- Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah
- Concerto de Aranjuez
Soloist – Craig Ogden, Guitar
- Symphony No.1
- Bacchanale - Performed by Gustavo Dudamel and the Berliner Philharmoniker
- Concerto de Aranjuez - Performed by Pepe Romero and Recuerdos de la Alhambra
- Symphony No.1 - Performed by Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic
BACCHANALE – from Samson et Dalila
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921)
Did anyone ever say that every symphony concert should begin with an orgy? Maybe not, although the idea of kicking off on an orgy of excitement is quite a good one.
A bacchanale is usually defined as an orgiastic, drunken dance. Now whether or not alcohol played any part in events at the biblical Temple of Dagon is not for me to say! In Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson et Dalila, just before the end of Act III when Samson tears down the temple, killing everyone including himself, Delilah taunts him by leading the priests in a wild and provocative dance known as the Bacchanale. It’s exotic and pure suggestive revelry, with an orchestral score to match.
Samson et Dalila is now the only one of Camille Saint-Saëns’ operas that is regularly performed. It took a while to get off the ground, with a Paris audience reacting badly to a preview of Act II, apparently because it was (obviously) based on a biblical text. Later, it was Liszt who encouraged Camille to complete the opera and supported the premiere in Weimar in 1877. This was a great success, but it took another fifteen years before it became widely performed.
Covent Garden tried to stage it in 1893, but here it was the Lord Chamberlain who objected – on the grounds it was biblical (!) – and they were forced to present the opera in concert performance. Perhaps the real reason was that the LC was terrified of the prospect of a publicly staged orgy so close to home.
CONCIERTO DE ARANJUEZ
Joaquín Rodrigo (1901 – 1999)
This piece is one of the most famous throughout the world, always up there in the Classic fm charts, and has been covered by many different artists in numerous genres. Indeed, there’s even a Yorkshire connection – the (fictional) town of Grimley, featured in the film Brassed Off which uses an arrangement of the adagio for brass band. The locals found Aranjuez challenging to pronounce, calling it instead Concerto d’Orangejuice.
The true Aranjuez is a town thirty miles or so south of Madrid, and situated on the Spanish meseta, the high plateau of central Spain with its climate of cold winters but swelteringly hot summers. Apparently, the inspiration for the Concierto de Aranjuez came from the Palacio Real de Aranjuez – the Royal Palace – and its beautiful gardens. This was built by Felipe II as his spring resort. Rodrigo was attempting to capture the ‘fragrance of magnolias, the singing of birds and the gushing of fountains’. Written in 1939, at the end of the Spanish Civil War and the tense political situation that ensued, Rodrigo hoped that a celebration of a 16th century king’s palace would not offer any ideological threat to the Francoist State (cf. Shostakovich). The premiere was in the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona in 1940. It’s easy to imagine, listening to the music, that you’re walking around the gardens on a hot summer’s afternoon. There’s just the slightest hint of a breeze, wafting the intoxicating scent of blossom around the patios and fountains.
Or maybe not. With a piece as famous as this, myths and legends abound. Rodrigo spent a large part of the Civil War in exile in Paris. He wrote (in 1943) that most of the concerto had come to him whilst sitting in his study in the rue Saint Jacques! Alternatively, the great Spanish conductor Rafael Frubeck de Burgos is reported as saying that Rodrigo had told him that the inspiration had come while waiting for a tram.
Rodrigo may have helped, even enjoyed perpetuating myths about his masterwork. And it’s worth pointing out here that Rodrigo had become blind at the age of three, and this concerto was actually written using a special typewriter using the Braille system of musical notation. This is the same Louis Braille who invented the practical technique allowing blind people to read and write (Braille had also become blind at age three after an accident). Less well-known is that Braille was also an amateur musician, and had extended his system of six-position cells to notate music. You can imagine just how difficult it must be to write a whole symphonic score in braille, and we’re now very fortunate that Braille made the writing of this and other works possible.
In casting around for a title for his new concerto, Rodrigo remembered the day-trips from Madrid he and his wife had made as newlyweds in 1933. Using Concierto d’Alcalá de Henares was obviously a no-no: his wife had been sick there after eating tripe. El Escorial was ‘grim’ (though many would disagree). Toledo was out of the question because of the famous siege during the Civil War. That left Concierto de Aranjuez: it sounded good, and he remembered the gardens were quite nice.
And yet …..? What is true, though, is that in 1991 Rodrigo was raised to the Spanish nobility by King Juan Carlos with the title Marqués de los Jardines de Aranjuez, and he and his wife are buried there in the Aranjuez cemetery: their memorial is usually top of the tourist itinerary.
But for the rest, who will ever know. As always, just listen to the music and let whatever images float in and out of your mind.
SYMPHONY No. 1
Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911)
I was very excited when I saw Mahler’s first symphony had appeared in the new season’s programme. For me, as a player, it’s a work that represents a rite of passage; more precisely, the second rite – the first of course is playing Beethoven’s Fifth! The best part of an hour long, this kaleidoscope of ideas, a life’s journey from birth and awakening of nature, through to death and then paradise, translates into a truly exciting, astonishing musical experience.
Written just four years after Brahms wrote his fourth, Mahler’s first could not be more different. It began as a kernel of an idea in the wake of a failed love affair: indeed, the main theme of the first movement is a straight re-working of the second song in his song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) which tells of a young man walking out into the spring countryside seeking a new beginning. (Another song from this cycle is used in the third movement.) Mahler also uses folk music, a ländler dance in the second movement, Frère Jacques mutated into the minor in the third, along with a hint of Klezmer music perhaps to note his own Jewish upbringing.
One obvious way in which Mahler 1 is so different from Brahms 4 (let alone Beethoven’s fifth) is that it’s scored for big orchestra. The woodwind is effectively doubled, including a cor anglais, bass clarinet and 2 Eb clarinets, and contrabassoon. There’s even an, albeit short, outing for 3 piccolos! More importantly there’re 10 horns, 5 trumpets and a fourth trombone, the extras used mainly in the last movement. Oh, and 6 timpani needing 2 players!
In the final published version, the symphony is in the traditional four movement form, but with the scherzo and minuet & trio in reverse order (cf. Beethoven). Mahler’s original note for the first movement is “Spring and no end: the awakening of nature at the earliest dawn”. Mahler loved nature and the countryside, and this movement is filled with references, eg. birdsong and hunting horns. There are also military references – distant fanfares – no doubt from Mahler’s childhood living near an army barracks.
There’s also a military feel to the ländler which starts the scherzo: something about that regimented dance tread bass under the tune. The third movement, most unusually, starts with a solo double bass picking out the Frère Jacques tune mutated into the minor, making this one of the most spooky funeral marches ever. Later on there’s a short section sounding very ‘reedy’ – this is the Eb clarinets, together with oboes, trumpets and percussion providing the hint of a Klezmer band. The third theme in this movement provides a rare, and welcome, moment of solace, and is from the fourth song in the LEFG song cycle.
Mahler’s note for the last movement was ‘Dell’inferno al Paradiso’ (from hell to paradise: interesting that he wrote this in Italian rather than German). At the first performance it was described as ‘vulgar, mad and outré’. A loud cymbal crash kicks off this terrifying depiction of hell, with the violins swooping around like frenzied evil spirits. It’s dark and introspective, but then, with a quieter romantic string theme, it moves on from a consideration of death to renewed confidence, fanfares eventually announcing the arrival of the triumphant hero. In the course of this, several elements from the first movement are brought back, unifying the symphony as a whole. The symphony ends in spectacular form in D major, fanfares it seems bubbling out from all sides of the orchestra.
There could be a link here with Mahler’s great rival in symphonic composition, Sibelius, a mere five years his junior. Sibelius had a similar love of nature and the countryside. They knew each other and indeed met in 1907, going for a walk in the Finnish countryside to discuss symphonic form (as you do!). By then, and with his third symphony, Sibelius was moving away to a new style of symphonic composition, and not one favoured by Mahler. But I like to think that, when he was previously writing the D major finale of his second symphony of 1902, Sibelius had the spirit of Mahler’s present in his mind.
Although Mahler’s first was premiered in Budapest in 1889 – as a symphonic poem, and not well received – it wasn’t published until 1898, after a whole series of revisions. Originally it even had a fifth movement, Blumine (flower piece) played after the first movement. However, by publication, Mahler had dropped this, along with his title ‘The Titan’ and his descriptive subtitles, not wanting to mislead his audience by ‘such notes and their inherent ambiguities’.
And maybe they are just not needed. It’s been suggested that there is anyway a fundamental unifying connection between the four movements. In the first, it’s in the woodwind cuckoo calls, and in the horns’ hunting chorus. In the second it’s in the tread of the dance. In the third, the timpani funeral tread. And in the fourth, the trumpet finale (sometimes suggested as a quote from Handel’s Messiah – And He Shall Reign).
Have you guessed? Simply the interval of a downward fourth. Now that’s real genius.