A is for Aïda (or how NOT to go about creating an online presence)

Back in 2013, when I was first getting used to this website creation malarkey, I had ambitious plans to create a bunch of websites, each dedicated to a different topic. This was complete madness – I didn’t understand how much work maintaining a single website could be and I wasn’t even prepared to really put in the work to do that. This was how we got: Kirsty Morgan Music, Kirsty Morgan Music Blog, Snark [music] Notes, Ethnomusicology: St Mary’s Singing Group, 50 Book Challenge, and my greatest non-starter, the website we’re going to talk about today, A-Z of Giuseppe Verdi (which I have just deleted).

2013 was the bi-centenary of Verdi’s birth, so having just started a music degree and seeing some of my classmates had their own music websites, I wanted to get involved. I decided to create an A-Z of Verdi operas, posted fortnightly (26 letters, 52 weeks of the year). Not a bad idea in theory (if I do say so myself), but I should have decided which operas to write about for each letter right from the start – or at the very least checked that there was an opera for each letter (spoilers: there isn’t).

On top of this, I was busy with university courses, and hanging out with friends, and I started having health problems. And the weeks slipped by. I might have been able to play catch-up but then I’d have to write 2, 3, 10 posts a week just to break even. It was a disaster. In the end, I wrote 1 post: A is for Aïda.

And…. it’s not the best post in the world. There’s no conclusion. I found out some stuff about the opera and wrote it down. Most of it contains a plot synopsis that can be found in better forms elsewhere. But I also kinda like it, in a weird nostalgic sort of way. So, in the interest of centralising everything onto the ONE blog (which, yes, I ought to have been doing from the start), here is my single blog post, that I’m posting today to commemorate the 120th anniversary of Verdi’s death.


A is for Aïda, Verdi’s twenty-fourth opera. It was composed very quickly, at the request of the Khedive Ismail Pacha of Egypt. When Verdi was offered the job, he was working as a farmer and had no desire to compose anything, especially not for an Egyptian (the horror!).

Fortunately for music lovers, Verdi’s nationalism was won over by the substantial payment offered – over 15,000 francs for the Egyptian performances alone (at a time when 10 francs were considered a large salary). After several delays caused by the 130-day siege on Paris by the Prussians, Aïda premièred in Cairo on Christmas Eve, 1871.

The première was hugely successful. Aïda’s Egyptian influences appealed to the native audience, as Italian critic, Filippi, explained, with all the tact befitting a nineteenth-century white guy:

“The Arabians, even the rich, do not love our shows… it is a true miracle to see a turban in a theatre in Cairo. [Yet] Sunday evening the opera house was crowded before the curtain rose.” 

Story
Set against the backdrop of a bloody war between Egypt and Ethiopia, Aïda is a tragic story of the love between the Egyptian Pharaoh’s favourite soldier (Radamès) and a young Ethiopian slave-girl in the Pharaoh’s court (Aïda). The conflict between true love and patriotic loyalty (for both Aïda and Radamès) drives the plot.

Shortly before leaving for war, Radamès accidentally reveals his love for Aïda, slave-girl to the Pharaoh’s daughter (Amneris). Amneris, insanely jealous, tricks Aïda into admitting that she returns Radamès’s affections. The princess vows to make the slave-girl even more miserable than she already is.

Radamès returns from war victorious with a slew of Ethiopian prisoners, one of whom is Aïda’s father and king of Ethiopia (Amonasro). Amonasro is dragged to the Pharaoh’s dungeon in chains and Aïda’s grief at her father’s fate is exacerbated further when the Pharaoh announces that, as a reward for his valour in battle, Radamès is to marry Amneris, the princess.

On the eve of the wedding, Amneris prays at the temple of Isis that Radamès will love her. Taking advantage of the princess’s absence, Aïda meets her father outside the temple. Amonasro explains that the Ethiopians are ready to fight once more and suggests that Aïda convince Radamès to abandon Egypt and join her in Ethiopia. Radamès, however, has other plans. He knows that he will be sent to battle once more and, if he defeats the Ethiopians a second time, the Pharaoh will be hard pressed to refuse his requests to marry Aïda instead of the princess.

Aïda manages to persuade Radamès to run away with her but, when he realises that she is the daughter of the Ethiopian king, Radamès despairs, calling himself a traitor and a coward. The lovers are discovered and, as Aïda escapes with her father, Radamès gives himself up to the custody of the Pharaoh’s priests.

Refusing Amneris’s offer to help him, Radamès is brought to trial for his treachery and sentenced to be buried alive. Aïda hides in Radamès’s crypt, choosing to die at her lover’s side rather than live alone. She dies in Radamès’s arms and the opera ends: “Peace, peace, peace.”

Musical Analysis – Triumphal March
The Triumphal March, also known as the Grand March, has been described as “the most celebrated tune in the opera.” Its popularity out of context can overshadow the fact that Aïda, for all its showiness and glamour, is truly an intimate opera. Almost all of the music for the three principal characters – Aïda, Radamès and Amneris – is accompanied by minimal orchestration in order to focus the audience’s attention on the magnificent vocals. However, the spectacular march of Act II Scene 2 – celebrating Egypt’s victory over the Ethiopians – is a vivacious and highly enjoyable affair.

After twenty-four bars of lively (yet majestic) orchestral introduction, the chorus explodes into a splendid tune “Gloria all’ Egitto” which impressed the Khedive of Egypt so much he decided to make it the Egyptian National Anthem.

While writing Aïda, Verdi initially intended to use authentic Egyptian instruments. However, after examining an ancient Egyptian flute in a Florentine museum, he changed his mind, dismissing the flute (with all the tact befitting a nineteenth-century white guy) as “a reed with four holes in it like the ones our shepherds have.”

Instead, Verdi requested that six trumpets – three in A flat and three in B – be made to his specifications. These long, straight instruments were designed to emulate Verdi’s vision of Egyptian trumpets and were crafted in Milan then shipped to Egypt.

The trumpets in A flat play the march tune in unison before immediately being taken over by the remaining three trumpets which repeat the march in their key of B. This sudden key change is one of the most exciting and effective moments in the entire opera.

After a lively balletic movement, the chorus returns and builds to the climax – the triumphant entry of Radamès. “Gloria!”


Bibliography
Bacon, Mary Schell Hoke. Operas Every Child Should Know (New York, 1911)
Osborne, Charles. The Complete Operas of Verdi (New York, 1969)
Steen, Michael. Great Operas: A Guide to Twenty-Five of the World’s Finest Musical Experience (London, 2012)

[SnarkNotes] FRANZ SCHUBERT: Der Zwerg

[First published on Snark [music] Notes on 30/01/2016]


FRANZ SCHUBERT: Der Zwerg

The lyrics to Schubert’s lied, Der Zwerg (1822), are taken from a Romantic ballad written by Matthäus von Collin. Although the music is undoubtedly powerful, the story of the failed romance between a lady and a dwarf is somewhat more suspect…

Opening rhythm, which also appears in his ‘Unfinished’ symphony, was often used by Schubert to symbolise erotic undertones.

Huh, it’s like the nineteenth-century equivalent of a trigger warning. How considerate.

‘In the grey light the mountains already fade away; the ship drifts on the sea’s smooth swell.’

Ahem… “swell”? I take your ‘erotic undertones’ and expose them to the world!

‘On board, the queen sails with her dwarf.’

What, like, her pet dwarf? That’s disturbing.

‘She gazes up at the high curving vault, at the far blue distance, woven with strands of light, crossed by the pale band of the milky way.’

That’s poetic. I mean, obviously it’s poetic – it’s a poem. But still, I appreciate the colourful word-painting.

‘She cries out: “Never yet have you lied to me, stars. Soon I shall depart. You tell me so. In truth, I’ll gladly die.”‘

ASTROLOGY™, leading gullible young lovers to their deaths since the tragedies of Ancient Greece.

‘The dwarf steps towards the queen, to tie the red silk cord about her neck; and weeps, as though he meant to blind himself with grief.’

A red silk cord, huh? And I thought the nineteenth century was meant to be all sexually repressed and stuff…

‘He speaks: “You yourself are to blame for this wrong, because you have forsaken me for the king. Now only your death can kindle joy in me…’

Hey, mister unnamed dwarf, quit victim-blaming and go see a psychiatrist. These feelings are not normal.

‘… I grant that I shall hate myself for ever, because I have brought about your death with this my own hand; still must you pale before your early grave.”‘

Well, if you’ll hate yourself forever, don’t frickin’ murder the woman you lust after. Jeez, it’s not that difficult to just, y’know, NOT kill a person.

‘She lays her hand on her young heart, and the heavy tears run down from her eyes, which she would raise to heaven in prayer.’

See what you’re doing, unnamed dwarf dude? Is there nothing in your head telling you this might be a bad idea?
You don’t HAVE to kill her, you know. Ignore the stars! Change your destiny! Live a little!

‘”May you reap no anguish from my death,” she says.’

…What are you doing, lady?! You should be fighting back!
You don’t HAVE to die, you know. Ignore the stars! Change your destiny! Live a little!

‘Then the dwarf kisses her pale cheeks, and forthwith her senses fail.’

You are both terrible, terrible people. The dwarf because he murders his lover; the lady because she is literally too dumb to live.

‘Bemused by death the dwarf gazes upon the lady, and with his own hands commits her to the deep.’

I’m not sure bemusement is the appropriate emotion right now, unnamed dwarf dude. Don’t tell me you didn’t realise what would happen if you strangled a girl to death? ‘Cause that’s super unprepared even for a Byronic villain like yourself.

‘His heart burns with longing for her.’

Well, then he shouldn’t have murdered her, should he?

‘He will never more set foot on any shore.’

So wait, he kills the girl he fancies so that he’ll finally be happy but then kills himself anyway? What’s the point in that?! Dude, you could have just killed yourself in the first place – without murdering your ex-lover – and you’d be no worse off (and the kid you’re attracted to would be considerably better off). What the heck is wrong with you?!

End of lied.

Seriously, WHY does Romantic poetry so seldom contain any characters with basic common sense?! It is unbelievably infuriating!

Moral of the story: obsession with another human being will turn you into a crazy murderer?

BETTER MORAL OF THE STORY: If ever find yourself in the role of a lover in a Romantic tragedy, avoid looking at the sky. Astrology can kill.

Advent Calendar #2: Away in a Manger

I know I’m cheating with this one, since I recorded it several years ago, but I’m running out of time and, when questioned about what she wanted her carol to be, my sister Jenny immediately responded that she wanted Away in a Manger – both the American and British versions. She did offer an alternative when I told her I’d already created that, but here we are less than a week before Christmas, with nothing recorded, so, here you go Jenny! Your first choice.

[SnarkNotes] RICHARD WAGNER: Ring Cycle, Part 1 – Das Rheingold

[First published on my old music blog, Kirsty Morgan Music Blog on 19/5/2013; then on Snark [music] Notes on 2/11/2015]


RICHARD WAGNER: Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold

In the first part of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold (1852), the unthinking actions of a Dwarf, a God and some Giants spark events that will eventually lead to the apocalypse.

Overture: Fast, flowing cellos represent river Rhine.
Rhine maidens guard magic gold that grants ultimate power.

Why does that gold exist? Why has it not been destroyed? There’s not even been any singing yet, and it’s clear things are gonna go badly, badly wrong!!!

Alberich the dwarf wants the gold.

(TERMS AND CONDITIONS APPLY: Denounce love, get gold.)

Alberich denounces love in order to get gold:
“Thus I curse love”.

Nope, totally don’t see how this could possibly go wrong.

Fashions gold into a ring.

SAURON STYLE!!!

Wotan (Odin) has commissioned giants to build a huge castle (Valhalla).
He offers his wife’s sister as payment to the giants.

Wait, WHAT?!!!!!

Wotan’s wife intervenes.

Wotan, put Freia down. You cannot sell the Goddess of Love to some random Giants…

Giants still want to be paid, so Wotan then tricks Alberich into turning himself into a toad.

No, Alberich! Don’t turn yourself into a toad! Wotan’s gonna steal your…

Wotan steals Alberich’s ring.

[FACEPALM]

Understandably, Alberich is a bit miffed, so he placed a curse on the ring!

Evil Curse!!!

Curse: anyone who owns the ring will be blinded by its power!

[DOUBLE-FACEPALM]

Wotan gives ring to giants.

Wotan? What are you doing? WOTAN! STAHP!!!

Giants fight over ring, one dies.

Well done, Wotan. Well done.
[SPOILER WARNING: You’ve just triggered the apocalypse]

Moral of the story: greed and power-hungriness are bad.

BETTER MORAL OF THE STORY: Never hang around with Norse Gods.
Or Giants.
Or Dwarves…

Feature: Echo Chamber

Imagine sitting on a couch next to a stranger, surrounded by arcade games and Nintendo wall decorations, staring into the face of a paper mâché mounted smilodon head, while a string quartet plays a mashup of medieval chant and Jimi Hendrix. This was the unique musical experience that the Mancunian string quartet Echo Chamber offered four nights ago (Monday 6th) at the MegaBYTE cafe in Glasgow.

An arcade cafe might, on the surface, seem an odd choice of venue for a classical music concert. Similarly, Jimi Hendrix and Kanye West are not necessarily the most intuitive musical companions to Franz Schubert, Arvo Pärt, or Pérotin. But Echo Chamber, although still very new on the music scene, is eager to challenge some of the social mores that have sprouted up around classical music.

The choice of venue was a result of the quartet’s association with the company Groupmuse, an organisation that provides a platform for people to set up classical music concerts in small, unlikely venues. Quite often, that even involves a member of the public arranging a concert in their own living room! The idea, which has already taken off in the States, is to build a community of like-minded people who really enjoy classical music and listening to it in unexpected places. As violinist Stephen Bradshaw put it when we talked after the concert:

Chamber music is very much a tradition of friends coming together to play music. It is often described as being like a conversation. As soon as you take that out of a small room and put it in a big concert hall, some of the more salient elements of that are lost.

This is very true. Although a concert hall’s acoustics may be better, this particular experience really invokes the salons of, say, Haydn and Mozart, friends who occasionally met to play string quartets together, or the 19th-century Viennese parlours that Franz Schubert gathered in with his circle. Although, perhaps an even more fitting analogue there would be the Schubertiads, established after Schubert’s death, which often involved fans of Schubert coming together in drawing rooms to celebrate the music they loved in an informal setting in the company of others who shared their passion. This practice fell out of fashion eventually; even as early as 1946, the music critic Alec Robertson was bemoaning the loss of these cosy gatherings. But perhaps Groupmuse’s house concerts will inspire a resurgence.

If such a renewal is to take place, Echo Chamber’s unique style is perfect for the situation. Their repetoire, inspired by listening to songs on shuffle in Spotify and the Radio 3 show Late Junction, is vibrantly innovative. As Bradshaw pointed out, there’s no rule that says you can’t pair 13th-century music with Kanye West, so if it sounds good together, why not go for it? The unconventional musical juxtapositions are interesting and engaging and during each performance there’s a sense of a shared joke between the players and the audience, which is enhanced by how close everyone is gathered. The cello was less than an arm’s length away from where I was sitting.

This was an unforeseen addition to this particular evening’s arrangement (even for the players!). After the first piece, the quartet’s artistic director, Leo Mercer, suggested we all moved to sit around one table with each member of the quartet situated at one of the four corners. Personally, my initial reaction was intrigued bemusement, but I was pleasantly surprised by how relaxed the rest of the concert turned out to be, given its intimate nature.

I think also, this was a really positive inclusion for a concert of this style, where the individuality and variation from concert to concert is a big attraction. The quartet also includes improvisation for the musical transitions, and these are completely different each performance. For example, Monday night’s transition between Pérotin’s Viderunt Omnes and Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze featured a lot of powerful, dramatic tremolo that was fantastic, and all the more impressive for having been made up on the spot. During the interval, when the performers came and chatted with the audience, Sophia Dignam (viola) was laughing about how she started the tremolo, unsure whether it would work out well, and the others followed her lead and they just went for it – and I have to say, it worked brilliantly! Mercer, the artistic director, even mentioned that he thought it was their best transition to date! It was lovely that all of the group were so open and willing to talk about the performance; they were all really friendly and it enhanced the whole atmosphere.

It’s a somewhat unusual setup for a string quartet to have an artistic director, most quartets operate as a purely democratic unit, but here Mercer is very much an asset to the group, always coming up with new ideas to encourage both the audience and the players to experience and think about the music in new ways. Bradshaw described to me the group’s rehearsal process. Generally they will spend about forty-five minutes rehearsing the music, then Mercer will come in and “do his artistic directing thing”, for example:

He might get us to think about different lines of music as different characters in a play, or get us to move around the room, sit in different parts of the room, try and experience the music in a different way in order to get us to play in more kind of fresh and exciting ways. […] He has a very unique style of artistic direction, and he’s constantly trying to take us out of our comfort zone, which is a really good thing. Classical musicians have the worst comfort zones, and we’re just used to doing a very specific thing within a certain set of confined rules. And Leo’s all about taking us out of those comfort zones, taking us out of those “echo chambers” and getting us to try out new stuff all the time.

Echo Chamber’s house concerts are not Mercer’s only out-of-the-box production. He’s written an opera called The Marriage of Kim K, based on Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Again combining classical and contemporary, the opera will feature reality-TV style aspects alongside music from Figaro as well as newly composed material. Echo Chamber will actually be providing the music for the production at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. It’s an intriguing idea, and judging by the surprises of Monday’s concert, I’m not sure what to expect, but I imagine it will be distinctively special.

Bradshaw told me about what the quartet hoped to achieve with their concerts:

We really want people to experience classical music in a non-pretentious way, and that’s probably one of the biggest features that we do as a quartet. Making classical music less about turning up, smartly dressed, and not clapping between movements and more about just coming and enjoying the music you like, with a drink in hand, with friends. That’s what we want people to take away from this. Yes, a sense of community, a sense of – not necessarily classical music being cool – but making it something accessible, something you enjoy going to listen to. Have fun, have fun going to a house party but one where you listen to your friends playing classical music! Simple as that really!

I think they have accomplished that goal. Everything about Monday’s concert was crafted to make the experience as unique, friendly and hospitable as possible. It was a relaxed and enjoyable evening, with very talented, thoughtful musicians and their beautiful music in a small retro cafe. And although the word is frightfully overused, I’d go as far as to say the evening was “hygge”.

Echo Chamber Quartet
From the left: Chris Terepin (cello), Stephen Bradshaw (violin), Sophia Dignam (viola) & Rebekah Reid (violin).


Echo Chamber’s Facebook: www.facebook.com/musicechochamber
Echo Chamber’s Twitter: twitter.com/_echochamber
Echo Chamber’s Instagram: www.instagram.com/echochambermusic
Groupmuse’s Website: www.groupmuse.com

Dance Review: Moscow City Ballet’s “Sleeping Beauty”

carabosse
The Evil Fairy, Carabosse

Recently, my best friend and I saw Moscow City Ballet’s spectacular performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, at the Edinburgh Playhouse. The website I work for, Bachtrack, had asked me to write a review of the production – and I’m really pleased they did because it was a marvelous evening, packed with fairy tales and music. It also gave me the opportunity to visit my friend, which is always really fun.

The review, if you want to read it, is here. This article’s drawing is of the evil fairy, Carabosse, played by Kiril Kasatkin.

Dance Review: Ballet West’s “Swan Lake”

Hey folks,

I wrote a dance review for the website Bachtrack. It’s about Ballet West’s production of Swan Lake at the MacRobert Arts Centre in Stirling. You can read it here.

In the meantime, because I wanted to make this more than a self-promotion link to a different website, enjoy this exclusive-to-here picture I drew of Natasha Watson, who plays Odette.

natasha-watson-odette-2