A belated Merry Christmas to our readers! We regret the deathlike calm that has fallen over this blog lately – we’ve both been very busy associating with immediate family, consuming large amounts of food, and studying for exams.
For me, it’s mostly been the exam-thing, actually. I’ve had it up to here (*holds hand under chin*) with the library’s reading halls and the stack of books on medieval poetry I’ve got stacked next to me every day, looming over me like a vicious prison watch tower, and still there’s a long way to go before I’m done. But I’d like to take this moment off to ask you all if any of you ever noticed the subliminal message in the last line “e di pensier'” from Rigoletto-aria “La Donna è mobile”?
Me neither, but that’s why we are so lucky that there are shrewd people like Joel Veitch out there. Because, as Joel Veitch (creator of the website www.rathergood.com) has discovered: the aria is not, as we’ve all been kidding ourselves, about fickle women. It’s about elephants!! Click the link and unveil the mystery, but be careful – the aria may never sound the same to you again.
He looks so innocent – but is he secretly subjecting us to elephantidae promotion? Joel Veitch thinks so.
My December has not been hectic at all. I have had plenty of time to do my gift shopping, I have been in Rome, I have studied (but not too much), I have worked (but not too much), I have been to the opera a couple of times, yesterday I went to Händel’s Messiah, I have baked a few cookies, and now we have passed the darkest day of the year and I am relaxed and ready for the holidays. They will be quite (/too?) filled with family encounters every day until the 29th. And cat encounters! I don’t know how it happened but suddenly four (4) cats are supposed to spend Christmas at my parents’ place. And I’m feeding the neighbour’s big grey cat too. We’ve become cat-people!! Argh!!
But what I really wanted to share with you is my Christmas music. The piece I listen to more than anything in December is Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. It is a collection of carols for boys’ choir and harp.
It begins with a procession, very simple, the choir in unison without accompaniment. The voices can be heard from afar and as they approach they become stronger. This reminds me of when I was a little girl in first grade. On the morning of the 13th of December when the sun was not yet up the whole school was gathered in the assembly hall. The lights were turned off and when all had gone silent we could faintly hear the voices of the the Lucia procession approaching slowly while singing and then appearing in their white gowns and with their lit candles. That was one of the most magical experiences of my childhood and being reminded by Benjamin Britten is beautiful.
After the opening Procession the music breaks into the more dramatic and complex Wolcum Yole! which is pure rejoicing. Then follows three quiet carols with an exquisite pureness and wintriness. It includes a ode to Mary, then a description of how she lulls the Child to sleep and then we hear her lullaby. That lullaby is the sweetest and most tender I know. You can listen to the Balulalow here.
O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit,
Prepare thy creddil in my spreit,
And I sall rock thee to my hert,
And never mair from thee depart.
But I sall praise thee evermoir
With sanges sweit unto thy gloir;
The knees of my hert sall I bow,
And sing that richt Balulalow!
I am not the victim of a sudden dyslexia, the text is like that – old and strange. It might actually be easier to understand the lyrics just by listening.
The Ceremony of Carols continues alternating between the quiet almost private songs that gives you a feeling of tender love granting warmth in freezing times (whether it be between mother and child or between God and his children), and the more official hymns of joy where multiple voices are set free in noisily rejoicing.
The suite ends with the Recession just like the Procession, just reversed so that the voices slowly disappear in the distance.
A Ceremony of Carols gives me the most condensed Christmas feeling. It is just beautiful.
I’m so glad Anna is introducing me to all these marvellous Rameau-operas (see here and here). I never even knew Rameau’s name before, which seems almost a crime, considering how incredibly beautiful his music is.
And then these wonderful French Rameau stagings! I am quite in awe. What strikes me the most is the brilliant choreography. I fondly remember the dancing frog-prince in Platée as well as the dancers in the same production, depicting the awkwardness of love through a series of humorous, epic pas-de-deux, and I loved those almost spastically harsh movements of the strained, brutal boreades during their entrance in Les Boreades. I really think that this is a tragically rare thing in modern opera stagings, and I think it is a big problem that the directors neglect to give the choreography sufficient attention. Because choreography is arguably a significant part of an opera! Not all operas, to be sure, but a good deal of the operas that you’ll find on the typical repetoire of an opera house.
Diegetic and Extra-diegetic music
Within dramaturgy one speaks of diegetic and extra-diegetic (or “non-diegetic”) music; the former being music that exists within the scene depicted, and the latter being music that is not part of the narrative sphere. The latter is naturally the most prominent in operas, it is the music that depicts the atmosphere in the scenes and the sentiments of the characters, or, as Anna very beautifully put it recently: It is the breath of the performance. However, as soon as the trumpeters on stage start out with their victory fanfare in Aida, or a distraught Gilda knocks rhythmically on Sparafucile’s door, that’s what you would call diegetic music in an opera, that is, music that takes place within the opera, and that the operatic characters perceive as music.
There is plenty of this to go around in operas, and as Anna and I agree, this diversification on the operatic composers’ parts is a lovely and very subtle exploration of the levels on which music lingers in our consciousness.
Which it why we feel that it is so important that the directors draw attention to this diversification! How, then, to do that? I think the answer is: through choreography. Dancing. Ballet, if you will. As anyone who’s seen Amadeus will know, ballet has always played a great part in operas, and opera composers have been known to purposely write ballet sequences into operas. I believe that choreography is the best way of underlining the music within the music: Because choreography in an opera performance enables us to see characters reacting concretely and physically, with their bodies, to music within the music. And thus I think that it is an artform whose importance is grossly underestimated in many of today’s stagings.
I was reminded of this just this Saturday, as Anna and I attended Don Giovanni at The Royal Theatre. Don Giovanni is an opera in which diegetic music plays an important part: At Masetto and Zerlina’s wedding, we hear three pieces of dancing music playing that is specifically mentioned by the character – menuetto, folia, and allemagna – and the music functions as concrete party music at the wedding. The disastrous turn of events at the wedding (the attempted rape of Zerlina – disastrous for Zerlina for obvious reasons, and for Don G because it is a failed seduction) becomes audible as the diegetic music becomes overpowered by the extra-diegetic music, that is, when Zerlina’s abstract-musical screams break the tempo and the key of the concrete-musical party music, and the menuetto, the folia, and the allemagna are abruptly stopped. What a beautiful point! What a genius Mozart was – this dramatic climax in the first act practically stages itself through his musical depiction of etiquette and courtliness, and then the fatal break-down of etiquette and courtliness that a rape is. Brilliant!
Get thee behind me, Travolta!
…Yet, what does Keith Warner do in his staging of Don Giovanni? He pays absolutely no attention to this brilliantly subtle point. Not only does he neglect to give his singers a proper choreography to work with, leaving them to do an extremely poor immitation of a menuet (two steps to the left, then one step to the right) and improvise various modern-style dancing moves with awkward results, he also completely ignores the fact that the party music comes to and end after Zerlina’s outcries, and lets his characters continue their dancing! For crying out loud…!
And sadly, Warner is not alone when it comes to this dramaturgical error. I’ll venture that lack of attention towards choreographical sensitivity on the director’s part has been the key problem with a lot of the stagings that Anna and I have attended and been less than pleased with. In Faust at the Malmö Opera, the joyous, festive mood, which the ballet music of the first act depicts, was completely lost because the singers had been told to work directly against the bidding of Gounod’s music, dancing in a modern discoteque-style to music that was as far from Saturday Night Fever as it could probably get. At the Danish Opera’s staging of Macbeth last year, banquet-host!Macbeth’s reckless behaviour became less effective, because the strict forms of the banquet had already been broken by the singers uncultivated, unmusical, and loud touching of glasses.
The other way around, the Cesare/Cleopatra “V’adore pupille” scene in Francisco Negrin’s Giulio Cesare is captivating partly because of the careful choreography of the calculatingly seductive Cleopatra’s very appropriate vogue-style port-de-bras, Konwitschny’s Elektra is chillingly effective because of Klytaimnestra’s and Elektra’s brilliantly vicious dances of victory, and Siegfried endears himself to the audience as he moves about the stage rhythmically with the eagerness of a young child and a recorder in his hand, to the warbling of Wagner’s Forest Bird in Kasper Bech Holten’s staging of Siegfried.
So what I’m trying to say here is, make an effort, opera directors! Put some thought into the choreography. And if you feel incapable of doing this yourselves, then hire a choreographer! And if your singers have absolutely no sense of rhythm and resemble sacks of potatoes on a dancefloor, then hire dancers! But give us something in terms of choreography.
I have earlier expressed how much I like the French composer Rameau. I am working my way through the Parisian opera houses’ wonderful dvd productions which all have a certain colourfulness to their scenographies and choreographies even though they are not by the same directors, scenographers or choreographers. My latest amusement is Les Indes galantes from 1735 in a staging from Opéra Garnier, 2003 conducted by William Christie.
I don’t want to elaborate too much, I will just let you see a marvellous snatch from the last part of the opera: Les Sauvages (The Savages) which takes place in North America. First the buffalos’ dance and then the native princess Zima (absolutely eatable Patricia Petibon) dancing and singing with her lover Adario (less eatable Nicolas Rivenq. He is after all clad in red leather with extralong fringes…).
I love this! I love the drummer, I love the mouths of the buffalos, I love the pipes, I love the movements and the expressions of the performers. This is so funny and at the same time so beautiful.
Here is an encore of the same piece now with the conductor dancing on stage!
I think it is beautiful and it makes me feel a certain tenderness for William Christie. Perhaps also because he resembles a friend of mine…or what my friend will look like in 30 years.
Such good vibes!
p.s. I know the quality could be better – sorry about that…
p.p.s Just saw Marie Antoinette the other day – how wonderfully filled with Rameau’s music! I’m definitely going rococo too – come on – join me. Pink silk shoes and light blue hair ribbons for every one. And cakes, lots of cakes! With icing!
And the story continues! Ham-boy Alagna, not satisfied with being sacked by La Scala went there on Thursday to sing. Since he wasn’t welcome he went to the front of the opera house and did a little improvised concert to the marvelled by passers. Then he took a photo of the opera with his cell phone as a souvenir since he didn’t expect to be back very soon.
Yesterday he revealed that he suffers from low blood sugar and that was why he had to leave the stage.
“I was fine when I started, but this problem with my metabolism, if I am very emotional or stressed, my system consumes sugars very quickly. After that happened to me, the sugars went down dramatically. I couldn’t stay on my feet, I had to sit. I didn’t have the strength.”
I know I can be quite jumpy and childish when my blood sugar is down, so I am totally with him on this one. That and the stone hazard and the possible analogies with the murder of John Lennon he mentioned earlier.
Ham-boy is now faced with a lawsuit from Decca who were to film the production for a dvd and with an enormous hotel bill which La Scala refuses to pay.
I found a video of the booing. Apart from marvellously childish Ham-boy I think the entrance of the understudy Palombi is almost romantic. Look at Amneris’s face when he enters. That’s true love!
I also found a rather amusing and interesting article on Bonny & Clyde a.k.a. Gheorghiu & Alagna. The author calls booing at La Scala an occurrence as predictable in Milan as rain in Manchester.
Very drunk guy: I know you.
Girl: Sure? I don’t remember you… Where do you know me from?
Very drunk guy: That course. We took that course together.
Girl: Which one? I really don’t remember you, sorry.
Very drunk guy: With Ragni.
Girl: Oh, yes you’re right. Ragni’s class, the one about the 19th century? Yes, now I think I remember you!
Very drunk guy: Exactly. And then the romantic stuff.
Girl: She did a course on romanticism? That sounds plausible. I didn’t take that course though.
Very drunk guy: No, no. The romance. We had a little romance you and I, I think. And that was so much more interesting.
Girl: *laughing* Now I am sure you are thinking about some one else. I can assure you the two of us never had a romance!
There is one Christmas tale I have to read every year. In Denmark it is famous and as such I am not very original in my choice of “literary piece of the month”. However…I feel very strongly about it.
It is Peter’s Christmas (Peters Jul) by Johan Krohn, a children’s book in verse from 1866, a story from the old Copenhagen.
We follow little Peter and his family from the Christmas preparations until after New Year. From the hushed voices in the corridors and quickly hidden Christmas ornaments, to the baking of cookies and ordering of candles, red ribbons and prunes. From the goose to the cakes and the making of presents.
The book opens with these famous phrases:
I am so happy at this time.
Now yuletide snow is falling white.
And so Christmas is on its way.
Then comes Christmas Eve!
This night we hardly slept for joy
and the day has been so long.
In the afternoon Granny tells the impatient children a Christmas tale about Old (Father) Christmas who will visit every family. Where the children have behaved the true Christmas atmosphere will warm up everyone. Where they have misbehaved he will leave quickly, the candles in the tree will not burn well and Christmas spirit will never shine in that home.
And then finally – the tree! Decorated with sugar figurines, figs, apples, chocolate frogs, candy pigs, and, and, and.
Then they sing and all is wonderful.
After Christmas Eve the children play with their presents and get visited by the poor Rasmus who gets presents too and baked apples.
On the 6th of January Christmas ends. This is where my mother always cries a bit when she reads it aloud.
And Christmas ended –
The children found their books again
and went happy to school.
There they didn’t think about Christmas but
when they returned home
they played with their presents.
And even worse the last sentence regarding the Christmas tree when it is thrown out:
It was dead for sure,
but even then it was as if an old friend
left them for the last time.
The book has been illustrated various times. The first edition carried Pietro Krohn’s illustrations that I think are the most authentic – I know them in a beautifully coloured version.
In 1942 the book was re-illustrated with entirely different pictures by Herluf Jensenius which my mom and her generation prefers. They perhaps carry more artistic value, but still I cling to the old ones.
A new edition came a couple of years ago, but those illustrations were definitely too sweet.
Peter’s Christmas gives a romantic and ideal image of old Danish Yule, but after all it is not that far from my own Christmas and it is wonderful to read aloud or listen to. I am sentimental about it, but hey – it’s Christmas – why not be sentimental?!
Woman at dinner party: What I find most interesting about our Prime Minister is the double life he’s leading.
Other guests: What?! What double life? Tell, tell!
Woman: Well, you know he has his wife parked in the northern suburbs and then he has this flat in the city with his boyfriend. He spends most of his time there.
Other guests: No! *laughing*
Guest #1: Must be kind of tough for his wife. I met her last month…maybe I should have asked: Anne Mette…how are you? Is it tough? Can you make ends meet with two households?
Guest #2: But isn’t it just an old tale? Like with the Prince Consort.
Woman: Well, that is a known fact. I wonder whether the Queen is a homosexual too – hmmm there were rumours about this actress…or maybe she just sublimates all that in her ‘artistic’ production.
Guest #3: Oh, but I thought it was their son, prince Joakim who was gay…
Woman: Oh, no… Or well… He’s more into small boys actually.
Other guests: No, no stop!!! Where do you get these stories?!
Dinner Party, Copenhagen
Growing up, I used to have innocent little rows with my father about music. The setting would usually be as follows: I would be listening over and over to some piece of music that I’d found at the public library, say, “Solveig’s song” by Grieg or Chopin’s waltz in A-minor, and then my father would get tired of this monomania on my part and say “Geez, Marie, don’t you think that piece is a little contrived?”, and then I’d throw a hissy-fit and yell at him, stating that unlike somebody I wasn’t old and had lived for, like, a million years, and thus pieces of music that may be contrived to him had yet to become so to me.
Well, I still think I had a point, actually. Just because you’re not the first person ever to get excited about a piece of music, it doesn’t make your excitement any less valid. Which is why I will now be reviewing an album that has a few years on its back. You see, yesterday I went to see my old friend, the Public Library, and brought home Johnny Cash’s American Recordings IV, the fourth of the legendary albums he did for Lost Highway Records, and the last Johnny Cash-album to be released while John was still alive.
And what a great album it is! As my little anecdote above will show, I’m really more of a classical-music kind of girl than anything else, and my I don’t know as much about rock music as I’d like to, but surely Cash’s American Recordings must be some of the best rock albums of the past few decades? Or is it just my strong-lived Johnny Cash fandom talking?
It’s great in any case. The album is opened very effectively with an original Johnny Cash composition “When the man comes around”, an eerie apocalyptic tale, obviously inspired by St. John’s revelation. Cash’s innovation as a musician is startling in this song; a steady country-like beat dominates the stanzas, but Cash’s baritone’s thunders over the bars more like a preacher’s or prophet’s ominous voice than a harmless lonesome cowboy’s, and the stanzas explode into a pompous chorus with an irregularity that keeps the listener constantly on his toes. A remarkable musical presentation of the idea of Godly splendour and sovereignity.
This explosion turns into implosion in the album’s next track, namely the introvert testimony “Hurt”, a brilliant cover version of a Nine Inch Nails number. Cash’s piano chords are hammering away in this song and threatening to overpower his raw and tortured-ringing voice, and underlining the theme of self-destruction found in the lyrics. If you haven’t seen Cash’s video for this song yet, you definitely should. It serves as a sorrowful depiction of the dark sides of Cash’s life, and Cash’s prematurely aged and expressionable face tells a story in itself. This is a cover number at its best.
As is “Personal Jesus”, the sixth song on the album. There is something so amazing about Cash doing a cover version of a Depeche Mode song. Indeed I cannot imagine anyone being more different from metrosexual, synthesizing Depeche Mode than the Southern drawling Cash, with his sideburns, and guitar strings. And yet, “Personal Jesus” becomes more than a musical freak show, a strange hybrid of genre and male role models; it works really well in Cash’s interpretation. With the musical arrangement of a 50’s rock band (piano and bass), Depeche Mode’s cynical urban sound is lost, but it is replaced by a truly interesting rawness and authenticity in this post-modern, auto-religious hymn, and Cash makes great use, once again, of his booming baritone.
Sadly, not all the album’s cover versions are equally successful. I think I just have to acknowledge the fact that, despite my infinite love for the Man in Black, he and I didn’t really have the same taste in a few things. For instance, what is up with “Give my love to Rose”?? Cash has recorded this song numerous times, and I seriously cannot find any redeeming qualities about it. The tune is predictable, the rhythm is dull, and the lyrics are disgustingly sappy, if you ask me. And I never was much of a fan of John Lennon’s trivial little piece of nostalgia “In my life”, which is also among the album’s cover numbers, and Cash doesn’t seem to be able to bring life into neither this song, nor the Simon and Garfunkel song “Bridge over Troubled Water”.
No, I like Johnny Cash a lot better when he’s exploring the lone rider’s and the desperado’s solitary path, and luckily there’s plenty of that on the album, too. Cash does a amazing duet with Nick Cave on the folk song “I’m so lonesome I could cry” (and the lyrics are lovely! “Did you ever see a robin cry/when the leaves begin to die?/It means he’s lost his will to live/I’m so lonesome I could cry”). Cave’s and Cash’s voices work well together, almost forming a kind of vocal symbiosis at times, and there is something so right about these two artists being united. Why wasn’t this partnership taken further? I would have loved to have had Cash sing along on “Murder Ballads”! Oh, well. Spilled milk and all that.
Cash’s cover version of “Desperado” is equally successful, and “Streets of Laredo” is one of the prettiest country tunes I’ve heard – almost like a Bellman song! – and, while thematically a lot like “Give my love to Rose”, a lot less sappy and with a genuinely beautiful imagery: “Then beat the drum slowly, play the Fife lowly./Play the dead march as you carry me along./Take me to the green valley, lay the sod o’er me”.
The album’s best desperado-themed song is probably the extremely aggressive, yet absolutely delightful “Sam Hall”! Sam Hall is closely related to earlier Cash characters such as the fatefully sniffin’ Willy Lee of “Cocaine Blues” and the Boy Named Sue, and he is a wonderfully sardonic acquaintance: “My name it is Sam Hall/and I hate you one and all!” Each stanza ends with the angry outburst “Damn your [/his] eyes!” which doesn’t rhyme with anything (and that’s quite an accomplishment, considering how many “lies” and “dice” and “lice” there are going around in the wild west!) – it’s the kind of unadjusted and unreasonable rage you find in a toddler stomping his foot on the floor, worked into music.
But my personal favourite on this album, and the biggest surprise, was Cash’s interpretation of the 50s ballad “The first time ever I saw your face”. More than being a song for describing the love for a specific person, I would say that the song depicts the power of love, or, rather the universal power that is love. There are no ruby lips or rosy cheeks in this song or any other such trivialities, it’s bigger than that; the imagery tells us of “the moon and the stars” and “the earth” and “the end of time”, and Cash does great justice to this universality. He’s restricted the pace to a pensive lento, and his – say it with me now – booming baritone sounds so vulnerable and with such an expression of awe and wonder. I almost cried the first time I heard it, and for the first time in my life I almost dreamt of having a big, gross, over-the-top wedding, just so that song could be sung at the reception. And that says a lot. A song of pure beauty, that’s what it is, and probably the most beautiful rock ballad I have ever heard.
All in all, American Recordings IV “When the man comes around” is a remarkable Johnny Cash-album. I’ve heard it described as the most uneven of the American Recordings, and I can see how one might call it that, but the good tracks on this albums are so incredibly good that it makes it all worth it, it’s like you almost need it when a less inspired track like “In my life” comes along, just to keep your feet on the ground.
I’ve just picked up American Recordings III “Solitary Man” at the library today – can’t wait to get started with it! I’m sure my neighbours, who are probably getting a little tired of both “Personal Jesus” and my repeat-button, will appreciate it, too…
English teacher: In this poem, D. H. Lawrence makes use of the literary character of the snake, and he is quite obviously making references to the snake that we encounter so early as in the story of Adam and Eve, which we find in… which book? Which book, Sophie?
Student: I don’t know.
English teacher: Oh, sure you do, Sophie, come on now. The story of Adam and Eve? Which book?
Student: (panicking) I don’t know! Pick someone else!
– Virum high school, Virum, North of Copenhagen