Classical Connections: Summertime

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If any piece of music evokes the sultry heat of summer in South Carolina it’s the song Summertime  written in 1934 by George Gershwin for his opera  Porgy and Bess.  Strictly speaking, it’s an aria rather than a song but it’s one of Gershwin’s best. It’s been described as “one of the finest songs the composer ever wrote” and Stephen Sondheim thought that the lyrics by DuBose Heyward were “the best lyrics in musical theater”. The magic of the music seems to come from Gershwin’s use of evocative slow-moving chromatic harmonies that make it sound like a blend of a spiritual and a blues. Perhaps this is why it has become such a favourite among jazz musicians.

Mendelssohn at thirty (James Warren Childe, 1839).
Mendelssohn at thirty (James Warren Childe, 1839).

Down at the drinking trough the other night, someone brought up the subject of music inspired by the summer which is how Gershwin’s song came into the conversation. The summer theme has been a favourite of some classical composers too and the symphonic poem Song of Summer by Delius springs to mind. Incidentally, you may recall that fascinating 1968 TV movie of the same name, brilliantly directed by Ken Russell which depicts the period when the young Eric Fenby worked as Delius’s amanuensis. You can see the entire movie on YouTube. Delius also wrote a short orchestral piece called Summer Night on the River. In 1907 Joseph Suk completed  A Summer’s Tale, a long five-movement symphonic poem.  The lesser-known Danish composer Knudåge Riisager wrote A Summer Rhapsody  for orchestra. But perhaps the first work that springs to mind is a concert overture by the seventeen-year-old Felix Mendelssohn, composed after he had read a German translation of the Shakespeare play.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Overture, A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op. 21. Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra cond. Kurt Masur (Duration: 12:46; Video: 720p HD)

Adding the opus number after the title is not being unduly punctilious in this case, because Mendelssohn composed music for this play on two occasions. First came this stand-alone concert overture of 1826 and in 1842 Mendelssohn wrote incidental music to the play (opus 61) only a few years before his death. The opus numbers tell us which is which. George Grove – he of music dictionary fame – called this overture “the greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music” and for any teenager it would be a remarkable achievement.

Like Mozart before him, Mendelssohn was recognised as a child prodigy, though unlike Leopold Mozart his parents did not attempt to capitalize on his talent. Born with the grand name of Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy he was brought up in what we’d describe as an intellectual and artistic environment. Between the ages of twelve and fourteen, Mendelssohn wrote twelve attractive string symphonies and his piano quartet was published when he was just thirteen. At the age of fifteen he wrote his first symphony and at sixteen wrote the String Octet in E flat, a work of remarkable maturity that is still performed today. This overture shows exceptional musical and orchestration skills and confident melodic writing. It was given its first performance in Stettin, now part of Poland and known as Szczecin. To get to the concert in February 1827 and incidentally, make his first public appearance, the young composer had to travel eighty miles through a violent snowstorm.

Frank Bridge (1879-1941): Summer. Cole Conservatory Symphony Orchestra, cond. Johannes Müller-Stosch (Duration: 09:27; Video 720p HD)

Although the music of the English composer Frank Bridge was once popular in Britain it has fallen out of fashion, a phenomenon all too common in the world of classical music. Bridge was an active performing musician on the London musical scene around the turn of the last century, playing viola in several string quartets and sometimes conducting orchestras.

This short orchestral work is composed in an approachable style and, compared to what Stravinsky was doing at the time, is perhaps a bit old-fashioned. In later years, Bridge turned to a more astringent musical language, unconsciously reflecting his own somewhat acerbic personality.  It was in keeping with times of course, but in so doing he probably did himself a disservice because the general concert-going public found his more radical musical style less approachable. According to Benjamin Britten, Bridge had strong pacifist convictions and was deeply disturbed by the First World War. During the war and immediately afterwards Bridge wrote a number of pastoral pieces that appear to search for spiritual consolation. This is one of them, its rich and sensuous chromaticism bringing distinct reminders of early Delius and Debussy.  Summer is a fine example of Bridge’s romantic pre-war composing style, written in the fateful year of 1914 so the joys of that particular summer were sadly rather short-lived.