Entertainment Music

Saturday 10 December 2016

A reminder that there's more to life than the obvious

Published 28/05/2011 | 05:00

If your memory stretches back to the 1970s, you may well remember a Sunday night entertainment on the BBC, an everyday story of shipping folk in the Liverpool of the 19th century.

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As well as the stunning visual images, the series had an aural highlight, its signature tune, that is known to this day at the theme from The Onedin Line.

It may come as a surprise to learn that this sumptuous piece of classical music -- the Spartacus Adagio -- is a relatively recent composition, which had its first outing as part of a stage production exactly nine months before West Side Story premiered on Broadway.

Hard to credit that a musical featuring songs like 'Maria', 'Tonight', 'I Feel Pretty', and 'Somewhere' could stem from the same era. But, yes, the Broadway musical followed on September 26, 1957, nine months after the Christmas-time premiere in Leningrad of the ballet Spartacus, for which the Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian wrote the score. But then, Cold War USA and USSR were, culturally, very different places.

The ballet is based on events in 73BC in what is now southern Italy when Spartacus, a gladiator, led a slaves' revolt against the Romans. The Adagio comes at a point in the ballet when the revolt has been successful, and Spartacus has rescued his wife.

This is beautiful and gloriously romantic music -- there's tenderness, fluttering woodwind, a harp even, accompanying the coy strings, before they come together in a lushness that develops into a series of crescendos. Then the brass, triumphant, leads us back to a more gentle conclusion. Two lovers are finally together again.

The piece stands out as perfect for the dance, spot on for a love scene. It translates into an entirely appropriate accompaniment to visuals with a nautical theme, the gentle and the not-so-gentle movement of the ocean reflected in what we hear. Khachaturian got good value out of his ballet score. He reworked it into four separate collections, three orchestral rhapsodies and a set of marches for Wind Band.

For a man who also gave us the whirling, rather raucous, and very up-tempo Sabre Dance, probably his best-known piece, the beauty of the Spartacus Adagio is a reminder that there's more to life than the obvious. . . and Broadway shows.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning. ghamilton@independent.ie

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