Category Archives: Classical & Opera
In honor of today being Claude Debussy’s birthday we would like to remember all of the wonderful music that he has made. Claude Debussy was a French composer who was well known for his impressionist music. He was one of the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was the father of the modern era in classical music. Author Harvey Lee Snyder has written a book on Debussy titled, Afternoon of a Faun: How Debussy Created a New Music For the Modern World, that tells about his life and also his music. Below is an excerpt from chapter 1 about Debussy’s early life and background.
Some historians tried to link Claude Debussy to the Burgundian aristocracy, but no—Claude’s father, Manuel de Bussy, was less nobly descended from peasant stock, men and women who in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were laborers and farmers, locksmiths, tradesmen, and carpenters. Claude’s maternal family too was of humble origin.
Manuel de Bussy enlisted at eighteen in the Second Infantry Regiment of Marines and served his seven-year term. He married Victorine Manoury in 1861, when both were twenty-five years old. The newlyweds moved into an old three-story house in Saint-Germaine-en-Laye, just west of Paris. Manuel ran the china shop on the ground floor, and upstairs, on August 22, 1862, their first child, Achille-Claude de Bussy, was born. Before his first birthday he had a baby sister, Adèle. Emmanuel was born in 1867, and Alfred followed three years later. Another son died in childhood.
The china shop failed after two years of Manuel’s management, and the de Bussys moved to Clichy to live with Victorine’s mother. In 1868, Manuel found work at a printing shop and moved his family to Paris. For most of his life Manuel struggled and repeatedly failed to earn enough to support his family in comfort and stability. He never held a job for very long, and Victorine sometimes worked as a seamstress to help make ends meet.
The eldest boy was called Achille (pronounced “ah-sheel”), but he was Chilo to his family. At his baptism his godparents were Manuel’s sister Clémentine and her lover, a rich financier named Achille Arosa. As a young adult, Chilo preferred to be called Claude, signed his name Claude-Achille, and modernized the family name to Debussy.
He was a quiet boy—“dreamy” was a word often used—who found refuge in solitude. Unlike his three siblings, he never went to school. His mother, who had little education herself, kept him at home and taught him to read and write. But Victorine had no enthusiasm for motherhood. More than once she sent Adèle to Cannes to be raised by Clémentine. Alfred was in Clémentine’s care until her death in 1882.
Clearly, the de Bussy clan was not an auspicious incubator of genius. Nothing in the historical record suggests that music was a significant part of the family life, or that the children were exposed to the ripe artistic and cultural climate of Paris. Manuel confidently believed Achille would follow in his footsteps: He’d be a sailor when he grew up. (Later in life, the composer of La Mer [The Sea] found this amusing.)
This summer, just like every summer since the mid-1930s, musicians and music lovers have come together at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts. In her book, Tanglewood: A Group Memoir, Peggy Daniel recounts the Tanglewood story as told in first-person accounts by such Tanglewood luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Serge Koussevitzky, Aaron Copland, Erich Leinsdorf, Phyllis Curtin, Seiji Ozawa, Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, John Harbison, James Levine, and many of the leading musicians, critics, and music professionals who consider Tanglewood a second home.
To mark the start of this year’s festival, the Boston Globe compiled its list of “Seven Books About the Tanglewood Music Festival,” and it begins is list with Tanglewood: A Group Memoir.
I love a good headline as much as anyone, and here’s a peach from the Associated Press: “Dowagers Thumb Ride to Symphonic Concert.” It seems these dowagers were among 3,000 hardy music lovers who, one night in 1942, hitchhiked, walked, or biked to Tanglewood, where Serge Koussevitzky conducted Haydn’s Symphony no. 88 and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony under the August stars. This was during the war. So many events got canceled that year, due to fuel rationing, but not this one. When Koussevitzky took the stage, the Berkshire Eagle reports, he got a “greeting in which vociferousness surpassed record and remembrance.”
Peggy Daniel has loaded all sorts of goodies like this into “Tanglewood: A Group Memoir” (Amadeus, 2008). It’s full of dowagers with pluck, led by Gertrude Robinson Smith, a socially prominent New Yorker who strong-armed all her connections to launch the music festival during the Depression, fanning out ticket subscription teams to recruit at Rotary and Kiwanis meetings, granges and garden clubs. The recruiters touted the joy of music, plus the joy of jobs: The festival would hire local unemployed electricians, carpenters, and others to build the stages and work the events.
This dowager-meets-laborer quality has set the tone of Tanglewood from the onset. It’s a place of low-price-ticket rehearsals plus high-society picnics, James Taylor plus Anton Dvorak, classical music chestnuts plus avant-garde offerings. The book trumpets Tanglewood’s bolder moments, in fact, like how the festival championed new American composers early on, and how in the 1940s and ’50s, it was the “foremost laboratory for operatic experimentation” according to the conductor/impresario Boris Goldovsky.
There’s also some choice gossip here. The early years contained many catfights with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it appears, and tales of the vagaries of performing outside. To wit, real thunder and lightning heightened Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” and when “Peter Grimes” was staged on a broiling day in 1946, stagehands hosed down a tar paper rock just before the tenor “died” slowly upon it, not willing to burn himself for art.
Read the rest of Katharine Whittemore’s list here.
Carol Montparker, author of The Composer’s Landscape: The Pianist as Explorer — Interpreting the Scores of Eight Masters, chats with Rachel Katz of A Tempo WWFM about her book!
Derived from a popular series of lecture-recitals presented by Carol Montparker over the past several years, The Composer’s Landscape features eight insightful essays on the piano repertoire. Each chapter focuses on a single composer: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Chopin, and Mendelssohn. Montparker uses landscape as a metaphor for the score, whether it be a well-tended garden of Mozart or the thorny thickets on a Schumann page: the topographical peaks and valleys, the circuitous melodic lines, the thoroughfares where all the voices convene, and so on. The discussions include thoughtful suggestions for navigating these “landscapes,” which differ so greatly from one composer to the next, taking note of the essential technical and interpretive elements, as well as the challenges for the “explorer pianist.”
As an actively performing pianist, lecturer, teacher, music journalist, and author of six other books on music, Montparker has the experience and understanding to guide readers through these issues while elucidating the finer points. Woven into her text are excerpts from her interviews with world-renowned pianists, from Alfred Brendel to André Watts, conducted during her many years as senior editor of Clavier magazine. The book also includes images from original autograph manuscripts and a CD of Montparker performing selections by composers featured in the book.
Picture books get no respect, derided, often rightfully, as decorative objects unworthy of literary consideration. In the opera world, such contempt can be justifiable: frequently assembled for notable company anniversaries, such memory books often offer dry prose, static production tableaux and glam portraits of divas in celebrated roles. John F. Martin’s In Character defies such stereotypes. With its prose confined to the opening pages — Amy Tan’s spare foreword is elegant, Martin’s explanation of process is essential, the rest is noise — and captions smartly placed as a thumbnail index at the end, the result is a rare alchemy of the performing arts, the fine arts and the graphic arts.
Martin began his association with San Francisco Opera as a supernumerary and managed to set up a closest studio in the War Memorial Opera House just off the canteen. He coaxed performers from the wings to sit for a moment in full regalia and character, their emotions engaged. you can smell the sweat of jealousy on Dmitri Hvorstovsky’s chest as Count di Luna in Il Trovatore. You avert your eyes from Natalie Dessay’s Lucia, so upsetting is her frail glance of madness. Qian Yi, as Precious Auntie in The Bonesetter’s Daughter, floats as if to heaven.
But it’s not only stars that shine bright in In Character. Yes, we see boldface heroes, villains and ingenues, but we also see clergy and townspeople and servants and social outcasts and a “fantasia” of freaks. We see wordless gaiety and fortitude, reflections of sorrow and pride, a child bereft of soul, captured as if by Diane Arbus. We also see the masterful skills of today’s leading costume designers in impeccable detail: Constance Hoffman’s terrifying harlequins for Rigoletto, François Barbeau’s bawdy dancers for The Rake’s Progress, Laurent Pelly’s snooty aristocratic ladies forLa Fille du Régiment.
Read the rest of the review here!
The Metropolitan Opera Presents:
Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana
and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
If you are planning to see the concert in HD this weekend, be sure to pick up this perfect companion to the premiere!
Opera’s most enduring tragic double bill of verismo masterpieces, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci share many common features, most noticeably their direct language, plot simplicity, common-folk characters, and themes of adultery, betrayal, revenge, and murder. Written within two years of each other, and both set in villages in southern Italy, they feature dramatic confrontations, turbulent emotions, and gritty realism.
The Metropolitan Opera Presents: Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (April 2015, $18.99) is the latest in the Metropolitan Opera Presents Libretto Library Series by Amadeus Press. In this groundbreaking series, classic and well-known operas are presented in a fresh new package. Each book features the complete libretto; color image inserts from Met Opera productions, a Met Opera libretto “In Focus” feature; and official Met Opera program notes. All titles include introductions and forewords by renowned opera experts.
Cavalleria Rusticana takes place on Easter in a Sicilian village, where Turiddu, after returning from the army to find his beloved Lola married to the carter Alfio, found solace with the peasant girl Santuzza but ultimately betrayed her and ruined her reputation. When Turiddu goes back to Lola, Santuzza seeks revenge, with tragic results.
In Pagliacci, a troupe of traveling commedia dell’arte players is torn apart when its leader, Canio, discovers that his wife, Nedda, has taken a lover. In the ensuing “play within a play,” the actors struggle to go on with their performance as the line between theater and reality collapses, leading to an explosive climax.
The Metropolitan Opera Presents: Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci is the sixth title in Amadeus Press’s Metropolitan Opera Presents Libretto Series, following Puccini’s Tosca, Puccini’s La Boheme, and Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, and Bizet’s Carmen.
There will be a FREE EVENT at the United Nations Headquarters to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, an annual event sponsored by B’nai B’rith International.
Toscanini: A Conductor Stands Up For Justice
Date & Time: Tuesday, January 27th at 1:15pm
Place: United Nations Headquarters, Conference Room 3
Pre-registration required – RSVP by Jan. 20 at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 1-212-557-0019
(In case of inclement weather only, call 1-212-490-1352 for possible schedule change.)
Using rare film footage and archival orchestral recordings, Cesare Civetta (director of the Beethoven Festival Orchestra and author of The Real Toscanini: Musicians Reveal the Maestro), will explore the life, music, and extraordinary impact of the man whose fiery passion and astonishing talent made him one of the most acclaimed musicians of the 20th century.
Special note will be given to Toscanini’s defiance of Hitler and Mussolini “Jewish policies,” eventually leading him to establishing the orchestra now known as Israel Philharmonic in 1936, in solidarity with Jewish musicians escaping Nazi persecution. The presentation will feature audio interviews with artists who performed under Toscanini as well as rare video footage of Toscanini rehearsing and conducting. The presentation will be followed by a Question & Answer period.
ABOUT MAESTRO CESARE CIVETTA:
CESARE CIVETTA is an internationally acclaimed conductor who has led more than 60 orchestras in 28 countries, including performances at Lincoln Center and Madison Square Garden. He is the author of The Real Toscanini: Musicians Reveal the Maestro, and his concerts have been broadcast live over National Public Radio, Swedish Radio and the South African Broadcasting Company, and featured on CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC.
IN CHINA, he was the first foreign-born conductor to conduct at the Wuhan Conservatory of Music. He has also given master classes, lectures and conducted the orchestras of the Beijing, Shanghai and Shenyang conservatories, where he found an outpouring of enthusiasm for Western music that was shared by orchestras, students and audiences alike.
IN RUSSIA, Mr. Civetta had the unique distinction of being the first American to conduct a transcontinental tour of the former Soviet Union. He gave the first performance of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever at the Communist Party Headquarters in Yaroslavl, where Civetta turned the statue of Lenin to face the wall. Coverage of Civetta’s historic tour of Poland, Romania and Russia during the dismantling of the Soviet Union was broadcast over Voice of America, and a video documentary about it was produced in nine languages.
To view a video of Maestro Civetta’s orchestral tour of Russia, click here.
For information about Maestro Civetta’s recently published book, The Real Toscanini, click here.
Curtain Call host Charles Sepos chats with John Martin about his new book In Character: Opera Portraiture.
In Character: Opera Portraiture memorably captures operatic performers away from the audience but fully inhabiting their roles. It showcases the work of John F. Martin, who for years set up a portable studio in the basement of the San Francisco Opera and photographed the players – in costume and full makeup – right before or after they took the stage. The subjects range from nonsinging supernumeraries through chorus members and comprimarii to opera’s greatest stars, such as Anna Netrebko, Natalie Dessay, Deborah Voigt, Juan Diego Flórez, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Their roles run the gamut of opera personalities: heroes and heroines, villains and outcasts, royalty and common folk, Biblical figures and creatures of myth. Facing Martin’s camera, each artist projects the essence of his or her character, however great or small the part.
The book also features a foreword by author Amy Tan; a preface by David Gockley, general director of the San Francisco Opera; essays on opera behind the scenes, the vital role of costumes, and the transformation of singers into characters; and an interview with world-renowned soprano Danielle de Niese. A collection unlike any other, In Character will have broad appeal-to opera and theater buffs, costume and fashion aficionados, and anyone who appreciates fine art photography.
The Composer’s Landscape features eight insightful essays on the piano repertoire, each chapter focusing on a single composer: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Chopin, and Mendelssohn. In this book, Carol Montparker uses landscape as a metaphor for the score, whether it be a well-tended garden of Mozart or the thorny thickets on a Schumann page. In her introduction, Montparker beautifully explains the reasoning behind her “landscape” metaphor.
A few words and metaphors will explain why I gave the series the name “the Composer’s landscape.” music is a language, and that language has a very broad spectrum. often referred to as “the universal language,” still it encompasses many styles, genres, and dialects. not only does each composer write in a unique language, but performing artists have to learn to “speak” and “sing” in these various tongues. Very often pianists find that they are fluent and conversant in many composers’ languages—but not all. Very few pianists play every composer equally convincingly. even if we are lucky enough to be born with talent, it usually has a territorial boundary, as my great teacher Leopold Mittman put it.
To my eyes, a page from any score is a landscape, with its own contours and terrain, that is directly related to the language of that composer—a kind of visual depiction of the language. When a musician beholds a page from a Schumann score, it has an altogether different look from a page of Mozart; it can be as different as a jungle is from a well-tended garden, and an experienced musician can glance at a page and discern which composer wrote it, just from the appearance of the writing style.
Yes, there is the same system of notation: notes, clefs, phrase marks, dynamics, lines and spaces, and so on. But what gets much more com- plex is the “topography”: the shapes—the peaks and depths, the patches of bramble or thickets to plow through, the open plains to traverse, the circuitous routes of the melodic lines, the clotted harmonies, the busy thoroughfares where all the voices converge, the layers of their impor- tance, and the depth of meanings, stacked like the geological strata of a canyon, through which we must dig in order to get to the core of truth. We must, in essence, be explorers and, for me, the metaphor of landscape works so well that I could find endless parallels between the manuscript and any kind of geographical terrain.
Most concerts are eclectic and varied. This series proved to be a rare opportunity to present and examine one composer at a time and take note of the extraordinary and essential elements that distinguish one composer’s landscape from the next, and what the unique challenges are for the explorer-pianist.
This Autumn, Amadeus Press will release Verdi: The Operas and Choral Works as part of the Unlocking the Masters Series. Read this glowing, exclusive excerpt from the introduction of the book below.
Verdi and the Culmination of Italian Opera
Sooner or later we learn that in this world popularity and quality do not go hand in hand—far from it, in fact. But in the case of Verdi, they do. Giuseppe Verdi, probably the most popular operatic composer of all, brought Italian opera to its peak, single-handedly saving and reanimating this beloved musical genre for the better part of a century. Italian opera of the 1840s, when Verdi came on the scene, was a hodge- podge of formulas spun out by mostly forgotten composers who were at the mercy of fickle audiences, self-promoting singers, and impresarios whose chief personal quality was greed. A few fine composers—Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti—had by their individuality and hard work carved out niches for themselves, achieving popularity that spread beyond Italy, over Europe, and across the Atlantic. But with the arrival of ambitious new ideas about musical drama, chiefly those of Wagner, German opera had become the avant-garde, what the cool kids, even in Italy, wanted to see. While even the finest works by Italians still sounded beautiful, they were rarely daring. With his musical and dramatic genius and force of character, Verdi gave Italian opera’s tired conventions new life, while continually raising its standards, ultimately adding sixteen indestructible operas (of the twenty-eight he composed) to the repertory.
Verdi’s music combines lyricism with power, helping it reach its vast and well-deserved popularity. His operas grab you by the throat, demanding your attention and making submission to their beauty and force your only course. They’re not always subtle, but that’s not generally a quality associated with Italian opera. Verdi refined his style continually, though, and his final opera, Falstaff, is nothing if not subtle. Opera, the Italian variety in particular, may be unsubtle, but it is the best musical formfor the direct expression of emotions, at which it is unsurpassed. By any analysis, it’s one of the most important limbs of the Western musical tree; you can perhaps think of it as standing opposite to German-Austrian instrumental music, which runs to the abstract and intellectual. German opera, the fruit of the romantic era, is moody, grandiose, often mystical. But the goals of Italian opera are the expression of emotions, often in showy ways, and sheer entertainment.
To say that opera in Italy fills a much wider position in the national culture than it does in the United States seems a truism; it’s also safe to say that nothing in American culture, where the boundaries between “high” and “low” are written in stone, is analogous to opera in Italy, where it’s accepted by millions as an essential element of their upbringing and national heritage. While Americans and others seem irritated or amused up to a point, or bored by opera; others feel intimidated, and many seem to be put off by its artificiality. But of course, placed in the proper light, any art—and any sport—can appear unnatural. There’s more than a bit of blood sport in being an opera fan in Italy, where fine performances are cheered, and bad ones booed enthusiastically; and where the ability of tenors and sopranos to execute fast passagework and hit high notes with ease and power—or their failure to do so—are applauded or condemned vigorously during performances. Verdi’s popularity in Italy arises, as we’ll see, not only from his role as perhaps Italy’s greatest composer, but also as a symbol of the national spirit during the unification struggles of the mid-nineteenth century.
Opera’s noble purpose is to say in music what everyone feels—no more, no less. The big solo numbers, or arias, typically express an emo- tion that the character is experiencing. In a duet, each character’s emotion should be clarified and heightened by the music. Termed affects, these are the feelings we’ve all known from early in our own lives: happiness, grief, anger, fear, and all the others. (It seems curious that opera should not gain a wider response in an age and a society in which open emotional expression is accorded high value.) By Verdi’s time, emphasis had begun to shift toward the expression of more complex psychological and dramatic truth, an art Verdi excelled at and brought to transcendent levels of mimesis.
The voice dominates Italian opera, and it is the dominant element of Verdi’s style. His works are written for singers, who at best inhabit their roles and hope to become known as great Lady Macbeths, Rigolettos, or Aidas. Verdi’s mastery of the orchestra was immense, as well, and three of the operatic overtures (Luisa Miller, I vespri siciliani, and La forza del destino) are played in the concert hall. With the exception of a few piano fantasies on Verdian themes by Franz Liszt, there are no suites of material lifted from the operas and played by the orchestra without a singer: the idea itself is preposterous. The opposite holds true for Verdi’s contempo- rary and fellow operatic titan Richard Wagner, whose music has always been excerpted and transcribed for orchestra without voice, and Wagner’s music generally stands up well to the treatment. Verdi came to maturity in an era in which the bel canto style dominated; the phrase means “beautiful singing,” and it’s characterized by elaborate and difficult vocal parts, with lots of high notes for the high voices and decoration of all vocal parts. The voice is what’s on display in bel canto operas, and much of what singers are asked to do requires not only vocal power, but also agility and subtlety. The popularity of singers in Italy, entirely comparable to that of professional athletes, typically rewards those who have mastered this difficult style of singing. As we’ll see, some of Verdi’s operas display bel canto characteristics, though he came into his prime as the style was losing its hold on the public. But even if he had been born a few years earlier, his development as a composer of musical drama would have strained the inherent limitations of the style.
But there is more for all of you Verdi fans! This October, Amadeus Press will also release Verdi’s Operas, which studies in detail each of Verdi’s 26 operas, from Oberto to Falstaff. Visit the website for more information about this publication.