Monday, December 4, 2017

Handel's Messiah

Early Music Vancouver presented, incredibly, for the first time Handel’s perennially popular Messiah this weekend. I attended one of four performances of the oratorio, and found the performance both musically satisfying and spiritually uplifting.

For their presentation, EMV had assembled a strong cast consisting of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, Vancouver Cantata Singers (under Paula Kremer), soprano Yulia Van Doren, Mezzo-Soprano Krisztina Szabó, Tenor Charles Daniels, and Vancouver’s own Baritone Tyler Duncan, under the direction of Alexander Weimann, who also played the harpsichord.

All four soloists for the performance are outstanding artists. Vocally Van Doren was the strongest of the four, and her singing of many of the florid vocal lines had an effortless quality as well as a palpable feeling of joyfulness.  This was particularly evident in her exhilarating performance of the aria, “Rejoice greatly”. As well, her performance of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” had a simplicity of feeling and a naturalness in delivery. Also memorable was Szabó’s deeply felt singing of the alto aria, “He was despised and rejected”.

To my ears, the soloists all meant what they were singing. Tenor Daniels, in particular, made every word he sang charged with meaning. I felt this especially in the many accompanied recitatives, recitatives, arioso (“Behold, and see if there be any sorrow”) in Part II of the oratorio. In “Why do the nations so furiously rage together”, Duncan delivered the aria with incredible power and dizzying vocal prowess as well as a palpable sense of urgency, and I could not help but feel that the words of the aria are particularly apt for our times.

Kudos to Paula Kremer and the Vancouver Cantata Singers for their always beautifully nuanced, textually clear, and always musical singing really made them one of the evening’s highlights. In some of the choruses, Alexander Weimann set tempi for the singers that are challenging to sing. The choir more than rose to the occasion in the dizzying speed, agility, accuracy, and lightness of their singing. In choruses such as “For unto us a child is born” and “All we like sheep”, there was an incredible feeling of excitement and exhilaration.  In “Surely, He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”, the choristers infused the music and the words with an incredible intensity of feeling.

The Pacific Baroque Orchestra has been a cornerstone of Vancouver’s early music scene. Concertmaster Chloe Meyers played with great confidence and beautiful articulation. I particularly enjoyed her playing of the striking violin figures in “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron”.

It was quite a sight to watch conductor and harpsichordist Alexander Weimann in action, sometimes standing or half sitting while playing, keeping all of the performing forces together. The ensemble was impeccable, the coordination between orchestra and singers was always at one with each other, and it was a reading that was intensely beautiful and musical. In the final “Amen”, Handel’s genius and the talent and hard work of the musicians all came together to conclude this incredible evening with a final benediction. For me, it was a performance that very much moved.

It is probably safe to say that we live in a post-Christian age. Yet, year after year, people flock to performances of Handel’s Messiah, and recordings of the oratorio continue to be made and are sold. On top of the emotional association every December of doing “something Christmassy” – and Handel’s Messiah certainly beats another performance of Nutcracker - could it be that we, even when we want to deny it, are in search of something transcendent? Surely when we hear those beautiful and inspired (by the Holy Spirit no less) words being sung, we could not help but be moved?  In the words of Saint Augustine, all of us are “wired” for God, and nothing in our world would ever be able to finally satisfy us  - “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee”.

Perhaps we are, all of us, no matter how much we protest otherwise, in search of an “invasion of grace” into our lives.

Patrick May
December 4, 2017


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Musician of Conscience

In the past years there have been a few biographies of musicians that shed special insight into the life and art of these iconic musical figures – Richard Osborne’s sympathetic portrayal of conductor Herbert von Karajan, Kevin Bazzana’s magisterial Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould, as well as Harvey Sachs’ Rubinstein: A Life, the story of pianist Arthur Rubinstein.

Sach’s latest book, Toscanini – Musician of Conscience (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017) – is a magnificent, copiously researched, well-written, and comprehensive overview of the great conductor’s storied life and musical career. The present volume, weighing in at 923 pages, supersedes the author’s previous biography of Toscanini, mainly because of large number of testimonies by Toscanini family members, colleagues and friends, fifteen hundred of his letters that came to light in the 1990’s, as well as conversations between Toscanini and visiting friends and colleagues, secretly recorded by son Walter in the conductor’s house in Riverdale, New York. The result is a book that highlights not only the life of a great musician, but a glimpse into the musical life of Europe, South America, and the United States during the turbulent times of the first half of the 20th century.

Toscanini’s father, Claudio, was a patriot – just as his son would later turn out to be – who was part of Garibaldi’s Sicilian expedition in 1860.  In Sach’s words, Claudio would turn out to be unreliable “as husband, father, and breadwinner.” His philandering ways seemed to have been inherited by his talented son, but more about that later.

Arturo Toscanini received his musical training at Parma’s Regia Scuola di Musica (Royal School of Music), a school whose grandiose title is not matched by its physical locale – a deconsecrated Carmelite convent whose rooms “usually stank, and bedbugs were common.” In spite of the less than luxurious conditions and the absence of immediate family, Toscanini loved conservatory life, and his musical talents showed themselves early on. According to the author, “Toscanini always remembered his student days as the happiest period in his life”. At the beginning of his second year at the conservatory, he was told that the cello was to be his instrument, even though he would have preferred to learn the violin. One interesting fact shows how much performance practice has changed within the last century, because when Toscanini started cello lessons, cellos were not equipped with end pins, and cellists would grip the instrument between their knees, something that cellists specializing in Baroque performance would do today.

After graduation, Toscanini became a freelance orchestral cellist, and thereby landed himself in the situation of his unexpected conducting debut in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The story is too well known to merit repeating. Suffice it to say that Toscanini’s conducting career took off after standing in as a last minute replacement for the scheduled conductor, who had been shouted off the podium by an irate audience. His conducting of Aida was a great success, and he remained conductor for the travelling opera company for the remainder of the tour.

On November 4th, 1886, Toscanini made his professional Italian conducting debut with Catalani’s Edmea, one of many operas, regularly performed at the time, which was to fade into obscurity. Throughout the book, we find names of operas performed, successfully at the time, that are totally unknown today. Immediately he was recognized as a major conducting talent. Toscanini moved to Milan at the beginning of La Scala’s 1886-87 season - the highlight being the world premiere of Verdi’s Otello, his first opera in sixteen years. He won the position as second cello in the Scala orchestra, mainly in order to observe how the 73-year-old Verdi would prepare the production. For the rest of his life, the conductor would refer to those Otello rehearsals and performances as “one of his greatest learning experience.” At the end of the season, Toscanini began to work as in itinerant conductor for the next eight years, conducting in Genoa (where he stepped in to conduct the world premiere of Franchetti’s Cristoforo Colombo, again to great success, even though the opera is again a mere historical footnote today), Rome, Palermo, Pisa, Ravenna (where the local critic predicted that Toscanini was “predestined to occupy the conducting chair at La Scala), and Turin, where he was appointed maestro concertatore e direttore d’orchestra in 1895.

Turin represented an important chapter in Toscanini’s career. At the time, most Italian theatres, including La Scala, had the orchestra playing at ground-floor level, which does not work for the more heavily scored works of Verdi and Wagner. Under Toscanini, Turin’s theatre witnessed the construction of its first orchestra pit, an important chapter in the evolution of opera theatres. Toscanini inaugurated his first season with Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, probably the most complex of the Ring operas. One of the performances was heard by Arrigo Boito, who was hugely impressed by what he heard and saw. This began a long friendship between conductor and composer, “that would have far-reaching consequences for both men.” Boito returned to Turin for Toscanini’s performance of Falstaff, of which he was the librettist for Verdi, and approved of the young conductor’s interpretation of the complex score. Perhaps even more importantly, Toscanini conducted the premiere of Puccini’s La Bohème, at first to lukewarm response, but subsequently to ever-growing popularity and success. It was also in Turin that the conductor gave his first full-length symphony concert. It wasn’t long before Toscanini’s talent became too big for Turin, and Boito, who had been named vice-president of La Scala’s governing board, wanted the conductor, at the tender age of thirty-one, to be artistic director of Italy’s most prestigious opera theatres.

Sachs documents the evolution, as well as the ups and downs, of the history of the great opera house, as well as the intrigue and political machinations behind Toscanini’s nomination as conductor of the house. Sachs devotes many pages documenting the conductors’ years at La Scala. Toscanini’s international career really began after his tenure at La Scala. The bulk of the biography details the rise of Toscanini as international artist and star conductor – his years at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, his second tenure at La Scala after World War One, music directorship of the New York Philharmonic, his musical life between the two world wars, and finally, and perhaps, most well known to contemporary music lovers, his association with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

Other than Toscanini’s life, one of the interesting aspects of this volume is his relationship with his contemporary musicians.

Verdi was already a well-established composer when Toscanini began his career, and even if the aged composer had heard positive reports about the young musician from many quarters, it couldn’t be said that they had a close friendship. Toscanini did visit Verdi on two occasions, the second one shortly before the composer’s death in 1901. The conductor did have an uneasy friendship with Puccini. Part of the tension between conductor and composer had to do with Toscanini’s close friendship with Alfredo Catalani, known today almost solely for his opera La Wally. In Sach’s words, Toscanini felt that Catalani, who died at thirty-nine, “never reached his full professional and artistic stride.” Sachs adds that Toscanini, “was convinced that Catalani was more gifted, especially as a melodist, than Puccini and their contemporaries, but he also knew that Puccini had learned his musical materials more skillfully and to choose more attractive subjects and libretti.”

Yet there is no denying that Toscanini recognized Puccini as an important composer, and Puccini always knew that under Toscanini, his creations would be in excellent hands. Puccini entrusted Toscanini with the world premiere of his La Fanciulla del West at the Metropolitan Opera, and of course Toscanini conducted the composer’s unfinished Turandot, even though the conductor personally found the latter opera difficult to love. One of the two’s periodic falling out involved Puccini’s triple bill Trittico, which the conductor felt was unworthy of the composer’s talents.

Toscanini also recognized the genius of Claude Debussy, and had conducted many of the composer’s orchestral works, and conducted the successful Italian premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande, although it seems inconceivable that the opera was sung in Italian. The composer wrote to Toscanini, “I put Pelléas’s fate in your hands, sure as I am that I could not wish for more loyal or more capable ones. For this reason as well I would have liked to work on it with you; it is a joy that one does not easily come across along the path of our art” - high praise indeed coming from the creator of the work.

Toscanini also conducted Busoni’s Berceuse Elégiaque, Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead, and excerpts from Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Toscanini conducted Busoni’s work frequently throughout his career, but his single performance of The Isle of the Dead would be his first and last experience with Rachmaninoff’s music, even though he genuinely admired the Russian composer as a great pianist and musician. Vladimir Horowitz, Toscanini’s son-in-law, always regretted not having performed the Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto – his signature piece - with the conductor. According to Horowitz, Toscanini was uncomfortable with Rachmaninoff’s gushing romanticism. Toscanini also disliked the playing (which I find surprising) or the ultra-modern compositions (which I don’t) of Arthur Schnabel. Perhaps he saw Schnabel as a competitor for his role as high priest of music?

The author of the present volume also sheds light on the presumed rivalry between Toscanini and Gustav Mahler. According to Sachs, “[t]he fable of Toscanini’s forcing Mahler to leave the Metropolitan is precisely that – a fable – and it was largely constructed by Alma.” Although Mahler was only forty-eight at the time, he already knew that – due to his heart disease – he would not be able to physically take on the role of principal conductor or general manager of a major opera house. The year before Toscanini’s arrival, Mahler only conducted twenty-six performances of five different operas, hardly a heavy workload compared to what he was doing in Vienna. Sachs quotes Julian Carr, one of Mahler’s biographers, who writes that Mahler’s departure from the Metropolitan Opera “was due neither to the new Italian regime nor (another legend) to hostile critics. He went, as so often before, because he saw a more attractive post.” Toscanini and Mahler were aware of each other’s talents and reputation, and each held the other in high esteem.

I find it ironic that Toscanini only conducted Mozart’s Don Giovanni for one season in South America, because to list the conductor’s many “conquests” would make a list longer than Don Juan in his famous “Catalogue Aria.” Women who shared a bed with the maestro included (of course) opera singers, wives of musical colleagues, as well as various female admirers who bowed to the conductor’s charms. Sachs writes that by today’s standards, Toscanini would probably have been labeled a sexual predator. Indeed, Toscanini’s philandering ways were a great source of pain for his wife and family. According to Sachs, some of the letters Toscanini sent to his many lovers throughout the years bordered on the pornographic. Although Toscanini felt a great antipathy toward the Catholic Church, he seriously frowned upon divorce, and was somehow able to rationalize his womanizing as separate from being married for life.

In addition to Toscanini’s musical integrity, I believe that we can admire him unreservedly for his opposition to any form of tyranny. Although (briefly) an early admirer of Mussolini, who initially branded himself as a socialist, Toscanini quickly saw the dictator for what he was, and took a stand against Italy’s descend into the darkness of totalitarianism.  As early as 1922, Toscanini forbade the La Scala orchestra to play Giovinezza, the Fascist anthem. When the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra (today’s Israel Philharmonic) was founded by Bronislaw Huberman to give a musical home to the Jews displaced from European orchestras and opera houses, Toscanini volunteered his services and conducted the orchestra’s first concerts. Toscanini antipathy towards Mussolini put him in dangerous situations within Italy – his telephone calls were wiretapped, and his letters opened. At one point, Mussolini confiscated his passport, and it was only because of his high profile and the intervention of NBC that he was able to leave Italy before hostilities broke out.

That said, it tells us something of Toscanini’s sense of fairness that he did not join in the chorus of protest to prevent Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose wartime record continues to be a matter for debate, from performing in the United States.

In these nine hundred-plus pages, Harvey Sachs vividly re-creates the musical environment of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When Toscanini was growing up, music, opera especially, was probably more entertainment than culture. This was particularly true in Italy, where every moderate size town had an opera house. People clamored for the newest operas, and revival of older operas was relatively rare. Today, even the world’s largest opera houses would have perhaps one or two world premieres, if that, per season. In the last years of the 19th century, we witnessed the evolution of opera from entertainment to high culture.

It has often been said that Toscanini memorized all his scores – something that influenced the subsequent generations of podium titans – because of his poor eyesight. I believe that for Toscanini, memorizing a score was not a matter of rote, but part of a process of internalizing the music before he could let it come out in his gestures. As Sachs shows in his book, Toscanini was always studying before a performance, always looking for new discoveries between the notes, even with works that he knew intimately.

In the early 20th century, because of advances in electronic media, radio and then television gradually played more of an important role in competing for our hours for leisure. We should remember that when Toscanini was growing up, Brahms was still alive and active, and Verdi had not yet composed his final masterpieces. For someone whose formative years were steeped in the 19th century, Toscanini was surprisingly receptive and opened towards using electronic media to disseminate art. His years as conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra were significant in that radio and television made classical music available to millions of listeners who would otherwise have no opportunity to be anywhere near a major orchestra. Of course, this significant exposure also firmly planted the name of Arturo Toscanini in the consciousness of millions of music lovers. Those early broadcasts, with unbelievably crude sounds by today’s standards, laid the foundation for today’s hugely popular simulcasts of operas on television and in movie theatres.

One fact that surprised me was how varied Toscanini’s programmes were during his NBC years. Of course there were the standard symphonic works we associate him with, but there were also, surprisingly, works by composers like Castelnuono-Tedesco, Roy Harris, Shostakovich, Henry F. Gilbert, Kent Kennan, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Ferde Grofé, Kurt Atterberg, George Gershwin and Anatoly Liadov, just to name a few. His concerts include such diverse bedfellows as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Essay for Orchestra, Ravel’s La Valse, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, Kabalevsky’s Symphony No. 2 and Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Piano Concerto in F. In his years with the New York Philharmonic and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Toscanini was diligent in seeking out worthy works by American composers.

The impression I got from reading this volume is that Toscanini in his NBC years was quite a different conductor than in his younger years. The broadcasts of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, recorded in the “dry as dust” acoustics of NBC’s Studio 8H, came off as rather driven and devoid of poetry, and probably gave people the impression of Toscanini being a conductor that preferred rapid tempi. In Sachs’ opinion, this impression, “is a gross, indeed grotesque, distortion of the truth, but, like so many other handed-down opinions, it has endured.” Surely the recording technology of the 1930’s did not do justice to Toscanini. Certainly, reading this book made me lament the fact that I had been born too late to have experienced a performance by the conductor, whose performances at its best must have been incandescent.

Toscanini – Musician of Conscience, is obviously a labour of love for Harvey Sachs, who must have devoted many years in researching and writing the present volume. This is an important book that should be read by many. Sachs’ book is more than a mere life story of a great musician, but also a glimpse into the musical culture of our recent past, thoughts about the role of an artist in society, and a history of the development of music in our society.

It is also, for those interested, a darn good read.

Patrick May
November 21, 2017






Monday, November 13, 2017

Canadian Debut - Cho Seong-Jin

Pianist Cho Seong-Jin made his Canadian recital debut in Vancouver yesterday afternoon, and gave one of the year’s most satisfying concerts.

Obviously not one to shirk from a challenge, Cho set a high bar for himself by presenting a programme that is daunting in its musical and pianistic challenges. The end result was a sense of complete musical satisfaction.

Today one rarely hears Beethoven’s popular Sonata in C minor, Op. 13 (Pathétique), except in performances of the complete sonata cycle. Perhaps because of its popularity, it makes it especially difficult for a young artist to make an impression with this work, particularly as an opening piece. In the solemn introduction, Cho makes the many portentous silences charged with meaning. I did like the sound of the dotted rhythmic chords rubbing against each other like tectonic plates, adding to the tension of the music. That said, Cho does not overplay the feeling of pathos that is so often overdone with this work. This is especially apparent in the Allegro di molto e con brio section of the first movement as well as in the third movement. The artist seems to be reminding us that, forward-looking as it is, this is still a work very much steeped in the 18th century sound world. Under the hands of this talented pianist, all those explosive accents and sudden shifts of moods can still startle us. In the coda, I appreciate the fact that Cho did not start the crescendo too early, but exactly where Beethoven intended, at m. 303. In the heavenly Adagio cantabile, music so popular that we can all too easily take it for granted, Cho reminds us what a sublime and profound movement this is. It is the sign of a true artist that he allows the beauty of the music to unfold naturally. At mm. 19 to 22, Cho makes the left hand chords float while the right hand melody unfolds. And the brief coda was played simply and directly, with just the right hint of regret.

We have had many wonderful performances of Beethoven’s Sonata in E major, Op. 109 in the last couple of seasons, including a memorable one by Andras Schiff in Seattle, as an encore to his performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Cho’s performance of this late Beethoven masterwork is convincing, and can, to my mind, stand alongside any other interpretation I can remember. In the first movement, Cho deftly handled the many sudden shifts between the rippling figures in the Vivace, ma non troppo and the more rhapsodic Adagio espressivo. Under Cho’s hands, the music speaks to us, reminding me of Goethe’s saying that, “Music begins where words end.”

In the energetic and technically challenging Prestissimo movement, Cho was right on top of every challenge Beethoven presents. In the brief dialogue between the two hands, he observed Beethoven’s marking – un poco espressivo – to the letter, with poco being the operative word. In spite of its relative brevity, the third movement reminds me, structurally as well as the way some of the variations are written, of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. As well, in Variation 2, Beethoven is, to me, almost foreshadowing what Anton Webern does in his Variations, Op. 27. The impression I got from Cho’s interpretation of this incredible movement is one of completeness, and of an organic unity from first note to last. His playing of the technically daunting Variation 3 as well as Variation 6 was nothing short of breathtaking. At the arrival of the fortissimo at m. 109 (Variation 4) – for me the emotional climax of the movement – Cho sounded positively exultant. I also appreciate his pacing in preparing us for the return of the theme at the end. It was a sign of the high level of music making that the first half felt all too brief, even with the inclusion of two such monumental (in scope if not in length) works.

Cho’s playing of Debussy’s charming La plus que lente was just that – utterly charming. He injected just the right degree of schmaltz into this music, and did not make it more than what the composer intended it to be – and this is not meant as a criticism in any way, shape or form - a little piece of divertissement. The pianist was obviously at home with this idiom, as well as in producing exactly the right sound for the music.

Incredible as it may seem, Debussy originally intended for L’Isle joyeuse to be a part of the Suite Bergamasque. I guess the composer must have later realized that the work should have a life of its own. This, one of the composer’s most large scale works, has been associated with Debussy’s “flight” with Emma Bardac to the Isle of Jersey, thus its title, even though pianist Ricardo Viñes recorded in his diary of the composer performing this work as early as June 13th, 1903.

The young pianist’s interpretation of L’Isle joyeuse was stunning, blistering, and above all, moving, and was perhaps the highlight of the afternoon. This is saying a lot, considering the incredibly high level of music making yesterday. To say that the performance was technically impregnable would not do it justice. Under Cho’s hands, Debussy’s notes ceased to be notes, but sound colours. It was a performance that went far beyond eliciting merely a visceral excitement. In fact, Cho’s playing was so beautiful and rapturous that I find my eyes misting with tears of joy at the end of the all-too-brief experience.

I had to admire the pianist’s courage in following Debussy’s towering pianistic challenge with the four Ballades of Chopin. I know that Cho has been living with these pieces for the past years, in concert as well as in recording it for his successful debut studio recording for Deutsche Grammaphon. It was obvious from the first note of the Ballade in G minor, Op. 23 that his conception of these works have ripened and matured. In each of the Ballades, there was an epic arch from the first note to last. I believe that this is only possible when an artist has lived with and thought about these pieces for a long time. I didn’t think that this familiar G minor Ballade could sound fresh and beautiful, but it did. Indeed, There are pianists who play Chopin, and then there are Chopin players. Cho obviously belongs to the much smaller second group of Chopin players. He did not fall into the trap of making each section of the work a disparate episode, but gave the entire work a unified logic.

In listening to his recording of the Ballade in F major, Op. 38, I had admired the way Cho makes the chords of the Andantino float. In his performance yesterday, there was even more of a dramatic contrast to the aforementioned Andantino and the fiery Presto con fuoco sections. In addition, Cho’s handling of the frighteningly difficult coda (Agitato) was so assured and secured that it truly beggars the imagination.

The pianist’s interpretation of the Ballade in A-flat major, Op. 47 was one of great beauty of sound and of gossamer lightness. As in the previous two works, Cho made one section of the music flow naturally into the next, thus injecting it with a sense of totality. To me, Cho Seong-Jin and Charles Richard Hamelin, who played the same work in his Vancouver recital last year, each brought their own individual stamp on this marvelous work, and I would not want to have to choose between the two.

Cho Seong-Jin’s performance of the Ballade in F minor, Op. 52 is one of a master storyteller. Throughout the score, Chopin makes numerous markings of in tempo, even at the very outset of the work, suggesting probably the importance of tempo in this piece. To my ears, the tempo set by Cho is very natural and logical, not rushing the music along, but also keeping the flow from one episode to the next. In m. 202, I agree with Cho’s decision not to lengthen the last of the three chords before the fermata, something that not a few pianists tend to do.

This wonderful artist has given Vancouver a generous programme, and he could be forgiven for calling it a day at the end of the Chopin, but after the urging of an unusually enthusiastic audience, with its many roars of approval, Cho ended his afternoon at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts with a subtle and gorgeous performance of Debussy’s Clair de Lune, a perfect dessert after the substantial works of the recital.

There are two kinds of musical performances, one that impresses and one that moves.  Cho Seong-Jin’s performance was one of the much more rare performance that moves, that touches us in the deepest recesses of our souls. It was also a performance of completeness, of artistry, of musicality and a palpable love of the music he plays. From yesterday’s performance, it would appear that the sky is the limit for Cho. If he continues to play the way he did yesterday, success – in the worldly sense of the word – would not be beyond his reach. But if he continues to develop as an artist and a musician, it seems to me that he might be one of the rare artists that would be remembered in the annals of music beyond his own time.


And that is my fondest wish for Cho Seong-Jin.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Adam de la Halle

It is a sad fact for those interested in the lyrical art of medieval France that relatively few of the musical settings of troubadour and trouvère lyric texts have survived from the 12th and 13th centuries. In Nigel Watkins’ The Lyric Art of Medieval France, the author indicates that over four thousand lyric texts have survived from the time of the troubadour and trouvère, while monodic musical settings for these texts survives for only less than half of the repertory. This could be due to a lack of musical copyists, or the fact that many of the melodies may have been so well known or too well memorized by all that they did not necessitate documentation. There is also the possibility that, in some cases, the poems were meant to be read or recited rather than sung. Indeed, the vidas of many of the troubadours indicate that many were more accomplished or well known as poets than as musicians, although the opposite could just as well be true in some cases.

Adam de la Halle is believed to have been able to read and write both music and words. The importance of Adam de la Halle is so considerable that many musicologists have devoted much research into the work of just this one trouvère. Some even refer to Adam de la Halle as “the last of the trouvères.

In the middle ages, the patronage system was crucial to the survival of many artists. A poet or musician receiving patronage was generally a member of his patron’s household. The artist received wages (probably a lump sum over a certain period of time), housing, clothing and, sometimes, land, while the patron’s reputation would in turn be enhanced by the presence of a distinguished musician or poet in his or her household. In addition to supporting talented artists, patrons would sometimes be responsible for the spreading of cultural influence as well as having an influence on current style and taste in poetry and music. Adam de la Halle had, at least in the early part of his life, a somewhat different career path than many of his contemporaries. Born in Arras between the years 1245 to 1250, the young Adam is believed to have received financial assistance from wealthy merchants in his town, where he was a prominent member of the poet’s guild. Adam married while he was a young clerk, but it has been suggested that regretting his lost career, he decided to further his studies in Paris in 1276 under the sponsorship of some of the rich merchants of Arras.

Adam de la Halle did enjoy a period of patronage when he entered the service of Robert II, Count of Artois. In 1283, Adam accompanied Robert on his expedition to Italy to aid his uncle Charles of Anjou in the war against the Sicilians. While there, Adam entered the service of Charles of Anjou and wrote some significant works for the entertainment of the French courts in the two Sicilies. Adam de la Halle is believed to have died in Naples around 1285 to 1288. Other evidence suggests, however, that Adam was one of the entertainers who performed for the coronation of Edward II in 1307.  An English source from 1306 showed a ‘Maistre Adam le Boscu’ among the minstrels engaged for the coronation – Adam le Boscu d’Arras’ is another name by which Adam was called. If the English report did indeed refer to Adam de la Halle, his death would have occurred when he was over sixty. However, in Style and Symbol – Medieval Music 800 – 1453, Andrew Hughes suggests that the English record could have been referring to a different Adam, or a younger member of his family.

Adam is perhaps unique among trouvères in that he composed not only monophonic songs, but also in a great variety of other genres. In addition to monophonic chansons, he also wrote jeux-partis – debating songs – as well as some polyphonic rondeaux and motets. One work by which Adam is particularly known is the dramatic pastoral Le Jeu de Robin et Marion, referred to by some as the first opéra comique. The bulk of the artist’s musical and poet output, however, falls under the monophonic chansons.

At the end of the 11th century, the courts of southern France and the duchy of Aquitaine became the centre of a great outpouring of cultural activities. At the courts, a leisured society was devoted to cultivating poetry, chivalry and music. The years 1140 to 1220 marked the height of the art of the troubadours from the south of France and from Provence. In 1209, the barons of northern France, encouraged by the Pope, set out on the so-called Albigensian Crusade against heretics in southern France. This war between North and South destroyed not only the heresy, but also the civilization of the south. By the 13th century, Paris had become the centre of European civilization, with French as the “universal” language.  The trouvères continued the tradition of courtly love of the troubadours in their chansons. Like the troubadours, the trouvères originated from various classes of society. At the end of the 13th century, the repertory of monophonic secular songs was represented best by Pierre de la Croix, and certainly by Adam de la Halle.

Although a great deal of attention has been paid in the present century to the polyphonic compositions as well as plays of Adam de la Halle, it was as a trouvère in the high courtly style that his contemporaries chiefly valued him. Unlike other trouvère, whose output has largely been preserved in a dozen or so large chansonniers plus a number of smaller sources, the songs of Adam de la Halle appear primarily in collections devoted entirely to his works. Adam’s courtly chansons survived in eight main manuscripts and several lesser ones.

More than one scholar has commented upon the beauty and craftsmanship of the poetry for Adam’s thirty-six chansons. Deborah Hubbard Nelson comments that in spite of a lack of individuality in the poet’s lyric, the poetry of Adam de la Halle “communicates such a feeling of freshness that, if the reader or listener were not familiar with the poetic tradition of France and Provence in the twelfth and thirteen centuries, he might indeed credit Adam with remarkable originality. In the courtly chansons, according to John Stevens, we see Adam the craftsman, and “the maker of beautiful objects.” As in the case with other troubadour and trouvère melodies, Adam’s chansons can exist in divergent versions. Stevens points out that the divergence of notational practices is a result of the fact that copying or notating from memory was something that “was no simple mechanical act with a single ‘correct’ answer but an act which remained flexible, individual and creative, to match these same qualities in the singer’s and composer’s art.”

Thematically, most of Adams chansons follow the courtly tradition of the time – the poet addressing his forever-inaccessible lady. Related to this are the themes of the need for suffering as a test for love and the importance of hope. The central theme, or oxymoron, is the bitter-sweetness of love.

To understand the relationship between the poet and “his lady”, we must first understand that the audience in Adam’s time liked songs that dwelled upon the intricacies of this “relationship” – if we can call it that – between the lover and the object of his desire who seemed indifferent to him. According to Nancy van Deusen, “’she’ is as predictable as a ‘thing’, an object. She never relents, nor does she reciprocate. It is the poet-composer, not the ‘object’ of his love, who receives, during the course of his songs, a persona.” That said, it has to be pointed out that Adam de la Halle was not an absolute slave to the courtly tradition surrounding him. In one of his songs, the admission of a physical element with her lover came from the woman’s lips, that she “hopes often to lie against his sweet body.” It is also of interest to note that a number of the composer’s chansons preach “a more realistic and sincere ideal of mutual tolerance” – an almost 20th century concept of marriage, according to some. Other popular themes with Adam are the possibilities of ladies being deceived and the need for them to be constantly on their guard, against men, one presumes.

In addition to the songs in courtly tradition that constitute the bulk of Adam’s output of monophonic chansons are two songs of devotion to the Virgin Mary – Qui n’a puchele ou dame amée and Glorieuse Vierge Marie. In the latter work, Adam asks for the intercession of the Virgin Mary for the pardoning of his sins. It is interesting that Adam de la Halle’s (and perhaps other trouvères’) devotional songs use the same vocabulary and style that are used to describe more earthly love. On the whole, pious songs make up only a small fraction of the composer’s output.

Eighteen of Adam de la Halle’s monophonic compositions are jeux-partis – songs of debate. In the 13th century, the town of Arras had societies that encouraged literary pursuits amongst their members – the Confrerie des jongleurs et bourgeois d’Arras, otherwise known as carite des ardents. In The Lyrical Art of Medieval France, Nigel Wilkins explains that the carite des ardents was, “(i)n the first place a religious Guild in which jongleurs knew particular favour, since Our Lady was said to have appeared to two of them in the Cathedral of Arras in 1105 in order to present a miraculous candle, drops from the wax of which, when consumed in water, would cure the plague of the mal des ardents.”

Eventually the Confrerie developed a separate literary Guild in which both secular and devotional works were heard. Some of its members were extremely talented – Jehan Bretal, for example, a member of a wealthy family of bankers and merchants, partnered Adam de la Halle in sixteen out of eighteen of the composer’s jeux-partis. In the jeux-partis, the melodies are thought to have been composed by the one who poses the question, that is, the one who sings the first strophe. In thirteen out of sixteen cases, Jehan Bretal was the “questioner” and Adam the “responder”. All 16 of the jeux-partis in which Adam de la Halle took part and for which music had been preserved are included in manuscript sources of his collected works.

In The Lyric Art of Medieval France, Nigel Wilkins discusses the “composition” of the jeux-partis in some length. A superficial impression, as he points out, is probably one of two debating partners stepping forward to show off a brilliant display of improvisation to debate a point set out by a judge. However, further consideration of the construction of the jeux-partis, with their matching rhyme and metre, as well as rhythm and melody throughout, made it clear that, far from being an improvisation, the works must have been planned very carefully. There is evidence that the theme of the debate was issued many days before the contest. To this point, it has been suggested that the winner of the debate might also have “worked over” the rough edges of his composition so that the work would look good when published. Wilkins raises the possibility of a joint effort in determining the versification and the music.

It has also been pointed out that Adam’s meeting with the older Jehan Bretal had a significant influence on the younger man’s melodic style when he came to writing his monophonic chansons. In the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Robert Falck points out similarities between the jeux-partis involving Adam and Bretal  with two of Adam’s chansons.

Adam de la Halle’s polyphonic works have generated much interest in musicological circles. Nigel Wilkins thinks that Adam’s polyphonic writing, as applied to the motets, have significant implications for his subsequent development. In Style and Symbol, Andrew Hughes thinks it difficult to see Adam’s polyphonic songs as a link between the monophonic and polyphonic traditions, therefore “leaving a gap of a generation between Adam and Machaut.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians lists Adam’s polyphonic compositions only under rondeaux and motets. The term rondeaux, specifically the 13th century understanding of the term, is applied more or less to refrain songs that are “round” by virtue of an initial refrain that recurs periodically – somewhat like today’s popular songs. The exceptions to the standard rondeau form are Fines amouretes ai, which is a virelai, and Dieus soit, which is a ballade with an initial refrain.

The subject matter of the rondeau, virelai and ballade tends to deal with some trifle or detail of amorous casuistry. It is rare for a poem to be concerned with anything but love, which is invariably the courtly species so proudly sung by the troubadours. Even in the religious rondeaux in the vernacular are to be found, they are generally composed using the same language as amorous poetry.

In Fi, mares, de vostre amour, wittily describes a wife’s true feeling toward her husband and her lover:

A fig for your love, husband, for I have a lover!
He is handsome and good looking.
He serves me night and day,
and that is why I love him so.

As with the rondeaux, many of Adam de la Halle’s motets deal with the various aspects of love with wit. In the motet J’os bien a m’amie parler / Je n’os a m’amie aler / Seculum, the lover’s two points of view are given simultaneously in the two upper voices:

Of course I dare to speak to my lover when her husband is there, and kiss and embrace her right by her side, and call him a dirty old jealous man and a rogue too, and shut him out of his house while I have my will with my love, and make the wretch cool his heels outside.

I do not dare to go to my love because of her husband, who always keeps an eye on me; for I cannot be near her without looking at her pretty face, and between lovers it is hard to hide the signs of love.

In yet another motet, Adam employs the drinking theme as he recalls moments of his days as a student in Paris. This is a far cry from the traditions of courtly love that so permeates his other works:

Anyone who hears Adam, Hanikel, Hancant and Gautelot enjoying themselves will have much delight: when they sing hoquets the youngsters go faster than the clappers, as long as they have had a drink first!

Scholars have attributed five motets in three voices to Adam de la Halle with a high degree of certainty. Modern editors have attributed six additional motets to Adam because they contain musical material found in his genuine compositions. It is of course possible that other contemporary or later composers quoted Adam’s music in their own compositions.

When the name Adam de la Halle is mentioned in music history texts, it is usually in association with his famous Jeu de Robin et Marion – Play of Robin and Marion, described by Hoppin in Medieval Music as “a dramatized pastourelle with incidental music.” In fact, the work is one of three dramatic works by the composer but the only one that uses music extensively. This work of Adam’s has been referred to by many as the first opéra comique. Perhaps the nature of the composition would place it closer t the pastourelle than to what we presently associate as opéra comique.

There have been suggestions that much of the music of Robin et Marion is borrowed from other sources. Some of the melodies introduced in the dramatic work have been claimed to be popular folk tunes of the time. Adam also incorporated the only authentic surviving chanson de geste melody into the play, where it was quoted by one of the characters. One of the most popular and tuneful songs from the work has to be the monophonic rondeau with choral refrain sung by Marion at the opening. As with the texts of many of Adam’s other rondeaux dealing with amour, the nature of love is far from platonic:

Robin loves me
Robin has me
Robin asked me if he can have me.
Robin took off my skirt of scarlet, good and pretty, my bodice and girdle.
Hurray!

The early life and much of the work of Adam de la Halle highlight the importance of the patronage system and their influence on the style and taste of the arts. Moreover, the Confrerie in Arras to which Adam belonged, with its jeux-partis, shows the desire of the middle class to emulate members of the nobility. This climate provided an unusually fertile environment for the development of poetic as well as musical talents.

Adam de la Halle’s creative output is rather unique in that he composed both monophonic chansons as well as polyphonic works. The large number of manuscripts that contain his works shows the popularity of the monophonic chansons. In terms of both the poetry and the music, it is generally agreed that Adam does not seem to be an innovator. In his poetry, Adam “carried on the tradition of the Provencal and North French love lyric without adding substantively to it. Yet an examination of Adam de la Halle’s courtly chansons shows that the craftsmanship and beauty of both the poetry and the music are beyond question. Maybe it is in the idea of a work like Jeu de Robin et Marion that Adam de la Halle can be considered forward-looking and influential?

In his passionate essay on Richard Strauss, Glenn Gould suggests that Strauss is an example of a man who “makes richer his own time by not being of it; who speaks for all generations by being of none.” Perhaps Adam de la Halle, by being a representative of a past as well as a future generation of musical aesthetics, can also be thought of as one who “makes richer his own time by not being of it”?

Whatever the case may be, Adam de la Halle would always be thought of as both a prolific and highly skilled creator of poetry and music in most if not all genres common in the 13th century.


Patrick May