|Power of Touch|
Overture to La scala di seta (The Silken Ladder)
Between 1810 and 1829 Gioacchino Rossini wrote an astonishing 38 operas, sometimes at a pace of three per year. Then, at age 37, he took early retirement. For the rest of his long life he concentrated on his avocation as a gourmet cook and grew appropriately in bulk. He composed only sporadically and, except for church music, mostly small works he tossed off for the entertainment of his friends. He published over 150 musical miniatures in a collection that he called Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of old age).
La scala di seta was composed and premiered in Venice in 1812. It was Rossini’s sixth opera to be produced, and he was only 20 years old. It is a typical farce of forbidden assignations, going counter to the parent’s or guardian’s wishes, and its rapid pace is reflected in the bubbly overture.
For oboists, this little bit of Rossinian fluff is one of the most important compositions in the repertory. Its rapid staccato theme is a part of virtually every oboe audition. There have been known to occur Scala di seta “duels” in which the conductor progressively ratchets up the tempo for the candidates until a winner emerges.
The Overture, in fact, is full of scales – the Italian word "scala" is also the word for ladder, staircase and musical scale – beginning with the opening upward “silky” sweep of the violins. Rossini was never kind to his wind players; in another scalar tour de force he challenges the second oboe as well. For the repeats, the flutes and clarinets also get to share the wealth.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
|Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart|
From Don Giovanni, K. 527
“Batti, Batti, o bel Masetto”
Throughout his short career, Mozart wrote nearly twenty operas, many of which – especially the three with libretti by Lorenzo Da Ponte, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosė fan tutte – changed the face of opera forever and raised the bar for future composers. By the time Mozart died, the old form of the opera seria, with its formulaic libretti, strict dramatic and musical constraints, the casting of castrati as the hero/lovers and the proliferation of da capo (ABA) arias, was dead as well. Mozart’s groundbreaking operas demanded new ears and open minds; their plots often challenged the accepted social and political order; and the music blossomed into a wealth of new aria forms and stunning ensembles.
The popular story of Don Juan, the rake who seduced his way across Europe only to end up dragged into hell, unrepentant, by the statue of the murdered father of one of his victims, has been tackled by many poets, playwrights and composers. Mozart composed Don Giovanni in 1787 on a commission from Prague, subtitling it “A Comic drama.” In reality, Da Ponte and Mozart made the opera as amusing as possible within a serious dramatic setting, transforming the mood of the source play, El burlador de Sevilla (The Trickster of Seville) by seventeenth century playwright Tirso de Molina. Maintaining this balance has always been the challenge to conductors and stage directors.
In the aria “Batti, batti” (Beat me, beat me), the peasant girl Zerlina invites her intended Masetto to beat her after he has caught her in some serious flirting with Don Giovanni. Of course, her protestations don’t prevent her near seduction at the end of Act 1, and Masetto himself gets a sound thrashing by Don Giovanni disguised as his valet Leporello in Act 2 for trying to protect Zerlina again. After his beating, Zerlina finds him and promises to sooth his wounds in “Vedrai, carino” (You will see, my dear).
In the Da Ponte operas, Mozart steered clear of the formulaic da capo aria, employing instead a two-part structure during which the character changes the subject or his/her point of view with two different melodies; this became the dominant aria type for the operas of the nineteenth century until Wagner. Both of Zerlina’s arias have two sections. In “Batti, batti,” she first rhetorically begs Masetto to beat her, but changes her approach by seeking to make up, “Pace, pace.” In “Vedrai carino,” she offers a mysterious remedy to sooth his wounds, while in the second part tells him what it is: feeling her heartbeat.
Batti, batti, o bel Masetto,
La tua povera Zerlina;
Starт qui come agnellina
Le tue botte ad aspettar.
Lascierт straziarmi il crine,
Lascierт cavarmi gli occhi,
E le care tue manine
Lieta poi saprт baciar.
Ah, lo vedo, non hai core!
Pace, pace, o vita mia,
In contento ed allegria
Notte e di vogliam passar,
Si, notte e dė vogliam passar.
Beat me, beat me, oh dear Masetto,
Your poor Zerlina;
I'll stay here, as a little lamb,
To wait for your blows.
I'll let (you) lacerate my (horse)hair,
I'll let (you) take out my eyes,
And your dear little hands
I'll be then be happily able to kiss.
Ah, I see that, you have no heart!
Peace, peace, oh my life,
In happiness and in gaiety
Night and day - we want to spend,
Yes, night and day - we want to spend.
Vedrai, carino, Se sei buonino,
Che bel rimedio
Ti voglio dar.
Č naturale,..Non dà disgusto,
E lo speziale
Non lo sa far.
Č certo balsamo
Che porto addosso:
Dare tel posso
Se’l vuoi provar.
Saper vorresti..Dove mi stà?
Sentilo battere, toccami quà.
You shall see, my dear if you are good
What fine medicine I want to give you.
it is natural,...it doesn’t taste bad,
and no pharmacist knows how to make it.
It is a certain balm
that I carry about me
I can give it to you if you wish to try it.
Would you like to know where I keep it?
Hear it beating, touch me here.
Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24
Composed in 1947 on commission from soprano Eleanor Steber, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 sets to music a text by James Agee chosen from a collection of prose and poetry, The Partisan Reader: Ten Years of “Partisan Review,”1934-1944: An Anthology. Agee’s text subsequently became the prologue to his autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family, which was published posthumously and awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
Agee describes an idyllic scene from his childhood: the sights, sounds and smells on a lazy summer afternoon and evening while he was sitting on the porch or lying in the back yard of his family's home in Knoxville, Tennessee. Barber set Agee’s text as poetry, adjusting it into lines that clarify the rhythmic pattern. He wrote to his friend the composer Sidney Homer: “…the summer evening he describes in his native southern town reminded me so much of similar evenings when I was a child at home…it expresses a child’s feeling of loneliness, wonder and lack of identity in that marginal world between twilight and sleep.”
The text has a simple syllabic setting, appropriate to the character of childhood. But this is more than a set of fleeting images; rather, it comprises a small but intense drama as the child passes from innocence to a realization of the sorrows of life. After a short instrumental introduction, the meter shifts to a rocking melody that becomes the unifying musical element in the monologue.
The idyll, however, is suddenly interrupted by the excitement of the modern world of automobiles and streetcars, their horns and bells imitated in the orchestra, drawing the child out of his reverie. As the child’s attention turns back to the intimacy of the family and his own back yard, the opening theme returns but blends into a new lyrical melody as the child lovingly describes his family. The reverie is again interrupted upon a sudden intrusion of the cares and dangers of adulthood. He mouths an anxious prayer to God for his family. As he describes the ritual of bedtime, the opening theme returns, almost as if lulling him out of his fears and into sleep. Yet, once touched by the image of sorrow, he is permanently changed as he falls asleep questioning his own fate and identity.
It has become that time of evening
when people sit on their porches,
rocking gently and talking gently
and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds' hung havens, hangars.
People go by; things go by.
A horse, drawing a buggy,
breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt;
a loud auto; a quiet auto;
people in pairs, not in a hurry,
scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body,
talking casually, the taste hovering over them
of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard and starched milk,
the image upon them of lovers and horsemen,
squared with clowns in hueless amber.
A streetcar raising its iron moan;
stopping, belling and starting; stertorous;
rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan
and swimming its gold windows and straw seats
on past and past and past,
the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it
like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks;
the iron whine rises on rising speed;
still risen, faints; halts;
the faint stinging bell;
rises again, still fainter,
fainting, lifting, lifts, faints foregone:
Now is the night one blue dew.
Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose.
Low on the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes....
Parents on porches: rock and rock. From damp strings morning glories hang their ancient faces.
The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.
On the rough wet grass of the back yard
my father and mother have spread quilts.
We all lie there,
my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt,
and I too am lying there....
First we were sitting up,
Then one of us lay down,
And then we all lay down,
On our stomachs, or on our sides, or on our backs,
And they have kept on talking.
They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet,
of nothing in particular,
of nothing at all in particular,
of nothing at all.
The stars are wide and alive,
they seem each like a smile of great sweetness,
and they seem very near.
All my people are larger bodies than mine,...
Quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless
like the voices of sleeping birds.
One is an artist, he is living at home.
One is a musician, she is living at home.
One is my mother who is good to me.
One is my father who is good to me.
By some chance, here they are, all on this earth;
and who shall ever tell the sorrow
of being on this earth,
lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening,
among the sounds of the night.
May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble;
and in the hour of their taking away.
After a little I am taken in and put to bed.
Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her;
and those receive me, who quietly treat me,
as one familiar and well-beloved in that home:
but will not, oh, will not,
not now, not ever;
but will not ever tell me who I am.
Franz Joseph Haydn
|Franz Joseph Haydn|
Symphony No. 103 in E-flat major, “The Drumroll”
The long life of Franz Joseph Haydn spanned one of the great upheavals in the economics of the musical profession. It marked the demise of the aristocratic “ownership” of music and musicians and the rise of the middle class as patron, supporter and chief consumer of the arts. No one bridged this transition more successfully than Haydn, who made the transition from darling of the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy to that of London's merchants without offending either.
In 1791, Haydn made the first of two extended trips to London at the invitation of the impresario Johann Peter Salomon. He composed numerous works for performance in Salomon’s concerts, primarily his last twelve symphonies (known today as the “London” or “Salomon” symphonies). These concerts, like most concerts of the time, went on for hours and were a mixed bag, including vocal, chamber and orchestral pieces; for the decade of the 1790s, their star attraction was Haydn’s music.
Haydn was not only a hit with London’s middle class but also with royalty and the high nobility. Although they seem to have been a bit late in getting around to inviting the composer for formal presentation before their majesties King George III and Queen Charlotte, he so captivated Their Majesties that they had him back for return performances and conversation throughout the month of February of 1794. The Queen actually attempted to lure Haydn to take up permanent residence in London, but he declined on the grounds of loyalty to his former patrons, the Esterházy family.
It is sometimes difficult from the vantage point of the twenty-first century to realize how innovative a composer Haydn was. While retaining the harmonic palette of high classicism, he added new ideas, on both a large and small scale, to make his works always sound fresh and exciting to his audiences.
Haydn composed Symphony No. 103 during his second London sojourn in the winter of 1794-5 and revised it the following summer in Vienna. It is known as “The Drumroll” because of the opening timpani solo, which, according to the London Morning Chronicle, “…excited the deepest attention.” The opening was completely original in concept and has remained a musical puzzle to the present day. Written without bar lines and without dynamic markings, it is up to the timpanist and conductor to shape it, almost as if it were an introductory cadenza for timpani. There follows a slow introduction in quarter notes, the first four of which are a quote from the Dies irae , the non-metrical chant leaving the listener at sea as to its actual meter. The rollicking 6/8 theme that opens the Allegro is a surprise even within the slow introduction and allegro tradition. An equally genial second theme follows. But the innovative Haydn had more tricks in store: the closing theme of the exposition is taken from the first four notes of the introduction and even makes a cameo appearance in the development. Haydn proceeds with a perfectly regular recapitulation but brings back the closing theme of the exposition in its original form, drum roll and all. The return of the introduction at the end of the movement seems to put a damper on the fun until the allegro theme makes a final appearance at the cadence as if thumbing its nose.
The London audience called for an immediate encore of the Adagio, which takes up the more serious tone of the opening of the work. The movement is unusual in that there is only a single theme, which Haydn provides with freeform variations by means of colorful and varied orchestration, including some further work for timpani. The variations alternate between minor and major, and Haydn provided an extended violin solo in the major for Salomon, who divided his time as concertmaster and impresario.
No one would be able to dance to the Minuet, since Haydn adds echoes to the regular foursquare phrases. And, as is true for so many of Haydn’s minuets, they have a heavy, almost peasant air, in this case enhanced by the timpani. The trio is a sinuous contrast to the minuet’s heavy footedness.
A horn call opens the Presto finale, and once again, we find Haydn tweaking the traditional rondo form to create diversion and surprise – and all with only one theme. Once again, the timpani receive a prominent role (or is it roll?).
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2014|