About this Recording
8.559168 - RUSSELL: Rhapsody for Horn and Orchestra / Middle Earth

Craig H

Craig H. Russell (b.1951):

Rhapsody for Horn and Orchestra • Middle Earth • Gate City

The Rhapsody for Horn and Orchestra had its genesis in the fall of 1998. Commissioned by the San Luis Obispo Symphony and dedicated to Richard Todd, my idea was a five-movement scheme that would explore different flavors and varied styles. The form would be a vessel of “alternating siblings,” where the first and third movements would be sisters, and the second and fourth movements would be close brothers. The final movement would be a brisk race that would blast us forward in one frenetic, breathless run to the finish line.

            The first movement, Morning’s Decisions, and third movement, Wistful Musings, are slow-to-moderate movements with striking similarities in mood and form. Each pays spiritual homage to Samuel Barber’s exquisite Violin Concerto, and share a melodic motive or two. Both also have three main theme groups, each of which is radically different in meter and style. Thus, each movement is a tripartite vessel that begins to take shape as we hear three contrasting ideas that are first presented, then developed, and eventually restated. Those two movements are sisters. The other musical siblings, the second and fourth movements, have an audible family resemblance that is apparent even from their titles. The second, Dizzy Bird, is a straight-ahead bebop jazz chart that tries to capture the infectious energy and originality of those amazing bop tunes by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie “Bird” Parker. The same effect permeates the “brother” movement, Tito Machito, which is constructed of an ostinato that builds in intensity. This title similarly tips its hat to two jazz greats, in  this case Machito (a founder of Latin jazz) and the incomparable Tito Puente, who was the embodiment of salsa. In spite of audible family ties between the two pairs of movements, each  nevertheless has its own identity. Just as Barber’s Violin Concerto ends with an ungodly fast dash to the end, so my concerto is a merciless perpetuo moto titled Flash. The tempo is “at the speed of light -- or as fast as possible”.

            The Rhapsody for Horn and Orchestra had its première in San Luis Obispo, California in March 2000, with Richard Todd and the San Luis Obispo Symphony, Michael Nowak conducting. One year later, the Rhapsody received its East Coast première at Carnegie Hall on 25th April, 2001, once again with the San Luis Obispo Symphony.

            The birth of Middle Earth similarly came as an unanticipated commission in 1995. Conductors Carol Kersten and Fred Lau asked if I would write a piece for the Junior Strings (a special strings ensemble of the San Luis Obispo Youth Symphony) in celebration of their 30th Anniversary. As my wife, Astrid, my boys Peter and Loren, and I were working our way through Tolkien’s The Hobbit and his trilogy The Lord of the Rings, I decided to put together a short suite of seven movements, each of which has to do with those novels.  The movements were: 1) Frodo Leaves the Shire; 2) Gimli, the Dwarf; 3) Galadriel & Her Elvin Mirror; 4) Gollum;  5) Gandalf: The White Rider; 6) Orcs & Ring Wraiths; and 7) Frodo & Company Return. The whole work was composed in three days. I tried to be brief, and whenever possible, funny or clever. Gimli sounds like a rugged Irish tune.  Galadriel is lush and romantic. Gollum is composed of random “gulps” made by the string basses, creating a swallowing sound. In Gandalf, the piece is divided in half with the second half of the piece being the exact replication of the first half but flipped upside down and backwards. The movement about the monstrous Ring Wraiths and the clumsy, ill-mannered, brutish, and slovenly Orcs is performed by the instrumentalists playing approximate pitches. I have the piano player play one brutish passage holding tennis balls and banging away. The last movement has snippets of Gimli, Galadriel, and Gandalf all layered over Frodo’s initial theme. Thus all the heroes mentioned in my suite weave their way back home.

            Two years after the première, I took the original version and re-orchestrated it for symphonic orchestra adding two additional movements: Shelob’s Lair and Strider and the Crowning of Aragorn. Shelob’s Lair has bizarre instrumental effects that replicate the clicking sounds of a terrifying giant spider ready to consume her prey. Strider begins with rapid leaps that traverse enormous musical territory, just like a character who traverses wide expanses of terrain almost instantly. This same character (both in the plot and in the musical material) is soon discovered to be a king, and this “leaping melody” reappears as a regal coronation by the movement’s end.

            The final work on this disk is the second movement of my Symphony No. 2, American Scenes, which is dedicated to my parents John Henry and Catherine Quillin Russell. This movement, Gate City: Methodist Hymn is a clear homage to my mother, her inspired faith, and her enchanting home town of Gate City, Virginia. The back-porch sound of a country fiddle begins this American reverie that spiritually is modeled on those home-spun Wesley hymns that fill Methodist hymnals. The piece then unfolds with a silent prayer in the middle before returning to the opening tune and the Appalachian beauty of this mountain village.


Craig H. Russell

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