The Rio Grande (Lambert)
The Rio Grande is a work by Constant Lambert, for alto, choir, piano, brass, strings and a percussion section of 15 instruments, needing five players. It was written in 1927, and achieved instant and long-lasting popularity on its appearance on the concert stage in 1929. It is an example of symphonic jazz, not unlike the style of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, although it is very much Lambert's individual conception. The Rio Grande is set to the poem of the same name by Sacheverell Sitwell, and takes about 15 minutes to perform.
The Rio Grande combines jazzy syncopations, ragtime and Brazilian influences, harmonies and rhythms inspired by Duke Ellington, with a traditional English choral sound. The outer sections are brisk, surrounding a central nocturne. The piano part often plays triplets against duplets, redolent of a rumba. The coda is based on material from the central section.
The poem refers to a river in Brazil, although there is no Brazilian river called Rio Grande.
The first concert performance was in Manchester on 12 December 1929 with Sir Hamilton Harty as piano soloist, and the composer conducting the Hallé Orchestra. It had its London premiere the following day, 13 December, at the Queen's Hall, London, with the same forces. It was repeated at the subsequent Hallé concert the following month.
The composer made two recordings of The Rio Grande as conductor, both of which have held their place in the catalogue:
- 11 January 1930: Albert Walter Whitehead (male alto; also seen as A. W. Whitehead, and Alan Whitehead), Sir Hamilton Harty (piano), St Michaels Singers, the Hallé Orchestra.
- 14 January 1949: Gladys Ripley (alto), Kyla Greenbaum (piano), Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra.
Later recordings include:
- Sally Burgess (alto), Jack Gibbons (piano), Chorus of Opera North, English Northern Philharmonia, David Lloyd-Jones (conductor) (this recording was nominated for a Gramophone Award and awarded a Penguin Guide 3-star rosette)
- Della Jones (mezzo), Kathryn Stott (piano), BBC Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra, Barry Wordsworth (conductor).
The poem The Rio Grande by Sacheverell Sitwell was from "The Thirteenth Caesar, and other Poems":
- By the Rio Grande
- They dance no sarabande
- On level banks like lawns above the glassy, lolling tide;
- Nor sing they forlorn madrigals
- Whose sad note stirs the sleeping gales
- Till they wake among the trees and shake the boughs,
- And fright the nightingales;
- But they dance in the city, down the public squares,
- On the marble pavers with each colour laid in shares,
- At the open church doors loud with light within.
- At the bell's huge tolling,
- By the river music, gurgling, thin
- Through the soft Brazilian air.
- The Comendador and Alguacil are there
- On horseback, hid with feathers, loud and shrill
- Blowing orders on their trumpets like a bird's sharp bill
- Through boughs, like a bitter wind, calling
- They shine like steady starlight while those other sparks are failing
- In burnished armour, with their plumes of fire,
- Tireless while all others tire.
- The noisy streets are empty and hushed is the town
- To where, in the square, they dance and the band is playing ;
- Such a space of silence through the town to the river
- That the water murmurs loud -
- Above the band and crowd together;
- And the strains of the sarabande,
- More lively than a madrigal,
- Go hand in hand
- Like the river and its waterfall
- As the great Rio Grande rolls down to the sea.
- Loud is the marimba's note
- Above these half -salt waves,
- And louder still the tympanum,
- The plectrum, and the kettle-drum,
- Sullen and menacing
- Do these brazen voices ring.
- They ride outside,
- Above the salt-sea's tide.
- Till the ships at anchor there
- Hear this enchantment,
- Of the soft Brazilian air,
- By those Southern winds wafted,
- Slow and gentle,
- Their fierceness tempered
- By the air that flows between.
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