Not The Kommandant’s Waltz

Not The Kommandant’s Waltz

Bach

Bach

The Chaconne from the Partita for Violin No. 2 by Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written for solo violin, or any solo instrument for that matter.  It was written between 1717 and 1720, during the high Baroque period of music history.  A little clarification on terminology is in order.  Bach wrote a set of six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, consisting of three baroque sonate da chiesa and three partitas.  Each partita  is a set of baroque dance movements.  When searching out this music, one has to realize they have been recorded and published at different times using different languages.  Originally in German speaking countries, the term “Partia” was used, but in the nineteenth century the Italian “Partita” became standard.  The Chaconne is the fifth and final movement, but is sometimes known as the Italian “Ciaccona” rather than the usual French “Chaconne”.  

By any name, the Chaconne is a remarkable work of genius.  I think it sounds even more emotionally moving on a modern violin than it would on a baroque violin of Bach’s time.  A Chaconne is a Baroque era variations form, where a short harmonic bass line and harmonic progression are repeated continuously, and new melodic structures develop over top at each repeat.  (A Passacaglia is the same sort of thing, and trying to define the difference would be an effort in splitting semantic hairs.)  To create a Chaconne for a solo instrument like the violin, Bach has separate musical ideas happening in different registers of the instrument.  The violinist has to keep the different lines sounding as if they are separate, intersecting only at times where the instrument can play several notes at once in a double-stop or triple-stop.  The resulting music in Bach’s hands is a virtuoso showpiece of technique, as well as an emotionally powerful experience.  

Joshua Bell performing Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita for Violin No. 2

Detroit_Opera_House_with_treesWhat brings this piece to my attention once again, is my recent experience seeing The Passenger at the Detroit Opera House.  I have mentioned in previous posts that I was going to attend the production of Weinberg’s opera, and it was every bit as moving as one could expect.  It was a powerful, gut-wrenching evening of music and drama.  I wish we lived in a world where the lessons of the work were not still relevant.  ****SPOILER ALERT****  In the final scene, the character Tadeusz is a violinist and prisoner in the concentration camp.  He has recently learned that Marta, his fiancee and fellow inmate, is still alive after two years of being incarcerated apart from one another.  Marta has been a bit of a leader among the female prisoners, and the two of them have been offered some special privilege of seeing one another by the overseers at the prison camp.  The two of them decline the offer knowing that there would be an unthinkable price for that sort of debt.  

When it is learned that Tadeusz is a violinist, he is ordered to play the Kommandant’s favorite waltz for him in a special concert (before Tadeusz is sent off to his death).  We have heard the banal, tasteless waltz several times up to this point in the drama, so the audience all knows the music that Tadeusz is being ordered to play.  Other prisoners, including his fiancee Marta, are in the wings and the Kommandant is front and center at the performance.  The air in the theater is thick with the drama of the moment.  Perhaps Tadeusz can save his life for a time, by proving himself entertaining to the Kommandant.  Maybe the powers at the camp will keep him around to pay the waltz on demand.  If he can stay alive, he might be able to see his fiancee Marta again.  Maybe they can both survive this mutilated vision of life in a concentration camp, and get to a world where they can be together.  There is a ghost of a chance.  All he has to do is play the Kommandant’s waltz like he has never played anything in his life.

Instead Tadeusz plays something else.  Instead of the grotesque, banal, tasteless waltz melody, he begins the Bach Chaconne.  The depravity of the overseers is highlighted by the exquisite sounds of the Bach solo violin masterpiece.  The key of the Chaconne is D minor, a dark and bittersweet, and even more emotionally powerful given the context.  Tadeusz will be put to death for this musical act of defiance, (in the Detroit production) just soon after the Kommandant wakes up in his chair to realize what is happening.  The orchestra violins join in the Chaconne melody, then some ominous low tones emanate from the orchestra pit.  Partway through the Chaconne, Tadeusz is stopped by the SS officers.  They beat him brutally, smash the violin and drag him off stage to his death.  He will be killed, like he knew he would be, but his spirit remained unbroken.  It is the powerful climactic moment of the opera, showing us a vision of human strength under adversity that I hope no one I love ever has to face.  

The video below is of a talk given by Anthony Freud, director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, who was instrumental in bringing Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger to both Houston and Chicago.  In his talk with Andrew Patner on this video, there are a couple of video clips from the opera.  At about the 34 minute mark, you can see a few minutes of the scene where Tadeusz defiantly plays the Bach D minor Chaconne.  The entire talk is an excellent introduction to the work, but if you are curious about the final scene after my descriptions, you can skip to that point.

The Passenger: A Recovered Opera

The Mystery Man

The Mystery Man

The passengerSomething has really been bothering me recently.  I have a ticket to see the Michigan Opera Theatre put on a production of a modern opera, The Passenger, at the Detroit Opera House this month.  The composer of the opera is a man named Mieczysław Weinberg, and the thing that bothers me is that I didn’t recognize the name at all.  I am a pretty big fan of classical music, and very much a fan of twentieth century composers.  I listen to all sorts of stuff, from the works that get played in the concert hall to works that have few admirers.  Many composers in the 1900’s abandoned tonality, and the resulting body of atonal music can be dissonant and harsh sounding on first listen (and second, and third, etc).  There are quite a few things in my music collection that my wife, neighbors and house cat all prefer I listen to with earphones, rather than speakers.  (The dog, frankly, is oblivious to it all.)  My point here is that I have dug deep into the output of modern composers.  I don’t understand why I haven’t run into Mr. Weinberg’s works before, or at least encountered the name a few times.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Chamber Symphony No. 2

Weinberg

Weinberg

Mieczysław Weinberg was born on December 8, 1919 in Warsaw, Poland.  His family was Jewish, his father working as a violinist, composer and conductor in Warsaw.  His mother was an actress in several Warsaw theater companies.  Mieczysław entered the Warsaw Conservatory at age 12, and graduated in 1939.  One doesn’t have to be a very big World War II history buff to imagine that being Jewish, in Poland, in 1939 is a particularly unfortunate combination.  Mieczysław escaped to the Soviet Union, but his parents and sister did not and eventually died in the Trawniki concentration camp.  Fleeing West to Russia may have been the only option at the time, but it turned out he left one bad situation for another in the Stalinist Soviet Union.  

Weinberg moved to Minsk, and then in 1943 settled in Moscow, where he spent the rest of his life and career.  He was a friend and colleague of Shostakovich, and was haunted by similar oversight of the Stalin regime and the following decades of the Cold War.  The real reason Weinberg was “undiscovered” for so long in Europe and the United States is that his music never broke through the Iron Curtain.  While Shostakovich and Prokofiev were sometimes championed by the Soviet Government as examples of good (ie. superior) Russian culture, Weinberg was not truly Russian.  He was an émigré, spoke the Russian language with an accent, and would always be Polish and Jewish.  Mieczysław wrote 22 symphonies, 17 or 18 string quartets, seven operas, of which The Passenger is only the first, but they were never heard outside of Russia during his lifetime.  

Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Symphony No. 16, Opus 131

Another reason I didn’t immediately recognize Weinberg’s name, is that we have only in recent years decided how to spell it.  In the original Polish language of his birth, his name was spelled “Wajnberg”, but in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet it was apparently spelled “Вайнберг”, which is simply inscrutable to me.  When this Russian name was retransliterated back into the latin alphabet, it was variously spelled as “Vainberg” or “Vaynberg”.  The spelling “Weinberg” has become standard, but the entire issue is a giant pain in the caboose when you are trying to google search someone.  

The Passenger was commissioned in the early 1960’s by the Bolshoi, and went into rehearsals in 1967 for a premier scheduled in 1968.  The Soviets prevented it from being performed.  As Alex Ross puts it, “Evidently, the opera’s emphasis on Polish and Jewish suffering, as opposed to the Russian struggle, made it undesirable.”  The work was finally heard by audience when it was premiered in a concert version in 2006, and only received its first operatic stage production in 2010 at the Bregenzer Festspiele in Austria.  Detroit will be only the third US city to mount a production of the work, which was done first in Houston and then in Chicago.  

Mieczyslaw Weinberg, The Passenger, excerpt


dvdSo many times, when one hears a piece of music that has been undiscovered for so long, you really can tell why it has remained “undiscovered”.  There is a DVD available of the Bregenzer Festspiele production, but I have not seen it yet.  I have listened to several hours of Weinberg’s symphonic music on Spotify, and have very much enjoyed it.  I think after seeing The Passenger, I will conclude that it had been unjustly neglected for so many years.  I can’t tell you how excited I am to find a huge body of work, from a top quality modern composer, that is all new to me!

Scenes from the Life of a Bohemian Girl

Scenes from the Life of a Bohemian Girl

Boheme-poster1In a couple of weeks, I will be attending a performance of one of the world’s best loved operas, Puccini’s La bohème, at the Detroit Opera House.  Michigan Opera Theatre is opening their fall season with the crowd favorite.  It is one of my favorite operas as well.  When I adopted my cat a few years back, she had a respiratory infection and I named her “Mimi” after the lead soprano of Puccini’s work.  My feline compatriot recovered well, and has been the chief inspector of all shopping bags entering the home ever since.  There is a saying around my house, that dogs have masters and cats have a staff.  I am definitely part of “Mimi’s” staff.

 

Detroit_Opera_House_with_treesThe Detroit Opera House is a wonderful venue, a theater originally built in 1922.  It had been closed for almost a decade when the Michigan Opera Theatre bought the building in 1988 to renovate into their new home.  The renovations took 8 years to complete, and the Opera House opened in its present form in 1996.  The building overlooks Grand Circus Park, and is a gem of the musical scene in Detroit.

 

Giacomo Puccini

Giacomo Puccini

La bohème by Puccini is set to a libretto put together by two men, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.  It is a story adapted from a French novel by Henri Murger, Scènes de la vie de bohème.  Murger’s book is not a standard novel, more a collection of vignettes, and the libretto is loosely based on the book.  Both the book and the opera are set in an area of Paris called the Latin Quarter,  home to several universities and institutions of higher learning.  The “Latin” part of the name comes from the Latin language traditionally spoken in universities ages ago.  The story centers around the life of a group of artistic young people living in poverty in an apartment, and a love affair between the poet Rodolfo and the seamstress Mimi.  Mimi is able to sing some wonderful soprano arias in spite of suffering from “consumption”, one of the biggest health care scourges of the time.  

Ruggero Leoncavallo

Ruggero Leoncavallo

Giacomo Puccini was not the only composer to work on the story of these young artists.  His good friend and fellow composer Ruggero Leoncavallo was working on a libretto for La bohème at the same time.  Leoncavallo wrote his own version of a libretto from the Murger novel, and approached his friend Puccini with a completed story with which to work.  Puccini had no idea that his friend had been working on the same subject, and had completed much of his own opera already.  Leoncavallo felt a measure of disrespect, and the friendship between the two ended over the matter.  Being a gifted composer in his own right, Leoncavallo wrote the music to his own libretto for La bohème.  It is Puccini’s version however, that has been the most successful and has entered the standard repertoire. Leoncavallo later revised his work and renamed it Mimi Pinson, but it has never received the acclaim of  Puccini’s opera.

Interestingly enough, the libretto that Puccini used (from Illica and Giacosa) was found to originally have five acts, not the four that Puccini set to music.  The “missing” act of the libretto was discovered in 1957 after the death of Illica’s widow.  In this act, Mimi is encouraged by her girlfriend Musetta to dress up and attract the attention of a Viscount as a potential sugar-daddy.  Rodolfo is overwhelmingly jealous when the Viscount and Mimi do dance together.  These missing scenes actually help explain some of the jealous remarks that Rodolfo makes later in the opera.  Puccini chose not to use this act, leaving it out of his opera for the purpose of concision.

Pavarotti

Pavarotti

Opera fans love to discuss, argue, and arm wrestle about their favorite singers and roles in their favorite works.  My favorite audio recording of  La bohème is the 1972 recording conducted by Herbert von Karajan with Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo and Mirella Freni as Mimi, featuring the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.  Pavarotti made his operatic debut in La bohème as Rodolfo way back in 1961, in Italy.  In 1972 he was in top vocal form, but not yet the international superstar that he would become.  Rodolfo was a signature role of the star tenor, and many of his performances in operatic roles are my favorite version.  There is a connection between Pavarotti and my hometown Detroit Opera House.  Luciano had promised David DiChiera that he would perform at the Opera House for free when it was ready to open.  In 1996, Luciano kept his promise in a free concert with other opera stars to open the renovated theater.  Tickets were no cost, but impossible to get.  I heard the concert on the live radio broadcast, and the packed audience of 2700 opera lovers sounded like they appreciated every note at the gala event.  I imagine some of the same fans of opera will be joining me this month at La bohème.

Pavarotti in La bohème, “Che gelida manina”