Friday, April 17, 2015

Ministering to minds diseased: My pre-concert talk for Butler ArtsFest's "Stark Raving" program



 Method — and something beyond it — goes into operatic madness


More explanations for the increasing oldness of the core opera repertoire could be put forward and defended than there is time for here. But it’s doubtful that strong claims can be made for permanent additions to the canon since World War II except for Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” whose protagonist, by the way, perfectly illustrates how readily being an outsider shades over into outlaw status.

Many viable operas have been composed in the past 70 years, but for various reasons composers’ interests often have tended elsewhere. One direction in the 20th century was for composers to opt for portrait sketches in a cabaretlike or music-theater format, with instrumentalists cast as characters, doffing their role as accompanists.

Let’s briefly consider a couple of noble ancestors: The violin helps portray the Soldier in Igor Stravinsky’s “Soldier’s Tale” (1918); the nature of the violin’s dominance — walking music, marching music, and its diabolical possession at the climax — changes according to what happens to the soldier. And the quasi-instrumental use of the voice (Sprechstimme: a cross between song and speech) in Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” (1912) makes it basically a verbally adept but partial representative of Pierrot, whose fragmented personality is embodied in a mix-and-match ensemble of instrumental components: its eight instruments play together only in the last of its 21 numbers.

Peter Maxwell Davies in his Expressionist period
Why opera reached a crisis has something to do with the evolution of musical language away from its communicative clarity toward a more ambiguous and sometimes apparently hidden relationship to emotion. Someone hostile to the music that resulted, the most formidable American newspaper music critic in the second half of the 20th century, put it like this: “Opera is probably the most visceral form of music. But the anti-Romantic movement that came into being after World War I despised Romanticism and its gestures.” The New York Times’ Harold Schonberg went on to say, in 1976, that “a visceral element is beginning to creep back into music,” and he specifically mentions Peter Maxwell Davies, who “has taken a direction that hints at a future kind of lyric drama in which intellectuality and visceral impact come together in an exciting mixture.”

The mixture in Davies’ case can be seen in his use of parody and quotation, which is frequent in “Eight Songs” and many other works. It goes beyond what’s widely recognizable through quotation of something familiar to medieval and Renaissance formal practices. This is learned music applied to emotionally intense ends. If the visceral element is retained, the composer’s language can be organized according to his knowledge of ancient procedures, stylistic devices, and forms that interest him. But these cannot be regarded as the be-all and end-all of his job. He must have something beyond his learning and the skill to apply it in order for his compositions to live.

“Certain relationships of pitch seem to be innate in all animals, including man,” writes George Martin in 20th-Century Opera: A Guide. “The distress peeps of little chickens, for example, are composed of descending phrases, while rising phrases predominate in peeps of pleasure. The same general contours are present in man’s sounds of distress and pleasure, and a style of music that too frequently ignores such a basic postulate of communication through sound seems unlikely to last for long.”

Predominant ways to organize music in the 20th century did not always yield results that could be depended on to reflect a story’s emotional trajectory. Following Schoenberg’s systematization of his swerve away from tonality, modernist control of compositional procedures to the nth degree excluded allusions to music as experienced in the protagonists’ lives. A crucial aspect of portraiture through music was cut off.

The pathos of mental disturbance could be expressed without such references under an Expressionist aesthetic, such as the one that governs Schoenberg’s “Erwartung” (1924).  And, true to that philosophy, “Eight Songs for a Mad King” and “Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot” are sometimes acknowledged as the high points of Davies’ Expressionist period, in which he painted on a broad canvas, using a full, historically informed palette. Thus, stammered syllables, such as Miss Donnithorne’s “ca-ca-ca-cake,” can be read as both Expressionist utterances and as parody of the repeated-note tremolos at cadences in 17th-century vocal music.

These two Davies works may be considered a sophisticated elaboration of “the distress peeps of little chickens.” But they depend in part on pre-existing musical referents. So does “Pierrot Lunaire,” which has three movements that mock the most popular dance form of the pre-World War I era, the waltz. “Eight Songs” draws on Davies’ knowledge of centuries of upper-class English vernacular music, as well as the operatic and oratorio styles, chiefly Handelian, predominant in George III’s time. The piano-bar and ricky-tick treatments given “Comfort Ye” also show that anachronism usefully can symbolize the disintegration of a personality. “Miss Donnithorne’s” distortions of sentimental Victorian ballads, whose original effectiveness rested on settling middle-class listeners in their comfort zones, likewise carry that message, surely more than thoroughgoing modernist procedures would.

Maybe the mockery goes further. Richard Taruskin, in his Oxford History of Western Music, paraphrases with approval another writer’s opinion that “Eight Songs” can be interpreted this way: the mad King, “a once-powerful figure rendered impotent…might…be a metaphor for the dogmatic inelasticity of modernism, rendered impotent and irrelevant in the face of the egalitarian plurality of styles that was ineluctably emerging in the wake of the sixties.”

This might seem farfetched, but remember: the King is presented as a frustrated cross-species music teacher. His “I shall rule with a rod of iron” could be applied as the motto of post-war Darmstadt, from whose annual new-music festival total serialism exercised its midcentury sway, a rule divided, with another center of orthodoxy lodging in American universities.  That reign was brief in light of the pluralism that has since overtaken music and the marginalization of even this pluralistic landscape, a patch of countryside lamely dubbed “classical music.” The pathos of rule yielded by force is reflected in the “rod of iron” line, delivered in a weak falsetto and nearly coincident with some serious violin abuse — ironic in that it alludes to “Messiah’s” fierce, destructive aria “Thou shalt break them.”

The final song, spoken dramatically with only a few "extended" techniques, has the vocal soloist regarding the king with pity, as if from the outside, but we can’t be sure he is not formulating an autobiographical sketch as a posthumous fantasy. The composer wants us to entertain the possibility that the voice we’ve been listening to is someone pretending to be George III.  “I am weary of this feint,” runs a mysterious line in the King's fourth song. Melodically, the line sounds to me like the work’s closest approximation to “Lunairean” Sprechstimme. Is this a clue, deliberately clad in the Expressionist garb of the work’s precursor?

Davies’ notes for a piece of the same year (1969), “Vesalii Icones” (Images of Vesalius), include an explanation why its finale, “Resurrection,” imagines the Antichrist rising from the tomb to place a curse on all Christendom. “Some may consider such an interpretation sacrilegious,” Davies writes, “but the point I am trying to make is a moral one: It is a matter of distinguishing the false from the real, that one should not be taken in by appearances.”


We’ve all experienced things turning out far differently from what we had every right to suppose. Usually, we regain our balance and move on. How much the worse here! George III, ruler over a rising imperial power, despite that little setback in the American colonies, in captivity has been brutalized and alienated from nature, human society and specifically the court.  Miss Donnithorne, the focus of what was in her era the summit of every woman’s experience — her wedding day — is deprived of that honor without warning.

The result isn’t pretty. The emotional mess embedded in the music has sometimes been reflected in visual messes in the staging of both works. The late Andrew Porter preferred an early production of “Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot” “in which the unfortunate lady burst from the moldy wreck of her giant wedding cake.” A Paris production of “Eight Songs for a Mad King” under the direction of David Freeman piled upon the scenario’s scenes of verbal and physical violence a simulation of George III signing the walls of his cell with his own excrement. You can’t get more visceral than that.

Gaetano Donizetti crafted the classic bel canto mad scene.
The tidier presentation of madness in 19th-century operas also has its messy, disjointed qualities, however. Forced to abandon her intended lover for an imposed marriage, then persuaded by a forged note to find her beloved false, the heroine of Gaetano Donizetti’s opera "Lucia di Lammermoor" gets the classic mad scene after her offstage murder of the husband she never wanted. Making allowances for the expansion of the musical language since then, we can understand Donizetti’s mad-scene music as parallel to how Davies writes for Miss Donnithorne and George III. In “Evenings at the Opera,” Jeffrey Langford describes Lucia’s music this way: “Short disjunct phrases of little or no tunefulness create a melody that continually breaks off its direction, interrupts itself, and essentially has no continuity.”

A mad scene’s “aberrant music,” as Langford calls it, means a departure from what the audience expects — a formal and expressive anomaly, a breach of convention. It’s worth noting that just before Lucia, disheveled and bloodied, appears to the stunned wedding crowd, the chaplain Raimundo relates the murder scene he has just witnessed in a beautiful, well-rounded melody that the chorus of guests matches. Why such horrors told in such a placid way? So that Lucia’s music is that much clearer as an aberration when it bursts upon us after she descends the stairs.


The flute becomes a character in the course of the scene, anticipating the instrumental partnering Davies embeds in his works. Lucia’s music has sporadic smoothness, chiefly when she recalls a couple of phrases of her love duet with Edgardo; otherwise not. There are calmer moments in “Eight Songs” and “Miss Donnithorne,” too — momentary bounces off the trampoline of a desired reality, presumptively rooted in truth or at least in reasonable anticipation of truth: a stable kingship, a happy marriage.

Davies’ king thinks he has a different spouse, and so does Donizetti’s Lucia. Miss Donnithorne’s bridegroom seems simultaneously present and absent; all time has been sucked into the black hole of her wedding day.

The mental wanderings have physical analogs in all three cases. Staging can reinforce the significance of each character’s disoriented journeys in what the audience sees as well as hears:  Stephanie Von Buchau recalls the spellbinding Metropolitan Opera debut of Joan Sutherland in the role in 1961, “turning upstage during the mad scene so that some of her utterance sounded like echoes.” For a Lucia so transcendently achieved, phrases of the mad scene can well be echoes because they give back to her pale reflections of truth, which, as the interwoven flute voices remind us, she has no way of separating from her fantasies. Both Davies pieces end in diminishing repetitions that function as such echoes.

This truth/falsehood dilemma has its most famous stage incarnation in the character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, determined to distinguish between appearance and reality, smart enough to do so, and willing to give over every earthly advantage in order not to be deceived. Despite his crippling doubts and occasional cruelty, he is a healthy character in an unhealthy situation.
Tom Stoppard (about the time of RAGAD)

In this passage from “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” (1967), Tom Stoppard’s comic riff on Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet’s advantages in comparison with King George and Miss Donnithorne become clearer. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are talking with a character called the Player: 

ROS: Hamlet is not himself outside or in. We have to glean what afflicts him.

GUIL: He doesn't give much away.

PLAYER: Who does, nowadays?

GUIL: He's—melancholy.

PLAYER: Melancholy?

ROS: Mad.

PLAYER: How is he mad?

ROS: Ah.  (To GUIL.) How is he mad?

GUIL: More morose than mad, perhaps.

PLAYER: Melancholy.

GUIL: Moody.

ROS: He has moods.

PLAYER: Of moroseness?

GUIL: Madness. And yet.

ROS: Quite.

GUIL: For instance.

ROS: He talks to himself, which might be madness.

GUIL: If he didn't talk sense, which he does.

ROS: Which suggests the opposite.

PLAYER: Of what?

     (Small pause.)

GUIL: I think I have it. A man talking sense to himself is no madder than a man talking nonsense not to himself.

ROS: Or just as mad.

GUIL: Or just as mad.

ROS: And he does both.

GUIL: So there you are.

ROS: Stark raving sane.

Madness, as presented by Davies and Donizetti, represents an absolute inability to make such distinctions as those Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are trying to puzzle out about the Danish prince.  Their investigation has no firm grounding: “One acts on assumptions,” the Player reminds the hired busybodies just before the passage I’ve quoted.

In “Eight Songs for a Mad King” and “Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot,” Davies wants to put the audience close to the horror of a conclusive inability to discern the truth and come to terms with it, especially after the depletion of all power to expect and enjoy deserved happiness. Sanity — stark raving sanity above all — is no option for King George or Miss Donnithorne. Their situations say that, and their music proclaims it indelibly.

Or so we have to assume.


(Delivered at Schrott Center for the Arts, Butler University, April 16, 2015. Thanks to JCFA dean and ArtsFest artistic director Ronald Caltabiano for the opportunity)