Monday, September 30, 2013

Nabucco in Philadelphia

The Academy of Music Chandelier
Opera Philadelphia usually surprises me with some kind of operatic innovation, and the current production of Nabucco is no exception. First of all, I was surprised by a phone call and email reminding me that "my performance" was on Sunday at 2:30, and if I was interested, there would be a pre-opera talk by Michael Bolton at 1:30. (This would be the Vice President of Community Programs for Opera Philadelphia, not Michael Bolton the song stylist. I just want to make that clear.) I like those, so I made sure to attend, and I learned about Nabucco and this production in particular. As informative and delightful as the talk was, it was not the innovation to which I was referring.

The post by my seat.
You have to understand a little about the history of Giuseppe Verdi and his opera Nabucco to understand how Opera Philadelphia made this production a story within a story. (That's the innovative part.) At the time that this opera premiered at La Scala in Milan, that city was being occupied by the Austrians. The Italians created some great art that represented how they felt, just not obviously. The Assyrians in this opera represented the Austrians (they sound similar), and the Jewish people represented the repressed Italians. Verdi himself came to be a symbol of the Risorgimento, the Italian movement to unify Italian cities into one country with Victor Emanuel as king. Word has it ('word' in my music history books) that Verdi and his collaborators did not necessarily want to be a symbol, but since he wanted a unified Italy, too, he didn't fight it. The battle cry of the movement became Viva VERDI! The letters of Verdi's name stood for Vittorio Emanuele, RDItalia (Victor Emanuel, King of Italy).

So Nabucco was performed in Milan during this Austrian occupation, and an emotional time was had by all. One of the choral numbers in the opera even became the unofficial Italian national anthem. This Philadelphia performance capitalized on this by staging a large (meaning lots of singers and other costumed people on the stage) production of this soon-to-be anthem. This included 19th-century costumed stage hands and opera house personnel singing along with the singers, and large pieces of patched-together (as oppressed people would do) pieces of red, white, and green fabric held to form the Italian flag. We in the audience had already made the transformation to 1842 occupied Milan because of the presence of stern Austrian guards at the beginning, during intermissions, and eventually at the end. We also saw some fancy high-class Austrians in costume enjoying the festivities on stage and some 19th-century stagehands. (I can't tell you everything in case you go to see this production in Philadelphia, Washington, or Minnesota.)

The Academy of Music in Philadelphia, opened in 1857 (fifteen years after Nabucco's Milan premiere)

So that's a lot of story and I haven't even summarized the plot of the opera yet. Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar in English) is the king of the Babylonians (also referred to as Assyrians in the opera), and he is driving the Jews from their homeland, but not without torturing and killing men, women, and children. The story is from the Bible, but of course on the opera stage Nabucco goes mad and suffers a dramatic collapse. One of his daughters grabs the throne while it is still warm and in order to stay seated there hides evidence recently discovered that proves she may not be who she thinks she is . Nabucco's other daughter gets reunited with that special soldier. One of the highlights of any Nabucco production is the performance of "Va pensiero" ("Fly, thought, on wings of gold") which is also known as the "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves." It has come to be the unofficial national anthem of Italy. Here's Riccardo Muti conducting this chorus in Rome, 2011:

Monday, September 23, 2013

Taken Any Good MOOCs Lately?

One of Beethoven's Pianos from the Beethovenhaus in Bonn, Germany
I'm taking a MOOC about Beethoven Piano Sonatas. Beethoven is my favorite composer, and the Piano Sonatas are my favorite Beethoven genre. I have mixed feelings about the MOOC, though, (more about that later). Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are big news in education these days. Well-known, respected, and prestigious colleges and universities offer these online courses for no cost and usually with no limits on how many students may sign up. Providers include Coursera, Saylor, edX, and Udacity, and each manages their course environments differently. Some educators believe these courses are a great way for students to catch up on work they've missed, or supplement existing knowledge, but few would expect MOOCs, even the most rigorous, to stand alone. Some educators see MOOCs as a threat to traditional education as we've known it for centuries. Maybe. Maybe not. I'm still trying to learn enough about them to have an opinion. I'm collecting relevant MOOC information on a Tumblr: I'm involved with three MOOCs at the moment, and the pedagogies of these three couldn't be more different.

I'm still in my first MOOC, a Medieval English Literature course through Saylor ( I've been involved with this course for over a year. It's asynchronous, meaning I can work at my own pace, speeding up in the lazy summer months, and slowing down when work and teaching schedules are busier. I signed up for this course because I thought it would complement the music- and art-centric medieval knowledge I already have. This is exactly what is happening, although most of the material is presented through readings with only a few audio lectures in the beginning and the end. Some material is gleaned from college professors, and some comes from scholarly online resources. Saylor promotes their courses as "built by professors." There is a discussion area for students, but I have yet to see a discussion going on there relevant to my course. If I didn't already have an interest in the literature of this era, I suspect I might not have worked too far into the course. There are many English Literature courses available at Saylor in case I decide to keep reading through the centuries.

Secondly, I'm taking "Think Again: How to Reason and Argue" presented by Duke University via the massive MOOC provider Coursera. Obviously, this does not involve music, but I mention it because it contrasts markedly with the Saylor Medieval Literature course. Most of the material is presented through lectures with periodic review questions, and quizzes every few weeks. It is synchronous, which means that I have to keep up as I would with a traditional college course. The material is challenging, so I pause often to make sense of my notes. The online discussions for this course are robust, so students do have the opportunity for interaction as they would with a traditional course. There is no interaction with the professors, so far, and there is no evaluation of student work except for electronically-graded multiple choice questions. I don't see this as a replacement for a traditional college credit course; it is a nice supplement, perhaps an elective I was not able to fit into my own program of study.

The Master (from the Beethovenhaus in Bonn)
"Exploring Beethoven Piano Sonatas" is offered by the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, again through Coursera. The instructor is Jonathan Biss, a pianist of note who teaches at that venerable institution. This MOOC has generated some media attention in the New York Times and BBC. Biss presents the content of the course to me and 29,999 other students from the piano, usually in five lectures per week. Each lecture runs anywhere from six to twenty minutes, and each ends with a review question. (He hasn't stumped me yet.) Since Beethoven composed piano sonatas throughout his life, his evolution as a composer evolves before our eyes and ears from the young idealistic composer, through the rule-breaking middle-aged innovator, to the profound sage. Professor Biss demonstrates points of interest in the sonatas, but does not play the works straight through in the interest of conserving time. He offers interesting insight into the composition and performance of the sonatas, and he's particularly adept at using non-musical metaphors to illustrate his points. Here's a sample:

I think this course would be as effective for someone with little prior musical knowledge as it is for one who has carefully studied the sonatas before. This is not easy to pull off. As with the other Coursera course, there is an active discussion area where students bounce their ideas off one another. Some reflect on assigned discussion questions, and others reflect on more philosophical questions like "Does study of music enhance listening?" Unlike the instructors of the other courses, Professor Biss has made himself available to students in real time, once in-person at a Philadelphia cafe, and once through a Google Hangout. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend either, but word is both were well-attended.

I'm a Lifelong Learner and I really like my MOOCs. I'll be sad when they finish, just like I am when I finish a really good, thought-provoking book. Just as there are always more books to read, there are more MOOCs to take, and I'll be starting another next week again through the Curtis Institute via Coursera: "From the Repertoire: Western Music History through Performance." That will be four concurrent (temporarily) and might even be a record!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Opera Appreciation for the Diva-phobic

Some of my opera gear
I know how a lot of otherwise open-minded people feel. They are, for some reason, intimidated by opera. I can guess why; opera has been portrayed in the media for decades as elitist and esoteric. True, it's difficult to have a great appreciation for an opera production if you show up at the opera house unprepared, or if you catch some fancy singing on the radio by chance on a Saturday afternoon. But aren't you curious? Opera has been called the most sublime art form, the very pinnacle of artistic expression. It is also a vibrant, living art form, with composers composing new operas and companies offering innovative productions of the familiar repertoire

I recently taught a three-week course in opera appreciation, and most of the students were curious but tentative when they showed up for the first meeting. "I'm not musical." "I don't understand opera." "Opera is beyond me." By the end of the last class, they were wishing the course went longer--they were thirsty for arias and costumes, Puccini and Mozart. What about you? Would you like some tips for getting the most from an opera experience? I thought so, and now is the perfect time as you will see momentarily.

  1. If you haven't already, please read my earlier post on this blog about opera. Here I explain some of the vocabulary that you might encounter and I've posted some fun videos there, too: What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Opera?
  2. Get your hands on a good DVD of an opera. Check Netflix, but also check your public library. I recommend Carmen (starring Julia Migenes-Johnson) or Otello (starring Placido Domingo) as good gateway operas because each is staged like a movie but with top-notch performers usually found in opera houses. Or, look for one of the Puccini favorites because you'll recognize some of the tunes. You can find these on, too, but I'm trying to make this an inexpensive financial commitment (just in case you get hooked).
  3. While you are in the library (or Amazon), look for a book of opera synopses. I recently borrowed M. Owen Lee's The Operagoer's Guide: One Hundred Stories and Commentaries (Amadeus, 2003) and I didn't want to give it back. Lee's writing is modern and insightful, and it's hard to believe that his day job involves holy water, incense, and confessionals. Father Lee's book is still in print last time I checked. Fans of used bookstores can probably find vintage anthologies of opera stories. I have a 1947 edition of Milton Cross' Complete Stories of the Great Operas (Doubleday) which isn't exactly 'complete' anymore, as many operas have entered the repertoire since 1947.
  4. Find your DVD opera story in your book and read it, and then watch your DVD. Make sure to go into the settings and select English subtitles, even if your opera happens to be in English or even if you can claim fluency in your opera's language. It's hard to decipher sung words sometimes, so remove that barrier before you get started.
  5. Remove ambient distractions and enjoy the opera!

 6. If you enjoyed your DVD opera, take the next step. Consider attending a Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcast at a local movie theater. You can find the latest schedule and your closest participating movie theater here:
The first of the season is coming up on October 4 (this is why this post is timely): Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin (I can't wait--I've never seen it.) These broadcasts cost about twice what a regular movie costs, but you get to see the opera live as it is performed at the Met in New York, AND, you'll be treated to interviews of singers and other opera folk during the intermissions. These events are wildly popular in my town, so much so that I have to plan on being in my seat a full hour before the curtain goes up. Latecomers get the seats right in front of the screen, which isn't as dismal a fate as they would be for the latest action film. Bring a tote bag with some reading for the breaks (the interviews and backstage tours don't last the whole intermission), some discreet treats if you are not wild about movie snacks, and a light sweater, and you are ready to enjoy a lavish operatic treat. The trailer below highlights what is coming up this season. (No, they don't pay me to promote these!)


7. Finally, locate an opera company in your town and get yourself some tickets. Most likely, you will be handed a program upon arrival with a synopsis and list of characters, but you will have already read a synopsis in your book. There will be supertitles above the stage, or in some cases on the seat in front of you. Do you have opera glasses or binoculars, or can you borrow some? Bring them. Do you have a cough? Unwrap your lozenges before the start of the performance. Do you have a fancy gown and a velvet opera cape? You can probably leave them home unless you are seated  in a super-fancy box with dignitaries. I guarantee this experience will be extraordinary.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Hatto and Hildegard of Bingen

Today's Mouse Tower, a replica, not labeled as such, as far as I remember
I've been reading about medieval history lately for a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) I've been taking on Medieval English Literature. This period of history ran approximately from 450 to 1450 depending on where you are (England, Germany, Italy, China), and what you are studying (literature, music, art, medicine, etc.). My recent readings are about the fourteenth century, and if you know anything about the Middle Ages, that means catastrophe after catastrophe: the Great Schism, the Great Famine, the Hundred Years' War, and the Black Death.

A legend about the Black Death, where European towns and villages lost a third of their population to this mysterious illness, caught my attention because it happened in Bingen, on the Rhine. There are different versions of the story, but basically, there was this Archbishop named Hatto II who forced starving peasants to pay him in food which he hoarded in his castle tower. He dismissed his servants and locked the doors and gates to keep people out. Folks left Bingen to try their luck somewhere else. Hatto was congratulating himself on becoming the last remaining living person in Bingen with all the food he could eat, feeling rather smug, when he climbed up to the top of his tower and looked down. "Shucks!" he said, or something like that, when he saw all of the mice and rats from miles around converging on his tower. They could smell the food, of course. Well the story goes they made a meal of Hatto and his food, starting with his ears, nose, fingers, then toes, and the tower became known as the Mouse Tower.

Well, I had been in Bingen once. It's just north of Cologne, and that's where our tour group embarked on a charming Rhine cruise to see the many medieval castles on either side of the river. It turns out I've had a picture of Hatto's creepy Mouse Tower all along, but didn't know of the legend until today's reading. That's it at the top of the blog and again just above this paragraph.

Another Bingen boat
Musicians will recognize Bingen for another reason. Hildegard of Bingen was a famous nun from there. Hildegard lived from 1098 to 1179, well before the Great Famine and Hatto II. Her parents gave her to a monastery as a seven-year-old girl, (she was their tenth child), and she was put under the care of a nun named Jutta. Jutta was actually an anchoress, and the type of nun who studies and worships in complete seclusion. Jutta's father was a man of some means and he built her a cell in which she could be closed-off from the world, and the seven-year-old Hildegard was placed in there with Jutta. Hildegard always said nice things about her mentor, Jutta. The older nun taught her to read and probably also taught her about music. Hildegard officially became a Benedictine nun when she was 15. The pair became famous and actually attracted more affluent ladies looking to devote themselves to a life of prayer. The original cell was expanded, and when Jutta died when Hildegard was 38, the nuns elected Hildegard as their abbess.

Hildegard was always a sickly person, suffering from what were probably migraines. Contemporary scholars attribute her famous visions to migraine hallucinations, but the fact is that Hildegard left some pretty amazing music whether it was inspired by headaches or not. She was a literate woman and wrote letters to popes and world leaders, and also wrote on many topics including religion and science. At one point she confided in her spiritual leader, a monk named Volmar, and painted a now famous painting of that occasion because she was a painter, too.

Hildegard telling Volmar about her visions
Hildegard's music should really be the focus of this post, but her story is so fascinating it is difficult to abridge. Her music falls into three main categories:
  • Symphonia are groups of sacred songs from the 1140s.
  • The Ordo Virtutum ("Play of the Virtues") is the first morality play and dates from the 1150s. The parts were sung by nuns (not unusual for nunneries, but unusual in the Middle Ages), and a priest got to sing the part of the devil.

  • The Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula probably meant the most to Hildegard because St. Ursula was her alter-ego. The Christian Ursula was supposed to marry a pagan king, but she did not want to. (Arranged marriages were the thing then, remember.) In order to put off the wedding, she went on a pilgrimage to Rome with 11,000 virgins if you can imagine that. Sadly, in Cologne (near Bingen), all were martyred and a church was built there in their memory.

Hildegard died in 1179 at the age of 81. She was so popular among her nuns and those outside the monastery that a kind of cult formed. The procedure for her canonization was begun in 1227, but a document was returned needing another part. The Pope himself requested that the clergy of Mainz resubmit the complete document in 1243 (this was Pope Innocent IV) but they didn't (or at least there is no record) and Hildegard never actually was canonized.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Bartók and the Golden Mean

I’ve been on an odyssey lately, time-traveling back to graduate school in Philadelphia, to Aesthetics course with Dr. Carrow, to my most profound “Aha!” moment reminded to me today by one of my best research papers ever. This "Aha!" moment occurred when I learned about the Golden Mean, a magical proportion that is eerily found all over in nature, but also applied to art, architecture, literature, and music in some cases before the ancient Greeks. Find the Golden Mean in the natural organization of sunflower seeds, the spiral of a conch shell, leaves, the Parthenon in Greece, playing cards, climaxes in drama, and the music of Béla Bartók and others. 

The parts of my Golden Mean research paper, including manually-typed text, hand-drawn charts showing forms of the music, hand-manuscript lists of scales Bartok used, and complete bibliography.

The Golden Mean can also be found in art. For example, a Golden Rectangle can be seen in George Seurat’s “Invitation to a Sideshow” or “La Parade de Cirque” (1807-8). We call it a Golden Rectangle because the relationship of the short side of the rectangle to the long side is the Golden Mean proportion. In this painting, there are Golden Rectangles within the painting (notice the background) that have Golden Mean relationships with the other rectangles. A reproduction of this painting hung in my band room in high school and I thought I knew it by heart. Then I learned about the Golden Mean and...Aha!

How many Golden Rectangles can you find?
Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms probably did not use the Golden Mean purposefully even though many music theorists have attempted to prove through complicated graphs and charts that they did. I suggest that the common first-movement form of their day, sonata-allegro form, easily relates to the Golden Mean because it is a pleasing proportion, so it’s there, but not on-purpose. J.S. Bach was very interested in numbers, so it’s possible that some of his preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier were created with this proportion in mind, but we just don't know for sure. 

We do know twentieth-century composers tinkered with the Golden Mean, or sometimes based every miniscule aspect of their compositions on it, because it was discussed in their writings and ever-so-obvious in their modern compositions. Check out Luigi Nono’s and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s (above) music, for example, and then try to tell me you enjoyed listening without understanding what was going on. Béla Bartók’s music appealed to me—balanced, tasteful, and generally aesthetically pleasing—even before I understood the Golden Mean and its companion, the Fibonacci Series.

So what is this Golden Mean? The Golden Mean is the proportion where the larger part of something relates to the whole the same as the smaller part relates to the larger. (The small to large is the same proportion as large to whole. Got it?) The proportion was first proposed by Chaldeans in the third century BC, and then was used by the Greeks. Nobody talked about it much or used it until Pacioli used it at the end of the fifteenth century (in the Renaissance). He called it the “divine proportion.” 

The Fibonacci Series was discovered about 1202 by Leonardo of Pisa, son of Bonaccio (“Filius Bonacci” or “Fibonacci” for short). In this series, the numbers are defined in terms of previous numbers:

FIBO(n) = FIBO(n-1) + FIBO(n-2) for n>2

In other words, if you look at the series of numbers, each equals the sum of the two that precede it, after you pass ‘1’ (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89…). Surprise! The Fibonacci Series is an approximate representation of the Golden Mean in natural numbers. 

As I mentioned before, the Golden Mean and Fibonacci Series have been used extensively by 20th-century composers, including Karlheinz Stockhausen (especially in his time signatures and note durations, see video above), Luigi Nono ( with pitches and pitch relationships), and Béla Bartók. Hungarian music theorist Ernö Lendvai applied the Golden Mean concept to Bartók’s works and found that many of his forms correspond to this proportion. For example, the recapitulations of the first movements of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (see video below this paragraph), Contrasts (see the video beneath that one which features Benny Goodman, Joseph Szigeti and the composer!), and some of the Mikrokosmos occur exactly at the Golden Mean. (The recapitulation is where the listener hears the material from the beginning of the piece again, and is therefore a very important spot.) 

Bartók also uses the Golden Mean to come up with his basis of tonality, although this is harder to identify by listening without a score. He established his three basic scales  from the Golden Mean proportion applied to tonal music and used them to organize many of his compositions:

            Golden Section Scale: C Eb F Ab
            Acoustic Scale: C D E F# G A Bb
            Octatonic Scale: C D Eb F F# G# A B (alternating whole- and half-steps)

Bartók also used the Fibonacci numbers in compositions. The form of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste is a good example of this with sections of 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, and 89 measures. Listen to the following video when you've got some time to get lost in a half-hour's worth of music.

I could go on for pages (screens) on Bartók’s use of the Golden Mean and Fibonacci Series, but I won’t. If you are interested in learning more, get your hands on Lendvai’s classic book, Béla Bartók: An Analysis of his Music, which is a smooth read and likely to be found in most libraries with a decent music collection.

So here’s my point: back in Aesthetics class I spent hours analyzing music looking for Golden Mean and Fibonaccian proportions only to discover that most music I found was not made better by strict, academic adherence to it. It may provide a formal (as in ‘pertaining to form,’ not ‘wearing a tuxedo’) balance, a way to unify a composition, and a topic for scholarly discourse. Bartók’s music is the exception, for me, because it is sonically interesting, aesthetically pleasing, and unique compared to the work of his contemporaries. Learning that he used Golden Mean and Fibonaccian proportions still enhances the listening experience for me because I was drawn to this music from the moment I first heard it.