Unfinishment: (In)completing Mahler’s (In)completion

(Nexus entry.)

From the opening bar of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, we are plunged into a memory space populated by ghosts of the Prelude from Parsifal, the Prelude from Tristan, and the final movement of Mahler’s own Ninth Symphony. In fact, the opening of Mahler’s Tenth feels like a renewal of the conversation that Mahler had with himself in the Ninth. Like Hermann Hesse or William Faulkner or Terry Gilliam, there were certain topics that Mahler, once he had introduced them, simply couldn’t let go.

Of course it’s possible, however unlikely, that Mahler’s Tenth wouldn’t seem this way if the composer had finished the symphony himself. For over fifty years the world only had the colossus of an opening movement and the featherweight sidekick of a third movement, a self-effacing Allegretto with the bizarre appellation “Purgatorio.” Then Deryck Cooke (1919-76), who never finished his own planned study of Wagner’s Ring (mentioned in my last entry), made a performing version of all five movements of Mahler’s Tenth, which premièred in 1964 and was published in 1976. Other performing versions have been made, but Cooke’s is distinguished by being the first and having more than one famous name attached to it. Brothers David and Colin Matthews both helped revise Cooke’s orchestration to achieve something approaching a Mahlerian sound. R-3485643-1332258657.jpeg.jpgThe recording I was listening to, incidentally, was of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Mark Wigglesworth, which accompanied the August 1994 issue of BBC Music. In some ways it makes a great deal of sense to listen to this live performance, as the 1964 concert that brought the fully realized Tenth to the world was part of that season’s Proms.

The three movements that Cooke’s completion introduced to that 1964 audience (II, IV, and V) make for a fascinatingly symmetrical form in performance: around 23 minutes for the first and last movements, around 11.5 for the second and fourth, and a four-minute middle movement. Mahler clearly intended this symmetry. The outer movements are slow and share with the last movement of the Ninth an autumnal atmosphere that ranges from desolation and despair to searing pain—including the most dissonant sonority Mahler ever wrote, out of which blazes a solo trumpet, which is then submerged again in a “poisoned” chord—to visions of paradise and achievement of rest. The second and fourth are scherzos, similar to the placement of the Nachtmusik movements in the Seventh Symphony. But unlike the Nachtmusik movements of the Seventh, which are clearly differentiated, the scherzos and slow movements of the Tenth, respectively, feel like siblings, so that the interrupted kinesis of the first scherzo is picked up again in the second, and the solemnity and scope of the first movement are picked up again in the fifth. The sense that any Mahlerite has from the first note of the Tenth—that this symphony is a return, after an “interruption” between symphonies, to the essence of the Mahlerian conversation—is mirrored in the finale’s “return” to the first movement’s manner, after the interruption of three movements, and in the fourth movement’s return to the scherzo language of the second movement after the interruption of “Purgatorio.”

In a symphony that blends Mahlerian tropes with extraordinary surprises, one of the things that surprises me most is the language of constant interruption that Mahler cultivates in the scherzos. Motives are cut short; phrases are arrested; cadences are unfulfilled. Mahler has created a style in which a sentence almost never ends; instead, it gets turned into another sentence, which itself does not end. There’s logic to this—a way of the music—but the logic is one of incompletion. What Mahler does with form at the largest scale, he also does with material at a local scale: incompletion has become a sort of aesthetic, made poignant because of the unfinished state in which the composer left the symphony.

What does incompletion mean? Is it a sign for nervous anxiety, the impossibility of positive action in the symbol-laden decaying world of fin-de-siècle Europe? I think people often feel compelled to read Mahler like that, to look for ways that the music expresses the extraordinary emotional contours of its creator’s thinking in a Freud-filled, angst-bedeviled prewar context. But I confess that as I was listening to the scherzos of the Tenth this week, thinking about the aesthetic of incompletion that they embody, I perceived not a neurotic rhetorical hyperactivity but an achievement of rhetorical emptiness. One can only follow so many changes of mood before the rapid-fire volte-face of happy face-sad face-happy face-sad face—emoticons spinning in a slot machine—loses its precision and ceases to mean in conventional rhetorical ways. It feels to me as if in these two scherzos Mahler is unhooking mode and gesture from rhetorical function. He seems to be trading in musical twists and turns shorn of their communicative inheritance, a world powerfully close to Schoenberg’s where musical extremes need not signify emotional ones. I increasingly hear the two scherzos of the Tenth Symphony as a kind of kinetic workshop, a place where the composer was thinking, through music, about where music was going.

And what does this mean for the diminutive “Purgatorio,” a movement that spends a good deal of time spinning its wheels, like Gretchen am Spinnrade, with an empty oscillating figure underlying more conventional statements of melody? This is clearly Mahler’s Lieder style, and arguably it’s a more specific reference than that, but it’s so strange to hear this between the boldly fragmentary, proto-modernist scherzos, a leaky skiff bobbing along between Scylla and Charybdis. (Romantic metaphor-of-the-day award winner). I place the blame for this ridiculous metaphor squarely on Mahler. 61uYgohaXCL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgHe’s the one, after all, who called his middle movement “Purgatorio,” suggesting the epic scope of Dante’s Divine Comedy and practically begging a listener to look for an Inferno and a Paradisio. Or is it really the middle three movements that function collectively as a kinetic purgatory—a waiting place, an interruption—foil to the first movement’s hell and last movement’s paradise? Music musics, ultimately, and any narrative parallel fails to fully accommodate those qualities that make the music so extraordinary.

One of the extraordinary features of Mahler’s Tenth, the narrative significance of which is elusive, is the final movement’s shape, which begins and ends with expansive tempos and features a central Allegro moderato. This shape echoes the rhythmic profile of the entire symphony, an echo enriched and complicated by the resurfacing of motives from earlier movements in the finale. There can be no question of the “validity” of a narrative reading here; Mahler brewed up such a complicated potion that one must simply accept that multiple readings, resonances, visions and revisions abound. Mahler has created a space constituted of reflections and refractions, making the nature of any one fragment difficult to pin down.

I’ll mention just one more such feature, which seems more powerful to me the more I hear this symphony. One of the principal motives of the last movement is a trumpet figure, another in a long line of funereal brass motives whipped up by Mahler. 800px-Richard_Strauss-Woche,_festival_poster,_1910_by_Ludwig_Hohlwein.jpgBut this one bears a striking resemblance, I think, to the motive from Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905) that Lawrence Gilman called the ¡¡¡EnTiCeMeNt!!! motive in his 1907 guide to the opera. In isolation, the connection would perhaps merit little attention, but taken with the bass drum hits that open Mahler’s finale and the return of the “poisoned” chord, both of which have parallels in Strauss’s score, I cannot resist the comparison. (It’s the bass drums, remember, that crush Salome with their shields [or something like that], and who can forget the “poisoned” chord when Salome kisses the forbidden fruit, the severed head of Jochanaan?) When Mahler was sketching his Tenth the music of Strauss’s operatic success de scandale was all the rage, and Mahler certainly knew the score well. What’s Mahler doing here? Perhaps he’s contemplating, through music, another recent development in music, in just the same way that the internal scherzos reflect a kind of Schoenbergian shearing of aspects of signification from musical gesture. If Mahler is thinking about Strauss in the finale of his Tenth, the music is too potent, too evocative and immediate not to spark narrative dimensions. What forbidden fruit has Mahler’s symphonic protagonist tasted to be crushed in this way? Whatever it was, Mahler himself didn’t live to taste it. In listening to the last movement, we hear Mahler from beyond the grave, expressing things he did not have the time to express.

(Nexus ex. . .

Honegger: Rugby and Musical Scrums

Contributed by Dr. Ken Metz (Professor of Music, University of the Incarnate Word)

51-5xVSwtbL._SY355_.jpgHonegger’s Rugby, a piece inspired by that sport, would seem to represent an unusual phenomenon in art music. My search to find similar pieces has revealed that there are not many that relate directly to a sport or a game. (I welcome readers to add to my initial list!) Stravinsky wrote Jeu de cartes, for example, which of course deals (no pun intended) with a card game. Honegger may have been inspired by Debussy, whose Jeux features an attempt to connect musical rhythm with a bouncing tennis ball. However, Jeux is not directly inspired by the game of tennis. That most eccentric French composer, Erik Satie, did write Sports et Divertissements for piano solo, but the only actual sports subjects in the work are tennis and golf (unless you think Satie thought of yachting and fishing as sports). Bohuslav Martinů composed Half-Time, inspired by football (soccer). (Bateman 2015) I am not sure whether Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1908) should be counted as another example, since it’s mostly about watching the game (and eating at it), but even if it is, there are not that many popular songs that turn sports into music.

One reason for the small number of sports-related pieces of art music is that team sports such as rugby and soccer were a development of the later nineteenth century, so composers before that time simply didn’t have them to write about. Before the nineteenth century, the hunt was a sort of sport, and there is much music inspired by its sounds and rhythms, but it would be a stretch to call it a team sport. Suffice it to say that there are not many pieces of concert music that aim to depict or are motivated by a team sport. But I would like to suggest another reason that composers have avoided writing pieces about team sports by discussing Honegger’s Rugby at more length.

Here, then, is Honegger’s statement about the piece:

“I very much like football (soccer), but I prefer rugby. I find it more spontaneous, more direct and closer to nature than football, which is a more scientific game. I am aware of a carefully controlled rhythm in football and for me the savage, brusque, untidy and desperate rhythm of rugby is more attractive. It would be wrong to consider my piece as program music. All it does is to try to express, in my own musician’s language, the attacks and ripostes of the game, and the rhythm and color of a match at the Colombes Stadium; I honestly feel it is only right to name my sources. That is the reason why this short composition bears the title of Rugby.” (Waters 1997)

Honegger distances himself from “program music,” focusing instead on the kinetics of rugby expressed through pitch and rhythm. One would assume that the words “brusque, untidy, and desperate” would connote dissonant pitch collections and rhythmic conflict. Here I’m particularly interested in how Honegger treats rhythm, because that is an important aspect of his most well known music.

In Pacific 231, for example, Honegger uses a rhythmic crescendo as a formal organizational principle. (Waters, 1997) It’s easy to hear this principle in the piece’s gradual change to faster rhythms on a hypermetrical level, because it evokes a train leaving the station, increasing its speed, and slowing down to arrive at its destination. The locomotive motive, if you will, integrates well with a plan in which rhythmic crescendo and decrescendo combine with rhythmic displacement and polyrhythm to create an arch form structure that parallels a familiar real-world event.

A similar use of rhythmic crescendo informs the structure of Rugby; however, the effect here is less successful. I think the problem lies in the game of rugby itself and the nature of team sports in general. I think that the way a rugby game unfolds in time does not create a fitting model for musical form, because the rhythmic ebb and flow of the many events in a game conflicts with the rhythmic crescendo employed in Honegger’s piece.

Perhaps the kinetic profile of a game such as rugby or basketball could be used as a model for musical form if the game could be temporally stretched, so that one event in the game could occupy a much larger time span in music, like a slow-motion replay in musical terms. Imagine that the speed of the players could be reduced to that of performers in Japanese noh theater. If this could be the speed of a game of rugby, then music might provide a more suitable architectural parallel. To look at the situation in reverse, I suppose a game like rugby is like a piece of music that has too many different and unrelated changes in rhythmic structure, too many climatic points. How many times can music effectively portray the same sets of recurring events such as scrums without losing its focus and overall momentum? Honegger must have struggled to fit his compositional process onto rugby, a struggle happily absent from Pacific 231.

Sources Cited

Bateman, Anthony. Sport, Music, Identities. Oxford: Routledge, 2015.

Waters, Keith John. “Rhythmic and Contrapuntal Structures in the Music of Arthur Honegger” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Rochester University, 1997).

I Saw the World Begin: Das Rheingold

It wasn’t possible to post last week. And why? Well, life presents its various difficulties, of course, but I think more than this is that I reached the precipice: Wagner. It was inevitable that I should eventually write about him, as I knew when I started this blog, although I wasn’t sure how I would get there or when. But, having spent some time on the Circe myth in Alcina and South Pacific, I started thinking about sirens, about the Lorelei, and this led me to the Rhinemaidens, that trio of seductive water nymphs swimming in the Rhine in the opening scene of Das Rheingold, first of the Ring operas.

(Nexus entry?)

This is the kind of moment that has the power to arrest the flow of prose. What can one say that hasn’t been said? At the same time, how can one choose what to say when there are so many things to say? Just take the Prelude of Das Rheingold, that long suspension of E-flat major bliss, growing from the subterranean basses and blossoming into swaths of full orchestral diatonic glory—how to focus? Do I say something about the significance of the three-flat key signature, suggesting simultaneously the trio of Rhinemaidens, the trio of Norns, the three muses (Dance, Music, Poetry) that Wagner cites when writing about his concept of music drama, the Christian trinity, the key of Beethoven’s Eroica, of the Masonic in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte? Do I then opine further about how in this originating kernel of E-flat-ness, Wagner has conducted preliminaries for a ritual theater during which he makes obeisance to the Christian god, to the norse gods, to the Greek gods, to the gods of music (Mozart and Beethoven)? v1.bTsxMTYxODIxMjtqOzE3Njg0OzEyMDA7NzY4OzEwMjQ.jpegOr do I go in another direction entirely and talk about the uses of Wagner—for example, the use of the Prelude from Das Rheingold in Terrence Malick’s film The New World (2005), ostensibly about the founding of Jamestown and the relationship of John Smith and Pocahontas, but projected, through the use of Wagner’s Prelude, into a larger creation myth, an originating legend for America paralleling the creation of Wagner’s world of the Ring, and/or a suggestion of the unspoiled world before European colonization.

(Nope, just kidding.)

You see? I have a problem. And no one’s even on stage yet!

40300.jpgI take consolation from reading Deryck Cooke’s I Saw the World End: A Study of Wagner’s Ring (Oxford University Press, 1979). An attempt to say as much as could be said, Cooke managed to say intriguing things about the libretti (and occasionally the music) for the first two Ring operas, and then laid him down to rest. Somehow this is touchingly fitting, in a way that echoes other extraordinary projects of scholarship cut short by the unsympathetic winnower: Henry-Louis de La Grange’s revision of his definitive Mahler biography, J. A. B. van Buitenen’s translation of the Mahabharata. What I mean is that the epic subject is honored, in a sense, by not being fully encompassed by similarly epic scholarship. On a more pedestrian level, I was by turns upset, amused, and relieved that in the extensive liner notes + libretto accompanying Karajan’s classic recording of Das Rheingold with the Berlin Philharmonic, the essayist Wolfram Schwinger hardly mentions that singing is going on. (Yes, really!) Schwinger’s focus is almost exclusively on the Master—Karajan!—and his sensitivity to orchestration, his commitment to accuracy, transparency, his refusal to get bogged down and insistence on maintaining forward momentum. All well and good, but. . .singers?

118001648.jpgAfter all, here is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Wotan, the ultimate singer of German Lieder crafting a father of the gods who is lyrical and sympathetic instead of brash, spoiled, tyrannical. And here is the masterful performance of Gerhard Stolze as Loge, who follows every opportunity for multi-dimensionality of character that Wagner provides: at one moment playfully mercurial, at another fiercely scornful, at another distant and wise. And here is Martti Talvela as Fasolt, volleying blasts of bass sonority over the orchestra and hamming it up marvelously as the unlikely love-struck giant. But perhaps this is why Schwinger doesn’t say much about the singers—they do their job splendidly, on the whole, so his focus is free to flit to other phenomena. (How’s that for Stabreim?) All this to say that, after delay and uncertainty, I feel liberated not to attempt the completist’s gambit. Flit, float, fleetly flee, fly—it will be enough to be and not to be enough.

Nexus entry.

Wagner’s command of musical irony always stuns me, and I was perhaps more sensitive to it than ever on this listen to Das Rheingold. The gold standard for Wagnerian musical irony is Act I of Tristan und Isolde, and the queen reigning over that language is Isolde herself, who can snatch away someone else’s line and spit it back laced with venom. But I don’t think I had fully appreciated how much irony there is throughout the first of the Ring operas. Take, again, that opening scene with the Rhinemaidens, where the dwarf Alberich, frustrated in his attempts to capture one of them, takes the Rhinegold instead and curses love so that he will be able to forge the ring of power.

00005973.jpg(Don’t say anything about Tolkien. . .don’t say it!!! No, go on and say it—you’re in the nexus!)

In Wagner’s cosmology, love is the ultimate power inasmuch as it cannot be achieved through force, whereas everything else can be. So when Alberich can’t have love, he seizes upon the next best thing. Seen another way, the denial of love is what twists Alberich into a destructive tyrant. In Tolkien’s mythos, the creation of the Ring doesn’t work this way. It is forged by Sauron, who is so wholly evil, a force so far beyond conventional human experience, that to imagine him (it?) giving up love for power is a laughable suggestion. Love is foreign to evil in Tolkien’s universe; it cannot be imagined as existing anywhere in Sauron’s sphere.

Steamboat_Willie.jpgWagner invites us to consider, though, what might have happened had one of the Rhinemaidens chimed, “Oh, so he doesn’t replace the toilet paper and puts his elbows on the table—can’t help lovin’ that dwarf of mine!” And how does he invite us to consider this possibility? By writing mock-love music, of course! The Rhinemaidens sing, each of them, as if they’ve fallen for our sulfurous cave-dweller, and he buys it each time. But we know better, and not just because of the narrative context. Wagner hams it up, giving us saccharine overtures interrupted by action-oriented “underscore.” (Incidentally, do you realize how much mickey-mousing there is in Das Rheingold?! Steamboat Willie, sit down!) The music shifts gears too quickly for us to hear the love music as genuine; something that gets that sticky that quickly must be manufactured.

There are so many moments like this in Rheingold, each representing its own unique dramatic accomplishment, and the completist in me wants to dwell on many more, but the realist in me wants to mention one more general idea that kept occurring to me on this listen to the opera, and this has to do with Wagner’s materials. When the Rhinemaidens first direct Alberich’s (and our) gaze to the Rhinegold, we hear, for the first time in the score, a bright and shiny solo trumpet line. Got it, Wagner. A trumpet is made of brilliant metal, and so is the Rhinegold. But what about other such associations? Like the blast of clarinet sonority that accompanies Alberich, suggesting a reedy, swamp-like origin for him. Or the waves of arcing string lines in the Prelude suggesting, yes, the motion of the waters of the Rhine, but also, because of presence of string instruments themselves, the “threads” (strings) that the Norns are weaving and the wood of the World Tree—those organic materials. IMG_4855.JPGWagner was the kind of brilliant orchestrator who understood the cultural significance of timbre, particularly as it had been used historically in opera, and knew therefore how to use timbre to communicate dramatic ideas. But the world of the Ring seems to me to have presented Wagner with the perhaps singular opportunity to associate instruments with primal elements. Okay, so this idea is partly formed at best, but I’m recording it nonetheless as one of those topics to keep in mind as the life journey that constitutes anything more than a passing familiarity with Wagner’s Ring continues to unfold. Long may it last and never reach its end.

Nexus exit.

Siren Swan Song: Lord Berners’s Last Plié

268x0w.jpgHere’s the strange assignment I set myself. To listen critically to the late music of Lord Berners (1883-1950), the “last eccentric,” the “English Satie.” Friend of Stravinsky—you can read their published correspondence!—diplomat in the foreign service from 1909-20, painter whose exhibitions graced London’s Reid and Lefevre Galleries, novelist and autobiographer. Oh, and ¡¡¡LoRd!!!, by Jove. If you want a taste of the sort of thing at which his lordship excelled, give ear to the ballet suite from The Triumph of Neptune (1926) in this classic recording from 1937 of the London Philharmonic under the sympathetic baton of Sir Thomas Beecham. Fun, dry, spiky, clever—this is precisely the kind of Berners of which Master Igor was thinking when he condescended to note that it was “as good as the French works of that kind produced by Diaghilev.” And who of us, I ask you, wouldn’t blush at such condescension?

Nexus entry.

A particularly pedestrian method led me to late Berners. After lounging last week on Alcina’s island and mulling over Bloody Mary the week before that, and, after having observed that both are basically Circe stories, I thought it might be fun to search around for “siren” music. You know, in keeping with the lure-you-to-your-demise-through-song kind of thing. One spreadsheet search, et voilà: the complete ballet of Les sirènes (1946), Berners’s last ballet, penned and premièred just a few years before his death. Philip Lane is nice enough to include writer-choreographer Frederick Ashton’s full draft synopsis in the liner notes for this recording by the RTE Sinfonietta under the direction of David Lloyd-Jones, but it doesn’t get a listener very far. One is left with the impression that it’s all very silly and slightly absurd without being particularly acerbic or pointed. Sounds like the English Satie, all right.

But here’s the rub. I don’t hear that same kind of silliness in the music. Set “at dawn on a French watering-place,” where “Sirens are sitting on a rock combing their hair and singing the latest waltz,” it sounds much less like a sardonic play on conventions and much more like an affectionate longing for the time that gave them birth, a valentine shot backwards across the unfathomable darkness of the war.IMG_1785.JPGAnd how could I ever convince anyone of such a claim?

It’s tricky. Berners is clearly enamored of Debussy in Les sirènes: He borrows heavily from the sonic environment that Monsieur Croche unforgettably established in the first movement of La mer (1905). That makes sense, of course; the Sirens are at a beach, and a French one at that. But then they start singing a waltz. Really, they do: Berners asks for a wordless women’s chorus in what I suppose is another bow to Debussy, or else to Ravel. (Too much to hope that he would make a bow to Holst!) The waltz itself doesn’t sound like anything Debussy or Ravel would ever have written—La valse is light years away. Nor does it sound like the Waltz King cutting a belle époque rug. It does, however, sound a bit like Richard Strauss’s waltz language in Der Rosenkavalier, minus the opulence. And what does that leave us with? The foam-flecked waters of Debussy’s La mer with a splash of women’s chorus from the “Sirènes” of Trois Nocturnes, plus a well-behaved version of Richard Strauss’s nostalgic waltz idiom, all conveyed with a Satie-like knowing wink?

Berners’s most remarkable accomplishment, I think, is in skillfully creating a stylistic amalgam that sounds like a style, like a consistent voice. The problem is that the smoother the “joins” between styles, the less opportunity to mug for the camera, and so the less the music matches the absurdity of the scenario. In Peter Dickinson’s article on Berners for Grove Online, he explains that the English Satie “felt demoralized by the onset of war and told Gertrude Stein that he felt ‘confronted with the breakdown of all the things that meant anything to me.’” If this was true when Berners was writing Les sirènes, it must have been difficult to muster even a knowing wink. 41A0Z16FPSL.jpgNot difficult at all, though, or at least not emotionally dishonest, to affectionately craft a sort of pastiche-synthesis from the sounds of that loved and lost prewar world. Lane writes in his liner notes that Les sirènes, the first new work given by Sadler’s Wells Ballet at Covent Garden, by one of the only two Brits ever commissioned by Diaghilev, was “not a success,” “deemed to have been have out of touch with the times.” What does that mean, I wonder. I can’t help but think of the sound and character of Peter Grimes, which had its première at Sadler’s Wells the year before Les sirènes (albeit at a different location). It’s hard to think of the two works inhabiting the same two years, much less the same city, all while sharing the name Sadler’s Wells. The world was indeed changing.

Nexus exit.

51Gg7jkaaBL._SY355_.jpgThis disc of late Berners also includes the suite from his ballet Cupid and Psyche (1938), which displays just as much craft, shares with Les sirènes a delight in dance and dated national styles (Viennese waltz, “Spanish” music through a Parisian fin-de-siècle filter, the occasional touch of Offenbach or Tchaikovsky). My favorite moment is the Entr’acte, which apparently depicts Psyche in her custom-made palace, where “she lives happily awhile.” The music is atmospheric, placid, suggesting a place outside of time. The flute solo that flits over the top of the gently rolling texture cleverly calls to mind another placid Entr’acte with a flute solo, the one from Carmen. The other piece on the disc, Caprice Péruvien, was arranged by Constant Lambert from Berners’s opera Le carrosse du Saint Sacrement (1923). It’s generally an essay in the “Spanish” mode so loved by early twentieth-century French composers, but without the strange magic of, say, Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole. It’s a bit of a task both to shake one’s perception of the nonsensical use of this idiom for the story of a commedia dell’arte troupe in eighteenth-century Peru and to forgive the music for not being Ravel, but if one can do all that, Berners’s undeniable fluency and apparent delight in writing in familiar idioms come through.

Beachcombing with La Stupenda on Alcina’s Island

This week I had the immense pleasure of spending time with Handel’s Alcina, in a classic recording with Joan Sutherland (1926-2010)—La Stupenda—in the role that earned her the sobriquet.

Nexus entry.Handel-Alcina-Bonynge-5a[London-3LP].jpg

I had been thinking of Alcina for weeks because of my recent fascination with “island music,” which has spawned a series of entries here on Sound Trove, but after last week’s dip into the waters of South Pacific, I could resist no more. For Alcina is not so very different from Bloody Mary: enchantress-queen of an irresistible isle, creator of a marvelous fantasy that a strapping young foreign “hero,” remembering his “girl back home,” reveals as illusory. Of course, Alcina is herself both enchantress and lover, whereas in South Pacific those functions are separated: Bloody Mary’s “extension,” her silent daughter Liat, serves as the object of desire. Both stories are ultimately Circe stories, Alcina more obviously so because her ex-lovers are literally turned into wild beasts, just as in the Greek myth.

The composer has an interesting function to perform here, because the music demanded of Bloody Mary and Alcina has to be music that cannot be resisted, music that would lure you to self-annihilation with a song in your heart.

page1-220px-Whispering_sheetmusic.pdf.jpg“Bali-Ha’i” is pretty convincing in this role; Rodgers achieves a suggestion of the mysterious, romantic allure of island vistas in a way that perhaps parallels the suggestion of the beauty of the mountains in the opening of The Sound of Music. But what about Bloody Mary’s other song, “Happy Talk”? Since writing about South Pacific last week, I’ve been thinking a bit about what sort of a song that is, and the more I think about it, the more I feel comfortable committing to the idea that it’s Paul Whitemanesque. (Listen to “Whispering,” if you’ve allowed yourself to forget what Whiteman’s orchestra had to offer at its best.) And what, pray tell, is Bloody Mary doing singing music in the Whiteman mode as she plays overseer-enchantress for her daughter’s big love scene with Lieutenant Cable? My take is that this music would have sounded seriously dated to the original audiences of South Pacific, that the out-of-touch and corny note it strikes either reveals Bloody Mary’s basic misunderstanding of what it would take to make the Cable-Liat relationship work or reveals to the audience that there is insufficient music here upon which to build a lasting relationship. It seems to me that there might also be racial dimensions of “Happy Talk” that might have been prompted by the dialect present in the lyrics. More pointedly, Rodgers seems to be referencing minstrelsy, and therefore making a weird link between “othernesses” that might nevertheless have been operative for his audience, including the diegetic “audience of one,” Lt. Cable. Ultimately, Cable’s “Younger than Springtime” can’t save his relationship with Liat from “Happy Talk.”

118001911.jpgAnd what about Handel music for Alcina? She also has her “Bali Ha’i” moment in her first aria, “Di’, cor mio, quanto t’amai,” sung to the new arrivals to her island kingdom. In it she acts as a sort of tour guide, recommending that the newcomers visit the secret grove where she and her lover Ruggiero first, um, realized their mutual affection. Little does Alcina know (we suppose?) that she’s singing this to Ruggiero’s betrothed, Bradamante. (Bradamante is apparently terrifically convincing as a man, since Alcina’s sister Morgana falls for him/her instantly upon seeing him/her.) Listening to Sutherland sing this single aria, one can well imagine the audience at Venice’s La Fenice immediately hailing her as “La Stupenda.” Her virtuosity here is effortless, graceful, entirely assured; she has numerous opportunities in the aria to demonstrate her famous trill, so accurate and even that it sounds like an instrument. How could Bradamante, worn out from travel and dressed up as a soldier, ever hope to compete with this exotic goddess of fioritura? I mean, just look at her: She’s not even trying that hard!

The appearance of effort, of workman-like virtuosity, is present in Alcina, of course (It is Handel, after all.) It’s particularly evident in the Jane-Fonda-meets-Arnold-Schwarzenegger sweaty swagger of “Sta nell’Ircana pietrosa tana.” Here Ruggiero has seen through the all the sorcery of Alcina and is ready to do battle against the “armed squadrons and bewitched monsters” she has amassed to stop him. So he sings about how Alcina, the “Hyrcanian tigress,” lurks, while showing through leaps and sequencing melismas how he’s the kind of guy who can hunt him some tiger. Handel even throws in (thrillingly!) horns to show that the folks in the orchestra know a legit huntsman when they see one. So as fun as the aria is—and it is terrifically fun!—it also makes itself a bit absurd as a classic case of overcompensation. Teresa Berganza sings it, as she often does the role throughout the opera, with a brightness signifying brash youth that touchingly (if you go for that sort of thing?) demonstrates how uncritical a consciousness Ruggiero possesses. He blows hot and cold because he really does feel that way, a mental child who was never any match for the subtle, calculating, and yes enchanting, Alcina. But he wins against her in all his bluster. How can we be comfortable with that?

One answer is that it’s not really Ruggiero who wins but Bradamante, and that the power struggle in the opera is really between the plot-women (Alcina and Bradamante). I would love to talk more about this, but. . .maybe another time.

51tniyOSHLL.jpgAnother reason we can accept La Stupenda’s humiliation and defeat is that Alcina isn’t always such a nice person. In Act III, in a final act of tigress-like desperation, she eggs on Oberto, a captive boy whom she allowed to remain human instead of turning into a beast, to kill a lion that approaches him. Oberto (Mirella Freni!) realizes that the lion is actually his father—in part because the lion nuzzles up to him—and calls Alcina, whom he had previously thought of as protector and friend, “Barbara!” (“Barbarous one!”) This is the real end of her world of enchantment. It makes me think of the moment at the end of Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し, 2001) when Yubāba asks Chihiro to choose which pair of swine is actually her transformed parents as a last test before she will return her real name and release her from the kingdom of the spirits. (It’s a trap, but one Chihiro, like Oberto [and Admiral Ackbar], sees through.)

What happens after Oberto calls out Alcina is one of those remarkable moments in Handelian opera when it seems the composer is doing things he’s not supposed to be doing. He writes a ¡¡¡tRiO!!! in which Bradamante and Ruggiero are musically (and textually) pitted against Alcina. 1843832682.jpgAs Winton Dean writes in his magnificent Handel’s Operas, 1726-1741, this trio, a phenomenon “all too rare in Handel’s operas. . .stands beside those in Tamerlano and Orlando as a masterly summing up of a dramatic confrontation.” <1> And then? Well, then Alcina is utterly defeated, her magic urn broken, all her enchantments undone. The chorus of former rocks, waves, and beasts sings about their release “from the blind horror of night” (“Dall’orror di notte cieca”). It feels like the prisoners’ stepping into the light of the courtyard in Fidelio, like the broadcasting of the Letter Duet from Figaro over the loudspeakers in Shawshank Redemption. Winton Dean talks about Act III of Alcina as “trac[ing] the disintegration of Alcina’s personality.” How far she had to fall from the vocal heights of her first Act I aria!

Nexus exit.

There’s always so much more to say, but it’s time to bid adieu to Alcina’s island for now. But what sadness I feel at leaving such a beautiful illusion! There’s some consolation in knowing that Ruggiero felt exactly the same way when he sang this. . .“Verdant meadows, leafy woods, all your beauty will decay. . .”

<1> Winton Dean, Handel’s Operas, 1726-1741 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2006): 321.

“Most people live on a lonely island” – South Pacific Remembered

“Oh, and then there’s this one: [sings first phrase of ‘This Nearly Was Mine’].” “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You mean that’s from South Pacific?” “Um, it’s only, like, the best song in the whole show.” “Wow. You know I’ve had that song on my mind for, like, most of my life. Decades. And I’ve just now realized that I never knew where it came from.”

This is the kind of intensive social research you commit to when writing a blog about listening across the whole span of recorded history. The bit of conversation reported above, which I had with a colleague a few days ago after mentioning that I was writing about South Pacific this week, points to the way that the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein have stayed lodged in the collective consciousness of several successive generations of Americans, even when they don’t fully realize it. They’re part of the soundtrack of our formative years, warp and weft of our musical identity, and therefore become a music of nostalgia. As you grow up musically, this sounds like a cache of kitsch that nevertheless stirs genuine pangs of longing. It’s as if all the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals inhabit a “special island,” whispering “Come to me, come to me.”

I’ve been on a bit of an “island music” kick recently, so much so that I’ve decided to add a category for it to Sound Trove. Steel band music from Trinidad, music shaped by a childhood in Cuba, by contemplation of the Canary Islands, by poetry on New Zealand. But this time it’s different. South Pacific directly deals in all the things a music scholar reads about—exoticism, colonialism, musical tourism. Sticky wickets abound. For instance. . .

MI0002193571.jpgThe role of Bloody Mary, mother of Liat, the Tonkinese love interest of American Lt. Joseph Cable, was played in both the original Broadway production and the 1958 film by Juanita Hall. I’m listening to the original Broadway cast recording, one of the joys of which is reading the album notes, so here’s what the notes say about Hall: “. . .formerly was associated with the Hall Johnson Choir as soloist and as associate director. She later founded the Juanita Hall Choir.” Hall (1901-68), born in New Jersey and eventually trained at Juilliard, was also an African American, but when Richard Rodgers heard her, he wanted her cast in the role of the Tonkinese mother (and, later, in the role of Madam Liang in Flower Drum Song).

When, at the end of “Happy Talk”—during which Bloody Mary is overseeing and encouraging her daughter Liat’s love scene with American Lieutenant Joseph Cable—she asks playfully (and/or cloyingly), “Is good idea? You like?” it may increasingly concern listeners that this question is posed by a black American delivering lines in broken English to suggest a South Asian as written by white American males. Does it further complicate matters to point out that Hall was the first African American to receive a Tony (in 1950, for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical), for that very role? Does it complicate them further to point out that Rodgers, who had wanted Hall for the role on Broadway, asked that her voice be overdubbed when the film of South Pacific was made? (Bloody Mary is sung in the film by an uncredited Muriel Smith, the first African American to attend the Curtis Institute of Music.)

81ZY+rTp3CL._SY355_.jpgConsider some of the layers of racial politics here: those embedded in the source material for the story—that is, American soldiers’ experiences in South Asia during and after the Second World War; those found in James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, the source for the musical; those found in Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan’s adaptation; those found in the casting of the Broadway production of South Pacific; those found in the writing and casting of the 1958 film; our own in 2018. We can’t untangle it. It’s a mess. It seems clear that by casting an African American for a major Broadway production at a time when Broadway was segregated, Rodgers and others thought of themselves as activists to some extent. Beyond that simple point, pursuing the tale of appropriation, misrepresentation, and racial in/justice represented by South Pacific looks a pretty bewildering enterprise, so much so that we might do well to forsake the whole thing were it not for. . .

Nexus entry.

Bali Ha’————–i may call you any night, any day.” When Juanita Hall lands on that F sharp on Ha, all the longing to reach the island of your dreams, the music of your distant past, is hauled up from the depths of the murky subconscious. This can’t help but remind me of the raised fourth scale degree of “Maria” in West Side Story: also clashing with the tonic chord, also landing on the strong beat of the bar, also suggesting the longed-for “other.” Of course, it’s Tony who sings about his longing in “Maria,” whereas Bloody Mary is voicing the island itself in South Pacific. Her unforgettable line, with its “exotic” raised fourth, links exotic landscape with the world of dreams, the female voice with unspoken desires. All this is very familiar to fans of nineteenth-century opera, echoing links between desire and the “exotic” in Carmen and particularly Madama Butterfly.

ac2dbb3e74429149ae90ddc1d92586bb--carmen-bizet-mezzo-soprano.jpgIn some ways that’s unfair to Carmen and Butterfly. Both feature male protagonists who are deeply troubled. Don José, violent and jealous, ends up winning few friends in the audience when he murders the object of his desire; Pinkerton, selfish and ignorant, similarly makes himself a villain by leaving Cio-Cio-san in a situation where suicide is her best option. The men are not unsullied heroes; they’re weak and small and make life worse for others. So in a sense the longing called up by Bizet and Puccini in Carmen and Butterfly is shown to be a fruitless creation of witless men, their untutored desire a path to destruction that calls into question the entire exotic mode.

South Pacific, while adopting these “exotic” markers almost unquestioningly, nevertheless deploys them amid a more complicated set of relationships. For example, male desire is often not exhibited in association with “exotic” music, but in group performances of American popular music: “Bloody Mary,” though about mock-desire, is nevertheless an introduction to the knot of male sexual frustration that is at its most overt in “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and is satirized by Nurse Nellie in the drag burlesque of “Honey Bun.” It is against the backdrop of that collective expression of desire that the more nuanced stories of Liat/Cable and Nellie/Emil de Becque play out. And speaking of Emil de Becque. . .

61DGzzvnuxL._SY355_.jpgIt is he, the French planter with French-Tonkinese children, who sings “This Nearly Was Mine,” that song long lodged in the subconscious vault of my colleague. In the original Broadway production de Becque was played by Italian bass Ezio Pinza, who by that point in his career had just finished his twenty-second and final season at the Met (1926-48). There’s certainly something “other” about his voice, then, in the context of South Pacific: he’s the suave European sculpting vocal lines amid impulsive jabs of the American brash. Approximately, anyway. His musical “othering” doesn’t end there. Given an opportunity to work with an operatic vocalist, Rodgers and his orchestrator, Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981), made the orchestra do more than boom-chuck-chuck. In “Some Enchanted Evening,” de Becque’s first-act “aria,” the strings sometimes echo his lines in a sort of canon, providing the “voice” of his dreamed-of duet partner. Then, in “This Nearly Was Mine,” at my favorite moment of the entire musical, the melody from “Some Enchanted Evening” starts to answer de Becque in the English horn but is cut off, never to return. The dream of finding love is “nearly” achieved, and then disappears forever. In the Finale, “Some Enchanted Evening” gets its reprise, and Nurse Nellie Forbush sings in answer to de Becque. His dream comes true, and he even gets a money note to prove it. The serious problem—that Nellie, from Little Rock, A.R.K., had to overcome her deep-seated prejudice against de Becque’s “mixed-race” children—is solved. Nellie and de Becque’s story seems to tell us that life is complicated and far from perfect, but if we’re very fortunate, we learn to see that imperfection is beautiful because it’s life.

Lt. Cable is not so fortunate, of course. He chooses to leave Liat, remembering his “girl back home,” but then makes the decision to go on a mission so dangerous that it kills him. This is a kind of anti-Butterfly, where Pinkerton’s stand-in is the one who kills himself out of grief, and Liat must go on living with the burden of memory. Rodgers gives Cable (performed by William Tabbert) a beautiful song, “Younger Than Springtime,” a parallel to de Becque’s “Some Enchanted Evening.” But Liat is voiceless in the song: the character never sings a note, and the orchestra never stands in for her. How could it work out when the orchestra won’t even acknowledge her?

Nexus exit.

You know how it is: So much more to say, and so many records. . .

Symphonic Island-Hopping: Kiwi Edition

For the last entry I listened to Spanish composer Tomás Marco’s Symphony No. 5, inspired by (and with individual movements named after) the Canary Islands. So I couldn’t resist when I came across a CD of Christopher Blake’s music with a featured work called Symphony – The Islands. 31-PBmncQEL.jpgBlake (b. 1949) is a dyed-in-the-wool Kiwi: born in Christchurch, educated at Canterbury University, and now Chief Executive of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. And the “islands” referenced in the title of his 1996 symphony are those that comprise his own country, which makes Blake’s symphony notably different from Marco’s. Blake’s symphony is about home.

But Symphony – The Islands is about something else as well. Cast in three movements, it takes its title and a good deal of inspiration from three sonnets by New Zealand poet Charles Brasch (1909-73). md22536625228.jpgThe poems are printed in full in the liner notes, and emblazoned across the album art as an epigraph is this quote from the second of them, from which Blake says the music takes its “mood of restlessness”: “Always, in these islands, meeting and parting/Shake us, making tremulous the salt-rimmed air.”

Nexus entry.

I can’t stop thinking about Debussy’s “sea symphony,” La mer (1905), and not because Blake’s work sounds anything like it. In fact, Symphony – The Islands doesn’t remind me of the sound of Debussy or of early twentieth-century French music at all. That, though, is almost the point. Debussy is writing a sea symphony from the perspective of the water; Blake is writing an island symphony from the perspective of the land. Water is present in both, but Blake gives the motion, the “restlessness” of water, something substantial to push against. Another obvious comparison is Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony (1909), which shares with Blake’s piece a grounding in poetry that uses seascapes as a kind of mechanism for the visionary. But Blake doesn’t sound much like Vaughan Williams either, and he sounds even less like the Vaughan Williams of A Sea Symphony, only most obviously because Blake’s isn’t a choral symphony.

I’m stepping up to the ledge of an entire category of environmental music here, as well as a rich cache of ecomusicology. 9781783270620_2.jpgThe recent thought-provoking volume The Sea in the British Musical Imagination, edited by Eric Saylor and Christopher Scheer, leaps to mind, as does an excellent paper given by Karen Olson (at the most recent AMS conference in Rochester) on two pieces by Peter Maxwell Davies tied to “his” islands, the Orkneys. What I mean to say is that the musical trope-iverse of “island music” and “sea music” inevitably intersect, but they’re not the same. Teasing out the differences at a larger level would be, I imagine, a worthy pursuit.

But to the music at hand. . .

Blake’s first movement, “Recitative and Appassionata,” opens with an almost imperceptible throbbing that slowly grows—it really seems as if we are getting closer to it. When the cello recitative begins, it feels as if an entirely different character has been introduced or, rather, that a character has been introduced. “Recitative,” after all, means that a character is singing, and since Blake has told us all about the centrality of Brasch’s poetry to his symphonic conception, the instrumental recitative stands in for the poetic voice, and by extension for our human voice. Then what was that growing throbbing? I think Blake is asking his listener to perceive more in it than accompaniment. Its relative stasis, its rhythmic permanence suggests the natural world of rocks and waves, the land and sea against which the poet writes the story of his own recitative-like perception.

This kind of conceptual polyphony between the human and the environmental is, I think, one of the most compelling aspects of Symphony – The Islands. It occurs again in the slow second movement, “Gongs, Echoes and Chants,” where an opening subterranean pedal is answered by shimmering ascents. In the words of Brasch’s middle sonnet, “Divided and perplexed the sea is waiting,/Birds and fishes visit us and disappear.” And then, the human element appears. Blake calls it a “chant” in his movement title, but it sounds more like a hymn played out in atmospheric strings. I hear in it an echo of the end of the slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. MarbledGodwit.jpgWhen a descending trumpet figure cuts through the hymn texture, at first it feels like a response to Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question, in which the strings’ slow-moving hymn is cut through by the questioning trumpet. But there’s more to Blake’s trumpet than a dissonant question; as other instruments take up the figure, it reveals itself not as a human but as avian. To wit, the call of the godwit, as Brasch’s poem verifies: “from their haunted bay/The godwits vanish toward another summer.” And now we arrive at the doorstep of Messiaen, who uses birdsong to suggest the voice of the divine. By the end of the movement Blake synthesizes some of these varying elements—the primal throbbing of natural forces, the shimmering ascents of fishes and birds, the hymning of humanity—but the synthesis doesn’t achieve apotheosis. Instead, and as Brasch writes, “None knows where he will lie down at night.”

This sentiment is carried over into the third movement, “And None Knows. . .,” which gives much of its bulk to “rapid string and wind figurations” and “an energetic fast dance” before an extensive coda that returns to the stasis of the natural world and the “human voices” of earlier movements. The coda is calculatedly inconclusive, the relationship between the natural world and human presence unclear, the future of that pact unknown. Or, as Brasch’s third sonnet has it, “The stones are bare for us to write upon.”

Nexus exit.

The CD is rounded out with three “tone poems,” each about ten minutes, which Blake explains in the liner notes “are conceived as a group and share similarities in style, sentiment, and technique.” Two are elegiac—We All Fall Down (1996), an “extended threnody. . .which remembers the children of the wars of our time,” and Echelles de Glace (1992), commissioned by the Wellington Youth Orchestra in memory of their former member David Heymann, who died while climbing the Matterhorn. The first belongs to a growing body of late twentieth-century works in memoriam for which Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976) is perhaps an ultimate stylistic model. R-898934-1241102979.jpeg.jpgThe second, while fulfilling its memorial function admirably, also references a special kind of twentieth-century orchestral writing that I think owes a considerable debt to nature documentaries. The final work on the album is also the most recent: The Furnace of Pihanga (1999), inspired by a Maori story about the contest of mountain gods “for the love of the beautiful Pihanga.” There’s a sensitive timbral imagination on display here, and it’s a pleasure to hear Blake tell the story described in his liner notes through the orchestral medium.