When basses ruled the (operatic) world

By Lawrence Toppman

Whenever a fellow bass in the Opera Carolina chorus puts Mozart down, I think, “You’re crazy! He elevated the lower male voice to its greatest heights.”

Look at his casting. “The Marriage of Figaro” has three leading bass or baritone roles and two tiny tenor parts with one aria between them. “Magic Flute” has three bass leads, one tenor lead and one supporting tenor. “Don Giovanni” has four bass or baritone leads to one namby-pamby tenor.

Mozart liked the richer sound of lower voices and exploited their expressive possibilities, partly because they carried well in smaller theaters that produced his operas. Beethoven and Weber followed his example: “Fidelio” has three basses and baritones to two tenors, and the main tenor doesn’t appear until more than halfway through. “Der Freischütz,” the most exciting German opera before Wagner, has an amazing five baritone/bass parts and just one tenor.

Where did it all go wrong? When did ear-piercing high notes start to take over?

I date the problem to a revival of Rossini’s last opera, “William Tell.” The Italian comic genius treated low voices well enough for a while: His masterpiece, “The Barber of Seville,” has three good bass-baritone roles and just one for a tenor. But he became infatuated with higher voices: His “Otello” has three tenor leads, his “Armida” six.

He wrote a cruelly high part for the tenor hero of “Tell.” And in 1831, Gilbert Duprez became the first guy to sing a high C in chest voice, rather than the falsetto range, in its Italian premiere.

Never mind that Rossini initially described the sound as “the shriek of a strangulated capon.” It became the rage. Tenors who couldn’t deliver it fell by the wayside; they were like silent film actors once talkies had been invented, subtle artists nobody prized any longer.

Basses and baritones had glorious moments in Wagner and Verdi, though the latter liked a high baritone sound that floated near the bottom range of a dramatic tenor. (That’s why Placido Domingo sings them now.)

Yet by the end of the century, as venues and orchestras increased in size, composers turned more often to voice types that could reach the back of a big hall easily. By 1900, we basses had mostly become second-class operatic citizens – and we still are today.

Mozart without …ummm…cojones

By Lawrence Toppman

I’ve been listening to the motet “Exsultate, jubilate,” which many people (myself included) consider Mozart’s earliest undisputed masterpiece. He wrote it shortly before his 17th birthday in 1773; if there’s a more joyful finale in music history than the final “Alleluia,” I haven’t heard it.

I go back and forth between recordings with a large modern orchestra and a smaller one, the kind that gives HIP renditions on instruments styled after those of the 18th century. (HIP stands for “historically informed performance.”) But neither you nor I will ever hear quite what Mozart heard, because the original soloist was castrato Venanzio Rauzzini.

As far as I know, only one castrato made a solo recording: Alessandro Moreschi, who died at 63 in 1922. He recorded a few discs in 1902 and 1904, when he was in his mid-40s and well past his prime. The one I have (perhaps not the best) makes him sound hooty and labored. Yet he represents a 300-year tradition that began in the mid-1500s and continued (though in decline) until the Papal States in Italy outlawed the procedure in 1870.

Because women weren’t permitted to sing in churches, and boys proved unreliable – partly because voices changed too quickly – the Catholic Church sanctioned the removal of young singers’ testicles before puberty.

As a castrato aged, lack of testosterone prevented his bones from hardening in normal ways. His ribs became unusually long, giving him remarkable lung capacity, and his vocal cords remained more flexible than other singers’. That made castrati invaluable for Baroque-era operas and oratorios, whose heroes always sang long, florid arias. (Today, countertenors or mezzo-sopranos take those parts.)

Naturally, our first reaction is “Ugh.” These kids were seldom asked if they’d like to go through life with bodies different from their peers and without the possibility of fathering children.

On the other hand, great singers such as Farinelli and Senesino earned a lot of money and acclaim and had Europe’s finest composers – Monteverdi, Vivaldi and especially Handel – writing works specifically for them. For instance, Senesino created the title role in “Giulio Cesare,” Handel’s opera about the Roman emperor’s infatuation with Cleopatra.

Art always requires sacrifices, though not usually of body parts. As revolting as this process sounds to us, only the great castrati could tell you whether the things they gave up were worth the rewards.

Pictured: “Choir of Angels” Panel from the Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432 by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Located in Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent.

A Festive Carolina Summer

Summer festivals, featuring diverse artistic contributions from chamber music and orchestra to theatre and choral singing, are happening across North and South Carolina. Below you’ll find highlights from a selection of festivals, as well as access to websites for performance schedules and event details.

An Appalachian Summer Festival

An Appalachian Summer Festival Logo

In its 35th anniversary year, the Appalachian Summer Festival offers an array of performances that run the gamut of artistic media, from the symphonic music of the Eastern Festival Orchestra to the voice of Patti LaBelle to a night with comedienne Lily Tomlin. Lasting over a month, this festival offers myriad opportunities to engage with some of the foremost cultural, artistic, and musical figures of the present moment.

Brevard Music Center Summer Festival

Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium; Photo courtesy of Platt Architecture, PA.

The 2019 Brevard Center Summer Festival, set near a lake in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, will host a wide selection of musical artists. The festival features a large collection of works by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Aaron Copland, as well as a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark with a live performance of John Williams’ compositions for the score.

Eastern Music Festival

The Eastern Music Festival showcases the musical fruits of an educational experience for young musicians. Coming from across the United States, over 200 students from ages 14 to 23 descend on Greensboro, NC, for five feverish weeks of intensive study and practice of instruments ranging from classical violins to trumpets to acoustic guitars. These students prepare eight full-length concert programs, to be performed after mastering each program.

Spoleto Festival

The Spoleto Festival, held annually in Charleston, SC, features a diverse collection of theatre, chamber music, dance, and choral and orchestral performances. Highlights of the season include a trio of Shakespeare’s plays ( Twelfth Night, Comedy of Errors, and Pericles ), a “Classical Showcase” by the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra of works from the classical and neoclassical periods, and various choral works with the voices of the Westminster Choir.

Unable to make it to the festivals this year? Tune in to WDAV Classical Public Radio to hear music from many of these festivals on programs like Open Air Brevard, Spoleto Chamber Music Series and Carolina Live. Check the WDAV program schedule for air dates and times.

Exactly when does genius begin?

By Lawrence Toppman

We don’t think of musicians as plodding tortoises who suddenly turn into rabbits and dash toward immortality. We envision a steady arc toward greatness, with signs of the amazing future present in even the earliest works. But that’s seldom true.

Listen to Mozart’s first half-dozen symphonies, and you hear virtually nothing any competent court composer couldn’t have done. Tiny hints of individuality peep through; he trips you up briefly even in the first symphony, modulating boldly before resorting to conventional form. But he’s a long way from the last half-dozen, which were unrivalled in the world of the 1780s except for Haydn’s Paris symphonies.

It’s fun to compare earlier non-inspirations with mid-career pieces that show more personality and late masterworks, hoping to find a trail from beginning to end. Usually, I can’t. Perhaps you will if you attend “Mostly Mozart May-nia,” the spring concert by Renaissance. The Charlotte singers will perform May 4 at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church, with strings, piano and organ as accompaniment.

The program offers Mozart’s only English anthem, an imitative work composed at 9 while in London; the early choral pieces K. 86 and 89; “Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,” (KV 273), better stuff if not amazing; “Vesperae solennes de confessore” (KV 339), which is breathtaking in spots; the brief but soul-deep “Ave Verum Corpus” (K. 618); and the “Lacrymosa” section, the most beautiful melody from the Requiem (K. 626).  The non-Mozart portion includes Ola Gjeilo’s “Luminous Night of the Soul” for chorus, piano and strings.

We rarely get overview concerts of one composer in Charlotte, because audiences become restless. If we do, like the Charlotte Symphony’s all-Beethoven opener this fall, they combine three great works that don’t show progress from immaturity to consummate skill.

But all composers, even the most precocious, start by copying others. Benjamin Britten found his voice at 21 with his “Simple Symphony,” still much admired, but the works before that – the ballet “Plymouth Town,” the Sinfonietta, Two Portraits – all sound like attractive music by nobody in particular. The same holds true for Mendelssohn, Saint-Saens and others whose early works we enjoy without finding them idiosyncratic. Mozart’s Six Minuets (K. 164) are agreeable, forgettable dances. His “Exsultate, Jubilate” (K. 165) entered the world’s repertoire of beloved choral pieces. Who knows what lightning struck him between these two?

An Entire Universe in a Single Keyboard

By Lawrence Toppman

I saw Maurizio Pollini this month at Carnegie Hall, where he played Brahms, Schumann and nearly an hour of Chopin, including two encores. He walked slowly, stiff-legged and slump-shouldered at 77, toward the Steinway on the otherwise naked stage. But electricity shot from his fingers as he played.

When I came home, I remembered that I owned Pollini’s recording of my favorite piano concerto, Mozart’s 23rd. I put it on and marveled at the pristine joy and sadness he brought to it, like feelings recollected in Olympian detachment. How right, I thought. Then I put on Murray Perahia’s heart-on-the-sleeve version, with its profound adagio (the only one Mozart inserted into a piano concerto) played for maximum emotional effect. How right, I thought.

Then I binged. I listened to Wilhelm Kempff’s calmly elegant rendition, Robert Casadesus’ buoyantly Gallic take, Clara Haskil’s quietly melancholy interpretation, Vladimir Ashkenazy’s more upbeat playing – stressing the joy in the first movement and the rondo finale – and Annie Fischer’s powerful and dignified reading. I heard it with cadenzas by the performers and Ferruccio Busoni (absurdly but entertainingly grand) and Johann Nepomuk Hummel, who briefly tried to turn it into a concerto by … J.N. Hummel.

I didn’t even get to performances by Arturo Benedetto Michelangeli, Mitsuko Uchida or Vladimir Horowitz. And I said “How right – how right – how right” about one or more elements every time.

Think about that. You can’t find a dozen different ways to play Edvard Grieg’s lone piano concerto or the two by Liszt or the two by Brahms or the three by Tchaikovsky. Beethoven allows for more variety, but his five have limits, too: You can’t really have a gleeful fifth concerto or a delicately poetic third. Glenn Gould played the Emperor with Classical-Era daintiness – a nutty idea, like so many of his – and blew it, though it’s a guilty pleasure for me.

Only Mozart offers nearly infinite ways to interpret his intentions for piano and orchestra. That’s not to say his concertos can’t be performed without depth or sparkle or absurdly fast or painfully slowly. But if you love him, you can probably express that love in any way that makes sense to you and make the listener love him, too. That’s why I’m spending so much of this year in his company.

Was Mozart a Christian Composer?

By Lawrence Toppman

As Easter draws near, that question has been on my mind. On one hand, the answer’s obvious: He wrote short and long masses, a requiem and other pieces with sacred content. He belonged to the Roman Catholic church all his life.

On the other hand, you can compose religious music without being devout; Benjamin Britten, Johannes Brahms and Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote first-class Requiems. Mozart himself never spoke much about his spiritual beliefs, and contemporaries didn’t take note of a religious side.

For me, however, his music – particularly in the operas – represents one of the truest expressions of Christ’s teachings from any composer. Christians (and others, too, of course) famously ask God to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And every one of Mozart’s mature operas is about forgiveness in the end.

In “Idomeneo,” when the Cretan title character offers his son’s life as a sacrifice to Neptune, the boy forgives his father and becomes king of Crete. Pasha Selim allows Belmonte to remove Constanze (whom they both love) from his harem in “Abduction from the Seraglio,” showing a clemency the Spanish hero never expected from a presumably bloodthirsty Turk.

Spouses and lovers in “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Cosi Fan Tutte” pardon each other for all their scheming and promise fidelity thereafter. In “The Magic Flute,” Sarastro forgives the Queen of the Night’s misguided daughter for seeking his death; in “La Clemenza de Tito,” Roman emperor Titus does the same for would-be assassin Sesto, singing in “Se all’impero” that he’d rather have the world indict him for too much mercy than a vengeful heart.

In “Don Giovanni,” the libertine (or maybe attempted rapist) and slayer of an old man gets a chance to beg God’s pardon but rejects it. The Commendatore’s statue interrupts a banquet to give Giovanni a final warning: Unless he renounces sin, he’ll be damned. “Pentiti!” thunders the statue multiple times. Giovanni repeatedly refuses to repent, and devils drag him off to Hell.

Mozart wrote some of his most serenely lovely music for these final scenes of reconciliation, showing us how deeply he felt them himself. Whatever his personal relationship with God may have been, that proof makes him perhaps the most Christian composer of all.

His Frenemy, Yes – but Not His Killer

By Lawrence Toppman

Poor Antonio Salieri. Nearly two centuries after his death, virtually everything he wrote has been forgotten, and he’s remembered for something he didn’t do: murder Mozart.

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra will play his symphony “Il Giorno Onomastico” this weekend, pairing it with Mozart’s Requiem – once again, Salieri will be overshadowed by the young genius – and a welcome revival of Nkeiru Okoye’s 250th-anniversary tribute, “Charlotte Mecklenburg.” (The title of Salieri’s piece refers to the Christian church’s celebration of birthdays and death days of saints.)

I’ve heard Salieri’s music and own a couple of his piano concertos. It’s well-crafted, mildly inventive but mostly rule-following, generally indistinguishable from work by such minor contemporaries as Franz Anton Hoffmeister, Carl Stamitz or Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach.

Salieri was director of Italian opera for the Habsburg court in Vienna from 1774 through 1792 and kapellmeister (in charge of the court chapel and school) from 1788 through 1824. While Mozart lived in Vienna in the 1780s, no one wielded more musical power.

Despite letters in which Mozart felt Salieri and his Italian “clique” tried to hold him back, the Italian encouraged premieres of his works (notably the 40th symphony), praised others (especially “The Magic Flute”), co-wrote a cantata with Mozart that was lost until 2016, even tutored Mozart’s younger son after his dad’s death.

Salieri may have been jealous of Mozart’s gifts (who wouldn’t be?) and annoyed that Mozart publicly suggested he be given Salieri’s job (ditto). But how did the nutty idea arise that Salieri fatally poisoned him?

Mozart never said so. He did believe he was being poisoned, at least according to his wife; Constanze later said he made and rejected that claim off and on during his long fatal attack of rheumatic fever.

The Viennese were annoyed that an Italian interloper supervised musical activity in the capital, so perhaps they enjoyed spreading malicious gossip. Russian author Alexander Pushkin revived the story in his short 1830 play “Mozart and Salieri,” composer Albert Lortzing alluded to the rumors two years later in his mini-opera “Scenes from Mozart’s Life,” and Rimsky-Korsakov set Pushkin’s prose in the one-act opera “Mozart and Salieri” in 1897. The rumor simmered for a while until playwright Peter Shaffer revived it 40 years ago in “Amadeus.” Most people now draw their ideas about Salieri from that entertainingly untrue play and movie – which reminds us why pop culture shouldn’t stand in for history books.

Are dying composers sending us a message?

Lawrence Toppman

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra bills its April 12 – 14 concerts as “Mozart’s Requiem: His Last Statement.” It is certainly his final finished composition and a profound statement about death and resurrection, and it rises above any previous mass for the dead. However….

A lot of posthumous rumors flew around the piece, many spread by his wife. She told people he’d intended it as his own requiem and said Franz Sussmayr finished it in accordance with directions on scraps of paper Mozart left behind. Count von Walsegg, who commissioned it and had a history of passing others’ works off as his own, may have planned to claim it as his tribute on the anniversary of his wife’s death.

Mozart struggled to complete it on his deathbed, in December 1791. But according to biographer Maynard Solomon, he accepted von Walsegg’s commission about six months earlier and set it aside, because he was too busy to work on it. He got sick in September, recovered to finish history’s greatest clarinet concerto (which premiered in October), then began the requiem. He knew by December he was dying, but he didn’t know that in October.

What is a final statement, anyway? Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell” qualifies; the 37-year-old composer premiered it in Paris in 1829, said he’d write no more operas and stuck to his word, though he lived to be 76. Anton Bruckner worked on his ninth symphony for nine years through ever-worsening health, realized he would not complete the fourth movement and dedicated “my last work to the majesty of all the majesties, the beloved God.” Those are final statements.

We often assume a composer knew that the last piece he finished would be the last piece he would ever finish. A friend who venerates Tchaikovsky used to say the Russian composer – who may or may not have committed suicide in 1893 – poured all his soul into the Pathetique Symphony, because it would be his last. Alas, he eventually learned Tchaikovsky had written a latter after the Pathetique saying he was excited about starting a seventh symphony.

We should be careful when claiming to understand composers’ intentions or states of mind, unless those are clearly spelled out in their letters and diaries. (Mozart’s were not, in this case.) Musical masterpieces speak loudly enough without being glamorized by murky mysteries.