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CLASSICAL  August 2000

CLASSICAL August 2000

Subject:

Re: The Greatest Aria of Them All

From:

Peter Goldstein <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 23 Aug 2000 22:34:41 -0400

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Satoshi Akima wrote:

>About Wagner I will say little more as I have already said way too much.
>About Mozart too I have written too much that is bitterly critical and
>have offended the sensibility of too many a Mozartian in the process.  So
>I choose instead to throw the cat amongst the pigeons by saying I would
>prefer Schoenberg's Moses und Aaron to Mozart's Don Giovanni any day.
>I especially like the acceptance of the Wagnerian abolition of the whole
>silly aria-recitative thing.  I demand visionary depth and profundity from
>art.  Light and love are just not enough for me I am afraid!

As a dedicated Mozartian, I can say that although I frequently disagree
with Satoshi Akima, he has never offended my sensibilities.  I find his
comments generally intelligent and well-thought-out, and always worth
reading.  But I have to take issue with his characterization of the older
form of opera as "the whole silly aria-recitative thing." Most critics
agree with him, actually:  many who revere Mozart and Verdi assume that
the thorough-composed form is better than the aria-recitative form, and
say either "it's too bad Mozart had to work under the old forms" or
"isn't it great the way Verdi's later operas transcend the old forms."
But for me, the aria-recitative form is every bit as good as the
thorough-composed--it's just different.  I'll try to keep my argument
as brief as possible.

Let's start with an analogy.  The 20th century saw a great loosening of
poetic forms; the end result was the hegemony of free verse.  I teach
poetry of all eras at the college level, and in 25 or so years of adult
reading, I have seen no evidence that free verse is better than (say) the
sonnet, or vice versa.  Free forms achieve certain effects better than
fixed forms, but the reverse is also true.  For example, fixed forms very
effectively suggest a tension between order and disorder; free forms don't
do this as well.  So let's look at opera now.  The aria-recitative form
(and its even less respected aria-speech cousin, Singspiel) is extremely
effective in presenting drama which alternates moments of high intensity
with moments of relative slackness.  Aria and ensemble take care of the
poetry, recitative/speech takes care of the prose.  The thorough-composed
form doesn't do this as well; for example, with apologies to Dr.  Akima,
Wagner does the poetry beautifully, but can't always handle the prose.
There are some really dull moments in the Ring, precisely where the
story requires low intensity rather than high.  That doesn't mean
thorough-composed opera can't handle the prose too--both Wagner and later
Verdi manage it quite well at times.  But the form in which they work is
not ideally adapted to that particular effect, and both composers have
their longueurs.

So, my first point:  certain forms are better adapted to certain effects.
My second point is that if art comments on life, the universe, and
everything (and certainly opera does), artistic forms in and of themselves
suggest certain perspectives on those topics.  The reason free verse
developed in the early 20th century is that the early 20th century is when
God died.  Free verse is perfect for a society that sees no transcendent
order in the universe.  Fixed poetic forms tend to suggest a universe in
which there is an ultimate order--of course, they can be used ironically,
but that's precisely the point.  These days, when you use fixed poetic
forms, you are deliberately invoking an archaic view of the universe.
To turn to opera, the aria-recitative form suggests that life is lived
in moments of relative high intensity joined by periods of slackness.
And in fact that's the way life really seems sometimes.  We spend 3 hours
of drudgery at our job, then suddenly get really angry at one of our
colleagues, then go back to the grind, then get involved in a sudden rush
to accomplish a task at short notice, etc.  I think the reason people still
love the aria-recitative form is that it responds to their instinctive
feeling that that's the way life is.  The thorough-composed form, on the
other hand, presents life as a more even ebb and flow--and the reason
people love the thorough-composed form is that that also seems a true view
of life.

I've got lots more to say, but those are the basics.  I love the older
forms and the newer forms; when a great composer is writing the music, they
all work equally well.  I love Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner, and I'm starting
to learn to love Handel and Monteverdi as well.  So what's my favorite
opera? Since you ask, it's Don Giovanni.

Peter Goldstein

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