Summary for the Busy Executive: Where's that beaten track I hear so much about?
Gian-Carlo Menotti's glory years were largely over by 1960. By that time, he had become, thanks to perhaps five hits – The Old Maid and the Thief, The Medium, The Telephone, The Consul, and the mega-phenomenon Amahl and the Night Visitors – the most successful opera composer after the war. Nobody else came close in number of performances or amount of royalties generated. In fact, I wonder how many people can come up with a list of five postwar operas that omits Menotti.
And surely Menotti deserved his success. He had a gift for singable melody – one of the best since Puccini – and a strong, sure sense of theater. Of course, this landed him in critical trouble with the postwar ideologues who decreed that music had to move a certain way or it wasn't really music. Menotti's strong points weren't those of the artists who generally found favor. Although he certainly knew his craft, the architectural games popular in the Fifties were never his strong point or even interest. He composed from the heart in a very conservative idiom. He also wrote his own libretti, and these in themselves became barriers. English was not his first language, though he was fluent. He had an affinity for trashy, pretentious ideas and fairly obvious symbolism. But his music and his theatrical talent were usually enough to overcome these limitations. I recognize a yawning gap between the poetic merits of Rosenkavalier and The Old Maid and the Thief, but they both display a genius for stage action that serves musical exposition.
What saved Menotti time and time again was his melodic power. By the late Sixties, however, the well had begun to run dry. He usually composed slowly anyway, as if notes had to be painfully extruded bit by bit. He was notoriously bad on deadlines. Even Amahl shows this as much as anything, as the ideas tend to come in short bursts, as if he wrote out his inspiration and then had to wait for another strike. The late operas – for example, The Boy Who Grew Too Fast, La Loca, and Goya – are sad musical deserts, as is the "Halcyon" Symphony, the composer's Bicentennial project. We wait for anything to refresh us. They come across as little more than dutiful fulfillments of commissions. And yet, here and there, Menotti could still strike sparks and rekindle the old fire.
I consider the Missa 'O Pulchritudo' his greatest work of the late period and one of the best of any. It recalls the grand, barbaric choruses and colors of The Saint of Bleeker Street. The choral and orchestral writing derives from the magnificent choral scenes of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov (as well as Menotti's own Death of the Bishop of Brindisi), from the opening bare fifths and tolling "bells" of the Kyrie to the ashes of a prayer for peace in the Agnus Dei. That gives you some idea that Menotti doesn't simply plug into the conventional sentiments of the mass. If you have any doubt, Menotti smashes it by replacing the traditional Credo movement (not omitting it altogether, as many composers do) with a motet, "O Pulchritudo," a hymn to beauty as the doorway to the divine written by St. Augustine. It's a particularly fitting small-c credo for an artist, and I don't doubt that Menotti believes it. Menotti's theology has always been, to put it politely, his own. However, I truly doubt that the Catholic Church would endorse either Amahl, The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi, The Saint of Bleeker Street, or Martin's Lie, to name just those works that touch on some overt aspect of religion. The work takes many musical risks, chief among them a reliance on mainly slow tempi, which could get old but somehow never do. The beauty of the music and Menotti's uncanny sense of when to change gears even slightly again wins a listener over. The mass proceeds in the large chunks of the traditional sections, with the Sanctus and Benedictus combined. Indeed, this last is the longest movement and, in many ways, the prettiest, with a lovely, pastoral duet for the women soloists. In all, I bought the CD for this piece alone and don't regret it.
It's a good thing, too, since I've always had problems with the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French organ school, particularly the choral music. I know many good musicians out there who salivate over this stuff, but I'm not one of them. For me, Fauré stands as the stunning exception. Right now, guys like Vierne and Widor constitute a specialized taste, like French Romantic virtuoso concerti, French grand opera, Russian art song, and verismo composers other than Puccini. Give me instead the Edwardian sacred choral music from writers like Bainton, Ireland, Beach, and Stanford. The choral writing is far more interesting, accomplished, and varied to me. Vierne's Messe Solennelle strikes me as foursquare and bland, too tied to the circumstances of composition, choir, and organ (or, in this case, organs; it calls for two). I always wondered where this group of composers, beginning with Franck, comes from: Gounod? Saint-Saëns? If we consider the fiery genius of Berlioz, the tameness of most of this stuff astonishes. It's like the bad boy beaten to dull respectability.
The late William Ferris of Chicago leads his singers in good performances of both works (although the men tend to slightly flat in the Vierne Kyrie, just a few cents, not enough to sink themselves). The soloists in the Menotti are professional, but not outstanding, with the women noticeably bettering the men. Fortunately, the chorus and the women soloists do the heavy lifting in the work.
Copyright © 2007, Steve Schwartz.