Writing

Articles by Paul Thomason

Puccini — MADAMA BUTTERFLY

756px-Farrarbutterfly

Read more...

 

In June 1900 Gia­como Puc­cini (1858 – 1924) was in Lon­don to super­vise the Eng­lish pre­mière of his lat­est opera Tosca, at the time only six months old. Sev­eral peo­ple, includ­ing the Covent Gar­den stage direc­tor, Fran­cis Nielsen, urged him to go to the Duke of York The­atre to see David Belasco’s newest sen­sa­tion, the play Madame But­ter­fly — A Tragedy of Japan. In later years, Belasco would claim that after the per­for­mance, Puc­cini had rushed back­stage, embraced him, and pleaded to be allowed to turn Belasco’s play into an opera.

I agreed at once,” Belasco said, “and told him he could do any­thing he liked with the play, and make any sort of con­tract, because it was impos­si­ble to dis­cuss arrange­ments with an impul­sive Ital­ian who has tears in his eyes and both of his arms around your neck.”

David Belasco

Like so many of Belasco’s rem­i­nis­cences, the scene he describes is dubi­ous, since on the composer’s way back to Italy he stopped off in Paris to talk with Emile Zola about turn­ing one of his nov­els into an opera, and a few weeks later he was enthu­si­as­tic about writ­ing his next opera based on Marie Antoinette. There is no doubt Belasco’s play had left a vivid impres­sion on Puc­cini, even though his Eng­lish was too poor to allow him to under­stand what the char­ac­ters were say­ing. But he cer­tainly under­stood the broad out­lines of the drama and espe­cially the char­ac­ter of But­ter­fly her­self — her world, her suf­fer­ing, and, espe­cially, her sui­cide at the end, in which Belasco had pulled out all the stops to wring every pos­si­ble tear from his audience.

Belasco’s play, which is in one act, was based on a story by John Luther Long that had been pub­lished in the Jan­u­ary 1898 issue of Cen­tury Illus­trated Monthly  Mag­a­zine. Long, a lawyer who had lit­er­ary aspi­ra­tions, claimed the story of Madame But­ter­fly had been told to him by his sis­ter, Jen­nie Cor­rell, the wife of a Methodist mis­sion­ary in Nagasaki, and that she knew the peo­ple involved first­hand. (See side­bar below.)

But the basic story had been told before that, most notably by Pierre Loti in his hugely suc­cess­ful novel Madame Chrysan­thème pub­lished in 1887. Loti, who had trav­eled quite widely dur­ing his career as a navel offi­cer, used his obser­va­tions and mem­o­ries of exotic lands as back­ground in a num­ber of nov­els. (His 1880 novel, Le mariage de Loti, was the basis of Leo Delibes’s opera Lakmé.)

Madame Chrysan­thème tells the story of a young navel offi­cer, Pierre, whose ship docks at Nagasaki for three months. To pass the time he enters into a tem­po­rary mar­riage with a young geisha named Madame Chrysan­the­mum. Unlike the later sto­ries, in Loti’s first-person novel (told by Pierre him­self) there is no tragedy, and when it’s time for his ship to leave the part­ing is straight­for­ward, with only a trace of sen­ti­ment. In Jan van Rij’s fas­ci­nat­ing book Madame But­ter­fly, Japon­isme, Puc­cini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San, he says that when Loti returned to Nagasaki in 1900, he heard from “Madame Chrysanthemum’s” mother that her daugh­ter had made a good mar­riage to a busi­ness­man from the area. (The mother even went so far as to give a din­ner in Loti’s honor, though she did not invite her daugh­ter to attend.)

What made Loti’s novel so extra­or­di­nar­ily suc­cess­ful was his atten­tion to descrip­tive detail. Not only the minu­tiae of Madame Chrysanthemum’s daily life, but of the coun­try­side itself, the houses and tem­ples, peo­ple on the street, reli­gious pro­ces­sions, almost any­thing that made life in Japan dif­fer­ent from West­ern life found its way into the book. It went through 25 edi­tions in five years and was trans­lated into other lan­guages, includ­ing Eng­lish. It was also the basis of André Messager’s 1883 opera, Madame Chrysan­thème.

The arrange­ment between Pierre and his tem­po­rary Japan­ese wife was not uncom­mon at the time. Van Rij says the prac­tice was cen­turies old, and points out that the women who entered into such liaisons were dis­tinct from both the true geisha (pro­fes­sional, highly accom­plished enter­tain­ers who might or might not be avail­able for a sex­ual rela­tion­ship) and the com­mon prostitute.

It was all fod­der for the wave of Ori­en­tal­ism that was sweep­ing West­ern Europe and the U.S. at the time. Not that fas­ci­na­tion with “the exotic East” (which included the Mid­dle East, as well) was any­thing new. Think of Mozart’s “Turk­ish” music, as well as his operas The Abduc­tion from the Seraglio and The Magic Flute, both of which take place in non-Western lands; both of which were writ­ten in Ger­man, using spo­ken dia­logue rather than recita­tives, in a con­scious attempt to appeal to a larger audi­ence than the aris­to­cratic court (itself proof of the broad appeal such sto­ries had).

But the last part of the nine­teenth cen­tury, and the begin­ning of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, saw suc­ces­sive waves of vogues for things East­ern, as one coun­try fol­lowed another as the inspi­ra­tion for home fur­nish­ings, cloth­ing, paint­ings, books, the­ater, and music. In their turn, the details of life in Egypt, China, Japan, India, and other for­eign cul­tures were eagerly con­sumed by the West — all, of course, absorbed through Occi­den­tal senses, which meant the end results were more West­ern, with a tinge of East­ern influ­ence, than gen­uine East­ern art.

For instance, Long’s story “Madame But­ter­fly,” and Belasco’s play, tell us much more, today, about the Amer­i­can cul­ture that pro­duced them, than they do about actual life in Japan. In both, But­ter­fly her­self is a car­i­ca­ture. For one thing, she speaks a pigeon Eng­lish, and in the Long story often behaves like an ill-mannered child:

 

Cio-Cio-San dropped the baby with a reck­less thud, and sprang at Suzuki again. She gripped her throat viciously, then flung her, laugh­ing, aside.

‘Speak con­cern­ing mar­riage once more, an’ you die. An’ tha’ ’s ’nother thing. You got know at his United States Amer­ica, if one is marry one got stay marry…oh, for aever an’ aever! Yaes! Nob’y can­not git him­self divorce, aexep’ in a large cour­t­house an’ jail.’ ”

 

Pinker­ton him­self scarcely comes off any bet­ter. His view of But­ter­fly is reflected in a song he used to sing her, which she, in turn, sings to her son: “Rog-a-by, bebby, off in Japan / You jus’ a pic­ture off of a fan.” And when his Amer­i­can wife meets But­ter­fly she com­ments, “How very charm­ing, how lovely you are, dear! Will you let me kiss me, you pretty…play­thing!” Long con­tin­ues, “Cho-Cho-San stared at her with round eyes, as chil­dren do when afraid. Then her nos­trils quiv­ered and her lids slowly closed.” Which sums up the But­ter­fly of Long’s short story and Belasco’s play — a child unable (or unwill­ing) to deal with real­ity, and for whom we’re to weep while, of course, under­stand­ing that Pinker­ton can­not truly marry her; he must marry an Amer­i­can wife and, after all, the all-American cou­ple are tak­ing the son of Pinkerk­ton and But­ter­fly to raise in the U.S. where, of course, he will be bet­ter off.

John Luther Long

At first Puc­cini and his libret­tists, Giuseppe Gia­cosa and Luigi Illica, planned their opera to be in three acts, with the first and third acts tak­ing place in Butterfly’s house and the sec­ond at the Amer­i­can Con­sulate. The scene at the Con­sulate is only found in Long’s story and it is a tear­jerker of major pro­por­tions. It is there that But­ter­fly acci­den­tally dis­cov­ers Pinker­ton is mar­ried when his Amer­i­can wife barges into the room and asks to send a telegram to her hus­band (whose ship is at sea). She has, she says, seen “the baby” and wants to take him home to Amer­ica, though she hasn’t yet spo­ken to the mother (whom she has no idea is sit­ting in the room). When “the blonde woman” leaves, But­ter­fly sadly gives the con­sul the two dol­lars she has left from the money Pinker­ton had given her three years before, and asks that the con­sul return the money to Pinker­ton and thank him for the hap­pi­ness he has given her. “ ‘Goon night,’ said Cho-Cho-San, and at the door look­ing back, ‘Say­onara,’ and another tired smile. She stag­gered a lit­tle as she went out.”

Such a scene would seem to be tai­lor made for Puc­cini, but the com­poser real­ized that But­ter­fly, both the char­ac­ter as he saw her, and his opera, would be bet­ter served by hav­ing all the action take place around Butterfly’s home. “If you only knew how I am rack­ing my brains!” Puc­cini wrote his pub­lisher, Giulio Ricordi, at one point. “The work to be done is not great, but it is essen­tial to bind the whole story together with a closer logic than there is in the Belasco play.”

Rather than demean But­ter­fly by giv­ing her the Ital­ian equiv­a­lent of pigeon Eng­lish, her speech is gram­mat­i­cal. Her ini­tial naiveté and inno­cence is pro­vided by her reac­tion to things, and some­times by her music. For instance, for her entrance in Act I as she and her atten­dants arrive on top of the hill, the accom­pa­ny­ing orches­tra (marked piano and pianis­simo) is col­ored with the use of bells and harp (del­i­cate sound­ing instru­ments), the three-part soprano cho­rus is often writ­ten in thirds, and there is a sense of spa­cious­ness and won­der to the music. But­ter­fly is given the option at the end of her entrance music to float a high D-flat, which gives a mar­velous float­ing effect if the soprano can do it with a sense of ease.

Puc­cini

Puccini’s hero­ine, though still 15 years old, is not the help­less vic­tim found in Long and Belasco. She’s a truly tragic fig­ure who matures as the opera pro­gresses, as Edward Berke­ley, direc­tor of the Aspen Opera Cen­ter, points out.

She’s a rebel­lious teenager, fight­ing the world she is from, rebelling against her own reli­gion and fam­ily,” he points out.  “So going through with this whole mar­riage to Pinker­ton is a renun­ci­a­tion of fam­ily and reli­gion. She’s really doing it as much to escape her own world as any­thing. He makes com­plete sense for her. Unfor­tu­nately, the guy she chooses is not capa­ble of the kind of com­mit­ment she needs.”

One way But­ter­fly chooses a com­pletely dif­fer­ent way of life in the opera (but not in the story or play) is by going to the Chris­t­ian mis­sion and con­vert­ing, some­thing she tells Pinker­ton she did secretly the day before their mar­riage.  It’s also the act that pre­cip­i­tates her family’s renun­ci­a­tion of her when her priest-uncle, the Bonze, exposes her action dur­ing the wed­ding. Through­out the opera But­ter­fly repeat­edly empha­sizes her “Amer­i­caness” in a vari­ety of ways.  She inevitably cor­rects any­one who addresses her as Madama But­ter­fly, by insist­ing on “Madame Pinker­ton.” When her suitor, Prince Yamadori and the mar­riage bro­ker, Goro, tell her that under Japan­ese law she’s free to marry since she has been aban­doned, she replies that under Amer­i­can law divorce is not so easy and she is an Amer­i­can wife. She wel­comes the U.S. con­sul Sharp­less to “an Amer­i­can home.”

There are peo­ple who see But­ter­fly as a cheap vic­tim (among them was Puccini’s own pub­lished, Giulio Ricordi who saw the opera as a facile tear-jerker, unwor­thy of Puccini’s tal­ents.) For them, it is ridicu­lous that she does not marry the wealthy Prince Yamadori. But as Berke­ley points out, “Going with Yamadori would be an com­plete admis­sion of her fail­ure in her new life. To her, it would mean she accepts being trapped for­ever in the life she was try­ing to escape.” Bet­ter to fol­low her father’s exam­ple, as the words engraved on his sword say: “He dies with honor who can­not live with honor.”

And Puc­cini did, in fact, give her an hon­or­able death. In Long’s story she sur­vives the sui­cide attempt, and “When Mrs. Pinker­ton called the next day at the lit­tle house in Higashi Hill it was quite empty.” In Belasco’s play, But­ter­fly has the last words, remind­ing Pinker­ton of his promise to return to her when the robins make their nest:

 

LIEUTENANT PINKERTON. (Dis­cern­ing what she has done)  Oh! Cho-Cho–                                    San! (He draws her to him with the baby pressed to her heart. She waves the child’s hand which holds the flag — say­ing faintly.)

MADAME BUTTERFLY. Too bad those robins did n’ nes’ again. (She dies.)

 

In the opera her final words are to her child — “Go and play.” Every­thing after that is pan­tomime until Pinkerton’s off­stage cries of “But­ter­fly! But­ter­fly! But­ter­fly!” the clos­ing words of the opera. Which is not to imply that Puc­cini and his libret­tists did not go all out to work on the audience’s feel­ings. They do. When Puc­cini wrote But­ter­fly he had devel­oped greatly as a com­poser, and his expanded skill at orches­tra­tion, and in com­po­si­tion, allowed him a vari­ety of sub­tler touches in cre­at­ing his char­ac­ters, telling their story, and depict­ing their emo­tions. But he was still an Ital­ian oper­atic com­poser, and he used his remark­able skills to go right for the audience’s hearts.

Rosina Stor­chio

He was at the height of his pop­u­lar­ity and con­fi­dent of suc­cess when But­ter­fly pre­miered at La Scala on Feb­ru­ary 17, 1904. That morn­ing he wrote the famous soprano, Rosina Stor­chio, who would cre­ate But­ter­fly, “My good wishes are super­flu­ous! So true, so del­i­cate, so mov­ing is your great art that the pub­lic must suc­cumb to it! And I hope that tonight through you I am speed­ing to vic­tory! Tonight then — with sure con­fi­dence and much affection.”

The per­for­mance was a fiasco. Accord­ing to reports, the audi­ence took excep­tion to the music of Butterfly’s entrance (think­ing it had been used on Bohème), and things went down­hill from then. Much of the sec­ond act was inaudi­ble through the cat­calls, whis­tles, and deri­sive com­ments from the audi­ence, though the aria “Un bel di” was greeted with utter silence. Puc­cini with­drew the score after the per­for­mance (it was the only time La Scala gave But­ter­fly dur­ing the composer’s life­time) and set to work on revi­sions. The new ver­sion was given in Bres­cia three months later and was a suc­cess, though Puc­cini con­tin­ued tin­ker­ing with the opera for some time.

It was first given at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera in Feb­ru­ary 1907. Puc­cini him­self super­vised the rehearsals and David Belasco attended them, as well. With the ritzy cast of Geral­dine Far­rar (who had sung the role in Berlin), Enrico Caruso, Louise Homer, and Anto­nio Scotti, it was a tri­umph. Far­rar would even­tu­ally sing But­ter­fly 139 times at the Met, far more often any any­one else. Puc­cini didn’t think much of her in the part. “It was a per­for­mance with­out poetry,” he wrote to Tito Ricordi, his friend and his publisher’s son. “Far­rar is not too sat­is­fac­tory. She sings out of tune, forces her voice, and it does not carry well in the large space of the theater….However, it went well, on the whole, and the press is unan­i­mous in its praise.”

And so it has been even since, with But­ter­fly rival­ing Puccini’s La Bohème and Tosca for the hearts of the public.

 

THE REAL MADAME BUTTERFLY

In his book, Madame But­ter­fly, Japon­isme, Puc­cini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San, Jan van Rij inves­ti­gates the account Jen­nie Cor­rell told her brother, John Luther Long, which served the basis for his short story, “Madame Butterfly.”

In involved three Scot­tish broth­ers, Thomas, Alex, and Alfred Glover who lived in Nagasaki about 1870. One of them (Alex, prob­a­bly) was involved with a woman named Kaga Make, who worked as an enter­tainer under the name Cho-san, Miss But­ter­fly. She became preg­nant and gave birth to a son on Decem­ber 8, 1870. When the father aban­doned her and her son, the father’s brother, Thomas, and his com­mon law Japan­ese wife, adopted the boy and changed his name to Tomis­aburo. Tom Glover, as he was known, was well edu­cated, study­ing at pres­ti­gious Japan­ese schools and at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia in Philadel­phia (biol­ogy and nat­ural history).

Kaga Make mar­ried a Japan­ese man in 1877 and moved away. She divorced him in 1888 and moved back to Nagasaki, where she died in 1906.

Her son, Tom, mar­ried a Japan­ese woman whose father was a British mer­chant. They had no chil­dren. His wife died of tuber­cu­lo­sis in 1943 and, shortly after Japan sur­ren­dered in 1945, Tom Glover, the orig­i­nal “Trou­ble,” com­mit­ted suicide.

 

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the 2007 Aspen Opera The­ater pro­gram.

The photo at the top of the arti­cle shows Geral­dine Far­rar as Cio-Cio-San. She was the Met’s first But­ter­fly and sang the role 139 times with the com­pany, far more than any­one else in Met his­tory. The photo is auto­graphed to Dorothy Kirsten in 1946, the year she sang the first of her 68 per­for­mances of Madama But­ter­fly at the Met. The role was the one both Far­rar and Kirsten sang most often with the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera.

 

ARENSKY — Trio No. 1 in D Minor for Violin, Cello, and Piano, Opus 32

250px-Arensky_Anton_Postcard-1910

Read more...

 

Though the name Anton Stepanovich Aren­sky (1861 – 1906) is not very well known today, he was an inte­gral part of the Russ­ian musi­cal world of his day. He stud­ied com­po­si­tion with Rimsky-Korsakov at the Saint Peters­burg Con­ser­va­tory and, imme­di­ately upon grad­u­a­tion (with a gold medal), joined the fac­ulty of the Moscow Con­ser­va­tory, where his pupils included such famous future com­posers as Alexan­der Scri­abin, Rein­hold Glière, and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

The undis­ci­plined Scri­abin incurred Arensky’s wrath on a num­ber of occa­sions and finally walked out of his com­po­si­tion class with­out pass­ing the final exam. Rach­mani­noff, on the other hand, did so well he was allowed to grad­u­ate a year early, and it was to Aren­sky that he ded­i­cated his Opus 3 piano pieces, Morceaux de fan­tasie, which include his most famous work, the Pre­lude in C-sharp minor.

Tchaikovsky admired Arensky’s music, writ­ing to a friend in 1890 that the com­poser was “a man of remark­able gifts, but mor­bidly ner­vous and lack­ing in firm­ness — alto­gether a strange man.” On more than one occa­sion Tchaikovsky let the younger com­poser know what he thought of a piece of music, even if he had not been asked. In the autumn of 1885 he wrote Aren­sky, “Par­don me if I force my advice upon you. I have heard that 5/4 time appears twice in your new Suite. It seems to me that the mania for 5/4 time threat­ens to become a habit with you. I like it well enough if it is indis­pens­able to the musi­cal idea, [but in this instance] your basso osti­nato should be writ­ten in ¾ or 6/4 time, but not in 5/4.”

The fol­low­ing year Tchaikovsky wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov, ask­ing that com­poser to replace one of Tchaikovsky’s own pieces in an upcom­ing con­certo with a work of Arensky’s. “I have a favor to ask,” Tchaikovsky wrote. “Aren­sky is now quite recov­ered, though I find him some­what depressed and agi­tated. I like him so much and wish you would some­times take an inter­est in him, for, as regards music, he ven­er­ates you more than any­one else. He needs stir­ring up; and such an impulse given my you would count for so much with him, because he loves and respects you.”

All his life Aren­sky was some­thing of a loner. He had prob­lems with alco­hol and gam­bling, and these even­tu­ally caused a per­ma­nent break with Rimsky-Korsakov. His health under­mined by his way of life, Aren­sky died of tuber­cu­lo­sis. On learn­ing of his death, Rimsky-Korsakov remarked, “The man burned him­self out, but he did not lack talent.”

Arensky’s Trio No. I for Vio­lin, Cello, and Piano is one of his most suc­cess­ful works. It was awarded the Glinka Prize (500 rubles) and was writ­ten in mem­ory of the great vir­tu­oso cel­list Karl Davi­dov. The Trio is in four move­ments — none of which are in the 5/4 time Tchaikovsky warned against overus­ing. The first move­ment, Alle­gro mod­er­ato, opens with a lyric theme admirably suited for the vio­lin and cello, a good exam­ple of Arensky’s abil­ity to com­pose won­der­ful melodies and which made his numer­ous songs so appeal­ing. The remark­able, imp­ish sec­ond move­ment is a scherzo. Its play­ful, puck-like open­ing and clos­ing, with its stac­cato and pizzi­cato tex­ture, is a splen­did con­trast to the movement’s more lyric cen­tral sec­tion, which seems almost like an affec­tion­ate par­ody of a pop­u­lar waltz tune. The pen­sive, melan­cholic third move­ment is labeled Ele­gia. A dra­matic alle­gro finale in ¾ time brings the Trio to a sat­is­fy­ing end,

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

 

 

Richard Danielpour — FEAST OF FOOLS, A Concertino for Bassoon and String Quartet

KEY ART Danielpour

Read more...

 

I – Largo e calmo (The Jester Pon­ders the Mean­ing of Life)

II – Vivace gio­coso (The Jester Learns A New Dance)

III – Ada­gio mis­te­rioso (The Jester’s Cohorts Save Him from The Dun­geon of the Ice Princess)

IV – Con moto, ben mis­urato (The Jester and Com­pany Charm and Tame The Great Serpent)

 

Amer­i­can com­poser Richard Danielpour (born 1956, in New York City), is one of a new gen­er­a­tion of com­posers who delights in writ­ing music that is acces­si­ble for an audi­ence, while still hav­ing sub­stance. “Part of the great joy in writ­ing music is because you’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing not just to peo­ple who like to hear nice sounds, but you’re deal­ing with human psy­ches as well,” he explains. “You’re not just deal­ing with ears, you’re deal­ing with ears and hearts and minds when you’re putting across music as a com­poser.  It doesn’t mat­ter if you’re writ­ing an opera, or a con­certino for bas­soon and string quar­tet that deals with the bas­soon as a kind of arche­typal char­ac­ter of a jester or a fool.”

Danielpour’s com­po­si­tions range from cham­ber music and song cycles to con­cer­tos, sym­phonies and bal­let. The San Fran­cisco Sym­phony com­mis­sioned his Sec­ond Sym­phony (“Visions,”) and his Cello Con­certo that was pre­miered by Yo-Yo Ma. Danielpour also wrote Song of Remem­brance for the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony Youth Orches­tra.  In addi­tion to com­pos­ing for the world’s major orches­tras and soloists, Danielpour teaches com­po­si­tion at both the Cur­tis Insti­tute and Man­hat­tan School of Music.  This fall he plans to being work on his first opera, to a libretto by Toni Mor­ri­son, though he is quick to point out, “I’ve been an opera com­poser in dis­guise all these years.”

An exam­ple of that is Feast of Fools, not only because the titles of the indi­vid­ual move­ments sug­gest a story line, but also because the way he writes for the solo bas­soon could be com­pared to the way some of the great bel canto opera com­posers, such as Bellini, wrote for the human voice. “That’s a great com­ple­ment,” he says. “Com­posers like Bellini — and Chopin — are sort of overtly beau­ti­ful on the sur­face, but then you dis­cover there is a lot beneath the sur­face, in terms of the way things are put together. We’re liv­ing in an age where, in the same vein, it’s often con­sid­ered that if you’re not cyn­i­cal, you’re not smart. I think that some­times car­ries over musi­cally, that if the music isn’t ugly, it’s not intel­li­gent. The great­est exam­ple of this, of course, is Mozart. This is the sim­plest music on the sur­face, and in some ways, it’s the most com­plex music beneath the surface.”

Feast of Fools was com­mis­sioned by bas­soon­ist Stephen Walt who pre­miered the work in August, 1998 with the Muir String Quar­tet (today’s con­cert will be the work’s West Coast Pre­mier.) When Danielpour received the com­mis­sion he remem­bered that, as a very young child, he had con­fused the words “bas­soon” and “buf­foon,” and the piece began to take shape after he had a dream about a jester. The piece is ded­i­cated “To the Jester.”

The char­ac­ter of the fool or the jester is some­thing I’ve always been very inter­ested in,” the com­poser says, “because the fool, in medieval his­tory and in folk­lore, is the one who is allowed to speak the truth with­out being pun­ished for it. A lit­tle bit like artists at var­i­ous times and places. ”

Danielpour asked the titles of the indi­vid­ual move­ments be printed at the end of the move­ment, rather than the begin­ning (“not unlike the Debussy pre­ludes”) because “It’s impor­tant that you hear the piece for what it is, but there’s also a lit­tle dra­matic idea attached to it.  I wanted there to be an ele­ment of fan­tasy and play­ful­ness that per­vades the piece, not unlike The Magic Flute. This one is a com­edy, not a tragedy. I hope there is a child-like qual­ity to the piece, with­out it being childish.”

The work is in four move­ments, but varies the tra­di­tional order, with the first and third move­ments being slower, more con­tem­pla­tive, and the sec­ond and fourth move­ments being much more extro­verted. Through­out, the bas­soon rep­re­sents the jester.

In the first move­ment, I wanted those open­ing can­nons to have the feel­ing of some­thing for­mal, in a sort of late Renais­sance, early Baroque tra­di­tion, that would invoke com­me­dia dell’arte,” Danielpour explains.  “In the sec­ond move­ment, with all the pizzi­cato strings, I remem­ber hav­ing the image as I was writ­ing it of the scene in Magic Flute where Papageno has his magic bells to ward off Mono­statos, that feel­ing of cre­at­ing a pleas­ant spell with light­hearted magic. For the third move­ment, I was think­ing very much of the equiv­a­lent of a pas­tel water­color, rather than some­thing that would be in oils. It would be in a softer kind of veiled hue. And in the last move­ment I was think­ing of a cer­tain kind of Mid­dle East­ern music that might fla­vor it.”

The last move­ment begins with a ris­ing melodic line in the strings that is remark­ably sim­i­lar to their pizzi­cato open­ing of the sec­ond move­ment. Given the move­ments’ indi­vid­ual titles, does the musi­cal sim­i­lar­ity sug­gest per­haps that the Jester takes the new dance he learns in the sec­ond move­ment and uses it to charm and tame the great ser­pent? “Absolutely,” Danielpour says. “In a way, what the Jester is doing in the last move­ment is thumb­ing his nose at death, because death has no power over him.”  And the third movement’s Dun­geon of the Ice Princess? “Any indi­vid­ual, or arche­type in mythol­ogy, has an Achilles’ heel. The jester’s great weak­ness is the beau­ti­ful princess, the temptress. It’s another arche­type in the shad­ows of that movement.

If I could talk to the audi­ence before a per­for­mance, I would prob­a­bly say that this music is, in some ways, a reac­tion to all the overtly seri­ous, overtly ugly music I’ve heard in the last 20 years. Yes, life is seri­ous. Yes, there’s a lot of dark­ness in the world, but if you only see the dark­ness, if you miss the light­ness, then you’re not really see­ing it all. It’s a bal­ance. This work in par­tic­u­lar, as well as a num­ber of oth­ers I’ve writ­ten, includ­ing the Vio­lin Con­certo, is a response to all the ugly music. It’s my way of say­ing, ‘Enough, already!’ ”

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

 

 

Brahms — Trio in A minor, Op. 114 for Piano, Clarinet, and Cello

z00051swsd9

Read more...

 

When Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) com­pleted his String Quin­tet in G major, opus 111, in the sum­mer of 1890, he thought he had fin­ished his work as a com­poser. A firm believer that one should not write music unless truly inspired, Brahms was feel­ing exhausted as a com­poser and quite happy with his new quin­tet, which he decided was the per­fect way to end his long career. He also felt he deserved to take things easy.  A recent trip to Italy had been vir­tu­ally per­fect, as he exclaimed in let­ters to his friend Clara Schu­mann, and Brahms was look­ing for­ward to more vacations.

In the fall of 1890, Brahms began set­ting his affairs in order, which led, a few months later, to writ­ing his will. (Among its pro­vi­sions was one leav­ing the Gesellschaft der Musik­fre­unde his valu­able col­lec­tion of orig­i­nal man­u­scripts. These included the full scores of Mozart’s Sym­phony in G minor, Haydn’s Sun Quar­tets, var­i­ous sketches by Beethoven and Schu­bert as well as the close of the con­cert ver­sion of Wagner’s Pre­lude to Tris­tan und Isolde.)

But within a few months Brahms was newly inspired to return to com­po­si­tion, thanks to a visit to the ducal Court of Meinin­gen in March 1891. The Meinin­gen Orches­tra was con­sid­ered one of the finest in Europe, and on March 17th, Brahms enthu­si­as­ti­cally wrote to Clara Schu­mann about a per­for­mance of Weber’s “very fine F minor Con­certo for clar­inet. It is impos­si­ble to play the clar­inet bet­ter than Herr Mühlfeld does.”

It was thanks to Richard Mühlfeld’s play­ing that Brahms com­posed his Opus 114 Trio in A minor for Piano, Clar­inet and Cello, as well as his Opus 115 Quin­tet for Clar­inet, two Vio­lins, Viola and Cello, and his last piece of cham­ber music, the Opus 120 Two Sonatas for Clar­inet and Piano.

A few months after Brahms first heard Mühlfeld play, the com­poser explained to Clara Schu­mann why he was look­ing for­ward to a return trip to Meinin­gen to hear pri­vate per­for­mances of his newly writ­ten clar­inet trio and quin­tet. “If only for the plea­sure of hear­ing these (his Opus 114 and 115) I am look­ing for­ward to Meinin­gen. You have never heard such a clar­inet player as they have there in Mühlfeld. He is absolutely the best I know. At all events this art has, for var­i­ous rea­sons, dete­ri­o­rated very much. The clar­inet play­ers in Vienna and many other places are quite fairly good in orches­tra, but solo they give one no real pleasure.”

Brahms became per­son­ally fond of Mühlfeld, refer­ring to him as “my dear nightin­gale” (because of the unusu­ally sweet tone with which Mühlfeld played) and “Fräulein Klar­inette.” One week before Brahms died, he had lunch for the last time out­side his home — with Richard Mühlfeld and a few other close friends.

The pub­lic world pre­mier of the Clar­inet Trio (and the Clar­inet Quin­tet) was given in Berlin on Decem­ber 12, 1891, to an extremely enthu­si­as­tic audi­ence, which included the painter Adolf Men­zel. Mühlfeld’s play­ing so com­pletely cap­ti­vated Men­zel that he sketched the clar­inetist as a Greek god and sent the draw­ing to Brahms with the words, “We con­fess our sus­pi­cions that on a cer­tain night the Muse itself appeared in per­son (dis­guised in the evening dress of the Meinin­gen Court) for the pur­pose of exe­cut­ing a cer­tain wood­wind part. On this page I have tried to cap­ture the sub­lime vision.”

The inti­mate, decep­tively simple-sounding Clar­inet Trio is in four move­ments, marked Alle­gro, Ada­gio, Andante grazioso, and Alle­gro. Not sur­pris­ingly, the wist­ful, some­what melan­choly tim­bre of the clar­inet per­me­ates the entire piece with the cello and piano parts also often hav­ing an autum­nal color to them. Some crit­ics unfairly have char­ac­ter­ized the Trio as being a bit aus­tere. It would per­haps be more accu­rate to describe the emo­tions as being held close to the vest, rather than being grandly expan­sive. But this very inti­macy leads to won­der­ful byplay between the instru­ments, as if they are old friends com­plet­ing each other’s musi­cal thoughts. A friend of Brahms, Euse­bius Mandy­czewski, per­haps summed it up best when he remarked, “It is as though the instru­ments were in love with each other.”

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

 

 

 

 

Carlisle Floyd on Being a Librettist

Carlisle Floyd

Read more...

 

Quick — who wrote the words to Verdi’s La Travi­ata? To Donizetti’s Lucia? To Puccini’s Tosca? “Libret­tists have always been the num­ber two man, and the lion’s share of the atten­tion is always going to go to the com­poser,” says Carlisle Floyd. And Floyd is in an espe­cially author­i­ta­tive posi­tion to talk about the mat­ter since he is not only a pop­u­lar Amer­i­can com­poser, but he is also his own librettist.

A com­poser writ­ing his own libretto is an extremely rare event in the world of opera. Richard Wag­ner always did it (and accord­ing to some peo­ple did him­self no great ser­vice in the process). But far more fre­quently the process of cre­at­ing an opera is a col­lab­o­ra­tion between a per­son in charge of the music and one in charge of the words. ”Writ­ing a libretto is an under­ap­pre­ci­ated art and it shouldn’t be, because it’s extremely dif­fi­cult,” explains Floyd. “Every­thing really starts with the libretto — and in a sense, ends with it.

Com­pres­sion is the soul of the libretto writer; that’s your over­rid­ing con­cern. I think we’re all star­tled when we see the size of the libretto com­pared with the length of the opera. It’s amaz­ing what you can do without!”

When Floyd was first work­ing on Of Mice and Men, he included a scene that he later cut, though not with­out first doing a lot of soul search­ing. “I had made a whole scene in the whore house and cre­ated a big role for the madam. It worked very well as a scene, but it really wasn’t nec­es­sary to tell the story. When it was sug­gested the opera could do with­out the scene, of course, I protested vehe­mently,” he recalls with a laugh. “But you just can’t squirm away from the fact that if it’s not nec­es­sary to tell the story, then it best be left undone. It’s a case of the brain and the heart bat­tling each other. It’s a bru­tal busi­ness, sometimes.”

It can also be a bru­tal busi­ness to read the let­ters com­posers send their libret­tists, try­ing to get exactly the right words for a char­ac­ter to sing, or the right pac­ing for a scene. In fact Verdi once threat­ened to emas­cu­late a libret­tist unless the man gave the com­poser what he wanted.

I remem­ber Dou­glas Moore [com­poser of The Bal­lad of Baby Doe] say­ing to me, ‘Carlisle, I really envy you, you never have to quar­rel with your libret­tist.’ Basi­cally that’s right, but where Carlisle Floyd the com­poser quar­rels with Carlisle Floyd the libret­tist is when I haven’t pro­vided enough text, and musi­cally it requires more words. The prob­lem is that I’m very, very care­ful at being as pre­cise as pos­si­ble when I’m writ­ing the libretto, in the choice of words, and inter­nal rhythm — all those things. But when I have to stop writ­ing music to come up with more text, I’m always exas­per­ated with myself and I’m not nearly as selec­tive about the text I choose at that point as I am when I’m writ­ing the libretto to begin with. I’m much less hard on myself at that point, because I want to get back to the music.

Peo­ple are always amazed that I don’t write music when I’m writ­ing words,” Floyd con­tin­ues. “I’m not even hear­ing any music. But if you stopped me at any given place I would prob­a­bly be able to tell you what the color of the music would be. But at the same time, I know what I have to sup­ply myself with as a composer.”

Writ­ing his own libretto “just seemed like a nat­ural thing to do” when the 21-year-old com­poser decided to under­take his first opera, Slow Dusk. Part of the rea­son was that he had excelled in cre­ative writ­ing in col­lege, so words were hardly a for­eign means of expres­sion for him. “I adapted a short story of mine that I’d writ­ten in a cre­ative writ­ing sem­i­nar, so writ­ing the libretto just didn’t seem that big a stretch to me. Maybe it should have,” he adds with a laugh. “I got a lot of com­men­da­tion and encour­age­ment so there was noth­ing to deter me, I sup­pose, from writ­ing my own libretto again.”

So what it is about a sub­ject that makes Carlisle Floyd the libret­tist sit up and take notice? “It’s two things: rich char­ac­ters and very dra­matic sit­u­a­tions or inci­dents. Cri­sis is the nat­ural habi­tat of opera. It’s not day-to-day events, it’s extra­or­di­nary events. If a novel or a play doesn’t seem to have those, you’re prob­a­bly bet­ter off leav­ing it alone. I remem­ber some­one say­ing that opera was the nat­ural habi­tat for feel­ing, for emo­tion. That’s absolutely right.

There are a lot of things you can do in a play, a lot of sub­ject mat­ter you can treat, that I don’t think are appro­pri­ate for opera at all. Any­thing that has to do with philo­soph­i­cal, intel­lec­tual dis­putes you just can’t do on the opera stage. Any­thing that’s highly inter­nal­ized or requires a great deal of ver­biage unac­com­pa­nied by action you can’t do.”

Through­out his long career, Floyd has writ­ten orig­i­nal libret­tos and has also cre­ated libret­tos based on lit­er­ary mas­ter­pieces such a John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Emily Bronte’s Wuther­ing Heights, and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. Per­haps sur­pris­ingly, he says deal­ing with another author’s work is often eas­ier than fash­ion­ing a libretto from his own. “Using an exist­ing work, you never lose your objec­tiv­ity. There’s an emo­tional dis­tance built into that, whereas doing your own work dri­ves you mad, because you can’t be quite as emo­tion­ally detached from it.”

And how does Floyd the libret­tist decide where to put an aria, or a musi­cal ensem­ble for Floyd the com­poser to write? “Well, the dif­fi­cult thing is get­ting to it, because you just can’t do it arbi­trar­ily,” he explains. “Some­one once said that in opera seria the recita­tive loads the gun and the aria fires it. Load­ing the gun is the prob­lem so that fir­ing the gun seems absolutely nat­ural. You have to look through the mate­r­ial and find those scenes where there are pos­si­ble mono­logues or solil­o­quies, moments of lyric expan­sion. You’ve got to have an emo­tional crys­tal­liza­tion at that time, so you can afford to take the time [for the aria].

The point is that as a libret­tist the com­poser part of you is always breath­ing down your neck. You’re always ask­ing, is this too talky, is the action car­ry­ing the sto­ry­line? The for­ward move­ment must con­tinue. Good cur­tains don’t just arrive; they have to be built to. You’re always work­ing with struc­ture and shape in a libretto. Then the music and the libretto become prop­erly wed­ded. You can’t impose a musi­cal struc­ture on a libretto — or vice versa.”

But when there’s a dis­agree­ment between Carlisle Floyd the libret­tist and Carlisle Floyd the com­poser — who wins? “The com­poser, always,” he says with a laugh. “He’s a real tyrant!”

This arti­cle first appeared in the Hous­ton Grand Opera Play­bill.

Photo of Carlisle Floyd by Jim Caldwell.

 

 

Leoš Janáček — THE CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN

Räv vid Revhusen - juli 2012.

Read more...

It is star­tling to real­ize that Leoš Janáček’s enchant­ing yet pro­found opera, The Cun­ning Lit­tle Vixen, had its ori­gin in what was close to being a news­pa­per car­toon strip.

From April through June, 1920, Brno’s pop­u­lar lib­eral daily, Lidové noviny, pub­lished the illus­trated story of a clever vixen con­stantly out­wit­ting a forester. The 200 or so sketches had been drawn by the painter Stanislav Lolek (1873 – 1936) who had been appren­ticed as a forester before turn­ing to art. One of the paper’s edi­tors saw the sketches and assigned Rudolf Těs­nohlídek (1882 – 1928), the Lidové noviny’s law reporter, to come up with some text to accom­pany the illustrations.

The printer mis­took Těsnohlídek’s orig­i­nal title, “Liška Bystronožka” (Vixen Fleet­foot) for “Liška Bystroužka” (Vixen Sharp-Ears”) — and so she has been ever since. Janáček’s title for his opera is Adven­tures of the Vixen Bystroušky (Příhody Lišky Bystroušky). When Max Brod trans­lated the opera into Ger­man, the title became Das schlaue Füch­slein or The Cun­ning Lit­tle Vixen—the title by which the opera is known almost every­where out­side of Janáček’s homeland.

The dif­fer­ence in the word­ing of the title is not mere pedantry. As Michael Ewans has pointed out in Janáček’s Tragic Operas, the Ger­man and Eng­lish trans­lated titles “are sadly symp­to­matic: the West has shown too lit­tle abil­ity to inter­pret an opera whose vision is as far from Dis­ney as it is from the clumsy sym­bol­ism of Max Brod’s ‘arrange­ment for the Ger­man stage.’ Janáček’s ani­mals are not patron­ized or sen­ti­men­tal­ized by the attri­bu­tion of human fea­tures: human singers and dancers, tak­ing on the masks and skins of insect, bird or ani­mal, find them­selves for the dura­tion of this opera mem­bers of an order nobler, by its deep humor and its sim­ple, amoral enjoy­ment of life, than that of human­ity. The par­tic­u­lar moments where ani­mals assume the man­ners of men sat­i­rize human rather than ani­mal behav­ior; no ani­mal is por­trayed iron­i­cally, except the dog and hens who have suc­cumbed self-righteously to exploita­tion by mankind.”

This unsen­ti­men­tal view of the opera is shared by Edward Berke­ley, direc­tor of Aspen Opera The­ater Cen­ter. “In our pro­duc­tion, the sense of char­ac­ter, in terms of ani­mals, is going to be strong, but it def­i­nitely is going to go away from ‘cute.’ The period will be the 1920’s or ’30s with a Euro­pean fla­vor. It will be call­ing back to a time of aware­ness of the earth and the val­ues of the earth, a kind of re-finding one­self in nature.”

Through­out all the adven­tures the Vixen has dur­ing the course of the opera, there is a strong under­ly­ing theme of the rela­tion­ship between humans and the world of nature. Janáček empha­sized this part of the work — as well as the cycli­cal nature of renewal found in life itself — by the changes he made in Těsnohlídek’s orig­i­nal version.

Těsnohlídek’s story was largely devoted to the numer­ous adven­tures of Vixen Sharp-Ears, cul­mi­nat­ing in her mar­riage to the Fox. Janáček, how­ever, used this end­ing to the orig­i­nal story as the finale to Act Two of his opera. For Act Three, the com­poser used a few inci­dents from ear­lier in Těsnohlídek’s story, pri­mar­ily the inci­dent with Harašta the poacher — but with a major dif­fer­ence. In Janáček’s ver­sion, the poacher kills the Vixen, which com­pletely changes the nature of the work. How­ever, the pro­fun­dity of Janáček’s ver­sion is sealed by not end­ing the opera with Sharp-Ear’s death (which would be merely sen­ti­men­tal), but by the last two scenes of the opera which are Janáček’s invention.

The almost painful nos­tal­gia of the scene at the Inn where the School­mas­ter real­izes his beloved Theresa has mar­ried another man, and the Forester announces the Vixen has left her bur­row and dis­ap­peared, gives way to the aston­ish­ing trans­for­ma­tion scene with which the opera ends.  The Forester enters the for­est with his gun, as he did at the begin­ning of the opera. But this time — because of his rela­tion­ship with the Vixen, and because he has been open to learn from her — he sees Nature in all its beauty, and it renews him. He val­ues not only the mush­room he picks, but every­thing he sees. Unlike the mem­o­ries he has of his wed­ding day in the open­ing scene (“I feel as tired as I did on my wed­ding night. The next day I was dead to the world” — an obvi­ous metaphor to his being dead to the world of nature in which he found him­self) this time — as he rev­els in the splen­dor of nature all around him — he remem­bers the pas­sion of the love they had felt and the all con­sum­ing kisses they had shared.  As in the open­ing scene, the Forester falls asleep, and this time meets the descen­dants of the Vixen and the Frog from Act One.

In an mar­velous touch, the huge dra­matic arch the Forester has trav­eled since we first met him is deftly con­veyed by Janáček’s last stage direc­tion in the piece, the last words in the score: “Absent­mind­edly, the Forester lets his gun slip to the ground.”  He no longer needs it. He is at peace with Nature.

When Max Brod wanted Janáček to write some final words for the Forester “in which he could sink into rumi­na­tion,” the com­poser adamantly refused. “In the final scene the Forester’s gun sim­ply slips from his hand,” he insisted. “Noth­ing more; let every­one work out for him­self what he will.”

Vixen is a life-giving piece,” Berke­ley explains. “That sense of renewal — that we don’t loose the past, but we grow by accept­ing it. By accept­ing the Vixen’s death, and then look­ing into the future, the shape of the opera says that death is a nat­ural part of things, and from that sense of renewal we can learn and grow.

The work is a para­ble about what we should appre­ci­ate and learn from nature and the nat­ural cycle — and about male/female rela­tion­ship in gen­eral.”  Berke­ley agrees with the critic who said the Vixen is the embod­i­ment of unre­strained fem­i­nin­ity. “The growth of the piece is toward her own dis­cov­ery of that — and the Forester dis­cov­er­ing that. The scene with the Fox, at the end of Act Two, is where it all comes out. That’s a glo­ri­ous moment!”

Aside from a few moments, such as the humor­ous polit­i­cal harangue the Vixen gives the Hens in Act One, there are com­par­a­tively few words in the opera’s libretto. It is the music, by far, through which Janáček sub­tly con­veys the shift­ing rela­tion­ships. “The musi­cal insight lav­ished on the depic­tion of each suc­ces­sive stage of [the Vixen’s] life is intended to have deep mean­ing for us,” writes Ewans. “Human beings, like vix­ens, are born, grow, marry and die; those seen in the opera live lives poor in com­par­i­son with Bystrouška’s — except for the Forester, whose road to wis­dom is care­fully charted, and on whose clos­ing vision Janáček lav­ished some of his most inspired music.… Janáček illu­mi­nates for us the cycles of life and nature; and at the same time he shows us arche­types of the moral­ity of the humans who can­not accept those cycles — and the road by which one human even­tu­ally can.”

The orches­tral inter­ludes and mimes/dances were inte­gral parts of Janáček’s vision of the story from the very begin­ning, and he resisted all well-meaning sug­ges­tions to add con­ven­tional arias so the ani­mals could “explain” things.

The Vixen is a for­est idyll; only a hint should sur­face of our cycle and that of ani­mal life,” he wrote to his pub­lisher. “That is enough — it is true that for most this sym­bol­ism is too lit­tle. The Vixen can only eat rab­bits, not romances and arias.”

I’m hop­ing the audi­ence will come away from the per­for­mances really lov­ing the music,” says Berke­ley. “That sounds like such a cliché, but for me the piece is such a rev­e­la­tion of Janáček’s incred­i­ble musi­cal style that is really a unique voice. It’s an impor­tant voice. It’s roman­tic, it’s very beau­ti­ful, and here it’s con­vey­ing a quite seri­ous vision of nature, and the impor­tance of nature in our lives.  As we destroy the envi­ron­ment, we should be learn­ing how to restore our­selves the way nature does, and renew our­selves, rather than destroy­ing each other and destroy­ing nature.”

 

Janáček and Animals

Janáček loved ani­mals and the fam­ily always had numer­ous pets: dogs, pigeons, a gold finch — and three hens.  Marie Ste­jskalová, the Janáček’s ser­vant for over 40 years, remem­bered, “Janáček talked to the hens as to chil­dren, they looked at him, answered some­thing and he under­stood. In the evening, when he sat down in the gar­den in his arm­chair to read the paper, he rapped on the table, like a school­mas­ter at school. The hens came run­ning at once, jumped up [onto the table] and kept him company.”

Dur­ing the sum­mer of 1922, while he was work­ing on The Cun­ning Lit­tle Vixen, Janáček and some friends went into the for­est near Huk­valdy to observe a fam­ily of foxes. The game­keeper, J. D. Sládek, later wrote, “We reached Babí hora [Old Woman Moun­tain], and indeed, as if to order, the vixen’s fam­ily emerged from the den and began to show off and frisk about. Janáček started twitch­ing with excite­ment until in the end he fright­ened the foxes away.

‘Why couldn’t you keep still, Dr. Janáček? You could have gone on looking?’

Janáček, com­pletely exhil­a­rated and happy, just brushed this aside. ‘I saw her! I saw her!’

 

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the Aspen Opera The­ater pro­gram, 2005.

The photo at the top of the arti­cle is by Jonn Leffmann.

The draw­ings in the arti­cle are Stanislav Lolek’s of “Vixen Fleetfoot.”

 

 

 

 

Poulenc — Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano

CombetFranceB474Poulenc2-23-74YT1785-1

Read more...

 

Fran­cis Jean Mar­cel Poulenc (1899 – 1963) had an upbring­ing that could hardly have been more for­tu­nate, given his even­tual career. He was born in Paris to a wealthy fam­ily of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal man­u­fac­tur­ers. The arts were an impor­tant part of the Poulenc house­hold, and the young boy’s inter­est in them was encour­aged, espe­cially by his mother, her­self a pianist of some tal­ent. At the age of five, Poulenc began piano lessons with her. She steered him to the music of Mozart, Chopin, Scar­latti, and Couperin and later fos­tered his explo­rations of com­posers such a Debussy, Ravel, and Stravin­sky. She also firmly resisted all attempts to force her son into the rigid, scholas­tic edu­ca­tion of the day. From her brother, Poulenc’s Uncle Papoum, young Fran­cis devel­oped a life­long delight in Parisian the­ater and café life in all its forms.

At six­teen, Poulenc began study­ing with Ricardo Viñes, a pianist who often per­formed the works of his friends Ravel and Debussy and who was a staunch sup­porter of avant-garde music. It was through Viñes that Poulenc met Erik Satie, who would be a great influ­ence on him. While still a teenager, Poulenc met Auric, Honeg­ger, and Mil­haud, and to them he ded­i­cated his first pub­lished com­po­si­tion, Rap­sodie négre. Writ­ten in 1917 and revised in 1933 Rap­sodie négre made it clear, once and for all, that Poulenc and the French musi­cal estab­lish­ment of the time were unsuited to each other. The direc­tor of the Paris Con­ser­va­tory told the eighteen-year-old com­poser, “Your music stinks, it is noth­ing but a load of balls. Are you try­ing to make a fool of me? Ah, I see you have joined the gang of Stravin­sky, Satie and com­pany. Well then, I’ll say goodbye.”

Though Poulenc briefly stud­ied with Ravel, Charles Koech­lin was the one who gave the young man the ground­ing he needed in order for his pro­found musi­cal indi­vid­u­al­ity to blos­som con­fi­dently. Today, the indi­vid­u­al­ity of his music has made Poulenc the dom­i­nant mem­ber of Les Six, a com­poser whose stature seems to grow with time. While he was alive, how­ever, Poulenc’s works were often treated dis­mis­sively, lead­ing the com­poser to remark to a friend that though he was “not intox­i­cated with the idea of being a Grand Musi­cian, it nonethe­less exas­per­ates me to be thought of by so many peo­ple as noth­ing more than a ‘petit maître éro­tique’.” His col­league Igor Stravin­sky thought oth­er­wise: “You are truly good, and that is what I find again and again and again in your music.”

The wit, ebul­lience, and Gal­lic charm that mis­tak­enly led peo­ple to under­value Poulenc’s music — as well as the superb crafts­man­ship which Stravin­sky and other com­posers so admired — are fully present in Poulenc’s Trio for Oboe, Bas­soon, and Piano. Writ­ten in Cannes in 1926 and ded­i­cated to Manuel de Falla, the Trio reflects the composer’s own con­sid­er­able abil­i­ties as a pianist (he often per­formed in con­cert and toured sev­eral times with the bari­tone Pierre Bernac and later with soprano Denise Duval) and his love of wind instruments.

The Trio is in three move­ments. The first (marked Presto) begins with a sixteen-measure intro­duc­tion, slow — one might almost say por­ten­tous — and com­pletely oppo­site to the play­ful qual­ity of the rest of this move­ment, which one writer has called “rococo crossed with Offen­bachian opéra bouffe.”  The more lyric sec­ond move­ment (Andante) demon­strates fully the composer’s aston­ish­ing melodic gifts, cou­pled with his abil­ity to use sub­tle har­monic shifts to alter the emo­tional color of the music. The last move­ment (Rondo) is a rol­lick­ing mod­ern ver­sion of the baroque French gigue, mod­i­fied by Poulenc’s own sen­si­bil­i­ties. The entire work is delight­ful, potent, and sec.

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

 

 

WAGNER’S LOHENGRIN — A BEL CANTO WORK IN DISGUISE?

KEY ART

Read more...

 

[Adelina] Patti con­tin­ued her new depar­ture into Wag­n­er­land by singing Elisabeth’s prayer from Tannhäuser,” wrote George Bernard Shaw on July 18, 1894. “Now, if I express some skep­ti­cism as to whether Patti cares a snap of her fin­gers for Elis­a­beth or Wag­ner, I may, after all these years of ‘Una voce’ and ‘Bel rag­gio,’ very well be par­doned. But it is beyond all doubt that Patti cares most intensely for the beauty of her own voice and the per­fec­tion of her singing. What is the result? She attacks the prayer with the sin­gle aim of mak­ing it sound as beau­ti­ful as pos­si­ble; and this being pre­cisely what Wagner’s own musi­cal aim was, she goes straight to the right phras­ing, the right vocal touch, and the right turn of every musi­cal fig­ure, thus mak­ing her Ger­man rivals not only appear in com­par­i­son clumsy as singers, but actu­ally obtuse to Wagner’s meaning.

If Patti were to return to the stage and play Isolde, though she might very pos­si­bly stop the drama half a dozen times in each act to acknowl­edge applause and work in an encore…the pub­lic might learn a good deal about Isolde from her which they will never learn from any of the illus­tri­ous band of Ger­man Wag­ner hero­ines who are queens at Bayreuth, but who can­not sing a grup­petto for all that.”

George Bernard Shaw

Shaw, who knew a great deal about the art of singing and spent much of his tenure as music critic bul­ly­ing the best singers of his day into adding Wag­ner to their reper­tory, ends with a cou­ple of sen­tences that should be posted above the desk of every­one respon­si­ble for cast­ing opera today: “Wag­ner means his music to be sung with the most exquis­ite sen­si­tive­ness in point of qual­ity of tone and pre­ci­sion of pitch, exactly as Mozart did…I am really tired of going to the the­ater to hear the best music asso­ci­ated with the worst singing, and the best singing in the worst music.”

Unfor­tu­nately for most opera singers — to say noth­ing of audi­ences — Wag­ner him­self often sab­o­taged the per­for­mance of his works with “exquis­ite qual­ity of tone” by mak­ing sheer sur­vival a pre­em­i­nent con­sid­er­a­tion in some of his best-known roles. If a singer is wor­ried pri­mar­ily about just get­ting out the notes, being heard above a roar­ing orches­tra, and mak­ing it to the end of the evening, vocal nuance and qual­ity of tone are likely to be jet­ti­soned early on, in the inter­est of stay­ing afloat through a per­for­mance of Brünnhilde, Siegfried, Isolde, or Tris­tan. It is pos­si­ble to sing Wagner’s heav­i­est roles beau­ti­fully and still be heard, but how often does God send along a Kirsten Flagstad?

In Lohen­grin, Wag­ner wrote an entire opera for human-size singers. To bor­row an anal­ogy from the world of sports: if Amina in La Son­nam­bula and many of her bel canto cousins can be com­pared to a hundred-yard sprinter, and Siegfried or Tris­tan to an Olympic weight lifter, then Lohen­grin might be an ice skater, who needs sta­mina and phys­i­cal strength, but also grace and poise, as well as the abil­ity to main­tain a fluid, long line. In Lohen­grin, Wag­ner wrote roles that make their great­est effect, not through sheer lung power but with the abil­ity to infuse a beau­ti­ful vocal line with all the nuances and yes, charm, a singer would use to bring to life an opera by Bellini or Donizetti. This in the process of con­struct­ing an opera made up of arias, ensem­bles, cho­ruses and finales, which — when prop­erly per­formed — send shiv­ers of delight down the spines of bel canto fans.

Wag­ner him­self was thor­oughly famil­iar with bel canto opera. As a young con­duc­tor he had pre­pared and led count­less per­for­mances of the reper­tory. While con­duct­ing in Riga, he even went so far as to doc­tor up a per­for­mance of Bellini’s Norma by writ­ing an addi­tional aria for bass and male cho­rus, “Norma, il pre­desse.” (Dur­ing his early years in Paris, Wag­ner tried to talk the great bass Luigi Lablache into adding the aria to his por­trayal of Oroveso, but this idea was turned down on the grounds that Norma was too well known by the pub­lic to insert extra music.) In Paris, Wag­ner often heard the great singers of his time, such as the tenor Gio­vanni Bat­tista Rubini, and the per­for­mances left an indeli­ble impres­sion on the young composer.

R[ichard] sings a can­tilena from I Puri­tani and remarks that Bellini wrote melodies love­lier than one’s dreams,” Cosima Wag­ner wrote in her diary on August 3, 1872. “The melody recalls Rubini to him, how won­der­fully he sang it, and he observes: ‘Our Ger­man singers have to go about it in an entirely dif­fer­ent way, because they have not got this gift.’ ” In March 1878, Wag­ner enter­tained guests by play­ing parts of Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Mon­tec­chi, La Straniera, and Norma. “There is real pas­sion and feel­ing here, and the right singer has only to get up and sing it for it to win all hearts,” Cosima quotes her hus­band as say­ing, “I have learned things from them which Messrs. Brahms & Co. have never learned, and they can be seen in my melodies.”

Indeed they can. Take Elsa’s entrance aria, “Ein­sam in trüben Tagen.” Like many bel canto entrance arias (Lucrezia Borgia’s “Com’è bello,” for instance), on paper it looks sim­ple, but to make its effect, it must be not only beau­ti­fully sung but mined for every emo­tional and musi­cal nuance, a dif­fi­cult feat. Oth­er­wise the aria falls flat.

In the best bel canto tra­di­tion, Wag­ner uses the vocal line itself to describe Elsa’s char­ac­ter. Her pure, trust­ing nature and lack of worldly expe­ri­ence is reflected in her rather nar­row vocal range: only from E-flat above mid­dle C to A-flat at the top of the staff, a note she sings only twice dur­ing the entire aria. Yet her sim­ple vocal line is stud­ded with grace notes — begin­ning in the very first mea­sure — and Wag­ner con­structed the aria to pro­vide numer­ous oppor­tu­ni­ties for por­ta­mento, and for a soprano to color phrases by using crescendo and dimin­u­endo, as well as by tak­ing sub­tle lib­er­ties with the rhythm, to vary their shape.

Rosa Pon­selle

A prime exam­ple of a singer doing exactly what needs to be done to bring the aria to life is to be found at the end of Rosa Ponselle’s 1923 record­ing. Though Pon­selle never sang the role onstage, she recorded the aria in Ger­man and, on the basis of this excerpt, could have been a superb Elsa. In the last phrase, “was ich bin!,” Pon­selle lingers on the E-flat at the top of the staff (“was”), then slowly reduces its vol­ume, before using a por­ta­mento down to the G (“ich”) and gen­tly lean­ing into and caress­ing the last note (“bin”). With just these three notes, there can be no doubt that Elsa is already in love with her cham­pion, even though he has not yet appeared. It is superb drama, con­veyed solely through the voice.

Ortrud too gains con­sid­er­able power when she approaches her phras­ing from a bel canto stand­point, rather than being con­tent merely to be a vocal blow­torch. Lis­ten­ing to Lohen­grin excerpts per­formed by the Vienna State Opera dur­ing a visit to Paris in 1933 (Vol­ume 16 of the Vienna State Opera Live series from Koch/Schwann), I was stunned by Gertrude Rünger’s great Act II out­burst, “Entweite Göt­ter!” Where many Ortruds sim­ply bel­low the F-sharps at “Wodan!” and “Freia!” in mono­chro­matic fash­ion, leav­ing the depic­tion of the drama to the orches­tra, Rünger hits the cli­mac­tic notes cleanly, exactly on pitch, ele­gantly. (Remem­ber, Ortrud is a noble­woman, and her fam­ily ruled the coun­try for gen­er­a­tions before the upstart Chris­tians took over.) Rünger then bor­rows from Wagner’s dynamic mark­ing for the tim­pani, mak­ing grad­ual crescen­dos on both of the F-sharps. This gives her per­for­mance an astound­ing sense of power in reserve. Just by her vocal inflec­tion on those two notes, Rünger lets us know her Ortrud still has plenty of tricks up her sleeve.

In the operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, the singer’s voice was supreme. The orches­tra was used to sup­port and frame the voice, never to com­pete with it, a method Wag­ner incor­po­rated in Lohen­grin to a sur­pris­ing degree. Of course, it is Wag­ner, so the Lohen­grin orches­tra is an impor­tant part of the drama. But even a cur­sory glance at the score shows a con­sid­er­able amount of a cap­pella singing, which Wag­ner uses to great dra­matic purpose.

Take Lohengrin’s entrance. After being her­alded by a rous­ing eight-part cho­rus and for­tis­simo orches­tra, Lohengrin’s first phrase is sung — a cap­pella. In fact, most of his farewell to the swan is unac­com­pa­nied; what dis­creet orches­tral color Wag­ner uses is marked pianis­simo and is sup­posed to dimin­u­endo fur­ther from that pianis­simo. Clearly Wag­ner meant to use Lohengrin’s first thir­teen mea­sures to seduce the audi­ence by purely vocal means, by the way the tenor shapes his phrases, by the ele­gance and grace with which he sings Wagner’s embellishments.

Another exam­ple of Wagner’s use of a cap­pella singing appears at the begin­ning of the Act I finale, shortly before Lohen­grin and Tel­ra­mund fight their duel. Here, Wag­ner had the audac­ity to write an a cap­pella quin­tet! As if it were not tough enough for the singers to stay squarely on pitch, Wag­ner makes it even tougher: Ortrud, who has been stand­ing around ever since the cur­tain went up (about fifty min­utes before), finally sings for the first time all evening — a cap­pella. When Wag­ner brings in the first male cho­rus, then the orches­tra, the effect is noth­ing short of hair-raising.

But then, Wag­ner also clearly under­stood the won­der­ful bel canto tra­di­tion of the two-part oper­atic finale, that mass­ing onstage of cho­rus and prin­ci­pals, all of whom give voice to their (sep­a­rate) feel­ings at that moment, first in slow tempo, then much more quickly. One of the tricks bel canto com­posers used to build excite­ment dur­ing the finale was to give one or two of the prin­ci­pal singers a long, flow­ing melody that would float ecsta­t­i­cally above the pul­sat­ing rhythm of the cho­rus, orches­tra, and chop­pier vocal lines of the other soloists. Donizetti used the device to great effect time after time — at the end of Act II of Lucia di Lam­mer­moor, for instance.

Wag­ner fol­lows this exam­ple at the end of Act I, dur­ing the gen­eral rejoic­ing that fol­lows Lohengrin’s defeat of Tel­ra­mund. He gives Elsa a broad vocal line (even embell­ish­ing her music at one point with a turn) that effec­tively dom­i­nates the oth­er­wise intensely rhyth­mic finale. In per­fect Bellini or Donizetti fash­ion, Wag­ner keeps stretch­ing the length of Elsa’s phrases, finally ask­ing her to stretch one word, “Alles,” for seven and a half mea­sures as she holds a high B-flat for four of the mea­sures, then moves step­wise (still singing the first syl­la­ble of  “Alles”) down to C. It’s all about beau­ti­ful singing, and an Elsa in radi­ant voice, cou­pled with the right con­duc­tor, can bring down the house every time.

Per­haps it is in the bridal-chamber scene of Act III that Wag­ner wrote Lohen­grin’s most heart­felt music. The inti­macy he wrote of the duet for Elsa and Lohen­grin, “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt,” calls for the purest bel canto singing from the tenor and soprano. For the duet to make its max­i­mum effect, both singers must use the same sense of rubato that Maria Callas did in her 1949 record­ing of “Qui la voce.” It is the sub­tle speed­ing up or the slight hes­i­ta­tion a mas­ter singer uses that truly brings the melody to life.

Franz Völker as Lohengrin

There are two record­ings of “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt” that illus­trate this vividly, both based on the deservedly leg­endary 1936 Bayreuth per­for­mances of Lohen­grin with Franz Völker and Maria Müller. The com­mer­cial record­ing (on Teldec CD) is con­ducted by Heinz Tiet­jen, and the sound is more than good, But to be really swept away by the power of Wag­ner at his bel canto best, lis­ten to the thirty min­utes worth of excerpts from the live July 19, 1936 Bayreuth per­for­mance (avail­able on var­i­ous labels). Under the mag­i­cal baton of Wil­helm Furtwän­gler, Völker and Müller sim­ply are Lohen­grin and Elsa, over­whelm­ingly in love. Their music pul­sates with emo­tion: the vocal lines have a truth and life that are almost unthink­able today. The care­fully con­trolled, dreamy qual­ity of the per­for­mance reminds us pow­er­fully that once upon a time the Ger­mans were viewed as a roman­tic peo­ple, not a bru­tal, mil­i­taris­tic soci­ety. Lis­ten­ing to Völker and Müller sing “Das süsse Lied ver­hallt,” one can eas­ily under­stand why tenors like Enrico Caruso, even Fer­nando De Lucia, would chose to sing the part of Lohen­grin — in Ital­ian, of course. (Though Caruso never recorded any of the arias, De Lucia recorded an Ital­ian ver­sion of “Mein lieber Schwan.”) One can also under­stand how Jean de Reszke could, and did, suc­cess­fully alter­nate per­for­mances of Lohen­grin and Faust, or Lohen­grin and Roméo et Juli­ette, at the old Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House.

And lis­ten­ing to the ebb and flow of the melodic line as glo­ri­ously spun out by Furtwän­gler, Völker, and Müller, one is also reminded of the sheer power a melody can have — and how often in Lohen­grin Wag­ner made his dra­matic and emo­tional points by com­pos­ing some of the most beau­ti­ful bel canto music ever written.

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the March 14, 1998 issue of Opera News magazine.

 The art at the top is The Arrival of Lohen­grin in Antwerp, a mural by August von Heckel (1882 – 83).

 

W. A. Mozart — Quintet in D Major for Strings, K. 593

Mozart, mature

Read more...

 

Wolf­gang Amadè Mozart (1756 – 91) was an invet­er­ate player of cham­ber music. Today, with 20/20 hind­sight, we might assume that such an august musi­cal genius would grav­i­tate to the first vio­lin parts when he played string quar­tets with his friends. But in fact Mozart much pre­ferred to play the viola on such occa­sions. He loved the instru­ment, with its warm, mel­low tim­bre, and he seems thor­oughly to have enjoyed being at the cen­ter of the music, rather than play­ing one of the more imme­di­ately notice­able outer voices.

By the time Mozart fin­ished writ­ing his first string quin­tet, in Decem­ber 1773, the seventeen-year-old had already com­posed fif­teen string quar­tets. It is pos­si­ble that Mozart decided to try his hand at the more unusual five-instrument form because Michael Haydn, younger brother of the com­poser Franz Joseph Haydn and a good friend of the Mozart fam­ily, had writ­ten what he called a “Not­turno” for two vio­lins, two vio­las, and cello in Feb­ru­ary 1773. This must have been suc­cess­ful, because the younger Haydn soon fol­lowed it up with a sec­ond quin­tet, and in Mozart’s let­ters from that year he speaks of play­ing both works.

Oddly, Franz Joseph Haydn, who wrote so much cham­ber music and whom Mozart revered, never wrote a string quin­tet. When asked why, he is said to have replied that no one ever com­mis­sioned one from him. A great excep­tion to the usual quin­tet instru­men­ta­tion of two vio­lins, two vio­las, and one cello is Schubert’s sin­gle string quin­tet, D.956 in C major, where the cello is dou­bled rather than the viola.

Though Mozart wrote far more string quar­tets (twenty-three) than quin­tets (six), he obvi­ously had a great per­sonal affec­tion for the five-voice form. Two string quin­tets com­prise the last cham­ber works he wrote: K. 593 in D major, com­pleted in Decem­ber 1790, and K. 641 in E-flat major, which he fin­ished on April 12, 1791. Both works were writ­ten on com­mis­sion, though exactly who com­mis­sioned them remains a mystery.

A cou­ple of years after Mozart’s death the quin­tets were pub­lished with the note: “Com­posed for a Hun­gar­ian Ama­teur.” Since Mozart’s wife, long after the fact, said her hus­band had writ­ten some music for Johann Trost (a vio­lin­ist from Eszter­háza and a musi­cian to whom Haydn had ded­i­cated some of his quar­tets), some writ­ers have spec­u­lated that Trost was the “Hun­gar­ian Ama­teur” in ques­tion. We know that, before Haydn left Vienna on Decem­ber 15, 1790 for the first of his two vis­its to Lon­don, he joined Mozart in play­ing the younger man’s quin­tets, espe­cially (accord­ing to Max­i­m­il­ian Stadler, a friend of Mozart’s and one of the other string play­ers) the new Quin­tet in D major. Stadler added that, dur­ing these cham­ber music ses­sions, Haydn and Mozart took turns play­ing first viola.

Mozart’s D major String Quin­tet is in four move­ments. The first, one of the most unusual first move­ments in all of Mozart, begins with a twenty-one-measure Larghetto intro­duc­tion in ¾ time. This is — sur­pris­ingly — brought back in a slightly mod­i­fied form at the end of the movement’s main, duple-meter Alle­gro sec­tion. The first move­ment is then fin­ished off, rather abruptly, by an eight-measure restate­ment of the movement’s prin­ci­pal theme.

The Ada­gio is one of Mozart’s most beau­ti­ful lyric cre­ations, with the indi­vid­ual instru­ments jux­ta­posed with enor­mous skill. In the Menuetto, the com­poser makes dra­matic use of sud­den shifts in the dynam­ics, ask­ing the play­ers to go from forte to piano within one or two beats. The Alle­gro finale is in 6/8 time. The delight­ful, bounc­ing open­ing theme gives no hint of the aston­ish­ing polyphony that Mozart will employ before fin­ish­ing the Quintet.

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

 

The Devil Gets His Due

delacroix_mephisto

Read more...

The world of opera is gen­er­ously pop­u­lated by an assort­ment of unsa­vory, even nasty and some­times down­right evil char­ac­ters, some of whom employ magic and the super­nat­ural in their quest of wreak­ing havoc on the unsus­pect­ing. But even though opera as a genre does not flinch from explor­ing The Dark Side of life, there are remark­ably few operas in which the Devil him­self actu­ally appears onstage. Two of them — Gounod’s Faust and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress—enter the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera’s reper­toire this spring, offer­ing audi­ences the oppor­tu­nity to pon­der what would seem to be a conun­drum, Why is it that the attain­ment of our heart’s deep­est desire is only pos­si­ble by enter­ing a pact with the Devil which, inevitably, leads to our eter­nal damna­tion? Why does it seem that behind every delight and plea­sure, ret­ri­bu­tion lurks in one form or another?

Faust pre­miered in 1859 and quickly became so extra­or­di­nar­ily pop­u­lar as to almost be ubiq­ui­tous, even inau­gu­rat­ing the old Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House on Octo­ber 22. 1883. For sev­eral decades audi­ences could not get enough of watch­ing the aged philoso­pher Faust sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for a sec­ond chance at youth and the oppor­tu­nity to expe­ri­ence the bliss of desire. (In Goethe’s orig­i­nal, more pro­found telling of the story, Faust bar­gains not specif­i­cally for youth and young love but says,  “If to the moment I should say:/Abide, you are so fair – /Put me in fet­ters on that day,/I wish to per­ish then, I swear.” Per­haps Gounod’s libret­tists felt their audi­ence could more eas­ily relate to the desire for a sec­ond chance of youth and romance than to the more amor­phous quest for the sin­gle per­fect moment.)

A dev­il­ish Mar­cel Journet

The opera might be called Faust but the juici­est role is Méphistophélès who, sum­moned by Faust, makes his appear­ance to five for­tis­simo chords played by the entire orches­tra. “I am here. Is that so sur­pris­ing?” Méphistophélès asks the aston­ished Faust. “Does my appear­ance dis­please you?” And imme­di­ately the orches­tra begins giv­ing us clues about what kind of guy this par­tic­u­lar Devil is. His first ques­tions are all fol­lowed by four soft, quick notes from the flutes, bas­soons and fourth horn, accom­pa­nied by two eighth notes by the strings. The music is play­ful, ele­gant, slightly mock­ing, the essence of a man very much in con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion and thor­oughly enjoy­ing it.

It is true that Faust takes the ini­tia­tive by sum­mon­ing Méphistophélès, and it is Faust who asks what the price will be for the Devil work­ing his super­nat­ural pow­ers on the philosopher’s behalf. He does not go blindly into the deal with Satan, he knows exactly what the price will be before he signs away his soul. He is fully aware of the con­se­quences and even hes­i­tates at the cru­cial moment — Méphistophélès has to sum­mon a vision of Mar­guerite to nudge, or entice, Faust into the final step. But once Méphistophélès steps on stage, he dom­i­nates the action and delights in it, while seduc­ing us into enjoy­ing his delight.

Pol Plançon

There are basses who have tried to make Gounod’s Méphistophélès a car­i­ca­ture of loath­some evil, the vocal equiv­a­lent of the Bible’s descrip­tion of the Devil in I Peter 5:8 as being “like a roar­ing lion, [who] walketh about, seek­ing whom he may devour.” But how many peo­ple would will­ingly hang around a roar­ing lion set on devour­ing them? Far more entic­ing is the Apos­tle Paul’s ver­sion in II Corinthi­ans: “Satan him­self is trans­formed into an angle of light,” which is much closer to Gounod’s Devil. An “amal­gam of debonair grace and cyn­i­cal men­ace,” is the way critic Paul Jack­son summed up the role, and lis­ten­ing to record­ings of great Méphistophélès like bass Pol Plançon (who sang the role 85 times at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan between 1893 and 1908) one can under­stand why every­one is so taken in by the guy. A critic for The New York Times describes Plançon’s Méphistophélès as “a boule­vardier,” a man about town, the kind of guy Faust, actu­ally, would like to be in his sec­ond youth, which is why he leans on the Devil for help, advice and instruc­tions when it comes to woo­ing Marguerite.

This iden­ti­fi­ca­tion between the Devil and his vic­tim is even more closely drawn in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, which pre­miered in 1951, almost a cen­tury after Gounod’s Faust. In the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury opera there is no magic potion, no overt sum­mon­ing of the Devil. Tom Rakewell merely says, “I wish I had money,” and instantly a stranger appears and informs the young man he has been left a for­tune by an uncle Rakewell never knew. Per­haps it is Rakewell’s unthink­ing youth which blinds him to the true iden­tity this mes­sen­ger, but Stravinsky’s libret­tists W. H. Auden and Chester Kall­man give man the name “Nick Shadow,” which leaves no doubt in the minds of the audi­ence as to the man’s iden­tity: “Old Nick” being one of the Devil’s many names, and “Shadow” being the dark side of every human being.

Those unpleas­ant and immoral aspects of our selves which we would like to pre­tend do not exist or have no effect on our lives — our infe­ri­or­i­ties, our unac­cept­able impulses, our shame­ful actions and wishes — this shad­owy side of our per­son­al­ity is dif­fi­cult and painful to admit,” writes Rob Hopcke in A Guided Tour of The Col­lected Works of  C. G. Jung.

The shadow is, in truth, a dev­il­ish form,” observes June Singer in Bound­aries of the Soul, “and just when you think you know who he is, he changes his dis­guise and appears from another direction.”

Igor Stravin­sky

Tom Rakewell, who has no desire to work for a liv­ing and plans to rely on the favor of For­tune, only has to express as wish and his shadow, Nick Shadow, grants it. Every wish appears, as if by magic, just by the wish­ing itself. But none of the wishes last, and Tom ends up dying insane in Bedlam.

Per­haps one of the rea­sons our delights fade, and some­times have unpleas­ant con­se­quences, is to be found in the root of the word itself. “Delight” comes from the same root as “to snare” or “to bind,” and is closely related to “a noose.” Our delights can hang us, and we do it to our­selves by remain­ing uncon­scious of the roots of our desires, even if we blame it all on the Devil.

In the first scene of  The Rake’s Progress, Nick Shadow thanks Rakewell for tak­ing him on as guide and says, “for mas­ter­less should I abide/Too long, I soon would die.” What a con­cept, that the Devil needs us or he dies? In the Epi­logue, Shadow explains, “Day in, day out, poor Shadow/Must do as he is bidden.”

Nick Shadow needs Tom Rakewell as much as Rakewell needs Shadow for the ful­fill­ment of his wishes. Méphistophélès needs Faust as much as Faust needs him. What a para­dox. Or is it?

If I can stay with my con­flict­ing impulses long enough, the two oppos­ing forces will teach each other some­thing and pro­duce an insight that serves them both,” notes Robert A. John­son in Own­ing Your Own Shadow. “This is not com­pro­mise but a depth of under­stand­ing that puts my life in per­spec­tive and allows me to know with cer­tainty what I should do. That cer­tainty is one of the most pre­cious qual­i­ties known to humankind.”

This arti­cle appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, March 2003.

The paint­ing at the top of the arti­cle is Eugene Delacroix’s “Faust and Mephistophe­les,” 1826 – 27.