This week, the Ether Game Brain Trust is both judge and jury. We’re taking the law into our own hands, looking at the intersection between law and classical music, so pull out those LSAT study guides for a show we’re calling “Order In The Court.”
- Richard Wagner (1813–1883), Tristan Und Isolde – By the time Richard Wagner completed his opera Tristan and Isolde in 1859, he had already had a run-in with the law in Germany. Wagner was regularly involved in leftist politics, and when the unsuccessful May Upring of Dresden was quelled, his name was one of many on the arrest warrants. Wagner left the country and was exiled for twelve years. When he finally returned, he soon found himself involved in legal proceedings of a different sort. Wagner had worked with the conductor (and former lawyer) Hans von Bülow to premiere Tristan and Isolde. During his partnership with von Bülow, he also had an affair with von Bülow’s wife, Cosima, that resulted in several children between them. A lengthy divorce case ensued, and though von Bülow complied with the proceedings so that Cosima and Wagner could be legally married, he never spoke to Wagner again after the divorce.
- Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848), La Fille Du Régiment – Law can find its way into opera, just as opera can find its way into law. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for instance, is a self-proclaimed opera aficionado. Ginsburg has discussed opera in her law lectures, and had hoped to be an opera performer herself, held back only by her utter inability to sing. But who says you have to sing to star in an opera? In October 2016, Justice Ginsburg performed the non-singing role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp in the Washington National Opera’s production of Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment. This wasn’t Ginsburg’s debut appearance on the opera stage, either. She performed as an extra in both Die Fledermaus and Ariadne Auf Naxos, the latter alongside the late Justice and fellow-opera love Antonin Scalia. In fact, in 2015 an original opera all about the friendship between Ginsburg and Scalia premiered at the Castleton festival.
- Robert Schumann (1810–1856) – Robert Schumann showed a remarkable gift for words at a young age. His father was a book dealer, so the young Schumann became well-versed in the writings of Goethe and Schiller, the poetry of Jean Paul, and many classics in Latin and Greek. Schumann’s father was invested in his son’s education, but he passed away when Robert was only 17. He stated in his will that to earn his inheritance, Robert had to attend university. So Schumann entered the University of Leipzig to study law. However, the rigid ways of the law did not appeal to Robert as much as his new passion of music, so he dropped out to pursue a life as a composer and pianist. Later in life, when Schumann mostly retired from performing, Schumann still embraced his father’s wishes to be a man of letters, although not in the field of law. He became a successful music critic.
- George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) – Like Schumann, Handel spent much of his adolescence being told by his father that he was to become a lawyer. In fact, it was more extreme than that: When Georg Handel saw that his young son had a natural talent for music, he had every musical instrument removed from his house, forbid all musical activity, and made sure George Frideric never visited other houses where musical instruments were kept. This did nothing to stop the young composer, who apparently had a small clavichord secretly moved into the attic of his home and practiced late at night while his family slept. Strangely enough, even though he had become an excellent and passionate musician, Handel did in fact attend law lectures while at university in 1702, perhaps to fulfill a promise to his then deceased father. Soon after however, in 1705, he began work on his first opera, Almira.
- Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), Peter Grimes – Almost as important as the court of law is the court of public opinion. Even if you’re cleared of a crime by a jury of your peers, the stigma may remain. That was the case for Peter Grimes, the troubled fisherman and misunderstood antihero of the opera by Benjamin Britten. Britten’s opera is based on a poem called “The Borough” by George Crabbe. The opera begins at an inquest, where Grimes is accused of murdering his apprentice. The coroner determines it was an accident and that Grimes is innocent, but rumors remain and the townsfolk still distrust Grimes. When his next apprentice accidentally falls to his death after a storm, Grimes knows he’s not at fault. But he also knows that the court of public opinion will not rule in his favor. So he carries out a self-inflicted punishment, taking his boat out to sea, and sinking it while aboard.
- Dave Frishberg, “My Attorney Bernie” – Dave Frishberg’s music has always sat somewhere on the cusp of jazz and humor—but the not the humor of a stand-up comedian, more like the humor of a New Yorker cartoon. His song “My Attorney Bernie” is a caricature of a high profile lawyer, a surefire hotshot who knows his way around a fine glass of wine. It was written in the 1980s for a lawyer friend hosting a party full of lawyers. Dave Frishberg has written several other songs that exude this same level of coy cleverness including “I’m Hip” (which he wrote with the late songwriter Bob Dorough) and “Peel Me A Grape.” His penchant for playful wordiness worked perfectly with a writing project in the 1970s aimed at teaching kids about math and social studies called Schoolhouse Rock. Frishberg is the writer of one of the most famous Schoolhouse Rock songs “I’m Just A Bill.”