We began by listening to two arias from the opera Samson and Delilah by Saint Saëns. The opera is based upon the biblical story where Samson leads the Hebrews in a revolt against their Philistine oppressors. The Philistines, being not best pleased with these developments, engage the services of Delilah to defeat Samson. The first Act concludes with Delilah and the Philistine priestesses engaging in a sexually charged dance to seduce Samson. Delilah then sings the Aria ‘Printemps qui commence’ in which she laments the fact that Spring is arriving but it is still winter in her heart with the implication that the love of Samson can transform her feelings. Samson, being a man, falls for this and, as the curtain descends, he gazes at Delilah with every intention of going into her dwelling for reasons we need not go into!
The second Act begins with Delilah boasting as to how she has conquered Samson with her feminine wiles and sets about determining the source of Samson’s prodigious strength. Samson enters and Delilah sings of her love for him, ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ and of course Samson is smitten! Now we come to the gruesome bit, Delilah, having Samson at her mercy, demands that Samson proves his love for her by revealing the secret of his strength, the love-struck fool complies and Philistine soldiers rush in bind Samson and blind him, and of course cut off his hair. We know that this is not going to end well! The Philistines organise a sacrifice in the temple of their god, Dagon, and drag in the weakened Samson intending to force him to pay homage to Dagon. Samson however persuades his guide to lead him to the two pillars supporting the temple. He prays to God to restore his strength and succeeds in pulling apart the pillars whereupon the temple collapses killing Samson and his enemies whereupon the curtain falls on the last Act. We listened to the two Arias by Delilah ‘Printemps qui commence’ and ‘Mon Coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ sung by Maria Callas with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Tullio Serafin.
After this torrid romance we sailed into calmer waters with the first movement of Haydn’s cello concerto played by Jacquelin du Pré. The concerto was written in 1783 for Antonin Kraft, cellist in the orchestra of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. At one time the authenticity of the piece was questioned with the suggestion that it was in fact written by Kraft himself but this theory was debunked when Haydn’s autographed score was discovered in 1951. Although the concerto sounds more relaxed and lyrical than the first concerto, it is more technically difficult for the soloist.
We followed this by hearing the Double Quartet No 1 in D minor opus 65 by Louis Spohr for four violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos played by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble. Louis Spohr was a German composer, violinist and conductor. He lived from 1784-1859 dying at the then ripe old age of 75. Highly regarded during his lifetime, he composed ten symphonies, ten operas, eighteen violin concerti, four clarinet concerti, four oratorios, and various works for small ensembles and chamber music.
Interestingly, he was the inventor of both the violin chin rest and the orchestral rehearsal mark or letter (a letter written in bold type in an orchestral score which enables the conductor to ask the orchestra to begin at a specific point other than the beginning). He fell into obscurity following his death, when his music was rarely heard but the late 20th century saw a revival of interest in his work, especially in Europe.
His prolific output is some evidence of his eminence during his lifetime. He was first employed by the Duke of Brunswick who spotted him as a talented musician at the age of 15. The Duke permitted him to make a concert tour of North Germany; a concert in Leipzig in December 1804 brought the influential music critic Friedrich Rochlitz ‘to his knees’ not only because of Spohr’s playing but also because of his compositions. This concert brought the young man overnight fame in the whole German speaking world.
Spohr was a friend of Beethoven and, in 1808 worked with him at Beethoven’s home on the Piano Trio known as ‘The Ghost’ elaborating and advising on the violin part. He wrote, surprisingly, that Beethoven’s piano was out of tune and his playing was harsh or careless; they nevertheless remained friends.
Listening to his works now it is hard to believe that he and his music were forgotten for so long, but that seems to be the fate of many composers.
We finished the afternoon by listening to another famous singer, the contralto Kathleen Ferrier singing the second movement of Mahler’s song cycle Das Lied von der Erde, The Song of the Earth, with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter. The work was one of his last pieces, written in 1908-9 and foreshadows his death from a heart disease in May 1911. He was inspired by the gift of a German translation by Hans Bethge of a set of Chinese poems, The Chinese Flute. The second movement is called Der Einsame im Herbst, Autumn Loneliness, which describes the departure of summer with the sweet scent of flowers and the approach of autumn with its icy winds and withered golden leaves. The recording was made in 1952 a year before her tragically early death from cancer in 1953. It must be admitted that Mahler is not one of the more cheerful composers but his music is sublimely beautiful!