A note for those who come to life only after the second mug of coffee each morning: this blog is probably not for you. Our subject this week is that magical time before sunrise when dark gives way incrementally to light: dawn. It can be a magical few minutes, not least when birds limber up vocally with their calling card in a dawn chorus. In this edition of the blog we’ll perform a quick survey of how composers from different parts of the globe have captured those moments of dawn in music; and I hope you’ll enjoy hearing some lesser-known works getting an airing alongside the more famous instances.
Ginastera’s music for the ballet Panambi (8.557582) might be seen as the Argentine composer’s own moment of dawn, in that it’s his Op. 1 and so dates from his early period when he was eager to promote an authentically national voice in his work. Panambi is based on a romantic and supernatural legend of the Guaraní Indians, a tribe from the headwaters of the Rio Paraná in northern Argentina. The ballet’s narrative is back-to-front for our purpose, in that it starts at night-time and ends at dawn. But here’s how Ginastera paints his daybreak scene.
Moving north, we have the setting for the final part of Leonardo Balada’s opera Christopher Columbus (8.660237-38) which premiered in 1989. Balada subsequently reworked four scenes from the opera into Columbus: Images for Orchestra (8.573047), the last of which is titled Dawn in the Indies, meaning the West Indies, the end-point of Columbus’ expedition and a way off from the route to Asia he had intended to discover. It begins with the rays of dawn and the calls of the dawn chorus, gradually taking in Indian chants and rhythms.
We stay with Columbus for our next selection, one that portrays the beginning of that momentous journey, rather than its culmination. Which puts us at Granada in Spain, specifically at the Alhambra Palace, taken in the Christian conquest of the city by King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile in 1492, both where and when Columbus obtained royal endorsement for his expedition. The Irish-born American composer Victor Herbert had his Columbus Suite (8.559027) premiered in 1903. It was his last major orchestral work and is one of those pieces where the genesis of the work, which began some ten years earlier, is as interesting as the music.
The “Columbian Exposition” was the brainchild of producer Steele McKaye, intended to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage in spectacular fashion at the Chicago World Fair of 1893. A huge auditorium was to present a depiction of Columbus’ spiritual and physical adventures as he sailed across a sea of mechanical waves. As part of this novel presentation, McKaye approached both Herbert and Dvořák to supply magisterial orchestral sections. Both agreed, but when McKaye failed to raise sufficient money, the whole project collapsed.
Herbert had been quick off the mark, however, and had already completed a work called The Vision of Columbus, and it’s likely that another movement, Sunrise at Granada, was finished at the same time. This material was worked into his Columbus Suite a decade later. Here’s the opening of Dawn and Sunrise at Alhambra, the first movement of the suite.
Next, we wing it across the oceans to Japan and to one of that country’s leading composers from the first half of the twentieth century—Qunihico Hashimoto (1904-49). He studied with Egon Wellesz in Vienna and associated with Alois Hába and Ernst Křenek, before meeting Schoenberg in Los Angeles when he was returning to Japan. His music reflects an eclectic mix of late romanticism, expressionism and impressionism, as well as the traditional music of Japan.
Hashimoto composed the music for the ballet The Legend of Hagoromo, which premiered in 1932; he subsequently made a concert suite of his original score, Heavenly Maiden and Fisherman (8.555881). The story tells of a Heavenly Maiden who descends to earth and has her Hagoromo (a magic robe which enables her to fly) stolen by an earthly man. They marry, but after some years the Heavenly Maiden finds her Hagoromo and returns to heaven. The work opens with impressionistic music depicting dawn. The flute soon quietly presents the theme of the Fisherman and the music gradually becomes rhythmical, as if waking up from sleep.
Next, to Germany, and Wagner’s cycle of four music dramas, Der Ring des Nibelung. Naxos has already released the first three parts of this epic work to great acclaim, in recordings with Jaap van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic; the fourth instalment, Götterdämmerung, was recorded last week and will be released in November. The opera opens at night-time with the Norns, weavers of Fate, resolved to spin and sing; this is followed by dawn (8.572767), which leads to daybreak, portrayed on a more expansive timescale than the previous examples heard.
Peter Grimes is the dramatic opera by Benjamin Britten, in which the fisherman of the title is hounded to death by his fellow-townspeople for his cruelty to his apprentices. It had its first performance in 1945, when Britain’s east coast had no doubt spent years listening to the early-morning encroachment of enemy aircraft, rather than the hypnotic stillness of dawn. With the end of the Second World War in sight, however, here’s how Britten paints his dawn scene (8.557196), somewhat foreboding of the plot, with the stillness of the mighty sea and seagull cries, elements which were surely familiar to Britten from his childhood by the sea in Lowestoft.
Finally, to Ravel’s music for the daybreak scene in Part III of the ballet Daphnis and Chloe (8.570992), an example of magical scoring that never fails to hit the mark: night passes away, the only sound is that of the streams of dew flowing down over the rocks as, little by little, day dawns, birds sing, and the sun rises in an orchestral blaze. And with music like this to start the day, who needs coffee?