Tuesday, September 18, 2018


Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars

A New Gallery of Tudor and Early Stuart Rogue Literature

edited by
Arthur F. Kinney

with 18 illustrations by John Lawrence.
328 pp.  $18.95, paper
University of Massachusetts Press
ISBN 0-87023-718-7

Reviewed by John Mucci

Mr. Mucci is Associate Editor of The Elizabethan Review


On the endless road of popular culture, there has always been a genre of entertainment which supposedly reveals the mysteries of the underworld. Although whatever insight might be exposed, from the canting jargon to the details of a crime, accuracy seems to take a back seat to satisfying curiosity and a need for sensationalism.

Today, there are interesting things to be learned about ourselves by reading the peculiar genre of Elizabethan pamphleteering known as rogue literature. Popular with all levels of literate society, these slender books purported to set down the manner by which con artists of all types might abscond with decent peoples' money and goods. Ostensibly written as a public service, to warn and arm society against rogues of all types, in their fascinating variety, they are an Elizabethan version of mob stories, with curious and lurid detail. This interest with the underworld and the seamiest side of life is one which has obvious parallels in modern times, particularly with readers who are most threatened by and distanced from such criminals.

This so-called practical element of defending the populace against these all-too-prevalent creatures falls to second place against the pleasure of reading about others who have been hoodwinked by them (and better still, hearing the details about rogues who have been caught in the act and punished). This book is a compilation of several rogue pamphlets published in England between 1552-1612, including some by the playwrights Robert Greene and Thomas Dekker. While specialists in Elizbethan literature are no doubt familiar with these works, they are generally little known, except by title or reputation (—one might say the same thing about a book such as Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, which few have ever read full through). The plays of Jonson, Dekker, and Greene certainly abound with characters such as appear exposed in these works; Shakespeare less often, although A Winter's Tale, Henry IV, and King Lear have overtones of roguery and vagabondage. [In the latest issue of The Elizabethan Review note the reference to one of these works, cited by Delia Bacon (ER, Spring 98)].

In the first pamphlet, A Manifest Detection of Diceplay, Gilbert Walker maintains that he is "disclosing the principal of practices of the cheaters' crafty faculty." These disclosures consist of anecdotes, which are among the most amusing in the book, even though written early (1552)— Viz. a bawd who was preparing a draught of ultra-astringent "sweet-water" to shrink the less-than-virginal cavity of an advertised "virgin," finds that her kitchen boy has mistakenly washed his face with it, and has become as puckered as a pickled prune, with barely any face visible.

From a philological standpoint, the vocabulary describing these types is varied and enormous. Many of the pamphlets collected in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars (—a phrase apparently coined by Elizabeth, in a proclamation against them), detail nothing more than elaborate lists of what each brand of perpetrator is called, what their con-game is, and what lingo is peculiar to their kind. Viz. Palliard, Whipjack, Kintchin-Cos, Hooker, Swigman, Jarkman, Tinkard, Curtal, Queerbird, Jacks of the Clock-House... it is heady stuff, musical and ironic, invented by desperate people who guarded their language to disarm their victims. A hooker, by the way, was someone who went about with a long staff, on the end of which was affixed an iron hook; he would pass by villages where laundry was airing or drying from upper stories, and remotely filch selected duds. It smacks of a quaintness which could only be Elizabethan, and only then thought of as something so vile and wicked as to be punishable in the typically brutal manner of Elizabeth's time.

Some of the cant phrases and descriptors were invented by friars displaced from the monasteries closed by Henry VIII, and have a latinate flavor (Quaroms, Patrico, Autem-Mort); some were brought over from soldiers and sailors, who when their assignments were over, could find no other source of income than cozening to stay alive. But some of these terms are probably invented whole cloth by the pamphleteers, never to be used, or heard outside the pages of the book. After all, ever-changing slang and gutter jargon—then and now —refuses to be pinned down; words would be changed as soon as the jig were up. When John Awdley, in The Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561) lists such rogues as the Curry Favel—one who lies abed all day and curries his coverlets rather than his horse—the ring of truth seems subjugated to the need for a long list of colorfully-named perps, the burden of which seem dearly bought. Thomas Harman's A Caveat For Common Cursitors (1566) not only has expanded definitions of these varied street-denizens (Swaddlers, Dummerers, Doxies, Demanders-for-Glimmer), but goes so far as to classify and name actual persons living in Middlesex County at the time.

"Upright Men:
Harry Smith. He driveleth when he speaketh.
Thomas Gray: His toes be gone."
He completes this Baedeker of baseness with a glossary of terms and a sort of Berlitz dialogue:
Rogue: "She hath a Cackling-cheat, a grunting-cheat, ruff-peck, cassan, and poplar of yarrum."
[Meaning:] "She hath a hen, a pig, bacon, cheese & milk porridge."

Linguistically, Harman's introductory essay to the reader holds one of those odd mirrors to the times, which spring up now and then in unlikely places. Under the guise of proving his honesty in the pamphlet to follow, he writes:

"I thought it necessary, at this second impression, to acquaint thee with a great fault... calling these vagabonds cursitors in the entitling of my book, as runners or rangers... derived of this Latin word curro. Neither do I write it Cooresetores with a double oo, or cowresetors, with a w, which hath another signification."
His fussiness over spelling (in 1566, mind) is apposite to those who insist that Elizabethan orthography was haphazard and devoid of rules. Looking at the title page (typographically reproduced in the notes), we see:

A Caueat
FOR COMMEN CVR
SETORS VVLGARELY CALLED
Vagabones...
— what are we to make of that immediate contradiction? (It is further complicated by the Stationer's Register calling it a "Cavaiat for commen Torsetors" and our editor referring to it as "Common Curstors")—but Harman's text goes on further:

"Is there no diversity between a gardein and a garden, maynteynaunce and maintenance, streytes and stretes? Those that have understanding know there is a great difference."

Although one has the feeling Harman is talking about an ideal which could be seldom attained in his day, his protestations against mis-readings and sloppy spelling is worth reading in its entirety.
At the end of his life, (1591-2), Robert Greene published A Notable Discovery of Cozenage and The Black Book's Messenger, both of which pessimistically portray life in London to be frought with all sorts of characters out to swindle at every turn. It is a great comedy in the guise of cautionary tales, divided into The Art of Cony Catching and The Art of Crosbiting both of which are so minutely examined that the descriptions become more than the "how-to's" seen in the previous works, they have become playlets. The descriptions contain dialogue, action cues, characterizations, and complex motives, as thorough as in any of Greene's theater works.

As the genre hit its stride and began to decline, Thomas Dekker's work in Lanthorne and Candle- Light (1608) displays much the same attributes as other cony-catching pamphlets, yet Dekker seems more in control of his material. He too, has comprehensive descriptions of the same types we have read about before, but he drops them for more easily-readable terms, and organizes his material in a more popular manner. He calls the various predators and victims by more common names, making his enumerated encounters almost allegorical. Thus we hear of not only conies being caught, but the warrens in which they live, and ferrets who root them out. We hear of falconers and concomittant falconry images: casting lures and bait, Tercel-Gentles, anglers with jades, and such material so rich in metaphor, it nearly out-lingoes the rogues themselves.

Dekker also makes use of familiar plays to draw comparisons, everything from Doctor Doddypol to Hamlet. It is a novel approach, one which causes the material to be more accessible to a mass audience. In context with the rest of the collection, it is evident that the rogue genre has branched onto paths which intersect with the highways of the commonplace; where the anecdotes become diluted into everyday speech and literature.


The remaining selection, Samuel Rid's The Art of Juggling, seems pale in comparison, and is literally, a handbook on magic tricks; no longer shocking, no longer challenging in its language, it is flat and derivative. The road fans out and disappears.

These reprints are carefully collated and selected by Arthur Kinney with an eye toward showing the progression in style with a minimum of intrusion in the body of the work. However, this is despite an introduction which is inexplicably heavy-handed, with notes glossing the obvious, giving an alarming impression of the editor. One sample of a dozen suffices in his giving an authentic Elizabethan quote:

"..men that are abroade se[e]kinge the spoile and confusion of land are able, if they weare [were] reduced to good subjeccion [subjection] to give the greatest enimie [enemy] her Majestie hath a stronge battell [battle]; And as they ar[e] nowe they are so mych [much] strength..."

Indeed, this is commenting on sand in the desert. However, in the bulk of the text Mr.Kinney updates the spelling (and why not do that in the introduction—spare the reader these overelucidations), and we are generally free from his fussy explications. One which persists, however, is his expansion of "I[n] th[e]" —an Elizabethan locution if there ever was one, typographically spoiled by pedanticism.
His footnotes are thorough, if bewildering. Tyburn, for example, is glossed no fewer than four times in the text, and not always in the same way. Later, the footnotes inexplicably jump from number 64 to 67. The two missing notes make their appearance later on, and we are treated also to 61a, 61b, and 81a. Surely in a reprint, there is the opportunity to sort such tangles out. There is no need to strew such a scholarly path with brambles.







   
Alfred Hitchcock: Music from His Films
Behind the Silhouette: Alfred Hitchcock CD and exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, New York
BY JOHN MUCCI,

Bernard Herrmann is featured at a small exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, until August 17. Celebrating the 100th birthday of Alfred Hitchcock, it pays tribute to the many facets of the director's persona: producer, showman, artist, and, just as important, man of copious wit and attention to detail. It features scripts, correspondence, posters, and set renderings that make up an unusual if spotty retrospective. Musically, Herrmann provides the lion's share of interest. His desperate letter to get Marnie's music begun ("can you please send me a script?") and the fateful letter terminating his agreement after the Torn Curtain débâcle are there, some in perfect facsimile, others original. It is quite touching to see Herrmann's letters, written in black and underlined in red, with copious misspellings, signed "Love, Benny." How I'd love to have seen scores or cue sheets: but Benny's work had to fit into Hitch's retrospective.

MoMa has compiled and is distributing a CD of Hitchcock film music from various sources, with five of the 7 Herrmann scores represented. Although most of it has been released before, they seem to be more in context with their lesser brethren. For, from a strictly critical point of view, it is evident that Herrmann's work stands head and shoulders over the others, even when the Waxman, Tiomkin, and Rosza scores are so very good. Most of Herrmann's scores have the advantage, of course, of being re-recorded recently, and the tracks from Marnie, Vertigo, and Psycho are the well-miked versions of Varèse Sarabande and Silva. But we are treated to "Conversation Piece" from the soundtrack of North by Northwest and "Manny In His Cell" from that of The Wrong Man. Extracted from their film elements, and not often heard elsewhere, it makes a lovely addition, if brief, to anyone's Herrmann collection.

The CD's last track is Benny himself speaking, expounding on the importance of music in film for almost four minutes. This has been heard before in an even longer version on another CD, taken from a 1972 interview. Spoken in his elliptical, almost enigmatic style, it is a curiosity at best, and one is hard pressed to think why this commentary is better than the rapturously eloquent music that is of core importance to this disc, and to Hitchcock's best work. He simply did not express himself well with words, although he was well-read. His genius is readily apparent on this disc.

Since most of the music on the Hitchcock CD deals with suspense or romantic cues, it is interesting to compare how similar cues are treated by other composers. For instance, the charming cue to the opening credits of Hitchcock's first sound film, Blackmail (1929), uses fairly typical "hurry music" of repeated sixteenth notes (in "turn" fashion-say, repeated d-c-b-c on the piano). But when the rooftop chase from "Vertigo" suddenly comes on, this turn-figure, which Herrmann coincidentally uses as well, becomes the terrifying, monstrous fearful descent into a cataclysm that he so calculatedly made it. Juxtaposition with the earlier work of another composer makes it all the more appreciated.

Even the Franz Waxman theme from Rebecca, with its chromatic sweep (signature from his "Frankenstein" days), and Tiomkin's terrific opening to Strangers on a Train--which seems to prefigure the comic "Portrait of Hitch" at times--are excellent examples of intelligent film scoring and are well collected here.

The CD can be ordered directly from MoMA's online store.

CD tracks:
North by Northwest  (1959) Bernard Herrmann
1. The Wild Ride
2. Conversation Piece

Rebecca (1940) Franz Waxman
3. Prelude

Young and Innocent (1937) Louis Levy
4. No One Can Like the Drummer Man
5. Erica at the Mill

Vertigo (1958) Bernard Herrmann
6. The Rooftop Chase
7. Scène d’amour

Strangers On A Train (1951) Dimitri Tiomkin
8. Prologue/Duet for Four Feet
9. Guy Goes to the Anthony Mansion

Suspicion (1941) Franz Waxman
10. Main Title

Psycho (1960) Bernard Herrmann
11. The Murder
12. Marion And Sam
13. Patrol Car

Blackmail (1929) Campbell & Connely
14. Main Titles/Prologue

Spellbound (1945) Miklos Rosza
15. Concerto Prelude

The 39 Steps (1935) Louis Levy
16. The Chase on the Moor
17. Love Theme

The Wrong Man (1957) Bernard Herrmann
18. Manny in his Cell

Interview
19. Bernard Herrmann

Anton Kuerti in Concert

The Pianist as Performer: a Discordant Recital


"Evenings of Music"
for the Fairfield Citizen News
by John Mucci

Pianist Anton Kuerti, fifth artist presented in Fairfield University's "Evenings of Music" series, performed in his recent concert two sonatas by Beethoven, and one by Schubert.

Anton Kuerti
The sonata is an old and respected musical form, embodying several musical conventions in its most classic style, but one which is generally dedicated to presenting two divergent—many times bipolar—ideas. Through the skill and imagination of both composer and performer, these opposites are developed separately, combined, or reconciled in some emotional or inttellectual way. Normally, a pianst will tackle such problems only musically. But Kuerti managed to alienate much of his audience, thereby creating a physical, palpable, bipolarization, which was fascinatiing to watch. Such physical and musical problems had to be overcome, and the performance was—if I may continue the analogy—succesful in half its endeavor, and a failure in the remaining half.

He plays, first of all, in that personally affected manner which I had hoped was no longer fashionable, with fluid wrist spasms, and unnecessary flourishes. They are forgiveable in Kuerti's case, however, because he played Beethoven's Sonata in E major (Op. 109) superbly. The dichotomy of sight versus sound added immeasurably to the piece.

Sometime in his life, Ludwig van Beethoven must have regretted that humans are born with only ten fingers. Kuerti's performance seemed to defy such limitations, taking up his countryman's challenge, dividing the two hands into extreme highs and lows, alternating with the weaving of a homogeneous sound-fabric in the center of the keyboard. The divergent elements in the music are unabashedly schizoid; at this point, Beethoven's impending deafness allowed him his most acute hearing at the highest and lowest sound registers. Passages abound with the melody sailing up in the top end, and the extreme bass loudly growling out the darkest of harmonies. It makes for a hollow, almost desperate sound. And yet, there are moments of profound introspection here that represent Beethoven at his most resigned. In the first case, Kuerti has a brave, almost quixotic pedalfoot and a martellato that could crack cement. In the second, his gesangvoll is pure anodyne of quiet passion.

This led to the next bifurcation in the performance. Perhaps no more intelligent a pedaller there is besides Kuerti, in all pianism. This aspect is often neglected, because of the general disapprobation we accord feet outside the Rockettes and the decathlon; but the division between keys and pedals was remarkable, alternately blurring and delineating, characterizing the Beethoven in a most original way.

The E-major Sonata ends with a series of variations, and ends with a mighty trill that dominates and summarizes the piece, concluding with an ephemeral coda. Kuerti then disappeared quickly: he seemed barely pleased.

This performer has a reminiscence of Alt Wien about him, in his blue velvet suit. It distances him from us. Futhermore, two his brief comments before the next piece, one: that he had heard the acoustics are terrible in the room, and two, (somewhat belying the first) that he could hear everyone out there perfectly well, jewelry rattling, programs scraping and all, which suddenly made everyone feel uncomfortable, perfectly setting the scene for the "Waldstein Sonata" which followed. (Both comments were probably reeasonable; but it was the admonition to "be careful next time" that made everyone so anxious and afraid to move a muscle. The whole tension thus supplied was splendidly intensified by janitors upstairs moving around heavy furniture or zinc washtubs or something equally ponderous. The vicarious guilt added much.)

Again, Kuerti's affinity for Beethoven was apparent in the "Waldstein." Such a famous work is often difficult to approach, but he went at it with a will. And yet the pianist was plainly at odds with his instrument. That monolithic black narwhal that Fairfield University bought from Steinway under the impression that it is a pianoforte once again showed its full frequency range. The treble half loves to be capricious, now flat, now very flat, now embarrassingly flat.

The rippling sequences of the "Waldstein" rolled off Kuerti's fingers. It is a relentless piece, full of bravura and passion. The phrases build to a powerul pinnacle, only to be supplanted by a new series, which build similarly, to be supplanted again (much as Wagner was later famously to do): it is strong material to work with. in the wagging, rubicund face, the apoplectic quiverings, the driving energy of the performer, the power of the first movement came through.

Then it stopped.

The brief, slow sections of the "Waldstein" and the rest of the concert were mechanical; technically proficient, but performed by a fellow whose intent seemed focused on little else than technical proficiency. He fulfilled his audience in the first half of the concert; he fulfilled his contract in the second.

Schubert's "Moments Musicaux," pressed flat between the Beethoven and Schubert sonatas, had to the the most dispassionate, vapid little nothings ever written by that composer. Like chocolates left in the box (because everyone knows and disapproves of how they taste) they reveal nothing new on sampling them.

It is a pity that Kuerti inverted his program at the last moment; had he begun with Schubert, as planned, and ended with Beethoven, there was a chance to build, to reconcile and reunite the physical and musical elements at Fairfield's auditorium. I think it unfortunate that he was unable to play his audience as well as the piano.

There were no encores.

 Andrew Heath Concert


"Evenings of Music"
by John Mucci

Fairfield Citizen News

Fairfield County's love for pianist Andrew Heath was more than evident in the full house which greeted his concert on Friday at Fairfield University. the program opened the school's "Evenings of Music" series.

Andrew Heath
Heath's eclectic program kept a cautious balance between classic and modern works. First on the program was a sonata by Elliott Carter—a product of the hybrid style of 1940's American Music. Not wiling to lapse into a single tonality, not exactly atonal, it is a raw, diatonic work which wanders up and down the keyboard like an imprecise bullet, endlessly ricocheting. Its angular motion is reminiscent of the B-A-C-H motif, using minor seconds and minor ninths to achieve a disturbing, restless fabric. Relief from the shrill treble iterations (which tend to sound as though the pianist's right hand had an elastic band around two fingers) comes in the form of major-triad harmonics which are welcome, even if unvaried.

Heath dived into Carter's Sonata with great delight; his enthusiasm for it may well have gained the patience of the audience (which always seems restless as such compositions), but his query to those present—"would you like to hear that one all over again?"—brought an anxious ripple of laughter.

Haydn's "Andante con Variazioni" was performed in a precise manner, as cool and chiselled as a piece of topiary. Bach's "Partita in B-flat" seemed a bit academically hammered out, and soon it became clear that the instrument upon which Heath was playing was responsible for much of the stiffness in dynamics and the difficulty he seemed to be having in grading a true crescendo from something quiet to anything representing fortissimo. The Steinway used had such a dry, curt response that many legato passages suffered, and, particularly in the next piece, it became something of a battle between Heath and Steinway to keep the more mellifluent Ravel from sounding as brittle as Bach.

Truly the high point of the program, Ravel's "Sonatine de 1905" is the unchecked emotion found in Carter's Sonata, dressed in the oscelot furs from a salon of Sarah Bernhardt. The composer's idioms are so distinctively ornate and elegant, that neither stiff action nor the (by now) false temperament of the Steinway's top end could harm it. Heath's rendering of each arabesque, or sequence of serpentined chord blocks was a delight to hear.

Heath brings a great deal of tension to the music; even in the softest passages there is the insistence of enegy held in reserve. Only perhaps twice in the concert did he use all his strength, and to great effect—once in the Ravel, once in the Brahms which closed the program.

Brahms' vigorous "E-flat Rhapsody" is bottom-heavy, (as is much of his work) and Heath spared no force in his playing. As in the Carter and Ravel, this is a third facet of passion, massive and rude, but orderly, and most logical. It is also the piece in which Heath came closest to playing passionately. The distance he generated in Bach or Haydn was gone. This seemed much more personal.

Chopin and Scott Joplin were sandwiched between these last two mnubers. The three Chopin Mazurkas offered seemed so very tired; the lovely one in A minor was like a dried rose—able to be appreciated, but as a shadow of what it could have been. The ubiquitous Scott Joplin was certainly a great deal of fun, but Heath's showmanship and affable takes to the audience were much more memorable than the music. At this point in the program, however, such an about-face in style guaranteed success.

Two encore numbers, Brahms' "Intermezzo," and Rachmaninof's "Prelude in G-sharp Minor", rounded off the evening in a romantic vein, both stylistically in middle-ground.

Heath founded the department of music at Fairfield University, and although he has toured extensively, he is a familiar and welcome sight at home in Fairfield County.

My Two Cents Worth on

The Threepenny Opera

Program notes for a production of Die Dreigroschenoper presented at Hunter College by Il Piccolo Teatro dell'Opera
by John Mucci

On the seismograph of world theatrical events, the appearance of Die Dreigroschenoper in 1928 created a spike of unexpected force. Because it addressed poverty and justice from such a refreshingly slanted perspective, graced with some of the most captivating and energizing music of its day, its influence spread immediately.

Because of the Nazi's insistence on considering it 'degenerate art' and its subsequent suppression in the '30's and '40's, some mystery was cast about it, and because of the explosive 1956 revival from the Theatre de Lys, with Lotte Lenya in the role of Jenny, The Threepenny Opera has not left the purview of the world's repertoire of musical theatre.


So many stones have been overturned writing about the genesis of this extraordinary work, that one walks on a peculiarly trammeled beach, searching not only for new teritory, but trying to assess what the terrain looked like before. There looms large the two dynamos who created it, Kurt Weill, the composer, and Bertolt Brecht, the author. One had best leave it at that, before we hear stories about Brecht's magpie-like borrowings from divergent sources such as François Villon, Rudyard Kipling, and Brecht's brilliant assitant, Elisabeth Hauptmann, who made a translation of John Gay's original, 18th century play, The Beggar's Opera. Worse yet, we hear rumors that it was Brecht who wrote the music (borrowing tunes, also), and Weill only transcribed it—which is certainly not true. The effect is one which leads to a feeling that creating this masterpiece was as chaotic as the tottering Weimar Republic under which its creators worked. The creation of Threepenny Opera sprang from an amalgam of talents, smelted white-hot into whatever mold seemed appropriate, and as in the best of collaborations, left a mass of contradictions in its wake. Audiences have proved the indominability of the work as it is. The rest is infinite subtlety, to be savored by those who are further entertained by research.


One sure sign that it is a work for all time is that no one seems to leave it alone. During the authors' lifetimes, changes and little addaptations abounded. Even Weill, who was so opposed to updating either score or text, wrote new numbers for the Paris production, to be sung by Yvette Guilbert, in a style which was wholly appropriate only to a production in France. As in all good theatre, each country makes the piece its own, in this case down to the title. The English Threepenny Opera is an honest downgrade from the German (where it is, after all, not Die Dreipfennigoper— 1 Groschen = 10 Pfennigs), but in France it is known as the Opéra de Quat'sous, and in Mexico of dos centavos, and Italy, tre soldi. 

Written at a time when Germans were just recovering from a Mark so inflated that bushels of them were baled and never untied, carried in barrows to make simple transactions; when butter was the most stable measure of value, and when the postal authorities surprinted stamps again and again into the billions of Marks to keep up with an economy completely out of control— this Beggar's Opera was indeed thoughtful entertainment for the modern Everyman. Brecht said that it 'dealt with bourgeois conceptions in a bourgeois manner', and it certainly at once is an indictment of modern life and a celebration of its common experiences.


A scene from The Beggar's Opera
The history of The Threepenny Opera is that it began as a parody of Handel, when John Gay and Johann Pepusch wrote The Beggar's Opera in 1728. It was enormously popular, and proved to be so even up to the early 1920's when it was revived in London. It was this production which piqued the curiosity of Elisabeth Hauptmann, who translated it and showed it to Brecht, who in turn noodled with it a while. When a young producer approached Brecht for a new piece to re-open the old Schiffbauerdamm Theater in Berlin, the author impulsively offerd his half-hearted sketches derived from Gay—which were accepted, to his surprise. Quickly finished, and re-worked up to the last minute, Die Dreigroschenoper was predicted to be a flop on opening night, until apparently the audience caught the spirit of the piece during the "Cannon Song" and enthusiastically hailed it a hit, starting what was eventually known as "Threepenny Fever" all over Germany and Europe at large.


The story of the Opera is as brilliant as it is simple. J.J. Peachum operates a coalition of beggars as efficiently as though he were organizing a union. He gives them costumes, makeup, prosthetics, full corporate support in exchange for fealty. He heads an otherwise commonplace bourgeois family, with his wife and his daughter, Polly. Apposite to him is the dapper, notorious gang leader Macheath, known as Mack the Knife, who, having his eye on Polly, "marries" her. Enraged at his daughter's submission, Peachum wants Macheath arrested, and engages Police Chief Tiger Brown to do so, although Macheath and Brown are old army buddies.


Macheath is indeed arrested, being found at his usual time in the usual brothel. He escapes from jail, is re-arrested (same time, same brothel), and is only saved from hanging through a purposefully absurd reprieve from the Queen— which might well satisfy a beggar's idea of a happy ending, since so few beggars lives could end up so happily in reality.


Although Weill's musical forms in The Threepenny Opera are varied—chorale, tango, fugue, foxtrot, the "Boston," a shimmy, and a hymn—its melodies engage both heart and brain, where nothing is as simple as it sounds, and where the musical complexities break down to very simple elements, conceived and arranged by a master of composition.


There is no string section in the orchestra: this is an opera accompanied by a jazz band. Perhaps Krenek's Johnny Spielt Auf was an earlier Jazz Opera, but I think Weill's is probably the first musical play to use both a bandoneon and a banjo seriously, a fact opening night critics pounced upon, some with enthusiasm, some with acrimony.


Although the play and lyrics have the trademark borrowings that Brecht loved, it is full of idiosyncratic poetry and original touches. It is probably the only opera which makes a statement about character through rhyme scheme. Listen for Macheath's ballads (the words of which are derived from Villon), the lines having the rhymes a-b-b-a. In Michael Finegold's translation:

"The daring ones who go on great adventures
And risk their necks fulfilling dreams of glory—
Then gladly tell the waiting world the story
So stay-at-homes can sigh and suck their dentures?"


To displace the initial rhyme for three lines is not a usual scheme for songs in general—nonetheless a "shimmy." Yet, when the a-b-b-a rhymes appear again, as Macheath faces the gallows, his former jazzy paean to life is transformed into a dirge and the cynical outlook on his demise:

"And do not curse me, as you see me swinging,
Or hate me, like the judge, as a disgrace—
Not every man can plead a decent case;
Forgive the life to which you see me clinging."

It is a collaborative touch which never was heard quite like that before, and never fails to move the listener today. Perhaps "Mack the Knife" has been heard too much lately: recently it was assessed by a travel magazine as the lounge song that all singers must learn, because everyone in the audience knows the melody—even though the author averred no one remembers the words. Weill said the principal melody for it came to him while listening to the traffic of Berlin from atop a double decker bus. It's been heard in every reincarnation from Bobby Darrin to the commercials for Big Macs on television, making it a musical icon, and as such dilutes its purpose when heard in context, but it does not diminish the power of the score, as a whole.


One of the most haunting Brecht/Weill numbers, the quintessential "Pirate Jenny," is also one with an odd history. In the context of the play, this song, with its imagery of washing glasses and being a mistress to a bloodthirsty pirate—seems out of place. In the original production, it was meant to be sung at the wedding, by Polly, but was taken over by Lotte Lenya, and sung in the bordello scene. It helped to catapult her to world fame as a chanteuse, but caused endless conflicts with the script. In neither position in the story does it illuminate the plot: it certainly alienates the audience in the manner Brecht advocated. "Pirate Jenny" is, at heart, an expression of power—fulfilled only in fantasy—by one who feels utterly powerless. It is a song which likely adumbrated the helpless feelings of just about everyone sitting in the Schiffbauerdamm theatre in 1928. At that time, there was no team better suited to express such a dichotomy. 


And if the other Brecht/Weill works did not quite make the same impact (there were six other collaborations, plus individual songs)— we can only attribute that to an audience now accustomed to their style, rather than being goaded from pain and complacency with such ideas as:

"Be careful how you punish wrong, for surely
Cold-hearted deeds will freeze and die away.
Remember that our life on earth is purely
A cold dark place where sorrow cries all day."

—sung at the end of this parody of sadness and madness.


Monday, January 22, 2018

Heinrich Marschner and his Vampyre




(program notes  for the Lyric Opera of Los Angeles)

Heinrich Marschner had the unfortunate luck to have his career fall between those of Weber and Wagner. While his star ascended and his music became popular for a while, it took time to cast off the influence of Die Freischütz, and he was quickly overshadowed by the juggernaut of TannhäuserLohengrin, and all the gods of Valhalla. So it is difficult for us today to recreate the milieu in which Marschner offered his works to the world, including 23 operas and music dramas.

Born in Zittau in 1795, Marschner studied under several music masters, and in several cities including Vienna. There, he hoped to study with Beethoven, who ended up slightly discouraging him. By way of Brastislava he eventually settled in Dresden, and as a Kapellmeister developed his interest in opera sufficiently to write six of them—and the last of these is his Opus 67: so he was no slacker in creative output.

Each of these needed to pass muster with the director of the Dresden Opera, who was no less than Carl Maria von Weber, with whom Marschner perceived a growing animosity. When Weber died, his position—which should have logically fallen to Marschner, did not. The disgruntled composer took off for Berlin, then peripatetically to Danzig, then Leipzig.

Marschner was 32 years old, and had been twice married (and twice a widower) by this time, and was bitterly disappointed at losing Weber's post at Dresden. A period of melancholy settled on him, and during a gloomy walk through the Kirchhofe in Madgeburg, he conceived the Gothic idea of writing a "witches' chorus". In this frame of mind he was well disposed to consider the even gloomier libretto of Der Vampyr that his brother-in-law, W. A. Wohlbrück wrote for him in 1827. Vampire tales were particularly in vogue at this time throughout England, France, and Germany, thanks to—believe it or not!—Frankenstein (the novel).

The Gothic Story Challenge
Recall that it was written by Mary Wollstonecraft in 1816, as a kind of lark during a rainy summer spent in Switzerland with her future husband Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. It was Byron who suggested that since they were all sequestered by the weather they should write spooky stories, and they all did; but only Mary's creation emerged fully formed as her Gothic novel. Lord Byron had sketched out a few ideas about a vampire, a dead man who could rise back to the living through the use of moonlight and drinking blood from the living. Never completed as a story, Byron abandoned it at the end of their stay. But there are several other elements of this famous rainy Swiss vacation that aren't usually told.

One is that the trio was accompanied by Claire, Mary's half-sister, who was carrying Byron's child, and a young man who was Byron's "personal physician," Dr. John Polidori. One only has to add that Shelley's pregnant wife Harriet committed suicide soon thereafter, and that Shelley was romantically involved with Claire before he married Mary to understand that these enormously passionate and extravagant people led lives that weren't so very far off from the exuberant characters that they depicted in their writings. They were members of the top level of society, but their personal lives were among the most shocking and scandalous of the times.  Frankenstein went on to be a sensation when it was published in 1818, leading the way to the Gothic horror tales that blazed through Europe.

The Mysterious Doctor Polidori
Capitalizing on this fantastic wave, Dr. Polidori, who had ambitions to be a writer as well, acquired the fragment of the vampire story from Byron (there were hints that the two were passionate about one another) and finished it in his own manner, publishing it anonymously in the New Monthly Magazine in 1819, simply as "The Vampyre," stating honestly that it was "of a fragment from Lord Byron." Readers assumed that Byron had written it (we are not sure to what extent Polidori abetted this notion, but he later said "I beg leave to state that your correspondent has been mistaken in attributing that tale in its present form to Lord Byron. The fact is that though the groundwork is certainly Lord Byron's, its development is mine"). Nonetheless, Byron's name became associated with the development of the taste for the Gothic and horror-romance. It became fashionable to construct "follies" on ones estate to resemble ruined castles or broken battlements to lend an air of chilly menace to the landscape.

Both the original Byron fragment and Polidori's re-working of the tale are extant (see Byron's and Polidori's here). There is very little similar between them. What is of interest to us in all this is that Polidori's tale concerns the vampire Lord Ruthven, a member of the aristocracy. He is urbane and cruel, and does not yet possess those weaknesses of mirrors and garlic that we associate with Dracula (they are reserved for the next incarnation, through author Bram Stoker). While previous tales of bloodsucking creatures were peasant stories, this was a clever and subtle shift, made more horrible because it concerned the ruling class gone amok. The byword of Polidori's story, and it informs all the variants of story/novel/opera, is Ruthven's repeated admonition, like a knell, to his friend Aubry, "Remember your oath!" —that is, not to betray him as the vampire.  Giving one's Word—the sacred honor of the upper class was being used to cause its own destruction. In the story, Aubry keeps to his word: he and everyone around him dies, fallen victim to the vampire (rather like a Hammer Films version of The Pirates of Penzance, or the Slave of Duty).

It is not too wide a stretch to think of the horrible goings-on in The Vampyre as emblematic of the equally shocking lives he aristocracy were leading, and it thus becomes a subversive commentary that Polildori achieved, whether unconsciously or not. While his short story was expanded by others and adapted several times as a play, going on to thrill France and Germany, Polidori himself did not achieve much success, and for whatever reason committed suicide in 1821.

The Play
Le Vampire (in French) was the play that Wohlbrück showed to Marschner, after he wrote his melancholy witches' chorus. The 1820's were a ferment of fantasy and rebellion against the formalists in the Romantic Movement. This was not only the time of Beethoven's great Ninth Symphony, but hot on its heels was Berlioz' iconoclastic Symphonie Fantastique, itself inspired by Mendelssohn's choral work Die Erste Walpurgisnacht, based on Goethe's Faust. In Germany, Goethe had enlarged his masterwork to epic dimensions, and Ludwig Spohr's opera based on it established some of the musical conventions to depict Gothic horror, demons and witches.

Weber's operatic fantasies did much of the same thing, but in a gentler way; it was up to Marschner to take the musical vocabulary of Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Spohr, and Weber, and forge it into something even more remarkable. While Mozart sent Don Giovanni to hell on a shower of downward sliding notes, it's nothing compared to the shrieking piccolos and col'legno strings in Berlioz' witches' Sabbath. It was a musical vocabulary that had never been heard before.

The contrast of an established world-order thrown into panic and disarray is effectively depicted in Marschner's Der Vampyr by juxtaposing the more formal, idyllic music of Weber, with the more torn and bruised chromatic fantasy of Berlioz. Whereas Berlioz creates tension and throws the lister off-base by creating melodies with tiny intervals almost sliding up and down as though being in a swoon (what we call chromaticism), in Der Vampyr most of those small intervals progress only downward. It is a depressing, thoroughly black, demoralizing way of signifying the evil dead dragging the living into hell. The wordless scene in which Ruthven is revived by the exposure to moonlight is extraordinary, as his condition is revealed only in such music.



Ruthven under the influence of the moon.

The Oath
Der Vampyr hinges on Aubry's dilemma of whether to break his oath to Ruthven. Only in the opera (and play it is based on), Aubry realizes they all will die if he does not rat on his friend, and exposes him as a vampire at his wedding. Worse things might happen at weddings these days, but in this case Lord Ruthven is dragged into hell to the accompaniement of just such chromatic passages. True love has triumphed over the old aristocratic order and the sacred bond of an ill-conceived oath.



Aubry denouncing his former friend.

Marschner displays considerable talent in creating a musical impetus that is like wild horses running off, impelled by fate, or an overarching Evil. Listen to the opening notes of the Overture; they have been described as the devil knocking. Listen for the stately, formal arias suddenly interrupted by the brassy and overweening bass of Lord Ruthven, insisting on his new order of chaos. His evil is dashed at the end, out-doing Don Giovanni's or Faust's exit to Hades. It is an opera built of shocking contrasts, and is as fresh and accessible today as when it was written.

While a rival opera of the same name was produced shortly after Marschner's Vampyr, it was thoroughly entrenched in the manner of Spohr and did not hold the public's imagination, while Marschner's work played all over Europe. Marschner went on to write many other operas, including the first based on Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (preceding Rossini's version), and for many years he was the sole voice of German operatic expression. His three best known works were edited and emended by Wagner (including an additional aria in Der Vampyr), and they were revised by Hans Pfitzner in the 1920's, but Marschner's vision and innate talent shine through.

If you have never before heard the music of Heinrich Marschner, settle in for a pleasant—and tonight, shocking—surprise.  Here is a sample of a production from the second act. 




Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Refice, and Hidden Verismo


The premiere of Margherita da Cortona,at La Scala in 1938

Licino Refice
Refice. Not a name we normally associate with Verismo, or even Italian opera, except for the most ardent operaphiles of the most exacting taste. Licino Refice was born in 1883 and died in 1954, and being not only a composer, but a priest, wrote more than 30 masses and other sacred works. A song, "Ombra di Nube," was considered a classic at the time, and was recorded by the woman for whom he wrote it, Claudia Muzio. Lyrics were by Emidio Mucci, to whom I assume I am related, as all Muccis seem to come from the Abruzzi (even though he was born in Rome).

An opera, Cecilia, was produced in 1934, and made quite a splash at the time. It was being revived in Rio di Janiero in 1954, when Refice died during one of the first rehearsals.  The opera that interests me more, however, is Margherita da Cortona, which premiered at La Scala in 1938 -- not a great year for Italian opera, and not a great year for Italy, but a late-flowering of some wonderful works, and revival of others. Margherita was played by Claudia Muzio at the première, (and Mucci wrote the libretto, mirabile dictu).