It is hard now to appreciate just how popular Longfellow’s poetry was in Europe in the nineteenth century. English composers made numerous settings not only of short lyrics (including The Village Blacksmith
) but of longer works. Sullivan, Elgar and Coleridge-Taylor amongst others produced major works which are still performed, admittedly more rarely now than was the case.
It is more surprising to find that Dvořák became interested in his poetry - in translation, I assume. In a press interview he stated that the second and third movements of the New World Symphony
were inspired by The Song of Hiawatha.
Joseph Horowitz and Michael Beckermann have produced the melodrama recorded here in which lengthy extracts from the poem are read against relevant extracts from the Symphony and other works by the composer. The result is pleasant and generally entertaining, although I found it impossible to distinguish much of the text without having the printed words in front of me. Once I did that it was possible to discern a generalised relation between music and text, although I suspect that it would have been possible to choose many other musical works, by the same or another composer, of similar character and which might appear to match the poetry just as well or not.
The rest of the disc is a very mixed bag. I very much enjoyed the extract from the Violin Sonatina — although the whole work would have been better — and the two Humoresques, including the best known of the set. The American Suite
is included in a piano arrangement which loses much of the character of the orchestral version and played somewhat heavily. I have always found “Goin’ Home” a sad travesty of the original: the slow movement of the New World Symphony. This performance did nothing to change that opinion. In many ways the most interesting items on the disc are the pieces by Arthur Farwell whose use of native American idioms results in music of real vigour and originality. I would have welcomed much more of this.
Overall this is a disc which sheds less light than I had expected on Dvořák’s American connections. Perhaps his rarely performed setting of “The American Flag” might have shown more in this respect. It did however make me look out my long neglected copy of Longfellow’s poems and start to read them again. Otherwise I found this a disappointing collection.
Previous review: Christopher Fifield