Friday, January 29, 2010
German opera made its first mature gesture in Mozart, especially with Die Zauberflote. A little isolated progress was with Beethoven's Fidelio. Then it came to its first full flowering in Weber. The pinnacle was, of course, Richard Wagner. Wagner lifted the opera on to another plane. These statements will serve to put the operas of Weber into quick perspective.
Weber was born in 1786 and died of consumption at the early age of thirty nine in 1826. Thus, his own lifetime lay within the lifetime of Beethoven. He was musically as unlike Beethoven as a contemporary genius could be. Yet, he remains the germinating link between Beethoven and Wagner. In Weber, German romanticism came to a head; his operas are full of the legendary atmosphere, the ghosts and spectres and goblins and the natural mythology of German folk art. When you add a rich and colourful imagination, you have the ingredients of a Weber opera in a nutshell. You can sense it at once in the preludial bars of almost any Weber overture. He throws you at once into the lands of romance and fancy and emotional ardour. Usually, it is Nature which is more often the active protagonist and the constant backcloth.
Weber wrote extensively for the stage. It was in the theatre that his original genius flowered and grew to fulfillment. The overtures have maintained enduring popularity in the romantic orchestral repertoire. Weber is a complete master in the overtures. He spun poetic and intensely imaginative summaries of their drama. He followed the fashion of the day by writing his overtures after the rest of the opera had been completed so as to give himself more elbow room.
Der Freischutz is Weber's best and most convincing opera. The overture sets not only the natural scene but the whole atmosphere of romantic mystery, magic and superstition. At once, we are at the heart of the matter in the lyric melody for four horns at the opening and the strange dark modulations. The famous clarinet passage depicts Max as he looks into the depths of the Wolf's Glen. The principal allegro is based on Max's aria and Agathe's prayer. Weber's invention is at its imaginative best throughout. At the end, all will be well as the brilliant coda leaves us in no doubt.
Der Freischutz retains the spoken dialogue derived from the German Singspiel. In Euryanthe, Weber essays grand opera at its most complete. He foreshadows the Wagnerian music drama, leitmotifs and all. The libretto was written by Hermina Von Chezy who also wrote 'Rosamunde.' In Euryanthe, a brilliant opening leads to a magnificent exposition and development of the leading themes to end in great splendour and triumphant pomp.
Abu Hassan is a one-act Singspiel to a libretto adapted from an Arabian fairy tale. It is light heartedly humorous in a way which the German romantics seldom achieved. It has a touch of foreign colour.
Weber was indeed the epitome of that German romanticism which swept through the minds of young Europe at the dawn of the nineteenth century.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
1961. First Rate Production. This film gets AAAAA rating for its great direction, great performances and great music. I consider Alistair Maclean's 'Where Eagles Dare' as his best work followed by "The Guns of Navarone' as a close second. Thanks to Adolf Hitler for providing all the drama as both are with the backdrop of Nazi bashing during the prime of the second world war.
Columbia purchased the screen rights to this work in 1957. It cost $16 million to make this picture. They got Carl Foreman to produce and write this project as he had done 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' earlier. Foreman had Cary Grant and Alec Guinness in mind for the roles of Captain Mallory and Corporal Miller. They were not available. He eventually signed Gregory Peck and David Niven. They were soon joined by Anthony Quinn as Andrea Stavros, Stanley Baker as Brown "The Butcher of Barcelona', Anthony Quayle as Major Roy Franklin and James Darren as Spyro Pappadimous. The female characters were added with Maclean's permission (not originally in the plot) in Irene Papas as Maria and Gia Scala as Anna. Much of the filming was done in the Aegean Sea.
J. Lee Thompson, an English filmmaker, was signed to direct this epic adventure. Thompson is noted for his brisk storytelling. Shooting began in April 1960 on Rhodes in the Dodecanese island area of the Aegean Sea. Interiors were shot in London's Shepperton Studios. Attention to detail earned the film an Academy Award for Special Effects. I am surprised the jury could not find anything else worth rewarding. It was a sacrilege done by them. At the Globe Awards, it won the Best Picture and Best Music. Dimitri Tiomkin has written a magnificent score and songs for the film.
It was the top grossing picture of 1961. It has taken its place among the all time classic action and suspense films. Everyone acted brilliantly. Special mention for David Niven who stands out.
Six people save the lives of fourteen hundred on Kheros island in Greece by destroying the Guns of Navarone wielded by the Germans.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
After his fortieth year, recognition on an international scale came to Dvorak in the 1880s. Brahms' assistance enabled his music to gain a firm foothold outside Bohemia, particularly in Germany. He had successful visits to England beginning in 1884. With the English tour gains, he was able to purchase land and a small country home for his family forty miles south of Prague. There, he composed his D Minor in 1885 and his G Major symphony in 1889. His D Minor was composed under the inspiration of Brahms' third. His seventh is a mature work of high and tragic intensity in the lineage of the German masters.
The G Major symphony is carefree and lyrical. I call it his 'Pastoral.' It is full of the folk spirit of the Czech countryside. He wrote this after he was admitted to the membership of the Emperor Franz Joseph's Czech Academy of Science, Literature and the Arts.
This symphony is constructed on a big scale for a large orchestra with a fully developed Allegro con Brio, an Adagio, a Scherzo with a waltz theme in the minor mode with a lilting Schubertian trio and a finale in variation form. Special attention has to be paid to the lovely and natural triplet upbeat and descending melodic sequence of the Adagio theme. The same theme becomes a graceful waltz in the third movement.
Like Mahler's Angelic Fourth, this symphony has its freedom from precedent of any kind. It is lyrically spontaneous though Dvorak laboured over his initial ideas and sketches, coming up with some of the finest touches and most salient melodic turns only after repeated attempts by trial and error. The sketch books clearly show the evolution of the theme that serves the finale variations of this G Major symphony. The piquant flute solo from the first movement's subject is split into two at the start of the finale with a brilliant fanfare in the trumpets. The theme is also presented in the lower strings with an occurence again of a descending melodic sequence. The sketch books of Dvorak as revealed by Jack Diether (Editor of Chord and Discord) show ten separate and different attempts to arrive at the right theme. Another good book that talks about these sketches is 'Antonin Dvorak - Musician and Craftsman' by Clapham.
When I first heard this symphony in the freshman year of my college in New Jersey in 1973, I was dumbstruck by the melodic beauty it possessed and how sublimely rustic it was. Very rarely, you are hit by pieces at first hearing. That was a rendition by the Boston Symphony under Charles Munch on RCA. I have not heard a better performance still. Other noteworthy readings are London Symphony under Istvan Kertesz, Philharmonia under Wolfgang Sawallisch, Hamburg Symphony under Charles Mackerras and Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta.
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Richard Strauss was musically influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche's writings. He greatly admired his philosophy, particularly the theory of 'Superman'. He believed in it. This belief led him to portray musically the lives of many superheroes and mostly it was he (autobiographical) in the garb of those heroes. These include Don Juan, Don Quixote, Till Eulenspiegel, Ein Heldenleben and Also Sprach Zarathustra.
He started writing this magnificent symphonic poem on 4th February 1896 and completed it on 24th August the same year. It had its first performance in Frankfurt-Am-Main on 27th November of 1896. It was based on Nietzsche's famous book - "a book for all and for none." Many criticisms were levelled at Strauss for attempting to write philosophical music. He replied, “I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray in music Nietzsche's great work; I meant to convey by means of music an idea of the development of the human race from its origin through the various phases of its development, both religious and scientific up to Nietzsche's idea of the 'Superman'."
As a preface to the symphonic poem, there is printed on the flyleaf of the score an excerpt from Nietzsche's book - the first section of Zarathustra's introductory speech: "Having attained the age of thirty, Zarathustra left his home and the lake nearby and went into the mountains. Then, he rejoiced in his spirit and his loneliness and for ten years did not grow weary of it. But at last, his heart turned - one morning, he got up at dawn and stepped into the presence of the sun and thus spake unto the sun - ' Thou Great Star! What would be thy happiness were it not for those for whom thou shinest? For ten years, thou hast come up here to my cave. Thou wouldst have got sick of thy light and thy journey but for me, mine eagle and my serpent. But we waited for thee every morning and received from thee abundance, blessed thee for it. Lo! I am weary of my wisdom; like the bee that hath collected too much honey; I need hands reaching out for it. I would fain rant and distribute it until the wise among men could once more enjoy their folly and the poor once more their riches. For that end, I must descend to the depth as thou dost at even, when sinking behind the sea thou givest light to the lower regions, thou resplendent star! I must, like thee, go down, as men say - men to whom I would descend. Then bless me, thou impassive eye, that canst look without envy even upon excessive happiness. Bless the cup which is soon to overflow so that the golden water flowing out of it may carry everywhere the reflection of thy rapture. Lo! This cup is about to empty itself again and Zarathustra will once more become a man." -- Thus Zarathustra's going down began reflected in the dying pages of the score.
Will the mind of man ever solve the riddle of the world?
The World Riddle Theme with introductory bars on bass and pipe organ with the solemn motto C-G-C in various rhythmic guises pervades the whole symphonic poem through to its very end. The simple but expressive introduction grows quickly in intensity and ends majestically on the climactic C Major chord of the pipe organ and the large grand orchestra. A mysterious tremulando phase in the cellos and basses sets the atmosphere of the first episode in A Flat Major. The horns then intone the majestic Gregorian hymn, 'Credo in unum deum'. The next section is agitato with its ascending B Minor passage in the cellos and bassoons, the upper strings take over and the chromatic thirds of the answering woodwind is that of the great yearning from Von Den Hinterwettern to Von Der Grossen Sehnsucht. A rapid double glissando in the harp leads without interruption to the episode headed ' Von Den Freuden - und leidenschaften', a passionate animato. You will come across a melancholic cantilena in a tender passage and a motive that is expanded by the cellos and bassoons. The next episode, 'Von Der Wissenschaft' (Of Science) brings the fugue that is probably the most scientific musical form. Cellos and divided contrabasses open this episode with a fugato whose subject contains all the degrees, both diatonic and chromatic of the scale. Then, "Der Gensende' (The Convalescent) rises in B Minor on strings beginning in the cellos and violas. The subsequent 'Tanzlied' (Dance Song) with its laughing woodwind introduction leads to a waltz-like 3/4 movement akin to some of the best Rosenkavalier waltzes. In contrast, the 'Nachtlied' (Night Song) offers a very lyrical theme on a base of sustained chords. A low pitched bell peals fortissimo and the Nachtwanderlied (Song of the Night Wanderer) begins punctuated every four bars by the bell whose twelve strokes softly die away in a sustained decrescendo. Then comes the mystical conclusion that ends in two different keys. It aroused much controversy when the work was first performed. The trombones hold the chord C-E-F Sharp, the violins, flutes and oboes carry the Theme of the Ideal in B Major. The pizzicato of the basses sound repeatedly the C-G-C Theme of the World Riddle. Evidently, the great question remains unsolved. Magnificent.
The work has received its performance by almost every reputed conductor dead or living. I make a special mention of an extra ordinary performance by Zubin Mehta leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1969. David Frisina played the solo violin with aplomb. As a Zoroastrian, Zubin Mehta has grasped the entire content of Nietzsche and Strauss. He is a Parsi and has delivered a bravura performance. The other two conductors who surpass the rest are Herbert Von Karajan (with both Berlin and Wiener) and Fritz Reiner with the Chicago.