This week we headed for the hills with a show that was all-things bucolic. Don't feel sheepish about browsing music from Ether Games "Over Hill and Dale."
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14: Scene aux Champs (Scene in the Fields) Hector Berlioz’s most famous work, Symphonie Fantastique, was the product of his at first unrequited love for the English actress Harriet Smithson. In a program that Berlioz himself wrote to go with his music, he describes an artist hero falling in love with a woman, fixating on her during a ball, and then thinking about her some more while relaxing in the countryside, before spiraling off into an opium-induced dream. In the scene in the fields, Berlioz uses an English horn and offstage oboe to depict two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches in dialogue while tending their flocks. A ranz des vaches is a type of Alpine cattle call, and was used by other composers such as Liszt and Rossini. The peaceful pastoral scene brings some calm to the heart of the lovelorn artist in the symphony, but when one of the shepherds sounding the ranz des vaches goes unanswered, the artist is reminded of his loneliness once again.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) Il Pastor Fido: Overture Il pastor fido was Handel’s second London opera, opening on November 22, 1712. The opera is set in mythological Arcadia, the idyllic wilderness where Pan roamed and shepherds and shepherdesses participated in amorous dramas. This quiet, rustic love story in an Italian style did not suit London audiences as well as Handel’s first London opera, the heroic Rinaldo. Although panned by the press, Rinaldo proved very popular with the English public. The opera was filled with spectacular scenic and musical effects. After the disappointment with Il pastor fido, Handel’s next opera, Teseo, returned to the heroic style that had proved so popular with the English public. However by 1734, Handel had revised Il pastor fido, replacing much of the music and adding a lively prologue. The revival was much more successful, so much so that it was granted a 2nd revival in the winter of 1734.
Amy Beach (1867-1944) A Hermit Thrush at Morn, Op. 92, No. 2 Starting in 1921, Amy Beach became a fellow at the MacDowell Colony. Established by composer Edward MacDowell at his summer home in Peterborough, New Hampshire, the artists colony provided a working retreat for many prominent composers, artists and writers of the day. Surrounded by 150 acres of idyllic New England woodland, Amy became enamored with the call of the hermit thrush, and transcribed its birdsong into two piano solos, weaving it into a complex polytonality that expresses an almost mystical and transcendental longing for a return to nature. Beach would be the first of several Macdowell Colony composers and poets who became inspired by the hermit thrush, including Emily Doolittle, who in an essay praised Beach’s faithful musical representation of the hermit thrush as central to creating an American cultural identity through the use of birdsong and art.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3) The work that established Vaughan Williams’s reputation as the leading composer of his generation was his second symphony, called “A London Symphony.” Shortly after the First World War, he produced his third symphony, deceptively titled “Pastoral Symphony.” This work helped fix his reputation in the inter-war years as a typically “English” composer—conservative, agrarian, and unemotional. The composer, however, intended something quite different with the Pastoral Symphony. He wrote that the piece was not really about “lambkins frisking away,” but rather took its roots in his experiences as an ambulance driver in France during WWI. Most listeners and writers have missed the elegiac character of the music in favor of the bucolic image of what the composer scorned as “cows looking over gates.”
Joseph Canteloube (1879-1957) Chants d'Auvergne: La pastoura als camps In 1901, Joseph Canteloube, having, at the age of 22, already earned his degree, left home, taken a job at a bank, left that job upon his father’s death, and become the sole inheritor of his late father’s estate, decided to begin composition studies. Reluctant to leave the family home, he initially began his studies with Vincent D’indy via correspondence, but ultimately, with d’Indy’s encouragement, he left home in 1907 in order to take up studies at the Schola Cantorum in Paris. “'La pastoura als camps” comes from his most famous work, the collection of songs titled Chants d’Auvergne, a tribute to his lush, beautiful homeland. The collection took him more than thirty years to complete; he began work on it in 1924 and didn’t finish until 1955. In addition to his work as a composer, Canteloube was a respected musicologist, with a strong interest in French folk songs, many of which appear in the Chants d’Auvergne.
Percy Grainger (1882-1961) Hill-Song No. 1 In 1900, Percy Grainger and his mother took a three day hike through the rustic landscape of West Argyllshire. This grand trek inspired two early works, Hill Songs No. 1 and No. 2, which were a direct response to what Grainger referred to as the “ soul-shaking hillscapes” in Scotland. These are early compositions in Grainger’s oeuvre, however they already demonstrate characteristics Grainger would develop in his mature compositions, including what he termed as “democratic polyphony,” where each instrumental part in the composition shares equal importance. This naturally led to another concept invented by Grainger called “elastic scoring” where a piece is composed in a way that allows for different combinations of instruments or a different number of musicians each time it is performed.
Florence Price (1887-1953) Dances in the Canebrakes (arr. W.G. Still) Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, Florence Price was the first black American woman to win widespread recognition as a symphonic composer, rising to prominence alongside William Dawson and William Grant Still, who created this orchestral arrangement of Price’s Dances in the Canebrakes. After relocating to Chicago in 1927, Price played the theater organ for silent films, wrote popular music for commercial purposes and orchestrated arrangements for soloists and choirs who performed with the WGN Radio orchestra. After her death in 1953, a raft of her music was discovered in a house in Illinois that included Dances in the Canebrakes. Price drew inspiration from Black culture in the rural south for this collection of character pieces. Canebrakes are large, bamboo-like evergreens that grow in North Carolina around rivers and streams. The plants used to cover large tracts of the backwoods, but many had to be cleared away so water could be accessed for farming in the 19th century.
Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1755) Ballets du Village: Troisième ballet French composer Joseph Baudin de Boismortier wrote a large number of concertos for various instruments, as well as Divertissments which were performed alongside popular operas by Lully and Rameau. Divertissments were inserted as interludes between acts of the main show. Sometimes, they had nothing to do with the plot of the opera they were a part of, and featured instrumental pieces, ballets and other forms of group dancing. We just heard the third of his most popular collection of Divertissments: the “Ballets de Village.” These instrumental dances would have been accompanied by pastoral scenery and dancers dressed in folky garb. Folk instruments are included alongside classical instruments in these ballets. In the piece we just heard, you can hear two famous French folk instruments known for their association with the country: the vielle, or hurdy-gurdy, and the musette de coeur, or French bagpipe.
Ian Anderson (b.1947) Velvet Green In 1977 the English progressive rock band Jethro Tull explored a new direction combining folk-inspired music with hard rock. It is likely that frontman Ian Anderson was inspired by the band Steeleye Span, who played traditional English folk music, but combined it with electric bass and driving rock rhythms. Anderson produced an album for Steeleye Span in 1974. Three years later, Jethro Tull released Songs from the Wood, the first album of a folk-rock trio. The album is a celebration of British pagan folklore and the countryside. Upon its original release, a UK newspaper advertised it as “ A new album of Old Magic inspired by the thought that perhaps nature isn’t as gentle as we’d like to believe. And it takes as its theme the natural and supernatural inhabitants of the woodlands of old England.”