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 Vicente 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." [3]
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 Marie-Nicole Lemieux accompanied by Daniel Blumenthal:

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!
"Liebesbriefchen" sung by Anne Sofie von Otter accompanied by Bengt Forsberg:

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:
  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:
  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.

Sunday, August 13, 2017


I rarely post about politics on this blog. I can't remain silent, though, about the still-unfolding events in Charlottesville, Virginia. That an anti-racist protestor, Heather Heyer, has been killed and dozens upon dozens injured over the past few days is appalling. And that two state police pilots, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates, also died in a helicopter crash yesterday just compounds the horror.

You can read remembrances of Heather Heyer here:

Heather Heyer, Charlottesville Victim, Is Recalled as 'a Strong Woman'

I realize that the protests are not really about a statue. They are about the resurgence of hate, and that resurgence has to be opposed wherever it manifests itself.

But I think that the focus of social justice movements on symbols—statues and the names of parks—is misguided. There's an article in Slate about the racist history of the establishment of the Charlottesville parks and the dedications of the statues which you can read here:

Tools of Displacement: How Charlottesville, Virginia’s Confederate statues helped decimate the city’s historically successful black communities.

There is also an eloquent article by Charlottesville mayor Michael Signer about why he opposes removing the statues that can be read here:

Why I voted no on removing my city’s Confederate statue

In that position he is supported by many community members. As Signer writes,
Numerous Charlottesville African-American residents who have lived through decades of suppression of their history oppose removal on the grounds that it would be yet another example of hiding their experience. For them, transforming the statues in place forces remembrance of the dominance of slavery and Jim Crow white supremacy.

Read more here:
I agree. Removing these symbols erases history, and enables the whitewashing (to coin a phrase) of centuries of official support of white supremacist ideology. Take down the statues, rename the parks, and the next generation will not have to confront that history. As a former resident of Charlottesville, I feel that leaving the statues and the parks in place but contextualizing them with informative public displays and counter-symbols would provide thoughtful teachers, civic leaders, artists and ordinary citizens with opportunities to openly explore, and perhaps some day come to terms, with the legacies of the past.

The second thing to say is that Robert E. Lee, whose statue is the focus of the protests, was a complex figure. He opposed Southern secession and by his own testimony did not offer his services to the Confederacy in order to defend slavery (after the war he stated that "So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished"). He was in favor of state-funded education for black citizens, although he also opposed extending to black men the right to vote (of course, at this time white women also didn't have the right to vote). To view Lee simplistically as a monolithic symbol of white supremacy and hatred is a distortion.

The final thing to say is, that if you decide to make war on symbols from the past based on modern-day moral standards, it's not clear where you'd be able to stop. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, and George Washington were slaveowners; so, too, probably, was Alexander Hamilton. Abraham Lincoln married into a slave-owning family, and his attitudes towards racial equality were equivocal. That's a lot of monuments to tear down.

I think it's important not to kid ourselves: the fundamental motives of civic and institutional leaders who agree to remove monuments are not just a concern for justice but also a desire to eliminate sources of uncomfortable civic contention. Far better, I think, to leave the monuments of the past where they are and engage in dialogue, debate, and counter-symbolism instead of historical erasure.

Whether you agree or disagree, thanks for reading this.

Update 15 August 2017: In a press conference today Donald Trump made his own version of the argument I pose in the next-to-last paragraph: "I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?"

The first thing to say is that Trump's comments on the protests have been appalling, and are yet another demonstration, as if any were needed, of the moral and intellectual vacuity of the man who holds our highest office. And that Trump has adopted, even partially, any of my own reasoning about this question immediately makes me think I have to reevaluate my position.

In a nuanced and thoughtful article in the New York Times tonight by Jennifer Schuessler, historians consider Trump's question and respond to some of his other comments about the events in Charlottesville. One of the historians that Schuessler quotes is James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association. On the question of monuments, Schuessler writes:
"Mr. Grossman noted that most Confederate monuments were constructed in two periods: the 1890s, as Jim Crow was being established, and in the 1950s, during a period of mass Southern resistance to the civil rights movement.

"'We would not want to whitewash our history by pretending that Jim Crow and disenfranchisement or massive resistance to the civil rights movement never happened,' he said. 'That is the part of our history that these monuments testify to.'"
You can read the entire article here: Historians Question Trump’s Comments on Confederate Monuments.

Update 16 August 2017: Baltimore removed its Confederate monuments last night after the City Council voted for their removal on Monday. From the New York Times: Baltimore Removes Confederate Statues in Overnight Operation

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Quiet Passion

Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson and Jennifer Ehle as her sister Lavinia in A Quiet Passion

A Quiet Passion, writer-director Terence Davies' film of the life of Emily Dickinson, has been widely praised. The New Yorker's Richard Brody calls it "a powerfully insightful and shatteringly empathetic bio-pic," while the New York Times' A. O. Scott writes that Davies "possesses a poetic sensibility perfectly suited to his subject."

Visually, perhaps. The film is filled with striking images (cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister), not to mention beautifully re-created 19th-century clothing and interiors. The friends who thought this aspect of the film would appeal to us were absolutely right.

But if Davies possesses a poetic sensibility beyond the visual, it isn't evident from his script. From its very first scenes of a young Emily (Emma Bell) scandalizing her teachers by refusing to attend church A Quiet Passion has the wrong tone. It's hard to say whether the acting is as bad as it sounds, whether the stiff line readings are the director's fault, or whether the blame rests with the stilted dialogue the actors are asked to recite, but I would guess it's a combination of all three. Davies may have a striking visual sense, but he has a tin ear.

Things don't improve very much after a transition to the world of the adult Emily (Cynthia Nixon). In place of conversation the characters lob epigrams at one another. Worst in this regard is Emily's friend Vryling Wilder Buffam (Catherine Bailey), who sounds as though she thinks she's appearing as Lady Bracknell in a dinner-theater production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Perhaps we can be grateful that there was no attempt to replicate patterns of speech from 19th-century New England; on the other hand, the wide range of accents displayed include many that to my ear are more blandly suggestive of Anaheim than Amherst.

Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson and Jodhi May as her sister-in-law Susan in A Quiet Passion

The only actors whose performances rise above the leaden script are Jennifer Ehle as Emily's sister Lavinia and Jodhi May as Emily's sister-in-law Susan. Not surprisingly, both have extensive stage and BBC television experience. Ehle was a luminous Elizabeth Bennet in the superb 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice and has won two Tonys; May has many stage and screen credits, including significant roles in the BBC adaptations of Daniel Deronda and Emma.

Davies' script makes Emily at times sound smug and self-satisfied, which does not match my perception of this supremely self-questioning artist. There is no doubt that Emily's deep strangeness and intensity could be disconcerting: her later editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (inexplicably absent from the film) wrote after an in-person visit that she "drained my nerve power. . .Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her." But Davies' Emily is often deliberately rude and dismissive, particularly during an uncomfortable tea with a local clergyman and his wife. The black-and-white dichotomies that Davies sets up—the free-thinking artist versus the dull, convention-bound bourgeoise—lack subtlety, to say the least. And as Scott writes in his review, "the enemy of poetry is obviousness." Indeed.

More evidence that Davies is tone-deaf:  early in the film Emily attends a concert, and the singer onstage warbles an opera aria painfully off-key. My partner and I looked at each other: was this a parody, or a joke? Evidently not. As I discovered later, the singer is supposed to be Jenny Lind, "the Swedish Nightingale." At the time Lind was the most famous singer in the world. Her American concert tours in the 1850s were mobbed by frenzied crowds. The singer portraying her in the film, Marieke Bresseleers, is a Belgian pop star who was all too clearly overmatched by the music she was asked to sing.

Later in the film Bresseleers also provides the singing voice of Mabel Loomis Todd (Noemie Schellens) when she performs a shaky version of Schubert's "Nacht und Träume" (Night and Dreams). There, her off-key singing might have been indicative of what an amateur home lieder performance might plausibly sound like. But as Jenny Lind? No. And could Davies really not find a true opera singer to perform this music? Richard Brody writes, "All of Davies’s films are filled with music, but in 'A Quiet Passion' he raises cinematic musicality to a new height." I'm not sure what "cinematic musicality" is supposed to mean, but musical musicality certainly isn't raised to any discernible height in this movie.

Apart from its clunkiness, Davies' dialogue is also simply unbelievable. Midway through the film, Emily's father Edward Dickinson (Keith Carradine) has some news for her brother Austin (Duncan Duff):
Edward: "Fort Sumter has been fired upon."
Austin: "What does this mean?"
"What does this mean?" Again we wondered if this was supposed to be a joke. Is it conceivable that there would be an adult in Massachusetts in 1861, when the country was poised on the brink of civil war, who would not have immediately grasped the implications of the military forces of a secessionist state firing on those of the U.S. government? Never mind.

There is one moment of realness in Davies' script. When Emily returns to the family home after boarding school, she asks her father for his permission to stay up at night and write. Her pleading tells us volumes about Edward Dickinson's patriarchal sternness and the subordinate position of unmarried daughters in a 19th-century household. If only the rest of the script could have been so nuanced and insightful. Perhaps the next time that Terence Davies wants to make a period film he should let another Davies—Andrew—write the script.

Elly Ameling performing Schubert's "Nacht und Träume" with accompanist Dalton Baldwin.

(Matthäus Kasimir von Collin,
adapted by Franz Schubert)

Heil'ge Nacht, du sinkest nieder;
Nieder wallen auch die Träume
Wie dein Mondlicht durch die Räume,
Durch der Menschen stille Brust.

Die belauschen sie mit Lust;
Rufen, wenn der Tag erwacht:
Kehre wieder, heil'ge Nacht!
Holde Träume, kehret wieder!
(Matthäus Kasimir von Collin,
adapted by Franz Schubert)

Holy night, you sink down;
Down also drift dreams
Like moonlight from the heavens,
Through the quiet hearts of men.

They listen with longing
Calling out when the day awakes:
Come back, holy night!
Fair dreams, come back!