Palestrina and the prattling prelates

Pfitzner’s Palestrina has had some pretty extravagant claims made for it.  Bruno Walter said “The work has all the elements of immortality”.  I’m not so sure.  The music is very appealing but it’s structurally problematic.  It’s ostensibly about Palestrina and the struggle to convince Pius IV that polyphony had a legitimate place in church music but while the first and third acts are just that they frame a second act that’s about the various squabbles at the Council of Trent, of which the question of music was but one.  I think it’s meant to be a satyr on church politics of the time but it feels heavy handed, overly long and introduces a vast number of minor characters.  These are not only confusing but probably make the work unstageable for all but the very richest houses.  There are over 40 named solo parts but only one is a woman (and she’s dead) so major Bechdel fail here too.  I think if one took a chainsaw to Act 2 a pretty decent opera might come out of it because the human story is quite affecting and the music is distinctive and rather good.  Although premiered in 1917 it’s stylistically anti-modern and would likely appeal to a lot of people who are not normally drawn to 20th century opera.

1.borromeo

Continue reading

Weint! Weint! Weint! Weint!

Aribert Reimann’s Lear is a pretty good example of how to create a thoroughly modern opera within a thoroughly traditional framework.  It’s a classic story of course.  Here librettist Claus Henneberg has taken the classic German translationof the Shakespeare play and condensed it in a highly intelligent fashion; retaining all the emotional drama while sacrificing some fairly peripheral narrative.  Reimann’s score is modern though not strictly twelve tone.  He creates a distinct musical voice for each character; speech/Sprechstimme for the Fool, weird coloratura for General etc. This is reinforced by many of the characters having a tone row that serves as a sort of leitmotiv.  Atonality and quarter tones are used for varying effects from the violence of the Blasted Heath scene; apparently inspired by the composer’s experience, as a nine year old, of the bombing of Potsdam, to the shimmering, ethereal quarter tones of Lear’s final monologue.  For anyone with even a vague tolerance for “modern” music it’s a fascinating listen.

1.learcordelia Continue reading