Writing

Articles by Paul Thomason

Puccini — MADAMA BUTTERFLY

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.