Great Music for Great Words

Program Notes for December 1, 2018 Concert, by Loann Scarpato

An image of the first edition of the King James Bible, 1611

Any list of English-language masterpieces would need to include the King James Bible, the plays of Shakespeare, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

The music on this program was composed to accompany passages, spoken and sung, from these literary Everests.

Paradise Lost, first edition
A portrait of Shakespeare from the First Folio edition of his play

Gerald FINZI (1901-1956): Suite from “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” Opus 28b

Composition of the Suite
This began as incidental music for a 1946 BBC radio broadcast of Shakespeare’s play. Designated Finzi’s Opus 28, it was scored for a studio orchestra of sixteen instruments. Normally a slow and methodical composer, Finzi had only three weeks to execute the commission. He managed to finish it just in time — at 4:00 AM the day before the performance! Its transparent textures and articulation show that the composer was thinking of what would carry well through the studio microphones out onto the air. He composed additional music a few years later for an open-air staged version that needed musical coverage for the play’s many entrances and exits. Later yet he published four songs from the play for solo voices as Opus 28a and the present ten-movement suite for orchestra as Opus 28b. He explicitly expected theater directors to pick and choose from the movements those that best suited their productions.

The First Folio edition of Love’s Labour’s Lost

When Finzi arranged the Suite for concert performance, the need for balance and contrast among the movements overrode the chronology of the play. Still, it’s possible to find the correspondences between musical passages and specific events in the drama. These major characters are personified at different places in the music:

  • Ferdinand, the idealistic King of Navarre, and his lords
  • The sharp-witted Princess of France and her ladies
  • Armado, a “fantastical Spaniard,” a broadly comic figure
  • Moth, Armado’s saucy page
  • Holofernes, a long-winded schoolmaster

The plot of the play
Watch a tongue-in-cheek animated synopsis:

Ferdinand and the men of his court have sworn to abstain from the company of women for three years in order to devote themselves to intellectual pursuits. He’s forgotten that the Princess of France is coming on a diplomatic visit as an emissary of her father, the aged French monarch. When she and her ladies arrive, Ferdinand and his lords fall deliriously in love with them and try to weasel out of their vows. Hypocritical Armado is the worst of all, and his impudent page Moth mocks him at every turn. The ladies are equally infatuated. There follows a typical Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identities, misdirected love letters, overheard soliloquies, a masked ball, and a play-within-a-play, mixing low humor with high-minded, even noble, sentiments. But this comedy ends on an unusually serious note when the Princess is recalled to France by news of her father’s death. On parting, all agree to meet again in a year, if their loves endure. No wedding marches end this comedy, only two minstrel songs as the characters file offstage.

The musical program
No. 1 / “Introduction”: The opening brass fanfare is a flourish to welcome the Princess of France. The noble, gracious music that follows depicts Ferdinand’s court. A twisting, divided cello theme belongs to the “fantastical Spaniard” and troublemaker Armado.

No. 2 / “Moth”: A jaunty solo clarinet theme characterizes Armado’s page Moth, a “strutting, independent small creature.” A melancholy tune for solo viola accompanies a song that Moth sings at the behest of his lovelorn master.

No. 3 / “Nocturne”: This somber music accompanies the news of the death of the French king near the end of the play, so from this point on, the order of movements in the Suite diverges from the succession of events in the play.

No. 4 / “The Hunt” is light and airy music, as if coming mostly from a distance. In the play, the hunt takes place offstage while dialogue continues in the foreground.

No. 5 / “The Dance” is stilted and a bit artificial, in the stately measures of a court ball. The dancers are the masked royals. They mock each other flirtatiously — but they’re all flirting with the wrong people!

No. 6 / The scherzo, “Clowns,” is a quodlibet or medley of themes representing “the pedant, the braggart, the hedge-priest [a poor, itinerant, uneducated clergyman], the fool, and the boy,” characters who stage a play-within-a-play for the entertainment of the royals, somewhat like the play put on by the “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The audience of royals mocks the inept performance. After all the foolery, the movement ends with an unexpectedly soft, serious-sounding chord, which is Holofernes “the pedant” chiding the audience for its discourtesy: “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.” This is the moment in the last act when the mood of the play begins to turn away from farce.

Nos. 7-9 / The three “Soliloquies” are sometimes performed together as a unit without the other movements. Finzi’s original scoring was light enough that actors could speak their lines over the music. The texts are three somewhat overwrought poems that the lovesick noblemen have composed to send secretly to the objects of their affections.

No. 10 / The “Finale” is a rondo, a musical form in which a theme returns several times with contrasting material in between. It depicts the lords disguised as Russians (“frozen Muscovites,” the princess calls them) leaping and whirling and kicking up their heels during the masked ball.

Watch a 1975 BBC production of Love’s Labour’s Lost:

Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809): The Creation

Inspiration Haydn made lengthy stays in London to present subscription concerts in 1791-92 and again in 1794-95. He was in his early 60s in those years and at the height of his powers and fame as a composer. During these visits he heard Handel’s oratorios and was greatly impressed and moved by them, especially Messiah. Reportedly he wept when he heard the “Hallelujah” chorus.

Libretto Haydn wished to write an oratorio of his own and was encouraged in this ambition by his London concert promoter, who gave him an English-language libretto entitled The Creation of the World. This word-book had been meant for Handel, but he had never used it. Its author is unknown, and no copy has survived. The text is based mainly on the first chapters of Genesis and a few Psalms from the King James Bible and on John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, specifically Book VII.

Haydn took the libretto with him when he returned to his home city of Vienna in 1795. He had it translated into German by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a wealthy Imperial functionary and important musical patron. Van Swieten said that he “followed the general outlines of the original piece” but changed many details when he saw fit. Haydn spent all of 1797 and part of 1798 composing The Creation (Die Schöpfung in German). Van Swieten ensured funding for a series of private performances in 1798 and the first public performance in 1799. It was an immediate popular and critical success and has never left the repertoire in 200+ years.

Portrait of Haydn in 1799

Because Haydn wanted his oratorio to be performed in England as well as in Europe, van Swieten presided over the first known instance of a major musical work published with bilingual text. But Haydn’s music had been crafted to fit the rhythms and phrasing of the German, and van Swieten wasn’t up to the job of making the English text fit well with the music. “It is lamentable to see such divine music joined with such miserable broken English,” was the opinion of one early English critic.

To be fair, Milton’s high-flown language already contained enough inverted word order to make it a kind of Yoda-speak, and van Swieten only made it worse. So for more than 200 years English-language singers and audiences have had to put up with such tangled syntax as “The wonder of his work displays the firmament,” instead of the more natural word order “The firmament displays the wonder of his work,” and “Today that is coming speaks it the day, the night that is gone to following night,” lines that might be intelligible in German, where case endings help clarify the grammar, but which are mystifying in English. Several subsequent translations have tried to repair some of the damage, including the 1957 version by Robert Shaw and Alice Parker.

Milton’s plot or “argument”  The archangels Raphael (bass soloist), Uriel (tenor), and Gabriel (soprano) relate how and wherefore this world was first created; that God, after the expelling of Satan and his Angels out of Heaven, declared his pleasure to create another world, and other creatures to dwell therein…; perform[ed] the work of Creation in six days: the Angels [the rank-and-file heavenly host, i.e., the chorus] celebrate with hymns the performance thereof….

The general narrative pattern is that for each day of Creation, the relevant prose passages of Genesis are given by one of the soloists in recitative, followed by a commentary in unrhymed verse either as a solo aria or as an ensemble of soloists, and then there is more recitative leading to a chorus of praise. The choruses that end Part I, which covers Days 1-4, and Part II, encompassing Days 5 and 6, are the longest and grandest.

Word-painting  [For those with scores and a taste for fine detail, movement and measure numbers are given in brackets.]  A striking musical feature of The Creation is its word-painting, AKA “text-painting,” “tone-painting,” or “naturalism.” This is a kind of musical onomatopoeia, where musical passages are made to sound like the thing they represent. It was widely used by composers in Haydn’s day and earlier to evoke the natural world — its scenery, weathers, plants, and animals — and to suggest human characteristics as well.

The orchestral introduction, the “Representation of Chaos,” contains chromatic ambiguity of a kind that wouldn’t be heard again for another 60-some years, in Wagner’s Tristan. In fact, the musicologist Nicholas Temperley points out that the famous “Tristan chord” appears [in the first half of measure 6] very early in the movement. [The pitches are A-flat, D, F#, B-natural, i.e., augmented 4th, augmented 6th, augmented 9th, and the chord is inverted.]

In this video, the “Tristan” chord is heard at 0:47, just before the ascending triplets in the bassoon:

Haydn himself said to a friend, “You have certainly noticed how I avoided the resolutions that you would most readily expect. The reason is, that there is no form in anything in the universe yet.” Temperley regards this rendering of the idea of Chaos as possibly the greatest compositional challenge of Haydn’s career. Seven sketches of the movement survive, showing how much trouble he took with it. The successive iterations show him going farther and farther in postponing “the resolutions that you would most readily expect.”

Haydn showed no one, not even his collaborator van Swieten, the page of score depicting the birth of light [in Chorus mvt1 mm81-89/Orchestra mvt2] until a rehearsal a few days before the first performance. The tonality changes unexpectedly from C-minor to C-major, the dynamic from pp to ff, the texture from unaccompanied choral phrases punctuated by string chords to full forces on the word “light.” Haydn must have known what a powerful moment this would be and have wanted to keep it a surprise as long as he could. Even after the piece had become well known, audiences continued to greet this passage with thunderous applause.

Watch a performance of this movement. Spoiler alert: the moment described above occurs at 2:05:

Here is a sound spectrograph [of m86 choral] at the word “light.” [The horizontal axis represents time, the vertical axis is frequency in Hertz, and the intensity of the color represents the intensity of the relative frequencies.] It shows in graphic form that Haydn created an exact sonic analogue to a sudden burst of great light!

In Paradise Lost, Milton spends many pages casting Satan and his minions out of the realms of light. Haydn dispatches them much more efficiently, needing only part of one aria (“Now vanished”) and one chorus [choral mvt2/orch mvt3]. Wildly churning chromatic scales and slashing staccato arpeggios depict the “rage and horror” of their “monstrous fall.”

In The Creation, Haydn often created a kind of musical guessing-game for his audiences by using passages of tone-painting before the relevant text was sung. For instance, in the accompanied recitative “In shining splendor” [chor12/orch13], the ascending string lines and a crescendo from pp to ff suggest the rising sun well before the tenor soloist has sung a word. Then there is a softer and slower passage to accompany the moon and a measure and a half of tremolando for the shimmering stars.

Illustration by John Martin of the creation of the sun, moon, and stars

The trio “In fairest raiment” [chor18/orch19] has fluid 16th-note passages to “paint” brooks and springs, rapid high-pitched turns and scales to show the flight of birds, and, in the lowest instruments, turns followed by upward-leaping octaves to depict breaching whales.

Movement 21 contains musical portraits of eight different animals:
1. [In measures 9-12] the lion roars in trills played by low instruments.
2. [In mm13-17] a series of rapidly ascending scales depict the “lightning leap of a tiger.”
3. [In mm19-26] a bouncing Presto passage in 6/8 introduces the stag.
4. [In mm28-34] a galloping rhythm portrays “the noble steed.”
5-6. [Mm 40-50] are a pastorale for flute and bassoon, setting a peaceful scene for grazing cattle and sheep. (At the fermata in m53, some soloists have felt entitled to make this line “bleat” a little.)
7. Tremolando strings [in mm54-57] sound like “a host of insects.”
8. Slithering, chromatic cello lines in [mm58-64] mimic the movement of a worm.

This kind of rather literal-minded musical imitation went out of vogue in the Romantic era, when it began to seem hopelessly old-fashioned and naive. In 1859, fifty years after the premiere, Hector Berlioz wrote scathingly of his “profound antipathy” to The Creation:
Its lowing oxen, its buzzing insects, its light in C which dazzles one like a Carcel lamp [a particularly brilliant type of oil lamp]... — they make me want to murder somebody….  I wouldn’t give an apple for the privilege of meeting Eve in the woods; I am sure she is stupid enough to bring shame to the good God, and is just what her husband deserves…

Note that this vitriol came from a composer who was, in his turn, a half-century later deemed “incapable throughout his life of writing a line of music without a text or a programme.” And that critic was Paul Dukas, famed for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a work so thoroughly programmatic that one hardly needs images of Mickey Mouse to follow the story in the music. What goes around….

A performance of The Creation in 1808, honoring Haydn the year before he died. He is seated in center foreground, wearing a black hat. Note the small performing forces.

Composer’s summing-up  Fortunately Haydn was long gone by the time musical fashion moved on. He was proud of the work he presciently considered a masterpiece that would endure and simultaneously humble about his gifts. In response to a fan letter admiring The Creation, he wrote: “A secret voice whispered to me: ‘There are in this world so few happy and contented people, sorrow and grief follow them everywhere; perhaps your labour will become a source in which the man bowed down by care, or burdened with business matters, will for a while find peace and rest.’”

His labour’s not been lost.