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Here’s an original a’cappella version of Lana del Rey’s song, “Summertime Sadness.” I love her style! Hope you like my rendition of it! This was recorded at an Open Mic night at a coffee shop.

❤ Me

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I wrote this in April 2011 after going to see Don Giovanni at the Staatsoper when I was studying abroad in Vienna, Austria. Unfortunately, I was feeling ill in the middle of it and left early.

 

The final live musical performance I attended was Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Staatsoper. It was a bittersweet experience in that I will rarely have the opportunity to witness music and productions of the quality that I have seen in the United States without having to pay a very large sum of money.

Mozart always had the flare for the dramatic, and he truly brings it out in the opening overture to Don Giovanni. It certainly reflects the story of the wooer of women and the melodrama, comedy, and supernatural elements that ensue. The backdrop of the stage consists of a screen with a picture of the cityscape in black and white. The bumbling and swooping of the low instruments brings about the loping manservant of Don Giovanni, Leporello, that sings of how he is tired of keeping watch while his master seduces women. It is a great musical portrayal of the “opera buffa” elements, as the listener feels a sense of rustic buffoonery. I thought that Leporello had a nice strong and comedic presence onstage with a resonating deep voice. Then Donna Anna appears, chasing a masked Don Giovanni and demanding to know his identity. Her voice was a bit lackluster and not too impressive, but she was attractive. Don Giovanni was also very good-looking and had a deep, powerful voice. The Commendatore appeared to defend his daughter’s honor and is killed by Don Giovanni while Donna Anna seeks help. Her grief really shines through with the music when she returns with her fiancé Don Ottavio, finding her father dead. In my opinion, Don Ottavio had the weakest and most inexperienced voice out of the entire ensemble. It was very weak, especially in the high register. They swear revenge on the unidentified man as the music swells dramatically into the scene change.

The next scene looks almost like a tavern where we see a woman, Donna Elvira, cursing Don Giovanni for leaving her and scorning her love. Leporello and Don Giovanni enter and find her, Giovanni taking some time to try to woo her until he realized she was a past conquest. A group of women gather there to celebrate perhaps the wedding shower of Zerlina, a beautiful country girl, and Leporello takes the time to brag of the large number of Giovanni’s conquests. This is one of my favourite arias in the opera, and it certainly drew laughter from the crowd. Don Giovanni arrives and is instantly taken with Zerlina and is set upon making her one of the notches on his belt. He offers to host the wedding celebration at his own lavish house, and Masetto, Zerlina’s fiancé, becomes suspicious and jealous. Elvira re-enters and tries to persuade them not to follow through with it and reveals Don Giovanni’s true nature.

Donna Anna and Don Ottavio come to the abode of Don Giovanni in an attempt to ask his help in finding the murderer of her father without realizing that they are right in front of him. Again, I was thwarted with the lackluster quality in voices. Elvira once again enters to reveal the seducing nature of Don Giovanni, and after those two depart Donna Anna realizes and recognizes Giovanni as her father’s killer.

The next scene takes place at the ball at Giovanni’s estate. I really enjoyed the elaborate costuming, but some of them just made me laugh. Leporello looked like a giant, frilly clown, and poor Masetto appeared as if he was in some kind of feathery bird costume. Masetto hides in a closet of sorts, trying to catch Zerlina with Giovanni in a compromising position. Upon discovering him there, Giovanni leads Zerlina to her fiancé and leaves them together. Meanwhile a group of masked ballgoers (Donna Elvira, Donna Anna, and Don Ottavio) enter, hoping to catch Giovanni in foul play and are ushered in by Leporello. Leporello then distracts Masetto by dancing with him in an effort to distract him from Don Giovanni’s renewed pursuit of Zerlina. We are suddenly met with Zerlina’s cries for help as Giovanni tries to frame her distress on Leporello. The group of masked guests reveal themselves and exclaims how they know the truth. Guns are drawn as the music swells into a crescendo as the act ends in suspense.

I was unable to see the second act due to my feeling very ill throughout the first act. It distracted me somewhat from enjoying the performance fully, but I still wish that I could have experienced the entire production. It would have been great to see the dramatic conclusion of Don Giovanni being dragged down to Hell.

dongiovanni

 

❤ Me

 

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Heavenly Embrace

To celebrate the return of my singing voice, I recorded a video of an original song that I wrote back in 2010 for a Music Theory project. I went above and beyond the requirements, created a melody, and wrote lyrics for it. In fact, I think I already shared the lyrics with you all in the past. I was inspired by the first few chords from Howard Shore’s “Evenstar” from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

My voice isn’t perfect yet, and my full range isn’t back, but I do love what I’m hearing so far! In two weeks, I will be at full vocal health and capabilities!

Out of the darkness

Into light

You took my hand and

Held me tight

Then all my fears they

Fled through the night

And you kissed the

Tears from my eyes

I felt a passion

Burning in my breast

All the way through me

In magnificence

Wrapped in your splendor

As we gazed into the night

It was if the stars fell from the

Sky

With your lips pressed

Softly on my cheek

You whispered lightly

Of your hopes and dreams

I smiled brightly

Beaming with light

As we drifted through thought

Space and time

My heart sang in joy

Beating all with your heart in time

We forever one

Always together

Never to part

Though we may be far away

In this moment we’ll forever

Stay

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Coming Soon

I’ve been thinking and getting this itch that’s getting stronger every day.

For the longest time, I’ve been writing so much poetry. Of course I won’t stop.
But now I have a burning desire to start writing music and melodies. I’ll need to start recording and printing off blank sheet music and putting the notes in my head to paper.

I want to make a Demo CD.

It will come soon! Within the year!
And now you readers might just hold me accountable for this.

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(I wrote this during my spring semester of university in 2010 for my Music History II class.)

 

The familiar musical work, Clair de Lune, creates a dreamlike and soothing atmosphere that has become one of the most treasured classical pieces of all time. It has thrived through the years and has been incorporated in film soundtracks such as Oceans Eleven and Atonement. The man behind the music, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) established a new style for himself, daring to be unique, and created ideas that would greatly influence many future well-known composers and musicians, for instance: Ravel, Boulez, Ives, Bartók, and American jazz and popular musicians. He composed many various works such as songs for voice, concertos, string quartets, chamber music, and orchestral works, but his true talent and virtuosity will always be remembered in his pieces for the piano.

History

            Achille-Claude Debussy was born on August 22, 1862 in Île-de-France, Saint-Germaine-en-Laye to a middle class family. Musical talent was not remarked in the other members of his family with backgrounds of craftsmen and farm workers. His sister described him as “a shy, sweet, undemonstrative child who watched others play, more than he played; moody and a little aloof, but not unfriendly…neither abnormal or spoiled.”[1] Over the years, he never went to school for a formal education. At the age of nine, he began taking piano lessons. His father was very strict with his expectations and would have him practice six to eight hours each day.[2] During that time, Madame Mauté de Fleurville, a formal pupil of Chopin, recognized his talent and offered to give him free lessons under her tutelage, nourishing and helping to further develop his excellence.[3] Her help was a great contributing factor in his acceptance into the Paris Conservatoire at age ten. It was there that he would spend the next eleven years of his life devoted to piano and composition. Even at this young age, he showed a high degree of musicality and interest in unusual chords, complex rhythms, and unexpected progressions of subtle harmonies.[4] Over the years, he was seen at the Conservatoire as an eccentric, even a “dangerous revolutionary” with his independent regard to traditional teachings.[5] Yet he did receive encouragement from professors with open minds willing to embrace different ideas. Throughout his training, he gradually became favorably recognized and awarded with several medals and honorable mentions for solfège and piano competitions.

Outside of the Conservatoire, Debussy worked with singing teacher Madame Moreau-Sainti as an accompanist in 1882 and then with the esteemed Société Concordia.[6] He composed everywhere that he went, by the piano and while walking, singing the phrases to himself until he was able to write them down.[7] After years of hard work, he was awarded the 1884 Prix de Rome, a highly prestigious honor, for L’Enfant Prodigue, a setting of a poem by Edouard Guinand. As time went on, he would give piano and voice lessons as well as continue to work as an accompanist to continue to earn funds. In 1901, he completed a set Pour le Piano which included Prélude, Sarabande, and Toccata. On January 11, 1902 the set was played and favorably accepted at the Société Nationale by Ricardo Viñes, later considered to be an accredited interpreter of Debussy.[8] The titles for his pieces usually had evocative titles like Estampes (1903)which included Pagodes, Soirée dans Grenade, and Jardins Sous la Pluie.

World War I broke out in 1914, which negatively impacted Debussy as an artist. He believed that he should abandon composing during this time of suffering and tragedy and would not touch his piano for weeks.[9] However, in honor of the gallantry of King Albert and his Belgian soldiers in their efforts, he composed a piece called Berceuse Héroïque (1914).[10] His health began to steadily deteriorate, and with a diagnosis of cancer, he underwent an operation in 1915. The treatments and medications did not relieve him from the pain, but despite his weakness, he had the courage and stamina to make public appearances and continue work. In 1916, he wrote that he had made up his mind to ignore his “tyrannical malady and would work in spite of everything; life was endurable only if [he] composed a great deal.”[11] Unfortunately, by 1917 he could barely work anymore. As the war raged on, France was in desperate need of military aid, being constantly bombarded by airships and long-distance guns during the German offensive. Debussy was in such a delicate condition that he could not be carried to shelter.[12] It was on March 25, 1918 that this talented composer and musician died, receiving only a small funeral but receiving many memorials and tributes in the future.

Style

            Claude Debussy was known as an impressionist. He valued symbolism and maintained a sense of detached observation in his music, not expressing deeply felt emotion or storylines as in the Romantic style.[13] Carraud wrote a critique in La Liberté describing Debussy as being:

…one of the most original artists of the day…being endowed with spontaneous originality, and whom it is difficult to connect with any of his predecessors…he knows how to combine harmonies and timbres in ever-changing ratios…today he seems to have attained to complete lucidity of thought and accuracy of expression.[14]

 

Debussy believed that musicians should not be hindered by theoretical rules, placing importance on independence and encouraging them to establish personal adaptations to suit the character of their creations.[15] His idea was that pianists should avoid all romantic affectations, not attempting melody emphasis, but letting it occur within its own prominence. They should not stress chords that establish the main themes but instead blend the patterns into one sound.[16] His chief instruction given to his students was to “play with more sensitiveness in the fingertips. Play chords as if the keys were being attracted to your fingertips and rose to you hand as to a magnet.”[17] He said:

I should like to see the creation—I, myself, shall achieve it—of a kind of music free from themes or motives, or formed on a single continuous theme, which nothing interrupts and which never returns upon itself. Then there will be a logical, compact, deductive development. There will not be, between two restatements of the same characteristic theme, a hasty and superfluous ‘filling in!’ The development will no longer be that amplification of material, that professional rhetoric which is the badge of excellent training, but it will be given a more universal and essential psychic conception.[18]

 

Motives need not necessarily be developed but can be repeated with small changes and different perspectives. Unresolved dissonances, parallel motion in sonorities, as well as diverse instrumental timbres are important to the content rather than simply adding embellishments.[19] He maintained a tonal focus yet the chords retained a sense of independence. The main goal was not resolution but to experience and enjoy the music as it came.[20] The music of Debussy paints a picture and evokes a certain mood, feeling, atmosphere, or scene. The normal syntax is disrupted as individual images drive the meaning and structure of the works through harmony, motives, instrumental timbres, exotic scales such as the whole-tone, octatonic, and pentatonic, juxtaposing them as the music progresses.[21] Tiersot wrote a critique in Ménestrel of the composer: “…his work gives evidence of a skill which is the result of deep and serious study. As regards to the general feeling, it is essentially original and highly modern.”[22] This set Debussy in a class of unique and intelligent musicians that sought out ways to embrace new concepts and formulate a style of their own.

Clair de Lune

            Clair de Lune is one of Claude Debussy’s most well-known pieces. It is originally a part of his Suite Bergamasque which also includes Prélude, Menuet, and Passepied. He made an effort to recapture the delicacy and elegance of the clavecin, using seconds and unexpected key juxtapositions to create a sense of harmonic freshness.[23] It evokes a very emotional feeling, and it is essential that it be played with a luscious tone kept floating with an overlapping legato pedal.[24] The delicate sonorities invoked while playing rise up into a transparent atmosphere, where they unite without merging and dissolve in iridescent mists.[25] The serene melancholy of the much sustained melody is surrounded by the moonlight atmosphere of the accompaniment by persistent patterns, modal coloring, and unexpected successions of accumulated intervals. It is even considered daring the way he blends the mobile harmonies that follow freely.[26] When describing this piece, one notices:

the airy flowering of arpeggios ascending the keyboard, leaping up like a fountain jet which scatters its water on the air then relapses into calm again in solemn tonic and dominant undulations, upon which the theme spreads out, ample, sonorous, and expressive.[27]

 

The music fills the listener with a peaceful tranquility that is very soothing to the ear. It almost brings forth a memory of a magical night experienced and summons a feeling of longing and desire flowing through in tides, hoping to recapture the moment once more. The compound meter in a slow yet expressive state maintains a dreamlike quality to the atmosphere. This piece has a quiet strength with complexity hidden in what seems to be a simple melody. As time passes, Clair de Lune continues to captivate and charm those who discover this masterpiece of Debussy.

Despite reservations about Claude Debussy and his innovative ideas initially as a composer, he became successful and admired throughout the world, influencing many.  It is through these risks and explorations of musicality that musical geniuses are found and honored. It can certainly be said that Debussy was truly un musicien français (a French musician).

 

claudedebussy

 

Bibliography

Burkholder, J. Peter, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music. 8 ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010.

Debussy, Claude. Clair de lune: de la Suite bergamasque. Edited by Jean Jobert. Philadelphia: Elkan-Vogel Co., Inc, 1927.

Gatti, Guido M., Claude Debussy, and Frederick H. Martens. “The Piano Works of Claude Debussy.” The Musical Quarterly 7, no. 3 (jul. 1921): 418-460.

Thompson, Oscar. Debussy: Man and Artist. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1967.

Vallas, Léon. Claude Debussy: His Life and Works. Translated by Maire O’Brien and Grace O’Brien. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1973.


[1] Oscar Thompson, Debussy: Man and Artist (New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1967), 35.

[2] Léon Vallas, Claude Debussy: His Life and Works (New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1973) 4.

[3] Vallas, 3-4.

[4] Ibid, 4.

[5] Ibid, 18.

[6] Thompson, 53-54.

[7] Ibid, 56.

[8] Ibid, 144-145.

[9] Ibid, 224-225.

[10] Ibid, 225.

[11] Ibid, 230.

[12] Vallas, 270.

[13] Peter J. Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca, A History of Western Music (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2010) 790.

[14] Vallas, 118-119.

[15] Ibid, 148.

[16] Ibid, 157.

[17] Thompson, 251.

[18] Ibid, 103.

[19] Burkholder, 792.

[20] Ibid, 793.

[21] Ibid, 790, 792.

[22] Vallas, 80-81.

[23] Thompson, 256.

[24] Ibid, 256.

[25] Ibid, 251.

[26] Vallas, 74.

[27] Guido M. Gatti, “The Piano Works of Claude Debussy,” The Musical Quarterly 7, no.3 (London: Oxford University Press, 1921) 424.

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(This was my term paper for my Music History I class in Fall 2009.)

 

When one thinks of classical vocal music, opera is one of the first subjects that enters the mind. Fantastical spectacles with brilliant scenery, costumes, and voices all come together as a form of memorable entertainment. What truly remains emblazoned in the memory of the viewer is the “virtuosa,” or principle female singer with the largest amount of arias in a particular work.[1]  She is the siren of the stage, a goddess, a Prima Donna. There are many preconceived notions of what type of singer is classified a Prima Donna. It was at first an assumption that female performers were prostitutes. Many think of them as lazy, greedy, and vain with excessive demands. In all actuality, through the stage was the only way for women to make notoriety at the time. The seventeenth-century was a period of the rise in opportunities for women to perform onstage, therefore the acceptance of them was gradual, and it was a constant battle for them to retain their dignity and respectability. Rosselli said:

Between [the court] and the nunnery lay an ambiguous zone where a woman might get occasional lucrative opera engagements at the cost of being deemed a courtesan or else having again and again to be certified as respectable. [2]

 

Not all women, however, remained in the background as perfect angels. Prima Donnas have made infamous names for themselves through their talents, rivalries, scandals, and dramatic lifestyles, causing them to be one of the most fascinating subjects of the musical world.

Prima Donnas in their prime lived with the world at their fingertips, but it was not an easy training process. Bontempi, in Historia Musica, wrote of the training students engaged in at a school in Rome around 1620:

The pupils had to give up one hour every day to the singing of difficult passages till they were well acquainted with them; another to the practice of the shake; another to the feats of agility [vocal agility, that is to say]; another to the study of literature; another to vocal exercises under the direction of a master, and before a looking glass, so that they might be certain they were making no disagreeable movement of the muscles of the face, of the forehead, of the eyes, or of the mouth. [3]

 

Those were the morning duties, and their afternoons consisted of thirty minutes of music theory, thirty minutes of counterpoint, one hour of hearing rules of composing and practice, and the rest of the day was devoted to the harpsichord, composing psalms, motets, canzonets, and other pieces.[4] They also performed in Roman Catholic churches and reported their observations.[5]

Prima Donnas had exquisite voices, emanating the spirit of “bel canto” (beautiful singing). Their voices were described as “a stream of sound…evenly produced over the full range of the voice…beauty and contrast of tone, with smoothness and expressiveness…accuracy with agility—and above all, with purity.”[6] It was also said that “the greatest singers were always recognized for their ability to make their inventions dramatically memorable and relevant, an intensification of the aria’s basic emotion.”[7] Impresarios, the people who manage public entertainment industry, were under immense pressure to compete for the most popular singers. They would judge the success of how well they invested in a particular artist by the number applausi, little packages of gifts and sonnets in praise of a vocalist, received. [8] It also placed high demands for composers and librettists to write elaborate arias. In 1640, the average number of arias written for a Venetian Opera was a dozen or less. Ten years later, the amount doubled, and in the 1670s there were as many as 60 written for an opera, according to Ellen Rosand, a learned historian of Venetian Opera.[9] Acting was not the most important aspect of the performance of a Prima Donna. Baroque opera houses were similar to what a nightclub could be considered today. The audience could leave or remain as they pleased, talking, eating and drinking, engaging in amorous acts, and not treating the performers with respect. In turn, the performers were required to work diligently to surprise the audience enough to maintain their interest and attention.[10] They relied on their voices, the music given, and their own ability to improvise and add embellishments.[11] The singers would express their demands of what they wanted to sing, who they would perform with, and how much would be acceptable for a salary. Sometimes if the prima donna did not care for a particular aria, they would replace it with another from a completely different opera and composer. Ultimately, it became more difficult for opera houses to remain open because of the exorbitant amounts of money spent, particularly the salaries demanded from the prima donnas. Cristoforo Ivanovich, one of the first opera historians, in 1681, blamed the singers:

Debts are incurred because of the excessive payment to singers. At the beginning, two exquisite voices, a small number of delightful arias, and a few scene changes sufficed to satisfy. Now, one objects if one hears a voice that is not up to European standards.[12]

 

Yet it was the performers that held the audiences, bringing in the money from viewers and thus supporting the management of the establishment. Prima Donnas were entitled to these special privileges.

Throughout the history of opera, there have always been particular women that have stood out on the forefront of the Prima Donna title. Vittoria Archilei, from Rome, was the first star of the Medici court. In 1588 she arrived in Florence where her husband, a composer and lutenist, performed with a group of musicians. Venturing to the opera stage, she had two principal roles, Harmony and Amphitrite, in which she exhibited her talents of embellishments and virtuosity.[13] Another notable figure is Francesca Caccini, elder daughter of the famous composer, who was a singer as well as a distinguished composer of opera who was influential in the development of the soprano voice. Caterina Martinelli had a gift that is often underrated and unacknowledged. Recognizing her remarkable talent, her family sent her at the age of thirteen to leave home and travel to Mantua, where she was to live in Monteverdi’s household. He composed the role of Arianna for her, but unfortunately, she succumbed to smallpox at the age of eighteen and died before she was able to perform it. “Her legend lived on, perpetuated in requiem masses that were said for her every month and that were endowed by the Duke of Mantua himself.”[14] In Venice, Anna Renzi with her role in La Finta Pazza made a profound impact on opera with new comedy introduced and her scenes of madness. Guilio Strozzi related that “Our Signora Anna is endowed with such lifelike expression that her responses and speeches seem not memorized but born at the very moment. In sum, she transforms herself completely into the person she represents.”[15] Poems were written in her honor, and even a book by several authors was devoted to her, Le glorie della signora Anna Renzi romana. Strozzi also said, “she truly stole not only the senses of common men, but also the souls of the most refined connoisseurs of musical theatre…”[16] Renzi also freely lent large sums of money, without interest, to her friends and acquaintances, which is a rare characteristic of prima donnas at the time.[17]

England experienced a slightly different evolution of opera than the continent. In the times of the Puritans, there was a difference between plays that were acted and those that were sung. Acting was seen as offensive with coarse language, and with opera, they believed that singing could not corrupt the morals of a person. In addition, women were not forbidden from the stage. With the performance of The Siege of Rhodes, Mrs. Coleman was the first dramatic singer and actress of England in 1656.[18] The great singers in the seventeenth century did not venture to England. Later, in the early eighteenth century, Margarita L’Epine became the first noted Italian singer to travel overseas to London and help establish Italian opera.[19] She arrived unable to speak English and refused to sing in anything other than Italian. In the originally Italian opera Camilla, she sang her role in Italian while the other performers sang in English.[20] L’Epine, despite being unattractive and not a very dramatic vocalist, remained sought after for 18 years performing at concerts. Despite her voice losing its original appeal, she continued to sing, settling down with her admirers for 34 years. No other Prima Donna has had such a long career.[21]

France was another country that set itself from other foreign operas. The French refused to follow the trends of Italian opera and instead brought new elements into the forefront. Jean-Baptiste Lully was the most prominent composer and leader of the unique style, establishing required elements such as a French libretto, designed for the king and court, always with dancing, and introducing more emphasis on the dramatic spectacle. More prominence was given to the orchestra and choir, as well as the melding of recits and arias, leaving less availability to improvise and fewer opportunities for the audience to be noisy in between pieces. French sopranos sang at the Académie Royale de Musique, later known as Paris Opéra. It was necessary for them to be in Lully’s favor and have an acceptable private life free from scandal. They often spent time in convents temporarily for little improprieties and sometimes were installed in them permanently for outrageous behavior.[22] Yet chansons were written celebrating their amorous behaviors, referring to the girls as “les filles de l’Opéra”. Fanchon Moreau was one of Lully’s last discoveries; she had talented opera credentials, but her biggest fame was a Couperin ballad, “La femme entre deux draps,” or (“The lady between the sheets”).[23] In contrast, Mademoiselle de Saint-Christophle was an admirable example of a soprano, referred to as “grande, bien faite, belle et vertueuse” (“tall, well-made, beautiful, and virtuous”). She eventually retired at a convent of her own free will.[24] However, life for French singers was not always admirable. It was a place of gossip and conspiracy. The performers did not have as much economic power and worked for Lully’s monopoly. They were poorly paid and had no choice but to share beds and rooms with other girls. It was no wonder that these singers dared to have affairs with the rich and powerful, despite the threat of an improper reputation.[25]

Mademoiselle de Maupin, a contralto, has one of the most infamous and controversial reputations of prima donnas of France in the eighteenth century. English music historian Dr. Burney said bluntly, “She was equally fond of both sexes, fought and loved like a man, resisted and fell like a woman.” After marrying young, she ran away with her fencing master. De Maupin had an untrained but beautiful voice. It is said that she fell in love with a girl whose family subsequently placed her in a convent. Sneaking in disguised as a novice, de Maupin set fire to the convent and escaped with the girl. Later she was captured and condemned to be burned alive, but she escaped. She was not afraid to defend herself against men. When she felt insulted by a man, she disguised herself as a man and injured him, causing him to beg for mercy. Other men would hide to avoid her wrath. One evening at a ball, de Maupin was dressed as a man, insulted the countess who was hostess, and was challenged to duels by three men. According to legend, she killed all three and returned inside, immediately being pardoned. At the age of 32, she retired from the stage and reunited with her husband, said to have become devout.[26] A French critic bluntly related how divas were treated in France, “On les adore quand elles sont belles, et on les jette a la voirie quand elles sont mortes.” (“We love them when they are beautiful and we throw them away when they are dead.”)[27] The statement exemplifies the critical air in which Prima Donnas are treated.

 

Women were not the only formidable forces of the opera stage. Castrati were known to draw more ticket sales to performances than women. An anonymous Englishman in 1718 described a castrato as someone with “unearthly beauty of tone, flexibility of a coloratura soprano, phenomenal breath control, and enormous power.”[28] This new form of singer was created by castrating boys at a young age to retain their vocal quality, “emasculated for musical purposes.”[29] It originated in the Church, possibly in fifteenth century Spain and later confined in Italy, prominent in churches requiring soprano voices in choir where women were forbidden to sing. The Church had to condemn the practice despite their desire for the use of castrato in their choirs. The operation was illegal, and those involved were killed, accomplices, even parents, were excommunicated.[30] By the mid-eighteenth century, 4,000 boys a year were castrated, their parents also compensated.[31] Pope Clement VIII formed a policy “damning the practice of castration” yet “recruiting best castrati into service,” authorized in honor of God.[32] Their “breath control was their greatest technical asset—their lung capacity allowed them to exhale for a minute or more.”[33] They could even span as much as three octaves.

The first internationally famous castrato was Baldassare Ferri (1610-1680). However, Carlo Broschi, otherwise referred to as Farinelli, was perhaps the greatest castrato of all time. Born in Apulia in 1705, he was taught by his brother and Nicolo Porpora, one of the greatest vocal teachers of the eighteenth century. His first public appearance came at the age of fifteen when he serenaded the Hapsburg Empress for her birthday, but it was in Rome with opera that he most became famous.[34] As an artist, he placed more emphasis on vocality and appearance than acting. Burney wrote of his London performances that, “without the assistance of significant gestures or graceful attitudes…enchanted and astonished his hearers…motionless as a statue…his voice was so active.”[35] His brother, Riccardo Broschi, wrote arias for him to sing. Patrick Barbier commented on Qual guerriero in campo armato, as it utilized all of Farinelli’s three octaves in leaps and trills. In addition, Son qual nave was performed with fourteen consecutive measures of vocalises ending with an “interminable trill…without any obvious signs of breathing.”[36] He earned approximately 5,000 pounds each year, nearly ruining Handel’s rival opera house.[37] It has been recounted that he revived Philip V of Spain from his withdrawn and declining state, and Farinelli subsequently remained in his court for over twenty years with a large salary but a monotonous assignment. “It was said that the King was only interested in hearing the four same arias…had to sing them all every night between midnight and 5 o’clock in the morning.” Yet he was diplomatic, unselfish, and self-respecting in a position where he could easily have taken advantage.[38] Overall, the mysterious persona of Farinelli continues to mystify, as there are no recordings available from castrati at their prime.

Not all castrati were polite and respectable. Mezzo-soprano castrati, Caffarelli fought duels, disturbed other performers, and conversed with spectators when the show was in progress. He refused to sing along with an ensemble and sulked in the lavatories, exerting his dislike for the nobility.[39] Popular castrati Antonio Cavagna in 1666 expressed his personal conditions for performing:

I intend to sing with the instruments tuned to Roman Pitch (a whole tone lower than Venetian Pitch)…[this aria is] mannered and beggarly, and unless you get [the composer] to write new music for it, I won’t sing it at all.[40]

 

Cavagna would also be concerned about which performers he sang between. The otherworldly voices of castrati remain in legend for the people of the present, for the practice is no longer used. The very last record of a castrato was made in approximately 1902 by an elderly and relatively ordinary castrato from the Sistine Choir, and it does not give proper justice to those that ruled the stage in the prime of their reign.[41]

 

For every Prima Donna, there is an equal and opposite rival with sworn groups of followers and partisans. Cuzzoni and Bordoni are the rivals first recorded in the early to mid-eighteenth century. The physical attributes of Cuzzoni were unattractive, but the power and fame were in her voice. She effortlessly sang difficult coloraturas naturally, moving the audience to tears, with a range of more than two octaves. Her trill was considered slow and sensuous, and her rubato, in which the singer temporarily ignores strict time, was effortless.[42] Handel specifically composed music for her; however, she was not always able to sing what was written and would make alterations in his music to suit her own desires. Quoted in Gattey, on one memorable occasion the composer Handel had enough, took her by the shoulders, and shaking her, threatened, “I know that you are a veritable devil, but I want you to know that I am Beelzebub, the chief of the devils—and I intend to throw you through that open window.”[43] Needless to say, Cuzzoni began to follow the music of the composer from that moment. Faustina Bordoni was the opposite of Cuzzoni, a noble, beautiful, and charming mezzo-soprano. With her lower voice, she was more of a dramatic artist, more flexible with music and able to improvise without detracting from the original piece’s integrity. A critic in 1721 said:

She always sang the first part of an aria exactly as the composer had written it but at the da capo repeat introduced all kinds of doublements and manière without taking the smallest liberties with the rhythm of the accompaniment.[44]

 

On the sixth of June, in the summer of 1727, during Handel’s Admeto, the two rivals were brought together for a performance. There is no evidence that Cuzzoni and Bordoni fought physically onstage, but an event occurred that roused the audience to a point where they were out of control, causing the opera to be suspended at the end of the second act. Everything else was omitted except for a poorly-performed final chorus. This event is parodied in The Beggar’s Opera in a fight between Lucy Lockit and Polly Peachum.[45] In the end, their rivalry eventually became so great that it was imperative that one of them leave the country. Therefore, the impresarios targeted the least attractive, Cuzzoni. They raised the salary of Bordoni by one guinea, and it subsequently drove Cuzzoni out of the theatre.[46]

Prima Donnas are one of the most complex figures of the theatre and musical arts. Their names and dramatic lifestyles live on, from the seventeenth century onward through the future, influencing the rise of new divas of the stage. It is virtually impossible to classify what makes a Prima Donna. However, one can agree that they are “women who refuse compromises…dedicated to their talents…refusing to work for less than their market value.”[47] A Prima Donna is a strong woman who knows her worth and strives to her most successful potential.

 

primadonna

 

Works Cited

Christiansen, Rupert. Prima Donna: A History. New York: Viking, 1984.

Edwards, H. Sullivan. The Prima Donna. London: Remington and Co, 1888.

Glixon, Beth L. “Private Lives of Public Women.” Music and Letters 7. London: OxfordUniversity Press, 2003. 509-531.

Leonardi, Susan J. and Rebecca A. Pope. The Diva’s Mouth. New Jersey: RutgersUniversity Press, 1996.

Somerset-Ward, Richard. Angels and Monsters. London: Yale University Press, 2004.


[1] Rupert Christiansen, Prima Donna: A History (New York: Viking, 1984), 9.

[2] Susan J. Leonardi and Rebecca A. Pope, The Diva’s Mouth (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 39.

[3] H. Sutherland Edwards, The Prima Donna (London: Remington and Co, 1888), 6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 6-7.

[6] Richard Somerset-Ward, Angels and Monsters (London: Yale University Press, 2004), xi.

[7] Christiansen, Prima Donna, 20.

[8] Somerset-Ward, Angels and Monsters, 21.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Christiansen, Prima Donna, 20.

[11] Somerset-Ward, Angels and Monsters, x.

[12] Ibid, 22.

[13] Ibid, 5.

[14] Ibid, 13.

[15] Ibid, 21.

[16] Beth L. Glixon, “Private Lives of Public Women,” Music and Letters 76 (London: OxfordUniversity Press, 2003), 512.

[17] Ibid, 514-515.

[18] Edwards, The Prima Donna, 2.

[19] Ibid, 8.

[20] Somerset-Ward, Angels and Monsters, 33.

[21] Edwards, The Prima Donna, 15.

[22] Somerset-Ward, Angels and Monsters, 25.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid, 26.

[25] Ibid, 27.

[26] Ibid, 28.

[27] Edwards, The Prima Donna, 52.

[28] Christiansen, Prima Donna, 27.

[29] Somerset-Ward, Angels and Monsters, 14.

[30] Christiansen, Prima Donna, 28.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Somerset-Ward, Angels and Monsters, 15.

[33] Christiansen, Prima Donna, 29.

[34] Ibid, 31.

[35] Ibid, 32.

[36] Somerset-Ward, Angels and Monsters, 73.

[37] Christiansen, Prima Donna, 32.

[38] Ibid, 32-33.

[39] Ibid, 34-35.

[40] Somerset-Ward, Angels and Monsters, 22-23.

[41] Ibid, xii.

[42] Ibid, 40-41.

[43] Ibid, 36.

[44] Ibid, 41.

[45] Ibid, 38.

[46] Edwards, The Prima Donna, 50.

[47] Christiansen, Prima Donna, 10.

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(Another music review I wrote when I was studying in Vienna, Austria. This one is dated April 10, 2011.)

 

For a change of pace, I went to the Wien Konzerthaus to experience the Aron String Quartet performing several different works. The hall in which they performed was lovely. The ceiling had such intricate design and framework, and the dimensions were excellent for carrying sound.

The performance began with a String Quartet piece by Hanns Eisler. It was certainly twelve-tone and had the 20th Century aspects of atonality about it. I don’t listen to very much atonal music and found this particular piece unsettling and disturbing. I could almost picture a scene with demons dancing around a fire in a forest with the incessant plucking, climbing, stark and sudden dynamic contrasts. There was some form to it that told a story, however disjunct it was.

Next on the program was Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F-Major. The first movement, Très doux, or very soft, opened in a very refined and stately style as the first theme was introduced, a stark contrast to what we had previously heard. I felt as if it was describing the nature scene outside of a French estate, following the fluttering adventures of a butterfly. The second theme just floated through the air in wonderful strains, especially from the first and second violin. Movie soundtrack composers may have been inspired by this because I notice similar patterns and musical phrases from shows I have seen. It builds into a frenzied echo of the first theme in a much wilder approach, then settling back into the original feel and flow. Most of the players were expressive as they were performing, except for the viola. He seemed too focused in on the music pages to evoke it through his facial and body expressions. The movement ends on a slight variation of the main theme, slowing to a pause.

Suddenly, the strings burst through in a very catchy theme that they pluck. It makes me think of a more folk, playful, and adventuresome theme. The second movement is written Assez vif, or brisk, which certainly makes sense. I really enjoy watching the first violinist who incorporates his entire body into his performance and expression. His feet are constantly moving, and sometimes they even lift of the floor as he reels back in musical immersion. There are brief allusions to the stated themes in the beginning of the movement throughout as it moves into a slower and darker mood then eventually builds up again into the free-flowing and initial eager outpouring.

The third movement, Très lent or very slow, lives up to its name. The beginning sounds almost like it’s in a harmonic minor key and proceeds with subtlety that echoes a vague resemblance of the first theme but then alters it in a more somber sense. It is very tragic, and you can feel such emotion pouring forth from it. This could almost portray Autumn as things linger as they fade away. You can almost see the wind rustling the fallen leaves in the music. The movement ends after another visitation to the altered first theme lingering in the air with a beautiful chord.

The final movement in this selection jolts you out of your reverie quickly, as it is called Vif et agité, lively and agitated. It is very busy and wild, in a sense. You get the sense that everything is turning in circles about you and building up more and more powerfully. Echoes of themes from the first and second movements burst forth in sudden instances. The idea of leaves being carried on the wind could also be described with this music except in a more intense and motivated sense. One leaf in particular might be carried through the air in winding circles all around the extent of the estate, re-visiting themes and areas previously mentioned in Ravel’s piece. The drama builds until the very last moment with a very delightful ending.

The final piece was Brahm’s Clarinet Quintet in B Minor. The Aron Quartett was joined by Daniel Ottensamer on clarinet. It was an enchanting and dramatic piece. I admit, most of my attention was focused on the clarinetist due to his good looks. That being said, I’m truly being honest when I say that he is the most talented clarinet soloist that I have ever heard. He has amazing tone quality and mastery of technique. When he climbed into the high register, I just sighed happily at the purity of his sound. It did not once break or sound airy like so many clarinets that I hear. I thoroughly enjoyed this musical adventure.

 

 

❤ Me

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