Many people, and I hope that is most of my readers, will be most interested in a book that I have just read through for the third time, “The Life and Death of Classical Music” by Norman Lebrecht (Anchor Books, 2007). In a cool, entertaining style, Lebrecht spends 151 pages describing in some detail how the recording industry first was a boon to classical music and then its nemesis.
Of course, money was the main cause of the major labels’ recording fewer and fewer classical releases. But most of the fun in this otherwise sad narrative comes from the personalities of the people involved: the businessmen on the signing side of the check and the artists on the receiving side. Of the latter, Herbert von Karajan comes out smelling the least sweet.
There follows a long section of 100 of the best recordings ever made and a shorter one of 20 of the worst. Yes, one man’s opinion, but a man that gives good reasons for his judgement. Fascinating stuff.
Some subjects simply appeal to artists more than do others. We have symphonies inspired by Spring, the forest, the sea, mountains, rivers, the stars, and the planets. From fiction, there are Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra, Macbeth, and jolly fat old Falstaff. Somehow, however, the shadowy figure of Faust seems to hold some sort of record. And it is this record that I would like to examine for this new series of articles.
To start, there may or may not have been a Doctor Johann Faust who died in 1540, leaving behind him a reputation for having sold his soul to the Devil, most probably by being too educated in areas that even today lie under suspicion in the eyes of certain groups with mind-sets that do not approve of any one except themselves knowing the unknowable. But the pattern for the man who probed matters best left alone became set and led the way to so many similar tales. Why how many old Universal horror films can you name with that very message?
In 1587, there appeared a “Volksbuch” that included the moralistic story of Faust. It went through over a dozen editions very quickly and was read all over Europe. His sin was that of “speculative ambition”: desiring to enjoy the cardinal sins with impunity. You see, Faust-as-modern-man or Faust-as-Prometheus had not yet been conceived. An expanded edition came out in 1590 and had Faust performing all sorts of magic tricks; but the trickster is of course tricked by the Supreme Trickster in the end and the moral pretty much remains the same.
Like the mass-media of today, a best-selling idea was quickly seized upon and Faust books by the dozens were popping up all over the continent, not to mention hundreds of puppet shows that told this and that version of the story—all of them the true version, of course—and it is very likely that many authors were influenced directly by any one or several of these. Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1588) is a very uneven play, starting and ending grandly and suffering from a mid-section that is as silly in parts as any puppet play. But the message has something of a new element.
After seeing how useless it is to study the “allowed” material—theology, metaphysics, and so on—Faust turns to the forbidden books to call upon Infernal assistance. Once he has made his pact with Mephistopheles, this Faust seems content with practical jokes until he realizes the enormity of the consequences. “Cut is the branch that might have grown straight” is how the Epilogue describes the result; and we are left to feel how he wasted his opportunities rather than feeling sorry for his fate. Whether or not this is what Marlowe had in mind is not to be known, but the play seems to suggest such a non-moralizing message: if you are going to do bad, at least do it well!
What is certain is that of the several operas based on the Faust legend, only one of them draws upon material from the Marlowe version—and that is the one the least known of the lot. (Is there a moral in that somewhere?) Since the German translation of this play was available only after Goethe had begun his more epic version of the story, scholars believe it had no influence on his whatsoever. This is neither here nor there, because Goethe’s version is entirely different and its influence on music is immense.
First of all, Goethe’s earlier version called the “ur-Faust” and the expansion known as “Faust, the First Part” were products of the Romantic Movement, not the Middle Ages. The philosophy of this stage in European thought could be summarized baldly and therefore badly thus: the Age of Faith did not eliminate human misery, nor did the Age of Humanism or did the Age of Reason—therefore we must return to and trust in Nature for all solutions. Since Nature seems to be in a constant state of Sturm und Drang, it follows that a Man should be in the same state of striving for the unattainable. It is clearly stated in the “Prologue in Heaven” that while Mephistopheles scorns the useless striving of Faust, the Lord sees that as Man’s noblest characteristic. So it is part of the double bet that the Devil has to make with first God and then Faust that he can (1) turn Faust’s energies down the garden path to Hell and (2) give Faust a “moment of contentment” in which he can stop trying . That he fails on both accounts is what separates this version from the earlier ones, for it is Heaven that greets the old scholar at the end of the Second Part as he is drawn on high by “the Eternal Feminine.”
Now all I have left out of this account is the marvelous poetry, the complex philosophical problems, the hundred or so minor characters, and most of what makes Goethe’s Faust one of the greatest achievements of Western literature. On the other hand, that is pretty much what the most popular musical form, that of Gounod, does. So what I would like to do in this series of articles is trace the different musical treatments of the Faust story, mostly the Goethe version, and see how it has been trivialized here and treated reasonably there.
While two writers were taking me to task for calling Glenn Gould a vandal, which I never did, one of the responses to my article brought up the question of revivals. He said that when any work of (theatrical) art is “revived,” it should have “new life breathed into it” even if that means changes to the original. Now this gentleman is a professor of music at St. John’s University in New York City and knows of what he speaks. But while I agreed with all the rest he wrote, I cannot agree with his attitude towards revivals. This is, of course, not a question of right and wrong, but one of definition..
To “re-vive” is to “live again.” That is the denotation. Unhappily there are many connotations. To me, a pure revival should be done in the same form in which it was done in the past. No, I am not claiming it should be PRODUCED as a clone of the original, but it should at least follow the original script. I also feel that the acting style should be appropriate to the period of the original, but that is treading on dangerous ground.
So if a play is “revived”–as was (say) “Annie Get Your Gun” at Lincoln Center back in 1966 –with a subplot removed and a song along with it, a new song added, and its treatment of the American Indians totally “PC’d”–and again in 1999 with even more “improvements” or as is the revival of “Flower Drum Song” which is less stereotypical of the Oriental characters (they claim), these cannot be called “revivals” as much as “adaptations.”
Hey, how about a “Richard III” in which he is the kindest man in England and kills only in self defence to avoid showing a handicapped person being evil because he is handicapped? And then call it a revival? (Or did I just give some lunatic director an idea?)
When “Damn Yankees” was revived, the only real change was to give “Two lost souls” to Lola and Applegate rather than to Lola and Joe. This was merely a sop to the actor playing Applegate, despite the fact that the Devil would certainly not sing those lyrics while Joe certainly would. But all else remained untouched and we can safely call it a revival. When “Bye, Bye, Birdie” was redone on television, the title song from the film version was used and a very good song was given to the Mother. All else was left intact and we had a revival with additions.
Very often, the complete score will be kept but the book will be rewritten. This happens mostly with operettas in which the original books and most of the dialogue are truly poor. But if one went to see “The Merry Widow” revival and found it was about a rich woman who has become a Marxist and is trying desperately to give away her fortune to the masses while her government is trying to get it for themselves, even if every song is left intact one could still complain the audience was not getting the product as advertised.
When one goes to see a film version of “Hamlet,” one really does not expect to hear every word of the play as it has come down to us. Olivier gave us about half of the dialogue with the scenes pretty much in the order Shakespeare put them. The Mel Gibson vehicle gives us considerably fewer lines spoken in some sort of random order. The Branagh epic gives us every single line (which many found stultifying). I say nothing about the production values because they have no bearing on my main thesis.
But a musical is something else again, and Gilbert & Sullivan is something special. Let me repeat an example from a previous essay in this paper. A Canadian and later an Australian production (borrowed from the former) of “The Gondoliers” changed a good deal of the lyrics and some of the dialogue to make references to contemporary situations in those countries. Now since the action is set in the Venice of 1750–and these productions kept the costumes in that period–of what point were the references to things that did not yet exist for the characters? Of course, they caused some cheap laughs, but none of this had anything to do with the work being performed. Gilbert is funny enough on his own and does not need help.
Now there is a case of “vandalism” in the true sense of the word. “Breathing new life into the work” can be done by better acting, livelier singing, imaginative staging. References to “safe sex” and Australian politics in “The Gondoliers” is sophmoronic nonsense.
Now I must be honest and yield to the arguments of with those with a more liberal definition of “revival.” But do you not agree that at least the advertising should warn the ticket-buying public which of the three– revival, adaptation, desecration–their money is going to bring?
There is a character throughout world mythology known as the Trickster. Children in this country know him as Bugs Bunny; those of many decades ago knew him as Br’er Rabbit. African tales are filled with these trouble makers. In the Viking tales, he was Loki, the personification of fire, a very unpredictable element that can do great good or great evil.
In some tales, the Trickster wins out. In others, he is himself tricked. The point seems to be that even those who act against society can leave behind some benefits to the society they harmed. Such is Harold Hill, the Music Man himself.
Here the Trickster is a simple con man posing as a Prince, or at least as a band master. Harold Hill’s racket is to sell uniforms and band instruments to the children of a given town, with the promise that he will turn them all into a wonderful town band. Convincing the citizens of River City, Iowa, that the evils of the Pool Hall must be exorcised by the Good Influence of music, he get lots of money but makes a fatal mistake. He falls in love with Marion the Librarian.
Little by little, as is expected in this sort of Americana tale, she brings out the good in him. When the uniforms and instruments arrive, he tries to use the Think Method on the children. That is, if they think about what they wish to play, they will indeed play it! When arrested and told to make good on his promise—I can only assume that all of my readers know the end, so I am not afraid of spoiling things—the children come through! Terribly, but the parents are happy enough; and loud cries of “That’s my son/daughter” fill the room. And no one is more surprised than Harold Hill himself.
Mythical? In a psychological way, because there was a real Prince always at the core of this trickster. So all can end happily. River City is a better place for his having been there, and wedding bells will ring for Harold and Marion.
The plot of “The Music Man” can be compared to the tale of Jason, if one uses considerable latitude. Instead of sailing off to find the Golden Fleece, Harold Hill takes up a challenge in the train sequence that opens the show. His Golden Fleece will be to fleece the population of River City—known for its xenophobia, which is the equivalent (if you push a little) of the dragon that guards the fleece.
Marion isn’t exactly the ready-to-kill Medea; but in fact she acts as the antagonist when she proves Hill to be a liar. However, she is finally conquered by his charm (a quality certainly lacking in the original Jason) and encourages him to win the “fleece” by convincing the parents that they were not fleeced at all.
Sky Masterson in “Guys & Dolls” is a sort of trickster when he makes a bet that he could get the lovely but sedate Sarah the Mission Girl to come with him to Havana. He wins it by promising her that he will fill the failing Mission with sinners and so save it from closing. The trickster is tricked and finds himself in love with Sarah, and only an appeal to the gods—or, in this case, Lady Luck (Fortuna)—makes it all possible. The mission is saved and the guy gets his doll.
The Broadway musical has produced one great female trickster, Ella Petersen in “Bells Are Ringing.” Taking advantage of her position of message-taker at Susanswerphone, she knows the needs of her clients and takes several disguises (vocally over the phone, physically in person) to help them fulfill their fondest wishes. So she gets a composer-lyricist dentist to have his show produced, the handsome lead’s writing talents to rebloom—as does her love for him and belatedly his for her—and so on. In short, she is the Trickster of myth that brings great benefits to the community.
Of course, there are so many more tricksters in musical comedies. In opera, Figaro is a famous one; but even he is out-tricked by Rosina. And for those who know their Wagner, Loki is the oldest trickster of them all! But let us save that for another essay.
Note: An excellent account of the Trickster character in myths can be found in the Teaching Company Great Courses set “Myth in Human History,” taught by Grant L. Voth. Notice how many of these figures are anthropomorphized animals. Yes, Warner Brothers were not the first to have talking rabbits nor was Disney the first to have talking ducks and mice!
Aristotle, who got so much wrong in his physics, was not exactly on the mark in his analysis of Greek tragedies, “The Poetics,” either. But he did emphasize that an especially effective device in a play is the “anagnorisis,” a sudden “recognition” of a character hitherto thought to be someone or something else; and in the case of a person, he or she often turns out to be a blood relation. The most tragic of them all is Oedipus’ realization of who Jocasta is and the happiest is Iphigenia’s realization of who Orestes is as she is preparing his execution in Tauris.
When it comes to opera, anagnorisis is used quite a bit–which should not be surprising since most operettas are based on plays. Here, I will omit plots based on classical Greek plays, since that would be begging the question.
In “grand” opera, the device is used more awkwardly. The evil Abigaille in “Nabucco” learns offstage by means of a conveniently found letter that she is not really of royal birth; while the Gypsy Woman’s revelation that the Count di Luna has just executed his own brother is far too tersely stated and far too quickly accepted as the final chords come crashing from the orchestra.
It is in light operas that the device is used to far better effect. The cleverest use is probably at the very end of “Cox and Box” when the two discover they are long lost brothers by virtue of one’s NOT having a strawberry mark on his arm. In Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Ruddigore,” the honest sailor Richard Dauntless sells out his relation Robin Oakapple by revealing to one and all that Robin is really Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, the evil Baronet of Ruddigore. At the end of “The Yeomen of the Guard,” Elsie realizes that the man she thought was Leonard Meryll is actually Colonel Fairfax. The denouement of “HMS Pinafore” turns on the past event of Little Buttercup’s having switched the Captain and the lowly tar in infancy (although here it is rank and not relations that is revealed); and we all know that “The Gondoliers” ends with the realization that Luiz the Drummer Boy is really the King of Barataria.
In the first two instances, part of the fun is the audience’s being in on the joke all the while; while in the last two the audience is just as surprised as are the characters on the stage.
Note: It is remarkable that the entire cast accepts these last two revelations as true without question. But then again, Gilbert wanted to wrap things up, and if the plot up until then was accepted, why not the denouement?
The prize for the most elaborate use of the disguise and subsequent recognition has to be awarded to “Die Fledermaus.” Dr. Falke was once the victim of a practical joke played on him by one Eisenstein and he prepares an elaborate revenge. Knowing that a certain young and ennui-ridden Russian nobleman, Prince Orlofsky is giving a ball, Falke has invitations sent to Frau Eisenstein (Rosalinde), her maid Adele, and the warden of the local jail, who is to escort Eisenstein to jail that very evening. Then he secretly persuades Eisenstein to go to the ball before going to jail, and of course runs into maid, wife, and jailer.
As soon as they leave, a sex-driven Italian tenor, Alfredo, arrives to woo the wife and is caught by the Warden in Eisenstein’s dressing gown. To save Rosalinde’s reputation, Alfredo allows himself to be arrested in the husband’s place, making him the only major character NOT to go to the ball. At the ball, Eisenstein spends most of the evening trying to seduce his own (masked) wife, even offering her his woman-winning watch, but getting nowhere.
There is an extremely funny sequence in which Husband and Warden, both posing as French nobility, try to carry on a conversation in their “native” language and finally agree that German is good enough for a Viennese party.
Once Eisenstein tries to check into the jail, he finds “he” is already in a cell. Determined to get to the bottom of things, he assumes a second disguise as a Lawyer and listens to his wife and lover pleading their case. Since nothing short of a deus ex machina could disentangle this plot, the librettists provide one by simply having the entire cast show up in the jail and blame it all on the champagne. In short, Dionysus is triumphant and all ends well.
A similar series of disguises and mistaken identities drive the plot of “La Vie Parisienne,” in which both a Swedish nobleman and his wife separately plan to live it up while in Paris. A young man falls for the wife, poses as a hotel manager and guide, brings them to his own home, which he declares is a hotel, brings the husband to a party at a friend’s home at which all the servants have to play high-class guests…and so on and so on. All ends amicably with a salute to wine. (Well, there are only so many ways to end an operetta like this!)
Whatever would Aristotle have thought about all this?
Some time ago I was giving a seminar on the history of the American operetta and I thought it would be a Good Thing if I typed out the lyrics and ran off copies for my senior citizens. In doing so, one thing impressed me greatly: the utter banality of the words that composers like Victor Herbert had to set to music.
There was an episode on “The Avengers” (one with Emma Peel, not Captain America) in which a publisher of romances had a machine into which you simply punched buttons that plugged stock situations into a computer and the end result was a novel. Many of the lyrics I encountered seemed to be drawn from a boxful of clichés that were merely shuffled and reshuffled. All of which, I suppose, was okay, since the lovers in one operetta could not be distinguished from those in most others.
Example from “The Desert Song”:
Why waste your time in vague romancing
When life itself is at your call?
I come to you, my heart advancing.
Oh, come to me and be my all.
One from “The Red Mill”:
Only because you are you, dear.
Not that you are fair, dear,
Not that you are true.
Not your golden hair, dear,
Not your eyes of blue, etc.
Of course these horrible examples can be multiplied ad nauseam. But to be fair, so could many fairly clever lyrics that are found in the satirical (usually anti-feminist) songs of the period. But the great majority of songs from early musicals have lyrics that would have given a D to any student in a poetry writing class; and the reason for this situation is the same as that for today’s television fare: (1) the public did not demand any better and (2) it is simpler to write poor stuff than good stuff.
Now in 1878 something called “HMS Pinafore” happened in London that got people very excited. Here was a work in which the music was superb and the lyrics were actually intelligent, clever, and amusing all at once! Now the team of Gilbert and Sullivan had already created three works before this, but “Pinafore” was the first to reach these colonial shores and the theatergoers went wild. In New York City alone there were about 10 productions in competition with one another, all using pirated scores that had been hastily jotted down in London by agents from America in those days before international copyright agreements had been achieved.
Did you ever notice in most composer-writer teams, the composer always comes first? Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, for example. In fact who can really name off the cuff the lyricist for any given Romberg musical? I know that P.G. Wodehouse did the lyrics for several Kern shows in 1917 and thereabouts. But I could not tell you for certain who wrote the lyrics for (say) “Sally” or “Sitting Pretty.”
Now a lyric can be “clever” in what it says and how it says it. “Tea for two and two for tea” is not a very profound remark but its beautiful symmetry makes it clever in one sense. “When I’m not with the girl I love I love the girl I’m near” is even better though less palindromic. On the other hand, the rhymes with the lines I have not quoted are nothing special.
Except in the lyrics of the few writers being considered in this series of articles, you can go far and wide before finding any truly clever rhyme in American lyrics. On the London stage, however, Sullivan had words like this in the non-Gilbert “Cox and Box”:
My master is punctual always in business
Unpunctuality even slight is in his
Eyes such a crime that my showing my phiz in his
Shop I thought there’d be the devil to pay.
Not only do we get a triplet, but also the single word “business” is rhymed with three monosyllabic words in the next two lines. On top of that, Larry Hart is anticipated by several decades in that the rhyme words are broken off from the words to which they grammatically belong, thereby increasing the humor even more.
The miracle is what wonderful music was set to even the low-grade lyrics in so many of the operettas that have remained favorites because of the memorable melodies, certainly not because of the words. In fact Romberg boasted that he never cared what words were set to his music. (“Who knows for lyrics?” was his remark.) And that alone brings out a very interesting fact. Many if not most composers wrote the music before the words. The lyricists then were duty-bound to match their meters and moods to already existing notes. Note too that the great teams, especially the two with Rodgers as composer, were not so rigid in their collaboration: sometimes a musical idea would present itself, sometimes a verbal one. And of course, composers like Berlin and Porter, who wrote both music and lyrics, had no such problems!
[Notice that just about every other composer-lyricist team are referred to in that order: George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and so on. But with Sullivan and Gilbert, they are forever Gilbert and Sullivan. Strange.]
On the other hand, only on one occasion did Gilbert ask Sullivan to write the music first, but that was for a quick revision of the finale of their penultimate work. In all other cases, the words came before Sullivan’s music.
So it would be a valuable thing to examine the lyrics of the man who began it all, and now we shall examine the tricky lyrics of William S. Gilbert.
During a televised colloquy of funnymen, Milton Berle brought up the difference between a “comic” and a “comedian.” The first, he explained, says funny things while the latter says things funny. Gilbert, of course, did both. No one before him had turned out such intricate rhymes to better comic effect; and almost always the humor of Sullivan’s music kept in step with the librettist.
Their earliest collaboration was “Thespis,” in which Gilbert was already dealing out such “weak” rhymes as “function-junction/exceeding-breeding/Directors-inspectors/fivers-drivers/compunction-unction-function-junction” in a single stanza of a patter song. [In case your English 1 is far behind you, a “strong” rhyme comes on the last syllable as in “today-replay” while a “weak” one comes on an earlier syllable as in any of the above examples.]
“The Sorcerer” was a spoof of “The Elixir of Love” and had to contain a patter song to match that of the quack in the Donizetti work. Now since Italian has more vowels per linear foot than does English, very weak rhymes were called for. As witness this:
Such is his knowledge he
Isn’t the man to require an apology!
Many times, Gilbert will set himself a challenge and rhyme where no man had rhymed before. For example, in “The Mikado” he forces himself to find rhymes for “executioner” in Pooh-Bah’s Act I song. So Nanki-Poo is called a “very imperfect ablutioner” (which rhymes but makes little sense), Pooh-Bah calls himself “Of your pleasure a diminutioner,” and ends by advising “so you shun her!”
And witness how he rhymes proper nouns in the Major-General’s Song and the “Private Dragoon” numbers, which are too long to quote here.
When he does use strong rhymes (and how can one avoid them?), he will often make a triplet in a single line as when Pooh-Bah sings “Now though you’d have said that head was dead.” Or he will alternate two strong with two weak as in the Nightmare song:
When you’re lying awake with a dismal headache and repose
is taboo’d by anxiety,
I conceive you may use any language you choose to indulge in
In “The Grand Duke,” a most inferior libretto compared to what has gone before, he rhymes “lowest” with “ghoest” and compounds the groaner with the explanation
When exigence of rhyme compels
Orthography forgoes her spells
And “ghost” is written “ghoest.”
Getting back to “The Mikado,” Gilbert gives us one of the greatest tongue-twisting alliterations of all times:
To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark, dock,
In a pestilential prison with a life-long lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!
Possibly one of his happiest thoughts is a seldom quoted song from “Patience” in which the titular heroine claims she never loved except in babyhood and “He was a little boy.” Her confidante insists that “He WAS a little boy”; to which Patience replies that “He was a LITTLE boy”; to which the friend retorts that nevertheless “He was a little BOY”–proving how the same sentence can mean so many different things depending on the accent.
One typical Gilbertian trick is to prove one thing in one stanza and to prove quite the opposite in the next. In “Princess Ida,” the tenor wonders how he was twice the age of his intended when they were betrothed at ages 2 and 1 respectively, and now that he is 22 “she has gained upon me since.” In “Patience,” Lady Jane manages to convince us how the ravages of time will result in “little will be left of me in the coming by and by” while at the same time her spreading shape will result in “too much of me in the coming by and by.” The funny thing is that both cases seem quite valid.
For once, in “The Yeomen of the Guard,” this antithesis is used seriously as a prisoner condemned to die ponders that if life is a “boon” we should be glad to live even one extra day, while if life is a thorn we should be content to leave it as soon as possible.
But when he seems at his most serious, you can never quite be sure if his tongue isn’t firmly in his cheek. When he has the chorus exclaim, “He is an Englishman” and praise him for not choosing to be “a French, a Turk, or Proosian,” it might take us a moment to realize how silly some real patriotic songs are if analyzed semantically. In fact, in his salute to the English Girl in “Utopia” it is still being debated whether he is praising her or … heaven knows what Gilbert might have had in mind.
At any rate, I would need a book to really do a thorough job on the subject. But when you see what the other Masters of the Tricky Lyric have done in the decades after Gilbert, you will clearly see the influence of this Victorian innovator.
Pierre-Auguste Caron de Beaumarchais wrote two plays centered on a clever servant named Figaro. The first, “The Barber of Seville” (1775), took a plot as old as Greek comedy. An old man (Dr. Bartolo) wishes to marry his young ward (Rosina). She in turn is in love with a poor student (Lindoro), who is in reality the Count Almaviva. The Count rehires his old manservant, Figaro, to help him win the young woman. Thanks to Figaro’s cleverness and one or two “useless precautions” taken by Bartolo, Youth wins out over Age (talk about your rites of Spring!) and all ends happily, except for Bartolo.
This is the kind of scenario that is tailor-made for an opera buffa libretto with very few changes. In fact, Beaumarchais originally intended his script to be a libretto for an opera, but he presented it as a straight 5-act play, saw it fail, reduced it to 4 acts, and saw it succeed beyond his wildest dreams.
Giovanni Paisiello was one of the leading composers of the late 18th century, leaving 80 operas behind him, each with a carefully chosen libretto. Therefore, he must have realized almost at once that the French play made an ideal libretto and commissioned an Abbot named Giuseppe Petrosellini to prepare one. The latter made only a few minor changes, taking over long stretches of the French text to act as the “dry recite” between orchestrated numbers.
It was Paisiello’s genius that created music that is just as dramatic as the text, and the work as a whole is filled with delightful musical tricks and turns that easily account for the work’s immense success. Now that was in 1782. After that, a much reduced version was used on the stage; but its reputation endured even then and even with a few other “Barber” operas that could not match Paisiello’s and have been long forgotten. Unhappily, its score does suffer in comparison with what came next.
Which brings us to 1816. For reasons that make little difference now, Gioachino Rossini decided to write a fresh operatic version of “The Barber,” knowing full well that admirers of Piasiello would not only object but would cause a riot during its opening. Rossini issued a statement that he had Paisiello’s good will, that the title would be “Almaviva,” and so on. It had no effect at all.
The performance was in a badly built and drafty theater with poor musicians and equally poor singers. The tenor had to tune his guitar on stage, the basso tripped and had to sing his major aria while trying to staunch a mighty nosebleed, and a cat upstaged the cast—twice! The nosebleed and cat garnered the only applause from an audience that could not hear a note of what was happening on stage.
Rossini left hurriedly and some sources say he was found hiding under his bed, while others say he was found sleeping peacefully on it. Nevertheless, with a few minor changes, the work got a fair hearing on the second night and the rest is history.
Having played a recording of the Paisiello version, I can only be impressed with (1) how good it is and (2) how much better the Rossini version is. Compare, for example, the “Calumny” aria in which Don Basilio describes the course of a rumor from a tiny breeze to a thunderclap as loud as a cannon. The Paisiello accompaniment certainly mirrors the thought but lacks the marvelous crescendo development found in the Rossini aria.
The cleverest music section in the earlier work is the trio between Dr. Bartolo and his two servants, one of whom cannot stop yawning and the other cannot stop sneezing, thanks to Figaro’s trick powders. Even Rossini knew he could not better this one and in his work the sequence is found only in the recitative between musical numbers. Paisiello’s librettist gives Figaro two arias, just as they appear in the Beaumarchais’ dialogue. In the first, he is trying to compose an aria about wine and laziness; in the other, he tells the Count about his travels and travails all over the world. This makes him a much fuller character than he is in the Rossini work.
Paisiello’s music for Rosina makes her a more serious character than the merely wily Rosina in the later work. This is established early in Act I when her music is of the opera seria sort, giving her a certain elegance and therefore anticipating her role as Countess in “The Marriage of Figaro.”
However, Rossini’s melodies linger in the memory long after a performance while Paisiello’s have a certain homogeneity as was the custom in his time—and in Rossini’s, for that matter, except that Rossini was a genius and willing to take chances.
There are two videos of the Paisiello Barber, one of which , on the Bongiovanni label, I have seen. It is done in period costumes but the use of modern plastic chairs is distracting. But it is a must for those interesting in the history of how a play inspired two historic operas.
The things we miss that a first-night audience caught immediately! I have always suspected an inside gag when Polonius tells Hamlet that he once played Brutus. Could it be that he really did? By which I mean, did the same actor who played Brutus in “Julius Caesar” possibly play Polonius in “Hamlet,” which seems to have been written soon after?
In the final scene (before the epilogue) of “Don Giovanni,” the Don has an on-stage ensemble playing tunes from three popular operas of Mozart’s time, the last of which is the “Non piu andrai” from “Le Nozze di Figaro.” The servant Leporello complains “I’ve had too much of that one!” While most current audiences spot the joke of Mozart using his own tune from his last opera, the really funny point is lost to them. The singer playing Leporello was indeed the very one who sang Figaro and therefore might very well be tired of that song.
Another self-reference comes in the third act of “La Belle Helene,” when Agamemnon, Menelaus and Calchus are decrying the lack of morals in Greece (=Paris). When they mention how even the quality of the music has decayed, the orchestra strikes up a slightly disguised version of a tune from Offenbach’s own “Orphee aux enfers” to underscore their complaint.
But of all the comic operas, the one that might need the most footnotes for our enjoyment of the work today is Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Ruddigore.” Based on an earlier play written for private performance, “Ruddigore, or The Witch’s Curse” tells the tale of Robin Oakapple, a village youth, who is in reality Sir Ruthven (pronounced Rivven) Murgatroyd. Thinking Ruthven dead, the younger brother, Sir Despard, has inherited the family curse, put upon them long ago by a witch, which obliges him to commit one crime a day or die in horrible agony at the hands of the pictures of all of his ancestors who step out of their frames to accomplish this. Er, yes, that is Gilbert having a lot of fun with the Gothic plot that even by his day had been greatly outdated, plots that in the 1960s were revived in all those Vincent Price films. (Note: Price himself plays Sir Despard in the BBC version of “Ruddigore” and is a non-singing delight.)
One of the production numbers in the Act I finale is a salute to the four seasons that is followed by a lovely dance, a combination which might become your favorite choral piece from all of the “Savoy” operas. Later in Act II, there is a funny bit in which Robin, now a wicked baronet, threatens a young maiden and her sailor fiance but is thwarted when the sailor holds aloft a Union Jack, before which Robin cringes. There is only audio recording of this work with all the dialogue (Ohio Light Opera on the Albany label) and I hold it among my favorites, mainly because it is so seldom done.
So witness my amazement when a baritone I once knew asked us to see him in a production of an obscure opera called “The Vampyre” in an English translation at some church in mid-Manhattan. Composed at the height of the German Romantic period, this opera tells the tale of a Vampyre named–hold on–Ruthven and…!
Suddenly the Union Jack sight gag made sense to me. What is the obvious feature of a Union Jack? A cross! Anathema to any good vampire and how the original “Ruddigore” audience must have laughed since “The Vampyre” was probably well known to many of them. No, I have no record of performances of this work in Gilbert’s day, but it is obvious that he was familiar with it and one can assume so was his audience.
But wait. In Act II of the German work, some characters step forward and sing a song celebrating the seasons. Of course, here it is a drinking song, something that Gilbert uses only in “The Sorcerer” (in which case the drink is tea) and in “The Grand Duke” (in which it is only a recollection of some Pommery 74 at a past affair). For those of you familiar with the “Ruddigore” lyrics, here is a prose translation of the first verse from “The Vampyre”: “In winter, one must drink; the blood of the grape warms us and thereby wine tastes so good.” In “Ruddigore” we have: “In the spring-time seed is sown/In the winter grass is mown/In the autumn you may reap/Winter is the time for sleep.” A different point of view but still too much for coincidence, I must say.
Yet another joking reference is in the “Incantation” scene from “The Sorcerer,” in which the music and offstage chorus is very similar to that in the Von Weber opera “Der Freischutz” in which the magic bullets are cast. It is only the situation that make the Gilbert scene funny, while Sullivan’s music is magnificently serious.
Now this is but one slightly extended example of how digging into the background of a work can enhance our appreciation of that work enormously. Can you imagine how that would do for a complex work like Wagner’s Ring Cycle? Worth a short series of essays, perhaps? We shall see.
With Naxos and many other labels carrying so many CDs dedicated to film music, my mind has wandered over all those memorable musical sequences in movies that so affect me no matter how many times I see them—or simply hear them on recordings.
One of the great weddings of the music on the soundtrack and the dramatic event on the screen comes at about the middle of “Viva Zapata.” The title character (Brando) is arrested at a home in the village and tethered to a horse so that he is forced to keep pace with the rider. One man, Anthony Quinn, picks up two stones and begins to strike them with a steady beat. By some form of mental telepathy, the rest of the village gets the idea and does the same.
As the steady beat of the stones is the only sound heard, the music begins to creep up very slowly, building to a climax as more and more peasants begin to follow the cortege. Just as with Ravel’s “Bolero,” the steady crescendo portrays perfectly the growing number of people surrounding the police—until at the climax (I believe the music ends on an unresolved chord), the rider, for once an intelligent Mexican law enforcer, simply lets Zapata go to save his own skin and that of his men. The composer, Alex North.
The use of a crescendo is used to stunning effect in the Agincourt sequence of Olivier’s “Henry V” with its score by William Walton. We see from the side the French knights lowering their lances and beginning to advance at a very slow pace. Olivier had decided not to use any sound effects, so the music reproduces the sound of the hooves with a BOOM-pum, BOOM-pum bass ground. Only after several bars do the rest of the instruments make their statement. Even if one just listens to the CD recordings of this sequence, one can hear the heaviness of the French armor and the acceleration of the steeds as they hurtle towards their destruction in the shower of arrows that comes just at the climax of the music.
Of course, having said that, I must mention the scene and indeed the music that inspired the Henry V sequence: the Battle on the Ice in “Alexander Nevsky” with its Prokofiev score. In fact, one should play any of its many recordings and then hear the Walton music, which is too good to be called mere imitation.
Someone once commented on some television documentary long ago how absurd yet how convincing is the music to the sacrifice sequence in the original “King Kong.” Of course, first all that is heard is drums. Then slowly, an entire symphony orchestra is introduced very carefully; and those used to film music think not a whit about any discrepancy.
One of my favorite film composers is Miklos Rozsa, who gave us the scores to “The Jungle Book,” “The Thief of Bagdad,” “Quo Vadis,” “El Cid,” and even Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” (with that haunting theme melody). To me, some of the most thrilling music in all films is in “The Thief of Bagdad” when Rozsa depicts the Genie with Sabu clinging to his hair flying through the sky to “the roof of the world” so the little thief can steal the All-Seeing Eye. (Shots of the Grand Canyon below help enormously, but even the musical alone in this sequence is breathtaking.)
If I was pressed to choose a “desert island” CD of film music, I would not hesitate to choose the Georges Auric score to “La Belle et le Bete.” Never has a realistic telling of an old supernatural tale (those who know the film will understand the paradox) been so well supported by a score that matches its magic and grandeur so perfectly. I can only urge those not familiar with it to see the film (now available on an expensive Criterion DVD) and hear the score alone on a Naxos budget-priced CD.
I would very much appreciate if any readers would let me know their favorite musical moments from original film scores (not those that draw from the music of the past, a topic I want to deal with separately).
“Comic” Characters on the Musical Stage Are Nothing to Laugh At
Well, it happened again. Many of you might have caught on PBS television a production of “The Merry Widow” from San Francisco some years ago. In it is the ancient subplot of three husbands (it is usually only one) being cuckolded by their pretty wives, all the while bragging how faithful their spouses are compared with those of other men. Not that adultery is supposed to be funny per se–and after all, in the Lehar operetta the women only flirt (as far we can tell). But the husbands are such pompous asses that we are supposed to say “Good for you” and laugh at their expense.
The problem is that the actor/singers are invariably directed to give a cartoon performance that destroys any social point the librettist had in mind. The plots of most “Merry Widow”-type operettas are flimsy enough without taking the humanity out of the cast of characters and leaving us with nothing really to laugh at. And being less than human, there is no social point they can make.
For example, Laurel and Hardy were bumbling fools. But their hearts were pure, their intentions always good. It was their human failings that always got in their way. In a classic short, “Towed in a Hole,” they are trying to improve their “fresh fish” business by fixing up an old boat to cut out the middleman. The fact that Stan can do nothing right and that Ollie thinks he himself can do everything right–failings that come from their basic characters–is what leads to a string of disasters ending in the total demolition of the boat.
But the husbands in “The Merry Widow” have nothing but failings. There is nothing funny about that because they are not believable. Consider the following. In the nature film “Microcosmos,” there is a sequence in which a dung beetle gets his huge ball of dung stuck on a twig. Not having the intelligence to see why he is making no progress, he simply keeps pushing and pushing until the ball rolls over the twig. The audience cheered! And this for a dung beetle! It won the audience’s sympathy because its persistence, although part of its genetic code, was understandable and laudable. The three husbands, then, come out in most productions several sympathetic notches below the little hero of the nature sequence.
In too many versions of “The Mikado,” Ko-Ko is played as an idiot, unable even to carry his large ax when he enters (although Gilbert wanted a sword). I do not know how George Grossmith, the original Ko-Ko, played the role, but Martyn Green certainly established once and for all the feebleminded Lord High Executioner. However, when one production updated and replaced the action to an English seaside resort hotel lobby during the 1920s and cast Eric Idle of the Monty Python group to play the role, he pranced on with a tennis racket, addressed the people through a loudspeaker, feedback and all, and dismissed Nanki-Poo with what is usually a throwaway line, “Take him away,” in a very no-nonsense, dangerous way. Finally, a Ko-Ko to be reckoned with!
Worse still is having Sir Joseph Porter in “HMS Pinafore” played like a clown. (I must admit, I saw it done only once and that was in a rehearsal, after which most of the business was dropped.) Sir Joseph is all dignity, a dignity that does not come natural to him since his greatest accomplishment was to polish up the handle of the big front door and the only ship he had ever seen was a partnership before he was elevated to the rank he now holds and does not in the least deserve. The point Gilbert (who also directed his own works) is making is that Porter LOOKS and ACTS like “the ruler of the Queen’s nahvee” despite the hollowness below the glitter, and is therefore treated with respect his rank (if not the man) deserves in the British social scale.
The same must be said for the character of Dr. Bartolo in “The Barber of Seville.” If he is played as a total fool, then all the machinations devised by Rosina, Figaro and Almaviva are wasted effort. Now and then, a good actor/singer plays him as an intelligent person and the opera seems to make sense. He fails because of his ego, not because he is stupid. But then again, so many productions of “Barber” are played strictly for laughs that believable characterization is at a premium.
Even the richly comic Papageno in “The Magic Flute” might be played as childish, but always very very human. After all, opera is drama and drama is about human beings. Even farces are based on human failings, but in this area the rules are somewhat relaxed since farce is based on types (“humors” as Ben Jonson put it) and complexity of character is actually detrimental in this case.
This essay is, if anything, a caveat for local groups, both amateur and semi-professional, that might consider some of my comments while planning their next productions. Cheap laughs are easy to achieve, as Gilbert once commented, if all you do is to sit on a pork pie. Real life, however, needs real people up on that stage–even if they do live in a world where an orchestra is always playing.