Thursday, April 25, 2024

Closing the Season: Stuart & Friends with Lots of Songs

Schumann (1839), Berlioz (1845), and Mendelssohn (c.1845)

Join us for the final program of the season with "Stuart & Friends," this Sunday afternoon at 4:00, April 28th, 2024, at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg. Stuart Malina (a.k.a. Music Director of the Harrisburg Symphony) will be at the piano joined by soprano Claire Galloway and baritone Jonathan Hays, for a program with two major works about love and loss (it wouldn't be the Romantic 19th Century if everybody loved happily ever after...) – Schumann's Dichterliebe (Poet's Love) and Berlioz's Les nuits d'Été (Summer Nights) – with a set of Six Duets by Felix Mendelssohn, and another approach to the love song from Broadway shows by giants of the American stage – Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter.

Rodgers & Hammerstein - Sondheim (1970) - Cole Porter (1949)

These days, when many people not accustomed to Classical Music think every piece, regardless, is a “song,” coming across an actual “song recital” is a rare thing, for some reason. But during much of the 19th Century, audiences, we are told by various writers, demanded singers at every concert. Symphony concerts would frequently mix in some chamber music (perhaps with the maestro as performer or accompanist to a well-known solo violinist or singer) and an instrumental soloist might include a sonata movement in between orchestral works. A solo pianist might offer a set of variations (probably improvised) in which the audience would applaud after each variation [horrors!], and a symphony could be preceded by some songs with a guest vocalist and followed with an operatic aria. “Declamations, instrumental and vocal duos [with piano] were all thrown together like a musical variety show.” Quite the different approach to what we expect today.

But then most “art songs” of the day were intended for the domestic audience, usually amateurs standing around the parlor piano in their living rooms: think of the famous “Schubertiads” held at the homes of Schubert's friends in which he accompanied one or more singers in a whole evening of his songs. And whether it was Robert Schumann and his wife, the pianist Clara Schumann – or, from another viewpoint, given her greater fame and more prestigious, if not always sufficient, fiscal results, the pianist Clara Schumann and her husband, the composer Robert – giving musical evenings at their home in Leipzig, or Felix Mendelssohn and his family with their Sunday musicales when he was growing up the son of a banker in Berlin, these were not public concerts. Schumann – Robert, as composer – intended Dichterliebe as a single work with a dramatic arc from beginning to end, with all the poetry by the same poet (preferably from the same volume of poetry), and though all sixteen songs were composed in 1840, they were not performed complete in public until 1861 by baritone Julius Stockhausen with Johannes Brahms at the piano, and then again the following year with Stockhausen and Clara Schumann.

It was around this time Frau Schumann also performed the first complete public performances of Schubert's two epic song cycles, Die schöne Müllerin and Die Winterreise (written in the 1820s). Yet her performance of Winterreise, one of the most dramatic of these works, was broken up into three parts: she played selections by Bach and Scarlatti between Parts 1 and 2, and some of Mendelssohn's “Songs without Words” (short character pieces, usually lighter works, for solo piano) between Parts 2 and 3. It's enough to make one wonder if the Historically Informed Performance Practice folks would suggest, therefore, Stuart Malina should play some Beethoven bagatelles, a movement of a Mozart sonata, and maybe a reading from Shakespeare in between Schumann's songs? (However, I would refrain from suggesting some Gershwin and Danny Kaye's “Tchaikovsky!”) Was it to relieve the tension for an audience not used to such intellectual challenges in a recital program, or concern they lacked the attention span the songs' inherent drama required?

Historically accurate as it may have been at the time, it's merely a way of pointing out how attitudes have changed – not to mention an audience's tastes and preferences.

The fact Dichterliebe was written in 1840, and Hector Berlioz composed Les nuits d'Été in 1840-1841, and five of Mendelssohn's Six Duets date from 1844 (the first of them was written in 1836), might excite music geeks like me, but I think, as different as the Berlioz on the second half might sound from the Schumann on the first half, their belonging to such a narrow span of time also might point out the great variety in musical styles we often enjoy without understanding their contexts. It has nothing to do with whether you'd enjoy it any more for knowing that, but that it might expand your appreciation of the wide variety of all these great composers we hear and take for granted: they did not live – and create – in a vacuum.

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The context of Dichterliebe in the life of its composer is fairly simple: after a long and often distressing courtship full of paternal objections (even resorting to the courts), Robert Schumann was finally able to marry the love of his life, Clara Wieck, on September 12th, 1840. Before then, Schumann wrote exclusively for the piano, finishing 26 published works between 1830 and 1839. Then he composed about 147 songs between 1839 and 1841, 138 of them in 1840 alone! Small wonder it's called “The Year of Song.” 

Basically, after the protracted legal battles with Clara's father about the wedding, not to mention the loss of Robert's dreams of becoming a concert pianist himself due to a hand injury, these were busy if not always happy times. This volume of Heinrich Heine's poems was written by 1823 but Schumann apparently became acquainted with them only when they were published in a second edition in 1837. However, being finally and happily married, it's odd, then, Schumann should choose these sixteen poems which would seem to go against his present reality, turning to thoughts of “a lover rejected coming to terms with his painful loss through renunciation and forgiveness.” Heine considered himself a critic of the Romantic ethos, many of his poems taking on a strong sense of irony; yet his legacy makes him one of the leading poets of the movement! Whether Schumann recognized the irony or not, it may also be his avowal of the very Romantic ethos Heine criticized overlooked the possibility: certainly, the music is not ironic. In the final songs, Heine's poet, in bitter disappointment, is going to “put the old bad songs and dreams, all his sorrowful love and suffering, into a huge coffin that will take twelve giants to throw into the sea.” Certainly, Schumann would have wished to take all his and Clara's troubles from the past years and do the same in order to move on.

For the videos, here, I chose a series broken into four segments to make it easier for you to keep track of the songs and their texts (sung in German, the video includes English subtitles, and I've included brief summaries in between the clips). Growing up with the recordings of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, it is his voice I usually hear in my head whenever I read through Schubert or Schumann songs, and while tenor Fritz Wunderlich might be a close second for Dichterliebe, in deference to Jonathan Hays on our program, I'll go with the baritone (no pressure...).  This recording was made at the Salzburg Festival in 1956 with pianist Gerald Moore.

#1. Im wunderschönen Monat Mai – In the beautiful month of May, when the buds sprang, love sprang up in my heart: in the beautiful month of May, when the birds all sang, I told you my desire and longing. (Incidentally, in the introduction Schumann quotes a few measures from the piano concerto Clara Wieck (now Schumann) had composed as a teenaged virtuoso, in case anyone would get the reference: certainly, Clara would.)

#2. Aus meinen Tränen sprießen – Many flowers spring up from my tears, and a nightingale choir from my sighs: If you love me, I'll pick them all for you, and the nightingale will sing at your window.

#3. Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne – I used to love the rose, lily, dove and sun, joyfully: now I love only the little, the fine, the pure, the One: you yourself are the source of them all.

#4. Wenn ich in deine Augen seh "When I look in your eyes all my pain and woe fades: when I kiss your mouth I become whole: when I recline on your breast I am filled with heavenly joy: and when you say, 'I love you', I weep bitterly.

#5. Ich will meine Seele tauchen "I want to bathe my soul in the chalice of the lily, and the lily, ringing, will breathe a song of my beloved. The song will tremble and quiver, like the kiss of her mouth which in a wondrous moment she gave me."

#6. Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome – In the Rhine, in the sacred stream, great holy Cologne with its great cathedral is reflected. In it there is a face painted on golden leather, which has shone into the confusion of my life. Flowers and cherubs float about Our Lady: the eyes, lips and cheeks are just like those of my beloved. = = = = = = =

#7. Ich grolle nicht – I do not chide you, though my heart breaks, love ever lost to me! Though you shine in a field of diamonds, no ray falls into your heart's darkness. I have long known it: I saw the night in your heart, I saw the serpent that devours it: I saw, my love, how empty you are."

#8. Und wüßten's die Blumen, die kleinen – If the little flowers only knew how deeply my heart is wounded, they would weep with me to heal my suffering, and the nightingales would sing to cheer me, and even the starlets would drop from the sky to speak consolation to me: but they can't know, for only One knows, and it is she that has torn my heart asunder.

#9. Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen – There is a blaring of flutes and violins and trumpets, for they are dancing the wedding-dance of my best-beloved. There is a thunder and booming of kettle-drums and shawms. In between, you can hear the good cupids sobbing and moaning.

#10. Hör' ich das Liedchen klingen – When I hear that song which my love once sang, my breast bursts with wild affliction. Dark longing drives me to the forest hills, where my too-great woe pours out in tears.

#11. Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen – A youth loved a maiden who chose another: the other loved another girl, and married her. The maiden married, from spite, the first and best man that she met with: the youth was sickened at it. It's the old story, and it's always new: and the one whom she turns aside, she breaks his heart in two. 

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#12. Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen – On a sunny summer morning I went out into the garden: the flowers were talking and whispering, but I was silent. They looked at me with pity, and said, 'Don't be cruel to our sister, you sad, death-pale man.'

#13. Ich hab' im Traum geweinet – I wept in my dream, for I dreamt you were in your grave: I woke, and tears ran down my cheeks. I wept in my dreams, thinking you had abandoned me: I woke, and cried long and bitterly. I wept in my dream, dreaming you were still good to me: I woke, and even then my floods of tears poured forth.

#14. Allnächtlich im Traume – I see you every night in dreams, and see you greet me friendly, and crying out loudly I throw myself at your sweet feet. You look at me sorrowfully and shake your fair head: from your eyes trickle the pearly tear-drops. You say a gentle word to me and give me a sprig of cypress: I awake, and the sprig is gone, and I have forgotten what the word was.") = = = = = = =

#15. Aus alten Märchen winkt es – The old fairy tales tell of a magic land where great flowers shine in the golden evening light, where trees speak and sing like a choir, and springs make music to dance to, and songs of love are sung such as you have never heard, till wondrous sweet longing infatuates you! Oh, could I only go there, and free my heart, and let go of all pain, and be blessed! Ah! I often see that land of joys in dreams: then comes the morning sun, and it vanishes like smoke.

#16. Die alten, bösen Lieder (Heine no 65). The old bad songs, and the angry, bitter dreams, let us now bury them, bring a large coffin. I shall put very much therein, I shall not yet say what: the coffin must be bigger than the great tun at Heidelberg. And bring a bier of stout, thick planks, they must be longer than the Bridge at Mainz. And bring me too twelve giants, who must be mightier than the St. Christopher in the Cologne Cathedral. They must carry away the coffin and throw it in the sea, because a coffin that large needs a large grave to put it in. Do you know why the coffin must be so big and heavy? I will put both my love and my suffering into it.

Technically, Schumann's Dichterliebe is a “song cycle,” not just a collection of songs. With its narrative “arc” and consistent style, all intended to be sung by one singer, in addition to being all one poet's texts and all from one volume of that poet's works, it certainly fits the definition even if the term didn't come into official recognition until 1865. And yet Schumann's first published songs, a setting of nine poems also by Heine, is entitled Liederkreis which literally means “Song Cycle”! This was soon followed by a similar setting of twelve poems by Joseph von Eichendorff, also called Liederkreis.

What distinguishes them from “just a bunch of songs” (would that be Haufenlieder)? Many times, composers would read a poem, find it's something they'd like to set to music and so they compose it. Then, later, they might decide to publish a few (or several) of them in a collection because it would be tedious (and might sell better) than publishing each one separately. The songs have no other relationship and perhaps were even composed years apart. Today, say, Taylor Swift publishes an album of new songs: you can listen to them individually or as a complete album; but for singers covering her songs, it doesn't mean you'd have to sing all of them together.

In that sense, it's possible Berlioz's six songs to poems by his friend (and neighbor) Théophile Gautier is more “a set of songs” than a true song cycle. Despite Schubert and Schumann in Germany, there were no other examples of “song cycles” in France, and we can't blame Berlioz for not following the rules when the rules didn't exist. Besides, even when they did exist, Berlioz rarely followed them anyway...

Gautier published a collection of poems in 1838 he called La comédie de la mort (The Comedy of Death) – if we think in terms of “Comedy” as in Dante's Divine Comedy – which Berlioz might have seen before it went into print. At any rate, he chose six of these poems to form a span about “the progress of love, from youthful innocence to loss and finally renewal” which may be enough to fulfill the “connection” element. Berlioz also chose to call his songs “Summer Nights” (not Gautier's title) despite the fact the opening song is clearly a spring song set in the daytime.

While they were initially composed for mezzo-soprano or tenor, since some of the poems specifically have male narrators, he decided to recast the songs for different singers when he eventually orchestrated them: a baritone and a tenor for two of the songs, and an either/or combination which could mean a quartet of soloists to share the stage. However it was performed in Berlioz's day, today the orchestral songs are more frequently performed than the piano originals and one of the reasons might be the piano parts are not very well written for the instrument, Berlioz being no pianist – but they're usually sung by a mezzo-soprano throughout.

The first song, a Villanelle, is a specific type of lyrical poem inspired by country life, pastoral enjoyment and the rustic pleasures of the fields, replete with shepherds and young lovers: Gautier's poem is “a celebration of spring and love ...telling of the pleasures of wandering together in the woods to gather wild strawberries, then returning home with hands entwined.”

Spectre de la rose (the Ghost of the Rose) tells of “a girl's dreams of the ghost of the rose she had worn to a ball the previous day. Although the rose has died, it has ascended to paradise; to have died on the girl's breast was a fate that kings might envy.”

Sur les lagunes (On the Lagoons: Lament) with its sombre harmonies is imbued with melancholy; the undulating accompaniment suggests the movement of the waves. The poem is the lament of a Venetian boatman at the loss of his beloved, and the pain of sailing out to sea unloved.

Absence – a young lover pleads for the return of his beloved. (Berlioz scholar Julian Rushton suggests that unlike the other five songs, this one may make use of existing music, written for an abandoned cantata, Erigone, and this possibly explains why in this song, to accommodate preexisting music, Berlioz cut and rearranged Gautier's verses.)

Au cimetière: Clair de lune (At the Cemetery: Moonlight) is a further lament, with the bereaved lover now more distant from the memory of his beloved, and perturbed by a ghostly vision of her.

L'île inconnue (The Unknown Island) hints at the unattainable – “a place where love can be eternal.” Rushton describes the song as "cheerfully ironic", set by Berlioz "with a Venetian swing.” Of course, the last of the songs with Sarah Connolly was not posted on YouTube, so if I'm going to be inconsistent and given those few versions with piano are not up to snuff, let's go with mezzo Anne-Sofie van Otter in a 2011 performance with the Orchestra of the Louvre conducted by Marc Minkowski:

So, as usual, I'm curious how (and where) Les nuits d'Été fits in with what other music Berlioz was composing around that time. In 1839 his first opera to reach the stage, Benvenuto Cellini, was a massive failure; but his “dramatic symphony,” Romeo and Juliet, was a major success. Richard Wagner, then 26 and starving in Paris trying to get his operas produced – he had not yet written any of his famous operas – heard a performance and was “overwhelmed by its revelation of the possibilities of musical poetry.” In 1840, then, Berlioz premiered his Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale,a work originally scored for a military band requiring 200 players, subsequently adding string parts for a greatly toned-down “indoor” performance which Wagner also attended, writing to Schumann he found passages in the last movement so “magnificent and sublime they can never be surpassed.”

In 1841, the year he completed Les nuits d'Été, Berlioz was commissioned to add recitatives to replace the spoken dialogue in Weber's Der Freischütz and orchestrate Weber's “Introduction to the Dance” for the necessary ballet the Paris Opera required. He began work on a new opera of his own, La Nonne sanglante (The Bloody Nun – one can only imagine...) which, after seven years of creative unproductivity, he finally abandoned. 

In 1842, he also began a series of tours in Belgium and Germany where he found audiences much more receptive to his music. During these tours, he had enjoyable meetings with Mendelssohn and Schumann in Leipzig, and Wagner in Dresden, where he had premiered his recently completed Rienzi and early the next year, his new Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). Berlioz's legendary marriage to the Shakespearean actress, Harriet (a.k.a. Henrietta) Smithson – his infatuation for her was the subject of his most famous work, the Symphonie fantastique – had long fallen apart: when he left on these foreign tours, he took with him his new mistress, the soprano Marie Recio. In 1843, Berlioz orchestrated the second song from Les nuits d'Été, “The Specter of the Rose” – the rest of them had to wait until 1856.

In the midst of these large-scale works requiring large numbers of performers, it is curious to find something as intimate as Les nuits d'Été coming between the immense sound-force of the “Funereal and Triumphal Symphony” and his starting work on a Gothic-horror opera, “The Bloody Nun” (no doubt inspired by the success of Meyerbeer's Robert le diable, premiered in Paris in 1831, which quickly became one of the most popular operas of the age (especially the ballet of “damned nuns”).

(One wonders what Berlioz, with his incredible gift for the pictorial – think “March to the Scaffold” and the “Witches' Sabbath” from his Symphonie fantastique – might have made of such a scene? Today, I listen to Meyerbeer's cliché-ridden ballet music and wonder how anyone could've considered this frightening...) But I, as usual, digress.

With all their soaring vocal lines and their half-step slips in the harmony (speaking of breaking the rules), hearing these intimate songs of a Summer Night brings to my ear one of his sweetest and simplest “songs” of his entire career, the young homesick sailor's song, Vallon sonore, which opens the fifth and final act of his otherwise grandest and vastest work, Les troyens, written between 1856 and 1858. Typical of Berlioz's luck, it was not performed, and then only in part, until 1863, and never complete until 1890, long after he'd died.

And what was Berlioz writing right before he started work on Les troyens? He had just completed the orchestrations of Les nuits d'Été.

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We usually think of “Romantic” Music as being primarily about “romance” usually of the “boy-meets-girl, girl-rejects-boy, boy-kills-himself” variety. And while books far vaster than my blog posts have been written about what “Romanticism in Music” means, here is one summary by the poet Joseph von Eichendorff, whose texts were set to music by Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn as well as Brahms, Hugo Wolf, and Richard Strauss (most famously in his Four Last Songs): it “soared like a magnificent rocket sparkling up into the sky, and after shortly and wonderfully lighting up the night, it exploded overhead into a thousand colorful stars.” Rather than be influenced by Greek myths and architectural symmetries, Romanticists – like Carl Maria von Weber in Der Freischütz – found their inspiration in nature's wildness, its supernatural underpinnings, and more “common” folk than the aristocrats of the Ancient World, especially their folk stories and fairy tales.

While many of these stories seem death-obsessed to us today, Mendelssohn himself wrote to a stranger (one assumes a response to fan-mail) that death was a place “where it is to be hoped there is still music, but no more sorrow or partings.” Five of his six Duets, Op.68, were composed in 1844. Six months after the death of belovéd sister, Fanny Mendelssohn-Henselt, herself a fine composer and considered a better pianist, Felix Mendelssohn died in 1847 at the age of 38 after a protracted illness brought on by grief over the sudden loss of someone who had for so long remained a major part of his life.

Since Mendelssohn's Op. 63 is a collection of six duets, though published in a specifically numbered order, they are not a unified “cycle,” and so singers are free to choose any or all they'd want to perform. Since the recital features a soprano and a baritone, let's start with three of the duets performed by soprano Christiane Libor, baritone Thomas Hampson and pianist Hartmut Höll.

#3. Gruss (Greeting) – Joseph von Eichendorff (Wherever I walk and gaze on valley and woods and field, from hill to mountain top, I greet you a thousand times – this, by the way, is the text Johannes Brahms would write on a Swiss post card to Clara Schumann after he heard an alp-horn play the melody he wrote down for her, which later became the famous horn call in the finale of his First Symphony. Here, Mendelssohn sets only the first three of the four stanzas, leaving out the last in which the lover, though “seemingly full of happy things,” will soon dig his own grave.)

#4. Herbstlied (Autumn Song) – Karl Klingemann, who was Mendelssohn's traveling partner on his visit to Scotland in 1829, and had provided him with an opera libretto; later, he prepared the text for Elijah. (So soon does spring turn to winter and merriment fades; the last songsters will soon be gone. Were you a dream, you thoughts of love? Only one thing will never falter: the yearning which never fades.)

#1. Ich wollt', mein Lieb' ergösse sich – Heinrich Heine (I wish I could pour my love into a single word the merry winds would merrily blow away and bring it to you where, in your slumber, my image would pursue you into your deepest dream.)

For the remaining three songs, I've chosen different recordings. While Mendelssohn writes them for two voices, they can still be performed by different combinations: two sopranos, a soprano and a mezzo, since they're “musical lines,” not specific characters (like a lover and his belovéd) regardless of the nature of the text. I'll continue with another soprano/baritone combination, though, simply because its the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, here joining his wife, Julia Várady, toward the end of his career.

#2. Abschiedslied der Zugvögel (Farewell Song of the Migrating Birds) – Hoffman von Fallersleben (How beautiful the fields were, how sad the world is now. Happy in the sun, we sang out into the world. But we poor birds are now sad, we no longer have a home; we must fly far away into distant lands.

#5. Volkslied (Folksong) – with soprano Angelika Kirchschlager, mezzo-soprano Barbara Bonney, and pianist Malcolm Martineau – setting a translation of Robert Burns' “O wert thou in the cauldest blast” though I wonder how well the German transcribes the Scots dialect (a lover seeks to protect his love from fierce storms: If I were Monarch of the Globe with thee to reign, the greatest jewel in my crown would be my Queen.

​ #6. Maiglöckchen und die Blümelein (The Lily-of-the-Valley and the Little Flowers) – with sopranos Nicola Proksch and Simona Mrázová, with Alexandr Starý at the piano – Hoffman von Fallersleben (The lily-of-the-valley rings out across the valley, calling all the little flowers to the dance, twice as lively after Master Hoar-Frost leaves; and to the dance I go, too!)

The first of these duets (as he published them), Ich wollt', mein Lieb, was composed in 1836, the same year he wrote his oratorio, St. Paul, a successful premiere that sealed his European reputation.

Then, in 1843, he founded the Leipzig Conservatory and also composed his Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night's Dream which includes the ubiquitous Wedding March, as a complement to his youthful Overture, written when he was a teenager. He also completed a “secular oratorio,” setting Goethe's First Walpurgis Night about the druids trying to practice their rituals in the face of an army of Christians occupying their lands (many pious Lutherans were shocked to discover those victorious voices in the finale were not the Christians...).

1844, then, saw his eighth visit to England and the commission of a new oratorio: Elijah was given its premiere in England two years later. Meanwhile, in addition to the Op.63 Duets on the program, he also composed his Violin Concerto, Op. 64, which he'd begun working on in 1838 but had difficulty between the necessary inspiration and a far-too-busy schedule to pay much attention to it.

Sometimes, he worked very quickly, but other times he was constantly distracted by thoughts of self-doubt (which seems so contradictory compared to the brilliance of those teenaged masterpieces!). No doubt his short piano pieces like the Songs Without Words and vocal songs and duets like his Op. 63 were more of a diversion. His Italian Symphony, on another hand, was “completed” in 1833 but he was dissatisfied with it, eventually making revisions to the last three movements which weren't published until after his death. Curiously, musicologists tracking down what he had, in fact, revised, came up with an “original” version, recorded in 1999, and found, as one critic noted, “Surprisingly for so perceptive a composer he undermined the original's freshness, smoothing over melodic lines (as in the Pilgrim's March) and extending linking passages. A fascinating comment on the danger of second thoughts after white-hot inspiration.”

It gives one pause...

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The program ends with works not written in the 1840s by Europeans – but then, very little was going on in the American Musical Scene at that time, anyway. Any serious would-be composer wanting to pursue intense study with a master-teacher (other than the occasional musical immigrants who also happened to compose) had to go to Europe, mostly Germany – and usually came back writing like Germans. And then John Knowles Paine, against equally intense opposition from the Brahmins of Harvard, managed to form a music department that could give academic credit not just for simple music appreciation classes but also composition in 1875, initially sharing his classroom with a chemistry lab. When Antonín Dvořák was imported to teach at the National Conservatory in New York City (where he composed his Symphony From the New World in 1894), the question of national identity became a hot topic. Dvořák suggested his students study American Folk Music at a time when no one really knew what that meant since a nation of immigrants brought with it “folk music” from their homelands. So he suggested the “Negro Spiritual” as a source, and other composers, regardless of their racial identity, decided Native American songs and dances should be the True Source. Amy Beach, composing in Boston at the time, thought, since her ancestry was British, she (and collectively “we of the North”) should use English, Scots, and Irish songs, so she called it the Gaelic Symphony.

This crisis of identity continued with the development of the “concert/serious” and “popular” dichotomy. While we don't find Brahms writing a Violin Concerto and then using a Hungarian “Gypsy” dance in the finale as anything out of the ordinary, the inclusion of, say, jazz into our “serious concert” music was cause for the equivalent of a riot and a lot of snarky racist comments (even the 1950 Grove's Dictionary listed Dvořák's American Quartet as the “N-Word” Quartet...!).

Then along came George Gershwin, plugging away as a tune-smith on Tin Pan Alley, writing hit after hit for musical theater reviews, who was asked in 1923 to write a work for piano and orchestra combining elements of Classical Music and American Jazz. You've probably heard of it: Rhapsody in Blue.

Once Gershwin wrote an all-out opera based on the stories and music of the American Negro in Porgy and Bess (which today can open up whole new arguments about cultural appropriation), we became aware of new directions for this musical divide: opera on the “high culture” side and the “Broadway Musical Comedy” on the “popular” side. In Europe, there had always been “serious” opera and the more “popular” Singspiel – in Mozart's day, there was Don Giovanni on the one hand and The Magic Flute on the popular hand with its spoken dialogue and tunes with more popular appeal, especially in Papageno's music – or, in Brahms' day, the operettas and dance music of Johann Strauss Jr. (of whom Brahms was a huge fan).

Out of this “opera/operetta” divide, Americans found the popular side of the American Musical Theater on Broadway, where Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1943 hit Oklahoma! set off a new chapter in American music.

Unlike normal collaborations between composers and librettists where the composer would take a pre-written libretto and set the words to music, in most Musicals, the composer would write the tunes and then the lyricist would be brought in to write the lyrics to fit the melody. But Richard Rodgers and the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein became creative collaborators, working together to shape the development of the plot. Originally called Away We Go, once the song “Oklahoma!” in the last scene was turned into a big “show-stopper” number while they were in Boston on out-of-town try-outs, they decided that should be the title of the show. (Whew!)

While the plot is not so different from something that could've made a good old-fashioned European opera – lovers caught up in a mythical kingdom winnings its independence? – the story and its music becomes something so American, one can't imagine it any other way.

In the duet, “People will say we're in love,” the other characters think (correctly, as it turns out) that Laurey, an independent farm girl, and Curly, a newly-hired cowboy, are in love. In what Hammerstein called a "conditional love song," they warn each other what not to do so people won't misinterpret their intentions. Neither wants to admit to the other their true feelings. In this performance, the 1979 revival cast features Christine Andreas as Laurey and Laurence Guittard as Curly.

A composer like Leonard Bernstein could write a symphony or a jazz-inspired piano concerto or an opera based on Voltaire, but his lasting popularity might be based more on West Side Story, opening in 1957, than on any of the orchestral works he'd compose hoping to gain the respect of the “serious” crowd of American composers he championed as a conductor (like writing West Side Story or the Chichester Psalms wasn't good enough?).

West Side Story was, essentially, a story transplanted from The Olde World – Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet but as if they'd grown up in 1950s New York City in Spanish Harlem (ask yourself: would that music be as good if Bernstein had set Shakespeare's tale in Renaissance Italy instead?). But it wasn't the first Shakespearean Musical in Broadway history: in 1948, Cole Porter produced his response to Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, a setting of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew (actually, the mirroring in real life of Shakespeare's plot in the actors putting on Shakespeare's play).

One of the lyricists working with Bernstein on West Side Story was a young composer who would, eventually, grow up to become another Great Composer of the American Musical Theater, Stephen Sondheim. Like Cole Porter, he would write his own lyrics – and didn't Wagner do the same thing? (though I'm trying not to think of a Broadway adaptation called Ring! The Musical) – and is there any more operatic a musical than Sweeny Todd (thinking more of those Grand Guignol plots like Faust or... oh yeah, The Bleeding Nun!)?

In his 1971 musical Follies, he explored the foibles of the passing of time and of popular tastes as well, with the reunion of some actors from back in the day of a theatrical revue (the “follies” of the title), now deep into middle age and looking back nostalgically, speaking of folly, on their past glory days.

In the love duet, “Too Many Mornings,” is it between Ben, whose life feels empty, and Sally Now (who thinks, finally, he's fallen in love with her) or Ben and the memory of Sally Then? In this rather badly filmed video from a 2012 stage production, you'll get the idea how the ghosts from the past intertwine through Ben's inner thoughts: with Ron Raines as Ben, and Vicki Clark as Sally.

While Kiss Me Kate is framed as a play-within-a-play where reality imitates art – remind anyone of that verismo classic, I Pagliacci? – the duet, “Wunderbar,” from the rehearsal-for-the-play's opening scene, is a further “Easter egg” buried within the layers of the plot: Fred, the egotistical director of the play who's also starring as Shakespeare's Petruchio, is constantly arguing with his ex-wife, Lili, a former Hollywood star playing Katherine. On the anniversary of their divorce, Lili shows Fred the engagement ring from her future husband, a Washington insider, so naturally they reminisce about how they first met; in this case, singing in an operetta that included the number “Wunderbar!”, an old-fashioned Viennese waltz, giving them the chance to sing and dance and remember the Good Old Days. From there, of course, the plot thickens quickly, but let's leave it at that. Here is the classic pair of Kathryn Grayson as Lili and Howard Keel as Fred from the 1953 MGM film:

Whether applying “musicological insights” into the development of that American cultural contribution, the Broadway Musical, does anything for your deeper appreciation of these three duets that close the program or not, if nothing else you can watch the videos and think “Damn, that was fun!”

Dick Strawser