Sunday, 4 February 2018

A Postcard from the Volcano

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) is credited with introducing the genre of descriptive orchestral work to France and many people will be familiar with, for example, the spooky depiction of death, Danse macabre, used as the signature tune for the Jonathan Creek TV series. You'll find a selection of these symphonic poems recently published on Naxos.

I like the idea of having a title which will attach itself to the music. Danse macabre is so much more helpful to the imagination than Symphonic Poem, No. 3. With the title, the music is a danse macabre, without it's an abstraction that could equally be a depiction (to me) of an unkind practical joke, or a crime with a funny side; or - and nothing wrong with this - just a piece of music. Don't get the idea that I need a title before a piece of music will come alive in the imagination. It can help, it works, and may be a way in to appreciating the music more fully, or of getting to grips with contemporary music which has no easy way in.

When it comes to writing, rather than listening, I like to have a title in mind before a single note has been written. The title works for me as an imaginative seed. I'm finding that the somewhat open-ended titles given to the poems and pictures of the Symbolist movement are particularly effective as the launch point for a new piece.  How about: On the Manner of Addressing Clouds; or, Hymn from a Watermelon Pavilion; or, A Postcard from the Volcano; or, Two Figures in Dense Violet Night. I particularly like the last two. All of these are titles of poems by the symbolist poet, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) from his anthology, Harmonium, a sufficiently musical title in itself.

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