Friday, July 19, 2019

Three books on music, part 3: Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music

Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. Anna Beer, Oneworld Publications, 2016, 370 pp.

On the cover: Portrait of Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre by François de Troy, 1704 or earlier. Image: Readings

In Sounds and Sweet Airs British writer Anna Beer highlights eight women composers, from Francesca Caccini in the early 17th century through Elizabeth Maconchy in the 20th. If you're thinking "Who?" that's precisely Beer's point. Although not all of the composers featured in the book are forgotten women, as the subtitle has it—there are dozens of recordings of works by Barbara Strozzi, Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann currently available, to name just three of Beer's subjects—they are all under-performed and under-recorded with respect to their male contemporaries.

They also faced far greater barriers to success. Marriage and motherhood meant that women were expected to place needs of spouses and children ahead of their own. Alma Schindler had composed more than a hundred lieder before becoming the wife of Gustav Mahler; a few months before their marriage he wrote to her a notorious letter that is worth quoting at greater length than does Beer:
[H]ow do you picture the married life of a husband and wife who are both composers? Have you any idea how ridiculous and, in time, how degrading for both of us such a peculiarly competitive relationship would become?. . .You have only one profession from now on: to make me happy!. . .The role of "composer," the "worker's" role falls to me, yours is that of loving companion and understanding partner. . .You must give yourself to me unconditionally, shape your future life, in every detail, entirely in accordance with my needs, and desire nothing in return save my love! [1]
Fortunately some husbands, such as those of Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, actively supported their wives' musical activities. Still, the burdens of raising children and managing the household fell disproportionately on women. The marriage of Robert and Clara Schumann was an artistic companionship in theory; in practice Robert monopolized the piano, while Clara was frequently pregnant and regularly needed to embark on gruelling concert tours to bring in money.

Remaining unmarried might provide women with the freedom to compose, but it had its own dangers: it could expose them to salacious gossip and social rejection. Marianna Martines (born in Vienna in 1744) never married and for respectability's sake lived with two of her brothers and the elderly librettist Pietro Metastasio, for whom she was a caregiver.

Portrait of Marianna Martines by Anton von Maron, ca. 1773. Image: Wikimedia Commons

As a young woman Martines received music lessons from a teenaged Joseph Haydn, who at the time was living in the attic of her family home, and from Nicola Porpora, who may also have been living with the family. She held musical salons at which she played keyboard duets with one Wolfgang Mozart (she was doing him the favor; he was trying to gain entry into Viennese society). She received invitations to visit Naples and Bologna, other important centers of musical activity, but declined them and remained in the city of her birth.

Because it would not have been seemly for a woman of her social position, she never wrote an opera. We have some idea of what a Martines opera might have sounded like, though, from her cantatas with orchestral accompaniment. Anna Bonitatibus singing Martines' setting of Metastasio's "Orgoglioso fiumicello" with La Floridiana led by Nicoleta Paraschivescu:

Martines hosted private musical evenings because it was not befitting for a woman of her social station to give public concerts. This was also true of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (born 1805), the older sister of Felix Mendelssohn.

Fanny Mendelssohn by William Hensel, 1829. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Although Fanny received the same musical training as Felix, she was not granted the same opportunities. Fanny's father Abraham wrote her, "Music will perhaps become his [Felix's] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament, never the root of your being and action. . .You must. . .prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your real calling, the only calling of a young woman—I mean the state of a housewife." When their mother urged Felix to help Fanny publish her music, he wrote her that to do this "is contrary to my views and to my convictions." [2]

Felix was generally supportive of Fanny's composing, but he did not think it fitting for his sister to place herself in the public eye by publishing her works under her own name. Instead he published six of her songs under his name in his Opus 8 and Opus 9. Here is one of those songs, "Sehnsucht" (Longing, based on a poem by Johann Gustav Droysen), performed by Barbara Bonney with accompanist Geoffrey Parsons:


Fern und ferner schallt der Reigen.
Wohl mir! um mich her ist Schweigen
Auf der Flur.
Zu dem vollen Herzen nur
Will nicht Ruh' sich neigen.


Fainter and fainter is the sound of the dancing.
I'm thankful that silence surrounds me
In the halls.
To my full heart
peace will not descend.

Horch! die Nacht schwebt durch die Räume.
Ihr Gewand durchrauscht die Bäume
Lispelnd leis'.
Ach, so schweifen liebeheiß
Meine Wünsch' und Träume.
Listen! The night wafts through the rooms.
Its robes rustle through the trees,
Softly whispering.
Just as, burning with love, wander
My wishes and dreams.

For women composers the difficulty of getting work published meant that it could be misattributed (as in the case of "Sehnsucht"), neglected for decades, or lost entirely. The music Francesca Caccini (born 1587) wrote for the stage, for example, has largely vanished. Only one opera has survived in a performable state: La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall' Isola d'Alcina (Ruggiero's Liberation from Alcina's Island, 1625). She also wrote hundreds of secular and sacred songs, only a few of which have been preserved.

Caccini's "Dolce Maria," performed by Shannon Mercer with Luc Beauséjour (organ and harpischord), Amanda Keesmaat (cello) and Sylvain Bergeron (theorbo):

Until relatively recently women were largely excluded from professional positions at court, in cathedrals and at conservatories, which meant that they often could not support themselves through nor find ready outlets for their art. They were passed over for prizes and fellowships, and their work was infrequently programmed in the concert hall or on the radio.

This was the case for Irish composer Elizabeth Maconchy (born 1907), the subject of one of the most interesting chapters of Sounds and Sweet Airs. Her father, a solictor, died of tuberculosis when she was 15, and her mother moved the family from Ireland to London after Elizabeth won admission to the Royal College of Music the next year. She became a student of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and in 1928 applied for the prestigious Mendelssohn Scholarship. She did not receive it, however, being told by the head of the RCM that "if we'd given it to you, you'd only have gotten married and never written another note!" [3]

"Ophelia's Song," composed by 19-year-old Maconchy while at the RCM in 1926, performed by Caroline MacPhie with accompanist Joseph Middleton; the words are from Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act IV Scene 5:


How should I your true love know
  From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff,
  And his sandal shoon.

He is dead and gone, lady,
  He is dead and gone,
At his head a grass-green turf,
  At his heels a stone.

White his shroud as the mountain snow
  Larded with sweet flowers,
Which bewept to the grave did go
  With true-love showers.

Maconchy did get married in 1930, and kept right on composing (when she wasn't debilitated by bouts of tuberculosis). Fortunately in 1930s three women in the London music scene—the conductor Iris Lemare, the violinist Anne Macnaghten, and the composer Elisabeth Luytens—established a concert series to present music by composers whose work wasn't being performed elsewhere. Maconchy wound up being the most-performed composer in the Macnaghten-Lemare Concerts, ahead of another young unknown named Benjamin Britten.

After World War II Maconchy received a bit more recognition. Hers was the winning entry in the London Council's competition for a Coronation Overture for Elizabeth II (Proud Thames, 1952), and in 1959 she became the first woman to chair the Composers' Guild of Great Britain. She received a CBE appointment in 1977, the year of Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee, and a decade later was made Dame Commander. But despite these honors, she remains relatively little known and rarely performed. I did not know her name and had never heard her music before I read Beer's book.

From Maconchy's Symphony for Double String Orchestra (1952-53), the second movement (Lento) performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Odaline de la Martinez:

In Sounds and Sweet Airs Beer necessarily focusses on a few composers and tries to generalize from their experiences to the difficulties faced by many other musical women. Every composer she profiles deserves more attention, so it feels a bit churlish to complain about those who are not represented. There are no composers from the medieval period, so abbess Hildegard of Bingen and the trobairitz Countess of Dia are absent (although the latter provides the book's epigram). And Beer neglects to include any composer from the church. That's odd because not only is sacred music a huge part of the classical tradition, the church often offered greater opportunities for women to compose than did the stage or the concert hall (the 17th-century nun Chiara Margarita Cozzolani might have made a good subject).

When in her chronological survey Beer reaches the late 19th century, she does not mention Ethel Smyth; in the 20th, Americans Ruth Crawford Seeger and Mary Lou Williams are absent. In the chapter on Maconchy, Beer tantalizingly quotes from the delightfully entertaining writings of fellow composer Elisabeth Lutyens, the daughter of the architect Edwin Lutyens (designer of much of New Dehli), who seems like a highly engaging subject in her own right. We can only hope that Beer is planning a second volume.

Other books in this series:

  1. Letter from Gustav Mahler to Alma Schindler, 19 December 1901. Quoted in Julia Moore, "Alma Mahler, or The Art of Being Loved" [review]. Notes, Second Series, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Mar., 1993), pp. 972-977.
  2. Quoted in Carol Neuls-Bates, Women in Music: An Anthology of Source Readings from the Middle Ages to the Present. Northeastern University Press, 1996, pp. 144-148. 
  3. Quoted in Anna Beer, Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, Oneworld Publications, 2016, p. 294.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Three books on music, part 2: Handel in London

Handel in London: The Making of a Genius. Jane Glover, Pegasus Books, 2018. 430 pp.

Image: MSE Books

George Frideric Handel, composer of Messiah, was born as Georg Friederich Händel in 1685 in the Electorate of Saxony in eastern Germany. As a young man he received musical instruction in his birthplace of Halle an der Saale and then in the more cosmopolitan Hamburg before travelling to northern and central Italy. There he spent the formative years of his early and mid-20s, absorbing musical influences and creating his first masterpieces. But most of the works by which he is known today were written in London. He first visited the city in late 1710 on extended leave from his duties as director of music for the Elector of Hanover, and then moved there more-or-less permanently two years later. The English capital was, as Jane Glover's subtitle has it, the making of a genius.

An invitation from the British envoy to Venice after he witnessed the triumph of Handel's opera Agrippina (1709) first brought Handel to England. What kept him there was a proposal from Queen's Theatre impresario Aaron Hill, who wanted to produce a visually spectacular Italian opera. Hill chose a subject which, "by different Incidents and Passions, might afford the Musick scope to vary and display its Excellence, and fill the Eye with more delightful Prospects, so at once to give two senses equal Pleasure." [1]

Hill wrote a scenario that featured the clash between the Christian champion Rinaldo and the Saracen sorceress Armida, a story taken from Italian poet Torquato Tasso's First Crusade epic Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered). Hill probably knew the poem in Edward Fairfax's early 17th-century English translation Godfrey of Boulogne, or the Recoverie of Ierusalem.

Rinaldo, as the opera was titled, was indeed spectacular. For Armida's Act I entrance aria "Furie terribili" she appears "in the air, in a Chariot drawn by two huge Dragons, out of whose mouths issue Fire and Smoke." Later in the act Armida kidnaps the virtuous Christian maiden Almirena in front of a helpless Rinaldo: "a black Cloud descends, all fill'd with dreadful Monsters spitting Fire and Smoke on every side. The Cloud covers Almirena and Armida, and carries 'em up swiftly into the Air, leaving in their Place, two frightful Furies, who having grinn'd and mock'd Rinaldo, sink down, and disappear." [2] While Hill "filled the eye," Handel delighted the ear, accompanying these astonishing scenes with superb music, some of it borrowed from works he had composed in Italy.

Sarah Wegener performs "Furie terribili," Armida's summoning of her demons, with Ensemble Il Capriccio (but, alas, no dragons):

In Act II there is the vista of "a Calm and Sunshiny Sea" with mermaids and Sirens, who lure Rinaldo to Armida's enchanted palace in a futile attempt to rescue Almirena (Rinaldo is captured himself). In Act III "a dreadful Prospect of a Mountain, horribly steep, and rising from the Front of the Stage, to the utmost Height of the most backward Part of the Theatre; Rocks, and Caves, and Waterfalls, are seen upon the Ascent, and on the Top appear the blazing Battlements of the Enchanted Palace, Guarded by a great number of Spirits, of various Forms and Aspects." [3] The mountain splits apart and vanishes when struck by the magic wands of two Christian knights, and Almirena and Rinaldo are freed. The Saracen armies are vanquished, Jerusalem is conquered by the Crusaders, and Armida breaks her magic wand and converts to Christianity (!).

London had never seen or heard anything like it. Rinaldo ran for 15 performances in the winter and spring of 1711, and was revived four times over the next six years. Unfortunately, in a pattern that was to repeat itself, despite the success of the opera Hill lost money on the production and ultimately lost his job as well.

Handel, though, had found a welcoming new city, and a new focus: writing Italian opera for the English stage. Over the next three decades he would compose nearly three dozen operas that would showcase some of the greatest singers in the world. [4]

Portrait of Handel by Balthasar Denner, ca. 1727. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Glover situates Handel's musical activities within the context of the political upheaval in Britain during the first half of the 18th century. Riots accompanied the accession of Handel's patron Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover, to the British throne as George I on the death of the Stuart Queen Anne in 1714. The right of the House of Hanover to rule Britain was contested on the battlefield during rebellions on behalf of the self-styled James III (the son of the deposed James II and the nephew of Queen Anne) against George I in 1715, and of James's son Charles against George II in 1745.

But there was conflict within the House of Hanover as well. There were bitter divisions between George I and his son George Augustus, the Prince of Wales. And after George Augustus ascended the throne as George II on his father's death in 1727, he in turn was at odds with his eldest son Frederick, the new Prince of Wales. Although Handel had strong connections to the throne, he could not afford to alienate the princes (who, after all, were in line to become the future king).

The quarrel between George II and Frederick had professional consequences for Handel, as Frederick was a major sponsor of an opera company founded in 1733 to rival Handel's. Although Frederick was clearly acting mainly to spite his father—he also supported Handel's company—in the end two Italian opera companies were two too many. When it became clear by the end of that decade that producing opera was no longer (if it had ever been) financially viable, Handel—then in his mid-50s—made a remarkable transition: he turned to the composition of the English-language oratorios (including Messiah) that became some of his most beloved works.

Mark Padmore performing "Waft her, angels, through the skies" from the oratorio Jephtha (1751), with The English Concert conducted by Andrew Manze:

Handel in London is Glover's second book, after her excellent Mozart's Women (2005). She writes about 18th-century music with a well-earned authority: she is a conductor of distinction who specializes in the period, and her discussions of Handel's operas and oratorios offer insights on every page. Handel has been well served by biographers, and if you are interested in fuller treatments of his early years in Germany and Italy you may wish to turn to the books by conductor Christopher Hogwood or musicologist Donald Burrows. But Glover has written the most sheerly readable biography of Handel I've encountered. She makes the offstage drama affecting Handel's opera companies and the sometimes knotty politics of Hanoverian Britain admirably clear, but always keeps the focus on Handel's magnificent music. Highly recommended.

Last time: Eric Siblin, The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the search for a Baroque masterpiece
Next time: Anna Beer, Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music

  1. Quoted in Jane Glover, Handel in London: The Making of a Genius. Pegasus Books, 2018, p. 24.
  2. Quoted in Glover, pp. 30-31. 
  3. Quoted in Glover, pp. 31-33. 
  4. For more on Handel's works for the stage, please see my posts on Acis and Galatea (1718), Floridante (1721), Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar, 1724), Tamerlano (Tamerlane, 1724), Orlando (Roland, 1733), Ariodante (1735), Alcina (1735), and Serse (Xerxes, 1738)

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Three books on music, part 1: The Cello Suites

As Maconchy said, to write about a piece of music is as if one sought to paint a smell.
—Anna Beer, Sounds and Sweet Airs [1]
It's hard to write well about classical music. Books intended for an academic audience presuppose a grounding in music theory and an ability to sightread; readers lacking either may quickly become lost. Books intended for a non-professional audience often assume too little knowledge, belabor the obvious and repeat the well-worn. In books aimed at either audience, the use of audio and video to illustrate musical points is still strangely uncommon (even today most music books lack a companion website or an online playlist).

This and my next two posts will review three recent(ish) books on music: Eric Siblin's The Cello Suites (2009), Jane Glover's Handel in London (2018), and Anna Beer's Sounds and Sweet Airs (2016). All are intended for a general rather than a specialist audience, and each succeeds in finding that engaging middle ground between the esoteric and the over-familiar. Each would have been enhanced, though, by a judicious choice of musical clips; I've supplied a few to make up for their absence.

The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the search for a Baroque masterpiece. Eric Siblin, Anansi Press, 2009. 320 pp.

Pop music journalist Eric Siblin discovered Johann Sebastian Bach's Suites for Solo Violoncello by hearing them performed by Laurence Lesser at a recital he attended out of "idle curiosity." But as he also writes, "I might have been searching for something without knowing it." That was also my feeling when I first heard the suites three decades ago, in the recordings made in the 1930s by Pablo (Pau) Casals.

It is to Casals that we owe the rediscovery of this magnificent music. As Casals described his own first encounter with the suites at age 13 in a second-hand sheet music shop in Barcelona,
I did not know of their existence, and no-one had ever mentioned them to me. It was the great revelation of my life. I immediately felt that this was something of exceptional importance, and hugged my treasures all the way home. I started playing them in a state of indescribable excitement. For twelve years I studied and worked on them every day, and I was nearly 25 before I had the courage to play one of them in public. Before I did, no violinist or cellist had ever played a suite in its entirety. [2]

Portrait of Pau Casals by Ramon Casas, ca. 1902-1904. Image: Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya

Siblin quotes the program notes from Lesser's recital describing how the cello suites were seen for 150 years after Bach's death as merely exercises for practice. Casals' first public performance of a full cello suite took place in 1901, but it wasn't until 1936, when he was approaching 60, that he went into Abbey Road Studios in London and recorded two of the suites (Nos. 2 and 3). He recorded the remaining four suites in Paris in 1938 (Nos. 1 and 6) and 1939 (Nos. 4 and 5). These recordings and Casals' concert performances revolutionized how the suites were heard. They are now established at the heart of the cello repertory and are considered among Bach's greatest works. Today there are dozens of available recordings (with more added to the catalog every year) and the suites can be frequently heard in concert halls, cafes, and even busked in the subway. Still, Casals' performances of 80 years ago set a standard that has rarely been equalled and, in my view, never surpassed.

Here is Casals' performance of the Prelude from Suite No. 1 in G major, recorded in Paris on 2 June 1938:

It is not known precisely when Bach wrote the cello suites. The most complete and authoritative manuscript is in the hand of his second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach, and dates from Bach's time in Leipzig around 1730. But the pieces were probably written a decade or more previously, during the period in which Bach was Kapellmeister (music director) at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. There he had two virtuoso cellists in the court orchestra, Christian Ferdinand Abel and Christian Bernhard Lingke, and the suites may have been written for performance by either or both of them.

Title page of Suites for Violoncello Solo, manuscript ca. 1730. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Siblin's book aptly describes the "aching soulfulness" of the suites. The book is structured in three parallel stories: the first is that of Bach and the creation of the suites, the second that of Casals and their rediscovery, and the third that of Siblin's encounter with and investigations into the music.

The book is very readable, although the rigid structure sometimes seems constraining and Siblin's tendency to employ journalistic shorthand or hyperbole can be misleading. An example: on page 41 we learn that in 1895, after Casals was pressured by the Spanish court to compose a Spanish national opera instead of focussing on playing the cello, "the family left Madrid, never to return." But on page 43 we read of Casals' "trips to Madrid and an emotional reunion with the Count de Morphy" just a few months later. So apparently we are to understand that Casals never again visited Madrid with the rest of his family. But since Casals was by this time approaching adulthood and becoming independent, and since his family was in any case native to Barcelona, this doesn't end up seeming especially remarkable.

Another example: on page 226 we read of Bach's trip to the Prussian court of Frederick the Great in Berlin, "Six months earlier. . .Prussian troops ended their occupation of Leipzig." But Siblin never informs us when the Prussian troops began their occupation of Leipzig, so the significance of this information isn't clear. In fact, Prussian troops occupied Leipzig in late December 1745, and departed in the first days of January 1746. Bach visited the Prussian court (where his son C. P. E. Bach was employed) in May 1747, a year and a half—not six months—after the Prussians took, then quickly abandoned, Leipzig. The key point isn't made until two pages later: Bach was in the employ of the Leipzig City Council; for him to visit the court of the city's recent conqueror may suggest that he was on a semi-official visit of reconciliation. Or it may suggest that Bach's frequently antagonistic relationship with the Council was continuing, and the trip was an act of defiance. What is known is that after the trip Bach dedicated another of his masterpieces, The Musical Offering, to the Prussian ruler (and flautist) Frederick the Great, who had provided its theme.

Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann, 1746. Image: Wikimedia Commons

But all of this is somewhat peripheral to the Cello Suites, which which were likely composed decades earlier. Although the documentary record is sparse, more about Anna Magdalena Bach and her role as Bach's copyist and fellow musician (she was a singer and, some speculate, may have written music in her own right) would have been welcome.

There are other strange omissions as well. For example, although Siblin quotes the great Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma in his text and lists his book on the Cello Suites (Bach, The Fencing Master (2001)) in his bibliography, Bylsma's profound second recording of the suites from 1993—second only, in my view, to Casals' interpretation—is not mentioned in Siblin's "Suggested Listening."

Anner Bylsma's performance of  the Courante from Suite No. 1, played on the Servais cello built by Antonio Stradivarius in 1701:

Occasional awkwardnesses and elisions aside, Siblin has three compelling stories to tell, and he generally tells them engagingly. Particularly if you either have not yet or have just recently discovered Bach's Cello Suites, Siblin's book is an appealing and accessible introduction to these inexhaustible works.

Other posts in this series:

  1. Anna Beer, Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. Oneworld Publications, 2016, p. 330.
  2. Quoted in Lionel Salter, liner notes for J. S. Bach: Suites for Cello vols. 1-2, performed by Pablo Casals, EMI CDH-7 61028 2 and CDH-7 61029 2

Sunday, June 23, 2019

"Reason destroyed by love": Handel's Orlando

Christina Gansch (Dorinda) and Sasha Cooke (Orlando) in SF Opera's Orlando (detail). Photo: Cory Weaver

Handel's Orlando (1733) is an opera of firsts and lasts. It was the first time Handel had turned to Ludovico Ariosto's 16th-century epic poem Orlando Furioso for source material. The poem relates the martial and amorous adventures of knights-errant during the reign of Charlemagne (who ruled from 768 to 814 CE). Handel must have thought that parts of the poem were readily reworked for operatic purposes, for he would draw from the same source for two later masterpieces, Ariodante and Alcina (both in 1735).

Title page of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, translated by Sir John Harington (1634). Source: National Portrait Gallery, London

Orlando is also musically innovative: characters interrupt, comment on or complete each other's arias, the first act ends in a unusual two-versus-one trio, and there is an extended mad scene for Orlando which uses bizarre time signatures to suggest his unhinged mental state. Jane Glover writes that this scene employs the meter of 5/8 "for the first time in music history" [1].

But Orlando is also the last opera that Handel's star castrato Senesino would perform for him; it thus marks the destruction (in its then-current form) of Handel's opera company.

In January 1733, as the opera was being rehearsed, Senesino was negotiating to join a new company that was being set up to rival Handel's. Senesino was one of the best (and best-paid) singers in the world. Since 1720 he had sung leading male roles in twenty-three operas for Handel, including the title role in Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar, 1724) and Bertarido in Rodelina (1725).

Portrait of Senesino by Alexander van Aken, after Thomas Hudson (1735). Source: National Portrait Gallery, London

But he and Handel had a notably testy relationship, and perhaps being asked to sing in 5/8 time was the final straw. At the end of the 1733 season Senesino defected to the new company, taking with him all of Handel's other singers except his prima donna, Anna Maria Strada del Pò. Handel would have to rebuild his company virtually from scratch.

Anna Maria Strada by Johannes Verelst, 1732. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The story of Orlando is relatively straightforward, especially for a Baroque opera. Orlando withdraws from battle because he has fallen in love with Angelica. Meanwhile Angelica is in love with another man, the wounded warrior Medoro. Medoro is also loved by Dorinda, who has nursed him back to health. When Dorinda discovers that Medoro loves Angelica, she is inconsolable; when Orlando discovers that Angelica loves Medoro, he begins raving and threatens to kill her. Zoroastro intervenes and uses his magic powers to return Orlando to his senses. Orlando and Dorinda accept the betrothal of Angelica and Medoro, and there is a final chorus praising both love and valor.

Although the story is simple it is full of emotional moments between the characters, and the opera contains some of Handel's most affecting music. Here is Dorinda's "Se mi rivolgo al prato" ("If I wander in the meadows"), an aria of yearning for Medoro after she has discovered his feelings for Angelica:

(Emma Kirkby with the Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Christopher Hogwood.)

The San Francisco Opera production directed by Harry Fehr sets the opera at the height of the London Blitz in the fall of 1940. Orlando and Medoro are patients at a military hospital, Zoroastro is the hospital's medical director, Dorinda is a nurse there, and Angelica is an American woman living in Britain. It's a clever conceit, suggesting that Orlando's reluctance to return to war is at least partly due to what then would have been called shellshock.

There are also some pointed historical parallels: Orlando is shown a slide show featuring the abdication of King Edward VIII and (together with Wallis Simpson) his meeting with Hitler as examples of, as Fehr puts it in his program note, "how love leads to a dereliction of duty." What works most neatly of all is the change of Dorinda from Ariosto's nurturing shepherdess to a uniformed staff nurse at the hospital. The World War II setting also enables Fehr and production designer Yannis Thavoris to strikingly evoke David Lean and Noël Coward's masterpiece of conflicted love, Brief Encounter (1945).

Heidi Stober (Angelica) in SF Opera's Orlando (detail). Photo: Cory Weaver

But the libretto calls for the action to take place in a forest, and confining the characters to a hospital renders much of the action nonsensical. Fehr mentions in his program note that a few words in the libretto were changed to reduce the conflict between what the characters sing and what we see onstage, but the problem goes deeper than just a few words. Angelica and Medoro make the urgent resolution at the end of the first act to flee to escape Orlando's wrath, but instead of simply walking out the front door of the hospital they inexplicably linger in the lobby for the rest of the opera. Orlando, although he is a raving madman and has attacked Angelica, seems to have free run of the building (and the orderlies always seem to be five minutes behind him). In a forest setting the inability of Angelica and Medoro to escape the pursuing Orlando (who is, after all, the greatest knight in Christendom) would not require suspension of disbelief.

Christian Van Horn (Zoroastro), Sasha Cooke (Orlando) and Heidi Stober (Angelica) in SF Opera's Orlando (detail). Photo: Cory Weaver

Fehr also misses or mishandles many directorial opportunities. There was a lot of "stand and deliver" singing in this production; although that is infinitely preferable to disrupting arias with distracting, irrelevant business, there were missed opportunities for meaningful interaction between the characters. Where he did give the singers things to do, his direction was sometimes puzzling. During her Act II aria "Non potra dirmi ingrata" (He will not call me ungrateful), Angelica opens and closes her luggage, checks her makeup and powders her nose—hardly the actions of someone fleeing a lunatic in desperate fear for her life.

Video projections (designed by Andrzej Goulding) were a potentially interesting way of representing Orlando's fevered hallucinations, and they included a nice (if anachronistic) Vertigo homage—another story about obsessive, and hopeless, love. But not only were the projections distracting (as they inevitably are), they were used inconsistently. Sometimes they seemed to represent Orlando's thoughts, but at others (as when they showed the explosions of a German bombing attack) they seemed to portray the diegetic reality of the characters.

Despite the production's occasional shortfalls the cast acquitted themselves more than honorably. As Orlando, Sasha Cooke offered a lovely, rounded mezzo-soprano. Orlando, though, is a demented hero—in this production, a fighter pilot—and so a touch less loveliness and a touch more masculine swagger in her singing and acting would not have gone amiss. Angelica offered Heidi Stober a chance to display the brilliance of her soprano and the breadth of her acting range; I would not have recognized the ultra-feminine Angelica as being played by the same performer who was such a convincing Zdenko/Zdenka in last fall's production of Arabella. Christina Gansch brought a real flair for comedy to her portrayal of the lovelorn Dorinda. Although her singing was not always ideally on-pitch, particularly in the lower ranges of the role, she made her third-act litany of love's pleasures and pains, "Amor è qual vento" ("Love is like a blast of wind"), a delightful tour-de-force. And Christian Van Horn brought his rich bass-baritone and an appropriate hint of menace to Zoroastro.

Christian Van Horn (Zoroastro) with a supernumerary in SF Opera's Orlando (detail). Photo: Cory Weaver

The major discovery of this production was Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Medoro. His clear, pure countertenor was the perfect vehicle for conveying Medoro's pathos; his Act II aria of longing, "Verdi allori" (Verdant trees), received a sustained ovation from the audience.

Cohen has been singing for several years with local early-music groups such as American Bach Soloists and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, but I confess nothing I had seen of him before this prepared me for how well he embodied the role of Medoro in the vastness of the War Memorial Opera House. I look forward to seeing future engagements of this artist with SF Opera.

Conductor Christopher Moulds sensitively led a 40-player modern-instrument SF Opera Orchestra. He managed the stage-pit balance astutely, never covering the singers, and the orchestra sounded ravishing. However, the tempo of the recitatives was often on the sluggish side. Recitatives are dialogue, after all, and call for a more natural conversational pace.

Despite the musical glories of Orlando, the Opera House was distressingly far from full. But audiences were also thin during the opera's first run in London. Although after the 1733 season and the defection of most of his singers Handel was able to rebuild his company—he would bring in the spectacular castrato Carestini to take Senesino's place—he never revived Orlando for his new singers. After the opera's sixth and final performance on 20 February 1733 it was not produced again for nearly 200 years.

Thanks to the period-instrument movement and scholars such as Winton Dean, in recent decades Handel has been rediscovered as an opera composer. And Orlando has justly come to be regarded as one of his greatest works. As Jane Glover writes, "its consistent and innovative excellence reflects Handel's highest level of achievement." [2] SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock should be applauded for taking the risk to produce it. As of this writing there is one more performance, on Thursday 27 June at 7:30 pm; for details see the SF Opera website.

  1. Jane Glover, Handel in London: The Making of a Genius. Pegasus Books, 2018, p. 207. You can count off a measure of 5/8 time as one-two one-two-three.
  2. Glover, pp. 207-208.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

George Sand and Gustave Flaubert: Marianne

George Sand by Nadar, 1864. Source: Wikimedia Commons
It was after the terrible days of June, 1848, that, troubled and overwhelmed to the bottom of my soul by the storms from without, I tried to find again in solitude, if not calm, at least faith.

. . .there is a deep horror of the blood spilled on either side, and a kind of despair at the sight of the hatred, wrongs, threats, and calumnies. . .

In times when evil comes because men misunderstand and hate one another, it is the mission of the artist to praise sweetness, confidence, and friendship, and so to remind men, hardened or discouraged, that pure morals, tender sentiments, and basic justice still exist, or at least can exist, in this world. . .

Preaching unity to men who are cutting one another's throats, is crying in the wilderness. There are times when souls are so agitated that they are deaf to every direct appeal. Since those June days of which present events are the inevitable consequence, the author of the story that you are going to read has undertaken the task of being agreeable, even if it means dying of despondency.

—George Sand, 1851 Preface to La Petite Fadette (1849) [1]

Barricades in the rue St.-Maur on 25 June 1848 (top), and on 26 June 1848 (bottom) after the assault by the troops of General Lamoricière, by Thibault (detail). Source: Chubachus Library of Photographic History

In the aftermath of the betrayal and defeat of the 1848 revolution Sand retreated to her country estate at Nohant and largely withdrew from participation in political events. But despite her disillusionment she did not lose faith in her republican ideals.

This became one of many points of contention endlessly discussed between Sand and Gustave Flaubert when they struck up a correspondence in the early 1860s after the publication of Salammbô (Sand had reviewed it favorably). Despite their many differences—of political views, of working methods, of literary aesthetics, of general outlook—the two became fast friends (although they rarely met in person), and Flaubert soon began addressing her as Chère Maître (Dear Master). Their letters to one another are among the most engaging works of either writer.

Gustave Flaubert by Nadar, ca. 1870

Towards the end of the year 1875 Sand wrote to Flaubert,
What's next for us? You, for sure, will produce desolation, while I will produce consolation. I don’t know what determines our destinies; you watch them unfold, you criticise, you won’t appraise them in your writing, just depict, while painstakingly and systematically concealing your personal feelings. Yet one understands them easily enough between the lines, and you make the people who read you sadder. As for me, I would like to make them less sad. I can’t forget that my personal victory over despair came as an act of will and a new way of understanding entirely opposed to my previous views. [2]
What was next for Sand was the last in a series of novels set in the countryside that she had begun in the late 1840s. Notably, they often involve intergenerational, semi-incestuous, or otherwise forbidden romances. In La Mare au Diable (The Devil's Pool, 1846), a widower marries his 15-year-old ward instead of a woman closer to his age of whom his family approves. In François le Champi (The Country Waif, 1847) a stray orphan raised by a miller's wife marries her once he becomes an adult. And in La Petite Fadette (1849), the farmer's son Landry falls in love with Fadette, who is ostracized by the other villagers because her grandmother is reputed to be a witch, because she is rumored to be the daughter of a "fallen woman," and because she and her younger brother are often dirty, unkempt and wild. In each story the characters must learn "to trust eroticism and overcome fear," and all are rewarded by finding true love. [3] That pattern would be continued in her final novel, Marianne (1876).


Title page of La Tour de Percemont and Marianne from the Oeuvres Completes edition, 1876. Source:

Marianne Chevreuse is a young woman who has inherited her parents' farm, and so is independent; she has no financial need to marry. Pierre André, her godfather, is fifteen years her senior. Pierre is shy, and as he approaches middle age is also ashamed of his lack of worldly success.
He was intelligent and hardworking and in his youth had felt capable of anything. . .He was a gifted conversationalist and had a great talent for writing. But he was crippled with shyness and, outside his own circle of friends, found it impossible to behave with any degree of spontaneity. . .
He might have become a writer; he wrote a great deal but published nothing for fear of being considered mediocre. . .Possessing every kind of artistic impulse, he could not make the leap from feeling to action, from inspiration to expression. . .
During these periods of utter dejection he would consider himself the feeblest of creatures, lacking in will-power, drive and conviction. . .His mind, after his return home, was weighed down with two equally heavy burdens: a disillusioned past and a future without prospects. [4]
Pierre is asked by a former village acquaintance who has become a successful businessman to try to arrange a marriage between Marianne and his son Philippe. Philippe has artistic pretensions; if Pierre is talented but lacks confidence, Philippe is the reverse. The sudden appearance of a young, handsome and rich suitor for Marianne forces Pierre to recognize his own hopeless love for her. What he doesn't realize is that his inability to express his feelings may inadvertently drive Marianne into the arms of the new arrival. Marianne, though, has her own ideas about whom, or whether, she will marry. . .

Sand sent a copy of the newly published novel (together with another short novel, La Tour de Percemont) to Flaubert. He responded,
Marianne moved me deeply and two or three times I wept. I recognized myself in the character of Pierre. Certain pages seemed to me fragments of my own memoirs, supposing I had the talent to write them in such a way! How charming, poetic and true to life it all is! La Tour de Percemont pleased me extremely. But Marianne literally enchanted me. . .Anyway, this time I admire you completely and without the least reservation. [5]
Around the same time, he had news for her of a new tale he was working on:
You will see by my "Histoire d'un coeur simple" where you will recognize your immediate influence, that I am not so obstinate as you think. I believe that the moral tendency, or rather the human basis of this little work will please you! [6]
But Flaubert would never learn what Sand might have thought of "Un coeur simple" (as the tale was published in Trois Contes (1877)). In May Sand fell seriously ill, and she died on 8 June 1876. Flaubert later wrote to Sand's son Maurice,
I had begun "Un coeur simple" solely on account of her, only to please her. She died while I was in the midst of this work. Thus it is with our dreams. [7]
Sand's death deeply affected Flaubert. (After the funeral he wrote, "It seemed to me that I was burying my mother the second time. Poor, dear, great woman! What genius and what heart!" [8]) Although they had disagreed about almost everything, they both truly valued their affectionate exchanges.

A key moment in their friendship occurred in the aftermath of the catastrophic siege, bombardment and bloody suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871. Both the Commune and its end in military assault and massacre had confirmed Flaubert in his view of the endless brutality of humanity. In September of that year he wrote Sand:
Why are you so sad? Humanity offers nothing new. Its irremediable misery has filled me with sadness ever since my youth. And in addition I now cannot be disillusioned. I believe that the crowd, the common herd will always be hateful. . .

Ah! dear, good master, if you only could hate! That is what you lack, hate. In spite of your great Sphinx eyes, you have seen the world through a golden color. That comes from the sun in your heart; but so many shadows have arisen that now you are not recognizing things any more. [9]

Burning buildings in the Rue de Rivoli, 24 May 1871. Lithograph by Léon Sabatier and Albert Adam for Paris et ses ruines (1873). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ruins of the Rue de Rivoli, and in the background of the Hotel de Ville, headquarters of the Commune, after the military assault on Paris in May 1871. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sand was silent for several days after receiving this letter, and then a week afterwards wrote Flaubert to tell him that her response (concealing his identity) would be published in Le Temps as one of her fortnightly columns. That column, "A reply to a friend," was a cry from the heart against hatred:
And what, you want me to stop loving? You want me to say that I have been mistaken all my life, that humanity is contemptible, hateful, that it has always been and always will be so? And you chide my anguish as weakness, and as puerile regret for a lost illusion? You assert that the people has always been savage, the priest always hypocritical, the bourgeois always cowardly, the soldier always brigand, the peasant always stupid? You say that you have known all that ever since your youth and you rejoice that you never have doubted it, because maturity has not brought you any disappointment; have you not been young then? Ah! We are entirely different, for I have never ceased to be young, if being young is always loving. . .

Our life is made of love, and to stop loving is to cease living.
. . .Frenchmen, let us love one another, my God! my God! let us love one another or we are lost. Let us destroy, let us deny, let us annihilate politics, since it divides us and arms us against one another. . .

And you, friend, you want me to see these things with a stoic indifference? You want me to say: man is made thus, crime is his expression, infamy is his nature?

No, a hundred times no. Humanity is outraged in me and with me. We must not dissimulate nor try to forget this indignation which is one of the most passionate forms of love. We must make great efforts in behalf of brotherhood to repair the ravages of hate. [10]
Flaubert was ever the great skeptic and told Sand that he was moved, but not persuaded, by her reply. But after Sand's death Flaubert wrote to her son Maurice:
And when you shall have rejoined her, when the great-grand-children of the grandchildren of your two little girls shall have joined her, and when for a long time there shall have been no question of the things and the people that surround us,—in several centuries,—hearts like ours will palpitate through hers! People will read her books, that is to say that they will think according to her ideas and they will love with her love. [11]
As Flaubert recognized, in her faith in the power of love to bring about freedom and equality for all in both the political and personal spheres, Sand was ahead of her time; in many ways she remains ahead of ours.

Other posts in this series:  

  1. George Sand, Preface to Fadette, Little, Brown, 1893, pp. 5-7. Translation slightly altered.
  2. The George Sand-Gustave Flaubert Letters, translated by Aimee L. McKenzie, Boni and Liveright, 1921, Sand to Flaubert, 18th and 19th December, 1875. Translation slightly altered.
  3. Tim Parks, "Devils v. Dummies," London Review of Books, Vol. 41, No. 10, 23 May 2019, pp. 31-32. (subscription required). The title of the article refers to the two factions of students at the convent school to which Aurore Dupin was sent at age 13: the rebellious, mischievous "devils" and the obedient, well-mannered "dummies." Aurore, initially a devil, wound up becoming the favorite of one of the nuns and was accepted by both groups.
  4. George Sand, Marianne, Carroll & Graf, 1988, Chs. I-III.
  5. The Sand-Flaubert Letters, Flaubert to Sand, Friday evening [14 April?] 1876. Translation slightly altered.
  6. The Sand-Flaubert Letters, Flaubert to Sand, Monday evening [3 April?] 1876.
  7. The Sand-Flaubert Letters, Flaubert to Maurice Sand, 20 August 1877.
  8. The Sand-Flaubert Letters, Flaubert to Maurice Sand, 24 June 1876.
  9. The Sand-Flaubert Letters, Flaubert to Sand, 8 September 1871. Translation slightly altered.
  10. The Sand-Flaubert Letters, Sand to Flaubert, 14 September 1871. Translation slightly altered.
  11. The Sand-Flaubert Letters, Flaubert to Maurice Sand, 24 June 1876. 

Saturday, June 15, 2019

George Sand and Frederic Chopin: Lucrezia Floriani

George Sand, part of an unfinished double portrait of Sand and Frédéric Chopin by Eugène Delacroix, 1838. 
Source: Wikipedia

The first meeting of George Sand and the Polish pianist and composer Frédéric (Fryderyk) Chopin was anything but auspicious. They met at Sand's request in the fall of 1836 in the company of Franz Liszt and his mistress Marie d'Agoult, but Chopin was unimpressed. "How repellent La Sand is," he reportedly said. "Is she really a woman? I am inclined to doubt it." [1]

Their acquaintance was renewed in the spring of 1838, however, when they met again in the Paris apartment of mutual friends during an after-theater party for the actress Marie Dorval. Chopin was prevailed on to perform an impromptu, and Sand wrote him a quick note: "On vous adore" (We adore you).

Arthur (Artur) Rubinstein performing Chopin's Impromptu in F-sharp major op. 36 (1839):

Sand must have improved on closer acquaintance. She and Chopin became lovers a few weeks later, although she would not fully extract herself from a relationship with her son's tutor Félicien Mallefille until September.

Frédéric Chopin, part of an unfinished double portrait of George Sand and Chopin by Eugène Delacroix, 1838,
at the same scale as the portrait of Sand above. Source: Wikipedia

From the beginning of their relationship Sand recognized that the younger and less sexually experienced Chopin was physically frail and emotionally sensitive. But perhaps these were some of the qualities, along with his artistic nature, that attracted her. And as in her other great affair, with Alfred de Musset, with Chopin she became nurse as well as lover. She was to write, "I look after him like a child, and he loves me like his mother." [2]

There is a current of (largely misogynistic) thought that portrays Sand as a distracting and destructive influence on Chopin. In fact, "much of his greatest music was composed in [Sand's country estate at] Nohant" [3], and he composed almost nothing after their separation in 1847 (although it's also true that his health was poor and continued to decline until his death in 1849). And Sand was deeply appreciative of his musical expressivity. In her autobiography The Story of My Life (1856) she wrote, "Chopin's genius is the deepest, the most sensitive and the most emotional in existence. He made a lone instrument speak the language of the infinite." [4]

Frédéric Chopin by Jakob Götzenberger, 1838. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Google Art Project

This is not to deny that there were continuing tensions. In many ways the two were opposites. Sand was politically liberal, while Chopin was conservative. Sand moved in bohemian circles, while Chopin cultivated friends and patrons with high social standing. Sand was passionate and impulsive, while Chopin could be withdrawn and irritable. There was also a kind of gender role reversal between the fastidious Chopin and the trouser-wearing, tobacco-smoking Sand; as Chopin's friend and biographer Frederick Niecks noted, "He is so lady-like, and she is such a perfect gentleman." [5]

Sand was gregarious and sought a wide acquaintance, while Chopin was reserved and became increasingly jealous of Sand's friendships with other men. That jealousy, and the ultimate doom it spelled for the relationship, were reflected in the novel Sand worked on in the summer of 1846, Lucrezia Floriani.

Lucrezia Floriani (1846)

Title page of Belgian edition of Lucrezia Floriani. Source:

As the novel opens the young, neuraesthenic Prince Karol de Roswald and his friend Salvator Albani arrive at Lake Iseo, about halfway between Milan and Verona (Sand and her then-lover Pietro Pagello had visited it in 1834; see George Sand and Alfred de Musset: The Confession). Karol is described in terms that are reminiscent of Chopin: social correctness, constitutional weakness and emotional coldness.
. . .he had the gift of pleasing even those who did not know him well. His charming face predisposed one in his favour; his physical frailty made him interesting in the eyes of women; the richness and ease of his intellectual gifts, the suave and attractive originality of his conversation, won him the attention of educated men. As for those of lesser metal, they liked his exquisite politeness and they were all the more appreciative of it as they could not imagine, in their simple goodheartedness, that he was merely performing a duty and that sympathy did not enter into it at all. [6]
Salvator learns that an old friend for whom he has kept burning an unrequited passion, the actress and playwright Lucrezia Floriani, is staying at her villa nearby. He impulsively convinces Karol to join him in dropping in on her unannounced. Lucrezia is an idealized version of an unconventional woman very like George Sand herself:
 'Would you say that I am a courtesan? I don't think so, since I have always given to my lovers and have never received anything. . .
'Would you say that I am a wanton? My heart, not my senses have ruled me, and I cannot even begin to understand pleasure without rapturous affection.
'Finally, am I a low, immoral woman? We must know what you mean by that. I have never sought scandal. Maybe I have caused it without wishing to, and without knowing. I have never loved two men at the same time. I have never in fact and in intention belonged to more than one man during a given time, depending on the duration of my love. When I no longer loved him I did not deceive him. I broke with him absolutely. True, at the height of passion I had sworn  to love him for ever; when I did swear it, I was in perfect good faith. Each time I have loved, it was with so much of my heart that I thought it was for the first and last time in my life. . .
'I have never fought against my passions. If I have acted well or badly I have been punished and rewarded by those passions themselves. I was to lose my reputation as a result; I expected it; I sacrificed reputation to love, and that concerns me alone.' [7]

L'amoureuse au piano by Eugène Delacroix, 1843

Karol is dismayed to learn of Lucrezia's past—she has four children by three different men and has never married—and is determined to leave as soon as possible. But as he is departing the next day he falls ill, and after Lucrezia slowly nurses him back to health they become lovers. Salvator sees what is happening with unease, but leaves the two to their idyll.

"You are mortally sad this evening." Illustration from Lucrezia Floriani, Chapter 24, by Maurice Sand (George Sand's son), 1854. Source:

But that idyll only lasts a few weeks. The actor father of one of Lucrezia's children comes to visit, and Karol is tortured by jealousy. Soon that jealousy spreads to all of Lucrezia's past and present contacts with other men, and poisons their relationship.
The more exasperated he was the colder he appeared and one could only judge of the degree of his fury by that of his icy courtesy. . .And then he brought wit into play, false, brittle wit, in order to torture those whom he loved. He was bantering, artificial, precious, utterly disgusted with everything. He seemed to be nibbling very gently, for sheer pleasure, but the wound he was making penetrated ever deeper into one's soul. Alternatively, if he had not the courage to contradict and mock, he withdrew into a scornful silence, a fit of sulks which rent his victim's heart. . .he thoroughly despised everything one had said and one could possibly say.

. . .A nature which is rich through exuberance and one which is rich through exclusiveness cannot fuse. One of the two must consume the other and leave nothing but its ashes. And this is what happened. [8]
After many weary years, Karol's possessiveness kills Lucrezia's love for him, and ultimately Lucrezia herself loses the will to live: "She was extinguished like a flame deprived of air." [9]

In mid-August 1846 Eugène Delacroix travelled to Nohant to visit with Sand and Chopin. One evening George Sand read her work-in-progress aloud to both men. The parallels between Lucrezia/Karol and Sand/Chopin were stunningly clear to Delacroix; he later wrote, "Executioner and victim both amazed me. Madame Sand seemed absolutely at her ease, and Chopin never stopped admiring the story." [10]

Photograph of a daguerreotype likely to be of Chopin by Louis-Auguste Bisson, ca. 1847, found in a private collection by Alain Kohler. Source: Institut Polonais Paris/CBC

However, Chopin may have been brought to recognize and resent the unflattering portrayal. After that summer he never returned to Nohant, and although Sand saw him over the next winter in Paris, the inevitable final break occurred—by letter—the following summer. (There was another ostensible cause: Chopin sided with Sand's daughter Solange and against Sand in a family quarrel.) Although Sand continued to make solicitous inquiries about him through mutual friends such as Pauline Viardot, Chopin remained bitter towards Sand for the remainder of his life. He died in October 1849, probably of chronic tuberculosis.

At the end of Lucrezia Floriani the narrator suggests that there may be a sequel that would continue to follow Prince Karol, but one never appeared. Perhaps regarding these characters Sand came to feel that there was nothing more she wished to say.

Other posts in this series:  

  1. Combined quotation from Ann Deters, 2003, "Frederic Chopin and George Sand Romanticized," Constructing the Past, Vol. 4, No. 1, Article 6., and Curtis Cate, George Sand: A Biography, Houghton Mifflin, 1975, p. 413. Translation slightly altered. 
  2. Quoted in Kornel Michałowski and Jim Samson, 2001, "Chopin, Fryderyk Franciszek." Grove Music Online. 
  3. Michałowski and Samson.
  4. Quoted in Catherine Kautsky, 2012, "Sand and Chopin: The Mysterious Liaison," American Music Teacher, Vol. 61, No. 5, pp. 25-28. Translation slightly altered. 
  5. Quoted in Kautsky.
  6. George Sand, Lucrezia Floriani, translated by Julius Eker, Academy Chicago Publishers, 1993, p. 8.
  7. Sand, pp. 25-26.
  8. Sand, pp. 212-213. Translation slightly altered.
  9. Sand, p. 227.
  10. Quoted in Cate, pp. 545-546.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

George Sand and Pauline Viardot: Consuelo

Pauline Viardot by Ary Scheffer, 1840 (detail). Image: Musée de la Vie Romantique

Pauline Garcia was the younger sister of the soprano Maria Malibran and the daughter of the singer, composer and vocal teacher Manuel Garcia. (As a measure of Manuel Garcia's skill and renown, the role of Count Almaviva in Rossini's Barber of Seville was written for him.) But both Maria and Manuel were deceased by the time Pauline made her professional singing debut in the fall of 1837 at age 16. She gave her first Parisian performance at a salon a year later; George Sand heard her sing shortly afterwards and immediately took an intense interest in her. [1]

Pauline became famous, if not quite overnight, very rapidly. In May 1839 she made her opera debut as Desdemona in Rossini's Otello at London's Covent Garden, and was invited to give a private performance for the 19-year-old Queen Victoria (Victoria wrote that "I was delighted with Garcia, who will I think surpass her poor sister." [2]) Five months later Pauline made her first Parisian opera appearance at the Théâtre Italien, again as Desdemona, followed by Angelina in Rossini's La Cenerentola and Rosina in his Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

Pauline Viardot by P. I. Solokov. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Everywhere her singing caused a sensation. While we can't know what she sounded like, a contemporary reviewer praised her for "the agility of her voice, that approaches the incredible, the surety of her most audacious intonations, the ravishing charm. . ." [3] Another critic wrote that "she possesses one of the most magnificent instruments ever heard. . .the medium tones have an indescribable sweetness and penetration that moves the heart. Hearing it is stupendous." [4]

Perhaps we can hear a hint of these qualities in certain modern singers, such as Joyce DiDonato or Cecilia Bartoli. Here is Cecilia Bartoli singing Desdemona's "Willow Song" ("Assisa al piè d’un salice") and prayer ("Deh, calma") from Act III of Otello [5]:

After her triumphs on the opera stage Pauline was besieged by admirers, including Sand's former lover Alfred de Musset, who wrote that "she sings as naturally as she breathes." [6] Sand was instrumental in steering Pauline away from de Musset and arranging her marriage to Louis Viardot, the director of the Théâtre Italien, who had been an advisor to Maria Malibran. The marriage took place in April 1840; Pauline was 18, and Viardot was, at 39, old enough to be her father.

It may seem odd that, given her experience of unhappiness in her own marriage to an older man she did not love, Sand so strongly advised Pauline to marry Viardot. But as Sand may have anticipated, Viardot served three invaluable functions for Pauline. First, opera singers, like actresses, were often seen as morally questionable; after her marriage Pauline was referred to on posters and in programs as "Madame Viardot," her marital status confirming her respectability. Second, many husbands refused to allow their wives to perform in public; this prohibition was incorporated into the plot of Sand's early story "La Prima Donna" (1831) in which an opera diva is forced by her new husband to retire from the stage (see George Sand: Indiana). As an opera impresario, Louis Viardot was unlikely to place restrictions on Pauline's professional activities. In fact, when Viardot married Pauline he was the one who quit his job as theater director to take on the role of her manager. Finally, Viardot was able to provide the material and emotional security that enabled Pauline to devote herself entirely to her artistic career.

Consuelo (1842-43)

Title page of Consuelo. Source: Bibliothèque national de France

Sand's interest in Pauline did not stop with helping to arrange her marriage; she was also inspired to write a novel, Consuelo, modeled on and dedicated to her. The heroine is an orphaned Spanish gypsy waif who is discovered singing in a Venetian church. The aging composer Nicola Porpora becomes her singing master; the novel takes place around 1750, when the historical Porpora, onetime rival of Handel and teacher of the castrati Farinelli and Caffarelli, would have been in his mid-60s.

Nicola Porpora. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Eventually the predatory impresario Count Zustiniani arranges Consuelo's opera debut. But her ravishing voice and natural, unaffected onstage demeanor excite the jealousy of the reigning diva Corilla, who is Zustiniani's current mistress. Consuelo, though, refuses to engage in rivalry with Corilla; she shuns Zustiniani's sexual advances and, at Porpora's urging, flees to the Bohemian castle of Porpora's friends and patrons the Rudolstadts. Arriving during a fierce storm, Consuelo immediately senses that a mystery envelops the family. The young heir Count Albert is betrothed to his beautiful cousin Amelia, who is staying at the castle, but is subject to strange fits of melancholy and odd wanderings in the middle of the night.

A storm, an isolated castle, a strange mystery: at this point Consuelo takes on the trappings of a Gothic novel. The narrator even jokes about it:
If the ingenious and prolific Ann Radcliffe were in the place of the frank and awkward narrator of this very truthful history, she would not neglect so good an occasion, kind reader, to lead you through trap-doors, corridors, winding staircases, darkness and underground passages during half-a-dozen fine and fascinating volumes, to reveal to you only in the seventh the key to her ingenious mysteries. But. . .we will tell as quickly as possible the answer to all our riddles. [7]
Notwithstanding this disclaimer, Consuelo is filled with ghostly sounds in the night, sudden appearances and disappearances, subterranean passageways, hidden lairs, carriages with secret compartments, dangerous encounters in dark forests and the like, all of which could have indeed come straight from an Ann Radcliffe novel.

Improbabilities and coincidences abound. It's the sort of novel where Consuelo, fleeing through a Bohemian forest, is surprised by a fellow wanderer who turns out to be the young Joseph Haydn. (Consuelo ultimately introduces him to her teacher Porpora, and Haydn—as he did in real life—becomes Porpora's servant in exchange for composition lessons.) And it is the sort of novel where, after Consuelo and Joseph rescue a man in the aforementioned dark forest from being press-ganged into Prussian military service, they later by chance encounter his wife and children begging in the streets of Vienna and are able to reunite the family.

All of this is calculated to make strong-minded, skeptical readers roll their eyes. And I confess that when I read this novel for the first time a few months ago I had to talk myself out of abandoning it more than once. But what I didn't appreciate was that Sand may have been employing overfamiliar fictional tropes in order to make more acceptable to readers what was radically new about her heroine.

Consuelo is a performer on the public stage who does not fulfill the stereotype of the ambitious, coquettish, backstabbing diva who uses her sexual appeal to gain material success. Nor does Consuelo have to die (as does the heroine of "La Prima Donna") in order to confirm her virtue, or (as does the heroine of Lélia (1833)) in order to be punished for exceeding the bounds of propriety set for women in a male-dominated world. [8]

Illustration by Tony Johannot for Lélia, Oeuvres Illustrées edition, 1854. Source: Bibliothèque national de France

Instead Consuelo is courageous and resolute; throughout the novel she braves physical dangers and wins through thanks to her fortitude. She does not play flirtatious games; she avoids the sexual snares laid for her by unscrupulous men, and when she loves she does so openly and wholeheartedly (if chastely—perhaps Sand's concession to popular mores). Throughout she remains devoted to the high principles of her artistic calling rather than to worldly success:
She had dreamed, and still dreamed in spite of herself, of livelier and deeper joys of the heart and of more extended and acute pleasures of the intellect; but as the world of art which she had imagined so pure, so sympathetic and so noble had shown itself on a nearer view under so ugly and forbidding an aspect, she had chosen in preference a life of obscurity and retirement, gentle affections, and a solitude sweetened by her chosen work.  [9]
It was Pauline Viardot, who was able to combine an artist's freedom with nobility of character, that inspired Sand to conceive of this new kind of heroine.

Other posts in this series:  

  1. Pauline was also a highly talented instrumentalist and composer. She gave serious thought to pursuing a career as a concert pianist, but followed her mother's wishes and devoted her energies to singing. See Rebecca Bennett Fairbank, Devastating Diva: Pauline Viardot and Rewriting the Image of Women in Nineteenth-Century French Opera Culture. Doctoral dissertation, Brigham Young University, 2013, p. 56. There were few contemporary models for successful women concert pianists, Clara Wieck (later Schumann) perhaps being the best known.
  2. Quoted in Fairbank, p. 65n.
  3. Quoted in Fairbank, p. 128n. 
  4. Théophile Gautier quoted in Fairbank, p. 108n. Translation somewhat altered.
  5. For the words, see Lyle Neff's Public-Domain Opera Libretti (
  6. Quoted in Beatrix Borchard, "Viardot [née García], (Michelle Ferdinande) Pauline." Grove Music Online, 2001.  Retrieved 11 June 2019. 
  7. George Sand, Consuelo, Vol. II, Ch. IV, 1842 (translated by Frank H. Potter, 1889).; the translator's spelling of Ann Radcliffe's name has been silently Anglicized.
  8. Lélia is murdered by a monk who strangles her with his rosary (!); see Fairbank, p. 99.
  9. Sand, Consuelo, Vol. IV, Ch. X. (Translation slightly altered.)