One Hit Wonders

Half-listening to Chris de Burgh’s Lady in Red the other day I remembered his entry in the Irish Rich List as north of £30 Million a few years ago. From there my mind drifted across the landscape of once-only hits from Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue to, a personal soft-spot, Who let the Dogs Out by Baha Men; where are they now, I wonder? Modern popular music is littered with the Tainted Love that we embrace so readily and discard as quickly, but cast your mind back to the early part of the last century and you will discover a more resonant and enduring affection among the ‘big hits’ and the miasma that often surrounds them.

Today, almost 80 years after his death, Gustavus Theodore von Holst still cuts a lonely and somewhat baffling figure. His enormous musical gifts, and his willingness to share them through his teaching (at Morley College and St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith), mask a painfully shy man who, nevertheless, found a mysterious poetry in most of his works, and even in parts of his ‘greatest hit’, The Planets. He was far too fine a musician not to realize why the piece was instantly popular – a popularity that has grown over the years unchecked – but it distressed him that the Suite came to dominate his musical life, casting other compositions into the shadows where, largely, they have remained. The Hymn of Jesus and Egdon Heath are wheeled out occasionally, and brass bands (and listeners) love his Moorside Suite. Here, almost out of character, is the lushly romantic A Song of the Night (1905) for violin and orchestra, composed when he was just 30.

Gerry Dorsey aka Engelbert Humperdinck featured in Lazy Sunday a few weeks ago, following his limp effort in the Eurovision. Amazingly, if the real EH had lived another 15 years, the two could have met – a spooky thought. The shadow of Richard Wagner fell across the early life of Humperdinck, who met the great man in Naples, and helped with the preparation of Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1881. His fame today, and since the opera was presented in 1893, rest exclusively on the magical (and sinister) fairy-tale Hansel und Gretel. This adorable masterpiece delights learned musicians and children (8 is about the right age) in equal measure, and is unalloyed joy from beginning to end. Here, with the influence of Wagner uppermost, the exquisite beauty of second act’s last pages.

Extreme diffidence, coupled with a nervous susceptibility to the influence of other musicians (Wagner again, but also Debussy) led Paul Dukas to seriously underrate his own creative gift – to the point where he rejected more of his compositions than he published, judging them unworthy of the high standards he set for himself. L’Apprenti Sorcier is a slight but undoubted masterpiece and, with a little help from Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski, it continues to delight children and big people with its brilliant soundpicture (see Lazy Sunday two weeks ago) from Goethe’s 1797 poem. His sombre and mysterious opera Ariane et Barbe-Bleue is perhaps the best example of this composer’s noble imagination, also on display here in his ballet music La Peri (1912), a fairy creature from Persian mythology, descended from fallen angels who cannot re-enter paradise until he, or she, has done penance.

Though blind from the age of three, during the dozen or so years that Joaquin Rodrigo spent in Paris, he studied with Paul Dukas (above), Olivier Messiaen and Manuel de Falla. His oeuvre is dominated, of course, by the Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and small orchestra, which made his name in 1939. His almost exact contemporary was the great Andalucian guitarist Andres Segovia who, single-handedly, brought the instrument out of the museum and the world of flamenco, and into the concert-halls of the world. The smoothly colourful Hispanicism of Aranjuez is replaced in the Fantasia para un Gentilhombre by a more classical restraint. Requested by Segovia in 1954 (the guitarist is the ‘gentilhombre’ of the title), it deserves to be heard more often than almost never. Here, the dedicatee plays the last movement Canario, a wonderful syncopated 6/8 dance, to the manner born. Listen for the imitative bird calls in the last few bars.

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About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

8 thoughts on “One Hit Wonders

    August 19, 2012 at 17:02

    A rapturously romantic selection, Mahlerman. Enjoyed the Holst and Rodrigo in particular. Intriguing ads to accompany the videos as usual… ‘Make new friends and have fun’ (shouldn’t there be a ‘join the Dabblers’ strapline?)

  2. Worm
    August 20, 2012 at 10:27

    I liked the rodrigo guitar piece, lovely stuff

    John Halliwell
    August 20, 2012 at 12:45

    Lovely stuff.

    My favourite ‘one-hit’ is by the minor wonder known as E J Moeran; his Symphony in G minor is superb. As has been stated many times, it is strongly influenced by other composers, particularly Sibelius and Vaughan Williams. But the greatest influences come from scenes from his Anglo/Irish background. Moeran said that much of the symphony was written among the mountains and seaboard of County Kerry, with the second movement conceived around the marshes and sand dunes of East Norfolk. The whole is magnificent. RVW would probably have been pleased to own it. How I wish Moeran had given us a second symphony:

    August 20, 2012 at 13:22

    Seems we are singing from the same song-sheet again JH. Did consider the Moeran, which I have known since the Boult/New Phil record came out in Ireland, where I then lived. Time-wise only the Scherzo seemed to fit, and it seems atypical of the piece as a whole. You are right about the RVW influence, and also Sibelius (particularly at the end) – not a bad pair to be influenced by? I’ll be doing an ‘Irish’ post quite soon.

      John Halliwell
      August 20, 2012 at 19:29

      It’s a song-sheet I greatly enjoy singing from, Mm. I look forward to that Irish post.

      On the subject of Moeran, I have just listened, for the first time in several years, to his Norfolk inspired Lonely Waters; a glorious nine minutes worth, as evocative a piece of place and time as Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad or The Banks of Green Willow.

  5. Brit
    August 20, 2012 at 13:58

    Second movement of the Concierto de Aranjuez is one of my favourites, and the other one hit wonder I really like is Bruch’s violin concerto, but I’m led to believe that classical purists rather look down on it…

    August 20, 2012 at 14:59

    Bad Critics and so-called purists have damaged ‘serious’ music beyond measure over the last 50 years Brit. Keep in mind the well known quote by the man-of-granite Jean Sibelius that ‘no statue has ever been put up to a critic’. Remember also the remark about phychologists who go to a strip club ‘to watch the audience’. I have had many evenings in the concert hall tarnished by having the misfortune of sitting next to some know-all, who didn’t think that the performance we had just heard ‘was a patch of Barbirolli’s in 1953’. I followed this particular blight into the crowded bar to see if he tried to bore the tits off somebody else and, sure enough, he was pouring out his particular brand of bile to anybody within earshot, using the same words in the same order. Probably practices in front of the mirror.
    The slow middle movement of the Rodrigo is a thing of almost Mozartian beauty, and the Bruch Violin Concerto is a near-faultless example of the sub-Brahms genre, full of beautiful tunes that stay in the head, and perfectly written for the instrument. Just the sort of thing that a purist would find objectionable.

      August 20, 2012 at 22:15

      Your words are consoling and sagacious, MM.

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