Like any artistic field—writing, painting and film—music lends itself to the labyrinthine paths of discovery, wherein one composer inevitably leads you to another. From Bernard Herrmann I found Georges Auric, and from there I stumbled upon Jacques Ibert, and finally upon the neglected works of George Templeton Strong, whose works are vast and atmospheric. I would not place him on the same pedestal I do Herrmann or Rozsa, though his works are diverse and experimental enough that it’s a wonder the Romantic composer’s music isn’t more often played in modern orchestras.
I happened to find a good recording of his The Night, conducted by Swiss composer Adriano with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. By comparison to most epics, this 29 minute musical feast is not long, and is divided into four parts: At Sunset, Peasant’s Battle – March, In an Old Forest, and The Awakening of Forest Spirits. These, among Strong’s other heavily Romantic works, exude an aura of fragility and simplicity.
What I do find lacking in Strong’s work in comparison to others is a flirtation with darkness, the kind of which I find refreshing and oddly placating in Jacques Ibert’s La ballade de la geôle de Reading and Herrmann’s prelude to Jane Eyre. While many other composers—modern or romantic—embrace it well, Strong’s works seem hesitant to completely embrace a darker side of music, though his The Cemetery—Sarabande of the Dead does come close, and Youth of Athens and Entering the Parthenon both have delectably sinister undertones. In true Romantic fervour, Strong keeps his work bittersweet with a decent touch of melancholy and intrigue.
The recording company Naxos thankfully resurrects many neglected composers from complete obscurity, and Strong is one of those. American classics have a range of his works, including the eclectic and moving Ondine, along with his From a Notebook of Sketches Suites 1-3, masterfully conducted by Adriano (pictured below) also with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Adriano’s brilliant career should also be commended for revealing the music of Strong.
I find it increasingly difficult to listen to Opera only for the frustration it can cause neighbours—and since the image of sitting at home with either Herrmann, Rozsa or Strong blaring may elicit associations with madness (think Crazy Joe Davola in Seinfeld)—it is with regret that such orchestral extravaganza’s are often confined to the inferior form of earphones. It really needs to be played loud to appreciate the full effect.
While better known composers such as Bernard Herrmann and Miklos Rozsa have truly tremendous works—whose epic masterpieces are best appreciated on Music from the films of Orson Welles Volume 1, and Spellbound: The Classic Film Scores of Miklos Rozsa by Charles Gerhardt respectively—Strong’s music is an invaluable contribution to the operatic oeuvre.