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ClassicsOnline Home » STRONG: Roi Arthur (Le) / Die Nacht
By Rob Barnett
By Rémy Franck
By David Hurwitz
The magnificent suite, Die Nacht, unpardonably neglected in modern concert repertoire, was written during the summer of 1913 and first performed by Ernest Ansermet with the Orchestre du Kursaal in Montreux, on 27th November 1913, in an afternoon concert, together with works by Beethoven, Mozart, Weber and Wagner. The following year, on 9th March, Carl Ehrenberg, to whom the suite is dedicated, performed it in Lausanne, where Strong was then living, with the local Société de l'Orchestre. On that occasion, the composer himself participated, playing the English horn. The first American performance of Die Nacht was given by Arturo Toscanini and his NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1939, a broadcast which Strong had heard and of which he, apparently, highly approved. The suite, subtitled Four little symphonic poems for orchestra, is perhaps Strong's most typical work, since it reveals the composer's love for miniatures and characteristic pieces, wrapped up in modest symphonic guise and scored for large symphony orchestra. The suite features different aspects of nocturnal atmosphere from a romantic standpoint, as a lyrical contemplation of nature in the first and second movements, or as a revival of real (second movement) or unreal (fourth movement) events of poetical inspiration. In the first piece, At Sunset, in E flat, a peaceful string melody is gradually brought to a climax involving all orchestral forces, suggesting a moment of despair or tragedy and falling back into serenity. Featuring a melody of almost Mahlerian character, this piece can be considered as Strong's Adagietto, although Mahler's more famous one restricts the orchestral forces to harp and strings. Peasants Battle-March, in G major, is a homage to Joachim Raff, whose marches from some of his symphonies had become very popular at that time. In fact, Strong's piece reminds us strongly of the March of Leonore, Raff's Fifth Symphony, with the interesting novelty that Strong's is quicker in pace, suggesting peasants either running to battle with extreme fanaticism, or that they have overslept. A Trio, opening with a gloomy melody by the English horn, leads to a solemn, but still mysterious variation of the march theme, becoming wilder and wilder and ending in a recapitulation, until the marching peasants disappear into the night. In the Old Forest, in D minor, is another highly lyrical piece in which the string section predominates and manifests itself in the middle section through elaborate rustlings and solo parts from among eleven subdivided sections. As with all the other movements of the suite, the music dies away into night again. In the score of The Awakening of the Forest-Spirits, Strong has provided his own poem:
Oh how I love the whisperings
Of Kobolds, Gnomes, Fairies, Elves, -
These small triumphant Immortals!
A green Gnome, lovelorn sighing,
Was greeted with fairy laughter, -
Elfish, mocking laughter:
When from afar there came the call
O a wandering hunters horn, all
The Sprites vanished!
In this piece in changing keys, we hear Mendessohn's fairies joining with the Queen Mab of Berlioz to meet some of Wagner's Walkyries on the Harz Mountains. The atmosphere changes from the extremely mysterious and hushed to orgiastic tumult and whirling, until the hunter's call leads the spirits to a more gentle and human dance, ending in mocking laughter, before returning to the earlier orgiastic mood. The nightmare fades into the darkness, probably at a first glimpse of daylight.
The extended tone poem for large orchestra, Le Roi Arthur, is Strong's only overt homage to Richard Strauss, but it is so well written, of such impact and with predominantly typical landmarks of Strong's style (incidentally, the second section has nothing Strauss-like) that one almost forgets its stylistic provenance. More than that, the composer creates many episodes in which harmony and dissonance (Strong's "cayenne pepper"), reach further and the orchestration becomes more realistic and harsher. Nevertheless, we can almost certainly consider this piece as Strong's own Heldenleben. The manuscript bears the final date of 1916, but apparently composition had started already around 1890-91, immediately after the completion of the equally ambitious Symphony No.2 "Sintram". Unlike Strauss, who was usually happy to assign subtitles to single movements or sections of his tone poems, Strong avoided this, but felt the necessity of having his score accompanied by a long and detailed thematic analysis. This may be useful to specialists or students, but is clearly too prolix for general audiences. Additionally, three short quotations from Tennyson appear between the music of the first half of the score, revealing that the composer had found there his source of inspiration. The full thematic analysis, as translated and revised by the composer's friend, the Swiss linguist and musicologist Rober Godet, is reproduced as a preface to the printed score of Le Roi Arthur. It is interesting to note that other composers of Strong's time, who had also studied in Germany, had been inspired by the tales of the Round Table, recounted by Sir Thomas Malory in 1470 in Le Morte Darthur, and taken up by Tennyson in his Idylls of the King in 1859, continued ten years later in The Holy Grail. The first musical work inspired by these legends was probably Henry Purcell's semi-opera of 1691, King Arthur. Edward MacDowell had produced his tone poem Lancelot and Elaine in 1888 and dedicated it to Strong. In opera, in addition to Wagner's Parsifal and Lohengrin, we find Isaac Albéniz's Merlin (1898) and Karl Goldmark's Merlin (1886), among others. Ernest Chausson's magnificent opera Le Roi Arthus (1894) and his symphonic poem Viviane (1882) are, of course, products of the French School. In the twentieth century, composers Arnold Bax and Willem Pjiper can also be mentioned as having been inspired by Breton legends of the Round Table. Le Roi Arthur is constructed like a symphony in three connected movements, of which the third appears as a Scherzo and Finale. The first movement starts with a slow introduction, in which the leitmotifs of Arthur and Mordred, representing the antagonistic forces of Good and Evil, are displayed. In the first section, of largely heroic atmosphere (Andante-Allegro), King Arthur's youth under the guidance of the magician Merlin and the apparition of the magic sword Excalibur are described, followed by Arthur's mission as mature man and king, and the institution of the Knights of the Round Table. Arthur's wife Guinevere, her adulterous love for Lancelot, discovered and denounced by Mordred, and Guinevere's flight make up the musical material of the second part of this section. The following short Adagio represents Arthur's loneliness, longing for happiness and his despair, interrupted by fits of rage and the urge to revenge himself upon Mordred, who has been the cause of his ruin. The Finale, containing tempo indications like Allegro agitato, Allegro guerriero and Eroico, can be subdivided into two episodes, of which the first represents Arthur's pursuit of Mordred after the latter's provocative challenge to him and the battle between the two mortal enemies in which Mordred is killed by the magic sword and Arthur too is mortally wounded. The second is actually a coda, marked Solennemente e funebre, describing Arthur's body being carried by a ship to the grave. Thematic reminiscences of his youth and his lost love for Guinevere and for Lancelot are heard over murmuring strings, dying away in music of extreme beauty and serenity, after over half an hour of gloomy atmosphere, drama and struggle. As in his Symphony No.2 "Sintram", Strong was obsessed by the musical rendering of the conflict between Good and Evil, a favourite theme of some of his predecessors, writers of romantic-heroic programme symphonies, the Liszt of the Faust-Sinfonie, the Berlioz of Harold en Italie, the Tchaikovsky of Manfred, the Sibelius of Kullervo, the Bartók of Kossuth and the Glière of Il'ya Muromets. In both the Second Symphony and Le Roi Arthur, the hero depicted in the music has to endure terrible ordeals before either winning his cause or succumbing: the composer's focus concentrated on the analysis and description of human struggle for life within a society of enemies and traitors. Strong's private life may hardly have been as tragic as that, but one may presume he had had some reason to identify himself with Sintram or Arthur. That he was of a direct, energetic and uncompromising character has been recorded by many of his friends and can also be seen in his letters. The first performance of Le Roi Arthur took place in the Victoria Hall in Geneva on 12th January 1918, under the baton of Ernest Ansermet, to whom the work is dedicated, conducting the ensemble which a few months later was officially to become the renowned Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. The same performers were to take up this work again in the Casino de Montreux on 7th March 1920.
GEORGE TEMPLETON STRONG (1856-1948)
Die Nacht (Vier kleine symphonische Dichtungen, 1913)
The Night (Four little symphonic poems)
1. Beim Sonnenuntergang (At Sunset)
2. Kriegsmarsch der Bauern (Peasants Battle-March)
3. Im tiefen Wald (In the Old Forest)
4. Das Erwachen der Waldgeister (The Awakening of the Forest-Spirits)
Le Roi Arthur (Poème symphonique, 1916)
King Arthur (Symphonic poem)
5. Non troppo allegro - Andante - Allegro
6. Adagio - Andante
7. Allegro - Solennemente e funebre
A personal conclusion
Ernest Ansermet, whom I had met in 1967, was actually the first person to mention to me the name of George Templeton Strong. At that time this great conductor, whom I admired both as a musician and as a man of intelligence and culture, had encouraged me to become a conductor, with definitely more enthusiasm than I would have dared to entertain myself. In fact, I never really believed that one day I would be allowed to mount the podium. My main concern at the time was to struggle for my own uncertain and too self-taught musical future and to study scores of the current repertoire. Little by little I began to feel a particular penchant for unknown and forgotten repertoire, and it is through this that I have finally become a conductor myself.
Some twenty years ago, a German friend had sent me a copy of Toscanini's broadcast of Die Nacht, which, I might add, has not influenced my own interpretation of the work. This led me to fall immediately in love with the piece and about five years ago, after I had been given a huge pile of Strong's scores and orchestral material by a friend from Geneva, it seemed that destiny would seal my goal as an almost inevitable promoter of this composer. Ansermet's prophecy had in the meantime realised itself and who would ever have thought that I would be allowed to conduct those pieces which had once been promoted by one of my early "discoverers". My recording of Strong's Symphony No.2 "Sintram" (Naxos 8.559018) was the successful start of a projected G.T.Strong series, which soon will be followed by a recording of his three orchestral suites and his symphonic poem Undine and I hope to be able to continue this project in spite of the present situation of the classical recording industry. Last but not least, I can consider myself extremely lucky to have found both a sponsor and a company to help the fulfilment of this recording project, which had matured so slowly and through various fortunate circumstances. I dedicate this disc to the memory of the great Ernest Ansermet, feeling at the same time much surprise that he himself did not venture to perpetuate one single note by Strong on records.
edited by Keith Anderson
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STRONG: Roi Arthur (Le) / Die Nacht