Concepts of music Music history

The Three Barbers of Seville, No Waiting

Figaro shaves Bartolo while the lovers plot their elopement

The Three Barbers of Seville, No Waiting

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.

IMG_20150701_0001Giovanni 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.

IMG_20150701_0002Which 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.

Paisiello, composer of the “other” Barber of Seville

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.

Beaumarchais, the inspiration for the operas

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.


Concepts of music Essays

Memorable Musical Movie Moments

61HS58R7HAL._AA160_Memorable Musical Movie Moments

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.

21JMRDQY3TL._AA160_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.

51CMk4ahTnL._AA160_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.

41GQKD05RTL._AA160_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.

61whmdcOsXL._AA160_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.)

51bU5LPCcHL._AA160_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).

Concepts of music Essays

The Garden is Full of Musical Weeds

Hogarth’s view of noise pollution in the London of his time

The Garden is Full of Musical Weeds

Too much of a good thing?  When does wonderful music become too much music? Become noise? There are at least three ways.

First, I often think so when I look at my walls lined with audio CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes. When I was young, I would go running to any theater that happened to be showing either the opera “Faust” or the two films dealing with Faust legend. I cannot say how much money I spent on movie tickets, when they were anywhere from $.11 and $.75 (that is not a typo), to see one of those films. Now I have five different recordings of the Gounod opera alone on CDs and one one video tape, not to mention one of those films on tape too!–and I cannot remember playing any of them more than once or twice since the purchase. (I pass over the eight versions of “La Boheme” that sit side by side on my shelves.) Is it that the thrill of the search is gone and that all the fun was in the RARE viewing of the work?

But this is not really a matter of weeds, unless all those recordings I never play fit that category.

Here is the second way. In reading books about Mozart’s Vienna, I find that the populace was so starved for music that should a single player strike up a piece on any street corner, a large crowd would gather around him and revel in the unexpected treat. Today, you enter any shopping area and you can’t escape from the constant bombardment of music coming out of speakers in all directions and often at levels that are nerve shattering. And you can hear it even more clearly in the otherwise quiet of the rest rooms.

The anti-digestive item not listed on the diner’s menu

Where it bothers me most is in restaurants. Stopping at a New Hampshire hotel, we decided to eat on the premises and were treated to a radio station. The music was tolerable, but the news reports and commercials were scarcely designed for dining pleasure. (We asked them to turn it off.) I will not even comment on the insult of booming jukeboxes in some pizza parlors, but many restaurants like those here in Keene, NH, who pretend to some “class” (at least in their prices) still have recordings of orgasmic vocalizing that simply do not go well with the low lighting and fancy arrangements of the food on the very large plates.

On my second visit to one of those places, I brought my own CD of Baroque Italian music (it was, after all, an Italian restaurant) and asked that they play it. They smiled tolerantly but complied. It seems that many such establishments purchase a service whereby they are given several hours of music that will be played in some order; and should you arrive at the rowdier portion and do not feel that the contents are appropriate, that is your hard luck. (Yes, they can switch to the next sequence, if you insist, which I feel more of us should do.)

More specifically, I do not feel that any vocal music is appropriate to begin with in a dining atmosphere, because the vocal calls itself to your attention and does detract from any conversation, compelling or trivial as the case might be, that is competing with the recordings. And even the most pleasant Jerome Kern, Vivaldi, or Louis Armstrong  played at high volume is just as bad, which is the third focal point of my little thesis.

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Unwelcome wedding guests

I thank goodness that all the young cousins and their children in my family have been confirmed or married by now and I will never have to sit at some catering place with the band playing amplified music in a room far too small to require such volume–and often music that does not require any volume at all. How many times have you had to shout to persons at your table simply to be heard? No one likes it or demands it; but the hired bands or DJs somehow feel required to reach the threshold of our pain from the start to finish of the event. (We will ignore concerts at which volume is equated with good playing. My cousin once answered my “How was the rock concert?” with “Great. My ears still hurt.”)

Most will agree that the most beautiful flower, growing where it is unwanted, is a weed. So is it with music.

Will I, then, give up any of the eight or nine Aida’s in my collection. No, no, not one (as the female chorus sings in an operetta.) Why not? Er, well, some day in the next thirty years, I might want to hear it again. Will I continue to campaign for quiet dining music? You bet.

How do YOU feel about it?

Concepts of music Essays

I’ve Heard That Song Before

downloadI’ve Heard That Song Before

“It seems I’ve heard that song before” is the first line of a classic by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne that turned up in a 1942 film called “Youth on Parade.” How many times do we had that reaction to a melody being played that instantly brings to mind yet another song but with the same melody? If you are hearing “Kismet” for the first time and know your Borodin, you would soon catch on that the score is based squarely on that Russian composer’s more popular melodies. As is “Blossom Time” with a Sigmund Romberg score based on Schubert’s works and “Song of Norway” on Grieg’s.

51CRgesJr0L._AA160_But when Della Reese sang back in 1959 “Don’t you know I have fallen in love with you for the rest of my whole life through?” one could check the label to see that the words and music were by Bobby Worth, while your operaphile friends grinned knowingly at the adaptation of Musetta’s seductive Waltz from Puccini’s “La Boheme.”

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King, wife killer, and perhaps composer

The business of taking over classical melodies must go back to the ancient world—or at least before copyrights became a problem. The most famous example of tune-snatching must be “Greensleeves.” Some say it was written by Henry VIII, some say he merely wrote the lyrics. But when one hears that loveliest of all melodies, one cannot help but think of “Alas, my love, you do me wrong to cast me off ungratefully.” By Shakespeare’s time, it was familiar enough to be mentioned twice in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ lovely “Fantasia” on the melody helps preserve it in the public’s mind.

51A5cFSGhOL._SL500_AA300_However, at one point or another, it was given new lyrics that now and then show up on recordings of seasonal songs: “The old year now away is fled, the New Year it is enter-ed, Then let us now our sins downtread, and joyfully all appear.” This can be found in a 1642 collection now in the Ashmolean Library at Oxford. It is also on a CD of Alfred Deller recordings, the cover of which is shown.

The transition from love to New Year celebration was followed by  a second one to Christmas celebration when a certain William Chatterton Dix (the date was around 1865) changed the lyrics to “What child is this, who laid to rest” and so on. If any reader knows any other non-parody set of lyrics to “Greensleeves,” please let me know.

51hmEIYsfXL._AA160_Those who recall the very first Masterpiece Theatre miniseries, “The First Churchills,” already know that the John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, kept giving the French a series of thorough lickings on the battlefield. And so the French came up in 1709 with an insulting little bit called “Malbrough [sic] s’en va-t-en guerre” in which the death of the Duke was narrated—notwithstanding the fact that he actually died in 1722.

One simple tune, many many lyrics

Well, the tune was bouncy enough to have the English (and this is one version of what “really” happened) jettison the lyrics and substitute “For he’s a jolly good fellow.” From there, the music appeared as a children’s song, “The bear went over the mountain,” which has made many a long drive seem even longer to the adults who have to hear the children make the drive seem shorter by singing the repetitious adventures of that wretched bear.

Now: what does a French folk song, a little star, a black sheep, and the alphabet have in common? Read on, s’il vous plait.

The three bags full and the source

One melody was so immensely popular in Europe that even Mozart composed a set of variations on it (K. 265). It also shows up as the major theme in the second movement of  Haydn’s “Surprise Symphony.” In France, the words were “Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman,/Ce qui cause mon tournament?” It is a child’s plea for candy! It shows up with variations in Adolphe Adam’s delightful but pretty much unknown light opera “Le Toreador” (1849). We know it best as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” the lyrics of which were written in 1806; and I was quite surprised to realize it also shows up as “Baa, baa, blacksheep, have you any wool?” And let us not forget the “Alphabet Song” (1834), with the immortal lyrics: “a b c d e f g (pause) h i j k (slight pause) l m n o p (etc.).” I also read that a German, a Dutch and an Hungarian Christmas carol use the same melody.

Spike Jones with some delicately modulated instruments

Many a popular song is a “steal” from the classics. Remember “Hot Diggity (Dog Diggity Boom)” from 1956—try Chabrier’s “Espana” for that source. And the beautiful “Tonight We Love” (1941)—Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto in B-flat minor.” And the parodies of Spike Jones (the horserace narrated to the Gallop from “William Tell Overture”) and Allan Sherman’s 1963 letter from Camp Granada, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”—“The Dance of the Hours” from Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda.”

But there is a website list of dozens of such adaptations at

Moral (if one insists): You can’t keep a good tune down.

511s3izjugL._SY450_Footnote: The Mozart Variations to the French song can be found on a Naxos CD, “Piano Variations, Vol. 2.” “Le Toreador” is available on the Decca label with soprano Sumi Jo. I think I found it sung on YouTube also.




IMG_20150719_0001Postscript. Some time after writing this essay, my son and I were in some record shop and he spotted a CD titled “The Artistry of Nelson Eddy” (which is still available as “used” on It has as a subtitle “Popular songs adapted from classical themes” and includes 12 tracks such as “Tonight we love” from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B flat minor, “Full moon and empty arms” from Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, and “‘Til the end of time” from a Chopin Polonaise. It would be a cute party game to plays few bars and see who can name the classical source for each! (Doing it the other way around is no recommended.)

Concepts of music Essays

Safe and Snug with Musical Favorites

Safe and Snug with Musical FavoritesIMG_20150617_0001_NEW

Many years ago,  that ever-popular New York radio station WQXR published the winners of its 2001-2002 Classical Countdown Winners. There are few surprises in any of the four categories. However, there are many points of interest.

In the 40 entries under Favorite Works, Beethoven comes in number 1, 2, 3, 5, and 13, four of which are symphonies and one a piano concerto (“Emperor”). Mozart does not show up until No. 11 and then only five more times as numbers 12, 20, 34, 35, and 37. Only two operas, “Don Giovanni” and “La Boheme” show up on this list; and I must heartily concur with those choices. Verdi, surprisingly, appears only once and that for his Requiem rather than for any of his operas.


Tchaikovsky comes in at numbers 21, 29 and 32 with two symphonies and his Violin Concerto, the latter making one wonder why the Piano Concerto No. 1 did not make it. Schubert appears only once and that time for his “Trout” Quintet, while Mahler is there thrice for his first two and fifth symphonies. Bach also appears three times for his Brandenburg Concerti (what? all of them?), B-minor Mass, and Goldberg Variations, the latter representing the only piece for soloist on the list.

Samuel Barber

No need to mention all the others, because you have already surmised that all of these are the “war horses” of classical western music. Copland (“Appalachian Spring”) and Barber (“Adagio”) are the only American composers on the list ; and I wonder if more would have shown up had this been a poll of European listeners. Should you see all 40 listings, you will, doubtless note, the complete absence of “modern” music, especially atonal, and music from before Vivaldi. But there is a good reason for that, since the challenge was to choose individual pieces.

Note also the breakdown by genre: 15 symphonies, 10 concerti (of which 4 are for piano, 4 for violin, and 1 each for clarinet and cello), 4 non-operatic vocals (3 requiems and an oratorio [“Messiah”]), only 1 chamber work and only 1 piano solo piece. The appearance of 3 requiems is most interesting in light of the world situation today. I wonder if they would have appeared prior to September 11, 2001.

Ma, number 1 choice back then

As for the top 12 instrumentalists, the list was in this order: Ma, Perlman, Stern, Galway, Rubinstein, Horowitz, W. Marsalis, Bell, Gould, Mutter, Argerich, and Heiftiz. Notice how violinists lead the pack with 5, pianists a close second with 4, and 1 each for cello, flute and trumpet. Notice also that the cellist stands in first place. Draw your own conclusions here.

The top 12 conductors stand thus: Bernstein, Levine, Masur, Mehta, Toscanini, Solti, Muti, Marriner, Ozawa, Karajan, Barenboim, and Slatkin. Here the Americans put up a better showing, holding 1st and 2nd places, not to mention last. Despite the poor acoustics of so many of his RCA recordings, Toscanini still holds a fond spot in many fans’ hearts.

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Placido Domingo, high in the ratings back then

It is with the top 12 singers that some really interesting results emerge: Domingo, Fleming, Pavarotti, Callas, Te Kanawa, Bartoli, Bjoerling, Ferrier, Upshaw, Battle, Sutherland, and Terfel. 6 of them are sopranos, 3 tenors, a mezzo, a contralto, and a baritone. What strikes me is that the very popular baritones of the past–Merrill, Milnes, Warren–yield to the most recent Wunderkind, Bryn Terfel. I suppose that Shakespeare was right as usual: Time has a wallet on his back wherein he puts coins for oblivion. I am also a little surprised to find Battle’s name in this list. She is just fine on recordings but her small voice does not work (for me) in a live performance. And after some of the pranks pulled by Pavarotti, I wonder why anyone would choose him above Bjoerling. But, hey! these are personal choices, and against that there is no arguing.

51yL0eK-biL._AA160_Had they added a listing of “Most Hauntingly Beautiful” musical pieces, I would have expected to see “La Mer,” one or two of Rodrigo’s works for guitar and orchestra, “Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” “Symphony on a French Mountain Air” by D’Indy, “O mio babbino caro” from “Gianni Schicchi,” the waltz from “La Belle Helene,” and I’d better stop here lest I get bombarded by messages asking “How could you leave out ABC orXYZ?” That way, madness lies.


Concepts of music Essays

A Painless Path to Learning Italian: a Look at Musical Terms

IMG_20150616_0001_NEWA Painless Path to Learning Italian: a Look at Musical Terms

Loving opera as I do, I always try to follow a new recording with a vocal score. This practice has led me, willy or nilly, to look up an awful lot of foreign words. Some of the results might amuse you, if not enlighten you.

Speaking of music, what does MUSIC mean? In fact, what is the meaning of a whole google of words used by musicians? (Never mind what “mean” means, for that is a really deep topic.)      To start with, “music” means more or less “having to do with the muses.” That much is easy and comes from the Greek, which leaves some unamused. For the rest, we are going to learn a lot of Italian.

Around 1800, some composers began to indicate metronome settings

Let us think just about the speeds at which a piece can be played. LARGO (as in  Key Largo) means “large, broad, expansive,” with the idea of slow and dignified. ANDANTE means “going” in the sense of slow but still moving right along, while ADAGIO means “at ease” with the idea of slow but not quite as slow as largo. In between the two slow paces, we have ADAGIETTO, which means “a little adagio.” And in between fairly slow and quick, we have MODERATO, which scarcely needs a translation.

Moving a little faster brings us to ALLEGRETTO, which means a little ALLEGRO, which in turn means “merry” in the sense of played quickly. To put a little pep into things, you can play ANIMATO (with spirit) or VIVO (lively) or VIVACE (fast and lively) or even MULTO VIVACE (very fast and lively) or PRESTO (fast) or PRESTISSIMO (very fast). By now you have noticed that the old Latin superlative ending “-issimo” means nearly the same thing as our superlative “-est” at the end of an adjective.

If you play each note sharply, you are playing STACCATO (detached); but if you want a smoother effect, you play LEGATO (tied together, as in “ligature”) so that each note is still sounding as the next note is played.

For Verdi, ppppp meant “not so loud”!

Now regardless of the TEMPO (“timing”) you have chosen from the above, you can play your piece PIANO (softly) or PIANISSIMO (very softly), or FORTE (strong in the sense of “loud”) or even FORTISSIMO if you want to bring the roof down. (In his desperation with Italian orchestras who could never quite play anything below a “forte,” Verdi used to mark certain passages in his operas “ppppp” in the hopes they would be played at least moderately softly!)

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Placido Domingo, baritone turned tenor, then back to baritone
A Baro-meter measures the heaviness of the air, not of a baritone

Now what about voices?  For men, we use the words TENOR, BARITONE and BASS.  The latter means “low” (as in “basement”) and baritone means “heavy sound” (as in “barometer” which measures air pressure). The word “tenor” simply means “holder” (as in “tendon,” “tenacious,” and “tenant”). What gives? Way back in the Middle Ages, the tenor was the one who sang in what we call the baritone range and was given the task of “holding” the canto firmo in a Mass while the other singers accompanied him. After 1500, the tenor became the male who sang in a range higher than the baritone. The possessor of this voice did not become the superstar until one of them hit a full-voiced high C during a Rossini opera and changed the world. (The composer said it sounded like a chicken getting its throat cut!)

Tenors more or less can be grouped, not by range but by the power in their voices, into TENOR ROBUSTO (most of the Verdi leading male roles and all of the Wagnerian ones) and TENOR LEGGIERO (light, as is required for the bel canto–“beautiful sing”–roles in Mozart and Donizetti operas).

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Beverly Sills, when one thinks “soprano”

For the women, we have the SOPRANO (or super-singer) who sings “above” all the others, be she COLORATURA (colorful like Lakme), LYRIC (in the sense of “melodic” like Mimi), or DRAMATIC (like Aida).  Female voices a notch below or in the middle are MEZZO SOPRANO (as in “mezzanine”) and such roles in operas go to those playing secondary female leads and young men (like the “pants roles” in “Tales of Hoffmann” and “Faust”). On the other hand, Rossini’s Cinderella and Rosina and Saint-Saens’ Dalila are mezzos, so there is no strict rule.

The man who brought the countertenor voice back to the public

The CONTRALTO is really a “counter-alto” (against the high) since she theoretically sings in opposition, as it were, to the higher soprano. Which brings in the rarely heard COUNTERTENOR, the voice of choice, some say, through most of western musical history, exemplified by the excellent Alfred Deller and his son whose recordings revived that style. The last familiar opera role for a counter tenor (at the time of this writing) was that of Oberon in Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” although other countertenor voice roles have been composed since.

Most people know that OPERA simply means “works” in the sense of a musical drama with dance, costumes, scenery, singers–in short, the works! In the Baroque period, CANTATA meant “something to be sung” (usually of a religious nature) while SONATA simply meant “something to be played without vocal accompaniment.” That last word has certainly taken on a different meaning in “sonata form” and the ambiguous use of the word in “piano sonata” or “violin sonata.”

Et cetera, et cetera, and so forth!

Yes, there is always more than one good reason for learning a foreign language.

Concepts of music Essays Uncategorized

I Have a Song to Sing, O!

BalladI Have a Song to Sing, O!

When the players arrive at Elsinore and Hamlet asks them to perform “The Murder of Gonzago” so he can catch the conscience of the King,” Shakespeare had a problem. Since the characters in “Hamlet” speak for the most part in iambic pentameter and the players will speak in iambic pentameter in the play within the play, the challenge was to make the “Gonzago” dialogue SOUND like dialogue while the dialogue of “Hamlet” would still sound natural.

Shakespeare’s solution to this problem was to make the dialogue of the inner play sound old fashioned and clunky relative to the speech of the “real” characters. In musical work, opera or musical comedy or whatever, most of the songs are supposed to be extensions of the spoken dialogue (as in “The Magic Flute” or “The Mikado) or as emotional highlights in a work in which all the lines are sung. But now and then, the plot requires that a “song” be sung as a song and not as dialogue. How to deal with this?

Mozart had this problem in “Le Nozze di Figaro” when Cherubino is asked to sing his ditty to the Countess. Of course, these characters do nothing but singing—so how to make the song sound like a song rather than the sung-dialogue that is the very nature of opera? The best even Mozart could do is make the orchestra sound like the guitar that Suzanna usually makes believe she is playing while Cherubino warbles away. (See picture above.)

And how familiar is Don Giovanni’s serenade to his own (usually feigned) accompaniment on a lute! And the Merry Widow’s tale of Villia! And so on down the line.

Very early into Act I of Rossini’s “Il Barbieri di Seviglia,” the Count must sing a serenade; and again, he is provided with a guitar that he should actually play if he can while vocalizing. In the third act, Rosina has a music lesson, and it is the context that makes it sound like the character is engaged in a song.

In Wagner, two examples “songs” that have to sound like songs and not part of the opera that contains them are the hymn to Venus and the contest songs in “Tannhauser” and the “Prize Song” in “Die Meistersinger.” The first has a lute accompaniment, while the latter example is simply more melodic than is the rest of the score.

Chaliapin as a singing Mephistopheles in 1915

When Brander and afterward Mephistopheles are asked to sing a song in both Gounod’s “Faust” and Berlioz’ “Damnation of Faust,” the former obliges with his Song of the Rat (curtailed in the Gounod version) and the devil delivers the Song of the Golden Calf in Gounod and the Song of the Flea in Berlioz. Somehow, all four do sound like songs, despite the fact that everything up to then has been sung. The same is true about the serenade that the Devil sings in both versions, as well as Gretchen’s Spinning Song. It might be psychological, but they do somehow sound different from the other numbers.

The reason, perhaps, that so many musical comedies are concerned with a troupe putting on a show is that there is lots of occasion for a song to be thrown in as part of the show within the show and therefore needing no motivation for its appearance. The question for a discerning composer is how to make the song sound as if it is not part of the framing plot but part of the show-within-the-show.

Kiss_Me_Kate_1950_LP_CoverCole Porter tried in “Kiss Me Kate” to have the “Taming of the Shrew” songs sound more like Renaissance pieces than the songs sung backstage. So “Why can’t you behave?” (a framing plot song) should not sound too much like “Tom, Dick or Harry” (a “Taming” song). In long-forgotten ‘Me and Juliet,” is quite impossible to know when heard out of context which song belongs at which level. Is “No other love have I” part of the framing plot or of the show they are rehearsing?

In “Pajama Game,” the song “Too darn hot” takes place during a show given by the pajama workers, while “Hernando’s Hideaway” is part of the main plot. I hear little difference between them. “There’s no business like show business” might be part of Buffalo Bill’s show in “Annie Get Your Gun” or might be an expression of joy or an explanation of what life is like in show business. The last choice is the true one, but out of context it is impossible to tell.

215px-Guys_and_dollsTake as a last case in point “Guys and Dolls.” “Bushel and a peck” is sung by the chorus on a stage, while “Sue me” is part of the plot. The latter is more dramatic, the former more four-square.  In fact, “Bushel” and “Take back your mink” are sung in a nasal tone by the chorus girls to underline even more that this is a “song” number and not a plot number. Even one unfamiliar with the show could tell which is a main plot, which a show-in-a-show number. But this is quite rare in musical comedy—and indeed even rarer in opera.

A composer in my area wrote the music, lyrics and book to a musical. The second act began with the full cast on stage and someone saying to one of the leads, “Why don’t you sing us a song?” Well, further experience will surely have him avoid such a sledgehammer cue. On the other hand, it was the best musical moment in the work. The rest was reboiled retro.

I wonder if anyone of my readers could give me some examples of “songs” within musicals that are unquestioningly songs being sung as opposed to plot songs that the audience assumes are being spoken in singing voice with an invisible orchestra playing.

Concepts of music Essays

The Sonata: What’s in a Name?

A-PolliniWhat’s in a Name? 

According to Mark Twain, Eve named a dodo a dodo, because “It looks like a dodo.” In a more serious vein, Juliet realized that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” There is little doubt that no one would confuse Eve’s animal with any other; and nobody familiar with horticulture would mistake a rose for any other blossom.

The world of music, however, is filled with words that court confusion. One reason is that their definition has changed throughout the passing years. Another is that the context determines the definition. Take, for a nonmusical example, the word “read.” Out of context, it can be pronounced “reed” or “red.” But in a sentence, “Today I read” and “Yesterday I read” quickly the context supplies the pronunciation and definition.

Actually, my favorite is POLISH. When seen in upper case, it can mean “to cause something to shine by rubbing it (polish)” or “being a native of Poland” (Polish). Context and capitalization will tell.

Now let us look at a musical example that had me very confused when I was a youngster trying to plumb the mysteries of classical music. That word was “sonata.”

What exactly is a “sonata”? Here we have a word that has only one pronunciation but two overlapping definitions that can cause some confusion among those who not music specialists. My 1980 edition of “The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians” devotes pages 479 to 507 to a definition—or rather a series of definitions—of “sonata” from the 13th century to the modern era. Originally, “sonnade” referred to any instrumental music. Not very helpful, but a start.

Then the author says that the article will follow a “semantic” approach rather than a musicological one and show how the word was applied by composers through the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th-century eras. I believe that the Classical and Romantic “sonata” will deal with more familiar examples than will the other two.

Basically, Beethoven’s piano sonatas (piano only), and Mozart’s violin sonatas (violin and piano), and Haydn’s string quartets (4 instruments), for example, are multi-movement pieces, in which at least the first movement is in “sonata” form! Okay, here we go. There is a form called “sonata” that must appear in the first movement of a work called a “sonata.” But what is the form as opposed to the entire work?

At this point, I must beg musicologists to forgive what will seem to them an oversimplification of a fairly complex subject.

Some music teachers describe the form as pretty much this: say it, develop it, say it again. (To any teacher of English composition, that is very close to “introduction-body-conclusion.”) The composer chooses a theme in a particular key and one or more other themes in related keys. This is the “exposition.” The “development” brings back themes from the exposition on a voyage through different keys, setting things up for the “recapitulation” and final section. Here the first theme is replayed in its original key, some other themes are repeated in the same key (“tonic”) of the first theme. Then things are brought to a satisfying “coda” (literally “tail”) for the piece.

This is the usual format and was therefore expected by audiences when the works were first heard. Of course, the composer was allowed some leeway, but the tripartite structure was inviolate.

So what is a “sonata”? Which one do you mean? Form or work?


Just as I was about to finish off the revision of this article, my copy of the “BBC Music Magazine” arrived in the mail; and lo and behold, there was a short article on p. 15. It was part of the magazine’s “Discovering Music” series, titled “Sonata Form.” It begins with a definition of the form, just as I did, but puts it into historical perspective: the Age of Revolution. Author Stephen Johnson comments that none of the composers of that time left any written indication that they were using a particular form.

The format as described above just felt right to these artists. Reference is made to Charles Rosen’s “The Classical Style,” in which Rosen states that they took to the form as a way of thinking rather than as a set of rules.

So let me rephrase my last question, “So what is a ‘sonata’? Which one do you mean?” by expanding the choices to “Form or work or state of mind?”

What indeed is in a name?

Concepts of music Essays

Some Scientific Studies in the Effect of Opera on Babies

This article was written as an April Fool joke. The picture is indeed me, apparently anticipating life’s troubles to come. Perhaps Mozart would have helped.

Scientific Studies in the Effect of Opera on Babies

[This was written as an April Fool article when the publication who ran it came out in May. But a fool in April cannot change much by May.]

Some time ago, publicity people for recording companies came up with the idea—and this is not made up–that playing Mozart for babies would make them smarter. (The babies, not the recording publicity people.) All this without defining “smart”; but if the publicists define their terms, their claims would be too obviously loopy. After all, who knows if these babies would have been just as smart had the parents never played Mozart? Couldn’t there be a Louis Armstrong Effect as well as a Mozart Effect?

Ah, but would one Effect affect babies in the same way as another Effect? And one must not fall into the post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc fallacy: after it, therefore because of it. However, for the purposes of this essay, let us agree that wee ones hearing Mozart often in their early years do become smarter than they would have been had no Mozart been played at all. We can suppose that? We can suppose anything, so why not that?

Where the publicists fell short was in not realizing how SPECIFIC music can influence the development of ANY child in specific ways not necessarily connected with intelligence. For now, let us concentrate on operas—mostly Mozart, as they say in Lincoln Center.

One effect of too much Flute

An experiment carried out at some institution that refuses to be identified worked like this. 700 babies of both genders were subjected to nothing but “The Magic Flute” throughout most of their waking hours. 18 years later, out of the 213 of those who were still alive and/or could be found, no less than 187 either played wind instruments or collected bird cages (some with birds, mostly without). Also 170 were Masons, although one of them was invited to leave after he claimed that he was the Queen of the Night. (See to the right.)

Now this should be remarkable enough; but what follows is even more fascinating. Using a recording of “Don Giovanni,” a control group of 300 male babies were played only those passsages sung by Don Giovanni himself. Results: out of the 110 who could be located 18 years later, 38 had been arrested for rape, divorced for abusing their wives, or had subscriptions to naughty magazines. That is a 34.5% result, plus or minus a 33% error.

Similar results were obtained when “The Marriage of Figaro” in its entirety was played to 300 male and female babies, while a control group of 300 heard only the parts of the score sung by the Countess. Of the first group, 200 of which could be interviewed, 158 had become hairdressers, while 57 males became or posed as Spanish Counts. Of the second group, 24 of the females had (by the age of 18) a younger boy hidden in their closet, 49 of the females found that their husbands had maids hidden in the gardens, and none of the males seem to be hiding anything at all.

Even more interesting are the comments of Dr. X (who either refuses to be identified or has the shortest name of anyone I know) of the Gotterdammerung Institute for Things Like That. He noticed that among the babies subjected to the last two Mozart works, not a single one ever had the slightest inclination to learn Italian! (Those that were Italian refused to speak it.)

Golly, how did the record companies miss all that?

220px-Jean_de_Reszke_as_Siegfried_-_Félix_Nadar_(MetOpera_Database)On a smaller scale, I know of one case in which a male baby heard his parents playing “Siegfried” every day for years. As a young adult, he was notorious for setting fires around young girls and walking through the flames, all the while shouting “Nothung, Nothung” in a Heldentenor sort of way. However, he played a good horn with jazz bands and he did keep the area free of dragons, for which the neighbors were grateful. (See to the left.)

Further cases of the influence of particular operas on babies include the following: Humphrey Dink, who sought out little old lady bakers and tossed them into their ovens (“Hansel und Gretel”); Ram O’Days, who formed pyramid clubs until he was suffocated by the amount of mail he received (“Aida”); Bib Lickal, who cut off his hair and tried to pull down Shirley Temple (“Samson et Dalila”); Linguine Alfredo, who fell in love only with terminally ill women (“La Boheme” and “La Traviata”); and Gypsy Rose Mezzo, who only dated men who threw the biggest bull (“Carmen”).

I could go on and on, but why beat a dead horse? (Unless that’s your idea of a good time.) Of course music affects people, especially pre-people (viz., babies). That granted, it should stand to reason that specific music might very well affect certain people in specific ways. And since it MIGHT be true, any fool can plainly see that it MUST be true.

In fact, I expect at least one e-mail saying that I have actually stumbled upon some Great Aprilic Truth. Well, it May happen!

Concepts of music Essays

The Healing Power of Song


These words were written on September 14 with the memory of last Tuesday’s horror story still very fresh in mind. It is fascinating how while the political questions of Who, How and Why have begun to be hotly debated, certain religious questions have also been re-asked and re-examined. Did we not pray hard enough? Do prayers have any effect to begin with? Why was this allowed to happen? And so on. Still, many have flocked to their places of worship where prayers are being offered and songs are being sung.

No one will deny that songs under any circumstances fill a deeply rooted need in the human psyche. First of all, it is a form of community event, even if it involves a single performer and a silent audience. But in churches and synagogues, singing is a group effort and the members of that group are more closely drawn together by doing the same thing at the same time and for the same purpose. Thus we create a united act of defiance against the ones who sought to tear us apart.

But that cannot be all. Why sing at all? Yes, of course that is the accepted means of expression in places of worship. But that begs the question. What is there about songs that tends to ease our sorrow? This question was asked, for example, in the early days of Tin Pan Alley; and at least one analyst came up with this answer. Few people can express themselves well in words. Lyricists, by their very nature, can. Therefore most of us have to express our feelings in the words of others.

Now these words can be optimistic or pessimistic. If optimistic, then the effect on sorrowing singers is palpable: it expresses hope. In the case of September 11, some might ask, Hope for what? The horror was done, it is a fact, a fact that all the songs in the world cannot erase now. Hope that it will never happen again? That is too naïve to elicit comment. Perhaps the answer is this: hope that we will never sink so low as even to be glad in our hearts that such a thing can happen to innocent citizens. Think: people who gather to sing such songs are not the kind to condone, let alone commit, such acts. And who knows? Possibly such optimism will hold them back from knee-jerk thoughts of  “retaliation” against other innocents in this world.

ucsb_victor_45132_01_b18973_01_160If pessimistic, what possible solace can such songs afford to people already grieving? Help me disentangle this concept. If you are mourning the death of a person and read “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,” you can not only feel that you are not alone in your grief but (to repeat) that the poet has expressed such grief far better than ever you could. Now this poem has been set to music, so if you actually sing the lyrics you have added an extra dimension to the healing power. And finally, if many people gather together to sing it… Well, I think we have already drawn the necessary conclusion.

TristanTake what is possibly the greatest non-religious expression of love-in-death, the “Liebestod” that ends Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” Some of the lines translate more or less thus: “Do only I hear this melody that is so wonderful and gentle sounding within him, saying everything, reconciling gently, piercing me, hovering over me, sounding around me?” This is Isolde over the dead Tristan. Could it not be an entire nation over the thousands who died early in the morning because of a handful of maniacs who were convinced they alone were right or could never be anything but right? Many politicians rushed before the cameras to express their sorrow in words that may or may not have been scripted for them. Did any of them even come close to what Wagner wrote? Or Burns?

61RldYaBlAL._SY450_After our Civil War, there was a great outpouring of “angel songs,” mostly about the deaths of beloved family members, usually wives and infants. It was almost as if we had recoiled so forcefully from the horrors of the recent carnage that we sought to be reconciled with our religious beliefs, with our consciences, with the world in general. The point is, the songs did help and that is what is important.

So theological considerations are all beside the point. The very act of singing was then and is now an absolute necessity for us to keep our humanity and to find consolation as best we can. Let it be hymns, popular songs, or grand opera–singing, even when done alone, is an act of communion with all those who have grieved in the past or are grieving at that very moment.

I doubt if I have offered anything profound and I certainly have not answered the question I posed, but I simply was compelled to tackle this subject on this date in our history.