Interlude: Pierre Rode

During his time in Vienna, Ludwig van Beethoven traded on the “van” in his name, which the local Vienesse mistook as a signifier of an aristocratic family. The German aristocracy commonly used “von” in their names, while “van” was used by exclusively by commoners. But there was nothing aristocratic about Beethoven.

Coming of age in the latter years of the Enlightenment and steeped in Kantian philosophy in particular, Beethoven loathed the aristocracy even if his home in Bonn was ruled by the more enlightened Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor. As Beethoven entered his late teenaged years, France erupted in Revolution. The ideals of the Revolution, the establishment of a Republic, and the commitment to human rights dovetailed perfectly with Beethoven’s youthful outlook on life. Beethoven’s ambitions quickly turned to France, not just as a political and spiritual home, but as a musical one as well.

Just as Mozart repeatedly turned to Italy for inspiration, Beethoven’s primary influence was Gallic. The French School excelled in opera–Beethoven’s lone operatic attempt, Fidelio, was based on French dramatic operas of the 1790s–and, especially, the violin. Despite its origins in Italy, the violin, first through Catherine de Medici and then through violinist-composers such as Lully (both histories detailed here some months ago), the violin reached its late Classical apex in France. Beethoven’s rededication of his most famous violin sonata to French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer tells only part of the story.

Pierre Rode was unquestionably one of the greatest violinists of his age, evenutally becoming a court favorite of Napoleon’s. Today, he is most often recalled as having received the dedication of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10, which he premiered. He also composed a set of Caprices, which remain (at least in my day) a fairly common set of advanced studies for violin. Rode, however, also composed 13 concertos for violin and orchestra of startling beauty and originality. Until very recently, I was completely unaware of their existence, despite the dog eared copy of Rode’s Caprices gathering dust somewhere in my closet. There was a very good reason for this: The first recordings of these works were first made about 10 years ago.

We are, today and in the years to come, deeply endebtted to the great violinist Friedemann Eichhorn and the Jena Philharmonic for undertaking to record all of Rode’s concertos. Beginning in 2009, Eichhorn dug deep into Rode’s music and has produced a catalog of recordings that, to some extent, stands music history on its head. Next week, we will tackle one of Beethoven’s seminal works, which is to say one of the seminal works in all of music history–his Third Symphony. But even as Beethoven borrowed liberally from his own compositions for that truly titanic composition, I think he also might just have been influenced quite a bit by Rode’s compositions too.

I recommend the entire set enthusiastically, but here are a few highlights. Rode’s Violin Concerto No. 1 repeatedly “recalls” Beethoven’s second period compositions, especially at the start and in the atmospheric second movement–but Rode composed this in 1794, nearly 10 years earlier than comparable Beethoven works.

Pierre Rode, Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 3:

Perhaps my favorite of the entire set is Rode’s Violin Concerto No. 3, a supremely polished work that prefigures many later composers. Only this concerto was written in 1798. The opening movement is frightfully difficult, far beyond anything that other composers were demanding of their violinists at the time. Is that a hint of Paganini I hear? It is no accident that when Paganini composed his famous Caprices he also chose to compose a set of 24–the same as Rode had done.

Pierre Rode, Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Minor, Op. 5:

Finally, Rode’s Violin Concerto No. 6, from about 1800. And that date is important. Here we have a work that features harmonies that move frequently among neighboring keys, disjoined rhythms, and a theme that is so ellusive that it appears largely as fragments across the entire first movement. These are some of the very innovations that Beethoven unleased in his Third Symphony. Given his obsession with France, and the French violin school in particular, it is likely that he did encouter this score–which was published 3 years prior to Beethoven’s work on the Eroica. Rode’s 6th might very well be the wellspring for Beethoven’s second period.

Pierre Rode, Violin Concerto No. 6 in B-Flat Major, Op. 8:

The Strange Tale of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata

As a (former) violinist, I cannot leave this period without paying homage to one of the great violin sonatas ever composed, Beethoven’s Kreutzer.  In this piece, written more or less contemporaneously with his Third Symphony, Beethoven begins to emerge as a new artist altogether.  I’ve often described him as music’s first punk—smashing the same chord at full volume repeatedly for effect.  But those two chords are still to come. Let’s listen to the butterfly emerge and consider two of the more interesting and famous Conversations provoked by this piece. 

It may come as some surpise, given its published title, but Beethoven did not compose this sonata for the great violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer–he composed the work for another violinist, George Bridgetower. There is something to be said that this work is rather more a duet for violin and piano than a pure violin sonata, and the truth of that becomes evident when you see that the work was premiered by Bridgetower outside of Vienna with Beethoven at the piano. Beethoven had met Bridgetower in early 1803 and they got along famously. Commissioned to write a sonata for the two of them to perform, Beethoven was eager to impress his new friend. Unfortunately, the two quarreled soon afterwards (the persistent rumor is that a woman was involved) and Beethoven, prefiguring what he would do the following year with his Third Symphony, instructed the publisher to dedicate the sonata to Kreutzer instead.

The dedication reads:

Sonata for piano and violin obbligato written in a concertante style, similar to a concerto, composed and dedicated to his friend, R. Kreuzer, member of the Conservatory of Music in Paris, first violin of the Academy of Arts, and of the Imperial Chamber, by L. van Beethoven.

This dedication holds a few clues. Notice that the piano is listed first–again, this is more a duet than a pure violin sonata. Beethoven also suggests that the piano be peformed in grand style–as if an orchestra were playing behind the violin as in a concerto. In other words, tear it up and leave nothing on the table.

Kreutzer, for his part, hated the sonata and told his friend Hector Berlioz that the work was “unintelligible.” He never performed it and likely thought it was destined for the dustbin of history. After all, Beethoven wasn’t quite Beethoven yet.

There is, it must be said, somthing to Kreutzer’s critique–the work is uneven. Perhpas reflecting Beethoven’s rush to finish the score while Bridgetower was still in Vienna, the three movements appear to have little to do with each other. The first is truly magnificent, one of the greatest compositions ever written for violin. The movement opens with a slow introduction in A major, before hitting its stride a couple of minutes later as the key shifts to A minor, rather than the relative minor (F-Sharp minor). Choices for the violinist abound and the great violinists in history have taken dramatically different approaches to both bowing and fingering. For example, most violinists (including my choice here today) take most of the presto with martelé bowing–listen for the hair to bite into the strings repeatedly. This is created by quick pressure into the strings and quick bow movement, but slowing towards the end. Others, notably Jascha Heifetz, use a spiccato technique that is characterized by short bouncing strokes on the strings. Spiccato is frightfully difficult to master but does allow the violinist to play faster. At the close of the first movement, the tempo slows to adagio once more, with the piano and violin exchanging a theme that is both a stark contrast to the rest of the movement and its explanation. Then a flourish at the end. This is truly one of the high water marks in music history.

The next two movements are somewhat unsatisfying after that first and seem somewhat unrelated to each other. There is good reason for this. The third movement was taken more or less wholesale from an earlier work–Beethoven had rewritten the final movement to be less “brilliant.” His work on the first movement was also quite advanced, so it was quickly finished. The second, however, was only in preliminary sketch form and Beethoven, notortiously slow at composition, was under the gun–the commission came in March 1803 with the recital scheduled for the end of May. Bridgetower had to peform from Beethoven’s manuscript, while Beethoven used some notes and played mostly from memory. There was, as was the custom, a lot of improvising of the score during the premiere.

Today’s recording is one of my alltime favorites, a desert island disc if there ever was one. Eschewing my traditional taste for Heifetz where speed is the order of the day, we turn instead to the German violinist Gidon Kremer, who, in the 1970s, Herbert von Karajan himself anointed as the greatest living violinist. But what makes this recording extra special is the presence of Martha Argerich on piano–who better to bring Beethoven’s relentless drive? Any performance of the Kreutzer demands that the two musicians be true equals and this superstar pairing is just what is needed. The DG recording, with its famous “close mics” heightens the drama.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Violin Sonata No. 9 in A, Op. 47 “Kreutzer”:

But that is not the end of the story. The Kreutzer has one of the more interesting musical Conversations in history, with a detour through Russian literature.

The first part of this Conversation (I know the Professor is waiting for it!) is . . . Leo Tolstoy.  In his short story, The Kreutzer Sonata, the protagonist invites a violinist to perform Beethoven’s work with his wife (a pianist).  The results were tragic.  As the protagonist explains: “I was in torture, especially because I was sure that toward me she had no other feeling than of perpetual irritation, sometimes interrupted by the customary sensuality, and that this man,—thanks to his external elegance and his novelty, and, above all, thanks to his unquestionably remarkable talent, thanks to the attraction exercised under the influence of music, thanks to the impression that music produces upon nervous natures,—this man would not only please, but would inevitably, and without difficulty, subjugate and conquer her, and do with her as he liked.”  Eventually his madness causes him to murder his wife.  Listening to Kremer and Argerich burn it down, one can see why. Certainly, a slew of artists were inspired by Tolstoy’s novel.

Czech composer Leoš Janáček owned a copy of Tolstoy’s novel. Writing more than 100 years after Beethoven, Janáček borrows liberally from Beethoven, but twists Beethoven’s themes through rougher rhythms and modern harmonics. Setting out to recreate Tolstoy’s “poor, tormented and run down woman”, you instead get the searing heat of her affair.

Leos Janacek, String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer”:

Searching for Truth: The Conversations

It was the Moonlight Sonata that started my obsession with musical Conversations. And no, it wasn’t the Mozart link described in the prior entry.

It is easy to find how Beethoven influenced subsequent composers. You can jump only a few decades forward to Frederic Chopin, for example:

Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata No. 14, Op. 27, No. 2 in C# Minor, “Moonlight”:

Frederic Chopin, Fantaisie Impromptu in C# Minor, Op. 66 

Dedicated to Beethoven, Chopin’s composition (also in C# Minor) opens with a direct quote from the Moonlight’s opening, before moving on to examine a similar soundscape.

And it is exactly that soundscape that so captures me. As I noted the last time, some of my earliest memories are of my father playing the Moonlight Sonata, and like many childhood memories, that soundscape paints a world that takes me back to the innocence of youth. It is catnip for me–and I have searched for and found that soundscape elsewhere throughout music history. I won’t claim any formal connection between any of these works (I’ve selected different works by Mozart and Chopin, for example). But for me, here are some of the greatest composers in history scratching at an essential truth.

Much like the descendents of Babel, these composers speak to me in different tongues, but are each saying the same essential truth. I wish I knew what that was.

Playlist: Searching for Musical Truth

A Bonus Conversation:

Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, like so much of what he wrote, seems to exist out of time. There will be more examples to come, but Alicia Keys makes that case effortlessly on the very first track of her debut album. From 2001:

Demystifying the Moonlight

Beethoven’s 14th Piano Sonata from 1801 is easily one of the most famous pieces of music ever composed. It is instantly recognizable by name and intimately associated with Beethoven. For most people, it is exceeded only by his 5th and 9th Symphonies as signature works. Its sobriquet, “Moonlight,” was only acquired after Beethoven’s death and has worked a disservice in confounding the meaning of the music. This brief entry only starts to pull on the many strings that make this work one of the most interesting in history.

At 31, Beethoven was hardly a novice composer. But he was not yet that Beethoven–that archtype of a classical composer who laid bare the full depth of his emotions in his music, breaking classical forms and paving the way for the Romantic Period. This sonata, entitled Quasi una Fantasia, was merely a step, albeit an important one, in that remarkable transformation from piano prodigy and Mozartian classicist into that composer that uniquely exists out of time–revolutionary and eternal in equal measure.

Beethoven dedicated the sonata to his student and lover Guilietta Guicciardi, whose name appears on the published version.

Her father objected to the relationship and the two were parted. We will skip over the fact that she was only 16 at the time and assume, as historians have done, that her father’s objection to their relationship was due to class distinctions.

But the dedication, and once Ludwig Rellstab’s description of the opening movment as “a boat on the river in the moonlight” gave rise to its current name, the Moonlight Sonata has been acccepted as one of the most romantic works of music ever composed.

Well, I think it is quite something else altogether. And the clues are right there in the music. First, listen to the beginning of Emil Gilels’ classic version–the movement that inspired the misnomer “Moonlight”:

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 27 “Quasi una Fantasia”, I. Adagio sostenuto:

I love this. Some of my earliest memories are hearing my father play this in our home. It is a soundscape that is as comforting as a fuzzy blanket on a cold winter’s day. But therein lies darkness too. In the 20th century, pianist Edwin Fischer discovered a score in the library of Vienna’s Musikverin that holds the key to the meaning of the movement and the entire sonata. This brief sketched score, in Beethoven’s hand, which transcribes the accompaniment to a scene in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and transposes it into the key of C# Minor, the same key as the sonata. Here is that very bit of Don Giovanni that Beethoven quotes–listen to the strings in the background:

W.A. Mozart, Don Giovanni, Scene I, “Ah Soccoroso!“:

That is unquestionably the source, and therein lies the meaning: This is the Commendatore’s death aria:

Ah, soccorso! son tradito!
L’assassino m’ha ferito,
E dal seno palpitante
Sento l’anima partir.

Help, assistance, all is ended!
Oh, to die alone unfriended,
Vile assassin, thou’st undone me,
Heav’n protect and guard my child!

Let’s set the stage: As the opera opens, Leporello is waiting outside of a home for his master, Don Giovanni (Don Juan). The randy Don rushes out of the house, pursued by Donna Anna and her father, the Commendatore. Don Giovanni duels with the Commendatore, mortally wounding him. The Commendatore dies right after singing the above aria.

Well, that’s an interesting bit of source material to inspire the opening of a sonata written for your lover, no? But perhaps Beethoven was saying somthing other than “I love you” under what Rellstab mistook as a romatic moonlit river cruise. Yes, Beethoven was in love, but his love had been denied by her father. Having had his way with her (as Don Giovanni likely had with Donna Anna), Beethoven indulges in a bit of dark fantasy here–recall the title Beethoven gives the work, “Quasi una Fantasia.” And that fantasy is to do exactly to Giulietta’s father what Don Giovanni did Donna Anna’s.

This is no love song. The 31-year old Beethoven is writing to his teenaged lover, stating in a coded message that he is fantasizing about killing her father. Now, listen to that first movement again. Beneath the melancholy of C# Minor lies a slowly boiling rage. That rage builds, painfully, before it literally explodes all over the keyboard in that remarkable final movement. I can hear it all, as if Beethoven speaking directly to me (better, in fact, since my German is pretty terrible)–Beethoven’s broken heart, his unrequited love, and his murderous rage against the man who has denied him that which he desires most. Just look at the tempo marking — presto agiato (fast, agitated). As one critic remarked, Beethoven’s “ferocity is astonishing.” Yeah, no kidding.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 27 “Quasi una Fantasia”, III. Presto agiato

Beethoven’s sonata also began to break the mold of the classical sonata form, which traditionally was fast-slow-fast (perhaps with a final even faster movement). Beethoven provides a slow build–slow-moderate-fast, which is in keeping with his message. And that, more than anything else, is why this work is so important. Here, Beethoven is starting to say that music is not driven by form, but rather by emotion. Beethoven is refining his art to communicate more effectively. And music history would never be the same afterwards.

Soaked in Mozart

In 1787, a 17-year old Beethoven left his home in Bonn, Germany and traveled to Vienna with the express purpose of meeting and studying with Mozart, the greatest composer in Europe. Whether Beethoven actually met Mozart is debatable–the famous quotation attributed to Mozart (“Stanzi, Stanzi, watch out for that boy. One day he will give the world something to talk about.”) is surely apocryphal. So too is the story that Beethoven’s mother heard Mozart play and dreamt that night that her yet-to-be-born son would grow up to become a great composer.

What is not disputable, however, was the esteem that Beethoven held for Mozart and his music. He was, as a friend recalled, as “soaked in Mozart” as Mozart had been, according to his father, “soaked in music itself.” Beethoven’s debt to Mozart is significant and persisted throughout Beethoven’s life. Some influences are easier than others to divine.

Let’s begin by listening to one where Mozart’s original theme from Don Giovanni is expressly acknowledged:

Ludwig van Beethoven, Variation in C Major on Mozart’s “La ci darem la mano”:

Don Giovanni would remain a fertile source of inspiration of Beethoven throughout his life–in fact, next week’s post will be dedicated to my favorite of these.

Here’s one from early Beethoven. First, Mozart’s original:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Don Giovanni, “Notte e giorno faticar”:

And here’s Beethoven’s version:

Ludwig van Beethoven, Dirabelli Variations, Variation No. 22:

Beethoven’s Pathetique Piano Sonata, which featured in the prior entry, also cribs from a Mozart original for the famous middle movement.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13: Adagio:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Sonata No. 14 in C Minor, K. 457: Adagio:

There are, of course, many others, but let’s jump forward to the end of Beethoven’s life and hear one of the most famous:

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 9, “Choral”: The Ode to Joy:

That famous theme of the Ode to Joy? Yup, that’s Mozart. Listen at around the 1:00 minute mark in the below.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Misericordias Domini, K.222:

Incidentally, I think Mozart’s Misericordias Domini is evidence that Mozart should have written a lot more choral music.

These selections merely scratch at the very surface of the deep Conversation that Beethoven had with Mozart over the course of his life. The question of whether they actually met in person is really besides the point: They connected in the one place that truly matters, in the realm of music.

Beethoven’s borrowing from Mozart (even as Mozart borrowed liberally from the Haydn brothers, among others) obscures the point: The two composers were frightfully original and revolutionary, often in very different ways. Before stepping forth into the relenteless imagination of Beethoven, let’s pause to reflect on some of Mozart’s more revolutionary works. Some have been cited here already; others are yet to follow. I’d like to imagine that had young Beethoven possessed an iPod, this would be his Mozart Playlist.

Classical Music IV: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

THE great debate in music is whether Beethoven was a Classical or Romantic composer.  Heck, I had to write a paper on this very question for my high school music theory class.  I took the position that Beethoven had clearly been a Classical composer at the start of his career, but by 1803 had evolved to become Beethoven—a singular genius who existed outside of any recognized aesthetic and anticipating music that wouldn’t be composed for more than a century later.  Spoiler alert: I did not get a very good grade on my paper, but I continue to hold that opinion today. 

Beethoven was the undisputed titan of his age, revered both during his lifetime and afterwards.  Even half a century after he died, Beethoven’s music continued to dominate concert programs, even as it continues to do so today.  No composer has more keenly tapped into that central struggle of what it means to be human and perhaps that is why his music continues to speak to us like none other. 

But even setting aside his uniquely enduring popularity, Beethoven’s music went beyond merely revolutionary.  Yes, Monteverdi nearly single-handedly dragged Renaissance music into the Baroque, but Beethoven’s revolutionary compositions were of a completely different scale.  I’ve gone to many concerts where 20th century composers’ works were featured alongside Beethoven’s—only to come away with the impression that it was Beethoven’s music that was the most edgy, difficult, and distinctly contemporary. 

This view is far from unanimous. As I’ve said previously, the English composer/documentarian Howard Goodall has animated quite a lot of my thinking here and he takes a decidedly contrary view: https://www.classicfm.com/composers/beethoven/guides/howard-goodall-beethoven/. Incidentally, the very reason that Goodall cites for not loving Beethoven—“I feel quite strongly the presence of the composer in every nuance, every detailed instruction, every decision he makes”—is exactly why I love Beethoven so much. I am no composer, but my personal Conversation with Beethoven is the strongest of any composer. That, in a nutshell, is why I love art—the private, emotional dialogue with artists across time and space.

Beethoven began his career as a true Mozartian, turning out lovely, Classical scores—mostly for piano, where his prowess rivaled Mozart himself. Indeed, Beethoven was also a child prodigy—and very much the tormented child prodigy that everyone wrongly believes that Mozart was. Leopold Mozart may have been strict, but he reveals himself in his correspondence with his son to be a truly loving father, who was bearing the burden of raising a genius in a field in which he also excelled. Leopold’s guidance, advice, love and admiration for his son is unmistakable.

Beethoven, in contrast, was not so lucky. His entire adolescence coincided with Mozart’s prime and, let’s face it—why go see the copy when the original is still around? Beethoven was raised to be the next Mozart and, when Mozart died in 1791 and Beethoven celebrated his 21st birthday, he was, in a sense, released from the burden of competing with a living god. Art had to move forward and Mozart had given Beethoven the cues on where to go next.

Let’s pick up the story in 1798-1804, the start of Beethoven’s middle period.  Deafness was already encroaching on him and his production had noticeably slowed.  As his hearing problems first manifested at upper ranges, these pieces reveal a shift to lower registers where his hearing was still intact.  Ultimately, Beethoven would rely on the vibrations created by these lower notes to test his musical ideas before ultimately composing entirely in his mind.

Here are three standout works from that period.  Beethoven composed over 700 works in his lifetime, but only the major works are afforded an “opus” number.  As with Bach and Mozart before him, choosing from among these is incredibly difficult.  But, as pretty much everyone loves Beethoven, I feel like we can pause here with the great man for some time, to fully revel in his art and in his genius. 

First up is his “Pathetique” piano sonata.  Like Mozart, Beethoven is absorbing ideas from his contemporaries (here, Jan Dussek’s Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major) and finding new ideas and greater emotional depth from them.  There is only one choice (for me) here—the seminal recordings by the Russian pianist Emil Gilels.  My father was a very talent pianist, and I grew up listening to him play these pieces and to his favorite pianist, Gilels.  No one, in my view, captures the depth of these pieces in quite the same way.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13 “Pathetique”:

And here is Beethoven’s primary source for this work.

Jan Dussek, Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major, No. 35, Op.3:

A bonus Conversation.  If you thought that the theme from the second movement of the Pathetique seemed familiar, this is why.  Billy Joel took the basic melody and chord progressions, added a back beat, and turned it into a 1950s style rocker. 

Roll over Beethoven indeed.

Billy Joel, This Night: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wNOXu_yoDYI

The Greatest Hits of Bel Canto

I don’t intend to delve into more bel canto in future sessions, so let’s get the greatest hits out of the way here, even if most of these were composed during what I consider to be the Romantic Period.  To me, they sound purely classical in any event.

First up is Donizetti’s Fille de Regiment from 1840. The remarkable tenor Juan Diego Florez is still performing this, more than a decade after he set the opera world on fire with his Ah! Mes ami, a famous tenor arias that features nine high Cs. There is nothing like a high C, whether in the tenor or soprano line—they cut through the orchestra and the chorus like nothing else. Most tenors cannot sing that high; those who can, struggle to hit even one. This single song has nine of them in rapid succession (although the last one is traditionally interpolated for dramatic effect—it is not in the score).

This was the aria that Pavarotti sang in the 1960s that earned him the sobriquet “King of the High Cs”. But his remarkable gifts aside, Pavarotti’s voice showed considerable strain when he reached for those notes. Not so Florez. Musicologists liken him to the tenor Donizetti was composing for, hypothesizing that there hasn’t been a tenor like him for 100 years or more. If you are inspired to go to the opera—go see him. We will not see his like again in our lifetimes. When he sang this aria for the first time at the Met, he was given a rare standing ovation and was allowed to sing a reprise—18 high Cs in all. It was the first time the Met had allowed a reprise. La Scala followed suit, as did every major opera house in the world, breaking many long-held traditions. It was a major event. I was fortunate to be there for opening night—having been tipped off by the Met’s Jonathan Friend at a patron function the year before. The first two high Cs come at the 6:00 mark in the attached, with the interpolated ninth sustained at the 7:00 mark. Incredible.

Gaetano Donizetti, Fille du Regiment, Ah! Mes ami:

Next, we have Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma from 1835.  The soprano aria Casta Diva is one of the most famous arias in all of opera.  But it is not worth enduring sitting through Norma for—the paradigm of dull bel canto opera.  Every famous soprano, from Maria Callas to Joan Sutherland has sung Norma.  Here is one of the best sopranos of today tackling this aria, the epitome of bel canto:

Vincenzo Bellini, Norma, Casta Diva:

Live, and when sung correctly, the pianissimo notes seem to float above the orchestra to the furthest reaches of the house.  Incidentally, this is a perfect example what amplification completely destroys—the technique needed to sing so softly, yet project above a full orchestra and across a huge auditorium. I think I’ve talked myself into getting $25 rush tickets the next time Norma returns.  Mercifully, Casta Diva is in Act I.  I can leave at the intermission.

Finally, back to Donizetti for the famous “mad scene” that concludes the tragic tale of Lucia di Lammermoor, a rare gem of the bel canto period. A bit of background on this performance. The Russian soprano Anna Netrebko burst onto the scene in 2005, becoming within a few short years the top attraction at opera houses worldwide. Possessed of a crystal clear, luxurious soprano, she was made for bel canto. Better yet, she formed a partnership with young Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon, their voices as perfectly suited to each other as Sutherland and Pavarotti were half a century ago. Opera had found its new golden couple and the Met, eager to capitalize on this sensation, booked them for Lucia. Tickets sold out like a Rolling Stones concert.

Opening night was a patrons’ gala, which we attended.  The opening scene features Lucia strolling through the Scottish woods, happening upon Villazon’s Edgardo—resulting in one of the more beautiful duets in opera.  Immediately, I sensed that something was off.  I had been playing their disc of duets nonstop for weeks and knew their version of this duet extremely well.  Something wasn’t right.  What wasn’t right became apparent in the next scene when Villazon’s voice cracked.  Noticeably.  He soldiered on.  The third act, which opens with Edgardo alone in his castle, was the most painful experience I have ever had in art.  Villazon’s voice cracked several times, he was unable to sing most of the notes, and finally stopped singing altogether.

To put this into context, it is rare enough to hear a single wrong note in an entire production.  This was an aria made up of only wrong notes.  The Met’s director came out on stage to say that Rolando was ill and doing his best.  He should have allowed the cover to come on for him after Act I.  Whether or not the Met forced him on stage in hopes of avoiding a PR disaster of him cancelling on a gala night we will never know, but his voice was completely ruined and he never really recovered.  I recall in shame thinking that this was the first time I was happy that Lucia murdered Edgardo at the end.  Just tragic.

Gaetano Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermor, The Mad Scene:

Classical Music III: Gioacchino Antonio Rossini (1792-1868)

I really am not a Rossini fan, but I include him here because of his importance in the development of bel canto opera. The trinity of great bel canto composers are Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. As my tastes have evolved, I find myself avoiding the entire bel canto genre absent a singer that compels attendance or the rare opera of true genius from this genre (such as Lucia). These composers largely looked backwards, to Figaro, rather than picking up where Mozart left off with Don Giovanni.

Rossini is the rare composer to have retired in mid-career. Rossini’s operas were largely composed between 1812 and 1829, ending just before the Romantic Period began (at least according to me). But he would live for nearly another 40 years, during which time he composed next to nothing. What caused his withdrawal? That mystery has never been fully explained. Ill-health is prominently mentioned, but the man lived another 40 years. Was he simply out of ideas? That seems inconsistent with Rossini’s talent, both for technical composition and his all to rare ability to conjure memorable tunes. Perhaps he just got caught out by changing tastes (or the changing French regime after yet another revolution).

Although some like to paint Rossini as a Romantic, his music is fundamentally classical and Rossini’s decision to call it quits in 1830 is telling. The Romantic Period did not emerge overnight, but the first city is consumed was surely Paris in 1830, exactly where Rossini was living at the time. My view is that he could see the way the winds were blowing and they were blowing away from his aesthetic–the grand operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer were now garnering the rave reviews. So instead of evolving as a composer, he simply laid down his quill, buttressed by a small fortune he had earned and returned to Italy.

So, on to the music. First up is a song that you know as well as I do. It comes at the start of Il Barbiere di Siviglia when we first meet Figaro—before he became the Duke’s butler in Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro, he was a simple barber plying his trade and seducing the ladies. The baritone Peter Mattei is the best I’ve seen in this role.

Gioacchino Antonio Rossini, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Largo al Factotum:

Did Rossini flirt with Romanticism? Sure. Here’s a popular and great example: The Overture from his William Tell.

Gioacchino Antonio Rossini, Guillaume Tell: Overture

As we will see next week, bel canto soldiered on without Rossini at its head, existing somewhere between the classical and the romantic. Where would Rossini have taken his music in this new era? Unlike Mozart, we actually do have some music to give us some clues.

Before leaving for his self-imposed exile, Rossini completed a Stabat Mater, which owes more than a few debts to Pergolesi’s version.

Gioacchino Antonio Rossini, Stabat Mater:

Late in life, Rossini returned to Paris, holding weekly salons for which he composed original songs. Rossini, laying bare his influences, personally chose all the other music to be presented at the salon–the works of Mozart, Haydn and Pergolesi most notably among them. Many of the great and thte good of the music world attended these salons–Liszt and Gounod were frequent attendees, the former praising Rossini’s skill at the piano. He also composed a final mass–the Petite Messe Solenelle, which is perhpas our best guide as to what Rossini would have sounded like in the Romantic Period–that is with at least one foot firmly planted in the past.

Gioacchino Antonio Rossini, Petite Messe Solenelle

Mozart died at 35; Rossini essentially stopped composing at 37, while living into his mid 70s. The gods are cruel indeed.

Interlude: A Bit of History

This unassuming building in Florence, just south of Santo Croce and a block off the Arno doesn’t even have a plaque to commemorate what transpired here. While it appears to be simply subdivided into apartments today, back at the dawn of the High Renaissance, this was the Palazzo Bardi. Designed in the 15th century by no less a persona than the great architect Filippo Brunelleschi, the Palazzo was the real cradle of the Renaissance. Here, members of the 16th century Florentine intellectual community debated the arts, searching for inspiration from the classical period. One group proposed to recreate true Greek drama in which the chorus part was sung (the music for these dramas did not survive, much to our loss).

The result? Dafne (1597) by Jacopo Peri. By all accounts, it was not a great success. But as recounted here some months back, his second opera, Eurydice, was presented on October 6, 1600 at the Palazzo Pitti. The occasion? The wedding of King Henry IV of France to Maria di Medici.

Peri’s opera was successful only in that it inspired one of the wedding guests, the Duke of Mantua, to ask his court composer to create his own work based on the Peri model. That composer? Claudio Monteverdi. And the opera he created, L’Orfeo, was the spark that lit the grand flame of opera that has burned brightly for 400 years.

And this is where it all began, unmarked and unremarkable. Next time you are in a Florence, pay your respects.

Palazzo Bardi, Via do Benci 5

Mozart’s Coda: The Clarient Concerto

Most musical histories leave Mozart with his Requiem (Mozart’s last words were reported to be “I was composing this for myself”), but that I think is a mistake. In fact, Mozart’s final complete composition was his Clarinet Concerto. I tend to ascribe much importance to final works, but I don’t think Mozart really had cause to believe he was dying when he wrote this. He was very sick, true, but was receiving medical care. In fact, it was the medical care that probably killed him—leeches, and too much of them.

The Clarinet Concerto is pure Mozart and as much a guide as to where he was going musically than anything else. Mozart was not going to abandon his Golden Mean, but his music was growing in complexity, both in terms of his ever lengthening melodic lines and novel harmonics. There is a deeper emotional urgency here than in his earlier concertos and I think that is the best guide as to what Mozart was planning to do next.

In the attached video, clarinettist Michael Collins performs on a modern version of the Basset clarinet, an instrument that until quite recently had completely disappeared. It is, however, the instrument for which Mozart scored his concerto. Anton Stadler, a close friend of Mozart’s and fellow Freemason, had commissioned the concerto for his Basset clarinet. In fact, Stadler’s love of the instrument likely also influenced the orchestration of his later operas Cosi fan tutte, La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte, which are also scored for a Basset clarinet.

Wofgang Amadeus Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito: “Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio”

Why does this matter? As you can see from the video below, the Basset clarinet is a much longer instrument than its modern counterpart and was capable of playing in the lower registers that Stadler loved. When the concerto was adapted for the modern clarinet on its first publication in 1802, those lower parts had to be transposed an octave higher. And this produces an interesting effect, much to the detriment of Mozart’s composition. In contrapuntal music theory, there are four types of motion, that is four ways that two lines of music can move in relation to each other. First is parallel motion where the two lines move in the same direction (that is progressively higher or progressively lower) in parallel to each other. This sort of composition was common in the early forms of chant where boys’ voices were added to a male chorus singing exactly one octavie above the mens’ voices. Second is similar motion, where the two lines move in the same direction, but at different intervals (e.g., one line moves up by a third and another by a fifth). Third is oblique motion, where one line is held at a contstant pitch while the other moves up or down. Oblique motion was common in the early music with which this blog began and which featured a drone. Finally, there is contrary motion, in which the two lines move in opposite directions.

Contrary motion produces the most satisfying and interesting music and therefore is the dominant form of motion in nearly all compositions. Yet because modern clarinets cannot reach the lower registers in Mozart’s original score, by transposing the music up an octave, the new score also transforms the contrary motion in Mozart’s score into similar motion. The clarinet, playing with, rather than against, the orchestra’s line, gets lost–despite Mozart’s careful orchestration that omits other woodwind instruments that could compete with the soloist. The end result is decidedly less satsifying.

Restored to the original, the Clarinet Concerto takes flight and justifies Mozart’s observation that it is “the instrument best capable of imitating the human voice.” I especially love the second movement Adagio, which might be the closest Mozart ever came to uniting operatic composition with instrumental composition. In it, the clarinet seems to sing about loss and anticipates the songs without words that would become popular in the next century.

Of Stadler, Mozart remarked that “your instrument has so soft and lovely a tune that no one can resist it.” His music prowess notwithstanding, Stadler proved to be quite the rogue. While he claimed to have invented the Basset clarinet (or Basset horn as it was known then), this does not appear to be the case–certainly Stadler’s own instrument was made by Theodor Lotz and does not appear to have been made according to any instructions from Stadler. Stadler also claimed to have lost the autograph score in a robbery; Costanze Mozart never believed a word of it and insisted that Stadler had pawned the manuscript. He certainly needed the money–Stadler owed Mozart 500 florins (roughly $75,000 today) at the time of his death. Regardless, all of the original individual parts survived so the music we hear is all pure Mozart, especially where period instruments are used.

The concerto was premiered by Stadler in October 1791. Mozart died seven weeks later. My heart breaks for the music that we will never have.

W.A. Mozart, Clarinet Concerto in A: