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Number 55

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)


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Comments (20):Log in or register to post your own comments
I know I've said before that I'm not a Herrmann lover, and that's true. As stand-alone listening, I only like a few of his works; however, his music, when attached to his movies, is usually effective.

I did not know about this concert piece. (And yes, long ago, I read the WHOLE novel.) I've never heard of his Moby Dick concert work, so I listened to the pieces posted. As Mark said, it is largely unmelodious and unstructured and that is not my favorite type of music. After listening, I admired how he captured the essence of characters and the psychological drama, but I don't think I want to hear the whole thing. Not my kind of music. Also, I wanted to see if I could hear some of his film music style in these pieces, and I sure did. His chords and progressions sounded familiar.

Finally, I want to say thanks, Mark, for your amazing effort in piecing all of this together. Even if they don't comment, I'm sure people are going through this essay. I learned a lot from reading this blog (and listening), and I'm smarter for doing it. Also, I certainly admire your energy, dedication, and efforts to educate us.

Thanks Joan for your encouragement and support. Hey, at least you gave it a listen! Herrmann is definitely not a melodist and his shorter fragment and motif based composition style isn't for everyone, but he does get beneath the psychology of a film better than almost anyone with that style and his well devised orchestrations. Like you said, it's not everyone's standalone listening preference.

Perhaps you might enjoy his songs better which although they don't contain much in the way of memorable tunes, do have longer melodic lines and more standard structures. The Fantasticks song cycle is coming up shortly so check those songs out and see if you like any of them. Also, For the Fallen is a beautiful orchestral work and his string quartets show his softer, more melodic side.

Joan I really commend you for your open mindedness in trying things out. You never know when you'll discover something new that you never expected you would like and even if you don't, there's usually always some educational value that comes from it!

Of course I'll check out those songs. I'd like to hear them. His music certainly enriches scary, dramatic, or any emotional scene. And I have heard his melodic side in some movies like The Ghost And Mrs. Muir. He's thematic in Vertigo or Obsession. (And I can really hum the shower scene from Psycho.:))

The thing I love about Herrmann is how his music plays as an indy listen. I know the movie or show it's from, so there is that connection-but it's great music on it'ts own. I'm talking about my personal reaction to his work as is, not as pop music. There is no music for movies written now that gets that response from me.

As much as I've tried to appreciate Herrmann's concert music (I've heard most of the recordings which have been made) I'm afraid it's not for me. I had the Unicorn LP of MOBY DICK but one listen was enough. He was wise to stick with film music!

intense, dramatique, only male voices in this great concert work(the whale don't sing), like it very much.

Without a doubt this was Herrmann's finest concert work. The Symphony suffers from some dull passages, and Wuthering Heights, too. Not a dull moment here.

Thank God this was one of the few of my Unicorn Kanchana CDs that hasn't bronzed away to eternity.

Of course I'll check out those songs. I'd like to hear them. His music certainly enriches scary, dramatic, or any emotional scene. And I have heard his melodic side in some movies like The Ghost And Mrs. Muir. He's thematic in Vertigo or Obsession. (And I can really hum the shower scene from Psycho.:))

The songs in The Fantasticks start out fairly bleak since they reflect the cold, dreary months of Winter, but as they progress into Spring they become much more colorful and lively. Still, like much of his film music, it is the orchestrations, textures and harmonies that Herrmann uses rather than recognizable melody to convey much of the meaning and emotional underpinnings in his songs.

Well, I'm happy to report to all residents and visitors to Northern Califormia that the American Philharmonic of Sonoma County will be playing Moby Dick LIVE in April, conducted by Herrmann authority John Kendall Bailey. And its FREE! Two days only, come up to the wine country and raise a glass to Herrmann's Centenary

I am so thrilled to read Mark's blog entry on Moby Dick - bravo, Mark! It is exciting to find another person who just loves this piece as much as I do. What an excellent review of the work!

Many thanks to Joe, too, for mentioning the performances of Moby Dick that I will be conducting April 9 and 10 with the American Philharmonic-Sonoma County! I have loved Herrmann's music since I was probably 10 or 11 years old, and have long intended to conduct as much of his music as possible during his centenary year. I was elated when APSC agreed to go forward with my idea of programming Moby Dick, and the performance will be spectacular - with incredible soloists Jason Detwiler as Ahab and Brian Thorsett as Ishmael, and a chorus of over 50 men, I hope we will do justice to this powerful work. I suspect it may work even better in the concert hall than on a recording, as the drama is so much closer in person. That said, it is a controversial piece - I can think of no other piece by Herrmann that seems to divide listeners (except perhaps Wuthering Heights). Incredibly, this will be the west coast premiere and first performances of Moby Dick in the USA since its 1940 premiere by the New York Philharmonic under Sir John Barbirolli. And, just to make sure people DO show up to hear the performance, the first half contains Bernstein's Candide Overture, Barber's Adagio for Strings, and Copland's Appalachian Spring (all composers from Herrmann's world).

It is wonderful to see discussions of The Fantasticks and For the Fallen as well - they were the first of Herrmann's concert works that I heard when I was very young and found a copy of the LP A Musical Garland of the Seasons at a local library. I will try to program these this year if I have the opportunity! I'll be conducting Herrmann's Vertigo Suite with the Oakland East Bay Symphony one week after Moby Dick, so that will be a fun couple of weeks of Herrmann. I'm trying to put together a performance of his Twilight Zone score Little Girl Lost in June, and hopefully more works in the fall. It is fabulous that Minnesota Opera is producing Wuthering Heights, also in April, though I don't think I'll be able to get out there to see it.

It's heartwarming to see such interest and appreciation of Herrmann's work - truly a brilliant and unique figure in 20th century music!

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