Banqueting in the Dark
[Gioachino Rossini’s conversation was said to be as infectiously ebullient as his music. At Severance Hall on May 26, 2011, a “resurrected” Rossini (channeled by Benjamin Dunlap) delivered the following remarks prior to the Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of his own Stabat Mater followed by the world premiere of Jorg Widmann’s Flute en suite, about which Rossini also had much to say. Along with excerpts from the Stabat Mater, his remarks were accompanied by portraits of himself, illustrations of his subject matter, and a photograph of Mr. Widmann.]
Buona sera! And let me assure you first of all how delighted I am to be back among you tonight to share a few thoughts about my Stabat Mater and other aspects of my prodigal life and work, beginning, I suppose, with the matter of my somewhat prodigal appearance—or, at least, how I appeared through other eyes and lens at different stages of a life that ended all too prematurely, when I was a mere 19 years of age!. . . that being a little joke of mine because, as destiny would have it, I made my mortal debut in the coastal city of Pesaro in what you’d call a leap year, on February 29th, and, as of this very moment, anno domini 2011, I am technically no more than 54 years old. . . though, as you may have heard, technique can get you only so far in this world and the next, and, in more conventional terms, I was born in the year the French made that shortsighted decision to abolish their monarchy, 1792, and, alas, I shuffled off this mortal coil in 1868, just two years before my beautiful and impetuous Italia was reunited once and for all. Not a bad run, everything considered—and I was a prodigy by all accounts, even compared to Mozart. . . though, brash as I was, I never ventured such a claim myself.
There, now. You can see the figure I cut as a young and wryly gifted celebrity, chasing up and down the peninsula from city to city and opera house to opera house, cribbing from myself at a prodigious rate and on more than one occasion composing whole new operas from start to finish in a couple of weeks, 13 or 14 days! I was a boy of 16 when my first opera was performed and only 23 when I composed The Barber of Seville, which I think you’ll agree is about as good as a comic opera can be. . . and there were another half-dozen or so to come that aren’t a great deal worse—if you ask the right people, of course, who don’t necessarily include the youthful Wagner or champions of verismo!
Here I am at that famously productive time in my life, looking a little less the rogue and somewhat more the shrewd success I was becoming.
“And then what?” you will ask.
Well, I confess I had at one time planned to retire from that self-consuming lifestyle before the age of 30, which I did not quite manage to do. But I did cash it in less than a decade later at the age of only 37 with some 39 operas to my credit, and a world of money that I had made and socked away, and friends all over as fond of the good life as I, especially in Paris.
And, in short, this is what became of me, as you can see in these photographs, a medium that appeared as my career was winding down, signaling all too clearly an end to much that I had known and taken for granted, including the flattery of portrait painters. Not that I’m complaining or apologizing—I put on weight in the best possible way, and, despite infirmities of flesh and spirit, I enjoyed every bite right up until the end.
But it’s not the end I want to discuss with you this evening—it’s me at 39, two years after my nominal retirement, when, on a trip to Spain, I let myself be persuaded to compose a big non-operatic valediction of sorts: a sacred cantata, based on a 13th-century devotional hymn addressed to the Virgin Mother grieving at the foot of the cross:
Stabat mater dolorosa
Juxta crucem lacrymosa
Dum pendebat Filius.
Or, as you would say in English, “The sorrowing mother stood / Weeping by the cross / Where her son was hanging.” And so on through 20 three-line stanzas emphasizing the horror of that event and the anguish of a mother’s grief until the poet turns instead to himself and his own eventual need for intercession—which is to say, to our own mortality and need for grace.
Others had set it memorably to music, to be sure. But, even aside from the trepidation I felt at vying with Pergolesi, I’m sure you can imagine the inherent challenge for a composer like me as opposed to a poet or painter.
Here, for example, you can see in detail the Flemish painter Rogier Van der Weyden’s representation of that same terrible moment, frozen in time as the sorrowing Virgin collapses, echoing the lines of her dead son’s corpse as it’s taken down from the cross. . . and let me say without prejudice to the northern Europeans among you that, as a rule, you do tend to go a little overboard when it comes to grief and gore. The Vatican and its scholars were, as it happens, not very happy with the notion that the Blessed Virgin as virtual co-intercessor should be seen as so painfully “out of the loop,” as I think you would put it.
|| There was, in fact, no canonical justification for that agonized swoon, a concern that, a century later, seems to have informed the more constrained depiction by Rogier’s compatriot Gerard David, whose Virgin endures a somewhat more decorous crucifixion with considerably more composure, her sorrow matched by a gesture of acceptance. . .
||. . . which is, in fact, more or less precisely how
I tried to set the tone in my Stabat
Mater’s opening section: an
ominous sense of dread, the spiraling pangs of grief leading implacably towards
the hammer-blows of fate, a tragic deed with an eternal consequence—all very
dramatic, but formally contained. You've heard a bit of this already, but here's a more extended excerpt.
Well, I hope you recognized in that fortissimo of winds and strings the chromatically descending scale that some have labeled “the Lament,” echoing Bach’s B minor Mass—a work my good friend Mendelssohn was forever after me to hear. . . and with very good reason too: my grand double-fugue Amen at the end of the work is, shall I say?, sincere hommage to our master, Bach.
But if truth be told, when I set to work I was still recovering from my own mother’s death, a fact that—in addition to a diamond-encrusted snuff-box—did, I suppose, play a part in my decision to undetake such a subject, though in fact more than half my operas had dealt with so-called serious themes and I had, of course, composed cantatas before.
I quickly worked up the section you just heard. Then, skipping over the somewhat drab and predictable lines that follow, I completed sections 5 through 9—whereupon my lumbago acted up, and, to be completely honest, I grew more than a little bored with the project and got a friend to slap together the remaining sections, knowing, as I did, that, after an initial performance in Madrid, it would never be heard again. So imagine my indignation when, after a decade had passed, I learned that a gang of greedy opportunists were planning to publish the work as “Rossini’s latest masterpiece.”
A couple of lawyers later, they agreed to desist, but then, of course, I had to finish the work myself, which, despite all the ailments that beset me, I did in fairly short order, starting back where I had broken off with an aria that was on everybody’s lips for years to come and, ironically enough, became the pretext for a general put-down of my work for much of the following century and a half.
You’ve almost certainly heard the tune before, even if you didn’t know the context or the words, which go like this in English:
Her groaning heart,
Saddened and anguished,
A sword had pierced.
O how sad and afflicted
Was that blessed
Mother of the only begotten;
She grieved and lamented
And trembled as she saw
The suffering of her child.
And here’s the tenor aria I composed as a setting for those words, together with a painting that’s somewhat closer to how I myself saw the Blessed Virgin.
Now, that’s what my friend Théophile Gautier called
“gloriously affirmative music.” As
I used to tell my mother, I was composing like an angel. But that’s been precisely the problem
in the minds of my detractors, who find that music, as they say, wholly
inappropriate for the Mater Dolorosa.
Indeed, they accuse me of addressing the Mother of God as if she were
but a clever ingénue in one of my opera buffa,
the implication being that, though possessed of an irrepressibly lyrical gift,
I was simply unsuited by temperament or skill for a sacred cantata.
way of rebuttal, let me say first of all that I composed the final version of
this work as a genuine statement of faith, as I would afterwards put it to
“Dear God” in the dedication of my Petite
messe solenelle, reminding Him that, “I was born for opera buffa, as you well know. . . with a little science, a little
heart, that’s all.” But as I added
with pride as well as piety, “Be blessed, then, and admit me to paradise.” I meant that request with all my
heart. And what both science and heart
had told me, as I earlier meant to imply, was that it simply would not do for
an hour-long work to repeat the same lugubrious emotion over and over—that, as
opposed to a static picture, it had to have a dramatic shape with contrasting
tempi and orchestration, somber a capella followed by grandiose
declamation, cabaletta/cavatina, the sort of thing I’d always done so well,
even in my earliest religious pieces.
You’d think that was a virtue in any sort of work.
But heaven save us from our
friends! Even one of my admirers
went so far as to suggest, with unintended condescension perhaps, that there’s
a temperamental distinction between the austerity of the north and the
sensuality of the south, as if Italian Catholicism were all marzipan and putti
even on such subjects as the crucifixion.
That was Gautier again. His actual words were “heureux, souriant, presque gai, toujours en
fête,” meaning that our sacred music in general is “happy, smiling, almost
gay, always festive”—to which I might have replied as I did on another occasion,
“Tous les genres sont bons, / Hors le
genre ennuyeux.” All genres
are good / Except the boring one!
But I’ve already had my say about the differences of north and south. Let me just point out that they are often a matter of dogma as well as sensibility.
Have you noticed, for example, how different the Virgin appears in that 18th-century Italian crucifixion that you’ve been looking at by Pompeo Batoni, how calmly acquiescent she appears, how her open-handed gesture seems to represent an implicit acknowledgement that this ghastly tragedy is also, in fact, a fulfillment of prophecy?
And consider the still-more-famous version by the master you know as Raphael, whose Virgin is clearly bearing witness to the consummation of divine intention.
Consider her serene expression—she is, after all, a figure of divinity, as complicit in God’s plan as was her son.
And I succeeded, it would seem—at least in the mind of my friend Heinrich Heine, the great German poet, who once declared, after hearing my Stabat Mater, that the theater itself had seemed to him to become “a vestibule of heaven.”
Be that as it may, the most compelling part of that text for me concerns the hope that each of us might share the Holy Mother’s grief so completely that we too will be strengthened in our faith when we approach our own demise—a hope that culminates in my aria for soprano, soaring as it does, after the fanfare you just heard, in a coloratura that to some is reminiscent of nothing less than Mozart’s Queen of the Night and most certainly suggests—though I point this out in all modesty—the dies irae of Giuseppi Verdi’s Requiem: “Inflammatus et accensus. . .”
Burning with sorrow and love
Let me be defended by you, O Virgin
On the day of judgment.
Just one thing more on the subject of me and my music: I have entitled these remarks of mine “Banqueting in the Dark” because, quite frankly, banqueting is something at which I was at least as expert as I was at composing music. You may have heard the anecdote which I myself put out that I’ve only wept on three occasions. The first was when my earliest opera failed; the second, when on a boating party, a truffled turkey fell into the sea; and the third when I first heard Paganini play. Music and food, you see?
And so a final image that I would like to share with you this evening derives from those who inhabited my native city even before the Romans. I mean the ancient Etruscans, of course, and here I invite you to study more closely one of those serene but enigmatic couples who have spent these many centuries “banqueting in the dark” as I myself have done, I regret to report, for nearly a century and a half now, reflecting from time to time on what those old Etruscan effigies were up to. And, if you’ll forgive a somewhat labored metaphor, here is what I’ve decided: they are listening to music. . . as you yourselves are about to do.
I only hope you too have come to feast.
So, then, enough about you and me! For I am sharing this program tonight with a brilliant young composer, Jorg Widmann, whom I believe some of you already know. And, as you might have heard, I myself have a great fondness for German-speaking composers, having once said, “I take Beethoven twice a week, Haydn four times, Mozart every day.”
Regarding Jorg Widmann, though, it may surprise some of you to learn I have so much room on my menu for music that, on the surface—only on the surface!—might seem so different from mine. And, indeed, it strikes me as a bold decision on somebody’s part to have put my Stabat Mater, frequently criticized for being too jauntily melodious, with the world premiere of Mr. Widmann’s Flûte en suite for flute and Orchestra, for he has been more than once accused of being too cacophonous.
But what I should tell you before you hear it is that this new work, which some might describe as simply a modernist take on a stately baroque dance suite, is also, in fact, in my humble opinion, Herr Widmann’s own orchestral Zauberflőte, his delectable Magic Flute. And, I should add, as in Mozart’s tale of enchantment, his heroic flautist’s persistently melodic efforts create what is in effect, an opera buffa story-line—which to my mind goes something like this: equipped with his flute, an intrepid young musician sets out over perilous sonic terrain to retrieve lyrical beauty. . . from whom but, of course, among several others, the reigning High Priest of music, Johann Sebastian Bach. And he finds it at the end where every flautist should look—in the 7th movement of our great progenitor’s 2nd Orchestral Suite, in its so-called Badinerie or “high-spirited joke”. . . a discovery that occurs in Widmann’s own movement #7, which is also called Badinerie.
Again, you see?, such playfulness and delight, worthy of me at my very best—and there’s even a glockenspiel to underscore the joke as the flautist takes off on Bach’s virtuosic excursions—a dash of Mozart, a dollop of Bach.
But, as with Mozart again, behind all this cleverness there’s deep irony as well. For the Queen of the Night continues to rage in her sinister clamorous way throughout each episode as in the world at large, and Widmann’s task is nothing less than an effort to prove that, if we’re so eager to possess it, somewhere at the heart of confusion is the shining pearl of meaning. . . or, as my own inclination would have it, the truffle in the turkey. Except, and on this I must truly insist, what you’re about to encounter is not a turkey at all, but a treble-toned bird of paradise.
I think back to the opening night of my own Barber of Seville, how full the house was of those who refused to listen, and I’m moved by a strong fellow-feeling for this youthful Jorg Widmann whose premiere occurs tonight nearly 170 years after that of my Stabat Mater—and he is, you know, almost exactly the age I was when I set out on that venturesome work. I ask only this of you, my friends, for my sake and your own: prepare to open your ears. . . for this too is part of the banquet of life.
And, with all its ingenious effects and allusions—including, very briefly, one to me!—I think, like my own cantata, they will still be playing this work in a century and a half.
So be it, say I.