|New Year's Eve|
Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah, Act III
At the behest of Franz Liszt, Samson and Delilah, Camille Saint-SaŽns’s best known opera, was premiered in Germany – and in German – in December 1877. It did not reach Paris until 1890. The opera is adapted from the biblical story of Samson, lured by the Philistine seductress Delilah into revealing the source of his superhuman strength – his long hair, whereupon she proceeds to cut it off as he sleeps and blinds him for good measure.
The Bacchanale is the ballet, part of the Philistines’ celebratory frenzy after Delilah’s victory over their seemingly invincible enemy, the Hebrews. From a dramatic point of view, the music appropriately portrays the reckless abandon that always precedes a calamity. For when the Philistines bring out the blind and shackled Samson to gloat over him, he calls upon God to give him one final burst of strength to overcome his enemies. In a final suicidal sacrifice he uproots the pillars of the pagan temple, bringing destruction on the Philistines.
In 1877, at the time the opera was written, all Europe was taken with a fascination for the exotic and foreign. Homes were decorated like Chinese pagodas and composers wrote dozens of Middle Eastern-sounding music. As France was deeply involved in the colonization of North Africa, Saint-SaŽns spent the years 1880-81 travelling, including trips to resorts in Algeria (then a French colony) and Egypt. The music he heard while abroad gave him first-hand knowledge of an entirely new musical language with its own scales, rhythms and theory, and he made sincere attempts to integrate them into his own works (the Suite algérienne and the Fifth Piano Concerto “The Egyptian”). But the popular Bacchanale, written before his North African sojourns, abounds with themes that frankly reflect exotic clichés rather than the real McCoy. Of the two big oboe solos, the first still rings truer than the second – which everyone knows although not necessarily where it comes from. &
Violin Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 22
One of the best-known violinists of the second half of the 19th century and a consummate showman, Henryk Wieniawski was a child prodigy. He was born in Poland but received his musical training in Paris from age eight. By age 15 he had embarked on a full career as a virtuoso, together with his younger brother Józef (1837-1912), an accomplished pianist. He soon started composing works full of technical prowess, romantic dash and Slavic color, mostly intended for his own use. He became a traveling virtuoso throughout Europe, often giving over 100 concerts a year, demonstrating his spectacular technique. In 1860, at the behest of pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein, who was making a determined effort to improve musical conditions in Russia, Wieniawski settled in St Petersburg where he stayed from 1860 to 1872. He became solo violinist to the Tsar, leader of both the orchestra and the string quartet of the Russian Musical Society and professor of the violin at the newly established conservatory. He had a great influence on the newly developing Russian violin school.
In 1872 he resumed his world travels, including an extended tour of North America with Rubinstein. Suffering from a severe heart ailment, he nevertheless continued to travel and perform. He collapsed while on tour in Russia, spending his last months at the home of Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s benefactress.
Wieniawski composed and premiered his Violin Concerto No. 2, his best-known work, in 1862, dedicating it to Spanish violinist Pablo Sarasate. The Concerto, however, bears little resemblance to the compositional and playing style of the dedicatee. Sarasate is known for bravura for its own sake, while Wieniawski in this Concerto never allows feats of technical wizardry to overpower the essential lyricism.
Wieniawski does not strictly adhere to the structural principles of the concerto genre. In general, the composer seems more interested in lyrical figurative passages, punctuated by moments of drama than by any Classical structural principle. The Concerto’s first movement consists of a dramatic theme followed immediately by a second one (in the same key) that together makes up the essence of the entire first movement. For the first half, the soloist varies and riffs on the initial theme, while the second half concentrates on the second one, now in the much-anticipated relative major.
The second movements follows without a break. More than anything, the Romance resembles a passionate pas de deux. It begins with a theme that periodically recurs throughout the movement, interspersed with increasingly passionate episodes. A little refrain derived from the accompaniment of the main theme separates the sections. Such devices throughout the Concerto lend coherence to the composer’s flights of emotive fancy.
Finally, to great orchestral acclaim, the audience gets the fireworks it’s been waiting for. Then it’s off for a tasting tour of memorable tunes. Throughout the Concerto, Wieniawski displays a knack for taking small motivic kernels and combining them.
Carmina Burana, Scenic Cantata
“My collected works begin with the Carmina Burana,” declared Carl Orff after the successful premiere in 1937 in Frankfurt, where it was staged with elaborate costumes and scenery. A late bloomer, Orff dismissed most his earlier compositions, including three adaptations of stage works by one of the “inventors” of opera, Claudio Monteverdi, as derivative and withdrew many of them. Carmina Burana also turned out to be his most well received by far. While he subsequently composed over a dozen other stage works in a similar musical style, none achieved the popularity of his “Opus One.”
Nineteen thirty-seven? In Frankfurt? Yes, this most popular work, a performance of which occurs once a day somewhere in the world, was not labeled “degenerate,” like so much contemporary music in Nazi Germany. Rather, Goebbels himself lauded Carmina Burana – in spite of its racy text – as a model for the music of the Reich. The composer not only positioned himself during the Nazi regime for the role of Reichsminister für Musik, but also abandoned and refused to help and bail out his friends and protectors when they ran afoul of the Nazis. In an article in BBC Music, Tony Palmer relates a conversation with Orff’s only daughter, in which she stated: “He did not really love people; if anything, he despised people unless they could be useful to him.” If there were a contest for the composer with the most despicable character Carl Orff would definitely make the finals.
Orff is also known for his educational program of music and dance for schoolchildren, called ,i>Orff-Schulwerk. Beginning with the 1920s, he and his associate, Gunild Keetman, developed the program whose goal was to teach children the fundamentals of melody, rhythm and movement, using the simplest of means found in any kindergarten or elementary school: the human voice, toy drums – some specially designed by Orff – xylophones, recorders and bongo drums. Later in works for older children, he added string instruments. The program faltered during the war years – it didn’t compare favorably with the militaristic music favored by the leaders of the Hitler Youth-, but in 1948 it became for five years an immensely successful educational radio show. So-called “Orff instruments” and his pedagogy are still used in many elementary schools in the United States, Europe and Asia. Orff’s fascination with and sensitivity to instrumental sonority also found its way into his brilliant orchestral writing.
Perhaps it is the physical exuberance and freshness, coupled with a passionate and sometimes racy text – a full translation in programs and record liner notes used to be expurgated – and an easily accessible musical language that made Carmina Burana one of the most popular twentieth-century stage productions. Like Richard Strauss, Orff aimed in this and in his later stage works at a Gesamtkunstwerk (a concept originally used by Richard Wagner as the foundation of his operas), an artistic synthesis in which text, music, scenery and movement are unified and completely coordinated.
The question is seldom raised with enthusiastic Carmina mavens but here it is: Does the unsavory character of an artist affect the inherent quality of his or her work or our attitude to it?
Carmina Burana is the title given in 1847 to an edited collection of mostly secular songs (“carmina”) from an early thirteenth-century manuscript discovered in 1803 in a Benedictine abbey in Benediktbeuern, a village in Bavaria (hence the Latinized form of the name, “burana”). The manuscript contains about 250 medieval poems and songs, including works in Latin, Middle High German and French, the bulk of which do not appear in any other manuscript. They were assigned to categories: clerical poems, love songs, drinking and gaming songs, and two religious dramas. The collection is clearly a songbook, since many of the pieces included musical notation, but in a style of over a century earlier that did not indicate either exact pitches or rhythms. The actual melodies had to be reconstructed from other later manuscripts. The poets are mostly anonymous but are believed to have been “goliards,” once thought to be defrocked priests and monks; the term is now considered to be an ironic designation of poets who wrote satires and parodies for carnivals and festivals. The best known of these was the “feast of fools,” during which mock popes and cardinals satirized the religious life and parodied church services.
Although the Benediktbeuern Manuscript contains no exact notation, Orff was certainly acquainted with the theories of reconstructing medieval secular song, which he often incorporated into his own settings. Since early medieval musical manuscripts contain no specific instrumental accompaniment or harmony, Orff's settings have little or no harmonic development, relying instead on terse melodic motives and rhythms derived from the meter of the poems themselves. All of the poetry is strophic, and Orff creates stunning instrumental interludes and accompaniments whose variety and vivid tone color break the monotony of the simple melodies.
Orff employs a large orchestra to give him a wide palette of timbre and tone color, but he only occasionally uses the entire orchestra at one time, and then for dramatic effect. Although Carmina Burana is often performed in concert, numerous choreographers have tried their hand at staging it for chorus and dancers as the composer had intended. The focus on rhythm makes all of the choral numbers quite danceable, and even the solo arias are easily adaptable to dance.
The selection of poems serves as a symbolic statement on man’s subjugation to Fortune. Contrary to popular belief, the symbol of wheel of fortune did not begin as a TV game show but can be traced to ancient Roman civilization and adorns the original thirteenth-century manuscript. Carmina Burana opens and closes with a choral ode “O, Fortuna,” a paean to Fortune, Empress of the World, “changeable as the moon.” Within this frame are three large sections, taken from various parts of the original manuscript: Part 1 "In Springtime," includes a sub-section "In the Meadow;" Part 2 "In the Tavern," features baritone and tenor soloists; and Part 3 "The Court of Love," might just as well be called “The Court of Seduction.” Each part explores the fundamental human needs: nature, wine and sex, which, with Fortune on their side, men and women can enjoy to the fullest.
Part 1, "In Springtime" begins with an a cappella chorus intoning a welcome to spring. "Veris leta facies," (Spring’s bright face) with oriental-sounding interludes, the modern instruments imitating gongs and bells. The baritone solo maintains the atmosphere. In the poem welcoming spring, "Ecce gratum" (Behold spring), two spring dances frame two poems, "Floret silva nobilis" (The noble forest blooms), first in Latin, then translated into German, accompanied by drums and tambourines. Orff includes an effective bit of tone painting on the words "meus amicus hinc equitavit" (my lover has ridden away). In "Chramer gip die warve mir" (Hawker, give me some rouge) the women sing the verses, accompanied by a humming refrain for the men and women.
Part 2, "In the Tavern," conjures the masculine world of the medieval tavern, containing perhaps the most distinctive songs in the collection, notably the lament of the roasting swan, "Olim latus colueram" (Once I lived in the lakes) – the only song in the piece that departs from the diatonic intervals of medieval music; and the song of the drunken abbot of Cockaigne (a medieval utopia), whose satirical rant parodies monastic chant. The section ends with a rousing ode to dissipation and debauchery.
In Part 3, the raucous bar-room ambience shifts to the delicately refined – but not too refined – world of courtly love, as the women and soprano soloist admit that a girl without a man lacks all delight. The baritone returns, now in the guise of a troubadour, the verses of his song, "Dies, nox et omnia"† (Day, night and ever) yearning for his absent lover. † Part 3 concludes with a choral dance, "Tempus est iocundum," (The time has come to celebrate) debating the merits of chastity and abandon. Entering with a more than two-octave leap to a pianissimo high C on the word "Dulcissime" the solo soprano succumbs to her lover.
In the addendum to Part 3, "Blanziflor et Helena," a hymn to the beauty of Helen and Venus, Orff employs the full chorus and orchestra, † and finally brings the wheel of Fortune around full circle with the reprise of "O Fortuna.".
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017|