Opera's Great Upheaval, Part I

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Wednesday marks the last day you can catch the Guggenheim Museum’s illuminating “The Great Upheaval,” an exhibition of works from 1910-1918. Curator Tracey Bashkoff notes that this time was typified by close connections between artists across borders and an intermingling of genres—notably painting and writing, as evidenced in the numerous manifestos put out by the likes of Kandinsky.

Naturally, being a museum exhibit, the focus of “The Great Upheaval” is the visual arts. However if we’ve learned anything from Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise, classical music and opera were not immune to this verge of change. Fortifying the musical bond to this new school of works was Kandinsky’s theory of klang as the connection between art and viewer. “Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with the strings,” he wrote in 1911. “The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul."

As a synesthete, I find it hard to separate the pictorial from the aural. Still, it’s no coincidence that the classical revolution occurred in tandem with that of the visual arts. Salome premiered in 1906, Schoenberg moved into twelve-tone idioms in 1908, and Mahler died in 1911. With the past and future—in Ross’s words—“colliding,” the stage was set for an uprising and composers now both wildly renowned and abysmally neglected rose to the challenge.

Richard Taruskin defines modernism in part as an age of musical maximalism, a trend that has notable roots in Wagner. Maximalism also had its place in the visual arts, especially in the colors evoked by Kandinsky and Alexei Jawlensky, who still remained faithful to elements of folk art.

Engelbert Humperdinck combined folklore and maximalism in his meaty 1910 fairy-tale–based opera Königskinder. Unlike the less-Grimm Hänsel und Gretel, Königskinder boasts an unforgivingly gloomy finale that touches on the artist’s isolation (a recurring theme in early-20th-century operas and visual works). In spite of this, Humperdinck maximizes orchestral color, creating complex and vividly textured edifices.

At the same time, Schoenberg’s only formal tutor and eventual brother-in-law Alexander Zemlinsky was witnessing the first run of his Kleider machen Leute in Vienna. Kleider is a throwback to Johann Strauss and comic operetta. But much like one can see the traces of later, formless Kandinsky in works such as his 1909 Blue Rider, Zemlinsky’s flirtation with orchestral and vocal distortion foreshadows that same absurdness in his 1920 opera, Der Zwerg (“The Dwarf”).

Massenet’s Don Quichotte also opened in 1910, yet the French composer whose works straddled two centuries had a harder time easing into the 1900s. Of the Cervantes-based oeuvre, Donal Henahan wrote for the New York Times that it’s “a work perhaps easier to love than to admire.” Compared with the French works that epitomized the early 20th Century, such as Debussy’s 1902 landmark Pelléas et Mélisande, Massenet’s late works are replete with arcane sentiment and antiquated subjects. On the other hand, Camille Saint-Saëns—whose final opera, Dejanire, premiered in 1911—called Massenet “one of the most brilliant diamonds in our musical crown.” He went on to rally against composers like Debussy for their abandonment of “exuberant joyousness,” sarcastically writing, “Long live gloom. Hurrah for boredom!”

Yet Saint-Saëns also exuded an influence on one of Debussy’s most ardent supporters, Maurice Ravel. In the same year that Kandinsky began corresponding with Schoenberg, Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole, with orchestrations are at turns lushly reminiscent of Saint-Saëns and jaggedly foreshadowing Stravinsky, premiered in Paris. Ross best descries Ravel as a “cultural mutt,” owing to the composer’s Basque and Swiss heritage that endured as a part of Ravel’s identity despite his being raised in Paris. It’s not unlike Parisian-based but Russian-born artist Marc Chagall, who never lost sight of his native folkloric trends but adopted cubism in works like 1911’s The Soldier Drinks.

Elsewhere, Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier was creating its own meeting of the familiar and the nouveau in Dresden, though with a decidedly more bittersweet nostalgia. There’s the sense of goodness in the pairing of Octavian and Sophie at the end, one that can be connected in part to German expressionist Franz Marc, who was particularly drawn to the symbolic use of animals in his art (one wonders if Marc ever caught Rosenkavalier and if he picked up on the not-too-subtle connotations of Baron von Ochs’s name). At the end of Rosenkavalier, the Marschallin is left alone and painfully aware of her advancing age. Similar themes of abandonment can be seen in Strauss’s 1912 work Ariadne auf Naxos.

In Italy, 1911 signaled a greater struggle between old and new. On the one hand, with Isabeau Mascagni aimed to return to a sweet yet conservative romanticism. Conversely, figures like painter and composer Luigi Russolo, who became one of the first theorists in electronic music and published The Art of Noises in 1913, rebelled against the outmoded rhetoric propagated by Mascagni. Somewhere in the middle lie works by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari and Riccardo Zandonai, respectively I Gioielli della Madonna and Conchita.

Little suggests any major western interaction by Armenian composer Armen Tigranyan, who studied music—and eventually settled—in Tblisi. However, Tigranyan is responsible for Anush, the first Armenian opera, which is a sort of homecoming for the genre. It may have been born in Florence, but it was conceived between Syrian and Armenian chant. 

Tigranyan’s score is adorned with indigenous musical elements, including traditional wedding and religious tunes. Indeed, the Anush contains a veritable laundry list of the native modal and monodic Armenian music that would spread across the world in the wake of the country’s genocide. Surprisingly, however, it has had very few outings in the west; its American professional premiere took place in Detroit in 1981. With a resurgence of Armenian musical culture thanks to musicians including soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian (a legendary Anush waiting to happen), the time is nigh for a New York production.

Another 1912 rarity, taking a less-romantic view on life than Tigranyan, was Franz Schreker’s Der Ferne Klang. Like Kandinsky himself, Schreker’s hero, Fritz eschews convention and evangelically pursues his art—though, unlike Kandinsky, Fritz’s spark of genius eludes him. The score itself also pushes the boundaries of the aesthetic norm, demanding at one point three orchestras and mercurially moving between German Romanticism and Second Viennese School atonality. The work’s psychological elements served as inspiration to Alban Berg: His Lulu resembles Klang’s central female role of Grete. From a provincial girl in innocent love, Grete becomes a glamorous courtesan, fleetingly embodying the feminine ideal of her time before falling spectacularly. Similar to Constantin Brancusi’s 1912 sculpture, Muse, Grete is both muse and mechanism to her composer.

1913 was one of the most prolific years for opera in the early 20th Century, with new works premiered by Charpentier, Falla, Fauré, Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Mussorgsky and more. There is Leoncavallo’s own take on La Bohème, which places the focus on Musetta and Marcello. Composed in competition with Puccini’s 1896 work of the same name, Leoncavallo’s opera was initially as popular as his colleague, but has since ceded lionization to Puccini’s masterpiece of verisimilitude.

Even more obscure but painting a similar portrait of bohemian life in Paris is Charpentier’s Julien, a sequel to his better-known work Louise. Like Schreker, Charpentier and Leoncavallo explored the artists in juxtaposition with society, though Charpentier goes the extra mile with delving into the psyche of his titular poet, a mirror of the composer himself. Seeing Robert Delaunay’s 1911 Eiffel Tower, it’s hard not to think of bohemian Paris. The artist’s take on the French icon captures the tower’s immenseness, but honors, in Guggenheim author Jennifer Blessing’s words, “invention and aspiration.” In 1912, poet Guillaume Apollinaire coined the phrase “Orphism”—a play on Orpheus—do describe Delaunay’s lyrical style. Such a term can also easily apply to Leoncavallo and Charpentier.

On the other end of the spectrum is Schoenberg and his 1913 musical drama Die glückliche Hand. Like 1909’s Erwartung, it is a monodrama written for a baritone, two mimes and a twelve-person speaking chorus. It also includes meticulous details on staging, movement and color. Schoenberg began work on “The Hand of Fate” in 1910, drawing as Charpentier did on his own history, incorporating his artistic struggles and his wife’s dalliance with a painter.

And while works like Fauré’s Penelope and Falla’s La Vida Breve all brought new ideas to the table, no opera in 1913 was quite as innovative as Mikhail Matyshin’s Pobeda nad Solnstem. The first Futurist opera was an amalgamation of Russian avant-gardists: Poets Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh contributed a libretto written in the sound symbolist language zaum. Matyshin was a painter himself and, with director and “Great Upheaval” artist Kazmir Malevich, created his own gesamtkunstwerk, combining literature, music and visuals. The Pobeda’s premiere in St. Petersburg was as reviled as that of another 1913 premiere, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Sadly, unlike the riotous Rite, only fragments of Matyshin’s score remain today.

Where's 1914—18? And what about Puccini? This post will be continued on Tuesday. In the meantime, did you see "The Great Upheaval"? Leave your thoughts below, and tell us about your favorite operas from the early 20th Century.