On November 22, 23, and 24, the Houston Symphony presents Trifonov Plays Tchaikovsky, a program featuring world-renowned virtuoso Daniil Trifonov in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 together with Ravel’s vibrant orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Opening the program is Celephaïs from The Cities of Lovecraft, a recent work by French composer Guillaume Connesson. In this post, discover how a Lovecraftian cityscape shaped this vivid orchestral tone poem.
In the early 20th century, the American author H. P. Lovecraft was a pioneer of the genre known as weird fiction. Though Lovecraft is most famous for creating Cthulu and other horrors beyond human comprehension, connoisseurs also cherish his Dream Cycle, a series of short stories and novellas set in the Dreamlands, a fantasy world which may only be reached through sleep. In 2017, French composer Guillaume Connesson completed The Cities of Lovecraft, a symphonic suite of tone poems inspired by Dreamlands locales. The first movement depicts “the splendid city of Celephaïs in Ooth-Nargai beyond the Tanarian Hills.” Lovecraft describes it in an eponymous story:
“[…] he beheld the glittering minarets of the city, and saw the graceful galleys riding at anchor in the blue harbour, and watched the gingko trees of Mount Aran swaying in the sea-breeze. […] When he entered the city, past the bronze gates and over the onyx pavements, the merchants and camel-drivers greeted him as if he had never been away; and it was the same at the turquoise temple of Nath-Horthath, where the orchid-wreathed priests told him that there is no time in Ooth-Nargai, but only perpetual youth.”
Connesson provides his own analysis of the music (French titles have been translated back into Lovecraftian English):
“Celephaïs […] is marked by its brilliant colours […] After the introduction (The Bronze Gates) in which orchestral shocks are superimposed on brass fanfares, the first theme bursts forth (Entry into the City with Onyx Pavements) in the violins and […] depicts the bustling streets. In The Turquoise Temple, a second theme […] appears in the trumpets, giving life to a colourful pagan celebration. The third part (The Rose-Crystal Palace of the Seventy Delights) is a moment of calm in which we again find the first theme transformed in a chorale of translucent strings surrounded by shimmering sonorities in the winds, harp and celesta. After a bridge, made up of three trilled chords, begins The Seven Processions of the Orchid-Wreathed Priests, a great crescendo […] The ‘visit’ to Céléphaïs concludes with a dazzling fortissimo.”
You can listen to a sample on the composer’s website. The sample includes The Bronze Gates and Entry into the City with Onyx Pavements.