Hyperion Records

Fra Giacomo
First line:
Alas Fra Giacomo too late! But follow me
23 May 1914
author of text
1901; Fra Giacomo

'Coles: Music from Behind the lines' (CDH55464)
Coles: Music from Behind the lines
Buy by post £4.40 CDH55464  Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Composers of World War I  
Track 2 on CDH55464 [13'22] Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Composers of World War I

Fra Giacomo
Given Coles’s active participation in the Stuttgart opera, it is perhaps not surprising that his affinities for post-Wagnerian opera should be evinced in his last, and arguably finest, work that survives intact, Fra Giacomo, a scena for baritone and orchestra. Coles took his text from Robert Williams Buchanan’s eponymous poem, published in 1901 (in the complete edition of Buchanan’s poetry). Though now little known, Buchanan enjoyed a certain vogue at the end of the nineteenth century for his macabre, shadowy, and often disturbing verse. This was certainly true of ‘Meg Blane’, which formed the subject of Coleridge-Taylor’s choral rhapsody in 1902, and ‘Fra Giacomo’, a lurid tale of revenge, is no exception. The tale, told in the first person by a Venetian merchant (probably during the Middle Ages or the Renaissance), begins with the urgent summoning of Fra Giacomo to the merchant’s house. He is to give last rites to the merchant’s dying wife. On arrival he is too late; she has died. Fra Giacomo is, nevertheless, detained while the merchant gives an engaging account of his romantic past, how he met his wife six years ago, how he fell in love with her, saw off all-comers, and married her. Yet his wife’s pious obser­vances and regular confession caused him to mistrust her, and one day he donned a monk’s clothing and listened, in place of her normal priest, to her confession. There, digging his nails into his palms, he discovers that his wife’s lover is none other than Fra Giacomo. At this point the monk understands the real motivation for his summons. The merchant’s wife has been poisoned and, having drunk a toast to the ‘saint upstairs at rest’, Fra Giacomo is to suffer a similar fate. At the hands of the merchant, his end is violent and his body is thrown into the canal, while orders are given for all the bells to toll at the convent.

Coles’s interpretation of Buchanan’s text is nothing short of masterly. His consummate understanding of Wagner’s seamless symphonic process, in which the orchestra plays the dominant role in terms of continuity and thematic develop­ment, is highly impressive. Moreover, in common with his post-Wagnerian contemporaries Strauss, Pfitzner, and Schreker, he exhibits that innate ability to create musical ideas that concisely represent underlying pictorial or abstract images. This is potently demonstrated in the chromatically descending ‘death’ motif (synonymous with the merchant), which domi­nates the first part of the scena in a portentous C minor and forms the momentous climax of the conclusion. Fra Giacomo’s fragment of pseudo-plainsong, announced in the brass, is also highly distinctive, and is used most effectively when it under­pins the merchant’s own scheme of hearing his wife’s confes­sion (‘In the Father Confessor’s place’). Here, with a dramatic subtlety worthy of Wagner, Fra Giacomo’s guilt is revealed. In addition to the brilliant and colourful orchestration (which is often reduced to pointillistic chamber music), Coles’s tonal scheme is also worthy of comment. Though based around C minor, much of the chromatic nuance is generated by the constant interjection of D flat. This pitch not only provides an unsettling Neapolitan inflection but also a means of modula­tion to A flat, a key which features prominently across the larger canvas. Of greatest impact, however, are the statements of the ‘death’ motif during the final act of murder (‘Take this! And this! And this!’) which are juxtaposed, first in C minor, and then in C sharp minor. Furthermore it is to C sharp minor that the climax recovers (‘Come raise him up, Pietro’) before C major reasserts itself as part of a declaration of heartrending regret, marked by the entry of a plaintive solo violin.

from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2002

Track-specific metadata
Details for CDH55464 track 2
Recording date
13 December 2001
Recording venue
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
John Timperley
Hyperion usage
  1. Coles: Music from Behind the lines (CDA67293)
    Disc 1 Track 2
    Release date: June 2002
    Deletion date: December 2011
    Superseded by CDH55464
  2. Coles: Music from Behind the lines (CDH55464)
    Disc 1 Track 2
    Release date: July 2014
    Helios (Hyperion's budget label) Composers of World War I
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