Farrago for April 5–April 11

This week, some riddle-me-this, Lady Day, and why Shirley Walker should be a name in your household if she is not already.

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


APRIL 5

1803: Beethoven leads a deluxe concert of his works at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna; in retrospect, a trial run for his later marathon program in December 1808. On the docket in 1803: the debuts of the Second Symphony, Third Piano Concerto, and Christus am Ölberge.


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1933: Impressionist extraordinaire and the only Riddler—in any medium—Frank Gorshin is born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In many ways it is demeaning to define an actor by a single role, but Gorshin’s portrayal remains a stand out from the live-action Batman series, part of its great central villain quartet of Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, and Julie Newmar. With his infectious laugh and balletic glee, Gorshin’s characterization helped obviate the restricting intellectualism of the character with a nigh-impish sexuality (yes, you read that right and I admit it) that is always a thrill to watch.


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1941: Verklungene Feste, Richard Strauss’s last balletic stage work, premieres at the Nationaltheater in Munich. Conceived by Strauss’s colleagues Clemens Krauss and Pino Mlakar and choreographed by Mlakar and his wife Pia, it offered an expansion of the composer’s earlier “Tanzsuite” after pieces by Couperin. The fuller score depicted an elaborate panorama of impeccably costumed dance history, all credit to designer Rochus Gliese, perhaps more famous for his Expressionist film designs in the 1920s. As its title suggests, the ballet was in every sense a farewell to fading festivities of a bygone age. There are plenty of connections with Strauss’s Capriccio, which premiered the following year, but it also continued projects that reach back to Ariadne auf Naxos: a broad metatheatrical conceit and a self-conscious appropriation of historical gestures and styles spanning centuries. As it was not an original score, but rather a glorious canvas of many layers, it has, appropriately enough, faded into history itself, a temporal delight figuratively—and literally—blown into the past with the bombing of the opera house in 1943.

Strauss later published the bulk of the added pieces to the Couperin suite as the Divertimento, op. 86.

APRIL 6

1826: Painter Gustave Moreau is born in Paris. Among his many immortal (and, to some, immoral) canvases are the definitive depictions of Salome in art.

Salome Dancing before Herod, (1876). Oil on canvas. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

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1913: Dame Felicity Palmer is born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.

APRIL 7

1915: Lady Day, Eleanora Fagan—known to eternity as Billie Holiday—is born in Philadelphia. This footage was taken not long before her premature death at age 44, but the voice still inspires in “Strange Fruit,” a song which helped define Holiday’s career for two decades.


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1934: Actor Ian Richardson is born in Edinburgh, Scotland. A stalwart of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Richardson gained acting immortality as Francis Urquhart in the BBC series House of Cards. Of course, one might think that. I could not possibly comment.

APRIL 8

1876: Amilcare Ponchielli and Arrigo Boito’s La Gioconda premieres at La Scala in Milan. Known today more for the famous Dance of the Hours (Danza delle ore) from act 3, the opera is in fact far more serious and bleak than the ballet’s whimsy would imply. Here is a young Callas ripping her way through Gioconda’s act 4 showstopper.


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1928: Lyricist Fred Ebb is born in New York City. In partnership with John Kander, Ebb gave the American musical one of its best jolts in the 1960s and 70s.

APRIL 9

1887: Composer and musician Florence Price is born in Little Rock, Arkansas. The recent discovery of a trove of her manuscripts has lead to a decade of overdue reexamination of her life, career, and catalog, with decades more to come.


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1898: Actor, singer, and activist Paul Robeson is born in Princeton, New Jersey. A critical and crucial voice in every sense of the phrase, here is the ever-eloquent Robeson taking questions from an Australian panel, reading colonialism and colonizers, and inspiring in spades. (CW: period language on race.)


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1939: Marian Anderson sings her historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. after being shut out of Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Here is audio of the event held in the National Archives, including some rather over essentialized statements from Harold Ickes but easily the gold standard of National Anthems.


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1948: Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 premieres, sung by its commissioner Eleanor Steber, with the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzky. All interpreters must reckon, however, with the Empress Leontyne.

APRIL 10

“Was träumte mir von Isoldes Schmach?”

1865: Richard Wagner’s first and, to most accounts, favorite child, Isolde is born in Munich. Conceived during a trip to Lake Starnberg, Isolde was born to Cosima (at that time Hans von Bülow’s wife) on the day of the first orchestral rehearsal of Tristan und Isolde, hence her name. (Cosima, like Wagner, had about as much tact as a tree stump.) Isolde was baptized Catholic and bore her legal father’s name until her marriage to the conductor Franz Beidler. Like her elder sisters from the Bülow marriage, she worked as a costume designer at the Festival after her younger brother Siegfried acceded to the festival leadership. Isolde’s union, however, was continually frowned upon by her family since Beidler was a notorious womanizer, and the family’s hands were always full elsewhere cleaning up Siegfried’s literal gay escapades. The continued exclusion of Beidler and their son Wilhelm (at the time the only grandchild of Wagner) from the Festival conducting staff eventually led Isolde to instigate litigation to be recognized as Wagner’s heir. The gambit failed, and she died in estrangement from her family in 1919.

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1945: Composer, orchestrator, and conductor Shirley Walker is born in Napa, California. A regular collaborator of Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer, Walker possessed a musical talent and genius which gained a wider audience through her work on Batman: The Animated Series. While episodes were scored by a cadre of composers, Walker took the lion’s share and crafted its thematic building blocks, each of which were just as memorable as Nelson Riddle’s for the Adam West series.

The creators of Batman TAS were always adamant that the episodes should be treated like dramas, a choice that always came out in Walker’s scores. Full of great suspenseful effects, they were also full of pathos. Always memorable to me is this sequence from the second part of “Feat of Clay” when Batman tries to subdue Clayface with images of his former career as movie star Matt Hagen.

Also, your main titles will never be this good:


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“That look of horror spoils your lovely face. What if it should show even through the wax?”

1953: House of Wax—the original, not that shitty schlock remake—is released in New York City at the Paramount Theatre. Itself a remake of Warner’s earlier Mystery of the Wax Museum, HoW was the first full-length 3D color film from a major Hollywood studio that also featured a stereophonic soundtrack. (Always qualify your “firsts.”) Full of amazing set pieces and 3D diversions (love that paddleball man!), the movie has one of Vincent Price’s finest performances. A great art connoisseur, he was always at his best with creative figures. The 3D process meant that Price did the majority of his own stunts, including the collapse of the staircase in the conflagration sequence at the top of the film.

The revelation scene below has a certain hokeyness in Price’s wax mask effect but it is expertly chilly in the lighting and Phyllis Kirk’s priceless line: “It’s Cathy’s body under the wax! I knew it! I knew it all the time!”

APRIL 11

“For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.”

1722: Poet Christopher Smart is born in Shipbourne, England. A prolific literatus of the Augustan period, he was (in)famously installed at St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics and later Mr. Potter’s Private Asylum on the alleged grounds of religious mania. His poetic opus Jubilate Agno, finally published in 1939, became the basis of Benjamin Britten’s sensitively-set and equally idiosyncratic cantata Rejoice in the Lamb.

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1961: The trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann begins in Jerusalem. It would adjourn in August with the final verdict delivered in December and Eichmann’s execution on June 1, 1962. Hannah Arendt’s account of the proceedings, while problematic, provides a number of meditations on the circumstances by which the trial would even come to be: “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied — as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsels — that this new type of criminal, who is in actual fact ‘hostis generis humani,’ commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.”


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.

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[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.