Sunday, 7 February 2016

Leonard Slatkin’s symphonic take on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven with Vincent Price | A reflection by Lawrence French

On 29 January 1845, Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven was first published in the New York Evening Mirror, which led to him becoming a household name. And it was in 1963 that Vincent Price teamed up with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre for Roger Corman's comedy horror take on Poe's poem, which got its US debut on 25 January. Well, here's something I received from film writer Lawrence French that I'd like to share with you all. It's his personal reminiscences on Vincent's contribution to a musical composition based on Poe's classic with the legendary conductor Leonard Slatkin.

Credit: Donald Dietz
The Raven: A Reflection by Lawrence French
Perhaps one of Vincent Price’s least know endeavors, may have been performing the narration for a symphonic composition entitled The Raven, that composer Leonard Slatkin wrote for Mr Price in 1971. When I interviewed Price in April 1985, he had just given his penultimate performance of the piece in San Jose, California (on April 12, 1985) and I asked him how he first became involved as the narrator...

The Raven is a marvellous piece of music that was written especially for me by Leonard Slatkin,’ explained Price, ‘and it has been set to Poe’s poetry. In all, I read five of Poe’s poems: The Sleeper, The Bells, Romance, The Coliseum and The Raven. Leonard wrote it when he was the assistant conductor of the St Louis Symphony and since that time he’s become one of the country’s most distinguished conductors. He called me up and asked me if I’d like to do it and since I’m a native of St Louis and I love the works of Edgar Allan Poe, naturally I was quite delighted. We premiered it in St Louis, on May 2, 1971. Since then I’ve taken it all over the country and read it with different orchestras, both professional and student, and I always have a wonderful time doing it. Last week I had a marvellous time doing it with George Cleve and the San Jose Symphony.’

Sadly, no recording of Vincent Price reciting the narration was apparently ever made, and through Price performed it with 20 or so different orchestras over a fifteen year period, he always seemed to take it to smaller cities, and consequently it never got a lot of publicity or became very widely known.

Ironically, as Leonard Slatkin explained to The Baltimore Gazette’s Chris Slattery in 2008, Vincent Price’s movie version of The Raven was Mr Slatkin’s own initial inspiration for composing the score. After Slatkin’s father died in 1963, some friends suggested they all go to the movies to cheer him up. The film they saw was Roger Corman’s 1963 version of The Raven, starring whom else, but Vincent Price, along with Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff.

Slatkin recalled, ‘My friends thought I should get out of the house, and seeing that movie did help get me out of the depressed time I was going through.’ Indeed, after seeing The Raven, Slatkin became fascinated by Poe’s writings that led to his composing The Raven. ‘Poe’s use of language was so exquisite,’ noted Slatkin. ‘The beauty and the melancholy of it, and his rhyme scheme is so melodic. Poe himself seems to speak in a musical language. He uses words to delineate a sound, whether it’s for worms or for birds. For the most part, I wanted to underpin the text and not get in the way of it. So I chose five of Poe’s poems and set each one of them into different musical guises. In each of the poems, one can find a multitude of images that lend themselves to various musical treatments.’

Of course, who better to serve as narrator for a musical composition based on the poetry of Poe, than Vincent Price, who had beautiful declaimed snatches of Poe’s poems in his many Poe movies of the 1960s, including The Raven, The Haunted Palace, War-Gods of the Deep (aka City Under the Sea), Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm) and Spirits of the Dead. Mr Slatkin remembered Price’s performance in The Raven and asked him to come narrate his composition in St Louis, although Mr Price’s busy schedule only allowed for an average of one or two performances a year.

‘Leonard’s version of The Raven is really a divertissement of Poe's poetry,’ enthused Mr Price, ‘and all of it is woven in with his marvelous music. It starts out with "Once Upon a Midnight Dreary" that serves as the wrap-around for the five Poe poems I read. We then segue into The Sleeper, where a bassoon is used to portray a necrophiliac’s desire for his dead lover. This is followed by The Bells, which Leonard has written as if the percussion section is losing their minds. In fact, sometimes the students acted the same way. They have gone out and brought in pipes and chains and everything else they could find, to the point where nobody could hear me as the narrator. Obviously, we had to cut a lot of that out, but it’s always a fun piece to do. Next I read Romance, which has a dreamlike quality about it, and Leonard uses only the string section of the orchestra, which is rather appropriate, as the poem ends with these lines:  

That little time with lyre and rhyme
To while away—forbidden things—
My heart would feel to be a crime
Unless it trembled with the strings.

For The Coliseum we only use the brass instruments, to evoke a setting of ancient Rome. Then we come to the climax with a full reading of The Raven, where the entire orchestra is represented by a single instrument from each section. It's really quite a fun piece for orchestras to do, and I especially enjoy working with the student orchestras. With professionals there is often a sort of ‘toss it away’ quality, where they say, ‘show me,’ but with the students it’s not like that at all. They are always very excited by their work.’

In 2008 Leonard Slatkin revived The Raven for a special performance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to celebrate Edgar Allan Poe's 200th birthday. ‘It’s a long piece, but it’s also intimate,’ says Slatkin, ‘with different sections of the orchestra used for each poem, until for the finale of The Raven all the sections come together with the whole orchestra.’

Of course, Vincent Price could not be in Baltimore for Poe’s 200th birthday, so John Astin took over his role as the narrator, but Price had narrated the piece in Baltimore in 1980.
Rather fittingly, Mr Price’s final performance of The Raven was done at his Alma mater, Yale University, with the Yale Symphony Orchestra, on April 20, 1985 in New Haven, Conan. Interestingly enough, when Price attended Yale, he had sung with the Glee Club, way back in 1932.

Vincent Price's performances of Leonard Slatkin’s The Raven.
St. Louis, MS (May 2 1971)
Lima, Ohio (1974)
Denver CO (1974)
Oklahoma City, OK (1975)
Rockford, IL (1977)
Shreveport, LO (1977)
Jackson, MI (1977)
South Bend, IN (1977)
Baltimore, MD (1980)
Winnipeg, Canada (1980)
Enid, OK (1982)
Lawton, OK (1982)
Harrisburg, PA (1983)
Waco, TX (1983)
Palm Springs, CA (1984)
Seattle, WA (1984)
San Jose, CA (1985)
New Haven, CT (April 20, 1985)