Marian Anderson, born in 1897 in Philadelphia, is often misrepresented as an opera singer. While she did often include arias in concert, she was largely a concert performer. In commemoration of her birthday this year, her hometown of Danbury, Connecticut has planned a celebration, according to a short Associated Press blurb in our paper this morning.
Anderson was the first African-American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, sang at two Presidential inaugurations, and christened a nuclear submarine.
In 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution refused Anderson permission to perform to an integrated audience in their Constitution Hall (in Washington DC), bringing Anderson into an unexpected international spotlight. President Roosevelt and Walter White, the secretary of the NAACP, orchestrated a performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939. The performance attended by 75,000 people and heard by millions over the airwaves. Anderson began the program with “My Country tis of Thee.” Also performed was this recording of Schubert’s moving “Ave Maria,” one of the seven songs the twenty-eight year old Schubert based on Walter Scott’s epic poem, The Lady in the Lake in 1825.
The operas of Guiseppe Verdi remain enormously popular (with people with whom opera remains popular) — our own Minnesota Opera produced his MacBeth just a couple years ago. But Verdi, who began as a church musician, composed relatively little sacred music during his extensive career. It was, however, to those roots he began to return after the enormous success of what was expected to be his swan song, Aida, which was first produced in 1871 when the composer was fifty-eight.
He was expected to settle into an early retirement, as his predecessor Rossini had done some years earlier. Already Verdi was more interested in farming and his comfortable estate in Busseto, near his birthplace, preferring it to the treadmill of opera production (which he once described as his anni de galera, or “years as a galley slave”) and the politics of Italy’s progressing unification.
Verdi’s most beloved works come from the late end of his productive years — Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Travista in particular — but his masterworks are those operas from the years he could choose his subject and compose at leisure. This allowed him to explore his lifelong love for Shakespeare with his final operas Otello and Falstaff.
Although he had a superhuman capacity for efficient invention — idly composing his lovely string quartet, his only chamber work, while watching the rehearsals for a production of Aida — Verdi showed limited interest in any form outside of the theater. Its said at the age of ten he walked kilometers to serve as the church organist in Busseto, but it was not until this these years of semi-retirement his passion for sacred music returned.
He contributed to a requiem in honor of Rossini, but his portion was withdrawn and went unperformed for nearly twenty years. In the interim, he composed his complete Requiem to be performed on the first anniversary of the death of Alessandro Manzoni, a poet and Italian patriot whose work Verdi admired.
The story of Rafael Schächter offers the power of Verdi’s Requiem: He was an established musician in Czechoslovakia, but as a Jew was arrested by the Nazis and transported to the Terezín concentration camp. There he organized a choir which at its largest contained over 200 souls, and produced — with a single piano — a production of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride at first without permission from the camp’s freizeitgestaltung (“administration of free time activities”). The crowning achievement of Schächter’s captive choir was Verdi’s Requiem, performed sixteen times by diminishing numbers between January 1942 and its finale in the fall of 1944 before an audience which included members of the S.S. and the International Red Cross.
It is unknown when Schächter died after he and a thousand others were transported to Auschwitz a few months after the final performance of the Requiem. That we know his serial number but not his fate a testament to the barbarism of bureaucracy. A performance at Terezín was attended Adolf Eichmann, who was said to remark, “The crazy Jews are singing their own requiem.” Schächter, on the other hand, saw it as defiance, telling his choir their work was but a rehearsal for the grand performance they would give in freedom in Prague.
Verdi had used a chorus of Hebrew slaves in his historical opera Nabucco to represent the Italian people, captive to foreign powers when he composed the opera in 1842. It’s famous “Va Pensiero,” taken from Psalm 137, a nationalist anthem. At the interment of his remains at the Casa di Riposo, which you can visit still today, a choir of eight hundred led by Arturo Toscanini sang it in his honor.
His late operas were, unlike Nabucco, distinctly apolitical, and entirely removed from the Christian church. Aida centers around Egyptian polytheism, and the tragic hero of Otello is, of course, a Muslim. Scattered through this period he wrote four works which have posthumously been collected as Four Sacred Pieces. While we may be tempted to compare them to Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, they were composed without the same deliberate intention.
Unlike Strauss’ Songs, Verdi’s works were composed entirely apart from one another and at least one, “Ave Maria,” was intended as an academic exercise. This recording by Sir Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, as with performances dating to as early as 1898, does not follow the composer’s wishes. He did not want “Ave Maria” performed with the other works, and along with “Laudi Alla Vergine Maria” it was to be performed by a capella by solo voices, not a choir.
The “Stabat Mater” is a 13th century hymn which has been interpreted by many of the great composers. It tells the story of the crucifixion through Mary, its title meaning “sorrowful mother.” In Verdi’s hands there is a little of his theatrical flair, notable in the seventh stanza when Mary recalls the flogging of Jesus by Pontius Pilate’s soldiers.
“Laudi Alla Vergine Maria” is built around Saint Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin Mary in Dante’s Paradiso on behalf of the traveller. He thanks her for the gift to humanity of the Son of God, and holds her up as the idea of human virtue:
Your kindness not only helps those who ask it, it often freely anticipates the request.
In you is tenderness: in you is pity: in you is generosity: in you whatever excellences exist in the creature, combined together.
After the passage used by Verdi for this piece, St. Bernard leads Dante on the next step of his journey, bringing him face to face with The Holy Trinity. This is the triumphant conclusion of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
“Te Deum” is the oldest of the hymns, dating to the baptism of Saint Augustine by Saint Ambrose in the year 387. It remains significant in Catholic liturgy today, particularly for significant events such as consecration or canonization.
It was significantly featured in Italian opera the year before Verdi passed away, sung by a chorus after the villainous chief of police announces his plot to possess the singer Tosca by executing her lover in Pucinni’s La Tosca. “Tosca,” they add, “you make me forget even God.” Actor Eugenio Giraldoni debuted the role of Baron Scarpia — his father Leone had appeared in many of Verdi’s opera.
In his final years Verdi invested a great deal in two philanthropic projects: a hospital in a town neighboring Busseto and a rest home for elderly musicians in Milan. The second is the Casa de Riposo per Musicisti, where the chorus of eight hundred sang “Va Pensiero” in his honor in 1901. The rest home continued in operation funded by the royalties from his operas. According to an Julian Budden’s authoritative biography, Verdi wished to be buried with the score to the last of the Four Sacred Works, “Te Deum.”
The Minnesota Orchestra will be performing all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies at the end of this month, and into January, as well as all five piano concertos. Osmo Vänskä is scheduled to conduct, and Russian-born, Berlin-educated pianist Yevgeny Sudbin will perform the concertos. We could only choose one, and after wrought consideration went with the Seventh, considering the charisma of the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2008 CD with Vänskä conducting. It sure would be nice if someone here in the states would reissue those BIS recordings so they wouldn’t be so damn expensive. We’ve always felt cost is the main thing which keeps classical music inaccessible to folks like ourselves.
On this day last year, the Minnesota Orchestra was performing Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors. To give you an idea how much television has changed in the past fifty years, this holiday opera was actually commissioned by NBC, the network which now forces us to choose between Chicago Med, Chicago Fire, and Chicago PD (that last presumably doomed by the Burger King footage of officers erasing evidence released by the City of Chicago last week). Menotti’s opera debuted on Christmas Eve, 1951 at Rockefeller Center. It tells the story of a poor Italian family who offer lodging to the Magi, who are traveling to welcome the Christ Child. Amhal’s mother is caught stealing from the Three Kings after they have retired for the night, but is forgiven after they see she is in need. Amhal, who walks with a crutch, offers it as a gift for the Child, and for his generosity is miraculously cured. At the end of the story, he leaves with the Three Kings as they travel on, so that he may see welcome the Christ Child himself.
Samuel Barber assisted Menotti with the orchestrations, and the opera was barely finished on time. Still, it was welcomed with praise from no less a luminary than Arturo Toscanini. It is certainly the most famous of Menotti’s operas, and as the Minnesota Orchestra’s performance last year proves still a holiday tradition. For many years NBC re-broadcast the opera, but it seems likely this year they’ll be broadcasting some violent trash about cops on Christmas Eve.
The original LP included an essay by Menotti which offers a delightful explanation of his inspiration for the story:
This is an opera for children because it tries to recapture my own childhood. You see, when I was a child I lived in Italy, and in Italy we have no Santa Claus. I suppose Santa Claus is much too busy with the American children to be able to handle Italian children as well. Our gifts were brought to us by the Three Kings, instead.
I actually never met the Three Kings — it didn’t matter how hard my little brother and I tried to keep awake at night to catch a glimpse of the Three Royal Visitors, we would always fall asleep just before they arrived. But I do remember hearing them. I remember the weird cadence of their song in the distance; I remember the brittle sound of the camels’ hooves crushing the frozen snow; and I remember the mysterious trinkling of their silver bridles.
My favorite king was Melchior, because he was the oldest and had a long white beard. My brother’s favorite was King Kaspar. He insisted this king was a little crazy and quite deaf. I don’t know why he was so positive about his being deaf. I suspect it was because dear King Kaspar never brought him all the gifts he requested. He was also rather puzzled by the fact that King Kaspar carried the myrrh, which appeared to him to be a rather eccentric gift, for he never quite understood what the word meant.
To these Three Kings I mainly owe the happy Christmas seasons of my childhood, and I should have remained very grateful to them. Instead, I came to America and soon forgot all about them, for here at Christmastime one sees so many Santa Clauses scattered all over town. Then there is the big Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza, the elaborate toy windows on Fifth Avenue, the one-hundred-voice choir in Grand Central Station, the innumerable Christmas carols on radio and television — and all these things made me forget the three dear old Kings of my own childhood.
But in 1951 I found myself in a serious difficulty. I had been commissioned by the National Broadcasting Company to write an opera for television, with Christmas as the deadline, and I simply didn’t have one idea in my head. One November afternoon as I was walking rather gloomily through the rooms of the Metropolitan Museum, I chanced to stop in front of The Adoration of the Kings by Hieronymus Bosch, and as I was looking at it, suddenly I heard again, coming from the distant blue hills, the weird song of the Three Kings. I then realized they had come back to me and had brought me a gift.
Today is Richard Strauss’ 150th birthday. As a composer best known for his operas, he’s not exactly in heavy demand around here — believe it or not we don’t sell a lot of operas these days, although we do have a loyal following of classical collectors.
If you were to take an interest in contemporary opera, Strauss is a great starting point since he stands somewhere in between the 19th and 20th century, combining Wagnerian romanticism with bold forays into dissonance and shocking theatrical productions. His operas are intensely psychological, at times even “neurotic, as he was once dismissed by no less an authority on the subject than Joseph Goebbels. Many are disturbingly violent. Some carried sexual subtexts that were scandalous at the time, others autobiographical anxieties that antagonized audiences.
Strauss’ best operas are distinguished by strong female leads, often identified in the title. His heroine in Elektra, for instance, is one of the most difficult roles for a soprano to perform. His most performed opera, Salome, includes one of his most famous compositions, a “Dance of the Seven Veils,” as well as a disturbing finale in which the heroine embraces and kisses the severed head of John the Baptist.
Since the sixties Strauss is most familiar to American audiences for the opening passage of his 1896 tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, which was used by Stanley Kubrick to introduce the “Dawn of Man” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The music was also used to introduce Elvis Presley during the last decade of his life. Strauss’ tone poem was an adaptation of Frederick Nietzsche’s philosophical novel famous for its declaration that “God is dead.” Strauss uses the subject to present the unresolved conflict between mankind and the physical world, using the awkwardly adjacent keys of B major and C major to represent each.
Also Sprach Zarathustra is the most famous of Strauss’ tone poems, but it was not the one closest to the composer. On his deathbed he spoke of Death and Transfiguration, saying “”It’s a funny thing … dying is just the way I composed it …” Strauss, an accomplished conductor, himself made several recordings of Death and Transfiguration, which was debuted in 1890. It has also been recorded by just about every prominent conductor since. Surprisingly, there were only a couple to choose from in stock here at Hymie’s this week. We chose to record this 1981 digital recording by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra with Eduardo Mata conducting. Also on the album is the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome and the sensual, romantic tone poem Don Juan.
The tone poem (or “symphonic poem”) was an established form in programmatic music by the time Strauss began composing his, but it is now a form very much associated with his name. While undeniably influenced by Wagner, Strauss’ tone poems balance personal intimacy with a broad, universal realism. Death and Transfiguration describes the recollections of a dying artist, who remembers his youth and lifelong struggles. His spirit ultimately ascends to the heavens, a strange conclusion for a composer who all his life was an avowed atheist.
Death and Transfiguration is one of the most-frequently performed and recorded of Strass’ works. In addition to mentioning it on his deathbed, Strauss quoted from its conclusion in one of his last works. It is presented here in two parts because of the limitations of the way we post music here, but is always performed as a singular piece about twenty-four minutes long.
You’re hearing a recording from the Metropolitan Opera recorded on October 10th, 1908. In this aria, Cio Cio San (Madame Butterfly) sings of her hopes for the return of her lover, U.S. Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton. She does not know that his true wish is to marry an American girl, Kate. In this heartbreaking scene she is eagerly awaiting his return.
This is not the Met’s debut of Madame Butterfly, but one of it’s earliest performances. The soprano, Geraldine Farrar, went on to become one of its greatest stars.
Geraldine Farrar was born in Melrose, Massachusetts in 1892. The daughter of a baseball player for the Philadelphia Quakers and later the Philadelphia Athletics, Farrar began studying music in Boston at five. She was all of nineteen when her performance in Charles Gonoud’s Faust earned her the praise and support of two legendary nineteenth century sopranos, Lillian Nordica and Lilli Lehmann. She studied with Lehmann in Berlin for three years, appearing in the lead of several productions of the Berlin State Opera, notably as Juliet in in Gonoud’s Roméo et Juliette. While in Berlin she enjoyed the affections of Wilhelm, the Crown Prince of Germany.
She performed with the Monte Carlo Opera for three less-eventful years and made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera in New York on November 26, 1906, again in the role of Juliet in Roméo et Juliette.
Farrar performed the title role in Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at the Met’s debut of the opera on November 26 the following year, with the composer in attendance (at least for the final two acts). In all she would perform Madame Butterfly ninety-five times at the Met.
Arturo Toscanini came to lead the Metropolitan Opera the year after Farrar first performed Madame Butterfly. Farrar’s affair with the Italian conductor lasted seven years, and her demand that he leave his family for her led to his sudden departure in 1915. Her relationship with tenor Enrico Caruso, with whom she often performed in Butterfly and other productions, is the subject of great speculation – whether they had an affair or not is uncertain, but it was Caruso who first quipped the soprano’s maxim: Farrar Fara (“Farrar will do it”).
Farrar’s followers, primarily young women, were derided as “Gerry’s Flappers.” Her shaved eyebrows in those early performances of Madame Butterfly at the Met set off a trend that resonated into the era of classic American cinema. She herself was less successful in the movie house – her most notable performance in Cecil B. DeMille’s Joan the Woman, a silent movie best remembered for it’s early innovations in color film.
In her time at the Met, Farrar also performed the lead in Carmen fifty-eight times. It is almost certainly overwork that led to the decline in her voice by her retirement from the opera in 1922. Biographer Elizabeth Nash captured what was unique about her performances:
Unlike most of the famous bel canto singers of the past who sacrificed dramatic action to tonal perfection, she was more interested in the emotional than in the purely lyrical aspects of her roles. According to Miss Farrar, until prime donne can combine the arts of Sarah Bernhardt and Nellie Melba, dramatic ability is more essential than perfect singing in opera.
For the 1910 debut of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Königskinder Farrar trained a flock of geese. The New York Tribune of the performance noted that she created a stir by appearing at the curtain call with one of them held under her arm.
Her saucy tussle with Jeanie Macpherson in DeMille’s 1915 adaptation of Carmen remains one of the sexiest girlfights on film.
Farrar’s marriage to movie star Lou Tellegen was no less scandalous than her affairs with the Crown Prince and the Italian conductor, though in this situation she was hardly the cause. Tellegen’s infidelities led to their divorce after seven years. Asked about her ex-husband after his dramatic suicide many years later, the film and opera star was quoted saying, “Why should that interest me?”
Farrar’s long and gracious retirement only extended her legacy by the time she passed away in 1967. She was not America’s first or greatest star of the opera, but she was uniquely ours. Her theatrical approach is lost today – poorly represented on film and hardly felt in recordings. Often we are asked here at Hymie’s which long-passed performer we’d wish to have perform in the shop – a lot of our first choice may be more modern, but the extraordinary Ms. Farrar would be with them.