The New Bedford Whaling Museum's Moby-Dick Marathon is an annual non-stop reading of Herman Melville's literary masterpiece. The multi-day program of entertaining activities and events is presented every January. Admission to the Marathon is free.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Symphony (and Cantata)

photo: Vancouver 125
As a film (and film score) buff, I eagerly followed up on Lemuel's discovery that Bernard Herrmann had written a Moby Dick cantata and sinfonietta.

For those less obsessed, Bernard Herrmann composed for some of the greatest films of the 20th century (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Taxi Driver, ...), finding particular success writing for Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, ...).

Herrmann wrote two pieces inspired by M-D. The Sinfonietta, written for string orchestra in 1935-36, and the Cantata, written for male voices and orchestra in 1936-38. You can hear snippets of a CD by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra on this Amazon page. According to the liner notes:
The fondness which the composer held for Melville's Moby Dick [sic] dated from his boyhood. The novel was a childhood favourite and as a young man Herrmann's father had served on two whaling ships and was even shipwrecked on an island in the Bering Sea in 1892.
Apparently, Herrmann originally intended to write a M-D opera, and had discussed it with lyricist William Clark Harrington. Harrington was "a New England poet and manager of the CBS music library." Together they took trips to the novel's Massachusetts locations, searching for inspiration. In the end, the opera became the cantata, with "text selected and arranged from the novel" by Harrington. Interestingly, the canata is dedicated to Herrmann's friend, Charles Ives.

If you have any interest in M-D spin-offs and/or orchestral music, seek out this recording. It bears close listening. The Sinfonietta is the culmination of Herrmann's interest in Arnold Schoenberg (say the liner notes). The Cantata condenses the novel to 45 minutes, featuring solos by Ishmael, Ahab, Pip, Starbuck, and various generic "sailors."

One curiosity: You can hear in the Amazon clip for track 10, Ahab sings "...and hemp can only kill me." M-D devotees will realize this is a misquote of "...and hemp only can kill me." The libretto with the CD has the same error.

Now, the singer for this recording is British, a native English-speaker, David Wilson-Johnson. One might assume he would have recognized that "can only kill" doesn't make sense in this context. Either there was an error preparing the CD, or Herrmann & Harrington made the error. I'd bet the former. It's a question for the Bernard Herrmann Society. (Yes, there is one!)

[Whoa! I completely forgot that I blogged about this music back in 2011. Time to listen to Old & In The Way.]

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