About this Recording
8.573529 - ZÁDOR, E.: Biblical Triptych / A Christmas Overture / Rhapsody for Large Orchestra / Fugue Fantasia (Budapest Symphony MÁV, Smolij)

Eugene Zádor (1894–1977)
A Christmas Overture • Biblical Triptych • Rhapsody for Large Orchestra • Fugue Fantasia


Eugene Zádor was a Hungarian-born twentieth-century composer who found success on both sides of the Atlantic during his long and productive career. This fourth volume in the ongoing Naxos series devoted to his music includes works from both the European and American stages of his career. Each exhibits the same assured treatment of the orchestra, confident mastery of form, and unstoppable flow of melodic and contrapuntal invention that characterize all his works.

The Glendale (California) Symphony Orchestra gave the premiere of Zádor’s Christmas Overture, a work that captures both the festivity and the solemnity of the season, in December 1961. The composer provided the following programme note: “The spirit of Bethlehem has been an inexhaustible source of inspiration throughout the centuries. Works of art in all the fields of creative endeavour, including innumerable songs and chorales, have been created to glorify the Yuletide. Christmas Overture contains no traditional Christmas songs, but is based entirely on the themes of the composer. These themes range in expression from joyful gaiety and a carefree scherzo (Sleigh Ride) to solemnity and pure simplicity (Nativity). The overture is climaxed by an almost liturgical atmosphere, exulting in the all-embracing Faith. It is a composition of melodic simplicity, contemporary only in its construction and orchestration.”

The opening section, The Joy of Christmas, develops a cheerful, buoyant idea introduced immediately by strings. It returns as a contrasting theme in the following section, Sleigh Ride, which is driven by a moto perpetuo in violas and clarinets and given a winter sparkle by prominent glockenspiel figures. Solo oboe introduces Nativity, leading to a tender string idea which quickly builds to a radiant passage rife with divisi and doubled by harp. (Interestingly, Zádor had recently orchestrated two Nativity scenes for his Hollywood colleague Miklós Rózsa—for Ben-Hur and King of Kings—but his take on the Coming of Christ resembles neither of those.) Oboe and clarinet announce a broad theme, treated canonically, at the outset of the final section, Adoration. Zádor builds on this material to a magnificent, triple forte climax but the work ends with a quiet statement of the theme on organ (or, as in the case of this performance, woodwinds).

The Overture was well received at its premiere. Local critic Richard Saunders found much to admire in the work’s four sections: “There is a special elan in the first, a crackling joyousness in the second, a touching benevolence in the third and a noble affirmation in the last that together comprise a work of indubitable greatness.”

Joseph and his Brothers is the collective title of a tetralogy of novels written by the German author Thomas Mann (1875–1955), retelling the familiar story of Jacob and his sons contained in the Book of Genesis. Shortly after the final part was published in 1943, Eugene Zádor was inspired by a reading of the work (in the original German, which he spoke fluently) to compose a brief tone poem based on the pivotal biblical figure. But after completing it, he found he had enough ideas to expand the work and added two additional movements—portraits of David and the apostle Paul. The resulting Biblical Triptych is one of the composer’s most ambitious and colourful orchestral works.

Again, the composer provided a succinct programme note: “The music does not follow the events in detail; it rather endeavours to depict them in large contours and symbolic moods. The beginning of the first movement (Andantino) portrays Joseph as the symbol of Innocence. It develops with a brisk section which brings to mind the crisis of Joseph’s life, his imprisonment and so forth, and terminates with the dream scene of its fulfilment.

“David’s symbol is the harp. Therefore, it dominates the beginning of the second movement to give way later to pastoral melodies of the oboe—the oboe characterizing David as a simple shepherd’s boy. The next part of the movement is a musical phrasing of David’s fight with Goliath and the victory of David over the giant. The people are ecstatic with joy and hail David their king.

“The ‘Paul’ movement (Moderato) is divided into two parts. In the first, Paul is characterized as the hard, austere persecutor of Christ. The second part gives us Paul’s spiritual transformation and the triumph of Christ’s teachings.”

Zádor asked Mann to provide a note for the Chicago Symphony premiere on 10th December, 1943, but the writer sent an apology mid-month for missing the deadline. “I would like very much to hear about the performance,” he wrote. “The dedication of the Joseph composition is a pleasure for which I am very grateful to you.” After it was performed by the San Francisco Symphony the following January, Mann wrote to the composer: “You have succeeded admirably in doing with musical tones that which I attempted to do with words, namely to unite primitive, Oriental sound with modern sensibility and understanding. It is a real satisfaction to me to know that my story has inspired a master in the art which has ever been very dear to me, to create a work of such beauty and so full of the promise of permanency.” The two creative artists became friends, and in 1948 Mann became godfather to Zádor’s son, Leslie.

The first panel of the triptych, Joseph, opens with an expressive pastoral melody introduced on woodwinds and taken up by muted strings. Three episodes follow, each preceded by a recitative-like passage on clarinet. The first of these is a lively dance; the second is a more sedate (yet ultimately quite passionate) Allegretto. The final episode begins with solo flute and gradually morphs into a return of the opening melody in a climactic passage for full orchestra. The movement concludes quietly with bass clarinet making a final statement of the theme.

At the outset of the central panel, two muted horns and harp reflect David’s humble beginnings as a simple shepherd boy. The harmony is modal and the melody almost chant-like. But the peaceful opening is soon disturbed by the start of an aggressive build-up featuring a rhythmic, insistent motive. The texture gradually thickens before climaxing in a thunderous passage of orchestral octaves. Strings begin another build over a pedal bass, initially sounding like a lament but gradually growing into a paean of joy.

Paul begins with the most intensely chromatic writing in the work. Zádor subjects his sharp, angular string lines to a great deal of contrapuntal development. This section culminates in an anguished passage that resolves, with all the suddenness of the miracle on the road to Tarsus, on an ethereal D flat major chord. The remainder of the work is yet another build-up featuring a solemn, hymn-like tune—treated canonically—which leads to an ecstatic, rapturous final cadence.

The Rhapsody for Large Orchestra is a relatively early work, composed in 1930 when Zádor was living and teaching in Vienna. It consists of a series of free variations on a simple folk-like tune initially stated by flute and clarinet. The pentatonic melody has a definite Hungarian flavour and is subjected to a number of free-wheeling developments, several of which suggest the improvisatory playing of folk musicians. Throughout, Zádor revels in the colour possibilities of his large ensemble (including triple woodwinds, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, piano and harp). Virtually every principal woodwind player gets one or more solo passages. Brass colours include muted horns, flutter-tongued trumpet and trombone glissandi. Strings are often richly divided, with multiple glissandi (including a section of written-out chromatic scales that suggest Zádor’s countryman and friend Bartók). In two places the tune is given to an alto saxophone soloist, meant to emulate the sound of a tárogató, a conical-bore single-reed instrument sometimes called (along with the cimbalom) the national instrument of Hungary.

Zádor composed his Fugue Fantasia in the late 1950s. Shortly after its 1959 premiere in Australia, Izler Solomon presented the American premiere on 28th July with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. It was also performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra the following October. For those early performances, the composer provided a brief programme note: “It is a short work suitable to opening a concert. The introduction leads to a regular fugue on a chromatic theme. Later it becomes a fantasia, when greater liberties are taken, detouring into other themes and developing them independently. Contrapuntal episodes contrast with free melodic lines. The word ‘fantasia’ applies to the orchestration as well as the character, inasmuch as unusual sounds are utilised, such as the transition from the middle part to the first theme, played by the brass and using the timpani in a forceful solo.”

Because of the free nature of the writing, the work could equally well be entitled “Variations on a Fugue”. The solemn opening features searing, chromatic string lines—later reinforced by shrill upper woodwinds—and functions as a prelude to the fugal subject, introduced by solo flute (initially in a remarkably low register). Violas, low strings and, ultimately, violins pick up the theme. The variations which follow include: a passage for tremolo strings; the theme announced by trombones and low strings in augmentation; a new fugal idea for strings which is nothing more than a variation on the original subject; a new counter-melody added by violins against the theme in bassoons and cellos; a solemn chorale variant in trombones and tuba. The final section starts with scurrying strings and the theme in horns (echoed by woodwinds); it builds to a powerful D major coda which ends the work on a note of majestic triumph.

Frank K. DeWald

Close the window