In classical music the combination of virtuosity and glamour has most often been associated with attractive opera stars, conductors, or soloists who play instruments such as piano and violin. The attire of such soloists when they perform is often extraordinarily glamorous, as I written before. Their publicity photographs often highlight their physical attractiveness. A more recent trend is to produce videos. Here is an interesting video of Korean violinist Chee-Yun in the process of being photographed for potential publicity shots. (Chee-Yun’s fabulous hair has been featured in a Korean Pantene commercial.)
Another violinist, Vanessa-Mae (of Thai-Chinese heritage, born in Singapore, and raised in London) began to study piano at three and violin at five. She amassed her hours of practice early, and was recording professionally by age thirteen. In her teenage years she began to combine her virtuoso skills as a violinist with her interest in pop music. She took full advantage of her exceptionally beautiful face and figure by using glamorous makeup and provocative costumes, and launched a popular music career that has made her one of the wealthiest young entertainers in Britain.
She is a controversial performer because some of her hit recordings are arrangements of well-known classical works combined with a techno-style dance background. There is an example of this below, in which her live-performance version of Vivaldi includes a dance-beat, an electric violin, a sexy costume, and bodily movements that are anything but “classical.” (In the video she inadvertently demonstrates how to slip gracefully in high-heels. Another example of her mix of classical, techno, and sexy presentation is her version of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance.” Whether it is fun and exciting or a tawdry bastardization is a matter of debate and taste.)
Whatever one thinks of how Vanessa-Mae has used her virtuosity as a violinist, there is no question she earned her skills through thousands of hours of arduous practice. In some of her music videos Vanessa-Mae portrays a young woman in peril, or operating in a mobster world, or isolated in cold, remote locations. These videos evoke the long-standing theme that a person can become a prisoner of their extraordinary skills, partly because these skills become ties that bind others to the person that possesses these skills, and vice versa. At left is one of the many Renaissance representations of Hercules Gallicus in which he conquers not by brunt strength, but by eloquence. And as a skilled rhetorician there are chains running from his tongue which bind his audience to him, and vice versa.
The virtuoso performer is also bound to the continued hours of practice that are necessary to maintain those skills. In the 1970s young Czech violinist Václav Hudeček become so famous in his country that he attained rock-star-like status. But in his own words, he didn’t have time to lead a wild lifestyle. “Violin is a very difficult instrument…if you want to play Brahms’ violin concerto, Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, very beautifully, you have to practice, you know. Not all day long, but five, six, seven hours a day.”
When you hear stories of virtuoso performers burning out or losing their edge, you have to imagine not only the thousands of hours spent building their skills, but also the ongoing hours of practice required to continue to perform at a virtuoso level. Fame might give you the opportunity to party in high style (especially if you are strikingly attractive), but to actually do so could soon lead to decreased performance ability. We can all think of cases in which the achievements of an athlete or performer thrust them into the limelight, and then they spent so much time enjoying their new found fame that their skills rapidly declined.
An perfect example of this was 1960s British soccer star George Best. Many people consider Best the most brilliant soccer player Britain ever produced, but he is just as well known for having squandered his talent by living a playboy lifestyle. Best’s bio reveals his obsessive pursuit of soccer skills as a child, but it also reads as a cautionary tale for anyone whose virtuoso skills bring sudden fame. His career at the top lasted only six years before his pursuit of “birds” and booze eroded his skills. Best himself understood that fame and his good looks had played a part in undermining his career, providing him with opportunities to party and drink that he was unable to resist. He joked ironically, “If I’d been born ugly, you’d never have heard of Pelé.”
George Best was one of the first celebrity footballers, and women threw themselves at him. As he joked, “I used to go missing quite a lot... Miss Canada, Miss United Kingdom, Miss World.” (He was not exaggerating.) At times he didn’t seem to regret his escapades, “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.” Because he could not discipline himself to stay in shape for soccer, or to stay away from alcohol, he became a difficult, less productive teammate who was soon out of the sport. He died at age 59 of complications after a liver transplant.
GQ magazine named George Best one of the 50 most stylish men of the last 50 years, but there is no question that the temptations of a playboy lifestyle destroyed his talent. If his virtuosity had been some evidence of virtue, then he lost that virtue when he neglected to continue to hone his skills. As the biography posted at the International Footballer Hall of Fame notes “George Best had squandered one of the rarest and most precious football talents ever seen in favour of a self-indulgent merry-go-round of birds and booze.” After describing some of the amazing goals that he scored in his few years at his prime, the bio ends, “the only tragedy George Best has to confront is that he will never know how good he could have been.”
[Photo of Maria Sharapova by Chris Gampat used under the Flickr Creative Commons License.]
While traveling my wife and I often stay in historical hotels. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries some interesting hotels were built as stops on railroad lines, the kind of place where Harvey Girls or other uniformed staff served you. Resort spa hotels were often built near natural features such as hot springs.
Many of these hotels closed during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Some have been renovated and reopened. The mineral resources of the western United States have generated boom-and-bust cycles that continue to this day. For example, Las Vegas, New Mexico, was once a wealthy mining and railroad community which had several hotels. The Castañeda, a mission-style Harvey House hotel, is now a decaying giant whose vacant rooms sleep silently only a few steps from the train station (the hotel was used in the film Red Dawn). A picturesque city, Las Vegas has been used in many films, especially in the days of silent Westerns. In another part of town the 1881 Plaza Hotel still operates (we’ve stayed there, and it‘s shown in the photo). The Plaza Hotel was used in the film No Country for Old Men).
Many of these hotels were built in boom periods and were furnished resplendently. These hotels were places where presidents, congressmen, and railroad and mining barons stayed, as well as famous entertainers. In some hotels the rooms are named for the film stars or presidents who stayed in them.
The present-day condition of such hotels varies from abandoned shells to five-star splendor (an example of the latter is the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs). We recently stayed in a historic resort hotel whose grandeur had faded a bit (I’ll leave it unnamed). There were echoes of its former majesty, as well as signs that times had changed. There were no bellhops, for example, uniformed or not, to the disappointment of one elderly couple. And the decor was sometimes slightly off—the new carpet in the dining room clashed with the upholstery.
During our stay there I noticed that the music heard in the lobby and dining room was 1940s big-band music, and I pondered why it is that Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald and other singers of that era are so often heard as background music in upscale locations.
One reason might be language. When I phoned about a change in our reservation, I was told, “That won’t be no problem.” The double negative told me that some of the staff would be downscale. Perhaps the relatively urbane language of many big-band era song lyrics era helps hotels project some sense of sophistication. In contrast, the vernacular dialects used in many post-1950s lyrics might create a more commonplace ambiance. If you’re striving to create an elegant dining room experience, hearing Mick Jagger sing “I can’t get no satisfaction” might shift the diners’ moods in the wrong direction. (An even worse strategy would be Karaoke. We stopped to look at one beautiful old hotel, but there was an outdoor Karaoke event going on, which demolished the Victorian ambiance.)
In keeping with DeepGlamour’s recent hat party, I think hats have an oblique relevance. In the hotel where we were staying, when you looked at photographs of its glory days, you might notice that the guests in earlier decades frequently wore hats. And when you see photographs of singers like Frank Sinatra in his heyday, he is often wearing a hat and a tailored suit. Thus when patrons hear the music of that period, they think of a time in which many entertainers dressed with high-fashion elegance when they performed, and they are reminded of a time when high style was appreciated. In a 1996 interview, American-born fashion designer Tom Ford commented, “If I was ever going to become a good designer, I had to leave America. My own culture was inhibiting me. Too much style in America is tacky. It's looked down upon to be too stylish. Europeans, however, appreciate style....In fashion, you can really tell that America is descended from the Puritans.”
The only hat that I saw at the hotel was a baseball hat worn by an attractive, model-thin woman in a black, stretch tee and a great looking pair of khaki pants. The baseball hat created a fun look, though I couldn’t help thinking that a stylish fedora would have made her outfit look more hipster current. Then again, thinking of Tom Ford’s comments, perhaps she didn't want to look “too stylish.” Otherwise, the contrast between her appearance and her husband’s, who arrived a few moments later in trucker-like clothes, might have seemed comic—though probably not from her perspective.
[Photo of the Plaza Hotel used under the GNU Free Documentation License.]
Once, listening to the radio while driving, I tired of a song in which the drummer was repeating a common ride pattern on the cymbal, and using his drum set to add other standard percussion patterns. Hoping to hear something more inventive, I put the radio on scan, deciding I would listen to the first song I found that didn't use the ride cymbal. After going around the dial twice without success, I turned the radio off.
“Peggy Sue,” recorded by Bully Holly and the Crickets in 1957, has been ranked as one of the greatest songs of all time. Many critics consider it Bully Holly’s best recording (he’s seen here looking his nerdy best). Jerry Allison’s restrained drumming on the recording has been one of its most praised elements.
In his 1987 book The Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music in the Mirror of RomanticismRobert Pattison searches (with considerable sympathy) for the ideological reasons that contemporary culture has come to value music and fashions that he feels are “crude, loud, and tasteless.” He seems to enjoy rock music, but intellectually he sees it as an expression of “Romantic vulgarity.” Pattison states that “refinement is the art of making reasoned exclusions.” He writes that “A black dress with a string of pearls is timeless good taste because of the calculated exclusion of all color.” He cites a Hawaiian print shirt in which “gross, lurid colors mix without restraint” as the “epitome of vulgarity.”
Pattison’s views make it particularly interesting that rock critics have praised Allison highly for limiting himself to a single drum when recording “Peggy Sue.” They feel that by confining himself to one percussion color, he helped the song have a distinctive sound. Given similar inventiveness on other recordings, this was clearly a conscious choice. And he had the self-discipline to maintain his pared-down effect—he didn’t unthinkingly throw in other percussion sounds.
Coco Chanel once said, “When accessorizing, always take off the last thing you put on.” Potentially elegant outfits can be disastrously weakened in effect by poorly chosen or overdone accessories. Avoiding this mistake is pithily summed up in Chanel’s statement, “Elegance is refusal.” Chanel is seen here in a black dress and multiple strings of pearls. The extra touch of her earrings is superb—they’re a great size and shape for the ensemble. When well chosen, accessories can be the final touches that make an outfit stunning. But choosing well means knowing which pieces will add to an ensemble’s effect, which pieces would detract, and, crucially, when to stop adding more.
In “Peggy Sue” Allison’s restrained use of percussion allows us to better hear the colorful way that Holly uses vocal “hiccups” and playful changes in the sound of his voice. (Listen to Holly change vocally to a teenage boy near the end.) The following live performance is a bit less fascinating then Norman Petty’s recording (there Petty controlled the dynamics precisely, and Holly also adds a deep-voiced man at the end). But as a slice of history, this video reminds us that there once was a time (not that long ago) when rock and roll was a new style of music. Switching back to fashion, notice how demurely the formally-attired dancers pose themselves in the background. Seeing them, it’s hard to imagine that the twist craze would arrive just two years later.
Posted by Randall Shinn on August 20, 2009 in
Anyone who has heard a small child say, “Read it again, read it again,” knows that children love repetition. They love audible patterns of all kinds, as Dr. Seuss realized. The number of sound patterns in the following two lines is fascinating:
“And NOW comes an act of Enormous Enormance! No former performers performed this performance!”
Such lines were never intended to be read silently, they were intended to be performed by someone reading to a child. If a word like “Enormance” was needed for sound, then Dr. Seuss made it up. Children respond because hearing such patterns performed out loud creates a kind of magic spell.
Children’s love of patterned language is not some temporary madness, it’s part of being human. We retain our ability to enjoy language created for oral presentation all our lives. Such language has its greatest impact when we hear it presented, rather than when we read it silently. And hearing such language performed by a great vocal interpreter remains a magical experience.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the film version of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood. I felt almost drunk on words as I heard Richard Burton’s glorious voice read Thomas’s resonant lines. Burton, seen at right as a young star, was, of course, also a great actor. The play was first written for radio, and you can hear the beginning here. Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Peter O’Toole, along with many other fine actors, are in the film version. (You can get get a feel for the visual quality of the film here, but only by enduring a hideously over-hyped theatrical trailer.)
Another way to make words audible is to intone them, to sing them. This has long been a way to give special meaning to the words of religious ceremonies. It can also work with the lyrics of popular songs. With some songs, witty rhymes can be a major source of delight, as with these gems from Warren Zevon’s “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” (I’ll quote the female version of the lines, which are used in the video below. Zevon’s original version was from a male perspective):
He really worked me over good, He was a credit to his gender. He put me through some changes, Lord, Sort of like a Waring blender
Well, I met a boy in the Vieux Carré Down in Yokahama. He picked me up, and he threw me down: He said, “Please don't hurt me, Mama.”
These lines are clever on the page, but make a stronger effect when performed by someone with a rich voice like Linda Ronstadt (just as was the case with Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas).
But there was nothing timid about her voice: it was a force of nature. Like Richard Burton, her ability to use that voice to magical effect would bring fame, fortune, and glamorous relationships. Burton’s second wife was Elizabeth Taylor, and Ronstadt’s personal life has included relationships with men such as Star Wars creator George Lucas and Jerry Brown when he was governor of California. While singing, Ronstadt could dramatically change the character of her voice (as Burton could do as an actor). She begins “Long Long Time” by singing two phrases in a young-girl’s voice, then suddenly her voice becomes that of a mature, aggrieved woman. Her performance becomes a drama, and her ability to transform her voice allows us to hear different emotional qualities embodied in the sound of her voice itself.
Her appearance could seem just as changeable. She could variously seem vulnerable, sexy, innocent, buoyant, or world-weary. She could seem to be the girl next door dumping her boyfriend (“You’re No Good”), or the personification of loneliness (“Someone to Lay Down Beside Me”). Rolling Stone dubbed her “Rock’s Venus,” and her poster decorated countless dorm room walls. Writer Phillip K. Dick was obsessed with her, and she appears as a persona, “Linda Fox,” in his novel Valis. He wrote elsewhere, “My fantasy number that I run in my head is, I discover Linda Ronstadt, and am remembered as the scout for Capitol who signed her. I would have wanted that on my gravestone.”
While researching this post, I was surprised to learn from a NY Times article that Ronstadt felt her singing had been most influenced by opera star Maria Callas.
Emmylou [Harris] and I are both Maria Callas fans. We listen to that all the time. She's the greatest chick singer ever.
I learn more about bluegrass singing, more about singing Mexican songs, more about singing rock-and-roll from listening to Maria Callas records than I ever would from listening to pop music for a month of Sundays.
In 2006 Opera News wrote that “Nearly thirty years after her death, [Callas is] still the definition of the diva as artist.” Callas had the same power we have been discussing: an ability to color her voice, to make words audible in an extraordinarily vibrant, emotion-laden way—an ability which allowed listeners to have almost magical experiences. Few people thought Callas was gifted with the most purely “beautiful” operatic voice of the time, but the way she would sometimes shape her voice and performance for dramatic effect could leave audiences stunned. Callas was also a great actress on stage. Here’s a video of her bringing the house to its feet at the Paris Opera in 1958. Even during a thunderous standing ovation that temporarily stops the performance, she continues to act—she never breaks character.
[Reading before bedtime photograph by Flickr user jeff, the rhino under the Creative Commons license. His photostream is here. The Linda Ronstadt photo is from the Wikimedia Commons.]
Perhaps choosing this painting as the album cover was meant as a parody. If so, why not push it further? Remember the erotic scene in The Piano when Harvey Keitel caresses Holly Hunter’s leg through a tiny hole in her stocking as she plays the piano? (See below. I could only find it in Italian.)
If parody is the aim, then why not parody that scene? Perhaps the image on this Mexican soap (which promises that a woman who uses it will be able to say, “I dominate my man”) could serve as inspiration. (In Mexico you can buy “magic” soaps for almost any purpose.) If she had something to lean on, she could certainly play the violin in this position. If worked into a Romance-novel-style cover, I wonder how many CDs the image of a violin-playing dominatrix might sell?
Was the Durand painting used tongue-in-cheek? Who does their market research? What kind of buyers was this cover aimed at? Do the readers of Romance novels buy lots of classical solo violin albums? Perhaps they do. Perhaps they listen to them as they read. Perhaps the vibrant sound of the violin helps them visualize pure-hearted heroines domesticating the hitherto untamed, wild-haired men of their dreams.
If so, those readers should keep a wary eye on the violinist in Salieri’s Dream. Judging from the look on his/her face and Salieri/Sewell’s face, this dream could be a dark one. There are hints that this vision could turn into a Jack-the-Ripper nightmare rather than a bodice-ripper fantasy.
Two of the most glamorous roles in opera portray courtesans. One is the title character in Thaïs by Jules Massenet, and the other is Violetta in La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi. This photograph of Renée Fleming as Thaïs was widely used by the Metropolitan Opera to generate ticket sales for their 2008 production of the opera.
The August 2009 issue of Opera News has an interesting article by Colleen Hill on costumes that have been designed for sopranos portraying Violetta. In article eight gowns are pictured and discussed. As one of the most glamorous sopranos, Renée Fleming is pictured twice, each time wearing a gown that was designed for her. In 2008 the New York Times had an article which showed her wearing a series of gowns commissioned for her for that season. The designers were Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano, and Christian Lacroix.
Ms. Fleming is an extraordinary beauty and can be captivating when wearing such gowns. After seeing a movie theater broadcast of her performing in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Garrison Keillor (of Prairie Home Companion fame) wrote the following in Salon: “Miss Fleming’s bare left shoulder is more erotic than Madonna naked and when she puts her hand to her bodice, she makes my nostrils twitch.” As can be heard in the video below, Ms. Fleming’s lyric soprano voice, a rare and assiduously cultivated gift, is just as creamy and silky-smooth in sound as that curvaceous left shoulder is in shape. No wonder Keillor was enraptured. (In the video she portrays Violetta, wearing one of the gowns designed by Christian Lacroix.)
While driving recently I heard The Who’s Mama’s Got a Squeeze Box on the radio and began reflecting on the pleasures of double entendres. This song has long been controversial. Some feel that the lyrics are straight-forward (about an accordion), while others feel it can be read two ways (the second involves sex). (There is also controversy about whether Peter Townshend wrote the song, or recorded a song that had been around for many years.) The live performance shown below argues for the double meaning.
We rely a great deal on double entendres in everyday communication. Understanding puns, irony, sarcasm, and much risqué humor depends on catching the double meaning or interpretation, and, when we do, we derive pleasure not only from “getting it,” but also from being an insider, someone capable of enjoying the double meaning.
Not everyone is comfortable with the idea that the meaning of a statement or a work of can be contingent on how it is interpreted. In The Scandal of Pleasure Wendy Steiner writes that:
Artistic meaning, like all meaning, is a matter of interpretation....Conservatives wrongly believe that a work of art has one universal, unmistakable meaning, which they are certain they understand.
Yet, for most of us, catching double entendres can be one of the great joys of language. In one sense, the poem by Robert Herrick given below can be read as simply being about seeing Julia wearing an attractive hairnet, and his desire to see her let her hair down.
Upon Julia's hair, bundled up in a golden net.
Tell me, what needs those rich deceits, These golden toils, and trammel-nets, To take thine hairs when they are known Already tame, and all thine own? ’Tis I am wild, and more then hairs Deserve these meshes and those snares. Set free thy tresses, let them flow As airs do breathe, or winds do blow: And let such curious net-works be Less set for them, then spread for me.
Herrick was a 17th-century Anglican cleric, so Alfred T. Palmer’s glamorous WWII photograph of a woman working on the bombardier nose section of a B-17F navy bomber in Long Beach, CA is obviously anachronistic. But seeing how pretty she looks, with her hairnet matching her jacket, it is easy to understand Herrick’s desire to see Julia set her tresses free. Seeing her hair bundled up makes him long to see her let it down.
With Herrick, things are complicated. Julia was just one of Herrick’s many imaginary mistresses, though she was his favorite. Whether there was a real woman that inspired his Julia poems has long been debated. If Herrick saw a woman wearing a hairnet, it would have most likely been a snood, a hair covering that she perhaps wore to his church for modesty. The factory worker in the photograph is wearing a hairnet for safety, but the choice of color is clearly for adornment. And hair coverings can be both religiously modest and attractive. As Devorah declares about her head coverings, “modesty does not mean frumpy!”
Indeed. Elaborate snoods such as this one from Melanie Moore Designs are sometimes worn with wedding gowns and other formal gowns.
Herrick was one of the Cavalier poets, a division that roughly divides the worldly poets from the metaphysical poets of 17th-century England. Herrick wrote religious poems, but they are far fewer in number and much less esteemed than his secular poems. Cavalier poems often made use of double coding.
“Hair” was one of these possibilities. Herrick’s contemporaries would likely have assumed that the above poem might also make sense if “hair” was sometimes taken to mean something more likely to be viewed in private than in public. In this case, doing so radically transforms the meaning of the final line. Which is the correct reading? Likewise, what is the purpose of the snood pictured here: modesty or adornment? Half the pleasure of double entrendres is going back and forth between the two possible readings.
Part 1 of this series of three posts suggested that the qualities of “glamour,” “atmosphere,” and “immediacy” are important to using classical music successfully in choreography or as film music. Part 2 pointed out that the timbre (character and tone color) of the instruments and voices used in the performance of a piece of music are crucial to the way the music feels.
Another important consideration is whether the music’s nature leaves room for extramusical information. Some abstract pieces of music seem to unfold in a process of “developing,” of “becoming” a complete work in the future. Trying to following this process can absorb your attention, leaving little room for stage actions or visual images. In contrast, musical works that seem to live more in the present moment are generally preferable in the theater.
Even if not written for the theater, such music may sometimes have extramusical associations such as text or titles. I’ll illustrate this by focusing on a few musical works that have fairy-tale associations. Maurice Ravel composed masterfully both for piano and for orchestra. The final section of his Mother Goose Suite is titled “The Fairy Garden,” the title itself suggesting “atmosphere.” If you compare the beginning of the original four-hand piano version to his transcription of the same music for orchestra, it’s clear that the different colors make the atmosphere of each feel quite different.
The piano version is lovely, and solo piano music has been used effectively for both ballet and films. But comparing the opening measures, I don’t feel that the piano’s percussive nature evokes the delicacy of a fairy garden in the same way as does the soft sustained bowing of the strings.
Music written with some theatrical flare tends to make more noticeable use of orchestral color. As noted in part 1, Elizabeth Sawyer felt that Weber’s music generally has “atmosphere,” and that Brahms’ music does not. This stems in part from Weber’s concern with details of color. To cite one example, Weber specifies more string section color effects in the first three minutes of the Overture to his opera Oberon (fairies again) than you are likely to find in an entire Brahms symphony. Many of these color details are subtle, but concern with subtleties is crucial to “glamour.” Brahms didn’t write for the theater, and he seems to have had little interest in the kind of “glamorous,” “atmospheric” coloring that can make such a immediate and memorable impression in the theater.
So, given an orchestra’s tremendous range of color possibilities, using colors theatrically is one way to add glamour and atmosphere. Doing so relates to the notion of glamour as something beyond the ordinary. In essence, you can use orchestral colors to present music in a straightforward, relatively “neutral” way, or you can use them to present music in a way that is more striking, more “glamorous.”
If we personify this, we can imagine theater music as tending to wear glamorous makeup, rather than no or minimal makeup. (Or we could contrast glamorous clothing versus plain clothing.) Remarks of this kind are controversial because some composers contend that the sound of their music is always intrinsic, not something that can be considered as “coloring” or “apparel.” Stravinsky, who achieved international fame with ballet scores and whose orchestration is always striking, once praised Beethoven’s instrumentation for its “sobriety,” saying Beethoven’s orchestration is never “apparel,” and thus “never strikes one.” (Stravinsky’s remarks suggest an ambivalence about noticeable artfulness that I have written about as a general artistic issue elsewhere.)
The Dutch site GirlScene has posted images of models with and without makeup, generating controversy there and at Feminine Beauty. Regardless of what you think of the photographs, they demonstrate that each model’s underlying bone structure and facial features remain the same, whether wearing makeup or not. So too, all of our musical examples have underlying melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic structures that remain the same, regardless of the colors used to present them. Nonetheless, it is surprising how much surface coloring influences our impressions (See Virginia Postrel’s images of Donatello’s David with and without gilded hair.)
The purpose of this series of posts has been to discuss some of the qualities that make some music more “glamorous” and “atmospheric,” and thus suitable for use in the theater. Stated bluntly, in the theater “neutral” orchestration tends to fall flat. The theater is no more “the real world” than fashion photo shoots are. Both worlds deal in illusions. People come to the theater hoping to somehow be enchanted, hoping to be transported to somewhere less ordinary, and “glamorous” sounds can help create that spell.
Puccini was a master of atmospheric scoring, and his tenor aria “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot has been used in at least 15 movies, frequently at an emotional high point in the movie that consists only of action. In the opera the aria is sung at night, and the whole town has been ordered to stay awake (no one sleeps, nessun dorma) to try to discover the name of the Prince who has solved the Princess’s riddle. In addition to highly atmospheric scoring in the strings and the rest of the orchestra, we also hear the ethereal effect of an offstage chorus (usually absent from concert performances). In addition, Puccini writes for the tenor voice with consummate skill, including knowing which vowel sounds work best for high notes. (Don't get confused by the subtitles: the subtitles in this video are in Spanish, but he’s singing in Italian.)
When this aria is used in films, the theatrical device is often to have some character in the film be listening to the aria. This device is used in The Sum of All Fears. In a scene in which the American president and Soviet chairman sign a new peace accord, various conspirators who tried to bring about nuclear war are assassinated. The first of these conspirators is listening to the aria. The applause at the end of the aria seems to serve dual purposes.
In all cases where I have heard this aria used in films, the emotional intensity of the music helps make the film scene seem to have great emotional significance. Remarkably, in The Witches of Eastwick the aria occurs during a joyous scene, and in The Killing Fields during an introspective scene. Thus it is clearly the aria’s level of emotional intensity that interests film makers (more than a specific emotional quality). Intensity, plus the music’s ability to cast a unforgettable spell.
In my first post on this topic I mentioned the qualities of “glamour,” “atmosphere,” and “immediacy” as important to music’s successful use in the theater. In order to talk about one of the ways composers achieve glamour and atmosphere in classical music, we need to momentarily attempt to separate the sound of a piece from its content. But as soon as we try, we immediately discover that the performance sounds are crucial to the effect of the whole.
I’ll turn for a moment to popular music to make this point clear. Below is Little Richard singing “Tutti Frutti” in a 1956 rock movie. (A wilder performance from 1995 can be heard here, though Little Richard's effort to maintain a youthful appearance is slightly scary.)
Pat Boone’s sanitized cover of the same piece actually climbed higher in the 1950s charts than Little Richard’s. (You can hear Elvis Presley’s version of “Tutti Frutti” here. Incidentally, the text of Little Richard’s recording of Tutti Frutti” was incredibly sanitized from his initial version. I doubt if it could be recorded even today.)
Another interesting comparison is Little Richard’s recording of “Long Tall Sally” with Pat Boone’s remarkably insipid cover. Unfortunately, I could not find an online version of the latter. The Beatles did a version that reflects Little Richard’s vocal styling more closely. Both recordings are exciting, but it is easy to hear why Jimi Hendrix said, “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.”
These various versions of these popular songs often feel surprisingly different, sometimes because of tempo differences, but also because different instruments and different singers have different qualities of sound. Thus, even though in some ways the content of different versions of a song might be said to be the same, the effect of a song changes when the sounds used to perform it change.
Classical composers write out in some detail specifically how they want their works performed. So if a composer writes a work for orchestra, he specifies which instruments will play what parts and how. These details seldom get significantly changed by anyone other than the composer.
However, individual works sometimes get transcribed from one medium to another. A famous example is Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Originally written for piano, some parts of the work are fiendishly difficult, and it is used as a show piece by virtuoso pianists. Here is Victor Merzhanov performing the opening section. (I chose this version because the piano is recorded from the hall, rather than from a close microphone. It’s only the first 1'35" that I will use for comparison.)
This work has been transcribed for orchestra several times. The most famous version is by Maurice Ravel, who transcribed many of his own piano pieces for orchestra. Here is the opening promenade conducted by Tomomi Nishimoto. (I choose this version partly because I felt the both hall and Ms. Nishimoto are visually glamorous.)
Notice how different the orchestral version feels from the piano version. A grand piano is a remarkably beautiful instrument, and a great pianist can create subtle differences of color. But these are limited when compared to all color possibilities offered by the orchestra. And as I will discuss in part 3, using these color possibilities theatrically is one way composers can, if they choose to, add glamour and atmosphere.
Posted by Randall Shinn on April 30, 2009 in
Not all classical music has ‘glamour’, but some does. In her book Dance with the Music Elizabeth Sawyer has a chapter on choosing music suitable to choreograph for ballet. She writes:
One matter on which most writers seem to agree is that music for the theater must have the quality of glamour. This being defined as ‘magic, enchantment; delusive or alluring beauty or charm’, that view seems reasonable.
Sawyer also talks about an indefinable something called “atmosphere.” Although she can’t define theatrical atmosphere in music, she names pairs of composers whose music in general has or does not have theatrical atmosphere. Among others, she says that Monteverdi’s music generally has it, Palestrina’s does not. Similarly, Weber but not Beethoven; Tchaikovsky but not Brahms.
Her perceptions are valid, and since the second composer in each pairing is undeniably great, it shows, as she writes, that “the presence or absence of glamour does not, in itself, determine the worth of a piece of music.”
Sawyer is not saying that some music is glamorous because of its association with glamorous venues or performers, but rather that some pieces of music have qualities that make them intrinsically glamorous. (I would add the caveat that this can only be true of the music is performed well.) And if a piece of music can have the qualities of “glamour” and “atmosphere,” then these qualities can be borrowed by other media, such as dance, film, and even advertising.
If we think of glamour in the older sense in which it was synonymous with a magic “spell,” then some classical music has the ability to immediately cast a spell, whereas other music builds its effect more slowly as it unfolds. In film, as in the theater, immediacy is important, so film makers typically choose music that has atmosphere, especially for emotional moments. In many films where there are sequences of images with no dialogue, borrowing the magic, the glamour, of particular passages of classical music has been crucial to the final effect .
One work that has been used many times in films is “O Fortuna”, the opening movement of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Like most composers whose music Sawyer feels has the quality of “atmosphere,” Orff wrote numerous works for the theater, and though written for the concert hall, Carmina Burana is undeniably theatrical.
You can see a video of “O Fortuna” performed in the concert hall here, with the incredibly dark text given in subtitles. The video below shows how a portion of the music was used in the 1981 film Excalibur. It’s a short excerpt, so I suggest watching it first with the sound off and then again with it on. Notice how remarkably different the emotional effect is when the music is added.
There is some glamour in the knights’ shining armor and their horses. But the music adds tremendous emotion and atmosphere, as well as a sense of universality. The knights seem to represent all warriors who have ridden or marched into battle, and the elemental force of the music suggests that although the orchard they ride past will blossom again next spring, most of these knights will not live to see it.
I plan to talk about a few other examples of films using classical music in the next few weeks, and while doing so I will try to hint at why some music can cast such a powerful spell.
Posted by Randall Shinn on April 28, 2009 in