This week on the show, the Ether Game Brain Trust has one foot out the door. We’re looking at famous musical escapes, so abscond with us in a show we’re calling “Let’s Get Out Of Here.”
Make a clean getaway with our playlist below:
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s escaping hi-jinks in The Abduction from the Seraglio – Prior to the year 2000 there had been very few stagings of Mozart’s comic opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, due in part to its thin plot and a non-singing lead character: the Pasha, Selim. Production designer James Robinson decided he could rejuvenate the work by focusing his staging on a more extreme version of the escape and rescue aspect of the plot. He shifted the setting from the Turkish harem of the opera’s title to the Orient Express for a production at Wolf Trap in 1997. In this edition, the failed hero Belmonte boards the Orient Express in Istanbul, hoping to find and rescue his true love Konstanze all before the train arrives in Paris. The lovers are ultimately caught by Selim, but in the end he shows them mercy and allows them to exit the train and start a new life together in Paris.
- Frédéric Chopin, escaping Poland during the November Uprising of 1930 – This was the second of three nocturnes Chopin composed and published between 1830 and 1833. Several of Chopin’s work from this time have been linked to his distress at the capture of his homeland’s capital, and his inability to take part in the ensuing conflict. Chopin had escaped Poland at the outset of the November Uprising of 1830 and moved to Paris, but the capture of Warsaw by Russian forces in 1831 ended Poland’s chances of freedom, and Chopin never returned to the country. While this period marks a time of deep distress for Chopin, it was also when his music career reached a new high. His nocturnes were lauded for their intimate and introspective quality, and since Chopin preferred not to perform them in large concert halls, he instead began an extensive tour of Paris’ most prestigious and elite salons.
- Elmer Bernstein’s score to The Great Escape – Despite competition from How the West Was Won and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Great Escape was one of the most successful films of 1963, and an instant classic. Though highly fictionalized for dramatic purposes, the film follows the real-life story of Allied Forces POWs in 1943 as they try to escape from a Nazi prisoner camp. The titular “Great Escape” refers to a plan hatched by several prisoners to dig secret tunnels under the camp and mount a massive exodus of 250 prisoners of war, thereby causing the Nazis to spend resources attempting to retrieve them and losing their edge in the war. Director John Sturges enlisted the help of composer Elmer Bernstein to write the music for The Great Escape, hoping that after the success of his score for The Magnificent Seven in 1960, Bernstein could produce yet another memorable opening theme.
- Richard Wagner, political fugitive – Wagner lived in Dresden for most of the 1840s, composing many of his important middle-period operas there, including Tannhäuser and The Flying Dutchman. While in Dresden, Wagner got involved in some left-leaning politics, supporting a more unified, democratic Germany (which for him meant more control over a state-run opera house). In 1849, he even took part in an uprising in Dresden for that cause. When the uprising failed, a warrant was issued for his arrest, so Wagner used a fake passport to escape to Zurich. He had just finished his opera Lohengrin right before the uprising, and was still hoping to get it performed. But since he was now a fugitive and in exile from his home country, that became difficult. He did manage to convince his friend and supporter Franz Liszt to organize a performance of Lohengrin in Weimar the following year, but Wagner, the outlaw, was unable to attend.
- Christoph Willibald Gluck’s rescue opera Orfeo ed Euridice – When opera was just kicking off in the early 17th century, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice was an attractive starting point for composers who were blending music and theater. The lead character was a musician, and the rescue and escape element of the story provided ample opportunity for dramatic musical action. A century and a half after the first Orpheus opera, Christoph Gluck returned to the story when he modernized the tradition with his opera Orfeo ed Euridice. Gluck’s opera would become the precursor to an entire genre of rescue and escape themed operas that became popular about 30 years after the 1762 premiere of Orfeo ed Euridice, the most famous of which was Beethoven’s Fidelio. Like Gluck’s opera, “rescue operas” borrowed structural elements from the French opera comique, which often portrayed the escape and rescue of the main character, followed by the exultation of lofty ideals over the base motives that compelled the plot.
- Bach escapes his job for an (four-month) organ concert – Here’s a fun etymology fact: the word fugue comes partially from the Latin word fugere, which means “to flee.” That’s appropriate because Johann Sebastian Bach, the undisputed fugue master, was also known for fleeing his posts. For instance, one of Bach’s first jobs was as the organist at the Neue Kirche in Arnstadt. He didn’t get along with his employer there, especially after Bach insulted, struck, and even drew his sword on a disobedient student! So Bach told his employer that he was going to take a one-month leave of absence. He traveled by foot to see the great organist Dietrich Buxtehude perform, with the hopes of maybe taking over his job. However, Bach was turned off by one aspect of the job: marrying Buxtehude’s daughter. Dejected, Bach returned to his old job in Arnstadt. But by that point, he had been gone for four months with no explanation, which made him really unpopular with his employer!
- Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor From Warsaw and escaping the Nazis – A Survivor From Warsaw was one of the last pieces that Arnold Schoenberg wrote, and also one of his most personal. Like much of Schoenberg’s output, it’s a twelve-tone work, but here Schoenberg uses dissonance to tell the harrowing first-person story of a survivor from the Warsaw Ghetto, who has been beaten and left for dead. The narrator describes the story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, as the Jewish prisoners sing the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael while defying their captors and escaping. Schoenberg himself escaped the Nazis during World War II, but his experience was far less harrowing. His teaching position was revoked because of his Jewish heritage, so he emigrated to the U.S., settling down in California. Fellow Jewish composers like Kurt Weill and Erich Korngold did the same. But other Jewish composers, like Erwin Schulhoff and Viktor Ullmann, weren’t so lucky and died in the Holocaust.
- Anton Reicha, child runaway – Composer Anton Reicha’s first experience with escape came early in his life. Reicha was born in Prague in 1770, and his father died before the young Anton reached his first birthday. Reicha’s mother was either unable or unwilling to care for him, so at age 10, he ran away from home to live with his uncle Josef, a virtuoso cellist. The young Anton followed in the footsteps of his uncle, learning how to play violin, piano and flute. As a young man, he became friends with Beethoven and Haydn, who were both making names for themselves around Europe. But Reicha was forced to escape both the cities of Bonn and Vienna when the French army attacked those cities. He eventually settled in Paris, where he composed operas and a large number of wind quintets, elevating the genre and expanding the repertoire for wind instruments.
- Rupert Holmes’s “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” – Rupert Holmes’s 1979 earworm “Escape” (aka “The Piña Colada Song”) is all about two people in a dead-end relationship who are hoping to secretly cheat on one other. So, one takes out a personal ad in the newspaper (a relic from 40 years ago!) and the other responds to it, not realizing who wrote it. When they meet up for their potential affair, they are charmed at the fact that they had the same interests—instead of being horrified at the fact that they were trying to cheat on each other, proving that these two terrible people probably deserve one other after all! Rupert Holmes was a bit of a one-hit wonder, but he later found success when he escaped the pursuit of pop stardom. In 1985, he wrote the Broadway musical The Mystery Of Edwin Drood, based on the Charles Dickens novel, which won him the Tony Award for Best Musical.