MSC 1003 - Music in Civilization

Romantic Opera
The 19th century was certainly a "golden age" for opera. This is where the most popular and beloved opera works come from, and it's the sound you hear on TV and in the movies when they want to evoke the dramatic and emotional power of operatic music.

In this unit we'll do a quick tour of some of mainstream opera's greatest hits and also look at Richard Wagner, who is his own kind of thing.

Afterwards, Exercise 42 will ask you eight questions.

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

Rossini was writing opera not long after Mozart, and his work is basically in the same format. You get the same relatively "light" orchestra and the typical alternation between arias and recitatives that we are used to.

The thing that makes Rossini unique is his comic sensibility - his operas are very funny and have a consistently wacky vibe to them.

The Barber of Seville [1816]

The Barber of Seville is a prequel to Mozart's Marriage of Figaro - Figaro is our main character, and he is a working-class trickster who is capable of outwitting the aristocrats around him.

In the "Largo al factotum" Figaro is singing about how he can do anything. If you want it done right, you come to him. You are probably familiar with the moment where he pauses and sings "Figaro figaro figaro!" but perhaps you did not realize that this is his name, and he is singing about himself.

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

It is pretty safe to say that Verdi is the greatest and most influential mainstream opera composer of the 19th century. He figured out how to streamline his dramatic presentation so that it is more like a movie or a good play. He got rid of the distinction between aria and recitatives and handled all of his dialogue without stopping the flow of the music.

We are going to take a somewhat in-depth look at La Traviata.

La Traviata [1853]

This is Violetta, and she is the traviata in the title. This term is often translated as "courtesan" and is maybe analogous to what we would now call an "escort." She has relationships with men in exchange for money and gifts.

In the context of this opera, being a courtesan is a semi-respectable profession. We'll see in the first scene that Violetta is hosting a party that attracts lots of prestigious people. Her guest list includes Alfredo Germont.

Alfredo is our male lead. He is supposed to be the one who loves Violetta for who she really is, and wants to take her away from her life of prostitution.

Let's watch two scenes. In the opener, Violetta is hosting the party. Note how Verdi handles lots of dialogue without missing a beat - the party music continues through the whole scene. Then Alfredo sings a toast (at 4:50) that you may have heard before.

Next, we'll see their love duet ("Un di felice"). This is a classic Romantic melody that soars up and up, constantly reaching for notes and forming a giant melodic arch.

Verdi also exploits a chromatic chord change to create a special moment on the word "mysterioso" (2:02). He suddenly switches the chord to minor to give the audience a little chill.

At the end of the duet Verdi writes a cadenza (at 3:50), a little pause in the music where the soloists get to show off. I think it kind of ruins the scene but I'd imagine hardcore opera fans love it.

It's not going to work out for these crazy kids. Alfredo's parents intervene to keep the couple apart, and then Violetta dies of consumption, a very 19th-century disease. (She alluded to a period of sickness in the first scene, of course.)

This is one of the unwritten rules of Romantic opera - the female lead almost always dies! It is a plot structure that Romantics thought was very tragic and compelling.

In the 80s (when I was a teenager) there was a very well-known movie that starred Julia Roberts and Richard Gere which rewrote the same basic plot. I am, of course, talking about Pretty Woman. The movie actually makes some Traviata references, including a pivotal scene where they go to the opera and see a performance of it.

Verdi wrote many other works that are constantly in rotation at big opera houses, like Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, Aida, Falstaff and Don Carlo.

Georges Bizet's Carmen [1875]

Carmen is another opera-house staple. Bizet is French, so this work will give us a short break from all of this Italian.

It is another tale of destructive love. In this very well-known aria Carmen will explain to us that she is a woman who cannot be tamed.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

Puccini follows Verdi as the dominant Italian composer of opera, and he writes in a similar style.

La Bohème [1896] is the story of free-spirited artist-types in the Latin Quarter of Paris. It's extremely popular and a decent choice for a first opera.

Lets look at Colline's aria, "Vecchia zimarra, senti," which happens towards the end. The band of artists is selling off their possessions in order to help Mimi, the main character who is dying of consumption. Colline sings a farewell to his coat as he gets ready to take it to the pawn shop.

Personally, I think Tosca [1900] is actually the best Puccini, though. It's a super-Italian tale of political intrigue, passion, and corrupted Catholicism. Once I get the right Tosca DVD I'll put Nessun Dorma here instead.

Also, Madame Butterfly [1904] is the story of a Japanese woman who marries an American naval officer and is then abandoned.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

All of these popular Romantic operas have been Italian, or French. In Germany, the opera world was dominated by Richard Wagner, and his approach is quite different. Wagner was a man of extremes, and as he made works that were incredibly loud, long, and complex he became the leader of the Late Romantic style.

Wagner's operas tend to be epic tales set in the world of legend and fantasy. His most well-known creation is the Ring Cycle, a series of four operas drawn from Norse mythology, about a magical ring of gold that can control the universe. (Thus, it is similar to Tolkein's Lord of the Rings.) There are Wagner-heads who will go to festivals and see the entire ring cycle in four successive nights - all together it is about 15 hours of music.

LOUD Wagner: Die Walküre [1870]

Here is a well-known clip that demonstrates the loud and bombastic side of Wagner. He assembled a very large orchestra (including tubas that he designed himself) and sometimes he lets it go to full volume.

These are the Valkyries, female warriors who ride flying horses. There are no titles in this video, but they are talking about Valkyrie stuff (about their horses and where they are going.)

Usually in opera the composer will hold the orchestra back, so that the singers can be heard. Here, however, our sopranos are screaming their brains out over very loud brass! You have to be a specialist to sing this kind of music - you need to be able to sing very loud, for a long time. (Thus, one must be somewhat sturdy - there aren't a lot of skinny people singing Wagner.) These sopranos probably perform Wagner, Strauss and similar "heavy" composers all of the time.

SLOW Wagner - The beginning of Das Rheingold [1869]

Another aspect of Wagner that is kind of legendary is the intentional slowness of the works. These operas are very long, and there are times when they seem to be "stretching out time," going as slow as possible.

Let's listen to the beginning of the entire Ring cycle, when the gold that will make the ring is still buried at the bottom of the Rhine river. The overture is supposed to represent the flowing of the Rhine.

The performance I am going to use starts very provocatively, with a puff of smoke. All of the characters are standing around it, and they slowly walk off the stage. The director is saying to the audience, "We are going to go very slow, here!"

I'll time-lapse that bit, and then we'll hear the prelude, in which Wagner sits on one chord for about four minutes and lets it grow and grow, until it is as intense as possible.

This is a good example of Wagner pushing things as far as they can possibly go. If Mozart has begun one of his operas with four minutes on the same chord the Viennese might have thrown him in the loony bin. They would have said "that's not music!" But, in the Late Romantic era composers felt free to create extreme and challenging works.

This production is from the opera theater in Bayreuth, Germany, which was Wagner's home venue. At Bayreuth, he controlled everything - he was writing his own libretti and he had a say over the direction and set design as well. Wagner called his productions a Gesamtkunstwerk or "Total Work of Art," in which every dimension was unified around a singular vision.

(Obviously, he did not have lasers in 1869, but he wrote an elaborate description of what he wanted it to look like, and this is a contemporary interpretation of that.)

CHROMATIC Wagner - the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde [1865]

Finally, we'll look at a passage that is incredibly complex and chromatic. (You may remember from the Intro to Romantic unit that chromaticism is the use of "extra" notes from outside the scale.)

This is the prelude to an opera called Tristan und Isolde, which is not part of the Ring cycle. Here Isolde is an Irish Princess who is being held captive in the belly of a ship, piloted by Tristan. Isolde has a magic kit that was given to her by her mother, and she mixes up a potion that will help her get revenge on Tristan and escape.

However, something goes wrong and both Tristan and Isolde are dosed with the potion. It's a love potion, and they find themselves irresistibly attracted to one another, despite being mortal enemies. The prelude is supposed to represent the longing and anguish that they feel, and so it is about ten minutes of uninterrupted chromatic "flux" with very few moments of resolution.

Music theorists like to argue about the tonality in this piece. The opening chords are very mysterious and ambiguous - there's really no clear signal as to where the "home note" is. We don't get a point of arrival until 1:48 in the above video, and we immediate push past it, to maintain that feeling of perpetual longing.

A lot of people would pick this prelude as the most important work of the Romantic era. It is technically revolutionary and it also has an incredible emotional intensity.

Wagner and Anti-Semitism

So far I've argued that Wagner pushes music to some extreme places, and maybe it's easy to understand how some people get really excited about this stuff, and other people think it's too much. Maybe some people would rather listen to something light and fun like Rossini.

However, there is another aspect of Wagner that complicates the picture. During his lifetime he was anti-Semitic, and later, during the Third Reich, he was Hitler's favorite composer.

Anti-Semitism was not uncommon in Germany in the 19th century. Wagner went on record with his views in an essay called Judaism in Music. The opening thesis makes it clear that this is an exercise in unfiltered bigotry against Jews:

Now it seems to myself not unimportant, to clear up the matter lying at bottom of all this…that unconscious feeling which proclaims itself among the people as a rooted dislike of the Jewish nature…

After Wagner's death, of course, we saw the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich. Hitler was originally trained as an artist, and he had a vision of the Third Reich as a sort of monument to the greatness of German culture. The scene from Downfall with his model city dramatizes this:

Germans were very invested in the inherent superiority of German music, and they thought that Wagner was the absolute pinnacle of this history. Here is a Nazi Propaganda film from 1942 which features a performance of a Wagner overture:

After the war was over and its true horrors were well known, some people were quite understandably not in the mood to listen to Wagner! To this day is there is a sort of ban or taboo against playing Wagner's music in the nation of Israel.

In 2001 Daniel Barenboim, the leading figure in Israeli classical music tested the taboo with a performance of the Tristan prelude. This was generally not considered to be a success.

In our normal, in-person class this is usually an interesting place to pause and see what Baruch students think about this. Is there a kind of art or entertainment that you won't consume, because of something you know about the person who created it? There are, of course, a variety of arguments you can make about it, but it is safe to say that it is a topic that we seem to return to more and more these days.

(For people my age Morrissey is probably the artist who tests one's loyalties the most.)

This is a weird place to end, but I do think it's an interesting issue that we all wrestle with in our own way. If you like Larry David you could maybe watch his Wagner bit as a palate cleanser. As is typical for Mr. David it is a gleefully obnoxious take on the issue.

Exercise 42

Exercise 42 asks you questions about all of this, including listening IDs. Eight questions.