Category Archives: Romantic era

The female harp

The harp in its winged-maiden form was the standard symbol of Ireland in the eighteenth century, and with the rise of Romantic nationalism the harp was increasingly personified as a female symbol of Ireland and her struggle for political independence.

The iconography of the harp in the context of the United Irishmen of the 1790s formed the basis for the Romanticization of the harp symbol and the female personification of Erin (Ireland) in the poetry of Thomas Moore. While more realistic forms of the Irish harp emerge in nationalist iconography of the nineteenth century, Moore’s imagery inspired paintings and other illustrations of the harp as a woman by artists including Robert Fagan and Daniel Maclise.

This according to “The female harp: The Irish harp in 18th- and early–19th-century Romantic nationalism” By Barra Boydell (RIdIM/RCMI newsletter XX/1 [spring 1995] 10–17; RILM Abstracts 1995-5656).

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Above, Maclise’s The origin of the harp (1842), inspired by Moore’s poem of the same name. Below, Michelle Mulcahy plays The mountains of Pomeroy, Martin Hardiman’s jig, andThe lark on the strand on the Irish harp.

Related article: The female accordion.

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Filed under Iconography, Instruments, Politics, Romantic era

Alice Mary Smith: Short orchestral works

 

In 2020 A-R Editions issued Alice Mary Smith: Short orchestral works (RILM Abstracts 2020-1965), which presents three of Smith’s orchestral compositions for the first time in print.

One of the most prolific women composers of her time, Alice Mary Smith produced the greatest number of publicly performed large-scale orchestral and choral works of any of her gender.

The Andante for clarinet and orchestra, Smith’s orchestral transcription of the slow movement of her Sonata for clarinet and piano (1870), was greatly admired by the English clarinetist Henry Lazarus, who performed it multiple times.

The other works included comprise the complete orchestral music from Smith’s grand choral cantata The masque of Pandora, a setting of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem. Designed as independent instrumental movements, Smith fully orchestrated them for a performance in 1879 by the New Philharmonic Society.

The introduction to the edition includes a brief biography of Smith and reproduces numerous reviews and program notes from the various performances of these three works.

Below, the Andante for clarinet and orchestra featuring Angela Malsbury.

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Filed under New editions, Romantic era

Schubert’s feminine voices

Schubert’s early female characterizations stem from the tradition of the poets whose works he set.

Matthisson’s Die Betende and An Laura evoke Petrarch’s Laura, an idealized, unattainable woman who combines chaste purity with erotic beauty, like some of Raphael’s religious figures; Schubert’s settings mix hymnlike elements with irregular phrasing and expressive chromatic features, intertwining spiritual and sensuous emotions.

Another archetype–the lament of a suffering woman whose only salvation lies in transforming sorrow into beautiful song–underlies Schiller’s Des Mädchens Klage, which Schubert dramatizes with an agitated D-minor section that pivots through the relative major into a final epiphany in C major.

While Goethe’s Gretchen is a more profound character than either of these two archetypes, she is related to both in some ways. In Gretchen am Spinnrade she alternates between sorrowful lament and ecstatic reverie, and Schubert’s setting again juxtaposes D minor and C major, but this time the minor key expresses stability and the major key intrudes as a disruptive force. The song’s climaxes convey erotic power in both text and music, underscoring the link between love and death.

This according to “Feminine voices in Schubert’s early laments” by David P. Schroeder (The music review LV/3 [August 1994] 183–201; RILM Abstracts 1996-16685).

Above, Gustav Klimt’s Schubert at the piano (detail); below, Renée Fleming sings Gretchen am Spinnrade.

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Filed under Romantic era, Women's studies

Liszt and Litzmann

 

Before ending his performance career with concerts in Odessa and Elizavetgrad in 1847, Franz Liszt visited Istanbul, gave a number of public concerts, and performed twice for Sultan Abdülmecit I in the Çırağan Palace.

A widely reported incident in relation to this trip concerns an impostor named Listmann, a historically unidentified character, who supposedly passed himself off as Liszt in Istanbul and received valuable presents from the Sultan under this pretext. According to some accounts, Listmann almost caused Liszt to be arrested upon his arrival.

Herr Listmann of the Liszt–Listmann incident was in fact a German Tonkünstler and a man of letters named Eduard Litzmann who toured Spain and the Orient, and was apparently a competent pianist. The sources indicate that—notwithstanding Liszt’s own letter to his cousin Henriett—numerous colorful aspects of the incident as reported in the literature result from self-perpetuating transformations of fiction and cannot be substantiated.

This according to “The Liszt–Listmann incident” by Ömer Eğecioğlu (Studia musicologica XLIX/3–4 [September 2008] 275–93).

Inset, a plaque marking the location where Liszt stayed in Istanbul; below, Liszt’s variations on a theme by Giuseppe Donizetti, composed for one of his performances for the Sultan.

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Filed under Curiosities, Romantic era

Mahler’s broken pastoral

 

Gustav Mahler’s attachment to the idea that art is a mirror of nature can be found echoing throughout his works, including performance indications that refer both to nature in its broadest sense and to specific elements of the natural world.

Yet the pastoral element in Mahler is often presented through a language of brokenness, as in the third movement of his third symphony, where the appearance and disappearance of the posthorn can also be likened to the processes of memory depicted in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, notably the madeleine episode in Du côté de chez Swann.

This according to “In search of lost time: Memory and Mahler’s broken pastoral” by Thomas Peattie, an essay included in Mahler and his world (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002 185–98; RILM Abstracts 2002-7257).

Today is Mahler’s 160th birthday! Above, the composer in Fischleintal in 1909; below, the movement in question.

 

Related post: Mahler and Beyoncé

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Charpentier and social history

 

Gustave Charpentier was one of the most original of the fin de siècle composers, and his works—particularly Le couronnement de la muse (1897) and Louise (1900)—have to be understood in the appropriate political and social context.

Until now, the success of Louise has eclipsed the output of a composer who wished to be in touch with the working class without remaining isolated in a purely artistic dimension. Charpentier was in fact among the first artists to adapt his works to the new communication media of radio and cinema, experimenting with a method of composing closely connected to them. His works reveal a world in which music and social history are inextricably associated, illuminating the contradictions that enlivened fin de siècle France.

This according to La dramaturgie de Gustave Charpentier by Michela Niccolai (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011; RILM Abstracts 2011-13384).

Today is Charpentier’s 160th birthday! Below, Renée Fleming sings his Depuis le jour.

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Robert Schumann and postmodern criticism

 

Robert Schumann’s 1831 review of Chopin’s op. 2 variations depicts enthusiastic friends breathlessly emoting over a musical work, commenting upon it in nonlinear and sometimes borderline incoherent phrases. In Schumann’s commentaries—the most prominent examples of the burgeoning nineteenth-century tradition of music criticism—there is often no critical distance whatsoever; intensity and immersion are the driving force of these essays.

Similarly, Beavis and Butt-head’s intense interaction with music is what most clearly defines their daily activities; and, as depictions of critics whose interpretive and even artistic operations are an integral part of life, they reveal themselves to be cut from the same cloth as Schumann’s critical personae Florestan and Eusebius.

This according to “Florestan and Butt-head: A glimpse into postmodern music criticism” by Andrew Dell’Antonio (American music XVII/1 [spring 1999] 65–86; RILM Abstracts 1999-2733).

Today is Schumann’s 210th birthday! Above, the composer in 1850; below, a grouping of four movements from his Carnaval, beginning with his musical depictions of Eusebius and Florestan.

 

Related article: Chopin on Schumann on Chopin

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Filed under Curiosities, Romantic era

The Siena piano

 

A legendary instrument whose sonorities reputedly have no equal anywhere, praised by musicians such as Liszt and Saint-Saëns, the Siena piano is surrounded by an aura of mystery due to its astonishing history.

Its soundboard was supposedly made of wooden pillars from the ancient Temple of Solomon in Israel. Stolen by German soldiers during World War II, it was discovered half buried in the sands of the African desert.

The instrument was saved from destruction in the nick of time and restored by an Israeli craftsman; subsequently it aroused enormous media attention before being largely forgotten.

This according to La légende du piano de Sienne: Récit instrumental by Florent Ploquin (Plouharnel: Menhir, 2017).

Below, Marisa Regules performs Debussy’s Estampes on the Siena piano.

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Filed under Curiosities, Instruments, Romantic era

Uncracking the Nutcracker

 

Čajkovskij repeatedly sought to abandon work on Ŝelkunčik (The nutcracker), and complained bitterly about the project to the Director of Imperial Theaters; the reasons why he begged to be released from working on it, or why he ultimately persevered, remain unknown.

The problems probably involved the libretto, which the fastidious composer may well have found vexing. Parts of it lack any rationale, the balance of mime and dance is lopsided, and the overall arc of the story is incoherent, with several essential plot elements entirely missing.

These issues can be resolved by rendering most of the ballet as Drosselmayer’s thoughts rather than Clara’s dream. One can easily imagine the composer taking delight in this solution.

This according to “On meaning in Nutcracker” by Roland John Wiley (Dance research III/1 (fall 1984) 3–28; RILM Abstracts 1984-12142).

Today is Čajkovskij’s 180th birthday! Above, the composer in 1893, a year after Ŝelkunčik’s premiere. Below, Part I of Mark Morris’s alternative version of the work, which he called The hard nut.

 

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Romantic era

Tosca and James Bond

The 2009 James Bond film Quantum of solace marks a change in the conception of the opera visit in film, which typically shows opera in an idealizing light. Quantum’s opera visit, which may be a first in an action film, signifies detachment and encapsulates the subjective isolation of the protagonist.

The scene’s distance comes from the floating operatic venue (the Bregenz Festival), the voyeuristic production (techno-opera), the frenetic montage in much of the sequence, and the work itself, Tosca, which has parallels with the filmic story. Detachment is further promoted by a dry sound environment, a rearranged temporal scheme, and opera music that approaches underscore in its distance from operatic idioms.

Comprised of slow harmonic rhythm and considerable repetition, the two musical excerpts—the Te Deum that ends act 1 and the instrumental music after Scarpia’s murder in act 2—are noticeably static and impose a groundedness that separates the scene from the film’s other set pieces, which are extremely fast in music, sound, and image. The disposition of the operatic music points up the cinematic bent of Puccini’s score and its remarkable ability to accommodate the needs of the film.

Although Quantum’s opera visit is cynical toward opera culture, it captures the post-millennial malaise of the long-running Bond franchise and forms the high point of a film that disappointed critics and fans alike. But while opera may redeem the film’s larger narrative, the protagonist remains aloof from opera’s transforming qualities as he shuns engagement with the spectacle and the resonant music on the soundtrack.

Bond’s detachment is embodied in the symbol of the set’s iconic big eye, which not only reverses opera’s scopic dynamic by gazing at the audience more than the audience gazes at the stage, but also represents mediated looking at opera in general, as in the Metropolitan Opera’s HD cinecasts. While an operatics of detachment may seem like a contradiction, Quantum of solace persuades the viewer that it can be a vibrant reimagining of the special filmic ritual that is the opera visit.

This according to “The operatics of detachment: Tosca in the James Bond film Quantum of solace” by Marcia J. Citron (19th-century music XXXIV/3 [spring 2011] pp. 316–40).

Today is the 120th anniversary of Tosca’s premiere!

Below, the scene in question.

Above, Floating Tosca Stage, Bregenz by John Abel is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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Filed under Curiosities, Film music, Opera, Romantic era