Béatrice et Bénédict: Berlioz’s Neglected Comedy

Hector_Berlioz,_Béatrice_et_Bénédict_score_title_page_-_RestorationBéatrice et Bénédict, Hector Berlioz’s two act opéra comique adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, isn’t exactly a staple of the modern opera repertoire. It gets occasional performances, but is commonly overshadowed by more famous Shakespeare-based operas: Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff, and Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

But Béatrice et Bénédict was a smash hit when it premiered at the the Theater der Stadt in the German spa town of Baden-Baden on August 9, 1862. Berlioz referred to the opera as “A caprice written with the point of a needle.” Its sparkling score comes to life with a uniquely vivacious energy. At the same time, the forward motion of the plot occasionally gives way to atmospheric moments of serene, otherworldly beauty. Berlioz biographer David Cairns writes, “Listening to the score’s exuberant gaiety, only momentarily touched by sadness, one would never guess that its composer was in pain when he wrote it and impatient for death.”

The opera’s libretto, written by Berlioz, simplifies Shakespeare’s play, eliminating subplots in order to emphasize the relationship between the title characters. As the first act opens, the citizens of the Sicilian town of Messina have gathered to welcome home the victorious army of Don Pedro of Aragon, following a successful battle campaign against the Moors. Héro eagerly awaits the return of her fiancé, Claudio. Meanwhile, Béatrice greets the returning Bénédict in a strikingly different way. The two take great pleasure in trading insults, masking their mutual attraction. In the opening of Berlioz’s Overture we can hear the couple playfully hurtling verbal barbs at one another. It’s a musical cat and mouse game which is constantly throwing us witty curve balls. We hear this “needling” opening motive throughout the overture, sometimes as teasing and taunting background interjections (listen around 4:12 and 6:13). The music which follows suggests the farcical trickery of the plot, which includes “accidentally” overheard conversations. But we also get a sense of the supernatural lurking underneath…the mystery and eternal beauty of a still summer night and a hint of Nuit paisible et serene! (“Peaceful and Good Night!”), the nocturne duet which concludes the first act.

Here is Colin Davis’ 2005 recording with the Dresden Staatskapelle:

Kathleen Battle battle sings Je vais le voir, Héro’s quietly majestic aria from the opening of the first act. Héro awaits the return of Claudio, their marriage and their trouble-free life ahead:

Sylvia McNair and Catherine Robbin sing Nuit paisible et serene! (“Peaceful and Good Night!”), the nocturnal duet of Héro and Ursule at the end of the first act. The duet embodies a “French sound” which seems to subtly anticipate everything from Léo Delibes’ Flower Duet from Lakme (1883) to Gabriel Faure’s Pavane, Op. 50 (1887).

Human follies evaporate as Héro and Ursule comment on the serene, moonlit night, the faint hum of insects in a nearby meadow, and the gentle sound of wind rustling through the trees. From the brief opening recitative, which strangely suggests the vocal purity of baroque opera, Berlioz’ orchestration draws us into the stillness of the night. As the curtain falls on Act 1, the music fades into the night…

  • Find Colin Davis’ recording of the Béatrice et Bénédict Overture with the Dresden Staatskapelle at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Kathleen Battle’s recording, French Opera Arias at iTunes, Amazon
  • The third clip, featuring Sylvia McNair and Catherine Robbin comes from a recording of the entire opera with John Nelson conducting Opéra de Lyon. Find at Amazon.

Remembering Tenor Jon Vickers

Canadian tenor Jon Vickers (1926-2015)
Canadian tenor Jon Vickers (1926-2015)

 

The Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, who brought “a colossal voice and raw dramatic intensity” to some of opera’s most powerful roles, passed away on Friday following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 88.

After studying at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, Vickers rose to prominence in the late 1950s and early 60s with appearances at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera. His recordings suggest that he had an extraordinary ability to lose himself in the character and dramatically “go for broke.” His personality was reportedly volatile and quick-tempered. During a 1975 Dallas Opera performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, Vickers broke character to chastise the audience for coughing. You can hear a recording of the incident here.

Here is an excerpt from Vickers’ 1960 recording of Verdi’s Otello with the Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus. The haunting Dio! mi potevi scagliar is from the third act of Otello. The jealous Otello is losing his grip on reality, believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio. Following her exit from the room, he is left alone to ask God, “Why have you afflicted me in this manner?”

This late-Verdi score, which premiered in 1887 (over 15 years after Aida), integrates vocal lines and orchestra in a remarkable way. Following a long chromatic descent into Hell, we hear a numb, obsessively repeated string motive as Otello enters a dark inner world of contemplation:

Here are a few more links:

Old American Songs

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Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs are full of ghosts. The collection of folk melodies Copland arranged in the early 1950s, at the request of Benjamin Britten, evokes memories of, and nostalgia for, the distant past. It’s easy to get a similar feeling taking in the small slices of rural American landscape visible in brief glimpses from a moving car…an old dilapidated barn, a picturesque village church, the leafy solitude of an obscure roadside cemetery…

The first set of songs opens with The Boatman’s Dance, an 1843 minstrel song which originally might have sounded something like this. It’s what surrounds the tune (the piano accompaniment) that makes these settings so extraordinary. The opening chords of The Boatman’s Dance are a proclamation, expansive like the wide open spaces of the American frontier. The irregular rhythm of the bass line which follows sparkles with the fun-loving, bawdy bustle of an Ohio river town in its heyday.

The second song, The Dodger, is a campaign song. In Songs of Work and Protest, Edith Fowke and Joe Glazer offer this history:

…”The Dodger” originated with the Western Farmers during the period of agrarian protest following the Civil War. It is linked specifically with the presidential election of 1884 when the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, was running against Republican James Blaine. Cleveland had won the support of progressives by his fight against Tammany Hall in New York, and “The Dodger” was apparently used as a campaign song to belittle Blaine.

The next song is the folk ballad Long Time Ago. It’s followed by Simple Gifts, the Shaker melody heard towards the end of Copland’s ballet score, Appalachian SpringThe final song in the set is the comic children’s song I Bought Me a Cat. (Listen to William Warfield’s performance here).

Here is American bass Samuel Ramey’s recording with pianist Warren Jones:

The second set of songs begins with a lullaby, The Little Horses. Listen to the searching voice which emerges in the piano around the 0:32 mark.

Next, we hear the revivalist song Zion’s Walls. Copland drew on this melody for the finale of The Tender Land, an opera intended for television but ultimately rejected by the NBC Television Opera Workshop. (Listen to The Promise of Living from Copland’s orchestral suite from the opera).

The Golden Willow Tree, the hymn tune At the River, and the minstrel song Ching-a Ring Chow finish out the set. At the River’s noble procession of chords and confidently ascending bass line suggest expansive monumentality.

  • Find William Warfield’s performance on iTunes
  • Find this recording on Amazon

The Salley Gardens

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Benjamin Britten’s 1943 setting of the Irish folk song, The Salley Gardens seems to float in midair with a surreal, hypnotic beauty. An undercurrent of continuous eighth notes runs throughout the song, suggesting a static, dreamlike atmosphere…a sense of motion within timelessness. In the opening, haunting three-note fragments seem to be searching for a way forward. Listen to the way this piano line returns with interjections throughout the song. Also listen for the sudden harmonic surprise on the word “foolish.” Britten’s setting of The Salley Gardens is a great reminder of the sublime expressive power of simplicity.

The poem is by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats:

Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.
In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.

This recording comes from Ian Bostridge’s 1999 album, The English Songbook. The pianist is Julius Drake:

Friday Afternoons with Benjamin Britten

Children from Suffolk and Yorkshire sing Friday Afternoons at the Royal Albert Hall this month. Photograph: Anna McCarthy
Children from Suffolk and Yorkshire singing at Royal Albert Hall last week. Photograph: Anna McCarthy

 

Last Friday, children across the world came together to sing.

Friday Afternoonsa global project designed to promote singing in schools, began in 2011 as part of celebrations of the centennial of Benjamin Britten’s birth. Last year, 67,000 students around the world participated in the live-streamed event, organized by Aldenburgh Music.

In the early 1930s, Benjamin Britten wrote a collection of twelve songs called Friday Afternoons for students at the Clive House School in Prestatyn in northeast Wales. The songs, which include “Cuckoo!” and the canon, “Old Abram Brown”feature catchy, repetitive phrases and a strong sense of pulse, elements which appeal to young children. This year, in the spirit of Britten, twelve new children’s songs were written by composers including Nico Muhly, Rachel Portman, and the 14-year-old Zoe Dixon. Listen to all of the songs here and watch a segment of the event.

The benefits are obvious. Children develop aural and rhythmic skills by singing and listening to music from an early age. This development can lead to a meaningful, lifelong relationship with music.

Archeologists believe that music predated language. Throughout most of history, music was produced live and was experienced collectively. In an era of iTunes downloads and silent discosFriday Afternoons restores the joy of collective music making, this time on a global level.

Friday Afternoons offers us a great opportunity to evaluate our priorities. For too long, society has offered token support for music and arts education while simultaneously tolerated cliched statements like, “we just don’t have the money” or “we need to focus on basics to train a competitive work force.” The 1999 film Music of the Heart impacted emotions and ideals without translating into a deeper and more enlightened commitment to the role of music in a complete education. If the future of the world relies on peaceful cooperation between countries, educated, thoughtful citizens, and the unleashing of the creative force, what could be more relevant than an event like Friday Afternoons?

A Ceremony of Carols

…and while we’re on the subject of Benjamin Britten, let’s kick off the Christmas season with This Little Babe from A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28, performed by the King’s College Choir of Cambridge:

Music Inspired by Shakespeare

ShakespeareHistorians believe that today marks the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare. Throughout history, Shakespeare’s plays have been a rich source of inspiration for composers. A few months ago we heard Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet tone poem. Now let’s celebrate with some more music inspired by the Bard of Avon:

Play, music! And you, brides and bridegrooms all,
With measure heap’d in joy, to the measures fall.

-As You Like It

The man that hath no music in himself, 
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

-The Merchant of Venice

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Felix Mendelssohn was 17 years old when he wrote the famous A Midsummer Night’s Dream concert overture in 1826. Sixteen years later, he composed incidental music for the play, which included the Scherzo, Nocturne and Wedding March

Mendelssohn’s overture captures vividly the atmosphere of the play. We hear the magic of the forest and the scurrying fairies who interfere hilariously in the lives of the other characters. Listen for all the subtle tricks and surprises in the fairy music, such as unexpected, “wrong” chords and out of place voices. Also notice the musical depiction of a braying donkey (3:07):

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To hear other musical adaptations, listen to Henry Purcell’s 1692 semi-opera in five acts, The Fairy-Queen, and Benjamin Britten’s twentieth century opera.

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.

If we shadows have offended, 
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

King Lear

“No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear,” said George Bernard Shaw. Hector Berlioz was in the audience when an English repertory company came to Paris in 1827. Berlioz’s exhilarating King Lear Overture was written in 1831:

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Could you hear the stubborn, proud character of King Lear in Berlioz’s music? Maybe you also sensed the pure Cordelia in the oboe solo in the introduction (2:47). In his memoirs, Berlioz outlined the program he followed while writing this overture, from the introduction (representing the entrance of the king) to the fast allegro section (the storm). We hear Lear’s increasing insanity as his theme merges with the storm music (10:49). You might have noticed the influence of the recitative music from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the opening.

Throughout his innovative career, Berlioz was interested in expanding the orchestra and combining instruments in shocking new ways. I love the noisiness of this piece and its slightly deranged quality. The dissonances following the 9:00 mark would have sounded even more jarring in the 1830s. King Lear Overture has all of the romantic, schizophrenic drama of Symphony fantastique. 

I have no way and therefore want no eyes
I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ’tis seen
our means secure us, and our mere defects
prove our commodities.

Othello

In Act 4 of Verdi’s opera Otello, just before she is strangled by the jealous Othello, Desdemona sings a quiet prayer for all who suffer (Ave Maria). Read the translated text here. Here the aria is sung by Renee Fleming:

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O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss,
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger:
But O, what damnèd minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!

The Tempest

Tchaikovsky’s tone poem The Tempest begins and ends with the musical depiction of a calmly undulating sea. Listen for the sudden ferocity of the storm (5:37). Notice the way Tchaikovsky introduces the love theme of Miranda and Ferdinand, following 8:18, suggesting their initial shyness:

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Also listen to incidental music for The Tempest by Jean Sibelius. English composer Thomas Adès’s recent opera, which premiered in 2004 at the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden, offers a uniquely twenty-first century take on the play. Here Audrey Luna sings a haunting and vocally demanding excerpt.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep

Henry V

We’ll finish up with a film score by English composer William Walton. This music was written for the 1944 film version of Henry V, starring Laurence Olivier. Memorable excerpts include Passacaglia: Death of Falstaff and the triumphant Agincourt Song.

“Touch her soft lips and part” underscores the scene in which Pistol bids farewell to his new wife Mistress Quickly, before leaving for battle in France:

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From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Now it’s your turn…

It isn’t The Listeners’ Club without you. Leave a comment in the thread below and tell us what you heard in the music. What pieces would you add to this list of Shakespeare-inspired music?

Four Sea Interludes

oceanToday is the 100th birthday of twentieth century English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). Let’s celebrate by listening to Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from the opera, Peter Grimes. Played during scene changes, these interludes express the drama of the opera’s unsettling story. As you listen, consider the mood that Britten evokes and pay attention to the orchestration. You can read the synopsis of the entire opera here.

Here is a recording of a live 1990 performance by Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony at their summer home in Tanglewood. It turned out to be Bernstein’s final concert.

  1. Dawn – Lento e tranquillo (0:00)
  2. Sunday Morning – Allegro spiritoso (3:41)
  3. Moonlight – Andante comodo e rubato (7:42)
  4. Storm – Presto con fuoco (12:42)


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As you listened to the first interlude could you sense the shimmering sea, the splash of waves and a vast expanse of unbroken water stretching into the horizon? The music reflects a calm sea, but underneath there is a sense of foreboding. In the second interlude we hear church bells ringing and the sounds of seagulls. Towards the end of the final interlude as the storm subsides, the eternal presence of the sea brings a feeling of calm and safety…or is there still something slightly menacing lurking below the surface? The final lines sung by Peter Grimes are:

[quote]“What harbor shelters peace, away from tidal waves, away from storms? What harbor can embrace terrors and tragedies?”[/quote]

You can learn more about the life and music of Benjamin Britten here and here.

A Ceremony of Carols

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In celebration of the holiday season, here is music by the twentieth century English composer Benjamin Britten.  A Ceremony of Carols is scored for three part treble chorus, solo voices and harp.  The text, from Gerald Bullett’s The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems is Middle English.

Listen to the uniquely pure timbre produced by the boys’ choirs in these recordings.  This is a sound that has been heard for centuries in cathedrals across England.

Listen to the way Britten uses harmony to highlight a certain word or phrase in the text.  How does he evoke the mood of the text?  In the last clip (In Freezing Winter Night) what atmosphere is created musically?

A Ceremony of Carols, Op.28…Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

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The complete Ceremony of Carols performed by the Antioch Chamber Ensemble: