MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Time for Tenn


Suddenly what seems like a flood of Tennessee Williams-related material has been vying for my attention. First is the long-delayed but always expected new John Lahr biography, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which I’ve been devouring and don’t want to end. (It won last year’s National Book Critics Circle Award.)

An undated early horror story, “”The Eye That Saw Death,” was recently unearthed from the Williams Archives at the University of Texas at Austin and published in the spring issue of The Strand Magazine.

In March came news that Francesca Williams, the playwright’s niece (daughter of little brother Dakin), discovered a forgotten treasure of memorabilia in her parents’ Missouri basement, with letters going back to the 1920s.

James Grissom’s Follies of God — another project long in the making, and attended by some controversy (it’s Tenn Williams, after all) — has finally been published. From the excerpt Longreads has published of Grissom’s new book:

Tenn believed that writers, all artists, had several homes. There was the biological place of birth; the home in which one grew up, bore witness, fell apart. There was also the place where the “epiphanies” began—a school, a church, perhaps a bed. Rockets were launched and an identity began to be set.

There was the physical location where a writer sat each day and scribbled and hunted and pecked and dreamed and drank and cursed his way into a story or a play or a novel. Most importantly, however, there was the emotional, invisible, self-invented place where work began—what Tenn called his “mental theater,” a cerebral proscenium stage upon which his characters walked and stumbled and remained locked forever in his memory, ready, he felt, to be called into action and help him again.

And for National Poetry Month, here’s a podcast from the Poetry Foundation including Tennessee Williams reading his own poetry.

Filed under: American literature, Tennessee Williams, theater

Another View of Semele

The Birth of Bacchus, Giulio Pippi and Workshop

The Birth of Bacchus, Giulio Pippi and Workshop

For another angle on the Semele myth treated by Handel, here’s a painting by Giulio Pippi (called Giulio Romano) and Workshop (before 1499-1546), from the Getty Museum. The painting depicts the happy outcome of poor Semele’s demise. From the Getty’s description:

Originally part of a series of mythological love stories, this panel is a comment on passion’s perils. Semele, a mortal impregnated by Jupiter (Roman king of the gods), is consumed by fire after the god’s jealous wife, Juno (queen of the gods), tricks her into looking directly at him despite his warnings. Below is the newborn Bacchus (god of wine), Semele’s son by Jupiter. As the hapless father flees clutching his thunderbolts, Juno looks on apprehensively.

Filed under: Handel, painting, photography


The Met’s new production of the popular double bill, directed by one of my favorites, David McVicar, opens tonight. The cast includes Eva-Maria Westbroek as Santuzza, Patricia Racette as Nedda, Marcelo Álvarez singing Turiddu and Canio, George Gagnidze as Alfio and Tonio, with Fabio Luisi conducting.

From the Met’s company history:

“Cavalleria” was first performed by the Met on tour in Chicago in December 1891, paired with Act I of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” “Pagliacci” followed in December 1893 at the opera house in New York, in a double bill with Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.” The Met was the first opera company to present “Cav/Pag” together on December 22, 1893, and this combination soon became standard practice around the world, but occasional pairings with other operas were still common into the early 20th century.

“Cavalleria” and “Pagliacci” individually shared the Met stage with such diverse works as “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” “Don Pasquale,” “Lucia di Lammermoor,” “La Fille du Régiment,”Il Trovatore,” “Rigoletto,” “La Bohème,” and even Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Le Coq d’Or.” An unlikely double bill of “Pagliacci” and “Hansel and Gretel” was especially popular, with almost 100 performances between 1906 and 1938.

Among the notable early interpreters of the leading roles were Emma Eames, Emma Calvé, Johanna Gadski, Olive Fremstad, Emmy Destinn, and Rosa Ponselle (Santuzza), Francesco Tamagno and Enrico Caruso (Turiddu), Nellie Melba, Destinn, Lucrezia Bori, Claudia Muzio, and Queena Mario (Nedda), Caruso (more than 100 performances) and Giovanni Martinelli (Canio), and Pasquale Amato (Tonio). A new production in 1951 starred Zinka Milanov and Richard Tucker in “Cavalleria” and Delia Rigal, Ramón Vinay, and Leonard Warren in “Pagliacci.”

This was succeeded by another new staging in 1958, with Lucine Amara as Nedda, Mario Del Monaco as Canio, and Milanov and Warren reprising their roles. The following production, directed and designed by Franco Zeffirelli,
premiered in 1970 with Leonard Bernstein conducting “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Fausto Cleva conducting “Pagliacci” and a cast that included Grace Bumbry and Franco Corelli in “Cavalleria” and Amara, Richard Tucker, and Sherrill Milnes in “Pagliacci.”

Among the many other artists who have appeared in the two operas since the late 1950s are Giulietta Simionato, Eileen Farrell, Fiorenza Cossotto, and Tatiana Troyanos (Santuzza), Teresa Stratas and Diana Soviero (Nedda),
Jon Vickers, James McCracken, and Giuseppe Giacomini (Canio), and Cornell MacNeil and Juan Pons (Tonio). Tenors who have faced the challenge of taking on both leading roles include Plácido Domingo, Roberto Alagna, and José Cura.

Filed under: Metropolitan Opera

Do NOT Mess with Him


You don’t want to suffer the consequences.

Filed under: photography

Mozart’s Piano Concertos as Self-Portrait

Portrait of Mozart by Joseph Lange

Portrait of Mozart by Joseph Lange

Here’s a recent essay I wrote for the Boston Symphony on Mozart’s Vienna piano concertos:

Though Mozart is credited with elevating the genre of the solo concerto to its lofty status, varying concepts of the concerto would predominate in later times — with the virtuosity that contributes only one layer in Mozart’s mature concertos later taking on an inflated significance in the heyday of Romanticism, for example. Such relatively superficial associations would in turn dampen interest in Mozart’s own concerto legacy. The piano concertos now guaranteed to attract listeners were for a long time largely neglected, and only came back into favor in the period approaching the composer’s bicentennial…

continue reading [starts on p. 2 of the pdf]

Filed under: essay, Mozart

A Shakespeare Forgery or Rediscovery? The Latest Take on Double Falsehood


The controversy over the play known as Double Falsehood; or, The Distrest Lovers — a 1727 drama by Lewis Theobald (1688–1744) — is back in the news. Theobald famously claimed he’d adapted his play from a now-lost Shakespeare manuscript, and scholars have been at it ever since. It turns out that Double Falsehood likely represents double authorship.

Based on an episode from Cervantes’ Don Quixote — who died less than two weeks before Shakespeare (if you adjust the traditional date of the Bard’s death to the Gregorian calendar) — Double Falsehood is also one of the candidates that has been speculatively identified with the long-lost play known as The History of Cardenio. The latter play is believed to have been a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, a playwright for the King’s Men company. Cardenio was performed by the company in 1613 but was subsequently lost.

The controversy over Double Falsehood is therefore hardly new; nor is the more or less definitive claim of Shakespearean involvement. But this latest crack at identifying Falsehood‘s true authorship uses the tools of modern psychology and linguistic statistics.

Most of the news reports refer to the authors of the study by the catchall term “researchers at the University of Texas in Austin.” It’s worth nothing that said researchers — Ryan L. Boyd and James W. Pennebaker — are actually professors of psychology, not literary critics or Elizabethan scholars. Their research has been published in the journal Psychological Science.

From the Abstract:

Specifically, we created a psychological signature from each author’s language and statistically compared the features of each signature with those of “Double Falsehood”’s signature. Multiple analytic approaches converged in suggesting that “Double Falsehood”’s psychological style and content architecture predominantly resemble those of Shakespeare, showing some similarity with Fletcher’s signature and only traces of Theobald’s.

Closer inspection revealed that Shakespeare’s influence is most apparent early in the play, whereas Fletcher’s is most apparent in later acts. “Double Falsehood” has a psychological signature consistent with that expected to be present in the long-lost play “The History of Cardenio,” cowritten by Shakespeare and Fletcher.

Soon after Theobald made his claim in the 18th century, Alexander Pope declared it must be a forgery, and there will surely be skeptics who remain unpersuaded by this latest analysis. Still, the method of a kind of creating a kind textual psychological profile to identify Shakespeare’s “Weltanschauung” is pretty intriguing.

Now if only they could devise a study to put to rest the silly claims of the Shakespeare truthers once and for all…

Filed under: Shakespeare



Filed under: photography

Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Met

My essay Verdi’s Don Carlo for the Metropolitan’s current revival of the Nicholas Hytner production:

The longest and most ambitious of Verdi’s works, Don Carlo seems to encompass multiple operas. Parading across its vast canvas is an array of richly characterized individuals who elicit the full range of the composer’s art; their particular relationships play out against an epic backdrop of conflicting social, political, and religious forces. Scenes of searing intimacy and familial turmoil are juxtaposed with grand spectacles that formidably display the power of church and state.

continue reading (pdf beginning on p. 40)

Filed under: essay, Metropolitan Opera, Verdi

Poem for the Day

That Nature Is a Herclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection

CLOUD-PUFFBALL, torn tufts, tossed pillows ‘ flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs ‘ they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, ‘ wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle in long ‘ lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ‘ ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare         5
Of yestertempest’s creases; in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed ‘ dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks ‘ treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, ‘ nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest ‘ to her, her clearest-selvèd spark         10
Man, how fast his firedint, ‘ his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig ‘ nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, ‘ death blots black out; nor mark
                Is any of him at all so stark         15
But vastness blurs and time ‘ beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, ‘ joyless days, dejection.
                Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. ‘ Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; ‘ world’s wildfire, leave but ash:         20
                In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, ‘ since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ‘ patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                Is immortal diamond.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Filed under: poetry

Music for Easter Weekend


For this Easter weekend, you can stream the Good Friday performance of Scottish composer James MacMillan’s St. Luke Passion from King’s College, Cambridge (the compose conducts).

In a recent interview with Boosey & Hawkes, MacMillan speaks about the work:

I’ve always enjoyed a fruitful fascination with the Passion story, and there are deep reasons through history why artists and composers have been attracted to it, right up to our own times. The story is compelling and the images are powerful, prompting a variety of responses. Each time I return to it I try and find different perspectives. Some works are purely instrumental reflections following Haydn’s example, such as my Fourteen Little Pictures for piano trio, or the Triduum of orchestral works written in the mid-90s. Others follow more familiar formats with choir, such as the Seven Last Words from the Cross or the St John Passion.

As to why he chose the narrative found in Luke’s gospel:

My setting of the St John Passion took a particular approach, examining the human drama, and was almost operatic in impact. So returning after a five-year interval I wanted to take an alternative direction. St John stands apart from the other three so-called synoptic Gospel writers who share structure and common material and, of those three, St Luke has a special appeal for me. As well as relating Christ’s life and teachings, Luke is concerned with the idea of the Kingdom of God which points forward to the same author’s Acts of the Apostles. This started me thinking about a more spiritual, inward, and pared-back approach to create a focused work about an hour long.

Meanwhile, here is the incomparable Jordi Savall conducting Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (featuring Le Concert des Nations at the Palau de la Música Catalana, Barcelona).

Not to be missed, even if not specifically Holy Week-related: Bach’s Mass in B minor from Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s recent tour with the English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir (which included a stop at the Lucerne Easter Festival; this performance is from the Paris Philharmonie.

For good measure, here’s Johann’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s cantata on the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, Wq240:

The culmination of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”), a composition tailor-made for Leonard Bernstein:

Finally, from John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary (Act 2, scene 5 (“Burial/Spring – Mary Awakens on the Third Morning”):

Filed under: Bach, Easter, John Adams, new music, spirituality

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