Friday, July 6, 2012

Relief from Donizetti?

Regular readers of my San Francisco site may be forgiven if they think I have it in for Gaetano Donizetti. I can definitely appreciate their feeling this way, particularly after I was so unforgiving about the excerpt from Anna Bolena I saw at last night's Schwabacher Summer Concert of opera scenes. Actually, I tend to enjoy Donizetti when he ventures into comedy, particularly if the comedy happens to be L'Elisir d'Amore. (I'm afraid what I like best about La Fille du Régiment is the extent to which it keeps the music to a minimum!) I think what I enjoy about his comic operas is that he has a better sense of brevity than he does when he launches into tragedy.

As a result I found myself turning to a new collection of the songs of Arnold Schoenberg to clear my head this morning. What I realized is that the strongest influence on his earliest songs (many of which have only been recently discovered) seems to be Johannes Brahms. So many of Brahms' songs are these crystalline masterpieces of brevity. Schoenberg appears to have recognized this trait and tried to honor it with the harmonic language he was trying to cultivate in his earliest work.

The result is a new approach to song, rather than "warmed-over Brahms," which is decidedly different from other influences of the time, such as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. I do not see this as a "German versus Italian thing," although it probably has much to do with seeking out new directions with the end of the nineteenth century. Thus, I come away recommending Schoenberg's vocal writing as an excellent antidote to Donizetti at is most overwrought; and, with the new release of his songs, I hope that this antidote may be recognized for its value!

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