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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

One Hit Wonders?

We’re covering the familiar and the little-known today. Lots of composers whose music we know are known for lots of pieces; just think how many works of Mozart, Bach or Beethoven you could name. But some composers are known these days for one composition; beyond that one work most of us would be hard-pressed to name anything else written by that composer, and if we could name it, could we say he’d heard it?

Today I’m going to look at six composers who are remembered by music lovers at large for a single, famous work. My aim is to show that all six of these composers were highly-skilled and eloquent musical creators, and that they are all anything but “one hit wonders”.

Many of us would have been to a wedding at which “Purcell’s Trumpet Voluntary” had been played. The famous trumpet voluntary has for a long while now known to have been composed not by Henry Purcell but by his younger contemporary Jeremiah Clarke, who was born around 1674. Even the name is popularly mistaken; its proper name is The Prince of Denmark’s March. [listen]

Jeremiah Clarke

Jeremiah Clarke has had a rough deal from history. So much of his music was incorrectly attributed to Purcell for centuries, and his pupils only remembered him as a grouch. His career, though, was one of distinction as a church musician. A boy in the Chapel Royal, his subsequent appointments included times at Winchester College and St Paul’s Cathedral. Like Purcell, he had a parallel career as a composer for the theatre; in fact the march we just heard comes from some of his theatre music.

But Clarke’s sacred music is magnificent. He left settings of services, anthems and odes in addition to his secular songs and instrumental music.

When Purcell died in 1695, the London musical establishment went into shock. Purcell was successful and famous and only 36 years old, and there were many poetic and musical tributes to honour the great man. This is Clarke’s magnificent Come, come along, an ode on the death of Purcell. It’s an extended semi-theatrical work lasting almost 25 minutes, an eloquent tribute to Clarke who was himself only about 21 when he wrote it. [listen]

Jeremiah Clarke’s contemporaries saw in him what we might describe as a depressive personality. In 1707, five years after that music was performed, Clarke found himself unhappily in love with a female pupil. Her rejection of him had tragic consequences; he took his own life by shooting himself at his house in St Paul’s Churchyard. He was only about 33.

A composer of a later age who has an unshakeable connection with the church - and with the organ in particular - in the French composer Charles-Marie Widor, who was born in Lyons in 1844. His one work known to music lovers the world over is this: [listen]

The final movement, a toccata, from Widor’s fifth organ symphony. The larger work from which it comes is a symphony for solo organ (that is, there’s no orchestra involved), a popular form in French music at the time which took full advantage of the great Romantic French organ’s wide range of sonorities. It was published in 1887 and was one of ten such organ symphonies Widor wrote. (When do we ever hear the other nine, or even the rest of number five?) His principal post was as the organist of the famous church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, a provisional one-year appointment which lasted 64 years. Widor wrote ballets, operas and incidental music for plays, sacred choral music, chamber works and piano works, but among his best works other than those written for the solo organ are his orchestral works.

Charles-Marie Widor

Widor wrote five orchestral symphonies, two piano concertos, a violin concerto and cello concerto and much else besides. Three of the orchestral symphonies have prominent parts for the organ, another peculiarly French feature best-known to most of us in the guise of Saint-Saëns’ third symphony. Widor’s contemporary Félix Alexandre Guilmant wrote symphonies for organ and orchestra as well. Some decades later, Aaron Copland wrote his symphony for organ and orchestra, a work which was a direct result of his studies in France.

This is Widor’s [orchestral] symphony no 3. It was premiered in Geneva in 1894 which in the composer’s words is intended to be a hymn to all creation. It’s a really stunning work! The last few minutes really take the roof off… [listen]

Organ of Saint-Sulpice, Paris (reconstructed Cavaillé-Coll, 1862)

Another French composer, but 21 years younger than Widor, was Paul Dukas. (The final “s” in his name is not silent, by the way.) Dukas wasn’t aware of it, but when he read Goethe’s Die Zauberlehrling and decided to wrote an orchestral piece based on it, he was providing us with one of the best-loved orchestral showpieces of all time. He was also provided Walt Disney with the best soundtrack a mouse ever had. [listen]

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is justly famous, but what else did Dukas write? Well Dukas was an interesting man. He was highly self-critical as a composer and destroyed many of his works because he didn’t think they were good enough. This, coupled with the fact that he had “other lives” as a journalist and teacher which kept him busy, meant that only 28 works by Dukas are left to posterity, of which only 15 were ever published.

But among these 15 are works which show an amazing talent. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is dazzlingly orchestrated and for all its familiarity one of the most difficult pieces for an orchestra to bring off. Among his other works are a symphony, theatre music, vocal music and an opera called Ariadne and Bluebeard. There are also piano works, including an enormous piano sonata in E flat minor which he composed just after The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Lasting three quarters of an hour, this magnificent work (completed in 1900) should be better-known. This is the first movement. [listen]

Paul Dukas

Dukas had an enormous and supportive influence on the careers of other composers, including Debussy, Roussel, Ravel, Fauré and many others. He taught at the Paris Conservatoire where, late in his life, one of students was Olivier Messiaen. Probably his most fascinating unknown work is his opera Ariadne and Bluebeard, which was written in the first decade of the 20th century. Like Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande, Dukas’ opera is based on a text by the symbolist poet Maurice Maeterlinck, although unlike Pelléas, which was originally a straight play, the text for Ariadne started life as an opera libretto intended for Greig, who turned it down before Dukas came under its spell. Dukas’ opera tells a similar story - with some interesting changes - to that of Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle. This is just a taste of this rich and beautiful score. [listen]

Let’s go back to the Baroque for our next little-known composer. It’s hard to imagine any combination of instruments or voices which hasn’t had a go at this famous piece, although this is its original scoring, for 3 violins and continuo. [listen]

The Canon in D for 3 equal parts over a ground bass by Johann Pachelbel is undoubtedly one of the most famous pieces of classical music in the world. Its composer lived from 1653 to 1706 and he was one of the foremost north German organists of the late 17th century. His organ and keyboard works have been known to organists and harpsichordists as part of the standard early repertoire, but in recent decades his church music and secular chamber music have started to become more widely-known as well. This is the opening of Pachelbel’s F sharp minor partita (a partita is a suite, a collection of small pieces), showing a darker side to his musical personality. [listen]

Johann Pachelbel

Pachelbel’s surviving vocal works include some magnificent sacred “concertos”, a term which in the late 17th century denoted music requiring a combination of voices and instruments. To give just an idea of the scale on which he worked, this is his setting of Psalm 150; it’s scored for 5 solo voices, 5-part supporting voices, 2 violins, 3 violas, 2 oboes, harp, 5 trumpets, trombone, timpani, and continuo. [listen]

Speaking of music for voices and instruments, there’d be very few people in modern western culture these days who would not have heard this piece of music. [listen]

Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana [pronounced CARmina buRAna; like MUsica anTIqua] is that rare thing: a piece of 20th century art music which is immensely popular. The work’s raw, earthy energy has made it not only a favourite of choirs and orchestras the world over, but this opening chorus in particular has been used to great effect in TV advertising. Rather ironic for a piece in which the text basically says “life sucks”.

Carl Orff

But what else did Carl Orff write? He was a German composer, who was born in 1895 and who died in 1982. His early career was connected very much with music theatre, as an administrator and as a composer, but his first major success in composition came with the premiere of Carmina Burana in Frankfurt in 1937. Orff himself later said that this event marked his true beginning as a composer.

Some have questioned Orff’s alleged links with the Nazi Party in 30s although there seems to be little to show he had any real sympathies with national socialism, and neither he nor his close associates were apparently ever members of the party. Carmina Burana was immensely popular in Germany in the Nazi period, though.

In the 1950s Orff was a respected teacher of composition and he produced many theatrical and concert works. His major influences were ancient Greek tragedy, Baroque theatrical principles, and medieval Christian mysticism. Two later works, Catulli Carmina (from the early 40s) and The Triumph of Aphrodite (completed in 1951) were grouped with Carmina Burana to form a trilogy. There are 16 other theatre works in the listing in Grove, as well as songs, cantatas and a few instrumental works.

This is part of Orff’s opera Antigonae, a austere and powerful 5-act tragedy based on Sophocles which he completed in 1949. The orchestration is monolithic in nature - in addition to a large battery of percussion (an Orff trademark) the only strings are double basses, to which are added harps, woodwinds and muted trumpets...and six pianos. [listen]

Running in parallel to his career as a lecturer and theatre composer was Orff’s career as a music educator. Starting with the basic notion of dance as a vital part of music education in children, Orff went on over several decades to produce a massive amount of music for children to play. His idea - supporting the notion of other music educators like Emile Jaques-Dalcroze - was that music education is most effective and natural when based on movement and dance. Starting from simple children’s games and rhymes, Orff eventually produced his massive, multi-volumed Schulwerk, music designed specifically for children to play which is based on rhythms and movements children would find natural and fun. It has since been translated into many languages and adapted for use around the world, and it is widely used here in Australia.

These three short videos are just a taste of the enormous amount of music Orff wrote as part of this extraordinary contribution to music education

To conclude our rapid survey of composers who were far from being “one hit wonders” I want to invoke the name of Engelbert Humperdinck. No, I’m not referring to the British-American pop singer who rose to prominence in the 60s with hits like The Last Waltz. His real name was Arnold Dorsey and for his stage name he used the name of the German opera composer Engelbert Humperdinck; it’s the German composer I’m referring to here.

Humperdinck is famous for a single work, and what a work it is: the opera Hansel and Gretel. [listen]

Engelbert Humperdinck, who lived from 1854 to 1921, was a highly successful and influential composer. He was associated very closely with the ideals of Wagner and worked with Wagner at Bayreuth in the early 1880s when Parsifal was being prepared for performance.

In addition to his operas, Humperdinck wrote incidental music for plays, a large amount of choral music, a huge number of songs, orchestral works, piano works and chamber music. This Humoreske for orchestra was written in 1879. [listen]

Engelbert Humperdinck

Humperdinck wrote many other operas apart from Hansel and Gretel, the most successful of which is Königskinder, first performed in 1910. It’s based on a fairy tale subject, writ large in the grand manner like Hansel and Gretel. Despite its successful premiere, its subsequent neglect is probably due to the obscure plot and a libretto which most commentators regard as rather poor. This is a shame, because the music is pretty good. This is the end of the second act. [listen]

Need I say it? So much music, so little time. Be brave and explore.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2008.

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