RICHARD RODGERS (1902-1979) arr. ROBERT RUSSELL BENNETT (1894-1981) Symphonic Picture: Oklahoma! (1943 / 1955)

Robert Russell Bennett was a distinguished Broadway and Hollywood orchestrator and arranger, whose theatrical and film legacy alone amounts to over three hundred productions, working with many of the biggest names including George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers. Bennett would be given sketches in varying detail by the composers for orchestration; Gershwin, for example, would give him a two-piano score with suggestions for instrumentation, while Richard Rodgers would merely write out the tune and then give Bennett very much a free hand.

Having orchestrated all these productions Bennett was given licence to arrange many of them into Symphonic Pictures, including Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, perhaps his best known, Irving Berlin’s Showboat, Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady (which MSO played in the 2017 Prom), and a number of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows
including South Pacific and The Sound of Music together with Oklahoma!. It is difficult to imagine better arrangements, and one feels at the end that one has virtually seen the show.

Oklahoma! was a groundbreaking musical, the first collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein 11 in 1943, and based on a 1931 play by Lynn Riggs, Green Grow the Lilacs. Set in the mid-west in 1906 its context is the formation of the state of Oklahoma, but its plot centres round Laurey Williams, a farm girl in love with the somewhat feckless cowboy Curly McLain but coveted by her evil farm hand Jud Fry. The sub-plot concerns the flighty Ado Annie and her beau Will Parker, their romance threatened by the scheming peddler Ali Hakim. The show won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 and has remained one of the most-produced shows of all; the integration of plot, dialogue, song and dance pointed the way for many subsequent musicals, not least the further collaborations of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Oklahoma! was filmed in 1955 starring Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae and won Bennett an Oscar for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture.

His Symphonic Picture: Oklahoma! begins with a dreamy foretaste of Oh, What O Beautiful Morning, Pore Jud is Daid and People Will Say We’re In Love. The piece bursts into life with The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends from the Box Social in Act 2, leading into the vigorous title song, Oklahoma! (with exclamation mark!). Next, People Will Say We’re In Love, epitomises the tentative romance between Laurey and Curly, followed by Out of My Dreams, the second act ballet which crystallises their secret desires. Oh, What a Beautiful Morning begins the stage action, and became the most singable number from the show. Next comes Pore Jud is Daid, a humorous mock funeral dirge, in which Curly fools Jud into thinking that he will be remembered fondly (‘His fingernails have never been so clean.’). The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, in which Curly describes the carriage he’s borrowing to take Laurey to the Box Social, is surely the most delightful number, orchestrated by Bennett to include cocks crowing in saxes and clarinets. The coquettish Many a New Day, in which Laurey declares her ‘footloose and fancy-free-ness’ is followed by the soft-shoe-shuffle Kansas City, in which Will describes his trip to the city and the new world of mod-cons. The barn dance number from the Social, Farmers Dance, leads into the comic I Cain’t Say No, in which Ado Annie describes her lack of will-power when it comes to men, and finally the apotheosis-reprise of People Will Say and Beautiful Morning.

Hits: 48

GUSTAV HOLST (1874-1934) St Paul’s Suite, op 29 (1912)

i.  Jig
ii.  Ostinato
iii.  Intermezzo
iv.  Finale (The Dargason)

Holst was born into a musical family of German origin in Cheltenham and his father saw to it that he had every musical advantage; he began composing at an early age, citing Richard Wagner and Arthur Sullivan as surprisingly disparate influences. Stud) at the Royal College came at the right time for Holst, for the Germanic influences which Vaughan Williams found in his training with Stanford were now beginning to be diluted, as the two main pillars of musical establishment, Stanford and Parry, began increasingly to value British musical tradition. Holst met Vaughan Williams in 1895 and the two became the greatest of friends, even appraising each other’s compositions — indeed RVW professed that Holst was a great influence on his own work. Whilst Holst was never quite as passionate about the folk tradition as RVW was, he too valued the work of the father of the English folksong revival, Cecil Sharp (1859-
1924), who had travelled the country collecting folksongs, and it was Sharp who was to inspire Holst’s Somerset Rhapsody.

Holst’s talents ran wide; he spent some time as a professional trombonist, playing under Richard Strauss and Hans Richter, but also taught music for nearly thirty years at St Paul’s Girls’ School in London. His interest in astrology inspired the composition of his most famous work, The Planets (1918), a work of the highest quality. The St Paul’s Suite, one of a number of works written for the girls of the school, immediately found its place in the timeline of great 20th century British works for strings, which began with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia and Warlock’s Capriol Suite, and continued later with Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra. Holst’s work is in four movements, each strongly influenced by the folk tradition.

The opening movement is a pair of jigs, at first full-blooded but later pared down to give each section the limelight, and towards the end heralding a quickening of the tempo with a glorious upward scale sequence.

The second movement, Ostinato (a repeating accompaniment figure), sees second violins sharing the ongoing rippling figure which accompanies a folk-like melody initially introduced by a solo violin.

The Intermezzo begins desolately, introducing a melancholy, folk-based violin solo which leads into a cry of desperation in the whole orchestra. The violin solo continues, echoed by a solo viola. A rhythmic faster section dispels the gloom, but the movement eventually ends once again in sadness with a solo string quartet.

The finale is arranged from the last movement of Holst’s Second Suite for Military Band and is based on two dances from Playford’s manual of folk-dance from 1651. The main theme is known as The Dargason, an exciting jig, which is suddenly juxtaposed cleverly with Greensleeves. Eventually the texture fragments and the soloviolin ushers in the final chord.

Hits: 36

EDVARD GRIEG (1843 – 1907) Peer Gynt: Suite No 1, op 46 (1875/1888)

i.  Morning Mood
ii.  The Death of Ase
iii.  Anitra’s dance
iv.  In the Hall of the Mountain King

Strange as it may seem, Grieg was descended from a Scotsman, Alexander Greig (pronounced ‘Gregg’ of course), who settled in Bergen in the mid-18th century. He ran a fishing fleet and became well-known, but found it necessary to change the spelling to Grieg to make it easier for the Norwegians to pronounce. His great-grandson Edvard was taught by his mother and made such rapid progress that he was packed off to study in Leipzig, which he found dull and pedantic. He returned to Scandinavia to study in Copenhagen with Niels Gade, a disciple of Mendelssohn, which he found far more rewarding. Also at this time he met Rikard Nordrak, composer of the hNorwegian National anthem, who infected Grieg with his passion for Scandinavian folk music — this was to infuse Grieg’s compositions for the remainder of his career.

Grieg mostly composed on a small scale; he was generally at his best composing suites in which each movement knows its own span, such as the two Peer Gynt Suites and the Holberg Suite (first for piano, then arranged for strings), although he also tried his hand at a symphony, a set of Symphonic Variations and three exquisite violin
sonatas. With the Piano Concerto, however, he rose above his natural inclinations and intuitively produced his only undisputed larger-scale masterpiece.

In 1867 the great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt, based on legend, in which the hero leaves Norway to spend many years in search of romance and adventure all over the world, including the African desert and Egypt. With a new production in prospect in 1875 Ibsen decided to invite Grieg to write extensive incidental music, and the composer wrote no less than 26 pieces, from which he later extracted two suites, No 1 in 1888 and No 2 in 1891. The suites present eight of the most attractive movements, but not in chronological order.

Suite No 1, marginally the more popular of the two, begins with one of Grieg’s most well-known short movements, usually known as Morning, but originally entitled Morning Mood, a wonderful representation of a sunrise only marginally tarnished by the knowledge that Peer is in the Moroccan desert and the stage direction runs:
Dawn. Acacias and palm trees. Peer is sitting in a tree using a wrenched-off branch to defend himself against a group of monkeys.

The Death of Åse (pronounced ‘Awsa’ apparently), describes the heartbreaking death of his mother at the end of Act 3 of the 5, before Peer leaves for more adventures. Anitra’s Dance is voluptuous and exotic, performed as Peer tries to seduce a Bedouin girl in the Moroccan desert; with this dance however, she outsmarts him, stealing his money and disappearing.

In the Hall of the Mountain King from Act 2 sees Peer in the Norwegian mountain home of the Troll King, who says that Peer may marry his daughter on condition that he become a troll himself. Luckily Peer manages to escape and his increasingly desperate flight is chronicled in this final movement of Suite 1.

Hits: 35

GEORGES BIZET (1838 – 1875) Suite No 1: Carmen (1875)

i.   Prélude – Aragonaise
ii.   Intermezzo
iii.  Séguedille
iv.  Les Dragons d’AlcaIa
v.  Les Toréadors

It is surely one of the greater musical tragedies that Bizet died thinking that his great work Carmen was destined to be a failure. Having been commissioned in 1872 to write an opera for the Opera-Comique to follow up other operatic ventures such as La Jolie Fille du Perth and Les Pecheurs du Perles (The Pearl Fishers), none of which had been greatly successful, Bizet chose to adapt a somewhat controversial 1846 novel by Prosper Mérimée about Carmen, a free spirit whose outrageous dalliances result in her murder by Don Jose, soldier turned smuggler. Bizet was assisted with the libretto by Meilhac and Halévy, whose adaptation attempted to make Carmen’s fickleness a little more acceptable to the at-that-time somewhat reserved French public by making her unmarried, and added a foil for Carmen’s behaviour with the character of the virginal Micaela.

The opera was completed late in 1874, but the first performance, on 3 March 1875, was little short of a disaster, the subject matter perceived as worthy only of the gutter. Despite an initial run of 48 performances critical reaction was hostile, and Bizet descended into depression, dying from a heart attack exactly three months after the premiere at the age of 36. If he had only lived another year he would have seen Carmen circulate round Europe and at last find popularity in France. Brahms, who wrote nothing operatic himself, was transfixed by it and saw some twenty performances, while Tchaikovsky predicted that it would become the world’s most popular opera, and even Wagner admitted to being impressed. Bizet’s music was well-researched and offers a convincingly Spanish experience; it provides layer after layer of psychological character-development, from the teasing seductiveness of Carmen herself through the arrogance of Escamillo, the bullfighter, to the pained passion of Don Jose, who in Shakespearian terms ‘loves not wisely but too well’, via the innocence of Micaela. Two orchestral suites were drawn from the opera immediately after Bizet’s death.

The brief Prélude presents the Fate motif which recurs in the opera at crucial moments, then the Aragonaise, based on a dance from the Aragon region of Spain, paints a picture of the colourful street outside the bullfight. The Intermezzo, one of the orchestral flute’s great moments, appears before the penultimate act to describe what at long last seems to be a stable relationship between Carmen and Don Jose. The Séguedille (Seguedilla) is in the opera sung by Carmen to seduce Don Jose into releasing her from prison at the end of Act l. The Dragoons of Alcala is a mock-military march with bassoons prominent painting the shadowy mugglers’ hideout to which Don Jose has defected at the start of Act 11. Finally The Toréadors portrays the strutting arrogance of Escamillo and the other Toreadors on their way to the bullfight. It is Carmen’s desertion of the sincere but weak Don Jose for the shallow glitter of Escamillo which precipates her murder at the hands of Jose as the bullfight proceeds in the background.

Hits: 34

CHARLES GOUNOD (1818-1893) Petite Symphonie, Op 216 (1885)

  1. Adagio et Allegretto
  2. Andante Cantabile
  3. Scherzo
  4. Finale

Gounod was born in Paris, and studied piano from an early age with his mother, who was only too pleased to support his talent. He was to study at the Paris Conservatoire and in 1839 won the Prix de Rome for his cantata Fernand, some half-a-century after his artist father had won in the Painting category, and nine years after Berlioz had won it at his fourth attempt.

Study of the classic Italian composers such as Palestrina resulted in a lifelong passion for sacred music and a deep faith, which at one point almost resulted in his taking holy orders.

His first great success was the St Cecilia Mass, performed in Paris on the Patron Saint of Music’s Day, 22 November 1855, but his interests were not just sacred, and during that year he also wrote two symphonies, the first providing a model for the Symphony in C written by one of his most promising students, the 17-year-old Georges Bizet. These days, following its rediscovery in 1933 after being lost since its composition, Bizet’s is far more popular than his mentor’s symphonies!

First forays into opera were less than successful, but in 1859 he wrote what would become recognised as his masterpiece, Faust, an opera based on Goethe’s play, telling in trenchant terms of the consequences of Faust selling his soul to Satan in the form of Méphistophélés. His opera Roméo et Juliette also remains in the repertoire. Apart from Faust, Gounod is perhaps best known for his Ave Maria, in which he took the keyboard Prelude No 1 in C by JS Bach and constructed above it the heartfelt melody which Bach’s harmony seems to imply.

The Petite Symphonie was written in 1885 for the flautist Paul Taffanel, and is scored for wind ensemble including two horns but only one flute part, for Taffanel himself. It is in four short movements, all attractive and beautifully written. The first movement has a slow introduction which leads into a crisp Allegretto, then the Andante cantabile was obviously designed to showcase Taffanel himself. The Scherzo is wonderfully cheerful, then the Finale brings the work to a sparkling close.

Hits: 37

FRANZ von SUPPE (1819-1895) Overture: Light Cavalry (1866)

Suppé started life with several major disadvantages. The first was that his parents, an Italian-Belgian father and an Austrian mother, saw fit to christen him Francesco Ezechiele Ermenegildo Cavaliere Suppé-DemeIIi, which at least taught him almost all the letters of the alphabet from a very early age. The second was that, in common with a number of other composers, he had to contend with his parents trying to discourage him from studying music, preferring that he become a lawyer.

A move to Vienna cemented his musical training and, having simplified his name to the more Austrian Franz von Suppé, he found conducting, playing and singing opportunities in Vienna’s opera houses, at first unpaid but on the understanding that he would be invited to write for the theatre. He was to write over a hundred works for the stage in Vienna, including incidental music, farces and ballets, many of which have disappeared virtually without trace, and over 40 operettas, a small handful of which remain in the repertoire.

Best known of Suppé’s operettas are Poet and Peasant and Light Cavalry, and a small handful of others, Boccaccio, The Beautiful Galatea and Fatinitza, have seen the light of day briefly in recent years. The overtures to Poet and Peasant and Light Cavalry are however staple repertoire.

Light Cavalry was composed to a libretto written by one Karl Costa and premiered on 21 March 1866 in the Carltheater, Vienna. The plot deals with the trials and tribulations of bringing two sets of lovers together, Kitt, the glazier, with Dorothea, and Hermann with Vilma, an orphan, the catalyst being the arrival of a troop of Hungarian Hussars, the Light Cavalry of the title.

The overture begins with trumpet fanfares and processional drama, before an Allegro in Hungarian style sweeps all before it. This leads directly into the most famous moment, a portrait of the Hussars as they gallop along in their finery, introduced by the trumpet. A full-blooded gypsy section represents the elemental passions at stake, before the return of the Hussars’ horseback ride carries us to the triumphant close.

Hits: 18