MW4 – Kubrick Classics
Overture to La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie)
One of the most prolific opera composers of all time, Gioacchino Rossini wrote nearly 40 operas by the time he was 37 – then quit. For the rest of his long life he composed only sporadically and, except for church music, mostly small works he tossed off for the entertainment of his friends (He published over 150 of them in a collection which he called Péchés de vieillesse – Sins of Old Age).
La gazza ladra was Rossini’s first great success (following two dismal failures) in that bastion of Italian opera, Milan’s La Scala Opera House. The premiere in May of 1817 was described by Stendhal, a musicologist and music historian as well as a great novelist, as the most successful he had ever attended.
Starting with the opening drum rolls – two of the main characters in the libretto are returning soldiers – the Overture has a considerably closer connection with the rest of the opera than is customary with Rossini (The overture to The Barber of Seville did duty, essentially unchanged, twice before as overtures to earlier tragedies!) The plot of the opera concerns Ninetta, a servant girl sentenced to death on suspicion of stealing a silver spoon. After considerable confusion, she is saved from the gallows when the spoon is found in a magpie nest.
Rossini had his own “system” for overture writing: never before the evening of the first performance. In his memoirs he recalls, “I wrote the overture to La gazza ladra on the actual day of the first performance of the opera, under the guard of four stage-hands who had orders to throw my manuscript out of the window, page by page, as I wrote it, to the waiting copyist – and if I didn’t supply the manuscript, they were to throw me out myself. Nothing excites inspiration like necessity; the presence of an anxious copyist and a despairing manager tearing out handfuls of his hair is a great help. In Italy in my day all managers were bald at thirty.”
Rossini was hard on orchestra players, especially the woodwinds, but in this Overture, he features the percussion. The opening snare-drum solo, as well as the use of triangle, four timpani and bass drum throughout, suggest Ottoman Janissary music, but nobody specifies from which war the soldiers in the plot are returning. However rushed or recycled, Rossini’s overtures always contain a bouquet of memorable tunes, to the point where even professionals tend to forget which overture they belong to. For La gazza ladra, after the snare drum riff, Rossini spins out a little Italian tarantella, what was to become a proverbial oboe riff and the inauguration of the “Rossini rocket.” This last device, the repetition of a melody, each time louder, faster and more fully orchestrated became one of the composer’s standard effects. Here is the beginning – with snare drum again – and the climax. &
Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary
Based on the Music of Henry Purcell
Protestant Mary II, together with her husband William of Orange, became in 1684 joint monarchs of England, Scotland and Ireland following the deposition of her Roman Catholic father James II in what was called “The Glorious Revolution.”
Mary died of smallpox on 28 December 1694. English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695) composed the music played at her funeral, which did not take place till three months after her death. Some 300 years later Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen suggested that Steven Stucky transcribe this music for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. The updated versions uses three of the pieces heard at the funeral: a solemn march, the anthem "In the Midst of Life We Are in Death," and a canzona in imitative polyphonic style, based on the anthem.
The work is in part a re-orchestration for winds of Purcell’s original. But Stucky writes: “In working on the project I did not try to achieve a pure, musicological reconstruction but, on the contrary, to regard Purcell's music, which I love deeply, through the lens of three hundred intervening years. Thus, although most of this version is straightforward orchestration of the Purcell originals, there are moments when Purcell drifts out of focus.”
The Funeral Music begins with the original orchestration, gradually developing the ideas with increasingly inventive instrumentation. Only in his treatment of the anthem does Stucky break out of the Baroque comfort zone.
A graduate of Baylor and Cornell University, Stucky was for 34 years Professor of Music and for 5 years Chairman of the Department of Music at Cornell University and also taught at the Juilliard School. He was for 21 years resident composer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 2005 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his Second Concerto for Orchestra. Stucky was a prolific composer in all genres, including a comic opera. In describing his musical style, he called it “Graspable.”
Johann Strauss II
An der schönen blauen Donau (On the Beautiful Blue Danube)
The Austro-Hungarian Empire never really recovered from the devastation of the Napoleonic wars. All through the nineteenth century it fought a rearguard action to maintain its integrity against nationalist movements from within and encroachment by its neighbors from without. Then, in 1866, the Austro-Prussian war settled who was the dominant power in the German-speaking countries. Austria lost resoundingly and never again would have a major say in German affairs.
But in Vienna, the capital, one would have seen little of that instability and disintegration. For those at the Habsburg court, the well to do and the upper class of civil service, it was a time of glitter and joie de vivre, ostensibly the most brilliant and prosperous period of the monarchy. Opulent parties, balls and dancing were all the rage while the empire disintegrated.
Johann Strauss II, by far the best known of nineteenth century Vienna’s composers of dance music, was adored by high society who fondly named him the Waltz King. He was by nature shy, self-effacing and insecure, far removed in nature from the light-heartedness and exuberance expressed in his music. He was a close friend of Brahms, who always tried to convince him that posterity would remember his music, but to no avail. Brahms, however, got it right.
An der schönen, blauen Donau, known here as the “The Blue Danube Waltz,” was composed in 1867, and became Vienna’s consolation prize for the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the hands of Prussia the year before. Strauss originally composed it for a celebration of the Viennese Men’s Choral Society, but when it premiered in Vienna the response was only lukewarm. It was the orchestral version that became a best seller, selling millions of copies in Johann Strauss´s lifetime. Later generations have also been fascinated by the melancholy grace of this unintentional “requiem” for the Austrian monarchy. When a music lover once asked Brahms for an autograph, the composer wrote down the first two bars of the waltz and signed “Leider nicht von Brahms” (Regrettably not by Brahms).
The Viennese waltz was basically an ABA form with the A section consisting of a single theme and the B section including an arbitrary number of sections of new music. each one repeated. The effect was of constantly changing music and a resulting forward momentum. To give further shape to the work, any of the subsidiary sections could be repeated. The Blue Danube opens with a slow introduction, typical for Strauss’ major waltz number, in this case, revealing the principal theme. After the main theme, there follow eight sections of new music, one of them repeated at the end of the series and leading back to the famous theme and a coda.
Also sprach Zarathustra
Richard Strauss came from an extremely conservative family. His father, Franz Joseph, a snob and a tyrant, was principal horn player in the Munich Court Orchestra, a post he held for 49 years. Although he was famous for playing Wagner superbly, he detested the man and his music; for him music had ended with Schumann and Mendelssohn. The young Strauss was forbidden to listen to Wagner’s music and when, to the disgust of his father, he finally discovered it, he was overwhelmed, realizing that the musical language taught by his father was too confining for his fertile mind.
Shaking off papa’s prejudices, Strauss embraced both Wagner’s music and developed his own version of the older composer’s Gesamtkunstwerk (fusion of the arts) both in his purely instrumental works, as well as in his operas. Strauss quickly found his voice through his own unique development of the tone poem, or symphonic poem, a purely instrumental rendition of a text, usually poetic or narrative in nature.
Franz Liszt had coined the term “symphonic poem” in 1854 for compositions accompanied by an extra-musical “program” that the audience was supposed to read before listening to the music. Although they did not all use Liszt’s term, symphonic poems became a standard medium for the 19th century Romantics, including Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, but the form reached its apex with Strauss. His attempts to render a specific text in pure music were far more detailed than Liszt’s, and are often difficult to follow without a “road map.” Telling a story via an array of instrumental themes without text was a new iteration of the Leitmotifs of Wagner’s music dramas – motives representing characters, objects and ideas that provided a running instrumental commentary on the poetry. “I want to be able to describe a teaspoon musically,” Strauss is said to have commented. In the ten years between 1888 and 1898 he produced a string of tone poems, beginning with Aus Italien and Macbeth. Don Juan, completed in 1889 and the first to be publicly performed, catapulted him to international recognition.
In 1892, by then a well-known composer and respected conductor of the opera at Weimar, Strauss became seriously ill, the lingering after-effects of pneumonia. To regain his health he spent November of that year on an extended Mediterranean cruise, stopping over in Egypt, Greece and Sicily. The respite gave him time off from his hectic conducting schedule to concentrate on the composition of his first opera, Guntram, and to plan two future works: Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche and Also sprach Zarathustra.
The conceptual leap between the musical portrayal of the low-life prankster Till, and the utterances of a nineteenth century philosopher’s interpretation of an ancient Persian prophet, boggles the imagination. Zarathustra, or as the Greeks called him Zoroaster, probably lived in the sixth or fifth century B.C. in eastern Persia. Proclaiming himself the prophet of Ahura-Mazda (“The Wise Lord”), Zarathustra’s name for God, he saw man as the focal point of the conflict between God and the spirits of darkness. Persecuted by the Persians, Zoroastrians fled to Eastern India, where they are called Parsees and still practice their religion.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) used the teachings of Zoroaster as the basis for a loosely reasoned philosophy in an aphoristic prose poem on mankind’s purpose and destiny – eventually promulgating his own cult of the Superman. In reading Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra (subtitled “Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen” – A Book for All and No One), Strauss was attracted to its antagonism and antipathy to all established religions. Nietzsche especially despised those creeds that promoted the weak and the humble. Also sprach Zarathustra preaches the exact antithesis: “I teach you Superman. Man is a thing to be surmounted.“ followed by the analogy: what ape is to Man, Man is to Superman.
Strauss wisely described the tone-poem as “Freely after Nietzsche” and wrote specifically in the program notes for the premiere that he “...did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray Nietzsche’s great work musically...The whole symphonic poem is intended as my homage to the genius of Nietzsche, which found its greatest expression in Also sprach Zarathustra.”
Strauss selected as suitable for a musical setting eight of the brief chapters: those describing the conflict between Nature and Man’s desire to overcome his base qualities to achieve a higher spiritual existence: “Of Primeval Man,” “Of the Great Longing,” “Of Joys and Passions,” “Dirge,” “Of Learning,” “The Convalescent,” “The Dance-Song,” and “Night Wanderer’s Song.” Rejection of the material, religious, sensual and scientific are all steps in Man’s evolution towards the Superman as epitomized in the figure of Zarathustra.
The score of Zarathustra bears separate headings, corresponding to the eight extracts, but the music itself contains motives and themes, also given titles, that follow a musical logic that does not always correspond to the text. The now hackneyed opening is identified as the portrayal of dawn and Zarathustra’s (i.e. mankind’s) setting out on his spiritual quest, as well as of abstract Nature. Related to this theme is another, immediately following the fanfare, an upward broken chord, signifying mankind’s enquiring nature. These two motives recur throughout the tone poem, giving it musical unity as well as a narrative tightening absent in Nietzsche’s work.
Strauss portrays man’s misguided faith in the afterlife with a quote from the Gregorian Credo and an ethereal theme for string quartet. A dance-like theme represents the philosopher’s “Joys and Passions,” which grows to frenetic intensity. A transformation of this theme into Zarathustra’s disillusionment (the “Grave Song”) begins as an oboe solo. In the section entitled “Of Learning,” Strauss portrays Zarathustra’s ultimately abortive search for transcendence through knowledge as a twelve-tone fugue – the most academic of musical forms – based on the opening fanfare theme.
The second stage of Zarathustra’s quest is prefaces by a grand repeat of the fanfare and a long silence, leading into Zarathustra’s “convalescence (developing the array of the previously stated theme and culminating in the “Dance-Song,” symbolizing the philosopher’s joy in his self-realization as the Superman. That the Dance itself, a Viennese waltz, is definitely more “Straussian” (Johann, Joseph and Richard) than Nietzschean (note that the first few notes are the fanfare motive) After the waltz has peaked to a frenzied climax, Strauss signals Zarathustra’s final rejection of all worldly pursuits, the so-called “Night wanderer’s song.” At the end of the work, Nietzsche and Strauss even appear to part company: While Nietzsche’s Zarathustra bombastically proclaims the dawn of the age of the Superman, Strauss ends with the musical image of a gentle, mystical transcendence.
Setting Nietzsche aside altogether, however, reveals the most dynamic and ingenious aspect Strauss’s work: his transformations, combinations and recombinations of the various themes. Strauss learned much from Wagner, both about orchestration and how to weave together multiple thematic ideas. And those musical considerations were far more important to him than any strict adherence to Nietzsche, Zoroaster or anyone else.
The announcement that Strauss was going to set Nietzsche to music met with considerable skepticism and some ridicule. Strauss himself was anything but sure of himself. In the period between the Frankfurt premiere in 1896 and the publication of the score, he wrote three different introductions attempting to explain the relationship between Nietzsche’s philosophy and his musical interpretation of it. One suspects that the composer’s musical conceptualization preceded his drawing up a systematic correspondence with the text. Any attempt to understand in depth the philosophical meaning of the score is of more pertinence to Strauss’s biography and to cultural history than it is a musically significant exercise. For today’s audience, for whom Nietzsche’s philosophy is either unfamiliar or irrelevant, Also sprach Zarathustra must stand or fall on its purely musical merit. For better or worse its carefully coordinated themes conjure images of the apes of 2001: A Space Odyssey in which the Supermen, both human and electronic, are sacrificed to something greater and unfathomable.