Mercoledi Musicale

Yesterday I mentioned that the late Richard Wilbur wrote the lyrics for at least two of the musical numbers in Leonard Bernstein‘s operetta Candide. Further investigation revealed that the smorgasbord of lyricists who worked on this enigmatic work he was the entrée with John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman (who also wrote the libretto) and Bernstein himself providing side dishes, and the odd garnish.  At one point James Agate contributed material which went unused.   In subsequent metamorphoses additional lyrics have been provided by Stephen Sondheim, John Mauceri, and John Wells.

75e6b01c5540e7bb6b6b75f21fa79d41
The Playbill from then 1978 production I saw at the Broadway Theatre.  A very free-flow production as I recall.

After it’s initial Broadway failure in 1956 – a failure attributed in large part to Hellman’s libretto – the piece underwent a rewrite for off-Broadway by Hugh Wheeler in the 1970s.  This was later expanded for use by opera companies – including a production at Stratford in 1978.   A further adaptation was made under Bernstein’s supervision for what he considered the “final version” in 1989.  However Wheeler’s book was to be rewritten once again by John Caird for the National Theatre in 1999.  And so it continues – more than 60 years after it’s premiere is seems that Candide is still a work in progress.

Notably little of what Wilbur contributed has been altered in any of these versions including the two numbers I mentioned yesterday.

Any coloratura soprano worth her high E-flat (there are three of them) from Edita Guberova to Madeline Kahn (yes my dear our beloved Madeline was a trained opera singer) has sung – and in some cases recorded – “Glitter and Be Gay”.  However wonderful they may have been nothing can beat the lady for whom it was written.  Here’s the late Barbara Cook as Cunegonde bemoaning her very well-kept state!

Voltaire’s novelette ends with Candide rejecting his tutor Pangloss’s insistence that all the trials and tribulations have turned out for the best by necessity. Instead he simply insists that “we must cultivate our garden” (il faut cultiver notre jardin). From this phrase Wilbur and Bernstein build an inspiring and inspirted choral finale that just avoids being maudlin – strangely the only performance I have ever heard where the scales are tipped in that direction is conducted by Bernstein at his most sanctimonious. There are several performances out there but I think this one from the BBC Proms manages to capture all the words and avoid any hint of sentimentality.

We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow…
And make our garden grow.

Richard Wilbur (1921-2017)

On this day in 1648: Boston Shoemakers form the first North American labor organization.

Printemps boréal

The great American poet and literary translator Richard Wilbur died yesterday at the age of 96. He published his first poem at the age of 8 and was to continue writing and publishing until he was well into his 80s. He worked in traditional forms and in a style that emphasized wit, charm, and gentlemanly elegance. Nowhere was that style more apparent than in the lyrics he wrote for two of the best known pieces in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide: Glitter and Be Gay and Make Our Garden Grow.  And it is no small that his source and inspiration for the two pieces came from the French of Voltaire – an author equally known for his wit, and charm, if not so gentlemanly elegance.

I first became aware of Wilbur when the Stratford Festival presented his translation of Molière’s  Tartuffe  perhaps the best known – and most frequently produced – version of his ten translations of the French writer’s works.  His translations of Racine and Corneille proved that the tradition of Alexandrine couplets could sound as beautiful in English as they do in French.

In Spring of 2016 I created a small video of Wilbur reading his translation of a Rondeau written by Charles, Duc d’Orléans in the 15th century.  I offer it again as a tribute to the wit, charm and gentlemanly elegance of a great poet.

Willy Or Won't He

As we slept the sleep of the innocent this past night Spring crept over the windowsill, to quote Eliza Dolittle.  To celebrate I thought I’d post this little rondel that was composed to celebrate that event one spring in the mid-1400s by Charles, Duke of Orléans as he gazed out his window in the tower of London.

American poet and literary translator Richard Wilbur is famous for his ability to take the theatrical poetry of Molière, Racine and Corneille and make it sing as successfully on stage in English as it does in French.  Here he takes the thirteen lines of the good Duke’s medieval verse and gives them a grace, elegance and economy of language the equal to their original text.

The rondel was a popular French verse form in the Middle-Ages and the Renaissance: it’s a deceptively simple poem generally made up of two stanzas of four lines…

View original post 456 more words

Printemps boréal

As we slept the sleep of the innocent this past night Spring crept over the windowsill, to quote Eliza Dolittle.  To celebrate I thought I’d post this little rondel that was composed to celebrate that event one spring in the mid-1400s by Charles, Duke of Orléans as he gazed out his window in the tower of London.

American poet and literary translator Richard Wilbur is famous for his ability to take the theatrical poetry of Molière, Racine and Corneille and make it sing as successfully on stage in English as it does in French.  Here he takes the thirteen lines of the good Duke’s medieval verse and gives them a grace, elegance and economy of language the equal to their original text.

The rondel was a popular French verse form in the Middle-Ages and the Renaissance: it’s a deceptively simple poem generally made up of two stanzas of four lines and a third of five lines.  But the trick is for the poet to use the first two lines as a refrain repeating them as the last lines of the second and the third stanzas.   An accomplished poet such as the good Duke could create these little word jewels in praise of a lady, to celebrate an occasion or simply to rejoice in the change of the seasons.

 

 

Charles d’Orléans was one of the French knights who are mocked in Shakespeare’s Henry V for the elaborate armour they wore into battle at Agincourt.  Their peacock displays contrasted, unfavourably of course, with the rough homespun wools of the honest English yeoman.    However there was a bitter truth in Shakespeare’s jingoistic jabs at the French fripperies. Their armour was to be the undoing of many of the French nobles including Charles.  He was thrown from his horse; unable to raise from the ground he was buried under the corpses that piled up around him.  He was taken by the English and his value as a hostage meant that his life was spared – a boon not granted to many of his fellows.

Charles-d'orleans
This illumination graced a folio of Charles’ poems and shows him as a prisoner in the Tower of London. (1483 CE)
British Library

In the battle France lost the cream of its nobility and fighting force;  it was estimated that between 4,000 and 10,000 French died and over 1500 prisoners taken including the Marshall of France and the heads of several noble families.

Charles was to remain a hostage for the next 25 years – Henry left instructions that he was never to be exchanged for ransom.   His position as head of the Armagnac faction and being in the line of succession to the French throne he was deemed too politically dicey to be returned to his native France. While a “guest” of the English Crown – he was housed in various castles throughout the country including the Tower of London – he wrote some 500 poems in both English and French.

When he finally returned to France in 1444 he settled into his estates, married for the third time (his second wife had died while he was in captivity) and was renowned as a patron of the arts.  Unusually for the time he was to live until he was 70, dying at his estate in Amboise in  1465.

Today we can hopefully echo Charles’ sentiments that:

The year has cast it’s cloak away
That was of driving rains and snows …

On this day in 1948: With a Musicians Union ban lifted, the first telecasts of classical music in the United States, under Eugene Ormandy and Arturo Toscanini, are given on CBS and NBC.