The Bard in Aria

The Bard in Aria

Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber

I used to think YouTube was just for funny cat videos and recordings of babies doing things their parents thought were cute.  I must fully repent my previous ideas.  I have made a few finds of musical treasures on the internet in the last year, but none so great as my find of a production of Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra”.  A video on YouTube preserves a television broadcast of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 1991 production of Barber’s opera.  I have mentioned before that I absolutely love every note of music Samuel Barber has written.  If Sam’s stomach grumbled before dinner, I imagine it would make a beautiful lyrical noise.  “Antony and Cleopatra” is one of the few major works of Barber that has not been adopted into the standard repertoire.  The YouTube video is the first and only video I have seen of the opera, and have never seen it live.

Excerpt from “Antony and Cleopatra”, Samuel Barber


Giuseppe Verdi

“Antony and Cleopatra” is after the Shakespeare tragedy of the same name.  On the surface, composing music for some of the greatest plays ever written would seem like a recipe for great opera.  In reality, it is a very difficult and scary artistic proposition.  Many have tried, in fact over 200 operas have been written on the subjects of different Shakespeare plays.  Verdi has given us masterpieces in both “Otello” and “Falstaff”, as well as the earlier work on “Macbeth”.  There is only one Giuseppe Verdi, a man who dominated Italian opera for over 50 years.  If a person has to be on the level of Verdi to make a successful opera based on Shakespeare, very few people will be able to do it.  

Desdemona’s Willow Song from “Otello”, Giuseppe Verdi

Ambroise Thomas

Ambroise Thomas

Part of the trouble with setting plays to music is simply the length of time one can spend in the theatre.  Singing text takes much longer that it does to simply speak words.  If a composer set every word of a three hour Shakespeare play into music, it would create a twelve hour opera at least!  “Libretto” is the Italian word for little book, and the librettist’s job in adapting any play to a libretto for opera is to distill down the text to the essential actions.  This inevitably means the original text is cut in some way.  How does one make cuts in Shakespeare?  It would be like taking scissors to the Mona Lisa and clipping out a section.  Moreover, Shakespeare plays have been studied and have filled theaters for over 400 years now.  They are beloved works of the theater, and trying to reduce them in such a way to make an opera is only going to leave out someone’s favorite lines and disappoint.

Ophelia’s Mad Scene, “Hamlet” by Thomas

Shakespeare plays present other difficulties as well.  There is a poetic rhythm in the lines of his plays, verse written in iambic pentameter.  This is difficult to preserve in music, and somewhat problematic to ignore when setting to music as well.  Much of the poetry of Shakespeare can be lost, especially when translating it away from English.  Old Will also gives us an army of characters in each play.  Classical Greek drama only gives us a handful of roles in each story, plus a chorus, and these stories were set in opera seria dozens of times with good success.  A Shakespeare cast of 12-15 characters is an entire new level of difficulty for the librettist and composer to handle.  Not only are chunks of text cut, but complete characters disappear in the attempts to make a libretto from these plays.  Each of these cuts are major interpretive choices made by the creators of the opera, choices that someone is going to hate.  There are hundreds of years worth of scholarly criticism about Shakespeare plays, and no two critics agree about them in their original form.  One will hardly find two critics to agree on cuts made to them for musical purposes.

The original production of “Antony and Cleopatra” was commissioned for the 1966 opening of the  new Metropolitan Opera House.  It was not a critical success at the time.  The original libretto was taken from Shakespeare’s play by Franco Zeffirelli, who also designed and directed the production.  Zeffirelli is a legend of operatic productions, but alas was not quite on the same page as the composer.  Barber was writing an opera about the sunset tragedy of two mature lovers trapped and destroyed by international politics.  Zeffirelli was creating a huge grand opera production full of glamour, energy and spectacle, in his own words “a pastiche of Elizabethan, Roman, Egyptian and modern — a baroque exuberance.”  This mismatch of artistic intent was a recipe for trouble.

Furthermore, this was a new production of a new opera in a brand new theater.  The theater was at this point new, meaning untested.  Tensions were high, and the new Met’s stage machinery had broken down in rehearsal.  Lighting cues did not happen as they were supposed to, and audible cries from stagehands backstage could be heard as they were in danger of being crushed by a giant Sphinx.  Poor Leontyne Price was at one point trapped inside a pyramid.  Even the orchestra almost went on strike, as they had performed for the past two seasons without a contract.  There were plenty of difficulties that high profile opening night.  
Opera is a collaborative art, but Barber took much of the difficulties with “Antony and Cleopatra” personally.  Later on, he greatly revised the opera, with his partner Gian Carlo Menotti tightening up the libretto.  This revised version was put on at the Juliard School in 1975, and an audio recording from the 1983 Spoleto USA production is available.  Lyric Opera of Chicago performed the revised version in 1991, which is the source of the video I am so overjoyed to have discovered.  

“Antony and Cleopatra”, Part I Lyric Opera of Chicago 1991

“Antony and Cleopatra”, Part II Lyric Opera of Chicago 1991

All Four in One, or One For All

All Four in One, or One For All

When you pick up your smartphone and Google the definition of “symphony”, you will see this:


An elaborate musical composition for full orchestra, typically in four movements, at least one of which is in sonata form.

At the conveniently named website, you could find this definition for “symphony”

An extended musical composition for orchestra in several movements, typically four.

Merriam-Webster offers up this definition:

A long piece of music that is usually in four large, separate sections and that is performed by an orchestra.

The two necessary skills for an audience during an orchestra concert are, the knowledge to wait until after the last movement of a symphony to begin your applause, and the ability to turn off that smartphone so the darn thing doesn’t ring in the middle of the performance.  The four movement “sonata-cycle” (with an opening sonata-form, a slow movement, a dance-like movement, and finale), has been the “normal” convention since the time of Haydn.  Birds fly, fish swim and symphonies are big works in four movements.  Like a child’s parental upbringing, this symphonic convention is something that composers worked with, enhanced, expanded, rebelled against, loved or hated, but could not ignore.  When the late romantic composers Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss wanted to approach orchestral writing with a newer literary inspiration, they called the works “tone poems” or “symphonic poems”.  What they were composing was wonderful music, but could no longer be considered a “symphony”.

Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber

With this definition in mind, you can imagine my curiosity as a student, when scouring through the works of my favorite composer Samuel Barber, I find that his Symphony No.1 is in one movement!?!?  Barber had more musicality in his little finger than you would find if you cloned six versions of me.  What is a symphony in only ONE movement?  What could make it a “symphony” and not a “tone poem” or something else?  Where is the sonata form?  How could he give us a slow movement and a dance-like Scherzo in triple meter, all in one movement?  Fortunately, Sam provided a bit of a description of his Opus 9 first Symphony at the time of the premiere. (I have included this quote once before on Good Music Speaks.) Here is Barber’s own description, quoted from his biography “Samuel Barber, The Composer and His Music” by Barbara Heyman:

The form of my Symphony in One Movement is a synthetic treatment of the four-movement classical symphony. It is based on three themes of the initial Allegro non troppo, which retain throughout the work their fundamental character. The Allegro ma non troppo opens with the usual exposition of a main theme, a more lyrical second theme, and a closing theme. After a brief development of the three themes, instead of the customary recapitulation, the first theme in diminution forms the basis of a scherzo section (vivace). The second theme (oboe over muted strings) then appears in augmentation, in an extended Andante tranquillo. An intense crescendo introduces the finale, which is a short passacaglia based on the first theme (introduced by violoncelli and contrabassi), over which, together with figures from other themes, the closing theme is woven, thus serving as a recapitulation for the entire symphony.

Barber’s work has four distinct sections that correspond with the four movement scheme of the “normal” symphony, but they are all played without pause.  The work is unified by its thematic content, with the initial themes of the “exposition” serving (transformed) in the other sections.  This was a brilliant way for Sam to show off his musical gifts in the setting of a “symphony”.  At the core, Barber was a lyrical, melodic composer.  He didn’t often work in the manner, similar to Beethoven, with small motivic ideas that get developed in a musical cuisinart.  Barber had a gift for writing a long, flowing, gorgeous melody.  He very cleverly created his Symphony No.1 in a way that economically incorporated all the elements of symphonic writing, with the lyrical gift with which he excelled.

Some recordings of Barber’s first symphony play the work all in one long track, but others actually break the piece into four tracks (still played without pause).  I would recommend a recording that marks each section in this fashion, if you are looking to know where each partition starts.  One of my favorites is by Leonard Slatkin conducting the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Samuel Barber, Symphony No. 1 in one movement, on Spotify

Barber Slatkin

One of the other bits of information I mined from Heyman’s biography of Barber is that he looked closely at another one movement symphony when he was composing his first.  The work he studied was the Symphony No. 7 by Jean Sibelius, which is also in a single movement.  I have to confess that I had avoided the music of Sibelius for a long time, a prejudice I picked up trying to emulate my mentor.  My teacher thought that Sibelius’s music contained some potentially bad habits for the developing composer to imitate.  At the time, I lived to please my mentor, so I immediately began scoffing at every note of the Finnish composer.  Knowing that Sam Barber had looked so closely at a Sibelius symphony gave me the mental permission to look closer at it myself.

Jean Sibelius

Jean Sibelius

The idea of a one movement symphony by Sibelius is even more curious than the one by Barber.  Jean Sibelius is a composer that wrote BOTH multi-movement symphonies AND picturesque tone poems.  What made his Symphony 7 an actual symphony and not something else?  This is a question that Sibelius himself deliberated about at some length.  The piece was premiered with the title “Fantasia sinfonica” (symphonic fantasy), and only later on did Jean finally call it his Symphony No. 7.  It actually was the last symphony he completed, although he lived another 30 or so years after it was completed.

The form and construction of Symphony 7 is strikingly original, idiosyncratic, and truly unique.  It is somewhat ironic that it is composed in the key of C major, a tonality once thought to be used up with nothing left to offer.  Ralph Vaughan Williams commented, “only Sibelius could make C major sound completely fresh”.  Although there are several tempo changes in the movement, Sibelius moves through them seamlessly.  One really cannot break this work up into sections in the fashion we did the Barber composition.  Even the important themes of Sibelius seem to sneak up on you, like out of a mist.  The eminent Donald Francis Tovey wrote:

“In any tolerably competent performance of a typical work of Sibelius, the listener my rest assured that if he finds that an important melodic note has been in existence some time before he was aware of it, the composer has taken special trouble to conceal the beginning of that note.  If the listener feels that unformed fragments of melody loom out of a severely discordant fog of sound, that is what he is meant to feel.  If he cannot tell when or where the tempo changes, that is because Sibelius has achieved the power of moving like aircraft, with the wind or against it.”

Sibelius has hit upon a new approach to symphonic composition.  Careful study of the score could reveal ten or more actual themes, yet the work is unified and economical.  Sibelius has used just a handful of smaller musical germs that have become the DNA of all the themes.  These musical ideas are transformed, recombined, pressed into service as both main theme and accompaniment figures, and are all bound to the home key of C major.  It is a remarkably original achievement, and it serves as Sibelius’s last word on the subject of “symphony”.

Jean Sebelius, Symphony No. 7, on Spotify

Sibelius Bernstein

It is not that Jean Sibelius didn’t try to compose another symphony.  There were sketches and attempts at an eighth, but Jean was never satisfied with it.  I believe his attitude was that if he didn’t have something better to offer than his seventh, he wouldn’t publish anything more.  He must have believed this with great conviction, for his wife told a story of a day in 1943:

In the nineteen-forties there was a great auto da fé at Ainola,” she said. “My husband collected a number of manuscripts in a laundry basket and burned them on the open fire in the dining room. Parts of the ‘Karelia Suite’ were destroyed—I later saw remains of the pages which had been torn out—and many other things. I did not have the strength to be present and left the room. I therefore do not know what he threw onto the fire. But after this my husband became calmer and gradually lighter in mood.

That fire insured that the world would not know what was in the attempts at an eighth symphony for Sibelius.  I must respect his wishes, for in any case his Symphony No. 7 is going to keep me busy for quite a while.

Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival

Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival

reverse_GLCMF_logo_good_version_edited-JPG.mediumJune has arrived in Southeast Michigan, and that means a number of things to the residents of the area.  One of the most exciting things for music fans in June is the return of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival.  This year marks the 22nd edition of the Festival.  Twenty-two years!  I can hardly believe it, for I can remember first attending concerts when the festival was in single digit years.  Originally, concerts were held in three large area churches.  Over the years, the Festival has expanded its footprint to a number of additional venues.  No matter where in the area you happen to live, there is a concert on the schedule that is very accessible to you.

The 2015 Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival has concerts from June 13 to June 28, over twenty performances overall.  Subscribers can buy tickets to anywhere from three to nine performances, earning a larger discount when more tickets are purchased.  I usually have no trouble finding nine performances I would love to attend.  What is difficult for me, is finding time to attend all of them in a two-week span!  One of these years I am going to get smart and take time off from my busy work schedule to attend more performances.


Paul Watkins

The artistic director of the Festival this year is Paul Watkins, cellist, conductor and current member of the Emerson String Quartet.  The theme for this year’s series of concerts is “New Beginnings: Making Music in America”, and a significant portion of the music programmed is composed by American composers.  (It’s true Martha, not all classical music was written by dusty old dead German guys!)  He has organized a series of music that looks to be absolutely fabulous.  There are enough pieces that I know well enough to vouch that there will be some superb performances.  There are also enough lesser known works, I will be hearing for the first time.

The opening night concert features members of the Emerson Quartet in twos and threes, finally building up to the whole quartet playing the two closing works.  It is a very creative way to include a variety of musical textures with a small number of forces all on one concert.  The program for opening night on June 13 is:

Martinu | Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola, H. 313

Philip Setzer, violin; Lawrence Dutton, viola

Dvořák | Terzetto in C major, Op. 74

Eugene Drucker, violin; Philip Setzer, violin; Lawrence Dutton, viola

Bloch | Suite Hébraïque

Lawrence Dutton, viola; Paul Watkins, piano

Barber | Adagio from String Quartet in B minor, Op. 11

Emerson String Quartet

Dvořák | String Quartet No 12. in F major, Op. 96, “American”

Emerson String Quartet

The Dvořák piece that closes the concert is a staple of the string quartet repertoire, written in 1893 when Antonin Dvořák was having an extended stay in America.  It was composed right after his famous “New World” symphony, which is one of his most popular symphonic compositions.  Samuel Barber’s Adagio is one of the most famous pieces of music composed by any American, and is most often heard in the adaptation for string orchestra.  There at the  Chamber Music Festival, we will hear the original version for string quartet.  The Adagio is the slow movement from Barber’s String Quartet in B minor, and I always enjoy hearing all the movements of the work in their entirety.  In the quartet setting, I find the slow movement to be an intense, introspective listening experience that well deserves all of the fame it has earned.

I would strongly encourage anyone to look into attending one of the concerts of the festival, if you are in the Great Lakes area during the last two weeks of June.  You can buy tickets online at their website, or on the night of the concert at each venue (if any are left!).  I assure you  it will be time well spent.


Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival Website