Monday, 28 July 2008

What’s in a pronoun?

From Beyond the Stave is now taking a short summer break with new postings beginning again at the end of August. In the meantime we leave you with a fascinating piece by Ian Woodfield based on his forthcoming book, Mozart's Così fan tutte: A Compositional History:

On the dust jacket of my book is reproduced a small fragment of Mozart’s handwriting: ‘Rivolgete à lui lo sguardo’, which translates as ‘Turn your gaze upon him’. With these words, Guglielmo proposes how the two sisters should pair off with their disguised lovers. It is immediately apparent that Mozart left a blank where ‘lui’ should have gone. His inability to write down the necessary pronoun is remarkable, considering that this aria comes at a critical turning point in the drama. In the end, someone else had to add it in, while in his own catalogue, he recorded a different first line altogether: ‘Rivolgete à me’.

Similar indecision is seen in the duet between Ferrando and Fiordiligi. Again, duplicity is in the air, and again Mozart was briefly unclear in his mind as to which pronouns were needed. Fiordiligi recognises that her constancy (‘la mia costanza’) is wavering, but what of Ferrando? His balancing line was changed twice: from ‘la sua costanza’ to ‘la mia costanza’ and back again. The editors of the Neue Mozart Ausgabe believed that this intermediate version was in fact ‘la tua costanza’.

There is a further example of pronoun fluidity in Don Giovanni, an opera in which there is generally little room for doubt as to what the characters on stage are thinking. In the final scene, in a moment of Così-like ambiguity, the feelings of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio for each other are far from clear. Mozart had once more to correct his pronouns, switching the letters ‘m’ and ‘t’. These signify the first or second person in the phrase ‘Al desio di chi m’ / t’adora’, which (in one form or another) is sung by both these lovers.

The unexplained discrepancy in the pronoun at the start of Guglielmo’s aria provided the starting point for this study, an earlier attempt at a monograph on Mozart as the would-be Engländer having failed. I began by trying to invent plausible solutions to this mystery, using imagination rather than factual evidence. These were unconvincingly elaborate, falling foul of a good principle of historical research that the simpler explanation is usually the preferable one. Yet over time I started to become aware that a better answer lay just below the surface of my consciousness, and the moment when this finally broke through was an exhilarating one: right or wrong, the idea that Mozart considered a plot structure in which each officer would seduce his own lover, was a workable hypothesis. It appealed immediately to my liking for lateral thinking. To the age-old question, should the original couples be restored at the end of the opera or not, we could now respond: perhaps they were not separated in the first place!

Starting out with a hypothesis and then seeking evidence to prove it is a risky procedure. There is a real danger that creative fiction will be the result. Yet I would not have been able to ‘deduce’ this theory from an objective collation of all the relevant data. For one thing, a theory of this kind tends to determine itself what is or is not perceived as being evidence. In retrospect, the initial question still seems a good one, and I remain convinced that the enigma of Così fan tutte is in some way connected to uncertainty over its pairings.

To complete this study, it was necessary to examine all the early Abschriften or copies. The lack of a proper philological account of these came as a complete surprise to me, and I spent a lot of time constructing one for my ‘compositional history’, as it was now called. Even in this last phase of work, questions about pronouns refused to go away. Scholars have sometimes expressed puzzlement over the word ‘noi’ (us) in the second stanza of Fiordiligi’s celebrated aria of resistance ‘Come scoglio’. Who is this other person on behalf of whom she suddenly appears to be speaking? By the time that the Vienna Court Theatre copy was being prepared, however, ‘noi’ (us) had already become ‘voi’ (you). The pronouns in the Act II duet underwent an even more drastic realignment. Were we to hear the opera in this form, we would listen, doubtless with growing amazement, as Fiordiligi expresses concern over Ferrando’s constancy, while he adopts an introspective pose, worrying about his own loyalty. Surely this must be a mistake? Or is it? Either way, the meaning of Così is bound up with the fate of its pronouns.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

The irresistible Dora

Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music by John Lucas is one of the highlights of our autumn publication schedule. In this much shortened extract from Chapter 10 we learn how the conductor met soprano Dora Labbette.

On 15th December 1926 at Queen’s Hall, Beecham conducted a pioneering and revelatory performance of Handel’s Messiah, for which, instead of the unwieldy, elephantine choir traditionally thought suitable for the work in London, he used the smallish Philharmonic Choir, trained by Charles Kennedy Scott and full of fresh, talented and enthusiastic young voices. The London Symphony Orchestra’s playing was unusually surefooted, which the New Statesman’s critic, W.J. Turner, attributed to the fact that the orchestra had been playing on tour under Beecham for some weeks, and as a result ‘had got thoroughly into form and accustomed to his style’. Tempi were fleet, textures light.

The soprano soloist, Dora Labbette, was a dark-haired, down-to-earth beauty with a racy sense of humour who maintained that Beecham chose her for the event after seeing a photograph of her during a visit to her agents, Ibbs & Tillett. Born Dorothy Bella Labbett at Woodside, near Croydon, the daughter of a railway porter, she had shown a talent for singing from an early age and during the First World War had won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music, where in 1917 she crowned a series of awards by winning the Gold Medal.

Labbette’s voice was once perceptively described as being ‘of a timbre which is peculiarly individual in its charm – the clear purity of a boy soprano touched with womanly warmth and sweetness’. Beecham fell in love with the sound. He also fell in love with twenty-eight year old Labbette, and in due course began an affair with her that would last thirteen years. At the time of the Messiah Beecham was forty-seven.

Incidentally, Beecham’s performance of the Messiah was generally greeted with considerable enthusiasm: the Guardian, for example, found it ‘a welcome substitute for the ballasted, coarsened, and square-cut versions that are too often so confidently given out as the real Handel’ while the afore-mentioned Mr Turner considered it ‘one of the greatest musical achievements of a generation of concert giving in London.’ Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music will be published in September, and will include a CD of the conductor in rehearsal.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

The honorary gentleman

The latest volume in our Music in Britain 1600-1900 series is Suzanne Cole's study of Thomas Tallis in the 19th century. Here the author explains how she came to her subject:

The origins of my book, Thomas Tallis and his Music in Victorian England, can be traced back to my student years at Melbourne University in the early 1980s. Although I was actually enrolled in a science degree, I also took organ lessons with Revd. Paul Harvie, an eccentric, infuriating, but inspiring Anglo-Catholic priest of the very ‘highest’ kind. After a couple of years, in the absence of suitable male candidates, Paul made me his assistant organist at the parish of Christ Church, Brunswick, and began, somewhat grudgingly (he was not known for his enlightened views on women), to initiate me into the mysteries of what he referred to on recruiting flyers for choir boys as the ‘900 year tradition’. There is much that could be criticised about Paul’s methods – I was occasionally allowed to sing with the choir, but never to robe or process, and was always referred to as an ‘honorary gentlemen’, and he was famous for flying into a rage if foolish parents allowed their child to make any noise in church. But his quixotic commitment to maintaining the English Cathedral tradition in a parish church in a working-class suburb of Melbourne was both inspiring and intriguing.

So my book is – albeit indirectly – an attempt to explore this tradition, and perhaps more importantly the romanticised myths that surround it. But it also explores the essential differences between the culture of church music and what is now the dominant secular culture of the concert hall, and the historical transition between the two. By taking a single composer and following attitudes towards him and his music over an extended period of time, I have, I hope, been able to show how attitudes have changed, how myths have developed and shifted, and how the music was made to serve the cultural and religious agendas of the day.

So why Tallis? The obvious reason is that for several centuries Tallis was the Father of English Church Music. I had thought that this definition had ceased to be relevant sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, but I recently stumbled across it on the official website of the TV series The Tudors, so the tradition lingers on. (I am at a loss though as to what this astonishingly imaginative depiction of Tallis and his poor wife Joan tells us about the reception of early music!).

And why Victorian England? Because, pace Fr Paul, most of the traditions that he was celebrating and preserving, rather than dating back 900 years, don’t extend back much further than the early to mid-nineteenth century. And of course, once I started researching I found that these traditions weren’t quite what I expected anyway.

The research for this book, which took place in intensive bursts during trips to the UK (there’s nothing like a 26-hour flight to focus the mind!), was a delight: the excitement of finding a review of a performance after hours, or even days, of trawling through newspapers; the privilege of holding the early seventeenth-century manuscript of Spem in alium. But the moment of highest excitement was without doubt finding the handbill for the 1835 Anniversary Festival of the Madrigal Society, which proved that, contrary to popular belief, Spem had not been performed that year. Someone, and I’m afraid I can’t remember who, suggested that I contact Oliver Davies, as the portraits and programs collection at the Royal College of Music might have some useful material. So in I went. Oliver, who was not a young man at the time, took me on an amazing journey through the bowels of the RCM – up stairs, round corners, down narrow corridors – all at break neck speed. If he’d abandoned me I doubt whether I would ever have found my way out again. Finally we ended up in what I remember, quite possibly incorrectly, as a tiny room high in a tower, piled from floor to ceiling with bundles of paper and boxes full of concert programs. I told him what I was interested in and he immediately dived into one of the many piles, pulled out a box and extracted a single piece of paper – the only nineteenth-century Madrigal Society program that they had. And by what I still consider to be some sort of miracle, it was the one that I needed!

I’m still not entirely sure why I have been so completely entranced by the ‘900 year tradition’, why I spent quite so many hours listening to Bernard Rose’s recording of Tomkins with the choir of Magdalen College, Oxford, as an 18-year-old science student. But I hope that this book brings us some little way closer to an understanding of our collective relationship with the music of the early English church.

Suzanne Cole's book is available now. Those interested in the '900 year tradition', may be interested to look here.