“Esthetic pleasure is essentially one and the same, no matter whether it is evoked by a work of art or immediately produced by the contemplation of nature and life.”
I: Ernest Newman (1868-1959) English musicologist, critic, Wagner biographer.
II. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) Austrian composer, “father” of 12-tone composition.
III. Robert Schumann (1810-1856) German composer.
Musicologists pore over and argue about the minutiae of musical scores. Partisans of so-called historically informed performance practice debate original instruments (and voices) in world conferences. Scholarly editions, the fruit of some of these debates, are produced.
Let’s try to examine some myths.
No, Virginia, there is no such thing as an Urtext, at least not one you can buy at your local music store. If you can find a local music store.
The prefix “Ur-” means first, original, or primary. The only true Urtext is (possibly) the composer’s autograph. Sometimes I think it’s the thought in the composer’s head. Some folks think the first edition (if it came out during the composer’s life and was overseen or corrected by him) is also authoritative. Each step you take farther from that is . . .
By the time you buy it, that music has been through panels of editors, each one a major scholar in his or her field, usually highly opinionated, with plenty of information to back up their choices.
Pianists, when you get that Bach Well-Tempered Clavier from good old G. Henle, in its sober slate-blue covers, it has fingering! That fingering didn’t come from J.S. Bach, but from some respected German piano pedagogue who “knows what’s best” for the majority of pianists. Some “Urtexts” even use celebrity pianist/editors who are famous for the particular composer, such as Andras Schiff (the newest Bach from Henle) and the late, great Claudio Arrau (a Beethoven sonata set from Edition Peters).
None of us relish the prospect of learning or performing music from illegible, ink-stained manuscripts, like those routinely produced by Beethoven. Even early editions are hard for us to read, with their different note shapes and page spacing issues. Thus, the “performing edition,” which is misleadingly marketed as “Urtext.”
So far, we haven’t even covered many of the controversial issues surrounding the creation of a reliable musical text! I won’t be able to in the limited space of the blog. But one more thing I couldn’t leave unmentioned is the matter of mistakes, of which Urtexts are full. I’m not talking about variant readings of a passage. I’m talking about typos, wrong notes, the very thing you got yelled at about in conservatory. Just because it says Urtext doesn’t mean you don’t have to check. Trust but verify, as the old nuclear arms slogan went.
PS: In future blog posts, I hope to cover additional issues on the subject of “authenticity.”
PPS: Just yesterday, while rehearsing with my trio, the cellist and I were eager to reveal our deep understanding of the slow movement (Adagio ma non troppo) of a Haydn piano trio that none of us had played previously (there are 45 of them, after all!). The violinist kept asking why we were going so slowly. Turns out her violin part (G. Henle “Urtext”) had the temp as “Allegro ma non troppo”!) I rest my case.
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs
“The esthetics of one art is that of the others, only the material is different.” (Hint: It’s a composer.)
Now I’m no feminist, but I have a nagging suspicion that Puccini’s female characters don’t make good role models by and large. Not that opera plots can really be taken as believable anyway. So, in the spirit of investigation, here’s a rundown on the fates of Puccini’s operatic dames: Four suicides, three other deaths (broken heart, exile, and consumption), and one murder.
To be fair, in four of Puccini’s twelve operas, the lead female character does not die, and two of his operas even have relatively happy endings. And we can’t really fault Puccini for the stories, which were libretti (opera booklets) adapted from other literary works. But let’s get to the juicy stuff.
“La Bohème” is probably the most popular opera of all time. Mimi, the poor, consumptive, embroidering heroine (who in the “old days” of opera weighed upwards of 300 lbs) dies of her disease. Musetta, a gold-digging flirt, eventually shows some compassion for Mimi. I’d like to think that after the story ends, she opens a free clinic for starving artists, using money from one of her beaux.
“Madama Butterfly” is the ultimate war-bride tear-jerker. In Japan, Cio-Cio-San, a geisha, marries the U.S. naval jerk Pinkerton, who only weds her so he can get her in bed. Despite having his child, when she gets the news that he has married someone else (during his three year absence) she commits honor suicide (hara-kiri) while her little boy watches.
“Tosca” (which George Bernard Shaw called “a shabby little shocker) has at its core a jealous diva who claims to have “lived for art and love” but who double crosses her would-be seducer, murdering him instead of sleeping with him to save the life of her lover, the painter and political radical Cavaradossi. When he is executed anyway, as planned all along, she jumps to her death off a roof in Rome. (In my sequel, she is sued by the owner of the trattoria on whose canopy she landed.)
“Turandot” is a spectacle set in “legendary” China, with the ice-princess of the title sending would-be suitors to their deaths if they fail to answer the riddles she poses. The female death in this one is of the “secondary” character, the slave-girl Liù, who is hopelessly in love with Calaf, who himself loves guess who, the ice-princess. Liù has got to be opera’s most loveable doormat. Rather than reveal Calaf’s name, she kills herself after enduring torture. Dr. Phil didn’t get to her in time.
In “Suor Angelica,” (one of the three shorter operas that make up “Il Trittico”), Angelica enters a convent after having an illegitimate baby seven years prior. The Princess, Angelica’s aunt, arrives to tell her that Angie’s sister is going to marry her ex-lover and that she must sign over all her inheritance. When she refuses, the Princess tells her that her baby died two years ago. Angelica signs, poisons herself, sees visions of the Virgin Mary and her son, but dies anyway. See what Britney has to look forward to?
“Manon Lescaut” features a gal on her way to the convent (the old convent ploy) in the company of an old geezer who desires her, but a melancholy student also falls in love with her at first sight. She quickly dumps the convent idea for a life of pleasure in Paris (I probably would too), where she runs off with the student instead of the old guy. She shacks up with the student until his money runs out, goes over to the geezer, gets bored, pines for and reunites with the student . . . you get the picture. She’s a courtesan, that’s fancy talk for a prostitute, kept woman. Dumped in prison by order of the jilted geezer, she is exiled to the “desert” of New Orleans territory, that’s right, Louisiana, described as a desert but better known to us as “the Big Easy.” The student goes there with her. She dies of thirst. Even if they weren’t right in the French Quarter, water is everywhere in Louisiana.
In “Le Villi,” Puccini’s rarely performed first opera, newly engaged Anna’s fiancé, Roberto, is enchanted by a supernatural seductress. Anna waits months for him, then dies of grief. Her ghost calls on the “ville,” fairies who make heartbreakers dance themselves to death, which he does.
“Edgar,” Puccini’s second opera, also rarely encountered, features Tigrana, a debauched gypsy woman (is there a sweet, innocent gypsy woman?), who lures Eddie away from his pure-girl love, Fidelia. When he tires of orgies (imagine that) and leaves Tigrana for the military, only to die in action, the gypsy vows revenge. Well, he was only faking his death, and when Tiggy sees him reconcile with Fiddy, she stabs her to death.
That’s the lurid female stuff, with the exception of “Il Tabarro” (The Cloak), another component of “Il Trittico.” In it, Giorgetta, married to a man twice her age, falls in love with another boatman her own age. Her husband kills him in a fight and reveals the body to her wrapped in his cloak, the one that had sheltered the couple and their baby, before the baby died. I’m sensing a guest appearance on “Project Runway.”
Even in Puccini’s comic and lighter operas, the women are schemers (Zita and Lauretta in “Gianni Schicchi”), a kept woman (Magda in “La Rondine”) and a card-cheater and other woman (Minnie in “La Fanciulla del West”).
So there you have it. Some of the most luscious romantic music in the world, and the most beloved theatrical evenings read like a police blotter from hell. What can you do?
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs
Let’s just say Puccini isn’t going to be on Gloria Steinem’s dinner guest list anytime soon . . . Stay tuned!
“If I should succeed in presenting to a student our art’s cratfsmanship as thoroughly as a carpenter can always present his, then I should be content.” (Hint: It’s a musician.)
I decided to celebrate my new U.S. citizenship with a trip to Washington D.C. Since all the news these days seems to be about the bad things in the economy, it’s important to recognize the incredible cultural wealth we have accumulated as a country, for instance in our nation’s Library of Congress. Besides, there are so many other monuments and sights to see in Washington.
The Library of Congress was founded with the personal collection of Thomas Jefferson. Today, it is contained in three buildings, right next to the Capitol: the Jefferson (with the awe-inspiring main reading room), the Madison (home of the Music Division), and the Adams buildings. All are open to the public and free of charge. If you want to go further, with just two pieces of ID, you can in minutes obtain a reader’s card good for two years, and really go to town!
For fans of high-tech, the Library has enormous amounts of material online. See www.loc.gov for that, though I always feel that a “real” visit is best. The hours are Monday through Saturday, 8:30AM to 5 PM (no materials pulled after 4:15), closed on Federal holidays.
Thomas Jefferson’s music holdings were a mere thirteen volumes, but by 1896, the year the Music Division was founded, there were 400,000 items. Today, Jefferson’s baker’s dozen has grown to over twelve million! Its mission statement reads in part: “Music in its best sense is a science belonging to all ages, as well as all nationalities and conditions of men, and the Library of Congress should contain its earliest as well as its latest and most complete expression.”
And boy is it complete! Here’s a small sampling of what I was able to see in just a few hours on my first visit.
The autographs of Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo” and “Appalachian Spring,” Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and “Porgy and Bess,” Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” Jerome Kern’s “Showboat,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma,” Bach cantatas, Beethoven piano sonatas, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio” for strings in its original form as the slow movement of his Quartet, and Ravel’s “Chansons madécasses” (which was a commissioned work, another facet of the Library’s work).
And instruments! They have a famous quintet of Stradivarius strings (two violins, viola and cello, plus an “extra” violin) that are played by the quartet-in-residence in concerts within Coolidge Auditorium in the Library, where music is brought to life, not remaining a theoretical thing “on paper.”
In the Performing Arts Reading Room, you can search the huge database, fill out a call slip, and within a few minutes an assistant will bring your books and music right to your table. There are even soundproof modules with grand pianos in them so that you can bring your own treasures to life right there. You can listen to historic recordings or watch video on a number of terminals. You can’t check books out, however, so all listening, looking and research must be done while there. It’s sure worth your time. Photocopying is available, if the work is free of copyright restriction.
Practically every important figure in the arts in America (and overseas too) left some or all of their collections to the Library, resulting in a huge amount of rare photographs and intimate correspondence. These are found in the over 500 “named” collections, such as the Koussevitzky, the George and Ira Gershwin, the Irving Berlin, and so on. Not just musicians but publishers, agents, patrons, and many others. So you can get the whole range of transactions via letters, pictures, concert programs and more.
Posters, playbills, Gershwin’s metronome, even a lock of Beethoven’s hair! Want to see a photograph of Rachmaninoff smiling? Look no further. How about Irving Berlin’s typed lyrics to “Anything You Can Do” (from “Annie Get Your Gun”) with rhyming words in the upper left-hand corner? It’s there. Bob Fosse’s and Gwen Verdon’s choreographic notes? Yep. Even 1600 flutes in the Dayton C. Miller Flute collection! That’s a lot of embouchure!
Maybe you’re interested in a few of the 12,000 opera libretti, or one of the 120 songs written about the “Titanic”! How about everyone who applied to be on “Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour” or the archive of the American Harp Society? There are no “small” numbers in the Library.
So, if you live within easy reach of Washington, why not explore this enormous and rewarding treasure trove? If you are farther away but planning a trip, how about staying “domestic” and taking the family to DC? Thomas Jefferson would be proud.
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs
New U.S. citizen Gomez revels in the treasures of our nation’s Library of Congress, Music Division (also theater and dance)!
or “Blythe Spirit” By Mirabeau
Gentle readers, my father took me, a boy of 13 to the Vienna premiere of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and I was also privileged to see the Paris reworking of it in 1774. However, death has its advantages, and so I come to speak to you today of a revival of the opera, long after my time, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
It’s a great story in a blessedly brief musical setting. In fact, it ought to be the anthem of every musician (maker and listener), because it’s all about the power of music to conquer death. In addition, it holds up the lofty notion of faithful love as vanquisher of death.
This legend formed the basis for the earliest surviving operas in late sixteenth century Florence, as well as the oldest opera still in the repertoire: Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607), and many subsequent treatments.
The role of Orfeo, the strumming musician who charms the underworld to get his dead wife back, was sung here by the noble and powerful mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, who gave masculine tone colors to the part. Gluck himself said of Orfeo’s three cries of “Euridice!” that are pitted against the choral lament of the opening: “ . . . sing as if someone is sawing through your bone!” The surgical imagery is a bit extreme, but Blythe did fill the part with unusual strength.
Why unusual, since the role is a male character after all, the grieving widower? Well, along about the mid-nineteenth century, someone decided that it would be nicer if we stopped lopping off the testicles of pre-pubescent boys to force certain hormonal changes that would make them into singing machines known as “castrati.”
Castrati were the rock stars of eighteenth century opera, generating mass hysteria among their fans. Because of their altered anatomy, they grew up with expanded chest capacity (like a capon chicken!) and a “female” sounding voice register. Even in my day, the switch over to women singing the parts was happening, and Gluck rewrote the role for soprano, mezzo, and even tenor. Castrati were too much a reminder of the excesses of Baroque opera Gluck was trying to reform with a “noble simplicity.”
One might have wished for slightly more tenderness from Blythe at times, though her voice is a force of nature. She did finally “get there” on the third verse of the famed song/aria “Che farò senza Euridice?”
If Euridice was a cat, she’d still have seven lives left at the end of the opera, since she dies twice within it. The soprano Danielle De Niese sang the role with pure clear and expressive tone. She was also an arresting presence visually, one for whom Orfeo would definitely have braved Hades.
The divine intervention of the goddess of love Amor, who descended on a wire causing unfortunate giggles, was sung by the light voiced Heidi Grant Murphy, who sounded as if she was having an off day.
The production was directed by Mark Morris, a former “enfant terrible” of modern dance. He knows his music, particularly that of the eighteenth century, from the inside, and makes stylized gestures that don’t go against the music, but instead reveal something “behind” the notes, something about its overall emotion. The ballet provided a “danced chorus” as counterpart to the one hundred voice sung chorus.
Those choral singers, arranged in rows of balconies overlooking the action, were costumed as notable figures from all centuries of history, including George Washington, Julius Caesar, John Lennon, Coco Chanel, Mother Theresa, Moses, and Princess Diana. One has to wonder what she was thinking: “Would Charles have done the same for me after that damn automobile crash?” I’m sure the figures were presented to accentuate the timelessness of the story, but it was jarring to see Chairman Mao singing about eternal love.
All the choristers and principals were costumed by noted modern designer and tastemaker Isaac Mizrahi, and I will admit he followed Diderot’s costume recommendation, fresh from my heyday: “What is needed is a few simple garments in a plain color, not a vulgar display of brocade.” In these straightened economic times, the plainness of the principals’ dress seemed even more appropriate.
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs