Showing posts with label Opera. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Opera. Show all posts

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving, 2015

The art of celebration is one part tradition, one part separation from the utilitarian world of daily life, and one part gratitude. The three parts, I think, are rather equal, although gratitude is perhaps the chief component. Especially in a liberal, intellectual society infused with daily scrutiny of the status quo, where every practice is subject to speculation, revision, and reform, we need time to celebrate things as they are, blemishes and all. There is room for criticism, but not all the time. Too in a world of utility that constantly seeks to produce for use, there needs to be a time set aside to give thanks for blessing. Finally, what is thanks without love for both ancestors and posterity?

Though beloved of many, Thanksgiving seems to me the most conservative of holidays, a break from world-weariness where we expend our resources not on gain but gratitude, not on effort but affirmation. It is the hope of bridging past, present, and future, not with commerce or industry, but love.

And now our annual Thanksgiving List. This year, my top ten Classical Music in Cartoons:

10. A Corny Concerto

9. Bugs Bunny Conducts

8. Pigs in a Polka

7. Magical Maestro

6. The Band Concert

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Things I Don't Get #11: Alex Trebek as Pagliaccio

For their 2015 Halloween episode, Jeopardy featured a category of opera-inspired clues with Alex Trebek donning authentic Metropolitan Opera attire and accoutrement. Hence the unexpected: Alex Trebek in costume as Pagliaccio, the clown persona of the cuckolded Canio from Leoncavallo's 1892 opera Pagliacci.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Mozart on Film: Bergman's Die Zauberflöte

Bergman's opening scene to Mozart's final opera is itself a miniature masterpiece. We begin with the Three Ladies veiled and with spear in full warrior-maiden mode. A visually imposing presence, Bergman arranges the armed trio in a tableau bathed in flashing light and smoke. Their dark clothes against the light background emphasize the menacing sight and Bergman raises their dominant position further by shooting from a low angle.

Musically we now have a falling scalar figure alongside shouts of victory. Which will Bergman utilize? He chooses not to use the falling scales to emphasize the falling of the dragon but the calls of "Triumph!" to accompany close-ups of to the Ladies. These close-ups, preceded by a marching figure in the winds, further the Ladies' warrior look by showing us their flared nostrils and gaping maws. Yikes!

Tamino, looking equal parts comfy and conked-out, rolls around on the floor alongside the comically kicking dragon. In one smooth motion the camera pans up from the flaccid Tamino to the dying dragon to the victorious Ladies who now unveil to look upon their spoils: a handsome prince whom the camera dwells upon in closeup. With the shot fixed on Tamino the Ladies' hands enter the frame, emphasizing their agency and interest while contrasting the previous image of them as marauders. Those hands that had just thrust spears are now seen closeup in their silken femininity as they cradle and caress (and compete for) Tamino.

In the same unbroken shot they raise up Tamino and each Lady has a turn at his ear.

The relative stillness of the camera throughout the Ladies' movement in the shot gives the moment an ethereal quality.

Bergman holds the next shot in close on the two singing Ladies and pulls out to accomodate the third who joins them. This might seem more literal, with the camera mimicking the music, but it works because the joining Lady was the last to look upon Tamino and her delay makes it seems as if she lingered upon him longer, unable to tear herself away. This simple shot itself is worth lingering on a while longer. Do you notice the tension in the shot to the right? Where are we supposed to look? The left Lady attracts our attention because her blondness makes her brighter but the right Lady is taller, hence the introduction of the third Lady to the left and slightly lower feels like a resolution.

Bergman creates this scene with the barest minimum of movement but the fullest utilization of color, size, and spatial arrangement. It has life and energy without relentless motion. It is also the most sensual image so far, centrally displaying in close distance the Ladies' slender necks. Their heads then turn left to Tamino, first the right lady, then the left, then the center and in such order because our eyes must follow the center Lady. (Watch the clip trying to follow one of the other two and see how awkward it feels.)

The Ladies surround Tamino in another engaging tableau. Unlike before when they barely grazed him now the Ladies get handsy. Their caressing and wandering hands complement the music which here begins with an excited energy of quavers in the Ladies' voices against clipped quavers in the strings. This motion gives way to a throbbing iambic motion in two of the Ladies as the third is completely carried away. Visually and musically the Ladies are having their own private moment with Tamino. What could be less relevant here than the text about bringing him back to the Queen?

No sooner, though, do the ladies start eyeing the competition. The ladies enter one at a time, each offering to stay behind with the newfound stud and each in turn getting interrupted by one of the other Ladies who insists she be the one to stay. Musically this is handled with successive entries and visually Bergman has each entering Lady step in front of the other, blocking her competition from the camera. Bergman follows Mozart and repeats the pattern twice, the women working their way up to the camera until finally each thrusts herself forward, forcing the camera back.

Bear in mind that for this part of the scene the Ladies look directly into the camera, which is now at eye level instead of beneath them. Naturally this creates the impression that they are competing for us instead of what's-his-name. Bergman completes the moment with a cutthroat smile. If you're not drawn in at this point. .  .

The Ladies twirl their bodies away from us and start arguing about who will get to stay behind. ("I'm supposed to go?!") The camera quickly pans back and forth across the Ladies' faces as they argue. The staging of the Ladies here is quite brilliant. The two back to back have to turn their necks to argue, which adds tension, and the uppity response from the third who is left out makes way for a visual joke. Lastly, the continuous and close physical contact gives the scene a sensual charge.

Next each Lady how she won't leave Tamino for the others and Bergman is somewhat pressed to handle these musical repetitions with visual language. He arranges them as a pair discussing with the third separate, first in the foreground, then in the background, and with them joining all together to say "Nay Nay!" in between. This simple trick proves surprisingly effective at creating a sense of variety.

They join hands and circle around the dazed prince as if preparing for some more touchy-feely but instead they share a kiss amongst themselves: a truce. None of them will have Tamino. It cannot be.

Convinced of their defeat the Ladies move in front of Tamino and bemoan their loss, swooping forth one after the other like Mozart's stretti, first falling then rising. The Ladies turn and twirl until rising in proud acceptance and then collapsing in dejection. They return to him one last time, grasping him ever more boldly in knowing they'll get no further. . .

. . . before at last gracefully bowing out.

In short, Bergman's staging of Mozart is brilliant. Making use of all of his visual resources he is able to create a beautiful, effective and in fact quite simple visual vessel for Mozart's music. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

On the Meaning of Figaro

The point of Figaro is not that the Count repents, or that contrition is a virtue. The point is not that he is forgiven, nor even that forgiveness is a virtue. The point is that forgiveness is beautiful.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fin ch'han dal vino Sing-off

Nine great Don Giovannis sing the famous Champagne aria. Only one will emerge victorious. . .

A fun treat, enjoying as we do comparisons amongst versions of a piece. (Always interesting to see what they do what that rising bassoon phrase, amongst other features.)

Fin ch'han dal vino calda la testa. . .

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

An Interview with James Levine

Maestro James Levine on his start, conducting, teaching, getting into opera, and a lifetime of music. Since his start in 1971 Levine has conducted over 2,400 performances at the Metropolitan Opera, including works by Berg, Berlioz, Debussy, Mascagni, Mozart, Puccini, Satie, Schoenberg, Strauss, Stravinsky, Verdi, and Wagner,

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Opera of All Operas

223 years ago today Don Giovanni premiered at the Estates Theater in Prague. We discuss the opera here from time to time (See the Mozart and Opera tags) but this year on the anniversary of its premiere I thought I would look at some contrasting interpretations of the finale, specifically the penultimate scene. Obviously these productions all share the commonality of the libretto and music, but each also makes a different aspect the chief characteristic of the scene.

(see last year's selections)

I. The Moral

With its horrific visions of demons and the punished this production picks up on the lines "Da qual tremore insolito / Sento assalir gli spiriti! Dond'escono quei vortici / Di foco pien d'orror?" and Tutto a tue colpe è poco! /Vieni, c'è un mal peggior!" and emphasizes the punishment that awaits the Don for his sins.

II. The Manic

Terfel's wide-eyed and manic performance is the center of this production. Seeing the Commendatore his shock turns to glee and we see the Don as a sort of unleashed id, acting and reacting not rationally but wholly unconstrained. The Commendatore's arrival, then, feels particularly paternal.

III. The Defiant Don

Here our attention is nealry all on the Don himself, the camera focusing on him even when the Commendatore is speaking. By that and Raimondi's seething scowl Giovanni's sense of defiance is the crux of this interpretation of the finale. Recall that the Commendatore came not to condemn but to offer repentance (Pentiti scellerato!) and here we see the Don's disgust at the thought of bowing to anything other than himself. In contrast to Terfel's Don, Raimondi's is rationally rejecting repentance.

IV. Disbelief

Initially this performance seems to be playing it straight, not calling attention to any one element. Yet Siepi's Don walks around rather casually. Then he attempts to stab the Commendatore and, having failed, grows more and more nervous as he becomes persuaded that the Commendatore is not of this world. We sense the Don didn't really believe this was possible and we sense this terror as he cannot break free from the Commendatore's grasp. In his final moments when the lights go out, as he tries to escape but is finally carried off, we seems to say, "This wasn't supposed to happen, this wasn't supposed to be possible!"

V. Ambiguity

With the removal of the Commendatore's presence from the scene Giovanni seems frustrated as he addresses the void. Might he have sought forgiveness had he known the identity, and authority, of who called him to repent?

VI. The Rake

Rather self-explanatory, it seems.

VII. The Cosmic

Clearly the simplest of the performances we've looked at, it reflects most the spirit of the overture. The simple staging reflects the cosmic contrast of the overture, that between being and non-being. Even the costumes have an elemental contrast. Here, Don Giovanni is not so much punished as simply unmade and scattered back into the continuum of the universe.

video of performance unavailable

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mozartian Counterpoint Part II

Mozartian Counterpoint
Part I | II | III | IV | V| VI | VII

We have, as we noted at the outset, not been comprehensive. We overlooked examples in Mozart's string quartets from 1773, KV.158, 168, 171, and 173, in which the teenage Mozart continues to react to the great advances thrown down in Haydn's series op. 20. Mozart would not return to the genre until 1782 with the great G major quartet, KV.387. We also overlooked one piece we certainly should not have, Mozart's variations on the French tune 'Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman' KV.265. Aside from being a charming and clever work the variations employ a variety of contrapuntal practices. As such and because many already know the tune it makes a great piece to start looking at different techniques like countering 4:1 and which dissonances are permitted under which circumstances. (Does Mozart follow Fux's rules?)

Neither have we looked at every canon, fugato and instance of imitation, for example in openings to movements like those of the Presto to Symphony No. 27 in G major, KV.199/161b and the Allegro finale to the "Paris" Symphony in D, KV.297. Fine and effective as they are we have confined our look somewhat. Alec Hyatt King's essay, "Mozart's Counterpoint: Its Growth and Significance" [4] includes an apt survey of this period of Mozart's work and development as well as some other pieces we will not look at in great detail.

This time we will not look at all of the pieces in chronological order but rather look at the Da Ponte collaborations of Figaro and Don Giovanni. In turn we will then look at the final four symphonies, then the remaining chamber works and sonatas, and finally the late works Die Zauberflöte and the Requiem.

11. Le nozze di Figaro, KV.492- Act II, Finale

No one wrote a finale like Mozart, which was fortunate for him because theater-goers expected a big finale. The poet of Mozart's Figaro, Lorenzo da Ponte, was sensitive to this theater convention in which one simply had to produce the whole cast in a big and exciting finale with which to end the act,
The finale must, through a dogma of the theater, produce on the stage every singer of the cast, be there three hundred of them. . .and if the plot does not permit, the poet must find a way to make it permit. . . and if then the finale happens to go badly, so much the worse for him!"[5]

At over 900 bars this finale is astoundingly large. One by one another character joins the ensemble as the plot untangles onstage until at last Marcellina and her party (the remainder of the cast) burst onto the stage. The whole group erupts into a big argument with their individual lines contrapunting [6] off one another yet it feels so natural one simply gets caught up in the drama. Indeed the drama and music complement so that the scene feels a perfect whole; one is in fact quite disinclined to take it apart. How can all of this bickering and this great squabble be so beautiful and appealing? Milos Forman's 1984 film Amadeus put it like this:
Sire, only opera can do this. In a play, if more than one person speaks at the same time, it's just noise. No one can understand a word. But with music, with music you can have twenty individuals all talking at once, and it's not noise - it's a perfect harmony. Isn't that marvelous?
Indeed. Here the music, both the force of the development leading up to the finale and all of the voices bouncing around at the end, breathe life, beauty, poignancy, and of course excitement into what is otherwise a domestic squabble. We often get sidetracked looking for complexity and hidden profundity that we forget that making something beautiful is an end in itself.

12. Don Giovanni, KV.527
N. B. We cut right to the Act I Finale as we have already discussed the Overture here in reasonable detail a few months ago.

Act I: Finale: Venite, pur avanti. . .

In the Figaro finale we saw the counterpoint was more or less invisible; it did not really call attention to itself. Perhaps we might say it was hiding in plain sight given its form and function in the piece. Here we see a similar use: in Don Giovanni's great ball at his villa he has several bands playing different dances. Yet all of the bands play these dances at the same time! Mozart has written a scene for us in which all of these dances with their different rhythms play on together but with each one naturally coming to the forefront every so often.

Mozart's delicate act of balancing the rhythms of a minuet, a contredance, and an allemande goes practically unnoticed as the ball unfolds: the peasants dance, Don Giovnanni corners Zerlina into a contredance, and Leporello busies Masetto with an allemande. Indeed the scene unfolds so smoothly and we fall so readily into the dances that when they break away all of a sudden we are all the more startled.

This is a busy scene and it may help to follow the score here where the three bands are separately notated. See the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe Act II, Finale. starting with m. 360.

Act II, Sextet "Sola, Sola in buio loco. . ." and Quintet, "Mille torbidi pensieri"

This scene requires a bit of summary. Leporello, in his master's clothes, has lured Donna Elvira from her house so Giovnanni could woo Elvira's maid. Leporello and Elvira wander into the garden where they are soon joined by Donna Anna, Ottavia, Masetto, and Zerlina. The quartet corners Leporello, disguised as Giovanni and in a shocking admission Elvira defends him and confesses her love for "her husband" as the angry quartet demands he die. Fearing for his life, Leporello takes off his disguise to the astonishment of all and everyone launches into a great bother.

While Leporello clings desperately to small phrases and rapidly stutters his fears, the Quintet rages in anger about Giovanni and in desperation at their fate that they should not only be tormented by this man but impotent before him. Leporello gradually recedes from the scene and the remaining lines diverge into polyphony as each character is carried away with his and her personal despair. The sudden breaking off and change of texture is extraordinarily arresting and the quick change back only serves to intensify the effect.

Leporello Quintet
Mille torbidi pensieri
Mi s'aggiran per la testa;
Se mi salvo in tal tempesta,
È un prodigio in verità
Mille torbidi pensieri
Mi s'aggiran per la testa:
Che giornata, o stelle, è questa!
Che impensata novità!
Fear and doubting quite distract me,
All my head is in confusion,
Would indeed 'twere a delusion,
And I safely from this spot.
Fear and doubting quite distract me,
All my head is in confusion,
'Tis a vision, a vile delusion!
Be this masking, be this masking ne'er forgot!

In discussing Piano Concerto No. 14 we quoted Arthur Hutchings referring to a particular aspect of Mozart's contrapuntal style and we would be wise to note it here also:

So sure is Mozart's sense of contrapuntal style that in all kinds of unexpected places–the finale presto of Don Giovanni, for instance– he makes a fugato gesture which makes us we are going to have something on the scale of the 'Jupiter' finale; yet when the parts disappear in smoke, or find themselves on firm homophonic ground, we are aware of no incongruity." [Hutchings, 87]
Once again calling for Giovanni's head the parties enter and harangue a terrified Leporello. Are they going to fly off in different directions as in the Act II sextet? No, larghetto they fall into separate asides about how they will continue their lives now that Don Giovanni is no longer. Then we launch into the D major Presto finale: are we building to some polyphonic extravaganza now? With rushing scales rising through two octaves starting on the tonic and alternating dynamics we are surely building to something. Yet we still find ourselves on homophonic ground. The sextet sings the moral and we go home. Fine dell' Opera. Having grown used to his style throughout the opera, here the absence of the expected is a great effect in itself.

[4] Music & Letters, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan., 1945), pp. 12-20
[5] Quoted from p. 107 of Levarie, Siegmund. Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro: A Critical Analysis. University of Chicago Press. Chicago. 1952. Quote translation by Elisabeth Abbott, from the edition by Arthur Livingston (Philadelphia and London, 1929), p.133
[6] Credit to Dr. Levarie for this clever use of the word.

Hutchings, Arthur. A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos. Oxford University Press. New York. 1948.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Primitive Romance

A preliminary excursion to the crossroads of individual taste, society, culture, and art.

We'll look at these ideas in greater detail and with other examples in the future. Again, this is just a first look at the complex crossroads of many other ideas and problems. Comments, questions, and animadversions are welcome as usual.

It is not my custom here to reflect on things I dislike. I mostly only deviate from this rule to examine novel arguments but when it comes to art I'm particularly reluctant to discuss what I don't like. Such is because, first, that I do not want to endure the displeasure of experiencing bad art. Second is because such negative discussion serves less the purpose of persuading those who disagree than does praising what one sees to be good. This second reason is also more amicable to a gentlemanly disposition. Every so often, though, there is a piece of art which is very well made but not to my taste and such does have an interest for me. In those works are expressions by talented or intelligent, if not inspired or ingenious, individuals who simply have different taste than myself. That fact inspires inquiry: that reasonable people have different values. Also, such an inquiry might be reveal interesting aspects of culture.

The following work I am about to explore will likely be outside the taste of many readers. Feel free not to read the middle part of this essay: I won't take it personally! I have too much appreciation for what art can mean and be to an individual to blame someone for not wanting to see something they don't like. (Though I can blame them for their taste.)

Yet this piece has two additional interesting aspects which I would present in the light of statements from two different authors.

First from Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind"
Plato's teaching about music is, put simply, that rhythm and melody, accompanied by dance, are the barbarous expression of the soul. Barbarous, not animal. Music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror. Nietzsche, who in large measure agreed with Plato's analysis, says in The Birth of Tragedy (not to be forgotten is the rest of the title, Out of the Spirit of Music) that a mixture of cruelty and coarse sensuality characterized this state, which of course was religious, in the service of gods. Music is the soul's primitive and primary speech and it is alogon, without articular speech or reason.  It is not only unreasonable, it is hostile to reason. Even when articular speech is added, it is utterly subordinate to and determined by the music and the passions it expresses. [Bloom, 71]

To Plato and Nietzsche, the history of music is a series of attempts to give form and beauty to the dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul–to make them serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man's duties a fullness. . . Hence, for those who are interested in psychological health, music is at the center of education, both for giving the passions their due and for preparing the soul for the unhampered use of reason. [Bloom, 72]

Nietzsche, particularly, sought to tap again the irrational sources of vitality, to replenish our dried-up stream from barbaric sources, and thus encouraged the Dionysian and the music derivative from it. . . This is the significance of rock music. I do not suggest that it has any high intellectual sources. But it has risen to its current heights in the education of the young on the ashes of classical music, and in an atmosphere where there is no intellectual resistance to attempts to tap the rawest passions. . . The irrationalists are all for it. . . But rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire–not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. [Bloom, 73]
Please pardon the length of the quote from the late Professor Bloom, but I think he puts the situation, noticed long ago by Plato, particularly well. We do not quite, or perhaps at all, know why music moves us the way it does, but we know that it is powerful. We may also say rather safely, I think, that art is important to people. It gives life and expression to the innermost emotions. One's taste in art, and thus what it unlocks in you and what it vivifies, suggests what one likes having unlocked. The unique blend of emotions brought out by each artist and each work gives the artist and the work its unique character, and sometimes one may find it corresponds with his own to remarkable degree. Ayn Rand was right to say that when one finds such a work, one ought not say that "I like this work, but I am this work" [1]

Music and society are intimately related too. Adopting the positions from above, one can only imagine the significance of being able to play music. I reflected on a fugue from Bach's Art of Fugue a few weeks ago. [2] Consider that fugue, and then add the dimension of being part of it. Music is unique amongst the arts in that it requires a human to make it again and again. The composer brings it into existence, but it must be kept alive by others. Music is not the note on the page but the note as it is played; it exists only for a time and requires a human to give it pattern and, rather literally, life. Aside from solo works, music is uniquely collaborative too: music with multiple parts requires a particular degree of communication, affection, and unity amongst the players. It is by its nature a unifying, harmonizing, of individual parts. It is no wonder thinkers from Aristotle to Emerson have used musical analogies to describe the ideal natures of human relations.

Again, there is considerable mystery here. Why do certain cadences and intervals seem to have the characters they do? Why does one march to a march and waltz to a waltz? Many forms are of course formal inventions and conventions, but they are rooted in something natural to us. To return to Bloom and Nietzsche, the elemental power of music is undeniable. This is not a new discovery. Countesses swooned for Beethoven's sonatas and the Greeks certainly knew the strength of music. One is unsure whether Bach's audience knew to what heights they were being called or if Mozart's Vienna knew what he had gotten away with in Don Giovanni. We recently discussed two takes on Wagner's overwhelming scene in Act II of Tristan und Isolde [3]

All of the art we have discussed on this blog has used a sophisticated, traditional yet evolving, musical language to apply power toward different ends. Some composers were more conservative than others and some had varying ideas on when passion passed the point of being pleasing or elucidating. In September 1781 Mozart wrote his father to discuss Wolfgang's upcoming Opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
A person who gets into such a violent rage transgresses himself every order, moderation, and limit; he no longer knows himself.–In the same way the Music must no longer know itself-but because passions, violent or not, must never be expressed to the point of disgust, and Music must never offend the ear, even in the most horrendous situations, but must always be pleasing, in other words always remain music. [4]
Art then is not simply realism, but a particular representation of life. Such requires shaping, restraint, and taste, and there are as many variations as artists, as we said above.

Yet some music, it sounds curmudgeonly and passé to say 'rock and roll' as Bloom did and besides I don't really know what that genre is, either in essence or practice, so I'll just say "some music," and art does not utilize sophisticated and intellectual means of expression. It does not require appreciation of subtleties of structure or symbolism. It needs no "pattern." You need not bring anything to it. In discussing Dante and his travail in the underworld we saw the case of Paolo and Francesca and said "It is the vulgar moment that knows only itself." [5] To expand that, we might say the vulgar individual is who does not know the culture from whence he has sprung, his place in it, and the fact that he is contributing to create a new one. We may say precisely the same of art.

Such brings us to our second point, which we see in T. S. Eliot's 1948 essay, "Notes Toward the Definition of Culture." This is in fact a corollary of our definition of vulgarity, which is that culture requires participation and an overlapping of shared interests. [Eliot, 27] Both such interests but also conflicts must have meaning before they can be dramatized and perceived as significant as an audience. As such, individual, culture, and art are all inextricably linked. (This line of thinking has interesting implications for the nature of pluralistic societies, but we will discuss them, and the rest of Eliot's essay, at another date.)

One might even propose a "cultural way of thinking." Such may sound contrived or perhaps indistinguishable from being simply intellectual yet I believe the distinction is worth considering. Eliot wisely noted [Eliot, 22] that artists are frequently insensitive to other arts and that who contributes to culture is not necessarily cultured. Additionally, consider that humans are uniquely able to pass on their knowledge and experiences which crystallize into a larger conception of the past. Such "pasts" vary locally, regionally, nationally, and so forth. Thus a great deal of simply and strictly "intellectual" knowledge in fact has a tradition. For example, it is no simple act of endearment to write a sonnet for someone since a sonnet has a long and rich history. Names too have cultural histories, and even the most culturally insensitive person chooses the name of his child with care. (The invention of "new" names here is significant, I think.) This sense of cultural thinking is closely related to the importance of storytelling in a culture. [6] Words too, and many of them, have particularly interesting and significant histories, and though it sounds trivial to say it, to use a particular one means something. Using our definitions of culture and vulgarity, imagine a "vulgar" sentence: you wouldn't know what any of the words meant. It would be a different language.

What kind of "art" would result in the absence of culture? We'll revisit this questions after we look at a particular piece, but for now consider two possibilities: it would either be wholly new and so lacking a past would require one to learn it as a new language or it would be consciously primitive, using only the most fundamental means of communication to get its point across. I propose to examine such a piece now, with your indulgence.

Looking at
Bad Romance
by Lady Gaga

[see the music video on YouTube]

N.B. It was my original intent to make this a video review, but I didn't feel like wrangling with issues of copyright for posting my commentary over the whole video on YouTube. In this written form, though, it is impractical to add so many pictures so I suggest you keep the video open in another window and manually scroll it along as we look at it.

N.B. Certain words have been translated into Latin for courtesy and decorum.

The opening is surprising. It in fact begins with a canon [7] on a sort of harpsichord-sounding instrument. I don't suspect many people have noticed this, and such is significant in consideration of our discussion of culture. Significantly, she's playing the music from a recorder, which she shuts off. The canon and the language and world they represent are not the world of this video. Such is consistent with the title, Bad Romance. Putting aside the history of the word romance and its despoiling, we may take it at the obvious face value and say it simply refers to relations between men and women. Bad, usually a useless and generic word, is in fact significant and enough here. She's seeking out a bad romance, clearly indicating she knows not what the good is, but that something better is possible. (That these are relative terms here is not significant.) This is, then, at least a somewhat consciously primitive expression. Yet is expression the proper word. The title and opening suggests some (however general or peripheral, one cannot say) awareness of the cultural contrast we are discussing, and thus a deliberateness in construction. Such of course does not preclude drawing conclusions about the significance of its popularity.

Notice the visceral nature of the opening frame: the feline postures of the women and the aggressive postures of the men. Notice how offensive the back-lighting is, how the dog is pretty much on par with everyone else. Notice her baroque clothes and shoes in contrast to the poor dress of the others and the starkness of the room.

The first music is the video's only music, the vocal "oh" theme, the "caught in a bad romance" theme, and the thumping bass. Could it get any more "barbaric?" The lens flare in the dark evokes a vague sense of the cosmic. Notice I say, "evoke" since there is no significance of the cosmic here. There is merely effect and an appeal to the emotions evoked by the image of colored spheres against blackness. No relationship is suggested.

The title in the next scene, "Bath Haus of Gaga" is too an evocation: an appeal to, for Americans, the foreign and exotic. Surely something exotic happens in a bath haus, far away, no? Consider the dialogue:
Rah, rah, ah, ah, ah
Roma, roma, ma
Gaga, ooh, la, la
Want your bad romance

Essentially nonverbal grunting, again against the throbbing bass. When the characters come out of their cases, they introduce what becomes a motif throughout the video: the curled, claw-like hand gestures and the staccato swiping gestures. It is as if they are being born: they are blind and swiping about, and all they know is "want." Now the motion of the characters becomes synchronized to the beat, a feature which will remain throughout. Again, this synchronization is an old trick: anyone who has set slides to music knows the ease with which one may synchronize the two. This synchronization, here, fosters the frenetic mood of the video. To, say, syncopate the movements would have made a statement of contrast. Not to have synchronized anything, a la 2001: A Space Odyssey, would invite contemplation. This is a simple, primal, thumping: the libidinous rhythm.

Note the cacophonous and negative vocabulary:
I want your ugly, I want your disease
I want your everything as long as it's free
"Free" as in disconnected, without asking for anything in return, without bounds.

I want your drama, the touch of your hand
I want your leather studded kiss in the sand
Look at the contrast there: a pleasant image, a very human one, of the hand contrasted against "leather studded kiss in the sand," a nonsense phrase used for contrast and to evoke the primitive as she grasps her ilum. She proceeds to make a gun gesture with her hand, pointing up, a gesture simultaneously phallic and adversarial. Now this pink-tressed version of her takes the stage, in a gesture rolling her eyes back and partially sticking her tongue out, suggesting an ecstasy of abandon. Also, note the disproportionately large eyes. Human eyes being unique in size, proportion, et cetera, they are enlarged here to more strongly suggest humanity and innocence, since otherwise we would grow disconnected and disenchanted. We will see scenes of a far more pure version of her, clad in white and with white hair, inter-cut toward the same purpose. Yet she chants, "bad, bad, bad."
The following scene and dialogue again is all effect, with no particular connection or conceptualizations. It includes the taped papillae, (of course drawing more, not less, attention to them), the forced bathing, forced drinking, the spitting, the crying; none of this has any meaning other than the crudeness of it, to be associated with the baseness of the urge.

Consider more of the words and note their adversarial nature:

I want your love, and all your love is revenge
I want your horror, I want your design
'Cause you're a criminal as long as you're mine

Now we shift to two new scenes which will alternate. Starting with the second: she's in a sort of cylindrical semi-cage in a room with white tiled-walls and lit with white light from above. It's an antiseptic environment, essentially a sterile torture chamber. She's tortured by the urge. Again, realize all the images are deliberately evoked and consistent. See her protruding spine and the bald bat on her head. She looks like an animal in a cage.

To the return of the "gah gah" theme and thumping, she's stripped by the women down to what looks like an ancient ecdysiast's outfit, something worn long ago to please a far away potentate.

I shrink from the task of interpreting the following:
I want your psycho, your vertical stick
Want you in my rear window, baby, you're sick
Now we see the male figure. He is presented as the superior: seated, with a brass jawpiece, (emphasizing his jawline and thus masculinity and also his superior status by its artifice), drinking out of a glass. She, in her outfit, crawls towards him on all fours and the camera shot is from between his legs. The words illustrate a contradiction: "You know that I want you. . . Cause I'm a free canicula, baby!" More words, not reproduced here, escalate the innuendo.

Now she takes the stage. Even more scantily clad, she stands amidst clear jewels suspended in the air, as if a constellation revolves around her. A scene where she is adorned by a series of hoops follows, again another image of her centrality. These are both more cosmic invocations. Also, now she is the center of attention, encircled by men instead of having to approach them.

Rosary beads are draped around her and a clear crucifix is draped over her ilum. She proceeds to make the sign of the crucifix. Why? She is not using the rosary (i.e. praying the rosary) or venerating the crucifix. Such would in fact draw on cultural notions. It is invoked as a totem, perhaps even in a sense an example of sympathetic magic, wherein by having this object and making this gesture, what they stand for is hoped to be brought about. But what do they stand for? Merely, "something significant."

Now she chants mostly meaningless phrases as she walks about, adorned with colorfully studded costumes. This scene is redundant as it merely emphasizes her new success.
Walk, walk, fashion, baby
Work it, move that thing, crazy
Walk, walk, fashion, baby
Work it, move that thing, crazy
The coda is redundant. The final scene however, begins with another animal: a bearskin costume (with head) which she disrobes from, revealing her derriere. The bed, on which the man sits, is flanked by animal heads on the walls. She repeats the main phrase, only now in French, again only a gesture of exoticism (and euphony, here.) The bed bursts into flames and the final shot is of a charred mattress, her lover's charred skeleton, and her sparking mamillae. The "harpsichord-theme" plays but this is only to create a sense of symmetry with the beginning.

The release of her desire is of consumption and destruction, instead of consummation. There is release and destruction. Again, this is consistent: what else could there be? Using our earlier defined sense, this is vulgar, it is disconnected from a culture of ideas. The primitive music and symbols could appeal to the most undeveloped individual. I would suggest only in the actual absence of culture could this video be so popular as it is. What could the video mean to someone with a culture, with a way of relating to the world, a way both inherited and created? This video speaks no language. It is either acultural or a subculture of barbarism. In the absence of a shared culture, shared language and conceptions, we get the primitive.

To speak of the matter in the reverse: in the absence of inherited forms, i.e. mainly symbols and structures, a work is left either so that it can be understandable only on its own terms or appeals only to the basest experience of life. In the former case the work speaks only its own language, putting it at great distance. In the latter case, the work feels primal, without any layer of removal. Such art may have great power and indeed it is possible to have the forms without the sense of the fire and depths below. The use of a particular body of forms, though, creates a particular cultural identity, one inherited, added to, and passed on. When forms die they become relics, which are used without any sense of the intense connection to the concepts with which they were associated. One might argue they when that connection is lost they ought not to be used. Perhaps, but their passing should be noted.
In this respect it is possible to speak of a culture as alive, one which accepts its inherited forms and with enthusiasm reworks and modifies them. For such to happen the connection to the original concept, the passion for it, must endure, in the context of whatever emotion in particular.

This new acultural art would be desperate to re-kindle feeling and significance. Bad art, perhaps it might be, but it would represent a cultural bottoming-out and an attempt to start anew. (If not in the intent of its creation, then so if it is popularly well-received.) It would be primitive, consciously or not, because of the absence of the old, archaic, forms which have lost the power to communicate.

Instead of shared concepts we see invocations of items: images to bring about feelings but not ideas. None of the animals depicted (or mimicked) are symbolic, they are simply present as animals to evoke a sense of savageness. There are no symbols of sexuality, like the snake or a brace of hares (a Late Gothic symbol.) The functions of the imagery is not dissimilar from that of the roots of animistic cultures and those associated with fertility rites. Yet in the West those roots grew into structures and culture. Here we have the raw forces with no interpretive layer between us and those forces. There is simply yielding to the force and no conceptualization of it. There is only the rawness of the desire, no suggestion of what the human reaction ought to be. There is no attempt to understand the force as part of something larger. There is no sense of binding with or understanding the nature of things, of religio and reason. We have the the "dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul" but no attempt to make them "serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man's duties a fullness," by use of form and beauty. There is also, then, no elevation of such to the realm of the transcendent.

The following comparison is made not to contrast the quality of the music, but because the following is the perfect opposite of the aforementioned. Consider the final opera of Wolfgang Mozart, Die Zauberflöte.[8] In it he uses a wealth of language to elevate the opera's themes (love, the relation of men and women, knowledge, the good) to the level of the sacred. He uses all manner of symbols, instrumentation, cadences, harmonies, words, et cetera, to elevate the ideas to sacredness. Discussing Nietzsche, Bloom wrote, "a shared sense of the sacred is the surest way to recognize a culture. . . What a people bows before tells us what it is." [Bloom, 204]

Love proclaims the nobility of man and woman and together they reach toward the divine.

Act I: Dutet, Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen

Not only the moral world but the mood of The Magic Flute is the opposite of the music video we discussed. Here one does not yield to desires but channels them in particular expressions, sometimes the opposite of the emotion: to achieve knowledge you must go by the way of unknowing, to achieve unity you must go by the way of separation.

What ended in destruction, base release, and vulgarity above, ends in sacred, harmonious, unity in Mozart. He uses and builds on an inherited tradition and culture his audience knew to say to them, "See, see how glorious these things, our things, are!"

Act II, Finale.

[1] Citation needed. I'll provide it soon.
[4] Letter of W. A. Mozart to his father, in Salzburg. September 26, 1781 See, Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life. Edited by Robert Spaethling. W. W. Norton and Company. New York. 2000. (p. 286)
[7] for a primer on counterpoint, see introduction here:
[8] It is worth noting the trend of increasingly elaborate opera stagings, i.e. attempts to add easily-understandable spectacle and effects to make the opera more exciting, appealing, et cetera, instead of relying on the music to do such. Karajan's 1987 production is a great exception: see the "simplicity" of the cosmic dimension:

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind:  How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. Simon and Schuster, New York. 1987.

Eliot, T. S. Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. Harcourt, Brace, and Company. New York. 1949.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Wagnerian Singing: Another Unscientific Comparison

By chance this morning, I came across a recording of Kerstin Thorborg (1896-1970), a Swedish contralto, singing Erda's warning to Wotan, "Weiche, Wotan, weiche."

The quality of her tone left me immediately impressed and awestruck. This, I thought, is how Wagner is to be sung. And we are fortunate, indeed, that we have recordings from the likes of Thorborg. To compare, here's a recording from Christa Ludwig, by any account, a fine mezzo, singing the same role.

Despite the improvement in recording technology, it's clear that Thorborg's singing is on a different plane than Ludwig's. Giving precise reasons why I think this is so would depend on my having a better knowledge of vocal technique than I do. But there may be an important question behind these off-the-cuff comparisons: why is it almost the universal consensus that Wagnerian singing has declined so swiftly since the early and mid-20th century? I offer no answers, only a blow upon a bruise: two more comparisons to drive home the difference.

First, Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) sings Isolde's Liebestod:

And Deborah Voigt here sings the same (I was unable to acquire a recording-quality video: it is a live performance.):

Finally, Set Svanholm (1904-1964) sings the Preisleid:

And Ben Heppner sings the same:

I intend no slander on Ludwig, Voigt, or Heppner. All of them are (and in the retired Ludwig's case, were) very fine singers, perhaps the finest we can expect for the present. But I suspect many more such adverse comparisons could be made: I entirely neglected the roles of Siegfried, Wotan, Hans Sachs, Lohengrin, and Parsifal. But I know of no one who seriously contends that there has not been a lamentable decline: the greatness seems to have gone out of Wagnerian singing. Despite our extraordinary recording technology, we seem to have arrived on the scene too late: the decline outran our technological advance. Perhaps it's only a passing thing, but we should at any rate be grateful for the recording jewels we do possess: the happenstance encounters with greatness that grace a beautiful Labor Day.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Dangerous Fascination

Updated: Please see below.

I feel remiss for not mentioning in our recent discussion of Santayana's Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe two points of intersection with the dramas of Richard Wagner. Here will will look at the first point of comparison, regarding Dante and his treatment of the lovers Paolo and Francesca. Santayana writes,
Love itself dreams of more than mere possession; to conceive happiness, it must conceive a life to be shared in a varied world, full of events and activities, which shall be new and ideal bonds between the lovers. But unlawful love here cannot pass out into this public fulfillment. It is condemned to be mere possession–possession in the dark, without an environment, without a future. It is love among the ruins. And it is precisely this that is the torment of Paolo and Francesca–love among the ruins of themselves and all else they might have had to give to one another. Abandon yourself, Dante would say to us,–abandon yourself altogether to a love that is nothing but love, and you are in hell already. Only an inspired poet could be so subtle a moralist. Only a sound moralist could be so tragic a poet.

Canto V, 127

Noi leggiavamo un giorno per diletto
  di Lancialotto come amor lo strinse;
  soli eravamo e sanza alcun sospetto.

Per piu` fiate li occhi ci sospinse
  quella lettura, e scolorocci il viso;
  ma solo un punto fu quel che ci vinse.

Quando leggemmo il disiato riso
  esser basciato da cotanto amante,
  questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,

la bocca mi bascio` tutto tremante.
  Galeotto fu 'l libro e chi lo scrisse:
  quel giorno piu` non vi leggemmo avante.

Translation: Allen Mandelbaum

One day, to pass the time away, we read
  of Lancelot–how love had overcome him.
 We were alone, and we suspected nothing.

And time and time again that reading led
  out eyes to meet, and made our faces pale,
  and yet one point alone, defeated us.

When we had read how the desired smile
  was kissed by one who was so true a lover,
  this one, who never shall be parted from me,

while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth.
  A Gallehault indeed, that book and he
  who wrote it, too; that day we read no more."

The tale is of course a familiar one, as Dante himself tells us earlier in Canto V:

Vedi Paris, Tristano; e piu` di mille
ombre mostrommi e nominommi a dito,
ch'amor di nostra vita dipartille.

"See Paris, Tristan. . ."–and he pointed out
  and named to me more than a thousand shades
  departed from our life because of love.

But the comparison here is rather more specific:

Tristan und Isolde: Act II
Isolde! Geliebte!... Tristan! Geliebter!
Jon Vickers & Birgit Nilsson


Mein! Tristan mein!

Mein! Isolde mein!

Mein und dein!
Ewig, ewig ein! 

The scene for all of its beauty is rather overwhelming and as such a little uncomfortable. The lovers are so seized, so heedless of time, everything. . . and we too grow transfixed by the scene which grows more and more detached and ethereal as the motives of transport and love weave together. Somewhat frighteningly effective, I think, which led Nietzsche to say how it exercises "such a dangerous fascination, such a spine-tingling and blissful (süssen) infinity." [1] (emphasis mine)

Indeed. "Why cannot these lovers shroud themselves forever in the sweet twilight of night and death that should indissolubly unite their souls and their destinies?!". . . Dante was filled with such pity he fainted after Francesca told her tale.

 René Kollo and Johanna Meier. 1991.

Update: I did not intend to suggest Wagner shared Dante's view of the lovers' situations, merely that  we might me inclined to compare them. Indeed one might find something quite different in Wagner, for example:

"The redemption through love that Wagner dramatizes in his mature operas is not an escape into another world in which the sufferings of this one are finally compensated. It is rather a demonstration of the value of this world by showing that something else is valued more. The sacred moment, in which death is scorned for the sake of love, casts its light back over the entire life that had led to it." –"Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde" by Roger Scruton. 2004.

See also:
Death Drive: Eros and Thanatos in Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde"
Linda Hutcheon & Michael Hutcheon
Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 11, No. 3. (Nov., 1999), pp. 267-293.

[1] Ecce Homo. Warum ich so klug, 6.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Delacroix Don Giovanni

I was doing some research and came across this painting which seems not at all to be mentioned on the internet, or at least not identified. Lest it fall into obscurity. . .

The Last Scene From Don Giovanni, by Eugène Delacroix.

1824. 55.9 by 45.7 cm. (Private Collection)

As he did with Medea About to Kill Her Children, Delacroix captured a psychologically rich moment, manipulating our knowledge of what is about to transpire. Here, only Leporello and Donna Elvira know the Commendatore has taken up Don Giovanni's invitation to dinner.

Delacroix on Mozart and Don Giovanni:

[Mozart was] 'undoubtedly the creator. . . of art carried to its highest point, beyond which no further perfection is possible', [1]

[On Don Giovanni] 'What an admirable fusion of elegance, expression, buffoonery, terror, tenderness, irony, each in just measure.'[2]

[1] A. Joubin, ed.: Journal d'Eugè Delacroix, Paris [1950], I, pp.346-47

[2] ibid., pp.185, 186-87

See also:

Johnson, Lee. 'The Last Scene of "Don Giovanni" ': A Newly Discovered Delacroix. The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 138, No. 1122 (Sep., 1996), pp. 605-607

Judd, Percy. Delacroix on Music. Music and Letters Vol. 43, No. 4 (Oct., 1962), pp. 340-344

Monday, June 21, 2010

Wagner and The Lord of the Rings

The music of Richard Wagner and the writing of J. R. R. Tolkien are both considerable interests of mine so you can expect substantial writing on both topics in the future. For now, I was recently watching Peter Jackson's spectacular film adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" and came upon two rather striking similarities. The first is of set design and the second of music.

 Leif Roar as Klingsor in Parsifal, about to set Kundry against Parsifal.
Stage design and artistic supervision by Wolfgang Wagner. 1981

 Christopher Lee as Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring,
invoking the spirit of the mountain against the Fellowship.
Artwork and conceptual drawing by Alan Lee and John Howe, 2001.

Parsifal, Act I.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,
The Great River

The scene (using the word loosely since Wagner did not divide the acts into smaller scenes) in Parsifal is quite complex, with multiple choruses, the Knights marching up Montsalvat to the bells, and many themes including those of the Grail, the Eucharist, and the Lance. Shore's scene is considerably simpler but they function in not dissimilar manners. In Fellowship Aragorn catches sight of enormous statues of kings of old, his ancestors. This is simultaneously a reminder of their grandeur and weakness, and also his, that he is the rightful heir but turned from the path since he shares his ancestors' weakness to be tempted by the Ring of Power. Likewise the themes demonstrate Amfortas' mixed feelings, his sacred duty, his suffering, and his sin.

Likewise the figures of Klingsor and Saruman more than superficial relations. Generally, neither managed his tendency to sin and each turned to dark arts. In his classic work on Wagner, Albert Lavignac describes Klingsor:
[he] has vainly sought to root out of his heart the tendencies to sin; and, not succeeding, he has destroyed his animal instincts by laying violent hands on himself. . . he has listened to the Evil Spirit, and received from him unhallowed instructions in the art of magic. . . [Lavignac, 212]
That Saruman succumbed to a natural weakness and was not simply corrupted by studying "too deeply the arts of the enemy" requires some explication, handily provided by Tolkien himself in a letter c. 1956:
In the view of this tale and mythology Power–when it dominates or seeks to dominate other wills and minds (except by the assent of their reason)–is evil, these "wizards" were incarnated in the life forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains of both mind and body. They were also, for the same reason, thus involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of "fall," of sin, if you will. [Tolkien, 237]
Likewise where Klingsor "Layed violent hands on himself" Gandalf rebukes Saruman for his unnatural machinations, saying, "he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of reason." [The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Council of Elrond."]

Yet we ought not to read too much into these similarities and we should avoid trying to craft analogies and allegories here. The characters are themselves different and function differently in the plots of their respective stories. I do not suggest one was a model for the other but rather point out the noteworthy similarities of style and fundamental themes of two artists exploring man's nature in these particular scenes.



Lavignac, Albert. The Music Dramas of Richard Wagner and his Festival Theatre in Bayreuth. Dood, Mead, and Company. New York. 1901.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Letter No. 181, an unfinished letter to Michael Straight. c. 1956. p.237. Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York. 2000.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

On Mozart's Overtures: Final Thoughts

Mozart Overtures

Final Thoughts

As I reflect on the preceding series on Mozart's overtures inevitably the deficiencies present themselves first. Foremost perhaps is that we have not looked at all of the overtures. Of the composer's twenty-two or so operas we have excluded the first twelve (including Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots, a sacred drama), composed from 1767 through 1780. Likewise we have excluded the overtures to the unfinished Lo sposo deluso (1784) and the short singspiel-farce Der Schauspieldirektor (1786.) Thus we can more properly be said to have looked at the overtures to the last seven, complete, full-scale Mozart operas.

My overall approach was to avoid both the abstruse and the banal and as clearly as possible explain how the music achieved its effect.  Sometimes I may have curtailed detail for clarity or stated details without explication. In the latter case my hope is that the listener, with the feature pointed out, can discover the effect.

Regarding scholarship I am indebted to the scholars of the past 200 years that have produced the wealth of insight available today. Invariably all Mozart scholarship looks like "footnotes to Abert." Invariable also is the struggle to restate a basic observation in a non-identical way: how many ways can one describe a particular chord, scale, or figure? I hope I have not stepped on the toes of any scholars. All mistakes and defects are my own.

In addition to the great quantity of scholarship I had to draw on I also had the tremendous reference that is the Neue Mozart Ausgabe, the complete scores of Mozart's music available for free online. While I have quoted portions of the scores liberally it was with critical intent. No infringement was intended.

Perhaps we may take up one more issue, though, one that required looking at all of the overtures. What precisely is the relationship of the overture to the subsequent drama? We know the overtures except for Die Entführung) were all the last music of the operas completed. This was at least partly for the practical reason that it could be left for last since it only required, if it receive this much at all, a run-through with the orchestra, and not weeks of choreography and accommodation to the singers. Yet while it was the last music practiced and written down, we cannot know when it was finished in terms of conception (either in terms of specifics or its general plan.)

The notion Mozart wrote down perfect scores with no revisions is indeed an exaggeration. From letters it seems likely he did compose at the keyboard, which was standard practice. Likewise some sketches are preserved, though not on the scale of the sketches in Beethoven's books. In fact, Mozart even struck out short portions of the overtures to Figaro and Die Zauberflöte. While we have a general knowledge of his habits of writing down his music we cannot speak with certainty of what Arthur Hutchings aptly called the "procedures of the mind." We cannot say Mozart wrote the opera and then chose parts or aspects of it to assemble into, or from which to create, the overture. Nor can we say they were conceived of more or less at the same time.

Unable to discern their function from Mozart's compositional practices let us look at how the overtures work in relation to the operas. There is clearly a strong connection between each overture and its corresponding opera. No one could possibly suggest swapping the overtures for Don Giovanni and Figaro, or even the more-similar operas like Die Entführung and Die Zauberflöte.

Yet the overture does not in every skip and jump mirror a particular aspect of the opera proper. Generally we may say if composer uses a particular theme or progression in more than one place such  invites inquiry, by virtue of either the similarity or difference of their functions. Thus in Mozart's overtures, where the overture bears thematic and harmonic relationship to the subsequent music of the opera, we assume significance. What is the significance though? Are these similarities the heart of the overture's fulfillment of the need to be a "dramatic argument" for the opera? Do they have a subsidiary function to the same end?

What might we make, say, of Daniel Heartz's observation that the overture "emerge[s] from the material of the opera" [Heartz, 319] Likewise what do we make of his findings of many harmonic connections between the overture and the following music [in the case of the overture to Titus?] (Regrettably I am unable to familiarize myself with Constantin Floros' studies[1] on the connections between the overtures and operas.) Let us look at a few quotations and see the state of the question:

[The overtures] presented at once, and with the greatest concentration of emotional and intellectual content, the crux of the drama. [Heartz, 319.]
Like its predecessors, it was the last number to be written and in consequence is a kind of general lyrical admission of Mozart's feelings about the works as a whole. Once more he relives the artistic experience that produced the opera, but instead of the work in its concrete form, it is the mood that inspired Die Zauberflöte that he now intends to instil in the listener before the following drama can make its impression – but it is, of course, the mood of the work as he, its creator, felt it. [Abert, 1258]
Thomas Bauman quoting Walter Wiora:
Walter Wiora, in his classic essay "Between Absolute and Program Music," has observed that "an opera overture partakes of the basic mood, the atmosphere, the overall qualities. . . of the opera, and possesses corresponding functional and characteristic traits." [2]
All three scholars make the sensible case that the overtures are neither purely programmatic nor purely abstract. Of course if divorced from the opera and played as a concert piece, the overture is purely abstract. Attached to the opera, once you have heard both you cannot avoid drawing connections.
Yet these similar moments do not point to analogous parts of the opera. Their significance lies in that they are assembled in such a way in the overture to state the opera's case as purely as possible.  This follows for the mature operas with the exception to the overture to Figaro which is frankly a sinfonia. The overture to Idomeneo is the distillation of the tragic ethos. The overture to Die Entführung is of exotic adventure and a lost lover, to Don Giovanni of being and non-being, to Così the endless chatters that make us all wonder, "Do they all?" and to Titus exalting a noble and besieged character. Die Zauberflöte contains multiple dimensions.

The overtures contain both specific and general relationships to their respective operas. The generalities are what make the overtures "dramatic arguments." It is important not to get too sidetracked by the similarities of parts of the overture to parts of the opera. These are the results of a compositional process we do not fully know. They are not why the overtures are dramatic arguments since the overture could have have been a potpourri of themes in the manner of the later Romantic-French style. They are instead part of the how the overtures are dramatic arguments. They exist because the overture and opera speak the same language to express the same ideas. The Mozartian overture qua dramatic argument is demonstrated not in the similarities to Vitellia's aria, the threefold chord, or the "Don Giovanni/Commendatore" chord but rather in the statements of the overtures in toto. Though the overtures were composed last the effect is reversed: coming to the opera-goer first, the overture sets up the dramatic argument and the opera proper is "merely" the playing out.

[1] Constantin Floros, "Das 'Programm' in Mozarts Meisterouvertüren," Studien zur Musikwissenschaft 26 (1964): 140-86.

[2] Walter Wiora, "Zwischen absoluter und Programmusik," in Fetschrift Friedrich Blume zum 70 Geburtstag, ed. Anna Amalie Abert and Wilhelm Pfannkuch (Kassel, 1963), p.383.


Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007.

Heartz, Daniel. Mozart's Operas. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1990.

Hutchings, Arthur. Mozart: The Man, The Musician. Thames and Hudson. London. 1976.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

On the Overture to Die Zauberflöte

Overture to Die Zauberflöte
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (KV.620)

Die Zauberflöte was the product of collaboration between Mozart and actor, librettist, singer, and impresario Emanuel Schikaneder. Die Zauberflöte premiered at the latter's Theater an der Wien
on September 30, 1791.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 clarin trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings (2 violins, 2 violas, cello, bass.)

The score is available via the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe.

(click to enlarge)

James Levine conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

It was his bequest to mankind, his appeal to the ideals of humanity. His last work is not Tito or the Requiem; it is Die Zauberflöte. Into the Overture, which is anything but a Singspiel overture, he compressed the struggle and victory of mankind, using the symbolic means of polyphony; working out, laborious working out in the development section; struggle and triumph. [Einstein, 467]

In each of Mozart's overtures the composer transports us in the very first bars. We were whisked off in Die Entführung, swept up in the floodtide of Figaro, and thrust into the struggle of Don Giovanni. The overture to Die Zauberflöte brings about our transport by enveloping us in an extra ordinary aura of majesty and solemnity. Rising each measure and with the hint of heraldry from the three trombones, it is as if the the now-famous "threefold" chord of the opening Adagio calls us not just to hear but to partake. The key too, E-flat, contributes to the solemnity of the occasion, but this is not the E-flat of sterile galanterie or carefree baubles, or even of the heroic and dignified Sinfonia Concertante KV.365 and Piano Concerto KV.482. Girdlestone captured the spirit in calling it the "play of Botticelli's Graces" [Girdlestone, 366.] We feel this awareness of the transcendent in other E-flat works of Mozart, most of all in the Symphony KV.543, the Divertimento KV.563 and the final String Quintet KV.614.

In the next 12 bars Mozart crafts an unbroken line of sublimest beauty and deepest reverence. The arch-shaped figures and sforzandi of m.4-7 create a loftiness that bears us along before the basses, hovering around the leading tone and dominant, create a thin stability. To the same end the second violins waver on the leading seventh and tonic until it narrows to just E, on which it remains piano. The wandering of the violins on the third and fourth degrees and the syncopated crescendos and piano bursts from the trumpets at m.8 and 11 continue to heighten the mystery until at m.12 the bassoons modulate from C to C-flat and the violins from A-flat to A. We then finally arrive firmly at the dominant (m.13) and at m.14 the long-silent oboe rings out on the tonic, holding all of the tension of the preceding bars and preparing the way for the release in the following Allegro passage starting at m.16.


Thomas Bauman astutely notes, contra Abert, the inherent bifurcation of the theme of m.16-17 above caused by (1) the leading tone-to tonic modulation in the last two notes of the measure before the dominant of m.17, (2) the contrasting and closely-placed dynamic markings. It is even proper to say more, as Bauman does, that "these two primal degrees sound at the beginning of the subject as two distinct tonal poles." [Bauman, 288.] Bauman notes the other critical feature of this phrase, the G–C–F–B-flat figure in m.18. Similar to how the swerve to A in m. 7 of the sinfonia to Figaro prevented a full resolution at the outset, here this figure, clearly wanting to resolve to the tonic in its circle-of-fifths progression, does not.

The first violins respond with the second part of the theme (from m.16) in a higher register against a tonic sforzando figure before they switch parts and conclude in a descending scalar figure as the main theme is taken up by the basses. The violins then present a figure which will become the counter-melody/counter-subject:


The fugal treatment that now begins throws the built in I-V contrariety of our main theme into starker contrast. The interplay of the main theme, the rising fourths, and the second subject in the dominant build to the glorious and liberated forte restatement of the main theme at m.39. It is critical to note, though, as Bauman does:
This restatement of the themes is not literal. The subject has shed its third and fourth bars–the ones with the anxious rising fourths–as well as its weak-beat sforzandi; this confident, triadic, metrically stable new version of the subject is now wedded to the countersubject at the octave in invertible counterpoint.
It is not necessary to link this melding of forms to the following drama in order to sense the impact of joining these two themes which are far more brilliant together than separate. The statement here is also more intense: forte, with the flute finally partaking in the main theme, sforzandos in the basses, and tremolo in the violins. At m.49 a brief descending scalar passage in the flute ends on two half-notes, making a rather dramatic stroke before a flurry of E quavers doubled in octaves and in a higher register finally descend staccato for another dramatic flourish. At m.57 the second violins pass off the main theme to the firsts and the violas who are answered by a rising scale up in the flutes. The two parts playfully engage in their repartee before the bassoon bumbles in and steals the main theme from the viola while the oboe joins in with a figure centered on F before finally the clarinet joins the exchange. (Abert perceptively called this charming little passage in which the winds seem to "bucolicize" amongst themselves an idyll. [Abert, 1259.])

The main theme returns in slight variation and with great vigor at m.68 before more wind play and a repeat of the main theme. At m.84 there is a remarkable increase in tension with violins tremolo alternating on B and C, the second violins pounding on F and the basses repeating a figure alternating G and B all with a crescendo swelling up at m.87. The section and crescendo close at m.96 and in the following six measures we return to the "threefold chord" of the opening of the overture. (It is here too marked Adagio.)

After the B-flat major triads of the "threefold chord" the main theme is restated the development section begins (at m.103) in the same key. We will see that the harmonic progression of this section is arch-like (parabolic in Bauman's terminology), in shape, beginning as we said in B-flat minor, rising, and concluding in B-flat major. At the peak of this arch (m.117) are two features, the first of which is a tempestuous canon beginning with the familiar G–C–F–B-flat pitches from the figure in m.18. The second is the bar of rest following the canon. Abert and Bauman take apparently opposite views of this pause, the former connecting it to the silence of the trials of Tamino and Pamina (the most difficult part of their tests) and Abert suggesting it points the way out of the crisis. These two seemingly divergent positions can be reconciled by considering that the moment of greatest strife is itself the opportunity for betterment. In the overture, though, it is only necessary to understand it as a brief withdrawal that heightens the struggle, as a poignant moment of detachment but without repose.

Here the main subject and a version of the second wander before the long-awaited arrival of E-flat and the recapitulation. Gaining strength in contrapuntal treatment the main theme finally bursts forth forte at m.153, running into the crescendo beginning at m.205. The finale rises higher and higher gaining momentum and building in intensity until concluding in a brilliant outburst. (It was already [too] common in Abert's time, and apparently' Jahn's, to refer to this finale in terms of brightness, brilliance, and so forth.)

While a profound sense of balance is the skill perhaps most frequently (and not without good reason) accorded Mozart for all of his work, such a sense is at work perhaps no more clearly than in this overture. There is solemnity but not severity, grandeur but not lavishness, earnestness without bombast or aggression, and tempest without terror. It is likewise common to speak of the later Mozart's achievement or tendency of combining fugal structure and sonata-form, and this feat too presents itself in this overture, where the canons are rather subtly grafted into the larger sonata structure. It appears that for the most fancied of his operas Mozart crafted an overture of most "formal perfection," [Bauman, 287.] Aside from its technical brilliance The Magic Flute has also been popular since its debut nearly 220 years ago, calling generation after generation to take part in the eternal opera that is parts philosophical, moral, fantastical and mystical.


Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007.

Bauman, Thomas. At the North Gate: Instrumental Music in Die Zauberflöte. Essay No. 16 in Mozart's Operas. (ed.) Heartz, Daniel. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1990.

Einstein, Alfred. Mozart: His Character, His Work. Oxford University Press, New York. 1945.

Girdlestone, Cuthbert. Mozart and his Piano Concertos. Dover Publications, Inc. New York, NY. 1964.


Buch, David J. Die Zauberflöte, Masonic Opera, and Other Fairy Tales. Acta Musicologica, [Vol.] 76, [Fasc.] 2, pp. 193-219. 2004.

Harutunian, John. Haydn and Mozart: Tonic, Dominant Polarity in Mature Sonata-Style Works. Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, T. 31, Fasc. 1/4, pp. 217- 240. 1989.

Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis. (Six Volumes.) Volume IV: Illustrative Music: Overture to Die Zauberflöte. Oxford University Press. London. 1935.