Thursday, 26 November 2009

A Philadelphia Story

Ralph P. Locke, editor of Eastman Studies in Music (University of Rochester Press) reported last year on some pretty wild doings in “Music City” (Nashville, Tennessee) when the American Musicological Society came to town. This year the meeting was held in Philadelphia and celebrated the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Society. His report focuses on the awards ceremonies held in the grand ballroom of the Sheraton City Center Hotel.

Scholarly meetings are rarely known for high theatricality. At the American Musicological Society’s annual gathering, though, there is that moment during the Business Meeting when, in front of more than a thousand seated conference attendees, awards are given out for particularly distinguished scholarly works of the past year.

Some awards are defined by the age of the author (“in the early stages of his or her career” or its opposite, which has various affectionate nicknames) or by the format of the scholarly product (book, articles, or conference paper). Others are defined by scholarly area: performance practice (e.g., Baroque ornamentation), Broadway and music theater, gay/ lesbian/ transgendered studies, and so on.

All the awards, though, tend to be announced in an exceptionally dramatic manner: the chair of the respective prize committee (or another member of the committee) reads a citation that describes the winning item, using a succession of phrases that tempt and tease the audience. Only in the final words does the speaker reveal the identity of the winning title and author.

This ritual was beautifully enacted in Philadelphia on 17 November 2009 by Paul Laird, reporting for the Robert M. Stevenson Committee, which singles out each year an unusually distinguished (nobody in the scholarly world ever declares something simply the “best”) scholarly product dealing with Spanish or Latin American music. The book was published by University of Rochester Press in its Eastman Studies in Music series, and had already garnered great praise both pre- and post-publication. The craftily crafted citation went like this:

The Robert M. Stevenson Committee for 2009 considered a number of fine sources for the award for the best piece of scholarship on an Iberian or Latin American topic. We chose a virtuosic study of a single, baffling source in which the author established its provenance; substantially illuminated the manuscript, the city, and the time from which it emanated; effectively contextualized the source’s iconography in a rich web of multinational references; and considered the music in terms of concordances and related repertories, both monophonic and polyphonic. The author began with traditional philological methods and constructed an impressive historical edifice around the source, raising issues concerning a multi-religious and multi-cultural community and finally offering a rich picture of the devotional practices of a confraternity, synthesizing medieval tradition and humanistic modernity. We are pleased to honor with the 2009 Stevenson Prize Lorenzo Candelaria’s The Rosary Cantoral: Ritual and Social Design in a Chantbook from Early Renaissance Toledo (University of Rochester Press, 2008).

Many of us, sitting in the audience, figured out quickly—this is of course part of the fun—just which “virtuosic study of a single, baffling source” was surely being rewarded. The University of Rochester Press and Boydell and Brewer (which distributes URP’s book outside of North America) congratulate Lorenzo Candelaria.

Professor Candelaria is now busy at work on a broader but, in its own way, equally “virtuosic” book: a richly contextualized study of sacred music in Mexico, from the Conquistadores to today. The tantalizing title: Music in Mexican Catholicism. The publisher, we proudly state in our closing sentence is, once again, . . . (drumroll, please!) University of Rochester Press.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Handel's Faramondo

This week’s Handel opera on BBC Radio 3 is Faramondo, first performed at the King’s Theatre on 3 January 1738. In the following edited extract from his Handel’s Operas 1726-1741, Winton Dean points out some of the problems surrounding the libretto:

The source of this story is Faramond, ou l’histoire de France, by Gautier de Costes de la Calprenède (1610–63), courtier and author of long-winded pseudo-historical romances. Faramond, reputedly the first King of France (420–28), belongs to the world of Arthurian myth. Apostolo Zeno’s libretto, first set by C. F. Pollarolo for Venice in 1699, abjured the comic and magical elements characteristic of seventeenth-century opera and treated the story seriously as political and military history, crossed as usual by interlocking love intrigues. It was subsequently set by Porpora (Naples, 1719) and Francesco Gasparini (Rome, 1720).

Gasparini’s libretto, Handel’s immediate source, made considerable alterations to Zeno; Handel’s was faithful to Gasparini’s, except in one crucial particular. as was to be expected, he reduced the aria ration of all the characters except Faramondo, Gustavo’s very considerably.

The libretto as it stands is hopelessly obscure. Presumably the intended framework was a contrast between heathen savagery on the one hand and Augustan Enlightenment on the other, and their different conceptions of honour. Gustavo and at first Rosimonda feel bound by their oath, Faramondo by heroic ideals of generosity and forgiveness. But it all rings hollow because their behaviour is simply not credible, even in terms of the operatic stage. The trouble goes back to Gasparini’s libretto. Zeno began logically with Sveno’s death and Rosimonda’s promise to execute ‘orribile vendetta’ on his killer. Gasparini chopped off Zeno’s first six scenes, which introduce most of the characters, leaving the plot squirming like a worm without a head. Handel then made his one major change, the drastic abbreviation of the recitatives. This is common enough in his operas, especially the later ones, but never so crushingly as here. Gasparini’s libretto contains some 1,240 lines of recitative, Handel’s a mere 540. As a result the plot becomes a whirlpool of inconsequence. Deprived of the dialogue that elucidates their motives, the characters behave like ventriloquists’ dummies, jerked into action by some unseen force. Little but violent action is left, much of it off-stage, and so beyond the audience’s grasp.

What is this internecine tribal warfare all about? Why, and where, is Faramondo fighting the Cimbri? What are the walls from which he emerges in act I, and why is he imprisoned by Rosimonda and not by Gustavo? The geography is chaotic. Do Gustavo and Rosimonda inhabit one palace, or two? What is Childerico’s position in the royal household? While it was inevitable that love interest should come to the fore, the two characters not amorously involved but essential to the story – Teobaldo, who started the trouble, and Childerico, who puts an end to it – are under-represented and almost elbowed out. Some of the action might be clearer in the theatre, but nothing could bring the whole contraption to life.

Other details suggest clumsy workmanship, perhaps a rushed job: a string of angry exits in recitative where the situation asks for the release of steam in an aria, and simile pieces at unsuitable moments. It is no surprise that each heroine likens herself to a ship in trouble; but Gernando, Adolfo and Clotilde in turn hold up act III by adducing more or less irrelevant parallels with the natural world. There are signs of botching in act II. ‘Combattuta’ must have been designed originally for Rosimonda – it is she, not Clotilde, who at this point is torn by conflicting emotions – and ‘sol la brama di vendetta’ for Clotilde, whom Gustavo has just insulted. The libretto actually gives this aria to Clotilde, and Rosimonda has the recitative immediately before ‘Combattuta’. All that was necessary to make this change in the libretto was to shift her exit back before the aria, a move that did not reach the English version, where Rosimonda by implication still has the aria. A possible reason for this manoeuvre was that Handel had discovered the gifts of his new prima donna Francesina, whom he cast for Clotilde, and saw in ‘Combattuta’ an opportunity for a brilliant soprano aria, whereas his Rosimonda was a mezzo-soprano.

All this raises a suspicion that Handel’s eye was not consistently on the ball. He may have had his fill of dark age blood-and-thunder melodrama. Berenice and Arminio had been a come-down after the glories of the Ariosto operas, and though Giustino promised a new approach he had not yet found the lighter tone of Serse and Imeneo. Strohm suggests that the libretto of Faramondo may have been chosen by Heidegger, and that Handel set it unwillingly. However that may be, it is a very uneven opera, with half a dozen peaks where some facet set Handel’s genius alight, chiefly in act II, but a good deal of routine matter.

Faramondo will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 19th November and will be available on BBC iPlayer soon after. The above piece is extracted from Winton Dean’s acclaimed
Handel’s Operas 1726-1741. The earlier volume, written with the late John Merrill Knapp, and covering the years from 1704 to 1726, is available again now. Both volumes may be purchased together at a special price. As it’s still only the middle of November we won’t mention anything about perfect Christmas presents for anyone interested in Handel or the history of the opera.

Friday, 13 November 2009

'A storm of tears'

The weekend newspapers in the UK were full of articles on Alan Bennett, celebrating his new play, The Habit of Art, which opens this week. His subject is an imagined meeting between W H Auden and Benjamin Britten as both approached the end of their lives (in reality, they went their separate ways in the early 1940s).

Auden’s relationship with Britten reached its creative peak in the 1930s, producing half a dozen major works and a number of songs. Philip Hensher in the Guardian, assesses the partnership thus:

For a few years the two came together; they were never truly compatible, artistically or as people, and their joint products are tantalising rather than fulfilled.

It is Hensher’s argument that Britten composed better operas with lesser librettists while it took a composer of the stature of Stravinsky to bring out the best of Auden (in The Rake’s Progress). Donald Mitchell, in his acclaimed series of lectures Britten and Auden in the Thirties: The Year 1936, explains perhaps why Hensher feels a sense of disappointment:

It is absolutely necessary to see the thirties, for Britten, as an integral part of the continuous history of his growth as a composer, albeit a highly important part. If one can understand that the contribution he made to the decade was the result of being the personality that he already was, and also, and no less interestingly, that his post-thirties development shows an equivalent consistency, one is well on the way to comprehending the overall consistency of his life’s work. [p.21]

In an article in the London Review of Books, Alan Bennett admits to finding Britten ‘a difficult man to like…glamorous though he must have been and a superb teacher’. He quotes Auden as saying, ‘Real artists are not nice people…All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue’ and continues:

Both Britten and Pears were notorious for cutting people out of their lives…friends and acquaintances suddenly turned into living corpses if they overstepped the mark.

Despite this, Tim Adams, in a long piece in Sunday’s Observer, points out:

In his notes to The Habit of Art Bennett suggests that he identifies himself in the play not with Auden but with Benjamin Britten, the poet's estranged friend and one-time collaborator. In their fictitious meeting in the play Britten is repressed and tongue-tied, next to Auden, who is anything but.

Once again, Donald Mitchell is illuminating on this point:

The poet’s fearsome brilliance of mind, prodigious learning and intellectual curiosity were embodied in a person whom Britten…found increasingly and dauntingly dogmatic and authoritarian in his views and attitudes; and the composer’s negative reaction was of course exacerbated – exaggerated – by his own sense of ‘inferiority’. [pp.134-5]

Mitchell further illuminates Philip Hensher’s point about the tantalising if unfulfilled nature of the Britten/Auden collaborations, pointing out that ‘the somewhat baffling texts of the framing Prologue and Epilogue in Our Hunting Fathers were the last to be tackled by the composer because their very complexity presented him with a particular musical problem.’ Britten was willing to go along with an element of verbal obscurity, especially when its source was an admired figure like Auden. However ‘once he was set tasks of immeasurable verbal difficulty to solve, challenges which he found positively anti-musical, the seeds of later rebellion were sown…we can begin to discern the cause of the friction that led finally to their going their independent ways.’ [p.136]

Bennett’s idea of having Auden and Britten meet again after several decades will certainly make for a fascinating evening in the theatre (audiences certainly anticipate it – the play is fully booked until 2010). One might even wish that they had collaborated again when Britten’s compositional powers were even greater than they were in the 1930s. However, we should not forget the enduring effect that Auden had on the younger composer, as this moving conclusion to Donald Mitchell’s Preface to the revised edition of his book demonstrates:

In 1973, when Britten was staying with us in Sussex, he responded to the unexpected news of Auden’s death, ‘with a storm of tears’, as I was to write later. (It was the only time I ever witnessed Britten weeping.) I have no doubt that in those tears, grief and gratitude were present in equal measure.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

György on György

Bálint András Varga’s recently published György Kurtág: Three Interviews and Ligeti Homages is a compelling view of the composer at work and his unquenchable thirst for artistic and human impressions. Rather than trying to find a representative piece from the interviews to excerpt, we decided to use one of Kurtág’s pieces on Ligeti: these demonstrate the composer’s love and admiration for his great friend in terms that cannot fail to move the reader.

The following is taken from the opening of Kurtág’s speech read in the presence of Ligeti at a ceremony in Munich in May 1993, where Ligeti was presented with the Siemens Prize. Kurtág is inhibited about speaking in public, but put together a beautifully inventive series of memories presented as scenes in a kind of theatre, as he explains in his introduction.

Dear György Ligeti,
Honored ladies and gentlemen,

How to speak—when one is not a master of words? How can I evoke scenes from the time we spent with Ligeti without having a minimum of eloquence at my disposal to connect my narrative with what came before and afterward?

If I could compose my memories like music I would have to tell them simultaneously —the chief strands in the middle—as if on a podium—and then imagine the scenes—for example, what Ligeti experienced earlier and I only know from his or others’ descriptions—let’s say high up—in a back corner—the consequences of the central events also somewhere at the side or the top center; and a series of merely illuminating incidents over the course of many years—so to speak—all around us.

So, first scene (central—on the podium):

Christmas Eve 1957—according to a telegram I still have, at 11:02 p.m. — Paris—Gare du Nord. Ligeti arrives in Paris for the first time in his life. I wait at the station. The pianist György Szoltsányi, my friend and our host that evening, finds it strange that someone should want to travel so late on Christmas Eve. He invites Ligeti as well to his home at 48 Boulevard Garibaldi.
“The metro is still running,” I say.
“No, let’s walk!”
And without hesitating Ligeti leads me through the streets of Paris, I who have lived here for over six months—naming every intersection and the streets beyond.

(back corner, top, left):
Ligeti’s early childhood. His obsessive pastime: perusing maps and memorizing them by heart—among them the map of his dream city, Paris—while already working on his fictitious country, Kylwyria.

(front, top, right):
The spirit of the Kylwyria construct seems to be hereditary—also in his early childhood, his son Lukas spent years writing the encyclopedia of his invented planet, with examples from its scientific history, literature, fine arts, and music.

(front, top, left):
The musical examples from this encyclopedia will later form an important starting point for my Játékok—or Games—for piano (and now a summary—all around us): For a long time, a lifetime, Ligeti led me onward. No, I must correct myself immediately: I followed him—sometimes right behind him and other times years or even decades later. I call it my “Imitatio Christi” syndrome. The first years of our friendship were marked not only by his intellectual leadership. Without being immediately influenced, I oriented my taste—even steps in my private life—according to his example.

(podium, center):
The Budapest Academy of Music, twelve years earlier—the beginning of September 1945. The entrance examination in composition. A very serious looking, friendly but distant young man, perhaps also distant because of his glasses, waits beside me. He seems older, but as I flip through his compositions it strikes me that he is a generation older. Choral works, probably also the second Cantata. From the Latin text I assume not very logically that he is a Calvinist theologian. There are also instrumental works and I see, or rather feel intuitively, that these are no student compositions. They comprise a self-contained, mature world, reigned over by a striking order in the note texture. My feeling: I have met a master.

(still on the podium, center):
Early July 1958. Now it is I who arrive, and he who waits for me at the station in Cologne. He talks about Stockhausen’s most recent works on the way to the hotel and then straight on to the radio station where I would listen to the recordings over the next two days, telling me of the Groups for Three Orchestras with three conductors, and of its Alban Berg-like violin cadences and the segments with the dramatic, wildly jostling and quarreling brass instruments. These are the sections that strike me the most vividly when I hear the Groups in Stockhausen’s presence at the studio. Artikulation, also a new work, overwhelms me entirely. I experience the work as the first true Ligeti—marked by a density of events, a directness in its statement and a fine balance of humor and tragedy that still seem to me unsurpassed, even compared with his later development.

(top, back, right):
I speak of my impressions from those days, not of the absolute value of the compositions. But even later these two—Artikulation, Atmosphères—remain for me absolute masterpieces—representing two basic aspects of Ligeti’s work. Apparitions seemed to me rather a station on the way to them.

(top, front, left):
Today I view Apparitions entirely differently, but my loves nevertheless remain: Artikulation, Atmosphères.

(top, front, right):
After my return to Hungary—we would not see each other for ten years—I began my new life with Opus 1. From then on, my ideal and aspiration was to formulate in my language something similar to what I had experienced with Artikulation in Cologne.

(top, back, left):
He had written me in Paris: “You must get to know the studio in Cologne before you go back to Hungary”—knowing how difficult it would be for me to leave the country again. And in fact, these two days were musically far richer and more meaningful for me than the entire year in Paris. What I failed to see was that although he earned practically nothing for years, he underwent great sacrifices to pay for my room and board.

The piece continues in Bálint András Varga’s György Kurtág: Three Interviews and Ligeti Homages (one of ReadySteadyBook’s selections of the month for November 2009), available now from all good booksellers. It is followed by a speech given in 2007 in Berlin in memory of Ligeti. Kurtág begins, ‘Obituary, speech of mourning? For me he’s more alive than ever.’