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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Arnold Schoenberg

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My first exposure to Schoenberg’s music was Glenn Gould’s performance of the gigue from opus 25 “Suite for Piano” – you can hear it for yourself in the YouTube link to the right. I hope that you will – I’ll wait until you have a chance.

A lot of complete nonsense has been written about Schoenberg’s music, often implying that it embodies an anarchic spirit of modernist rebellion. Some even accuse Schoenberg and his followers of rejecting the very foundations of western music in favor of novel patterns of sound that are not even properly called “musical.”

In truth, Schoenberg was concerned with the history of European composition and theory to a degree seldom found in composers. The care that he took to organize musical ideas is easily discernible in the Gould performances, thanks to the pianist’s miraculous capacity to differentiate and clarify independent voices within compositions.

Certainly, Schoenberg formal interests have little to do with the dramatic principles of tension and release that dominated the western idiom since Haydn. Instead, he is concerned with the melodic and harmonic development of motifs, and in this sense, his work constitutes not a rejection of traditional forms, but a return to the strategies that preoccupied composers from the birth of polyphony in the High Middle Ages all the way down to the classical period. Indeed, Schoenberg reminds me of no composer so much as Bach, with his keen architectonic attention and melodic inventiveness.

Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique is based on constructing a fixed melodic sequence called a “row” out of all twelve notes of the chromatic series. He then uses the row as the basis for a piece of music, perhaps deploying it as the principle theme, or varying it in countless ways.

This approach resembles the strategies used by all Renaissance polyphonic composers to construct melodic lines based on variations of principle themes, with their inversions, crab or puzzle canons, and fugues. One is particularly reminded of “parody masses,” a common form of composition based on melodies lifted from popular songs. The secular song “L’homme armé” alone was used as the basis for hundreds of masses.

The groundwork for Schoenberg’s compositional theory was laid decades before he began his work. Wagner’s Ring was far too long to be persuasively organized by alternations of dissonance and resolution, so it was stitched together by melodic motives, or recurring melodic figures that he associated with ideas from the libretto. Brahms relied on motives as a framework for instrumental writing in some of his symphonies, and Mahler experimented with progressive tonality, by which his symphonies might conclude in a key unrelated to the tonic.

Schoenberg was precisely the opposite of an anarchist – he was an architect of a very high order, and knew exactly what he was doing, and how he stood in relationship to musical history. He once wrote:

I used to say, ‘Bach is the first composer with twelve tones.’ This was a joke, of course. I did not even know whether somebody before him might have deserved this title. But the truth on which this statement is based is that the Fugue No. 24 of the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier, in B minor, begins with a Dux in which all twelve tones appear. (1)

Have a listen to that fugue (again played by Glenn Gould) in the YouTube player to the right, and see if you can note the deep similarities to the gigue we heard before. Both of them are principally organized by parallel melodic progressions that are organized in harmonic relationships such that their simultaneous occurrence with other melodic lines contributes to the overall effect. Both of them are highly chromatic. What, then, is the difference between them?

Schoenberg’s work abound with more dissonant intervals, perhaps, but then, he argued that our perception of dissonance is largely a matter of familiarity.

Now, there will always be those who respond to this argument by maintaining that there is a natural basis for our perception of consonant musical intervals based on simple integer ratios between string length. You can expect to hear the names of Pythagoras, Boethius, and Jean-Philippe Rameau.

This argument is persuasive at a glance, but the diabolus in musica is in the details. It turns out that constructing a musical scale requires substantial modifications of the great Platonic order simply to produce an instrument capable of playing in multiple keys.

And can anyone really argue that dissonant relationships are intrinsically disturbing at this late date? The most dissonant interval playable on a piano is the augmented fourth, and this interval occurs in dominant seventh chords. A malignant dominant seventh might have sent a medieval chorister fleeing from the room in terror, but the Beatles use it in “I Saw Her Standing There,” for heaven’s sake, which is not exactly the stuff of modernism.

Charles Rosen argued in his study of Schoenberg that people are not really disturbed by the nominally dissonant intervals in serialist music, but by the lack of cadence (2). Listeners lack familiar cues that help them predict the flow of a musical passage, and they find it disturbing.

For my own tastes, I find serialism to be most disturbing when orchestral works leap repeatedly from whisper-quiet string segments to sudden explosions of honking brass. I don’t go in for these shenanigans, myself – I regard it as a cheap tactic. Yes, it produces an effect, much as shouting at someone all of a sudden gets their attention.

But anyone who believes that serialist music must be unlovely should really spend some time with Berg’s violin concerto, which may well be the finest concerto written in the entire twentieth century.

I hope to return to this topic at a later date to explore some interesting related issues, including the biography of Arnold Schoenberg, which, if it were presented as a work of fiction, would be rejected as too fantastic to be believed. It’s also worth exploring other techniques for composing outside of classical tonality, such as those employed by Charles Ives and Olivier Messiaen, two of the greatest composers of the last century.

Thanks to DJ for pointing out that the augmented fourth is found in the dominant seven, not the major seven chord.

1) Schoenberg A. “Bach (1950).” from Style and Idea; Selected Writings. University of California Press. 1975. pg. 393.
2) Rosen C. Arnold Schoenberg. Princeton University Press. 1975.

Written by Mesocosm

March 23, 2013 at 11:27 am

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Tannhäuser in Fact, Myth and Opera

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The Poet

Tannhäuser, from the Codex Manesse

If you have heard the name Tannhäuser before, there’s a good chance that your source was either Richard Wagner’s opera or the fleeting reference in Blade Runner to c-beams glittering near the dark of the Tannhäuser Gate.

The actual Tannhäuser (d. circa 1265) was a knight and Minnesänger in the court of Friedrich II of Austria, a minor noble who shouldn’t be confused with Friedrich II Hohenstaufen, the great Holy Roman Emperor.

Tannhäuser composed brilliant courtly love poems in the style of the Provençal Troubadours, whom we considered at length in a previous post.

You can easily detect from its dance-like cadence that Tannhäuser’s poetry was intended to be performed with musical accompaniment. Here is a brief example followed by my translation, in which I have tried to preserve the rhythm:

Der winter ist zergangen,
daz prüeve ich ûf der heide.
aldar kam ich gegangen;
guot wart mîn ougenweide

Von den bluomen wolgetân.
wer sach ie sô schoenen plân?
der brach ich zeinem kranze,
den truog ich mit tschoie zuo den frowen an dem tanze.
welle ieman werden hôhgemuot, der hebe sich ûf die schanze!


The winter’s gone away;
so the heath’s informed me.
Thither had I gone, and
much the sight did please me

of the blossoms fairly made.
Who has seen so fine a glade?
From there I plucked a wreath
to bare with joy to ladies at the dance,
and if a man should seek delight, he too should seize this chance!

Tannhäuser wrote in High Middle German, which is about as far removed from today’s Germany as Chaucer’s English is from us. Under the strong influence of the Troubadours’ Provençal, he included a lot of vocabulary derived from Latin. For example, we frequently find the word “tschoie,” which sounds much like “joy,” and that is in fact its meaning. The modern German equivalent would be “Lust” or “Freude.”

It’s interesting as a native English speaker to read Tannhäuser, because his archaic German, suffused as it is with Romance loan words, at times resembles English as much as contemporary German.

The Legend

Sometime in the fifteenth century, Tannhäuser became a figure of legend. He is said to have traveled to the Mountain of Venus, where he remained enthralled in the arms of the goddess for a time.

The Brothers Grimm collected a typical version of the legend – here is my translation of number 171 from their Deutsche Sagen, Vol. 1:

The noble German knight Tannhäuser traveled through many lands, falling at last into Lady Venus’ Mountain, where he beheld great wonders. Though he dwelt there for a while, happy and in good spirits, his conscience drove him at last to return to the world, and he sought leave. But Lady Venus sought by every means to shake his resolve, offering up her playmates to be his wife. She implored him to think of her red lips, which smiled upon him always.

Tannhäuser answered that no wife could save him from burning in hell forever. He was indifferent to her red mouth and could remain no longer, for his life had become a pestilence.

And so the she-devil, to hold fast to his love (Minne), locked him in his chamber. But the noble knight castigated her harshly, and he called upon the Heavenly Virgin to part them, and so it was done.

Awash with remorse, he traveled over the highways and streets to find Pope Urban in Rome, so to confess his sins, that his repentance might be kindled and his soul saved. But when he confessed that he had dwelt with the Lady Venus for an entire year, the Pope replied “When this barren staff that I hold in my hand blossoms green, then shall thy sins be forgiven, and not before.”

Tannhäuser said “Had I but one year to live upon this earth, I should have offered such remorse and repentance that God should have shown mercy.” And full of sorrow at his damning by the Pope, he went forth from the city and returned to the diabolical Mountain, eternally and forevermore to dwell within. Lady Venus welcomed him back as though welcoming a long-parted lover.

Three days later, the Pope’s staff burst into flower. He sent embassies to every land to find where noble Tannhäuser had gone, but it was too late. Tannhäuser remained in the Mountain, having chosen his favorite companion, and there he must dwell until the Last Days, when perhaps God would show him another way.

This extremely interesting legend illustrates a central tension at the heart of German literature in the High Middle Ages – the conflict between the underlying Germano-Celtic worldview that was thousands of years old, and the more recent overlay of a Christian vision of sin and salvation.

The profound influence of Celto-Germanic myths and legends is visible throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, and the Tannhäuser legend includes its quintessential episode: a hero is sequestered in the castle or realm of an enchantress or fairy. In these accounts, the hero often attempts to return to the mundane world, only to learn that time has passed him by.

One glorious example of this motif is the early Irish story of Oisin, a great warrior who traveled to the timeless realm of Tir-na-nog with the beautiful Níamh Chinn Óir of the immortal folk, the Tuatha Dé Danann.

W. B. Yeats gave a magnificent account of the story in his long poem The Wanderings of Oisin. In this short excerpt, Níamh seeks to entice the hero to the timeless lands:

‘O Oisin, mount by me and ride
To shores by the wash of the tremulous tide,
Where men have heaped no burial-mounds,
And the days pass by like a wayward tune,
Where broken faith has never been known
And the blushes of first love never have flown;
And there I will give you a hundred hounds;
No mightier creatures bay at the moon;
And a hundred robes of murmuring silk,
And a hundred calves and a hundred sheep
Whose long wool whiter than sea-froth flows,
And a hundred spears and a hundred bows,
And oil and wine and honey and milk,
And always never-anxious sleep;
While a hundred youths, mighty of limb,
But knowing nor tumult nor hate nor strife,
And a hundred ladies, merry as birds,
Who when they dance to a fitful measure
Have a speed like the speed of the salmon herds,
Shall follow your horn and obey your whim,
And you shall know the Danaan leisure;
And Niamh be with you for a wife.’
Then she sighed gently, ‘It grows late.
Music and love and sleep await,
Where I would be when the white moon climbs,
The red sun falls and the world grows dim.’

As Yeats’ melancholy poem illustrates, the Celtic heart was deeply ambivalent about the lure of the timeless realm, which was both a flight into eternity and a retreat from mortality.

Casket with Troubadours
12th century France

In most versions of the story, the hero goes for a while, but his mortal heart calls at last for return to the field of time. Frequently, upon his return, the centuries of his absence catch up with him, and he falls to dust.

This motif is frequently found in Arthurian romance, in which a questing knight may aid a queen or maiden under siege or locked in an enchanted castle. For example, in von Eschenbach’s Parzial, the hero’s father Gahmuret comes to the aid of the besieged Moorish queen Belacane in the fantastic land of Zazamanc. He lives with her for a while, until he is called back to battle, where he is killed.

Once Christian morality is in place in Europe, the Celtic psychological predicament takes on a diabolical aspect, for treating with immortals can only be seen as a heathen indulgence. The Celt was untroubled by the sexual lushness of the timeless paradise, and this fit well with the themes of adultery so often found in Arthurian romance, such as the extremely popular adultery of Guinevere and Lancelot. Gottfried von Strassburg, following the vision of the Troubadours, elevates adulterous love to the highest position in the scale of values in his Tristan, literally making an altar of the lovers’ bed.

This only added to the consternation felt by Christianized authors, who associated the sensual license extolled by the Troubadours and Minnesängers with heathenism. In this context, it makes sense that a well-known Minnesinger like Tannhäuser, singing courtly songs of love in the Troubadour style, featured in a moral legend that rejects the old Celtic vision.

This post has already grown long so I don’t want to spend much time on Wagner’s use of the material, other than to observe that he zeroed in on this conflict between pagan and Christian morality and exaggerated it to brilliant effect, even if the opera is not numbered among his greatest works.

Wagner added yet another level to the problem by musically associating the libertine spirit of love with modernism and the avant-garde. The scenes he set in Venusberg are scored in a thoroughly modern fashion, anticipating his development of “continuous music” which rejects the recitative/aria structure of conventional opera. The scenes set in the Wartburg Court, where Tannhäuser is harshly criticized by his fellows for his sinful ways, use conventional forms, including classical arias and duets.

Dies Irae: Mozart’s Requiem

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Did I not tell you that I was composing this ‘Requiem’ for myself?
  – Mozart, reportedly on the day of his death

Final page of Mozart's Requiem, in his own hand

Commissioned anonymously by Count Franz von Walsegg and left unfinished at the time of Mozart’s death, the Requiem mass in D minor has been the stuff of legend for centuries. Its mythology has been amplified for recent generations by the Miloš Forman film Amadeus – a film that shows about as much concern for historical fact as The Da Vinci Code. But at the center of this myth-making lies an extraordinary achievement by one of the greatest musical minds in history.

I am rehearsing Mozart’s Requiem with an amateur choir and have undertaken a study of the piece, and like so many before me, I have been stunned by its richness. As my inimitable choirmaster pointed out, Mozart seized every opportunity for musical development, with countless variations and extensions pushing the development constantly forward.

A simple melody may return for a second visit, having grown three measures longer and trailing filigree ornament like a lace train behind it. On its third appearance, it may have doubled in length and taken flight as one voice in a four-part fugue.

I’d like to point out a few highlights of the Requiem‘s structure, and then tie in some broader reflections on Mozart’s style and biography. I’ve posted some YouTube clips from a lovely performance, with John Eliot Gardiner leading the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, so you can follow along if you like.

The first clip begins the mass with two closely-related movements, the Introitus and the Kyrie (the latter begins around 4:41). For our first analysis, why don’t you have a listen, and give a little attention to how the piece is organized, and how its structure changes as it moves along. I’ll wait here till you’re done.

Okay, then. Nice, isn’t it?

The tension and development in the Introitus derive largely from its movement back and forth between its homophonic organization in chords, as you would often find in the music of Beethoven, and its polyphonic arrangement in different voices, as you often find in the music of Bach. Notice how the voices begin polyphonically with the “Requiem aeternam” at around 0:47, with each of the four vocal sections starting at a different time, and pursuing their own independent melodic course.

The Introitus generally uses chords for emphasis, as when the four vocal divisions come together emphatically for the “… dona eis, Domine….” around 1:20, and continue in lock step for several measures. Then, following the lovely solo, the voices drift apart again into independent melodic lines.

Notice how, at 3:16, the alto section suddenly branches off into an independent melody with its lovely “Dona eis,” floating above the bass.

Once you’ve got a sense of this glorious little line, skip back to 1:52, and you’ll hear the melody first being introduced by the strings, preparing us for the breakaway appearance in the vocals. It comes again through the strings at 2:14, ornamenting the solo.

By the time the Kyrie erupts at 4:40, in the glorious Baroque style of Bach and Handel, each of the four vocal sections present a fugue based in part on that melody, and we are ready for it.

We’ve moved between two completely different methods of organizing musical ideas, and the effect is achieved so gracefully that one might not even notice that anything happened. Mozart prepared the listener for what is to come, and the transition feels as natural as the arrival of spring.

The Domine Jesu contains so many good musical ideas, I hardly know where to begin. Notice what happens at 1:20, when the principle theme is restated by different soloists in different modes.

For a technical account of what is occurring in this movement, let’s consult musicologist Christoph Wolff:

In the “Domine Jesu” Mozart works with the triadic head motive in a way that allows the melodic element (which is the prominent factor in the movement) to become the peg on which the harmonic developments are hung. … The rising series of statements of the head motive, in alternately minor and major keys, is given to the soprano alone, but it prepares the imitative development (bars 32ff.) carried out by all four voices in descending canons at the fifth. The imitative working exploits the motive’s ambivalent major/minor third … and thus extracts the quintessence of the separate major and minor versions of it. (1)

I was not surprised by the technical brilliance of the mass’s construction, which I have come to expect, given the scope of Mozart’s genius. What sets this work apart for me is its tone – its uncharacteristic gravity, which is quite distinct from the relentless whimsy that typifies most of his music.

This account by his Austrian contemporary agrees with his popular persona:

One day when I was sitting at the pianoforte playing the ‘Non più andrai’ from Figaro, Mozart, who was paying a visit to us, came up behind me … sat down, told me to carry on playing the base, and began to improvise such wonderfully beautiful variations that everyone listened … But then he suddenly tired of it, jumped up, and, in the mad mood which so often came over him, he began to leap over tables and chairs, miaow like a cat, and turn somersaults like an unruly boy. (2)

That anarchic sense permeates nearly every piece he wrote. Take, for example, Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor. Unlike the Requiem, the C minor Mass cannot suppress its playful spirit for long. The opening Kyrie begins in an introspective mood before flipping to B flat major for the Christe at 2:20. This aria, I submit, could be inserted into a comic opera about star-crossed young lovers with the music unchanged.

Glenn Gould, in an interview with Bruno Monsaingeon, describes the problem thus:

GG: I think that when generations of listeners – laymen particularly, because their views usually have an intuitive edge over musicians’ – have found it appropriate to attribute terms like “lightness,” “ease,” “frivolity,” “gallantry,” “spontaneity” to Mozart, it behooves us to at least think about the reason for these attributions – which are not necessarily borne of a lack of appreciation or charity. I think that to a lot of people – and I include myself among them – the words imply not a criticism of what Mozart offers us but a hint of he doesn’t offer. I always think of an extraordinary concept in an essay on Mozart by the theologian Jean Le Moyne, who also happens to be a most perceptive musical layman. In the essay Le Moyne tries to come to grips with just what it was that alienated him from Mozart. And he discovered that in his youth he had mistrusted any art that had, as he put it, “pretensions to self-sufficiency,” but that later, having come to realize that genius is somehow related to an ability to understand the world, he nevertheless continued to require of every artist what he called “the polarization, the haste, and the progress” that he observed in the lives of the mystics.

BM: I presume he didn’t find that in Mozart.

GG: No. As a matter of fact, he likened Mozart to Don Giovanni, who he claimed was really Cherubino returned form military service. He said that … “despite his easy grace and virtuosity, Don Giovanni doesn’t possess himself sufficiently to belong definitely to the absolute and to march unwaveringly towards the silence of being.” (3)

It is funny to see Gould invoke the “silence of being,” as he himself clearly prefers the lyricism of Bach to the profundity of Beethoven. But I quite agree with his general point. Mozart’s outlook was essentially comic, and I’m unable to find profundity or depth in most of his oeuvre, even in the Jupiter symphony or Don Giovanni.

But I do find it in the Requiem.

It seems that the subject of this mass and the encroaching immediacy of his own death displaced his manic impulses. As he worked frantically on the Requiem in his final days, he increasingly became convinced that his own death was drawing near.

Years earlier, Mozart had written to his father: “Young as I am, I never go to bed without thinking that possibly I may not be alive on the morrow; yet not one of the many persons who know me can say that I am morose or melancholy. For this happy disposition I thank my Creator daily, and wish with all my heart that it were shared by all my fellows.” (4)

The terror of mortality could not have been far from his mind when he scored Dies Irae, setting these frightful words to music:

The day of wrath, that day of grief shall change the world to glowing ash, as David and the Sibyl tell. How great a quaking day the judge shall there be, when on that day the judge shall come, to weigh men’s deeds in each detail.

In this clip of Dies Irae, notice how the music itself begins to shake, just as the text evokes the quaking of dread (“Quantus tremor est futurus…”) at 1:01:

The bass trembles, first in a half-step tremolo, then in increasingly-remote intervals as the piece threatens to fly apart at 1:21. It is difficult to listen to the Dies Irae without believing that Mozart felt the full force of the Day of Judgement at hand.


(1) Wolff C. trans. by Mary Whittall. Mozart’s Requiem. University of California Press. 1994. p. 101.
    My full review can be found here.
(2) Melograni P. trans. Lydia G. Cochrane. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Biography. University of Chicago Press. 2008. p. 184
(3) Gould G. ed. Tim Page. “Of Mozart and Related Matters: Glenn Gould in Conversation with Bruno Monsaingeon.” from The Glenn Gould Reader. Vintage Books. 1984. pp. 42-3
(4) Kerst F, trans. Henry Edward Krehbiel. Mozart: The Man and the Artist, as Revealed in his own Words. Public Domain. Accessed via Project Gutenberg.

Written by Mesocosm

February 17, 2012 at 8:52 am

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Alessandro Striggio’s “Missa sopra ‘Ecco si beato giorno'”

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Melozzo da Forli, 15th Century, Vatican Museum
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

The motet Spem in Alium by the English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis is one of the great musical discoveries of my life. I have an ear for choral harmony, and Tallis’ magnificent motet represents one of the pinnacles of harmonic part-writing in western music. The sprawling song is written in forty separate parts, divided into eight five-voice choirs. Many excellent recordings of this piece exist, my favorite being the recording made by Peter Phillips and his Tallis Scholars.

I was thrilled to learn, then, that Berkeley musicologist Davitt Moroney had discovered and reconstructed several additional Renaissance compositions written for forty and sixty voices by other composers of the Renaissance, when I had long thought Tallis’ work to be unique. Most notably, he discovered a large motet and a parody mass based upon the same, entitled Ecco si beato giorno and written by the Florentine composer Alessandro Striggio.

For those of you who aren’t classical music fans, I should perhaps clarify that a piece written for forty voices is not the same as a piece written for a choir of forty singers – rather, it has forty individual and distinct vocal parts, meant to be sung at the same time. The Renaissance and to some extent the Baroque represent the apex of writing for many voices in western music.

After many long years of searching, Moroney discovered a badly-mislabeled copy of the mass in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 2005, where it had languished in obscurity for centuries. (1) Moroney prepared a critical edition of the score and led its first modern performance in 2007.

Last night I had the privilege of hearing Moroney lead a choir of sixty in performing Striggio’s mass. The choir’s roster was drawn from area early music ensembles including Magnificat, the Philharmonia Chorale, the American Bach Soloists, Perfect Fifth, and the Schola Cantorum San Francisco, accompanied by a period orchestra consisting of the Chalice Consort and His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts. An eyebrow-raising feature of the evening was the colossal bass sackbutt, a Renaissance bass trombone of prodigious exclamatory power.

The natural point of comparison for anyone encountering Ecco si beato giorno is Spem in Alium, and to my ears the piece suffers by comparison. While Tallis’ motet is characterized by its beguiling use of bold thematic material, Streggio’s mass is characterized by rigid structure and lack of movement, producing an effect rather like a droning cloud of bright major chords rooted firmly in the tonic.

Perhaps in an effort to control and unify so many voices, Striggio’s mass employs a structure that is at all times dominated harmonically by its tendency toward strong consonance (unisons, octaves, and fifths abound), and melodically by a fixed line that never strays far from the tonic. The principle elements of variation consist in internal ornamentation, at times with striking effect, but always overshadowed by the looming diatonic major.

Despite what I find to be significant aesthetic limitations, it was glorious to hear both mass and motet. Striggio unquestionably produced a work that is the acme of its idiom, expressing a preposterously-gargantuan account of Renaissance polyphony. The piece may be painted with a narrow palette, but then, so was the Sistine Chapel.

Also included on the program were instrumental interludes, a Christmas motet in 50 voices by Stefano Rossetto that was inexplicably performed twice, and Unum cole deum, an anonymous setting of the Ten Commandments in a forty-part canon. The introspective and haunting Unum, also found and restored by Moroney, was the evening standout for me.

An encore re-presented Striggio’s Agnus Dei, which I found mildly disappointing – I was hoping for a surprise performance of Spem in Alium. After all, how often do you find a Renaissance choir of 60 assembled?

The performance of February 4, 2012 was produced by CalPerformances at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, a mediocre venue with flat acoustics, most notable for its inadequate supply of bathrooms and drinking water.


Moroney D. “‘Never Heard Before For So Many Years’: Renaissance Masterpieces Rediscovered.” Program Notes. 2011-2012 Season. CalPerformances. Jan 2012. p 32. Available online (PDF) here.

A performance of Striggio’s Ecco si beato giorno, performed by I Fagiolini and conducted by Robert Hollingworth, is available from Decca Records.

Written by Mesocosm

February 5, 2012 at 12:44 pm

San Francisco Classical Music 101

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A user-friendly introduction to the classical music scene in San Francisco, intended to help and encourage people who may have an interest in attending performances, possibly for the first time. We’ll look at where to get started, what the deal is, how expensive tickets are, and where to find music that you love, even if you aren’t very familiar with classical music. I hope you find it useful.

Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments field, or send me an email (contact info here).

Getting Started: An Overview of the Scene

If you have any interest in classical music, you’re in luck. San Francisco boasts a world-class symphony, the second-largest opera company in the United States, and an audience hungry enough to attract the best ensembles and soloists in the world. The city is a mecca for early music from the Renaissance and earlier (see “Early Music on the Rise“), and experimental music is well represented by the Other Minds festival and the new Ojai North series.

Getting started can seem daunting, in part because there is so much. But it’s actually quite easy once you find something you’re interested in – usually a matter of picking up the phone or logging into the box office website.

Let’s start with a look at some of the heavies.

The San Franicso Symphony is currently under the directorship of Michael Tilson Thomas, a vital and forward-thinking conductor. The SF Symphony frequently features brilliantly-programmed evenings, blending repertoire favorites with less familiar work. The recent Schubert-Berg series, for example, featured programs pairing the straight Romantic composer Franz Schubert with the far-out twelve tone composer Alban Berg, who is sort of the late-period John Coltrane of classical music. In 2011 Thomas performed Mozart’s towering Requiem Mass back-to-back with Morton Feldman’s introspective and hushed Rothko Chapel. The two pieces could not be more different, and the juxtaposition was fascinating.

Thomas is well respected for his intelligent, precise, and agile interpretations of scores — expect brisk, clear phrasing. He is a great advocate of contemporary American classical music by composers like Steve Reich, John Adams, and Charles Ives  — keep an eye on the American Mavericks series in 2012 if that grabs you. Thomas also does a mean Beethoven, and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost interpreters of Mahler.

The SF Symphony performs at Davies Hall near the Civic Center, and is surprisingly affordable. You can get better seats at a bit of a discount if you buy season tickets, but that means planning well in advance. If you’d like a low-cost option that’s more casual, I have had some great experiences on the second balcony – particularly toward the front. You can usually get away with tickets up there for around $30, and can select your own seats on the Box Office website.

Keep your eye on the Goldstar discount ticket broker – they often have symphony tickets for half-off.

No less extraordinary is the San Francisco Opera, which usually produces around ten operas a year, seven in the fall and three in the summer. Sadly, we recently lost a treasure with the departure of musical director Donald Runnicles. He is a great interpreter of Wagner and has premiered exciting work, like Olivier Messiaen’s Saint-François d’Assise, a fascinating opera about the saint that incorporates faithful transcriptions of bird song into the score.

Runnicles was replaced by Nicola Luisotti in 2009. Early indications are that under his direction the opera will favor mainstream Italian opera by masters like Verdi, Donizetti, and Puccini. I’m more interested in challenging opera than the beautiful arias and melodrama myself, but the more conservative programs of the last two years may reflect the fact that the Opera is facing difficult financial times and needs to fill seats with better-known works (see “David Gockley seeks to overhaul S.F. Opera funding“).

Seeing an opera performance can be an experience of unparalleled beauty and power, if you find a piece that you respond to musically and dramatically. It tends to be expensive, though, with good seats running $125 and up. However, when I was doing opera on the cheap I made regular use of the Standing Room option, which I highly recommend. If you arrive at the box office an hour or so before showtime you can buy standing room seats for $10. There is a rail along the back of the orchestra level where you can stand, and the view and acoustics are excellent. This is a great option for exploring opera on a budget, as you won’t often find discount seats through Goldstar.

Tip: the SF Opera website reports the run-times for their shows — personally I don’t like to stand for longer than three hours.

The San Francisco Ballet shares the War Memorial auditorium with the SF Opera, typically producing ten performances in the spring. I am a newbie to Ballet but have had a very good time with it in the last few years. If the idea of music without action leaves you cold, but opera isn’t your style, it’s a great way to go. It is very difficult to get bored at the ballet. My anecdotal sense, for what it’s worth, is that the Ballet audiences skew about 10 years younger in average age than opera.

The SF Ballet offers a varied repertoire, mixing narrative showcases like “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Nutcracker” with masterpieces by the exalted choreographer George Balanchine with edgy modern pieces like Helgi Tomasson’s harrowing and evocative “The Little Mermaid.” Resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov usually puts on a few works a year, and they are always outstanding. This year’s premier of his stunning “Raku” brought down the house, and rightfully so. His sense of style, elegance, and beauty are second-to-none, and he uses just the right amount of story, giving an emotional structure to his dances without cluttering them with pantomime.

SF Ballet also does not seem to show up on Goldstar, but it is rather cheaper than the opera. Excellent seats can be had in the $50 range.

There are more modest symphony orchestras in Oakland and Berkeley, with shorter seasons. I am not as familiar with their orchestras, but the reviews I’ve read for Oakland performances have kept me away.The Philharmonia Baroque is a first-class period orchestra, and is not to be missed.

Concert Serieses. Es.

San Francisco and the East Bay abound with performances in smaller venues, which are often excellent and a good bargain. The best way to track these is to check out the FIND EVENTS engine on San Francisco Classical Voice. Select a few simple options and you can check out what’s happening in your part of the Bay in the next month or two, ranging from chamber music in nearby churches to operas at the Memorial opera house. Top talent can be found in the CalPerfs series in Berkeley and the San Francisco Performances series. In recent years they have presented superstars like Yo-Yo Ma, John Williams, Anonymous 4, Hilary Hahn, Jordi Savall.

Tips for Finding Music you Like

If you might be interested in attending but you don’t know where to start, don’t panic! Start with what you do know. It’s hard to go wrong with Beethoven, for example. Everyone knows something by Beethoven, right? Duh-duh-duh-DUHHHH….

If you get the bug and want to come back for more, it’s easy to move from things you know and like to things you don’t know but will probably like. Get a sense of how adventurous you are. Do you like hearing stuff you are acquainted with, or do you like boldly checking out new composers and styles? That’s a question you can easily answer with a little bit of experimentation. If you’re a Beethoven fan, try attending a symphony that you aren’t familiar with. If you’ve heard the 5th a million times, try the 4th, or the 8th.

Fortunately the SF Symphony makes it easy to stick close to home and find new things, because of their tendency to mix things up. I discovered one of my favorites composers, Thomas Adès, when his violin concerto was sandwiched between symphonies by Mozart and Haydn, a regular chestnut sandwich.

If you want to sample almost any piece before buying tickets, check YouTube. Everything is there.

You can follow genres, or performers you like, or composers. If you respond to a composer, try to read a little bit about him or her, and find out who they liked. Do you love Bach? Try Dietrich Buxtehude then. Bach loved Buxtehude’s music so much that he walked 250 miles in the German winter, on foot, to visit him. Buxtehude’s influence is unmistakable in Bach’s composition.

A Note on Etiquette

Expect to see people dolled up to the nines, especially at the opera, but you won’t draw nasty looks if you wear jeans. At the symphony the convention is to applaud when the entire work is complete, not between movements. If in doubt, just wait and see. No talking during the performances, please!

I walked into the opera cold several years ago on a friend’s advice, and it literally changed my life. So … if you’re curious, I hope this gives you some help.

Useful Resources

San Francisco Classical Voice – The best place to find out about events, hands down. Also includes articles, news, and reviews.
SF Symphony – Season and box office.
SF Opera – Season and box office.
SF Ballet – Season and box office.
San Francisco Performances – Excellent solo and small ensemble series in San Francisco.
Cal Performances – Excellent solo and small ensemble series in Berkeley, as well as theater and dance.
SF Early Music Society – Good resource for early music.
Gold Star – Offers discount tickets to many events. Highly recommended if you’re on a budget.
San Francisco Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman – Insightful and articulate criticism and reviews.

Written by Mesocosm

June 14, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Creative Misinterpretations: SF Opera’s Ring Cycle

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The San Francisco Opera production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen gets many things right, and a few things very wrong.

Note: This post contains spoilers.

It is perhaps a quixotic gesture at this late date to criticize non-traditional productions of Wagner’s mighty Ring, but the San Francisco Opera’s current production illustrates the pitfalls of such an approach. The production is superb in many aspects. Under the commanding baton of Donald Runnicles the orchestra offers a dynamic and bracing interpretation, and a dazzling collection of vocal and acting talents includes not one but two superb Siegfrieds in Jay Hunter Morris and Ian Storey, as well as audience-favorite Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, and David Cangelosi in a surprisingly engaging turn as Mime, a character I never thought I could love.

So with all due respect, and much is due, let us turn to the staging.

Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez caused a scandal when they set the opening of Das Rheingold at a hydroelectric dam in their 1976 Bayreuth production. Today the action of The Ring is transposed to different times and places so often, it has become the norm. The LA Opera recently offered an abstract version with design elements suggesting a “Star Wars” influence (video here), and the New York Met is currently staging a version set around a large contraption of moving planks (video here). Seattle remains a holdout of traditional stagings and costumes.

Director Francesca Zambello has set the San Francisco Opera’s current production in a landscape evoking urban decay and ecological catastrophe. The corrupting influence of this Ring is measured by anthropogenic contamination that chokes the land with pollution, steadily worsening over the course of the four operas.

Das Rheingold sets the wheels in motion in the Industrial Revolution. Signs of trouble are clearly visible on the horizon when Walküre shows plutocratic gods in a corporate boardroom Valhalla. By the time Siegfried opens the world has been overrun. We find our hero living with Mime in a trailer parked in a squalid urban waste land strewn with rubbish. One wonders if Siegfried purloined his bear from a nearby zoo. By Act III of Götterdämmerung, the weary, land-bound Daughters of the Rhine heap bags of trash into piles.

The Industrial Revolution was well underway in Germany when The Ring was written, so it goes without saying that if Wagner had wished to tell a story about pollution and decay, he would have done so. Indeed, many of the core themes of Wagner’s musical drama are strikingly contemporary in resonance, such as his criticism of the exploitation of labor.

The interpolation of the environmental theme, then, is without question an addition to Wagner’s work. To get a sense of why The Ring is uniquely unsuited to the superimposition of extraneous themes, let us briefly review what Wagner had in mind when he wrote the work.

Wagner’s Theory of The Ring

Richard WagnerWagner wrote the music and the libretto for The Ring over a period of some twenty-six years, and no other work in the standard repertoire has been so thoroughly documented by its composer. Wagner left copious writings behind in which he clearly set out his compositional theory. One of the great miracles of The Ring is the degree to which he succeeded in reaching his stated goals.

Wagner’s central conception was to present an experience of music and drama united into a coherent statement that operates simultaneously on the levels of story, imagery, and music, with each level interacting with the others. In the service of this vision, he employed the leitmotif for which the work is famous — a device that he did not invent; but developed far beyond all precedent.

A leitmotif is a musical theme that is paired with a corresponding image, action, or idea. Wagner used leitmotifs to organizes and bind the musical structure of this colossal composition, and to constantly translate the the language of the libretto into the emotional and intuitive register of music. This interaction creates a synergy between the dramatic meaning of the opera and its expressive musical themes. The aggregate effect over the course of this long work is so powerful that certain motives become drenched with meaning, sometimes to such an extent that it seems impossible to remember a time when the motives did not clearly signify their particular resonance. They become as ingrained as the melody of “Happy Birthday.”

Wagner described The Ring as a unified art work, or Gasamtkunstwerk. He probably did not invent this concept, but raised it from a state of obscurity to a term in universal parlance by the success of The Ring.

In his influential essay “The Artwork of the Future” Wagner describes his conception of a unified art work:

Just as the joinery of my individual scenes excluded every alien and unnecessary detail, and led all interest to the dominant chief mood, so did the whole building of my drama join itself into one organic unity, whose easily surveyed members were made out by those fewer scenes and situations which set the passing mood: no mood could be permitted to be struck in any one of these scenes that did not stand in a weighty relation to the moods of all the other scenes, so that the development of the moods of all the other scenes, the constant obviousness of this development, should establish the unity of the drama in its very mode of expression. (1)

Wagner laboriously composed The Ring to produce a specific effect, based on the meticulously-designed concord of all of its various elements. We need not speculate, then, on how he would have felt about the interpolation of a foreign layer of symbolism on his work. Any extraneous element or theme a director adds to The Ring not only introduces new elements into a work that is already extremely dense with musical and dramatic ideas, but disrupts its carefully conceived unity.

This has a direct and predictable dramatic effect. Throughout the San Francisco production I found that when the scenes were set in a traditional vein, I was completely absorbed in what I was experiencing. When foreign design elements were at play, the spell was broken, and I was put into a intellectual relationship with the material. I would think about what was being shown and why, instead of feeling like a part of the world.

Image Confusion

Ring PosterLet us consider the San Francisco Opera’s program cover (pictured left). We have an image of a Valkyrie, possibly Brünnhilde, in silhouette, holding a spear. Around the base of the spear coils a sinewy vine, suggestive of the Ash Tree.

This image is an amalgamation of some of the important symbols in the drama, apparently chosen at random and assembled into an incoherent form. The spear belongs to Wotan; Brünnhilde does not wield it, nor can she be coherently associated with its many meanings. The spear, carved as it is from the wood of the cosmic Ash Tree, symbolizes the process by which spontaneous natural forms are perverted when harnessed, such as when the Rhine Gold is forged into a ring. That makes it an ill fit with the new growth suggested by the seedling, about which I’ll have more to say later.

These points are not important in themselves, but they are typical of the production. The creative team sometimes seems to either not know or not care what the images mean and how they function. But The Ring was designed as a unified work of art organized by ideas and meanings, so the symbols are integral to the structure.

Perhaps the most disturbing dissonance in the production is the contradiction that sometimes separates the lyrics from what we are seeing. When Siegfried travels through the forest, he sings about the forest setting, but those references are stricken from the supertitles. Likewise, when we we meet the Norns in the prelude to Götterdämmerung, they are laying cables instead of weaving threads. The lyrics describe weaving while the supertitle translations refer to “laying cable,” which is a jarring dissonance. Presenting the audience with a contradiction pushes them out of the scene, and arbitrarily falsifying the translation of the libretto strikes me as a cheap tactic.

But something deeper than dramatic effect is at stake. Wagner has something to say about the relationship between the human spirit and nature. In his Siegfried, we get to know a hero who is a spontaneous man of action, unburdened by the corrupting influences of political entanglements or social bonds. His qualities of character are rooted in his love of the forests in which he dwells. We travel with him through that landscape and pause together to hear beautiful motives that have been described by musicologists as the “song of the birds” and “forest murmurs.”

Das Rheingold - Seattle OperaIn Götterdämmerung Siegfried at last wakens from the dark spell that has made him forget who he is and has turned him into a monster. He returns to his true self when he returns to the woods, and remembers the song of the bird. It is a song to which he had ceased to listen, and a song that closely resembles that of the Rhine Daughters, the charming agents of uncorrupted nature. His memory of what the bird taught him reminds him of his own identify, his love, his passion, and his commitments, which had been displaced by the bargains and deceits of the Gibichung court.

This beautiful relationship between Siegfried’s character and nature is all but destroyed when he is moved to a junkyard, and when his references to the natural world are blocked from his dialog. Ironically, this is apparently in the service of an environmental message. Which environmental message will resonate more deeply with audience members: Wagner’s carefully interwoven themes of nature developed throughout The Ring in mutually-reinforcing dialog, music, character, and action, or Zambello’s image of the Rhine Daughters heaving sacks of rubbish?

Spoiler alert!

Zambello’s final revision in the last moments of The Ring is the great interpretive blunder of the cycle, one that shows her to be tone deaf to Wagner’s work and to tragedy as a whole. The apocalyptic image of the world-ending fire — a fire lit by the funeral pyre of the two principle characters — sets up a tepid scene of a child bearing a new sapling onto stage and planting a new World Tree as the drama’s final gesture.

Surely if there is one thing that any director of tragedy must know, it is Aristotle’s concept of catharsis. Tragedy functions by inviting the audience members to participate in the action on the stage through their identification with the the characters, and to undergo thereby a symbolic death of tremendous psychological power. Zambello’s sapling is a facile gesture that disrupts the climax of Wagner’s towering tragedy and robs the audience of catharsis.

In Wagner’s conception, a legendary love has led to dreadful death, and the feeling of these events is of such magnitude that it is mirrored in the destruction of the heavens. The world itself breaks apart under the strain of its own contradictions. All things are consumed in fire and are washed back into the great primordial waters of the overflowing Rhine, from which all things arose in the very beginning of Das Rheingold. We have a classical depiction of the human heart exploding past the bounds of limit, rupturing the very power of form to bind the world into shape. This puts us squarely in a line with Aeschylus and Aristotle, by way of Schopenhauer.

The cute little girl with the tree could not be more counter to that effect, and by capping the gargantuan climax with that moment, its force is compromised and its message rejected. It disrupts the catharsis of The Ring and robs the audience of the payoff to which the entire opera has built, replacing it with a gesture of that is merely sentimental.

The fact that re-interpretations of The Ring have become commonplace does not give directors license to use them without care. Directors should ask themselves if their changes will add more than they subtract, and with a work as carefully composed as The Ring, they rarely will.


1. Wagner, Richard. ed. by Goldman, Albert and Evert Sprinchorn. On Music and Drama. Da Capo Press. 1964. pp. 227-8.

Written by Mesocosm

June 6, 2011 at 10:20 pm