The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Was Bernard Herrmann’s love theme in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” influenced by Antonin Dvorak’s “American Suite”?

July 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear spent an interesting and enjoyable Fourth of July holiday weekend.

Two of the most enjoyable things seemed to overlap unexpectedly.

On Wednesday night, I tuned into Turner Classic Movies. That’s when I watched, once again and with great pleasure, Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful “North by Northwest (1959.”

The next morning, on Independence Day, I tuned in to Wisconsin Public Radio and heard a lot of music by American composers and by composers who were inspired by America.

That’s when I heard the “American Suite” (1895) by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (below), who directed a conservatory in New York City and liked to spend summers in a Czech community in Spillville, Iowa, where he was captivated by American music of Native Americans and African-Americans.

What overlapped was the music, the love theme between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint — called “Train Conversations” — by Bernard Herrmann (below) in the film and the opening of the suite by Dvorak.

But The Ear needs a reality check: Is the Ear the only one to hear striking similarities between the two?

Take a listen to the two works in the YouTube video below, decide for yourself and let us know if you hear the same influence.

To be sure, The Ear is not saying that Herrmann – a sophisticated American composer who knew classical music and who is perhaps best known for his edgy score to “Psycho,” which is often played in concert halls – completely lifted the music or stole it or plagiarized it.

But it certainly is possible that Herrmann was influenced or inspired by Dvorak – much the same way that Leonard Bernstein’s song “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” seems remarkably close to an opening theme in the slow middle movement of the Piano Concerto No. 5 – the famous “Emperor” Concerto — by Ludwig van Beethoven. The same goes for Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, who, some say, borrowed tunes more than once from Franz Schubert.

Well, if you’re going to borrow, why not do it from the best? And Dvorak was among the great melodists of all time, in company with Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, Frederic Chopin, Robert Schumann, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Maurice Ravel and Francis Poulenc, to name a few of the best known.

Anyway, listen to the two scores and let us know what you think.

Can you think of other music that was perhaps influenced by a work of classical music? If so, leave a comment, with YouTube links if possible, in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra turns in a two-fold triumph with a Madison’s first live Bruckner symphony and a darkly elegant Mozart piano concerto with Shai Wosner as soloist. Moreover, the WCO plans on another Bruckner symphony (No. 2) next season.

March 25, 2013
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Is this a case of saving the best for last (or next to last) ?

Probably not, as most performing groups want to put their best foot forward all season long.

But now there can be no doubting that the smaller David took on the bigger Goliath (the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra vs. the Madison Symphony Orchestra, though they are really friendly competitors, not enemies) for the honor of presenting live Bruckner symphonies in Madison first – and won. Moreover, the ambitious and accomplished WCO has programmed Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2 for next season while the MSO has once again taken a pass.

So some history was made, and much beauty was created at last Friday night’s concert in the Overture Center‘s Capitol Theater by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below top) under its longtime music director and conductor Andrew Sewell (below bottom).

WCO lobby

andrewsewell

The evening started off with the Israeli-born and now New York-based pianist Shai Wosner (below) once again substituting for a missing Anne-Marie McDermott in Mozart’s dark and dramatic masterwork the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor. K. 491.

Wosner is a master of clarity, elegance and rounded tone with a great gift for playing quietly, with understatement.  His scales remain strings of individual pearls — not a choker. Trained as a composer, Wosner also played his own cadenzas in the first and last movements, and provided his own variations and ornamentation in the second movement when the theme gets repeated five times.

Shai Wosner Photo: Marco Borggreve

Most of all, Wosner displayed in abundance what great Mozart concertos – which are  difficult to bring off because of their transparency – require. Both Wosner and the WCO played the concerto as chamber music, holding dialogues with the various sections of the chamber orchestra.

The effect was magical and moving. It was an enthralling performance, and makes one hope to hear more of the Wosner-Sewell partnership in more Mozart piano concertos as well as other repertoire. There are, after all, 27 piano concertos by Mozart, of which at least 12 or 18 are undeniable masterpieces. And Wosner told The Ear that is looking into recording piano concertos by Haydn and Ligeti. Madison could be a test run.

The audience appreciated the Mozart performance so much that they elicited from Wosner a perfect encore: a Schubert miniature, the haunting “Hungarian Melody,” which Wosner plays on his all-Schubert CD for the Onyx label. (Below is a YouTube video with Andras Schiff playing part of it.) The audience was hushed and spellbound by the entrancing beauty played so subtly, so fluidly and so warmly.

It sure makes one hope that someone – perhaps the Wisconsin Union Theater or Farley’s House of Pianos – brings Shai Wosner back for a solo recital.

Then, after intermission, came the historic Bruckner.

This is officially his “Zero” or “Nullte” Symphony, as good a place as any to start a Bruckner quest. And once again the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Sewell showed their respective talents in this long and difficult, if early, score by the deeply religious and solitary Austrian Bruckner (below):

Anton Bruckner 2

All the sections  — strings, brass, winds, percussion — performed superbly with sharp attacks and even sharper silences.

To be clear: This is certainly not Bruckner’s greatest symphonic work. But it is well worth playing and hearing, and it proved a wonderful first introduction to hearing live Bruckner symphonies in Madison.

I loved especially the first movement, with its haunting violin opening that made one wonder if the sophisticated movie composer and orchestrator Bernard Hermann had listened to it or had it in mind while he was writing the edgy score for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

Compare the opening minutes of the two works with the sharp, jagged violins and judge for yourselves:

The slow movement proved lovely, and the Scherzo, which looks forward and is perhaps the most Brucknerian movement, proved by turns forcefully dramatic and songfully lyrical.

All in all, this was one of the finest and most impressive pairings – of both the programming and the performances – of this season. It was on par with the outstanding concert of an early Mozart Violin Concerto and a late Shostakovich symphony that the Madison Symphony Orchestra performed only two weeks ago. Are we in Madison not lucky? One can only hope for more concerts like these two.

Of course, we are all critics. And you should know that The Ear is not alone is his very positive regard for the WCO concert with Wosner and Bruckner.

Here, for example, is the review by John W. Barker, a frequent guest blogger for this blog, that appeared in Isthmus and briefly explores the contrasts between Bruckner and Mahler, who are so often mentioned together:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=39478&sid=c7a301311ba6864c6009c653492cee4f

 And here is a review by Greg Hettmansberger for the “Classically Speaking” blog he writes for Madison Magazine:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/March-2013/Wisconsin-Chamber-Orchestra-Two-Great-Halves-Equal-One-Spectacular-Evening/


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