This week we opened the flood gates for a show about musical rivers. Take a dip with us for our Ether Game called "Going with the Flow" and browse our playlist of rivers, historical, metaphorical, and mythical.
Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884) Ma Vlast: The Moldau It’s no Beethoven’s Ninth, but Bedrich Smetana, the father of Czech music, did compose the symphonic cycle “Ma Vlast” (or ‘My Fatherland’) largely after he was completely deaf. In the 1860s, Smetana returned to Prague, just as Czech (formerly Bohemian) nationalistic fervor had re-awakened. Smetana composed his folk opera, “The Bartered Bride,” in this spirit of nationalism, and continued working on operas until the onset of his deafness in 1874. This movement of Ma Vlast, written in honor of the VLTAVA RIVER in Bohemia (known as the MOLDAU RIVER in German), was premiered in 1875 under the baton of Adolf Cech, and features an adaptation of an old Italian melody La Mantovana. This melody has also been used by composer Camille Saint-Saens, and in the 20th-century was adapted as the Israeli national anthem.
Richard Wagner (1813–1883) Das Rheingold: Prelude Wagner’s magnum opus, The Ring Cycle, aptly opens in the Rhine River. Measuring in at 820 miles, the Rhine is one of the most important waterways in Europe. Throughout history it has proved to be an important tactical location, beginning first with the Roman Empire. Several castles dot the Rhine’s banks, showing its continued usefulness for fortification throughout the medieval period. On the eastern bank of the Rhine near the German city of Goarhausen (GOHR-how-zen) lies the Loreley (LOH-reh-lye). The Loreley is a rock thousands of feet above the waterline at the narrowest point of the Rhein between Switzerland and the North Sea. The strong current and shallow depth at this point have led to many accidents. Loreley is also the name of a Rhine Maiden, a sort of mermaid of the river, who would lure travelers of the Rhine to their death with her beautiful singing.
Jerome Kern (1885-1945), Oscar Hammerstein (1895-1906) Old Man River (from Showboat) With music by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Show Boat is generally considered to be the first American "musical", as a dramatic form with popular music, separate both from operetta and from the "Follies"-type musical comedies that preceded it. It is based on a 1926 book of the same name by Edna Ferber. After her play Old Man Minick was poorly received before its Broadway debut, Edna Ferber was told that she should continue performances of the play on a showboat. She wasn’t quite sure what a showboat was and did some research. Turns out, a showboat is essentially a floating theater that is pushed by two small steamboats. Ferber’s novel and its 1927 musical adaptation follows the lives of stage hands, dock workers and performers aboard the Cotton Blossom over a 40-year span. Many songs from this musical have become classics including Ol’ Man River, which is sung by the character Joe who serves as a kind of Greek chorus and uses the song to comment on the drama playing out onstage, or rather, onboard.
Percy Grainger (1882-1961) Spoon River The self-proclaimed ninth best composer of all time, Percy Grainger lived a cosmopolitan life: born in Australia, studying in Germany, making a name for himself in England, and then working professionally in the United States. Grainger was known for his sardonic sense of humor, and even his most sincere pieces tend to include a whiff of whimsey. At the beginning of this piece for example, he included a directive to the musicians: ‘sturdily, not too fast, with “pioneer” keeping-on-ness.’ Like much of Grainger’s music, Spoon River is based on folk song, first heard as a fiddle tune from Bradford Illinois. It was passed to poet Edgar Lee Masters who in turn sent it to Grainger. Grainger felt inspired by what he termed as a “pioneer blend of lonesome wistfulness and sturdy persistence” in the melody of the tune, and attempted to preserve that character in his own setting.
Christoph W. Gluck (1714-1787) Alceste: 'Divinités du Styx' Composed by Gluck to a libretto by Ranieri Calzabigi, the opera Alceste contained a number of differences from the prevailing opera style of the day. For the most part, the libretto ignored the traditional “exit aria” in favor of large-scale scenes, ballets, and even romance, all features of French opera. The idea behind these reforms was to bring opera as close as possible to the ancient Greek tragedy written by Euripides. In the tragedy, when Alceste, the wife of king Adméte, offers herself to Death in the place of her husband, the pair is ultimately reunited through the intercession of Hercules. Like the popular Orfeus myth, the story of Alceste involves a journey through the underworld, which in Greek mythology is where five primordial rivers converge on a great marsh. The river Styx mentioned in this aria runs along the boundary between Earth and the underworld and classically is where the dead were ferried into the afterlife.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) 24 Negro Melodies, Op. 59: Deep River Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in London in 1875; his mother was English and his father was a doctor from Sierra Leone. Some biographers have suggested that the composer’s mother received aid from a member of the poet Coleridge’s family after her husband deserted her, but evidence for this connection is tenuous. Coleridge-Taylor studied violin, composition, and conducting at the Royal College of Music, earning the nickname “The English Brahms” for his early compositional style. Coleridge-Taylor’s most developed work was focused on his heritage, being influenced by prominent black cultural figures of the time such as W.E.B DuBois and Booker T. Washington, and especially the Fisk Jubilee Singers. This performance group sang specially arranged versions of spirituals and work songs in order to raise money for Fisk University, a college in Nashville for freed slaves. They helped popularize a more authentic performance of African-American music and inspired Coleridge-Taylor to arrange his own set of spirituals, of which “Deep River” is one of the most well-known.
Constant Lambert (1905-1951) The Rio Grande The Rio Grande represented in Lambert’s symphonic and choral masterpiece is essentially a musical metaphor for the exotic. Inspired by an impressionist poem by Sacheverell Sitwell, the composer imagines a wild and pristine American landscape away from the industrial excess of Great Britain. As the poem is abundant with references to dance and latin american music, Lambert also incorporates elements of jazz and syncopation into the cantata, causing the Rio Grande to often be compared with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which was composed three years earlier. Lambert completed this work when he was just twenty-two, and while he did not intend for it to be his masterpiece, its popularity set a standard that he found difficult to meet in his later works, and he unfortunately later came to view the piece as a hindrance to his career.
Eric Ewazen (b.1954) Down a River of Time (Concerto for Oboe and Strings) Eric Ewazen, born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1954, has been on faculty at Juilliard since 1982. He studied at Eastman and Juilliard under such noted composers as Samuel Adler, Milton Babbitt, and Gunther Schuller. If you’ve ever listened to election night coverage on NPR, you’ve heard Ewazen’s music: a movement from his Symphony In Brass is used as NPR’s election night fanfare. We’ve had appearances from both real and mythological rivers on tonight’s show but Ewazen takes us to the metaphorical river with his oboe concerto, Down a River of Time. The title was inspired by an essay by Richard Feagler describing long-since lost souls “moving, though they can’t feel the current, down a river of time.” The work is an exploration of personal loss and serves to memorialize the fathers of both Ewazen and his friend Linda Strommen, who is a professor of oboe at the Jacobs School of Music.
Bill Whelan (b. 1950) River Dance During its heyday in the late 90s and early 00s, Riverdance was a stage show featuring Ireland’s best traditional step dancers, interpretive dance, elaborate set pieces, chamber choir, and a traditional Irish folk band augmented by rock instruments. Though it spawned a craze for Irish dancing, Riverdance’s origins are in its music. Bill Whelan, keyboardist for the highly successful celtic band Planxty, conceived of a musical interlude for the 1981 Eurovision contest that incorporated elements of rock with celtic music, which he called Timedance. Although this work included ballet dancers, it was not until 1994, when Whelan returned to Eurovision for the sequel to Timedance, titled Riverdance, that Irish step dancers appeared. The performance was a huge hit, and Whelan partnered with lead dancer Michael Flatley to produce a full length show in 1995. Whelan also recorded Riverdance as a single, which topped the Irish music charts for a record breaking 18 weeks and won Whelan a grammy. Riverdance the stage show has toured continuously since 1995, making it one of the most successful theatrical shows of all time.