Insights in Chamber Orchestration

Gabriel Fauré was known to have no interest in the orchestra and cared little for musical effects and unorthodox musical instruments that his later contemporaries began using in their orchestrations. For Fauré economy was important and transparency of lines was his chief style, looking backwards to Pre-Romantic styles for instrumental clarity.

A majority of the works discussed already fall into a mold similar to this, with Euridice and What Price Confidence?, having very simple groupings of instruments, no more than four between both of them. What this allows for is the voice to reign supreme over the music. The ultimate downfall of much orchestra driven opera is the thinking that because one has access to an orchestra that one must think symphonic. We really have no one else to blame but Wagner for this notion, who was more of a symphonist himself than a composer for the voice, and he handles his singers like instruments on stage.

There is nothing wrong with this, I do not disparage Wagner for the trends he set. It is better to disparage those who view opera in a derivative, Wagner-esque mindset. His contributions of through composition and leitmotifs are separate from his heavy and thick orchestration, his non-operatic interludes that dazzle and delight. Wager’s insistence on a massive orchestra redefined how we look at operatic composition, but it is not the only way. Fauré‘s lack of interest in musical effects via unorthodox instruments seems to me to be a statement that says with a big orchestra you can have no subtlety; however, I view as what great things limitations can do for us. If we limit ourselves to the most simplistic methods, can we find elegant solutions to invoke musical effects without resorting to bringing out a Heckelphone for one measure? Economy should be important within orchestration and we need to embed within our minds the notion that there should be no useless instruments i.e. instruments that appear for effect only.

Moreover, on the topic of treatment of the voice, opera is a beautiful union of the instrumental and vocal traditions. Euridice is a fusion of seemingly disparate schools into one form. Opera is defined by the voice and instruments being equal. Too much voice and it is simply song with accompaniment, too much instruments and it is music with vocal embellishment. The perfect, purest path is that of moderation and equality between the two, and part of what I believe makes Krenek’s What Price Confidence? and excellent work is his eschewing of everything but the piano and his use of the piano in ways necessary to create the musical effects he desires in the work. The instrumentation does not overpower the voice, and while the voice stays at the center of the work it does not take complete precedence over the instruments. The reason why I support chamber opera is because it removes the unwieldy orchestra that, when used ineffectively (which happens more than we would like to admit), completely overpowers the other aspects of the music. Chamber opera does not treat it like a symphony with voices.

References

Nectoux, Jean-Michel. “Fauré, Gabriel.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/09366>.

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What Price Confidence?

Ernst Krenek was born in Vienna on August 23rd, 1900 and died on December 22nd, 1991 in Palm Springs. What Price Confidence? was completed in 1945, written to a libretto by the composer. The first performance was in Saarbrücken, May 23rd, 1962. The instrumentation consists of piano.
Duration: About Forty-Five Minutes

Background

In August of 1938, knowing he was no longer welcome in Austria, Ernst Krenek immigrated to America. As a major proponent of twelve-tone composition, he struggled for years in finding a permanent position teaching, spending 3 years at Vassar College until his contract ended in 1942. It was then that he received a letter inviting him to come to Hamline University in St. Paul, Michigan. Though Hamline was a small school with no true music facilities, St. Paul was close enough to Minneapolis, which housed a major university and orchestra, for him to choose to take the position.

Under the care of Hamline University, Krenek built up a modest music department, but he also composed several important works of this era, including a little gem of an opera, What Price Confidence? between 1944 and 1945, written as a touring piece for singers from the Met. Though treated well by Hamline, Krenek eventually grew tired of the cold winters of Michigan and decided to leave for Los Angeles, hoping to make his living solely as a composer, which he later found impossible.

The Source of the Libretto?

The story of the opera covers the tale of two men: Edwin, whose wife, Gloria, believes has no confidence, and Richard, who is bothered by his wife’s, Vivian, lack of jealously, which leads both Edwin and Vivian to try an experiment concerning confidence.

In order to test Vivian’s jealously, Richard tells Gloria he will go to Paris with her, and Gloria says she will only if Richard gives Edwin confidence. Richard gives Edwin a check for £1,000, which angers and horrifies Gloria. Vivian later finds Edwin about to jump off Waterloo Bridge because the check bounced. She tells him that she will jump unless her gives her confidence, persuading him that them meeting is fate and that they should meet again. Edwin and Vivian meet, tailed by Gloria, who, along with Richard, is jealous of the situation going on. In the end all is resolved and Edwin expresses interest in going to Paris, which Vivian agrees to.

Krenek wrote the libretto itself, and it is somewhat original; however, like the next two operas he wrote in America, Dark Waters (1950) and The Bell Tower (1955-56), it owes its gestation to Herman Melville. Whereas the latter two are based upon works by Melville, What Price Confidence? takes ideas from the novel The Confidence-Man but not explicit characters or locations. Instead, it deals with the theme of the novel: testing the confidence of others and confronting what they place their trust in. The quartet in the opera is a surrogate for the characters within The Confidence-Man and instead of a single “Confidence Man” who tests them, they test each other, rendering a much more complicated comedy than Melville’s original novel.

The Music

Krenek never contained himself to one idiom and always made an attempt to keep with the changing times. He had three distinct stylistic phases in his compositional career: the first was a sharply dissonant and stark style, the second was a return to tonality and reflected the interwar years, similar to contemporaries such as Hindemith in its parody of modern life, and culminated in Jonny Spielt Auf in 1925. The final phase of his career came later in that same decade, where he converted to twelve-tone writing, which he saw as a universal system. In the 50s and 60s Krenek experimented with both electronic and serial music.

What Price Confidence? belongs in his third phase, but does not sound like an overtly twelve-tone work. Though dissonant, the singing flows melodically over the rumbling of the piano, creating an oddly dissonant but very listenable piece. As the instrumentation is only piano, there is very little in the way of musical effects. This pared down aspect of the work grants it the feel of an early operatic work focused entirely on the voice as opposed to the symphonic quality of the music in the post Wagnerian thaw. However, Krenek makes use of quotation to give the feeling and setting of London, frequently recalling Big Ben’s tolling bells and hinting at fragments of the British national anthem.

The recording used for this entry was performed Ilana Davidson, Linda Hall, Susan Narucki, Christopheren Nomura and Richard Clement on Phoenix Edition. Catalogue number: Phoenix130

References

Bowles, Garrett. “Krenek, Ernst.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 22 Nov. 2015. <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/15515&gt;.

Perle, George. “Krenek.” The Musical Quarterly 77.1 (1993): 145-153.

Musing on Western Music and Other Cultures

Due to my work putting on a selection of local chamber operas this upcoming weekend, I have simply had no time for research and there will be no programme notes for this week’s post. In lieu of this I thought about a short musing on the subject of one of those works, Gustav Holst’s Savitri. The reason for this decision is because we are still only two weeks from the arguments against cultural appropriation that occurred near Halloween as well as a few months after the decision of the Met to no longer perform Otello with blackface and I wonder if events such as this change our outlook on works written mostly by white men.

Gustav Holst was a British composer who wrote an opera of an Indian theme, he had no relation to India at all with the exception that he apparently had respect for the Indian culture. The opera itself does not musically recall Indian stereotypes (as the way Puccini’s Turandot does with Chinese stereotypes with Ping, Pang and Pong) and is written in the “British” symphonic style that Holst is known for.

The question that I must ask is what defines whether or not it is okay to create works on other cultural themes? Can a white composer write a work on a Langston Hughes poem, or is he unable to do so because he cannot relate to the themes that appear within the text? How important is the text itself and how important is the context of the author’s culture on that text? Does a composer need explicit permission or deep experience to deal with these themes, both textually and musically? We are aware that the notion of cultural appropriation that the academic institutions spouted concerned negative or stereotypical visions of the culture. Therefore, if the composer attempts to interpret the text in a positive way as to celebrate the culture, does that justify it?

Moreover, what does the interlocking of cultural ties after the globalization of the 20th century say for composers who take other culture’s music to make their own? Is George Rochberg’s Imago Mundi offensive to the Japanese because he builds upon their cultural heritage in writing Gagaku? Is Henry Cowell’s Persian Set cultural appropriation because he is a westerner taking advantage the traditional music of Iran? Do we as musicians and composers who synthesize traditions from all over the world do harm to the original cultures by removing the significance on context of that music from its place of origin?

Listen to Savitri

Music and the Revolution: What is the point of political music?

Theodor Adorno, the philosopher-musician that we all love to quote, believed that political music couldn’t be popular music, that it essentially cannot be digestible. If we make the message digestible, then we betray the reason why we protest. The evils of the world do not appear to us as pleasing, they are distressing; thus, why wrap this discomforting reality in a musical accompaniment that is pleasing to the ears, that is built around the popular formula and can be enjoyed as popular music? Therefore a catchy tune cannot be an anti-war song, because it does not impart the distressing realities of war upon the listener. Since we cannot put any political meaning onto music itself, only the text, then what is the point of the music? Does it make a difference?

Music is inherently meaningless; we, or in the case of vocal works, the text, give(s) it meaning. Haydn’s 101st is called “the Clock” because we, as the listener, perceive the ticking of a clock; the music as written may or may not have been similar to a clock to Haydn, but to the listener it was. In abstract music we name pieces because we either recognize things within them that we attribute to our own lives to relate to them (Chopin’s “Raindrop” prelude) or because they melodically or structurally relate to something that we can relate to (Dvořák’s “American” string quartet). Moreover, titles, especially that of political programmatic music, are generally arbitrary. Shostakovich’s 12th symphony, The Year of 1917, contains one extant revolutionary song with no words being sung in the first movement only. If the titles were not present in the score and this were a piece of abstract music, no one would have guessed that it was any bit political; the composer defined its political connotations in text, not in music.

Thus, the most intrinsic aspect of the political nature of a piece of music is the text. As we noticed in Natascha Ungeheuer last week, Hans Werner Henze wrote the music to reflect the cognitive dissonance of the bourgeois leftist. In reflecting the emotions of the text, it circumvents the issues that Adorno speaks of in popular protest music. However, the musical effects of the work are lost to the public. Though Henze explains the satirical and social aspects of life in Berlin that inform these effects, they fall short in that the average listener does not hear this. These effects are immediately relevant to those from the Berlin he envisions, but to those in Rome on the premiere there is little relevance unless they have traveled to that Berlin. Today it has almost entirely lost its meaning because the message was confined by its time.

Now, we can argue that these political works are not meant for longevity, but instead to make a statement at that time and then be forgotten later on due to being irrelevant a few years later, but does that not vouch for the lack of meaning of political works within society? More than often these works are ignored because of the political affiliation or apathy of the audience. The only purpose of a political work is to exist so the public reacts negatively. An example of this is Henze’s Das Floss der Medusa, which, though Henze composed it with a specific intention, was only remembered for the Marxist students who disrupted the performance and the ensuing altercation. The music itself is ignored and the importance of the work lies in the events surrounding its performance. However, for the Marxists it was excellent Agitprop and for the cause that mattered more than anything else.

Looking beyond Henze, there is the notion that political music such as his is useless because it is needlessly complex and detracts listeners. Henze himself said that he had no interest in making popular tunes to push his message; he did not see himself as a song peddler. In following Kurt Weill into the political spectrum, Henze also went out of his way to not be Weill. He believed his music, no matter how modernist, was accessible, though it was only accessible relative to the rest of modernism in the late 60s.

Perhaps the best example of politically charged music is Cornelius Cardew’s Piano Album 1973. In his programme notes he writes, “I have discontinued composing music in an avant-garde idiom for a number of reasons: the exclusiveness of the avant-garde, its fragmentation, its indifference to the real situation in the world today, its individualistic outlook and not least its class character.” Cardew looks at music as a propagandist does; it should be simple enough for a serf to understand it. The importance of political music is not the music itself; to write music that is grandiose and audibly complex betrays the reason for creating the music. It becomes self-serving and does not do anything for the masses for which it is intended. Thus, Cardew’s piano music is simple and reflects the changing atmosphere of the world around him, informed by both emerging minimalism and ever present popular music; this is truly revolutionary music both in theory and in practice. No longer is it simply a political statement for the composer, crying out against the injustices of the world. Now the music itself is a vehicle of the revolution: clean, efficient and simple propaganda that praises the ideals of the communist agenda.

But, Cardew’s music, like that of Henze before him, ultimately does very little. Perhaps it had to do with the growth of popular music since the mid 20th century, but Cardew would not reach the masses when competing against the rock and roll of the 70s. And though Adorno is right, music of protest should not be “nice” or “catchy,” the vehicle for social change was not art music that reflected the issues in its performance, but popular protest music.

References

Cardew, Cornelius, Eddie Prévost, and Richard Barrett. Cornelius Cardew: A Reader. Harlow, Essex: Copula, 2006.

Der langwierige Weg in die Wohnung der Natascha Ungeheuer

Hans Werner Henze was born in Gütersloh on August 1, 1926 and died on October 27, 2012 in Dresden. Der langwierige Weg in die Wohnung der Natascha Ungeheuer was written in 1970 and 1971, written to a text by Gastón Salvatore. The first performance was at the Teatro Olimpico in Rome, May 17, 1971. The instrumentation is Pierrot ensemble with various doublings, Hammond Organ, Jazz band, a variety of percussion and tape. Duration: About an hour

Background

The defining moment in Hans Werner Henze’s life, much like many other Germans of the generation born between the world wars, was growing up under the fascism of the Nazis. This experience, especially the prodding of his fascist father into playing the part of a Hitler Youth, forever instilled a leftist, individualist attitude within the composer as a boy, ultimately leading to his breaking away from the Darmstadt school over what he saw as fascist tendencies in the direction of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen in the pursuance of his own musical voice.

However, Henze did not overtly place any significant leftist message in his works until he began espousing his communist ideals in a selection of vocal works that include Das Floss der Medusa (1968), El Cimarrón (1969-70), Der langwierige Weg in die Wohnung der Natascha Ungeheuer (1971) and Voices (1973). For this short span of about six to seven years, Henze was entirely dedicated to the mission of communism in his choice of topics and writers, always espousing the struggle of the lower class underneath the boots of the rich.

The writer of the text for Natascha Ungeheuer was Gastón Salvatore, a Chilean writer who was a student in Berlin during the 1968 student rebellion. Henze considered him an outstanding example of the fervor of the student left and chose to work with him

In his essay, “Art and the Revolution” (1971), Henze writes, “I am no longer personally ambitious, I no longer write music to please myself and a few friends but to help socialism… I have taken the decision that in my work I will embody all the difficulties and all the problems of contemporary bourgeois music, and that I will, however, try to transform these into something usable, into something the masses understand.”

For Henze, this means transforming the highly avant-garde musical language of the mid 20th century into something digestible by the masses. Whether he succeeded is up to the interpretation of the listener.

Agitprop in Action

Natascha Ungeheuer was written as a direct attack against what Gastón Salvatore saw as the biggest threat to the revolution. He believed that he had to show them their own hypocritical stances in a light that would disorient and shame them.

The work’s title translates to “The Tedious Way to Natascha Ungeheuer’s Flat;” however whenever the title is translated, no one ever translates “ungeheuer,” which is an important aspect of the message of the text. “Ungeheuer” as a noun translates to “monster” or “ogre” and is an important descriptor for Natascha, who is a false prophet. She is a traitor to the cause and is responsible for the downfall of young leftists.

Salvatore describes her as “the siren of a false utopia. She promises the bourgeois leftist a new kind of security which is meant to enable him to retain his ‘good’ revolutionary conscience without taking active part in the class struggle… a kind of cowardice that enables one to fancy one is identified with the ‘revolution’ and to think that the mere identification can be equated with the realization of the ‘revolution.’”

In a contemporary context, one may equate this to the trend of “slacktivism,” where a post on social media is enough to justify one’s own stance without actually taking to the streets and doing any work; it “puts the bourgeois leftist in the position of merely using the proletarian struggle as a king of moralizing balm.” Salvatore treats this as a critical weakness that Natascha Ungeheuer exploits, inviting the bourgeois leftist to her flat where he can find this peace without being confronted with betraying socialism.

Ultimately the leftist realizes this and does not walk the rest of the path to her flat. “He has not found his way to the revolution. He knows that he has to retrace his steps and start again from the beginning.”

The Music

Natascha Ungeheuer, like Hans Werner Henze’s other Communist works, follows a stylistically wide corpus of compositions such as the lush, romantic König Hirsch (1956) and Ondine (1956-7), the polystylistic Boulevard Solitude (1952), and the avant-garde symphonies. Henze’s most powerful trait that benefited his staged works was his ability to write the music according to the emotion of the text. The entirety of Natascha Ungeheuer is written to reflect the agitated tone of Salvatore’s text.

Henze himself describes it as “cold as a November day in Berlin. It has a Berlin dryness and the harshness of the Berlin slang. It tries to express itself with the lapidary precision of a Berlin taxi-driver or building worker.”

Like earlier works such as The Bassarids, Henze makes frequent use of musical quotations to build bridges with the musical past as well as a form of satire. Of the instrumentation, he separates them into groups that symbolize various aspects of German life. He uses the Jazz band as a representation of the music of the street, the modern Berlin of the early 70s, while the tape provides street noises. In contrast the Pierrot ensemble is a parody of the post-Webern musical establishment that has become a sickly shadow of the Viennese masters. Somewhere in-between floats the Hammond, which punctuates the score with musical quotations such as the triumphal march from Verdi’s Aida in the first section.

The ultimate goal of the music and the staging is the breakdown of the meaning and role of musical theatre as to point the mirror in the direction of the bourgeois German public. Here Henze sees this as the next logical step from Weill and Eisler, both musically and theatrically. As he writes, “Here too the frontiers of music have fallen, and this results in points of contact with new forms of the visual arts and theatre.”

The recording used for this entry was performed by William Pearson, Dieter Schider, Gastón Salvatore, Hans Werner Henze, Elfriede Irral, Fires Of London, Philip Jones Brass Quintet, Gunter Hampel Free Jazz Ensemble, Giuseppe Agostini, Stomu Yamash’ta on Deutsche Grammophon. Catalogue number: DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 0289 479 1522 5

References

Henze, Hans Werner. “Art and the Revolution.” Music and Politics. Trans. Peter Labanyi. New York: Cornell University Press, 1982. 178-183.

Henze, Hans Werner. “Natascha Ungeheuer.” Music and Politics. Trans. Peter Labanyi. New York: Cornell University Press, 1982. 184-193.

Virginia Palmer-Füchsel. “Henze, Hans Werner.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 28 Oct. 2015. <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/12820&gt;.

A Question of Taste: Why Bother with Early Music?

I will admit it; Euridice is boring. In all of my love for the work, in my entire fervent, counter musical establishment, highly idiosyncratic belief that I like it more than Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, I will admit that there is not much action or excitement within it. It is static declamation; nothing more than a series of monologues, completely alien to the music that developed after it. Monteverdi’s music is so distant from that of Peri within the same musical epoch and, but that has to do more with Monteverdi’s inventiveness than Peri being an incompetent composer. Perhaps what I really truly love about Euridice is that Peri did what excited me about Janacek’s operatic style. In listening and analyzing the contours of speech, how consonants and vowels float or fall, Peri made important strides in a personal operatic style that is radically different from that of Caccini. Yes, the Renaissance sound world is very similar, but words are a third of the magic of opera.

But it is still boring. How can I excite someone over such antique style, let alone two hours of it? A recorder consort is fun for five or ten minutes, but who would be willing to listen to it for an entire opera without finding themselves falling asleep? Oh, if only we could all be early music buffs!

What is the point of performing or listening to music so old that there is disconnect in taste other than for educational or historical purposes? Well, the obvious answer, from someone who supports the status quo of the repertoire, is that there is no point and you do not. But then if we choose not to perform this music, we lose the context of our own music; where it came from, how it developed. Because we only stayed within the status quo, we all believed that Dallapiccola was right when he said Vivaldi was “the composer not of six hundred concertos but one concerto written six hundred times over.” Who, then, was not surprised when they heard his religious music or his operas? We cannot put music in a neat little box that we call “the repertoire,” we need to expand and grow and give context to all the great works, as everything is built upon the shoulders of that which came before it. Monteverdi did not just write L’Orfeo on a whim, he knew of what came before and how to expand beyond it. A masterwork is the sum of everything before and after it, a testament of greatness only within context, alone it is just an ordinary work.

Taste is ultimately arbitrary (so much so that I regret having to discuss it). It is a shield that protects the individual from listening to music that challenges them. They act irrational and aggressive when they find that someone can find enjoyment out of something that troubles them, whether it is good, bad, intellectual, dumbed down, exciting or boring. All you need to do to realize this is to look at how people respond to Arnold Schoenberg and how people respond to Brittany Spears. In both situations the reactions are that the music is “boring,” “vulgar,” “poorly made,” etc. Neither side is objectively correct; taste is entirely selective and subjective. But I am not going to deride these people for their close-minded taste. Some will grow to discover other music and develop their taste, others will not, but I cannot attack someone for their subjective views. The only objective argument that one can make concerning music is its complexity, which does not define whether it is good or not, it just defines what it is.

What is troublesome about discussing taste is that there is no solution we can give to solve it. Individuals have their own musical preferences and there is nothing we can do. Renaissance music is considered boring, I am sorry, I can do nothing. However, that does not mean it should be unperformed and forgotten. In performing music we offer opportunities for people to listen and understand, we create connections with the music we make and consume and the world around us; it is why programme notes exist. For some listeners it might be fruitless, for others it might light a spark, but the point is to show that these things exist. We should stop performing things because they draw crowds, we must perform things because they’re worthwhile, and if they truly are worthwhile, they will eventually draw. That was the importance of the record, and eventually, CD, revolution, where record stores widely disseminated works by lesser-known composers not performed in symphony or opera halls in America. One cannot be passive and give in; provide something of worth and attention will follow. However, I refuse to evangelize and tell others that they must listen to this music, even if I truly believe in the worth of this music. It is not my role to act as the gatekeeper who decides what is worthwhile and what isn’t, I do not have the credentials to do that nor is it my goal. Our role should be to inform and allow people to decide for themselves. Yes many will stick with Bach as the furthest they will travel, but there will always be others who choose to venture into the Renaissance and beyond. Whether or not I find something of interest does not mean that my opinion, no matter how ignorant or well educated, matters at all.

Yes, Euridice is boring, but it is a worthwhile experience. Not only is it a starting point, but it has its own merit not immediately visible until people understand it in context. This is the role of the writer on music, to teach the world the merits of every work, whether popular or obscure. But I implore that we should not force our opinions upon anyone; taste is fickle, but it will eventually turn one way or another.

Opera tickets are not “expensive”

The Passacaglia Test

In the week when another senior journalist, this time from the BBC, has repeated the ill-informed assertion that “opera tickets are expensive”, it is more than useful to update the price comparison previously published in November 2014

The basic premise is that opera tickets are sold at a range of prices, not at a single price-point. That’s something obvious to those who actually buy opera tickets, and generally obvious to those who have some notion of ticketed events – but bafflingly out of the mental grasp of leading media journalists, commentators and presenters.

There are some opera tickets which cost more than £100, but so do the top price tickets to many other comparable events and activities. Only a few hundred of those top price opera tickets are available given the small size of theatres and handful of performances of each opera, whereas tens of thousands of the top price sports…

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Euridice

Jacopo Peri was born in either Rome or Florence on August 20, 1561 and died around August 12, 1633 in Florence. Euridice was completed in the spring of 1600, written to a libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini. The first performance was at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, October 6, 1600 to celebrate the wedding of Maria de Medici to Henri IV of France. Peri himself sung the role of Orfeo. Instrumentation varies among performances, but Peri specified that four players played a harspichord, chitarrone, lira grande, and lute. There are also unspecified melody lines within the score. Duration: Less than two hours

Background

By 1588 Jacopo Peri was in service of the Medici court, but prior to that he spent much of his time around the various Florentine circles. Because of this, he was aware of the Count Giovanni de Bardi’s Camerata, a circle of intellectuals and musicians who were searching for a new way in music that recalled the nature of ancient Greek music. Peri himself had little interaction with the actual activities of Florentine Camerata, but their development of the form of monody was important in the gestation of Euridice.

Monody, as the Camerata realized it, was a step away from polyphony, one voice singing a solo song with a simple accompaniment. The goal of this was to return to the power and expression of the text that had be lost in the blurring created by polyphonic treatments. In contrast to monody, a song sung with one voice that does not convey the expression of the text in the contour of the melody and the rate of the declamation is simply monophonic according to the guidelines defined by the Camerata.

Around the end of the 16th century, Jacopo Corsi and Ottavio Rinuccini, both of which moved in circles associated with Bardi’s Camerata, were looking to stage a musical performance of a Greek tragedy. For this they chose to collaborate with Jacopo Peri, and what was conceived was the first major attempt at an opera, Dafne. Though now mostly lost, Dafne was enough of a success for Rinuccini to work with Peri again, leading to the conception of Euridice.

Euridice was performed at the Pitti Palace on October 6, 1600 during the wedding of Maria de Medici and Henri IV of France; however, it was performed in a rather small room of the palace and did not occupy the thoughts of those attending; what instead garnered all the attention was Giulio Caccini’s Rapimento di Cefalo, a work that would soon fall into obscurity whereas Euridice would become a starting point for all opera, beginning with Claudio Monteverdi.

The Myth of Orpheus in Adaptation

Euridice is the first important opera that concerns the tale of Orpheus. The story that Virgil tells follows Orpheus, a musician who is married to Eurydice. She dies not too soon after their wedding, bitten on the heel by a viper, and Orpheus heads to the underworld in order to retrieve her. He uses his music to convince Hades to let him take Eurydice back with him as long as he walked in front of her and did not look back until they were both on the upperworld. Orpheus does as he is told, but as he steps into the upperworld, he turns around while Eurydice is still on the other side of the threshold, causing her to disappear forever. Maenads later tear Orpheus to shreds for attempting to worship Apollo instead of Dionysius.

Ottavio Rinuccini’s adaptation, like many other operatic ones, does away with this final scene of Orpheus’ death. This version of the tale is a sentimental, pastoral drama, a very Renaissance occurrence, where Orpheus and Eurydice are at harmony with nature and nature echoes both their joy and lamentations. There is also a happy ending in this adaptation. Ultimately, Orpheus does not fail in bringing Eurydice back from Hades and in the end there is a bucolic celebration among all the creatures of nature.

Of course it is important for them to be reunited as it was to be performed at a wedding. The tone of the work is celebratory, two people united by love and marriage (even though, as the anecdote goes, Henri would never even think of traveling to the underworld for Maria), which Rinuccini uses as his reason for taking liberties with the original story.

The Music

Almost all of Eurdice is written as recitative, providing a solution to the question of how Greek drama could be sung through. Peri maintains connections to the past only in strophic songs sung by choruses at the end of each scene. Outside of these homophonic choruses, much of the melody floats by above continuo; limiting the musical action to the most simplistic it could be without it being monophonic. This continuo provides harmonic interest in the dramatic lines intoned by the singers and the subtle shifts in harmony combined with the declamation of the lines give emotion and spontaneity to the recitative.

What makes Peri’s writing for Euridice so expressive is his basing of the melodic line on natural speech; the way he handles syllabic stress, the rising and falling sounds of words, and inflection. The stasis of the music supports these vocal effects; a lush Romantic vocal line would not fulfill the job that Peri set out to accomplish. Without the slow, melancholic nature of the music, he would be less able to accent the rhythmic aspects of Italian vernacular with the success he does here.

Naturally, all music inevitably ends up compared to that which succeeds it. If we were to look at Jacopo Peri’s Euridice in the same light as the work that it might have influenced, Claudio Monteverdi’s La Favola di Orfeo (L’Orfeo from here on) then we would be painfully disappointed. L’Orfeo is rightfully a masterpiece in every way and much more worthy of being considered the birth of the modern genre. However, L’Orfeo is much more an early Baroque work than a Renaissance as Euridice is, and this is where we can no longer compare the two. L’Orfeo is a maturation of the use of recitatives that separate disparate musical numbers, like that of Baroque opera that follows; Euridice is a work of monody juxtaposed with polyphony and is the development of monody into recitatives. L’Orfeo is the more interesting work, but it could not be without the work of Jacopo Peri in Euridice.

The recording used for this entry was performed by Ensemble Arpeggio under the direction of Roberto de Caro on ARTS Music. Catalogue number: ARTS47276-2

Musical Excerpts

References

Baron, John. “Monody: A Study in Terminology.” The Musical Quarterly 54.4 (1968): 462-474

Buller, Jeffery. “Baroque Opera and the Ending of the Orpheus Myth.” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 1.3 (1995): 57-79

Brown, Howard Mayer. “Peri, Jacopo.” The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Ed. Stanley Sadie. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 13 Oct. 2015. <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/O002304&gt;.

Brown, Howard Mayer and Barbara Russano Hanning. “Euridice (i).” The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Ed. Stanley Sadie. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 14 Oct. 2015. <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/O901459&gt;.

Pirrotta, Nino. “Temperment ands Tendencies in the Florentine Camerata.” Trans. Nigel Fortune. The Musical Quarterly 40.2 (1954): 169-189

Whither Opera

I am writing this not only as an introduction to the entire project of the Hidden Repertoire, but as a response to two intrinsically different posts on Alex Ross’ blog. Looking at them chronologically, there is Park Life, celebrating the 50 years of the New York Philharmonic’s immensely successful performances in the Park. The second, Crisis 1970, paints a different picture in the following decade.
What makes these two contrasting events so interesting when juxtaposed is first that the “cultural climate” so drastically changed from the 1950s and 60s to the 1970s. With cultural institutions such as the Young People’s concerts and the Louisville Orchestra’s commissioning spree, the majority of the 20th century sowed fertile ground for cultural growth; however, this belies the fact that the avant garde tradition was still a massive hurdle for the audiences of America, with luminaries such as Schoenberg finding very little traction in the cultural landscape. More important to my point is that the second aspect of this to take away is that the “cultural crisis” is cyclical, and has always been. It is obvious in the recent incidents that plagued such institutions as the New York City Opera and San Diego Opera that those words uttered in 1970 are not isolated, but part of a greater cycle of cultural growth and destruction.
The question that follows is simply “why?” I believe that the decline is based upon a growing lack of interest, a disease with many symptoms but the most telling being a lack of understanding. Is art music too hard or too complex for those raised on pop music? Are musicians and those schooled in music more likely to be interested? With the small exception of the avant garde, highly intellectual schools of Spectral music and its predecessor Total Serialism, this is most likely not true. Everyone can enjoy music and they do not have to be trained to understand it. Like pop music, it is what it is on the surface, and while there might be more under the hood that shows the composer’s craft, that is never apparent upon listening alone.
The biggest problem is that the uninitiated listener can be intimidated by art music. It is an inherent fact that art music became more heady in the 20th century and popular music moved to being more simplistic (it should be obvious enough when comparing the harmonic progressions of popular song in the early 20th century to the popular song of today). Music that is too heady is lost on the public, and that’s why Babbitt isn’t loved by more people than Glass. Even Schoenberg, whose music is lyrical in comparison to the Total Serialists, is still misunderstood today. It is not because the music is bad or that people are too stupid to get it, it is that they are weary of anything that does not reward them in some way. There is no satisfaction from “hard-edged” music outside of the analysis of it.
Therefore, I want to turn this to the whole point of this and ask, as Bernstein and Ives before did, whither opera in our time? How can opera be loved in a society and culture with no true attachments to the art form? And is opera’s decline in any relation to the decline of all art music in general? The answer to this unanswered question could possibly be education and the facilitation of interest. The reasons that people are afraid of opera are entirely baseless and are obstacles set up by one’s own mind. There is no reason that in a country where Les Misérables earned $148,809,770 at the box office people should be afraid of operas because it is sung-through. If anything, it is a chance for people to expand their horizons.

Opera in America has a relatively small repertoire, and the majority of that is written for orchestra. Even further skewing this repertoire, many of the major opera houses sometimes perform entire seasons of only Italian Bel Canto (and some Verismo) works. However, there is also a vast chunk of the repertoire that consists of chamber works rarely seen within our borders (Countries like Germany that consume classical music put on a variety of works ranging from the Baroque to the Contemporary frequently). I firmly believe that in the current cultural climate, one where people are afraid to pay high prices for bigger shows, that chamber works are better to perform because they require putting less performers and musicians on the payroll and the company can be far more flexible in their productions. In addition, chamber works, being small scale and sometimes shorter than works written for the orchestra, are the best way to introduce people into opera, especially if they are weary of the stereotypes that come with Wagner and Italian opera. Perhaps the best way to look at chamber work is like a “bite sized” opera.

Thus the goal of this project is to allow those uninitiated to discover these works and promote what they bring to the repertoire that makes them interesting. It’s a celebration of this wonderful genre in simple programme note styled posts. I will write a post on a work every two weeks and every week in-between there will be a short essay not unlike the response I wrote above relevant to works discussed on the blog. In light of this, I must stress that all of my information comes through research. The reader should never take what I say as absolute truth as I do not have a formal degree in music and my education consists of my study of theory and composition from books and a few teachers and mentors.