Surfing the press and the Naxos archives recently threw up several dates corresponding to the week ahead. Never one to turn down an offer from serendipity, I thought we could bring them to life with a few audio extracts.
The US Presidential race has been engaging the world’s attention with the unexpected demeanour of some of its key players. Several journals have carried Letters to the Editor commenting on Donald Trump’s assertion that, if elected President, he would engage in extreme handling of certain situations, irrespective of the conventions and obligations that would normally define a country’s actions. The comparison drawn by correspondents was with the famous quotation supposedly uttered by King Louis XIV of France on April 13, 1655, “L’État, c’est moi”, which basically signalled a steam-rollering of all sectors of society if it took the King’sfancy. The comparison with Donald Trump stops abruptly when one considers Louis XIV’s love for the arts, both as a consumer and a performer. He became known as The Sun King following his participation in a ballet within that role as a teenager. Dancing alongside him was the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, who was to become the court’s favourite musician. As such, he wrote numerous stage works; he also provided vocal music for the royal chapel. Here’s an extract from one of Lully’s Grands Motets (8.554398), Exultant coeli from O Lachrymae.
12 April, 1898 marks the day the French-American operatic soprano Lily Pons was born in Draguignan, France. After a promising start as a budding concert pianist, Pons changed direction and became a singer. She made her operatic stage debut in the title role of Lakmé at Mulhouse in 1928 with Reynaldo Hahn conducting, and made her debut at the New York Metropolitan Opera just three years later in the title role of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (8.660255-56). After the Mad Scene she was rewarded with ‘tumultuous applause and cheering’, as reported in The New York Times. Here she is in the sextet Chi mi frena in tal momento from Act II of the same opera.
Florence Foster Jenkins, a contemporary of Pons, enjoyed a similarly high profile but none of the talent. Her name has been in the news recently in connection with a new Hollywood film about the New York socialite and amateur singer whose passion for airing arias far exceeded her precision. Florence Foster Jenkins opens next month and stars Meryl Streep in the title role, with Hugh Grant as her partner-manager. Jenkins’ amateur performances attracted a cult-like following, with hi-so audiences magnetised by their near-tone-deaf quality and unbridled enthusiasm. This clip of a recording of Liadov’s A Musical Snuffbox (8.120711) sets the scene for the film’s story line.
J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion (8.557617-19) was given its first performance on 11 April, 1727. The Guardian has been carrying fascinating details of a Streetwise Opera staging of the work, in which homeless people in the northern England city of Manchester presented an operatic version alongside seasoned music professionals, The Sixteen. Ecumenical hardly describes such a venture. If you’re in the UK, you can catch a recording of the performance on BBC iPlayer until April 28. Not to be missed.
Henry V was crowned King of England on April 9, 1413 at Westminster Abbey, and there’s a little known piece by Elgar titled ’Falstaff: Symphonic Study in C minor’ (8.553879), which is well worth getting to know if it’s not already in your collection. It tells of Falstaff’s relationship with Prince Hal (the future King Henry V) and the latter’s rejection of Falstaff at his coronation. As he neared the completion of the work, Elgar told a reporter: “I have, I think, enjoyed writing it more than any other music I have composed…I shall say ’good-bye’ to it with regret, for the hours I have spent on it have brought me a great deal of happiness.” Here’s part of the work’s closing movement.
Opening night for Handel’s Messiah (8.550667-68) took place on April 13, 1742 in Dublin (ladies were requested not to wear hoops under their dresses and gentlemen not to wear their swords in order to cram in a bigger audience). On 10 April, 1912, the Titanic transatlantic liner packed in passengers of all classes and set sail on her maiden voyage from Southampton to America. The ship struck an iceberg and sank on April 15. More than 1,500 lives were lost. The 1997 film of the event, Titanic, featured music by James Horner (8.570505) that has proved enduringly popular.
We end by marking the anniversary of the death of the American composer Charles Griffes, on 8 April, 1920. Griffes found his own unique voice that deftly blended characteristics of the French-Impressionist composers Debussy and Ravel, Russian influences of Scriabin and Mussorgsky, and a German post-romantic idiom. We bow out with a delicious extract from Griffes’ The White Peacock (8.559164), which leaves one wondering what future delights he may have given us had he not died prematurely of pneumonia at the age of 35.