Monday, 28 March 2016


It’s that time again! As we bid adieu to the month of March, unravelingmusicalmyths is ready to regale to the readers a cornucopia of scandal and intrigue in this month's entry of Mayhem Behind the Music: Trivia and Humor.

The current posting will re-visit three of Western Classical Music's most notorious premieres that are waist-deep in the muck of ethical debauchery. Featuring the cunning hands of guile, the back-stabbing chicanery of former "frenemies," and a ballet whose subject matter was deemed so foul, it was banned by a leading city Mayor!

I) Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)

We begin in Rome, at the premiere of Gioachino Rossini’s opera Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Teatro Argentina one cool February evening in 1816. Appearing under an alternate (and Italian) title Almaviva, o sia L'inutile precauzione, Rossini’s première was an organized disaster – that is, rumor has it that Almaviva’s audience was carefully hand selected and likely even coached by a rival composer, Giovanni Paisiello, who was in attendance during that evening’s premiere. It is believed Paisiello was enraged at Rossini for upstaging his own opera, which, coincidentally, was also based on the comical story of Figaro  - and which also happened to share the same history in terms of libretto: both Cesare Sterbini, who wrote for Rossini, and Giuseppe Petrosellini, who wrote for Paisiello, would use as their source of inspiration the play "Le Barbier de Séville"  by the celebrated playwright Pierre Beaumarchais of France. 

It soon became clear to Rossini that Paisiello had acted as saboteur to his orchestral superior: seated in the crowd were throngs of Paisiello’s supporters, many of them likely to have been claquers – paid to drown out any would-be enthusiastic displays of clapping with very audible jeering, booing and hissing. 

The scandalous critique of Rossini’s version of Il Barbiere… and that of its origin and instigator would also soon come to light when Rossini staged the opera for a second time, this time without Paisiello or his hired cronies in the audience, and the crowd went wild with enthusiastic approval. Almaviva… or, Il Barbiere di Siviglia – was a success, and it was here to stay.

View below to a great rendition of Largo a factotum from Il Barbiere… as performed by baritone Simon Keenlyside:

II) The Miraculous mandarin

For our next entry, we journey North to mid-twentieth century Germany at the premiere of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók's one-act pantomime ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin.

As we have already seen in the premieres of Stravinsky, Rossini and Boito, scandalous premieres were anything but a once in a blue moon occasion. This time the uproar would appear in the German city of Cologne, at Bartók’s calumnious first staging of his epic classical masterpiece for pantomime ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin.

Written during the outbreak of WWI, Bartók would begin composing music for the work in the summer of 1918 only to briefly abandon his project as the war progressed, before completing the final version of The Miraculous Mandarin in 1922. It’s raucous premiere would be held in Cologne in 1926, creating such an outrage amongst the audience and local press that the work was effectively banned from the country after its first performance on “moral grounds.”

So outraged was the public sentiment, even the mayor of Cologne had weighed in, as documented by a local contemporary journalist present at the premiere:
“Cologne, a city of churches, monasteries and chapels... has lived to see its first true [musical] scandal. Catcalls, whistling, stamping and booing... which did not subside even after the composer’s personal appearance, nor even after the safety curtain went down... The press, with the exception of the left, protests, the clergy of both denominations hold meetings, the mayor of the city intervenes dictatorially and bans the pantomime from the repertoire [only one performance was given]... Waves of moral outrage engulf the city...”
Perhaps the attending audience would have found Bartók’s music less shocking (although not any less offensive for the time) had they known previously of the text which had inspired the work before suiting up in tux and furs.

It would be after reading a short story by the same name in a new years day edition of Hungarian literary magazine Nyugat ("West") by famed writer Menyhért Lengyel that Bartok felt overcome with the burning desire to set the text to music. In an abstract later published by the composer, Bartók describes the plotline thusly:
“Just listen to how beautiful the story is. Three thugs force a beautiful young girl to seduce men and lure them into their den, where they will be robbed. The first turns out to be poor, the second likewise, but the third is a Chinese, a good catch, as it turns out. The girl entertains him with her dance. The Mandarin’s desire is aroused. His love flares up, but the girl recoils from him. The thugs attack the Mandarin, rob him, smother him with pillows, stab him with a sword, all in vain, because the Mandarin continues watching the girl with eyes full of yearning... the girl complies with the Mandarin’s wish [i.e., for sexual consummation] whereupon he drops dead.”
Bartók himself describes, in a letter to his wife during the early stages of composing the work, that the orchestral masterpiece would prove to be “..hellish music,” describing the first ‘scene’ thusly:
“The prelude before the curtain goes up will be very short and sound like pandemonium... the audience will be introduced to the [thieves’] den at the height of the hurly-burly of the metropolis.”
As perfectly suited as the music was to the composers' sentiment and indeed to the text (one can actually “hear” and visualize a highly congested traffic jam, full of anxiety ridden men and women, scurrying about the streets (as represented by a rapidly fluctuating string section), and frazzled drivers laying down on their horns (perfectly executed by a jarring interruption from the orchestral fray of horns and trombones), The Miraculous Mandarin would not be appreciated during the composers lifetime as an orchestrally ingenious composition that shatters any boundaries of the audible/visual divide, instead becoming limited only to the form of a concert suite in future productions, which would remove from the original ballet a vast portion of it's music.

Listen below to the highly provocative Miraculous Mandarin:

II) Artaxeres

For our final installment in this month's edition of Mayhem Behind the Music: Trivia & Humor,  we visit late 18th century England and the composer Thomas Arne at his own raucous premiere of what would become recognized as the first English Opera Seria: Artaxerxes, a so called “serious” opera loosely based on the ruler Artaxerxes I of Persia.

Arne, whilst anything but a present day household name, will undoubtedly be most familiar with modern classical music aficionados and even laymen through his music. Certainly, the reader will have heard at least a dozen or so times his famous patriotic song Rule, Britannia!, a staple piece at the annual BBC Proms, commonly employed by both the Royal Navy and the British Army; and as composer of Disney favorite "A-Hunting We Will Go." Arne would also pen a setting of God Save the King, in a form that is quite familiar to the present version of the British National Anthem.

Therefore, from the perspective of posterity, it is difficult to imagine a time in which such a highly respected and most influential composer would encounter such public disdain that he would find himself on the receiving end of a riotous mob - not at the premiere performance (when it would have been unwelcome, yet not uncommon) of his opera Artaxerxes, but, most peculiarly, during the opera’s second run at England’s Covent Garden Theatre.

So enraged was the mob at having to pay full price admission following the theatres abolition of half priced fares, the crowd would display a sense of violence and calamity that would make the infamous “Riot at the Rite” in Stravinsky's Paris the following century look and feel like a walk in the park. In Arne’s case, it wasn’t so much that the mob tore at each other, but rather at the theatre itself, which they proceeded to tear asunder, ripping at chandeliers, benches, and glass fixtures, as recorded by an eye witness account in the contemporary “Gentleman's Magazine”:
“The mischief done was the greatest ever known on any occasion of the like kind: all the benches of the boxes and pit being entirely tore up, the glasses and chandeliers broken, and the linings of the boxes cut to pieces. The rashness of the rioters was so great, that they cut away the wooden pillars between the boxes, so if the inside of them had not been iron, they would have brought down the galleries upon their heads.”

Listen below to the aria "The Soldier Tir'd" by my most beloved belcantist, the Australian soprano Joan Sutherland from Thomas Arne's
1762 opera Artaxerxes:

Talk about a rocky head start!


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