Sunday, November 13, 2016

Project 366 - Music Takes the Stage

To mark the fifth anniversary of ITYWLTMT, we are undertaking a long-term project that will introduce - and re-introduce - musical selections in the context of a larger thematic arc I am calling "A Journey of Musical Discovery". Read more here.

This next chapter of our project will run a quick survey of music conceived for, or from, works for the stage (and since the advent of film in the 20th century) and other screen media.

This in turn manifests itself in many ways musically – incidental music, that is music designed as “background” or “mood” music; ballet music or music intended for choreographed stage productions and, to a lesser extent, overtures, tone poems or other such free-form works inspired by plays.
The ultimate stage work involving music, of course, is opera and its derivatives forms (operetta, musical comedy, musical revues, …) however we will reserve a separate discussion – look for it in our next chapter!

How Suite It Is

The case of incidental music is worth discussing through a different angle, which aptly applies for much stage music output – what is the best vehicle or the best platform to present that music in the concert hall without the benefit of the stage performance and stage performers?

The answer is to assemble musical numbers in a multi-part suite. These suites come in two flavours – those assembled by the composer (or a surrogate) and those assembled by conductors or instrumentalists.

There are many examples of that. For instance, we rarely hear the music Edvard Grieg composed for Henrik Ibsen's 1867 play Peer Gynt (his Op. 23) in its original incidental form. In 1888 and 1891, Grieg extracted eight movements to make two four-movement suites: Suite No. 1, Op. 46, and Suite No. 2, Op. 55. Some of these sections – the Morning Mood and the Hall of the Mountain King, have transcended the stage and concert hall and are well-recognized tunes in popular culture.

Maurice Meterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande is the example of a stage work that has garnered many versions of incidental music, notably by Fauré and Sibelius, as well as an operatic adaptation by Claude Debussy. Of note, it is Fauré’s pupil Charles Koechlin who assembled a concert suite of Fauré’s incidental music, and composer/conductor Marius Constant who packaged Debussy’s music for a “performance symphony”.

Complete Ballet Scores in Concert

Ballet music is a peculiar case study when it comes to “complete” vs. “suite” in concert. It happens, on occasion, that orchestras (and chamber players) invite dance troupes to join them on stage in concert venues to add the choreographic dimension to a ballet (or even a ballet suite) they are performing – but that is the exception, not the rule.

Is ballet really about the music, or is it not about the dance? I guess the real answer is a lot of both, and even in some cases, I’d go so far as to say “it depends”…

Impresario Serge Diaghilev promoted his dance troupe les ballets Russes in concerts all over Western Europe, well into the 20th century, before, during and after the Russian Revolution in 1917. Some of the productions he presented used dancers and choreographers from the Imperial Ballet in St-Petersburg: Nijinsky, Pavlova, the list goes on!

The ballets he staged included the enduring classics from Late Romantic Russia – Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake – and Western ballets like Giselle. Diaghilev also promoted contemporary composers and commissioned works from Debussy, Ravel, Falla, Glazunov and Stravinsky. On the evening of May 29, 1913, Diaghilev’s dance troupe premiered a ballet by Stravinsky to a Nijinsky choreography: The Rite of Spring. The raucous this premiere caused, borrowing words by Don McLean, made it “the Day the Music Died”; at least, “old Guard” music.

A work like the Rite of Spring, because of its significance in music history, is one of these “it depends” cases where the music can stand alone in the concert hall. I would further argue that any ballet that can be performed as a continuous piece of music – unlike say the great Tchaikovsky ballets that are deployed over several acts – are also candidates for concert performance. Sometimes, we even forget Ravel’s La Valse or Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun were originally performance dance works!

Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet (his opus 64) is an interesting case study for “suites performance”. Prokofiev milked that music for all its worth: he assembled not one, not two but three suites (his op. 64 bis and ter and op. 101), and Prokofiev reduced selected music from the ballet in 1937 as Romeo and Juliet: Ten Pieces for Piano, Op. 75, which he premiered himself later that year. Many conductors of renown, including Riccardo Muti and Dimitri Mitropoulos, have assembled their own by mixing and matching numbers from the Prokofiev suites.

Music as an Essential Component

The power of incidental music in stage (and screen) performance is its ability to set the mood, or convey “unspoken” messages. Richard Wagner, in many of his operas, instituted the concept of leitmotiv, or “character themes” where he represents characters in the action within the music, morphing these themes to suit the moment. This method has been heavily used by other composers – John Williams made significant use of that for the music he composed for the many chapters of the Star Wars anthology, and the Harry Potter anthology, only to name those.
In an interview, Aaron Copland discussed the scoring of the 1949 William Wyler drama The Heiress starring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift for which he won the Academy Award for best original score.

In the action, on the night they are to elope, the heiress Catherine eagerly awaits at home for her suitor Morris to come and take her away, but he never arrives. The scene is played out as a sequence of individual carriages turning into Washington Square, with Miss de Havilland rushing to the door each time one comes by, only to see each carriage pass without stopping. You can sense how Wyler wanted to create a sense of anticipation with increasing impatience and despair as the drama unfolds, carriage after carriage.

At a pre-screening, the audience was heard laughing through the scene. Wyler asked Copland to re-score the scene, and at the next screening, the audience was in tears. The footage didn’t change – just the music, and that was enough to create the effect Wyler wanted to achieve.

Recommended Playlists

Listener Guide #53 - "Pelleas et Melisande". Three different works inspired by Maeterlinck’s play (ITYWLTMT Podcast # 108 - 7 June 2013)

Listener Guide #54 - "Sibelius Takes the Stage" We explore three stage works set to music by Jean Sibelius.  (ITYWLTMT Montage # 234 - 11 Nov 2016)

Listener Guide #55 - "Shakespearean Inspirations". Explore compositions by Berlioz, Ibert, and Korngold that were inspired or accompany stage works of William Shakespeare. (ITYWLTMT Montage #233 - 28 Oct 2016).

Listener Guide #56 - “Tchaikovsky ‎– Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty Suites”. Herbert von Karajan, has left behind a good umber of performances of the Tchaikocsky ballet suites. Here, from my vinyl collection,  Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty with the Berlin Philharmonic, in a studio recording from the early 1970's. (Vinyl's Revenge #19 - 26 July 2016)

Listener Guide #57 - “Prokofiev ‎– Romeo And Juliet”. It is not uncommon for conductors to "mix and match" selections from ballet suites to form their own, and this is exactly what Dimitri Mitropoulos did for Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. (Vinyl's Revenge #20 - 23 Aug 2016)

Listener Guide #58 - "This Day in Music History,  29 May 1913". A Montage which recreates the recital of les Ballets Russes at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées on that night over 100 years ago (ITYWLTMT Podcast # 107 - 29 May, 2013)

Listener Guide #59 - "A Suite at the Movies". Music and film goes back to the days of silent films, where music played a large role in providing desired mood effects, and later in the Musicals of the 1940âs, only to name those. Composers as far back as Camille Saint-Saens provided film music, and a great number of European composers (most noteworthy here being Franz Waxman and Erich Korngold) moved to Hollywood to score great epic films of the first half of the 20th century. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #20 - September 2, 2011)

Listener Guide #60 - "The Star Wars Trilogy".  A nostalgic look at the music composed for the original Star Wars trilogy, conducted by the composer. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #232 - 14 Oct 2016)

Listener Guide #61 - "Cowboiy Classics". The lure of the open prairie, and the cowboy mystique has inspired many composers â and this is what we will be exploring this week in our podcast. (ITYWLTMT Podcast #13 - 8 July 2011)

Listener Guide #62 - "Peer Gynt". Ibsen asked Edvard Grieg to compose incidental music for his memorable play. This is a "performance suite" of some of the highlights from the score. (Vinyl's Revenge #18 - 28 Jun 2016)

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