Saturday, July 31, 2010

From Schumann to Sondheim: Birthdays & Anniversaries

Yesterday I wrote on my Opera blog (Vissi D'arte--there's a link on the right side of this page) about a new "theatrical song-cycle" by Ricky Ian Gordon for the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.

Today I shall write about some of the many musical anniversaries of 2010.

The two biggest mainstream anniversaries are the Bicentennial birthday celebrations of the "poet of the piano" Frederic Chopin and the mad romantic genius, Robert Schumann.

After reading the writer Jean Paul, Schumann used the then en vogue device of the Doppelgänger (double personality). Unlike Paul, Stevenson (Dr Jeckyll & Mr Hyde), and Dostoyevsky (The Double), Schumann applied the Doppelgänger not to his work but to his self. Or selves.

"Florestan" represented his brash, heroic manly man-hood, and "Eusebius" referred to his poetic, sensitive, and artistic self. Both characters are present in his music. That they both appear in the same works might account for one of the reasons Schumann's "major" works are less performed than his miniatures. It's OK to have Florestan in the concert hall, but let's keep Eusebius out of the sun because his fair skin might burn. Bless his heart.

Another anniversary honoree more appreciated than performed is Hugo Wolf. Like Schumann, his brief life ended in madness. If Schumann inherited the mantle of great German lieder (art song) composer from Schubert (another "sensitive" soul), then Wolf inherited it from Schumann. Wolf's songs are more of an acquired taste, and are among the most colorful and sophisticated examples of the genre. His output in "major" genres (ie: orchestral music) is virtually nonexistent. Brahms and Beethoven--both of whom wrote wonderful songs--are the titans of 19th century concert music because of their symphonies.

Jean Paul's most famous novel is called Titan, and it inspired the next giant of the German symphony, Gustav Mahler. Mahler and Wolf were both born in 1860, were colleagues who both absorbed the influence of German romanticism from Beethoven to Wagner, and had polar opposite careers. Mahler was the greatest symphonist after Beethoven, and with Richard Strauss the master of the orchestral song. Mahler was one of the most important figures in the development of that central & enigmatic role, the conductor. As the century turned, Mahler was a pioneering impresario of opera production. Wolf, like Schubert, is known primarily for his songs. Bless his heart.

One of the most interesting facets of Wolf's career was his commitment to not choose poems for his own songs another composer had previously--and successfully--set. He did not set Der Erlkönig when he got around to choosing Goethe poems, for Schubert's setting of that song is the undisputed champ. He did set a number of Goethe poems that Schubert HAD set, which raises fascinating questions of why he thought Franz got it wrong on Ganymed and the three Harfenspieler Lieder (Harp-player Songs) from Wilhelm Meister. Wolf's settings have an otherworldly beauty and are perfumed with atmosphere. He worked obsessively on one poet at a time: Mörike, Eichendorff, Goethe, and then sets of Spanish and Italian folk poems.

Schumann worked obsessively on one genre at a time. In music history we are taught that 1840 was Schumann's "song year" (liederjahr) because it was. He wrote over 100 songs in that year alone. His troubled engagement to the brilliant young pianist and composer Clara Wieck (her father didn't want her to marry the mad composer, Robert) inspired a burst of creativity that brought to life some of the greatest song cycles of the repertoire. The bulk of his orchestral output was written in manic bursts of productivity in 1841.

Without being theatrical (like Ricky Ian Gordon's new cycle) Schumann's cycles are poetic AND dramatic, as the conflicts between Florestan and Eusebius propel the songs forward, regardless of whether they follow a narrative arch (as in Dichterliebe) or consist of independent vignettes (both of the Liederkreis sets).

If you don't know Dichterliebe (Poet's Love), then go listen to any number of great interpretations from Fritz Wunderlich (tenor), Dietrich Fischer Dieskau (baritone) or the amazing Canadian baritone, Gerald Finley (one of the few singers alive whose name alone is reason enough to sell me).

In my tribute to Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Cesare Siepi earlier this week (see "Evening Stars" below) I mentioned the new-found joy of XM radio. Another joy of this time of the year are the daily broadcasts of the BBC Proms. If you are a classical music lover and don't know about the Proms, get thee to the BBC website! You can listen online free of charge (live in GMT daily--archived for at least one week afterwards). The Proms are celebrating the Schumann anniversary by playing all four of his symphonies, a welcome bit of programming to some of the most vivid and engaging "miniatures" in the genre (his symphonies are shorter--and less dense--than those of Brahms. Like Mendelssohn, they have a Mozartean airiness. There is also a tradition of re-orchestrating the Schumann symphonies, most infamously by Gustav Mahler, to make them sound fuller--more Florestan than Eusebius. The current wisdom is to take them just as they are, with Schumann's idiosyncratic & engaging personality/ies winning the day).

One of the last nights of the Proms is a 400th anniversary celebration of the prototype of the choral-orchestral masterwork, Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610. Mr Green Mountain's kaleidoscope work of Psalms, hymns and canticles written for the magnificent Basilica of St Mark's in Venice is rightfully being heard around the world. (The Chorale's planned performance of it is being held off for another season in the hopes we might coordinate with the Virginia Arts Festival to give the time and attention the great work deserves. Stay tuned.)

The famous "Last Night of the Proms" is not until September. This daily smorgasbord of music started earlier this month with a great performance of Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand, the 8th. Most of the 9 weeks-worth of concerts sell out, and it's wonderful to hear the buzz of several thousand people in the audience (the Royal Albert Hall holds c. 6,000). The "Prommers" (attendees who stand &/or "promenade" in the seatless front of the concert hall) will applaud whenever they dern-well please, so the stuffy, starchy atmosphere of the traditional concert hall is given a welcome break. I'm not a fan of perfunctory applause after every "song" in a concert or recital (especially when the performer is still "in character" trying to keep the audience engaged with the dramatic/musical flow). There is a difference, however, when the applause is spontaneous and an organic outpouring of appreciation following the laser-like precision of the execution of a Beethoven--or Schumann!--scherzo.

I haven't checked the programming yet to see if the BBC is honoring the Centennials of two great American composers. I bet Samuel Barber IS getting some airtime. Along with his ravishing Adagio for Strings, his orchestral output has a pair of engaging symphonies, a trio of orchestral "essays," a pair of overtures, and three great concerti--for violin, cello, and piano, respectively. William Schuman lived in the shadow of Barber and Copland (and was an important teacher and administrator as head of the Juilliard School) but his symphonies deserve to be heard. The most familiar (an oxymoron with so much 20th century music ) is, like Copland, his Third. There are a couple great Bernstein/New York Phil recordings on itunes. Check 'em out.

I mentioned Peter Pears in my Rolfe Johnson tribute, but I don't think I mentioned his centennial. The quintessential "English tenor" was born, like Barber & Schuman (and millions of people we're not remembering) in 1910.

And Sondheim turned 80 this year, and the awesome Welsh baritone, Bryn Terfel is singing Sweeney Todd (among others) live on the BBC right now. Ciao!

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