This is the next to last installment of a series celebrating the centennial of Bernard Herrmann’s birth by focusing on his concert works rather than his film or radio music. If available for a work, excerpts from A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith will accompany each piece. This is entry 6 of 7 and presents the Currier and Ives Suite, a short 5 movement orchestral work. Although I originally intended each work in this series to be presented in chronological order, this earlier work is presented here as the result of recently obtaining a recording of it.
Currier and Ives Suite (1935)
Only a passing mention is made in the Smith book about this early orchestral work by Herrmann leaving me with only what was written by Christopher Gabriel Husted (UC Santa Barbara) for the recording's liner notes. These notes appear initalicized dark blue text below.
The Currier and Ives Suite was written in 1935, at a time when Herrmann was beginning to settle into his stylistic niche as a composer. The third movement may have been written first, the fact that it was written on CBS score paper suggests its origins in Herrmann’s activities as staff arranger and composer in the CBS music department.
Little is known about the composition of the work; it was finished around the same time as his Sinfonietta and Nocturne and Scherzo, both important works in his output. It bears none of the serious tone of these works, however. It was conceived for presentation as a ballet at Radio City Music Hall, and is written in a very accessible musical style.
Concerned with the famed engravings of Currier and Ives, its evocation of nineteenth-century America looks forward (especially in the first movement) to his music for the triptych of Americana films with which he was associated during the Mercury Theater’s tenure at RKO Radio Pictures – Citizen Kane, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and The Magnificent Ambersons. The suite was performed several times in broadcast concerts, but once the war started the piece slipped into limbo.
In the early 1970’s when Herrmann was planning several retrospective sets of orchestral recordings for Reader’s Digest, he decided to revise the Currier and Ives Suite and include it in one of the sets. Changes are concentrated in the second and fifth movements: in the second, repeated sections were varied in orchestration or the repeats were eliminated entirely; in the fifth, several percussion parts were added.
Though the revision was completed, the plans with Reader’s Digest collapsed and the piece sank back into limbo. Herrmann died in 1975 having revised several early concert works with the intention of recording them as part of his on-going commercial recording activities.
The suite is very colorfully orchestrated, which is no surprise, and is pretty lively throughout most of its length. It is comprised of a pre-Copland Americana sound combined with mostly European dance rhythms. The second movement sounds a bit like a cross between Vienna and small town/circus America with its overall grand waltz lilt. Jingle Bells is even thrown in for good measure in the fifth movement!
Mention must be made of the tuba solo in the fourth movement. Anyone familiar with John Williams’ tuba solo for Jabba the Hutt may hear similarities here. Part of that is due to the type casting of the tuba. Here it represents a “fat man”, while in Return of the Jedi it represents a “fat giant-slug”. Another similarity is how the endings of both solos are prefaced by the instability of trills which ultimately resolve into the final note(s). This is an ungainly sounding bit of ornamentation for an instrument like the tuba and is used to similar purpose for each.
This is a very approachable and generally light hearted work from Herrmann that befits a lighter concert hall program. At times it reminds me of the ebulient, fleet footed works of Austrian composer Franz von Suppé (with a little exra oomph), delivering a similarly styled fun musical romp to the concert hall.
About the recording: James Sedares conducting the New Zealand Symphony (1994) - Koch International Classics
Previous entries in the Herrmann Centennial Concert Work Series:
Video of the week: Originally this blog was intended to be about Herrmann's opera, Wuthering Heights, but so much in the book is devoted to this nearly decade in the making work, and it is so expansive in scope that I decided to leave it perhaps for another time since it will require several blogs to do it justice. Instead, here is some of the music from the opera.