Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Landmarks (47)

Hector Berlioz: Les Troyens (1856-58)

Opera is not really a presence in this list of landmarks, although I readily recognize that opera, as conservative as it has become, was, for most of its history, the central field for musical innovation.  If something new happened with regard to tonal practice, orchestration, texture, or form and continuity, chances are that it happened first in a theatrical context while concert music, with its repertoire of fixed ensembles and forms, was traditionally the more conservative field.  It's no wonder that Stravinsky was, first and foremost, a composer for the theatre (although dance was his genre more than opera) and many more contemporary innovators, among them John Cage, La Monte Young, Robert Ashley or Philip Glass have been at their essence as theatre composers, particularly when they test the extent and limits of the theatre as well as music.  But even with such innovation in music theatre taken broadly most opera has become rather conservative and rigid, due perhaps to the inevitable costs of institutionalizing a late 19th century form of production within modern state or "charitable" contexts, focused on a core historical repertoire with attempts to get around that conservatism via ahistorical staging more itches on the wound than actual recovery from the malaise and most attempts at commissioning new opera doomed from the start by institutional demands unwilling, in a too big to fail atmosphere, to risk big money on actually new ideas.

But then Les Troyens...   Berlioz is one of the three or four composers I can reliably turn to when I want to hear something extraordinary.  Listening as a composer out to plunder, his techniques — rhythmic, tonal, contrapuntal, textural, and of course orchestrational — are marked everywhere for me by his heterodoxy, his alternatives to business as usual, his breaking the rules every music school kid is supposed to obey.  (To be honest, part of this heterodoxy comes simply from the fact that Berlioz's texts are in French, requiring very different metrics, stresses, and cadences than those found in the Italian and German repertoire that so much theory is based in.) The mileage he can get out of the inversions of a chord or by an aptly inelegant voice leading are wonderful, his wildest adjacencies and polytextural conterpoints are more than wonderful. Small details, like using bIII as the functional dominant in the March of the Trojans, make large differences by coloring the tonal fabric just a bit less familiar, just strange enough to evoke difference.  His scores, and Les Troyens being the grandest, most comprehensive of them all, are compendia of techniques with still-to-be-explored consequences.  The score to this opera is much more useful to a young (or not-so-young, like myself) composer than Mr. B's famous Treatise on Orchestration.

But then Les Troyens...  is on my landmarks not only as a useful compendium of musical stage magic, but as grand opera at its most promising, preposterous, thrilling, and, yep, beautiful.  While Berlioz is justly famous for his capacity to manage and consume musical resources on the largest scale, I find his real compositional talent is most in evidence in his restraint (I've used the Requiem in teaching orchestration, and the contrast and balance between the grandest and the most intimate moments always comes at a positive shock to students, a real lesson in musical economics); the duet "Nuit D'Ivresse" and the suicide of Cassandra and the Trojan women are strong examples of such restraint.  

But then Les Troyens...  is an opera that the composer never heard in its entirety and has only recently begun to take a place in the repertoire.  It's the great grand opera we don't know yet (and Guillaume Tell is the great grand opera we've completely forgotten!)  At the time of its composition, opera was moving in the direction of more conventional narrative continuity while Les Troyens, like most of Berlioz's musical-threatical works, remained episodic, even fragmentary, an assembly of scenes from the epic rather than attempting to account for and contain the entire story. (I suspect that part of my affinity for the opera comes from my familiary with Asian theatre forms which are presented in similar pieces and scenes rather than the impossible wholes.)  So it's an example of a historically significant opera which has never had the chance to establish itself in institutional musical life and we have the strange and wonderful phenomena of the piece receiving roughly contemporary performances in both high establishment form (at the Met under Levine) and in an historically informed style (under Gardner)(although there was never really a historical premier to refer back to). In either case, it is music that, at its best, stays new.

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