Classical Music’s One Hit Wonders

August is the month when we run a few repeats on The Dabbler, before normal service resumes in September. However, so rich and vast are our archives now that it’s no bad thing to give some of the oldies another airing. As a Bank Holiday treat, here’s Mahlerman’s piece about the one hit wonders of classical music…

Half-listening to Chris de Burgh’s Lady in Red 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 first act’s final 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.

Share This Post

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.

4 thoughts on “Classical Music’s One Hit Wonders

    John Halliwell
    August 25, 2014 at 15:38

    What a wonderful repeat this is. The Humperdinck is magical.

    What of the Nordic composers? They certainly knew how to put it about. Great music, that is. Sibelius the Finn; Nielsen the Dane; Greig the Norwegian, and Benny and Bjorn the Swedes…………? Scrap that last bit and replace it with Stenhammar the Swede. Surely a one hit wonder if ever there was! The Serenade – magnificent! When was it last played at The Proms? Ever? Probably never. I love the bits of Stenhammar I know.

    A great one-hit: E J Moeran – Symphony in G. It must have taken a lot out of the composer. Oh for a second symphony.

    Apologies for the above, MM; it reads like four tweets stitched together….

    August 25, 2014 at 18:09

    Yes JH, both Stenhammar and Moeran could have been included here – but I think, if memory serves, they have appeared in these pages earlier. Your apologies fall on fallow ground as, although I think I know what a tweet is, I can’t quite see the point – but then I still use a quill pen cut from the primary feathers (left side, of course) of a goose….call me old fashioned, but….

    John Halliwell
    August 25, 2014 at 19:59

    I’m sure the Moeran has appeared in these pages, MM. I don’t recall the Stenhammer.

    Thank you very much for that link, Steerforth. I was in complete ignorance of a performing version of the 2nd and a recording. I’ve just listened to brief extracts from the recording on iTunes and it appears that Martin Yates has created something special from the sketches. The temptation to download a compressed version for half the price of the CD nearly got the better of me, but I’ll wait a few days for delivery of an uncompressed version.

Comments are closed.