Going Gothic


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The Romantic period in classical music wasn’t only about expressions of love and depictions of nature. There was also a fascination with the occult. From the world of opera, think Weber’s Der Freischütz and Marschner’s Der Vampyr for starters. These dark pathways accompanied a renewed fascination with awesome Gothic architecture and the proliferation of horror literature in the 19th century. The term ’Gothic’ can be interpreted through several lenses, but music has always proved a versatile and natural partner to heighten its emotional core.

bram-stoker1We explore here some of the works that are associated with the Gothic milieu, and where better to start than with Count Dracula and his spine-tingling formula of erotic terror? Praise be for garlic and truculent stakes to keep us safe. Philip Feeney wrote his evocative score for the UK Northern Ballet company’s new production Dracula (8.553964) in 1997, marking the centenary of the publication of Bram Stoker’s novel of the same title. This extract is taken from the final scene depicting Dracula’s impalement.

Henry James blended a ghost story with psychological horror in his 1898 novel The Turn of the Screw. Do the sinister apparitions exist, or not? Is the governess insane, or not? In Britten’s operatic adaptation of the story (8.660109-10) the end of Act I climaxes with the appearance of two ghostly figures who are waiting for their prey—the boy Miles and his sister Flora—but then disappear at the entrance of the children’s governess and the housekeeper. The latter leads Flora away, leaving young Miles to confess to his governess, “I am bad.”

gargoyle1Cathedral architecture probably springs first to mind when the term Gothic is mentioned. Dating from the high and late mediaeval periods, these massive, intricate structures would have made the faithful of the day mindful of their own relative insignificance. Here was a form of heaven on earth, buttressed to the hilt and guarded by monstrous gargoyles. These grotesque stone sentries have attracted many composers to reproduce their terrifying miens in sound. Premièred in 1989, Lowell Liebermann’s 4-movement Gargoyles Op. 29 (8.573178) ends with a Presto feroce that is as intimidating for the pianist’s technique as in its imagery.

havergal-brian1Havergal Brian (1876-1972) was a British composer who wrote a total of thirty-two symphonies. Symphony No. 1 is his most famous, not least because of the huge performing resources that it demands. Subtitled ’The Gothic’ (8.557418-19), it’s constructed in two parts; Part II was inspired by Gothic cathedrals and by the music that was performed in the buildings’ hallowed, cavernous spaces. Brian fills this part of the score with a setting of the Te Deum, requiring 32 woodwind, 24 brass, 2 timpanists, a percussion section of 17 players, celesta, 2 harps, organ, plus an enlarged string section. This climactic section gives a taste of that large-scale canvas.

charles-marie-widor1Brian lived until the age of 96; Charles-Marie Widor, the French organist-composer who also composed a Symphonie gothique, lived to the age of 93. Widor is possibly most widely known for the finale to his Organ Symphony No. 5, the famous Toccata, but his Symphonie gothique (8.570310) has the distinction of being the piece that was played at his own funeral. He died on 12 March, 1937 and was buried the next day. His former organ pupil, the celebrated Marcel Dupré, played the organ for the service and performed the first movement of the Symphonie gothique as Widor’s coffin was carried to the crypt at the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. While the music’s massive expansiveness reflects the Gothic spaces it was filling, I’d opt for the second movement for my final journey—the sublime Andante sostenuto.

leon-boellmann2Any organists reading this will be anticipating a mention of Boëllmann’s Suite Gothique for organ, maybe a clip from the famous Toccata finale (8.551271). I won’t disappoint, but maybe I’ll surprise with an unusual version of the movement. Improbably, it’s an arrangement for saxophone and organ, with the saxophone chattering away with rapid-fire finger work, but with the organ finally asserting itself in a size-trumps-everything conclusion to the piece.

house-of-parliament1We move from the original Gothic solemnity of religious buildings to one of the most famous Gothic-inspired edifices of the 19th century—the UK’s Palace of Westminster, known as the Houses of Parliament, and home to the House of Commons and the House of Lords, or Peers. It took 30 years to build the Palace, from 1840 to 1870, and in 1882 Gilbert and Sullivan, the doyens of British operetta, premièred Iolanthe (8.110231-32), a tale of fairies and upper-class mortals, using it as a vehicle for a caricature of the Peerage. A whiff of the setting’s grandiose Gothic architecture is caught in the minor key and contrapuntal introduction to the Lord Chancellor’s ditty, The Law is the true embodiment.

8.573346aWe shouldn’t end without reference to music written in the true Gothic Age, not least because the Naxos release Argentum et Aurum (8.573346) recently won the Early Music category of this year’s International Classical Music Awards. So, here’s a final extract from Gegrusset seistu maria, written around the year 1400.

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