Charles O’Brien Orchestral Music, Volume Two
March 26, 2016
Charles O’Brien (1882-1968) is a new unsung composer for this reviewer having been introduced to me by Martin Anderson of Toccata Classics. This second volume of three concentrates on his two earlier works Minstrel’s Curse and Spring written in the early 20th Century as well as two very early works from 1898 Berceuse and Mazurka when Charles was attending George Watson’s school. It concludes with a piece Scottish Scenes orchestrated for a 1929 BBC concert originally written for piano which can be heard on Toccata Classics #260 on O’Brien’s piano music CD release. I’ve provided a link above for volume one of his orchestral works.
To Spring, op. 4 (An den Fruhling) (1906) has parallel lines to Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 both written in B flat major and both written about spring and both having a similar structure within the form of the sonata. The tone poem has turned out to be his most popular work although this is a first recording as are all of his works. The work begins with a theme that is shared by the woodwinds and the strings. It is one of tranquility that segues into a section of agitation followed by an exchange of woodwinds and horns before it returns to the opening theme which continues for the balance of the work. Percussion is added to enhance the work.
The Minstrel’s Curse, op.7 (Des Sangers Fluch) (1905) according to conductor Paul Mann was part of a potboiler program and never ever performed again until this recording. Based on a 19th century poem by Ludwig Uhland (listed below) this concert overture/tone poem is filled with many ideas including harp solos which are part of the story. These type of story telling overtures are right up my alley as there are ups and downs as the story unfolds. Paul Mann points out in his well thought out liner notes that it is a Lisztian style of work and I tend to agree with him. I’m glad that he did his best to retain all of the material making it as complete as possible.
Mazurka and Berceuse, no opus numbers were written when Charles was attending the Watson school of music in 1898. He was 16 at the time and one can hear the promise that the young student had to offer. Totaling 6 minutes in length the lullaby and dance are very easy on the ears.
Scottish Scenes, op. 17 (1914-15) were originally written for piano but as part of a 1929 BBC broadcast Charles orchestrated and the result are three pieces that definitely bring out the scotch snaps in O’Brien. “Moorland” has a flair for the dramatic, “Voices of the Glen” a mysterious piece, and “Harvest Home” a rousing uplifting dance.
I encourage listeners to obtain all three of the O’Brien pieces and welcome him into your library. They will provide many hours of listening pleasures.
The Minstrel's Curse In olden times a castle stood towering high and free: It gleamed far over the country, unto the deep blue sea; The gardens round were fragrant, in glowing bloom arrayed, And glistening like the rainbow, the limpid foun- tains played.
There sat a mighty monarch with many lands his own, He sat so pale and threatening upon his mighty throne. For what he thinks is terror and what he sees is rage And what he speaks is torture and blood his writ- ten page. There travelled to this castle a noble minstrel pair, The one with locks of gold and the other grey of hair; And with his harp the old man a comely charger rode, While merrily beside him his young companion strode. The old man to the young said: "My son, take ample care! Our deepest songs remember, and strike thy note most rare. With all thy might put sorrow and joy into thy tone ! To-day we both must conquer this monarch's heart of stone." Before the lofty pillars the minstrel pair is seen; Upon the throne are sitting the monarch and his queen.
The king is fiercely splendid, like bloody north- ern light, The queen is mild and lovely, like full moon in the night. The old man touched his harp strings, and won- derful to hear ! Chords fuller, ever fuller, were rising to the ear; Then high the young man's singing most heavenly limpid streamed, The old man's voice sonorous a ghostly chorus seemed. They sing of love and springtime, of golden days to bless, Of freedom, manly honour, of faith and holiness. They sing of all the sweetness that trembles through the breast, They sing of all that's lofty and fills the heart with zest. The courtiers round about them forget to mock and sneer; Stern warriors before heaven all bow their knees in fear. The queen in wistful gladness is overcome and throws Down to the magic minstrels from her own breast
"You have beguiled my people, beguile you now my queen?" The king is shouting fiercely, and trembling in his spleen. He throws his sword that flashing has pierced the young man's heart: Thence no more golden ballads, but sprays of lifeblood start. And scattered as by tempest is all the listening swarm. The youth in throes is dying right in his master's arm. He wraps the mantle round him, then upright on his steed Binds fast the youth and with him he leaves the hall in speed. Before the lofty gateway the minstrel old and wise Stands still and there he seizes his harp, of harps the prize. Against a marble pillar this noble harp he flings. He calls; through halls and gardens his voice un- canny rings: "Woe, castle, no more music shall sweep thy halls along, No harp-strings shall resound there, and no more golden song.
Nay ! Only sighs and groaning and sneaking of the slave, Till crushed by spirit of vengeance thou art a mouldy grave. "Woe, fragrant gardens blooming so fair in spring- time's grace ! To you I show this dead boy's white and dis- torted face, That you henceforth shall wither, that every spring be dry, That you all sere and barren in days to come shall lie. "Woe, thou unholy murderer! Thou curse of minstrelsy ! Thy strife for bloodstained glory all times in vain shall be; Thy name shall be forgotten, steeped in eternal night, And, like a dying rattle, in empty air take flight !" Thus cried the ancient minstrel, and heaven heard his call: The pompous halls are ruins, low lies each mighty wall. One lofty pillar only recalls the splendours past; This pillar, cracked already, may fall to-night at last.
Where once were scented gardens is now a barren land, No branches shade to scatter, no spring to pierce the sand; No songs, no book of heroes the monarch's name rehearse ; Dissolved in night, forgotten ! That is the min- strel's curse.