Winter Dreams

January 25, 2008

57587_7.jpg The Philadelphia Orchestra’s bringing Tchaikovsky’s first symphony to New York amounts to innovative programming, since concert-goers are so accustomed to the more emotionally complex later symphonies. I’m taking it as an excuse to revisit that fresh work myself.


However much Tchaikovsky extended and refined his musical vision through the years, he never ceased to refer affectionately to the “sweet sin of my youth” that was his First Symphony. Just before he set about composing it, he had spent a good deal of time at the piano with symphonies of Mendelssohn. They showed the young Tchaikovsky that an intensely personal Romantic vision could be reconciled with symphonic procedures. Mendelssohn’s “Italian” and “Scottish” Symphonies in a sense gave permission for the emotional outpourings of the symphony Tchaikovsky called “Winter Dreams.”

But those outpourings were a little too spontaneous — and far too copious — for Tchaikovsky’s friendly but outspoken critics. The descriptive atmosphere of the music fortunately survived the extensive revisions that followed, calling forth much admiration from Russian audiences. The work then went unheard, except as an occasional curiosity, until the latter half of the 20th century; but both it and the Second Symphony highlight facets of the composer’s musical personality that appear in a very different light in the later symphonies.
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Not So Fast

January 24, 2008

couple-at-opera-tcl032.jpg Sunday’s New York Times devoted much of the front page of the Arts & Leisure section, plus an entire inner page, to a theme that has been on my mind all week. The piece in question told the compelling story of two ambitious opera-creators who worked for seventeen years to achieve a first production, losing masses of cash in the process. There were many insinuations and outright claims that opera is a moribund, unprofitable medium for all concerned. My first thought was pretty much “Poppycock,” and so were my eighteenth and nineteenth.

Not only are opera companies proliferating in this country in a manner that is unprecedented, but the welcome accorded new operas was drastically underplayed by Sunday’s writer. I know personally several composers who are prospering conspicuously in that métier. And a writer with a respected musical-theater history, who has just finished his fourth libretto for well-placed opera projects, tells me that he sees no reason to rely on the uncertainties on Broadway and Off when he can dwell in operaland, where, to his visible gratification, operas get commissioned, produced, and paid for reliably.

I can give an example, not randomly or remotely, but as a close-up witness to the work of a particular friend. He had his first opera produced in 2004 with great success. That opus has already had a second new production (both done by name directors with casts of rising young stars who have continued to rise high), and this second production will soon result in the release of a commercial recording of the work. This same new opera composer then had a conspicuous success with his second opera, in November (subsequent productions of which are in the offing), will see the premiere of a third, a one-acter, in New York in March, and has the commissions for more operas backing up. Depite the fact that he is active as a performer and composes in other forms, he already makes a good living as a composer of operas that, furthermore, employ plenty of other people who get paid.

So, while the thrills and chills in the tale of intemperate behavior, betrayal, and thwarted ambition in Sunday’s Times are undoubtedly true and representative of certain trajectories, they’re not the whole story. Every art, every medium, and every function within that medium have their pitfalls. But there is success to be found, satisfaction to be had, and not inconsiderable money to be made in creating opera still. And from what I know of some of these folks, it’s only going to get better.

411cp4fcpkl.jpg A formidable social commentator has long since assured us that “Ignorance is like a delicate fruit; touch it, and the bloom is gone.” In reading two biographies of Noël Coward and his diaries, I had been struck by his frequent witty barbs aimed at classical music, its composers and performers. Such evident hostility, which sometimes also revealed a remarkable ignorance, was interesting to me only because it proceeded from someone who had absolute mastery of one corner of an art that he otherwise seemed largely to despise. But poses adopted for effect are not unknown among the epigrammatic.

Now comes the currently-celebrated collection of his letters, and I think I understand his position a little better. For the first time, I learn that this much-carressed son of a doting stage mother had auditioned for the choir of the Chapel Royal and been rejected. There were unmistakable signs that the failure rankled permanently. Even in old age, he was to contradict energetically any impression that his voice had been the problem by asserting that his “performance had been too dramatic.” But the truth is that his musical education had been too spotty. Singing in his local parish choir and taking the available singing and dancing lessons did not give him the skills (crack sight-singing among them) that the Chapel Royal would have been looking for. With the whole kingdom as a talent pool, it must not have been difficult to find a supply of boys with far more musical cultivation than little Noël had been afforded. It is tempting to see it as our good luck that Coward’s very individual genius was not to be spoiled by membership in such a disciplined crew — until we recall that no less an original than Sir Arthur Sullivan was proud till his dying day of his musical upbringing as a “Child of the Chapel Royal.”

Coward’s father was an occasional seller of pianos who was not able to provide lavishly for his family, and Coward used to boast that his entire education had come from the stage, his activities as a child star constituting a full-time job that left no time for conventional schooling. To go, and that pretty swiftly, from lower-middle-class provincial life to being the confidant of royalty (something else that, ironically, might have been less likely had he served the Crown as a chorister) effectively mirrors his musical education. He jumped from living among some of the kinds of socially backward characters that the men of Monty Python have immortalized to ruling among the elite of international theater and hereditary aristocracy, without ever knowing, as an equal, much of what lay in between — scholars or scientists, say. For one who “dearly loves a lord,” it is a great thing to be guest of the titled, but a far greater to be their host, as Coward frequently was. Similarly, he could go from being unfit for membership in a good choir to being the unequaled master of his own musical specialty without stopping at the rigors and delights that ordinarily mark such a journey.

When we learn from the mother — a fact, so far as I know, never acknowledged by Coward — that his paternal grandfather had been the accomplished organist of the Crystal Palace without of course achieving anything like the celebrity and wealth of a Noël Coward, we may learn a good motive for his understandably valuing his own less conventional musical route to fame and fortune. It is, after all, his letters and not those of his hard-working grandfather that are now collected in a best-seller.

As late as 1949, Coward was still dealing with the Chapel Royal setback. In a letter to a journalist he protested that, however much his singing as a boy may have been undervalued by those snooty professional musicians, it “on one occasion moved the ex-Queen of Portugal to tears.”

Take that, Arthur Sullivan!

Happy Birthday to Her

January 22, 2008

trustees.jpg Today in Carnegie Hall begin the always-much-anticipated celebrations of Marilyn Horne‘s birthday. These annual events have been a highlight ever since her downright historic sixtieth birthday concert in 1994. Carnegie Hall (of which she has long been a valuable board member) begins this year’s extensive and varied program this evening with one of Marilyn Horne’s patented master classes, in which she seems to incarnate several centuries of knowledge and experience. While she’s changing the singing of young performers before our eyes, we glimpse insights into the musical choices that have governed her own career. The festivities, continuing through the rest of the week, exemplify the year-round aims of The Marilyn Horne Foundation, a hard-working goal-oriented project worthy of its stupendous namesake.

Here’s my take on her important 1999 birthday celebration, from Opera News: horne.pdf

Fry the Handelian

January 21, 2008

_44341196_kingdom_itv_203.jpg The Times of London reports that the astounding polymath Stephen Fry, writer, actor, comedian, novelist, columnist, filmmaker, television game-show host, and blogger of genius is planning a movie that will go into Handel’s personal life. Since that’s a subject that the composer has managed to keep pretty dark for three hundred years, such an announcement would be worthy of note even without Fry’s earned reputation for seriousness of purpose and thoroughness of craftsmanship.

One of my first thoughts on reading the news was a hope that Fry might actually play the rôle of Handel in the film, since both his dramatic gifts and his very physicality might be at least as appropriate for the musician as they were for Wilde. But the fact that he broke an arm in Brazil last week might get in the way of that.

The mention of the singer Mrs. Cibber in the Times article reminded me that the revered society figure Mrs. Delany had been one of her defenders. Since student days I have been collecting information on Handel’s London career, trolling through letters and diaries. So I’ll use a coming big movie as an excuse to pass on some of that information. I imagine I’ve covered some of the same ground below that the movie will tread:


In the year ’10 I first saw Mr. Handel who was introduced to my uncle by Mr. Heidegger … We had no better instrument in the house than a little spinet of mine, on which the great musician performed wonders. I was much struck with his playing, but struck as a child, not a judge, for the moment he was gone, I seated myself at my instrument and played the best lessons I had then learnt. My uncle archly asked me if I thought I should ever play as well as Mr. Handel. “If I did not think I should,” cried I, “I would burn my instrument!” Such was the innocent presumption of childish ignorance.

And such were the means whereby one of the most powerful musical personalities of the Western tradition fit himself into the society he aimed at pleasing. And thus, by her own account, began the association between the visiting “composer of Italian musick” and the child who was to become the most admired old lady in England. Mary Granville (later known as Mrs. Pendarves and later still as the celebrated Mrs. Delany) was an intelligent amateur of music, a tireless supporter of Handel’s music in particular, an intimate of the royal family, a friend of Swift in his later years, and—fortunately—an indefatigable and brilliant writer of letters. Through her good offices we have as lucid a description as we could ask of Handel as he appeared to the highest stratum of London society. Much as she was to encounter him over years, and in many situations, it is fitting that her first impression of him was as an inventive performer devising music for the pleasure of the company he found himself in.

Even when Handel was young, Miss Granville found his appearance solemn, resolute, and “greedy” (he was often called gluttonous); he seemed to her unengaging in manners and droll in accent. She, like most of her neighbors, nevertheless found him ultimately irresistible. On the first occasion of their meeting, when he was still in the first flush of his Italian experiences, he must have been at work on Rinaldo (“the first opera that ever he made in England”), and had only just begun his temporary role as a fashionable novelty in the capital. Unlike myriad other short-term foreign favorites of the leisure classes, he would convert his celebrity into something more lasting. The lady would later know enough to take sides intelligently in the rivalry between Handel and Buononcini, among others, while the sideline skeptics recited this markedly unprophetic jingle:

Some say, compared to Buononcini,
That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny;
Others aver that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candel.
Strange, all this Difference should be
‘Twixt Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

All things connected with Mynheer Handel took on a certain interest for society. It even surpassed the craze for keeping up with the leading Italian singers, although Mrs. Delany, in a letter to her sister, is interested (with a type of curiosity that Handel himself always managed to keep at bay) in the very private affairs of Cussoni, the soprano:

Mrs. Sandoni [Cussoni’s married name] is brought to bed of a daughter: it is a mighty mortification it was not a son. The moment she was brought to bed she sung La Speranza, a song in Otho … Mrs. Leigh is transported with joy at living once again in dear London and hearing Mr. Handel’s new opera performed by Faustina, Cuzzoni, and Senesino.

(The respectable Mrs. Delany’s minute interest in the stars was not merely that of a pharisee or scandal-monger. Hearing the notorious adultress Mrs. Cibber sing “He was despised” in the first London performance of Messiah, the pious lady exclaimed, “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven!”)

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New Beginnings

January 20, 2008

4c_1_b.jpg Every four years on this date somebody gets sworn in as President of the United States, and today I’m inaugurating a new administration of my own in this Web site. I promise that its constitution will be benign — if unavoidably autocratic. It will exist to treat, in one domain whose borders will gradually extend, music and literature the sharing of which I find so conducive to my own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

It also happens to be the anniversary of the day when I was first “given to light,” as they say in Spanish. So for that reason, too, it seems a good day to dar a luz a venture of this kind.

I hope you’ll join me here often, always remembering that I welcome backtalk.

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