I was just in Chicago giving another talk at Symphony Center on Monday and, as usual, I came totally over-prepared and unable to cover even a fraction of what I wanted to talk about. The subject was Appalachian Spring and Symphonie Fantastique — kind of a disparate program, but from a lecturer’s point of view, it’s a dream come true: both pieces have so much interesting background and, more importantly, so much that you can hear in the music. Plus, there’s just so much documentation and critical appraisal from which to draw.
Here are some snarky little addenda to my talk, and interesting things I found while researching:
1) The Berlioz is written for 2 Ophicleides. OK, nothing groundbreaking about that point, but rarely does one get to hear the instrument in action:
That’s Douglas Yeo of the BSO. (The audio, not the picture)
Here’s what Berlioz had to say about the Ophicleide:
There is nothing more coarse, I might almost say more monstrous or less fit to harmonise with the rest of the orchestra … It is as if a bull escaped from its stall had come to play off its vagaries in the middle of a drawing room.
That’s from the Treatise on Orchestration and Instrumentation (p. 175).
Seems kinda harsh, no?
Here’s a lovely little poem I found about the Ophecleide. I think it’s just charming:
The Ophicleide, like mortal sin
Was fostered by the serpent.
It’s pitch was vague, it’s tone was dim,
It’s timbre, rude and burpant.
Composers, in a secret vote,
Declared its sound non grata.
And that’s why Wagner never wrote
An Ophicleide sonata.
Thus spurned, it soon became defunct.
To gross neglect succumbing.
Some were pawned, but most were junked,
Or used for indoor plumbing.
And so this ill wind, badly blown,
Has now completely vanished.
I nominate the Heckelphone
To be the one next banished.
Farewell, offensive Ophicleide,
Your epitaph is chiseled.
“I died of Ophicleidicide.
I tried, alas, but fizzled!”
LOL! If there’s anything funnier than ophicleide humor, I haven’t found it.
2) I think the Symphonie Fantastique contains the single worst bar in the entire standard orchestral litterature. To wit:
First, there’s the call from the flute, then the response from the horn in the distance, then – Hey there Hector, not quite. I don’t think we can let that transition slide… just where did he come up with those pitches? No, that won’t do at all.
3) OK, this I did talk about, but I just can’t resist including it, because Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording with SanFran is just so damn good. Have you ever heard rhythmic dissonance quite like the end of this clip?
I’ve found that since I have to edit my remarks at these talks on the fly, it’s a real good idea to keep a closing line hidden up your sleeve, a real zinger to cap things off and leave the crowd smiling and eager to listen. Just my luck, my boy LB had the perfect such material:
Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.