Tone Poem Tuesday

First, a quote from Evenings with the Orchestra by Hector Berlioz:

In a certain opera house of northern Europe, it is the custom among the members of the orchestra, several of whom are cultivated men, to spend their time reading books–or even discussing matters literary and musical–whenever they perform second-rate operas. This is to say that they read and talk a good deal. Next to the score on every music-stand, some book or other is generally to be found, and a performer apparently most absorbed in scanning his part, or most earnestly counting his rests while watching for his cue, may actually be giving all his attention to Balzac’s marvelous scenes, to Dickens’s enchanting pictures of social life, or even to the study of one of the sciences. I know one who, during the first fifteen performances of a well-known opera, read, re-read, pondered, and mastered the three volumes of Humboldt’s Cosmos. Another, during the long run of a silly score now forgotten, managed to learn English; while a third, thanks to his exceptional memory, retailed to his neighbors the substance of some ten volumes of tales, romances, anecdotes, and risque stories.

One man only in this orchestra does not allow himself any such diversion. Wholly intent upon his task, all energy, indefatigable, his eye glued to his notes and his arm in perpetual motion, he would feel dishonored if he were to miss an eighth note or incur censure for his tone quality. By the end of each act he is flushed, perspiring, exhausted; he can hardly breathe, yet he does not take advantage of the respite offered by the cessation of musical hostilities to go for a glass of beer at the nearest bar. The fear of missing the first measures of the next act keeps him rooted at his post. Touched by so much zeal, the manager of the opera house once sent him six bottles of wine, “by way of encouragement”. But the artist, “conscious of his responsibilities”, was so far from grateful for the gift that he returned it with the proud words: “I have no need of encouragement.” The reader will have guessed that I am speaking of the man who plays the bass drum.

That’s been a favorite passage of music writing of mine for years. Berlioz’s mind was supremely literary, and had he not been a great composer he might well still be remembered for his writings on music instead of his writings of music.

But what’s the relevance? I turn now to one of my favorite Substack publications, the Daily Classical Music Post by musicologist Laura Lawrie. On this publication, Lawrie does exactly what the title says: she shares a piece of classical music every day. Her range is very wide, which makes her Substack a fantastic resource for people who are curious about classical music in all its varieties. Last week she shared this piece: the Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra by Gabriel Prokofiev. Lawrie writes:

Some instruments spend just about all of their time at the back of the orchestra or band, supplying vitally important support but never shining on their own. Today’s selection features one of those instruments, the bass drum.

The Russian-British composer Gabriel Prokofiev (born 1975) wrote his Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra in 2012. He said, “It produces the lowest frequencies of the Orchestra, and is used to create some of the most thunderous climaxes, but it’s never been considered as a ‘solo’ instrument or been given a Concerto. As it’s un-pitched, and on the surface seems quite a limited instrument, that’s not surprising; but back in 2011 I perversely thought it would be interesting to attempt to compose a Concerto for Bass Drum.”

Gabriel Prokofiev is the grandson of the great Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, so the musical tradition is continuing there. The work itself is a challenging listen, but it makes some deeply creative use of the sounds that the bass drum can make, and they go far, far beyond simply whacking it with a mallet. Creative use of percussion is always a joy to behold (witness, for example, Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony), and this particular performance embraces the unique nature of the piece. One imagines M. Berlioz’s much-admired bass drummer taking to this work with relish!

Here is the Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra by Gabriel Prokofiev.

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