DELLO JOIO: Symphony–Triumph of St. Joan. Variations, Chaconne, and Fugue. BARBER: Adagio.

by Walter Simmons



DELLO JOIO: Symphony–Triumph of St. Joan. Variations, Chaconne, and Fugue. BARBER: Adagio. James Sedares conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7243-2 [DDD]; 63:17. Produced by Michael Fine.

The Symphony — Triumph of St. Joan has always impressed me as one of Norman Dello Joio’s strongest major orchestral works, and I was interested to hear how it would sound in a modern recording. The work is based on material originally composed for an opera about Joan of Arc. The opera was mounted in 1950, but Dello Joio promptly withdrew it, refashioning it into a symphony within a year. (Several years later, the composer wrote another opera about Joan of Arc, called The Trial at Rouen.) An attempt to reflect various aspects of the heroine’s character, the symphony is richly orchestrated, with modal themes presented in a lush harmonic context. But, as with so much of Dello Joio’s music, there is a fundamental emotional sterility, a lack of personal involvement, which, together with its musical language, creates the effect of a filmscore rather than a personal artistic statement. (I should make clear that I have no bias against filmscores, or against lush, richly orchestrated music. But filmscores are usually concerned more with mood and atmosphere than with strong expressive content, and–in most cases–do not succeed as autonomous artistic statements

Two works come to mind that cry out for comparison –similar in style, language, scope, proportion, and subject matter, and composed at virtually the same time. One is Menotti’sApocalypse (see Fanfare 16:4, pp. 222-4), which leaves me with virtually the same impression and reaction as St. Joan: they are amazingly similar in both aspiration and limitation.   (I might point out that Paul Snook, whose review of the Menotti accompanied mine, had a markedly different reaction. I understand that he is reviewing the Dello Joio disc as well, and I suspect that our views here will differ also.) The other work is Paul Creston’s Symphony No. 3, “Three Mysteries” (see Fanfare 16:2, pp. 221-2).  What is lacking in the Dello Joio and Menotti works is present in the Creston in abundance — almost overabundance: structural sophistication, personality, inner conviction, a sense of urgency, and a genuineness of feeling. This is not the place to pursue the comparison in detail, but I urge readers who might be interested in the matter to do so on their own, as the process may prove very illuminating, and all three works are readily available on fine CDs. (It would make a great dissertation topic.)

Variations, Chaconne, and Finale was composed in 1947.  Dello Joio wrote a good deal of background music during the early days of television. Although his contributions were not copious enough to make his “sound” a regular presence on the medium, I find that his music — even serious, abstract works — evokes the shallow, self-deluded complacency of post-World War II America, especially the imagery of cheerfully vacuous, affluent, ethnically monochrome suburban life portrayed on such TV programs as the Donna Reed Show and the like. Now I have never met the man, and have no idea what his personal values are. But even a piece as formal and ambitious as this, with its Gregorian theme and the serious pose of its chaconne, reflects a tepid, white-bread sensibility that I find repugnant. But perhaps others hear the music differently.

This having been said, I can only add that the performances here are quite good, comparable to other Michael Fine/NZSO productions. For the listener who wants one Dello Joio disc for his collection, this is the one to own and probably will be for some time, as I think it captures him at his most representative best.