Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Samson et Dalila: Bacchanale
Samson et Delilah, Camille Saint-Saëns’s best-known opera, was premiered at the behest of Franz Liszt in Germany – and in German – in December 1877; it did not reach Paris until 1890. The opera is a fanciful adaptation of the biblical story of Samson, lured by the Philistine seductress Delilah into revealing the source of his superhuman strength, his long hair. Delilah cut it off as he sleeps and blinds him for good measure.
The Bacchanale is the ballet – a requirement for all French opera – as the Philistines celebrate the power of their god, Dagon, and Delilah’s victory over their seemingly invincible enemy. Dramatically, the music portrays the reckless abandon that always seems to precede calamity. For when the Philistines bring out the blind and shackled Samson to gloat over him, he calls upon the one God to give him a final burst of strength to destroy the Philistines and their false god. In a suicidal sacrifice, he topples the pillars of Dagon’s temple, crushing the enemy.
In 1877, at the time the opera was written, all Europe was fascinated with the exotic, particularly the East (which included the Middle East). Homes were decorated like Chinese pagodas, and composers wrote “Arab” sounding music. As France was deeply involved in the colonization of North Africa, Saint-Saëns spent the years 1880-81 traveling to resorts in Algeria (then a French colony) and Egypt. The music he heard while abroad gave him first-hand knowledge of an entirely new musical language with its own scales, rhythms and theory, and he made sincere attempts to integrate them into his own works (the Suite algérienne and the Fifth Piano Concerto, “The Egyptian”) But the popular Bacchanale, written before his North African sojourns, abounds with themes that frankly reflect exotic clichés rather than the real McCoy.
Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999)
Concierto de Aranjuez
Like his fellow Spanish composers Enrique Granados and Manuel de Falla, Joaquín Rodrigo traveled to Paris to study composition and piano. Although he had lost his eyesight to a severe illness at age three, he became an accomplished pianist and a star composition student of Paul Dukas (composer of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). In the early 1930s Rodrigo had to return to Spain when the family’s wine business went bankrupt, but he succeeded in obtaining a scholarship and returning to Paris for further studies. During the Spanish Civil War, he traveled extensively in Europe, especially through France and Germany, finally returning home in 1939 to settle in Madrid. The premiere in 1940 of his Concierto de Aranjuez catapulted him to world recognition. In 1947 the Manuel de Falla chair was created for him at Madrid University where he composed and taught for the rest of his long life.
Rodrigo’s style is far removed from the major currents of European musical development in the twentieth century. Rather, it reflects Spain’s classical and folk music, art and literature, frequently using old Spanish melodies as his themes. His harmonic language is so conservative that the eighteenth-century composer to the Spanish court, Domenico Scarlatti beats him hands down in the use of dissonance and adventurous harmonies. Rodrigo composed about 170 works, including eleven concertos, 60 songs and music for the ballet, theater and film.
The Concierto de Aranjuez has remained Rodrigo’s most popular work. While he maintained that there was no program implied, the title refers to a famous royal enclave on the road to Andalusia on the Tagus river near Madrid. According to the composer, the music “…seems to bring to life the essence of eighteenth-century court life, where aristocratic distinction blends with popular culture. …The Concerto is meant to sound like the hidden breeze that stirs the treetops in the parks; it should only be as strong as a butterfly and as delicate as a veronica [a pass with the cape at a bullfight].”
The guitar solo that opens the Concerto sets up a series of strummed chords that promise, but delay, the arrival of the principal theme. Only a full minute later, after the orchestra has repeated the pattern, does the theme actually appear, played by the violins with the orchestra and soloist engaging in a musical dialogue.
The Adagio is truly the heart of the Concerto, capturing for the concert hall the brooding Flamenco strains. Here, a mournful modal theme is introduced by that quintessentially melancholy instrument, the English horn. But it is the guitar that sinuously, even lovingly, embellishes the melody like an example of fine decorative Moorish calligraphy. The melody has morphed into everything from elevator music to the award-winning jazz recording for trumpet and flugelhorn by Miles Davis.
The final movement comes like a splash of cold water on a sunburn. Again, the guitar soloist begins the movement in accordance with the usual classical concerto structure. The movement is a series of free variations based on a lively sixteenth-century folksong. The transformations of the theme become the topic of discussion between the soloist and various members of the orchestra, as well as a vehicle for some charming orchestral color. Just as it had the first word, the lone voice of the guitar has the last one.
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14
Being a rebel without independent means makes life difficult for an artist. Hector Berlioz, the son of a physician, was sent by his family to Paris to study medicine, but at 21 gave it up to become a musician. To make ends meet as a composer, he became a prolific writer on music, musicians, conducting and orchestration, as well as a sharp-tongued music critic for Paris newspapers.
Berlioz was a master of orchestration. He freed the brass, making it the equal of the other orchestral sections. He experimented with new instruments, including the bass clarinet and valve trumpet, and pioneered the use of the English horn as one of the orchestra’s most expressive solo instruments. He paid only lip service to conventional musical form and was the foremost advocate of program music. Every one of his compositions is narrative, related in some way to a story or literary text. This approach to art was the natural outcome of his belief in the inseparability of music and ideas. For Berlioz, music and literature were inextricably connected as the quintessential expression of human imagination and emotion.
As if Romantic literature didn’t present enough Sturm und Drang, Berlioz’s personal life added a subsequent entanglement. Around 1827, he attended productions in Paris of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, performed by the great British actor, David Garrick, and the apparently somewhat less talented actress, Harriet Smithson. Despite the fact that the young composer didn’t know English, he fell madly in love with Smithson, developed an obsessive fixation on her that inspired the Symphonie fantastique, and married her six years later, ultimately making both of them miserable.
The Symphonie fantastique is the first example of a narrative symphony. Berlioz composed it in 1830 as a musical testament to his infatuation. The symphony is united by what the composer himself termed an “Idée fixe,” a theme introduced in the first movement symbolizing the obsession with the beloved. The movement describes a young musician encountering his ideal woman for the first time. His fervor is so great that by the end of the movement the theme turns religious.
In the second movement, a lilting waltz, the artist attends a ball where among the dancing couples, he becomes conscious of his beloved’s presence, with the sudden reappearance of the Idée fixe.
In the third movement, the artist goes for an outing in the pastoral countryside, in the midst of which he suddenly remembers his beloved. The movement opens with a haunting echo duet for English horn and oboe. There follows a violent storm, in which the thunder symbolizes and foreshadows the disastrous denouement of the affair.
By the fourth movement the artist's desperation grows, as does his irrationality. In an opium-induced fantasy, he murders his beloved and is condemned to the guillotine. Before the blade falls, the Idée fixe is imprinted on his memory.
The Finale describes an after-death experience, the Witches’ Sabbath. The Idée fixe now reappears in a grotesquely screeching clarinet solo, the ideal beloved now the object of ridicule. At this point Berlioz quotes the Dies irae, the Catholic chant for the dead describing the terrors of the Day of Judgment. He contrapuntally combines the witches’ dance with the plainchant melody in one of his signature musical devices, which he called “the reunion of two themes;” the two melodies are presented separately, then combined, no matter how musically incompatible they may be, to create a kind of musical irony, and the work ends in a wild orchestral climax.
Program notes by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn