Schoenberg flourished in the rich soil of Vienna at the turn of the 20th century…a loam full of nutrients such as Freud, Mahler, Schnitzler, but also deeply laced with the toxic wastes of anti-Semitism, virulent nationalism, and rabid conservatism. Surrounded by artists such as Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Oskar Kokoschka, the young composer even seriously considered a career as a painter. This aspect of a protean talent (he was also a renowned teacher, critic, and an important writer on music theory) opens new and revelatory insights into the complexities of this iconic creator.
Among Leonard Bernstein's many (many...so many!...too many?) personas—classical composer (of symphonies, ballets, and operas), Broadway composer (of mighty hits and legendary flops), performer, educator, author, spokesperson for sexual freedom, political activist, media star, gossip column fodder, “Wunderkind of the Western World"—conductor was but one, although central to the very complicated picture of this complex and controversial man. The essential quality of his conducting—and its reception—was equally complex and controversial. Was he a genius? Charlatan? Visionary? Flamboyant poseur? Let's explore some videos and decide for ourselves.
1952: All might have seemed well, even as the Korean War escalated. In February the US bombed North Korean hydro-electric plants. Truman continued as president but the beloved daddy-figure Eisenhower was elected in November. 1952 saw the opening of the first Holiday Inn, the firstMAD lo-cal soft drink, the first Kentucky Fried Chicken eatery, the first "Don't Walk" sign (in NYC naturally), the first Mad magazine, the first roll-on deodorant, and the first regularly scheduled jet flight (from London to Johannesburg).
Perhaps it time to play another round of the activity I like to call “The Game of Dates,” or “The Terrors and Pleasures of Chronology,” or maybe “Serendipitous Synchronicity.” So, to begin… The Threepenny Opera had its first performance in Berlin on the 31st of August 1928—let’s explore what else occurred that year. Yes, (and it is sometimes hard to believe ) all of the following events happened in that year—and this is just my personal choice of highlights! Random concurrence? Misleading coincidence? Meaningful juxtaposition? Cosmic joke?
As one fishes in the sometimes murky, sometimes surprisingly lucid backwaters and hidden streams of YouTube, one can hook some very odd items. We have looked at and listened to some relatively straightforward renditions of the insidiously persuasive strains of “Mackie Messer,” or “Mack the Knife.” Here are some others. It is always interesting when listening to the seductive melody and its application in a myriad of contexts to remember what this brutal and cruel song is really about: murder, arson, rape …
Although a last-minute addition to the original production in 1928, “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” has gone on to become its biggest hit. Someone has claimed it as the greatest show number ever--well, perhaps...its afterlife and reverberations have indeed been extraordinary. We sample some items here. But first, let’s put it in a proper cultural context...
"Brecht hated opera”—a bit simplistic and overstated, granted, but perhaps not entirely inappropriate for dealing with the polemical, articulate, and highly opinionated mind and beliefs of this protean playwright, poet, composer, director, actor, producer, designer, performer, and theoretician. Certainly Brecht despised opera productions and audiences of his day as the complacent, corrupt, corrupting, and falsely “artistic” manifestation of an elitist, greedy, capitalistic society. He wrote, “We see entire rows of human beings transported into a peculiar state of intoxication, wholly passive, self-absorbed, and according to all appearances, doped.” But upon further examination, the situation becomes more ambiguous.
Of the Beaumarchais Figaro trilogy of plays, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro live on both in their own right and through the operas that mark cornerstones of the repertory, while the third play, The Guilty Mother, has provided the foundation for a fascinating, challenging 20th-century work. The enduring character of the wily Figaro, and the other personalities drawn into his orbit by Beaumarchais, have appealed to numerous composers beyond the untouchable Rossini and Mozart. Yet in those two supreme musical examples, the works largely retain their original qualities of wit, spirit and humanity, attesting to their dramaturgical strength and continual theatricality.
Neoclassicism in music was an important and striking 20th-century trend…and Stravinsky has often been portrayed as its most eloquent proponent and The Rake’s Progress as its culmination.
"Boston Globe: Did the Star-Spangled Banner land Stravinsky in jail?" An irresistible headline, a famous photograph…but it may all be just a kind of urban legend, “fake news” before its time. The real story is rather more complex and interesting.