Friday, October 14, 2011

Finding my Father

(This essay was first published in Connecticut Medicine, May 2011, in the section, "Physician as Essayist," under the title, "Losing my father's mind," as well as by the American Academy of Ophthalmology in the Scope Journal, September 2011).         

My father, Piero de Luise MD, at age 55
Anesthesiologist at
South Nassau Communities Hospital
Rockville Centre, New York, June 1975

    Everyone thinks that they know their parents and  I was sure I was no exception. I certainly knew my own father. Or did I?
My dad was this complex mix of the elements, of  fire and water.  He was born of two passionate parents, on the island of Ischia, a volcanic rock off the coast of Naples, Italy. No doubt that environment created an intensity in him, a burning curiosity for life and love and nature, especially for the sea; and right below that surface, there was always this volatility in my dad, how quickly he would enrage.
Dad was polyglot, fluent in Italian, English and Spanish, passable in French, and  he even spoke some Portuguese. As a man of his time, he also learned to converse in that erstwhile universal language, Esperanto 
He told me once that he became a physician not just out of a love of medicine as I had done, but more so that he could become a ship’s officer, sail the Mediterranean, and explore all those cultures that had for so long fascinated him – Malta and Crete, Sicily and all the far-flung Dodecanese Islands.
    I used to call him Babbo, Italian for Daddy, because that is what all Italian children call their fathers. But his real name, Piero, was so perfect for him, deriving from petros, the Greek word for "rock or stone."

Of course !  
Didn’t he love to hang around that rocky shoreline of his beloved island when he was a kid?  How often would he go spearfishing there, diving for spiny sea urchins that he would from underwater rocks bare-handed, and seamlessly scoop out their creamy insides, devouring them with relish.
    My father was a champion swimmer and prided himself on his ability to stay submerged in a pool - Houdini-like - once for two minutes -  to the utter fear, amazement and then  delight of his grandchildren.  He pretty much only ate fish, and stopped smoking on a dime the very day my older sister was born. Nicorettes  didn’t exist then; there was just his force of will.
    For someone who claimed not to have a love of healing, my Dad became a sought-after anesthesiologist.  His colleagues would call him to their operating rooms time and time again to perform the most difficult techniques in their specialty.  At his retirement party, the staff gave my father a gold chain, on which hung a charm in the shape of a laryngoscope, one of the instruments he used to do those tricky procedures. He wore that as a talisman around his neck for the rest of his life.
    So, my father was this many-splendored thing. He reminded me of that mythic hero Odysseus, whom Homer wrote about, the wily, crafty, but most remarkably, the multifaceted Ulysses!  

Yes. Multifaceted !  That was my Dad ! This complex crystal !  So, how could I possibly know someone so intricate and unique? How could I possibly really know my own father?
    And then it happened. It was September 17, 1998, my parents wedding anniversary, and my father was in his study writing a check. He suddenly called out for my mother. It seemed that he had forgotten how to sign his name. Mom was stunned, and quietly sobbed. She didn’t need a medical internship to know that Dad had the beginnings of Alzheimer Disease. Oh yes, of course, Dad went through the gauntlet – the internists, the neurologists, the psychiatrists– hoping for a diagnosis, any diagnosis, except Alzheimer Disease. But no. Slowly and inexorably, my father slipped into the clutches of that unspeakable and tragic condition. My mother and my sisters rallied to his aid, even as I pulled away, unable to bear that Dad, our Dad, my Dad, was losing his amazing and beautiful mind.
    I couldn’t deal with what was happening to my father, and I felt this gnawing guilt about all the chances I had lost over the years to know him better. How many times did my dad call me at home late at night, to talk about politics, American politics, Italian politics, and I had cut him off. How many weekends did I have something else to do with our kids or with friends, instead of driving down to Long Island to visit him. How many times did I tell him "Yes, Dad, I WILL go with you," on a trip back to Italy again, or to the Galapagos Islands, his favorite psychic spaces, and I never did. How many opportunities did I squander, precious moments to be with my Dad before he started to slip away and to. disappear?
    At first, my father railed against his disease. But with time, he gradually accepted it. At the rest home, as they were placing that bracelet on each patient’s wrist, he looked at his for a moment, and announced to me and Mom, “Alzheimer! That’s it ! That’s mine! ” I wept uncontrollably in front of them and his caretaker, whom I hardly knew.  Over the years, a long and excruciating decade of goodbyes, my Dad continued to fail, to dissolve away.  

Finally, with my father nothing more than this relic of a man, curled up into a little ball, clutching a stuffed monkey in his bed at home (since Mom had taken him back better to care for him there she said), and after a number of hospital admissions for pneumonia, our family requested hospice. And shortly thereafter, Dad died. Without any rage.  Peacefully.
    About a year after my father’s passing, on my fifty-eighth birthday, I and my family were on vacation in Palm Beach, celebrating at  this wonderful Italian restaurant there. As we were leaving and thanking the maitre d’,  he spotted a long-time customer of his, an elderly, well-dressed man, who was leaving at the same time. And for some inexplicable reason, the maître d’ decided to introduce us. The elderly man came over and asked me my name and where I grew up. And I told him – "Vincent de Luise, and on Long Island." He looked at me quizzically for a moment. Then suddenly, this wizened old gentleman, out of the wondrous mystery of the universe, seemed to be having a revelation. He brightened up, came close to me, and in a hushed voice, whispered in my ear, “Vincent, I knew your father very well. We were classmates in medical school right after the war.  You know, he was so proud to be a doctor."  And at that very moment, I realized that I did know my father very well.  Just a little too late

Copyright 2012 Vincent de Luise MD A Musical Vision

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Perspectives on Mozart

(This essay first appeared as  "Perspectives on Mozart" in The Friends of Mozart Newsletter, Spring 2011. Mario Mercado, president of the Friends of Mozart Society, kindly edited the manuscript)

Wolfgang Mozart in 1782
(the  unfinished 1789 oil portrait,
 by his brother in-law Joseph Lange
with the head recut from the 1782 original)

Who was Mozart?

Of course, we all know his music. The music ! That music, so refined and richly textured, melodic, timeless, ineffably beautiful and sublime.

But, who was Mozart? Who was the man behind those genius creations? So much has been written and said about Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, much true and vetted, yet  more than a little hyped, hyperbolic and apocryphal. There are so many paradoxes with Mozart; for example, that posterity calls him  "Amadeus" when that wasn't even on his birth certificate and a name he never used in his lifetime.

So who was he?

There are many Mozarts. There is the 18th century Mozart, the undiscovered and neglected artistic genius.  There is also the re-imagined 19th century Mozart, a perfect porcelain musical god on a pedestal;  and now the truer and deconstructed 21st century Mozart, the first  "free-lance" musician, recognized as peerless and a foundational composer for so much that came after him. For many listeners, one or another of the above "historical" Mozarts remains their truth, regardless of The truth.

Can we ever know Mozart by his music, someone whose music seems at once so joyous, and yet is always tinged with sadness? Perhaps not. So, let us look at Mozart, the man, by revealing him through aspects of his physiognomy and personality, and by his legacy and "effect," gaining in the process  insight into this most wondrous of stars in the musical firmament. 

The observations below are derived from the vetted written literature and scholarship. They paint a portrait of a man with all the warts and imperfections of humanity, who at the same time possessed a gift so rare and so extraordinary, that its output, the music which we so adore, has been likened to the melodies and rhythms that underlie the universe itself.

W. Mozart
by Barbara Kraft
The posthumous portrait of 1819
Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Wien
What did Mozart Look Like?

More than any other composer, Mozart's image remains one of the least certain. An influential German biographer of the early 20th-century, Arthur Schurig, asserted that, "Mozart has been the subject of more portraits having no connection with his actual appearance than any other famous man; and there is no famous man of whom a more worshipful posterity has had a more incorrect physical picture than is generally the case with Mozart." Can any painter even begin to capture genius in a portrait? The answer is self-evident.

Given this perspective, descriptions by Mozart's contemporaries remain the most illuminating. His sister Maria Anna (Nannerl) commented that "my brother was a rather pretty child," but after a bout of smallpox that both siblings sustained in 176l  (he, age 11; she, age l6),  his looks were perrnanently disfigured by scars.

Mozart is also said to have suffered a temporary "blindness" as a result of the marked inflammation of his eyes (this could have been from a keratitis (a corneal inflammation) secondary to the Vaccinia virus of smallpox). Nannerl went on to describe Mozart in her reminiscences in 1792, a year after his death, as being "small, thin, and pale in color and entirely lacking in any pretensions as to physiognomy and bodily appearance."

Nonetheless, in 1770, three years after that same smallpox epidemic,  the composer Johann Adolph Hasse wrote that "the boy Mozart is handsome, vivacious, graceful, and full of good manners." 

Michael Kelly, the tenor much beloved by Mozart himself, and the man who sang the roles of both Don Basilio and Don Curzio in the premiere of Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), famously reminisced about Mozart in 1826: "He was a remarkably small man, very thin and pale, with a profusion of fine hair, of which he was rather vain. He always received me with kindness and hospitality. He was fond of punch, of which I have seen him take copious draughts. He was kind-hearted and always ready to oblige; but so very particular that when he played, if the slightest noise were made, he left off."

Thomas Attwood, who was Mozart's composition student between 1785 and 1787, recalled his teacher being "of cheerful habit, though lacking a strong constitution." Attwood also remembered that  "in consequence of being so much over the table when composing, he (Mozart) was obliged to have an upright desk and stand when he wrote."
The evidence suggests that Mozart was small in stature. It has been calculated that he stood about 1.63 meters, or five feet, three inches in height. Mozart himself corroborated this when, as a 14 year-old in April 1770, he wrote to his sister from Rome about a visit to St. Peter's Basilica, stating that, "I had the honor of kissing St. Peter's foot in the church today, and as I have the misfortune of being so small, I, that same old dunce Wolfgang Mozart, had to be lifted up." 

In 1777, at Mannheim, Mozart met the Webers, the family of musicians who would figure greatly in his biography. Although he later married Constanze Weber, he fell initially in love with her elder sister, Aloysia, who spurned him. Many years later, Aloysia was asked why she rejected so famous a man as Mozart, to which he purportedly replied, "I did not know, you see... I only thought...well...he was such a little man."

Mozart himself may have put it all best when he stated, "Mozart magnus, corpore parvus" ("Mozart the great, small in size.")

What Ailed Mozart? His Health and lllnesses

For someone possessed of such remarkable productivity, Mozart was often sick. To be sure, his ill health was in large part a consequence of his era,  to the endemic diseases and epidemics to which he was inevitably exposed as a result of extensive travels, particularly those undertaken in childhood and youth. For example, in the fall 1765, while on the grand tour that included the Hague, first Nannerl, then Mozart, contracted typhoid fever, and both children almost died.

There is a large body of  literature regarding Mozart's illnesses, much of it conjecture (as an autopsy was never performed). The following is a summary of what Mozart may have contracted during his life, as deduced by a careful reading of the primary German medical literature of his physicians, and by the writings of friends and observers:  recurrent streptococcal infections, erythema nodosum (a nodular and painful skin disease related to a systemic inflammation), typhus, variola (smallpox), quinsy (tonsillar abscess), recurrent bouts of acute rheumatic fever, infectious endocarditis, and  renal (kidney) disease.

Some of these illnesses may have led to a chronic carditis (heart disease) and renal   disease, specifically a post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, which in turn could have led to renal failure. Mozart may also have had antimony over-dosage (he  was self-medicating with this potential poison), subdural or extradural hematoma (vide infra) and hypertension. There is also the possibility that he had acute trichinosis (Hirschmann Arch Int Med 161:1381-1389, 2001. Indeed, Mozart wrote to Constanze in  October 1791 that  had eaten some under-cooked pork cutlets).

Dr. Peter G. Davies, a gastroenterologist and Mozart and Beethoven biographer from Melbourne, has posited   that Mozart also suffered from the manic-depressive disorder cyclothymia (J. Roy. Soc. Med. 1991). The possibility of cyclothymia, quite common in many creative types, would explain some of Mozart's bursts of extraordinarily intense creativity, such as in the summer of 1788, when he wrote the last three symphonies, his greatest in the genre, works that were composed with no known commission, nor which Mozart ever heard performed except in his imagination. On the other hand, such an explanation must be weighed against several periods of sustained productivity- witness the years 1784 to 1786, when Mozart created an extraordinary number of masterworks in every musical genre.

A  distinction should be made between these chronic illnesses and Mozart's presumed medical conditions which were immediately proximate to and causative of his abrupt and early demise.  Dr. Davies has suggested that Mozart died of  the consequences of a cerebral hemorrhage resulting from hypertension secondary to an acute nephritis (kidney inflammation) from Henoch-Schönlein purpura, a rare disease which can result from streptococcal infection; Mozart was likely severely anemic and already in uremic coma.  To compound matters, his physician  Dr. Thomas Franz Closset (one of the best in Vienna)  bloodlet him of almost a liter of blood, exacerbating the anemia and hastening his demise.)

Mozart's death certificate (as mentioned above, there was no autopsy) stated “hitziges Frieselfieber” (“heated miliary fever”), a common clinical diagnosis of that era, but one which is far too non-specific a term on which to opine a diagnosis; it may relate to the inflammatory rash of rheumatic fever, which in turn may have been a result of Mozart's presumed strep infections

Richard Zegers M.D. (Ann Int. Med. 2009) reviewed the records of 5,011 Viennese adults who died in the two months before and after December 1791, and compared that data to comparable months in 1790 and 1792,  finding a much higher than normal rate of death from an epidemic of presumed streptococcal infection.    

In early 1791, Mozart fell , landing on his left temple, and as a result, may have sustained an extradural hematoma (a blood clot outside the brain membranes) that manifested itself in a fracture to his skull (M. Drake,  Neurol 43: 2400-2403, 1993).

The putative Mozart calvarium (a a skull missing its mandible)
in the Mozarteum, Salzburg

A skull in the possession of the Mozarteum in Salzburg, exhumed in 1801 by the successor of the grave digger who buried him on December 1791, and whose condition reflects such a trauma, may be that of Mozart, but forensic examinations in 2006 were inconclusive.
Haydn on Mozart, and the author Katherine Pilcher on them both

Franz Joseph Haydn recognized Mozart's genius during his lifetime and before most anyone else had realized this. Haydn said as much to Leopold Mozart at a February 12, 1785 string quartet party at which the last three of Mozart's six string quartets dedicate to Haydn were performed. Haydn said:  "I tell you before God, and as an honest man, that your son is the greatest composer known to me in person or by name. He has taste, but above all, he has the greatest knowledge of composition." 

In 1792, Haydn also wrote this to his friend, Michael Puchberg, "For some time, I was quite beside myself over his (Mozart's) death, and could not believe that Providence should so quickly have called away an irreplaceable man into the next world. Haydn went on to write that "posterity will not see another talent as that of Mozart in a hundred years."

The author Karoline Pilcher was a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, and knew both of them personally. In the 1820s, in her reminiscences, Pilcher writes this about them (trans lated here from the German):
"Mozart and Haydn, whom I knew well, were men who displayed in their personal intercourse no other outstanding mental ability and almost no sort of intellectual cultivation of a learned or higher education. Everyday character, flat humor and with the first (Mozart) a scantly sensible lifestyle, was all they publicly manifested, and yet, what depths, what worlds of fantasy, harmony, melody and feeling, lay concealed within these modest exteriors ! Through what inner revelation came to them this understanding, how they must have seized it, to bring forth such powerful effects, and express in tones, feelings, thoughts, passions, that every ear must feel with them, and be spoken to us as well as from greater depths."

The Mozart Effect

W. Mozart
Joseph Lange's unfinished
portrait of 1787

Almost as abundant as the research and speculation devoted to Mozart's health, illness, and death, is the recent literature on the physical, cognitive, and psychophysiological effect of Mozart's music on the listener. This discussion, originally grounded in rigorous scientific study, has also formed the basis of later, popular-and it must be said-facile claims revolving around the so-called"Mozart Effect."

The French otolaryngologist Alfred Tomatis coined the term " the Mozart effect " in 1991 in his book, Pourqoui Mozart?   In his research, Tomatis developed the concept of auditory processing integration. He discovered, while examining opera singers who were having trouble reaching and singing certain notes in tune, that those singers all had, a coincident hearing defect in the same frequency as the vocal problem.

The relationship between audition (hearing) and phonation (voicing) had never been observed or reported previously. Tomatis posited that "the voice can only reproduce what the ear can hear." He subsequently focused his audiological research using Mozart's violin concertos, as well as Gregorian plainchant, at different hearing frequencies, to improve auditory processing, to "retrain the ear," if you will, of patients who had acquired sensori-neural hearing loss. Among those who gained improvement not only in their hearing as well as in their "voicing" by this technique were the actor Gerard Depardieu, the baritone Benjamin Luxon, and the popular singer Sting (Gordon Sumner).

In 1993, the researchers Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw and Katherine Ky working in the department of neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine, further investigated the “Mozart effect" in an experiment which was published in the October 14, 1993 issue of the scholarly scientific journal Nature , under the title: "Music and Spatial Task Performance." 

The Rauscher team found that a group of students who were "pre-treated" for ten minutes by listening to the first movement and part of the second movement of Mozart's two-piano sonata in D major, K. 448, performed better on a spatial-task reasoning Stanford-Binet test than when the same students were pre-treated with a "relaxation tape" or after thy had sat in silence for ten minutes prior to testing. (Stanford-Binet testing is a form of IQ test, which measures aspects of verbal and non-verbal reasoning. In the Rauscher study, the students were given a paper folding and cutting test: a piece of paper is folded several times and then cut. The students had to mentally "unfold" the paper and choose the correct shape from the numerous examples that they were given).

These results were temporary, lasting only through the time taken for the experiment, about fifteen minutes, and were specifically related to visual-spatial task reasoning, and not to other measures of intellect. More recent research has both confirmed and contradicted the results of the Nature study, among them "Arousal, Mood, and the Mozart Effect," Psychological Science (2001; l2l3); "Re-examination of the Effect of Mozart's Music on Spatial Task Performance," Journal of Psychology (1997; 13l/4); "'Brain-Based"' Learning: More Fiction than Fact," American Educator (2006; fall issue); and "Prelude or Requiem for the Mozart Effect," Nature (1996).

The music educator and researcher Don Campbell was influenced by Tomatis' work, and the results of the Rauscher study, and went on to write the best-selling 1997 book The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen rhe Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit. Campbell's claims went far beyond spatial intelligence improvement to include notions that Mozart's music improved mental health and cognitive ability. Unfortunately, over time, "the Mozart effect" as put forth in Tomatis's original work and subsequent misinterpretations of the Rauscher's group study has devolved by others into facile argument and assertion, suggesting that early childhood exposure to classical music has, ipso facto, a beneficial effect on mental development, leading to advantages and a range of lifetime achievement.

As an ophthalmologist with knowledge of the neuroanatomy of the sensory system, I accept as valid the findings that there is something specific to the music of Mozart and brain function (cf., J. Jenkins, Royal Society of Medicine; 2001). Neurologists John Hughes and John Fino at the University of Illinois subjected to computer analysis fully 8l works by Mozart, 67 of Johann Christian Bach, 67 of J.S. Bach, and 150 works by 55 other composers. They found that the music of Mozart. as well as that of J.S. and J.C. Bach, but not the music of the other composers, contained a very high degree of long-term periodicity. They hypothesized that these specific harmonic patterns and chordal repetitions, found especially in the music of Mozart, J.S. and J.C. Bach (the latter was an influence on the young Mozart) have a function in brain coding: they act to align or "symmetrize" neurons in certain regions of the brain involved with auditory processing and memory (specifically the parieto-occipital cortex and right pre-frontal cortex) and which can lead to heightened mental capacity and function, even if only temporarily. Thus, there is neurophysiological evidence for a Mozart "effect" (as well as a "J.C. Bach effect" and a "J.S. Bach effect").

There are fundamental and physiological aspects that underly the "Mozart effect" and to the music of Mozart in general - the pleasure, felicity, and depth of emotion of his music can provoke and stimulate a heightened intellectual, even spiritual awareness, and rapture.  Perhaps this timeless remark, ascribed to the Nobel-prize winning physicist Albert Einstein, himself a genius, resounds most compellingly: "Mozart's music is of such beauty and purity that one feels that he merely found it, that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe waiting to be revealed."
Vincent P de Luise, M.D.
Copyright @ 2011 -2015 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Mr. Purcell's Journey: Exploring the Sources and Legacy of Dido and Aeneas

(This essay was written for the program book of The Opera Company of Brooklyn/ Barnard College Department of Music production  of Henry Purcell's Baroque operatic masterpiece Dido and Aeneas,  performed at James Chapel, Union Theological Seminary, in New York City, October 29, 2011).                            

Henry Purcell
by John Closterman
      Universally acknowledged as England’s greatest composer, Henry Purcell has not been treated kindly by time and history. For more than three centuries, ironies and paradoxes remain about him, his music, especially his seminal opera, Dido and Aeneas.  It is ironic that Dido was never fully professionally produced in Purcell’s lifetime and lay in obscurity almost until the twentieth century. It is paradoxical that Purcell may be better known to casual classical music listeners today for the haunting opening theme music to Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 cult film classic A Clockwork Orange  (Purcell’s March for the Funeral of Queen Mary, which will be played as a prelude this evening) rather than for Dido or his numerous other splendid yet unheralded musical compositions.  Purcell was also known as the composer who wrote the so-called Trumpet Voluntary, until it was discovered that he really did not write the Trumpet Voluntary; that piece was actually written by Jeremiah Clarke as The Prince of Denmark’s March. So, where do we find Mr. Purcell in all this confusion and neglect ?

    Henry Purcell, like Wolfgang Mozart a century later, was a blazing but fleeting comet in the musical firmament. He was born in 1659 in Westminster, and died there of pneumonia in 1695. During a tragically short period of 36 years, Purcell created, encapsulated and defined the musical style which has come to be called the English Baroque. He is rightly honored as a composer as important as his more illustrious contemporaries J.S. Bach, Antonio Vivaldi and Georg Frideric Handel, not only by virtue of the remarkable originality, quality and sheer quantity of his output- over 700 songs, arias, hymns, songs, catches, odes, theater works and semi-staged operas - but most memorably for his only fully-sung opera, Dido and Aeneas, one of the monumental achievements of the Baroque period. England was to have to wait over 200 years, for Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten, to have another of her own walk in Purcell’s footsteps.

Henry Purcell
by R. White
from Orpheus Brittanicus
    Opera (from the Italian, for "a work" or "works") was birthed from innovations in a form of musical drama which incorporated elements of ancient Greek tragedy. This novel musical genre was initially espoused in the 1580s by a group of philosophers, poets and musicians in Florence who called themselves the Camerata. The earliest efforts in opera, by Jacopo Peri, are largely lost, but soon thereafter arrived the transformative operas of Claudio Monteverdi in Venice and Mantua in the early 1600s. Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas, is certainly informed by his Italian predecessors, but also by the unique aspects of French Baroque operatic style, which begat the overture, prologue, tragedie lyrique, and the inclusion of the divertissement with its dances and ballet, exemplified in the works of Lully, Charpentier and Rameau. It was Purcell’s greatest legacy in taking this musical heritage and skillfully creating a unique English operatic tradition, emblematic of the Restoration period in which he lived. Purcell's genius lay in transforming the spoken word into a musical line with extreme concision, distilling the meaning of complex human emotions into a few intensely powerful measures of vocal music.

    There are also clear references in Purcell’s Dido to an earlier work by his teacher John Blow (1649-1708). Blow’s Venus and Adonis (1683) is considered England’s first true opera and served as a template for Purcell as he was composing Dido. The literary source for Dido came from a libretto crafted by the Irish born poet and hymnist Nahum Tate (1652-1715), who would later become England’s third poet laureate. In 1678, Tate produced a play, Brutus of Alba or The Enchanted Lovers, also stemming from a story in Book IV of the Aeneid, which he later adapted as the libretto which Purcell set to music in Dido. It is somewhat unfortunate that Purcell had to write music for Dido to words by Tate, who was at best a mediocre librettist, as opposed to collaborating with the more skillful John Dryden, England’s first and among the greatest of the poets laureate, and the librettist for Purcell’s later theatrical work, King Arthur (1691).  It was another manifestation of Purcell’s skill to create such profoundly moving and emotionally charged music in Dido to a largely bland text.

    Ironically, Purcell’s original manuscript score of Dido is lost. The earliest extant edition, which itself is a copy and resides in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, dates from 1750, over 60 years after the first performance of the opera. Even this edition is not complete as it is missing several key movements, as a result of the English “masque tradition” especially in the late 17th century, in which operas were often cut up and presented as interludes in between the acts of spoken plays. In fact, one of the earliest professional performances of Dido was in 1700, where it was presented as a series of musical interludes to Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. As an unfortunate result of this “cutting and pasting” process, the prologue to Dido, the end of the second act grove scene as well as several dances, were lost when the opera was divided up in this manner.

    And what about the so-called “first” performance of Dido? Was it even its premiere, or was it actually  a revival?  Some sources still state that Dido was first staged in the spring of 1689, by a certain dance master named Josias Priest, who ran a School for Girls in Chelsea, which would imply that all the sung parts were essayed by young women. More recent scholarship, by Professor Irena Cholij, not only posits a date as early as 1684 for Dido’s premiere (though not by a professional troupe), but also brings to light new findings that Purcell’s work, admittedly preserved in eighteenth century sources, actually calls for tenors and basses in the choruses. Even the altos are expected to sing below a woman’s natural Fach, or vocal range. One might think that the part of Aeneas should be sung by a man, although so-called “trouser” roles (wherein a woman dresses as a man and sings that role in  her natural voice) were common in the operas of Handel and Vivaldi. Indeed, some modern versions of Dido employ a baritone for Aeneas and male vocalists for the sailor and for the sorcerer (instead of a sorceress).

    The genesis of Purcell’s Dido is that the opera is an allegory, stemming from the mythological story of Dido, the magnificent and proud queen of Carthage (near modern day Tunis, in Tunisia), and Aeneas, the Trojan prince who was to meet and love Dido, but then leave her, as he was predestined to journey on and found Rome. The story line for Dido derives specifically from Book IV of the epic poem The Aeneid of Virgil  (Publius Vergilius Maro,  70 BCE- 19 BCE). Virgil famously begins his Aeneid with the words Arma virumque cano, Troiae, qui primus ab oris Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit,” - “I sing of arms and the man, first from Troy and driven by fate, who came to Italy and the shores of Lavinia.”  In that one remarkable couplet of dactylic hexameter, Virgil brings Aeneas from the beginning of his journey to his fated destination. Virgil’s Aeneid was to Roman cultural patrimony as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were to the ancient Greeks' “collective unconscious” (to use Carl Jung’s term). Even today, the Aeneid resonates as a paean to self-sacrifice, perseverance, restraint, nobility and honor.
    This Roman mythopoiesis of Dido and Aeneas has its own inspiration, as there is a more ancient Greek myth of Aeneas which begat the Roman myth about him, and they are not entirely consistent.

    The conflated story goes that Aeneas was the son of the mortal Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite (the Roman Venus), and he was therefore a grandson of Tros, the founder of the great civilization of Troy (Ilium, on the modern day plains of Hisarlik on the northwest coast of Turkey, across the Bosporus from Istanbul, ancient Constantinople). That made Aeneas a relative of King Priam himself, who was on the throne of Troy during the great wars against the Greeks in the Iliad of Homer’s epic poem.  Along with Hector and Sarpedon, Aeneas was the greatest of the Trojan warriors. Since Aeneas was Aphrodite’s son, he was protected by the gods and spared death from the inevitable outcome of the Trojan War. By various accounts, Aeneas was allowed to leave Troy and journey across the Mediterranean with his father Anchises and his son Ascanius;  Aeneas’ wife, Creusa, perished in the flight.

    Aeneas then commences a journey, just as Homer’s Odysseus did, and after a time at sea, lands in Carthage, where he first encounters Queen Dido. These two idealized humans, Dido and Aeneas – handsome, noble, measured, royal, god-like – soon become confidants and lovers. They enjoy a brief idyllic time together; Virgil tells us they spent a whole winter as “ prisoners of lust”. Then, as a consequence of the whims of the gods and the fates who play them as puppets, and through the god Mercury counseling Aeneas about his ultimate duty, Aeneas abruptly takes leave of Dido, to carry out his calling and manifest destiny in the founding of Latium and the Roman civilization.

Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius
Gianlorenzo Bernini  c. 1619
Galleria Borghese, Roma
    Tate’s libretto mixes up and eliminates much of Virgil’s timeless story. Dido and Aeneas are lovers not for a whole winter, but for just a night. Instead of gods and goddesses scheming and plotting to determine their ultimate fate, in Tate’s version it is a sorceress (or sorcerer) and witches who conspire to break up Dido and Aeneas’ love nest.  In turn, Dido was itself a political allegory wherein Aeneas represents William and Dido is seen as Queen Mary II, or in another allegorical relationship, Aeneas stands for James II.  As Stanford Professor Luke Swartz contends, “Dido can be seen as a warning to King William to remain faithful to his wife, Queen Mary II….. or as an indictment of the Catholics, in particular the exiled King James II.”  
There is also historical evidence that there actually was a Queen Dido of Carthage, although her name was more likely Elissa. She fell out with her brother, a certain Pygmalion of Tyre, and fled the eastern Mediterranean coast, settling in North Africa and founding Carthage, somewhere between 825 BCE and 814 BCE. Since Aeneas fought in the Trojan War, which historically occurred between the 12th and 14 centuries BCE, it is unlikely that the two ever met. Yet, ancient Roman historians always pointed to the story of Dido and Aeneas to explain Carthage’s long-standing hatred of Rome which initiated the Punic Wars, and led to the Roman orator Cato the Elder’s memorable remark, usually clipped to “Cartago delenda est”  - “Carthage must be destroyed.”
Death of Dido
Vergilius Vaticanus
c. 400 C.E.
    Purcell’s Dido remains today a hallmark and foundational musical work. Its defining moment, and one of the most iconic moments in all of opera, is Dido’s last aria and death, after Aeneas is compelled to leave her and continue towards his own manifest destiny. “Dido’s lament,” which is the commonly used title for her exquisite aria, “Thy hand Belinda…. When I am laid in earth…”, evokes the ultimate outcome and sacrifice of grief through forsaken love. These plaintive words, Nahum Tate’s most poignant, are given an achingly beautiful musical line through Purcell’s genius in choosing the somber key of G minor and employing a so-called repetitive, or ostinato, bass line (“ground bass”) to support the vocal line. The step-wise descending chromatic scale of this ground bass creates a true lamento, or “sad song.”  In addition, the melismas  (the singing of several notes to one syllable of text) and word painting, most clearly heard on the words “darkness,” “Death,” “laid” and “Remember me,” conjure in music the final thoughts of the doomed Carthaginian Queen:

Recitative  (Dido)                                                                       
Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me,                                       
On thy bosom let rest                                                          
More I would, but Death invades me;                                                                 
Death is now a welcome guest
Aria (Dido)
When I am laid, am laid in earth, May my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.

    “Dido’s lament” has in turn been the catalyst for a number of subsequent covers and songs. The pop singer Jeff Buckley recorded it. Leopold Stokowski transcribed and performed it with the Philadelphia Orchestra as a symphonic piece. Some of Purcell’s themes can be heard in music by the rock band The Who, especially their hit tune, “I Can See for Miles.” The Dido theme was used by Steven Spielberg as “Nixon’s Walk” in his film Band of Brothers. The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, in his book Listen to This, mentions that Bob Dylan's 1970 song "Simple Twist of Fate," uses the same chromatic descent in the bass line as Dido’s lament.

    There are other stones unturned. The playwright and tragedian Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare's coeval and to some, his artistic doppelgänger had written a drama, Dido, Queen of Carthage, first produced around 1590. Could Marlowe’s work, one hundred years old, have served as a source for Nahum Tate’s libretto? And what about Hector Berlioz? Was his monumental 1860 magnum opus, the five-act opera Les Troyens, inspired just by Homer and Virgil as is usually stated, or by Purcell’s Dido as well?

    Purcell’s compositions defined an era, that of the English Baroque. Yet Purcell accomplished far more. With his innate feeling for dramatic expression, his at once exquisitely sweet and sorrowful compositions which still sound so fresh, alive, relevant and compelling, and resonate  today as they have through the centuries, Purcell provided posterity with yet more enduring examples of the power and universality of music.

Copyright 2012 Vincent de Luise MD A Musical Vision

Puccini and the Evolution of Italian Opera

(This essay appeared in the Program Book of  Opera Company of Brooklyn's production of Puccini's Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica on 9/23/11 in NYC)

       Tonight’s Opera Company of Brooklyn presentation of two one-act operas by Giacomo Puccini (1858 - 1924),   Il Tabarro (“The Cloak”) and Suor Angelica (“Sister Angelica”),  from   Il Trittico  (“The Triptych”) shines the spotlight on a composer who, to many opera-goers and music lovers, is the most “popular” of all time. Puccini certainly deserves his place among the greatest of operatic composers, but why is it that his music, his operas in particular, have resonated so deeply with so many over so long, now more than a century?  It is often said that “success has many fathers,” so it is important to understand the sources of Puccini’s creative process and his phenomenal success, both in his lifetime and today.

    Opera, as crisply defined by Professor Robert Greenberg in his delightful course on the topic for the Teaching Company, “is a drama that combines soliloquy, dialogue, scenery, action and continuous music.” And this musical drama could be serious (opera seria), comic (opera buffa) or somewhere in between (dramma giocoso). Greenberg goes on to remind us that “opera is posited on a single and simple idea – that music has the power to distill, crystallize and intensify the meaning of words. This is the essence of song.” Indeed, in Puccini’s operas, this dramatic intensity of song, a combination of the fortuitous marriage of excellent librettists (the exception, not the rule) and the emotionally supercharged musicality of the composer, makes for some of the most monumental and compelling experiences in all of music.

    Opera has been around a very long time, well over 400 years. Most scholars agree that opera arose from the musical concepts of the Florentine Camerata of the late 16th century. The Camerata, a private philosophical academy, posited a theory of music quite new for its time, based on and returning to classical Greek ideals- again, from Professor Greenberg, “and this music must transmit the feelings and emotions of the character who is singing.” Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, to a libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini, which premiered in Florence in 1587, was the first work that could be called an opera. Sadly, the music to that work is lost. Even Peri’s Euridice (1600) is hardly ever performed today. To Claudio Monteverdi is thus the credit given, with his majestic Orfeo from 1607, as having originated the operatic ideal.

     Opera is, as well, a product of the country and culture in which it was written. Germany, France, Russia,  Czech Republic and Italy, have all birthed splendid and distinctly different operatic styles, a consequence of the unique vocalizations of their different languages, and of the historical, cultural and political milieux in which they were written. Even within one country, opera changed dramatically over the centuries, to remain “relevant” and popular within a society that was changing dramatically as well. Before TV and radio, and before the rise of a middle class that was literate enough to read as voluminously as we do today, opera was the go-to activity for many people. People got dressed up; it was a night out; it was a social scene (not that opening night galas today are not) but back then for sure, it was a very big deal !  So, operas had to be spectacles, but also had to bend and change with the times, to excite audiences anew, to be fresh and relevant.

     Any of these countries could stake a claim as the epicenter of the operatic art form. But Italy and Italian opera take pride of place, not only because of Italy’s history as the incubator of opera from the very fountain of its birth, but moreover with the consistently exceptional quality of music and libretti stemming from the quills and pens of Italian composers and librettists. Even two Germans – Mozart and Handel – wrote many of their most inspired operas in Italian working with Italian librettists. This fortuitous combination of artistic exceptionalism carried through the centuries.  From the opening fanfare of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, through the soaring vocal pyrotechnics of Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso, to the bel canto elegance of Rossini’s La Cenerentola. to the sheer power of Verdi’s Don Carlo culminating in the heartbreak of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Italian opera amazes us through the centuries. And from Monteverdi’s time up through Puccini’s, Italian operatic composers often had superb libretti from which to draw their compelling musical inspirations.

    This relationship of the music to the libretto is an old one. Indeed, it was yet another Italian composer, working in Vienna as court composer, namely Antonio Salieri, who in 1780 wrote an opera on this very theme, “Prima la musica e poi le parole” – “First the music and then the words.”   For Salieri, the music always came first, and the words, which would be the libretto or the story line, followed. That same theme, which is really an unresolvable question, “what comes first in the creative process of opera, the music or the words? ” was also elegantly explored by Richard Strauss, 150 years after Salieri, in his last opera “Capriccio” (1942). The answer is moot; either way, the outcome is powerful.

     So, Puccini sat on the shoulders of four centuries worth of operatic composers’ masterpieces, and on a half century of dramatic changes in art, music and literature. The two operas from Il Trittico that we hear this evening, Il Tabarro  and Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica), both dramas, both with heartbreaking endings, display aspects of what has come to be called the “verismo” style of operatic writing. We would transliterate this in English as “truthfulness,” “realism” or “naturalism.”  Realism as an artistic style was already happening in literature (Balzac, Zola, Capuana) and in painting (Courbet, Millet, Daumier). It was a democratization of art, a renunciation of classicism, and a new focus on depicting the lives of the common people, an identification with “the little guy.” No longer were operas written about lofty subjects, like the Norse Gods of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, kings and queens as in Verdi’s Aida and Don Carlo or Shakespearean characters in his Falstaff and Otello.  Opera purists state that not all of Puccini’s operas adhere to the verismo style. All agree, however, on the two that are truly verismo operas: Tosca and tonight’s  Il Tabarro. With verismo operas, the daily and sordid affairs of the common man and woman came to the fore. And, with the advent of verismo style, beginning with Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Giordano’s Andrea Chenier, Puccini and his librettists (among them Luigi Illica, who wrote the libretti for Chenier as well as Puccini’s Tosca, Madama Butterfly and La Boheme) already had a strong verismo template to guide them on character development and music style.

    Of course, Puccini was also a masterful musical chimera. He learned and took from his artistic idols. After hearing a performance of Verdi’s Aida in 1880, he decided to dedicate his own life’s work to opera. Puccini was also a student of Wagner - he attended Bayreuth in 1888 and 1889, and enjoyed Wagner’s operas immensely.  As Professor Alexandra Wilson states, “some aspects of Puccini’s verismo style have a Wagnerian influence:  the descriptive orchestral passages…,  the quasi-symphonic organization of certain scenes, and a use of motifs...”  Indeed, Puccini’s use of these motifs, such as the recurring theme we hear in Tosca announcing Scarpia’s entrances, or the theme  in tonight’s  Il Tabarro when Giorgietta and Luigi are together, harken back to their  leitmotif forebears  in Wagner’s   Ring and Parsifal.

   Maestro Antonio Pappano says : “There is a cruel irony in the fact that one of the greatest composers for the human voice, Giaccomo Puccini,  died of throat cancer in 1924, and the supremacy of Italian opera died with him.” He died  before finishing his last opera, Turandot.

Music that was so ravishing, intimate, clever, tender, flirtatious, violent passionate, erotic,  ever heard in the opera house the theater and beyond. Puccini wanted his works to be simple and straightforward. He said of his operatic style “l’evidenza della situazione” so that the audience could follow the story without understanding the words, an Italian language uniquey created to glorify the voice.
     Puccini’s works and legacy have always been stuck in a quagmire, the so-called “Puccini Paradox.” Rossini’s operas were full of vocal pyrotechnics, musical high wire acts with soaring arias. Wagner and Verdi had created operas that were complex,”highbrow”  if you will,  nationalistic and with an organic whole. Verdi especially created opera that was a powerful symbol of the Italian identify. These works became the benchmarks by which Puccini’s output was measured.
     As the heir apparent of the Italian operatic tradition, Puccini was expected not only to continue this organicity in his own compositions, but also to bring Italian opera into the twentieth century with that life-affirming Italian spirit inherent in its music, whole and intact, and not devolved into a “copy-cat” or derivative artistic style; a tough challenge for any composer. As a result, in comparison with Rossini, Wagner and Verdi, Puccini was criticized throughout his career as writing music in too much haste, that was too simplistic, too facile, too “lowbrow,” despite its immense popularity with the opera-going public on both sides of the Atlantic. The critics called Puccini’s works “disappointing, cheap, empty, trivial” even as his operas were sellouts.  This criticism is at odds with his long-term success.  How can we square such a paradox?

     The answer, of course, is in the music itself. Puccini amalgamated the best aspects of the Italian operatic tradition and made it modern, fresh and memorable.  Puccini was one of the shrewdest masters of musical theater who ever composed;  he was the Andrew Lloyd Weber of his time.  Puccini developed his operas’ characters with such sweep and power, such fidelity to reality, to the raw, true emotions of love, rage, passion and loss, to a greater extent than his contemporaries, that his works literally “tug at our heartstrings.”  Much of his music had a rich, innovative vibrancy, even if the tunes were “popular.”  The critic Lloyd Schwartz wrote that Puccini “shamelessly and skillfully” created works of art that were at once “sincere and manipulative, creating music that was relentlessly memorable even-maybe especially- at its most saccharine.” That was Puccini’s genius.  That was his art. And as you listen this evening, see if you don’t have your own deep, heartfelt emotional response to opera by Italy’s master musical dramatist, Giacomo Puccini.

Copyright 2012 Vincent de Luise MD A Musical Vision