Monday 10 December 2018

One-hit-wonders who were outlived by a famous piece

Prolific: Johann Pachelbel is only remembered for his Canon in D
Prolific: Johann Pachelbel is only remembered for his Canon in D

George Hamilton

'The melody lingers on". There's many a classical piece that Irving Berlin's lyric could be applied to, numbers that have kept composers' names alive when just about everything else they ever wrote has been forgotten.

It drove Max Bruch mad that all people would talk about was his first violin concerto. In fairness, his other work does still get an airing - think Scottish Fantasy or Kol Nidrei.

The same cannot really be said of the Baroque composer Johann Pachelbel. He was as prolific as Bach or Mozart, but can you think of anything else he wrote, apart from his famous Canon in D?

A century and a half or so later, a French Romantic composer called Henry Litolff was writing plenty of successful music. The only piece of his that ever gets played nowadays is the exuberant Scherzo from his Concerto Symphonique No. 4.

Amilcare Ponchielli is hardly a name that jumps off the page, but you're sure to know a composition of his - Dance of the Hours, a ballet sequence that formed the finale of his opera La Gioconda. The American humorist Allan Sherman used the melody for his comedy number Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (here I am at Camp Granada).

Ponchielli was a role model for Alfredo Catalani. His was a promising career cut short by illness. Suffering from tuberculosis and dead at only 39, he was eclipsed by the emergence of another from his own home town of Lucca - the great tunesmith Giacomo Puccini.

Catalani did have one big success in his lifetime. The opera La Wally features a stunning aria - Ebben? Ne andrò lontana - which has kept his name on playlists.

If you were a Puccini or a Verdi, your musical dramas would be stuffed full of memorable numbers. You never have far to look with those two for a tune to tickle your fancy.

But, like Catalani, there were others who weren't so fortunate. Just as he is, they're remembered only for a single composition.

The Frenchman Benjamin Godard, whose life spanned most of the second half of the 19th century, had a highly fertile musical imagination, with an output that ranged from full-blown symphonies and concerti, through smaller-scale chamber pieces to opera.

It's a song from one of those operas that keeps his name in lights. Jocelyn was damned with faint praise in A French Song Companion (Oxford University Press, 2002) as "a rather unwieldy work".

The author, the great Lieder accompanist Graham Johnson, reckoned "Godard is at his best when least ambitious." Whatever about the scale of the song in question, the Berceuse or Lullaby from Jocelyn, a tender tenor aria, has enjoyed enduring success.

"Awake not yet from thy repose," it begins in its English version, before reaching the pay-off line, the one by which it's universally known: "Angels guard thee, sweet love, till morn."

From John McCormack through Jussi Björling and Plácido Domingo, it's featured on the repertoire of just about every tenor of note.

There's a wonderful instrumental version played on the cello by Pablo Casals, and it comes across really well transcribed for trombone and brass band. Angels Guard Thee is most familiar now as the signature tune of the great Scottish singer Kenneth McKellar.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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