Tag Archives: Anniversaries

Intertextuality and Britten’s War Requiem

Intertextuality is an integral part of Britten’s musical rhetoric in War Requiem, for which he interpolated nine of Wilfred Owen’s poems about World War I within the Requiem text.

Britten created a dialogue between the Requiem text and the poems, and between the Requiem genre and other works—in particular the medieval planctus and Bach’s Matthäuspassion.

During the Middle Ages, texts in Latin and the vernacular were interpolated into liturgies as commentary, sometimes adding an emotional response to the ritual. The War Requiem expresses a similar theological dialogue between traditional and nontraditional imagery in the postmodern age. Britten presents the voice of Owen’s soldier as the voice of Christ, expressing the pity of war.

This according to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem: Parody and the transmutation of myth, Thomas Francis Rooney’s 1997 dissertation for Boston University (RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1997-7442).

Today is the 60th anniversary of War Requiem’s premiere. The work was commissioned for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed in the Coventry Blitz on 14 November 1940. Above, the ruins of the original 14th-century structure; below, the same space as it looks today, serving as a courtyard adjacent to the new building.

BONUS: In the first section of the work’s Dies irae Britten contrasts the glorious trumpets of heaven in the Latin text with the bloody bugles of men in Owen’s Bugles sang; Mstislav Rostropovich conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Politics

Shine and the Titanic

Religious African Americans saw the sinking of the Titanic as an example of God’s intervention in human affairs, as a divine overriding of the advantages conferred by wealth and mastery of technology.

Their secular songs about the disaster either nihilistically stress the fact that terrible things can happen at any time and when they are least expected, or take up the trickster theme. This latter type, which implies that blacks can survive in the white man’s world even when whites do not, often features Shine, a trickster figure created by blacks for blacks.

Shine—a derogatory form of address invented by whites—is the first to warn the captain of the ship of impending disaster, but is ignored. As the ship is sinking, desperate white women offer him sex or money if he will save them, but he determines to abandon ship at once and save himself—a mocking comment on the white supremacist fantasy of the black man always ready to ravish white women.

This according to “The Titanic: A case study of religious and secular attitudes in African American song” by Chris Smith, an essay included in Saints and sinners: Religion, blues and (d)evil in African-American music and literature (Liège: Société Liégeoise de Musicologie, 1996, pp. 213–27).

Today is the 110th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic! Below, Willis Lonzer performs a comparatively chaste version of the classic tale.

Related article: The Britannic organ (sister ship of the Titanic)

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Filed under Black studies, Humor

“West Side story” redux

Darker than a musical comedy, less imposing than an opera, more balletic than a song-and-dance show, West Side story’s tightly integrated movement, drama, design, and music signaled an important shift in U.S. musical theater.

Although its unity and coherence have drawn popular and scholarly attention, further study of the work reveals myriad interpretations and approaches—the inevitable result of a collaborative process. The choreographer Jerome Robbins wanted to create a classic, tragic dance vehicle combining ballet and popular styles; for Leonard Bernstein, it would mark the second attempt at writing the long-sought major American opera.

Torn between conflicting desires for popular success and status as a “serious” composer, Bernstein used eclecticism as a starting point for the creation of an accessible American art music. At the same time, pressure to create something “serious” within the compositional environment of the 1950s seems to have led him to employ the tritone both as a structural tool and a unifying surface detail, as well as reflecting the unusually dark subject matter of the work.

West Side story brought together some of the most prevalent and pressing issues of musical and cultural life of its day, from the New York Puerto Rican “problem” to the insurgence of juvenile delinquency. In addition, Robbins’s strongly ritualistic, tableau-oriented vision, with its privileging of male over female characterization, suggests a reading linking the work to longstanding mythical and literary archetypes—but also bringing up questions of the depiction of gender and ethnicity.

Such archetypes also inform Arthur Laurents’s book, one of the shortest on record for a Broadway musical. As in his other socially conscious works, Laurents mirrored Robbins’s dramatic agenda: the creation of an American mythology of urban life that could be contemporary but also lasting.

This according to West Side story: Cultural perspectives on an American musical  by Elizabeth A. Wells (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2011; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-402).

Today is the 60th anniversary of the Academy Award-winning 1961 film of West Side story! Above and below, the film’s much-celebrated Prologue.

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Filed under Dance, Dramatic arts

RIdIM and music iconography

On Sunday 29 August 1971 Barry S. Brook organized a meeting of some 30 music and art historians at Hotel Ekkehard in St. Gall; there they conceived Répertoire International d’Iconographie Musicale, the third music repertoire after RISM (founded in 1952) and RILM (1966). The discussions at the meeting are encapsulated in a single sheet of yellow legal paper (above) on which Brook scribbled his notes during the meeting.

Hotel Ekkehard, where the meeting took place.

The document lists proposals for the organization’s possible names: RICOM was rejected by a vote of 10:12; RIdIM (Répertoire International d’Iconographie Musicale) with its English/German equivalent IRMI (International Repertory of Musical Iconography/Internationales Repertorium der Musikikonographie) prevailed by 13:8.

The discussion concerned the composition of RIdIM’s Commission Mixte and national committees, the establishment of working groups on issues related to cataloguing and computerizing visual sources, and the organization of the Committee d’Honneur comprising museum directors, businesspeople, and amateur enthusiasts who could provide extra-musicological advice and assistance. The clearing house for cataloguing and the center for communication between the national committees cataloguing national resources and the scholars who need to study them was designated the Research Center for Music Iconography (founded in 1972 at the CUNY Graduate Center).

At the end of the meeting the project was established under the guidance of its three founding co-directors: Barry Brook, Harald Heckmann, and Geneviève Thibault de Chambure. This was a critically important moment for the field of music iconography, and Brook was certainly aware its significance. In the center of the sheet he wrote in red ink: “We may be participants in the establishment on a firm footing of a full-fledged sub-discipline”.

RIdIM celebrates its 50th anniversary today!

Brook and Heckmann in 1971.

BONUS: A report on the discussion of this idea a few days earlier at the annual meeting of the International Association of Music Libraries is here.

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Filed under Iconography, RIdIM

Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” period

Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue is one of her most universally recognized works. Generations of people have come of age listening to it, inspired by the way it clarified their own difficult emotions, and critics and musicians admire the idiosyncratic virtuosity of its compositions. The largely autobiographical albums of what might be called Mitchell’s Blue period lasted through the mid-1970s.

In 1970 Mitchell was living with Graham Nash in Laurel Canyon and had made a name for herself as a singer-songwriter notable for her soaring voice and skillful compositions. Soon, though, feeling hemmed in, she fled to the hippie community of Matala, Greece. Here and on further travels, her compositions were freshly inspired by the lands and people she encountered as well as by her own radically changing interior landscape.

After returning home to record Blue, Mitchell retreated to British Columbia, eventually reemerging as the leader of a successful jazz-rock group and turning outward in her songwriting toward social commentary. Finally, a stint with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and a pivotal meeting with a Tibetan lama prompted her return to personal songwriting, which resulted in her 1976 album Hejira.

Mitchell’s Blue period featured her innovative manner of marrying lyrics to melody; her inventive, highly expressive chord progressions that achieved her signature blend of wonder and melancholy; her pioneering approach to personal songwriting; and her contributions to bringing a new literacy to the popular song.

This according to Will you take me as I am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue period by Michelle Mercer (New York: Free Press, 2009; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2009-1442).

Blue is 50 years old today! Below, the full album.

Related article: Joni Mitchell and 1960s sexuality

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Rinaldo and the Enlightenment

The resounding success of the premiere of Händel’s Rinaldo, his first opera in England, was tempered by satirical and sarcastic criticism in The spectator, a weekly journal dedicated to combining wit with morality.

The spectacular scenery and costumes, textual weaknesses, and lack of logic were all points of criticism. Joseph Addison, measuring the performance by the standards of reason, truth, and naturalness, hardly found occasion to mention the music and excellent cast.

The main forum for these ideas of a new moral, social, and national function for opera was the London coffeehouse. Thus the Enlightenment, through the medium of opera, came to influence the thought of large groups and stimulated new social behavior and artistic standards.

This according to “Mit Rindern, Schafen und Spatzenschwärmen: Die Londoner Uraufführung der Oper Rinaldo von Händel” by Wilhelm Baethge (Das Orchester XLIII/11 [1995] 17-22; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1995-14126).

Today is the 31oth anniversary of Rinaldo’s premiere! Below, the opera’s march remains one of its most popular excerpts.

BONUS: John Gay’s celebrated repurposing of the march for The beggar’s opera.

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Filed under Baroque era, Opera, Reception

Talking Heads and “Remain in light”

On their first three albums, Talking Heads made anxious, self-aware art-punk with enough pop appeal to notch a couple of minor hits and edge toward the mainstream. Their landmark fourth album, Remain in light, was a radical departure that nevertheless felt like a continuation of and improvement on everything that had come before.

The album was born in a recording studio, where the group arrived song-less and ready to jam. This communal approach was curious, given that they had typically brought in nearly finished compositions. The producer, Brian Eno, constructed the tracks by looping rhythmic sections and layering instrumentation—a method that initially left the group’s frontman, David Byrne, unsure of how or what to sing.

Written and recorded mostly after the instrumentalists left the studio, Byrne’s songs have a freeform, impressionistic, cut-and-paste quality; but even so, Remain in light is a record with very recognizable—and very Talking Heads—themes of alienation and the search for identity.

This according to “Talking Heads’ Remain in light at 35” by Kenneth Partridge (Billboard 8 October 2015; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2015-85008).

Remain in light was released 40 years ago today! Below, the full album.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Saint Jerome on music

Saint Jerome was born in Stridon, a Dalmatian city that was destroyed by the Goths during his lifetime. Its exact location is unknown, and could have been in either modern Croatia or Slovenia. Though not a theologian, Jerome is mostly known for his authoritative translations of many texts, most importantly the scriptures, with several translations of the psalter. In iconography he is often depicted as a desert hermit. He, in fact, spent half of his life in the wilderness, but he was still very much engaged in intellectual and ecclesiastical discussions and controversies.

Jerome’s writings are filled with musical references, sometimes allegorical, sometimes in reference to the liturgy, sometimes in the context of moral instruction. He occasionally inserted musical analogies into his missives, comparing himself to a boatman or a shepherd, whose song had a particular purpose. He also frequently recommended the singing of psalms to those seeking his guidance, and these instructions have shed light on liturgical practice of the time.

As regards the content of his advice, which was rigorous at times, the topic could range from directing women away from the company of singers (cantors) and questionable performers who might be encountered in Rome, where he spent several years. In a paragraph to the young widow Furia, he turns an image from the enjoyment of music that praises worldly pleasures to a counter action—suggesting that she become a singer, and timbrel and lute player, modelling herself on the image of Miriam, who musically celebrated the liberation of Israel in the book of Exodus.

This according to James McKinnon’s Music in early Christian literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1997-1322).

Today marks the 1600th anniversary of Jerome’s death (and his birth into eternal life) in Bethlehem. Above, Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome writing.

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Filed under Antiquity

The truth about “Così”

 

The immorality of the characters in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, o sia La scuola degli amanti, K.588, has always been shocking to operagoers, and some have denounced Da Ponte’s plot as tasteless and vulgar; but the librettist did not invent the story—he simply borrowed the myth of Cephalus and Procris, enriching the tale by doubling the pair.

Others have maintained that the characters are mere puppets, not real people, so one may relax and enjoy the blameless music. However, Mozart drew fully developed musical characters for all of the roles, musically asserting their reality.

Ultimately, the work is a ruthlessly rational exposure of the instinctive irrationality of human behavior—and therein lies its ability to shock.

This according to “The truth about Così” by Donald Mitchell, an essay included in Tribute to Benjamin Britten on his fiftieth birthday (London: Faber & Faber, 1963, pp. 95–99).

Today is the 230th anniversary of Così fan tutte’s premiere! Above, a handbill for the first performance; below, an excerpt from Act II.

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Filed under Classic era, Opera

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