Monday, November 23, 2009

Losing Haydn's Creation in the Translation

The question came up after the performances of Haydn's “The Creation” this past weekend with the Harrisburg Symphony: what about the English text?

Most people seemed to agree that it was not very good – and yet, wasn't it Milton, taken from his poem “Paradise Lost”?

Well, yes and no.

I don't remember if I ever read much Milton (see below, right) when I was a student but I certainly don't recall the awkwardness of so many of the lines in this translation. As Ellen Hughes put it after Sunday's concert, she had read it “but my brain was younger, then.”

There didn't seem to be much of Milton's profundity and beauty of language in the words we heard sung so well that afternoon.

To me, the English in Haydn's work just sounded like a bad translation from the German to which Haydn originally composed his music. (We've all seen those hysterical translations of Japanese or Chinese signs into English, right?)

The “original” text had been presented to Handel who, as H.C. Robbins Landon points out, rejected it because it lacked the dramatic opportunities he looked for in a good oratorio libretto. For Handel, the idea was closer to opera: the only major oratorio he composed that did not pit characters dramatically against each other ironically became his most famous oratorio. “Messiah” has sufficient drama inherent in the story of Christ's crucifixion to satisfy his theatrical needs.

This text – the author or compiler remains unknown – was presented to Haydn who did not speak English. It would be unlikely he would have chosen to set it in English. Baron van Swieten (see right), a former diplomat and official in the Imperial Court of Vienna who was familiar with English (whether he spoke it or how well he spoke it is another question), translated it into German and it is this text that Haydn set to music.

The problem, then, is taking music written to the rhythms and accents of German and fitting it with English. What Swieten did was make an English translation of his German to fit (presumably) the music and then publish both of them with an eye to future performances in England.

Unfortunately, many of the rhythms no longer fit the original English which then required “alternate words.” In a sense, then, we get an adaptation of Milton, not Milton himself. We get lines about a “flexible” tiger (when there was no adjective accompanying Milton's tiger at all, though he also mentioned a libbord). Instead of this fragment,

“...and upright with Front serene /
Govern the rest, self-knowing...”

we get

“The large and archèd front sublime
of wisdom deep declares the seat.”

Through the decades' fog, I dug out my copy – or rather, my grandfather's copy – of Milton (something I believe he purchased between 1905 when he graduated from high school and the 1920s). (You can read the entire poem on-line, beginning here.)

Milton's poem was first published in 1667. When I opened it after decades of separation, I was reminded that many people who define poetry as “something that rhymes” would not consider Milton's work a poem: it doesn't rhyme. In fact, in his 1669 edition, Milton himself writes,

“The measure is 'English Heroic Verse without Rime' as that of Homer in Greek and of Virgil in Latin; Rime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to sett off wretched matter and lame Meeter.”

An epic poem, it eventually consisted of twelve books and, since it is “Paradise LOST,” it is more about later events that the Creation itself. The tale familiar to us from the opening of Genesis is recounted in Milton's Book VII, when Adam invites the Angel Raphael to recount the story to him. Most of it takes place between lines 232 and 640.

(To give you an idea of the extent of the poem, it consists of 10,554 lines divided – ultimately – into 12 books of which Book VII is the shortest. Curiously, the Story of the Creation, a seeming “flashback” within the structure of the poem, happens at what is also the 'Golden Section' of its structural outline. Just thought I'd point that out.)

It is unlikely any composer in his right mind (especially in his left brain) would ever choose to set Milton verbatim. I have never heard or read much about the opera that Krzysztof Penderecki wrote based on “Paradise Lost” in 1978 but I'm sure a lot of great material was left on the cutting room floor (however, it seems to be in 2 Acts divided into 42 scenes! You can hear about 2 minutes of it here, a scene [sung in German] where God warns Adam to avoid the Tree of Knowledge).

And then, when you're dealing with a translation in the first place, you're not getting Milton's words but a refraction of them (not to mention just a fraction of them). By translating that back into English from the practical aspects of fitting the music, we can't, unfortunately, go back to the Original Milton. Baron van Swieten's lack of familiarity with the language also gave us some pretty awful English.

This presents a problem for anyone choosing to perform Haydn's oratorio in English. Keep in mind, Haydn set it in German, so his music most naturally fits the German text. While some people are annoyed by having “super-titles” with the words-being-sung projected onto a screen over the performers, some wondered why use them when the singers are already singing in English.

Perhaps, because, even in the best of halls – and the Forum would not be counted among them – it is not always possible to hear every word, no matter how good the singers' diction.

Maybe the question could be, if you can project the translation in the vernacular, why not just sing it in Haydn's original German? Considering how distracting the quality of the English proved to be, perhaps that's a more viable discussion.

There are several versions of the English available. Swieten's comes with the standard editions, which very likely will have the German text with the English translation directly beneath it. There are further editions and publications which may include a translation that is “cleaned up,” up to a point, or one, like Robert Shaw's, which makes more sweeping corrections and clarifications.

Individual soloists might change a word here and there because (a) it makes more sense, (b) it fits the rhythm better or (c) it's easier to sing, certain vowels working better in certain registers of the voice.

Soprano Ilana Davidson sang "On mighty wings uplifted soars the eagle" but the projected text read "On might pens uplifted" which is both Swieten and the original Milton which, in this case, means feathers or pinions.

Tenor Benjamin Butterfield, who's sung several “Creations,” mentioned he has four different scores, each with different texts or additional corrections and suggestions.

But you can't always do that with a whole choir. So a lot of it depends on what edition is available to perform.

Something most audience members wouldn't think of, but you can't just say to 100 singers “Bring your own scores of 'The Creation' to the rehearsal,” because those editions could have different texts and rhythms which would just make a musical mess of things.

But then, if you're singing words from the Bible – since most of the recitatives are taken from the Book of Genesis – are you using King James which is the 'standard' English translation (published in the same century Milton composed his epic poem, by the way) which is a translation of the Latin Vulgate in use by the Catholic Church for centuries which is a translation of the Greek version used in the earliest years of the Church which is a translation of the ancient Hebrew in which the original Old Testament was written down? Not to mention all the other modernized versions in English of the Bible available today.

What comment do I most often hear from people who “miss” the old King James version? The modern editions often “lack the poetry of the original” [sic].

The same can be said for Baron van Swieten's re-translation back into English of Milton's lines from “Paradise Lost,” where “Lost” also implies what traditionally happens in translations.

The Italians, I think, said it best: “Traduttore, traditore.” Translator, Traitor.

I suppose we could try BabelFish... That means, those lines about Adam's forehead?

“...and upright with Front serene /
Govern the rest, self-knowing...”

In German, it's

Die breit gewölbt' erhabne Stirn
Verkünd't der Weisheit tiefen Sinn

which van Swieten retranslated as

The large and archèd front sublime
of wisdom deep declares the seat.

In Babelfish English, it becomes

The broadly curved raised forehead
announces deep sense to the wisdom.

Yeah, still kind of loses something, doesn't it...

- Dr. Dick

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Illustrations: Top: Haydn, in a 1794 portrait (painted 2 years before he began work on The Creation) by Johann Zitterer; Baron van Swieten as depicted by actor Jonathan Moore in the 1984 film, Amadeus

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Good Year for Haydn

There are some posts I've written over at the Harrisburg Symphony Blog -- A Good Year for Haydn especially Part 3 of the post (Muses on the Brain, right or Left) -- that are based on the first class I'd given at HACC last week. This is for the course about Haydn and his life in this anniversary year, observing the bicentennial of his death.

Also see Part 4 "Creating The Creation" and Part 5 "The Creation (Finally)."

Joined by the Susquehanna Chorale, the Wheatland Chorale and the Messiah College Concert Choir, soprano Ilana Davidson, tenor Benjamin Butterfield and bass Richard Zuch, the Harrisburg Symphony, conducted by Stuart Malina, will be performing Haydn's oratorio "The Creation" this weekend, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. I'll be doing the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

- Dr. Dick

Monday, November 16, 2009

NaNoWriMo Update: Half-way through National Novel Writing Month

It's National Novel Writing Month – where authors and author-wannabees around the world sit down and try to write 50,000 words toward a novel during the month of November – and this year (my second) is focusing on “The Lost Chord” which is a musical parody of Dan Brown's “The Lost Symbol.”

Here it is, halfway through the month and I'm 60.7% of the way toward the goal. So far, so good, but I'm not done yet! Actually, the way it's going, I think if I make it to 100% of the goal, the novel still won't be finished but at least I'll have a pretty good chunk of it done. I was thinking it would probably be longer than 50,000 words anyway which is about 115 pages or so (so far, my rough draft is 68 pages long).

The trick (or at least one of them) to hitting that goal is not to get bogged down in the editing process now: save that for later. The goal is to get a first draft done. Yes, it's possible by the time that's done, I could end up cutting out enough words that the final total could be less than 50,000, but that's not the point: you have to keep writing to have something to edit and not get discouraged when you think, “you know, but I don't need that scene of 5,000 words after all...” I can spend an hour writing a 2,000 word blog-post and two more hours editing it down to a 1200 word post...

Another thing is getting bogged down in research – thinking about character background is one thing but coming up with questions like “could this actually happen this way?” or since I'm using a real place for my setting (Lincoln Center), “does this actually exist there?” Part of the trick there is, given all the construction going on in the massive renovation plans over the past few years, not only has the place changed from the last time I was there, it's changing almost every week. What was it like on the day I set my story?

Now, I could've taken the time to go to New York City, grab a performance there and scope it out, all in the name of research, taking lots of pictures, writing down a ton of notes about this or that. But that would be too easy.

One of the side-comments Brown makes in his novel struck me: when Robert Langdon, the Harvard symbologist at the heart of his last three novels, is listening to the CIA Security Chief Inoue Sato tell him information about the kidnapped Peter Solomon one of her assistants found on Google, Langdon  “fight[s] the impulse to tell Sato the same thing he constantly told his students: 'Google' is not a synonym for 'research'” (p.98).

So I decided I would try to find everything I needed to know about my setting by googling it! I could check it with friends of mine who live in New York and may inhabit Lincoln Center on a regular basis, but this seemed like more fun (and less intrusive on my friends' time). And if I'm wildly wrong, well... there's always the editing stage. (It is, also, a parody, not a tour-guide.)

The other thing that occurred to me as I'm trying to find out about the underground world beneath Lincoln Center – the equivalent of Brown's Capitol Sub-Basement – is, if I'm making up people who have real positions occupied at the moment by real, living people (meaning no disrespect by writing them out of existence), why should I be so intensely concerned about accuracy in the physical setting?

So if I can turn Robertson Sullivan (Brown's Peter Solomon) into the chairman of Lincoln Center (or should he be its President? there seem to be so many people in charge of the place), why can't I create a sub-basement UNDER the Concourse Level of Lincoln Center beyond the parking areas, storage rooms and physical plant for the buildings, big enough to hide a 'secret lab' and various other rooms as needed?

There's a climactic scene involving a conveyor belt where Langdon and Katherine Solomon (sister of the above-mentioned Peter) who, in escaping from the CIA, travel beneath the streets of Washington D.C. to arrive somewhere else momentarily safer. It seemed far-fetched but Brown is usually pretty accurate about details like this, so I would assume there really IS such a thing.

In MY version of this scene – and, yes, I have an image of Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance working in the chocolate factory – it will become a conveyor belt meant to carry scenery from underground storage units over to the service elevator up into the cavernous backstage area of the Metropolitan Opera House. If it doesn't exist, it sounds like it would, right?

At the moment, our hero is being taken deep underground, following the first set of clues. As we work our way back into this area, what better name for the location than Niebelheim, taken from Wagner's “Ring,” the underground realm of the villain Alberich where all the Niebelungs slave away turning the Rhine-Maidens' lump of gold into profit.

Even if it's not really there, descending into the level beneath the Concourse, it's like “no one knows it's there,” right?

Sometimes, things just happen serendipitously: while reading some of the history of Lincoln Center, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of its initial groundbreaking, I saw that one of the moving forces behind its inception was Robert Moses.

"Perfect!" I thought, for the equivalent of the scene in Brown's novel taking place in the Library of Congress with its long discourse on the building's statue of the biblical Moses.

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Some friends have commented about my tearing right along, writing a few thousand words a day when they're having trouble getting a hundred words down on paper.

Without sounding like Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition (which no one would expect), the big trick here is to plan things out BEFORE November 1st when you're supposed to start writing: I don't believe it says anywhere you can't THINK about the novel before November 1st. November 1st is just the day you start writing it.

So in advance of the Start Date, I had pretty well mapped out what I was going to be doing. Well, since Dan Brown already wrote that for me, following his original, it's a lot easier when you don't have to think “Who's my main character?” “Where is this going to be set?” “What are the main elements of my plot?” It's already there: it's a parody, so I have an original master plan to work from. My job is to translate it into my own take – in this case, a search for the “ancient mysteries” about artists' creativity from the perspective of classical music.

I outlined Brown's novel chapter by chapter (and there are 133 of them with a short prologue and epilogue). Then, because I'm so obsessed with the Golden Section in the music I compose and have even worked it into the planned structure for the novel I started LAST NaNoWriMo (I think I got some 75,000 words down by the time I put it aside a week or so after November 30th's deadline), I decided to apply it to “The Lost Symbol.” Where are the structural points of the novel, when do certain climactic events occur in relation to the balance and pacing of the story's structure?

Curiously, at the main “Golden Section Point” - about 2/3s of the way through – an event occurs in the original that in fact turns everything around: intent on helping Langdon elude the CIA out of fear the CIA is in fact after the “ancient wisdom” of the Masons for its own nefarious ends, one of the characters discovers why the CIA is trying to get this information before the villain is. It's right there, 61.7% of way through all 135 chapters of the book. As I wrote it out in my chapter-by-chapter cliff-notes version of the story, “Sato shows Bellamy something on the computer – he realizes he's made a terrible mistake” in helping Langdon escape and now it may be too late since Langdon could (and of course will be) captured by the villain before the CIA can get to him (especially since Langdon is not yet aware of whatever this new information is). Right there at “phi,” the climax of the full length of the novel according to the Golden Section!

Now, did Brown plan this?

I used the other “Golden Section Points” (which I call GSP and will forever confuse with the Geographic Positioning System) to break my parody down into chapters: like “The Schoenberg Code” which had 12 chapters (a serial novel with a 12-tone composer writing serial music based on the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale), I wanted “The Lost Chord” to have 24 chapters, since there are basically 24 keys in tonal music, both major and minor for each of the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale. Unfortunately, this means my first chapter is humongous compared to the more manageable final chapters where the subdivisions of this Golden Section structural span get smaller and smaller (and therefore read faster and faster as we close in on the ending). Perhaps I should think of 48 chapters (considering the Two Books of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier) but then the final chapters would be too short.

Still, I noticed that at each of these structural points, as I'm applying them to my chart of Brown's chapters, something climactic occurs. Brown will go on for some time with expository or background material or aesthetic or historical discussions, but then, wham, suddenly something builds up and you have a “sub-climax.”

What happens at the next level of “Golden Section Division”? Chapter 51 (p.202), the chapter where Katherine Solomon has a flashback to a dramatic moment that has been building up inference by inference since Chapter 22 (p.90) – the Christmas Eve break-in where the intruder kills Katherine and Peter's mother. Only later is the real significance of this event revealed.

On the opposite, parallel side of the structural graph is Chapter 116 (p.427) where I've paraphrased Brown's revelation that “The Lost Word is not a metaphor – written in an ancient language hidden for ages – brings power to anyone who grasps its meaning.” Not as convincing but still a high-point in the intellectual progression of the plot.

I'm tempted to rework the 'consequent' side of the graph to see if, as I often do, he's using a “mirror structure” so the appearance of structural acceleration moves toward the climax and then away from it in a reverse sequence. And whaddaya know? THAT places the next most significant division not at Chapter 116 but at Chapter 103 (p.381-2), a very short chapter, not two pages long, in which our hero, Robert Langdon, appears to have died!

So anyway, I'm using these points to divide the parallel action of MY story into chapters. But it seems Brown already did that in mapping out his own sequence of events, placing them into an overall structure. It's one way of plotting the rhythm and flow of the story's events and lets him know where he could naturally insert certain non-critical elements (background information or side-long insights) without slowing down the energy needed for the primary plot points.

It may seem like padding, but it's material placed strategically to give a natural proportion to the structure, just the way you can use the Golden Section (or Proportion) to divide a leaf or a building into component parts – or a piece of music: even this idea will become part of my “aesthetic argument,” because IS that something a listener would really hear in a piece of music or a reader know in reading a book? Probably not, but just as it's there in that leaf or in the division of the human body, it helps build something that is natural and pleasing and sensible (as in, capable of being sensed rather than comprehended).

So enough writing ABOUT “The Lost Chord” – I must get back to writing a few more thousand words OF “The Lost Chord” this morning.

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Oh, and since someone told me after my pre-concert talk for Concertante the other night that the reason she had trouble hearing me and why my voice was less distinct and didn't carry well in that room (aside from standing too far away from her and not having a microphone) was because of my mustache! So it amuses me to discover that England has something akin to NaNoWriMo – it's National Grow a Mustache Month! In England, the slang term for a “mustache” is a “Mo.”

Now, here's something I could've done easily in a month: I could've shaved it (and the beard) off on October 31st and let it grow back in. Though I think this is probably for guys who've been clean-shaven before – I've had mine for forty years – it's still something to accomplish in some kind of communal setting within a limited time frame. It would certainly take a lot less work than trying to write 50,000 words and your success or failure to accomplish the goal cannot be blamed on any lack of talent or work ethic.

This last bit I found on a friend's Twitter – read more about Movember with its “aim of raising vital funds and awareness for men’s health.”

So, men, if you're thinking next year about joining NaNoWriMo, consider signing up for Movember and then write a 50,000 novel about growing a mustache. Women could have their husbands or boyfriends sign up for NaMoGroMo (National Mustache Growing Month) and then write a book about watching it grow, your reactions to the changes in his appearance and personality and how people around him react to seeing a guy grow a mustache right before their very eyes...

Or maybe not...

- Dr. Dick

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bring more tuna

Ever sit there during a performance of some piece of music being sung in a foreign language and wondering what they're singing? Some people hear things... well, a little differently.

Even though I'd sung this work when I was in college and was involved as an assistant conductor with a performance at the Harrisburg Symphony back in the early-80s, beyond the opening two lines, I would have to check my score to know exactly what they're really singing... but here is one person's take on what he heard while listening to the (overly) famous opening of Carl Orff's Carmina burana.

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Years ago, there was a similar video I'd found on-line of Pavarotti singing the Duke's aria from Rigoletto -- 'La donna é mobile' -- in which the last line "elle pensier" came out "Elephants, yeah!" While it's bad enough to think the aria is about an immobile woman, I can never hear this aria now without thinking about elephants.

- Dr. Dick

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Not Ready for Winter

Though it's not really "cold" yet, I am already thinking how little I am looking forward to winter when it gets here. This - from Samuel Barber's opera, Vanessa - has been running through my head all day:
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Set in a "far northern country," Vanessa has been waiting twenty years for the return of her lover, Anatol. Erika, who lives with her, looks out the window onto the snowy yard with its wandering deer and sings the aria, "Must the winter come so soon?"

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pictures for the Haydn Class

This post contains illustrations I'll be using for my class on Haydn at the Harrisburg Area Community College tonight (Nov 11) which will continue next week (Nov 18).




















Esterhaza, the palace built by Prince Nicholas Esterhazy, was about 53 bone-crunching miles from Vienna in an area that had little else to recommended it except its great duck hunting. Still, the Empress Maria Theresa said, "if you wanted to hear good music, you had to go to Esterhaza."
 
  Two aerial views of the palace today.
 

 


Rooms of the palace:


The Haydn Hall (below) seats 200 (it has a reverb of 1.2 seconds).



Another music room in the palace.




The opera house and theater was in a separate building that was, aparently, destroyed during World War II.

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Here is Mariss Jansons conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in the first movement of Haydn's Symphony No. 94 in G Major, usually known as the Surprise - in German, they call it "Mit dem Paukenschlag" or "With the Drum Stroke."
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Here is the famous slow movement that gives Haydn's Symphony No. 94 in G Major its nickname, "The Surprise."
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Mariss Jansons and the Berlin Philharmonic: the Minuet (3rd Movement) of Haydn's "Surprise" Symphony:
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And now... the 4th Movement of Haydn's "Surprise" Symphony:
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Haydn loved to play string quartets and in fact sat down with friends at least once that included Mozart playing the viola. I'm not sure when this picture was painted or if it's even an actual portrait of Haydn, Mozart and Friends or just an artist's fanciful image of such a gathering.

Follow this link to hear the Cypress Quartet playing the 2nd Movement (Largo) from Haydn's String Quartet in D Major, Op.76 No. 5. (They'll be playing in Harrisburg in January, 2010, with Market Square Concerts, quartets by Claude Debussy, Jennifer Higdon and Samuel Barber.)

This (see below) is a water color by Balthasar Wigand who attended the performance in 1808 of Haydn's "The Creation," a special concert to honor the composer on his 76th birthday. Old and ill, Haydn was brought in on a sedan chair (in the days before wheel-chairs): it was a very emotional experience for all involved. It also turned out to be Haydn's last public appearance at a performance of his music: he died the following year, May 31st, 1809.


Next Wednesday's class will cover more information about modern listeners' approaches to Haydn and about his work, "The Creation," which the Harrisburg Symphony (along with the Susquehanna and Wheatland Chorales) will be performing November 21st & 22nd at the Forum (Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm). I'll be doing the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

- Dr. Dick

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Digital Composer-in-Residence Has Mid-State Ties

Given the opportunities digital and internet technologies can afford those of us involved in music today, I was glad to see this London-based group, Dilettante Music, held a competition to find a composer-in-residence. Composers submitted works and people were asked to vote on who should win, after listening to sound-files of their pieces.

And I'm delighted and proud to tell you that David T. Little, a graduate of my alma mater, Susquehanna University (of a considerably more recent vintage), where he studied composition with Pat Long, has been voted the winner. His music is really cool: check it out (see below).

Though this was officially announced several days ago, I finally received confirmation from Dilettante's web-site (well, not everything moves at warp-speed, yet). Here's the information they sent out:



David T. Little is our Digital Composer-in-Residence

With hundreds of entries from twenty-three different countries, five judges selected three finalists for the world's first Digital Composer-in-Residence competition. Then it was down to you, and last Thursday live at Wilton's Music Hall in London we announced New York-based David T. Little as the winner of our Digital Composer-in-Residence competition.

David's already been making headlines on NewMusicBox and Arts Journal, and also check out our own Musical Uprising, featuring a video of his winning piece at Wilton's.

David T. Little (David's Composer's Corner)

For one year David will occupy our new Composer's Corner where you can find out what he's up to, discover the music he likes and upcoming events where you can hear his work. David will keep a regular blog, and we'll also bring you podcasts, music and more.

Connect to the Composer's Corner to get regular updates

On hearing he'd won, David said:

"I'm very honoured to have just been chosen as the first Digital Composer-in-Residence and I plan to be an active and engaged member of this ever-growing international community. I look forward to working with Dilettante to help make this innovative program a success in its first year, and to helping bring great music--not only my own, but also that of my many wonderful colleagues--to as many music-lovers as possible.”

Listen to David's winning piece 1986

Many thanks to the other finalists, Chiayu and Aaron Gervais, and everyone who entered the competition. Wishing you the very best of luck.

The Dilettante Team

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Congratulations to David! w00t!

- Dr. Dick

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Getting Started Writing "The Lost Chord"

When I started to write “The Schoenberg Code,” I had only seen the opening scene from the movie that was “soon to be released” of Dan Brown's best-seller, “The Da Vinci Code.” Having written my take on the opening scene, friends wanted me to continue, to do the whole story. An attempt to get it all posted on the blog by the time the movie opened proved a challenge and I remember reading a couple chapters, then writing a chapter of my parody, then reading some more chapters before writing my next chapter. This often meant I had no idea where some threads were leading (if anywhere) but I was pleased that, beyond the opening sequence, there was very little that needed to be rewritten to conform better to the story.

The problem was finding what I call “equivalencies.” Since I wanted to do it as a musical parody, this placed certain limits on what I could use – or what might be funny. Not knowing where Da Vinci's role was headed, I decided the composer most likely to be accused of writing in code would be serialist Arnold Schoenberg, the 'inventor' of 12-tone music. It was, after all, a serial novel which would have a serial composer involved in a story with a serial killer – a story that would have to have 12 chapters. As Da Vinci gives way to the question about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, I was able to spin off to a secret society intent on keeping hidden the identity  of Beethoven's Immortal Beloved.

Placing my bumbling self in for the would-be dashing, blindingly brilliant Robert Langdon was enough of a stretch, but at least Langdon was more realistic than, say, a James Bond look-alike might have provided. Because I was a local “music celebrity,” I thought it might be amusing for my blog readers to enjoy a different side of the persona they heard expounding about classical music on the radio. I was, intentionally, writing a parody of myself in the process.

So I knew, whenever the next Dan Brown novel came out, I would probably be doing a parody of it, too.

Yes, I picked up my copy of “The Lost Symbol” the day it came out and, yes, I had finished reading it in a little more than three days. I was also jotting down notes and was becoming more and more dejected at how little possibility it offered – not that it wasn't ripe for parody, but how little ripe it seemed to be for a musical parody.

My intent, as with “The Schoenberg Code,” was to write something that would be a “music appreciation book,” helping to make composers and their music a little more realistic to the average person. I had to be careful to write so that it could be appreciated on various levels: like so many things, the more you knew about it, the more you got out of it. Discussions about coded messages in Schoenberg's or Shostakovich's music were the equivalent of the discussions in Brown's book about art or theology; many people felt that bringing Beethoven down to a more human level was as sacrilegious as saying that Jesus had been married and had children.

The “music appreciation” aspect of “The Lost Chord” deals more with a composer's creativity, how different composers may think (and think differently), how inspiration works, why composers might write the way they do. Being a composer, I know how *I* think: can I extrapolate that to suggest how I think Beethoven might have thought? No, because that's impossible, no matter how good (or bad) a composer I might be (with or without the comparison). But for people who cannot imagine composing a symphony, let's say, the fact that someone else can is mind-boggling. Regardless of the out-come or the critical reaction, it's what we as composers do and it's no different than what other people with specific talents – writers, doctors, businessmen and so on – do all the time with different types of “creativity.”

I knew it would be called “The Lost Chord” as soon as I saw what Brown's final title was going to be. Working out equivalencies for the Masons, for the setting in Washington DC, much less the subject-lines of the plot, was another matter. I still haven't solved everything.

Of course, since Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote a song called “The Lost Chord,” I knew my equivalent of Brown's Peter Solomon had to be named Sullivan. But how I was going to handle things like the severed hand or the reliance on architecture as part of the plot? Oddly enough, I live in a city with a state capitol building that looks like St. Peter's in Rome (do I combine a parody of “Angels and Demons” with “The Lost Symbol”?) and has a beautiful rotunda and lots of secret passageways contained within the walls (because the building was essentially built over a pre-existing building, rather than from scratch); there's even an obelisk in town to replace the Washington Monument – it once stood in front of the Capitol but was a traffic hindrance so it was later moved to an uptown park).

What ancient portal could there be?

Another curiosity was the old subway built underneath Market Square: when I was a child, it was a scary place to enter, walking underneath the traffic of 2nd Street to cross to the other side of the square. Unlike most “subways,” this was merely an underground cross-walk. The main thing I remember about it was how dark it was and the fact it smelled of urine because vagrants would hang out down there and piss against the walls. It was later sealed over but someone said it was only sealed over, not filled in: presumably the evil rooms and passageways are still there: how dank would it smell now after not having seen the light of day for fifty years?

But I didn't feel Harrisburg would really warrant all the attention that some major secret or ancient mystery would be hidden here.

So, like “The Schoenberg Code,” which took place mostly around Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center Library and then the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, I decided to return to New York, focusing primarily on Lincoln Center.

Lincoln – Washington, get it?

While I haven't been underneath Lincoln Center in maybe 15-20 years and the whole new reconstruction project and renovations going on for the Center's 50th Anniversary are changing many important details I might remember, I recall walking through its subway station and various underground passageways to get from one building to the next without ever having to go outside if the weather was bad. There is an underground parking lot and a whole “concourse level” most of it unmarked on the map available at the Center's website. What a great place to hide secret labs and hidden portals! And if there wasn't an underground conveyor belt like there was between the Capitol and the Library of Congress, why couldn't there be one to move opera sets from either the Met or the State (now David Koch) Theater for City Opera to a warren of storage rooms?

And instead of a chase through the Library of Congress, what about racing down a hallway only to suddenly find yourself on stage at the Met in the middle of a performance?!

Since one of the recurring details setting the scene in “The Lost Symbol” is the Washington Redskins' playoff game which everybody seems distracted by, it occurred to me, as I was getting ready to begin writing, it was World Series time – and the Yankees would be playing the Phillies in New York City. Easy equivalency, there, except I'm no baseball fan. I actually ended up trying to watch much of the Series as RESEARCH!

All I could think of was the last baseball game – read, the only baseball game – I ever attended was when I was 5 or 6 years old and my parents dragged me to a Phillies game to watch the great Richie Ashburn play. I said I would go along (like I had any choice) only if I could take some comic books with me. They assumed once there I would be so taken by the excitement of the game, seeing it live, that the comic books would be soon forgotten. Wrong: I sat there, flipping through a pile of some 20 comic books all evening long, otherwise bored to tears with everybody always yelling or standing up to cheer every few minutes. My father was an avid fan, capable of watching one game on TV while listening to one or two on the radios. Me? Not on your life. I'm sure my mom and dad were up there looking down on me, as I sat in their house watching the Phillies play in the World Series, laughing even more over it than I was...

So the Phillies finally lost – I guess I was rooting for them – but I was delighted at least that they were able to make it to the penultimate game because that way it took place IN New York City - much better for my plot! I was jotting down what times certain key events of the game took place in case I would need to include them in my story. When I looked to see what was playing at the Met that same night – while everybody else would be watching the game on TV if not at Yankee Stadium – I was even more delighted to discover it was Rossini's “Barber of Seville,” a production I had seen live in the Met's HD Transmission series two years ago, with Joyce DiDonato, a singer I adore and whom I'd actually been introduced to, backstage, after a Philadelphia recital, by a mutual friend, my then colleague John Clare. What better scene to have interrupted by a chase scene than the first finale of “The Barber of Seville,” after the 'frozen' sequence when everything erupts in chaos?! (And all those falling oranges!) I promise not to let Joyce break her leg again!

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Last year, during “National Novel Writing Month's” challenge, I started writing a novel. The goal is to write 50,000 words – whether it's finished, whether it's good or not is not the issue. The deal is to sit down while thousands of other people around the world are doing the same thing and you write 50,000 words. That's actually a lot of words to write in one month: think of it as being about 120 pages of text. I managed to go over the 50,000 word goal and I think after a few more days, got it up to over 70,000 words.

This year, I thought it would be the opportunity to write “The Lost Chord.”

And so I – like many others – began writing last Sunday, on November 1st. Luckily, it was even a day we had an extra hour - not to sleep but to write!

But I wasn't starting from scratch. First of all, the framework of my book was already in place: I was writing a parody of an existing novel, so I didn't have to spend time thinking up a plot, developing characters, creating back-story, doing research about the setting (well, actually, yeah, I did) or mapping out how all of this would play out. I had taken a week or so in October to sit down and go through the whole novel again and make a Cliff's Note Map of each of Brown's 133 chapters (plus a brief prologue and epilogue): each chapter's main events and characters were written on the top half of the page; underneath I could jot down any ideas for plot devices, characters, settings or other details that came to mind.

First off was the role of the Masons. What could be my equivalency? A secret society of some kind, something that most people would not understand or often take with a dim view because of certain innate prejudices against things they cannot relate to.

Bingo – Musicians! We have our own rituals, our own jargon and “secret passwords,” even secret initiations (for those who've ever taken their doctoral exams or who've given trial-by-fire debut recitals) so that seemed perfect.

But we musicians don't have things like pyramids, ancient mysteries, secret codes and... oh wait, yes we do: the whole initiation into learning to read music (secret code), to understand how to write harmony or fugues (mysteries) and wouldn't the great concert halls of the world be the equivalent of the mysterious magical qualities attributed to the pyramid?

That's when the Lincoln – Washington parallel came to mind. I remembered having watched the opening concert of Lincoln Center (September 1962) on TV! How much time had I spent hanging around there when I lived in New York City in the late'70s?

But I needed something iconic but smaller – the truncated pyramid with its secret message, the separate top which completes the pyramid (look on the back of a dollar bill) and which unlocks (eventually) the secret message. It took me a week to figure this one out.

The book's original (and I think better) title was supposed to be “The Solomon Key,” which brought in a whole 'nother world of secret documents and history. But two main characters – Peter and Katherine Solomon – still carried the name.

Perhaps it wasn't quite so serendipitous, but I had early decided my parody would be called “The Lost Chord (The Amadeus Key)” which ties in Mozart with two musical puns – the chord, first of all, but also the idea of “key” as the tonal context in which chords function, which creates the study of harmony, how chords move in time - in other words, music as we generally think of it.

Then I realized the pyramid – unveiled in the scene in the Capitol's sub-basement (chapter 38) – would be a Mozart Bobble-head Doll. But without the head – that's the missing top piece. By reattaching the supposedly missing head to the body of the doll, it is now possible to (somehow) unlock these Ancient Mysteries.

And what are those ancient mysteries? Well, I still haven't worked all those details out, not yet.

But the villain of the piece, my equivalent of Ma'lakh (who was originally going to be called Ma'alox but I didn't want to be sued), would seek to become The Greatest Composer In The World – attaining these mysteries, it would unlock in him the power to write nothing but great masterpieces and bring him fame and fortune. It seemed a Mozart doll would be a logical repository for such knowledge...

And what evil in music would be suitable for my villain? Why, the poor, much abused interval of the augmented 4th, the “Tritone,” long known as “Diabolus in Musica” or the Devil in Music. And so Ma'lakh became Tr'iTone. I was going to use Tr'iTon3 just to be more with-it, but I figured Tr'iTone was enough to be typing: after all, I still remember a writer complaining that he'd called his hero Christopher and had to type out the whole name thousands of times in the course of the book: his next hero would be named Ed.

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Names were the next stumbling block. “The Schoenberg Code” was full of musical puns – characters like Mimi Solfeggio and Agents Ed Libitum or Al Rovescio (solfeggio is the whole do-re-mi thing – mimi? get it? – ad libitum was obvious, but Al Rovescio means to go forward, then in reverse, so he was an agent who was always pacing back and forth, going over the same territory looking for clues). But considering the dozens I'd come up with, then, how many more would I need for this one? The only one I decided to use again is Nelson Dorma (from the aria, Nessun dorma in Puccini's Turandot) who had been a singing vagrant and an important witness outside Carnegie Hall in “The Schoenberg Code” but who's now gone on to find a new career as a security agent at the Met.

One of Brown's stranger creations is Director Inoue Sato of the CIA Office of Security, the spies who spy on the spies. She's 4'7”, has a ravaged voice, the result of an operation for throat cancer (in her first scene, Langdon, talking to her on the phone, keeps calling her “sir”) and she's especially annoying, very aggressive and bitchy, probably the most masculine character in the whole book (even Ma'lakh, for all his muscles, is still a self-castrated eunuch).

In the “Schoenberg Code,” there was a security guard at the Lincoln Center Library entrance known as the Gate-Keeper. Named Agnes Day, she was a take-off on Yoda, the Jedi Knight from Star Wars. She was short, wise, somewhat green and spoke with an odd kind of syntax like someone who would say her favorite author is Chaucer.

Here, in Director Sato, was another Yoda-like character, a Jedi Knight who now works for the CIA. But what to call her? Faster than you can schwing a light-saber, she became Yoda Leahy-Hu (her mother, a Hawaiian-born singer named Kammana Vana Leahy, married a Chinese violinist named Hu – which immediately meant I could use my chamber music version of the classic Abbot and Costello skit, “Hu's on First.”

Another name that was having trouble surfacing fell into place immediately after that: the sister of Peter Solomon – family name now Sullivan – would become LauraLynn Hardy Sullivan, though I know it would have been better to have used Abbot and Costello somehow (maybe I can have a piano moving scene, later on). Since her initials would be L.H. Sullivan, her brother (almost a twin) should be R.H. Sullivan – as children they were a piano duo called R.H. and L.H. Sullivan: since R.H. (Right Hand) would always know what L.H. (Left Hand) was doing. Bad, I know, but that's half the fun. R.H. became Robert Hope Sullivan (Bob Hope, a great comedian, right?) but I liked the more patrician sounding form, Robertson.

Peter Solomon was the director of the Smithsonian. Robertson Sullivan would be the director (or chairman) of Lincoln Center. Since he and his sister were very wealthy and would be major contributors to the organization, I decided to name the beautiful Lincoln Center Plaza with its iconic fountain after them: the Robertson and LauraLynn Sullivan Plaza. Serendipitously, I discovered the new name, during the on-going renovations there, is the Josie Robertson Plaza! Tee-hee...

Then, in the midst of writing the segment about the security agents at Lincoln Center, I sat down and brainstormed a bunch of names, puns I hadn't used before:

- The agent in charge of security for Avery Fisher Hall (home of the New York Philharmonic) would be Phil Harmon.

- The agent in charge of security for the old State Theater (home of City Opera and the American Ballet Theater) would be Tom LeVay (after a ballet step called temps levée) and another agent (light on his feet) would be P.K. Arabesk (after the step, piqué arabesque).

- The agent in charge of security for Juilliard and Alice Tully Hall would be a Native-American man named Peter Moonbeam, a translation of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (who justifiably takes offense when Phil Harmon unwittingly mentions, looking at all the security chiefs conferring with Director Leahy-Hu, that “we have too many chiefs and not enough Indians” - but Harmon's always doing that, referring to his men when he's looking at Agent Donna Mobile).

- Agent Donna Mobile (after the aria “La donna é mobile” from Verdi's Rigoletto) is a fickle heart-breaker with a long string of ex-boyfriends.

- Agent Constantine Sordino (the musical direction “con sordino” means to mute the instrument) is told at one point to “stuff it” (as a trumpet player might do with a mute) or to “keep it quiet.”

- An agent who's a specialist with electronic technologies is Ondine Martineau (Ond to her friends), after the electronic keyboard instrument, the Ondes Martenot (I suspect she will have a voice that sounds a bit like she's always whining...)

- Rick Tornello hasn't been created yet, but I have his name all picked out: he keeps returning to the topic like a dog who won't let go of a bone... (ritornello is the musical term for a recurring passage in Baroque music)

Then there's the secret mystery guided by clues Ma'lakh left on the severed hand. First of all, what part of the anatomy could I use? I decided quickly enough on a severed ear – very important to a musician and composer like Robertson Sullivan (who once taught ear-training). It was easy to identify the hand as Peter Solomon's because of the Masonic ring he wore: how would Dr. Dick identify this disembodied ear? Well, how about a little silver band an ear-ring with the engraved words “Recte et retro” on it? That's a clue a composer might use when writing a puzzle canon – basically it means “right way and backwards” or “forward and reverse” (this, just after I'd written a long sequence on giving directions while driving around Lincoln Center -- “I turn left here, right?” “Right” - so he ends up turning right thinking he was being corrected). So “recte et retro” became the equivalent for the Masons' “As above, so below.”

But I found this one for the main clue, something that would point to the crypt beneath the Capitol Rotunda – or, in my case, some place in Lincoln Center.

Cancer eat plenis et redeat medius.”

It's used in Dufay's Missa “L'homme arme” (ah, another body-part pun! The Armed Man!) to describe how the puzzle canon in the Agnus Dei should be realized: “The crab goes full and returns half-full,” or the crab (in canonic lingo, something that moves backwards) moves in full note values but returns using half-note values. It will (somehow) help us find the equivalent of the Masonic Chamber of Reflection in the sub-basement of the Capitol – or, at Lincoln Center, a dusty old practice room underneath the plaza.

Now, when they find the ear – not on the floor of the Capitol Rotunda but on the marble rim of the Lincoln Center Fountain, one of the more iconic symbols of New York City – Dr. Dick and his side-kick Buzz Blogster can't get close enough to see what it is. Buzz discovers it's an ear – how does he know? A friend of his on Facebook just twittered that somebody found an ear at the fountain at Lincoln Center. In fact, that's how the security guards found out about it – seeing a twitter update...

As of this afternoon, I was over 15,000 words or 30% of the way toward November 30th's total goal of 50,000 words.

But instead of writing more for “The Lost Chord,” now, I've written 3,746 words about “The Lost Chord” for this post. I really need to get back to work, though: the next scene is the one at Katherine Solomon's lab with her assistant Trish Dunne (Brown's Chapter 18) – or, in this case, LauraLynn's lab with her assistant Haley Gedankgesang, soon to be murdered not by being thrown into the giant squid tank in another storage area, but stabbed with a prop spear from the first production of Aida at the Met back in 1886 while reclining on Toscanini's casting couch, designed by the great furniture maker, Albert W. Kraken (he's fictional, but Kraken – just google it).

- Dr. Dick

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Puccini's Turandot: The Met HD Transmissions Continue


This weekend's opera in the Metropolitan Opera's HD Transmission schedule is Giocamo Puccini's Turandot. This post includes links and other material that might give you some additional background to enjoy the broadcast if you're not already familiar with the opera.

This post is also in conjunction with my class tonight at HACC.

First of all, here are the theaters in Central Pennsylvania that will be showing this Saturday at 1:00 EST: in many theaters, there may be an encore presentation on Wednesday, Nov. 18th at 6:30 (check local listings, as they say).

Susquehanna 14 Harrisburg at 1500 Caughet Drive, Harrisburg PA 17110 (717-526-4981)

The Penn Cinema at 541 Airport Road, Lititz PA 17543

Majestic Theatre at 25 Carlisle Street, Gettysburg PA 17325

For all of my readers outside the area (both of you), you can follow this link to locate other American locations or in Canada and the Rest of the Known World.

If you can't make Saturday's transmission, there is an encore scheduled for Wednesday evening, Nov. 18th, at 6:30pm EST.

There are also two encore broadcasts of Verdi's Aida scheduled for Nov 11th and 12th.

Incidentally, this month, there are two operas being produced by local companies: Capital Opera Harrisburg presents Saint-Saens' Samson & Delilah in November with performances on the 12th, 13th and 14th (all at 7:30) and on Sunday the 15th (at 3pm), all at the auditorium of the William Penn Campus Auditorium. (Last month, it seemed some of the performances were going to be held elsewhere, but their up-dated website now indicates all performances will be taking place at the William Penn Campus.) They will be presenting two one-act operas from Puccini's Il Trittico - Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica - in April, 2010.


Center Stage Opera presents Puccini's Madame Butterfly this month as well with performances the 5th and 7th at 7:30 and 8th at 3pm at Camp Hill United Methodist Church; again Nov. 13th at Hanover's Eichelberger Arts Center and on Nov. 14th at the Women's Club of York on E. Market Street, each at 7:30.

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The Cast for this Saturday's Met broadcast of Turandot includes Maria Guleghina as Turandot; Marina Poplavskaya as Liu; Marcello Giordani as Calaf, the Unknown Prince; and Samuel Ramey as Timur.

Andris Nelsons will be the conductor.


This is the classic production by Franco Zeffirelli – he designed the elaborate sets which were first seen in 1987. The sets have been criticized for being too elaborate, too gaudy and too gigantic, dwarfing the singers and relegating the chorus to actions on the side of the stage. I have never seen this production but many friends of mine who have either loved it or hated it. (When it was first seen, one review mentioned how many thousands of ping pong balls had been used to garnish the sets and costumes, appropriate for an opera with three charatcers named Ping, Pang and Pong...)

Given that the Met is systematically retiring other grand-scale Zeffirelli productions (his La Boheme and Tosca have now been replaced), I'm not sure if this one will survive past late-January when Turandot ends its run this current season.

You can read Anthony Tomassini's review in the New York Times here. After this season's opening performance, he wrote that “Ms. Guleghina sang at the dress rehearsal, but withdrew because of a lingering cold. If Ms. Lindstrom’s performance in the first 'Turandot' of the season was not a 'Star Is Born' triumph, she was dramatically alluring and vocally impressive, winning enthusiastic ovations from the audience.”

Turandot is a huge role even though she's not on stage all that much: basically, she has a walk-on in Act 1 but there's a major aria to sing (“In questa reggia”) and the Riddle Scene in Act 2 Scene 2 (essentially half-way through the opera when she finally does make her dramatic entrance) that demand great singing without much chance to warm up on stage beforehand. As a friend of mine said, “she has to come out and essentially blast you right between the eyes from her entrance.” It's not as easy as it sounds.


Here, you can read the Met's essay about two great spectacles – Verdi's Aida and Puccini's Turandot – complete with photos from the Met's productions. Both are among the grandest of Grand Operas – huge sets, large casts and needing some of the greatest singers around to pull it off.

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The story for the opera originates in one of the tales by the 18th Century Italian writer, Carlo Gozzi, who created a number of works inspired by the characters and conventions of the old Italian Commedia del Arte. His works also inspired writers like E.T.A. Hoffmann (both a famous writer, composer and himself a source for an opera plot in Jacques Offenbach's “Tales of Hoffmann”) and Edgar Allen Poe (who references one of Gozzi's tales in “The Raven”) and supplied stories for operas by Prokofiev (“The Love for Three Oranges”), Hans Werner Henze (“King Stag”) and Richard Wagner's first opera (a long-forgotten thing called “Die Feen” or “The Fairies”) including Puccini's first opera (“Le villi,” about some other evil spirits) as well as his last opera, “Turandot.”


There are actually several settings of “Turandot.” Carl Maria von Weber wrote incidental music for Friedrich Schiller's dramatic adaptation of the story (1809) and Paul Hindemith used some of the pseudo-Chinese tunes Weber used for a movement from his 1943 work, “Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber” (you can hear Weber's “Turandot” Overture and March here; here is a performance recorded in 1947 with Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic. Here is another performance of Hindemith's “Turandot” Scherzo.

Turandot was set by five other opera composers during the 19th Century, including Puccini's own teacher in 1867. Ferruccio Busoni set it in 1917 before Puccini began composing his in 1920 or so.

The story originally came to Gozzi by way of Persia though it originated in China before the days of Marco Polo who wrote about his travels there in the late 13th Century. He recounts a similar tale in which a princess, something of an amazon, would only marry a man who could defeat her in combat.

To summarize Puccini's plot, set in ancient China, Turandot is a princess who has sworn to revenge the rape and murder of her ancestor, the Princess Lo-u-Ling by the invading Tartars: any man who seeks to marry her will be challenged to three riddles and if he fails to answer them correctly, he will be executed and his severed head placed on a spike overlooking the gate to the Imperial Capital of Peking (now Beijing). As the opera opens, the latest prince has just failed his test and is scheduled to be executed at moon-rise. The people of Peking are restless waiting for the execution. There is a stampede and an old man is trampled. He is being helped by his slave-girl, Liu, and then is helped by a stranger.


It turns out the old man is Timur, the former King of the Tartars, wandering in exile. More incredible is the coincidence that the stranger who helps him is his long-lost son, Calaf, also wandering in exile. Liu has stayed by her master out of gratitude and has been in love with Calaf ever since, one day long ago, he had smiled at her in the palace.

The chorus calls for blood as the moon begins to rise. The Prince of Persia is led off to be beheaded. Princess Turandot appears briefly and gives the order to cut off his head. Immediately, Calaf has fallen under Turandot's spell and vows that he will solve the three riddles and win her hand. Timur and Liu try to dissuade him as do three ministers, named Ping, Pang and Pong (they are like clowns straight out of the old Commedia del Arte) but Calaf rushes forward to sound the gong that announces the arrival of another suitor.

In the first scene of Act 2, in a room in the palace, Ping, Pang and Pong commiserate over the fate of China: the old emperor, Altoum, is ineffective as a ruler and Turandot's killing off any available prince interested in marrying her has steeped the country in bloodshed (by various counts, she has killed 13; by others, 99). They dream longingly of their country homes and their own families when the people begin gathering to hear the newest challenger fail to answer the princess' riddles.

In the 2nd scene, set on the steps of the Imperial Palace, the old emperor attempts to dissuade this Unknown Prince from seeking Turandot's hand, but he insists on proceeding. She comes out, sings her aria “In questa reggia” (In this kingdom) explaining her revenge on all men. (You can hear the great Birgit Nilsson, of the great Turandots of the 1960s and '70s, sing the area in a TV concert broadcast, here.)

She then asks him the three riddles:

What is born each night but dies with each dawn?

The prince answers “Hope.” The wise men acknowledge he is correct.

What flickers red like a flame but isn't a flame?

The prince answers “Blood.” Again, he is deemed correct.

What is like ice but burns?

Momentarily stumped, the prince finally answers “Turandot!”

The wise men acknowledge he is indeed correct. The emperor commands his daughter to marry the victorious Unknown Prince. She essentially throws a tantrum but the emperor is stern.

Instead, the Prince offers her a riddle and if she can answer it by sunrise, he will forfeit his life.

Since he is only known as “The Unknown Prince,” he asks her “What is my real name?”

During the 3rd Act, Turandot's ministers and police are trying to find anyone who knows his real name: no one will sleep tonight. In response, the prince sings his aria, “Nessun dorma” in which he is secure of his victory. (This famous aria, the opera's 'greatest hit,' has recently become the Tenor's National Anthem: this performance was recorded at a concert in Los Angeles in 1994 with Luciano Pavarotti.)
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Ping, Pang and Pong try to persuade him to give up and just leave the city, but he refuses.

People have reported he had been seen earlier with the old blind man and his slave-girl. They are arrested and Liu is tortured but she will not reveal his name. Instead, she takes a dagger from one of the soldiers and stabs herself, saying that she would rather die for love rather than betray him. Soldiers carry her body off and old Timur follows her.

Everyone is very moved but still, the answer must be found. Finally, the prince kisses Turandot and then tells her his name: if she chooses to reveal the name, then he will die.

Everyone is once again assembled on the Imperial Steps. Turandot in fact does reveal his true identity: his name is Love. The chorus sings lines from Nessun Dorma and the couple, now happy together, will be married before the Old Emperor.

Gozzi's tale is a little different: there is no Liu – she is an invention of Puccini's, the faithful servant and the “antidote” to Turnadot's iciness. Turandot's servant Adelma is deleted in Puccini's opera: her brother had been one of Turandot's would be suitors and her father declared war on China. Defeated, she was captured and forced to be Turandot's servant. As it happened, she had once been in love with Calaf and recognized him but offers to help him escape from Turandot if he will marry her instead. Calaf is not interested. She's the one who actually tells Turandot the prince's real name: when Calaf goes to stab himself, Adelma takes the dagger from him and tries to stab herself but Turandot intervenes and agrees to the marriage. Calaf implores the old emperor to restore Adelma's lost kingdom which then neatly wraps up the various sub-plots.

One item is left unanswered: when Timur leaves, following the body of Liu, he is never seen or mentioned again. If he is Calaf's father, you would think he would be present at his son's victory. If he had been killed or tortured by Turandot's soldiers, you'd think that would be mentioned. Instead, he just walks off at the end of the scene and disappears. Not a very tidy wrapping-up, there.

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There is one really messy detail, though.

Puccini had become ill while he was working on the opera, diagnosed with throat cancer (he did love his cigars). In 1924, he agreed to have a special new kind of operation involving radiation treatment, then very new, but unfortunately there were complications and he died a few days later of a blood clot which caused a heart attack.

Turandot had been left incomplete and because the illness was not considered “that serious,” the only provision Puccini had made “just in case” was to ask to have Riccardo Zandonai to complete the opera from the 30-some pages of sketches he had made. But Puccini's son disagreed with this, knowing his father had not cared much for Zandonai's music besides not trusting himself to finish it according to the composer's wishes.

After asking Vincenzo Tommassini (who had just finished another opera left incomplete when Arrigo Boito died) and Pietro Mascagni – or they were rejected by Puccini's publisher – it was decided Franco Alfano should be entrusted with the sketches, since he had just completed an opera on an Asian story and his style was very similar to Puccini's in Turandot.

Unfortunately, there wasn't that much to go on. Some of the libretto had not been worked out (Puccini often changed things and added lines) and he was apparently planning on adding a big duet for Calaf and Turandot “like Tristan,” as he had written in the margin. Unfortunately, nobody knew what that meant. It is possible that the loose end with Timur's disappearance might have been solved, too.

He had written to a friend that he needed something big and dramatic to balance the end of Act 2's riddle scene. “It must be a great duet. These two almost superhuman beings descend through love to the level of mankind, and this love must at the end take possession of the whole stage in a great orchestral peroration.”

Instead of a duet, Alfano wrote a three-minute “orchestral peroration” after Calaf kisses Turandot: rather than singing about the change in her feelings, we hear her “melting” in this long interlude but with no “great duet.” The ending seems rather truncated and awkward, unbalanced compared to the 2nd Act's conclusion. Most people felt that Puccini would have done something different than bring in the chorus at the end to reprise some of the music from the tenor's aria, “Nessun dorma.”

As recently as 2001, Italian composer Luciano Berio wrote a completely different ending which is now being used in many new productions (not, as I understand it, by the Met in this production). Friends who've seen it – it's also available on at least one DVD of the opera – say it is immensely superior, both musically and dramatically, to Alfano's solution.


Curiously, at the world premiere, Toscanini, a close-friend of Puccini's and not fond of Alfano's ending, chose to stop the performance at the point where Puccini stopped composing – the music right after's Liu's body is carried off the stage – and turned to the audience and announced, “And here, the maestro put down his pen” (or, as others remember it, “Here, the opera ends because this is where the composer died”).

There are actually two versions of Alfano's ending: before the premiere, Toscanini found the first one insufficient and so Alfano reworked it to create a slightly different one, cutting out a short aria for Turnadot. Though Toscanini never conducted the opera again, other conductors usually use “Alfano 2” but some have taken the better points of each to create a third.

When the publisher allowed other composers to see Puccini's original unfinished sketches, it's apparent Alfano paid very little attention to them. Now, after more than 75 years of familiarity with Alfano's version, it is difficult for some people to accept Berio's darker, less sympathetic version, though others have said it is actually closer to what might have been Puccini's intent.

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The sound of Turandot is also something new and different. After his initial successes with Manon Lescaut (1893), La Boheme (1896), Tosca (1900), Madame Butterfly (1904) and then the less well-known operas, La fanciulla del West (The Girl from the Golden West) (1910), La Rondine (1917) and Il Trittico (1918), Puccini was taking more of an interest in what was going around him, familiarizing himself with new music being written by Schoenberg (Pierrot Lunaire, 1911) and Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring, 1913) among other composers of what was then being regarded as the “avant-garde.”

At points to emphasis Turandot's “reign of terror,” Puccini made a great deal of the interval, the tritone (“the devil in music”) though he had already exploited its character in the music associated with the evil Scarpia in Tosca. Stravinsky's harsh rhythms and use of polytonality (several keys played at once, a very unstable sound) underlined this same dramatic harshness with something musically harsh but appropriate.

In Madame Butterfly, he paid little serious attention to actual Japanese music, using certain cliches to approximate the “idea” of its Japanese setting. In Turandot, set in China, he used three authentic Chinese folk-songs, taken from a music-box that played eight actual Chinese themes, given to him by a friend, Baron Fassini: for the children's chorus in Act 1 that introduces the execution procession of the Prince of Persia, a tune known as “Jasmine Flower;” music sung by the three ministers, Ping, Pang and Pong in Act 1, and then the Imperial Hymn. Elsewhere, he occasionally uses pentatonic themes (the five-note scale, comparable to the black keys on a piano) to give the coloration of Orientalism.

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Though it had no impact on Puccini's music, the tradition of Peking Opera which began in China around 1790 (though inspired by ancient theatrical traditions) is a major visual influence on many productions of Puccini's opera and quite possibly on the lavishness of costumes in Zeffirelli's production (fortunately not imitating the make-up, acting or singing style). Here are some photos from different productions of traditional Peking Opera.











This scene relies heavily on the acrobatic contingent of the theater which were often included in the story just as ballet was a regular part of many European operas. Still, amazing entertainment.

Here is a video of an actual performance of some "Peking Opera" - listen to the different sounds not only of the instruments but of the vocal production as well!


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While some people may dislike the hugeness of Zeffireli's production, take as an example of sheer silliness seen in this trailer for the English National Opera's 2009 production which appears to be set in a modern-day Chinese Restaurant, has pig-headed cooks, an Ice Princess who looks like she bought her costume at Wal-Mart's Wedding Boutique and there is even an Elvis Impersonator among the chorus... I laughed a lot when I watched this but was glad not to have purchased tickets to see it. (I mean, really... come on...)

- Dr. Dick

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The photographs of the Metropolitan Opera production by Franco Zeffireli are from the Met's website and are by Beth Bergman (2002).

Monday, November 02, 2009

A Plea for Arts Education

While November is being dedicated to writing “The Lost Chord” for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) – as well as preparing a class on Puccini's Turandot this Thursday, on Haydn and on the “Basic Language of Music” at HACC starting next week, in addition to preparing a program of "Music Around the World" with the Newstead Trio at the Harrisburg High School this week - I just wanted to take a moment to post these bits I found this morning through the Arts Journal.

Much is being made of young Gustavo Dudamel (and his hair) as he becomes the Music Director & Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I hope as much fuss is going to be made about his ideas of bringing music to the underprivileged kids of his community and by extension potentially to the rest of the country. Having grown up in the Venezuelan program known as El Sistema and having been conducting its youth orchestras for years, Dudamel understands the importance the Arts can have in the life of a child who might otherwise have no future beyond the poverty and crime of slums and street-life.

This article in the Toronto Globe & Mail, about the founder of El Sistema, José Antonio Abreu, makes a point for supporting Arts Education in the public schools.

Think about this paragraph:
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"People refer to this talking only of material wealth, leaving aside the spiritual patrimony of humanity, within which art takes a very important place," he said, through an interpreter. "The distribution in the world of arts education is tremendously unjust. When arts education takes the place in our society that it deserves, we will have much less delinquency and violence, and much more motivation towards noble achievement.
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Another article – this one in England's The Guardian – skims across the topic of “what makes great art?” Basically if you can understand it too easily, then it means either you're not really “getting it” or it's not great art.

Look at the milestones of artistic achievement over the past centuries: one of the reasons they survive is because they can be re-interpreted for each new age, culture and social sensibility (or, if they fail to, perhaps, then come back into the social consciousness when they find an era that discovers new relevancy). There is nothing wrong with popularity, but it is not the sole criterion under consideration (though perhaps it has more to do with “soul criterion”).

In talking about visual art, Guardian blogger Jonathan Jones says
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“The most deadening influence on art in our time is the belief that content matters more than style. If you look back on the artists who have won the Turner prize since the 1980s, or the artists most often mentioned in the media these days, what they have in common is a message. Artists like Marc Quinn, Antony Gormley and Tracey Emin – all have very clear points to make. Once you've understood them, what's left to say?”
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But does that mean that certain types of mindless music, for instance, which would be more style with no content to speak of – whether it's pointless or just shallow – is as much likely to be “great art” (or “real art” as he describes it) than a symphony by Mahler?

After all, given the imprecision of our language where Priceless can mean both "of great value" and "junk", doesn't Meaningless in this sense mean (loving the irony, here) "having no specific or single meaning," not "being devoid of substance"?

- Dr. Dick