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ClassicsOnline Home » MCLEOD, J.: Emperor and the Nightingale (The) / 3 Celebrations / Rock Concerto (Medlyn, Albulescu, New Zealand Symphony, Grodd)
New Zealand-born composer Jenny McLeod’s wide musical background is here distilled into three works of highly enjoyable directness. The Emperor and the Nightingale is a colourful score which accompanies the narration of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, and Three Celebrations conjures scenes of landscape and recreation familiar to New Zealanders. Performed by Grand Prix du Disque Liszt winning soloist Eugene Albulescu, the virtuoso Rock Concerto draws on popular music styles, placing these references in a strongly classical structure.
By Colin Clarke
By Thomas Goss, The Critic’s Chair
Radio New Zealand
Jenny McLeod (b. 1941)
The Emperor and the Nightingale Narrator: Helen Medlyn • Flute solo: Kirstin Eade
Rock Concerto Piano: Eugene Albulescu • Flute solo: Bridget Douglas
Three Celebrations for Orchestra
Jenny McLeod was born in 1941 in Wellington, New Zealand, and studied in the 1960s with Douglas Lilburn at Victoria University of Wellington, then in Paris with Messiaen and in Cologne with Stockhausen. An early avant-garde chamber work, For Seven, had some success over the years in Europe, Britain, the United States and New Zealand. Formerly Professor of Music at Victoria University, Jenny McLeod has composed piano, vocal, choral, chamber and orchestral works, film and television scores, as well as three large music-theatre ‘spectaculars’ for schools and amateurs—Earth and Sky (1968), Under the Sun (1970), and the Wellington Sun Festival (1983)—an ‘outdoor harbour extravaganza’. McLeod has had a long association with the New Zealand Maori people (a number of her texts are wholly or partly in Maori) and was a pioneer mover in the nation’s later burgeoning biculturalism. She is also known for her work with the ‘tone clock’ theory, a chromatic harmonic theory formulated by the Dutch composer Peter Schat (1935–2003) whom she first met in Kentucky in 1987. Her more recent output includes three song cycles to poems by iconic New Zealand writer the late Janet Frame, one of which (The Poet, for chamber choir and string quartet) was chosen to represent New Zealand at the 2009 International Rostrum of Composers in Paris. In the 1996 Queen’s Birthday honours she was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and in 2008 received the CANZ (Composers’ Association of New Zealand) KBB Citation, for services to New Zealand music.
The three pieces here were written in the mid-1980s, during a period when the composer (having rebelled against her avant-garde, and later primitivist, youth to the extent of touring New Zealand in the 1970s with her own pop band) had begun to write pop-influenced ‘classical’ music for classically trained performers. Part of a series of concert and film commissions that followed, this is the music of a composer who for a time refused to ‘grow up’, declaring that writing and performing music should be ‘enjoyable’. Though poignant touches can be found, those in search of something deeper and darker must look elsewhere in her work. The strokes here are bold, simple and colourful, with clear-cut traditional or sectional structures, uncomplicated development if any, popular rhythms and marked dance elements. Exuberant, warm and tuneful, with descriptive, evocative titles underlining a more than occasional resemblance to her own film scores, this is music for the young at heart, for ‘ordinary people’.
The Emperor and the Nightingale, for narrator and orchestra
Commissioned in 1985 by the Wellington Regional Orchestra (now the Vector Wellington Orchestra) for a family concert under Sir William Southgate, as part of the 1986 New Zealand International Festival of the Arts in Wellington, The Emperor and the Nightingale has subsequently been performed by a number of New Zealand regional and youth orchestras. The version recorded here was revised by the composer in 2010. The text was adapted by the composer from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Nightingale, in the English version found in The Yellow Fairy Book (1894) edited by Andrew Lang (1844–1912) and translated by Leonora Blanche Alleyne Lang (1851–1933).
Long ago, in a far-off land, there lived an Emperor.
His palace was the most splendid in all the world!
In the Emperor’s garden, the loveliest flowers were hung with silver bells, which tinkled as you passed.
Beyond the garden, a great forest stretched down to the sea.
And there, high in the trees, lived a little gray bird—a nightingale.
Her song was so glorious that everyone who heard her was astonished!
Travellers wrote books, and poets wrote verses about her.
The song of the nightingale was praised above everything else in the empire.
But, do you know, the Emperor himself had never heard it!
‘What’s that?—a nightingale?’ he said, when the news reached him.
‘Here in my very own garden?’
He called his First Lord, a very grand fellow, who only ever said “Pooh!” to anyone less important that dared to speak to him.
‘Find this nightingale,’ said the Emperor, ‘and bring her here this very night, or else you and the whole court shall be trampled underfoot after dinner!’
‘Ooh! Aah! Help!’ said the First Lord, and off he ran—upstairs, downstairs, and all over the palace, and the rest of the court ran with him, for nobody wanted to be trampled underfoot!
At last they found a little kitchen girl who knew where the nightingale lived, and she led them into the forest.
On the way, they heard some cows mooing.
‘Oh!’ they cried, ‘We have found her! What a wonderfully powerful song for such a small creature!
Of course, we have often heard her before!’
‘No, that’s a cow,’ said the little kitchen girl. ‘We still have a long way to go.’
After a while, they heard some frogs croaking.
‘That must be her!’ they cried. ‘How awesome! It sounds like distant bells!’
‘No, those are frogs,’ said the little kitchen girl, ‘but soon we shall find her.’
And very soon they did.
Everyone was full of wonder. ‘Oh, esteemed little nightingale,’ said the First Lord, ‘you are hereby invited to the court this evening, where His Most Gracious Imperial
Highness will be enchanted with your song.’
‘My song sounds best out in the open, among the trees,’ said the little gray nightingale.
But she went with them, because the Emperor wished it.
At the palace everyone scurried and bustled, to prepare for the great occasion.
The Emperor sat on his throne and the nightingale was given a golden perch.
The Emperor nodded kindly and the little gray bird began her song.
The little bird’s song was so beautiful it brought tears to the Emperor’s eyes.
‘You must sing to me every evening,’ he said, ‘and you shall stay at my court now, with your very own silver cage, and twelve servants to take you out for a walk every day’—which wasn’t much fun for a nightingale, but she stayed because the Emperor wished it.
And so months and years went by…then one day a large parcel arrived at the palace.
Inside was a present for the Emperor—whatever could it be?
Quickly they unwrapped it!
It was a clockwork bird!
All gold and silver and studded with diamonds and rubies—and looking ever so much finer than the little gray nightingale!
It had a large key sticking out the side, so they wound it up!
And what do you think happened?
It sang a little song!
‘Well, my goodness, this is even better than the nightingale!’ said everyone.
The clockwork bird sang the same song thirty-three times without getting tired!
They were all so delighted that they didn’t even notice the little nightingale fly quietly away out the window and back to her green trees…
And so every day now, the clockwork bird had to sing, and all the court praised its marvellous skill.
Bands took up the tune, paper boys whistled it, ladies waltzed to it, parades marched to it!—until after years had passed, they all knew every note of its song by heart.
Then one night as the Emperor lay in bed listening …the clockwork bird had broken down!
What a calamity!
The Emperor called in his doctor, but of course he could do nothing.
Then he called in his Watchmaker, who took the bird carefully to pieces and put it together again.
He wound it up. But nothing happened.
‘Sorry,’ said the Watchmaker. ‘It’s worn out.’
The Emperor was so sad, he took to his bed and became ill.
And he lay there cold and pale and still for so long that all the court thought he was dead.
They left him, and went away to choose a new emperor.
The moon shone down so silently.
‘If only someone would sing to me,’ thought the Emperor.
‘Music! Music!’ he cried. ‘Precious little golden bird, sing, sing!
I gave you a splendid perch,
I hung jewels around your neck with my own hands. Sing!
But the clockwork bird was quite silent.
Then all at once, through the open window…yes, from far away,
the little gray nightingale had heard the Emperor’s cry and had returned.
There she sat, on a branch close by, singing her wondrous song.
The Emperor’s heart beat faster and faster!
His blood began to flow and sing!
Tears of joy fell down his cheeks as life returned to him!
‘Thank you, thank you, dear little bird,’ the Emperor cried.
‘How can I ever repay you? Please stay with me always, and I will smash that useless clockwork bird into a thousand pieces!’
‘Don’t do that,’ said the little nightingale. ‘It did what it could!
But you cannot keep me prisoner in a cage—the little singing bird must fly everywhere.
But whenever you need me, I will come and sing to you from this branch.
I will sing of joy and sorrow, I will sing to make you happy.
For I love your heart more than your crown, and your tears of joy are all the reward I need.
Now sleep, and grow strong again,
And I will sing you a lullaby.’
And the Emperor fell into a deep, calm sleep as the nightingale sang—all night long, she sang and sang.
And at dawn, when he was strong and well at last, the little bird flew away.
And when the servants came in next day, to bury their dead
Emperor, he sat up and said, ‘Good morning!’
Rock Concerto for solo piano and orchestra
The Rock Concerto began life in 1986 as a (first) Rock Sonata for piano, a work with strong classical roots and in places of Lisztian difficulty, commissioned by the New Zealand pianist Bruce Greenfield for his gifted virtuoso pupil the seventeen-year-old Eugene Albulescu. (Partly on the strength of this score, the composer was invited in 1987 as an international guest composer to a ten-day contemporary music festival in Kentucky, hosted by the Louisville Orchestra for its fortieth anniversary.) At Albulescu’s request, in 2009 she scored and revised the rock sonata as a piano concerto which he might also direct from the keyboard.
The first two movements are in sonata form, each complete with first subject, transition theme, and contrasting second group, with a classical-type development section, at the end of which there is also an opportunity for an improvised cadenza (Albulescu’s idea, and an uncommon feature of his performances—by his own desire held well in check, however, in the present recording). Though the music is newly composed, and its rhythmic language is very much of our own time (in a popular sense), it is also strongly impelled by the spirit of Beethoven (Mozart, Schubert, Liszt, Debussy, Gershwin …)—the ‘distant friends’ referred to in the first movement. Another friend was Charlie French, to whom the second, rather darker movement (scored for solo piano, strings and flute alone) is dedicated. Charlie was an Australian aboriginal activist who shared our home in Wellington for a time and later succumbed, alas, as an early victim of Aids. The headlong last movement is in rondo-sonata form, with a Latino romp as its recurring rondo, a nursery-type second theme, and a development-cum-episode that starts in a quasi-Iberian vein. Each movement has a coda (in the first and last cases quite extended), and each may also be played independently.
Three Celebrations for Orchestra
Commissioned by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra for their fortieth anniversary celebration in 1986, the Three Celebrations were first performed and toured by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Hungarian conductor János Fürst, and later toured again by the orchestra under Japanese conductor Mishima Inoue. Again, each movement may also be played independently.
The composer had in mind various kinds of scene familiar to New Zealanders:
I. Journey through Mountain Parklands—the grandeur of the southern snowy mountains (‘imagine breath-taking lowflying aerial vistas opening up from peak to peak, or driving through such a landscape, dwarfed by towering alps, with this music blasting away on your car stereo’).
II. At the Bay refers to Pukerua Bay on the North Island west coast north of Wellington, on a still summer’s day, and the composer’s idyllic terraced hillside garden, replete with native trees and ferns, and the slow surge and flow of the sea below.
III. A & P Show evokes a typical kiwi Agricultural and Pastoral fair, with sideshows, merry-go-round, ferris wheel and other rides, displays of farm machinery, and competitions for baking and preserving, homegrown vegetables, prize animals, etc.—still a highlight of the year for the average family in rural New Zealand.
Music scores and parts by Jenny McLeod are available from the Centre for New Zealand Music (SOUNZ), PO Box 27347, Marion Square, Wellington 6141, New Zealand or via their website at www.sounz.org.nz or (e-mail) firstname.lastname@example.org
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