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Julietta, or Symphonic Music is a Sometime Thing

by Jon Meadow and Michael Beckerman

Written for the concert The Key of Dreams, which was performed on March 22, 2019 at Carnegie Hall.

Born December 8, 1890, in Polička, Czechoslovakia
Died August 28, 1959, in Liestal, Switzerland
Composed in 1936–37
Premiered on March 16, 1938, in Prague, at the National Theatre, conducted by Václav Talich
Performance Time: Approximately 3 hours including intermission

Introductions and Possible Bright Futures

On March 16, 1938, inside the hallowed walls of Prague’s National Theatre, Czechoslovak composer Bohuslav Martinů’s three-act lyric opera Julietta (Snář) [Juliette, or the Key of Dreams] made its successful debut. Audience members immediately recognized the power, warmth, and economy of means of Julietta’s often “jazzy” and undulatory music. The premiere’s conductor, Václav Talich, judged Julietta to be one of Martinů’s “creative peaks.” Similarly, many years later, on his death bed, the composer showed his estimation of the work’s quality by retranslating the libretto back into French. Like Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka (1901) or Leoš Janáček’s The Makopulos Case (1926), the opera maintains an iconic status in the Czech Republic, and the work’s reputation has resulted in several excellent, commercially available recordings, a growing body of related scholarship, and an international proliferation of new and innovative productions outside of Martinů’s homeland, such as the English National Opera staging in 2012 and Oper Frankfurt’s 2014 production.

Musical Recognitions

Julietta is the story of a Parisian bookseller’s (Michel) pursuit of an elusive girl (Julietta) in a seaside town. Given the libretto’s oceanside setting, games of chance, sailors, peddlers of “narcotics,” and the elusiveness of its namesake, it is not entirely unreasonable to think that a discussion of Julietta in light of some of its musical similarities to one of opera’s most provocative and notorious coastal works, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), might yield something of consequence.

First, Julietta’s raw musical materials occasionally evoke Porgy’s. It is uncertain whether, when he started composing Julietta in May of 1936, Martinů knew the music (and stories) of Gershwin’s opera about a disabled gambling beggar living in an African-American tenement house on the South Carolina coast. However, as the echoes of Rhapsody in Blue (1924) in Julietta’s shopkeeper scene (Act I, scene ii) and the ostinati, syncopations, and accents of the orchestral interlude from Julietta and Michel’s meeting in the woods (Act II, scene v) attest, the composer was certainly no stranger to Gershwin’s globetrotting Jazz Age musical style more broadly. Moreover, even though Martinů had suspended his use of Jazz Age musical commonplaces at the start of the 1930s, his familiarity with Gershwin-esque music is as palpable in stage-works from the previous decade—like 1927’s Kitchen Revue and 1929’s three-act French-language film-opera Three Wishes, or Inconstancy of Life—as it is in select portions of Julietta.

Second, the way that Martinů thought about how symphonic music should interact with actions and words in Julietta shares assumptions with how Gershwin approached Porgy’s symphonic music. Around the summer of 1936, Martinů was able to secure Prague’s grand, late 19th-century National Theatre for Julietta’s premiere. Perhaps the nature of the venue emboldened him to bring into play the elsewhere, or rather the “elsewhen,” of the previous century, from which he salvaged a vaguely (Richard) Wagnerian manner of thinking about symphonic music’s interaction with words and actions that he had jettisoned in the interwar period. In his influential essay The Artwork of the Future (1849), Wagner had summarized the basic ideas of this late 19th-century way of thinking when he claimed that music’s historical progression necessitated that abstract, or absolute, symphonic music, which Wagner figured as a “vast, shoreless ocean” between words and action, would find itself superseded by a symphonic music that resembles a “bridge between [words and action].” Prior to Julietta or Porgy, Martinů and Gershwin had preferred the genres that made Wagner’s manner of thinking obsolete in many interwar circles, because similar to Gershwin with his pre-Porgy Broadway revues and one-act, hokum-filled opera Blue Monday (1922), Martinů had demonstrated a fondness for the one-act opera genre and the revue format with their looser, less-stringent relations between symphonic music and the libretto’s actions and words. Cases in point are stage works like the aforementioned Kitchen Revue, the one-act radio opera The Voice of the Forest (1935), and the prizewinning collection of one-act, Czech-language, neo-medieval opera-ballets The Plays of Mary (Premiered in Brno in 1935). In these pre-Julietta stage works, the manner in which symphonic music reinforces the actions and words of Julietta and Porgy can hardly be found.

Musical Misrecognitions and the Question of Leitmotifs

Regardless of their coastal settings, their common fund of situations and vocational types, the occasional similarity and contemporaneity of their musical “raw” materials, and their composers’ comparable manners of thinking about symphonic music’s role in opera, Julietta and Porgy’s librettos are dissimilar: they treat memory and the laws of physics differently, and their plots locate reality in disparate places and times.

On the one hand, Porgy’s “realist” libretto has a plot with a beginning, middle, and end, and its characters are subject to the laws of physics. This is a realm where bodies expire, and people are unable to bend spoons with their minds. This is the domain of the daytime. Also, the libretto’s words and actions have consequences and accrue meaning across all three acts. Memory, whether of the law, the individual, the community, a song, or a leitmotif, is essential to Porgy and Bess.

On the other hand, Michel’s “surreal” pursuit of who (or what) possibly exists behind an adulterated memory of a song fragment begins in medias res and unfolds moment by moment. The sequences of its situations across acts is not additive; its words (while clearly sung) have different inter-act, intra-act, and even intra-scene meanings, and the consequences of its characters’ actions are either suspended in ambiguity or they are cartoon-like in their denial of the laws of physics. This is the domain of nighttime, where and when memory is elusive.

After accounting for these differences, it stands to reason that the action- and word-reinforcing symphonic musics of librettos that have such dissimilar conceptions of reality, memory, and physical necessity are going to unfold in grossly dissimilar ways across three long acts. Because Gershwin both settles on Porgy’s “realistic” libretto and reverts to a late 19th-century call for symphonic music to reinforce words and action, he is emboldened to weave a network of Wagnerian leitmotifs from and through memorable songs and choral ensembles, and this enables him to ensure that every musical decision of Porgy and Bess will reinforce the drive towards the opera’s end, which is also the beginning of Porgy’s quest for the elusive Bess. Even Jasbo Brown’s often-cut onstage piano blues from Porgy’s opening scene provides ambiance and assists in orienting the audience in Catfish Row’s here and now, which is logically connected to its before and later.

This kind of practice finds no resonance in Julietta’s symphonic music. Throughout Julietta, Martinů employs the orchestra to provide unconventional but skillfully crafted and concretely shaped local operatic forms. Occasionally Martinů repeats melodic figures and sonorities that are appropriately associated in some vague, non-conceptual way with the elusive Julietta, and from time to time Martinů will repeat each act’s prelude whole cloth.  However, because the words and the actions of the libretto do not drive toward some univocal, unanimous meaning across all three acts, the symphonic music—because it is acting in accordance with the manner of thinking that Martinů adopted for the grand occasion of Julietta’s National Theater premiere—has no need for the coalescence of leitmotifs across all three acts.

In the end, it will be up to the listener to discover whether, despite this unreality, or perhaps because of it, Julietta, far from disappearing into the morass of non-memory, actually takes on a corporeality of enormous power.  We may imagine, then, that the “miracle” of Julietta, thinking back to Martinů’s previous opera, The Plays of Mary, is that in Martinů’s capable hands, absence becomes presence, dreams become true, and the lack of recall creates indelible operatic memories.

Jon Meadow is a Ph.D. student in Historical Musicology at New York University. His work is focused on the roles of humor and comedy in Bohuslav Martinů’s Great Depression theatre reforms.

Michael Beckerman is the Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor of Music at New York University. He is the author of numerous articles and books about Czech music.