Richard Strauss: Enoch Arden: Op. 38, David Ripley, speaker, Chad R. Bowles, piano, JRI Recordings No. J127, ©2010, 78:53, $15.00.

This is not an opera, but rather a melodrama, spoken word with music as accompaniment or interludes. The work in this genre perhaps most familiar to readers is Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. Enoch Arden sets a 911-line blank verse poem of the same title by Alfred, Lord Tennyson written in 1864 and extremely popular at the time and for the rest of the poet’s lifetime, but rather neglected today. Indeed, in the Riverside Edition of selected works of the poet, the sole note by the editor, Jerome H. Buckley, says it was “… once the most popular of Tennyson’s poems, translated into many languages, […].” [p. 534]. Strauss composed his setting in 1897, and the listener can hear in it the heritage of his earlier tone poems inspired by other literary works, such as the famous Also Sprach Zarathustra from 1896, Don Juan of 1888-89, Tod und Verklärung of 1889, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche of 1895, and Don Quixote also of 1897, but these all convey the drama of their stories without text.

The epic-style poem tells the story of three childhood playmates, Enoch Arden, Philip Ray, and Annie Lee, who become a love triangle as adults with Enoch, the more stereotypically muscular and manly, winning Annie’s hand, although she had said: “she would be little wife to both” [l. 36] to end a dispute between them during their play. Enoch becomes a sailor, like his father, suffers an injury in a fall from a ship’s rigging, and signs on for a long-haul voyage when recovered to provide for Annie and their three children. The ship is lost at sea, and after several years, Annie marries Philip, a miller’s son, who had become her and the two surviving children’s protector (the third sickly child having died) in Enoch’s absence; they have a child of their own as well. The class differences and the initial couple’s tragedies are to a certain extent stock Victorian narrative features. The characters’ behaviors epitomize late Victorian moralities: for example, Enoch’s sacrificing himself for his wife and children, and, when he returns home after a decade shipwrecked on a desert island, not disclosing himself to reclaim Annie and his children, instead wasting away and dying within a year in a silent martyrdom, as well as Philip’s somewhat paternalistic protection of Annie and her and Enoch’s children. The whole is imbued with the belief in the divine order and overall justice of things even if mankind does not comprehend it.

All of these attributes seem outdated now, in this age of unbridled self-centeredness, but can still be objectively appreciated and admired. Buckley writes, however: “The often labored simplicity of the piece and its many touches of sentimental “realism” have but little appeal to most modern readers, who in any case look to prose fiction rather than to verse for narratives of domesticity.” To this writer’s mind, this is overly dismissive and condescending where an attempt to explain the former popularity was in order. The writing is not near as trivial as this note makes it sound, and, in fact, the poem’s structure often makes it read like noble prose.

There is not a whole lot of music here. It is much more a dramatic than a musical experience. There are long stretches where the narrator speaks without any musical support or interruption. What music there is creates the atmospheres and underscores the major events. Each character has her/his leitmotif, as does the landscape of the fishing village setting. Tennyson wrote the work in two weeks while walking on his property that overlooked Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight, of which a reproduction of a lovely 18th century painting graces the cover of the booklet. Enoch’s despair during his exile also has its leitmotif, and there is a recurring hymn-tune-like melody. Strauss has managed to capture the quiet nobility of the poem and the spirit of the age without any of the grandiose features that mark Also…, for example. Ripley presents it well, highlighting the drama without over-sentimentalizing, so often a risk, then and now, with late Victorian works. The piano accompaniment seems better suited, in its greater subtlety and salon intimacy, to this story of domestic life than an orchestral one, like the other tone poems, would have.

The booklet contains a fine essay by Ripley, with the leitmotifs reproduced, and bios of the artists, but it does not contain the text. If the reader wishes to follow along, s/he will need to find it in a library, personal or public. The recorded sound is good. There are a couple of spots where the recorded words are slightly different from the written text, although there was no stumbling, and one line is repeated for dramatic effect.

When I read the poem as part of my MA in English’s 19th Century English Poetry course about 40 years ago, there was no mention in the book, or, in my memory, by the professor, of the existence of this setting. Were I to teach it, I would surely recommend it as a complement to studying and appreciating the work. There is not much competition on the market for this recording. Glenn Gould recorded it with Claude Rains narrating in 1962, John Bell Young with Shakespearean actor Michael York in 2002, and Emmanuel Ax with Patrick Stewart in 2007. All of these seem to still be available, but I have not heard them to be able to compare their renditions with this one; all those readers come from a theatrical/acting background, however, rather than from a musical one, as does Ripley, so I might intuitively fear some unwelcome over-dramatization.