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.
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?
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.
The authenticity of the songs in Shakespeare’s plays is a question for scholars, not for the casual playgoer. Some of their lyrics, most agree, were created by Shakespeare himself. Others might have already existed and were used, with or without permission, as part of the action. We know that inserting songs into plays had been traditional time out of mind before Shakespeare came along; but to what extent they were used dramatically is quite another story.
A quick glance through my memory reveals that some of his plays have no songs at all: “The Taming of the Shrew,” “Henry V,” and “Titus Andronicus,” for example. That does not mean there never were songs in those plays as performed by Shakespeare’s troupe, only that they did not survive in the texts. In “Henry IV, Part 1,” we see the stage direction “Here the lady sings a Welsh song,” creating something of a problem for directors ever since who had no access to a singer who could do so.
“Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It” come close to being musicals, given the frequency of the songs that pop up all through the text. But it certainly makes sense that the comedies should get several songs, while the histories and tragedies get none or just one or two. But it is the use to which the songs are put that makes an interesting study (I hope), so let us peruse a few examples.
First, songs that merely set a mood.
“Henry VIII,” not entirely by Shakespeare, contains one lovely song, “Orpheus with his lute,” that is sung to Queen Catherine for (it seems to me) the sole purpose of having a song at that point. The lyrics are so impressive that even Arthur Sullivan set it to music; but they seem to have no reference to the situation at that point in the play, except that the Queen asks for a song to cheer her up.
Act IV of “Measure for Measure” opens with the only song in the play, “Take, O, take those lips away.” They are sung by a “Boy” to his mistress Mariana, who is leading a depressed existence since she was abandoned by her lover. The song serves no dramatic purpose, but it beautifully sets the melancholy mood of the scene and of the character.
In the same way, Brutus’ slave sings a song, the lyrics to which are not provided. The fact that the boy falls asleep after it is a dramatic need and not the consequence of the song. But I am sure it was a melancholy one.
For all the formal gaiety of the nobles in “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” the single song comes at the end, comparing life in Spring with that in Winter. It might symbolize the happy plot that turns sad only in the last act. Whatever Shakespeare intended, it does seem (at least) to fit just where it is, bringing the play to a bittersweet end.
There are many other examples of songs that set a mood without serving any dramatic purpose. So let us take a look at some that do help the plot along.
The one song, “Who is Sylvia?” in “Two Gentlemen of Verona” is performed under these circumstances. The false Proteus has forsaken his beloved Julia and fallen for his best friend Valentine’s beloved Sylvia. He is also false to the clownish Thurio, who has come to serenade Sylvia. Proteus looks on unseen and Julia in disguise enters also unseen. The lovely lyrics of the song and the lovely music (now lost to us) creates an ironic counterpoint to the feelings of the three characters below the balcony. Dialogue simply would not have worked. In short, this is the first example of a song in Shakespeare’s plays that has a dramatic purpose. Julia is not the same after it as she was before.
Then we have Ariel’s songs and Juno’s aria in the supernatural banquet in “The Tempest.” They certainly contribute to and enhance the magical atmosphere of the play as a whole. But only “While you here do snoring lie” serves the dramatic purpose of waking up Gonzalo and saving his life. Caliban’s hymn to his supposed freedom from Prospero is ironic; Ariel’s hymn to his freedom is part of the theme of forgiveness.
“The Merchant of Venice” has a strange bit of vocalizing that might or might not change events. As Bassanio considers which one of the three caskets to choose, some undesignated person or persons sing “Tell me, where is fancy bred.” It cannot be a coincidence that the last words of the first three lines all rhyme with “lead,” exactly the casket that will make the young man’s fortune.
As Shakespeare matured, he learned to make better use of songs in many of his plays—but not necessarily dramatic use. And that will be considered in the next article.
Up to this point, we have considered songs in Shakespeare’s plays that set a mood but add little or nothing to the plot. Even in the more song-filled plays, they serve merely an atmospheric purpose. Will the playwright ever put a song to DRAMATIC use?
“As You Like It” contains several songs. “Under the greenwood tree” (II, v) sets both the mood and the philosophy of the exiled lords, while Jacques’ parody of it shows his cynical character; and indeed the entire scene could be cut out without any feeling of discontinuity of plot, but much of the theme would be lost. In II, vii, “Blow, blow, thou winter wind” merely gives Orlando a chance to give the Duke a synopsis of the events up to that point without the audience having to hear it all again.
Act IV, ii simply covers the time between the two meetings of Orlando and Rosalind and consists of ten lines of dialogue and a hunting song, “What shall he have that killed the deer?” It is often dropped from performances. At the very end of the play, the appearance of the god Hymen (or is it a mortal in disguise?) merely calls for a wedding song and a dance. And so Shakespeare’s happiest pastoral comedy makes no dramatic use of song!
There are plenty of songs sung by the woodland sprites in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” However, as lovely as they are as poetry, and one can wonder the melodies to which they were originally sung, they create, yet again, only atmosphere. Yes, one of them puts the besotted Bottom to sleep, but one can scarcely call that furthering the plot.
“Much Ado About Nothing” has only two songs. “Pardon, goddess of the night” (V, ii) is merely an expression of grief for one only thought to be dead. The scene in the garden (II, iii) includes “Sigh no more, ladies,” the sentiments of which are designed to trick Benedick into admitting his true feelings for Beatrice. It seems to work, especially when reinforced by the jokesters’ remarks about Beatrice loving him. But it is the dialogue, not the song, that really pushes Benedick into action.
“Twelfth Night” has Feste singing mood-setting songs at someone’s request. However, the snatches of song bellowed by the drunken Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria, and Feste does incur the wrath of the Puritan Malvolio, which leads to him being gulled into thinking his ladyship loves him—and so on—and here at last is a song that gets things moving!
Later in his career, Shakespeare began to experiment with songs that show the state of mind of the character who sings the song. And, interestingly enough, they are found in the tragedies.
For example, utterly confused concerning her husband’s hostility toward her, Desdemona is getting ready for bed and recalls that her mother once had a maid named Barbary, who had gone mad when her lover forsook her. She then sings the maid’s song of “Willow.” The words are a perfect reflection of her mood and filled with unintentional irony. By now Shakespeare has learned how to use a song to enhance the complexity of a character.
Even more revealing are the songs sung by the mad Ophelia in “Hamlet” (IV, v). “And will he not come again” is both a lament for her dead father, Polonius, and possibly for her lost love, Hamlet. More to the point is her singing the bawdy “To-morrow is Saint Valentine‘s Day,” expressing ideas that “good girls” of her time were never supposed either to feel or even to know about. In Gertrude’s report of Ophelia’s death, it is significant that “she chanted snatches of old tunes” as her garments grew heavy with water.
So it is not the dramatic use of songs in his later plays that makes Shakespeare the wonder that he is but his psychological use of songs to reveal the hidden thoughts of characters. I feel it a shame that there are so few examples to draw upon.
For those interested in hearing the lyrics as they might have been heard in Shakespeare’s theater, I can recommend Ross W. Duffin’s “Shakespeare’s Songbook” (Norton, 2004). It includes two CDs with the first stanza of every song in the book and should prove valuable to scholars as well as theatre groups who wish to stage the plays with the earliest settings of the songs that have survived over the centuries.
Just what made mega-hits out of such shows as “Oklahoma!” “Carousel” and “Annie Get Your Gun”? That is, putting aside their great scores and fabulous lyrics. It is almost like that joke: “Just because she can sing beautifully, dance magnificently, and act superbly—why do you think she’s talented?” However, my opening question is not quite in that category.
Consider. “Oklahoma!” opened in March 1943. “Remember Pearl Harbor” was still a rallying cry and young men were dying for a cause that was clear and an enemy that was identifiable. Hollywood was churning out propaganda films in which Robert Taylor was gunning down troops of Japanese and every regiment had an even distribution of ethnic types. While Claudette Colbert, Greer Garson and Irene Dunne were showing us “what we were fighting for,” Rodgers and Hammerstein, consciously or not, were creating a myth—just at the time it was needed.
The plot? Will the nice Curly or the evil Judd take Laurie to the picnic? (No joke, that’s all it boils down to.) Since that is not exactly what is needed to fill up over two hours on stage, the required second plot involves Ado Annie and Will and the sort of life they will lead. Not very promising.
However, using the plot of “Green Grow the Lilacs” (a flop), the team gave the audience (again, above and beyond the score and lyrics), believable people living in a territory that is not yet a state, going through a small crisis that will or will not lead to marriage and babies, and somehow tying together the political background, the social problems (can the farmer and the cowboy ever be friends?) and the personal relationships—all into a unified whole that plays more like a myth than a typical musical.
As I said in at least two other essays, the show opens up with a hymn to the crops and to a beautiful morning. It ends with a salute to the new state and returns to “Oh, what a beautiful morning.” (So many people still believe the show ends with the title song!) This is just what the 1943 audiences needed: reassurance that there will indeed be many more beautiful mornings, “when the lights go on again all over the world,” as singer Vera Lynn was at the same time promising the British soldiers.
“Carousel” opened (symbolically) in April 1945, a month closely connected with the blossoming of springtime. If the audience was surprised to find “Oklahoma!” beginning with an off-stage solo instead of the usual chorus, how much more was the “Carousel” audience surprised to see the first act end with the death of the leading male.
Yes, the war was just about over and the monumental task of getting Europe back on its feet was yet to begin. What was to be LEARNED from the slaughter that was the result of not only a single madman but of all the “normal” people who believed him and allowed him to “move ahead” with his plans to dominate a planet? Again, the show tries to answer the questions of the times in terms of individuals.
Billy is allowed to return to make up for what he did to the daughter he died too early to know. Although a ghost, he is still human and fails. The show ends, not with a beautiful morning, but with advice about how to walk through a storm. Never walking alone and having hope in your heart is the answer Hammerstein gives us.
Of course, that is semantic nonsense. But in 1945 it was exactly what audiences wanted to hear, because it SOUNDED good and therefore it was good. (Years later, “Climb every mountain” tried to deliver the same message but sounded simply pretentious. You see, once having succeeded with that sort of ending, Rodgers and Hammerstein were stuck with it.)
A year and a month later, “Annie Get Your Gun” opened—again, just at the right time. The men were back on the job and women were back on the range—the kitchen range, that is. Factory owners could not help but notice how much better on the whole the women worked on the assembly lines than did the men. But in 1946, the girl that one married had to be as soft and as pink as a nursery, not muscular and grease-stained like Rosie the Riveter.
However, Annie still outshoots the male competitors, showing once again that a woman can do anything you (males) can do. Just the right thought at the right time, although many of the males in the audience took it all as a joke. After all, how many Annies are there in real life? (More than men care to admit, as in the current bid for the presidency.)
The question of the times influencing the musical and the musical influencing the times certainly deserves closer and deeper and more extensive study than just this superficial look. Perhaps future essays will be devoted to just that subject. Yes, “Show Boat” is certainly a candidate. Do my readers have any other suggestions?
One day in 1945, composer Jerome Kern was summoned to the offices of Rodgers and Hammerstein, now producers as well as composer and lyricist team, and presented with a project. It was called “Annie Get Your Gun” with lyrics and book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields (whose idea it was in the first place). He was suspicious about their not wanting to do the play themselves if it was so promising, but they explained that they did not want to do another western musical after “Oklahoma!”
Kern was busy with a revival of “Show Boat” slated for two months later, and he was worried about his increasingly high blood pressure. Still, he accepted and a short while later, while walking along 57th Street and Park Avenue, he collapsed. With no identification other than a numbered ASCAP card that he had neglected to sign, he was taken to Roosevelt Hospital, where he died without regaining consciousness.
Irving Berlin was then called in by Rodgers and Hammerstein and offered the assignment. Should he accept, the Fields lyrics would be out the window. He claimed he had no idea of how to write Western lyrics, and Hammerstein is reported to have told him that he need only leave the final “g” off participles.
Soon after, Berlin came in with several songs, was congratulated, and asked to come in with more. When he did, they commented that he had not replayed one song they had liked in particular the time before. Berlin said he left it home because they did not seem to respond positively to it the first time. They said they had been thinking of where to place it in the show because it was so good. And so, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” was restored—and the rest is musical history.
The original show opened on May 16, 1946 and ran for 1,147 performances. (“Oklahoma!” had run twice as long.) As Mary Martin put it, “New York is Merman’s town.” Merman brought down the house with one show stopper after the other, supported by baritone Ray Middleton and directed by Joshua Logan. Of the eight major theatre critics at the time, four gave rave reviews and four very good ones. While much of the praise was for Merman herself, critics like Vernon Rice, writing for the “Post,” realized that almost every song was a potential classic. In fact, one woman was heard to exclaim during the Lincoln Center revival, “My God, every song’s a standard!”
You can read extended excerpts from the opening night reviews in Steven Suskin’s valuable collection, “Opening Night on Broadway: a Critical Quotebook of the Golden Era of the Musical Theatre, Oklahoma! (1943) to Fiddler on the Roof (1964),” published by Schirmer Books.
The plot (which was somewhat modified when revived some decades later) is familiar to all. A hillbilly girl who lives by “doin’ what comes natur’lly” becomes the star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and falls in love with sharpshooter Frank Butler. By the time the curtain comes down, in true rite-of-springtime tradition, love conquers all.
Yes, the original version does have stereotypical views of American Indians in a comic way; but that is part of what the Buffalo Bill show was all about, and leaving these views out (as a recent Broadway version did) distorts the show beyond recognition. (What next? A “Merchant of Venice” with no religious references?)
In a strange way, the Kern-to-Berlin story was repeated when MGM decided to film “Annie Get Your Gun.” Who else but Judy Garland would even be considered for the title role; and as happens in film making, she pre-recorded all the songs. But her long history of drug use (for which she had MGM itself to thank) and other problems in her life led to her being curtly dismissed. So while Betty Hutton took over (and not too badly, I think), there are still recordings of the Garland soundtrack and two or three rehearsal takes on film.
Still in all, how I would love to pop into an alternate universe to hear “Anne Get Your Gun” with words by Herbert and Dorothy Fields and music by Jerome Kern!
There comes a time in some composers’ lives that they create a piece that is tremendously popular (a Good Thing, surely) but that causes them considerable grief afterwards.
I have already in past articles mentioned how Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate” was so well received that critics said of his next show, “Can-can,” that is was not up to Porter’s standards. Did he, by any means, regret having written “Kiss Me Kate”? Of course not.
Take the case of two men who became “one-opera” composers. Pietro Mascagni wrote his “Cavalleria Rusticana” between 1888 and 1890 for a contest. There is a story that he was so unsure of the work that his wife mailed it in without telling him. And that is the one of his 17 or so operas that has stayed in the repertory. Yes, occasionally his “L’Amico Fritz” is performed for the sake of its only popular number, “The Cherry Duet,” and “Amica” has been recorded on a DVD as a curio.
The same can be said of Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” (1892), which has overshadowed all his other works. Perhaps his “La Boheme” would still be regularly performed had not Puccini’s version made it impossible.
Did either composer regret having made one big hit and no other? Certainly they regretted the latter, just as certainly not the former.
But the history of music abounds in works that were regretted by the composer, often for the most ironic of reasons.
Daniel Emmett helped originate the Minstrel Show, something of an embarrassment for the more sensitive folk today. As a lad, he had a talent for writing new lyrics to old tunes, one of his earliest successes being “Old Dan Tucker.” In 1830 or 1831, the minstrel troupe of which he was a part needed a song for the final segment, the Walk-around, and Emmett was asked to dash one off overnight. He did and the song was so popular that other minstrel troupes asked for permission to use it. It was granted but the composer/lyricist lost the copyright by doing so.
Years went by and the tune was turned into a quickstep, thereby increasing still more its exposure and popularity. But then the Civil War came and the Confederate Army (or Rebels, depending on one’s inclinations) took it up as a stirring Southern quasi-national anthem, often sung to altered lyrics. It is said that Emmett claimed he was sorry he ever wrote that “damned” song.
Oh, the title? “Dixie.”
Sergei Rachmaninoff often stated that he grew to hate his too-popular “Prelude in C sharp minor” because he could not give a concert any place in the world without having to play it for an overly enthusiastic audience. Satirist Anna Russell once gave a performance and omitted her spoof-analysis of the Ring Operas for just once. When reprimanded for doing so by an audience member, she replied that she thought that people knew it too well and were becoming bored by it. She never omitted it again.
Though she was not the composer, I sometimes wonder if Judy Garland ever dreaded having to sing “Over the rainbow” during any of her acts. If she did, there is no record of her ever saying so. [Ironically, the song was nearly dropped from the film because it “held up the action.”] That is the trouble when a success makes one wish a song or a routine had never caught on quite as much as it did.
At times, it is not a just single work but a new kind of work that might lead an artist into a blind alley. For example, while working on “Oklahoma!” Oscar Hammerstein II stated that he just couldn’t go on writing the typical love song forever. True, Larry Hart before him did write anti-love songs such as “Falling in love with love is falling for make believe.” And so Hammerstein took a leaf from “The Mikado” and let Curly and Laurie sing a “negative love song”: “Don’t throw bouquets at me, don’t laugh at my jokes too much” lest “people will say we’re in love.”
That done, he had to provide a similar one for “Carousel” and came up with a “conditional love song”: “If I loved you, words wouldn’t come in an easy way….” [Compare Gilbert’s “Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted, I would say in the tender tone.”]
However, Hammerstein was bright enough to find other ways to express love without cliché or negativity (especially in “The King and I,” where love between the leads is quite impossible). Still, let us not forget “The gentleman is a dope” from the excellent but almost never performed “Allegro,” which turns the “he is wonderful” lyric on its head.
Again, I turn to my readers for other examples of successes that led to their creators’ regret. I thank them in advance.