Orange Trees and the American Dream
What’s the story behind the music?
On Friday 28 May, Royal Northern Sinfonia will perform ‘RNS: John Wilson’s Summer Songs’. The music on this programme points us towards longer, warmer, summer days to come. Or, at least, that we hope will come. While we longingly await this promised heatwave, and look forward to Friday’s live stream, we had a little look at the stories behind the music and the people that wrote it.
Bennett, Summer Music
The Man: Sir Richard Rodney Bennett produced over 200 pieces of music for the concert hall and more than 50 film scores. You’ve probably heard his work without realising. His music for television and film includes episodes of Doctor Who, as well as Murder on the Orient Express and Four Weddings and a Funeral. When he wasn’t writing music, he was performing. Bennett had a particular love for jazz; he played as a jazz pianist in concerts and tours throughout his life, so it’s no surprise that this style infiltrated his compositions too.
The Music: Summer Music was originally written for solo flute and piano before being arranged for orchestra in 1984. It’s reasonably simple in style; the original was designed to ‘bridge the gap’ for less experienced flautists wanting to play more advanced music. The piece is catchy and charming, but still delicate and refined.
The piece moves through three movements: Summer Music’s soaring melodies remind us of cloudless skies on sunny days; things warm up a little in Siesta as we feel the heat of the midday sun, before ending with Games – pure fun, and you might hear some musical reminders of the first movements.
Delius, A Song Before Sunrise
The Man: Frederick Delius was born in Bradford to German parents. He was one of fourteen children: four sons and ten daughters. Music was encouraged as a hobby, but always with the expectation that he would eventually join the family firm of wool merchants. Frederick– not so keen. Instead, he moved to Florida to run an orange plantation. Eventually he enrolled at music college in Leipzig, before settling in France. This extensive travel meant he categorised himself as a ‘cosmopolitan’ – woe betide anyone who referred to him as a British composer.
Gradually his health declined through the 1920s, until he was blind and paralysed, making it difficult (then impossible) to compose.
Fellow composer Peter Warlock (writing under his real name, Philip Heseltine) was a great admirer of Delius, saying: “He is probably the most interesting composer born in this country since Henry Purcell. His position in the musical world today can only be determined by individual taste and opinion. He is not a composer whose works achieve an instantaneous success and widespread popularity; but this is the best possible sign for the future.”
Warlock also criticised contemporary commentators and programme note writers for simply listing all the places Delius had lived. Best not show him this article.
The Music: Delius wrote A Song Before Sunrise in France in the summer of 1918 while undergoing spa treatment. It’s an uncomplicated piece, called ‘delightful’ by Edward Elgar, that describes a pastoral scene. The opening marking of ‘Freshly’ and the lilting music suggests a gentle country walk before dawn. It is possible that inspiration for the piece came from a chapter of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, entitled ‘Before Sunrise’; Delius was a great admirer of Nietzsche.
Copland, Appalachian Spring Suite
The Man: Aaron Copland is possibly the most well-known and enduringly popular of all tonight’s composers. He became known as the ‘Dean of American Composers’ reflecting the influence he had, and his style became synonymous with American music.
Our concert’s conductor, John Wilson, said of Copland: “He had created this instantly identifiable sound — the ‘wide-open spaces’ sound that we all know and love. Nobody had done it before and suddenly loads of other American composers started imitating him.”
The Music: Appalachian Spring premiered as a ‘ballet with an American theme’ in 1944. The Suite, which uses some of the original music in a condensed version was arranged a little while later in 1945. The Suite has arguably done more for Copland’s popularity than the original ballet.
The music does not depict the Appalachians or have anything to do with them at all really. The music had no title when Copland wrote it, so he found it amusing when listeners suggested he had captured the beauty of the mountains perfectly.
It tells the story of a young American couple who marry and muse on their future. Life won’t all be smooth sailing, but they know through supporting each other they will succeed. The American Dream.
The Suite has eight sections that in turn tell the story of the characters. We share their moments of joy and elation, stare at the vast open landscapes of the plains with them, square dance and listen to country music, and eventually celebrate their strength as the couple feel comfortable in their place in society.
A final word from Copland himself? “I have often admonished orchestras, professional or otherwise, not to get too sweet or too sentimental with it.” Good to know.
So, there you have it: orange trees and the American Dream. If you’d like to know more about Barber’s Knoxville, the other piece on our programme, take a look at our feature here.
If you’re curious about what the music sounds like, and what to have a listen before the concert, we’ve put together a Spotify playlist you can try here.
Watch RNS: John Wilson’s Summer Songs on Friday 28 May at 7.30pm.