Plenty of people have composed music as a hobby, but none more successfully than Alexander Borodin, a chemist by profession. As a hobbyist, he did not produce a lot of music, but his works include symphonies, chamber music, and an opera—some of the loveliest music in the repertoire. The opera, Prince Igor, includes the ever-popular “Polovtsian Dances,” which formed the tune of the Broadway hit “Stranger in Paradise.” Its success is remarkable, because he never finished the opera. Continue reading →
Zoltán Kodály is a towering figure in 20th-century music: folk music collector, music educator, and composer. Along with his good friend Béla Bartók, he showed the world of art music the riches of Hungarian folk music. His opera Háry János, and more famously, the suite he derived from it, put it on full display.
Hungary has had a long tradition of foreign domination: the Turks for more than a century, then Habsburg Austria. Franz Liszt, the first internationally significant Hungarian composer, asserted Hungarian cultural independence and wanted to explore Hungarian folk music systematically, but he never did.
Kodály, on the other hand, helped establish the field of ethnomusicology and helped put Hungarian culture on the international stage. Continue reading →
Operatic sopranos who sing the lead parts have long been known as prima donnas, Italian for first lady. In the 19th century English-speaking world, they became known as divas, for their divine voices.
Their behavior hasn’t always been divine, though. Both prima donna and diva have come to mean a self-centered, unreasonable woman.
All the following anecdotes are about divas in the first sense of the term, and some were diva’s in the second. Continue reading →
The hype surrounding the 450th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi’s birth shows leftovers of the hype that greeted his operas more than a hundred years ago, culminating with the 300th anniversary of his death.
By this time, gushing about his operas to the exclusion of his most important work is simply sloppy history.
Monteverdi (1567-1643) is not the “first modern composer.” He did not single-handedly rescue opera from the work of academic hacks and make it into an art form. Continue reading →
“I’d hate this to get out, but I really like opera,” said former Commissioner of Baseball Ford Frick.
What is it about opera that would make anyone hesitant to admit that they like it? It seems to have this reputation as highbrow culture, an entertainment only for the rich, the old, the white, and the snobbish.
Two hundred years ago Italian opera had a reputation as mindless entertainment for lowbrows who didn’t appreciate good music.
What happened? Continue reading →
William Shakespeare has been regarded as England’s leading poet and dramatist since the latter part of the 17th century, first in England, and by the end of the 18th century all over Europe.
No single work has inspired as many adaptations as Romeo and Juliet, including parodies, prose and verse adaptations, films, television shows, paintings, and music.
In classical music alone, Romeo and Juliet has inspired a couple of dozen operas, some ballets, and considerable orchestral and choral music.
This post will examine four acknowledged masterpieces, but first, let’s look at some of the earliest of the Romeo and Juliet operas. Continue reading →