I find myself continually drawn to the history that comes with music. In some ways, music provides us with an interesting glimpse at history, a portal to the thoughts of the composer at the time that the music was written. As such, music not only has artistic implications, but also sociological implications, as the composer is surely impacted by the world around him. For instance, Beethoven initially was going to dedicate his Third Symphony to Napolean Bonaparte, and even had gone so far as to give the symphony the working title of Bonaparte. But when Napolean declared himself emperor in 1804, Beethoven was so disgusted that he tore up the title page in a fit of rage, and when the symphony was finally completed in 1806, it bore the title of Sinfonia Eroica… composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo (“heroic symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man”). Just one example of the ties between music and history.
Tonight’s major musical work is also inspired by an event, the siege and eventual destruction of the Greek town of Missolonghi by the Ottoman Empire in 1826, that inspired outrage and condemnation throughout Western Europe (Lord Byron was among its defenders, and died of an illness contracted during the siege). The incident inspired a poem by Victor Hugo, a notable painting by Eugène Delacroix (Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi, which we see at left), and the opera that we are listening to tonight, Gioacchino Rossini‘s L’Assedio di Corinto (The Siege of Corinth). The opera is actually a revision of an earlier opera of Rossini’s, Maometto II, that had not been well received in its initial performances. So Rossini, having moved to Paris two years earlier, acted to revise the opera for French audiences. He moved the setting from Italy to Greece, translated it from Italian to French (although it is most commonly heard today in the Italian), and made some other modifications (including inserting two ballets, something that was then popular in French opera). Audiences quickly picked up on the allegorical reference to Missolonghi, and as a result the opera remained popular through the 1830s.
Although the opera disappeared from the repertory for a number of years, it experienced a revival, starting in 1949 with a production led by Renata Tebaldi. It was next seen in 1969, with Beverly Sills, Marilyn Horne, Franco Bonisolli and Justino Diaz, under the conduction of Thomas Schippers. It is this production, recorded live at La Scalla in Milan, that we are hearing tonight. The recording itself has its own bit of historical significance, as it captured Sills’ European premiere, an occasion notable enough to grant her an appearance on the cover of Newsweek. This was also the year that Horne made her own debut at La Scala (one of the great opera houses of the world, and a great reason to visit Europe), an achievement of great significance for any opera singer. Sills was truly special in this role (her aria, Cielo! che diverro?, from the start of Act 2, was indeed something to behold), but one should not miss Horne, or bass Justino Diaz, one of the top basses of the late ’60s/early ’70s.
I was watching a documentary the other day, and some song lyrics jumped out at me. A section of the song in question reads thusly:
All this machinery Making modern music Can still be open-hearted Not so coldly charted It’s really just a question Of your honesty One likes to believe In the freedom of music But glittering prizes And endless compromises Shatter the illusion Of integrity.
Inspired by that thought, I thought it would be nice to hear some Rush. So we started with the quoted song, Spirit of Radio (from 1980’s Permanent Waves), followed by Circumstances (from 1979’s Hemispheres), Closer to the Heart (from 1978’s A Farewell to Kings), before finishing with a brief set from their classic live album All the World’s a Stage (consisting of Bastille Day and Anthem, both early Rush classics).
One of the things I like to do as part of the weekly broadcast is give observance to the birthdays of special composers and performers, and we had the birthday of the great American composer Charles Ives this last Thursday. Charles Ives was a unique character with one of the most interesting stories in the history of American classical music, with a musical catalog to match that level of interest. Ives was aggressive musically, using the sort of avant garde techniques that were at that time still being pioneered in Europe. Yet, at the same time, he infused his music with a distinctly American feel. He unabashedly used as source materials American marching band music, and church hymnal music, and he credited Stephen Foster as being a major inspiration. One popular story about Ives tells of him sitting in the town square of his hometown of Danbury, Connecticut, while his father George conducted an experiment where four different marching bands would march towards the square, all playing different pieces. All of these things we heard in the material we sampled from tonight. We started with a recording of Ives’ The Unanswered Question. Then we heard a selection of his songs (His Exaltation, Lincoln the Great Commoner, At The River, General William Booth Enters Into Heaven), before finishing up with Three Places in New England.