Summery executions

As July turns to August many of us will be enjoying the sunshine and thinking of vacations past and present, so here’s a clutch of examples of classical music seasoning to set the mood. Once heard, never forgotten: few melodies conjure the languid spirit of the season as effectively as Summertime by George Gershwin, from his 1934 opera Porgy and Bess (8.110219-20) which is, paradoxically, a tale of hardship and suffering:

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy,
Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high,
Oh, your daddy’s rich and your ma is good-lookin’,
So hush little baby, don’t you cry.

Here’s a reminder of the music performed in an archive recording by members of the original cast.

Written some two hundred years earlier, Antonio Vivaldi’s Summer from his famous Op. 8 collection of concertos titled The Four Seasons (8.557920) expresses not only unbearable and shimmering heat but also the apprehension when, confronted by an advancing storm, “the shepherd weeps … fearing for his destiny”. In the Presto finale there are graphic representations of “thunders, flares and hailstones [which] sever the heads of proud grain crops.”

Many other composers have based works on the seasons, featuring summer moods. If you’re unfamiliar with them, you might like to check out Tchaikovsky’s cycle of charming piano pieces Les saisons (8.550233). The 12 pieces were written in response to a commission by the editor of the periodical Nouvelliste. Each monthly issue was to contain a piece by Tchaikovsky intended for the amateur pianists among the readership, with the occasional technical challenge thrown in. That for July is titled Song of the Reaper – not the Grim version, as this clip demonstrates!

Still in Russia, Alexander Glazunov’s gorgeously romantic score for the ballet The Seasons (8.550079) was first produced in 1900 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg with choreography by the legendary Marius Petipa. The Summer tableau opens with this music.

Midsummer generally attracts more of a literary focus than a musical one, but a spin-off from this has been glorious scores such as Mendelssohn’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s comedy play A Midsummer Night’s Dream (8.570794). And taking Mozart’s The Magic Flute as a template, Michael Tippett wrote both libretto and music for his 1955 magical opera, The Midsummer Marriage, from which the luminous Ritual Dances (8.553591) became a separate concert work. Here’s a short extract from that 25-minute piece.

From his Four Early Songs, Aaron Copland’s setting of Aaron Schaffer’s A Summer Vacation (9.70145) evokes the nostalgic, romantic expressiveness of Duparc and Fauré:

Days of joy, how have ye fled?
Joy immortal, are ye dead?
Is there nothing that can hold you?
Can my limp arms not enfold you?
Days of floating on the stream,
Softly lapped as in a dream,
With the white clouds swimming slowly
In an ether pure and holy!

Summer memories are often the domain of the young. Charles Ives’ Holidays Symphony (8.559370) is filled with musical allusions, and Ives said of its third movement, The Fourth of July, “that there was a feeling of freedom as a boy has, on the Fourth of July, who wants to do anything he wants to do, and that’s his one day to do it.” Here’s the rambunctious closing section.

The beauty of summer puts the ugliness of war into sharp relief. Frank Bridge’s pastoral Summer (8.557167) was written in the years 1914-15, and managed to exude a shimmering, English countryside heat while the nightmare scenarios of World War I were unfolding in Europe. Here’s the opening of the work, musical fragments emerging from the summery haze.

Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (8.559134) is a “lyric rhapsody” which sets the prose-poetry of James Agee, the words evoking quieter, plaintive and more innocent times. It was composed two years after the horrifying close of World War II, when people sought refuge in the idea of less violence and greater optimism. This is how the work opens:

It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds’ hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt: a loud auto: a quiet auto…

Elliott Carter spent some years in France and his Holiday Overture (8.559151), composed during the summer of 1944, reflects the generally uplifting spirit of much American concert music composed at the time of France’s liberation and early indications that World War II was nearing its end. This clip gives a flavour of that atmosphere.

Summer and holidays can mean glorious sunshine and magical experiences. Most of us like to spend them out of town, but city life always goes on, as can be heard in Morton Gould’s 1955 armchair vacation, Cinerama Holiday Suite (8.559715). The score was written to accompany a travelogue of scenes filmed in the United States, Switzerland and France to showcase the latest developments in cinema projection. So, we’ll let Gould’s chirpy Parisian car horns have the final word for today.

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