, November 2009
Félicien César David (1810–1876) is not a name one often comes across on concert programs or recordings, but in his day he was well enough known to rate an obituary in the New York Times. There are a couple of recordings of Henri Vieuxtemps’s arrangement for viola and piano of the “Hymn to the night” from the second part of this “Ode-symphonie,” a few songs, mostly on a disc of forgotten Mediterranean music, and that’s about it. Though he has a long list of songs and choruses, other symphonic work, and some chamber music as well, he may be best known for his fourth, and most successful, of seven stage pieces, Lalla-Roukh (1862), whose story by Thomas Moore was popular with many composers of the period.
David was not the only one in his day besotted by Oriental exoticism. It was all the rage from the time of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt on. David traveled to the Middle East in the early 1830s, and was permanently smitten. Le désert is perhaps the best of his many responses to Middle-Eastern culture. Apart from its exotic moments—the muezzin’s call in the third part is often claimed to be the first Muslim music heard in Western Europe, despite not being particularly Islamic—its ability to suggest the vast spaces of the desert and to give one sense of its peoples made it a powerful contribution to the increasingly popular genre of the orchestral tone poem before the term arrived. It’s not difficult to see why Berlioz proclaimed him a new great composer after its premiere in 1844.
David’s chief gift was his ability to exploit orchestral color, and we hear that at once in the first section, a fine evocation of the desert, using broad ostinato orchestral basses to suggest the vast silence, over which come various colorful moments, such as the arrival of a caravan. The second movement depicts the desert at night, a much more lively time of day. The third movement portrays morning and the passing of the caravan. Though it shouldn’t, it may surprise some to hear God addressed by the chorus in this piece as Allah.
The orchestra in this 1989 recording plays very well indeed, and Guida knows what this piece needs to make it work…this piece has a lot going for it and, despite a certain resemblance of the third movement to the first, I think this would be a good work to restore to the choral-orchestral repertoire. The booklet has Auguste Colin’s original French text and a German translation only.