Scoreside Chat number 54 began a series of blogs celebrating the centennial of Bernard Herrmann’s birth that will continue for the next few months. This series focuses on Herrmann’s concert works rather than his film or radio music. The approach for each part will be 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 along with more excerpts from Smith’s book. From time to time I will also add my own personal comments whenever I feel they may add something.This entry in the series is part 4 of 7 and presents Herrmann’s song cycle, The Fantasticks.
The Fantasticks (1942), the five-movement setting of Breton's seasonal cycle of 1626, marked an important turning point in Herrmann's work, away from the American idiomatic settings of Moby Dick and Johnny Appleseed and toward the English source material (in music and subject) that would typify the next decade of his writing, both in film (Jane Eyre, Hangover Square, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) and in concert work (the opera Wuthering Heights). This was less a change in taste than a shift in the composer's own stylistic expression. While the patriotic radio scripts of Corwin would inspire much of Herrmann's best American music, the composer's heart was increasingly drawn to England.
Written for four vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, The Fantasticks illustrates Herrmann's affinity for English romanticism in its rich orchestral settings and vocal writing. Each of its five movements,charting the transition from bleak January to the warm invitation of May, seems to have been conceived in terms of instrumental color, as Herrmann subordinates vocal parts in favor of shifting orchestral textures.
The first movement, "It is now January," contrasts the brooding recitative of baritone soloist against icy dissonance in strings and muted brass, suggesting in its frozen tones the helplessness of nature and man.
"February," for alto and orchestra, is scarcely more animated, although its pool-like vibraphone echoes and a remote oboe solo bring promise of "a better time not far off."
At last comes "March," with its vigorous 6/8 rhythms and leaping tenor line; monochromaticism finally gives way to a burst of technicolor, from its prismatic glockenspiel chimes to a coy dialogue between violin and flute, which circle each other like dancing, elusive lovers.
The subdued lyricism of "April," for soprano, solo violin, harp, strings, and woodwinds, shifts the tone to one of bittersweet introspection, a sense that both nature and life are fleeting at best, giving "April" 's final "Farewell" special poignance.
Herrmann's last setting, "It is now May," begins in a spirit of gentle celebration, its swaying choral harmonies and string accompaniment evoking a reveler's paradise of sunlit meadows and gardens. But by its middle section an aura of melancholy overcomes the ensemble, darkening the swelling choral passages into muted sighs of reflection. After a traditionally hearty finale, Herrmann, in a revealing touch, adds a brief, wistful coda for orchestra, as if a lone dancer has remained behind to savor the fading pleasures of the day.
Unpretentious and heartfelt, The Fantasticks (dedicated to young Dorothy "Taffy" Herrmann [Herrmann's oldest daughter]) is a gentle valentine to Breton's England of antiquity, revealing, in music critic Royal S. Brown's words, "a moody, sad personality always ready to be led, at least temporarily, into moments of nostalgic warmth.
The Fantasticks provides an excellent example to illustrate Herrmann's approach to music, one that is echoed in his film music as well. There are similarities that can be drawn between both that show his overall approach to composition in general.
Normally in a song the melody is conceived first and considered the primary focus of the song. Then usually an accompaniment is provided to support it, although there could have been a good idea of what the accompaniment might be as a part of the process of creating the melody. In Herrmann's case the orchestral writing (harmonies, structural construction, textures and orchestration) are the primary forces set down to carry the emotional and intellectual subtext of the song. The vocal melody rides above it delivering the words in a style that is not necessarily designed to be the total focus of the song nor does it generally provide a memorable tune. The vocal part is only one piece of the puzzle musically and the orchestra tends to carry much of the weight of the music.
Herrmann's film music is written in much the same way with most of the psychological and dramatic content not coming from melodic or tuneful identities, but rather from orchestral textures, orchestral colors, harmonies and rhythms. Overt, long line melodies are eschewed in favor of easily manipulated short motivic ideas and fragments. When all of these elements are combined they serve quite often to work below the surface by providing an almost subliminal, deeper narrative to the visuals on screen. This style of composition is one reason Herrmann was such a master at getting beneath the skin of the dramatic content of a film rather than just commenting about what was on the screen.
About the recording: (June 26, 1975) Bernard Herrmann conducting The National Philharmonic Orchestra and the Thames Chamber Choir, Michael Rippon, Meriel Dickinson, Gillian Humphreys and John Amis, vocals - Unicorn.
Previous entries in the Herrmann Centennial Concert Work Series: