Monday, November 25, 2013

Monteverdi's Orfeo and Really Early Opera

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
So here in a nutshell is how opera started: first, a couple of composers from Florence named Peri and Caccini each wrote musical versions of the Orpheus and Euridice story. In order to imitate the Greek drama they were familiar with, they used a lot of recitative. This fast-talking sing-songy speech helps propel the action and the excitement. These operas did not survive, so we only know that little bit from writers who were there for the performances.

Then there was Monteverdi, who also wrote an opera on the Orpheus and Euridice theme. His opera is now commonly known as Orfeo and was first performed in 1607. The opera was written for Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga, who lived in Mantua. Monteverdi wrote the music of the opera, but a man named Alessandro Striggio wrote the words. Striggio was an aristocrat and part of an academy of gentlemen dedicated to the arts called the Accademia degli Invaghiti ('academy of the lovestruck' or 'people fascinated by something'). Monteverdi was the court composer in the Gonzaga court, and as such was a mere employee, not eligible for the Accademia!

The Accademia was behind the production of Orfeo, and the Duke's brother Prince Francesco was its chief organizer. There was one performance for the gentlemen of the court, one for the ladies, and was not performed again until the twentieth century. The score, however was published. This was unusual for the time, and lucky for us because it acts as an artifact.

Monteverdi was an innovator to early seventeenth-century ears:
  • he used a variety of instruments in the orchestra to add color to the storytelling
  • he used ritornellos, or repeating sections of music, throughout the opera to give the work unity
  • he placed an overture at the beginning of the opera, but he called it the opening toccata.

Attendees of this opera would have been educated and they would have already known the Orpheus story. I'll catch up my 21st-century readers: Orpheus and Euridice got married, and she was bitten by a snake during their wedding reception and died. Orpheus went after her in the underworld. He used his lyre (a small harp) to lull the guardians. Euridice was allowed to go with Orpheus, but the deal was he wasn't allowed to turn around and look at her until they got all the way home. Orpheus was okay with this, and they started home. Euridice did not know about the agreement and wondered why Orpheus would not turn around or even answer her. She figured he no longer loved her and said so--he turned around--and she slipped back into the darkness of Hades. In the Monteverdi/Striggio version of  the story, Apollo intervenes and takes Orpheus to heaven. (This was a Christian influence.)

After Monteverdi, the center of opera innovation moved around Italy for a bit, and then settled in Vienna where Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote an opera blockbuster called...Orfeo ed Euridice...

Monday, November 18, 2013

Where did Jazz Come from?

Well, here's where: the slaves in the south sang spirituals, and these evolved into gospel music. Mahalia Jackson is singing a spiritual here in gospel style...

The plantation dances called Cakewalks became more complex with their syncopated, "ragged" rhythms, and came to be known as Ragtime. Here's Tom Turpin famous "Harlem Rag" from 1899. Turpin was the owner of the Rosebud Bar, the center of Ragtime in St. Louis. He would later work with another Ragtime composer, Scott Joplin.

Slave songs were often sung in a "call and response" style, and this carried through to prison work songs. 

Then there was the Blues, similar to the Blues we know today. In the early days of recorded Blues, mostly women with big, low voices sang this style. Here is Gertrude "Ma" Rainey singing the Jelly Bean Blues (1924):

Narrative song form was employed as the storytelling form. Harry Belafonte is demonstrating this form as he sings "John Henry."
Take all of these forms and elements and mix them together in New Orleans with New Orleans musicians, and you will come up with something like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. They are performing their first recording, "Livery Stable Blues" here. Can you guess where the song got its name? (Hint: the brass players like to make horse sounds.)

And then there was Joe "King" Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band, with Louis Armstrong on second cornet! "Dipper Mouth Blues" (1923) here has an early example of the jazz tradition of taking (improvised) solos. Listen for King Oliver's cornet solo in this example, and also please appreciate the prominent clarinet...
See the woman at the piano? That's Lil Hardin who would later marry Louis Armstrong.
Funny story: King Oliver and the Creole Jazz Band went to New York City where they found success. They were offered the job of house band at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem but turned it down! The Cotton Club's second choice was a relatively unknown Duke Ellington Band--this is how they got their start! (I wouldn't make this up!) Listen for the growly "jungle" trumpets in this example from 1927...
...And that is where jazz came from!!

Monday, November 11, 2013

La Tosca

Tosca is the opera I savored Saturday at the movie theater, brought to me live in high-definition by the Metropolitan Opera. I've posted about these broadcasts before--I look forward to every one and try not to miss any. I was especially looking forward to Tosca. This opera has a reputation as a shocker, and some critics think even gratuitously shocking. It's an emotional roller coaster in high art with deception, an almost-rape, a suicide, and a murder or two. The music is delicious with two famous arias ("Vissi d'arte" and "Recondito armonia") and a big production number in the "Te Deum."

The opera Tosca is based on a play named La Tosca by the Parisian Victorien Sardou. The Tosca character is a mature, independent opera singer, not the usual innocent ingenue we often find in operas. That Puccini kept the racy (for 1900) realism of the play in his opera is no surprise. The man led a very interesting life with wives, mistresses, and two sons with the same name. The details are still being sorted out.

Back to the opera, Patricia Racette sang the title role Saturday, radiant in that red dress, cloak, and gloves in Act II.

Her "Vissi d'arte" would stop traffic, and I think that's the idea since the plot at that point has Tosca being tortured and we're expecting she won't be able to avoid getting raped by the villainous Scarpia. Our diva-hero does wriggle out of that situation ultimately, the story moves on, and she gets to wear a stunning blue dress in Act III. Years ago, this was Maria Callas's signature role.

Tosca's boyfriend is Cavaradossi, an artist who we first meet as he paints a portrait of Mary Magdalene on a wall of the interior of the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle in Rome. In Saturday's performance, this part was sung by Roberto Alagna. Here is R.A. singing his big aria, "Recondito Armonia" in another production:

I'm going to restrain myself from writing an entire post on Roberto Alagna's smile, and I'm not even going to mention it. Oops, I guess I did. Well, he gave us a fine performance Saturday of a part he has sung many times before in many other productions. During his intermission interview with Renee Fleming, he mentioned that Cavaradossi in the play La Tosca was Italo-French just like him. He was born to sing this part, I guess.

The third main character is the Baron Scarpia, a very mean man who was Rome's police chief. No one likes him. He tried to extort certain favors from Tosca in exchange for pardoning her beau Cavaradossi. He's the kind of character that gets booed at his curtain call, not because the performance was bad, but because the portrayal of the character was so believably evil. This opera story has a political perspective which involves the hated Napoleon Bonaparte just before he was exiled. Scarpia was a Napoleon follower, reason enough for the other characters to hate him even before they fall victim to his evil and creepy personality.

I left the theater in a state of operatic euphoria, feeling that I had just seen a killer AH-per-ah. Literally 'killer,' as few of our characters survived the story. Go see it. And, by the way, if you are interested in learning more about Puccini's roller-coaster passionate life and his operas which define the genre for so many opera lovers, I feel comfortable recommending this book even though I haven't finished reading it:

Berger, William. Puccini without Excuses: A Refreshing Reassessment of the World's Most Popular Composer. NY: Vintage, 2005.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

American Composer Amy Marcy Cheney, AKA Mrs. H.H.A. Beach

She was given the name Amy Marcy Cheney when she was born in 1967 to a distinguished New England family. Her musical talent was evident by the time she was two (what were YOU doing at age 2??), and she played her first recital at age seven. She performed works of Handel, Beethoven, Chopin, and herself at this recital, not the usual "Chopsticks" or "Aura Lee." Her family moved to Boston in the next year, and by her teenage years Amy was encouraged to go abroad for musical study. The family decided to keep her local and she studied with the best available teachers. She debuted in Boston in 1883 as a pianist.

One of her teachers was a physician who lectured on anatomy at Harvard, Henry Harris Aubrey Beach (1843-1910) who was also an amateur singer.
They married in 1885 even though he was 25 years her senior. He strongly encouraged her to focus her energies on musical composition rather than performing, so she did, mostly. She performed only once a year and gave the proceeds to charity.

Once married, Amy preferred to be called by the formal Mrs. H.H.A. Beach. Mrs. Beach hadn't had much counterpoint, harmony, or orchestration training as this virtuoso had focused on performing as a girl. As a young wife she had the time to teach herself these aspects of music and became a master. Her first published work was "The Rainy Day" (1883), based on a Longfellow poem.

One of Mrs. Beach most popular compositions is "Variations on Balkan Themes," Op. 60 (1906). The Rev. William W. Sleeper, a missionary and expert on Bulgaria, played for Mrs. Beach a collection of Balkan themes that he collected on his travels. He promised to send her manuscripts of them, but Mrs. Beach had a remarkable memory and transcribed them when she got home that evening. She composed the variations using one of the themes ("O Maiko Moya") prominently, and the others as contrast. Her treatment of the modal-sounding themes was not exotic; she incorporated them into traditional Romantic harmonic structures. The themes are prominent, though, and give the piece interesting flavor. Much later, in 1935, she edited the piece, and that is the version heard most.

Well, you saw this coming: Mr. H.H.A. Beach died in 1910. Mrs. Beach's mother died the year after, so Amy Beach (as she now called herself) headed for Europe to perform, compose, and promote her work. She stayed mostly in German cities and found great success there with the public and the critics. When World War I broke out she returned to the USA, living first in New York, then San Francisco, and then finally in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, in 1916. Starting in 1921, she began going to the MacDowell Colony in summers, and most of the rest of her work was composed there. She was good friends with Marian MacDowell--you remember her from my last post.

In her early days at MacDowell, Amy Beach had a "conversation" with a Hermit Thrush, the Vermont State Bird. She copied its song on the piano and it answered. This experience inspired Amy Beach's love of birdsong which she used in many future works, and two songs: "Hermit Thrush in Eve" and "Hermit Thrush in Morn," Op. 92. The Hermit Thrush became a kind of symbol of her experiences at the MacDowell Colony.

In later life, Amy Beach traveled (she was fluent in French and German), composed, wrote articles, and became active in professional musical organizations. She helped many young musicians get their careers started. She retired in 1940, and died of heart disease in 1944. She left all future royalties to her favorite spot, the MacDowell Colony.