This week, we rambled the Highlands with the Scott of Scots, Sir Walter Scott. Browse music inspired by his novels below.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) Ave Maria, D. 839 (Ellens dritter Gesang) In Sir Walter Scott’s Arthurian poem The Lady of the Lake, Ellen sings a prayer for the protection of her people, “Ave Maria! Maiden mild! / Listen to a maiden's prayer! / Thou canst hear though from the wild, / Thou canst save amid despair.” Schubert took Ellen’s song to Saint Mary, in a German translation by Adam Storck, and set it in song three different times. His third setting of this hymn, which we just heard, was published in 1826. It went on to become one of Schubert’s most beloved and well-known songs. The song can also be performed by substituting Sir Walter Scott’s text for the Latin text of the traditional “Ave Maria” prayer.
Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) La Donna del lago (The Lady of the Lake): Introduzione Sir Walter Scott’s poem “The Lady of the Lake,” explores the tension between love and duty against a backdrop of warring chieftains in 16th century Scotland. The poem has inspired several operas, the most famous being Rossini’s La Donna del Lago. Aside from Rossini’s opera, the poem helped to spawn the Scottish Highland revival and has provided the name to one of our most famous civil rights leaders. After Frederick Douglass escaped slavery, he asked a friend to give him a last name. His friend decided upon Douglass, who plays the father of Ellen, the so-called “lady of the lake.” The lake featured in Scott’s poem is Loch Katrine, in Stirling. It is on this loch that Ellen sings her entrance aria while being rowed to shore in a skiff.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) Glencoe, WoO 156, No. 10 We usually think of Beethoven as quintessentially German, but in fact, Beethoven set more Irish and Scottish melodies than almost anything else in his output (although most were not given official opus numbers). It had to do with his connection to the publisher George Thomson. Thomson was Scottish, and a music lover, and he wanted to compile arrangements of Scottish tunes written by some of the best composers of the day, so he reached out to Beethoven. Beethoven did arrange many Scottish tunes, and some Irish and English ones as well—he didn’t seem to discriminate between them all that carefully. Glencoe, the piece we just listened to, is a folk melody with lyrics penned by Sir Walter Scott after he received Beethoven’s arrangement. The poem describes a massacre in 1692 between warring clans, the MacDonalds and the Campbells in the Glencoe valley, over allegiance to William of Orange.
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) Rob Roy Overture If Berlioz had got his way, we probably would no longer have the Rob Roy Overture. He wrote it in 1831 following the major success of his Symphonie Fantastique. Passing the concerto overture off as “long and diffuse” after its only performance, he trashed the overture and re-worked the melody into the viola solo in “Harold en Italie.” Yet the original material persisted and is now performed alongside Waverley: Grand Overture, another of Berlioz’s concert pieces inspired by Scott’s works. It’s obvious that Berlioz was an avid reader of romantic novels, alongside works by Sir Walter Scott, he also wrote an overture for James Fenimore Cooper's Red Rover, and several overtures inspired by Shakespeare’s plays.
Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) Lucia di Lammermoor: 'Regnava nel silenzio' Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott called the Bride of Lammermuir, depicts the tragic fall of the Lammermoor family in the hills of south-east Scotland. In act I, Lucia must marry Lord Arturo Bucklaw, to save the family fortunes. Lucia is secretly in love with Edgardo of Ravenswood and the arranged marriage has a destabilizing effect on her already fragile emotions. On her wedding night, Lucia murders Arturo and then performs the famous “Mad Scene.” Before this, she sings the music we heard moments ago, in which she recounts to her maid that she saw a ghost of a girl who was killed by a Ravenswood ancestor.
Miklos Rozsa (1907-1995) A Knight's Symphony (Music from Ivanhoe) In the 1950s there was a vogue for grandiose historical epics of biblical and medieval times. Studios were worried about the newly popular medium of television, and were attempting to compete by embracing an epic style of filmmaking that was too big for the small screen. Although he composed in a wide variety of styles, Hungarian-born Miklós Rózsa became particularly well-known for scoring historical epics. The novels of Sir Walter Scott in Hungarian translation were childhood favorites of Rózsa’s and Ivanhoe in particular. Unfortuantely, he felt the film script did not live up to the quality of the novel, calling it “a typical Hollywood historical travesty and the picture for the most part was cliche-ridden and conventional.” Rózsa turned to the original novel as inspiration for the film’s score rather than the script, and also incorporated elements of medieval chant. The score was eventually nominated for an Academy Award and a Grammy, however when director Richard Thorpe produced another adaptation of a Scott novel: The Adventures of Quentin Durward, Rózsa said he was busy with other projects and couldn’t do the music.
Carl Czerny (1791-1857) Romantic Fantasy No. 1 on Sir Walter Scott's "Waverley", Op. 240 Carl Czerny was an extremely prolific composer, with a massive output totaling over eight hundred opus numbers. Today he is really only remembered for his pedagogical works, however his substantial oeuvre also includes virtuosic concert pieces, such as his four Romantic Piano Fantasies on Sir Walter Scott’s Novels. These four pieces, all written for piano duet, are based on four of Scott's Waverly novels, respectively titled Waverly, Guy Mannering, Ivanhoe, and Rob Roy. Czerny must’ve been an avid reader of Sir Walter Scott, as his piano fantasies are not the only works to be inspired by the author. His Romance op 83 for voice and piano is based on The Lady of the Lake, and his Romance op 225 for four hands at the piano is also based on Ivanhoe.
Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916) Land of the Mountain and the Flood, Op. 3 The Ether Game Brain Trust has already featured Hamish MacCunn this year, in our April show on rustic dances. In fact it was while researching for that show that the Braintrust was reminded what a wide-ranging influence Sir Walter Scott has had on classical music. Many of MacCunn’s compositions were inspired by Scott, including his opera Jeanie Deans and his cantata The Lay of The Last Minstrel. A line from The Lay of the Last Minstrel also provided the title of his most famous work, his concert overture The Land of the Mountain and the Flood. The overture was immediately successful upon its premiere, in fact many of MacCunn’s works became well-known due to their association with The Crystal Palace, the world-famous exhibit hall, which hosted a Saturday Concert series throughout the 1880s.
Rivers Cuomo (b. 1970) The Sound of Drums This track comes from one of Weezer’s most recent projects, a planned four-ep boxed set titled SZNZ (pronounced “seasons”). The first seven-track EP, titled Spring, was appropriately released on the vernal equinox in 2022. A “pandemic project” written by Rivers Cuomo entirely during lockdown, the ep uses significantly less guitar distortion and instead evokes plenty of Renaissance faire-kitsch with acoustic instruments and references to Ivanhoe. In an interview with NPR, Cuomo says SZNZ marked a shift towards songwriting on piano instead of guitar, and further focuses on his love of opera and classical music. Each of the four EPs in SZNZ will contain at least one song incorporating a riff developed from a melody by Vivaldi.