Johannes Brahms — Sextet in B-flat Major for Strings, Opus 18




In 1857 Johannes Brahms (1833 – 97) moved to the small princely Court of Det­mold to assume his first offi­cial posi­tion in the world of music. His main duties were to give piano lessons to Princess Friederike, to per­form as pianist at court con­certs (of which there were many, since music was the prince’s over­rid­ing pas­sion), and to con­duct the choral soci­ety. The appoint­ment came at an aus­pi­cious time for Brahms. His good friend and cham­pion, the com­poser Robert Schu­mann, had died the year before, and Brahms found solace in his fre­quent long, soli­tary walks in the nearby Teu­to­burger Forest.

Though his duties lasted only from Sep­tem­ber through Decem­ber, he was able to live, albeit mod­estly, for an entire year on his court salary. He was also given a great deal of free­dom in the way he han­dled musi­cal affairs in Det­mold, though on occa­sion his some­what uncon­ven­tional behav­ior must have tried the patience of the more con­ser­v­a­tive mem­bers of the court. Brahms wrote to a friend in Ham­burg: “The other day I con­ducted my choral soci­ety, which is richly adorned with Serene High­nesses, with­out a neck­tie! Luck­ily I didn’t have to feel embar­rassed or vexed, as I only noticed it when I was going to bed!”

This period of tran­quil­ity and study of the clas­sic com­posers resulted in a rich out­pour­ing of com­po­si­tions from the young Brahms. In addi­tion to the First String Sex­tet, Opus 18, he took his first steps in orches­tral com­po­si­tion with the two Ser­e­nades (Opus 11 and Opus 16), con­tin­ued work on his First Piano Con­certo (Opus 15), and, of course, wrote numer­ous pieces for chorus.

The first of Brahms’s two sex­tets for strings was writ­ten dur­ing 1859 – 60 and was pre­miered on Octo­ber 20, 1860, with the composer’s good friend, the great vio­lin­ist Joseph Joachim, as part of the sex­tet. Brahms obvi­ously had a great deal of affec­tion for this music. He made a four-handed piano arrange­ment of it and tran­scribed the sec­ond move­ment for solo piano (which he pre­sented to Clara Schu­mann as a forty-first birth­day present and which Brahms him­self appar­ently played often). When a friend made a piano trio ver­sion of the sex­tet, Brahms was delighted.

The Sex­tet is in the clas­sic four-movement form, the sec­ond move­ment being a theme with six vari­a­tions. For years, com­men­ta­tors and crit­ics have delighted in try­ing to pin­point exactly which com­poser influ­enced which theme or move­ment of the sex­tet. (Does the last movement’s feel­ing of seren­ity owe more to Haydn or Schu­bert? Which theme in the first move­ment is most likely to have been inspired by Beethoven?) Such musi­cal games aside, the sex­tet offers an aston­ish­ing wealth of melody, cou­pled with a mas­ter­ful sense of pro­por­tion. The music’s light­ness of tex­ture (some­thing Brahms would later bring to his Hun­gar­ian Dances) allows the lis­tener to revel in the composer’s delight at the dif­fer­ences in tim­bre between the vio­lins, vio­las, and cel­los. One way Brahms empha­sizes the dif­fer­ences in tex­ture is by play­ing the dif­fer­ent pairs of instru­ments off against each other. His writ­ing is so clear and so vivid that lis­ten­ers can eas­ily fol­low the indi­vid­ual musi­cal lines as they are woven together.

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here with per­mis­sion.

Franz Schubert — Quintet in C Major for Strings, D. 956



The work of Franz Schu­bert (1797 – 1828) con­stantly reminds us of the astound­ing power of melody, and in this, his final instru­men­tal work, the com­poser penned some of his most ravishing.

The Quin­tet was prob­a­bly writ­ten in Sep­tem­ber 1828. The com­poser listed it among the com­po­si­tions he offered the pub­lisher Hein­rich Albert Probst in a let­ter writ­ten Octo­ber 2, in which he explained that the Quin­tet “is to be rehearsed shortly.” Probst was not inter­ested. Schu­bert heard a pri­vate rehearsal of the work in Octo­ber, a month before he died. Today it is hard to believe that one of the great­est of all cham­ber works remained unheard in pub­lic until 1850, twenty-two years after the composer’s death — and that it remained unpub­lished for three more years.

In choos­ing the instru­men­ta­tion for his Quin­tet, Schu­bert did not fol­low the path of Mozart and Beethoven, both of whom added a sec­ond viola to the nor­mal string quar­tet. Schu­bert decided, rather, to add a sec­ond cello, which changes the sound of the instru­men­tal group in a strik­ing way, adding a darker, per­haps more grave sound to the ensem­ble. Exactly why Schu­bert chose to add the sec­ond cello is not known. Maybe it had to do with the par­tic­u­lar string play­ers who con­gre­gated at the house of his brother Fer­di­nand. Per­haps he sim­ply wanted the richer, more pro­found sound for this music, which, as one writer has said, glows with “almost painful beauty.”

With a work so sub­lime, so intrin­si­cally musi­cal, and of such pro­found spir­i­tual depths, any­thing one says about Schubert’s String Quin­tet seems dan­ger­ously triv­ial, though Yehudi Menuhin’s obser­va­tion that Schubert’s music “is purity itself” is cer­tainly apt. The work is in four move­ments, and in each of them the com­poser pairs the instru­men­tal forces in such a way as to make them sound con­stantly new, a con­sid­er­able achieve­ment, given the Quintet’s length.

The first move­ment (alle­gro ma non troppo) opens with an intro­duc­tion of astound­ing beauty. The intro­duc­tion of the movement’s sec­ond theme by the two cel­los and the way Schu­bert jux­ta­poses the other three instru­ments around this theme in the rest of the move­ment, is an exam­ple of a great mas­ter at the height of his powers.

Few pieces in West­ern music approach the seren­ity Schu­bert cap­tured in the mirac­u­lous Ada­gio, which begins with the three inner instru­ments singing a broad, lyric melody, while the two outer voices (the first vio­lin and sec­ond cello) pro­vide the frame­work. The tur­bu­lent sec­ond theme is a remark­able con­trast to the oth­er­worldly open­ing theme. One might see this as an alter­na­tion between intro­spec­tion and a view of the world out­side the self, a dual­ity that con­tin­ues in the third move­ment. This Scherzo is bouncy, rol­lick­ing, high-spirited, while the movement’s Trio pro­vides a period of repose. One of the score’s mar­vels is the way Schu­bert moves the lis­tener from the quiet Trio to a repeat of the Scherzo — in only eight tran­si­tion measures.

The final move­ment, Alle­gretto, is essen­tially a rondo, but the com­poser lav­ished an almost sonata-form devel­op­ment on his open­ing dance-like theme. Dur­ing this final move­ment, Schu­bert again uses the cel­los in duet, con­trast­ing their solemn, broad musi­cal line with some­times scam­per­ing coun­ter­point from the higher instru­ments, as though remind­ing us of the work’s ear­lier movements.

In John Reed’s book Schu­bert: The Final Years, he notes, “There is some­thing espe­cially frag­ile and vul­ner­a­ble about the first ven­tur­ing forth of the roman­tic imag­i­na­tion, of which, in music, Schu­bert is the supreme exam­ple. His music speaks, with a kind of con­sol­ing sad­ness, of a lost world of inno­cence and joy. The strength of his per­sonal vision sus­tained him through a work­ing life­time of fif­teen phe­nom­e­nally pro­duc­tive years, none of them with­out its tally of mas­ter­pieces; and even at the end, plagued as he was by ill-health and dis­ap­point­ment, inspired his most elo­quent and poetic music.”

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here by permission.

 The water­color of Schu­bert is by Wil­helm August Rieder, 1825.


Giovanni Bottesini — Grand Duo Concertante




The name Gio­vanni Bottesini (1821 – 89) is not one most con­cert­go­ers today rec­og­nize. In fact, among any­one other than bass play­ers and opera fans given to explor­ing trivia of the nineteenth-century musi­cal stage, it is safe to say that Bottesini is unknown. But in his own time, he was lion­ized as an all-around musi­cian; as a vir­tu­oso per­former on the bass; as a com­poser not only of works for the bass, but of operas and var­i­ous forms of cham­ber music; and as a con­duc­tor of truly inter­na­tional renown. His artistry was astound­ing. No less than Rossini him­self declared, “Bottesini is the most well-rounded tal­ent that we have in Europe today.”

Bottesini was born in Crema, into a musi­cal fam­ily. His father, Pietro, was a clar­inet player and con­duc­tor and gave his son his early musi­cal edu­ca­tion, which led to young Gio­vanni singing in var­i­ous choirs and play­ing the tim­pani in local orches­tras. After study­ing the vio­lin with one of Crema’s lead­ing play­ers, the young man applied for admis­sion at the Milan Con­ser­va­tory in 1835. Only two schol­ar­ships were avail­able, one for study of the bas­soon and the other for study of the dou­ble bass. Bottesini played nei­ther instru­ment. So he took a crash course in bass play­ing and won that schol­ar­ship. Leg­end has it that the audi­tion left much to be desired. Real­iz­ing how badly he had played, the young man said, “I know, my dear sirs, that I played the wrong notes. But once I’ve learned where to put my fin­gers, that won’t ever hap­pen again.” A few years later, after study­ing with Luigi Rossi, Bottesini was being hailed as “The Paganini of the Dou­ble Bass,” and he was amaz­ing audi­ences not only his vir­tu­oso play­ing, but with the sweet tones he drew from the instrument,

Under his bow, the dou­ble bass groaned, sighed, cooed, sang, quiv­ered, roared — an orches­tra in itself with irre­sistible force and the sweet­est expres­sion,” reported a critic, describ­ing Bottesini in con­cert. “The aris­to­cratic court audi­ence was ecsta­tic. Applause and calls for encores exploded down the dis­or­derly rows at every bar.…Supported by his great wooden sound-box, Bottesini leant over his instru­ment like a con­quer­ing hero.”

Bottesini’s “great wooden sound-box” was a three-stringed bass, which he pre­ferred to the four-string vari­ety more often used today, made by Carlo Giuseppe Testore. (Yet another per­sis­tent leg­end about Bottesini is that he found the instru­ment in a pup­pet the­ater, lying under some trash, and res­cued it.) As pho­tographs show, Bottesini used the over­hand, French bow style of play­ing, rather than the Ger­man bow tech­nique, with the palm turned sideways.

Any US orches­tra has a mix­ture of bow­ing styles,” says San Fran­cisco Sym­phony Act­ing Asso­ciate Bass player Stephen Tra­mon­tozzi, who chose the Bottesini Grand Duo Con­cer­tante for today’s con­cert. “It really depends on which style your teacher used. The bows them­selves are con­structed dif­fer­ently. As a teacher, I can tell you that for a bass player start­ing out, it’s prob­a­bly eas­ier to learn how to get a sound with the Ger­man bow, because it’s eas­ier to get lever­age with a Ger­man bow. But it’s more dif­fi­cult to develop sophis­ti­cated strokes. With a French bow, it’s eas­ier to learn how to bounce the bow, and to play a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent strokes. Of course, with the right train­ing, a player can be really good using either bow.

Bottesini did a lot to tilt the scales toward the French bow, with its over­hand grip. Because he was such a great player, oth­ers began to grav­i­tate toward the French bow. And it is eas­ier to play his music with the French bow.”

In 1846 Bottesini teamed up with a cel­list friend, Luigi Arditi (known today as the com­poser of the pop­u­lar song “Il Bac­cio,” much beloved by sopra­nos, who often use it as an encore in con­certs), and went to Havana, Cuba. There, in 1847, he led the pre­mière of his first opera, Cristo­foro Colombo. In all, Bottesini wrote more than a dozen operas, some of which were well received and per­formed through­out Europe.

Read­ing accounts of Bottesini’s con­cert tours in the mid-nineteenth cen­tury, one mar­vels at his far-flung roam­ing, when trav­el­ing was a hard­ship and it could take months to travel between Europe and North Amer­ica. He con­cer­tized from Rus­sia to Mex­ico and every­where in between. As a con­duc­tor he led opera sea­sons in Paris, Palermo, Barcelona, Madrid, and through­out Por­tu­gal, and he achieved a per­ma­nent place in opera his­tory as the con­duc­tor of the world pre­mière of Verdi’s Aida, in Cairo on Decem­ber 24, 1871.

As one would expect from a vir­tu­oso soloist of his time, espe­cially an Ital­ian, Bottesini wrote numer­ous pieces for the dou­ble bass based on pop­u­lar operas such as La Son­nam­bula and Beat­rice di Tenda. His Grand Duo Con­cer­tante orig­i­nated as a piece for two basses and orches­tra and seems to have been pre­miered in the US dur­ing one of his tours in the late 1840s. When the piece was played in Lon­don in 1851, one of the bass parts had been tran­scribed for vio­lin by Camillo Sivori, a Paganini pupil, and in this form — for vio­lin and bass, either with orches­tra or with piano — the piece attracted a num­ber of famous vio­lin­ists who wanted to per­form with Bottesini.

The work is in one move­ment but with a vari­ety of tem­pos and emo­tional tim­bres. The long duets between vio­lin and bass — to say noth­ing of their long joint caden­zas — are rem­i­nis­cent of the way Bellini and Rossini wrote for their singers. “It’s very pop­u­lar among dou­ble bass play­ers,” notes Tra­mon­tozzi, “but it’s a real chal­lenge. It’s quite a show­case for both instruments.”

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the May 2001 pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here with permission.

Richard Strauss — Notturno, Opus 44, No.1

KEY ART, Licini


Richard Georg Strauss was born in Munich, Bavaria on June 11, 1864 and died at his home in Garmisch on Sep­tem­ber 8, 1949. His orches­tral song Not­turno is the first of two songs that com­prise his Opus 44. The fact that the com­poser labeled these as Zwei grössere Gesänge für tief­ere Stimme mit Orch­ester­be­gleitung (“two larger songs for deep voice with orches­tral accom­pa­ni­ment”) is sig­nif­i­cant and dis­cussed below. Not­turno’s text is taken from a poem of the same name by the Ger­man poet Richard Dehmel (1863 – 1920). Strauss, who had only recently taken up his duties as chief con­duc­tor of the Berlin Royal Court Opera (where he served from 1898 to 1908), com­posed the song at his home in Char­lot­ten­burg on July 11, 1899 and scored it that Sep­tem­ber. It was pre­miered on Decem­ber 3, 1900, in Berlin, with the com­poser con­duct­ing the Berlin Phil­har­monic, and with bari­tone Bap­tist Hoff­mann (1864 – 1937), who was then at the begin­ning of his twenty-two years with the Berlin Opera. The work is scored for two flutes and pic­colo flute, two oboes and Eng­lish horn, two clar­inets and bass clar­inet, two bas­soons and con­tra­bas­soon, three trom­bones, and solo vio­lin in addi­tion to the usual com­ple­ment of strings (Strauss asks for them to be divided 12 – 12-8 – 7-6).


Richard Strauss spent his entire cre­ative life, almost eighty years, writ­ing songs — from his first effort, a Christ­mas carol com­posed when he was six, to the mag­i­cal Four Last Songs, the last of which was com­pleted only a year before he died (as was the recently dis­cov­ered Mal­ven). But of the more than 200 songs pub­lished in the com­plete edi­tion of his work, only fif­teen are orches­tral songs. Of those, only the Four Last Songs are at all well known to most music lovers.

Though the other orches­tral songs are mas­ter­pieces and deserve to be much bet­ter known, Not­turno is per­haps the most aston­ish­ing achieve­ment among the ear­lier orches­tral lieder. It is more a tone poem for voice and orches­tra than a song and, though it was writ­ten sev­eral years before Salome and Elek­tra shook the musi­cal world, its use of har­monic struc­ture and instru­men­ta­tion to con­vey emo­tion and drama clearly presage what the com­poser would accom­plish in those two operas. If one did not know that Not­turno was writ­ten in 1899, one would assume it had been writ­ten a decade later.

Most of the Strauss songs one encoun­ters at orches­tral con­certs, or on record­ings with an orches­tra, were orig­i­nally writ­ten with piano accom­pa­ni­ment and orches­trated later. Some of the best known of these were not even orches­trated by Strauss. Con­duc­tor Felix Mottl, for instance, is respon­si­ble for the orches­tra­tion of Ständ­chen. It was Robert Heger, the con­duc­tor of the famous 1933 record­ing of major excerpts from Strauss’s Der Rosenkava­lier, who was respon­si­ble for orches­trat­ing Traum durch die Däm­merung, Allersee­len, Heim­liche Auf­forderung, and the ubiq­ui­tous Zueig­nung. These arrange­ments were all done dur­ing the composer’s life­time, and he had to have at least tac­itly approve of them, even if he did not always care for the musi­cal results. In 1940 he finally got around to orches­trat­ing Zueig­nung (writ­ten in 1882 – 83) for the soprano Vior­ica Ursuleac, but Strauss’s far-superior ver­sion is sel­dom heard today because he changed the end­ing of the song to include a thank you for her appear­ance in the title role of Die ägyp­tis­che Helena.

Pauline and Richard Strauss

For­tu­nately, Strauss orches­trated a num­ber of his lieder so they could be per­formed dur­ing his numer­ous appear­ances as a con­duc­tor. Songs such as Cäcilie and Mor­gen, writ­ten orig­i­nally as a wed­ding present for his wife, soprano Pauline de Ahna, became part of the couple’s joint appear­ances — in the piano ver­sions dur­ing lieder recitals, and in their instru­men­tal ver­sions for orches­tral con­certs. Strauss also orches­trated his songs Wiegen­lied, Meinem Kind, and Mut­tertänd­leri for Pauline to sing as a sort of “Mut­ter­lieder” group. And we are indeed for­tu­nate that, from time to time, he revis­ited songs and orches­trated them: pop­u­lar songs such as Befreit, Fre­undliche Vision, and Ruhe, meine Seele, as well as more obscure songs such as Der Arbeits­man.

But these are all orches­trated songs, not orches­tral songs. Though this might at first seem like a dis­tinc­tion with­out a dif­fer­ence, Strauss him­self dif­fer­en­ti­ated between the two, often using the term Gesänge rather than Lieder for his orches­tral songs.

The first of these orches­tral Gesänge are the four songs of Opus 33, which were writ­ten from July 1896 through Jan­u­ary 1897, fol­lowed shortly by Opus 44’s two songs. The tim­ing of both opuses is inter­est­ing and grows even more intrigu­ing when one looks at exactly when, dur­ing his life­time, Strauss turned to the com­po­si­tion of orches­tral lieder. With the excep­tion of the Four Last Songs, Strauss always wrote orches­tral Gesänge when he felt uneasy about his abil­ity to set words to orches­tral music. Opuses 33, 44, and 51 lead up to Salome and Elek­tra; Opus 71 comes from the trou­bled years between Die Frau ohne Schat­ten and Die ägyp­tis­che Helena.

Anton van Rooy

Strauss had found his own voice as a com­poser of songs very early, with his remark­able Opus 10, eight lieder writ­ten while he was still a teenager. Three of them—Zueig­nung, Die Nacht, and Allersee­len—con­tinue to be among his most pop­u­lar songs.  Only a few years later, his tone poem Don Juan served notice that he was just as skill­ful and indi­vid­u­al­is­tic when it came to writ­ing for an orches­tra. The great Hans von Bülow (who had con­ducted the world pre­mieres of Wagner’s Tris­tan und Isolde and Die Meis­tersinger von Nürn­berg) announced that Strauss was Richard the Third (because after Richard Wag­ner there could be no Richard II). When Strauss fol­lowed up Don Juan with Death and Trans­fig­u­ra­tion and his Opus 10 lieder with dozens of other remark­able songs — to say noth­ing of his bur­geon­ing career as a con­duc­tor and occa­sion­ally as a piano soloist — it must have seemed there was noth­ing, musi­cally, he could not do — and do with easy, imme­di­ate success.

Obvi­ously, some­one who com­poses with equal facil­ity for voice and for orches­tra would seem to be born to write opera. Strauss thought so, too. His first opera, Gun­tram, was pre­miered in Weimar in 1894 when he was thirty. Its recep­tion was luke­warm. The fol­low­ing year, Gun­tram was given in Munich, where Strauss had just been appointed one of the con­duc­tors for the Munich Opera. In his home­town, Gun­tram was such a flop that all fur­ther per­for­mances were canceled.

It would be dif­fi­cult to over­es­ti­mate the effect this resound­ing and very pub­lic fail­ure had on the com­poser. Bryan Gilliam, in his won­der­ful biog­ra­phy of Strauss, calls Gun­tram’s fail­ure “the bit­ter­est and most impor­tant set­back of his life” and points out that “he never for­got it, not even in the final weeks of his life.” Cer­tainly Strauss never for­gave Munich, His sec­ond opera, Feuer­snot (which pre­miered in 1901), was a pub­lic exco­ri­at­ing of his home­town for (as he saw it) turn­ing its back on him. And despite the fact that Strauss set­tled just out­side Munich in Garmisch, his let­ters show that he remained unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cally thin-skinned where the Munich Opera was concerned.

Against that back­ground, the sud­den appear­ance of orches­tral songs in Strauss’s list of com­po­si­tions makes per­fect sense. One of the rea­sons Gun­tram failed was that it sounds, with the excep­tion of a pas­sage or two, like watered-down Wag­ner. For some rea­son (the loom­ing shadow of Richard Wag­ner?), when Strauss com­bined words and music to cre­ate an opera, the won­der­ful, sharply indi­vid­ual voice he had achieved so thor­oughly in writ­ing both lieder and tone poems sim­ply faded away. The orches­tra­tion is often muddy and the vocal lines seem to mean­der. Undoubt­edly, the Opus 33 Vier Gesänge für Singstimme mit Begleitung des Orch­esters (Four Songs for Voice with Accom­pa­ni­ment of the Orches­tra) was an attempt to sur­mount the prob­lems of writ­ing for a singer and an orches­tra with­out hav­ing to take on the bur­den of writ­ing an entire opera. This time, Strauss largely got it right, espe­cially in the first song Ver­führung (Seduc­tion), which dis­plays a superbly real­ized jux­ta­po­si­tion of sweep­ing melodic lines and surg­ing orches­tral waves with more inti­mate moments and tim­bres. Espe­cially when sung by a tenor who can do it jus­tice, Ver­führung brings to mind some of the great scenes Strauss would later write for the Emperor in his most ambi­tious opera, Die Frau ohne Schat­ten.

Bap­tist Hoffmann

Two years after fin­ish­ing the Opus 33 works, Strauss, hav­ing mean­while com­posed Don Quixote (1897) and Ein Helden­leben (1898), returned to the world of orches­tral lieder with his Opus 44: Not­turno and its com­pan­ion piece Nächtlicher Gang. In let­ters to his par­ents, Strauss referred to these songs as being for a bari­tone, though the score only refers to a “deep voice,” and the vocal line for Not­turno, rather sur­pris­ingly, is notated in the tre­ble clef, not what one would expect of a song writ­ten specif­i­cally for a bari­tone. Nächtlicher Gang is writ­ten in the bass clef, which is a bit ironic, because it has a much higher tes­si­tura than does Not­turo, which goes down to a low F-sharp and spends time in a range a bass, or bass-baritone, would find more com­fort­able. It would take a singer of unusual range to be equally at home in both songs, though they were pre­miered by the same singer, bari­tone Bap­tist Hoffmann.

Strauss ded­i­cated the two songs of Opus 44 to two dif­fer­ent singers, which per­haps tells us a bit of how he thought of the songs, vocally. Not­turno is ded­i­cated to the great Dutch bari­tone Anton van Rooy “in grate­ful respect” (in dankbarer Verehrung). Van Rooy had just cre­ated a sen­sa­tion at Bayreuth, where he debuted as Wotan in 1897. He became asso­ci­ated with lead­ing Wag­ner bari­tone parts and par­tic­i­pated in the first Par­si­fal at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera in 1903. One New York critic praised his por­trayal of the suf­fer­ing Amfor­tas for its “noble, heart-rending pathos, deeply mov­ing in its utter­ance of the agony of the soul which he bears” and the “poignancy of the pain under which he suf­fers” — per­fect attrib­utes for per­form­ing Strauss’s Not­turno, which abounds in exactly those emo­tions. Nächtlicher Gang is ded­i­cated to Karl Schei­de­man­tel, a famous Wol­fram in Tannhäuser and Hans Sachs in Meis­tersinger, who would later cre­ate the role of Fan­i­nal in Strauss’s Der Rosenkava­lier.

Not­turno is of mon­u­men­tal pro­por­tions for a song — more than dou­ble the length of any of Strauss’s other orches­tral songs. The orches­tra­tion is unusual in its absence of horns, trum­pets, or per­cus­sion, which gives a ghostly tim­bre to the instru­men­tal sound. Strauss bril­liantly cap­tured the emo­tional inten­sity and night­mar­ish qual­ity of Richard Dehmel’s poem, that tells of a dream in which death appears in the guise of a friend who wan­ders through the night play­ing his vio­lin while the moon appears, high in the night sky. (Arnold Schoenberg’s Trans­fig­ured Night was also inspired by Dehmel’s poetry.)

Richard Dehmel

Dehmel, inci­den­tally, thought the music of Not­turno excel­lent, but he took issue with the fact the com­poser omit­ted the poem’s open­ing and clos­ing — where all is revealed as a dream. Strauss felt the piece would have greater impact if audi­ences were not quite sure if the events were really hap­pen­ing or were a hal­lu­ci­na­tion. “The hal­lu­ci­na­tory effect is, of course, intended,” Dehmel wrote, “but only in the mid­dle move­ment, and the patho­log­i­cal dis­so­nance is artis­ti­cally resolved by the begin­ning and the end of the poem, which were unfor­tu­nately left out by Strauss. By leav­ing them out, the poetic motif has been destroyed com­pletely, and the sit­u­a­tion has become nearly incom­pre­hen­si­ble. But, nev­er­the­less, I am grate­ful to Strauss for the com­po­si­tion, not only because of the very fine music, but because it was through his mis­un­der­stand­ing that he made me straighten out the text through­out, aim­ing to make it eas­ier to understand.”

The two pianis­simo chords that open the work imme­di­ately plunge lis­ten­ers into the night­mar­ish world of the song. The first chord, F-sharp and C-sharp, is played by the clar­inets, bass clar­inet, bas­soons, con­tra­bas­soon, trom­bones and basses, most of them play­ing in the bot­tom of their reg­is­ters, and the music feels dark and men­ac­ing. The first chord is imme­di­ately fol­lowed by the flutes, oboes, and Eng­lish horn play­ing C-natural and G. The first two chords together are the musi­cal equiv­a­lent of Edvard Munch’s paint­ing The Scream, ren­dered all the more sin­is­ter by being played so quietly.

Not­turno slith­ers between the tonal­i­ties of F-sharp minor and G minor, cre­at­ing (most appro­pri­ately) a sense of unease in the lis­tener, a sense of being lost in a con­stantly shift­ing land­scape. Though Strauss uses the solo vio­lin to rep­re­sent the fid­dling of the fig­ure in the poem, his genius as an orches­trater goes far beyond such lit­eral depic­tions  and is found in his abil­ity to con­vey the hor­ror and anguish — and yet the empa­thy — the pro­tag­o­nist feels. Strauss’s music is as filled with moments of sweet­ness, com­fort, warmth, and poignancy as it is pain and loss.

In Not­turno, Strauss plays with lis­ten­ers as a cat plays with a mouse, build­ing up har­monic ten­sion, then releas­ing it just before the break­ing point, only to fol­low the period of relief with yet another patch of poly­tonal har­monies — before the song dies away, with a feel­ing of rest­ful­ness and final peace, as the dead friend’s “plead­ing song…waned and departed.”

What must the audi­ence of 1900 have thought of such a vivid musi­cal por­trayal of Dehmel’s poem? And why do audi­ences today so sel­dom have the chance to revel in this masterpiece?

A very slightly dif­fer­ent ver­sion of this arti­cle appeared in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here with permission.

The image at the top of the post is Osvaldo Licini’s “Angelo ribelle su fondo blu (not­turno),” 1954.


Hektor bidding farewell to his wife, Andromache, and their son, Astyanax



Samuel Bar­ber was born March 9, 1910, in West Chester, Penn­syl­va­nia, and died at his home in Man­hat­tan on Jan­u­ary 23, 1981. Andromache’s Farewell, for soprano and orches­tra, was com­mis­sioned by the New York Phil­har­monic in cel­e­bra­tion of its open­ing sea­son at Lin­coln Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts, where it was pre­miered on April 4, 1963, with Mar­tina Arroyo as soprano soloist and Thomas Schip­pers con­duct­ing. The text for Andromache’s Farewell is from The Tro­jan Women by Euripi­des, in a trans­la­tion made at the composer’s request by John Patrick Creagh. The orches­tra con­sists of pic­colo, two flutes, two oboes and Eng­lish horn, two clar­inets and bass clar­inet, two bas­soons, four horns, three trum­pets, three trom­bones, tuba, tim­pani, cym­bals, tan-tam, bass drum, snare drum, tenor drum, xylo­phone, celesta, antique cym­bal, tam­bourine, anvil, whip, wood block, harp, and strings.


It is per­haps inevitable that Samuel Bar­ber would end up a gifted com­poser of music for the human voice. His mother’s sis­ter was the great Amer­i­can con­tralto Louise Homer, and it turned out that Samuel him­self had a beau­ti­ful bari­tone voice. So promis­ing was the young man’s singing that, when he entered the Cur­tis Insti­tute of Music in 1924, he stud­ied voice with Emilio de Gogorza, as well as piano, com­po­si­tion, and (with Fritz Reiner) con­duct­ing.  When Bar­ber decided to stop vocal stud­ies with de Gogorza he wrote a friend, “How soon one for­gets singing; I haven’t opened my mouth; I never really liked it any­way. Instead I am eagerly look­ing for­ward to teach­ing next year. I should be per­fectly happy to be a piano teacher for the rest of my life, and play ten­nis a lit­tle on the side.”

But singing was obvi­ously part of Barber’s soul. In 1934 he went to Vienna, where he ended up study­ing con­duct­ing — and voice. He wrote enthu­si­as­ti­cally to a friend that he was tak­ing two voice lessons a day and that he had “made much progress.” In was in Vienna that he devel­oped a pas­sion for early Ger­man lieder: Schmügel, André, Schulz and so on, and copied many man­u­scripts of charm­ing and gemütlich things,” he wrote.

Samuel Bar­ber

His inter­est in early music soon spread to early Ital­ian com­posers, and he decided to help sup­port him­self, on his return to the United States, with his singing. One per­son to whom he con­fided his plans for a singing career was his com­po­si­tion teacher at Cur­tis, Rosario Scalero. “I am hop­ing to sup­port myself with my voice, for there is a field in small con­certs in Amer­ica. I expect to do a group of Ger­man and early Ital­ian things, play­ing my own accom­pa­ni­ments on a spinet which I am tak­ing back to Amer­ica with me. Do you think I am com­pletely cracked?…Why should some­one not res­ur­rect these mar­velous things for voice as Landowska did for cem­balo music?”

Bar­ber did exactly that, giv­ing con­certs in ther autumn and win­ter of 1934, dur­ing which he accom­pa­nied him­self in songs by Mon­teverdi, Cac­cini, Dow­land, C.P.E. Bach, Han­del, Schu­bert, and Amer­i­can and Ital­ian folk music. The response from the pub­lic and crit­ics was suf­fi­ciently pos­i­tive to secure the young man a job singing on nation­wide radio. His debut on Feb­ru­ary 4, 1935, was on the NBC Music Guild series. Other national broad­cast recitals fol­lowed. One of the peo­ple who heard that first radio con­cert was Charles O’Connell, head of RCA Vic­tor Record Company’s artist and reper­tory divi­sion, who was impressed enough with Samuel Bar­ber the singer that he decided to ask the young man to make a record­ing of his own “Dover Beach,” a 1931 work for voice and string quar­tet. (The record­ing was issued in 1936 and is cur­rently avail­able the Pearl label.)

Tough Bar­ber even­tu­ally dropped his bid­ding career as a singer to con­cen­trate on his com­po­si­tion, he — like Rossini before him — would occa­sion­ally per­form for his house­guests. Bar­ber sang works by the great Ger­man lieder com­posers, as well as songs by his uncle, Sid­ney Homer, who was an enor­mous influ­ence on the young man, and with whom he had his first lessons in composition.

Though vir­tu­ally unknown today, Sid­ney Homer wrote such once-popular songs as “The Banjo Song,” “How’s My Boy?”, The Pauper’s Drive,” “The Sick Rose,” (said to be a favorite of his nephew Sam), and “The Song of the Shirt,” as well as a Requiem and a vast quan­tity of other music. While one would have expected his wife, Louise Homer, to have pro­grammed his music, many other famous singers from the early days of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury also per­formed his works reg­u­larly: David Bis­pham, Alma Gluck, Johanna Gad­ski, and Sigrid One­gin, to name only a few. The influ­ence Sid­ney and Louise Homer had on Samuel Barber’s musi­cal taste, and the sup­port they gave the young man in his deter­mi­na­tion to be a musi­cian, can hardly be over estimated.

Barber’s father was a doc­tor and promi­nent civic leader in quiet, afflu­ent West Chester. Despite the part music played in the fam­ily, Samuel Barber’s par­ents were con­cerned that their son was becom­ing too wrapped up in music at the expense of other activ­i­ties that would make him “well-rounded.” But the nine-year-old boy was deter­mined to pur­sue what was impor­tant to him, and he expressed him­self — quite poignantly and plainly — in a now-famous let­ter to his mother:

I have writ­ten this to tell you my wor­ry­ing secret. Now don’t cry when you read it because it is nei­ther yours nor my fault. I sup­pose I will have to tell it now with­out any non­sense. To begin with I was not meant to be an ath­let [sic]. I was meant to be a com­poser, and will be I am sure. I’ll ask you one more thing. — Don’t ask me to try and for­get this unpleas­ant thing and go play foot­ball.—Please—Some­times I’ve been wor­ry­ing about this so much that it make me mad (not very).”

Mar­tina Arroyo

This remark­able self-knowledge and deter­mi­na­tion to do what he knew he had to do, to go his own way because it was right for him, was reflected in Barber’s music. At a time most com­posers were explor­ing seri­al­ism and tone rows, writ­ing music that left audi­ences baf­fled or alien­ated, Bar­ber wrote music that expresses deep emo­tion, music that speaks pow­er­fully and directly. The sheer vari­ety of his emo­tional palette is stag­ger­ing, as evi­denced in his orches­tral music alone by the shifts in moods from the bustling, infec­tious Over­ture to The School for Scan­dal, to the ele­giac pro­fun­dity of the famous Ada­gio for Strings, to the rhap­sodic Sec­ond Essay for Orchestra.

But per­haps Bar­ber was at his most com­mu­nica­tive when he wrote for the human voice. The imme­di­acy of the music trans­port lis­ten­ers to the world of the song. Few song cycles in their entirety evoke a time and place as thor­oughly and instantly as Barber’s Knoxville: Sum­mer of 1915. In his Her­mit Songs, he ranges from the inno­cence of “The Heav­enly Ban­quet,” to the wicked humor of “Promis­cu­ity,” to the seren­ity of “The Monk and His Cat” in a mat­ter of min­utes. Bar­ber wrote two full-length operas, both on com­mis­sion from the Met, Vanessa (1958) and Antony and Cleopa­tra (1966). He also wrote a mas­ter­ful cham­ber opera, A Hand of Bridge (1959).

The com­poser set the scene for this 1963 con­cert piece Andromache’s Farewell in the fol­low­ing note, which he included in the score. “Scene: an open space before Troy, which has just been cap­tured by the Greeks. All Tro­jan men had been killed or have fled and the women and chil­dren are held cap­tives. Each Tro­jan woman has been allot­ted to a Greek war­rior and the ships are now ready to take them into exile. Andro­mache, widow of Hec­tor, Prince of Troy, has been given as a slave-wife to the son of Achilles. She has just been told that she can­not take her lit­tle son with her in the ship. For it has been decreed by the Greeks that a hero’s son must not be allowed to live and that he is to be hurled over the bat­tle­ment of Troy.  She bids him farewell. In the back­ground the city of slowly burn­ing. It is just before dawn.”

In his music Bar­ber cap­tures Andromache’s excru­ci­at­ing emo­tions — sor­row, despair, anger. Though Andromache’s Farewell is a self-contained piece and not part of a larger work, lis­ten­ers can­not help but be reminded of the great scenes for soprano and orches­tra by com­posers such as Wag­ner and Richard Strauss. Andromache’s Farewell is oper­atic in the best sense of the word, with the human voice con­vey­ing emo­tion through the com­bin­ing of words and music into riv­et­ing drama.

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here by permission.


Maurice+Ravel KEY ART. png



This month Michael Tilson Thomas con­ducts the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony in con­cert per­for­mances of Mau­rice Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sor­tilèges, com­pleted in 1925 to a libretto by the great Colette. The work, described by the com­poser as a “fan­taisie lyrique,” is not often per­formed by major opera com­pa­nies in the United States, so these con­certs will be a won­der­ful oppor­tu­nity for audi­ences to expe­ri­ence a rarely encoun­tered com­po­si­tion by one of the con­cert hall’s most pop­u­lar composers.

Though L’Enfant remains a rar­ity to many Amer­i­cans, those who know it trea­sure it. One of those fans is the Amer­i­can com­poser and author Ned Rorem, who has writ­ten, “If my house were on fire and I could take only three records, they would all be L’Enfant et les sor­tilèges, the most beau­ti­ful music ever writ­ten. Yes, Pel­léas and Sacre and Wozzeck, when I first heard them in ado­les­cence, for­ever changed my state of mind. But Ravel’s mas­ter­piece changed my state of body. It became the one work which most overtly influ­enced my own, and which, in some far cor­ner of my being, I have lis­tened to every day of my life.”

Such words are likely to raise eye­brows. If they referred to Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Wagner’s Tris­tan und Isolde, Verdi’s Fal­staff—per­haps, even, Bellini’s Norma—many Amer­i­can music lovers would either agree with Rorem’s sen­ti­ments, or at least under­stand why he might lav­ish such high praise. But to say such things about a French opera? And one by Ravel, a com­poser bet­ter known for writ­ing glit­tery orches­tral bon­bons most often encoun­tered at pops con­certs, or as encores? “The most beau­ti­ful music ever writ­ten”? Per­haps there is more to Ravel and his music than crit­ics and pro­fes­sors have led us to believe.

Per­haps the time has come to take a closer look at Ravel, to re-evaluate the out­put of a man whose musi­cal sig­na­ture is so well-known, so con­stantly enjoy­able, that most of us are — under­stand­ably — tempted sim­ply to sur­ren­der to the ele­gant entice­ment of his music, rather than give care­ful atten­tion to what the com­poser actu­ally wrote.

Vir­gil Thomson

Ravel has never been obscure, even to the plain pub­lic,” wrote the Amer­i­can com­poser and critic Vir­gil Thom­son, who knew Ravel dur­ing the years Thom­son spent in Paris. “His early work pro­duced a shock, but only the shock of com­plete clar­ity. Any­body could dis­like it or turn his back, still can. Nobody could fail, nobody ever has failed to per­ceive at first sight what it is all about.”

That is the widely accepted view of Ravel in this coun­try, cer­tainly from 1947, when Thom­son wrote those words for the New York Her­ald Tri­bune, to today. The stan­dard crit­i­cal line is that Ravel’s music deals with sur­faces. He was a mas­ter col­orist, a com­poser who extended the bound­aries of piano tech­nique, orches­tral tim­bre and har­mony, a per­fec­tion­ist and mas­ter crafts­man who usu­ally con­fines him­self to smaller musi­cal forms. His com­po­si­tion glit­ter and entice. They stir and tease the listener’s senses in the same way the best sec cham­pagne delights the palette — and that is about as far as Ravel goes.

Like Min­erva [Ravel] emerged full-blown. Like Chopin he did not ‘advance,’ have peri­ods, grow more com­plex,” writes Ned Rorem. “He entered the world with the true artist’s fac­ulty to self-appraisal, and all his life wrote the same kind of music, con­sis­tently good….If taste [in music] means deco­rum, bound­ary, mesure, then Ravel’s jew­eled box hold jew­els. Debussy’s jew­eled box holds a heart.”

The idea that Ravel’s music some­how con­tains less heart than that of his slightly colder con­tem­po­rary, Debussy (to say noth­ing of the music of other com­posers), is a view one sus­pects Ravel him­self nur­tured care­fully, Why else would he, for exam­ple, head the scores to both the piano and orches­tral ver­sions of Valses nobles et sen­ti­men­tales with the phrase, “…the delight­ful and always novel plea­sure of a use­less occu­pa­tion”?  The words are from Henri de Régnier’s 1904 novel Les Ren­con­tres de Mon­sieur de Bréot. The begin­ning of the sen­tence, which Ravel did not include in his score, is very telling: “I am con­vinced that my book best illus­trates what I have sought in writ­ing, which is noth­ing but….”

But there is another aspect of Ravel’s music we should con­sider. For some of us, Ravel’s glit­ter­ing, sump­tu­ous sur­face, his fre­quent use of musi­cal forms from the sev­en­teenth and eigh­teenth cen­turies, his adher­ence to per­fec­tion­ism, his objec­tiv­ity, are all ways to leash the true emo­tion in his music — emo­tion that is, in fact, so potent, so poten­tially threat­en­ing and over­whelm­ing, that sim­ply to be endured it must be encased tightly, almost entirely buried in its “jewel box.” In a sense, we can plumb the depths of Ravel’s musi­cal emo­tions only by fol­low­ing his care­fully (and beau­ti­fully) con­structed labyrinth of mir­rors until we arrive finally at Ravel’s heart, assum­ing we have not been per­ma­nently dis­tracted by all the beau­ties along the way. (It is per­haps not acci­den­tal that one of Ravel’s best-known works for piano is enti­tled Mir­rors.)

Ravel in 1912

The case for look­ing beneath the cool, rav­ish­ing sur­face of Ravel’s music is akin to the re-evaluation of Mozart that has taken place in this cen­tury. For gen­er­a­tions after Mozart’s death, he was seen as an eighteenth-century dandy, a clever lit­tle man in satin knee-britches and pow­ered wig who wrote charm­ing, light music of lit­tle dra­matic or emo­tional sub­stance. Today, of course, music lovers real­ize this view of Mozart is super­fi­cial. We prize his music all the more because its smoothly con­structed sur­face con­ceals such rich inner emo­tions. So it should be with Ravel.

Now that much of Ravel’s music has become part of the stan­dard reper­toire, and since music lovers have a sense of who he is as a com­poser, we can get to the heart of his com­po­si­tions more eas­ily, per­haps, than pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, for whom the very sound of his music was so novel. As the com­poser him­self once wrote, “On the ini­tial per­for­mances of a new musi­cal com­po­si­tion, the first impres­sion of the pub­lic is gen­er­ally one of reac­tion to the more super­fi­cial ele­ments of its music, that is to say, its exter­nal man­i­fes­ta­tions rather than its inner con­tent. The lis­tener is impressed by some unim­por­tant pecu­liar­ity in the medium of expres­sion, and yet the idiom of expres­sion, even if con­sid­ered in its com­plete­ness, is only the means and not the end in itself, and often it is not until years after, when the means of expres­sion have finally sur­ren­dered all their secrets, that the real inner emo­tion of the music becomes appar­ent to the lis­tener.” (The ital­ics are mine.)

Lis­ten­ers in the United States might have a spe­cial prob­lem under­stand­ing Ravel’s true great­ness because of the par­tic­u­lar places he occu­pies in our con­cert life. Boléro, Pavane for a Dead Princess, La Valse, Rap­sodie espag­nole, even the suites from Daph­nis and parts of Le Tombeau de Couperin have become the province of pops con­certs, which means that Ravel, like George Gersh­win and Sergei Rach­mani­noff, is there­fore slightly sus­pect as a com­poser of truly “seri­ous” music.

In addi­tion to this unfor­tu­nate musi­cal pigeon­hol­ing, Ravel has the added bur­den of being a com­poser of French music. For some rea­son, our musi­cal estab­lish­ment tends to equate “seri­ous­ness” and “great­ness” in con­cert music with the Ger­man musi­cal tra­di­tion. The impli­ca­tion often is that the “real” con­cert reper­toire is made up of basi­cally of nineteenth-century Roman­tic works by Beethoven, Schu­bert, Brahms, and Schu­bert, with some Bach, Mozart and Haydn thrown in. French com­posers are good for sup­ply­ing dessert, but never the main course.

Pianist Louis Lortie’s Ravel is a delight.

Per­haps one rea­son for this almost uncon­scious slight­ing of French music is that it depends for its effects on nuance and del­i­cacy. It must be per­formed with ele­gance. In our cul­ture “nuance” and “ele­gance,” are often syn­onyms for “weak” and “effem­i­nate.” French music is suf­fused with charm, which we often equate with “empty” of “vapid.” But the dic­tio­nary tells us that charm s is “a trait that fas­ci­nates, allures, or delights.”

And Ravel’s music cer­tainly does fas­ci­nate, allure, and delight. To return to Vir­gil Thom­son (who under­stood French music as few Amer­i­cans do): “Ravel’s music represents…the clas­sic ideal that is every Frenchman’s dream and every foreigner’s dream of France. It is the dream of an equi­lib­rium in which sen­ti­ment, sen­su­al­ity, and the intel­li­gence are united at their high­est inten­sity through the oper­a­tions of a moral qual­ity. That moral qual­ity, in Ravel’s case, and indeed the case of any first-class artist, is loy­alty, a loy­alty to clas­sic stan­dards of workmanship.”

Ravel was loyal not only to the clas­sic stan­dards of work­man­ship. He was often loyal to the clas­sic forms of his pre­de­ces­sors, even while using them to express his own voice. A superb exam­ple is Le Tombeau de Couperin, which Ravel wrote for piano between 1911 and 1917, then orches­trated (in part) in 1919.  Le Tombeau is a good exam­ple of Ravel wear­ing many of his dis­guises at the same time — hid­ing his true, deeply felt emo­tion behind sur­face lay­ers of form and tech­nique, while at the same time (so typ­i­cal of him!) using those obscur­ing lay­ers to hint at the true heart of his music.

From the four­teenth through the sev­en­teenth cen­turies, tra­di­tion dic­tated that a com­poser com­mem­o­rate the death of his teach­ers with a musi­cal memo­r­ial writ­ten in the teacher’s style. Such a work would be labeled “glo­ri­fi­ca­tion,” “lamen­ta­tion,” or “tomb” (tombeau). In nam­ing his work Le Tombeau de Couperin, Ravel con­sciously put him­self in this tra­di­tion. Ravel, how­ever, explained that his Tombeau, a col­lec­tion of pieces based on eighteenth-century dance forms, was more homage to past French music in gen­eral than per­sonal trib­ute to François Couperin (1668 – 1733), though Ravel did use the For­lane move­ment from Couperin’s Con­certs roy­aux as the basis for the For­lane in his own Tombeau (the move­ment often con­sid­ered the high­point of Ravel’s composition).

Mar­guerite Long

In addi­tion to hon­or­ing France’s musi­cal her­itage, Ravel’s Tombeau has an addi­tional layer of mean­ing. Ravel served as a dri­ver in the motor trans­port corps dur­ing the First World War. He was changed for­ever by the hor­rors he wit­nessed, and each move­ment of Le Tombeau is ded­i­cated to the mem­ory of a friend who died dur­ing the war. (Toc­cata us ded­i­cated to Cap­tain Joseph de Mar­li­ave, hus­band of the pianist Mar­guerite Long, who pre­miered not only Le Tombeau, but also Ravel’s Piano Con­certo in G major.)

How typ­i­cal of the com­poser to hide the depths of painful emo­tion behind the ele­gance and clar­ity of eighteenth-century musi­cal forms, in a work made up of bright dance move­ments. Lis­ten care­fully to the heart­break­ing sim­plic­ity of Le Tombeau’s ele­giac, almost play­ful Fugue (for instance), and you will never again accuse Ravel of lack­ing deep emo­tion. Then plunge imme­di­ately into Le Tombeau’s next move­ment, the insou­ciant For­lane, with its jazzy swing and jaunty air of a young boule­vardier, cig­a­rette dan­gling from his lips. Ravel mines every emo­tion, every source, every influ­ence to the max­i­mum, the uses them in his own, inim­itable voice. He is like a great chef who reduces a sauce to its essence, then uses it to enhance other dishes.

[Ravel’s music] is a non-romantic view of life,” Thom­son pointed out. “Not an anti-romantic view, sim­ply a non-romantic view, as if the nine­teenth cen­tury had never, save for its tech­ni­cal dis­cov­er­ies, existed. All the other mod­ernists were chil­dren of Roman­ti­cism — wor­ship­ful chil­dren like Schön­berg, or chil­dren in revolt, like Stravin­sky, or chil­dren torn, like Debussy, between atavism and an impe­ri­ous pas­sion for inde­pen­dence. Even Satie felt obliged to poke fun at the Roman­tics from time to time. But for Ravel there was no such temp­ta­tion, to Roman­tic problem.”

Per­haps being so entirely a com­poser of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury is what gives Ravel’s music, despite its often child­like charm and sense of won­der and joy, its deeper, very mature tim­bre. L’Enfant, despite its obvi­ous delight in a child’s point of view, is not a children’s opera. It is a work in which a very sophis­ti­cated adult, with full knowl­edge of his actions, once again sees the world through the mem­ory of a child’s vision. Ravel allows us to laugh and cry with the child in L’Enfant, but the humor is tinged with irony, and the music is suf­fused with the sen­si­bil­ity of an adult, and adult who knows how to play games and wear dif­fer­ent masks, while he retains his own identity.

In his sixty-two years,” observes Ned Rorem, “Ravel, who worked con­stantly, didn’t turn out more than eight hours’ worth of music, as con­trasted to Debussy’s six­teen, Beethoven’s thirty, Wagner’s fifty, Bach’s sev­enty, Ives’s two thou­sand or Webern’s two. Of those eight hours none is slip­shod or routine.”

Ravel pro­duced one work­ing day’s worth of music, in which we can prof­itably spend a lifetime.


Two Musi­cians from the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony Talk about Ravel

Julie Ann Gia­cobassi, Eng­lish Horn:

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think about Ravel? Col­or­ing out­side the lines! When I think of some of the clas­si­cal reper­toire, like Beethoven, the music is very defined. But Ravel is like an impres­sion­ist paint­ing, when you com­bine his long lines, his com­plex tonal­ity, his sense of humor. I said that he col­ors out­side the lines, but his woks have sharp­ness and clar­ity. You have to make all the ele­ments fit. He can be ironic — in the best sense. And the music is fiendishly dif­fi­cult to play. When you talk to musi­cians who are com­ing upon Daph­nis for the first time, they can’t believe there are so many notes to learn.

Beyond the tech­ni­cal issues in Ravel, I think it’s hard to take his sim­pler lines and carry them for as long as he intended. I don’t even mean deal­ing with the breath, but just keep­ing the phrase going, keep­ing the inter­est going, keep­ing the story going. It’s like a long com­pli­cated sen­tence, you need to keep mov­ing for­ward. Take that long flute solo in Daph­nis, for instance. It’s not only tech­ni­cally dif­fi­cult, but to make it really work, you have to have the sense of the whole pic­ture and never rest for a minute.

I think of com­plexly cut crys­tal when I think of Ravel, facets of light and color. His works have an enor­mous spec­trum of color. They are com­plex, yet light, witty, sophisticated.


Robin Suther­land, Piano:

The main chal­lenge of Ravel’s music for a pianist is to have enough fin­gers — by that I mean way more than ten — to put across the sound he demands. I’m not going to call that sound “gos­samer,” because it isn’t always that. But it is a sound unique to Ravel, and the chal­lenge is the incred­i­ble amount of work involved in doing it well. For­tu­nately, the music is writ­ten quite grace­fully.. Even in the fiendish turns of Gas­pard de la nuit, it’s always idiomatic, and what you need is where you need it. Ravel’s writ­ing for the piano got thicker as he con­tin­ued com­pos­ing. I think of some of the early pieces as being spindly, yet mag­nif­i­cent, like the Mother Goose Suite or the Sonatine.  But the last move­ment of Mother Goose, The Fairy Gar­den, is quite full of pathos. There’s incred­i­ble grandeur there. And in Beauty and the Beast from Mother Goose—what he does with the melody and its under­pin­nings! He har­mo­nizes it as Brahms would, which is to say a Bach would, and just when you think you might choke on souf­flé, bingo, you’re not chok­ing at all.

There’s a won­der­ful sense of irony — it grabs my heart and gives it a twirl. With Ravel the com­par­i­son and analo­gies end up being gas­tro­nomic. I think of his music as stuff to be eaten with the ears. Prop­erly done, there’s always a sense of being sated.

Ravel has style. You lis­ten to only a few bars of his music and it’s unmis­tak­ably his. The French have a word I love, “ensoleilie.” It doesn’t trans­late into Eng­lish, but if I had to ren­der a sense of it, it would be “en-sunned” — infused, efful­gent. It’s there in Ravel.

A very slightly dif­fer­ent form of this arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here by permission.


gershwinschoenberg USE AS KEY ART



Shortly after George Gersh­win died, at the age of thirty-eight, his fel­low com­poser, fellow-painter, and some­time ten­nis part­ner, Arnold Schoen­berg, wrote: “Many musi­cians do not con­sider George Gersh­win a seri­ous com­poser. But they should under­stand that, seri­ous or not, this is a man who lives in music and expresses every­thing, seri­ous or not, sound or super­fi­cial, by means of music, because it is his native lan­guage…. An artist is to me like an apple tree. When the time comes, whether it wants to or not, it bursts into bloom and starts to pro­duce apples. And an apple tree nei­ther knows nor asks about the value experts of the mar­ket will attribute to its prod­uct, so a real com­poser does not ask whether his prod­ucts will please the experts of seri­ous arts. He only feels he has to say some­thing and says it.”

Though Schoenberg’s own music could hardly be more dif­fer­ent from Gershwin’s, Schoenberg’s assess­ment of Gersh­win as a com­poser is right on tar­get. The debate over Gershwin’s place in music, espe­cially in Amer­i­can music, began dur­ing his life­time. As the world cel­e­brates the cen­ten­nial of his birth, on Sep­tem­ber 26, 1898 in Brook­lyn, New York, the con­tro­versy continues.

Was Gersh­win “just” a pop com­poser who man­aged a few larger pieces — most notably Rhap­sody in Blue and An Amer­i­can in Paris—and an opera, Porgy and Bess, which is more talked about and excerpted than per­formed com­plete? Or was he also a “seri­ous” com­poser who would have pro­duced the works he spoke of shortly before his death — a sym­phony, a string quar­tet, another opera? Gershwin’s strongest par­ti­san today, as dur­ing his life­time, main­tain he is the Amer­i­can com­poser, an artist whose works some­how reflect Amer­i­can itself in their energy and opti­mism, through their syn­co­pated rhythms and bluesy harmonies.

Vir­gil Thomson

Oth­ers agree with com­poser and critic Vir­gil Thom­son, who could be a good deal nas­tier than he was in his 1935 review of Porgy and Bess: “I do not wish to indi­cate that it is in any way rep­re­hen­si­ble of [Gersh­win] not to be a seri­ous com­poser. I only want to define some­thing that we have all been won­der­ing about for some time. It was cer­tain he was a gifted com­poser, a charm­ing com­poser, an excit­ing and sym­pa­thetic com­poser…. I think, how­ever, it is clear by now that Gersh­win hasn’t learned his busi­ness. At least he hasn’t learned the busi­ness of being a seri­ous com­poser, which one has long gath­ered to be the busi­ness he wanted to learn…. I do resent Gershwin’s short­com­ings. I don’t mind his being a light com­poser, and I don’t mind his try­ing to be a seri­ous one. But I do mind his falling between two stools. I mind any major fault be com­mits, because he is to me an excit­ing and sym­pa­thetic composer.”

Gershwin’s Russian-Jewish immi­grant fam­ily was not musi­cal, though his father enjoyed the opera and boy­hood friends later spoke of lis­ten­ing to Gilbert and Sul­li­van records at the Gersh­win home. When the fam­ily finally acquired a piano, it was more to keep up with rel­a­tives than to encour­age any musi­cal tal­ent in the chil­dren. Gersh­win was about twelve at the time. The instru­ment had been intended for his older brother, Ira — who would go on to write lyrics for some of Gershwin’s great­est songs. In 1938 Ira recalled how the piano was hoisted up by a block and tackle from Sec­ond Avenue into his par­ents’ apart­ment. “No sooner had the upright been lifted through the win­dow to the ‘front-room’ floor than George sat down and played a pop­u­lar song of the day.”

The feat stunned the fam­ily. They had no idea that George knew or cared any­thing about music, much less that he had been exper­i­ment­ing with a player piano at a friend’s house. In later years, the com­poser talked of hear­ing Rubinstein’s Melody in F played by a pianola in a penny arcade on 125th Street when he was about six, and he recalled. “The pecu­liar jumps in the music held me rooted.”

A few years later Gersh­win heard a school­mate play Dvořák’s Humoresque on the vio­lin at a school assem­bly. “It was a flash­ing rev­e­la­tion,” he recalled. He waited in the rain for more than an hour to meet the vio­lin­ist, then walked to the young man’s house to talk with him. Yet the Gersh­win fam­ily seemed to know noth­ing about these impor­tant events in their son’s life. To them, George was the wild one, the boy who was the cham­pion roller-skater, who came home with black eyes and a bloody nose, and who was often in trou­ble at school (from which he never graduated.)

Gersh­win in 1930

Yet after his demon­stra­tion on the new piano, the par­ents decided to give George lessons. He went through a suc­ces­sion of teach­ers before finally dis­cov­er­ing Charles Ham­b­itzer, who not only taught George piano but intro­duced him to the works of Chopin, Liszt, and even Debussy, a rather remark­able thing to do in 1913. Ham­b­itzer wrote to his sis­ter, “I have a pupil who will make his mark in music if any­body will. The boy is a genius, with­out a doubt; he’s just crazy about music…. He wants to go in for this mod­ern stuff, jazz and what not. But I’m not going to let him for a while.”

Under Hambitzer’s encour­age­ment, George began attend­ing con­certs reg­u­larly. “I lis­tened so earnestly,” he said later, “that I became sat­u­rated with the music. Then I went home and lis­tened in mem­ory. I sat at the piano and repeated the motifs.”

From almost the very begin­ning, then, sev­eral char­ac­ter­is­tics of Gersh­win the musi­cian became appar­ent, and they would be true for the rest of his life. He had an insa­tiable appetite for music. His main inter­est was pop­u­lar music rather than clas­si­cal. And he learned about music pri­mar­ily from mak­ing it, or repro­duc­ing it from mem­ory after hear­ing some­one else make it, rather than by sus­tained “aca­d­e­mic” study.

Gersh­win cred­its Ham­b­itzer with mak­ing him “harmony-conscious,” and it was Ham­b­itzer who sent him to work with Edward Kilenyi, whose lessons con­sisted of “ana­lyz­ing and dis­cussing clas­si­cal mas­ter­pieces.” Gersh­win biog­ra­pher Charles Schwartz has described the young man’s har­mony exer­cises, now housed in the Library of Con­gress, as being “of the most ele­men­tary kind…. Gersh­win him­self admit­ted that his knowl­edge of har­mony, even later in life, was rather rudi­men­tary…. He had only a lim­ited knowl­edge of such the­o­ret­i­cal aspects of music as coun­ter­point and orchestration.”

What he did have — in a seem­ingly over­whelm­ing abun­dance — was the abil­ity to impro­vise at the piano for hours at a time, and out of that music-making flowed his com­po­si­tions, like the apples drop­ping from Schoenberg’s tree. In almost every case, his songs, whether for Broad­way or for Hol­ly­wood, first appeared as music, to which the words were added later, exactly the oppo­site of how a com­poser writes an opera (or most songs, for that mat­ter), in which the music is based on the words pro­vided by the poet or lyri­cist or libret­tist. “Com­pos­ing at the piano is not a good prac­tice,” Gersh­win wrote in 1930. “But I started that way and it has become a habit. The best method is one which will not per­mit any­thing to hold you down in any way, for it is always eas­ier to think in a straight line with­out the dis­trac­tion of sound. The mind should be allowed to run loose, unham­pered by the piano which may be used now and then to stim­u­late thought and set an idea to flame.”

It is one thing to impro­vise a four-minute song, sans words, at the piano. But writ­ing a sym­phony, string quar­tet, or con­certo requires sus­tained, deft devel­op­ment of the mate­r­ial in a way that writ­ing a short song does not — no mat­ter how bril­liant. Rhap­sody in Blue, Amer­i­can in Paris, and the Sec­ond Rhap­sody for Orches­tra with Piano all last under twenty min­utes. Gershwin’s Con­certo in F is about thirty min­utes. But even the fifteen-minute Rhap­sody in Blue, at the same time it reveals cer­tain weak­nesses, seduces its audi­ence thoroughly.

Leonard Bernsetin

The Rhap­sody is not a com­po­si­tion at all,” Leonard Bern­stein wrote. “It’s a string of sep­a­rate para­graphs stuck together — with a thin paste of flour and water….[It’s] not a real com­po­si­tion in the sense that what­ever hap­pens in it must seem inevitable, or even pretty inevitable. You can cut parts of it out with­out affect­ing the whole in any way except to make it shorter. It is episodic, loosely strung together by rather arti­fi­cial tran­si­tions, mod­u­la­tory devices, and second-hand caden­zas. But what’s impor­tant is not what’s wrong with Rhap­sody, but what’s right with it. And what’s right is that each of those inef­fi­ciently con­nected episodes is in itself melod­i­cally inspired, har­mon­i­cally truth­ful, rhyth­mi­cally authentic.”

It is exactly this “melod­i­cally inspired, har­mon­i­cally truth­ful, rhyth­mi­cally authen­tic” qual­ity that makes Gershwin’s songs so pow­er­ful. If we look at his songs as a whole, from his first hit, “Swa­nee” (writ­ten in 1919, sup­pos­edly in ten min­utes), though (taken at ran­dom) “Fas­ci­natin’ Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “S’Wonderful,” “How Long Has This Been Going On,” “Embrace­able You,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “Shall We Dance,” “Slap That Bass,” “That Can’t Take That Away From me,” “A Foggy Day,” and “Love Walked In,” what we see (if we can pull away from the sheer plea­sure and the emo­tional power of each song long enough to look at it some­what objec­tively — not an easy feat) is an aston­ish­ing growth, the mount­ing abil­ity to do more with less, and the abil­ity to write songs that are seem­ingly inde­struc­tible, no mat­ter how they are inter­preted. These songs have a chameleon-like qual­ity. They can be sung by clas­si­cal singers in lieder recitals, by cabaret singers in night­clubs, impro­vised on by jazz musi­cians in thou­sands of dif­fer­ent styles, played by high-school march­ing bands, or (in one recent incar­na­tion) stretched almost to the break­ing point by a screechy organ on the sound­track of an in-line skat­ing instruc­tional video. No mat­ter how manip­u­lated or changed the songs are, they always retain their essence.

When one thinks of Gershwin’s Broad­way and Hol­ly­wood con­tem­po­raries — com­posers such as Cole Porter, Richard Rogers, Jerome Kern, and Irv­ing Berlin — it is almost impos­si­ble to imag­ine them writ­ing an opera or a con­certo. This is not to slight those com­posers, but to point out our greater expec­ta­tions of Gersh­win, expec­ta­tions Gersh­win him­self had. To bol­ster his musi­cal tech­nique, Gersh­win stud­ied with a remark­able num­ber of teach­ers through­out his life. More often than not, the lessons lasted only a short timer. Why? The Gersh­win biog­ra­pher Charles Schwartz posits one rea­son. Accord­ing to him, Arthur Bodanzky, for many years the con­duc­tor of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera’s Ger­man wing, decided after giv­ing Gersh­win a few lessons that the com­poser “did not have the capac­ity for the for­mal study of music.” The assess­ment seems less harsh if we think of Gersh­win as the kind of nat­ural, spon­ta­neous genius Schoen­berg described — the kind of artist who “bursts into bloom” like an apple tree.

It was Gersh­win him­self, for exam­ple, who after only three lessons ter­mi­nated his stud­ies with Rubin Gold­mark (who taught Aaron Cop­land briefly and headed the com­po­si­tion depart­ment at the Juil­liard School of Music). The end came about one day when Gersh­win real­ized he had not done his required har­mony exer­cises, so he showed Gold­mark his Lul­laby, a sin­gle move­ment for string quar­tet he had writ­ten sev­eral years before. Accord­ing to the story Gersh­win him­self told, the teacher exam­ined the quar­tet and said, “It’s plain to be seen that you have already learned a great deal of har­mony from me!” Exit Gershwin.

Gersh­win and Paulette Goddard

Work with other teach­ers was often inter­rupted by the demands of the composer’s pro­fes­sional — and per­sonal — life. Still, through­out his life Gersh­win remained inter­ested in improv­ing his knowl­edge of musi­cal the­ory, coun­ter­point, and orches­tra­tion. He talked about study­ing with com­posers Ernest Bloch, Edgard Varèse, and Arnold Schoen­berg, though none of them took him on as a stu­dent. When Gersh­win asked Mau­rice Ravel about tak­ing some lessons, the French com­poser declined with a ques­tion. “Why should you be a second-rate Ravel, when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?”

How thor­oughly Gersh­win knew clas­si­cal music is a mat­ter of con­jec­ture. He attended the US pre­mière of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck while he was writ­ing Porgy, though there is no record of Gershwin’s reac­tion to Berg’s opera. Typ­i­cal of what we know of Gershwin’s reac­tion to con­cert music is a remark he made the day after attend­ing per­for­mances of quar­tets by Schoen­berg and Beethoven. Walk­ing out onto the ten­nis courts with Oscar Lev­ant and Arnold Schoen­berg, Gersh­win said, “I’d like to write a quar­tet some day. But it will be some­thing sim­ple, like Mozart.” Irri­tated, Schoen­berg replied, “I’m not a sim­ple man — and, any­way, Mozart was con­sid­ered far from sim­ple in his day.” Gershwin’s com­ment may strike us as naïve, but it can also be seen another way: as the enthu­si­as­tic aspi­ra­tion of some­one who, in Schoen­berg own words, “lives in music and expresses everything…by means of music.”

Do you think that now I am capa­ble of grand opera?” Gersh­win asked Jerome Kern before writ­ing Porgy. “Because, you know, all I’ve got is a lot of tal­ent and plenty of chutzpah.”

Porgy was, by far, the biggest project Gersh­win tack­led. Per­formed com­plete, it has more than three hours of music. “If I am suc­cess­ful, it will resem­ble a com­bi­na­tion of Car­men and Meis­tersinger,” the com­poser told a reporter. The results, I think, are sim­i­lar to what a bril­liant short-story writer might pro­duce in his first lengthy novel. But it should be remem­bered that Verdi, Wag­ner, Puc­cini, and Richard Strauss only hit their stride as opera com­posers with their third operas. Even if we count Blue Mon­day (a twenty-minute one-act opera by Gersh­win that received one per­for­mance in New York as part of George White’s Scan­dals of 1922), Gersh­win did not live long enough to write that mag­i­cal third work. Yet in Porgy he did achieve some mirac­u­lous things. The arias he wrote seem part of the Amer­i­can idiom. He called Porgy and Bess a “folk opera,” and if you did not know that the music was specif­i­cally writ­ten for a twentieth-century opera, you might think than num­bers such as “Sum­mer­time,” or “I Got Plenty o’ Nut­tin’,” “A Woman is a Some­time Thing,” or “It Ain’t Nec­es­sar­ily So,” were direct tran­scrip­tions of songs sung in the streets and the fields.

In 1937, shortly before he was diag­nosed with a brain tumor and died sev­eral days later, on July 11, Gersh­win told his sis­ter Frances, “I don’t feel I’ve scratched the sur­face. I don’t think of money any more. I just want to work on Amer­i­can music: sym­phonies, cham­ber music, opera. This is what I really want to do. I don’t feel I’ve even scratched the surface.”

If only he had lived another thirty-eighty years.

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here by permission.

In the photo at the top of the page, Gersh­win is work­ing on his por­trait of Arnold Schoen­berg.





When Porgy and Bess opened on Octo­ber 10, 1935, at New York’s Alvin The­ater, the Bess was Anne Wig­gins Brown, a twenty-three-year-old clas­si­cally trained singer from Bal­ti­more. She went on to play the role in many dif­fer­ent pro­duc­tions and, after retir­ing as a singer, became a stage direc­tor and teacher. Since 1948 she has lived in Nor­way. Dur­ing a recent tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion from her home in Oslo, she explained how she first met George Gershwin.

I read in an after­noon news­pa­per in New York that he was writ­ing Porgy and that he was search­ing for singers, clas­si­cal as well as musical-comedy singers. So I wrote him a let­ter that same evening and asked for an audi­tion. A few days later I audi­tioned [at his apart­ment]. He met me at the door, stand­ing behind his but­ler. He shook my hand, and then a strange thing hap­pened. It was rain­ing that day and I had on some galoshes, and I took them off and was stand­ing there in the hall, look­ing under the coat rack to see where I should put the wet foot gear, when he said sud­denly, ‘What are you look­ing for?’ I had a mad notion and said, ‘I’m look­ing for your roller skates.’ He laughed and asked, ‘How do you know about my roller skates?’ I explained I had read about his roller skates being one of his favorite pos­ses­sions when he was young, and that I, too, had skated a lot. That broke the ice, and we became friends at once.

I sang songs of Schu­bert and Brahms, and, I think, a French aria, and he was impressed with my back­ground” — Wig­gins was a stu­dent at the Juil­liard School of Music at the time. “When I sang a Negro spir­i­tual he was very pleased that I could do all kinds of music.

After that he would call me and say, ‘I’ve just writ­ten so many pages of music. I’d like you to come down and sing.’ I lived on 99th Street at the time, and I would go down [to Gershwin’s apart­ment] and sing what­ever he had writ­ten — even if it was for the tenor or bari­tone,” Brown said with a laugh. “He would play the melody and I sang it, then he played the accom­pa­ni­ment and I sang. Prac­ti­cally every­thing. We would even sing the duets.”

Some arti­cles have claimed the com­poser was so taken with Brown’s artistry that he renamed his opera Porgy and Bess, from its orig­i­nal Porgy, in her honor. “Other peo­ple have said so, but I never said that,” Brown insisted. “Gersh­win told me that all three men, Sportin’ Life, Crown, and Porgy cir­cle around Bess, and that it was as impor­tant a role as Porgy. But he did not say to me, ‘I’m chang­ing it for you.’ And I have never said that.

[As a child Gersh­win] roller skated around Harlem and often found him­self in front of night­clubs in the day­time where black musi­cians were prac­tic­ing, and he told me he was fas­ci­nated by the rhythms and the har­monies. He used to stand out­side the door, or sit on the curb of the side­walk and lis­ten. He said the rhythms stayed in his head, he couldn’t get rid of them. I sus­pect that had a great influ­ence, par­tic­u­larly when he wrote Porgy and Bess.”

Did Gersh­win ever dis­cuss a desire to break down the bar­ri­ers between pop­u­lar music and clas­si­cal music? Brown thought for a moment. “He might have men­tioned that some­times. Very often after I had sung myself out, we would sit and talk about things like that. He also played music for me on his organ — jazz and musi­cal com­edy music. Mostly his own music, but some­times pop­u­lar music by other com­posers. Once he played some­thing clas­si­cal by a French com­poser. That was a thrill for me as a young stu­dent. There was no hanky-panky, but still my hus­band was very jeal­ous and even threat­ened to give me orders to stay home. I just laughed.

As a com­poser, Gersh­win really knew what he was doing. He was a genius. He was a very com­pli­cated man, but he did have a side that was hum­ble. He would ask, ‘Do you like that? Do you think that’s right? Is this too high for a bari­tone?’ Things like that. He was very open and honest.”

What comes to mind when Anne Brown thinks of Gersh­win today? “Amer­i­can. He was really an exam­ple of an Amer­i­can. Com­ing from a com­pletely dif­fer­ent back­ground, Jew­ish and Russ­ian, and hav­ing been brought up in New York, then devel­op­ing his tal­ent along both clas­si­cal and jazz lines, that’s some­thing typ­i­cally Amer­i­can. I think he should be hailed as, prob­a­bly, the Amer­i­can composer.

Before he went to Hol­ly­wood he told me, ‘I’m going to write another opera, and I’m going to write it for you and Todd [Dun­can, the first Porgy.]’ I was sit­ting in my liv­ing room when the radio blared out the news that George Gersh­win was dead. I was numb. Not long before that he had writ­ten me a let­ter from Hol­ly­wood say­ing that he was com­ing back to New York, and he was going to write some music. I had the feel­ing he meant it was for me. It was such a ter­ri­ble loss.”

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony in con­nec­tion with “George Gersh­win, Amer­i­can Nat­ural,” and is used here by permission.

Anne Wig­gins Brown died in 2009 at the age of 96.







Samuel Bar­ber is one of the most curi­ous fig­ures in twentieth-century music, some­one whose work is both cher­ished and dis­missed. His Ada­gio for Strings, which made him famous when Toscanini played it on national radio in 1938 when Bar­ber was still in his twen­ties, is one of the best-known pieces of Amer­i­can music, rec­og­nized and loved by mil­lions around the world who have never attended a sym­phony con­cert. Barber’s out­put spans vir­tu­ally all gen­res — cham­ber music, large sym­phonic works, bal­let, songs, works for a sin­gle instru­ment, choral works, even opera. His very per­sonal musi­cal lan­guage is unde­ni­ably con­tem­po­rary, but Bar­ber never lost sight of the fact that music speaks from — and to — the soul.

Yet despite the con­sis­tency and breadth of his music, and in spite of the secure place a grow­ing num­ber of his works have in the reper­tory today, some of the musi­cal estab­lish­ment con­tin­ues to be uncom­fort­able with Bar­ber. One some­times feels that the com­poser was penal­ized through­out his life for the extra­or­di­nary pop­u­lar­ity his Ada­gio for Strings achieved — as well as the fact that pop­u­lar­ity came when he was so young. In a way, Barber’s music has met with a reac­tion sim­i­lar to that some­times encoun­tered by peo­ple of great phys­i­cal beauty — on the one hand, lauded and envied by soci­ety; on the other hand, deemed shal­low or vain by the same soci­ety, and for the very qual­ity it pro­fesses to admire.

Typ­i­cal of the con­de­scend­ing view of Bar­ber is the atti­tude that Wil­frid Mellers expressed in his 1960s book Man and His Music, which men­tions with admi­ra­tion the woks of com­posers from Charles Ives to Elliott Carter and Vir­gil Thom­son and then, almost par­en­thet­i­cally, acknowl­edges Barber’s exis­tence with a sin­gle sen­tence: “Com­par­a­tively, the middle-of-the-path men, even such a excel­lent con­ser­v­a­tive musi­cian as Samuel Barber…have lit­tle vital­ity and not much social or artis­tic justification.”

One might hope that, with the renais­sance Barber’s music has enjoyed since shortly after his death in 1981, both in con­certs and on record­ings, a more bal­anced view of his true stature as a com­poser would pre­vail. But old biases die hard. Case in point: A few months ago The New Yorker pub­lished an arti­cle on the life and career of Aaron Cop­land in honor of his cen­te­nary. Though the arti­cle referred to many other com­posers with whom Cop­land inter­acted, Samuel Barber’s name was never once mentioned.

It’s very curi­ous,” says pianist John Brown­ing, who intro­duced Barber’s Piano Con­certo, and became a good friend of the com­poser. “Sam and Aaron were extremely good friends and they respected each other enor­mously, but the two camps were vio­lently opposed to each other. Both com­posers were first-class. They only lived about fif­teen min­utes from each other, they often vis­ited each other, often played their works for each others.”

In fact, Cop­land played a piv­otal role in the com­po­si­tion of Barber’s Piano Con­certo, some­thing Brown­ing still remem­bers vividly. With the work’s pre­mière only a cou­ple of weeks away, Bar­ber still had not writ­ten the final move­ment. “That’s when Aaron came over from Peek­skill, and just sat him down and yelled at him,” Brown­ing recalls. “Sam got so mad, he got up the next morn­ing and began writ­ing the last movement.”

The pre­mière of Barber’s Piano Con­certo, on Sep­tem­ber 24, 1962, was to be the com­posers “last huge, imme­di­ate suc­cess,” as Brown­ing puts it. “It got the Pulitzer right away, there was a stand­ing ova­tion at the pre­mière, it was a tremen­dous crit­i­cal suc­cess, and all the orches­tras did it immediately.”

Sid­ney Homer

Suc­cess was some­thing that seemed to come eas­ily and often to Samuel Bar­ber. He was born on March 9, 1910 in West Chester, Penn­syl­va­nia, into a fam­ily that was finan­cially and socially com­fort­able. Though his imme­di­ate fam­ily regarded music as only an inter­est­ing pas­time, his mother’s sis­ter was the great con­tralto Louise Homer. Her hus­band, Sid­ney, was a com­poser of some renown in his day, a con­tem­po­rary of Richard Strauss, whom he had known in Munich when both men were in their early twen­ties. (Sid­ney Homer had heard Strauss con­duct the pre­mière of the latter’s Aus Ital­ien in 1886.) In 1924, when it became obvi­ous that Samuel Bar­ber was deter­mined to be a musi­cian, his fam­ily sent him to the newly opened Cur­tis Insti­tute in nearby Philadel­phia, where he stud­ied piano, com­po­si­tion, con­duct­ing, and voice. Imme­di­ately, he began to attract the atten­tion of influ­en­tial peo­ple as well as superb musicians.

The first per­for­mances and record­ings of his works were led by con­duc­tors such as Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Wal­ter, Serge Kous­se­vitzky, Eugene Ormandy, Artur Rodzin­ski, and Dim­itri Mitropou­los. Vladimir Horowitz gave the pre­mière of Barber’s Piano Sonata in 1950. Singers such as Rose Bamp­ton, Eleanor Ste­ber, Leon­tyne Price, Mar­tina Arroyo, and Diet­rich Fischer-Dieskau intro­duced his vocal works. And almost from the begin­ning, Bar­ber received com­mis­sions from the most pres­ti­gious organizations.

In 1931, while still a stu­dent at Cur­tis, Bar­ber wrote his Over­ture to The School for Scan­dal—which turned out to be his grad­u­a­tion the­sis. Inspired by Richard Sheridan’s com­edy of man­ners (even as a young man Barber’s taste in lit­er­a­ture was well-developed), the piece is, by turns, ebul­lient, melt­ingly lyri­cal, and infec­tious. Audi­ences loved it. Crit­ics reacted as they would through­out Barber’s life. While admit­ted the Over­ture was “well and grace­fully writ­ten,” Olin Downes of the New York Times com­plained, “It is no more Amer­i­can than Wolf-Ferrari. It is in essence an Ital­ian com­edy overture….We do not agree with the sort of musi­cal patri­o­teer who attempts to prove that the acci­dent of birth enti­tles an indi­vid­ual of oth­er­wise mod­est claims to recog­ni­tion as an Amer­i­can com­poser. On the other hand, music that lives and says some­thing sel­dom if ever fails to sug­gest race and environment.”

John Brown­ing

The sound [of Barber’s music] is def­i­nitely an inter­na­tional sound,” John Brown­ing says. “The Cop­land sound that we think of as being so ‘Amer­i­can’ was just not in Sam’s vocab­u­lary. It wasn’t a ques­tion of him avoid­ing it, it just wasn’t in his vocabulary.”

When Bar­ber thought it appro­pri­ate, he was quite capa­ble of writ­ing music that sug­gests jazz (which he does through­out his cham­ber opera A Hand of Bridge, for instance) — just as he was capa­ble of using twelve-tone tech­niques, or any of a vari­ety of devices. But he never for­got the advice his Uncle Sid­ney gave him early in his career, to write music that “expresses the depth and sin­cer­ity of your nature…straightforward stuff, with gen­uine feel­ing in it and no arti­fi­cial pre­tense and padding.” Unfor­tu­nately, in doing that, in going his own way musi­cally, Bar­ber often found him­self at odds with musi­cal fashion.

Bar­ber was a com­poser who was really there at the wrong time,” says Tim Page, the Pulitzer Prize-winning for­mer music critic for New York News­day and the Wash­ing­ton Post. “I’ve always thought he was a deeply tal­ented, enor­mously expres­sive and, in his own sub­tle way, dis­tinctly orig­i­nal com­poser. Some peo­ple didn’t really know what to make of his opu­lence and of the tonal cen­ter of a great deal of his music. He was writ­ing music that was in oppo­si­tion to some of the crit­i­cal posi­tions of his times, and that was some­thing that was put down a great deal.”

Barber’s song cycle Her­mit Songs illus­trated Page’s point. It was writ­ten in the early 1950s, when Amer­i­can avant-garde com­posers were exper­i­ment­ing with seri­al­ism and elec­tronic music and chance music. But Bar­ber chose to set the text (by medieval reli­gious schol­ars) in a sim­ple, con­ser­v­a­tive way that seemed to fly in the face of what many of his con­tem­po­raries were doing. Her­mit Songs cre­ates an entire uni­verse in only ten songs, and today it is con­sid­ered one of the mas­ter­pieces of Amer­i­can song lit­er­a­ture. The pre­mière, at the Library of Con­gress on Octo­ber 30, 1953, with the com­poser at the piano and a young soprano named Leon­tyne Price, attracted favor­able atten­tion. (The con­cert was recorded and is avail­able on CD).

Leon­tyne Price and Samuel Barber

A few months later, Bar­ber and Price repeated their per­for­mance at a con­fer­ence of twentieth-century music in Rome, an event orga­nized by Nicholas Nabokov. “How Samuel Bar­ber came to be invited is anyone’s guess,” the com­poser Ned Rorem has writ­ten of that con­fer­ence. “Yet sud­denly one Tues­day, when we had grown bug-eyed at the grav­ity of it all, onto the stage came Sam to accom­pany the unknown Leon­tyne Price, every inch a diva with her azure sequins, in the Her­mit Songs. From the first bars of ‘At Saint Patrick’s Pur­ga­tory’ the all-knowing audi­ence exchanged glances: you don’t com­pose trash like this anymore….But when the hit song, ‘The Monk and His Cat,’ came around there were audi­ble hisses, and the close of the cycle brought loud boos mixed with furtive cheers.”

The San Fran­cisco Symphony’s Michael Stein­berg, who was then a stringer for the New York Times and cov­ered the Rome con­fer­ence, remem­bers it dif­fer­ently. “The Her­mit Songs were warmly received,” he says, and he recalls meet­ing Bar­ber shortly after­ward and hear­ing the com­poser speak with plea­sure of the cycle’s reception.

Barber’s innate sense of lyri­cism, cou­pled with his love of lit­er­a­ture and the fact that he him­self trained as a singer (his won­der­ful 1935 record­ing of his own Dover Beach is avail­able on CD), give his songs the cen­tral place among his works.  Again and again through­out his life, Bar­ber returned to the song form, as if to his touch­stone. In fact, when he wrote for indi­vid­ual instru­ments in the orches­tra, it was often with the same sense of nat­ural, unend­ing melody found in his songs. “Bar­ber always thought lyri­cally, while not dis­miss­ing — by any means — thoughts of har­mony and orches­tra­tion and sound,” says Tim Page. “He could come up with really com­pli­cated coun­ter­point. He was a firm believer in good, solid tech­nique, and his own tech­nique was extra­or­di­nary. The orches­tra­tion was true, and the melodies were good and strong.”

His ideal was Bach,” John Brown­ing adds. “He spent an hour a day, every day of his life, study­ing Bach. He wrote coun­ter­point so nat­u­rally — he prob­a­bly had the great­est ease in coun­ter­point since Brahms. He was cer­tainly in full com­mand of orches­tra­tion — he wrote to the max­i­mum for every instru­ment. He used to say to me, ‘If you write too eas­ily for an instru­ment they get bored and they won’t play it.’ He was in full com­mand of form, full com­mand of melody. The har­monic lan­guage was superb. The depth was there. The humor is there. The melan­choly is there, too — Sam always had a streak of melan­choly. Some peo­ple might feel the emo­tional gamut extremely com­pli­cated in its many nuances, But it works for me.”

Mar­tina Arroyo

Barber’s emo­tional lan­guage works for many peo­ple, in part because he knew exactly what he wanted to say and what was impor­tant about a work. Soprano Mar­tina Arroyo remem­bers Bar­ber was “very, very con­cerned about the drama, about the emo­tion.” Bar­ber chose Arroyo to intro­duce his 1963 Andromache’s Farewell, a work for soprano and orches­tra com­mis­sioned by the New York Phil­har­monic for its open­ing sea­son at Lin­coln Cen­ter. Some of the mea­sures in Andro­mache’s vocal line are rhyth­mi­cally quite intri­cate, and when Arroyo took spe­cial care to get the rhythm exact, “Bar­ber would say, ‘Lis­ten, I don’t care about the rhythm as much as I want you to have the anger here.’ Bar­ber wrote beau­ti­fully for the voice. The inter­vals can be dif­fi­cult, espe­cially in Antony and Cleopa­tra, but he didn’t ask for any­thing that was impos­si­ble. You just have to know how to sing. It’s all in the music. You don’t have to put any­thing else into it. Just sing it with hon­esty and sin­cer­ity and the sense of drama.”

Andromache’s Farewell is Barber’s Opus 39. Opus 40 is Antony and Cleopa­tra, the opera writ­ten to open the Met’s new home at Lin­coln Cen­ter in 1966. As Bar­bara Hey­man puts it in her biog­ra­phy of the com­poser, “The com­mis­sion that was one of the great­est trib­utes to Barber’s whole career turned out, iron­i­cally, to be his neme­sis…. [It] was the mon­u­men­tal mis­for­tune of Barber’s career.” Bar­ber had had dis­ap­point­ments before, but Antony and Cleopa­tra was dif­fer­ent. It brought Bar­ber a high-profile crit­i­cal trounc­ing that, in ret­ro­spect, he did not entirely deserve. (A later reworked ver­sion of Antony and Cleopa­tra has been per­formed by sev­eral dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies, most notably, per­haps, by the Lyric Opera of Chicago dur­ing the 1991 – 92 sea­son, when it was also tele­cast on PBS.) Even at the opera’s pre­mière, every­one agreed a major prob­lem was Franco Zeffirelli’s heavy-handed pro­duc­tion, which swamped the work. And in all prob­a­bil­ity noth­ing could have stood up to the celebrity-studded, glit­ter­ing social occa­sion of the open­ing of the new Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House. But the reviews were sav­age and seemed to affect Bar­ber more deeply than had other neg­a­tive reviews.

Bar­ber and Menotti

What many peo­ple did not real­ize was that Barber’s per­sonal life was under­go­ing pro­found changes as well. In the fall of 1928, he had met a fel­low Cur­tis stu­dent from Milan named Gian Carlo Menotti, and the two men had become part­ners. In Mt. Kisko, New York, they had bought a house named Capri­corn, which Bar­ber loved deeply. When the cou­ple split, Bar­ber felt he could not afford to keep up the house, so Capri­corn was put up for sale. “Antony and Cleopa­tra came at the same time that Sam and Gian Carlo were split­ting up and Capri­corn was being sold. It all hit at once,” says John Brown­ing. It seems Bar­ber never fully recovered.

Bar­ber had long planned at trip to Italy after Antony and Cleopa­tra’s pre­mière. He ended up build­ing a house in the Dolomites, where he spent most of his time for the next sev­eral years. He began turn­ing down com­mis­sions, telling Eugene Ormandy he was plan­ning to write only music he wanted to, even if it was “forty-eight pre­ludes and fugues for pic­colo.” The music he wanted to com­pose — not sur­pris­ingly — was mostly songs, though in 1971 he returned to work­ing on a large scale again with The Lovers, a set­ting of some Pablo Neruda poems for mix cho­rus, bari­tone, soprano, and orchestra.

In 1978, Barber’s Third Essay for Orches­tra was pre­miered by Zubin Mehta in his first con­cert as Music Direc­tor for the New York Phil­har­monic. It was a heart­break­ing occa­sion for the composer’s fans, a regret­table shadow of the astound­ing work Bar­ber had done in both his First and Sec­ond Essays. These one-movement orches­tral pieces, hybrids that are both tone poems and “mini-symphony,” had been impor­tant parts of Barber’s out­put. But in the Third Essay, the ten­sile, mas­cu­line rhythms that gave the ear­lier Essays such propul­sive energy had become noisy clat­ter­ing, and the surg­ing melodic sweeps had degen­er­ated into taw­dri­ness and sen­ti­men­tal­ity. Through­out his life, Samuel Bar­ber had never stepped over the bound­ary of good taste — until now.

Young Sam Barber

Musi­cally, Bar­ber was never ashamed of emo­tion. Whether it was the sim­ple nos­tal­gia of Knoxville: Sum­mer of 1915, the jux­ta­po­si­tion of sad­ness and jaun­ti­ness that makes his wood­wind quin­tet Sum­mer Music so intensely mov­ing, the stark alone­ness of the end of the First Essay for Orches­tra, the awe and mys­tery that so per­me­ate his choral work Prayers of Kierkegaard, the psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ment in Medea’s Dance of Vengeance, or the humor laced with rem­i­nis­cence in Sou­venirs, Bar­ber always seemed to know exactly how far the emo­tion should go. Even in the juicy deca­dence of Cleopatra’s death scene, “Give Me My Robe,” from Antony and Cleopa­tra, with its entwin­ing of reful­gent erotic long­ing and death, Bar­ber remained true to his credo of writ­ing music that “expresses…depth and sincerity…straightforward stuff, with gen­uine feel­ing.” And in his late song cycles “Despite and Still” (1968 – 69) and “Three Songs” (1972), Bar­ber con­tin­ued to show what a mas­ter­ful com­poser he was when using inti­mate forms, set­ting the words with decep­tively sim­ply clar­ity that, in the  process, presents the emo­tions honestly.

Bar­ber died of can­cer of the lym­phatic sys­tem, on Jan­u­ary 21, 1981. Since his death, the enor­mous — and imme­di­ate — expres­sive power of his music has been co-opted by Hol­ly­wood and Madi­son Avenue for use in films and tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials. The Ada­gio for Strings has been heard in Pla­toon and as back­ground to per­fume ads. A clas­si­cal record label devoted an entire com­pact disc to dif­fer­ent (and often ques­tion­able) arrange­ments of the Ada­gio. But even when played by a brass band, or flute and syn­the­siz­ers, or a choir of clar­inets, the hon­est pro­fun­dity of Samuel Barber’s music can­not be destroyed. If, dur­ing his life­time, Bar­ber was some­times penal­ized for what his music was not, today we have the lux­ury of appre­ci­at­ing that same music for what it is: “straight for­ward stuff, with gen­uine feeling.”

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the Feb­ru­ary 2000 pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here by per­mis­sion.

Photo Credit: Her­bert List/Magnum Pho­tos. The stun­ning pho­to­graph of Samuel Bar­ber at the top of the arti­cle is by Her­bert List. It was taken in 1954 at the Amer­i­can Acad­emy in Rome, Italy.





Gioachino Anto­nio Rossini was born on Leap Day, Feb­ru­ary 29, 1792 in Pesaro, Italy, and dies at his home in Passy, then a sub­urb of Paris, on Novem­ber 13m 1868. His Sta­bat mater is a set­ting of the thirteenth-century Latin hymn attrib­uted to Jaco­pone da Todi, con­cern­ing the Vir­gin Mary watch­ing Jesus die on the cross. The rather con­vo­luted story of this work’s com­po­si­tion is detailed below. The defin­i­tive ver­sion of Rossini’s Sta­bat mater was pre­miered in Paris on Jan­u­ary 7, 1842 in the Salle Ven­ta­dour with three of the most famous singers of the day as soloists: Giu­lia Grisi (soprano); her hus­band, Gio­vanni Mat­teo Mario (tenor); and Anto­nio Tam­burini (bass). The mezzo-soprano (labeled sec­ond soprano in the score) was a lady named Alber­tazzi. The first Ital­ian per­for­mances were at the Con­ser­va­tory of Bologna, con­ducted by the com­poser Gae­tano Donizetti on March 18, 19, and 20 1842. Two of the soloists, Clara Nov­ello (soprano) and Nicholas Ivanoff (tenor), are famous in the his­tory of singing. Singing in the cho­rus of the Bologna per­for­mances was a young girl who would become an extra­or­di­nar­ily famous con­tralto by the name of Mari­etta Alboni, reputed to have one of the most per­fect voices of the nine­teenth cen­tury. The score calls for four vocal soloists, two sopra­nos (the sec­ond soprano part is always sung by a mezzo-soprano), tenor, and bass, plus a four-part cho­rus of the same makeup. The orches­tra con­sists of two flutes, two oboes, two clar­inets, hour horns, two trum­pets, two bas­soons, three trom­bones, tim­pani, and strings.

Gioachino Rossini is a much an enigma to con­cert­go­ers today as his works are mis­un­der­stood and often inad­e­quately per­formed. Despite his fame, we know sur­pris­ingly lit­tle about his life other than its sketchy out­line: the obvi­ous dates, of course — his birth, mar­riages, the­atri­cal pre­mieres, dates of var­i­ous legal con­tracts, his death. Much of what we accept as truth can only be traced to sto­ries told by the com­poser and his friends dur­ing his last stay in Paris, begin­ning in 1855, long after the events would have occurred.

This Paris period some­times seems to have been one eter­nal Sec­ond Empire salon: the revered Rossini, grown cor­pu­lent on rich Parisian food, trad­ing bon motes—often at his own expense — with other guests (every­one who was any­one in Paris, which is to say every­one who was any­one in Europe), and, every once in a while, accom­pa­ny­ing a singer at the piano, or even singing himself.

Grisi and Mario sang the première.

There are almost no let­ters between the com­poser and his libret­tists like the let­ters that give us so much insight into the lives, emo­tions, and thoughts of com­posers such as Verdi, Richard Strauss, Puc­cini, and even Rossini’s younger con­tem­po­raries Bellini and Donizetti. There are remark­ably few pri­mary doc­u­ments con­cern­ing some of Rossini’s most pro­lific years, espe­cially the time he spent in Naples (1815 – 23), dur­ing which he expanded the forms of Ital­ian opera in dar­ing, remark­able ways.

One Rossini we know is the com­poser immor­tal­ized by a sump­tu­ous dish, Tourne­dos Rossini, which, as Julia Child observed in her book Mas­ter­ing the Art of French Cook­ing, “takes the filet steak about as far as it can go”: Place a per­fectly cooked (in but­ter) tourne­dos onto a hot arti­choke bot­tom. Onto the steak lay a slice of (fresh) foie gras, that has been gen­tly warmed and basted with Madeira and rich mush­room essence, and top the foie gras with slices of fresh truf­fle. Driz­zle the entire dish with the reduced, and thick­ened, com­bined juiced from the foie gras, truf­fles, and the steak — and for­get about check­ing your cho­les­terol for weeks.

Rossini worked hard to make sure “the truth” about him con­sisted of sto­ries such as the fact that he cried only three times in his life: once when his mother died, once when The Bar­ber of Seville flopped at its pre­mier. And once when a tri­fled turkey fell from his canoe into a lake and was lost before he had eaten of it. “I never cried after The Bar­ber of Seville,” Rossini would always insist when guests asked him if the story was true.

But Rossini was much more inter­est­ing, much more sub­stan­tial, than the sto­ries would sug­gest. For one thing, few puz­zles in West­ern art equal Rossini’s sud­den — and per­ma­nent — retire­ment from the opera stage after the pre­mier of Guil­laume Tell in 1829.  Why, at the age of thirty-seven, did this great com­poser, at the height of his pow­ers and fame, sim­ply retire from the opera world before his life had reached its mid-point?

Jaco­pone da Todi by Paolo Uccello, ca. 1434 – 35.

Sev­eral par­tial expla­na­tions exist. (Rossini, of course, usu­ally claimed he retired because he was innately lazy and no longer had to work, so why should he.) The composer’s declin­ing health was par­tially respon­si­ble, as was the sense of exhaus­tion stem­ming from almost two decades of con­stant gru­el­ing work. His first opera, Demetrio e Poli­bio, was a stu­dent work, but from the time he was eigh­teen with La cam­biale di mat­ri­mo­nio (1810), until Guil­laume Tell nine­teen years later, Rossini com­posed thirty-seven operas, often writ­ing sev­eral a year, as well as super­vis­ing their pro­duc­tion and some­times con­duct­ing as well.  Another fac­tor in his retire­ment was the Rev­o­lu­tion on 1830, which forced Charles X from the French throne and meant Rossini’s finan­cial secu­rity was, for a time, in jeop­ardy, forc­ing him into a lengthy law­suit to secure his annu­ity (he even­tu­ally won). The artis­tic cli­mate in Paris changed, too — a new man­age­ment at the Opéra intro­duced Meyerbeer’s first French operas (begin­ning with Robert le Dia­ble in 1831), which took the oper­atic world by storm.

Rossini left Paris in 1836, and his life from then until he returned in 1855 some­times seems quite des­per­ate, His health was con­stantly under­mined by a vari­ety of ill­nesses (ure­thri­tis and related afflic­tions were a per­sis­tent prob­lem along with the very painful reme­dies of the day), aggra­vated by his grow­ing insom­nia and hypochon­dria. Read­ing accounts of Rossini writ­ten by his friends between 1852 and 1855, one must won­der if the com­poser sim­ply had a ner­vous break­down. Cer­tainly he seems to have become obsessed with death and sui­cide. In all prob­a­bil­ity his life was saved only because his sec­ond wife, Olympe Pélissier, insisted he return to Paris for med­ical treat­ment (he had mar­ried Pélissier in 1846 after the death of his first wife, the famous singer Isabella Col­bran). Under the cir­cum­stances, one begins to under­stand why Rossini would avoid the ardu­ous labor of writ­ing and pro­duc­ing an opera.

It was dur­ing the begin­ning of the rather bleak period, in 1841, that Rossini revis­ited the first ver­sion of his Sta­bat mater and cre­ated his sec­ond, defin­i­tive ver­sion. The first ver­sion of the Sta­bat mater was writ­ten in 1831, only a cou­ple of years after Tell’s pre­mière, on a pri­vate com­mis­sion from a wealthy Span­ish prelate, Fer­nán­dez Varela. Rossini was dis­in­clined to accept the com­mis­sion for sev­eral rea­sons, not the least of which was his admi­ra­tion for Pergolesi’s famous and pop­u­lar Sta­bat mater. But his good friend the Span­ish banker Alexan­dre Aguado urged him to accept. Of the world’s orig­i­nal twelve num­bers, Rossini set only six to music (num­bers 1 and 5 through 9), con­sign­ing the oth­ers to his friend Gio­vanni Tadolini, a com­poser and musi­cal direc­tor of the Théâtre-Italien in Paris. One of the stip­u­la­tions on which Rossini insisted was that the work never be pub­lished or ever leave Varela’s pos­ses­sion. This 1831 ver­sion was first heard on Good Fri­day (some sources say Holy Sat­ur­day) 1833 in Madrid, at the Cap­pella di S Fil­ippo El Real. The grate­ful Varela gave Rossini a gold snuff­box encrusted with eight large diamonds.

Upon Varela’s death in 1837, his heirs sold Rossini’s man­u­script to Oller Chetard. In turn, Chetard sold it to the Parisian music pub­lisher Antoine Aulagnier, who promptly wrote to Rossini on Decem­ber 1, 1837 to ask “if he had made any secret for­mal reser­va­tions about its publication.”

Pol Plançon

Rossini swiftly replied that he had merely ded­i­cated the Sta­bat mater to Varela, reserv­ing for him­self the right to have it pub­lished or not. He also informed Aulagnier that only six of the num­bers in the publisher’s pos­ses­sion were by Rossini, but that he had now fin­ished the entire com­po­si­tion. “I declare to you, mon­sieur,” he wrote, “that if my Sta­bat mater should be pub­lished with­out my per­mis­sion, whether in France or abroad, my very firm inten­tion is to pur­sue the pub­lisher to death.”

Rossini’s biog­ra­pher Her­bert Wein­stock says that the com­poser had known of the sale before being noti­fied by Aulagnier and that he had already signed a con­tract with his Paris pub­lisher, Eugèné Troupe­nas, for this sec­ond ver­sion of the Sta­bat mater, com­posed entirely by him — the ver­sion always per­formed today.

A bit­ter law­suit ensured. Mat­ters became so heated that employ­ees of the two pub­lish­ing firms came to blows in a court antecham­ber. Even­tu­ally a mag­is­trate ruled that Rossini’s accep­tance of a snuff­box — even a gold one encrusted with dia­monds — did not con­sti­tute a sale, so the Sta­bat mater was still his to dis­pose of as he wished. How­ever, the court also threw out Troupenas’s suit against Aulagnier. Troupe­nas pub­lished the all-Rossini Sta­bat mater, con­sist­ing of ten num­bers. Aulagnier pub­lished the six num­bers com­posed by Tadolini.

Rossini’s ten num­bers are divided between his forces. Each of the four vocal soloists has an indi­vid­ual num­ber, plus two quar­tets, one accom­pa­nied by the orches­tra, the other sung a cap­pella. The soprano and mezzo have a duet, the bass has an addi­tional, unac­com­pa­nied num­ber with the cho­rus, and the work begins and ends with num­bers com­bin­ing all the forces — soloists, cho­rus, and orches­tra. One of the ways Rossini uni­fies the work is by repeat­ing, toward the end of the con­clud­ing “Amen” cho­rus, the ris­ing melodic line in the bas­soons and cel­los with which the work opens.

Though Rossini’s Sta­bat mater was received with the great­est enthu­si­asm by the audi­ences of its time, many peo­ple today would raise their eye­brows at Hein­rich Heine’s com­ment, “I find Rossini’s Stabat much more truly Chris­t­ian than [Mendelssohn’s] ora­to­rio Saint Paul.” Fash­ion in eccle­si­as­ti­cal music changes as much as fash­ion in any­thing else. Music rou­tinely heard in many churches today would have been frowned on in the 1950s, and in this coun­try our Puri­tan her­itage makes us innately sus­pi­cious of the per­haps more full-blooded, emo­tional expres­sions of piety some­times char­ac­ter­is­tic of the faith­ful in other coun­tries, It today the occa­sion­ally “jaunty” or “swing­ing” tunes (to quote some Anglo-Saxon crit­ics) Rossini gave his soloists seem to us to be decid­edly at odds with the text, nei­ther Rossini — nor his con­tem­po­raries — felt the music was inappropriate.

Kirsten Flagstad

The vocal lines Rossini wrote for his soloists require superbly trained singers for their com­fort­able exe­cu­tion, and some of the great­est singers of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury have left record­ings of arias. Enrico Caruso’s famous 1913 record­ing of “Cujus ani­mam” and Pol Plançon’s 1908 “Pro pec­ca­tis,” with its unbe­liev­able trills and superbly artic­u­lated rhythms, are two early exam­ples. Per­haps most unusual of all is an air-check of Kirsten Flagstad singing the soprano’s “Inflam­ma­tus” from a March 1935 radio con­cert only a few weeks after her astound­ing US debut as Sieglinde in Die Walküre. Sans cho­rus, but accom­pa­nied by orches­tra, Flagstad’s limpid, ele­gant singing, com­plete with per­fect thrills and effort­less high Cs, give a good idea of what all the fuss was about.

Our North Amer­i­can ears are likely to find this music more oper­atic than eccle­si­as­ti­cal — evi­dence, per­haps, of our cul­tural lim­i­ta­tions. Han­del, whose ora­to­rios are often filled with trills and runs to rival any, is con­sid­ered as “sacred” a com­poser as can be found — per­haps because those heav­ily embell­ished musi­cal lines were approved, even revered, by the Vic­to­ri­ans.  But if we embrace mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, we should try to rise above our own, pri­vate reli­gious pref­er­ences to unite — at least for a lit­tle while — in shar­ing Rossini’s reli­gious vision as man­i­fested in his glo­ri­ous Sta­bat mater.


This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here by per­mis­sion.