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



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.