Farrago for March 29–April 4

Ka-booms, whipped cream, and a double serving of Sondheim.

farrago, n. — A confused group; a medley, mixture, hotchpotch.


MARCH 29

1918: Pearl Mae Bailey is born in Newport News, Virginia. One of the greatest singers and entertainers of the twentieth century, she conquered vaudeville, Broadway, and television. Her film performances, sadly, were too few and far between, but younger generations will always recognize her as the voice of the owl Big Mama in Disney’s The Fox and the Hound. Her Dolly Levi remains, however, the stuff of legend, partially immortalized on a surviving broadcast of The Ed Sullivan Show, including the famous monologue preceding “Before the Parade Passes By.”

***

“Where’s the kaboom? There was supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom!”

1958: Hare-Way to the Stars debuts. The first Marvin the Martian short in five years after Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, Hare-Way marked Bugs Bunny’s third run-in with the immortal “character wearing the spittoon.” This is by far the most visually stunning of the MtM shorts under director Chuck Jones, thanks to Maurice Noble’s stellar production design of futuristic terraces and elevators sprawling out amid some breathable pocket of space. One of the highlights is Bugs’s lazzi with the buzzardly “Instant Martians” on the rocket scooters.

MARCH 30

1746: Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes is born in Fuendetodos, Spain. Whether mammoth canvas or macabre etching, Goya fused the masterly traditions of Europe’s artistic past with an ironic modernity reflecting his own present.

“Escena de Inquisición,” (1808-1812). Oil on panel. Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando.

***

1913: Animator and Disney Legend Marc Davis is born in Bakersfield, California. One of the famous Nine Old Men of Disney Animation, Davis worked on most of the studio’s classic features until the 1960s, when he turned his hand to the design and development of the company’s amusement park attractions. Davis was tasked with animating many of the great female characters in the studio’s canon, none greater than Sleeping Beauty‘s Maleficent (voiced by Eleanor Audley) and Cruella De Vil from One Hundred and One Dalmatians (voiced by Betty Lou Gerson). The all-to-rare Disney Family Album series did a great episode on Davis with extended interview clips.

MARCH 31

“All that is real and can be sensed is in constant contact with magic and mystery; one loses the consciousness of reality.”

1872: That prince of impresarios, that scion of sybarites, Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev is born in Selishchi.

May be an image of 1 person
Serov’s 1904 portrait of Diaghilev.

***

1913: A mostly unsuspecting audience gathered in the Golden Hall of Vienna’s Musikverein for a performance by the Wiener Konzertverein conducted by Arnold Schoenberg. Turmoil eventually broke out and the concert never finished.

On the Programme:
Anton Webern: Six Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6
Alexander von Zemlinsky: Four Songs after Poems by Maeterlinck (eventually Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 5 in op. 13)
Arnold Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 9
Alban Berg: Orchesterlieder, nach Ansichtkarten-Texten von Peter Altenberg, op. 4, nos. 2 and 3
Gustav Mahler: Kindertotenlieder

The performance disbanded before the Mahler, which meant that only 13 pieces were performed, always a fun number for the triskaidekaphobic Schoenberg.

***

1935: Herb Alpert is born in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. Whipped cream for all.

APRIL 1

1919: The traditional anniversary of the founding of the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919, under the direction of Walter Gropius, here (center) with other instructors from the later school in Dessau. His manifesto for the group from that year reads thus: “So let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen, free of the divisive class pretensions that endeavored to raise a prideful barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting, and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come.”

May be an image of 12 people and people smiling

***

1932: Debbie Reynolds is born in El Paso, Texas. The last of the great broads of entertainment, Reynolds kept up a remarkable career until her final years.

APRIL 2

1891: Artist Max Ernst is born in Brühl, Germany.

***

1939: Marvin Gaye is born in Washington, D. C.

APRIL 3

Edward Carson: “The majority of persons would come under your definition of Philistines and illiterates?”
Oscar Wilde: “I have found wonderful exceptions.”

1895: Thanks to a badly-spelled calling card inscription from the Marquess of Queensbury and an aesthete’s hubris, the libel trial of Wilde v. Queensbury began on this date in 1895 at the Old Bailey. The Marquess was eventually acquitted and Wilde was left bankrupt with two further trials, incarceration, disgrace, and ruin ahead of him. Wilde’s predilections for the young poor force a difficult reckoning in our own era, where he is held up as an author as well as a martyr for gay rights. If tried today, he likely would be labeled as a sex offender.

May be an image of 1 person
Cartoon from the Police News, May 4, 1895.

***

1968: Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey goes into general release. It is still one of the guiding pillars of cinematic science fiction, with a tactility, believability, and mystery which has yet to be surpassed, along with the benefit of one of cinema’s most insidious villains (“Dave, my mind is going.”). It is also a musical smorgasbord, with (not uncontroversial) slices of Henry Dacre (“Daisy Bell”), more Ligeti than you’ll ever hear in most concert halls, Johann Strauss II, and, of course, Richard Strauss. I suppose there’s something to be read into Kubrick’s choice of Karajan’s recording of Also sprach Zarathustra from Decca, which the company’s management considered a sales liability and initially suppressed the connection. Much like Strauss’s tone poem, the philosophical currents of the film are, properly speaking, “freely after” Nietzsche (and a number of others). Though the notion of the “eternal recurrence” remains perhaps its deepest connection with the motif of the monolith, there’s a certain wicked resonance with the emphasis on weightlessness, the final tableau of the Star Child in orbit, and Nietzsche’s exhortation to kill the spirit of gravity.

APRIL 4

1906: Bea Benaderet is born in New York City. A presence on countless radio and television shows, she is probably known as the original voice of Betty Rubble for Hanna-Barbera, as well as countless other characters in the Warner Bros. animated shorts of the 40s and 50s. Along with the annoying bobbysoxer Red Riding Hood (“HEY, uh, GRANDMA! That’s an awfully big nose for you… TO HAVE.”), this moment may be her finest: “Goodness! Can’t a body get her shawl tied? Heavens to Betsy!”

***

“Crazy business this, this life we live in.”

1964: Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle opens at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway. An absurdist outing with Arthur Laurents, it only lasted for 9 performances before closing. Whatever the reservations about the book, it is a genius score, with more pearls than most could hope for in a lifetime. The original cast album, recorded after the show closed, is a marvelous artifact of Angela Lansbury’s first musical and, hey, Lee Remick should’ve done a few more.

***

“Nature never fashioned a flower so fair.”

1971: Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies opens at the Winter Garden Theatre. A gorgeous and bittersweet love letter to so much that’s temporal, it is one of the few musical works that remains genuinely haunting, like a vision in vapors. Probably best they didn’t stick with the plan to have it be a murder mystery.

Until next week!

Hanswurst in der Wüste, or Jochanaan Reconsidered

Put on your veils and lay out your silver platter. It’s a feast day.

Olive-Fremstad-in-Salome
Olive Fremstad in ‘Salome,’ 1907. (C) National Portrait Gallery, London. Used under the Creative Commons License.

Today (August 29) is the feast day of the Beheading of John the Baptist, which for a Straussian like me, brings it back to Salome. For all of his importance to the plot of the piece, I have always found Jochanaan, as Oscar Wilde rechristened the prophet for his own stage text, one of its most impenetrable figures. (The varied spellings and pronunciations of the name in discussions outside the opera are another matter altogether.) Part of that opacity rests with the score, which cloaks the imprisoned saint with thematic and orchestral material which stands in direct opposition to the more harmonically salacious goings-on elsewhere in the palace of Herodes. In his “Reminiscences” on the premieres of his operas, Strauss identified the bitonal contrasts of “Herodes–Nazarener” as a guiding principle. These two come into conflict following the debate of the five Jews, where the two unnamed Nazarenes appraise Herodes of Christ’s progression across the region, something which scares him even more than Jochanaan. Yet as the Nazarenes statements pick up material already introduced earlier in the previous scene by Jochanaan, his own presence can be plotted on that Herodes–Nazarener axis. Furthermore, his musical language is more or less always defined by and serves as a refraction of Christ, a figure who never appears in the drama but lingers unseen on its peripheries and influences the action indirectly.[1]  As evinced by his first words “Nach mir wird Einer kommen,” Jochanaan as a character is less concerned with immediate reality and one that instead abnegates the present as a herald of the future.

 

Strauss’s own view of Jochanaan was far from sympathetic. One cannot neglect to mention the composer’s resolute atheism, which frequently resulted in overly righteous figures being the objects of musical disdain. (Hence, the debate of the five Jews in the opera, which takes their few lines in Wilde’s text and spins it into a cacophonous fugue.) As Strauss wrote to Stefan Zweig in May of 1935, “In Salome, I wanted to compose the saintly Jochanaan more or less as a buffoon [Hanswurst]. For myself, such a preacher in the desert, who what’s more feeds on locusts, has something unutterably comic about it.”[2] Strauss’s choice of “Hanswurst” as a comparison is highly specific, something lost in Max Knight’s rendering of the term as “clown” in his translation of the correspondence. The term “Hanswurst” reaches back to the early modern period, signifying as a buffoonish peasant character in German-speaking street theatre (to the chagrin of reformers like Gottsched and Neuber) and later evolved into in an insult. The character/name of Hanswurst has no real equivalent in English parlance, though it does combine elements mostly associated with Arlecchino and Pantalone in the commedia dell’arte tradition.

 

While it may seem incidental, is there something more in this “Hanswurst” connection? Of the principal characters, only Herodias regards Jochanaan as an utter clown given the impenetrability of his statements and his more obvious insults towards her person and family. Indeed, it may seem that there is not a bit of the buffoon in him since Jochanaan, at least as implied in the text and scant stage directions in the score, comports himself with the most nobility in the opera, albeit with great vehemence. This vehemence, however, may be the clue. The negating energy of Jochanaan could be read as an over-fermentation of Schopeanhauerian renunciation, emblematic of a philosophy with which Strauss stood in considerable critical negotiation throughout his life. This connection cannot, however, be credited solely to Strauss since the circumstances and dialogue of the character originate with Wilde’s original play. How this is realized in music, however, is solely Strauss’s achievement. Again, in his “Reminiscences,” Strauss singled out the harmonic end of how the characters stood opposed in the opera as itself opposed to the more rhythmic means of differentiation utilized by Mozart. Compared with Herodes, however, Jochanaan is a model of measured notes. (For what it’s worth, the Hanswurst character is also seen as a distant relative of Wagner’s comic antagonist Sixtus Beckmesser, another character who tries to assert his nobility and dignity in both the public and but consistently comes up short on all counts.)

 

Part of the challenge with Jochanaan also resides in the quality of his expression. He spends the majority of the opera out of sight, a disembodied voice, speaking in what the other characters regard as prophecies or indecipherable riddles of no substance. (Like Mahler’s St. Anthony, the congregation goes swimming along the way it has been for a long time.) When he does emerge from the cistern, his statements fall along formulaic lines in rebuking the royalty of Judea and denouncing the princess Salome. This is again a convention set up by Wilde’s original text, as is the character’s abrupt silence just before the Dance of the Seven Veils. In the opera, however, this silence is all the more pronounced because of the importance of vocal utterance to the medium, a phenomenon exacerbated in the passage where Salome anxiously awaits the sound of his cry as Naaman the executioner approaches him.

 

Production choices offer a range of approaches to the character of Jochanaan and the questions he provokes. A notable example occurred in Daniel Slater’s 2015 production at Santa Fe Opera, which made the palace cistern a major site of the stage action for the confrontation scene between Salome and Jochanaan as well as the Dance of the Seven Veils. Here again Wilde’s original text provided the point of departure. In a passage not set by Strauss, the two soldiers on the terrace and the Cappadocian discuss how Salome’s own father was imprisoned in the cistern for twelve years before being strangled. The staging of the Dance in the production by Seán Curran as a Freudian dream depicted the king’s murder and the gradual sexual encroachment of Herodes upon the young princess. One wonders how the bifurcation of the dramatic space in the work would be served in a production by Katie Mitchell, whose use of simultaneous spaces opens up veritable (and literal) chambers of meaning.

 

Essential Listening

Unsurprisingly, my playlist for this post consisted of various renditions of the Dance of the Seven Veils. My favorite recording remains my first: Kempe’s excerpt of the work with the Dresden Staatskapelle for EMI. Kempe sadly never put Salome to disc in the studio, but there is a lone recording of a live performance at the Chorégies d’Orange in 1974 with Leonie Rysanek in the title role. For all my love of Solti’s recording for Decca, the precision of key moment in the Dance become obscured in the thickness of the aural texture, though the ascending scales in the xylophone part at rehearsal “e” are admirably debauched.

 

More noteworthy, however, are the surviving public recordings of the Dance of the Seven Veils by Strauss himself. Three are orchestral: a lesser-quality version on the Brunswick label with Strauss conducting an anonymous orchestra from 1921 (the woodwind parts are ascendant to the point of making it sound like a bizarre polka), and more substantial versions with the London Symphony Orchestra from 1921 with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1928. (There is also a collection of excerpts recorded with the Vienna Staatsoper from 1942.) The most fascinating, however, is the version for piano which the composer recorded for Welte-Mignon in 1905, available on both the Teldec and Naxos labels. (A version uploaded to YouTube can be found here.) It is a piano performance as only a composer could give, not strictly reproducing a piano reduction but envisioning the work on a distinct single instrument. Wundervoll.

**************************

[1] Such a reading might provide a good retcon/rationalization for one of the more resilient stories in the production lore of Salome, that the German Empress insisted that the Star of Bethlehem appear at the end of the opera for the Berlin premiere. A symbol of spiritual catharsis over Salome’s corpse? Perhaps. Strauss said that the heroine’s descent should inspire Mitleid, a word normally translated in operatic literature as “compassion” thanks to its place in the prophecy in Parsifal, but in the context of Salome possibly better realized as “pity.”

[2] “Ich wollte in Salome den braven Johanaan [sic] mehr oder minder als Hanswursten componieren: für mich hat so ein Prediger in der Wüste, der sich noch dazu von Heuschrecken nährt, etwas unbeschreiblich komisches.” Strauss to Zweig, Letter of May 5, 1935.