The chief demerit of Lamia is that it is obviously influenced by the music of Wagner, and has but little of MacDowell’s customary individual expression. Apart from this defect, however, it is undoubtedly effective, strongly and well written, and interestingly scored. MacDowell himself considered it at least the equal of his two earlier symphonic poems, Hamlet and Ophelia, Op. 22, and Lancelot and Elaine, Op. 25, and intended revising it. The work was published after his death by friends who were anxious to provide against any future doubt as to its authenticity. The composer dedicated it to Henry T. Finck, the distinguished American musical critic, who was one of the first to recognise the significance of MacDowell’s music.
Lamia has its poetic basis in the romantic, legendary poem by John Keats. An introductory note by the composer in the full score briefly outlines the meaning of the music:—
Lamia, an enchantress in the form of a serpent, loves Lycius, a young Corinthian. In order to win him she prays to Hermes, who answers her appeal by transforming her into a lovely maiden. Lycius meets her in the wood, is smitten with love for her and goes with her to her enchanted palace, where the wedding is celebrated with great splendour. But suddenly Apollonius the magician appears; he reveals the magic. Lamia again assumes the form of a serpent, the enchanted palace vanishes, and Lycius is found lifeless.
The music commences with a sinister theme, Lento misterioso, con tristezza, given out by bassoon and celli, accompanied by a soft drum roll. This motive is the main one of the work, and may be regarded as that of Lamia. After some impassioned development, the music leads quietly into an Allegro con fuoco. This opens with a strong tune, having a distinctly Teutonic flavour. It is announced by the horns con sordini, accompanied very softly by held notes in the strings, except viola, pizzicato in the celli, and tympani. From now onwards the music is graphic, and contains some passages of unmistakable dramatic power. The presence of the sinister opening theme is frequently felt. Near the end the whole sinks away, a plaintive little clarinet solo, Lento, indicating the death of Lycius. This is followed by a short and vigorous conclusion.
Composed, Wiesbaden, about 1887-8. First Performed, November, 1891, at Boston, U.S.A., by Listemann and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. First Published, 1891 (Breitkopf & Haertel).