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 5 of 7 and presents two orchestral works, For the Fallen andSilent Noon. Although I originally intended each work in this series to be presented in chronological order, I added Silent Noon here as the result of just recently obtaining a recording of it.
For the Fallen (1943)
The year 1943 saw a continuation of Herrmann's career both as a conductor and programmer for CBS and as a concert composer of increasing stature. It was also a critical year for the war. The political stalemate of the first half of 1943 inspired a new wave of American propaganda, both in Hollywood's patriotic musicals and battle epics, and more subtly, as in the League of Composers commissions for works by American composers based on the theme of war. Herrmann was among those asked to contribute a short work for orchestra, to be performed that fall by the New York Philharmonic. The result, For the Fallen, was his most moving and evocative concert work.
Described by Herrmann as a "berceuse for those who lie asleep on the many alien battlefields of this war”, its gentle 6/8 sway echoes Delius's On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, while its mood and title recall Debussy's Berceuse heroi'que, which is subtitled "In Memory of the Fallen." Yet the poignancy of the work is Herrmann's own: the eerie, tenuous beauty of its opening for strings soli; its haunting theme for solo oboe, which hovers above the accompaniment like a phoenix freed briefly from the earth. In its coda, the bleakness of the work is moderated slightly by a delicate woodwind quotation from Handel's "He shall feed his flock" from Messiah-a quiet, uncertain benediction.
The work's premiere on December 16 caused a battle in itself when scheduled conductor Barlow took ill and canceled the night before. Ready in the wings were Herrmann and twenty-five-year-old Leonard Bernstein, who weeks earlier had replaced the ailing Bruno Walter in an impromptu debut that included Miklos Rozsa's Scherzo, Theme, Variations, and Finale. The concert spoils were split unevenly between the two conductors: Bernstein was given the Beethoven Violin Concerto (with soloist Albert Spalding), Delius's Paris, and Brahms's Haydn Variations-and Herrmann was allotted For the Fallen and "The Star Spangled Banner."
William Stromberg just recently conducted the Golden State Pops Orchestra in a performance of For the Fallen on February 12, 2011. I was hoping that a recording of that performance might be available in order to post it here, but unfortunately it was not.
Silent Noon (1933/1975)
No information is available from the book for this early composition. Originally titled Aubade, a chamber work written in 1933, it was revised and renamed by Herrmann in 1975 just months before his death for a planned Reader’s Digest series of recordings of his orchestral works that was never recorded. The new title, Silent Noon, refers to a pastoral love sonnet from “The House of Life” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
As an early work by the then 22 year old Herrrmann, it bears little of the sound that would eventually come to be so identifiable as his own. It definitely bears the mark of a young composer venerating the work of a composer whose music he greatly admired, in this case English composer Sir Frederick Delius. This is an idyll that echoes the gentle simplicity of Delius’s impressionistic writing with the same flourishes of chromaticism thrown in for a slighlty intoxicating, perfume-like effect.
The one thing in this work that is recognizable as sounding like Herrmann is his use of the oboe. His gentle writing for this most delicate of wind instruments will appear time and time again in works as diverse as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Vertigo and North by Northwest to name just a few. Perhaps stylistically it was borrowed from Delius or perhaps it wasn't, regardless, Herrmann certainly made it his own by utilizing this sound extensively throughout his works.
This is a bucolic work that begins and ends with 6 soft bell chimes, totalling 12 in all, perhaps in reference to the “noon” from the title. The heart of the work comes between these two series of chimes as though time has stopped, only resuming again at the end to complete the bell's toll. It’s as if the bells signal a time of mediation or entry into a dreamscape and then again signal a return to time and the real world.
About the recordings: James Sedares conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (1994) - Koch International Classics
Previous entries in the Herrmann Centennial Concert Work Series: