Monday 14 May 2012

The composer as artist - from pasticcio to production books

In 1839 the publisher Giovanni Ricordi bought the rights to Verdi’s music; Ricordi already owned the archives of La Scala, he’d bought those in 1825. Ricordi would go on to develop a long and profitable relationship with Verdi, one which helped to redefine the way composers kept control of their works.

Verdi's Signature
We have a tendency to think of the 19th century as the period when the composer finally changed from being a jobbing man of work (and they were usually men) to a solitary artist with all the ideas of suffering in a garret. Of course, writing operas is not quite a solitary occupation, but Wagner managed to do a considerable amount on his own and by the end of his career Verdi, whilst certainly not suffering in a garret, was definitely writing exactly what he wanted. Both these composers were artists who came to define their own concept of themselves.

But in parallel to this, almost as a corollary, the artist kept far more control over his work. Operas ceased to become simply source material. And it was the relationship between the composer and his publisher which helped develop this. It was in the publisher’s interest to keep the source material close to them. It was Ricordi who introduced the idea of the production book, so that not only would any opera house in Italy perform Verdi’s operas from Ricordi scores, but they would have to stage it in accordance with the composer’s wishes.

Wagner, of course, went one further and built his own theatre to stage is operas, even going so far as to forbid performances of Parsifal in any other opera house.

This was a big change. When the opera house in Hamburg staged Handel’s operas during his lifetime, they did so in the local idiom. Handel was quite popular in Hamburg, he’d actually worked at the opera house before his trip to Italy in 1707. And the management there seem to have kept up contacts with Handel’s publishers. They generally used the published version as the basis for their own, but a local composer such as Kaiser or Telemann (himself a friend of Handel’s) would re-write the recitative. The recitative would be sung in German but the arias in Italian. Hamburg had a tendency to revert back to libretti rather closer to the originals on which Handel had based his opera. This is understandable, Handel’s libretti were very much adapted for local, English, taste and the recitative could often be cut to the bone.

There is no indication that Handel objected to this. He did similar things to other composer’s work when staging pasticcios in London and on one or two occasions when reviving his own operas, allowed singers to bring in arias from other operas (his own and by other composers). Here we have to note that once a work was written, Handel the composer handed it over to Handel the impresario and wasn’t the least precious about changes.

This attitude continued into the 19th century with a gradual increase in the role of the composer. Gluck was a great re-user of material, he would cheerfully re-use arias from one opera in another providing the music had not been heard already in the town in question. Mozart wrote a considerable body of arias for insertion in other people’s operas; this was standard practice. In fact he would do it with his own operas and in 1789 he wrote two new arias for Le nozze di Figaro. Mozart also took it for granted that individual performances had to be tailored to individual singers. The differences between the Prague and the Vienna versions of Don Giovanni shows Mozart responding to the requirements of different cast members. There wasn’t an ideal version of the show, simply the current one. If Mozart had lived he would perhaps have settled on an ideal version, but perhaps not. After all, he was happy to transpose voice types and produce a new version of Idomeneo for Vienna many years after Munich.

But what we are seeing here is that though works would be altered and adjusted with new arias added to suit local singers, the sort of wholesale re-composition which would have happened in the earlier parts of the 18th century was far less the norm.

Maria Malibran
In the early 19th century, the high mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran persuaded Bellini to produce a custom version of I Puritani for her, with the soprano part adjusted to her range. Here we can see an adjustment in attitudes. Composers still expected to travel round and mount their own work in major centre and perhaps produce custom versions (Donizetti’s Maria di Rohan was given a significant makeover by the composer between the Vienna and Paris premieres). But here was Malibran asking a composer to re-write for her, rather than simply getting a tame hack to do it. It was Malibran who used to routinely perform Bellini’s I Capuletti e i Montecchi with the final act taken from Vaccai’s Giulietta e Romeo. (Again this was a decision taken to suit vocal resources). This sort of composer sponsored tinkering would continue, Massenet adjusted the title role of Werther for a baritone so that Battistini could sing it. And Richard Strauss was seriously considering lightening the orchestration of Salome so that a lighter voiced soprano could take the role.

But this isn’t just about artistic control, it is about finance. For a company to put on an opera they need parts. In the 18th century that meant creating a set from an existing score. Works were not always published in full score, so to perform music by a living composer you would often have to be in contact with the composer or his publisher.  Large theatres would have music libraries which would be assembled by a dedicated librarian. With smaller theatres, someone else had to provide the material, frequently the impresario responsible for the performance. But by the time Ricordi was buying the rights to Verdi’s catalogue, he was already in a position to hire out parts for 19 of Rossini’s operas and 8 of Bellini’s. Donizetti was still alive and Ricordi published all of his operas.

This is a different way of doing things. Now, if an opera house wanted to perform an opera all they had to do is contact Ricordi and he would supply the parts. This means that the operas were, more or less, standardised. What we see becoming the norm in the 19th century is a move away from the customised version of an opera, with everyone starting with the same basic score. But we are not talking about faithfulness to the written word of course, you were at liberty to cut and individual singers could still introduce different arias. The lesson aria in Rossini’s Il Barbieri di Siviglia was a very popular aria to be replaced (at Covent Garden, Melba used to accompany herself on the piano and sing Home sweet home!). But with a living composer like Verdi, there was a greater degree of control; an opera house was unlikely to put on a performance of Rigoletto and start inserting arias from earlier Verdi operas.

This all worked because audiences wanted to hear the work of a particular composer; the pressure to re-work material in local form had gone. In the 18th century the singers and the libretto were the thing, the composer was often incidental. But in the 19th century it the composer himself starts to take centre stage; audiences came to the opera house to hear works by a particular composer. Here with return back to the 19th century cult of the artist, the century which sees the composer take the dominant role supported, of course, by his eminence grise, his publisher.

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