These two orchestral pieces have their poetic basis in The Song of Roland, and were at first intended by the composer to form movements, or at least important parts, of a symphony on the same subject. The description, Fragments, under which MacDowell published them, after his plan for a symphony had been abandoned, is a very modest one for two such fine pieces of orchestral tone poetry. The Saracens is a piece of great power, dramatic and wild in spirit and vivid in harmonic and instrumental colouring. It represents the scene in which the traitor, Ganelon, determines on the deed that results in the death of Roland. The whole passage is vividly suggested by the music.
The Lovely Alda is a very beautiful and human piece. Alda was Roland’s bethrothed and the music aims at suggesting her loveliness and her mourning for her lover. There are passages of intensely impressive melancholy in the Fragment and its human feeling is typical of MacDowell. Altogether the two pieces are music on a high plane and worth attention for their own intrinsic value, quite apart from their connection with the symphony that never materialised. They bear a stamp of seriousness of effort and a conscious responsibility that only the really great composer is able to indicate.
Composed, Wiesbaden, 1887. First Published, 1887 (J. Hainauer. Revised Edition—Arthur P. Schmidt. British Empire—Winthrop Rogers, Ltd.).
1. We Sat by the Fisherman’s Cottage.
2. Far Away, on the Rock-coast of Scotland. (Scotch poem.)
3. My Child, We Were Once Children.
4. We Travelled Alone in the Gloomy Post-chaise.
5. Shepherd Boy’s a King.
6. Death Nothing is but Cooling Night. (Poeme erotique.)
Certain of these pieces, in the edition revised by the composer, are rather good, and are full of suggestive effort. They have, too, a touch of the composer’s individuality about them, although not of his greater kind. The pianoforte writing is well done and effective, but lacks the sweep of line and power of the later works. As a whole, however, the Six Poems after Heine are quite creditable and self contained pieces, each number bearing some Heine verses indicating its poetic basis.
The first piece is contemplative and contains some distinctly MacDowell-like harmonic touches.
The second graphically depicts the raging sea of the rocky coast of Scotland, a grey old castle and a beautiful, but ailing, woman harpist, whose gloomy song goes out into the storm. The music is powerful and picturesque in the storm passages, while the sad Scottish song of the woman adds vivid local colour to the whole.
The third number is rather poor and devoid of any real interest.