From its origins in medieval and Renaissance courtly entertainment, opera has always been partly rooted in spectacle. Nineteenth century French grand opera used large casts, expanded orchestras, grandiose scenery, consumes and special effects, and ballet to bring to life epic heroic tales based on historical subjects. (Meyerbeer’s five-act Les Huguenots from 1836 is an example.) A sense of theatricality and spectacle is at the heart of the Triumphant Marchfrom Verdi’s Aida, set in ancient Egypt.
History (this time recent) became mythologized in a similar way in John Adams’ 1987 opera, Nixon in China. Early in the first act, the landing of Nixon’s Air Force 1, dubbed the Spirit of ’76, and the appearance of the president and his entourage, take on Wagnerian weight. In Adams’ music, we can hear the plane emerge as a dot on the horizon and approach with an awe-inspiring crescendo, culminating in a heroic landing. The aircraft’s throbbing engines become as poetically powerful and significant as Lohengrin‘s swan. Spectacle takes center stage, literally, as the nose of the Spirit of ’76 suddenly engulfs the entire set.
But when it comes to the ultimate musical and dramatic fireworks, I can’t think of any moment in opera that tops the Coronation Scene from Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, composed between 1868 and 1873. (If you can find an opera scene that pulls out more stops, please share it in the thread below.) As with the arrival of the Spirit of ’76 in Nixon in China, the Coronation Scene occurs early in Boris Godunov (the second scene of the Prologue). Both dramatic events are heightened by a powerful sense of anticipation. A crowd waits for Tsar Boris to appear from Moscow’s Cathedral of the Dormition and then sings his praises.
Suddenly, amid this celebratory spectacle, we’re drawn into the intimacy of Boris’ monologue. We enter the mind of the character and catch a glimpse of the darkness and tragedy ahead. A similar moment of contemplation occurs in Nixon in China as Nixon daydreams about public perception and his place in history.
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:
Sometimes the most profound musical statements flow out of simplicity. Rooted in song, the music of Franz Schubert often seems to say a lot with a few, seemingly effortless notes. The Sanctus from Schubert’s Deutsche Messe, D. 872 (German Mass) is a good example.
In the traditional Latin liturgical text, Sanctus sounds like a stirring proclamation, “Holy, Holy, Holy, God of power and might.” These lines have inspired composers from Mozart and Verdi to John Rutter to write soaring, contrapuntal music. By contrast, Schubert’s Sanctus is a simple, introspective chorale.
Written in 1827, near the end of Schubert’s short life, the German Mass is set to poems by Johann Philipp Neumann rather than the traditional Latin text. Neumann commissioned Schubert to write simple, homophonic music that would be easy for an entire congregation to sing. Although intended for a Catholic service, the work was banned because it was an “unauthorized” German translation of the Mass. You can listen to the entire German Mass here.
Listen carefully to the inner voices. Schubert sets up our expectation and then throws in some thrilling harmonic surprises:
Historians 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):
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.
“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:
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.
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:
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!
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:
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
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:
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?
Here is the Overture to La forza del destino performed by Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic. What moods and dramatic situations are suggested by the music? How does Verdi convey these emotions?
[quote]The greatness of Verdi is a simple thing. Solitary by nature, he found a way of speaking to limitless crowds, and his method was to sink himself completely into his characters. He never composed music for music’s sake; every phrase helps to tell a story. The most astounding scenes in his work are those in which all the voices come together in a visceral mass— like a human wave that could carry anything before it. The voices at the end of Simon Boccanegra, crying out in grief; the voices at the end of Un ballo, overcome by the spiritual magnificence of a dying man; and, of course, the voices of “Va pensiero,” remembering, in a unison line, the destruction of Jerusalem. In the modern world, we seldom find ourselves in the grip of a single emotion, and this is what Verdi restores to us— the sense of belonging. -Alex Ross, Listen to This[/quote]
Here is a great performance of Verdi’s Requiem by Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Conductor Riccardo Muti has some interesting things to say about this piece here.