On a list I frequent I’ve noticed the following recently: Rage about a British reviewer's dismissal of Giacomo Puccini’s last opera (uncompleted), Turandot. Then there appeared the following statement: “Moses and Aaron (sic, of course, it’s Aron), sophisticated? Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron (sic) has as much Sophistication of composition as a breakfast cereal code ring of the 1950s. This is true of most of the later works (anything after Verklärte Nacht) of Schoenberg’s ‘musical’ output.” [orthography: the poster's]. And then there was this in a discussion of Giuseppe Verdi’s last opera: “I saw (heard) Falstaff live only once. Never again! Falstaff may be Verdi's critics darling but not the audience's The beautiful last act Tenor aria is the only thing I remember from that performance.”
There was this morsel about Pierre Boulez: “I find Pierre Boulez a pointless dinosaur, whose music represents a now-dead phase in Western music which will be the subject of academic theses in future generations, as people struggle to comprehend HOW our culture made such a massive wrong turn after World War II and forced mostly cacophony onto the listening public, which, 70 years later, is still turning its back in favor of music which attempts to connect emotionally. It just baffles me how the musical world took his acoustic drivel so seriously for so many years.”
And then there was this from a reigning expert who always claims Papal infallibility about intonation and it’s always Papal Bull, since he is always wrong – clearly he doesn’t know up from down and doesn’t read music or play an instrument. But here’s this savant about Turandot: “Great voices can make the opera libretti less distasteful than might otherwise be the case. For many people, myself very emphatically included, great music making trumps all other facets of the operatic experience.”
Now, one can ask right away, how does one get from great voices to great music making? Luciano Pavarotti had a great voice, no question about it – where was the music making? He couldn’t count, keep time or shape a phrase. It was a wonderful sound. Now, that’s not a sin and I can understand his success and his pride, especially because the silvery timbre lasted a long time. But as a musician, as an interpreter, as a stylist outside of a few roles he’d had drummed into his dense head when he was young, he was a pig. It can be argued that there are many singers with anywhere from very good voices to a smaller number who really do have great vocal endowments who are clueless bores when it comes to music -- if one loves music. And that’s the issue. Opera lovers in general know and care very little about music; they have no love for it. They have somewhere between ten and twenty old fashioned and arguably worthless works that they have imprinted on their dinosaur brains and they listen mainly to the highlights, and especially to the high notes, usually while doing other things.
There may be time eventually to get to the fetish divas, and the really great singers but today I am thinking with love of Jan de Gaetani who one of the savants shrugged off as a “teacher at Eastman”. She sang the often remarkable new music of her time, for some of which she had to invent a technique (Ancient Voices of Children by George Crumb – still alive at 84 and living around the corner from me -- is certainly one of the great vocal records ever made by anybody and, of course, it’s also a wonderful piece). Crumb’s piece requires all the things the obsessed claim that Maria Callas could do – intense, wide ranging coloratura, a vast array of colors but in a style entirely its own – a combination of challenges Callas never had to meet – or chose to meet. The 19th century divas the nuts compared Callas to (stupidly; we’ll never know how they sounded) , all sang NEW MUSIC. They backed living composers, they took risks with those composers, and like De Gaetani, though not like Callas, they had to invent techniques to cope with the rapidly changing requirements of, in their cases, early romanticism. De Gaetani also finds the profound feeling in Crumb’s Apparition, collected on a record with some Ives Songs. Her contribution to Elliott Carter’s Syringa is phenomenal (and like Crumb’s piece it is a gorgeous work).
But she had wide tastes. De Gaetani was able to find the style and the sound for Charles Ives, hers is one of the best Ives’ song collections, she was a revelation in Stephen Foster (another remarkable recording) but she could imbue her timbre with the right richness for more conventional repertoire; her records of Brahms, Debussy and Ravel, for example. And she could find the right sound for those “tuneless” Schoenberg compositions, The Book of the Hanging Gardens, and other worthless works by poor Arnold, such as Pierrot Lunaire, and record one of the most impressive accounts of Erwartung. She could give Russian music both its deep melancholy and its elegance and she even turned her hand to Cole Porter, accompanied by that great American musician, Leo Smit. That may not be “Broadway” at its most colorful but they find and relish exactly what is interesting musically in the work of a composer who chose “show music” (of his tuneful era) but who was well trained (he even did a stint in Vincent D’indy’s Scola Cantorum), and who had a remarkable, witty, often ‘inside’ musical style sounding under those irresistible lyrics.
De Gaetani actually made music. She had a fine voice, and an outstanding technique, but her objective was always to crawl inside the notes and make them live. Her performances actually live the way I believe music is meant to live; she doesn’t distort -- either because she thinks that’s dramatic or to show off. She brings one, I think, into contact with something real that exists as more than a kind of white noise.
Music really doesn’t matter to everyone or perhaps even at all, one could spend a lot of time at the end of a life, wondering what really does matter outside of one’s own next breath, and come to think of it, that doesn’t matter much either. But for us strangers here, bombarded by all sorts of particles we can’t quite apprehend and may never understand, uncertain about what is real, if anything is, someone like De Gaetani and as she would have been the first to insist, the composers she worked so hard to understand and then express, matter simply by being a lifeline for those who are drowning in the suffocating banality of what most of us do. That ends for everybody, its purpose unclear, perhaps non existent. When she sings for a little while outside of someone's life, there really is something else, even if it will vanish. And if one’s brain has given one the wherewithal to hear it and make sense of it (and just how we hear and process sound, and just how different every individual is from all others in processing what is presented as sound remain topics of research) making music is making life.
Enrico Caruso did the same thing.
(Caruso invests a trifle with a lifetime of longing, "Cor 'ngrato" written for him in 1911)
Different times, different circumstances, certainly, and he was a tenor! Yet he too sang mostly new music, in fact his command of the new works of his time by a still vibrant Italian school is what made him famous. As his records demonstrate (and the series on Naxos is the most complete to date, thanks to Ward Marston) he sang a huge number of new songs, many written for him. Like de Gaetani he didn’t live long, but he transcends death on record, life in all of its misery and joy and complexity and strangeness sounds in his voice. Unlike de Gaetani he sang a lot of junk, but he has a way of getting the most out of it. He made music, as she did; and the reasons that his many imitators failed was not only because they didn’t understand how he had produced his tone, and in forcing, lost their voices, but worse, because they could not begin to live in music as he did.
Jan reminds me of another singer almost forgotten now, Helga Pilarczyk, who delivered great performances in the then "newer" music (though of course most of this music wasn’t new at all). She made phenomenal recordings such as Erwartung which she recorded three times, with Robert Craft, Pierre Boulez and best of all with the mad but often thrilling Hermann Scherchen in 1960. This has just been reissued on the Wergo label. Her handling of the vocal style, a feverish but somehow lyrical intensity, is amazing. She is utterly riveting, more than virtually anyone else. She achieves what one would think is impossible, a singing, sometimes intoning, with incredible certainty of touch. She manages to seem utterly spontaneous and completely authoritative. She and Scherchen really understand the rhetoric of the piece and clearly adore it.
In Pierrot Lunaire she pitches lower than most anybody who has recorded it, and it’s possible to feel she declaims too much, closing vowels too quickly to avoid a sense of “singing”. The first recording of Pierrot with Schoenberg conducting and Erika Stiedry-Wagner reciting took place early in the fall of 1940. Schoenberg sent a letter to Fritz and Erika Stiedry suggesting the speaking part should be returned to the "light, ironical, satirical tone in which the piece was actually conceived". Pilarczyk didn't get that memo but her verbal authority is immense. But one must respect De Gaetani, Yvonne Minton with Boulez (one of the most precise renderings of the “vocal line”) and Christine Schaefer, also with Boulez, a very complete reading – though Pilarczyk -- if arguably on the extreme side of what should be done with this score vocally -- has a feverish conviction I don’t hear elsewhere.
In Erwartung singers in an operatic style, Jessye Norman with Pierre Boulez or James Levine, or Alexandra Marc (with the late Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting with great nuance and flexibility) are far more ordinary. Anja Silja, with her sometime husband, Cristoph Von Dohnanyi, appended to his well considered account of Wozzeck is authoritative but that crazy spontaneity is not there. I think her recording of Pierrot Lunaire with Robert Craft is freer, reminding one that Igor Stravinsky found hearing this music “The most prescient confrontation in my life.“
(Helga Pilarczyk, snippet from Pierrot Lunaire, with Boulez)
Pilarczyk also made two of the great Berg records, one of the Wozzeck Suite, and another of the Lulu Suite. They were both conducted by Antal Dorati. In the Wozzeck Suite, her handling of the Bible reading scene has a heart break, a longing, an intensity way beyond what Maria Callas could do with easier music. Pilarczyk handles the song speech with an amazing musicality; she never loses the musical sense that needs to be there, touching pitches and actually phrasing musically while speaking, and when she erupts into singing (the heart breaking cries of “Herr Gott! Herr Gott!” or later “Heiland!”) the effect is electric. This too is living in music, giving voice to an ageless suffering. In the Lulu Suite she handles the killer writing well, and does the Countess Geschwitz’ Liebestod to Lulu with tremendous force. Pilarczyk can be found in a Decca box (the Wozzeck Suite is also appended to Dorati’s reading of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle). The obsessed can find a complete (that is uncompleted) Lulu with Pilarczyk from 1966 on tape (I’m not sure this “pirate” has ever been pressed onto a record or CD, why bother when there is another Turandot to get out?).
To return to the start of this blog, this mixture of think piece and review set off the hounds
Generally these kinds of things are useless. The attackers of this writer are all -- what are the words I'm searching for? Opera lovers, perhaps? Puccini certainly was condemned as much as Giuseppe Verdi, and I think as unjustly. Verdi finally began to gain some acceptance both with time and gradually with a greater attention to what he had actually written as opposed to what was often heard (and still is, sadly). The great three volume examination of his works by Julien Budden, the respect of a composer such as Benjamin Britten, the ever changing Igor Stravinsky finally coming down on his side, and the persistence of prominent reviewers such as Andrew Porter and the sympathy of a great critic such as late Charles Rosen moved Verdi away from the hurdy-gurdy and into at least the vestibule of the Pantheon.
Puccini though has had a struggle. Joseph Kerman gained a certain fame by calling Tosca “a shabby little shocker”, in his influential, dubious book, Opera as Drama (far from as rigorously scholarly as it should have been and full of bizarre and suspect personal idiosyncrasies – one doesn’t know much about Professor Kerman, but somehow one shouldn’t know that he hates sex). In fact, he’s kinder about Puccini than he is about Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten and a host of others – he also poorly informed about Strauss’ work, and although his book was first published in 1956, there was enough Britten by then for his being as poorly informed about his work as he is to be a serious fault.
As a youngster, I remember reading a then popular writer on music called B. H. Hagen saying some music was “trash, like the work of Ravel and Puccini.” But I loved Ravel at the time, since I was trying to be a pianist and had seen how well made and beautiful his music was. No one with a mind holds such a low opinion of Ravel today, though I suppose one could hear arguments on where he stands on the Parthenon of musical geniuses (higher than some, lower than others, perhaps and really does that sort of ranking really matter? More important is that some idiot, able to call L’enfant et le sortilèges or the Piano Concertos or the string quartet or Le tombeau de Couperin “trash” was actually taken seriously).
But Puccini’s intellectual supporters such as the father of Andrew Lloyd Webber (hence the quote from The Girl of the Golden West in The Phantom of the Opera), and more importantly, the brilliant book by the Schönberg disciple, Mosco Carner, did not gain traction. Budden’s book on Puccini, written in illness, did not have the same force of his work on Verdi. And Puccini’s early operas were so over familiar, often poorly performed, that he was an easy target. Also, an old fashioned but still potent objection to opera as a form can be made about his operas among many others: composers must compose to librettos that can be grossly inferior writing on all levels, and even when effective taken on their own terms, are now stuck in a dramaturgy that has become meaningless and silly.
Can music transcend foolish situations and clumsy words? Well, Wagner’s music (or quite a lot of it) does. One could argue that Beethoven was dealing with an obvious and none too believable “rescue play”, but with Leonore/Fidelio’s great cry of “Abscheulicher!” about the monstrous Pizarro and the wonderful scene that ensues, the opera does begin to make the surface of the plot less important. Beethoven also gives life to timeless scenes such as the prisoners, let out of their cells, seeing sunlight, breathing good air. It doesn’t matter really that the “boy” Fidelio usually looks like a curvaceous lady in early middle age, and Florestan, chained and trapped in a deep dungeon, is perfectly visible and clearly well fed when he cries out, “God! It’s dark in here!!” That’s opera, perhaps; silly. But in the right hands, it is compelling, moving. Even when a chubby Leonore gives an obese Florestan (and I’ve seen that more often than not), a small bit of bread and he thanks her, it is terribly moving, simply because of the way the composer writes it.
Puccini was not Beethoven of course; he was a commercial composer, probably one of the richest in history, turning out theatrically manipulative works that superficially move an audience but in which nothing important is at stake (freedom, decency, justice, mercy are all at stake in Fidelio; it’s hard to find those themes in Puccini). And it was held against him that a lot of his music was hard to resist. As the great Schönberg pupil by then a formidable teacher, Leonard Stein, said to me at Cal Arts, “sometimes one just has to draw the curtains, dim the lights and listen to Suor Angelica!” Yet it hardly seems fair to call the result trash, or even cynical.
La Boheme may not concern itself with the great themes of life on this earth, but the story, told swiftly and without grandiosity, remains resonant in many ways, and Puccini’s economy, rightness of touch, melodic fecundity all make a great effect. It may be harder to make a case for Madame Butterfly or Manon Lescaut. But Butterfly is beautifully worked out musically, its use of authentic Japanese themes in a well argued symphonic manner with much subtlety of interaction between motifs, gives the story a sense of inevitability and genuine emotional power. Manon Lescaut is more uneven than Massenet’s opera, Manon, but the freshness of its lyricism is seductive and Puccini’s take on the story (it was probably more his than the nine librettists he had) seems less cynical than the Frenchman’s.
And one can go through the canon and find much that works, sometimes against the odds. The Girl of the Golden West has a ridiculous plot, hilarious words (“Amici fate largo e salute Mister Ashby del’ agenzia Wells Fargo” is one, “Dimmi tuo nome!” “Dick” “Per sempre, Dick!” is another. And of course wags have always wondered about a hero called Dick, whose last name is --- Johnson!).
And yet, something else is going on in the opera as Puccini’s inventive and unexpected musical treatment suggests. Here music does transcend the silliness of the story, for all three leading characters are looking for a frequently mentioned “road to redemption”. Their circumstances are loneliness, emotional emptiness, lives trapped in bitterness and guilt. From the tender, halting “love duet” in act one, more a shy, indirect investigation by tenor and soprano as to whether they really can understand one another beyond feeling a sexual attraction, to the tenor’s screams of remorse when he has to confess that he is a thief while hiding in her house in act two, to the desperate sorrow of the minors as The Girl and the tenor ride off hoping to find redemption through love – she has been the only beauty, the only hope in their lives and she will vanish into the mountains, in effect die in their lives. The final words are sung by the minors and the opera doesn’t resolve musically, “mai piu” they sing, “never more”.
However silly the Wild West locale and the pidgin English and the unfortunate association The Girl’s name, “Minnie” was to acquire, there is something profound there and it’s in the music. Who of us hasn't looked for redemption at some point, in some way, which of us is ever sure that we can find it, and who of us has never known profound aloneness? (The eerie tritones that introduce the mountains at the start of act three personalize desolation as much as anything I can think of in music.)
(Steber is The Girl, riding to save her love, Dick -- Del Monaco -- from being hanged. The Sheriff, Rance -- Guelfi -- tries to stop her speaking -- but she reminds the minors of all she's done for them, one by one they give in, free Dick and he and The Girl ride off -- one of the saddest "happy endings" ever! The conductor is the great Mitropoulos; live from Florence, 1954)
Operas can be paradoxes, silly yet great. One can find wonderful things in La Rondine, shrugged off by many, but with a marvelous second act, and in The Trittico, particularly perhaps in the endlessly inventive and genuinely funny Gianni Schicchi.
But Turandot is hopeless nonsense, two hideous characters unredeemed in any way (Puccini lived for two years but could only come up with a folder of often illegible and contradictory sketches for the final duet he knew had to make sense of the whole sado-masochistic charade – he knew he couldn’t justify such monsters. His musical gift was waning. There is much imitation of the then novel present. Even that worthless (!) Schönberg shows up for a few seconds in act one when the ‘ghost voices” are heard, Puccini had journeyed to hear Pierrot Lunaire conducted by the composer in
There is a touch of the Emperor’s Court from Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol. But the
“Puccini” magic never materializes. Even the two tenor arias,
the second one, “Let no one sleep” “Nessun dorma” that our pal, Pavarotti,
turned into an anthem for everything from bowling contests to bowel movements
are derivative, they are school of Lehar, who would have written them better. Florence
But everyone gets at least one clunker, and Turandot was Puccini’s – not a bad record at all.
I’ve been understanding of Puccini; but how is it that the great music of Schönberg and Boulez is still so easy to condemn by the supposedly arts aware? Neither composer is new, neither is strange, there is beauty to be found in their work and emotion, too. The haters never really listened to it, yet I doubt they “got” Tosca the first time through, or the tenth time. I wonder often if the impossibility of calling a halt to these stupid battles about long dead issues means really that “serious music” is actually dead. That those who have great need of a backward, idiotic populace have won by segmenting populations into powerless cliques who will simply die away. It can be worth it to fight but it’s frightening to see how closed these minds are, how small their worlds are, how easily they accept clichés, how happily they embrace their ignorance. This is our world: idiotic comic book movies, endless sequels, “Reality TV" with its glorification of stupidity, horrendous pop music, gun culture, a mainstream news media without substance or honor, and a rapidly increasing population of the proudly uneducated. These morons are part of a zombie culture. Yes, these are no win battles, but what is the worth of winning? Doesn't it seem that music has already lost?