One wonderful effect of this series has been my listening to a lot of music by composers I’d never heard of before. Setting aside what you hear on a regular basis in the world’s concert halls, an astonishing number of composers wrote symphonies, and a lot of the ones you don’t hear are really quite wonderful. I did a search on Google a few weeks ago, looking for a list of composers who wrote symphonies, and I found just such a list, which has informed and shaped a lot of my listening. Look at all those names! I’ll bet there are professional musicians who haven’t heard of as many as a third of the names on that list.
I was intrigued by one such name, Felicien David, who was a contemporary of Berlioz and who seems to have been influenced by the great master — or so it seems to me, by listening to a bit of his music. I really haven’t heard much at all of David, beyond two works, but there definitely seems to be something Berliozian in his orchestral writing, his approach to form, and his willingness to employ effects like a spoken-word role in his music. I haven’t found much information on David beyond bare-bones biographical detail, but he seems an interesting figure and I hope to learn more about him.
This particular work isn’t exactly a symphony but what David calls an “ode-symphonie”, or “symphonic ode”. It’s a large-scale work for orchestra and chorus with speaker, called Le desert, in which David composes musical impressions from a journey her undertook to the Middle East. The work is particularly Berliozian in its blurring of the lines between symphony and opera, and from what I’ve learned, there were actually plans at one point in David’s life (which didn’t come to pass) to stage Le desert as an opera.
So, is this a symphony? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it stretches the definition to its breaking point…but it is a very pleasurable listen, and it doesn’t deserve the complete obscurity into which it has fallen. Here is Felicien David’s Le desert.
Next week…I don’t know yet. There’s another work by David that might fit the bill, but it stretches the symphony idea even farther, so we’ll see. Gotta get to Dvorak sometime….