MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Hunt for Haydn’s Skull


In time for Halloween, here’s one of my favorite weird stories from the often very weird world of classical music: the story of Haydn’s missing skull.

Haydn was the longest-lived of the great triumvirate who perfected “the Classical Style” (with a life twice as long as that of Mozart and a good two decades longer than Beethoven’s). But he happened to die in 1809, just when the quack movement known as phrenology was suddenly becoming popular in Europe.

Among the leading phrenologists (if not its founder) was one Franz Joseph Gall, and his disciples included a former employee of the aristocratic Esterházy household, Joseph Carl Rosenbaum, who had known Haydn when they shared the same boss. Rosenbaum and a fellow phrenologist follower, Johann Nepomuk Peter, obtained possession of Haydn’s skull from a corrupt gravedigger — it had begun decomposing in the sultry Vienna June — and the skull eventually ended up spending time in both gentlemen’s collections.

Meanwhile, in 1820, over a decade after Haydn’s death, the composer’s patron of old, Nikolaus Prince Esterházy, decided to transfer his former kapellmeister’s remains from the environs of Vienna to his estate in Eisenstadt next to the Hungarian border. Of course as soon as the exhumation took place, they discovered the fact that Haydn was now missing his skull.

The blogger David Nelson has even more juicy details here:

After the skull was discovered missing, the authorities unsuccessfully searched Rosenbaum’s home. Mrs. Rosenbaum had hid the skull under her mattress, and then lay down on it. She claimed that it was “that time of the month.” Then after Prince Esterhazy paid Rosenbaum for the skull, one skull and then another—neither belonging to Haydn—were presented. This meant that on December 4, 1820, a stranger’s skull was placed on Haydn’s remains.


This bizarre story was finally resolved in 1954. In a ceremony at the Musikverein, the skull “was placed in an urn decorated with a golden laurel wreath surrounded by red and white peonies.” Then a large procession (100 cars!) drove past Haydn’s birth house in Rohrau and to the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt, where the skull was finally returned to its body.

However, because Rosenbaum had given the Prince another skull, with the lie that it was Haydn’s, and even though the ruse was soon discovered, this mismatched skull was reunited with Haydn’s body in the reinterment. So come 1954, when the real skull was at last laid to rest amid much ceremony, it had a mate, and the two have remained in the tomb since then.

More on the skull story

Haydn's crypt in the Bergkirche  in Eisenstadt

Haydn’s crypt in the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt

Filed under: miscellaneous, musical oddities

“Dans le caractère populaire roumain”

A few evenings ago, members of the Seattle Symphony joined with some guests for its latest installment in this season’s series of chamber concerts.

I especially enjoyed hearing Alexander Melnikov as the pianist in a Shostakovich’ masterpiece (the Second Piano Trio, his memorial to Ivan Sollertinsky), just two days after the pianist’s triumph with the full SSO in playing Beethoven. The 19-year-old Leonard Bernstein’s Piano Trio and the Elliott Carter Woodwind Quintet of 1948 also stood out for me.

But the indisputable highlight came right at the center, with a riveting, soulful, hugely dramatic performance of George Enescu’s Op. 25 Sonata No. 3 in A minor for Violin and Piano from 1926 (titled “dans le caractère populaire roumain”). SSO violinist Mikhail Shmidt and guest pianist Oana Rusu Tomai took all sorts of risks that paid off in this fascinating, epic-sounding piece.

And now I can’t get it out of my head. The YouTube performance above is from 1936 and features the brother-sister team of Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin.

Filed under: Enescu, Seattle Symphony, Shostakovich chamber music, violinists

Moby-Dick’s Operatic Rendering


Los Angeles Opera is about to give the LA premiere of Moby-Dick, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s operatic adaptation of the Melville classic. Here’s my essay for the program:

“It will be a strange sort of a book, tho’, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho’ you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree…,” Herman Melville wrote in a letter on May 1, 1850, his first recorded reference to Moby-Dick. He would go on to transform the riveting adventure story from which the novel had been seeded into a metaphysical epic — just around the time that Richard Wagner began expanding his treatment of a mythic hero into an unprecedented four-part project, aka Ring cycle.

“Melville’s novel is mythical and timeless: that’s what makes it operatic,” says composer Jake Heggie. “But to make it work onstage, we had to find a way to make it very human and tangible.” And for Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, crafting “the most famous book people claim they’ve read without reading it” into (just one) normal-length opera required an intensely collaborative effort that involved still more shifts of focus.

Heggie recalls being initially “terrified” by the audacious proposal to make an opera of Moby-Dick. The idea originated from the veteran playwright Terrence McNally, the librettist for Heggie’s debut opera, Dead Man Walking (2000) as well as the just-premiered, bel canto-styled Great Scott. “The only story I’m interested in doing is Moby-Dick,” McNally said when asked to participate in a commission from Dallas Opera in 2005 for a work to inaugurate the new opera house it was building.

Despite — or, more accurately, because of — his trepidation, Heggie soon found the idea irresistible. “As a composer it’s important for me to take on a new challenge that will keep me on edge. If I’m going to write an opera and invest years in it, it has to be a subject that stimulates me. With Moby-Dick I began to think, ‘I can do this, but I don’t know how I’m going to do this.’ Every day became a big guessing game.”

The composer also found himself reassured by his confidence in McNally’s theatrical instincts. The playwright proposed three essential premises that set the coordinates for the dramatic adaptation: the entire opera would take place at sea, Captain Ahab would be a heldentenor, and his cabin boy Pip would be cast as a pants role to introduce a female voice among the otherwise entirely male cast.

About a year into the commission, personal reasons forced McNally to withdraw, and Heggie turned to another seasoned man of the theater, the highly versatile writer and composer Gene Scheer. The two had collaborated on some other projects, and Scheer had already adapted another complex American epic for the medium of opera with his libretto for Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy.

“The process became very organic for us,”says Scheer. “There was no linear sequence of first libretto, then music.” Indeed, when I met with the team over the summer for this interview, just after the world premiere of Cold Mountain — Scheer’s most recent operatic adaptation, set to music by Jennifer Higdon — the collaborative spirit came so naturally that they frequently completed or supplemented each other’s sentences.

“What makes our partnership operate so well,” Heggie explains, “is that both of us are really about the work. It’s not about our egos. We’re eager to shape the piece so it feels clear and fully formed and solid.” He adds that the same holds for the entire team who designed the look and staging of the show, which premiered in Dallas in April 2010 (director Leonard Foglia, set designer Robert Brill, and projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy, among others): “It’s important to remember that the success of the opera was a group effort.”

“Every opera is, but with these folks there was a sense that we were handing the baton back and forth to each other,” says Scheer. “I do believe the music is the marrow of the matter, but we all worked together to make sure everything here is about telling the story.”

In addition to jettisoning the early chapters that take place on land and keeping it all at sea, perhaps the most critical decision about how to retell Melville’s story was to change the novel’s narrator Ishmael into the character “Greenhorn” — which is to say, into an earlier, more innocent incarnation of this character, the only member of the Pequod’s crew who has never been on a whaling expedition before. The fundamental conceit is that the experiences Greenhorn encounters in the opera are what he will ultimately transform into a kind of “memoir” by writing Moby-Dick.

“We knew we couldn’t have the narrator as a character, so with this rookie Greenhorn it became an opera about the education of Ishmael,” according to Heggie. “The novel’s famous opening line would become the last line of the opera, and it would have to be earned.”

This line of thinking profoundly informed the opera’s dramatic and musical conception alike. A signature of the sound world Heggie has created for Moby-Dick is its tautness, its intense economy: variety is extracted from the ingenious manipulation of a network of leitmotivic ideas. And chief among these is a rising-then-falling four-note motif of elusive, shifting harmonies. This idea, heard right at the outset, is threaded obsessively throughout the score.

Heggie recalls the uncanny experience of composing the opera’s final page, when he suddenly realize that this motif was “spelling” the phrase Greenhorn sings to the unseen Captain Gardiner at the end: “Call me Ishmael.” “I didn’t know until the end that this is what these notes were saying all along.”

The function fulfilled by the narrator in the novel was meanwhile transferred to the orchestra. Says Heggie: “The orchestra itself is the character of the sea and the world that surrounds everyone on the Pequod. The hard part of any opera is finding what I call the musical universe that is specific to that piece. Once you find that sound world, the characters can emerge organically with their own identity. It feels of a piece so that the audience also feels as if they’re in that watery world that’s carrying them forward.”

The result is that Moby-Dick is the composer’s most intricately scored operatic score to date. This and the prominent motivic network — much more than the obsessive Ahab or the maritime setting — lend the opera its Wagnerian echoes, which are otherwise uncharacteristic for Heggie. Trained early in his career by the legendary Ernst Bacon (who also mentored Carlisle Floyd), Heggie is widely known as a gifted melodist. Yet the material of Moby-Dick led him to assimilate some unexpected influences: “I had probably been resisting all my life: Wagner and Philip Glass. That surprised me, but it felt right for this piece.” Other more usual suspects the composer mentions that get stirred up in his “creative crockpot” include Debussy, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim (to whom the score is dedicated), and “the great movie scores i grew up loving.”

Both Heggie and Scheer agree that what really launched the project was a trip they made together to the Nantucket Whaling Museum, just after they’d finished working on their first full-length opera collaboration, Three Decembers (2008). “Being in that environment and walking those streets made it very real,” recalls Heggie. “We had dinner with [maritime historian and Melville champion] Nathaniel Philbrick, whose book about the event that inspired Melville [In the Heart of the Sea] made it so human.”

Scheer says the images they encountered of the specifics of life on a whaling expedition — the nocturnal rendering of the oil, the way the mastheads loomed up above the ships — immediately inspired some concrete ideas for the libretto, such as the duet between Greenhorn and Queequeg at the start of the second act.

His own growing obsession with the Melville source contributed incalculably to the libretto’s sense of authenticity. Re-reading the novel nearly a dozen times, Scher internalized its peculiar rhetoric and steely poetry. While virtually all of Ahab’s words are taken directly from Melville’s text, the libretto incorporates passages that are entirely new, but in the style of Moby-Dick. Heggie proudly points out that several Melville scholars have admitted being unable at times to unravel “which lines are from Moby-Dick and which from Gene. It’s a real testament to the quality of his work.”

But Moby-Dick was by no means all smooth sailing. After a six-month immersion in writing music, Heggie felt that “nothing was sticking” and jettisoned most of his sketches except for the music to Queequeg’s opening chant, the text for which Scheer had unearthed from an authentic Samoan source. His musical breakthrough arrived when he focused his attention on Ahab’s first-act aria “I leave a white and turbid wake” and finally found his way into the opera’s central, most complex character. “Ahab suddenly became real to me, and then I was able to go back to the beginning and write straight through.”

Scheer hit a brick wall of his own in the scene with Queequeg’s coffin in the second act. “I wrote so many versions of that scene — as a chorus, a duet for Pip — it was eight weeks of hell. There was a lot at stake, because we had to establish the coffin for the ending and to show the education of Greenhorn taking place. And then I met with Jake and Lenny [Foglia], who was so helpful acting as dramaturg and letting us bounce questions off him, and we cracked it together. I was able to write it then in one night.”

Winnowing Melville’s massive text into a feasible libretto hardly became a matter of mere “cutting.” In fact, Scheer savvily conflated events and characters (as in the rescue of Pip) and even invented scenes to reintroduce important themes from the opening chapters — most notably, the bonding and affection between Greenhorn and Queequeg, which represents this opera’s love story. As for the novel’s notorious excursions on the industry and techniques of cetology (and their allegorical implications), Scheer admits with bemusement that “the whaling stuff ended up becoming my favorite parts of the book.” He even found room for a reference to this material as a background to the initial private confrontation between Ahab and Starbuck in the first act.

“When most people hear the words ‘Moby Dick’ they think of the White Whale that bit off Captain Ahab’s leg — and of Ahab’s rage for revenge,” writes the Melville scholar Robert K. Wallace in his book Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick: A Grand Opera for the 21st Century. “When most people see this opera, they will be equally concerned with Queequeg, Starbuck, Pip, and Greenhorn.”

One of the opera’s most prominent achievements is to create distinctive personalities, in real stage time, for each of its cast of seven principals. Scheer says he was motivated by his understanding of each of the characters as embodying “a different way of looking at the world. Ahab is maniacal, but he’s inspiring and brilliant and gets almost everyone on that ship to follow him. Starbuck brings a religious perspective, along with the rigidity of religion which is also part of the story. Stubb represents someone who laughs his way through life and Flask is a simple-minded person who doesn’t think so deeply. Queequeg is equally poised between all of these characters. And Greenhorn is culling through them all. Ultimately he admires Queequeg’s way of looking at the world because it has more validity and resonance for him.”

Heggie continues the analysis: “Starbuck is the conscience, while Queequeg is the heart and soul, the spiritual center of the ship. Pip is the tragedy and the youthful optimism that gets quashed. He represents the future.”

Narratively speaking, transforming Moby-Dick into an opera involved a kind of creative reverse engineering to make the adventure story from which Melville had taken off front and center. At the same time, the original novel features passages imbued with a heightened, “operatic” intensity or even allude directly to music. By incorporating these into their treatment, Heggie and Scheer ensure that the opera’s streamlined narrative is by no means “lightweight” but rather richly textured.

“The subtlety comes in many forms,” says Scheer, “but it comes principally in the music. Not to underemphasize the importance of the structure and the words, but in the end the music provides a direct way of communicating that is different and wonderful.”

Filed under: essay, Jake Heggie, librettists, Los Angeles Opera, Melville, new opera

In C and in Sync: Delights from Morlot, Melnikov and the Seattle Symphony

Alexander Melnikov; © Arts Management Group

Alexander Melnikov; © Arts Management Group

A new Bachtrack review:

One unfortunate trend in how concert music is often marketed these days showers disproportionate attention on a ‘star’ soloist, who basks in the limelight and the obligatory standing ovations, as though the orchestra were merely the house ‘backup band’ graciously permitted to share the stage.

What a delight this concert was, in contrast, when Alexander Melnikov joined with the Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot’s baton to reaffirm the unadulteratedly collaborative experience of a concerto.

Rather than a parade of quirks justified as ‘virtuosity’ or a psychogram of a performer’s dominating personality, the 41-year-old Russian pianist provided a deeply satisfying, richly musical account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major. And much of that satisfaction came from the sympathy Melnikov, Morlot and the SSO found in their partnership.

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Filed under: Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot, Mozart, pianists, review, Seattle Symphony, Stravinsky

Multifaceted Mason Bates Takes on Steve Jobs


My first piece for Rhapsody is now online:

There’s been a lot of buzz recently about the new film portrayal of Steve Jobs, which one critic dubbed a “kind of talk opera.” Turns out there’s an actual opera about Steve Jobs in the pipeline, and it’s by one of the most interesting young American composers at work today: Mason Bates.

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Filed under: Mason Bates, new music, Rhapsody

An Elektra That Really Shocks: Boston at Carnegie

Elektra (left, Christine Goerke) and Chrysothemis (right, Gun-Brit Barkmin), with Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony; photo (c) Chris Lee

Every year around Halloween, it seems, it gets harder to find ways to spook willing celebrants of the pagan holiday. How can the ritual rechanneling of anxieties and existential fear into thrillers and other forms of entertainment — our society’s safety valve — possibly compete with the daily onslaught of news in the real world today?

Yet, under the right conditions, a few landmarks of art can still deliver the shock that Aristotle tried to justify with the concept of “catharsis.” It’s especially ironic when works once viewed as the spearheads of Modernism accomplish this for contemporary audiences.

When a piece like The Rite of Spring does so, it’s no longer because the music is inextricably identified with a specific moment in music history — a moment of upheaval that can no longer pack that particular punch for jaded ears — but in fact the opposite: because it has graduated to classic, “timeless” status.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra got me thinking along these lines with this week’s concert performance of Elektra at a packed Carnegie Hall. With Andris Nelsons conducting and a (mostly) dream cast headed by Christine Goerke, this foray into concert opera brought Richard Strauss’s score (premiered in 1909) to thrilling, astonishing, and, yes, shocking life for ears and sensibilities in 2015.

From the very first onslaught — an outburst of D minor chords that are the Big Bang generating much of Elektra‘s music — Nelsons kept the tension at a high voltage shouted at full force until the audience was left gasping for air nearly two intermissionless hours later. A rare-for-Carnegie Hall standing ovation followed.

Nelsons marshaled the BSO as if at the operating console of a massively complex, sleek machine. The musicians responded with split-second precision, delivering immaculate ensemble textures and sinuous solo lines (the extensive woodwind section by itself forming a kind of Greek chorus that restlessly comments on musical events).

Thanks to the Isaac Stern Auditorium’s acoustics, countless details registered with maximum impact — perhaps most terrifyingly in the sudden pauses as the opera approaches its climactic murder scene, the silences ripping a chasm into Strauss’s otherwise ceaselessly roiling score.

Each time Strauss anticipates the voluptuously lyrical idiom of Der Rosenkavalier in Elektra, such passages seemed suspect (though not necessarily ironic), for all their swooning beauty — momentary lulls in the brutalist energy Nelsons kept at the center of attention.

He also emphasized the driving mania underlying the dance rhythms in a way that de-familiarized them and underscored their frighteningly unforgiving force. I’d never realized until this performance how close Strauss comes here to the acid-drenched satires by Weimar artists like George Grosz and John Heartfield (whose work is currently in focus over in the Neue Galerie’s riveting Berlin Metropolis exhibit). A similar sense of an insane world pretending everything is in order applies to Elektra as well.

Even those who experienced Christine Goerke’s unforgettable Dyer’s Wife in the Met’s revival of Die Frau ohne Schatten must have felt unprepared for the blazing, fearless glory of her singing Wednesday night.

While she conveyed an impression of Elektra’s pitiful state with the vulnerable accents of her first great solo, her steeliness and power never let up: vocally Goerke embodied the monomania that makes Elektra such a threat to her mother and her mother’s lover Aegisth but that also keeps her mired in a state of hypersensitive angst. Her frequent high notes were lightning bolts, signals of a tormented consciousness.

Even in this unstaged (semi-staged?) performance, Goerke complemented all this with impressive physical energy, swirling about in a dance that could easily rival the fevered tarantella of Ibsen’s Nora Helmer.

I was especially taken with the German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin as Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis, who longs for a simple, normal life free of all this drama. She was more vocally forceful than what I usually expect in this role but also contrasted effectively with the darker shadings of Goerke and the grotesqueries of Klytämnestra, sung with bat-shit-crazy delirium by Jane Henschel. The sick mindset that holds sway was swiftly established by the opening scene of the gossiping maids.

Only the great recognition scene between Elektra and the disguised, returning Orest — portrayed with a touch too much heroic grandeur by James Rutherford — seemed to be missing an element of passion. And that’s mostly because everything else was kept so taut that there was little room for the expansiveness (musically and psychologically) of this moment to register in more depth.

As the drunken Aegisth heading right on schedule toward his doom, Gerhard Siegel recalled suggested a touch of the clueless Baron von Ochs mixed with the chilling perversity of Herod. No film score has surpassed the music Strauss writes during his fatal entrance into the unlit palace.

I could find no mention of a stage director or costume designer, but the blocking on Carnegie’s very crowded stage — Elektra calls for the largest orchestra Strauss ever used in an opera — worked without drawing undue attention. (In concert opera it can often seem too gimmicky and distracting.)

The costumes drew attention to the Freudian era of Elektra‘s composition, with Goerke’s red strapless dress the undying flame of her obsessive love for her father Agamemnon and the symbol of its associated bloodlust.

As in Salome, Strauss has numerous opportunities to illustrate through the orchestra what his characters tell us they are hearing: above all for Elektra, but also for Chrysothemis and Klytämnestra, these moments emanated a kind of hallucinogenic haze, adding another layer to whichever perspective comes into the spotlight in Hofmannsthal’s libretto.

For all the powerhouse stamina Nelsons sustained from the players and cast, there was nothing crude or garish in this interpretation. Details stood out but never became speed bumps to the evening’s choke-hold momentum and only enhanced the suspense.

In Elektra George Bernard Shaw discerned a portrayal of “cancerous evil” that surpasses “the Klingsor scenes in Parsifal.” The only way out the drama allows for is an orgy of death. More than a century after the opera’s premiere, its demonic power remains unexorcized.

(C) 2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Andris Nelsons, Boston Symphony, Carnegie Hall, review, Strauss

Padmore and Bezuidenhout Undertake a Winter Journey of White-Light Intensity

Mark Padmore; © Marco Borggreve

Mark Padmore; © Marco Borggreve

Here’s my review for Bachtrack of the third and final evening of the Schubert Trilogy recently performed by Mark Padmore and Kristian Bezuidenhout at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival:

‘Fremd’ is the very first word of the first song (‘Gute Nacht’) in Franz Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’. And the sensation of being a stranger, an alien among the signposts of ordinary life – with its cottages and mail coaches, its inns and stray dogs – imbued this interpretation of the entire 24-song cycle by the tenor Mark Padmore and the fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout.

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Filed under: lieder, Lincoln Center, review, Schubert, White Light Festival

Mark Padmore and Kristian Bezuidenhout at the White Light Festival

Mark Padmore (l) and Kristian Bezuidenhout (r)

Mark Padmore (l) and Kristian Bezuidenhout (r)

In my latest Musical America piece (behind a paywall), I review the second program in the remarkable Schubert Trilogy from last week at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival.

Tenor Mark Padmore and fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout teamed up for three evenings of Schubert lieder cycles (with a touch of Beethoven for the second program — Schwanengesang prefaced by An die ferne Geliebte, reviewed here). Here’s an excerpt:

In a brief introduction to his Tully Hall recital on Thursday, October 15, the tenor Mark Padmore remarked that the sense of longing encompassed by the German Sehnsucht — a word that defies easy translation — provided the link between the evening’s pair of cycles by Schubert and Beethoven, performed with keyboard partner Kristian Bezuidenhout.
The term recital sounds too coldly objective. Certainly it fails to do justice to the sense they achieved of a “through-composed” emotional journey, without the benefit of staging or design elements: Gesamtkunstwerk of music and poetry on an intimate scale….

Filed under: Beethoven, lieder, Musical America, review, Schubert

Screen Test


The new issue of LISTEN Magazine contains my profile of composer and film music veteran JAC Redford, who just orchestrated Thomas Newman’s music for the upcoming James Bond film (Spectre):

THE WHOLE PICTURE is what counts; and the composer must see it not as a composer but as a man of the theater,” wrote Leonard Bernstein, reflecting on composing the score for On the Waterfront.

Bernstein’s adventure into film scoring — marred by creative scrapes with the film’s director Elia Kazan — was unpleasant for him, and marked the conductor–composer’s first and last time writing film music (not counting already existing scores that were adapted for film) — anomaly in an otherwise naturally collaborative career. But for many composers, there’s something perpetually alluring about the medium of film.

Like a particular scent, the simplest chord progression or snatch of soaring melody from a beloved score can instantly trigger a flood of memories—both personal and cultural.

continue reading [opens as pdf]

Filed under: composers, film music, James Bond, profile

Happy Birthday, Oscar

And some favorite quotes:

“You must not find symbols in everything you see. It makes life impossible.”

“The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.” (Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime)

“Life is much too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.”
(Lady Windermere’s Fan)

“The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.” (The Soul of Man Under Socialism)

“It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about, nowadays, saying things against one behind one’s back that are absolutely and entirely true.”
(The Picture of Dorian Gray)

Filed under: anniversary, Oscar Wilde

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