La Clemenza di Tito

In my blog post Rinaldo I wrote in the final paragraph: “Actually I am not a real opera fan. Many of the famous operas (by Verdi, Wagner, Puccini etc) do not appeal to me. But I love Baroque operas (and of course Mozart),”

In 2018 I wrote a blog post about Mozart’s first opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus, composed in 1767 when he was 11 year old. In this post I will write about his last opera, La Clemenza di Tito, composed a few months before his death in December 1791.

Probably most of you will have seen the movie Amadeus (1984), one of the greatest films of all time. The movie was not meant to be historically correct and obviously is not. A fascinating, accurate description of Mozart’s last year can be found in this report: Mozart’s final year and death – 1791. Worthwhile to read it.

The Clemency of (Roman emperor) Titus was a popular topic for operas in the 18th century, after Metastasio wrote the libretto in 1734. Here is a list with more than forty (!) composers who used the libretto for their version of La Clemenza di Tito. I found two recordings on YouTube , one by Antonio Caldera (1734) and one by Christoph Willibald Gluck {1752).

In 1790 the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II died. He plays an important and often hilarious role in the movie Amadeus and I can not resist the temptation to show here a scene from the movie.(click on the image).

Joseph’s younger brother Leopold II succeeded him as Roman Holy Emperor, King of Hungary and Bohemia, and Archduke of Austria. The coronation as King of Bohemia took place on 6 September in Prague and Mozart was commissioned to write an opera for the occasion, based on Metastasio’s libretto.

Mozart accepted the commission although he was very busy with Die Zauberflöte and the Requiem and managed to write the opera in about two weeks time . Metastasio’s libretto was modified by court poet Mazzolà and condensed into two acts. The première was not a success and for a long time this traditional opera seria was considered a kind of failure, compared with Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte. It is only during the last thirty years that a re-assessment has taken place. Here is a very informative article: La Clemenza  di Tito: Mozart’s Operatic Failure?

After this introduction, i will write separate paragraphs about the historical background of the opera, its structure and some of the modern performances.

Historical background

In 69 CE Roman emperor Nero died. A chaotic succession struggle followed with four emperors in that year, Galba (killed), Otho (suicide), Vitellius (killed) and finally Vespasianus. When Vespasianus died in 79, his son Titus (39-81) became Roman emperor.

He had been married twice. and was in a controversial relationship with Berenice, a Jewish princess, when he became emperor. He was a fair, benevolent ruler. During his short reign he became popular for his generosity after the eruption of the Vesuvius and a big fire in Rome. He also completed the Colosseum. His reign was short, after only two years he died of a fever.

Structure of the opera

The opera is only vaguely related to Roman history. It is set in 79 CE, just after the eruption of Vesuvius. There are six roles.

  1. Titus, Roman emperor: tenor
  2. Vitellia, daughter of the deposed emperor Vitellius :soprano
  3. Sextus , a young man, friend of Tito and deeply in love with Vitellia : castrato
  4. Servilia, the sister of Sextus : soprano
  5. Annius, close friend of Sextus and in love with Servilia: soprano (en travesti)
  6. Publius , the commander of the Pretorian guard : bass

The opera consists of two acts. Mazzolà’s libretto can be found here (Italian and English). Here is a synopsis.

Act 1

Vitellia is furious that Titus is planning to marry Berenice, urges Sextus to kill Titus, but takes this back when Annius tells that Titus will send Berenice home. Sextus and Annius meet Titus who tells them that he will take Servilia as his bride. Vitellia is furious again and persuades Sextus, who this time leaves to kill (his friend!)Titus. Servilia tells Titus that she loves Annius and Titus then decides to take Vitellia instead as his bride. When Vitellia hears this, she is upset, but it is too late, Rome is burning already and according to Sextus, Titus has perished.

Act 2

Annius tells Sextus that Titus is still alive. Sextus is relieved, confesses that he has betrayed Titus and wants to leave the country. Annius convinces him to stay and hope for leniency from Titus. Vitellia urges him to flee, but Sextus tells her that he will never betray her. Then Publius arrests Sextus, he has mistakenly wounded Lentulus, who was dressed as emperor , but has survived the attack. The Senate will judge him. Titus can not believe that Sextus is guilty. But Sextus has confessed and the Senate has condemned him. Titus hesitates to sign the verdict and wants to see Sextus first. Sextus, to protect Vitellia, doesn’t explain his action. Titus signs, then tears the judgment. Annius and Servilia plead with Vitellia to ask Titus for clemency..Vitellia decides to confess. Before Titus can pardon Sextus, Vitellia tells Titus that she was the main conspirator. Titus is shocked, but then decides to pardon everybody.

It is quite interesting to compare this synopsis with the original one by Metastasio. .There the first act ends with Publius telling Vitellia that she will become the new empress. It is only in Act 2 that the fire and uproar occur with Sextus confessing that he is responsible. This act is full of drama. Here is one example: Sextus is wearing a blood-stained cloak with a red ribbon, so other conspirators can recognise each other. After Annius tells him that Titus is alive, he convinces Sextus to visit the emperor and ask for leniency. They exchange their cloaks. When later Annius meets Titus, the red ribbon is seen and Annius is arrested, only to be released after Publius tells that Lentulus has identified Sextus as the attacker.. The act ends with Sextus being led away and Vitellia worried that her guilt will be revealed soon.

In my opinion the Metastasio “story” is more interesting than the Mazzolà one. But musically Mazzola did a good job, Mozart praised him that the libretto had been “reworked into a true opera” The Metastasio libretto is a series of recitatives and arias, Mazzolà adds trio’s ,duets and even a sextet at the end of the opera, where all six singers take part.

Performances

When the commission for La Clemenza was given to Mozart, it was stipulated that the opera should contain roles for two famous Italian singers in those days, a prima donna soprano and a castrato. It resulted in Vitellia and Sextus. In the original libretto also Annius was sung by a castrato. The stage may have looked like this:

Nowadays we don’t have castrati anymore (see my blog Countertenors and Castrati) ,the roles of both young men are usually sung by (mezzo)sopranos.

I have found a number of recordings on YouTube and selected a few for this blog, The earliest one is the film version (1980) of a performance by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (1969), when La Clemenza di Tito was still virtually unknown. The video quality is not perfect, but acceptable.. The mise-en scene is traditional, classical surroundings, although the costumes are more 18th century than Roman. In the picture Servilia is telling Tito that she is in love with Annius. Publius watches. When you click on the picture, you can listen to the YouTube. When you are not familiar with this opera, it is a good introduction, because the video has English subtitles.

In Harnoncourt’s version (2003) the setting is a nondescript apartment building (car park?) and the costumes are modern. I am not a fan of this kind of approach. In the screenshot Sextus meets Titus and Publius after he has been arrested. Maybe useful to mention that Titus is standing at the right. Click on the picture for the opera.

Here is the version of Colin Davis in 2011. The screenshot shows the quintet at the end of Act 1. Rome is burning, Sextus is almost confessing that he killed Titus, Vitellia stops him. Servilia, Publius and Annius watch, shocked by the disaster. Subtitles in French.

And yes, the screenshot below is also from La Clemenza di Tito! The 2017 version by Sellars, where Tito has been mortally wounded and talks with Sextus on his deathbed. When I first watched the video, I was stunned and considered writing a blog “The rape of an opera ” Click on the picture, watch the opera and probably/hopefully you will be stunned as well..

Sellars tweaks the story beyond recognition, from the start until the end. During the ouverture, before the opera even starts, Titus picks Sextus from the crowd and “couples” him to Vitellia. But Sextus is a close friend of Tito and deeply in love with Vitellia., his emotional struggle between his love for Titis and for Vitellia is an essential part of the opera.

Sellars introduces at 56:47 an intermezzo in act 1 where Sextus is being prepared to become a suicide bomber. A terrorist instead of a traitor! The music played is not from the opera, but from Adagio and fugue in C minor, K. 546 ! Sellars does this 5 more times, at 22:07 , 38:03, 1:20:18 , 1:47:27 (parts from the Mass in C minor, K. 427) and at 2:38:12 after the opera has ended (Maurerische Trauermusik K. 477)

Here is a screenshot of the quintet at the end of act 1. Rome is burning the singers lament and Sextus almost confesses. In front of them lies Titus, mortally wounded by Sextus.

One last screenshot of the sextet at the end of Act 2. Titus has forgiven everybody and takes his last breath, singing in full force : Cut short, eternal gods, cut short my days on that day when the good of Rome ceases to be my care. To be honest, I found it a bit hilarious.

It can not be denied that the Sellars version is visually and musically spectacular. But personally I still think that it is unacceptable what he has been doing.

Let me finish this blog with some remarks about the roles of Sextus and Annius, originally sung by castrati. In modern recordings they are usually sung by (mezzo)sopranos. It means that the two love couples are sung by four female voices. In my opinion Sextus and Annius should be sung by countertenors or sopranistas. I know of only one YouTube recording where Sextus is sung by a countertenor, a 2021 (!) performance in Bergen. Sextus sings here the aria Parto, ma tu ben mio (I go, but, my dearest,..), probably the most famous aria from the opera.

The aria is so famous that it has often been recorded separately. I will give a few examples. Here is a recording from the Sellars version. The aria is accompanied by a basset clarinet and Sellars had the brilliant idea to make it a duet on stage between Sextus and the clarinet player. Click on the screenshot for the video. Fascinating. Sung by Marianne Crebassa, dressed as a man, but still very obviously a lady.

Here is the same aria sung by Kangmin Justin Kim , a young South Korean countertenor.

And here is a recording of the aria sung by Bruno de Sá, a male soprano/countertenor.

As last one here is Cecilia Bartoli. No attempt to cross-dress 😉 I am a fan of her.

For many years La Clemenza di Tito has been a favourite Mozart opera of mine. For this blog I have been listening numerous times to the various recordings. Never boring, it is still a favourite.

Rinaldo

Late in 1710 Georg Friedrich Händel arrived in London. A few months later, on 24 February 1711, his opera Rinaldo had its premiere, one day before his 26th birthday. It was a great success, he decided to stay in England, dropped the umlaut in his name and became a naturalised Englishman in 1727,

Here are two portraits of Handel, left circa 1710, right around 1726

I got interested in Handel’s operas, when I was writing a blog about the only opera written by Domenico Scarlatti in 1703, An opera and some history. The history part is about Roman emperor Nero and his mistress Poppaea. History was a popular subject for operas in those days and a few years later Handel wrote his first major opera Agrippina (Nero’s mother). Premiere was in December 1709 in Venice, it was very successful and established the international reputation of 24 year old Handel. Many YouTube recordings exist, here is my favourite (click on the image to watch the recording).

Rinaldo also has a historical background, the First Crusade (1096-1099) The objective of this religious war was the recovery of the Holy Land from Islamic rule. In 1591 the Italian poet Torquato Tasso wrote an epic and romantic poem Gerusalemme liberata about the liberation of Jerusalem. It is epic, containing 1917 stanzas of 8 lines each. And also romantic, the historical background is mixed with several love stories.

The story of Rinaldo and Armida is the most famous one. Rinaldo is a handsome brave crusader knight and Armida a powerful witch, trying to destroy the Christian army. When she meets a sleeping Rinaldo and wants to kill him, she falls in love with the young man and absconds him to her magical island. Rinaldo becomes her willing prisoner and falls in love with her as well. The army sends two friends, Carlo and Ubaldo, to remind him of his duty. Finally they convince Rinaldo to abandon Armida and come back to the war.

Not surprisingly it became a favourite subject for artists. The left painting shows Armida, dagger in her hand, falling in love. The middle one shows a lovesick Rinaldo with Armida on her island and in the right painting the two soldiers have convinced Rinaldo to come back, the boat is waiting already..

If you think that this introduction will make the opera (written in Italian) easier to understand, you are wrong. The story is tweaked completely. Yes, Goffredo is the leader of the Christian army and Rinaldo is the heroic warrior. But the opera gives Goffredo a daughter, Almirena, who will become Rinaldo’s bride after the war is won. And the witch Armida is the queen of Damascus in a love relationship with Argante, the king of Jerusalem. Here is a synopsis of the opera , taken from the very informative website opera-arias.com.

ACT I

The Christian army, led by Goffredo, is besieging the city of Jerusalem. If the city is taken, then the Christian warrior Rinaldo will be free to marry Goffredo’s daughter Almirena.
In an audience with Goffredo, Argante, the king of Jerusalem, is granted a three-day halt to hostilities. The sorceress Armida, queen of Damascus, descends from the skies and tells her lover Argante that their only hope of victory is the destruction of Rinaldo.
As Rinaldo and Almirena express their love for each other, Armida snatches Almirena away. Goffredo and his brother Eustazio discover the distraught Rinaldo. Eustazio suggests seeking the help of a Christian sorcerer who lives in a cave at the foot of a mountain.

ACT II

Goffredo, Eustazio and Rinaldo are wandering the seashore searching for the sorcerer when a spirit lures Rinaldo on board a ship by claiming to be sent by Almirena.
In a garden of Armida’s palace garden, Argante reveals his love for Almirena and offers to help her, but she repulses him.
When Rinaldo arrives, Armida’s initial triumph over him turns to love, but she is rejected. Armida transforms herself into the guise of Almirena, but Rinaldo again rejects her, fleeing when he discovers her trickery.
Armida again disguises herself as Almirena, but this time Argante enters and inadvertently reveals his feeIings for Almirena. Armida is outraged and swears revenge.

ACT III

Goffredo and Eustazio approach the mountain with Armida’s palace at its summit and the sorcerer’s cave at its foot. The sorcerer tells them that Almirena and Rinaldo are held by Armida, and the two warriors set off with two magic wands as protection.
Armida is about to stab Almirena, but Rinaldo rushes to protect her. Goffredo and Eustazio enter and with their wands transform the enchanted garden into a desert. Armida disappears. Argante attempts to rally his generals, and he and Armida are reconciled.
Battle commences, the Christians prevail and the two lovers are reunited. Argante and Armida are captured and, realizing the error of their ways, embrace the Christian faith.

You will agree that this “strange” plot has no resemblance to Tasso’s story of Rinaldo and Armida. Actually this plot was written by Aaron Hill, at that time the manager of the Queen’s Theatre in Hay Market, He was of the same age as Handel and wanted a “hit” for his theatre. Italian opera was becoming popular in London, famous Italian singers were available and his theatre could provide spectacular effects. Giacomo Rossi translated the libretto in Italian and Handel wrote the music. Rinaldo was the result. . All this within a couple of months (or even weeks, although that may be anecdotal) !

A copy of the original Rinaldo “booklet” still exists and is fascinating reading. It contains the text of the opera, both in Italian and in English and has a foreword written by Hill. Here is the foreword. Notice how Hill defends the changes in Tasso’s original story and argues that an opera should give equal pleasure to both senses.

Here is the cast of the first performance. The roles of Rinaldo , Eustazio were sung by castrati, while the part of Goffredo was sung by a female contralto (in travesty). All singers were Italian, the two castrati were so famous that they had nicknames, Niccolini and Valentini. The two sopranos were also prima donnas (and bitter rivals).

Name Role Voice Singer
Goffredo leader of the First Crusade contralto (en travesti) Francesca Vanini-Boschi
Rinaldo a nobleman of the House of Este alto castrato Nicolò Grimaldi (“Nicolini”)
Almirena daughter of Goffredo soprano Isabella Girardeau
Eustazio brother to Goffredo alto castrato Valentino Urbani (“Valentini”)
Argante Saracen king of Jerusalem bass Giuseppe Boschi
Armida Queen of Damascus, Argante’s mistress  soprano Elisabetta Pilotti-Schiavonetti
Mago a Christian magician alto castrato Giuseppe Cassani

It must have been a spectacular performance. The libretto contains very detailed stage instructions. Here are a few from ACT III, where Goffredo and Eustazio arrive at the cave of the Mago.

Notice in how much detail the stage is described. A mountain rising from the front of the stage to the utmost height of the most backward part of the stage. Rocks , caves and waterfalls. A castle on top,” guarded by a great number of spirits“. The audience must have been gasping in awe.

The Mago warns them that they can not attack the castle without his help, but still they try. And fail. Many soldiers are swallowed by the mountain, “with thunder, lightning and amazing noises“.

The Mago gives them magical wands and that helps. When they touch the gate of the castle, the whole mountain disappears and Goffredo and Eustazio find them selves clinging to a rock in the middle of a sea.

No wonder that the opera was a success. In the period until 1711-1717 it was performed 47 times, more than any other opera in the Queen’s theatre, Handel revised the opera in 1731, it was also performed abroad a few times but soon it went into oblivion. Only more than 200 year later, in 1954, there was a performance during a Handel festival in Germany. More about the performance history here.

On YouTube I have found only three complete video recordings of Rinaldo. Here is a short description of them.

The first one is a performance in Prague, directed by Václav Luks in 2009. Here is a screenshot , click on it to watch the opera. For me the least attractive of the three that I have seen. In the first place the cast. Of course there are no more castrati nowadays, but the parts of Rinaldo and Eustazio are sung here by mezzo-sopranos instead of by countertenors. Goffredo too is sung by a mezzo-soprano and not by a contralto. The mise-en-scène is very static, the singers face the audience almost permanently, only move a lot their hands and fingers. Here is a (rather negative) review. The YouTube has French subtitles, which makes it easier to follow the plot.

In 1985 Pier Luigi Pizzi directed the 1731 version of Rinaldo which became quite popular and was repeated several times. Here is a screenshot from the 2012 performance in Ravenna, click on the image to watch the opera. The role of Eustazio has been deleted, Goffredo is sung by a tenor and Rinaldo by a mezzo-soprano. The screenshot shows Goffredo, Almirena and Rinaldo. For reasons unclear to me, Almirena and Rinaldo are dressed almost identically. I found the mise-en-scene weird, the singers don’t walk around themselves but are moved by invisible helpers while seated on a horse, sitting in a boat or standing on a platform. No subtitles. Here is a critical review.

The first time I listened to Rinaldo, was on YouTube, an audio recording of a 2002 performance directed by René Jacobs. Very positive reviews. There is another audio recording , 1999, directed by Christopher Hogwood. Both still available as audio-CD.

I got interested how the opera was staged and found a video recording of a 2001 performance in Munich, by the Bayerische Staatsoper. It was on YouTube for some time, then it disappeared, probably because of copyright issues. Now it is back again, but for how long?

What an absurd, crazy mise-en-scène, was my first reaction. But I have changed my opinion, after reading the libretto and watching the other recordings. Yes, It is a parody of the original plot. But the plot deserves that. Example: in Act III, after the crusaders have won the battle of Jerusalem, Argante and Armida unexpectedly decide to become Christian. That Goffredo often changes his dress into a clerical robe fits into an implausible plot. There are many slapstick elements in this version, making Rinaldo a pleasure for the ears AND the eyes (as was Aaron Hill’s origina intention)

Here are screenshots from the three YouTube videos, click to watch. Subtitles in English,

Act I From left to right Rinaldo, Goffredo and Eustazio (all three countertenors) and Almirena as a cheerleader (!), encouraging Rinaldo to fight

Act II In her magic castle Armida tries to seduce Rinaldo. She tries twice to take the form of Almirena. The right wall, with a cardboard figure and a gap in the wall is used in a really brilliant way to confuse Rinaldo.

Act III The Christian magician (countertenor, cast as a voodoo priest) has given Goffredo and Eustazio magic wands to enter the enchanted castle.

In Act III the battle takes place between the two armies. In Hill’s stage directions there are soldiers and Handel wrote martial music to be played during the fighting. The solution found in this modern performance is inventive and ingenious, a real pleasure for the eyes.

Not surprisingly this performance received mixed reviews .. You either love or hate this “camp” version. It is clear that I love it 😉 .

Actually I am not a real opera fan. Many of the famous operas (by Verdi, Wagner, Puccini etc) do not appeal to me. But I love Baroque operas (and of course Mozart), Handel was a prolific composer, he wrote 42 operas, I have listened to only a few of them. So there still will be a lot of beautiful music to enjoy!

Martha Argerich

In 2013 I wrote a blog entitled I have fallen in love, with a lady, about Maria João Pires , a Portuguese pianist. Here is a blog about another pianist, Martha Argerich , seen by many as the greatest pianist of our time. Have I fallen in love with another lady? No, but I got intrigued by her, while I was working on my blog Toccatas. The last few weeks I have listened to numerous YouTube recordings of her concerts and also watched interviews and documentaries about her. In this blog I will concentrate on her musical achievements, but I will intersperse it with some information about her personal life. A very informative article about her was published in 2016 in the Washington Post. Another source of useful information is a blog, The Enigmatic & Extraordinary World of Martha Argerich.

Martha Argerich will be 80 this year and is still going strong. Here she is playing at the Lausitz Festival in Germany, a few months ago. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic there is no audience, no applause, she is just alone in the huge hall. Kind of weird. Click on the caption to watch the recording.

The oldest recordings date back to 1957, when she won two prestigious awards within three weeks, the first prize in the Ferruccio Busoni International Competition in Bolzano and the first prize in the Geneva International Music Competition. She was sixteen year old!

After this success, Deutsche Grammophon wanted to make a gramophone recording with her. Reluctantly she agreed. In 1962 she went to New York, hoping but failing to meet her idol Vladimir Horovitz.

She became depressed, thought about leaving music, got pregnant by a friend and went back to Europe where in 1964 her oldest daughter Lyda was born. It was pianist and pedagogue Stefan Askenase who convinced her to go back to music. In 1965 she won convincingly the first prize at the VII International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw.

That was the real start of her international career. Here are two recordings from 1969. Ravel’s piano concerto in G, in Rome and Grieg’s piano concerto in A minor, in Buenos Aires.

In the same year 1969 she married the Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit and in 1970 she had a second child with him, Annie. In 1972 they were interviewed by the Swiss RTS. A candid spontaneous happening, notice how she is almost continuously smoking, even while playing!

Their marriage didn’t last, they divorced in 1973, but remain close friends. And they give concerts together like here in 1975 in Genève where she plays Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1.

The same year her third daughter Stéphanie was born from a relationship with pianist Stephen Kovacevitch. They still perform together, but from that period I could find only one recording, a piece for two pianos composed by Debussy.

In 1980 the X International Chopin Piano Competition was held in Warsaw with her is now a member of the jury (after winning the first prize herself in 1965). One of the contestants was Ivo Pogorelich. He was eliminated in the third round, Martha Argerich considered him a genius and was so upset that she resigned from the jury in protest. The left video is a documentary about this “scandal”.

A Japanese fan has created a website Martha Argerich Recordings . It is an amazing, huge collection and interesting to see who her favourite composers are, and if any popular piano concertos are missing from her repertoire. For example, here is a recording of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no 3, but the even more popular no 2 is missing. By the way, the no 3 concerto has the reputation of being one of the most technically challenging piano concertos.

Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G is clearly one of her favourites, she has played it more than fifty times. Here is a recording with Dutoit as conductor. Nice to see how he hugs her after the concert 🙂

She has played the first Beethoven Concertos, but never recorded no 4 and 5. Watch this amusing discussion between Pires and Argerich.

Here is a recording of Beethoven’s Piano concerto no 2. As an encore she plays Scarlatti’s sonata 141 (Toccata). Watch at 29:25 one of her trademarks: she sits down and immediately starts playing.

Only a few of the many Mozart concertos have been recorded by her . KV 466 is my favourite and if you want to know how my fascination with Maria João Pires started, have a look at this video: Maria Joao Pires expecting to play another concerto.

Chopin wrote two piano concertos, she has played both, the first one in E minor more often. Here are two recordings, with three decades in between them. Notice how she has become an “eminence grise”. In 2010 she was again a jury member of the XVI International Chopin Piano Competition. No scandal this time although many were unhappy that Daniil Trifonov only got a third prize.

The piano concerto no 3 of Prokofiev is another favourite of her, here is a recording from December 2020. Her first recording, according to the Japanese site, was in 1959, 60 years earlier. Because of the Covid pandemic there is no audience, the members of the orchestra are sitting far apart, the string section is wearing face masks. After the concert the orchestra applauds and Martha thanks the concertmaster with an elbow salute.

In 2012 Stephanie Argerich, Martha’s youngest daughter, created a fascinating movie about Martha Argerich and her relationship with her daughters. More than 1.5 hour, really worth watching.



In 2016 Martha Argerich went to New York, reluctantly, to receive a Kennedy Centre Honors award.

Her three daughters were also there. From left to right Anne Dutoit, Lyda Chen, Martha and Stephanie Argerich

And finally here are Maria João Peres and Martha Argerich together, playing the beginning of Grieg’s first Peer Gynt suite.

With all the respect I have for Martha Argerich, Maria João Pires is still my favourite 😉 .

Toccatas

A few days ago I came across a YouTube video where Yuja Wang plays the Toccata in D minor Opus 11 of Prokofiev. A spectacular and virtuoso performance, played by her as an encore after a piano concerto with the orchestra. New for me.

Wiktionary gives this definition of a toccata: A piece of music (usually for a keyboard instrument) designed to emphasise the dexterity of the performer.

On YouTube you can find many recordings of this Toccata. Here are a few: Alexander Malofeev, Tiffany Poon, Martha Argerich , Haochen Zhang, Yeol Eum Son. I like the last one very much, not superfast, but very expressive. As you may know, Alexander Malofeev is a favourite of mine, I wrote a separate blog about him. In this 2019 recording he is 17 year old, can you believe that he already recorded this piece when he was 12 year old 😉 ? Quite amazing, watch here.

Here is the score of the Prokofiev Toccata:

The Wikipedia article Toccata gives more information about the history of toccatas. The form originated in Italy in the 16th century. In the Baroque it became quite popular, here is a well-know toccata by (Domenico) Scarlatti, played by Martha Argerich.

After the Baroque toccatas became less frequent. Schumann wrote a Toccata that is considered to be one of the technically most difficult works in the piano repertoire. Could that be the reason that so many recordings exist? Here is a YouTube search for Schumann’s Toccata, I lost count. Which one to choose for this blog? I decided for George Cziffra, an “old” recording (1960s?), because of his superior ease of playing.

In the 20th century Ravel wrote a toccata as part of his Tombeau de Couperin. It is a favourite encore ( Mariangela Vacatello, Rachel Cheung) . For this blog I chose a recording by 12 year old Ryota Yamazaki . If you want to compare recordings by different pianists (including Ravel himself), then this is a suitable YouTube : 12 Great Pianists in Comparison .

And here is a Toccata written by another French composer, Claude Debussy, as part 3 of his Pour le Piano. I have selected this YouTube because I find it fascinating to watch the ten fingers of the (unknown) pianist moving almost independently 🙂 .

All these toccatas were written for piano (or harpsichord), but there is another keyboard instrument, the organ. The 19th century French composer Widor wrote a number of symphonies for organ and the Toccata from the 5th symphony (1879) has made him famous. Here is a recording by the Dutch organist Gert van Hoef , 19 year old. Notice that not only ten fingers but also two feet are needed to play this toccata 😉 .

When you ask lovers of classical music if they know a Toccata, they will probably mention Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565. After you have heard the opening bars of this famous work for organ, you will never forget it. Click on the score to listen to the first three bars.

Looking for a suitable YouTube video, I came back again to Gert van Hoef. Not only does he play very well, but it is also interesting to see how he has helpers to change the organ stops, when necessary. Team work. The Toccata takes the first three minutes, at 3:22 the Fugue starts.

Wikipedia writes about “the most famous organ work in existence”, that in its rise to fame it was helped by various arrangements, including bombastic piano settings (Busoni) , versions for full symphonic orchestra (Stokowski) etc.

Not surprisingly there are a few recordings where the Toccata and Fugue are played on accordion. After all you could say that an accordion is a kind of miniature pipe organ. Here is a recording by Sergei Teleshev.

I don’t like the Stokowski transcription for orchestra, but this recording by the United States Marine Band (!) is beautiful and hardly a transcription. You could say that the organ pipes have been replaced by wind instruments 😉

An opera and some history

Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757) is nowadays mainly known for his 555 keyboard sonatas. Click here for a nice collection. His father Alessandro specialised in operas (114!) and that may have been a reason that young Domenico wrote one himself, in 1703 when he was 18 years old.

Here is the opera L’Ottavia restituita al Trono (Octavia returned to the throne).

Pleasing music, fresh and youthful. It is a concertante recording, seven singers, no stage, no choir.

I listened several times to the recording, trying to understand the “plot”with the help of the (French) subtitles.

The main characters are Nero, Octavia and Poppaea. Nero, Emperor of Rome is sung by a countertenor. Octavia, his divorced wife and Poppaea, his future bride , are both sung by sopranos.

Floro is a Prince of Epirus and Rosilda his wife/bride. They were shipwrecked and got separated. Both are sung by sopranos (Floro in travesti)

Two supporting roles. Dorillo is a young servant of Floro, sung by a sopranist (a male soprano). And Belisa, an elderly female, is sung by a tenor!

So the three male parts, Nero, Floro and Dorillo, are performed by a countertenor, a soprano and a sopranist, whereas the female role of Belisa is sung by a tenor. No wonder that at first hearing I was confused.

The first performance of the opera took place in November 1703 in Naples. Apparently the work received a favorable reception, but later it has fallen into complete oblivion until recently. The original libretto has been preserved, but the music was thought to be lost, until copies of almost all arias were found in the library of the Naples Conservatory. Based on this material, two Italian musicologists, Antonio Florio and Alessandro Ciccolini, have made a reconstruction of the opera. It was performed in 2007, with Antonio Florio himself conducting.

Before giving a summary of the opera , here is some historical background.

Nero, Octavia and Poppaea are historical characters during the Roman empire. Nero was born in 37 AD and married Claudia Octavia in 53 AD when he was 16 years old and she 14. One year later , at the age of 17, he became Emperor of the Roman Empire. Octavia became Empress and was widely respected by the Roman citizen body. But their marriage was unhappy and Nero soon got mistresses. One of them was Poppaea Sabina, seven years his senior, and an ambitious schemer. When she became pregnant in AD 62 he divorced Octavia and almost immediately married Poppaea. Octavia was banned to the island of Pandateria. The citizens of Rome protested so strongly that Nero almost remarried Octavia, but instead he decided, supported (urged?) by Poppaea, that she should be killed. She was 23 years old and, according to the historian Tacitus, she was decapitated. In this painting (Giovanni Muzzioli – 1876 ) Poppaea presents Octavia’s head to Nero.

From the title “Octavia returned to the throne” , you may guess already that the content of Scarlatti’s opera is not historically accurate. The opera consist of three acts, although in the recording there is no interval between them.

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Act I

Octavia is back in Rome, disguised as a shepherdess and planning revenge against Poppaea. Nero is going to get married to Poppaea, but also charmed by every nice lady he meets. And Poppaea loves Nero, but she is concerned about the negative reaction of the Roman people and willing to give up her position as empress.
Floro tells Nero about his shipwreck and is appointed as captain of the army. Belisa introduces Rosilda to Nero who is charmed by her beauty, much to Poppaea’s concern. Floro recognises Rosilda and is worried too about Nero’s avances. He decides to hide his identity to Rosilda and “become” Clearque . The act ends with a hilarious duet between Belisa and Dorillo. Belisa fancies Dorillo, who is not interested. Click on the picture to hear the duet.

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Act II

Nero and Clearque meet a shepherdess, not realising it is Octavia. She tells Nero her sad fate and that she is looking for revenge. Nero is charmed by her beauty and tells Clearque that it is no problem to love more than one. He tells the same to Poppaea, who is furious about his interest in Rosilda. When Nero meets Rosilda, he tries to flirt with her. She resists and asks Clearque to help her.
Octavia is ready to take her revenge on Poppaea, who is complaining and sad about what is happening. When she falls asleep, Octavia prepares to kill her, but Nero arrives in time to prevent it. Octavia flees and Poppaea blames Nero, who promises to find and punish the shepherdess.
Clearque finds Octavia and after he discovers that they both have a grudge against Nero, he decides to help her. This act ends with another funny duet between Dorillo and Belisa. Click on the picture for the duet.

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Act III

Octavia tells Clearque who she is and tells him that he can help her by raising the anger of the people and tell Nero that the only solution is to take back Octavia. Later she meets Belisa, who is looking for Dorillo, and also tells her who she is, asking Belisa for help. Belisa advises Octavia to hide in a garden where Poppaea and Nero will meet.

In the garden Octavia attacks Poppaea, Poppaea defends herself, and again Nero arrives in time. Clearque tells Nero that the people are revolting and want his death unless he takes back Octavia back on the throne. Nero laments that, still loving Poppaea, he has to give her up. Poppaea says that she will give up her position.

Clearque is finally convinced of Rosilda’s faithfulness and reveals to her that he is actually Floro. Both are happy. Nero asks Floro to call Octavia, he apologises to her for his behaviour. She suggest that he go back to Poppaea, but Floro says again that the people want her back. Then she accepts to come back to Nero, for the love of the country , although he is not worth it. Poppaea is not jealous and Octavia forgives her. Finally all (including Poppaea !) sing about the triumph of the God of Love.

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When you have read the above summary of the opera, I think you will agree with me that there is hardly anything in it that is historically correct. Yes, the fear of Nero for a revolt of the people. What I found surprising is that Poppaea, considered by most historians as an ambitious, ruthless schemer , is here portrayed as being considerate, genuinely in love with Nero, whereas it is Octavia who , by hook and by crook, wants to get back her position as empress. Nero comes across as a womanizer who is ultimately only interested in his own survival.

A few more comments

  1. The (infamous) Nero period of the Roman Empire must have fascinated composers. In 1643, Monteverdi wrote the opera L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppaea), based more or less on the historical events. This opera is performed regularly, here is a beautiful recording by the Monteverdi Choir. And in 1704 Handel wrote the opera Nero, the music of which has been lost, only the libretto survived.
  2. Bach, Handel and Scarlatti were all three born in 1685. Bach never wrote an opera, Scarlatti only a few, Handel about fifty! In 1709 he wrote the opera Agrippina about Nero’s mother. Here is a brilliant modern recording by an American ensemble Ars Lyrica Houston
  3. Almost no information exists on the Internet about Scarlatti’s opera. Finally I found this useful link: OTTAVIA, 300 anni fa… It is written in Italian, I needed Google Translate 😉 As far as I know only one recording of the opera exists on YouTube, I found two arias, not related to this recording, a duet between Poppaea and Nero and an aria by Belisa That’s all.
  4. A bit more history. Nero murdered Agrippina in 59 AD. And in 65 AD, in a fit of rage, he trampled on the belly of pregnant Poppaea, killing her. Nero went in deep mourning and two years later married the boy Sporus, who resembled Poppaea, after having him castrated. Nero committed suicide in 68 AD , 31 year old.

It was a real pleasure, although time consuming, to find out more about this delightful “little” opera. Hopefully it will be performed more often.

Musical Nostalgia

Followers of my blog know that I love Western classical music. My blog category Music has 16 posts about Bach, Mozart, Chopin and others. But that doesn’t mean I am not interested in other kinds of music 😉 .

My interest in “pop music” started in the late sixties when I was studying in Amsterdam. Those were exciting years, there was an atmosphere of optimism that a new era had arrived. Flower Power, Hippies, May 68, Woodstock

It influenced me. Although I remained basically a “nerd”, I did grow my hair, took part in anti Vietnam war demonstrations, wore a ban-the-bomb necklace and watched the Maagdenhuis riots (from a safe distance haha). Here are two photos , illustrating how I changed 🙂

Soft drugs were getting popular in those days, I was too shy to experiment with them, but I liked the relaxed atmosphere of Melkweg and Paradiso, where regularly concerts were given by underground bands, playing psychedelic music. Often liquid light shows were given during a concert, on a huge screen above the stage. This YouTube clip gives an impression.

In those days I started to buy LP records of bands and singers I liked and I still have them. Most of them are not really playable anymore, but nowadays you can listen to most of these albums on YouTube.

I have taken pictures of a number of these LP-covers and present them here with some information. Clicking on the album title links to the full album on YouTube, and when you click on the cover , a song from that album will be played .

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Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan (debut album) (1962)

The times, they are a-changin’ (1964)

Bringing it all back home (1965)

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The Mamas & The Papas

The Mamas & The Papas Deliver (1967)

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Country Joe and The Fish

I feel like I’m fixin’ to die (1967)

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Jefferson Airplane

Surrealistic Pillow (1967)

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Pearls Before Swine

One Nation Underground (1967)

Balaklava (1968)

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Pink Floyd

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)

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Van Morrison

Astral Weeks (1968)

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Dr John the Nighttripper

Gris Gris (1968)

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The Flying Burrito Brothers

The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969)

The Flying Burrito Bros (1971)

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Crosby, Stills & Nash

Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)

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The Soft Machine

Volume Two (1969)

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Neil Young

Everybody knows this is nowhere (1969)

After the Gold Rush 1970

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Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Déja Vu (1970)

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The Band

Stage Fright (1970)

Cahoots (1971)

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David Bowie

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)

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The Cure

Boys don’t cry (1980)

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Japan

Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980)

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Talking Heads

Remain in Light (1980)

Naked (1986)

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Joe Jackson

Night and Day (1982)

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UB40

More UB40 Music (1983) compilation

Rat in the Kitchen (1986)

Most of the LP records (18) are from the period 1967 -1972. I still think back with nostalgia to that period of my life. Here is a video from the Woodstock festival in 1969, with Country Joe singing I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die . It gives a good impression of the atmosphere in those years.

In 1969 I was doing research for my thesis, but also I went on holidays to Morocco, my first “exotic” destination, an unforgettable experience. One year later , in Rotterdam the Kralingse Bos festival was held, with the Jefferson Airplane, Soft Machine, Country Joe, Pink Floyd and many others. Did I go? No, because I thought I might not fit in.

Maybe I was right, but until this day I regret that I didn’t go.

Alexander Malofeev

I must confess that until a few weeks ago, I had never heard about this young Russian pianist. I am interested in classical (piano) music, see for example my post about the 17th Chopin Piano Competition . This year, from 4 until 21 May, an international music competition was held in Beijing. This China International Music Competition (CIMC) was devoted to the piano.

The CIMC concert with the three finalists, and the presentation of the prizes can be viewed here. Malofeev got the second prize and not everybody was happy with the verdict of the jury. Have a look at the comments given. Here are a few:

Malofeev should have won. end of story. ” , “Malofeev is FAR ABOVE the rest. Politics again; what a shame! “, “Unforgivable result – a travesty of justice.“, ”
Alexander was obviously the best, is it Russophobia again? “

I got intrigued by Malofeev and searched for information and YouTube recordings.

He was born in Moscow on 21 October 2001 amd began studying the piano at the age of five.

The earliest recording I have found, is from May 2013, when he was eleven years old. He is playing Grieg’s piano concerto in A minor, the audio quality is not that good, but you should watch at least the beginning, how he is greeting the orchestra twice and struggling to adjust the piano stool!

The next recording is from about one year later, when Alexander took part in the 8th Tchaikovsky competition for young musicians, where he won the
First Prize and a Gold Medal. In this recording he is playing Saint-Saëns’ 2nd Piano Concerto in G minor. A spectacular performance by a 12 year old boy.

Again an endearing start 🙂 He comes on stage and wants to sit down, but then realises that he still has to greet the conductor and the concertmaster.

The quality of this YouTube is very good. If you don’t want to listen to the complete concerto, you should at least watch him playing the third movement. At the end of the recording he comes on stage with his piano teacher, another charming moment.

On 29-3-2015, Alexander Malofeev, 13 year old, plays Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto in C major. The (audio) quality of the video is not perfect, but it is fascinating to see him in action. And as if playing this demanding concerto is not enough, he gives an encore, Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps in a transcription for piano by Kurbatov.

I found two recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no 1. This one was recorded in Saint Petersburg, also in 2015, on 25 December.

And this one is from the Scala in Milan, 6 February 2017, Malofeev is now 15 year old, a teenager, losing his puppy fat :-). He is playing two encores, a piano transcription of a “pas de deux” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and Ondine, the first movement of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.

Last year, 27 July, Alexander, now 16 year old, played again Prokofiev’s
3rd Piano Concerto, this time at a festival in the south of France. It is interesting to compare this recording with the one recorded three years earlier (see above).

On 30 December 2018, 17 year old Malofeev played Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto in D minor in the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Moscow. A spectacular performance. It is interesting to read the comments. One of them says:

Its pretty obvious who the next winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition will be in June of 2019.

At the CIMC competition, May 2019, where Malofeev got the second prize, he played Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor, KV 466, in the final round. It is my favourite Mozart concerto and Alexander plays it beautifully.

For comparison here is the same concert, played by Tony Siqi Yun, the winner of the first prize. Also born in 2001, a few months older than Alexander. He is a Canadian and currently a student at the Juilliard School.

The chairperson of the CIMC jury is Yoheved Kaplinsky , who is also the
chair of the Piano Department of The Juilliard School. A coincidence? Not everybody will agree.

Until now the year 2019 has not been very lucky for Alexander Malofeev. The commenter, mentioned above, may have found it obvious that Alexander would be the next winner of the 2019 Tchaikovsky Competition, but actually he did not even survive the first round! Here is the list of contestants. Malofeev was the youngest of all. Maybe he should not have participated and wait a few more years.

Here is an interesting analysis of Alexander’s first round. He played Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Liszt in a 50 minute recital. A quote from the analysis:

By the end of fifty minutes this pale, black-shirted young man of stooping posture had given his all and beyond. Totally drained, totally exhausted. Visually, seemingly even a little unwell, drenched in sweat. Just maybe this could explain the tailing off in parts of the Chopin and Liszt, the gradual lessening of right-hand ‘ring’ and strength. But his determination and imagination, the vision he wanted to deliver, never failed. In the grand scheme of things, the few (inconsequential) slips and blips counted for nothing. The personality and possibilities, the honed facility, the ability to cope under pressure, are what exhilarated.

The jury eliminated him.

I am sure that we will hear more about him.

Added October 2021:

An interesting video about Alexander, from9 to 19.

The Seven Last Words of Christ

In a few weeks time it will be Easter, always a time of the year that I get in the mood to listen to Passion music. See for example my posts St Matthew Passion and Stabat Mater . In this post I will write about another masterpiece of religious music, the Seven Last Words of Christ, written in 1786 by Joseph Haydn.

For those readers who are not familiar with the Christian religion, some information. Christians believe that Jesus was the Son of God and that he came to Earth to save mankind by carrying the burden of their sins. His sufferings culminated in his crucifixion and his death. On the third day he resurrected from his grave and fourty days later he ascended to heaven.

The resurrection is celebrated on Easter Sunday (this year on 21 April). On the Friday before in some churches a devotion is held from noon till 3 o’clock , the Three Hours’ Agony, commemorating the three hours of Christ’s hanging at the cross. This devotion was devised in the 17th century in Peru by Jesuit missionaries and soon became popular in Europe. It consisted of sermons and meditation about the seven “words” uttered by Jesus when he was hanging at the cross.

In 1786 Joseph Haydn was requested by the clergy of the Cádiz Cathedral to compose seven instrumental adagios, to be played after each of the “words” and meditations. Not an easy job, as Haydn wrote himself: ” …. it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners ..“. Haydn added an Introduction and a Finale.

The work became a success immediately and the next year Haydn wrote a version for string quartet. It is this version which is usually performed nowadays. In 1801 he published a choral version.

For this blog I have used the orchestral version, recorded in 1965 in Barcelona.

I decided that it would be interesting to split the work into its separate pieces and combine them with the corresponding utterances by Jesus.
The seven last words come from different gospels. Here is the introduction.

Introduzione in D minor


Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do

While Jesus is hanging at the cross, he is being mocked by the Jewish rulers, the soldiers and many of the spectators.

Sonata I in B-flat major


Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.

Two criminals are crucified at the same time, one at Jesus’ left side, one at his right side. One of them also mocks Jesus, but the other one rebukes him, saying: we are punished for our crimes, but this man didn’t do anything wrong. And he says to Jesus: Lord, remember me when you arrive in your kingdom.

Sonata II in C minor, ending in C major


John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother

Of course Jesus’ followers are also there, among them John, the writer of this gospel. Jesus says this when he sees his mother Mary, and the “disciple whom he loved” (i.e John) standing nearby.

Sonata III in E major


Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

Jesus says this in the Aramaic language: Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani and the crowd thinks that he is calling the prophet Elijah.When somebody wants to give Jesus something to drink, they say, don’t, let’s see if Elijah will come

Sonata IV in F minor


John 19:28: I thirst

As John explains in his gospel, Jesus says this because he knows that everything has now been fulfilled.

Sonata V in A major


John 19:30: It is finished

In Bach’s St John Passion, this is one of the emotional peak moments, listen to Es ist vollbracht

Sonata VI in G minor, ending in G major


Luke 23:46: Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.

After Jesus calls this with loud voice, he breathes his last.

Sonata VII in in E-flat major


Matthew 27:51: And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent

This is the description given by the gospel of St Matthew. Haydn uses it for the finale, no adagio for this part, but “Presto e con tutta la forza”!

Il terremoto (Earthquake) in C minor


When you listen to this masterwork, put the volume on loud! And when you are interested, search YouTube for The Seven Last Words of Christ. You will find many recordings.

Dixit Dominus

A few months ago I listened for the first(!) time to Dixit Dominus, composed by Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) in 1707.  It is an absolute masterpiece of Baroque music.

Not surprisingly numerous recordings can be found on YouTube. Here are two, one conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists in 2014

The second one with Emmanuelle Haïm conducting the hr-Sinfonieorchester and her Chœur du Concert D’Astrée in 2017

When you search YouTube for Dixit Dominus Handel, you will find more than ten different recordings. I found it interesting to compare them. Listen for example to the first bars of the slow recording by Sir David Willcocks 1965) and the very fast one  by Andres Mustonen (2018)!

Händel wrote Dixit Dominus when he was 22 year old and staying in Italy, in Florence and Rome. In Germany he had already made a name for  himself with the opera Almira, composed when he was 19 year old.

But during his stay in Rome, operas had been (temporarily) banned by pope Clement XI because he considered them immoral. So Händel composed mainly sacred music while in Rome.

The portrait is dated about 1710.

Dixit Dominus is a musical setting of psalm 109 from the Book of Psalms, which is part of the Christian Old Testament. The title comes from the first line of the Latin text of the psalm:  Dixit Dominus Domino Meo, which translates (in the King James version) as The Lord said unto my Lord .

A rather cryptic line, is the Lord talking to himself? The explanation is that in the Hebrew text two different words are used for Lord. The Lord who speaks is God and he speaks to the psalmist’s lord. This lord is seen as the Messiah and in the New Testament Jesus quotes this psalm that he is the Messiah and the son of God.

That is the reason that this psalm 109 plays an important role in the Christian liturgy, the psalm is sung often in the Roman-Catholic Vespers.

Actually, Händel was not the only composer who wrote a Dixit Dominus. Vivaldi even wrote three versions, RV 594, RV 595 and RV 807 (my personal favorite). On YouTube you can also find versions written by Pergolesi and by Alessandro Scarlatti (the father of Domenico).

The last line of the psalm in the Händel version is sung as a duet by two sopranos and choir. It is impressively beautiful and in the Gardiner recording it was given as an encore. Here it is, put the volume high and listen to what you can read in one of the comments: One of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written.

When I heard this emotional, moving duet, I got curious about the text, expecting it to be equally  emotional and “deep” ..:-). But no, the last line of the psalm is in Latin:

De torrente in via bibet, propterea exaltabit caput. 

In translation

He shall drink of the brook in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head.

What does that mean, it sounds so trivial? I got intrigued, started searching the Internet and found this website  Psallam Domino   where all the psalms are analysed in a very thorough way.  About psalm 109 the blog says  “This is a hard psalm to interpret correctly” and “… it is very theologically dense”

The webpage about the last line has the title  “Prophesying Christ’s humility and the Ascension” . The humility is that he just was drinking water from a brook, the ascension is indicated by the lifting of the head .

Being a non-believer, I gave up after this and just will enjoy the music…:-)

Apollo et Hyacinthus

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote his first opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus, in 1767, when he was eleven(!) years old. Recently  I have been listening many times to this  fascinating work of art, really amazing that it was written by an eleven year old boy.

Not many recordings exist. Here is a beautiful one.

The Greek myth of Apollo and Hyacinthus is an interesting one, because it describes the love between the god Apollo and the boy Hyacinthus. The Greek gods were not picky and had love affairs with both men and women. Famous example is the love of Zeus for the boy Ganymede.

In this case  both Apollo and Zephyros, the West Wind god, were in love with the handsome Spartan prince. Hyacinthus preferred Apollo. When the two lovers were playing with the discus, Apollo threw it very high and far and Hyacinthos tried to catch it. Jealous Zephyros blew the discus off its course, it hit Hyacinthus and killed him. Apollo was desolate, could not bring the boy back to life, but created from his blood a beautiful purple flower.

Painters loved the subject, here is a version by the Russian artist Alexander Kiselyov. The discus is lying on the ground. The flower was not the present hyacinth, but probably the blue larkspur. Ovidius who describes the story in his Metamorphoses, tells that Apollo inscribed “Ai Ai”, the Greek expression of grief on its petals. And indeed, with some imagination you can see in the flower an A en an I …:-)

How is this  homoerotic love affair between Apollo and Hyacinthus, with Zephyros as a jealous rival presented in the opera? Mozart used a libretto written by Rufinus Widl, priest and philosophy professor at the University of Salzburg that had commissioned the opera. Father Widl removed the controversial  theme by introducing a sister of Hyacinthus, Melia, who is the subject of Apollo’s love and Zephyros’ jealousy!

I got intrigued how Widl had done this. The libretto is written in Latin and my knowledge of that language has become quite rusty, but I found an English translation…:-) . I have created a webpage on my site: Apollo et Hyacinthus , where you can read the Latin and English text, while listening to the corresponding parts of the opera. Give it a try!

Here is a screenshot of my webpage. Note that there are only 5 soloists, Hyacinthus, his sister Melia, his father Oebalus, Apollo and Zephyros. More about the soloists later

Here is a  synopsis of Widl’s libretto

Act 1

The opera starts with a conversation between Hyacinthus and Zephyros . Hyacinthus is preparing an offering for Apollo, and Zephyros is wondering why especially Apollo. Oebalus and Melia appear, everything is ready, but then lightning strikes and destroys the offering. Oebalus is upset, what have they done wrong? Could it be because of what Zephyros had said?

Then Apollo appears, as a shepherd, because he has been banned from the Olympos by Jupiter. He is humble and promises to help Oebalus if he can stay in his kingdom. Melia adores him and Apollo accepts her love with pleasure. He will also be a good friend of Hyacinthus. Zephyros, in an aside:  Alas, now Apollo is snatching my beloved boy from me!.

Act 2

Conversation between Oebalus and Melia. Oebalus has no doubt that Apollo wants Melia as his wife and Melia is eager to accept him. They wait for the return of Apollo, who is playing discus with Hyacinthos and Zephyros

Then Zephyros enters with the news that Hyacinthos is dead, hit by a discus thrown by Apollo. Of  course Oebalus and Melia are upset, a marriage with Apollo is now out of the question. Zephyros, in an aside: What’s this I hear? Is the god considering marriage? Is he bent on stealing my beloved Melia from me? Will he who stole Hyacinthus also snatch her love from me?

Oebalus asks Zephyros to go back to Apollo and tell him that he is banished from the kingdom, but Zephyros replies that Oebalus better tells Apollo himself. Again in an aside: If only he expels him, so that my crime can be hidden, for I am the one guilty of committing the murder. Oebalus leaves. Zephyros again:  Everything is going as I wished, my plot is working, and my beloved Melia now remains to be my bride.

Zephyros tries to convince Melia that Apollo is bad and that she better can choose him. She is sad about her brother’s fate and refuses his advances.  Then  Apollo enters. He curses Zephyros who is transformed in a wind and swept away.

Melia is now even more furious, refuses to listen to Apollo’s explanation and banishes him from the kingdom.

Act 3

Oebalus finds Hyacinthus still alive but dying. Hyacinthus tells his father that it was not Apollo but Zephyros who killed him. Then he dies.Oebalus swears to avenge Zephyros’ crime. Melia enters, still thinking that Apollo killed her brother. She tells her father that she banished the god who also killed Zephyros. Oebalus then explains that Apollo was right, because it was Zephyros who threw the fatal discus. Both are upset that the god will take revenge after being banished wrongly

Apollo enters, saying that his love for Hyacinthus made him return. He can not bring the boy back to life, but lets hyacinth flowers spring from his dead body. Both Oebalus and Melia apologise for the banishment, asking for forgiveness. Apollo promises to stay in the kingdom, hoping that Melia is still willing to become his bride. Oebalus gives his permission, saying:  Hyacinthus is dead: you will be for me another Hyacinthus, if you deign to remain in our land as husband of my daughter.

The opera ends with a terzetto, sung by Apollo, Oebalus and Melia. Oebalus sings: “After furious battles, the joyful pledge of love unites you. After these events decreed by fate, the longed-for marriage torch will crown you and inspire me”.

As Shakespeare already wrote: All’s well that ends well… 🙂

Some comments, mainly about Zephyros

  • In the myth Zephyros is a (minor) god himself, here he is just a mortal, a “friend” of Hyacinthus
  • His aside that Apollo is snatching his beloved boy from him, doesn’t make sense in Widl’s adaptation.
  • In the second aside, he is suddenly in love with Melia, afraid that Apollo will steal her like he stole Hyacinthus.
  • Why did he kill Hyacinthus? To put the blame on Apollo? So Melia can become his bride?
  • As revenge for the  killing of Hyacinthus, Apollo transforms Zephyros in a wind. In the myth Apollo can not punish (the god) Zephyros, because Eros protects him, as the crime was committed out of love!

I hope you will agree that Widl has managed to eliminate thoroughly the theme of the original myth .. 🙂

Let me conclude with some details about the soloists. The parts of Oebalus and Melia are sung by a tenor and a soprano. Those of Apollo and Zephyros by countertenors. The part of Hyacinthus is sung by Arno Raunig, a sopranist , a male soprano. LIsten to him, singing Bach’s Ave Maria.  Four years ago I have published a post Countertenors and castrati, where you can find more information about male altos and sopranos..

There is a very simple reason why Mozart wrote his opera for these voices. During the first (and during Mozart’s lifetime only) performance, all parts were sung by boys! They were students and choristers of the Salzburg University and we actually know their names (and ages)

  • Oebalus : Mathias Stadler, student of moral theology and law: 22 years old
  • Melia : Felix Fuchs, boy soprano, chapel chorister, 15 years old
  • Hyacinthus : Christian Enzinger, boy soprano, chapel chorister, 12 years old
  • Apollo : Johann Ernst, boy contralto, chapel chorister, 12 years old
  • Zephyrus : Joseph Vonterthon, boy contralto, fourth-year pupil:, 17 years old.

Even the part of Melia is sung by a boy soprano.

Are you curious how this first performance might have looked like? In 1983(!) a television recording has made of the opera, with soloists from the Tölzer Knabenchor. The quality of the recording is not that good, and the YouTube video is split in eight parts, so I have created a playlist. Here it is:  Apollo et Hyacinthus .

To give you an impression, here is a better quality video of Melia’s aria, sung by boy soprano Alan Bergius. In this aria she sings how happy and proud she is to become the bride of the god Apollo

Immediately after this aria Zephyros enters with the message that Apollo has killed her brother.

By the way, the part of Zephyros is sung by Panito Iconomou, who, two years later, excels in Es ist Vollbracht . (St John’s Passion under Harnoncourt)

I have written this blog with more than usual pleasure and I hope the reader will enjoy it.

Update January 2021

As is often the case with YouTube music videos, they can easily disappear, often because of copyright issues. The above link to Melia’s aria is broken. But the full 1983 recording is available, for the time being.