A Good Attitude

February 9, 2008

photo9.jpg It’s easy sometimes to forget (apart from our closest colleagues) how fine many of the people who pursue the musical arts are. For a good, concentrated reminder, see Joyce DiDonato’s latest blog entry. Her gratitude for and dedication to her work and her colleagues is stunning — and cheering.

albums_main.jpg It was striking but unsurprising when the Metropolitan Opera’s success with high-definition broadcasts into movie theaters set off related developments in opera houses internationally. But an e-mail survey that came out yesterday from the New York Philharmonic shows that America’s oldest orchestra is also interested in joining the fun. The survey contained a long and detailed series of questions, and I’m wondering how many people were, like me, curious enough to see it through to the end. It was an unusually frank questionnaire, leaving little doubt as to its objects.
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Pergolesi in Two Guises

February 6, 2008

See yesterday’s post.

Excerpt from the Stabat Mater: Eia, Mater, fons amoris
Sung by René Jacobs

And when Pergolesi moved from church to opera house, the musical vocabulary remained the same.

Excerpt from the first aria of La serva padrona: Aspettare e non venire
Sung by Donato di Stefano

Niche Fame

February 5, 2008

180px-pergolesi.jpg An e-mail from my niece, who sings in the choir of Saint Luke’s Cathedral in Orlando, tells me that they’ll be performing Théodore Dubois‘s Seven Last Words on March 9. This reminds me that, with Lent beginning tomorrow, whole swaths of the repertory that play little part in concert-hall life will received hundreds of performances around the globe. Dubois, who was organist of the Madeleine in Paris and director of the Paris Conservatory (not to mention being godfather of Nadia Boulanger) was once a considerable musical influence, now not much thought of. However, he has been widely performed through that one highly dramatic work, composed in French for the pious meditation of fashionable Parisians.

This got me to thinking of another work that occasionally appears in concert halls but is drastically present in churches between now and Easter, the Stabat Mater of Pergolesi. What is its origin? What else is it related to?

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736) brings something new to history: he was the first composer to enjoy posthumous fame after an obscure career and a pauper’s burial.

Pergolesi’s last two works were settings of expressive Marian texts, Stabat Mater and Salve Regina. While the Stabat Mater was to become his best-known work (eclipsing the Scarlatti setting that it had been modeled on), much of Pergolesi’s fame came from his comic opera La serva padrona. That genial comedy’s celebrity is understandable, since it epitomizes the progressive opera buffa that Rousseau and his allies tirelessly propagandized. More crucially, the style of La serva padrona was indispensable to the Mozartian operatic synthesis.
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Speaking Truth to Power

February 4, 2008

cliftonslide2.jpg Poor Margaret Truman. Poor Paul Hume. Her concert career was pretty much finished off by her father’s intemperate letter to a frank critic, and Paul Hume’s many years of distinction at The Washington Post are often most-remembered for President Truman’s letter.

The letter is better known than the review, of course; reading it, though, it’s still astonishing that such a communication was sent on White House stationery:

Mr. Hume: I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert. I’ve come to the conclusion that you are an “eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.”

It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you’re off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work.

Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need to a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!

Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you’ll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.

The review itself inevitably makes for less diverting reading, but the salient points were:

…Miss Truman cannot sing very well…

…There are few moments during her recital when one can relax and feel confident that she will make her goal, which is to end the song…

…She communicates almost nothing of the music she presents… And yet still the public goes and pays the same price it would for the world’s finest singers…

…as long as Miss Truman sings as she has for three years, and does today, we seem to have no recourse unless it is to omit comment on her programs altogether.

For the sociology of music, though, this event marked important principles. While it is clearly indecorous for the President to promise assault upon a citizen, it it refreshing to realize that he meant to do so as a private citizen without any of the abuse of office that can sometimes occur. However much it may have embarrassed the gentlemanly Paul Hume to be associated with such a squalid situation, he can’t really have expected violence against his person.

And Harry Truman’s knowledge of the public was shrewd. He predicted that mail would be eighty percent on his side in the matter. It in fact exceeded that. The spectacle of a powerful man descending from his height in defense of a loved child edified parents everywhere, as he knew it would.

This should be remembered in any attempt to pretend that reviews of performances (or our reactions to them) are, or can be, completely objective.

Every time I see Margaret Truman’s quite lovely portrait on the wall of one of those upper corridors at Carnegie Hall, I think of the fact that she was the great loser in the famous exchange. In the obituaries for the accomplished author and broadcaster Margaret Truman Daniel last week, every one of them put great emphasis on Hume’s documentation of her sorry singing. She had her father to thank for that, but then she never gave any sign that she regretted his excess of protective love.

The fact that a critic could write so honestly, the President-father could react so excessively, and nothing was injured but an already ill-starred career is a great tribute to free societies.


February 3, 2008

fvsportrait1-440.jpg Having mentioned rôles that the great Pauline Viardot (1821–1910) played in Chopin’s story, it seems worthwhile to notice that Frederica von Stade (and who worthier?) has lately been singing, either with others or alone, compositions by Viardot as she performs around the world. London’s Wigmore Hall and the Théâtre Musical de Paris have already heard such performances, Opera Rara has issued a recording, and on March 20 in San Francisco, Von Stade will be doing a “theatrical concert” (“Pauline Viardot and Friends”) with Vladimir Chernov and Melody Moore, narrated by Marilyn Horne.

Cecilia Bartoli has created something of a sensation recently with her disc of music associated with Viardot’s renowned sister Maria Malibran, but Viardot lived much longer and managed to keep abreast of all the areas of musical life of her long day. The career began with famous family performances. Her father, who became the leading singing teacher of the time, had created the rôle of Almaviva in Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia. The family came to New York and presented the first performances of Italian opera ever heard in the city. They managed to put on a Barbiere in which family members took all the parts, and they gave the American premiere of Don Giovanni in the presence of its librettist, Da Ponte.

But when you consider that Pauline, who studied piano with Liszt, went from direct links with Mozart to being the mother of Fauré’s fiancée and knowing Debussy and Boulanger, you get some idea of her range. She maintained an eminent salon in Paris, for which Cavaillé-Col built an organ that was regularly played by Gounod and Saint-Saëns, and she lived to pass the torch to the American Princesse de Polignac, who took over patronage of Fauré and moved on to Stravinsky, Satie, Milhaud, and Poulenc.

After so many years of performing, mentoring, and generally living the vie musciale, Viardot composed her last operetta at the age of 84 (based on a version of the Cinderella tale). Those disposed to undervalue the importance of women in music history would do well to contemplate this brilliant figure who had one of the most fulfilled musical careers of all time.

Chopin at the Opera II

February 2, 2008

continued from yesterday

pauline-viardot-garcia_599109.jpg Chopin delighted in making the piano sing, and the vocal origins of his distinctive keyboard melody are key to understanding or performing his works. In Chopin’s mazurkas the traffic flows in the opposite direction, for they owed their first wide popularity to a singer, the celebrated Pauline Viardot (née García, pictured above), who set words to mazurkas and sang them in her recitals. Chopin complained that, once they became audience favorites, she stopped listing them in London playbills as “Mazurkas of Chopin” and began to call them “Mazurkas arranged by Mme Viardot.”

Such mazurkas occasioned some of Chopin’s most innovative harmonic adventures: Wagner is prefigured, and posterity is shown new tonal possibilities. It is appealing to picture the greatest Polish composer, now become the toast of cosmopolitan Paris, refreshing his repertory by retrieving and exploiting some of his earliest musical memories. For not only had parlor mazurkas been all the rage in the Warsaw of Chopin’s youth, but visits to village festivals had revealed to him the startling originality of the authentic folk mazurka. The highly individual charms of that rustic dance (characterized by strong secondary accents within a three-beat measure whose variety was far removed from the waltz’s predictability) were at his disposal whenever he wished to stir up his memories — memories that would call forth compositions that Western Europe understandably heard as markedly original. The mazurkas were sometimes deemed too inventive to be understood at first hearing.
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Chopin at the Opera

February 1, 2008

chopin.jpg Frédéric Chopin had a consuming interest in singers and singing. As composer, performer, and teacher, he exalted the legato of a shapely vocal phrase as the pianist’s melodic ideal. That, joined with his ability to make small-scale dramas out of “salon” pieces, makes a Chopin piano recital the nearest instrumental equivalent of an intimate Lieder recital.

The singing that commanded Chopin’s keenest attention, however, was in bel canto opera, for nineteenth-century Europe followed opera fervently. New ideas in music came from the opera house in those days, and Bellini’s operas provided the model for the sort of long, soaring melody that Chopin idealized.

The very nature of the piano’s sound — the tone percussively born, and quickly dying away — made it impossible for the player to imitate vocal melody literally. But in music impossibility gives full scope to illusion. It is the Chopin pianist’s glory to create the illusion of a procedure that is objectively unattainable on the instrument.
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