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On Opera

On Opera

Bernard Williams
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    On Opera
    Book Description:

    Bernard Williams, who died in 2003, was one of the most influential moral philosophers of his generation. A lifelong opera lover, his articles and essays, talks for the BBC, contributions to theGrove Dictionary of Opera, and program notes for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the English National Opera, generated a devoted following.This elegant volume brings together these widely scattered and largely unobtainable pieces, including two that have not been previously published. It covers an engaging range of topics from Mozart to Wagner, including sparkling essays on specific operas by those composers as well as Verdi, Puccini, Strauss, Debussy, Janacek, and Tippett. Reflecting Williams's brilliance, passion, and clarity of mind, these essays engage with, and illustrate, the enduring appeal of opera as an art form.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14228-0
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Editorial Preface
    (pp. vii-xi)
    Patricia Williams
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xii-xx)
    Michael Tanner

    Bernard Williams was a lifelong opera lover. He wrote often about operas, as well as being on the Board of the Sadler’s Wells Opera before and after it became the English National Opera and moved to the Coliseum. Many of the pieces he wrote about specific operas were commissioned for programmes at ENO or the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, others were given as talks on BBC Radio 3, in the intervals of opera broadcasts.

    But Bernard was also concerned with larger reflections about the different ways in which the great opera composers achieve their dramatic ends, and was...

  5. 1 The Nature of Opera: Entry for The New Grove Dictionary of Opera
    (pp. 1-19)

    Opera is by definition staged sung drama, but that leaves many questions unresolved, some simply verbal, but others interesting for the nature of the form. ‘Staged’ represents a significant requirement. Operas can of course be given concert performances, and these are sometimes ‘semi-staged’, under conventions that allow some token costume, décor and movement. But works not intended at all for costumed theatrical presentation do not count. Sunk in financial disaster from his efforts with Italian opera in London, Handel turned to the oratorio, and the resulting works are not seen as a form of opera, simply because they were not...

  6. 2 Mozart’s Comedies and the Sense of an Ending
    (pp. 20-24)

    It is not easy to bring a serious dramatic comedy to its end. A well-written farce ends itself – the last combination of pieces is reached, the acceleration gets to its limit, the play stops. But a comedy may well face a problem raised by its own depth. It may have expressed or suggested feelings of considerable intensity, and embodied them in happenings which are at any rate unusual; at the same time it is related to, and belongs to, a normal world. The plot has its shape, which is closed when the play ends, but one must be allowed...

  7. 3 Mozart’s Figaro: A Question of Class?
    (pp. 25-30)

    About ten weeks after the first performance ofThe Marriage of Figaroin 1786, a Vienna paper carried this paragraph: ‘What is not allowed to be said these days is sung, one may say, withFigaro– this piece, which was prohibited in Paris and not allowed to be performed here as a comedy, either in a bad or in a good translation, we have at last had the felicity to see represented as an opera. It will be seen that we are doing better than the French.’ That paragraph suggests only that on the musical stage Mozart and Da...

  8. 4 Don Giovanni as an Idea
    (pp. 31-42)

    Giovanni is Don Juan, but he does not have to bear the weight of all the significance which that mythical figure has come to express. Still less does Giovanni have to be pursued, as though by another Elvira, with every interpretation that has been given of Don Juanism as a psychological category: that it expresses latent homosexuality, for instance, or hatred of women, or a need for reassurance. Any of these may be true of the local womaniser, but he is not Giovanni, and these states of mind are not whatDon Giovanniexpresses.

    Some later Don Juans, elaborated as...

  9. 5 Passion and Cynicism: Remarks on Così fan tutte
    (pp. 43-48)

    To takeCosì fan tutteseriously is not, as people sometimes impatiently insist, to refuse to treat it as a comedy. On the contrary, it is to take it seriously as a comedy, something we are certainly prepared to do with other comedies, and with Mozart’s other great Italian operas. Since one is dealing with an opera, that involves attending at once to the music and to the meaning of the action, and when one does that a problem certainly arises. I want to try to locate the problem, and explore one approach to dealing with it.

    The problem arises...

  10. 6 Rather Red than Black: Verdi, Don Carlos and the Passion for Freedom
    (pp. 49-56)

    Don Carlos stands in a special relation to Verdi’s social and political ideals – ideals which were themselves connected at more than one level with the aims of his art. It is those ideals I should like to say something about.

    From the beginning Verdi’s work was associated with liberal and nationalist causes. It is well known how in his first great success,Nabucco, the nostalgic chorus of Hebrew exiles, ‘Va pensiero’, became one of the great songs of the Italian aspiration to independence and unity. In the first decade of his work, other pieces, lines or situations in his...

  11. 7 Tristan and Time
    (pp. 57-61)

    The action ofTristan und Isoldedoes not lie in external events. In this work Wagner carried to the extreme the process that was always basic to his dramatic method, of internalising the action and making the music expressive of inner states and of the deepest movements of the mind. In order to do that, he not only drastically pruned the traditional legend of persons and happenings, but also, in a way that was totally original, adjusted the time of his drama – both in its tempo, and in the order in which it reveals its images and explanations –...

  12. 8 The Elusiveness of Pessimism: Responding to the Ring
    (pp. 62-69)

    TheRing, as a text, grew fromSiegfrieds Tod, the single opera of which Wagner wrote the poem (and made a few musical sketches) before he conceived the cycle as a whole. In becomingGötterdämmerung, that work was changed in several ways, above all in its ending.Siegfrieds Todcloses, asGötterdämmerungdoes, with Brünnhilde riding into Siegfried’s pyre, the flooding of the Rhine, and the return of the ring to the Rhinemaidens; but the gods are not overcome, Wotan rules for ever, and Brünnhilde takes Siegfried with her to Valhalla. The change from this triumphalist conception to the work...

  13. 9 Wagner and the Transcendence of Politics
    (pp. 70-89)

    How should we think about Wagner? Those who are troubled by that question, as I am, presumably think that as an artist he is worth being troubled about: that his works, or some of them, are demanding, inviting, seductive, powerful. Not everyone who cares about music need share that opinion. The relation of Wagner to the history of Western music and to the formation of a taste is not the same as that of, say, Bach or Mozart: he is not in the same way necessary. His works are indeed necessary to explaining its more recent history, very obviously so,...

  14. 10 L’Envers des destinées: Remarks on Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande
    (pp. 90-98)

    When Debussy’sPelléaswas first performed, on 30 April 1902, the public reaction on the whole was one of disappointment. It was felt, at first, even by some of the more advanced critics; there was a feeling that the work was too thin, too shapeless, too indefinite. Rimsky-Korsakov voiced a widespread view when he said that the ‘harmonic combinations were incomprehensible, the orchestra lacked body and firmness of texture, the whole was monotonous; and he could see no future for this “curious experiment”‘.¹ As many writers have said subsequently, the reactions of that first audience have to be understood in...

  15. 11 Manifest Artifice: The Ingenuity of Puccini
    (pp. 99-106)

    The criticism of operas, as distinct from the criticism of performances, is still not a very developed activity. Insofar as it exists, it has tended to concentrate on discussing the music, rather than operas as dramatic and musical wholes. The fact that there is not much serious criticism of Puccini’s operas is not, therefore, necessarily surprising. But such criticism as there is has tended to be hostile or contemptuous, and I suspect that, in this particular case, the lack of serious comment is itself a comment. Puccini is not taken entirely seriously.

    At the same time, several of his works...

  16. 12 Comments on Opera and Ideas: From Mozart to Strauss by Paul Robinson
    (pp. 107-112)

    There are a lot of points that I should have liked to take up in Paul Robinson’s very interesting book, which I admire because it extends to opera a serious level of intellectual interest that is taken for granted as appropriate in other dramatic arts but is rarely applied to opera; and also because, even more unusually, it obeys the precept that if you want to understand opera you must trust its music. However, because of the limitations of time, my remarks will be mostly about Wagner and Strauss, and in particular Wagner.

    The work of Wagner’s that Robinson considers...

  17. 13 The Marriage and the Flute: Tippett and Mozart
    (pp. 113-117)

    In an essay written in 1944 called ‘Contracting into Abundance’, Michael Tippett spoke of ‘the fact of divided man’ and the ideal of ‘the whole man’, and went on to say (as he put it later) that ‘the most enchanting expression of a general state where theological man is balanced against natural man is Mozart’sMagic Flute‘. A pattern drawn fromThe Magic Flutewas in Tippett’s mind from the beginning of the generation ofThe Midsummer Marriage, and while he was convinced that ‘no-one now can match the innocence, tenderness and simplicity with which that mythological experience was...

  18. 14 Janáček’s Modernism: Doing Less with More in Music and Philosophy
    (pp. 118-120)

    Milan Kundera has written, ‘I see the art of ellipses as crucial. It insists that we go directly to the heart of things. In that regard, I am reminded of the composer I’ve admired passionately since I was a child, Leoš Janáček.’ Kundera emphasised particularly Janáček’s methods of leaving out the ‘superfluous notes’: the transitions, the decorations, the bits that merely fill in. Hence his harsh juxtapositions and the bare repetitions. Kundera also said that Janáček created a new world for opera, ‘a world of prose’; he was interested above all in the analogies to Janáček’s music that he might...

  19. 15 Authenticity and Re-creation: Musicology, Performance and Production
    (pp. 121-130)

    To love music, as I do – or rather, I should say, to love quite a lot of music, since there is a lot I do not know, some I am indifferent to, and some, as there is for any sensible person who cares about it, that I hate – this does not mean that even in an amateurish way one grasps much of the musicologist’s crafts. The converse, too, is at least conceivable – that mastery of the musicological crafts does not necessarily imply a love of music.

    But when I try to imagine what this might be like,...

  20. 16 Naïve and Sentimental Opera Lovers
    (pp. 131-143)

    Isaiah Berlin used to maintain, particularly in his article ‘The “Naïveté” of Verdi’,¹ that Verdi was the last great artist who was, in Schiller’s terms, ‘naïve’ rather than ‘sentimental’. He went on to mention, as he does in the article, formidable lists of artists who fall on one side or another of the distinction, Verdi finding himself with Homer, Shakespeare, Bach, Rubens, Pushkin and Dickens, while thesentimentalisch, in Schiller’s sense of the term, include, among many others, Euripides, Virgil, Ariosto, Dostoevsky, Flaubert and Wagner.

    The distinction is one of self-consciousness. ‘The poet is either himself nature: or he seeks...

  21. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 144-145)
  22. Index of Names and Works
    (pp. 146-156)