Category Archives: Music

Benjamin Britten

The New Republic has posted an article I wrote about Benjamin Britten, based on last year’s 10oth annviersary celebrations of his birth. I’ve always been ambivalent about his music, loving some of it, indifferent to much of it. But I ended the year loving more of it, especially after making peace with what I call his fundamental tendency to smallness.

Every article about Britten has to deal with his erotic fixation on boys. Here’s how I grappled with that:

That particular psychosexual key may seem to unlock many Britten mysteries. In his biography, Powell devotes a few obligatory pages to unraveling the darker side of the composer’s years as a schoolboy, including the possibility that he was the victim of rape. These questions are not particularly relevant to Britten’s music, though they do explain many of the uses to which he put music, and some of the subjects that he felt needed elaboration through music. Decrying cruelty to innocent young men or boys was a prism through which Britten transcended his own inclinations to smallness. But that same smallness—the middle-class propriety that suffuses everything he wrote with occasional cathartic exceptions—was also a compensation mechanism for the frightening sexual allure of sadism and pederasty. The trope of sadism and innocence was both a form of protest and a heavily cathected nexus of desire that could not be contained within his immensely proper lifestyle. Spiritually and intellectually, the way out of his limitations was too terrifying a road to travel. Auden, a friend from early years and a collaborator on projects such as the operetta Paul Bunyan, seems to have noticed this, and said so, and the 
friendship was sundered.

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Joshua Bell and Hindemith at the NSO

                This weekend, the National Symphony Orchestra presents one of its more exciting programs of the season: A star soloist, Joshua Bell, in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, and Hindemith’s choral masterpiece, “When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d.” I went primarily to hear the latter, a 1946 work written to mark the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and based on a poem by Walt Whitman that honored the death of Abraham Lincoln. It is subtitled “A Requiem ‘For those we love,’” and much of its power comes from the conflation of personal and epic loss, both in Whitman’s poem, and in Hindemith’s somber yet grand score, which must certainly have been a response to the devastation of World War II as well as Roosevelt’s demise.

          Given the honors heaped on it when it was new, and its lingering reputation as one of the great, neglected works of 20th-century choral music, it is remarkable that these are its first performances by the NSO.  I got to know the score a few years when researching an article on Hindemith’s unjustly neglected operas (seek out a fine DVD of Cardillac and a very good recording of his Harmony of the World, based on the life of astronomer Johannes Kepler). Digging into Hindemith at first felt like work, such is his reputation for diligence, craftsmanship and lack of imagination. But he is in fact an immensely rewarding and charismatic composer, and his imagination shouldn’t be slighted.

                “When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d” isn’t a perfect piece, but its fundamental flaw is inextricable from its essential power. Hindemith’s choice of poem, a long, inexhaustible, meandering paean to life, death, nature and love, was both inspired and ridiculous. The sheer quantity of text, its volubility, its torrential repetitions and divagations, created enormous compositional challenges, and Hindemith responded with a fluid, almost incantatory line that expands and contracts as necessary, with hypnotic effect. The fitting of text within a free but regular metrical musical line is a wonder. But it also has the effect of distracting our attention from Whitman’s words, which just seem to keep coming. And that’s where the choice of the poem seems perhaps a bit willful, and wrongheaded.

                And yet the hour-long oratorio is filled with powerful episodes (the choral rendition of the seventh movement was a particular thrill) and it leaves one with a strongly visual sense of the poem: The darkened fields, the passage of the coffin through the landscape, the swamps and cityscapes, and finally “the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.” Worlds collide—Hindemith’s musical language steeped in the eclectic vocabularies of early 20th century European style, with a substantial concession to American popular taste, and Whitman’s 19th-century transcendental ecstasies, which reach mystical heights—and somehow, by the end, they cohere. A flawed, but thrilling piece.

                The soloists were mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and baritone Matthias Goerne,  the same team that sang the solo roles in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle with the NSO two years ago. They are both powerful singers and both gave exceptional accounts of the musical line. But Goerne’s diction was almost indecipherable throughout. Hindemith doesn’t make it easy for the soloist, but Goerne didn’t rise to the occasion either. It was mush. And when the chorus, the Choral Arts Society which was in excellent form, is more easily understood than the lead soloist—well, that’s a problem.

                But one left grateful for the effort from all involved: NSO music director Christoph Eschenbach, who championed the piece, the orchestra, the chorus and the soloists. The piece deserves more hearings, and one hopes it won’t be another 70 years before the NSO programs it again.

                The concerto performance was more enthusiastically received by the audience. Bell plays with great rhythmic clarity and force, every note cleanly placed with a pulse that is relentlessly forward moving. The virtuosity is dazzling, the phrasing impeccable,  but sometimes it feels too well-suited to the current taste, the reigning cultural obsession with speed and breathlessness. I would have preferred a bit more air and reflection in the second movement, a bit more unhurried sweetness. But Bell has mastered the audience-friendly oratorical style that never allows the attention to wander, and it works for him. It clearly works for his fans, too. I’ll recuperate with Menuhin’s 1960 recording.

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Matthias Goerne sings Schubert

                One assumes that the poet in Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin is a stripling, young, callow and given to dreamy reveries on the banks of his beloved brook. From Wilhelm Müller’s poems, set by Schubert in 1823, he seems to be an apprentice, and not a very stalwart one, lamenting his weak arms, and passive nature. His strength is all in the imagination, where almost the entirety of his unrequited love for the beautiful miller’s daughter is played out in a solipsistic, perfervid drama of emotional projection, jealousy and despair.

                Baritone Matthias Goerne sang the twenty-song cycle last night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, with National Symphony Orchestra conductor Christoph Eschenbach at the piano. Goerne’s emotional wanderer is not the delicate poet suggested by the poems, or the usual understanding of Schubert’s music. Instead, he conjured a more robust, even violent figure, given to mercurial rages and operatically scaled declamation. This poet is definitely living in his head, too, but he is battling demons more than he is indulging in dreams; his wounds drive him to fury, not retreat or resignation.

                I found the performance mesmerizing, especially after the first few songs which depict the idyll before the clouds gather. Goerne has a big voice, and so the entire dynamic range was scaled up. But it was still a wide range, and when he needed to convince you that something was small and delicate, he did so—just in a bigger way than other singers. He had a peculiar but endearing tendency to use his hands when suggesting intimate ideas, as if physically drawing forth the delicacy, sculpting it in the air in front of him.

                He used his power well. It was hard to tell in “Mein!,” an exuberant love song in which the poet boisterously asserts the power of his love, commanding nature itself to yield to its force, if Goerne was feeling joy, or some kind of violent ecstasy. The mania of Wagner’s Siegfried seemed to creep into the oversized reading of this besotted song. But a long, ominous crescendo at the end of “Trock’ne Blumen” gave this song, and the cycle itself, an almost symphonic scale. The stock romantic figures who play on the stage of Schubert’s song cycles cast very big shadows behind them; Goerne’s reading constantly referred to that shadow play, in which bigger things are intimated than the sometimes flimsy poetry can bear. The last two songs were wrenching.

                Only two quibbles: The piano made unfortunate buzzing sounds throughout the evening, perhaps a sign of dry air in the hall. Eschenbach didn’t seem able to work around the problem, and his playing was scattershot and often clumsy. He is attentive, and the two artists were never at cross purposes. But a better pianist, or a better rehearsed pianist, would have made this very fine performance all the better.

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Brokeback Mountain: The Opera

If I could be anywhere on January 28 it would be in Madrid at the Teatro Real, for the premiere of Brokeback Mountain, the new opera composed by Charles Wuorinen to a libretto by the author of the original short story, Annie Proulx. I interviewed Wuorinen for Opera News and was happy that he willingly delved into his compositional ideas (composers, frustrated and irritated by journalists, usually talk in cliches and generalities).

It isn’t an obvious idea, to take a story about inarticulate gay cowboys and transpose it into an old and complex musical medium. But Wuorinen found precedent in the history of opera for exactly the musical materials he needed to express the inarticulateness of his characters, especially poor Ennis, who is the more conflicted and closeted of the two men. The composer turned to Arnold Schoenberg:

As Wuorinen developed musical characterization for his cowboys, he turned to Schoenberg’s experimental half-sung, half-spoken Sprechstimme for inspiration. In Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, Moses laments his “awkward tongue,” his inability to put complex thought into comprehensible words: “Meine Zunge ist ungelenk, ich kann denken, aber nicht reden” [My tongue is awkward, I can think but not speak]. In Brokeback Mountain, says Wuorinen, Ennis “can’t acknowledge who he is, what he is, until too late, when he has lost the one thing he valued.” And so, like Moses, Ennis expresses himself first with a kind of pitched speech, only developing into sung lines in the second of the opera’s two acts. The evolution parallels his capacity for self-expression, though as in Proulx’s original story, this dim awareness becomes explicit to himself only in a final, excruciating, primal realization of loss.

The two central characters are associated with different pitches, B-natural and C-sharp, a whole step apart, yet divided by a third tonal area associated with the mountain itself, based on a low C. “The note between, C-natural, I regard as the note of death,” says Wuorinen, recalling its role at the end of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and a long history of powerful but now vestigial associations between tones and ideas. This “foundation note for the mountain,” he says, “betokens power and often a certain freedom and peace, and also it is menace.” The two characters, musically close but eternally separated, “converge on this disaster.” The musical presence of the mountain, introduced in the opera’s prelude, distinguishes the stage work from the film, where the setting, while starkly beautiful, was a neutral presence. In the opera, Proulx and Wuorinen develop an almost magical power to the mountain, as if it instigated the love that tortures the two men.

For a taste of how Schoenberg used the voice, listen to this.

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A Nod from WQXR

Happy to see my August essay about the challenges faced by orchestras, written for the August 29 issue of The New Republic, was included in the top six essays of the year, as selected by the New York classical radio station, WQXR. Here is the full list:

1. “Pitch Battles,” by Colin Dickey, The Believer, January 2013

2. “In Search of Van Cliburn” by Prudence MacKintosh, Texas Monthly, February 28.

3. “Othello’s Daughter” by Alex Ross The New Yorker, July 29.

4. “America’s Orchestras Are in Crisis” by Philip Kennicott, The New Republic, August 29.

5. “The Battle of Britten” by Leo Carey, New York Review of Books, August 15.

Heat in a Mild Climate” by James Wood, London Review of Books, December 19, 2013

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Omniscient Mussel

musselI know of only one opera with an omniscient seashell in it, the all-knowing mussel that serves up a prophetic prompt at the beginning of Richard Strauss’s 1928 Die ägyptische Helena. One couldn’t help but think of the all-wise sea creature when reading that the world’s most venerable morsel of animal life, a 507-year-old clam known as Ming, has given its life to science. In one of those news stories one feels rather ashamed to spend any time with at all, we learned that in an effort to date Ming, his/her shell was pried open so as to properly date him/her. One giant leap for science, and one enormous vault into eternity for poor Ming.

It seems that Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the librettist for Strauss’s opera, had a thing for mussels, in a literary sense. Almost 30 years before he included a Pythian mussel in Die ägyptische Helena  he wrote a little bit of free verse called “Tide Creature: Mussel Poem:”

We are alone in the dark, you up top have lips, curled leaves intertwined hands with rosy blood and bluish veins we are alone and cannot touch each other. We live hard, our fate is to resist the surges and we will, and triumph and suffering color us the reflection of autumn and the sun color the surface of the waves.

The confusion in the pronoun “we,” and the ambiguities created by the unorthodox punctuation (or lack of it), invite the reader to assume the mussel is including humans in his address, that we live in the dark and resist the surges, as much as the benighted bivalve comnmunities of the deep. But it also feels as if the mussel is encountering us across an unbridgeable divide, perhaps seeing us wrong (“curled leaves intertwined…”), or with the confusion of looking through an unfamiliar medium (through air, if you’re a mussel, through water if you’re human). Problems of communication, and the impossibility of conveying true meaningful experience, especially ecstatic moments, are always close to Hofmannsthal’s heart.

Strauss, on the other hand, has no problems at all with ecstatic moments. I looked for a clip of the Omniscient Mussel on Youtube and couldn’t find anything. But I don’t think Ming is dishonored by this fine bit of singing, from the same opera, courtesy Leontyne Price.

Image: Joris Hoefnagel, illuminator (Flemish / Hungarian, 1542 – 1600)
and Georg Bocskay, scribe (Hungarian, died 1575) Maltese Cross, Mussel, and Ladybird, 1561 – 1562; illumination added 1591 – 1596, Watercolors, gold and silver paint, and ink on parchment

Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

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The Romanian Rhapsody

George_EnescoIt’s not often I go to a concert primarily to hear the curtain raiser, but if you live with a Romanian you have to make certain accommodations. This weekend the National Symphony Orchestra opened its Barber and Rachmaninoff program with George Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No. 1. It’s a fantastic show piece, and not played nearly often enough.

Listening to it again last night I realized that if you don’t know Romanian folk music, then Enescu’s rather literal orchestral transcription of classic folk songs will seem strangely modern. Enescu, of course, adds plenty to the mix, but the sound he’s aiming for—the busy, bright, hammered sound of the cimbalom, the slurpy portamento of the fiddle and the almost sea-sick, start-stop rhythmic profile—sounds to us as if the music is chaotic, fractured and chromatic.

Here, for example, is the composer himself performing one of the songs (“Ciocarlia,” or “The Lark”) on the violin. Enescu was an astonishingly great violinist, and a legendary pedagogue, and this clip gives you a sense of why Yehudi Menuhin, Arthur Grumiaux and Ida Haendel all studied with him.

And here is a traditional performance of “Ciocarlia,” complete with the deliciously psychedelic imitation of birdsong that is part of classic renditions.

It’s possible to over think this kind of music, to render it dutifully as “classical music” and leach all the life out of it. Here’s Benny Goodman doing just that with a piece inspired by the “hora” style of Romania folk music.

But great performances of Enescu’s confection have an infectious, semi-drunken, over-the-top spirit, and here’s one of the greatest conductor-clowns bringing down the house, Sergiu Celibadache.

Finally, and just for fun, here is Enescu whistling a “doina” melody, while playing the piano. Bartok also “discovered” doina melodies and repurposed them. But Enescu’s whistle version is just amazingly odd and haunting.

 

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