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ClassicsOnline Home » Famous Symphonic Poems, Vol. 2
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 - 1921)
Le Rouet d'Omphale, Op. 31
Sergey Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943)
The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29
Leos Janácek (1854 - 1928)
Ottorino Respighi (1879 - 1936)
Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome)
Saint-Saëns was born in Paris in 1835. His father, a clerk in the Ministry of the Interior, died shortly after his son's birth, and the boy was brought up by his mother and her aunt, the latter giving him his first piano lesson when he was two and a half. He showed exceptional ability and at the age of ten appeared in a public concert at the Sallé Pleyel, having already learned by heart all the Beethoven sonatas.
In an otherwise distinguished enough career at the Conservatoire, where he had composition lessons from Halevy and studied the organ with Bergist, Saint-Saëns failed to win the Prix de Rome, but wrote an impressive series of compositions. In common with many other French composers, he took an appointment as an organist in Paris and was for nearly twenty years employed in that capacity at the Madeleine.
For four years Saint-Saëns, from 1861 until 1865, taught at the Ecole Niedermeyer and it was there that he met Gabriel Fauré, who was to remain his close friend throughout his life. His marriage in 1875 was brief and unhappy and lasted a mere six years, with his two children dying in infancy. The death of .his mother in 1888 proved a greater blow to his security, and he was thereafter to spend a great deal of time travelling, particularly to Egypt and to Algeria. He died in Algiers in 1921.
Saint-Saëns was immensely gifted, both as a performer and as a composer. Liszt, who heard him improvise at the Madeleine, described him as the greatest living organist, while Hans von Bülow, who heard him read at sight at the piano the score of Wagner's Siegfried declared him the greatest musical mind of the time. As a pianist he performed principally his own music, avoiding the inevitable drudgery of the mere virtuoso he might so easily have become.
The compositions of Saint-Saëns cover almost every possible genre of music. He wrote for the theatre and for the church, composed songs, orchestral music and chamber music, with works for the piano and for the organ. In style he deserved the comparison with Mendelssohn, sharing with that composer an ability in the handling of traditional forms and techniques and a gift for orchestration.
Le rouet d'Omphale belongs to a group of earlier symphonic poems written in the 1870s that includes Phaeton, the famous Danse macabre and La jeunesse d'Hercule. The legend of the Lydian queen Omphale involves the mythical hero Hercules, who was condeln11ed by Apollo to serve her in the guise of a woman, an episode in which some were to find a moral, as the strongest of men was enslaved in this way. The symphonic poem makes much of the sound of the spinning-wheel at which Omphale and her maids worked.
Sergey Rachmaninov was among the greatest pianists of the first half of the twentieth century. It was largely through political circumstances that he was forced in the years after the Russian revolution to earn a living for himself and his family in the concert hall, rather than as a composer, making use of his phenomenal technique and powers of musical concentration as a performer.
Born in 1873, Rachmaninov moved with his family to St Petersburg in 1882 and there began to attend the Conservatory, with such poor results in general subjects that he was sent, instead, to Moscow, where he lodged with a teacher at the Conservatory, Nikolay Zverev, a hard task-master. It was in Moscow that he completed his formal musical education as a pianist and as a composer. After some initial success and a promising beginning to his career came the shock of the reception of his First Symphony in St Petersburg, in a performance conducted by Glazunov, who was drunk at the time, according to his wife's later account of the matter. The work was not well played and to make matters worse César Cui, veteran composer of the so-called Mighty Handful of Russian nationalist composers, described it in the most scathing terms as a product "of some student at a conservatory in Hell asked to write a version of the Seven Plagues of Egypt". It took a later course of psychotherapy by hypnosis to encourage Rachmaninov to return to composition and to complete his Second Piano Concerto, a work that has become one of the most popular in the repertoire.
In these years before the revolution of 1917 and his departure abroad, Rachmaninov was earning himself a significant reputation as a conductor and composer, as well as in the role of pianist. The second of his three symphonies was completed in 1907, followed in 1909 by the symphonic poem Die Toteninsel, The Isle of the Dead. The latter was based on a well-known painting, or rather a black-and-white reproduction of a painting, by the Swiss-German artist Arnold Bocklin, the leading German Romantic painter of the late nineteenth century. The picture shows Charon, the ferryman of the dead of Greek mythology, who rows the dead across the River Styx on their journey to the Underworld and to the crags and cliffs of the ominous Island of the Dead of Boecklin's imagination.
In the symphonic poem Rachmaninov makes constant use of fragments of the traditional plainchant Dies irae, a hymn that for centuries had formed part of the Catholic Requiem Mass and had inevitable associations with death in the minds of its hearers, associations exploited by Berlioz and Liszt among others in the nineteenth century, and elsewhere by Rachmaninov himself, notably in the popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Here the listener may imagine Charon rowing his boat with its passengers across to the Toteninsel, their arrival provoking a musical climax. As Charon returns to the hither shore, the music subsides once more into the ghostly stillness with which it had begun.
Janácek was born in 1854 in the northern part of Moravia, near the Polish frontier, a region that enjoys both linguistic and musical individuality .He was educated at the Augustinian school in Brno, the capital of Moravia, eventually succeeding to the position of organist that had been occupied by his teacher. Between 1874 and 1875 he studied at the Prague Organ School, where Dvorak had been a pupil sixteen years earlier, returning to Brno as conductor of the local Philharmonic Society. His lack of confidence in his own ability as a composer took him to Leipzig in 1878 for a further year of study, followed by similar activity in Vienna.
In 1881 Janácek opened a music school in Brno, and in the following years continued to write music, in 1886 dedicating a set of choral works to Dvorak, but in general enjoying only a very local reputation. His first opera, Sárka, met difficulties, since permission for the use of the poem on which it was based had not been granted by the author. Subsequent operas had a better fate, at least in Brno, but it was not until 1916 that the attention of the Prague National Theatre was drawn to his work, leading, largely by a series of lucky chances, to the performance there of the opera known as Jenufa, that had first been staged in Brno in 1904. The last twelve years of Janácek's life brought him fame in Czechoslovakia and elicited from him a series of five further operas, each as original in choice of libretto as in musical content.
The music of Janácek is dominated by his preoccupation with Moravian folk-song, the spirit of which informs his work. He had a particular interest in the musical inflections of speech and the melodic shape of natural sounds, while his theories of harmony were original, particularly in his sudden shifts of key. As a composer he only started work in middle age and always appeared as a musician of startling originality, in part through geographical isolation, at a distance from Vienna and even from Prague.
For Taras Bulba Janácek takes three episodes in the violent life of the Cossack leader Taras Bulba in his struggle against the Poles in 1682. In the first the son of Taras Bulba, Andri, is put to death by his father for the disloyalty that his love has brought about. The Cossacks had laid siege to the town of Dubno, where Andri's beloved is among those besieged. The young man enters the town by a secret passage and joins with the Poles in the subsequent battle with his own people. The second episode shows the death of his second son Ostap, tortured and put to death by the victorious Poles, an event witnessed by the disguised Taras Bulba, mingling with the crowd. The third movement, with its organ part, depicts the prophecy and death of Taras Bulba himself, nailed to a tree and condemned to be bummed to death. As he dies, he foretells the future liberation of the Cossacks.
Ottorino Respighi was born in Bologna in 1879 and studied the violin and viola at the Liceo Musicale there from 1891 with Federico Sarti. At the same time he took lessons in composition, at first from the musicologist Luigi Torchi, who had returned to Bologna from the Liceo Rossini in Pesaro in the same year, and later from the composer Giuseppe Martucci, who was director of the Liceo until 1902. In 1899 he completed his studies and the following year went to St Petersburg as principal viola-player at the Imperial opera. In Russia, where he spent the seasons of 1901-1902 and 1903-1904, he took lessons in composition and orchestration from Rimsky-Korsakov.
During the first decade of the century Respighi won a reputation as a performer, while pursuing his growing interest in earlier music and in composition. In Berlin in 1908 and 1909 he attended lectures by Max Bruch, but to relatively little effect. The influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, however, remained with him, guiding his bold use of orchestral colour in the music he wrote. These years brought a series of compositions. In 1902 a piano concerto of his was performed in Bologna and his Notturno of 1905 was played in New York under Rodolfo Ferrari. In the same year his opera Rè Enzo was staged in Bologna, to be followed five years later by Semirama, these operas proving successful enough to bring about his appointment in 1913 as a teacher of composition at the Liceo Santa Cecilia in Rome.
In 1919 Respighi married a singer, Elsa Olivieri-Sangiacomo and in 1924 he became director of the Santa Cecilia, resigning two years later to devote himself to composition, although he continued to teach and to perform in concerts and recitals as a conductor and as accompanist to his wife. He died in 1936 at the house he had named after one of his most famous works, I Pini.
The first movement of Pini di Roma, The Pines of the Villa Borghese, shows children playing by the pine-trees at the great Villa Borghese, monument to the patronage of the Borghese family, who dominated the city in the early seventeenth century. It is a sunny morning and the children sing nursery rhymes and play soldiers. Pines near a Catacomb conjures up the picture of a solitary chapel in the deserted Roman Campagna, open land, with a few pine-trees silhouetted against the sky. A hymn is heard, the sound rising and sinking again into some sort of catacomb, the subterranean cavern in which the dead are immured. The Pines of the Janiculum is a night-piece The full moon shines on the pines that grow on the hill of the Temple of Janus, the double-faced god of doors and gates, and of the new year. A nightingale is heard, the composer demanding a recording of the real bird, where this is possible, rather than the artificial birdsong of Vivaldi or of Beethoven. The Pines of the Appian Way is a representation of dawn on the great military road leading into Rome Respighi recalls the past glories of the Roman Republic. The legions approach to the sound of trumpets, where possible in the form of ancient Roman buccine, instruments best imitated by the modern flügelhorn, and the Consul, elected leader of the Republic, advances, as the sun rises, mounting in triumph to the Capitol.
Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestca (Bratislava)
The Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava), the oldest symphonic ensemble In Slovakia, was founded in 1929 at the Instance of Milos Ruppeldt and Oskar Nedbal, prominent personalities. In the sphere of music Ondrej Lenard was appointed its conductor in 1970 and in 1977 its conductor-in-chief. The orchestra has given successful concerts both at home and abroad, in Germany, Russia, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain, Hong Kong and Japan. For Marco Polo the orchestra has recorded works by Glazunov, Glière, Miaskovsky and other late romantic composers and film music of Honegger, Bliss, Ibert and Khachaturian as well as several volumes of the label's Johann Strauss Edition. Naxos recordings include symphonies and ballets by Tchaikovsky, and symphonies by Berlioz and Saint-Saëns.
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was created by Sir Thomas Beecham three weeks before its first concert, which took place in the Davis Hall, Croydon, on 15th September, 1946. The orchestra was initially associated with the Royal Philharmonic Society and involved in the Society's subscription concert series, later earning for itself the title "Royal", when this association came to an end. Beecham gave his last concert with the orchestra in 1960 and was succeeded by Rudolf Kempe, who became principal conductor on Beecham's death the following year. The orchestra has from the beginning been involved in recording, with a major international reputation supported by foreign tours and by association with conductors and soloists of the greatest distinction.
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava)
The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava), the oldest symphonic ensemble in Slovakia, was founded in 1929 at the instance of Milos Ruppeldt and Oskar Nedbal, prominent personalities in the sphere of music Ondrej Lenard was appointed its conductor in 1970 and in 1977 its conductor-in-chief, succeeded recently by Robert Stankovsky. The orchestra has given successful concerts both at home and abroad, in Germany, Russia, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain, Hong Kong and Japan. For Marco Polo the orchestra has recorded works by Glazunov, Glière, Miaskovsky and other late romantic composers and film music of Honegger, Bliss, Ibert and Khachaturian as well as several volumes of the label's Johann Strauss Edition. Naxos recordings include symphonies and ballets by Tchaikovsky, and symphonies by Berlioz and Saint-Saëns.
Stephen Gunzenhauser, a graduate of Oberlin College and the New England Conservatory, served Igor Markevich and Leopold Stokowski as assistant conductor before becoming executive and artistic director of the Wilmington Music School in 1974. In 1979, he became conductor and music director of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra. He records exclusively for Naxos and Marco Polo and his recordings include works of Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Vivaldi, Mozart, Glière, and Liadov. In 1989/90 he recorded all nine Dvorak symphonies with the Slovak Philharmonic, as well as the three Borodin symphonies with the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra.
The distinguished Mexican conductor Enrique Bátiz has enjoyed considerable international success, with performances throughout the world, in particular in Europe and the Americas. From 1983 to 1989 he was Musical Director of the Mexico City Philharmonic Orchestra, preceded by a period from 1971 to 1983 as director of the Mexican State Symphony Orchestra, a position he resumed in 1990. Since 1984 he has been Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. Of some hundred digital recordings, some 32 have been made with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, nine with the London Symphony Orchestra and twelve with the London Philharmonic, in addition to recordings with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and with his own orchestras in Mexico. He remains one of the leading conductors of Latin America.
Ondrej Lenárd was born in 1942 and had his early training in Bratislava, where, at the age of seventeen, he entered the Academy of Music and Drama, to study under Ludovit Rajter. His graduation concert in 1964 was given with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and during his two years of military service he conducted the Army Orchestral Ensemble, later renewing an earlier connection with the Slovak National Opera, where he has continued to direct performances.
Lenárd's work with the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra in Bratislava began in 1970 and in 1977 he was appointed Principal Conductor. At the same time he has travelled widely abroad in Europe, the Americas, the Soviet Union and elsewhere as a guest conductor, and during his two years, from 1984 to 1986, as General Music Director of the Slovak National Opera recorded for Opus operas by Puccini, Gounod, Suchon and Bellini.
For Naxos Lenárd has recorded symphonies and ballet music by Tchaikovsky and works by Glazunov, Johann Strauss II, Verdi and Rimsky-Korsakov. For Marco Polo he has recorded Havergal Brian's colossal Gothic symphony to great critical acclaim in the international music press.
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Famous Symphonic Poems, Vol. 2