Friday, October 28, 2016

Shakespearian Inspirations

No. 233 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages is this week's Friday Blog and Podcast. Mobile followers can listen to the montage on our Pod-O-Matic Channel, and desktop users can simply use the embedded player found on this page.


This week’s Blog and Podcast looks at music composed for – or inspired by – the works of William Shakespeare.

We have explored some of that repertoire several times over the years in these pages – Tchaikovsky’s orchestral fantasies, William Walton’s film music and, more recently, Prokofiev’s ballet music and a setting of some of Shakespeare’s dialog to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Let’s begin this week’s survey with Hector Berlioz’s well-documented admiration for the Bard’s work. Theodore Child wrote a very detailed essay in the December 1881 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, from which I extract the following:

In the year 1827 a company of English actors, amongst whom were Charles Kemble, Abbot, Liston, Chippendale, and Henrietta Smithson, came to Paris, and gave a series of performances at the Odéon Theatre. Berlioz, a young man of twenty-four years of age, was then struggling against all kinds of privations. His parents were opposed to his studying music, while he himself had the conviction that music was his true vocation. […]One night he happened to be present at the Odéon at the first performance of Hamlet by the English company. The rôle of Ophelia was played by Miss Smithson, a charming Hibernian beauty, who turned many heads […] Berlioz did not escape the charm. In his Mémoires he says, “ The effect of her prodigious talent, or rather of her dramatic genius, on my imagination and on my heart can be compared only to the bewilderment into which I was thrown by the poet, whose worthy interpreter she was. I cannot say more. Shakespeare, falling thus unexpectedly upon me, dismayed and astounded me. His lightning, in opening to me the firmament of art with a sublime thunderclap, illuminated the most distant depths. I recognized true grandeur, true beauty, dramatic truth. At the same time I comprehended the immense absurdity of the ideas which Voltaire had circulated in France about Shakespeare, […] and the pitiable paltriness of our old pedagogic Poetics. I saw, … I understood, … I felt, … that I was really conscious of life, and that I must now rise up and walk.”
Berlioz’s obsession with Miss Smithson gave us his Symphonie Fantastique and the influence of Shakespeare is found also in its companion work, Lélio, with overt references to music he intended for, among other things, Shakespeare’s Tempest. Among other Shakespeare-inspired works in the Berlioz catalog we note his Symphony based on Romeo and Juliet, his opera Béatrice et Bénédict and the concert overture inspired by King Lear included in this week’s montage.

Berlioz wrote the French libretto to Béatrice et Bénédict himself, based closely on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. For good measure, I included a concert suite of the incidental music composed by a young Erich Wolfgang Korngold for that same play. The performance in the podcast is a vintage radio broadcast recording of the work conducted by the composer when he toured Europe after World War II.

In 1947, Orson Welles began promoting the notion of bringing a Shakespeare drama to the motion picture screen, settling on a film adaptation of Macbeth, which he visualized in its violent setting as "a perfect cross between Wuthering Heights and Bride of Frankenstein." Welles had previously staged the so-called Voodoo Macbeth in 1936 in New York City with an all-black cast, and again in 1947 in Salt Lake City as part of the Utah Centennial Festival. He borrowed aspects from both productions for his film adaptation. Welles shot Macbeth in 23 days, in order to produce the film within the modest budget he was allocated.

Some ten years after Welles’ famous collaboration with Bernard Herrmann on Citizen Kane, Jacques Ibert was asked to write the music for Macbeth. Ibert composed the score in 1948 in Rome where he was then living with his family, as director of the French Academy at the Villa Medici and as a naval attaché of the French embassy. Conductor Adriano writes of the score that it “is one of the most valuable and original ever written for the cinema”, and goes on to point out orchestral effects devised by the composer for certain scenes. Although an “official” suite from the score was never published, Ibert does make suggestions and identifies sections which could eventually be included (without further changes) in a suite, with their corresponding titles in a letter to Leeds Music dated 20 November 1950. It is that suite we feature in our podcast.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation commissioned Such Sweet Sorrow for the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. Composer John Estacio writes that the piece was composed in a period of personal transition in his life: “This piece is a personal and melancholic requiem for the life I left behind. This commission gave me the opportunity to compose my own lyrical Adagio for Strings, a rare treat as most of my work has scored for full orchestra.” The title comes from the balcony scene (Act 2, Scene 2) from Romeo and Juliet:

Sweet, so would I,Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing.Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow,That I shall say good night till it be morrow.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Three Bach Cello Suites

This is my post from this week's Tuesday Blog.

This month’s Once Upon the Internet digs into our many downloads from the defunct site MP3.COM. (I should point out that I am slowly but surely running out of tracks to share with you from that site...)

The trio of pieces I retained this month are three of the six Cello Suites (or more exactly Suites à Violoncello Solo senza Basso or Suites for cello solo without bass). The corpus of six suites is among some of the most frequently performed and recognizable solo compositions ever written for cello.

Bach wrote a lot of music for solo instrument – keyboard, violin, lute and of course organ – but these stand out because of the paradox they represent; they are simple yet complex, they achieve the effect of implied three- to four-voice contrapuntal and polyphonic music in a single musical line.
As formulaic compositions, they follow the usual Baroque musical suite make-up, each movement based around a baroque dance type. The cello suites are structured in six movements each: prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, two minuets or two bourrées or two gavottes, and a final gigue.

There is no malice aforethought in the threesome proposed here – they are simply three suites I downloaded from the old site nearly 15 years ago. Two are performed by John Michel (featured cellist in our recent post of quartet music from Central Washington University), and the third is a “sample” posted on the site by Eroica Classical Recordings featuring cellist Yehuda Hanani.

Happy Listening!

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007
Suite No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1009
John Michel, cello

Suite No. 4 in E-Flat Major, BWV 1010
Yehuda Hanani, cello

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Project 366 - Sing, Sing, SIng

To mark the fifth anniversary of ITYWLTMT, we are undertaking a long-term project that will introduce - and re-introduce - musical selections in the context of a larger thematic arc I am calling "A Journey of Musical Discovery". Read more here.

A Fork in the Road

Last month, the first third of our journey through the CM repertoire, focusing on music played by one performer, and working our way up to a full Symphony Orchestra.

The key word here is “played”.

In one of our first posts in this project, we brought up that music can be roughly divided into two large categories – music that is played (which we call sonatas) and music that is sung (which we call cantatas).You could say that, at the on-set of our journey, we came to a fork in the road, and chose to go down the “sonata” path. Today, let’s take a moment to walk back and stroll down the “cantata” path.

Before I go on, I want to make it clear that the world of vocal music has a very broad scope, and that it is somewhat disingenuous of us to claim that a single chapter is enough to fully explore and appreciate this genre. After all, we spent nearly 6 months looking at instrumental music... What I will do, however, is maybe pack in a few more listener guides in this chapter than I have in the past ones, to compensate a tad.

Another fork in the road

We don’t have to venture very far down the vocal path before we encounter another bifurcation point, and this one forces us to consider two aspects of the vocal repertoire – sacred or secular. Sacred, of course, implies music of a religious or liturgical nature, which we typically hear in houses of worship. Secular music, on the other hand, is anything other than sacred.

The best example of sacred music I can think of is “the ordinary of the Mass”, that is to say, music that follows the notional sections of the Catholic liturgy: Kyrie (Lord, Have Mercy), Gloria (Glory to God in the Highest), Credo (The Apostle’s Creed), Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy), Benedictus (Blessed is He who Comes in the Name of the Lord) and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). Although masses since the late 20th century are conducted – and sung – in all languages, the traditional mass is sung in latin, and the text for these familiar rituals and prayers is sung in that language.

Almost all composers have contributed masses, from Claudio Monteverdi to Andrew Lloyd Webber. They can be ordinary masses or special masses (the most common of those being the Requiem Mass, or the Mass for the Dead).

Sacred music isn’t limited to masses, however. Some prayers – like the Ave Maria – have been set to music as either choral pioeces or art songs.

Cantata, Oratorio and Opera – what is what?

As I said off the top, any piece of music that is sung is technically a cantata. That would apply to art songs (or lieder) where a singer is accompanied by a single instrument, to choral works (where more than one voice is required), or to more elaborate works. It is in the case of more elaborate works that we bring up the term cantata – as a sung work with many vocal parts and many sections (like movements, or individual sung numbers). Though cantatas are sacred, many of them can be secular and though they usually tell a story or convey a common idea, cantatas aren’t always “stage works”. In short, a cantata is a concert piece for singer(s) and orchestra.

Although we can find art songs in the baroque and early classical period, the “golden age” of the lieder is the romantic, beginning with the many songs of Franz Schubert, for both male and female singers. Cantatas were a popular form in the baroque, though the genre has remained in use through to modern times, with works like Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.
An oratorio is usually a large cantata, which recounts a particular event – typically historical or biblical rather than fictional. Though singers play “parts”, as in a play, oratorios are rarely “staged” or “acted” – there aren’t any set designs, or elaborate mise en scène. That is in my mind when an oratorio crosses the threshold into opera, which is the “full meal deal”: a “sung play”.

(Opera is such a “special case” of vocal music, and is after all a cross between voca;l and stage work that it deserves its own chapter, and its own discussion, so I won’t elaborate here.)

Among examples of oratorios we have Handel’s Messiah, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, and Sir Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio.

Voice Ranges

In its strictest sense, vocal range refers to the full spectrum of notes that a singer's voice is able to produce, starting from the bottommost note and reaching to the uppermost note - from the lowest grunt to the highest obtainable vocal squeak. In opera or solo classical music, often only the parts of the range that are considered musically useful are counted as part of the range. Put even more simply, a certain section of a singer's range, (likely the middle portion), will make up his or her most comfortable and practical range.

In classical music, there are six basic voice types - bass, baritone, tenor (male voices), contralto/alto, mezzo-soprano and soprano (female voices)- and then several sub-types within each. There are also intermediate voice types which may have a range or tessitura lying somewhere between two voice types or parts (e.g., a bass-baritone), or may have a vocal weight lying somewhere between light and heavy (e.g., a dramatic coloratura soprano, etc.).
To provide a tonal context, here is a visual chart (BTW, the source article from which I borrowed some of this material is a great read!)

Voice types matter – to quote the playwright (and music critic) George Bernard Shaw, '[Opera is when] a tenor and a soprano want to make love, and are prevented from doing so by a baritone.' Tenor and soprano voices dominate the singing landscape, and are often assigned the primary protagonist roles in oratorios and operas. However, baritones and altos are usually trusted with more arcane aspects of the sung repertoire – their deep voices are entrusted with more somber lyrics.

Suggestions to Explore he Vocal Repertoire

Listener Guide #42 - "Schubert’s Winterreise". Few singers had such an intense relationship with a piece of music as the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau had with Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey), a song cycle setting 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller to music. He is accompanied by pianist Gerald Moore in this concert performance. (Once of Twice a Fortnight - 28 Sep 2016)

Listener Guide #43 - "Art Song at the Gardner". Art song puts together all the basic ingredients of a great musical experience – it requires great music and musicians of course, but also great texts, great lyrics. Songs by Dvorak, Wolf, Falla and Schuimann (Once or Twice a Fortnight - 17 Oct. 2015)

Listener Guide #44 - "Great Voices from the Past". Clips, from 2011 and 2012 installments of Opera Potpourri where host Sean Bianco discusses and shares recordings of the Nimbus “Viva Voce” series dedicated to vintage acoustic and electrical recordings of some of the great singers of the early 20rth century. Featured are soprano Rosa Ponselle, baritone Giuseppe De Luca, tenor Jussi Bjorling and heldentenor Lauritz Melchior (Once or Twice a Fortnight - 14 May 2015)

Listener Guide #45 - "In Memoriam: Carlo Bergonzi (1924 - 2014)". A look at tenor Carlo Bergonzi with Neapolitan songs and selections from Baroque and Romantic Italian Opera. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #172 - 07 Nov, 2014)

Listener Guide #46 - "Aria. Aria". Our journey continues with some famous duets. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #185 - 13 Feb 2015)

Listener Guide #47 - "The Ordinary of the Mass". Three settings of the Latin mass ordinarium from three different eras. (ITYWLTMT #231 - 30 Sep 2016)

Listener Guide #48 - "Felix Mendelssohn: Lobgesang". A complete performance of Mendelssohn's second symphony for soloists, chorus and orchestra by Kurt Masur and the famed orchestra of the Leipzig Gewandhaus. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #181 - 16 Jan 2015)

Listener Guide #49 - "Gloria!". Settings of the Gloria by Poulenc, Vivaldi and others. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #148 - 21 Mar 2014)

Listener Guides #50 & 51 - "Handel's Messiah". A near-complete version of this enduring oratorio, as assembled for performance by Leonard Bernstein. It is presented here in two parts - titles appropriate for Christmas and for Easter, (Once or Twice a Fortnight - 22 Dec 2014)

(L/G 50)  

(L/G 51)   

Listener Guide #52 - "Two 20th Century Choral Works". A podcast featuring choral works by Vaughan-Williams and Carl Orffès Carmina Burana. (ITYWLTMT Podcast # 230 - 16 Sep 2016)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

OTF - The “other” Bohème

This is my post from this week's Once or Twice a Fortnight.

In past OTF’s we have looked at “competing versions” of a particular subject. Some of you will remember the side-by-side comparison of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and Massenet’s Manon. We even looked at competing looks at the “Artist Falls for a Seamstress”, juxtaposing Charpentier’s Louise to Puccini’s La Bohème.

The source for Puccini’s story was Henri Murger's novel, Scènes de la vie de bohème, a collection of vignettes portraying young bohemians living in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840s. Like the 1849 play by Murger and Théodore Barrière, the opera's libretto focused on the relationship between Rodolfo and Mimì, ending with her death.
However, as many Opera aficionados know, Puccini wasn’t the only composer to attempt a work on Munger’s stories. In February 1893, two Milan newspapers announced that two operas were to be composed on the subject of La bohème, one by Leoncavallo and one by Puccini.

Ruggero Leoncavallo, best known as the composer of Pagliacci, first considered composing the opera, and offered a libretto that he had written to Puccini, who refused because he supposedly was considering another subject. Puccini then employed Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa to provide him with their version, which reached the stage in 1896, while Leoncavallo’s version debuted in the following year. Although Leoncavallo’s version was well received at its premiere, it shortly was totally eclipsed by Puccini’s work. 

The main difference between Leoncavallo and Puccini treatments is their choice of protagonists: Leoncavallo does treat the affair between Rodolfo and Mimi (who is a florist in this version), but treats them as a secondary plot trading places with Marcello and Musetta (a sideshow romance barely developed in Act 2 of Puccini’s version) who carry the bulk of the attention. In fact, Marcello and Rodolfo trade voice types – tenor to baritone and baritone to tenor!

The two tenor arias are often performed in recitals or on recordings: Io non ho che una povera stanzetta from act 2 

and Testa adorata from Act 3.

Here is a complete performance of this lesser-known version of Boheme, originally broadcast in celebration of Leoncavello’s 100th birth date. It happens to have been reviewed in Opera magazine in the 1958 May issue: “After more than half a century of oblivion this opera proved to be a charming, light, and successful work—not a real rival to the Puccini version, but nevertheless a piece well deserving this revival. The cast is a good one, Doro Antonioli is a sweet voiced tenor, Ettore Bastianini an excellent Rodolfo. Rosetta Noli is a fine Mimi, and Mafalda Masini a satisfactory Musetta. Walter Monachesi is a good Schaunard. Molinari-Pradelli conducts well.”

Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1857-1919)

La Bohème (1896-97)
Opera in four acts, Italian libretto by the Composer
Doro Antonioli (Marcello)
Ettore Bastianini (Rodolfo)
Mafalda Masini ( Musette)
Rosetta Noli (Mimì)

Coro del Teatro San Carlo di Napoli (Michele Lauro, chorus master)
Orchestra del Teatro San Carlo di Napoli 
Francesco Molinari Pradelli, conducting
Live performance, Teatro San Carlo, 8 March 1958

Synopsis –
Libretto – 
Performance URL (Liber Liber) =

Internet Archive:

Acts 1 & 2 -
Acts 3 & 4 -