Sounding “White”

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Throughout 2018, the New York Times has been running a series of stories called “Overlooked,” which are the obituaries of notable women from the past who the paper declined to acknowledge at the time of their deaths. In August, the Times published an overdue obituary for Sissieretta Jones, the first black opera singer to appear at Carnegie Hall. Jones was marketed as “The Black Patti” — i.e., the black counterpart to the reigning opera diva of the day, Adelina Patti, below.

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Jones was the daughter of former slaves. The obituary notes that, while Jones performed opera excerpts in concert widely across the United States and Europe, as a black soprano she was prohibited from appearing in fully-staged opera productions with white singer colleagues. An interviewer at the time suggested that she “whiten up” with makeup, but Jones refused.

“Try to hide my race and deny my own people?” she responded in the interview, which was published by The San Francisco Call in 1896. “Oh, I would never do that.” She added: “I am proud of belonging to them and would not hide what I am even for an evening.”

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Jones was preceded in forging a new path for black classically-trained singers by Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was born a slave in Mississippi sometime around 1820, and later taken to Philadelphia and freed when her owners divorced. She toured the United States in 1851, singing programs of opera arias and art songs, and was managed  by a white man who was evidently a racist and a supporter of the Fugitive Slave Act, and who prohibited black audiences from attending her concerts.

As the music critic for the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser enthused after Greenfield’s debut concert in that city:

A Black Swan!

Among the musical novelties of the day, the public are soon to be astonished by the debut of a young lady of African extraction, by the name of Eliza[beth] Greenfield. We had the pleasure last evening in company with a party of Musical Amateurs, of listening to her performance and must confess we were completely surprised and delighted.

Miss Greenfield possesses a voice of great purity and flexibility, and of extraordinary compass; singing the notes in alto, with brilliancy and sweetness, and descending to the bass notes with a power and volume perfectly astonishing. She sang among other pieces “When the gloom if night retiring,” with a degree of artistic finish that many of our celebrated Prima Donnas might envy.

The critic undoubtedly meant Sir Henry Bishop’s “Like the Gloom of Night Retiring”; there is documentary evidence of Greenfield having sung the piece in Buffalo.

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There is also evidence that a Buffalo police phalanx had to be called in to protect the singer, the audience, and the concert hall after threats of “dire disasters to the building if the dark lady were permitted to sing.”

Indeed, The Buffalo Daily Express was constrained to plead, in its review of her concert:

May we not hope that her music may tend to soften the hearts of the free and lighten the shackles of her race enslaved.

When Greenfield appeared in Cleveland, the music critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted the astonishment of the audience as they heard “white” sounds emanating from a black body:

It was amusing to behold the utter surprise and intense pleasure which were depicted on the faces of her listeners; they seemed to express – ‘Why, we see the face of a black woman, but hear the voice of an angel, what does it mean?’

Sadly, there are no recordings of Sissieretta Jones or Elizabeth Greenfield; the latter died before the advent of recording, and the former, tragically, though she died as late as the 1930s, apparently chose not to record.

We have the examples, however, of many great black sopranos who have followed in the course laid down by these pioneering prima donnas.

Jessye Norman, for instance, is my absolute favorite singer in my aboslute favorite composer, Johannes Brahms — not to mention being unsurpassed in Wagner and other operatic repertoire.

Here she is singing “Divinités du Styx,” from the 1767 opera Alceste by Christoph Willibald Gluck:

In spite of the success of the success of black women singers, black men have traditionally fared less well in opera. A 1972 New York Times article, “When Will the Black Male Make It in Opera?”, describes the predicament of

Therman Bailey, a tall, good‐looking man in his early forties, [who] was signed by the Cologne Opera a few years ago. After he arrived there he was assigned a large number of roles to prepare in German. As the weeks went by, he was given more and more to learn but never a performance. He complained and finally worked up the long chain of bureaucracy to the artistic administrator, who said, “Really, we’re not sure how you’re going to look onstage.” Bailey said, “Then why the hell did you hire me? I haven’t suddenly changed color!” 

Inspired by his anger, Bailey reached over and pointed to a list of the company’s repertory. “Look at these operas! Almost every one is set in a Mediterranean country where blacks have always lived, Why can’t I do one?”

And George Shirley, the first black tenor to perform a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera, suggests that

white men erroneously see the black male “as a sort of superhuman sex machine. Maybe because of this, we’re a threat in all areas. No white man is threatened by a black woman, but when a black man is raised into a position of equal competition, the white man doesn’t like it. He says to himself, ‘Why should I open my world up to this guy when I al ready have to deal with so many white guys?”

This has been especially true for tenors, who sing the romantic male leads in opera, and thus are paired with (usually white) sopranos, which, in the United States especially, has been perceived as threatening and unsavory by (predominantly white) opera audiences.

Fortunately, things are changing, but opera is not only tradition-bound; it’s also not especially woke.

What does it mean to sound black? To sound white?

Night and Dreams

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Two Men Contemplating the Moon (Caspar David Friedrich, c. 1830).

Words and images you will encounter over and over again in the Lieder of the Romantic era: night, dark, moon, dream — in German, Nacht, dunkel, Mond, Traum (German nouns are capitalized).

Think of the thick, dark (dunkel), overgrown forests in which so many of the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm take place, and recall that the Brothers Grimm were philologists (linguists) as well as folklore collectors. The brothers’ other great project, in addition to their folktale collecting, was the publication of what is still today the most comprehensive German dictionary, the Deutsches Wörterbuch.

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In the Wörterbuch, the Grimms provide another meaning for dunkel, in addition to “dark”: dämmerndmeaning dusky, dim, like twilight, the indeterminate time of day when the light yields to the dark. This haziness and indeterminacy is another prominent idea in Romanticism, in which imagination and what it produces have a greater value than reason and what it measures.

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Rocky Landscape in the Elbe (Friedrich, 1823).

In his song “Mondnacht” (Moonlit Night), notice how Schumann begins with a feeling of indeterminacy in the piano, and how, when the voice enters, it appears to be singing just a fragment of a melody. The poem is by Joseph von Eichendorff.

The text in translation by Richard Stokes:

It was as though Heaven
Had softly kissed the Earth,
So that she in a gleam of blossom
Had only to dream of him.

The breeze passed through the fields,
The corn swayed gently to and fro,
The forests murmured softly,
The night was so clear with stars.

And my soul spread
Her wings out wide,
Flew across the silent land,
As though flying home.

Here is Brahms’s setting of the same text.

How are the two musical settings different? Which do you think is more effective in capturing the “night” feeling of Eichendorff’s poem? Why?

 

Mountain Music

2016c31db0e4087f080df6baeeaf7b5fThe sound of the French horn provides one of the most emblematically Romantic timbres in nineteenth-century music. Why is that?

The French horn derives its origin from the hunting horn (in German, waldhorn or forest horn) — a brass instrument played while hunting on horseback to call back the hounds from the hunt.

Some horns, like the alphorn, were used in mountain regions to communicate and signal across vast distances.

And horns were used in the Middle Ages to call troops to battle.

So the sound of the horn is associated with the pastoral, with nature, and with the simple folk, peasants and hunters, people steeped in forestcraft and woodlore, men and women who are close to the land, and also with centuries past. The idea that the simple folk are the inheritors of a unique knowledge and wisdom is an important Romantic trope, part of the culture of resistance to the advancing technological specialization and industrialization of the age.

The nineteenth-century Männerchor (men’s chorus) was meant to imitate the sonic ambience of the woodland horn, and to evoke a feeling of the pastoral and the out-of-doors.

Brahms wrote his Four Songs for women’s choir, harp, and two horns — including the “Song from Fingal” — to evoke both folk music and a sense of nostalgia for the past: the first song is self-referential, about the effect of hearing a harp played in the landscape; the second song is a setting of “Come away, death” from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; the third song is about a gardener who loves a lady in vain, and anticipates his death from grief; and the fourth is a setting of a German translation of the Ossian verses. 

Years later, Brahms would return to the pastoral sound of the horn to open his second piano concert on B-flat Major, op. 83. As Bill McGlaughlin has observed, this is more than music: it is a landscape in sound; the horn almost seems to call out of the mists, as if from one mountaintop to another.

And of course you remember Beethoven’s horns in his Symphony no. 3. What does Beethoven intend his horns to mean?

Piping Down the Valleys Wild: Some Literary Sources

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The title page of Songs of Innocence (1793) by William Blake (1757-1827). You can view the entire 1793 edition and read commentary at the Tate Museum’s website.

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An 1802 poem along similar lines by William Wordsworth (1770-1850):

My heart leaps up when I behold
  A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
  Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

How do Blake’s and Wordsworth’s poems express a fundamental tenet of Romanticism?

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The Dream of Ossian (Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1813).

Some years earlier, the Scottish poet James Macpherson had published Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, which he claimed were his translations of texts by Ossian, a forgotten third-century Gaelic bard whose poems had been lost until Macpherson himself discovered them on a trip around the northern coast of Scotland. Fingal was the legendary king of Caledonia, in northwestern Scotland. It is now commonly accepted that Macpherson wrote the poems himself, but at the time Thomas Jefferson enthused over Ossian, “I think this rude bard of the North the greatest Poet that has ever existed.”  Fingal was wildly successful, and was translated into every major European language. Napoleon adopted Ossian as his own guiding poet, and is said even to have gone into battle with a copy of Fingal in his pocket; the artist Girodet, the official portraitist to Napoleon’s family, painted this scene of Ossian in paradise, welcoming the souls of the French officers killed in the Napoleonic Wars, in 1805.

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Why was Ossian — later acknowledged to be a fraud — so important to the Romantics?

Could it be because these seemingly ancient poems spoke to the longing for a unified culture and community, one based on spiritual aspirations rather than on the arbitrary borders set out by the various monarchies of Europe?

Or could it be because of the Ossianesque atmosphere of mist, of caves, of the bleak landscapes of the North?

You can read selections of Ossian’s poems here.

“Das Mädchen von Inistore” (The maid of Inistore), one of Schubert’s settings of Ossian (Macpherson) in German translation.

The text, in English:

Weep on the rocks of roaring winds, o maid of Inistore! Bend thy fair head over the waves, thou lovelier than the ghost of the hills, when it moves in a sunbeam, at noon, over the silence of Morven. 

Brahms set the same text for women’s choir, harp, and two horns. Note how the instrumentation adds a sense of the mystical and the mysterious.

Mendelssohn, after a trip to Scotland, wrote his Hebrides Overture, which he subtitled “Fingal’s Cave.”

Gypsy Kings?

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The verbunkos, a Hungarian Roma dance.

The third movement of Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D Major.

The young Brahms first heard Roma music as a boy in Hamburg, which was a way station to American for refugees from the many failed revolutions throughout Eastern Europe in 1848-49. In 1851 he embarked on a tour with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Reményi, who styled himself a Romani, introduced him to verbunkos music. Some of the folk melodies that Reményi taught Brahms appear in the latter’s Hungarian Dances for four-hands piano. 

Was what Brahms did cultural appropriation?

Was what Reményi did cultural appropriation, since in reality he was Jewish, not Roma, and was born Eduard Hoffmann?

This is a Romani instrument called a cimbalom.

In his Hungarian Rhapsody no. 11, Franz Liszt directed the pianist to play “quasi un zimbalo” — like a cimbalom.

In fact, Liszt, though famously a Hungarian, who declared, “I remain from birth to the grave, in heart and mind, a Magyar,” was unable to speak the Hungarian language (he spoke German, French, and Italian).

Was Liszt engaged in cultural appropriation by composing in the style of a Romani instrument?

“Yes, Brahms is evil . . .”

I do not know who the self-styled op131 is. I found his/her now-defunct blog long ago, and I’m very glad that s/he hasn’t taken it down.

Brahms, you old Master! You weaver of dreams, you liar! You encourage my “hopeless romanticism” and you know it! Life is not as colourful as you would have us believe! Of course you know that I know, and I can hear you laughing.

You dear Master, you! You—and the worthless dreams you sell me! No, keep them coming. Weave on and on. Go from here to the depths, then further into the depths, then rise up again—portray that impossibly rich, romantic world as you always do. If only life were really as romantic.

The explosion upon the senses that is the first movement of the Piano Concerto in D minor! This is probably the single movement I have listened to most often. With very few compositions can it be said as emphatically as with this one that words can describe nothing. Yet so strong the impulse is, to tell someone, to tell someone to listen to this first movement! To tell someone how rich life can be! To call someone into this obviously-removed-from-life world!

The old Master cons me again and again into entering here. How powerfully it begins, and how soon he begins spinning his web! Before I know it I am caught, and must wend my way through to the end, just like the last time.

Yes, Brahms is evil. He is subversive to my higher development. He wants to keep me here forever. And so glad I would be if I could indeed remain here forever.

So, three minutes down, and the web is getting thicker. Suddenly the false dawn—the rousing trumpets and rolling drums—the false rise—and this time, I fall deeper into the pit so well prepared!

There already is the hint that the finale is pre-planned. That apart, the web from the midpoint to the depths before the close surely find a place in all of music. So intriguing, yet so navigable (after twenty or so listenings). And sure enough, here I am again, just like he wanted me to be – just waiting to see what will open the door.

Oh, the subversive natures here! This is evil at its most sensuous. So many alternate routes, and yet the old-Goat Master instructs the bassoons to insist that all is lost, and that the very depths must be sounded. And of course the piano obliges, and the haunting forty-second descent into the abyss comes about. That forty-second descent is among the most unforgettable, most distinctive minutes in all of music. There is nothing quite like it.

And—lulled into the deep, as planned, the break-out begins, also obviously planned right from the start—and the old Master knows that I knew it! I have seen similar breakouts elsewhere, but the extreme sensuousness, the extreme sound! The effect upon the person is quite unlike anything else and cannot even fall into any of my other categories of experience. It is a category by itself.

Was there any doubt that sound is the true sense, the primeval sense, the glorious sense? Now there is none. Oh, sound, Sound! The piano, its role done, goes away—and those horns, those drums, the entire strings – rise like a gargantuan tidal wave, engulfing the sense, and almost the spirit (but not quite!) All Hail! That final ladder – up, up, higher, higher, glory, glory, glory! The thunder, the sound, the sense! That evil connivance of the sensuous and the spiritual that Brahms achieves—all in his unique frame of removed-from-life romanticism! Higher and higher, insaner and insaner, and the blazing, magnificent closing thunderclap!

An experience quite unlike any other.

And then it is over. No, we never did believe him. He did not expect us to, either.

If only life were so rich.

If only life were so rich.

Free, But Lonely

Joseph_Joachim_1868(Joseph Joachim in 1868.)

“Frei Aber Einsam” — Free but lonely — was the personal motto of Brahms’s best friend, the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim. In 1853, for Joachim’s twenty-seconnd birthday, Robert Schumann, his composition student Albert Dietrich, and Brahms decided to collaborate on a present for their friend: a sonata for violin and piano based on the musical notes F, A, and E, in honor of Joachim’s motto.

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The title page is inscribed:

F.A.E.: In Erwartung der Ankunft des verehrten und geliebten Freundes JOSEPH JOACHIM schrieben diese Sonate R.S., J.B., A.D.

(F.A.E.: In expectation of the arrival of their revered and beloved friend, Joseph Joachim, this sonata was written by R.S., J.B., A.D.)

Brahms wrote the third movement, a scherzo.

The propulsive rhythm of Brahms’s contribution should be a bit . . . familiar to you.

Do  you think Brahms was consciously imitating Beethoven?

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Don’t forget that earlier that same month — October, 1853 — Schumann had written an article in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in which he essentially anointed Brahms as the spiritual son of Beethoven, calling him

one whose mastery would not gradually unfold but, like Minerva, would spring fully armed from the head of Jupiter. And now he has arrived, a young blood, at whose cradle graces and heroes kept watch. His name is Johannes Brahms, . .  His comrades greet him at his first entrance into the world of art, where wounds may perhaps await him, but bay and laurel also; we welcome him as a valiant warrior.

Schumann was a very influential composer and critic, and this essay, entitled “Neue Bahnen” (New Paths), was read as far away as America, where it was published in translation in the New-York Herald Tribune as well as other papers. “Neue Bahnen” made Brahms’s career.

It has been suggested that Schumann had been actively looking for someone to inherit the mantle of German music after the death of Beethoven — someone who was not a member of the Lisztian New German School, which he detested, but a proponent of “pure” (absolute) music.

What must it have been like for Brahms, at twenty, to have to live up to this hype?

Incidentally, Joachim was one of the first violinists to make recordings, and, when, in the early days of Youtube, I found some uploads of his remastered recordings, it was thrilling to hear his unadorned style, with very little vibrato; it gave me some idea of the way that Brahms wanted his music to sound. Here is Joachim playing his Brahms’s Hungarian Dance no. 1.

The Blue Flower

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(Clara Wieck Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Robert Schumann.)

On October 1, 1853, the twenty-year-old Johannes Brahms, who was on tour accompanying violinist Eduard Remenyi throughout the German-speaking lands, knocked on the door of his idol, Robert Schumann in Düsseldorf. He played his Piano Sonata no. 1 in C Major for Schumann and his wife, the great pianist Clara Wieck Schumann. Robert noted in his journal that night:

Visit from Brahms (a genius).

Clara wrote in her own journal:

This month brought us the wonderful arrival of the twenty-year old composer Brahms from Hamburg. It is as though he has been sent by God himself! He played sonatas, scherzos, and so on that he had written, everything brimming over with imagination and emotional intensity, and consummate in form. It is really moving to watch this man,with his fascinating features, sitting at the piano with an expression of ecstasy on his face. He has very attractive hands, which master the greatest of difficulties with the greatest of ease- his works are very hard. Robert says one can only hope that Heaven will grant him health.

One can hear how deeply the young Brahms had drunk at the spring of Beethoven; his sonata reflects much of the energy, freedom, and heroic gestures of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 29 in B-flat Major, op. 106, the “Hammerklavier”:

And the beginning of the second movement of Brahms’s sonata sounds very much like the last number in Schubert’s great song cycle Die Winterreise, “Der Leiermann,” in which the bereft protagonist encounters a mentally unstable organ-grinder walking barefoot on the ice, and he asks the organ-grinder if he might throw in his lot and wander with him.

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Indeed, Brahms patterned the second movement after an old Minnelied (love songs sung by German troubadours) called “Vertohlen geht der Mond auf” (Stealthily rises the moon).

Verstohlen geht der Mond auf.
Blau, blau Blümelein!
Durch Silberwölkchen führt sein Lauf.
Blau, blau Blümelein!
Rosen im Tal,
Mädel im Saal,
O schönste Rosa!
Stealthily rises the moon.
Blue, blue flower!
Through silver cloudlets makes its way.
Blue, blue flower!
Roses in the dale,
Maiden in the hall,
O loveliest Rosa!

The motif of the blue flower is a strand threaded throughout the poetry of German Romanticism, appearing in works by Joseph von Eichendorff, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Novalis; it symbolizes the Romantic longing for the infinite.

This German folk song talks about seeking the blue flower:

Several years later, Brahms wrote a choral setting of “Verstohlen geht der Mond auf”:

Can you find references to the blue flower in twentieth and twenty-first century culture?

What is your blue flower?

The Hobgoblin of Little Minds

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A hobgoblin is, in European folklore, a spirit of the hearth or fireside (the “hob”). Hobgoblins are considered meddlesome and mischievous beings.

In the universe of Marvel Comics, the Hobgoblin is one of Spiderman’s nemeses.

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In his well-known 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” the American transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson stated that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” by which he meant that one should not conform to the fashion of the age, but should rather be original in all that one thinks and does from one day to the next.

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The misquotation of Emerson’s maxim is the punchline of one of my favorite movies, Next Stop Wonderland.

In his 2013 biography of Wagner, Raymond Furness noted:

A foolish consistency may well be the hobgoblin of little minds, as Emerson once wrote; Wagner’s mind was certainly not one of these. 

In fact, it was Wagner who, in 1846, first coined the term “absolute music.” He meant it in the most pejorative way possible, calling music that was disengaged from the meanings and energies of daily life, history, and the imagination “a hobgoblin in the brain of our aesthetic critics.” Indeed, according to Mark Evan Bonds, Wagner believed that

The notion of an artwork unconnected to the world around it . . . was quite literally inconceivable.

In other words, to Wagner, music could never be abstract, referring only to itself, existing in a realm untouched, unaffected, and unadulterated by any gesture or fact outside of itself.

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In matters of absolute vs. program music, Wagner’s nemesis would be not The Hobgoblin, but Brahms.

But . . . is absolute music even possible?

What do you think?

Variations on a Theme

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(Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann.)

Robert Schumann, no. 4 of Bunte Blätter (Colored Leaves), op. 99.

In 1853, his wife, Clara (Wieck) Schumann, wrote a set of variations on this piece.

The following year, Schumann was confined to the insane asylum at Endenich. Clara, who gave birth to their seventh child that May, was forbidden to visit him, as his doctors believed it would worsen his condition. Brahms, who moved in with Clara and her children, wrote his own variations on the same theme from Bunte Blätter to console her, and as a tribute to the man they both loved.

Music professor Robert Greenberg muses:

What is it about older women? A cynic might claim that a young man’s attraction to an older woman reflects nothing but an Oedipal desire to sleep with his mother and a longing to be babied. But we are not cynics. We understand that Clara, as a professional musician, saw past Brahms’ childish appearance the moment she heard him play his own music at the piano. We understand that this beautiful, smart, experienced woman treated Brahms like a man and as an equal, not like a little boy . . . 

Was Clara a cougar, a Mrs. Robinson-type BABE out looking for a naïve but energized (*wink*wink*) young man with whom she could partay heartay?

Answer: Um, no.

How are the Clara Schumann and Brahms variations different? In what ways are they faithful to the original theme by Robert Schumann, and in what ways do they differ from it? Do you believe that the variations enlarge, expand, and (perhaps) even improve upon the original theme by Robert Schumann? How so?