Necrophilia. Just one of the many joys one finds in Opera.

June 24, 2016 at 10:30 am

The Summer SolsticeMidsummer, and specifically, June 24th, are associated with John the Baptist, the cousin, forerunner, and baptizer of Jesus, born six months before his more famous cousin (whose birth is very much associated with the Winter Solstice.)

The story of the death of John the Baptist is revolting and twisted. That means, naturally, that it makes a smashingly good opera. Richard Strauss‘ one-act opera, Salome, is based on a play by no less than Oscar Wilde. Here’s the plot, in a nutshell:

  1. King Herod asks his niece (Salome) for a lap dance
  2. She agrees to do it in exchange for the head of John the Baptist on a plate
  3. She dances, and yes, it’s awkward
  4. John’s head is served
  5. Salome sings a love song and proceeds to kiss John’s severed head
  6. Herod kills Salome – because Herod is clearly not sick and insane as well
  7. Everyone goes to the lobby and throws up

Now that’s entertainment! Musically, the opera is Strauss at his very best – lush and romantic, but edgy and unpredictable. This video is the very end of the opera, when Salome sings her love to John’s head. The music is gorgeous and moving, but every time you get caught up in the moment, you remember that this is a girl singing to a bloody head.

At 3:56 you can hear a textbook example of bitonality – music that is simultaneously in two keys.


It’s never too early for Halloween

June 23, 2016 at 10:30 am

June 23rd is St. John’s Eve – that is to say, the day before the Nativity of John the Baptist, the Christian Feast Day that celebrates the forerunner and baptizer of Jesus. But more on that tomorrow.

St. John’s Eve just happens to be the setting for one of the best scary pieces ever written – A Night on Bald Mountain (also titled “St. John’s Eve on the Bare Mountain”), by Modest Mussorgsky. The spooky music speaks for itself. Mussorgsky himself describes how he wrote the piece. I thoroughly enjoy his words (taken from a letter to a friend), because he makes the compositional process seem like a compulsive, drunken all-nighter, with plenty of Russian resentment against the Germans:

“So far as my memory doesn’t deceive me, the witches used to gather on this mountain, … gossip, play tricks and await their chief—Satan. On his arrival, the witches formed a circle round the throne on which he sat, and sang his praise. When Satan was worked up into a sufficient passion by the witches’ praises, he gave the command for the sabbath, in which he chose for himself the witches who caught his fancy. So this is what I’ve done. At the head of my score I’ve put its content:

1. Assembly of the witches, their talk and gossip;
2. Satan’s journey;
3. Obscene praises of Satan;
4. Sabbath

The form and character of the composition are Russian and original … I wrote St. John’s Eve quickly, straight away in full score, I wrote it in about twelve days, glory to God … While at work on St. John’s Eve I didn’t sleep at night and actually finished the work on the eve of St. John’s Day, it seethed within me so, and I simply didn’t know what was happening within me … I see in my wicked prank an independent Russian product, free from German profundity and routine, and grown on our native fields and nurtured on Russian bread.”

This piece is now pretty much universally recognized as one of the best parts of Disney’s 1940 film, Fantasia, which also included masterworks such as The Rite of Spring and the Pastoral Symphony.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream, pars prima

June 22, 2016 at 9:56 am

Midsummer is celebrated various ways by various cultures on various dates throughout the week after the Summer Solstice. This is good news for my blog, because, not surprisingly, this mystical, magical, and religiously important time of year has a lot of significant music written about it.

Before Cheech & Chong, the best acid trip entertainment was undoubtedly Shakespeare‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Gods, goddesses, fairies, and magic potions, there is even a character named Bottom who gets turned into an ass; now that’s top-quality play-writing! Felix Mendelssohn, like many other composers, wrote incidental music for this play. Here is the rollicking scherzo from the suite.