Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, so this week, we’re dedicating our show to some musical depictions of romance and nuptials. Love is in the air for a show we’re calling “Love And Marriage.”
Here’s a playlist that you’ll want to put a ring on…
- Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847), A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Wedding March – Mendelssohn wrote the incidental music to Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1842, sixteen years after he wrote an overture to that same play. That original overture made Mendelssohn famous throughout Europe when he was still a teenager. And even when he was in his 30s, he was still banking on that original fame. The incidental music was written for King Frederick William IV of Prussia, who was a fan of Mendelssohn’s overture and wanted him to “complete” the work. The incidental music accompanied different aspects of the play’s plot and characters. The famous wedding march, for instance, is the intermezzo between acts IV and V of Shakespeare’s play, just before the grand wedding celebration of Theseus and Hippolyta in Act V. Although you probably know this wedding march from… every wedding you’ve ever been to.
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), Le Nozze di Figaro (“The Marriage of Figaro”) – The play The Marriage of Figaro by playwright Pierre Beaumarchais had already been banned in Vienna for its “objectionable” content when Mozart decided to set it as an opera. The play was a follow-up to Beaumarchais’ other play The Barber of Seville, where the character Figaro, now the head of Count Almaviva’s servant staff, is getting married to another servant named Susanna. The only problem is the Count himself, who feels it’s his right to bed any of his servants on her wedding day. Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess work together to humiliate the Count, and they eventually succeed, while Figaro and Susanna live happily ever after. Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte negotiated with the emperor himself to get the opera off the ground, despite the ban on Beaumarchais’ original play. Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro became a huge hit and is still one of the most widely-performed operas today.
- Richard Strauss (1864–1949), Der Rosenkavalier: “Mir ist die Ehre widerfahren” (Presentation of the Rose) – Cupid’s arrow is flying in this iconic opera scene all about love at first sight. In Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier, the Baron Ochs has decided that he wants to marry a young woman named Sophie. So Baron Ochs appoints the handsome Count Octavian (a mezzo soprano pants role) to present her with a silver rose on his behalf. But, as soon as Sophie and Octavian set eyes upon one another, they fall instantly in love instead. The rest of the opera thus enfolds as a complicated romantic farce. Der Rosenkavalier was originally entitled Ox in the Lark Meadow, after the opera’s comic bass character Baron Ochs, but Strauss and his librettist Hugo Von Hofmannsthal changed the title. After Der Rosenkavalier Strauss and Hofmannsthal would go on to collaborate on four additional operas including Ariadne auf Naxos and Arabella.
- Bedřich Smetana (1824–1884), The Bartered Bride – Czech composer Bedřich Smetana began his musical career, with little success, in Prague. Finally in 1866 he was appointed principal conductor of the Provisional Theater, the first permanent Czech stage. From this post he built an excellent opera theater, and his tireless efforts put Czech opera on the map. His opera The Bartered Bride is a snapshot of the method he used to infuse the established opera tradition with Czech character and humor. The Bartered Bride begins like many operatic romances, with a young woman whose parents have plans to marry her off to someone she has never met, but things quickly turn strange when she attempts to take control of the situation by declaring her love for someone she does know, though not well. Enter a scheming marriage broker, some drinking songs, lots of polka dancing, and an escaped circus bear. Later, the bear is revealed to be one of the prospective grooms.
- Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), Les Noces – Stravinsky’s Les Noces was his tenth work produced by the famed Parisian company known as the Ballet Russes, led by impresario Sergei Diaghilev. It’s functionally a ballet, but Stravinsky conceived of it as something a little more complicated. He technically called it “Russian Choreographed Scenes with Music and Voices.” The work is like a staged cantata with dancing. In the work, the rhythm and sound of the Russian language is critical to the overall effect. Les Noces draws heavily upon the traditional ritual of a Russian wedding, depicting scenes of the braiding of a bride’s hair, the curling of the groom’s locks, the departure of the bride for the church, and the wedding feast. Since Russian tradition played a large role in the ballet, Stravinsky dedicated it to his fellow countryman Diaghilev, who purportedly wept when he first heard the piece.
- Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), Madrigali Amorosi (Eighth Book of Madrigals): Altri Canti di Marte (“Let Others Sing Of Mars”) – Claudio Monteverdi composed his Eighth Book of Madrigals in 1638. Seventy-one years old at the time, Monteverdi must have viewed this collection as the pinnacle of his work with the madrigal, and it would come to represent the last experimental phase of the genre before the madrigal would transform into the operatic aria. The collection is known as Madrigals Of War And Love, and contains two sections of madrigals for one to six voices. Monteverdi set his music to poems by Italian poet Giambattista Marino, who cultivated a love-as-war metaphor in his poetry. His belief was that lovers lay siege to the hearts of their beloveds just as soldiers laid siege to a castle. We just listened to the opening madrigal of the Love section, “Let Others Sing Of Mars,” which is the companion madrigal to “Let Others Sing of Love” from the War section.
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), Eugene Onegin: “Vy mne pisali” (Love Letter Scene) – This iconic scene from Eugene Onegin was the first part of the opera that Tchaikovsky composed. The Alexander Pushkin novel of the same title is considered a classic of Russian literature because of Pushkin’s beautiful storytelling. The title character is a young man with whom a peasant girl, Tatyana, is smitten. In the aria we just heard, she writes a letter professing her love. Eugene does not return her affections until years later, at which point Tatyana is married to someone else and unwilling to uproot her life. In the intervening years, Onegin has killed his friend in a duel over Tatyana’s sister Olga. This meaningless death, and Onegin’s late and hopeless profession of love, contribute to the sense of futility that pervades the work. But it is redeemed throughout by Tchaikovsky’s brilliant music. He created motifs that aid in the storytelling — such as melodies from the letter scene that return later in the opera – bringing another dimension to the sad tale of lost love.
- Leoš Janáček (1854–1928), String Quartet No. 2, “The Intimate Letters” – For the last eleven years of his life, Janáček carried a torch for Kamila Stösslová, a woman he barely knew (she had once held open a door for him) but with whom he had an imagined affair. Almost daily he would write letters to her, and Janáček’s wife had understandably mixed feelings about this correspondence. This odd relationship put a heavy strain on the composer’s marriage, and much of his music of this period is colored by this strange and unrequited love. Such is the case with his second string quartet, subtitled “Intimate Letters.” Janáček had, at first, planned to title the work “Love Letters,” a reference to the Viola d’amore, which was to have replaced the viola in the quartet. The viola d’amore is an odd instrument with seven bowed strings and seven other strings that sympathetically vibrate. For whatever reason, Janáček decided against including the viola d’amore, and the subtitle of the work changed to “Intimate Letters.”
- Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, My Fair Lady: “Get Me To The Church On Time” – This barnburner of a tune from Frank Sinatra originally comes from the 1956 Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady. My Fair Lady, based on the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion, starred Julie Andrews as the undignified flower girl Eliza Doolittle. Eliza is trying to raise her social standing by taking elocution lessons with the proper Henry Higgins, played by Rex Harrison. Eliza’s father Alfred is also trying to change his social standing, but mostly by earning more money. When Alfred suddenly earns a fortune, he decides to “make an honest woman” (so to speak) out of Eliza’s stepmother by properly, officially marrying her. His last night as a bachelor is spent in drunken merriment, so in this song he asks his friends to be the responsible ones and “get him to the church on time.” Not necessarily the most romantic way to start a marriage…