Sunday, September 10, 2006

Divas and Scholars

I bought a book called Divas and Scholars by Philip Gossett, which is about the relationship between opera performance and musicology. That is, after all, the purpose of musicology--to prepare authentic scores for performance. I am very much aware of this from following Cecilia's career all these years. She has an intimate relationship to musicology, has become a musicologist herself ultimately. Reading the book reminds me of how far I am from the life of a real musician.

He writes about her, about her performances at the Met, in particular La Cenerentola and Le Nozze di Figaro. He discusses the scandal of her changing the arias in Figaro, calling it no scandal, merely the disaffection of the stage director. The changes were changes done by Mozart in actual performances he was involved with, and not invented by Cecilia. Unlike them, she knew these performance changes existed and thought she would make a better impression in the other arias. This story still shows up in the newspaper as though it were something disgusting. What's disgusting is the fact that they keep carping about it. She was charming.

Divas and Scholars is a sprawling discussion of musicological issues in the performance of Italian opera, specifically Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi. He casually tosses off information about where the autograph scores are and which ones are lost.

This is all fascinating stuff. He writes about the recovered scores for Verdi's Stiffelo and Rossini's Il Viaggio a Reimes, among others.

His treatment of the original instruments issue is excellent. Sometimes the footnotes are more interesting than the text. I know I have been carping about natural French horns, especially when played by La Scintilla. Valved horns were first used in Halevy's La Juive in 1835, which puts Weber's Der Freischuetz, 1821, clearly in the natural horn category. A natural horn player must make all the transitions from note to note with his lips, and when there is no overtone for the composed note, or even more important, when the required overtone is out of tune, as is frequently the case, the natural horn player must stop the note with his hands to get the right note to play. Stopping is done by pushing the hand that is in the bell of the horn even further in, changing the pitch and also the color of the note. The use of natural horns in the Zurich Der Freischuetz changed the hunting horn melodies to the point that they were unrecognizable. The valved horn player just pushes a key, and uses his hand only for color or muting.

My son the horn player could probably fill me in on this, but for me the reasons for using natural horns instead of valved horns is pretty iffy. The valves achieve equal temperment painlessly, which means the use of natural horns is just to avoid equal temperment. I personally like equal temperment just fine, which leaves me wondering what use a natural horn is. I dont have to explain this, do I? Equal temperment means all the semitones are exactly the same size, a situation achieved by slightly modifying the exact pitch of every note in the scale. Pianos are tuned to equal temperment, violins are not.

Modern horns, trumpets, flutes, clarinets, etc. all tuned in equal temperment are what make possible the constant modulation in the orchestra made popular by Wagner. Getting these distorted pitches of equal temperment requires a lot of extra keys on the woodwinds, but for brasses the three valves are sufficient. Older woodwinds were simpler, warmer, but good only for keys close to the key they are tuned to. The arguement for the use of older woodwinds is a better one than the arguement for horns, in my opinion.

Berlioz' book on orchestration is fun to read, and he cites it here and there. In fact, anything by Berlioz is fun to read. Berlioz was a fabulous writer. He writes fondly about the serpent, a pecular looking instrument that twisted high in the air. It looked and worked like a woodwind but had a brass mouthpiece.

As usual, I digress. Gossett points out that standardization of instrumentation in an orchestra is relatively recent, and certainly didn't extend back as far as Rossini. Every town potentially had its own set of instruments which the score had to be adapted to suit. His point is that the published score should show the original notes, however strange they might be, and let the modern interpreter make whatever changes are needed to fit modern instruments. There is some fun discussion of possible tunings for the string bass.

If this bores you to tears, you would not enjoy Gossett's book, though there are some cute anecdotes. He tells how he crashed into a complete Ring cycle in Bayreuth in 1960 and saw Nilsson for nothing.

It is interesting to read how the published score often differs from the autograph. The current trend is to go back to the original. I know this is the case with composers who were completely recomposed, specifically Mussorgsky and Janáček whose works are now presented in much more authentic versions. He is making a different point. Publishers often assumed a godlike authority, and made the music what they thought it should be. He wants to undo all that.

For me it's very interesting. Perhaps you would like it, too.

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