Monday, June 10, 2013


(Ruggero Leoncavallo)

I got to thinking about fat people who create music. That may or may not be because the widder and her poor twin, whose name is around, wanted to compose and are persons of size. Alack! Neither had any talent so life went on and music was the better for it -- if you call what they do living and think life is better in these times --“auguri” as the Italians say. In fact, there aren’t many fat composers. Handel loved to eat. The sums budgeted specifically for his meals when he would be the guest of one or another cardinal in Rome are enormous. Known as Il sassone – The Saxon – his gigantic size was much remarked. It’s a pun, since “ona/o/e” is applied to the chubby in a familiar context. He was both "The Saxon" and the BIG Saxon. (We are assuming the reference is to Handel's overall size and not a particular organ, but given his suspected proclivities and the known ones of several of those cardinals, it's best to keep an open mind). Violetta might be called Violettina after a night of love by Alfredo, but were the sex act fattening for her he might pinch her pudgy cheeks and croon, Violettona, or since, many Italians leave off the final vowel if they are being familiar, she might be Violetton’ – perhaps more in the South than the North. When old Germont arrives to break the couple up, he might remark instead of “pur tanto lusso!” (what luxury),  “eppur si mangia!!!” (You eat a lot).

Handel was tall, though, and while he looks hearty in some portraits he doesn’t appear to have been fat. Schubert was teased by his friends for being chubby. Rossini was plump. Wagner had hemorrhoids and needed plush pillows upon which to sit. That suggests he liked to eat starchy foods but he wasn’t fat. Though judging from his choice for the first Tristan he didn’t mind fat people:

(Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld)

Brahms and Puccini, judging from portraits, look as though they gained weight in age, though not so much as to be remarked on. Toscanini hated fat people, being tiny himself. He used to make nasty fun of the gifted and on a few records, remarkable, Albert Coates:

Sadly, Maestro Coates greatly admired "Tosca" (as the 8000 or so women the erotomaniac bedded called him), But the widder and her twin aren't so naive. There are many, many millions of hideous thin people, and guess what? They die too.

But we were thinking about fleshy composers. About the only one who comes to mind is Ruggero Leoncavallo. He wrote Pagliacci. He was a genuine fatty. In fact, Toscanini called him, Mangia-cavallo, meaning horse eater. One can't pretend our Leoncavallo was a great, or even by the highest standards, a good composer. But the widder has a weakness for the quite awful verismo movement in Italy. Puccini, the only Italian genius of the time, was a member merely to a degree -- although like the others he was influenced by Massenet and Wagner and by Catalani who was from the same town and loved by Toscanini (in that rumbustious, emotional way of Italian men for one another, all tears and embraces, dances and lady chasing but no sex).

Toscanini told Puccini that he could never match up to Catalani, a composer of considerable gifts who never completely found a distinctive voice and died of TB at the age of 42 in the sobbing Toscanini's arms. But his most famous opera, La Wally, is a lot of fun as well as the inspiration for the name of Beaver's brother, Wally, the sex idol of The Widder's childhood in the American masterpiece, Leave it to Beaver -- our sad twin preferred Johnny Crawford in The Rifleman, sort of American verismo! (yes, yes, the widder is aware that Wally is short for some American name -- goodness! could it be Wallingford? No, more likely, Wallace. But the widder always thought, wouldn't it be wonderful for a suburban American couple to name their older son after the wild Valkyrie of the Alps who is crushed contemplating sin in an avalanche? Actually, the theme for The Rifleman with its opening rather Wagnerian horn call is by Herschel Burke Gilbert who died at 85 just ten years ago. He matriculated at Julliard, studied with Aaron Copland and became rich enough to form Laurel records which featured a remarkable range of works. In The Rifleman he wrote both leit motifs and longer themes for particular characters, and in fact his work in that overlooked medium is very distinguished -- he was at least as good as most of the Verismo composers. But perhaps this is all one needs to know).

But all that going on last week about authenticity got my twin and me to thinking about famous composers who have left behind some concrete indication of how their music should be performed, before the long playing record or even the "electrical" recording process (starting about 1927) where in good sound and without worry, a composer/conductor, or a performance supervised by the composer could make his/her intentions (at least of that moment) clear. There was a vinyl explosion of sorts starting in the early 1950's of new and very recent music performed or supervised by the composers but too often these were small labels with uncertain distribution and short lives.

It's true that a fair number of recent composers have had the opportunity of complete performances in good sound, often with famous performers, to make a case for their music. For the still living but lesser known, Naxos has released reasonable to excellent performances of some of their music, as have other smaller labels -- although performances can vary considerably in security, assurance and excellence of execution. One misses the Louisville label and its vast catalog of American music. It's sad that a great company such as Nonesuch could not stay in business as it was first envisioned by Teresa Sterne, and too many of their authoritative releases have not found their way on to CD.

But I'm thinking of an older generation of composers, those who died before recording technology reached any heights. In many cases one must look to piano rolls. And our mind jumped immediately to Leoncavallo playing his Intermezzo from Pagliacci. It is a very soulful performance. These rolls come from various places and were made in various ways, and there has always been controversy over how reliable tempos were, since speeds could vary; also attribution is sometimes a problem, since documentation can be lacking. But there is no question in this case; this is Ruggero Leoncavallo in 1905. It’s a piece I’m very fond of, based as you know, on the lyric section of the Prolog, sung by the baritone (usually the one who plays Tonio, but for the first night it was sung by the Silvio, Mario Ancona, scarcely less famous than the first Tonio, Victor Maurel, creator of Iago and Falstaff in the Verdi operas, whose idea the prolog had been, he also came up with the opera's title. “Un nido di memorie” – a nest of memories -- sings the soloist -- meditating on the creative process. This is developed into a lovely short piece.)

Leoncavallo plays in an old fashioned way, rolling the right hand chords, getting the left in slightly before the right and taking a free view of the tempo. No one will know how Toscanini conducted the first night since he hated the opera. Leoncavallo may have lifted the idea at least as far as putting the crime of a jealous husband killing his wife in a theatrical milieu from the French writer, Catulle Mendès, who certainly thought so. But then, in counter suit, Leoncavallo accused Mendès of lifting his play from an earlier Spanish play, and insisted his plot was based on a case his father, a prosecutor, investigated in his childhood in Calabria. The musicologist, Matteo Sansone, in investigating all this, suspects that Leoncavallo at least got the idea from Mendès and other French writers and then scrubbed the more obvious evidence of influence (the composer spent most of the 1880’s living poor in Paris.). Leoncavallo was very clever theatrically. He was one of seven librettists to work on Manon Lescaut; he had the idea to make an opera that would be called La Boheme and foolishly told Puccini who took the idea and literally ran with it, getting it on a year earlier than Leoncavallo’s interesting, more cynical version, truer to the source material but not the masterpiece the Puccini work is. And then he came up with a soap opera, that when performed with commitment in the right style is pretty effective, called Zaza (also in a theatrical setting, and to be barely heard in a pirate starring Mafalda Favero from 1950 – but there it is overwhelming.)

However, since Leoncavallo is thought a lousy composer there is no definitive version of Zaza. A recording with the queen and sadly the undertaker of verismo in its last true decade, the fifties, Clara Petrella, uses the German edition, cuts, variations in melodic lines and all, translated back into Italian. There was an MRF LP with a version from the publisher's archives and some corrections, starring the American, Lynn Strow Piccolo, now a proud member of the Tea Party. But while that is the most accurate version (and Madame Strow-Piccolo is very good) there still are questions about cuts, simplifications and some odd harmonic readings. Even the doyenne of 21st century Opera chic work ethic, Renee Fleming, uses an odd variant for her quite sincere recording of one of Zaza’s tear jerking scenes; probably most clearly heard from Claudia Muzio on one of her Edison records, transferred superbly by Ward Marston. That is young Claudia at her heart breaking bitter sad best.

Pardon me, but I must play that. Zaza, a music hall performer, has discovered that her lover is married. She goes to his home and his little daughter plays the piano for her as she waits for his wife. She says, "how could I hurt this little person?" and yet -- and listen to her say "ho sognato, ho sognato" -- I've dreamed, I'VE DREAMED...!!!" As though life's victims should even dare dream of -- something, anything, love...

Perhaps that is a case of a magnetic interpreter of great imagination ennobling an obvious piece (we write as we wipe our eyes). But back to the question: can a conductor capture the sweetness of Leoncavallo's playing with a marvelous modern symphony orchestra simply by looking at the score? The charismatic leader here is another short, thin man, Herbert Von Karajan.

I think I’m with Ruggero on this one.

But how about a real composer? Gustav Mahler made four piano rolls including the finale of his Fourth Symphony, truly demented but not on You Tube. So, with some hesitation we can skip over the Funeral March from the Fifth Symphony (not quite as demented), and settle for a song, “Ich ging mit Lust.” This is a delectable, slightly naughty tune, to which our Gustav does surprising things. The composer starts with very simple material in D major with just little notes but soon has conjured up the woods (in the bass), the tree tops (a rising triad and a bit of bird song), a quick shift to the minor lets us in on an amorous early morning tryst, and a reassuring return lets us know that’s something the couple will enjoy again. This is also from 1905.

But since this is a song, we need a singer to make his or her own decisions as well as a pianist to help out. This is Christa Ludwig with Gerald Moore from 1957.

(lyrics are at the end of this blog)

If the question here is does a composer’s actual performance suggest a style, which interpreters can learn from, I think the answer in this case is yes. Mahler’s performance is surprisingly edgy and hard. The bird song has something aggressive about it. The bass is inflected to sound almost threatening. Nature in Mahler isn’t always friendly or safe. The text suggests a mild dalliance but they can turn dangerous (see Pagliacci). In Mahler’s performance there is something unstable, a sense of surprise. In Ludwig’s attractive singing there is allure and musical sophistication, from her pianist too. Perhaps given singers and songs that’s all one can really hope for and it’s fine. Yet two conductors who were mature musicians were champions and friends of Mahler, Oscar Fried and William Mengelberg. Alma, Mrs. Mahler, rather liked Mengelberg but thought Fried, almost as eccentric as her husband, “too Jewish”, something she thought of her husband too.

(Those still inclined to doubt that Alma Mahler was the most audacious and flamboyant liar ever to publish "non-fiction" should read Jonathan Carr’s carefully documented and entirely unsentimental – about both husband and wife -- biography. If they are inclined to say Mahler’s younger associates, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer were “calmer”, “more tasteful” or "truer" interpreters than Fried and Mengelberg they should keep in mind that both had to fight to get performances of the works, and that neither wanted to be thought “too Jewish” – translation: too emotional, eccentric, abandoned).

Fried and Mengelberg left complete recordings of two symphonies. Fried made a remarkable account of the huge Second Symphony in 1924 by the acoustical process. Mengelberg’s broadcast of the Fourth was recorded in 1939. Both offer performances very much in the spirit of Mahler’s piano rolls. Both are careful to observe all of the composer’s many expressive markings, but they are free about tempo, rhythmic articulation, phrasing and dynamic level. They take big risks, Fried more so since he is obviously working with a reduced orchestra (and when the time comes, chorus) and there are substitutions of instruments. It doesn’t matter; the performance is dangerous. It is ferocious, ironic, uproarious, mysterious, Jewish and Christian, It is a study in contradiction, in tempestuous moods that change quickly, in crazy outbursts, and intimate whispers.

No other conductor, though all get “better” sound, comes anywhere near this emotional abandon. Just as no other conductor makes a point of observing all of Mahler’s indications as broadly and forcefully as Mengelberg does. They both make full use of the rhetorical devices we know that Mahler used, portamento, rubato, sudden extreme dynamic shifts, yet in both cases what they do seems to proceed from whatever produced the music, not merely from their willfulness (or more typical in our time, timidity). I think even in the tiny song as played on the piano roll these qualities are present, they are present in the longer pieces Mahler banged out. Mahler was a contradictory personality, ruthless, unpleasant, manipulative and nasty, needy, vulnerable, lonely, angry, social, witty, worldly, a success who was a failure, a failure who succeeded beyond what would be anyone’s wildest dreams, a Jew who became an odd, sentimental Christian, and the victim of a vicious horror who won their brief battle. Walter (“drat that I was born a Brit, had I been a Jerry I’d have saved Our Adolf") Legge -- like Hitler he loved Lehar above serious music -- always said Mahler was a phony; that it was all superficial effect, and even that is true sometimes. You shouldn’t be able to predict a Mahler symphony, you shouldn’t feel comforted after one. It doesn’t matter if Mahler would have made very different choices. He probably did, in the same work in the same period as “the spirit” moved him. Fried (best heard on the Naxos pressing) and Mengelberg (Phillips) and Mahler himself suggest as much. And that is present on what he left behind. But I think it will be a long time before renewed study of his autographs and other documents (including in this instance sound documents) will lead to what might well be crazier yet truer Mahler. 

Another source of "authenticity" is teacher/disciple pupil communication. This in fact has been a mainstay of trying to figure out just how those 19th century composers who taught or had circles of followers who taught meant their music to sound. Many composers needed the income from teaching, and famous musicians, when they could no longer perform, taught (when it comes to singers, it's true they often taught what they never knew to begin with).

On the one hand the nature of music means that much can be transmitted by a good teacher, on the other hand, though, great performers have big egos and their own ideas, and if they are instrumentalists, live long enough frequently to develop styles of their own. "Romantics" (one could probably describe most performers with that word -- flexibly used -- into the nineteen twenties at least) often valued, some would say, over valued, the impulse of the moment, their own moods, a trust in psychic connections over literally following the score. So, whatever their teacher who had studied with famous composer X had said fifty years before, might go up in smoke, as they indulged themselves. Yet the score is both a crucial indicator of what should happen, and a series of hints. A computer can play the notes, but only a human can make sense of them. Composer-performers themselves often took liberties with their pieces as the spirit moved them, sometimes they forgot them altogether -- as Richard Strauss in New York, forgot the accompaniments to his songs when playing for Elizabeth Schumann and improvised as she sang what he had written! Still, if old music is going to dominate our repertory, shouldn't we want clues as to what the creator really wanted in performance? Perhaps we are talking of a precarious balance between "accuracy" and impulse. But if the impulses come from an "accurate" and complete sense of what the composer intended, then the impulses are likelier to be "true" in their own way. The corruption of the familiar by mindless repetition and habit that we've seen in so much of the "standard repertory" might be avoided, less by slavish and mechanical devotion to written notes then by a constant immersion in them, so that a talented interpreter is never merely taking the over familiar for granted but also never ascending into weird spaces just for novelty's sake.

Our minds (my twin's and mine) went to a favorite piece: Chopin's Nocturne in F sharp major, Opus 15. There is a piano roll by the great (though controversial) Raoul Pugno made in 1903 and there are two important historical records, one by Edouard Risler and a second by Alfred Cortot (from 1948). All three had close connections to Chopin himself. Pugno studied with his student, George Mathias; Risler and Cortot studied with Emile Descombes, a close disciple of Chopin. According to Pugno, Mathias quoted Chopin complaining that the piece was always played too fast. But in the Henle edition of Chopin, which publishes the urtexts (and certain alternates), the metronome marking is faster than Pugno uses and Risler plays the urtext exactly. Cortot is closer to Risler but by 1948 had stopped practicing and works his own magic (or according to the opinion of some, doesn't). 

The nocturne is composed in the key of F sharp major. According to Schumann that would be a distant, chilly or frightening key, or one of longing (it is the key of Schumann's wonderful  Romance from his opus 28, also of the second Scriabin etude from Opus 8.) It is A-B-A form, in 2/4. The first section is marked Larghetto, a little largo, slow but not so slow, it's metronome is 40. The opening melody is one of those endless breaths spun over an even bass (Bellini seems to be around, the Nocturne was written a year after Norma).  The bass is marked sostenuto, certainly steady but maintained, even sung, as the melody, somewhat unstable with its trills flies overhead. There is also an arresting counter theme in f sharp minor, which has an unforgettable series of dolcissimo falling phrases.

Among its features is a fascinating long ornamentation in measure 12, marked leggiero -- lightly and very soft -- to be followed by the marking con forza -- with force -- three bars later. This is so typical of the feverishness, the abandon of The Romantics that it should be in the performance, understood to "mean" something by the player.

The middle is marked doppio movimento (twice as quickly) and sotto voce -- whispering, perhaps. The haunting beauty of the start is interrupted by something haunting or odd and this builds with force and in agitation. But there is a return to the first theme, shortened by ten bars, gorgeously ornamented and using the extremes of the keyboard until dying away on an F sharp major arpeggio.

I think Pugno is the most spellbinding of these, also the freest, with some very distinctive readings of note values. Again, while no one would say this is the “spirit of Chopin” or that Pugno’s strong personality didn’t take a hand, his feel for the melodies and rhetoric of the piece really convince me that Chopin would have recognized the spirit behind the playing. He would have recognized the piece certainly from Risler. As for Cortot there is a surprising, haunting spirit, maybe he would have valued that most (or not).

I was going to go on to Lilli Lehmann this week but even I sometimes have had enough of me; why, my poor twin is huddled on the floor whimpering. So it is time to stop. But just remember next time you see a morbidly obese has been, as both my twin and poor Mr. Leoncavallo were described, and want to cry out in derision as fools do -- that crumpet addict may just have written once upon a time a lovely, haunting piece like Leoncavallo’s little intermezzo, and cut him some slack.

Translation of Ich ging mit Lust

(I walked with joy through a green wood;
 I heard the birds singing.
 they sang so youthfully, they sang so maturely,
 those small birds in the green wood!
 How gladly I listened to their singing!
 Now sing, now sing, Lady Nightingale!
 sing by my sweetheart's house:
 just come when it's dark,
 when no one is on the street -
 then come to me!
 I will let you in.
 The day was gone, night fell;
 he went to his sweetheart.
 He knocks so softly on the ring:
 "Eh, are you sleeping or are you awake, my dear?
 I have been standing here so long!"
 "Even if you've been standing there so long,
 I haven't been sleeping;
 I let my thoughts wander:
 where is my beloved,
 where has he been for such a long time?"
 "Where have I been for such a long time?
 That I should like to tell you:
 with beer and also red wine,
 with a brown-haired maiden,
 quickly forgetting you."
 The moon gazes through the little window,
 at this tender, sweet love;
 the nightingale sang the whole night.
 You sleeply maiden, stay alert!
 Where is your beloved staying?)


  1. Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld! He died a little more than a month after the Tristan premiere and his wife (also a porker) never sang again. I'm surprised there aren't more singer superstitions about Tristan considering the performance history.

    Great blog post as usual.

  2. Thanks Ivy -- I have your blog on my list but I don't think it shows, though I am able to read it!!!! The whole story of the Widder Carolsfeld is very strange; she became a total believe in the occult, turned tables and believed Ludwig Schnorr Von C was speaking to her and Wagner and Cosima. She used to show up and relay his latest message to them. It's quite funny to read about; even that couple didn't feel they could tell her to get lost in so many words, and she, so attuned to the other side was oblivious on this one!!!

  3. The link to Ivy's blog, must reading for all sorts of arts but now for ballet is Poison Ivy's Wall of Text -- and I can't get that to be a hyperlink. Goodness how have I gotten this far?


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