Friends and Colleagues: Bernstein, Brandeis, and the 1950s

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Bernstein and the Bostonians, performed on November 18, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Tonight’s concert gives voice to a web of interconnections. All five composers on the program knew one another and were, at one time or another, friends. The most active and close period of their engagement took place relatively early in Leonard Bernstein’s meteoric career—between his college days and 1957, the year West Side Story opened. Four of them (Wernick is the exception) studied at Harvard with Walter Piston, three as undergraduates. All five composers were influenced and supported by Aaron Copland and admired the music of Stravinsky. Four of them were born in and around Boston (save Berger, a New York native). And all had strong links to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood. All are American Jews whose careers flourished in the post-World War II era when the influence of anti-Semitism was on the wane. All five were associated with Brandeis University in its early years in the 1950s.

Leonard Bernstein served as a Visiting Professor at Brandeis from 1951 to 1956. Richard Wernick did his undergraduate studies at Brandeis, studying closely with Irving Fine. Fine taught at Brandeis from 1950 until his untimely death in 1962. Berger became the first holder of the Irving Fine Professorship at Brandeis. He and Shapero taught at Brandeis for decades until reaching retirement age. Shapero began in 1951 and Berger in 1953.

Berger was the senior member of this group. He pursued a distinguished career as a theorist and writer, and was a co-founder of the highly influential journal Perspectives of New Music. In terms of age, Fine was next in line. He was born in 1914 and was one of Leonard Bernstein’s closest friends. Bernstein was devastated by Fine’s death, as was Wernick, Fine’s protégé and eminent and devoted student. Many thought Fine the most gifted and promising of this group—the most likely to succeed Copland as the “dean” of American composers.

The most famous of them all, Bernstein, was born in 1918, two years before his close Harvard friend, Shapero. Shapero showed amazing promise early on—in his college years—as a composer. The symphony on tonight’s program was written when he was 27. It is widely considered his best work and one the great American symphonies. Bernstein was an early champion of the work. But Shapero, perhaps distracted by the security and civility of a tenured professorship, seems gradually to have stopped composing.

The four older composers often have been grouped together as exponents of a particularly American approach to musical modernism. The influence of Stravinsky, Nadia Boulanger, and, more directly, Copland encouraged the idea that new and distinctive “classical” music could actually capture the hearts and minds of the public and not inadvertently imply either a gulf between the classical and the popular or some aesthetic superiority over various forms of popular music. All five of these composers admired Marc Blitzstein. Bernstein was a particular champion. Together with Copland they held fast to an ideal of a culture particularly suited to democracy, art that was accessible to a wide literate audience, with an aesthetic cast in the lineage of Walt Whitman. The book version of Candide for the Bernstein score was written by Lillian Hellman, a writer who was controversial and outspoken, a colorful icon of liberal and progressive politics during the McCarthy era and throughout the 1950s. Fine, Wernick, and Bernstein all composed in explicitly popular genres.

The older four composers have been classified as American neo-classicists, and even as members of a “Harvard” school. More to the point is their shared penchant for transparency, compositional procedures of development, classical genres, a rhythmic vitality, and melodic instinct. If music can suggest words and ideas, this music evokes an optimism and brashness characteristic of America’s post war years—the nuclear war threat, the specter of anti-communist witch hunts, and the racial strife in the wake of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education notwithstanding. Wernick belongs to a subsequent generation, but he came of age in the 1950s and his lineage—his connection to Brandeis, his studies with Bernstein, Shapero, Berger, and, most importantly, Fine—place him squarely within this group, even though his music expresses its own independent, individualistic modernism.

Last but not least, all five of the composers on this program devoted a great deal of their time and energy to teaching. Bernstein became this nation’s most inspirational and influential teacher. He used the medium of television, as conductor and inspirational presence, to democratize access to the power and beauty of the classical musical tradition. Berger, Shapero, Fine, and Wernick excelled in the university classroom, and in Wernick’s case on the podium as well. Wernick has had a long and distinguished career with a substantial output of chamber and orchestral music. I was lucky enough to study with Wernick and play under him during his years on the faculty of the University of Chicago.

These five composers represent a parallel in music to the literary achievements of American Jewish writers from the same era—Saul Bellow, Louis Zukofsky, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and E.L. Doctorow, to name a few. Bernstein’s place in the repertory now seems secure. But the music of Fine, Wernick, Shapero, and Berger deserve a proper and permanent place in our nation’s concert repertory.

Leonard Bernstein, Overture to Candide

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Bernstein and the Bostonians, performed on November 18, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Born August 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Massachusetts
Died October 14, 1990, in New York City
Composed in 1956
Concert premiere on January 26, 1957 at Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Bernstein
Performance Time: Approximately 4 minutes

Despite its distinguished roster of collaborators, including Lillian Hellman and Richard Wilbur, among others, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide has always posed a conundrum for those seeking to produce it. Candide, based on Voltaire’s picaresque 1759 novella, contains an embarrassment of riches that do not quite coalesce into a show. Hellman, who was an expert at concocting “well made” plays such as The Children’s Hour, was not experienced at writing comedy; Wilbur’s elegant verse is excessively clever at times; and Bernstein’s tuneful, touching, and varied music can often seem overwhelming.

In May of 1956, Bernstein, Hellman, and Wilbur, along with director Tyrone Guthrie, met on Martha’s Vineyard to work on Candide. By August, Bernstein had completed a score that consisted of some two hours of music and over thirty numbers. Candide opened in Boston for three weeks of tryouts, but garnered only modest success: the dress rehearsal ran far too long and the audience grew restive. A critic for Variety warned, “A major hurdle to acceptance is the somewhat esoteric nature of the satire . . . The musical needs severe cutting, especially in the second act.” Boston critics lauded the music, but found the book heavy-handed.

Despite pruning, the New York premiere on December 1, 1956 was far from an unmitigated hit. Walter Kerr, the powerful drama critic of the Herald Tribune, wrote that Candide was a “really spectacular disaster.” Audiences of the time were puzzled by the ways in which Candide flouted the conventions of musical theater, especially its lack of a standard romantic plot. The show ran for only seventy-three performances, but the scintillating original cast recording, conducted by Samuel Krachmalnick, was much praised and became a collector’s item. The overture to Candide, a cleverly designed potpourri of some of the show’s best tunes that Bernstein rescored for full orchestra, quickly became its composer’s most popular orchestral work. It was performed over two hundred times in the first two years after its publication and remains a concert favorite.

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Arthur Berger, Ideas of Order

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Bernstein and the Bostonians, performed on November 18, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Born May 15, 1912, in New York City
Died October 7, 2003, in Boston, Massachusetts
Composed in 1952, on commission from Dimitri Mitropoulos
Premiered on April 11, 1953 at Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Mitropoulos
Performance Time: Approximately 11 minutes

Reviewing a concert of Arthur Berger’s music in 1973, New York Times critic Donal Henahan characterized it as a “time capsule report” on the “postwar American academic establishment.” By using the dreaded word “academic,” Henahan did Berger’s music no favors. Indeed, Berger’s accomplishments as a perceptive music theorist, especially his articles about Stravinsky’s music, also served to put him in the dreaded pigeonhole of “intellectual” composer, ignoring the elegance, expressivity, and, indeed, charm of his work. His later reputation as a composer was hardly enhanced by his early jobs as a music critic in the days when a composer shaping public taste by writing for newspapers was not considered a conflict of interest.

Berger studied composition at New York University, the Longy School, and at Harvard, where his composition teacher was Walter Piston. As a composer who was also an insightful theorist, Piston became a model for Berger. Aaron Copland was another admired figure: before matriculating at Harvard, Berger joined the Young Composers Group that Copland had formed in New York. Berger’s love of Stravinsky was deepened by his study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris from 1937 to 1939. Upon returning to America, he taught at Mills College, where he studied informally with Darius Milhaud, and he later became the Irving Fine Professor of Music at Brandeis University.

By the early 1950s, Berger became intrigued by the challenge of reconciling Stravinskian neoclassicism with Schoenberg’s serial techniques. Berger always remained loyal to Stravinsky, however, calling him “the greatest composer of our time.” Stravinsky’s influence is evident in Berger’s lovely orchestral score Ideas of Order, named after Wallace Stevens’ second book of poetry that was published in 1936. Berger’s score is a subtle theme and variations, and its first performance was well received by critics and audience alike. One commentator enthused that the score “was as simple and charming as a Haydn symphony.”

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Harold Shapero, Symphony for Classical Orchestra

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Bernstein and the Bostonians, performed on November 18, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Born April 29, 1920, in Lynn, Massachusetts
Died May 17, 2013, in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Composed in 1947 in Boston on commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation
Premiered on January 30, 1948 in Boston by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein
Performance Time: Approximately 45 minutes

Harold Shapero was a precocious composer who enjoyed enormous success throughout his twenties. He matriculated at Harvard where his principal teacher was Walter Piston. Shapero admired Piston’s music while being somewhat exasperated by his teacher’s dry wit and Yankee reserve. At one point, when Shapero brought his brilliant 9-Minute Overture (1940) to class, Piston looked coolly over the score and remarked, “Well, if it were mine, I’d put two bassoons there.” During the summers of 1940 and 1941, Shapero studied at Tanglewood with Paul Hindemith, whose pedagogical method was to recompose his pupils’ music before their very eyes. Far more important for Shapero’s development than either Piston or Hindemith was Nadia Boulanger, with whom he studied at Boston’s Longy School in 1942 and 1943. Boulanger confirmed Shapero’s predilection for the music of Stravinsky while analyzing with him the music of Mozart, Haydn, and, especially, Beethoven.

Shapero’s friendship with Leonard Bernstein was particularly fruitful during this period. Both Bernstein and Shapero loved jazz, and Shapero had first-hand experience with American popular music as an arranger for dance bands. Jazz influences are evident in Shapero’s attractive Trumpet Sonata (1940) as well as his Sonata for piano four hands (1941). Shapero and Bernstein played the first performance of this lively score, which is dedicated to “Bernstein and myself.”  Shapero’s music clearly influenced Bernstein’s Clarinet Sonata (1942) as well as his ballet Fancy Free (1944).

The composition of his Symphony for Classical Orchestra marked the climax of Shapero’s early career. To create this score, Shapero drew upon Boulanger’s explications of Beethoven along with his love of Stravinsky and jazz. Shapero’s symphony is certainly among the finest neoclassical works by any American composer: each of the four movements is poised, and expressive. The warm and lyrical second movement, marked Adagietto, is particularly lovely. After its highly successful premiere, even the hypercritical Irving Fine hailed it as “an extraordinary achievement.”

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Richard Wernick, . . . and a time for peace

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Bernstein and the Bostonians, performed on November 18, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Born January 16, 1934, in Boston
Composed in 1995 in Boston
Premiered on June 18, 1995 by the Orchestra Filarmonica Della Scala conducted by Riccardo Muti with mezzo-soprano Freda Herseth
Performance Time: Approximately 20 minutes

The distinguished American composer Richard Wernick was born in Boston and began piano lessons at the age of eleven. He studied at Brandeis University with Irving Fine, Harold Shapero, and Arthur Berger. In the summers of 1954 and 1955, he studied composition at Tanglewood with Ernst Toch and Aaron Copland, and studied conducting with Leonard Bernstein. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Wernick lived in New York, writing music for stage, film, and television. The importance of his work in these areas cannot be overestimated, as it gave the composer immense practical experience. Wernick then taught at SUNY Buffalo and the University of Chicago before joining the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. Among his responsibilities there was conducting the Penn Contemporary Players, an ensemble that he brought to national prominence. Wernick has received many honors, including grants from the Ford Foundation, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Kennedy Center Friedheim Award, and the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for his powerful and ecstatic Visions of Terror and Wonder.

Wernick has remained committed to reaching out to listeners. Due in part to his early experience writing for film and television, his approach to composition has always been principled and pragmatic. Wernick once commented to an interviewer, “I’m not writing to an audience which is illiterate and I’m not writing to an audience which is technically educated in music, but I do write for an audience that I assume has experience in listening to music and is willing to at least meet me halfway. So I’ll go halfway to meet them.”

When Riccardo Muti was the music director of Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1980s, Wernick served twice as his advisor for new music. The conductor and the composer formed a strong bond, which led to the commission of a powerful orchestral score entitled “. . . and a time for peace” (“v’yet shalom”). Composed for the 1995 season of the Ravenna Music Festival in Italy, “. . . and a time for peace” is scored for mezzo-soprano and large orchestra, the same forces as Visions of Terror and Wonder.

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Irving Fine, Symphony (1962)

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Bernstein and the Bostonians, performed on November 18, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Born December 3, 1914, in Boston
Died August 23, 1962, in Boston
Composed in 1962 in Boston on commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Premiered on March 23, 1962 in Boston by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Munch
Performance Time: Approximately 22 minutes

Irving Fine was born, educated, taught, and died in Boston. His childhood was miserable on a Mahlerian scale: his parents were an ill-matched and quarrelsome pair. As musicologist Howard Pollack has noted, there are numerous depictions of parents throughout his work. Some are chilling, some ironic, but few are benign. Unsurprisingly, this led Fine to seek out father figures, including Walter Piston, his teacher at Harvard, and Igor Stravinsky, whom he met in 1939. He found a loyal friend in Aaron Copland, with whom he taught at Tanglewood.

Given the circumstances of his early life, it is unsurprising that Fine cultivated a certain detachment in both his personality and his music. Piston, who combined reserve with rectitude, may have provided a model for Fine in this regard. (Piston resigned from the Harvard Musical Association in 1948 when one of its members blackballed Fine’s nomination because he was Jewish.) Fine became disenchanted with Piston’s music by the late 1950s, however, writing that his erstwhile teacher’s scores “no longer offers us any surprises.”

No such reservations marred his admiration for Stravinsky. This affection was only intensified by Fine’s study with Nadia Boulanger, who was the Russian composer’s most ardent and loyal champion. Indeed, the objectivity of Stravinsky’s neo-classical aesthetic had a profound and lasting influence on Fine’s music. Like Stravinsky, Fine was often drawn to droll subjects: one of Fine’s beloved scores in the repertory today is his witty Three Choruses from Alice in Wonderland for chorus and piano (1942).

Fine began to compose using Schoenberg’s “twelve-tone technique” slightly before Stravinsky began his own exploration of this method in 1951. Fine was never doctrinaire, however, and his serialized music evinces an admirable independence of thought. Fine’s late Symphony (1962) represents the culmination of his style in the directness of the opening movement, the Stravinskian wit of the second, and the unremitting tragedy of the finale. Sadly, Fine died of a massive coronary thrombosis at the age of forty-seven just eleven days after conducting the Symphony at Tanglewood.

Byron Adams is a Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.

Katherine Pracht, mezzo-soprano

Katherine Pracht

Appearing in the concert Bernstein and the Bostonians, performed on November 18, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht’s recent and upcoming engagements include her return to Opera Philadelphia as Flora in La Traviata, Meg in Falstaff with Opera on the James, and several concert appearances including Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with the York Symphony, her return to Carnegie Hall performing a program of Sir Karl Jenkins’ works with Distinguished Concerts International New York, Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 5 with The Washington Chorus, composer Bright Sheng’s The Intimacy of Creativity 2017 festival at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, and her debut with the Grand Rapids Symphony performing Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs.

During the 2014–15 season, Ms. Pracht was highly involved with Opera Philadelphia’s mission to workshop and perform new American operas, developing the role of Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter in workshops of Daniel Schnyder’s Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD and covering the role in its world premiere performance, and also developing the role of Glenda in We Shall not be Moved. She performed the role of Meg in Little Women with Opera on the James and made her role debut as Sharon Falconer in Elmer Gantry with Florentine Opera. During that season, Ms. Pracht’s concert appearances included Elijah with the Blacksburg Master Chorale; Mozart’s Requiem with the Choral Society of Grace Church, NYC; Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Black Pearl Orchestra; and Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky with the Georgia Symphony.

Ms. Pracht has been a Metropolitan Opera Competition Regional finalist in San Antonio, Memphis, and twice in Minneapolis, where, in 2006, she won the Outstanding Mezzo Award.

Fall 2016

Opera and Politics: Krenek and Strauss

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Troubled Days of Peace, performed on October 19, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

We routinely invoke history as a means to understand the present. This is at one and the same time a noble and illusory enterprise. History is written with some notion of the present moment in mind, however submerged. Therefore, despite all of our disciplined efforts to render a construction of the past truthfully and objectively, the concerns of the present give an inevitably selective shape to a complex and contradictory series of events. At a minimum, however, all rigorous accounts of the past reveal dimensions of the human experience that are continuous and constant. These can indeed shed light on the present. History may never repeat itself exactly, but an examination of the past points out resemblances that suggest the dangers and opportunities we face.

Today’s concert takes place on the eve of a momentous presidential election in the United States. That election will occur at a troubled and unstable moment, marked by discontent, an exceptional frustration with democratic politics, economic anxiety, mistrust, and sharp divisions. It will take place in a world suffused with violence and war.

The era in history that this concert explores is the period in Central Europe—particularly Germany—between the end of World War I and the outbreak of World War II. It began in 1918 with chaos, poverty, epidemics, and revolutions. In Germany, a shaky new constitutional democracy emerged. Surrounding it to the east were new nation states, each struggling to establish their physical borders and a domestic sense of legitimacy.

Democracy may have been the initial rhetorical objective of populist political and social aspirations in 1918, but it was not the ultimate victor. By the mid-1930s Germany, Poland, Italy, and Hungary—to mention just a few examples—ended up embracing anti-democratic and anti-pluralist politics.

Fast forward to 1989 and the twenty five following years, and one can see parallels: the erosion of the ideal of the European Union, the rise of anti-liberal xenophobic politics in Poland, Hungary, France, England, and Germany, and the attendant virulent intolerance against refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa. The idealism spurred by the collapse of the Soviet Empire and communism has given way to intolerance and nationalism narrowly construed, all in response in part to economic stagnation and inequality. One can easily find similarities between this European populist embrace of anti-liberal and anti-democratic politics and the discourse that has surrounded the American presidential election.

In the wake of the brutality of World War I there was concerted effort among artists to break with the past and the traditions of culture associated with the pre-war period. The values reflected in the art and culture of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century seemed not to resist but rather encourage the rush towards a global destructive war. Ernst Krenek’s 1926 Der Diktator plainly rejects the lush romanticism of Wagner, the sentimental beauties of Puccini. In their place we find a brevity, a condensed sense of time, and a transparent mix of neo-classical and romantic musical rhetoric articulated with new sonorities in a drama made up of fleeting episodes. But at the center is the exploration of the irrationalities of charisma, the will to power and the allure of the tyrannical. Krenek (an Austrian and a pupil of Schoenberg’s who briefly was Mahler’s son-in-law) wrote his own libretto. By placing the story in neutral Switzerland, he sought to probe exclusively into the psychological attraction that Mussolini, and later Hitler and Franco—all “strongmen” who cultivated the cult of personality and power—had on an astonishingly large segment of their nation’s populace. His medium was the opera, the nineteenth century’s most popular musical form. Like Hindemith and Kurt Weill, in the 1920s he sought to transform its aesthetic and its public role. Opera needed to cease being an affirmative pleasing and escapist entertainment and instead become a startling provocation and a radical assertion of the new, directed at the dominant middle class audience for culture.

By the time Richard Strauss embarked on Friedenstag in the late 1930s (it was premiered in July 1938), the Nazi dictatorship was already firmly in place. Strauss willingly collaborated with the regime, naively believing that it would stem the corrosive anti-traditional aesthetic modernism that had flourished during the Weimar Republic, and spur a German cultural renaissance as well as secure a proper copyright protection for composers. Strauss was a self-centered opportunist focused purely on his own career. He felt that he had suffered during the Weimar period. He saw himself forgotten and dismissed as a holdover from the nineteenth century by a younger generation of composers and critics. The Nazis were, in his mind, instruments of cultural revenge.

But he underestimated his new masters. When it became clear that he was not politically reliable and not a true believer in Nazism, he was pushed aside. Yet he was too famous and possessed too much propaganda value not to be of value. Hitler himself attended the premiere of Friedenstag. But unlike Hans Pfitzner and a host of lesser talents, Strauss, after the debacle of Die Schweigsame Frau (described in the notes to this program by Bryan Gilliam), was not entirely in favor with the regime. By choosing the subject of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia and the end of the Thirty Years’ War for Friedenstag, Strauss was on the one hand playing into the overt political rhetoric of the mid and late 1930s, in which Hitler sought to represent Germany as being committed to bringing lasting peace to Europe though its own expansion, best represented by the Anschluss and the Munich agreements of 1938. In this regard, the opera was a failure. It was coolly received and was quickly banished after Germany led Europe into a second world war.

But on the other hand, Strauss, who despised all politicians and treasured an illusory notion of an autonomous tradition of high art and culture independent of politics, sought in his one-act opera to emulate and reference one of the towering German representatives of culture before the age of modern politics: Beethoven. As the opening chords, the use of a musical signal as a key dramatic device, and the triumphant closing celebration of peace suggest, the musical dramatic model for Friedenstag is Beethoven and his sole opera, Fidelio. As in Fidelio, Strauss’ opera contains two opposing male protagonists and a key female intermediary. Both operas end in the celebration of peace after conflict. But Fidelio tells of the triumph of justice and freedom over cruelty, tyranny, and violence. This theme, if present at all in Friedenstag, is at best a veiled undercurrent, a residue perhaps of the work of the opera’s covert librettist, Stefan Zweig, the Austrian Jewish writer whom Strauss admired and who brought Strauss the work’s official librettist, Joseph Gregor.

Friedenstag, although written with hope of official endorsement by the Nazi regime, projected through its unabashed rich sonorous music Strauss’ bittersweet and nostalgic evocation of a pre-World War I era, an era he viewed as marked by peace and civility and the triumph of the continuity of German cultural superiority. Friedenstag picks up from Hans Sachs’s celebration of the noble German art of music in Wagner’s Meistersinger.

The turmoil of the 1920s, and what Strauss viewed as the vulgarities of modernism and popular culture, reinforced his steadfast commitment to post-Wagnerian musical aesthetics of the fin de siècle. Strauss does not repeat himself, despite evident audible reminiscences of Salome and Elektra. There are even modernist elements in the harmonic language and vocal writing. However, the opera reveals the composer’s gradual sojourn backwards in music history. Friedenstag suggests that Strauss turned away from Wagner to Beethoven and ultimately, in his last years in the 1940s, even further back to the eighteenth century and Mozart. If Krenek and Hindemith were inspired by the radical break in political history that occurred after 1918 to engage asceticism, transparency, and the experimental, Strauss was drawn backwards to Viennese classicism.

Ernst Krenek, Der Diktator
Richard Strauss, Friedenstag

by Bryan Gilliam

Written for the concert Troubled Days of Peace, performed on October 19, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Ernst Krenek
Born August 23, 1900, in Vienna
Died December 23, 1991, in Palm Springs, CA
Der Diktator
Composed in 1926, in Austria
Premiered on May 6, 1928, at the Staatstheater in Wiesbaden, Germany by the State Opera conducted by Joseph Rosenstock
Performance Time: Approximately 30 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 2 piccolos, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 1 French horn, 1 trumpet, 1 trombone, timpani, percussion (bass drum, tam-tam, cymbals, triangle, snare drum), 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, 6 double basses, chorus, and 4 vocal soloists

Richard Strauss
Born June 11, 1864, in Munich
Died Sept. 8, 1949, in Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany
Composed in 1935–36
Premiered on July 24, 1938, at the National Theater in Munich by the Bavarian State Opera conducted by Clemens Krauss
Performance Time: Approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 6 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 bass trombone, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, large military drum, snare drum, tam-tam, chimes), 1 organ, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, 6 double basses, chorus, and 8 vocal soloists

Today’s two Austro-German operas, Der Diktator and Friedenstag, have likely never been paired together, though there are some links: both follow the theme of love, politics, and war, and both are one-acts taken from different multi-opera sets. But in many ways, they are quite different. Der Diktator lasts just about half an hour with two main roles and two sub roles. The longer (80 minute) Friedenstag features two leading roles, sub roles, and extensive chorus. The greater difference is that Der Diktator was the product of Weimar Germany, that relatively brief period of democratic parliamentary government that followed WWI. In an early act of that new government, censorship was lifted in 1918, and cultural institutions that had operated at the pleasure of the emperor were now run by the state. The people’s belief in a brighter future was accompanied by an equally powerful distrust of the immediate past, for post-Wagnerism and post-Romanticism in general served as symbols of the bygone Wilhelmine era. The new buzzword was Neue Sachlichkeit, “New Objectivity,” a principal genre beneath this rubric was Zeitoper, “topical opera,” which sought to embrace the here-and-now and celebrate the contemporary life in music. Enrst Krenek, the master of the Zeitoper—with such international hits as Jonny Spielt auf (1926)—thus achieved his greatest historical fame in the 1920s. Der Diktator, one of a trio of Krenek’s Zeitopern, was composed in the wake of his early fame. The title character is based on Benito Mussolini. It is not intended to be political opera, but rather, as Krenek remarked, “an anecdote from the private life of a strong man. Only from the irrational does he retreat, not so much out of fear, but because he can do nothing with it, he cannot dominate it.” Many of the Zeitopern had surrealistic undertones, and in the case of Der Diktator the subtext explores the surreal relationship between power and sexual attractiveness.

As the curtain rises, we see the Dictator instructing a courier to deliver a declaration of war, to which his wife, Charlotte, is opposed. The Dictator encounters Maria, who does not trust him but is intrigued by his gaze. The Dictator exits with Charlotte, and the Soldier enters in a wheelchair. He is Maria’s husband, blinded at war by poison gas while fighting for the Dictator, whom Maria vows to kill as revenge for her husband’s injuries. When Maria goes to kill him, the Dictator declares his love for Maria, and convinces her to join him. Maria agrees and throws down her revolver. Having overheard everything, Charlotte picks up Maria’s revolver and shoots her husband, but Maria throws herself in front of the Dictator and the bullet kills her instead.

The Weimar government was a precarious political proposition for most of its duration. The international depression of 1929 sealed its fate and the far-right National Socialists attained a string of parliamentary victories. With the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor of the new government, the Weimar era was effectively over, and with it, all artistic freedoms enjoyed by artists and intellectuals of the 1920s. It was also in 1929 that Richard Strauss lost his greatest artistic collaborator, the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Strauss went through a period of depression, with the belief, according to his wife, that he might never compose opera again. However, in 1932, Strauss was introduced to novelist, biographer, and playwright Stefan Zweig. The result of this meeting was a three-act comedy based on Ben Johnson called The Silent Woman (1935). Depression had given way to one of the happiest creative periods of Strauss’ life. But Zweig was a Jew, and with the rise of Nazi anti-Semitism it became obvious that Zweig could no longer serve as Strauss’ librettist. Strauss was in a state of denial, but reluctantly agreed to Zweig’s recommendation that Joseph Gregor take his place, with the promise that Zweig would remain in an advisory position. Gregor was not, principally, a writer, but rather a theater historian and founding director of the Austrian National Theater Library. Gregor’s and Strauss’ first collaboration, set during the time of the Thirty Years War, was later known as Friedenstag.

The story of Friedenstag involves a Commander who is held under siege by the enemy Holstein army. He is accompanied by his wife, Maria, who vows to stay with him to the end. The sound of cannon fire creates confusion, and the Commander prepares for attack. However, the next sound is that of bells, bells of peace, and the enemy commander arrives to share this good news. The Holsteiner Commander is skeptical and reaches for his sword. At that moment, Maria throws herself between the two Commanders, pleading for peace between them. The two enemy Commanders embrace and the opera concludes with a chorus of reconciliation.

Strauss realized that he had a text that lacked strong psychological motivation and nuance and knew what he had to do. The result is an opera with a simple, concise, yet powerful musical structure, a score that shows evidence of a well-seasoned composer. Every dramaturgical enigma that could not be solved by the clarity of word is washed away by the power of music. The paradoxical strength of Friedenstag comes from Strauss’ commitment to work against undesirable circumstances—internally, composing for a weak libretto, and externally, composing a pacifist opera with the growing awareness that Germany was gearing towards international conflict. Indeed, after Germany’s attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, Friedenstag was removed from the German operatic repertoire.

Bryan Gilliam is Professor of Music and Germanic Languages and Bass Fellow at Duke University.

Kirsten Chambers, soprano

Kirsten Chambers
Photo by Holz Germany

Appearing in the concert Troubled Days of Peace, performed on October 19, 2016 at Carnegie Hall.

Soprano Kirsten Chambers joined the roster of the Metropolitan Opera this fall to cover the title roles of Salome and Isolde in Tristan und Isolde. In the 2015–16 season, she debuted as the Foreign Princess in Rusalka at Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Leonore in Fidelio with New Amsterdam Opera of NYC. In July 2015, she made a highly successful European debut at the Savonlinna Opera Festival as Elsa in Lohengrin. She also appeared as a featured soloist in excerpts from Lohengrin with the Oulu Symphony in both Oulu and Helsinki and later at the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in promotional concerts for Savonlinna Opera Festival. She reprised the role of Elsa in Lohengrin for the Hong Kong Arts Festival. In concert she performed Isolde’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde with the Hong Kong Philharmonic and Brünnhilde’s Entrance from Die Walküre with Orchestra Kentucky. In 2015 she debuted the role of Salome at Opera Hong Kong. For Opéra de Rennes, she reprised Elsa in Lohengrin.

Ms. Chambers was with Arizona Opera for Turandot and Opera Saratoga for Tosca. She was featured in Nora in the Great Outdoors with American Opera Projects at Lincoln Center and as Santuzza and Tosca with the Cardona Opera Theater. With Toledo Opera she was Strauss’ Ariadne and Nedda in Pagliacci for Bronx Opera.

A champion of new music, Ms. Chambers has been recorded on the Newport Classics Label and appeared numerous times with American Lyric Theater and American Opera Projects.

Fall 2016