Last week on the show, we began a month-long tribute to musical anatomy called “Body of Works,” beginning with music about different parts of the head. Well, there is one part of the head that has so much music about it, we had to devote an entire show to it. It’s not the eyes, ears, mouth, or nose. This week, our theme is all about luscious locks of “Hair.”
- Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868), Il Barbiere Di Siviglia: “Largo al factotum” – The duties for most barbers today include a haircut, a shave, maybe some hair coloring, and possibly lending a friendly ear to customers. But for Figaro, the famed “Barber of Seville” from Rossini’s 1816 opera, the duties of a barber went far beyond matters of hair. The opera was based on a 1775 comedy by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais. Beaumarchais also wrote the play’s sequel The Marriage of Figaro, later turned into a Mozart opera. In this famous aria “Largo al factotum,” Figaro discusses his many responsibilities. This includes some hair-related tasks that you might expect—shaving, cutting, combing, and wig-making. There’s also the practice of bloodletting by leeches, common for barbers and barber-surgeons in the 19th century, but not something that you’ll find at a Great Clips today. And then there are Figaro’s “other” duties, including intervention in the love lives of his clientele.
- Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930), Sweeney Todd: The Wigmaker Sequence – We go from the Schemin’ Barber of Seville, Figaro, to the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd. The character Sweeney Todd first showed up in an 1840s "penny dreadful" serial: a pulpy, cheap publication from the Victorian era. Like Figaro, Sweeney finds dissatisfaction in the hairy limitations of his chosen trade. But instead of getting involved in his client’s love lives, Sweeney Todd dispatches his clients using his straight razor, while his accomplice Mrs. Lovett disposes of the victims in a culinary manner in her meat-pie shop downstairs. Hair does play a role in the show. Todd knows from experience that the hair of asylum inmates is often used for wigmaking, and he uses this knowledge to help rescue his daughter Johanna and her lovely yellow hair from an insane asylum. However, after Johanna is freed, things go south as Sweeney Todd’s murderous rage gets the best of him.
- Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741), the "Red Priest" – In addition to his work as a composer, teacher, and violinist, Antonio Vivaldi was ordained as a priest, the latter occupation earning him his memorable nickname. He was ordained in 1703, and soon thereafter became known as Il Prete Rosso, or “The Red Priest.” He earned the nickname on account of his bright red hair, a distinctive trait that ran in the family. In 1704, just a year after his ordination, he was given a dispensation from celebrating Mass, on account of his ill health. Since his childhood, he had suffered from a condition described as a “tightness of the chest,” which modern scholars believe to have been a form of asthma. Despite the fact that he does not appear to have said Mass more than a few times, he was never stripped of his ordination and technically remained a priest, thereby retaining both his priestly status and his nickname, throughout his life.
- Claude Debussy (1826–1918), Préludes, Book I: VIII. La fille aux Cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) – Debussy’s two books of preludes for solo piano, composed between 1907 and 1910, are rife with richly programmatic music. We hear musical fireworks, goldfish, woodland sprites, and pedantic musicians. In the 8th piece, which we just heard, we see a girl’s fair hair and the impressions of feet in a snowy landscape. Debussy took the title of this prelude from a poem of the same name by Leconte de Lisle, who used the image a girl with flaxen hair to represent a sense of innocence and naiveté in his poem. Debussy translated this sentiment musically by giving his prelude a gentle, folk tune-like simplicity, a sharp contrast from the dramatic chromaticism of the other works in this collection. Even though the piece is unlike much of Debussy’s other music, it has remained one of his most popular works, and the subject of countless arrangements.
- Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921), Samson and Delilah – Camille Saint-Saëns’s opera Samson Et Dalila concerns the biblical superhero Samson, discussed in the Book of Judges. Samson was a Nazarite, a person who gains strength by worshipping God, abstaining from alcohol, and never cutting his hair. God rewarded Samson’s vow of devotion by turning him into the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the Bible. When Samson became infatuated with the beautiful Philistine temptress Delilah, she conspires with the Philistines to get Samson to reveal that the source of his strength is his long hair. Delilah tells the secret to the Philistines, who shave his head, blind him, and ultimately kill him. But not before Samson summons his strength once more to destroy the temple and all the Philistines within. The Bacchanale is one of the most famous moments from the opera, where the Philistines hold a huge party after having captured and imprisoned Samson.
- Franz Schubert (1797-1828), Winterreise, D. 911: “Der greise kopf” – Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (“Winter Journey”) tells the story of a young man, disappointed in love, who embarks on a solitary journey in the cold winter air. It is the second song cycle that Schubert wrote using poems of Wilhelm Müller, the first being the equally depressing song cycle Die schöne Müllerin. The music in Winterreise expresses a range of emotions, most of them so desolate that Schubert’s friends were shocked and distressed when he first performed the cycle for them. In the song “Der greise Kopf” (“The Gray Head”), the protagonist notices his black hair appears snowy white due to the frost now covering it. He imagines himself as an old man with gray hair and rejoices, longing for the grave. When the frost melts, he becomes depressed again as his hair returns to its youthful black. This is probably the exact opposite of how most people react to gray hair!
- Béla Bartók (1881–1945), Bluebeard's Castle – Disturbingly, the murderous nobleman that is at the center of the old French folktale Bluebeard is apparently a composite of a number of real historical figures. The 15th-century Breton nobleman and serial killer Gilles de Rais, who liked to commit motiveless, brutal murders of children, the early Breton king Conomor the Accursed, who was in the habit of murdering his wives once they became pregnant, and the infamous Henry VIII may have all served as inspiration for the character of the vengeful blue-bearded nobleman. None of these historical figures were known to have had blue facial hair, though dying one’s beard bright colors was a fashion trend of the late Renaissance. Bluebeard’s unusual bristles were likely meant as an allegory for ugliness and intimidation. Unlike in the original story, Béla Bartók left Bluebeard’s wives alive for his 1911 opera Bluebeard’s Castle but permanently imprisoned in the castle. The opera plays out as a psychological horror story rather than a murder mystery.
- Judith Weir (b. 1954), Blond Eckbert – Known primarily for her operas, Scottish composer Judith Weir is one of the most celebrated English composers working today. Most notably, in 2014 Weir was given the prestigious honor of becoming the first female Master of the Queen’s Music, a title held by only twenty-one British composers in history. Her 1994 opera Blond Eckbert is based on the 1797 short story Der Blonde Eckbert by German author Ludwig Tieck, a newly-invented story that resembles a fairy tale. The play is quite odd and eerily supernatural. For one, even though it’s called “Blond Eckbert,” Eckbert is not really the protagonist, and the fact that he has blond hair is an entirely unimportant detail. It’s really about Eckbert’s wife Bertha, who spends much of the opera recounting the creepy, mysterious tale of her youth. After she has a mental breakdown, it’s later revealed that Bertha is actually Eckbert’s long lost half-sister!
- Galt MacDermot (1928–2018), Hair: “Hair” – There was no way we could do a show about hair without playing the song “Hair” from the 1967 American Tribal Love-Rock Musical Hair. The show was the idea of playwrights James Rado and Gerome Ragni with music by Galt MacDermot. Rado and Ragni also starred as the two long-haired hippies in the show singing this salute to hirsuteness. Long hair was a symbol of the counterculture, Anti-Vietnam movement of the 1960s, a direct reaction to the short hair of the military and the buttoned-up American postwar era. But long hair, in both men and women, has had many different connotations throughout American history. Sometimes it was a designation of high class, other times a designation of low class. The term “longhair” has often been used pejoratively towards stuffy intellectuals, and in the 1920s, “longhair” was a name for fans of classical music.