Herrmann Centennial Concert Work Series: Moby Dick
Posted By: Mark Ford on February 22, 2011 - 4:00 AM
A couple of weeks ago I posted an introduction to an upcoming series of blogs celebrating the centennial of Bernard Herrmann’s birth (located HERE). This series will focus on his concert works rather than his film or radio music for reasons I explained in the Introduction. This entry in the series is part 2 of 7 and presents Herrmann’s cantata, Moby Dick.
The approach I’ll be taking for this entry, and most likely the rest, is to preface the work by presenting historical and musically relevant excerpts from A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith (indicated by italicized dark blue text). This will be followed by YouTube presentations of as much of the music as possible. From time to time I will also add my own personal comments whenever I feel they may add something. Now to Moby Dick, my own personal favorite of Herrmann's concert works...
Moby Dick (1937)
After two years of CBS staff assignments and several minor compositions, Herrmann was eager to start his first major concert work. Programmatic, literary, and uniquely American, Moby Dick was an ideal launching point, but as Herrmann realized, Melville's novel was too vast and complex to adapt without assistance. Herrmann chose as his collaborator Clark Harrington, whose writing and friendship the composer had come to prize.
Herrmann's choice of Moby Dick for musical setting was astute: Melville's novel is more a metaphysical allegory, rich in brooding and symbolic imagery, than a traditional sea yarn. Mainly static in its drama, it was ideally suited to the cantata form rather than to opera. Reducing the libretto to a concert length was one of Herrmann and Harrington's greatest challenges: "Many characters, such as Queequeg, Stubbs, Flask, Daggoo, many great scenes and wonderful soliloquies had to be omitted," Herrmann wrote in 1940. "However, we feel that the libretto still retains many of the fine highlights of the book, particularly those which depict the strange gloom of the Pequod's last voyage and the violence of Captain Ahab's inner struggle.
Colonialism, religion, and death are scrutinized in the sprawling novel, whose central force is the sea-its deathlike, romantic inescapability. Already one finds the elements that would attract Herrmann again and again: man's pull toward self-destruction, the paradoxical beauty of alien lands (here the remote, empty sea), and above all, an obsessive individualist (here Ahab, to be followed by Charles Foster Kane, Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Scotty Ferguson in Vertigo, and others).
In Moby Dick, psychological disorder becomes one with the desolate, chaotic ocean, its destructive powers evoked through short, repeated musical devices (but rarely motives) and rich orchestral textures-the aural equivalent of a turbulent Turner watercolor.
Despite its bleak colorations and vocal settings, Herrmann's Moby Dick is also persuasive as an inherently dramatic work based on religious subject matter (the novel is at least in part a New England retelling of the Jonah legend).
Part 1 - "And God created great whales."
Melville's religious subtext is acknowledged both in the work's declamatory opening for full chorus and orchestra ("And God Created Great Whales") and in the cantata's most moving sequence, the solemn church hymn in which the whalers invoke God as their protector. The song conveys without a trace of irony the faith and pride of Melville's idealistic people.
Part 2 - "At last anchor was up"
The Pequod sets sail initially to a subdued impressionistic passage that gives way to darker more forceful orchestral forces (low brass and low winds punctuated by percussive hammers) reflecting a foreboding journey into the Atlantic. Quickly the music turns violent and turbulent as Ahab addresses the crew. He tells them of the purpose of their journey which is to hunt down and kill the great white whale. He works mightily in trying to whip them into a frenzy, drawing from the madness of his all consuming obsession. He gets the response he seeks when he offers up a piece of gold to the first man to sight Moby Dick.
Part 3 - "Yonder, by the ever-brimming goblet's rim"
The heart of the cantata, as of the novel, is psychological. Ahab's character is distilled into two lengthy soliloquies. Like Herrmann's eerie recitative for Ishmael in the cantata's opening, they are unmelodic and freely structured, using impressionistic orchestral commentary to mirror Ahab's alienation and futile quest ("This lovely light, it lights not me…Damned in the midst of paradise").
Part 4 - "Hist, boys! Let's have a jig!"
Ahab's obsession finds its antithesis in the high spirits of the Pequod's sailors, who celebrate their whaling adventure in a frenzied jig, a passage based on one of Herrmann's favorite chapters in the novel, "a striking example of Melville's innate musical feeling. A mere glance at the text will show that it is broken up into short ejaculations by various members of the crew, and that these are worked up into a whirling frenzy, the result being a dazzling scherzo in words. With this in mind, I have eliminated the words entirely from this passage-except for a few snatches of a drunken sea chanty-and turned it into a bacchanalian hornpipe."
Part 5 - "It was a clear steel-blue day."
But the sailors, like Ahab, are doomed. For the climactic sea battle that takes all lives but one Herrmann employs his full ensemble of orchestra and chorus, as the driving bass rhythms of the sea boats crash against the low brass fury of the great whale. Battle cries become a maelstrom of dissonance as the "damned whale" destroys the Pequod, an impressionistic timpani roll sending the crew to their deaths (an effect Herrmann scored for radio thunder drum, an instrument never before used in concert music). A sole bass clarinet remains to survey the human wreckage (its three-note device is, again, the Sinfonietta-Psycho theme); this too vanishes, leaving only Ishmael's hushed spoken epilogue, "And I only am escaped to tell thee."
Just as Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to his mentor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herrmann chose as his honoree Charles Ives, "whose music and ideology have always served as an inspiration to me. Ives was touched but remained convinced his reputation would do more harm than good ("When they see my name on it they'll throw bricks at you," he told Herrmann).The dedication remained.
About the recording: (1967) Bernard Herrmann conducting The London Philharmonic Orchestra, The Aeolian Singers (Chorus Master: Sebastian Forbes), Ishmael: John Amis (tenor), Ahab: David Kelly (bass), Starbuck & Pip: Robert Bowman (tenor), First Sailor & Second Sailor: Michael Rippon (bass)