Saturday, July 31, 2010

Pergolesi and the Mother of Sorrows

The romantic imagination cannot help but ignite in contemplation of the life of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736), the sickly son of a surveyor, with his deformed leg and constant tubercular illnesses, who changed the musical world and died unknown at the age of 26. He rose through standard musical training, paid through performances as a choirboy and later as a violinist, and become maestro di cappella to Prince Ferdinando Colonna Stigliano in Naples at age 21. It was there that he revitalized the art of comic opera with the infamous work "La serva padronna." By 1735, he was too sick to maintain his duties for the prince and left for a nearby monastery, where his famous Stabat Mater was written for 26 Neapolitan ducats, a sum which did not cover the costs of the his own burial two months later.

(Performance by Countertenor Andreas Scholl and Soprano Barbara Bonney)
The opening movement develops three settings of the first tercet of the traditional latin Stabat Mater text:

Stabat mater dolorosa (The mother of sorrows)
juxta Crucem lacrimosa, (stood in tears beside)
dum pendebat Filius. (her son's cross)

This is a setting of continual compressions:

After the introduction, the first setting [0:57] opens with lines that rise through suspensions in an unforgettable portrayal of suffering. The first line is set only once, but the second and third lines are each echoed. The second line of the tercet is sung first by the soprano [1:25] alone and then by the countertenor alone [1:35]. The third line in the tercet [1:44] is sung in harmony and echoed in harmony. In this echo the soprano begins in advance of the countertenor.

The second setting of the text [2:18] is compressed with each line articulated only once, and punctuated by vocal silence.

The final setting is compressed into a diamond. Over the deceptive cadence associated with the introduction [0:38-0:49], the last word of line one and the last word of line two are articulated [3:20]. The final line is set sotto voce with the countertenor entering in advance of the soprano.

This performance by Les Talens Lyriques conducted by Christophe Rousset is crisp, clean and haunted. It sings of sorrows and of disappearances.

Friday, July 30, 2010

James Joyce, M'appari, and a cool old guitar

(James Joyce playing a guitar in 1915)

In the 11th episode of Ulysses by James Joyce, nicknamed "sirens," there is a confluence of rhythms and words always worth another look.

It is shortly after 4 pm in the bar at the Ormond Hotel. Simon Dedalus sings "M'appari tutto amor" from Martha by Flotow. Here is an irresistible early recording of that aria sung by Aristodemo Giorgini to put you in the mood:

The first stanza:

M'appari tutt' amor, (Your apparition full of love)
il mio sguardo l'incontro; (and my sorrow departed)
bella si che il mio cor, (so beautiful that my heart)
ansioso a lei volo; (flew with longing)

Bloom is writing a letter to someone named Martha as this song commences and he notes the coincidence. He then wanders into a lovely riff:

"Numbers it is. All music when you come to think. Two multiplied by two divided by half is twice one. Vibrations: chords those are. One plus two plus six is seven. Do anything you like with figures juggling. Always find out this equal to that. Symmetry under a cemetery wall. He doesn’t see my mourning. Callous: all for his own gut. Musemathematics. And you think you’re listening to the etherial. But suppose you said it like: Martha, seven times nine minus x is thirtyfive thousand. Fall quite flat. It’s on account of the sounds it is."

It is...

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Jeffrey Biegel plays Chopin Andante Spinato

Yesterday pianist Jeffrey Biegel posted his work on Chopin's Andante Spinato in a recording made in his home "reviewing this lovely work for the weekend's performance with orchestra:"

Biegel is one of the more enterprising and technologically flexible pianists on the scene. I had the opportunity to work with him a few times in the late 90s at The Music Festival of the Hamptons and have reviewed his playing in the Hartford Courant. He has a unique pianistic voice and a professional presence that is refreshing and often unexpected. Who knows where, or through what medium, he will next appear?

This video was a welcome surprise this morning.

Until recently domestic music making was largely undocumented. A great deal of what is out on the net could perhaps have remained undocumented even for its occasional sweetness. But this video is a great example of a digital invitation to hear a professional pianist think through a familiar work.

The Andante Spinato is an essay in prolonged ecstasy. The opening section of this song without words is set in three verses: in G major [0:11], an embellished restatement [0:30], and an excursion through e minor [0:52]. Biegel spins effortless lyricism.

[1:30] brings back the opening verses in G major with a continued sense of notated improvisation. One of my favorite parts of this recording is the restatement at [1:51] where Biegel voices up the unexpected companion that joins the melody. Gorgeous playing.

This larger section dissolves in winding figuration [2:15]. Biegel finds musical humor in the fragments appended like an after-thought [2:38] that allow this section to land.

The wonderful central chorale in C major, marked "semplice" begins at [2:45]. Biegel is paying attention to details in the notated phrase groupings that differ in the right and left hands. He also makes the triplets sound as unexpected and odd as they actually are [3:11], often pianists attempt to make them sound "normal."

The winding figuration of the codetta that closed the first section returns [3:40]. This section makes the semplice sound like a daydream. And were it not for the reappearance at [4:11] one could be convinced that it was imaginary.

All pianos on the east coast are stressed from the heat and humidity we have felt all month. "The hammers have been filed and re-shaped and need some voicing" said Biegel. The upper register tuning is not perfect. But this video is not about perfection, it is about sharing. Sharing is its own perfection.

"Just me, at home," says Biegel in the uploader's comments. Biegel is more than "just."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Hearing Bizet with Nietzsche

"Yesterday--would you believe it?" wrote Nietzsche, "I heard Bizet's masterwork for the 20th time." So opens his book known as "The Case of Wagner; A Musician's Problem."

"Again, I attended with a gentle devotion; I did not run away, again. This victory over my impatience surprises me. How fulfilling is such a work! One turns into a masterpiece with it.--And, indeed, I appeared to myself, every time that I heard Carmen, to be more of a philosopher, a better philosopher than I usually appear to myself: having become so patient, so happy, so East-Indian, so sedentary... To sit for five hours: the first step to sanctity!--May I say that Bizet's orchestral sound is the only one I can still endure?"

The music of Wagner and Bizet's Carmen were both experiencing rapid upward trajectories in popularity in 1888 when Nietzsche's book was first published. But they were not equal choices for Nietzsche. He knew Wagner quite well as a young man, so this shift in his alliances is significant.

Some writers have observed the relationship between Wagner and Nietzsche as having elements of a father/son dynamic because Nietzsche's father died when he was young and would have been more-or-less Wagner's age had he lived, and Wagner had children late in life but could have had children who were Nietzsche's age. The falling out between the two had all the complexities of family.

The vast majority of Nietzsche's text is directed against the works of Wagner. Wagner sought perfection in the total synthesis of all art forms. It is therefore a powerful thrust when Nietzsche describes perfection in Carmen:

"This music appears perfect to me. It approaches lightly, flexibly, courteously. It is pleasant, it does not perspire. 'That which is good is light, everything divine walks on tender feet': the first premise of my aesthetic. This music is vicious, refined, fatalistic: with it, it stays popular--it has the refinement of a race, not that of an individual. It is rich. It is precise. It builds, it organizes, accomplishes its goal."

I believe that one can also frame Nietzsche's perspective toward Carmen as a quasi-familial reaction:

"To repeat it: I become a better man when Bizet speaks to me, also a better musician, a better listener. Can one even still listen better?--I even bury my ears beneath this music, I hear its origin. It appears to me that I am experiencing its creation--[...] Bizet makes me fertile. Everything good makes me fertile. I have no other gratitude,--I also have no other proof for that which is good."

It is as though Nietzsche was rescued by Carmen. He leaves his Wagnerian family to elope with an opera.

"Here, another sensuality speaks, another sensitivity, another serenity," wrote Nietzsche, "Finally love, love that is translated back into nature! [...] Can you already see how much this music improves me?"

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Mozart's Baptism

In a fanciful biography of Mozart written by Marcia Davenport in 1947 the scene of Mozart's baptism was imagined:

"Next morning the bundle of wool was carried through the snow to the baroque cathedral on the Domplatz. Sharp blades of wind cut down between the close overhanging mountains and flung white robes around the scowling saints at the church doors. Inside, dwarfed among the square, soaring columns, a few worshippers knelt hugging their coarse green cloaks and shivering at contact with the chill marble floor. Deep in prayer, they blew on their purple fingers, moved their trussed feet, and took no notice of this town commonplace, this christening party at the left-hand rear corner of the the nave, where the high iron font was open and filled with icy holy water. In a moment the ceremony was over, town-chaplain Leopold Lambrect bestowing on the feeble child the names Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus.

The scene took place on Monday, January 28, 1756. Here is the entry from the baptismal record:

The second column is the name--the second name is abbreviated Chrysost. and the two words at the end are fil[ius] leg[itimus]. The parents, Leopoldus Mozart and Maria Anna appear listed in the third column.

The baptismal font is located in the first north chapel, to the left as one enters the cathedral. I took this photograph looking west just outside of the second chapel. The basin of the font is made of pewter and dates from 1321.

A copper lion protects the four corners of the font and support its weight. These copper lions are even older than the basin dating back to the 12th century. Over the years the face has been polished by people touching the lions for luck and protection.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Joseph Machlis; Thinking Turandot

In a novel about musicians called "57th Street," author George Selcamm (pen-name for Joseph Machlis 1906-1998) established two central characters who are often set against one another in contrast. Margo Scholtz is a soprano from Poughkeepsie new to, and fascinated by, the NYC musical scene, and Bob Conrad is son of the pianist Judith Conrad, who has grown up in musical society even though he himself is not a musician.

Bringing them together and pulling them apart is one of the central threads of the novel. Margo's career begins to show signs of flourishing and near the end of the novel she is singing Liù in a performance of Turandot:

(Cynthia Haymon as Liù in 1987)

"A dark tremolo in the cellos [0:10-0:30] ushered in the melody in E-flat minor [0:31] that Puccini marked "con dolorosa esperssione;" slowly the crowd fell back, leaving Liù alone in the center of the stage, a slight figure bent forward in an attitude of humility. She sang of her secret love that sought only to give and demand nothing in return, and the music lifted her sorrow to the ideal plane of art, transfiguring it, so that she was not only little Liù singing of her prince, but everyone who had ever loved in vain, who had suffered and been defeated."

This elusive tune floats by using the raised 6th scale degree (C natural) in the first phrase [0:36], then the lowered 6th and 7th scale degree [0:46] and [0:57] in the next two phrases, which darkens them considerably. The raised 6th and raised 7th scale degree [1:02] makes the phrase "You will love him too" catch fire.

Bob, who is in the audience, hears this music. "He winced when he remembered how unworthy he had been of her love. Yet what had passed between them belonged to another period of their lives and was inevitable in terms of what the then were."

Margo, "outstretched on the stage, knew she had conquered. The long upward climb was over; the promise had been fulfilled.

Here is another view of life being opera, this time both happening in fiction written by a musician.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Met Live in HD; Turandot or Too-dark?

There are unconfirmed reports that Liù is missing. A large crowd reported hearing screams and one of the palace guards filed an insurance claim on a missing sword, but no one could testify as to exactly what took place.

This is because the first and third acts of Turandot in the Met Live in HD were too dark.

Yes, I know the scenes took place at night. I know. And I suspect that the rich atmosphere may have worked perfectly on the big stage of the Met. But unlike La Bohème, which is also an atmospheric production, this Turandot was too dark for the silver screen.

It brought to mind the standoff over lighting between Chinese film director Zhang Yimou and lighting director Guido Levi in "The Turandot Project." The film chronicles the process involved in mounting the massive "Turandot 2K" in Bejing's Forbidden City. Zhang Yimou and Levi stood with a translator between them, obviously pissed at one another and unable to reconcile fundamentally different views as to how much light was needed.

Too much light and everything is washed out, not enough and...

One advantage of the darkness was that the music glittered like a diamond. Conductor Andris Nelsons got a resonant sound from the orchestra, and brought a metric focus to this score that was refreshing. The brass in Act III sounded fabulous.

I liked Maria Guleghina's Turandot. It took some time for her voice to warm but once it did she was able to live above the staff. Marina Poplavskaya brought bell-like clarity to Liù, and balanced the delicate curves of her act three solos to build a convincing and powerful high B-flat.

The great Samuel Ramey had the part of Timur. It was wonderful to see him onstage again, but wide vibrato waves sometimes overpowered his singing. Marcello Giordani sang a muscular Calàf. His singing in the finale made a thrilling ensemble with Guleghina to close the opera with an exclamation point.

This just in...a woman fitting Liù's description was identified in ceiling-cam footage. Timur is on the scene. We will keep you up-to-date as information becomes available.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

George Selcamm, Joseph Machlis and 57th Street

In 1971 a work of musical fiction called "57th street" was written by George Selcamm. A liberated time, 1971 was still not quite ready for the kind of candid sexuality, both hetero and homosexual, that appears from time-to-time in the text. Probably for this reason the name George Selcamm was a pseudonym.

The real writer could be derived only by sounding the name "Selcamm" in phonetic retrograde: Machlis--Joseph Machlis (1906-1998).

Machlis has inspired several generations of music lovers with his book "The Enjoyment of Music," which has been in print continuously since 1955. The idea of distancing from this new venture in fiction from "The Enjoyment of Music" could easily have been Norton's idea as they were the also the publisher of the novel "57th Street."

The book is substantial at 344 pages. It develops connections among a group of musicians and friends centered on a pianist named Judith Conrad. As the book opens she is playing the Mozart D minor concerto in Carnegie Hall.

"The introduction was as spacious as the opening of a symphony," wrote Machlis, "its sorrow tempered by a noble serenity. Presently oboe and flute engaged in a gentle dialogue that quieted her apprehension. Horvath turned to her and nodded. She raised her hands to the keys."

(This performance is by pianist Mariaclara Monetti)

When a musician writes fiction the details are of interest. Time passes in nonlinear modality. "Presently" is a great word because it suggests immersion in the performance. The "gentle dialog" begins at [1:00], but the "nod" would have happened around [2:22] just prior to the piano entry.

"The Allegro ended. Judith took a breath and listened to the silence in the hall, punctuated here and there by a cough. She began the Romanza alone, with a tone that was limpid, caressing. The secret of this movement was neither to hurry nor to drag it; she felt she had hit upon just the right tempo. The muted violins answered the opening phrase, and she noticed that Horvath had understood it exactly as she had. Her fears had left her; she was at one with the music--nothing else mattered."

(Sviatoslav Richter , Piano)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sarabande Incantation

The sarabande from Bach's third lute suite is as much incantation as dance.

It was a work born of contradictions: Either the third lute suite or the fifth cello suite is an adaptation of the other...which was first? (There is no conclusive evidence). The sarabande fits easily on three systems of staves, but it takes three minutes to perform. Bach's handwriting is hurried but the music is meditative.

This performance on lute is by Jakob Lindberg:

Bach slurs groupings of four tones in each measure before the bass is struck. The four tones stretch into an augmented sonority that bends into a triad. In the third measure an extra upbeat is added to mark the phrase closing.

The next four measures are mirror-like with the bass ringing first in a contour inversion of the four-tone collections. Notice how the notation of the last quarter beat of the 7th measure needs to be continued on the next staff; this situation could easily have been fixed with even the smallest amount of thinking ahead. Bach was fixed like a laser on the idea, ever in the moment.

Measures are filled with 8ths and motion increases into the cadence in the relative major. The repeat [0:36] takes us back to the opening and Lindberg's only ornament is to double the tones in the added upbeat.

The second half of the binary form begins at [1:07] and is parallel to the opening section in gesture but developmental in harmony. An extra four-bar phrase is added [1:37] in brilliant synthesis.

"When you finish the sarabande," said Rostropovich, "you're left with the impression that time is going on at the same pace, and that your breathing continues in the same rhythm." This is a movement that stamps us with an impression of celestial mechanics.

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Musical Argument; Wispelwey and the third suite Courante

"The Cello Suites are definitely not primarily melodic music," said cellist Pieter Wispelwey in an interview with Tim Janof, "their style is rhetorical, speaking rather than singing." Wispelwey did not deny the "wonderful lyricism within certain notes, slurs, or motives," but drew a distinction between the style of writing in the cello suites and the "aria-like singing" that appears in other instrumental works by Bach.

Giving attention to the rhetorical side of these suites pulls us away from the atomic thinking that is a source of endless fascination in learning Bach. Wispelwey's concept was dramatized in a short film called "The Kitchen Suite," filmed by Paul Cohen in 1994.

Wispelwey performs the third cello suite while Liat Steiner performs a mixture of domestic gestures and dance. It is fascinating to see how much dance she can imbue into ordinary domestic gestures, and transitions from one world to the other are wonderful. The choreography, and basic idea for the project, came from Aletta Schreuders.

I am particularly interested in the Courante, but will start just as the Allemande cadences to set the context [7:15-10:36].

Steiner's character seems to think of a creative compromise to engage her intense and focused partner. She brings him a cookbook to entice him into domesticity. She even brings it to him on a music stand as a way of creating a bridge into his world.

Wispelwey's character windshield-wipes the book from his stand. Never a good strategy. Wispelwey is great in this scene...and he gives the rest of us hope for a film career.

He begins to play the Courante as a rhetorical expression of musical argument. I have never heard this movement played this way and find it strangely convincing. Wispelwey points the descending arpeggios and descending scale segments so that they land at the bottom of each gesture--often these passages are played with the middleground melodic connections in mind. He also gives each bowing a crunchy weight to create energy.

Steiner's character registers the impact of anger in slow motion, bursting into flamenco inspired gestures during the pedal tones on V/V [8:08]. The musical repeat of the opening section [8:20] employs a repetition of the movement: slow motion, this time with a tracking shot until the pedal tones gestures take place.

The second half of the dance [9:00] opposes the first half with circular body motion and strongly vertical arm gestures, followed by more reflective gestures after the cadence in A minor [9:15] that is announced as the cookbook is thrown to the floor. The dominant pedal inspires rapid room-crossing movement then gets "two points" for the music-stand takedown.

The repeat of the second half begins as a parallelism [9:46], but begins to seek resolution after the A minor cadence [10:03]. The argument is unresolved.

Bach wrote dance music that was not intended to be danced. It was a dance of embodied movement. Wispelwey continues to make the case for hearing the music in rhetorical terms, and this film was a creative way to explore the relationship between rhetoric, movement and sound.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The White-Hot Intensity of Solitude; Rostropovich and a Musical Prayer

Anthony Storr (1920-2001) was a gifted psychologist who wrote with great clarity about music. I use his book "Music and the Mind" as the cornerstone of a course I created at the University of Bridgeport called "Music in the Liberal Arts."

Storr also wrote a book called "Solitude; A Return to the Self" in which he distinguishes between solitude and loneliness and explores the "uses of solitude." Unlike loneliness, solitude can be nourishing and restorative.

As one observes Mstislav Rostropovich walking the grounds of the Vézelay Abbey no further proof seems necessary:

During the first minute of video he talks of playing the cello as if he were singing. "Then debilitated from his long stay in the heights," says Rostropovich of Bach's lines, "you descend once more to garner a new source of energy."

He describes the sarabande of the second suite [1:05] as "the saddest of all the sarabandes in the suites." It encapsulates a "musical vulnerability like that of a person rapt in prayer."

The second suite's sarabande is a prayer, but it is a prayer of motion; of movement. In his performance [2:41-3:12] Rostropovich brings out the fierce and unpredictable skips that tear through a work which up to this point has sounded ancient and meditative.

As he turns a corner in an ancient churchyard [2:05] the camera gradually reveals a rich background; a village below and hills stretching to the sky. "For me," he says, "this Sarabande has the white hot intensity of solitude."

He observes birds flying higher into the sky before roosting [2:57]. "They're pretty noisy, by the way." Noisy enough to delay the recording process until night falls. Then Rostropovich plays the sarabande of (and with) white-hot intensity.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Yoga, Rostropovich, and Bach; Prelude from the First Cello Suite

Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) was a first-rate musician with a distinctive and colorful personality. In this clip he intuits a connection between Bach and breathing that is a fundamental part of the practice of Yoga.

As the opening shot changes focus [0:12] notice the drops of rain on the window. Rostropovich mentions rain and a church just after playing half of the Sarabande from the first cello suite on piano:

In a wonderful blur [0:57] one imagines that Rostropovich meant that the music he had just played depicts soft rain, here at the center of the joyous and "youthful" first suite. But this time he is literal. The church to which he refers [1:03] is the Vézelay Abbey in the Burgundian region of France, where his recording of the complete suites was made.

Before leaving to make his recording, he analyzes the first phrase of the opening prelude. He connects the architecture of this phrase directly to breathing [2:21]. Rostropovich found yoga in Bach.

We often associate yoga with movement. It is not movement alone. It is creating a connection to breathing.

"Its constructive process is like the process of generating energy," he says [2:27], likening the first two-and-a-half measures to an inhalation. Exhalation is the point at which "the creative impulse that initiated the phrase is reversed."

As Rostropovich plays the complete phrase [2:51-3:02] one can inhale and exhale in a deep meditative breath that follows the music itself.

One needs to be in a generous mood to allow his calculation for golden mean [3:37-4:11], but what is important is that the timing relationship between inhalation and exhalation is not equal, but that we are building heat by taking in a deep breath.

He plays two complete breaths [4:31-4:49] from the opening of Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor, and he finishes his analysis by playing the first complete phrase-breathing [5:45-6:06] from the C major prelude from book one of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

The wonder of Rostropovich is the ease with which he helps associate the elemental in Bach with the cornerstone of life-force; breathing.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Schubert's Glasses

Franz Schubert was almost always painted and sketched wearing glasses. In several contemporary images his glasses are drawn in parody. They continue to be an iconic part of his image. The frames are steel with spherical lenses. The nose bridge is made from symmetrically opposed curves, like two slurs, joined in the center.

The lenses have a strong horizontal crack. It is hard to imagine how something could crack both lenses this dramatically without breaking the frame also. Did it happen after Schubert's death? Perhaps during the time they were stored by Josef Hüttenbrenner?

The glasses are on display at the Schubert Geburtshaus in Vienna, on 54 Nussdorferstrasse; a walkable distance from city center, or a short ride on the 38 Tram.

They are stored in a central display case that one can walk around. I was moved by them and spent considerable time observing every angle, lost in meditation.

The guidebook from the Historical Museum of the City of Vienna measured "a spherical lens of -3.75 diopters. (The outside of the lenses measures -1.25, the inside -2.5; measured with a spherometer."

In "Schubert; Twelve Moments musicaux and a novel," a book that is poetic and witty even in translation, Peter Härtling imagines a conversation between Johann Mayrhofer and Schubert, who were roommates at the time. Looking down at Schubert, Mayrhofer:
...was completely amazed: "Do you sleep with your glasses on?"

"What?" Schubert feels over his face with his hand. "Yes, I sleep with my glasses."

"Don't you notice them?"

"Yes, I do. I can see better when I'm dreaming."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Met Live in HD; Transposing Bohème? Thoughts on the Met Encore

Ramón Vargas knows poets Live in HD: he has been Lensky in Eugene Onegin and Rodolfo in La bohème.

In this bohème, when Mimì (Angela Gheorghiu) knocked on his door, Rudolfo charmed but also made attraction seem real. Vargas interacted well with other characters onstage. He demonstrated Vargasian humor with a nimble crawl at [1:44] only seconds before his aria. This drew chuckles from the popcorn faithful. His warm voice projected sincerity and made the juxtaposition between funny and romantic a success.

One of the reasons that Vargas sounded so warm is that the entire aria was transposed down a half-step; from D-flat to C. During the film broadcast I couldn't figure out where it happened--somehow we were in the wrong key. It was as surprising as Mimì's visit.

At [1:26] the clarinets sustain the third [EG]. The transposition happens as soon as the strings move away from that third. They should play [E-flat and A] but play [D and A-flat]; and as simple as that we are on a different track.

Getting back was even easier. There is always applause after Rudolfo's aria. The orchestra simply began Mimì's aria at pitch.

There is a long tradition of transposing to accommodate singers, and Vargas is a vocalist known for warmth and color rather than endless high register. The change makes the high C on "dolce speranza" a high B, and takes the edge off the other ledger line singing in this aria.

Still, it is disorienting--for more than five minutes we are off-key. The entire stretch of music is designed to make us feel something for D-flat as being essential to this moment. In "Donde lieta usci" in Act III, D-flat major returns when Rudolfo and Mimì contemplate separation. We missed the connection.

Is messing with a thoughtful tonal structure worth whatever is gained in transposition?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

La bohème in Moonstruck

Opera can intersect our lives in unexpected ways.

In the 1987 movie "Moonstruck," Loretta (Cher) is a person who has never attended an opera. She is invited to the Met by the brother of her fiancée, with whom she is having an affair. The deal is that if he can have the two great passions of his life together at the same time he will be able to end their relationship and re-enter his life.

Loretta slowly prepares herself. She transforms herself by coloring her hair at the Cinderella Boutique. She contemplates a special dress and a pair of heels that remind us of Dorothy's ruby slippers.

As Loretta looks out on the Lincoln Center Plaza, music from La bohème sounds. A quotation of music from the opening of Act III is spliced into instrumental music developed from Rudolfo's Act One aria "Che gelida manina," as Loretta sees Ronny (Nicholas Cage) by the fountain.

As they turn to enter the Met, music from the opening of Act II invokes the Parisian Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve. To enter the Met is to leave the world behind. The cues from La bohème in this scene establishes an unsuspected connection between the opera, and attitudes that the characters are developing.

The operatic exerpt shown within the movie is from Act III. The music begins in D-flat major. With Mimi's first words, "Bada" (Listen) the music suddenly brightens into A-major:

"Listen, under the pillow I left my pink bonnet."
"Se vuoi, Se vuoi" (it's yours, it's yours)"

In the next line the A dominant seventh harmony that Mimi has been singing turns augmented sixth and shifts back to D-flat major.

"Keep it as a memory of our love."
"Addio, addio senza rancor." (Goodbye, no regrets).

Loretta realizes that this event is a pink bonnet--a memory of love that they must leave behind. It is A major within the context of D-flat major.

Opera intersects our lives in unexpected times, unexpected places.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hearing Support

How often do we take support for granted?

The Lento of Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 7 Op. 108 is powered by support from the second violin--the only part within the quartet that never gets to voice the long arcing melodies within this movement.

The muted second violin plays arpeggios in an ostinato as the music begins--bleak and foreboding:
The first violin voices a haunted tune, but do not be distracted--stay focused on the music played by the second violin. Suddenly the accompaniment breaks free [0:16], floating for three beats before locking back in pattern.

The haunted tune starts over [0:20] but the second violin breaks away more radically; launching into figuration that tickles, winding ever higher in unpredictable patterns that never break the steady rhythm. It articulates joyous support both spontaneous and lasting.

The cello and viola enter quietly with a ghostly glissando in fifths [0:37].

At [0:49] the ostinato in second violin is restored. The cello voices a variant of the opening tune with the viola taking over mid-phrase [1:11].

The support becomes compressed and does not voice the ecstasy that it dialed before. The second violin sinks to C-sharp and becomes at heartbeat at [1:34]. Hard to repress; the pitch of pulsing changes [2:14] and becomes more gradually expressive, voicing tritones [2:27] and climbing in register [2:43].

Suddenly, the pitch of the second violin falls to D [2:47] and remains motionless; sustaining. Then nothing [3:01]. The second violin part is silent, is missing, during the nine measures that close the movement. In the thick texture of closing, absence is hard to hear.

The second violin part expresses a symbolic concern. Do we perceive support? Do we notice when it is expressive? Do we notice as it dies away and is silenced?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Sexy Ravel

Nahandove is a haunting song of anticipation and sexual fulfillment inspired by a woman whose name is called over and over again in the text of this song written by Maurice Ravel. Completed in 1926, it is the first of three songs called "Chansons Madécasses."

Wolfgang Rupert Muhr and Christian Haake, who were students at the University for Music & Performing Arts in Vienna at the time, collaborated to create this evocative videoclip of Ravel's Nahandove. The mezzo-soprano is Maren Engelhardt.

"Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove!" An echoing refrain on a moonlit evening. The nightbird has started to cry and the moon shines. [0:41] "Voici l'heure:" cries the poet "qui peut t'arrêter, (Now is the time: who can be delaying you?)

The musical texture, for voice and cello alone, is aural cotton candy. It prolongs a chord stacked in thirds (ACEGBD) with tones that rub against in gentle frictions created by fourths.

In the second stanza [0:57] a bed of leaves, "strewn with flowers and scented herbs, worthy of your charms," is prepared by the poet. The film is less literal with images of nature contrasting images of the city--the motion of herons balanced by the motion of people.

Excitement [1:27]. "Elle vient" (She is coming). The poet recognizes the sound of her walk, the rustle of her skirt. The music shifts fields as the piano enters. Tritones and syncopation. The flute is revealed at last: this is the ensemble.

"Catch your breath, my young love," [2:07] "Rest on my lap. Your gaze is enchanting. How delightful the motion of your breast as my hand presses. You smile, Nahandove, by beautiful Nahandove."

The music becomes modal again but moves with gentle and directed motion toward G major [2:38]. This chord, the E major chord [2:49] and the A major chords [2:58] are sweet as watermelon.

A new field in F-sharp major [3:02]. "Your kisses penetrate my soul, your caresses burn. Stop, or I will die, if one can die from voluptuousness." The film counterpoints with playfulness, rides, amusements, motion, fun.

[3:30] In D-sharp minor with images of flying: "Pleasure passes like lightening. Your breath weakens, your eyes close, your head leans, rapture fades to weariness. [4:10] Never were you so beautiful."

Rounding in A major with colorful D-sharps [4:40]: "Now you are leaving, and I will languish in regrets and desires until tonight when you return, Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove!"

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I am Looking for a Juliet; Gounod and Emma Eames

The story of how the American soprano Emma Eames became connected to composer Charles Gounod was told in 1905 by vocalist and singing instructor Mathilde Marchesi on page 266 of her book "Marchesi and Music:"

"I am looking for a Juliet. Has your wife one among her pupils? If so, please ask her to bring her to me. She will find me at home to-morrow at eleven o'clock."

Gounod had seen Marchesi's husband on the Boulevard Malesherbes in Paris and asked him to deliver the message.

"Well, next day we went to Gounod's house in the Place Malesherbes, M. Mangin going with us as accompanist, and when we arrived we found all his family assembled to hear the new Juliet. That morning Miss Eames sang several airs from the opera in question very successfully, and, greatly delighted, the master exclaimed, 'Here is my Juliet.' A few days later he made her rehearse her part in my presence, Mangin accompanying on the piano, and Gounod himself giving her the cue, singing and playing the part of Romeo from beginning to end. Then, after a rehearsal at the Grand Opera-house, Emma Eames's engagement was signed."

The legendary Emma Eames was raised by her grandparents in Bath, Maine, which is north of Portland. She was twenty-one when this defining moment launched her career.

Among countless high-profile performances she sang Donna Anna in Don Giovanni under Mahler at the Met in 1908. She retired from operatic singing early in her career (1911-1912 season) and stopped singing in 1916.

A wonderful illustrated feature story from the New York Times (March 12, 1899) describes her homes near Florence and in Paris. A description of her personality is given in fashionable Wagnerian metaphor:

"To those who do not know her well, she is a magnificent personification of the Wagnerian roles. The magnificence of her physical beauty, a strong wholesomeness, distinctly outlined and clean-cut, and a cold Northern impassiveness, as opposed to a warm Southern type, make the Nibelungen roles distinctly appropriate to her."

But her "Northern impassiveness" was the brunt of a barb from James Huneker who saw her in Aida and said, "Last night, there was skating on the Nile."

Friday, July 9, 2010

What Women Want and a Waltz; on the Met's 2007 Eugene Onegin

In the film "What Women Want" starring Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt, Nick Marshall (Gibson) catches voltage when both he and a hair-dryer fall into a tub [0:17]:

As a result he can hear what women think.

Without the voltage, Eugene Onegin (Dimitri Hvorostovsky) channels his inner Mel Gibson during the Act II waltz from the 2007 Met broadcast. The dancers are so beautifully compressed on the huge Met stage [0:49] that thoughts of both male and female dancers are squeezed out. They sing in wegotisms:

"This is superb! We never expected such great company, and a band!" The camera is swept to a gentleman sitting on the periphery. This is the poet Lansky (played by Ramón Vargas) who is lost in a book.

A trio. The men sing a phrase while the women are motionless and outside of time. The men sing collective thoughts--"festive occasions are rare in the country, hunting is more typical, it is nice to get a break from the hound and the hare." The music swings from D major to G major and hunting horns sound in the background.

Balance. The guys are now motionless, while the women sing collectively--"That's what guys think is fun--shooting and fishing and getting up early. They come home exhausted when we're looking for fun." The women sing B minor in triads that rub against the bass.

The younger women call on Captain Petrovich to tell them the name of his regiment. He replies "Sure, but why aren't you dancing?" "No one has asked us." "In that case the pleasure is mine!"

When the first strain of the waltz returns as does the key of D major, and the camera pans out to view the entire ensemble. Tatiana (Renée Fleming) dances with Onegin, even though he rejected her in the most cruel way in the prior scene. Tension is palpable.

Onegin "Nick Marshall-izes" the crowd. The women around him think: "Look at them! How sad for Tatiana. If they get married she will find out that he is a tyrant...and I heard that he has a gambling problem..." Moments later they sting him worse; "He's most discourteous and conceited...they say he's a freemason...I hear he gets buzzed on wine all the time."

He hears their collective thoughts.

(Still, how gorgeous are those dresses? Michael Levine was the costume designer. )

Onegin moves outside the circle. His singing moves out-of-sync with the cycles of 4-bar phrases in the dance music. The music turns seamlessly developmental. Tchaikovsky knew how to mess with dance.

Onegin knows how to mess with Lansky. He dances and flirts with Lansky's girl Olga.

We hear the final return of the primary dance music, with the same satisfied text. But this time the design of the set distinguishes who is inside and who is outside. This time the music becomes unhinged with hemiolas and wicked chromatic progressions. This time the guests exit quickly from the diagonals leaving Lansky inside, alone and bewildered.

A storm causes Nick Marshall, from "What Women Want," to lose his gift. Onegin causes his own storms and becomes a victim of his gifts.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Met Live in HD; Fleming and Hvorostovsky in Eugene Onegin

Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin was filmed at the Met on February 24, 2007 with Renée Fleming as Tatiana and Dimitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin.

Fleming brought many colors to Tatiana, none more compelling than the moment, in the midst of writing her love letter to Onegin, when the music sinks unexpectedly into D-flat major and oboe is answered by horn [4:20]:

"Are you my guardian angel? Will you tempt then discard me?
Resolve my doubts."
"Is my dream a delusion? Am I too innocent to tell?
Perhaps I have a completely different destiny."

Simple gestures, simple camera angles, simply great art.

"Heaven sends us habit," sings Madame Larin at the opening of the opera, "in place of happiness." Eugene Onegin is an opera where nostalgia for lost youth comes in steady supply.

Onegin believes that if he stays in motion that youth will not abandon him. He commits to restlessness. In this scene he rejects Tatiana and crushes her dreams:

The female chorus that opened the third scene swept a circular clearing in the autumn leaves that covered the stage, and the color scheme shifted back to the golds that were featured in the first scene.

Onegin sings:
"Were I the sort who had intended to lead a calm domestic life; if lasting happiness depended upon marriage, then you would have been perfect."

Hvorostovsky conceals challenges in elegance. Here, the task is to make these discursive sentences sing. The musical lines are written in straight 8ths with one or two longer notes at the end of each phrase, one can easily lose direction in this aria. He doesn't.

The restlessness in Onegin's character surfaces again at [2:07] as the harmony oscillates between B-flat major and G minor. Hvorostovsky changed the octave of the final F of the aria [3:20] perhaps underlining the culmination for all the active motion of this aria. It was not needed.

There was no break between Act II and Act III in this production, so the famous Polonaise at the opening of Act III was used as an opportunity to carry the body of Lensky offstage and simultaneously to undress then redress Onegin for future conquests. This compression of Acts allowed tension from the duel to hang in the air during the third act--it was a very effective structural device.

"We cannot bring back the past," sings Tatiana to a heart-broken Onegin in the final scene. Happily, the Met can.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Counting Glass; Bed from Einstein on the Beach

Musical counting is occasionally on the surface of the sound in Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass. This clip opens with numbers as text:

Numbers and calculations fill the sketches at [0:26].

"There was no need to tell a story," said director Robert Wilson [0:47], "we already knew a story. How this man who was a pacifist also contributed to the splitting of the atom."

Instead of narrative the opera presents movements and images, constructions and processes. "Structurally," said Glass, "the piece is, I think, self-revealing." He was referring to his work named "Strung Out" when he wrote that sentence in liner notes, but he could just as easily been talking about the music from Einstein on the Beach.

The most beautiful and poised section of "Einstein" is Act IV Scene 2, called Bed. It depicts Einstein laying in bed at night wondering if his inventiveness will lead to absolute destruction. There are no words in this scene, only non-verbal singing.

The movement uses four chords that loop in continual cycles: F Minor, E-flat Major, C Major, and D Major. Motion down a whole step from F minor to E-flat major is balanced by the rising whole-step motion from C major to D major, and the falling minor third between E-flat and C is mirrored by the rising minor third progression from D major to F minor as the progression regenerates.

The bass changes from C during the F minor chord, to G during the E-flat and C major harmonies, and is silent during the D major chord. The frictions of the triads against the bass and the lightness in texture of the final chord adds considerably to the impact of this musical idea.

The progression of four chords cycles through twice, then Glass adds beats to either the 1st and 3rd chords or to the 2nd and 4th chords in the progression. This "self-revealing" structure is hard to anticipate, but the length of the progression grows steadily throughout the movement. Each chord change is grouped in square brackets in the following diagram:

[4+3] [4] [4+3] [4]
[4+3] [4] [4+3] [4]

(Timing 0:17)
[4+3+2] [4] [4+3+2] [4]
[4+3+2] [4] [4+3+2] [4]

(Timing 0:37)
[4+3+2] [4+3] [4+3+2] [4+3]
[4+3+2] [4+3] [4+3+2] [4+3]

(Timing 1:02: the only time all groups are equal)
[4+3+2] [4+3+2] [4+3+2] [4+3+2]
[4+3+2] [4+3+2] [4+3+2] [4+3+2]

(Timing 1:30: change involving alteration and addition)
[4+3+3+4] [4+3+2] [4+3+3+4] [4+3+2]
[4+3+3+4] [4+3+2] [4+3+3+4] [4+3+2]

(Timing 2:06)
[4+3+3+4] [4+3+2+2] [4+3+3+4] [4+3+2+2]
[4+3+3+4] [4+3+2+2] [4+3+3+4] [4+3+2+2]

(Timing 2:45: Adding inside the sequence instead of at the end)
[4+3+3+3+4] [4+3+2+2] [4+3+3+3+4] [4+3+2+2]
[4+3+3+3+4] [4+3+2+2] [4+3+3+3+4] [4+3+3..3..3..3...fade out]

My trusty LP recording of Einstein includes five additional double cycles of chord progression that continue to grow--this recording has been edited. Einstein on the turntable trumps Einstein on the web.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Robert Wilson by way of Midgette and Gelb

"I was bankrupt," said director Robert Wilson, "I had no money, I said...'let's go for it!'"

Wilson described his thought process when the Met "allowed" him to rent the hall on a Sunday at triple-time wages, and to present at his own expense the opera he had developed with Philip Glass called "Einstein on the Beach" in 1975.

Today I am still thinking about an article in which Anne Midgette interviewed Peter Gelb about commissioning new operas. "Well, a lot of these composers are very busy," said Gelb, "and they’re also doing a lot of other projects. And our project is somewhat, in some of their minds perhaps, less definite because they know they have to go through various creative gates to get to the end result." This sounded familiar. Listen to the way Wilson described his process at [2:45]:

How did he get "Einstein" to the Met? As a "special event." And he paid. The concern expressed by the Met was that an opera like this wouldn't be for "their audience."

Gelb has taken strides toward making opera at the Met available to new audiences. The live broadcasts into movie theaters worldwide, as an example, is innovative thinking.

Midgette's article exposes the sad reality that the "commissioning program" seems to be on a back burner. Gelb says, "I have my hands full trying to run this place."

Wilson humanized his experience at [7:06]. "This is very impressive," said Wilson's father to him, "you must be making a lot of money."

"No dad," replied Wilson, "I'm not. You know I produced this work. It cost a million dollars to produce it. I raised $850,000, I'm $150,000 in debt."

"A hundred-and-fifty thousand dollars in debt?"

"Yes sir, I am."

"Son, I didn't know you were smart enough to lose a hundred-and-fifty thousand dollars!"

The Met needs to be smarter.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Thinking Freischütz; an overture of echoes and a late smile

This performance of the overture to Freischütz by Carl Maria Von Weber from 1970 features the young Carlos Kleiber conducting the Südfunk-Sinfonieorchester. It is an overture of echoes that sounds great in black-and-white.

What is meant by an overture of echoes?

There are several places in this overture where musical ideas return unexpectedly. Ideas return like echoes. Echoes, like good ideas, are not random: they need structural support.

Several of these supports are planted in the introduction of this overture. It is rare to find a major key introduction to a sonata in the minor, but Weber planned to echo this introduction and to encase his minor key sonata within a major key framing.

After an initial statement of octaves answered by falling arpeggios, there is an extended passage for the section horns [1:11]. It was written for natural horns (without valves), so the only way to make it happen was to crook two horns in C and the other two in F.

Immediately after the horn music [2:41], a haunted sound is created as the timpani and bass play the 7th of a diminished chord (C,Eb,F#,A), and the clarinets sustain the F-sharp and E-flat in their lowest register.

The exposition begins [3:41] with syncopation imposed upon a march-like theme. The explosive transition [4:06] is developed by expanding music from within the first theme group [3:51-3:58]. Music that lasts seven seconds in the first theme group is stretched to 18 seconds in transition, to [4:24] where the actual modulation takes place.

The second theme group, in E-flat major [4:38], features a lyrical clarinet solo, then introduces a theme often called "Agatha's Aria" [5:17] because it is derived from music in the second act of the opera.

The development [6:01] is an echo of the transition; moving from E-flat to moves to G instead of C to E-flat. This leaves us in position to hear "Agatha's Aria" in G major [6:37] and finish the deep-structure arpeggiation of a C minor chord [C, E-flat, G] in the tonal regions through which it modulates.

Motion to D-flat major [6:58-7:12] is an echo of the progression that connected the introduction to the exposition [3:20-3:40].

The first theme group of the recapitulation [7:13] is abbreviated slightly, as is the transition [7:29]. Music from the introduction returns at [7:49] as another echo.

In a fabulous juxtaposition, the coda brings back C major in sudden fortissimo. Kleiber gives us his best Paul Newman smile at [8:36], and again at [8:43]. It is a smile of musical recognition.

From here to the close a mixture of Agatha's Aria in C major and inspired closing gestures bring us home. Weber's overture of echoes, where a deep-structure C minor triad is encased in a C major frame--has been sealed with a smile from Kleiber.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Movie Night with Shostakovich; The Girlfriends (1934) Part One

Dmitri Shostakovich began writing music for films in 1929, and "Podrugi" was the seventh movie for which he contributed music. The title is ususally translated as "Girlfriends," but something like "Buddies" or "Childhood friends" might give a better sense of the intention.

This film was constructed in two large sections that mirror one another. It was intended to display personal sacrifices during the Russian Civil War and also to show that life was hard before communism. Shostakovich scores the first part of the movie with a string quartet, adding trumpet and piano. In the balancing second half of the movie he adds organ, theramin, and several passages for full orchestra to close the work triumphantly. It is easy to imagine the cues for orchestra as being a protest of ironies because the heart of the music is written for string quartet.

The music during the opening credits is from the second movement of Shostakovich’s first string quartet. Because of film timings the music begins with the restatement of the opening theme. The viola spins a tune in A minor, followed by one variation.

1914 Prologue: The opening shot is from inside the “Russo-American Association of Rubber Manufacturers” looking out at the town we will soon visit.

During the first scene we meet Zoya (the girl with the cow-lick braid) and Senka (a boy) who are eating sunflower seeds until they get into an argument after Senka moves in for a kiss. Zoya’s grandmother scolds her. Then mothers all over town announce that it is supper-time.

Scene 2: [5:27] A processional, mostly of children, on their way to work as rubber manufacturers. Fortuitously, the music cue begins just after a dog barks. Shostakovich sets this scene in Bb minor, tuneful, taught--always on the edge of turbulence.

As the procession nears the gate the local militia orders the gates closed. His gestures speak of secrecy: there is no need to whisper [6:33]. The music, which has grown wild, suddenly pauses. Senka, fearless, pushes through to find out what is going on.

Advice: Beware of anyone who rolls his moustache on both sides before answering [7:05] "There is a strike," says the militia "and the factory is closed."

The music unhinges for the quick retreat home ending unbalanced on D-flat minor.

Scene 3 [7:29] At home, Zoya's grandmother is chanting. She uses a reciting tone of C and cadences her first phrase on D. The next phrase includes a colorful scoop from B-flat up to E-flat returning to C before being interrupted by the girls.

There is a short prayer scene. They pray for a resolution of the strike and for Zoya's mother to come home, but the girls are still in a playful mood.

As they wait for news a tense pulsing drone with music in A minor. At [0:47] a muted trumpet enters the texture and the A drone is reinterpreted into F-sharp minor. The texture thickens, then as the muted trumpet enters a second time [1:46] it is accompanied by the piano, presumably being played by Shostakovich himself.

The news that Asya's mother is not well and is in the hospital is filled with half-truths that are communicated clearly in the acting and the music.

After pulsating to a point of pain the musical cue closes quickly with octave F-sharps laid over the drone A [3:03]

The next scene [5:20] features the three girls talking strategy. What can they do to help earn money for their families? They come up with an idea: they will sing for tips at the local bar.

As we see the entrance to the "Keys to Happiness" bar [6:45] Shostakovich finds B-flat minor again, connecting us back through tonality to the processional music we heard earlier. Waiting, and the delivery of bad news can be heard as a leading-tone to the more public scenes that surround it.

One almost cannot help but like the crew inside; they are a weird burlesque. At [8:11] we get the first glimpse of Silych, who, though he looks odd, will eventually help the girls out. The use of bird-call signals [8:17] and responses is a theme that is further developed as the movie progresses.

At [1:51] the girls and Senka appear and ask to sing. At [3:51] they begin a performance of "The Poppy Song." It is clearly not well received. As they get bounced [6:21] some background cues come into play, including a jazzy clarinet line at [6:40], and some great ejection tremolos [7:15]. Silych comes outside to entertain at the crew at [8:10]: he will lend a helping hand and some good advice as this movie continues.

After some fun where Silych has the kids form a train, one of the most lovely passages of the movie takes place [0:58]. It is a riverbank scene at twilight. Silych has taught the kids a new song to sing at the bar: "Zamuchen tiazheloi nevolei (Tormented by a Lack of Freedom)." Fishing nets hang from tree branches and boats pass in both directions. At [2:40] a fanfare in C major is heard in the distance.

The fanfare brings to mind the story of Igor, son of Silych, who was hanged for being a "revolutionary" aboard a battleship. The setting sun through a fishing net [3:40] puts a symbolic visual close to the story.

At [4:19] a musical cue of pulsing sound in A-flat major closes this scene.

We return to the "Keys to Happiness" bar [5:39] as the music from the prior scene shifts to A-flat minor. At [6:42] the kids sing again, this time it is the tune that Silych taught them on the riverbank. Success at last....

Part Two of this movie is also on this blog: See July 3.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Movie Night with Shostakovich; The Girlfriends (1934) Part Two of Two

The annotations for the first part of this movie were posted on July 4, 2010.

We left our unlikely ensemble on the edge of a great success. The entire bar joins in singing "Zamuchen tiazheloi nevolei (Tormented by a Lack of Freedom)" with evocative counterpoint.

At [1:42] the militia come in to stop the celebration. One wonders how these "song-cops" found out about this event so quickly in an age without text messages.

The locals sing in defiance of the militia and a fight breaks out.

As a codetta to the first large section of the movie [5:00] we flash to the date July 19, 1914; which is the day that Germany declared war on Russia and Russia entered World War I. Bells sound. The girls tell their grandmother what they heard in the town then walk off together to serve their country.

We are beamed into 1919 with diagonal sweep of the screen [6:15] and the girls are still walking together in step. Take a good look at them in this picture: Zoya is on the outside, Natasha in the middle, and Asya closest to the camera. A fanfare in C major sounds.

At [6:25] we enter a new world, a new conflict (the Russian Civil War), a new timbre (organ with trumpets still sounding), and the new key of F major. The solo fanfare acts as a dominant to this new tonality. The girls walk along the edge of a trench and through town to arrive at a rally where Andrey addresses the gathering from the top of a staircase. They have enlisted as nurses. Since we last saw Andrey on the riverbank he has become a political leader of some significance.

Zoya sees Senka in uniform [8:51] and signals him using a bird call. He responds and Andrey smiles in recognition [9:14].

As the rally breaks up, a band plays the Russian national anthem (the Internationale) in B major! In the first parallelism with the first part of the movie, Senka once again moves in for a kiss--this time with much better results [0:42]. The girls say goodbye to their grandmother who has come to the rally to wish them well [1:32].

The action sequences of the movie begin [2:27]. The girls are bandaging the wounded. At [4:05] a sombre cue in F minor trails into the "dies irae [4:36]." Asya moves onto the tracks to see if the way is clear. There is a lovely scene as she sits on the track itself looking toward the battle line [5:29].

The key of E major sounds to announce that the enemy has captured the town. A train comes to evacuate the wounded soldiers. Sylich is on board and sees the girls for the first time since the riverbank [8:55]. They load the injured onto the train and depart.

The next music cue is remarkable. The steam whistles on the train inspired Shostakovich to score a Theremin solo [0:55]. The music alternates between the diatonic Russian national anthem and out-of-control Theraminese. They reach safety [2:37].

As the wounded are brought into the new camp, a dying solider whispers to Zoya that she should meet an "important connection" in a nearby cabin.

Zoya travels over snow [4:31] to find the cabin with elusive, drifting music scored for viola with pizzicato accompaniment. Violin joins the viola as Zoya finds the cabin. The "important connection" is Senka. The music turns major [6:34] but remains elusive and restless as the two of them spend time alone in the cabin. Natasha and Asya find the cabin and walk in on a kiss [9:40].

Silych and the rest of the crew in camp are unhappy about the impractical rendezvous.

Andrey is so significant at this point that every time he appears or leaves there is a fanfare. The fanfare at [0:42] is in B major, which links it by tonality to the band music during the rally. Andrey says hello to the old gang and gives everyone instructions before leaving to a fanfare of cross relations [3:28].

The girls get the cabin ready for more wounded troops [4:32], and a domestic scene takes place in which they find a live chicken [6:01] and cook it [6:26]. Natasha starts singing [9:16] the folktune "Where are those warm nights?" and the girls join her in harmony.

While they are singing, two enemy soldiers sneak into the house. Natasha is able to sneak behind them and get help [1:08], but they hold the other two girls at gunpoint. The soldiers get distracted by thoughts of eating chicken [1:48].

At [3:15] the first cue for full orchestra is a chase scene, with snare drum rattling in classic Shostakovich form. The soldiers line up to shoot the girls. A counterattack [4:01] with plenty of gunfire as Sylich and the troops arrive on site. Both enemy soldiers are killed, but Asya has been mortally wounded. Asya speaks to her friends and Sylich is able to make her laugh [6:02] before she dies. At [6:44] a fanfare announces that Andrey has arrived. He launches a political speech [8:55] accompanied by an orchestral music of hidden ironies.

Andrey now makes direct eye contact with us and gives us the moral of the story. In the final scene [1:35], our friends are riding horses in front of flag-bearers, still fighting for the cause.

Friday, July 2, 2010

König Stephan Overture; Beethoven, Bernstein and the art of Orchestral Joy

Beethoven's music comes to mind in moments of grandness. He was master of the heroic, of the epic, of the transcendent--but he also knew how to enjoy a good snicker.

The König Stephan Overture Op 117 was written during the summer of 1811. It was commissioned to celebrate the opening of a new theater in Pest. The work seldom acquires advocates: "Neither the text [of the stage-work in which it was included] nor the music was of the highest standard," wrote Anne-Louise Coldicott in "The Beethoven Compendium."

The work found its first sympathetic interpreter in Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein could articulate collisions of formality, lightness and laughter. In less than two minutes of introductory discourse he clarified the energy of this work in 1978 with classic Bernstein wit. "It is a charmer and a curiosity," said Bernstein, "a cross between Béla Bartók and Shortnin' Bread."

The relationship to Bartók is not literal, but the metaphor serves well to indicate that the combination of fourths in the openings fanfare is more common to the twentieth century than the nineteenth.

The first four pitches in the fanfare: Eb-Bb-F-C are deflected into a light march in A-flat major. The next fanfare interrupts the march, F-C-G-D, and interprets the final D as part of a dominant seventh of E-flat in order to allow the music to land, without skipping off the atmosphere into deep space.

Bernstein brings some "West Side" later in this "Story" giving everything to the backbeats during the closing theme.

Putting the pure joy of orchestral musicianship on display was part of the Bernstein legacy. "I'm only trying," said Bernstein "to Rev You Up!" Thirty-two years later it still works.
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