Sunday, August 8, 2010

The "Real" 1942

Last month I felt as if my duties were taking me to such a wide diversity of "musical offerings" that I invoked the metaphor of riding on a pendulum swinging across a very broad arc. That metaphor surfaced again implicitly at the end of this past week in the two events I covered on Thursday and Friday evenings. In terms of calendar time, the separation between Gaetano Donizetti's 1832 comic opera L'Elisir d'Amore and Ludwig van Beethoven's 1818 "Hammerklavier" piano sonata in B-flat major (Opus 106) is not that great, at least in terms of the longue durée thinking of the Annalistes. However, if, as I suggested on Friday morning, the great virtue of L'Elisir is its unashamed simplicity, then, for those who like to sink their teeth into a bit more musical substance, the "Hammerklavier" was not just a breath of fresh air; it was a veritable hurricane. Of course historical thinking inevitably turns up ironies; and, if the sheer temporal magnitude of the intricate counterpoint in the final movement of Beethoven's Opus 106 may have ultimately inspired Richard Wagner to do the same over an even longer scale in the finale of the second act of Die Meistersinger, we would do well to remember that one of the few sources of income that Wagner had in Paris in 1840 involved arranging Donizetti's music for various vocal and instrumental combinations to support the sale of sheet music for "home entertainment!"

This morning, while thinking about the fact that I would be spending my afternoon with the second cast of the Merola Opera Program production of L'Elisir, I discovered that my historical thinking was taking me in a somewhat impish direction. As I observed on Friday, the setting for this particular production is 1942 San Francisco; and I found myself thinking about what music would really have been performed in this setting. This then reminded me that last December I had a rather interesting exchange with Ricky Riccardi over the review he had written for the San Francisco Chronicle of Terry Teachout's Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong. Basically, I had bridled at Riccardi being so definitive in naming Armstrong "the greatest jazz musician of the 20th century;" and I was amused to see that, two weeks later, the Chronicle's capsule summary of this book had changed this phrase to "the jazz great!" Now, while, as we know from Ira Gitler's Jazz Masters of the Forties, the "early 1940s was a time of experimentation in jazz," in this particular case I would side with Riccardi and accept that, in the theater-within-a-theater Merola set, the music that would have made the best "fit" would probably have come from Pops and his crew. Indeed, a rather extensive German anthology in my collection includes a Los Angeles recording session on April 17, 1942 that resulted in four sides, "(Get Some) Cash For Your Trash" (which works very nicely in the "home front" connotations of the Merola production), "Among My Souvenirs," "Coquette" (could there be a better song for Adina?), and "I Never Knew" (which could almost support an alternative finale for L'Elisir).

Of course it would be unfair to say that any Armstrong side from the forties provides a latter-day version of Donizetti's spirit of simplicity. Armstrong's performances may have had a surface simplicity for those interested in little more than dancing to the band; but, as experts like Riccardi have observed so convincingly, that surface structure is deceptive. There is more than enough to keep the serious listener occupied, even if the nature of that occupation has little to do with how one listens to Beethoven. (I should also note, as an aside, that, following my exchange with Riccardi, I took the time to watch the Book TV recording of one of Teachout's book talks; and I have to say that I found Riccardi far superior to Teachout when it came to championing Pops' reputation.)

Perhaps all this is a bit unfair to Nicola Bowie, the stage director of the Merola production. However, as I listen to those Pops sides, I realize that, during the Second World War, we kept our simplicity on the surface to cover over what we really felt about shipping our boys out into the Pacific Ocean, with all the dark realities captured so pointedly during the recent HBO series about this side of the World War Two story. Armstrong could comfort us with his simplicity without covering over the sources of our anxieties. Donizetti probably never had to worry about his audiences having such conflicted emotions, which may be one reason that L'Elisir was originally set in the Basque Country. It is easier to get into the spirit of a carefree environment when you do not know very much about what life is actually like there!

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