Giacomo Puccini – “Crisantemi” (Chrysanthemums)

From 1980 to 1982 I lived in Italy, the first year in Naples, the second in Rome. How does a boy from Indiana get bitten by the Italian bug? The country grabbed my attention in the early 1970s the moment I saw my first Fellini film, Satyricon. It was either my friend, Kerry Wade, or my high school english teacher in my junior year, William Ribblet, who turned me on to it.

The film’s depiction of life in ancient Rome, blew me away. It was a harsh, brutal society, but it gave us western civilization and the foundation of our republican democracy. But I wasn’t thinking of that in high school: Satyricon overflowed with sex, which for a teenager was continuously on my mind. And it also showed an ancient world that was a funny, venal, and real as our modern one.

The scene in Satyricon that blew me away showed how blasé and decadent the Romans had become by the 3rd century before Alaric and the Visigoths sacked the city. The action takes place in the house of a wealthy roman patrician who has hired a troupe of actors to give a performance of some ancient Greek tragedy. The master of the house, epicene and impotent, is unimpressed by the play. To spice things up, the manager of the troupe comes out and announces a special treat. They will bring out a criminal caught stealing and cut his hand off. Which they do. Supposedly, it was not fake. Fellini found a person who had a gangrenous hand and paid him to have his hand cut off, heavily drugged of course, which Fellini filmed.

In his 1972 film Roma, Fellini drew an even stronger parallel between ancient and modern day Rome by in a scene where a modern construction crew takes an archeologist down into the bowels of Rome because they had discovered an ancient Roman villa while digging a subway tunnel. The villa was almost intact with wonderful frescoes on the walls. As more are discovered, you realize that they are actually portraits of the modern visitors. Then the air from modern day Rome, with its pollution, starts to eat away the paint and stucco of the frescoes and in a few minutes they disappear in front of our eyes.

Today’s piece, “Chrysanthemum” has nothing to do with my time in Italy. I heard it some 15 years after moving back to the states, (why I still sometimes wonder). My wife and I ended up living in the god-forsaken town of Gaithersburg, Maryland, which lies about 20 miles north of Washington, DC. Our suburb was beautiful. I had a 3000 square foot house. The neighbors had immaculate lawns. There was a community pool. The neighbors were lawyers, businessmen, veterinarians, journalists, catholics, evangelicals, white, and computer entrepreneurs. Many were drunks. Not once did I ever have an interesting conversation with any of them about classical music, art or literature.

One forlorn day, riding back from somewhere into this air-conditioned nightmare, I switched on the classical music channel, WBJC from Baltimore. Today’s piece by Puccini was playing. My heart melted at its beauty. I wondered why I had never heard it before. Maybe it’s overshadowed by all of his operas.

Puccini wrote it as a string quartet in 1890, “Alla memoria di Amedeo di Savoia Duca d’Aosta.” Allegedly, he wrote it in a single night in memory of his friend, Amadeo, the Duke of Aosta. Amadeo, according to Wikipedia, was “the second son of King Vittorio Emanuele II (King of Piedmont, Savoy, Sardinia and, later, first King of Italy).” He himself became King of Spain from 1870 to 1873, at which point he abdicated because the country was turning into a republic, and moved to Turin. Puccini was active at that time and they became friends. I’m not a big fan of the monarchy, but this they did cause some great works of art to come into being. And art has the power to assuage the soul, even if you live in Gaithersburg.

Reblog: Netrebko sing Lady Macbeth’s Scene from Verdi’s “Macbeth”

This is a reblog about the scene in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” where Lady Macbeth goes mad as interpreted by Verdi.  Anna Netrebko and Željko Lučić sing. From a recent blog post on a delightful site called “The Mad Scene (Opera in the Key of Crazy). 

This made me look up another performance  of the Maria Callas singing Lady Macbeth after listening to this commentary called “Top Three Moments for Verdi’s Lady Macbeth” by Midge Woolsey on WQXR in New York:

“In this excerpt from a concert recording made when Callas was not yet 30 years old, “she’s telling Macbeth to come home because she can’t wait to start killing people!

Nel Dì Della Vittoria
Maria Callas

Thomas Tallis: Tallis – Spem in alium

Spem in Alium first burst into my brain some 30 years ago. Someone in Britain made a depressing short film about a middle aged man, whose wife dies and sad to be alone, decides to commit suicide.  He checks into a hotel intending to down some booze and pills.  He’s interrupted by a beautiful blonde woman who is also depressed and is going to commit suicide.  The man tells the woman she must live, that life is too precious, and convinces her not to kill herself.  That does the trick.  Happy with himself that he did this life affirming act, he goes back into the room and drinks the liquor and pops the tablets.  The camera pulls away showing him lying there, a serene look on his face, with Spem in Alium playing welling up.

Even though as a young man discovering new works of classical music, I used to have elaborate fantasies of running through fields or meeting some beautiful woman, these days I cringe whenever I see someone’s attempt to paint a visual picture of a work of music.  Stravinsky hated this as well, but that’s because Walt Disney used The Rites of Spring in Fantasia and did not pay the composer any royalties.

When I hear Spem in Alium, the movie still flashes briefly before my mind’s eye, but I quick dispel it picturing instead a choir of singers.

I once heard a vapid classical music host on a Washington, DC, radio station describe Spem in Alium as “a big, big piece of work.”  I wonder if he loves Wagner’s operas for the same reason.

It is an eight-voice motet, which is often performed by 5 sets of 8 voices making up a choir of 40 voices. It was reportedly composed for the first birthday of Queen Elizabeth the First, but according to Wikipedia, there’s a letter from 1611 that describes its composition:

“In Queen Elizabeth’s time yeere was a songe sen[t] into England of 30 parts (whence the Italians obteyned ye name to be called ye Apices of the world) wch beeinge songe mad[e] a heavenly Harmony. The Duke of — bearinge a great love to Musicke asked whether none of our Englishmen could sett as good a songe, and Tallice beinge very skilfull was felt to try whether he would undertake ye matter, wch he did and made one of 40 partes wch was songe in the longe gallery at Arundell house, wch so farre surpassed ye other that the Duke, hearinge yt songe, tooke his chayne of Gold from his necke & putt yt about Tallice his necke and gave yt him.”

While searching for some recordings of it to share with you, I see that Spem was used for the soundtrack to “50 Shades of Gray,” a film about Bondage.  Some people just can’t leave well enough alone.

Below are some different recordings including a non-choral one by the Kronos Quartet.  I’d be interested in hearing which you like the best.

Harry Christophers

 

Tallis Scholars

 

Taverner Choir: Alan Wilson, Taverner Choir, Andrew Parrott, Bud Owens, Paul Nicholson

 

Kronos Quartet

Beethoven’s “Eroica,” Symphony #3 in E flat Major, Opus 55, 1803 – 1804 (reblog)

Great, thoughtful, informative post about this piece and the historical context in which Beethoven birthed it.

History Of The Music

A portrait of Beethoven Ludwig Van Beethoven

If I recall correctly, the tale goes somewhat like this:

Beethoven was chatting with his comrades in his home when one of the other men informs the maestro that Napoleon Bonaparte has just crowned himself Emperor of France.  Heretofore Napoleon had represented to the revolutionary people of Europe–of which Beethoven was most definitely one–the heroic paradigm, the model of a man for the common people who were striving to rise about levels that had, for so many centuries, been socially and legally impossible for them to breach.  Napoleon had done this–breached those bounds–but in so doing, he had elevated himself–and his wife–above all others, again creating a massive gap between the people and their governance.

Incensed, as the story goes, Beethoven stormed over to his recently completed score of his third Symphony, the Napoleon, snatched the dedication page and tore it to shreds, all the while…

View original post 1,163 more words

Summer Reruns–Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: “Hm!, Hm!, Hm!,” from Die Zauberflote

Few works of classical music can make you laugh. Opera seems particularly ill-visited by the comic muse. Think of Tosca throwing herself of a parapet; Mimi dying of consumption; and Pagliacci stabbing his wife in a jealous rage. Not necessarily what I would call knee-slapping stuff. Even comic opera like The Barber of Seville doesn’t really make me dissolve in howls of laughter. But there is one aria from Die Zauberflote that does.

The opera opens with a dragon in hot pursuit of the Egyptian prince, Tamino. He swoons in fear, but just then, three ladies, the minions of the Queen of the Night, come to his rescue and slay the dragon. As noted in my previous post, Papageno then enters singing his aria, “Der Vogelfanger bin ich ja” (I am the, walrus, sorry “bird catcher”). The singing wakes Tamino, who asks if it was Papageno who saved his life. Papageno says yes, but the three ladies yell at him and for his impertinent lie, and lock his mouth shut.

There follows a hilarious duet between Tamino and Papageno, which, by dint of his condition, Papageno must hum. That piece still makes me laugh, even after 40 years.

Just why did that aria tickle my fancy so much? Probably in Mozart’s time period, people still believed in dragons and magic, so the previous scene with the dragon might have actually seemed frightening to Mozart’s audience. To relieve the stress, Mozart introduces a clown to lighten things up. I was wondering what role a willing suspension of disbelief might play in this. All opera requires this, because who in real life ever sings what’s on their mind unless they be aphasic? Maybe it’s the irony that for once a character in an opera can’t sing, and making him hum a duet despite that is funny. Good clean fun.

What this makes me realize, however, was how my sense of humor started to change as a result of living in the French House at Indiana University in the 1970s. I now wonder if the change was for the better. Until then my sense of humor had been fairly benign. I loved slapstick and corny jokes as a boy. In middle school we studied satire and sarcasm, but the intent was to poke fun of pompous authority figures. At the French House, among my highly vocal and articulate dorm mates, the two preferred forms of humor were wit and putdown, as is often the case with cliques. At the same time, because we were studying French, we all became obsessed with the concept of decadence, i.e., leading a voluptuous and sensual existence. Usually that gets translated into alcohol use and abuse, which tends to sap one’s creativity. The result was that many of us became cynical, lost our nerve, and abandoned our dreams. The clique often couldn’t deal with those who had clear goals and often these became the object of our ridicule or scorn.

I think of one of our dorm mates. He was a gifted singer, a baritone originally, who had discovered that by singing in falsetto, he had a perfect counter-tenor voice. He was active with the early music consort, and I went to see him once in a performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Since he didn’t actively seek to ingratiate himself with our clique, they sniped at him, and he didn’t seem too bothered by it. His name was Drew Minter and he went on to have an international career as a counter tenor.

I’m kind of torn up about this now. The French House was the first place I ever felt accepted for my interests by more than just one or two people. If one lacks a strong sense of self, as was my case at the time, one will gravitate and accept the values of the group that offers acceptance. Now I realize that in identifying with the group of people at the French House I did just that. So perhaps it’s time to let go of that. I am thankful for having met them all. They taught me so much. But in the words of some sage, “when your memories become more real than your dreams, the end is near.”

So since then, I tried to remain objective and non-judgmental of other groups. I’ve also tried to avoid participation in groups that tend to set themselves up as different or better than others–especially cultural or social groups.

Here’s a bio of Drew Minter and him performing Handel’s Vaghe fonti (Arioso di Ottone) from Agrippina.

Hildegard of Bingen, Spiritus Sanctus

This is day two of the A-toZ Challenge in which I attempt to blog every day (excepting Sundays) during the month of April.

Today I’m writing about Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess from the 12th century who was a Christian mystic, a philosopher, a writer, a polymath in the 12th century.  You can’t call her a Renaissance woman, because she lived in the medieval era, but that’s splitting angel hairs dancing on the head of a pin, if you catch my drift.

Hildegard started having visions at the age of 3 and eventually her parents sent her to a nunnery.  There she fell under the influence of another mystic who taught her to read and write and and there she learned to play the psalter and compose music.  She eventually became abbess and then was called to found two more nunneries.  About 30 years ago, her music was rediscovered and she got a lot of airplay on classical stations during the Gregorian chant craze, which saw teenagers abandoning disco music and big hair and putting on sack cloths and hair shirts.  NOT!

Spiritus Sanctus text is from Psalm 110/111 and is included in the Vesper of Hildegard.  Here are the words followed by the translation:

Spiritus Sanctus vivificans vita,
movens omnia,
et radix est in omni creatura,
ac omnia de immunditia abluit,
tergens crimina,
ac ungit vulnera,
et sic est fulgens ac laudabilis vita,
suscitans et resuscitans omnia.

Translation

Holy Spirit,
Giving life to all life,
Moving all creatures,
Root of all things,
Washing them clean,
Wiping out their mistakes,
Healing their wounds,
You are our true life,
Luminous, wonderful,
Awakening the heart from its ancient sleep.

%d bloggers like this: