The Lone Ranger Rides Again!
Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.
When I was 7 years old, I started taking piano lessons, not because I wanted to, but because my mother wanted me to. She sat next to me on the piano bench every day and forced me to practice. When I tried to leave, she hit me. Had this been my only exposure to classical music, I would probably hate it to this day. But something else happened at that age which started my life-long love affair with symphonies, concertos, overtures and chamber music: The Lone Ranger.
I was introduced to beautiful classical compositions by radio, which frequently employed symphonic music as the themes for drama programs. The Lone Ranger, for example, used part of Rossini's "William Tell Overture." Sergeant Preston of the Yukon took an excerpt from Reznicek's "Donna Diana Overture." The Shadow lifted a scary section of Saint-Saën's "Le Rouet d'Omphale." It wasn't until I was 10 that the first TV set came into our house.
Early TV drama continued this practice, and I learned to love "Ein Heldenleben" by Richard Strauss due to its repeated use at the beginning and end of The Big Story, the weekly dramatization of a true-life, front-page newspaper report. Alfred Hitchcock Presents taught me to whistle Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette," though I had no idea who Gounod was at the time.
Much later public television imported The Forsyte Saga from England, and I heard the highly accessible melodies of Eric Coates for the first time. Le Pére Amable, a French telefilm which I selected for PBS as part of an evening of French television, brought with it as background music what has been one of my favorite chamber pieces ever since: Schubert's "Arpeggione Sonata."
And, of course, movies have played a big part in my musical (as well as my sexual) education. When I first heard the hauntingly romantic andante from Mozart's "Piano Concerto No. 21 in C," it was behind the lush colors and sensual photography of Pia Degermark and Thommy Berggren rolling in the grass in the Swedish movie, Elvira Madigan. Like millions of other movie-goers around the world, I met Richard Strauss' rarely performed "Also Sprach Zarathustra" when it was lifted out of obscurity by Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I once thought that the use of classical music themes in radio, TV and motion pictures was a tribute to the good taste of the producers. I realized, only when I started working in the media myself, that it was a testament to frugality. It was much less expensive to use existing compositions by deceased, out-of-copyright composers than it was to pay a living composer to create new music.
Fortunately for me - and you - most of this media-recycled music is now available in yet another reincarnation: as compact discs.
Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette," for example, is now available on a London CD (436 797-2) called Psycho: Great Hitchcock Movie Thrillers. The album includes Bernard Hermann's scores for Psycho, Marnie, North by Northwest, Vertigo and "A Portrait of Hitch" from The Trouble with Harry, as well as the theme from Spellbound by Miklos Rozsa. This is a 1992 reissue of analog recordings made from 1963 to 1971. The sound quality is reminiscent of old movies, which I suppose is appropriate, and most of these pieces feature Hermann conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, but I wish that they had made new digital recordings for this CD. There is a great deal of soaring romanticism here, particularly the theme from Marnie, which may be the best part of the movie - one of Hitchcock's only flops.
Whether or not you saw The Forsyte Saga on public TV a quarter of a century ago, you are certain to enjoy the composition its theme was taken from now: "The Three Elizabeths Suite" by Eric Coates (1886-1957). Only one all-digital CD recording of this piece is available, but it would be hard to imagine a more stunning performance or better sound than this Academy Sound and Vision release (ASV 2053). The disc also includes four other delightful, tuneful compositions by Coates: the "London Suite," "The Three Bears," the world premiére recording of "Ballad," and "By the Sleepy Lagoon" (itself the theme to the BBC radio program, Desert Island Discs). This was the first recording by the East of England Orchestra, founded and conducted by Malcolm Nabarro, and a proud début it is.
By contrast there are some 38 recordings listed in my H&B Recordings 1993 Catalog of Mozart's "Piano Concerto No. 21 in C" with its Elvira Madigan Andante. Geza Anda was the piano soloist in the film, and Anda's performance with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra was reissued from the original analog master by RCA Silver Seal (60484-2 RV). I am very happy with the two all-digital versions I own: Alfred Brendel with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields conducted by Neville Marriner on Philips (400 018-2) and Vladimir Ashkenazy, pianist and conductor, with the Philharmonia Orchestra on London (411 947).
I counted 20 different CDs of Schubert's "Arpeggione Sonata" - none of them performed on an arpeggione. That's just as well because that instrument (a cross between a guitar and a cello invented around 1823 in Vienna) sounds like a terminally ill cello. One reason there are so many recordings of this work is that it has been transcribed for the viola, flute, violin, flute d'amour and viola d'amour, and every musician wants to record it. But it sounds best, by far, on the cello. I have the RCA Papillon (6531-2-RG) budget-priced CD with Lynn Harrell, cello, and James Levine, piano, which is combined with the Dvorak "Cello Concerto" with Levine conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. The performance is excellent, the price a real bargain, but the sound is not digital, though it's good.
To "bring back the days of yesteryear" with Tonto, Silver and the Lone Ranger, I recommend the Riccardo Chailly/National Philharmonic Orchestra renditions of the Rossini "Overtures" on London (400 049-2), though many other outstanding digitally-recorded CDs are available. And, true collector that I am, I'm thankful to the Musical Heritage Society for putting out the complete Liszt "Symphonic Poems" with Kurt Masur conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. The Shadow lurks somewhere at the beginning of Volume I, Disc 1, Cut 1: "Les Préludes."
To remember the excitement of The Big Story, bring back Vladimir Ashkenazy once again, this time with the Cleveland Orchestra and their digital recording of Richard Strauss' "Ein Heldenleben" on London (414 292-2). I still think The Big Story theme is the best part of this long work, and I love the way Strauss keeps teasing the listener before he releases - just once, more than halfway into the piece - the full theme in all its glory.
Reznicek's boisterous "Donna Diana Overture," is harder to find. The Cincinnati Pops, conducted by Erich Kunzel, made a digital recording of the piece for Telarc (CD-80116), and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kobayashi, issued a DDD on Denon (C37-7012).
Radio drama may be nearly extinct, but the themes of the old-time radio plays will live in my heart for the rest of my life... and, on CDs, forever.
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