You may not recognize the composer or piece, but this is a work that deserves your attention! John Banther and Evan Keely explore the poem and how it comes to life in the music, which operatic composer she's invoking, and why sea monsters have such short musical motifs.
The poem Augusta Holmès wrote for Andromède
John Banther: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we are your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classical's Evan Keely, and we are going on a Greek myth- inspired adventure with the symphonic poem, Andromede by Augusta Holmes. We explore the ancient source that inspired the music, how she makes all that drama come alive, which opera composer she's invoking, and stay with us to the end as we take a look at why some of these scariest creatures in movies and music have the shortest motifs.
I found this work sometime in the last year, and I just really enjoyed it, and I think a lot of you will too. Symphonic poems are always a favorite for myself as well. It's a great type of work for someone who's interested in music, but not sure where to start or overwhelmed by where to start. Now, in a symphonic poem, we have a story to accompany the music and not just any story here, this is based on a poem that Holmes wrote herself. In fact, she wrote a lot of the text, pretty much all that I can find when a work required words similar to what Wagner was doing, who we will be mentioning again. So who was Augusta Holmes? Let's get a little bit of information on her.
Evan Keely: She was born in Paris in 1847. Her father was Irish and he had been an army officer, military officer, and her mother was of English descent, and they at some point ended up in Paris, and that's where Augusta was born. From an early age, she showed a lot of talent and she was encouraged by her family to write poetry and to paint. She also showed an interest in music, but that was not something that her mother in particular encouraged. She wasn't allowed to study at the Paris Conservatory, but she was able to get some training through private lessons. And later on in life, she persuaded César Franck to take her on as one of his pupils. And in that she had support from her lifelong friend Camille Saint- Saens.
John Banther: Yes. And when I read César Franck as one of her teachers, and when I heard this, you can really hear the influence there. If you don't know Franck, that's fine too. I'm going to put something on the show notes page. What is this symphonic poem about? Because when I see the word Andromeda, or as it's called here, Andromede, right? In French?
Evan Keely: Andromede. Yeah.
John Banther: I'm going to say Andromeda for the rest of this, but when I think of Andromeda, like most people, I think of the galaxy that takes up a good chunk of our night sky. But in 1883, when Holmes wrote this, the common belief among scientists was that it was actually just kind of like a cloud, a nebula within our own galaxy. So that's just how far back in society we are going. Back to a time when a composer would think you're talking about the princess from Greek mythology, not the galaxy when you mentioned Andromeda. And just a quick Greek mythology lesson. According to Worldhistory. org, Andromeda is a princess in Greek mythology. She is the daughter of Cepheus, the king of Ethiopia, and his wife Cassiopeia. The most famous myth associated with Andromeda is the story of her rescue by the Greek hero Perseus, who saved her from being sacrificed to a sea monster.
Greek mythology as inspiration for music was pretty commonly done in previous centuries, but now in the late 1800s, this was already kind of not as much done. And just before we jump into the music, let's look at the poem for a second that Augusta Holmes wrote. It's 11 stanzas, four lines each. The rhyming is A, B, B, A. And we also have, well, we found it in French, but Evan very brilliantly translated it. That's a very nice translation that you can find on the show notes page after the episode, we're going to read it too, here. And it's also in Alexandrine, like a type of pentameter or meter.
Evan Keely: Yeah, the Alexandrine I would just briefly say, has a pride of place in French verse, French writing for centuries, which is I think analogous to iambic pentameter and English. Writing is this hallowed style. You think about Molière, Lecoanet, these great French writers of the past, they were all writing an Alexandrine verse. Even Edmund Rostand who was writing around the same time the end of the 19th century, wrote in this style, which by the end of the 19th century is kind of old- fashioned. It's like if we wrote a poem today that had thees and thous in it, you'd be evoking deliberately evoking an older style. And I think that this poem, she's evoking this French history. She very much identifies as a French woman. We see this in her letters and so forth. And even her name, I mean we're calling her Augusta Holmes.
That's how her father probably pronounced it. But she identified as Augusta Holmes. You might hear her name spoken both ways. That's how I usually say it. And this Alexandrine verse, this poem that she wrote, which is about the story of Andromeda being rescued from the sea monster by Perseus is in this old- fashioned style that evokes this glorious tradition of French literature from centuries past.
John Banther: And the last two stanzas might have a kind of meaning or a moral we might've found in the past as well. So stay with us to the end for that. Okay. The music opens with this authoritative, imposing sound from the trombones in unison. You feel like you are just two feet tall looking up at something 100, 200 times bigger than you with such authority. And I love how this is just basically depicting, I think the first sentence in the poem, which might also be the shortest the oracle spoke.
Evan Keely: So this is the oracle condemning Andromeda whose mother has offended Neptune the sea God. And so Andromeda has to be sacrificed to this horrible sea monster to appease the Gods anger. So this is the oracle declaring that this innocent princess must die. And it's this terrifying, like you said, John, these unison trombones, these kind of stark sort of almost medieval sounding intervals that like you said, you feel like you're two inches tall with this sort of thunderous proclamation of doom. It's very dramatic and very effectively written here.
John Banther: And the poem continues after the oracle spoke, the royal victim, the white Andromeda bound to the bitter rock by the cruel hands of the nymphs of the sea is delivered to the monster of the abyss. In the shadows, the black waves rise up furious, and the pure hearted virgin mixing her wild cry with the howls of Poseidon, king of the storm, mourns her beautiful life while cursing the gods. And that waves rising up, the furious, that churning, I think we can all kind of identify, we hear that in the strings, I think in a familiar way with tremolo.
Evan Keely: Yeah, yeah. Even as it's starting with the trombones, doing this unison, and then you have this murmuring, especially in the lower strings, and you can almost see the black waves churning in this dangerous ocean. And there's this sense of danger and doom and fear that she evokes very powerfully with this music at the very beginning of the piece.
John Banther: And if we haven't explained it before, tremolo is when you have something in your music that's basically telling you to play this same note repeatedly, very, very quickly. It's not written out rhythmically, it's just you do it very fast. Think of you brush your teeth in a panic late to work or something, that quick back and forth motion. That's what's happening against the string.
Evan Keely: Yeah, that's a great way of describing it, John. So picture the bow just going, and you have that sort of quivering sound.
John Banther: And then we launch into a fast, quick section. And this one has all kinds of emotions with it. There's a type of uplifting sound to it, but then another sinister type of sound or kind of alternate reality to it. It seems very French to me in that way.
Evan Keely: Yeah, I had the same reaction, John. There's definitely a lot of strong emotion being depicted here, and there's this syncopated rhythm that we hear right away with this soaring line in the upper strings. And when I heard it first, I thought, " Oh yeah, she studied with the Cesar Franck." This reminds me a little bit of the finale of his minor symphony with a similar kind of rhythm, a similar contour. But she's a very original composer. She's not just copying one of her teachers. And it really creates this very dramatic sense of this anguish and this passion and this strong feelings, the anger of the gods and the terror that Andromeda is feeling of being unjustly condemned. Very stormy, very dramatic music.
John Banther: And I'll put the finale to that D Minor Symphony by Franck that you mentioned. It's funny, I had the literally exact same thought. It used to be one of my favorite symphonies also to play a long time ago, especially in how she treats the lower instruments that kind of counter lines against what's happening above. A lot of repetition, shorter motifs within larger motifs that are getting repeated a lot. The poem says, " Behind her closed eyes, where the awful dream is pictured, she sees the wrath of Hera, the birth of the dragon that is spewed up by the sea, murky, foaming, and whose enormous approach terrifies the shore." To my ears, in this part, it sounds like the behind her closed eyes where the awful dream is pictured, these kinds of orchestral hits or sudden things and it feels like flashes in a vision.
There's a great moment after this, Evan, that I love because when I first heard it and people know I really love Tchaikovsky, there's a Tchaikovsky- esque moment with this ascending sequence in the upper strings. Now, Tchaikovsky may have, well probably would have had a counter line of that. The lower instruments playing something going down. Holmes is different here, she has this ascending sequence, but in the lower strings, maybe more similar to how she was influenced by Franck, shorter motifs that are repeated. And instead of that contrary motion from Tchaikovsky, we get more similar motion meaning moving up together in general.
Evan Keely: And the extent to which Holmes was familiar with Tchaikovsky, I can't imagine she wasn't. But you also see this kind of writing in a composer like Franck, the use of the sequence, this ascending, you have a musical phrase that's repeated over and over again, but at a higher pitch each time or maybe have contrary motion like that, it does create a very dramatic effect.
John Banther: Speaking of dramatic effects, the dragon appears, doesn't he?
Evan Keely: Yes.
John Banther: Now this is interesting. Well, one, we have intervals here. We have minor seconds and tritones, right, that they're playing?
Evan Keely: Yes.
John Banther: And this is in direct opposition to that oracle sound from the trombones that we heard in unison with this authoritative sound. These are minor seconds, tritones also known as the devil's interval in many centuries of music and very kind of evil. I love how she pairs these two opposite things.
Evan Keely: It really creates this sort of sense of imbalance. And like you said, John, it's a really wonderful contrast with the sort of medieval sounding stark intervals with the trombones sounding the oracle's proclamation. And here we have a very different melodic set of contours that evoke this very threatening kind of mood.
John Banther: A question I had listening to this is why are threatening sea monster motifs so short? I mean, I just terrified an entire generation of people, I think?
Evan Keely: Including me.
John Banther: So I mean, thankfully no one's headed to the beach right now, I hope. But there's something about it, these short motifs that represent the existential dread almost. Is it because we can't see them, they're just a serpentine shape under the water, the shadow, something else?
Evan Keely: And we're in the water. We're land creatures and we're in this, Andromeda is chained to a rock in the middle of the ocean or some terrible place and not where she should be. And yeah, there's just a sense of everything is terrifying.
John Banther: I think a big part of it is it needs to be immediately existential dread. And you get that with these minor seconds, the tritones in such a short motif when it comes back, you're immediately put into that maybe terrified frame of mind. Maybe like Andromeda is, she's chained to these rocks and we get to the point where it's supposed to be her lament. It sounds, again, we have unison instruments, first violins in unison. I'm struggling to think of other moments in works that are kind of like this.
Evan Keely: And it's a very stark contrast to everything that has come before in this piece. All of a sudden you have this jagged chromaticism with these violins playing in unison, this very sort of mournful off balance kind of thing. Occasionally the lower strings coming, we talked about the tremolo earlier. There's this little trembling sound as a kind of an accompaniment, but mostly it's just the one unison voice of the first violins playing together. And this is like a group cadenza. You think about Beethoven's Symphony, this had the finale, has this crashing beginning and then the cellos come in. It's this restless motif. How do they even play it together? It's very difficult. They really have to follow the section leader very closely and or have a really good conductor. So it's challenging to play it in unison, to play it in tune, to play it together. And a really good performance. You really have that effect of this kind of unity of expressing, in this case, of this powerful lament.
John Banther: Yes. And you're right, it would've taken some rehearsing with the violin section and probably in performance, all violinists, they have their eyes on the concertmaster. Anytime you're in a concert and there's this intimate moment like that, look to the section leader, as you said, the principal chair or even the concertmaster. There's times I'm in the back row, I'm watching the concertmaster, not the conductor. She's lamenting. It's all awful. This is just a terrible situation for her. But then we get a moment that feels like to me, if I am Andromeda, I'm tied to these rocks. My head is towards the ground. I'm waiting for my final five seconds, and then suddenly out of the corner of my eye, like the tiniest glimpse of a sparkle out in the sky. What is that? Who is that? And here, I think this is clearly suggesting Perseus approach on Pegasus. We can't forget the horse Pegasus. And it brings this whole heroic sound to it.
Evan Keely: Yes. So out of all this doom and terror, all of a sudden there's this unexpected, literally falling out of the sky, this glimmer of hope and possibility. And at first it's not even clear what's happening. What is that? What the heck is this? And the poem here that she wrote for this piece translates as in this section of the piece, " Woman, lift up your eyes out of the deep azure. From there, from down there out of the starry night, a light hurtles toward the earth. Swift as a shaft springing from a very sure bow, closer, closer sowing showers of sparks. The star falls through the clouds. Oh, glorious and terrible vision. Oh, burst of sparks, sword flashes, joyful calls, flapping wings." So we're really in the midst of this passionate, it feels very much to me like a 19th century kind of a mood, just this strong emotion of this terrifying and wondrous vision in which in this pivotal moment in the story, everything changes. And we go from terror to hope in an instant with this miraculous approach of the hero literally falling out of the sky in a winged horse.
John Banther: I mean, I would be pretty excited too, if I'm chained to rocks and I see my hero riding on Pegasus for me, I would like that. Now, depending on how well everyone listened to the last episode, it's really starting to sound like Richard Wagner here. And in fact, she was quite an admirer of Wagner too, wasn't she?
Evan Keely: Very much so, when you hear that influence in her music. I even found as we were researching this episode, John, I found a photograph of her toward the end of her life, standing by her piano in her room. And on the piano is a photograph of Richard Wagner. Not only is there a photograph of him, but she's standing there near the photograph, dressed in a somewhat similar way. They both have this cravat. She's maybe trying to imitate him in the picture. I'm not really sure. But she's certainly imitates him to some extent as a composer in her own music, while also remaining original.
John Banther: And this would've been a sound, I think everyone grasped right away. I mean, it's right out of the Valkyries, the hero's coming in on Pegasus. What helps separate this a little bit more from Wagner and the inspiration is she's writing this in four instead of in three, which Ride of the Valkyries is. If it was in three, that'd probably be too much.
Evan Keely: Probably. But as I said, she does manage to remain original.
John Banther: Yes. And you really hear the burst of sparks, I think, in the sword flashes. And the poem continues " Helmeted with gold, armored with splendors, brandishing the sword of Palaz and riding Pegasus before the virgin with eyes rolled back by ecstasy, the liberating Perseus descends." Dazzling. Dazzling, I think is an appropriate term here.
Evan Keely: Absolutely.
John Banther: And we'll get into a different name that she used to compose under right after this. Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music is made possible by WETA Classical. Join us for the music and insightful commentary anytime day or night. You can stream the music online at WETAClassical. org or through the WETA Classical app. It's free in the app store before this time. Augusta Holmes actually wrote under a male pseudonym, Hermann Zenta. And speaking of Wagner, that might be a Wagner reference too from one of his operas.
Evan Keely: Zenta, of course, is the heroine of The Flying Dutchman, an early work of Wagner's. And one of the works that really kind of put him on the map early in his career, surely she was very familiar with it.
John Banther: So she wrote under this pseudonym for many of the obvious reasons. We know as we've learned about women writing music at this time, discouraged from writing larger- scale works, things that would take them out of the home salon onto the stage. But for Holmes, writing for the stage is what she wanted to do. She wrote for orchestra, she wrote cantatas and operas as well. Her father died in 1869 and I guess with the wealth that she then inherited, she had the ability to not have to use a pseudonym.
Evan Keely: When her father died, he left her considerably wealthy, and at that point it gave her the independence to defy convention a bit more. And to step out of that, she certainly continued to write piano miniatures and songs as women were expected to in her time. But as you said, she's moving more and more into these large orchestral choral operatic types of works with a lot more confidence and even publishing them under her name. And as I said, Augusta Holmes is how she's now thinking of herself and referring to herself.
John Banther: So our hero has come and he's arrived at the rocks, and I think he's greeted with the sea monster perhaps as that short distinctive motif pops right back in giving us that immediate existential dread in the music. And I think shortly after this, the battle is engaged.
Evan Keely: Right. And earlier we had syncopation to convey terror and uncertainty. And here I think the syncopation conveys heroism, the sense of struggle, the battle between the hero and the monster. And it's really over the top. It's very exaggerated. The poem also conveys that, I think, and this allegro theme repeats in this time without the sea monster theme perhaps indicating the hero's victory.
John Banther: And the poem says, " And the monster overcome by a hideous delirium, pounces upon the calm hero and his divine steed. But Palaz had sharpened the sword of justice and the ocean turns purple and the dragon perishes." It really is over the top and exaggerated. It's very much like the hero shows up and pokes the monster and the monster explodes or falls to the ground.
Evan Keely: It's just this bloody scene of it's very gory and very descriptive and over the top and very imaginative and very evocative.
John Banther: And I love her use of percussion. And we also have that Wagner rhythmic motif, continuing it as things are really swirling around us in this moment. We're on the ground and everything's happening. And I think we need this moment of chaos to have the moment we have next, which is like we are whisked away by our hero on Pegasus flying into the heavens.
Evan Keely: And there's this hymn- like quality to the writing here. It's like organ music where you press a button on the manual and you have these octaves. César Franck was of course an organist, wrote a lot of organ music, and a lot of his instrumental music evokes that organ sound, especially with use of unison octaves. Holmes uses that very effectively here. And the tune itself has this almost religious quality, and this is to evoke the hero Perseus is carrying Andromeda to safety, to the heavenly realm where the gods dwell. The poem says here, " And the hero seizes the virgin and on the wings of Pegasus carries her to the distant fields of heaven where flowers of light and flames of honey, crown the lovers with eternal light." Wow. I mean, this is just this really powerful image of literally being whisked away to heaven.
John Banther: Those are some of my favorite lines from the poem. Flowers of light, flames of honey, lovers with eternal light. It's beautiful.
Evan Keely: She's very imaginative, both as a writer and as a composer.
John Banther: And with this she brings in some of the most beautiful colors here. In fact, this is, I think, my favorite part of the piece because it is just so evocative. And in fact, it feels Hollywood- esque in a kind of Eric Korngold way, if you know that composer, what he was doing like a half century later I feel like we're hearing right here.
Evan Keely: There's a very cinematic quality to what we're hearing before cinema really existed.
John Banther: Yeah. Something Bill mentioned in one of the first episodes that has stuck with me ever since is when he was talking about symphonies sometimes being, as a composer, presenting a musical problem that they're solving musically. And I think about that all the time, and I think I hear something like that here. There's a slight rhythm change, and maybe it's more like a rhythmic resolution instead of the Wagner motif, which is like a dotted eighth note, a 16th note, and an eighth note. Now we just have this more lilting eighth note triplet line. So we're losing that quick 16th note in there too. Is this the bonds of her chains broken, representing something like that? I don't know. That might be a reach, but that really stuck out to me.
Evan Keely: Yeah, I agree. And the change in the rhythm really does give us a sense that we're in a very different situation now than we were before.
John Banther: And almost unusually at this point, where things are kind of winding down from the peak. We have beautiful solos in the winds and in the strings.
Evan Keely: Yeah. We have this beautiful English horn solo at the beginning of this section, and then there's a lot of these solos in the strings. You have a cello solo that pipes in for a few measures, and it feels like Andromeda and Pegasus and Perseus are gone, and we're just left alone to think about what just happened and reflect upon the story of what it means for our own lives. I'm not sure, but the writing here I find very affecting.
John Banther: It feels like this is now more for us, at this point in time. It sounds a bit philosophical. And before we get to the ending, let's go to the final two stanzas that we teased a little bit at the beginning. They read " Human soul snatched from the heavens for which you grieved from your tortured captive humanity, believe in freedom, you will be set free, believe in life, and you will live according to your standard. For far from the abyss, were an undertow of disasters, roars far from the monster of pain, devourer of the day, winged poetry and immortal love will carry you towards the true gods among the stars." There's something, well, I was going to say poetic. Obviously, it's a poem. It's naturally poetic. There's something very beautiful about that as believe in the poetry and immortal love, and you'll be carried away.
Evan Keely: She's really telling us at the end of this poem, and also through her music, that there's a broader meaning. She's not just depicting a dramatic story from Greco- Roman antiquity, as exciting as that would be by itself. There's a broader message here, and it's for humanity in a broad sense, but I think she's also speaking very directly to her own time and place. There's also this line in this poem, which I am very curious about, (French) " Believe in life and according to your standard, you will live." What is this norm? What is the standard? What does she mean by that? I'm not really sure. Be true to your own beliefs? Have faith in humankind have faith in the power of great art to elevate the human condition? I'm not sure. Like I said, a lot of unanswered questions in my mind about what Holmes believed and what was important to her.
John Banther: And unfortunately, that is a common theme when we're talking about women writing music. So much has been lost intentionally or not, and more research needs to be done, especially on Holmes before we can really, I guess, get a full grasp of her life and music.
Evan Keely: With learning more.
John Banther: The end is beautiful. It really brings us back down. It is so soft, almost impossibly soft. These pizzicatos at the end as they pluck the strings. Quite a juxtaposition to the opening of this symphonic poem with the loudest section in the orchestra, the trombone section. The more I listen to this, the more I like this ending. I like how it really comes down to almost nothing.
Evan Keely: She takes all that drama and passion and storminess, and then she brings it to this very serene conclusion in a way that's very effectively written.
John Banther: So if you enjoyed this work, Andromede by Augusta Holmes, you are in luck because there are several more, and we'll put some more resources on the show notes page at ClassicalBreakdown. org. Well, thank you Evan, so much for joining me on this Greek mythology adventure through music.
Evan Keely: John, you'll always be my hero, descending from the heavens to help me learn more about classical music.
John Banther: On Pegasus. Thank you. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music. For more information on this episode, visit the show notes page at ClassicalBreakdown. org. You can send me comments and episode ideas to ClassicalBreakdown@WETA. org. And if you enjoyed this episode, leave a review in your podcast app. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.