By Eric Dundon
Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, The Raven, catapulted the poet into national and international renown, with its stylized language, supernatural overtures, and haunting main character.
Since its publication in the New York Evening Mirror in 1845, the poem has been adapted to screen, song, and visual art, and inspired countless other pieces. In 1971, The Raven was the direct inspiration for another medium: orchestra.
The orchestral version of The Raven, titled after the namesake poem, evokes the same mood as the written word: eerie strings crescendo and fade in the background, chimes ring and dissolve into the distance, brass players mute their instruments as a sinister backdrop and surprisingly caw out with percussive flutter tongues. A narrator provides a reading of the poem’s text, enhancing the chilling vibe of the music.
This 25-minute work received its world premiere by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in May 1971 at Powell Hall. SLSO Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin, then the orchestra's Assistant Conductor, led by premiere—fittingly, as he also wrote the music.
The premiere performance took place on an SLSO Sunday Festival of Music concert, along with other works noted for their dark or mysterious moods, including Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, and Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre.
In the premiere performance, Vincent Price joined Slatkin and the SLSO as narrator. Known for his roles in Hollywood horror films including The Fly, House of Wax, and House on Haunted Hill, Price (a St. Louis native) lent the performance a bone-chilling reading of Poe’s text. Price returned to the SLSO in 1973 to reprise his role in The Raven. The SLSO performed the piece one more time, on Halloween night 1996 with Marin Alsop on the podium and Michele Dibble as narrator.
To promote the world premiere, Slatkin posed with a real raven at the St. Louis Zoo, in a stark black and white photograph that gives a nod to film noir.
The Raven is one of Slatkin’s first original compositions for orchestra. In the years since The Raven premiered, Slatkin has composed several more works and has conducted some of them with the SLSO, including: Kinah—a tribute to his parents—performed in 2016; Housewarming, performed in collaboration with the St. Louis Children’s Choirs in 2000; and Dialogue for Two Cellos and Orchestra, performed in 1975 with Slatkin’s mother and brother.
Eric Dundon is the SLSO’s Public Relations Manager.