Overture and Venusberg Music from Tannhäuser
Work composed: 1845, rev. 1861
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: March 31, 2008; Juanjo Mena, conductor
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, castanets, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, and strings.
Estimated duration: 24 minutes
Richard Wagner’s reshaping of opera as music drama included that often-overlooked component of every opera: the overture. In 1841, he published an article tracing the overture’s history and development. Wagner wrote that the perfect overture would contain “the drama’s leading thought delineated in a purely musical, but not in a dramatic shape,” and went on to assert that it “should form a musical artwork entire in itself.” In his overture to Tannhäuser, Wagner came close to realizing this goal. Tannhäuser centers on the internal war waged by its title character, who struggles with his desire for sacred, perfect love represented by the devout Elisabeth, and the profane erotic love of the goddess Venus. Two contrasting themes dominate the overture: the solemn hymn of pilgrims (sacred love), intoned by the winds and brasses, and the wild debauchery of Venus, signaled by a sumptuous sweep of violins and bright flashes from the winds. The Venusberg music eventually devolves into a Bacchanalian maelstrom of erotic frenzy. Before the Overture concludes, the pilgrim hymn sounds again as a triumphant shout, accompanied by swirling violins.
Fans of classic Warner Brothers cartoons will recognize the pilgrim hymn from the 1957 Bugs Bunny parody, “What’s Opera, Doc?”
Partita for 8 Voices
Work composed: 2009–11, in collaboration with Roomful of Teeth
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: 2 sopranos, 2 altos, 1 tenor, 1 baritone, 1 bass-baritone, and 1 bass
Estimated duration: 24 minutes
“Partita is a simple piece. Born of a love of surface and structure, of the human voice, of dancing and tired ligaments, of music, and of our basic desire to draw a line from one point to another.” –Caroline Shaw
Composer, violinist, vocalist, and producer Caroline Shaw became the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013 when she won for her Partita for 8 Voices. Her recent commissions include new works for Renée Fleming with Inon Barnatan, Dawn Upshaw with Sō Percussion and Gil Kalish, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with John Lithgow, the Dover Quartet, the Calidore Quartet, Brooklyn Rider, and the Baltimore Symphony, among others.
“Each movement takes a cue from the traditional Baroque suite in initial meter and tone, but the familiar historic framework is soon stretched and broken through speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies, and novel vocal effects,” Shaw wrote in her program notes. “Roomful of Teeth’s utterly unique approach to singing and vocal timbre originally helped to inspire and shape the work during its creation, and the ensemble continues to refine and reconsider the colors and small details with every performance.
“Allemande opens with the organized chaos of square dance calls overlapping with technical wall drawing directions of the artist Sol LeWitt, suddenly congealing into a bright, angular tune that never keeps its feet on the ground for very long. There are allusions to the movement’s intended simulation of motion and space in the short phrases of text throughout, which are sometimes sung and sometimes embedded as spoken texture. Sarabande’s quiet restraint in the beginning is punctured in the middle by an ecstatic, belted melody that resolves quietly at the end, followed soon after by the Inuit-inspired hocketed (syncopated) breaths of Courante. A wordless quotation of the American folk hymn ‘Shining Shore’ appears at first as a musical non sequitur but later recombines with the rhythmic breaths as this longest movement is propelled to its final gasp.
“Passacaglia is a set of variations on a repeated chord progression, first experimenting simply with vowel timbre, then expanding into a fuller texture with the return of the Sol LeWitt text. At Passacaglia’s premiere in 2009, there was spontaneous applause and cheering at the explosive return of the D-major chord near the end – so feel free to holler or clap any time if you feel like it.
“Of the premiere of Partita, New York magazine wrote that I had ‘discovered a lode of the rarest commodity in contemporary music: joy.’ And it is with joy that this piece is meant to be received in years to come.”
Work composed: 1968–69
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: 8 amplified singers, piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, alto and tenor saxophones, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, orchestra bells, three tam-tams (high, medium, low), snare drum, bongos, marimba, sizzle cymbal, bass drum, tambourine, three wood blocks, frusta (slapstick or whip), guïro, sleigh bells, two triangles, vibraphone, cymbals, castanets, harp, piano, electric harpsichord, electric organ, and strings
Estimated duration: 35 minutes
“It is the tendency towards reunion that justifies the tendency to many-sidedness.” –Luciano Berio
The British music journalist Tom Service, in a 2012 column for The Guardian, described Luciano Berio’s methodology for writing music as: “[tackling] the immanent historicism of every note played on every instrument he wrote for, and for whom each new piece wasn't so much a sallying forth into oceans of new musical possibility so much as a writing on, over, and with the music of the past, whether his own or of other composers.” Berio’s collage approach to sound, and the wide-ranging scope of his intellectual and artistic interests, are captured in his most famous work, Sinfonia. Written in 1968-69 on commission from the New York Philharmonic to celebrate the orchestra’s 125th anniversary (and dedicated to Leonard Bernstein), Sinfonia layers spoken word quotations from the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and Irish writer Samuel Beckett with fragments of spoken syllables; musical quotations from Mahler, Strauss, Schönberg, Debussy, and others; 1960s avant-garde musical language; and the strategic use of dynamics and silence.
Award-winning multimedia Portland artist Rose Bond was intrigued by Berio’s sound collage, but understood her animations had to move beyond a visual representation. Bond, who has described her role in Sinfonia as that of “a dance partner,” says her animation brings as an additional component – movement – to the live concert experience. “Your mind dances back and forth between the audio and the music,” Bond explains, “Certain words and phrases start taking over your mind, and then the visual becomes the dominant experience.” Members of the audience will find themselves fading in and out of these different components: symphonic music paired with shocking, sometimes funny narration, and Bond’s immersive, kinetic animation.
“What I’m adding at this point with the visuals is not just the experience of sounding and seeing together,” Bond explains. Her animation moves. It pulses, dances, breaks apart and re-forms in a kaleidoscopic, kinetic way. The images shift, evolve, and transform before our eyes.
The visual depiction of a non-linear work like Sinfonia creates certain challenges at the outset. “Most people, when you say visual meaning, they expect a narrative, like a movie with a plot” Bond explains. “Music appeals on a much more abstract or suggestive or emotive level, and I think moving images can do that too. What Berio did was bring together seemingly unconnected quotations of music and literature in this piece. There are direct passages from [French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’ book] “The Raw and the Cooked,” Samuel Beckett’s “The Unnamable,” and the Scherzo from Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony; it’s a big jambalaya. I think today we would call that sampling. My approach to Sinfonia is to respect that form.”
On first hearing, Sinfonia might sound arbitrary or self-consciously “modern.” Berio himself, in his own program notes for Sinfonia’s premiere, offered listeners a guide for experiencing the music: “The title is not meant to suggest any analogy with the classical symphonic form,” Berio wrote. “It is intended purely etymologically: the simultaneous sound of various parts, here eight voices and instruments. Or it may be taken in a more general sense as the interplay of a variety of things, situations, and meanings. Indeed, the musical development of Sinfonia is constantly and strongly conditioned by the search for balance, even identity between voices and instruments; between the spoken or the sung word and the sound structure as a whole. This is why the perception and intelligibility of the text are never taken as read, but on the contrary are integrally related to the composition. Thus, the various degrees of intelligibility of the text, along with the hearer’s experience of almost failing to understand, must be seen as essential to the very nature of the musical process.”
The first movement features fragments of quotations from Lévi-Strauss’s Le cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked), the first book in the series Mythologiques, which explores Amerindian myths. In 1968, Berio wrote a chamber version of ‘O King’ as a stand-alone memorial to the recently-slain civil rights leader. His second version, for eight voices and orchestra, became the second movement of Sinfonia. The singers sound the individual syllables in “Martin Luther King” out of order, and come together at the end to proclaim King’s name. “I’m using visual sampling to suggest iconic images, especially photos we might remember to sound together with the music and the vocals,” says Bond. “[With regard to] King – Berio was situating that event in the moment of 1968, but also taking note of music of the past. My goal is to take notice of the culmination of visual art forms from the perspective of 2019. To me there’s a kind of time shifting going on. I can’t do just this historic thing. If I’m going to be true to the nature of the piece, I have to be in my present as well.”
As the singers sustain each syllable, Bond animates some of the famous images associated with King’s civil rights protests: the bus station in Montgomery, Alabama; the Freedom Riders; and the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, where King was assassinated. Bond’s images reveal themselves gradually, welling upwards from murky depths until they emerge as the pictures that have come to define King, his death, and his legacy.
The central third movement, anchored by the Scherzo of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony and text from Beckett’s The Unnamable, is both the longest and most emblematic section of Sinfonia. The ambiguous quotations, mostly from Beckett, provide rich opportunities for metaphor and commentary on the chaos of the late 1960s, as well as the fragmented, hyperactive, uncertain nature of our contemporary world: “Where now?” “When now?” “Who now?” “It all boils down to a question of words, I must not forget this, I have not forgotten it. But I must have said this before, since I say it now;” “We need to do something;” “Keep going!” “Stop!” and, most famously, “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
Berio wrote, “The [third movement] is a tribute to Gustav Mahler (whose work seems to carry all the weight of the last two centuries of musical history) and, in particular, to the third movement of his Second Symphony (Resurrection). Mahler bears the same relation to the whole of the music of this part as Beckett does to the text … This movement is treated as a generative source, from which are derived a great number of musical figures ranging from Bach to Schönberg, Brahms to Stravinsky, Berg to Webern, Boulez, Pousseur, myself, and others. The various musical characters, constantly integrated in the flow of Mahler’s discourse, are combined together and transformed as they go.”
In this movement, Bond presents snapshots of particular moments in time: people costumed in the clothes of the French Revolution; protests against fascism from the 1940s; and images of the 1960s, from flower children to people on their daily subway commute to work. The images of protest are symbolic, not tied to a particular event or date; they simply capture and recall the many times people have taken to the streets to fight for human rights. Bond says, “I like that you fade in and out of the different components, transitioning among different experiences. We also take you through a number of emotions: it’s comedic, romantic, angry – it runs the gamut of emotions.”
Berio wrote, “In this way these familiar objects and faces, set in a new perspective, context and light, unexpectedly take on a new meaning. The combination and unification of musical characters that are foreign to each other is probably the main driving force behind this third part of Sinfonia … If I were asked to explain the presence of Mahler’s Scherzo in Sinfonia, the image that would naturally spring to mind would be that of a river running through a constantly changing landscape, disappearing from time to time underground, only to emerge later totally transformed. Its course is at times perfectly apparent, at others hard to perceive, sometimes it takes on a totally recognizable form, at others it is made up of a multitude of tiny details lost in the surrounding forest of musical presences.”
Bond’s visual narrative is both specific and generic. The images she brings to the screen are always open to the viewer’s own interpretation. Bond’s and Berio’s mixture of realism with abstraction allows each member of the audience to create their own interpretation of what the words and images mean.
On a personal note, the first time I heard Sinfonia I was in college, and I was struck by the repetition of Beckett’s exhortation to “Keep going!” in the third movement. At that time, I heard it as a metaphor for the United States’ catastrophic foreign policy decisions regarding the Viet Nam War. By 1968-69, many people both inside and outside government circles knew the war was not “winnable” in the conventional sense, and yet we continued to fight on – “Keep going!”
The second time I listened to Sinfonia, several decades later, Mahler’s Scherzo wove in and out of the phrases that resonated most with me: Beckett’s humorously nonsensical pronouncements: “Where now?” “When now?” “Who now?” “It all boils down to a question of words, I must not forget this, I have not forgotten it. But I must have said this before, since I say it now.” Again, all apt metaphors, this time for the chaos of our current political situation in America. If you attend all three performances of Sinfonia, you might well come away with three different and equally valid experiences of what you saw and heard. And that, ultimately, is the point.
“Once or twice in a century,” said conductor Semyon Bychkov in a 2018 interview with the New York Times, “somebody will create something that will change our idea of what music can be. Beethoven did it with the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, Wagner did it with ‘Parsifal,’ and Stravinsky did it with ‘Le Sacre du Printemps.’ Luciano’s ‘Sinfonia’ was next.”
© 2020 Elizabeth Schwartz
Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com