Composers write music about the strangest of subjects, and that’s probably to be expected when there are words involved. But it would have been a remarkable prophet who would have foreseen the setting of an agricultural catalogue (with prices) by Milhaud in 1919, or the use of classified advertisements from a newspaper by Mossolov seven years later.
Richard Strauss courted derision by writing A Hero's Life with himself as the hero, and it can't have helped for him to have told a friend, "I see no reason why I shouldn't write a symphony about myself. I find the subject as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander the Great". Strauss even provided a sequel, Domestic Symphony, complete with cradle song and love scene.
Janacek's Second String Quartet, Intimate Letters, documents his passion, unrequited, for Kamilla Stösslová, a married woman 37 years his junior. Janacek even wrote a version with viola d'amore rather than standard viola, his interest being the symbolism of the instrument's name as well as its sound.
For Janacek, the quartet was quite graphic, and he was not the first composer to treat a piece of music as something between autobiography and erotic diary. Zdenek Fibich fell in love with a young pupil, Anezka Schulzová, in the 1890s. They became artistic collaborators, and she wrote the librettos for three of his operas, including Sárka, which was seen at the Wexford Festival in 1996. But she featured even more directly in his music in an extensive series of piano pieces, Moods, Impressions and Reminiscences.
It was not Fibich's intention that anyone would know exactly what he had in mind in this series, which ran to nearly 400 pieces. He kept the titles to himself, but they were published in a scholarly work after his death, so that we now know that they can refer to anything from conversations and walks to his confession of love or illustrations of Schulzová in different outfits. And, as the New Grove coyly puts it, there are "many devoted, in comprehensive detail, to parts of Schulzová's body".
Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799) was altogether more distanced in his approach to programme music. The best- known of his symphonies are those based on Ovid's Metamorphoses. He wrote 12, of which six survive, and those six have found new Irish advocates in the young Fishamble Sinfonia, which made its formal début at Smock Alley on Monday. The Sinfonia has been heard in concert before, working with the Dún Laoghaire Choral Society on its complete cycle of Mozart's masses at St Ann's Church, Dawson Street – the next instalment is due on November 8th.
The new orchestra's aim is to unearth music from the classical period by "the lesser-known geniuses who lived alongside Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven". Monday's programme included two of Dittersdorf's Ovid-inspired symphonies (The Four Ages of the World, and The Fall of Phaeton), a Sinfonia in D by Georg Christoph Wagenseil (1715-1777), and the Flute Concerto in A minor by CPE Bach, with William Dowdall as soloist.
The orchestra boasts the special blaze of period brass and the hard-edged, high-impact thwack of older timpani, and Monday's conductor, David Brophy, ensured that the playing, in spite of more than a few rough edges, was consistently strong on bite and attack.
Dittersdorf's symphonies are not intended to be specific in the way Vivaldi's Four Seasons are. The impressions are altogether more general. Vivaldi tagged his score with references to the prefatory poems. Dittersdorf has a phrase from Ovid at the start of a movement, no more. But the excitement is vivid, and the effect in the acoustically dry and confined space of Smock Alley was full. The slower music came off with less success.
The music of CPE Bach, who wrote some of the most idiosyncratic and unpredictable pieces of the 18th century, is a harder nut to crack. It consistently throws you off the scent as if it’s going to descend into incoherence, and then rescues you in time to stop things genuinely unwinding. In performance, it needs to sound both balanced and unbalanced, and David Brophy somehow managed that with the orchestral players in ways that the always fleet and nimble soloist somehow didn’t.
Future concerts by the Fishamble Sinfonia will feature the rest of Dittersdorf’s Ovid symphonies, and the group says it is “finalising new collaborations with Irish and international musicians that will push the orchestra creatively as well as technically”. A good start, as the Irish saying goes, is half the work.
Youthful lunchtime offerings
Back in the early 1980s when the National Concert Hall was new, August quickly became identified as the quietest month in the calendar. The hall decided to step in as promoter and do something to fill the gap with mostly youthful lunchtime offerings. Three decades on, the practice persists. It still provides a useful platform for young talent, although it still baffles me why a national institution such as the NCH continues to show so little interest in generating concert opportunities for that talent through the rest of the year.
At Wednesday’s lunchtime concert, I got to hear Clonmel soprano Kelley Lonergan for the first time. She sounds like a natural. Her voice is lovely to listen to, and she makes it sound as if it’s easy to produce. She knows how to sing quietly as well as to impress with full volume, something that all too few young Irish singers take care about. And her full volume is well supported rather than stressed or effortful. She also handles herself in a personable way when introducing the music to the audience – the NCH didn’t provide texts or translations for anything she sang.
Hers is the kind of voice one could predict an exciting future for. In fact, she may well have the voice to be living that future right now. But something is currently missing. The skills of vocal deployment are not yet matched by flexibility and responsiveness of musicianship. The result at the moment is that any sample you took from Wednesday would have been impressive. But over the centuries of varied repertoire that she covered, the necessary differentiation was really not to be found. And yet, the programme was not without surprises. The most successfully impassioned singing came not, as might have been expected, in an aria by Puccini, but in two songs by Sibelius. Now that’s a first in my experience of any Irish singer. Keep an ear out for her.