Matthew Aucoin is a composer and conductor. He is Artist-in- Residence at Los Angeles Opera and a 2018 MacArthur Fellow. His new opera, Eurydice, had its world premiere in Los Angeles in February. (May 2020)
an opera by Aribert Reimann, at the Paris Opera, November 21–December 7, 2019
an opera by Manfred Trojahn, at the Vienna State Opera, November 14–20, 2019
Out of generosity, out of necessity, artists and institutions worldwide are broadcasting their work online, in many cases for free. An astonishingly rich world of music is more in evidence and more readily available than ever. It’s hard to imagine any positive side effects to our current state of emergency, but perhaps, in our newfound state of isolation, we can learn new ways to listen across borders, with open ears.
Verdi: Creating “Otello” and “Falstaff”—Highlights from the Ricordi Archive
an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, September 6, 2019–January 5, 2020
Giuseppe Verdi’s last two operas, the Shakespearean diptych of Otello and Falstaff, together constitute my favorite case study in what happens when a play is made to stand up and sing. Both the source material and the musical adaptations are works of singular beauty and power. To study these operas alongside their sources is to see what is gained and what is lost, what remains intact and what is transformed, when a complex human drama is adapted from speech into song. Otello is an exceedingly rare breed, practically a unicorn: a masterpiece based on a masterpiece. And Falstaff achieves something rarer still: it is a love letter to Shakespeare that expands on Shakespeare’s work.
No matter the form his music takes—from sparkling, quicksilver piano pieces to grand orchestral essays—there is across Debussy’s entire oeuvre an extraordinary unity of texture. Its essential quality is a spacious beauty, a lushness without thickness, which his biographer Stephen Walsh intelligently ascribes in part to Debussy’s preference for whole tones. Music whose basic interval is the whole tone—an interval of two half-steps, that is, two piano keys—is inherently spacious; there is more room for light to filter through. In Walsh’s words, “whole-tone harmony…lacks that onward push that we associate with tonal music.” This is another essential quality of Debussy’s music: late-Romantic harmonies that tend, in Wagner’s hands, to strain sweatily toward a climax are transformed through Debussy’s alchemy into mysterious floating oases, worth luxuriating in for their own sake.