And strong winds treading the swift waves under
The flying rollers with frothy feet.

One gleam like a bloodshot sword-blade swims on
The sky line, staining the green gulf crimson,
A death-stroke fiercely dealt by a dim sun
That strikes through his stormy winding sheet.

O brave white horses! you gather and gallop,
The storm sprite loosens the gusty rains;
O brave white horses! you gather and gallop,
The storm sprite loosens the gusty rains;

Now the stoutest ship were the frailest shallop
In your hollow backs, on your high-arched manes.
I would ride as never man has ridden
In your sleepy, swirling surges hidden;

I would ride as never man has ridden
To gulfs foreshadow'd through strifes forbidden,

Where no light wearies and no love wanes.
No love,
Where no love, no love wanes.

BRITTEN

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was haunted throughout his life by the formidable beauty of the British coast along his native Suffolk, which is the setting for his first large-scale opera, Peter Grimes. Its unexpectedly triumphant premiere in June 1945 was a watershed moment for the composer and for postwar opera.

Britten's source for the story of the fisherman Grimes, who is accused of murdering his young apprentices by the townsfolk, was a section from a larger narrative poem of 1810 by George Crabbe (The Borough). Crabbe portrayed Grimes as a sadistic misanthrope, "untouched by pity." The opera, however, reimagines the ruthless bully as a movingly ambiguous figure—a "tortured idealist," in the composer's phrase. His remarkably probing score depicts the conflicted relation between this outsider and the close-knit collective of the townspeople. Grimes's outsize ambitions fatefully combine with the hostility he arouses from the community to result in his self-destruction.

The story of "the individual against the crowd," Britten remarked, also entailed "ironic overtones for our own situation." He was alluding not only to the taboo subject of his relationship with his lifelong lover Peter Pears (who, along with leftist writer Montagu Slater, the librettist, collaborated to formulate the opera's scenario); Britten also had in mind the scorn they both faced as pacifists and conscientious objectors who had spent the early war years in the United States. In fact, it was while he was living in this country that Britten alighted on the idea for Peter Grimes. Ironically, the crucial role local color plays in the opera, with its setting in the very sort of sea town he had known as a boy, triggered Britten's desire to reconnect with his roots and end his self-imposed exile.

The opera's rich and intricate score actually includes six orchestral interludes. Britten extracted four of these as a stand-alone concert piece (he did likewise with another of the interludes, the act-three Passacaglia). In these interludes, the all-important setting of the sea comes into focus and provides its own chorus-like commentary through Britten's evocative orchestral writing. The first ("Dawn") forms the transition between the trial scene of the Prologue (where Grimes is exonerated) and the first act. Against the thin glint of sunlight breaking through on high, menacing brass harmonies swell from below. This music returns to end the opera, nature's eternal patterns indifferent to the human suffering that has been depicted. The second interlude ("Sunday Morning") prefaces act two with extroverted, brightly rhythmic tolling as the community gathers for worship. "Moonlight," the third interlude, is the prelude to the final act, a counterpart to "Dawn." A silvery rain of woodwind and percussion intermittently splashes, while yearning harmonies slowly throb with increasingly troubled intensity. Britten isn't interested in picturesque "nature painting." This is especially apparent in the fourth interlude ("Storm"), which doubles as a scene change in the opera's first act. Britten modulates between outer landscape and inner psyche. The music's thrashing violence mimics Grimes's turmoil; temporary refuge from the storm opens in a wide melodic arc taken from the aria Grimes sings as he tries to envision a way out ("What harbor shelters peace?") The hope it expresses is battered by the tempest's savage final surge.

(Peter May)

STRAUSS, JR.

Strauss’ most famous work premiered as an orchestral piece in 1867 and now holds a place of honor as one of classical music’s most beloved and enduring traditions. Originally an unofficial Austrian anthem and customary Vienna New Year’s Concert encore, Blue Danube now enjoys similar prominence on annual programs around the world. The original choral version sings of the symbolic importance of the namesake river and invokes images of venerable castles, whispering mermaids, loving couples and the Austrian national courage (ironic, given the recent loss to the Kingdom of Prussia in 1866 Seven Weeks War). Like so many musical creations that have stood well the test of time, Blue Danube was not an immediate success. This was likely due to the words, which in performance were less inspiring than they were chuckle-inducing and ultimately forgettable. The orchestral version resonated immediately however, drawing favorable nationalistic comparisons to the Emperor’s Hymn of Haydn, and it did not take long for the opening bars to become iconic. In fact, so esteemed was Strauss by his fellow composers that when Brahms was asked to sign an autograph for a Strauss family member, he quickly wrote out the first few measures of Johann’s masterpiece and added beneath it the humorous and highly respectful phrase “Unfortunately, not by Johannes Brahms.”

(Jeff Counts)