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The NZSO Present 'Transfiguration'

Published: Fri 6 Sep 2019 09:48 AM
The NZSO Present Transfiguration
Rachmaninov in the early 1900s.
“A moral (like all morals) melancholy” - Lord Byron, Don Juan.
“We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality” - Lord Macauley, 'Moore's Life of Byron' in Literary Essays.
“Without doubt the greatest injury … was done by basing morals on myth, for sooner or later myth is recognised for what it is, and disappears. Then morality loses the foundation on which it has been built.” - Herbert Samuel, Romanes Lecture.
'Mid-Victorian' is a term commonly used to condemn moral attitudes now regarded as ridiculously pompous and dangerously repressive. It denotes the substitution of moralism for morality and is largely believed to have blighted the entire era, but the image as a whole is historically false since moralism set in some twenty years before Victoria was born in response to the social disorder following the French Revolution. Byron was among the earliest to observe the early signs of “cant moral, cant political, cant religious.” It was, in fact, the force that drove him into exile, and its origins may be traced back to Methodism in England, Calvin in Switzerland, and Luther in Germany. Moralism has an even wider purpose, however. By repressing any actions, words, and even thoughts that run against convention, it tries to constrain whatever might disturb the existing order. Everyone became a policeman or censor over himself and, as a living unit of social pressure, over his neighbour as well. To this invisible coercion is added another - the class immediately above and below one's own. When moralism is served in parallel with overtly political suppression, the ultimate goal is really about achieving social respectability and maintaining political cohesion.
Nineteenth-century moralism was not limited to England - the entire Continent lived under its sway, as did large swathes of the United States. The freedom that it sought to suppress most urgently was of course sexual, for it is the strongest of physical instincts and makes both men and women want to break down all restraints. As Freud was well aware by the end of the Victorian era, because passion in its general form of libido lies at the core of every kind of fierce ambition, political or artistic, it leads to rebellion in both spheres of activity. So close is sexuality to politics that nearly all revolutions and social utopias begin be decreeing free love and then turn puritanical when the leaders realise that license undermines authority and discipline. It is therefore an error to think that the Victorians became blind to sexual relations in their pursuit of a purified life. On the contrary, the immense effort necessary to suppress the sexual instinct only served to heighten awareness of it. As Steven Marcus made clear in The Other Victorians, the output of pornography during this period was as prodigious as it is today, at both times a by-product of frustration - for sexual activity, however 'free,' does not necessarily bring satisfaction. As to artistic skill and invention, some of the Victorian fantasies in art and print attained heights of depravity that even the contemporary internet has yet to match.
Although on the surface nineteenth-century Europe may have seemed a period of emotional restraint, with conversation being polite and vacuous, religion dry and puritanical, and copulation simply never mentioned, below this ostensibly buttoned-up facade, Europeans were deeply fascinated not only by sex, but also death and mysticism, none more so than the Russians and Germans. As is evident in both literature (Goethe's Faust) and music (Schubert's Death and the Maiden), death was a particularly popular, even revered subject, so it is hardly surprising that another craze swept over Europe and America during the middle of the century - communicating with dead spirits by mediums and through table-turning. Practiced merely as a pastime by some, it was a solemn enterprise for the many who drew comfort from such ghostly services at a time when infant mortality was endemic. Spiritualists sincere and fraudulent emerged from dark corners, bringing with them messages or apparitions from the dead, and it was not only the credulous bourgeois who believed in them. Elizabeth Barrett Browning thought Daniel Douglas Home's ectoplasmic “powers” to be genuine, thereby enraging her husband Robert, who sublimated his fury in a graphic poem entitled . Victor Hugo, exiled on his Channel Island, spent many evenings at table-turning before deciding that is was foolishness, while Berlioz satirized the practice in his music column on hearing the inanities that were being attributed to Mozart and Beethoven. Such rational scepticism did not prevent Conan Doyle and other intellectuals from founding the Society for Psychical Research. As part of their podium series, the NZSO is touring the country with a program entitled 'Transfiguration' which addresses such obsessions in musical terms, progressing backwards in time from Sergei Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor (1901), through Richard Strauss' Tod und Verklärung ('Death and Transfiguration', 1889), to Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser Overture (1845).
* * *
Rachmaninov (1873-19430) was not a revolutionary composer who blazed new trails in terms of musical innovation. Like Brahms, he chose to consolidate the best of the past that he knew and grew up with in a wholly personal way. The orchestral texture of his youthful works were overladen and impassioned with enough ideas for several ordinary symphonies, while his later compositions demonstrated the utmost skill and refined craftsmanship. Although Rachmaninov was both a virtuoso pianist blessed with enormous hands and a conductor of outstanding power, as a mature composer he functioned sporadically in terms of large-scale works. After the 1917 Revolution drove him out of Russia to America, it seemed that the creative impulse had been stilled altogether. His music can be considered a tonal counterpart to the art of Edward Munch, which always carried in its substratum an element of morbid passion. As listeners, we are never allowed to forget the eternal dichotomy between human vitality and frail mortality, with sternly rhythmic and nostalgically lyric elements juxtaposed in sharp contrast.
Rachmaninoff's first symphony, though now considered a significant achievement, was derided by contemporary critics at its 1897 premiere. Compounded by problems in his personal life, Rachmaninoff fell into a clinical depression that lasted for several years. His second piano concerto confirmed his recovery from writer's block, cured by courses of hypnotherapy and psychotherapy and helped by support from his family and friends. Composed between the autumn of 1900 and April 1901, it was dedicated to Nikolai Dahl, the physician who helped to restore his self-confidence. The second and third movements were first performed with the composer as soloist in December 1900, while the complete work was premiered, again with the composer as soloist, in November 1901. It is one of Rachmaninoff's most enduringly popular pieces and established his fame as a composer.
Structured in the traditional three-movement concerto form, it begins with a Moderato in C Minor, the main theme being played first by the two violin sections, viola section, and first clarinet. It opens with a series of chromatic bell-like tollings on the piano that build tension, eventually climaxing in the introduction of the main theme. This leads into the main key and theme of the piece, C minor. In this first section, the orchestra carries the Russian-character melody, while the piano provides an accompaniment, consisting of rapid oscillating arpeggios between both hands. After the statement of the long first theme, a quick and virtuosic piu mosso pianistic figuration transition leads into the lyrical second theme in the relative key of E major. The second theme is first stated by the solo piano, with light accompaniment coming from the upper wind instruments. A transition which follows the chromatic scale eventually leads to the final reinstatement of the second theme, this time with the full orchestra playing at a piano dynamic. The exposition ends with an agitated closing section with scaling arpeggios on the E major scale in both hands.
The agitated and unstable development borrows motives from both themes, frequently changing keys and assigning the melody to different instruments whenever a new musical idea is slowly formed. While focused on a particular tonality, the overall sound hints at chromaticism. Two sequences of pianistic figurations lead to a placid, orchestral reinstatement of the first theme in the dominant 7th key of G. The development furthers with motifs from the previous themes, climaxing towards a B major piu vivo section. A triplet arpeggio section leads into the accelerando section, with the accompanying piano playing chords in both hands, and the string section providing the melody reminiscent of the second theme. The piece reaches a climax with the piano playing dissonant fortissimo chords, and the horns and trumpets providing the syncopated melody. While the orchestra restates the first theme, the piano now plays the march-like theme that had been partly presented in the development, marking a considerable readjustment in the exposition. This is followed by a piano-solo which continues the first theme and leads into a descending chromatic passage to a pianissimo A major chord. Then the second theme is heard played with a horn solo. The entrance of the piano reverts the key back into C minor, with triplet passages played over a mysterious theme played by the orchestra. The piece briefly transitions to a C major glissando in the piano and is placid until drawn into the agitated C minor fortissimo with which the movement ends.
The second movement, is marked Adagio Sostenuto, Più animato – Tempo and opens with a series of slow chords in the strings which modulate from the C minor of the previous movement to E major. The piano enters at the beginning of the A section, playing a simple arpeggiated figure. This opening piano figure was composed in 1891 as the opening of the Romance from Two Pieces For Six Hands. The main theme is initially introduced by the flute, before being developed by an extensive clarinet solo, after which the motif is passed between the piano and the strings. Then the B section is heard, building up to a short climax centered on the piano, which leads to a cadenza for piano. The original theme is repeated, and the music appears to die away, finishing with just the soloist in E major.
The last movement is marked Allegro Scherzando and opens with a short orchestral introduction that modulates from E (the key of the previous movement) back to C minor, before a piano solo leads to the statement of the agitated first theme. After the original fast tempo and musical drama ends, a short transition from the piano solo leads to the second theme lyrical theme in B major is introduced by the oboe and violas. This theme maintains the motif of the first movement's second theme. The exposition ends with a suspenseful closing section in B major, after which an extended and energetic development section is heard,based on the first theme of the exposition. It maintains a very improvisational quality, as instruments take turns playing the stormy motifs. In the recapitulation, the first theme is truncated to only 8 bars on the tutti, because it was widely used in the development section. After the transition, the recapitulation's second theme appears, this time in D major, half above the tonic. However, after the ominous closing section ends, it then builds up into a triumphant climax in C major from the beginning of the coda. The movement ends triumphantly in the tonic major with the same four note rhythm ending the Third Concerto in D minor.
If the melodies seems somewhat familiar, that's because Frank Sinatra's 1941 song I Think of You was based on the concerto, with the lyric line following a theme from the first movement, and the accompaniment displaying influences from the third movement. The second theme of the Allegro scherzando also provided the basis for Sinatra's 1945 recording Full Moon and Empty Arms, while two other Sinatra songs, I Think of You and Ever and Forever, have roots in the first movement of the concerto as well. In addition, the Adagio Sostenuto theme reappears in Eric Carmen's 1975 ballad All By Myself, with Carmen justifying the borrowing on the grounds that Rachmaninoff was his "favorite music."
* * *
The twenty-four year-old Richard Strauss shocked Viennese society with his first major success in 1888, his tone poem Don Juan, which concerned an insatiable philanderer who is destroyed by his own desires in a storm of passion. The text was openly erotic, the music sensual, and the scandal ensured his fame. He followed this success with a completely different theme. Unlike Don Juan,, which concerned the reasons for the downfall of its hero, in Tod und Verklärung Strauss explored the thoughts and feelings of a man struggling with, and finally accepting, his own death. It is a tone poem that depicts a dying artist reflecting on his life - his childhood innocence, the struggles of his manhood, and the attainment of his worldly goals. At the last moment, he receives the longed-for transfiguration "from the infinite reaches of heaven," accompanied by a sweeping upward glissando. Legend has it that Strauss wrote 'Death and Transfiguration' from his own experiences of a nearly fatal illness he had. His contemporary Richard Specht wrote - “Death and Transfiguration was created in the year 1889 after a severe illness, an echo of the time when treacherous fever smote the young tone-poet, and in which the will to live and the dissolving of earthly shackles into eternity fought for predominance”. In fact, Specht was simply got the dates wrong. The “treacherous fever” he referred to occurred two years after Tod und Verklärung was completed, and a year after its triumphant first performance. Strauss himself wrote that the work was purely a product of his imagination. The myth remained, however, in a testimony to the dramatic and expressive power of Strauss' music
Strauss began writing the work in the late summer of 1888 and completed the work in November 1889, dedicating it to his friend Friedrich Rosch. It was described in a poem by another friend, Alexander Ritter, as an interpretation of 'Death and Transfiguration' only after it was composed. Ernest Newman described it as music to which one would not want to die or awaken ("It is too spectacular, too brilliantly lit, too full of pageantry of a crowd; whereas this is a journey one must make very quietly, and alone"), while Romain Roland in his Musiciens d'aujourd'hui called the piece "one of the most moving works of Strauss, and that which is constructed with the noblest utility." There are four parts (with Ritter's poetic thoughts condensed): Largo (the sick man, near death); Allegro molto agitato (the battle between life and death offers no respite to the man); Meno mosso (the dying man's life passes before him); Moderato (the sought-after transfiguration). In one of his final compositions, Im Abendrot from the Four Last Songs, Strauss poignantly quotes the transfiguration theme from his tone poem of sixty years earlier, during and after the soprano's final line, "Ist dies etwa der Tod?" - 'Is this perhaps death?' Lying on his own deathbed in 1949, he remarked that his music was absolutely correct and his feelings mirrored those of the artist he had depicted, commenting to his daughter-in-law, "It's a funny thing, Alice, dying is just the way I composed it in Tod und Verklärung."
'Death and Transfiguration' is based on his concept that a symphonic work can arise from a single formative poetic idea - in this case a young man, an idealist who is struck down by a terrible illness, his ambition lost and youth destroyed, portrayed by the urgency and vibrancy of the music. The work starts out with a quiet pulsing in the strings and timpani, its irregularity representing the slowly failing heartbeat and the throbbing of the all-encompassing fever. As the fever intensifies, the hero's life is played out before his eyes; nostalgic childhood memories, youthful desires but worst of all, he is tormented by the realisation that he has failed to fulfil his ideals. As he struggles, the music becomes increasingly agitated, tormented, and explosive. Then, as Strauss himself describes, “death seems to knock at the door.” The opening quiet rhythms are now threatening and overpowering, blaring forth on brass and the ever-present timpani. The moment of death and transfiguration is the climax of the work: a sweeping upward glissando ending in hush, with quiet gong strokes and a pianissimo low C sustained in the depths of the orchestra. Then the transfiguration begins. An aspiring theme heard earlier rises slowly and majestically, starting with the horn section and leading to the grand, ultimately serene affirmation of the coda. In 'Death and Transfiguration,' the “soul finds gloriously achieved in eternal space those things which could not be achieved here below.”
* * *
The idea of basing an opera on the story of a troubadour who becomes the lover of the goddess Venus first occurred to Wagner during his ill-fated stay in Paris from 1839-42, but it was while taking a holiday in Bohemia, shortly after returning from France, that the work began to take shape. While in Paris, he read a paper by Ludwig Lucas on the Sängerkrieg which sparked his imagination, and encouraged him to return to Germany in April 1842. Having crossed the Rhine, the Wagners drove towards Thuringia, and saw the early rays of sun striking the Wartburg. Wagner immediately began to sketch the scenery that would become the stage sets. A detailed prose draft was followed in the spring of 1843 by the libretto itself, which mixes mythological elements characteristic of German Romantic Opera with the medieval setting typical of many French Grand Operas. Wagner combined them by constructing a plot involving the fourteenth century Minnesingers and the myth of Venus and her subterranean realm of Venusberg. Both the historical and the mythological are united in Tannhäuser's personality - although he is a historical poet composer, little is known about him other than myths that surround him.
Two complete drafts of the score, apparently worked on in tandem up until 1845, arrived after a number of sketches for individual sections. The first of these, less developed than the second, exists only in fragmentary form, but it has been painstakingly pieced together by scholars in the Bayreuth archives. The Overture itself was written last and the full score finally completed in April 1845. While composing the music for the Venusberg grotto, Wagner grew so impassioned that he made himself ill, confessing in his autobiography "With much pain and toil I sketched the first outlines of my music ... Meanwhile I was very much troubled by excitability and rushes of blood to the brain. I imagined I was ill and lay for whole days in bed." The instrumentation shows signs of borrowing from French operatic style, especially in his use of the harp, a commonplace of French opera. The score also includes parts for on-stage brass, but instead of using French brass instruments, Wagner employed twelve German waldhorns.
In 1860, an invitation to stage the Opéra in Paris came from the Emperor Napoleon III, at the behest of Princess Pauline Metternich, the wife of the Austrian ambassador to France whose unpopularity in certain court circles had much to do with the ensuring debacle. Wagner substantially amended the opera and these his revisions form the basis of what is now known as the 'Paris' version. The venue meant that the composer had to insert a ballet into the score, according to the traditions of the house. Wagner agreed to this condition since he believed that a success at the Opéra represented his most significant opportunity to re-establish himself following his exile from Germany. However, rather than put the ballet in its traditional place in Act II, he chose to place it in Act I, in the form of a bacchanale, where it could make dramatic sense by representing the sensual world of Venus's realm.
The opera was initially well-received at its first performance, with disturbances only beginning to appear in Act II and becoming more prominent by the end of the third act. For the second performance much of the new ballet music was removed, together with some actions that had specifically provoked mockery, but the audience disturbances were increased, including whistling and cat-calls. This was mainly due to wealthy members of the Jockey Club, who objected to the ballet coming in Act I, since this meant they would have to be present from the beginning of the performance, thus disrupting their dining schedule. Taking ruthless revenge on the protege of the hated Princess, the young aristocrats disrupted the second and third performances in March 1861 with prolonged baying and blasts on their dog-whistles which they had distributed to the audience. A further incentive to disruption was the unpopularity of von Metternich's native country of Austria. At the third performance, which Wagner did not attend, the uproar caused several interruptions of up to fifteen minutes at a time, after which he was allowed to withdraw the production, effectively ending his hopes of establishing himself in Paris. A few further changes were made for an 1875 performance of the opera in Vienna (the last production carried out under Wagner's personal supervision), including linking the end of the Overture to the start of the opera proper.
During the 1830s, Wagner had come under the influence of various Young German writers whose radical ideas included the unification of Germany, the abolition of censorship, constitutional rule, and the emancipation of women. Impatient with the solid, reactionary values of the Biedermeier era, they denounced the constraints imposed by the Church and state, promulgation of free love and hedonism in place of bourgeois morality. Some of these themes emerging in Tannhäuser - the individualistic minstrel demands freedom of expression, and his espousal of worldly, sensual love puts him in conflict with Wartburg society, for whom love is mater of reverence and scared awe rather than venereal pleasure. What Tannhäuser attacks in his outbursts at the song-contest is hypocrisy, a favourite theme of the Young Germans. Hypocrisy in sexual matters was hardly new in the nineteenth century. Double standards had operated throughout the Christian era according to sex and class, whereby the chastity demanded of women was in striking contrast to the license accorded men, and where peccadilloes of the ruling class more easily escaped censure and were even legitimised as part of the droit de seigneur. With the spread of ideas of equality and emancipation in the years following the French Revolution, however, such double standards began to be challenged. Tannhäuser also reflects the separation of public and private spheres that underpinned bourgeois sexual hypocrisy. The private was the sphere of the family and the sanctity of marriage, the public the arena of vice and promiscuity. Provided one was male and reasonably discreet, it was possible to indulge the flesh without incurring either legal penalties or public opprobrium. The minnesinger-knight's crime is not so much that he dallied in the Venusberg, for that sin could be absolved, but rather that he openly boasts about it.
The anti-Catholic views of the Young Germans and of Wagner himself chimed with the anti-papism evident in the two original versions of the the legend available to him. The ballad published in 1515 and the version popularised by Arnum and Brentano by its inclusion in Des Knaben Wunderhorn of 1806, both of which criticise the Pope for his apparent repulsion of the contrite Tannhäuser. Wagner may have been unaware that this was an unjust calumny against Pope Urban IV, whose stipulation that Tannhäuser's absolution depended on the papal staff sprouting leaves was by no means intended as the impossible condition it now seems. The miracle of the blossoming staff occurs occasionally in popular Christian morality tales of the period as a symbol of the new life offered by salvation and divine mercy. This was the specific historical context of the age-old struggle between sensuality and spirituality that lies at the heart of Tannhäuser, in which the spheres of sensual and spiritual love are not regarded as polar opposites (the acceptance of one implying the rejection of the other), but rather as dialectically inter-related. Each has its positive and negative virtues - the drama represents the search for a synthesis, though such a harmonious resolution is not to be found, for the hero destroys himself in the attempt. Similarly the significance of Elisabeth and Venus lies less in their mutual antagonism as flesh-and blood characters than in their function as archetypical projections of Tannhäuser's imagination. It is relevant to note in this context that Wagner originally signified Venus' presence at the end of the opera merely by a red glow upstage.
Tannhäuser was written during a period when Wagner, though still beholden to traditional operatic structures, was moving towards more open, continuous forms of music drama. It is not simply the vocal line that is noteworthy, however, for the orchestra also starts to assume a dominant role. Its use in a virtually unprecedented way for expressive, illustrative purposes, as the medium for generating tension and effecting modulations, and in bearing the burden of the dramatic argument, looks forward to the epoch-making innovations of the Ring Cycle and beyond. Wagner made a number of revisions to the opera, which is why it has traditionally been referred to as existing in two versions (that of Dresden and Paris), but this is somewhat misleading since there were in fact at least four primary stages of the work. As Wagner wrote in a letter in April 1860, “only now that I have written Isolde's final transfiguration have I been able to find the right ending for the Flying Dutchman overture,” which introduces many of the opera’s important musical themes concerning lust, love, and redemption. The substantial overture commences with the theme of the 'Pilgrim's Chorus' from Act 3, Scene 1, and also includes elements of the 'Venusberg' music from Act 1, Scene 1. The Overture is frequently performed as a separate item in orchestral concerts, the first such performance having been given by Felix Mendelssohn conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in February 1846. Wagner later gave the opinion that perhaps it would be better to cut the Overture at opera performances to the Pilgrim's Chorus alone - "the remainder - in the fortunate event of its being understood - is, as a prelude to the drama, too much; in the opposite event, too little." In the original, 'Dresden' version, the Overture comes to a traditional close (the version most often heard in concert performances), while the music leads directly into the first scene without pausing in the 'Paris' version.
The rich, lush and luxuriant music of these three Romantic composers will be in the capable hands of Asher Fisch, currently Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Renowned for his interpretative command of core German and Italian repertoire of the Romantic and post-Romantic era, he began his conducting career as Daniel Barenboim's assistant and kappellmeister at the Berlin Staatsoper. Since then, he has conducted a wide variety of repertoire from Gluck to contemporary works by living composers. His former posts include Principal Guest Conductor of the Seattle Opera , Music Director of the New Israeli Opera, and Music Director of the Wiener Volksoper. Fisch has built his versatile repertoire at major opera houses such as the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, Teatro alla Scala, Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, and Semperoper Dresden. He is also a regular guest conductor at leading American symphony orchestras and has worked with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Munich Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and the Orchestre National de France. His recording of Wagner'sRing Cycle with the State Opera of South Australia, won ten Helpmann Awards, including best opera and best music direction. In 2016, he recorded the complete Brahms symphonies with WASO, which was released to great acclaim on ABC Classics. Fisch is also an accomplished pianist in his own right and has recorded a solo disc of Wagner piano transcriptions for the Melba label.
The Rachmaninov concerto will be performed by French Canadian pianist Louis Lortie, who has extended his interpretative voice across a broad range of repertoire, rather than choosing to specialize in one particular style. From 2017-2018, he was Artist in Residence of the Shanghai Symphony and performs four different programs with them throughout the season. He has performed with the National Symphony Taipei, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony, the Budapest Philharmonic, the Detroit Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, and the Adelaide Symphony. He has also performed and recorded with Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony and was selected by Jaap Van Zweden to play Mozart's K466 for one of his final Dallas Symphony concerts as Music Director. Lortie has made more than forty-five recordings for the Chandos label, covering repertoire from Mozart to Stravinsky, including a set of the complete Beethoven sonatas and the complete Annees de Pelerinage, which was named one of the ten best recordings of 2012 by New Yorker Magazine. His recording of the Lutosławski Piano Concerto received high praise, as did a recent Chopin recording, named one of the best recordings of the year by the New York Times. Recently released recordings are Chopin waltzes, Saint Saens’ Africa, Wedding Cake, and Carnival of the Animals, and Rachmaninov’s complete works for two pianos with Helene Mercier. For the Onyx label, he has recorded two acclaimed CDs with violinist Augustin Dumay. Lortie is currently the Master in Residence at The Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel of Brussels. The London Times has described his “combination of total spontaneity and meditated ripeness that only great pianists have” and this technical versatility should be well suited to Rachmaninov’s athletic piano concerto.
The concert will also be performed in Auckland on 7/9, Dunedin on 13/9, and Christchurch on 14/9.
Howard Davis
Scoop Arts Editor
Educated at Cambridge and UCLA; worked on several major Hollywood feature films and as a Kundalini Yoga instructor in Los Angeles; currently enjoying life in Wellington.
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