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The Ridiculous & Sublime

The New Grove Dictionary of Opera

edited by Stanley Sadie
MacMillan/Grove’s Dictionaries of Music, Vol. 4, 1,342 pp., $850.00 the set


The most prestigious of musical forms, opera is also traditionally the most absurd, the most irrational. No musical dictionary could ever deal adequately with the nonsense of opera. It is true that other forms of musical activity—or of life in general—are equally shot through with absurdity: ridiculous jokes about violists and equally ridiculous but true stories about deranged conductors are a sufficient testimony. Nevertheless, in orchestral life competent violists are the rule rather than the exception, and rational conductors may be discovered, while a certain extravagant absurdity is inseparable from opera, and even helps to define it.

Opera ought not to be reasonable, and this expectation of essential lunacy governs the genre and regulates the behavior of everybody concerned with it. A soprano who does not give herself the comic airs of a prima donna betrays her public; an operatic director who does not add some irrelevant and distracting piece of stage business will be viewed with suspicion and probably set his career in jeopardy. I remember a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore in Naples, in which the tenor, unprepossessing musically as well as physically, finished a performance of “Di quella pira” by stepping forward to the front of the stage, facing his audience with a bold stare, and, after a deep breath, bellowing the unauthorized but frequently sung high C for no less than half a minute, to his own evident satisfaction and the delight of the public. This is a central aspect of operatic life with which The New Grove Dictionary of Opera does not attempt to deal, but it was an incredible moment that almost everybody had come to hear, and this wonderfully unmusical feat rejoiced their hearts. It was what opera was all about.

Certainly the most useful of all reference books on its subject to date, Grove’s Opera will give us the plots of all the operas about which one could be reasonably curious, but it will not tell us which Tosca, when throwing herself to her death off the Castel Sant’Angelo, bounced back above the battlements from the trampoline hidden beneath; or who was the first tenor to ask “When does the next swan leave?”; or which famous two-hundred-pound soprano has prudently written into her contract that no director can make her move or gesture if she doesn’t want to—and she generally doesn’t (one director solved the problem that he felt this seemed to present by having an entire production of Ernani take place in a dim penumbra in which one could only vaguely perceive the principal singers). Grove’s Opera will list the cast for the premiere of Salome, but will not divulge which great soprano made it clear that she wore no under-clothes during the Dance of the Seven Veils. Yet these are important issues in the economy of opera, and they help us to see why comparisons of the stars of opera with the great actors and actresses of the legitimate stage always seem oddly out of place, as if opera were not really a serious dramatic art; opera singers, however, are very like movie stars—at least, that is how they behave, how they are promoted, and how we think of them, even if they rarely look like movie stars.

The articles on individual operas are the glory of Grove’s Opera: no other dictionary of music has ever given so full an account of the libretto scene by scene, along with some details of each work’s conception and initial productions. There is, understandably, much less musical information than we found in the parent New Grove: I am not sure whether editor and subeditors of the Grove’s Opera consciously decided that opera buffs are less interested in music than the readers of the twenty-volume general work, but if so, they were probably right. Technical terms are largely avoided. Some of the writers, however, take pleasure in telling us what key different parts of the opera are in. This is, I believe, a British trait, and the opera volumes seem much less influenced by transatlantic musicology than the heavily Americanized general work.

Perhaps the British are proud of knowing what key a piece is in, a gift not granted to all scholars. In the article on Richard Strauss’s Elektra, David Murray writes: “The key declines to a curdled B flat minor, however, and the tempo to a dim, sluggish pulse, as [Elektra] calls upon her father…. ” “Her sister pleads her own tearful despair, in mellifluous E flat…. ” “Electra agrees that a sacrifice is justly required—at once the music pulls itself together in stark C minor…. ” “Brother and sister embrace, speechless; the music churns for a long time before reaching haven in soft, glowing A flat…. ” It is evident from a phrase or two in his other articles on Strauss that Murray has a genuine feeling for what large-scale key structure can effect, but he seems to have been constrained here to hold this understanding in check, and supply only picturesque detail.

Clive Allen, too, wants his readers to know the key of every number of Der Freischütz, but other authors do not feel obliged to offer even this much musical detail. Nevertheless, one should be grateful for the clarity with which the plots are recounted, and many readers will be pleased to discover at last what actually happens in Il Trovatore, about which Roger Parker writes appreciatively—although calling the duet of Manrico and Azucena at the beginning of the final scene “narcotic” will give the wrong idea to many readers.

A few of the articles on composers are held over from the parent dictionary, among them Friedrich Lippmann’s satisfying Bellini and Daniel Heartz’s very fine piece on the eighteenth-century composer Traetta, but most are newly written for the opera volumes. Richard Taruskin’s Mussorgsky has a special brilliance, Richard Osborne’s Rossini a special elegance, and Julian Rushton’s Mozart a special density (although his suggestion that Mozart could have ended the great sextet in Don Giovanni in a key other than E flat is not supported by any precedent in Mozart’s practice—and anyway, as the French say, if my aunt had them, she would be my uncle).

Some other entries are more controversial: Barry Millington’s Wagner is not as powerful a performance as Carl Dahlhaus’s was in the larger New Grove, although it is an excellent piece of work. He tends, however, to underplay much present critical work on Wagner and to overemphasize his own research, in particular the oddly British obsession with what key a piece is in. It is clear that Wagner used certain tonalities symbolically, but it is not so crucial an aspect of his art as this new dictionary makes out. Millington also finds it significant that the second scene of Das Rheingold begins in D flat major and that the last opera of this tetralogy, Die Götterdämmerung, ends in D flat major, but this has little to do with keys. The second scene of Das Rheingold begins with a vision of the newly built Valhalla, and the tetralogy ends with another vision of Valhalla in flames; the same leitmotif arrives in the same key. Nevertheless, this is not a framing device (and dismissing the E flat major of the opening scene of Das Rheingold as lying outside the form is unconvincing). In fact, the end of Götterdämmerung—in texture and orchestration as well as harmony, key, and motif—resembles, not the second scene, but the last scene of Das Rheingold, with the entry of the gods into Valhalla; and it is a dramatic effect, not a formal frame, to end both the first and last operas of the tetralogy in a similar way.

Only in Die Meistersinger and Parsifal is a whole opera by Wagner conceived as a completely closed tonal structure, and the third act of Parsifal is remarkable as a slow progression from B major back to the A flat major of the Prelude to the first act: the Prelude to the third act continually suggests B major while always falling into B flat minor, and the music resolves the ambiguity only with the straightforward B Major of the Good Friday Spell—even here, we can see that the role of tonality in Wagner is not that of a classical frame but of a process. Millington’s attempt to ascribe framing devices to Wagner obscures the energetic scene of harmonic movement, which is more significant.

Millington’s contention that the pedantic musical arbiter in Die Meistersinger, Beckmesser, was intended to be understood as a caricature of a Jew has received a good deal of attention, but it has only a little more than a grain of truth. His argument runs briefly as follows:

1) Wagner disliked Jews and claimed that Jewish composers wrote music with all sorts of unmusical characteristics.

2) Beckmesser is a bad musician whose music has similar characteristics.

3) Therefore Beckmesser is Jewish.

This is confirmed by an esoteric pun in Act One, referring to a Grimm fairy tale about a Jew, an allusion which nobody has detected before Millington.

The fact is, Millington is probably right about the pun, an example of Wagner’s disgusting anti-Semitic humor, and Beckmesser was originally intended as a caricature of the critic Edouard Hanslick, who had a Catholic father and a Jewish mother (it is, of course, the mother that counts). It is also evident, however, that no effort was made by Wagner to carry this anti-Semitic element any further in the opera as it stands; beyond the pun, which passed unnoticed, no pejorative allusion to Jews can be found elsewhere in the work. Hans Sachs’s final aria in praise of pure German art, which will protect German cultural identity even when Germany is conquered by foreign troops, is directed against the French: not even Wagner’s paranoia dreamed up an occupying army of Jews. Millington’s supposition that-Beckmesser’s serenade is a parody of Jewish cantorial style is unconvincing, and Wagner does not try to make Beckmesser sound Jewish, as he does with Mime, the greedy, timorous dwarf in Siegfried (as others have observed, here is where Wagner’s anti-Semitism has genuine musical expression).

The extent to which Millington’s research has run away with him can be seen when he writes:

The irregular phrase lengths, false accentuations and disorderly progress of the Serenade depict Beckmesser’s agitation and supposed artistic sterility, and should not be regarded as symptomatic of an “advanced” musical style.

Supposed artistic sterility?” Millington is so carried away with his vision of Beckmesser as a persecuted Jew that he ends up by thinking of him as a real person, not as a character created by Wagner, and imagines that Wagner is wrongfully denying creative powers to a real musician. But Beckmesser is a fiction, a wicked, bigoted critic in an opera, and he is what Wagner made him. His serenade, however, is a miracle of invention: it is stupid, awkward, and bad, but like Mozart’s “Musical Joke” it is fascinating and a delight to listen to; it seems to predict a style of music which escapes the norms of Wagner’s age, just as the whole tone scale in Mozart’s violin cadenza in the “Joke” foreshadows a new music while it makes fun of a violinist with intonation problems. And Wagner himself is swept away with enthusiasm for the serenade and bases the entire finale of the second act on it, a finale which is his greatest ensemble.

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