About this Recording
8.559796 - HERRMANN, B.: Souvenirs de Voyage / DEL TREDICI, D.: Magyar Madness (Lethiec, Fine Arts Quartet)
English 

Bernard Herrmann (1911–1975): Souvenirs de voyage
David Del Tredici (b. 1937): Magyar Madness

 

Those familiar with only the most popular cinematic scores of Bernard Herrmann may be surprised to find there was a tender, lyrical side to the composer. Likewise, those who know him for his extravagant orchestral effects (nine harps in Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, for example), may marvel at the exquisite sounds he could derive from a traditional chamber ensemble—the clarinet quintet—with roots extending back to Mozart. Herrmann was perhaps best known for making us wary of taking a shower (shrieking strings in Psycho); his own prickly personality (colleague David Raksin once referred to him as a “virtuoso of unspecified anger”) did nothing to soften that image. But in some of his concert works—and some of his film scores too, for that matter—there is a quiet, reserved dignity and compassion that seems far removed from the icy cold remoteness of aliens (The Day the Earth Stood Still) or the calculating urban violence of modern society (Taxi Driver). Such is the character of Souvenirs de voyage.

Written in 1967, the clarinet quintet was Herrmann’s final concert work, and he approached the composition in a positive frame of mind. He had recently fulfilled a longstanding dream of recording his opera Wuthering Heights, and although his lengthy association with director Alfred Hitchcock had come to a bitter end, he was now enjoying a promising new professional relationship with François Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451) and a fulfilling personal one with the young woman who would become his third wife, Norma Shepherd. Herrmann was a man of great culture and an ardent Anglophile, and each of the quintet’s three movements has roots in a different artistic work. The first movement was inspired by A.E. Houseman’s poem On Wenlock Edge (previously set to music as a song cycle by Vaughan Williams), the second by John Millington Synge’s novel Riders to the Sea (also set—as an opera—by Vaughan Williams), and the third by the Venetian watercolors of J.M.W. Turner.

The opening Lento is a modified arch form: ABCBCA. It begins with an extended, elegiac clarinet line over a soft chordal bed. The strings begin to develop the idea, leading to a restless, agitated motif outlining a diminished chord. “Gusty clarinet arpeggios and fluttering string tremolos” (as described by Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith) suggest the wind blowing across the moors in the composer’s beloved Brontë. In spite of Herrmann’s strong developmental technique, the motif remains to the fore with forthright statements in cello and viola. This Sturm und Drang alternates with a wistful valse triste, introduced by muted strings. The rhythmic structure is quite sinuous, with duplets and triplets adding an expressive veneer to the underlying 3/4 pulse (indeed, fluidity of rhythm is a feature of the entire work). When this section returns, it is played up a fourth, suggesting a residual sonata form. The return of the opening A section is greatly foreshortened, and ends with a tranquil suggestion of C major.

The middle movement, Berceuse, opens with a graceful siciliano in the strings, soon joined by clarinet. When that winds down, the clarinet introduces a contrasting idea in duple meter (while a compound figure continues in the viola). The siciliano returns, providing an overall ABA structure. Noting the movement’s literary inspiration, Smith suggests the music evokes “a cloud-drenched, autumnal setting off the Irish coast”—the power of film music without the film.

An exquisite F major duet for violins moving in parallel thirds opens the final movement (subtitled “canto amoroso,” or “love song”). Characterized by wide leaps and mild dissonances created by drawn-out appoggiaturas, the melody conveys both affection and longing. This is followed by a passage of susurrating strings beneath the sound of a distant fanfare (the clarinet part is designated lontano). Here, Herrmann uses his relatively limited tonal resources to create a remarkably vivid picture—a lesson well learned from his many years scoring radio dramas. A spritely tarantella breaks the mood with a suggestion of revelry, but even though the fanfare temporarily intervenes, the love theme ultimately returns to close the movement.

Like Herrmann, David Del Tredici often derives inspiration from literature, although in his case it is rather famously limited to one author: Lewis Carroll. By his own admission, everything he wrote between 1969 and 1985 was inspired by the poetry and stories of the creator of Alice in Wonderland. But Magyar Madness, while evocative and dramatic, is not based on any literary source. The quintet was commissioned by (and dedicated to) the Orion String Quartet and clarinetist David Krakauer, who premièred the work at the University of Iowa in October 2007.

The first movement, Passionate Knights, is in four broad sections: an introduction, an exposition, a varied reprise of the exposition and an extended coda. It opens with a fiery, dissonant clarinet cadenza that is somewhat misleading, for the level of dissonance will not carry through the piece. Indeed, the work features many passages that are strikingly tonal and traditional, including the first theme of the exposition—a 4-bar, C minor tune for clarinet that would have been quite at home in the nineteenth century. Del Tredici introduces other, contrasting ideas (including a playful scherzando motif) but returns to the C minor melody for the start of the reprise. The lengthy coda includes another clarinet cadenza, followed by a segment that wanders unexpectedly into Impressionistic harmonic territory before ending on a quiet, C major chord. In his program note, the composer wryly notes, “This was (one could say) a knight well spent.”

The central interlude (Contentment) is for muted strings alone. It is a transcription of a song for baritone and piano (a setting of poetry by Edward Field) written in 1998. The composer himself summarized its character as “sweetly ardent, lyrical and contented.”

The finale, Magyar Madness (subtitled “Grand Rondo à la Hongroise”), is longer than the two previous movements combined—an idea Del Tredici says was inspired by hearing Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 130 with its original, Grosse Fugue ending. The commissioning clarinetist, David Krakauer, belonged to an ensemble called “Klezmer Madness,” and asked Del Tredici to write something in that style as part of the quintet. The composer didn’t feel he could oblige, but offered to try “something Hungarian” instead. “What I had in the back of my mind was Schubert’s four-hand masterpiece, Divertissement à la Hongroise, Op. 54.” In addition to the “ethnic seasoning” of the harmony, Schubert created a rondo finale in which each repetition of the theme grows more and more animated. “The illusion is that the tempo is accelerating—a wonderful way to enliven what is, after all, mere repetition. The idea of literally speeding up each appearance of a theme over the course of an entire movement—of creating a goulash of musical frenzy—gripped me.”

The movement is built on a vast architectural plan, beginning with an introduction highlighted by a clarinet cadenza. This is followed by the first of three “Grand Rondo” sections, in which the simple G minor theme is rendered in progressively shorter note values. Between Rondos I and II there is Episode I, a “boisterous and energetic” section capped by another cadenza; between Rondos II and III there are two Episodes, both based on the principal theme. A section of the first is meant to sound “from afar”—the strings are instructed to play with practice mutes and the clarinetist to play offstage (but return for still another cadenza). Del Tredici describes Episode III as “wild and dramatic (like dashes of paprika?).” This mammoth movement (as long as many symphonies) concludes with a coda in which the theme appears in G major and seems to be settling into a calm finish—but the composer eventually stirs things up again and ends with a “proper Hungarian frenzy.”

Frank K. DeWald


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