Classical Break: Night
Intro Track: Milford, Slow Minuet and Trio. Fade out.
Hullo, this is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Mike Burrows. All the pieces on today’s programme were inspired by night, a time for reflection, for exploration, for insomnia or sleep, a time when day recedes and there is respite, with an access of heightened consciousness of life, self and environment - or loneliness in the space opened; when memories and dreams are self-sufficient or look to the future, though there may be doubts, fears and nightmares waking or sleeping, and with them, a sense that the sun may not return. Lucretius, the Roman Poet, wrote that it was not possible that earliest man wandered the earth wailing in his dread that the sun had gone down forever, but others have remarked on Man’s inability to learn from remission of personal existential anguish!
We shall begin at the beginning, at nightfall.
Our first piece is by the French composer, teacher of many eminent composers and musicians and biographer of his own revered master, César Franck, Vincent D’Indy, who was born in 1851 and died in 1931. It forms the last movement of his roughly half-an-hour-long triptych for orchestra, Jour D’Éte À La Montagne. The mountain was visible from his estate at Faugs in the Ardêche Region.In this tone-poem, he describes a Summer day spent on the wooded slopes - Aurora, Daytime Beneath The Pine-trees and Evening. Opening brightly and practically, Evening is yet well-headed by a superscription from a contemporary poet, Roger de Pamplonne:
“O Night! - eternal harmony subsists under your veil!”
Fiercely dogmatic in all matters, especially music and religion, D’Indy’s evocation of nightfall includes a quotation of plainsong associated with the Feast of The Assumption, sounded on the horn and mused on unhesitatingly by the orchestra, but it is the masterly, veiled, velvet tones of earth-deep mystery by which he puts the day to bed that will remain in the memory of most listeners. The ‘thick’ Wagnerian scoring permits subtleties of colour that register more resonantly every time this work is heard. Listen for slow, deep octaves in the strings and a last bird-call - an owl - before the close. This is dusk turning to night. No instrument sounds without being contingent on another for the full truth in this hauntingly mysterious process; the oboe adds its own peculiar plangency. The music is developed symphonically, that is, by organic, exclusively musical procedures, and yet remains vividly pictorial. What Debussy did for Eastborne in La Mer, D’Indy did for Faugs in his Summer Day On The Mountain. Let’s hear this finale to a labour of love if ever there was one: Evening.
Track One: D’Indy: Jour D’Éte À La Montagne Movt lll
Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), taught by Martucci and Rimsky-Korsakov, lived almost only for music. He was a tireless editor and arranger of other men’s work, a teacher and prolific composer in his own right. For him, unusually for an Italian of his day, operas were almost a sideline - though as a prolific artist he wrote several - his main compositional interests being in the realm of orchestral and instrumental music and songs. He is best-known for three tone--poems portraying Rome Ancient and modern - The Fountains of Rome, The Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals. Here is a movement from The Pines of Rome, a depiction of the pines of a hill sacred to the Roman Kings, Ianiculum, or the Ianicolo, by night.
The rich beauty of his scoring is pellucid, cool, mild, woodwind, piano, celesta and strings having the sheen of blue night air, a restfulness in which as dreamers turn in their sleep, one feels a sense of blessedness in being awake. At one time, there was much nonsense talked about a particular unprecedented feature of the music, but this feature came as a surprize to me when I first heard it, and if you’ve never heard it yourself, it may seem all the more beautiful and imaginative.
You can’t miss what takes over from trilling woodwind and violins to make explicit what the movement has taken almost as its text.
Track Two: Respighi: Pines of Rome, The Pines of The Ianicolo
That was The Pines of The Ianicolo by Respighi, written in 1924, played by the Orchestre de la
Suisse Romande, conducted by their founder, Ernest Ansermet. They accompanied the recording of an amateur singer of real promise.
In the old days, a stone gramophone, presumably one with a good acoustic box for amplification, had to be set up in front of the orchestra for the true voice of a nightingale to steal out over the audience from a shellac record.
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Mike Burrows. The theme today is evocation of night in music.
The Lyke-Wake Dirge, a North Country verse of uncertain date grimly treating mortality and the everlasting torment that awaits sinners has been set by a surprizing number of composers in the past ninety years - Bax and Britten being two of the more eminent of them. Geoffrey Burgon, born in Hampshire in 1941 perhaps wrote the most striking example for a radio-play, The Cold Country, about the end of an ill-fated Arctic expedition, broadcast in 1972.
The setting is also the barest that I have heard, sung unaccompanied by two counter-tenors moving in canon, as though advancing a pace apart. There is an icy fire of fanaticism or implacable grace about this music. That people who speak of love can also speak of Hell, and have the most disturbingly cruel visions of it. If ever you have been left out in the cold, with no notion of how to gain shelter, or no opportunity, you will feel it. This Ean Night.
Track Three: Burgon: This Ean Night
Next, a song by the Gloucestershire poet and composer, Ivor Gurney, (1890-l937). As a Private soldier of the Second/Fifth Gloucesters, he served bravely in the Ypres Salient and suffered a breakdown in consequence. Seen by the War Office as being employable, he was discharged on a half-pension, about ten-and-six weekly, and tried to resume his interrupted studies at the Royal College of Music, and claim a position in peace-time society as a composer and ‘First War-Poet’. His songs - mainly for voice and piano, were occasionally published - one cycle won him a Carnegie Award - but whereas two books of his
early poems had been published, those in his more personal manner disconcerted most editors.
He could not find settled employment or a lasting home, and four years passed by in the furious writing of songs, chamber-music, at least one orchestral piece, and collection after collection of poems, the symptoms of shell-shock and breakdown steadily growing on him as he laboured on farms, in food-storage depots and as a cinema-pianist and civil service clerk to support himself and work on his songs and poems with a clear mind and conscience.
He had always been capable of concentration - writing poems and even music at the Front, for example, but self-control suddenly collapsed, disappointed in its hopes of recognition, though he had no shortage of literary and musical friends who tried to look out for him in a society that was inimical to artistic productivity. He was certified and hospitalized at Barnwood and then Dartford Asylum for the rest of his life, where, amazingly, such were his strength of mind and character, that he continued to work, recasting and composing.
I imagine the night-walker finding a place to lay his head in the Cotswold hills above Cheltenham when I hear Most Holy Night, a song for voice and piano setting words by his hero, Hillaire Belloc, whom he had much enjoyed reading in spare moments during army service.
“Most holy night, that dost keep
The keys of all the doors of sleep,
To me when my eyelids close,
Grant me repose...
Let them that guard the horned moon
By my bedside their memories croon,
So shall I have new dreams and blest
In my brief rest...”
Track Four: Ivor Gurney: Most Holy Night
Traditionally, for poets and some others, the night is a time to feel separation from one’s beloved.
Next, a song from the Red Army Chorus and Band: by Mokrousov, You Are Always Beautiful - a soldier thinks of his beloved; while the Northern Lights are chill, with her, happy or sad, it is warm. Soon, their wedding-day will dawn.
Track Five: Mokrousov: You Are Always Beautiful.
Our next piece is by the modernist French composer, Maurice Ohana, an older contemporary of Messaien. It is the first movement of a group of pieces for small ensemble - flute/piccolo, two zithers – one tuned chromatically, the other in third-note microtone intervals - piano and percussion - Signes - L’Arbre, symbolic representations of a tree; this movement is entitled L’Arbre Dans La Nuit, The Tree At Night. The sound is intended to evoke not only the night of a tree but also the style of Japanese ritual-music.
Track Six: Maurice Ohana: Signes - L’Arbre. L’Arbre Dans La Nuit.
Now, a song by EJ Moeran, Far In A Western Brookland.
Born in 1894, he was another student at the RCM who came to grief in the Great War. In his case, service meant being a dispatch--rider and ended when he was badly injured about head and neck by shrapnel. Like Gurney, who was first shot through the arm and then won a blighty by being lightly gassed, there was no escape from the injuries Moeran suffered. After the War, he composed in spite of his wounds and bouts of drinking that dulled severe headache and depression.
He could not be as prolific as Gurney, but wrote songs, choral pieces, chamber music, orchestral works - small tone-poems and rhapsodies – and from the ‘Thirties on, a Symphony and Concertos for Violin and Cello. Brought up in Norfolk, he was inspired by folksong and his Irish ancestry. Making friends with the composer Peter Warlock, and living with him for a time began an interest in Early Music.
Another enthusiasm produced the song Far In A Western Brookland in 1925, nearly ten years after a dry run. The poems of AE Housman attracted many composers by their neat form, countryside imagery and romantic longing, the Shropshire Lad who settled to work in London, leaving behind his home, his past, everything that had made him, had real resonance with the poets and composers who sought to make their names in the metropolis in the first years of the Last Century. Perhaps of the composers, Gurney, as the son of a tailor, came nearest to being what one might think of as a lad, but Moeran here writes one of the best songs about longing for home by night that can be imagined. It has a breath-taking stillness and pathos.
Track Seven: EJ Moeran: Far In A Western Brookland
The American composer, Charles Ives, was music’s only significant composer to make a fortune from selling life-insurance as a partner in a firm founded by him and a friend, and life-insurance’s rarest of types, an honest man, but then, he was a New Englander. He was a hard worker, composing by night after the day’s work, often at his firm’s office; his safe became a repository for scores and fragments of scores that are still being deciphered to this day. He published his own songs and was discovered by the musical world after a retirement brought upon him by the loss of his health.
Some time before this, in one of those sad episodes where people wonder what might have been, Gustav Mahler had obtained the score of one of his symphonies whilst in New York, but died before he could present it in Austria.
Over the remaining years of Ives’ life, interest in his music grew and there were performances in Europe and North America, Ives himself viewing the process with alternate impatience and scorn. To his home--town, Danbury, he was a hero, his father’s son - his father had been bandmaster there, and a respected citizen. Ives believed that his Father had made him and his style, that his Father should have had recognition for anticipating many of modern music’s ‘isms. As it was, poly--rhythms, polytonality, atonality, the admixture of popular tunes with original material in collages of sound had maddened or fascinated those around Charles for many decades before music could catch up. One of Ives’ pet projects was a Universe Symphony in which he would render the music of the spheres as he heard it. He had done much to render New England and New York into music, and as a transcendentalist, was unafraid of big projects - if he did them, he did them!
Let’s hear his short piece, entitled simply Hallowe’en.
The flames of a bonfire leap, creating crazy shadows in the darkness, as a clumsy seasonal buggaboo limps towards us.
Track Eight: Ives: Hallowe’en
Things that go bump in the night as imagined by the semi-serious child in Charles Ives.
For our last piece today, we turn to Camille Saint-Saens, 1835-1921. He wrote a series of tone-poems when the form was yet quite young.
Danse Macabre was based on a short song of the same name and setting a poem by Henri Cazalis. It describes a centuries-old conceit, the Dance of Death: as midnight strikes in the churchyard, Death tunes his fiddle; he taps on the tomb-tops to raise the dead, who answer the call - and night-through, they dance - only the cock-crow stills them and at that, Death himself smiles his rictus and fades from sight.
This dance-set of the dead is more energetic and touching than frightening, in spite of all manipulation of the mediaeval chant, the Dies Irae, as a compulsive waltz with affectionate asides takes hold and the wind in the trees is to be imagined as growing higher as excited movement becomes more furious.
Four instances of scoring are noticeable and celebrated, the use of horn and harp to portray the church clock’s
striking midnight, the flattening of the solo violinist’s E-string by a semi-tone for the instrument to sound rougher and more sour to the ear, imitating the timbres of a country fiddler, the xylophone representing the rattle of bones and the oboe’s voice sounding cock-crow, but the piece, finding space for fugal writing, is perfectly formed - as are most of Saint-Saens’ multitudinous works, and paced and developed as well
as it is orchestrated.
Let’s finish, then, with Danse Macabre, and meet dawn that comes courtesy of Saint-Saens.
This was Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Mike Burrows. Hope to have your company again soon!
Track Nine: Saint-Saens: Danse Macabre
Tail Track: Milford, Slow Minuet and Trio. Fade out.