By Elizabeth de Brito
This month on Elizabeth Recommends I am focusing on Tone Poems, introducing seven of the most essential symphonic poems from the past two centuries and around the world. Each one depicts an extraordinary story, some inspired by specific poetry, some taking inspiration from folklore and others creating their own narrative. These represent some of the most beautiful program music in existence and I hope we can encourage you to listen –and program — more of these amazing works.
Irlande – Augusta Holmès (1847-1903)
Irlande represents Holmès’ magnificent patriotic tribute to her Irish parentage and demonstrates her nationalist politics, written in 1882 at the time of the Irish struggle for independence. A glorious clarinet cadenza opens the work, displaying subtle folk hints before moving into a powerful martial theme. Holmès closes the work with traditional Irish song “Let Erin Remember,” rendered as a triumphal march. In 1994, Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic recorded Irlande, and it was re-released in 2004 and 2015. Frustratingly, I can find no recent performances of the work, but the complete score and parts are available on IMSLP (see below) so what are you waiting for?
Bränningar (Breaking Waves) – Helena Munktell
In Bränningar (Breaking Waves) Swedish composer Helena Munktell (1852-1919) created one of the first Swedish musical invocations of the sea. Inspired by a French Riviera trip earlier that decade, the work had its premiere in Monte Carlo in 1895. The piece divides into two sections: first, a romantic and lyrical section depicting a calm sea, before the frenetic and passionate second section, depicting the breaking waves. Among the most recent performances is that of the UK’s Royal Northern Sinfonia, in June earlier this year.
Lamia – Dorothy Howell (1898 – 1982)
Henry Wood premiered Lamia at the Proms in 1919, and the work proved so successful he performed it later that same week and again five times during the twenties. It is a sumptuously orchestrated work, full of the English pastoralism of the early twentieth century and with terrific brass parts. Dorothy Howell based Lamia on the Keats poem: the music narrates the tragic story of the snake transformed into a woman. She falls in love with Lycius, only to be recognized and turn back into a snake, losing her love forever. Unusually for a woman at the time Howell received rave press reviews, and the Novello company published Lamia soon after. Since the centenary in 2019 Lamia has had a handful of performances in Howell’s home country, most recently with the Hallé Orchestra in November last year.
Gada Meilin – Xin Huguang (辛滬光)(1933-2011)
Written in 1953, the extraordinary Gada Meilin remains a classic of Chinese orchestral repertoire. Based on the legend of Gada Meirin, the Mongol folk hero who led an uprising against the Chinese. Gada Meilin begins with a warm Mongol folk melody, initially on the oboe before the whole orchestra joins in a wonderful rhapsody evoking the Mongolian plains. The piece is in sonata form, and the development takes us into the battlefield itself, the orchestra mimicking the gallop of the horses before the recapitulation encapsulates the herders’ sadness over their fallen hero. The final strains echo with hope and victory intermingled with grief. Recordings from both the East and West exist but the only score we can find so far is housed at Stanford University Library. We’d love this great work to be performed more so please contact us if you can help.
A Girl Named Limonad – Tsippi Fleischer (b. 1946)
Fleischer’s first major orchestral work, A Girl Named Limonad, drew inspiration from Lebanese poet Shawqi Abi-Shaqra. Divided into four sections, each containing Eastern folk elements, the poem narrates the story of the girl (the Score in the link below also includes the poem in English and Hebrew translation). The first section, “Pastorale” depicts her simple country life, she falls in love in the second section, “Serenade,” before war breaks out and the girl dies in “Misterioso.” The piece finally draws to a close with a “Funeral March” in memory of Limonad. Written in 1977 and premiered by the Haifa Symphony Orchestra in 1979, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra recorded the work in 1991. We’d love to hear it again in full so please get in touch if you’re planning on programming this great piece!
Apu – Gabriela Lena Frank
Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972) is known for infusing Peruvian folklore into her music, and her tone poem perfectly captures the folk tales of the Andes. The Apu is a mischievous spirit known to inhabit the mountain range; song and poetry can successfully pacify the creature and we hear both in the piece. First the flute sounds, emulating the pinkillo flute from the Andes, the traveller then recites their Haillí (prayer in the Incan language Quechua). Finally, the Apu appears in a blazing show before vanishing into the mountain once more. Written in 2017 for the National Youth Orchestra of the United States who premiered the work with the great Marin Alsop conducting, Apu is available for hire by publisher G. Schirmer.
Mighty River – Errollyn Wallen
British composer Errollyn Wallen (b. 1958) wrote her modern classic Mighty River in 2017, to commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in the UK. A brass opening with the hymn “Amazing Grace” leads into the main theme. The rhythm running through the entire piece encapsulates the feeling and motion of a river rushing to the sea to be free. This rhythm and drive also allegorically evokes the feeling of a people, constantly pushing and striving for freedom, a powerful message in musical form for hope and unity.