Opening the programme is a gentle, condensed nod to Mary Howitt’s 1829 poem The Spider and the Fly, the one that starts as follows:“Will you walk into my parlour?” said a spider to a fly;
“‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy.
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I have many pretty things to shew when you are there.”
“Oh no, no!” said the little fly, “to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.”
We hear the take on the poem by Fats Waller (1904–1943), one of America’s jazz greats whose extensive musical talents were often accompanied by a side dish of comedy.
The Spider and the Fly (8.120692)I have a couple of examples of musical tarantellas next, representing the lively Italian dance in 6/8 time performed by flirtatious partners and bedecked by tambourines. At least, that’s the first interpretation as exemplified by Shostakovich in his Tarantella for two pianos. The short interlude formed part of his film score for The Gadfly, based on a romantic-revolutionary novel by the English novelist Ethyl Lillian Voymich. Set against an Italian backdrop, the central character is eventually pursued by the authorities for his radical ideas. When the militia arrive at an inn, suspecting an undercover meeting, the rebels break into a distracting tarantella, which is cut short by an angry officer.
Shostakovich: Tarantella (C71087-88)A darker interpretation of the dance derives from tarantism, a form of hysteria said to have been experienced in Italy’s late Middle Ages following a bite from the tarantula spider. Frenzied dancing was apparently the generally accepted cure! That more sinister edge is caught in Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s Nocturne and Tarantella, written in 1915 for violin and piano, but heard here in an arrangement for orchestra.
Szymanowski: Tarantella (8.557981) Unlikely as it may seem, my next extract links the Fats Waller piece heard earlier with Benjamin Britten. The titles are the same – The Spider and the Fly – and the period music evokes the same era, 1930s America. During the 1930s and early 1940s, Britten supplemented his income by writing a large amount of incidental music for radio, stage and film. Although he could be rather dismissive of this music in later life, a number of these scores have been published and performed since his death in 1976, shedding valuable light on a previously unknown area of his output.
Britten’s score for the J. B. Priestley play Johnson over Jordan was composed during February 1939. Featuring some 35 minutes worth of music, it was one of the longest commercial theatre scores that Britten ever produced. Paul Hindmarsh compiled a 6-movement suite from the score in 1990, the fourth of which is titled The Spider and the Fly, an irresistible 1930s dance-band number written to accompany and reflect a night-club scene.
Britten: The Spider and the Fly (8.557197)My next piece was written some 25 years earlier than the Britten work, but was similarly conceived for the stage. It’s by the French composer Albert Roussel, whose surviving compositions can be divided into three periods: from 1902–13, he absorbed the Impressionistic tendencies found in Debussy and Ravel; works written during 1918–25 explored the new musical territory of a complex harmonic language; from around 1925 onward, he adopted the prevailing neo-classicism of the time.
He wrote Le festin de l’araignée (The Spider’s Banquet) in 1912. Designated a ‘ballet-pantomime’ it depicts the lives of insects in a garden, their relationships tacitly though insistently likened to that of the human domain. The section titled The Spider rejoices – Dance of the Spider is alternately quietly restrained then loud and boisterous as the arachnid contemplates and then celebrates its catch.
The Spider rejoices– Dance of the Spider (8.572243)Same period, different country for our next extract, this one by the German composer Ernst Toch (1887–1964) whose output tended to reflect the musical and cultural trends current at any given time. Toch wrote his Cello Sonata in 1929, during what was probably his most productive period. He headed the central movement “intermezzo”, yet it can’t be described as merely a short interlude. The music grows from a short initial idea, which Toch immediately makes more complex, turning it into a kind of open circling; the basic motifs rotate, changing in length, structure, proportions and inner propulsion. Maybe no wonder, then, that the movement is titled Die Spinne (The Spider).
Die Spinne (8.559716)I personally find that music seriously creepy, so let’s clear the air with my final choice for today, by American composer Danny Elfman, who appeared in our Naxos headlines in March with a new album featuring his Violin Concerto, “Eleven Eleven” (8.559925). The work was pitched as a true violin concerto noir, both haunting and compelling, that both illustrates Elfman’s love for the music of Shostakovich and Prokofiev and his background in rock, film and television music. As our concluding shout-out to that versatility, then, here’s the main title theme from Elfman’s score for the 2002 film Spider-Man, where gossamer meets gung-ho.