Thursday, December 1, 2016

30/30 Project: Poem for Day 1

If you haven't heard about my participating in Tupelo Press's "30/30 Project" where I'll write 30 poems in 30 days this month, click here.

Here is the poem for that first day, followed by a brief note on it. Thanks for reading.

Venetian nocturne

Sitting alone on
the Fondamente Nuove
smoking staring out

Looking up at me
as I stroll along the quay
wishing after stars

She’s solitary
and furtive as a night-bird
will she fly away

Scott Williamson
(Venice - Roanoke; July - Nov 2016).

This series of haiku was inspired by a night time stroll I regularly took while in residence in the Cannaregio neighborhood (sestiere) of Venice. I was there for a month this past July - August, renting a fabulous Air BnB apartment after the settling of part of my mom's estate. I had long wanted to take a mini-sabbatical and work on artistic projects. One of my goals this trip was to retrace the footsteps of beloved artists and composers from Monteverdi to Bernstein, and in particular, to follow the itinerary of Benjamin Britten.
(View of the moon over the Venetian lagoon, from "I Felzi" apartment)

My apartment was a 90-second walk to the main thoroughfare (both pedestrian and marine) of the area, the Fundamente Nuove. Most Venetian arrivals and departures stop there; it affords views of the mysterious cemetery island, San Michele (where Stravinsky is buried), in addition to popular outlying islands like Murano (the "mecca" of glass-blowing). The Venetian hospital (the Ospedale) is the next stop over, and so while Venice is a relatively crime-free city, what few sirens there are (and they're all attached to the only motorized vehicle in the city: the boat) happen to be in this neighborhood. And yet how quiet the nights are! It was one such night where I saw the woman described in this poem.

The last line of an earlier version read "should I have said hi", and was entitled "Donna tristessa".

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

30/30 Poetry Project and New Website

Though it is still in progress, my new website, scottmwilliamson is now online.

Even more exciting for me is being chosen by Tupelo Press (who published one of my
poems) to participate in their "30/30 Project" where nine poets write 30 poems in 30 days and help Tupelo Press, a leading small, independent, non-profit organization in their important fund-raising efforts.

Please support the arts by donating to charitable, non-profit organizations in this season of giving!

To paraphrase the words of the eminent artist and historian, John Ruskin: everybody likes giving away money. Many people, to their great discomfort, simply do not realize this...

Please support great music and poetry - check out my 30/30 Project with Tupelo Press in December!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Exuberant Rossini

(This is for my fantastic Cenerentola colleagues)

Last night's opening of La Cenerentola at Opera Roanoke embodied the ideal of exuberance. The cast was uniformly "on," the orchestra played as well as they ever have under my (sometimes airborne) baton, and the audience was more responsive than I've ever heard them. Paraphrasing Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, "I almost peed my pants!" "She liked it better than 'Pirates of Penzance.,,'" I'd say our audience did, too.

Unconscious of the eminent connection, I pulled down Kay Redfield Jamison's book, Exuberance, from one of the many piles of books stacked on any number of shelves. If you replace this excerpt's subject with "opera singer," and throw in "singing rapidly in a foreign tongue," then the play described here is humorously apt to the exuberance our fantastic cast exhibited:

In her classic study of Australian wombats, Barbara Triggs writes: "Wombat play is made up of several characteristic movements and attitudes performed in no particular order but with tremendous enthusiasm and exuberance. Typically, a young wombat signals the beginning of playtime by standing absolutely still… Then it jerks its head back and shoulders up, sometimes lifting its front feet right off the ground. Then, but not necessarily in this order, it tosses its head from side to side; jumps in the air with all four feet off the ground; rolls over to its side; races off at a rocking gallop before coming to a sudden stop, reversing through 180 degrees 'on the spot' and racing back to its mother, stopping or veering sideways just before the expected collision; lies flat on its stomach, head thrown back and swinging from side to side, lips drawn back in a wombat 'grin.'"… Triggs, acknowledging the infectious quality of the marsupial's exuberance, concludes by saying "I defy anyone to watch a wombat at play without laughing aloud."
(Exuberance: The Passion for Life, Kay Redfield Jamison; Knopf, 2004).

I am so grateful for all of your talents and energy, and I look forward to another galumphing performance of Rossini's ebullient dramma giocoso with you all tomorrow!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Japan Tour Travel Notebooks

Now that Opera Roanoke's production of Mozart's Abduction has opened and closed, I'm finally catching up on our recent tour to Japan (Oct 30-Nov 8). I posted a few images and gave the briefest of summaries on my Opera Blog

Below I'll share some more images, and some notes I made on walks around Tokyo in-between rehearsals and our 8 (!) performances.

This is the spectacular view from our hotel room at Chinzan-so. The Three-story Pagoda sits atop one of the hills in the fabulous Chinzan-so gardens. Below are more images from the gardens.

Below are a pair of the monuments in the gardens. The second is a "Pen" monument dedicated to the great haiku master, Basho.

The gardens are watched over by 7 gods of fortune. They are:
1. Daikokuten – wealth & fortune; guardian of the kitchen
2. Ebisu – Commerce & fishery; guardian of Chinzan-so; homonym of a Tokyo district and a famous beer.
3. Jurojin – wellness, safety, longevity – reincarnation of Roshi (China) –
deer is his companion – symbol of longevity & harmony with nature
4. Hotei – Zen monk – peace & prosperity
5. Bishamonten – wisdom & bravery – spear & pagoda
6. Fukurokuju – fortune, longevity, wealth – with tortoise, symbol of longevity
7. Benzaiten – goddess of music & eloquence – with lute (biwa)

Like the Pagoda, many of the statues and monuments are some 500 years old. The 20 stone statues of Rakan (Rakanseki) represent images of Buddha's priests, and were originally at a temple in Kyoto. Their diminutive and fragmented shapes add to their aura of mystery - I found the atmosphere at this crossroads of the gardens to be especially mystical, as if outside of "normal" time, suspended in another dimension...

The Chinzan-so gardens are famous for their Camellia blossoms - dozens of variations adorn the hills. Opera lovers know La Traviata is based on Dumas's novel, The Lady of the Camellias, and our friends know how special that opera is to Amy and me, so we delighted in the colorful paths each time we walked through them. We also enjoyed people-watching during Japan's busiest weekend for weddings, which corresponds with their National Holiday for Culture. (Did I mention how much we loved Japan?!?)

Though I didn't snap any pictures of them, the fierce crows in Tokyo did inspire a poem in the form of the Haibun - a descriptive prose paragraph followed by a Haiku.

Crow Haibun

Crows circle the three-story Pagoda at Chinzan-so – their caw loud as their wing-span
is wide. Tokyo crows are immense – they’re ubiquitous at shrines and burial grounds. Having seen them in Japanese films – Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu – their presence seems surreal, as if an apparition has materialized, or a dream image from myth has taken form. Their incessant inner-city choruses blare down from building tops like sirens or apocalyptic trumpets. I am awed and vaguely afraid.

Crow, I hear your voice –
Crow, like a god, I fear you –
Your call rules the sky.

This is the "Tortoise of Fortune" - a 10,000 year-old, naturally-made "sculpture" in the shape of one of Japan's symbols of good fortune and longevity. I sat beside Fuku no kame while composing the first draft of the crow poem.

We spent one afternoon visiting the National Noh Theatre, the top of my "bucket list" items for Tokyo, given my fascination with this stylized and rarified older (less popular) kin to the famous Kabuki theatre. One of my favorite composers, Benjamin Britten, was so taken with Noh theatre he modeled three dramatic works on the genre. Below the Noh gardens are images of the Sumida River, the setting of a famous Noh play which inspired Britten to compose his first "parable," Curlew River.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need...

In Memoriam: Maya Angelou (1928 - 2014)

You can read all of the great inaugural poem Maya Angelou read for President Clinton

"Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need | For this bright morning dawning for you."

Sharon Hershey's energetic melody setting this couplet as a fugue subject for an unpublished a cappella choral setting of the poem rings in my ear. I've thought of it often over the last several weeks following the sudden death of my former Westminster classmate, colleague and friend, Jeff Dinsmore. We rehearsed it together in Spoleto, Italy in 1997. Another recently and too-suddenly departed friend and colleague, John Webber, was also in the Bridge Ensemble - Spoleto Festival Choir in Umbria that summer, under Donald Nally's inspiring leadership.

It can be dangerous to quote anyone out of context. With that caveat, I have highlighted the most famous excerpt from William Carlos Williams' oft-quoted (and much longer) poem, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower." Below are but the final 21 lines of a complex 200 + line poem.

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
I come, my sweet,
to sing to you!

My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
of something

that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.

You will not find it there but in
despised poems.
It is difficult

to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack

of what is found there.

Hear me out
for I too am concerned

and every man
who wants to die at peace in his bed

Yesterday, I experienced the not infrequent occurrence of rejection, when, at a business lunch, I made what we call "an ask" of an esteemed patron. Whether one can or cannot succeed in show business without really trying I cannot say, but one cannot survive very long in the "arts" without at least one layer of thick skin. If you're a performer or an administrator, you need several layers. Besides "no," I was also politely and directly told that if my non-profit-arts organization were to fold tomorrow, while it might make the news, it would not create much of a stir. (Sadly, this is true. And the same fate would be shared by dozens of other small non-profit organizations in "Virginia's Blue Ridge," who teeter on the edge survival not just year after year, but month by month, like "starving artists," the working poor, many small businesses, struggling families, ad infinitum... But that's another story or essay…)

I recently read in the introduction to a contemporary poetry anthology (Best of American Poetry 2013) reference to a critic's questioning, in the wake of the most recent Presidential inaugural poem, the recycled polemic, "is poetry dead?" This Washington Post critic called contemporary poetry "limp and fangless." This made me think of critics not so much as "pigeons defecating on the statues of real artists" (paraphrasing the conductor, Robert Shaw, among others) but of the critic as a blood-sniffing vampire. If the metaphor has any traction, contemporary criticism is like a bad vampire sitcom: trying too hard to impress/entertain with fake fangs & blood, dried up cliches, using someone else's old dirt…

On the website, Maya Angelou is the poet of the day, and her full-throated paean to survival, the human spirit, and the African-American voice in particular, Still I Rise, is the poem-of-the-day.

Among the many other aphorisms the great conductor, Robert Shaw was fond of sharing, here is my favorite: Art is not a luxury, but a necessity.

In his pithy, trenchant essay "The Almond Trees," written in 1940, Albert Camus takes issue with Napoleon's expired truism, on "the impotence of force to establish anything." Napoleon's positivism sees the "sword always conquered by the mind." [Aside: It's a shame that Camus was/is not taught more widely in public schools here. I suspect it is those twin bug-a-boo words, "communist" and "atheist" which stick too easily to "liberals" and thus find them too-easily tossed into the discard or dismiss pile. Camus was as much a humanitarian, philosopher, and freedom-fighter as anything, seen from another angle.] "I do not have enough faith in reason to subscribe to a belief in progress… We have not overcome our [human] condition, and yet we know it better…Our task…is to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls." I don't find anything to dismiss in such clear-headed reasoning and vision.

Writing at the height of Hitler's power, he goes on to observe, "It is indeed true that we live in tragic times. But too many people confuse tragedy with despair. 'Tragedy,' [D.H.] Lawrence said, 'ought to be a great kick at misery.'"

"The axe to pick at the frozen regions of the heart," Kafka described art as. Why does great music move us so? Why do seasoned opera goers always weep at the end of La Boheme? Among other reasons, it is great art's ability to stimulate intense emotional responses. After our heart and soul have been opened, the mind usually follows...

In his famous poem - is any poem "famous" outside of artistic circles anymore? - eulogizing W. B. Yeats, W. H. Auden wrote that "poetry makes nothing happen." I'm sure we could survive without opera, poetry, abstract art, theatre-of-the-absurd, public sculpture, film and many other "luxuries" and "entertainments" we take for granted or don't take at all. But why would we choose to?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Offenbach notebooks for opening night at W&L!

Offenbachiad Notebook | Notes for W&L production of Mr Choufleuri | April-May 2014

Those who want more info on our production - opening tonight! - should visit Opera Roanoke's page here.

Below are the unedited notes I've kept while preparing for this fantastically fun production of Offenbach, done in the spirit of the salons of his time, which means it's replete with famous guests like Berlioz, Baudelaire, Manet ("or is it Monet?"). Offenbach's favorite eccentric (= crowd pleaser) actor, Bache, joins "that wicked George Sand," among other cultural dignitaries. We insert music by composers the habitués would have expected to encounter at the finest salons (and we hear Offenbach parodying the very "ballad" style he took full advantage of - 19th century Paris is one of the most fascinating periods or places in Western History!)

I usually share my program notes, but those will be printed in the program: come to the show and read them. As some of my colleagues have expressed interest in my library, I share a window below. This "miscellany" is intended to be educational - if not interesting - on a period or genre with which not only our students, but many of our friends might not be well-acquainted. I share my notes as a classic writer's "notebook." That is to say, it is part essay, part diary, part margin notes, part sourcebook. It may often be convoluted, eccentric (= personal), full of musings, quotes, etc.

This is one of the ways this artist attempts to serve genius, honor the gods and use whatever odd talents he found dropped like crumbs from the table. And these days, seems there's never enough time to do all of what one loves...

Offenbach library (subjective):
Siegfried Kracauer: Jacques Offenbach & the Paris of His Time
Alistair Horne: The Seven Ages of Paris
Essays/Liner notes on La Belle Hélène, Fortunio (A. Messager – Offenbach’s successor),
Tales of Hoffmann, Offenbach Arias (von Otter), Orphée aux enfer
Walter Benjamin: Sel. Writings, The Arcades Project, Baudelaire: The Writer of Modern Life

Quotes, notes, miscellany:
Parisian operetta and Parisian wit: blend of “humor & mockery” | irony & social satire

O’s Paris: La Belle Epoque | The Golden Mean | 2nd Empire – “spirit of frivolity” (Kracauer)

“poignant melancholy…discreet and fatal inevitability…touched with bitterness”

“Delicate bittersweet musicality” of poetry typified by de Musset, Lamartine

Andre Tubeuf: “the flavor of Mozart” ended with this era… (Messager Fortunio essay)
Rossini called Offenbach the “Mozart of the Champs-Elysées”
Saint-Saens on O’s music: “scores swarmed with microscopic notes, like flies feet,
and out of sheer hurry they barely touch the paper”
Tolstoy praised the “spontaneous comedy” in Offenbach
Nietzsche said O & his librettists produced “opera’s only contribution to poetry so far” and saw in O’s music “the supreme form of wit”
Gautier said O’s operas gave society “a kick in the most sensitive spot”

Kracauer: Halevy [librettist] was a great observer…On the Boulevards he would pick out someone and follow him…studying flirtations & ballet girls in the ‘foyer de danse’… [He was] a man with an inexhaustible sense of wonder. Like Offenbach, he was straightforward & honest. His sense of irony was the real source of his frivolity & the determining factor in setting the Offenbachiad on the path it took – social satire and the sanctioning of intoxicating pleasure.

Irony “based on a sense that paradise was lost.”

“Since melancholy was the constant companion to his happiness, he was able to preserve it from decay.” [=Motto / Aphorism as Credo…]

O. understood the proximity of laughter to tears, learned through experience w/ his audiences.

His 1860 ballet, Papillon, presented at the Opéra, was considered “blasphemous” for sharing the same stage as the Grand Opera of Meyerbeer, Auber & Halevy. Went on for 42 performances, billed with none other than Tannhäuser…

Wagner – after trading barbs [doggerel verse in Kracauer: “Krak! Krak! Krakerakrak | Is noble Jack von Offenback!] and feuding with O – called him kin to “the divine Mozart” after the younger composer’s death in 1880. (Rivalry fueled by envy at O’s success and anti-Semitism)

Jacques – born Jakob to poor Jewish cantor & musician from Cologne – admitted to Conservatoire under Cherubini, but dropped out after a year – virtuoso cellist – met F. Halevy and sat in his box for La Juive – one of the first French Grand Operas. Halevy senior mentored & introduced him to the influential (& essential) salons (pre-requisite for success/fame in 19th century Paris).
*See campy 90’s bio-film Impromptu (Hugh Grant as Chopin; Julian Sands as Liszt)
*Proust’s composer Vinteuil in Swann’s Way (typifies salon composer)
*Also, A. Neumann’s novel Traveler of the Century (not Paris, but perfect Salon setting)

Rise of the Arcades – vendors, commodities, fashion, “people watching,” etc – first period in architectural history where iron is primary material / closely associated with Industry, et al.

Rise of the Flaneur | Dandy | Bourgeoisie [Offenbach & Halevy’s frequent co-librettist, Henri Meilhac “was the quintessential boulevardier…his chief interest in life was to be a Flåneur…

Nobility ridiculed rising bourgeoisie while envying their swift ascent;
bourgeoisie ridiculed the same nobility [gratin = upper crust] they shamelessly imitated! [see Kracaueur below]

Anecdote: Naïade journal printed on rubber to be read in the bath by dandies!

“Jockey Club” at the Opéra: most popular society (=fraternity) which spent more time appreciating the ballerinas in the foyer de danse than they did the evening’s opera!

Frivolity & hedonism of the gratin & bourgeoisie in marked contrast to the underside of the Empire. The 1832 Cholera epidemic (“manifestly a disease of poverty” –A. Horne – affecting 6X as many poor), and the scourge of a disease closest to modern-day AIDS, syphilis, affected artists and “bohemians” at an alarming rate. Maupassant, Dumas, Baudelaire, Manet – just one distinguished quartet of victims – [Alistair Horne: The Seven Ages of Paris]

The theatre was not exempt from violence & scandal: from Hugo’s riot-inspiring Hernani (source of Verdi’s early masterpiece, Ernani) through Offenbach, left and right (republicans and royalists) fought when one side cheered a piece which made fun of the other. These social skirmishes led to the banning of umbrellas, canes and other “weapons,” and thus the origins of the coat – or check – room.

Mr Choufleuri premiered May 31, 1861, at the Presidential Palace (attended by as many ambassadors and dignitaries as refused the title character’s invitation in the opera itself!)

Morny – co-author with Halevy – was a noted statesman and stepbrother to the Emperor –
made a Duke in 1862, he was a notorious pedant and cynic. He frequently lectured guests on etiquette, and kept caged apes in his foyer as a reminder of “the true nature of man.” All the more revealing an insight into this window of Parisian history, given the satirical nature of the scenario he presented Offenbach & co.

Offenbach’s “unerring theatrical instincts” his “jokes & witticisms in the jargon of the Boulevards” ensured his success, once enough attention was paid –

Operettas which “laid bare the foundations of contemporary society” (= its inequities & hypocrisies). They resonated for their “satire at the expense of great figures of antiquity” in works like Orpheus in the Underworld and his masterpiece farce of Helen of Troy, La Belle Hélène. In more “domestic” works like Mr Choufleuri, the satire is a mirror aimed at the very society who adored and demanded more of it. (quotes: Kracauer, chapter 5)

“Public Opinion [in Orpheus] stands for the appearance of honor, loyalty, and faith – in other words, for social convention.” (p. 208)

Did it not seem as though at the first sound of this delirious orchestra a whole society suddenly sprang into being and dashed madly into the midst of the dance? This music would be enough to awaken the dead…it seemed as if the whole throng were seized with a mighty impulse, and as though the whole [19th] century, with its governments, institutions, customs, and laws, were plunged into the whirl of a tremendous, all-embracing saraband.
(Francisque Sarcey, on the 1858 premiere of Orphee aux Enfers) (Kracauer, p. 210)

Orpheus reintroduced the cancan and “set all Paris dancing” and ran for 228 consecutive performances (sic). With his first masterpiece, “the genre of the Offenbachiade was created.”

“In Offenbach tenderness and gaiety, bright wit and genuine feeling lived harmoniously side by side… A kind of inverted magician, he took it as his mission to unmask the hollow phantoms that tyrannize over mankind; but he gave his blessing to every genuine human emotion that he met on his way.” (211)

Court life – imitated by courtiers & bourgeoisie – play charades using Mythological characters, clown around like jesters – a “fashion for tableaux vivants, the object of which was to seize and eternalize the fleeting moment; and after…the company would plunge into the whirl of a masked ball, at which Offenbach’s music fulfilled the same function as at the theater.” (Chapter 6)

Offenbachiad mottos for the Paris of his time:
Let us preserve appearances, for all depends on that!” (Jupiter, in O’s Orpheus – a propos!)

Dis-moi, Venus, quel plaisir trouves-tu | á faire ainsi cascader la vertu? (La Belle Hélène)
(Tell me, Venus, what pleasure do you take | in causing the downfall of my virtue?)

Baudelaire (1821-1867) – La Bohème – Les Misérables and the barricades (Easter 2014)

I will vent my anger in terrifying books “Grim rage – la rogue” – the result of 50-odd years of fighting amidst barricades (from Benjamin: TWOML, p. 48)

“Address to Paris” – fragment to close Fleurs du Mal – magic cobblestones which rise up to form fortresses

“Les Vin des chiffonniers” (Ragpicker’s Wine)

Et sous les firmament comme un dais suspendu | S’enivre des splendeurs de sa propre vertu
(Under the sky like a canopy suspended| He intoxicates himself on his virtue’s many splendours)

To drown the bitterness and lull the indolence | of all those old wretches who die in silence
God in remorse, created sleep; | Man added wine, sacred son of the Sun! (final 1857 version)

“La Reniement de St. Pierre” (The Denial of St Peter)
Did you dream of those days… | Where your heart swelled with hope and courage,
You used to drive out all the vile money lenders with your brave hands | When were you at last the master? Has remorse not | pierced your side more than the spear (Benjamin, 233)

the Luciferian privilege of blaspheming the Satan to whom one has fallen prey
– Benjamin on Baudelaire’s cycle Révolte (p. 57)

[Below is my trés amateur sketch for our set design. Though I have experience as a stage director, I am not a designer. I present a concept, ideas, and give a picture of what I see. I (and most directors) depend on a designer to translate vision into product. You won't believe what the inventive, ever-resourceful Kim Renz did with his shoestring budget and my blue-aisle-special sketches. You'll have to come and see! And I can't begin to say how thrilled I am with my friend and colleague, Jessica Miller - exceptional guardian of the former Opera Roanoke costume stock!]

Kracauer: The Salons (pp 71-87):

“Offenbach took a big risk in giving up his appointment at the Opéra-Comique without having anything else in view.” His luck changed with his friendship with Flotow, “present on the memorable occasion at the Marquis de Custine’s when George Sand, who arrived in the company of Frédéric Chopin, astonished everybody by asking for a cigar and smoking it, strolling up and down in the garden…”

The salons in the time of Louis-Philippe still exercised an enormous influence…the salons constituted a world in themselves, with widespread ramifications…the nobility predominated… The nobility ridiculed the rising power of the bourgeoisie but envied it, while the bourgeoisie ridiculed the nobility but imitated them. [La plus que ca change, c’est la même chose … originated in 1849 Paris, has not never lost coinage since…]

The supreme ambition of the hostess of every salon was to offer her guests music. Music was the vogue. There was a universal obsession with it…in some circles the music was so good that it actually seemed to be provided for its own sake…Heine complained bitterly about it, and he regarded going to an evening party as a martyrdom Yes! (La plus ca change, vraiment?!) Heine: “Bands of youthful dilettanti, of whom one has learned by experience to expect the very worst, perform in very key and on all the instruments that have ever been invented.”

The way to the concert hall lay through the Soirees of the well-to-do, which “lay open” the way to the Salons, which could lead to “the dazzling prospect of…fame as a virtuoso. Flotow described this less-than-by-the-book “kitchen recipe” thusly: “One makes several appearances in the course of the winter, and then, at the beginning of Lent, one announces a concert and sends a dozen high-priced tickets, generally at 10 francs, to the hostess of every salon at which one has played…It practically never happens that all, or even any, of the tickets are sent back…The cost of such a concert is negligible. It is given on a profit-sharing basis, takes place in daylight, which saves on the expense of lighting…[advertising/marketing efforts] are unnecessary…nor is there any need for a box office…Any artist who is ambitious can easily maintain himself in Paris in this agreeable fashion… Easy for you to say, Frederick!

Offenbach’s first soiree was with the famous composer Flotow, who wrote of his 19-yr old prodigy, “my friend was a great success, and very soon he was a favorite…”

He saw the “young dandies, who had no hesitation in entering a salon covered in dust and dirty boots and always made a beeline for the smoking room immediately after dinner – a form of behaviour… considered the height of smartness. He saw the society ‘Lions’ defined by Mme de Girardin as “one who is noticed,” compared to the lowlier dandy, “a man who wants to be noticed.” Offenbach must necessarily have seen the young men, all looking exactly alike, half monkeys and half lapdogs…forerunners of [characters in] La Vie parisienne...

While some made themselves slaves to pleasure in order to have, rather, a substitute for something to do, others compensated for the impossibility of doing anything real in life by cultivating their inner sensibilities. They developed countless sentimental enthusiasms. Young poets were permitted to pose as geniuses even in the most aristocratic salons. Groups of young men and women met to read the plays of Victor Hugo and the novels of George Sand and invariably showed themselves supremely affected the experience. [Does qualify these “dandies” as Dilettantes and Philistines? Must pursue further…]

Music’s “function, like that of romantic literature, was to compensate bourgeois…for the emptiness and meaningless of the atmosphere… the greater outward triumph of materialism, the greater the inner need for emotional upsurgings. Music satisfied this yearning – not so much music in general as one form of it, the sentimental ballad….ballads were the object of a positive cult…they plucked at one’s heartstrings from behind the curtains…a whole deluge of feeling was unloosed to vie with the flood of riches…Offenbach’s riposte to this cult and its inherent sensationalist commercialism (L’inimico della Patria!) was “At the daily sight of 33,333,444,666,000 [33 quadrillion, 333 trillion, etc!] albums displayed in the windows of the music-shops, which have no other purpose than to beguile…the leisure of the salons dedicated to the ballad-cult, we may well exclaim: ‘Album, why should I write anything for you?’ [La plus que ca change – Encore!]

Chapter Six: The Boulevards, Home of the Homeless, pp. 89-107 [cf: Baudelaire, above]

Whenever O. heard a concert was being arranged, he would hurry to ask for permission to play. As a rule this was readily granted, with no thought, however, of offering him any payment for his service. [Tangent: Thank you, society: artists have been poor bohemians posing as interloping academics, artistic directors, and so-called “freelance artists” from earlier than O. & ever since!]

And to add insult to injury, akin to asking the servant to kiss the master’s ring, if you will, “he was expected to be grateful for the opportunity of playing in public for nothing…” Unlike many in similar cases, he was “optimistic.” He was “importunate,” as many tend to be, and he was described as “indefatigable,” as every full-time (= free-lance) artist must be… Oh, if they could only charge "billable hours" worthy of their talents!

But "Noble Jack von Offenback!" as jealous Richard pegged him, rose to not just fame and fortune "against all odds," but was a true Mozartian genius. He is worthy of those composers like Puccini, Poulenc, Korngold, Lehar, and others - truly great composers who look up to Mozart and Beethoven and Bach - as virtually every single other mortal has had - or should have to…


Monday, November 25, 2013

Britten Notebooks III: Parables & Quartets

See below for more notes, quotes & miscellany on Benjamin Britten during this, his 100th birthday weekend.

Sunday | 24 November 2013 | Britten 100

Friends, remember! | Gold is tried in the fire | And the mettle of man | In the furnace of humiliation…
… God give us all | The strength to walk | Safe in the burning furnace | Of this murderous world.
– from The Burning Fiery Furnace (libretto by William Plomer)

Listened this morning to a vivid performance of The Burning Fiery Furnace from the Aldeburgh Festival by Mahogany Opera produced in Orford Church, the space for which the three Church Parables were planned and premiered. (Memory: this is where we saw a 2003 production of Lucretia, which generated interesting discussion and disagreement over the Christianization of the story vis-à-vis the ending. Both our Britten-Pears Programme directors, Michael Chance and Tim Carroll, felt strongly the anachronistic redemption of the ancient Roman tragedy “didn’t work.”) The Burning Fiery Furnace production certainly did work – it was so well-paced, balanced and characterized – you could imagine Nebuchadnezzar’s elaborate robes, the Babylonian “god of gold,” the stained-glass window behind which the Angel appears, etc, etc - just listening via online radio.

[N.B. Having long sat with these pieces and considered programming them, this morning was the first time I believed the right production could not only be pulled off locally, but would be both entertaining and moving. The instrumental march, for example, would be a sure hit when done with a band who embraces the drama (as they must). It would require particular care in casting and production planning, and would have to be strongly supported by the right church.]

Britten’s String Quartets – this Centenary year and weekend notwithstanding – are a neglected room in the mansion of his legacy, especially on the US side of the pond. This is our loss. His first quartet was commissioned by the same American patron (Elizabeth Coolidge) who sought new quartets from Bartok and Schoenberg. Composed while he was in the US in 1941, Britten’s String Quartet No. 1 in D, op. 25, won the young émigré a Gold Medal from the Library of Congress for service to Chamber Music. Its shimmering opening – a perilously difficult passage for the upper strings – reflect the “California Sun” where Britten and Pears were living at the time, according to the composer, David Matthews. The Andante third movement is an early example of Britten’s gift for masterfully sustained lyricism; a trait he shared with his musical heroes Mozart, Schubert and Mahler.

One of the reasons the Quartets (like much of his instrumental output) are lesser known is
a result of the large shadows cast by his operas and vocal works. String Quartet No. 2 in C, op. 36, comes from 1945, the same year as Peter Grimes, and the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell. Written after his Purcell inspired song-cycle, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, the 2nd Quartet is dedicated to Britten’s beloved Baroque forbear. The first of the quartet’s three movements was described by the scholar Hans Keller as Britten’s “most deliberate masterpiece.” The final movement, longer than the first two combined, is a Purcellian ground-bass “Chacony,” with 21 (!) variations.

Keller hoped Britten would continue to write chamber music, and string quartets in particular. He would have to wait 30 years for the realization of this wish, in what must be one of the most poignant examples of delayed gratification in classical music. What is remarkable is the consistency of not only inspiration, but style, voice and character.

Originally called a “Divertimento,” String Quartet No. 3 in G, op. 94, was completed in Venice in 1975. Though most Britten commentators cite the "arch form" of its 5-movements by linking the outer movements, I would call the form chiastic, and highlight the central, “Song,” movement as its crux. The opening movement is called “Duets,” and features aptly named textures between the voices. The final movement is subtitled “La Serenissima,” after Britten’s (and Pears’) favorite city; a place to which they repaired at crucial times in the composer’s career, and where he always was able to work with inspiration. In addition to assuming another Baroque form (“Passacaglia”) the 5th movement quotes from Death in Venice and mirrors the journey of the opera’s hero, Aschenbach. This was the final role Britten wrote for his muse and partner, Peter Pears. The central movement of his final quartet is a ravishing song without words. It is Britten’s "Adagietto" to Pears, as that of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was to Alma (and beloved by Britten long before Mahler was in vogue. See below for more on Mahler and Britten. On another note, Britten dedicated his Nocturne, op. 60 to Alma Mahler; their correspondence is mutually supportive and admiring).

Britten’s instrumental Schwanengesang is one of his most sublime achievements. Its rarified atmosphere is possessed ‘of a profound beauty more touching than anything else, radiant, wise, new, mysterious—overwhelming,’ according to none other than Pears himself.

All three of the Church Parables and String Quartets were part of the Britten 100 festivities from BBC Radio 3 and are available online for the next week.