If Music Be the Love of Food…

Foods found in heaven, a song cycle setting recipes and a kitchen symphony. Jeremy Nicholas reveals an extensive musical menu.

The prophet Isaiah, in an early record of post-prandial flatulence, hoped his ‘bowels sound like an harp (Chapter 16, verse 11); Shakespeare suggested music was the food of love, of course. Music and food have always dined together more or less harmoniously.

But what pieces of classical music celebrate food and gastronomic pleasures? Though there are many, few, curiously, are well-known. In the light snack department, Cole Porter wrote a song called The Scampi (later reworked as The Tale of the Oyster for his 1929 show Fifty Million Frenchmen) – which reminds me of Vaughan Williams’s 1947 suite Flo Scampi (sorry, Flos Campi). For the ultimate dessert, Willam Bolcom’s cheerfully lively cabaret song Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise takes some beating – not to say eating.

Breakfast has attracted surprisingly few composers, though Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Wadsworth have Junior and Dede eating breakfast in Act 3 of A Quiet Place. Bernstein’s La bonne cuisine is a collection of four recipes set to music (1947) with the original French texts from Emile Dumont’s 1899 ‘Fine French Cooking’ – Plum pudding, Queues de boeuf (Ox tails), Tavouk Guenksis (Turkish breast of chicken) and Civet à toute vitesse (Rabbit at top speed) – wittily translated by the composer. (Roberta Alexander offers a cordon bleu rendition on Etcetera.) No one, as far as I can see, has tackled bacon and eggs or toast and marmalade but John Dankworth’s setting of Jake Thackeray’s wry send-up of the plot of Massenet’s Werther is entitled Bread and Butter. It comes from Dankworth’s Wordsongs (Mezzo-soprano Sarah Walker has recorded it with pianist Roger Vignoles on Meridian.)

What’s on the menu for the more serious trencherman? Let’s prepare a musical banquet. A 1945 piano piece by Arnold Bax would alert the cook – ‘O Dame, get up and bake your pie’ – who would be joined by her friend singing Bernstein’s song ‘I can cook too’ from On the Town. (Listen to Nancy Walker or Barbara Cook.) Standing in the kitchen with Bohuslav Martinu’s La revue de cuisine, a one-act ballet composed in 1927 concerning the wedding of a cook-pot and a saucepan-lid, hampered (no pun intended) by the jealousy of a whisk. (The delightful four-movement suite – or should that be sweet? – is on BIS.) And while in the kitchen, try and track down the Kitchen Symphony, Op. 445 by Henri Kling (1842-1918) – a long deleted LP on Angel – scored for piano, trumpet, funnel trumpet, wine glass, bottle, saucepan, fire irons, milk jug and tin cover.

Mozart in music’s ultimate Last Supper
Belshazzar’s Feast (Walton’s magnificent 1931 cantata) emphasises the drinking rather than the eating, while Handel’s Alexander Feast extols the beauties of music. So for a properly operatic meal we have to turn to the final scene of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the supper to which the statue of the Commendatore has been invited; Act 2 of Verdi’s Macbeth includes the banquet scene, as in Shakespeare’s play; altogether more innocently, Act 2 of Puccini’s La bohème sees the Bohemians enjoying chicken and stew at a café while Britten’s Albert Herring includes a marquee in the vicarage garden with ‘a long trestle-table loaded with cakes, jellies and other good things’.

The scherzo section from Edward German’s Welsh Rhapsody contains the folk tune ‘Hunting the hare’ (perhaps the Rufford Park Poachers from Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy should join forces). There is trout from Franz Schubert (both his piano quintet and the song Die Forelle, from which the theme of the quintet’s best known movement is derived) and Rainbow Trout from Cyril Scott (a piano piece from 1916). I’m not sure whether Debussy’s Poissons d’or are edible or not but they are certainly not goldfish as is sometimes erroneously stated. There is lobster in the form of the ‘Lobster Quadrille’ from Joseph Horovitz’s enchanting ballet Alice in Wonderland, and an Elizabethan banquet would certainly serve up a Saint-Saëns ‘The Swan’ from The Carnival of the Animals, if not Prokofiev’s ‘The Ugly Duckling’ – his song Op. 18 of 1914). There are any number of musical fowls, among them Rameau’s La Poule, Haydn’s Symphony No. 83 in G minor, ‘The Hen’, Chabrier’s songs ‘Villanelle des petits canards’ and ‘Ballade des gros dindons’ as well as the ‘Ballet of Little Chicks’ from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. But surely the grandest table d’hôte is the final movement of Mahler’s enchanting Fourth Symphony. ‘St Peter looks on from his height while the inhabitants of heaven feast at ease.’ The text, sung by a soprano, paints a portrait of a medieval banquet with lamb, oxen, bread and herbs: ‘Asparagus, salad, delights to the palate!/On great platters for us there abound./Good apples, good pears and good peaches./To eat them the gardeners beseech us./Good roebuck, and pheasant./In numbers they’re present and running around.’

And not forgetting puddings!
From the sweet trolley we could have oranges (Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges) and pears (Three Pieces in the shape of a Pear by Erik Satie), or chocolate courtesy of Oscar Straus’s 1908 operetta The Chocolate Soldier. The cakewalk, a strutting dance step from the American plantations and forerunner of ragtime, takes its name from dancing competitions for which the prize was a large cake. So should the Wedding Cake (caprice for piano and orchestra by Saint-Saëns) not be to your taste, how about Debussy’s ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ or Hershy Kay’s ballet Cakewalk, based on the music of Lousi Moreau Gottschalk?

No mention of Milhaud’s ballet Le boeuf sur le toit (evidence of mad cow disease?) but I could also add ‘There’s a plaice for us’ (West Side Story), insalata verdi and ‘We’ll meat again’; there was also a composer called McDonald (Harl of that ilk, 1899-1955 and rather good). But by now you’ll say I’ve overindulged. Well, that’s the menu. For advice on the guest list and the seating plan may I draw your attention to Place Settings (Sarah Walker and Roger Vignoles again, on Hyperion)? Bon appetit!

Classic CD magazine, 1996

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