A reference in Paul Kildea’s Britten biography sent me scurrying for a copy of this book, which entertained the composer on a visit to America:
If this were only a book deconstructing the great symphonies for the layman, it would be nothing remarkable, but Sigmund Spaeth takes it upon himself to provide mnemonic lyrics for each melody. It’s a treasure trove.
Some choice examples:
Haydn, Symphony no. 94, ‘Surprise’ (Andante)
Haydn, Symphony no. 92, ‘Oxford’ (Presto)
Schubert, Symphony no. 8, ‘Unfinished’ (Allegro moderato)
Schubert, Symphony no. 9, ‘Great’ (Andante)
Mendelssohn, Symphony no. 4, ‘Italian’ (Allegro vivace)
Brahms, Symphony no. 1 (Allegro non troppo, ma con brio)
Brahms, Symphony no. 4 (Allegro non troppo)
Spaeth is justifiably proud of his achievement, though he confesses it is not an original concept.
Credit for the germ of this whole idea really belongs to Miss Mabelle Glenn, of Kansas City, one of our outstanding educators in the field of music …
Not that he’s trying to pass the buck. As he says, ‘No justification or apology is really necessary.’ Not everyone could undertake a project like this successfully, though.
… there is a horrible memory of one musical educator who undertook to analyze Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for an audience of children in New York. For the opening four notes, definitely described by the composer as representing “Fate knocking at the door,” this gentleman used the words “I’ve lost my hat!” … Without undue arrogance, it may be assumed that no such desecration has been committed in this volume.
Well, I’ll be the judge of that, thank you very much. A couple of big romantic themes for your delectation, firstly from the slow movement of Dvořák’s ‘New World’:
And here’s the horn theme from Tchaik 5, one of the most beautiful melodies ever written. Spaeth draws on his knowledge of Tchaikovsky’s pacifism to create a subtle and eloquent plea for peace.
Hard to know how we managed in the bad old days before this book existed, isn’t it. I suppose if there’s a disadvantage to Spaeth’s method, it may be that it makes it impossible to listen to the noble opening of Schubert 9 without the accompanying banality of the text, but that’s a small price to pay for being able to recognise it and impress your friends. ‘That’s the “Horns play the prologue slow” Symphony!’ you cry, and everyone applauds.