Samuel Barber's Fadograph of a Yestern Scene
Unsurprisingly, Finnegans Wake features, well, a wake, and it's one of the more bawdy and tumultuous scenes of the first few pages. And yet amidst this boozy riot of mock-blasphemous gluttony, a lovely phrase emerges: only a fadograph of a yestern scene.
Removed from context, the phrase evokes a gentle sense of nostalgia, and it here that Barber chose to locate his final musical meditation based on Joyce. Beginning with a gorgeous melody drifting from the oboe, the Fadograph unfolds like a wistful recollection of Debussy's La Mer, as seen from the other end of a century that's witnessed both the lyricism of Gershwin as well as a total retreat from harmony. Lush melodies swell across an undulating bed of strings, woodwinds occasionally spiral up in slow trills, and short spumes of brass announce momentary climaxes before the music recedes, rolling back into harp-infested waters. There is a poignant sense of longing carried by the music -- especially in the lower woodwinds -- but this is a work of reflection and contemplation, and the sepia tones of nostalgia are never allowed to darken into regret or despair. The end comes unexpectedly, the music fading out as gently as it entered, almost as if remarking on the illusion of timelessness.
The origin of the song is a passage from the Chapter One "Wake" scene in Finnegans Wake. I will reprint it below, with the relevant text highlighted in red:
FW 7.4 - 7.19
With her issavan essavans and her patterjackmartins about all
them inns and ouses. Tilling a teel of a tum, telling a toll of a tea-
ry turty Taubling. Grace before Glutton. For what we are, gifs
à gross if we are, about to believe. So pool the begg and pass the
kish for crawsake. Omen. So sigh us. Grampupus is fallen down
but grinny sprids the boord. Whase on the joint of a desh? Fin-
foefom the Fush. Whase be his baken head? A loaf of Singpan-
try's Kennedy bread. And whase hitched to the hop in his tayle?
A glass of Danu U'Dunnell's foamous olde Dobbelin ayle. But,
lo, as you would quaffoff his fraudstuff and sink teeth through
that pyth of a flowerwhite bodey behold of him as behemoth for
he is noewhemoe. Finiche! Only a fadograph of a yestern scene.
Almost rubicund Salmosalar, ancient fromout the ages of the Ag-
apemonides, he is smolten in our mist, woebecanned and packt
away. So that meal's dead off for summan, schlook, schlice and
|Liner Notes from the Koch "Medea" CD
The Fadograph of a Yestern Scene, Op. 44 takes its title from a more contemporary examination of the subconscious, James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Barber turned to Joyce's writings several times during his career; the songs from Op. 10 and his Nuvoletta, Op. 25 are both settings of Joyce texts. Other Bareber works, including the Hermit songs, reveal a general love of Irish poetry and literature.
Unlike its literary source, Barber's Fadograph in neither opaque nor obscure. It is a short work, quiet and affectionate. An opening oboeline sets the mood, lyrical and reflective. In its single movement, the Fadograph never reaches more than a dignified climax and its passions are the gentle sort. The work is principally based on two themes, the opening ascending line, written in a calmly shifting 7/4 meter, and a second triplet theme announced shortly thereafter.
--Liner notes copyright 1990 by Philip Kennicott
There is one recording of Fadograph, made by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Andrew Schenck. It may be found on two different CDs, both released by Koch: Medea (Koch #7010), where is matched with Third Essay and Medea, Barber's powerful ballet suite (one of my favorite Barber works); and on Capricorn (Koch #7361), which serves as an inexpensive "Greatest Hits" work. Unfortunately, the Medea CD has been temporary delted, but Koch plans to remaster it and release a new version in 2001.
You may listen to sound samples and/or purchase Samuel Barber CDs online below:
Barber: Medea, Third Essay, Fadograph / Andrew Schenck
Samuel Barber(Composer), et al / Audio CD / Released 1990
Capricorn - The Samuel Barber Collection
Samuel Barber(Composer), et al / Audio CD / Released 1996
Chamber Music Songs -- These six songs are settings of poems from Chamber Music.
Nuvoletta -- A beautiful song with lyrics adapted from Finnegans Wake.
Solitary Hotel -- A song with lyrics adapted from Ulysses.
Now I Have Eaten Up the Rose -- This song is based on a James Joyce translation of a German poem by Gottfried Keller.