Monday, July 29, 2013

Get with the Program: Using Music as Language

I have a vivid memory of sitting in my Music History class as a college junior. Dr. Parker had just played a recording of Brahms’s Intermezzo Op. 118, No. 2, and was asking what we thought of it. I had just studied the very same piece in Music Theory class and could have told her all sorts of things about the form, the harmonic structure, and about Brahms’s use of the number three. I knew that wasn’t what Dr. Parker wanted, and when she called on me (no one else offered anything because we were scared to speak in that class), I blurted out that the piece was “beautiful.” That was a mistake, of course, and I got scolded for not using musical terms. What I really meant was that the composer created that lush soundscape to evoke such a reaction from the listener, sophisticated or not. Words failed me that day and I probably just uttered a remorseful “okay.”

Composers attempt to evoke emotions, don’t you agree? The Brahms Intermezzo is obvious. He wants the listener to have such an emotional reaction. Beethoven specifically composed his Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral,” to create a country scene and deliberately included a babbling brook and bird calls in the second movement and a storm in the fourth featuring thunderous tympani to set the scene for the listener. It feels like a relaxing day in the country, and the score reveals instructions for the conductor and musicians to make it so.

Berlioz told a whole semi-autobiographical story with his Symphonie Fantastique. He was obsessed with an actress named Harriet Smithson, and concocted a story about an Artist who experiences not only unrequited love from an Actress character, but scorn and ridicule, too. The fifth movement of this work, “Dreams of a Witches Sabbath,” is intended to represent the Artist’s funeral. The beautiful motif that had been associated with the actress in earlier movements is now heard in a grotesque variation representing the Actress’s scorn. We know this because Berlioz told us so. This is called programmatic music.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 (Bernstein)

What about more subtle messages in musical works when we don’t have descriptions and labels from the composer? I was thinking about Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9; you know, the one with the gigantic choral ending featuring Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” I have always reflected on each movement individually, but it wasn’t until I listened to it on a hundred-mile car trip that I realized Beethoven and I had been on a journey together. I wrote about that revelation in my other blog. That’s the thing about really good music: you hear something different each time you listen, whether it is the third or the 350th time.

This week, while preparing a lecture that includes Richard Wagner operas, I remembered an instance back in fourth or fifth grade when Mrs. Harney played a recording and told the class to draw what we thought the composer was thinking. Just about every kid, me included, drew something flying. The music was (did you guess?) the overture to The Flying Dutchman. That experience made a big impression on me. How did Wagner draw such a convincing picture with just music? I probably won’t have my students draw pictures this week, but I will play the overture and tell them the story!
Overture to The Flying Dutchman (Toscanini)

Monday, July 22, 2013

What DO we talk about when we talk about opera?

I didn’t always love opera. As a young college music student I dutifully studied Bizet’s Carmen and Berg’s Wozzeck. I attended opera performances with interest, but mainly because I felt I was supposed to: Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, Mussorgsky’s Boris Gudenov, and Puccini’s La Bohème. I nod knowingly when movie characters go to the opera, my all-time favorite being Nicolas Cage and Cher in “Moonstruck.”

Then something unexpected happened. As an older person attending the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD broadcasts at my local theater, I fell in love. My eyes were opened to a world full of beauty, charm, adventure, and melody. A renowned opera singer hosts each broadcast, interviewing singers as they step off the stage. They give the viewer fascinating behind-the-scenes peeks at scenery costumes, stage food preparation, and animal trainers. As a more mature person I bring my life’s baggage to a performance. I can relate to the characters’ pain, joy, and passion. It is sublime experience aurally, visually, and emotionally.

What do we talk about when we talk about opera? 

Here’s what:

·   Composer: Who wrote the music? Did he or she write other kinds of music, too?

·   Arias, Recitatives, and Interludes: Is there any famous music that you will recognize or that the opera is known for, like “Musetta’s Waltz” from La Bohème?

·    Story/Libretto: What is the story and where did it come from? Is it from mythology, the Bible, history, literature, or a modern story? What motivates the characters? Look online, in a bookstore, or in your library for a libretto or synopsis. Reading up on the story before attending the performance will enhance your enjoyment. Find Met summaries here:

·    Librettist: Who wrote the words? Did they partner often with the composer? Did they get along? Mozart had two main librettists, Lorenzo da Ponte who he did not get along with, and Emanuel Schikeneder who was his friend and favorite collaborator.

·    First Performance: Where and under what circumstances was the opera first performed? Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo was performed for an Italian count at a private affair and not again until the twentieth century.

·    Contemporary Singers: Who is singing? I’ve never been a baseball fan, but I find myself wishing for baseball-style cards of opera singers telling me their specialties and previous roles.

·    Contemporary Productions: Sometimes musical theater and movie directors try their hand at opera and bring a new perspective. Sometimes more traditional directors have control. What is unique about any production?

·    Scenery and Costumes: Are they traditional, set in the time that the composer and librettist intended? Are they set in a different time period like the Met’s Rigoletto in Las Vegas? Are the costumes creative in some way like Julie Taymor’s irresistible puppet costumes for the Met’s production of The Magic Flute?

Grab a synopsis or a libretto and go experience an opera performance at an opera house, auditorium, or movie theater. Then, tell me what you think.