National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, 8/30

Whitman on Opera: after denouncing the art form as too foreign and highfalutin, he was won over by the stream of great Italian singers bringing the works of Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi to New York, later saying he could not have written Leaves of Grass without having had the experience of opera.

There are more than a few references to opera (and to music generally) in his poetry. Here’s an excerpt from Proud Music of the Storm

All songs of current lands come sounding ’round me,
The German airs of friendship, wine and love,
Irish ballads, merry jigs and dances—English warbles,
Chansons of France, Scotch tunes—and o’er the rest,
Italia’s peerless compositions.

Across the stage, with pallor on her face, yet lurid passion,
Stalks Norma, brandishing the dagger in her hand.

I see poor crazed Lucia’s eyes’ unnatural gleam;
Her hair down her back falls loose and dishevell’d.

I see where Ernani, walking the bridal garden,
Amid the scent of night-roses, radiant, holding his bride by the hand,
Hears the infernal call, the death-pledge of the horn.

To crossing swords, and grey hairs bared to heaven,
The clear, electric base and baritone of the world,
The trombone duo—Libertad forever!

From Spanish chestnut trees’ dense shade,
By old and heavy convent walls, a wailing song,
Song of lost love—the torch of youth and life quench’d in despair,
Song of the dying swan—Fernando’s heart is breaking.

Awaking from her woes at last, retriev’d Amina sings;
Copious as stars, and glad as morning light, the torrents of her joy.

(The teeming lady comes!
The lustrious orb—Venus contralto—the blooming mother,
Sister of loftiest gods—Alboni’s self I hear.)

You can find the full poem here and there’s a nice summary of Whitman and opera here, including the fact that some of his poems are organized like operatic scenes, with recit and aria, something I didn’t know.

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The Astor Place Opera House in New York City, Broadway and East 8th, as it was in 1850, when Whitman would have been attending.

Beautiful Song: Gluck Transcription

Have been trawling the web for good pianists, in the hope to solve my long running technical annoyances in trying to play (a not very hard!) Chopin Nocturne (C-sharp minor, Op. Post). Not much practical help watching the greats for a duffer like me, I’m afraid, but certainly is enjoyable, as hopping through the wormhole of YouTube took me to a lot of wonderful piano playing.

As a result, here are a couple of treasures from that nosing around: two pianists playing a transcription of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from the opera “Orfeo ed Euridice.” First, the great Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes.

Novaes could play a melody in a way that made it a living sinuous thing, winding in and out of the other musical material in a 3-D way.  (I first discovered her ability to put this spin on melody via a really old cassette recording of the Chopin Nocturnes of hers I had. I got it at a drug store in Urbana-Champaign, IL, in 1989. Didn’t recognize her name, and the VOX label looked pretty sketchy. But it was only a quarter, I think.) It floored me–one of those cases where you hear something unexpected and you just have to listen over and over and over again, changed how I thought about what the piano could do. It actually could sing, that wasn’t just a piece of piano teacher rhetoric. I recall making the friend I was staying with drive me around in his Honda to listen to it in the car, as he didn’t have a cassette player at home and I wanted to hear it on something other than my Walkman. (For you kinder, that was an ancient predecessor to the i-thingie).

The next take on this is a young pianist, Yuja Wang.

Wang’s way with the melody is also restrained yet powerful; she’s able to pull back to a whisper (in contrast to a lot of young pianists who don’t actually play the “piano-forte,” but rather the “forte-forte” or maybe the “forte-fortissimo”). And her seemingly stress-free finger technique is just astonishing.

I never heard Novaes in person. But I have heard Wang live twice; once in Boston and once in DC. Worth hearing if you are a piano lover.

A bit about Gluck and that extraordinary melody: Gluck was an  18th century German composer, born in the era of Bach and Handel, but dying when Beethoven was a teenager. His operas (on the mythical subjects typical of his era) aimed to reform the repetitive and artificial formats then used, but, ironically, he was regarded as pretty old-fashioned in the 19th century (except by Berlioz).

That said, his melodies never went out of fashion and many arrangements were made for amateur or professional use. Now fully staged performances of his operas are no longer rare (although not exactly staples either). There was an Orfeo ed Euridice at New England Conservatory I caught last year. Radiant and antique in one moment, with flashes of desperate Verdi-like fire the next. It definitely was not a museum piece.

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Beautiful Music: Les Troyens

Screen Shot 2013-01-05 at 9.43.09 AMHector Berlioz’s epic opera, The Trojans, all five hours of it, is live from the Met today at noon (both on old fashioned radio and in the HD broadcast in movie theaters). Berlioz fanatics will hang on every note, particularly those caressed by Susan Graham who is a wonderful Dido. But even if you are looking to spend your Saturday afternoon doing something other than blissing out on the apex of French romantic neo-classicism, I’d still recommend Acts III and IV, (starting at 2:15 or so EST according to the not always reliable Opera News.) Act IV ends with the most beautiful duet HB ever wrote, and that, mesdames, mesdemoiselles et messieurs, is saying something.

A taste below:  Verrett and Gedda in the duet (superb singers, hurried along a bit by the conductor).

and Domingo and Troyanos, stars of the Met’s previous production.

  What on earth is Placido wearing on his feet? And sorry that the clip breaks off before the end…deprives you of Berlioz’s brilliant flash that ends the act.

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