Benvenuto in Italia! Welcome to Italy! My passport series continues by heading south from Switzerland into the beautiful country of Italy where good food, good music and good shopping abound! It’s also the home to the majority of the musical terms we use today.
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736)
Hometown: Lesi, Italy (SE of San Marino)
Played: Violin and Organ
Known for: Comic operas and sacred music
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi was a composer in Italy who wrote music at the end of the baroque era, beginning of the classical era of music. As you can see by the dates next to his name above, he, like so many other composers – Purcell, Mozart, Shubert, Bizet, Gershwin – died at a very young age. In his case, of TB at just 26 years of age.
Though his life was far too short, we were fortunately left with some amazing music!
Pergolesi was probably best known for writing his comic operas, also known as opera buffas.
During a time in Paris when his opera Il Prigionier Superbo was performed, it is said to have prompted the Guerre des Bouffons, or war of the comic actors – i.e. ongoing arguments between supporters of opera buffa and serious opera as to which style should continue to be performed. Pergolesi was held in high esteem and did a little of both, though within Il Prigionier Superbo – and perhaps what started it all – was an opera buffa intermezzo in two acts called La Serva Padrona, The Servant Mistress, which became quite a success in its own right.
Who knows if Pergolesi was playing both sides of the fence at the time but it seems the comic operas won out as he wrote a handful more, all but one of which premiered in Naples and were quite successful. Below is a video of La Serva Padrona. Take a moment to watch some of it. It’s a lot of fun and while I’m not a huge fan of opera, it had me laughing within the first minute or so. Gotta love a good comedy!
In addition to his comedic music, Pergolesi also wrote sacred music for the church. He was born in Lesi, Italy which, at the time, was considered part of the Papal state, under the direct rule of the Pope. (now part of the province of Ancona) Knowing that, you can imagine how the church could easily have influenced what he wrote.
Of course, a good commission by the Confraternità dei Cavalieri di San Luigi di Palazzo never hurts. What is probably his most popular work, Stabat Mater (1736) is a piece originally commissioned as music for Good Friday in honor of the Virgin Mary.
I’ve included two versions of the Quando Corpus Morietur and Amen here, but for the first, it’s probably best if you just hit play and then lean back, close your eyes and enjoy. It’s a gorgeous piece with a small chamber ensemble accompanying a choir along with a soprano and mezzo-soprano.
And because I live in Columbus, Ohio, here’s a version of the Stabat Mater from just a couple of years ago by the Columbus International Choir that I think is just wonderful.
So? What did you think? Che bellissima!
Thanks for reading this and hopefully treating yourself to some new opera and choral works. What better way to have a great day but by listening to wonderful music. Next time, I’ll be talking about the Austrian composer Ignaz Pleyel. See you then!
Welcome to Switzerland – land of great skiing, yodeling, neutrality, chocolate and gorgeous mountains. (I highly recommend taking a train ride through the Alps at sunset. It’s absolutely breathtaking!)
It’s also land to the latest composer in my passport series: Heinrich Sutermeister. He’s a 20th century composer who is probably best known for his operas and choral works.
Heinrich Sutermeister (1910-1995)
Hometown: Feuerthalen (near Zurich) Switzerland
Alma Mater: Staatliche Akademie der Tonkunst (State Academy of Music), Munich, Germany
Known for: Operas, choral pieces
Sutermeister studied in Munich under Carl Orff (Carmina Burana) whose music influenced him throughout his life. Early in his musical career, he had a one-year apprenticeship at the Berne City Theatre. It’s perhaps thanks to his time there that he gained a lot of support by way of several commissions and play time on the Berne Radio.
I love that he even made it onto a Swiss postage stamp!
This is a performance of his Capriccio for unaccompanied Clarinet in A (1947). I especially like the playful section about a minute and a half in. It just sounds fun to me. There are other fun parts, too – particularly around the 4-minute mark. Take a listen and enjoy!
I hope you’ll listen to this lovely choral piece, Schilflieder, sung by the German a cappella group, Quartonal. It’s a relaxing piece that is beautifully sung. I don’t understand a word since my German really stinks, but regardless of how much you do or do not understand, it’s worth listening to the entire 5-1/2 minutes.
Sutermeister originally wrote works for the radio, but later turned to television opera, loosely converting stories such as Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco to small scale operas.
He also wrote the libretto and music for a two-act opera Romeo and Julia after Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The video below allows you to listen to some excerpts from that particular opera.
Thanks for reading this! I hope you were able to take some time to listen to Sutermeister’s music and get to know him a little better like I did. Prior to starting this series, I’d never heard of him before, so I’m excited to try something new.
The next composer I’ll be writing about is from Italy: Giovanni Pergolesi.
Back in January, I gave my readers a quick lesson in Italian because so many musical terms are indeed Italian. For some reason, Italy got the jump on everyone and ended up with a monopoly in musical lingo. Totally fine – it all sounds good, Italy has produced some fabulous music and the country itself is gorgeous.
I thought I’d go a little more specific with you today. Here in Columbus, our classical music station, Classical 101, broadcasts a complete opera each and every Saturday afternoon. Likewise we can view opera performances at the Met on the large screen at area movie theaters.
What goes into making an opera? Who makes up the story? Where does it all come from? Well like a good movie, many operas come from existing stories or plays.
Like any large production, there are many people involved in the making of an opera. With movies, we have directors, actors, crew, editors, you name it. With operas, there are composers, instrumental musicians, crew, costume designers, and the actors / singers on stage. All that goes without saying, but who writes it? We know where the music comes from, but who writes the opera’s story itself?
The best way I could describe a story on which an opera is based is to equate it to an adapted screen play.
In this year’s Oscars, John Ridley won the award for best adapted screenplay. He took the book 12 Years a Slave, originally written by Solomon Northrup, and converted it to a screen play for a movie.
He’s the librettist of modern-day movie productions. That’s what a librettist does: converts an already-existing story into a production that can be performed on stage. The composer, then sets all that to music.
In classical music, in particular with operas, one often hears the word “libretto.” Think of this as the script.
li·bret·to - noun \lə-ˈbre-(ˌ)tō\ : the words of an opera or musical
According to Merriam Webster, a libretto is defined as follows.
The text of a work (as an opera) for the musical theater
Pierre Beaumarchais, who, in addition to being a playwright, was also an inventor, spy and arms dealer, wrote a series of plays featuring the character Figaro. Though controversial, these plays were picked up by composers who worked with librettists to turn them into operas for the stage. Two main examples are by Rossini and Mozart.
The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini - libretto by Cesare Sterbini
The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
Rossini and Mozart were great at the music part of it, but needed some help with story itself. That’s where Sterbini and da Ponte came in.
In more modern times, the great American composer, George Gershwin collaborated with his brother, Ira Gershwin, on writing such great songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Embraceable You.” And while George wrote the music, Ira was the librettist for the opera Porgy and Bess – considered one of the most important 20th century operas written.
These operas would not have been possible without the script – made possible by the talented librettists. Sure the composer gets all the credit, but until he has a story, he has nothing to set to music. Just like with modern-day movies, the actors and the directors are those who get noticed and who are therefore well-known.
Every performance – symphony, movie or opera – is a collaborative effort with an incredible amount of work put in both in advance and behind the scenes during a performance. As patrons we typically just see the finished product, but there’s definitely far more to the creative process! Try to think of that the next time you head out to a concert or movie.
American soprano, Renée Fleming is going, to break through a barrier next month by being the first opera singer to sing the National Anthem at the Superbowl XLVIII. (Go Peyton Manning!)
It’s such a rarity for a classical music artist to play at such an event that the Washington Post anticipates some classical music purists will eventually be up in arms about it. At the same time, it’s not entirely unheard of for classically trained musicians to play at sporting events, but it certainly doesn’t happen very often. Perhaps we can work to change that – especially in a never-ending challenge faced by arts organizations all around the country to put people in the seats of their theaters! This article from the New York Times’ Arts Beat blog mentions a few other performers who were at least (kind of) close to this caliber of musician.
In the same vein as Malcolm McDowell and James Earl Jones’ reading of text messages and Facebook posts, Ms. Fleming has ventured away from the stage into something a bit more recognizably accessible to the rest of the world. Take a look at David Letterman’s Top 10 List from one night last September: Top 10 Opera Lyrics. It’s pretty hilarious – you should definitely watch it!
She’s fantastic, isn’t she? Gotta love a healthy sense of humor!
Photo of Renée Fleming pulled off a google search. Photographer Jonathan Tichler.
The song, Danny Boy, has been in my head a lot this week, so I thought I’d share a few good performances of it here.
Often associated with Irish diaspora, Danny Boy was actually written by an Englishman, Frederic Weatherly, back in 1913. The song itself was originally written to another tune three years earlier, but he changed the melody to be based on Londonderry Air after receiving a copy of it from his sister-in-law.
If you’ve seen the movie, Memphis Belle, (Or love Harry Connick, Jr.) you’ll easily recognize this big band version, but be warned. You’ll also have chills when DB Sweeney appears as that part was also left in this youtube video.
I like this version with the King’s Singers
Over the summer I came across this beautiful version by soprano, Charlotte Hoather, (who also happens to be the first person to follow my blog!)
And because we’re in the middle of NCAA football season, it seems only right to include the Ohio State University Marching Band, a.k.a. The Best Damn Band In The Land, playing Danny Boy at this year’s Buckeye Invitational.
Have a great weekend, everyone!
Last June at the Columbus Arts Festival, we handed out packets of forget-me-not seeds at the Columbus Festival for Opera Columbus, which shared a booth with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra.
Thanks very much to my friend, Betsy, for allowing me to use this picture of her forget-me-nots that she planted after the festival.
The Opera Columbus is performing some great operas this coming up season including another Gilbert and Sullivan light opera: The Pirates of Penzance, which I fully plan to see next spring. HMS Pinafore this past June was so much fun!
You can learn more about Opera Columbus at their official website, so I invite you to take a look!
Following is the raw data from the survey I conducted earlier this month: Musical Arts in Columbus. Here are some details on the survey itself.
* Taken June 4-18, 2013
* 192 attempts at the survey: 177 complete, 15 incomplete. 111 online, 66 via paper in person at the Arts Festival. Incomplete surveys are not included in these totals.
* 172 responses were from the U.S. 1 response each came from: Taiwan, Puerto Rico, Germany, Austria and the United Kingdom.
* 10 Multiple Choice Questions. Number of questions determined by limits on free-survey taking sites. Polldaddy.com was used here because it is tied to WordPress which houses this blog.