Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Arthur Butterworth Writes

ANGLO-SAXON OPERA? ....... Arthur Butterworth April 2003

Eighteenth century London society lionised Handel and Italian opera. With the inevitable change of fashion however, this declined. All great cities and most towns on the Continent, especially Italy and Germany, have always boasted an opera house. In Britain traditions have been different, and even at the present time with several opera houses and more or less permanent companies presenting regular performances it can hardly be said that we have a comparable situation with other countries. There are very many reasons that have brought this about. To explore them all is a matter for considerable investigation and research into social, cultural, religious, economic, and perhaps even political attitudes, but probably most of all — the most obvious one — how we regard music itself; what we think its purpose is. There is no lack of literature on the subject. This brief essay merely suggests a personal view; a view that will be vehemently challenged by ardent opera buffs.

It seems reasonable to assume that most of the early interest and delight in opera came about because of the obvious pleasure in listening to the expressiveness of the human voice. Most people at some time in life have been able to sing, even if only in the most casual, modest or innocent way that children unaffectedly do. Adult maturity however, brings with it a growing sense of self-consciousness; a feint sense of vulnerability or embarrassment at the notion of expressing ourselves in a too openly emotional way. Singing in the easy-going company of a tavern or pub, in a private drawing room within a small intimate circle of friends, the exquisite art of Lieder, with its refined and restrained utterance, or impersonally expressing our emotions as part of a more anonymous body of a chorus, especially if that is part of some religious rite, such as in oratorio, is one thing, but the larger-than-life histrionics of the stage is quite a different matter. Perhaps the way we regard this has something to do with national temperament. The Italians always seen less afraid of expressing their feelings through the voice. Certainly the essence of Italian opera has ever regarded the beauty of the voice, bel canto, as the paramount concern of opera. Sometime later German opera began to acknowledge that the abstract instrumental sounds of the orchestra might - just possibly - be able to characterise a dramatic situation more subtly merely by the atmosphere that abstract sound can arouse than any amount of vocal histrionics.

In a purely practical sense (and this is perhaps the one that will cause most hotly-argued disagreement) it would seem that unless one can clearly and unmistakably hear every word that is sung, the whole point of a dramatic story is lost. Of course, the obvious answer to this is that one should get to know the story beforehand! But if this is the case, why bother with singers at all — they only clutter up the situation — let the orchestra "tell the story in its infinitely more subtle, yet most penetrating manner of allusion and suggestion?

Wordsworth expressed the idea ("Intimations of Immortality") that there are: .... "Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears" .... This might not inappropriately be paraphrased: . . . "Thoughts that do often lie too deep for words", ... Since ‘tears’ and ‘words’ are a way of expressing our feelings they are both concerned with emotions. Tears are imprecise and can be taken in infinite degrees of emotional expression. On the other hand words (despite obvious double entendre or any other hidden significance they might suggest) are prosaic and earth-bound: basically they really mean exactly what they say, and for the most part we understand them in this way. So that one could say that some (dramatic) "thoughts are too deep for words" and can be far more subtly expressed through music. By its very nature abstract musical sounds have no precise meaning and thus can soar to emotional heights that words can rarely if ever attain. Poets, writers and all who use words might well of course argue with this view. However, it is worth remembering that while many poets have indeed appreciated the enhancement that composers have brought to their poetry, probably just as many have resented the ‘intrusion’ that composers have brought to a writer’s personal and original way of expressing what he or she has to say.

Considering British (probably more precisely in this context ‘English’) temperament we have long been known for the ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality, not allowing our emotions to show too obviously, preferring understatement in most things. Could this be a reason for our lesser enthusiasm for the too-overtly expressed emotions of opera? We have always nurtured the relatively plain-speaking of writers more than composers, preferring it to the too-embellished musical accretions of opera. The theatre has flourished far more with the spoken word (for one thing one can always hear precisely what is being said). Despite the now quite flourishing operatic interests in Britain - but still hardly to be compared with Continental enthusiasm — it is perhaps not without significance that the quality newspapers give infinitely more space to reviewing stage plays than ever they do to opera.

"Thoughts that do often lie too deep for words" have ever been, for this writer at least, far more emotionally arousing and infinitely memorable in the concert hall: the symphonies or concertos of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Elgar, Tschaikowsky, Sibelius; the chamber music of Schubert, or the organ music of Bach than any amount of vocally exaggerated emotional exhibitionism by singers who have to bawl and shout in order to try to make themselves heard in an unnatural situation and so cannot articulate their words clearly, and of course because they merely like the noise their own voices make. There is a German word: Gesamtkunstwerk which means a combination of all the arts: words, drama, music, scenery, costumes, visual effects, so that all these individual aspects of art come together. The notion is interesting, but it more often than not results in an absurd confusion of conflicting claims on our credulity.

Dr Johnson once wrote: "Opera is an exotic and irrational entertainment"

The Second Piano Concerto or the Fourth Symphony of Brahms, the symphonies of Elgar, Sibelius, Tschaikowsky or Dvořák; Beethoven’s "Eroica”, Mozart piano concertos, Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor for organ, Schumman’s Piano Quintet, Vaughan Williams’ “Tallis Fantasia” and countless other great instrumental music from Bach to the twentieth century will always remain the most emotionally stirring and uplifting sounds I have ever heard. But the so-called most exotic and arousing love music of all time, said to be perceived in "Tristan", means absolutely nothing to me.

Arthur Butterworth © 2003

Arthur Butterworth Writes

Arthur Butterworth Web Site


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