Thursday, April 24, 2014

Let the Sisters Sing

by Cesar Favila

The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles
Besides the opera house, the convent church was the place to hear some of the most talented female musicians in “public” up through the Enlightenment. Of course, performances of sacred music during convent liturgies were hardly concerts. Enclosure rules became strictly enforced in female monasteries certainly by the time the Council of Trent reforms gained traction throughout the Catholic world. Nuns’ choir lofts were often positioned such that they would be hidden from public view. Sometimes, as in Novohispanic convent churches, these choir structures included screens and curtains to mask still further the visibility of the cloistered nuns. As the work of Robert Kendrick, Craig Monson, and others has demonstrated, wealthy patrons typically endowed early modern convents with the funds necessary to run successful music programs, which included singing chant and polyphony and performance on various instruments. Even though they knew they would not see the nuns perform, urban citizens flocked to the convent churches anyway, especially on major feast days, to savor the echoes of the invisible convent choirs. The 17th-century English priest Thomas Gage noted that the popularity of convent music had transferred to the New World: “The people are drawn to their churches more for the delight of the music than for any delight in the service of God,” he said in his journal published as Travels in the New World.

Nuns’ music is once again in the metaphorical spotlight, and it involves the choir of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, living as cloistered nuns in the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus, some forty miles north of Kansas City. Recordings of their hymns and chants—in Latin and English—for sale on the Decca label have consistently set and maintained records on Billboard’s classical chart. Their latest album, Lent at Ephesus, is currently at no. 3 for this week’s top selling classical albums, following weeks of being no. 1 or 2 since the release in February. Such ratings are not new for the sisters’ recordings: their previous two albums, Advent at Ephesus and Angels and Saints at Ephesus, garnered their share of time as Billboard’s no. 1, drawing attention from news media including the Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio.

Gone is the prestige and grandeur of the large wealthy urban convents. Our Lady of Ephesus is located in rural Missouri on a property where daily manual labor is required of all the sisters along with singing the Divine Office and Mass. Societal norms providing women with only two options for living a decent life—marriage or the convent—are also a thing of the past in the 21st-century Western world. The nuns at Ephesus are cloistered in their priory by their own free will, discerned through a lengthy four-stage process of formation described in the convent’s website (!) This is one of the only means by which they communicate with the outside world: they prefer email and fax and/or letter writing to phone conversations. They also use the site for selling CDs, making note of their Billboard success on some of their publicity flyers available for print as downloadable PDF to help spread the word. The nuns are silent as much as possible so as to remain in contemplative prayer throughout the day, save for when they gather in their chapel to sing their liturgies and, during free hours, to record. They use the profits to pay off their building, which serves as a retreat for priests.

The music is sung in four-part harmony, and some of the chants include drones. Most of the pieces consist of standard Catholic repertoire, while a few texts are composed anew. The nuns’ musical skills vary, though most of them learn as they go. The prioress and choir director, Sister Cecilia, is the only professional musician, having been trained as a French horn player and having performed with the Columbus Symphony before taking her vows at Our Lady of Ephesus. Sister Cecilia reports that the publicity attendant on topping the charts is well received, insofar as it helps sell more records to support the convent finances. They are motivated by a spirit to please God and by the long tradition of Benedictine prayer through song. New York Public Radio’s blog entry on the nuns at Ephesus reports that public interest in chant is a recurring phenomenon: it was popular in the 1990s as well. And there appears to be a general interest in the all-female timbre. The Newberry Consort, for example, will be presenting its second concert of all-female polyphonic convent music from 17th-century New Spain in May as a response to their success with the performance of similar repertory two years ago. During public presentations of my research, non-music specialists consistently ask me about where to obtain recordings of all-female convent music, and I have pointed them to the Our Lady of Ephesus recordings.

Nuns’ lives are not a mystery: monastic rules are clear and to the point. The Ephesus website gives a schedule of the daily goings on of the sisters, and women curious about the contemplative life can arrange visits. Yet, cloistered nuns are mysterious to us nonetheless, and this mystery gives their music a curious authenticity. “Listening to the music of the cloistered sisters is like having an opportunity to hear pure devotion,” said a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. The Benedictines of Mary are invisible to those who purchase their records, just like early modern nuns were invisible to their convent patrons. Some attribute the success of the Our Lady of Ephesus recordings to a miracle, while others have accused the record industry of capitalizing on simple, authentic piety. Critics on the New York Public Radio blog complain that the record industry is taking attention from such professional early music groups as Anonymous 4—as if Anonymous 4 might be in need of more publicity. At a time when Christian spirituality has become all but passé and when the Catholic (male-dominated) Church is under constant scrutiny, I say, let the sisters sing, record, sell, and enrich the lives of those who hear their song

Cesar Favila is a Ph.D. candidate in music history and theory at the University of Chicago. He researches music in Convents of the Order of the Immaculate Conception (Conceptionists) in New Spain.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

New Discovery in Johanna Beyer Research

by Amy C. Beal

Our government may not work quickly, but in some cases it eventually gets around to something useful and important. Eight months ago, I ordered composer Johanna Beyer’s passport records from the State Department. (Since she died seventy years ago, in 1944, these documents are a matter of public record.) Last week, to my surprise, I received a registered envelope from U.S. Passport Services with a facsimile scan of two passport applications filed by Beyer: one in 1930, and the other in 1935. Beyer (18881944) traveled back to her native Germany in those years to visit her mother in Leipzig and to do musical work in London. She had emigrated to New York in 1923 and was naturalized as an American citizen on 24 January 1930.

Beyer’s familiar cursive script covers the applications. Some new facts emerge from her responses to the form’s questions. We learn that her father, Bernhard Hermann Beyer, was born in 1843 and was deceased at the time of the first application. Her mother turned 85 in the summer of 1935. On the first application Beyer listed her occupation as “Music Teacher”; on the second, she augmented that description to “Music Teacher and Composer.” (Beyer’s earliest known work, a waltz for piano, is dated 1931, and she composed two music-theoretically significant clarinet suites in 1932.)

In Beyer’s 1930 application, she requested that her passport be mailed to an organization called Open Road, Inc., which resided at 20 West 43rd Street in New York City. A quick web search reveals that Open Road, Inc. was an organization that arranged for students and professional people to travel to Europe for the purposes of studying labor and socialist practices overseas, including in Soviet Russia. Though there is no indication that Beyer participated in one of these tours, she may well have known some of the organizers. Her connection to a socialist-friendly group during this time coincides with a lot of documentation I’ve found in the course of my recent research that places Beyer in the middle of a community of political activists sympathetic not only to socialist ideals, but to racial and civil rights struggles as well. (These details are laid out more fully in my forthcoming book on Beyer for University of Illinois Press.)

Finding new primary sources after so many years of searching is particularly exciting—the detective in me gets great satisfaction out of finding new clues. But these documents are made even more valuable because they contain two new photographs of Beyer. Up until now, we have only had one photograph of Beyer: a dramatic, black and white, sideways, semi-profile shot found by musicologist Melissa de Graaf in the Composers-Forum Laboratory archive at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland. Other photographs existed at one time, but have not been found: a close friend writes in her diary of a photograph taken of Beyer and her niece in front of the Library of Congress in July of 1928 while the two women were on holiday in Washington, D.C., for example. If only I could locate it.

The newly surfaced photos are striking. They reveal the steady gaze of a 41- and 46-year-old woman, respectively. The 41-year-old Beyer still looks young: her short hair is dark, and she wears a long, flapper-like bead necklace and a scooping V-neck blouse. The contrast with the later photograph is almost shocking. In a mere five years her hair appears to have gone completely gray (on the 1935 application itself she lists her hair color as “brown-gray”). The corners of her mouth appear to be a little more down-turned. Unlike the earlier photo, she is looking slightly to the left of whoever was taking the photo, an indirect glance that makes her seem a little uneasy.

The profile photo has always troubled me. It is dark, and her sunken eyes are obscured. The severity and drama of the image has helped reinforce a long-handed-down assumption that Beyer was harsh, cold, difficult, shy, awkward, lonely, depressed, and isolated. In fact, for much of her life, and before the onset of the illness that killed her, she appears to have been none of those things. The new photographs allow us to imagine a woman in the middle of her life, a life vibrant with friends, music, work, books, travel, entertainment, restaurants, theater, political activism, interest in global affairs, piano students, and, last but not least, her gradual discovery—and then enthusiastic cultivation—of herself as a composer.

Beyer’s passport photos are reproduced below.

Johanna Beyer, 1930

Johanna Beyer, 1935

Amy C. Beal is professor of music at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she is  director of the Contemporary Music Ensemble. Her research explores the history of American experimental music.She is author of New Music, New Allies—American Experimental Music in West Germany from the Zero Hour to Reunification (University of California Press, 2006); Carla Bley (University of Illinois Press, American Composers Series; 2011); and Johanna Beyer (University of Illinois Press, American Composers Series, forthcoming).

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Band Played On

by D. Kern Holoman
Alfred Cortot and Wihelm Kempff
 during the concert de clôture,
 Exposition Arno Breker
Orangerie, 1 August 1942.
Akademie der Künste, Berlin.
Even if you don't read a word of French, find and peruse a copy of this book for the pictures. La Musique à Paris sous l'Occupation (ed. Myriam Chimènes and Yannick Simon, Cité de la Musique / Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2013) presents the contributions to a colloquium of the same name that took place in Paris, 1314 May 2013—spoken version to book form in about six months. In some respects this constitutes a sequel to the precedent conference and widely admired book La Vie musicale sous Vichy (ed. Chimènes, 2001, rpt. 2004).

But the impressive extent and depth of the research ("scientific research," the French would say), documentation, and analysis of musical life in occupied Paris that has taken place in the dozen years separating the two conferences took me by surprise: all the periodicals scoured cover-to-cover, hundreds of archives—the Radio, the embassies, the concert societies—plumbed, pictures and recordings galore.

Many of the twenty or so contributions were, to a greater or lesser degree, eyebrow raising, perhaps most notably Yves Balmer and Christopher Brent Murray's reconstruction of Messiaen's activities in 1941, correcting the composer's liberally decorated accounts of his imprisonment and repatriation (and, thus, the history of such works as Visions de l'Amen). And, to no one's surprise, the polemics over wartime behaviors are far from done: the cases of Florent Schmitt and Jacques Chailley, for instance, remain the focus of sometimes heated debate.

Winifred Wagner at a reception
 at the German Embasssy, May 1941
La Semaine, 5 June 1941.

Meanwhile, as everybody knew already, concert life (and many other features of traditional Parisian culture) stumbled along, affording those who could gain admission some comfort and solace—and, for those who cared to mingle with the occupiers, the usual luxuries. Yet somehow, for me, the photographs (gathered between pp. 106 and 107) made these chapters come alive in a way I'd not experienced before: the stark juxtapositions of the concert room and the street below, and the agonizing conflicts of principle faced by music-providers week in and week out. “Anyone who was not there,” thought Simone de Beauvoir, “has little right to criticize those who were.”

Von Karajan and Rudolf Schleier,
German Consul General, same party.
Germaine Lubin, same party.

D. Kern Holoman is curator of Musicology Now.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Christian Wolff at 80

by Amy C. Beal
Christian Wolff at recording sessions
for his Exercises, September 2005,
near Poggiolo farm, Pozzuolo, Umbria, Italy.
Photograph by Larry Polansky.

I most recently saw Christian Wolff this last February, just three weeks before his eightieth birthday, which arrived on March 8th. Apparently neither impressed nor intimidated by the looming milestone, he spent much of the weekend shoveling massive amounts of snow at his houses in Hanover, New Hampshire and Royalton, Vermont. (No resting on his laurels for this hearty New Englander!) These days, moving regularly between those two properties, Christian divides his time between helping out on the family sheep farm, sorting through and cataloguing his extensive and historically significant personal archives, traveling the world in high demand as a performer, speaker, and celebrated guest, and somehow finding a few quiet hours each day to compose new work. He clearly inherited John Cage’s uncompromising work ethic. He also likes to watch the Yankees on TV.

Christian Wolff with Trio (Larry Polansky and Kui Dong).
Photograph by Douglas Repetto.
The first time I contacted Christian, in June of 1997, he was busy making hay—it just happened to be that time of the year. I was in the early stages of my dissertation research, and I wanted to interview him over the phone about his experiences in postwar Europe. Due to the hay, and, I suppose, a stretch of good weather in Vermont, the phone call was difficult to schedule. But eventually we talked, and he was patiently tolerant of my glaring ignorance about the things I intended to write about. Nonetheless, he was generous with his time, and genuinely helpful. He was only the second composer I had mustered up the courage to contact directly (the first was Earle Brown). Somewhere, many years of research later, I came to the conclusion that “American experimentalists” are generally people who answer their own phone. Christian confirmed this back in 1997 when he answered my call; many others have confirmed it since. But recently, the notion of “answering one’s own phone” has taken on a greater metaphoric meaning. It seems to represent a kind of openness—not just Cage’s “from zero” attitude (the Zen “Beginner’s Mind”), but a kind of curiosity and welcoming worldview that led to Christian’s beautiful notion of “abundance.”

Since that first phone call, our paths have crossed in various places, and I’ve mustered up (more) courage to write about him on occasion, about his activities in Europe, about his volatile Darmstadt seminars during the early 1970s, and about his connection to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to read his collected writings (forthcoming, Oxford University Press), and I felt lucky to be able to call this person a friend, someone who has spent a lifetime (so far!) filling the world with thoughtful writing—both music and prose. Christian is rooted, burdock-like, in a rarified world rich with ideas—and the consequential actions those ideas suggest. He is beloved by many around the world who probably, in some part of their minds, still think of him as a promising youngster: The New York School’s little brother. Maybe he still feels that way himself. I haven’t ever asked him. But here he is at 80, traipsing around the globe with a backpack on his shoulder, a good mystery novel in one hand, and a melodica case in the other. He doesn’t seem a bit tired.
Christian Music IV (2007)
From a series of graphic rounds, by Wolff’s longtime colleague
and close friend, composer Larry Polansky, and designer Laura Grey. 

Amy C. Beal is professor of music at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she is  director of the Contemporary Music Ensemble. Her research explores the history of American experimental music.She is author of New Music, New Allies—American Experimental Music in West Germany from the Zero Hour to Reunification (University of California Press, 2006); Carla Bley (University of Illinois Press, American Composers Series; 2011); and Johanna Beyer (University of Illinois Press, American Composers Series, forthcoming).

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Listening to Downton Abbey (part 2)

by Michael Accinno
Note: Listening to Downton Abbey (part 1) is available HERE
On 8 June 1926, a distinguished crowd gathered at London’s Covent Garden for Dame Nellie Melba’s farewell performance as Mimi in Puccini’s La bohème. Like many of the “Melba nights” of decades past, the performance left many in the audience—the King and Queen among them—captivated. (A reviewer boasted that a recording of the evening would “mark a new epoch in the power of the gramophone.”) For both Melba and her London audiences, the role had long held special significance. In her famed appearances with Enrico Caruso, Melba had helped Puccini’s opera achieve a lasting place in the canon. Fittingly, when the Royal Opera House reopened after World War I, the company’s opening night honors belonged to Melba and Bohème. Even in her own death, Melba was linked inextricably to Puccini’s Bohemian heroine; her headstone bears Mimi’s famous line from the third act: “Addio, senza rancor”—“Goodbye, without resentment.”

Dame Nellie Melba’s performance of “Donde lieta usci” on Downton Abbey—performed by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa—thus drew upon the complex web of cultural meanings linking Mimi to Melba. On the one hand, the aria presents Mimi at the height of her fragility and vulnerability. Weakened by consumption at this point in the opera, she bids her lover Rodolfo a plaintive farewell after his jealousy has pushed their relationship to a breaking point. On the other hand, the aria invites us to hear and reflect upon Melba herself as a cultural icon—as an intriguing Australian outsider who used her considerable talents to reach the heights of social and artistic power in London, Paris, and New York. 

Nellie Melba as Desdemona in Verdi's Otello, 1924.
Source: Nellie Melba, Memories and Melodies, p. 321.
At a lavish house party thrown by the Grantham clan, Melba’s appearance promotes the notion that her music has the power to overcome Downton’s entrenched class- and gender-based hierarchies. After Lord Grantham and his butler Carson conspire to send a food tray to Melba’s room (Carson: “An Australian singer? Eating with her ladyship?”), Lady Grantham admonishes both men and forces her husband to sit next to Melba at dinner. Although at first reticent (“What does one say to a singer?”), Grantham quickly bonds with Melba over their shared taste for Haut-Brion. At Melba’s ensuing recital, featuring Dvořák’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me” and two Puccini arias (“O mio babbino caro” and “Donde lieta usci”), Lady Grantham takes special care to invite Downton’s servants and wait staff to attend the event. When Melba takes the stage, her singing appears to deliver Lady Grantham her hoped-for “special moment.” But in a shocking twist, music’s capacity to edify and to uplift is promptly shattered.

Kiri Te Kanawa plays Nellie Melba on Downton Abbey.
Source: ITV. 
As Melba begins to sing “Donde lieta”—to be sure, it is Mimi’s most poignant moment of vulnerability—the on–screen action cuts away to a violent confrontation unfolding downstairs between Lady’s maid Anna Bates and a visiting valet, Mr. Greene. Since his arrival, Greene has unabashedly flirted with Anna despite the jealous protestations of her husband. Alone with Anna for the first time, he forces himself upon her. In lieu of witnessing the most visceral moments of the rape, we see Mr. Bates listening to Melba’s performance. Like Mimi’s Rodolfo, Bates’s jealousy dissipates and as he is driven to serene visions of his beloved Anna, he whispers: “I wonder what she’s doing. Maybe she’s fallen asleep.”

Although the scene has generated a steady stream of outrage from fans and critics of the show, there has been little discussion of the way in which Melba and her most famous role contribute a disturbing sonic counterpoint to the sequence of events. Building upon a well–established cinematic trope in which opera’s aesthetic beauty is juxtaposed with on–screen physical violence, Melba’s recital both embraces and rejects the capacity of music to empower women and to effect social change.

Michael Accinno is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the University of California, Davis, and assistant editor of Musicology Now.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Magical Power of “Let It Go”

In this recent video, musicologist W. Anthony Sheppard (editor of the Journal of the American Musicological Society and department chair at Williams College) investigates how the musical, poetic, and cinematic elements work together to create the powerful impact of “Let It Go” in the Oscar-winning movie Frozen. The song was written by Williams College alumna Kristen Anderson-Lopez and her husband Robert Lopez and won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Dear Abbé

Professional musicologists offer answers and advice. Free.


From time to time your namesake used to publish her favourite recipes. Have you any?
                                                                 S. COFFIER


I am reminded of the holiday feast offered by the tenor Gustave Roger on December 23, 1848, to celebrate Meyerbeer's return to health (in time for the production of Le Prophète). Among the invités were Berlioz, Dumas, Halévy, and Adam. The pièce de résistance was a salade Meyerbeer (see below). 

La postérité a droit aux œuvres du génie; et, en temps de révolution, un peu de cuisine, ça repose.


Cette salade est calculée pour quinze personnes. Elle est encore meilleure le lendemain, mais il est rare qu'il en reste. Prenez une balance et la pose majestueuse de la Justice telle qu'on la voit sur le papier timbré; et, pénétré de la gravité de votre mission, pesez sans partialité ni erreur les espèces suivantes:

Raiponce,<1> la racine coupée à un pouce et la feuille coupée fin

Cornichons confits dans le vinaigre
Oignons confits
Betterave blanche cuite
Betterave rouge id.
Truffes cuites, noires et blanches
Cœur de chicorée
Laitue ordinaire (petit cœur)
Haricots blancs cuits
Id. verts id.
Achards (blés de Turquie, estragon, capucines)
Poivre long confît (gros comme une noisette)

Choux-fleurs cuits
Pommes de terre cuite
Fourniture (Estragon, cerfeuil, pimprenelle), hachés fin
Tout se met dans le saladier, par couches dans l'ordre ci-dessus, excepté les câpres, les betteraves et la fourniture qui se mettent dessus.

Deux cuillerées à café de moutarde de Bordin;
Une cuillerée de mignonnette;
Petite cuillerée à bouche de sel;
Neuf cuillerées de vinaigre à l'estragon;
Onze cuillerées d'huile d'olive d'Aix
Cet assaisonnement se fait dans un bol à part; on mêle bien le tout et on le verse sur la salade, bien également, religieusement, avec une cuiller, mais sans remuer. On laisse le tout reposer et s'imbiber trois heures, sans y toucher, ayant bien soin de le recouvrir d'un grand plat. On ne le remue qu'au moment de servir.

Et maintenant, si on trouve plus tard cette recette dans mes mémoires, et qu on en plaisante, je m'en console: une salade pareille, c'est une partition, et on ne doit reculer devant rien quand on peut rendre service au pays.
                    —Gustave Roger, Le Carnet d'un tenor (Paris, 1880), pp. 186-88.


as found in the Food Journal, 1 August 1872:


Cooking is a fine art in Paris, and has its crowds of connoisseurs and amateurs, and, consequently, its exaggerations, its fantacies, in short, its dilettanteism. The following is the receipt given for a salad by the famous tenor Roger, who had it served at a dinner given by him in 1848 to his friend Meyerbeer:-- "Take a balance," says M. Roger, who has just published the receipt, "assume the majestic attitude of justice, and mindful of the gravity of your mission, weigh without partiality or error the following ingredients:-- Reponce, the root cut into pieces, an inch long, and the leaves cut small, 57 grammes; celery, 115 gram.; pickled gherkins, 65 gram.; capers, 60 gram.; pickled onions, 42 gram.; white cooked beetroot, 70 gram.; red cooked beetroot, 70 gram.; truffles cooked, white and black, 100 gram.; endive, heart only, 85 gram.; Escarole, 150 gram.; cabbage lettuce, heart, 30 gram.; white haricot beans cooked, 130 gram.; green French beans cooked, 85 gram.; anchovy, 90 gram.; turkey wheat, estragon, or capucines, 35 gram.; one long pepper pickled, "as big as a nut" (a capsicum); cauliflour, boiled, 70 gram.; potatoes, boiled 150 gram.; herbs,-- tarragon, cerfeuil, and pimpreuelle, chopped fine, 25 gram." The above was calculated for fifteen persons. The ingredients are to be placed in a bowl in the order given in the above receipt, the capers, beetroot, and herbs, are to be laid on the top. The mixture for the salad is given as follows:-- 2 teaspoonfuls of Bordin mustard; 1 tablespoonful of pepper; 1 dessertspoonful of salt; 9 tablespoonfuls of tarragon vinegar; 11 tablespoonfuls of olive oil of Aix. This is to be carefully mixed and finally sprinkled equally over the salad with a spoon; the whole is then to be covered with a plate, and left to stand for three hours, the salad to be turned over and mixed at the moment of serving only. This salad is better even on the second day than the first, says M. Roger, only none of it is ever left! "A salad like this," adds M. Roger, "is a grand harmony, and one should hesitate at nothing which can render service to our country. Posterity has a right to the works of genius." Now this has certainly more the air of an elaborate joke than anything else, but it is not so. The salad in question is known as La Salade Boursault, it has received the high enconiums of the late Alexandre Dumas, a famous gourmet, and it was only in honour of his celebrated guest that M. Roger called it La Salade Meyerbeer.

Gustave Roger
<1>Raiponce = Campanula rapunculus, widely cultivated in 19th-century France for its salad leaves and roots. Rapunzel is named after the plant.