Top Five Interpreters of Gertrude Stein

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Earlier this month, the Opera Theater of St. Louis premiered the opera Twenty-Seven by Ricky Ian Gordon. The title refers to 27 Rue de Fleurus, the Paris home and salon of Gertrude Stein, where the American writer entertained such guests as Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Igor Stravinsky and other cultural luminaries in Paris at the time. Gordon is only the most recent composer to find a muse in Stein’s words and world; here are five others who’ve been inspired by her:

1. Virgil Thomson

Virgil Thomson was 29 years old when he met Stein, who was then in her mid-50s, accompanying fellow composer George Antheil to 27 Rue de Fleurus. Unbeknownst to her, Thomson had previously set Stein’s words to music prior to that meeting, but the pair got along “like two Harvard men.” From that point on, one of the more remarkable partnerships in 20th century opera arose. Stein would write the librettos for Thomson’s operas, including Four Saints in Three Acts (1933) and The Mother of Us All (1947), the latter of which would become Stein's last major work. He would also write her musical portrait.


2. John Cage

As a young composer, John Cage found inspiration in Stein’s words. She most likely was an overarching presence when he visited Paris in the early 1930s, though they didn’t meet. Cage’s Three Songs, written from 1932 to 1933, sets three short texts by Stein to music. His groundbreaking 1940 work Living Room Music, in which a percussion quartet played on objects and furniture found in a living room, also incorporated a Stein piece, “The World Is Round” which is repeated throughout the second movement.


3. Heiner Goebbels

The German composer and director Heiner Goebbels was widely praised for his 2007 adaptation of Stein’s late-career tome, Songs of Wars I Have Seen. His piece is grounded by Stein’s melancholic observations that she wrote while living through World War II in Vichy, France. During performances, female members of the orchestra orate these selections from the book over Goebbels’s orchestration. This piece marked a return for him to Stein’s writings—in Hashirigaki (2000), Goebbels cited passages from Stein’s seminal novel, The Making of Americans.


4. Ned Rorem

The nonagenarian American author and composer, Ned Rorem, has turned to Stein’s writing more than once in his career. He incorporated Stein’s famous line “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose ” from the poem Sacred Emily, into one of his Six Sacred Songs. Then in 1968, Rorem wrote the one-act opera Three Sisters who are not Sisters based upon Stein’s murder-mystery play of the same name. In his New York Times review, Bernard Holland remarked, “[Rorem’s] music successfully explains a literary art in which form is everything and matter matters little.”


5. Lord Berners

In the 1930s the eccentric British composer, Lord Berners (aka Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson) collaborated with Stein and a still young choreographer Frederick Ashton on the ballet, A Wedding Bouquet. The work premiered in 1937 at what would become Sadler’s Wells. Berners and Stein unsuccessfully teamed up a year later to write an opera based on Stein’s libretto, Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (Virgil Thomson also was unable to finish a score for the work). Stein’s words eventually premiered in 1951 at New York City’s The Cherry Lane Theater, with music by Richard Banks.

Weigh in: What is your favorite work inspired by Gertrude Stein? Please leave your comments below.