In case you missed any September Songs posts, here they are, in order:
Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, got his start in the 1800s. Most scholars see him as a fictional character, though a few think he’s based on an actual serial killer. He always uses a straight razor to slash the throats of his victims; in many versions of the tale, an accomplice, Margery (or Nellie or Charlotte) Lovett then bakes their corpses into meat pies. The cannibalistic trait of the story goes back as far as the myth of Pelops, while the moralistic symbolism of eating one’s fellow man appears in social satire such as Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” The myth’s imagery of meat pies made from people is almost certainly an allusion to the finale of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and the original Roman tale on which it was based.
Sweeney Todd, the musical, is widely seen as Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork. It’s technically an opera. The original 1979 production, which won nine Tony Awards, starred Len Cariou and later George Hearn as Sweeney, and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett; a much-lauded 2006 revival featured Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris. And Tim Burton is directing the film adaptation with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, which is scheduled for a December release.
The story opens with Sweeney returning from the penal colonies in Australia, where he has spent fifteen years on false charges. When he learns from Mrs. Lovett that his wife poisoned herself after being raped by Judge Turpin, the man who imprisoned him, and that his daughter is now Judge Turpin’s ward, he vows revenge. The two become conspirators in a dark plot that results in mass murder, booming business for Lovett’s pie shop, and ultimately tragedy.
Sondheim’s score is one of his most complex to date. It relies heavily on counterpoint and rich, angular harmonies, and quotes the ancient Dies Irae Gregorian chant, both as part of the eponymous ballad that runs throughout the score, and in a musical inversion later on.
Rarely has any show had a more striking opening scene. Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd:
Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett sings about her reputation as purveyor of the worst meat pies in London:
Angela Lansbury and George Hearn doing my favorite song from the show, and perhaps any show, ever — “A Little Priest” (Adamus, there’s a line in here that’s especially for you):
And for pure lyrical beauty, here’s “Not While I’m Around,” sung by Mrs. Lovett’s developmentally challenged nephew Tobias, played here by Neil Patrick Harris:
A much lighter Sondheim musical, inspired by Bruno Bettelheim’s 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment, is Into the Woods. It intertwines the plots of several Grimm Brothers fairy tales — Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, tied together by an original story involving a Baker and his wife and their quest to begin a family.
In Act I, each of the characters ventures into the woods on one quest or another. By the end of the act, each succeeds and lives happily ever after. Act II is about what happens when you get what you wish for, and when you have to live with the consequences of your actions.
This clip from the 1988 Tony Awards offers a nice overview:
Along the way, Little Red Riding Hood meets the overtly lascivious wolf, who wants to devour her in more ways than one:
You know the story: Wolf eats granny, deceives Little Red then eats her as well, after which a passing woodsman slices the wolf open and out pop granny and Red, safe and sound. Straight out of Bettelheim, it’s an allegory of sexual awakening. She sings about her experience in “I Know Things Now”:
And he showed me things,
many beautiful things,
That I hadn’t thought to explore.
They were off my path,
So I never had dared.
I had been so careful
I never had cared.
And he made me feel excited—
Well, excited and scared.
When he said, “Come in!”
With that sickening grin,
How could I know what was in store?
Once his teeth were bared,
Though, I really for scared—
Well, excited and scared—
But he drew me close
And he swallowed me down,
Down a dark slimy path
Where lie secrets that I never want to know,
And when everything familiar
Seemed to disappear forever,
At the end of the path
Was Granny once again. . . .
And I know things now,
Many valuable things
That I hadn’t known before:
Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood,
They will not protect you
The way that they should.
And take extra care with strangers,
Even flowers have their dangers.
And though scary is exciting,
Nice is different than good.
Dimwitted Jack sells his pet cow for magic beans, climbs the beanstalk, then discovers that there are “Giants in the Sky” — another clearly Freudian take on the old tale:
Into the Woods is just plain fun in so many ways. Take, for example, this duet between Cinderella’s prince, who has never had anyone run away from him, and Rapunzel’s prince, who complains of the difficulties of wooing a woman in a tower:
Sondheim intermixes sophisticated lyrics and complex tunes with songs that are simple, heartfelt, and lovely. I can think of no better song to end this month-long writing experiment than a piece from the second act of Into the Woods, after several of the characters have experienced tragic loss. It’s powerful and touching, and is my hero Sondheim at his finest:
It’s been a good month. Thanks for stopping by.
It’s midnight, and I’m too tired to write my last post right now. I told myself, “I’ll just do it later, in the morning.” Then I started singing “Later,” one of the songs from yesterday’s show, A Little Night Music, and thought it might tide you over until I can finish the final September Song.
OK, so the show opens with a trio of songs: “Now,” sung by Frederik as he contemplates the best way to seduce his virginal wife; “Later,” sung by Frederik’s sexually repressed (and perpetually depressed) son Henrik, the divinity student; and “Soon,” sung by Anne, the young wife, as she promises that it won’t be too much longer before she gives herself completely.
This is “Later.” Its chief accompaniment is a lugubrious cello, playing in counterpoint.
Later. . .
When is later?
All you ever hear is “Later, Henrik, Henrik, later.”
“Yes, we know, Henrik,
Everyone agrees, Henrik,
You have a thought you’re fairly bursting with,
A personal discovery or problem, and it’s:
“What’s your rush, Henrik?
Goodness, how you gush, Henrik!
It’s just that—”
“For God’s sake, later, Henrik!”
“Henrik. . .
Who is Henrik?
Oh, that lawyer’s son, the one who mumbles.
Short and boring,
Yes, he’s hardly worth ignoring,
And who cares if he’s all dammed—”
I beg your pardon—
As I’ve often stated,
It’s intolerable being tolerated.
Henrik, you’ll endure
Being pure, Henrik.”
Though I’ve been born, I’ve never been!
How can I wait around for later?
I’ll be ninety on my deathbead
And the late, or, rather, later, Henrik Egerman.
Doesn’t anything begin?
See you later.
A number of years ago I met Stanislav Grof, who essentially created the field of transpersonal psychology and the Holotropic Breathwork therapeutic discipline, at a graduation ceremony in Burlington, Vermont, where he received an honorary doctorate. He was being glad-handed by colleagues and former students and friends, and I waded through the crowd until I stood in front of this great bear of a man. When I opened my mouth to tell him how much his work has meant to me over the past twenty years or so, I suddenly and inexplicably dissolved into sobs. He hugged me warmly. I tried to explain, but the few words I choked out weren’t entirely coherent. I finally pulled myself together and said, “Thank you, just . . . thank you.”
Hero worship can be so embarrassing.
I have no doubt whatsoever that I would be turned into a similar blubbering heap were I ever to meet Stephen Sondheim. Thank goodness there’s little chance of that happening.
The three Sonheim shows that are closest to my heart are A Little Night Music (which I saw on Broadway in 1974 with Jean Simmons as Desirée and Margaret “Wicked Witch of the West” Hamilton as Madame Armfeldt); Sweeney Todd (1979); and Into the Woods (1987).
There’s something about his music — moving but just the tiniest bit discordant — and his witty, sophisticated lyrics that satisfies on so many different levels. His is a profound understanding of the human condition in all its foibles and failings, that peculiar mixture of darkness and light that makes us alive.
Based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, A Little Night Music is set in Sweden at the turn of the century, and tells the story of a lawyer, Fredrik Egerman, who is married to a beautiful, featherbrained, and inexperienced 18-year-old trophy wife named Anne. He sees an old flame, Desirée Armfeldt, who is appearing in a popular play, and his romantic interest in her is rekindled.
Here Fredrik meets Desirée in her dressing room after the show, and immediately sings the glories of his young wife:
In 1978 someone made a series of extraordinarily bad decisions: to make a film version of A Little Night Music; to cast Elizabeth Taylor as Desirée, then coat the lens with Vaseline, and dub her (badly) on “Send in the Clowns”; to change the setting from Sweden to Vienna; and to cut or alter many of the songs.
The only good thing about the movie was Dame Diana Rigg in the role of Countess Charlotte, the wife of an arrogant, insanely jealous military man, Count Carl-Magnus, who is openly having an affair with Desirée. Charlotte sings about the situation in “Every Day a Little Death”:
Desirée invites Frederik, his virginal wife, Frederik’s stodgy, depressed son Henrik (a divinity student who is in love with his stepmother), and their household staff, to a lavish weekend in the country. Of course Carl-Magnus decides to crash the party with his wife Charlotte and their household staff. The weekend is to be held at the country estate of Desirée’s mother, Madame Armfeldt. She is a profane but dignified old woman who is looking after Desirée’s precocious daughter, Fredrika, while Desirée is on tour. Here she sings a marvelous song about the benefits of a carefully conducted love life:
The first act finale is the marvelous “A Weekend in the Country.” It is the height of midsummer, which in Sweden means that the sun never sets completely. In act two, the characters wander around the vast estate and grounds bathed in a golden twilight. This hazy, limbo-like setting allows them to explore their passions and realize who it is and what it is that they truly desire.
The most famous song from the show, “Send in the Clowns,” is easily my least favorite. Or was, until I heard Dame Judi Dench’s version of it (she played Desirée in the London production):
Clive Barnes reviewed the show for The New York Times when it opened in 1973. He wrote:
At last, resonances and elegances in a Broadway musical! A Little Night Music is heady, civilized, sophisticated and enchanting. It is Dom Perignon. It is supper at Laserre. It is a mixture of Cole Porter, Gutav Mahler, Antony Tudor and just a little of Ingmar Bergman. And it is more fun than any tango in a Parisian suburb.
Broadway, champagne, food, Cole Porter, and the tango. Ye gods I love this musical!
The Bunting and I have been friends for a long time. We’re at that point in our relationship where we have a lot of great stories accumulated. We blame all sorts of atrocities on one another.
Like the several days we spent at Walt Disney World. Here I had everything planned down to the minute, just so we’d feel secure and wouldn’t miss anything we wanted to do, and she goes and accuses me of being anal retentive! The nerve!
At any rate, she has already told you the story of our ride on the train that circles the Magic Kingdom. Which is why I thought she might enjoy this:
A couple of days later we were at Disney MGM studios. I insisted on going to see “The Hunchback of Notre Dame — A Musical Adventure.” It featured a cast of medieval puppets and live actors, acrobats all. It was one of the best things ever presented at Disney World, which of course is why it ended its run back in 2002. Still, it was a great day.
We share a shameful love of television. Two shows that debuted in 1990 remain favorites of ours. Twin Peaks premiered in April; by September this marvelous parody had aired on Saturday Night Live:
The other show, which ran considerably longer, was this one:
And this wonderful little snippet was part of the fifth episode (would you be terribly shocked and disappointed in me if you knew that the joint influence of Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure contributed, at least in part, to my desire to drive cross-country and visit the Pacific Northwest?):
Indigo Bunting is always wrapping herself in the most wonderful music. Sometimes she discovers an old favorite of mine; sometimes she’s opening my eyes to something new. And sometimes I discover that we’ve loved the same songs for years, even though neither of us has mentioned it before.Like this week, when I visited her Amazon wish list and saw an album that I must have played daily back in the 70s:
Or the day I discovered we had both memorized most of the lyrics to this show (here’s the original West Coast cast in a clip from the old Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour):
Lately she’s fallen in love with Nina Simone in a big way. So I think it’s most appropriate to end with this small delight:
Every January I used to host a Super Bowl party. My mother, brothers, and a few friends (mostly lesbians) would be upstairs screaming at the television and having a riotous time; I’d be downstairs in the kitchen refreshing their drinks, making tacos and other party food. I told everyone I was listening to opera so they wouldn’t bother me.
I must now confess that was a lie. I don’t own any opera recordings. Well, I have The Threepenny Opera and Sweeney Todd, neither of which has any dialogue, so I guess it really depends on what your definition of “opera” is. I have been to only one true opera in my life — opening night at the Washington Opera’s production of La Bohème — and that was only because I won free tickets. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but the few operas I’ve watched on television have bored me, and I haven’t made it all the way through.
Which makes it all the odder that I would dedicate an entire day to opera music. I promise you, though, that these won’t be hard to listen to. In fact, they’re now such mainstream pieces that you’ll probably be bored to hear them again. But at least one of them will be a fun surprise.
La Wally is a four-act opera written by Alfredo Catalani in 1892. The opera is best known for its aria “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana,” sung when Wally decides to leave her home forever. It was featured prominently in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s film Diva.
The opera also features one of the most memorable operatic deaths: the heroine throws herself into a passing avalanche.
Louie the Opera Dog likes La Wally too. At least, I think he likes it:
“The Flower Duet” from Léo Delibes’s opera Lakmé is best known for its use in British Airways commercials and in such shows as The L Word, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, The Hunger, and (ahem) Lara Croft Tomb Raider.The story is set in the late nineteenth century British Raj in India, when many Hindus have been forced by the British to practice their religion in secret. Like many other French operas of the late 19th century, Lakmé captures the ambience of the East that was in vogue during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Its complex melodies are Delibes’ signature.
The famous part starts about 1:20 into the video.
“Nessun Dorma” is an aria from the final act of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot. (“Turandot” is a Persian word meaning “the daughter of Turan,” a region of Central Asia that used to be part of the Persian Empire.) The story of Turandot was taken from the Persian collection of stories called The Book of One Thousand and One Days, not to be confused with its sister work The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.
A mysterious and handsome prince appears in the kingdom. The emotionally distant Princess Turandot has proclaimed that everyone in her kingdom will go without sleep that night unless she learns the name of this unknown prince. He in turn challenges her that, if his name cannot be discovered by morning, the Princess will marry him. “Nessun Dorma,” which means “None Shall Sleep,” is a boast that their efforts to discover his name will be in vain.
It was the signature aria of the Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti and was sung at his final performance, the finale of the Opening Ceremony of the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics. The largest curtain ever built was opened to reveal him on the stage, wearing a black cape embroidered with silver Olympic rings. The aria ends with the victorious line, “At dawn, I shall win!” The tenor’s performance received the longest and loudest ovation of the evening.
Here’s Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” in Paris in 1998:
Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) is an 1863 opera in three acts by Georges Bizet. While not nearly as popular as his more famous Carmen, it contains a wealth of attractive music and has found some popularity despite its exotic libretto. The tenor-baritone duet “Au Fond du Temple Saint” is the most famous piece from the opera; in a poll in which Australians voted for “the one moment in opera they could not live without,” it was at the top of the list.
The scene is the coast of Ceylon. Zurga, the newly elected leader of the little world of Cingalese fishermen, has scarcely been inaugurated when Nadir, a long-lost friend of his youth, appears. After greeting one another with affection, the two men sing rapturously about falling in love at first sight with a beautiful priestess of Brahman as she was revealed to them for an instant in the dim, incense-clouded temple. For each it was an almost mystical experience.
Once again, the best part starts about 1:40 into the vid:
One last treat: the only Bugs Bunny short in the National Film Registry. It’s “What’s Opera, Doc?” — master animator Chuck Jones‘s tribute to Wagnerian opera in the context of a classic Bugs-Elmer conflict. In 1994, the piece was voted #1 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time by 1000 members of the animation field.
We’re down to our last five posts. Today and tomorrow will be some classical favorites; then a couple of surprises just for Indigo; and two exquisite days of Broadway (Sondheim and Bernstein).
The four beauties I’ve chosen for today are related only in their extraordinary lyricism. I’ve arranged them chronologically.
French composer Gabriel Fauré’s “Pavane in F-sharp minor” was written in 1887 for orchestra (chorus optional). Obtaining its rhythm from the slow processional Spanish court dance of the same name, the Pavane ebbs and flows from a series of harmonic and melodic climaxes, conjuring a cool, somewhat haunting, Belle Époque elegance. The piece is scored for only modest orchestral forces consisting of strings and one pair each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns, but it is found in many different arrangements (for piano, for guitar, for woodwinds, etc.)
When Fauré began work on the Pavane, he envisioned a purely orchestral work to be played at a series of light summer concerts. After Fauré opted to dedicate the work to his patron, Countess Élisabeth Greffulhe, he felt compelled to stage a grander affair and added an invisible chorus to accompany the orchestra (with additional allowance for dancers).
A “straight” version from the Berlin Philharmonic:
A fun and interesting take on it from Jethro Tull:
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” was published in 1912 and was the last of his Fourteen Songs. Written for voice (soprano or tenor) with piano accompaniment, it contains no words, and is usually sung entirely to the vowel “ah.”
The popularity of “Vocalise” is so great that it has been arranged for many different instrument combinations: orchestra; solo soprano with orchestral accompaniment; choir and orchestra; solo piano; two pianos; solo violin and piano; solo cello and piano; solo double-bass and piano; solo flute and orchestra; saxophone; trumpet; trombone and piano; electronic instruments; theremin; clarinet, violin, and piano; and solo accordion.
Here is famed lyric soprano Renée Fleming performing “Vocalise” (such a shame that the video is just a series of slides instead of a filmed performance):
Another “ah” song. The Bachianas Brasileiras are nine suites by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, written for various combinations of instruments and voices between 1930 and 1945. Each represents a fusion between Brazilian folk and popular music and the style of Johann Sebastian Bach. Most of the movements in each suite have two titles: one “Bachian” (Prelúdio, Fuga, etc.), the other Brazilian (Embolada, O Canto da Nossa Terra, etc.). His most famous of these is No. 5 for soprano and 8 cellos (1938/45), the Aria / Cantilena (or “little song”).
Here are Amel Brahim-Djelloul (soprano), Gautier Capuçon (cello), and the Orchestre du Violon sur le Sable conducted by Jerome Pillement:
Finally, American composer Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” his most popular piece, began as part of his String Quartet No. 1, Op. 11, composed in 1936. In January 1938, Barber sent the piece to Arturo Toscanini. The conductor returned the score without comment, and Barber was annoyed and avoided the conductor. Later Toscanini sent word through a friend that he was planning to perform the piece and had returned it simply because he had already memorized it. Toscanini premiered the work later that year in New York. Barber also did a vocal setting of the piece, which he called “Agnus Dei.”
In 2004, Barber’s masterpiece was voted the “saddest classical” work ever written by listeners of the BBC’s Today programme, ahead of “Dido’s Lament” from Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell and the “Adagietto” from Gustav Mahler’s 5th symphony. It is frequently played on television during times of national tragedy; it has, for example, become associated with the 9/11 attacks and the aftermath of Katrina. It can also be heard in films such as Platoon, The Elephant Man, El Norte, Amélie, Lorenzo’s Oil, and Reconstruction. Because of this it is used in several episodes of The Simpsons in scenes lampooning sadness and destruction (“Strong Arms of the Ma” and “Marge Gamer”).
I like it anyway.
I didn’t care for any of the videos, so here is the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, performing the “Agnus Dei” setting to film clips and animations of various nebulas and comets and such: