Four Beauties

We’re down to our last five posts. Today and tomorrow will be some classical favorites; then a couple of surprises just for Indigo; and two exquisite days of Broadway (Sondheim and Bernstein).

The four beauties I’ve chosen for today are related only in their extraordinary lyricism. I’ve arranged them chronologically.

French composer Gabriel Fauré’s “Pavane in F-sharp minor” was written in 1887 for orchestra (chorus optional). Obtaining its rhythm from the slow processional Spanish court dance of the same name, the Pavane ebbs and flows from a series of harmonic and melodic climaxes, conjuring a cool, somewhat haunting, Belle Époque elegance. The piece is scored for only modest orchestral forces consisting of strings and one pair each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns, but it is found in many different arrangements (for piano, for guitar, for woodwinds, etc.)

When Fauré began work on the Pavane, he envisioned a purely orchestral work to be played at a series of light summer concerts. After Fauré opted to dedicate the work to his patron, Countess Élisabeth Greffulhe, he felt compelled to stage a grander affair and added an invisible chorus to accompany the orchestra (with additional allowance for dancers).

A “straight” version from the Berlin Philharmonic:

A fun and interesting take on it from Jethro Tull:

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” was published in 1912 and was the last of his Fourteen Songs. Written for voice (soprano or tenor) with piano accompaniment, it contains no words, and is usually sung entirely to the vowel “ah.”

The popularity of “Vocalise” is so great that it has been arranged for many different instrument combinations: orchestra; solo soprano with orchestral accompaniment; choir and orchestra; solo piano; two pianos; solo violin and piano; solo cello and piano; solo double-bass and piano; solo flute and orchestra; saxophone; trumpet; trombone and piano; electronic instruments; theremin; clarinet, violin, and piano; and solo accordion.

Here is famed lyric soprano Renée Fleming performing “Vocalise” (such a shame that the video is just a series of slides instead of a filmed performance):

Another “ah” song. The Bachianas Brasileiras are nine suites by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, written for various combinations of instruments and voices between 1930 and 1945. Each represents a fusion between Brazilian folk and popular music and the style of Johann Sebastian Bach. Most of the movements in each suite have two titles: one “Bachian” (Prelúdio, Fuga, etc.), the other Brazilian (Embolada, O Canto da Nossa Terra, etc.). His most famous of these is No. 5 for soprano and 8 cellos (1938/45), the Aria / Cantilena (or “little song”).

Here are Amel Brahim-Djelloul (soprano), Gautier Capuçon (cello), and the Orchestre du Violon sur le Sable conducted by Jerome Pillement:

Finally, American composer Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” his most popular piece, began as part of his String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11, composed in 1936. In January 1938, Barber sent the piece to Arturo Toscanini. The conductor returned the score without comment, and Barber was annoyed and avoided the conductor. Later Toscanini sent word through a friend that he was planning to perform the piece and had returned it simply because he had already memorized it. Toscanini premiered the work later that year in New York. Barber also did a vocal setting of the piece, which he called “Agnus Dei.”

In 2004, Barber’s masterpiece was voted the “saddest classical” work ever written by listeners of the BBC’s Today programme, ahead of “Dido’s Lament” from Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell and the “Adagietto” from Gustav Mahler’s 5th symphony. It is frequently played on television during times of national tragedy; it has, for example, become associated with the 9/11 attacks and the aftermath of Katrina. It can also be heard in films such as Platoon, The Elephant Man, El Norte, Amélie, Lorenzo’s Oil, and Reconstruction. Because of this it is used in several episodes of The Simpsons in scenes lampooning sadness and destruction (“Strong Arms of the Ma” and “Marge Gamer”).

I like it anyway.

I didn’t care for any of the videos, so here is the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, performing the “Agnus Dei” setting to film clips and animations of various nebulas and comets and such:


~ by Craig R. Smith on 26 September 2007.

3 Responses to “Four Beauties”

  1. A couple of surprises for me? I can’t wait. (I think.)

    I’m always amazed by hearing these pieces I actually know but could never have come up with the title…

  2. Well, I hope you’ll be surprised.

    As for titles, I actually chose today’s pieces because I kept confusing one for the other, and had trouble sorting out which I liked. I discovered I liked them all for different reasons. So this was an exercise to help my ADD-addled brain more than anything else.

  3. I went right for the Tull. ANd then Barber. After Barber, a walk.

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