In this issue: We explore the most beautiful moments in 20th-century music, and beyond, including R. Strauss’s “Presentation of the Rose” Scene from Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59; Messiaen’s “Jardin du sommeil d’amour” from Turangalîla-Symphonie; and more!
Now, More Than Ever: Issue 33
Today’s Now, More Than Ever is inspired by a comment once made by my USC music history teacher David Fick, who said that, in his opinion, the two most beautiful moments in all of 20th-century music are the “Presentation of the Rose” scene in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and the “Garden of Love’s Slumber” movement from Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. I’ve thought often about David’s comment, pondering the many other contenders for such a list. Unsurprisingly, each of us has a different idea of what constitutes beauty, though I suspect there are a number of instances where many would agree. So today, I thought I would begin with David’s examples and add a few of my own, expanding the time frame by also including works from the 17th and 21st centuries.
R. Strauss: “Presentation of the Rose” Scene from Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59
Barbara Bonney, soprano (Sophie) Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano (Octavian) Vienna State Opera Carlos Kleiber, conductor
You really can’t argue with David about the glorious music in this scene from Act II of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. Here, the young and beautiful Sophie is presented with a silver rose, representing her engagement to Baron Ochs but carried in proxy by the young Count Octavian (one of opera’s great “trouser” roles, here played by a beguiling Anne Sofie von Otter). As Sophie sings about the heavenly scent of the rose (at 2:29)—Barbara Bonney’s voice floating up and spinning out an A-sharp, moving to a B-natural, on the word “himmlische” (“heavenly”)—the music soars, sailing above and beyond us all. And when the trumpet enters (3:17) as the characters’ eyes meet and they fall instantly in love… well, it’s simply one of most sublime moments in all of opera.
This is a famous performance of the piece from the Vienna State Opera in 1994, conducted by Carlos Kleiber. Der Rosenkavalier was one of the few operas for which he would occasionally come out of hibernation towards the end of his life.
Octavian: (Faltering a bit) I have the honor of presenting the nobly born maiden bride, in the name of my lord and cousin von Lerchenau, the rose of his love.
Sophie: (taking the rose) I am obliged to your lordship. I am obliged to your lordship for eternity. (an awkward pause)
(while smelling the rose) It has a powerful scent of roses, of real roses.
Octavian: Yes, there’s a drop of Persian rose oil in it.
Sophie: Like heavenly roses, not of this world, Like roses from paradise. Don’t you think so, too?
Octavian: (tilting himself over the rose that she holds out to him, then straightening himself up, and looks at her mouth)
Sophie: It’s like a greeting from heaven. It’s almost too much to bear. It pulls me toward it, as if my heart were reined. (quietly) Where have I ever been, and felt so happy?
Octavian: (at the same time as if not realizing it, and even more quietly) Where have I ever been, and felt so happy?
Sophie: (Expressively) I have to return there, and even if I have to die on the way. But I won’t die. That’s a long way off. This is time and eternity in a blissful moment. I will not forget this until the day I die.
Octavian: (At the same time as her) I was a boy. I didn’t know her yet. Who am I? How have I come to her? How has she come to me? If I were not a man, I’d lose my senses. This is a blissful moment that I will never forget until the day I die.
—Translation by Larry Rothe
Messiaen: “Jardin du sommeil d’amour” from Turangalîla-Symphonie
Yuja Wang, piano Cynthia Millar, Ondes Martenot Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar de Venezuela Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
This selection should begin at 38:28; it ends at 49:00.
Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie is a 70-minute experience, and it’s certainly not to everyone’s taste. (My own mother blames this music for the fracture of a bone in her ankle, an accident that occurred when she tripped on the steps of the Sydney Opera House while trying to flee the concert!) But for the right listener, it’s a thrilling, all-encompassing experience, filled with moments of overwhelming passion and power. A love theme unites the piece, and in this central movement (“The Garden of Love’s Slumber”), Messiaen joins that theme to his fascination with bird song. (As a devout Catholic, the composer thought of birds as earthly representations of angels, something clearly depicted in the musical dialogue between piano and orchestra.)
The Ondes Martenot (here played by adopted Californian Cynthia Millar), invented in 1928, resembles the theremin and is played with a keyboard or by moving a ring along a wire, creating “wavering” electronic sounds—a sort of ghostly representation of the human voice. Messiaen’s sister-in-law, Jeanne Loriod, was a celebrated ondist of her time.
Mahler: “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”
Jessye Norman, soprano New York Philharmonic Zubin Mehta, conductor
Mahler’s great “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am Lost to the World”)—one of composer’s five songs for voice and orchestra or piano set to poems by Friedrich Rückert—certainly deserves a place on any list of the most beautiful music ever written. Though published together with two other songs as Seven Songs for Latter Days (a collection never intended to be considered a song cycle), these five settings are now commonly referred to as the composer’s Rückert-Lieder; they are usuallyperformed in a specific, and widely accepted, order, and most artists choose to end with this song, which essentially is about slipping off into some beautiful internal space of acceptance. Mahler lost several children, some in childbirth and some at a very early age, and was obsessed with his own death, so the specter of death is never far from his music. Whether this piece is about death or about finding a sort of bliss in a world of love, or even about the artist’s interior world… well, I’ll leave that up to the listener. But in a performance like this, it truly stops time.
I was lucky enough to hear Jessye Norman perform on several occasions, and any opportunity to revisit those memories is a welcome one. Here, her vocal control is complete. Her enunciation clear and precise. Her sense of gravitas all-encompassing.
I am lost to the world
With which I used to waste much time;
It has for so long known nothing of me,
It may well believe that I am dead.
Nor am I at all concerned
If it should think that I am dead.
Nor can I deny it,
For truly I am dead to the world.
I am dead to the world’s tumult
And rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love, in my song
—translation by Richard Stokes
Monteverdi: “Pur ti miro” from L’incoronazione di Poppea
Nuria Rial, soprano (Poppea) Philippe Jaroussky, countertenor (Nerone) L’Arpeggiata Christina Pluhar,director and theorbo
Strangely enough, for a duet that concludes one of the composer’s defining musical achievements, there remains a question as to whether or not this particular music was actually written by Monteverdi or was appended by someone else. Regardless, this encounter between Nero and Poppea, the courtesan with whom he has replaced (and elevated to her rank) the Empress Ottavia, would appear to be a portrait of true love. Alas, history seems to tell another story. The real Nero, according to Suetonius, ended up murdering Poppea while she was pregnant with their child.
For the time being, let’s opt to remain in Monteverdi’s idealized world, enjoying one of the most beautiful of all operatic endings—in this, my very favorite opera. As is often the case with this composer, Monteverdi left the instrumentation up to the performers, so every conductor, every group leader, has to figure this out on their own. What L’Arpeggiata and friends have done here is nothing less than extraordinary. And in particular, the partnership between Nuria Rial and Philippe Jaroussky is the stuff that dreams are made of.
I adore you, I embrace you I desire you, I enchain you no more grieving, no more sorrow
O my dearest, O my beloved. I am yours,
O my love, tell me so, you are mine, mine alone, O my love, feel my heart see my love, see.
Richard Ayres: Selection from No. 42, In the Alps
Barbara Hannigan, soprano Nederlands Wind Ensemble
A longtime resident of the Netherlands, the English composer Richard Ayres (who numbers all of his works) describes No. 42, In the Alps, as “an animated concert,” which will give you some idea of how to approach this eccentric work for soprano, trumpet, and orchestra. The UK’s Guardian was impressed, offering praise for a piece that, “like so much of [Ayres’] output, seems to thumb its nose at the buttoned-up conventions of contemporary music while creating an unnervingly charming world of its own. Ayres uses a mix of film captions, singing and music to tell the story of a girl who survives a plane crash on a remote Alpine peak, and is taught to sing by the local animals.” And that just begins to describe this decidedly offbeat work.
Sporting what seems to be a pair of Heidi plaits and possibly the skin and fur of an unfortunate snow leopard, the incredibly talented Barbara Hannigan appears as the composition’s heroine. Ayres’ music is frequently haunting and indescribably lovely, with passing nods to Alpine musical references including Mahler and Rossini (the William Tell Overture). Written for Hannigan and the Nederlands Wind Ensemble (seen in this video), the work had its premiere in 2008.
Brad Mehldau, piano Larry Grenadier, bass Jorge Rossy, drums
It’s hard to believe, but the first time I heard “Blackbird” was in a performance by Anne Sofie von Otter and pianist Brad Mehldau; it took me some additional time to find my way to the Beatles’ winsome 1968 tune, itself the source of endless fascination for so many other performers. But what Mehldau and company accomplish here is, for my money, ravishing. Today, I offer it here as an affectionate sign-off. I hope it warms your heart.