Saturday, October 22, 2016

For a later age: The Beethoven string quartets part 1

Beethoven in 1805

Portrait of Beethoven (detail), by Joseph Maehler, 1805
"Oh, they are not for you, but for a later age."

—Beethoven to the first musicians attempting to play his Op. 59 string quartets
Last weekend I attended the first two of a series of six concerts by the Takács Quartet in which they will be surveying all of Beethoven's music for string quartet. What follows, to be continued in the spring, are my reflections on the experience of the concerts and the surrounding activities sponsored by UC Berkeley's performing arts organization Cal Performances.

The Takács residency began at noon on Friday October 14 with what was billed as an open rehearsal. I wouldn't actually describe what took place as a rehearsal—it was more an open conversation about the problems posed for the performers by the specific quartets that would be played that weekend. Each musician took turns leading a discussion of a particular moment they found especially problematic or striking in one of the quartets, and (together with the other musicians) demonstrating different ways that the passage could be approached.

What quickly became clear was the quartet's good humor and ease with one another. The Takács (pronounced, roughly, "Tah-katch") has existed for 42 years, and the newest member, violist Geraldine Walther, has been with them for more than a decade. What was also immediately apparent was the sheer number of decisions that have to be made in translating notes on a page into a vibrant and coherent performance. Here are just a few:
  • bowing: whether a note is played on an upstroke or downstroke; close to the frog (where the player holds the bow), the middle, or the tip of the bow; closer to the bridge or to the fingerboard. Each choice creates a different quality of sound.
  • articulation: whether a note is played staccato (crisply), legato (flowingly), or sforzando (a sharp attack to create emphasis).
  • volume: should the note be played loudly, softly, somewhere in between? And should each instrument try to play at the same volume, or should one or another instrument try to make their line more prominent? Should the note be a part of a gradual or sudden crescendo (increase) or diminuendo (decrease) in sound level?
  • tempo: Beethoven's indications of tempo for the quartets played this first weekend include adagio cantabile (slow, with a singing quality), larghetto espressivo (rather slow and with feeling), allegretto ma non troppo (moderately fast, but not too much so), allegro vivace (quick and lively), and allegro assai (very fast). The members of the quartet must agree on exactly what each of these phrases means, and how the tempo should contrast with those that come immediately before and after it.
Together, these choices (and I'm sure I've left many out) make up the musical character that is expressed by the passage in question. And perhaps it's an obvious point, but the players in a small ensemble are more exposed than those in an orchestra or even than a soloist. What any individual member of an orchestra is playing tends to be rendered less distinct by the combined sound of the full group, while a soloist only has to agree with him- or herself about these issues. The members of a quartet each play single parts that unite to make a whole, and so they must try to match one another closely. Any divergence in approach or slip in intonation is immediately apparent.

Takacs Quartet

The Takács Quartet: András Fejér (cello), Edward Dusinberre (first violin), Geraldine Walther (viola), and Károly Schranz (second violin)

The way that each of these musical elements affects how a work can sound became even more apparent during master classes held at the Department of Music later that afternoon. I attended sessions led by Walther and by Károly Schranz, the second violinist. (The members of the Quartet call Schranz "Kársci," pronounced, roughly, "Garshy"; Walther is "Geri.") Walther was extremely gentle with her students, generally posing her suggestions as questions ("Do you think we might slur this a bit more?"), and playing along with them to demonstrate her points and provide support. Schranz was also reassuring ("It's good, it's good," he would say), but then would borrow a student's instrument to suggest a new approach. In both cases, the improvement after even a few minutes was audible even to a listener as naïve as myself.

The afternoon's events also introduced us to Nicholas Mathew, Associate Professor of Music History at Berkeley, who was invited to make some introductory comments at the open rehearsal, and who would give the pre-concert talks throughout the cycle. Mathews is a rock star. Charismatic, articulate, overflowing with ideas, but also genuinely interested in drawing others into the conversation, he made us all want to go back to school and become music majors.

In the evening Mathew interviewed first violinist Edward Dusinberre about his new book, Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets (University of Chicago Press, 2016). The book is a first-person history of the Takács Quartet (Dusinberre joined in 1993, replacing the founding first violinist Gabor Takács-Nagy), a description of the compositional origins of selected Beethoven quartets and a detailed account of the challenges of performing them.

Both on the page and in person Dusinberre has a delightfully dry and self-deprecating sense of humor. A key point he makes both in the book and the interview was that the answers to the problems posed by the quartets can never be final, but necessarily differ with every performance. Thus the theme of the weekend, "Making and Remaking the Beethoven Quartets"; the quartets are made and remade every time they are played.

That sense of contingency, risk, and excitement was palpable during the weekend's concerts. The Takács programmed the series brilliantly. Instead of playing the entire quartet cycle in chronological order, in each concert they performed an early, middle, and late quartet (and will continue this pattern in the spring). It allowed us to hear over the course of a single concert both the radical changes in Beethoven's style over time, and also the continuities.

On Saturday evening the Takács opened the first concert in the series with the String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2 (1800). The first movement of this quartet sounds almost as though it could have been written by Mozart or Haydn; in its lightness and elegance it is an audible homage to Beethoven's predecessors and (in the case of Haydn) teacher. The contrast with the middle-period String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95, Serioso (1810), was stark. Here was the dark, stormy music that I think of when I hear the name Beethoven; it's perhaps the quartet equivalent of the Fifth Symphony (first performed in 1808). This is the quartet of which the composer famously said that it was "written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public." It must indeed have sounded radical during its first performance in 1814, because it still does today.

The concert concluded with the late String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130 (1825). The Quartet chose to play it with the second ending, which Beethoven composed after his publisher complained about the length and difficulty of the first one. (The original final movement was later published as a separate piece entirely, the Grosse Fuge, "Great Fugue," Op. 133.) With its six movements, this quartet breaks with the then-standard four-movement structure. The first "extra" movement, the fifth, is marked "Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo" (slowly, and with great feeling):

After this outpouring of lyricism (even more powerful when heard live), I was stunned. All I wanted was a few moments of silence to try to take in what I'd just heard. But—without a break—Beethoven has the performers move into the finale, a rollicking, boisterous "country dance," as Nic Mathews described it. It utterly tramples on the mood created by the Cavatina, as if Beethoven could not bear the feelings his own music evoked. The finale seems to me to be an act of self-vandalism; I wish that he had simply cut it off and let the quartet end with the Cavatina. Even better would be if he had placed 10 measures of rest at the end of the piece, so that the audience wouldn't prematurely break the spell by bursting into applause.

When I expressed this thought to the group I'm attending the concerts with, I got some funny looks. I felt like I was revealing a shameful lapse in taste, as though I were expressing a preference for art that is pretty and unchallenging. But the Cavatina is anything but unchallenging—it is profound and deeply moving. And, really: is Beethoven beyond criticism? Although I might indeed be displaying my own intellectual shortcomings, I can't help but feel that even Beethoven sometimes needed an editor.

But it's not only members of my concertgoing group who aren't disconcerted, as I am, by the second finale. In Beethoven for a Later Age Dusinberre, who has played Op. 130 with the Takács for almost 25 years, writes that in place of the Grosse Fugue he has come to prefer the alternative ending, which is
less taxing to muscles and psyche. When I first learned Opus 130 I had more zest for the fugue's violent energy, but now I am drawn to the music of...Opus 130's alternative finale, which dare[s] to brush off past conflicts and anguish. (p. 230)
We'll see if the Grosse Fugue's "violent energy" is preferable to what seems to me the incongruous cheerfulness of the second finale: the Takács will perform Op. 130 with its original ending to close the final concert of the series in April.

The Sunday afternoon concert began with the Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1 (1800), which is notable for its second movement. Marked Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato (slowly, tenderly and passionately), it was said by a close friend of Beethoven's to represent the tomb scene from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Beethoven wrote on the sketches for the movement "il prend le tombeau" (he descends into the tomb), "désespoir" (despair), "il se tue" (he kills himself),  "les derniers soupirs" (the last breaths). At the time he was composing this quartet Beethoven had fallen hopelessly in love with one of his piano students, Josephine von Brunsvik. She, though, was engaged to another man and apparently did not return Beethoven's affection.

It's usually simplistic to try to read biographical details into musical composition. Apparently the last piece of music an ill and suffering Beethoven completed before his death in 1827 was that jaunty finale to Op. 130. But the anguished slow movement of Op. 18 No. 1 does indeed sound like the musical expression of Beethoven's crushed romantic hopes:

The next piece on the program was the Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 74, Harp, so called (not by Beethoven) because it calls for extensive pizzicato (plucking) in the first movement. But again, it was the slow second movement that I found most engaging. As the members of the quartet made clear in the open rehearsal, slow movements as well as fast ones are technically difficult; they must be deliberate enough to fully express the character of the music, but not so slow that they become static. It's a fine balance that the Takács has found unerringly so far.

The final quartet was Op. 131, often lauded as the pinnacle of Beethoven's achievement in the string quartet. (This is the quartet that is central to Yaron Zilberman's 2012 film A Late Quartet.) It has seven movements that are played continuously, rather than with standard pauses in between. As a result it is a bit of a marathon for performers and listeners alike.

Over its first 25 minutes or so, the mood shifts from serene to sprightly to reflective. Then in the fifth movement a manically insistent melody is played by the first violin. Over the next five minutes it undergoes variations but keeps returning over and over. The Takács played this section at an almost inhuman speed. While their virtuosity was breathtaking, I'm not a fan of technical difficulty for difficulty's sake. In his middle and late quartets Beethoven seems to be pushing musicians to the limits of what is possible, but to my ears the technical challenges are not always justified by the musical ends:

In its frantic energy and relentless repetition this movement reminded me of nothing so much as one of Carl Stalling's Looney Tunes soundtracks. This is followed by a brief, mournful adagio that leads into the broken rhythms of the finale, a powerful, "Beethovenian" conclusion:

But as Nic Mathew pointed out in his pre-concert talk, Beethoven possesses a "multiplicity of voices." To seek coherence in his late quartets—with their jarring shifts of mood, tone and tempo—is to look for a unity that Beethoven seems to delight in negating. As Dusinberre mentioned during his interview with Mathew, Beethoven repeatedly "confounds your expectations in an uncomfortable way." Perhaps the only way to approach these works is simply to accept what critic Edward Said has called their "bristling, difficult and unyielding—perhaps even inhuman—challenge" to performers and listeners alike.

The talks, interviews, master classes and other events surrounding these concerts immeasurably enriched the experience of this music for me. I'm very much looking forward to the Takács Quartet's return in the spring to continue their Cal Performances residency and complete the cycle of the Beethoven quartets. More posts will follow.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The madness of love: Layla and Majnun, The Winter's Tale, and Kindra Scharich

As he was walking in the shaft of light from the setting sun, he thought to himself that love is an infected root that seeks out the best way to survive: a fatal illness with an incredibly long course that causes addiction, making the victim prefer suffering to well-being, grief to tranquility, uncertainty to stability.

—Maurizio de Giovanni, Everyone in Their Place: The Summer of Commissario Ricciardi (translated by Antony Shugaar)
Thanks to a gift from a dear friend I'm currently reading the Commissario Ricciardi novels of Maurizio de Giovanni (the subject of a future post). In the third novel in the series, Everyone in Their Place, love causes ordinary people to feel the unfamiliar, stabbing emotions of anguish, jealousy and hatred, and to contemplate (and sometimes commit) extraordinary acts of violence towards others and themselves. Love, Commissario Ricciardi begins to feel, is a form of madness.

It's a time-honored theme: a week ago I had the opportunity to witness three performances featuring works spanning half a millennium, all on the madness that love inspires.

Layla and Majnun, Mark Morris Dance Company, with Alim Qasimov (Majnun), Fargana Qasimova (Layla), and the Silk Road Ensemble. Seen in its world premiere performance Friday, September 30 at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley; commissioned and produced by Cal Performances.

Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova

Layla and Majnun, like Juliet and Romeo, are lovers tragically separated by their families. Layla is forced into an arranged marriage by her parents; Majnun ("madman") then wanders the desert declaiming poems in which his pure love for Layla becomes an aspect of his love for the Divine. When Layla dies Majnun makes a pilgrimage to her grave, where he perishes of grief, uniting with his beloved in death.

Majnun's death on Layla's grave, ca. 1450

It is a tale with ancient roots and it has been reimagined many times, in many cultures, and in many forms, including plays, novels and films. Perhaps the most renowned version is that by 12th-century poet Nezami Ganjawi, born in Azerbaijan when it was part of the Persian Seljuk Empire. Nezami's epic inspired the 16th-century Azerbaijani poet Füzuli to create his own version. And nearly four hundred years later, Füzuli's version was used by Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli as the basis of an opera combining Western and Azerbaijani musical forms; the opera is still frequently performed in its country of origin.

A century after the opera's premiere in 1908, it was adapted and condensed by Azerbaijani mugham vocalist Alim Qasimov and musicians of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble into an hour-long work for two singers accompanied by a chamber orchestra mixing Western, Azerbaijani and Asian instruments. Mark Morris was then invited to choreograph a danced version, and eventually agreed; once again, the story has crossed boundaries of culture and artistic form.

Mark Morris Dance Group and the Silk Road Ensemble in Layla and Majnun

The first thing to say about Morris's Layla and Majnun is that it is less a dance piece accompanied by music than a musical work accompanied by dance. The centrality of the music to the experience of the work was made clear by the staging, which placed the musicians center stage surrounded by a stepped platform; the dancers performed on the platform, at the front of the stage, and occasionally among the musicians.

And the music—particularly the melismatic microtonal mugham singing—is stunning. Here's an example: Alim Qasimov and Faragana Qasimova performing part of the second section of the music of Layla and Majnun with the Silk Road Ensemble:

Rather than designating two soloists as Layla and Majnun, Morris had a different pair of dancers take on the roles in each of the five parts; he seemed to be saying that we are all potential Laylas and Majnuns. The movement vocabulary drew extensively on spinning reminiscent of ecstatic Sufi dancing. I was also reminded by a friend that Morris was once a member of the company of the choreographer Laura Dean, for whom whirling dancers became a signature. That friend also reported that on the second night some of the movement and interactions among the dancers had changed. Morris had clearly given his company the freedom to improvise in response to the vocalists' inspirations.

In the end, the music, the movement, and the striking backdrop by gestural painter Howard Hodgkin (which seemed to shift and change under James Ingalls' atmospheric lighting), combined into a stunning totality in which every element enhanced and enriched the meanings of the others. Another masterpiece from Mark Morris and his collaborators.

The Winter's Tale. Free Shakespeare in the Park. Seen Saturday, October 1 in McLaren Park, San Francisco; produced by the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival.

Happy Bohemians in SF Shakespeare Festival's "The Winter's Tale"

"The Winter's Tale" is one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," dramas in which elements of both tragedy and comedy uneasily coexist. It was a bold choice for Free Shakespeare in the Park, because it's not an obvious crowd-pleaser: the mixed character of the play means that our responses must necessarily be mixed as well.

Leontes (Stephen Muterspaugh), ruler of Sicilia, is wildly jealous of his pregnant wife Hermione (Maryssa Wanlass). He suspects her of having an affair with his old friend Polixenes (David Everett Moore), king of Bohemia, who has been on an lengthy visit to Sicilia's court. In his madness Leontes twists everything into evidence of Hermione's unfaithfulness: when, at Leontes' bidding, Hermione urges Polixenes to extend his stay, Leontes sees both her willingness to make the request and Polixenes' acquiescence as confirmations of his suspicions.

Leontes (Muterspaugh), Hermione (Wanlass) and Polixenes (Moore) in "The Winter's Tale"

Leontes commands his advisor Camillo (Damon Seperi) to poison Polixenes; instead, Camillo warns Polixenes and flees with him to Bohemia—for Leontes, another confirmation that he is surrounded by disloyalty. When Hermione gives birth to a daughter, Leontes orders that the infant be abandoned in the wilderness and puts Hermione, accused of adultery, on trial for her life. Although the words of the Oracle proclaim her innocent, Leontes rejects them, and Hermione collapses and is announced to have died.

Sixteen years later the abandoned daughter, Perdita (Rosie Hallett), becomes engaged to Polixenes' son Prince Florizel (Davern Wright). Their engagement occasions Perdita's reunion with a now-repentant Leontes, a reconciliation between the estranged Leontes and Polixenes, and the discovery that Hermione did not die, but has been in hiding. It's hard to see this as a happy ending, though—by this point Leontes' brutal actions have forever forfeited our sympathies.

The actors were a talented and versatile ensemble, and director Rebecca J. Ennals and her creative design team cleverly pointed up the contrast between the sober, formal Sicilia and the colorful, joyful Bohemia. But another contrast—that between the sunny park setting and dark emotional world of the play—was perhaps too great for this outdoor "Winter's Tale" to fully succeed.

The Great German Songbook. Kindra Scharich, mezzo-soprano, with George Fee, piano. Seen Sunday, October 2, at the Noe Valley Ministry, San Francisco; produced by Lieder Alive!

To be without him is for me like the grave,
And the whole world is bitter.
My poor mind has gone mad,
My poor reason is dismantled,
My peace is gone, my heart is heavy,
I find it never and nevermore.

—Goethe, "Gretchen am Spinnrade" (Gretchen at the spinning wheel), from the musical setting by Franz Schubert
Love is, of course, the great subject of the German lied. And Kindra Scharich seems to be at her considerable best when performing songs of longing and sorrow. She is an exceptionally subtle and communicative singer who can command an audience's rapt attention with hushed inwardness as well as dramatic intensity.

Kindra Scharich

This program was designed to be a kind of greatest hits of the lied, featuring works by a half-dozen composers spanning the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was an ideal introduction to lieder for someone like me, who is just beginning to appreciate the form. Hearing Scharich sing again some of the pieces she had sung during her SF Music Day preview of this program a week earlier helped me to discover new details in the words and musical settings. The way, for example, in which Schubert repeats the opening line of Goethe's poem to end the song "Gretchen am Spinnrade," leaving us with a feeling of uncertainty or suspension that echoes that of the lovelorn speaker (and creating a circular structure that brings to mind the turning of her wheel). Or the way that Liszt has the bell-like piano fall silent in the middle of "Ihr Glocken von Marling" (You bells of  Marling):

If there was any minor issue with this superb program, it was that in the bright acoustic of the Noe Valley Ministry the volume of Fee's piano accompaniment never seemed to drop below mezzo-forte, even at those moments when Scharich was singing pianissimo. But this was a minor issue indeed.

Perhaps the peak moments of the concert were Scharich's performances of three Richard Strauss songs, the ardent "Zueignung" (Gratitude) and the quietly gorgeous "Morgen" (Morning) and "Allerseelen" (All Souls' Day), all of which simply glowed. Strauss's songs seem to be written for Scharich's rich vocal timbre and wide range; I very much hope that performing more of this composer is in her near-future plans.

This was the inaugural concert of Lieder Alive!'s 2016/17 Liederabend Series, which continues with Katherine Growdon, accompanied by Corey Jameson, performing Rilke songs by Schumann, Brahms, and Peter Lieberson on Sunday, October 30 at 5 pm in the Noe Valley Ministry. For more details about upcoming Liederabend concerts, please see the website of Lieder Alive!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

An exciting young singer: Kindra Scharich

I go to a lot of performances by young singers. I regularly attend concerts of the Merola Opera program, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and regional opera companies. One of the pleasures of going to these performances is hearing interesting and exciting new voices.

But it's far more rare to see a young singer who is a mature artist. Kindra Scharich first came to my attention in the role of Florinda in Ars Minerva's production of Carlo Pallavicino's The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles (Le Amazzoni nelle Isole Fortunate). I wrote in my post about the opera that "Scharich's rich mezzo-soprano in particular is gorgeous." So when I saw that she would be singing a program of lieder as part of the amazing free chamber music festival SF Music Day, I made a point of attending her program.

What I experienced was ravishing. Scharich has a wonderful voice, with a rich lower register and a gleaming top. But she doesn't just have a beautiful sound; she's a marvelously eloquent performer. Her expressiveness transforms each song into a subtle mini-drama. And although she can rise to operatic volume levels when a song calls for it, her ability to create a hushed mood and a sense of longing through pianissimo singing is especially memorable.

Here is her performance of Franz Schubert's "Ständchen" (Serenade; poetry by Ludwig Reilstab, piano accompaniment by George Fee):

The words of the second part are: "Hörst die Nachtigallen schlagen? / Ach! sie flehen dich, / Mit der Töne süßen Klagen / Flehen sie für mich. / Sie verstehn des Busens Sehnen, / Kennen Liebesschmerz, Rühren mit den Silbertönen / Jedes weiche Herz. / Laß auch dir die Brust bewegen, / Liebchen, höre mich! / Bebend harr' ich dir entgegen! / Komm, beglücke mich!" (Do you hear the calling of the nightingales? / Ah, they summon you, / With their sweet sounds / they summon you to me. / They understand the longing of the heart, / They know the pain of love, / They calm each tender heart / with their silver tones. / Let them also stir the feelings within your breast, / My beloved, hear me! / Trembling I wait for you, / Come, fill me with joy!)

Kindra Scharich will appear in the gala season-opening concert of the 2016-17 Liederabend Series of Lieder Alive! Her program will be "Lieder from the Great German Songbook, from Schubert to Strauss"; the concert will take place Sunday, October 2, at 5 pm at the Noe Valley Ministry, 1021 Sanchez Street (near 23rd) in San Francisco.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The real Boheme: Gustave Charpentier's Louise

If asked to name an opera set in Paris and featuring bohemians and their working-class muses, most of us would probably think of Puccini's La Bohème (1896). Puccini's opera was based on a literary source, Henri Murger's novel Scènes de la vie de bohème (1851), which portrayed a group of struggling young artists and writers in the Paris of the 1830s.

But there is another opera set in bohemian Paris: Gustave Charpentier's Louise (1900). If Puccini and his librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giocosa depicted bohemian life, Charpentier lived it.

The son of a baker, Charpentier was working in a textile mill and playing in the municipal band in Tourcoing, a town near Lille, when his employer asked him for violin lessons. Impressed by the young man's musicianship, the employer sponsored Charpentier's admission to the Lille Conservatoire. It was soon apparent that he had absorbed everything the provincial conservatory could teach him, and the town council awarded him an annual stipend so that the nineteen-year-old could travel to Paris and continue his studies.

Gustave Charpentier

Charpentier was entranced by Paris. He lived in Montmartre, a working-class district home to many artists and musicians, and became a committed leftist. His rebellious behavior brought him into conflict with his teachers at the Conservatoire, and two years of compulsory military service interrupted his musical studies. But on his return he enrolled in a composition class taught by Jules Massenet—a choice (or stroke of fortune) that changed his life.

Massenet composed in a variety of genres, but especially vocal music and opera. He was also a former winner of the Prix de Rome, a prize which (with, no doubt, Massenet's support) Charpentier also won, with the cantata Didon. The prize subsidized a three-year stay at the French Academy in Rome.

While living and composing in Rome, Charpentier conceived of a musical drama whose subject would be the everyday life of Montmartre. The focus of this roman musical, or "musical novel," was the struggle of a young working-class woman, Louise, to find happiness with her artist lover despite the strong disapproval of her family.

This was a radical choice for an operatic subject. Most operas of the time still had literary, historical, or mythological sources. [1] In contrast, Charpentier's opera was semi-autobiographical; he had begun a long-term affair with a seamstress while attending the Conservatoire, and his opera's heroine may have been based in part on his lover. The coincidence of dates is notable: the love affair began in 1885, and the opera is set in the spring and summer of that year.

Not only were the characters in Louise based on his neighbors in Montmartre, but the story centered on a woman's bid to escape the constraints of her loving but limited and rigidly conventional family. As my partner wondered when I described the plot to her, "Does she die?" Catherine Clément (in Opera, or the Undoing of Women) is not the only person to notice that in 19th-century opera, women who defy social and sexual conventions—Norma, Lucia, Gilda, Violetta, Carmen, and Puccini's Tosca, Butterfly, and Mimi—often wind up dead. (Four suicides, two murders, and two deaths by consumption, if you're keeping track.)

But not Louise. In fact, at the end of the opera she achieves her freedom and happiness, even though we recognize that both may be fleeting. And both come at the cost of causing deep pain to her parents; in the opera's final moments, Louise's father curses her, and curses Paris for luring her away.

Progress on Louise was slow, and having gotten stuck on the later acts Charpentier hired the symbolist poet Saint-Pol-Roux to complete the libretto. Among other contributions, Saint-Pol-Roux provided the words for a third-act aria by Louise, "Depuis le jour où je me suis donnée" (Since the day I gave myself to you), in which she sings joyously to her painter lover Julien of the happiness that she's found with him.

Charpentier finally completed the opera in 1896, but earlier the same year Puccini's La Bohème had received its premiere and become a smash hit (although it did not receive its first performance in Paris for two more years). Perhaps the similarities between the two operas were what made the director of the Opéra-Comique, Léon Carvalho, suggest that the setting of Louise be changed to the mid-18th century. Carvalho also wanted a different ending, in which Julien would enter through a window during Louise's final argument with her father; the lovers would embrace, and Louise's father would bless the couple.

Fortunately none of those changes were made, and two years later Albert Carré (who had taken over as the director of the Opéra-Comique after Carvalho's death) decided to accept the opera without changes. It premiered as the first opera of the new century on 2 February 1900, and was an immediate success.

After eight performances the lead soprano, Marthe Rioton, fell ill and was replaced by an unknown singer named Mary Garden; her performance as Louise made her a star. Louise went on to have a hundred performances in its first season alone. Mary Garden recorded "Depuis le jour" four times, the first in 1912; it can be heard on YouTube.

Mary Garden as Mélisande

Despite his sudden success, Charpentier remained true to his political principles. In April 1900 he initiated the Oeuvre Mimi Pinson (named after the heroine of Alfred de Musset's poem), which provided free opera tickets to working-class women. In 1902 he founded the Conservatoire Populaire Mimi Pinson, which provided working-class girls and women with free instruction in music and dance.

In 1913 Charpentier's sequel to Louise, Julien, was first performed. It was well-received, but could not match the success of Louise. As Robert Orledge writes of Julien in the New Grove Dictionary of Music, "Immediate revivals were prevented by World War I, later ones by Charpentier's wisdom...In this pretentious allegorical mixture of reason and illusion he moves from the anecdotal and human approach of Louise towards abstract principles of passion and beauty, and his musical talent falls below the challenge of his dream." [2]

Perhaps all too aware of the shortcomings of Julien, Charpentier would never complete another work (although he lived until 1956). Other projects were announced, including an opera entitled Marie (presumably the daughter of Louise and Julien), but never realized.

In 1935 it was decided to record as much of Louise as could fit on eight double-sided 78 rpm discs (twice the number of discs as a typical album, but about half the number needed to record the whole work). Charpentier—now 75 and still living in the same Montmartre apartment—made the needed cuts for this "special version for the gramophone." Renowned singers Ninon Vallin and Georges Thill sang the roles of Louise and Julien, accompanied by Les Choeurs Raugel and Orchestra led by Eugène Bigot, longtime conductor at the Opéra-Comique. The recording won the Grand Prix du Disque, and despite the substantial abridgment and the limits of the mono sound is still perhaps the greatest recording of the opera that has ever been made. From that recording, "Depuis le jour":

The second verse:
Autour de moi tout est sourire,About me all is smiles,
lumière et joie!light and joy!
Et je tremble délicieusementAnd I tremble deliciously
Au souvenir charmantAt the charming memory
Du premier jour D'amour!Of the first day of Love!
The recording also inspired director Abel Gance (director of Napoléon) to make a film of Louise, which was released in 1938. Thill reprised the role of Julien, but the American singer and actress Grace Moore was brought in to play Louise (Moore was more than a decade younger than Vallin). If your library has access to Alexander Street Press streaming videos, you can view the full film; "Depuis le jour" is available on YouTube.

Moore would go on to make another recording of Louise five years later in New York, with Canadian tenor Raoul Jobin as Julien, accompanied by the Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. This live radio broadcast is marred by some wayward notes from the principals and by audience applause. But for me the main problem is Beecham's approach, which in "Depuis le jour" presses for excitement instead of the relaxed sensuality favored by Bigot (who, after all, was in direct contact with the composer) or of Mary Garden's 1912 recording (she, of course, learned the piece from its first conductor, André Messager). In my view, the abridged 1935 recording remains unsurpassed. It is available at bargain price on both Nimbus Records (NI 7829) and Naxos Historical (8.110225).

Note to SF Opera director Matthew Shilvock: Louise was last performed at SF Opera in 1999, with Renée Fleming as Louise, Jerry Hadley as Julien, Samuel Ramey as Louise's father, and Felicity Palmer as her mother; a young Jay Hunter Morris sang the role of a noctambulist. (How did I manage to miss it?) This opera is a prime candidate for a new or revived production in the next few seasons.

  1. Even Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, set in a poor Sicilian village and often called the first verismo (naturalist) opera, was based on a Giovanni Verga short story and play. Cavalleria rusticana's premiere was held in Rome in 1890, the year Charpentier returned to Paris and after he had begun extensive work on his own opera.
  2. Robert Orledge, "Charpentier, Gustave," Grove Music Online.

Monday, August 29, 2016

"I love without hope of return": Lady Mary Wortley Montagu part 5

Lady Mary Wortley Montague, by Carlos Francesco Rusca, 1739

A continuation of "Friends and lovers."

Princess Docile and Prince Somber

That Lady Mary's marriage to Edward Wortley Montagu was emotionally unfulfilling seems clear. In later life Lady Mary wrote a fable about Princess Docile and her suitor Prince Somber. Prince Somber seems to be based on Wortley; he treats women "with a coldness verging on Contempt." [1]

Wortley's coldness as a suitor seems to have extended into the marriage. In October 1712—just two months after their elopement—Lady Mary was complaining to Wortley of his neglect after he had gone to the north of England without her; left behind, she sent after him letters that went unanswered. "I sometimes imagine you not well," she wrote, "and sometimes that you think it of small importance to write, or that greater matters have taken up your thoughts. — This last imagination is too cruel for me....How can you be so carelesse?" And on their first anniversary, she began a letter to him, "I can not misse an Oppertunity of saying kind things to you thô you will never make use of one to say them to me. How could you write me so ungracious a letter? why Would you do it?" [2]

Their adventure in Turkey seems to have temporarily brought them closer; Lady Mary became pregnant with their daughter around the time she visited the harem and saw dances that made her think of "something not to be spoke of" (see Part 3 of this series, "In the harem"). But after their return from Constantinople Wortley increasingly found reasons to be away on business. Lady Mary's public profile, and the vicious attacks on her by Pope and others alleging sexual improprieties, may have estranged the couple further.

At some point after their experiences in the Ottoman lands Lady Mary composed a "little treatise" that she later described to Joseph Spence: "It was from the customs of the Turks that I first thought of a septennial bill for the benefit of married persons..." The "septennial bill" would ensure that "every married person should have the liberty of declaring every seventh year whether they choose to continue to live in that state for another seven years or not..." It's an obvious point, but someone content in their marriage is less likely to be thinking about the advantages of having the right to dissolve it at will. [3]

Francesco Algarotti (detail), by Jean-Étienne Liotard, ca. 1745

"I find you so different from the rest of mankind": Francesco Algarotti

Enter Francesco Algarotti, a young Italian intellectual who arrived in London in the spring of 1736. Young, handsome, intellectually daring and a sparkling conversationalist, he dazzled both Lady Mary and her friend Lord Hervey; soon both were utterly smitten with him. In August Lady Mary declared in a letter to Algarotti, "I no longer know how to write to you. My feelings are too ardent; I could not possibly explain them or hide them...I see all its folly without being able to correct myself." [4]

Folly indeed. Not only was Algarotti half her age (at the time of his arrival he was 23, while she was 46), he seems to have had a decided preference for male lovers. Since her own close friend Lord Hervey was probably one of them, Lady Mary is likely to have been aware of this preference. Nonetheless, she wrote a remarkable letter to Algarotti when she learned of his plans to return to Europe. Comparing herself to Queen Dido being abandoned by Aeneas (although perhaps a more apt comparison would have been to the apocryphal tale of Sappho's unrequited love for Phaon in Ovid's Epistles), she wrote,
I like everything in you, and I find you so different from the rest of mankind...that it does not surprise me that you have inspired sentiments which until now have not been inspired in anybody...

My reason makes me see all its absurdity, and my Heart makes me feel all its importance. Feeble Reason! which battles with my passion and does not destroy it, and which vainly makes me see all the folly of loving to the degree that I love without hope of return. must believe that you possess in me the most perfect friend and the most passionate lover. I should have been delighted if nature permitted me to limit myself to the first title; I am enraged at having been formed to wear skirts.
Why was my haughty Soul to Woman joyn'd?
Why this soft sex impos'd upon my Mind?... [5]
Algarotti did not return to London for more than two years. In the intervening time he published a book of philosophical dialogues, Il Newtonianismo per le dame (Newtonianism for women, Naples, 1737). In 1742 it was translated into English by Elizabeth Carter as Sir Isaac Newton's theory of light and colours, and his principle of attraction, made familiar to the ladies in several Entertainments. In the fourth Entertainment there is a brief tribute to Lady Mary's pioneering inoculation efforts: "How many, as well fair Circassians as English Beauties, have had their Charms preserved by the Inoculation of the Small Pox..." [6] (See "Charm'd with their Civility and Beauty," part 2 of this series, for more about Lady Mary's role in bringing smallpox inoculation to Britain.)

"I am leaving to seek you"

During Algarotti's absence Lady Mary sent him anguished, abject letters imploring him to write; these letters make for difficult reading. He did ultimately return to London in 1739 for a second visit. His sojourn lasted about three months, some of it spent staying with Hervey. During this visit, Lady Mary wrote an erotic poem in which the speaker imagines watching a lover sleep:
Between your sheets supine you sleep
Nor dream of vigils that fond Lovers keep
While wakeing I indulge the pain
Of Fruitless Passion oft declar'd in vain... [7]
Given her own recognition that her love was "fruitless," what happened next is extraordinary. On 16 July, about two months after Algarotti had left London to travel to Russia, she wrote him, "I am leaving to seek you. One need not accompany such a proof of an eternal Attachment with an embroidery of words. I shall meet you in Venice." [8] A few days later she left England for the Continent, not to return for more than two decades. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, her fantasy of living with Algarotti was never realized.

"I have begun to scorn your scorn"

Algarotti spent much of the next two years at Frederick the Great's Prussian court in Berlin, and acting as his ambassador to other European kingdoms. In that capacity he journeyed to Turin 1741. Having waited in vain for him to come to Venice for nearly two years, Lady Mary went there to meet him. Her visit lasted almost two months, and they were in close contact: Algarotti apparently gave her a poem on the subject of love that was later found in her copy of the 1741 edition of Madame de La Fayette's La Princesse de Clèves, and he added some brief notes to her letters to Lord Hervey. But this visit disabused Lady Mary of the illusion that Algarotti was capable of returning her romantic feelings. After he left Turin, she wrote him a final letter:
I have begun to scorn your scorn, and in that vein I no longer wish to restrain myself. In the time (of foolish memory) when I had a frantic passion for you, the desire to please you (although I understood its entire impossibility) and the fear of boring you almost stifled my voice when I spoke to you, and all the more stopped my hand five hundred times a day when I took up my pen to write to you. At present it is no longer that. I have studied you, and studied so well, that Sir [Isaac] Newton did not dissect the rays of the sun with more exactness than I have deciphered the sentiments of your soul...I saw that your soul is filled with a thousand beautiful fancies but all together makes up only indifference...About manuscripts, statues, Pictures, poetry, wine, conversation, you always show taste, Delicacy, and vivacity. Why then do I find only churlishness and indifference? Because I am so thick as to strike out nothing better... [9]
To Hervey she wrote that her visit to Turin was "a very disagreable Epoque of my Life." She would not meet or correspond with Algarotti again for fifteen years. [10]

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in Turkish dress (detail), by Jean-Étienne Liotard, ca. 1756

"You can hide the passions, never will you succeed in exterminating them"

Lady Mary spent the next two decades living and travelling in Italy and southern France. She remained on cordial, if emotionally as well as physically distant, terms with her husband (who apparently had no clue about Algarotti), and received £1200 a year from him for living expenses. She spent most of this time in quiet retirement near Brescia, where perhaps she was too isolated. She wound up becoming the victim of Count Ugolino Palazzi, who exploited her financially and, when it became clear that she wanted to return to Venice, tried various stratagems to prevent her from leaving; she only escaped with difficulty. (Palazzi and his brothers would later be convicted of "violent outrages against their tenants, including murder." [11])

Stopping at Padua on her way to Venice at the end of 1756, she was reunited with Algarotti, who had an estate in the area. Her friendship with him was renewed, along, perhaps, with the dim embers of that passionate attraction which once caused her so much pain. (She was now 67, while he was in his mid-forties.) Her letters to him from Venice have a bantering, flirtatious tone, but nonetheless express deep feeling:
Farewell Philosophy: here are the fine beginnings of Dotage. I gave proof of it last night at the academy of M. Barbarigo in the presence of three or four hundred people. There was excellent Music. Perhaps you do not know that I love Music to the point of Hatred. I could not listen to it with impunity...I have kept myself as distant as I could from that charming seductress, and I flattered myself that my weakness was not known. Poor human Wisdom! it is your ultimate effort: you can hide the passions, never will you succeed in exterminating them. This Reflection smells terribly of Marivaux. —

Let us return to my Story. I abandoned myself to the Pleasure of listening to enchanting sounds which stir the soul, thinking mine frozen enough by time to be able to resist even the Sirens. Mademoiselle Barbarigo with her Angelic face joins her voice with the Instruments, the Applause is deserved and general; her mother's eyes sparkle with joy. A certain Chevalier Sagramoso (whom I shall hate all my life) whispers to me, out of an accursed Politeness, that he had heard my daughter sing in London. A thousand pictures present themselves at the same time to my mind, the Impression becomes too strong and, fool that I am, I burst into tears, and am obliged to leave in order not to disturb the concert by my sobs. I return home, exasperated at having drawn public scorn on myself deservedly: a sentimental old woman, what a Monster! [12]
Lady Mary alternated spending time in Venice (during the Carnival seasons) and Padua (during the summers) until two events finally called her back to England. The first was the death of her husband Wortley in January 1761, and familial struggles over his will (which left the bulk of his fortune, more than £1 million, to his second-oldest grandson, rather than to his own estranged son). Second was her own ill health: she discovered, probably just weeks before Wortley's death, that she had breast cancer.

Her friend, the older writer Mary Astell, had undergone a mastectomy in 1731 (without anesthesia, which was not developed for another century). Astell had died in agonizing pain two months after the operation. Lady Mary decided against any but palliative treatments, although she knew that the cancer was likely to prove fatal within a year or two. After a final summer in Italy, in September 1761 she set out for London.

"Dragging my ragged remnant of life to England"

But "dragging [her] ragged remnant of life to England" [13] was complicated by the continuing war in Europe. Britain was allied with Prussia against France, Spain, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire; Lady Mary's route inevitably passed through hostile or contested territory. It was a long and hazard-filled journey. But by mid-November she had arrived at the port city of Rotterdam, where she stayed for two months while waiting for an opportunity to cross the Channel. It finally came in mid-January 1762; by the end of the month she was living in a house in London near that of her daughter Lady Bute.

Lady Mary's final months were spent re-acquainting herself with her family and her old friends, and coming to know some of the new members of London's fashionable and political worlds who had emerged in the two decades of her absence. But by summer she was very seriously ill. In her last days she gave the volumes of her lifelong journals to Lady Bute. Her daughter apparently read and re-read the journals, and allowed her own youngest daughter, Lady Louisa Stuart, to read the early volumes "with copying or note-taking expressly prohibited." But shortly before her own death in 1794, Lady Bute had all of Lady Mary's diaries burned. [14]

Lady Mary died on 21 August 1762, just two days shy of the fiftieth anniversary of her elopement with Edward Wortley Montagu. She had not had an easy life. But she had become a highly regarded poet, a thought-provoking essayist, a dangerous wit, an intrepid traveller, and an intellectually and sexually adventurous woman during a time in which it was increasingly difficult for women to escape conventional family-oriented roles. As her biographer Isobel Grundy has written, "her intellect made her hated...and her emotional sensitivity made her suffer." But towards the end of her life she wrote that "there is no happiness without an alloy, nor indeed any misfortune without some mixture of consolation, if our passions permitted us to perceive it." [15]

Coda: The Embassy Letters

In December 1761, while she was stranded in Rotterdam, Lady Mary entrusted the two manuscript volumes of her account of her experiences in the Ottoman lands to the Reverend Benjamin Sowden, a British Presbyterian minister. Her intention was apparently for Sowden to have them published. But after her death, Sowden contacted Lord Bute about the volumes. Horace Walpole reported that "her family are in terrors" about what they might contain. Lady Mary's son-in-law Lord Bute paid Sowden £200 for the manuscript, which was duly surrendered. [16]

But Sowden had allowed two English travellers who had expressed interest in the manuscript to borrow it overnight, and they managed to transcribe it before returning it. Without the family's knowledge or approval, Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M—y W—y M—e Written during Her Travels... was published by Becket and De Hondt in three volumes in London in 1763, and became a sensation. Known as "The Turkish Embassy Letters," the book made Lady Mary posthumously famous.

Many editions followed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Lord Byron was a fervent admirer, and the letters were one of the chief inspirations of his book-length narrative poem Don Juan (1819-24). Subsequent editions of the Embassy Letters added more letters and correspondents, until in the mid-1960s Robert Halsband edited a scholarly edition of The Complete Letters (Oxford University Press, 1965-67). But it's remarkable to think that without the unauthorized actions of Sowden and the travellers who pirated her manuscript, we would likely know very little today about Lady Mary's extraordinary life and writings.

Last time:  "Friends and lovers"

  1. Quoted in Isobel Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 40.
  2. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, To Edward Wortley Montagu, October 1712, Selected Letters, edited by Isobel Grundy, Penguin, 1997, pp. 98-99; Montagu, Letter to Edward Wortley Montagu, 23 August 1713, Selected Letters, p. 110.
  3. Joseph Spence, Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters of Books and Men, Collected in Conversation, Vol. 1, edited by James M. Osborn, Oxford University Press, 1966, No. 765, p. 312.
  4. Montagu, To Francesco Algarotti, August 1736, Selected Letters, p. 226.
  5. Montagu, To Francesco Algarotti, 10 September, Selected Letters, pp. 227-228.
  6. Francesco Algarotti, Sir Isaac Newton's theory of light and colours, and his principle of attraction, made familiar to the ladies in several Entertainments, Vol. 2, translated by Elizabeth Carter, London, 1742, p. 14.
  7. Isobel Grundy, The Verse of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: A Critical Edition, Vol. 2, Doctoral thesis, Oxford University, 1971, p. 598.
  8. Montagu, To Francesco Algarotti, 16 July 1739, Selected Letters, p. 245. 
  9. Montagu, To Francesco Algarotti, ?May 1741, Selected Letters, p.285-286.
  10. Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. 438. 
  11. Montagu, Selected Letters, note p. 454.
  12. Montagu, To Francesco Algarotti, 12 March 1757, Selected Letters, pp. 436-437.
  13. Montagu, To Sir James and Lady Frances Steuart, 20 November 1761, p. 495.
  14. Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. 623.
  15. Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. xviii; Montagu, To Sir James Steuart, 12 April 1761, Selected Letters, p. 490.
  16. Quoted in Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, p. 624.