The sound of sirens

Mermaids, part woman, part fish. Sirens, part woman, part bird. Their natural environs, water. While mermaids swim with a gentler reputation, sirens are branded by their seductive powers, luring seafarers to their destruction on treacherous rocks. How are they represented in the recording catalogue?

Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Little Mermaid, first published in 1837, has delighted generations of readers and been adapted to various media. Two examples are transformations into symphonic works that were written around the turn of the 20th century.

The Austrian composer Alexander Zemlinsky (1871–1942) completed his 40-minute symphonic fantasy Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) in 1903 (8.570240). First performed in 1905, with the composer conducting, it was well received by the audience. Unfortunately, critical attention focused largely on the work in the second half of the programme, Arnold Schoenberg’s symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande (8.557527). Sadly, Zemlinsky soon lost interest in his work and it languished in obscurity until many years after his death; happily, the work’s fine music is now much better known to audiences. The three movements closely follow the course of Andersen’s story. Here’s an extract from the second movement.

Eugen d’Albert (1864–1932), the Scottish-born German composer, was a titan of the keyboard and one of the greatest virtuosi of his age. A pupil of Liszt (who dubbed the young man ‘Albertus Magnus’) d’Albert was also devoted to composition; his output included nineteen operas which demonstrated the narrative excitement he could generate. His rarely performed Das Seejungfräulein (8.573110) is scored for soprano and orchestra. It was written in 1897 and intended for performance by d’Albert’s third wife, the singer Hermine Finck. It reveals a Wagnerian influence, with its theatrical self-confidence, skilful orchestration and strong, exciting themes. Cast in a single movement, here’s part of the central section.

From mermaids to sirens, more seductive and sinister, and to a symphonic poem written around the same time as the works already heard, but from the pen of Russian composer, Reinhold Glière (1875–1956). His symphonic poem Sirens (8.550898), completed in 1908, provides an evocative picture of the ripples and undulations surrounding the enchantresses that lured sailors to their doom.

Born in 1923, the American composer Ned Rorem composed his Flute Concerto (8.559278) in 2002 in response to a commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra, and partly to a perceived lack of repertoire for flute and large orchestra. Deciding on a title for the work was an additional challenge. Rorem wrote:

“The hardest part about composing a piece like this lies in finding an accurate title. “Suite” might have seem apt for a series of loosely related movements. “Six Pieces for Flute and Orchestra” could even be more precise. “Odyssey” was my first thought, when I’d planned to use descriptive subtitles from Homer. If I fall back on “Concerto”—which, over the centuries, has as many definitions as definers—it’s from sheer practicality.”

The work’s third movement, titled Sirens, is described by Rorem as an ambling succession of melodies and ripples.

Tony Banks (b. 1950), founder member of the rock band Genesis, conceived his SIX Pieces for Orchestra (8.572986) as six evocative songs without words which may evoke in the listener ideas of seduction, journey, hero, quest, decision and goal. Two of the pieces feature solo instruments—alto saxophone in Siren and violin in Bladewhich mesh into Banks’s orchestral tapestry with bewitching effect. Here’s the closing section of Siren.

In his Circus Maximus (8.559601) American composer John Corigliano puts an intriguing interpretation onto the television screen as a seductress that beguiles us into keeping the set switched on. He draws a parallel between the entertainment industry of today’s available 500-plus channels and “ …the Circus Maximus of ancient Rome which was a real placethe largest arena in the world. 300,000 spectators were entertained by chariot races, hunts, and battles. The Roman need for grander and wilder amusement grew as its empire declined. The parallels between the high decadence of Rome and our present time are obvious.”

The work was conceived spatially, with the forces of a large concert band encircling the audience. In the second movement, Screen/Siren, a saxophone quartet and string bass call from the 2nd tier boxes in seductive inflections, while other instruments scattered around the hall (clarinet, piccolo, horns, trumpet) echo the calls.

Finally, and on the cusp of marking the centenary of his death next month, to Debussy’s 3-movement orchestral suite Nocturnes (8.570993), which was originally planned as a series of pieces for the famous Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. The final orchestral version was completed in 1900. The third movement, Sirènes (Sirens) paints a picture of the sea in full majesty, beauty and variety, foreshadowing his symphonic sketches La mer. Portraying their mythological role in luring sailors to their doom, the song of the Sirens is hauntingly represented by a wordless female chorus.

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