Interlude at the side of the road: Luigi Cherubini

When Beethoven was asked to name the greatest living composer, his answer was Luigi Cherubini. When asked to name his favorite composer of operas, Beethoven’s answer was the same: Cherubini. Rarely performed, perhaps Cerubini’s music is due for reevaluation?

Before diving into his music, a few words about the man are needed. Cherubini was blessed with long life: Only four years younger than Mozart, Cherubini died 15 years after Beethoven. As his name suggests, Cherubini was Italian by birth, but lived most of his adult life in France. Ironically, Napoleon objected to his music as being “too French” as the Emperor preferred the Italian School. Nonetheless, Cherubini was installed in Vienna by Napoleon, where he met Beethoven. In later years, Cherubini was the headmaster of the Paris Conservatoire, where he was reknowned for his strict rules and dour demeanor, clashing with young Romantics such as Hector Berlioz.

Cherubini’s best known work is his opera Mèdeè (or Medea in its Italian version). The opera became a vehicle for the great Maria Callas and few have sought to follow in her footsteps, given the huge demands made of the lead soprano role. This fall, Medea makes its premiere at the leading opera house in the United States–the Metropolitan–225 years after its French premiere. Sondra Radvonovsky’s turn as the crazed sorceress is simply breathtaking–her performance alone, and the chance to see Medea live, make it THE must see opera event of the season.

Two orchestral parts, the overture and the prelude to the third act, reveal a bit about what Beethoven prized in Cherubini’s compositional technique–Dramatic orchestration, and repetitive motifs stand out, but fall well short of Beethoven’s mark in my estimation. Where Cherubini excells, however, is in vocal composition, which seems far more natural, while just as demanding as Beethoven’s. The best example of Cherubini’s talent for vocal composition is his Requiem in C. Not surprisingly, it featured at Beethoven’s funeral. Here is a brief playlist of some of these highlights:

If you can look beyond the mono recording, Maria Callas’ 1953 recording of Medea remains the benchmark. I, for one, will confess that the joys of old recordings are simply lost on me. Maybe on the right system, on vinyl with tube amplification–maybe. But certainly not streamed. Record companies take note: Radvonovsky (and her excellent Jason (Matthew Polenzani) and Neris (Ekaterian Gubanova)) would define the opera for the digital age.

Interlude: Handel’s Enduring Influence

Handel’s lasting influence remains in the operatic world. His operas which were rarely performed a generation or two ago, have found renewed life in the 21st century. Why? Not for the first time here, the music makes its own case. Consider this album from one of the most exciting singers in the opera world today: Anthony Ross Constanzo. On this album, ARC blends the music of Handel and Philip Glass, offering a rare insight into a possible Conversation between Handel and one of the most important contemporary composers. The musical connections between the two composers are indistinct, and yet there appears to be more linking them than just the ethereal sound of Costanzo’s countertenor.

A light and delightful offering today before we begin to grapple with the greatest musical mind of all beginning next week: The first of more than three months devoted to that singular genius, J.S. Bach.

Handel and Opera

As much as I love Handel’s oratorios, his 42 operas are his supreme achievement. Another digression. I met my wife in the Spring of 1998 and we got together, in no small part, because my father developed a very serious tumor and was in the hospital for most of the next year. Over the course of that year, I took her to her first opera (to be detailed in a future post, but rest assured it was not your standard Italian fare) and my father literally yelled at me from his hospital bed that I was going to turn her off to opera and, presumably, to me. She loved it. For a second opera, I took her to see Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Same lecture; same result. Giulio Cesare remains, I believe, her favorite opera.

Glyndebourne, the great summer opera festival in England, invited William Christie and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment do this back when we were living in London. I was going to go, but got too busy at work: A major life regret. Here are a few highlights from the opera, using the great Glyndebourne production where possible. The story is one we all know–Julius Caesar’s conquest of Egypt.

George Frideric Handel, Giulio Cesare

Da tempeste il legno infranto:

‘Caro Bella:

Full opera:

Telemann may have been the favorite of the people and Bach the favorite of musicologists. But Handel was the favorite of his contemporaries and those composers who immediately succeeded him.

Baroque Music IX: Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764)

Of that generation of composers who were born in the decade between 1675 and 1685, there is a good argument to be made that Jean-Philippe Rameau had the greatest influence.  Not Bach.  Not Handel.  Not Vivaldi.  In fact, the term “baroque” was derived from a pejorative comment made about Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie: Jean-Baptiste Rousseau dismissed Rameau as a “distiller[] of baroque chords of which so many idiots are enamoured.”  Other critics complained that Rameau’s “misshaped composition lacked coherent melody, was overly dissonant and changed key and metre too much.” 

Rameau was savagely attacked during his lifetime by traditionalists who braced at his harmonic innovations.  And yet Rameau held on to his exalted position as court composer, much to the dismay of the so-called “Lullyists” who championed the cause and aesthetics of his predecessor.  Perhaps it is hard to hear today what caused passions to run so hot in Paris during the 1750s—but it is fair to say that Rameau’s opera subverted Lully’s conception of French opera completely—driving the entire composition through harmonic progression and changing overnight what French society deemed to have been unchangeable.  To find a parallel to the storm of controversy created by Rameau’s Hippolyte, we need to look to 20th century Paris and the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.  And that guy drank with The Rolling Stones.

So let’s listen to this revolutionary work.  In the Act IV conclusion to his controversial Hippolyte, we see opera take on a bigger, grander sound—perhaps even more so than Handel ever composed.  The discordant tones that so enraged the Lullyists back in the day are clearly discernable, even if their shock value has diminished over the centuries. 

Jean-Philippe Rameau, Hippolyte et Aricie, Act IV conclusion:

For my money, Rameau’s best opera is Les Indes Galantes, which I doubt will ever be performed again given the subject matter.  Rameau is often derided for lack of melody.  This selection puts that debate to rest.  

Jean-Philippe Rameau, Les Indes Galantes, Tendre Amour:

Rameau is the first true modern opera composer, laying down the maxim that has guided the art form to this day: “I conceal art with art,” he said, signaling his intent to unite all of the arts (music, fine art, architecture, decorative arts, dance, poetry, etc.) in opera itself.  Rameau was the originator; Wagner was its realization a century later. 

Personal note:  As some may know, my other passion lies in antitrust law and economic theory.  It is therefore unsurprising that Rameau is a personal favorite of mine, not only because of his music, but because he came to so dominate the French opera scene that a petition was circulated in 1740 seeking a royal order to limit his output in any given year.  Who doesn’t love output restraints in Baroque opera?

Telemann and Opera

Telemann’s operas have fallen largely out of favor:  I cannot recall one being given a major production in my lifetime in NYC.  That is unfortunate, as he and Handel were responsible for essentially creating the Germanic opera tradition.  Here is a selection from his best-known opera, Der geduldige Socrates. Rodisette’s Aria, which is occasionally selected by one of the student competitors in the Met’s annual National Council competition.  In it, I hear quite a lot of Monteverdi with just a hint of what is to come with Mozart.  It’s a brilliant song. 

Georg Philipp Telemann, Der geduldige Socrates, “Rodisette’s Aria”: 

Telemann also wrote singspiel (a form of light opera with lots of spoken dialogue, the best known of which is Mozart’s Magic Flute).  This one is based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote.  Here is an instrumental passage that accompanies the Don’s attack on the windmills:  It’s my favorite part of the book and a great example of how Telemann borrowed liberally from Vivaldi and the Italian traditions.  A minor Conversation for sure. 

Georg Philipp Telemann, Don Quixote, Suite for The Attack on the Windmills

Away from the operatic stage, the prolific Telemann also composed many lieder (secular songs)—Telemann was one of the first serious composers to take on this popular form, one that Schubert successive German composers through Richard Strauss would take to new heights.  In these Telemann lieder, you can hear a wide variety of influences, from both the French and Italian schools.  At times, they seem to anticipate Rossini.  This recording, by the great German baritone and lieder specialist, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, is worth listening to in its entirety.

Georg Philipp Telemann, 7 Lieder:  

Baroque Music V: Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725)

When we think of the great musical families in history, Strauss and Bach loom large. But one of the earliest family dynasties in music history arose in Naples during the middle Baroque Period: the Scarlattis. While Domenico Scarlatti’s fame would eventually exceed that of his pater familias, I would argue that Alessandro remains one of the most critically underrated composers in history.

Tracing the development of opera goes directly through Scarlatti, who founded the Neapolitan school and whose music built upon the foundations set by Monteverdi. There is a criminal lack of good recordings of Scarlatti’s music, but I enthusiastically recommend a recent recording by Elizabeth Watts and The English Concert under Laurence Cummings. Part of the challenge of performing Scarlatti’s works today is the lack of published scores. Working with librarians and curators, Watts and Cummings located Scarlatti’s manuscripts and set about arranging them for performance.

Peforming Scarlatti’s best arias proved challenging for Watts, as Scarlatti not only composed for castrati, but for the great Farinelli himself. Watts, in a memorable tweet, documented her struggles:

Good news: I can sing 88 notes without a breath! Bad news: Scarlatti wrote 89.

Elizabeth Watts

If you want to learn more about this remarkable artist, the 1994 biopic is a good place to start:

But if you want to learn more about Scarlatti’s music, Watts’ recording is ground zero.

Here is a taste of Scarlatti’s music, starting with the aria that gave Watts so much trouble:

Alessandro Scarlatti, Serenata Erminia, “Torbido, irato, e nero” (starts at 3:20 in the below):

Scarlatti’s music, much like Monteverdi’s, at times seems to exist of out time and space, as modern and fresh as anything being composed today. The chromatic aria Cara tobma, from the great opera Mitridate Eupatore, is a great example of why Scarlatti is so critical to the development of opera:

Alessandro Scarlatti, Mitridate Eupatore, “Cara tomba del mio diletto“:

Purcell and Opera

For me, Purcell is all about opera.  Finally, at the close of the 17th century, we finally get a composer who can rival Monteverdi in presenting searing emotion in song.  Here are two of Purcell’s more famous arias, performed by two great contemporary mezzo-sopranos, Susan Graham and Anne Sophie von Otter:

Henry Purcell, Dido and Aeneas, “When I am Laid in Earth” (aka Dido’s Lament):

Henry Purcell, Oedipus, “Music for a While”:

Little is known about Purcell’s brief life, which is one of the reasons he remains somewhat outside of the pantheon of great composers.  And, to be fair, I hadn’t given him his proper due prior to compiling this project.  He made the list for Dido’s Lament and his importance to the development of opera, but really listening to his music has been eye-opening.  His gift for clear melody was unsurpassed in his age, but avoided many of the ornaments that overly complicate many Baroque composition.  He might well be the bridge that connects the Classical Period back to the Renaissance. As the great music critic Alex Ross notes, Purcell, unlike his contemporaries, revels in the dissonant clashes that are endemic to polyphonic composition.  Consider the following example from Purcell’s Ode to St. Cecilia:

Henry Purcell, Ode to St. Cecilia, Soul of the World:

[R]adiant triads blossom from towering cluster-like chords. He also sets his sumptuous harmony against strict rhythmic regularity. His favorite device is the chaconne, or ground bass, in which a simple string of notes recurs obsessively in the continuo. He similarly built structures on ordinary ditties, simple scales, solitary tones. These are the tricks of a supreme musical intellect.

Alex Ross

Needless to say, I agree. Incidentally, St. Cecilia is absolutely a historical figure, whose body lies under the alter in the church that bears her name in the Trastevere district of Rome.  Martyred as a young woman, when they opened her coffin around the time that Purcell was composing, they found evidence that her neck had been broken, causing her body to lie at a strange angle.  The sculptor Stefano Maderno carved her body exactly as it was found.  The resulting statute, which rests above her tomb, is a devastating example of Baroque art:

Late Monteverdi

In opera singers express their emotions directly to each other and indirectly to the audience—the fusing of drama between singer and audience is what powers opera to this day. And this is where it began, in earnest, with Monteverdi’s late opera Poppea, which was premiered to a paying audience in a public theatre. No more churches. No more ducal palaces. No more myths. A real story about real people with real problems expressing real emotions to the public at large. And yes, that fiddling emperor Nero is one of the first male superstar roles in opera history. This duet between Poppea and Nero closes the opera—no need to show what happens next, as everyone in the audience would have known the bloody story (Nero murders Poppea and their son and commits suicide, bringing an end to the Julio-Claudian dynasty). Instead of that melodramatic ending (something that opera would come to specialize in during the 19th century), what we are left with is a moment so stunning, so modern, it is hard to believe that before Poppea nothing, and I mean nothing, sounded like this. This love song—I gaze upon you, I possess you—seems to affirm their wanton greed and ambition, a morality play turned on its head. Monteverdi’s none too subtle political message—Rome is once again in the hands of a Nero, threatening Venetian liberties–would not have been lost on his audience. The Professor claims to hate opera. I dare him to hate this.

Claudio Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di PoppeaPur ti miro, Pur ti godo“:

A few words about this recording as well.  At the end, you will glimpse William Christie in the pit, conducting and playing one of two harpsichords (yes, Gert, I have not forgotten—lots of harpsichords to come!).  His Les Arts Florissant is quite simply the best and most important early music group ever.  I see them every chance I get—more than a dozen concerts and operas and counting.  A native of Buffalo, New York, Christie is the best in the business.  We’ll see a lot more of them later—they are to the Baroque what the Tallis Scholars are to the Renaissance.  Soprano Danielle De Niese, who plays Poppea here, is also an American and an early music specialist.  I’m a fan and will say she’s never sounded better than here, under Christie’s baton.  De Niese has a remarkable singing partner in the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky.  In Monteverdi’s age, Nero would have been sung by a castrato—male sopranos who were castrated as boys to preserve their voice.  They were the superstars of the old operatic role and, obvious cruelness aside, I will note that they were left “fully functional” and in some cases quite famously so.  Following the demise of the practice of castrating boys for our entertainment, castrato roles eventually went to women, mostly mezzo-sopranos.  In recent years, countertenors have started to claim back these historically male roles.  A countertenor sings only in his head voice—falsetto—which gives his tone an ethereal quality.  While many countertenors of old had weak voices, the modern countertenor can hold his own with a female soprano, as this selection attests.

Baroque Music I: Claudio Monteverdi, Part II, The Birth of Opera

The genius who birthed the Baroque was, as previewed last time, the great Renaissance composer Claudio Monteverdi.  Its birthplace was Florence, and the medium was opera.  Opera was midwifed in the Florentine Camerata, that group artists, philosophers, musicians, poets, and intellectuals at the end of the Renaissance who debated and studied the arts.  I previously mentioned the centuries of lost music—nowhere is this more keenly felt than in the dramas of the ancient Greeks, whose famous “choruses” were, in fact, sung with musical accompaniment.  The score, unlike the script, was not preserved in history, but as with sculpture, Renaissance scholars and artists sought to return to classical forms—here, the melding of drama and song. 

These late Renaissance composers rejected polyphony and instrumental music, and instead embraced more ancient devices such as monody (solo singing with bare accompaniment).  In that, they embraced Luther’s lyrical innovations.  These “experiments” led directly to Jacopo Peri’s Euridice (1600), which was premiered at the Pitti Palace in Florence, which is generally credited as the first opera for which we have an extant score (Peri’s earlier Dafne has been lost to history).  It isn’t a very good opera and is only performed today for academic reasons.  Some historians suspect that Monteverdi attended a performance of Euridice during the wedding celebrations for Henry IV of France who was marrying into the powerful Medici family (some guys have all the luck—marrying a Medici and hearing the first opera all in one go).  More on that particular Medici queen a bit later on. 

Monteverdi’s patron attended this first operatic performance; whether he brought along his court composer remains a mystery.  What is clear, though, is that the Duke of Matua loved Euridice (heck, some people like Cats too) and, upon his return to Mantua, instructed Monteverdi to compose an opera.  Monteverdi’s version of the same Greek myth, Orfeo (1607), is a staggering work of true genius and remains in regular performance to this day (a 400-year run—beat that Andrew Lloyd Weber!).  Everything about Orfeo was revolutionary—from the combination and number of instruments he used to his decision to tell a narrative story through singers expressing themselves directly to the audience.  As Howard Goodall puts it:  “It was loud. It was long. And it was modern.”  Finally, Monteverdi’s shift from Renaissance polyphony to the emerging basso continuo technique in Orfeo is, for me, where the Baroque begins if you really insist on a definitive starting point.  I’m sure I’m wrong about that, btw (see my Disclaimers in About this Blog).  You can use the links in the YouTube description to jump to Act IV, which is as good an example of early Baroque composition as you are likely to find.  Note the single voice above the accompaniment, as well as the occasional jarring dissonances.

Claudio Monteverdi, L’Orfeo: