Articles by Paul Thomason

Giovanni Hoffman — Serenade for Viola and Mandolin




Gio­vanni Hoff­man is one of the mys­tery men of music. Grove Dic­tio­nary includes no entry for him, nor does Baker’s Bio­graph­i­cal Dic­tio­nary or the Oxford Con­cise Dic­tio­nary of Music. Even his name is enig­matic. An obvi­ously Ital­ian given name is cou­pled to a Ger­manic fam­ily name, per­haps indi­cat­ing that he, like many musi­cians of the eigh­teenth cen­tury, moved to Italy at some point and changed his name, hop­ing to find poten­tial patrons for whom “music” meant “Ital­ian music.”

Howard Kadis, a Bay Area man­dolin­ist who has per­formed with the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony, has unearthed a few snip­pets of infor­ma­tion from liner notes for var­i­ous record­ings. “He was by birth Milanese,” says one of these anno­ta­tions. But Kadis also adds that Gerber’s Dic­tio­nary of Musi­cians, pub­lished in 1812 or 1814, lists Gio­vanni Hoff­man as “an obscure con­tem­po­rary musi­cian, likely from Vienna, and a vir­tu­oso on the man­dolin.” Kadis has also dis­cov­ered a ref­er­ence from a musi­cal lex­i­con by one Her­mann Mendell: “Hoff­man was a vir­tu­oso on the man­dolin and wrote var­i­ous com­po­si­tions for man­dolin and assorted accom­pa­ni­ments pub­lished in Vienna about 1799. Not much remains of his work except a con­certo for man­dolin and orches­tra and var­i­ous works for man­dolin and strings, along with three sonatas for unfig­ured bass.”

That era, late Mozart/early Beethoven, was rife with man­dolin­ists,” Kadis points out. “A lot of Ital­ian musi­cians of that time, gui­tarists and man­dolin­ists, moved to Vienna. Hum­mel wrote for the man­dolin, so did Mozart and Beethoven.” Could Hoff­man have been an Ital­ian who moved to Vienna and adopted a Ger­man surname?

A mem­ber of the lute fam­ily, the man­dolin seems to have appeared in Naples around the mid­dle of the sev­en­teenth. The ori­gin of the term “man­dolin,” sug­gests Grove, is some­what obscure. “It is not entirely clear whether the name derivers pri­mar­ily from the word ‘man­dola’ or from the wide­spread use of ‘man’ (or vari­ants such as ‘ban,’ ‘pan,’ ‘tan,’ etc.) as the first syl­la­ble in names of lute instru­ments from the East and West.”

The orig­i­nal Neapoli­tan man­dolin quickly became pop­u­lar in Italy, and as the instru­ment trav­eled north, vari­a­tions began to appear, named after the cities in which instru­ment mak­ers refined the Neapoli­tan orig­i­nal to their own tastes. The Roman man­dolin (which had a more rounded neck and a higher bridge than its Neapoli­tan cousin) appeared, fol­lowed by the Flo­ren­tine (with its smaller body and longer neck), and finally the Milanese or Lom­bar­dian man­dolin, which fea­tured an almond-shaped, more elon­gated body and a less deeply con­vex back. Other coun­tries, too, quickly adapted the man­dolin to local tastes. In the eigh­teenth cen­tury, France, Por­tu­gal, and Spain all had their own ver­sions of the instrument.

Com­posers of West­ern art music have often used the instru­ment for color. Mozart included it in Act II of his opera Don Gio­vanni, where the Don is to accom­pany his pop­u­lar ser­e­nade “Deh vieni alla fines­tra,” on the man­dolin. Verdi uses it to accom­pany a cho­rus in his opera Otello. Mahler seems to have been quite fond of the mandolin’s sound, using it in both his Sev­enth and Eighth Sym­phonies as well as in Das Lied von der Erde. Even Stravin­sky (in Agon) and Schoen­berg (in his Vari­a­tions for Orches­tra and Opus 24 Ser­e­nade) have writ­ten for it.

There is a rea­son Gio­vanni Hoffman’s Ser­e­nade for man­dolin and viola isn’t played a lot, and that’s because it’s so hard for the man­dolin,” says man­dolin­ist Ben Brus­sell, who is fea­tured in the work this after­noon. “In all of the man­dolin lit­er­a­ture, there’s noth­ing that I have come across that is a hard to play as this Ser­e­nade. It makes the Vivaldi con­cer­tos look like child’s play.”

Though no one seems to know for sure exactly when the piece was writ­ten, the score of the Ser­e­nade indi­cates that it was com­posed “circa 1800.” Which means it was writ­ten for an instru­ment slightly dif­fer­ent from a mod­ern man­dolin, which is shaped some­what dif­fer­ently and, accord­ing to Brus­sell, holds the pitch more securely and projects the sound better.

I’ve had to make a few adap­ta­tions to the Ser­e­nade to make it playable,” Brus­sell says. “My sup­po­si­tion is that the first move­ment and the last move­ment were in sketch form. The three inner move­ments are more like cham­ber music, with the viola and man­dolin parts being pretty much equal. Whereas the two outer move­ments are more like viola accom­pa­ni­ments and man­dolin etudes, as opposed to real cham­ber music.

I’ve had to do a bit of work — adding a cou­ple mea­sures here, delet­ing a cou­ple there, to make it fit well on a mod­ern man­dolin. Music of that era, roughly Mozart’s period, often look decep­tively sim­ple. In this piece, for instance, Hoff­man will some­times ask the man­dolin to play a run. Then, rather then notat­ing a full chord, as a mod­ern com­poser would, he asks the man­dolin to play an octave and a fifth, which is quite awk­ward to play and sounds off to mod­ern ears. So I’ve had to fill in some of the voic­ings to make the work ‘sound’ on a mod­ern instrument.”

Over the years, Leonid Gesin, the vio­list in today’s con­cert, has played Hoffman’s Ser­e­nade sev­eral times. “There are not many pieces writ­ten for man­dolin and viola,” he says with a laugh. “Almost nobody knows this music, but peo­ple like it when they hear it. It’s a beau­ti­ful piece.”

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

The paint­ing at the top of the arti­cle is “Girl with a Man­dolin” by Jules Joseph Lefeb­vre (1836 – 1911).






Mozart’s Die Enthührung aus dem Serail—The Abduc­tion from the Seraglio — was writ­ten dur­ing a par­tic­u­larly happy period in the composer’s life. In March 1781 he had been sum­moned to Vienna by his patron, the Arch­bishop of Salzburg, who was in res­i­dence for the cel­e­bra­tions sur­round­ing the acces­sion to the Haps­burg throne of Emperor Joseph II. Unfor­tu­nately, as a mem­ber of the Archbishop’s house­hold, Mozart was essen­tially a ser­vant, seated at the table below the valets but above the cooks, and had to ask per­mis­sion (which was often refused) to play con­certs to earn money on his own.

These insults were espe­cially galling, since in Munich, where his opera Idome­neo had been a suc­cess at its pre­mière only a few weeks before, Mozart had been accepted as an equal by the nobil­ity. Finally, the young com­poser had had enough. And on May 9 he asked for his release from the Archbishop’s ser­vice. He was refused, but the fol­low­ing month the com­poser was finally granted his free­dom (“with a kick on my arse…by order of our wor­thy Prince Arch­bishop,” Mozart reported).

Mozart about 1780

At the age of twenty-five, Mozart found him­self on his own, free to pur­sue his career as he saw fit. By all accounts he had landed in Vienna at just the right time. As Nicholas Till writes in Mozart and the Enlight­en­ment, “Under Joseph, for a few brief, fever­ish years, Vienna became the freest, most open, lib­eral and tol­er­ant city in Europe, guided by the pur­pose­ful vision and forth­right hand of the emperor him­self. Vienna also promised to become the seat of a renewed Ger­man cul­ture in which the­ater and opera played a cen­tral role.” In 1776 Joseph had suc­ceeded in estab­lish­ing a German-speaking National The­ater in Vienna, and two years later, a Ger­man opera.

Today’s opera-goers accept as a mat­ter of course the fact there are dif­fer­ent kinds of opera: Ital­ian opera, Ger­man opera, and French opera all sound dif­fer­ent from each oth­ers, yet all are an inte­gral part of the oper­atic world. When Mozart began writ­ing opera this was not the case. Opera pre­dom­i­nantly meant Ital­ian opera, and more often than not its hero was a cas­trato. Our idea of an unneutered male voice (whether tenor, bari­tone, or bass) being the hero of an opera was almost unheard of at the time. So when, in The Abduc­tion of the Seraglio, Mozart wrote the role of Bel­monte, the roman­tic lead­ing man, for a tenor, it was still a novel expe­ri­ence for his audience.

Only a few weeks after break­ing with the Arch­bishop, Mozart had been asked to write an opera — a Singspiel (lit­er­ally a song play, or a play with songs) — to a libretto by a pop­u­lar play­wright of the time, Got­tlieb Stephanie. The libretto was based on the play Bel­monte und Kon­staze by Christophe Friedrich Bret­zner. When Bret­zner dis­cov­ered his play had been used as the basis for an opera, he took out an adver­tise­ment in a Leipzig news­pa­per accus­ing Mozart of “abus­ing” the play and “solemnly protest­ing against this ille­gal inter­fer­ence.” Since copy­rights did not exist, there was lit­tle else Bret­zner could do, espe­cially since his play, appar­ently, was itself a close copy of an old Eng­lish pastiche.

At first Mozart and his libret­tist assumed their new work would be a part of the enter­tain­ment sur­round­ing the state visit of the Russ­ian Grand Duke Paul to Vienna in Sep­tem­ber 1781. (As things turned out, the opera was not pre­miered until July 16, 1782.)

Poster for the first performance

Mozart knew exactly what he wanted to do when he was writ­ing Abduc­tion: he wanted to write an opera that would please the Vien­nese pub­lic and place Mozart-the-opera-composer on equal foot­ing in their minds with Mozart-the-virtuoso-performer, this ensur­ing — among other things — finan­cial secu­rity and, pos­si­bly, even a court appoint­ment. “The Janis­sary cho­rus is all that can be desired,” he wrote his father. “That is, it is short, lively, and writ­ten to please the Vien­nese.” And to his sis­ter he con­fessed, “You know I am writ­ing an opera. Those parts which are already com­pleted have won extra­or­di­nary praise on all hands, for I know these people.”

Turk­ish” music was all the rage in Vienna at the time. Even though the army of the Turks had not threat­ened Vienna for a cen­tury, in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, the Turks (which stood for all of Islam) were still seen as “the enemy.”

Inter­est in Turk­ish music was not a sign of genial Aus­trian com­plai­sance toward a benign neigh­bor, as is often argued,” observes Nicholas Till. “It was expe­di­ent for Joseph to keep the Turks in the pub­lic eye as bogey­men in antic­i­pa­tion of the right moments to seize pos­ses­sion of one or the other chunks of ter­ri­tory which were crum­bling from the fringes of the Ottoman Empire.… If Joseph II was will­ing to coun­te­nance Turk­ish music, it must have been because it was con­sid­ered a just rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Turks them­selves, its clash­ing and jan­gling aptly sug­ges­tive of the sup­posed bar­barism of the ori­en­tal bogeyman.”

In Abduc­tion the Turks are rep­re­sented by two char­ac­ters, Pasha Selmin and his over­seer Osmin. Osmin’s unre­lent­ing cru­elty and anger (i.e., his bar­barism) are a con­stant source of humor, and though the Pasha is even­tu­ally revealed to be the embod­i­ment of the Enlight­en­ment, in the first act he does not hes­i­tate to threaten Kon­stanza with tor­ture if she will not yield to him. Today we real­ize this single-minded view of Islamic cul­ture is patron­iz­ing, at best, but it was a fact of eighteenth-century Europe. And given cur­rent events today, such a view is not nec­es­sar­ily for­eign to today’s audiences.

One of the things that hit me was that with the world the way it is right now, it would be a lit­tle embar­rass­ing to do a pro­duc­tion of Abduc­tion in which fig­ures like Osmin and even the Pasha were made into fig­ures of mock­ery,” says Edward Berke­ley, direc­tor of Aspen Opera The­ater Cen­ter. “It’s a won­der­ful opera because the score itself is amaz­ing, and the devel­op­ment of the char­ac­ters in the score goes far beyond what is in the text. So in our pro­duc­tion I’m try­ing to con­vey the sense that the opera is a satire, that it is a com­edy about people’s behav­ior and the mis­per­cep­tion of other peo­ple. It’s about cul­tural mis­un­der­stand­ing. I want to keep the humor, because it’s not a mean-spirited opera.” Berke­ley points out that much of Osmin’s rage stems from his pow­er­less­ness and desperation.

19th cen­tury engrav­ing of a Lon­don performance

Of the Euro­peans, the women, Kon­stanze and Blonde, are actu­ally stronger char­ac­ters than Bel­monte and Pedrillo — some­thing Mozart con­veys in the score when Bel­monte actu­ally fol­lows Konstanze’s lead, repeat­ing her vocal line as his own in one of their duets. But Mozart’s score also clearly shows the humor­ous side of Kon­stanze (“a bit of a drama queen,” Berke­ley points out) espe­cially in her Act Two aria, “Marten aller Arten,” where the almost non­stop embell­ish­ments to her vocal line clearly demon­strate her “over the top” nature.

In Bretzner’s play, Pasha Selim dis­cov­ers that Bel­monte is his own son, so the happy end­ing is a mat­ter of course. Mozart strength­ened the plot, and the char­ac­ter of the Pasha as well, by chang­ing the end­ing — per­haps to slightly chal­lenge his audience’s one-dimensional view of Islamic cul­ture. Mozart insisted that Bel­monte not be the Pasha’s son, but  the son of the Pasha’s most hated enemy. To free Bel­monte and the other Euro­peans under those con­di­tions is to demon­strate a nobil­ity that goes far beyond that shown by Belmonte’s father and, by exten­sion, Europeans.

Mozart had judged his audi­ence cor­rectly, and Abduc­tion’s pre­mier was an enor­mous suc­cess. “My opera was given yes­ter­day for the third time and won the great­est applause,” Mozart wrote his father glee­fully. “And again, in spite of the fright­ful heat, the the­ater was packed. It was to be given against next Fri­day, but I have protested against this, for I do not want it to become hack­neyed. I may say that peo­ple are absolutely infat­u­ated with this opera. Indeed, it does one good to win such approbation.”

On August 4, 1782, a month after the pre­mière of Mozart’s opera, he mar­ried his own Kon­stanze — Con­stanze Weber.


Abduc­tion Encore:

Mozart writes to his father, Leopold, about com­pos­ing his new opera:

Sep­tem­ber 26, 1781:

Lud­wig Fis­cher, the first Osmin

Osmin’s rage [in his Act One aria ‘Solche herge­laufne Laf­fen’] is ren­dered com­i­cal by the use of Turk­ish music… and as Osmin’s rage grad­u­ally increases, there comes (just when the aria seems to be at an end) the alle­gro assai, which is in a totally dif­fer­ent meter and in a dif­fer­ent key; this is bound to be very effec­tive. For just as a man in such a tow­er­ing rage over­steps all bounds of order, mod­er­a­tion, and pro­pri­ety and com­pletely for­gets him­self, so must the music, too, for­get itself. But since Pas­sions, whether vio­let or not, must never be expressed to the point of excit­ing dis­gust, and as music, even in the most ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tions, must never offend the ear, but must please the lis­tener, or in other words must never cease to be music, so I have not cho­sen a key for­eign to F (in which the aria is writ­ten) but one related to it — not the near­est, D minor, but the more remote A minor.

I have sent you only four­teen bars of the over­ture, which is very short with alter­nate fortes and pianos, the Turk­ish music always com­ing in the fortes. The over­ture mod­u­lates through dif­fer­ent keys, and I doubt whether any­one, even if his pre­vi­ous night has been a sleep­less one, could go to sleep over it.”

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared in the 2004 pro­gram book of the Aspen Opera The­ater.

The paint­ing at the top of the arti­cle is “The Recep­tion” by John Fred­er­ick Lewis (1873).

LA FORZA DEL DESTINO — Verdi’s Giant Canvas




It would be dif­fi­cult to find another major Verdi opera that has been so mis­treated — and so mis­un­der­stood — through the years as has La Forza del Des­tino. Not that long ago, entire scenes were either cut entirely, or trun­cated almost beyond recog­ni­tion. Some­times they were rearranged in an attempt to “improve” the sup­pos­edly inco­her­ent libretto. Char­ac­ters whom the com­poser admired were reduced to a few lines, or elim­i­nated entirely. Even though such once-routine man­gling of Forza is (thank­fully) rarely encoun­tered in major the­aters today, for many oper­a­go­ers the work remains more than slightly tainted by the idea that Verdi, some­how, got conned into writ­ing some won­der­ful music for an absurd, unwieldy drama that prob­a­bly should have been left undis­turbed on 19th–cen­tury library shelves.

That view, though com­mon, is regret­tably short­sighted. It is true that if ever a major Verdi work dis­re­garded the Aris­totelian dra­matic pre­cepts of unity of time, place and action it is La Forza del Des­tino. Aris­to­tle thought a drama should take place within a 24-hour period. A pro­duc­tion book from 1862, the year of Forza’s pre­mière, and thought to be the work of the opera’s libret­tist, Francesco Maria Piave, points out “about 18 months pass between the first and sec­ond acts; sev­eral years between the sec­ond and third; more than five years between the third and fourth.” Far from tak­ing place in a sin­gle loca­tion, Forza blithely trav­els through Spain and Italy, encom­pass­ing numer­ous set­tings such as aris­to­cratic homes, tacky inns, bat­tle­fields, wood­lands, a monastery and a cave in the side of a moun­tain. And as for stick­ing with one cen­tral story and elim­i­nat­ing any action not rel­e­vant to the plot — well, that’s the antithe­sis of Forza’s drama.

But far from being the major weak­ness of Forza, the great sprawl­ing nature of the libretto with its cast of hun­dreds and improb­a­ble dra­matic coin­ci­dences is — in fact — pre­cisely its strongest point. In Forza Verdi paints on a gigan­tic can­vas, telling the story of human­ity itself. Scenes of aris­to­cratic honor, all-consuming love and wrench­ing pri­vate anguish are cheeky by jowl with scenes of squab­bling peas­ants and drunken soldiers.

Some writ­ers have com­pared the vast sweep of Forza with Berlioz’s Les Troyens and Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelun­gen. Per­haps the best descrip­tion, how­ever, is that La Forza del Des­tino is Shake­spearean. In fact, William Weaver has termed it “Verdi’s most Shake­spearean opera. Shake­spearean, that is, in Verdi’s sense: a work of great vari­ety, vast scope, jux­ta­pos­ing comic and tragic, employ­ing a num­ber of unusual char­ac­ters, all sharply defined, even if only briefly seen and heard. Though the opera is flawed (as Verdi him­self real­ized), it is per­haps Verdi’s bold­est attempt to por­tray an entire, com­plex, con­tra­dic­tory world.”

Verdi in Rus­sia for FORZA’s première.

Shake­speare was a drama­tist Verdi both loved and admired. He kept Ital­ian trans­la­tions of Shakespeare’s plays beside his bed, and the high­est com­pli­ment he could pay a char­ac­ter was that it was “wor­thy of Shake­speare.” When he wrote La Forza del Des­tino, his first opera based on a Shake­speare play—Mac­beth—was over a decade old. His two final mas­ter­pieces, both drawn from Shake­speare—Otello and Fal­staff—were decades in the future. His most recent opera, Un Ballo in Maschera, had been a suc­cess at its pre­mier in Rome in 1859. It had brought to a close an aston­ish­ing decade which was ush­ered in by Verdi’s remark­able trio of Rigo­letto, Il Trova­tore, and La Travi­ata; found him writ­ing his first French grand opera Les Vêpres Sicilennes; then return­ing to Venice (scene of the pre­miers of Rigo­letto and Travi­ata) with Simon Boc­cane­gra in 1857.

Verdi was the undis­puted lead­ing com­poser of Ital­ian opera of the day. He had shown he was a mas­ter of the bel canto tra­di­tion that he was remold­ing in new ways to express char­ac­ter and drama with increased vivid­ness and truth. In short, Verdi was at the height of his pow­ers thus far and not at all inclined to sim­ply com­pose for the sake of com­pos­ing.  Instead, after Ballo’s pre­mier, Verdi essen­tially retired from the the­ater, turn­ing down numer­ous oppor­tu­ni­ties to write new operas in favor of ful­fill­ing his duties as a (reluc­tant) mem­ber of Italy’s new par­lia­ment and liv­ing the life of a coun­try farmer, mak­ing repairs on his prop­erty and dis­cour­ag­ing visitors.

Under these cir­cum­stances, it would be absurd to think Verdi was some­how fina­gled into set­ting a drama with which he was not fully in sym­pa­thy. Verdi explained part of the attrac­tion the sub­ject had for him in a let­ter: “The play is pow­er­ful, unusual and extremely vast. I like it immensely.” But just because it offered a vast panorama for Verdi does not mean he was care­less about the con­struc­tion of the libretto. Far from it. He harangued Piave repeat­edly, empha­siz­ing, “The style must be tight­ened up. The poetry can and must say all that the prose says, and in half the words.”

Libret­tist Piave

By con­ven­tional stan­dards it could, indeed, seem to be some­thing of a prob­lem to have a hero­ine, Leonora, with whom the audi­ence falls in love in the open­ing scene, only to have her dis­ap­pear at the end of act two and not reap­pear until the opera’s last scene. But Leonora is not the sub­ject of the opera. Nei­ther is her lover, Don Alvaro, though the Span­ish play by Angel de Saave­dra, Duke of Rivas, on which the opera is based is enti­tled Don Alvaro, o La Fuerza del sino. Instead. Verdi took the play’s sub­ti­tle and called his opera La Forza del Des­tino. The Force of Des­tiny. And to empha­size his opera is not only about the tra­vails of the Cala­trava fam­ily, he bor­rowed a scene from Schiller’s Wal­len­steins Lager which adds even more to the already bub­bling mix of gyp­sies, sol­diers, dis­rep­utable fri­ars and peddlers.

Verdi’s opera is not about indi­vid­ual char­ac­ters, but about the way these char­ac­ters react to the work­ings of fate, or des­tiny. The cen­tral char­ac­ter is fate itself, and the way it affects all seg­ments of soci­ety, from the high­est to the low­est. And des­tiny, by its very nature, can­not be con­fined to a nice tidy set of uni­ties. Des­tiny runs its own course.

Which is one rea­son Verdi empha­sized the impor­tance of char­ac­ters we some­times (mis­tak­enly) regard as “minor.” “Don’t for­get you need three artists who are com­pletely at ease on stage to do Preziosilla, Meli­tone and Tra­buco,” Verdi wrote to his pub­lisher. “Their scenes are com­edy, pure com­edy. There­fore good dic­tion and an easy stage man­ner. See to that.”

And that sug­gests another rea­son we are per­haps a bit uncom­fort­able with La Forza del Des­tino: its assump­tion of the cen­tral role of fate or des­tiny in human exis­tence.  “Art,” W. H. Auden once observed, “is not Magic, i.e., a means by which the artist com­mu­ni­cates or arouses his feel­ings in oth­ers, but a mir­ror in which they may become con­scious of what their own feel­ings really are: its proper effect, in fact, is disenchanting.”

Our soci­ety preaches an indi­vid­ual is respon­si­ble for the out­come of his or her own life. If you really work hard, you’ll be rewarded. If you sac­ri­fice plea­sure now, you’ll reap div­i­dends later on.  Yet, on the bound­aries of our lives — usu­ally pushed away from our daily rou­tines — we all know there are excep­tions. From great nat­ural dis­as­ters like Hur­ri­cane Kat­rina to doing some­thing noble that back­fires and brings calamity.  In act one of Forza Don Alvaro does some­thing noble. He sur­ren­ders to Leonora’s father by throw­ing down his pis­tol, only to have it acci­den­tally go off, kill the Mar­quis di Cala­trava, and set in motion a cycle of vengeance, death and grief that lasts for years.

A leg­endary per­for­mance of FORZA.

Oh please!” groans the mod­ern oper­a­goer. “That is so unre­al­is­tic.” But is it? Acci­den­tal deaths (some from gun shots) are so com­mon we sel­dom bother to trace their effects on the fam­i­lies involved. And in a larger sense, we all know sto­ries about a per­son who is caught in traf­fic, thus miss­ing a flight, only to not be on board an air­plane that crashes. Or the reverse. How many of us, years later, are so thank­ful we didn’t get a job we were des­per­ate for at the time; or who are annoyed we’ve got­ten lost in an unfa­mil­iar city, only to turn the cor­ner and meet a per­son who will bless our lives for years.

This qual­ity is depicted in the tarot by the Wheel of For­tune, num­ber 10 of the major arcane. “The Wheel does not become vis­i­ble until we step away from it,” writes Rachel Pol­lack in Seventy-eight Degrees of Wis­dom, Part I.  “When we are involved in it, we see only the events imme­di­ately before and behind us; the daily con­cerns our egos find so impor­tant. When we with­draw we can see the whole pat­tern. Psy­cho­log­i­cally we can view this vision as an assess­ment a per­son makes of where his or her life has gone and where it is going. On a deeper level, the vision remains mys­te­ri­ous and sym­bolic. We can see what we have made of our par­tic­u­lar lives, but fate remains a mys­tery.… The impor­tant thing about change is our reac­tion [to it]. Do we use it as an oppor­tu­nity and find some mean­ing and value in it? The end of a love affair, despite its pain, can give greater self-knowledge. It can open the way to a new awareness.”

This is not the sub­ject mat­ter we usu­ally asso­ciate with an opera by Giuseppe Verdi. But Julian Bud­den got it exactly right when he said Forza was “an opera whose only fault is that it is too rich in ideas. It is a fault on the right side.”

This arti­cle orig­i­nal appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill Feb­ru­ary 2006.

W. A. Mozart — Trio in E-Flat Major for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano, K. 498

Mozart, mature



Wolf­gang Amadè Mozart (1756 – 91) seemed to have an affin­ity for sur­round­ing him­self with col­or­ful peo­ple.  Even a short list of such friends would have to include the Vien­nese clar­inet and bas­set horn vir­tu­oso Anton Paul Stadler (1753 – 1812), who played in the first per­for­mance of the Trio in E-flat for Clar­inet, Viola, and Piano.

Though Mozart cer­tainly knew about the clar­inet from his days in Munich (the orches­tra in Mozart’s home­town of Salzburg did not include clar­inets), it was Stadler who revealed the instrument’s true beau­ties and poten­tial to the com­poser. For this fel­low Mason, Mozart com­posed the Clar­inet Quin­tet, K.581, and the last instru­men­tal work he com­pleted, the great Clar­inet Con­certo, K.622. Stadler went to Prague to play in the orches­tra at the pre­mière of Mozart’s opera La clemenza di Tito, and for him Mozart wrote the promi­nent clar­inet and bas­set horn obbli­gatos in the score, later report­ing glee­fully that Stadler had received many cries of “bravo” for his play­ing. Stadler’s younger brother, Johann, was also a clar­inet player, and for these broth­ers Mozart added clar­inet parts to his Sym­phony No. 40 in G minor.

Some writ­ers sim­ply dis­miss Stadler’s char­ac­ter as “dis­solute,” but Mar­cia Dav­en­port, in her biog­ra­phy of Mozart (first pub­lished in 1932), does not stop there: “The most con­spic­u­ous of the leeches was Anton Stadler, a wretched lying thief who took every advan­tage of Wolf­gang and yet made it hard for his poor friend to believe that such a superb clar­inetist could be a rogue.”

Anton Stadler

It is true that in 1791 Mozart loaned Stadler 500 Guldin, a large enough sum of money to make one won­der where the com­poser, who was con­stantly short of funds, got the money in the first place. (The debt was later listed as “uncol­lectible” on a totally of Mozart’s assets; pre­sum­ably it was never repaid.) In all prob­a­bil­ity Stadler stole some of Mozart’s pawn tick­ets and sold them, keep­ing the money for him­self. A minor com­poser, Stadler passed off some of Mozart’s work as his own, but he was hardly the only one of Mozart’s cir­cle to do so. In any event, Mozart did not hold any of his friend’s numer­ous short­com­ings against him. He enjoyed the man’s com­pany thor­oughly and esteemed him as an out­stand­ing musician.

Mozart fin­ished this Trio in Vienna on August 5, 1786. Ear­lier that year he had com­pleted his opera Le nozze di Figaro, two piano con­cer­tos (No. 23 in A major and No. 24 in C minor), and numer­ous other works, among them the Twelve Duos for Two Wind Instru­ments, K.487. Across the head of the auto­graph score for the last set of pieces, Mozart scrawled, “Vienna, the 27th of July 1786, while bowl­ing.” No such head­ing appears on the score of the Trio for Clar­inet, Viola, and Piano, writ­ten only nine days later, even though it is known as the Kegel­statt (“bowl­ing alley”) Trio.  It is entirely pos­si­ble, of course, that Mozart did write the Trio in the bowl­ing alley, though some writ­ers have sug­gested that he just thought about the work while relax­ing dur­ing the game.

The Trio was writ­ten for one of Mozart’s favorite piano stu­dents, Franziska Got­tfried von Jacquin (sis­ter of one of the composer’s best friend, Got­tfried von Jacquin), who played the piano in the first per­for­mance. In all prob­a­bil­ity, Mozart him­self played the viola on that occasion.

In is an unusual work. The tim­bres of clar­inet and viola give the music an espe­cially inti­mate and gen­tle char­ac­ter, as does the fact the first move­ment is not the typ­i­cal Alle­gro, but a slower Andante (and in 6/8 time). Through­out the three instru­ments are beau­ti­fully matched, and the sense of unity arises from the music’s con­cen­tra­tion and the way Mozart uti­lizes each instrument’s strength.

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

Francis Poulenc — Sonata for Horn, Trumpet, and Trombone




In the hands of a less sophis­ti­cated com­poser than Fran­cis Poulenc (1899 – 1963), a sonata for horn, trum­pet, and trom­bone could eas­ily turn out of be an exer­cise in bom­bas­tic noise. In Poulenc’s hands, the unusual instru­men­ta­tion is a con­stant delight, his writ­ing for each par­tic­i­pant rang­ing from mel­low lyri­cism to brash exuberance.

Poulenc was born in Paris and, before he was twenty years old, became a mem­ber of “Les Six,” the group of six young French com­posers that included Erik Satie, Arthur Honeg­ger, and Dar­ius Mil­haud. Though Poulenc cer­tainly was suc­cess­ful at writ­ing large works (among them choral pieces such as his Sta­bat Mater, as well as three operas), most of his out­put is on a smaller scale. He was a bril­liant song writer, some­times cre­at­ing mas­ter­pieces less than a minute long. In his cham­ber music he occa­sion­ally delighted in writ­ing for unusual com­bi­na­tions of instru­ments, such as his Sonata for Two Clar­inets (1918), Sonata for Clar­inet and Bas­soon (1922), and, of course, the present work, from 1922 (revised in 1945).

In his book My Many Years, pianist Arthur Rubin­stein refers to the “sub­tle sim­plic­ity” of Poulenc’s piano works, adding, “Because they always seemed to remind you of some­thing, I some­times accused them of being sim­ple pas­tiches. But later I learned bet­ter. Poulenc was one of the bravest musi­cians of his time. He accepted all the influ­ences with­out qualms but some­how a strik­ing per­son­al­ity emerged.”

Cer­tainly his Sonata for Horn, Trum­pet, and Trom­bone could remind lis­ten­ers of an eighteenth-century diver­tisse­ment, at least in spirit. But this short work (its three move­ments last less than ten min­utes) could only be the prod­uct of a twentieth-century French­man. The com­poser used his melodic gift lav­ishly in the sonata, but the melodies are often over­shad­owed by Poulenc’s over­flow­ing wit, which, in true Parisian fash­ion, some­times bor­ders on the acerbic.

The entire work is suf­fused with a play­ful­ness and a sense of delight that is extremely sophis­ti­cated. As Roger Nichols writes in his essay on Poulenc in The New Grove Dic­tio­nary of Music and Musi­cians, “The open­ing trum­pet theme…needs the cor­rec­tion of only three ‘wrong’ notes in the first four bars for it to con­form with eighteenth-century har­monic prac­tice — as it were, Per­golesi with his wig awry.”

For Poulenc, a sense of light­ness was one of the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of French music. “You will find sobri­ety and dolor in French music just as in Ger­man or Russ­ian,” he said in 1950. “But the French have a keener sense of pro­por­tion. We real­ize that somber­ness and good humor are not mutu­ally exclu­sive. Our com­posers, too, write pro­found music, but when they do, it is leav­ened with that light­ness of spirit with­out which life would be unendurable.”

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

The delight­ful photo of Poulenc is by Fred Plaut, cour­tesy of the Fred and Rose Plaut Papers at the Irv­ing S. Gilmore Music Library, Yale Uni­ver­sity, box 18.

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.





Through­out his long life, Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) seemed to have a gut instinct about exactly which char­ac­ter or dra­matic sit­u­a­tion would best suit his opera-composing abil­i­ties. So it is not sur­pris­ing that when he read Vic­tor Hugo’s play, Le roi s’amuse (The king’s amuse­ment), Verdi real­ized its aston­ish­ing poten­tial. The dis­cov­ery of a play that fired his imag­i­na­tion could not have come at a bet­ter time, since he had just been com­mis­sioned by Teatro la Fenice in Venice to write an opera to be pre­miered early in 1851.

In April 1850 Verdi wrote his libret­tist, Fran­cisco Maria Piave (1810 – 1876): “I have in mind a sub­ject that would be one of the great­est cre­ations of the mod­ern the­ater if the police will only allow it. Who knows? They allowed Ernani, they might even allow us to do this and at least there are no con­spir­a­cies in it. Have a try! The sub­ject is grand, immense and there’s a char­ac­ter in it who is one of the great­est cre­ations that the the­ater of all coun­tries and all times can boast. The sub­ject is Le roi s’amuse and the char­ac­ter I’m speak­ing about is Triboulet.

PS: As soon as you get this let­ter, put on your skates; run about the city and find some­one of influ­ence to get us per­mis­sion to do Le roi s’amuse. Don’t go to sleep; give your­self a good shake; do it at once. I shall expect you at Bus­seto [Verdi’s home], but not now, after they’ve agreed to the subject.”

The let­ter is the first time Verdi men­tions his desire to write what would become Rigo­letto—one of the great­est of all Ital­ian operas — and it is an extremely telling let­ter in many ways. First of all, no sooner does Verdi express enthu­si­asm for the sub­ject than he adds, “if the police will allow it.” Verdi knew exactly what he would be up against, and so he deftly shifted the almost impos­si­ble task of slip­ping the sub­ject mat­ter past the cen­sor onto the shoul­ders of his poor librettist.

Vic­tor Hugo in 1853

Vic­tor Hugo’s play had been given in Paris in Novem­ber 1832 when it was sus­pended by the gov­ern­ment after a sin­gle per­for­mance. Hugo pleaded his case before the Tri­bunal de Com­merce but to no avail. The play was pub­lished, but it was not per­formed again in Paris until 1882 — a fact that dou­bly dis­pleased the play­wright since Verdi’s opera, based on the play, was given over 100 times dur­ing its first sea­son in the very city that con­tin­ued to ban Le roi s’amuse.

At the time, Venice and much of north­ern Italy was in the hands of the Aus­tri­ans, who were deeply fear­ful of the attempts to unify Italy and were well aware of Verdi’s patri­otic stance. His very name had become an ana­gram, an open secret used to inflame the pub­lic toward inde­pen­dence and uni­fi­ca­tion. “Viva VERDI” was scrawled on walls, painted on ban­ners, shouted by crowds — osten­si­bly in honor of the increas­ingly pop­u­lar com­poser. But “VERDI” also stood for Vitto­rio Emmanuele, Re dItalia (Vit­to­rio Emmanuel, King of Italy, mean­ing a free, uni­fied Italy, not just King of Sar­dinia as he was at the time). Obvi­ously any­thing that might be inflam­ma­tory, as defined by the increas­ingly uneasy occu­py­ing Aus­tri­ans, would be banned.

Also telling in that first let­ter to Piave on the sub­ject of their new opera was Verdi’s sin­gling out the char­ac­ter of Tri­boulet, who even­tu­ally would be named Rigo­letto. In another let­ter Verdi referred to Tri­boulet as “a cre­ation wor­thy of Shake­speare,” which was the high­est praise Verdi could give.

Verdi had first used Piave as a libret­tist on Ernani, which pre­miered in Venice in 1844, and col­lab­o­rated with him reg­u­larly there­after. Piave sup­plied the com­poser with ten libret­tos in all, includ­ing Mac­beth, Travi­ata, Simon Boc­cane­gra and La forza del des­tino, in addi­tion to Rigo­letto. If Piave was not a par­tic­u­larly dis­tin­guished writer on his own, he took direc­tion well, put up with Verdi’s almost con­stant abuse, was to all accounts extra­or­di­nar­ily charm­ing, and had numer­ous influ­en­tial friends in high places. He was promptly assured there would be no dif­fi­culty with La Fenice pre­sent­ing an opera based on Le roi s’amuse, so the two men set to work.

Libret­tist Piave

But of course there would be dif­fi­culty — a great deal of it. In the play the vil­lain is a king, Fran­cis I of France, whose licen­tious­ness is plainly depicted, and the hero is a hunch­back com­moner, a jester in the court. Fur­ther­more, in the final scene a corpse is dis­played on stage in a sack. Both in France and Ger­many the play was derided for its “obscen­ity.” The Aus­trian cen­sors were so offended by Piave’s libretto they sim­ply washed their hands of the whole mat­ter in a let­ter to the direc­tors of La Fenice: “His Excel­lency the Mil­i­tary Gov­er­nor Cheva­lier Gorzkowski…directs me to com­mu­ni­cate to you his pro­found regret that the poet Piave and the cel­e­brated mae­stro Verdi should not have cho­sen a more wor­thy vehi­cle to dis­play their tal­ents than the revolt­ing immoral­ity and obscene triv­i­al­ity of the libretto of La maledi­zione [as the opera was then called].

His above-mentioned Excel­lency has decided the per­for­mance shall be absolutely for­bid­den, and wishes me at the same time to request you not make fur­ther inquiries in the matter.”

Verdi, how­ever, was not about to with­draw the project. He answered the objec­tions of the Aus­trian over­lords one by one, finally respond­ing to the desire that Tri­boulet should not be ugly or hunchbacked.

A hunch­back who sings? Why not?” Verdi wrote to the the­ater direc­tors. “Will it be effec­tive? I don’t know; but if I don’t know, nei­ther, I repeat, does the per­son who sug­gested the change. To me there is some­thing really fine in rep­re­sent­ing on stage this char­ac­ter out­wardly so ugly and ridicu­lous, inwardly so impas­sioned and full of love. I chose the sub­ject pre­cisely because of those qual­i­ties, and if these orig­i­nal fea­tures are removed I can­not write the music.…I tell you frankly that, good or bad, my music is not just writ­ten casu­ally for any sit­u­a­tion; I try to give it a char­ac­ter appro­pri­ate to the drama.”

Giuseppe Bertoja’s pre­mière stage set for the sec­ond scene.

In Rigo­letto Verdi did just that — he wrote pow­er­ful, evoca­tive music that describes each of the char­ac­ters so per­fectly it would be laugh­able to sug­gest the same music be sung by the watered-down, col­or­less char­ac­ters sug­gested by the cen­sors. Finally Verdi, Piave, and the La Fenice man­age­ment reached a com­pro­mise with the cen­sors, but all of the key dra­matic points from Le roi s’amuse made it into Rigo­letto. In the title char­ac­ter, Verdi wrote what is prob­a­bly the great­est part ever writ­ten for a high bari­tone — an aston­ish­ing tour de force for a singing actor who can con­vey all the emo­tional nuances of the music.

Some writ­ers have com­pared Verdi’s Rigo­letto to Beethoven’s Third Sym­phony — with it, the com­poser reached a new level of mas­tery, broke new ground in his art form, and after it noth­ing was ever the same. In Rigo­letto Verdi took the exist­ing forms of Ital­ian bel canto opera as used by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, and molded them into a new, more imme­di­ately and pow­er­ful music drama, which he would con­tinue to expand for the rest of his life.

Tra­di­tion­ally an Ital­ian opera would open with a cho­rus, intro­duc­ing one of the main char­ac­ters who would then sing a for­mal aria, fre­quently in two parts, first a slow cantabile, then a faster cabaletta. But con­sider how Verdi adapted this form in Rigo­letto’s open­ing scene. It would have been easy to fol­low the tra­di­tion. The open­ing scene is a party; the cho­rus could have been the usual exten­sive one, prais­ing their host the Duke, who would respond with the usual for­mal two-part aria. It would work per­fectly with the story.

Poster for the very first performance.

Instead, Verdi fol­lows his intensely dra­matic, extremely short pre­lude (in which trum­pets and trom­bones con­stantly reit­er­ate the dotted-note rhythm and notes Rigo­letto will use through­out the opera with the phrase “Quel vec­chio male­di­ami!” That old man cursed me!) with an off-stage band play­ing some of the most banal “cheer­ful” music pos­si­ble. Instead of open­ing with the cho­rus (which is on stage), we get snip­pets of brief con­ver­sa­tion by a vari­ety of char­ac­ters that will only make sense in hindsight.

In this open­ing scene Verdi antic­i­pates the cin­ema by more than half a cen­tury. He (the cam­era) is walk­ing us through the party, giv­ing us an overview while let­ting us over­hear numer­ous bits of con­ver­sa­tion. When Verdi wants to let us know some­thing is really impor­tant, he switches from the off-stage banda to using the orches­tra in the pit (as in a cam­era close-up). As he does for the Duke’s first aria, “Questa o quello.” Yes, it is the Duke’s first aria, but far from being the usual two-part for­mal aria Verdi gives the Duke a breezy dance tune (in the score it is labeled “Bal­lata”). It fits per­fectly with the dra­matic sit­u­a­tion, gives us insight into the Duke him­self, and last barely two min­utes; then the orches­tra yields to a string banda on stage and  the flirt­ing — the con­ver­sa­tion that sets up the entire opera — con­tin­ues. It is all so con­cise that the entire whirl­wind open­ing scene lasts barely fif­teen minutes.

Another way Verdi reworked the forms of Ital­ian opera, was the way he repeat­edly inter­rupts a scene to give the audi­ence a fore­taste of what’s to come. In the open­ing scene, the cho­rus is inter­rupted by Monterone’s appear­ance and curse, which abruptly changes the tone of the scene — thus height­en­ing the cru­cial point of the drama. In the sec­ond scene, the duet between Rigo­letto and Gilda is inter­rupted by the furtive arrival of the Duke, who, in turn, is inter­rupted in his woo­ing of Gilda by a noise out­side which turns out to be the foot­steps of the courtiers who have come to abduct Gilda. Her sin­gle aria is inter­rupted by their com­ments, which serve to tighten the drama. All this over­lap­ping of scenes and char­ac­ters gives a sense of urgency and propul­sive­ness to the storytelling.

Felice Varesi, the first Rigoletto

In was in Rigo­letto that Verdi set the stan­dard in writ­ing an exten­sive ensem­ble (the famous Quar­tet), which serves not only the for­mal, tech­ni­cal require­ments of an iso­lated set piece of music, but also imparts addi­tional infor­ma­tion about all the char­ac­ters involved and fur­thers the drama — all at the same time. Rather than hav­ing each of the char­ac­ters sing the same musi­cal phrase in turn, and then work­ing it together har­mon­i­cally (as com­posers had tended to do before), Verdi assigns each of the four char­ac­ters a dis­tinct melody and rhythm uniquely his or her own — that only that char­ac­ter could sing at that point in the drama. For exam­ple, the Duke’s insou­ciant woo­ing of Mad­dalena with his seduc­tive, lyric melody to the words “Bella figlia dell’amore” (Beau­ti­ful daugh­ter of love), which oozes charm and pheromones equally; her answer in scam­per­ing stac­cato six­teenth notes that elude the Duke musi­cally as she deftly eludes his grop­ing hands on stage; Gilda’s descend­ing melodic line that con­stantly droops, sighs, breaks into sobs, and Rigoletto’s broad, com­pas­sion­ate sup­port­ing of Gilda. Some­how Verdi mirac­u­lously turns all these dis­parate ele­ments into a proper quar­tet of aston­ish­ing beauty, even ele­gance with­out rob­bing the num­ber of any of its con­sid­er­able dra­matic and emo­tional impact.

Add to this Verdi’s grow­ing facil­ity at orches­tra­tion and the numer­ous ways he uses the orches­tra to give emo­tional color to a char­ac­ter of a scene. For instance, his use of flutes when Rigo­letto sud­denly thinks of Gilda dur­ing “Pari siamo,” or when she is on stage, to con­vey her inno­cence and purity; or the way he slowly builds the storm in the last act, the utter con­vinc­ing fury of its height, and then the way it takes most of the rest of the act to die away.

After Rigo­letto, Verdi gave us only mas­ter­pieces (the sin­gle excep­tion being Aroldo, itself a rework­ing of the ear­lier Stiffe­lio) — one after another until his mirac­u­lous Fal­staff writ­ten at the age of almost eighty. As Julian Bud­den writes in his mon­u­men­tal study of Verdi’s operas: “Just after 1850, at the age of thirty-eight, Verdi closed the door on a period of Ital­ian opera with Rigo­letto. The so-called ottocènto in music was fin­ished. Verdi con­tin­ued to draw on cer­tain of its forms for the next few opera, but in a totally new spirit.”


Rigo­letto Extra:

The Duke’s Famous Aria

Though Rigo­letto, like most Verdi opera, is brim­ming with melody, one catchy tune per­sis­tently stands out from all the oth­ers: “La donna è mobile” (Woman is fickle). It’s one of the most famous tenor arias ever writ­ten and is sung by the lib­er­tine Duke in the opera’s last act, in which its slightly tawdry — but utterly irre­sistible — nature is sheer genius on Verdi’s part. There is noth­ing the least bit aris­to­cratic about it (unlike the Duke’s Act One aria, “Questa o quella.”) In the last act the Duke is slum­ming, in dis­guise, set­tling in for an evening of drink­ing and whor­ing, but even so, his irre­press­ible charm pre­vails, per­fectly cap­tured in this catchy, but almost plebian tune in three-quarter (waltz) time.

Verdi cer­tainly knew how unfor­get­table this effer­ves­cent song was, and he was con­cerned that it might become known before the opera’s pre­mier in Venice on March 11, 1851. Leg­end has it that to avoid the singers or other mem­bers of the com­pany whistling or hum­ming the melody out­side the the­ater before open­ing night (thus dilut­ing the shock of the audi­ence har­ing it for the first time in the con­text of the drama), he delayed giv­ing the music to the tenor until the dress rehearsal.

This seems a bit unlikely since one of the most jar­ring uses of the tune in when the tenor reprises it at the end, as Rigo­letto stands over the sack he believes con­tains the Duke’s body. It is unlikely Verdi would chance ruin­ing such a hor­ri­fy­ing coup de théâtre by only hav­ing rehearsed the moment once. But it is quite pos­si­ble the com­poser delayed giv­ing the tenor the music to “La donna è mobile” until well into the rehearsal process so it would still be fresh on open­ing night.

And one can eas­ily believe the other sto­ries about the aria, that the first audi­ence exited La Fenice hum­ming and whistling the new hit tune. After all, audi­ences still do that over 150 years later.

This arti­cle first appeared in the 2004 pro­gram book for the Aspen Opera Theater.

The photo at the top of the page is the great Tito Gobbi as Rigo­letto, one of his most famous roles.

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.