We’re debuting a new category here at whatever the name of this blog is. It’s called “Something cool you might have missed,” and it’s devoted to some of those pieces that may have slipped through your personal cracks (there’s a colonoscopy-related fasting for 24 hours joke in here somewhere). I mean, everybody knows Brahms’ First or Mahler’s First Symphony, but what about Erkki Melartin’s? It’s cool, too. There’s so much good music out there waiting to be heard, and it would be downright selfish of me not to at least point out some of the ones I happened to keep in my crack. I needed a new metaphor exactly one paragraph ago.
There is no better piece to start this journey with than a little-known symphonic poem by one of the masters of the form. Bedrich Smetana, he of The Bartered Bride fame, wrote several symphonic poems based loosely on the Liszt model, including the cycle Ma Vlast, which I am only marginally ashamed to say I have something like 25 recordings of (including at least 7 different ones conducted by Kubelik…in a related story, I didn’t touch a woman’s breasts until I was 24…wait). But long before Ma Vlast, Smetana had composed three symphonic poems during his travels in Gothenburg, in what was then known as Sweden. That may still be the case today. I haven’t looked. Of these, Hakon Jarl is probably the best-known.
But Wallenstein’s Camp SHOULD be the best-known. It is based on the first play in a trilogy by Schiller about the general Albrecht von Wallenstein. In this play, the galvanizing effect of Wallenstein himself is the theme; his ability to get a ragtag group of mercenaries to unite under his leadership because of the freedom he allows them is the reason for the generally celebratory mood of the large portion of the play. It is ideal fodder for Smetana. The influence of Liszt is palpable throughout, but it’s heard through the prism of Smetana’s unsurpassed ability to create energy and momentum through rhythm and catchy tunes.
The music features one of the most arresting openings in all of music (the kind that forces me to warn any potential listeners to have your speakers set where you want them before you push play), and runs the gamut from bugle calls and stampeding military music to a gorgeous slower section in the middle that may be reflective of more serene, peaceful moments among the soliders, such as passing out after a shitload of lager (the German word for camp! It’s a secret double meaning I just invented!).
I’m one of those guys who tires of critics and commentators bagging on the tunes that are just a heaping pile of fun. You rarely hear a kind word about Wellington’s Victory, for example, but why? That piece is a blast, and I don’t just mean the real musket fire on some recordings. Is it the kind of piece that we should mention to the alien overlords when they finally come to destroy our planet and we try to save ourselves using Beethoven as a symbol of the cultural contributions we could make to their glorious society as slaves and semi-autonomous subjects in the case of the wealthy? I guess not, although the cannons may be distracting enough to allow us to push the red button.
But there’s something appealing about music that’s unashamedly fun. Wallenstein’s Camp may not have the emotional power of Ma Vlast, but it is a raucous celebration of everything it means to be enjoying yourself with your boys.
I will issue a Billy Mays-style guarantee here: if you don’t enjoy the 15 minutes you spend listening to this recording of Wallenstein’s Camp, with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by the great Gianandrea Noseda, just know that you’re no less a stuffy bore who wears turtlenecks even in the last week of June than you were before you put down the brandy and leather-bound copy of Great Expectations to give it a listen. Get over yourself and live a little.
To brotherhood, camaraderie, and flashy orchestral writing!