I had my first class of a ten week course on opera with my friend David Nice on Monday. The first five weeks are devoted to Beethoven’s only opera(s) – Leonore (1805) and its subsequent revision/reincarnation as what we know today as Fidelio (1814). It is a work that is definitely in my top ten list and I have been privileged to see several remarkable performances of it.
Now I may be wrong on this, and I hope David will correct me if I am, but though Beethoven revered Mozart he was not all that fond of his operas. However he did compose variations on music from Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Zauberflöte. The Nozze variation was composed in 1793 when Beethoven was 22 years old and first living in Vienna. It is dedicated to Elenore von Breuning, one of his students, with whom, it is said, he was infatuated. The “tendresse” was not returned – as often seemed to be the case with poor Ludwig. However they were to remain friends.
Rather unusually Beethoven introduces the original theme – Figaro’s Act I aria Se vuol ballare – picked out in pizzicato by the violin with a very unassuming accompaniment by the piano. However what follows in the 12 variations is a challenge for both violinist and pianist.
In writing about the piece in 1794 Beethoven said: ‘I should never have written down this kind of piece, had I not already noticed fairly often how some people in Vienna after hearing me extemporize of an evening would note down on the following day several peculiarities of my style and palm them off with pride as their own. Well, as I foresaw that their pieces would soon be published, I resolved to forestall these people’.
The word for January 13th is: Variation /ˌverēˈāSH(ə)n/: [noun] 1.1 A change or difference in condition, amount, or level, typically with certain limits. 1.2 A different or distinct form or version of something. Late Middle English (denoting variance or conflict): from Old French, or from Latin variatio(n- ), from the verb variare.
The world as we know it has gone Topsy-turvey like an insane carnival ride. We’ve been warned that in the digital age this is the new normal – I can only hope that is the media hype being parroted and not the reality. No I’m not putting my head in the sand like a Disney-ostrich but I still believe that there is both civility and civilization in this crazy world. And I still believe in the power, and the need, for music.
This weekend I’ve been peripherally involved in the process, which so many arts organizations have been going through, of cancelling events and attempting to make arrangements for supporters, subscribers, and musicians. Sure modern technology has made the communicating easier but not necessarily the communication. People largely understand what is happening, or at least as much as they can given the constant barrage of media, government directives et al; but what we present is not something that appeals to the logical but the emotional. And we are taking away part of their emotional life when we cancel music making.
What has astounded me is the response within the classical music world to the current crisis. Concert halls, opera houses, recital venues are being shut down but using the same technology that contributes to the atmosphere around this pandemic they are also opening up. They are saying: You can’t come to us then we will go to you. The Berliner Philharmonic has opened its Digital Concert Hall for free; the Vienna State Opera tell us that they may be closed but they are playing daily online; and this afternoon the wonderful American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and her colleague Polish tenor Piotr Beczala sang excerpts from Massenet’s Werther on Facebook and Instagram, an opera that they were suppose to be singing at the Metropolitan from … her living room in Manhattan.
Many performers, orchestras and ensembles are performing to empty halls and streaming the performances to the outside world. One of the most touching was when Les Siècles, a French freelance period orchestra, played last evening at the glorious Opera in the Palace of Versailles. They had the middle concert of their exploration of the Symphonies of Beethoven scheduled but no audience. Freelance means that they only get paid when they perform for a paying audience. Last evening there was no audience but they played anyway and streamed it out into the world. They did it to bring some comfort and joy into a world that seems sorely in need of that today. During an interview with France-TV the manager of the orchestra broke down in tears – as did I listening to both the two Symphonies and the interview. I realize that the interview is in French and many of my readers may not understand but the performance is worth the listen. The lengthy interview can be skipped and the second piece begins at 57:45. This is a group of musicians playing from the heart in a time when what we need is heart!
I was hoping to embed the video into the site but unfortunately WordPress will not allow it. However if you left click on the photo below of Maestro François-Xavier Roth conducting it will take you to the France-TV broadcast.
But it is not only classical musicians who are providing the much needed music we need to keep our souls in balance today. As has been reported in the media people are raising their hopes and hearts with music everywhere. No where more so than Italy where people take to their balconies and open windows to express their optimism in music and dance from traditional songs to the maccarana.
Perhaps one of the most touching is the principal violist from the La Scala opera house in Milan. Danilo Rossi says he is playing not just for his neighbours but for all the Italian people.
May we all stay well both in our health and in our emotional life.
The word for March 15th is: Music /ˈmyo͞ozik/: [noun] Vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion. The word comes from Middle English from Old French musique, via Latin from Greek mousikē (tekhnē) ‘(art) of the Muses’, from mousa ‘muse’. The performing thereof comes from the heart.
Perhaps it is the season – unpacking all the various Christmas decorations always brings back memories; perhaps the weather – the non-stop winds moaning around the house can be unsettling; or perhaps it is just age – rusty memory drawers suddenly springing open at a sound, smell or sight. For some reason nostalgia has been my pervading mood this past week. After watching today’s Mercoledi Musicale nostalgia got the better of me and I freely admit I wept.
Serendipitously someone brought this performance from the September 1st, 2015 celebration of Seiji Ozawa‘s 80th birthday in Matsumoto to my attention. Conducting the Saito Kinen Orchestra he was joined by Ludia Teusher, Rie Miyake, Nathalie Stutzmann, Kei Fukui, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, Matthias Goerne, the OMF Chorus and Martha Argerich in a truly remarkable performance of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy.
Watching these two old friends and colleagues semi-shuffle out on to the stage brought back memories of concerts past when a young Ozawa was conductor in Toronto so long ago. A less pleasant memory was the reaction of the audience at a performance of Così fan tutte in Salzburg in 1969 – Ozawa’s less than successful debut conducting opera. The booing verged on the hysterical and one old lady threw her purse at the stage. In all my 23 years I had never experienced anything like it. It was only later that I realized the reaction wasn’t all based on his conducting abilities.
I heard many of Martha Argerich’s recordings but only saw her live for the first time at the Academia in a 2009 performance of the Beethoven #1. I remember at the time saying: a slightly dowdy looking Martha Argerich sitting down at the piano and suddenly becoming the most beautiful woman on earth … It is no less true six years later in Matsumoto.
The clip is a lengthy one (24 minutes long) but to my mind worth every minute of it – mind you almost a full five minutes is part of the 10 minute standing ovation the performance received.
Several viewings made me aware that it is not only the joy in this performance that brought tears to my eyes – an easy thing for a piece of music to do I might add – but watching these two musicians. Watching Osawa’s face as he listens to her play the solo passages, his singing with the chorus, the subtle signals between the two and the obvious love and affection as they take their bows. There is no age to them as they make this music just shared experience and a common love for what they are doing. And that is what brought tears to my eyes.
December 18th is Roast Suckling Pig Day – very Boar’s Heady if I may say so.
Last evening as we sat having our tea and biscuits after dinner and listening to the radio a piece came on that I immediately recognized but couldn’t for the life of me identify. It was an opera I should know well, it was in German but it just wasn’t registering. I hate when that happens. And quite frankly it worries me a bit. When the announcer identified it as the Quartet Wir ist so wunderbar from Beethoven’s Fidelio I felt even more frustrated – how could I not recognize one of the most sublime moments in all opera?
And a sublime moment it is. The situation is a complicated one: Rocco, the jailor, expresses the hope that his new assistant Fidelio (Lenore in disguise as a man) will become his son-in-law; Marzallina her new found love for her father’s assistant; Jaquino, her former boy friend, his jealousy of his riva; and Leonora (Fidelio) her anguish at the situation. Simple emotions: hope, love, jealousy, anguish; but clothed in one of the most glorious vocal fugues ever written.
Fidelio is an opera I’ve seen six times with some remarkable casts and productions but one of my regrets is not seeing the great Swedish soprano Elizabeth Soderstrom in this Glyndebourne performance. We just couldn’t get tickets for love nor pounds sterling and had to be satisfied with Frederica Von Stade in Monteverdi’s Ulisse. Not a bad seconds, in fact a great one, and I’m just happy that the Fidelio was filmed.
July 10th is Clerihew Day – what’s that you say? What’s a Clerikhew – left click on the link. It’s also Piña Colada Day – so break out the rum, pineapple juice and coconut milk.
After the final chord, I looked up. The Master’s darkly glowing gaze was fixed upon me penetratingly. Yet suddenly a benevolent smile broke up his gloomy features, Beethoven became quite close, bent over me, laid his hand on my head and repeatedly stroked my hair. “Devil of a fellow” he whispered, “such a young rascal!” I suddenly plucked up courage “May I play something of yours now?” I asked cheekily. Beethoven nodded with a smile.
– Franz Liszt on meeting Beethoven
Though traditional thought says otherwise, Beethoven did smile and it would appear that on more than one occasion he laughed. In a post that begins with the excerpt I’ve quoted above from Liszt’s diary Professor David Dennis explains where our misconception of a dour, raging Ludwig Von came from. A quick left click on LvB above will take you to his post.
If another legend is to be believed LvB was also a bit of a penny-pincher and on one occasion when a brand new penny (groschen) fell down a drain he immediately sat down at the clavichord and expressed his rage in this little piece: Die Wut über den verlorenen Groschen, ausgetobt in einer Caprice (Rage over a lost penny in the form of a caprice).
Of course this story is as unfounded as the “grumpy old curmudgeon” spiel. Beethoven called the unfinished piece a Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio (Rondo in the Gypsy style, almost a caprice). The “Rage” title does appear on the manuscript but not in Beethoven’s hand. It appears it was added by his friend and unpaid secretary Anton Schindler in one of his less than honest attempts to cash in on the unpublished manuscripts that he inherited on the composer’s death.
It is often played as a virtuoso encore piece by pianists as an excuse to show off their furious technical agility (a few names spring to mind). I’ve chosen the 1964 Kempf version because he treats it as what it is – a rondeau, energetic and full of humour and just a touch of romanticism. He shows his own genius without obscuring the genius that was Beethoven.
Telling the stories of the history of the port of Charlottetown and the marine heritage of Northumberland Strait on Canada's East Coast. Winner of the Heritage Award from the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation and a Heritage Preservation Award from the City of Charlottetown