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For centuries the infinitely varied tragic and sometimes comic romantic entanglements of ancient mythic and legendary heroes have inspired virtually all art forms. Drawn from an old Celtic tale about a tragic adulterous love, ancient Greek myths about love first conflicted then fulfilled, and a Spanish medieval legend about a notorious womanizer whose unceasing yearnings for love end only by death, the orchestral music here is rooted in the characteristically rich full-blooded intensity of 19th century romanticism. Young Conductor Jean-Philippe Tremblay leads the Orchestre de la Francophonie Canadienne in a dazzling interpretation of this work.

Strauss: Don Juan

Don Juan, written by Strauss at 25, was premiered in 1889 in Weimar and was immediately considered, despite his youth, the work of a mature composer. He was to explore the symphonic poem form, pioneered by Liszt, many times throughout his career.

The symphonic poem form, which is a one-movement orchestral work based on an extramusical theme, provided Strauss with a vehicle for extravagantly orchestrated and emotionally rhapsodic music which more and more broke away from late 19th century approaches to harmony, melody and form. Strauss’ music was considered the height of European modernism until, in his last years, his reputation and influence declined, overshadowed by the groundbreaking innovations of composers like Arnold Schoenberg.

Among the many who have treated the Don Juan legend, which first appears in Spain, are Byron, Molière, and most notably Mozart in Don Giovanni. Strauss’ own approach, based on fragments of an epic poem written by the Austro-Hungarian poet Nikolaus Lenau in 1843, shows the doomed legendary womanizer Don Juan unendingly yearning for the feminine ideal—and when beauty no longer enchants or satisfies, the hero is ready to accept death.

Wagner: Tristan and Isolde

Tristan and Isolde is based on a Celtic legend about the tragic story of a knight, Tristan, falling in love with an Irish princess, Isolde—already betrothed to King Marke. When King Marke discovers the truth, Tristan is mortally wounded and dies in Isolde’s arms.

The theme of adultery had recurring parallels in Wagner’s life beginning with his adulterous affair with Mathilde Wesendonck (the wife of a patron) during the writing of Tristan, followed by yet another adulterous romance with Liszt’s daughter, Cosima.

Tristan and Isolde, cherished as one of the most sublime artistic achievements in music, has had an inestimable influence on the evolution of the musical language. Premiered in 1865, the extensive use of dissonance and chromaticism challenged the very foundations of Western tonality. Many consider the “Tristan Chord”—which begins the Prelude to Act I—the beginning of 20th-century atonality. Its unresolved dissonant harmony reappears continuously throughout the opera, maintaining a constant feeling of emotional and musical tension finding resolution only at the opera’s tragic end.

Dubois: Adonis

More is known about the French born Théodore Dubois’ career as an organist and influential teacher in Paris during the last part of the 19th century than as a composer. Even the date of composition remains unknown for Adonis. Dubois wrote in many forms including symphonies, operas, and ballets but only his oratorio, The Seven Last Words of Christ, and an organ toccata are occasionally heard on the concert stage.

Adonis is one of the most complex cult figures in classical myths. When the Greek version appeared, it was more and more associated with women and most versions of his story focus on themes of rebirth and awakening.

Adonis is in three parts whose titles refer to the death of Adonis in the arms of Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, a lament which describe drops of his blood turning into flowers, and Adonis’ yearly ‘awakening’ or ‘rebirth’ from the Realm of the Underworld ruled by Persephone.

Champagne: Hercule et Omphale

Claude Champagne was a Montreal born composer who, like Dubois, is perhaps better known for his significant influence as a teacher and educator than as a composer. Hercule et Omphale was written in 1918, when Claude Champagne was 27. The talent displayed in this early work helped obtain an encouraging interview in Paris with Rachmaninoff in 1921.

Hercules was one of the most popular of all Ancient Greek gods and stories from his life and particularly the famous “Twelve Labors of Hercules” have been retold countless times. The title of Champagne’s symphonic poem refers to the gender reversal story of Hercules and Omphales. Hercules is sold by the god Hermes to Omphale. He becomes her slave and in some versions, the two exchange clothes: Hercules dresses as a woman while Omphale wears his lion skin and carries his club. After three years, the two become lovers.

Hercule et Omphale is based on two ideas: virility and femininity. The dualism of these ideas is expressed by the music. The theme of Hercules stands for strength and the theme of Omphale symbolizes charm. Those two ideas struggle to the final triumph of charm over strength. This symphonic poem is basically a dialogue between the two themes,” explains the composer.

© Seth Cooper

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