Saturday, March 29, 2008

My musical Mount Rushmore: Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart, and...

A former boss at my bookstore once asked me which four composers I would carve onto my musical Mount Rushmore. If I recall correctly, his own choices were Bach, Wagner, Mahler, and Duke Ellington. Limiting myself to Western classical music, my choices were Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart (in particular for the greatest opera ever written, Le Nozze di Figaro), and...well, I couldn't quite make up my mind between Bach and Vivaldi.

My hesitation left my boss practically speechless with disbelief. As far as he was concerned, Bach and Vivaldi were hardly in the same musical cosmos. Vivaldi wrote pleasant trifles intended to allow musicians and singers to show off their virtuosity; Bach's music was both structurally complex and emotionally profound. Only my own ignorance could possibly make me hesitate in choosing between them.

Of course, I understood my boss's point of view. Bach is the composer of the suites for solo cello, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, the Goldberg Variations, the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Brandenburg Concertos, the Musical Offering, the Art of the Fugue, the Passions of St. Matthew and St. John, the B-minor Mass, and several hundred church cantatas such as "Ich habe genug" and "Weinen, klagen, sorgen, zagen"--to name just some of his towering masterworks.

In comparison, Vivaldi is famous for a handful of works, chief among them the concertos that make up Le quattro stagioni. He wrote something like 50 operas and oratorios, but until recently they've languished in obscurity. In sacred music, Vivaldi never wrote a single coherent mass, but rather scattered settings of various liturgical texts. And while he wrote hundreds of concertos for various instruments, his very productivity is used against him (in a way it never is with Bach and his hundreds of cantatas): Stravinsky is said to have remarked that Vivaldi didn't write 500 concertos, but rather the same concerto 500 times.

It would seem to be no contest. And in fact if my house were burning down and I only had time to grab one recording I confess that it would probably be Pablo Casals' performance of Bach's cello suites.

However, I still wasn't certain which of the two composers would make the final cut. My indecision had three sources. One was that while Vivaldi's music is some of the most purely pleasurable I know--rivalling Mozart's--I find the dichotomy between Vivaldi's lightness and Bach's profundity to be a false one. Can you listen to "Et in terra pax homnibus" from Vivaldi's Gloria, or "Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum" from his Nisi Dominus, and not be moved? Or to Bach's "Coffee Cantata" and not be amused? The second is that while Bach is universally acknowledged as a great composer, many of Vivaldi's works--his Gloria (thank you Mark Morris), or Stabat Mater, or sonatas for cello and continuo--felt more like personal discoveries. There wasn't the same weight of received opinion preventing me from experiencing the music with my own ears, mind, and heart. Finally, I occasionally find Bach's Lutheranism as expressed in his cantatas to be frankly forbidding in its rejection of the world and embrace of death. In "Ich habe genug," for example, Bach set the text "Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod; Ach, hätt' er sich schon eingefunden"--"My death delights me; if only it had already come." Somehow I find the lapsed priest who lived in a menage à trois with his favorite soprano and her sister to be more sympathetic.

These thoughts were prompted by reading James R. Gaines' Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (New York: HarperCollins, 2005). It's a dual biography of Bach and Frederick the Great of Prussia, who met only once, but momentously, late in Bach's life (A Musical Offering was the result). Gaines portrays the meeting between Frederick and Bach as not only a clash of musical tastes, but as a showdown between reason and faith. To do so he has to caricature Enlightenment thinkers as having blind faith in reason, instead of supremely valuing doubt, skepticism, and empiricism. It's too bad that the book is so shallow, because it deals with a fascinating time when intellectual refugees such as Voltaire, La Mettrie (author of Man, A Machine) and the mathematician Leonhard Euler were welcomed at the Prussian court.

In addition to his superficial summaries of the intellectual currents of the time, Gaines has a prose style (honed by his onetime editorship of People magazine, no doubt) which is apparently intended to be breezy, but which is more often simply grating. On the ruling family of Prussia: "The Hohenzollerns were a funny bunch." On Frederick the Great's grandfather, Frederick I: "[He] was not Great, not even good for much, but...he seems to have been quite taken with himself, in a neurotic sort of way." On the musical differences between Bach and later musicians: "[It] was an argument about what music was to be--serious work by serious people about serious things, or light amusement for connoisseurs." To say that Gluck's or Mozart's operas are merely "light amusement" is to misunderstand them utterly.

Gaines writes of the Bach revival in the 19th century, "As a Romantic figure, Bach was in every way perfect." But in fact many Romantic figures, such as the writer E. T. A. Hoffman, looked instead to the composer of Don Giovanni as their supreme precursor. That doesn't stop Gaines from using Bach as a stick with which to beat the composers from the generation that followed him--in particular, his son C. P. E. Bach, Mozart, and Haydn. But all of those composers deeply admired Bach (even if C. P. E.'s feelings towards his difficult father were understandably mixed).

And Bach admired Vivaldi. The idea that Vivaldi's work lacks substance is refuted by Bach himself: he transcribed nine of Vivaldi's concertos for solo harpsichord or organ, and a tenth for four harpsichords with string accompaniment. Bach's English Suites draw on Vivaldi's concertos for inspiration, and several of his fugues take subjects derived from the solo parts of Vivaldi's concertos. As Michael Talbot puts it in his entry on Vivaldi in Oxford Composer Companions: J. S. Bach (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): "A great master in his own right, Vivaldi was perhaps the only non-German to leave a strong mark on Bach as a composer."

So the final answer to the question of who will be the fourth composer on my musical Mount Rushmore is that I think I'm going to leave that spot perpetually unfilled. It will be a reminder not to let facile musical judgments prevent me from keeping my ears open.

Friday, March 28, 2008


In one of my earlier Bollywood posts I'd written "less is often more." Not in Mughal-e-Azam (The Great Mughal, 1960), though. Its hallucinatory sets, sumptuous costumes, epic battle scenes and delirious dance numbers are overwhelming, and I mean that in the best possible way.

The film is set during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor) in 16th-century India, and tells the story of the doomed love of Prince Salim (Dilip Kumar) and the court dancer Anarkali (Madhubala). The Emperor opposes their love, banishing Salim from court and imprisoning Anarkali in Piranesi-like dungeons. Ultimately, of course, the Emperor realizes that only death can separate the lovers...

Mughal-e-Azam's Urdu dialogue is acclaimed for being highly poetic (and quotable). Unfortunately, as in Sholay (1975), the effect is lost in the English subtitles, which often make the characters sound as though they are making stilted pronouncements at each other. This is especially true of Prithviraj Kapoor as the Emperor Akbar, who has an appropriately stentorian way of delivering his lines. In contrast, Dilip Kumar as Prince Salim underplays almost to a fault. Madhubala's Anarkali is the emotional center of the film, and her luminous beauty is breathtaking.

The sets and costumes are still jaw-dropping, as are the battle scenes featuring charging war elephants and thousands of clashing soldiers. What makes the film work for me above all, though, are its songs. The music is by Naushad with lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni, sung by an exquisitely fresh-voiced Lata Mangeshkar; Lachchu Maharaj choreographed the spectacular dance numbers. The seductive "Mohe Panghat Pe" ("Krishna teased me at the well") introduces us to Anarkali; Madhubala lifting her veil in its opening moments is justly one of the most famous shots in Indian cinema. The call-and-response competition in "Teri Mehfil Main" between Anarkali and her rival Bahar (Nigar Sultana), each seeking to outdo the other in her description of the sufferings of love, is a brilliant setpiece. When Bahar is awarded a flower and Anarkali the thorns (Salim pricks his own finger as he hands them to her), we have an intimation of the lovers' unhappy end in a brilliantly compressed image. Anarkali turns this ambiguous gesture into a complete victory, though, when she responds, "Thorns will never fade." Wah!

Mughal-e-Azam served as the inspiration for many other Bollywood films. In particular both Umrao Jaan (1981) and Devdas (2002) feature rebellious aristocratic sons who insist on loving, and being loved by, women of whom their stern, unbending fathers disapprove, and both films also end tragically. Sometimes the references are direct: "Mohe Panghat Pe" is clearly the template for Madhuri Dixit's "Kahe Chhed Mohe" in Devdas, as "Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya" ("I shall tell the story of my love")--Anarkali's defiant reassertion of her love for the Prince--is for that film's "Maar Daala." In Mughal-e-Azam, "Mohe Panghat Pe" ends with the Prince rewarding Anarkali with his own necklace; Umrao Jaan's "In Ankhon Ki Masti" ends with the same gesture being made by the Nawaab to Rekha's Umrao Jaan.

The DVD version we watched is riotously colorful, although the original film was mainly shot in black and white (the original is also available on DVD). While for most black and white films colorizing is an abomination, I don't feel quite the same way about Mughal-e-Azam--visual overload was so clearly a major part of director Karim Asif's aesthetic. As Memsaab reminded me in a comment on my earlier post, "sometimes more can be more too."

Sunday, March 16, 2008

"The insane frenzy of an illicit love": Mitridate, re di Ponto

Mozart's opera Mitridate, re di Ponto (1770), written when he was only 14, is often condescendingly described as an immature or apprentice work--or simply ignored. The opera is barely mentioned in both Daniel Heartz's Mozart's Operas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) and David Cairn's Mozart and His Operas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), for example--you won't even find it listed in the Cairn book's index.

However, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1987 film of the opera makes a strong case for it to be considered among Mozart's masterpieces. Perhaps I'm just responding to the excellence of Ponnelle's film, but on a first hearing I heretically prefer it to his later opera seria Idomeneo (1781), if not La Clemenza di Tito (1791).

The background to the story is the military conflict between Pontus--a kingdom on the Black Sea coast of what is now northeastern Turkey--and an expansionist Rome in the first century BCE. In the foreground, though, like most other opera seria, is a love triangle--or in this case, polyhedron: King Mitridate is betrothed to Aspasia, who loves (and is loved by) his son Sifare. Aspasia is also pursued by Sifare's brother and rival Farnace, who is betrothed to Ismene.

As with all opera seria, the complicated plot (the libretto, by Vittorio Cigna-Santi, is based on a play by Racine) exists to supply characters with conflicts between love and duty, and to give them opportunities to display a range of emotions: anger, despair, triumph, tenderness, grief. Against all expectation the 14-year-old Mozart convincingly (and often stunningly) depicts these emotions in musical terms.

The wide leaps in the vocal lines reveal the virtuosity of his original cast in Milan, for following the standard practice of the time, Mozart wrote their arias only after he had met each of the singers and understood their strengths. This caused a problem, though, because the primo uomo--the castrato Pietro Benedetti, known as Sartorini, who was singing the role of Sifare--arrived less than four weeks before the first performance. Mozart also had to rewrite several arias to satisfy Guglielmo d'Ettore, the demanding tenor singing the role of Mitridate. If all this weren't enough, Mozart and his father Leopold had to combat a faction who wanted the soprano singing Aspasia, Antonia Bernasconi, to instead perform arias composed by Quirino Gasparini. (Gasparini's version of the opera had been performed in Turin four years previously.) We know all this because alternative versions of some of the arias exist, and the process of the mounting of the opera is described in detail in letters sent by Leopold to his wife and daughter at home in Salzburg.

In any case, despite all the delay and intrigue the opera was very successful--it ran for 22 performances--and it's easy to hear why. The arias for Aspasia are particularly effective. As Jane Glover points out in her excellent book Mozart's Women (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), Aspasia is the center of the drama, and in Ponnelle's film she is brilliantly portrayed by Yvonne Kenny. Her opening aria, "Al destin che la minaccia," is electrifying, but as her situation worsens her music gets even more striking. In Act II she has an extended renunciation scene with Sifare (mezzo-soprano Ann Murray), and the act concludes with a thrilling duet between the two. And in the dramatic high point of the last act, Aspasia sings the mournful "Pallid'ombre" as she prepares to drink a cup of poison; the aria exploits the soprano's rich lower register to profoundly moving effect.

Kenny's may be the most arresting performance in the film, but Murray, alto Anne Gjevang as Farnace, and tenor Gosta Winbergh as Mitridate are excellent as well. Winbergh has some particularly jaw-dropping leaps in register which he sings beautifully (and I'm not a big fan of tenors in general). Ponnelle's one miscalculation is to cast the minor role of Arbate with a boy treble instead of an adult (apart from the incongruity--Arbate is supposed to be the governor of Nymphaneum--I just don't like the sound). Nikolaus Harnoncourt's conducting of the superlative period-instrument orchestra Concentus Musicus Wien brings out all the brilliance and fire of the young Mozart's score.

In addition to its musical riches, the film also offers striking visuals, where Ponnelle attempts to reimagine the highly stylized conventions of baroque staging. It's filmed in the elegant 16th-century Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, Italy, the final masterwork of the architect Andreas Palladio and one of the most beautiful theaters in the world. And the outrageous costumes--Aspasia's dress is as wide as Yvonne Kenny is tall, and Winbergh's wild outfit as Mitridate can be glimpsed on the cover above--are based on baroque originals, as can be seen in Charles Joseph Flipart's 1737 portrait of the castrato Carlo Siface. But while the production may be knowingly (and spectacularly) artificial, the emotions conveyed by the performers are powerfully real.

For another appreciation of Ponnelle's film--and particularly of Yvonne Kenny's wonderful performance--see Prima la musica, poi de parole. A dissenting opinion is offered by Ionarts.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Bollywood comedy: Heyy Babyy and Om Shanti Om

With comedy, less is often more. But as both of these blockbusters from last year demonstrate, "less" is not a word that exists in Bollywood's vocabulary.

I have to confess that I've never much liked Akshay Kumar's screen presence--his wolfish grin reminds me too much of Tom Cruise (not a good association)--but he almost redeems himself in Heyy Babyy [sic] (2007). I've never seen Three Men and a Baby (1987) or its French original Trois hommes et un couffin (1985), the movies on which Heyy Babyy is based, but the common premise is pretty amusing: three bachelors (Fardeen Khan and the appealing Ritesh Deshmukh are the other two in HB) are suddenly faced with taking care of an infant girl left on their doorstep. A note accompanying the baby says "She's your daughter--you take care of her," only the men have no idea which of them is the father. So they collectively take on that role, and a fair amount of comedy is generated from the contrast between their growing sense of responsibility and their previous fecklessness.

There are a couple of especially enjoyable scenes in the first half. In the first one, the men are trying to identify the potential mothers and start listing all the women they've slept with. The baby's something like 6 months old, which would probably narrow it down pretty quickly. But clearly none of them wants to be outdone, so they start making up names: "Sheena," "Victoria," and so on, until their lists are absurdly long.

Perhaps the funniest scene, though, occurs once they've fully accepted their new roles as the joint fathers of the child they've named "Angel." They overhear a teenage girl arguing with her father about the micro-mini skirt she's wearing. This is instantly sobering to the guys as they contemplate Angel's future adolescence. One says, "We will choose her boyfriends"; another, "She won't have any boyfriends--we will choose her husband"; the third, "Let's hope she never meets any guys like us."

There are a couple of fun songs, too (music by Shankar Eshan Loy with lyrics by Sameer): the title number featuring cameos by a baker's dozen of Bollywood starlets (who are distressingly indistinguishable--was that part of the joke?), and the later "Meri Duniya Tu Hi Re" which is simultaneously a lullaby and a paean to the joys of group fatherhood.

Of course, just before the interval the mother (Vidya Balan) shows up to reclaim her child; just afterwards, we see the backstory and understand why she's justifiably angry at the baby's father (Akshay, of course). Alas, the first half is marred by a disturbing sequence where the baby nearly dies, while the second half becomes more and more tedious as the movie draws out the inevitable reunion of the biological parents with an hour of increasingly unfunny schtick. What would have been a charming 90-minute story becomes bloated and overdone, and can't even be rescued by a Shah Rukh Khan cameo.

Speaking of SRK, we missed Om Shanti Om (2007) when it was in our regional Hindi movie theaters last fall, and of course comedies are more fun when you see them with an audience. OSO is packed full of parodies of 1970s Bollywood, contemporary Bollywood, and movie awards ceremonies; it's got cameos by Bollywood greats past and present and homages to classic American musicals like Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Pirate (1947) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). The 70s hair and fashions are lovingly and hilariously recreated, and much fun is poked at modern-day superhero movies, action movies and their endless sequels. SRK himself doesn't escape unscathed: in the second half he appears as Om Kapoor, an arrogant superstar who is chronically late on set, will only do one take of a scene, and leaves early so he can film product endorsements. At the awards ceremony we see him in two virtually identical "best actor" clips where he's romancing a heroine against Yash Chopra-esque mountain backdrops (a parody more to the point when it was first done by Saif Ali Khan in Dil Chahta Hai (2001), perhaps).

It's all great fun, especially the song "Dhoom Taana" in which the stunning newcomer Deepika Padukone dances with the images of Bollywood heroes of the late 60s and 70s such as Sunil Dutt, Rajesh Khanna, and Jeetendra.

But for all its knowingness about Bollywood, OSO's parodies are hung on a hackneyed masala plot--involving impossible romance, reincarnation, revenge, and the unquiet spirits of the restless dead--which could itself have come straight out of the 70s. Good performances by Deepika, SRK and a cast of assured veterans don't quite rescue this film from its own conventional impulses, or keep the second half from seeming overlong. Perhaps someday Bollywood will realize that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.