April 21, 2016

Flying Dutchman's lesson: don't be a Daland, be a Senta

Minna Wagner, nee Planner
Call her the "Temporary Feminine"
In a previous post about The Flying Dutchman, I compared the characters to those in the sci-fi movie The Matrix. The idea was that all the residents of the fishing village save for Senta were in a different plane of reality than she and the Dutchman. Daland, his crew and the village maidens led complacently oblivious lives; as the years rolled by, the sailors put out to sea and returned to shore in an endless cycle while the women spent their lives at their spinning wheels, a visual metaphor for ultimate futility.
But of what, specifically, were the villagers oblivious? The short answer is the true identity of the mysterious "Holländer"who sails into their midst, but there is a larger meaning; the sort of meaning that great art always provides in its function as the mirror of society.

What Senta alone perceives; indeed, what accounts for her obsession with the legendary figure of the Dutchman, is her deeply-felt empathy with his suffering. Over and over she sings of his suffering and her desire to be the agent of his relief.

Senta may "love" the Dutchman, and he may "love" her as well, but this is the least erotic love affair in all of opera. Senta doesn't want to "date" the Dutchman; she doesn't want him to kiss her or bring her flowers or whisper sweet nothings in her ear. She never sings of wanting to begin a new life with him or of bearing his children. Hers is a single-minded obsession: being the Chosen One who will, through her fidelity, bring his torment to an end.

Bottom line: what makes Senta "unplugged from the Matrix" is her sensitivity to suffering; her empathy. The Dutchman's suffering stands for all the suffering in the world. Senta is aware of it and, even more importantly, cares and takes sacrificial action to deal with it. Her father, on the other hand, regards the Dutchman solely in terms of what he himself will gain: a dowry of gold and jewels.

Suffering has always been present in the world. Obviously, there are millions who are homeless, hungry, ill or persecuted. The rest of the world has choices to make in response to suffering and adversity. Some become doctors; some join the Peace Corps; some give to the Red Cross and other charities.

But we all know there are many who get caught up in the day-to-day routines of their lives and rarely think of the afflicted among us. They don't relish others' adversities, but their attention is consumed by their jobs, raising children, walking the dog, paying bills, doing the dishes and all attendant minutiae. They allow themselves to become oblivious.

Of course, anyone who reads about Wagner's life will understand that in this opera, he was thinking, as it were, locally rather than globally. The composer generally projected himself into all his heroes, and it's certainly true of the Dutchman. Already, still in his youth, Wagner felt he was leading a life of existential misery and torment. Read his letters, especially those to his friend, champion and eventual father-in-law Franz Liszt, and phrases like this appear over and over:

"No one knows the burdens I carry."

"My art is my only refuge from my misery."

And what was his "curse"? Apparently, it boiled down to being the Greatest Genius Who Ever Lived, but not being universally recognized as such. As one example, he suffered the humiliation of offering an early version of The Flying Dutchman libretto to the Paris Opera in hopes of receiving a commission, only to have them assign the project to some nonentity named Dietsch, who produced a forgettable opus called Le vaisseau fantôme.

Ouch. Okay, he had a point; who among us wouldn't feel a little cursed if that happened to us?

Perhaps Wagner's serial womanizing (unfaithfulness to his wives, affairs with other men's wives, and so on) amounted to a search for a woman who would understand his suffering and ease his path; help him achieve his manifest destiny as that Greatest Genius. This ideal woman would, like Senta, be willing and eager to make any sacrifice necessary; indeed, to sublimate herself completely to his needs.

Of course, the trouble with women (from Wagner's point of view) is that they always turn out to have their own wants and needs. For example, during the period of Dutchman, his first wife Minna left him to take a lover, eventually returning to a marriage that would end some ten years later. The dream of finding a woman who would devote herself to him 100% and tolerate his mercurial eccentricities remained a fantasy.

So Senta (not to mention a gallery of other Wagnerian heroines) became the so-called "Eternal Feminine"; the fictional realization of the kind of woman that remained unattainable in reality.

But let's not get caught up in Wagner's narcissism and egomania. His early masterpiece manages to transcend his personal story and speak to us about ourselves and the world the we live in. The message is there: it is empathy that will save the world and it is indifference that will doom it.

April 10, 2016

The Flying Dutchman's debt to Chopin

The big soprano solo in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman is Senta's lengthy ballad in Act 2. Having expressed her disdain for the tuneful but vapid "Spinning Chorus" sung by the village maidens, Senta chooses a musical selection that will be a polar opposite in tone, launching into a fairly austere telling of the legend of the Dutchman.

F. Chopin (portrait by E. Delacroix)
Read anything about this opera, and all commentators will point out one obvious source for this ballad, namely: Emma's ballad in Der Vampyr, a largely neglected opera by Heinrich Marschner that was popular enough in its day (1828) for Wagner to have conducted performances of it early in his career as a Maestro. There is little doubt that the phrase "the pale man" used in Emma's solo to describe the vampire so appealed to Wagner that he did a cut-and-paste job, neatly transferring it to Senta's number as she describes the Dutchman.

Other than that phrase, and the concept of a ballad, however, the two ballads have little else in common. In contrast to the austerity of Senta's tale, Emma's is "dramatic" in a more conventionally operatic sense, using chains of diminished seventh chords to create tension in expressing horror at the threat of the monster. The structure is different as well.

I have another candidate as a source for Senta's ballad; one that seems to have provided concrete musical inspiration for the young Wagner both in tone and form.

I'm thinking of the Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Op. 38 by Frederic Chopin.

The date of composition supports my theory; Chopin's Ballade was written between 1836-1839. The Flying Dutchman was completed in 1843, meaning Wagner could have had ample time to become acquainted with the latest virtuoso work by one of Europe's foremost pianists.

It's interesting to compare and contrast the structure and musical materials of the Wagner and Chopin pieces. Following a few introductory "yo-ho-hoe's", Senta launches into a turbulent depiction of the Dutchman's curse. In the passage below, it incorporates some of the "storm-at-sea" material from the overture, later heard in the Dutchman's Act 1 soliloquy. The meter is 6/8.

A brief transition leads to a contrasting theme representing Senta and the redemption she is destined to offer the Dutchman. After the violence of the preceding section, this new theme is the polar opposite: calm in tone and utterly simple in texture. The meter remains 6/8.

After a second and third iteration of these two sections, (the women's chorus taking up the redemption theme in the third stanza), Senta sings a highly animated coda of frenzied energy, expressing ecstatic anticipation of ending the Dutchman's suffering.

All of these elements are found in the Chopin Ballade. Here we find the theme of artless calm and simplicity; here we find a contrasting theme of stormy virtuosity; and here we have a coda bringing the work to an animated conclusion. The difference: the order of the contrasting elements is reversed. Chopin opens with his dream-like theme, marked sotto voce. Note that the meter is identical to Senta's redemption theme:

When that section dies away on delicate repeated notes, the introduction of a stormy, turbulent theme offers the same sort of contrast as in Senta's solo; this too could be describing a hurricane at sea:

The coda, which could also be described as "frenzied" (though I grant you it's Romantic Doom and not ecstasy being expressed), offers a strong rhythmic figure in stern octaves:

Did these octaves serve as some kind of model for the famous motive of the Dutchman that first appears in the overture? It shares with the Chopin motive the same effect of ominous strength and power.

Regardless, it would appear that Richard Wagner, often cited as having written the "Music of the Future", and who definitely cast a shadow extending well into the 20th century, looked to the immediate past in creating one of his landmark works for soprano.

But wait! (As they say on late-night infomercials) There's more! I think the central section of the Dutchman's Act 1 monologue "Die Frist is um", the passage marked "Maestoso" and beginning with the words "Dich frage ich", owes a LOT to a passage in the slow movement of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21. Composed in 1830, it pre-dates Dutchman by more than a decade. A nocturne-like main theme in the opening section of the Larghetto slow movement is interrupted by a section of recitative-like utterances in jagged dotted rhythms for the piano over tense tremolos in the strings. The pertinent passage begins around 4:20 in this video performance.

In "Dich frage ich", Wagner adopts the same dotted rhythms and tremulous accompaniment; the key of A flat Minor is even the same. Both composers have the same objective in mind: the depiction in music of a Tormented Romantic Anti-hero, adapting the character of the Young Werther, Lord Byron and Manfred (among other literary creations) to musical expression. This section begins at 5:25 in this performance by George London.

Chopin and Wagner: in many respects, they might appear to be musical oil and water, each the very artistic antithesis of the other. Bear in mind, however, that Wagner greatly admired the melodies of Vincenzo Bellini, to whom Chopin is often compared. Perhaps it shouldn't really surprise us that echoes of the Polish poet of the piano reverberate in Wagner's early masterpiece.

March 23, 2016

The Flying Dutchman and Wagner's "cinematography"

A flying horse beats a sword-fight...
Start reading about Richard Wagner and some key phrases keep cropping up again and again:
  • "A genius"
  • "The most influential..."
  • "Revolutionary"
  • "20th century music would not be possible without him..."
  • "Forward-looking"
And so on. But what does all that mean? Presuming that many of you are casual opera-lovers, you may well wonder what all the commentators are talking about with such comments.

O, Faithful Reader, if you only knew.............

This post will cite one example to give you a clue. More like half a clue. More like a teensy fraction of a clue. This post won't give you the tip of the iceberg; it'll give you a snowflake on top of the tip.

But it's a good one.

The title of this post mentions cinematography. That's a film term referring to the photography of the movies we see - the visual images that fill a movie screen. How could an opera have anything to do with the sorts of images we see in cinema? Simply this: Wagner was the first opera composer to imagine cinematic scenarios.

Virginia Opera's most recent production was Gounod's Romeo and Juliet. Besides all the love duets, "R & J" features an old-fashioned "action scene": a couple of sword fights. In much of opera history (other than the so-called Venetian school of the 17th century, when libretti often called for erupting volcanoes) sword fights were the go-to device if action was desired.

Then came Wagner.

Let's look at some of the stage directions that create cinematic moments in Wagnerian opera. The first one, granted, is kind of the opposite of an "action" scene:
Die Walküre, Act 1.
Here's the set-up: Siegmund has found refuge in a crude dwelling during a storm. He learns it is the home of Sieglinde and her husband Hunding. Siegmund and Sieglinde, not yet aware they have the same father, feel a mutual and powerful attraction. While Hunding eyes the stranger with suspicion, Wagner gives us the following stage directions:

Sieglinde goes to the storeroom, fills a horn with mead and offers it to Siegmund with friendly eagerness. ...Siegmund takes a long draught while his gaze rests on her with growing warmth. Still gazing, he removes the horn from his lips and lets it sink slowly while the expression of his features expresses strong emotion. He sighs deeply and gloomily lets his eyes sink to the ground. ...He leans against the hearth; his eyes fix themselves with calm and steady sympathy on Sieglinde; she slowly raises her eyes again to his. They regard each other, during a long silence, with an expression of the deepest emotion.

Well, I warned you; a little short on action. Guy drinks a drink and stares at a girl. Not exactly "The Matrix", to cite a movie I recently discussed on this site. My point is that it really reads more like a movie screenplay than an opera.

Think about it: don't all those long, long, emotion-filled gazes just cry out for close-up camera-work? During the moments when those directions are being acted out, the orchestra is playing voiceless music that functions exactly like film underscoring, with heartfelt music mirroring all those subtle, unspoken interactions. How were these subtleties supposed to register with audience members sitting in the balcony of a typical opera house? He is thinking in cinematic terms.

Let's look at another, more familiar moment in the same opera (I'm getting to Dutchman in a moment):

Die Walküre, Act 3
Okay, rather than type out a series of stage directions, let's just describe the scene: the action takes place on the rocky summit of a rugged mountain. Eight goddesses called Valkyries, the children of chief diety Wotan, swoop and soar through the heavens on their flying horses (!), gathering up the corpses of slain Norse heroes to transport them to Valhalla. One by one, they come in for three-point equestrian landings to huddle up with Valyrie Number Nine, Brünnhilde, to help her plan how to deal with Daddy, who is pretty mad at her right now. (Long story. Don't ask.)

Now we're talking! Sword fight, schmord schmight - this is COOL! I have to wonder how Wagner thought he'd bring this off back in the 1850's when he wrote it. I hope that the first performance consisted of something other than nine sopranos standing on stage with spears, singing their brains out. But without electricity, how was all the swoopy-soary stuff suggested? Even now in 2016, stagings tend to fall a bit short of what we all envision in our minds. Harry Potter-level special effects are called for.

And as for my current object of study, The Flying Dutchman, we can see Wagner already thinking big - very big. In Act Three, scene one, the stage is given over to the chorus. Here I can once again let Wagner's own stage directions describe the scene, minus some intervening singing.

A bay with a rocky shore: Daland's house to one side in the foreground. The background is occupied by the two ships, the Norwegian's and the Dutchman's, lying fairly close together. The night is clear: the Norwegian ship is lit up; its sailors ore on deck, making merry. The appearance of the Dutch ship presents an uncanny contrast; it is enveloped in unnatural gloom and deathly quiet. (The sailors)dance on the deck. The girls arrive with baskets full of food and drink. (The sailors and women call out to the Dutchman's unseen crew, meaning to invite them to the celebration, but the only response is eerie silence.) The sailors drink up and set down the cups noisily. From here on there are stirrings of life on the Dutch ship. The sea, which everywhere else remains calm, has begun to rise in the neighborhood of the Dutch ship; a dull blue flame flares up like a watchfire. A storm wind whistles through the rigging. The crew, hitherto invisible, bestir themselves. As Daland's crew sing a sea chanty, their ship is tossed up and down by the waves; a terrible storm wind howls end whistles through the bare rigging. The air and sea elsewhere, except in the immediate neighborhood of the Dutch ship, remains calm, as before. The Norwegians try to drown the song of the Dutchman's crew with their own song. After vain efforts the raging of the sea, the roaring, howling and whistling of the unnatural storm, together with the ever wilder song of the Dutchman's crew silence them. They fall back, make the sign of the cross and quit the deck: the Dutch crew, seeing them, burst into shrill, mocking laughter. After this the former deathlike silence suddenly falls on their ship again; in a moment, air and sea become calm, as before.

This is Stephen King territory; this is Walking Dead territory; this is Pirates of the Caribbean territory. It not only presented new challenges to set designers and stage directors, it raised the bar for all future composers re-imagining operatic action scenes.

If you want to see how far Wagner's successors took his trail-blazing ideas of action, get a hold of the libretto to Arnold Schoenberg's Moses und Aaron and read the stage directions for the scene of the Golden Calf orgy. Whoa, Nellie! Even Wagner might have found it over the top. Or he might have loved it. But either way, he surely would have said "You have learned well from me, my son".

March 13, 2016

Dum-Dum-de-Dum: Young Wagner's weird rhythmic obsession

On the count of three, clap your hands to the rhythm of the first four notes of "Hail to the Chief".
Ready? One, two, THREE:
Good job! Try another one, a famous bit of Wagner: the "Bridal Chorus" from Lohengrin:
You're really good at this. (I'm a shameless suck-up...) You probably picked up on the fact that both ditties are built on the same rhythmic motive. Lohengrin was the third of the three early Wagnerian operas that have entered the standard repertoire. The second, Tannhäuser, features a lyrical aria for Wolfram, "Du mein holder Abendstern". which opens like this:
The meter is different, but it still sounds like "dum-dum-de-dum", so it's essentially the same motive.

But my subject these days is The Flying Dutchman, and here the "dum-dum-de-dum" rhythm puts us hip-deep into an odd phenomenon:
A motif that has no meaning.
Richard Wagner
That's not how we're used to thinking of Wagner! As his craft matured and he committed more to his "music of the future" style, his operas became a spider's web of interwoven motifs (often called leitmotifs though that wasn't his term) both rhythmic and melodic, representing people, gods, objects or concepts.

On the other hand, Dutchman is almost completely dominated by examples of the "Bridal Chorus" rhythm. It is frequently sung by the Dutchman, Senta, Daland and Eric. But to what end? Get a load of these examples. And trust me, by no means am I citing each instance in Dutchman; to do so would become tediously lengthy. But you need to see how obsessively it appears!

In the Dutchman's great monologue "Die Frist ist um", after the recitative and an opening tempestuous section venting his rage and frustration, comes an especially intense expression of brooding bitterness marked "Maestoso". These thirty-four bars are like the slow movement of this multi-movement solo. Over tremolo strings, the Dutchman begins a plea for mercy:
Each four-bar phrase begins with the rhythmic motive, if occasionally double-dotted.

During the ensuing episode in which the Dutchman encounters Daland and expresses his interest in the Captain's daughter, his vocal line is peppered with the motive; here are a few instances;

For his part, Daland, whose initial rhythmic utterances were free of "dum-dum-de-dum" finally gets in the spirit of the motive:
And by the end of Act 1, Daland's instructions to his crew to weigh anchor are accompanied by an orchestral tune that shows he's given in to the rhythm:
Senta is on board with "dum-dum-de-dum" even before her tete-a-tete with the Dutchman; the "Piu lento" section of her ballade, which symbolizes her sacrifice, serves it up on a platter:
When Erik (the suitor in whom Senta has lost interest) shows up to pitch a little woo, he does so in a plaintive solo. Note how the rhythm appears twice in this passage:
When Papa Daland arrives with the Dutchman in tow, every phrase of the first section begins with this rhythmic pattern:

When the two love birds are finally alone to gaze in wonder at one another, their duet is a slow-motion ping-pong game of "dum-dum-de-dum", trading the motif back and forth:

Well, look - IF you are still reading this (and, in your shoes, I'm not sure I still would be), you long since got the idea, and I'm skipping Act 3 because ENOUGH! Again, I've shown you about 10% of all the examples of "dum-dum-de-dum" which are planted throughout the score.

My question: WHY, WHY, WHY?! Does it MEAN anything?

I can't see how. This motive cannot have a symbolic meaning; it can't stand for anything. Too many characters sing it in too many unrelated dramatic contexts.

I think Wagner just thought it was a fine way to begin a melody, that's what I think. As his technique matured and he gained confidence in his art, old-fashioned melodic phrases built on "dum-dum-de-dum" took a back seat to the aforementioned spider's web of leitmotifs. That said, it's worth noting that the Overture to Die Meistersinger revives "dum-dum-de-dum" in grand fashion.

Did Wagner realize how much he was relying on this rhythm? Was its overuse (in my opinion) a deliberate device somehow? Did he imagine himself the New Beethoven, imagining that perhaps "dum-dum-de-dum" would become his calling card in the way that so much of Beethoven is built on the grundgestalt of four notes as in the Fifth Symphony?

If so, he found a much, much better calling card.

March 6, 2016

The Flying Dutchman, as explained by Bill Murray and Keanu Reeves

This post, the first devoted to Virginia Opera's upcoming production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, draws parallels between the opera and two Hollywood films you may have seen.

Though it may strike you as unlikely at first, the outline of the plot is contained in Bill Murray's 1996 comedy Groundhog Day.

Even more interesting to me: a reasonable interpretation of the characters and (most importantly) the contrasting styles of music in Wagner's score, can be made through the prism of the 1999 action flick The Matrix.
Red pill and blue pill.
{Author: Wim b. Used with permission)

First, about that plot. Even if you know nothing about Wagner, you already know the basic story of the Dutchman. In Groundhog Day, Murray played an arrogant man whose arrogance was punished by some cosmic force that doomed him to repeat the same day over and over. Each day, with mounting misery, he found himself in the same hotel room with the same Sonny and Cher song playing on the clock-radio. After hundreds of repetitions of the same day, he tried in vain to kill himself just to end the torment. But every form of suicide was short-lived, resulting in yet another morning of Sonny and Cher. In the end, this curse was lifted by finding true love in the character played by Andie MacDowell.

In the operatic version, the (unnamed) Dutchman's curse of unwanted eternal life was due to his shouting blasphemies while battling a storm at sea. Satan decrees he shall sail until Doomsday for his arrogance. Longing only for the peace of the grave, he is finally released from the curse through the devotion of a woman who proves faithful unto death.

I don't know if the producers of Groundhog Day were aware of the close ties between the movie and the legend of the Dutchman, but closely tied they are.

Now for The Matrix.

The premise of the movie is that the reality that you and I and most people experience is an illusion. Hostile alien robotic machines long ago enslaved the human race, imprisoning us in individual capsule-like pods where we spend our lives hooked up to a giant alien computer that pipes dream-like images into our brains as we remain in perpetual sleep. Billions of pods exist in vast towers overseen by the aliens, but a few individuals (such as Morpheus, Neo and Trinity) have managed to break free from this Matrix. They alone experience true reality, which consists of surviving in dark subterranean tunnels in a nightmarish world while evading those darn robots.

How does this relate to The Flying Dutchman? It's pretty simple. All of the characters, save the two lead roles of the Dutchman and Senta, lead complacent, repetitive lives. Daland and his crew spend their adult lives going to sea and catching fish, then returning home and eating fish.

Catching fish, eating fish. Catching fish, eating fish. Catching fish, eating fish. Catching fish, eating fish, all the while singing lusty sea-chanties. They believe that their lives have purpose and meaning; they believe their activities are fulfilling. It never occurs to them that they are trapped in an empty routine.

The village maidens, Wagner lets us know, are no better off. At the top of Act 2 they provide an obvious visual metaphor of the pointless futility of their own existence: endlessly spinning at a loom. We are to imagine a mouse on an exercise wheel.

Daland, his crew, and the rest of the villagers (save for Senta) are plugged into the Matrix, clueless about the existential crisis they should be obsessing over.

Senta, present but detached from the group in the spinning-wheel scene, rejects the stupid loom and the stupid song they sing to pass the time. She is kind of a combination of Trinity and Neo; while she's the Matrix-free female in the cast, she's also really the "chosen one" like Neo, the Keanu Reeves character. He was "chosen" to free humanity from the Matrix; Senta is destined to free the Dutchman from his curse.

The Dutchman, of course, is also burdened with Existential Anguish. His monologue careens through an emotional roller coaster encompassing rage, bitterness and defiance. The eternal stormy sea is tormenting him and kicking his butt just as the clones of Agent Smith torment Morpheus in the movie.

Wagner's opera even has a character much like Cypher. Cypher knows about the gritty reality of Man vs. Robot, but prefers the dream-world of the Matrix. With a juicy piece of steak on his fork, Cypher contemplates the fact that the steak isn't real, but he doesn't care. He just enjoys it.

This is a bit like Senta's frustrated suitor, Erik. Erik seems to intuit that there is more to life than the complacent faux lives of the fishing villagers. He relates a dream he had to Senta; one that seems to predict Senta's ultimate sacrifice. So in that sense, he's unplugged from the village Matrix. Yet he wants nothing more than a conventional life with Senta. She should marry him, bear his children, make his home, all the regular wifey stuff. Some part of his mind suspects an alternate possibility, but even so, he chooses to "plug in", so to speak. Thus the arias with which he woos his erstwhile girlfriend are ardent but far removed from Wagner's "futuristic" style, as you'll note in his Act 2 solo beginning at 1:21 in this recording.

I believe this two-planed existence in The Flying Dutchman helps to explain the startling contrast of musical styles in the opera. Extensive sections of the score reflects a conventional German Romantic operatic style, a style similar to the popular operas Wagner conducted in his early career. The Steersman, Erik and Daland sing tuneful arias with regular periods, conventional structure and highly conventional harmony. Daland's Act 2 aria, in fact, is downright dull and stodgy - a perfect bit of musical characterization of Senta's father, who is not the sharpest tool in the tool kit. (In this recording, it begins at 2:07.) The orchestration in their solos is discreet, even affecting an "oom-pah-pah-pah" for old Daland, for pity's sake! The Steersman's aria (sung here by Fritz Wunderlich) features a good bit of unaccompanied singing; the orchestra's contributions are practically Mozartian in texture.

Senta and the Dutchman, on the other hand, sing in a style much closer to mature Wagner. The orchestra often features huge sonorities, thick textures, blaring brass, strings in turmoil and brooding chromaticism. Even the simplicity of the "Redemption" portion of Senta's ballade are austere and stark. (More about their music in a future post.)

Daland's crew and the spinning maidens sing in a manner appropriate to their complacent lot. My goodness, there are portions of the Spinning Chorus that, if slowed down a bit, would sound like a soft-shoe number. Listen to this version and think "Tea for two". In WAGNER!!

But everything changes when, in Act 3, those same choristers make the mistake of poking a sleeping monster, arousing the zombie-crew of the Dutchman's ship. The passage in which the ghostly crew terrorizes the villagers gives them a Close Encounter (Another movie reference! Sweet!) with Wagner's versions of the Alien Robots.

Many Wagnerian commentators attribute this musical dichotomy to Wagner's immaturity. One reads comments like "finding his way"; "still searching for his voice". "still formulating his musical ideas". I don't agree. To me, the two contrasting styles were a deliberate dramatic choice by the young composer; a way of delineating the two planes of reality experienced by the two groups of characters.

Ironically, the conventional Romantic style of Erik, the Spinning chorus, and the other members of the Matrix, though used for irony, had the advantage of tossing some ear-candy to the audience. Who wouldn't enjoy the toe-tapping tunefulness of that Spinning Chorus? It's a bit of subtlety on the composer's part that at the same time he imbued his score with audience-pleasing tunes, there was nonetheless a subversive message in those same tunes.

In a way, your reaction to that tune is a litmus test for YOUR place in the Matrix. If you see the irony, you took the red pill: you're unplugged. If you just sit back and enjoy the melody............  you swallowed the blue pill...............................................

February 14, 2016

Romeo & Juliet and the Mystery of the Three Cello Quartets

Wagner: lovesick cello trend-setter
The title of this post sounds vaguely like an old Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys book title, doesn't it? (Boy, did I just date myself... oh well...)

But it's true: I have a genuine musical mystery to present to you. No answers, just a puzzle. Actually, I can make an "educated speculation" to explain part of the mystery, but not all of it. Here's the deal:

In Gounod's Romeo and Juliet, the duet that opens Act IV is introduced by a passage for four solo celli. They present a theme first heard in the Prologue, just before the curtain rises on Act I. The theme in question is the one I labeled "Absent Love" in my most recent post, owing to the fact that each title character sings it when contemplating being without the other. Here it is:

So what's the big mystery, you ask? Simply this:

This cello quartet is one of three cello quartets introducing operatic love duets in three operas, all written within a span of some thirty-four years.

The other two are by a couple of composers you may have heard of: Wagner and Verdi.

In Wagner's Die Walküre, the love duet between Siegmund and Sieglinde is introduced by a cello quartet that projects a similarly tender affect. So who influenced whom here? That's tricky.

Die Walküre was first performed in 1870, some three years after Romeo. But before you wag your finger at Wagner for copying off of Gounod's exam paper, remember this: Die Walküre was composed long before its first public performance, around 1853. I can't imagine any circumstance in which Charles Gounod could have had access to Wagner's score. I don't think they belonged to the same bowling league and I don't think they got together to drink beer and play darts all that often. Having said that, Gounod certainly was not immune to the power of Wagner's music and spoke up in defense of Tannhäuser after it bombed at its premiere in Paris. But still - the timing is all wrong for him to have studied Walküre and observed the duet introduction.

Am I wrong?

And ... the mystery deepens!

Because in 1887, Verdi's Otello premieres. Act I features "Gia nella notte densa" the love duet between Otello and Desdemona. It, too, is introduced by a cello quartet.


Is it purely coincidence? Here's the problem: all three of these guys are dead, so we can't email them and ask them. Pity. If I was a certain type of scholar, I would spend the next five years of my life traveling around the world, examining the personal papers of Wagner, Gounod and Verdi to see if I could unearth some clue in a letter or diary or whatever.

I'm not that type of scholar.

BUT - I do have a partial theory which feels right to me and at least would explain Verdi's choice of instrumentation for his duet intro.

Wagner died in 1883, four years before Otello. Otello was Verdi's first opera since he had retired from the opera profession following Aida in 1871. So this was his first opera since the death of Wagner. It's clear that Wagner and Verdi did not actually love one another's work, but each recognized the statue of the other. Upon learning of Wagner's passing, Verdi wrote to Giulio Ricordi, his publisher, the following note:

Triste! Triste! Triste! Wagner è morto! (Sad! Sad! Sad! Wagner is dead!)

Genius generally knows genius.

Now click on the links to the Walküre and Otello excerpts. Listen to the first four notes only of each cello introduction. Do you hear what I hear? The Verdi quartet begins with the very same harmonic sonority, with a similar descending motion in the melodic line, just pitched a third higher.

It seems reasonable to speculate that Verdi may have intended this as a tip of the cap to a recently-deceased fellow artist; as an homage.

That still leaves me wondering how Gounod could have been familiar with two operas he couldn't have heard performed until after Romeo and Juliet was introduced to the public.

Any theories from you Faithful Readers? Have at it!

With this, I bid adieu to Romeo and his Main Squeeze Juliet. Next up: a series of posts about Wagner's Flying Dutchman. Naturally, the opera in question being Flying Dutchman, we'll be referencing Bill Murray's Groundhog Day, The Matrix, Ava Gardner, Tom Hanks, Holden Caulfield, Artur Schopenhauer and stuff like that. As one does. Curious? Check back!

January 31, 2016

Absent Love and Present Love in Romeo and Juliet

The most iconic adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is not an opera. I'm thinking of Tchaikovsky's Fantasy-Overture, one of the warhorses of orchestral literature. The love theme in that piece long ago made the cross-over from classical art to pop culture. It's been plugged into TV, movies and even animated cartoons too many times to count. Sometimes it's used seriously, sometimes with post-hipster irony. Everyone knows what it's intended to express, whether they have an ear for music or not.
Gounod at the piano

In the opera I'm writing about these days, Charles Gounod one-ups Tchaikovsky; if not in popularity, at least in quantity. In his Romeo and Juliet it appears to me that Gounod assigned not one, but two - count 'em! two! - official love themes to the famous couple.

Now, don't misunderstand: Romeo and Juliet sing many melodies during their four love duets. But for our purposes, a melody is not the same thing as a theme. I'm talking about a musical statement that recurs in different scenes, with a consistent extra-musical meaning each time it is heard. For an obvious, if somewhat cheesy example, think of the big sweeping theme by Max Steiner in Gone With The Wind that blares forth anytime mention is made of Tara, the O'Hara family plantation.

After due consideration, I label the two R & J love themes "Absent Love" and "Present Love". Each is heard four times during the opera; each recurrence seems to imply the same meaning and significance.

"Absent Love" is first heard in the orchestra immediately following the choral Prologue, just before the curtain rises on the Capulet ball. At a moderate sustained tempo, the strings present an elegaic, warmly expressive statement full of yearning. A pair of two-bar phrases (A1 and A2), each sketching the contour of a heavy sigh, is followed by a four-bar period (B) leading to a re-statement in fuller orchestration:

After this initial statement of the theme, "Absent Love" is not heard again until Act 4, when it re-appears as an introduction to the scene of Romeo and Juliet's wedding-night duet. As the duet begins, the newly-married couple have just concluded a night of marital fulfillment and are disheartened to see that the sun is about to rise. That's bad news because, of course, Romeo has been ordered to leave Verona forever in punishment for having killed Tybalt. So Juliet is faced with Romeo's permanent absence as he must now begin his exile. The duet (to which we'll return below for the first occurrence of "Present Love") comes to an end, Romeo departs, and Juliet ends the scene by lamenting his departure in a descant to another orchestral statement of "Absent Love". It's at this moment that the attentive listener should begin to appreciate the theme's significance.

The meaning of "Absent Love" is confirmed in Act 5 when Romeo enters the Capulet crypt and sings a mournful soliloquy over the (apparently) dead body of his wife; for Romeo, Juliet is now forever "absent".

As for "Present Love", it is entirely contrasting in mood and construction. This is the theme where the representation of love becomes ardent and passionate, more in the vein of Tchaikovsky's material. In its phrase structure, "Present Love" is a near mirror image of "Absent Love": a longer period is followed by two fragmentary periods:

The rhythmic character is dynamic and dramatic, suggesting impulsiveness and the heat of sexual desire. This is in contrast to the introverted melancholy of "Absent Love".

"Present Love" is first heard in an orchestral statement that follows the earlier duet passage beginning "O nuit divine". When that section has concluded and Romeo is almost out the door, Juliet begs him to stay just a little longer. (I like to think that this is an earlier version of two teenagers in love talking on the phone, each saying "You hang up. No, YOU hang up", etc.). When Romeo agrees to remain, a risky decision in view of his legal peril, the orchestra launches into "Present Love" sans vocalization; the lovers are in no mood to sing, locked in passionate embrace. The entire theme lasts perhaps 15 seconds or less. There is no way even the most attentive listener could comprehend that "An Important Theme" has just been introduced, but in fact that's what's happened. I call this passage "Present Love" because at that precise point, Romeo and Juliet are no longer regretting the past or fearing the future: rather, they are in the moment; they are truly "present", aware only of being together.

It's not until the finale that "Present Love" takes its place with the earlier theme as a defining concept of the lover's relationship. Romeo downs his dose of poison, Juliet's eyelids flutter as she awakens from her coma, and for a few precious seconds Romeo forgets about poison. The young couple, overjoyed to see one another again, believe they have beaten the odds: they are together; nothing else in the world exists.

They are present.

Of course, the ugly reality of the situation soon overtakes their euphoria; Juliet, unwilling to face life without Romeo, self-inflicts a mortal knife wound. So which theme accompanies their final moments of life? The choice is important, as it defines their mindset as life slips away. Rather than giving in to fear and panic of their looming mutual and eternal Absence, they remain focused on clinging to the experience of being Present as long as they can. As a solo violin plays a subdued, pianissimo version of "Present Love", Juliet whispers "avec toi". "With you". I am with you. We are present, right now, right in this moment.