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Ether Game Playlist: Love and Death

This week: Gothic romance, scandel, gossip, drama. We dedicate a show to music inspired by Britian's first modern celebrity. Browse our playlist for "Love and Death," music inspired by Lord Byron. 

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) Manfred Symphony, Op. 58 In 1816, a group of poets and writers of Gothic fiction met to vacation and tell ghost stories on Lake Geneva. Among them were Percy and Mary Shelly, and the infamous Lord Byron, recently divorced, accused of an affair with his half-sister and plagued by gossip and debt. For Mary Shelley, the vacation helped produce a gothic masterpiece: Frankenstein. For Lord Byron, his poetic drama Manfred, which follows a faustian noble, racked by guilt over the death of his soul-mate, seeks forgetfulness from seven supernatural spirits. A musical adaptation of the work tempted many composers: Schumann, Berlioz and Balakirev. Finally in 1885, Tchaikovsky completed a symphony based on the work. Initially not interested in the source material, Tchaikovsky read the play on Balakirev’s recommendation, and developed a deep connection to Manfred’s despair over forbidden love.   

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) Harold en Italie, Op. 16 Harold in Italy, Berlioz’s second symphony, was no less unusual than his first “program symphony,” the famous Symphony Fantastique. The program is based on a poem by Lord Byron, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” which tells the story of a lonely dreamer who seeks solace by wandering through foreign lands. The work is an unusual fusion of genres—despite the prominent viola solo in each movement it’s not really a viola concerto, but simply a symphony with a big viola part. This was a problem for the performer who suggested the work, famed virtuoso Nicolo Paganini. Paganini, having just acquired a very nice Stradivarius viola, found that the viola repertoire of the time didn’t offer anything up to his standards. Berlioz must have changed Paganini’s mind, because after hearing Harold en Italie, he brought Berlioz on stage, knelt before him and kissed his hand to thunderous applause. 

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) Il Corsaro: Non so le Tetre Immagini Verdi’s opera Il Cosaro is an adaptation of Byron’s blood-and-thunder pirate tale, published as a 120-page poem in 1814. The main character, a ruthless Aegean pirate named Conrad, perfectly fits the description of what in literature has become known as a “Byronic hero.” He is brooding and mysterious, melancholy, deeply passionate and hopelessly tragic. Byron’s poem was immediately successful upon publication, however Verdi’s opera received a much cooler reception. The composer himself was reportedly initially unenthusiastic with the entire project. Despite its swashbuckling plot and stormy score, Il Corsaro is still one of Verdi’s rarely performed works.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) Manfred, Op. 115: Overture We just heard the overture from Schumann’s Manfred, the most performed part of the work, although Schumann also wrote an entracte and several solos and choruses.  Europe was deeply immersed in the Romantic movement by 1848, when the opportunity came for Schumman to set Byron’s play to music. Schumann was a keen literary enthusiast, having tried to write his own novel and completed several books of poems. He was a fan of Byron’s work and not dissimilar in his approach to the craft. Schumann lived for music, experiencing moments of genius-level productivity. He was deeply passionate and dramatic, prone to mood-swings and depressions that cemented him in the mid-19th century as an archetype of the Romantic artist, just like Byron. Both burned bright but died young: Byron when he was 36, Schumann when he was 46, likely from mercury poisoning related to therapy for syphilis. 

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) Mazeppa The story of the 17th-century Ukrainian soldier Ivan Mazeppa turned into legend in the early part of the 19th century, inspiring Lord Byron to set it as an epic poem. The legend goes that the young Mazeppa, then a lowly page, had an ill-advised affair with a Countess. The older Count discovered the affair and, as punishment, ordered Mazeppa to be tied naked to a horse that was then taunted and set loose through the Eastern European countryside, a cruel fate if there ever were one. Lord Byron’s poem was eventually adapted as a much shorter work by Victor Hugo, and it was Hugo’s version of the tale that provided inspiration to Franz Liszt for several programmatic works. It was initially an etude from 1825 which he amended over the years, eventually becoming one the most virtuosic and challenging of his Transcendental Etudes from 1851. He turned this Transcendental Etude into this symphonic poem, making it even more programmatic by tying it more closely to its literary source, following Mazeppa’s death ride to his collapse, and finally, his rescue.

Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) Lord Byron: Five tenor solos Lord Byron was Virgil Thomson’s third and final opera. The work premiered in 1972 at the Lincoln Center, and was performed by faculty and students from Juilliard's music department. The opera is actually set after Lord Byron’s death. His friends, widow and half-sister have gathered to try to convince London authorities that Byron should be buried in Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey and a statue erected in his honor. From beyond the grave, Byron observes and provides commentary as various memories are presented, including Byron’s courtship and marriage. However also included is his incestuous affair with his half-sister and the following exile from the scandal. It is deemed such a man is not fit to be buried in holy ground, and the statue is taken down. However as night falls, the spirits of the poets of the past welcome Byron in a jubilant finale.

Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983) Deux Poèmes de Lord Byron: No. 2, Remembrance Two Poems by Lord Byron is the only known work in English written by French modernist Germaine Tailleferre, the lone female composer in the avant-garde music collective known as Les Six. Tailleferre set two sonnets by Byron, “In moments to delight devoted” and “Remembrance.” The work was premiered in 1934, and then was thought to be lost after the original manuscripts disappeared. However, a photocopy of the manuscript was found in mezzo-soprano Patricia Adkins Chiti’s personal papers, which was subsequently used as the master copy to publish the work in 2003 by French publisher Musik Fabrik. 

Richard Arnell (1917-2009) Lord Byron, a Symphonic Portrait Richard Arnell came from a family of amateur musicians, and rose through the ranks of music education to become one of John Ireland’s composition students at the Royal College of Music in Kensington. He eventually immigrated to the US, where his symphonic works, like his 1952 “Symphonic Portrait” of Lord Byron,  were promoted by anglophile conductors and critics such as Bernard Herrmann and Virgil Thomson. The symphonic portrait of Byron is a grand work in eight movements, with subtitles referring to specific points and periods which outline the poet’s life: Newstead, Augusta, Success and Disgrace, Battles, and Voyage.

Lord Byron (1788-1824) Go No More A-Rovin' “So we’ll go no more a’rovin” was penned by Byon in 1817, as part of a letter he wrote to his friend, fellow poet and biographer Thomas Moore. Byron precedes the verse by telling Moore that he wrote it while convalescing after a rollicking Carnival season. Moore eventually published the poem as part of his Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, a collection of 560 personal writings by Byron during his short life. Byron was known to have written over 3000 journals and letters, many of which he bequeathed to Moore, who apparently burned a number of them to protect Byron’s legacy.Though the popularity of Byron’s poetry has waned only slightly with age, his poems continue to be set to music by contemporary performers. Go No More A-Rovin, appears on albums by Joan Baez, Planxty, AC/DC, Mike Westbrooke, and, as we just heard, Leonard Cohen, as the first track on his 11th studio album, Dear Heather.  

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