by Robert Simon
First off, the Engelbert Humperdinck (1854–1921) on today’s program should not be confused with Engelbert Humperdinck (b.1936), an English pop singer who became very popular during the 1960s, 1970s and beyond, following his legal name change from the original Arnold George Dorsey. (His manager had convinced him that the quaint sounding German name would be a much more effective attention grabber—and he was right.)
Getting back to the original Humperdinck, he was one of those opera composers whose reputations arose from a single, really big hit which their other work, although often very admirable, could somehow never equal. Others in this “club” include Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticana), Leoncavallo (Pagliacci), Boito (Mefistofele), Ponchielli (La Gioconda), Giordano (Andrea Chenier), etc. With Humperdinck the masterpiece was his Hansel and Gretel.
That opera grew from the simplest of beginnings. Early in 1891, Humperdinck’s married sister was arranging a children’s play for the family circle based on the Grimm brothers’ well-known fairy tale. She asked him to write a little music set to the lines beginning, “Hansel come and dance with me.” It didn’t take long for two to realize that their collaboration could yield something far more important and exciting. The libretto and piano score were completed in just a couple of months, and the entire score during the following year. The opera premiered in Weimar in December 1893 with none other than Richard Strauss conducting. It quickly captivated music lovers everywhere and has never lost its popularity with both young and old. It was the composer’s first opera out of a total of seven.
Humperdinck was a devoted disciple of Wagner, materially assisting the master in the production of his final opera Parsifal. It is therefore not surprising that Wagnerian techniques are broadly utilized in Hansel and Gretel. The opera succeeds, however, because it projects an enchantment that transcends Wagner’s influence. It is suffused with a paradoxical commingling of childlike simplicity and masterful, complex craftsmanship. The sister’s excellent libretto also contributes to the opera’s continuing popularity.
The fine Prelude, based on material from the opera, faithfully sets the mood. Starting out with the Children’s Prayer, one can hear portions of the lovely songs of the Sandman and the Dew Fairy along with sections related to the Witch’s spell and the chorus of the liberated gingerbread children. In a section reminiscent of Wagner’s overture to Die Meistersinger, the various themes are brilliantly combined, leading up to a dramatic climax, following which the Children’s Prayer reappears, ending the Overture on a whispered high chord.
Opera-goers today may find it hard to believe that Carmen by Georges Bizet (1837–75) created quite a scandal at its 1875 premiere in Paris. The Théatre de l’Opéra-Comique, where the premiere took place, was a venue that generally provided its bourgeois patrons with light, sentimental fare that followed time-tested comic opera conventions. With Carmen, however, the audience was faced with a work replete with unsavory characters, and a lurid plot dominated by sexual passion and jealousy. To put it mildly, they were horrified. Reviewers deemed the work too “obscene” for the stage and even disparaged Bizet’s music as unoriginal and undramatic. Fortunately, the initial hysteria gradually subsided, and with subsequent productions Carmen went on to become one of the crown jewels in the world of opera and certainly its most popular. Early on, Tchaikovsky enthusiastically predicted the work’s eventual success, even Wagner admired it, and Brahms, always very fussy in doling out praise, claimed to have seen it no fewer than twenty-one times.
Tragically, Bizet died at age thirty-six, only three months after the premiere, too soon to have been able to enjoy Carmen’s phenomenal success. Later on, to benefit Bizet’s widow and family, his close friend Ernest Guiraud arranged two orchestral suites based on selected highlights from the opera. We play today the second of these which consists of six selections:
- Marche des Contrebandiers (“Smuggler’s March”). It opens Act III in a “wild place in the mountains” where the smugger band that Carmen and a now love-blinded Don Jose have joined sing about the joys, trials and tribulations of their calling.
- Habanera. A high point of the first act where Carmen seductively sings to the crowd about her philosophy on life, love, fidelity, etc. Don Jose tries hard to ignore her but doesn’t really succeed.
- Nocturne. This lovely section is based on the dramatic aria in Act III: Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante (“Nothing, I vow, will terrify me.”) sung be Micaela, the village sweetheart of Don Jose. Despite everything, she convinces Don Jose, conflicted and guilt-ridden, to leave Carmen and go home with her to see his dying mother. In this Suite Micaela’s aria is arranged as a violin solo.
- Chanson du Toreador (Toreador’s Song). This number from Act II is arguably the most popular song for baritone in the operatic literature. Here, Escamillo, a suave, rock-star type of that time and place, wows his adoring audience of smugglers and soldiers with this song about the pleasures and thrills of the bullfighter’s profession.
- La Garde Montante (“The Urchins’ Chorus”) in Act I is a charming, lively chorus of young boys aping the soldiers taking part in the changing of the military guard.
- Danse Bohème (“Gypsy Dance”) opens Act II in Lilas Pastia’s disreputable tavern. For the patrons, Carmen and her two girlfriends sing and dance to a seductive gypsy song with a captivating rhythm. Starting rather sedately, their song and dance gradually speed up and get wilder and wilder. The music has since been adapted to many dance scores, and where the choreography is good it will bring down the house.
Delvyn Case (b. 1974) hails from Quincy, MA. He majored in music at Yale, graduating in 1997 with a B.A. summa cum laude and was awarded a Ph.D. in Musical Composition at the University of Pennsylvania in 2001. Earlier this year he joined the music faculty at Wheaton College as Assistant Professor. He also boasts a very busy career as a composer, conductor, choral director and scholar. Rocket Sleigh, on today’s program, was written in 2008 and premiered soon after by the Quincy (MA) Symphony Orchestra. This four-minute work has been well received. Over seventeen performances have been played or are scheduled at Christmas Concerts around the country in 2009 and 2010. Reviewers have praised its “fast,” “exciting” and “irresistibly catchy” qualities.
Our remarkably talented guest artist Peter Blanchette was kind enough to provide the following note on A Fantasy on Iberian Carols which he recently completed and will be premiering today.
I proposed a track consisting of three beloved carols from Spain (Castilian and Catalonian) and Portugal. The opening is the Cant dels Ocells (The Song of the Birds), of Catalan origin which dates from about 1600. Its 14 verses colorfully detail 32 different birds visiting the Christ child in his manger in Bethlehem. This tender melody was made known to listeners the world over by the great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals. After the orchestra and Archguitar alternate iterations of the Cant dels Ocells in several incomplete phrases, another Catalan carol is introduced over a rhythmic, repeating solo flamenco guitar figure. This carol is Fum, Fum, Fum! (Boom, Boom, Boom!). Its title is most likely a vocalization of either a drum or a guitar sound. A wonderful aspect of this carol is its driving duple time. However, each verse leads surprisingly to a penultimate measure of ¾ time. It may be a Christmas song best enjoyed after sufficient wine and festivity make the raucous “Fum, Fum, Fum!” a chance to joyously overdo it a bit. I combine the Cant dels Ocells with Fum, Fum, Fum! in the middle of the piece, giving the violins a chance to show the compatibility of these two quite different melodies. Finally, a true Castilian carol closes out the piece: En Belén tocan a Fuego (A Fire has Started in Bethlehem). The last carol is often sung in Portugal as well. I treated the verse of the carol as a little fugato section, such as one hears in a symphonic movement or a concerto, just before the finale. The playful chorus closes the piece, though absent of drama. (I’d like to think of the Fantasy as a first movement in a multiple-movement piece. The final chorus lyrics translate to:
Flashing and splashing the fishes in the river
Splashing and bowing to God, from Heaven coming;
Flashing and splashing, the fishes in the water
Splashing and praising the Light from Heaven dawning.
As a guitarist, making the previous recording upon which the Fantasy on Iberian Carols is based, I labored to simulate an orchestra, using the different timbres of the guitar. Now, as an arranger/composer, the challenge was to distribute those colors with the instruments of a traditional string orchestra, B-flat clarinet and English horn. I chose this modest orchestration, eschewing high woodwinds, brass and percussion, because the voice of the guitar is so intimate and soft, a piece that would sensibly employ such forces together with guitar is artistically beyond me.
Many thanks to David Kidwell and the Holyoke Civic Symphony.
John Finnegan’s Christmas Singalong, an attractive medley of season favorites, has been a frequent feature of our Pops concerts for many years. Writing much about it, however, has always presented a problem to this program note scribbler. In brief, he has searched musical Who’s Whos and Who’s Not Whos, made countless inquiries, roamed through the hills, dales and quagmires of the Internet, and done just about everything except hire a private eye in efforts to unearth some solid information about Mr. Finnegan. But despite it all, he has remained stubbornly elusive. So all that I can report about him is contained in the first sentence of this paragraph. Perhaps, with luck, our slippery Mr. Finnegan will turn out to be a beloved great-granduncle (mother’s side, of course) of someone in the audience. If so, please get in touch with me!
Most “Pops” concerts are sure to include at least something by Cambridge-born Leroy Anderson (1908-75). He studied at Harvard, conducted its band from 1931 to 1935, and then worked in Boston and New York as an arranger/orchestrator. His considerable talents also included composing, and the hummable melodies, infectious rhythms and striking orchestral effects have always attracted a broad, devoted crowd. Today the Orchestra plays one of his particular favorites, Sleigh Ride, which dates from 1948.