Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Rene Clair's early films part 3

title card

Le Million (1931, directed and written by René Clair, after a play by Georges Berr and Marcel Guillemaud)

Michel (René Lefèvre), like all artists, is perpetually broke. But in the middle of a confrontation with the local merchants to whom he owes money, Michel discovers that he has hit the jackpot: the lottery ticket he bought with his last sous matches the winning number. Of course, the attitudes of his creditors are immediately transformed: suddenly nothing is too good for Michel. They just want to see the ticket, to confirm Michel's good fortune.

How do we know you have this ticket?

Realizing that he must have left the ticket in the tatty old jacket he'd asked his long-suffering fiancée Béatrice (Annabella) to mend, Michel rushes to her place—only to discover that the jacket has been taken by Père-la-Tulipe (Paul Ollivier), a rag-picker who hid in her apartment when he was being chased by les flics.

Would you mind if I kept the jacket?

The race is on to find the jacket and recover the winning ticket.

But before Michel reaches Père-la-Tulipe's secondhand shop (which is really just a front for his high-tech gang lair!) the threadbare jacket has been sold to Ambrosio Sopranelli (Constantin Siroesco), a singer appearing at the Opera Lyrique in the (fictional) Les Bohémiens. The jacket is perfect to complete his costume—so authentic!

I'm all set to sing The Bohemians in this costume

Everyone descends on the theater to find the unsuspecting Sopranelli and his jacket: Michel and Béatrice, who is a dancer in the opera; Michel's opportunistic roommate Prosper (Louis Allibert), who wants to grab the ticket for himself; Prosper's new girlfriend, the equally opportunistic Vanda (Vanda Gréville); and Père-la-Tulipe and his henchmen.

Backstage before the curtain rises Vanda and Béatrice separately enter Sopranelli's dressing room; each makes a play for the lottery ticket, without success:

Beatrice and Vanda fumble for the ticket

Vanda, seeing which way the wind is blowing, then makes a play for Michel:

Vanda kisses Michel

Witnessing Michel's apparent betrayal, the distressed Beéatrice flees onstage. Michel follows to try to make up with her. But at that moment the curtain rises, Sopranelli and his diva Madame Ravellina (Odette Talazac) enter, and the feuding lovers are trapped behind the scenery.

The feuding lovers hide

Sopranelli and Madame Ravellina launch into the opening duet, "Nous sommes seuls" (We are alone). The lyrics provide ironic commentary on the lovers' situation; as Michel and Béatrice sit silently amid the artifice of the stage, anything but alone, the tenor and soprano sing "Truth is what we find here."

Truth is what we find here

And because the lovers must remain silent, they can only "speak" through the words of the duet:

Thou lovest me not, I who love thee
I lack the force to resist thy pleas

As the opera characters reconcile, so do the real-life lovers hidden behind them:

The two couples kiss

And they are not the only ones who are moved by the music; members of Père-la-Tulipe's gang, in the audience, also find it affecting:

The gang cries

Clair portrays the power of opera to transcend its means of production. We witness Sopranelli's vanity, his bickering with the diva, the bored stagehands who create the magical theatrical effects (the falling blossoms, the waxing moon), and the patent artificiality of the sets. Nonetheless, emotional truth is indeed what we find here.

But there's work to be done: the lottery ticket still hasn't been found. Michel and Prosper sneak out onstage during the performance disguised as extras in a crowd scene, and in the middle of an aria begin a tug-of-war over the jacket (Michel and Prosper are in the broad-brimmed feathered hats):


Mayhem follows (and for good measure, a parody of Harold Lloyd's The Freshman (1925), as one character after another grabs the jacket and tries to escape with it, only to be tackled by the others).

If Sous les toits des Paris was inspired by street-singers, Le Million is not only set in the world of comic opera, but makes use of its techniques—including occasional songs. Père-la-Tulipe's henchmen begin their meeting by singing a rousing anthem of class solidarity:

We take back the spoils of social injustice
Other songs interspersed throughout the film tell the story or comment on the action, as if giving voice to the musings of the characters' consciences. It's all very clever and funny, as is the ultimate fate of the lottery ticket.

But despite the film's many virtues, the comic-opera ambience also makes it ultimately feel a bit lightweight. Père-la-Tulipe's gang may find themselves tearing up at the opera; we're in no danger of doing the same over the fate of Michel, whatever it turns out to be. His world is too unreal, and Michel himself is a bit of a heel, with an artist's wandering eye (and hands, and lips). He will probably make Béatrice miserable. Apart from under-appreciated Béatrice, only two other characters earn our sympathy: Père-la-Tulipe, who upholds the thieves' code of honor, and an increasingly exasperated cab driver (Raymond Cordy), whose comic despair mounts along with the unpaid fare on his long-running meter.

Clair may have recognized that Cordy's rumpled Everyman was one of the best things about Le Million, because he cast him in next film as well, his masterpiece.

Next in the series: À nous la liberté (Give us freedom! 1931)

Last time: Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930)

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Rene Clair's early films part 2

Rene Clair

One striking thing about René Clair's The Italian Straw Hat (see René Clair's early films part 1) is how few intertitles it has, even though it is the adaptation of a play. Clair not only found visual means to convey information that in the play would have been related in dialogue, he introduced visual jokes (such as the clip-on tie and the tight, unfamiliar dress gloves and shoes) that tell us about the social status of the characters.

Like many other silent film directors, Clair dreaded the arrival of sound, which he called "the monster." In May 1929 he wrote,
Can the talking picture be poetic? There is reason to fear that the precision of the verbal expression will drive poetry off the screen just as it drives off the atmosphere of the daydream. The imaginary words we used to put into the mouths of those silent beings in those dialogues of images will always be more beautiful than any actual sentences. The heroes of the screen spoke to the imagination with the complicity of silence. Tomorrow they will talk nonsense into our ears and we will be unable to shut it out. [1]
But like some other directors making the transition to sound (Alfred Hitchcock comes to mind, as does, thanks to a friend, Fritz Lang) Clair found innovative ways to juxtapose sound and image. And he looked for stories to which sound would add an essential dimension.

Opening scene of Sous les toits de Paris

Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930):
At the time I was shooting my second or third silent picture, I heard a circle of street singers in Paris, on my way home from the studios. I thought how sad it was that I had no sound with which to make a picture. Four years later, sound came, and I returned to my street-singers idea. [2]
The film Clair wrote and directed was Sous les toits de Paris, in which the street-singer Albert (Albert Préjean) pursues the flirtatious neighborhood beauty Pola (Pola Illery). She agrees to become his fiancée, but unluckily Albert is arrested. He refuses to rat out the guilty thief whose stolen goods he is caught holding. (That he doesn't even particularly like the thief is beside the point; class solidarity is more important than personal feelings.) While Albert is sitting in a cell, Pola turns to Albert's friend Louis (Edmond Gréville) for comfort. When Albert is released, he learns the unwelcome news that Pola and Louis are in love. In the final shots of the film, he is back selling songs on the street, looking for another pretty girl.

In the silent Italian Straw Hat Clair's camera was often fixed; from the first moments of Sous les toits de Paris the camerawork is fluid. The film opens with a slow, continuous tracking shot that takes us from rooftops to street level. We hear voices singing the title song, first faintly and then increasing in volume as the camera approaches. It's soon revealed that what we're hearing is Albert leading a group of passers-by in the refrain from his latest number, "Sous les toits de Paris" (the songs were composed by Raoul Moretti, with lyrics by René Nazelles).

Albert (Albert Prejean)

As Albert leads the group in another refrain Clair pans up the side of a building, and we see the reactions of the residents on each floor: a pretty young woman (whom we will soon discover to be Pola) who is drawn to the music and the singer; a boy throwing spitballs at the crowd; a man exasperated by the noise; and a newlywed couple enjoying the impromptu concert. Later, as evening falls this same day, Clair will pan back down the building and we will hear each of the residents whistling, humming, singing, or picking out on a piano this opening song. Sound is essential to the gentle humor of these sequences, as the song is passed from person to person.

Pola (Pola Illery)

But where sound is inessential, Clair is reluctant to employ it. In his 1929 essay on sound film, Clair reports watching the recent release of Show Boat:
'Remember your father, remember your past, remember the old boat, etc.,' the old prompter in Show Boat said, to a weeping Laura La Plante. I stuffed up my ears, and then saw on the screen only two troubled people whose words I no longer heard: the vulgar scene became touching. [3]
To avoid banal recitation, throughout the film Clair gives us sequences where the dialogue is unheard. In the opening scene a pickpocket (Bill Bocket) working Albert's streetcorner crowd rifles Pola's purse, despite Albert's attempt to mime to her what's happening.

Pickpocket Bill (Bill Bocket) steals money from Pola's purse

After Albert finishes the song he pursues the thief, and they get into an argument in which we only hear their first exchange. Soundtrack music accompanies the rest of the scene, in which Albert takes the money back from the thief and heads after Pola. She has just met up with her dandyish boyfriend Fred (Gaston Modot), and they discover that her money has been taken. Fred goes back to confront the thief, but instead of threatening him, shakes his hand: Fred, we've just discovered, is the leader of the thief's gang.

Fred searches the thief and finds a purse on him; meanwhile, Albert catches up to Pola and pretends to have found her money on the sidewalk. Fred returns and offers the purse to Pola, who shakes her head: it's not hers.

The first triangle: Albert, Pola and Fred (Gaston Modot)

Fred shrugs, pockets the purse and walks off with Pola; the thief catches up to Albert and their argument continues, only to be ended by a sudden friendly embrace as a gendarme walks by. The action and the relationships among the characters are completely clear, and it all occurs without our being able to hear the dialogue (which in any case we can supply without effort).

Another scene shows Clair's ability to use sound to tell a story without visuals. Pola has been locked out of her apartment (Fred has stolen her key), and warily accepts Albert's invitation to stay at his place. When Albert turns out the light and crawls into bed next to her, the screen is almost completely dark, but we hear Pola's angry remonstrances and Albert's rather unconvincing protestations of innocence.

Pola: Will you leave me alone!

Eventually the light comes back on, and Albert is rubbing his face ruefully: he's evidently been slapped. Ultimately they both choose to sleep on the floor, on opposite sides of the bed.

When the alarm goes off in the morning, there's another visual joke: Albert, on the floor, fumbles around and presses the heel of Pola's shoe, and magically the alarm is silenced—

Albert presses Pola's shoe

—because Pola (who has gotten back into the bed during the night) has found the clock on the nightstand and turned it off.

Clair also uses unexpected diegetic sounds to avoid the obvious. During Albert's fight with Fred over Pola, the sound of a train roaring past drowns out the sounds of struggle. Later that same night, when Albert fights with Louis over Pola, they are in a bar where a record of Rossini's William Tell Overture is on the gramophone (and starts to skip).

When the two men reconcile, their conversation is shot through the glass pane of the bar doors, and so once again the dialogue can't be heard. (Shooting an unheard conversation through a window was a technique later borrowed by Sacha Guitry for his comedies.)

Louis (Edmond Greville) reconciles with Albert

In Sous les toits de Paris Clair used sound as a dramatic element and reconceived his approach to direction to adjust to the new medium. It was also the first in Clair's series of now-classic comedies set in the streets and cafés of working-class Paris and drawn from the lives of ordinary Parisians.

Next in the series: Le Million (1931)
Last time: Entr'acte (1924) and The Italian Straw Hat (1927)

  1. René Clair, reprinted in Cinema Yesterday and Today, Dover, 1972, p. 144.
  2. Quoted in John Kobal, Gotta Sing Gotta Dance, Hamblyn, 1970, p. 85.
  3. Clair, Cinema Yesterday and Today, p. 144

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Rene Clair's early films part 1

In 1924 the Dada and Surrealist artist Francis Picabia wrote a scenario and designed the sets and costumes for a two-act "instantaneist ballet" entitled Relâche (Cancelled), with music by Erik Satie. Picabia planned for the ballet to have an "entr'acte cinématographique," a film shown between the acts. He outlined a series of situations and asked a little-known young filmmaker, René Clair, to direct.

The previous year Clair had directed his first feature film, Paris qui dort (Paris Asleep), in which a group of adventurers wander through a Paris where time has been frozen by a mad scientist's immobility ray. The film's theme and visuals may have appealed to Picabia and prompted his invitation to collaborate.

Entr'acte (Intermission, 1924) consists of two sections: a brief introduction shown before the ballet featuring Satie and Picabia firing a cannon at the camera/audience, and a longer section that was shown between the acts. The film features various kinds of photographic effects (double exposures, moving in and out of focus, stop-motion animation, rapid pans and zooms, positioning the camera at odd angles, slow and reverse motion, etc.). A bearded ballerina doing leaps and pirouettes is shot from below a glass floor; matches crawl onto a man's scalp and burst into flame; Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray play chess on a rooftop until they are washed away by a torrent; a paper boat sails over the roofs of Paris as though they are storm-tossed waves.

A hunter (Clair himself?) shoots an egg, releasing a bird, and is in turn shot by Picabia and plummets from a roof. A funeral procession leaves a church, bounding in slow motion behind a hearse pulled by a camel. The hearse slips the harness and rolls through the streets; as it picks up speed, the members of the procession jog, then sprint after it to try to keep up. Finally, the coffin falls out of the careening hearse; the hunter climbs out, dressed as a magician. Pointing a wand at each member of the procession, he makes them disappear. He waves the wand over the audience, and then turns it on himself. As he fades from view, "Fin" comes onscreen, and then a man (Picabia?) bursts through the screen. He lands face down on a sidewalk; when he is kicked he flies back through the screen in reverse motion.

The provocations and incongruities of Entr'acte clearly influenced other experiments in Surrealist filmmaking. It seems also to have inspired later purveyors of absurdist humor: the funeral procession sequence, with its leaping mourners and runaway hearse, is like a silent Monty Python sketch. Picabia said that Entr'acte "respects nothing except the right to roar with laughter." [1]

Un chapeau de paille d'Italie (The Italian Straw Hat, 1927, adapted by Clair from the play by Eugène Labiche and Marc Michel):

In the opening minutes of Clair's film, a wandering horse munches on a straw hat it finds hanging on a bush in a park. Concealed by the shrubbery is a married woman (Olga Chekhova) having a rendezvous with her lover, a hotheaded Hussar (Vital Geymond). With her hat half-eaten, the woman can't return home to her husband without uncomfortable questions being raised. So the adulterous couple follow the owner of the horse to his home and demand that he replace the hat or face the wrath of the Hussar.

So begins a day in which the horse's owner, Fadinard (Albert Prejean), will be caught in a cascading series of misadventures, not least because it is his wedding day. His unsuspecting bride Helène (Maryse Maia) is increasingly bewildered by his distracted air and frequent disappearances as he races against time to find a substitute hat, while Helène's irascible father (Yvonneck) thinks that Fadinard is getting cold feet.

This must have seemed like time-worn material even in 1928. Clair does enliven the proceedings by incorporating a bit (though not enough) of the surrealistic visual sensibility of Entr'acte: there's a fantasy/nightmare sequence in which Fadinard imagines the slow-motion defenestration of his chairs, and the mass abandonment of the house by the rest of his furniture. There's also a sequence in which, as Fadinard tells the cuckolded husband (Jim Gerald) the story of the ruined hat, the scenes are portrayed as though melodramatically enacted on a theater stage.

But most of the action is shot by a fixed camera that, as Iris Barry has suggested, may have been intended to suggest the style of early movies (the action is set in 1895, the year of the Lumiere Brothers' first film screening). Or perhaps the fixed frame is intended to evoke the experience of sitting in a theater watching the play. Either way, the visually static direction can feel at odds with the comic action.

In translating the dialogue-driven play into a silent film Clair devised a series of running gags featuring recalcitrant objects—which include a myrtle plant, a clip-on tie that won't stay clipped, a blocked ear trumpet, an uncomfortable new pair of shoes, a missing glove, and a stray hairpin—that cause their owners recurring problems over the course of the day. But for this viewer, at least, the repeated jokes eventually wore out their welcome. At 105 minutes the film lacks the relentless pace that farce demands. Instead of irresistible laughter, the movie evokes the occasional rueful smile.

Spoiler alert: by the end of the film the straying wife has received a replacement for her half-eaten hat (in a way that we'd predicted in the first moments of the film), the potted myrtle has finally made its way into the home of the newlyweds, the ear trumpet has been unblocked, the bride's father has exchanged his tight new shoes for the cuckold's comfortable broken-in pair (a lewd joke?), and the missing glove has been found (the donning of gloves is also suggestive). . .

The gloves and the shoes

. . .but what about the hairpin? The bride's cousin inadvertently drops it down the back of Helène's wedding gown as she's helping her dress, and it keeps poking her throughout the day. Somehow, though, Clair forgot to wind up this running joke at the end of the film. It would have made the perfect ending: when Fadinard and Helène are finally alone and able to embrace on their wedding night, Helène should have flinched as the hairpin made its presence known once more. The placing of the pin on the nightstand would have been the perfect image of the happy resolution of all the day's distresses. Clair simply missed the opportunity.

Although Clair disapproved of movie adaptations of books and plays, after the success of Un chapeau de paille d'Italie his next film (and last silent feature) would be an adaptation of another Labiche comedy, Les Deux timides (Two Timid Souls, 1928). But it was with his first sound films that he broke through to international success, and they will be the subject of part two of this series.

Next in the series: Sous les toits de Paris (Under the roofs of Paris), Le Million, and À nous la liberté (We shall be free)

  1. Steven Higgins, Still Moving: The Film and Media Collections of The Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Modern Art, 2006, p. 104.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Suggested reading: Misogynist economists edition

Ingrained sexism in higher education, attacks on what is already a flawed voting system, and our willing participation in our own surveillance: yes, it's another cheery edition of Suggested Reading!

Janet Yellen, Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

1. Misogynist economists

Alice Wu's senior thesis at UC Berkeley examined the language of posts on Economic Job Market Rumors, a forum "established to share information about job applications and results in each year's hiring cycle." Although the forum is anonymous, from internal evidence the majority of users are economics graduate students and recent Ph.Ds.

In this forum Wu found incontrovertible evidence of gender stereotyping. After analyzing the language of more than a million posts, she found 3600 words that had "meaningful predictive power" to determine whether the subject of a post was male or female. The top five words that predicted whether a post was about a woman were "hotter," "hot," "attractive," "pregnant," and "gorgeous." The top five words that predicted whether a post was about a man (that is, negatively predictive of it being about a woman) were "homosexual," "homo," "philosopher," "keen," and "motivated." (That "homosexual" and "homo" were the most predictive words for posts about men—"lesbian" was #8 for posts about women—says something as well about academic homophobia.)

In case you think this is "just" about language, the American Economic Association's Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession has shown that women are underrepresented in academic economics programs at all levels, from first-year economics Ph.D. students (only one-third are women) to full professors (only 13% are women). As Justin Wolfers writes in the New York Times, this is "Evidence of a Toxic Environment for Women in Economics." And it's not just economics: although for the past two decades a majority of bachelor's degrees have been earned by women, they are underrepresented in many other academic and professional programs, including law, business, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math-related) fields.

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. In June 2017 he suggested that "patriotically minded" private Russian hackers may have interfered in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. (Reuters)

2. The hacking of our electoral system, part 1: Russia

Speaking of the New York Times, it recently published a report suggesting that, as the headline had it, the Russian election hacking effort was wider than previously known. The danger is apparently less that vote counts were changed—although without paper trails in many states that may never be determined—but that voter registration rolls can be altered to make it appear that voters aren't registered or have already voted. You would think that hacking of our voting system by a foreign power would result in well-funded and well-coordinated investigation at all levels, but "local, state and federal agencies have conducted little of the type of digital forensic investigation required to assess the impact, if any, on voting in at least 21 states whose election systems were targeted by Russian hackers."

19th-century caricature of the "Gerry-Mander," a Massachusetts voting district drawn to favor candidates of the Democratic-Republican Party of Gov. Eldbridge Gerry (Wikipedia.org)

3. The hacking of our electoral system, part 2: The Republican Party

As the Republican Party has long known, keeping people from voting at all is easier than changing their votes afterwards. It has relentlessly engaged in efforts to suppress the votes of people likely to vote against Republicans. As Rebecca Solnit writes of the Republican Party in Harper's Magazine, "rather than attempting to win the votes of people of color, they attempt to prevent people of color from voting."
I imagined that it was suicide for the G.O.P. to ignore the concerns of people of color, to craft a platform based on white grievance. Surely, I thought, John McCain and Mitt Romney lost their elections in part because a party run for and by white people had no future. But there was a fundamental flaw in my thinking: demographics matter only in a democracy, in a system in which every citizen has equal power and equal access to representation. That equality is threatened today [has it ever existed?], thanks to the Republican Party’s long campaign against those who are likely to vote against them. Today’s Republicans are democracy’s enemy, and it is theirs.
And alongside outright voter suppression comes voter dilution through gerrymandering. Emily Bazelon's recent article in the New York Times details the results of gerrymandering in Wisconsin: while the Republican share of the popular vote in Wisconsin State Assembly elections between 2008 and 2016 has increased from 43% to 53%, their proportion of State Assembly seats has gone from 47% to 65%. The Supreme Court will soon decide Gill v. Whitford, a case brought against Wisconsin's hyper-partisan redistricting, but in the past has declined to intervene in redistricting cases.

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Platon/Wired.com)

4. Facebook is watching you

Who are Facebook's customers? If you answered "its users," you hold a common misconception. Facebook's customers are advertisers; as the headline of John Lanchester's London Review of Books article has it, "You are the product." The more data Facebook can gather about your activities, preferences, income, friends, "friends," etc., the more valuable you are to the company.

And where does Facebook get all that information? You give them most of it. As Lanchester writes,
. . .anyone on Facebook is in a sense working for Facebook, adding value to the company. In 2014, the New York Times did the arithmetic and found that humanity was spending 39,757 collective years on the site, every single day. Jonathan Taplin points out that this is 'almost 15 million years of free labor per year.' That was back when it had a mere 1.23 billion users.
So if advertisers are Facebook's customers and we are its product, what is its business?
. . .even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens.
If you think that this doesn't have consequences beyond the ads you see, think again. To give just one example, the personal data that advertisers have access to results in personalized prices. When Spanish researchers created 'budget conscious' and 'affluent' online personas, they found that the affluent persona saw much higher prices (sometimes four times higher) than the budget conscious persona for the same goods and services. This is not just about being a smart consumer: even when the only difference between personas was location, quoted prices differed by as much as 166 percent.
It's sort of funny, and also sort of grotesque, that an unprecedentedly huge apparatus of consumer surveillance is fine, apparently, but an unprecedentedly huge apparatus of consumer surveillance which results in some people paying higher prices may well be illegal.
And how "unprecedentedly huge" is Facebook? Here's a list of the internet sites with the greatest number of monthly logged-in users: Facebook (now more than 2 billion), YouTube (1.5 billion), WhatsApp (1.2 billion), Messenger (1.2 billion), WeChat (890 million), and Instagram (700 million). YouTube is owned by Alphabet (Google), and WeChat by China's Tencent. Facebook owns the rest.

If you're under any illusion that Facebook exists (in the words of its mission statement) "to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together," Lanchester's article is essential reading.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Magic Flute

The entrance of the Queen of Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte), 
designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, 1815.

How is it possible not to like Mozart's The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte, 1791), perhaps his most beloved opera?

As a measure of that universal appreciation, Die Zauberflöte is Mozart's most-performed opera by far, and in the 2015-16 season was the second-most-performed opera worldwide by any composer, according to Operabase.com. And the fairy-tale-like story has sparked the imagination of many visual artists. In the mid-70s Ingmar Bergman made a famous film version (performed in Swedish); in the early 2000s Julie Taymor directed a colorfully syncretic production at the Metropolitan Opera (performed in English); and more recently William Kentridge has created a production involving his striking animated projections.(Samples of all of these and more are easily findable on YouTube.)

So how is it possible not to like The Magic Flute? Let me count the ways:
  1. The libretto is racist. The libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder features Monostatos, a "blackamoor," who is portrayed as cowardly, impulsive and lustful and who tries to rape the heroine.
  1. The libretto is misogynistic and sexist. The Queen of Night represents darkness and evil while her male enemy, the philosopher-priest Sarastro, represents light and wisdom. And Sarastro tells the abducted heroine Pamina (daughter of the Queen of Night) that he won't allow her to return to her mother because without male influence they will inevitably go astray: "A man must guide your hearts, for without him all women tend to step out of their proper place."
  1. The libretto is hypocritical. When Pamina begs Sarastro not to punish her mother, whose actions have been motivated by "the pain of losing me," he tells her that "within these sacred portals revenge is unknown" and "enemies are forgiven." At the end of the opera—spoiler alert!—the Queen of Night, her Three Ladies and Monostatos are swept away and plunged into "eternal darkness." Forgiveness is sweet.
  1. The dialogue is spoken. In recitative (words that are half-sung, half spoken, with instrumental accompaniment) the music can emphasize or ironically comment on the words, anticipate or echo themes, and become part of the musical as well as dramatic structure of the opera. Spoken dialogue, instead of being part of the musical flow of an opera, is an interruption of that flow. And particularly for home listening, long stretches of dialogue in German are not an appealing prospect for those of us who aren't fluent in the language.
  1. The hero is a tenor. Prince Tamino is a tenor role, and if you're a regular reader of this blog you're already aware of my feelings about tenor heroes.
My hesitations about the opera seemed to place me in a distinct minority, though it was not a minority of one. The composer and critic Jan Swafford reports that his reaction on first hearing The Magic Flute was "I hated it." More of his reactions: "The story of Prince Tamino and his journey to love and wisdom appeared to me unmitigated flapdoodle. . .out of date. . .moronic. . .supposedly amusing. . .tedious. . .the whole thing struck me as hopeless."

My reaction was never that negative, but I had seen Bergman's film and wondered why it was so deeply appealing to so many. What was I missing?

Then last week I found a recording of the opera, the version conducted by Otto Klemperer in 1964, which features Gundula Janowitz as Pamina and Lucia Popp as the Queen of Night. If you've seen my posts on Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs or on orchestral versus piano lieder, then you know that Gundula Janowitz and Lucia Popp are among my favorite singers.

As soon as I took this recording home and put it on the stereo, what I had been missing was immediately apparent: Mozart's sublime music. To my surprise and delight, Klemperer omits the spoken dialogue. It is easy to fill in the missing action (the booklet libretto is complete), and without the dialogue you get to immerse yourself in two hours of peak Mozart. This recording was made when both Janowitz and Popp were at the start of their careers: Janowitz was 26, and Popp, who was, of course, playing the role of her mother, was 24.

Here is Janowitz performing Pamina's aria "Ach, ich fühl's" from that recording. Tamino has taken a vow of silence as one of three trials he must undergo to prove himself worthy of Pamina's hand in marriage. But Pamina thinks his refusal to speak means that he is spurning her, and her heart is broken:

The words:

Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden,
Ewig hin der Liebe Glück!
Nimmer kommt ihr Wonnestunde
Meinem Herzen mehr zurück!
Sieh', Tamino, diese Tränen,
Fließen, Trauter, dir allein!
Fühlst du nicht der Liebe Sehnen,
So wird Ruh' im Tode sein!
Ah, I feel it, it has vanished,
Love's happiness is forever gone!
Never again will the hour of bliss
Return to my heart!
See, Tamino, these tears,
Flowing, beloved, for you alone!
If you no longer feel the longing of love
Then I will find peace in death!

And here is Lucia Popp performing the Queen of Night's aria  "Der Hölle Rache," in which she urges her daughter to kill Sarastro:

The words:

Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,
Tot und Verzweiflung flammet um mich her!
Fühlt nicht durch dich Sarastro
So bist du meine Tochter nimmermehr.
Verstossen sei auf ewig,
Verlassen sei auf ewig,
Zertrümmert sei'n auf ewig
Alle Bande der Natur
Wenn nicht durch dich
Sarastro wird erblassen!
Hört, Rachegötter,
Hoert der Mutter Schwur!
Hell's revenge boils in my heart,
Death and despair flame about me!
If Sarastro by your hand does not feel
The agony of death,
Then you will no longer be my daughter.
Forever you will be disowned,
Forever you will be abandoned,
Forever will be destroyed
All the bonds of nature,
If Sarastro by your hand does not feel
his life's blood draining away!
Hear, Gods of Revenge,
Hear a mother's oath!

Jan Swafford ultimately had a Magic Flute conversion experience. He writes that "Today I number Die Zauberflöte among the dozen or so works of art that in my experience represent the highest, most potent, most moving things human creativity can achieve. . .Now as the curtain comes down I am usually dissolved in tears. Few works affect me more."

At least so far, I'm in no danger of being dissolved in tears at the curtain of The Magic Flute. (That does happen to me infallibly at the conclusion of The Marriage of Figaro, which remains, in my view, Mozart's greatest work.) But I now appreciate to a far greater extent the sheer beauty that Mozart poured into this opera. Of course I had known its famous arias, but hearing the complete music for the opera revealed that it is filled with wonderful ensembles. From Bergman's film, here are the Three Ladies rescuing Tamino and then arguing over him:

https://youtu.be/l17SQeytHN8?t=9m28s (the scene ends at 14:10)

(Britt-Marie Aruhn, Birgitta Smiding, and Kirsten Vaupe are the Three Ladies; they are accompanied by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eric Ericson. Wagner's Rhinemaidens are obviously the Ladies' granddaughters.)

And as is also true of Cosi fan tutte, another late Mozart opera with a problematic libretto, the depth of feeling expressed by Mozart's music complicates the plot and contradicts its misogyny. Sarastro may assert that women need a man's guidance; Pamina's emotion-filled aria and her rejection of her mother's burning desire for revenge tell us that she is fully capable of feeling and acting on her own behalf. Schikaneder's Magic Flute may be racist, sexist, and at times silly or incoherent; Mozart's, I've come to realize, is a deeply humane and ravishingly gorgeous. No wonder everyone admires it; and now, at last, Klemperer's recording has enabled me to hear why.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Sacha Guitry

Sacha Guitry (pronounced, I think, GHEE-tree) was a well-known French playwright, librettist, actor and theater impresario between the wars. Perhaps the closest English-speaking equivalent would be someone like Noël Coward, although Coward could carry a tune. (Guitry, despite his resonant baritone speaking voice, apparently couldn't: his role in André Messager's musical comedy L'amour masqué (1923), for which Guitry wrote the libretto, was a speaking one.)

But despite his renown on the stage, up until the mid-1930s Guitry had not been very active in film. Of course, movies were silent until the late 1920s; perhaps, like Kathy Selden in Singin' in the Rain, Guitry thought that "acting means great parts, wonderful lines, speaking those glorious words"—his own, of course.

By the mid-1930s two changes had occurred: film sound technology had improved, and Guitry had married the young actress Jacqueline Delubac, who convinced him to try his hand at the new medium. He began to make up for lost time, writing, directing, and starring in a dozen or so films in the five years between 1935 and the declaration of war with Germany in late 1939. Gaumont Films and the Criterion Collection's Eclipse Series have released a selection of his movies from the 1930s, and they're a mixed bag.

Le roman d'un tricheur (The Story of a Cheat, 1936): A curious thing about this film, Guitry's fourth sound feature and the earliest film in the Criterion Collection, is that it is almost entirely narrated. Even most of the dialogue scenes have a voiceover instead of diegetic sound. The layers of metafiction are made denser by the opening sequence, which introduces the actors and technical crew, and by the frame story (the Cheat is writing his memoirs, and the story takes place in flashback). Amusingly, as the Cheat sits in a café and begins writing the story we are about to see, the music we hear on the soundtrack turns out to be provided by a strolling violinist in the café. Guitry could not be signalling the constructedness of his tale any more clearly.

As a young boy the Cheat is left orphaned and alone after his family dies en masse after eating a meal of freshly-gathered but, alas, poisonous mushrooms. Having stolen money from his family's grocery store earlier that day so he could buy some coveted marbles, the Cheat has been forbidden from eating any of the special treat and so is the lone survivor. "Yes, I was alive because I'd robbed the till. Did that mean that the others had died because they'd been honest? As I fell asleep that night in the empty house, I formed an opinion about theft and justice which may seem rather paradoxical, but which 40 years of experience haven't altered." We watch those 40 years of experience unfold, as the Cheat quickly realizes that thievery and deceit are the basis of the social system and the fortunes of the respectable rich, and determines to get his share.

Made in the depths of the Great Depression, The Story of a Cheat offers no homilies about honesty or hard work; quite the opposite: ". . .after stealing huge amounts, I turned honest, and went completely broke." Its cynicism, though, is presented with irony and charm. This was my favorite of the four Criterion films, and is definitely the place to start (and perhaps finish) if you want to explore Guitry's movie comedies.

Les perles de la couronne (The Pearls of the Crown, 1937): This is one of those "following a chain of characters" films, the template for which was established by Arthur Schnitzler's play La Ronde (1897, made into a film in 1950). The pearls of the title are a matched set of seven, four of which wind up adorning the Crown of England. The film investigates the fates of the other three pearls as they pass from hand to hand over the centuries.

The story seems mainly to be an excuse for Guitry and his regular ensemble to dress up in costume and play the roles of historical figures (including a sequence with Arletty in blackface playing the Queen of Abyssinia). As in The Story of a Cheat there is a frame story and narration (this time with Guitry and Delubac playing themselves), but everything in The Pearls of the Crown is handled in a clunkier way. And the story's conclusion is deliberately anticlimatic. This is some people's favorite Guitry film, but I'm at a loss to understand why.

Umm. . .

Désiré (1937) depicts desire that ignores distinctions of class. It features the lovely Delubac as Odette, the longtime mistress of a preoccupied minister of state (Jacques Baumer). Odette, taken for granted, begins having erotic dreams about her newly hired valet de chambre, Désiré (which literally means "desired").

We learn that Désiré has been dismissed from several previous positions because his mistresses found him sexually irresistible. I'm not the best judge of male attractiveness, but that the valet is played by the paunchy middle-aged Guitry in an obvious wig stretches credulity. Although we learn that Désiré is 38, Guitry was over 50 and looks even older; Delubac was more than two decades younger than her husband. Guitry had played the role of Désiré onstage ten years previously, but he was 42 at the time; Odette had been played by his then-wife Yvonne Printemps, who was in her early 30s. So in the stage version, perhaps, the idea of Odette fantasizing about her valet was more credible.

The film has some clever upstairs-downstairs juxtapositions as the servants obsess about their employers, and vice versa. And there's an amusing sequence where we peek into the dreams of the members of the household (the lady of the house dreams of Désiré making advances to her, while her maid (Arletty) dreams of wearing her mistress's fabulous gowns). But not only is there Guitry's obvious vanity in casting himself as a universal object of desire, the movie concludes with his character giving his mistress a lengthy harangue about the wisdom of leaving feelings of mutual (but impossible) attraction understood but unspoken. The big closing monologue seems lifted without alteration from the play, and it leaves a sour taste.

Quadrille (Foursome, 1938): A talky and stagy infidelity comedy that once again obviously originated as a play (which had premiered only a few months before). It has some funny lines and the considerable charm of the elfin Delubac, but those elements are not quite enough to make it recommendable.

Quadrille concerns the erotic chaos sowed in the settled, not to say stale, relationship of middle-aged newspaper editor Philippe (Guitry) and his live-in mistress of six years, the actress Paulette (Gaby Morlay), by the arrival in Paris of the handsome Hollywood actor Carl (George Grey). Delubac is Claudine, a newspaper reporter and Paulette's sensible friend and confidante, who tries to patch things up between Philippe and Paulette after Paulette impulsively spends a passionate night in Carl's hotel room. From the professions of the characters you can probably guess how the couples ultimately rearrange themselves, apparently to everyone's satisfaction. Quadrille and Guitry's other comedies acknowledge desire and sex outside of matrimony (or even monogamy) in a way in which American films of the period were forbidden by the Production Code. Why, though, we should care about the romantic indiscretions of any of these characters is never made clear.

In an article in the New York Times film critic Dave Kehr called Guitry "one of France’s greatest filmmakers, fully the peer of Jean Renoir and François Truffaut." I'd have to say that I don't share Kehr's enthusiasm. On the evidence of these films Guitry does not rank in the company of the director who made Grand Illusion (La grande illusion, 1937) and The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu, 1939). In fact, for me the great discovery of the Criterion series was Delubac, who almost makes even Guitry's lesser films worth watching.

Neither is Guitry the equal of another contemporary French filmmaker, René Clair, who is perhaps the more apt comparison. Look for a post about Clair's early films in the near future.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Chastity Tree: Martin y Soler's L'arbore di Diana

Nikki Einfeld (Diana), Christine Brandes (Cupid), and the Sarah Berges Dance Company (the Chastity Tree),
in West Edge Opera's The Chastity Tree.

What was the most popular opera in Vienna during Mozart's lifetime? You might guess his Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), Don Giovanni (1787) or Cosi fan tutte (They're all like that, 1790). Lorenzo da Ponte wrote the libretti for them all, and today they are among the most-produced operas in the world (Figaro is #8, Don Giovanni #9, and Cosi #15 over the past five years, according to Operabase).

But at the time they were written, none of those operas came close to the success of  L'arbore di Diana (The Tree of Diana, or as West Edge Opera's director Mark Streshinsky translates it, The Chastity Tree, 1787) written by Da Ponte for the composer Vincente Martin y Soler. By 1792 L'arbore di Diana had received 65 performances in Vienna, while another Martin-Da Ponte collaboration, Una cosa rara ([Beauty and faithfulness are] A rare thing, 1786) had received 55 performances. Mozart's most popular opera, Figaro, had received 38—a respectable success, but only enough to rank as the seventh-most popular opera of the time.

In his entertaining but untrustworthy memoirs, written 35 years later, Da Ponte stated his belief that L'arbore di Diana was "the best of all the operas I ever composed. . .it was voluptuous without overstepping into the lascivious." [1]

This is wrong on two counts. In my view the best libretto Da Ponte ever wrote was Figaro, although the excellence of the original Beaumarchais play might also have had something to do with its high quality. And as for L'arbore di Diana being voluptuous without being lascivious, clearly Da Ponte didn't anticipate director Mark Streshinsky's approach in his West Edge Opera production (seen August 12), which was broadly and audaciously camp.

The bawdiness began during the overture, when the dancers of choreographer Sarah Berges' company, representing the Chastity Tree, take the stage wearing "fruits of extraordinary size" on their chests. The "fruit" resembled nothing so much as a giant golden breast with an enormous pink nipple, which lit up on occasion. (By the way, the description "fruits of extraordinary size" is from Da Ponte's Memoirs. [2]) The deliberately over-the-top costumes were by Christine Cook, who was clearly given carte blanche.

Malte Roesner (Doristo) with members of the Sarah Berges Dance Company

In Jean-Francois Revon's set (the only aspect of this production where a less-is-more aesthetic could be said to prevail), the Chastity Tree cleverly suggested the industrial surroundings of the Pacific Pipe Company warehouse that is West Edge Opera's new home this season—yet another example of this adventurous company's ability to make a virtue of necessity.

In his memoirs Da Ponte explained the function of the Chastity Tree:
If the nymphs of that goddess were chaste in deed and in thought, as they passed under the tree, the apples began to glow and shine and from them, and from all the surrounding branches, there issued murmurs and sounds that harmonized in a melody of heavenly sweetness. But if any one of them had sinned against the sanctity of that virtue, the fruits became blacker than coal, dropped upon her head, or on her back and disfigured her face, bruised her body or broke her limbs, the punishment being proportionate to her crime. [3]
Into her garden the goddess Diana (Nikki Einfeld) has brought the rustic Doristo (Malte Roesner), who is supposed to guard the tree. He's far more interested, though, in romping with Diana's nymphs: the cautious Chloe (Kathleen Moss), the eager Britomarte (Maya Kherani), and the curious Clizia (Molly Mahoney).

Cupid (Christine Brandes), the God of Love, has become affronted by Diana's ostentatious chastity and wants to defeat his arch-rival. He seduces Doristo by dressing in outrageous drag, and recruits two shepherds, Endimione (tenor Kyle Stegall) and Silvio (the "other tenor" Jacob Thompson) to aid his plan. After being struck by Cupid's arrow, Diana falls in love with Endimione, but her oracle (Silvio in disguise) then demands that she herself undergo the test of the Chastity Tree. . .

Nikki Einfeld (Diana)

Streshinsky mounted a riotously colorful production that highlighted—at times, perhaps, too insistently—the salaciousness implicit in Da Ponte's libretto. What made it work was the fine cast who gamely embodied Streshinsky's concept and, no matter what they were enacting onstage, sang splendidly. There was not a weak link; particularly noteworthy were Malte Roesner's robust baritone as the randy Doristo, Kyle Stegall's lyrical tenor as Diana's crush Endimione, Maya Kherani's bright-toned Britomarte, and Nikki Einfeld's fierce Diana. Einfeld also looked smashing in Diana's floor-length sequined gowns. (I'm not sure how one would hunt in such an outfit, but never mind.)

In a pre-concert talk Streshinsky aptly compared the music of Diana to a cross between that of the Queen of the Night from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute. 1791), for its wide range and formidable coloratura, and Fiordiligi from Cosi fan tutte, for her anguished emotions as she finds her heart contradicting her vows. [4]

Here is a sample of Diana's music from the 2009 production of L'arbore di Diana from the Gran Teatre del Liceu, with Laura Aiken as Diana, accompanied by the Gran Teatre del Liceu Orchestra, Harry Bicket, conductor:

Da Ponte's words:

Teco porta, o mia speranza,
l’alma mia, che vien con te,
e la grata rimembranza
d’un ardor che vive in me.
Fosti il primo, e il solo or sei
bel desio di questo cor,
e a cangiar gli affetti miei
sfido il fato e sfido il cor.
Vanne, caro – ah, ch’io mi sento
dal tormento lacerar!
Torni, torni il bel momento
che ristori il mio penar.
Take with you, my dearest,
my soul, which follows you,
and the sweet memory
of the ardor that you have aroused in me.
You were the first and remain the only
desire of my heart,
and I defy fate and Love
to change my feelings.
Go, my darling!
Oh, the agony!
May the day soon come
when my suffering comes to an end.

Although Aiken's voice is not, to my ear, ideally sensuous as Diana—the role would have been perfect for a young Lucia Popp—this will give you a sense of Martin's sound-world.

Einfeld dispatched Diana's difficult runs with fire and brilliance, but also made profoundly affecting "those sweet melodies of [Martin's], which one feels deep in the spirit, but which few know how to imitate." [5]

One who did know how to imitate them was Mozart, who recognized good tunes when he heard them. There are numerous musical and narrative parallels between Mozart's operas and L'arbore di Diana. Because Mozart is familiar and Martin is now virtually unknown, I couldn't help but hear in Martin's writing echoes of Mozart. But perhaps it would be equally true to say that in Mozart we can hear echoes of Martin. (In Don Giovanni's supper scene, Mozart paid homage to the composer by having the onstage band play an aria from Una cosa rara.)

Sheila Hodges, author of Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Life and Times of Mozart's Librettist (University of Wisconsin Press, 2002) has written that the libretti Da Ponte wrote for Martin lack "the depths of character-drawing, refinement and poetry which Da Ponte achieved in his operas for Mozart." This is true enough, and it's also true that Martin's music is not as sublime as Mozart's. But it features "no end of tender melodies"; his "impulse runs to lyricism rather than dramatic intensity." [6] Conductor Robert Mollicone led a vivid performance of Martin's score by the WEO Festival Orchestra, among whom were recognizable some moonlighting members of well-known Bay Area ensembles.

West Edge Opera's bold production is a very welcome introduction to the work of a composer who seems ripe for rediscovery. The final performance of The Chastity Tree will take place August 19 at 8 pm; for more details see the West Edge Opera website.

  1. Memoirs of Lorenzo da Ponte, translated by Elisabeth Abbott from the Italian, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1929, pp. 177-178.
  2. Memoirs of Lorenzo da Ponte, p. 177.
  3. Memoirs of Lorenzo da Ponte, p. 177.
  4. The comparison may have been suggested by Roy Jesson, "Martin's 'L'arbore di Diana,'" The Musical Times, Vol. 113, No. 1552 (June 1972), p. 552. 
  5. Memoirs of Lorenzo da Ponte, p. 174.
  6. John Platoff, "A New History for Martin's Una cosa rara," The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 12, Issue 1, 1994, pp. 94-95.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Five songs

Judith und Holofernes, by Gustav Klimt, 1901 (detail)

I've written before of my struggle to appreciate art songs (see "The Songs of Erich Korngold and Reynaldo Hahn"). Such an appreciation would seem to be an obvious extension of my enjoyment of opera (at least, of certain operas). And yet I remain stubbornly resistant to lieder (at least, to certain lieder).

Songs accompanied by orchestra would seem to provide a natural bridge from opera to lieder. In fact, as a follow-up to my recent post on Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs, this post began as an introduction some of my other favorite orchestral lieder.

But along the way something funny happened. Some lieder exist in two versions, one with orchestra and another with piano. My assumption was that I would always prefer the more opera-like orchestral version, especially if I was already familiar with it. As critic Richard Wigmore has written, ". . .piano versions tend to stand in relation to the orchestral as a pen-and-ink sketch does to a painting." [1]

But it turned out that my preference wasn't always that clear-cut. This became apparent when I listened to the orchestral version of Franz Schubert's "Nacht und Träume" (Night and Dreams), and compared it to the piano version. The song, published in 1825, was orchestrated in 1914 by Max Reger. To my ears, the orchestral version is overdone; it lacks the delicacy and intimacy of the piano version. [2]

So I started exploring, and was surprised by what I found. Below I offer five favorite lieder in both orchestral and piano versions, so that you can make the same comparisons that I did. In a reversal of the perhaps expected order I've placed the orchestral version first, followed by the piano version, because that's how I first became familiar with most of these songs.

Of course, it's not a contest: for many lieder I can appreciate both versions for the different qualities they reveal. And much depends on the interpretive sensitivity of the performers. But I was surprised at how often the piano version held its own with (and in some cases seemed superior to) the orchestral version.

Richard Wagner: "Der Engel" from Wesendonck Lieder (1857-58)

Richard Wagner in 1860.

The Wesendonck Lieder are usually performed and recorded with orchestral accompaniment, but they were originally composed for piano and voice (the first title was Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme, or "Five poems for female voice"). The poems were written by Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of Wagner's patron Otto Wesendonck. At the time the songs were composed Wagner and Mathilde were carrying on an affair.

Mathilde Wesendonck by Karl Sohn, 1850 (detail).

Someone I know once said that lieder are bad Romantic poetry set to music. While that comment isn't completely fair, Mathilde Wesendonck's poems have been singled out for special scorn. Baritone Matthias Goerne has said,
"The worst doggerel Schubert ever set is better than the texts of Mathilde Wesendonck. It's all a mishmash of vague sentiment. . .But Wagner was intoxicated when he wrote the songs. . .The atmosphere he creates convinces you that you're hearing about soul-shattering things. His rapture overpowers the words." [2]
The "great man's rapture overpowering woman's vague mishmash of sentiment" narrative invites skepticism. In the hothouse atmosphere created by their affair (the third of the songs is actually entitled "Im Treibhaus" ("In the Hothouse")), Wagner may have been convinced that Mathilde's poetry was more profound than it reads today, at least in English translation. But obviously, he was responding to something in the words. The composer who was so unsatisfied by the literary efforts of others that he wrote the libretti for all of his operas himself somehow deemed Mathilde's "vague mishmash of sentiment" worthy of being graced by his music. (And as we all know, a great lyric is neither a sufficient nor even a necessary condition for a great song.)

The sound-world of the songs echoes that of Tristan und Isolde, which Wagner was also composing at the time. (In fact, two of the songs are subtitled "Studie zu Tristan und Isolde.") Wagner, with his typical egomania, probably saw himself and Mathilde in the story of the legendary lovers whose passion transcended all conventional constraints of honor and duty. Curiously, given how Wagnerian the orchestral versions sound, the songs were actually orchestrated by another composer, Felix Mottl, two decades after their initial composition.

The opening song of the sequence, "Der Engel," sung by Janet Baker with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult:


In der Kindheit frühen Tagen
Hört ich oft von Engeln sagen,
Die des Himmels hehre Wonne
Tauschen mit der Erdensonne,

Daß, wo bang ein Herz in Sorgen
Schmachtet vor der Welt verborgen,
Daß, wo still es will verbluten,
Und vergehn in Tränenfluten,

Daß, wo brünstig sein Gebet
Einzig um Erlösung fleht,
Da der Engel niederschwebt,
Und es sanft gen Himmel hebt.

Ja, es stieg auch mir ein Engel nieder,
Und auf leuchtendem Gefieder
Führt er, ferne jedem Schmerz,
Meinen Geist nun himmelwärts!

In childhood's early days
I often heard talk of angels,
Who would exchange Heaven's bliss
For the Earth's sunlight,

So that, when a heart in sorrow
Languishes hidden from the world,
So that, when it wishes quietly to grieve,
And melt away in a flood of tears,

So that, when it prays fervently
Only for release from life,
Then the angel descends
And gently raises it to Heaven.

Yes, an angel has also descended to me,
And on shining wings
Bears aloft, far from every pain,
My soul now heavenward!

"Der Engel," sung by Kirsten Flagstad accompanied by a young Gerald Moore:

Although the piano version foregrounds the singer's voice, to me it seems that the orchestra has a richness and emotional effect in this song that the piano can't match.

Richard Strauss: "Morgen!" from Vier Lieder (Four Songs), Op. 27 (1894)

Richard Strauss about 1890.

The Vier Lieder were written as a wedding present from Strauss to his bride, soprano Pauline de Ahna. They were married in September 1894 after a summer during which Strauss conducted Wagner's Tannhäuser at the Bayreuth Festival with Pauline in the role of Elisabeth, whose pure love and self-sacrifice offer redemption to the hero. (By all accounts Pauline was not a particularly self-sacrificing person.)

"Morgen!", the final song of the series, sets a poem by Strauss's acquaintance John Henry Mackay. As Alan Blyth has written, this is "a song of deep rapture," in which two lovers find their joy reflected in the sun, earth and sea. [4] These songs were originally written for voice and piano, but Strauss ultimately orchestrated three of them, "Morgen!" just a few years after its initial composition.

Pauline de Ahna as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser at the Bayreuth Festival, 1894. 
Photograph by A. Pieperhoff.

"Morgen!" sung by Gundula Janowitz with the Academy of London conducted by Richard Stamp:


Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen,
Und auf dem Wege, den ich gehen werde,
Wird uns, di Glücklichen, sie wieder einin
Inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden Erde.

Und zu dem Strand, dem weiten, wogenblauen,
Werden wir still und langsam niedersteigen.
Stumm werden wir uns in die Augen Schauen,
Und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stummes Schweigen.

And tomorrow again the sun will shine,
and I will follow the path
that will again unite us in our happiness
Amid this sun-breathing earth.

And to the shore, those wide blue waves,
we shall quietly and slowly climb down.
Silently we shall gaze into each other's eyes,
and upon us will fall the wordless silence of happiness.

"Morgen!" sung by Lucia Popp with Irwin Gage in Strauss's original piano arrangement:

I love how in both versions the singer enters as if the opening of the song had been a pause in mid-conversation (". . .And tomorrow. . ."). And how in the piano version the accompaniment falls silent at the words "Stumm werden wir. . ." (Silently we shall. . .) If for me this song's sense of both stillness and exaltation is more fully expressed in the orchestral version, both singers indeed convey a sense of rapture.

Gustav Mahler: "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" from Fünf Rückertlieder (Five Rückert Songs, 1901-02)

Gustav Mahler by Emil Orlik, 1902 (detail)

The summer of 1901 was the first Mahler spent in his new villa among the trees on the shore of the Wörthersee in Austria. At the time the composer was also the musical director of the Vienna Court Opera; his tenure was stormy and the workload was heavy, so he relished the summer months he spent away from the city at his quiet composing retreat.

Retreat from the clamor of the world is the explicit subject of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" (I am lost to the world), one of several poems by Friedrich Rückert that Mahler set that summer.

"Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" performed by Janet Baker with the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli:


Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.

Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh' in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb' allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!

I am lost to the world,
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing of me for so long,
that it may well believe I am dead!

To me it is of not the slightest concern
Whether it thinks me dead,
I cannot deny it,
for in truth I am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world's tumult,
And I rest in a quiet place!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love, in my song!

In 1998 the great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt (later Lorraine Hunt Lieberson), accompanied by the pianist Roger Vignoles, performed the Five Rückert Songs in a recital at London's Wigmore Hall. (My partner and I attended a recital she gave in Berkeley's Hertz Hall a few years later that was one of the most most affecting live performances I'll ever witness; "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" was the final song in that program.) From the Wigmore Hall recital:

The extraordinarily poignant quality of Lorraine Hunt's performance is marred only by intrusive audience applause at the end (this song was performed as the final song in the full cycle), so from the embedded video I've cut out the applause. If you follow the link, I recommend that you pause the video at the 6:44 mark.

Fortunately there is no need to choose between Janet Baker and Lorraine Hunt; I would not want to be without either of these profoundly moving performances.

Alban Berg: "Traumgekrönt" from Sieben frühe Lieder (Seven Early Songs, 1905-1908)

Alban Berg.

Alban Berg was in his early 20s when he composed the Sieben frühe Lieder under the tutelage of Arnold Schoenberg. The original compositions were piano lieder; two decades later Berg revised and orchestrated the songs. They are strongly influenced by Wagner, Mahler, and (especially) Richard Strauss, but also show the incorporation of atonal techniques favored by Schoenberg.

But these songs aren't, or at least don't sound to me, entirely atonal. In fact, in Berg's setting of one of Rainer Maria Rilke's early Traumgekrönt poems (it is No. 2 of the "Lieben" series) there is what sounds like a shift from minor to major at the words "Und dann, dann kamst du mir. . .," (And then, then you came to me. . .) and again a few lines later at "Du kamst. . ." (You came. . .).

Those apparent shifts in key are not as striking in the piano version, and of course a composer can create fewer effects of tone color with a piano than with an orchestra. As a result, though, to my ears the piano versions sound less radical than the orchestral versions. I first encountered these pieces in a recital by Renée Fleming; with piano accompaniment the Berg songs did not seem wildly out of place when performed along with 19th-century lieder; with orchestra they have a different character: they sound dark, eerie, and very modern.

"Traumgekrönt" sung by Anne Sofie von Otter with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Claudio Abbado:


Das war der Tag der weißen Chrysanthemen,
Mir bangte fast vor seiner Pracht. . .
Und dann, dann kamst du mir die Seele nehmen
Tief in der Nacht. . .

Mir war so bang, und du kamst lieb und leise,
Ich hatte grad im Traum an dich gedacht.
Du kamst, und leis' wie eine Märchenweise
Erklang die Nacht.

That was the day of white chrysanthemums;
I was almost fearful of their splendor. . .
And then, then you came to take my soul
Deep in the night. . .

I felt so anxious, and you came sweetly and softly;
I had just been dreaming of you.
You came, and softly, as in a fairy tale,
the night reverberated.

"Traumgekrönt" sung by Anne Sofie von Otter accompanied by Bengt Forsberg:

Erich Korngold: "Liebesbriefchen" from Sechs einfache Lieder (Six simple songs, 1911-1913)

Erich Korngold.

Amazingly, Korngold was only 14 when he began writing the Sechs einfache Lieder. As a child prodigy he had been taken at age 8 by his father to play for Mahler, who declared him a genius and encouraged him to take lessons with the composer Alexander Zemlinsky. By the time Korngold entered his teens he was famous. His ballet Der Schneemann (The Snowman, orchestrated by Zemlinsky) had been given a command performance at the Vienna Court Opera in 1910 for the Emperor's name-day, and his Piano Sonata No. 2 was premiered by Artur Schnabel. Richard Strauss said, "One’s first reaction that these compositions are by a child are those of awe and concern that so precocious a genius should follow its normal development. . .This assurance of style, this mastery of form, this characteristic expressiveness, this bold harmony, are truly astonishing!" [5]

"Liesbesbriefchen" is the setting of a poem by Elisabeth Honold, about whom I am unable to find any information. Barbara Hendricks performing the song with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst:


Fern von dir denk' ich dein,
Einsam bin ich, doch mir blieb
treue Lieb'.
Was ich denk', bist nur, nur du,
Sehe stets hold und licht
dein Gesicht.
Und in mir immer zu
tönest du.
Bist's allein, die die Welt
mir erhellt.
Ich bin dein, Liebchen fein,
denke mein, denk' mein!


Far from you, I think of you,
I am lonely, but my love
remains true.
I think only, only of you,
my heart's peace.
Before me ever I see your bright and
lovely face.
And within me I always
hear your voice.
It is you alone who lights up
my world.
I am yours, my dearest love,
think of me, think of me!

For me it's difficult to untangle my preference for Anne Sofie von Otter's vocal performance of this song from my feeling that while the orchestration is lush, the piano accompaniment has an intimacy which better matches that of the poem.

So I think that Richard Wigmore's comparison of piano versions to a sketch and orchestral versions to a painting isn't really the best metaphor, or perhaps it has more shades of meaning than he intended. For one thing he seems to be implying a value judgment: drawings, he seems to say, are a lesser form than painting, as a piano arrangement is just a diminished version of the orchestral. There are indeed songs, such as "Der Engel" or "Morgen!", for which the orchestra powerfully conveys the sweeping, surging emotions. But what about songs, such as "Nacht und Träume" or "Liebesbriefchen," where the piano version expresses the desired sense of intimacy, and the orchestral version seems overblown?

Drawings are an artistic form in their own right, not just a lesser version of painting. A sketch is simply the right medium for some subjects; and as I've learned, sometimes the piano version is right for a song.

Update 16 August 2017: I wanted to alert readers in the SF Bay Area that LIEDER ALIVE! will be opening their 2017-18 Liederabend Series  with a Mahlerfest concert, featuring Kindra Scharich and the Alexander String Quartet performing transcriptions by ASQ first violinist Zakarias Grafilo of three of Mahler's orchestral lieder cycles: Songs of a Wayfarer, Rückert-Lieder, and Kindertotenlieder. I'm very much looking forward to the concert performance and the upcoming recording of these versions, which promise to "combine the lushness of the orchestral versions with the intimacy of chamber music."

Along with performances by Anne Sofie von Otter, Andreas Scholl and Philippe Jaroussky, Kindra Scharich's opening concert of the 2016-17 Liederabend Series and her performance for SF Music Day were among my Favorites of 2016.

  1. Richard Wigmore, "Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder: which recording is best?" Gramophone Magazine, 21 July 2014: https://www.gramophone.co.uk/features/focus/mahler%E2%80%99s-r%C3%BCckert-lieder-which-recording-is-best
  1. You can hear the piano version of "Nacht und Träume" performed by Elly Ameling with Dalton Baldwin in my recent post on Terence Davies' film A Quiet Passion; the orchestral version can be heard on YouTube in a performance by Anne Sofie von Otter with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Claudio Abbado.
  1. Quoted in Matthew Gurewitsch, "Why Shouldn't Men Sing Romantic Drivel, Too?" New York Times, 6 Nov. 2005: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/06/arts/music/why-shouldnt-men-sing-romantic-drivel-too.html
  1. Alan Blyth, "Strauss: Ten Songs," in Song on Record 1. Lieder, Alan Blyth, ed. Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 316.
  1. Quoted in Brendan G. Carroll. "Korngold, Erich Wolfgang." Oxford Music Online. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/15390.