Two interpretations of The Cenci (3)

William Newman

Havergal Brian’s The Cenci and Berthold Goldschmidt’s

_Beatrice Cenci _ Part 3 - William Newman

The operas of Brian and Goldschmidt

The subject of the first of Goldschmidt’s two operas, Der gewaltige Hahnrei (The magnificent cuckold), was first suggested to Goldschmidt by Arthur Maria Rabenalt, one of the producers in Darmstadt 34. The play, Le cocu magnifique, was written by the French writer, Fernand Crommelynck, and had achieved a succès de scandale at its premiere in Paris in 1920 35 and a considerable succès d’estime at a production at Meyerhold’s Moscow Arts Theatre 36. The play is a ribald, grotesque tragi-comedy with expressionist elements and very much a product of its age.

The subject appealed to Goldschmidt and, having written his own impressive libretto, he set to work writing the music in 1929, completing the opera in the following year. Crommelynck was initially reluctant to authorise Goldschmidt’s adaptation, but the composer played the score through to him and permission was granted. The opera was given its premiere in Mannheim in February 1932 and Carl Ebert scheduled a performance at the Stadtische Oper in Berlin in 1933, but by this time the National Socialists were in power, Carl Ebert fled to Switzerland and the production was cancelled.

The opera is very accomplished work for a first attempt at the idiom. The rapidly changing dramatic situations demand a mas-terly control of colour and this Goldschmidt provides with an unusual orchestral palette, a mature use of percussion (an ability he shares with Brian) and a rhythmic drive (stemming in part from jazz) reflecting both the exaggerated emotional states of the characters and the Zeitgeist of late 20th century German culture.

The manner of the drama and the nature of the music reflect the ideas and practise of Gebrauchsmusik and may even owe something to Shostakovich, for Goldschmidt had heard and been impressed by a suite extracted from the Russian’s satirical opera The nose 37. The vocal writing is sympathetic and the musical characterisation distinctive, albeit the libretto requires broad brush strokes. There are also instances where Goldschmidt shows his ability to write with tender beauty as in Petrus’ farewell to Stella towards the end of act two.

As soon as he had finished writing Der gewaltige Hahnrei Goldschmidt travelled to Leningrad for a conducting engagement where he met Shostakovich and informed him that he had been thinking of making Leskov’s short story Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk into an opera! This idea was abandoned when Shostakovich told him that he had just completed an opera on the same subject himself, and it was almost 20 years before Goldschmidt set to work on his only other opera, Beatrice Cenci.

Mention has already been made of Brian’s first opera, The Tigers (NL145), an extraordinary work and quite unlike his other operas. What caused the opera to be written is not entirely clear, for Brian, not entirely untypically, gave three contradictory versions to Harold Truscott [^38], but it seems clear that Thomas Beecham had been urging him to write an opera and Brian’s nine-months’ unhappy experience in the army provided the mainspring for the libretto.

The preliminary score was written in the years 1917-1919, but orchestration was not finished until 1929, by which time the Gothic symphony (a very different work) had been completed. It is picaresque in style, owes a great deal in its narrative to Victorian pantomime and to the music hail and contains a multitude of stock characters drawn from these traditions and from similar unlikely sources such as Fred Karno’s army. It consists of a prologue and three acts and requires a vast orchestra including, astonishingly given its date of composition, two vibraphones and a tubaphone. Satirical passages abound in the text and the score. Popular music of the time (eg variations on Has anyone here seen Kelly?), is mixed with parodies of composers from the past (eg the horses on the roundabout turn into the horses of Wagner’s valkyries), and the tone is, generally speaking, one of broad comedy. The music represents the high point of Brian’s first period, and, in its masterly scoring and its relatively orthodox vocal writing, the work is much more immediately accessible than the later operas.

I find, however, the chaotic narrative and the relentlessly broad humour uncongenial. Indeed, Brian’s grotesque humour, thankfully more or less abandoned after The Tigers, can be more embarrassing than in that opera - as the Three illuminations

Setting aside Prometheus Unbound (NL145), Brian did not turn his hand to opera again until 1950 when he began to abridge Schiller’s tragedy Turandot, Prinzessin von China, in German, as a libretto for his second opera. The opera was completed on 18 May in the following year 40 and was submitted to Willy Strecker, managing director of Schott in Germany

The Cenci was started in 1951 and completed towards the end of 1952. There was then a gap of three years before work was started on Faust. Again, Brian abridged the text himself, from Part I of Goethe’s Faust. Faust was a figure to whom Brian returned time and again and it is clear that Brian empathised with Goethe’s creation. Brian had originally thought of using Part II of Goethe’s Faust rather than the Te Deum which he finally settled on as the second part of his gargantuan Gothic symphony 43. Indeed, the quotation from Faust which he placed on the title page of The Gothic is highly revealing of Brian’s view of himself (and Brian usually took great pains not to reveal his feelings): Wer immer strebend sich bemuht, den konnen wir erlosen 44. Indeed, Brian, in an interview in 1969, stated that of all his unperformed compositions Faust was the one he would most like to hear [^45].

The opera, which contains a prologue and four acts, was started in April 1955 and completed a little over a year later [^46]. On the evidence of the prologue, the work is very much in the style of his last three music dramas (as Brian called them, deliberately differentiating them from the lighter form of opera which he held in contempt, and adopting Wagner’s nomenclature). The orchestra dominates the musical narrative, Brian’s orchestration (including prominent brass with an emphatic and effective emphasis on the low brass) is entirely characteristic, the singers primarily use a declamatory type of parlando, though more lyrical elements are also present and the music’s contrapuntal complexity gives rise to harmonic fluidity. Kenneth Eastaugh maintains that Covent Garden showed interest in staging Faust 47, but given the fact that the text, by an English composer, was in German and that Brian’s music was hardly felt to be a boon for the box office, it must be assumed that this interest was inquisitive at best.

Apparently, Glyndebourne considered staging Brian’s last music drama, Agamemnon, but, as so often with Brian’s music, no performance materialised. The single-act opera, lasting a mere 40 minutes, was written in two months in 1957 and was a setting of Aeschylus’ play, adapted and heavily abridged by Brian from the stilted Blackie Everyman translation. It was intended as a narrative precursor and curtain raiser for the Hofmannsthal-Strauss opera, Elektra 48, but Brian’s brushing aside of impracticalities means that the orchestra for the operas have quite different instrumentation and the one character in common, Clytemnestra, is scored by Strauss as a mezzo-soprano and by Brian as a soprano.

The work was given a concert performance by largely amateur forces in 1971, which I attended, and I can only concur with Hugo Cole’s review: Agamemnon showed that Brian could and did write works in which language was used, and connections made, in direct and unmistakable ways—declamatory, heroic, impetuous music, rushing ahead without any relaxation of tension or descent into the conversational or prosaic—melodramatic and highly coloured as an historical set piece by Fuselli, but with an intensity of feeling and a command of resources that are rather impressive 49.

The opera, like his other music dramas, is concerned with the drama and the movements of fate, but the deliberate lack of characterisation does not preclude pity for the victims of fate, a facet which is even clearer in The Cenci. The music is almost entirely in his late manner, with one beautiful and surprising exception; the choral episode just after Agamemnon enters the palace is a touching throw-back to his much earlier style of part-song writing—almost a regretful musical farewell to a more innocent age of music making.

Brian had made starts on other operas which were abandoned for various reasons, but one deserves a mention. In 1948, Brian had to abandon plans to set Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows as use of the copyright had been refused 50, presumably because Karl Rankl was writing an opera using the same text as an entry into the Festival of Britain competition (see below).

The provenance of the Cenci operas

Little is known of the reasons why Brian started work on setting Shelley’s tragedy, The Cenci, to music, though the work was written between his ninth and tenth symphonies, both of which, particularly the tenth, are works of struggle which seem to share the emotional language as well as the musical expression of the opera set between them 51. Whether the link is direct or not can only be a matter of conjecture, but in a letter Brian wrote to Harold Truscott on 17 February 1958, he said What caused the 9th I don’t know. Most of my symphonies are a growth from poetry or the drama, but I cannot recall anything about the dramatic qualities of the 9the—except that they are there

Brian had for long been a great admirer of Shelley’s verse. He felt a natural kinship with Shelley’s atheism, his sympathy with the fatalistic ideas in Greek drama and, above all, with his loathing of established authority. Brian’s wildly unrealistic, word-for-word setting of the first two acts of Prometheus unbound occupied him from 1937 until 1944, and it is easy to see why Prometheus was a figure with whom Brian could identify; defiant of the Gods, accepting suffering whilst knowing his fate, and all, in Shelley’s interpretation, in a high romantic idiom. Gargantuan in length and in the resources it requires it may be, but the same could be said of the Gothic symphony, and performance of that work has proved its artistic stature. It can only be hoped that the orchestral score will reemerge as that of The Tigers did or, if not, that someone with a sympathetic knowledge of Brian’s orchestration will attempt the gigantic task of reconstruction.

After setting Prometheus unbound, it is not surprising that Brian should consider setting The Cenci as a performable opera. Shelley had hoped for popular performances of his play and Brian must have attempted to interest opera houses as Kenneth Eastaugh refers to La Scala considering producing it 53. Brian’s strength did not lie in public relations, however, and his attempts to get performances of his works were neither consistent nor adept.

Goldschmidt’s opera began life in 1948 with his incidental music to a BBC production of The Cenci, using only four instruments

By 24 April 1950, the full score had been completed and in a letter dated 23 May Goldschmidt was informed that his opera was one of four to be commissioned, though it was made clear that no production could be guaranteed 55. The other successful operas were Wat Tyler by Alan Bush, The tale of two cities by Arthur Benjamin and Deirdre of the sorrows by Karl Rankl. None gained a Festival performance and, as far as I know, Rankl’s opera remains unperformed to this day; an ironic situation when Brian’s attempts to write an opera on the same subject are recalled!

The Festival opera premieres were, instead, Vaughan Williams’ Pilgrim’s progress, Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd and George Lloyd’s John Slocum. Explanations as to why the prize winners’ works were not performed can only be speculated upon, but the fact that three were foreign born and one (Alan Bush) was a communist, as well as the establishment standing of those whose operas were performed may have had a bearing on decision makers. A comment made in an article by ‘AJ’ in the Musical Times

In writing of Beatrice Cenci, ‘AJ’ wrote: Martin Esslin, who has adapted it, has naturally produced a libretto to stand beside Tosca, Turandot_, and_ Salome in sadistic depravity. This unjustified statement might well have frightened potential producers, but the rest of the article was very positive: Goldschmidt’s music has power and dramatic sense. The music follows a personal idiom which is harmonically ‘advanced’ while preserving a clear, impressive and singable vocal line. The article goes on to mention that extracts were given with the composer as pianist and commentator at the Opera Circle in London on 3 December 1950 to critical plaudits.

NL 146 © 1999 William Lawrence Newman

  1. Matthews, Colin Berthold Goldschmidt: a biographical sketch. Tempo 144 (March 1983) p4 ↩︎

  2. Keeffe, Bernard Fernand Grommelynck’s play The magnificent cuckold in a sleeve note accompanying the recording Der gewaltige Hahnrei, Decca Entartete Musik CD 440 850-2 ↩︎

  3. Goldschmidt, Berthold Brief Encounter, 1931. Tempo 173 (June 1990) p5 ↩︎

  4. ibid _ (38) Schaarwächter, Jürgen, ed _HB: Aspects of Havergal Brian (Ashgate, 1997) [hereafter ‘JS’] pp7-11 ↩︎

  5. MacDonald, Malcolm The symphonies of Havergal Brian, 3 vols (London: Kahn & Averill,1974-1983), vol 1 p161 ↩︎

  6. Nettel, Reginald Havergal Brian: the man and his music, (London: Dennis Dobson, 1976) p168 ↩︎

  7. MacDonald op cit, vol 3, p264. _Whoever strives with all his might, That man we can redeem _ (45) JS p120 (46) JS p410

  8. Eastaugh, Kenneth Havergal Brian: the making of a composer (London: Harrap, 1976) p298 ↩︎

  9. Matthew-Walker, Robert Havergal Brian: reminiscences and observations (St Austell, Cornwall: DGR Books, 1995) p42 ↩︎

  10. Cole, Hugo Concert Review. Musical times (March 1971) p257 ↩︎

  11. MacDonald op cit, vol 3 p12 ↩︎

  12. ibid, vol 1 p173 ↩︎

  13. Eastaugh op cit p298 ↩︎

  14. Banks, Paul From: The case of Beatrice Cenci in programme notes for Beatrice Cenci performed by Trinity College of Music Opera Group and Orchestra, Spitalfields Market Opera, 9-11 July 1898 ↩︎

Newsletter, NL 146, 1999